Friday, 30 October 2009

Andrew J. Offutt, Evil is Live Spelled Backwards (1970)

As regards bad cover design, I've pretty much yielded the field to Good Show Sir; but every now and again a book primps my interest and stays, like a retinal burn, with me. This is a click-the-images-to-enlarge-them case in point. And there's little to say here, beyond idly framing unguessable pub-quiz questions ('what links Black Sabbath, Miles Davis and Andrew J. Offutt?'). Sure, the the title is awful but at least the cover art is able to achieve a matching level of awfulness. Yes those ladies look like they've overbalanced and are about to clonk into one another. Yes, the title is very bad. Yes, the couple in the right-hand circle look like the Chemical Brothers. But more than all of that, the title is awful. Look how awful the title is! Before you so much as open out the front cover the novel is already haunted by its ghostly other, a book called Gateman is Nametag Spelled Backwards, or Straw is Warts Spelled Backwards, or Maps is Spam Spelled Backwards. Any of which would have made for better novels than this.

What's it about? Oh, this:

Those darn Satanists. Moving more daringly, eh? That's typical of satanists, that is: daring movement. That and bellowing 'Let There Be Licence!' What a powerfully evil slogan! -- so evil it's almost ... live ....

Monday, 26 October 2009

What We Believe But Cannot Prove (2006)

What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, edited by John Brockman: 107 scientists and sometimes glancingly related individuals (Ian McEwan, for instance) answer the question 'what do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it?' Some of them take a rigorous view of proof, in which case anything we believe to be true falls under this rubric. Others stick with non-falsifiable but plausible speculation about the past or the future, or about the infinity of the cosmos. But the elephant in the room is that by this evidence not a single one of the 107 believes (or is prepared to admit in public they believe) in God. Statistically that looks improbable, and since 'God' is the answer the question is evidently angling for it unbalances the whole.

Also, I see to have a red-colour copy, when all the copies I can find online seem to be blue, like this, this or this. Not sure what the significance of that might be, although the red cover has the hen shitting out 'Guardian', which must please that paper, where the blue cover has it shitting out 'proof', more intriguingly. Since 'proof', rather than 'belief', is the vulnerable term in that title.

Friday, 23 October 2009

McAuley's Gardens (2009)

I finished this in short order, for it is immensely absorbing stuff. Here, then, is not so much a review as some ejecta from the impact of McAuley’s new novel on my imagination.

First thing to note: it is evident now that Gardens of the Sun is the second half of a coherent unity—that it would be better, in many ways, for both it and The Quiet War to be published together as a single Dickens-sized volume. The second volume is carefully, and intimately, threaded into the first.

Reading Gardens of the Sun addresses some of the hesitations I had about The Quiet Warsuperb though I found that novel to be. So, after finishing Quiet War I wondered if Avernus, elderly genius gene wizard, interplanetary celebrity and hunted prize, was under-drawn; but reading Gardens of the Sun, and the characters who work through her various myriad specialized gardens, my whelm was raised. I take it the point is that Avernus is characterized, as it were—or known—through her work, not her person.

I also found the infodumping here less intrusive—although it seems to me still problematic, it is better integrated into the whole, in part because the narrative arc of this novel (baldly: picking up the pieces after a brief but very destructive war) necessitates a lot of detailed sifting the ruins and laborious rebuilding. This the up portion of McAuley’s down-up narrative arc: after the swift crashing down (singleships descending break the vacuum/with flames of incandescent doom) the slow and painstaking building up again. This in turn is compellingly realised precisely via a carefully sedimented density of detail: the immersive, exhaustive strategy nineteenth-century naturalists called ‘realism’, a textual strategy often employed by writers of hard-sf to balance the intrinsically fantastical topic they have chosen to write. McAuley does this very well indeed; at no point (well: at very very few points) do you doubt the possibility of the world he is describing. You believe it, and that’s the sine qua non for the half dozen human-centred storylines he spins here.

Nevertheless the infodumping is sometimes distracting; and I thought the passages of Goldingesque descriptive beauty or insight, of which McAuley has over and again proved himself capable, seemed fewer and further between here. I’m not convinced it can ever be a good idea, aesthetically speaking, to end a paragraph with phrases like ‘…making a significant contribution to the partial pressure of the red planet’s atmosphere, currently thirty-two millibars at datum’ [429]. Stylistically speaking that’s you, gee, ell, eye, it aint got no alibi, and so on, and so forth.

Or again ... I don’t care how interested one is in cell biology, it’s hard to swallow chunks of dialogue like:
‘The reaction you saw was a simple AND a sequence: lectin plus binding polymer equals activation of another polymer which produces the luminescence. The polychines are Boolean networks capable of generating orderly dynamics—fixed state cycles. One polychine constructed from just a hundred polymer components, each possessing just two possible states, either on or off, would generate ten to the power of thirty possible arrays. If every component receives an input from every other component, the system will become chaotic, cycling though a vast number of states at random; it would take a very long time before it returned to its original state. But if each component receives just two inputs, the system will spontaneously generate order—it will cycle between just four of its ten to the power of thirty possible states. Thus, constrained by spontaneous self-organising dynamical order, the polychines …’ [165]
Stop there. Now: I would say, as a general rule of writing, if you have characters using ‘thus’ as a way of linking sentences in their casual conversations, you’ve strayed from the path. Actually this isn’t quite fair: McAuley makes clear that the speaker here, Sri Hong-Owen, is a particularly over-cerebral, frozen personality. Nevertheless, stuff like this gets in the way of the more effective functioning of novel. It stands out here because what Sri is talking about here, one of Avernus’s gardens, of which there are a great many, all different, scattered all over the solar system, is really important to the overall project of the novel (look again at the title of the novel). Each of these myriad gardens is an expression of Avernus's genius at making strange new ecosystems. On a semiological or metaphorical level what these gardens are is science fiction itself: self-contained little bubbles of the creative-scientific imagination, extrapolations from the known world, generating beautiful strangenesses. It is a great strength of this novel that in telling its broadly compelling over-arching narrative it also reflects eloquently back upon itself as commentary on its own mode. It is, as the best stories are, about storytelling as well as about its own characters and their actions: canny on the level of form as well as content—there are some lovely, fascinating digressions on ‘character’ (I particularly loved the material on ‘amae’, McAuley's ruminations on what he considers a core human need for ‘approval, belonging, being valued’ [202]), and on storytelling itself (for example, the bi-novel’s central character, Macy, discussing the different sorts of story with her partner on pp.218f).

