Time for a round-up of what I’ve been reading and can recommend. I’m sure authors like to be thought of as smart and knowledgeable in book choices, but it would seem there’s a subset of reading we could term Cleverdick novels, partly because they’re about being clever for the sake of it, partly because I can’t think of many female examples, except perhaps Natasha Pulley and Kate Atkinson, who operate in this area. That is, writing knowingly clever novels that use intellect to explore unusual and often abstract ideas (I’m happy to be enlightened on this).
Cleverdick novels used to be largely labelled ‘experimental’. Ann Quinn, Brigid Brophy, Flann O’Brien and BS Johnson would all fall into this category. Nowadays we rarely see any truly experimental novels published, but there are plenty of Cleverdick ones around (this is not by any means a pejorative term, by the way). For me the best ones are the most experimental.
Nick Harkaway, Ned Beauman and Edward St Aubyn would all qualify here, Beauman for seemingly existing purely for the exhilaration of being extremely left-field and smart with it. St Aubyn uses traditional storytelling tropes but in his five-novel roman a clef digresses into long, hyper-witty dialogue that no-one would ever say. Which is fine – dialogue is not conversation – and makes the books enjoyable from one page to the next, if cutting and cynical to the point of wallowing in self-hatred (a very upper-class British thing to do, it seems).
Harkaway’s exotic subjects are so diverse that we’re never sure what he’ll write about next, but he’s probably the writer with the most heart even though he drags in doomsday machines and serial killers. Beauman is less concerned with satisfactory storytelling, which makes him infuriating but thrilling. The Mayan jungle discovery in ‘Madness is Better than Defeat’ seems to be launching an Indiana Jones-style plot about buried artefacts with mystical powers. Instead it becomes an entirely different novel, a social comedy involving warring tribes, like ‘Lord of the Flies’ played for laughs.
Natasha Pulley does something similar. ‘The Bedlam Stacks’ crosses into the same exotic area with entirely different results. She starts with verifiable facts and slowly shifts us out into a far more fantastical milieu, even more so than in ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’.
Perhaps we should also put Magnus Mills here, although his blank little sentences and strange inconsequential plots (record clubs, bus routes, annoying jobs) seem to be instinctive rather than intellectual. Cerebral, perhaps, or simply sinister. And speaking of which, try ‘The Chef’ by Harry Kressing, an unnerving parable about a seven foot-tall chef who slowly comes to dominate the lives of the family who hire him. All of the above are clever, original and odd.
‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer won a Pulitzer Prize, and nothing in the author’s past prepares you for this extremely funny tale of life among the lesser academic intellectuals. American novels have clear demarcation lines; the clever books go in one section and the popular novels go in another. Harkaway, Pulley and Beauman hover somewhere between both states, and I wonder if there isn’t another category for just plain peculiar novels.
For me, the Cleverdick Novel works best when it is untethered to the Victorian linearity of storytelling. Don De Lillo, Gary Indiana and Greer all use traditional structures. Beauman, in particular, hurls aside anything that could be called traditional. SF writers are more used to colouring outside the lines; Charles Stross writes nerd-clever, delightful tales of myopic futurism, but things get tricky when Cleverdick SF drifts off into abstracts; China Miéville is for me an enthralling writer who somehow renders his books unreadably abstract. When ‘The City and the City’ was adapted for television it exposed an intellectual hypothesis as something that could not work when set in concrete visual form (twin cities overlap in time and space, with echoes of Berlin’s divisions).
Do Cleverdick Novels have to remain abstract delights? I suspect the answer is yes, but how enjoyable they are in the reading!