This is a collection of Urban Fantasy stories – “Urban Fantasy” in the more traditional (think Charles de Lint etc.) sense of magic spilling into everThis is a collection of Urban Fantasy stories – “Urban Fantasy” in the more traditional (think Charles de Lint etc.) sense of magic spilling into everyday life rather than the more recent (think Charlaine Harris) of sexy vampires and werewolves. It also is a collection of stories by a Malaysian author, and the tales are deeply steeped not only in Malaysian folklore but also in the languages of Malaysia – a very distinctive way of using English which is generously peppered with (presumably) Malaysian terms, not to mention all kinds of exotic foodstuffs. I was glad to be reading this on a Kindle, as that way I could at least easily look up the latter, but of course I did not get very far with the words from Malay that way; so be prepared to be puzzled a lot or have frequent recourse to the internet search engine of your choice.
This might have come across as an affectation, the real world equivalent of third-rate Fantasy authors splashing made-up words all over their texts to make them look more exotic, but you never get that feeling reading Spirits Abroad: For one thing, Zen Cho is emphatically not a third-rate writer, but emphatically first-rate and her generous use of Malayan terms is actually a case on point – even if you do not the meaning of the words she uses (and I admit to having often been too lazy to look them up), there is a rhythm to her sentences, a rhythm that is slow and easy but none the less compelling for that, and a melody to her sounds, a melody made of vivid and intense tone colours (and on a side note, the cover of the e-book version of this collection really fits the stories perfectly).
It all combines to a very distinct, unique narrative voice that remains identifiable and close to itself even through various narrators. In fact that is the single small niggle I have towards this collection – the narrators, in particular those in first person, always seem in danger of becoming indistinguishable, of running together in the larger auctorial voice. It never quite happens (hence this is a really minor thing) but I at least felt there was a potential problem here. In any case, if one was to describe Zen Cho’s narrative voice, I think the term that will most likely come first to one’s mind is “charming” – there is such an obvious delight the narratives take in themselves, in the sheer act of their telling, the spinning out of their tales in this colourful, highly rhythmical manner that it seems impossible for any reader to not become enchanted by that voice and then enthuse about it in turn.
So far so remarkable – but what I think makes this collection really stand out and lifts it from the merely very good to the truly excellent, is that Zen Cho somehow manages to use that charming voice – which seems made for cute, lovely stories – to tell some very dark and occasionally even gruesome tales, the apparent innocence of the narrator’s tone heightening the haunting effect these stories have on the reader. While there are several quite wonderful stories in Spirits Abroad that are funny and heartwarming, the one that tend to stick in the reader’s memory (this reader’s, anyway) are the ones where the charm is layered over or shot through with a darker tone, like “The First Witch of Damansara” or “The House of Aunts”. The latter one in particular (according to the author, her take on Twilight – and in retrospect, you can see where she is coming from there, although I never would have noticed just from the story, it is just so different) has a huge emotional impact and I can understand why that is apparently the most popular of her stories.
This was a really enjoyable collection, and I’m eager to read more by Zen Cho – she has a novel coming out in September, described by Naomi Novik as “An enchanting cross between Georgette Heyer and Susanna Clarke, full of delights and surprises.” Needless to say, it went on my preorder list straight away....more
I am a huge fan of Amanda Downum’s Necromancer Chronicles, and I have to confess that I was more than a bit disappointed to learn that her new novel,I am a huge fan of Amanda Downum’s Necromancer Chronicles, and I have to confess that I was more than a bit disappointed to learn that her new novel, Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, was not part of that series (and I still hope that she’ll get the chance to continue it one day). That disappointment, however, did not even survive the five or so pages of the Prologue; by then I was totally gripped by what turned out another brilliant novel by that author (who is on her way of becoming one of my favourite writers of speculative fiction).
While the Necromancer Chronicles were Second World Fantasy, her new novel belongs unambiguously to the horror genre; in fact it places itself firmly in a certain tradition by incorporating numerous references to Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, which – among others – greatly influenced H.P. Lovecraft. And there is something quite old-fashioned about Dreams of Shreds and Tatters in the way Downum deftly builds an atmosphere of looming dread, just a few wispy strands of fog barely above ground level at first, but slowly and ineluctably rising higher and higher, until the characters of the novel (not to mention its readers) find themselves entirely caught up in an alien, unutterable horror,manipulated by forces far beyond human knowledge and experience for inscrutable purposes.
But Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is not just a nostalgic excursion into retroland, but updates the supernatural horror for contemporary sensibilities – there are zombies and the occasional action scene and, more importantly, among Downum’s protagonists are people of colour, queers and of course women with agency. All of which places the novel into another, more colourful horror tradition, namely of the early Clive Barker and Caitlín R. Kiernan, the first for his vivid, bizarre imagination, the second for replacing the usually rather bland protagonists of classic weird fiction with credible, interesting characters.
If all of this makes Dreams of Shreds and Tatters sound somewhat less than original, then this is not quite untrue – but lack of originality is, I am quite confident, fully intended by the author. The novel is a deliberate weaving-together of two quite disparate strands of tradition in horror fiction, and Amanda Downum purposely plays with elements from both these traditions making this, if you want, a postmodern horror novel. But it’s not really self-referential games Downums is interested in – underneath the brightly polished brilliance of the writing and the dazzling display of bizarre creatures, Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is at its heart a character-driven novel and the literary and imaginative fireworks it burns have in the end as its main purpose to illuminate the people populating the world Amanda Downum has created. She presents the reader with a variety of viewpoints most of them, in keeping with Chamber’s The King in Yellow, artists with of a somewhat decadent inclination. Something I particularly loved is how, although we learn a lot about those characters, really none of them is made totally transparent – they all keep some of their secrets, and this opacity makes them more substantial, gives them a certain weight and allows them retain their mystery and likely to occupy the reader’s mind even after finishing the book.
I’m still hoping for more Necromancer Chronicles, but now I’m hoping for a sequel to Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, too (and there are some hints as to wider conflicts of which events playing out in this novel may be a part… so there is hope). Or really, anything Amanda Downum may want to write next....more
The first thing one notices about Joyce Carol Oates is the sheer quantity of her output; in fact, it seems impossible to write anything about her withThe first thing one notices about Joyce Carol Oates is the sheer quantity of her output; in fact, it seems impossible to write anything about her without at least a passing reference to the huge amount of books she has published (apparently by now more than fifty novels and forty story collection, several volumes of essays and assorted other things). High Lonesome, then, although it is a fairly massive volume, probably presents only a very small selection of the first forty years of Oates’ writing (from 1966 to 2006), lumped together with eleven new stories (new at the time of publication, anyway).
I really only had a very vague idea what to expect when I ventured into this volume – I had read Mysteries of Winterthurn a long time ago as teenager and only remember that I was very confused by it but kind of liked it. It’s a bit of a mystery to me why I haven’t read anything by her since then, seeing how I read a lot of books and hence tend to like prolific authors who keep feeding my habit. A career-spanning collection of stories seemed like a good way to remedy that and to find out whether I actually liked the author or not – none of which, however really worked out as planned.
For one thing, Oates is not only known for her prolific output but also for the great variety in her work – and there is not really all that much of the latter noticeable in High Lonesome. Which, I hasten to add, is probably intentional – the collection is organized in decades, and each of the decades appears to have a thematic emphasis (violence, adultery, rape) which I (almost) certain is owed to the selection rather than giving a representative sample of the stories Oates has written in those periods. There is nothing wrong with that as it is a way of presenting the central themes of Oates’s fiction in general, but it does evoke a certain sense of samey-ness if (as I did) one reads the collection in one go. So maybe it would have been better to take things slowly and read the stories individually, with breaks between them. On the other hand, reading the collection as a whole not only made the thematic focal points obvious but also illuminated some general traits of Joyce Carol Oates’ writing which I found quite fascinating.
One thing becomes clear very quickly on reading this collection, namely that Joyce Carol Oates is not Raymond Carver and not even Ernest Hemingway – she does not subscribe to the understatement school of story writing, and she is about as far from minimalism as it is possible get: She emphatically favours grand gestures and high-strung emotions and generally does so using a copious amount of words. In fact, as I was making my way through this collection I felt the nagging suspicion creeping up on me that through all the diversity of styles and genres Joyce Carol Oates utilizes, she in fact is only ever writing in a single genre, and that genre is melodrama. By the time I had finished High Lonesome, that suspicion had grown into certainty: Everything in this collection is high melodrama, all 690 pages of it. Even those stories masquerading as realism are only wearing camouflage, scratch a bit on the surface and the psychological veneer peels away, revealing the improbable plot, the outré characterisation and the excessive emotions so typical of melodrama.
