Author: Larry Durstin
Publisher: Current Publishing (2012)
Number of Pages: 254
How long it took me to read: 1.5 weeks
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
Like a Moth to a Flame
Given the possibility of two book submissions to review, I chose this because the themes seemed a natural progression from my last review, Rock Music in American Culture by Robert Pielke. The Morning After John Lennon Was Shot was described as ‘…a satire on the so-called men’s movement—where men gather in a group to tell their primal story, the single great mythic journey of their lives during which all truths are revealed’ and set, as the title suggests, in the early 1980s with the world acclimatising to the murder of John Lennon. I knew nothing about the Men’s Movement, but the idea of a satire based on male group therapy put me in mind of Fight Club, a film about male identity that had a profound effect on me (a rare instance when seeing the film before reading the book did nothing to diminish the power of either).
Note to reader: I began reading this book after completing the second module of a Masters in Creative Writing course. This module consisted of a series of 12 workshops, in which the group discussed the effectiveness of the writing in each other’s novels. What seemed a harrowing prospect to begin with soon melted into a (mostly!) good-humoured and respectful analysis of each other’s work, which provided us with a detailed understanding of the pitfalls and challenges faced by all writers, and the unique opportunity to have our work read by others. This exercise led me to a clearer recognition of how the reader extracts text from a page and reinterprets it within their mind, and provided me with a sharper weapon with which to approach critical evaluation. So the timing of this review might appear to be both a blessing and a curse to Durstin. Truthfully, though, it should only be considered as the former.
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I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “…lying there in the afternoon light, tears filling my eyes—I realized that my feelings about Judy were a lot stronger than I thought.” (p.117)
4. “…the men’s movement was foundationed with grief; that since as boys we were told not to cry, as men we must weep; and that the path to a manly heart must invariably run through the valley of tears.” (p.79)
3. “…his eyes settled on me with the kind of look you would imagine upon the face of one doomed soul gazing at another as they stood before the gates of hell.” (p.151)
2. “I did, however, want to show her how I was developing a new understanding, forged by an emerging awareness that little could be gained by retreating into a “you bitch, you bastard” motif. That in order to truly understand a relationship as severely intense as ours we needed to painstakingly and sensitively explore our history of specific, learned inappropriate behaviour patterns that more than likely funnelled back to the womb. Only then could we make any mutual or individual progress.”
“ ‘So you actually married this chucklehead,’ I loudly began.” (pp.223-4)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “You call that a fear of commitment? Don’t I wish it were that talk-show simple. Don’t I wish it were that easy, on some bright commitment-friendly day, to wash away the deep set grooves of isolation forged by lifetime patterns of withdrawal.” (p.253)
Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.
New Word: peccadillo (noun)
Definition (Source: Dictionary.com): a very minor or slight sin or offense; a trifling fault
Synonyms: lapses, slips, faux pas, indiscretion
Origins: 1585–95; Spanish pecadillo, diminutive of pecado ‘sin’; Latin peccātum ‘transgression’
As in: “ ‘She was also gracious enough to overlook, certain—uh—peccadilloes on my part…’ ” (p.216)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“I wrote a lot while reading this book. On reaching the end, it was tempting to discard many of my notes. My final relationship with the book was one in which I wished I could overlook many of its weaknesses. But to read a book is to set out on a journey through which a deeper understanding can only gradually be revealed (if there is any deeper understanding to be found). For readers just starting out on this book’s journey, those early notes will be more relevant than those I wrote at the end.
