Monday, 22 November 2010

Where The Wild Things Are

Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are is one of my holy books. I’m not alone in that, of course: it’s a widely adored picture book. But I can make a boast true of few Sendakophiles: I have rewritten Where The Wild Things Are, as a novel called New Model Army, very far removed from the original in terms of its manifest content, very much closer (perhaps too obviously so) in terms of its latent symbols and mood.

I haven’t seen the Spike Jonze movie version, although I probably will, at some point. But I have now read David Eggers novelisation. It’s not a bad novel, exactly (though neither is it a very good one), but it gets the original very wrong, I think; and more pressingly it gets the process of adapting the original wrong. What I mean by this latter observation is that it puts all its energy into the surface details of the picture book, and seems weirdly blind to the deeper currents of the text ... it maintains and elaborates, sometimes at pitifully diluted length, the manifest content of Sendak’s original, and misrepresents and distorts the latent elements. Since it’s the latent elements that give the book its extraordinary potency, this is little short of disastrous.

Of course, maybe I am saying nothing here. It could be that I’m talking not about Maurice Sendak’s original book, only the hybrid of it twined bindweedily around the stem of my imagination. Eggers is under no obligation to write a novel about my imagination, after all. And lots of the specifics of the novelisation are cannily worked out: Max is the son of a bitter single mother, and has an older sister who doesn’t want to play with him any more. The forest grows not in his room, but exists actually outside his house (he’s warned against entering). He runs away, into this forest, takes the boat from there, and ends up where the wild things are. The book calls them ‘infant-like, almost cute, and at the same time pathetic, tragic’, which isn’t how they strike me. But let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that. Anyway, the wild things themselves have a strange selection of names—strange, that is, for wild things (I suppose that’s Eggers’ point): Carol, a male, is the main figure, but there’s also Douglas and Catherine. There’s a lot of ‘I’ll eat you!’ running about. Max burns their forest down. They build a fort. Towards the end, to escape the wrath of Carol, Katherine does eat Max, and the lad is later cut from her stomach. Then he goes home.

Where The Wild Things Are is a boy’s book: it’s a book about the joys of playing rough, of consciously misbehaving, and being a beast. But much more potently than that, it’s a pure narrative distillation of Fort-Da. The boy’s mother stops his fun, and he casts her, metaphorically, over the side of his cot, via the brilliant expedient of generating a whole new imaginative world that doesn’t contain her. But of course the logic of Fort-Da is that he must, symbolically, spool the mother back in to him—or in this case draw in the real world of his room again.

Sendak’s original has so many beautiful and eloquent moments, and is so potently economical, I could spend many thousands of words talking about it. But I’ll limit myself to noting only a couple of things, because they strike me as illustrative of the way in which Eggers retread wholly misses the forcefulness of the source text. In Sendak, it’s the case that the land of the wild things is more immediate and vivid than reality -- look at the way he portrays Max’s initial mischief in tiny boxes of illustration surrounded by several inches of white margin, and the way the size of the picture grows along with the forest in his bedroom, until it fills the entire page. (That the final image of Max in his room, with the meal waiting for him still hot, also fills the page suggests to me that he has been somehow enriched by his sojourn in the Wild Things’ land). Watch what Sendak does with the moon in his illustrations. There’s nothing so nuanced in the expository blubber of Eggers’ prose.

But more fatally, Eggers wholly fluffs, or misses, the two crucial beats of the story. The first immediately follows the three-page Wild Rumpus (Eggers includes the Rumpus, although shifts its tenor from sheer jouissance to fright and chase). Then:
“Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. And Max the king of all the wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being kind of where the wild things are.
I never cry at books (I almost never cry at anything at all: my upper lip being so stiff) but there’s something in the piercing directness of that articulation, about Max wanting to be where someone loved him best of all, that makes my eyes hot with incipient tears. There’s nothing equivalent in Eggers novel; which is to say, the moment of loneliness is smeared and diluted and spread over the whole section.

