Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Muse, The Resistance (2009)

My engaged but, if I'm honest, slightly all-over-the-place review of the new Muse is now up at Strange Horizons.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Stephen Baxter, Ark (2009)

‘We never even read any books—no books that counted … I liked historicals, tales of a vanished past . You liked old science fiction about vanished futures. We never engaged with the world as it was unfolding around us, not even through fiction.’
‘Nobody was writing novels about the flood,’ Venus pointed out. [Ark, 427]
This space-Noahic tale is the second part of Baxter global-disaster-and-aftermath diptych. Ironically enough, I read Flood, the first of the two books, in an ARC! Read into that what you will. (I read Ark in, uh, a regular copy).

In Flood the world flooded; in Ark a small group are trained to ride a spaceship to another world to try and start again. There’s a hand-wavey ‘warp drive’ technology at work which reduces the journey time to ‘only’ a decade or so (really quite a pronouncedly hand-wavey warp technology, actually: its dynamics are explained whilst a positively HRH-the-Queen quantity of hand-waving goes on).** I take it Baxter considered the warp needful for dramatic reasons—to keep the voyage time plausibly within the lifetimes of the main characters, and to stop him simply rewriting his superb generation-starship novella Mayflower II. And a decade cooped up in two small linked hulls is plenty of time for things to get claustrophobic, strife-riven and dangerous. That this small crew is the last chance for humanity—save, of course, the raft-living humans left behind on Earth 1 whose children are gradually evolving into merpeople—stacks up the tension.

You know the sorts of books Baxter writes, and this is paradigmatically one of those books. I don’t say that to be dismissive. On the contrary, my experience reading Ark was in a nutshell: ‘damn, he’s good at this.’ One writer can hardly say that of another without it being tinged with envy, and I’d better ’fess up to that, as well as do the full-disclosure things and note that Baxter is a friend of mine. But Flood and Ark together are going to be remembered as two of his very best novels. You should read them both. You could certainly get by just reading this one. But why would you want to 'get by'?

Ark is immensely, addictively readable, because not despite the fact that it is also relentlessly claustrophobic—something Baxter captures brilliantly. The claustrophobia is tinged with awe. Like Flood, Ark is written in a fairly plain, declarative prose that isn’t shy of occasionally dumping info; but that’s exactly the right style for this closed-down, fact-determined mis-en-scène. There’s one crucial contrast with Flood: in that novel it was clear how things were going to end from pretty early on; and indeed, that novel generated a good deal of its potency and momentum precisely from that sense of tragic inevitability. Ark is a much more open-ended novel. I genuinely did not know where the story was headed, and I read up impatiently to find out. Would the gamble pay off, or would Baxter-as-author give us one of his bleakly unillusioned, Cosmos of the Doleful Countenance stories?

His more throwaway ‘entertainments’ aside, Graham Greene’s novels were all about (to quote the phrase from Brighton Rock) ‘the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.’ Replace ‘God’ with ‘Necessity’, and you come close to what this novel is doing. Baxter flirts with religion in many of his books; and the imaginative construction here is tinged with Catholicism—monastic seclusion, a reduplicated plot-development that elaborates priest-like sexual abuse of children. But the universe of Ark is a godless place, a fact one character reinforces by quoting Seneca, no less: ‘Go on through through the lofty spaces of high heaven and bear witness, where thou ridest, that there are no gods’ [426]. That’s the Medea, and although Baxter feels the need to inoculate his non-poseur text against the allusion (‘Holle said, “You always were pretentious, Venus”’) it’s very much to the point.

The novel is on a nuts-and-bolts level about the practical problems of building, flying and maintaining a space-ark; but on a human level it’s mostly about adults and children in a Medean sense—which is to say, about the violence adults do to children for their own, crazy reasons. ‘The ontological survival of the human race is at stake’ takes, in this novel, its place on a level with ‘my dick is hard and I am randy’, ‘I had problems with my own parents, you know’ and ‘I am schizophrenic’ as essentially bullshit reasons for adults to hurt children, and it is very much to the credit of the whole that this never feels crass or exploitative. Necessity dictates the exploitation, and Necessity cannot be argued with or nagged down. In the idiom children comprehend: it’s not fair. But one strength of this novel is its profound understanding that the universe is in crucial ways not fair—or perhaps it would be better to say: it is not interested in human conceptions of fairness. Survival is the criterion, not justice. As Holle says late in proceedings: ‘there’s nothing remotely fair about any of this’ [441]. Nevertheless, Ark is not a bitter novel; in a way its Mosaic conclusion is surprisingly hopeful.

There are a couple of wrinkles, or so I thought. The novel takes 150 pages to get the Ark launched, and there’s a slight sense that the text doesn’t trust its core narrative line to keep readers interested: so a murder mystery plot is tossed awkwardly into the mix (I found it particularly unbelievable that the authorities would delegate the investigation of this mystery to Grace, a strange in from the chaos outside, as a way of her proving herself worthy of a place on the Ark.) The book does not shirk, but neither does it exactly address, the fundamental illogic of the mission—the rank unlikelihood of finding any alien planet with 15-20% oxygen in its atmosphere and edible flora; which is to say, of finding any world as suitable to human life as the admittedly-inundated-but-nonetheless-comparatively-hospitable Earth I. Then there’s the core science of the spacetravel itself. Re: that, here’s my double asterisk again.** It’s just like the one at the top of this post in that it links to a footnote below. You might want to read that note if you didn't before. Or not. It's up to you.

