Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Sabbatical by John Barth

Currently reading...

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 hungry sporting audiences 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. 

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before you start, read this disclaimer:

Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I don’t tolerate you very well, despite counting myself amongst you. It’s nothing personal (about you – it’s very personal to me), and I believe it’s Neil’s own fault for being such a very good writer. Please read on through the fan-bashing to the bit about the book. Thank you.


An ocean in a bucket.
Neil Gaiman is an annoyance to me. I really (REALLY) liked American Gods but found that as soon as I mentioned this fact to anyone, I got one of two responses: nose-turned-up snobbery of the most scornful sort, or sickeningly gushing über-fanaticism, if that isn’t tautological. I don’t know which is worse. The snobs I can dismiss as most will be operating within the conceit that Gaiman is fantasy and therefore unworthy of further study or consideration – they are very unlikely to have ready anything by the author. The fans, though, start dribbling on and on about the time they met him in Bath Waterstone’s or how much better he is than the Latin American magic realists, or how his The Books of Magic comic book series (of course, they would confer upon them specious mythic value by using the disingenuous term graphic novels) pre-date the Harry Potter novels and you can clearly see the influence yaddah yaddah*. Regardless of which is most irksome, it has meant that when I do read Gaiman novels or kids’ books (mostly to my son it must be said – he loves The Wolves In The Walls) I do so in secret and would not normally tell anyone.

Clearly, that would not add particular value to a blog about books**. So, when I chanced upon this one languishing on the shelves of a Tenovus shop on Clifton Street, I thought I might be able to spare 99p to rescue it and give it an afternoon’s perusal with a view to a review***. And to be honest, an afternoon was all it lasted. Not in any very bad way (although perhaps I felt aggrieved that it was actually quite a short book), but rather in one of those “I’ve made a cup of tea to drink while reading which went stone cold because I didn’t look up again till the book was finished” kind-of ways.

If I were to put this into the context of his literary oeuvre it might not merit a very high comparative score out of ten, given I really (REALLY) like American Gods which would, for me, score the highest. However, on its own in the Young Adult crossover genre, it would probably blow the covers off the competition. I don’t want to give it all away with plot spoilers, but in essence, a man returns to the neighbourhood of his childhood home (which no longer exists) and relives some magical goings-on which he had forgotten about from when he was only a young boy, in the process revealing the forgotten minor but character-shaping traumas of childhood, the deep-seated longings and dashed dreams of all adult children. As with all his novels, the language is deceptively simple, toying with big ideas in the subtext, and haunted with grief and the bitter-sweet agony of a youth lost to the fog of memory. Yes, there’s magic in there, and yes, it’s all a little bit much for the true suspension of disbelief, but it is certainly a most engaging narrative. I pondered on the prevalence of Gaiman fans after I finished, and wondered if his books are pitched deliberately just on the YA side of adult so as to tap into the child in us all and thus come close enough to the common denominator (without touching) that his appeal is as broad as it can be, given the constraints on the genre. It might be so (hence the gut-churning reluctance to be accepted into fan club), but it might also be that he has tapped into something ubiquitous and universal, something to which I’m not able to put a name as yet, with filigreed tendrils in us all. Those who reject their touch are nature’s anti-bodies. Those who accept are hosts to something magical.


*Okay, so it’s clear the fans annoy me more. Of course, I don’t want to upset the simpering idiots so I hope they don’t know how to use footnotes.
**Other than to provide a handy hook upon which to hang a review, which is most useful.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Headmaster's Wife by T. C. Greene

Way to make me feel like an arse.
I bought this on the recommendation of someone whose opinion I respect if not always agree with, and also as it was an Amazon daily deal I felt that 99p or whatever it cost was not too much to risk. I have become a little narrow in the field of what I choose to read and welcomed the digression offered. Subsequently, I feel a little hoodwinked. 

T.C. Greene’s previous book, Mirror Lake is one of those books that, as a former bookseller, I knew was there, would expect it to be propping up the centre of a table of multi-buy contemporary fiction, but had absolutely no desire to read whatsoever. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I disagree, given the time and effort spent by designers and publishers to ensure that any given book looks as similar as possible to the best-seller in any given genre. Mirror Lake enjoyed my ignorant prejudice for a good many months for this very reason. Of course, until I’d bought The Headmaster’s Wife I had no idea that the two Greenes were one and the same. To be fair, therefore, I went into the reading experience with a significant chip on the shoulder and a petulant unwillingness to be even-handed. However, this isn’t why I’m grumpy and feel conned. No, instead it’s because the author, after having penned this rather dull, predictable and irrelevant story about the headmaster of a Vermont public school and his wife (no enigma in the title), where the characters are lifeless, ungainly and with whom I felt almost no connection whatsoever, in language that even Twilight moms could cope with, slips into the acknowledgements that his 6-month old daughter died while he was writing it. Now I feel like a complete arse for saying it’s a load of rubbish with little to redeem it. It goes without saying that I am heartbroken for him, as the worst thing I can imagine would be for my son to die, to have to imagine all of the things that he would never see or do, and all the life experiences I’d miss out on sharing with him; but that’s no excuse to publish a book that I feel is quite so sub-par. He's not alone in the blame though, as it’s a poor show from his editorial team and publishers too. But if this is the standard of writing that paves the middle of the literary road, then I am at least justified in my ignorant prejudice and that contributes a shiny patina of smugness.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

