Thursday, 29 July 2010

Justin Cronin, The Passage (2010)

It’s the book of the season; the one everyone is reading. And readable it is. Or, as we say in conventionally idiomatic English ‘and it is readable.’ In fact, compared to some of the ‘ones everyone is reading’ of previous seasons, it is really pretty good ... neither a truly rubbishy Da Vinci Code type of novel nor a mostly rubbishy Girl with Dragon Tattoo type: a proper novel. Solidly and in places quite classily written, effectively and genuinely characterised, well plotted. There are downsides, mind you: it’s a pretty reactionary piece of work, and broken-backed to boot, its second two-thirds much weaker than its opening. There ought to be a piece of critical terminology for this textual phenomenon, actually. So, we recall how Saving Private Ryan opens with a staggering, game-changing 20-minutes of cinematic brilliance, only to fall back afterwards into a raggle-bag of war-film cliché and narrative sprawl. There were some notable moments in the latter portion of the film, of course, but nothing to live up to magnificent opening. In that sense, The Passage is a deeply Ryanist novel.

So, yes, the first 246 pages are little short of amazing: smoothly, vividly written; expertly paced; very memorable work. The heroine, Amy Harper Bellafonte, is the daughter of a hard-up single Midwestern mother, onetime waitress, latterly prostitute. When one of her clients threatens to go psycho on her, and she kills him, Mom leaves nine-year-old Amy at the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy and lights out. Meanwhile, a secret government project plans to utilise (that old Pulp stand-by) a secret discovery in the jungles of South America—a virus that turns people into vampires, no less: superstrong, effectively immortal, blood-eaters. The military want to develop this virus with a view to (that old Pulp stand-by) creating super soldiers. To that end various experimental subjects have been brought to (that old Pulp stand-by) a subterranean Denver scientific facility, death-row prisoners and drifters, anybody without family or dependents, who won’t be missed. They've been infected with the virus, and though nine out of every ten die, the one who doesn't turns into a proper Nosferatu-type monster. The scientists want a young subject; the authorities have heard of Amy, and send two agents to retrieve her.

Now: summarised thuswise, it sounds hokey. And that’s because it is hokey. Merely to consider it is to ask the crucial ‘and the answer is no’ question: does the world really need another vampire novel? But Cronin’s skill is precisely to win you over to his Pulpy overworked tropes, to make you believe in them afresh. Of course the vampires are going to escape the secret government facility. Of course the hard-bitten FBI agent, detailed to bring Amy to be experimented upon, is going to rebel against his orders, and form a deeply-felt paternal bond with the lass. Naturally there will be mumbo-jumbo. It’s all tosh; but its toshiness is so well handled, so deftly delivered, that you really don’t mind.

Beyond all that, though, Cronin’s most impressive achievement in this opening section is the way he builds suspense. The suspense is positively Hitchcockian. Even though you know from early on what’s likely to happen, the narrative nevertheless generates prodigious, gripping suspense.

Then, at p.247, the novel topples off its own Continental Shelf into much dimmer territory. We are zipped forward 92 years to a Forest of Hands and Teeth like settlement in which the last humans on earth live, keeping the vampires (‘virals’ they’re called) at bay with massive perimeter arc lights all night every night. And for the following 500 pages of this very lengthy novel we trundle along an abyssal floor of sparser textual work. The prose is no less professional, and (after a saggy stretch) the characters are well-enough drawn. Thankfully, Cronin’s vampires are about death, not about teenage sexuality; and the book’s handling of death as a theme is pretty sophisticated, often compelling and even moving. But the suspense has all gone now. It all feels much less consequential; the story is much less effectively paced. There are some moments of tension and excitement, but the vim has gone out of the book. Naturally, having read a third of the way in, the reader doesn't want to give up. But the subsequent twists and turns of plot bring us not to a conclusion, but instead to the set-up for The Inevitable Volume Two Of The Global Bestselling VampireTrilogy. I couldn’t help but feel let-down.

