Sunday, 13 November 2011

Backlist - More stuff inappropriately appropriated

There is something intrinsically pleasing about Baker's work. Whilst this is not his best by a long way (for that you should pick up Box of Matches or The Fermata - pant-wettingly brilliant stuff), this transcript of a (CIA?) taped conversation between two friends in a Washington hotel room is something other, a novel that is social and political commentary, that is a stylistic adventure, that deviates from the norm without falling into the post-modern mosh pit of literature by the likes of John Barth or Mark Z. Danielewski. It's also damned funny. Until fairly recently I had no strong opinions on American politics, on the lust for scandal and the love of celebrity that saw the population elect, in the words of Jonathan Coulton "a sweating filthy liar" in Richard Nixon, and a slightly deranged cigarette spokesperson and cowboy in Ronald Regan. Of course, W changed all that, and Obama has helped somewhat, like a temporary salve on a wound that will only fester eventually. Baker just sticks it to the man, having lots of fun in the mean time. If you're looking for something conventional, perhaps this isn't for you, but for an hour on a train, or indeed on a bench outside the Lincoln Memorial, then this is the perfect tonic for the world-weary.

Perhaps if I hadn't known that Jasper Kent had written musicals, then I may have enjoyed this more than I did. As it stands, I was stuck between enjoying the premise and the gore of it all and being terribly annoyed by Kent's almost 19th century Russian novel style narrative, with long introspective passages more suited to a down moment in a Broadway show (with accompanying musical diminuendo) than a properly horrific horror novel. As Aleksei "struggles" to reconcile his enjoyment of the lovely prostitute with his "love" of his absent wife and child, I struggled with my desire to put this down and go rock climbing or kick boxing, something manly and dangerous that wouldn't rob me of my masculinity. Still, being the avid devotee of violence and bloodshed that only a child exposed to George A. Romero movies at a very early developmental stage can be (and I am very definitely NOT blaming zombie movies for my lack of social skills - that was deliberate on my part) I pushed on through the guff to get to the good bits, and there were just enough of those to keep it interesting.
In conclusion, this is good, but flawed, much like the best of us, and if he could temper his willingness to replicate his musical style or the long-winded rumination typical of those great (great meaning large or immense - I use it in the pejorative sense) Russian epics, then he could have a future as a writer of horror. If not, he better sharpen up on his show tunes.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Backlist - A load of stuff reproduced without the author's written consent

 Being somewhat silly, I began my discovery of Jeff Lindsay by reading the fourth novel first (publisher freebie) and then watching the first episode of the TV series. As it transpires, that's the wrong way to do it. So, keen to make amends I picked up this three volume omnibus edition to motor through the first three books before I remembered what has happened to Sergeant Doakes, Dexter's arch nemesis (at least, his arch nemesis in the Miami PD) by book four.
The appeal lies not just in the pacing, the fact that our protagonist is a merciless killing machine, and that he's doing what most people have occasionally dreamed of doing - taking out the trash! - but in the oddly affecting and twisted humour of the novels. Whether he's ruminating on why his "dark passenger" guffaws at a particularly amateurish crime scene (amateurish from the point of view of the killer that is), or balancing the training and development requirements of his protégés (seriously) against the code his "father" Harry instilled in him, Dexter never fails to bring a bleakly humorous quality to the narrative. Take for example, the time he finds himself alone in his head without the dark fluttering of evil wings to keep him comfort - "I was alone in a dark, mean world full of terrible things like me." That's a good line right there.
The only problem with this omnibus is the third novel - Dexter in the Dark - which loses some of the forensic and psychological analysis of the killer's mind in favour of a John Connolly-esque supernatural solution which just doesn't gel, which feels flimsy, and which diverts the narrative flow by inserting a third party perspective on things. It's still good, just not as good as it should be. But at the risk of a feedback sandwich, I still really love this stuff. And I'm sure if you've stuck with me this far, you will too.

It's a trepidatious feeling, to have read a work variously described as a masterpiece. With the weight of so much opinion on the readers' shoulders (whether they realise or not), to attempt a review such as this is daunting. This is partly to blame for the length of time between finishing this novel and starting this review (the other reasons being laziness and lack of energy / internet access). For it was some time in spring when I read this on the commute between Cardiff and Swansea, and the memories I have of it are suitably dulled with the passing time. This isn't exactly a glowing reference for the prospective reader, but then Mihaly exists in some kind of dream world, and there were definitely parts of this book where I was almost asleep. Again, not such a great recommendation. However, it wasn't sleep; rather more like a trance. Szerb's story starts from a moment of crisis, where Mihaly gets his trains confused and, on his own honeymoon, realises with a rush the sudden freedom he has, and how addictive it is to live outside expectations. Of course, being the fool he is his idyll is soon shattered. He reeks of desperation. It is a curious experience, the reading of Journey by Moonlight, and whilst I'm sure my attempts at a review fall far short of the relative quality of the book, just look at the star rating [at www.waterstones.com] and be comforted by such simplicity. The book will not leave you so at ease with life.

