Thursday, 9 April 2015

Orfeo by Richard Powers

Currently reading...

Last Night On Earth by Kevin Maher

Didn't arrive in time, so it's next after Orfeo...

Monday, 6 April 2015

Day by A. L. Kennedy

Worra int'restin' book, like.
Alas, here I go with another apologetic opening line. I've had a signed copy of this book on my shelves since Alison Kennedy attended a book signing in Cardiff way back in April 2007, and have studiously ignored it since. Sorry. I'm sorry because A.L. Kennedy is a brave and interesting person. Not only has she had the pleasure of my company for a beer or two (hence brave), she is also a stand-up comedian* and a successful essayist. She has won prizes and awards**, and was smashing to talk with, albeit briefly. But the truth should be known - I dislike novels that dwell on the world wars, and was terribly afraid that I would hate this book and thus sound like an arse. 

The background to this, only partly understood and therefore difficult to explain, is that the particular emphasis on Britishness that seems to be the fall back position for writers, both novelists and screenwriters, makes me spectacularly uncomfortable. For some reason on which I don't have a handle, I squirm at the sound of British accents. That chinless upper-class BBC plumminess, those thick regional dialects and phoney-sounding despite being ostensibly authentic patois, turn me right off. Odd, given I'm usually quite good at understanding accents - after all I didn't need subtitles to watch The Wire and Irvine Welsh is no real challenge for me to whizz through. I admit, I worked at losing my terribly parochial Pembrokeshire accent, and have a frustrating tendency to mimic the accents of those to whom I speak. But back to war novels, and it's irritating that all I can think of when I read those jolly chappies talking of giving Fritz a good spanking is David Niven. Now I don't mind Niven, but it turns every situation into a wry BBC comedy in my brain.

To the detriment of what is otherwise a very tight and claustrophobic novel, when I hear Alfred Day talk to himself or to others, or use the oddly intrusive second person narrative style, all I think about is Ozzy Osbourne. Considering the book tugs at the fraying fabric of a severely damaged young man, his childhood experiences and the trauma of war and imprisonment combining to add a patina of sweaty insanity to the well wrought and considered prose, this might not be inappropriate, but then I can't help but imagine Alfred Day has ashtrays sown onto his knees and buries booze in the back yard so his wife won't find out he's drinking again. That doesn't help. However, from that aspect, Kennedy's perceptive ear for and bravery in representing a Staffordshire accent (yeah, I know Ozzy isn't a Staffordshire boy, but Black Country isn't far off) must have been successful. In moments of stress and anxiety, the well-read and self-educated Day slips back into his thick tongue, especially when reprimanding himself in the italic passages throughout. In fact, the prose skips about a little between first, second and third person, and although easy to follow, muddles things a little, as though finding the view from inside Day's head too suffocating Kennedy has to let some air in. It works and it doesn't, but it contributes to the feeling that our protagonist is only an evil look away from killing someone (someone else that is). 

What I do like, and find interesting, is Kennedy's perceptive portrayal of Day as an outsider. His childhood was dominated by his abusive father, making his early years a struggle to find his own identity, which he believes he finds as the tail gunner of an RAF bomber crew. But this comes at the cost of his involvement in war, and almost inevitably, the camaraderie he finds as part of a team, his nickname is Little Boss among the crew, is shattered when almost at the end of his tour of thirty missions his Lancaster is shot down and everyone but him dies. He finds solace in the company of a holy fool he finds in the German POW camp, Ringer (a character about whom I felt not enough was disclosed), but his death on the long walk home after their release shatters him anew. At all times, his search for connection, for belonging, and failure thereof, is driving spikes into his heart. His dalliance with a married woman, Joyce, whose husband is presumed MIA, is almost fatal, her presence (and absence) pressing those spikes further into him. He chooses to hide himself from others in the pretence that this will save him from future harm, and therein lies madness. 

A word on the ladies represented. There are but two - Alfred's mother and his lady friend - and they are treated quite lightly, never really progressing beyond an archetype. Joyce's hidden depths are hinted at, gently, but she seems to exist as a device first and foremost, for some less-than-gentle ribbing from his crew and as the potential salvation he seeks towards the end. His mother barely gets a mention, except as his drunken father's punching bag and representing the tactile memories of his brief moments of childhood happiness. Maybe that's fitting, maybe it's an oversight, it's hard to know. Of course, written as it is from Day's perspective, maybe this is how he sees women and therefore carries verisimilitude. 

