Reading Bukowski: ‘Post Office’ and ‘Ham on Rye’

When I get into an author, I tend to do it thoroughly.

I read a selection of Bukowski’s writing about writing a few weeks ago and was awakened by his tart, easy, often very precise voice. Then a friend lent me ‘Ham on Rye’, a novel based on Bukowski’s early life, with a warning not to read it if I felt low. I took it on holiday, heeded the warning, and ended up instead pulled his first novel ‘Post Office’ down to my Kindle and swung through that in 24 hours.

I found the same easy, down to earth style that Bukowski himself characterised as ‘honest’ about the world. It’s a world of the Depression, of dead end jobs, fleeting relationships, violence, oppression of the poor, and always, always, alcohol. If that makes Post Office sound depressing, then I speak him wrong. It’s witty and sarcastic. Black humour was made for Bukowski. The plotting is loose, and the structure straightforward. There is deep pathos, albeit with a rickety final third of episodic wanderings. I learned a lot about fluidity of prose.

And so last night when I got home from holiday tired and wanting to hide from the world, I pulled out ‘Ham on Rye’. It’s a later novel, with the same protagonist as ‘Post Office’, and dealing with his earlier life. This chronology gives the strange impression that Bukowski’s writing deteriorated as he wrote through Hank’s life – which is to say that the writing in ‘Ham on Rye’ is mostly very good indeed.

There’s no fanfare about the use of a young child’s under-the-table point of view in the opening paragraphs – it’s matter-of-fact, as Bukowski seems always to be. And it’s that straightforwardness that gives the emotional weight to the violence that follows. And here’s the thing: written by many writers, the switches into violence and out to innocence would clearly be planned, structured, precisely placed into order to give the maximum effect.

That’s how I would have written this. I would be too deliberate, too artistic as a result. Because in Bukowski at what I’ve seen of his best, the narrative feels entirely natural with no artistic forethought at all. That is not to say he didn’t plan and aim for effect. I have no doubt that he did, despite his famously fast writing style and refusal to edit his work. It is instead to say that every bit of artifice is entirely hidden in the loose first person ramblings of an adolescent who became a violent drunk in a brutal world.

As it happens I’m currently writing in the first person about a drunk, albeit a non-violent one and in a less brutal world. So I hope some of Bukowski’s fluidity has worn off.


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Reading books by women

My literary training was on the traditional canon. Donne, Herbert and Milton from the seventeenth century. No-one much from the eighteenth. Keats, Robert Browning, Thackeray, Carroll from the nineteenth. From the twentieth century, I chose Yeats, Joyce, (T. S.) Eliot, Forster and – post war – Hemingway, William Golding and Ted Hughes.

I read Jane Austen. I read George Eliot. I read Virginia Woolf. Even at Oxford in the late nineties they were clearly on the reading lists. But I read few women of any period apart from that.

In my early twenties, a boyfriend introduced me to A. S. Byatt. I binge-read all she’d written, hating the girly characters, at one with the spiky intellectuals. Then I reverted again to men.

But recently I’ve started to read more women. Continue reading “Reading books by women”

Should we all be writing short stories?

There are so many people who want to be published writers, and who believe that to do so one must start with short stories, that short story competitions have sprung up as plentifully as the literary festivals to which they are often attached. If you’re a writer primarily of short stories, this is a good world to be in. You write the stories you would write anyway, and there’s an increased chance of recognition. If you’re a writer of novels I reckon it’s better to keep well away. Here’s why.

Continue reading “Should we all be writing short stories?”

Science fiction and ‘Slaughterhouse Five’

Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ straight after ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ gives an uncanny effect.

The surface parallels are striking. In both novels, Earthlings of humble profession and background are transported to the farthest reaches of space; time is stretched and twisted; and excitingly-named aliens and planets spin through the characters’ awareness. Earth is a very strange place indeed.

You’d think, though, that the settings and genres would push the books apart in my mind. In Adams, the Vogons have destroyed the Earth; but no-one except Arthur cares in the slightest. Billy Pilgrim on the other hand, is present in the German POW camps of 1944 and at the obliteration of Dresden by UK/US bombers in February 1945. In that bombing and subsequent firestorm about 25,000 people were killed (the novel cites the figure of 130,000, which is an earlier estimate; I don’t see the need to argue over the accuracy of that.)

Continue reading “Science fiction and ‘Slaughterhouse Five’”

Fiction set in the corporate world: why is it so hard?

A confession: I work forty hours a week in a glass-walled office which forms part of London’s corporate world. Most of the time I enjoy my job. My colleagues are largely extremely congenial and many of them have become good friends. It is an environment in which I am both extremely competent and at home. Yet when I try to write fiction about that world in which I spend half of my waking life, and which interests me, and in which I have been immersed for the last eight years, I fail.

That failure frustrates me. Not least because many people who read books work in similar offices, in open plan spaces, with photocopiers and coffee machines dotted around, and (mais bien sûr) water coolers. Some of you, I’m sure, hate that environment. Most of you find it relatively pleasant, even exciting, day-to-day.

Surely if there were good fiction set in the corporate world we would be interested to read it. More importantly, if good writing aims to deal with all aspects of life, then excluding the environment in which millions of adults spend so much of their time and which shapes most people’s concerns far more than most arenas do is an admission of failure by the literary world.

I went hunting for novels that have the corporate at their core. Continue reading “Fiction set in the corporate world: why is it so hard?”