Monday, January 4, 2010

Books (almost) in English...

I've avoided reading Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon. In 1966, this novel won awards for its innovative use of language. Narrator Charly undergoes radical brain surgery and evolves from 'simpleton' to genius. Along the way he discovers much about the nature of humanity.
So, why have I avoided it?

"And he said that meens Im doing something grate for sience and Ill be famus and my name will go down in the books. I dont care so much about beeing famus. I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of frends who like me."

That's why.

And it occurred to me that this has not been the only novel I've failed to finish, thanks to difficult pseudo-English. Its not the writing that's bad; its the language.

Will Self's Book of Dave jumps between now-ish and 500 years hence. The most influential book in this half-drowned future is the diary of a bitter London cab driver named Dave. Half the story is in modern British street slang and cabbie code. The other half is written in futuristic misinterpretations of the same. Self thankfully provides a lexicon; 'starbucks' means breakfast, 'pizzaDlivree' means manna, and 'Dävinanity' is the official religion of "Ing Land".

Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang won the Man Booker prize for literature in 2001, and I still haven't finished it. The story is a letter written from the Australian folk legend to his estranged daughter. Ned Kelly is portrayed as an illiterate, 19th century rogue, and written with as much grace.

"I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false."

The newest addition to this list is Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk (whose name I also cannot pronounce). Agent Number 67 is a deadly spy sent among many 'international students' to infiltrate America. A clever satire in premise, but I could not finish the first chapter. The voice of Agent 67 is broken English, mixed with a heavy Asiatic edge and a clear dislike for all Western culture.

"Fellow operatives already pass immigrant control, exit through secure doors and to embrace own other host family people...All violate United States secure port of entry having success. Each now embedded among middle-income corrupt American family, all other homes, other schools and neighbors of same city. By not after next today, strategy web of operatives to be established."

Surely these aren't the only novels written in quasi-English...any suggestions for my to-avoid-reading list?


  1. I also couldn't finish Pygmy even though I have read everything written by this author. I wonder if an audio-book version of it (or any of the others) would be better?

  2. Interestingly enough, Pygmy is available as a digital download from the Library's Overdrive service. I listened to a excerpt and it sounded rather poetic to me.

  3. Russell Hoban's post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker would be another one for you to avoid. I loved it, and it has something of a cult following. I see that the Library's only copy of this 1980 novel is signed out, and has 3 more readers waiting for it. Sometimes deciphering the language is worth it. You can look at the first pages on Amazon.

  4. Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange would be one to read rather than avoid.....

  5. And I've avoided James Joyce's Ulysses for much the same reason. It isn't the language per se, but the lack of punctuation that scares me.