Whatever its flaws, Day is an interesting and challenging read, one I can't believe*** I've put off for so long. Enjoyment is probably too strong a word, but I did want to read on and see where it went. It is successful in terms of the frank portrayal of war for an RAF crew, very believable in that respect, and is harrowing in parts, particularly the infamous Operation Gomorrah raid on Hamburg. Day is pitiable, understandable, if not likeable, and his time on the set of the POW film is an interesting way to illustrate his loss of connection with the world and his sad realisation that he thought he needed the war to fill a hole in himself. Of course, I felt most affinity with the irascible bookshop owner, Ivor... Just saying. Don't let me put you off making your own mind up about this one - it's definitely worth a read.

* I don't remember where society stands on the use of the feminine noun comedienne so won't attempt it for fear of looking the fool.

** Including the Costa Book of the Year award for this very novel.

*** Not true - it's fairly chuffing typical.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Sabbatical by John Barth


"The first-person-duple voice of 
a well-coupled couple."
You may have heard me mention Barth in other posts as an author for whom I have all the time in the world, but time which needs to be apportioned and plotted across the linear path of my intertextual voyage, much like the course a sailor might plot as he or she or they sailed across his beloved Chesapeake Bay. His novels are course markers, between two of which I might meander or make other stops as whimsy dictates. They are also a delight, a challenge, a reproach, an encouragement, a revelation. Whilst there are other literary ports for me in times of foul weather, Barth stands as my lighthouse to guard and guide.

Okay, sailing metaphors be damned, and on with the story. Sabbatical, subtitled A Romance, engenders so many Ah! and Oh! moments, both revelatory and astonishing, and (as the Washington Post notes on the cover) visceral and bloody, that I think I won't be able to do it justice in a review. I remarked to a colleague, half in jest and half in a fit of pique at his lip-curling, eye-narrowing, nostril-flaring critique of Will Self's debut novel as, "clever but for his own amusement, not mine," that if he thought that was clever, he should read the passage of this novel where the triple narrator (both Fenwick and Susan, of whom more shortly, have distinct authorial voices but also combine to create Narrator, a separate entity and the one ostensibly pushing the pen), introduces an example of Vietnamese oral poetry couplets with strict tone and syllable constraints but, in this particular instance, referencing directly and indirectly both the poet's relationship with Susan's twin-sister, her relationship with Susan her sister, and her sons, and her sister Susan's husband Fenwick, and her sister's Susan's husband Fenwick's family, and her mother, and sailing, and life, and counter intelligence, and narrative, in fact with everything the book talks about obliquely and obviously, in such a feat of microcosmic summation that it literally blows my cognitive functions and makes me turn out sentences of breathless paragraph-lengths. He blinked his eyes and damned all such literature as onanistic and self-indulgent*. In retrospect, Barth might be a tad selfish, but he does it in a manner which comes cross as playful, even when dealing with subjects as potentially calamitous as vacuum aspiration (of twins no less). He notes devices and tropes in his own / his narrator's writing, telling then showing (and showing-off) such devices and tropes as weather to indicate or confuse characters' actions and moods. He plays with language like no-one else of whom I know, compounding his own nouns when fun dictates, verbing-up other nouns when suitable existing ones won't encapsulate the meaning as succinctly as he would like; he removes punctuation where deemed superfluous, particularly around reported speech, and some of his descriptive passages and phrases** come from an artist's view of things that I very much wish I could possess or, if not, emulate successfully. But of course, as with everything, it's not perfect; I mean, what kind of monster uses so many footnotes?!***

To recount the story, a little, for those who enjoy a narrative arc in their executive summaries; recently retired C.I.A. officer and fifty-something divorcee Fenwick Scott Key Turner, absolutely descended from author of The Star Spangled Banner, to whom many references abound, and his second wife of seven years, the younger at thirty five, and scholarly American Literature professor, Susan Rachel Allan Seckler, potentially descended from Edgar Allan Poe, to whom many, many references abound also, have just about finished a sabbatical sailing tour of the Caribbean and are headed back to home to face many questions about their joint or several futures after failing to find out any more about the mysterious disappearances of his twin brother and C.I.A. maverick Manfred, and Manfred's own son, with Fenn's wife's mother, Gus, half-brother to both Susan and her twin sister and victim of repeated acts of atrocity, Miriam. And that's about as simply as I can put it. I wonder if the subtitle of the novel relates to the Byronic influence of action and nomenclature surrounding 'Count' Manfred, hinted at and directly referenced within, particularly in relationship to Fenn's first wife, the sibling-courted Marilyn Marsh, who – spoiler alert! – crops up late on as a C.I.A. operative herself. Oh, also the first couple mentioned there, Suse and Fenn, appear to be co-authoring a novel about their time at sea and their lives on land, which, in essence, is this novel. 

