Monday, 29 March 2010

Vladimir Nabokov, Glory (1932, 1971)

Filling in one of the holes in my Nabokovoid backlist; I know the English-language novels pretty well, but one or two of the Russian-language ones have so-far slipped my net. In fact I had previously been put off reading this one by Julian Symons' strangely simpering blurb-quotation on the back cover of my 1974-vintage Penguin paperback (my Dad's old copy): 'a quiet charming novel about the upbringing of a Russian émigre with a passion for trains and a yearning romanticism about girls.' It turns out that this endorsement is not only watery, it's wrong in every single word, except the antepenultimate one.

Well, I suppose it's right that the hero of the tale is a Russian émigre. But the novel is much more forceful, more brightly coloured, and more (deliberately) glorious than Symons lets on. Martin, the hero, grows up in Russia; flees the Revolution with his mother to Switzerland, and thence to Cambridge university to study. The novel as a whole makes a salutary counterexample to those who think Nabakov's schitck was an 'aesthetics of cruelty'; for it is a novel about goodness, and beauty, and quite deliberately lacks melodramatic tension, although it is actually brimming with Nabokov's trademark rapturous gorgeousness. Actually, it's a sort-of precursor to American Beauty, without this latter text's suburban clunkiness and mauvaise foi. In his introduction, Nabokov notes that the 'certainly very attractive working title (later discarded in favour of the pithier Podvig, "gallant feat", "high deed") was Romanticheskiy vek, "romantic times", which I had chosen partly because I had had enough of hearing Western journalists call our era "materialistic", "practical", "utilitarian" etc.' The novel assiduously seeks out the aesthetic rapture of its versions of, as it were, the plastic bag stirred by the breeze:
Uncle Henry's bête noire was to him the twentieth century. Now this amazed Martin, since in his opinion one could not imagine a better century than this one in which he lived. No other epoch had such brilliance, such daring, such projects. Everything that had glimmered in previous ages -- the passion for exploration of unknown lands, the audacious experiments, the glorious exploits of disinterested curiosity, the scientists who went blind or who were blown to bits, the heroic conspiracies, the struggle of one against many -- now emerged with unprecedented force. The cool suicide of a man after his having lost millions on the stock market struck Martin's imagination as much as, for instance, the death of a Roman general falling on his sword. An automobile advertisement, brightly beckoning in a wild, picturesque gorge from an absolutely inaccessible spot on an alpine cliff thrilled him to tears. The complaisant and affectionate nature of very complicated and very simple machines, like the tractor or the linotype, for example, induced him to reflect that the good in mankind was so contagious that it infected metal. When, at an amazing height in the blue sky above the city, a mosquito-sized airplane emitted fluffy, milk-white letters a hundred times as big as it, repeating in divine dimensions the flourish of a firm's name, Martin was filled with a sense of marvel and awe. [120-21]

Friday, 26 March 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 3: The Dragon Reborn (1991)

For some reason, and I'm not entirely sure why, this wasn't such a chore to read as vol 2. I say so despite the fact that nothing very much happens in the story: Rand, our hero, is the Dragon Reborn, but he's gone missing. His mates, especially his two best mates 'Reggie' Perrin and Mat Cauthon, go questing after him. Perrin is still only called 'Reggie' in my mind; but I keep hoping that J. will catch up with me and slap down the nickname for real. He is already calling his Evil Characters things like Neil and Julian (well: Niall and Juilin), so it's not as if naff names carry any stigma as far as he's concerned.

Anyway, eventually Rand comes back, has another show-down with the evil one, Ba'alzamon, and is publicly declared the Dragon Reborn, to much falfalla and parading. Along the way there's a good deal of stuff about the various sects of Aes Sedai magicianesses, some more stuff on the corrupt puritans, The Children of Light, and quite a lot of narrative dilly-dallying. Mat was under the evil influence of a wicked dagger, but he gets cured of that by the end. Otherwise it's pretty much all just padding out the circular plot. Maybe I'm now reconciled to the Jordanian schtick; maybe it's that where most volumes in this enormous series are 300-pages-pretending-to-be-800-pages long, this one is 200-pages-pretending-to-be-650-pages. At any rate, it slipped down easily enough.

That's not to say it's any good, mind. I appreciate that it's YA adventure, but that's not a reason to 'make allowances' for a book as far as I'm concerned. Quite the reverse. And this book has all the limitations of a YA novel and none of the focus or penetration. So, for instance, The Dragon Reborn remains coy on the subject of sex. In one chapter Mat is visited in his bedroom by the evil Selene ('so beautiful he almost forgot to breathe') which causes the young lad 'tingle and pain' [227] as well it might; but nothing more explicit is stated. (Then again, chapter 42 is called 'Easing the Badger', which may well become my new favourite onanistic euphemism). There's spits and spots of violence, but this all feels been-there-done-that tired -- already! and we're only in vol. 3!
Perrin shouted wordlessly as he struck out with an axe ... the Trolloc fell, roaring and kicking. [75]
Good YA books are generally less padded and meandering than 'adult' books; not, as here, more so.

An issue I had with the second vol. was intensified for me by this, third one: namely that Jordan has a problem representing, because conceptualising, evil. It's all second-hand and none of it alarming in any genuine sense: medieval Bond villains, beast-men, creaky but (see above) euphemistic old decadence. In the prologue an evil 'Fade' shows how e-e-evil he is by gouging a table with his bare hands.
The Myrddraal was drawing a hand across the tabletop, and thin tendrils of wood curled away from its fingernails. [29]
Then there's a sort-of Dreamtime dimension in which the e-e-evil Ba'alzamon, gathering a conclave of his underling-baddies, gets to be both Freddy Kreuger ('"You all dream," Ba'alzamon said, "But what happens in this dream is real!"') and a Bond villain, both at the same time:
"You have been given tasks. Some of these tasks you have carried out. At others, you have failed. .... You!"
...The man screamed and began to quiver like a file struck against an anvil. [411]
To be clear, that's 'like a file struck against an anvil'. Boingg!

