This seems to be the month of forgotten 20th century American novelists for me – after Maureen Howard’s brilliant Natural History: A Novel, now JameThis seems to be the month of forgotten 20th century American novelists for me – after Maureen Howard’s brilliant Natural History: A Novel, now James Purdy with his novel Eustace Chisholm & the Works. Purdy, although dead – he has born in 1914 and died in 2009 -, seems not quite as thoroughly buried as Maureen Howard – it looks like he always had a bit of a cult following and there even seems to be a bit of a revival going on, with his out-of-print works being reissued. Which would certainly be very welcome, because, judging by Eustace Chisholm, he was a very remarkable writer indeed.
Weirdly, and to my considerable surprise, Eustace Chisholm & the Works reminded a lot of William Gaddis’ first novel The Recognitions – while it is shorter and less complex and lacks the vast amounts of erudition Gaddis splattered all across his work, both novels share something that I would like to describe (for lack of a better word) as their motion. Both Eustace Chisholm and The Recognitions are ensemble novels, they do not have a single protagonist whose unfolding story the reader would follow, not even a small group like a couple or a family, but a large cast of characters none of which would stand out as central; and their stories are not presented as continuous threads weaving a tapestry, but rather as isolated, small episodes which the reader has to actively perceive as a mosaic. Unlike the novels of, say, Dos Passos, however, who so far does something quite similar, The Recognitions and Eustace Chisholm do not replace the central character with a central perspective and ordering overview but, so to speak, stay at eye level with their characters and their fragmented worldview – while there is no single central perspective, each character forms the centre of his section of the narrative, resulting in a constant shift of focus throughout the novels, a stop-and-go, jerking, stuttering motion that can induce dizziness and indeed seems to have led to seasickness in many readers both of Purdy and Gaddis.
Eustace Chisholm & the Works, though, it has to be said, is considerable more accessible than The Recognitions. Where Gaddis often seems to be hellbent on frustrating the reader, Eustace Chisholm, while still a demanding read, appears to do its best to ease readers into its vertiginous structure – indeed, almost to lure them in, only to then shock and repel them with scenes of a harrowing violence that in their sheer, unmitigated brutality have an almost physical impact on the reader. The novel does have its humorous moments, does indeed have so many of them that it reads in part like a comedy, but in the end it is a tragedy that functions as its own satyr play.
And as it should in satyr play, sexuality plays a large part in Eustace Chisholm – more specifically male homosexuality to which the book has a remarkably relaxed and matter-of-course attitude that makes it unusual even today and that might very well have been just as shocking to readers at the time of it its first publishing as the scenes of violence. (And one might also note, to bring this comparison up for the last time, that homosexuality seems to play a structurally similar role in Eustace Chisholm as Catholicism does in The Recognitions.) But if the novel is accepting of homosexuality, its characters are not necessarily so, and in fact it is precisely this which finally gives rice to tragedy out of the farce – everyone in the novel is in some way or other refusing their innermost desires, not even acknowledging even – or possibly particularly – when they get a chance to fulfill them. Turning away their chance at fulfilment and happiness, they find that the denied desires will not be gainsaid but return to haunt them in invariably self-destructive ways.
Eustace Chisholm & the Works has apparently become something of a “gay modern classic” (at least that is what the cover of my edition claims) but it is worth reading not just because of its subject matter but because it attempts (and largely succeeds) to find a literary form for an altered way of life, the lack of a narrative centre or unified thread, the permanently shifting perspective capturing both the dissolution of social ties and the increase in individual freedom in 60s’ subcultures. In other words, this is excellent stuff and James Purdy is definitely a writer I want to read more of....more
Wine of Angels, the first novel in Phil Rickman’s “Merrily Watkins” series appeared in 1998. Since then, the series has developed from novels mixing mWine of Angels, the first novel in Phil Rickman’s “Merrily Watkins” series appeared in 1998. Since then, the series has developed from novels mixing mystery with the occult and the spooky to novels using crime fiction plots to chronicle the increasing decline of the English countryside and its sense of community. Which was fine with me, as it was always Rickman’s sense of locale and his atmospheric description of British village life which appealed to me most about the series.
I do not know whether other readers had issues with the direction the series has taken, or whether Phil Rickman wanted to return to the series’ original concept, but in any case The Magus of Hay, currently the most recent installment (published in 2013), feels very much like a “return to the roots” novel. Merrily Watkins, who had rather kept in the background during the last few volumes, stands firmly in the centre of this one, both her daughter Jane (on an archeological dig with her boyfriend Eirion) and and her lover Lol (on tour with his music) are mostly absent, as is Gomer Parry. Frannie Bliss continues to be a point of view, however, and we see the return of Betty and Robin Thorogood from Crown of Lights – this, I assume, another indication that The Magus of Hay is written in the spirit of the earlier novels in the series.
In keeping with this, there are no corrupt councillors or greedy businessmen attempting to turn the English countryside into a Disneyfied version of Ye Olde English Village this time around, but instead we get an old man drowning and a policewoman disappearing, both cases possibly involving murder, and possibly connected in some way. All of this takes place in around the town of Hay, famous for its used bookstores and whose atmosphere Rickman evokes with the sure hand one has come to be used from him, painting a colourful picture of a a place combining tourist trap, genuine love for books and general British quirkiness. Although the author’s fondness for the town and its eccentric inhabitants shine through clearly, The Magus of Hay is not an idyllic book, in fact it might very well be the most gruesome of all the “Merrily Watkins” novels so far, some scenes spilling over into outright horror.
