Friday, 26 February 2010

Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, (transl. David R. Slavitt, 2010)

Not so much a review, as a tale of disappointment. I bought this volume from amazon, hardback, for £24.07, in part on the strength of a dithyrhambic TLS review. But nowhere in that review, or on the amazon page, does it make plain that this is a translation (admittedly lively) of selected bits and pieces of Ariosto, not the whole text; and that it lacks all annotation, apparatus, and comes with only the mealiest of introductions. This is no good for me. Nor are these facts mentioned on the Harvard University Press page for the book. Chiz chiz. Do not buy this book.

I own, and have read, the Barbara Reynolds translation, which I found done very thoroughly and solidly, and only occasionally in a bad way (I mean: in terms of capturing the lively sprightliness of the original). I also own a charity-shop edition of this prose version by Guido Waldman, which is perfectly fine. Both are unabridged, and both contain fascinating critical apparatuses. My interest in the poem has a lot to do with the way its uninhibited and often sparkling Fantasy blurs for long stretches into Science Fiction. Here's English knight Astolfo flying to the moon on the back of his Hippogriff from Canto 34, in Slavittspeak:
Having crossed the fiery sphere they arrive
at the realm of the moon, which looks like a steel plate,
entirely spotless, and about the same size, I've
been told, as the earth -- and that would include our great
oceans which add to our globe. After the drive,
which has not taken long I would estimate,
Astolfo expressed his astonishment and surprise
that the moon, which looks small fron the earth, is of such a size. [609-10]
Sprezzatura is one thing; this is just fucking slapdash, sprawly and spooly and loose and not in a good way. The whole thing is like this. Aristo is sparkly and lively; but he doesn't trample all over the line-endings in big boots like this; and Reynolds, thought a little old-school posh, has more of a sense for the rhythms and pacing of a line of verse than this. Slavitt foregrounds an often goofy sense of humour (“and in short order they approach Marseilles/and are happy after traveling all that weilles”); but whilst I've no objection to a goofy sense of humour, it's no substitute for doing the translation fundamentals properly.

Elsewhere on the internet: Valvular Aristo.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Andreas Eschbach, The Carpet Makers (1995; trans. Doryl Jensen, 2005)

I'm not convinced the author needs quite so many 's's and 'ch's in his name, but I enjoyed this nevertheless. In a multigalactic Empire centred with religious devotion upon its immortal human emperor, there is a backward world wholly given over to the production of handmade hair carpets. Everything on this planet is oriented to this aim: carpet weavers devote their entire life to a single rug, taking many wives of different coloured head-hair to provide the raw materials. At the end of his life each weaver sells his rugs to a trader for a sum large enough to provide his son with a lifetime’s wherewithal, so that he can weave his rug. A carpet weaver may have many daughters, but only one son (to carry on the tradition)—surplus sons are murdered at birth. And all the carpets are gathered at the central spaceport and shipped to the Imperial Palace for the delight of the emperor. Except—the emperor has been deposed, decades before (news is slow to percolate to the fringes of the empire), and the rebels, now in control, know that there’s not a single hair-carpet anywhere in the palace. Then they discover that there are tens of thousands of planets wholly given over to the production of these hair carpets, all being assiduously collected and transported—where? That’s a good question.

It's a very winning story, although there’s more win in it when it confines itself to the Herbertian world of the carpet-makers, and slightly less win when it leaps off world to range lopingly about the galaxy. But I read the whole thing quickly, at times avidly, and it did not disappoint. The narrative is assembled, fix-up-style, out of chapters fashioned each as a standalone short story; which makes the overall reading experience a little choppy. But the worst you could say is that the novel perhaps misses the density of affect and detail that would have grounded its yarn: this is not to say that it is weightless, exactly, although it is perhaps a little low-grav. But the first few chapters promise a much greater immersion in the world of the Carpet Weavers than the rest of the novel delivers. When we actually meet the immortal emperor it dawns on the reader, with a slight shock, that s/he’s reading a Pulp, and not the more fully realised piece of LeGuinery promised by the opening. But that’s OK: Pulp is fine, and the melodramatic posturing and schematic implausibility of the characters in the second half of the novel feed through to a Reveal (where are all the carpets going?) that is surprisingly satisfying. In a Banksy sense. I mean Iain M. Banks-y. Not, you know, ‘Banksy’. Plus the last sentence of the novel, not counting the slightly emotionally overreaching epilogue, is a genuine zinger. This novel is recommended.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (transl. Natasha Wimmer, 2008)

You open the first of two paperback covers, and the eye in the first 'O' of Bolaño's name is revealed as a Mexican-Day-of-the-Dead skull. Nice. Otherwise, it's a very long novel, and I've blogged my reactions to it in five parts:

Part 1: about the Critics

Part 2: about Amalfinato

Part 3: about Fate

Part 4: about the Crimes

Part 5: about Archimboldi

It's a potent fiction, and in many ways extraordinary and remarkable, though it's often trudgy and sometimes just horrible.

