Wednesday 24 January 2018

Review: A Preparation for Death by Greg Baxter

Penguin Ireland, €15.99

GO FIGURE: Greg Baxter can write neither prose fiction nor prose essay, yet he has achieved his goal of publication
GO FIGURE: Greg Baxter can write neither prose fiction nor prose essay, yet he has achieved his goal of publication

Desmond Traynor

Greg Baxter is a failed novelist. He tells us so himself. But this is all right, 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, 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 Baxter has been advancing, via recourse to David Shields' Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, no doubt paving the way for the publication of the work under review here, Baxter's own attempt at autobiography. A Preparation for Death, carries a glowing endorsement from David Shields.

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, although Baxter makes no reference to this source in his series of 11 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 life; 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.

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!).

Curiously, 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 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 is genitally well-endowed (see p196).

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.

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 anyway? How did he get to expound his ill-conceived theories in the national press? 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.

Rarely have I so much disliked a book I've reviewed, 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 say.

Sunday Independent

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