Of course I realize that what I admire so very greatly about McAuley, what I go to him for as a writer, is not what many of his fans (his many Hard SF in particular) value. I suppose they want the precision, the exactitude, the material detail as well as the grandeur, scope and sweep. I want the affect, the unique style and mood that only he generates. At its best this is chilly, slightly reified and slightly alienated, but alive to beauty, a uniquely oblique sublimity, in a way that no other writers, of any genre, are—I don’t just mean beauty in the physical world; I mean a brilliant, almost Ballardian off-centre comprehension of the essential strangeness of human beings.

And for the first two thirds of this novel I read in a state of mounting delight, thinking this one of the best things McAuley has written. Little happens—which I thought a superb play by the author—but the scale and the brute inhospitality of the solar system are brilliantly evoked.

The ending convinced me less. There’s nothing incompetent about it; and indeed I daresay many McAuley fans will find it thoroughly satisfying, tying up loose ends, gesturing at greater adventures and so on. If I say the flurry of bang-bang spaceship duels, hand-to-hand combat by genetically tweaked superwarriors and so on makes the last hundred pages too busy, when set against the lovely colour-field plainness of the rest of the novel, I appreciate that many people may just think I've missed the point: for bang-bang spaceship duels and hand-to-hand combat are very popular things. Plus it's all very well written.

So, yes, this is to take, I know, a minority position: McAuley’s genius is not in providing satisfactions; it is for evoking the strange and dislocating. I don’t exactly mean that Gardens of the Sun’s ending is too happy—although, and without spilling spoilers, it kind of is, both in the way it delivers a dividend to key characters, but in the way it embodies a weirdly symmetrical didacticism, by which the two books’ agents of aggression and reaction are killed off, and the agents of peace and reform are rewarded (and agents of the former who reformed and became the latter are doled a mix of punishment and reward). But I mean that it is too neat.

I realize (to repeat myself) that this is probably not an objection many people will make.

To be clear: my sense is that The Quiet War/Gardens of the Sun, taken together, is a very major work of contemporary science fiction, amongst the great genre achievements of the noughties, a long novel that will still be being read and remembered fifty years from now. (What would McAuley, or his publishers, call an omnibus edition of the two together? War and Gardens? The Quiet War and After?) If you have any interest in SF today you’ll need to read both books. Meanwhile, I’m going to think some more about the edge of dissatisfaction I felt after closing the back cover on the final page. Hmm.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Yann Martel, Life of Pi (2001)

‘I am not one given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals’ [Pi Patel in Martel's Life of Pi, p.4]

It’s about a tiger, of course; and a boy in a boat—Pi Patel, orphaned when the ocean cruiser he is travelling on sinks, who spends 272 days in an open lifeboat with various animals and a Royal Bengal tiger (by the end of his voyage, it’s just him and the tiger). Except that the final pages of the novel leads us to believe that this tiger is not literally a beast: two Japanese claims assessors coax a variant narrative out of Pi, in which he was not marooned with a number of animals, but rather with his mother, a murderous cook and a Taiwanese sailor. The whole novel, in other words, has been telling us a story about human beastliness by figuring its agents as animals. It is, in other words, an animal fable.

To put it another way: this is in large part a novel about what animals can tell us (us humans) in an entertainingly but nonetheless tightly focussed religious-didactic sense. Much of the early bulk of the book is devoted to little sermons—though often entertainingly rendered ones—on the nature of nature and its relationship to a belief in God. So, for example, Pi believes people are wrong to think animals prefer life in the wild to life in a zoo:
Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must be constantly defending and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context?
A pendant to this observation on the conservatism of beasts:
For this is what animals are, conservative, one might even say reactionary. The smallest changes can upset them. They want things to be just so, day after day, month after month. Surprises are highly disagreeable to them. You see this in their spatial relations. An animal inhabits its space, whether in a zoo or in the wild, in the same way chess pieces move about a chessboard—significantly. There is no more happenstance, no more “freedom”, involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or a bear or a deer than in the location of a knight on a chessboard. Both seek pattern and purpose. [Life of Pi, 16-17]
But however beguiling Pi’s narratorial voice, we are not obliged to agree—not compelled to concur that animals have any interest at all in ‘purpose’, for example; or to buy into the notion that ‘freedom’, in a volitional or existential sense, is equivalent to ‘happenstance’.

