Saturday, 29 March 2008

Steven Hall, The Raw Shark Texts (2007)

One initial question about this near-weightless novel. Is it raw? And the answer: by no means: it’s very cooked indeed. It’s the fictive equivalent of a microwaveable meal. Everything in this novel has been boiled and boiled until a great cap of foam crowns the pan and all the goodness has leeched out of the vegetables. This is not to say it’s no fun. On the contrary it is a novel with a considerable fizz; an enjoyably quick read. It's all bubbles, though.
The protagonist, Eric Sanderson, wakes up at the beginning of chapter one with total amnesia. He sees a therapist who informs him that he’s had a personality breakdown (and not for the first time) following the death of his girlfriend on holiday the previous year. He gets letters from his former self, instructing him in the ways of bizarre protective rituals, and warning him of terrible dangers. He goes on a search to uncover more.
Of Amnesia as a premise for novel-writing in general and SF in particular Clute and Nicholls have this to say (the entry is actually written by Dave Langford):

Loss of memory, usually inflicted on the protagonist, is a recurring plot device in all forms of fiction .... In genre writing this has become a notorious CLICHÉ: a combined technique of empathy generation and narrative delay, with amnesiac and reader beginning on an equally bewildered footing and together groping towards the character's IDENTITY, empowerment and goals. Examples include Philip José FARMER's The Maker of Universes (1965; rev 1980), Roger ZELAZNY's Nine Princes in Amber (1970), and Colin KAPP's The Patterns of Chaos (1972) -- whose hero's initial amnesia seems arbitrarily imposed and has no particular justification beyond the traditional knock on the head. … A E van VOGT's "Asylum" (1942 ASTOUNDING); Ursula K LE GUIN's City of Illusions (1967); Keith LAUMER's Dinosaur Beach (1971) and The Infinite Cage (1972); Tanith LEE's The Birthgrave (1975 US); Philip E HIGH's Fugitive from Time (1978) and others; the film D.A.R.Y.L. (1985); and Helen S WRIGHT's A Matter of Oaths (1988).
Cliché, yes. Yes. A notorious cliché, yes. Hall is aware that his premise is old, and addresses himself to that fact by flashing his intertexts at us: Jaws! Memento! The Matrix! But this doesn’t address the staleness of his premise; and as it happens the illogicality of his central conceit.
What conceit is that? Well, Sanderson soon realizes that he’s in danger (here in the actual world) of being eaten alive by a 'Ludovician', a shark-shaped notional entity (‘one of the many species of purely conceptual fish’ 64). Just to run that past you again. Sanderson, who lives in the real world, is really menaced by a purely conceptual shark. How? Well, there’s some handwaving about ‘the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect’, and some more about the physical interstices of the world, crawlspaces, empty carparks, unused alleys and so on. But, no, it makes no sense; and its senselessness robs the book of force. Sanderson goes on the run; hooks up with the sexy, smart, high-kicking heroine 'Scout' (with whom of course he becomes romantically entangled) and tracks down the evil Mr Smith ripoff, who is named, via Sherlock Holmes and Bill Gates, ‘Mycroft Ward’. He runs about, solves a couple of codes Dan-Browny-like, has various hairsbreadth escapes, and ultimately builds a conceptual boat to chase the shark in exactly the way the characters in Spielberg’s Jaws did, except that they were (according to the logic of the movie) in a real boat chasing a real shark, and Sanderson is in a notional boat chasing a notional shark that is also somehow a real shark in the real world. By some means.
This is crucial, I think. SF is often at its best as an explicitly metaphorical literature. The Matrix itself is an eloquently metaphorical text. That film’s central metaphor articulates the experience of living in our alienating, high-tech world. Hall’s sharky central metaphor doesn’t really articulate anything, beyond the most generic premise of the thriller (‘the bad guys are chasing you’); and, worse, it never escapes muddle in its understanding of how metaphor works.
The romantic sections between the hero and the heroine are very poorly written; but the mystery of ‘what’s going on?’ at the beginning and the thriller elements of chase-and-search in the middle, are well-plotted enough to keep you turning the pages. Also there are various typographical tricks and embellishments: pictures of the shark made out of characters and so on. This sort of thing:

