Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End (2006)

No apostrophe in the title, you note: I don't doubt this will be a Finnegans-Wake-y trip-up point for sloppy future bibliographers.

So, this is an exercise in near-future idea-popping, filled with cool notions as to how contemporary technologies are likely to get extrapolated over the coming decades: internetted contact lenses, augmented reality, belief circles and the like. The novel employs a Wellsian ‘Sleeper Wakes’ conceit (noted 20th-century poet, Bob Wu is cured of the Alzheimers that had had him in a coma and rejuvenated) which enables Vinge to give us an Estate Agent's tour (or, since this is a US title, a Realtor’s tour) of his future through Bob’s eyes. And it's often interesting, this tour; although not really enough in-and-of-itself to hold our attention. So, alright: Vinge also provides us with a thriller strand: a dastardly plot to exploit ubiquitous Digital Age connectivity and der!-der!-DERR! Control! People’s! Minds!—which our hero tackles, helped by his thirteen-year-old granddaughter Miri and a would-be industrial spy/hacker/dude who only appears in the novel in the form of a white rabbit avatar. All fair enough. Although hip 21st-C youngsters are plugged into unimaginable reservoirs of info data, they don’t read books, and this is a Bad Thing. I can't argue with that. But, then, I'm 45. Indeed, whilst the novel does have a strenuously forward-looking ethos it can’t quite free itself of a certain Dad Dancing At The School Disco ("Vernor Vinge, b. 1944") quality. Vinge dedicates the novel to eBay, for instance, which is a bit wincing. At one point Bob loses his rag because Miri refers to Ezra Pound as ‘she’ (there’s a John Boyd novel—is it Last Starship From Earth?—which has a similar moment of outrage at somebody's gender-ignorance re: Rainer Maria Rilke). And whilst lots and lots of cool ideas and moments are, I suppose, a good thing in a novel, the tech stuff is frequently a little over-busy, and the thriller plot never quite picks up momentum to compensate for that, which makes the overall reading a bit of a plod. For example, often the prose is cluttered, ashen corporatese of this stripe:
Even on a slow day, thousands of certificates got revoked every hour. It was a messy process, but a necessary consequence of frauds detected, court orders executed and credit denied. All but a handful of revocations were short cascades of denied transactions, involving a single individual and his/her immediate certificate authority, or a small company and its CA. ... no apex certificate authority had ever issued global revocations. And Credit Suisse was one of the ten largest CAs in the world. Most of its business was in Europe, but its certificates bound webs of unmeasured complexity all over the planet, affecting the interactions of people who might speak no European language.
Too much of this (and there is too much of this: that passage continues ‘... failures spread as timeouts on certificates from intermediate CAs and—where time-critical trust was involved—as direct notifications ... so far there were only small failures as UCSD ...’) glues-up the machinery of the novel. Much better are the character dynamics, grouchy and real-feeling, with a solid sense of (especially) the emotional complexities of schoolyard interaction. Not the best novel published in 2006 (though the Hugo voters thought it was), but not bad.

I'm interested as to where we are now, with this novel (by 'we' I mean 'science fiction fandom'). 5 years is a long time in politics SF. Is this novel acclaimed as a modern classic? Is it still in circulation, being discussed and cited, reprinted and sold and so on? Or has it faded a little, such that now it looks like minor Vinge compared to the splendours of Fire Upon The Deep and Deepness On In The Sky? (Of course, the fact that I'm blogging it now might suggest the former state of affairs obtains).

