Tuesday, 21 August 2012

ReReading 3: Bikes (and Don DeLillo)

It’s raining.  Again.  The summer is trying to wash itself out.  When it isn’t raining a pervasive humidity hangs over every day drowning my head with damp muddling thoughts.  Either way it is wet.

We’re British.  This is what we’re used to.  We can take it.  Indeed, Lizzie Armistead, the road cyclist who took our first medal at the Olympics underneath a torrent, said something about preferring the rain for racing.  She’s from Yorkshire.  She trains in the wet.

I took a particular interest in the cycling at the Olympics.  Sub-consciously, no doubt, because it’s more fun to be cheering people who actually stand a chance of winning rather than perennial sporting losers, but also because it was something I could relate to.  I’m not an Olympic athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but I do ride a bike.  I don’t hurdle, hammer throw, jump, fire any sort of projectile or own a horse. 

Cycling is something relatively new in my life, as regular readers will be aware.  In recent months, after initial forays were curtailed by injury, I have started riding to work most days.  At first I resented it, feeling that it ate too much into the extra reading time I have on the train, but after a while I started to find other space to read, probably at the expense of my girlfriend (sorry), and began to be irritated if I couldn’t ride.  There are numerous reasons as to why I can’t commute by bike on certain days.  I work across more than one site and don’t have enough suits to stash one at every office (nor a permanent desk to do so); I frequently go direct to external meetings where it’s not appropriate to ask to get changed before getting down to business; I might have gone drinking the night before and I have insufficient a death-wish to face the Old Kent Road after eight pints of ale.  So sometimes I still take the train, but when I do I miss I miss that surge in my blood, the pulsing throb in my knees.

Is it odd to become devoted to exercise at my age?  I don’t have a particular need to lose weight, having shed my motorway induced excess a few years ago.  I’ve always been relatively fit, if occasionally a little fat.  Is it just another example of my OCD?  An inability to approach anything half-heartedly?  Where does it stop?  Twenty-three year old Lizzie Armstrong, according to the commentary during her race so who knows how accurate this is, had never owned a bike before she was sixteen.

“There you go,” I said to my girlfriend.  “At thirty-nine I could be winning Olympic medals.”

And yet just two years ago, I took my first furtive pedals, Google-Steve clinging to the saddle as I weaved my way across a Stratford, upon Avon not East London, campsite.  Moments later I crashed to ground.  To my surprise, I got up and tried again.  And again.  And again. 

Funny how far one will go to get out of a potentially embarrassing situation. 

Now, I cycle over a hundred miles most weeks.  Pretty damn fast too.  Okay, so nowhere near the fifty-plus miles an hour Bradley Wiggins averaged for the time-trial, but I’ve got my commute down to 33minutes on average, about seven minutes faster than the train.  Occasionally I have even broken the half hour barrier, despite being hindered by a cheap mountain bike which weighs about three times that of the slick road bikes I shoot past through Trinity Square.  And the up to thirty-seven bloody red traffic lights.

Not quite two years ago, when I’d finally got myself to be capable of moving in an almost straight line around Battersea Park, Google-Steve decided my graduation should be a twenty mile off road cycle around the Peak District.  As we thundered through the dreary rain banked paths, I thought, this is okay, but I’m probably not going to fall in love with it.

Funny how life works out.

Those twenty-odd miles were the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken.  Much tougher than the forty odd mile jaunty jog that is the Four Inns walk.  It felt as though the future rested on my success.  At the end I was utterly spent, unable to even wobble along to the finale without gravity’s aid.  A couple of weeks ago, a cohort of us rode from Birmingham to Oxford which, with a degree of faffing at either end, was somewhere in the region of ninety miles.  On tandems.  Sure, my knee hurt and my shoulders had cramped up – the bike was probably a bit too small for me – but I could have done more.  I was up for more. 

 I read something recently about cycling being the domain of white, middle-class men because they’re the ones who can afford all the gear.  To an extent it’s true.  Certainly they appears to be in the majority as we speed through Peckham, Camberwell, Southwark, Borough, Lambeth, Elephant and Castle, areas where one might expect them to otherwise be a minority.  It doesn’t have to be though.  My bike was eighty quid.  I have a helmet and some reflective stripes, otherwise I wear old shorts, t-shirts and a pair of trainers the soles of which started to fall off years ago.

