Wednesday, 25 June 2008

William Heaney, Memoirs of a Master Forger (2008)


I’ve been reading various books for various reasons: just finished Greg Bear’s new one (City at the End of Time [July 10 edit: look upstairs]); re-reading Adam Bede for this; reading Anthony Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony (So, wait til I tell you: I picked up a second-hand copy for next to nothing ... slightly tatty and ex-library, with stamps and scuffs, but a chuffing first edition for all that. It's really very good, too, qua novel. The older I get, the less bothered I am by Burgess’s tics and pretentions, and the more impressed I am by his manifold writerly virtues).
.
Well, well. But the book I have enjoyed reading the most over the last few months is Memoirs of a Master Forger, by William Heaney, an author whose name is new to me. It is not out until October, but I urge and exhort you to make a note of the title and author. I got a bound proof from Simon Spanton at Gollancz, (Spanton the Spinmeister, as he is apparently now known: Sultan of the Harem of Hype). Actually he gave me a copy because he’s a friend of mine, and because he thought I might enjoy it. He was right about that. It’s an excellent novel.
.
The book is the first-person narrative of Heaney, a middle-aged Londoner with a respectable job and a sideline in fraud and forgery to generate income for good causes. He also has an ex-wife, a fondness for red wine and the ability to see demons. The character's voice is very-well handled; tonally spot-on, amusing and urbane and perfectly suited to the telling of a what is an enormously readable tale. The demons (there are, we learn, exactly 1567 demons in the world, from demons that drive you mad or make you blow people up, down through the demon of collecting things to the demon of excessive footnoting—‘the cause of much of the madness and disorder you find among university academics’—and the demon of acronyms. The demons are amusing, and the novel delineates demon-haunted individuals (from homeless drunks to obsessive careerists) with tenderness and precision. They’re scary too:
.
They are all squat, somewhat shorter than human beings, and are always slow-moving. Their substance is elusive to describe, being akin to something akin to loose soot. People who are sensitive to demons will often refer to them as a kind of shadow, but unlike shadow they are three-dimensional, detached and assert full integrity. Godridge in his Categorical Evidence refers to their substance as solid black vapour. Fraser, right from the beginning, called it swart cast. Believe me, it is no joke. The first time you encounter this substance in the form of these beings, you feel like your skin is being flayed. The terror is such that the fluid of your eyes seems to freeze at the sight of them. [80]
.
Whilst Heaney is not exactly an exorcist, the book has something of the flavour of Constantine as written by P G Wodehouse. Reading, it occurred to me how sheerly pleasurable it is to sink into a really well-built, expertly handled novel. Superb stuff.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008)


So here we have Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (fastest selling album of all time, apparently), and whilst it's no Red Album, it's nice enough. The melodies are pretty. The band's comittment to writing songs in time-signatures other than 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 makes for some attractive shuffles and slides. Chris Martin's voice is still a fairly limited instrument, although it has a nicely greenstick top-end. The lyrics are better than on previous Coldplays. 'Yes' and 'Violet Hill' are awfully Beatley, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But here's the thing: it's on my iRiver. Now, I long ago forgot, if I ever knew, which combination of the iRiver's many buttons alters its play mode. So at the moment, if I don't actively change artists, the album I am listening to repeats on a loop. With most albums that's not a problem; I'm caught up in my writing, and the music is playing, but some small part of my brain registers 'oh, wait, here's "No Hiding Place" again, I've gone right through the album now', so I pause for two seconds to flick the toggle and find something else to listen to. But the last track of Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends fades out riverrunlike to fit neatly with the fade in at the beginning of the first track. This has the unwished-for consequence that I found myself yesterday listening round and round, trapped like a hamster in a wheel, and this caused me to think 'oh no, I'm lost in an endless album.' Niceness is all well and good, but extended interminably it becomes horrible.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Gene Wolfe, An Evil Guest (2008)


I've just finised reading this, the new Gene Wolfe. It's out in September. I got a Bound Proof, or 'Advanced Reading Copy', for reviewing purposes (the review will, eventually, appear here). I don't want to anticipate that review (which I haven't yet written), but speaking very generally the book struck me as extremely Gene Wolfesque (or Wolfe-y), which ought to be enough to recommend it to the die-hard fans and which may be enough to put off the Wolphobes. Aspects of it are infuriating, or indeed, just not very good -- endless stretches of flat dialogue, for instance, and hardly any descriptive prose. Other aspects are strangely striking and even brilliant (difficult to give examples without going into lengthy detail), and there is a distinctive tone or quality to the work which is quite unique. Usually I finish a novel with a good sense of whether I liked it or not (well, duh), and with the confidence to essay an opinion on whether I think it's a good novel or not. In this case ... not so much. Which in itself is an indicator that Wolfe is at the very least a writer unlike any other.
.
For now, though, I want to mention one small thing. Context: here's the back-cover blurb to give you a sense of what's a-going on. "Lovecraft meets Blade Runner ... Set a hundred years in the future [but actually in 1930s Chicago or New York with a handful of added high-tech props and a smattering of interstellar travel -- ed], An Evil Guest is the story of an actress who becomes the lover of two men, a mysterious sorcerer private detective and an even more mysterious and powerful rich man." Now, as Wolfe likes to do with his SF, for instance with the Short Sun vampires, he throws in various supernatural bogeymen and monsters. There are, for instance, werewolves. The private eye/wizard chappie Gideon Chase (a name I kept reading as Gideon Coe, which shows my radio-listening prejudices), tells the astonished actress Cassie Casey, our heroine -- that's her in the cover art, up top -- how to spot werewolves in their human form.
.
"There are several signs; when an individual exhibits two or more, it's safe to assume lycanthropy. Hair on the palms of the hands is the classic indication, mentioned as far back as the Middle Ages. One almost never sees that today, because they shave it off. Luckily there are a number of others. The ring finger is often the longest on the hand. They're sensitive to odours, and insensitive to light. There's often a swift loping walk, even in women. It's hard to describe, but once you see it you'll remember it. They tend to dress in wolf shades: gray, black and white." [206]
.
So to be clear, any two of these indicators and you're a werewolf: you have hairy palms; you possess a sense of smell; your ring finger is longer than your middle-finger; you dress in black, grey and/or white; you walk about. That means you (yes you sir, madam) are a werewolf. Don't try to deny it.