Friday, 19 February 2010

J G Ballard, Crash (1973)

I don't have a lot to say about this brilliant novel at the moment, beyond 'wasn't the cover of the first edition awful?' The gearstick looks much more like a microphone than a knob, and the title is clearly waiting for a Terry Gilliam giant foot to come hard down upon it and squash it flat. The title is not referring to that sort of 'crash', you know.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Newsnight BBC2

A simple narrative of a very minor happening. Yesterday I was teaching pretty much all day, through to 5pm. Mid afternoon I got an email from Clare, one of the production staff at BBC Newsnight, asking if I'd like to come on a roundtable discussion on that night's show to talk about a trifling 'Scriptwriter Confesses He Smuggled Coded Anti-Thatcher Story into 1980s Dr Who' item that had, oddly I think, stirred up news-interest. I phoned her at 5pm, said I was happy to come in; and she asked me some stuff about SF and politics, jotting down my answers. Then I cycled home from work, and spoke to her on the phone a second time. They now didn't want me for the 11pm live roundtable, she said; but would still like me to come into Television Centre and prerecord a brief interview to be cut into the news-report preceding the discussion. I said I was perfectly happy to do this, although I also said I wasn't the world's most expert Who-head, and gave her the names of a couple of more Who-knowledgeable people in the London area. 'No we want you, because you're a SF novelist', she told me. At about 6:45 a car arrived at my door, and a nice driver called Dave drove me to TV centre. I loitered in the Newsnight office for a while, chatting to the staff: apparently they come in at some point in the morning ('between nine and twelve, depending'), and then work solidly on that night's show right up to transmission. Must be a fairly wearing stretch, that. 'Yes; though the hardest part is actually getting guests to agree to come and delivering them to the studio in timely fashion.' One man, also called Adam, came over and told me he'd enjoyed reading Yellow Blue Tibia, which was either very flattering, or else very diplomatic, but either way was nice of him. Then Clare, with whom I'd spoken earlier, came down and took me off to a tiny little room for filming. I was miked; the cameraman Richard set up the shot; Clare directed a fierce spotlight into my eyes and turned off the other lights except for a faint red illumination of the toy robot they'd positioned on a table at my left hand. She asked the cameraman if the spot was too bright on me -- which I took to be code for 'golly he's one freakishly pale human being' (nothing but the truth, that). 'It's fine,' said the cameraman, reframing the shot. I could see nothing but the light in my eyes; everything else was perfectly dark. They turned off a humming fridge in the corner of the room, and readied things, whilst I made a few nervily comical smalltalky comments about this-and-that. Then we were off. She asked me a 'is SF political?' sort of question. Conscious that TV has no use for rambly lectures, I tried to keep myself on point and reasonably pithy, though not very successfully, I'm afraid. SF is inevitably political, I said, because it is always either creating a new world or modifying this one, making it better or worse, more utopian or dystopian. This a largely matter of how people relate to one another, or, in a word, politics. 'I'm interested in what you said on the phone earlier,' she said, 'when you talked about how UK SF was more left wing than US.' Well, I said (unable to avoid the subordinate-clause caveat) and despite the fact that some very notable US writers have 'liberal' political sympathies, it's probably true to say that US SF has had a more right-wing, militaristic, gung-ho flavour; where British SF has tended to be more on the left, a little more downbeat and also more pessimistic. 'That's great,' she said, out of the darkness and the one bright light. 'Maybe we could do that question again? It's good to have a couple of angles on the topic when we're cutting the piece.' I took this to mean: though I'm too polite to say so to your face, that answer was way too waffly. So I went over the same ground, talking briefly about US hard-sf in the militarist tradition, mentioning Star Wars and Galactica and saying something about how even more 'liberal' US TV SF tends to filter its politics through a militaristic idiom, think of Star Trek, or even Avatar, which, though it is a treehugger fable at heart, can't escape its fascination with the big military machines and the gung-ho heart of the warrior-protagonist. 'Great,' she said. Then she asked me the same question in a slightly different way, such that I realised it hadn't been great. So I said it again, more briefly. Then she asked: 'why do you think UK SF is more left wing than US?'. I talked a bit about possible reasons: larger social/cultural reasons, reasons of budget -- the shoestring 1980s Who compared to the big-budget corporate cinema events a la Star Wars. Then she asked me some more specific questions about the anti-Thatcher Who episodes, which I answered, I suppose, as well as anybody would who had read the Telegraph report for the first time that afternoon. I talked some more about the spirit of Who as being anti-militaristic, in the sense of its deliberate non-conformist, anti-regimented, no-guns ethos. We chatted about a couple of thing. 'Great!' she said, finally, turning the lights on again. The whole thing took, I'd say, between 15 and 20 minutes.