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Kelly Asbury, Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

At the risk of this blog filling up with nothing except Kids Films I Took My Daughter To, I'll note Gnomeo and Juliet: much better than I was expecting (aha!), often genuinely funny, and in the character of the pink flamingo quite touching too, although in a slightly sub-Jessie's-Song way. What I particularly liked was the way the film interacted with Shakespeare. It's a proper version of Romeo and Juliet; lots of Shakespeare in-gags and an appearance by Shakespeare himself. This latter is the filmmakers' solution to the problem of the ending. They eschew tragedy explicitly, onscreen and with some panache. In some senses this is a shame, of course; but I very much liked the way the film engaged with the long tradition of rewriting Shakespearian tragedy with happy endings: a fascinating and significant cultural phenomenon in its own right.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Nathan Greno, Byron Howard, Tangled (2011)

I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to seeing Tangled; but in the event I found it to be really surprisingly enjoyable—as sprightly, witty and absorbing a picture as Disney have done in a while. Lots of nice touches, good character work, genuinely funny moments, and a good overall feel for the build and momentum of the narrative. Charming, in a word. It’s the most expensive animated film ever made ($260 million, apparently), but has done very well: behind only Aladdin and Lion King in animated gross.

But—but. Walking back with Lily from the cinema, I reflected that the last Disney non-computer animation I’d taken her to see had been The Frog Princess. And that made me think: Tangled may be the Whitest Disney feature the studio has ever produced. Not only are the hero and heroine hyperbolically Aryan, there wasn’t a person-of-colour to be seen anywhere, at any time, in any role. Not so much as a crow, or a talking donkey. (Jesus, even the horse is brilliant white.) As if, on some level, Disney had collectively decided ‘we’ve done the Black thing with The Frog Princess; we don’t need to worry about that any more.’ To which we might reply, ‘hold on a second ...’

Then there’s the nonspecifically medievalised mitteleuropan setting. My friend Robert Eaglestone, who also has children to take to the cinema, was struck by the character of the evil ‘mother’ character. In a word, he thought the movie figured her as Jewish.

I can certainly see it: to quote Bob: ‘apart from Jewish speech patterns, already, looks + cod psychoanalysis ("so now I'm the bad guy", "just teasing"), using a Christian child as a resource for your own occult ritual is, of course, the blood libel.’ I wonder if there’s not something very dodgy going on here, beneath the sunny, charming surface of this film.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Finkler Revisited

I reviewed Jacobson's 2010 Booker Prize winning novel shortly after it won; although not at any length. It deserves a second, more considered review. So:
'He should have seen it coming. His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one...' Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular former BBC radio producer, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite a prickly relationship and very different lives, they've never quite lost touch with each other - or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a Czech always more concerned with the wider world than with exam results. Now, both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, and with Treslove, his chequered and unsuccessful record with women rendering him an honorary third widower, they dine at Libor's grand, central London apartment. It's a sweetly painful evening of reminiscence in which all three remove themselves to a time before they had loved and lost; a time before they had fathered children, before the devastation of separations, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. Better, perhaps, to go through life without knowing happiness at all because that way you have less to mourn? Treslove finds he has tears enough for the unbearable sadness of both his friends' losses. And it's that very evening, at exactly 11:30 pm, as Treslove, walking home, hesitates a moment outside the window of the oldest violin dealer in the country, that he is attacked. And after this, his whole sense of who and what he is will slowly and ineluctably change.
Well. It's a novel that rehearses questions of Jewishness and identity, sometimes to interesting effect. And only a man with a heart as hard as Pharoah would deny that the ending is movingly handled. But there’s the whiff of cheat about this, too: it’s a Little Nell strategy. Introduce a warm, wise, elderly character, who has lived all his life devoted to his wife. Have the wife die, so that he is heartbroken. Have him carry on, with dignity in his grief, for a while, until various other circumstances overwhelm him and he commits suicide. Who but a monster could hold back tears?

On the other hand -- well, there’s bound to be a Wildean reaction after the death of little Nell. It’s not nice to feel manipulated. And, in retrospect, I wasn’t sure I quite believed Libor. In part this has to do with the whole milieu of the novel: nobody has a real job, everybody has lots of money. Libor comes to the country so poor he has to work as a schoolteacher; later he works as a jobbing journalist—yet he still ends up in a large apartment right in the middle of London, hard by Regent’s Park. The novel makes great play with the fact that Treslove claims to live in Hampstead although he doesn’t quite live in Hampstead. But wherever he lives, Hampstead or hard by, it’s an insanely expensive neck of the woods—rock stars and bankers live in Hampstead, and slightly less successful rock stars and accountants live hard by. Not people who work as celebrity lookalikes. People who work as celebrity lookalikes live in Stoke Newington, or Tooting. Not in Hampstead. And people who work as celebrity lookalikes whilst paying maintenance to not-one-but-two divorced wives and attendant offspring would be lucky to have enough money left over to live on the cheap side of Hull.

