Thursday, 29 September 2011

'twice blest'

The Quality Of Mercy 
by Barry Unsworth

I seem to be losing my taste for historical fiction. I loved reading Unsworth's weighty Booker winner Sacred Hunger, got gleefully lost in its descriptions of seafaring, its debates around the issue of slavery and its panoply of characters. But I'll be upfront and say that with each book I read I find that the research and detail of historical fiction feels like the decoration of a historical building. It may be interesting, it may be pretty but it doesn't really mean anything to me beyond that; I want to get to the meat. I'm saying all of this now because it explains why I wasn't able to really click with this book which is more than just fine, a worthy sequel to Sacred Hunger, but hard for me to get truly excited about.

For those who need reminding (like I did) or those who haven't read it, Sacred Hunger followed two cousins; Erasmus Kemp, son of a wealthy merchant and Matthew Paris, physician. The two had a long-standing enmity with vastly different world views which came into conflict after the disastrous voyage of Kemp's father's ship, The Liverpool Merchant, which ended with disease, death and mutiny amongst the crew and the cargo of slaves. Presumed lost at sea in a storm, Kemp travelled to the coast of Florida on hearing that it had been landed there, crew and slaves living together in a colony, and utilised infantry soldiers to recapture the crew. The sequel picks up back in England with the crew in jail awaiting trial, Kemp preparing for a hearing about the insurance settlement for the slaves tossed overboard prior to the mutiny and develops a few more strands to its story. First of these is Sullivan, an Irish fiddler, who rather fortuitously manages to walk right out of prison and sets off for the village of Thorpe in Durham, to explain to the family of his dead shipmate, Billy Blair, how he met his end. We will also meet Billy's sister Nan and her husband who continues to work the coal fields. Back in London Frederick Ashton, an anti-slavery campaigner, attempts to frustrate Kemp's claims to compensation in the courts and also to bring the issue to wider notice. His sister Jane however finds herself powerfully attracted to this man who seems to represent the antithesis of her own views.

Having recaptured his crew and placed himself perfectly to avenge the shame and suicide of his father we might expect to find Kemp triumphant.

Why then this haunting sense of loss and waste? But it was not new, it had always been there, a companion continually neglected and forgotten, continually demanding to be recognised anew. All the successes of his life were consumed to ash in the fire of achieving, in the realisation of his will and intention.

Kemp is never still, always looking to the next scheme and stratagem, one of which involves the lease on  coalfields in the east of Durham (I'll let you guess where exactly), an opportunity that could mean a whole new income for his rapidly growing riches. But his mind too is never at rest, he is constantly wrestling with arguments around his pursuit of wealth at any cost, human or otherwise, battling with 'the sensation, frequent with him since his return, of arguing with himself, or with some shadowy person not quite himself, someone whom he urgently needed to convince, but who constantly framed arguments more weighty than his own.' Add to this the internal turmoil that comes after his meeting Jane Ashton and you have a potent combination that even offers up moments of comedy. But I'll come back to that later.

The day to day living of those in the lower classes is what provided more interest than the lofty arguments of those above them. Sullivan's journey to the north of England is a mixture of thievery, luck and the kindness of others and it is this last element that feeds into the novel's main theme of mercy. Sullivan comes to realise how quickly money stolen can pass through his hands, its real worth never felt as it was taken in the first place rather than owned. And he quite simply couldn't complete his journey without the mercy of others, something that combines rather nicely with the thought that his mission itself  is one of mercy. His arrival at Thorpe also provides a useful image in the development of Sacred Hunger's examination of slavery.

As he descended the long slope and drew nearer to the village, he heard the hiss and clank that came from the shafts of the mine, and saw here and there, approaching the village from the fields beyond, figures walking slowly, as if summoned by these noises. He saw with something of a shock that their faces were black...

For what is the real difference between the slaves stolen from the coast of Africa and the life of labour undertaken by men like Nan's husband, James Bordon, whose elderly father still works beneath the ground and whose 7 year-old son is about to make his first descent down into the depths; three generations whose lives are tied to the creation of wealth for men like Kemp. One woman who hopes to be able to change this is Jane Ashton who has great hopes for a fairer society. In Kemp she sees a man 'standing at the brink, braced for the plunge' a man with the power to make the difference she longs for and that possibly 'Guided by her, he would come to see what was due, what was just.'

Where does comedy come from in a scenario like that? Well, in a rather hilarious mixing of research and character we enter the mind of Kemp and sense first hand the heat that comes from 'the fire of achieving' as he imagines Jane undressing by moonlight, too maidenly to do so completely, retaining... 

'...an undergarment of some diaphonous material, thin enough for her to feel his touch on her body as she lay beside him, touch of a man's hands, never felt before. . .All was propitious for invention and expansion, every factor, every indication. The fall in the rate of interest, coinciding as it did with a growth in the markets at home and abroad, had provided strong incentive. The return of peace in 1763 had eased the pressure on the price of consols and brought with it a rate of public borrowing which was unlikely to exceed three per cent. . .The quickened breath of her excitement a she turned towards him, as he rose above her. . .' 

But back to mercy. Unsworth has bathed his novel in the appeals made for mercy by Portia in The Merchant of Venice (and from whose speech the novel takes its title) paying particular attention to the fact that 'It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.' In fact you could say that Unsworth goes a bit soft on his characters in order to lead them all to the positive ending that mercy affords. It is quite a journey for Kemp to make, as long as the arduous one he undertook to Florida and back, and quite a turnaround in his character. What I will take away from it however is an image that relates to fairness. Earlier in the novel Frederick Ashton recognises that 'fairness was not a fixed value' and it is James Bordon's father who remembers a childhood game of racing boats on the river, a fair contest where the varying currents will decide the winner. Unless that is one of the competitors begins throwing pebbles in the water to prevent the others. Unsworth's period of history doesn't even allow his characters the luxury of a fair start  and with both of these novels he shows that the advancement of one always comes at the expense of another. The Quality Of Mercy sows the seeds at its end that might just lead to a fairer society if only those with 'earthly power' can realise that what lies above their own 'sceptred sway' is something even more powerful and that any one of us can give the gift of mercy.

from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare


The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.


