Saturday, 30 October 2010

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010)


My review of Charles Yu's rather spiffy debut title has now appeared in the Grauniad. Follow that link and you'll see what I have to say about it, and also see that the Guardian, despite me having pointed it out to them on several occasions, are still using the byline photograph of a completely different person.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Damon Galgut, In A Strange Room (2010)


This is a beautifully carved and polished pole of prose: three sections, each originally published as a separate novella in the Paris Review, but linked via characters and themes. In the first a character called 'Damon Galgut' (a white South African, like the author) walks about Greece, meets a German called Reiner, returns to SA, meets up with Reiner again, and the two go for a lengthy, austere walking tour of Lesotho together. They bicker and fall out.

I dilate upon this first section because it is very nearly perfect -- and that's not a critical judgment I make very often. The writing is restrained, sometimes parched, but very finely judged all the way through; the relationship between the protagonist and Reiner is full of nuance and truth -- for all that both are slightly weird, odd-fish loner types, the account of their interaction has a superb, broad and human resonance -- and the denuded sublimity of the landscapes is very well caught. Moments of picturesque beauty (a horse in a field late afternoon under a full moon) are brilliantly dotted through the yonder-now-before-us-lying eternity deserts and eternity mountains. It generates a positively Beckettian affect; I believed it completely and was, as the phrase goes, blown away by it.

The worst you could say of it is that it is tonally a bit derivative, a bit sub-Coetzeean. I daresay there's more anxiety-of-influence in this for a young-ish SA writer than would be the case for a writer out of Europe or the US. And certainly Galgut does the Coetzee tone thing very well. It has something of the social-alienation-as-existential-truth of Disgrace going on, and something of the existence-reduced-to-barest-bones wandering about of Michael K. But derivativeness is not a good thing in itself, and the derivativeness problem is compounded by the fact that the second and third sections of the novel -- treks through Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Europe in the second, and through India in the third -- almost can't help but dilute the perfect compression and precision of the first. Not that they're bad; the writing is very good. It's just that, although some new gracenotes are sounded essentially these latter two sections elaborate the same themes: the peripatetic troping of life as rootless, homeless procession; the existential drama of solitude and companionship -- I mean the way being with other people is a pharmakon that both poisons and heals. The intermittencies of memory.

This latter, actually, is very nicely done: Galgut's technical trick is to alternate fluidly between the third- and first-person in relating what happens to 'Damon', enacting the shift between now-Damon seeing his younger self as a third party, and acknowledging him as a version of himself. This is done cleverly and eloquently, and gives the narrative voice an attractive shimmer. But Anna, who figures largely later in the book ( I thought of her as 'Mad Anna') seemed to me a touch too outré, and there's a sense of monotony and repetition about the later stages that, whilst appropriate to the theme of the monotonous walk, palled. It's a brief novel, 180 pages: but it would have been more perfect at 64.

Here's where the title comes from. Damon has completed a dangerously long single hike, at the prompting of his companion, the more-driven, more wilful Reiner. The two walk all day and night and finally reach their destination mentally shattered and physically broken down. They rest at a campsite for a few days.
They hardly speak now. Both of them have been hit hard by the long hike, their feet are blistered, their muscles ache, there are raw patches that the rucksacks have worn down on their skin. But their responses to this experience are very different. Reiner seems rejuvinated, the point for him was to overcome his weakness and the point had been achieved. ... He announces they can walk for perhaps a day on a good road, which goes up to a certain place.

I stare dully at the map.

I would like to do more long hikes, Reiner says. Like this last one. What do you think? We build up, then we do a big walk, then we rest for a few days.

He [Damon] nods, he turns away, something inside him is finished. The tiredness of the long walk will not leave his body, a numbness had crept into his bones. He wanders around the campsite, trying to revive, he thinks about everything and resolves nothing, he washes his clothes in the river and drapes them over the rocks to dry. Then he sits in the sun, listening to the water, reading. In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. The words come to him from a long way off. [46]
The words he is reading, of course, are from Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: Darl is contemplating 'the strange room' of the coffin, and the sleep of death. The quoted passage goes on: 'I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not.' This kenosis, and its obstacles, is what In A Strange Room is about (though the novel avoids any too-specific Christian or religious connotations); and 'walking' makes a good vehicle for it. But Darl's is not the only perspective on being and not-being articulated by Faulkner. Here's Dewey Dell's more sensual and material perspective on the same thing:
The dead air shapes the dead earth in the dead darkness, further away than seeing shapes the dead earth. It lies dead and warm upon me, touching me naked through my clothes. I said You don't know what worry is. I don't know what it is. I don't know whether I am worrying or not. Whether I can or not. I don't know whether I can cry or not. I don't know whether I have tried to or not. I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.
Perhaps that's the root of the sense of imbalance I get from this novel: those moments when it tries to embody its version of that last quoted sentence, that richer sense of dying, are simply outplayed by the moments when it reverts to a flowing or rasping hollowing-out kenosic sense.