While not my favourite novel in the series (personally, I’d have wished for more Jane and Lol, and even more on the town of Hay and its cast of used books salesmen), I still thought The Magus of Hay was an enjoyable read and I’m finding myself feeling somewhat melancholy at having reached the (for now) end of the series. Hopefully there’ll be more in the future, and in the meantime I suppose I should take a look at Phil Rickman’s other novels…...more
Capital: A Portrait of Delhi in the Twenty-First Century is not the book by Rana Dasgupta I was expecting ro read first – I have been eyeing both hisCapital: A Portrait of Delhi in the Twenty-First Century is not the book by Rana Dasgupta I was expecting ro read first – I have been eyeing both his novels Tokyo Cancelled and Solo for a while now without quite getting around to read either of them. But then I saw is most recent, a non-fiction book on Delhi and the economic boom it experienced since the early 1990s and thought it might make a nice follow-up to Sebastian Lörscher’s graphic journey Making Friends in Bangalore which I read recently. Which it did, precisely by being a very different kind of book.
This is not a travel book – Dasgupta, whose father moved from India to Britain, moved from Britain to India in 2000 and has been living there ever since, all of which makes for a strangely convoluted inside/outside perspective which would be very interesting in itself. But while the author does give us a brief overview of his family history, and consistently brings his own subjectivity into the foreground, putting the many interviews he has led into context and never letting us forget that we are getting an individual perspective on India’s rise to economic power, Dasgupta’s aims are more ambitious than just a narrative of his own experiences.
The main part of Capital consists of Delhi natives telling of their lives – Rana Dasgupta has talked to a large number of people for this book, mostly those who have profited by the recent boom, India’s new “middle class” (although, as Dagupta points out, it consists of only about 10% of India’s total population and is middle only compared to an even smaller section being even richer). He focuses on those people because his main interest lies in India’s so-called “emergence” as an economic global player, and it is that new middle class which instigated the boom and which profits from it. But Capital does not treat this boom as an isolated event, the book is also interested in the causes and consequences of that rise to wealth and power – for the causes, Dasgupta recapitulates a lot of Indian history from 1857 onwards and then ties it back into the present again by interviewing people who are in some kind connected to that history and can testify to the way it leaves its mark on contemporary India, thus letting past and present illuminate each other. And this in turn, he uses to examine the consequences of the exploding wealth on both individuals and society – sometimes drawing parallels (as when he notes that an Indian entrepreneur behaves in Africa very much like British Imperialists did in India), sometimes remarking on the way traditions helped expedite India’s “emergence” (as when the skill set Indian merchant families developed in forming advantageous connections came in handy with the globalization of business) but most often mourning traditions and knowledge that have been lost from former times.
It becomes clear very soon that Dasgupta is deeply skeptical about the improvements that India’s “emergence” has brought to the general populace; he interviews several people from outside the middle classes that have experienced the poverty and deprivation the boom as brought for the many along with the wealth it brought for the few. And even when he talks to those few, the author never loses sight of the swath of destruction the boom has cut through Indian society, the devastation and despair it has left in its wake. And not only does it become increasingly clear that the misery caused is every bit as mind-bogglingly huge as the wealth created, it turns out that many of the people who have become extremely rich are not even particularly happy with their wealth, plagued from a nagging suspicion that they did not really earn it and desperately looking for anything that would justify their sudden affluence. But even as Dasgupta chronicles the misery and injustice the sudden wealth has brought, he keeps an open mind for the positive side of the changes – time and again, the reader can feel the author’s admiration for the limitless energy and boundless enthusiasm of India’s new entrepreneurs. The way they are open for new ideas and often come up with completely new and unexpected solutions for problems constitutes some glimmer of hope in the otherwise rather bleak picture Capital paints, the hope that from their inventiveness and originality might rise yet unthought-of ways to deal with the increasing amount of problems globalization has brought with it.
All of this would have been very interesting to read on its own, but it’s not what makes Capital such an outstanding book. What distinguishes from other essays or journalism on the subject is that Dasgupta brings a novelist’s sensibility to it – which is not mean to say that Capital was a work of fiction (not more than anything written and narrated is, in any case), or that it “reads like a novel” (it does not) but rather that the book was constructed and written by someone conscious of form and language. This is made clear from the start by the ironic reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, continues in the way in which Dasgupta threads his book through with recurring themes and motifs, but is most striking in the way he crystallizes all the complex history and economics into a single place, a single city, how he makes Delhi the focal point of an analysis that seeks to not only capture the state of contemporary India but nothing less than the present state of the world. And I do not only mean that he does it, but indeed how he does it, for a large part of the reason he succeeds so well in this ambitious project (as well, at least, as anyone can with something so inherently impossible – Rana Dasgupta’s own endeavour with Capital has more than a bit of the madcap schemes several of his interview partners are hedging) lies not in his covincing argument, the extensively researched data and the sharp analysis but in the way he manages to capture Delhi’s atmosphere in his descriptions, from the throngs of people in the streets to the desolate wasteland of development areas, from the misery of the slums to the cool and isolated places where the rich isolate themselves from the masses. Capital captures both the ugliness and the beauty of Delhi, and by embedding his interviews and analysis into dense, atmospheric descriptions manages to both heighten his argument and give more definition to his descriptions, thus transcending the regionalism of his immediate subject into not just a picture of present-day India but of the current state of the world.
