The British comedian Linda Smith, who died in February this year, once said that one of the things that really got up her nose was adults who read Harry Potter books in public. She was joking, of course. But, as anthropologists tell us, we are profoundly upset by category confusion -- things that don't signify clearly whether they are fish, flesh or fowl. Adults reading -- and enjoying children's literature is disturbing. And like other perversions it should be done in private. Or not at all.
by Geraldine McCaughrean
Oxford University Press
£8.99, 167 pages
THE BOY IN
STRIPED PYJAMAS by John Boyne David Fickling Books $19.24/£10.99, 224 pages
DOCTORS AND NURSES
by Lucy Ellmann
Bloomsbury USA/Bloomsbury $14.95/£12, 208 pages
BLUE SHOES AND
by Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon/Polygon $21.95/£12.99, 240 pages
In fairness, one might say that in the near-decade since we first met JK Rowling's young wizard he has been growing up and is now well past puberty. He is into the flagrantly paradoxical condition identified by the new film Kidulthood ("adults locked in kids' bodies", as the ads for the film put it).
What if Smith's scenario were reversed? If, for example, on the train to Edinburgh one saw a kid (whatever that is nowadays) reading, say, Trainspotting, with its graphic sex, coprophilia and violence? The image is not entirely far-fetched.
An interview with Peaches Geldof daughter of pop star Bob Geldof, in The Times is instructive on the fraying of traditional boundaries of readership. Geldof is nearly 17. The novels consistently voted by women as the most influential in the formation of their adult personality find no welcome, alas, on her shelves. She reads JD Salinger, William Burroughs and Bret Easton Ellis (the last of whom she knows socially through her father). Jane Austen is judged "boring feminist crap" (feminist?) and the Brontės "boring" ("Reader, I wearied her"). Geldof wants to study English at New York University. Lucky them.
Literature is good with words. It's what it does for a living. But one of the things it is not good at is naming its own various parts. The term "novel" is a notably blunt instrument with which to dissect a very complex entity -- and one that is, arguably, becoming evermore fuzzily indefinable.
Blunt, too, are the conventional genre terms by which booksellers partition their stock for the customer: romance, science fiction and horror, crime. Is, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go science fiction? Were it so classified, would we read it differently? Would it have been a runner-up for the 2005 Booker Prize?
Literature awaits, perhaps it will always await, its Linnaeus - the taxonomic genius who enabled botanists to classify and subclassify their objects of study down to the most minute level. The terminological bluntness for the literary observer is becoming increasingly oppressive. Something strange is happening to recent novels. They are reshaping the genre for which we have, as yet, no clear terminology or categorisation. And it's a process that is manifestly driving the booksellers crazy. None of the glass slippers seems to fit the fictional foot any more. Much fiction is becoming jumbled up: like the duckbilled platypus, we can't work out whether it's fish (it swims), flesh (it has fur), or fowl (it has webbed feet).
Take, for example, Geraldine McCaughrean's Cyrano. As the dustjacket (decorated prettily with rose petals) proclaims, this is a novel "for anyone who's ever been hopelessly in love"; it's a retelling of "the most romantic story ever told". This seems clear enough, if somewhat gooey. It belongs with Mills & Boon, Harlequin and those novels currently contending for the Prince Maurice "best love story of the year" prize and, failing that, the Betty Trask award for fiction of a romantic or traditional nature.
Physically, Cyrano presents us with some counter-conventional aspects to the eye and hand. It is short - about 50,000 words, I would hazard. It teeters awkwardly between novel and novella: the hefty price and hardcovers say one thing, the scant words on the page another. You can read its 167 pages in an hour. Fast reading is easier by virtue of the Peter-and-Jane-sized print and extravagant space between the lines. This, typically, is the layout adopted for young eyes. But the book does not seem to be aimed at young minds. For one thing, the publisher is Oxford University Press, one of the oldest imprints in the UK, with nearly 500 years of publishing behind it. But new fiction has never been prominent in its lists, which are overwhelmingly scholarly.
But then again, strictly speaking, does Cyrano belong more to the "new fiction" category? The novel rewrites, or "Englishes", Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. McCaughrean's work depends, for its full effect, on an intertextual awareness that only sophisticated readers can bring. The theme of Cyrano, declared in its epigraph and its last word (as the hero, a victim of love, expires), is "panache". This is something untranslatable, but, after we have read the book, comprehensible, even to the dull Anglo-Saxon sensibility.
But where, using the conventional categories of his trade, should the bookseller display McCaughrean's extended riff on panache? On the "if it looks like a duck" principle, the "read me" print suggests that it belongs in the children's section. But, clearly, from another aspect, it's a full-on love story. Mills & Boon again. At a pinch it could go into the remote, seldom visited, French literature section.
If the bookseller has problems with the new fiction on offer, so too does the customer. It is not easy to adjust one's fiction-reading set, twiddling the dial to get the signal clear. The blurb for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, for example, warns that "this a book about nine-year-olds though this isn't a book for nine-year-olds." Who then? The stern injunction is the more perplexing since the novel is written in language that a reasonably literate six-year-old could handle.
