Sam van Zweden



alan bissett

The Best Art Feels Like Playing

“DAWN: Oh, I dunno, Nadine. Sometimes that’s good. I like his work, it’s fun. The best art can feel just like playing…”

In Death of a Ladies’ Man, Alan Bissett has written a novel that feels just like playing. I enjoyed this novel so much, though, because that’s not all it feels like. It’s so easy for those post-modern, tricksy texts to be fun, and that’s all. But Death of a Ladies’ Man is also serious, and relevant, and familiar, and well-written.

The novel is about ladies’ man Charlie Bain: divorced teacher with a promiscuous sex obsession. The characters are real and rounded, with Charlie always acting in ways that are true and honest, even when you squirm and wish he wouldn’t.

The prose sparkles – multiple times while reading I needed to grab my notebook to write down phrases that caught me offguard:

Close up on her eyelashes: like the skinny, regal legs of synchronised swimmers.

All Charlie saw was the bruise. Bruise! it said. Bruuuuuuise. Like a comic-book ghoul.

Alan Bissett has shown bravery with his form, with the novel presenting as something of a pastiche of film scripts, catalogues, first, second and third person narratives, shifting points of view and time. The thing I enjoyed most was that this playfulness of form perfectly matched the content. Experiments with fragmented typography match the drug, alcohol and sex experiments Charlie engages in, and his increasingly fragmented state of mind.

Even the difficulty of shifting narrative points of view is admirable: somehow Bissett manages to tell past episodes in second person present tense, and present episodes in past tense third person, mixed up with some first person interior stuff toward the end. This sounds impossible and mashed-up and wanky, but it really works.

Mostly, I laughed. This last week I’ve been sick in bed, having had my tonsils out, and Alan Bissett has kept me from going insane. It’s not a feel-good novel, far from it, but it’s got a definite dark hilarity to it, and despite its touching on some truly heavy stuff, it all still feels like playing.

The Facelessness of Writing

Writing is a weird business. The main part of what we do is faceless – we spend time alone, curled over keyboards or notebooks, looking inside ourselves and picking things apart. When we do send things out into the world, it rarely involves live-action relationships with editors and the like. Emails, forums, blogs. So much of what we do happens under layer after layer of facelessness.

I don’t know what many of my favourite authors look like, or how they present in person. I was shocked to find John Marsden is such a confronting mixture of crude and intelligent. I’ll admit that Camus’ theories are more palatable than Sartre’s based on their author pics. Last week at the Emerging Writers’ Festival I was surprised by how much Carmel Bird just looked like someone’s mum. I love Alan Bissett’s writing all the more for his outgoing personality, and I’m reading Death of a Ladies’ Man in his very attractive accent. The way authors look and present themselves in person, face-to-face, can be worlds away from how we imagine them through their writing.

This made the Emerging Writers’ Festival an amusing space to meet and greet. The main thing that struck me over and over again during the two weeks was how weird it is that the two sides of our job are such polar opposites. Absolute isolation versus schmooze-fest. I’m not saying that either is preferable – I love both. But when someone talked about me without knowing I was in the room, or when I had the “a-ha!” moment where I connected someone’s writing projects to that person I’d been talking to for the last hour, it really struck me how singularly bizarre writing is.

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