Rana Dasgupta might not be quite up there with William T. Vollmann, but like the latter’s Seven Dreams, Capital is an example of how fiction authors tackle non-fiction in creative and imaginative ways, and it might be interesting to look out for other authors who have done similar projects (and maybe re-read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men which could be argued was the first book in that vein)....more
Although this ninth is only the penultimate volume of Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s consistently excellent series of police procedurals, it feels likAlthough this ninth is only the penultimate volume of Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s consistently excellent series of police procedurals, it feels like a summing up of what has gone before, of things coming to a head and to an end. The most obvious cause of that is probably that Cop Killer harkens back to the first two novels by bringing back the murderers featured in them (which is why it is a good to not read Cop Killer before Roseanna and The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, unless you really don’t mind spoilers). Maybe somewhat less obvious, but definitely more important is the way this novel marks the culmination of the authors’ ongoing critique of the course Swedish society has taken since the late 60’s.
Nobody who read the any of the previous volumes will be surprised that Sjöwall and Wahlöö take a very dim view of that course, and in Cop Killer there is a pervading sense that things have deteriorated to a state were they are becoming unendurable. Martin Beck spends most of the time in a small provincial town in Southern Sweden, and while that seems like an almost idyllic place compared to Stockholm or even Malmö, it does not remain untouched from the general corruption. More, there is a distinct of siege mentality, with the few good people withdrawing from society, moving to the fringes or into privacy where they try to withstand the tide of greed and stupidity sweeping over the country – I even felt reminded of the zombie apocalypse at times if only for the unrelenting fatalism with which the characters in this novel seem to accept the unavoidable victory of the power-hungry and incompetent. Everyone seems to be resigned to the fact that the country is going to the dogs and that their small acts of defiance (finding the actual killer of a woman in spite of pressure from one’s superiors, arresting a small-time criminal before the full weight of a militarized police force comes crushes on him) will be ultimately futile as the police is taken over by ruthless thugs in the lower and even more ruthless careerists in the upper ranks.
As can probably be guessed from the above, Cop Killer is a very dark and indeed bitter novel. Even so, it is also an occasionally very funny one, as Sjöwall and Wahlöö continue to give their satiric urge free rein, this time not just aiming at police bureaucracy and incompetence but also at the press and their greed for headlines. It is grim and biting humour but still serves as at least a bit of comic relief in what is otherwise a very bleak novel, that barely manages to become outright depressing by granting the protagonists that we have been following over nine volumes now at least some level of private happiness (although it has to be added that compared to earlier volumes their private lives is not given much space here). Just one novel to go now, and it will be interesting to see where Sjöwall and Wahlöö will take the final volume of the series from here....more
Like the preceding volumes in the Orkus series – of which this is the fourth – Der Strom follows the pattern of a crime novel, although this time I foLike the preceding volumes in the Orkus series – of which this is the fourth – Der Strom follows the pattern of a crime novel, although this time I found myself unable to identify a specific subgenre it would belong to. On the other hand, I think none of the previous installments made it quite as clear why Gerhard Roth is so attracted to the structures of crime fiction – it is the aspect of attempting to make sense of the world, to decipher the signals it sends us and to read their hidden messages. And like his protagonists, Roth appears convinced that there is a meaning to unravel, but unlike them he is well aware that its significance is ultimately undecipherable. This is where Roth and conventional crime fiction part ways, for the latter tends to move towards a solution, a final revelation of mysteries, while Roth’s novels usually end in confusion, the mysteries unsolved, the codes unbroken, any meaning opaque.
No other character in the Orkus series so far has been aware as the protagonist of Der Strom, Thomas Mach (who, as far as I can tell, is always referred to with both first and last name together) – but he also is the one who is most obviously not quite sane, as he lets himself be guided by an “Inner Voice” which only he can hear. Unsurprisingly, that voice is more often than not at odds with that is happening around Mach, leading to some very comical results, and making this the funniest novel in the series since the satire on the medical profession in Der See. Gerhard Roth does not even shy away from slapstick humour here, and it can be considered programmatic when he mentions that his protagonist (who coloured his hair red on the advice of his inner voice) looks like Stan Laurel.
Thomas Mach is another of the Austrians abroad that populate this series, younger son of a family that grew rich with the manufacture of paper and was somewhat involved with the Third Reich – while the family has distanced itself from its unsavoury beginnings, the columns of smoke that appear as recurring motif throughout the novel keep it present in the mind of the reader. (There is a lost of smoke in this novel, as well as dust, smell, and other things that fill the air and tine perception in various ways.) Mach travels to Egypt to take over a job for an uncle of his who owns a travel agency – his predecessor had committed suicide, and our protagonist comes into possession of her notebooks which, among fragments from guides and history books with her comments also contain some mysterious writing, done in red and with foreign characters. It does not take Mach long to find out that she was involved in some very shady business dealings, and from there it is just a small step to wondering whether her death really was a suicide…
… and off we go into another mock-crime-fiction plot where the protagonist, led by the voice in his head, shambles through events he does not comprehend, among people whose language he does not understand, surrounded by writing he can not read. Indeed, it is very noticeable in Der Strom how writing pops up literally everywhere Thomas Mach goes and looks. This might not be any different in his native Austria, but by virtue of its very incomprehensibility it is considerably more eye-catching, promising a meaning which it at the same time holds back, and thus making for a striking image of one of the novel’s central concerns. That is underlined by the strange fact that most of the writing appears in red, thus marking it part of a very tightly organised colour scheme which adds another layer of significance to the novel.