Martel’s position channels perhaps the most famous recent (relatively recent) philosopher of the animal: Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: the Roots of Human Nature (1978; rev; ed., Routledge 2002). What interests me about one of Midgley’s core points—that although humans have transferred human qualities onto animals for millennia, tagging foxes as wily, snakes as devious, lions as courageous and so on, in fact actual animals are none of these things, they are only themselves—is not that it is (in any sense) objectionable, for it is not; but rather than a thesis so blindingly and obviously true needed stating at all. ‘Beasts are neither incarnations of wickedness nor sets of basic needs, nor crude mechanical toys, nor idiot children. They are beasts, each with its own very complex nature. Most of them fail in most respects to conform to their mythical stereotype.’ She adds ‘if then there is no lawless beast outside man, it seems very strange to conclude that there is one inside him. It would be more natural to say that the beast within us gives us partial order; the task of conceptual thought will only be to complete it. [Midgley, 38-39] Animal fables are a very ancient mode of human art. (‘Clay tables from ancient Mesopotamia have revealed the existence of collections of proverbs and fables featuring animals as actors some 4,000 years ago, and it is assumed that these tablets are based on even older material’, D. L. Ashliman, Aesop’s Fables (Barnes and Noble, 2003) p.xxi) But their very antiquity has created a state of affairs in which the personification of beasts has become almost second nature. Martel makes an effort to prise apart that automatic assumption in the open sections of his book; but the conclusion blurs the boundary in the service of a fundamentally theological investment in ‘oneness’. Robert Parker the tiger, it seems, literally is Pi Patel: Parker is Patel’s tigerish, powerful, enduring self.

That Pi is a child is also relevant, of course.
The deep affinity in our culture between children and animals—some children, at least, and some animals—is attested not only by a profusion of pets and teddy bears but also by the perennial popularity of stories, films and comic strips about more or less humanoid animals. … Many of these beasts, to be sure, whether of household, barnyard or forest, may have served, from the time of father Aesop to that of Peter Rabbit, as little more than allegorical stand-ins to point a moral concerning another species: our own. … Even so it tells us a great deal if children learn lessons and form relationships most easily by identifying with animals they often know, outside these fictions, only in zoos, dreams or the untamed forests of the imagination. For what is really at issue is relationships, not primarily of animal to animal but—even when no humans appear on the scene—of human to animals and ultimately, through the enlargement this primal relation can bring, of every human and animal being to every other in a world of which all are citizens alike. [Robert M Torrence, Encompassing Nature: a Sourcebook (Counterpoint Press 2002), 2]
‘Yet it is often children in these stories—and often children slighted by the adult world—who are most in touch … with animals and other natural beings.’ We can read ‘slighted’ here to include, as in Pi’s circumstance, orphaned and abandoned in an open boat. Torrence goes on to argue that ‘such stories give voice to a tenacious myth of lost innocence’ that is:
both Romantic and Platonic: what is lost in growing up is an inborn remembrance of oneness with the surrounding world which we gradually, almost inexorably relinquish—all but the childlike few who are madmen, lovers or poets.’ [3]
We can forgive Torrence his gush, because this does illuminate The Life of Pi: the infant with the access to the spiritual oneness of all naturally enters into an animal fable.

Pi sees the world as bestial, but with the twist that this enriches and spiritualises his sense of the cosmos rather than degrades it. After a peroration to the beauty of three-toed sloths (‘the three-toed sloth lives a peaceful, vegetarian life in perfect harmony with its environment … upside-down yogis deep in meditation or hermits deep in prayer’, 4-5) he adds:
A number of my fellow religious-studies students—muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, who were in the thrall to reason, that fool’s gold for the bright—reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, as a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God. [5]
Everything comes back to God in this novel, of course (it’s strapline, lifted from the text and cleverly pitched, is ‘a story that will make you believe in God’); and that is one of the ways beasts are parsed in the imaginative logic of the whole. Pi’s experiences leave him a grotesque half-animal hybrid:
My body retained fluids and my legs swelled up tremendously. I looked as if had been grafted with a pair of elephant legs. [7]
But this is as much an apotheosis as anything: the Hindu pantheon, and Pi’s ruminations thereon, open up the semiotic possibilities of the bestial. Pi’s half-elephantine state is balanced by Ganesha’s (he has ‘a brass Ganesha sitting cross-legged’ next to his computer, 46). So on the one hand the novel makes great play with the foolishness of anthropomorphising animals.[1] On the other, all the human agents are described in bestial terms: Pi is named ‘Piscine’ in honour of Francis Adirubasamy, a man so good at swimming his is called ‘Mr.Fish’; by the end of the novel Pi himself, his mother, the French cook and the Taiwenese sailor are all revealed as having animal alter-egos. When ‘Martel’ meets Pi’s son and daughter, he also meets (and seemingly on the same level) his dog and cat [92]

The same applies to the divine realm (the Holy Spirit is ‘a charismatic bird’, 52; a vision of the Virgin Mary is occasioned by a snowcovered branch ‘shaken by a breeze, or perhaps it was an animal’ 62). At low moments, Pi says he ‘would point at Richard Parker and say aloud “THIS IS GOD’S CAT!”’ [209])

What are all these animals doing, in this novel? They are enacting, or enabling, a fundamentally totemic vision of God.[2] As Levi Strauss famously put it, in his still resonant study of the totemic aspects of early human culture, animals are a dominant mode of the totemic imagination because ‘the diversity of species furnishes man with the most intuitive picture at his disposal and constitutes the most direct manifestation he can perceive of the ultimate discontinuity of reality. It is the sensible expression of an objective coding.’ [Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1966) 137].

This, I think, is what makes Life of Pi a much more interesting novel than its jaunty, fabulist exterior might suggest. The mournful tone with which the book ends (despite the crowd-pleasing revelation of future developments a third of the way in, ‘this story has a happy ending’ [93]) articulates a fundamental discontinuity that runs its fault-lines suggestively, resonantly, across the pantheist, upbeat theology its central Hindu/Muslim/Christian character espouses. True to his name, the signifier which looks like a hut, or a ‘refuge’ [24] is actually irrational. The twin interpretation of the events of Pi’s life after the sinking is, of course, heavily weighted towards the grimly cannibalistic ‘real’ one, and away from the child-flavoured animal fable that constitutes most of the book. The two cannot be blithely elided. The function of the tiger, in a totemic sense, is to reveal a far from happy moral: at the end, this novel is about the ultimate discontinuity of reality

The Aesopic fable “The Man and the Lion” (the 80th)—one of the prototypes, clearly, for Martel’s novel—ends with the didactic flourish: ‘there are two sides to every question.’ But the two sides are not equally weighted.