Then she walked me back to the Newsnight office, and checked that another driver had been arranged for me, after which she took me down to reception. She was unflaggingly nice, but looked tired. I chatted with the doorman, who was reading a Wilbur Smith novel the size of a shoebox. My driver came and drove me back home. On the way back, he asked me what I did, and when I said I was a writer, he said: 'so what's going to happen with these e-books, then?' I gave him the benefit of my august opinion on this important topic, and chatted with him about his line of work. He told me he was a freelance; drove for the BBC in the winter and in the summer did personalised tours through the south east for American tourists. I didn't catch his name.

I was struck, I suppose, by a couple of things. I realised, for instance, the extent to which any TV show with guests entails a motorised ballet of delivering and whisking away human beings, which must be horribly dependent on the vagaries of London traffic; and how much of the production is actually an invisible people-logistics. I was also struck, not for the first time, by just how precise and haiku-like a discipline good soundbites are. I've done them well in the past, on occasion; I didn't do them well that night.

I watched the show later, of course; I appeared for maybe ten seconds, saying one thing: that UK SF was all left-wing, but US SF all militaristic and right-wing, 'think of Star Wars and Galactica or even Star Trek.' There was a quick shaky close up of my eyes, of the sort that encourages viewers to append the adjective 'mad' to the organs of sight in question. I certainly wasn't quoted out of context, except in the sense that the context was 'fifteen rambly minutes of chat about SF and politics' and the quote was a few seconds; although I came over as a bit of a knob, for all that. Slightly too fuzzy-brained after all day teaching to be able to give crisply formed soundbites. Gavin Esslar then chatted with in-studio guests, one Doctor Who Screenwriter and one 'Conservative Central Office Science Fiction Expert' (which made it sound, nicely, like a Tory staff post). At one point Esslar said 'Adam Roberts says all American SF is right-wing, but that's surely not right: what about Avatar?' And the two guests agreed.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Un prophète (Jacques Audiard, dir; 2009)

My very limited sense of this film before I went to see it was that it was a psychological drama hung on a moral dilemma—the green young prisoner given the option by Corscian mobsters with whom he is incarcerated: kill this other prisoner, or we’ll kill you. And that is, kind of, how it starts; but Malik El Djebena, ingenuously played by Tahar Rahim, doesn’t treat it as a dilemma, except in a practical sense: how to hide the razor (inside, ouch, his mouth, ouch, between teeth and cheek ouch ouch); how to surprise the victim (start giving him a blow job, then, when he's not expecting it, leap up and cut his throat), how to avoid trailing the victim’s blood out of his cell. And once this crime is over, the film still has more than two hours to run. Its story settles into a rather different groove to the one I had suspected—a gangster rise to power groove. Violence is presented in the film as a practical, and very much not as a moral, problem. The spectre of the man Malik killed at the beginning repeatedly appears to him in his cell, but not in a Banquo’s-ghost way (I mean: he's not there as an externalisation of Malik's guilty conscience). He’s more like a friend, or guide; pointing out how the prison works, and later quoting the Qu’ran to him. In amongst the run-o-mill narrative sections of Malik learning his world, manipulating people against people, venturing into wider France on day-release, building a drug-running business from the inside and so on—all fine, though none of them especially standout—Audiard inserts some more interesting cinematic elements: blurry dream-sequences, and quasi-surreal encounters with the spectre.

It took me a while, after having seen the film, to figure out what’s going on here. Here's what I think it is.

Once upon a time cinema parsed crime as a societal evil, for obvious reasons, although occasionally ('Is this the end of Rico?' and so on) as a charismatic evil. But unambiguously Wrong. Then in the 1970s (I’d suggest the Godfather as the first instance, but I daresay there are key priors) cinema established a new paradigm for the representation of crime, one that came to dominate visual narrative crime-stories from then on: crime as quotidian, the practical medium of business. Now some of these films, normalising crime and its violence whilst simultaneously treating it very graphically, added a second narrative about the individual or personal corruption entailed by a life of crime. But plenty were happy to banalise crime wholly down to the level of the day-to-day. It's as if questions of Wrongness no longer interest filmmakers; now it's taken for granted that violence and crime is the default of how the world works. And work is, surely, the salient. I suppose we might say that cinema has never found a good way of representing the ordinary working day—although the ordinary working day dominates most of its audience’s lives—because such days are dull, and cinema sells itself on excitement. But that we might add that by advancing the fiction that violent crime as a trope for the ordinary working day, they address that important topic in exciting ways. Breaking somebody’s fingers, or shooting semi-automatic weapons in the high-street wearing a suit with a sack full of money slung over your shoulder, is always going to be more exciting than entering data at a computer terminal or toddling off to the photocopy room. It is a valid but rather toothless objection to say that this tends to glamorize crime. Of course it does; cinema is all about The Glamour. A more pertinent question is why violent crime, in particular, has become the medium’s trope of choice for the world of work. (A parallel case can be made for Harry Potter: it takes something that is a huge part of its audience’s life—school—and replaces the actual dullness with glamorous magic and thrills. A winning combination).