Colour in turn evokes seeing and perception which plays an important role in Der Strom right from its brilliant first sentence, “Geblendet vom Sonnenlicht, das durch das Kabinenfenster fiel, öffnete er die Augen.” (“Blinded by the sunlight falling through the window of the cabin, he opened his eyes.”) Note the rather clever inversion here that has the as-yet unnamed protagonist open his eyes to the blinding light thus already indicating that not everything he sees might actually be there (and that motif will recur several times throughout the novel), but also designates a certain openness for new experiences – he does not close his eyes to what happens around him, and if he cannot see it’s from a surfeit of light and impressions, not from a lack of it. This is taken up again almost literally in the novel’s final sentence, “Geblendet vom Sonnenlicht, das vom Wasser reflektiert wurde, schloß er die Augen.” (“Blinded by the sunlight reflected by the water, he closed his eyes.”) – things return to normal again, the protagonist complacently shuts out what blinds him, a light that now is no longer direct but only reflected. Between those two sentences, the whole of Thomas Mach’s journey (and of the novel’s plot) unfolds.
While Mach disdains viewing himself as a tourist, feeling himself somewhat above them by trying to immerse himself in the country he visits and thus to become a traveller, he not only is working (even if only temporarily) for a tourist agency, but the reader also cannot help but noticed that everyone he meets seems to be giving him guided tours which often lead to either tourist attractions or him visiting various colourful natives, in other words his itinerary seems markedly touristic. (And his repeatedly pushing money into the hand of pretty much every native he encounters is one of the running gags of the novel.) But even as its protagonist misses most of what is happening around him, Der Strom manages to paint a very vivid and intense picture of contemporary Egypt, in Gerhard Roth’s familiar sparse and matter-of-fact prose which here again is more frequently spaced through with bursts of lyrical beauty, much more than Der Berg was in which they were mostly absent, yet retaining that novel’s extremely dense interweaving of motifs and images. And in the end I think it is this ability of charging his laconic and deadpan but always very precise prose with beauty and the promise of significance is what makes Gerhard Roth’s novels so consistently fascinating....more
Dream Houses is a separately published (something I have been reading a lot of recently) novella, and while it is comparatively short, Genieve ValentiDream Houses is a separately published (something I have been reading a lot of recently) novella, and while it is comparatively short, Genieve Valentine manages to pack a lot into the small number of pages. The set-up is almost classical – Amadis (and I doubt the name is quite coincidental, in spite of the gender swap), our protagonist and first person narrator wakes up from cold sleep on board of the starship she is a crew member (or, more precisely, an auxiliary) to find out that everyone but her is dead and she somehow has to survive the next five years with insufficient food supplies and an AI named Capella as her only company.
That bare outline of the story might already remind you of several things, and indeed Genevieve Valentine cheerfully plunders a whole arsenal of famous Science Fiction movies: Alien (space truckers!), 2001 (possibly malicious spaceship computer!) and Dark Star (bored in space!) and probably a lot more I did not notice. She does make no attempt to hide it, either, because she does not need to: In spite of all the references, Dream Houses never feels derivative, but does very much its own thing. Part of which consists of not just describing how Amadis attempts to survive and stay sane while also attempting to figure out what exactly went wrong on board of her ship, but in also presenting the reader with long flashbacks from Amadis’ past, centered mostly around her relationship with her brother. Those parts are as bleak as the description of her struggle for survival on board of the space ship, and overall it has to be said that, in spite of occasional flashes of humour, Dream Houses is not a cheerful book by any standard, in fact it is quite depressing. This actually is in favour of the book, as it shows the emotional impact it has on the reader as well as Genevieve Valentine’s skill as a writer to keep us reading even as things become increasingly bleaker towards the unavoidable end – Dream Houses will leave you sad, but it will not leave you untouched.
This is very much a “Golden Age SF” novella – but Golden Age the way I define it, i.e. harkening back to the late 1960s / early 1970s when for SF the exploration of man’s Inner Space became at least as important as imagining bug-eyed aliens Out There – or rather, when there was a keen realization that both were pretty much the same thing, and when writers attempted to find weird new literary forms that would be able to embody all the weird new ideas buzzing around at the time. While Dream Houses is not exactly experimental in its form, it does not subscribe to a simple beginning-middle-end structure either; the flashbacks in particular stir up chronology to slowly coalesce into a picture of what happened in Amadis’ past. She is also not the most reliable of narrators (who would be, after years alone in space?) all of which makes reading Dream Houses a somewhat shifty, unsteady experience, where we can never be sure that things are quite what Amadis makes them appear. Maybe I’m just imagining it, but it seems to me that in recent years there has, after a decade or two where pretty much all published Sf (with, of course, the occasional exception) was either some TV/movie/whatever tie-in or Military SF an increasing trend back towards emphatically literary SF that is not afraid to explore and play with language and narrative structures. But whether it is part of a trend or not, Dream Houses is very recommended – especially for those who enjoy the work of authors like Robert Silverberg or Barry Malzberg....more
Maureen Howard published her first book, Not a Word About Nightingales, in 1961 and apparently it was something of a bestseller. She went on to writeMaureen Howard published her first book, Not a Word About Nightingales, in 1961 and apparently it was something of a bestseller. She went on to write several more novels and a book of autobiography which at least continued to be critically well-received – the edition of Natural History which I own features blurbs by the likes of Susan Sontag and Richard Powers on the backcover. And yet, she appears to be almost completely forgotten today – her name does pop up occasionally in lists of American novelist with a penchant for the experimental (which is where I found her, next to Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo – conspicuous not only for being the only name I had never heard of it, but also for being the only woman on that list), but she does not seem to be discussed much, and even less read – the Goodreads ratings for her novels are absurdly low.