Finkler himself works in ‘the media’, and so we can swallow the thought that he earns silly money. But Finkler’s characterisation is not complex. He is a shallow, egotistical, energetic man, the sort of man who booms with hollow mirthless laughter in restaurants when he thinks he ought to, and who reads everything in terms of me-me-me. That’s fine; there are such people (of course) in the world. But it’s not hard to do, technically, for a writer. There’s a little more, if only a very little, to Treslove: but here you see Jacobson’s workings, as it were. Treslove fixates on Jewishness, and Jacobson backstories his fascination by portraying him as erotically invested in a sort of romanticised victim status. His egotistical pity means that his love life has been falling in love with various individual women who strike him as victims. In the novel he takes 'Jewishness' as a kind of victim phylum. As an explanation for Gentile philosemitism—again, another very real phenomenon, as I have good personal cause to know—this struck me as one-dimensional.

SF types sometimes denigrate (and caricature) ‘the mainstream novel’ as being about nothing more than middle class people committing adultery in Hampstead. It’s not a very accurate caricature, actually; for although mainstream novels may or may not be pitifully limited creatures, when compared to the infinite possibilities of time and space available to genre, few writers today would write anything so old-fashioned as that. Except that—no, The Finkler Question is literally about middle class people committing adultery in Hampstead. It is one of the most creakingly old-fashioned novel-length pieces of work I have read since ... since the time when old-fashioned was actually new.

But that’s not my main problem here. The main problem, then, with this novel is that it is an unfunny comic novel. That’s a pretty major problem, as it goes: in the house of the comic novel, funny is a load-bearing wall. Funny, of course, is also subjective; but only up to a point.

How is it unfunny? Well, it’s unfunny in several ways. Its central conceit is unfunny; its characters, situations and set-pieces are unfunny; its style is unfunny; its gags are unfunny. Most of all, its timing is off:
Libor, more than three times their age when they met him, had turned up out of the blue—he really did look, in his maroon velvet suit and matching bow tie, as though he’d pushed open the wrong door, like Treslove in his dreams—to teach them European history, though mainly what he wanted to talk to them about was communist oppression ... and the part played by windows in Czech history. Julian Tresolve thought he has said ‘widows’ and became agitated.

‘Widows in Czech history, sir?’

‘Windows, chlapec, windows!’ [19]
I’ve been trying to think of a less funny gag than the widows/windows misunderstanding; but time is getting on and I have a blogpost to write. It’s not just that Jacobson fluffs his punchlines; it’s that his whole feel is off. The ‘maroon velvet suit and matching bow tie’ reads like Jacobson’s version of the least funny bit in Shakespeare’s comedies (which is, of course, saying something): Malvolio’s cross-gartered yellow stockings. Libor is a humane and wise fellow, and no Malvolio, of course, but as a way in showing that a writer lacks funny bones, this could hardly be bettered.

Quite often Jacobson’s lines have the shape of jokes, without any actual comic content. Finkler is accosted by the (drunk) son of his friend: ‘“Uncle Sam, tell me ... what’s all this Jew shit?” Slurred Jew shit came out sounding more like Jesuit, a word which Alfredo would not have known even when sober.’ [219] Oh, my aching sides.

The set-pieces are similarly lame, comedically speaking, and have the added disadvantage of having a clapped-out belatedness that borders on plagiary. A running joke is that gentile Treslove falls for women with ‘Jew’ secretly buried in their names (Judith, Julie, Juno and so on). So obsessed is he, subconsciously, that when he is mugged (by a women) he hears ‘you Ju—’ He tells his friend Finkler, who makes a joke of it. Or, to be precise, he makes a ‘joke’ of it.
‘Do you know anyone called Juno?’ Treslove asked.