That is admittedly not exactly an orignal insight, the connection between Joyce Carol Oates’ writing and melodrama is made quite frequently and generally not in a positive way but to the contrary, as criticism. This might be valid if psychological realism is the yardstick you measure all things literary with, but the 19th century has been over for a while now and there are more ways to write a novel; and there is no a priori reason why melodrama should not be just as valid as realism to give a form to the perception of contemporary life (not even to mention all the other possible purposes of literary writing). So, instead of rejecting these stories because they are melodrama, the question would be to ask why are they melodrama and does their chosen form and genre achieve what it sets out to do?
To answer that properly would require a detailed analysis if every story in this collection, which, even if I was inclined to do it, would be beyond the scope of a humble blog post. If I did have the time and leisure to take a close look at the stories, I’d argue that what Joyce Carol Oates employs here is a very specific kind of melodrama which I would like to call hysterical – connecting back to the old, pre-Freudian, openly misogynistic concept of hysteria and arguing that what Oates attempts in these stories (and quite possibly in her writing in general) is an appropriation of that concept for feminism. Hysteria traditionally has been a cipher for a supposed emotional instability in women, who allegedly would flow off on an emotional tangent on the slightest provocation, an effervescence of feeling that would retain only a very flimsy and strained connection to what caused it. And this seems to me a very good description of the modus operandi of every single story in this collection – there is a constant sense of emotional overdrive here, of feelings being in excess of what events (as horrid as they often are) seem to warrant, a relentless tension of high-strung emotions never relaxing. Almost 700 pages if this can become exhausting, leaving the reader drained and numb, or it can – as happened to me – induce a strange of kind of dizziness, a state of trance, almost a delirium-like state. And, increasingly the more stories I read, the nagging feeling that maybe the excesses of these stories are not so excessive after all – or rather, excessive only in that by being so emphatically over the top they break through the numbness and boredom with which these days we tend to receive any news about repeated violence, continued rapes and commonplace adultery. Oates’s hysterical tone marks a hyper-sensibility, it is a seismograph whose needle reacts sensitive to even faint tremblings – and that such a finely tuned instrument is necessary to make the shock value of the violence/rape/adultery/whatever else she happens to write about felt – to make it even felt at all, is already a comment on the state of things as they are on a purely formal level.
It will hardly come as a surprise that this method is not successful in every single story in this collection, in fact quality tends to vary wildly. It works best when Joyce Carol Oates either lets go and gives in to excess, where form and language adjust to the story’s tone, as if distorted by hysteria (as, for example, in “Fat Man My Love” – a story based blatantly on the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren transformed into an utterly over-the-top psychodrama about art and patriarchal power structures), or in the reverse case of those stories that are most restrained on the surface, where Oates tells of mundane events but enhances them, elevates them to a different level of significance by telling them in her hysterical tone of voice (like “The Dead”, Oates’s feminist take on James Joyce’ story of the same title or the short “Nairobi” whose unassuming surface hides the abyss of gender relations into which it drops the reader).
Summing up, I still do not know whether I like Joyce Carol Oates or not. Quite a few people do seem to love her work, or else I’d suspect that she was just not the kind of writer to be liked. I suppose I will just have to read more of her work to find out, and at least I can say that much that I find her interesting enough that I do want to find out....more
This is a book about two brothers from Cuba who formed a Mambo band in the fifties and emigrated into the United States. It has kind of a double strucThis is a book about two brothers from Cuba who formed a Mambo band in the fifties and emigrated into the United States. It has kind of a double structure: on the hand it, it mimics (starting with the title) a record with A and B side, but it also is a doubly framed narrative, with the son of one of the brothers imagining the other brother (that's his uncle, obviously) spending his last few days in his room in a shabby hotel reminiscing and imagining his life. Which means that except for two brief, prologue/epilogue-like passages at the beginning and the end of the novel the reader is told everything from at least one and most frequently two or three removes away.
This sounds more complicated than it actually is when reading the novel - while The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love does like to jump back and forth in time, its essentially episodic character keeps it from getting confusing; the narration is not so much fragmented as split down into small units that work mostly independently from each other and just happen to share characters (which fits quite well with - possibly even is a consequence of - the record-like structure of the novel, which is a collection of songs rather than a unified work like, for example, a symphony). And while the novel keeps reminding the reader from time to time that they're one or two narrators away from events as they actually happened, it never really makes much of this and avoids any kind of in-depth explorations of the unreliability of memory or the epistemology of narrative.
