Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Funkadelic Review
(TheMightyBuch, Cardiff, 2014)
I hesitate to review authors I truly and profoundly enjoy. I know, I’ve mentioned this before. I probably will do so again. The ubiquitous and latent fear provoking procrastination is unlikely to dissipate any time soon, as I’m happy to be blissfully ignorant of literary theory, trends in literature throughout the ages, and the exact definition of “comedy of manners” which other reviewers* have decided that this book must be, instead cosy in the realms of my experience and the book and / or author’s place therein, therefore risking exposure of this ignorance in an hubristic fashion by expounding at length and in arrogance about me me me and without putting everything into a more suitable context. Plus, I probably will have missed something dreadfully important and make myself out to look quite the fool**.

Nonetheless, here I go once more, into strange and disturbing lands with only a wry grin pasted on my face as defence against the zombie hordes of public opinion***, this time to butt heads with what I once read (but can no longer find to attribute, sorry lawyers) was Chabon’s soul novel (as opposed to his realist, comic or fantasy novel). Tiresome plot spoilers follow directly.

I guess this is the story of two families, living in California in an area in or near Oakland or Berkley (geography of American cities not being a strong suit of mine) due for regentrification. Or, it is a tale of nostalgia. No, wait, it’s about fathers and sons, but also about women. And midwives.  And vinyl records. And leisure suits. And blaxploitation movies of the 70s. And underage sex between teenage boys. And little old ladies who kick ass. And corrupt city councilmen. And racial and social tension, The Black Panthers, Bruce Lee, music, love, loss, and any number of themes and things. And a parrot, although the parrot does seem to be an odd plot and narrative device, employed to give the meeting of the two teenage boys freedom from a parental chaperone due to a rare or imagined bird allergy, and to provide a bird’s-eye-view recap of all of the main characters’ activity during a particularly tricky but well-realised and, I believe, successful chapter written in one long sentence (at least I can’t remember any hard punctuation) wherein the parrot is released from his erstwhile owners apartment by a bird-hating relative/friend (I forget which) and takes a tour of the neighbourhood, and otherwise without purpose except to serve as a further playful adornment to the incredibly rich and deeply stacked prose that Chabon uses throughout. In fact, the prose is what I remember most vividly. Similes and metaphors abound, using unusual pairings of images, and make for startlingly vivid passages and descriptions. I’ll let you discover them in your own time, but Cathleen Schine of the afore-footnoted NYRB* provides a delightful snapshot for you –
‘Chabon sees the shins of a beautiful woman glow “like the bells in a horn section.” A pregnant woman’s thighs peel “away from each other with a sigh, like lovers reluctant to part.” An old man’s advice to a young man falls like “rain against an umbrella.” A Hammond B-3 organ is “diesel-heavy, coffin-awkward, clock-fragile.” The smell of fried chicken wafts by as a “breeze off the coast of the past.” Chabon’s worlds are lyrical places, and they often include those sweet breezes from the coast of the past.’
Merci, ma Belle Mère!
Lovely. Indeed, lovely enough that I regret not owning a hard copy of this book, something I may address after our next move (to a larger property with more adequate wall-space for libraries and other trinketry, including my mother-in-law’s new found obsession with gifts of mounted butterflies). 
Still, even in a digital form, the e-ink on the page remains clear and vivid in the memory, Chabon’s words and the lives of the cast of characters (properly developed and beautifully rendered, not merely caricatures like the cast of a Molière play) opened up and displayed for all to see (not unlike a mounted butterfly). Chabon has magic in his minds-eye and I for one am thankful that he can’t keep it there. This book feels like a gift, maybe not one meant for me but one for which I am grateful nonetheless. However, he can keep his almost compulsive referencing of funk, soul and jazz vinyl records, thank you very much.

**OK, essentially the same thing, but fears are irrational so shut your stinking hole.
***Not that you’re zombies, or, necessarily, that your opinion will differ greatly to mine. Or, indeed, that there are hordes of you. 

Monday, 23 June 2014

The New Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

The horror... wait, have we done this before?
It's a funny* thing, but I was certain I'd read and reviewed all of the previous novels in the "... Watch" tertralogy (as it was before it became a pentalogy without warning) on this blog at points over the years. It seems I haven't, or have failed to accurately label them. So it would seem I have limitless scope to rehash several old, bad reviews into one, new, bad review for your reading disapproval. What an opportunity! I shall  therefore waste said opportunity and approach this afresh and with a degree of structure.

Back story first - there are two worlds occupying the streets of Moscow, and indeed the world, wherein live us norms, the regular humans, and the Others, the meta-humans, beings of power loosely organised into two warring but controlled factions, Light and Dark. Then there is the Twilight, another stratified world below or inside or on top of the tactile through which all Others can move - a mystery without solution. The factions are patrolled by teams of peace keepers; The Night Watch watch the Dark Ones, and the Day Watch watch the Light Ones. Ah! I hear you expostulate, but 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?' 