Meanwhile, in other obsessions, I’ve been rereading DonDeLillo’s output in the same way I tackled Graham Swift’s – sequentially, interspersed with new books to prevent them blurring into to one endless narrative, a little like the Old Kent Road can be on a bad day.  This has worked quite well - brief diversions from my main consumption for, Underworld aside, DeLillo’s books are fairly slim, zippy affairs.  The 825 page behemoth, though, beckons next.

I got into DeLillo through Underworld, which was a gift.  I can’t remember who from, but despite talking a good literary fight in the late nineties I was so cut off from what was happening with words that I’d never even heard of it.  I probably smiled politely and put it aside.  It looked like an important book, even more so now that the cover image of the New York twin towers has added poignancy and the black page chapter breaks are almost a prediction of future mourning.

American literature has a bit of an obsession with the Great American Novel, the idea that a single book can make sense of the mish-mass, disconnected heritage of the nation.  British novelists seem less bothered.  It’s as though we recognise the fallacy in even trying and don’t agree that there is triumph in glorious failure.  DeLillo’s had a few cracks at it, indeed one could argue that the majority of his output is less about the characters and more about trying to understand a nation.  If Swift has spent a career encircling an archetype lurking in a specific corner of South West London, then DeLillo is constantly examining a cracked ideal.

Sometimes the Brits try the grand social novel.  John Lanchester’s current offering Capital, is a recent example.  Sebastian Faulks had a go not some long ago with A Week in December.  Even I’ve had a crack.  I wanted You’ll Never Be Joe Strummer to a state of affairs novel, to say something about the place we live in and the people we share it with, but then real life moved too quickly and it became about yesterday not today.  Maybe that’s why it’s so much more an American thing.  In all that wide open space they have, there are corners which are sufficiently static to overtake with words, whilst in this cramped, clustered isle we’re all tripping over the future before it’s even happened.

Thirteen years ago Underworld was too long for me.  There was too much nothingness happening in my life that I found it impossible to build up any serious reading time, instead snatching fragments here and there.  It went around Turkey in my backpack barely touched.  I’ve been meaning to reread it ever since, but never quite been brave enough.  Ensconced in London a year or so later and doing that thing where I acquired everything by a writer I’d actually heard of, I read his first novel Americana.  Again, I vaguely remember struggling my way through it, too many hours spent drunk, but I also recall reading the final hundred or so pages hung-over one wintery Sunday morning on a bench high over Greenwich Park and feeling like it had just whispered me a secret.  A secret which would next explain itself nor be repeated, but a secret, just for me, none the less.

I took my copy of Underworld off the shelf for the first time in years the other day.  The cover’s silhouetted image is smudged slightly with dust.  There is a post card inserted at page 789 as though someone gave up so close to the end.  I don’t think it was me, certainly I couldn’t do that anymore.  I don’t give up anymore.

I appear to think that I’ve read more DeLillo novels than I own.  Maybe the library helped, but I would have sworn I owned copies of The Names and Libra.  I google them to see if the plots seem familiar.  They don’t.  It’s like there’s a space in my consciousness just waiting for them to slot it.  It’s been waiting a long time.

DeLillo’s writing can be a challenge.  Eventually, I gave up on him sometime around 2008 when I first read Ratner’s Star, a bizarrely dialogue heavy, slow-paced non-drama set in an secret bunker contain a cabal of Nobel laureates interpreting signals from off world.  Nothing happens and DeLillo seems frustrated by formal narrative devices and so frequently decides to ignore them.  I was surprised on rereading it how much I enjoyed it, how funny it was (in less of a ridiculous way than the Satanic Verses), how much the dialogue bounced and the absurd scenarios were almost heartbreaking.  Mao II, about a hermit, alcoholic writer who ends up kidnapped by not-really Lebanese terrorists to a not conclusive ending, was similarly enriching in its refusal to be overt as to what it was really about.  This is mature fiction designed to make you work hard and as a more mature man than the first time around I’m relishing it (even they are, whisper it, slightly dated in places).

The more recent novels are almost too odd however, as though Underworld’s reinforcement of his reputation as a serious writer pushed too heavy a pressure down on his fingers to find significance when there needn’t be any.  Martin Amis once reviewed a DeLillo novel as “makes you want to read everything he’s ever written” and retracted it whilst being very Amisly scathing of a short story collection.  I never did read everything he ever wrote, there was too many of them, and am all the more pleased for it.  Like cycling in the rain, their complexity and the mildly irritating trick he has of making characters appear to be having utterly different conversations as though aware that they are mere furniture in a novel, are worth enduring for the sado-masochist pleasure of getting there through your own physical exertion.

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