What The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love focuses on instead and what indeed it is mostly about is masculinity, about the ways males attempt to assert their manhood and the ways they hurt not only women but themselves in the process. The novel's first part (the A side of the imaginary record) contrasts two types of masculinity, embodied in the two Castillo brothers: Cesar, who is an unabashed macho and sleeps with as many women as he can, each of them another proof of his manhood, and Nestor who proves his masculinity by staying true to a single woman, even after she left him and he has found happiness with another woman. Hijuelos shows convincingly how the apparently deep, sensitive and soulful type of man who keeps pining after his one true love is just as (if not even more) oppressive to women and ultimately self-destructive than superficial, unsteady machismo. The second part focuses entirely on Cesar and shows how his manhood falls into pieces as it grows older - as he largely defines himself by way of his penis (and its supposedly impressive size), his identity and sense of self-worth start to come apart as the seams when he grows older and increasingly less attractive to women, until he finally only keeps himself upright and intact by reminiscences of his former sexual acts.
I thought the first part worked better than the second one because the contrasting attitudes of the two brothers kept things more lively and interesting than Cesar whining about how it he can't get it up anymore - the lonely old man in his hotel room mourning his past was probably supposed to be sad and melancholic, but for the most part just comes across as querulous and fretful. What Hijuelos does really well is steep the reader in the atmosphere of the time and place he is describing (even though in some passages he does rely rather too much on simple name-dropping to create a mood), particularly his descriptions of pre-revolutionary Cuba are vivid and intense and infused with the kind of elegiac nostalgia he fails to achieve with the fate of aging Cesar. Here, however, one would have wished for a bit less nostalgia, as there was not really much about the Batista regime to wax lyrical about - something which, to be fair, the novel does not completely gloss over, but there is an undeniable tendency to view this time clouded in a romanticised haze that blurs the edges of oppression and poverty.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love won the Pulitzer prize in 1990 - apparently Oscar Hijuelos was the first Latin writer to win it, so I suppose there is some achievement in that, but for the novel it is typical Pulitzer fare - neither really bad nor really good, somewhat literary but not too difficult, and overall distinctly mediocre. I don't (quite) regret reading the novel, but won't be in a hurry to seek out anything else by that author....more
In his An Area of Darkness V. S. Naipaul had measured the India of 1963 against the nostalgic, imagined India from his childhood days of growing up inIn his An Area of Darkness V. S. Naipaul had measured the India of 1963 against the nostalgic, imagined India from his childhood days of growing up in the Indian community of Trinidad and – rather unsurprisingly – found it much wanting. Here, in his second book on India, he attempts to take the India of 1976 on its own terms – and the result are not much better, possibly even worse.
India: A Wounded Civilization is a very different book from its predecessor which according to Naipaul’s preface (added for a later edition of the book) was mostly due to the time he was visiting the country – he was asked by several publishers to write book on India during the Emergency – the state of emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, suspending the constitution and for all practical purposes turning India into a dictatorship – and he accepted, apparently intending a more or less “normal” travel book, mostly based on him interviewing a number of natives. Those, however proved to be singularly uncooperative, and this led to Naipaul selecting a different approach, relying on secondary sources rather than first hand accounts.
Which, is has to be said, was not exactly favourable to the vividness and general colourfulness of this India: A Wounded Civilization – compared to An Area of Darkness, this book is a very dry affair, and humour is largely absent from it. This later book is (at least) as much analysis as observation, (at least) as much essay as it is travel narrative. In his preface to my edition Naipaul claims that there was (albeit only half-consciously) a thesis behind this book, namely that India and Indian culture over the centuries has been shaped by having been conquered several times over. Which seems both fairly obvious and quite trite to me (which conquered country would not bear the traces of that conquest?) – but fortunately, this by no means sums up what in my opinion is, for all its differences to An Area of Darkness another fascinating and highly perceptive exploration of India.