Fucking smart arse. Don't be so Juvinal. 

Well, it just so happens that there is another force who judge and punish Others who step out of line, and they're all real badasses. All of this is covered in volumes 1 through 4, throughout which Anton Gorodetsky emerges as an unlikely hero and, frankly, a terrible role model to the children. He is very 'young' in Other terms, but has risen to great heights in a very short time without putting in the years of graft. Instant power. He's also had a child who is a zero level (i.e. beyond measure) enchantress with his also incredibly powerful wife Svetlana. I know, who could believe this preposterousness?** Anyway, now it seems there's a powerful entity killing prophets, and it all seems to be part of something ancient and sinister which it is Anton's destiny to unravel. Did I spoil any plots? No? Good.

Secondly, the readerly reaction - well, you might consider the fact that I bought this for the e-reader rather than invest in a physical book as an indicator of my expectations vis a vis quality. As with all modern Russian literature I've read of late, I felt the translation must be lacking something, some latent Russian hook, which doesn't survive into English. It really didn't grab me. It reads all across the page but I could find no depth to the writing, no peaks and troughs and not even paragraphs and punctuation could lift it up so I could peak underneath. It seems to have sold quadrillions of copies in its native land, so it can't be badly written***, surely. The story is interesting, up to a point, but predictable - after the first book the surprise had gone somewhat - and all our favourite characters are there. Lukyanenko tries and fails to bring back some of Anton's seemingly limitless supply of astonishment at the world - he's mostly cynical and depressing - and the only interesting and complex character, the leader of the Day Watch, takes barely two lines of dialogue the whole book. I think I may have reached fatigue level with this series.

Thirdly, lastly, the final, razor sharp and witty thought. Meh. If this is the end of the series, it was the evacuated bowel of the stiffening corpse, unwelcome and unpleasant. I'm not sure what he was trying to achieve in writing a fifth novel, but it's quite possible I don't care enough to think it through. 

*In that way which is, on reflection, not very funny.
**A symptom of selective suspension of disbelief, as a friend recently pointed out whilst watching The Valley of Gwangi; I was complaining vociferously that the leading lady had impeccably coiffured hair in every scene, but chose to ignore the fact that there was a horse barely three inches tall.
***I can't imagine it's written as badly as the Tetralogy Which Should Not Be Named but stars vampire twits and werewolf twits and so forth, but then, that shit sold quadrillions too.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Turquoise Lament by John D. MacDonald

Wait, which chickadee is she again?
To give John D. MacDonald his due, his entertaining and quixotic detective fictions have certainly kept my attention for longer than more challenging and potentially rewarding works from chaps like David Foster Wallace and John Barth, for whom I need to build up a tolerance in the intervals between books which is depleted during the reading so that I might have the courage to finish them in a less than diabolically lengthy period and so that their influence on my own writing has the opportunity to wane and diminish. I am a terrible, terrible mimic of other peoples' styles. MacDonald provides a salve to a disquieted mind, something chewy but not strongly flavoured - no, sorry that's not quite accurate. Travis McGee has a very distinct flavour, a cherrywood smoked, Plymouth ginned, sun lotioned and salt tanged flavour. What is missing is the active involvement of the reader, making it all so much fun and fluff, pretty pictures with primary colours. It's easy just to read and to not think. 

It's probably the same reason I like a beer every couple of minutes, from time to time. Thinking is HARD.

So tilting at this particular windmill is particularly redundant. Yes, as a main character Travis is flawed; he's knowingly sexist, requires some one-on-one sessions with the diversity trainers at Bahia Mar, and could stop vacillating between perceived nobility and gratuitous violence for five minutes without dying of the shame. The novels are showing their age, now that we're into an age of spying from the comfort of one's smart phone, with some old-fashioned phone-book sleuthing and whatnot, and frankly, all of the female characters, apart from the one with the woman who was... no, sorry I was mistaken, they all really blend into one vacuous and offensive stereotype, a damsel in need of rescuing, despite not wanting to and exercising her own cute little feet stamping independence before Trav either slugs 'er or beds 'er. But they're not all bad, or rather, they're all not bad. That's a feat in and of itself quite remarkable, a consistency which is hard to achieve and difficult to deride. The fact that I can't for the life of me remember the who what where why of this one* is neither here nor there. Trav's flaws provide friction, drama, and plot devices. His blind spots are where the baddies live, and if he doesn't get knocked out at least once a novel then, frankly, what's the point? His hirsute side-kick Meyer, the supposed brains of the operation, provides a nice little counterpoint to hulking brutality and low cunning, and there are numerous titillating if nauseating moments of amorousness. All in all, this is pulp at it's least worst, and if you can't do anything else with your life but do the reading without the thinking, this would certainly kill some of that endless time of yours.

*No, wait, it's all coming back to me. There was a boat, a bad guy, a girl, and - sorry, I could actually be talking about any single one of the series. I tried, really I did.