Friday, 26 February 2010
Wednesday, 24 February 2010
I watched Finding Nemo with my 2 year old the other day and almost immediately remembered that within the first couple of minutes of the film they kill off Nemo's mother and all his potential siblings. He hasn't quite worked out the significance of that opening scene yet, but I'm not relishing his dawning realisation. It made me realise that if you think about it, a lot of Disney films for children don't tend to pull their punches. I believe those film classification types call it 'mild peril' or something like that. Kids that are too young to get it, don't, and so their films work on those different levels for the wide audience range and when kids make those connections as they grow up perhaps the medium of the film helps to soften the blow.
Monday, 22 February 2010
by Paul Auster
After reading and reviewing Oracle Night recently I was surprised to see what a cool reception the book had received on publication. Indeed, many reviewers at the time felt as though Auster may well have performed his meta-fictional loop-the-loop so much as to disappear up his own backside. Perhaps it was the break from Auster that had come before my own reading that made it seem far more palatable than that at the time, but having now read his latest novel, Invisible, a book in which Auster delivers on his talent more completely than in any I have read since The Book Of Illusions, I can begin to see their point. Let's not dwell on that though but celebrate the achievements of this return to form.
...Margot was so comfortable with herself, so knowledgeable in the arts of nibbling, licking and kissing, so unreluctant to explore me with her hands and tongue, to attack, to swoon, to give herself without coyness or hesitation that it wasn't long before I let myself go. If it feels good, it's good. Margot said at one point, and that was the gift she gave me over the course of those five nights. She taught me not to be afraid of myself anymore.
If she couldn't have sex she would probably kill herself to escape the boredom and monotony of being trapped inside her own skin.
Friday, 19 February 2010
by Joshua Ferris
I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of this novel several months ago and have put off writing up my thoughts until the timing became more important. It isn't often that there's such a large gap in between reading and writing for me but I can say that my enthusiasm for this book hasn't dimmed in the interim; in fact because I started off feeling fairly ambivalent about it and gradually became caught up in its many strengths, it is a book that I am as enthusiastic about now as when I finished its final page.
The night before, he had been wheeling the trash down the drive to the curb, one in the morning. It was the second of three bins. He knew halfway down that he would not be back for the third. He knew the sensation as an epileptic knows an aura. As an epileptic feels the dread of an uncoming seizure, he was crestfallen, broken-hearted, instantly depressed by what was now foretold. It's back.
What has returned after a four year absence is Tim's 'condition', something either physical or mental or both that sends him walking out of his own life, away from his home until his body collapses, exhausted, when it can go no further.
He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. That was the helplessness, this was the terror: the brakes are gone, the steering wheel has locked, I am at the mercy of this wayward machine.
They stared into the essential mystery of each other, but felt passing between them in those rare moments of silence the recognition of that more impossible mystery - their togetherness, the agreement each had made that they could withstand the wayward directions they had taken and, despite their inviolable separateness, still remain. It had nothing to do with how age and custom had narrowed their circumstances or how sickness had shapes them outside their control. It was not a backward but a forward glance.
So what does this condition represent? What is Tim running from? What I feared initially was going to be another novel about early male crisis or rejection of modern progress or middle class convention has far grander ambitions. Tim's condition is open to many interpretations and opens up many social and philosophical ideas, even developing into a kind of dialogue of Cartesian dualism between the competing forces within Tim. As his condition worsens and he wanders alone, having rejected any help from his family, giving himself over to 'it', his mind and body separate; or perhaps more accurately, his reason and this other become discernible voices, battling it out for control.
"You go on and on about how cold and hungry you are," he said. "The night is long, you say. Good shoes are not just a luxury. But then you're off and thee's no appeal. There's no explanation for your behaviour and no memory of your complaints. Are you not still cold? Are you not hungry? What is your purpose, your aim, but to hurl us both into suffering and darkness? Speak to me! You destroy my life, you rob me of my will, you troll me through the streets like meat on a hook. You have laid plain all my limitations and my total illusion of freedom. To what end? What do you gain from this?"