It may, nevertheless, be the strongest novel on the shortlist; a rare and beautiful work of prose art. Certainly it is far, far above Finkler in just about every way.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (2010)


One thing my secondary school English teacher, Mr Meteyard, hammered into all of us was: do not describe a book as boring. To call Othello 'boring', and especially to call it 'bo-o-o-oring', says nothing about Shakespeare's play and everything about you. I've stuck dutifully to that cornerstone of critical analysis in the many decades since, and it has served me well. But I'm about to violate it.

Carey's new novel is boring. To be clear: it's not boring in a 'too little going on' way; it's boring in a 'too much going on' way. I was bored.

Better than Finkler, even so? Yes.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Andrea Levy, The Long Song (2010)


This is what I ponder: why didn't I like this novel more?

It's the fluently rendered account of the life of July, a slave on a 19th-century Jamaican sugar plantation. The whole thing is scrupulously researched, considered, well-rounded and its subject is of intrinsic interest; but it struck me nevertheless as an oddly frictionless read -- I say oddly, because the violence and indignity of slavery is so carefully and sensitively rendered (its account of the 1831 slave rebellion, in particular, stints none of the horrible details). I wonder if the problem here is a kind of lack of larger, conceptual traction. Slavery is a very bad thing. The long history of white peoples enslaving black was a prolonged crime against humanity, and though it is over a century and a half since the British outlawed slavery -- a little less since the USA did -- it continues to shape and influence inequities and violences in the modern world. Raising consciousness about slavery is a laudable fictional aim. But, at the risk of sounding facile, the wicked wrongness of slavery is a fictional proposition on a par with the wetness of water or the greenness of grass. A straight account of it gives the novelist little against which to set her heels, metaphorically speaking.

By contrast: Donoghue's Room says something more complex than 'it's wrong to kidnap and lock people up'; it says something about the way being safe, and being not safe, being close to a mother and exploring the limits of getting away from her, determine a child's being-in-the-world in much more central ways than being locked up or being free. McCarthy's C says something new and interesting about the interpenetration of modernity by machines; something about the way machines are more than tools or gadgets, but generate ambient patterns in the new medium of the world they themselves constitute, about recognition and rest. Levy's novel, though, says that slavery was a very bad thing, but that people who were not destroyed by it did something more than simply endure, they prevailed. This is important and true, and up to a point is even inspiring, but not new to fiction. Maybe the slight sense of inertness I found in The Long Song was a function of this.

Not that Levy doesn't tell her story with considerable skill, because she does. July, the protagonist, is a believable and likeable heroine; and (although her first mistress has eyes that are 'two colourless, vigilant villains' and who beats her and sticks needles in her hands) in general Levy is too canny to populate her novel with filament-thin white villains and heroic, oppressed black characters. But nonetheless, this seemed to me a novel that struggled to generate the turbulence of affect its moral required.

Instead, it sets out a variety of moments of fictive transgression, however trivial, with a sense of diminishing returns. Many of them, for instance, are pitched with deliberate puerility, perhaps with comic intent (though if so without success): 'Nimrod carefully raised one cheek of his backside from the chair and, with a grimace of intense concentration, let forth a loud fart. Then, giggling, he waved his hand in this emission to waft its pungent smell from him.' This sort of thing seemed to me poorly judged, tonally speaking, especially when juxtaposed with the very horrible accounts of the killing of a great many slaves during the 1831 rebellion, including the hanging of July's mother, a very grisly and upsetting scene. The scenes of the uprising could hardly fail to be dramatic and powerful; but this happens fairly early on, and the latter two thirds of the novel ran along in neutral, rather. Nimrod, a freed slave, fathers a son upon July -- he later becomes a publisher, and publishes his mother's narrative. Legal emancipation comes to the island, but July's actual situation improves only marginally. A white man falls in love with her and woos her with some tenderness -- 'reader I must whisper you a truth,' July tells us, in a superogatory one-paragraph chapter, 'come put your ear close to this page. Lean in a little closer still ... Are you listening, reader? then let me softly impart to you this fact. That is not the way white men usually behaved upon this Caribbean island.'

