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Book Report: Any Old Iron

What YHB should probably do is knock out a half-dozen Book Reports, just because being so far behind makes the thing seem more like a chore and less like a treat. Particularly since my shallow reading habits force books to recede into dimness incredibly quickly, to the point where I am somewhat skeptical about having read the book at all. Like Our Only President’s “three Shakespeares”.

Digression: The odd thing is that the idiom doesn’t work. As Geoff Nunberg writes over at the Language Log, a museum can have three Picassos, a woman can own three Vera Wangs, and I can read three Bujolds, but you can’t read three Shakespeares. I’m not sure I agree that as a general rule you can do it with crap authors (three Clancys, three Paretskys, three Cornwells) but not with good authors (three Hemingways, three Hammetts, three Updikes). I don’t even think it’s playwrights (They did three Shaws last season, three Stoppards, three Ibsens). I think it’s perfectly reasonable for somebody to assume that you can do the same with the works of William. But you can’t. End Digression.

Anyway, what I remember most about Any Old Iron is the rhythm of the language. Every few chapters there would be some bit—maybe a short passage, maybe a five-page aria—that just begged to be read aloud. And even in between those high points, the language rolled around my mouth as I was reading it silently. It slows a fellow down, to read like that. Now, not all of it was good, you understand, just insistently rhythmic.

Mr. Burgess does love language, and he lets himself go. And in addition to his penchant for sesquipedalian obscurance and playful neologism, he doesn’t like to let a word have only two meanings. The title, f’r’ex, refers not only the street peddler’s cry but to the sword Excalibur, and to blood, and to irony, and is, besides, a dick joke. The three words can be given different meaning depending on context, and on how they are said. The junkman’s search for any old iron, anything and everything, works against the reference to Excalibur as being just any old iron, a bit of uselessness and rust. Is it good to be old, or bad? Both, of course, and more besides. Which will also slow down a reader. Even if, as also happens, the wordplay is just for its own sake, and without any particular point to it.

Digression: I will say that Mr. Burgess uses language with a sort of authority which would allow him to write “three Shakespeares” if he wanted to without sounding like a fool. People don’t talk like that? So what? They could. Perhaps they will, someday. Or perhaps they do in this book. They do if Mr. Burgess says they do. He’s after something more than imitation, and if he’s off-key, he’s got wicked timbre. Which makes it interesting that Our Only President doesn’t have that ability, nor (of course) does he have the ear that Our Previous President had for imitation. Winston Churchill had the first, which is even better, but the second can meet with success as well. Our Only President seems to get along well without either, though. End Digression.

As for the plot and characters, well, the plot is just one damned thing after another, and the characters are grotesqueries without sympathy. Mr. Burgess is half Charles Dickens and half James Joyce, and half H.L. Mencken, and probably another third something else altogether. And then in on top of all that, there’s Mr. Burgess himself. It’s too much. And not enough. Or something. I’m not sure what.

One thing that’s interesting about the book is that it’s clearly a book meant to be studied, rather than read, which is gratifying but annoying. Gratifying to be taken seriously and challenged and whatnot, but annoying to be made to work so hard, for an uncertain reward. It makes a nice break from reading my lovely space operas, and then makes my lovely space operas a nice break from reading it.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,