The other limped along steadily, saying nothing
Wednesday, 17 February 2010
If it hadn't been for the vociferous praise from a friend, wild horses couldn't have dragged me to watch Lars Von Trier's latest controversy. Not only did it seem to be thoroughly unpleasant but having recently been joined by our second son the timing couldn't have been any worse for a film which follows the tortured path of a couple grieving after the death of their toddler. It doesn't matter who you are though, or what your familial setup might be, Antichrist is always going to be an uncomfortable and uncompromising watch. Deeply troubling, controversial in the truest sense of the word and as admirable as it is repulsive, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel but after a week or two I am at least ready to get something out there.
Tuesday, 16 February 2010
When setting out to write the screenplay together both Eggers and Jonze decided that the Wild Things and Where they Are were to be real. Max was to go on a real journey and encounter real things. That means he has to begin in the real world and my biggest worry starting out was that this would make it all a bit mundane. Max inevitably comes from a broken family, living with his mother and sister and that set-up and the difficult dynamic it has created (with Mom's boyfriend in particular) are at least part of the reason for Max's behaviour. But actually the fleshing out of the story at home isn't the problem, in fact Eggers creates a nice sense of Max's spirit immediately when he is pursued whilst riding his bike home by an over-protective neighbour.
How could he shake her? Would she follow him inside his own house? She was no doubt waitingg to get him alone and indoors, so she could do something to him. She could knock him cold with the coffee canister. Or maybe she'd grab a pillow, pin him down, and suffocate him? That seemed more her style. She had the clear-eyed, efficient look of a murderous nurse.
Now there was barking. Max turned to see that the Scola's dog had joined them, barking at Mrs. Mahoney and nipping her ankles. Mrs. Mahoney took little notice. Her eyes were bigger than ever. The exertion seemed to make her ever-more gleeful.
"Endorphins!" she sang. "Thanks, Max!"
"Please," he said. "What are you gonna do to me?" It was about ten miles houses until his own.
"Keep you safe," she said "from all this."
The Wild Things in your life needn't be fantastical. The strains at home elevate petty squabbles into heated rows and it isn't long before Max sees again that mask, that costume that enables him to show how he is 'boss of this house and all of the world known and unknown.'
Then Max caught sight of his wolf suit, hanging on the back of the closet door. He hadn't worn it in weeks. He'd gotten it for Christmas three years before, the last one with both his parents, and he'd immediately put it on, and kept it on for the rest of school break. It had been too big then, but his mom had pinned it and taped it to make it work until he grew into it.
Now he and it were the perfect size...
So Max's journey is one of flight from domestic unhappiness which is fine, if a little different from the magical forest that grows in his own bedroom in the original book. His sailing is real, time consuming and arduous, so that he finally arrives on the strange island exhausted, and then we finally meet the titular beasts. Strangely it is here that the fleshing out makes the story mundane. The Wild Things have names (overtly ordinary ones at that), there is conflict amongst them and they seem on the whole to be a rather depressed and unhappy bunch. There is a 'wild rumpus' but it has consequences and the time that Max spends with them has moments of tension, release, conflict and fear; he is a self-appointed head of state whose subjects begin to lose patience with his lack of positive impact. It makes for quite a sad read really, although a brief one, aand one which I think misses the point of the original. And this is where we come to what's interesting about the original. I mentioned to my wife what I thought the book was about (boy realises that being wild all the time isn't all it's cracked up to be and being responsible for others makes you realise how hard it is to please) and she had got something completely different from it (it's ok to go a little crazy). Our son who hears it read to him at least once a week probably gets something else again. The original is enigmatic, magical and open to interpretation and enjoyment whereas the novel is by its very nature specific, mundane and unlikely to be read again. The prose is clearly written for a young audience which makes it all feel like short sentences written in big type (it is pretty big type actually) and I couldn't help returning to my original query once I finished the last line: Why bother?
Monday, 15 February 2010
I mentioned that quantum mechanics would be used to decide the winner of my inaugural book giveaway. Ladies and Gentlemen I present to you, The Randomizer.
Ok, it's a hat. But a rather natty one, I think you'll agree (most recently worn by our snowman).
(who thought it highly unlikely that the first name in would be the first one out - that's quantum mechanics for you)
Congratulations Rob, please email me your address (click on that email me button top left) and I'll get the book off to you pronto.