None of these objections are major. The bottom line is in the sentence that follows. Baxter excels at this sort of story; and this particular Baxter is most excellent.

**There’s no problem here, of course, really—most SF novels, and God knows my own, have swallowed much greater implausibilities of physics than this and lived to tell the tale. Except … well, except that everything else about the novel is so scrupulously researched and realised, so carefully grounded in the plausible. The endnote quotes scientific work ‘deriving from the seminal paper by Miguel Alcubierre (Classical and Quantum Gravity vol 11, L73-L77, 1994).’ Creating a warp bubble big enough to enclose a spaceship would, the book tells us, need vast amounts of power; a sizeable fraction of the sun’s mass converted directly into energy. Baxter gets round that, ‘reducing the energy required by shrinking the “warp bubble”’, something he takes from ‘a paper by C Van Den Broeck’. By this logic we could, with much less energy, create a big bubble attached to ‘our’ spacetime by a tiny bottleneck, like an aneurysm attached to an artery wall. To which I say, er, OK. Now to create even this (unless I’ve misread the text, planck-scale) balloon-neck requires great masses of antimatter, which in this novel is mined from the space around Jupiter—surely an undertaking of prodigious, unlikely-to-succeed engineering and human difficulty right there. But later in the novel warp bubbles are reignited, seemingly at will, and I wondered: using what energy, exactly? More, I worried how, precisely (look at the hands! see them wave!) the huge Ark ship was inserted into the bottle of its warp bubble, through so prodigiously narrow a neck; and furthermore how the bubble was sent on its way—with pinpoint accuracy across many, and latterly scores, of lightyears—how propelled and oriented. And I worried that the gravitational ‘lensing’ of the bubble, several times alluded-to, would work effectively to focus and thus swamp the ship with high energy particles as it scooped through deep space, with deleterious and probably fatal effects upon the crew. And finally I wondered how the warp bubble was reintegrated into conventional spacetime once the destination was reached. But apart from that, it’s all good. Plus, nicely, Baxter has the character actually responsible for the warp field assert repeatedly, and quite plausibly, that the physics are impossible, that they can’t be traveling between the stars at warp, and that it must all be an area-51-type simulation. Which is nicely done, because in a radical sense of course it is all a fantasy—not area-51, but area-Baxter, which is an even stranger zone.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Aimee Mann, Lost in Space (2002)

Melacholic music: often lovely, if a touch samey. This is an album that could have been called Big Bowl of Sad, which title, I appreciate, actually describes a musical genre rather than any specific text. Has Aimee Mann failed to fulfil the promise of Whatever? And, Christ alive, was that album released all the way back in 1993? Man, I'm getting old. Still, at least 2002 is bang up to date.

One thing that leapt out at me: 'Invisible Ink' goes:
There comes a time when you swim or sink
So I jumped in the drink
Cuz I couldn't make myself clear
Maybe I wrote in invisible ink.
But Mann sings that last line, with her gorgeous flattened vowels and her charming American indistinctness about the difference between 't' and 'd' , as 'maybe I rode an invisible ankh', which I consider a far superior line.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze (2009)

Some very fine writing, here, but some padding too. Dr Matthew Allen runs a lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Epping Forest in 1840: John Clare, the mad peasant poet, is one of his patients. Alfred Tennyson comes to stay, to oversee the admittance of his brother Septimus, who is suffering from the melancholic ‘black blood’ of the Tennysons. The doctor has a brilliant idea for an automated wood-lathe, and persuades Tennyson to invest (something which really happened). The doctor’s pale daughter Hannah falls hopelessly in love with Tennyson (which may or may not have happened). The wood-lathe project goes bust. Various loonies hove into and out of view through the scintillant fog of Fould’s self-consciously fine writing: Margaret with her self-abnegating religious mania; witchlike Clara; Mr. Francombe, who believes that if he shits ‘he will poison the water, destroy the forest … and everyone in London will be killed’ [34] and who is given an enema against his will, something Foulds describes in loving, revolting detail.* And above all there is Clare, who early in the novel wanders the forest and hangs-out with gypsies, but who becomes increasingly deranged as it continues: his perceptions of the natural world, and the whorls and eddies of his distorted consciousness gift the novel its most memorable moments. The final section describes with hallucinatory vividness his eighty-mile walk from London to Northborough, and is a superb piece of prose ... although it draws heavily, as of course is must, on Clare's own, famous account of that walk.

I remember reading a review (or now that I come to think of it, I think this was a discussion I heard on radio or saw on TV) of Golding’s Darkness Visible when that novel was first published in 1979. The talking head, or reviewer, thought the book broadly a failure, but said ‘it has patches—patches—of some of the finest writing I have ever read.’ And before I ever read the novel itself I remember thinking: what a fantastic thing. Not a tediously accomplished novel that runs smoothly from start to finish, but a ragged text out of which protrude great chunks of genius. That seems to me, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom, as an almost ideal notion: a superb notion for how a novel could be. When I finally got round to reading Darkness Visible it was something of a disappointment, actually; because it is both not as a bad, and nowhere near as good, as that I’ve-forgotten-her-name reviewer implied. You know the story about how, before he ever heard the track, Paul McCartney read a review of the Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’ that called it ‘the heaviest song yet recorded’? And how when he did hear the song he was disappointed that it wasn’t what the review had implied, so he was moved to write and record ‘Helter Skelter’? Step down the analogy to the realm of SF and that’s my career: attempts to rewrite what I thought Darkness Visible was going to be like before I actually read it. Attempts to recreate a novel of compelling gnarliness from a template that never actually existed.