“As writers we have to remember that readers, if they are to reach this understanding, must have a desire to continue on the journey. Every moment must engage them, and it is the writer’s challenge to ensure that it does. Such perfection-hunting is an impossible task, and careful editing the only tool that can bring us close to achieving it. For most of us, what emerges as we write is a jumble of thoughts and dialogue spewed out from the perspective, the idiolect, of our own minds. Through editing it can be reassembled into a form with which readers (and we must always keep in mind who we believe those readers to be) can engage. A few years ago, I suffered from the disastrous misapprehension that editing didn’t matter all that much: that whatever came out was what I intended to write, with the exception of maybe a few spelling or grammar mistakes. Well that’s fine, as long as you don’t expect anyone else to read it. A quote used halfway through The Morning After John Lennon Was Shot is key to the writing process in general, and possibly to the writing process of this book in particular. It’s actually a quote from the main character’s televisual guru, Caine from ‘Kung Fu’:
“ ‘Not to know a man’s purpose does not make him confused.’ ” (p.145)
“I wondered to myself on reading this: Does this paraphrase the writer’s own attitude when writing the book? Or, at least, the attitude that provided his overriding motivation for the main character (who also, crucially, happens to be the narrator)? I will return to this thought shortly, but first I must describe my own journey.”
“On the first page, I am struck by a playful use of imagery:
“Cardinal sins of this magnitude are about as easy to slip by my Friday night men’s group as it would be to sneak the sun past a circle of roosters.” (p.3)
“It is notable that we have the image of morning here, as well as in the book’s title. This might suggest a new dawn for the world, a new beginning after the event in the title. But does it also provide us with information about the protagonist/narrator? Is there a reason this particular idea of a ‘circle of roosters’ should occur to him? It makes me wonder what his background is, that roosters should particularly come to his mind.
“A few pages on, another image leaps out and makes me suspect that the depth of my previous deconstruction might have been a little over-optimistic:
“But, approaching it another way, we needed to understand that much of the darkness we were experiencing was nothing more than childhood skeletons rattling around in our memories’ bleak closets.” (p.12)
“What strikes me here is not the theme, but the language. There’s just too much of it. The image loses clarity with the amount of verbs and adjectives stirred into the mix, but if we strip out the unnecessary words, we’re left with only the cliché of a skeleton in a closet. Is this a case of overcomplicating the language to hide the cliché, or of trying so hard to play with a common image that it becomes distorted? The phrase at the beginning, ‘approaching it another way,’ is also needless—this is already implicit by its juxtaposition with the preceding sentence.
“This pattern continues, the canvas of the text daubed with imagery that has been applied with no regard for its effect on the reader or its connection to the book’s themes:
“This was starting to feel like a runaway train.” (p.13)
“…like a little girl who had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.” (p.14)
“…as if I were offering her a lifetime of leprosy.” (p.15)
“Her face was as red as her sweater.” (p.17)
“…I was as conspicuous as a giant’s cloak on a midget.” (p.38)
“There are so many similes, so many ‘as if’s’ and ‘likes’, it becomes tiring. They make it difficult for the reader to visualise the story, or to form an enduring relationship with the narrator. Imagery can be put to many effective uses; it can reveal character psychology and motivation, enhance the sense of place and time or reveal nuances of themes and discussions. Here, it seems to have been thrown in because the writer assumes it is compulsory for accomplished writing, or possibly to cover up a lack of depth in the other story elements. I hope it is just the former, but cannot be sure until I reach the end. However, this erratic use of imagery has already made me question whether I want to continue to the end.”
