J is for James and Julian

Number 10 in The A to Z of the Writer’s Affliction, part of the A to Z blogging challenge.

Actually, I’m not going to talk about Julian. The only reason he’s there is because (i) today’s letter is J and (ii) when I was asked to name my favourite authors on Book Country, Julian Barnes was one of them. But there’s nothing much of interest I can say – it’s there in his books, from Flaubert’s Parrot to The Sense of an Ending. I haven’t read them all, but it’s good just to know they’re out there. A few more treats in store.

James, though – there’s a bit to say about him. Actually, there are two of them, as different from each other as camembert from Kraft. But which is the real deal? I’m talking, of course, about Patterson and Joyce. So here’s a question: which James featured in my list of favourite authors?

Yep, you got it. Patterson. Here’s a sentence from UlyssesA many comely nymphs drew nigh to starboard and to larboard and, clinging to the sides of the noble bark, they linked their shining forms as doth the cunning wheelwright when he fashions about the heart of his wheel the equidistant rays whereof each one is sister to another and he binds them all with an outer ring and giveth speed to the feet of men whenas they ride to a hosting or contend for the smile of ladies fair.  And here’s one from Zoo: There was blood on the walls.

Now I finished Zoo in four days. On my last attempt to read Ulysses, I got as far as page 191, a personal best. I have high hopes of bettering that at my next go, which will be the seventh. The previous attempts, I’ve realized, were ill-prepared. I thought I could do it on my own, but without a backup team to monitor your progress, step in whenever you show signs of flagging, you’re unlikely to get far. A good physiotherapist, a motivational coach and some intensive training in high altitude reading are essential. I’ve already started the preparations and my next assault on the greatest novel of the 20th century is planned for May 2017. Wish me luck!

There’s a certain amount of snootiness about Patterson. It’s true that a couple of months after reading one of his novels, I can’t remember what it was about (except that someone got killed and someone else was very nasty), but that’s beside the point. Ulysses is a ten-course meal, with each chapter prepared by a different chef. You might get past Heston Blumenthal’s fish eyeball cocktail, but you could be struggling by the time you get to Paul Hollywood’s Lamb and Kidney Suet Pudding. No such problem with Patterson. It’s a single mouthful of Cadbury’s Almond Whirl. Munch, swallow, lick your lips and it’s gone.

The reason I go back to Patterson every so often is to remind me: this is what entertainment is about. As a writer, I’ve learnt as much from him as from anyone in the Penguin Modern Classics. I don’t try to imitate him – I’ve found that if I do, my characters strongly protest – but he’s there as a model of what the perfect Almond Whirl should be. Which is why I was particularly pleased when one of my beta readers for Perfume Island said, ‘You’ve got the James Patterson cliffhanger chapter endings, but your characters are so much more developed and interesting.’ To me there could be no better compliment than that.