What is true about the claim of India: A Wounded Civilization having a central thesis, in any case, is that what Naipaul chiefly explores this time is not so much India as it presents itself and can be experienced, not so much the empirical India, but India in the way it relates to other cultures, those cultures that came to conquer and placed their indelible stamp on the country and its people. The unexpected thing about this is that Indians not only attempt to reject that foreign influence but that they even deny it, or, even beyond that, that they do not even perceive its existence in the first place even as it shows all around them.
In An Area of Darkness, Naipaul saw the way it held on to traditions and their relics as the essence of Hinduism; in India: A Wounded Civilization his view has shifted (or maybe expanded) somewhat – now, Hinduism appears essentially as a withdrawal to the self, a focusing on what is known and one’s own, and the exclusion of all external influences where they do not directly touch on that self. This Naipaul also makes out as the Indians’ primary defensive mechanism against the repeated conquests of their country, and considering that for all practical purposes this strategy amounts to burying one head in the sand, that is a pretty harsh judgment, making it somewhat understandable why so many people seem to hate this book.
But Naipaul does make a compelling case, drawing on some interesting sources – not just his own travels and newspaper and magazine articles but also Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography (in a particular brilliant chapter singled out for praise even by many people who otherwise dislike the book) and, most surprisingly, two Indian novels, one by R. K. Narayan, one by a contemporary author. Of course Naipaul does not read those as factual accounts, but rather as a kind of psychogram of the Indian mind; and it makes sense that when it comes down to exploring a people’s worldview and attitudes, the way it does (or, in this case, doesn’t) perceive things, then a novel makes as good source material as any magazine article or non-fiction study, might even surpass them for its more refined sensorium and is condensation of experience into significance.
Of course, it needs someone to be able to actually read and distill that significance from the source material, and Naipaul proves himself to be as masterful in deciphering secondary sources as he is adept in coaxing the essence out of firsthand experiences. It is less surprising that he censures the Indians so heavily for their failure in perception once one realizes just how uncannily perceptive Naipaul himself is, in the way he notices small things, in the way he combines those with other tiny details he has observed, and in the way he draws conclusions from this that are both surprising and compelling, presenting them in a language that is both precise and beautiful and moves along with a delicately articulated rhythm. V. S. Naipaul holds the balance between reporting from his experience and analysing his source materials and combines them into a distinct form, which marks India: A Wounded Civilization not so much as a travel narrative than something which would probably be most aptly called a travel essay.
In the course of my unofficial reading project on India I am planning on read Naipaul’s third book in India next, but seeing how much I have come to enjoy this writer (well, his works, for the man still appears thoroughly unlikable – although I suppose he should be rewarded some bonus points for not trying to conceal it), I will likely end up reading more of his work; in fact I am quite curious to find out what his novels are like....more
Mutter Vater Roman is Reinhard Jirgl’s first published novel, and in a way it also is one of his more recent ones. The author gives a sketch of the coMutter Vater Roman is Reinhard Jirgl’s first published novel, and in a way it also is one of his more recent ones. The author gives a sketch of the convoluted publication history in an afterword: After several years or working on it, the novel was shelved by GDR authorities for not conforming to the Marxist view of history (hardly a surprise to anyone who has read more than ten pages of anything by this author); it was finally published during the final year of the GDR, but without any publicity and with a tiny number of copies which soon disappeared without a trace (and today are sold for astronomical sums). The novel I have read and am writing about here is the re-issue from 2012 which was revised by the author – a revision which is only mentioned in the book’s imprint and not in Jirgl’s afterword, so that there is no way to tell how far those revisions intruded on the original version.
This version of Mutter Vater Roman, then, is not the original, but the original as viewed through the lens of the matured author, a strange bastard of uncertain parenthood and as such it touches on some central thematic concerns of the novel – as if the publishing history had become part of the novel itself, reality folded into fiction, or maybe fiction prescribing reality. Which, judging from the two novels by him I have read so far, seems to be a motif which also pops up quite frequently with this author who certainly deserves to be counted among Germany’s foremost postmodern novelists.
Whatever revisions Reinhard Jirgl might have made, he did not attempt to erase the traces of Mutter Vater Roman being an early effort – most noticeably, the reader will find hardly any trace of the idiosyncratic orthography which is usually the first thing anyone notices about this author. In general, this novel seems less refined, much more raw than Jirgl’s later efforts (well, the one of them which I have read so far), which is not always a bad thing – while the way Jirgl treats his shifting narrative viewpoints here does appear somewhat awkward compared to the mind-boggling complexities of Abschied von den Feinden, the prose here is even closer to the language of German expressionism than in the late novel, and a richness of imagery surpassing that of the later novel, and which may be undisciplined and unruly but is also intense and powerful in its impact on the reader. And finally, maybe most surprising of at – there are actual traces of humour in Mutter Vater Roman. Admitted, it is of the grim satire variety and not what anyone would call cheerful, but still worth remarking upon considering how far removed from anything comical Abschied von den Feinden is.