“Another problem I’ve encountered is a tendency for caricature. People, in real life, do not constantly sigh when disappointed and frustrated, or gulp when worried. But here it seems to be almost their only means of expression for such emotions:
“When she looked at me she gulped and her eyes widened…” (p.14)
“We both sighed, locked eyes and shook our heads.” (p.14)
“…he sighed, removing his raincoat…” (p.56)
“I gulped at the prospect…” (p.152)
“Judy gulped, looked at me in the eye and sighed.” (p.245)
“This makes the action and characters appear cartoonish. Where else do we see such exaggeration of expression but in the works of Disney, Warner Bros, et al.? Cartoons are designed to relay such emotions to an audience not yet able to consciously comprehend more complex behaviour. Could it be the intent of the writer to show these characters up as not-quite-real, underdeveloped human beings, removed from the era when they felt comfortable and thrown into a world where their hopes and expectations have been drowned out by the new culture? Certainly, the behaviour of the narrator’s three friends suggests a collective neurosis, an inability and reluctance to acclimatise to their situation, and satire often reduces characters to one or two expressions of their personality in order to target their weaknesses. With all the characters, including the narrator, reacting with the same prosaic gulps and sighs, perhaps the writer is attempting to create the idea of homogenisation among them. Yet, there is no distinction here between the narrator’s friends and the society with which they are at odds—everybody gulps and sighs—while their other behaviour sets them at such great tangents to each other it is impossible to believe the writer might be suggesting they are anything but individuals. By making the narrative monotonous for the reader, these constantly repeated actions also suggest the narrator is unable to discern more important nuances of behaviour in those around him, making him a poor choice for storyteller. In satire, it is vital that the characters convince us through the specific details of their behaviour—even if that detail is reductive. Otherwise, it is not the real world that is being satirised but a cardboard cut-out world of the writer’s own invention.”
“A menagerie of other problems roams wild among the pages:
1. Overuse of speech tags:
“ ‘Sick,’ he interjected.”
“ ‘Yeah,’ I continued.” (p.25)
“ ‘So you actually married this chucklehead,’ I loudly began.” (p.224)
(Even my 5 top quotes could benefit from a little editing.)
“ ‘Uh, say Milton,’ I began uneasily… (p.151)
“ ‘I know,’ he said darkly.” (p.151)
“The sense of how something is being said should come from what is being said and when, from the contextual action rather than directly from the writer or narrator. If the narrator believes there is something ‘dark’ about another character’s speech, what is it that leads them to this belief? There must be some accompanying behaviour that signifies this darkness, and if this is shared with the reader they stand to learn more about the character in question and their relationship with the narrator than when they are forced to take the narrator’s word for it.
2. A determination to alter the classification of words…
“He whirlwinded through…” (p.46)
“…accordioning his fingers nervously on the table.” (p.54)
“…head-phoned into a Maharishi tape.” (pp.160-1)
“Do people really talk like this? Do they ‘television’? Do they ‘car’? Do they ‘fishing rod’? There are so many versatile and effective words in the English language, is it really necessary to invent new ones without good reason? Creativity comes from picking the right ones in the best order.
3. Using words incorrectly:
“…she flicked a lengthy ash from her cigarette…” (pp.21-2)
“He…wedged out a thick book…” (p.31)
“…I found myself zombied in front of the television…” (p.169)
(what’s wrong with zombified?)
“These just sound as though the speaker isn’t well versed in the language. That’s fine if they aren’t, but the narrator here happens to be an English teacher.”
“There’s also a ridiculous amount of typos, the responsibility for which must lie with the publishing house. Having searched for the publisher’s website online, I found nothing. This leads me to wonder if the book has in fact been self-published. It is clearly lacking in editorial rigour.”
“Usually in my reviews, I like to focus on my engagement with overarching elements such as plot, character and theme. I thought this book would similarly inspire me, but any attempt to get involved with the text is continually disrupted by the constant misuse of writing devices. I admit that, having just completed 12 weeks of workshops with other fiction writers, whatever I read next was likely to educe more acute criticism, but finding so many pitfalls here is extremely frustrating. It betrays a misunderstanding, or underestimation, on the part of the writer as to how a reader translates a text. These are mistakes that most writers tend to make at first, but they aren’t usually so commonplace in a published book. Once a writer’s work is out there with their name on it, they are allowing everybody to judge them by it. Whatever they choose to release shapes their reputation. It worries me that some writers might be willing to jeopardise their future writing career, and deprive the industry of their potential, because they are too eager to see their name in print. As a reader, I want to experience the best possible version of a book, not one that reads like a draft.”