Otherwise a few more gobbets from general myth/culture are added to the stew: some more Arthuriana, in the shape of an Excaliburish magic sword that only the Dragon can wield, called (the 'Ex-' prefix having been filed away) 'Callandor'. There are also bits of Wagner ('the Maidens of the Spear') and some wolves. But most of it remains the same-old same-old. Characters still explain things to other characters who presumably already know those things:
"The soulless?" Egwen said, a tremor in her voice. ... "A Gray Man?"
Sheriain ... gestured to the corpse. "The Soulless, the Gray Men, give up their souls to serve the Dark Lord as assassins. They are not really alive after that. Not quite dead, but not truly alive." [188]
A bit like this novel, then. Or later in the narrative:
"Let us saddle the horses," said Mat. "Horses are gramnivorous quadrupeds with forty teeth, namely twenty–four grinders, four eye–teeth, and twelve incisive. They shed their coats in the spring; in marshy countries, shed their hoofs, too. Hoofs are hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Their age can be known by marks in mouth." "Excellent," cried Reggie. "To horse we go!"
Well, I made that last one up. But you take my file-struck-against-an-anvil point. Boingg!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me (2010)

The thing is this: listen to this album -- at any point, more or less -- for five minutes and it's one of the most hauntingly beautiful things imaginable. But listen to it for twenty minutes or more and it's keys-down-a-blackboard, dentist-drill horrible. I'm not sure why that should be.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Alastair Reynolds, Terminal World (2010)

I enjoyed this. Reynolds has a first-class imagination -- both inventive and vasty -- and he really knows how to structure a story so that the reader wants to keep reading. The 'I enjoyed this' scale goes: not at all; barely; marginally; so-bad-its-good; some; intermittently; mostly; largely; thoroughly; perfectly; joy-to-the-n. And, measured by the scale I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Perhaps best of all, it's evidently the product of a talented writer venturing outside his comfort zone. That's a good thing.

We start in the 'godscraper' Spearpoint, a very-far-future Babel tower that reaches out of the atmosphere. Or we think it does; one quirk of this place, for the people who live on the ramps and ledges along its in-tapering sides, are real-world technological discontinuities: in one zone futuristic technology works; in another zone lower down, future-tech simply won't work, but late-twentieth-century machines (cars, guns) will; lower down again and only steam technology will work; lower again and you're in 'horseworld'. People can pass from zone to zone, but they need 'anti-zonal' drugs to overcome the debilitating and sometimes fatal effects of the passage. Very neat concept. We start in Neon Heights, a late-20th-century Noir-ish city; and we start with Quillon, a beanpole Mortuary Pathologist and Doctor and, most of all, virtuous man. Above are the celestial levels, where posthuman 'angels' live. The novel starts when one of these angels falls from his proper level and crashes into Neon City, coming thereby to Quillon's attention. From there, and without ado, it all kicks off.

I started thinking that Reynolds was riffing off Jeter's neglected Dickian masterpiece Farewell Horizontal (1989); but where another SF writer would have moved her characters and story up-zone, into the futuristic possibilities of the higher terraces of Spearpoint, Reynolds takes us in exactly the opposite direction: down to the ground. If we employed chess-notation in reviews, this would merit an '!'. Quillon, it turns out, is a surgically altered angel; other angels are now trying to kill him, and he flees down into the broader world -- also afflicted by different zones (including one, the Blight, in which even the 'mechanisms' of biological life cannot work). He avoids Mad-Max feral Skullboys and brain-eating Cyborgs, hooking up with a massive fleet of airborn dirigibles called 'the Swarm.' Reynolds explains enough of his world (the origin and nature of the zones, Spearpoint's purpose and the like) for the reader not to feel cheated; but not so much that it all feels pat.

My one main criticism is that the narrative momentum sags, quite badly, for about a hundred pages somewhere in amongst pp.200-350 (indeed; I'd say the book is about 100 pages too long). But just as I was become narkled, Reynolds threw this superb Chris-Foss-ness in my mind's direction:
Between the Swarm and the mountain lay a tremendous wall ... two or three hundred spans high and taller again where the towers and battlements rose. It spanned the horizon to the limits of visibility ... But the wall was not the most awesome thing, nor even the second. The second most awesome thing was a wreck. It had crashed down into the wall five or six leagues to port, sagging broken spined withone half on the nearside and the other half on the far side, like a colossal maggot trying to wriggle over an obstacle. It was not an airship. It had never been an airship. The wreck's shape echoed an airship's envelope, but there the similarity ended. It was much too large, to begin with: easily a league from one end to the other, and perhaps a tenth of a league in height. It had ruptured as it crashed onto the wall, its upper surface zipping open like an overcooked sausage. The skin was weathered white, offset by the faded remnants of orange or red markings: oblique slashes and hyphens, chains of angular heiroglyphics. The vessel's interior was definitely not hollow. It was full of tight-packed machinery, broken and bent.[343]
Nobody does this sort of Fossossity like Reynolds. And if this isn't splendid enough, he really nails it when he adds: 'It glinted with absurd, festering detail, like a cliff seen through binoculars.' Excellent!