Postmodern eh?

Fear not! For all its complexity it is still a joyful and surprising novel, witty and erudite, challenging and rewarding, and for the lover of sailing, replete with nautical thingameejigs and whassnames. If you've never tried Barth before, this might be the gateway novel to a future of reading pleasure.


* A nearly true story!
** Off the top of my head, one description of massing storm clouds made me squeal like a child with his hand in a tub of maggots - "...that sky over there has put on its green and black rampage dress."
*** An over-used and tiresome device to prove not only that the writer is cleverer than the reader but also that there was hard work involved, such as would require the noting of research to prove all that is said is so.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Odd Corners by William Hjortsberg


Blah blah blah short stories...
Something about William Hjortsberg chimes with me on a level I'm not really sure how to define. We share a few interesting commonalities - a deep and abiding appreciation of Richard Brautigan, a distaste for the generously applied literary tags of publishers and critics, a difficult surname to spell - but it is his writing that murmurs warm and comfortingly in my mind and makes it a delight to spend an afternoon deeply immersed therein. I regret offering up Nevermore and Fallen Angel to the indifferent charity shop shoppers without defending their literary honour, and so in my new found library-lite state of being I am definitely keeping this little collection, and will jealously guard it against the constraints of future living arrangements. 

For those who do like pigeon-holes with their reading, one might throw this one into science-fiction. For indeed, just as Hjortsberg proffers in his own introduction, the stories utilise aspects of future technology to deliver their morals and prop up narrative arcs. And yes, the sharp-eyed vultures amongst you, waiting for me to witter on about my general lack of love for short stories, might also have deduced that this is a collection of such. And yet, Hjortsberg also points out that it wasn't until he began ignoring what others thought he should and shouldn't write that he began to write in his own voice, developing an authentic Hjortsbergian voice, one which, when reflecting on his work, I realise demurs delightfully to the characters and action of the story, rarely if ever intruding. 

Let us quickly round up the action for those who enjoy plot synopses and such. There are only four stories in the collection, two short, one very short, and one longer piece itself split into five stages. The first, Symbiography portrays a society addicted to entertainment via vicarious experience, mainly through purchased dreamscapes but also the burgeoning market for first-person sensory immersion. A capitalist dystopia, citizens exist in walled cities whilst those competing for life outside regress to the state of nomadic tribes, primitive and fractious. Homecoming is the short story of the seeders of life in the universe, ambiguous beings of light who travel the universe knowing all that is to be known and balancing galactic karma. The Clone Who Ran For Congress is an hubristic tale of human cloning, initially to satisfy sporting audiences hungry for further athletic achievement, but leading towards a future where hive minded human replicas can manipulate mankind to fulfil their own hidden agendas. And in Grey Matter, all humanity resides in a pre-Matrix disembodied dream world, literal brains in jars, where the goal is elevation to the top level of existence through diligent meditation and ultimately enlightenment, only the three brains we follow have other ideas, proving mankind still has the potential for hate, rage, solipsistic hedonism, regardless of how much of the physical form is removed by the logic of Occam's Razor.

There is a general trend towards dystopia, a vision of the future as a battleground between humanity and technology whether humanity realises it or not, and a frustrated sense of the wasted potential of our species. But, remarkably for a man who has "committed science fiction", the technology is just another device to explore the drama of the human, its battles and struggles, the void left by diminishing usefulness and lack of purpose, and the temptations of hubris. I genuinely wish he'd commit more of the same, and far more regularly. If you don't have time to wade through the weighty Jubilee Hitchhiker to get a sense of Hjortsberg's breadth of talent go for this instead, and don't let his crimes against literature put you off.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Case of the General's Thumb by Andrey Kurkov

Sausage, vodka, and a tortoise...
I could have sworn I’d read this book before; the title, the cover illustration, the date of publication (right in the middle of one of my customary author flurries) all sing out familiarly, but I can recall none of the details. This is not as unusual as it sounds. In my youth I spent many days with a creeping feeling I’d read what I was reading before, especially the 82nd Precinct novels of Ed McBain, as I was grateful recipient of the generous and occasionally forgetful book-sourcing of my lovely librarian mother. I must have re-read the first six or so Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett, and the Xanth series by Piers Anthony, maybe upwards of five times, and without complaint.

