A Fucked-Up Life in Books is not, as you might guess from the title, your typical work of literary criticism. Well, not unless I’ve missed all the references to gussets full of jizz in the works of Frank Kermode. If book-blogging has allowed a whole new range of voices to join the literary debate, then BookCunt has been one of the more successful in terms of crafting a unique style, and finding a readership for it. In this book, a series of entries linking events from the author’s past with thoughts on what she was reading at the time, the author eschews debates about post-colonialism, Marxist readings and so on in favour of a more ebullient ‘fucking fantastic’. So, borrowing the author’s own terminology, A Fucked-Up Life in Books is fucking funny, fucking sad and fucking frustrating.
Although the author is anonymous, we are given plenty of details about her past. She grew up in a boring rural town, in moderately comfortable circumstances. Both parents work, and probably there isn’t a lot of money, but there’s a good-sized garden for her and her brother to play in, and they don’t seem to go short (as far as we are told). Emotionally though, there are big problems; BookCunt’s mother is portrayed as an unreliable, self-serving and manipulative fantasist, who walked out on her children, leaving them to be bought up by her father, who is painted with much more affection but comes across as a slightly weak figure. As BookCunt grows up, her mother will become an intermittent feature in her life, causing maximum disruption with every appearance. In between these appearances, BookCunt goes through major surgery, drops out of university and has a variety of bizarre run-ins with friends and acquaintances.
Each of the stories BookCunt picks is retold with reference to whatever she happened to be reading at the time. We can chart her development as a reader from the early years, in which the childhood trauma of overhearing her mother discussing her plans to leave is linked in her mind with the Goosebumps series of children’s horror stories by RL Stine, to her teenage dalliance with dice-living and her more recent encounters with the likes of Primo Levi – although she despises genre snobbery, and retains a love of fantasy. Obviously, though, you aren’t really reading this to get her thoughts on the books – what you get from the chapter on ‘Wizard’s First Rule’ is ‘have you ever had sex with a fat boy? Let me tell you about it’, with the book itself relegated to the final paragraph, receiving the verdict ‘fucking fantastic’. There are a few insights though: BookCunt gets approached by strange men wanting to discuss her choice of reading material whether it’s a physical copy of Isaac Asimov or Game of Thrones on the kindle, and reading Lolita on the megabus can still get you marked down as a dangerous pervert.
It’s easy to see why Bookcunt’s blog has attracted a following. She has a way with an anecdote, most notably the story of a trip to Tangiers which ends with the young Cunt telling her mother ‘you are not selling me for forty camels to this man. You don’t need any camels. Where would you keep them?’ She is also capable of writing more seriously about the seedy side of life, the way that sexual abuse can be covered up in small communities without sounding shallow or glib. Introduced to the father of her mum’s new boyfriend, she is groped; her mother excuses this action first by telling her ‘he’s a very lonely old man… we have to cheer him up’, and later by saying ‘you’re not allowed to speak ill of the dead’.
She writes affectionately about fathers, describing a time when her own dad hid Flight of Dragons for her to find, saying it must have got there by magic, and the process of warming to a boyfriend’s father after reading his diary, which she found behind a bookshelf. In this section, nominally labelled The Periodic Table, reading the diary makes the man come alive for her, with his passions and foibles laid bare: ‘it made him more human to me, and it made me love him’. Maybe the section incorporating Beowulf, Memoirs of a Geisha and Dragon’s Gold, which cover the period when BookCunt meets and falls in love with The Boyfriend, is where her innocent enthusiasm shines through most clearly: ‘He didn’t call me a cunt for believing the things I did. He just smiled and let me be myself’. This makes the ending more shocking.
The problem with A Fucked-Up Life in Books is that there doesn’t seem to have been much thought put into the transition from blog to book. The structure is basic (Childhood and School / Teenage Years and University / A Proper Grown-Up), and the sections tend to clock in at 1,000 – 1,500 words – blog length. This results in a narrative that lacks depth at times – anecdote gold is rushed over, and her mother’s departure is given about as much space as a piece on overhearing a friend of a friend’s phone conversation on a bus. Overall, it feels more like reading a blog archive than a book, which is a shame. BookCunt has the ability to turn her life-story into something more than a misery memoir or ‘Girl with a One Track Mind’ style bonkbuster, but she isn’t really tested here – more editorial input, or more time, could have allowed her to develop her style to fit a more satisfying narrative. Also, it’s a bit square, but I would have liked to hear a bit more about the books: refreshing as it is to read a section on Caitlin Moran which doesn’t exactly get bogged down in arguments about intersectionality, I would quite like to know what she thought of How To Be A Woman.
The final sections, dealing with the death of an ex-boyfriend and the healing power of great bookshops, books, and people who love books, are mature and affecting, and there’s clearly a talented writer behind these entries. It’s just a shame she hasn’t taken the opportunity to showcase this ability further.
Any Cop?: Yes – BookCunt is an engaging writer, and the story has tragedy, farce and anything else you might be looking for. But does it give you anything new if you’re already a fan of the blog? That’s debatable.