There’s another angle, which takes its impulse from psychoanalysis, might take the novel as an almost psychopathological act of displacement. Here is Carrie Rohman on the function of ‘the animal’ in Freud:
The displacement of animality onto marginalized others operates as an attempted repression of the animality that stalks Western subjectivity … indeed, the development of Freudian psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century should be recognised as a logical response to the threats of evolutionary theory. The concept of the unconscious in Freudian psychoanalysis operates as a modernist codification of the problems of animality in the human person. Freud himself hazards an explanation of humanity’s rise from its animal heritage and theorizes that our repression of organicism simultaneously deanimalises us and makes us human. Animality is consequently equated with neurosis in psychoanalytic terms, since one must repress it in order to become, and remain, human. … Freud offers a “cure” for animality’s presence in the human psyche. [Carrie Rohman, ‘Facing the Animal’, Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal (Columbia University Press, 2008), 63]
The ‘cure’ the novel offers is superegotistical: for the long sections in which Pi, in the boat, performs animal dominance, blows his whistle, pisses and generally intimidates Robert Parker, he is manifesting in a concrete sense the action of the superego. Again, this leads to a bleak reading of the text: for very survival is shown to depend upon the rigorously enacted and re-enacted rituals of repression.
[1] Pi’s father thinks ‘animalus anthropomorphicus’ the most dangerous in the world: ‘we’ve all met one, perhaps even owned one. It is an animal that is “cute”, “friendly”, “loving”, “devoted”, “merry”, “understanding”. These animals lie in ambush in every toy store and children’s zoo … They are the pendants of those “vicious”, “bloodthirsty”, “depraved” animals that inflame the ire of the maniacs I have just mentioned who vent their ire on them with walking sticks and umbrellas. In both cases we look at animals and see a mirror. The obsession with putting ourselves in the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologians’ [31]. Pi, or Martel, is here again channelling Mary Midgeley.

[2] ‘The phenomenon of totemism was one of the primary concerns of cultural anthropologists of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. As the anthropologists of that period collected ethnographic data, they noticed that non-literate societies commonly associated their own clans with natural phenomena, such as species of animals or plants, or natural bodies, or even geographical locations. Local inhabitants often explained this by saying a particular clan has “descended ” from the animal, plant, etc., and sometimes the association would involve complex ritual proscriptions, such as a prohibition against eating or killing the beings connected with one’s clan’ [David Pace, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Bearer of Ashes (Routledge 1983) 173]

Monday, 19 October 2009

Byatt's Children's Book: Second Thoughts

As to whether it's a sign of a proper openness of mind and suppleness of critical intelligence, or a symptom of a deplorably straw-blown-in-the-breeze havering mind, I don't know -- but I find myself more prone to second-thoughts these days that formerly. Here are my first thoughts on A S Byatt's Booker-shortlisted title. Two things appeared subsequently that provoked second thoughts in me. One is the consistently intelligent and perceptive Abigail Nussbaum's take on the novel; and, two is this letter from Isobel Armstrong (who, many years ago, was external examiner on my PhD, and who was a model of rigour and courtesy in that role [though that has no bearing on this present matter, of course]) to the LRB, responding to James Woods sniffy review:
James Wood doesn’t like A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (LRB, 8 October). But he doesn’t really get it. His main complaint is that Byatt is an interfering author. She tells us what the characters think, Wood says. She will not let them alone to speak for themselves and from their own interiority. True, but in a novel that, as Wood recognises, uses the puppet-master as an image for the control that denies freedom to the characters, writing from the inside is not an option. The hidden narrator, like the hidden puppet-master, exerts control by twitching the strings of his characters. Unseen, he preserves the illusion that they are free. Thus, to remain hidden as narrator is to perpetuate the puppet-master’s illusion of freedom while remaining in control. The invisible narrator assumes the control that the novel is questioning. The author has to be out in the open, writing from the outside. The opposite of the puppet-master is the potter, shaping material self-evidently from the outside. The interiority Wood is so nostalgic for is in fact always an authorial sleight of hand. Byatt is unwilling to perform the move that imperceptibly merges free indirect discourse with a seemingly autonomous speaker. This rejection of inwardness is connected with her refusal to make an exploration of feelings and emotion paramount in the novel. She has been interested for some time in the Grimm brothers as narrators, and their fierce, impersonal, objective presentation of violence. She sets this against the ethical sentimentality and emotionalism of Hans Andersen.

Olive Wellwood’s drama, ‘Tom Underground’, the play that drives Tom to suicide, an episode that Wood admits is one of the high moments of the novel, is written in Hans Andersen mode. Its extravagant manipulation of Tom’s emotions is partly what destroys him. It is a projection of the part of Olive that has never dealt with her own experience of the underground, the tragic coal-mining district where she grew up. Byatt leaves us to figure this history out: at the deepest level she refuses to interfere with her characters. Such failures to confront the underground of the self, failures that culminate in the literal underground trenches of the 1914-18 War, result in the unthinking destruction by parents of their children, of which the war was a terrifying example. Byatt leaves us to figure that out too. Recently she has spoken admiringly of the narrative distance that Thomas Mann’s writing sustains. To find an analogy for the mounting apprehension and horror in the account of Tom’s suicide one goes to Death in Venice. Wood is right without understanding why when he says that Byatt ignores the tradition of Proust and Woolf: her aim is precisely that, to avoid the open nerve of consciousness. This is not a postmodern novel as Wood suggests, but a major experiment in writing from the outside.
My problems with The Children's Book were not exactly the same as Wood's. But by framing the questions in this way, Armstrong happens (usefully) to nudge one of my buttons. Because as it happens my aesthetic eggs are pretty much wholly in the exteriorisation basket. And her letter has made me think about this some more, in that I wonder if my animadversion to the stiffness I found in Byatt's book (which I also find, as it happens, in Thomas Mann) is actually a pointer to a taste grounded in a kind of exteriorised sentimentality--a Dickensian mannikinesque or roboticised outward projection of the inner life. Is that what lights my candle? (It's certainly lacking from Byatt's too clinical exercise, I think).