This, on the other hand, is something that has not changed from the earlier to the later novel, and is maybe even more of a hallmark of Reinhard Jirgl’s writing than the orthography – its relentless negativity, its unremitting bleakness which elevates misanthropy to an entirely new level, a level all Jirgl’s own. Jirgl’s world is in the state of permanent doomsday, no matter whether he is writing about the end of Nazi Germany and the first years of the German Democratic Republic or whether he goes back several centuries to the time of the Thirty Years War – his excursions into the past are not really historical because underneath his apocalyptic gaze there has been no change at all between then and now. This is of course emphatically not how Marxists view history, so Jirgl can’t have been surprised when GDR censors refused to publish his novels. But it’s also not a world view which would sit comfortable with late Capitalism, which shares at least that much with Communism that both assume things to be steadily improving, history moving towards a goal of commonly shared happiness. In Jirgl, there is no promise of happiness that is not almost instantly destroyed, perverted or used to oppress the people it was supposed to make happy – no man-created system will be able to raise man above his own infamy and his drive towards self-destruction.
But Mutter Vater Roman is a novel, not a treatise, which takes us once again back to the language as the reason for why it succeeds as a novel, and succeeds so admirably. One hesitates to call a writing beautiful that finds nothing but destruction and decay wherever it directs its gaze, that burrows into phenomena, digging deeper and deeper, throwing up fragments of images and parts of metaphors, until it uncovers the violence at the heart of things, then drags it out, still quivering and bleeding, to hold it forth in a gruesome display, accompanied by continuous maniacal cackling. But it is writing that has an impact, even if that impact consists of leaving the reader as if he had been put through a wringer, reeling and panting – reading Mutter Vater Roman is not (like all of Reinhard Jirgl’s novels) a pleasant experience, but an experience it is, and one which might furnish the reader with a richer, more nuanced and refined sensorium for what is wrong with this world....more
If Cop Killer felt like the final volume of Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s series of police procedurals (I simply refuse to call it the “Martin BeckIf Cop Killer felt like the final volume of Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s series of police procedurals (I simply refuse to call it the “Martin Beck” series like the covers of my edition do, because that goes blatantly against the spirit of the series), then The Terrorists reads like its epilogue.
The first nine volumes demonstrated how Sweden went from there (a comparatively enlightened state granting great liberties to its citizens) to here (an almost police state whose bureaucracy grinds down everyone who does not conform to the system), volume ten now presents a picture of how things are going to remain from now on. It is by far the longest novel in the series, and this is in part because it presents something like a summa of what the series has been about.
And in part this is because we almost get two novels in one here – one making up roughly the first half of the novel, consisting of a traditional whodunnit, the second telling of the attempts of Martin Beck and a team of (what often feels like the last few competent) policemen to prevent the assassination of a visiting right-wing politician from the United States. This repeats on a smaller scale the Before & After relation in which The Terrorists seems to me to stand to the rest of the series – the first crime appears almost old-fashioned, not only a crime of passion but one where the criminal actually used his crime to correct the shortcomings of the justice system. Sjöwall / Wahlöö don’t quite advocate vigilante justice here, but they also leave no doubt that the murder victim has ample deserved his fate and was killed to avenge a wrong.
In sharp contrast to this, the new, worse times have brought with them a new, worse kind of crime and criminals which simultaneously reflect the deteriorating state of things and contribute to accelerate that deterioration. These new criminals are professionals and mercenaries for whom killing is merely a business, profit their only motive. They are also ruthlessly efficient, and while Martin Beck and his colleagues manage to thwart the plans of the terrorists here, the novel leaves no doubt that the general level of competence of the Swedish police force is such that in the long run the criminals will eventually gain the upper hand.