And then, having put the book down, beguiled (whilst I read) by its impressive combination of popular entertainment and intelligence, I bethought myself: hmmm. For what is this novel saying? It is saying: science, not faith, will bring about the end of the world (scientists prying into those Bolivian jungle caves; scientists working in the wicked Denver lab). It is saying, government is a force for secrecy and wickedness, and that the work of government produces horrible (though unintended) consequences. It is saying, via several of its black characters: negroes are magical, with access to spiritual authenticity inaccessible to, but fundamentally placed in the service of, whites. It is saying: guns are good—guns are sexy, and powerful, and will make you powerful, and will protect you. It is saying: self-reliance, wilderness skills, a strict code to live by, small-town virtues—these are not only good, they are humanity’s only hope. It is saying: life for modern Americans is patrolling the fence, stopping those evil hordes from swarming over. Ideologically, it’s a shrieky right-wing libertarian fable, this novel. It's a lie, at root; and the more worrying because it's so cleverly, competently put across.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Christopher Nolan, Inception (2010)

Today, Matthew, I shall be reviewing Inception in reaction to my friend Scott Eric Kaufman's 'colour me most unimpressed' review. Read his review, picture me saying the exact opposite to him pretty much paragraph by paragraph, and there you have it. Scott is antiinceptive. The only thing that prevents me calling myself 'proinceptive' is that the word starts with 'proin', which sounds to my ear like zebedee bouncing down the hallway. And we don't want that.

I'll be a little more specific. As I watched the film I found myself enjoying it, more-or-less, but wondering if it had to be quite so emotionally weightless. And, as the film continued I started fretting increasingly over plotholes (the one that bugged me the most: they go to great lengths to say that falling -- even falling to the side -- wakes you up; then they go out of their way to put characters in a van that hurtles round corners, crashes down a roadside slope rolling 360-degrees & the like, and nobody wakes up). Abigail and her commentators note some other plotholes; as do Scott and his commentators. But the emotional timbre of the film is probably more important. I particularly like Luther Blisset's thesis that Leonardo Di Caprio's character is so unlikeable that the film's belief we'd root for his desire to get home to see his kids 'would be like if The Odyssey was about a child molester and wife beater trying to get home to his wife and children.'

Almost up to the last scene I was ready to come out of the cinema snarky, geared to join the the Nolan-ripe-for-a-backlash mob. Then with only a minute to go, the two kids turned and looked at the camera. I felt as if somebody had sheathed a sword in my chest. I felt genuinely, suddenly, unexpectedly, very moved.

That's why SEK is wrong.

Of course, I need to say some more about this. It's not unprecedented for me to be moved by a film. Rare, but not unpredecented. I felt the prickle of tears (which, of course, I manfully choked back) watching Toy Story 3 for example. That's because I have two small kids, and the film twanged my parternal chord. Conceivably the vibration of that same chord was behind my reaction to the moment in Inception when the kids turn to face the camera. But I don't think so: the quasi-parental dilemma of the toys in Toy Story 3 resonated with me, as it will with most parents; where the dilemma of the Leonardo Di Caprio character resonated not at all. I felt neither empathy nor sympathy for him. His kids were ciphers. The whole set-up was escapist-absurd, heist-movie-Matrix nonsense, not reality-absurd like the Pixar flick. Yet, to paraphrase Galileo, I was still moved.

In part I think this is because Nolan prepped the scene with just enough, but not too many, earlier shots of the kids playing with their backs to us, and exiting camera right without turning to look at us. And in part it has to do with the peculiarly cinematic emotional entanglement of the scene: because I wanted the kids to look at me, but at the same time I kind-of dreaded the kids turning to look at me. I think the dread has a lot to do with the kid in Don't Look Now. Of course, I take it as axiomatic that Nolan's film is not really about life, but is instead really about cinema. That seems to me a feature, not a bug; because cinema is about life in imagistically distilled intense ways, and the moment of horror in Don't Look Now depends upon our actual psychological fears and desires, especially where kids are concerned. Children are uncanny, you see? At the same time as being lovely, you see? (If I'm pressed on this point, I'd mumble something about kids being abjected from us, being us but not us; and go on to talk about how we have kids so that they can still be alive when we die (that, after all, is the root point of kids) but that this very fact makes them cute, cuddly and horrific momenti mori just by virtue of their existence. But I'm thinking you won't want to press me on that point).