Friday, 19 March 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 2; The Great Hunt (1990)

On I go; volume two slips under the belt. Like the first, this is actually a 250-page novel pretending to be a 700-page one; and also like the first book after a sticky start it settles into an unoriginal but I suppose unobjectional groove. But I’ll confess I found the business of reading this much less enjoyable than the first. It felt—not all the time, but for fairly long stretches—like a chore.

It doesn’t help that the book starts so weakly, for prologue and opening chapters have a distressingly high ‘reader-struggling-to-give-a-fuck’ quotient: inconsequential and unengaging. And this is more deep-seated a problem, I think, than just readability. The book’s prologue betrays the debilitating thinness of Jordan’s ability to conceptualise what evil is. Here it’s a kind of masked ball of medievalised Bond villains, through which the lord of wickedness floats like a hydrogen-inflated mardi-gras person-shaped balloon. Later in the novel it’s Horrid Violence Against Civilians, but even there J. can’t quite keep his account free of bathetic lurches. Here's a description of Trollocs getting nasty in a village: ‘Pleas for mercy and children’s screams were cut off by solid thuds and unpleasant squishing sounds’ [197]. That's squishing; yes. That ineluctably evil word, yes.

Anyway, the opening seven-or-so chapters drag, as our three heroes dawdle about in foppishly-named Fal Dara fortress. The Aes Sedai, a sort of Bene Gesserit sisterhood (as rreugen pointed out in the last post) meet in infodumpy convocation. At one point two of them, Anaiya and Moiraine, chat about something they both already know very well. Notice the first four words of this speech:
“You must know that the Great Hunt of the Horn has been called in Illian, the first time in four hundred years. The Illianers say the last battle is coming”—Anaiya gave a little shiver, as well she might, but went on without a pause—“and the Horn of Valere must be found before the final battle against the Shadow." [52]
There are dozens of more pages like this, detailing various prophesies and plot-coupons, until discussion is cut off by the unpleasant squishing sounds of frustrated readers.

At any rate, this ‘great hunt’ is the titular premise of vol. 2. As one Aes Sedai helpfully explains to another who already knows it, ‘the Horn of Valere was made to call dead heroes back from the grave. And prophecy said it would only be found just in time for the Last Battle’ [65]. Where Eye of the World was saturated in its Tolkien original, this novel is more parsimonious with its source-material: it lifts Aragorn’s ability to command the dead of Dunharrow, saving other things, I suppose, for future volumes.

The Aes Sedai have this horn but they carelessly lose it to the Evil at the start of this book, and many hundreds of pages of text must be given over to its recovery. To raise the stakes a magic dagger has also been half-inched, upon the recovery of which, for obscure magical Magic reasons, the life of Rand’s pal Mat depends. So off they go, in search of these plot-coupon artefacts. Rand and his pals take an interdimensional short cut through a sort-of waking dream alternate reality called ‘Tel'aran'rhiod’ and get both horn and dagger back, lose it again (because there are still several hundred pages to fill) and finally retrieve it once more. Another friend of Rand’s, called ‘Reginald Perrin’, although, tragically, not the Reginald part, is now a sort of werewolf and has golden eyes.

What else? Well, whenever the narrative sags, J. throws some battling orcs, sorry, trollorcs, sorry, trollocs at our heroes, to leaven the questing/infodumping tedium with some fighting. But even though we’re only at vol. 2 Jordan already feels the need to garnish his accounts of these repetitive fighty-fights so as to ameliorate their monotonous over-familiarity. So, for example, one hero-v.-trolloc fight takes place in a firework shop, to the accompaniment of lots of fireworks going off. Bang! Crash! I felt this, however, completely failed to ameliorate the monotonous over-familiarity of these repetitive fighty-fights.

Then at the three-quarters point, a little jarringly, a whole new, evil empire, from a place not even on the map on the book’s flyleaf, invades, and everything kicks off. These ‘Seanchan’ have a big army augmented by various horrid monsters; and as the book ends our pals find themselves squeezed between these invaders on the one hand and the cruel Children of Light on the other. Handily, though, our guys have the horn. If you see what I mean. One toot on the magical horn from ailing Mat and the dead arrive, King Arthur himself amongst them. Then Rand has a round of fighty-fight with Ba’alzamon. The writing, in this latter, is not what you would call restrained:
“I will destroy you to your very soul, destroy you utterly and forever … why are you grinning like an idiot, fool? Do you not know I can destroy you utterly?”
“I will never serve you, Father of Lies!” …
“Then die, worm!”
Ba’alzamon struck with the staff, as with a spear. Rand screamed. As he felt it pierce his side, burning like a white-hot poker. The void trembled, but he held on with the last of his strength, and drove the heron-mark blade into Ba’alzamon’s heart. Ba’alzamon screamed, and the dark behind him screamed. The world exploded in fire. [666]
Implicit in the aesthetic guideline ‘less is more’ is the injunction ‘more is not more'.

In sum, such shine as the opening book managed to kindle in my imagination went out for me in the second. The longer one reads this yarn the more unignorable it becomes that there’s nothing really at stake in Jordan’s battle of good and evil. The Evil are Evil because he says so, because they cackle and threaten like villains out of a theatrical melodrama, occasionally because they kill people, but most of all because they wear black clothes. Indeed, black hardly does the clothes justice. The black clothes of the Evil are none-more-black black (‘those black clothes, blacker than black …’ 186) On the other side of the divide, the good are characterised mostly by a Epic Blandness, an almost transcendental Blandness that goes beyond Bland into UberBland. Rand, the main protagonist, is the worst offender of all in this regard. There's some notional fretting on his part about 'not wanting to be used', and a little friction with his girlfiend; but no development, or conflict, or interest in the character in any meaningful sense. And the ‘Horn of Valere’ plot coupon feels massively arbitrary. I can’t remember if it was mentioned in The Eye of the World. Conceivably it was, but it still feels plucked from the aether here: introduced, chased after, lost again, chased after, and then used; a sterile imitation of dramatic tension.

