Trash fiction? What is it? Is it sleazy, silly, kitschy, pulpy? Well, there’s a good chance it’s all of these things really. My idea for the Trash Chart was based in part on the original article I wrote about the pleasure Jackie Collins novels gave me as I reevaluated my love of literature, post-degree. Since then I researched, I went through the history books and I read read read trash until I was totally sated.
All of these authors have gained a special place in this chart for their passionate efforts to bring trashy writing, trashy subjects and trashy ideas to the table. To celebrate their hard work, I have offered interesting trivia about their lives. There’s also 12, count ’em, 12 more books to be unveiled. So, get excited for parts 2 and 3, coming soon, with more discussion on the nature of trash.
The Bad Seed
Plot – In small town America, has a woman given birth to the Devil child?
Comments – Throwing some coy concepts of the nature/nurture paradigm at the enthralled reader, this deliciously pulpy white picket fence pot-boiler is the ultimate in parental cautionary tales. The prying, curtain-twitching claustrophobia of this small community works on an ensemble level and seems to encourage readers to ask the old age old question as to how much we really know about our neighbours. Specifically whether they are the type to offer you milk and cookies, or murder you? The novel deserves special credit for spawning (pun totally intended) the popular novel arc about a foreboding regarding mad and bad children, which continued with Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen featuring the Devilish Damien, and, much later on, the hugely-influential reinterpretation of the Bad Seed nature/nurture argument with the powerfully divisive, We Need to Talk About Kevin.
The writing and set ups are entirely more innocent than the gore/Satanic elements of the later book, but Rhonda arguably remains the baddest bitch in suburbia.
Extract – She wrote, I’m saving these letters that I cannot send, my darling. When you are back with me, and my fears have all proved foolish, perhaps we can read them over together. Then you can hold me in your arms and laugh at my weak, unreasonable fears, can ridicule in your dear gentle voice my overheated imagination…
Author Trivia – I didn’t know what to expect of the writer of the novel, however Showalter‘s excellent foreword to the most recent edition sums up how repressive and frustrated the author actually was, quite literally spying on and judging all of the ‘characters’ at the end of his telescope.
‘From his window on Central Park West, Bill was able to observe through a pair of binoculars the random encounters and subsequent sexual activities of these lonely wanderers. He would tell me in detail of all he had witnessed, but the stories were never gleefully or viciously recounted, but in something like wild despair, his face tight as a fist with concern. At times, I believe that he told me these things out of apprehension, out of the fear of his own loneliness, and that this kind of love was all that available to those who were alone.’
He died largely unappreciated and left behind an entirely Freudian back-catalogue of eccentric stories and unconventional characters, including a man who literally covets and fetishes shoes. For that March’s legacy deserves to have a fresh revival. I’d pay to get to the bottom of his back-catalogue.
Critical Review – ‘Cannot be put aside without lingering shivers.’ – Time
‘An impeccable tale of pure evil.’ – Atlantic Monthly
To Die For
Plot – The ultimate fame & fortune thriller as one woman shows she’s willing to do anything to get to the top.
Comment – Maynard’s novel is based in part on the hugely controversial case of Pamela Smart, summarised on Wikipedia by this narrative: an American criminal convicted of conspiring with her 15-year-old lover, William “Billy” Flynn, and three of his friends to kill her 24-year-old husband, Greggory Smart.
She was found guilty as hell but resolutely remains, somewhat delusionally insistent she was always innocent.
Maynard’s novel could not have been timed more perfectly as the great American public were saturated in the newly coined ‘cash for trash’ phenomena in the 1990s. Just as irresistible, the celebrity world exploded too giving us the Anna Nicole’s and Jordan’s (if reading from a British browser) of the world. Talentless celebrities who became ‘stars’ because of their trashy designs and column raising antics. This book got all those factors darn right, and to top it off the plot reads like perfect clickbait for the National Enquirer.