For some reason, a reason that I can't fathom but that makes me slightly angry, frustrated and not a little melancholic, I can't get anyone to be interested in this really great book. I've tried comparing the story to Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game / Chess (depending on which edition you have), with Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (because there's a chess puzzle at its heart), and with the only other English translation of his work, Night Work, a novel which with its unanswered questions polarizes opinion, and yet not one person who has read the blurb has decided to press on. Admittedly, it's based on a real-life chess player, the little known Austrian Grandmaster Karl Schlechter, and at its core is the game of chess. But the game does not overwhelm the story. It is necessary, serving to illustrate the fabulous characterisation of Carl Haffner, and the joyful creation of the Vienna school and of his opponent Emanuel Lasker, without ever threatening to bore those whose appreciations lie elsewhere. Haffner's very existence is geared to wrench an emotional reaction from the reader, steeped in pathos and so endearing that throughout the legendary duel one's heart is in one's mouth with every move of the pieces. It is uplifting and devastating, and despite the rather bland cover is a revealing portrait of what it is to be human. I loved it, and I hope someday to convert at least one person to Glavinic's brilliance.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Backlist - Adolf in Wonderland by Carlton Mellick III

The search for
perfection
Such a concept as this may have been doomed from the start, destined never to have been fully and accurately realised. From personal experience, the stuff that resides in the head rarely survives the transition from thought to word – hence the struggle to successfully find backers for my Dirty Despot trading cards – and in Mellick’s story of the futility and indeed folly of the pursuit of perfection, the prose is clumsy and awkward, the ideas beautiful and disturbing but uncomfortably chopped and fitted rather than allowed to smear sticky fluids across the page as they might wish, and although it ends on the up, the general reaction may more likely be one of disappointment than euphoria (and vomiting). Supremely ironically, and acknowledged in the introduction, the twiddling and fiddling over 8 years between conception and publication, has deprived Mellick’s fable of its joie de vivre and left instead a somewhat mechanical novel, the joys of the flesh removed and replaced by something artificial. Fitting, you might say, but still irritating.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Awesome, mate.
First encounter with Flanagan came via Gould’s Book of Fish in hardback, a victim of some aggressive pre-post Christmas price slashing back in twenty tickety boo (along with a first edition of Martel’s Life of Pi in hardback at 2 for £20), and with the beautiful colour plates so sadly missing from future flimsier incarnations. As much as I loved and coveted more of the same, it’s taken me nearly ten years to catch up on the backlist, and I still haven’t gotten to Death of a River Guide – there are just too many things that need doing.

 ‘Oh, woe is me!’ etc etc. Time-theft from work isn’t often available to be recycled as reading time when in full view of the open plan office. But I have managed to squirrel away a bit of reading elbow room in which to fully appreciate the latest offering from Tasmania’s answer to Thomas Bernhard.

At this point I should perhaps clarify such a throw-away remark as that just this second made, just there.  In no way does Richard Flanagan resemble Thomas Bernhard, except in one very specific instance. He is not wiry of hair (having none), a playwright (to my knowledge), and did not spend any time in a sanatorium as a youth due to a severe lung condition which robbed him of the opportunity to become a professional actor or singer. Unless you know any better. In fact, the only way I can compare the two is by revealing a very personal reading of his work which could, gallingly, be seen to be a misreading. How embarrassing for me.

Here goes.

Bernhard clearly hated Austria, the land of his birth and death, and made use of every opportunity for contumely. In my reading, Flanagan has a similar (but slightly diluted) misanthropic distaste for all things historically Van Diemonian, despite some rather beautiful passages towards the end of this particular novel where he traces the sunlight on the water and portrays the nobility of work in the fields with a respectful nostalgia. In general he seems to feel a degree of shame for his unfortunate heritage. Of course, it’s not restricted to Tasmania – his descriptions of Dickensian London are equally vitriolic and gruesomely tactile. However, from other books I have spotted the trend. Feel free to disagree and disabuse me of the notion.
Back to Wanting and Flanagan’s dissection of desire, and it is an achingly good read, with some great passages, notably depicting Dickens and Wilkie Collins and, amongst other pieces, their periwinkling trips to various houses of disrepute. The back and forth between Van Diemen’s Land and London are well spaced, allowing free flow of his copious imagination, and historical detail be damned! he wilfully uses the main points of history as threads on his wonderful literary loom. The result is a soulful, crushing and ultimately addictive novel, and Dickens’ avatar is quite remarkable.

Ultimately, I have probably done a stupid thing by reading Gould’s... first as it really did blow my literary mind at the time, so every follow-up is likely to be a disappointment, but Wanting is a significant harking back to that scent of greatness, and is probably a book I will come back to in the future. And it’s not often I can find the time for that sort of thing.