If I had a completely free hand in this I might easily find reasons never to pick up another Wheel of Time instalment again. But I’ve committed to reading the whole thing, and don’t choose to be forsworn. Onward. Time to drown out any inward pleas for mercy with solid thuds and unpleasant squishing sounds.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Goldfrapp, Headfirst (2010)

Early 1980s naff-electro-disco style Goldfrapp, this; some OK-songs (I liked the lyric-less, mm-oo-aa 'Voiceless') but by bulk much more average-to-poor than good. People are saying it's Goldfrapp-does-Giorgio-Moroder, which would be cool; but it struck me more as Goldfrapp-does-soprano-Billy-Joel, which is frankly not cool. I'm still enjoying listening to it, mind. That's because, deep down, and despite my being very happily married, I'd really quite like to have sex with Goldfrapp. It's hard to resist her singing things like 'oh-oh-oh I've got a rocket, oh-oh-oh you're going on it' in her gorgeous breathy voice, straight into my ear. Yes, I've heard that she's insane. But you see, I rather like that in a woman.

Monday, 15 March 2010

John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids (1951)

Today's Punkadiddle subtitle ('punkasubtittle'): 'won't somebody please remember the children!' I've read this book twice (I re-read it recently to write an introduction for a new edition), and have seen various adaptations, but this blindingly obvious point had never struck me before:
The meeting at the University: the talk is of regenerating through creating children through polygamy etc - what nonsense. There must be thousands of babies and toddlers who never saw the green lights (safely tucked up in bed) and who would be sighted - the pressure must be to find as many of them who could be saved.
Why did this never occur to me? Of course it's right. I wonder if it has something to do withthe novel's skill in drawing a line under the old world? Or is it a function of cosy-catastrophism? Which is to say: is it that babies and toddlers are fundamentally obstacles to the bright-young-things-dashing-about-having-adventures vibe?

Friday, 12 March 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 1: the Eye of the World (1990)

I know the gags, of course (‘help, I’m trapped like a hamster in the Wheel of Time!’) but I’ve decided to give it a go anyway. It may or may not be significant Fantasy in an aesthetic sense, that remains to be seen. But there's no questioning its commercial success. The Eye of the World is sitting in front of me on my desk right now. This is what the copyright page tells me: first published in the United States by Tom Doherty Associates Inc, 1990; first published in Great Britain in 1990 by Macdonald & Co; this Orbit edition published 1991. Reprinted 1991, 1992 (twice), 1993 (twice), 1994 (twice), 1995, 1996 (twice), 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 (twice), 2003, 2004 (twice), 2005, 2006 (twice), 2007. People keep buying it, evidently. I bought it myself—in a charity shop, for £1:49

So on one side of the scales is my curiosity. On the other side, obviously, is the enormousness of the task. Fourteen volumes, each c.800 pages long. Think of it as one 11,000-page novel. Phew. I daresay there’s a lot of stuff in that sedimentary cliff-face of text: many characters, a peck of business, a Cook’s-tour (or perhaps several) of Jordan’s imaginary world. I don’t anticipate Tolstoyan depth and richness; or Nabokovian prose; or even Dostoevskian intensity. But it’s clearly long, at any rate. We can probably go further and say that some of the appeal of this series is precisely its length. The back of my second hand orbit paperback carries this endorsement, from the (UK) Sunday Times: ‘Epic in every sense.’ The truth is probably that it’s epic in no classical sense at all, but ‘epic’ now is taken as a synonym for ‘very long’, and The Wheel of Time is clearly very long.

So, I read the first volume, and I’m heartened. It turns out that The Wheel of Time is not long at all. It may look long to the inexperienced eye, but it’s actually fairly short. The whole series will be a doddle.

Here’s what I mean. The Eye of the World is 53 chapters, each chapter 15-20 pages long. But the plot traced out by those 53 chapters is unthreateningly simple, and even the narrative, though clearly puffed and tumoured a little in terms of length, is not much longer. Jordan’s 800 page novel is actually a 300 page novel. For example: Jordan’s protagonist is making his way through the forest with his dad when he sees a mysterious dark horseman. Here’s how Jordan writes the sentence ‘Rand stumbled and nearly fell.’
Abruptly a stone caught his heel and he stumbled, breaking his eyes away from the dark horseman. His bow dropped to the road, and only an outthrust hand grabbing Bela’s harness saved him from falling flat on his back. With a startled snort the mare stopped, twisting her head to see what had caught her. [4]
And here’s how he writes ‘when he looked up again, the dark horseman had vanished.’
Tam frowned over Bela’s back at him. ‘Are you alright son?’
‘A rider,’ Rand said breathlessly, pulling himself upright. ‘A stranger, following us.’
‘Where?’ The older man lifted his broad-bladed speak and peered back warily.
‘There, down the …’ Rand’s voice trailed off as he turned to point. The road behind was empty. Disbelieving, he stared into the forest on both sides of the road. Bare-branched trees offered no hiding place, but there was no glimmer of horse or horseman. He met his father’s questioning gaze. ‘He was there. A man in a black cloak, on a black horse.’
The writerly-technical term for this is ‘padding’; but the prolixity is such a fundamental part of what Jordan is doing that I suspect it misses the point to object to it. I was reminded a little of Scott, and his swaddling swathes of garrulous prosifying (except that, unlike Scott, by bulk, about half of Jordan’s padding is dialogue). It has specific textual effects; and the one that struck me, on reading through it, is of upholstery. It’s a comfortable sort of style, like settling into a bath; a mix of stiff little archaic touches and chattily modern waffle.