Then there’s my favourite moment of all the original book. My 2-year-old’s fond of this bit too: I think it speaks (to him) of the awesome power he has recently discovered, and which he utilizes a great deal. The power of saying ‘no!’
But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go—
We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”
And Max said, “No!”
So he gets back in the boat and sails home. Look at the picture: Max is smiling. He’s happy. He understands that wildthingishness is not violence, or malevolence, or fear, or existential dread, or anything of the things Eggers talks about. It’s a purer joy. We’ll eat you up—we love you so! is so perfect a line: it captures both the extraordinarily edible quality of little kids, the way our (parental) love for them almost spills over into wanting to devour them, they’re so delicious. And it also captures the childish perspective too: where apprehending the world is most completely and immediately done orally, where eating is the most immediate sensual pleasure. Egger has nothing so brilliant in his account.
When he awoke he saw all of the beasts, all but Carol, before him. They had untied his boat and had prepared it to sail. Max rose from Katherines lap and stood, still feeling light-headed.

"So you're going," Douglas said ...

Max nodded.

Douglas extended his left hand. Max shook it.

"You were the best thinker we ever had," Douglas said.

Max tried to smile.

"I'm sorry for all this," Ira said quietly. "I blame myself."

Max hugged him. "Don't."

Judith and Max exchanged glances. She made a face that said Oops, sorry! then emitted a high nervous laugh. "I never know what to say in these situations," she said. [273]
To be clear: Eggers reads this superb, intense, poetic moment, almost the climax of Sendak's book, in terms of downbeat social awkwardness and embarrassment. Has he ever met a child? Has he ever been a child?

And Max said: NO.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Gilbert Adair, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd: An Entertainment (2006)

A butlerdiditastic exercise in literary pastiche. Very smart: ├╝bersmart, even, right down to the obnoxious anti-Semitism, casual sexism and class fossilisation of its 1930s period. Well played reveal at the end, clever on several levels. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

M J Engh, Arslan (1976)

Spanking new Gollancz SF Masterworks edition of this extraordinary novel, with an introduction by a Sacha-Baron-Cohenalike in a stars-and-stripes top hat called, er, me.

That is what I look like, mind. Pretty much. Samuel Delany is blurbed on the front, there, saying 'this is the best political novel I've read in more than a decade.' It is a potent, subtle, far-reaching, psychologically acute masterpiece. But it also starts with one of the most shocking scenes I can think of in modern fiction. The warlord Arslan, having spread out from his Turkic home to conquer the entire world, arrives in the mid-America small town of Kraftsville, Illinois. He makes his base in the local school, and having billetted and feasted his troops, he rounds the evening off by raping one schoolgirl and one schoolboy in front of the appreciative audience of his own soldiers. It's horrible, and meant to be, but you shouldn't be put off by it, because the novel germinates this shocking moment into one of the most thougthful, considered and far-reaching analyses of the logic of tyranny, freedom, love and parent-child relations in fiction.
I think the novel’s boldness is predicated upon an understanding that what makes the ruthless dictator weirdly admirable is a certain sort of authenticity. Being above the law is something dictators have in common with poets. They have the strength to break and remake notions of right and wrong in the service of winning free space for their own actions, the expression of their will. Of the three main characters in Engh’s novel, two compel our respect by virtue of their pragmatic, flexible yet inviolable refusal to compromise their principles: Arslan himself and Franklin Bond. (The third, Hunt Morgan, is a more complex case). One deep consonance in the novel is its decision to represent the logic of charismatic dictator via a focus on childhood, children and childishness. There is, for instance, something of the precocious, energetic child about Arslan, I think. Ian McEwan in his novel Saturday (2005) muses on the nature of dictators via the example of Saddam Hussein (still, when that novel came out, alive):
It’s only children, in fact, only infants who feel a wish and its fulfillment as one; perhaps this is what gives tyrants their childish air. They reach back for what they can’t have. When they meet frustration their man-slaying tantrum is never far away. Saddam, for example, doesn’t simply look like a heavy-jowled brute. He gives the impression of an overgrown, disappointed boy with a pudgy hangdog look, and dark eyes a little baffled by all that he still can’t ordain. Absolute power and its pleasures are just beyond reach and keep receding. He knows that another fawning general dispatched to the torture rooms, another bullet to the head of a relative won’t deliver the satisfaction it once did.
What I especially like about this quotation is the way it suggests that children are always being dragged unwillingly along in the wake of ‘growing up’ so that the instantaneous joy of desire/gratification is always receding further and further away from them—a loss they feel acutely, if incoherently. Hitler’s mad tantrums; Stalin’s ludicrous ego; these are meager substitutions for the original jouissance.