The major achievements in the writing of character in the 20th century, it seems to me, are Beckett's novels, and Nabokov, maybe Ballard and Dick, with perhaps some of the postmodern writers (the ones who characterise only in terms of surfaces) thrown in: but in most of these cases the Deleuzeguattarian character-machine 'experiment in writing from the outside' aspect of the text actually parses considerable affective gravity. That is to say, you can't read Nabokov without thinking how genuinely touching Pnin is throughout, how sad is the final twist in Humbert Humbert's narrative. As in Dickens, the road royal to emotional intensity is through rigorous, cubist exteriorisation, and the peopling of a novel with puppets; not via a gooey Jamesian interiority. Nor, I think, is Armstrong quite right about Proust. The one interiorised character in that novel -- Marcel -- is also by a long margin the least interesting and least moving: Marcel, indeed, is a bore of quite brobdingnagian proportions. But the other characters, in their jerky, pinnocho-descending-a-staircase way, are endlessly superb; and my favourite (Baron Charlus, of course) is so affecting not despite but because he's such a pompously priapic stick-figure.

The problem with the Byatt book for me, then, is not that it is an experiment in writing from the outside when I crave interior thickness of affect; it's that it's not a very well handled experiment in writing from the outside. I reiterate my trouble in swallowing the 'puppetry' motif, or thematic (something I noted in my review) as Byatt presents it. I'm on the side of the Angels, or the Byatts (or the Charluses) in this particularly aesthetic debate; but that doesn't mean I automatically buy the particular iteration of it, here.

So, come to think of it, my second thoughts haven't taken me very far from my first.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Half of Paul McAuley's Gardens of the Sun (2009)

The top half: I'm now up to (or, I suppose, down to) p.220. Very good so far. Chilly, but in an ideal-glass-of-chablis-grand-cru sense of the word.

[20th Oct: finished now. Many excellencies, though the glass of chablis warms a little, perhaps, towards the very end. Review to follow when I've a moment.]

Friday, 16 October 2009

Jürgen Spanuth, Atlantis: the Mystery Unravelled (1956)

There are tens of thousands of crazy books about Atlantis, and this, for all its restrained, pseudo-scholarly tone, is one of the craziest. Spanuth disregards great galleon-loads of counter-evidence, focusses upon very few and very slender points of similarity (reed helmets may have been worn in Scandinavia similar to ones represented in Egyptian temple engravings; some swords in Egypt have a sort-of similar shape to some swords in northern Europe) and reads Plato in a deadeningly literal-minded way to reach the following baffling conclusion: Atlantis was actually Schleswig-Holstein. Here's his map of the great kingdom of Atlantis, now swallowed by the ocean (the shaded lands to the right are actual Schleswig and actual Holstein; the dotted areas to the left are the sand banks off the Schleswiggy-Holsteinian coast):
And even less convincingly, here's an echo-sonograph Spanuth took from a boat floating on the bosom of the North Sea:

Can you see the submerged towers and vasty battlements? Can you?

Certain smallish islands in the North Sea off the coast of Germany and Denmark were indeed inundated once upon a time, an event known to historians as the 'Cymbrian flood'. But this happened between 113 and 101 BC, not the 1500 years earlier it would have to be to have even a glancing relevance to the Atlantis myth. The Cymbrian flood is recorded by Strabo, who mentions that it forced some tribes of Cymbri and Teutons to relocate (they sent their best kettle to Caesar, rather sweetly, as a 'plea for his friendship and for an amnesty of earlier offences'). It has nothing to do with Atlantis.

Nevertheless I found the experience of reading Spanuth's crazy book to be poignant rather than entirely curlywurlycuckoo. The original German version (Das enträtselte Atlantis) was published 1953. That is to say: it was researched and written in the early years of the 1950s, only a few years after the catastrophic defeat of Nazi Germany. The thought of earnest Herr-Doktor Spanuth concocting his wafer-thin hypothesis in such a cultural context is weirdly touching -- dispatching to the depths of history a fabulation of Germans conquering the entirety of the known world, from Scandinavia to Egypt, from Asia Minor to Spain, only to be wiped-out in a sudden, vast cataclysm. It says very little about either Atlantis or the Cymbrian flood. It says a great deal about Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Spanuth deals with the trauma of his nation's quasi-Atlantean downfall by mutating it into distant myth and story.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Enid Blyton, The Magic Faraway Tree

This is a novel that sets the mind wondering. As I read it to my daughter, for instance, my mind was wondering: 'is this the worst book ever written?'

Monday, 12 October 2009

James Newton Howard, The Village (2004)

This particular M. Night Shyamalan film is not his worst, which (of course) is a faint-praise-damning way of saying it's no masterpiece either. I enjoyed it when I first saw it, although I find it has diminished in my mind and imagination since then--in part, but not entirely, because its twist-ending inevitably retrospects the entire text into a malodorously wet-fur shaggy dog story. Certainly, I've no particular desire to watch the film again.