I find the shine goes off these sorts of typsettery fun and games rather quickly, and the overall conception of the book is too friable, flawed and illogical to leave a solid sense of Good Fiction in the head once the final page has been reached. It’s fun. It’s nothing more.
Now, there’s been a lot of buzz about the pantechnicons of cash Hall has been paid for the movie rights to this novel. Good luck to him, on that; and there’s certainly a cinematic feel to the book, which many readers will like. But it is, for all that, a book. Books are made out of words, and Hall doesn’t put his words together very well.
In particular he overwrites; both in the sense that he is unnecessarily prolix and in the sense that his prose is too-too purple. It goes beyond purple, often, into a sort of stylistic shocking-pink. So, this is how Sanderson wakes up:

My eyes slammed themselves capital O open and my neck and shoulders arched back in a huge inward heave, a single world-swallowing lung-gulp of air. [3]
Pretty much everything that happens in the book happens in those terms. People don’t breath in this book, they suck lungfuls of air (‘I sucked a lungful of air’ [99]; ‘I .. sucked air through my fingers’ [198]; ‘my lungs [were] pulling and heaving under my ribs’ [316]). TVs don’t fall over; rather ‘the screen threw itself forward with a screaming electric flash … I tried for silent breaths but my breathing and my thinking were all ripped, chopped, torn-up, ragged.’ [58]
Hall is aiming for intensity, but he is trying too hard. Less is more. That’s such an important principle of writing that I’m going to put it down here a second time. Less is more. It is more effective to write ‘Increasingly vehement bangs were coming from behind the locked door. They stopped suddenly’ than it is to write:

The banging and slamming, clattering and rattling sounds were coming from behind the locked door, and they were building up, growing more and more aggressive … [Then] deep thick silence thundered from behind the closed door. Pure. Heavy. Pregnant. The sound of being stared at. [52]
By the same token to describe a kiss as ‘a million volts’ and

somebody let off a box of fireworks in my stomach. I was winded. They went up like a million-coloured bomb [212]
is not to describe a kiss very well. Hall’s writing is the prose-style equivalent of adding multiple exclamations marks and underlining a dozen times in different coloured pens. It does not make me like the book. Sometimes his desire for intensity leads him into patches impossible to visualize (‘Dr Randle was more like an electrical storm or some complicated particle reaction than a person’ [7]). Very often it leads him into the Valley of Appalling Pretensiousness:

God my lips said. The word was stillborn and tiny and bundled away in a sweep of the gale. [98]
Many writers have galloped down into that valley; very few have emerged again alive. Hall is MIA. Take this sentence, describing a rainstorm: ‘A dramatic wet sheet broke against the window followed by a haiku of fat rain taps as the wind took a breath.’ [104] You don’t think that reeks of student creative-writing, of trying too hard? I think it does.
Reading The Raw Shark Texts is a question of the point at which the reader first feels the urge to shout ‘ENOUGH ALREADY!’ Will it be when the literalised-metaphorical rainstorm starts bashing (aggressively banging and slamming, clattering and rattling) at you?

And then it was raining, a heavy downpour of letters, words, images, snatches of events … [61] The rain came down so hard it had a real weight, beating my head and shoulders into a flinch, pouring heavy over my waterlogged clothes and streaming in flukes from my hood and from my elbows and from my etc etc. [98]
Maybe it will be when the queasily staggering prose reaches the following particularly spewy moment? ‘My insides were hanging slack and wet and loose under my ribs and down into my hips. My head felt even worse … bile and matter and juices and oils, jellies and snots of thick green slime reeked and splattered out of me all over the black and white tiled floor’ [146]. Or maybe you’ll make it to the protagonist’s dive into the literalised-metaphorical ocean which is ‘the liquid forever of history’ (‘I tumbled and rolled, pressed and pinwheeled through promises thoughts stories plans whispers lists lies tricks etc etc etc’ [315]). For me it was about halfway through, after Sanderson defeats Mr Nobody, and afterwards picks up his pillbox to discover that this individual (a creature in the real world) is actually a construct.