The other thing that leaps out, having read it, is the wholly saturated derivativeness of it all. According to The New York Times (quoted on the front cover, up there), ‘with the Wheel of Time Jordan has come to dominate the world Tolkien began to reveal.’ That ‘reveal’ is rather annoyingly precious; but we can take this as code for ‘the Wheel of Time is massively derivative of Tolkien.’ And indeed it is. Good Odin it is. The only substantive thing it adds to Lord of the Rings is increased length, and since each of Tolkien’s 1100 pages is ten times as dense as Jordan’s 11,000, that resolves into no additional substance at all. Otherwise there’s a cosmic battle between good and evil; little people caught in the middle of incipient cosmic war, bestial orcs (‘trollocs’), istarian wielders of the true source. Does Jordan, in one jarringly unAmerican moment, have one character say 'I can feel it ... I can bloody feel it!' [684] because he thinks that's how JRRT's compatriots swear? The Professor would not have been pleased.

Still, best to take this novel as an self-conscious exercise in remix. Our hero is an ordinary chap, in a rural community (‘Two Rivers', which I must say made me feel right at home) whose life is upended by the eruption of mysterious dark riders and orcs (trollocs, sorry) into his sequestered backwater . Fleeing from them takes him, and his various companions, first of all, to a Bree-like town (Baerlon); then via a Mines-of-Moria-like dead metropolis (Shadar Logoth) to a brief kinda-Elvish-y sanctuary (Caemlyn). All through these journeys the forces of evil, servants of the disembodied Shaitan, harry Rand. They do this because they know him to be a reincarnation of their ancient enemy, and they try in various ways to bump him off: Trollocs and airborne Nazgul (I can't, off the top of my head, remember what Jordan calls his Nazgul; but big lizard-like flying evil creatures are certainly there) from without, treachery from within, not least the egregiously Gollum-like ('Gollumoid'? 'Gollumnar'?) peddlar Padan Fain. More than that, the evil one himself keeps appearing in Rand's dreams, wearing uber-melodramatic impossible-to-actually-visualise facial expressions, and calling him 'youngling'.
Ba'alzamon's clothes were the color of dried blood, and rage and hate and triumph battled on his face. "You see, youngling, you cannot hide from me forever!" [493]
A couple of non-Tolkien elements are also thrown into the mix: one being the pesudo-militia 'Children of the Light' who, like New England Puritans, have taken opposition of 'the evil one' to self-defeatingly destructive and fundamentalist lengths. Prophesy tells of the rebirth of 'the Dragon', who will battle the evil one, but whose coming is will wreck the world, and so is looked on with as much dread as anything.

Now, reading this was actually not wholly a chore. The whole galleon moves at a stately but by-no-means boring pace through 40-odd chapters. Then Jordan seems to decide he needs to speed things up a bit; so he introduces some interdimensional portals called 'the Ways' to shift his characters out of beseiged Camlaen and zoom them the great distance to his Mordor/Mount Doom-ish denoument without further faffing; which reads like a bit of a cheat, actually. And then it's into the wasted lands behind the mountains, pursued by myriad manifestations of evil, to get to the titular Eye of the World. This turns out to be a magical reservoir of the Magic Magical Energy, 'Saidan', that underpins Jordan's cosmos, magically. For a man to utilise this stuff is inevitable madness and death (women do rather better with it). But Rand has his stand-off with evil, wields the magic Saidan to destroy the armies of wickedness. The book closes with a quick flourish of 'duh-duh durr!', viz., Moraine, a sort-of female Gandalf, after consoling Rand that things will be OK, waits til she is alone and whispers 'the Dragon is Reborn!'.

**

Reading is a different pleasure to re-reading; the one exploratory, an encounter with newness; the other reassuring, an encounter with familiarity. But what Jordan has done here is produce a book such that the reader feels as if she is rereading it even when she is actually reading it for the first time. That doesn’t perfectly suit me, since I prize the estrangement of literature over the comfy warm-milk-and-cookies pleasures of curling up with a book that will give you all the things you expect of a novel. But I daresay that’s just me.

There were some things I enjoyed about it, mind. I quite liked the way we intuit, from early on, that the whole cycle is actually a far-future history. Buried behind the horizon of Jordan’s world’s history are the events of 20th- and I suppose 21st-century history remembered only as mythic fragments, the 1969 Luinar Exploration Module becoming ‘Lenn … how he flew to the moon in the belly of an eagle made of fire’, and a Russian-US nuclear war (Jordan shows his age and generation in this) reduced to ‘tales of Mosk the Giant with his Lance of Fire that could reach around the world, and his wars with Elsbet, the Queen of All.’ [51] It’s neither original nor particularly cleverly done, this, but it works quite nicely nevertheless.

Less clever is the way Jordan continually interrupts his narratives to have characters recite gnarly infodumpy chunks of history, like this:
Before Mordeth had been long in the city he had Balwen's ear, and soon he was second only to the King. Mordeth whispered poison in Balwen's ear, and Aridhol began to change. Aridhol drew in on itself, hardened. It was said taht some would rather see Trollocs come than the men of Aridhol ... The story is too long to tell in full, and too grim, and only fragments are known, even in Tar Valon. How Thorin's son, Caar, came to win Aridhol back to the Second Covenant, and ... [289]
Wait, didn't you just say it was too long and grim to tell? Why do that and then go on and on for pages? Or, this:
"I remember the making of it [the Eye]. Some of the making. Some." His hazelnut eyes stared, lost in memory. "It was the first days of the Breaking of the World, when the joy of victory over the Dark One turned bitter with the knowledge that all might yet be shattered by the weight of the Shadow. A hundred of them made it, men and women together. The greatest Aes Sedai works were always done so, joining saidin and saidar, as the True Source is joined..." [744]
And so on.

