A lot of people are happy to spend a lot of money going to see ‘the new’ Star Wars film or ‘the new’ James Bond. On the other hand, I remember copy-editing a book by a tired author who, following the success of a particular novel, had been commissioned by his publisher to write two more with the same lead characters; replying to my copy-editing queries, he thanked me for attending so closely to ‘this awful tosh’.
Sequels are tricky things. Last year CBe published Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, which found a lot of admiring readers. This year CBe published the short follow-up novels: 2 Novels: The Proof, The Third Lie. Tristan Foster, naming his ‘top reads of 2015’ on the 3:AM blog, mentions that ‘I read the sequels to The Notebook by Agota Kristof this year and think about them often enough. About how Kristof totally upended the first and how brave I thought that was, but mainly about how shocked I was by the difference in tone and narrative style. So why aren’t they on the list? I wish I hadn’t read them at all.’
In 2013 CBe published Dan O’Brien’s War Reporter, another book that found many admiring readers. It won a prize, was shortlisted for another, and was called by Patrick McGuinness in the Guardian ‘A masterpiece of truthfulness and feeling, and a completely sui generis addition not just to writing about war but to contemporary poetry’. This year CBe published O’Brien’s New Life, which tracks the war reporter Paul Watson through the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring and into Syria, and includes the black comedy of Watson and O’Brien pitching a TV show based on war reporters to Hollywood producers. New Life has received almost no attention, and found fewer readers than the first book. (Is this in part because of the subject matter? Have we reached a war-reporting threshold, beyond which it feels like not ‘news’ but ‘more of the same’?)
Anyway, here is a US review of New Life that hardly starts promisingly: ‘I’m no stranger to lamenting the failures of sequels … when a poet writes a sequel, it’s hard to resist the opportunity to skewer it.’ Oh, but read on: ‘This book deserves more praise than I have room – for its courage, for its innovation, for its empathy – and other critics have and will say more. But as for me, New Life left me wanting to read more from Dan O’Brien rather than more about his book. His is the type of poetry we cannot afford to neglect or neglect to return to.’
Friday, 4 December 2015
Decades ago – truly – I read a piece by Peter Levi in which he argued that a test of good poetry is whether it can be read, and still claim its space, in any place, situation, context: not just sitting comfortably at home ‘with your nine drinks lined up on the side table in soldierly array’ (that’s from a Donald Barthelme story) but on an overcrowded train, in hospital, at work, at play …
A test case is here. The link is to a podcast from LA in which Dan O’Brien (above) is a guest on a podcast whose other guests – three women, one man – are all American comedy actors. It’s long: an hour and 13 minutes. Dan reads poems (from Scarsdale, War Reporter and New Life, all from CBe) at roughly 6 minutes in, 16 minutes, 34, 45 and 57 minutes. The rest of it is quick-fire banter: funny, daft, obscene. No one has time to even blink. There are riffs on racoons, dildos, the poetry-reading hmmm. The whole is a mash-up of different registers: super-witty improvised joshing and the stark, deliberated poems. You may hate it. I think it’s wonderful.