Now, what’s interesting about Un Prophète is not that it treats violence and crime as the ordinary business of a working day—it does, and the extent that the film does 'violence-as-ordinary-dayjob' is the extent to which it is just another conventional crime flic. But Audiard wants to do something interesting, and, I think, new although, I also think, rather reprehensible, with violent crime as a trope. He wants to parse it not only as the currency of everyday life, but as something transcendent. The shade of Reyeb, Malik's victim, sitting opposite Malik holding out his finger, a bright spiritual candleflame burning on its tip (I thought: Laurel and Hardy! But that doesn’t contradict what I’m saying); the half-dozen moments when Malik experiences some kind of spiritual or sublime epiphany are the spine of this film. His Arab-ness may be all the explanation necessary for the Islamic, Qu’ranic flavor of these moments ('reite! recite!'); although it’s probably also important that Islam means ‘submission’, and this film shows submission—the being-in-the-world of the imprisoned man—to be much more slippery and complex than most people take it. But more to the point: Audiard is saying, in this motion picture, not crime is bad, nor crime is good, nor even crime is ordinary; he is saying, crime is an epiphany. I don't want to sound like the moral majority, but I'm not sure that's a very, uh, socially responsible message to put out there.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Adam Roberts

Complimentary copies of the the first batch of the new Gollancz Masterworks editions came through my door today, with introductions by Graham Sleight, Gwyneth Jones and myself; and they are very lovely pieces of book production. The back covers in particular caught my self-reflexive eye. Not all photographical images of my phizog are flattering; and not all are accurate; but these are splendid. Here's a detail from the back cover of the new edition of Gene Wolfe's magisterial Fifth Head of Cerberus:I think that captures pretty well the fact that I am (why deny it?) a good-looking woman. You can see the same thing on the back cover of Delany's brilliant Babel-17, even though here I'm wearing a viking helmet:And the helmet I'm wearing on the back of Haldeman's razor-sharp Forever War is even more constricting:But the image that surprised me the most is the one on the back of Zelazny's extraordinary Lord of Light:That's me in in the middle of one of my outdoor power-showers. Startled to see it on the back of a mass-market paperback, to be honest.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

John Wyndham, Plan for Chaos (2009)

Critically speaking, I don't suppose this novel will recover from the kicking M John Harrison recently gave it in the Groaniad. Nor should it. It is a rubbish confection about Nazi clones and manmade flying saucers in the jungle, written by Wyndham at the same time as he was working on the superb Day of the Triffids. That he found he couldn't sell it, even with Fred Pohl working as his US agent, doesn't surprise me in the least (it languished, unpublished, at Liverpool University Library until a university press edition last year; now Penguin have given it a mass-market paperback roll-out). Harrison thinks the problem is its pulp-cliché flatness and style, and he's not wrong; likewise Christopher Priest, who, by the way, makes an admirable job of putting together an introduction that isn't just the phrase 'awful book, awful book' over and over, identifies the main problem as tonal. Wyndham tries to reproduce a snappy hard-boiled idiom from US gumshoe crime pulps. He fails, and instead we have half-arsed non-noirisms of the 'you can go jump in the glue pot for all I care' sort, and lots of stuff like this:
Seeing as there is more empiric bunk talked about sex than pretty near anything else, you might think I'd not fall for my cousin Freda. On the moronic theory of opposites invariably attracting, I ought to have been panting after some cute, doll-sized brunette -- like all Patagonians ought to be crazy over Pygmies, or all Texans over Japanese girls. [9]
Priest is right that this ill-advised tone dissipates somewhat in the second half of the book, but it hangs around long enough to ruin the whole. Sentences such as 'it made my heart kind of flop when I spotted her' [32] have the disingenuous feel of a profoundly artful writer essaying artlessness; a sort of ghastly literary coquetry, like an attractive forty-year-old woman acting like a fourteen-year-old.

Still, I'm not sorry I read Plan for Chaos. I'm presently writing introductions for Folio editions of three Wyndham novels (Triffids, Chrysalids, Midwich) and it was, if nothing else, interesting to see recurrent Wyndham themes in nascent form. For instance there's the horror the narrator-protagonist Johnny Farthing, feels at the prospect of clones replacing natural births ('visions of a regimented world, of corps fitted, as among ants, to work, or guard, and with no other interest or purpose in life', 155); or to be precise, the way this possible fate is discussed in explicitly racial terms. Farthing, in conversation with a government official, earnestly urges a kind of ethnic cleansing of all the clones:
'Once that [cloning] HQ is found, it should be utterly destroyed, at once, and all knowledge of the Eidermann process with it. I can't help it if that would entail the deaths of hundreds of my cousins -- the thing's too dangerous for that to count ...'

