When Is A Writer Not A Writer?
Britain, it turns out, is virtually unique in filling its bestseller lists with ‘celebrity’ memoirs. Professional irritant Chris Evans (a radio DJ) currently holds the Number One book sales slot, with other Dostoyevskian masterworks by Katie Price, someone from X Factor and someone who was in Big Brother just behind. The publishers’ argument is that their sales help pay for new authors. But new authors get, on average, seven thousand pounds. The celebrity gets multiples of a million.
I had consoled myself with the thought that all nations were suffering through this bizarre and depressing period, but no, it appears to be a uniquely British phenomenon. See the article here. However, I’m starting to think it’s not entirely the publishers’ fault. If you’ve ever spent a day in a bookshop watching what people buy, you’ll know that most casual browsers choose gift books and non-books. I’m still on holiday, and my hotel library has books from the following authors left by guests;
Wilbur Smith (Actually I used to enjoy him when I was 14)
Ant & Dec
Most of the remaining books are divided into high finance (‘An expose of greed, cocaine and boardroom betrayals’), Self-help (‘Meditate your way to finding a love partner’) and travel guides. In turn, I would like to leave them ‘The Shanghai Gesture’ by Gary Indiana, probably the filthiest, funniest and most totally surreal book written since Kurt Vonnegut died.
Gary Indiana is an author it’s more convenient to overlook. He belongs to a special breed of American urban writers who take cool pleasure in dissecting the lives of the rich and ugly, and is possibly the most jaded chronicler of them all. On a good day he makes Brett Easton Ellis look like Enid Blyton, and yet many, myself included, think he might already have written the Great American Novel.
Indiana was an actor before working at New York’s influential Village Voice as an art critic. He became an essayist and journalist, and wrote non-fiction on cultural phenomena, from Pasolini to Warhol and Schwarzenegger. However, his first love is the satirical novel. A loose trilogy lightly fictionalised criminal cases and their accompanying media frenzies; ‘Three Month Fever’ follows the disintegrating personality of Gianni Versace’s murderer in Miami and the grotesque sensationalism of its press coverage. ‘Resentment’ is a work of angry genius based on the circus following the trial of the Menendez brothers, wealthy Californians who killed their parents and left a screenplay version of events on their computer. ‘Depraved Indifference’ explores more charismatic sociopathy, as a pathetic heiress is killed by mother-and-son confidence tricksters. Indiana’s language is precise, literate, painfully honest and shockingly funny. He bravely surfs through these end-times with a reptilian eye that watches who gets to eat and who is eaten. His characters are disappointed with their share of American dream, and become slowly poisoned by it.
But there is a problem – clearly, there has to be otherwise the author would be as feted as Don DeLillo or Tom Wolfe – Indiana is as detested as he is adored, for his all-encompassing cynicism, his cruelties, his refusal to sentimentalise, his immense vocabulary, his stylistic inconsistencies. He is addicted to the world that repels him so much, but moments of tenderness seep through the cracks. When he describes a conversation with his mother or the sadness of fading glamour he seems a direct descendant of Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams.
His latest book is a bizarre take on Fu Manchu, the opening sentence being ‘Among Those That Know, a cabal our story will elucidate in the fullness of time, rumours fluttered that Dr Obregon Petrie defied the laws of gravity when it suited his caprice.’ It’s not typical of his work, but it’s great fun and an outrageous joke to play on the literal-minded.
He may not get the sales, but he gets the love. Stick that on your shelf and read it, Jordan!