Friday 26 June 2009

Hugo Wilcken Interview

At the end of last month John Self got the ball rolling in a concerted effort to shine light on a novel neglected on its release but well worth your attention. His review is here, mine here and my review of Wilcken's first novel can be found here. Amidst all this attention Hugo very kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

How did you feel when you found out that your novel Colony was the subject of some concerted blog scrutiny?

It's been a fantastic opportunity to get a second hearing for my book, and I'm really grateful to everyone who has shown interest. Clearly, as newspapers continue to struggle and cut back on reviewing space, literary websites and blogs are going to be increasingly important for readers, writers and publishers.

I want to ask you about The Execution first. Where did that idea come from?

I tend to work by collage, putting two ideas together and seeing what meanings are produced when they rub up against each other. With The Execution, I was initially inspired by the Claude Chabrol film La Femme Infidèle, and thought I could write a good noir-ish novel about adultery and murder. At the same time I wanted something more than that. I’d written the first few pages of a short story about a condemned man writing to a human rights campaigner; the man is innocent, but also wants to die. I thought I’d somehow combine the two ideas. Lurking in the background of the novel is also Camus’s L’Etranger.

I've noticed a lot of novels featuring men around thirty at a crossroads and wondered whether their genesis and creation might come from something similar to what I felt at that age. Was it like that for you?

My protagonist in The Execution turns thirty in the last chapter, I think. The idea behind that was a marker of time finally going forward again, following a period when it had somehow become suspended in a nightmare. It’s just occurred to me that Sabir in Colony is also thirty – I guess it’s a good, balanced age for an ‘everyman’ protagonist: still young, but old enough to have had a fair amount of experience as well.

There is a feeling for the main character of being trapped in his life which spurs some of his actions and you later developed the theme of escape in Colony - Was this a conscious development?

What connects the two novels for me, thematically, is the idea of pushing lives to the point where existential questions must be faced. Stylistically, the novels both use genre models that they ultimately break free from. There are similarities of tone in the two novels, but I think Colony is more ambitious and covers more philosophical ground.

I definitely agree that Colony is a far more ambitious book. You may have noticed that those of us that have reviewed it have found the works of different writers reflected in it. What writers would you say have particularly influenced or inspired you?

Looking to other writers for inspiration can be a pernicious business. I was captivated by Beckett in my mid-twenties, then wasted a couple of years writing bad Beckett pastiche. For Colony, I got the most out of reading the memoirs of people who had been to the penal colony – convicts, guards, doctors, etc. The prose was often workaday but the atmosphere was there. But I was obviously following a tradition of novels about moral breakdown in the tropics – Heart Of Darkness of course and plenty of Graham Greene. There’s also the shadow of Rimbaud over the book, but more for his life story than for his poetry

I couldn't help but recall Apocalypse Now visually when reading the book. Did you have any visual references when writing it and what kind of research did you do?

Well, Apocalypse Now is a favourite film of mine, and I think there’s something of that (and the source novel Heart Of Darkness) in Colony. You sense that it wouldn’t take too much for my Commandant to become a Kurtz-like figure. I love movies but my references tended to be more literary than visual. Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps about exploring the Liberian jungles in the 1930s was one I remember taking ideas from, when it came to building atmosphere.

I researched the novel basically by reading histories and memoirs of the period at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. From the beginning I’d toyed with going out to French Guiana. But for a long time I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write the novel, and I didn’t want to waste money going out there if that were the case. Then when I finally realised I’d be able to write it, there was no longer any point in going out there. It was all in my head already, and I didn’t want the reality to spoil that! Historical fiction is not ultimately about history, it’s about inventing parallel or alternative worlds to our own. Colony hews fairly closely to the historical reality of the penal colony, but when reality got in the way of the story, I jettisoned the reality and not the story.

Were you ever tempted to use your native Australia as the setting?

I did think about it. But that would have placed the action in the early nineteenth century. I wanted something more modern, because in fact the idea of modernism is important to the novel. Years ago, before The Execution, I actually wrote 70 or 80 pages of a novel set in an imaginary penal colony, but ultimately it didn’t work out.