In a nutshell, Suzanne marries a loveable sap called Larry, but isn’t particularly interested in becoming the model wife. She has dreams to be the next Diane Sawyer and further dreams of having someone like Nicole Kidman play her in a movie, when she makes it as a star. She’s small-fry but is wasting no time in becoming the biggest fish in the celebrity pond. And here Maynard introduces a gleeful multi-narrative of all the ensemble characters within the book, recounting and musing on what Suzanne did. This works in a form of a documentary transcript, as if we’re watching Crime Investigation, and, boy is it lurid and dangerous. All the major ingredients feature, including the ice-cold femme fatale, the lamb to the slaughter fall guy, but the noire style is updated with some deliciously sleazy dialogue. If this book were a meal, it’d be a buffet special.
Extract – ‘Her skin’s so soft. Her hair fans out on the sand like she’s in a shampoo commercial. I put my tongue in her mouth and I can taste the Tic Tac she was sucking on. We’re so connected, I taste her Tic Tac.
Author Trivia – Maynard went out with the notoriously private Salinger and published a superb Vanity Fair piece on their affair. In a documentary on the author Maynard recounts Salinger saying to her when they had a bust-up, ‘What are you doing here? You have spent your life writing meaningless garbage and now you mean to exploit me.’ To which I say, her meaningless garbage, validated by Salinger fully earns her a spotlight on my trash fiction chart. Take a bow, Maynard.
Critical Review – ‘The only positive thing I can say about Suzanne is that she adored her dog, which in my book, makes it impossible to truly despise her!’ – Lady, Goodreads.
- ‘The tone is right on target, cued to the rangy, slangy rhythms of modern life’ – Anne Tyler
The Cement Garden
Plot – the original in Misery lit.
Comments – What a wonderfully unsettling entry to the chart. Not enjoyable per-se, but certainly readable, McEwan’s debut novel still feels shocking, still feels dirty, still feels uncomfortably voyeuristic and still packs a punch. It features a family of six, scalped down to four with the death of the father and the mother in rapid succession. This mere slip of the novel (128 pages) is written simply, before McEwan became obsessed with opaque descriptions and obscure analogies. Instead he just writes neatly about the most unnatural sociological trap to befall four orphans. Over one hot hot summer, we have four children going off the grid, developing incestuous feelings and leaving their mother to putrefy in the basement.
And from there it’s evident we’re going down the sickly, sweaty garden path of misery lit. The term poverty porn rears its head as we watch the incestuous ties bind together with the children divorcing themselves properly from the glare of society. A makeshift family unit is created with the elder children becoming ‘parents’ to the younger children, but we, the reader know nothing about this unit is sustainable, so it’s no wonder the only outsider says at the shocking end of the novel, ‘You’re sick’! Unputdownable.
Extract – I locked myself in the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bath with my pants around my ankles. I thought of Julie’s [his sister] pale-brown fingers between Sue’s [his sister] legs as I bought myself to the quick, dry stab of pleasure.
Author Trivia – For his first four novel he’s gained the literary sobriquet, Ian Macabre. A friend argued this was an obvious fact, but I feel this epithet speaks for itself.
Critical Review – ‘From the first page, McEwan’s calm, exquisite sentences lead you into the secret and strange world of the post-war middle-class family, with its unique clash of make-do-and-mend and sexual revolution. Devastating information is relayed in short, cool-headed paragraphs, increasing the charged atmosphere of disorder and horror’ – Independent
Plot – trouble in paradise for 5 very rich bitches stick in the midst of a die-hard struggle to get off a murderous island before the ‘savages’ get ’em.