Indeed, Levy iterates and reiterates this 'reader, I married him' narrative device to a frankly wearisome degree: 'so reader'; 'well, reader'; 'reader, come with me to peer through a window of the great house'. A-noy-ing. Some of the descriptive prose is evocative, and Levy is very good on the more vacillating and complex of her characters, both black and white. But the novel is never very far away, stylistically speaking, from wincing stuff like this:
Reader, must I now show the fuss-fuss that went on as the massa and misses of the plantation named Amity finally took their leave from this Caribbean island? Do you desire to hear the squealing of Caroline Goodwin one last time within this tale?
There's some interesting material here about the nature of stories, the reliability of narrators and the official shape put upon human experience by publishers. But this doesn't go to the heart of the story because at heart the story is too straightforward: slavery was a great evil. And this was a novel that struck me, as I turned the final page, as an oddly anticlimactic text.

Better than Finkler, mind.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Emma Donoghue, Room (2010)


James Wood started his recent LRB review of Donoghue's new novel with the bald assertion: 'it is based on the Josef Fritzl case'.
It is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old American, whose mother was abducted at the age of 19 and imprisoned in a single room measuring 121 square feet. She is now 26. The boy's mother is regularly visited by her abductor, though only at night: Jack, the rapist's child, was born in this room, and has known no other life. The nameless abductor, whom Jack calls 'Old Nick', provides food clothes, toys, electricity and air conditioning. Room follows the outlines of the Austrian case quite closely ...
Follows the Fritzl case closely. Apart, that is, from being set in a different country. And the fact that Jack's mother is not Old Nick's daughter, that there are no other children (a stillborn baby aside), that they live in a converted shed not a basement room -- actually, apart from pretty much all the salient facts. But Wood wants to press this point in order to set up his knock-down conclusion, that the book is too cheery. That measuring it against the terrible moral yardstick of the Fritzl case reveals the book to be pasteboard:
Does anyone really imagine that Jack's inner life, with his cracks about Pizza Houses and horse stables and high-fives is anything like five-year-old Felix Fritzl's? The real victim's imaginings and anxieties must have been abysmal.
Of course true, appallingly so, this last sentence. But irrelevant, because Donoghue's novel is not about Felix Fritzl, and dragging him in as a stick with which to beat Room is more 'inappropriate' than the 'inappropriate lightness' Wood diagnoses in the novel -- after all he, not Donoghue, is the one who brought in the Fritzl case in the first place! I've a suggestion: let's leave Fritzl out of it for a moment.

Room is a beguiling, surprisingly varied (surprising because Donoghue has set herself so deliberately limited a box of props) and very readable novel; but it is not an attempt to get inside the head of Felix Fritzl. It is, on the contrary, an attempt to fictionalise the mental life of a normal child. That it uses the trope of lifelong imprisonment to do so is a bravura touch, but a fitting one too: because the life of the 5-year old takes place within small horizons. Donoghue captures that brilliantly.

To read it, of course, we have to accept one slightly awkward literary convention: Jack's eloquence. Donoghue points her narrator's five-year-old-ishness in various stylistic touches and neat primitivisms, but it's possible that the reader's ability to suspend disbelief will have its bumpers dented by a narrator who calls hours 'bits of day' and the Sun 'God's yellow face', yet who at other points accurately transcribes phrases like 'it's a polycarbonate mesh, unbreakable', or 'sometimes the moon is a semicircle, and sometimes a crescent', and 'Filipina Shemails' [86, 114, 309]. Five year olds don't speak, not even to report adult speech, so precisely. Sometimes the two registers collide:
My fingers are scuba divers. The soap falls in the water and I play it's a shark. Grandma comes in with a stripey thing on like underwear. [320]
...which invites us to believe that a lifetime watching telly has given Jack the words 'scuba diver' but not the words 'bathing costume'. Nevertheless, and in general, this is fine. It's a convention, and we take it as such; like the fact that Bertie Wooster is both one of England's biggest dim-duffers and somehow, miraculously, a man able to turn a phrase like Oscar Wilde's sharper, cleverer brother.