“Contrary to public belief, writing a novel isn’t easy. Writing a good novel is particularly difficult, but even writing a substandard one is a massive challenge, sucking dry reservoirs of both mental energy and that most valuable resource, time. Anyone who has completed the 60,000+ words needed to fulfil the requirement of most publishers knows the effort they have had to put in, the sacrifice of leisure time and other work opportunities. And that’s just to write the first draft. After this comes the real crusher: every single one of those 60,000+ words must be brought to account, whether it be a noun, pronoun, conjunction, preposition, adjective or (shiver) adverb. Even articles must be put to fiery judgement; considered, shifted and reconsidered. Each word must be forced to fight against its brethren for the right to exist and maneuvered to its most beneficial position in the context of the narrative. The writer cannot scrutinise only at the sentence level, or paragraph level, or chapter level. They must dig deep to unearth the final narrative. If they don’t appreciate the value of every word, their readers certainly won’t. Successfully binding the different elements of a story—building the web of their interrelation—can only be achieved through strenuous editing. This book reads like a web where the silk hangs in individual strands from the branch, abandoned by the spider before even the central spokes were constructed. Perhaps the spider was more interested in having a web to show off than one that would fulfil its purpose of catching flies.”
“I knew there had to be a greater rationale for this book than the tale of several creepy men’s failed relationships with women (as told by yet another narrator on a tiresome search for ‘himself’) that happens to coincide with the death of John Lennon. The description I’d been sent and the blurb on the back cover both claimed it was a satire, but because of all this visual chaos, recognising what was being satirised proved elusive. Was it the men’s group, the narrator’s friends, the narrator, the female characters or the time period itself? Where was the sub-text, if indeed there was a sub-text? It wasn’t until reaching two key pages in the middle of the story that I experienced my much-needed epiphany. The book’s rationale popped up like a Magic Eye picture, reconstructing in full 3D much of what I’d already read. At this point Ray, the narrator, breaks from telling his story to the men’s group (this being the overarching framework for the tale) to visit the toilet. Before he returns, both of the self-appointed leaders of the group decide, independently, to go against the group’s rules and offer him their personal advice. This advice gives the first clear hint at where our sympathies should lie.
“Both men not only offer Ray the same platitudes about overcoming fear (particularly through the therapeutic effects of music, which they both rely on in their personal rituals) but they also show their fearful natures by ducking at the merest sound—an unexplained thud and a flushing toilet respectively. This moment is so overplayed that it can only be an invitation to recognise their voluntary self-delusion. They are hiding themselves in ritual rather than facing up to their problems. I was relieved to finally recognise one target of the satire, though it’s a shame it took such an unsubtle device to achieve it.
“But this was just the start of the epiphany. Ray then picks up his story again, describing a visit to a bar called ‘The Windmill’ where…
“…the first thing I noticed was a prostrate guy licking a skinny woman’s heels.” (p.137)
“The proximity of this image to that of the group leaders’ enforced rituals triggered the sudden emergence of an enslavement theme. I realised then that every character in the book is a slave to something: the women who ‘click’ everywhere they go because of their heels; the men who are incapable of keeping their minds off sex long enough to achieve anything of note; a narrator who by now has admitted that he was “…a lummox…for not being able to see through the sad silliness of my three obviously misguided friends.” (p.135). John Lennon, the symbol of freedom, has died, signing off on the failure of the 1960s to fulfil their universal emancipation. There can be no emancipation for humans, other than that insubstantial version gained by comparing their own plight with the worse fate of others. (The narrator’s own therapeutic Schadenfreude manifests itself in Milton’s terrifying obsession with a girl he barely knows.)
“Finally, I have a deeper theme to consider that warrants and explains all the vacuous discussion of sexual relationships I’ve been forced to read. We are always enslaved by something, even if that something is moderation (ok, I’m becoming deliberately hyperbolic by this stage, to reflect the tone of the book and my own desperation for something substantial to unpick). But that enslavement is a matter of perception: how we live from moment to moment, whether we choose to carry it like a ball and chain, or only acknowledge it when we want or need to. We are reliant—that is the nature of an organism. How we deal with that reliance is an intellectual or, for some, a spiritual decision. When we fail to control that reliance, we allow ourselves to be enslaved. The character of Milton is an obvious intertextual reference to Paradise Lost: he has given up self-control and chosen enslavement.”