Thursday, 11 February 2010
by Vladimir Sorokin
I was reading this as another of my preparatory reads. Olga Grushin, whose debut novel The Dream Life Of Sukhanov I absolutely loved will be following that with a novel called The Concert Ticket which taps into a cultural phenomenon peculiar to Soviet Russia: the queue. Sorokin's own debut novel originally published in 1983 and translated into English in 1988 looks at the same thing. Sorokin is now one of Russia's most popular novelists but it wasn't always that way. Under Soviet rule his writing was banned and it was only due to emigre dissident Andrei Sinyavski that The Queue was initially published in France. With the end of Soviet rule came the publication of Sorokin's Collected Stories and a nomination for the Russian Booker. It seems that he aims to retain his underground credentials however with his writing regularly including sex, violence, rape, incest, cannibalism and coprophilia. He even managed to spark public demonstrations with his novel Blue Lard and its sex scene between clones of Stalin and Kruschev. With all of that, The Queue feels rather quaint. For all its post-modern structure, with the entire text presented in non-attributed speech, it is a novel which is almost affectionate about its setting and even includes a happy ending for its hero. But we'll get there in a moment.
In his informative Afterword Sorokin traces the history and significance of the queue through Russian history, even connecting it with the birth of the 'collective body' that would eventually build in the rising towards revolution. In the late 70's, the Soviet 'years of stagnation', the queue was all about getting your hands on whatever was available. As booths sprang up, the queues would form and from those long lines Sorokin provides a soundscape of voices, indistinct at first, but slowly becoming more recognisable, articulating the opinions and concerns of the people. I mentioned a quaintness, which is a bit unfair, Sorokin merely allows his characters enough rope to hang themselves with classic examples of rose-tinted remeniscence about even the most brutal of times.
-Those days, I remember, come the first of April, everything'd be cheaper reduction in prices, see.
-Nowadays it's the other way round - things get dearer all the time.
-That's it. Yet everyone complains about Stalin.
-That's all they know how to do in this country - complain.
-And yet he won the war, strengthened the country. And everything was cheaper. Meat was cheap. Vodka - three roubles. Even less.
-And there was order then.
-'Course there was. You'd be brought to court if you were twenty minutes late.
-Fifteen it was, I think.
-Twenty minutes. Once in the Urals, in springtime it was, my late wife ran
to work over the mountains, through the ice, so's not to be late for the factory. The bus had broken down, and she set off running. There you have it. Who'd go running to work these days?
-Funny to think of it, really.
The major concern for the queue is the queue itself of course. Who's last in line, who's pushing in, what's at the end of it, will there be any left? Amazingly, it takes days (one overnight section of sleep represented by 11 blank pages), with some people dropping out, monitors allocating numbers and taking roll calls to keep everything fair. In one section, where it is discovered that a woman has a barrel of kvass in a sidestreet the queue hatches an ingenious plan to sate their collective thirst.
-Off they run, and we just get to stand here. No, really. Everyone keeps going off, and we stand here like stumps.
-You're right. Why don't we go first, then you.
-You're young, you can hold on for a bit.
-That's not the point...
-Listen, maybe we can all go somehow?
-How d'you mean?
-Go in a big group.
-Then the people at the back'll start yelling...
-And won't let us back in...
-Come off it, sure they will. Still, it's a bit awkward...
-Look, comrades, how about shifting the whole queue over there?
-What d'you mean?
-Just shift it! It's just round the corner! If we bend the queue everyone can have a drink. That way ther's no fuss and we stay in the right order.
-Great idea! Here's somebody with a head on his shoulders! Comrades, let's move!
And so the entire line bends and shifts into a scene of revelry and optimism. Amongst the myriad voices there is a hero of sorts, young Vadim, a failed journalist who suffers setback after setback before meeting the alluring Lyuda and the happy finish I mentioned earlier. I mean that literally with Sorokin answering that age old question of how to represent a vigorous sex session with only speech.
An entertaining look at a now defunct feature of Russian life, I suspect that Sorokin's debut lacks the real bite of his later work but his queue shows clearly a people at the mercy of other forces beyond their control, whilst hinting at the potential within them for subversion and action.