And there is another kind of new criminal, produced by a system that mercilessly ostracizes everyone who does not fit its conception of what a citizen should be. I do not want to give too much of the plot away, so this is going to be a bit vague, but basically what Sjöwall and Wahlöö do here is to confront the ruthless, efficient mercenary criminal to someone victimized by precisely the welfare state which is supposed to protect people like them, people who ultimately are left with no resort to violence – both types of criminals subsumed into the category of “terrorists” and yet, vastly different. By the mid-seventies the Swedish state has become a merciless juggernaut, driven only by the momentum of its bureaucracy, crushing everything and everyone that is in its way because they does not conform.
As in previous novels, The Terrorists is kept from being utterly bleak and depressing by its main characters, who bring some human warmth into police proceedings and who increasingly appear like the last stand of humanity and compassion against the encroaching darkness of bureaucracy and incompetence. At the end of this novel, and thus the end of the series, we see several of them assembled during a companionable dinner – it is a surprisingly mellow final scene for a series that has been so scathing in its criticism of and so bleak in its outlook for Swedish society, but I for one am not complaining – it’s nice to leave the characters one has accompanied over the course of ten novels to some degree of private happiness.
It’s been a long ride through ten years of Swedish history with Martin Beck and his colleagues, but it has never been less than fascinating, and now that I have re-read the whole series, I have to say that it every single word of praise that has been heaped upon it has been well deserved....more
This book (first published in 1964) has become somewhat notorious for its narrator’s rather negative attitude towards the country he is writing about.This book (first published in 1964) has become somewhat notorious for its narrator’s rather negative attitude towards the country he is writing about. In the preface to the edition I read (from 2010) he lets his readers know that his bad mood during at least the first part of the book was due to a creative crisis he was going through at the time – this might be true, or it might be not; but in any case, it reminds us that, even though An Area of Darkness is a book of non-fiction, its narrator might still be somewhat less than completely reliable.
Also, the Grumpy Traveller is a figure with a long tradition in British travel literature, going back to at least Tobias Smollett’s Travels Through France and Italy, famously poked fun at as “Smelfungus” by Lawrence Sterne in his A Sentimental Journey – indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the Cranky and the Enthusiastic Traveller are the basic archetypes of British travel writing (maybe even of all travel writing). What they both have in common, however, is that for both modes the person of the traveller is at least as important as the countries through which he travels; and this takes us back to Naipaul and his An Area of Darkness – His Discovery of India (do take note of the subtitle here).
I doubt anyone would disagree that Naipaul is very firmly on the grumpy side of things – he does not like India much at all, complains about its shabbiness, the dirt, the lack of manners in its inhabitants, and is particularly offended by the public defecation he seem to encounter everywhere (to a degree that one can’t help but wonder whether there is not some obsession at work there). All in all, there seems to be more than enough reason for the often fierce dislike this book and its author have inspired in many readers. And yet – while I tend to agree that Mr. Naipaul is probably a deeply unlikable person, a closer look at An Area of Darkness shows that there is more going on than just a cranky author venting his petty spleen. A lot more, in fact.
First of all, the reason why Naipaul in An Area of Darkness is an unreliable narrator is paradoxically his scrupulous honesty. He has a very fine and well-tuned sensitivity not just for his surroundings but also for himself, and follows the smallest nuances of his prejudices and motivations. And like no man is a hero to his valet, no narrator remains likeable who is seen from this close – there is no attempt at all from Naipaul to make himself appear more heroic, to smooth his crankiness or to gloss over his petty meanness. Naipaul holds nothing back and throughout remains committed to absolute honesty, reminiscent of Rousseau in his Confessions (but, one assumes, staying somewhat closer to actual facts); which in turn makes it possible for the reader to see just how much this account of India is coloured by the person narrating it.
Second, there is a reason why Naipaul’s attitude towards India is so fraught with tension, and he gives it to the reader at the start of the book (well,a after the prologue, anyway) – even before the narrator sets foot on Indian soil, Naipaul tells us over thirty pages of his childhood in Trinidad where his grandfather had moved from India. Like many emigrants, Naipaul’s family held on to as many things from their homeland as they could, and young Naipaul grew up among a clutter of half or not at all comprehended memorabilia and rituals from which he pieced together his own fantasy of India. And it is this fantasy which at some – intellectually denigrated, but none the less deeply felt – emotional level Naipaul is looking for in the real India only to be deeply disappointed when – rather unsurprisingly – he fails to find it. This is where things begin to move beyond the sphere of mere individual experience, as it’s quite obvious to see how Naipaul’s indeed is just a slightly displaced version of what most Europeans – and that, of course, means mainly British – relate towards India, carrying a pre-conceived image of the country when visiting it. Few, however, are as ruthlessly honest in their reactions when India fails to conform to their fantasy.