But I find myself returning over and again to James Newton Howard's movie soundtrack: a piece of music that grows and deepens the more I listen to it -- not only beautiful, but emotionally eloquent and cohesive, and occasionally genuinely extraordinary. I could say more. The Lark Ascending vibe of the opening track ('Noah Visits') is lovely, but if this were all there were to it (if, like John Williams or the Gladiator soundtrack, it was nothing but expert second hand classical pastiche) the whole thing would pall after a set number of listens. This doesn't. In fact I'd say it slips free of derivativeness almost right at the start, when solo violinist Hilary Hahn's fluidly serpentine arpeggios begin coiling. From there on it's all win: the whole suite has the mellow tonal richness, and melodic rightness, of a great work of musical art. This is probably not the first time a musical para-text has succeeded, as art, much more completely than the original text it was commissioned to embroider, but for my money it is one of the most notable.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Coetzee's Summertime (2009)

7th October 2009. Yesterday the Man Booker Prize winner was announced: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The bookies had shortened the odds on Mantel to 11/5, the shortest ever laid against a Booker shortlisted title; and the reviewers and critics were behind the title, so it was hardly a surprise. This morning’s Guardian goes with the front page headline Mantel of Glory, hardly the snappiest of puns (what should they have gone with instead? ManBookerTel? Mantel’s piece? Kiss and Mantel?) Underneath is a full colour photograph of Mantel’s beaming face: a study in circles. There’s something on the edge of unreality about her visage actually: ideally, even Platonically round, with round eyes circumferenced by two perfectly traced arcs eyebrows-to-bags, the whole emphasized rather than anything by the way the face is framed by the twin turned-in scimitar lines of her hairstyle. It’s like a face drawn by a cartoonist: not unpretty, exactly, even in its corpulence and middle-age—but not quite real.

To be expanded upon: why oh why will a science fiction novel never win the Booker? Possibly expand the ‘why oh why’ to a ‘why oh why oh why’.


DR REVIEW. You have had a chance to read Coetzee’s new novel. Do you recognize the Coetzee genius at work in it?

It’s a perfectly fine novel.

That sounds like damning with faint praise.

‘Damning’? That, if you'll pardon me, is an empty piece of phrasemaking. Cliché—and more to the point, not true. No critic or reader has the power to send a book to hell. Not because books don’t deserve hell, and not because readers lack power; actually they have all the power when it comes to a book’s afterlife. But for a simpler reason: only immortal things can go to hell, or heaven. Books are not immortal. I tend to agree with Julia, in the novel: ‘No one is immortal. Books are not immortal.’ [61] Anyway, I might ask you not to point the accusing finger at me—the Booker panel didn’t give him the prize, after all.

Maybe it was second on their list?

Maybe it was the best title, but they figured two Bookers and a Nobel prize is enough? Or maybe they didn't think so much of it at all, in the end. Summertime is a late-period work by a major novelist, or a late-middle-period work perhaps. It is a novel by a novelist famous not only for certain themes and topics, but for a particular, controlled, slightly parched tone, a precision and remorselessness of style. In such cases, later novels inevitably feel like pastiche exercises in an earlier idiom.

Like Pinter?

Now, why would you compare Coetzee to Pinter?

They’re both Nobel laureates. They both use obliquity and misdirection to write about pressing social and political circumstances.

Oh I think they’re completely difference writers. Completely different! Take this novel, this Summertime: various characters who knew ‘John Coetzee’ express what they thought about him when he was alive: you see, the conceit of this novel by John Coetzee is that John Coetzee is dead, and an academic is gathering reminiscences. It’s a sequel of sorts of the autobiographical fictions of youth and early manhood Boyhood and Youth, and bears the same uneasy fictive relationship to reality. Or, no: not uneasy. Coetzee’s art is far too controlled to be uneasy. It’s chill.

A moment ago you described it as parched.

So it is: parched and chilly, like freezer burn. The remarkable thing is how eloquent that mood, that tenor, is as a way of talking about human affairs. The markworthy thing about this work is the way it draws its central character, Coetzee’s version of Coetzee, through a variety of different perspectives not in order to make an obvious point about the relativism of truth, or anything like that; but rather to put a kind of pressure on the central conceit itself. Like multiple streams from many fireman’s hoses coordinated upon the heart of the blaze. The theme of the book is how much less Coetzee is than you might think; how much less any of us are when we are put together from the reminiscences of those close to us. He’s not fully human, as one character says. And he isn't, in this novel: not because he is badly drawn as a character but because humans, by and large, really are not fully human when judged by the hyperbolic standards art usually peddles. That is beautifully and convincingly put across in the novel. It’s not very comfortable, but it wouldn’t work if it were.

Not Pinter, then. Like Beckett, perhaps?

Another Nobel laureate? You show a certain limitation in your range of comparative reference. Ah well. Yes, Beckett is closer to Coetzee than Pinter, certainly, but still it's not quite right to compare the two of them. Beckett’s novels really aren’t interested in sex in the way Coetzee is, centrally, interested in sex. Or in abstraction—Beckett is strangely fascinated by abstraction, I think, as a feature of lived experience ... or do I mean, by the extrapolation of certain ontological circumstances to their limit points. Coetzee's not like that. Summertime effortlessly gives the reader a sense of what it was like living as a white in South Africa in the later 1970s—it is, in fact, a historical novel, and grounded in deftly evoked moments of verisimilitude. But its success is also its limitation: it is an articulation of denudedness. It is not a novel that knocks your teeth in, or lives vividly and passionately in your heart after reading, like Disgrace.

Coetzee’s previous Booker winner—from 2000.


I stand corrected.

Now there is a novel! That book is on fire; not a wildfire, but the proverbial clean, cold, blue flame. Summertime is a perfectly fine novel. It’s just not in the same class. And I am choosing my words with care: it is fine in the sense of being fine-grained, well-milled; and it is perfect in its way. Its perfection is its limitation. It is a sustainable piece of writing.

I’m not sure I follow you.

Well, I mean simply that some literature is sustainable and some is unsustainable—some books work with a balanced husbandry to maintain themselves, where some burn themselves up in sparks and noxious smoke and a wash of vital heat.