Tuesday, 27 September 2011

'at an angle to the rest of the world'

The Genius In My Basement
by Alexander Masters

Masters' first book, Stuart: A Life Backwards, was a fabulous piece of biography which, a little like Ross Raisin's latest novel Waterline, forced the reader to look in a little more detail behind the haggard faces of the country's homeless. By choosing to work in a reverse chronology we were able to trace back to the definitive moment that set Stuart on his tragic course in life, not so much to prove that it was a single event that 'caused' him to end up where we first met him but certainly to realise that it wasn't his fault and he certainly didn't deserve to be there. That book sold well, won awards, was turned into a BBC/HBO drama and was given away by me on the inaugural World Book Night. How to follow up the success of that? Certainly not by changing a winning formula. Masters may have chosen a very different subject for his next book but the combination of scatty-seeming chronology, sketches and humour are all pleasingly familiar so that even if this book fails to have anything close to the impact of his first it is an enjoyable read that also provides, in an age of z-list celebrity biography and misery memoir, a far more positive and worthwhile read. The subtitle this time: The Biography of a Happy Man.

The man in question is Master's landlord in Cambridge, Simon Philips Norton, who lives in the basement of the building. That basement is something of a death-trap; the stair carpet flaps loosely, a danger to descending feet whilst a broken step at the bottom threatens to swallow your legs whole. Norton's living space is a jumble of plastic bags filled with all manner of things from his past, extensive bus timetables and the cans of mackerel which form his staple diet. It's the kind of space you expect to see featured on one of those environmental health clean-up programmes and it is inhabited by a once-in-a-generation mathematical genius. Norton showed his promise at an early age, organising coloured blocks in sequence at the age of just one and developing into a master of long multiplication before he'd even reached four. The kind of child who sat on his parent's sofa working out the value of two to the power of thirty. For fun. Norton went on to specialise in Group Theory. Masters does a grand job of explaining the basics of Group Theory, using his illustrations to help us picture the rudiments of mathematical symmetry and the sudoku-like tables that are their 'life-blood.' The standard sudoko board we are all familiar with has nine columns of numbers. Norton is obsessed with the grandest conundrum in Group Theory, dubbed The Monster. It too looks like a sudoko table except that instead of nine columns it has

Answer to Fundamental Biographical Question Number 74, subsection b), namely, Why write a book about Simon? Because he is to biography what the Monster is to the mathematics of Group Theory: an intractable problem who nevertheless represents a purified type of human, a part of all people.

Masters voices a familiar refrain at the beginning of this book; 'Writing biographies of living people, the subject is an irritant. Why is he needed? All he does is is insist that whatever you've written is wrong.' Just as Stuart frequently interrupted his biographer to say how crap the book was, Norton is constantly making corrections, complaining about inaccuracies to the point where Masters actually enjoys 'his revulsion at my attempts to make him novelistically tidy.' There is a less-singular drive in this book, it is not the 'Tom Clancy murder mystery' that Stuart wanted his story to read like. It is more like an attempt to understand genius, whatever that means. We look at various points at his childhood, is there something in that upbringing that creates or fosters such a gift? Is it any wonder that this singular boy is bullied at school (especially as 'one of the things he did in his spare time was to 'reorganise' the school timetable so that 'it would be more efficient and not include so much unnecessary time between lessons'?) or that teachers struggle to keep up with him and his 'instant eye for the balance and elegance of a solution' We can all remember our teacher's insistence that we show our workings, but for Norton the answer was always just there, no work required.

The destination, if there is one, is that squalid basement and the fact that Norton is essentially unemployed. How does a man whose genius and promise was once compared to a man like Einstein end up becoming obsessed by bus routes and timetables. And mackerel.

It is not just that Simon's perspicacity collapsed, but that it vanished so drearily. From the greatest mathematical prodigy Cambridge had seen...he sank to chasing footpaths and hoarding bus catalogues. He became a cursed figure.

There is plenty to grasp in this book. There are the usual biographical details about childhood and upbringing, the excitement of school days and a boy's intelligence that outstrips not only that of his peers but his instructors too, the crash course in Group Theory and mathematics in general (boy, it's been a while). What we really want to know is what went wrong and, as the book's subtitle suggests, it is possible that that is the wrong way of phrasing the question. Norton is a happy man. He is really only unhappy about our reliance on the car and our resistance to public transport. And that Masters' description of his flat is going to send the building regulators to his door. There is something fascinating about his supposed collapse and there are a couple of significant moments: the moment when a man who had never had to search for an answer to a mathematical question provided an answer that turned out to be wrong and the time when his colleague John Conway left Cambridge for America, a time Norton refers to as his 'bereavement'. It is that second moment I wanted to know more about, Conway was clearly such an important figure in Norton's life but perhaps through over-sensitivity we only ever scratch the surface of that relationship.

What comes through very strongly at the end of it all is that one incredibly important feature of genius, if that is what we want to call it, is play. Having shown such innate understanding of mathematics so young, and taken such joy in its workings it is possible that the one period when Norton was asked to go back over the same work twice might have stagnated his progress and, crucially, taken the element of fun out of what was after all just Norton's way of playing. Whatever skills a young child might show 'let him stay free and guided by delight' seems to be the mantra. Think back to that one-year-old sat on the carpet arranging coloured blocks into sequences and it's tempting to wonder what Norton might have achieved (and that isn't to say he achieved nothing - he remains one of the foremost names in his field of mathematics) if he'd been left to play.


Thursday, 22 September 2011

'between damnation and beatitude'

New Finnish Grammar 
by Diego Marani
translated by Judith Landry 

I find myself reading fewer and fewer newspaper reviews of books nowadays, partly because I'm lucky enough to get hold of many books before they appear in the review pages and partly because it isn't those reviews that will tend to guide me towards a book in the first place. That said I do keep an eye out and am particularly fond of Nicholas Lezard's pieces in the Guardian. He too is very keen on literature in translation, small independent presses, and titles that fall outside the usual, cosy definitions of literary fiction. His review of this novel from Daedalus Press was nothing short of ecstatic ('I can't remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I was last so strongly tempted to use the word "genius" of its author.') so I had been holding this one on the shelf for a moment when I felt like I needed a sure-fire winner. I wasn't wrong. New Finnish Grammar may sound like a textbook but is in fact an utterly brilliant novel with a set-up so simple it can be explained in a couple of sentences, but which contains so many riches you could probably write another book as long as its 187 pages in order to discuss them all.