CONCENTRATION. Four milligrams … STYLE. EXTRAPOLATION. CONVICTION. FRIENDLY SMILE. POWERS OF PERSUASION. The little white pills inside each tub rattled. [179]
I bethought myself: but Neuromancer and The Matrix take the pains to rationalize the medium in which their sharks and enemy simulacra operate. The metaphorical world is one thing; the real world another; it distractingly nonsensical to talk as if a creature from the former can become materially embodied in the latter. But then I thought to myself: I know what this reminds me of: The Phantom Tollbooth. There’s that same childish belief that notional and real are aspects of one another; except that The Phantom Tollbooth is original, charming and winning, and Raw Shark Texts is second-hand, day-glo and deafening.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army (2007)

I’ve now read all three of Hall’s novels, and although this, her first SF work, seems to me the weakest of them there’s no doubt that she is a prodigiously gifted and genuine novelist. I shall certainly read her next novel; and may even buy it in hardback, which is my actual cool-aid acid-test of a writer worth taking seriously. What is particularly markworthy about her writing, I’d say, is the focus and poetic intensity of her style: she tells straightforward but solid stories in a solidly rendered landscape, evoking both with a fine expressive excess. She is especially good at descriptions of nature, scenery and rural life. The Carhullan Army reworks some of the material from her first novel, the drowned-pastoral Haweswater (2002), relocating its clash of modern and traditional, town and country, male and female from the 1930s into the near-future.

Hall’s narrator (‘Sister’ is the only name she gives us) runs away from her grim factory job and unsatisfying relationship in the town to make a new life at Carhullan, a farm in the Cumbrian hills that is both a radical female collective and a seedbed for resistance to the centralized evils of the State. Carhullan is run by the charismatic, slightly insane ex-commando Jackie Nixon. Over the course of this relatively short novel Sister becomes in effect a terrorist, a member of the titular army. The book opens with an official epigraph: ‘English Authority System archive—record no 498: Transcript recovered from site of Lancaster holding dock. Statement of female prisoner detained under section 4(b) of the Insurgency Preventing (Unrestricted Powers) Act.’ So we know how the story is going to end; but we’d know that anyway from the unvaryingly doleful tone of the whole.

The Carhullan Army is a markedly, almost stubbornly old-fashioned dystopia that plays its premise entirely straight: there’s no irony, no intertextual self-knowledge in the foresquare representation of how hard life in this imagined world necessarily is. Hall plays no games with the genuineness or essential reliability of her first-person narrator. In many ways it's a strange work. That’s not intended dismissively, by the way. I like strange, and to a degree I liked this novel: I liked its single-mindedness, and its moral seriousness. I liked the way it construes both the strengths and weaknesses, or rather the freedoms and the limitations, of its rural gynocracy. I liked its attentiveness to the natural world, something too rarely found in novels, and in sf novels found more rarely still. But there have been a number of exceptional, powerful and enduring literary dystopias recently: Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Jim Crace's Pesthouse, McCarthy's The Road. The Carhullan Army is by no means a bad novel, but it isn’t in the same class as these others; and being published as it is in the wash made by their passage it can hardly help seeming a little belated.

More, its single-mindedness comes to seem tiresome before the end. It is relentless and rather spiritless, a book whose watchwords are seriousness and honesty, immanent qualities of the writing that are also deictically displayed (Jackie Nixon ‘did not try to describe Carhullan as any kind of Utopia [100]; ‘it was a serious and honest existence at the farm’ [103]) but which are perhaps too worthy to work as organising principles for this fiction.

Hall’s dystopian England, despite the role Global Warming has evidently played in its creation, could have been written in the 1960s. Life is sliding towards a miserable subsistence level under a Soviet-style tyrannous ‘Authority’; a regime that deploys ‘ten year recovery plans’, runs ‘detention centres’, nationalizes land ownership and pursues what one character calls ‘all that centralization nonsense’ [104]. It's a crude-enough caricature of Bad Government: a straw dictatorship against which Hall’s odd combination of radical rural conservatism and radical 1970s feminism can offset itself. So on the one hand there’s a Dave Spart feel to much of the rhetoric (‘‘Women were treated like cunts back down there. Like second-class citizens and sex-objects. They were underpaid and underappreciated’ [115]) and a shall-we-say lack of nuance to the book’s ideological bias:

She [Nixon] did not make monsters of us. She simply gave us the power to remake ourselves into those inviolable creatures the God of Equality had intended us to be. We knew she was deconstructing the old disabled version of our sex. [187]
That women not be treated like cunts, sex-objects and second-class citizens is something on which we can all agree. But threading through these mainstream opinions (offered as if revolutionary) is a much more dubious essentialism and a celebration of dogged passivity associated with the enduring if dour landscape Hall loves. Towards the end of the novel we are told: ‘it is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most that will conquer’ [158]—one of the most monstrously wrongheaded things I have read in a novel for a long time. And then there’s this romanticized, slightly sap-headed peroration, right near the end of the book:

