Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Stamping Butterflies (2004)

Another production from Jon Courtenay's dangerous theatre. Here, in our near future, a middle-aged tramp in Marrakech tries to kill the President of the United States. He fails, but why did he try in the first place? Why won’t he communicate with his captors? What cosmic mysteries is his writing, in merde, on the walls of his cell? And here, in another part of the Grim Wood, two young Marrakesh kids in the 1970s struggle to say alive and unviolated in the face of some terrifying circumstances. And yet again here, in a part of the Wood much further away, a young man lives an existence modelled on the old Chinese emperors which may or may not be real: 148 billion individuals dwelling in a fractured dyson sphere circling a distant star seem to depend upon him performing his role properly.

This is a novel in which these seemingly separate strands weave inexorably, and neatly, together. The North African chapters are, as we’d expect from this author, richly atmospheric convincing down to the last smell or sight. The US Presidential chapters chime a little less true, a little more West Wing, and the interrogation of the mysterious Prisoner Zero goes on a little too long. But the real triumph of Stamping Butterflies is its third plot strand. The strange world of Zigin Cheng, the Dyson sphere and its myriad bizarre inhabitants, is a compellingly weird and wonderful creation. It teases the reader with its reality, or unreality, for hundreds of pages without ever becoming tiresome; and, indeed, one of Grimwood’s skills is rooting this strangeness in some brilliantly observed writing about the ‘real’ world, the one we inhabit. The emperor was once a junior human astronaut called Chuang Tzu; for my money the chapters in which we nip back to Chuang’s early life in China, his love for a village girl, his disconnection and running-away, are amongst the best things that Grimwood has yet written.

It’s coolly done: chapter after chapter of elegantly pared and expressive prose, from many lovely little phrases (‘something like fear nictated across his eyes’) to longer passages that chime with rightness. This, for instance, relates to a genetically enhanced climber called Tris who has wrenched her muscles during an arduous trek on her way to try and assassinate the Emperor:
Imagine that someone has cooked thread noodles, the tiny almost translucent kind, so that they are too flexible to snap like dry twigs but need another ten seconds or so to become properly soft. Then imagine that person taking a fat handful of those noodles and twisting, so that some pop, other half rupture and a few, mostly in the middle, stay whole. This was the muscle inside Tris’s shoulders.
That’s not only lovely, vivid writing; it illustrates Grimwood’s recurring fascination with food, and indeed with all the quotidian details of lived existence. He never moves too far from the sensual experiences of eating, sleeping, having sex; not just the way characters look but the way they smell; the qualia of our actual lives. It is his skill with these things that give life and validity to his more fantastic imaginings.

If it’s cool enough, it’s also a fairly grim book. Two of Grimwood’s consistent fascinations return in amplified form in Stamping Butterflies: one is the story of the corruption of innocence, something that forms the core of most of his books, one way or another. Here the narrative of Moz and Malika, sort-of boy-and-girlfriend in 1970s Marrakesh is so eloquent and so unyielding on the terrors of innocence being violated that it makes very painful reading indeed. And in outer space, linked in an inverse ratio, the young Emperor is also disabused of his illusions in a grim-ish way.

The other topic to which Grimwood returns again and again in his writing is what might be called schizophrenia. Grimwood loves characters who have voices in their head, and usually those voices are real rather than imaginary. He is interested in people who can’t make up their mind about the nature or even reality of the cosmos. ‘Everything was a matter of perspective, Chuang Tzu realised. Ordinary things seen from extraordinary angles held their own meanings and messages.’ In Grimwood, as in Dick (although Grimwood is a much finer stylist and scene-setter than Dick) what appears simple paranoia often leads to deeper truths about the nature of things.
And, again as is characteristic of Grimwood's novels, the plot is structured in such a way as to apply yelping jolts of surprise at unexpected moments: the trundle-trundle-trundle-BANG school of writing which, if its handled well, can be very exciting to read. Grimwood handles it well. The unexpected moments usually involve ultraviolence, or some of the old in-out in-out, or sometimes both together; but the important thing is that they work.

I was, perhaps, a little underwhelmed by the book’s conclusion. The strands are wound together, but (not to drop spoilers) in ways that didn’t entirely satisfy me. But the book lingered in my mind long after reading it; a mature, often alarming, deep and admirable work of fiction. Indeed, all round this is another advance for Grimwood. It’s a reviewerish cliché to say it, but he really does get better with every book. This novel may well snare readers new to Grimwood’s books, but it will be greeted by delight by his already sizeable fanbase.

Read this book. Don’t make its author send his sinister French policeman Claude de Greuze round to knock on your door. You wouldn’t like that at all.


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