A prologue written by Petri Friari, neurologist at Hamburg's university hospital, explains the genesis of this found text: a manuscript found in a trunk at the military hospital of Helsinki together with a sailor's jacket, handkerchief, three letters, a volume of the Kalavela (a 19th century epic Finnish poem) and an empty bottle of koskenkorva (Finnish spirit). Pages of prose are interspersed with lists of verbs and Finnish grammar exercises, newspaper cuttings and drawings. This disordered rabble coaxed into clear meaning by this doctor with knowledge of the facts behind it. 'I myself have often had to intervene, adding linking passages of my own to tie up unrelated episodes....Using the scalpel of memory, I carved out words which ached like wounds I had believed to be long healed.' This is because it is Friari who had driven the author of this manuscript 'towards a fate which was not his own' and now all that remains of him is this book. Friari's wish to ensure he is remembered is also a wish 'to reconstruct my own story, my own identity, through other eyes.' His own story is one of exile, hatred at those responsible for his father's death, and his damnation. All of that potential is summarised in just the first three pages. We have mystery, memory, identity and a text that has already been tampered with. Yummy.

In September 1943 a seriously wounded man is found on the quay in Trieste. Friari, then the doctor on a German hospital ship, attends to this unconscious soldier who has no documents that can identify him and who isn't expected to survive, so severe are the injuries to his head in particular. He pulls through however but on regaining consciousness is unable to explain who he is or where he is from. He has no memory of the incident that felled him and no idea even what language he might speak. He is almost a blank slate, aware of the world and how it works but with no sense of self, of personal history.

Later on, I thought back to that sensation almost with regret. For just a few days I was untouched by memory, free from recall, released from pain. I was just a bundle of cells, a primitive organism like those which peopled the earth millions of years ago.

The only clue to his identity is a label in his jacket that reads Sampo Karjalainen which together with a handkerchief embroidered with the initials S.K leads Friari to conclude that this man is Finnish like himself. And so he sets about teaching him his language once again, a language notorious for its complexity (there are 15 different cases for nouns for example) a fact well known by Marani who is a senior linguist for the European Union and inventor of Europanto, a language which allows the user to draw on words from multiple European languages with no fixed rules except the ease of communication; something un petit como esta, I guess. There is something fascinating about reading the now lucid account of 'Sampo' and the slow progress he makes towards finding a voice.

A light dusting, a sprinkling of sounds had gradually settled on the smooth rock of my mind, becoming denser and more full-bodied over time. A rich, deep humus had formed, where words were now taking root and thriving.

It is not only the complexity of Finnish or even the severity of his head injury that makes this journey so slow and painstaking, underneath it all there is always the hint that 'Sampo' is trying to teach his brain to do something it hasn't done before. We don't need to worry about that just now but it adds another layer of intrigue to the various attempts to find the right catalyst to unlock his personal history. Once Sampo has recovered sufficiently from his injuries Friari sends him to Helsinki where it is hoped another doctor will be able to help him. He also advises him to find a woman and fall in love, the hope being that the desire to communicate who he is to an object of affection will light up the right neural pathways. Whilst he never gets to meet this other doctor he does get taken under the wing of an extraordinary military chaplain who teaches him not only more of the Finnish language but the very culture and history that lies within it, these discussions often fuelled by the frequent libations from a bottle of clear Finnish spirit.

This, I learned, was called koskenkorva and was extremely strong. What was particularly magical about that little bottle was that throughout all those months it remained half-full, as it had been at the beginning, however much we sipped from it. This was the personal miracle worked by the Military Chaplain Olof Koskela.
Koskela's speciality is the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, a poem so important to Finnish identity that it played a crucial role in the country's desire for independence from Russia in 1917 (this is important  also for the story of Friari, whose father was killed as a result of the factional divisions that arose in that period - Sampo is a man in search of his past, whereas Friari is a Finn in exile from his own). The extract below will give you an example of his declamatory style and the way in which the concept of language is brought to life throughout the book.

'These are not just words! This is a revealed cosmogony, the mathematics that holds the created world in place! Ours is a logorithmic grammar: the more you chase after it, the more it escapes you down endless corridors of numbers, all alike yet subtly different, like the fugues of Bach! Finnish syntax is thorny but delicate: instead of starting from the centre of things, it surrounds and envelops them from without. As a result, the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in upon itself; here meaning ripens slowly and then, when ripe, flies off, bright and elusive, leaving those who are not familiar with our language with the feeling that they have failed to understand what has been said. For this reason, when foreigners listen to a Finn speaking, they always have the sense that something is flying out of his mouth: the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and then dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in their flight; it is this that you must catch, using your eyes and ears. Hands are no help. This is one of the loveliest things about the Finnish language!'

And what of that quest to fall in love? Well our hero does meet a nurse, called Ilma whose very name is relevant, meaning air, 'like what you breath; or indeed what the weather is like...But, above all, the name Ilma means freedom. Because it lets you free to be what you are, to go where you want: free as air.' But freedom is perhaps exactly what Sampo doesn't require, as rootless as he is at this moment and he struggles to follow the doctor's advice when he enjoys so much the suffering of his solitude. The freedom to be whatever you are is no use to the man who doesn't know who he is and Sampo inevitably ends up seeking pattern and routine whilst all the while maintaining the semblance of a struggle against his predicament. And what if, as hinted at earlier, that struggle is in the wrong direction? It is Friari who suggests that this struggle is applicable to all of us in our search for meaning and identity, that perhaps we are all like Sampo as we struggle to make sense of our place in the world. And that is what lifts this book into another realm altogether, not simply interesting and innovative, clever and compelling but also profound, universal and tragically human.