Revolutions always begin in mountainous regions. It’s the fate of such places. Look around you … these are the disputed lands. They have never been settled. And those of us who live in them have never surrendered to anyone’s control. Nor will we ever. [195-6]
Revolutions always begin in mountainous regions? That would be news to Wat Tyler, Cromwell, George Washington, Robespierre, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh—wait up. Actually, let's rephrase: ‘Revolutions rarely begin in mountainous regions’. Or indeed: ‘I’m Cumbrian and I don’t like people telling me what to do.’ That would be less starry-eyed and less grimly self-romanticising. ‘We have never surrendered to anyone’s control. Nor will we ever’. Grand. Although, didn’t Hadrian build a big fuck-you wall right through the middle of Cumbria? Ach, I’m nitpicking … except I’m not, really: this is a novel that needs to build more than a series of minute poetic observations of landscape. It needs to understand how politics actually work; how history actually moves; how tyranny actualizes itself in the world. It doesn’t. 1970s Feminism taught us that the personal is political; but this novel can only encompass the first, and not the second, half of the equivalence.

But the biggest disappointment in the novel, I’d say, is the quality of the writing itself. Both Hall’s previous novels contain numerous passages of superb, luminous writing. In The Carhullan Army the writing seemed to me simply less controlled, less effective. In part this has to do with a tendency to infodump (‘we seemed united by our disappointment, our anger, our distrust of the reinvented Forward Party, who had taken office under the banner of reform, and had then signed the Coalition Oil Treaty … [led by] Powell, one of the old guard … a bigot’ etc etc [24-5]) ‘This was not England, everyone said. This was some nightmarish version that we would wake from soon. The overdose and suicide rates climbed’ [30]. This is not Writing, everyone can agree. This is telling rather than showing. The reader's engagement falls away.

But there’s also a kind of wobble in the texture of the writing itself, from sentence to sentence, that struck me as off-form for a stylist as gifted as Hall has shown herself to be. To be clear: this novel is better written, and Hall a much better stylist, than any other writer on Clarke 08, and better written than most other novels I read this year. But although she is often evocative and poetic (‘the November sky was ash-blue and the clouds moved fast above us’ [96]), often grimly so (‘the white smear of moon, a ridged and filmy ulcer in the lining of cloud’ [8]), or very good on minute observation: felled by the Carhullan guards, Sister sees wildlife in amongst the grass: ‘an inch from my eye a spider was belaying down one of the stems on a pale rope. Its legs pedaled precisely on the descent’ [58]. There is a good deal of excellent writing like that. But just as often she misfires. ‘The man had a red face like a daub of glass taken out of a furnace’ [11] (what—featureless? luminous? hot?). ‘The fell was covered with stiff gingery grass and droves of heather’ [55] (gingery? droves?). ‘Above us the sky was charcoal-coloured and disturbed, the clouds swirling in vortexes, ripping along their edges’ [173] … ‘vortices’, presumably; and don’t you think this description comes over like a special effect from The Philadelphia Experiment? And here is the narrator approaching the rectangular-windowed Carhullan farmhouse at night for the first time, seeing ‘a dozen soft lights, loose glowing ovals like egg yolks’ [64]. Um?

A half-hewn novel. A plainsong novel. Not without moments of harsh beauty, but incomplete, unfinished, not quite earning its outrage, not quite fulfilling its contract with the reader.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Stephen Baxter, The H-Bomb Girl (2007)