Jordan's gender politics are marginally more progressive than Tolkien's, although the margin involved is slender, for his whole world is built around a small-c conservative and essentialist notion of the appropriate powers and responsibilities of male and female. No gay characters; and indeed I was struck, reading the whole, by how painfully chaste it all is. Pitched perfectly for religious-prudish middle America.

One last thing. The book reads like the first installment in a trilogy (as, Wikipedia tells me, it was originally planned). I don't see how Jordan and his heirs can spin this story out through fourteen fat volumes. But we'll see. Next Friday, vol. 2. Onward.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Gorillaz, Plastic Beach (2010)

Sometimes, I suppose it could be argued, this blog veers a little towards the negative-critical. So let me buck my own trend and say that the new Gorillaz album is very very good indeed. If it doesn't quite achieve the extraordinary transcendental lift-off of the last quarter of 2005's Demon Days, it is nevertheless a fantastically sustained, cat's-cradle of rhythms, tones and musical colours. Albarn has said some things about 'plastic' and 'beaches' that relate to the record:
"I suppose what I've done with this Gorillaz record is I've tried to connect pop sensibility with ... trying to make people understand the essential melancholy of buying a ready made meal in loads of plastic packaging. People who watch X Factor might have some emotional connection to these things, this detritus that accompanies what seems to be the most important thing in people's eyes, the celebrity voyeurism." The first time Albarn went to Mali, he was taken to a landfill where he saw people "taking every little bit, a little bit of fabric to the fabric regenerators, or the metal and the cans to the ironsmiths and the aluminium recyclers, and it goes on and by the time you get to the road, they're selling stuff." When Albarn went to a landfill outside of London to record the sound of seagulls for the album, he noticed a juxtaposition between the way the two countries dealt with rubbish. "They've got more snakes... like adders, grass snakes, slow worms, toads, frogs, newts, all kinds of rodents, all kinds of squirrels, a massive amount of squirrels, a massive amount of foxes, and obviously, seagulls. [...] This is part of the new ecology. And for the first time I saw the world in a new way. I've always felt, I'm trying to get across on this new record, the idea that plastic, we see it as being against nature but it's come out of nature. We didn't create plastic, nature created plastic. And just seeing the snakes like living in the warmth of decomposing plastic bags. They like it. It was a strange kind of optimism that I felt... but trying to get that into pop music is a challenge, anyway. But important."
The thing is that Albarn properly understands the plasticity (in several senses) of pop as a medium, and has a sort of genius for creating exactly the right balance between the disposable and the unbiodegradable, the colourful and the toxic, the waste-heap and the living ecology.

A few other thoughts, in no special order. One is that the Beatles originally wanted to release Rubber Soul under the title Plastic Soul but the name was already taken. Not that Rubber Soul is an especially plastic album ... but this new Gorillaz suite is, and properly merits the Beatlesian moniker. Another thought is how much I like the way, after a noodly prelude piece, the opening track begins with a morphed version of the old LWT trumpet theme. Another is that Snoop Dogg has a very pleasant timbre to his voice. 'Stylo' is nice, but a little one note (depending, that is to say, perhaps a touch too much on the expression tension between Albarn's weary half-sung portion and Womack's lung-bursty yodelling). 'White Flag' is gorgeous, perfectly balanced between abrasive and filligree. I also liked the north-pole icefield electro-chunter of 'Glitter Freeze', guest-starring Mark E Smith. Maaahk-E Smuth. Though his contribution is limited to a couple of phrases. But best of all is 'Superfast Jellyfish', which is all the album's virtues in one goofy gemlike track, and which is my single favourite song of the year so far. This one song makes clear the one thing that Blur always had that Oasis (say) never did: not just that Albarn is a much cleverer, cannier songwriter, who brings a much broader range of influences to bear, though all that is true ... but that he has a sense of fucking humour, something lacking in too much contemporary music. Good stuff, from top to bottom.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow (2010)

This novel is not as bad as I expected it to be. It's bad, certainly; but not that bad. I'd say 'it's not as bad as Yellow Dog', but that would be redundant. Nothing could be as bad as Yellow Dog. Having Amis personally come to my house to administer a lava enema would hardly be as bad as that novel.

Old Martin Amis's version of Young Martin Amis (here called 'Keith Nearing') spends a summer in 1970 in an Italian chateau ('chateau-a'? Italian was never my strong suit) with his girlfriend, the ordinary Lily, and their mutual friend the enormous-breasted Scheherazade, plus various other posh-nob comers and goers. Now, in the Amisdrome there are only two sorts of men: on the one hand the massive wankers, and on the other a much smaller selection of massive wankers whose massive wankerishness is restrained under a tinfoil-thin veneer of what an eighteenth-century writer would call 'breeding', but which Amis thinks of in terms of education, wit, courtesy and so on. Keith Nearing is one of the latter. And actually, to qualify myself; Amis also includes a male character called Whittaker who's not a massive wanker at all, although that's because he is gay, do you see? Amis perhaps thinks this is a signal of his Right-On-ness. In fact I suspect it speaks to a blimpish belief that gays are not proper men, don't you know. But never mind that for a moment.