But rather than slot her novel into the easy groove of satirical caricature, Engh takes the more challenging and, ultimately, more rewarding approach of drawing Arslan as a fully rounded character. Arslan is a novel absolutely interpenetrated all the way through with a deep interrogation of ‘childishness’ and ‘adulthood’; with what is gained and lost in growing up, with questions of parental authority good and bad. We might say, and truly, that Arslan is a profoundly ‘grown-up’ novel; but that is not to say that it is a novel purged of childish intensities. Quite the reverse.
Read this book.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Alan Campbell, Scar Night. The Deepgate Codex, Volume 1 (2006)

Good stuff: this is a cleanly- (and sometimes even well-) written piece of fiction, ingenious and fast-paced. My right forefinger kept sliding under the bottom right hand corner of the page, lifting it, and turning it so that I could keep reading. But—but.

It’s a novel with all the Gothic trappings: scenes, characters, props, bloodletting, dark gods, nameless horrors. And as such, whilst I enjoyed it plenty, I couldn’t ignore the way it wholly failed to drag its tentacles of dread over the tender membrane of my imagination. I was never scared; never spooked; never, really, put in any position beyond ‘oh, I wonder what’s going to happen next?’

Campbell, the blurb boasts, came to writing from designing video games. He designs his world with a video-game-designers professionalism, care, detail and flatness. The city of Deepgate has hanged (not hung, whatever the novel says: meat is hung [after checking: nope, I'm wrong and the novel is right ... it's hung]) suspended by massive chains over a bottomless abyss for, with splendidly vague and windy periodicity, a hundred generations. In the abyss is a fallen god, Ulcis, worshipped by the citizens of Deepgate. The characters are manifold, and include Dill, a last-of-his-race winged human 'angel', sexy kick-ass female [yawn] assassin Rachel Hael, sinister priests, mad goddesses, various sorts.

There have been, I’m well aware, video games that aim for the spooky (Silent Hill, say). Yet I have never been spooked by a video game; and I wonder why that is—wonder, indeed, whether my reaction is unusual. It seems to me that the real skin-crawling eeriness of the uncanny depends upon a kind of existential passivity (to put it more precisely: upon an existential passion), an opening of oneself to the appalling strangeness of the Other. But gaming, on the contrary (and the pseudo-gamy, such as the hectic, onward-thrusting narrative of a novel like this one) depend upon a simulacrum of activity. Pushing the buttons, leaning one’s thumb on the joystick, levering the viewpoint onward, exploring, going-on, moving through. All of that is too kinetic for the cultivation of a genuinely creepiness. I could go on, and suggest that the unheimlich requires us to revisit the home in such a way as to understand its unhomeliness. A novel like this is not really interested in the return home. It’s all about the there, none of it is about the back again. Campbell introduces his gnarly, ingenious chained-over-the-abyss city in order that we might explore it, visualise it, get used to it—and once we’ve done that Campbell disposes of it, severing the chains and casting it into the depths. The story must shed it and move on.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Douglas Coupland, Player One. What Is To Become Of Us. A Novel in Five Hours (2010)

Reading this was an enjoyable experience. It passed the time, like doing a conceptual sudoko; but the pieces Coupland stitches together (seven characters in an airport hotel, five hours, lots of spooly meditation about the oddness of life and God and eternity and sex and death) results in a gossamer-thin quilt that will in no way keep you metaphorically warm during the metaphorical night.
Cue The Flaming Zeppelin.