‘J’you know Juno?’ Finkler replied, making inexplicable J noises between his teeth.

Tresolve didn’t get it. [16]
This is lifted from Woody Allen, of course (Alvie Singer in Annie Hall). It was funny when Allen did it. It’s less funny here, and Jacobson moves efficiently towards making it even less funny by flogging it to death.
‘J’you know Juno? Is that what you’re asking me?’

Treslove still didn’t get it. So Finkler wrote it down. D’Jew know Jewno?

Treslove shrugged. ‘Is that supposed to be funny?’

‘It is to me,’ said Finkler. ‘But please yourself.’ [16-17]
Jacobson’s timing, as here, is much more often off than on. In a scene in the middle of the novel, Finkler is invited onto Desert Island Discs. He gets his friends to help him put together a list of discs (he himself hates music) that will present him to the world in a good light. This, of course, is lifted from Stoppard’s The Real Thing, where it is handled much more deftly and amusingly. I read on almost expecting Jacobson at any minute to start saying, saying, saying that his dog has no fucking nose.
He remembered his friend running off a list of all the fraught women he had fallen for. They sounded like the string section of a women’s orchestra. [230]
This, again, has the shape of a joke without any comic content; but there’s more, for Jacobson can’t let a punchline alone—that second sentence there is actually ‘they sounded like the string section of a women’s orchestra, or rather an orchestra that had nothing but a string section in it.’ He repeatedly dilutes the effectiveness of his punchlines like that; and, indeed, the novel is full of evidence of somebody unable finally to let go of what he is writing—unable to snap the lid briskly down on narrative, characterisation, pro-and-contra argumentation. It all goes on a beat too long.

There are also odd touches of evasiveness in the way the novel relates to real life. Alexei Sayle pops up in the novel as ‘Ivo Cohen’ (‘a short round man ... his stage act belonged to the genre known as Marxist slapstick’, 140), and Jacqueline Rose has a cameo as ‘Leonie Leapmann’ (‘a literary theorist’ -- there’s a touch of Lisa Jardine about her too... her cropped flaming red hair, 167). In both cases, I suppose, we accept this is a venerable literary convention: not that The Finkler Question is a roman-a-clef, exactly, but that its relationship to reality is central to its effectiveness. The novel cannot escape engaging with actual reality in the larger sense—the Israel-Palestine problem, most directly. Late in the novel when Libor has lunch with an old-flame called Emmy. Libor claims ‘I have discovered in myself a profound necessity to think ill of my fellow Jews.’
‘I can’t go on making these allowances. I can’t go on telling myself that that American swindler who has just been put in jail to serve a hundred life sentences is only coincidentally Jewish, or that bad-faced business Jew we see on television who brags about his money and the ruthlessness of his pursuit of it—I can’t convince me, let alone others, that it is only by chance that such men resemble every archetype of Jewish evil that Christian or Muslim history has thrown up.’ [214]
Bringing Bernie Madoff and Alan Sugar specifically into the discussion but refusing actually to name them seems oddly mealymouthed; indeed since part the point of this exchange is to have a character articulate a ‘let’s not pussyfoot around this any more’ attitude, it seems more than that: a failure of nerve. If you’re going to call Alan Sugar ‘that bad-faced business Jew’ in a book, we might think you should at least do it (as it were) to his face. But even as she essays a refutation, Emmy evades the name:
‘The bad-faced business Jew you refer to, assuming I know who you mean—and it doesn’t matter because, yes, of course, I know the type—is not the hate figure to Gentiles that he is to you. Some like him, some admire him, some don’t bother their heads about him one way or another. You might be surprised to learn how few people see the archetypal Jew every time they see him. Or even know that he’s a Jew. Or care.’ [214-15]
The football hooligans who sprayed anti-Semitic graffiti at White Hart Lane when Sugar took over Spurs certainly knew he was Jewish (though several of them spelled his surname ‘Suger’). But my point is that evasiveness is precisely the currency of one mode of public British anti-Semitism, and it ill serves the novel here to collude in that. To pick two examples from UK politics: Anne Widdecombe opined that ‘there is something of the night’ about Michael Howard, during his tenure as Leader of the Conservative Party, and Peter Mandelson acquired the nickname amongst gentiles ‘the Prince of Darkness.’ I'd say that neither sentiment was explicitly anti-Semitic, yet both statements exist within a lengthy context of anti-Semitic insinuation.

