Friday, 19 June 2009

Too Good to be True



Gah, I agonised over whether to write this or not. But I was encouraged to by the subject himself, so here goes.

I mentioned the other day that I'd been reading - and enjoying - Bete de Jour; Intimate Adventures of an Ugly Man. I've been following the blog for ages, and this is the most engaging blog-turned-book I've read. He reveals details he only hinted at online, and I was dying to know the truth. The writing, as on the blog, is a delight. He's erudite, ascerbic, funny. He has a turn of phrase to love (for the entertainment) and hate (because you're jealous).

The blog is called Bete de Jour. The blogger uses the name Stan Cattermole, and claims to have a face like a bag of elbows. Having suffered all his life from the label "ugly" - not least at the hands of his parents - on the eve of his 30th birthday he made a decision. He was fat and flat-bound, had never experienced a loving relationship and was determined to put things right. So he started a blog, and to a large extent it worked. It brought him sex, recognition, friends, confidence and a book deal. The book itself is a moving, self-aware, honest account of the whole experience.

But... there's a problem. It's been doing my head in, and here it is: I don't believe Stan Cattermole exists.

At first I was too battered by emotion to think critically, but as soon as I did the doubts appeared. His parents, spectacularly inhuman bastards who never even smile at him, are two of the most two-dimensional characters I've seen in fiction, never mind real life. Of course there are hideous child-abusing monsters who ruin their own children's lives... but they're complex human beings, full of contradiction and confusion. Not these two. They get drunk, throw plates, watch sport and jump from one cliché to the next. And then... well, I won't spoil the book. But it has an everything's-all-right finale which is really hard to believe, on so many levels it's like a giant Scooby Doo sandwich, with layer upon layer of saccharine, cliché and poorly-researched lie.

There are many other less-than-believable aspects of the book. The neat narrative arc of the year he chose to blog. The fact that he moved from book deal to review copy in less than six months. The online sex encounter which, although hilarious and brilliantly written, has been done before, in similar shape, by online comedians. The porn-film rape which reads like an urban myth. The modern classical concert enhanced by a fire alarm, which is an urban myth. The way he lost his virginity.

The details of his family were apparently too raw to be blogged. But he describes how he wished his online readers would tease it out of him, craving their friendship and support. I emailed him after reading that part of the book - telling how, when I read the hints on his blog, I didn't push for more out of respect for his privacy. If only I'd known! I would have been there for him!

But as soon as I started doubting, the whole thing felt wrong. And the author is anonymous, so none of it is verifiable. Yes, he has a real-life friend with a blog of his own, but who's to say either of them exist?

I wasn't sure whether to write this review, because I might be wrong - in which case it could appear downright mean. And because... for a long time I believed in him. I had my doubts when he first published the porn-film encounter on his blog, but I pushed them to the back of my mind because I loved the idea of the tragic man with the massive heart. And the wit, and the intellect, and the great writing ability.

Does it matter? If it's not real, hasn't he just written a great novel? Didn't I enjoy reading it, and isn't that the point? Well, maybe. Sadly as a novelist he's got great writing style, but the plot... is a bag full of elbow-shaped clichés. And as a blog-reader who offered support and advice, I feel daft. Gullible. Cheated.

But for all its flaws, it's a great book and he is - in some senses at least - a brilliant writer. I hope Bete de Jour does well, and I hope this review - if it has any effect at all - will encourage more people to read it. As long as Stan refuses to confirm anything, the whole thing becomes a deliciously post-modern game: Read the blog, read the book, and decide for yourself if it's real.

16 comments:

La Bête said...

Hey, BS. Thanks for the review. Wrong or not, I don't think you're mean and I thank you for your time, and I especially thank you for labelling me 'a deliciously post-modern game'. That's lovely. Now I'm off to get myself ready for a date. I hope she's real!

x

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Happy to please!

I hope she's real, too. In which case I definitely hope you're real, because I'd imagine dates with fictional characters are rather unsatisfying. ;)

Anonymous said...

It's utterly unimportant.

La Bête said...

Not to me.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

@Anonymous: It makes a big difference to how most people would read the book / what impact it would have on them. And there are several readers of Bete's blog, who believe his story is real and give advice / support / general interaction accordingly, who would disagree with you. What you really mean is that it's utterly unimportant to you, which could probably be said - by someone, somewhere - about any issue on the planet.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

I've been whiling away the time thinking of possible alternative scenarios to Stan being the person he says he is with the story he claims to have...