In general the tone of this novel is supremely well-handled: a warm, likeable, touching voice. What it understands about kids is the way their apprehension of space and personal relations is almost entirely uninterested in concepts of 'freedom', and much more interested in concepts of 'safety', that mutable quality. And, of course, in motherlove. The whole novel, indeed, has the feel of a fable, a beguiling innocency and potency that, for the first half at least, is completely compelling.

But the first part ends with a too-literal halfness at p.159 (the whole is 320 pages long). In the second portion Jack and his Mum are freed, and have to cope with life outdoors. This is much weaker, and unnecessarily extended, as if Donoghue couldn't bear to abandon her charming narratorial invention. The book ends with a visit back to the Room, now swaddled with police tape, in order for Jack to come to his preternaturally wise conclusion about the fall out of Eden, the loss of the womb: 'it's not Room if Door's open' [320]. Which is fair enough. And it's not that the second half completely loses the extraordinary focus and power built up in the first. But the novel is clearly under a compulsion to enact its own moral; and the book shifts from Fable to quasi-Realist narrative, losing its own kind of perfection in a metaphorical partuition and maturity. It's a shame, because the novel's open portion is really very good.

Plus, even with the falling away of part 2, it's a much better novel than Jacobson's The Finkler Question.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Tom McCarthy, C (2010)

C like an ear, or a satellite dish: receptacle for picking up the ambient wavelengths, audible frequencies and radiowaves. C for Carrefax, the protagonist: first name C-with-a-cedilla for Serge. C for the shape of wriggling silkworms, upon which the fortune of his French-extraction family's English estate is based. C for Caul, with which Serge is born (C for Copperfield, the provenance of this Dickensy trick) that prevents him from drowning in water, and later saves him from drowning in soil. C for ceremony. Then, part 2: C for Chute, and Serge's adventures as an observer in his First World War RFC airplane. C for Carbonisé, the burnt-up fate of many pilots. C for Captured-by-the-Germans. C, the winding shape of the various escape tunnels the POWs dig. Which leads to the novel's part 3, and C for Crash: postwar London, c-for-cocaine, wild parties, and c for car, driven under the influence at speed and smashed up. Finally part 4, C for Call, in C-for-Cairo, and Egyptian excavations of the past, which take Carrefax's adventures up to 1922. C for crypts. C for the 'clickety-clack of the reporters' Coronas' [305]. C for cyst, which becomes infected and finishes our hero off.

C for code. McCarthy's novel for the rather facile pleasures of decoding. The sudoko-style fun of filling out an allusion to Eliot's Waste Land here, to Joyce's Ulysses there, until the entire grid is chocka and we look and think: 'ah! Modernism!' McCarthy has talked about this, in interview ('the task for contemporary literature is to deal with the legacy of modernism. I'm not trying to be modernist, but to navigate the wreckage of that project'); and this novel, however stimulating it is -- and in places it is thrillingly so -- this novel is a fundamentally antiquarian exercise, like writing rhyming couplets in Chaucerian English about Pardoners. The moment of Modernism, even as shrapnel, does not have the contemporary penetration McCarthy seems to think it does. Put it this way: this is a novel about machines, and the best way to write about machines is not in the tradition of Marinetti, but in the tradition of Wells; which is to say, SF is better at doing this stuff than literary modernism. One eminent London University professor, author of an outstanding history of Science Fiction (his study that sees the genre as a C20th response to the cultural machinic) has claimed the novel for SF. I can see why: it stands as a perfect illustration of his thesis about the genre. But there is a fakeness about McC's Modernism -- not necessarily a bad thing, of course; but rather undermining. I didn't really believe it.

C for Cod-ernism.