'Mr Farthing, don't you think you're slightly --?'

'No, I'm not. The thing is in the first stage of a potential destruction of the species. It is our duty to scotch it completely.' [228]
Love-interest and fellow clonee (is that a word?) Freda takes a different perspective: the clones should be encouraged, as a potential 'race of supermen.' When Farthing objects that there are too many people in the world already, she retorts, 'yes, but only racially fourth- or fifth-rate people.' And discussing this pleasant debating point amongst themselves, the two of them go off to have kids together, and the novel ends.

What interests me about this is the way it looks forward to similar moments in later novels (the speech of the Sealand woman at the end of Chrysalids, the destruction of the children in Midwich) in which the (I'm happy to believe) thoroughly decent and humane Wyndham dramatises the mindset precisely of a Nazi, anxious at the threat to 'our race' posed by certain populations of otherwise normal looking adults and children.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Spectacular Nadir

Nobody seems to have liked Jean Michel Jarre’s last album, Téo & Téa. The Guardian didn’t like it.
Though he scored a worldwide hit with 1977's Oxygene, the days when Jean Michel Jarre was mentioned alongside 1970s electronic pioneers have gone. The Frenchman is more often remembered for preposterous live spectaculars ranging from using cities as a "stage" to recording in space. As Jarre's audio-visual productions have grown along with his ego, his musical output has dwindled in quality and quantity, but even so, Téo & Téa represents a spectacular nadir. Mostly rooted in poor 1980s Europop or anonymous soundtrack music, only the title track - with its one-note solos reminiscent of Faithless circa 1995 - is moderately progressive. At 58, the composer can be forgiven for thinking a computerised voice is still where it's at, but not for infantile melodies that mostly sound like a music-shop demonstration room in 1979. New wife Anne Parillaud supplies orgasmic cries to the cheesy Beautiful Agony with an intensity that suggests Jarre still has a talent for something, but creatively he has surely withered.
The Times (of London) definitely didn’t like it:
Three decades after Oxygene, the Gallic son-et-lumiãre knob-twiddler releases a new opus into a market arguably more jaded about technology than ever before and unlikely to get terribly excited by some old roué plugging in his sequencer again and revving up the BPMs for les kids. Sounding like Rick Wakeman collaborating with Faithless, Téo & Téa maxes on cheesy synths and sudden beat explosions, and reminds you how much you hate house music these days. The absolute nadir is Beautiful Agony, which features joyless soft-porn groaning of the type no doubt emitted by a ready-reckoning eastern European as she lies beneath a potbellied billionaire on a Monte Carlo yacht. Classy.
“knob-twiddler … old roué … joyless soft-porn groaning” We get the idea. Music (pop, rock) and sex are intimately and complexly intertwined. The problem with this album is not that it is sex, but that it is bad sex; that it is, specifically, masturbatory, old and insincere. The problem these reviewers have is not with the music; it is with the thought of old people having sex. Or perhaps, at a pinch, the thought of old people having sex like young people. Ugh!—indeed.

Me? Well, I like Jarre a lot; and I quite liked this one too.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Princess and the Frog (2010)

Having an eight-year old daughter means seeing a lot of films a Manly Man of Mature Manly Years such as I might not, ordinarily, elect to see. Many of these are awful, of course. But though I puckered a disdainful moue with which to kiss this latest Disney product, I must report that. actually, I quite enjoyed it. I wouldn't say that my kiss turned it into Prince Wall-E, or Prince Toy-Story-II exactly; but it may have pouf'd and emerged from the cloud of magic smoke as Prince Aladdin-via-Jungle-Book. Which isn't bad. More, indeed: the first half in particular is visually very inventive and often funny (the second half is rather less assured in its pacing and plotting); the race stuff, which I was prepared, as I stepped into the cinema, to find clumsily or borderline-offensively handled, was done fairly well I'd say: neither glossed over nor dwelt handwringingly upon. The light brown Prince, Prince Naveen of Nonspecifica, is given a voice somewhere between Pepé le Pew and Sacha Baron-Cohen's Lemur King from the Madagascar films, which is distracting. But in general this is Really Not Bad.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Ellery Queen's Crookbook (1974)

Twenty-five ingenious and often twist-in-the-tail stories reprinted from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine 1971-2. This caught my eye in a charity shop (£3) because the gold cover wrap, and the name of Asimov, made me think it was an old Gollancz yellowjacket; but, though I immediately realised my mistake I bought it anyway. I've kept it in the loo since (if you must know). At an average of 10 pages each the stories fill a short loo-ish interlude quite nicely.