Karen likes crossword puzzles because they make time pass quickly. Karen makes quilts and donates them to charity because she likes the way quilting slows down time. ... Karen is almost forty and had thought she'd never find anyone again, but now she's flying to meet the man she hopes will become her lover. She is sitting in an aluminum fuselage zipping eastward, eight kilometres above Lake Superior. She's a little too warm, so she undoes two buttons at the top of her dress, hoping that if anyone sees her they won't take it as a sign that she is a slut. Why she thinks, should I care if strangers think I'm a slut? But I do. Then she remembers that everyone has a camera these days, and any of thsoe cameras might photograph her. Oh, those cameras! Those little bright blue windows she always sees from her back-row seat in Casey's school auditorium, a jiggling sapphire matrix of memories that will, in all likelihood, never be viewed, because people who tape music recitals tape pretty much everything else, and there's not enough time in life to review even a fraction of those recorded memories. Kitchen drawers filled with abandoned memory cards. Unsharpened pencils. Notepads from realtors. Dental retainers. Everything we leave behind us as we move from room to room is a husk.
The novel's schtick is all in that opening section: a quantity of what amounts to observational novelistic stand-up (sit-down, I suppose) about modern life, a twist of pathos -- the characters are all, in small ways, losers, weirdos and freaks; not so freakish or weird as to alienate us, just enough to flatter our own sense of not-quite-fitting-in -- little intimations of transcendence, either via slightly heightened style, as with the 'jiggling sapphire matrix of memories', or else with the twitter-esque 'really deep thoughts' with which this novel is littered: 'When time is all used up, does it go to some kind of place like a junkyard?' 'Why is it that chickens don't taste like eggs?' 'Why is it that traffic lights are red and green but don't seem the least bit Christmassy?' 'Which is lonelier: to be single and lonely or to be lonely within a dead relationship? Is it totally pathetic to be single and lonely and jealous of somebody who is lonely within a dead relationship?' And so on.

Neat, and often smart, but too much like the jottings in Douglas Coupland's moleskine, or e-equivalent, as he sat around in the many airports he frequents in his busy international writerly life. 'Ever wonder why they sell flags and family coats of arms and KISS ME, I'M ITALIAN T-shirts in airports and tourist traps? Ever wonder why religious groups hang out there? Because a plane trip takes you away from all the things that made you comfortable. A plane-trip exposes you to situations and landscapes unthinkable until recent history, momoents of magnificence and banality that dissolve what itty-bitty molecules of individuality you possess.'

Or maybe not.

So, Karen meets her internet date, Warren, in an anonymous airport cocktail lounge. She spends the opening of the novel fretting about whether he'll be sleazy or not, whether they'll click or not. They don't click. The bartender, Rick, has his poignant backstory, his functioning-but-lonely life, his yearning for transcendence, his wry and pithy observations, just like every other Douglas Coupland character. Also present is Luke, a pastor who's at the airport because he's lost his faith and absconded with his church restoration fund, and he has his poignant backstory, his functioning-but-lonely life, his yearning for transcendence, his wry and pithy observations, just like every other Douglas Coupland character. Then there's Rachel, a significant misfire in terms of characterisation, with a quasi-autistic mental state that means she can't read nuance, metaphor, humour etc. etc., and yet who has a poignant backstory, a functioning-but-lonely life, a yearning for transcendence, and a capacity for wry and pithy observations, just like every other Douglas Coupland character.

Then the sciencefictiony bit happens, when peak oil arrives in a matter of minutes and the whole world goes through an extraordinarily accelerated breakdown. No more planes fly, there are explosions and riots, and a sniper on the roof shoots many people dead (including Warren) until a deadly chemical cloud drifts over the complex forcing him to take refuge inside. More characters get shot or die, but the survivors all pair off and live happily ever after. Finally we get a thirty page appendix, styled as a glossary, in which pretty much all the gags in the novel are taken out of context, repeated and given cumbersomely half-funny Douglas Adams names, thus:
Achronogeneteritroic Spaces
Nowhere/everywhere/timeless places such as airports.