“Back at The Windmill (where the world keeps turning round), every encounter Ray suffers with members of the next generation reinforces this enslavement theme in some way, until, to a pair of teenage girls that flirt with him for a joke, he smugly responds with that all-important quote:
“ ‘Not to know a man’s purpose does not make him confused.’ ” (p.145)
“All Ray has left to free him is a piece of dialogue from a 1960s television programme, which is not half as clever as he imagines. It is the last ditch effort of a drowning man to keep afloat in unfamiliar waters. It is the ultimate jade’s trick: the pseud’s equivalent to ‘I know you are, I said you are, what am I then?’, an argument that cannot be returned. If this is the best comeback that Ray has as a narrator, are we supposed to accept it as a reasonable way for him to win an argument? The point at which it is used suggests that we are. This is the moment when Ray finally stands up for himself and his beliefs, and yet he can find no better-reasoned response with which to do it. It is the significance of this moment that causes me to wonder if this quote is the very premise on which the entire book has been founded. After all, a writer could claim the same argument for their novel: if the reader has not grasped their purpose it is their own fault, not that of the writer. But this is not true. There are, as I’ve described, many traps that a writer can fall into that create a dissonance between the reader and the text, obstructing them from a proper exploration of its themes and purpose. Had I not thought it necessary to read the whole of this book in order to review it, I would have stopped long before the enslavement subtext sprang to life. It is not enough for a writer to say ‘I know my purpose regardless of whether anyone else does’. In fact, it defeats the entire purpose of being a writer, which is to satisfy a reader.”
“I don’t wish to write too much about the ending of the book, mainly to prevent spoilers for anyone about to read it, but also because it didn’t add much more to my journey. Despite the continuation of every problem outlined above, I liked the ending although the tepidity of my reaction probably best sums it up. I felt closer to the narrator, or at least to what he represented (evidenced in part by my no.1 quote above). His character never seemed convincing enough to warrant his position as narrator, but I could at least identify a little more with what he was saying in his comments on distance in relationships. However, that the author felt the need to restate and unravel this theme of distance many times over the last few pages indicates an awareness that it might not have penetrated the narrative strongly enough throughout the rest of the book. Indeed, I did not pick up on it as a crucial theme until it was pointed out. Maybe I was just confused—or perhaps I had been confused.”
“Of course, this review needs to carry the caveat that it is far easier to be a reader and a critic than it is to be a writer. If this were a private workshop, or a one-on-one, such disclaimers would be unnecessary, but this review will be published on the Internet, and I am wary of the open, free-for-all nature of online publication. In fact, I am very wary of the Internet as a tool for any kind of publicity. It is a primordial soup of human culture, and anything dropped into it has a habit of growing and mutating into a monstrous exaggeration of its original essence. I distrust and fear the Internet almost as much as I depend on it.
“It also needs to be re-emphasised that the problems I’ve outlined in this book are ones most writers have to recognise and work hard to eradicate from their writing, and without knowledge of what to avoid, how can they possibly avoid it? And how can they get that knowledge other than through sharing their work with enough people until finally finding what they need? How do they convince others to read their work if it is not in an easily accessible format (i.e. a book)? That is where self-publishing (or just hasty publishing) becomes a viable option, and now we have ridden full circle round the horns of a dilemma: ‘Publish, and be damned’. There isn’t always another option. The sad thing is that I know this book might well have engaged and inspired me had it been the finished version, but I can only respond to what is put in front of me. One day I hope I will read an edition that has been reconsidered, revised and published through an established company, one that can offer sound editorial advice and that at least knows how to punctuate.”