Now I mention all this because, in a distant and rather watery sort of way this is what Foulds’ The Quickening Maze is like. It does not entirely succeed overall, but there are moments of beautiful, beautiful writing in it: most of which appertain to Clare’s perception of the world.

They don't stop it being a fairly thin novel. It is rather similar, in this respect, to The Broken Word, which I reviewed here: viz., an often very very good short story stretched a little to fill out the space between two hard covers—except that instead of simply giving us, as The Broken Word does, the boiled-down, polished-up gem-like moments of writing and nothing else, The Quickening Maze stuffs workmanlike prose and so-so dialogue into the spaces between the gems. It still, at 259 pages, feels more like a short story than a novel (the font is large; and the allotment of margin generous). I should add that feels like a very memorable short story. And I should add also that I am not the ideal reader. I am, after all, a Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of London, author of various academic writings on Tennyson (and editor of this): so I could see exactly where Fould’s imaginative recreations stopped and where the collage of chunks plucked wholesale from Robert Bernard Martin’s Tennyson: the Unquiet Heart began. None of this is actively bad, although Foulds doesn’t do the whole early-19th-century poets-interacting-with-real-people schtick as compellingly as Ben Markovits does in his superlative Byron novels.

To be nitpickier (‘to nittier-pick’?): the very high caliber of Foulds prose only makes moments where the writing lapses stand out the more. So, describing the straps restraining poor Mr Francombe for his enema, Foulds lapses into a dangling modifier (‘They creaked as he pulled, exhaling slowly through his widely spaced teeth’ 38). Or there's this sentence—‘A full moon, he noticed, looking away’ [201]—in which I don’t know if it’s Clare or the Moon who looks away.

On the other hand we get a larger number of wonderful moments too. Here's Clare watching gypsies chopping up a poached deer: ‘the deer looked odd now with its whole furred head and antlers hanging down, its skeleton neck and body, and its breeches of flesh still on’ [49]; and the moment soon afterwards when Clare goes to sleep imagining ‘his head whole, his whole body stripped to a damp skeleton, placed gentle, curled round, in a hole in the earth.’ Or this description of being punched in the face:
Stockdale drew back his right hand and threw his fist into John’s face. He saw the attendant’s knuckles suddenly huge, big as the palings of a fence with creases of shadow between them as his eye was struck, a vivid visual arrest he was still pondering when the second shadowy blow swum like a pike towards him and knocked him out cold’ [203]
He watched Tennyson relight his pipe, hollowing his clean-shaven cheeks as he plucked the flame upside down into the bowl of scorched tobacco’ [23]
Lovely writing. These moments aren’t additive though: they are lyric clots of beauty, and do not entirely coalesce into a whole novel.
*I should add: I heartily endorse his project of getting more shit into contemporary fiction.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol (2009)

Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaaaargh! Aaaaaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaargh! Aargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh! Aaaaargh!

Friday, 18 September 2009

Andrew Tarkovsky, Stalker (1979)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, Tarkovsky's Stalker is a film very dear to me, 'holy writ to my imagination', a text I've reworked and riffed-upon in my own writings not once but many times. This is the case not despite, but in a strange way because, it is basically Last of the Summer Wine, Russian-style. Gloriously so.

I also like the way the cyrillic version of the title looks like Ctanker, which in turn chimes to my English ears as a fine portmanteau of 'Cunt' and 'Wanker'. It's transgressive, you see, is Tarkovsky's movie.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Margaret Atwood, Year of the Flood (2009)

Here’s the gist:
Adam One, the kindly leader of the God’s Gardeners – a religion devoted to the melding of science, religion, and nature – has long predicted a disaster. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women remain: Ren, a young dancer locked away in a high-end sex club, and Toby, a former God’s Gardener, who barricades herself inside a luxurious spa. Have others survived? Ren’s bio-artist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers? Not to mention the CorpSeCorps, the shadowy policing force of the ruling powers… As Adam One and his beleaguered followers regroup, Ren and Toby emerge into an altered world, where nothing – including the animal life – is predictable.
Except that predictable is exactly what it is. It’s a solidly handled, readable and engaging peregrination through some extremely familiar territory; which is fine, but unlikely to light the phosphoros-flame inside your skull. Some of this familiarity comes from the sequel-to-Oryx and Crake aspect of the book; most of it, though, comes from the fact that post-apocalyptic narratives, and satiric extrapolations of the present into quasi-dystopian horribleness, are legion. Are, indeed, ten-a-euro. Now, Atwood’s handling of her two main narrative lines is that of a writer who really knows her onions: often superbly confident and impressive and never less than good. But the rest of the book slips, rather, under the reader’s whelm: the worldbuilding, the God’s Gardener’s cult, the satire.

I don’t have a lot to add to other reviews I’ve seen. Fredric Jamesons’ piece in the LRB is pretty good: in the right ballpark about the strengths of the novel (though Jameson likes it rather more than I do), and plain about the weaknesses (‘The mark of the amateur here is topicality, among other things: in Flood, the reference to ‘the Wall they’re building to keep the Tex refugees out’, or the list of saints’ names – ‘Saint E.F. Schumacher, Saint Jane Jacobs . . . Saint Stephen Jay Gould of the Jurassic Shales’ etc.’)

