Thursday, October 12, 2017
The Art of Failing: Notes from the Underdog by Anthony McGowan
The Art of Failing is a humorous glance into daily life in West Hampstead, London, with the author, Anthony McGowan. Structured as a diary and organized by season, there are daily-ish entries outlining something humorous/bizarre/unexpected that happened to the author that day, or at least a noteworthy observation. Sometimes it's a mundane activity where the author has an awkward encounter, other times it's something monumental. It's the author's employment of sarcastic and neurotic internal monologue mixed with his dry wit that makes The Art of Failing highly entertaining to read.
In one entry, dated September 6th, the author is working on a writing project in a reading room of the British Library. Possible titles for his new book are "The Constituents of Glass, The Deaf and Dumb Sex Machine, Handlebar, Nigel's Adventures in Nymphland" so you can tell he's got the beginnings of a winning story. The library has a strict no-food policy, but McGowan sneaks a banana in with him for a snack. He talks about his banana-neutral feelings up until that point, but it became a symbol of the progress he was making in his writing, even if that progress was just coming up with more book titles. It was a well-deserved break, and he now relished that banana. He also relished the act of writing on the banana with a ballpoint pen, because of how the pressure allows the pen to sink into the peel in a satisfying way.
On this particular day, he was in the reading room as normal when he felt an oncoming sneeze. In a hurry to empty his pockets, to locate his handkerchief, he absentmindedly set the banana on the table near to the man seated beside him, working. Just as he located the handkerchief, his urge to sneeze subsided. The man next to McGowan gave him a strange look, "an extreme wariness bordering on hostility", and that's when the author looked down at the banana on the table between them. That day, he had written "I love you" on its peel, because that piece of fruit had become a central figure in his daily work life. However, the stranger beside him assumed that the message on the banana was for him, and reacted as you might react if a strange man put a "banana love bomb" in your general direction. At this embarrassment, McGowan packed up his things and resolved to work in a different reading room for the foreseeable future.
Other entries involve encounters with possible-transsexuals at paint counters, musing on quantum physics via holey socks, and reading student reviews of his teaching courses. There's a lot of diversity in the topics that he selects, so it never feels like you're reading about the same things over and over and over. The strength of this book is its language; it's really the way that the author selects and employs his phrasing that makes the writing so good.
The narration has a strong neurotic and self-conscious vein, putting the author in good company with the characters on the TV show Seinfeld. That was known as the "Show About Nothing", and I would argue that The Art of Failing could be a "Book About Nothing". Further, McGowan's plentiful dry humor lends itself to close comparisons to David Sedaris' writing. In particular, Sedaris' most recent book, Theft By Finding, was a collection of his diary entries for I suspect that, like Sedaris, the work would be lifted to a whole new level by listening it in audio...if it's narrated by the author. There's something about humor authors that just enhance the whole experience, like taking a giggle to a belly-laugh.
Overall, I really enjoyed spending time with Anthony McGowan and his West Hampstead escapades and awkward encounters. His humor and self-consciousness play well within each story, and his wide variety of story topics keep the reading experience fresh. Because many of the diary entries are a full page or less in length, it's an easy book to pick up and put down at will. In fact, it would be great to keep by your bedside to read before nodding off to sleep, or when waking up. If you're a fan of the author David Sedaris, the TV show Seinfeld, or just humorous outlooks on life in general, you should check out The Art of Failing by Anthony McGowan.