Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Book Review: 'The Art of Failing: Notes from the Underdog' by Anthony McGowan

Review by David Wineberg

For every silver lining – a cloud

You’d never know if from The Art of Failing, but Anthony McGowan has a pretty good life. Income from (mainly children’s) books in numerous languages, loving wife and two kids, lots of speaking engagements and free days. But he sees the downside to pretty much all of it and more. Every little thing smacks of failure, disappointment or sad reflection on himself. No small detail is too insignificant to be depressing. I think they coined the word downer after him. This is a man who describes sunshine as desolate. British understatement is not one his foibles. To describe himself, he pictures a void, shrugging.

He takes failure in his stride, as in this description of the aftermath of the annual publisher’s Christmas party: 

The day after, my publicists will email me a list of the people I have to apologize to, along with a dry-cleaning bill and, not uncommonly, a comment too cryptic for me to decipher –‘The elephant with the white ears – it’s a no-no’; ‘she isn’t a lesbian’; ‘you realize he was in the SAS and could have cracked your skull like a walnut?’ and so on. 

The book is a sort of diary, covering one year of failings, pointlessly divided into seasons. The entries are generally less than a page, making them highly structured and easily digestible. His descriptions tend to the scatological and ghoulish, as in a department store in Leeds: “The place was full of Yorkshire money: orange ladies, large men with tiny faces like anuses compressed into the middle of their huge, buttock heads.” A simple snack? “… a typical British croissant, assembled from flakes of psoriasis, held together with lard, and inflated with some kind of methane-like gas.“

A children’s book writer and school lecturer who swears like a sailor and adds smut wherever possible. McGowan’s as close to a Python character as one could reasonably fear. There’s no stereotyping Anthony McGowan.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.