Comments – why is this ‘trash’ fiction? Lace, Conran’s masterpiece is very much a power-dressing working women & sex tome that is so scintillating it unfurls like a well-paced TV drama (which it later turned into). Perhaps though it’s Conran’s premise of a survivalist novel – in the style of Deliverance that seems wholly unbelievable when you make your core characters a bunch of ladies who lunch, that in the end reads so engaging. As detailed and descriptive as this book is (and believe me, it is – regular breaks are needed for this) it doesn’t feel totally realistic, but that’s not to say Conran’s writing in this novel doesn’t have some really vivid depictions of ‘paradise’, if some typos. And it’s pretty delicious, the original girl power team having to hide out and plan to leave this ‘savage’ island, when the weather is fortuitous and they have the chance to physically raft to a safe haven. For hundreds of pages we follow their successes trying to forage for food, avoid capture and make sure Guy, their Australian knight in shining armour helps them with an escape route. Oh, and because it’s Conran and she’s famed for her sex, a lesbian scene in to make sure these women have their urges sated.
Extract – He said, slowly, ‘I suppose you’ve got to know sometime. They’re practising cannibals. All the fishing villagers are.’
There was a shocked silence followed by a babble of horror.
‘You can’t be serious.’
‘I think I’m going to be sick!’
‘You’ve got to be kidding!’
Suzy gasped, ‘But when I wouldn’t swim into the cave, you told me to go to the next village!‘
‘You’d have died anyway,’ Jonathan said.
Author Trivia – Married to Terence Conran, Conran has been a name for years, even providing the offspring star of Debenhams, Jasper Conran. As Conran’s marriage hit the pits Conran, broke as anything dreamed of becoming a successful author. It all came true, although, interestingly, no longer does she talk to her son. Whether she’ll ever channel this family upset into a novel remains to be seen (her last book was in the 1990s). Blithe and straight-talking as ever Conran responded in an interview, when her son paid for her hospital visit, he doesn’t want to see me but he doesn’t want me dead ever. The lovely Conran gave me a signed copy of her work ‘The Revenge’ when I messaged to mention how impressed I was with her writing. For that, I’ll always be a fan.
Critical Review – ‘Full of authentic, often grisly detail . . . a first-class adventure story’ – Daily Express
– ‘ It’s probably the most awful book ever. I’m sure it’s fantastical, imperialist, racist, sexist, and embarrassing. It was also an awakening for me. As these “savages” made their way from rich, spoiled housewives to Lord of the Flies-worthy um naturalists, they also exposed me to my very first dose of HOT LESBIAN SEX.’ – Ruby, Goodreads
Plot – Bored, suburban housewife enterting the 70s sexual revolution from square one.
Comment – When a book starts by a woman awaking to a man, a stranger, masturbating in her front lawn it’s incredibly hard to predict how the book will go, although you know the children’s author is very much keen to try a new direction. There is very little in Wifey that seems profound and much that seems dated. The cash for trash revolution of the ‘90s, the Ashley Madison scandal and the lack of enthusiasm for marriage vs the rise in experimentation makes this a retro read about a different, more innocent time. As Blume uses a basic nuts and bolts style of writing, without artifice or pretention it reads as a nice breezy read into the complexity of marriage infidelity. Plus, I simply love Blume choosing to call our protagonist, Sandy’s husband Norman, as it’s so very close to normal. As the book sweeps the reader in there are some suitably entertaining French farce elements to some of the trysts (the ‘blue’ movie screening, which demonstrates the ‘wildness’ of the 70s; amid the ‘Golden Age of Porno’ is super fun) and makes this read far more as realism than some utopian version of the perfect, escapist affair.
I read this visiting a pal in Belgium by choosing an 8 hour mode to get there. How wise I was to pick up Blume’s novel. One of the biggest disasters was getting from the Calais to Dover section of the journey only to hear about the French strike. So picture the scene, 1am, no evidence that we’d be moving anytime soon. People are livid about this. I’m just furious the overhead lights didn’t work so I could continue my journey into Sandy’s journey for sexual enlightenment.