Monday, 8 February 2010
Nazi Literature In The Americas
by Roberto Bolaño
Well, you can't say I'm not giving him a fair crack of the whip. After the thrill of The Savage Detectives came the bruising of 2666 and finally the damp squib that was Amulet; with each successive read pushing me further and further away and even thinking that it might be time for someone to point out that thing about the emperor and his clothes. But I thought I'd give him another chance and Picador do keep producing these rather lovely editions. Presented as a kind of encyclopaedia of fictitious writers with some kind of fascist bent the book is apparently a wicked satire on literary pretension and hypocrisy at both ends of the political spectrum. I say apparently because unless you are sufficiently well versed in the literary figures of the Americas then for the most part this book is like being told joke after joke where you don't understand the punchline. It's a bit like those people who laugh at obscure Shakespearean references and jokes during a performance which lead you to think 'you have made abundantly clear that you understand the cultural hilarity of him having a white hair upon his chin but even when you understand it, it isn't that funny'.
For a philistine like me there are odd moments where the jokes are pretty base and accessible as with Ernesto Perez Mason and his subtle use of acrostics to hide secret messages within his writing.
The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Perez Mason defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter's second paragraph made up another acrostic - THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS.
Elsewhere there is the odd pithy line ('A Mexican poet inclined to mysticism and tormented phraseology.') that raises a smile but it isn't until the raised eyebrow is lowered and the arch authorial tone dropped into something more personal with the final portrait that I found something to latch onto. Narrated overtly by 'Bolaño' the thirty or so pages that make up The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman combine art and violence to chilling effect and tap into that era of quiet terror at the beginning of Pinochet's regime in Chile. With just that little bit more narrative, and an end to the detachment that defines the rest of the book he suddenly lights up the whole endeavour. Throughout the book, and indeed throughout Bolaño's other writings he shows an extraordinary imagination in creating these fictitious 'real people'. This book comes with an Epilogue For Monsters which lists all the figures, publishers and even book titles in Bolaño's imagined world. By then I had lost patience however and where I have recently found Borges stimulating and Sebald moving, Bolaño eludes me yet. If anyone would like to suggest the title that may appeal more to me then the comment box awaits...
Friday, 5 February 2010
'What?!' I hear you ask, 'A giveaway!'
Yes, a giveaway. Penguin were kind enough to send me a copy of the completed box-set of Skippy Dies after I had read my proof and I have decided to pass my bounty on to you. As you'll see from the picture on the left it's a handsome beast and, if you haven't already, you can read my thoughts on the book here.
So what do you have to do to secure yourself this prize? Not a lot really. Just comment below or email me by clicking on the link on the left there (If you're reading this through Facebook then you can use the comment box there too), and I'll use quantum mechanics to decide a winner by the end of Valentine's Day.
(I'm afraid I'm going to have to keep it UK only due to postal charges)
Thursday, 4 February 2010
by Paul Murray
No need to worry about spoilers on this one then. Irish author Paul Murray even places the titular death at the very beginning of this vast and multi-stranded novel. Let there be no doubt: Skippy does indeed die. But it's not as simple as that of course. How could it be in a novel that looks at a group of school children and their teachers in an elite religious school in Dublin and includes everything from string theory to fatal donut eating contests. The 600+ page book is split up into three separate volumes, collected in a slipcase and whilst the first is easily the most enjoyable the whole book is a rollicking ride that displays some extraordinary stylistic flourishes along the way.
But let's meet a few of the boys. Skippy is Daniel Juster, his nickname coming from his buck teeth and the fact that some people think that the noise he makes when speaking is not dissimilar from that of the famous bush kangaroo. Those raging hormones I mentioned earlier come into play when Skippy spots Lori, from the local girl's school playing Frisbee. This sets him on a collision course with Carl, Seabrook's resident drug dealer and psycho, who has his own wishes for Lori as well as running a tidy diet-pill-scam operation with henchman Barry. The most colourful character initially has to be Ruprecht Van Doren who arrived at Seabrook 'like a belated and non-returnable Christmas gift' after both his parents were lost on a kayaking expedition on the Amazon.
Apart from being a genius, which he is, Ruprecht does not have all that much going for him. A hamster-cheeked boy with a chronic weight problem, he is bad at sports and most other facets of life not involving complicated mathematical equations.