Amis's Keith is a more-or-less civilised massive tool, a student of English literature given to pretentious pontificating, who wants to stay true to his girlfriend but can't help leching slaveringly over the weirdly unselfconscious sexbomb Scheherazade. Various other characters come and go, although it wasn't until roundabout p.100 that I clocked Amis was essaying a 'sex-comedy of manners' with all this. It is not a success on those terms. I'm not sure there are any terms on which it is. Compared to (say) Alan Hollinghurst's extraordinarily evocative rendering of a summer holiday in a posh chateau in The Line of Beauty, Amis's environment feels plastic and unconvincing. His dialogue is always sharp, and sometimes the one-liners hit home; but the sharpness is too ubiquitously honed, too monotonously maintained, and at length it generates a sort of affective dissociation. Interleaved in the main narrative are mini-scenes from 2003, when grown-up much-married Keith is having a kind of nervous breakdown. These bits aim for honest pathos and completely miss their target.

Otherwise, there's a couple of architectonic structuring themes laboriously applied. One of these is Ovidian, a new Metamorphoses ('Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed/Into different bodies', from Ted Hughes's translation of same, is one of the novel's epigraphs), which in Amis's novel becomes about how at adolescence gawky children suddenly change their bodies into loci of extraordinary sexual desirability; balanced at the other end by how middle-age suddenly metamorphoses your youthful frame into something hideous and balding and wrinkled and liverspotted. Another governing theme has to do with 'the sexual revolution' as, effectively, a subject for saloon-bar grumbling. Amis thesis is that 'the sexual revolution' entailed 'girls acting like boys' (which is to say: replacing sexual passivity with sexual agency), which platitutde is troped rather weakly in this novel as a kind of cross-dressing, like Shakespearian comedy.

Amis's third Big Theme is sex more generally, or sex as a subject of fictional representation more generally; and his thesis here is that Sex is unrepresentable. He puts that right up-front:
Sexual intercourse, I should point out, has two unique characteristics. It is indescribable. And it peoples the world. We shouldn't find it surprising, then, that it is much on everyone's mind. [7]
By the end of the novel this has become a sort of definition of pornography.
Pornographic sex is a kind of sex that can be described. Which told you something, he felt, about pornography, and about sex. During Keith's time sex divorced itelf from feeling. Pornography was the industrialisation of that rift. [461]
And this is characteristic. An intriguing first two sentences, there, that drop bathetically into Amis-père-like reactionary noodling. (As if pornography is an invention of the 1970s! As if sexual desire and pornography, the engagement with the subjectivity of another and the sexual objectification of the other, haven't always been complexly tangled in together as far as sexual intercourse is concerned). But Amis wants at one at the same time to suggest that the sexual revolution was a really bad idea and to not be thought a prude. In this he fails. In accordance with his dogma that sex cannot be represented he dances faffily around the many scenes of coupling and shagging that litter the novel ('the nightly interaction, the indescribable deed, now took place', 23); but the sex keeps clattering back into describability and, indeed, naffness. Exhibit A in this regard is a Bad-Sex-Award-worthy instance of heterosexual anal poking (Keith and a woman called Viola: life-changing, the novel implausibly insists), which is wincing, and not in the sense you think I mean.

Sometimes the writing achieves a gemlike glitter. I liked Amis on flies: 'in the middle distance, vague flecks of death -- and then, up close, armoured survivalists with gas-mask faces' [47]. But I didn't like the way he recycled the selfsame image ('a fly was a speck of death ... armoured survivalist with gas-mask face' [311]) hundreds of pages later on. Moreover, moments of nifty description are vastly outnumbered by moments of portentious pontificating. And when he essays this latter, Amis more often than not gets his laces tangled and trips himself over. Who's brave enough to try to improve Keats's celebrated poetic equivalence 'beauty is truth, truth beauty'? Why, Amis is:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty. This was beautiful, perhaps. But how could it be beautiful? It wasn't true. As he saw it. Beauty, that rare thing, had gone. What remained was truth. And truth was in endless supply.
Christ but that's a moped-crash of a paragraph. Amis, once again, has failed to write the novel worth his (undeniable, but rusting) talent. It's starting to look like he never will.

Friday, 5 March 2010

William Horwood, Hyddenworld: Spring


There was once a metal-smith named Beornamund who lived in Mercia and loved a maiden who died, afterwards riding the White Horse through the sky. In her honour he fashioned a series of magical jewels, all of which were lost save the jewels for Summer, Autumn and Winter. He also fashioned ‘a pendant disc of gold in which he set the three gems he found in the belief that Spring … might one day come to light.’ OK, there’s your pseduomythic backstory. Now: we’re in present day England, a country inhabited by mortals like you and me, but also ‘Englalond’, a simultaneous magic land inhabited by the ‘hydden’, Horwood’s ‘little people’, a kind of magical hobbits, or leprechauns, or borrowers, or wombles, or smurfs, or what you will. People used to spot them from time to time, but now they’ve become better at hiding from the Big Folk. (I was reminded of Tolkien’s ‘prologue’ to Lord of the Rings where he says, with uncharacteristic self-indulgence, that ‘even in ancient days they were as a rule shy of “the Big Folk”, and now they avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find.’ In point of fact I was rather grievously reminded of Tolkien throughout, for this is a deeply derivative Fantasy yarn).