This, I think, entails two things: one is that the logic of the film is designedly dream logic, and picking it apart for inconsistencies and plotholes makes as much sense as doing that with a dream -- which is not to say that such picking-apart has no point, of course; just understanding that this exercise needs to be what those aporiae mean about our imagination. The second thing is related: that the currency of dreams is motion and emotion, they are us doing stuff (reactively and actively) and feeling stuff. Dreams are a way of thinking, but not a way of thinking rationally. And they're about secrets but only in a very specialised sense: because we always already know the secret content of our dreams; they're hidden in plain ego.

All of this seemed to me well matched in the movie. The action sequences had the curiously flattened unengaged feel of cliché because cliché, that clinch, is the currency of dreams. Scott's charge of 'pot-logic' (I hoped he meant to coin after the manner of 'pothole', but he means 'the sort of thing you say when you're listening to Floyd in your dorm and everyone has their own bowl and is abusing it') also seems to me beside the point. Scott's example of pot-logic is 'what if we're all, like, in a dog's dream? And the moment it wakes up to lick its balls we like cease to exist?'. But Inception isn't interested in the moment when we wake up. It pretends to be, for narrative purposes, but it really isn't. It's about the moment when we see what we could have seeen all along and what we wanted to see all along but have been too scared to see. Scott calls this 'an infuriatingly stupid conceit' although any analyst worth her salt would surely ask him: if a mere film premise provokes fury in you, we may need to start to delve deeper to try and understand why.' And on the subject of depth, SEK:

Instead, I'll just note that psychological complexity in this film was figured like a wedding cake: "depth" literally entailed layers stacked one atop the other, such that the "deeper" one went, the "deeper" one was. Which is deep, dude.
This does seem to me wrongheaded, in part because the film seemed to me to go out of its way to upend this: the 'dream' was at sea-level, the 'dream within the dream' on the 5th floor of a skyscraper, the 'dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream' on top of a mountain, and so on. But that's nitpicking. My beef is with:
the film felt like an exercise in empty formalism.
Because that's what I was beginning to feel, until the two kids turned to look at me right at the end; and until Nolan visually quoted the end of Stalker with the metal spinning top. Because that's the moment I realised that cinematic formalism can never be empty; that on the contrary what we take to be 'content' is actually only form. The shape of causation and motivation and the heft of emotional connection, that is the heighth and breadth of what cinema does so well, is deliberately stretched and diverted in this film until the very end because these formal qualities are what the film is about. Not emotional connection, but the convincing simulacrum of emotional connection we call film (oh look, it's Michael Caine! And Cillian Murphy, and Ken Watanabe! All these Chris Nolan regulars, they're like old friends ... but of course they're not old friends, not friends of ours). Not actual causation, and consequence; but only the dessicated imitation of these things we know from action cinema, where killing people is just smoothing-out aggressive psychic projections. All that. The film emptied itself out (in an entertaining-enough way) because that's what cinema is.


The one thing which cinema can't traduce, because it is the horizon of all cinematic possibility. The look. And the selective withholding that look in order to make the look, when it finally happens, worth something at the end.

I liked that very much. That retroactively rewired the whole picture for me. Look:

Monday, 26 July 2010

Harold T Wilkins, Flying Saucers on the Attack (1967)

Here are four reasons why this title is the greatest book ever published in any English-speaking country, ever.