Baxter is no stranger to the Clarke shortlist. Indeed, Baxter is no stranger to the Clarke shortlist is rank litotes, for he has been nominated more than any other author, and the fact that he has never won is starting to look peculiar. A superb SF writer with all the Golden Age virtues, he has increasingly been perfecting his fictive craft, with a more complex and rewarding sense of characterization and the formal balances of his art. His prose is never fancy, although (like Simenon) its clarity sometimes disguises a more considered thematic and playful complexity.
The H-Bomb Girl is a YA novel, and about such writing I would say this: YA is a mode of writing it is ferociously difficult to do well. I have tried, and failed, to master it; and my admiration for The H-Bomb Girl is inflected via a heartfelt envy of Baxter’s effortless technical facility in this unforgiving medium. A good YA novel must have all the virtues of a good adult novel in terms of topic, development, character, narrative, mood, theme and worldbuilding; but it must be much more efficiently worked. Younger readers are much less forgiving of writerly self-indulgence, waffle, padding, loss-of-focus or pretension; they read sentence by sentence, and every sentence they read must move them forward in some way. The H-Bomb Girl succeeds. It is a gripping, informative, extremely likeable little novel.
The worst that can be said of it is that it's, perhaps, slight. The difficulty, as far as critical judgment is concerned, is to determine how far such an assessment reflects the novel itself, and how much it simply voices a prejudice against children’s literature as such. The latter position, of course, would not be defensible. Yet I finished reading The H-Bomb Girl with a sense of it as a minor addition to the Baxter canon. It treats the same topics as most of his recent fiction has done: alternate history and timelines parsing the same ethical dilemmas of how individual choice creates our mature selves, how much agency we possess as individuals in the face of larger historical forces, what possibilities for escape and for atonement are at our disposal. These are the themes of the Times Tapestry books; the Manifold novels and to an extent the Destiny’ Children books as well. I don’t think it’s just the larger canvas, and greater scope, that these novels provide that is responsible for their greater sense of heft and sway. But I do think nevertheless that Baxter's current Big Theme just needs more space in which to be developed than a novella-length YA title allows.
The H-Bomb Girl reads like a CBBC drama one-off, especially in its denouement where the British army bazookas its way through the wall of Liverpool’s famous rock-venue The Cavern (whilst the Beatles are playing) and into the high-tech Dr-Evil-style lair the Hegemony have constructed beneath the city. This is lightly handled: fun and amusing (Henry Cooper is the soldier aiming the bazooka; John Winston Lennon is wisecracking in the background; the kids get to swarm in and defeat ultimate evil in a playground bundle). The downside is that so happy an ending feels a little safe, given how uncompromising the rest of the novel is.
Now it could be argued, I suppose, that the happy ending is necessary in structural terms, following as it does the novel’s tour-de-force account, via Laura’s diary, of the alt-1960s in which the Cuba crisis led to nuclear catastrophe. This embedded narrative of a late twentieth-century Britain ruined by atomic war is excellent, harrowing stuff; strong meat for a child audience including as it does mass death, vividly rendered physical suffering, the exploitation and rape of the heroine, and a vertiginously depressing glimpse down a time line in which life is very close to unbearable. Harrowing, but well judged, and the heart of the book.
The alternative timelines don't devalue the central worldbuilding exercise of the novel, which is an thoroughly believable and immersive recreation of early 1960s Liverpool. The closest The H-Bomb Girl comes to anachronism is the very twenty-first century valorization of ethnic, sexual and cultural diversity it retcons into the early 1960s: Laura’s friends are a Catholic pregnant schoolgirl and single-mum-to-be, a young black guy called Joel; a gay rock singer called Nick; amongst her opponents is a disabled man in a wheelchair, so all the equal opportunity boxes are ticked. Baxter does not soft-pedal either the racism or the homophobia of the period, although of course and creditably enough he ensures that examples of bigotry are rebuked by characters in the book (A biker in the cavern racially abuses Joel. ‘Bernadette moved in, tall, commanding. “Hey face ache. Leave him alone.”’ [107]) The only danger—and I’d say it’s a danger Baxter just about avoids—is that of a certain right-on-ness. But that’s by no means a bad thing
And one quality this short novel has that none of the other shortlisted Clarke 08 titles share is a saving irony--a ludic quality: its topic is serious, but Baxter understands that po-facedness is not the best way to handle serious stuff. ‘I was there in 1990 to help throw Nelson Mandela back into jail…’ boasts the hateful Miss Wells, representative of the fascistic time line ruled by the militaristic Hegemony. ‘I’ve been there all my life. Working to make sure the Hegemony’s grip is absolute … I was involved in the Fire Power movement in 1967, and the Live Hate concert in Wembley in 1985…’ [227] Baxter also confronts the inevitable intertextuality:

‘Time travel’s perfectly sensible,’ Joel said. ‘The BBC are making a show about it, that will be on the telly in the autumn.’ Joel always knew about that kind of thing. ‘Called Dr Who. There will be this old man and his grand-daughter, and a time machine.’ [258]
A little hard to believe that a kid in the pre-internet pre-fanzine early 1960s would be so clued-up on a BBC show that hadn't even been filmed yet, but we can let that go.
Very few of the novel's touches seemed to me to sound false notes, although I baulked a little at the nineteen-eighty-four-ish timeline that the H.G.-monkiered ‘Miss Wells’ calls home, in which the US and Russia have been fighting a mock-war for decades to keep the population in line.