But this is what particularly struck me: one of Atwood’s greatest strengths as a writer is her attentiveness to things; and in Year of the Baxter that attentiveness generates some very powerful writing about the natural world, and about how human beings get along when downtrodden. But that same attentiveness seemed to me wholly lacking on the actual satiric-dystopian aspects of the same book. Since the former are grounded in the latter, that’s an undermining thing.

An example of what I mean, indicative of a larger blindness, is in Atwood’s naming; or more specifically her naming of future-commercial products and organisations. This is almost entirely off. The names don't quite get it, glancing off versimilitude by that miss that is as good as a mile. (Some of these organisations already appeared in Oryx and Crake, of course; so my rant is a tad untimely):
AnooYou Spa
Mo’Hair (artificial human hair, derived from sheep)
CorpSeCorps is the security arm of the Corporations who run this horrible future world; the name boiled-down from ‘Corporate Security Corps’. But we see what Atwood is doing, because she telegraphs her satiric disapproval in too lumpen a manner: they are the CORPSEcorps, you see? Because late Capitalism is like a CORPSE, see? And its rotting stench and poison is polluting our world, see?

The logic is to take plain speech, roll it together and put a twist in it: HelthWyzer is supposed to look like a corporate tag implying wiser health choices, but misspelled like this it suggests instead illiteracy, idiocy, ‘hell’ and ‘wizened.’ ‘Bimplants’ are silicon breast implants that make you look like a Bimbo. Atwood’s MacDonalds-equivalent are called SecretBurgers (advertising tagline: ‘SecretBurgers: because Everyone Loves a Secret’)—‘the secret of SecretBurgers is that no one knows what sort of animal protein was actually in them’, Atwood ploddingly explains [33].

Now this is all fair enough, as far as the rather sophomoric level of inventing satiric commodity names goes, which isn't terribly far. But it clashes badly with the backbone of Atwood’s fictional approach, for it is very poorly observed. Corporations put a lot of money into finding the right name for themselves and their products. It is my contention that no rebranding committee or logo designer would come up with ‘Bimplants’. Cosmetic surgery may, arguably, turn its customers into bimbos; but its surgeons would not stay in business if they actually marketed themselves on that basis. No fast food company would foreground the vague suspicion its customers have as to the precise content of the product after the manner of SecretBurger. MacDonalds have Chicken Nuggets; Atwood’s SecretBurgers sell ‘Chickie Nobs’. The former may indeed be thoroughly yucky as a product, but the name is carefully chosen not to suggest so, because the semantic field of ‘nugget’ is golden, and snuggle-it, and safe, and appealing. No fast food joint would market ‘nobs’, because the semantic field is knobbly and penile and nothing else.

My point with all this is not that these are poorly chosen names from a satirical point of view—although they are all of them a little too clunking and facetious. It’s that they don’t fit Atwood’s larger aesthetic, which is, to repeat myself, one of persistent and truthful attentiveness to the world. They’re on a level with the deliberately cartoonish, daftery of last year’s Clarke shortlistee, Martin Martins On The Other Side. They are not well-observed or attentive as to how actual corporate Late Capitalism operates.

Something similar is true of the youth gangs that roam the streets, the names of three of which are supplied by Atwood. ‘Asian Fusion’, which is borderline believable as a musical style, though not as a gang tag; ‘Blackened Redfish’ which is not believable on either score, and ‘Lintheads’, which is just barking mad. This latter infuriates me, actually; smacking, as it does, of a semi-detached social observer thinking ‘Of course, there's skinheads, and didn’t that nice Mr Morrissey write a song called Suedeheads? Clearly there’s a panoply of youth gangs who self-identify after strange fluffy hair.’ Can you really imagine a subcultural style called Linthead? For that matter, can you imagine an Afro-Caribbean gang calling itself ‘Blackened Redfish’? Atwood's acuity and eloquence about the natural world, and human interactions, jars badly with this stuff.

Then there are the hymns, many of which are interleaved into the narrative, along with sermons from the Gardener’s head honcho Adam. Jameson, in the review above mentioned, thinks highly of these hymns (‘the Hymnbook deserves independent publication’), but I found them hard to stomach, on account of their remarkable and sustained shitness. In the endnote Atwood namechecks Blake and the tradition of English hymnal writing, but Blake’s lyrics are mindblowing, and most English hymns have more technical-poetic nouse than these.
O Sing We Now The Holy Weeds
That flourish in the ditch.
For they are for the meek in needs
They are not for the rich.

The Holy Weeks are Plentiful
And beautiful to see—
For who can doubt God put them there
So starved we’ll never be? [127-8]
Ugh, agh. Urgh. I found it hard to gauge whether the poems are supposed to be awful (a tricky play for a novelist) to reflect upon the clumsy limitations of the Gardeners’ theology more generally, or whether they’re supposed to be charming rough-hewn nuggets of beauty and wisdom, because Atwood secretly really likes the Eco creed she has invented. Blake? Really? They sound less like Blake, and more like Blakey from On The Buses. They lack true Blakeishness.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Samuel Delany, Babel-17 (1967)

This is a title I picked up again so as to be in a position to write another foreword for the forthcoming Gollancz masterworks reissues. I'm doing, as I mentioned, a series of these with Graham Sleight; and it has been fun.

