21 Apr Cut Up on Copacabana – David Scott – Book Review
Cut Up on Copacabana – David Scott – Book Review
This review was originally presented in speech form at the book’s launch in Dublin, May 2018
It’s a great honour to be asked to speak about this book, which, like its author, is exceptional. I mean both David and his book are exceptional in the sense of brilliant—but also in the sense of very strange.
The text announces its weirdness from the outset, opening with a series of different dialogues, in which several different and conflicting explanations for the same set of scars on the protagonist’s chest are offered. There is no narrator, the reader is left to chase truth themselves. These playful verbal back and forths immediately call to mind the good-natured dominance contest of sparring in the ring. David’s sophisticated relationship with the sweet science of boxing is present explicitly and implicitly throughout this book.
Next the reader is treated to a series of short poems displaying different perspectives on the same scene, Mount Fuji. The presentation of different viewpoints here is not the fatuous and pretentious subjectivity of postmodern nihilism. David does not present a denial of objective reality—but instead a wise rumination on how external reality can be refracted through the prism of subjectivity. He shows us how we can benefit from seeing things through the eyes of others—but also how we can be misled if we allow ourselves.
I’m not known as an advocate of intersectionality, but the intersection of the academic analysis of literature and creative writing can be of great value, particularly when the practitioner is as distinguished as David. And although that is evident throughout this book, there is a remarkable clarity here—David never occludes meaning, even if he does make you chase it. He is never obtuse or obfuscatory—perhaps the prototypical depredation of literary and academic imposter alike.
The rigour and discipline of both academia and boxing is echoed also in the systematised organisation of the book—the short vignettes like 3 minute rounds in a bout, the boundaries neatly marked, each small segment squared off with chapter headings like the ropes around a ring. Structuring books in short episodes has become suddenly fashionable of late—probably due to the decimation of our collective attention spans that came with the ubiquity of social media. Short poems, parables, vignettes, and anecdotes, are more easily processed by those who, like myself, have succumbed to Zuckerberg induced brain-rot. But David is no follower, he developed this style not reactively through his use of technology. Indeed in every facet of his life he is dedicated to thoughtfully and consciously using technology, rather than passively allowing technology use him. This is expressed in his ring-name and alter-ego of Dynamo Dave, which references his passion for cycling, and appropriately a device which generates power sustainably.
Dave’s interest in sustainability is more about endurance than eco-hipsterism, sustainability not in some faddish sense, but in the sense of intelligent pragmatism. In an earlier book, Dynamo Island, Dave laid out his manifesto for an entire society structured according to his personal philosophy. His velocipedal Arcadia makes an appearance again here, with a dedicated chapter of this book, another moment in which this text is nonchalantly defiant of the limits of genre. This imagined island society may seem whimsically utopian, but of course in real life Dave has managed to actually create such a utopia on a personal level—living volitionally, according to his principles, pursuing his interests. That is no mean feat. The glimpses we are given into this in the boxing chapters in particular could almost serve as a more subtle form of self-help book—encouraging bravery, fortitude, resilience, playfulness, and courtesy.
Indeed, while dominant narratives in the media and academia are now determined to reduce descriptions of masculinity to a binary of either “fragile” or “toxic”, David presents a complex, nuanced, and defiantly non-stereotypical masculinity that is sublimely unafraid to honour intensely unfashionable masculine characteristics: strength, perseverance, discipline, determination, while simultaneously unashamedly—or perhaps shamelessly—expressing less traditionally masculine characteristics like timidity, vulnerability, uncertainty, and curiosity—not to mention unflattering sexual escapades, which is brave in itself. To write honestly about sex is to invite ridicule—on this I can speak from experience.
When asked to sum up Joyce’s aesthetic, a friend explained he had a picture of Cork City on the wall of his study, and the frame was made out of cork-wood. David similarly matches content to structure. There is the same concern with precision, control, discipline, even offence and defence in this text as David brings to both his academic and pugilistic pursuits. The prose is Spartan—by which I don’t mean plain or unadorned. The vivid descriptive passages about getting lost in Bangkok, for example, are far from “sparsely furnished” as most people now use Spartan to mean. By Spartan prose I mean precise, purposeful, confident—and most of all systematised and efficient.
What I find most refreshing about this book is its unpretentious curiosity—the very opposite of the contrived cynicism that seems a compulsory posture for writers to strike these days. There is no cynicism here, David’s enthusiasm for life is at once childlike and wise. This is epitomised in anecdote from his youth when on the first night of a holiday with his grandmother he was allocated “an enormous double-room in the Grosvenor Hotel”. He writes “I felt I had to do justice to the space by sleeping alternately in the two giant double-beds and using as often as possible the giant en-suite bathroom”. I guarantee that if he was put in the same situation today, David would alternate between those double-beds.
This is both because he has retained the best element of boyhood, and because he is obsessive about order and completeness. This sort of benevolent OCD is apparent in the cleanness of his prose—and his office—but also his assiduous annotation, another transfer from his academic writing that creates some surprisingly comic moments in this book, such as the list he supplies of the fellow passengers on the aforementioned tour, which includes: “two spinster sisters from Newcastle, a very loud woman, a married couple from the North with a pronounced Yorkshire accent, a dutiful bachelor with Brylcreemed hair, three girls all pretty from Norwich, London and Canada respectively, a fat lady, a pair of pensioners from Australia, and a rather sharp young couple.”
This topic of travel is the final important theme. David can well be described as an explorer in many domains, not just geographical. Relating in broad terms the experience of being in an unfamiliar foreign country, David at one point advises that tourists should “be attentive to the meaning of signs.” He goes on to explain this doesn’t just mean neon nightclub advertisements, but also strange words, or even body language. It is this constant, dedicated, and optimistic search for meaning in so many dimensions: language, texts, art, music, sport—and his joyous quest for meaning in life itself—which makes this book, and David himself, so very inspirational.