1. He's someone who really does have unfortunate facial features, wanted to write about it, but didn't believe his own (possibly relatively mundane) back story was enough, so invented a more "interesting" one.

2. He's one of they internet fantasists. There's plenty of them about.

3. He's a writer who came up with an innovative idea for plugging /packaging his latest work.

4. He's a cynical bastard who thought this would be a good way of getting women into bed. This one, horrible though it is, comes from the suspicion that a lot of what Stan writes about is indeed true - for instance meeting women via the blog - which then begs the question, how much of the truth does he tell them? And also has the extra intriguing element that, if he wasn't ugly at all, which Morag has apparently hinted at... they would still think he believed he was, and put it down to poor self esteem created by abusive parents. But then I'm not at all sure that Morag or Sally exists...

Somebody suggested to me that the published IM conversations with Morag were too believable to be fiction. But they could be from a real relationship between several different possible pairings, one of whom may or may not be the writer. Or they could be fiction. That's what novelists do, you know. They make stuff up. And when they're good at it, it's believable. And, dare I say it, some writers are great at dialogue but crap at plot.

I think about things way too much.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

By the way, there are people visiting this blog from both the North East and the area Keith is currently supposed to be living (at times that coincide with comments and other useful info my stats software gives me), so there are probably some elements of truth in there.

Just call me Beleaguered Squirrel, Internet Detective.

notkeith said...

Man! Actually, I'm inclined to think I don't exist as I've attempted to post a comment on this here blog LOADS of times and they always just vanish into the ether. I'm like Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense. I'm a ghost!

Have you seen the Sixth Sense? If not, I hope I haven't spoilt it for you.

B said...

I'm in the north east and a novel racer, not anything to do with this story. just in case that explains it....

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Oh Keith, now I'm intrigued! I promise I had nothing to do with your comments vanishing into the ether. There's no pre-moderation on this blog, and anyway I'm positively eager to read / let others read anything you have to say.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

B: Hang on, let me check the stats...

No, you come up separately. I have good reason to believe the other North-Eastian is indeed Bete. Then again, I'm no hacker and don't know if such things are forgeable - in the same way as you can hack the "from" address on an email.

B said...

ooooh... interesting! also, i like your new home :)

Larry Teabag said...

"Stan Cattermole" killed Lady Di.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

B, haha, there's something rather satisfying about being tracked down.

Larry, I knew it! He killed Michael Jackson too, didn't he? And Farrah Fawcett. Although I hear MJ was actually killed by God, who was granting Farrah her first wish, on arrival in heaven: She asked that all children in the world be safe. ;)

Niki M said...

Good post - it made me want to read the book and blog. I didn't believe the internet sex story you linked to, or the porn rape, not at all. I suspect strongly, on the basis of these two piece of writing and other things you comment on, that there are definite elements of the book that are fictionalised, or at least exaggerated. That doesn't mean the overall gist of the story isn't true, though.

Personally, I've never been that bothered about these things and was shocked about the fuss over James Frey's book - tho I do understand what you mean about blogging, and loyal supporters. I've always took the line that writers of fiction are professional liars anyway, so who really gets hurt if they take the lie a little more. And aren't readers just after a good story? I know it doesn't work this way for a lot of people, though, who feel cheated if they find out a story they thought was true turns out not to be.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

"The overall gist of the story"... the problem is that the least believable part for me was the family stuff, which I'm assuming was completely made up, but is a major part of the story. It also might explain why Stan is a (self-confessed) snob, which he excuses on the basis that he is from the same background as the people he sneers at. This I doubt very much indeed, as his portrayal of this supposed family life doesn't ring even slightly true, but was clearly written by a snob... and there's nothing in his accent or demeanour that even hints at the origins he claims as his own.

"writers of fiction are professional liars anyway" which is fine when you're reading fiction.

I see what you're saying about the good story, and indeed I enjoyed reading the book. But it's very hard to read anything in total isolation from context, and when you think you know the writer and have "met" him and conversed with him on the very topic he's writing about, it affects the way you read it. When you later suspect a large part of the context was in fact a scam, it's a bit annoying. Like watching the news and being shocked at some terrible disaster across the world, only to be told the following day that it was a slow news day so they invented a tragedy purely for your entertainment.