Look: here’s how I came to know this book, this Summertime in which you are so interested. A friend of mine, Tony, came round for dinner one night. I’ve known Tony for many years; we were PhD students at Cambridge at the same time, he working on D H Lawrence, I on Browning. We talked about many things—Tony is getting married soon, and we talked about that; and my wife, who is an English teacher, talked about how the sheer load of work she shoulders during termtime squeezes out almost all of her reading-for-pleasure. She reads the books she must do, for work. Tony talked a little about the book he was reading—A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book, another title shortlisted for the prize that Mantel went on to win. It’s a period I know he has interests in, and he made the book sound intriguing. I said so, to him. In fact, the following day I happened to be in London, on a work-related trip, and I stepped into the Waterstones near Senate House on my way there. The Children’s Book was on sale, with a £4 reduction, so, on an impulse, I bought it.

Is this going anywhere?

How do you mean.

I mean I don’t see the relevance.

You’re not looking hard enough. Anyway, I began reading Byatt’s novel: a strangely clotted, overstuffed family saga, although with some interesting points, as Tony had suggested. I read it as I generally do read books, at every available moment: carrying it with me at all times, filling every spare minute here or 30 seconds there with another page or half-page; reading it not only in bed or in my cosy chair, but on the loo, on the go. If I am waiting in a queue at the supermarket, I’ll pull the book from my satchel and read a page. If I have a spare five minutes, no matter for what reason, I’ll press on.

Is that how you manage to read so many books so quickly?

That has something to do with it. But the next thing that happened was that a parcel from arrived on the doormat: it was the Byatt title. Tony had bought it for the two of us, as a present, to say thank you for supper! Wasn’t that nice of him? But I’d already bought the title.


I had the receipt from my original purchase, and I went to the Staines Waterstones and asked them to exchange my second copy. It was pristine, freshly hatched from its rectangular cardboard shell, and there was no problem. ‘What would you like to exchange it for?’ the woman behind the counter asked. That was when I thought of Summertime. That is how I came to have a copy of the novel in hardback.

Perhaps you’ve misunderstood my ‘so’? I was not prompting you to continue with your story; I was reiterating, really—to speak frankly—that I did not see the point in it.

Well, quite. The point: the biting point of this sort of personal narrative … seeing the point, taking the point, having the point prick a scarlet ballbearing of blood from your finger’s tip—yes, yes, that is the game with a novel like Summertime. That’s all of it.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The xx, xx (2009)

Took a while to grow on me, this album, but it's there now. And the conclusion I have come to is that xx is an album about an intense relationship between two really really shy characters. And that's great: there's not enough art about the being-in-the-world of the shy, although many people (most people perhaps) are shy most of the time. So, I love the attention-to-detail, emotionally, speaking, in the stumbly vocals, the not-quite in harmony angles of the male and female vocalists, the jittery, twangy, muffled-echoey Joy-Division instrumental tone, the inevitably-not-as-cool-as-the-Velvet-Underground Velvet Undergroundisms. I also love the way the perspective of the songs pendulums between intense attachment and an edged insistence on emotional distance: as if they don't have the in the bone self-confidence to assert the former, and fall back on the latter almost from habit. There's something cowering about these songs, in an endearing rather than a despicable sense. The only flaw, it seems to me, is the track 'Infinity', which might as well just be a cover version of Chris Isaak's 'Wicked Game' for all the good it does the song: a cheesy wrong note in an otherwise tentatively intimate suite.

Also, the name of the band (and album): see, in the light of this reading of the text I like to believe that the reference is to something vital, yet tiny and hidden; something shared in love, and hence chromosomes.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

A S Byatt, The Children's Book (2009)

This is an odd, densely crammed saga-novel: six hundred pages that read like nine hundred, moving a large number of characters from the 1890s through to the First World War. The density is created by the sheer quantity of research Byatt has pressed into the mould of her narrative—if not infodumping, exactly, then certainly info-kneading, or info-compressing. There's no doubt that she knows this period very well ... which is to say, she certainly puts out great gouts of historical-cultural knowledge: about the Arts and Crafts movement of the fin-de-siècle; about anarchism and children’s literature; about the Jameson raid and Fabianism and Anarchism and life in the Potteries; about the Suffragettes and the establishment of the Victoria and Albert museum and the popularity of Peter Pan; and a great mass of other stuff about turn-of-the-century England and Germany. Queen Victoria dies on p.300, and from there the novel slides inexorably towards World War I. Density has its advantages, and by its end this novel certainly builds a considerable degree of heft, which gives its soap-like family births-and-deaths actual emotional momentum. But density can very easily become stodge, and it often does so in this book. It took me a long time to read, and for long stretches the reading process was a treacly-wading, not a smoothly-gliding, one.

In the middle of a swarm of characters is Olive Wellwood, a children’s writer, wife to a foxily unfaithful husband and mother to a large brood—I took her to be a fictional version of Edith Nesbit until, later in the novel, Nesbit herself crops up. There’s also weirdo-genius-artist Bejamin Fludd, a version of Eric Gill. I assume the point of fictionalising these famous folk is that it frees up Byatt to take these characters’ stories in the directions she wants without being constrained by actuality (which, I assume, is why some figures from the period appear in fictional guise—H G Wells, for instance—where others come along as themselves: William Morris, say, or James Barrie).