Anyhow, there are virtuous ‘hydden’ and also wicked ones called 'Fyrd', or more specifically ‘Sinistral’ (this latter a family name which, like Nogbad the Bad, doesn’t seem to me have given the people involved much chance of eschewing the Dark Side). And there’s a young lad called Jack who’s a sort of saviour figure, and who rescues a human girl from a fiery car-crash at some cost to the skin of his back. Beyond that there’s a good deal of rather fidgety setting-the-scene and putting-characters-into-play that goes no further than doing these two things, such that the novel doesn’t make a very satisfying read overall. The plot goes through the sorts of advances, reversals and collection of symbolic coupons you might expect for this sort of novel; the writing is often slack; the characterisation nugatory, and occasional moments of ultraviolence feel tacked on. Hyddenworld: Summer is in the works, but I can’t say I’m desperate to read it.

The basic construction unit of this novel is the chunk of explanatory or discursive conversation. It’s a shame Horwood relies so heavily on this, since he has no skill for writing good dialogue at all. His characaters all speak in the same grey and interchangeable manner, whilst occasional attempts to give it particularity or flavour crash into cliché or daft po-faced pseudo-elevation, or, indeed, both (‘there bain’t a single solitary soul at our feast who is not honoured to have you among us, a giant-born’). Quite a proportion of the dialogue reads like filler: (‘“Er … um!” said Jack, rather desperately. “Aah!” declared Stort in a strangled sort of way’). Otherwise the story is a sort of Tolkien/Weirdstone of Brisingamen mashup. Except that where Tolkien took a deep linguistic philosophy as the ground for his aesthetic—he wrote his stories as a means of realising his philological vision, as we know—Horwood substitutes a sort of nostalgic orthography. It’s Old English, used here as a garnish (two and a half lines of Anglo-Saxon quoted on p.192 have an unearned magical effect on the characters). Calling England ‘Englalond’, Birmingham ‘Brum’ (yes, ‘Brum’) and swapping the ‘i’ for a ‘y’ in ‘Hyddenworld’ (why not ‘Hyddenweorolde’?) seems to me a much less effective mode for realising rounded Fantasy than Tolkien’s more systematic mytho-linguistic approach.

Also: according to Horwood, one of the main characters, Arthur Foale, is ‘Professor of Astral Archaeology at Cambridge University’. Since Foale believes that actual archaeological digging is a kind of violation of the sacred earth, and that Stonehenge was a portal into another world, this implies, I would say, a surprising laxness in the application of professional standards by Cambridge University's promotions committee.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Vernian Process, Behold The Machine (2009)


To begin with some good things about this album. First of all, it’s free to download, from the band's website, which can’t be bad. The cover design is rather fine (don't you think?), and the concept—a properly Steampunky snfal Goth-rock—is a winning one. And again: several members of the band can really play their instruments. The drummer is good, although s/he needs either a better drumkit or else a producer capable of mixing the percussion in properly. The guitars are well played, and whoever’s in charge of the synthesiser manages some interesting effects. But the lead vocalist has a grating, moaning, warbly-uncertain sort of voice, and he's not helped in his self-appointed task by the fact that whenever the melody line goes up, particularly if it leaps a sizeable interval, he slips sometimes as much as a semitone off key. (On ‘I Am The Sea’ he’s painfully off-key almost all the way through.) I suspect he knows he can’t really sing, because he frequently slips into that fallback for bad singers, chanty! overemphatic! declamation! And there’s only so far the band can go to give life to a whole series of musical clichés: minor key triplets, overegged doominess, clanking sound effects in the background, musical quotation from Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue’, earnest spoken interludes (‘to hell with it all!’ ‘we fight for a cause that we know is right’) that want to be intense but come off as risible. The lyrics are mostly dreadful (‘It’s a new dark age’ ‘Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide!’ ‘There’s no hope in our hearts’) with occasional touches of more interesting, or promising (‘1857 forever changed my life …’) And tracks 11-13 sound like they were recorded by a completely different band: middle-of-the-road bobbins.

Overall, and though it's not entirely without promise, in the end it’s pretty watery stuff. On the other hand the insertion of that middle-class-youth-piano standby Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, though incongruous, is rather good. And the last track, the multi-part 'The Maiden Flight' is not bad at all, despite opening with intersecting piano lines rather after the manner of 'Lick My Love Pump'.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Moon Maid (1926)

Some covers for this old Pulp classic are just beautiful. Here's the first edition for instance:Isn't that splendid? (the compositional dynamism! the font!) Not all editions have been so aesthetically pleasing, mind. Here's a recent edition:Funny way to spell 'Burroughs', you're saying. And you're right. It is.

Still, it's a jolly yarn. Burroughs started writing it during the First World War (which the novel, optimistically, predicts as ending in 1967). The Barsoom, a spaceship bound on an exploratory voyage to Mars, instead crashes on the moon thanks to the drunken malice of one crewmember. They're captured by the Va-gas, black horse-like animal with a human faces; and later they encounter the more humanoid No-vans, amongst them the Futuramistically named Nah-ee-lah (the Moon Maid herself). There's a lot of adventuring, to-ing and fro-ing, and rather more eating of raw corpses than I had anticipated; plus a climactic big battle against the subterranean, DeepSpaceNineishly-named Jemadar (presumablym like the Trek scripters, Burroughs also browsed his Hobson-Jobson) before the hero Julian and his moon maid love-interest finally escape back to Earth. There are two more books in the trilogy, which I very much look forward to reading. What a pip!

Still, it's a book that artists' have interpreted many ways. For some, it's all about cherubs and umbrellas:
And for others it's all about bottoms.The true mark of a classic.

Update (courtesy of Mark W):

She's nicely louche, isn't she? As Mark notes, it's not entirely clear how she's holding on, whilst her mount seems to be practicing (if he's left handed) a forward drive, or (if he's right handed) perhaps a reverse sweep.