1. The fact that, though published in 1967 it includes the following paragraph as part of its preliminary 'A Foreword and A Warning':
It is confidently predicted, in quarters both in Great Britain and on the continent of Europe and, of course, in the U.S.A., that, probably before the present hectic century passes into 2,001 A.D., the first man from earth will have made a landing on the moon. What will he find there? [7-8]
What I love about this is not only its extraordinary Apollo-esque myopia, and the way Wilkins writes the year 2001 as '2,001'; but the fact that he answers his own question 'What will he find there?' with the assertion that it 'is not very unlikely' that the first astronaut will encounter aliens who
stand ready with ray-cannon, electric blast force guns, paralyzing ray projectors, or variants of Wells's Martian heat ray, or some "degravitator" device that may hold the first terrestrial space ship fast-bound to the floor of the crater, so that there may be no return to Earth. [9]
1967, ladies and gentlemen.

2. The chapter titles. Some of these are utilitarian, of course ('The Coming of the Foo Fighters', 'Space Ships, the Moon, Mars and Venus'); but others are simply the best chapter titles of any book I have ever read. When I get round to forming a prog-rock band I shall choose from one of the following as my band name:
A Vast Bat-Like Machine.
The Martian Cat Among The Pigeons.
Colossal Death Ray Aeroform.
Britain's Navy And Air Force Awakened.

3. The prose. Wilkins writing style is a thing of splendour and wonder. Here's the opening sentence of 'A Vast Bat-Like Machine':
The finger of Fate, moving over the dial of our own planet in the war-years of 1944-45, ordained that many apparitions of unknown origin, single, or in disciplinary formations, should soar into the skies of western Europe and the Far East, but, in the following year, 1946, the cosmic spotlight shifted to North America, almost, it would seem, as if that vast continent had some peculiar attraction for these visitants. [38]
And here's the second sentence of that same chapter:
It might seem that "they" had observed, far out in space, some grave disturbance to the cosmic equilibrium emanating from dangerous experiments going on in this region of the "Wart" as the Jupiterians in Mark Twain's Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven irreverently called our Earth, whose location they had great difficulty finding on the vast and Brobdingnagian macrocosmic chart in the Heavenly Archive House!
It's like this all the way through! I consider myself something of a connoisseur of bad prose, but this is far beyond comparison, emulation, or, on many pages, comprehension.

4. And finally: the UFOS themselves! They are ... extraordinary. One is 'umbrella shaped, and half the size of the moon' [83]; another is 'a large natural stone' that 'rolls itself forward from a steep rock' [160]. The purpose of some 'friendly' UFOs is to release 'uranium green balls', fired like bullets, 'in order to clear up dangerous radio-active emenations after the detonation of atomic bombs' [266]. Some UFOS are made of 'contra-terrene matter', and some out of 'filaments' in every respect resembling 'free floating webs of spiders' but 'assuredly not floating webs of spiders.' At one point Wilkins challenges the belief of 'air authorities' that the ice that sometimes forms on aircraft wings is simply ice, with the memorable claim that such ice 'may come from one of the frozen satellites of Saturn, which, by the way, is distant from the Earth by 797,300,000 miles' [94]. That's one of my favourite uses of the conditional, 'may', there. Wilkins goes on, with the air of a man making an irrefutable point: 'it is possible, of course; but as the ice, when it is ice, bears no trade mark of origin, who is to prove it?' Who indeed? Who indeed.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


I've re-read Jeter's Morlock Night so as to write an afterword, to be included in a forthcoming Angry Robot edition of the novel. I do like a bit of Jeter. I like it more than a jot. Now, I'm not going to post my thoughts on that novel, and the literary representation of Morlocks more generally, here: if you're interested, you'll just have to buy the edition when it's published. But I have had a quick google for images of Morlocks, and a strange set it is. This, as I'm sure I don't need to remind you, is how Wells himself conceived them:
I turned ... and saw a queer little ape-like figure, its head held down in a peculiar manner, running across the sunlit space behind me. It blundered against a block of granite, staggered aside, and in a moment was hidden in a black shadow beneath another pile of ruined masonry. My impression of it is, of course, imperfect; but I know it was a dull white, and had strange large greyish-red eyes; also that there was flaxen hair on its head and down its back. But, as I say, it went too fast for me to see distinctly. I cannot even say whether it ran on all-fours, or only with its forearms held very low.
The cover to the Daw edition of Morlock Night, up there, renders the creature as a sort of blue-skinned troll ... in fact it makes the book look like a Discworld rip-off which (I can promise you) it isn't at all. The blue skin, though, comes from the George Pal Time Machine film.

