Greg Stekelman is a writer and illustrator. He was born in 1975 and lives where he has always lived, in north London. He is best known for his website The Man Who Fell Asleep. His tube gossip, a weekly catalogue of things overheard on the London Underground, is printed each week in Time Out London. In 2006 his first novel, A Year in the Life of TheManWhoFellAsleep, was published. A fantastical, surreal, introspective mock diary, it received a warm critical reception. Greg writes, below, about the struggle to come up with books that have made the most impression on him.
Greg Stekelman on the difficulty of naming important books
Surveying the lists of books in Norm's Writer's Choice series I found myself breaking into a sweat. My god! People have chosen important books. Political books. Classics. All those books that I'm supposed to have read but never got round to. And these people are proper celebrities too! They've been on Newsnight and The Culture Show. I felt a pressing urge to raise my game, or at the very least buy a new pair of glasses. After all, I write as a man with a collection of 25 Charlie Brown books (total cost: £4 from a charity shop).
I have spent the last few days thinking about the books that have made the most impression on me, and it's been a struggle. To find a book that really changed my life, that made me dream and swoon and obsess, I have to go back about 25 years to before my adolescence. And that made me think about books and the role of literature. Over the last 20 years, I've read hundreds of books, and some of them have thrilled me, some of them have stimulated me intellectually and some of them have sent me to sleep. But not one single one has really stayed in my memory as a whole; unlike the books I read when I was 11 or 12. As I pursued my quest to find a novel that was both grown-up and important to me, I realized just how little impact most books have had on me. There have been a few books that have left me in a spin for a couple of days (The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, Money by Martin Amis, American Tabloid by James Ellroy, Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut), but if someone actually asked me to summarize those books, I'd have to shrug and say that I don't really remember most of the details. There have been many parts of books that have had an impact on me: lines or passages or chapters or scenes, but very few novels as a whole have stayed with me. And here's the key point: if you asked me to name the central character in most of the books I've read as an adult, I couldn't do it.
Maybe protagonists aren't important in adult books. Maybe the story as a whole is more vital than any specific character. Maybe it is style, or themes, or language that gets a book praised and lauded and featured on The South Bank Show. But for me, language or style was never enough to make me love a book. Heroes are what made me love a book. Heroes are what get children obsessed and queuing outside Borders at midnight, dressed as goblins or aliens. And adult fiction rarely deals in heroes; it generally deals with flawed individuals inhabiting flawed worlds. Every single detective novel I've read in the last 10 years has featured a dysfunctional, self-loathing sleuth.
When I read books as a child, I would desperately wish to be the central character, to have special powers, to be unique, magical, to be a hero. As an adult, I read adult books with a sense of detachment, involved in the plot but never really committing to the central protagonist. I observe them with one eye only, never sure if they are credible or merely ciphers. I suspect that writers of adult fiction see protagonists less as heroes and more as messengers, as symbols of struggle and decay. I doubt Will Self worries about killing his central characters as much as J.K. Rowling does.
So much serious literature has washed over me, leaving shrugs and weak smiles and tempered admiration. Last month I read Erasure by Percival Everett, which was an enjoyable enough read, but I couldn't tell you the protagonist's name - and yet I can still vividly remember Will Stanton, the central character of a series of fantasy books written by Susan Cooper that I read in the 1980s.
I still have a copy of The Dark is Rising, the best book in the series (and soon to be a major motion picture), which I probably read about 50 times over the course of my adolescence - the pages are falling out and the cover has shrivelled like a salted slug but I can't get rid of it. I sought refuge in that book for many years. On my 11th birthday I woke up excitedly hoping that I had acquired magical powers, just as Will did on his 11th birthday in the opening chapters of The Dark is Rising. I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised to find that by the end of the day I still had no superhuman powers. Despite this set-back, I continued to read and re-read the books, along with Ursula le Guin, Alan Garner and more, before weaning myself on to Marvel comics and then eventually, in my late teens, abandoning fantasy for proper, adult literature. I was at university by this stage, where there is no room for wizards, only cheap beer and indie nights.
The Dark is Rising books aren't that remarkable as literature. They are well-crafted, well-written, but essentially generic, borrowing from Arthurian legend, C.S. Lewis and a host of other fantasy writers. They are excellent books for dreaming, unsettled 11-year-olds but I suspect I'd find it difficult to read them nowadays. And there's the problem: the teenage me wants a hero who will whisk me away to a faraway land where men are men and women are women and elves are elves, but the adult me finds himself reading books where troubled individuals wander through grey, anonymous cities, lost, confused, banal and angry - something that reflects life as I now know it. So I'm stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, half-heartedly saying goodbye to heroes, but unable or unwilling to truly embrace the world of serious literature.
That's not to say that I don't enjoy reading proper books. I do. I can re-read For Esme, with Love and Squalor over and over again. I love James Ellroy and think Irvine Welsh captures male self-loathing brilliantly. I enjoy the playfulness of Borges and the alienation of Kafka. I loved Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and am enjoying working my way through Murakami. But none of these novels makes me feel as thrilled and excited and totally transported as the books I read as a kid. I suppose that's the price of growing up: a compromised world where heroes are replaced by symbols and metaphor.