Sometimes human thought gets lost in the warren of its own logic, becomes a slave to a geometry which is an end in itself, whose aim is no longer the understanding of reality, but the bolstering of some prior assumption. We are such monstrous egoists that we would rather destroy ourselves pursuing false truths than admit that we are on the wrong track...many take refuge in faith in some supreme being...But, if God existed, He would have made us in a different mould, either total prisoners of the matter from which he forged us, or else completely unshackled by thraldom to our minds: either his equals or his slaves. He would not have abandoned his creatures in this condition halfway between damnation and beatitude.


Tuesday, 20 September 2011

'fish covered in feathers'

The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

The Circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it... It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

The same cannot be said for the arrival of this debut novel which comes loaded with hype, marketing and expectation. My proof came gift-wrapped in black and white (signature colours of the circus itself) with a little card attached - this, it was being announced, was something special. The first two pages are quotes from various people within Random House sharing their thoughts on discovering the book, and there have been plenty of voices on the various social media platforms sharing their excitement about the upcoming phenomenon. Film rights already sold, all stops pulled out in the production of a sumptuous hardback (black-edged pages, die-cut cover, ribbon marker - it's all there) there are so many stars that can be aligned before a book's publication but then people have got to just go ahead and read it. And we all know how magic works: misdirection.

I remember this happening once before. Anyone read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel? Anybody else as disappointed by it as I was? All sorts of absurd claims were made on behalf of that book and what a game-changer it would be but the fact of the matter is that it wasn't nearly as magical as it thought it was and was in fact downright dull in places (please feel free to disagree with me below). This book isn't quite as bad as that, and will probably make a rather good film (this is its main problem actually: it's a film, not a novel) but I'm rather surprised and disappointed to see the full publicity machine at Harvill Secker, who have provided some of the most rewarding reading experiences for me in their efforts to bring quality translated fiction from Europe and elsewhere to the English market, being put behind this ultimately disappointing book.

The circus of the title is just that, a travelling circus that seems to appear out of nowhere in quiet fields across the globe, offering varied delights and entertainments from dusk till dawn at the latter end of the 19th century. But it is also an arena, a battleground if you like where two men have each placed their protégé in a contest of magic, will and endurance. One of these is Hector Bowen, also known as Prospero the Enchanter, a magician who has learned to hide his very real magical skills under his guise as a theatrical entertainer.

"Not a single person in that audience believes for a second that what I do up there is real,' he says, gesturing in the general direction of the stage. "That's the beauty of it. Have you seen the contraptions these magicians build to accomplish the most mundane feats? They are a bunch of fish covered in feathers trying to convince the public they can fly, I am simply a bird in their midst. The audience cannot tell the difference beyond knowing that I am better at it."

He uses his own daughter Celia as a pawn in the longtime battle with his rival, a mysterious man known almost throughout the book as simply 'the man in the grey suit' (and occasionally Mr A H). Hector develops Celia's innate talents and submits her to a gruelling regime which includes slicing the tips of her fingers open one by one until she can heal all ten at once. Mr A H selects a young boy from an orphanage (naming him Marco Alisdair) and determines to teach him everything he will need for 'the game' in which he will face Celia. What is the game? Well, neither of them knows but each has their own understanding. For Marco it is a set of scales, 'one side is mine, the other is hers.' But as a friend is keen to point out to him, 'if you both keep adding to your sides of the scale, increasing the weight on each side in turn...won't it break?' Celia sees a test, 'about how we deal with the repercussions of magic when placed in a public venue, in a world that does not believe in such things. It's a test of stamina and control, not skill.' to which her father characteristically replies, 'It's a test of strength.'

The contest is even solemnised by a ring placed on each of their fingers which disappears but leaves a mark behind. The two are betrothed to each other in conflict. So here we have the first major problem. This isn't a spoiler, it's just common sense. There's a girl and a boy, they are unknowingly in conflict with each other: I can't be the only person reading those opening pages thinking 'They're going to fall in love,' (as of course they must) 'and it's going to end in tears!' (no real spoilers here, don't worry). Once you accept that inevitability then the rest of the plotting feels a bit like decoration and the only moments of real narrative drive come when the two young lovers battle against their own predicament.

Le Cirque des Rêves, as it is known, is created by the exotically named impressario Chandresh Christophe Lefevre, although he is only really a figurehead under the enchantment of the duelling master-magicians. It is the descriptions of his circus and its entertainments that give this book its major appeal. As I said earlier it's really an adorned film script and some of the descriptive passages are very impressive. You get a very clear picture of certain images and objects: a tattooed contortionist compacting herself into a glass box, a tent filled with cloud-like structures, a dress made of material that seems to change colour and texture at will. One of the enduring symbols of the circus is an extraordinary clock constructed by Friedrick Thiessen, and there are great illustrative descriptions of a clock face that changes colour from white, through grey into black as the time passes, 'Meanwhile, bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully.' Figures and objects appear, 'perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual pages that turn...teapots pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Small cats chase dogs. An entire game of chess is played.' In fact looking back at some of these passages you realise another weakness of the book is that the writing is a bit ordinary at times. It may be describing magical things and extraordinary sights but it does so in prose that is neither magical nor extraordinary. Luckily the images and descriptions are strong enough for you to not really notice it and this where the book begins to use the trick of magic itself where distraction and misdirection can prevent you from seeing the mechanics that underpin the illusion.

I'm afraid that for me as an observer, for that is what you always remain when reading this book as none of the characters have sufficient depth to draw you in any deeper (and the sub-plot of normal boy Bailey and his encounter with the circus certainly fails to achieve that task), there just isn't enough quality in the writing to satisfy and however impressive the fireworks feel at the time there's a great feeling of disappointment once the smoke clears and the soggy architecture is all that remains. Even at its highest pitch, with the stakes as high as they can be, it doesn't read as much more than an elaborate romance novel. There are moments of promise. Thiessen unwittingly becomes the first 'rêveur', a follower of the circus from venue to venue, and there is something charming about his wish to join its magic even whilst being unable to really become a part of it. And for those who are very much a part of it there is the confusion that comes from being under an enchantment that seems to arrest ageing and illness, confuse the states of consciousness.