Re-reading all these books has been a genuinely fascinating exercise, and in pretty much every case I've been more impressed on reperusal than otherwise. That's certainly the case with this title: perhaps I'm more minded to accept the sometimes over-vigorous, over-strenuous writing and imagery (Delany was 23 when he wrote it, after all) for its manifold beauties and splendours. Really a much better book than I remember. A couple of things tripped me up, though:

'Good poets tend to be practical and abhor mysticism' [21]. Really? Bang go Blake, Hugo, Whitman, Yeats ...

'No way to say warm in French. There is only hot and tepid. If there's no word for it, how do you think about it?' [97] Um ... even if we grant that chaud means hot (although the degree of heat depends, surely, on context); what's wrong with assez chaud? What about agréable, cordial, chaleureux, ardent? Does it seem likely that the French have no concept of warm? More to the point, is there any word in French for snowclones?

Friday, 11 September 2009

Sam Merwin, Jr., The Time Shifters (1971)

A splendid little book: bad in almost every respect, but gloriously bad, all spun from a nicely batty premise. Its protagonists travel through time using certain high-tech ‘passports’, but in addition to the usual toing-and-froing, grandfather paradoxing and so on, we discover that one side-effect of time-travel is to make the traveller fantastically randy, which enables Merwin to fill most of the book with descriptions of pneumatic sex. What does it feel like to travel through time? ‘It was a fierce, rutting, animal instinct, that of a caveman under a full moon’ [73]. The results make conventional sex seem tame: ‘She kissed him then, and the touch of their loins drew sparks’ [101]. Other choice stylistic moments:

‘He ran the light-blue eyes up and over his nephew’s massive person.’ [6]

‘It sounded like a hen laying an egg. Uncle Phil had a hideous laugh.’ [7]

‘She was wearing a skin-tight jump suit of silver lamé with lipstick to match’ [14]

‘The brandy [was] decanted from a pharmacist’s jar labelled Denatured Alcohol, the soda from an aerated keg lettered Liquid Sodium.’ [51]

‘Paula moved like a wraith with a hotfoot, grabbed Chuck by the wrists and spun both of them through an arched opening in the hedge.’ [59]

‘He received an impression of a small sea of featureless pink faces staring at him in wide-eyed astonishment.’ [69]

‘At that moment his libido seemed to have gone into reverse.’ [73]

‘Finding that my new love is my great-grandfather, however happenstantially, requires a certain amount of getting used to.’ [94]

‘Considering this horrid fact, he drained his vodka and soda and motioned to Mullarney to shove up another sheep.’ [95] [Since Mullarney is the barkeep, this is a cocktail, I presume; although it’s not exactly clear in the text]

‘She compressed her luscious African-American lips and shook her head, causing her pigtails to fly in circles behind her ears. “Maybe you need another kind of therapy.”’ [99]

‘It’s …the long accepted theory that a man who could travel faster than light could spin off this planet for a light year or two and return that much younger.’ [172]

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A Discussion About Lavinia Part 2

[Niall Harrison, that tall man, has organised a quadriplex discussion of Le Guin's latest novel; the resulting exchange being posted four ways:
Introduction -- Torque Control
Lyric and Narrative -- Punkaddidle. Why, that's right here!
Fantasy -- Asking the Wrong Questions
History -- Eve's Alexandria

So, start here, with Part 1. Then read on:]

Abigail Nussbaum: Like Jo and Nic, I appreciated Le Guin's description of Lavinia's life and her religious practices, which was done with clarity and immediacy. But what I'm going to write about here are the things that interested me or stood out in my reading, which are not exactly the same as the things I liked about the novel.

For example, I was interested in Lavinia as a representative of the common trope of retelling a story through the eyes of a minor character, and most particularly a character whose race, gender or class marginalize them in the original story, because Le Guin doesn't actually do any of the things we expect that kind of story to do. We often criticize fiction for portraying characters who seem to be aware that they are minor players in another person's story, who seem to have been told what their role is and adjusted their dreams and desires to suit it, but this is exactly what Lavinia does. In his SH review, Adam mentions Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, which I found interesting because Le Guin has written the antithesis of Bradley's novel (and not merely because she can write decent sentences and believable characters). There's no feminine underbelly to the male-run world here, and Lavinia herself is clearly male-oriented. When women's magic shows up, it's a farce -- a drunken bacchanalia which both terrifies and embarrasses Lavinia, and whose climax is to be her forced marriage (and presumably rape) to the man her mother desires. A recurring theme in the novel is that women (and some men) assume that Lavinia is a plaything, that she wants Turnus but has been forced to accept Aenas by her father, when really her desires track perfectly with Virgil's account of her actions. It's an interesting choice on Le Guin's part because we expect tension between her story and Virgil's and don't get it, which is, well, not disappointing, but a little odd, and maybe the reason why I found the last third of the novel, after both Turnus and Aenas had died, less compelling than its earlier parts -- because Lavinia, who had for so long surrendered to her fate, no longer had one to guide her (or at least not one that someone other than Le Guin had invented).

Adam Roberts: One problem in trying to put into words what it is about the novel that resonated so powerfully for me is that it may be nothing more than my personal maggot, and so may simply slide past other people's interest (or comprehension). But here goes.

It has to do with the two modes of art that engage me the most: the narrative and the lyric. These are not mutually exclusive modes of art, of course, but they do speak to particular and I'd argue very significant aesthetic emphases. Human culture is deeply invested in them. By "story" I mean essentially narrative + characters; and by "lyric" I mean moments of aesthetic intensity that stir and move us, art that captures "epiphanies" that make the hairs on the backs on our necks stand up, and so on.