There is an ambiguity in the two sections of the book which leaves lots of room for the reader. Why did you want that?

Those ambiguities are at the heart of what I was trying to do. The two sections shadow and mirror each other in distorted form; they are internally consistent, and yet not quite consistent when set side by side. The novel travels along a narrative faultline, resisting a totally logical, realist explanation, forcing the reader to look elsewhere for resolution.

As well as writing those two novels you also wrote about David Bowie’s album Low for the 33 1/3 series. How did that come about and what was it about that album that made you want to write about it?

I wrote the Bowie book in the middle of writing Colony. I was beginning to wonder whether I’d ever be done with Colony and wanted a small project to prove to myself that I could actually finish something. I pitched the editor of the 33 1/3 series out of the blue, and he commissioned the book. Low was part of my teenage artistic awakening. Its atmosphere of modernist alienation, its expressionism, its blend of genres, its schizophrenic quality – these were all things I thought I could write about in an interesting way.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

Yes, I’m writing a novel set in New York in the 1940s.

Would you like to recommend a neglected book to the readers of this blog?

I recently read and was very impressed with Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton.


Wednesday 24 June 2009

'this exact dark'

The Quickening Maze
by Adam Foulds

I knew it. When reading Foulds' enjoyable first novel I had a feeling that this was a writer capable of much more. His latest sees him begin to really deliver on that promise with an ambitious and lyrical tale of madness and poetry set in Epping Forest. Until recently I lived pretty close to the forest, a wonderful, wild expanse which has the effect of recharging your batteries when you're suffering from a bit of city fatigue. Foulds has gone back to the late 1830's, when the forest was presumably larger and even more untamed, a time when the 'peasant poet' John Clare was incarcerated in High Beach Private Asylum, an establishment run by Dr Matthew Allen, a man who we will see is every bit as distracted as some of his patients. At the same time another poet, Alfred Tennyson, moves into a neighbouring village with members of his family including brother Septimus, a melancholic, who will become another charge of Allen's.

Fould's takes these historical characters and events and compresses the action into the course of seven seasons. These changing seasons and the natural setting allow him to make the most of his descriptive skills, especially through Clare who 'loved lying in its lap, the continuing forest, the way the roots ate the rot of leaves, and it circled on.' The neat twist if you like is to have the nature poet Clare confined to an institution, frustrated and taunted by the surrounding forest which he longs to wander in. His frequent forays beyond the bounds bring him into contact with a group of Gypsies with which he eats, fights (his delusions include his belief to be the prize fighter Jack Randall and Byron amongst others) and makes merry, but also into conflict with Allen, whose scrutiny and protectiveness take him further and further into confinement.

The asylum's buildings have differing characters, 'Fairmead House was full of gentle disorder, idiocy and convalescence...Leopard's Hill Lodge was full of real madness, of agony, people lost to themselves' and within those walls we meet many of its inmates, some of whom will narrate parts of the novel. One haunting presence is Margaret, who feels a 'Silent Watcher' within her, 'the thing that watched it all happen, that wanted her to live'. She seems to waste away as the novel progresses, her visions and delusions becoming stronger and stronger even as her body deteriorates.

She sat in the light of the window and looked almost too frail to bear its blast. He could see her fingerbones sharp and yellow through the cracked skin. The dent of her temple looked like the result of some violence. The skin of her face had drawn so tight that her lips were pulled against the hardness of her teeth.

Dr Allen is of course living there with his own family and it is his daughter Hannah who becomes a large focus of the novel. From the moment we meet her she is a bundle of skittish energy fixated on partnering herself to someone and with the imminent arrival of the Tennyson's desperate 'to know which of these two men her interest should fall upon'. Spotting the melancholic not as simple a task as you might think with Alfred moving 'slowly, as though through a viscous medium of thought, of doubt.' Hannah's increasing delusions in matters of the heart make her as likely a candidate for her father's ministrations as any of his actual patients.