"I am finding it difficult to discern between asleep and awake," Tara says, tugging at her lace cuffs again. "I do not like being left in the dark. I am not particularly fond of believing in impossible things."

That last sentence is perhaps the reason why I was never going to want to become a rêveur myself. I don't really want to be the child who spots the magician palming the coin and spoils the trick for everyone else but there's no real magic on display here.


Thursday, 15 September 2011

'Shame and blood and degradation'

The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt

I wasn't terribly thrilled on the publication of the long-list for this year's Booker Prize, not because it simply contained the usual suspects (although a few of them were in fact there with only Julian Barnes making the cut to the short-list) but because the novels I hadn't heard of previously didn't really get me excited on the whole. Only a couple I hadn't already registered caused my ears to prick and foremost amongst those was Patrick deWitt's Western novel about two sibling killers, Eli and Charlie Sisters. Now, I hate westerns as a general rule but two genuinely great books I've read since starting this blog, Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece Blood Meridian and Ron Hansen's The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, have been set in that period and the prospect of something rather more in the mould of a Coen brothers movie tickled my fancy. It may not do the same to you, the Coen's are a bit divisive it seems, so if you're not keen on that short description then it's pretty safe to say this isn't the, now short listed, title for you, and whilst I don't expect to see it scooping the prize there was enough to make it a curiously enjoyable tale of murderous mayhem.

The novel is narrated by Eli, the younger and fatter of the two brothers whom we find traumatised by the death of his previous horse in a fire and slightly dispirited by its replacement 'Tub'. Whilst Eli mopes his dominant brother Charlie has stolen a march on him, being made de facto leader of their two-man operation by their boss, The Commodore. Their latest job is to head over to San Francisco in pursuit of Herman Kermit Warm, a man they must kill though they have little inkling of the real reason why (not that they really care). The two brothers have long been in the killing business ('You put a wage behind something, it gives the act a sort of respectability. In a way, I suppose it feels significant to have something as large as a man's life entrusted to me'), beginning in fact when Charlie shot their abusive father before taking his mother away to get her broken arm mended, that arm 'bent like a chevron. Like a shotgun opened for loading.' We quickly gather through his flat narration  that Eli may not have quite the same verve for it as his brother and that he is a man looking for a way out of the groove life has placed him in. The two brothers journey through Oregon and California towards gold-rush era San Francisco, an odyssey that brings them into contact with people just as odd and sometimes dangerous as they are.

An odyssey should have an element of Fate about it and there are plenty of moments where the brothers discuss their antics, ponder on the hand Life has dealt, even worry that they may have been cursed. Just as it seems that Eli's faithful horse Tub may be about to meet his maker, especially when Providence places an impressive replacement free of charge into his hands, Eli rewards that faithfulness by keeping hold of his one-eyed mount. What, wonders his brother, 'will become of the man who shuns Providence?' Faithfulness is something of a theme, its strength tested in times of violence and disorder, and the bond between these two brothers is constantly under stress from their differing personalities. Charlie is a man defined by his seniority and easy violence whereas Eli manages to combine a child-like view with the bulk and latent anger of a dangerous man. It is an unlikely hero who explains to the reader his unique form of stress relief.

I took up my organ to compromise myself. As a young man, when my temper was proving problematic, my mother instructed me to do this as a means of achieving calm, and I have found it a useful practice ever since. Once accomplished I headed back to the river, feeling empty and cold inside but no longer angry. I cannot understand the motivation of a bully, is what it is; this is the one thing that makes me unreasonable.

The dialogue between the two brothers and other characters they meet is what provides the novel with its humour and easy entertainment, even whilst moments of extreme violence provide brutal reminders of the times they live in. Eli's slow journey towards civility is charming; the advent of tooth-cleaning powder, his meeting with a woman in a whorehouse, his desire to save enough money to make a new life; each of these markers show some kind of progress but we always sense that it could be jeopardised at any moment and that his brother may hold control over his course, as indeed he always has.

As they near San Francisco deWitt develops the craziness nicely. The man they have been sent to kill is not what we might have expected, nor the reason for his execution and the plot goes nicely askew in line with the prevailing atmosphere of madness. 'There is a feeling here, which if it gets you, will envenom your very center. It is a madness of possibilities.' observes one character and the particular fever of the gold rush is a potent combination of greed, desperation and escalating violence.

Men desiring a feeling of fortune; the unlucky masses hoping to skin or borrow the luck of others, or the luck of a destination. A seductive notion, and one I thought to be wary of. To me luck was something you either earned or invented through strength of character.

But it also 'isn't enough to be lucky' and the grim conclusion that we have always sensed was our destination isn't long in coming. There is a lot to be said for a read that is just entertaining, and despite the grimness and violence that is what this book feels like after finishing it. But, as I said at the top, in a quest to find the best book of the year the judges might have to find themselves at the other end of the Sisters Brothers loaded pistols for deWitt's novel to prevail.


Tuesday, 13 September 2011

'what's best for Billy'

What I Did 
by Chris Wakling

A boy runs across a busy road. His father smacks him. A passer-by intervenes...

There's something of The Slap about the premise; a book I didn't read but was aware of, mainly due to all the controversy surrounding it and the general feeling that it wasn't really all that good (or didn't at least skewer its targets as effectively as might have been hoped). Wakling has chosen the moment a parent smacks a child to examine how a single event can turn the lives of those involved upside down, the way in which the machinery of society can intervene in the very private world of the family with devastating effect. The focus is very much on the family unit and the perspective is that of six-year-old Billy. In fact I'll hand over to him immediately to let him explain.

