Zeitgeisty? Is that a word? Can I have it anyway? Because James Howell's 2011 novel is zeitgeisty as hell. It's also damned hard to categorise. I'm ca...moreZeitgeisty? Is that a word? Can I have it anyway? Because James Howell's 2011 novel is zeitgeisty as hell. It's also damned hard to categorise. I'm calling it a satire, but you could read it as a spectacularly implausible thriller if you like. That's not a criticism per se, since all thrillers are implausible - from James Bond downwards - but they get away with it through sheer panache.
Hannah Harker, a young, aspiring journalist in a dead-end job at a regional newspaper, commits the modern sin of imagining that her life should be a lot more interesting than it is and decides to do something about it. Harking (geddit?) back to a youthful experience of crime without consequences, she sets off on what some might term a crime spree. However, as the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics has shown (see what I mean about zeitgeist?), what passes for crime in conventional society is merely 'proactive research' for a journalist. When it all starts to unravel, Hannah is driven by her own hubris and nihilism to commit more dangerous and immoral feats of 'research'.
She's a classic unreliable narrator, and any reader who needs to sympathise with the main character in a novel will hate this one. Seeing through her shallow and unconvincing self-justification is one of the pleasures of the book and is what makes it a satire. Putting the author himself in the book as a fictional biographer was a nice touch too.
The plot spirals away from the implausible to the bizarre but just about gets away with it, although the prose creaks at times. There are too many melodramatic adjectives and too much telling rather than showing: we know Hannah's state of mind because she comes right out and tells us. We know what she looks like because she stands in front of a mirror and describes herself - the way we all do when we need reminding of our hair colour, bust size or racial background. We know a character's opinion because he sits down and gives Hannah a 200-word explanation of what he thinks.
Even so, the narrative is clear and easy to follow. The writing is three-star and could have done with a ruthless editor; the story is four-star. I've given it four stars overall simply because, when I put it down after two days of reading, I decided I'd enjoyed my time with sad, deranged Hannah and her slightly creepy biographer James.(less)
Vernon God Little and its author are cursed for having undeservedly won the Booker Prize in 2003. But being unworthy of the Booker does not a bad book...moreVernon God Little and its author are cursed for having undeservedly won the Booker Prize in 2003. But being unworthy of the Booker does not a bad book make. It does become good, but only in the second half. The first third of the book is very, very weak, and any reader who gives up will rightly be asking themselves, "What were the Booker judges thinking?"
In establishing the character of 15-year old Vernon, Pierre artlessly apes JD Salinger, with his character's disillusion with the world tediously expressed through the over-use of the word 'fucken' and constant anal references. The adult characters aren't quite caricatures but they're not far off, and their actions are too implausiable even for satire. With her son facing a possible death penalty, Vernon's mother is more concerned with the delivery of a fridge, while the townsfolk - including the parents - seem only mildly put out by the slaughter of over a dozen schoolchildren, possibly at Vernon's hands.
Once the book struggles into the second half, it starts to get moving and becomes what it claims to be: a satirical parable on justice, adolescence and media-obsession. How the first half escaped a heavy rewrite is beyond me. Had it received one, then it might have been worthy of the Booker shortlist, if not the prize itself. (less)
Five modern Icelandic tales, which can easily be adapted for any nationality (my friend saw a Turkish version), are blended together to make a single,...moreFive modern Icelandic tales, which can easily be adapted for any nationality (my friend saw a Turkish version), are blended together to make a single, abstract play about the different ways women are subtly (and willingly) subjugated by society. The allegories aren't particularly subtle: in one scene, a housewife allows her children perform educational experiments on her, including removing her brain. Nonetheless, there is plenty of humour in the telling, so one doesn't feel like one is being beaten about the head by a dour political message. (less)
The blackly comic insanity of large organisations - in this case the US military in WWII - is exposed in one of the greatest novels of the 20th Centur...moreThe blackly comic insanity of large organisations - in this case the US military in WWII - is exposed in one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century.(less)