Absurdly because, judging by Natural History, she is a brilliant and exciting novelist; personally, I’d judge that particular novel a major contribution to 20th century literature and think it should be counted among the great American novels of that era. I’m a bit baffled, then, as to why she seems so thoroughly forgotten – I suppose her gender might have something to do with it, and that her novels require some effort on part of the reader. And (given the occasional exception) women writing difficult books seem to have a particular hard time of it, apparently the general reading public is more accepting of breaking and experimenting with established forms when it is done by male authors…
Another reason why Natural History in particular has not received the recognition it deserves is, I suspect, that it constitutes a slap in the face of literary realism, or more precisely a certain kind of American novel that attempts to give a realistic depiction of middle-class life in the the United States, writers, in other words, like Richard Yates, John Cheever or John Updike, a genre I like to call suburban realism and which continues to be popular with critics and readers (compare The almost 50,000 Goodreads ratings for Revolutionary Road with the 16 (!) for Natural History) and which also happens to be quite dominated by male writers.
Natural History consists of three main parts: The longest part, “Museum Pieces” (itself consisting of several chapters) is framed by “Natural History” I and II. The first part, then, “Natural History I” describes a day in the life of the four members of the Bray family towards the end of World War II. It is the most straightforward part of the novel, in fact it his exactly the tone of suburban realism, claiming to present a slice of actual American life and maintaining a more-or-less subtle sense of condescension towards it characters, that slight but always noticable wrinkling of the nose wich seems to be an essential part of this particular sub-genre.
However, this first part merely lays the groundwork for Maureen Howard’s novel, at the same time circumscribing the area where conventional realism is able to reach, the title “Natural History” both referring at the way middle class heterosexual family perceives itself as the natural state of things and the way suburban realism, even with all of its criticism of its specific manifestations, still accepts the white middle-class family as the measure of all things. Natural History repeats that gesture in the first part, confining herself strictly not just to describing a single day in a single narrative mode but also staying close to the perspective of the family’s members.
In the novel’s second part, Maureen Howard subverts…. no, she explodes the novels of suburban realism and its pretensions to present a piece of contemporary life in the USA. She blows the form up and watches it fragments scatter all over the place, then picks them up, rearranges them und puts them on display. She opens up the novel’s perspective beyond the scope of the white middle class to other races and other social strata, unfolding how it is embedded in society and history, reaching back to the 19th century. “Museum Pieces” itself consists (unsurprisingly, given the title) of several chapters, focusing on James and Catherine Bray, who we met as children in “Natural History I,” several decades later, but also on the people each of them is living with – I’m purposefully being somewhat vague here, as one can already see traditional role models dissolve in these relationships.
In that regard, the James’ (who has become a moderately famous actor) project to make a movie about his father (who was a policeman) and one of his cases seems like an attempt to recapture a time where traditional family structure were still intact and working. A large part of the novel centers around this movie project in one way or another, and it will not come as a surprise that the hankering after tradition turns out to be pure nostalgia, pining for a past that never was. The chapters of “Museum Pieces” present a variety of different literary form, from screen plays to a collage from historical documents (presented on even-numbered pages) and narrative (presented on odd-numbered pages). This latter is not just the lonest but also thematically central, it connects all strands of the novel and ties them up with with (among quite a few other things) T.P. Barnum and shopping malls, openly referencing Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk in the way it sparks off insight by juxtaposition of carefully selected material.
Everyone is constantly on display and is constantly aware of it in that Museum of Natural History which is a freak show which is a shopping mall which is the United States of America, and which is also Bridgeport – thanks to the author’s fantastic sense of place, she manages to show that city (home town of Robert Mitchum and Remington where P.T. Barnum was mayor twice) as a focus of everything American and still retain its specific weight as a real place. Natural History is not the easiest novel to read – most of it is written in a stream of consciousness constantly shifting between different narrators and times – but as is so often case the greater challenge also brings greater rewards, in this case one of the most incisive and insightful novels written on the state of the United States in the twentieth century....more
The graphic novel has become widely accepted by now, but novels are not the only form that can be fruitfully assimilated into comics – Sebastion LörscThe graphic novel has become widely accepted by now, but novels are not the only form that can be fruitfully assimilated into comics – Sebastion Lörscher proves with his “graphic journey” Making Friends in Bangalore that travel narratives may also benefit from this treatment.
As the subtitle of this volume indicates, Sebastian Lörscher took his sketchbook along with him to India and made good use of it during his stay, chronicling various encounters he had with people. The drawings are quite rough, using few but expressive strokes, and very, very colourful – I’m not sure what he used (being a complete ignoramus when it comes to drawings) but they looks like crayon drawings to me, and they certainly have something of the exuberance one tends to associate with that drawing utensil favoured by small children.
As is indicated by the book’s main title, this is mainly about the people of Bangalore – although there is an extended appendix where the author gives some general background information on the culture and economy of the Indian city, the by far largest part is given to conversations Lörscher had with a great variety of people of all genders, classes and even nationalities (in one chapter, for example, he meets three people from Iraq). Quite often it is literally the sketchbook by which an encounter is initiated; people notice it, remark on it, ask questions about it, and already a conversation gets going. The inhabitants of Bangalore come across as a very friendly lot here, and in keeping with the mostly bright and colourful style of the drawings the city appears as a place teeming with life. This does not mean that Lörscher ignores the poverty or the social injustice, the fact there is intolerance and class prejudice – but he shows again and again how people refuse to be dragged down by those but are determinedly set on enjoying life to the fullest, no matter what obstacles might get thrown in their way.