Boris Johnson and his lovely wife, there.

This has had a longlasting influence on the cultural imagination. Look at this lovely chappie:

Half-yeti, this one; with a big-top-sized piece of fabric wrapped about his loins to preserve his shaggy modesty. Or this one:

Ahh! Or this, equally charming sort:

Apart from making me wonder what he could possibly do with two sets of teeth that, evidently, don't meet when he bites down, this image makes me think: 'Morlock', now, has moved away from the albino insectile or arachnid vision of Wells's novella ('It made me shudder. It was so like a human spider!') and become instead a white ape, a muscular, malevolent, hairy ape -- the white colonial man, rather than Wells's mutated proletarian subterranean underclass. Has become more racially conceptualised, as a superior, hyper-Aryan, cruel-eyed, kinkily-dressed Jeremy Irons:

Somebody paler than pale. Not that there's anything wrong with being pale, mind you.

A little peroxide in my hair, and I'm there.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Gavin Smith, Veteran (2010)

A chunky book that reads quickly, this: our narrator is a British Genetic Infantryman (in effect, that is; Smith doesn't call him that), a veteran from an interstellar Starship-Trooperish war against insectile 'Them', who joins a team of wise cracking types to track down an alien infiltrator. It's reminiscent of Richard Morgan, although without having Morgan's heft or seriousness. Some nice touches (we start in Dundee, for instance; or rather in an oil-rig shanty town just off Dundee), some sharp dialogue, with a little bit of slackness and redundancy. But the meat of the meal is stuff like this:
'C'mon, c'mon!' Jess said through gritted teeth and then fired through the wall as she dived top the filthy carpet. I barely had time to register the huge shadow outside the window when the ruby-red light cut through the building at what would have been waist height. I was already down low, as were Pagan and Morag, but I saw Elspeth's torso begin to smoke. I don't think he had time to realise what was happening to him. He just sank to his knees and then the top part of his body fell off and he hit the carpet face first.
And this:
There were two heavily armoured gun cupolas of the roof rails. Each one had a chain-fed 30-millimetre rotary cannon. The left one also had a plasma cannon and the right a 20-millimetre railgun.
My acquisition software promised me a target-rich environment as Berserks swamed into the cave mouth ... I fired, shifted target, fired another burst, and moved to the next target as 20-millimetre rounds from my railgun tore Them apart. Rounds from Balor's 30-millimetre railgun flew over my head as he provided longer bursts.
Now, I have an interest in novels about war, and have written more than one myself; but I'm not the ideal audience for this sort of thing (which is to say: I look for other things in a war story than this novel offers). But most readers are not like me, and many will enjoy this very much: professionally handled, fast-paced, with vim in the dialogue and spec-rich violence. Plus, as you can see from the cover, Smith's name is literally made out of razor blades, so I don't intend to cross him.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Gerard Woodward, We Were Pedestrians (2005)

I'm sorry to have missed this when it first came out (and it's a shame that the SF prizegiving world seems to have missed it too). I read the following, a portion of a longer poem called 'Ecopoesis', in the Forward Collection for 2006, and was very struck by it. Put it this way: I can't think of a better piece of sciencefictional verse on an areoforming theme, and more to the point I could name a dozen novels and short stories that treat the topic less evocatively, memorably and brilliantly:
7. Looking Back

The last millionaires fell from the sky
A century ago. They brought with them
Sad stories of the lives they had left,
How a belief in unicorns and mermaids
Had revived, how the cities had been
Consumed by privet and laurel,
Of sickness, reforestation, wars of religion.