So, I'd argue that almost all human beings crave stories, and most crave aesthetic intensities: finding the former in gossip, newspapers, novels, biographies, histories, TV soaps and dramas, film and many other forms; and finding the latter in what Wordsworth calls "spots of time" as evoked by art or literature, but also and more pervasively in religious experience, in sex and its culture, in music (certain sorts of music especially) and in various other ways.

Another way of putting this would be to invoke Jakobson's famous differentiation (well: famous in lit crit circles) between the "horizontal" metonymic level of signification, "this and then that and then the other"; and the "vertical" metaphoric level of signification, the transcendent (the magical, the sense-of-wonder) moment. Jakobson argues that metonymy works contiguously, contingently, leading from one term to a related other; metaphor works in a transcendent manner, leaping to something quite new.

It's easy to think of novels and stories that are, really, single pelt-tingling moments of lyric epiphany to which a narrative has been appended; stories that distil down into a fundamentally poetic moment ... "Nine Billion Names of God", say; or McEwan's Black Dog (which I'd argue is really just its chilling, final image); or Conrad's Heart of Darkness (which builds to a particular moment of "the horror, the horror" intensity). Fine. It's not that this is not enough by itself; but it is that that's not enough to tell a story … so it's not coincidental that I've just cited three relatively short works of prose. Now because story is closer to the experience of life -- life, after all, carries on in terms of its happening -- narrative art has more important things to say to us about our lives. More important if, perhaps, less flattering or romantically beguiling.

A lot of the literature that means the most to me is lyric, epiphanic, non-narrative. It is perhaps a contradictory thing that I myself work in a narrative/character mode (what I mean is: when I write, that's what I write). In part that's because my poetry, when I write it, isn't very good. But it's more to do with a belief that the lyric epiphany, in its various forms (spine-tingling beauty, the climax, the thrill), is not very good at capturing what the philosophers call Being-in-the-world -- life as a process, as living. That narrative is much better at this. Courtship is thrilling and exciting, but the real business of love is actually living with your partner day-by-day, and that's a horizontal, contingent, metonymic process, not a vertical, epiphanic one. One reason Hollywood blockbusters are not like life is because they seek continually to inject what amount to (commodified, or mass-produced) transcendental moments of climax. But excitement doesn't work this way; the returns diminish real quick, and attempts to ramp up the explosions, the kung-fu (if fighting one man is exciting, fighting a hundred must be a hundred times as exciting!) the speed, the spectacle very soon parlay the idiom into silliness.

Now the Aeneid isn't like this, but it is a series of exquisitely formed and distilled moments of poetry -- Vergil would sometimes spend all day working on a single line (and sometimes would end the day rubbing out what he had done). It's exquisitely, fantastically worked, all the way through. The structure of the whole is complex, starting (Aeneas and his followers land at Carthage), then moving back (as Aeneas recalls the Fall of Troy at length), moving on (Dido and Aeneas) and then bifurcating simultaneously into the past and the future -- in book six Aeneas travels into the underworld, dwells on what has happened before and is giving a prophesy of what will come. Even when it settles, in the second half (the basis of Le Guin's novel) into a more continuous narrative the poem nevertheless continues its batlike dartings back and forth: backward-looking in that the combat of Aeneas and Turnus is a deliberate recreation of the combat of Achilles and Hector at Troy, and forward-looking in that everything that happens is viewed proleptically as anticipating the rise and triumph of Rome (Aeneas goes into battle carrying a shield on which are pictures, described at great length, detailing the future glory of his descendents). If the larger narrative keeps jinking into the past and future, so too does the poetry continually interrupt the onward momentum with gorgeous but usually static images, descriptions, with epic similes or ekphrasis that temporarily, but repeatedly, drop us out of the story. It is a fine poem, but compared to the much more driven, onward-moving impetus of Homer's epics it is much more lyric than it is narrative. As the French general fellow never said: magnificent, mais c'est n'est pas la vie.

Le Guin intervenes into this text by, brilliantly, translating its idiom from one chiefly of lyric intensity into one of, mostly, narrative momentum. It is this, rather than the shift in gender of the main point of view, that makes this significant. Le Guin is certainly very good on evoking the various ways women in this world were marginalised; but there's an existential level to Lavinia's voice that I do not consider tied to gender. I'm talking about her way of getting on with life; not just in terms of practicalities (although those portions of the story where practical problems and obstacles tax but do not overcome her ingenuity makes compelling reading) but, to repeat myself, in terms of her being-in-the-world. This is what I meant when I said (to quote myself, from my SH review of the novel):
Against the hesitant figure of Virgil, and the intricate, backward-spiralling verse-narrative of the Aeneid, Le Guin draws Lavinia as a narrator whose tale moves swiftly straight. No bat, but an owl: "I fly among the trees on soft wings that make no sound. Sometimes I call out, but not in a human voice. My cry is soft and quavering: i, i, I cry: go on, go" (p. 250). I love that shift from the Latin 'i, i' to the English 'I': it embodies in little the most profound of shifts from being-in-time to egotistical subjectivity. Lavinia is surrounded by people, from Virgil, to her father, to her suitor Turnus and her stepson Ascanius, who trace out their lives in spiral tangles of ego. Lavinia herself sails through, always conscious of the fact that the key salient for life is not that it coalesces around particular moments, or particular subjectivities, but that it goes on. It is this that makes narrative the key mode of art for apprehending life. That's why Le Guin's story rolls smoothly not only past the death of Turnus (where the Aeneid stops), but also the death of Lavinia's loved husband Aeneas -- very touchingly understated, here -- and onward. That's why it ends so beautifully, inverting the solidly masculine I of I, Claudius and ending instead with the Molly-Bloomish i, i, of the hooting owl. Virgil has a story to tell, but he is a poet first, and his poem continually risks distilling into gem-like stuck moments. Le Guin is capable of very affecting poetry, but she is a storyteller first.
By "Molly Bloomish" I mean that there's a sense of ultimate affirmation in the book, and that this affirmation is embodied formally as well as on the level of content. The writing and structure is a triumph: always lucid, direct, clear, penetrating and evocative. Now, I could go on in this mode for a long time: I'd say, for instance, that this is why Le Guin was right to banish the gods from her pre-Roman Italy (gods, because they are immortal, are lyric, epiphanic entities; fine for a beautiful moment or two -- the fourteen lines of Yeats's "Leda and the Swan", say, that so brilliantly render divinity in terms of the twin epiphanies of sexual climax and the ecstasy of violence -- but immiscible with properly mortal, narrative art.) This also informs the novel's fascinations with trueness to life: with, for instance, true dreams and false dreams.

