Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London (2011)


Very good. Really very good—easy to see why this has become a bestseller. What we have here is a sort of modern-day Jonathan Strange and Police Procedural. The narrator, Peter Grant, is an ordinary copper in contemporary London who becomes involved in the investigation of a murder outside St Paul’s: some poor geezer having had his head knocked clean from his shoulders. This in turn brings him into contact with a hidden world of magic, supernatural beings, vampires, revenants and other such in-the-night bump goers. He is transferred to a semi-official and rather endearingly amateur ‘magic’ branch of the Met, and becomes the apprentice of a wizard-policeman called Nightingale. The story is well-told but the real triumph here is one of tone: Aaronovitch creates a genuinely likeable voice for Grant, and the whole book is carried off with tremendous charm. I mean that word in a more than flippant sense; charm is more than niceness (charms are the currency of magic, after all).  It cannot be faked, and it cannot be taught at creative writing school. But it makes a story glide very agreeably along.

The book also works as an entertaining gazetteer of London, a city Aaronovitch groks, in a way that—to pick a name at random from my London hat—Peter Ackroyd, doesn’t quite. Aaronovitch knows the topography and lore, gets the multicultural vibe and glamour and friction right, and captures the scuzzy along with the magical very neatly. In particular the rivers are important—not just the Thames but the various tributaries, now mostly bricked over. I liked the fact that, at one point, Grant drives his cribbed-from-Morse jag over Staines Bridge. I wrote a novel a couple years ago in which Staines Bridge gets blown up. And, actually, if you've got a moment: I’d like to take this opportunity to agitate for a new literary movement in Fantastic Literature, after the manner of the New Weird or the Mundane, to be called ‘Staines Bridgers’. The manifesto would require novels to make some mention of Staines. And /or to have a title that can be sung to an XTC track—I found myself humming Rivers of London to the tune of ‘Towers of London’, and it works quite well. Beyond that, the details of the Manifesto have yet to be, er, worked out.

Not to get distracted.

Anyway, my purpose here is not to review Rivers of London (beyond saying: really very good, read it), so much as to shoot off at an angle and think about Fantasy more generally. Charlene Harris is quoted on the back of the dustjacket praising Aaronovitch’s book as ‘fresh and original’, which it isn’t, really (isn’t trying to be, really—it’s an expert midrash upon a venerable body of magic-intersects-reality fictions that re-imagine London: Dickens, Carter, Gaiman, Mièville, Harry Potter, Susan Clarke et al. This is a feature rather than a bug, and Aaronovitch handles his intertexts cannily, often wittily and adds depth and texture to his writing through them). In particular, and despite wearing the coat of a police-procedural/crimey/murder-investigation plot, Rivers of London shares one quality with fantasy that we do not find in noir. I’m going to call this quality amplitude. Here’s how Aaronovitch opens his novel:
It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the West Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden. Martin, who was none too sober himself, at first thought the body was that of one of the many celebrants who had chosen the Piazza as a convenient outdoor toilet and dormitory. Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the ‘London once-over’—a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-Samaritanism in London is considered an extreme sport—like base-jumping or crocodile-wrestling. Martin, noting the good-quality coat and shoes, had just pegged the body as a drunk when he noticed that it was in fact missing its head.
This is how Chandler or Hammet would have written this opening:
Martin Turner, noting the good-quality coat and shoes, had just clocked the body as a drunk when he saw it was missing its head.
This isn’t a better way of starting a novel, naturally, except in the general horses-for-courses sense that applies to all writing everywhere. But it would be a mistake to think that Aaronovitch writes 150 words instead of 25 because he has more specific detail to communicate to the reader. The point is not in the content; it is in the tone—the voice of the novel. It is a voice that sets its face against terseness and reticence in favour of a generous discursive expansiveness.

This isn't to say that I'd describe Aaronivitch’s treatment of his murder mystery as ‘leisurely’: there’s plenty going on, and the novel rarely feels flaggy or slack (I might have done with a little less of the sub-Harry-Potter ‘learning magical spells’ stuff, but I’m a grump). Rivers of London isn’t trying to do the hard-boiled thing. On the contrary, it is trying, and succeeding, to flesh-out a world in which mundanity is underlaid by magic, with plenty of detail and atmosphere and tone and not a little humour too.  Indeed, we lose sight of the initial murder for quite long stretches. In fact—I wonder if this is linked to the thought that there are a great many brilliant SF short stories and hardly any Fantasy short stories worth mentioning—this amplitude is precisely what many readers of Fantasy go to their chosen genre for in the first place.