However, having now potentially re-read this novel, I can see why I may have forgotten it previously. When compared to Death and the Penguin, which is ultimately the first point of reference for anything that Kurkov writes given its pathos, poignancy and wit, this is rather turgid. Not that it’s hard to read, slow or uninteresting – far from it, as it races along with its dual storyline towards a predictable narrative convergence – but rather it suffers from being the charming yet inoffensive relative to something more interesting. The titular thumb, almost forgotten by the time it re-emerges, plays only a tiny part, unconvincingly too – would you as a diligent bank clerk, even to investors of extreme wealth, accept a dismembered thumb as proof of identity for the withdrawal of $4 billion? – and honestly, I lost track of the various players in the mystery quite frequently, mistaking one for another in the two time lines and generally being a little less than gruntled. Perhaps this is a particularly niche novel, one whose humour, direct and obvious jokes at the expense of the formerly Soviet bureaucracy aside, is lost on the product of a WASP-ish liberal up-bringing, but even so there weren’t that many instances where I thought I detected the attempt. It’s unlikely that a novel where 50% of the protagonists hurl frozen fish over the wall of a stately home is meant to be a serious satire, so I'll just have to admit I don’t get the humour. However, it didn’t stop me reading to the end.

So in conclusion, a disappointed review about a disappointing novel. I guess I’ll have to file this under Difficult Fourth Novel and not worry about it. In truth it won’t bother me, and is unlikely to bother anyone else. I don’t regret having read it, only that it doesn’t do justice to the writer that brought us penguin Misha.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Player One by Douglas Coupland


Douglas Coupland and the
Fog of Literary Ennui.
I would be very happy if I loved Douglas Coupland the way fans of Douglas Coupland love him. To be honest, I would also be happy if I hated him with the passion shown by his detractors. Is he majestically brilliant, insightful  capable of spotting and naming cultural trends before we're even aware of them, or is he a loathsome carbuncle on the face of an already sceptic society? Seriously, both of these I found on Good Reads and Amazon reviews of his books. In truth, whilst reading his novels I find them engaging, witty in places, insightful and somewhat acerbic, but as I close the pages, the feelings fade, like a headache slowly lifting. When I think back to his novels which I've read, I realise there have been a surprising amount: Generation X, Generation A, JPod, Miss Wyoming, Girlfriend in a Coma, All Families are Psychotic. I wonder why I keep reading more when I can barely remember any of them. Is it the narcissist in me preening in front of the glossy covers of a completely consumed backlist - look how culturally attuned I am, and how avant guard, and how impossibly well-read! Yah, that sounds plausible. Possibly the most recent was Generation A, and there was something about bees. I remember thinking it borrowed from Viktor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror in so far as there were multiple points of view and they all - did they? - slowly merge. I couldn't tell you what the others were about, although I could posit a passable synopsis. Something about modern culture, something about the commonalities and differences of human kind, something about cultural entropy, and so on. 

As I listened to Damon Albarn talk about the potential for pop music to endure instead of being disposable, it struck me that perhaps Coupland's books are anti-pop literature, anti-pop culture, and as popular trends fade in popularity, then so do the trends in antithesis. That would be harsh on Coupland, given the rather archetypal issues that his characters experience, archetypes that endure - loss of faith, religious fervour, lack of identity, emotional detachment, the seeking of connections, addictions, the careless hurts of family life, the atavism of humans freed of societal strictures - but it might be one of the reasons I didn't connect with this one, and haven't maintained much of a connection with any of his novels. They may have been seminal, they might have broken ground, but ground broken is ground broken; you do it once and then what?

Maybe that's it. Maybe it's a case of 'What now?' for Coupland and me. Maybe he doesn't go far enough - despite the interesting and handy but superfluous Future Legend he provides at the back for humans who survive the coming oil apocalypse - and like all things that don't fulfil promise, the connection just withers, fades, and dies.