Bernadette said, ‘So everybody thinks they’re at war. Even though American and Russian soldiers haven’t fired a shot in anger for forty years. Doesn’t anybody ever rumble you?’
‘Of course,’ said Miss Wells. ‘Every ten years or so you have a new crop of teenagers … who get suspicious. Who want to be free, to live their own lives … every ten years or so they have to be reminded.’
‘By what?’
‘A bomb in the heart of Russia. A missile hitting America … The devastation, the fear, the suspicion, the paranoia—that’s what prods the public back into their sheep pens.’ [229-30]
I found that hard to believe (would it really work?); but it’s a marginal facet of an excellent book. All in all The H-Bomb Girl is a find: splendidly evocative of a place and a time, it manages to be morally serious without ever losing its playfulness, its charm or its scouse nous.

Merseybeat PS: At one point we see posters for ‘local groups with names like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Derry and the Seniors, John Smith and the Common Men, Bob Tanner and the Threepenny Bits. The freshest poster announced that the Beatles would be playing at the Cavern on Monday night, supported by the Woodbines.'[93] The Woodbines is the novel's own group. The first two bands on this list were real groups, of course; John Smith and the Common Men is a fictional group from, of course, Doctor Who; and Bob Tanner and the Threepenny Bits I take to be Baxter's own contribution to the lexicon of made-up band names. A nice one too, given that a bob is twelve old pennies, a tanner six old pennies, and a thrupenny-bit three. The groupies could be three round-faced copper-haired ha'pennies. The Beatles, on the other hand, are a different matter.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Matthew de Abaitua, The Red Men (Snowbooks 2007)

One of the 08 Clarke nominees, this, and now that I've read the entire shortlist I feel in a position to say: by far the worst book nominated, and one of the worst novels I've read in a long time. It's a messily put together near-future sort-of thriller in which the two-dimensional Nelson Millar and his consistently grating and annoying friend Raymond Chase (hyperactive and self-consciously wacky poet) get tangled up with 'Monad', an organisation that provides 'consumer modelling in virtual environments' and 'artificial intelligence in marketing scenarios' [46]. There are explosions and fires, secret plots, robots called 'Dr Easy' that work as psychologists aiding the police (they have spherical suede faces and mournful eyes, which would surely spook the jism out of anybody with whom they tried to interact), and the titular 'red men', virtual simulations of people who as-it-were haunt reality. Apart from that, and other occasional gestures in the direction of imagined technology (celluloid screens, a man with surgically attached porcine testicles and so on) the novel is set in a recognisable now North London.
The blurb promises a thriller salted with 'the imminent technologies of tomorrow', but the novel delivers a very yesterday set of sf tropes: a pinch of Dick, a scattering of Gibson. Most notably. the central topic of the novel, the establishment of an entire virtual town of Red Men upon which marketing and other ideas can be tested, is a tired and belated retread of Fred Pohl's 1955 story 'The Tunnel Under the World' (from the collection Alternating Currents). The rest of the book reads like a sub-par episode of Nathan Barley, which is very far from being a recommendation: the protagonist works on a magazine called Drug Porn and mixes with people called things like 'Alex Drown', 'Harry Bravado' and 'Mr Blasebalk'. Some characters chatter in poorly satirised marketing talk ('Me2. Me Too. Yeah. There you go...' 'I'm not sure about the logo' [83]). The women talk like this: 'I've got a fantastic pair of tits, and sometimes men take them the wrong way' [47]. There are too many adolescent and wincingly bad patches of writing. One character is lying on the beach 'naked ... mildly aroused, his cock acted as the gnomon of a sundial, its shadow marking time on his belly' [126]. (Um...) An opium plant is described as possessing 'the provocative bulbous tip of a Martian phallus' [68], but the provocation is all in the writer's mind, and not in the least on the page. The whole is often clumsy and lumbering stuff, trying for shock and falling short. Old. Here's an example of would-be-comic writing.
It all started when Florence the poet asked if I wanted to come over for cunnilingus and pasta. I said 'what type of pasta?' She said 'fusilli'. I said 'I don't mind if I do.' [25]
It's almost as if the writer is willing his readership to mutter 'ho ho' in a deadpan voice. There is also some superweak satire of the corporate world.
The leaflets in the front desk in plastic holders with their inspiring verbs -- devise, pitch, propose -- he satirised thus; 'Nelson, let us imaginate together. Shall we join our colleagues and visionise the future?' [176]
The semicolon there is the author's own solecism. And can a near-future thriller really manage no better satirical bite than Dead Ringers' George W. impersonator? When de Abaitu lights on a notion he thinks good (calling neural drugs 'cogniceuticals', say) he can't let it go, but must flog it until life leaves its eyes: one character takes 'cogniceuticals' on p.121; then we have 'an emoticeutical inhaler' on the same page; then 'neuroceuticals' on p.122.
Incidentally -- my previous sentence? That's how colons and semi-colons are used.
The science bits of the science fiction are poorly worked: a minor character undergoes 'a cortical hack', which is accomplished by pushing a flashing 'device' into his mouth, of all places: 'the trick was to call up a disused memory and in the moment of its summoning slip a long line of code directly underneath it' [253].
There are moments here and there of more promising writing; and some interesting thematic stuff about fire, conflagration, flames, redness and the like. De Abaitua also synthesises a great chunk of Gnostic stuff, which might interest you, or then again, might not; and there's a quantity of running about, if you like that sort of thing in a novel. But it all comes over as flabby; the whelm here very much on the under side. When near the end one character declares 'what a long, strange trip this has been!' [323] it does not feel like a sentiment that has been earned. 'What's the Latin for "unreal man"?' one character asks at once point: 'homo non verus? Homo Falsus? Homo Fictus?' [87] That last should perhaps be homo ficticius, 'artificial, feigned, non-genuine man'; although since it appears in a liber ficticius perhaps I shouldn't pick nits. What's the Latin for swine's-snout?