Sebastian Lörscher’s drawing style also gives a great immediacy to the encounters he narrates, and much more than photographs retains the individual, subjective gaze on events, thus making this a very personal book which by virtue of precisely that subjectivity brings life in and inhabitants of Bangalore much closer to the reader than any more “objective” medium like photographs or film could.
The result is a highly enjoyable book, in fact one of the must fun ones I have recently read, that also manages to be quite informative, and not just in the appendix, but also in and through the conversations he has with a wide range of individuals who are always more than happy to tell the author about their life, theirs joys and sufferings. Making Friends in Bangalore is a celebration of India and its people, and of the human spirit that finds joy even in adversity. It’s an entertaining and beautiful books and makes one hope that “graphic journeys” will become as popular and accepted as graphic novels are.
And since one really needs to see come pictures to appreciate this book, here is a link to the author’s web site with some sample pages....more
Now that I’m about to catch up on Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series (just one more novel to read left there), it’s time to look for a successor, wNow that I’m about to catch up on Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series (just one more novel to read left there), it’s time to look for a successor, which in this case mean a series of crime novels with a focus on British village life which is the aspect I always enjoyed most with the Merrily Watkins novels. Stephen Booth’s Cooper and Fry series looked promising, so I decided to give its first volume, Black Dog, a try.
Black Dog is set in an area called the Peak District which I am somewhat embarrassed to admit to never have heard before. It appears to be quite well-known though, as Wikipedia tells me it is the site of Britain’s first national park and a very picturesque place; and a brief image search at Google does indeed confirm that the scenery is beautiful. And Stephen Booth really does do the spirit of the place justice – his descriptive passages catch the beauty of the landscape and conjure vivid images of the environment.
But as this a crime novel, the depiction of scenery, however gorgeous it might be, is not really the focus of the novel which becomes clear very soon when the search after a disappeared fifteen-year old girl turns up her dead body. The search for her killer is what constitutes the plot of Black Dog, but – as in really all good crime fiction – the search for the perpetrator is not really the main focus either: That is only incidental, what drives the plot forward, a plot whose chief function, however is to cast light on the psyche of the characters entangled in it, and of the society those characters move in. This is certainly the case with Black Dog – Stephen Booth takes his time, lets us know his characters and the circumstances of their lives while the police continue with their murder investigation. This makes for a fairly slow-moving novel, at least where outright action is concerned, but the author manages even so to keep the reader’s interest invested in the book. For me at least he achieves that mainly with his depiction of the setting and its atmosphere – he makes the Peak District seem a fascinating place, peopled with farmers from long-established families, new arrivals from the nouveaux-riches and a steady stream of tourists; and in between them the policemen who have to struggle with their own problems. The events of Black Dog take place during summer, while the whole area is suffering from a heat wave, and oppressiveness of the high temperatures weighs down on the novel, made almost palpable by Stephen Booth’s writing.
Most prominent among the novel’s population are of course the series’ main characters, DCs Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, the former a native of the area, the second a new arrival from Birmingham. In a reversal of the usual gender roles it is Ben Cooper who appears as the more sensitive, beta part of the duo, while Diane Fry is an ambitious alpha careerist. I could not help the feeling that Booth is holding his cards somewhat close to his chest with those two, no doubt to facilitate further reveals about their lives in later volumes. But even so, I’m particularly impressed by the way he portrays Diane Fry and paints an excellent and unflinching picture of what it is like to be a career-conscious woman in an environment entirely dominated by males – how she is continuously moving in a minefield, has to be aware of every small gesture of her colleagues and how to interpret it, and of every small gesture of herself and how it will be interpreted. All of which has of course consequences on her character which Booth also does not shy away from (and I think that many of the readers who criticize that character for being “cold” fail to take that particular aspect into account). In comparison, Ben Cooper comes across as a bit bland but then there are many more volumes to come…...more
Harry Connolly is the uncrowned king of the elevator pitch: After “Epic Fantasy without the boring bits” for his Epic Fantasy Trilogy The Great Way, nHarry Connolly is the uncrowned king of the elevator pitch: After “Epic Fantasy without the boring bits” for his Epic Fantasy Trilogy The Great Way, now it’s “Pacifist Urban Fantasy” for his most recent offering, the (you guessed it) Urban Fantasy novel A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark (and he’s really good with snappy titles, too).
Urban or (as I prefer) Paranormal Fantasy a genre is pretty much defined as being about “badass heroes or heroines kicking lots of ass”; and even though there have been some more beta protagonists recently (in the excellent series by Rachel Aaron and M.V. Brennan), “pacifist Urban Fantasy” still sounds almost like a contradiction in terms. And Connolly is not just mouthing off, but actually holds true to his premise – while there is some violence it is all on the side of the baddies (you do have to build up a convincing threat after all), while our protagonists do not even retaliate after several attempts on their lives but invariably try for (and eventually achieve) a peaceful solution, using brains (and some magic) rather than brawns.
