Thursday, 26 May 2016

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Currently re-reading...

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll

Currently reading...

Friday, 6 May 2016

Camera Killer by Thomas Glavinic

Awaiting review...

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Indiana, Indiana by Laird Hunt

I want you to promise me you
won't believe a word I just said.
I was wondering the other day how it was I became aware of Laird Hunt, this former UN Press Officer with the discomfiting habit of subverting the familiar. In literature as in life I am always amazed at the fine filagreed networks that connect random events and protagonists. Tracing back, not an easy task given my trend towards nostalgic diversions and an inability to concentrate, it seems Laird Hunt came via Percival Everett, who penned the introduction to my copy of The Impossibly, who followed from Ralph Ellison (in my timeline but perhaps also indirectly in a literary sense), in whom I became interested after reading Chester Himes, an author brought to my attention by a sales rep for Canongate, whose crime classics series I'd stumbled across by virtue of the unexpected presence of the word 'custard' in a Charles Willeford novel, Willeford having crossed my path previously in the form of Miami Blues, one of the litany of crime novels I read (and amazingly remember) during my teens when I'd exhausted the stock of Piers Anthony and Terry Pratchett novels at Milford Haven Library.

That's twenty-five years in the making. I fucking love the flow of intertextuality!

Regardless of how I got here, after reading one I was sorely tempted to go out and hoard every single Hunt novel I could, an urge to which only the high price (but exquisite quality) of the not-for-profit publishers Coffee House Press editions put a stop. But clearly not for long.

And so along came Indiana, Indiana, which is a disarmingly simple novel told in such a fashion as to leave you speechless. 'My thoughts were so loud I couldn't hear my mouth,' wrote Modest Mouse in The World at Large, and thus it went for me. Noah (cue thoughts of arks and safe harbour from the tempest) is old, and alone except for cats and a man called Max, and the ghost of his father. In fact, perhaps ghost is the wrong word, but in the absence of a better description it will do. For Noah is a man with gifts, or maybe a broken mind incapable of discerning truth from reality, and in this context the drama of his life is replayed across the pages. This nebulous and unnerving device should render what is presented as deeply unreliable, as Hunt strives to take what is familiar and render it surprising, twisting the traditional experiences of seeing and hearing and reading and squeezing out a different kind of beautiful truth. But in fact, what happens, in a manner which I trust will not ruin the surprises of the slow reveal, is that the reader immediately accepts that Noah's visions are the truth, are what he remembers and what did happen, from the burning down of the house he shared with his common law wife, to the discarded responsibilities of his postal route, the slow creeping death of his father and his experiences of love and loss, stretched out in silent eternity between the pinioning anchors of the letters he received and re-reads, perhaps only with his mind's eyes, from his wife in her asylum isolation. But even as Noah's blissful sanctuary was ripped from him by the forces of madness and a community wary of their shared oddness, Noah is able to retreat into his own ark, away from the cold waters of loneliness, insulated by his collections of letters and pictures, with his masks and cats and a jug of homemade wine, as he sits by the crackling fire in his shed and drifts along on the meandering currents of memory and forgetting. And it is stunningly done. There are tiny moments of appalling beauty in the writing, and they build up into an elegy of one man's existence in a small community in the centre of Indiana, in the heart of the country.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Making Of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon

Now everything mattered less, 
but also more.
Forgiveness please for the ongoing tardiness of my updates. This is due in part to an ongoing proofing commitment (which is proving diverting) and also because I'm all turned around by Laird Hunt's Indiana, Indiana, of which more anon.

I'm an advocate, a fan, of Aleksandar Hemon. His Chicago-based Liverpool Football Club affinity aside, his writing, even short stories (or perhaps especially short stories) has always filled me with wonder and excitement and pathos and joy. There is a hard-earned, droll, dry stoicism even as he delivers tales of the horror of the Balkans war. But in trying to cultivate that drollness into a full-blown comic novel I wonder if he's not overreached. 

Joshua 'Jacky' Levin (wait, I'm having Jacky flashbacks) is a struggling screenwriter and uncommitted teacher of English-As-A-Foreign-Language in Chicago. His ideas fill digital note books as evidenced by their liberal seasoning of the novel in attempts to shoe-horn in more absurd levity, but the only one that his peers in the screenwriting group consider to have merit is the titular Zombie Wars, a highly derivative post-apocalyptic zombie screenplay, a scene from which prefaces each chapter (or perhaps serves as an epigraph to the previous chapter–I couldn't decide, or didn't care to try, in most instances). His network consists of the aforementioned and particularly unsupportive screenwriters, his collapsing familia diaspora, his landlord who appears to suffer from PTSD of a peculiar sort, his cold and mysterious (and irritatingly Japanese) girlfriend, and the rogues gallery that is his mostly Eastern Bloc teaching cohort. Throughout, Joshua appears to court divine intervention with random exhortations, makes odd remarks about his grand parents who survived internment in the camps, and seems, generally, only Jewish as an afterthought. Heavy (and heavy-going) use is made of not very entertaining repeating tropes and the oft-repeated ideas seem laboured. 

