Sunday, March 13, 2005

Litt-erary Appreciation (Or How Many Puns Can I Get Out of This Guy's Name?)

It wasn't that I hadn't heard of Toby Litt - there he was, smartly groomed and besuited, looking out from pages of a Sunday Times magazine I'd hoarded in my drawer with its article ("The Write Young Things") on the writers Granta magazine had chosen as it's best of 2003. Other chosens included Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, A L Kennedy, David Mitchell and Pete Ho Davis.

I just hadn't read a single thing he'd written till this wake-up call: the video-conference with the writer organised by the British Council as the latest event in its 'Meet the UK Author' series which I was to chair. I then had to do a mad dash round local bookshops to find at least some of his work so that I could have my own mini-Littfest. I managed five books in two weeks which ain't bad going. He's written seven altogether - and as Joanne Thorpe of British Council cleverly noticed, the titles follow in alphabetical order. Litt aims to have all 26 letters of the alphabet covered during his writing career. (He jokes that a word often associated with his prolific output is "churned".) Leon Wing who came along for the session had read all - just as he had read everything Beryl Bainbridge had written at the previous session. It was so good to have him along.

I began with his second collection of short fiction, Exhibitionism, an interesting collection, though some of the stories I felt were stronger than others. The more surreal pieces (Dreamgirls, The Waters) reminded me of Murukami, but the story I liked best was the one about the psychologically cojoined lesbian lovers in Mimi (Both of Her) and Me (Hardly There at All). Then there's the quaintly titled On the Etiquette of Eye-Contact During Oral Sex which I suppose is the story everyone will turn to first. It's amusing, but as in his story about the porn industry written in the form of a shooting script, - sometimes the idea behind the story turns out to be wittier than the story itself.

The first novel I picked up Finding Myself, a sort of Virginia Wolf meets chick lit (thanks to Litt's remarkable ventriloquism) meets Big Brother, proved to be amusing, but pretty soon the joke wore thin and I must confess that I packed it in well before the end, more than anything because the narrative voice got right up my nose.

Litt's first novel Beatniks described as a British road movie proved a quick and enjoyable read. The book was intended as a tribute to Keroac and came out on the 40th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. The book was pacey, well-plotted and I liked the three main characters very much. Litt also writes sex well and if you don't know what yabyum is, do read the book and find out! Litt has written a screenplay for the film and perhaps one day it will come to production.

Please don't read Deadkidsongs, Litt's third novel about four little boys who form a gang, unless you have a very strong stomach. It certainly makes you want to ask what kind of warped imagination comes up with a story as violent as this? (No-one actually asked it, and Litt looked so poised and so damn ... normal on screen.) I actually read much of it in the back of taxis and nearly caused an accident a couple of times when I screamed out loud.

I felt the book must owe something to Lord of the Flies, but it was a link that Litt really didn't want to make. How I'd have loved to have argued this point with him further! (If only there were a virtual bar to adjourn too ... that, and not being able to get your copies autographed are the drawbacks of this technology!)

Ghost Story is Litt's most recent work, a deeply personal book which asks what happens after the worst thing has happened? The worst thing in this case is miscarriage, and the first part of the book tells in harrowing detail how Litt and his partner Leigh lost three babies. (Their story has a happy ending though as they finally have had the much longed for baby.) The main part of the book is a fictional account of a couple coming to terms with the loss of their second child. It is beautifully written, and there were whole passages I went back to reread for the sheer beauty of the language. Litt uses psychic distance in a unique way to draw the reader gradually further and further into the minds of the main characters, absorbing their grief and inability to get past it. The ending is ... perfect.

Leon asked such insightful questions - particularly about Ghost Story which blew him away, that Litt paid him the biggest compliment I think any writer can pay: "I've found my ideal reader ... and he lives in Malaysia."


Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon:
I really, really enjoyed myself watching and hearing Toby Litt read from Chapter 12. I went back and played back the video I captured, with that chapter beside me. His reading was not as loud as that from Dame Bainbridge, who was sitting very close to the camera, and therefore to us. But it was still clear.

It's no accident or fluke - unlike what he said, like a lottery - that he was chosen to be among the best British writers for Granta 2003. His book Ghost Story is a linguist's dream for looking for a writer's writing methods, techniques and styles. Probably someone could write a thesis on that book alone.

And I was really chuffed to have Toby Litt (!!!!!) give me that compliment - was I blushing under my baseball cap??

And I was really and very surprised by the book as a door gift from Brit Council. So far the best and most generous door gift I have ever gotten. (Much much better that the wine opener from Panasonic last year - Singapore airport authorities confiscated it)

I could have asked more questions of Toby Litt, but as it was, we were practically the only two people there asking most of them (besides 2 or 3 other people. Particulary amusing was one who Toby said he wished he could give a prize for discovering his alphabet list titles. The NST reporter at the back was very quiet most of the time, except when he said he knew which director Toby was talking about). And I didn't want to seem like I was hogging the question session, so when Toby wound down the session and asked if anyone wanted to ask the last question, I had to keep my hand on my chair, and let the English lecturer behind me his chance to ask him about instinct in writing.

I hope I wasn't rude when I whispered to you to ask Toby about his screenplay. I didn't want to "steal" this question from you as, before we entered the conference room, you said you would want to ask him that.

But, I think I was a bit rude - unintentionally - outside BC, when we were getting ready to go home. Remember we were talking with the 2 English lecturers, and I was talking to him and you to her, me asking him about American or British colonization of the Phillippines? Was I too loud? Sorry about that.

In this blog, you are spot on with your observations on his short stories.


bibliobibuli said...

Thanks for dropping by Leon. It was a bit sad to be really the only 2 guys asking questions ... but I guess it's hard when there aren't too many copies of his work around and we don't have an awful lot of notice. I was so glad of your presence! The questions you asked were spot on - and I was happy to see that we'd had the same reactions to parts of the books - especially that beautiful bit of writing about the builders and the ending. I think it is a book you could write a thesis on.

You videoed the reading??? I'm jealous ...

Don't worry about being rude. I was glad you asked about the screenplay. I actually had lots more questions I'd have liked to have asked ... And I certainly didn't think you were too loud when you were talking to that guy ...

Feel sad that these things aren't better attended. There are so many wanna-be writers out there who would benefit ... talking to established writers about their craft is really one of the best ways to learn.