'Fascinating,' Ruprecht muses to Skippy. 'The whole thing seems to work on a similar principle to a supercollider. You know, two streams of opposingly charged particles accelerated till they're just under the speed of light, and then crashed into each other? Only here alcohol, accentuated secondary sexual characteristics and primitive 'rock and roll' beats take the place of velocity.'
On the game-over screen, from his mist-shrouded body, you see Djed's soul is fluttering upwards. Up and up it goes, a dancing ball of light, till it's reached the title screen, to bob around the princess where she waits in her glittering cage of ice. Around and around her it dances. And suddenly you think:
You sit up.
A soul doesn't weigh anything. It doesn't have a size.
On the screen the princess's eyes twinkle at you.
The dimensions are there at every point, too small for us to see them. But if you were just a soul -
That's when you see the air is full of little doors! All around the room, they're floating there everywhere, and when you scramble up to peep through them, you can see what's on the other side! Each one leads to a different time and place! Here's you and Ruprecht, in the basement, working on the Invisibility Gun -
Here's the Hallowe'en Hop , when the things she said on her doorstep tonight do not exist yet, and you're realizing that Lori is the exact shape of what's been missing from your arms -
The way in which these disparate elements are brought together at the close of Hopeland is a triumph and one of the most enjoyable set-pieces I have read recently. It is also the reason why the book feels to have lost its way slightly in the following two sections. Like trying to comprehend the 11 dimensions of M-theory (a theory so complex that there isn't even a consensus on what the M stands for) there are times when there is too much going on and the structure falls apart. Having said that, Murray manages to keep up the energy and interest throughout the book's significant length (something I'm sure made easier by reading it as three separate books rather than the single bound proof that I read) and also pulls that clever trick of making a comic novel tug on the heart strings occasionally, where even the most ridiculous or repulsive of characters can extract the reader's sympathy. In another section Ruprecht points to the theory of Asymmetry as a means of explaining the unfairness of the school environment, a place where 'Intelligent students get wedgies, instead of being respected as future leaders of their society. You can't get what you want, but someone else, who doesn't want it, has it in spades.' Some authors too are blessed with more success than talent and Murray scores enough hits with this bold, ambitious novel to explain away the existence of Jeffrey Archer.
Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Fellow blogger Kevin From Canada asked if I would write a post about the production I am currently appearing in, War Horse. He was intrigued to know what it is like to be a part of such a successful show. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, a little background first. War Horse is a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, former children's Laureate. Written from the point of view of the horse, Joey, it tells the story of how he becomes part of the cavalry in the First World War and the lengths to which the boy who helped to raise him will go to to be reunited with him. The National Theatre in conjunction with Handspring Puppet Company adapted the book into a play which was successful enough to be revived the following Christmas and then transfer into the West End where it continues to run at the New London Theatre. The show has become famous because of its extraordinary puppets, most notably the life-size horses which are controlled by three actors. I'll tell you first a little bit about the machinations behind the show and then what it's actually like to do each night.
As I mentioned, each horse puppet requires three actors to operate it, called the Head, Heart and Hind. The head operator is outside the horse, supporting the head and controlling its movement and that of the ears too. The Heart is inside the horse operating the front legs and creating the breathing of the animal with the rise and fall of the body which they are helping to support. Finally, the Hind, controls the back legs and movement of the tail, working together with the Heart to support the weight of anyone that happens to ride the horse (that's right, at the end of the day if someone's rides that horse they're sitting on the shoulders of two actors). With two horses in the show and the physical demands placed on the actors who make them live there are actually four horse teams in the cast who rotate through the weeks of the run to help stave off injury. In theory that is. With the inevitable injuries that crop up and the days of holiday that have to be taken during the long run, horse teams inevitably end up getting a bit mixed up and having to swap in and out of various configurations. One of the wonders of the show is the way the horse teams work together to create a convincing experience for the audience. Part of this is also due to the latitude that exists for them within performance. This isn't choreography; with the same kind of intentions and actions as any other actor on stage they are acting and reacting to what they receive from others. For those of us working with them onstage it really can be as unpredictable as breaking that old maxim and working with animals.