Review – How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive

How to Keep Your Volkswagen AliveHow to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Christopher Boucher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel was a breakfast grapefruit – sour, refreshing, occasionally squirting me the eye with acid. All good things, like that underrated start to the culinary day.

I should first disclose that I am writing this review codeined to the eyeballs and on deadline for something else. It gives it a frantic and digressive edge.

After reading so much fictive bilgewater, ersatz Balzac so removed from the original style of heaving bosoms and toothsome dramatics, as to have entirely forgotten its progenitor…books that were foggy, like a remnant word maimed and altered in meaning until it grates to even hear it (discreet/discrete is my current bugbear) this read GREAT.

David Shield’s Reality Hunger is a good reference point here – I refer you to Buck’s excellent review and attendant discussion thread.

Boucher has written a novel that complements all Shield’s bravura epigrams on the dead dead dead state of traditional storytelling, on the actual form of the novel, and pleaded for alternatives. THIS BOOK IS A REPLACEMENT. An improvement. Zesty.

So, how to describe it without releasing small rodents that knaw at your brain with academic snoozery and make you run screaming, oh book-lover that likes things to, you know, mean something? Something definable. As opposed to applying all those prisms of theory which shatter meaning into a thousand bad copies of the cover of Dark Side of the Moon? Ah. More difficult.

The unnamed narrator has sold everything. His name, his possessions, his stories, hocked the lot. To buy time-as-money, the currency of Boucher’s alternative version of Western Massachusetts. He needs the money because of health-care issues (Oh, the terror of being sick in the US. For smug bastards with national healthcare like me it’s like contemplating the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. You know you will never come out. At least, not as you.)

He has sold it because he has a sick child. His child is a 1971 Volkswagen who runs on stories and requires careful maintenance of his sufferoil, his memorycoil, his unique engineheart. Got that?

You can make a stone-cold analysis of what Boucher is doing here – the alternating chapters of cutesy-hippie lingo in the second person, a faked manual explaining the tao of his strange car (as a former Peugeot owner I know how French things can get). Then a first person patchwork memoir of the narrator, a hack storyteller and misanthrope to whom success is a foreign country. Possessor of a black-belt in self-sabotage, inventor of ghosted persons and mis-remembered histories. His former girlfriends are trapped inside formalist conceits.

It’s a novel of augmentation; of accumulated, startling detail.

Does it sound annoying? A little, but less than you’d think. The dialogue is cracking, and Boucher controls perfectly the balance between the recognisable whims and failings of his protagonist and the otherness of his version of Western Massachusetts, where sentient objects abound, police are CityDogs, and trees regularly are involved in homicides, attacking people’s to eat their hearts.

Themes? The act of writing, more specifically the life of a freelance writer, of writing for money, on spec. Heartlessly. Also, parenthood. Death. Dickheads who won’t grow up, who construct elaborate fantasies to avoid responsibilities of any kind.

I had enormous admiration for the control of this book and the complete and unerring conviction of its vision. It’s the new new fiction, all right. It was also piss funny.

And yet I have a niggling suspicion. Like a few of those writers under-40 sainted by The New Yorker last year (Karen Russell I’m looking at you) I worry that along with fixies, Pancho facial hair and the bad-craft mania gripping women who should know better, the sentimental sweetness, Gen-X nostalgia, is going to date pretty quick.

The thing about grapefruit at breakfast is it needs brown sugar. Boucher has used a little much. At times the tweeness made my fillings hurt. I know why he did it – there’s some heavy stuff going down in Western Massachusetts, but it seemed a little spooked. Like he pulled back from how dark it should have been.

I love post-modernism. I know, kick me. So unfashionable. It seems clear to me that what Boucher and his kind are doing is essentially post-modernism á la Portlandia. It’s good. It’s whipcrack clever. It’s just not as new as it seems on first read.

Put a bird on it.

View all my reviews

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