This agit prop aspect of the novel reaches a kind of mini-climax at the performance of a play called Children of Abraham—a considerably distorted parodic version of Caryl Churchill’s celebrated, or notorious, play Seven Jewish Children (2009), about the Israeli occupation of Gaza:
The final scene was a well-staged tableau of destruction, all smoke and rattling metal sheets, and Wagnerian music, to which the Chosen People danced like slow-motion devils, baying and halooing, bathing their hands and feet in the blood that oozed like ketchup from the corpses of their victims, a fair number of whom were children. [250]
Jacobson was one of Seven Jewish Children's most outspoken critics. Here, for instance, is an article he wrote for the Independent [18 Feb 2009] denouncing it. And here is Jacqueline Rose's angry response to Jacobson in the Guardian. Jacobson wasn't pleased by Rose's column. Nor was Rose pleased by his reply. To read through that exchange is to see the extent to which Jacobson is using his novel to recreate a version of Seven Jewish Children to which his angry criticisms apply much more straightforwardly than is the case with Churchill's actual, much more nuanced and subtle drama. This, we might think, borders on the special-pleading, not to say the dishonest. But it is characteristic of the novel's awkward relationship to reality.

Also, the ‘Jewish Museum’ Hepshibah is setting up, and in which Treslove gets involved. It is to open, we assume in 2010; and already it is in trouble—antisemitic graffiti, bacon wrapped around the doorhandles and so on. But here’s the thing: the actual Jewish Museum in London (formerly in Woburn Place, later moved to larger premises in Camden) was founded in 1932, a time in which general European hostility to Jewry, on the Continent but also over here, was, shall we say, more acute and focussed than is the case today.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

C H Sisson, Christopher Homm (1965)

Sisson, though of course better known for his newsreading poetry, did write one novel. It's the lifestory of the titular Christopher, an ordinary working class Bristol man; all written in an over-fruity, ever-so-slightly-self-consciously 'I'm a poet really' prose -- although there's plenty of striking phrase-making, and some of the longer passages are pretty powerful. But I read it, and note it here, as part of a larger project of mine: clocking titles, and in this case, authors, omitted from Clute and Nicholls (and, as soon will be, '& Langford'). It's only the extraordinary comprehensiveness of this reference work that makes the game worth playing, of course: missed titles are hen's-teeth-like. But this is one, I think: because Sisson, though not usually associated with science fiction, has here written a novel that falls broadly within the purview of genre. That's because he tells his story backwards, starting with Homm's death ('He was a pattern of amiability when he fell flat on the gravel. The drop on his nose rolled off and became a ball of dust, but he did not move again and his subsequent history was only a funeral', 7) and ending with him inside his mother's womb ('Christopher crouched in his blindness. He was about to set out on the road to Torrington Street, and if he had known how bitter the journey was he would not have come', 239). It's well realised, this conceit. Although the reverse-timeliness is only a narrative feature (his life is lived forward: which is to say, it anticipates Amis's Time's Arrow rather than Dick's superior Counter-Clock World), Sisson manages some effective structural dislocations. Overall, this novel is a minor but rather interesting nugget of literary obscurity.

I'd suggest this is the first reverse-time novel. I can't think of an earlier example, certainly.

The epigraph is from Augustine's Retractationes: 'pristina stabilitas hactenus accipienda est, quatenus aegritudinem ita nullam corpora illa patientur, sicut nec ista pati possent ante peccatum.' Augie's speculating on what the human body will be like after it has been resurrected by God at the end of time: 'their former integrity will be preserved, to the extent that they will be incapable of suffering distress or decay, just as bodies were before the sin of Adam.' This gives a pointer to the meditatively Christian uses to which Sisson puts his reverse-time conceit. 'Christopher', you see. 'Homm', you see.