It goes without saying that this amplitude can easily become bloat. But my point is that we may go astray if we single out (for example) the latest Robin Hobb or Branden Sandandersenbrand novel and say ‘there’s a fit, lean 250-page novel hidden somewhere inside this flabby 1000-page monster’. Critics certainly do this; on occasion I’ve even done it myself. But perhaps it is missing the point. Not everybody considers ‘size zero’ to be an aesthetic ideal, after all.

I really am moving away from Aaronovitch when I say this: his novel is a trim 400 pages and has a lot going on. Rather, I’m trying to put my finger on something critics of the novel, content-obsessed as they often are, sometimes miss—and arguably critics of SFF titles are more likely than not to fixate on the manifest content of a title and to ignore the form, style, voice and the like. So, to step away from genre for a moment. You see, I was chatting with a writer friend of mine recently about the case of Sir Walter Scott.

Here’s the thing with Scott: he was, in the nineteenth-century, bigger than you can imagine. Everybody read him. Many people read his (very ample) complete works right through, from start to finish, every year (Henry Crabb Robinson talks about the pleasure of maintaining a sort-of on-rolling Scott read, of closing the last page of his last published novel knowing that he could now open the first page of Waverley yet again). Scott was the first international mega-celebrity of letters, rivalled only by Byron (whom he outsold, and outlasted). Aha, but nowadays who reads him? It’s hard enough getting English literature students, people who have specifically chosen to read books, to trudge through Waverley, never mind the rest of the Scotty oeuvre. The problem is that he is prolix.  Things do happen in Scott’s fiction, and some very interesting questions of history and politics, of identity and modernity and fantasy, are worked through in complex ways. But the ratio of ‘things happening’ to ‘great wodges of prosy prose’ is weighted, for modern tastes, disadvantageously on the latter side of the scale. As a result, Scott has gone from being the most famous novelist in the world to (outside academia) almost total desuetude.

The trick to understanding the prodigious success of Scott in the 19th-century is the realisation that he was popular not despite being so prosy, but because of it. You don’t read Scott’s prose for its sharpness, for its quotable zingers or apothegmic wisdom. Opening the covers of a Waverley novel and starting to read is, or ought to be, like sinking into a warm bath. It is the very amplitude of Scott’s art that explains its success. One of the striking things about Scott’s career is that he had a significant stroke in later life, yet continued writing—great screedy novels like Castle Dangerous (1831) and Count Robert of Paris (1832) which read like regular Scott novels with all the actual stuff-happening taken out. Nobody seemed to mind. As if Scott didn’t really need a fully functioning brain to produce the sort of verbal art that made his name.

My point, I suppose, is that although Scott himself has fallen from favour, the taste for amplitude in our verbal art hasn’t. Many readers don’t want their fiction to work as a brisk, cold shower. Many really want to sink into that warm bath.

[PS: I don't want to give the impression I'm doing Scott down, by the way. You might want to glance at this, Chesterton-quoting post and consider whether you don't agree with me that the brief exchange between Sir Arthur Wardour and the beggar from Scott's Antiquary isn't one of the greatest things written in the C19th-century]

15 comments:

Ruzz said...

Have ordered this - will hold you accountable. (I have been reading the Mike Carey exorcist as detective books in order to get me over the stress of moving job to a strange town - oh the joys of academic life - and enjoyed them. So I avoided the Aaronovitch on the basis that it was the same sort of thing. But you've convinced me.)

Also re-reading many old Dozois "Best of" anthologies and read "Hair" which I greatly enjoyed. I have no idea how you manage to do multiple blogs, academic writing, SF and everything else. Very envious. No wonder you like Burgess.

Guy said...

Damn you Roberts, another extremely fine piece. I growl, yes, GROWL with envy.

Nick Smale said...