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Sarah Hall, Haweswater (Faber 2002)

Sarah Hall's first novel won the Commonwealth Writers Best First Novel Award, and many plaudits from critics, for the usual sorts of reasons. There is a clumsiness to this book, and it reaches for a little more than it delivers, but it does include some beautiful writing, most especially beautiful nature writing, and it has a potent if simple main narrative line. We're in a rural Westmorland community, 1936, a community that is facing the prospect of their valley being flooded and themselves displaced by a reservoir scheme to provide drinking water for the cities of the Midlands. The meat of the novel concerns two people. One is a representative of the Manchester City Waterworks, Jack Liggett, overseeing the construction of the dam and the reservoir. The other is a fiesty young local girl called Janet Lightburn, who has an affair with (and gets pregnant by) him. Those portions of the novel are a little sticky, actually: a love story channelling Lawrence and Wuthering Heights and tipping over from time to time into an over-earnest intensity, with a great quantity of crashing, smashing passion. The northern dialect is sometimes awkwardly handled as well, and the 'local colour' aspects of the tale (a dam actually was built at Haweswater in the 1930s, although the story told here is fictional) are laid on a bit thick. But you forgive the author everything for her descriptive powers of the natural world. Isaac is fishing:
Trout gape at him. Their spots shimmering fire, locked with brown silver and lit by the water's light. Minnows butting the current, all eyes. The black silk of a hidden eel. [75]

She is especially good with rain:
It began to rain, a fat slapping rain that ringed in the water and leapt up out of it. The air became blue with its speed. Rain hissed like soft glass coming from the sky. A cough of thunder in the throat of the hills to the north east. [xi]

The penultimate sentence there is a touch forced, but the final one redeems it: lovely writing. Or again:
June. The rain comes as if out of nowhere. Suddenly it is fat and fast, warm in the air. a strong breeze the only warning of the impending torrent. Then the sky is gone above cloud and a fractured column of water rests between the hills. Anything living in the valley heads for the nearest place of shelter. Sheep into wall corners, rabbits back into the maze of warrens within ground ... everything sentient is moving, except for the half-wild fell ponies, which stand absolutely still in the rain. Pure to it. [117]

It only comes into focus like that from time to time, but when it does it distils into extraordinary prose. There's also some attempt to contrast Janet's Ted-Hughesian perceptions of nature (as in the rain, there) with Jack's more fact-based sense of the world, a much less purple, ordinary observational manner which breaks out only occasionally into rather monstrous (deliberately so, I think) little flourishes (his Riley Sprite: 'beautiful ... under the bonnet was a broad intestine of fitted chrome', 89). But there are moments when the prose doesn't work, too: 'a moderate, inclusive laugh, like apples rolling down a gentle bank towards a harvester's basket' [53]. Say what?