Alright then, but a novel is built out of its prose (its prose, obviously, constructs it) and the prose here is a problem. Individual sentences are mostly fine, and occasionally they are better than fine; but the sentences are put together, paragraph by paragraph and page by page, in a disconcertingly clunky, jolty manner. There’s something almost aspergers about the jerky, clotted larger rhythm. It’s not helped by Byatt’s fondness for lapsing into reported speech, like a newspaper article or a Hansards parliamentary account (‘Griselda said to Dorothy that it was interesting, how different the story was. Dorothy said she wasn’t very interested. … [Griselda] said she really wanted to know why the story was different’, 51). Quite a lot of the book is like this:
1896 was a gloomy year. William Morris died in October, as Tom [one of the children] was hiding in thickets and Olive was pacing the corridors. … the Tate Gallery opened on Millbank in 1896, the National Portrait Gallery moved from Bethnal Green to a site next to the National Gallery in the same year. A Fabian Society member, incurably ill, committed suicide and left his fortune to the Fabians, to forward their ends. Sidney and Beatrice Webb decided that this could best be done by the founding of the London School of Economics, and in 1896 the rich Irishwoman, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, took the top floor of no.10 Adelphi Terrace for the first students and lecturers. [205]
Or this, on the build up to war in 1914:
The English were reading novels about the invasion of England, and the invaders were Germans. There was the legendary William Le Queux, whose tales were serialized by Lord Northcliffe, in the Daily Mail and hugely increased its circulation. He began with The Great War in England in 1897 which was published in 1894 … In 1906 Le Queux wrote the Invasion of 1910, a futuristic tale of a German invasion of England’s green and pleasant land … Among Le Queux’s innumerable other works was Spies of the Kaiser, published in 1909, a mock-factual series of descriptions of infiltrating Germans and dangerous new weapons. The Secret of the Silent Submarine. The Secret of our New Gun. The German Plot Against England. The Secret of the British Aeroplane. [544]
...which isn’t, but reads as if it might have been, cut-and-pasted from Clute and Nicholls. Occasionally the research sounds a wrong note. 'Anselm Stern began suddenly to sing a version of the opening music of Rheingold' [62]: fine, except that the opening of Rheingold is essentially the same chord for, like, eight minutes, which would be an odd thing to sing.

Oh, this review is not above nitpicking. Oh indeed not. Did you think it would be?

Anyway: the overall flavour of the prose is one of flatness, something compounded partly of the style itself, and partly by a rather uncertain touch with narrative focalizing, combined with an approach to detail that might be described as incontinent. Sometimes the writing is just ungainly, or actively bad. (‘Breakfast was happy and sad’, 556). Sometimes there’s an eew quotient. For example: here’s working-class Philip, given a home by the Wellwoods, wanking in his room on his first night: ‘he lay back, and took himself in hand, and worked himself into a rhythm of delight, and a soaring wet ecstasy’ [22]. I’m not sure the English language contains three words less effective at evoking a swift adolescent Barclay’s than ‘soaring wet ecstasy’.

Now I’m prepared to believe this is a deliberate strategy on Byatt’s part: a sort of deliberate rough-hewnness fitting to the Arts and Crafts aesthetic she is describing. I’m just not convinced that it works, overall. It is earnest and plodding, by and large, where it needs to be gracious and transporting.

To be fair to it, there are aspects of The Children’s Book that are very effectively rendered. The governing thematic of the whole—children, and children’s stories, what I described in another place as the entry into and explusion from Narnia-like paradises—is one of these: Byatt insets a number of Olive’s children’s stories, several of which are very good indeed. The basics of family life are as compelling as any high-class soap opera, the reader becoming absorbed into who is marrying whom, whom Y is boinking on the side or why X has drowned himself in the river. The Children's Book is good at evoking a world where infant mortality was a much greater feature of ordinary life—and in particular, at evoking the family psychodynamic of living with such bereavements, where (pace Wordsworth’s ‘I Am Seven’) the dead children are still regarded members of the family. But overall the book was a disappointment, a lump rather than a coherent whole. It lacks, I think, gracefulness; or (despite its repeated return to the potent charm of the well-told tale) magic.

One rather-too-obviously worked trope is that of puppetry. Early in the book the children are entertained by Anselm Stern, a brilliant puppetmaster: and the little marionette plays are described in exhaustive detail; and puppets in various forms appear and reappear throughout the book. But it seems to me that taking puppetmasters seriously is no longer possible—I mean after Being John Malkovich ... in the same way that we can no longer hear Abba’s splendid ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ without adding a ghostly Alan-Partridge ‘a-ha!’ I mean, has Byatt never seen Being John Malkovich? Is she even aware of it? Or is she like a High Court Judge, loftily ignorant of those developments in culture at large that have rendered features of her world-view passé. And maybe that’s symptomatic of a larger problem—this is a weirdly po-faced, humourless novel. It takes itself terribly terribly seriously, and the reader who isn’t prepared to conform to Byatt’s earnestness will find the novel lies very heavily on the metaphorical stomach indeed.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (2009)

The bar is set low, for me, with these sorts of films: I go not because I desperately want to see them; and not because I particularly want to see them; but rather because the local cinema wouldn't let me take my seven-year-old daughter in to see District 9 even if she wanted to see such fare (she doesn't). But this movie made my inner critic-motherfucker just wither away and die. It's delightful, lovely to look at and very very funny indeed.

Most of this redeeming funniness is the script, which is good on character (I particularly loved the way the nerdy main character manifested his nervous energy in a series of goofy play-acting tics, karate-moves and auto-running-commentary) but especially good on the level of words. I loved the credit-crunchy premise ... that a small Atlantic island whose entire economy depends upon sardine fishing, collapses when the world as a whole suddenly wakes up to the fact that sardines are 'majorly gross'. When the young inventor Flint Lockwood invents a machine for turning water into food, and after said machine zooms accidentlly into the clouds, the sky rains vituals, starting with hamburgers. ('This tastes considerably better than sardines!' cries a delighted somebody in the crowd). Of course it malfunctions, and some of the graphics towards the end have an extraordinary, positively Max Ernst quality to them ... the revolting, bodily hideousness of Too Much Food very nicely brought out. But the heart of the movie is its sheer hilarity. I laughed a lot. Lily loved it too, although she said that some of it towards the end made her feel a bit queasy-sicky in her tum, which (the sheer profusion of junk food on display is gagging). I take that to have been an intentional thing on behalf of the filmmakers.