A more nuanced way of saying this would be to gloss what Niall says above: 'To me, the "We are all contingent" -- which comes from Lavinia's anxiety about her reality -- and "I live in awe" -- which speaks to the luminous world Le Guin is creating -- are inextricably linked.' I'm not saying that the narrative mode of art wholly drives out the luminous moments of lyric intensity. I'm saying that the former grounds the latter -- where in the Aeneid the lyric is, slightly incongruously, the ground for the narrative.

Nic Clarke: Adam, I thoroughly enjoyed that, and am in broad agreement. Le Guin does a marvellous job of humanising the Aeneid in her retelling -- by which I don't mean that the original lacked humanity, more that she enables a modern audience to see it more easily -- and she does so without mistaking "human" for "modern", the trap that so many writers of historical or mythical-past fiction fall into (Mists of Avalon, absorbing though I found it back in the day, is undoubtedly guilty of this).

Abigail Nussbaum: I think Adam's point about the difference between narrative and lyric is interesting, because what struck me about the novel was the way that, for the most part, it was almost pure narrative and no aesthetics, which is to say a story-fied history, with Lavinia telling us what happened next, and what happened after that, and after that. That is presumably where the I, Claudius comparisons are coming from, and they seem apt. All of the things we associate with modern literature -- complex characterization, evocative description -- are achieved in Lavinia almost exclusively through narrative.

[Now go to part three, here...]

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Adam Thorpe, Hodd (2009)

Robin Hood retold in an unconvincing and, by the end, actively grating cod-medieval style (the supposed narrator is Mutch the Miller’s Son, here a young harpist-monk), with intro and discursive footnotes by a fictional twentieth-century editor (scarred by his experience in the trenches). There are moments, though rather too few, where Thorpe’s rich, high-calorie prose refines into redeeming chunks of choc; but overall it’s a bran-y, high-fibre, rather tedious read. The mockmedievalisms achieve an uncanny-valley ghastliness, too accurate in period detail and tone to be a modern reimagining, too Now in form and feel to be effectively medieval; like those attempts to computer-animate real people in Pixar or Robert Zemeckis films.

On the plus side: Thorpe takes Hood to be a kind of 13th-century Alastair Crowley: all pantheist delusions of godhood and do-what-thou-will-shall-be-the-whole-of-the-law, which is bracing and kind-of interesting, if not, ultimately, very convincing. Then again I very much liked the following image, introduced early in the novel & something to which the narrator reverts from time to time:
The seas are folded over us, above our heads, the lower sea becoming the upper sea and yet still blue when not girt with sea mist, which is grey and melancholy. Some men when they look up see birds, but I see only a kind of fish, sometimes in great shoals. These fish are beaked and feathered, as we all know, and return to dry land to nest in trees, shrubs, meadow grass or crops, rock or walls, or even under out own thatch, where the nestlings make a great beseeching noise that might keep us from sleep. Only birds pass from the sky’s air to its water without harm, for they have the property, like the fish of the lower sea, of breathing underwater. And I have seen with my own eyes a cormorant swimming under the water of the lower sea… If men sail fair enough, namely a sufficient number of leagues beyond the horizon, they unwittingly pass over our heads, yet too high up to discern us or the dark of our forests through the blue of the waters of the upper sea. It has been recounted to me that mariners have lost knives overboard and that these same knives have been found caught in trees, or that they plunge through a [thatched] roof to stand upright and trembling in a table, to the surprise of those eating. And fish sometimes fall (as we know) from the sky, like arrow-struck birds, but with no visible wound. [13]
Nice. Not enough to hang a whole novel on, though.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)

The cover is via the estimable John Holbo, who calls it 'a fun take on the Aldous Huxley classic' and 'a tarted-up middlebrow style of cover design.' That's philosophers for you. 'Fun'? That lady's dress is clearly on fire. Where's the fun in that? You'd need to have a cruel sense of humour indeed to find any fun at all in such a scenario. Now, every cloud indeed has a silver lining, in that the blaze has resulted in a blush-sparing smoke merkin for the nude geezer. But this doesn't answer the key questions, viz: what's up with the lady's left armpit? Why are they stepping through the gateway from The City On The Edge Of Forever? What's with the giant crystal wurlitzer in the background? What has any of this to do with the novel, at all, in any sense? And two questions to finish with: what the fuck? And what the fuck?