It is about a terrible thing which happens to me. But watch out because the thing you think is the terrible thing isn't really it. Other things come later and they're worse. I'm not going to tell you what they are yet because now isn't the time. That is called suspension.
I also have to warn you that nobody is bad or good here, or rather everyone is a bit bad and a bit good and the bad and good moluscules get mixed up against each other and produce chemical reactions.
Did you know cheetahs cannot retract their claws?
Here is the real beginning.
So, a child narrator. Any regular readers of mine will know exactly how I feel about child narrators. I don't like them. Chris Wakling knows this as well because I mentioned it during a Twitter exchange and that's exactly why he wanted me to read his book, to try and convince me otherwise. Is he brave? Foolish? Desparate? Whatever the answer he knows that I'll have to be honest in my appraisal, so do I still hate child narrators? Yep. But Wakling's novel isn't nearly as irritating as it could have been or others have been and the final pages are genuinely moving. In his portrayal of a father who struggles to control his frustrations I'd be lying if I said I hadn't frequently reflected on my own parenting.

Billy is an engaging narrator, his fascination with nature documentaries framing his view of the world so that we get a sort of reverse anthropomorphism (or zoomorphism) where human characters are often assigned animal characteristics or names. The story is also peppered with the knowledge he's picked up from these programmes, delivered with the childish mistakes (deliberate or otherwise) that are there to make us laugh. Did you know this for example?

Prairie dogs are very copulative animals. They copulate together very well in hunts and that is why their hunts are among the most successful in the animal kingdom.

This trick is the kind of thing that can get wearing for me as a reader and some are simply funnier than others. I liked for example that 'God does not exist. He is a segment of the imagination' but the joke about 'posable thumbs' doesn't work if Billy inconsistently refers to them later as opposable. Where Wakling scores an undoubted hit is when he allows Billy to describe the film Avatar in its entirety in a page-long, stream-of-conciousness gabble. I found that hilarious without even having seen the film so I can only imagine that those that have will find it even more so. The point is that I'm always going to find it hard to believe that a six-year-old would write what I hold in my hand if it is novel length, no matter how genuine sounding the dialogue or phrasing, but that page on Avatar was like being grabbed by a little boy high on pick 'n' mix and surround-sound explosions and nailed to the floor with his excitement.

Billy has also been told by his father that it's his job to keep things interesting, 'I mustn't blame the boring feeling on anybody other than myself is what he says.' This is partly what creates the moment of drama that sets events in motion. Billy's active imagination sends him running from his father when they are in the park and into a busy road. It is his father's shock, guilt, relief and, when we come down to it, love for Billy, that makes him drop those trousers and smack his bum and legs. But for the passer-by it is an example of now-unacceptable behaviour and when she confronts him and is stung by his reaction we know it is only a matter of time before social services come knocking. First comes the 'Butterfly woman', then the 'Giraffe', Billy's father feels put upon, unjustly accused and as if his house has been invaded. He's not so much defensive as combative, refusing to toe the line, thereby frustrating both his wife, social services and the reader too. Several times I found myself tensing when he refused yet again to do something simple that might halt or even avert the rapidly approaching endgame. Wakling has clearly worked to make sure that each of these moments are believable rather than simply there to advance his plot, but it doesn't make them any less frustrating.

That zoomorphism mentioned earlier is even used by Billy's father to help try and explain what is going on and heightens the sense that he and Billy are the prey and that hunters are closing in on them as the novel progresses. I still think that a child's perspective limits what can really be achieved in terms of understanding, my reactions to Room by Emma Donoghue and Beside The Sea by Véronique Olmi bear that out, but Wakling to his credit manages some fine moments of perception. Some of these are pithy as when Billy notes that it's hard to know what's going on in children's heads especially if they can't talk yet whereas 'Adults are also tricky to understand, but for the opposite reasons.' But the entire text of the novel has a measure of the influence Billy's father has on him built into it and a clear indication of the love, respect and esteem in which he is held. Billy cannot help but parrot his father's maxims and turns of phrase so that frequently a sentence turns into a saying of his, complete with the added 'Son' bringing it to a full stop. It is this that keeps the reader's heart not only engaged but optimistic; we know that Billy loves his father and vice versa, all will be well if they can only find a way to negotiate the perilous terrain of the State. Billy in his incomprehension of the adult details only mirrors in some ways the incomprehension of us adults when confronted with the reality of raising a child and the confusing reality of what it means to love them. We're always learning; us from them as much as they from us.

Dad starts talking about when I was born. It's confusing. First he says it was the happiest day of his life, but then he says it was the day he first knew real fear. I am a miracle he says. His love for me was instantly bottomless, yet it deepens with each passing day. The fear, too. I don't know what he means but I make sure he is very reassuring by telling him it's ok, I didn't mean to do frightening.


Thursday, 8 September 2011

'Like a houseplant forgotten on a windowsill'

The Tiny Wife
by Andrew Kaufman

Kaufman's first book, the novella All My Friends Are Superheroes, was championed by Scott Pack amongst others and it is Pack's The Friday Project imprint that now brings his latest to these shores (although it was originally published last year by Madras Press). I never read that first book but I got a good idea of it from the basic synopsis. Tom is married to The Perfectionist but has been rendered invisible to her after the evil intervention of her ex-boyfriend Hypno. He has the length of a plane journey to make her see him again and for us to meet all of his other superhero friends and enemies ('None of them have secret identities. Very few of them wear costumes). The distance that can open up between a couple lies at the heart of his latest novella too and even though there was something just a little too cute about the synopsis for both of them I decided to take the plunge with this one as it sounded exactly like the kind of shorter fiction that I think I will hate and end up actually rather fond of.

The set up again is simple enough. An armed robber holds up a bank but instead of stealing money he takes a single item from each person inside, the one that holds the most sentimental value to them. He cuts a curious figure (as one of Tony Percival's many lovely illustrations shows) in his flamboyant purple hat and holds forth with a speech littered with metaphor and import.

Your soul is a living, breathing, organic thing. No different than your heart or your legs. And just as your heart keeps your blood oxygenated and your legs keep you moving around, your soul gives you the ability to do amazing, beautiful things. But it's a strange machine, constantly needing to be rejuvenated. Normally this happens simply by the doing of these things...When I leave here, I will be taking 51 percent of your souls with me. This will have strange and bizarre consequences in your lives. But more importantly, and I mean this quite literally, learn how to grow them back, or you will die.

