Monday, 20 May 2013

City of the Falling Sky by Joseph Evans

Download here

This book has a triple distinction of, for me, quite significant... er, significance. Permit me to elaborate.
  1. It is the first book I’ve read by a person who was a friend before they wrote it rather than a person who became a friend because they wrote a book. Joe and I worked together for Gedin knows how many years as booksellers, and was the only person who actually wanted (and liked) to arrange the Tokyopop alphabetically by series. Little did I know he was secretly nursing a creative spark*. I made a vague promise years ago that I would get round to reading it, with the caveat that it would be as soon as I owned an electronic device capable of downloading it, unlikely given the collective ambivalence expressed by fellow booksellers to the new Sony E-Reader the shop was then stocking (although clearly not shared by Joe, considering this, his first book, now has over 50,000 downloads). This is also consideration number one for readers of this review.
  2. It is the first teenage / adult cross-over novel I have willingly chosen to read since I read The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett when I was ten. This includes The Radleys by Matt Haig, which, as my readers will know was an accident. As such, it needed to be reviewed with this in mind, and the review read with this as consideration number two.
  3. It is the first book I have ever downloaded onto my very own electronic reading device.

I did wonder if the earth would shake at this point in my narrative; whether walls would tumble and sea defences collapse with the force of the maelstrom-driven seas. Of course, life went on as before, and the curious feelings of guilt that I harboured over a secret desire to own a Kindle... remained. Of course they did. I hadn't spent 14 years of my professional life (meaning by Gladwell’s**** criteria I was an expert bookseller two times over) jealously guarding paper’s dominion over the dissemination of information, only for a random (but absolutely fantastic) birthday present to change my mind.  It was a most unwelcome reminder that I am in conflict with myself, in thrall to technology whilst also a grotesque, self-indulgent Luddite at heart.

Shamefully, this cognitive dissonance lasted about two hours, by which time I’d downloaded not only (as promised) City of the Falling Sky but 60 additional, mostly free, e-books. I am a filthy, filthy bitch.

Nonetheless, I had made a solemn (if, perhaps in keeping with the epic nature of this review thus far, rash) promise to read Joe’s book as soon as I had crossed this particular line, so I began. I didn't think it began well. The prologue, about Seckry’s past and forming part of a recurring dream later in the novel, felt loose, childish and was off-putting. I had clearly and immediately forgotten my own context. So I pressed on chagrined. About 36 hours later, I had finished.

This is not a slim book with huge font and giant spacing - it is nearly 400 pages long. I did not read for 36 hours straight, although I was tempted to, for a few different reasons (including but not exclusively novelty value). I did, however, quickly buy into the plot, learn to enjoy Joe’s simple but pleasing style, and come to anticipate the next chapter, the next page, the next button press. Seckry’s transformation from country mouse to city slicker, from novice to master (at the remarkable and frankly exciting interactive first-person alternative reality game called Friction) is beguiling and addictive. I’d read some of the hormonal teenage adulation on various websites but was still somewhat unprepared for what I was reading. This was good. It moved quickly (perhaps too quickly in places but maybe that’s just me), read well and none of the characters felt superfluous or tacked-on as obvious plot devices. The author has put some serious work into developing a supporting cast of whom much could be made in sequels. Of course, this similarity to the Harry Potter novels is not the only one, seeing as it appears to be one of Joe’s formative influences. The eye-rolling character names betray an homage to characters like Dumbledore and Hagrid, even if the bad guy (no spoilers here, sorry) has a more futuristic moniker. But putting this anti-Rowling prejudice of mine aside, I will admit that until very near the end I didn't spot the twist, the paradox that could have a 14 year-old’s mind swimming around in the primordial soup of his or her burgeoning intellect.

Joe has done something remarkable with this book, both in terms of the creative effort (and result) and with his own near tireless pursuit of mainstream acceptance for a story he was told wouldn't sell (or at least enough for the big houses). Over 50,000 downloads and counting, several weeks in the top-sellers chart at Waterstones Cardiff (despite it being £9.99 in paper format) and for a so-called vanity publication none of the aggressive sales techniques pursued by other “writers” to be found stalking Twitter in search of favourable reviewers to act ostensibly as objective mouthpieces. Joe’s naturally well-mannered and somewhat publicity-shy demeanour (unless he’s had a few dozen riojas – just messing with you Joe!) does not push to the shadows a steely determination to explore his creativity and to share his talents – politely of course.

You may think I'm being polite myself*****, or doing a mate a favour, but I honestly believe Joseph Evans has talent, sufficient in my opinion to get his next book on someone’s lead list for Christmas. Kudos, Joe, you've done a fabulous job chap.