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (2009)

A deceptively ordinary gumshoe tale set in 1960s California. The deception is of a meta sort, because whilst this novel indulges in lots of familiar, even (now) over-familiar Pynchoniana—the daft names, the terrible made-up pop lyrics, the oversalted stretches of dialogue breaking, suddenly, into long, gnarled ropes of prosey-poetic description—it lacks the conceptual hauteur, the encyclopedism and the tromp l’oeil profundity of Pynchon’s big books. In fact this is true to the point where it doesn’t really read like a Pynchon novel at all. It’s a Pynchon novel pretending to be something else.

I’m assuming the point, here, is about the way attentiveness to the particular, the minutiae, overwhelms the ability to parse a larger picture—like (in a key image) paying closer and closer attention to a crime-scene photograph until it begins ‘to float apart into little blobs of colour’. That’s one key reason why the protagonist is a stoner private investigator; and the case he is hired to investigate is one of prodigious, even fractal complexity: a property financier who goes missing; his wife’s lover; the financier's girlfriend (who is also the P.I.’s ex); policemen who double as TV stars; smuggling; black panthers; rock bands; drugs; Aryan brotherhood, Vietnam, the mysterious and perhaps ubiquitous Golden Fang … all written such that it’s a taxing business trying to follow all the ins-and-outs. But that’s germane; Pynchon overplots, overcomplicates, because what he’s interested in is not the plot at all. Or more precisely, what he’s interested in is: not the coherence of the plot, but rather the moment of the cannabis hit, when some hitherto overlooked and almost certainly entirely irrelevant detail suddenly looms massively in your dope-piqued consciousness. That’s what the novel enacts. Or, at any rate, those are the moments that stuck in my mind.

Beyond that it’s pretty much puttering around in a psychedelic country, Manson-LSD territory, the man whose spliffs were all exactly alike. Which is to say: Dickic, if rather more overwritten.

And then there’s stuff like this pastiche Eliotic ‘Fire Sermon’/Waste Land riff on the dryness of the sunshine state:
It was late winter in Gordita, though for sure not the usual weather. You heard people muttering to the effect that last summer the beach didn’t have summer until August, and now there probably wouldn’t be any winter till spring. Santa Ana had been blowing all the smog out of downtown L.A., funneling between the Hollywood and Puente Hills on westward through Gordita Beach and out to sea, and this had been going on for what seemed like weeks now. Offshore winds had been too strong to be doing the surf much good, but surfers found themselves getting up early anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which seemed like a visible counterpart to the feeling in everybody’s skin of desert winds and heat and relentlessness, and the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing with microfine Mojave sand to refract the light towards the bloody end of the spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor take warning skies … Jets were taking off the wrong way from the airport, the engine sounds not passing across the sky where they should have, so everybody’s dreams got disarranged, when people could get to sleep at all. In the little apartment complexes the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of course there’d only be the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight. [98]
I’ll put up with almost any amount of oversauced half-amusing goofiness and plot-vermicelli for passages like that.

Note: 'Dickic': The novel is reminiscent of Phil Dick to the extent that it is about, and is a manifestation of, certain kinds of ‘rational’ paranoid states of mind; and to the extent that it is consistently fascinated by alternate realities, aliens, junk culture, the plot behind the plot (the mob behind the mob) k.t.l. There are also more specific Dickic touches: the druggy stuff from Scanner Darkly; twenty-dollar bills in circulation with Nixon on them, which seemed to me quasi-Ubik-ic.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Abbey Road Now!

Free with this month's MOJO, Abbey Road covered in its entirety by various artists; or, in the mag's own words:
FREE CD! ABBEY ROAD NOW! The Beatles' 1969 classic re-recorded by the likes of Cornershop, Robyn Hitchcock, Gomez, The Low Anthem, Glenn Tilbrook, Noah And The Whale and many, many more!
Not just many more, you see: many many more. So? Well, it's not so much hit and miss as 'miss and hit'; or even 'miss, miss, hit, miss and hit'. Covering famous songs is a tricky business. There's little point, for instance, in covering an original track with such stars-in-their-eyes pedantry as to produce a track almost indistinguishable from the original: which is what Robyn Hitchcock's 'I Want You' and Cornershop's 'Mean Mr Mustard/Polythene Pam' are, here. Then there's a mumbly, too-slow 'Come Together' by The Invisible, a messy half-arsed 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' by Let's Wrestle, and a schmaltzed-up 'Golden Slumbers' by Blue Roses that takes an already oversweet song and stirs in three pots of syrup and many tumbling cubes of white sugar. In similar vein, Karima Francis's singing over-emotes on 'She Came in Through the Bathroom Window', which spoils an otherwise pretty pluck-squeaked acoustic guitar version of the song. And I found, after several listenings, that a very little of Noah and the Wyle, sorry, Noah and the Whale's Sparklehorsey-soundylikey 'Carry That Weight' goes a long, long way.

Still, let's not be too negative: Glenn Tilbrook treats 'You Never Give Me Your Money' as a Squeeze song and it works fine; Charley Dore and Martin John Henry make decent fists of 'Here Comes the Sun' and 'Because' respectively, and Gomez are the best of the pick with a genuinely brilliant cover of the (you-might-think-but-you'd-be-wrong) unpromising 'Sun King'. Whatever happened to Gomez? I had and liked their first several albums, but I've lost track of them since then. I ought to get back on the Gomez pogostick and give it a bounce. I really ought.