For Alfred Tennyson the stay near Epping becomes a doomed investment of time and finances in Allen's latest venture; the Pyroglyph, a mechanical wood carver with which he hopes to mass produce carved wooden furniture. In fact as the seasons pass Allen's erratic behaviour comes closer and closer to that of his charges and Foulds' use of so many characters and voices brings to mind, as Peter Parker pointed out in his TLS review, a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream which I remember copying out as a teenager.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact.

John Clare could be said to be the character who inhabits all three of those roles and it is through him that Foulds really impresses. The book isn't perfect, with so many alternating voices in just 260 pages it lacks the cohesion and unity which might have been achievable in a larger novel, but the writing is of such delicious richness that he has played the rather canny trick of leaving your audience wanting more rather than less. Sometimes it only takes a few words, like the blackberry 'so tart it made his palate itch'. But when Clare is given more rein the writing really takes off.

He presses himself to the tree, looks down and sees the roots reaching down into the earth. The admiral's hands. He has them himself for a second, thick rooty fingers, twisted, numb. He shakes his hands and they're gone.They reappear at his feet, and clutch down. The painful numbness rises, his legs solidifying, a hard rind surrounding them, creeping upwards. He raises his arms. They crack and split and reach into the light. The bark covers his lips, covers his eyes. Going blind, he vomits leaves and growth. He yearns upward into the air, dwindling, splitting, growing finer, to live points, to nerves. The wind moves agonisingly through him. He can't speak.
Stands in the wilderness of the world.


Monday 22 June 2009

'a puzzle to be solved'

The Execution
by Hugo Wilcken

I didn't know what I was going to do but I seemed to be doing it anyway.

The clarion call of the existential thriller. Hugo Wilcken's debut novel, published in 2001, centres around Matthew Bourne (no, not the choreographer responsible for that all-male Swan Lake), a high flyer within a human rights agency. He seems to be very much in control of his life with a long term partner and daughter, his success at work resulting in a high-profile case in which he hopes to save a political prisoner from the death penalty. As he's told in the opening chapter a case like this could provide him with the one thing that might be said to be missing from his life: meaning.

It's a strange feeling when you've played a part in saving someone's life. Almost like you've saved your own.

Even as he sits down to work on the strategy for the campaign with his colleague Christian the event happens that will change the trajectory of his life. A phone call informs Christian that his wife has been killed in an accident and Bourne, seeing how incapable the news has rendered him, offers to drive him to the hospital in Oxford. What he doesn't expect is to be the man who is asked to identify the body after Christian breaks down in the hospital.

She was lying on the trolley, two white sheets draped over her...The morgue assistant wheeled the body over to us, then removed the sheets from her face...A long, faint scratch mark crossed her high forehead diagonally from left to right, like a line drawn across a page to strike it out.

This is a strange enough experience on its own but it becomes just the first of many, all of which seem to take place in an atmosphere of growing menace and cruelty. As Bourne attempts to focus on the task of saving a man's life in another country his own life begins to unravel. An affair begins after a chance meeting at a party, the detached tone of the prose keeping any passion well covered. But the cracks in his own relationship at home are there beforehand and skilfully evoked by Wilcken. Bourne's daughter becomes an almost sinister presence, her innocent utterings appearing to carry huge significance. There are times when any parent might go through a phase of not getting on so well with their child but for Bourne it feels far more poisonous. His partner Marianne, who is French conducts more and more conversations with her daughter in her native tongue, excluding Bourne from their content. His daughter screams loudly when he tries to pick her up and often makes statements which leave him baffled, are they innocent or not? Throughout the book a teddy bear, that most childish of objects, becomes a huge symbol. The stitching attaching its neck comes loose, gradually unravelling as the book progresses. What could serve at first as a reminder of Bourne's work to save a man from execution comes to symbolise something else when that work occupies less and less of his thoughts; the disintegration of his family.

I sit at my desk and wonder what it must be like for him, in a prison cell and preparing to die. Would there be a constant tension and anxiety or would that dissipate after a while? Would it come and go? Would there be hope? Would you end up getting used to the situation, in the way that ordinary people can seemingly get used to anything.