Extract – She moved into the seat behind Shep on the train, willing him to turn around. But he didn’t. He had longer hair now, brushing his shirt collar. She thought about touching the back of his neck. Remembered how he’d shivered when she’d kissed him there. Funny, she’d never kissed the back of Norman’s neck. Ten minutes later they pulled in Newark. Sandy had to change trains. She walked out past him. He was reading his paper and never looked up.
Author Trivia – I particularly admire Blume for writing the foreword to the latest edition as she admits a-la Kate Bush that she ‘went mad’ in this period, absconding to New Mexico (hard to know the UK equivalent of that state, I guess somewhere like Cumberland or somewhere more ‘rural’) and ate donuts for three months working out her direction as a writer (personally, I think this has huge potential to be a TV movie) whilst probably questioning her worth as a mum as well. Not only was I hugely impressed when Judy’s assistant send me mail, but I was most amused when she mentioned within the foreword that she got mail around the time the novel was first published, in the form of the poem.
‘You’re rude and crude
Depraved and lewd
You’re caught in a moral crunch
You’re vexed, perplexed
So when can we have lunch?’
For that reason, I choose Wifey, although, believe me, this was hard, Smart Women was just as trashy, and equally delicious.
Critical Review – ‘Wifey is very funny, particularly in its picture of affluent suburban life with its conformity – the Gone With the Wind staircases, the nose jobs and frosted hair.’ Time
– ‘The Jacqueline Susann of children’s fiction grows up.’ – People
Plot – Modernised retelling of Dorian’s pact with the Devil for the elixir of life.
Comments– My friend one day said to me, Giovanni, I’m going to read all the (Alan) Hollinghursts – especially as The Line of Beauty won the Booker Prize. I replied, having read Beauty and The Spell, plus 5% of The Stranger’s Child that this could be a potential pitfall. She ignored my advice and purchased The Swimming Pool Library which, to keep up with the Jones I read straight after. Whilst The Swimming Pool Library reads as a (homosexual) soft-core meets X-rated Mills and Boon novel (I apologise there was a lot in that sentence, but it was infinitely more easier to swallow than large swathes of Hollinghurst text), Self’s pretentious (thesaurus at the ready when reading) obsession with advanced and complicated/foreign words gives him the head in the competition to find the most linguistically sophisticated LGBT novel I’ve ever read. Correctly identifying the most prosaic of fan-fiction, Dorian on the one hand gives us an enormous sense of satisfaction, a ‘remake’ or reinterpretation that is both feasible and readable. Especially because we all knew Wilde, a prisoner of birth was so stunted by smoke and mirrors and only had the opportunity to allude to ultimate, unforgiveable, forbidden sin, whereas this book use the liberated, moneyed London society of the 1980s to make sure we were treated to the very excess so lauded with that time.
So, what has changed in Self’s interpretation of Dorian. Well, an instillation replaces the eternal portrait for one thing, and opium goes out the window for the full drugs cache that has come with modernity. Finally, instead of the soul being immolated, why not the body? If illicit sex kills, why not make that the ultimate evil Dorian harbours. I begrudge Self huge credit for this novel because he is so very unlikeable in his other literary endeavours, however here he has made a book that stands alone as a wonderful, illicit tale of corruption and sin. Also, Self wins the honour for the best remake/sequel/or interpretation – and I read both Gone with the Wind sequels.
Extract – Dorian stood in the doorway, swivel-hipped, blank-faced, floppy-fringed. Wooton fell silent, feeling new eyes upon him. The two older men turned to regard this Adonis and in their heated appraisal and Dorian’s cool appraisal and their more fervid reappraisal of this and his more frigid reappraisal of that was the most exacting and timeless of triangulations: Baz would always love Dorian, Wooton would never love Dorian but would want him consistently and Dorian would betray Baz and would never love anyone at all.
Author Trivia – His brother is the successful author Jonathan Self. That’s literally all I’ve got for Self.
Critical Review – ‘A book which filled its first reviewers with ‘the odour of moral and spiritual putrefaction’ just got smellier, darker and funnier.’ – Guardian