Our children listened entranced
And filled with longing to be
In the world of islands with all
Its rich, rewarding dangers.

Our atmosphere factories have begun
To take on something of the mystery
And charm of pyramids, though
They remind me more of coffee pots,
Or cafetières, and the pillowy mountains
Behind them with the croissant-shaped
Pebbles that strew their slopes always
Remind me that what we have made here
Is one vast room, world-sized,
Near whose ceiling two acorn
Moons float. Sofa hills. Lamp-stand mountain.
You have to keep a sense of proportion.

Last week the mirrors were ripped
To shreds as they re-entered the atmosphere,
And poured their mirrory rain over a field
The size of the state of Missouri.
The lit blog A Spaniard in the Works has the whole of 'Ecopoesis'. But you should go buy Woodward's collection.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Mike Mitchell, Shrek Forever After (2010)

As per previous post: yes, there are some films I do get to see on their initial cinematic release. This is one.

Now, I was quite willing to hate this film, not least because, for logistical reasons, the only showing to which I could take Lily was 3D, with the associated monstrous inflation of ticket-price (3D adds almost nothing to it, by the way). But in the event I didn't hate it at all. I rather liked it. Some of it is over-indulgent franchise blather, but most of it is sharp and funny, often laugh-out-loud funny ([snide, nasal voice] 'do-the-roar!') and the ending is pretty touching. It made my eyes tingle with the anticipation of tears, actually; although I was manly and English enough to choke them back down.

If I have a substantive criticism it would be that Dreamworks, aiming at that necessary balance between 'we must make this film entertaining to kids' and 'we must make this film entertaining to the adults who are accompanying their kids', end up too largely on the latter side. It's really a film about being a father, and the compromises that such a role enforces upon the dashing, independent, bachelor sensibilities of the male. Shrek, oppressed by his happy family life, wishes for just one day when he could be shot of all of it. He signs a contract with evil Rumpelstiltskin to that effect: he gets one day as a proper ogre, and in return he sacrifices one day from his past. Only after the contract has been signed does Shrek realise his mistake: Rumpelstiltskin has taken the day of Shrek's birth, and the ogre finds himself in a world in which he was never born. This thoroughly science fictional, alternate timeline conceit is rather nicely done; much less derivatively It's A Wonderful Life than I thought it would be, and elaborated with some rigour. But I'm not convinced an eight year old girl -- to take the example of my companion -- found the emotional dilemma and heart-tingling resolution as relevant to her life as I did to mine.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Guy Ritchie, Holmes (2009)

Some film blogging this week; books back next week.

Now, for reasons to which I have previously adverted on this blog,* I rarely get to see grown-up movies during their first-run cinema outings. Hence the belatedness of my take on this, one of last year's box-office hits. This belatedness renders much of what I might otherwise say redundant, since other, better critics have previously covered most of the things I would otherwise have said here: Dan 'Hart to Hart' Hartland, for instance (a much more expert Holmesian than I) gets it pretty much right, I think.

I've only a couple of things to add to his meditations. Like him I enjoyed the film very much; but unlike him it struck me as less a midrash upon Conan Doyle's original than upon ... well, upon 1970s screen entertainment in general. For instance: the over-arching plot, and its intricate setting-up-and-demolishing of a putative supernatural narrative superstructure was much more Scooby Doo than Hound of the Baskervilles; its buddy-buddy relationship between Holmes and Watson more Starsky and Hutch than Tom and Jerry (not that Tom and Jerry, dumbkopf: this Tom and Jerry). Then watching Holmes going mano-a-mano with the gigantic French thug in the dockyard it clicked in my head. The Frenchman ... Jaws! Holmes ... Roger Moore's James Bond! This isn't Conan Doyle, it's The Holmes Who Loved Me; it's Holmesraker, For Your Holmes Only, Holmesopussy, A View to a Holmes. The film's commercial success is a testament to how large the audience still is for the fast-paced, weightless, witty, kitchy, high-camp adventures of Moore's Bond, something not catered for by the universal em-noir-ing of the action adventure mode (the Dark Knights and Bourneified Bonds of this, our 21st-century).