And this brings us to a third thread running through An Area of Darkness – namely that Naipaul may have been objectively justified in his reaction, for the simple reason that India in 1963 was in a deplorable state. Among the anecdotes and the descriptions, large parts of the book are given to analysis of India’s past, present and future as well as on a host of related subjects, from how Hinduism has become a repository for symbols that have lost their religious significance, over how India seems to construct its self-image by way of mimicry to other cultures, to novels about and from India – all of those subjects treated with equal intellectual brilliance and a certain cool detachment, made possible precisely thanks to Naipaul’s continuous self-scrutiny that enables him to purge his subjectivity from the more strictly analytic parts of this books.
At the same time, Naipaul never lets the reader forget that everything he writes about is ultimately grounded in personal experience – the long, analytic passages are always counterbalanced by a wealth of anecdotes – often quite funny ones, and more than once the joke is actually on Naipaul, more proof that he is after verity rather than self-aggrandizement – or descriptions. And the descriptions alone, whether of scenery, architecture or the people he encounters, would make reading An Area of Darkness worthwhile because – something I think even his most determined detractors have never denied – Naipaul writes beautifully, capturing sensual impressions in a measured, rhythmic prose, along whose shining surface images move and glitter like sunlight on the moving ocean....more
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 me 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
I think in every single post I have ever done on comics I have mentioned that I’m not really all that much into comics… with the occasional exception.I think in every single post I have ever done on comics I have mentioned that I’m not really all that much into comics… with the occasional exception. As can be expected from that, I’m not an avid reader of web comics either: There’s the occasional visit to xkcd or Oglaf, but that is pretty much it – except, that is, for the single web comic I have been following religiously ever since discovering it (which fortunately happened quite early in its history), namely Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.
This is one of those books where it is hard (if not impossible) to imagine anyone not loving it. The author’s immense enthusiasm for his subjects and his characters shines through on every single page of this volume and transmits itself to the reader thanks to the wonderful drawings, the stunning inventiveness and the catching humour with which Sydney Padua tells her stories. While these are not quite the historical Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace but alternative version who live in a pocket universe where the Analytical Engine was actually build, the author obviously loves her research and has dug up a huge amount of actual, real information, ranging from the fascinating to know to entertaining anecdotes to the outright bizarre, and she pours out this cornucopia of facts in a wealth of footnotes, end notes to the footnotes and footnotes to the end notes of the footnotes.
For anyone familiar with the web comic this is a very close and nice approximation of all the links to Google Documents Padua likes to sprinkle across her pages (and of course there are footnotes there, too) and while not quite as extensive, bookish footnotes have of course the advantage of being more period-appropriate. Another difference to the web version of Lovelace and Babbage is that (at least to my untrained eye) she seems to have re-worked the graphics – on the web site you can follow the evolution of the author’s drawing style and see her control of and playfulness with the medium grow from comic to comic. The book on the other hand presents the (current) peak of her craft and is much more unified; it also contains a new story not on the website featuring Ada in Wonderland. Both “Organised Crime” and “Vampire Poets” are not in the books though – but one can hope for a future volume.
Anyone not familiar with the web comic is in for the even bigger treat of encountering Lovelace and Babbage for the first time and experience the unfettered glee of seeing a historic injustice righted, our intrepid heroes rewarded with the appreciation they deserve while they use the powers of the Analytical Engine to fight crime in an almost-historical Victorian London. On the way, you will meet many of their contemporaries like you’ve never seen them before, from William Gladstone to George Eliot, from Queen Victoria to that irresistible sex symbol Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and much loud laughter, astonished gasps and delighted squees are bound to ensue. It is not all fun and chortles, though – Sidney Padua never lets the reader forget that it is alternative history she is drawing and that things did not work out that well for her protagonists in our version of history. Thus, she keeps a faint but steady current of melancholy running underneath her merry tale but at the same time always keeps their very real achievements in view, turning the comic into an homage to the indomitable spirit of discovery and invention (and quirky character traits). At the very least, do check out the website but I really cannot recommend this book strongly enough....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