And so the strange and bizarre consequences begin to manifest themselves. One woman sees her tattoo of a tiger become a real one and then spends the rest of the book being chasing around by it. Another finds God under her sofa when searching for the remote only to disappoint and lose him once again when her trip with him to the laundromat ends up with bearded and be-robed one covered from head to toe in little bits of tissue after his spin cycle. Another woman turns to candy, uses her own fingers as bribes to get the children dressed and in the car (and finds them 'unusually eager to kiss her goodbye' when she drops them at school) and when her husband returns home in need of food she pats the cushion beside her.

Her husband sat down. He kissed her candied lips. He kissed her arms and her neck and her face. They went upstairs. He kissed every part of her body. 'I could eat you up.' he said, and, lost in his passion, he did.

These little vignettes are sometimes funny, occasionally thought provoking but not much more than a distraction from the central story of Stacey Hinterland, the eponymous wife to our narrator. She realises that she has begun shrinking and is only able to convince her husband with the aid of a tape measure. The differences at first are very small and he notices for example that when sat on the end of the bed her feet don't touch the floor ('I couldn't remember if they ever had') but soon the shrinkage is obvious to the point where he can carry her in a pocket. She it turns out has worked out a pattern to the daily changes in her height and the acceleration means that once again our hero has a limited amount of time to rescue his relationship before she disappears for good.

It is only this element of the novella that really held the interest of this reader, however entertaining the whimsy of the rest of it might be. A significant appeal apparently of All My Friends Are Superheroes is that it makes a great love gift between those in the early days of a relationship. The Tiny Wife, produced as a beautiful little clothbound hardback, could well have a similar appeal to those a little further on; those who might have taken their significant other for granted, lost the easy ability to make them laugh, or found the terrain altered by the advent of children. That worry about cuteness isn't necessarily put to bed but Kaufman isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. Our narrator actually speaks to the robber who has set everything in motion with one question of course at the forefront of his mind: Why? He may not get a satisfactory answer to that one but he certainly gets a clue about his own situation.

Perhaps one of the hardest things about having kids is realizing that you love them more than your wife. That it's possible to love someone more than you love your wife. What's even worse is that it's a love you don't have to work at. It's just there. It just sits there, indestructible, getting stronger and stronger. While the love for your wife, the one you do have to work at, and work so very hard at, gets nothing. Gets neglected, left to fend for itself. Like a houseplant forgotten on a windowsill.


Tuesday, 6 September 2011

'boxes and boxes and boxes in boxes'

Dead Water 
by Simon Ings

Simon Ings' previous novel, The Weight Of Numbers, was published by Atlantic Books, and received some notable critical acclaim. An intricately plotted web of narratives that spanned much of the twentieth century, it felt like literary fiction with sci-fi and historical leanings. I hadn't realised that it wasn't actually Ings' debut but his sixth work of fiction, coming after a string of cyber-punk novels. Ings' seventh is being published under Atlantic's new (ish) 'genre' imprint, Corvus, and has similar ambitions to his last: a narrative that covers almost a hundred years up to the present day, spans the globe, and blurs genre boundaries as well as the question of whether he should be considered a genre novelist at all.

This is a tough novel to precis, as I mentioned already it is has many strands over many years and this is also not a linear narrative, but before I even begin to look at the main moments of focus I want you to picture a shipping container. You know the sort, uniform in size if not in colour, the kind of thing you'll have seen whizzing by on a train, truck or even on a great ship (this of course being their revolutionary aspect - a single container that doesn't need to be unpacked as it moves from one form of transport to another). Now go back to the time before that container existed, a time of ship's holds and stevedores, loading and unloading whilst ships stayed at anchor. And then realise the moment these 'boxes and boxes and boxes in boxes' became the future along with one of the novel's protagonists.

The future when it comes will come in boxes. From port to port, big, square-built ships will carry ever bigger quantities of the future about the earth. Great cranes will lift the future from open holds and deposit it on trucks and railway locomotives, and they will bear the future inland, to every town, every settlement.
Shipping, movement, weather, circularity, secrets, codes, revenge and love. These are just some of the themes covered in this novel and what could be said to unite them all is a theory of circulation stemming from the dead water of the title. Concentrate for just a moment and I shall attempt to explain. Here is the science:

When waters of different densities and temperatures pour into each other they do not mix. Instead, they settle into layers. Run a propeller through these layers and you will make no headway, however fiercely you drive the engine. You're just cavitating: chopping up waves into froth.

This is what's called dead water, typically observed where freshwater glacial run-off mixes with the salt water of the ocean, but the theory isn't restricted to the seas. Lift that ship's propeller halfway out of the water and you'll make similarly slow progress, the differing densities of air and water an even clearer example of the theory. And why therefore shouldn't it apply to air too. From this you can begin to formulate theories about weather, where waves of water and air wrapped around the globe 'where every forward impulse is also a return' never cease in their motion. And here's the poetry:

This is why the weather will not die. This is why waters will not stop in their courses. Why the winds will not cease to blow. Why the heart will not cease to desire.

This is also why, in May 1928, an airship falls out of the sky over the Arctic, amongst its survivors a young scientist on the verge of this great discovery. But the story will take us to lots of other places. In a novel about trade and commerce it is fitting that each section even has its own 3D barcode which if you scan with your smartphone gives details of what's contained within. Part One for example:

Major locations: Arctic Ocean / India [Uttar Pradesh] / Norway [Oslo] / Oman [Musandam, Salalah]
Accidents involving vehicles: 4
Episodes involving handguns: 2 [weapons discharged: 1]
Floods: 1
Scenes centered around shipping containers: 2
Appearances of the red notebook: 5
We will meet the man who transforms trade and whose name will adorn thousands of shipping containers, then go missing for nearly 30 years, before a tsunami washes up one of his very own boxes and his mummified remains inside. We will meet Roopa Vish, daughter of a famous Indian detective, whose own investigations into piracy and crime will bring her into mortal peril. Also an ex-spy now industrial fixer, the daughter of a physicist who becomes mountaineer, naturalist and love interest, a counterfeiter; the cast list is large, and circulating and observing all of them are twin brothers who are killed in huge train crash, vaporised by the force of the accident and transformed into djinn, a spirit of Muslim legend that can have supernatural influence over humans.