It's damn funny.
I had planned to read my backlog of Pynchon (before this point including Slow Learner, Against the Day, Inherent Vice and the yet-to-be procured Bleeding Edge) in chronological order – not that they must be so read, but rather that I wanted to mirror the writer’s own artistic trajectory with mine as a reader. As with other writers of great scope and ability, I need to pace Pynchons across my life as they take a lot out of me as a reader, but to be honest I’ve been looking for an excuse to skip the short stories and the hard-backed behemoth reminiscent of Mason & Dixon that is Against The Day and crack on with the reportedly more accessible Inherent Vice. Thankfully, the impending (and now actual) release of the Paul Anderson film did just that. Never one to be swept along in the wake of something I decided I had to read it now or forever be beholden to someone else’s artistic interpretation.

And, as reports suggest, it is by far the most accessible novel by Pynchon since Vineland, something which came as a relief given I still have cold sweats about Gravity’s Rainbow, which was my first introduction to Pynchon care of a blinkered, unforgiving and intense Post-Modern American Fiction lecturer at University. Essentially a stoner detective novel, garnering the film (not always favourable) comparisons to the Coen Brothers’ classic doper noir The Big Lebowksi, Inherent Vice takes its title from, as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello’s lawyer-friend Sauncho Smilax* tells him, a marine insurance term meaning unavoidable harm (where insurers will refuse to insure cargoes of eggs for example due to the high likelihood of unavoidable damage during a sea crossing). Of course, being Pynchon, you can unravel that one as far as you wish to take it, particularly when our setting is California in the late 60s and early 70s, where surfers, dopers, hippies and activists jostle for elbow room with corrupt developers, cops on the take (or just taking out their innate brutality on the aforementioned categories), gangsters, dealers, and, so it would seems, dentists out to avoid paying tax. The plot begins with a surprise visit of Doc’s ex-girlfriend and wannabe actress Shasta Fey Hepworth, who then goes missing along with land developer Micky Wolfmann, her new beau, at least one Aryan Brotherhood Brother, his boyfriend, a motorbike gang member and a dentist, the last two we know at least get snuffed. Doc sets out to unravel the mystery fuelled or perhaps medicated by an astounding amount of marijuana, accompanying a motley assortment of beach bums, surf musicians, psychics, skip-tracers and slightly unhinged ladies of a variety of unwholesome endeavours and / or habits, and ends up face to face with a shadowy cabal of gun-running, heroin-smuggling, tax-dodging dentists, known only as The Golden Fang. Oh, and there’s a loan shark whose side-line business feeds the back story of Doc’s nemesis-cum-ally Lieutenant Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen.

I really – REALLY – hope the film is as funny as the novel. It has gags, puns, jokes, innuendo, the whole gamut of humorous prose, whilst also hanging together as a coherent if fragmented kidnap and conspiracy narrative. The cast is huge, as was to be expected, but I can’t recall a point where I thought “Now just who the jumping f**k is this bell-end?” as each inhabits a particular mote of dust in this singular crepuscular ray of blinding entertainment**. If I wanted to and didn’t have the horror of so doing, I could strip layer after layer from the writing which is a veritable palimpsest of meaningful stuff and intertextual reference. Thankfully some other thoughtful readers have already done it (in part) and you can add your two-penneth-worth at the PynchonWiki site. Frankly, I’m just glad I’ve had my first few proper belly laughs at a Thomas Pynchon novel in a long time. Time will tell if the film can live up to the novel, but on a first reading, it looks to be the novel most suited to a film adaptation, and in Paul Anderson I can only hope we’ve found the person to do it. And perhaps you’ll spot a sly cameo by the man himself somewhere, at a beach-front café or slinking by in the milky backgrounds. But probably not.


*Played by Benicio Del Toro in the Anderson version, and, so PynchonWiki tells us can be interpreted as a truth-telling spiny-thorned climbing plant. Again, unravel as far as you need.

**Actually, Scott, brother / cousin (?) of Doc is a character that might bear a snip or two. I don’t remember what he adds at all except that his band Beer plays on the bill with the Boards and a resurrected Coy Harlingen