C is an odd letter, pronounciation-wise, at least in English: ambiguous between 'K' and 'S': between on the one hand: Simeon (Serge's Dad), silk, sex, sister, suicide, static, swingers, seances, sonic smudges -- and on the other, knowledge. In one of the book's standout scenes, Serge's plane dogfights with what (we can deduce) is Ltnd R 'Fritz' Kempf's Fokker triplane, one of Baron von Richthofen's 'Flying Circus' Jagdgeschwader 1 planes: 'the lower wing has words painted across it, Serge can't make the words out, but he can see some of their letters, there's a K, an m, a c ...' [172] Only when his pilot is killed and his plane is tumbling out of the sky does Serge decode this:
One of the plane's wings snaps; the machine lists to the side as the landscape below it starts elevating. As the smoke clouds rises up to meet them, the Albatross looms once more into Serge's vision. It hvers above them, the one bright object in the darkened sky, the phrase written across its lower wing now finally legible. Painted in black, Gothic script on a red background, it reads:
Kennscht mi noch?
The phrase stays with him as the sky falls away. [173]
This means 'do you still remember me?' or 'do you ken me, still?' It comes back to Serge as he is about to be shot as a spy -- death, in other words, it is death that we try to forget, but which we always ken, that is never beyond our ken. And which constitutes Carrefax's last words:
[his] throat contracts three or four times in quick succession, making a repeated clicking sound, a set of quick-fire c-c-c-c's. It does this every time, with a strange regularity: "sssssss, c-c-c-c; sssssss, c-c-c-c; sssssss, c-c-c-c ..." [310]
This is an intermittently powerful piece of fiction. Some of the set pieces are very good indeed: several of the World War I scenes, the postwar seance, some of the Egyptian stuff at the end. And its overall vibe is C for Cool; intellectually wide-ranging and provoking, pretentious in the best way. But quite a lot of it is weak, and some of it is C for Crap. The early sections, for instance, seemed to me really quite c-for-clumsily handled. McCarthy's grasp of the architectonics of novel writing are rudimentary (he may feel that an overt committment to the formal experimentation of Modernism excuses him, of course). Two bigger problems, I thought. One is that the C-for-cypher element of the novel's title becomes, at 300+ pages, frankly tiresomely. See how annoying it is in this review? Imagine it extended throughout a whole novel. Carrefax likes to have sex with women from behind, with them curled over ... why this preference, except to literalise the C-curve of the novel's name?

The other bigger problem is that the book is not well written. People sometimes think that bad writing exists only on one axis: the Dan Brown scale of incompetence of expression (my favourite example of this is from Robert Ludlum: 'his eyes slid down her dress'. Imagine the sort of authorial imagination that could write such a sentence!) McCarthy, very clearly, doesn't write badly like that. Not at all. He writes badly like this:
Arriving back from flights, they [the pilots] stumble from their machines with the effects of acceleration and deceleration, of ungradated transit through modes of gravity alternatively positive and negative, sculpted into open mouths, sucked-in cheeks and swollen tongues that they present to the airfield's personnel for the next few hours. [161]
His style is ostentatiously sub-Pynchon; but it turns out that's a bow of Ulysses very very few writers can string.

My copy of the book carries a back-cover endorsement from the Observer: 'McCarthy is ... a master craftsman who is steering the contemporary novel towards exciting territories'. Steering it back to Wyndham Lewis, conceivably. I'm not sure that's the direction we should be going. This didn't seem to me a novel with any useful through-line. C for Cul-de-sac.

Still, in sum: this may be the best novel on the shortlist. For all its blots and longeurs, it's much better than Jacobson's Finkler Question.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (2010)


There are some interesting things going on in this novel, although not that many, and it struggles with one catastrophic problem.

I once heard Armando Iannucci interviewed on the radio, talking about stand-up comedy and related matters. He said that the most devastating heckle he ever heard wasn't in a comedy club, but at the birthday party of one of his kids. The adult Iannuccis had booked a childrens' entertainer, and as this person struggled to make the audience of severe-faced kids laugh, one of the 8-year olds stood at the back yelling 'you're not funny! you're not funny!' over and over. Iannucci said he'd never seen such a ruthlessly effective piece of rhetorical deflation. But (and this is my point): it was the voice of that kid that echoed round the chamber of my skull as I read Jacobson's novel.

Hard to see that this is the novel that merited the Booker. But there you go.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Hiatus

A month of inactivity on this blog, with all the usual too-too-busy excuses (sorry). I've been pondering whether to wrap things up here, or whether to press on, perfectly well aware, of course, that this is a question of interest to nobody but myself. On balance, I think I'll push on for a bit, at least through to Christmas, and see if anything worthwhile emerges. To kick off: I've been reading the Booker shortlist; and now that the winner has been announced my ruminations will be even more profitably untimely: this coming week will see a start of that. But I am conscious that Kenneth Williams' famous last words hang, spectrally, over this punkish diddling, as over most blogs still operational in this year of our bored, 2010.