I've a softspot for this sort of tale, which must have something to do with the fact that I so greatly enjoyed Roald Dahl's short fiction when I was a nipper ... specifically: when I graduated from Dahl's children's writing, the reading of which was mandated for all British children in the 1970s by government edict, to his 'adult' shorts. I put adult in inverted commas there because, precious though those stories were, and even are, to me, I have to concede there's something puerile about them; even (or do I mean: especially) his Uncle Oswald sex stories. There's one exception to that, as far as I'm concerned, but it's not exactly relevant here.**

So, I find myself pondering the appeal of this sort of thing. Here's one example, from this volume, by way of illustration: Harold R Daniels's 'Three Ways To Rob A Bank'.

Miss Martin, assistant editor at Tales of Crime and Detection, receives an unsolicited story submission from an unknown writer, Nathan Waite, entitled 'Three Ways To Rob A Bank: Method 1'. The story is awful, although the central idea is an ingenious, and seemingly legal, method for snaffling bank funds by exploiting a weakness in their checking account credit systems. Over lunch, she shows it to the magazine's banker, who is horrified: if this were made public, American banks would lose millions. 'And he says he's got another one. His Method 2. If it's anything like this it could ruin the entire banking business.' He begs her to buy the story, hand over copyright to the bank, and not to publish it; she is not happy, but agrees. Nathan Waite is paid a puny $500.
The letter explained that at this time no publication date could be scheduled, but that the editor was very anxious to see the second and third ways to rob a bank. She signed the letter with distaste.
'Three Ways To Rob A Bank. Method 2' duly arrives in the post: 'The story was a disaster but again the method sounded convincing. This time it involved magnetic ink and data processing.' Miss Martin again shows the bankers (a cabal of senior banking figures has been assembled) who are horrified. They persuade her to invite Waite himself along to a meeting where the lawyers can 'put the fear of God into him'; pay him another $500 and 'shut him up.' Waite turns up in the magazine's offices, explains how he was unjustly sacked from his position in a provincial bank, and reveals that he knew all along his stories were rubbish. He only submitted them to pique the banks' interest. At the subsquent show-down meeting he gives voice to a peroration ('There's someting special about a small bank in a small town. You know everyone's problems, money and otherwise ... the banker, in his way, is as important as the town doctor. It's not like that anymore. It's all regimented and compterised and dehumanized'), dismisses the bankers' risible offer and tells them that they must hire him as 'consultant' for a guaranteed $25,000 a year for the rest of his life, or he'll publish his stories. They bluster, but agree, and the story ends:
Gray Suit was on his feet again. "Wait a minute," he shouted. "He still hasn't told us about Method 3."

Nate reached for the contract. "Oh yes," he murmured, after he had signed it. "Three Ways to Rob a Bank. Method 3. Well, it really is quite simple. This is Method 3.
Now it seems to me that this sort of story delivers a very specific sort of pleasure. It is the pleasure of limited surprise, an 'aha!' pleasure ... limited both in intensity and in duration (it doesn't take long for the shine to come off this twist, for instance; to find yourself thinking 'so the third way is basically blackmail, is that it?' There's nothing original or ingenious about blackmailing a bank. Also, why didn't Nate approach the bank directly? What has the mystery mag to do with his scheme, save to stroke the egos of Ellery Queen's subscribers?). Nor is it a pleasure that's especially repeatable. In this respect it has something in common with the punchline of a joke. Yet I don't think describing it as a punchline quite gets it right, either. In a joke the body of the gag exists only to set-up the punchline; where I suppose in a twist-in-the-tale story the reverse is true: the punchline exists rather to cast the world of the story, or the world at large, in a new light. But it's a one-dimensional trick, for all that, and puerile at least in the sense that life is very rarely eucatastrophic, and only slightly less rarely dyscatastrophic. Mostly life runs in predictable grooves, and the things we learn as we go along reinforce, rather than overturn, what we have learned thus far. But here's the thing, and I suppose the appeal of these sorts of stories resides in this: on those occasions when we do experience some sort of perceptual or conceptual about-turn, the experience is weirdly exhilarating. I'm not sure I see why this should be, but I suppose the desire to reproduce that exhilaration, in contained and diluted form, explains the perennial popularity of this sort of story.
**The Dahl story (for adults) that had the greatest impact upon me, and that more than any other written text made me want to be a writer, is not one of his twist ending ones. It is his faintly surreal autobiographical account of flying in wartime, "A Piece of Cake". Something about that story, and more to the point something about the form of that story (not its content, particularly: which is to say, it wasn't that I had a particular interest in WW2 or planes or anything like that) ... something about the way it was written, and structured, or the way it arranged its scenes and images, and the emotional affect it generated, rushed my 13-year-old conscious mind like a sudden tidal bore, and made me want to write things myself. It was, more or less, as simple as that. I didn't want to be a writer before I read that story; I wanted to make animated cartoons. After I read that story, I wanted to be a writer. That I have never written anything like Roald Dahl, and have no desire so to do, flows naturally from this impetus, I think. The force of it upon my mind did not impel a desire to imitate, you see.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back (2010)