This might sound boring to the seasoned reader of Paranormal Fantasy who is used to lots of ass being kicked but on the other hand the genre is so choked by clichés by now that they might experience as a fresh breeze. For my part, I’m firmly in the second camp – while A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark might not be as compulsive reading as some of the better representatives of the genre out there, or even Connolly’s own Great Way (I still have to read his Paranormal Twenty Palaces series) it still makes for a highly entertaining read. The plot is kept moving by a murder mystery and follows the investigation of the death of deeply unsympathetic lawyer Aloysius Pierce by his aunt Marley Jacobs and his half-brother Albert. While the question of who killed Aloyisius and why is what keeps events moving forward, it’s not really what keeps the reader turning the pages – the main appeal of the novel is not its plot, but its characters, and more precisely its main protagonist Marley Jacobs.
Even though we mostly view her through the eyes of her nephew Albert – a former soldier who lost half his right hand in Afghanistan and in the course of the novel slides into a new job as his aunt’s assistant – Marley is clearly the heroine of A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark, and here Connolly deviates even more from genre expectations than with his pacifistic premise. For she is no leather-clad twenty-year old, not even a slacker in jeans and sneakers, but a nice elderly lady who appears completely harmless. Of course, even if somewhat less obvious, she is also the protector of Seattle – where the novel takes place – and an experienced magician, which makes for a fun combination, especially with the way Connolly envisions magic here as something that is not ruled by any system but capricious, whimsical, apparently random and generally a delight to read about.
“Delightful” is in fact how I would characterize A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark – again, not exactly the most likely epithet for a Paranormal Fantasy novel, but a great part of this novel’s pleasure stems precisely from its unlikeness. It apparently came into being as a stretch goal for Connolly’s Epic Fantasy Kickstarter project, and that is probably the reason why it’s a bit rough around some of its edges and not nearly as polished as the novels that made up The Great Way. But it gives the impression that its author had a lot of fun writing it, and at least this reader greatly enjoyed it reading it....more
After reading Liam Howley’s The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone I felt the sudden (if not completely inexplicable) urge to read a novel by Gabriel GarcAfter reading Liam Howley’s The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone I felt the sudden (if not completely inexplicable) urge to read a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, an author I’ve been wanting to read more of for quite some time, and as I’m a sucker for chronology, I grabbed his first published novel, In Evil Hour (only to find out later that he had published two novellas before that… ah well).
It is a very short novel but has a felt two dozen protagonists, so it is not always easy to keep everyone apart, and reading it is likely to require more attention than its language or structure might otherwise warrant. With that many characters in such a small space, you wouldn’t expect them to be fleshed out much, and indeed, they aren’t: Marquez is obviously not so much interested in portraying individuals but instead wants to give the collective portrait of a village, each inhabitant part of a whole rather than something in and of themselves.
The village itself is never named, which suggests that, just like he is not describing individual persons, Marquez’ is not to write about a specific village. Using the regional to portray the general while still staying true to regional idiosyncrasies is a method William Faulkner has perfected, and his influence is very, very noticeable here, not just in the way local peculiarities and wide-ranging allegory are folded into each other, but also in the way In Evil Hour never seems to be tackle its supposed subjects directly, but has a strange, and to me at least very Faulknerian way to write around them. The ostensible subject of the novel, what its claims its plot to be about and what keeps evens moving is a deluge of slanderous notes pinned to house walls the village is being plagued by. (The translator renders the Spanish word as “lampoon” which did seem a bit off to me, as the contents of the notes appears to be gossip rather than the satire the English term would imply.)
In Evil Hour starts off with a (literal) bang as the notes claim a first death (which will not be the last), and the main part of the novel shows how the village’s authority figures – the mayor (who, like the village, is never given a name), the judge and the priest – attempt to deal with the perceived threats to the village’s peace, attempts that lead to a downwards spiral of violence and oppression until the village finally slides back into the dictatorship it originally claimed to have left behind for a more enlightened and humane regime. While all this happens, we never get to see a single one of those notes (the only one that actually shows up is immediately torn into small pieces without the reader being told anything about its specific content), they are only referred to by others, and – of course – we never get to find out who actually posted them. The latter in particular seems to have infuriated quite a few readers, but I think it actually works in the novel’s favour, lending it a slightly off, unreal atmosphere, as if we were watching a dream unfold, a dream that inexorably descends into a nightmare.
So while there is nothing blatantly magical about In Evil Hour, it’s not simply realistic either – there is a pervasive sense of unreality shrouding the characters and events in the novel; it never really manifests itself but is felt all the more keenly precisely because of its intangibility. Even the characters themselves seem to be aware of that some times, it is like one of them occasionally lifts his or her head, wondering what it is they are doing, on the cusp of waking – only to sink back into the dream again an instant later. And here lies what appears to me to be a bit of an issue with In Evil Hour: It is undoubtedly an immensely political novel, offering what I think is a valid analysis of how power structures persist even after the circumstances and reasons that give rise to them have disappeared. But the political impetus would have to be one towards change, and for that the dreamlike quality of the novel which tinges everything with an air of fatalistic necessity seems very counterproductive. In Evil Hour demonstrates that change is necessary, while at the same time suggesting that it is impossible, thus getting in its own way and lessening its impact – although, of course, one also might read it as a profoundly bleak novel about the futility of political endeavour....more
The title is already an indication of it: after Patrick O’Brian went all Jane Austen on his readers in Post Captain, this third volume of his Aubrey-MThe title is already an indication of it: after Patrick O’Brian went all Jane Austen on his readers in Post Captain, this third volume of his Aubrey-Maturin series returns to mostly naval matters. But even as it shifts focus back to the sea retains the human and social dimension that the previous novel introduced to the series, giving the two main characters James Aubrey and Stephen Maturin even more depth, and slowly turning them into what might very well be some of the most deeply realized characters in fiction this side of Ulysses (and, as a brief, totally-besides-the-point aside, nobody, but really nobody, not even Shakespeare does characters like James Joyce).
