Monday, 28 July 2014

Under The Dust by Jordi Coca


Goodbye, little apostrophe lost.
So, wheel of fortune, count to 29, pin the tail, freebies off of peeps on Twitter etc. etc. Whatever the methods sometimes employed to pick the next book in my intertextual experience, the one that brought me to Jordi Coca brought me to a whopping great slice of nostalgia. Before I'd even opened it, it brought to mind Richard Gwyn, himself a published poet, author, biographer, translator and course director of the MA Creative Writing course at Cardiff University, who I recall for some odd reason gently encouraging me to read this novel, and by whose own work I was quietly impressed at the time. He was also an advocate of Roberto Bolaño, another writer in whose work I can immerse myself but from which I emerge drained, as mentioned previously. Before that, though, there is this sticker on the front, declaring 'Signed by the Author at Waterstone's'. It is indeed signed by Jordi Coca, not adding any particular intrinsic value to the book, not for me anyway, but more importantly, the sticker is in Times New Roman font, white on black, and Waterstones is still in the possession of its possessive apostrophe.

Oh happy days!  

I worried, on hearing of the little fellow's demise at the hand of James Gaunt, its eradication from store fronts and point-of-sale material such as this, that this once great chain had finally succumbed to the lure of the high street homogeny, that standards and principles were no longer of principal concern. What next, I wondered, censorship of the books they sell? No subversive or controversial authors allowed*? Yeah, considering the volume of Dawkins that went through the chain's tills I was on a hiding to nothing with this anxiety. If it sells, they'll sell it. And in some cases, if the sales rep could sell it to an underling pushed into their way because us important booksellers were too busy** to sit still for their patter, it went on the shelves even if it had no chance in hell of selling***. Still, I pined a little while in contemplation of my time under its roofs and the many books I'd stocked as a favour to the nicer reps.

Thus I was back to Jordi Coca, in whose marketability to the particular demographic of Cardiff, at the time of publication, I had little faith, but which I bought in for the sake of the chaps at Parthian, probably via the Welsh Books Council. And somehow, I bought a copy. This was back in 2007 and it's been unread since. 

Well it's unread no longer.

What I found was a genuinely interesting novel, a fictional memoir which wobbles closely to Coca's own revelation that he discovered writing at the age of 14. Set in Barcelona after the civil war, we discover a young boy, described through an oddly juvenile narrator seemingly drawn into his own childhood by the act of reminiscing, whose life is a precarious balance between fears - fear of his tyrannical father whose rages and violence blacken the book with an atavistic terror, fear of his past and its portents, fear of his future, fear of his friends and their own paths into adulthood, or otherwise. But through it all, despite his worries that his mother's pregnancy might end in the death of his sibling as it did before, there is a burgeoning sense of awakening. Of course, awakening to the dangers all around him doesn't make for any great release, neither to the tension of the story nor the dread of existence, but there is an incongruous family of exiles, a father, mother, son and lodger, whose existence provides shelter and the comfort of words and thoughts, who show him that disagreement needn't end in violence. There is the approaching birth of a brother or sister which inspires some forward thinking and planning, presaging hope. There is the promise of release from his tormentor with the arrest of his father for trafficking stolen goods, and there is the sweet temperament of his long suffering mother, whose faith in him never appears shaken. And all this is backdropped by a grim, grey, dusty city, under whose dust he imagines himself choking. Oppressive but not without hope, I can't think of a more engaging novel about life under fascism, especially as I am somewhat saddened to confess I know next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War*****. This is a really excellent novel and I am glad I was its vehicle to the shelves of the flagship bookshop in Wales.


*Points go to the first pedant to remind me of the Patrick Jones debacle of 2008 which, much to my chagrin, fell under my purview at the time (in so far as I invited him and his lovely publisher Jan Fortune-Wood to the store for a signing, only for the Big W put the kibosh on it at the last minute)
**Preferred not to spend an hour being bullshitted and bamboozled
***Although I know several erstwhile colleagues and a barrage of international bizarro devotees who appreciate my insistence on stocking the works of Carlton Mellick III despite initially disappointing**** sales
****Zero. In fact I bought the lot from a clearance bin over a year later after it all became dead stock after 'accidentally' being repeatedly missed during picks for publisher returns. Allegedly.
*****Something I began to address subsequently by watching the delightful film The Year and the Vineyard. I think that should be sufficient.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Keeping Mum by The Dark Angels Collective


I preferred the alternative title
As I Died Lying...
Those of you who might justifiably lay claim to knowing me quite well should be able to corroborate my claim that any book that leads off with a 'Who's Who' cast of characters is likely to get my back right up, the reason being that if any book is so unwieldy and poorly realised that you need constant reminding of which character is speaking or how they fit into the narrative at any given moment, then it surely needed more editing before publishing, or re-writing before editing, and so on. For me, a character needs to pop from the page, be embedded in the mind straight away, pulling you in, perhaps pushing you away, but always memorably. Admittedly, with so many contributors (the same amount, coincidentally, as the number of voices in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying from which the Dark Angels Collective drew inspiration) I guess it's equally likely that not to acknowledge each and their input to this MPOV novel from the get-go would put their backs up too, so I'll accept this as mitigation. 

For now.

Indeed, a novel with Multiple Points Of View is exactly what this collaborative effort delivers, each character written by a separate writing entity, drawn from the unusual yet creditable writing courses (creative writing but in a business context) of the Dark Angels team**. We have what one might deem the main character, who's dead - a challenge for any writer that - her estranged husband, her three children and one daughter-in-law; a parochial Scottish copper, a glorified B&B manager, a morgue assistant with a flower fetish, a rather random Indian restaurateur, and some others that I have forgotten. Each is written by a different person, thus eliminating the need for one writer to develop different voices, but creating the need for a strong hand on the tiller. The plot revolves around the steady disintegration of the tissue of lies that the dead character wove in life and the impact this has on those in the family and beyond with an interest in her affairs*, and I consider the central conceit to be how many lies are told in life for a myriad of reasons, how the perception one might hold of someone can be subverted, and how the machinations set in place in life have to be dismantled on death, leaving lacunae and space for that which is not familiar. I love that sort of thing. Plus, it evolves into a bit of a road-novel, a bit like that Gram Parsons film where they drive around with his corpse in the back of the truck.

Whereas Faulkner claimed he never changed a word of his novel***, having written it in six weeks after finishing work each day, I suspect this novel has been the subject of some heavy revision. I say suspect but in fact I mean I know - the authors' page on the Unbound website goes into a bit of detail on the process and it sounds like there was a lot of mind-mapping, plot-hashing and character-, er, hmm, sorry, struggling for a suitable gerund. I don't know if this is the best way to work when there are fifteen people contributing to a single goal, but for the most part it worked. There are some characters that are weaker than others (I've just remembered one of them - a facile plot device of a character who is a child-guest at the Scottish B&B who causes the dead person's phone to go missing temporarily) and some feel  tacked-on, almost like they had to be there otherwise one of the writers would feel left out and sad (I won't name names this time, but I think you'll see who they are), but overall, the parts fit together, the story progresses from one passage to the next, and whilst it's a tad predictable, it's still greatly enjoyable. It's too late to get your name in the back as a supporter, but it's never too late to buy a copy and enjoy a very interesting book.

*Whoops! Cheeky plot spoiler there! Sorry, couldn't help it.
**They're also on Twitter so they are.
***He made this claim in the introduction to Sanctuary, (Modern Library ed. 1932): cited A. Nicholas Fargnoli, Robert W. Hamblin, Michael Golay, William Faulkner; A Critical Companion Infobase 2008, pp.43–56 p.44