 *Actually, this is an artistic falsehood**. He told me all the time (I tried to get the chaps at Random House interested in his proof copy to no avail – they were working on a book with a similar premise which they were unwilling to undermine***), and also wrote music for computer games and art projects, amongst other sidelines. He was also one of my favourite reviewers on two of the three Guardian First Book Award judging panels over which I presided, with a charming yet self-aware naivety and strong artistic convictions, even then.

**That’s a posh lie for arty twats.

***Publisher bullshit.

****Of course it’s not Malcolm Gladwell’s opinion, but he did write a rather good book about it.

***** I'm definitely not. I don’t even warrant a small, respectful mention in the acknowledgements after all I did for him. Bastard.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

A state of extreme anxiety.
I thought I'd talked about Thomas Bernhard here somewhere before - the vitriol, the bitterness, the hilarity that was Old Masters - but it appears not, or, more likely, that I search like I think; superficially. Nevertheless, at least I now have the opportunity to present him for your consideration, albeit with the oily glaze of my opinion applied liberally. 

An Austrian author and playwright, Bernhard had a curious relationship with the land of his birth. He was highly critical of both the people and state, regularly attacking the church, the government, the populace (who he labelled stupid and stubbornly contemptuous) and venerable old institutions like the concert halls and cultural venues of Vienna. Indeed, in his will, he strictly forbade any new productions of his works, both unpublished novels and poems, and stagings of his plays. His characters often deliver long monologues filled with bile and spite, frequently inhabiting considered but oddly irrational-seeming positions. Of this tendency, Concrete is an exemplar.

18 degrees - the perfect
temperature for considering
works of art.
Much like Antonio Tabucchi's Perreira Maintains (and to a lesser extent Kadare's The File on H) the narrative is delivered as a presentation of an author's work by a third party. In Tabucchi's novel, Perreira's words are reported by the secret policeman who takes his statement. In Concrete, Rudolph, Austrian scholar and musicologist, delivers his testimony through an intermediary of whom we know nothing, and who offers no commentary or addition to the story other than a repetition of two words, "writes Rudolph" which bookend the novel and offer us the 'true' author's name. More challenging to the reader, however, is the fact that the novel is a single paragraph, 156 pages in length, during which Rudolph vacillates and procrastinates in a diabolically perfidious attempt to both be honest to himself and to desperately maintain the thin veil of self-deceit over the non-production of his work on Mendelssohn, ten years in the making, and of which he has yet to write the first sentence. Whilst completely in keeping with the character of Rudolph, it presents an obstacle to enjoyment to a degree, if enjoyment is the correct term. From a personal viewpoint, as a chap with limited reading time available normally in ten minute pockets throughout the week, it was nearly impossible to seamlessly rejoin the narrative where it left off, having no natural breaks whatsoever - a success for Bernhard's model of delivery if nothing else. However, so complete (and completely untrustworthy) is the character of Rudolph that opening a page anywhere in the slim book meant re-immersion in his delusions without seeming to have ever left. 

I was planning to say that within this book, nothing happens. Written during a brief (and possibly terminal) sojourn to one of the Balearic Islands, in lieu of working on the study he's spent 10 years preparing, he reports no news of note. However, it is in fact a book filled with crises. Maybe not by my standards, but on every page there is evidence of critical changes in circumstance, meaning Rudolph may never be in a position to put pen to paper. His sister arrives - disaster! His sister leaves - catastrophe! He visits a neighbour and as a consequence must immediately leave Austria for Majorca. He arrives in Majorca and is struck down (as he himself predicted) by the mysterious illness he so stubbornly nurtures. A lazy stroll ends in the grim recollection of an event of pathos and misery, and new-found determination ends in terror and anxiety when he discovers the true extent of said misery. The New Republican reviewer Sven Birkerts says:
Where rage of this intensity is directed outwards, we often find the sociopath, where inward, the suicide. Where it breaks out laterally, onto the page,we sometimes find a most unsettling artistic vision.

I'm not so sure that rage is the primary motive. Behind all of this is a definite smirk, a keen sense of humour. It almost feels like Bernhard is pulling my leg, presenting the case of Rudolph to invite ridicule. Is Rudolph indicative of the Austrian he despises? Then why does he espouse many of Bernhard's own views? Is this a work of anger or of satire? What does Bernhard want? What does he want of me? Big questions, destined to go unanswered. 

Rudolph is quite the unreliable, some might say neurotic, narrator, but is still fascinating, as are most well-presented unreliable narrators. And despite the toying with form, Berhard's prose is simple, elegant and profoundly powerful. It'll bug the hell out of you, but you'll chuffing well love it.