The series, then – to return to the subject of this review – continues to improve, and HMS Surprise is the best installment so far – it gets the balance between adventure and contemplation, between naval action and character description, between fighting and exploration just right, and even turns out to possess a well-wrought structure: While in the first two novels, O’Brian seemed satisfied to have his plot amble aimlessly wherever his whim took it, this time the novel is framed by two extended fighting sequences (both centered around Jack) at the beginning and the end (one on land, one on sea) while the middle part (mostly centered around Stephen) is given to exploration (something else O’Brian does exceptionally well and to which I will have to return in a later post), descriptions of life on sea and character development. Jack’s and Stephen’s affairs of the heart proceed in a nicely measured symmetry, constantly juxtaposing one with the other until, by the end of the novel, they find themselves at opposite ends of the happiness scale. After the rather amorphous preceding volumes it was really unexpected (I’m very tempted to say, it was a real surprise – if that wasn’t such a horrible, Aubrey-worthy pun) to find this one so perfectly poised, as if O’Brian just wanted to show that he was able to do it if he could be bothered.
But HMS Surprise is not just the structurally most refined but also the novel with by far the greatest emotional impact so far – not just because the narrative continues to follow the love affairs of our protagonists begun in Post Captain, but chiefly due to a certain episode Stephen encounters (about which I will not go into any detail to avoid spoilers) which ends in a devastating tragedy. The episode I am alluding to here is utterly heartbreaking, and it is here that the series first shows the emotional depths it is capable of plumbing. I suspect, however, that it will not have been the last time, now that Patrick O’Brian has shown here (and in some other events, also involving Stephen – who really has a very bad time in this novel) that he is not afraid of putting his protagonists through the wringer.
The novel ends on a note which a certain sense of closure to events, and with that and the careful symmetry in its structure, I couldn’t help but think that HMS Surprise might actually have been a good point to end the series as a trilogy. Thankfully, O’Brian didn’t but went on to add many, many more volumes which I’m quite excited about reading....more
The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone reads like the Irish pendant to One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Believe me, I tried really, really hard to resist the tThe Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone reads like the Irish pendant to One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Believe me, I tried really, really hard to resist the temptation to write the above sentence, but in the end, there is no way around it: it’s what best sums up Liam Howley’s debut novel. It takes place for the most part in a provincial village that represents the country if not the world and humanity at large in a nutshell, follows several generations of the same family and some inhabitants of the village, is basically realistic but with the occasional excursion into the territory of the fantastic and is told in an image-rich language that is not afraid of the occasional tinge of purple.
Which, if you think about it, is not really that much of a surprise – with their legendary penchant for tall tales and larger-than-life stories, the Irish practically invented magical realism (and I think there could be made a case that the “Cyclops” chapter from Joyce’s Ulysses is the first piece of magical realism in modern literature) and if there is anything to wonder about than it is that there are not more magical realists among contemporary writers.
In any case, The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone, even while wearing its influences on its sleeve, does not simply imitate Garcia Marquez’ novel – it might be obvious which direction Liam Howley is coming from, but the way he is taking from there is distinctly his own. His novel is markedly more focused than One Hundred Years of Solitude, both in content and in form.
Content-wise, The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone mostly follows the vicissitudes of a single family over four generations, only occasionally straying from that genealogy, and it even has something like a main character, Cornelius Conlon, who is already old when the novel starts, given to preaching on street corners and long solitary walk in the countryside and obsessed by chronicling the weather down to its minutest changes. Poulnabrone, the village he lives in, lies next to a river, constantly threatening floods, and sits on top of a vast system of tunnels, dug over decades for weapon smuggling and other clandestine activities. The tunnels and the river are slowly eroding Poulnabrone to the point where buildings are beginning to slide and its inhabitants live in slanted houses (from which Howley strikes some very funny sparks), something they seem strangely indifferent to, even as more and more cracks appear in the walls of their homes. The author is not subtle about Poulnabrone being an image for contemporary Ireland but this works well for the novel, and allows him to insert some trenchant satire, in particular towards the end when Poulnabrone briefly becomes a tourist attraction and the village’s inhabitants conserve the cracks and decay of their houses in order to draw in more visitors. In fact, this is possibly another distinction between One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone – the latter is considerably funnier than the former.
Which is not to say that Liam Howley’s novel was chiefly a comedy, or that its imagery was confined to making Poulnabrone mirror Ireland. This, in fact, brings us to the second area where The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone turns out to be more focused than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel – while that is sprawling both in its story and its symbolism, Howley keeps his imagery much tighter; clustering it around three motifs: the underground tunnels / earth (which are tight, constricted and determined), the river / water (which is flowing, ever-changing and chaotic) and the weather / air (which appears chaotic but works according to complex rules, whose order is so complex that it is almost indistinguishable from accident). The episodic plot of the novel is held together by those thematic clusters which branch out and interconnect in a variety of ways, and Cornelius Conlon, his daughter Lily, her daughter Tara, and her unnamed child move among images as much as they do among real landscapes. This is accomplished by prose that is as dense as it is beautiful and by a deliberate (if occasionally somewhat awkward – but then, this is a debut novel) structure which slowly fragments as the village Poulnabrone increasingly deteriorates. The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone is very, very impressive for a first novel and judging by it, there is hope for great things to come from Liam Howley....more