This in turn lead to another realisation: Jameson's cultural telescoping of history is an actual effect. For today's younger audience, the 1960s and 1970s are so far lost in the backward abysm of time that they're more or less Victorian. Or to be a little more precise: they're Victorian in a jazzed-up sense: Sergeant Pepper uniforms, Adam Adamant and so on. Ritchie's Holmes is quite a complicated culture-text, by this reading.


*Lily is eight now; Dan two-and-a-half. Thank you for asking.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms (2010)

A sequel to Less Than Zero, this: some of the same characters, much of the earlier novel's chilly, glossy sheen. There's a horrible smattering of American Psycho, too. I've seen only bad reviews of this novel, but I must say: I was impressed, pretty much all the way through.

We're 25 years on from Zero; Clay is now a screenwriter, and as narrator of this book (peeved that a shitty writer ransacked his life to write Less Than Zero and then turn it into a shittier film) he drifts around LA, meeting up with some of his old friends, responding to certain things (a car that appears to be following him, for instance) with a kind of lazy disaffected paranoia. He auditions an actress called 'Rain' for his new film, then has a fling with her. Another old friend has been horribly murdered. The menace of murderous violence grows as the novel goes on, but this isn't really a function of plot. Everything in ths book is postmodernishly self-reflexive, not just the obvious stuff.
"Rain," I say. "That's not your real name."

"Does it matter?"

"Well it makes me wonder what else isn't real."

"That's because you're a writer," she says. "That's because you make things up for a living."


"And" -- she shrugs -- "I've noticed that writers tend to worry about things like that."

"About what?"

She gets into the car. "Things like that." [43]
Sex, likewise:
This is someone trying to stay young because she knows that what matters most to you is the youthful surface. This is supposed to be part of the appeal: keep everything soft and young, keep everything on the surface, even with the knowledge that the surface fades and can't be held together forever ... The surface Rain presents is really all she's about, and since so many girls look like Rain another partof the appeal is watching her trying to figure out why I've become so interested in her and not someone else. [54]
It could be argued that Easton Ellis is a better writer than DeLillo (an obvious comparator, I suppose) in one crucial regard. DeLillo has better technical chops, I'd say: better range and variety, better descriptive and synthetic powers and scope; plus he's just as fascinated by the tonal and (indeed) human possibilities of writing the affectless, shiny, polished plastic and distressed metal of the postmodern continuum. But DeLillo has a secret addiction; profundity. The first sentence of this novel, for instance. Ellis has a secret, too (not so secret, really); which is that he's an intensely moral writer. But being a moral writer is much more compatible with the sliding, affectless, POMO style than being a 'deep' writer.

Indeed, I'd say Imperial Bedrooms is the wrong title for this novel. Better would have been When I Was Cruel; not just because it's the Costello album actually released a quarter-century after the publication of Ellis's first novel, but because cruelty is the real theme of this novel, as of so much of Ellis's fiction. He is a self-reflexive writer not just because he loves the clever-clever gamery of it, but because self-reflexivity captures the zero-sum, self-circuiting involution of cruelty better than straight representation. Plus, the When I Was Cruel album is a rather better fit for this book tonally, in terms of mood, than the rather baroque Imperial Bedroom (the novel's epigraph is the line from 'Beyond Belief' about history repeating; but Ellis is almost wholly uninterested in history). In particular Ellis's novel put me in mind of the album's title track, with its cocktail lounge sleazy-beat shuffle and empty melodic gestures piqued, just the right amount, by touches of Satie. But this is also a novel (as is the album's opening track, '45') about being middle-aged in a world that's still revolving at the speed of pop; or a novel stuck in the same groove of Californian sourness of 'Episode of Blonde'. And of course there's the Elvis song about ripping off the dolls' heads.