Back in the early nineties, as an avid reader of Doctor Who tie-ins, I was always delighted when a new Ben Aaronovitch came out. His stuff had the best ideas and the best writing, he tied the Who format into the funkiest shapes. While most of the books read like novelisations of imagined TV serials, Aaronovitch was more literary. He would drop the Doctor into a William Gibson novel, or put him up against a thinly disguised version of Iain Bank's Culture.

And then he disappeared. Other DW tie-in writers went on to great things - Paul Cornell became a force in comics, Gareth Roberts wrote for TV, Russell T Davies, well... - but Aaronovitch seemed to fall silent.

So I'm so happy to see him back. And popular. It's like a little vindication of my one time obsession with that little corner of the SF world...

Adam Roberts said...

It's very readable; I think you'll enjoy it. As for being prolific, well, to paraphrase H G Wells (I think it was) -- I'm an indolent man. I'm sitting down anyway. I might as well write something.

Guy: I like to hear you growl. A low tiger-like purr. It suits you.

Adam Roberts said...

Nick: no second acts in American lives. Luckily, Londoners follow different rules.

Paul McAuley said...

Nice point re: amplitude & fantasy. Don't think it's built into the genre's genes, but is a more modern phenomenon. There once were plenty of great fantasy short stories being written by Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Gene Wolfe, Fritz Leiber, Avram Davidson and so on. Now, not so much.

Adam Roberts said...

I've read short fiction by four out of those five, and very good it is too. But has Fantasy short fiction ever really resonated, more broadly, the way SF short fiction has? What are the Fantasy short equivalents to 'Nightfall' or 'The 9 Billion Names of God'?

Paul McAuley said...

Resonant fantasy short stories? Oh, almost any one of Grimms' Fairy Tales (or anything from from Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber), Hans Christian Anderson's 'The Little Mermaid', Wilde's 'The Selfish Giant', Hawthorne's 'An Occurence at Owl Creek', Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher', Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, Le Guin's 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas', Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery'...

jane said...

Or pretty much any Shirley Jackson story (although Lottery does stick in the mind!).

Will have to try and get a copy of above book. As I read too fast, it is a pleasure to find something I can get my teeth into.

But then, I have read a few of Scott's novels - Ivanhoe, the Red Pirate, the Heart of Midlothian - and am not an academic.

Adam Roberts said...

Paul, Jane: fair points, although I'm not sure that's quite the argument I was making. Setting fairy tales aside for a moment (a big set-aside, I grant you) -- the point isn't that Le Guin and Shirley Jackson and others don't write great stories. They do write great stories. But I don't think any individual 'Fantasy' short dominates the cultura landscape in the way '9 Billion Names' or 'Nightfall' does with SF.

Jane: bravo on reading Scott! Still, when in Scotland ...

regenklang said...

was very glad to stumble across this chap - the second book is a little better overall, I felt, and builds promisingly on the first in terms of world building, team assembly, etc etc. And the third one's out soon! Good times. Both his tone and the speed at which he's getting these done remind me of Pratchett, and just when that longserving guard needed changing, too...

I'd better read Nightfall and 9 Billion Names, hadn't I really.

regenklang said...

...and of course as soon as I say this, the third book gets put back to next March. My bad.

Ruzz said...

Interesting - I enjoyed the first two books and will certainly buy the third - so I'm grateful for the reference - but I wasn't blown away by them. In part I found the London material a bit "infodump-ish" at points, and I found the police procedural a bit at odds with my own experience of that world. But a good steer nonetheless, even if I wasn't quite as blown away by the sense of amplitude as you. I think I still prefer the Mike Carey series, although admittedly this has got better and more complex as it has progressed and I don't think it would be described as having "amplitude" ...

Tulkinghorn said...

Readers in the US will find that this book, bafflingly enough, is a paperback original entitled "Midnight Riot".

Took me half an hour to figure that out... Slow.

David Moles said...

On a two-month-late side note: I just Gutenberged up the full text of that Scott passage. The complete exchange is even better. And yet I can't help but feel Scott had a shot at one of the greatest scenes in the English language, if he'd just left them on that rock to drown; but he and Sir Arthur's melodramatic never-say-die daughter had to spoil it.