Bourne has his own shocks to get used to and Wilcken creates an unnerving atmosphere around him. As the cover suggests it has the drive of a thriller but the uncertainty of a far more philosophical novel. It isn't a particularly optimistic view of life, neither the men (cold, heartless) nor the women (ruthless, deceitful) come out of it particularly well and even the child, as I have said above, casts a long shadow, so its a book which might leave a bitter taste in your mouth. But it's certainly an interesting début and shows the beginnings of the skill with which Wilcken was able to produce such a suffocating and uncertain atmosphere in his second novel, Colony.

When Hugo got in contact to thank me for reviewing Colony I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions. Come back here in a few days and you'll be able to see that interview.


Friday 19 June 2009

'Over the Top!'


by Glen David Gold

John Self coined a phrase recently: 'widescreen' fiction - referring to “…ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” Glen David Gold's second novel could be said to inhabit that realm, taking things even more literally with Hollywood itself and some of its most famous players at the centre of its vast and sprawling vista. With his début, Carter Beats the Devil, Gold showed with great flair his love for a place (San Francisco), a period (the 1920's), and a profession (magic). That novel, a brilliant, enjoyable, gripping, escapist thriller was published back in 2001, so it has been a long wait for this follow up, and perhaps to compensate for the delay it is a beast at over 550 pages. It is almost inevitably a disappointment, which isn't to say that it doesn't have its moments. It does, and plenty of them. In fact it is a bravura performance, Gold showing the range and versatility of his writing, fictionalising famous faces, creating wonderful new characters and handling set pieces with the confidence of a Hollywood director but he also supplies the phrase which best sums up the book as a whole: 'une fausse idée claire' - 'a beautiful idea that doesn't work'. That sounds far more damning than I mean it to because it is only that it doesn't quite work, but we'll come to why I think that is later; first of all, an attempt to summarise what it's all about.

Gold begins his book with a moment of mass hysteria. On November 12th 1916, as America was poised uncertainly before the war in Europe, people saw or fully expected to see Charlie Chaplin in over 800 separate locations simultaneously - 'an answer to a question no one had even known to ask.' or 'Chaplin-itis' as the newspapers have it. Leland Wheeler is involved in a rescue attempt from the lighthouse where his mother Emily is the keeper, Chaplin's trademark bowler hat disappearing beneath the waves before he is able to reach him. Hugo Black is caught up in a near riot at a train station. Both of these men will later be embroiled in the war in differing ways as too will Chaplin himself, becoming involved in the Liberty Loan Drive after being portrayed as a 'Slacker' in the press. At this early stage of his career, having already made almost 60 films, he has yet to make the film 'as good as' he is, and we follow his conflict with Mary Pickford, friendship with Douglas Fairbanks and his meeting with the young girl Mildred, who will go on to become his first wife.

Isolated on the lighthouse with his mother Leland Wheeler, who has never known who his father is (we will discover in a wonderful section that he is a man so untrustworthy that 'even those who liked him best sought a second opinion after asking him what time it was.'), dreams of using his good looks to become a film star. Encouraged if anything by his mother's insistence that 'people who perform antics for a living are, objectively, immoral.' his attempts take him to the mainland where he is on the verge of becoming a Four Minute Man (who performed enlistment propaganda in the time it took to change reels at the cinema) before being caught up in the enlistment drive himself.

Hugo Black is a privileged and snobbish young man who forgoes his officer potential to volunteer for the infantry with the common man and finds himself dumped in Russia to fight an uncertain and unnecessary war against the Bolsheviks. The commanding officer discovers quickly the paucity of his resources, working his way down the grades of soldier in an attempt to locate what he has at his disposal. None from A1, A2, A3, B1 or B2.
"What grade have I got left?" He was worried he would get C2s - those fit for only sedentary duty overseas.
He hadn't known there was a C3. Men whose ears came off when they coughed.
But the star of the show has to be Chaplin of course and there is so much that Gold has got right in his treatment of one of the great flawed icons. His creativity, his cruelty, his coldness towards and fear of a mother crippled by mental degradation. His naiveté is charming at times, sickening at others and Gold's great achievement is to portray a man not only deserving of our sympathy and censure at the same time but also a man so aware of his unworthiness that 'he wanted the world to love him forever so he could tell them, forever, what idiots they were for doing so.'

