Lucy and Todd

Latest News, & Reviews of The Five Simple Machines

In Reviews of Our Books on May 4, 2013 at 7:19 am

Todd’s next book, How Not to be American, will be published by Aurum Press in the Autumn, 2013:

‘Union Books, an imprint of the Aurum Publishing Group, has signed up a non-fiction title from novelist Todd McEwen.

How Not to be American: Misadventures in the Land of the Free is described as an examination of what America has become that will “annoy and delight”.

‘Editorial director Rosalind Porter bought world rights to the title from Derek Johns at AP Watt at United Agents.

‘Porter said: “Born in California, but longtime resident of Edinburgh, America still drives Todd crazy, though he has the perspective—and the vocabulary—to be both scathingly satirical and surprisingly affectionate about his beloved homeland.”

‘The book will be published in autumn 2013, in time for Thanksgiving.’

(Joshua Farrington, Bookseller, July 23, 2013)

***

Nicholas Lezard’s Book of the Week in the Guardian!

Craig Raine on the radio last week came up with a phrase that captured nicely the common English reaction to a novel that is not rigidly conventional. “Why, that novel isn’t even wearing a suit!” (He was talking apropos Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Well, this novel isn’t wearing a suit. Actually, it’s not even a novel: it is six separate narratives, and they are certainly not wearing suits. They are, figuratively speaking, wearing loud Hawaiian shirts and holding improbably large cocktails and being incredibly indiscreet – and making you laugh until you wonder whether you can take much more.

By which I do not mean that there is anything tacky about them: the prose is tight, even when it looks colloquially sloppy. Todd McEwen can get you to laugh, simply by the quick spin he puts on someone’s turn of phrase. Here is one narrator describing how he introduced two senior clergymen to each other at a convention: “And this, I said, is Bishop Staunton. We’ve met, said my uncle, strangely, and they sneered at each other.” You may not find that in and of itself hilarious, but here’s the context: an ex‑girlfriend of the narrator’s, whom we already know to be a little odd, had left him 10 years earlier for this Bishop Staunton chap, on account of his having (a) the largest known collection of gnostic literature on the eastern seaboard of the US (“but how large does it have to be, I said, to be the largest known etc”), and (b) an improbably enormous penis (“proportionately as knobful ivory and stiff as the Staunton chess piece of the same name”).

Or how about something more conventionally, if that is the word, funny? On people in the BDSM “scene”: “There’s an entire race of people out there with dungeons in their garages. They publish very bad magazines about this – they are called Fake Dungeons Monthly and Stupid Looking Dungeons and Slobs in Rubber.”

So, the stories in this book about reminiscences of sex: relationships that went bad, or were ridiculous, or were mismatches – there’s one about a marriage that seems to be working, yet is still radically unsatisfactory.

The titles are “six so-called mechanical powers – the lever, wedge, wheel and axle, pulley, screw and inclined plane”. The explanation for the confusion arising from the six mentioned here and the big red “5” on the front cover comes in an italicised form under the chapter headed “Wedge”: “It is well known that, strictly speaking, the wedge is only an application of the inclined plane. But.” And then we’re off: a story in which the girlfriend wears wedge shoes, her car looks like a wedge, and there are wedges driven between the characters.

McEwen is not afraid to alert us to any possible metaphorical or secondary applications of the terms he uses. You should see what he does with “Screw”. No, really, you should: McEwen knows what he is doing – this is his fifth novel, and I recommend the others, too. I gave a brief thumbs-up to McX: A Romance of the Dour 15 years or so ago, but this is much more chatty, fluid, and, once you accustom yourself to its varying rhythms, hilarious.

This is a rare kind of humour: it is not only a matter of verbal deftness – a word, or a comma, popping up unexpectedly – but of intelligence, lightly applied. Says a narrator admiring his girlfriend’s autumn outfit: “Wow, I thought, who has not seen thee oft amid thy store?” – which is sweet and charming to boot. Another character, whose girlfriend works in Wall Street and doesn’t understand her job (this one’s set in the 1980s, I’d say), chats up a different woman in a bar: “he listened to her describe her job and realised she didn’t understand it.” These stories manage to be unflaggingly funny, yet never wearisome: the tonal control is complete. And the deeper message is that laughter is a cure. I have the best job in the world because I can tell thousands of you at the same time about this book, instead of having to tell everyone individually.

(Nicholas Lezard, Guardian, April 2, 2013)

© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

******

The Herald

This beautifully produced little book is about sex.

It is not about sex in a way that puts it at any risk of being nominated for the ludicrous Bad Sex Award that acknowledges the clumsiness of some novelists when they feel the need to join their characters between the sheets. Nor is it anything to do with the sort of erotic fantasy that made 50 Shades Of Grey a Kindle hit. In fact, it takes time to ridicule people who find diversion in the paraphernalia of manacles, whips and chains and have fake dungeons in their garage instead of a car and a lawnmower.

Doubtless such folk would retort that McEwen’s way with sex is “vanilla”, but more of us might regard it as adult, realistic and recognisable (even when it is dealing with the juvenilia of real life) – and remark that vanilla is surely the gold standard for ice-cream. As much, if not rather more, to the point is that it is beautifully written and extremely funny. The conceit of these six narratives of sexual relationships is that they are titled after the six simple machines that demonstrate mechanical power – the lever, the wheel, the screw, the wedge, the pulley and the inclined plane. The discrepancy the more numerate reader will have picked up on between the title and the number of tales is explained (sort of) by the debatable distinction between the wedge and the inclined plane as a mechanical device. McEwen may not be 100% serious about this, but he is fastidious about the extended metaphor of the book.

Pulley begins with the words: “Got to raise something heavy here.” By which time we are well in on the joke, as well as the ones about the actress and bishop and the narrator hoist by his own petard. Screw does not eschew the obvious, but it is also a stream of consciousness that embraces being screwed up and being screwed, in every sense, as well as the manufacture of the actual objects for fixings. Wedge clads the object of its affection in appropriate footwear even as it documents the dividing agents being forced into the relationship. Wheel proves highly informative about the mechanisms of early merry-go-rounds. The opening tale, Lever, plunges straight in, examining the physical and mental tumescence of a narrator fascinated by his own apparatus, and the very mechanics of fornication.

Perhaps that makes McEwen’s writing sound cold, when it is anything but. There is a palpable affection for his characters, even when they are plainly misguided, obsessive or barking (up the wrong tree). Names are important, and sometimes particularly in their absence (“girlfriend”) or their masking of a true identity. It is never just the description of carnal activity that is explicit – the appetite for self-deception can be every bit as seductive as the appetite for sex.

It is tempting to draw conclusions about the author’s own self-awareness in some of the clarity of the analysis in all this, but there is no hard evidence for that, really. I fancy, nonetheless, that there is more than an element of autobiography in the closing meditation on “inclination”.

Elsewhere, the voices of the stories and the sharp, concise portraits of the characters are as much of a delight and McEwen, as readers of any of his work will know, has a remarkable gift for the startlingly original and yet instantly comprehensible descriptive phrase. I have been squirrelling away some of these phrases for future use. I hope to use them to impress women. You’ll have guessed why.

(Keith Bruce, Herald, May 4, 2013)

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