Recently I got a job, a nine-to-five dealio with the whole shebang: office chairs and bosses and deadlines and a pay slip. I said ‘this is it, I am now actually an adult, I will never go to a music festival again’. The next day I threw out my Converse All-Stars.
The job in question is at Allen & Unwin publishing house, meaning that some of my responsibilities include reading a whole bunch of our titles. This is no chore—reading is great, I would claim ninety per cent of my personality is book related, the other ten per cent probably a picture of a dog running majestically towards a sexy glass of wine. But between the books I have to read for work, and my ‘Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge’, I suddenly found myself without the time to read strictly for leisure. Furthermore, I began missing reading deadlines.
Full time work, as it turns out, involves more than owning a rotation of funky work pants. I had to get smart and multi-task my reading. I had to excel spreadsheet this jerk, divide my day into productivity hours, start judging books by their covers, length, and importance in the grand scheme of things. I had to start thinking business about books, organising day meetings, where I would multi-task my reading with lunch and booking an appointment at the dermatologist.
One of the more clever ways I achieved this was by using short story collections to space out my larger projects. When you have to swap from Anna Karenina to The Archidamian War, your brain needs space. However not every short story is the right short story. On this particular week, I was feeling wildly jaded by the stresses involved in my new job. I was sad and angry, strutting around and freaking out. I tried some of my favourites, like Eggers’s Short Short Stories or Etgar Keret’s The Nimrod Flipout and found their messages of hope and fragile beauty to be saccharine and naive, which is usually what I’m all about, yo.
Enter The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki, which had been sitting on my desk like an unpaid social contract, because that’s what it was. The book had been forcibly placed into my hands by my friend East, who had been raving about it for weeks. I believe the most awkward experience we can possibly have in this day and age is being recommended, and loaned, a book. The pressure to read that book is therefore overwhelming, a constant sirens call of responsibility and duty, all mixed up with complicated emotions like ‘friendship’ and ‘inherent laziness’. And there are dire consequences that people don’t understand. If the book is awful, you are appalled at the lack of taste your friend has shown. You may need to break it off. If the book is good, that person will forever own your enjoyment of it. You might find yourself recommending it to somebody else, and then out of the corner of your eye, see the person who loaned it to you smiling triumphantly, gloating, cackling maniacally. You owe them a long discussion about the book.
So it was with great trepidation I turned to Saki to fill in my short story needs. The foreword informed me that Saki was the pen-name of H.H. Munroe, who inspired other satirical writers like Oscar Wilde and Roald Dahl. Damn, East knew all my weaknesses, the diabolical asshole. I began by reading a story called ‘Esme’ which is about a hyena—I would classify my interest in hyenas to be from middling to high. Saki takes the premise of a comedy of manners, and instead of setting it in a tea room or the parlour or the solar or Stonehenge or some other British place, sets it in the middle of a fox hunt. Actually that’s super British too. It features two dreadfully mannered British people talking British things like obscure societal obligations and dry wit, and then he includes a hyena. What follows has all the wordplay and satire of Oscar Wilde, but partnered with a kind of savage cruelty, a delight in cruelness. It was utterly hysterical. It was perfect for me.
Clovis, Saki’s ever-present narrator, ranges from being the driving force behind these stories to sometimes merely recounting them. In my other favourite story, ‘Filboid Studge’, Clovis has no part until the very end, where he suddenly chimes in with a piece of faux wisdom ‘“After all,” said Clovis, meeting him shortly afterwards at his club, “you have this doubtful consolation, that ’tis not in mortals to countermand success.”’ Despite sometimes having only the most spurious connection, I love the unifying force the constant narrator brings to the collection. It makes it more powerful, more robust. Kind of like every episode of Power Rangers, where they each try to beat the bad guys on their own, and then fail, but then re-learn the value of team work by literally forming a giant robot sum-of-their-parts.
‘Filboid Studge’ is one of the most brilliant satires of advertising ever written, an exceptional forecast for the hyper-market of fads and hypes we experience today. In this story, in an effort to win a rich businessman’s daughter, a poor artist attempts to re-brand a poor investment made by the businessman, a cereal called Pipenta, which nobody bought. The artist changes the name to Filboid Studge, an effort designed not to make it seem flashier, but rather more unpalatable, and therefore good for you.
‘In the same way, whenever a massacre of Armenians is reported from Asia Minor, everyone assumes that it has been carried out “under orders” from somewhere or another, no one seems to think that there are people who might LIKE to kill their neighbours now and then. And so it was with the new breakfast food. No one would have eaten Filboid Studge as a pleasure, but the grim austerity of its advertisement drove housewives in shoals to the grocers’ shops to clamour for an immediate supply.’
Super relevant, yeah? Each story is like a mini-holiday where you are allowed to be mean to people. It’s the best.
As a post-script, I had dinner with East recently, and mentioned I was writing this article about Saki. After a hilarious five minutes where he thought I was writing about the Japanese liquor and I thought he was drunk or something, he got all excited and started asking me questions. ‘Oh man, did you love it, wasn’t it great, etc etc’ and I said ‘Well, there’s no real point discussing it now, I kind of wrote an article about it.’ Which I think means that I won the whole social obligation thing, I don’t know.
Patrick Lenton writes all over the joint. He blogs at The Spontaneity Review and regularly has articles published by cool places likeJunkee or Spook Magazine. He writes ‘The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge’ for Going Down Swinging. His stories have been published in places like Seizure, The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks andThe Best Australian Stories. He founded the theatre company ‘Sexy Tales Comedy Collective’ and wrote and toured plays like 100 Years of Lizards or the award winning Sexy Tales of Paleontology. He is the editor of comedy anthology The Sturgeon General, published through Momentum Books. He currently works at Allen & Unwin publishing house. You can find him on Twitter @patricklenton. He can’t get over how great dogs look when they run.
21 Oct 13 at 15:59
Re the problems of recommending a book to a friend. It is much much more tricky when the book you’re recommending is a book you wrote yourself, and you never hear from your friend again. Urgh. Very humiliating. End of friendship.
21 Oct 13 at 17:08
Oh Anonymous. That sounds excruciating. Perhaps they read themselves (unflatteringly) into the book? People do that a lot.