Archive for December, 2011

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Our December book was chosen as a bit of an experiment; partly because it was one of the books that Claire, the NWN supremo, raved about this year and partly because it has had such an intriguing journey to publication (I know, the story of a book’s publication is a bit of a niche interest but bear with me…). Tony and Susan was first published in 1993; written by an elderly academic, based in Cincinnati, who subsequently died in 2003. Well received but never a bestseller in it’s time, the book teetered on the brink of obscurity until earlier this year the mighty Atlantic books chose to reissue it. Now, this is a pretty big deal in publishing- not many books are randomly reissued in hardback- and so begs the questions, why? Is it really, as Atlantic claim, “the most astounding lost masterpiece of American fiction since Revolutionary Road”? Or should it have been left to die the rightful death of the forgotten paperback? These are the questions I had for the intrepid Sunderland book group for our Christmas meeting…

Well, it turned out that I managed to hit on the most un-festive book imaginable for December; as we all agreed, this was easily the strangest, most intensely menacing and (in places) terrifyingly violent book we’ve read all year. However, it managed to provoke the most interesting and intense discussion we’ve ever had; in fact we were so absorbed that an hour and a half flew by and we could have easily filled the same time over again.

So what did we talk about? Yikes- way too much to go into in too much detail (would become THE LONGEST BLOG IN HISTORY). The two stories, the book within the book, why choose that structure, was one story stronger than the other, was it all a dream/ hallucination? What did it tell us about reading and the relationship between reader/story or reader/writer? What was so unsettling about the book? Was it the weirdest book ever written? Were we convinced by “Nocturnal Animals” and was the writing meant to be good or rubbish? What was the significance of Edward not coming to see Susan at the end? Why??? Much of the chat centered around the “message” that we thought Edward was trying to give Susan by writing the book- it turned out a lot of us spent much of the book trying to figure it out in the same way Susan did and all expected the message to be revealed at the end of the novel. Was it all about abandonment? Was it about weakness? Was Tony morally culpable for the crimes? Was “Tony” Edward’s fictional version of Susan? I ventured my pet theory that perhaps there was NO message at all, and the point (if a book has a point) is that the reader makes connections to themselves and “sees” personal significance where there is none intended. In short, the reader “writes” the book themselves: the book was about Susan rather than anyone else.

But that too is just another idea and the utter joy of this truly bizarre book is there is no way you can come to a conclusion. We maybe didn’t LOVE this book (too odd to be straightforwardly lovable) we were utterly intrigued and beguiled by it. A super book group and unanimous agreement that this was certainly worth the reissue. Massive thumbs up to Atlantic from us.

About the group

Sunderland Book Group meets on the third Wednesday of every month at 6pm at Holmeside Coffee in Sunderland.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

December 2011