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A Preparation for Death
By Greg Baxter
(Penguin Ireland, £14.99 stg, P/B)
Greg Baxter is a failed novelist. He tells us so himself. But this is alright, in his book, since he attributes his failure to the caution, caprice and compromise of literary editors and publishers (to say nothing of their mercenary motives), who are themselves part of a culture where ‘bad writing…had become institutionalised.’ Besides, more to the point, the literary novel is dead, or undead, and autobiography, so honest and unmediated, so authentic and without artifice, is where it’s at. This is an argument which Baxter has been afforded access to the hallowed books pages of that augustly venerable paper of record, The Irish Times, to advance, via recourse to a glowing review last February of David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, no doubt paving the way for the imminent publication of the work under review here, Baxter’s own attempt at autobiography. A Preparation for Death carries a similarly glowing endorsement from David Shields on its cover. Baxter was interviewed by Eoin Butler in the ‘Weekend’ section of The Irish Times on June 26th, in a blaze of pre-publicity. So, who exactly has successfully avoided the contemporary, self-serving culture of back-scratching in the publishing world? Never mind the fact that if Baxter had had the courage of his convictions as a fiction writer, his response to rejection would have been to self-publish.
The title comes from Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates defines philosophy as a preparation for death, although Baxter makes no reference to this source in his series of eleven autobiographical essays, four of which have already appeared in the respected journal, Dublin Review, which is edited by Brendan Barrington, who is also – again, no coincidence – Baxter’s editor at Penguin Ireland. Not that Baxter fights shy of quotation, with interpolations from Montaigne and Cioran among his favourites, along with references to Seneca and St. Augustine.
Briefly, the essays sketch Baxter’s, a Texan, transplantation to Dublin, his commuting by scooter from his soulless north Dublin housing estate to his despised job as a reporter for the Irish Medical Times, his drunken nights carousing with students after teaching in the Irish Writers’ Centre, with forays to Texas, Las Vegas, Riga, Letterfrack and Vienna thrown in. Baxter displays an alarming propensity towards kiss and tell, or shag and spill, and accounts of his many supposed conquests are provided in excruciating physical detail, e.g. ‘She has a beautifully shaped and scentless cunt. It is perfectly symmetrical and inconspicuous. It is small but gets extremely wet.’ Well, he does admit to having no facility for writing lyrically about sex. Perhaps the most interesting piece is ‘Satanism’, with its amusing section on the East Texan fundamentalism of his youth, which segues into a rereading of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Alas, it also tangentially includes an account of a spanking session with his companion on that weekend trip to Riga, followed by some fisting (all consensual, of course!). Or is there some Mailerish connection between the former two and latter third elements? If so, Baxter does not make it explicit. Thankfully, this description was judiciously excluded from a travel piece Baxter wrote for the IMT about this city break in May 2008, which revealed only that Baxter is the kind of American for whom everywhere should be America, or, at least, Ireland. Curiously enough, for one who insists on fearless honesty and truth-telling in all things, there is no attempt to engage with the break up of his seven year marriage, which predated the shenanigans so vividly described, or with the impending arrival of his first-born, a product of one of these liaisons.
The argument against fiction goes something like: ‘Why is this guy talking in these funny voices? Why doesn’t he put down these puppets and say what he wants to say?’
But autobiography is predicated on the assumption that the writer is an interesting person, or has an interesting story to tell (not quite the same thing), or writes well. None of which seem to apply to Greg Baxter. Although he prefaces these pieces by acknowledging that: ‘Traditional autobiography is composed after the experience has passed. I wrote this book in the very panic of the experiences that inspired it’, he still confuses and conflates autobiography with the meditative essays of those writers he admires. The sum effect is akin to being buttonholed by an inebriated, garrulous egotist in a public bar, recalling the old joke: ‘Q: How do you know if someone’s from Texas? A: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.’ He even manages to intimate, via a third party, that he has a big dick (see p.196).
One wonders to what extent Baxter’s espousal of autobiography is a result of his failure to crack fiction. It comes across as the shy, bullied kid in school performing a literary version of a Columbine-style massacre through mercilessly destructive ‘revelations’ not only about himself, but anyone who has ever crossed him. Writers of unfavourable review had better beware. To paraphrase Lionel Shriver’s title: We Need To Talk About Greg.
The fact is, it is still much more difficult to write even passable fiction than it is to write even great memoir. Let’s say you walk into a pub and announce to your mates: ‘An amazing thing happened to me on my way here.’ They respond, ‘Yeah, what?’ If your next move is to begin, ‘Well, first of all, I’m making this up, okay?’ you’re going to have to work really hard to keep their attention. That requires talent. A memoir merely requires a life and a memory. Moreover, how can you ever be sure that the narrator of anecdotal autobiography isn’t being economical with the truth, or embellishing it? Besides, a technical device in postmodern fiction is its shattering of the ‘suspension of disbelief’, its removal of the voyeuristic nature of the reading experience by directly addressing readers and acknowledging their active part in the novel.
‘This brilliant literary debut will appeal to fans of Geoff Dyer’ the publisher’s blurb declares. Not so, for it is impossible to imagine Baxter writing with as much insight, imagination and sheer brio on subjects as diverse as jazz, photography or D. H. Lawrence, as Dyer employs. Added to this, Dyer does novels as well, however much they may be thinly disguised autobiography. Even Dyer’s straight autobiographical essays are leavened by a self-deprecating humour that is beyond Baxter. For while Baxter may admit, ‘I repeat myself with recklessness, and since I am the subject, and I am dispensable, there is nothing I say that is essential.’, one feels he is simply getting his retaliation in first, heading potential criticism off at the pass. Nor is he possessed of the historical sweep or plain curiosity about his surroundings which distinguish such contemporary masters of the form as W. G. Sebald and Iain Sinclair. Here are a few more aphorisms Baxter might like to ponder, before spilling his guts again: ‘We make art so as not to die of truth.’ (Nietzsche). ‘Truth is an army of metaphors.’ (Nietzsche again). ‘I don’t know whether my nation will perish and I don’t know which of my characters is right. I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions.’ (Kundera).
Some questions beg to be asked: Why would someone who so loathes the creative writing course structure seek to make a few extra bucks by teaching creative writing? How did he get to teach creative writing four nights a week at the Irish Writers’ Centre? How did he get to expound his ill-conceived theories in The Irish Times? How did he wangle a travel grant from the Arts Council of Ireland for a pointlessly personal trip to Vienna, at a time of recession? This is taxpayers’ money we’re talking about, after all. One also wonders what the many lovely ladies who fall into his bed see in him. Is it that he’s such a bad boy? Or maybe it’s that prodigious member he boasts of.
Rarely have I disliked a book I’ve had to review so much, or found such little merit in one. Montaigne and Cioran were not failed novelists. Neither were Seneca nor Augustine. They were brilliant essayists. Baxter, on this evidence, can do neither prose fiction nor prose essay. Yet, he has achieved his goal of publication. Go figure, as the Yanks, or is that the Confederates, say.
First published in The Sunday Indpendent