Saturday, 18 October 2014

Memories Of The Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Great writing poorly read
Having read the introduction by translator Joanne Turnbull, I was excited to begin reading Krzhizhanovsky, an author whose published output was stymied no fewer than four times by the strictures of the Communist regime and / or World War II, and is only recently available to buy (thanks in no small measure to NYRB who have at least two selections available). The introduction and the website reviews promised surrealism, dark subversive humour and avant garde satire. What I found was all of these things, but also, an obliqueness that prevented me from truly enjoying it. 

I wonder if it's just me. At the time, I was going through the dissolution of a six-year marriage, so justifiably my mind may have been elsewhere. I was reading whilst waiting in the car for other people, at my desk in my noisy office during my 'lunch hour', and at home only as a distraction given my new bolt-hole had yet to be graced with Ethernet or Wi-Fi connectivity. I was also reading the unauthorized Tom Waits biography by Barney Hoskyns which was much more directly entertaining, undemanding, and therefore alluring. In addition, alternating aural distraction was provided by both the music of Tom Waits' entire back-catalogue on repeat (minus Orphans which I have as yet insufficient capital to secure) and the meditative tone of Mr President, Barack Obama, reading his own biography. So plenty going on there.

This left me missing quite a lot of the humour, the references to the political and social upheavals of post-revolution Russia, and I only gently touched the surface of his writing like a butterfly on an anvil. At times I felt like a cell in my own body, functioning on programming only with no concept of the larger body, in this sense the writing from Russia around this period. I'd lost my context for the book, despite having read quite a lot from this period by Soviet authors and others looking into the country. In the stories' defense, their images, or themes as his fictional writer would put it, are striking and direct: an Eiffel Tower pulling up its iron feet and running amok, being lured by the siren call of Communism from Russia and being frantically hailed by the Capitalist West in an attempt to stop it defecting; a corpse missing its own funeral and shipping up at the grave-digger's house for help, being carted around the city trying to talk to someone in the bureaucracy to get the mistake registered and resolved, only for the corpse to be rejected by every office as it didn't have the correct paperwork so didn't exist; and in the longest, eponymous piece of the collection, a young boy fascinated by the workings of his father's clock grows up to create a time machine which propels him into the future for a glimpse of the inauspicious future of Communist Russia, and whose own manuscript of the experiment is rejected by his publisher for being too shocking to the establishment and therefore unpublishable.

Recollecting these things does bring back a small smile to my face, so there must have been some small, unrecognized reaction to the writing, the content, the themes, my Homo-Sovieticus radar bleeping faintly in a room where no-one was watching. In hindsight, therefore, I can only blame myself for not appearing to enjoy what is quite possibly a great selection of short stories, one I should probably re-read at a later date. Go, buy, make your own mind up.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll

Wait, how DO you row across a wooden sea?
Jonathan Carroll poses two problems to me, as a book reviewer. The first is not the usual one with which I’m faced when contemplating a favourite author, but rather one of device, trope, hook – in short, a theme for the review. Carroll’s works are large in scope even when centred in small, parochial settings. They are not easily pigeon-holed, despite the complacent person’s tendency to bung them into the fantasy genre (indeed, I have an aged Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks version of The Land of Laughs), and are as spiritual as they are fantastical. They have an ease of language that often belies some hard-edged writing, and pretty much anyone in any given book could die or is already dead, even and sometimes especially the ubiquitous bullet-headed English Bull Terriers. So, what then, should I do to properly frame this review and subsequent Carroll critiques (for there will be more, with at least The Ghost in Love and A Child Across The Sky waiting in the wings)?
Perhaps theme-less-ness is as good a context as any. Indeed, with other contemporaneous contexts encompassing Neil Himself, and further out, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, maybe Carroll occupies natural lacunae between other genres, and thus he forces his own niche in the publishing world. In The Wooden Sea Carroll has a rebellious teen turned respectable, confronted by his youthful self (and his aged sexagenarian self too), embroiled in a super- and supra-natural mystery, with time travel, death, disappearances, and, yup, aliens. Plus, there’s the dog. All told from the first person perspective of present-day Frannie McCabe, it unfolds quickly, from the first appearance of the three-legged pooch and precipitated by its almost instantaneous death. There’s feathers, a bizarre Dutchman, a friend high up on the autism spectrum, a wife and former lover, magical tattoos, coffee, angels / aliens, wholesale reality warping, as mentioned time travel, and more death. In all, it’s an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining novel, with moments of poignancy, slap-stick comedy, ok, there’s some fantasy too, and a whole lot of beautiful things to consider. I’d previously said that Carroll sees things in a different way to me, and frankly I’m glad, as he acutely de-familiarises things in a way which is a delight to behold and does pose a question or two for the reader. I’m not surprised that Neil Himself likes him so much. So without further plot spoilers, it only leaves me to say this book is marvellous, in a best-book-I’ve-read-by-this-author kind of way. I burned straight through it, and it’s one that’s going to live in the little cracks of my mind for quite some time.
Incidentally, the second problem, sadly, reflects a slightly embarrassing personal issue I have, as an armchair advocate for the footballing fraternity that is Liverpool Football Club, with ex-LFC footballers by the name of Carroll… But I shan’t bore you with that one.