The boys slither over dry smashed rock, dizzy with adventre. They have no idea where they are, or when, but they are beginning to grasp that geography matters less to them than it matters to the living. They make their own journeys with the stories they tell. They fashion - somehow, they don't yet know how - their own escapes...Stories are their breath. Their food. Their blood. And they're getting stronger.

Keeping up? This is a swirling, whirling novel, as hard to predict as the weather it describes for stories are driven by the same forces, 'Stories weave their way around the earth, knotting themselves around each other as they go.' What does this mean for the reader? Well, it depends what kind of reader you are. There will be some I'm sure who will feel like one character who finds themselves duped by a fiction 'He made everything so - so plausible. So complicated.' The attraction for me was the test for the old grey cells, not just the science but the struggle to keep pace and assemble a pattern out of all the disparate elements. Luckily 'at a certain scale coincidence is a given' and Ings shows himself to be adept once again at connecting his elements. In literary terms there are elements of the supernatural, the thriller, and the historical novel. Ings interest in science means that he can always find a new way of illustrating the central theme and energy of the novel. Take for instance a young woman watching kite surfers.

The kites give a true picture of the wind; the surfers a true picture of the waves. Connecting them are monofilament lines, invisible and strong, like propositions in logic. The argument hums through those lines. The secret vibrates through them. How wind and waves relate. She wants to be out there. She wants to understand. Not surf, not fly, not spin, not trick her way into anything. Just understand.

Neither is he afraid of getting his hands dirty. As the barcode data above hinted this is a novel filled with violence, crookedness and deceit. Ings creates at least two fantastically strong female characters but does make them suffer. Roopa in particular will be abused more than most could bear, reduced to the status of Bhangi or 'untouchable', cleaning the latrines of the castes above her, immersed in 'the schemes, the threats, the feuds. The hot nastiness that prevails over everything and everyone.' The perfect place from which to root around in her pursuit of revenge on those that lowered her to the depths she has reached. Ings is also brilliant at disorientation. His description of the tsunami that hits Bali is shocking and brutal, as is the perspective he writes from when a tramp steamer is raided by pirates off the coast of Sri Lanka. Action is well-handled, the underlying conspiracy believable and the device of the djinn is innovative if nothing else.

I remember really enjoying the dizzying ride that was The Weight Of Numbers but I'd struggle to tell you much of the detail of it now. This might be the risk of writing that is connected so loosely at times it threatens to break apart, and there is definitely a question as to whether both books come together satisfactorily enough. But sometimes the joy of reading can be very much in the present moment and the stimulation that comes from a writer prepared to construct his narrative and then smash it to pieces for you to reassemble is similar to the challenge of one of those giant jigsaws. The uniformity of those shipping containers is only a disguise, they could contain just about anything inside. Exploring the contents is one joy, fitting them all together is the other.


Thursday, 1 September 2011

Wesley Robins Interview

I cannot draw. At all. So I have huge admiration for the skill of artists and regular readers will know of my interest in graphic fiction and non-fiction. After reviewing his graphic adaptation of Jed Mercurio's Ascent earlier in the week I was delighted to be able to ask artist Wesley Robins about the process of creating a graphic novel and in particular an adaptation from an already written text. Thanks once again to him for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions.

How did you come to be involved in transforming Ascent into a graphic novel?

I'm not sure how long the idea of transforming the book had been floating about, but I was one of a number of potential artists who'd been earmarked by Jed after he'd seen some of my work at the end of year show at Kingston. We then went through a sort of audition process - submitting a spread from the book, plus a few sketches. The different artists were eventually whittled down and I ended up being the last one left!

Both you and Mercurio are credited on the front of the book, did you work together and how closely?

Basically Jed would provide me with a script - an already edited down version of the book chapter by chapter. I would then go over it, roughing out each page to get an idea of the pacing and layout, the compositions of each frame etc. I'd send this over to him and we'd discuss and make any changes/ adjustments needed. Once that chapter was agreed, I set to work on the final images.

The book seems tailor-made for the comic book treatment but I'm guessing it was tough to condense it down. How did you decide what to leave out and what was the toughest thing about making this book?

I suppose my job was a bit easier in that respect as Jed had the hard part of cutting down his original novel - choosing what and what not to keep, and turning it into a script for me to interpret visually.The original novel was very technical in places - especially when it came to the dogfights of Korea and the space chapters, and trying to keep that feel was a bit of a challenge. Researching the soviet space program, finding references for the rocket and lunar modules etc - all things that until quite recently were denied to even exist was a bit of a problem at times, and so deciding how to show particular movements/ procedures in space and the equipment used took a lot of working out (plus it was easy to get distracted looking into the history of the subject as it was quite fascinating!) Getting all those references as accurate as possible, from the docking mechanisms on the craft to the type of gas masks the fighter pilots were wearing was one of the toughest things I think. Especially when you were trying to find a balance between historical accuracy and keeping that engaging/ exciting, 'boys own adventure' feel of the book.

Where there any influences on your visual style for this project?

The book is quite dark, and Yefgenni and his story are a pretty brooding/ solemn one, so I wanted to keep that feel - making the images quite grainy and murky. I had some fun with the front end pages after looking at some old Soviet memorabilia - old commemorative stamps and matchboxes, and wanted to include some of that.

Are there any parallels between the stoicism and perseverance of Yeremin and the work of a graphic artist?

Ha! Yea, I suppose you need to keep plodding away, never giving up and all that...! Though you do really need to keep at it. Think there are more opportunities/ areas to dip into/ cross over as well at the moment - you're not necessarily bound to working in one particular area any more.

What are you working on now?

I've recently finished some storyboard work for the upcoming BBC drama 'The Line Of Duty', and am currently working on a range of children's travel cards (comics and puzzles etc) for Best Publishing Ever Ltd.

Would you like to recommend a neglected book to readers of this blog? (graphic or otherwise)

I always like Shaun Tan's books and have a few of his. Am re-reading a lot of Philip K Dick at the mo.

I always ask my interviewees to 'do a Hemingway' and write a whole story in just six words. Would you have a go? (or would you perhaps prefer to draw a story in a single panel?)


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