What's beneath the glossy surfaces of modern life? Ellis thinks that there is something down there, and the thing is: cruelty. Of course, it's not very far below the surface, because nothing goes very deep. And life is mostly the surfaces.
She immediately moves into me and says she's sorry and then she's guiding me toward the bedroom and this is the way I always wanted the scene to play out and then it does, and it has to because it doesn't really work for me unless it happens like this.

"You should be more compassionate," she says later, in the darkness of the bedroom.

"Why?" I ask. "Why should I be more compassionate?"

"You're a Pisces." [125]
Clay grows increasingly jealous as the novel goes on, but his jealousy is all selfishness and nastiness-to-others and has nothing pitiable in it at all. The violence, when it comes, is suitably vindictive and cruel.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Craig Raine, Heartbreak (2010)

Terry Eagleton's I-shit-on-you review of Raine's new novel has become itself newsworthy. It's a deeply ungenerous reading of the book, but that's not to say it's wrong, either. Actually, this novel is a pretty interesting failure. Attacking it for its narrowness of class representation, as Eagleton does, seems a little unfair, certainly ('Someone who is clearly not from a Glasgow housing scheme asks: "Where is it, somewhere in Walter Pater, where he says that Leonardo says that all improvements in arts stem from a sense of dissatisfaction?"'): you wouldn't slag off a James Kellman novel for the paucity of its upper-middle-class sensibility, after all. But Eagleton is right: the selfsame images and tone that work so resonantly and powerfully and hauntingly in Raine's verse fall flat in this novel. Raine's best work, including the wonderfully novelistic History: the Home Movie, has always depended less upon his 'Martianism' (I mean: upon a notional super-ingenuity of poetic simile) than upon his ability to make imagery vital via precision and concision and vividness. In Heartbreak, the concision is terribly diluted, and without it the precision and vividness depart. The book tries to be touching. It fails. Being touching is like being funny; you can't simply put the right sort of ingredients in place and stir ... you need something else. All of the characters are saddled with physical or psychological grotesqueries (this man is horribly burned; this women is Down's syndrome and so on) in a way that swamps their core believability. And as Eagleton stresses, the writing is very often ouch-ouch embarrassing, wincingly so. There's a whole series of mismatches here, each superposed on the others, but the worst of them is the poetic prose. As a poet Raine's best practice is ingenious, yes; but it's more than ingenious. It thrills us with a surprising aptness, not just with surprise. Sadly, almost nothing in this novel is apt.

Three more things.

One: the paragraphing is really, really annoying:
Heartbreak ... finality is being acted out.

But what about the ones who aren't shouting?

People more like Catherine Sloper in Washington Square. People whose hearts are invisible.

What is heartbreak, really?

Is it really only rhetoric?
Gnarr. That might almost be interesting prose, without the pretentious 'oo, look at meee' paragraphing.

Two: What the fuck is up with that cover? Is the publisher hoping it'll be mistaken for a misery memoir, and get a bump in sales?

Three: so many of the images here misfire than I'd began to worry that Raine had completely lost his mojo. But there are perhaps half a dozen spots of textual time here as beautiful as anything Raine has ever written; if not quite enough to redeem the book, then at least enough to make this a book worth reading despite its rubbishness. For example:
She bought a sapling anyway, and bedded it down near the barbed-wire fence where two humming birds of polythene blurred in the stiff breeze. [12]

Monday, 5 July 2010

Lost (2004–2010)

My review of all six seasons of Lost has now been posted over on Strange Horizons. That's right, all six seasons. My review contains comprehension character and plot summaries, appraisal and a criticial-theoretical interpretation of the whole in terms of trauma theory and 'magical thinking.' How d'you like them apples?

In other news, my post-Jordan purdah has come to an end. Reviews of other titles will follow.