To balance this unfavourable-sounding experience, there are some excellent moments, echoing the Pulitzer-Prize winning character Dick Macalister from Love and Other Obstacles, usually centred on the charismatic yet brutally practical Bega, a fellow writer (although we never hear or see any evidence of this other than his presence at the writing group) and Bosnian immigrant who serves as a catalyst for some of the more brutal action, particularly when involved in the desperately self-destructive rage of the cuckolded Bosnian husband of Joshua's antagonistic love interest, sultry student Ana. Crazy landlord Stagger does add some genuine comic relief with his repressed homoerotic behaviour, almost permanent state of undress and willingness to wield a samurai sword over which he has only the very basic control, and there is pathos to spare in the implied lives of Ana and her daughter, the casual indifference to animal cruelty when offset against the atrocity of wartime experience, and in the willingness of any given human animal to mortgage his or her future against what appears in retrospect to be temporary gains in general happiness. In that respect it is intensely thought-provoking. However, it fails somewhere along the line, and the humour, which could have been underplayed and understated, interrupts such thoughts, rudely in places. Maybe I mean to say it is gratuitous, somehow. And the ending, wherein the screenplay becomes prose and the family meal at Passover becomes the screenplay, well, I could draw inferences but at that point I was kind-of glad it was over.


However, (a big however, get it?) there is absolutely nothing in this book that would ever put me off reading everything Hemon writes in the future. This is not Yellow Dog by Martin Amis, the novel that stopped me caring about Martin Amis. This is a stretched but still accomplished novel which I will give time to settle and re-read, to ensure that a man to whom a Genius Grant was given hasn't just written way over my head. And of course, he kills you right at the end. In Joshua's cinematic vision, humans have found a sanctuary, a prison whose walls and gates have stopped, temporarily, the advancing hordes of the undead. Major K and Jack, two characters from the screenplay, look down over the dishevelled and dispirited masses of humanity in the prison yard.
"It was a beautiful, big dream. Big enough for all of us," Jack went on. Before could say anything else, somewhere below, somewhere in the silent human crowd below, a cell phone rang. First once, and then it rang again. The silence between the rings was crushing.
"Pick it up!" someone cried, but nothing happened. The sea of zombies slowly funnelled towards the entrance to the prison. The first wave to reach the closed gate simply stopped. They didn't really know what to do, so they just stood there, uneasy, rumbling with hunger.


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Embassytown by China Miéville

The stone that was split and put
together again.
Forgive me, dear readers, for opening yet again with a craven apology, but I am hamstrung with admiration for this book, tongue-tied by its completeness, and ill-equipped to do it justice. First the history. Searching for a book the buying of which would calm some forlorn disquiet brewing in me, I took my son to The Cowbridge Bookshop (don't bother with its website, the domain licence has lapsed, but do patronise) and chanced upon Embassytown. The owner talked at length about The Scar and The City & The City (funny, because purchasing Peridodo Street Station recently from Goliath Books–I mean Waterstones in town the bookseller made the same pitch) while my son was gentle molested by two overly aggressive terrier-crosses, and I walked out marginally less disquieted but also anxious to get stuck in. True to form it was three or four books later before it bubbled to the surface of my to-be-read pool. 

I'd always assumed Miéville was sci-fi. Or horror. Covers hinted at both, at neither, at something other, and measuring the bulk of Peridido in hours of my life spent I'd found other, shorter versions of temporary happiness in which to indulge. Then I bought The City... for a short road trip on the e-reading device, and was sold on his brand of New Weird. I quickly found it's not fantasy, or sci-fi, or horror, it's all of that and more, it's Carlton Mellick gore and H. P. Lovecraft odd and Philip Kerr noir. In Embassytown, Miéville adds Saussurean semiotics and mixes in all the political intrigue of a Roman senate meeting. It is glorious.

So, our narrator is Avice Benner Cho who is recapping her experiences of life in Embassytown, what amounts to a symbiotic city within another city, "a star within a circle", on the remotest possible planet in the federation or political alliance of what is known as Bremen. Now, this planet is not so far from it all in reality, in Euclidian terms, but in terms of the immer, the sea that flows underneath or behind or through all that is corporeal in this dimension, a permanent, ubiquitous but nonetheless terrifyingly dangerous un-place through which travel of immeasurable speed is possible by specifically selected and trained immersers, of which Avice is one, it is the edge of existence. The planet is inhabited by insect like hosts, the Ariekene, aliens with incredible ability to manufacture living flesh for any purpose imaginable, and who speak Language (deliberate capitalisation), a mode of communication that is devoid of ambiguity, despite being able to create similes with which to express new ideas, and speaks one soul directly to other souls, for want of a better metaphor. It is something perhaps like the word of God, impossible to understand and difficult to translate or approximate, the task of which falls to Ambassadors, two people who, through technology and serendipity, are able to speak the dual streams of sounds and words in a way which approaches communication. I told you I lacked the words to express this stuff.

Anyway, shit happens, something terrible, conceptually, through which the understanding of political intrigue from afar creeps, and suddenly the humans are a threat, a cancer to be cured. Facing annihilation, the only way to save themselves and their murderous Hosts is for Avice, herself a simile in Language (it gets explained, just go with it), to find a new way to communicate, which is impossible.

If this was Miéville's final book, I'd be happy to say he's finished what he set out to do, that this was the pinnacle of his achievements. It's damned awesome, one of those you race through to find out what happens and then despair because you've finished. He's tweaked English to become a far-future hybrid Anglo-Ubiq, proposed a new way to measure time as standard across worlds with differing diurnal cycles, and in the immer there is untapped potential for future exploration. The lives of Embassytowners are so vividly imagined you can see it when you close your eyes, biorigged buildings, altered wildlife, cloven-hoofed alien cockroaches eight feet tall, it's all a genuinely complete and satisfying novel. For a few moments at the start I grant you, I feared the effort of coming to terms with its new lexicon, but no detail is left to chance, and anything you don't immediately understand becomes clear as you read on. It's simply excellent. Those allergic to far-future space novels can be excused, but anyone else with an interest in language, its expression and evolution, or politics, or adventure, or terror, or reading for pleasure again, would be well advised to add this to your TBR pile. Plus, it scores innumerable geek points for obliquely referencing George A. Romero.