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Explorer by James Smythe

Stephen King in space?
I suspect that James Smythe has seen his fair share of science fiction movies. There are definite echoes here of Solaris (the original 1972 film) and even Dark Star, John Carpenter's rather off-beat long-short-film, from which the idea was formed for the now remaining Scott sibling's Alien (at least the bit about something scrabbling around loose in the spaceship). I suspect he's read a few sci-fi novels and short stories too. I pick up Ray Bradbury, and maybe Vernor Vinge, in the vastness of space and all the cold, hard, emptyness of the universe. And there's Robert Reed too, Marrow, things unknown and unknowable, exploration without end. 

But it's all well and good doing a literature review, putting this compact novel into context. What's more difficult to do is to review this novel without too much reference to the plot, which is tight and unfolds quickly, satisfyingly, once the red herring is out of the way. The red herring you ask? Yeah, sorry, spoiler. I can't tell you. 

Instead, by way of a quick and, hopefully, tasteful introduction, what we have is a narrator aboard a spaceship, a herald of the vanguard of a new era of space exploration. He's a journalist, Cormac Easton, and was chosen from thousands to document the first true deep space mission, years after the last failed attempt to get to the moon again. His crew members are all handsome, diverse, TV friendly types, also hand-picked and seemingly perfect for the job. All goes well until they wake from stasis into which they're put to survive the G-forces of take-off.... 

Starting out, I had an inkling where this was going. Deep space missions, exploration; it's been a while since the first episode of Star Trek back in 1966 where the ship went off on a five year mission, from which they returned safely, eventually. Things have changed, audiences are less enamoured with the closed narrative loop (heh heh! a joke for those who've read this already!) and by the 90s, even The Next Generation crew were stranded on the wrong side of the galaxy rather than bombing about locally, galactically speaking. Now, when people head off into space you expect them not to come back, to blow up - Gravity notwithstanding* - or get detached from the ship, suits rupturing, heads-a-popping**, and spinning out into the blackness, all alone. Still not a spoiler, I promise!

What James Smythe does is set you up for a fall. He shows a monster early, in full colour, and you think, shit, is that it, is that what the horror is? He's played his hand too soon. How is he going to fill up the other 80% of this book and keep me interested? What I appreciate in an author is when he can slide up behind you and yank up the waistband of your underwear over your head and you're none the wiser until you're hanging from the gatepost by your tighty whiteys. It's all hinted at, throughout, very simply but in such a fashion that you think, nah, the tech guys are just dumbing down for the cameras, for the journo fellow, the one who's along for the ride and frankly couldn't understand what they meant if they told him anyway. I will say it is a tiny weeny bit of a sci-fi cop-out, but that really doesn't matter. Given the amount of reading he's probably done it was all but inevitable. There usually has to be an explanation - a sentient telekinetic ocean planet for example, or an ancient race of long-dead explorers and builders, or naughty alien oblongs. If it worked for Kubrick then what's not to love? In conclusion, then, I really rather liked this book, and the progression from his first, The Testimony, shows that he is developing significantly as a writer; he just may be a British*** sci-fi novelist to watch!


*Although they did kill off quite a few of the crew before - wait! I'm not here to spoil that film for you either!
**People don't actually decompress violently in the vacuum - that's a space-myth so I'm told.
***Welsh!