Gabriel's new release is an album of covers of the following songs by the following artists (later this year the following artists will release an album of their cover versions of Gabriel songs. It’s a chummy old world, Music, and no mistake):
'Heroes' (David Bowie)
'The Boy In The Bubble' (Paul Simon)
'Mirrorball' (Elbow)
'Flume' (Bon Iver)
'Listening Wind' (Talking Heads)
'The Power Of The Heart' (Lou Reed)
'My Body Is A Cage' (Arcade Fire)
'The Book Of Love' (Magnetic Fields)
'I Think It's Going to Rain Today' (Randy Newman)
'Après Moi' (Regina Spektor or Eartha Kitt)
'Philadelphia' (Neil Young)
'Street Spirit (Fade Out)' (Radiohead)
It’s all low-key stuff this; percussionless and guitar free, with Gabriel’s breathy voice sounding old and worn, and not altogether in a good way. There’s a deal of orchestration, swelling string sections and so on, which sometimes sounds good and sometimes sounds very middle-of-the-road. Gabriel works hard to convey restrained intensity of emotion, but mostly he conveys only a kind of strenuous, earnest dolorousness. The universal slowness here is plodding.

There are highlights, though: ‘Heroes’ is turned into a hill-shaped edifice with a very nice view from the top; and ‘My Body is a Cage’ starts blandly but gets all angsty and catarrhy, to rather striking effect. But ‘Boy in the Bubble’ is dreary, ‘Mirrorball’ sounds too much like the original, excepting only that Guy Garvey’s voice is considerably more wheezily graceful and expressive than is Gabriel's (‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ is also diminishingly faithful to the original). ‘Flume’ is meh; ‘Listening Wind’ too slow; ‘The Power of the Heart’ is treated so bloodlessly and respectfully it kills the song; ‘The Book Of Love’ isn’t bad, although Gabriel can’t manage the sly ironic slant of the original cut; and 'Philadelphia' is double-meh. Meh-meh. Worst of all is ‘Street Sprit (Fade Out)’, a cover that dispenses altogether with the original’s lovely downward-spiralling chiming guitar arpeggios, and with them all the original urgency and bite. What's left is a kind of meandering swampiness.

There’s some croaky beauty in this album, but not very much.

[Second thoughts. I wrote the above at the start of the week, and despite what was evidently not a very positive initial reaction I have continued listening to this album off and on since then. And it has grown on me, actually. I think my first impression was too harshly dismissive. Now I tend to think the Paul Simon cover rather beautiful, in a grave way: slowing it right down and leaving out the busy African layers of music focus attention on what are pretty smart Simonian lyrics; and the Elbow cover's rather lovely too, although it piggybacks on the loveliness of the original song rather. But it's a grower, this album. Either that, or it is stately middle-aged music, and a week is long enough for me to tone down my rage-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light aversion to middleaged art and accept that, you know, I am middle aged. Anyhow. This album is better than the above review implies.]

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Jeff Vandermeer, Finch (209)

Is noir the best mode to realise a dark-fantastic vision? You might think so (look at the implied colouration) but a writer can easily come unstuck trying to blend the two. The procedural banality of the overused sub-Sam-Spade or Chandler-lite idiom will tend dilute the necessary strangeness of Weird fantasy; the two modes pulling in different directions. The epistemology of the crime narrative largely misfits the ontology of Fantastic worldbuilding. You might want to argue 'and vice versa', except that novelists rarely approach the matter from the other side.

Finch approaches this problem by inhabiting both idioms completely; and I was surprised how well it works. In part this is because in this novel the investigation of a crime is placed by the author in the service not of the re-establishment of law-and-order, but the exact opposite: the fomenting of revolution and the overturning of tyranny. This is a novel set in Vandermeer's city of 'Ambergris', the location of City of Saints and Madmen, and Shriek: an Afterword (this latter book and its main character have significant roles, as book and as individual, in Finch). The city has been taken over by the mushroom-headed 'Gray Caps' (naturally I hoped for 'Grey Caps'; but you can't have everything) who have risen from the depths to seize power. The novel's eponymous Finch is a detective, and the novel opens with a bizarre double murder, one person and one fungiform. Life is pretty grim for humans in Ambergris under Gray Cap domination, and getting to the bottom of the murder is no easy task, even though the mushroom heads can draw memories from dead bodies.

