There’s no success like failure,’ Bob Dylan once sang – but he couldn’t have envisaged the international notoriety that bad art would achieve in the digital age. Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail gleefully hops genres and centuries in a quest to understand our obsession with lameness. Clever, profound, bitingly funny, it’s a brilliant analysis from one of the smartest new critics around.
“That this monster of overprivilege and overeducation ends up being genuinely sympathetic, and that a book that has serious questions to ask about the place of art in our virtually anesthetized world is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, are testaments to Ben Lerner’s dazzling prose.”
- Some bloke named Paul Murray (maybe you’ve heard of him?) shares his Year In Reading
He is thinking about asymmetry. This is a world, he is thinking, where you can lie in bed, listening to a song as you dream about someone you love, and your feelings and the music will resonate so powerfully and completely that it seems impossible that the beloved, whoever and wherever he or she might be, should not know, should not pick up this signal as it pulsates from your heart, as if you and the music and the love and the whole universe have merged into one force that can be channeled out into the darkness to bring them this message. But in actuality, not only will he or she not know, there is nothing to stop that other person from lying on his or her bed at the exact same moment listening to the exact same song and thinking about someone else entirely — from aiming those identical feelings in some completely opposite direction, at some totally other person, who may in turn be lying in the dark thinking of another person still, a fourth, who is thinking of a fifth, and so on, and so on; so that rather than a universe of neatly reciprocating pairs, love and love-returned fluttering through space nicely and symmetrically like so many pairs of butterfly wings, instead we get chains of yearning, which sprawl and meander and culminate in an infinite number of dead ends.
Just as the shape of natural objects like rainbows, snowflakes, crystals and blossoming flowers derives from the symmetrical way that quarks arrange themselves in the atom — a remnant of the universe’s lost state of perfect symmetry — so Ruprecht is convinced that the unhappy state of affairs regarding love can be traced right back to the subatomic. If you read up on strings, you will learn that there are two different types, closed and open-ended. The closed strings are O-shaped loops that float about like angels, insouciant of spacetime’s demands and playing no part in our reality. It is the open-ended strings, the forlorn, incomplete U-shaped strings, whose desperate ends cling to the sticky stuff of the universe; it is they that become reality’s building blocks, its particles, its exchangers of energy, the teeming producers of all that complication. Our universe, one could almost say, is actually built out of loneliness; and that foundational loneliness persists upwards to haunt every one of its residents. But might the situation be different in other universes? In a universe where, for instance, all of the strings were closed, what would love look like there? And energy? And spacetime? The siren call of the question mark: his thoughts drift laterally, inevitably, away from Skippy and his predicament to grander matters — universes coiled voluptuously in secret dimensions, sheets of pure sparking otherness, crimped topographies cradling forms unsullied even by being dreamed of…
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
No disrespect for Howard Jacobson, but Murray’s book was positively ROBBED of the 2010 Booker Prize. We reviewed it glowlingly back then, people have coordinated outfits to match its cover since that time, and I can tell you that it’s the only book I’ve ever read that had me oscillate regularly between fits of laughter and bouts of tears.