The subject of Boyne's book is clear enough: "innocence". Can innocence bloom, the novel inquires, in a world of utter totalitarian evil? The nine-year-old hero is named, simply, Bruno. No surname. Readers (adult readers) who are up on their modem history (or who watch the Discovery Channel) will, after a few pages, catch on to the fact that Bruno is one of the offspring of Rudolf Hoess -- the man who, were there a Guinness world-record category, would qualify as the 20th-century murderer with the highest personal body count.
Bruno knows nothing of his father's crimes. Nor does he understand what is going on in the place he prettily calls "Out-With", where he lives. Nor why this all-important person he mistakenly (but appositely) thinks of as "the Fury" is such a big deal. Nor why all these thin people are wandering round in "striped pyjamas" behind barbed wire. Bruno (whose astounding simplicity rivals that of Wordsworth's similarly sanctified "Idiot Boy") befriends another nine-year-old on the other side of the fence. Shmuel, an altogether smarter bill of goods, does not enlighten his new friend as to the actual state of things at Out-With. Bruno finds a solution (regrettably final) by crossing the wire.
But where should the bookseller locate this work in order that it may find its proper reader? And who might that proper reader be? The strenuously simple language, and the excessively infantile hero, might suggest, again, the children's section. But the Holocaust, when it's presented as obliquely as it is by Boyne, is hardly a subject for the young. Theodor Adomo said that poetry was impossible after Auschwitz. Children's literature on the subject would seem to be beyond impossible. As well have a nursery rhyme about Hiroshima.
During the recent Jewish Book Week, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas might have found a temporary resting place in the racks mobilised for that event. In general adult fiction, it would look ill at ease alongside Samuel Beckett. Waterstone's, in what looks like the shelving of desperation, has placed The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, with other anomalies, in the "books we recommend" section. In other words: "we give up".
Lucy Ellmann's Doctors and Nurses head-butts our imaginary, already much-battered, bookseller. The novel features the formulaic nurse-doctor love story sledgehammered by a rub-the-reader's-nose-in-it stylistic ugliness and besmeared with what cultural puritans such as the late Mary Whitehouse would have seen as pure filth.
Ellmann's non-serviam is declared in her prelims with an acknowledgement page that reads: "I refute, abhor, deplore and CONDEMN acknowledgements in novels, as a craven attempt to implicate others in the author's crimes."
The CAPITAL LETTER tic runs throughout Ellman's book, poking the reader in the eye every sentence or so. The cross-grained "love story" interrupts itself late in the action with "A sort of apology", as Ellmann calls it, in which the novelist excoriates, in her idiosyncratic scream-whisper fashion, the line of work on which, deludedly, she has chosen to embark:
"The British LOVE a nice little murder! They're SUCKERS for it. Don't they ever realise how CORRUPT they are? It's almost impossible to sell a NOVEL these days unless it's got a MURDER in it! I know we've had plenty of murders in here already (the heroine Jen is not the kind of nurse you'd want to administer your injection], but they weren't GORY enough to sell BOOKS and I'm SICK of not selling books."
If it is to SELL, where should Doctors and Nurses GO? In the romance section (where Cyrano isn't) or, given the virtuosic obscenity (and the close-up photo of a vagina with which the novel is illustrated), in the erotica section? Wherever, not on my bookshelf.
Where, to harass our imaginary bookseller still further, would they put Alexander McCall Smith's Blue Shoes and Happiness? As the seventh in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series (all, happily, in print and selling strongly) McCall almost claims a shelf to himself. This latest instalment opens with our old friend Mma Ramotswe sipping her bush tea. But in the background, Botswana parches:
"Looming greater than anything else there was the problem of drought. It was a familiar feeling in Botswana, this waiting for rain, which often simply did not come, or came too late to save the crops. And then the land, scarred and exhausted, would dry and crack under the relentless sun, and it would seem that nothing short of a miracle would bring it to life."
From this great thing, we switch, in the pages that follow, to the little business of the heroine's activities - a jolly Miss Marple in an unhappy place made the less unhappy by her benign presence.
Where, again, to locate the book, which runs off the page even more easily than the others reviewed here? The bookseller could, at a pinch, put it with the "black and ethnic fiction" section alongside Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison - except, of course, for the awkward fact that the author is a (white) professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh.
Superficially, Blue Shoes and Happiness proclaims itself a detective novel. But it would look odd alongside, say, Ruth Rendell or PD James. In the general fiction section its mild comedy would be drowned out by all the big guns of conventional fiction. It clearly belongs somewhere, except we haven't quite worked out where. But, wherever the reader comes across it, McCall's novel is delightful: not least because of the wholly new melange of flavours it offers the reader's palate. And, although (crime fiction that it is) it lacks Ellmann's gory MURDER, it will surely SELL. And deserves to.