The whole thing is written in a rapid, often chittery prose that reminded me a little of the hurried, fidgety cuts between shots in À bout de souffle:
But this time Sintra said, "Follow me." Led him by the hand into the darkness of a doorway where a lamp had failed. The sudden touch of cold stone. On the other side, a catacomb of rooms. the light from the party already receding. Snuffed out. Men and women had paired off here. Moans, murmurs, a sudden heat. [206]
This could have been an irritating stylistic tic, just as Vandermeer's fondness of alliteration and assonance ('the darkness of a doorway'; 'catacomb/room'; 'Moans/murmurs') could have weighed the prose into the purple. But in the event Finch's prose, especially its descriptive prose, is very good indeed. It is, I'd say, more or less exactly as choppily evocative, as wrongfooting and vivid, as it needs to be ('ribs of light from the lantern on the ceiling made it seem as if they traveled down the gullet of a great beast' 331). The dialogue is less well handled, generally speaking, and some of the exposition clunks rather than clicks; but mostly the unfolding of the mystery, or the opening of the mystery into deeper mysteries, encompasses the individual and his origins, the world and its history too in ways that satisfyingly suture knowing and being, epistemological and ontological appetites.

Best of all, the representation of the city itself possesses a layered density and oddness, especially in its new Gray-Cap incarnation (something helped by knowing it from Vandermeer's earlier novels), with its monstrous fungal cathedrals, dark streets and bizarre inhabitants: a spore-heavy richness, an acrid closeness, slimily and pongily effective. This is one of the book's most notable achievements, I'd say. Finch himself gets considerably bashed-about in the course of his investigation, to the point where I doubt that Vandermeer was able to get his deposit back on the character; but its all very readable and twisty and, although the ending seemed a little over-hectic to me (getting, perhaps, a little hijacked by its own climactic violence), the whole is generally very cleverly paced. Highly recommended. Vandermeer is a good writer.

John Coulthart's cover is a splendid thing too. Ain't it, though?

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics (2009)

I got this for Christmas and I'm very pleased I did, for it is genuinely lovely stuff: a pitch-perfect combination of artless charm and dream-logic inventiveness. Each story starts with a fact Calvino has culled from 'science' which he then parses into stories narrated by the main character 'Qfwfq'. In 'The Distance of the Moon', the first and best story (and I think it is the best; although it's possible that I think so because I read it first, and its strangeness-and-charm won me over in a way that could never after feel quite so fresh with the other stories) Qfwfq recalls when the moon was close enough to the earth to be reached by leaping up -- a strange scaly lunar body, from which moon-milk could be harvested. The story of Qfwfq, his deaf cousin, the captain of their ship and his randy wife, is very sweetly told. Of the others, 'All At One Point' has admirable compression and concision, and 'Without Colours' anticipates Jasper Fforde's latest by many decades -- I wish I'd read it before reviewing this latter in fact. Overall there is a flavour of high-class children's literature about these stories, despite their sometimes adult contents: a beguiling warm-milk-and-cookies vibe. I'm not knocking that. In fact I'm envious. I couldn't generate that quality in what I write if I had a million years to practice.

These stories first appeared in Italian in 1965 which makes them exactly as old as I am myself; something that also endears them to me. They even have a wikipedia article. This, though, is a new translation (very freshly and deftly rendered, they all are, by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks and William Weaver), with seven new stories (of mixed quality), and with -- I must say -- one of the most beautiful covers of any 2009 title I have seen. A lovely piece of book production from penguin. The image, which you can see at the top of this post, is very nice; but the quality of the printing, and gilding, and the paper really makes it. The image is 'The Last Judgment: the Stars Fall and Everything Is Turned Upside Down' (pictor ignotus, 15th-century Italian School). There's nothing in the book to say who's responsible for the design.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Lustmord, The Place Where The Black Stars Hang (1994); Stalker (1995)

[Back to new reviews, now, after a week of reruns. Though 'new' today means '1994'. You see, it's new to me.]
The track listing on 1994's The Place Where The Black Stars Hang gives a good sense of what this album is on about: "Sol Om On/Aldebaran of the Hyades/Dark Companion/Metastatic Resonance/Dog Star Descends" - all together in one 75 minute piece of music. It's 'dark ambient', which is to say it's all doomy, echoey, vast, humming, minor-key, chittery mood music. And very effectively so; the endless slowed-down gong-chime of the interstellar dark; the basso-profundo fizz of metal under strain; the low-pitched whitenoise of the starship drive; the soundeffects of thunder breaking over imaginary mountains on the imaginary horizon. It all comes together, towards the end, with what amounts to monkish plainsong chanting -- which clarifies the entire SFnal project. The thing about this sort of dark ambient, you realise, is that it embodies some fundamentally religious sublime in its apprehension of the chilly vastness of its musical landscape.

On the other hand, his version of Tarkovsky's Stalker (made with Robert Rich) seems less weighty, somehow. Not that there's any lack of huge, cavernous sound, and sound-effect; endless very slow, melody-free crescendos and diminuendos, uncanny thuds and knocks in the music's far distance, drones and whines and very-long-held notes that go up a semitone, stay there for a long time, and then slide back down again. But there's less structural coherence, and fewer moments of slow-won intensity.