Thursday, 15 March 2012

Hope by Glen Duncan

"Nothing holds love together like shared vice or collusive perversion."
"Grace only exists to be 
fallen from." Glen Duncan
I, Lucifer 
So says Glen Duncan, author of several of my favourite British novels in recent memory (most notably I, Lucifer, once reviewed, stunningly ineptly, on my behalf by some crackpot nitwit at Waterstone's [sorry, seems I included a redundant apostrophe there] HQ). More on that quotation and its relevance in a moment, but for now, on with the review.


Hope as I understand it is the first in the Duncan chronology and as such in places it does feel like he's working out some of the issues with reader-goading, info-dumping and whatnot that new authors need to be told to avoid by a trustworthy (or mercenary) editor. It may explain why, when first published, it was touted as that summer's "essential first novel" [Matthew De Abaitua in Esquire] and yet now is difficult to buy new. There is a recurrent motif, of memory as stones dropping into a pond of time and over which the 'author' has no control, which returns to haunt the narrative every so often, as does the thing left deliberately unsaid to impart a sense of climax to the consequently disjointed story line. These two devices alone could have a sensitive reader grinding teeth and wishing him to just get the fuck on with everything. For the story itself is a reflective essay on how our friend Gabriel gets to where he's going (not a good place) written by Gabriel in the form of a somewhat rambling diary entry over several days / weeks etc, and as such I found myself at times hoping for more dynamic forward motion.

And yet, if I were to ignore the unpolished literary devices and examine instead the ideas of Gabriel Jones as expressed through the medium of Penguin paperbacks, then I could argue that in fact Hope does indeed deserve acclaim for a level of intellectual rigour that is often lacking in mass market fiction.

Pornography is examined with the critical eye of the self-aware consumer. Were I a practicing Buddhist I might reference Thich Nhat Hanh's rather accessible book entitled Fidelity for his explanation of the nature of the Sensual Net that entraps those who seek love in the wrong form, but frankly I've not finished it yet and so don't have a complete understanding and might risk therefore confusing and / or irking people who have and do. Suffice to say that Hanh's advisory role (in my mind) is taken up by a literate and compassionate friend, Daniel, with whom Gabriel talks, drinks, and gets stoned, whilst gently denigrating his sensitivities to the crushing inertia of modern living. 
Duncan understands the allure and the risk of pornography in muddying the waters of the mind, the internecine effect on those in a relationship. Gabriel is a porn addict and it destroys the relationship he believes was 'the one'. The irony here is that of course, Gabriel destroys his relationship by being a dick with a brain, and any projection of blame onto an opt-in medium in which he chooses to participate is just that - projection.

Glen Duncan being Glen Duncan here, it doesn't stop at that. Oh no. Pornography is just the gateway to the big bad world of sexual gratification with no emotional return, and Hope, eponymous character, quickly becomes his surrogate partner in a fictional fantasized relationship. Hope, of course, is a high-class prostitute (oxy-moron duly acknowledged) on whom Gabriel spends his rapidly diminishing funds. Cue twist hinted at all through the novel, and we're set for the finish. Now you can go back and read the quote at the start and understand why I included it there.

Having come at Hope (no pun intended) with I, Lucifer, Death of an Ordinary Man, Weathercock and A Day and a Night and a Day already under the belt, I am happy to overlook the newbie errors, the clumsy devices and so forth that Duncan evidently gets under control later in his work, and so I am left once again deeply impressed by this novel, and by Duncan in general. If you read one out-of-print novel this week, make it this one, and then come back here and tell me if I'm wrong about it. In a past life, I was all about "Read More Vonnegut!" but I am slowly becoming an outspoken Duncanophile. The end.

Sorry, I couldn't think of a suitably serious pun without coming over all child-like. You know what, I think that was a Newman & Baddiel line right there...

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Unburied by Charles Palliser

Q. Gothic pastiche or
mawkish pasty?
A. Neither. Both are
stupid answers.
It is likely to upset the cultured reader, but I must begin by confessing that I was immediately disappointed that this novel was not a western.


Have all the cultured readers left? Okay, good. Further elaboration is probably necessary here, but you may already have guessed the unintentional link to The Unforgiven, that rather good horse opera with Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood a few years back. Imagine my surprise when I opened it and found what was in essence a verbose and in places stodgy pastiche of a Victorian murder mystery. 


I have a cunning plan...
Now, don't get me wrong, I like a good murder as much as the next guy, but this one was old before the action herein took place, and the additional contemporaneous murder happens rather towards the end of the novel, so rather than a gripping read, it felt more like an episode of Time Team (one of the ones where they intend to discover secret caches of lost Roman loot but end up digging through some water mains). 


The premise is that some moth-eaten fart, your typical self-important academic, is lured into a dark web of deceit by an erstwhile college chum, clottishly mincing about the cloistered halls of a fictional cathedral town and bumbling through social interaction with a host of social and political deviants, but accidentally uncovering the truth behind an historical murder mystery whilst also foiling the duplicitous motives of said former college friend, who happens to be a sodomite for good measure. And, as if this weren't enough, it is all presented as the "found" testimony of the aforementioned academic buffoon by the editor of the text, who gifts himself a brief role in the introductory passage confronting the mother / sister / aunt / daughter of one of the characters (I'm unclear here who she was again, as in all the fun, I lost track of the labyrinthine interconnections of the various participants) and introducing into evidence the all too important giant metal keys, without which none of the rest of the plot makes any sense, so Palliser would have you believe.


Whilst enjoyable in an odd way, this novel is not all that interesting. Whilst I would have preferred more Zane Gray and less Victorian guff, I was more interested in the rather dull sub-plot about new evidence of Alfred the Great than which gimpy mason killed another gimpy mason, and what the smell was in the Cathedral (I knew it was a dead body before I even understood where it was entombed). It did all seem to hang together, in so far as I can't remember any loose ends as such, but frankly, it would have been better if, a la Roger Ackroyd, the narrator had done "it", and certainly more surprising than the actual, tepid conclusion. All in all, I don't regret having read The Unburied. I just wish there were more horse chases and shoot-outs. And no-one said "I reckon" even once.