Airport-induced Identity Dysphoria
Describes the extent to which modern travel strips the traveller of just enough sense of identity so as to create a need to purchase stickers and gift knick-knacks that bolster their sense of slightly eroded personhood: flags of the world, family crests.
And so, superfluously, on.

I didn't believe in Rachel for a minute, which is problematic since she gets a lot of page-time, and furthermore the twist in the novel [SPOILER] is that she is the titular player one, in the metafictional, inchoately rendered selfreflexive Second Life metaphor of the novel itself. I did believe in the other characters, I suppose, but didn't really care about them: conceivably, as per the previous sentence, I wasn't meant to. I read all 250 pages in a few hours; I can think of texts a tenth as long that have taken me considerably longer to read. I can certainly think of many short stories that have greater heft and potency, but maybe that's the point too.

When I picked it up, I assumed the 'A Novel in Five Hours' subtitle was a structural pointer, modelled on 'A Play In Five Acts.' Now that I've finished it I wonder if it isn't a smiple description of how long it took Coupland to write up this novel from his various notes and observations.
Trudging off the plane, Karen enjoys the status smorgasbord of jet deplaning: foil snack wrappers and Dan Brown paperbacks in coach class, copies of The Economist and The Atlantic abandoned in business class. ... And then, sailing past the luggage carousel holding only carry-on baggage, Karen felt the not unpleasant tinge of superiority. We envy those people who travel light, don't we?
Only up to a point, Doug.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

DBC Pierre, Lights Out in Wonderland (2010)

Weak. Vernon God Little, though a minor novel (and, we can be honest, giving it the Booker was a misfire by the judges) at least had a degree of gnarly, chewy energy to it. But Pierre's latest underwhelms like a midget limbo-dancer working in a specially excavated trench. The opening sentence:
There isn't a name for my situation. Firstly because I decided to kill myself. And then for this idea:

I don't have to do it immediately.
... leads with a leaden inevitability, via a string of glumly uninspired decadent set-pieces, to the last sentence:
There isn't a name for my situation. Firstly because I decided to live. And then for this idea:

I don't have to do it all immediately.
The no-shit-sherlockness of this doesn't feel earned, and seals the novel as a whole inside its own metaphorical binbag. There are occasional flashes of fire betwixt the bookends, but only occasional, and never very fiery. The narrator, twentysomething Gabriel Brockwell, leaves rehab to indulge in some pre-suicide hedonism, taking his coke-habit and his various cliches of sensibility to Japan and Berlin and the 'greatest bacchanal since the Fall of Rome’ which isn't very great. Decadence is so very last century that its literary representation can't rise too far from embarrassing.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Julia L. Sauer, Fog Magic (1943)

The rather striking cover image, there, is from the 1977 first UK edition of this charming children's novel, which is the one I picked up recently for (it gives me a warm glow to report) 10p. But the book was first published in the US in 1943. Its 106 pages of elegant, evocative prose tell of Greta, who loves fog -- says a neighbour: 'some kids are moon-struck,they say, and some are sun-struck ... maybe this one is fog struck' -- and lives on the coast of Nova Scotia where it is often foggy:
Greta was ten when she began to sense that she was looking for something within the fog. Until then it had only given her a happy feeling--just as the first snowflake delighted some of the other girls or boys, or the first fall winds that set the birch leaves blowing.
What she finds in the fog is the world as it was over a century before, where what are by daylight mere derelict cellar holes are entire houses. She interacts with the population, but on her twelfth birthday loses this ability to travel foggily through time. The novel, beautifully modulated and rather haunting, has something in common with Du Maurier's House on the Strand, although it antedates that book by a quarter of a century.

Since this novel is a time travel story, and one that, to judge by the endorsements, had some considerable contemporary reputation (it was a 1944 Newbery Medal 'Honor Book') I was surprised to discover that Sauer is not in Clute and Nicholls. Perhaps the third edition will remedy this omission.