The build up to the Third Liberty Loan Drive in San Francisco is perhaps the books strongest section, uniting many of its disparate characters and chugging along with an energy that is infectious, the drive to go 'Over the Top' and raise the $210million needed to finance the war for the next few months. Here, even Chaplin is caught up in the atmosphere, swallowing his hatred of Mary Pickford (in a coat so long 'it looked as if a sable had eaten her') as he enters a bidding war with Fairbanks to kiss her in front of the assembled hordes (the scene's electric frisson provided by the scandalous potential of such a public demonstration of Pickford and Fairbanks' notorious affair).

So far I have only mentioned the principal players but with some of the supporting roles Gold builds the novel up from light entertainment to 'novel of ideas' (he has mentioned his embarrassment when he realised this was what he was doing). The philosophy of film from Hugo Münsterberg and the quantifying of celebrity by financial wizard William McAdoo are just two examples of how Gold attempts to locate the moment at which the words Hollywood and fame came to inhabit the meaning we give them today, the moment when America lost its innocence. McAdoo applies America's burgeoning film industry to the world stage,
..the country was now powerful enough to structure the peace that would surely arise after the war ended. And that, Münsterberg would have said, meant imposing narrative upon what was essentially chaos.
We are able to watch the stumbling attempts at imposing that world view as we follow the exploits of Hugo Black. In these sections we are encouraged to make the link between this little known conflict and the daily televised disasters in democracy of the modern era where it is 'evident that democracy had bloomed, as it always did when forcibly planted, in a kakistocracy of the worst possible men.'

Gold has made an admirable attempt to marshal all that material (and I've only mentioned some of it). The book is structured as an evening's entertainment coming in six sections: Newsreel, Travelogue, Two-Reel Comedy, Serial, Feature Presentation and Sing-Along. It is preceded by a Cast List and finished with Credits and the filmic references continue throughout. 553 pages is never going to be an evening's entertainment and like any bloated film-of-ideas there are problems with pace. Gold often attempts to keep the pages turning by ending chapters with a tease, some of which are particularly unsubtle.
And so, for a while at least, he continued to be lonely, until he pursued the friendship that almost killed him and brought him the love of his life.
The fact remains that the most interesting parts of the book are those which contain Chaplin. Gold has a unique ability to capture the magical in his writing and his descriptions of performance or Chaplin's search for creativity are riveting. On a personal level Chaplin's almost-seduction of Pickford's screenwriter Frances at a Hollywood party is another highlight. But you miss him when he isn't there and the long sections detailing Leland's nurturing and training of two puppies (I told you I'd only mentioned some of the vast narrative) may be great if you're a dog lover like Gold but a bit boring frankly if, like me, you're not that fussed. But I don't want to be too harsh here. As I said at the top, Gold may even be aware of his failings by providing that phrase which describes them. It's important to remember that the idea is beautiful (and brave and interesting and original) it just doesn't quite work. By writing such a brilliant book as his first Gold has made himself a tough act to follow, and with such clear gifts as a writer he may be struggling, like Chaplin, to write the book 'as good as he is'. With that kind of personal discipline the rest of us are going to have a lot of fun reading what comes next. I just hope we don't have to wait another eight years to read it.


Wednesday 17 June 2009

'Ah ken muckle'

The Truth About These Strange Times
by Adam Foulds

Until he won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award last year for this début novel Adam Foulds was gaining more financial support from his fork-lift-truck driving licence than his Creative Writing MA from UEA. Since then however he has been receiving the kind of reviews most writers would give their MA for, both in print and online. Knowing that his most recent novel was set in the nineteenth century and his previous book was a narrative poem about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya I was slightly deflated to find that this first book begins in a far more mundane present-day Burnley. The cover too didn't fill me with confidence, falling somewhere between willfully quirky and chick-lit. Perhaps I never recovered from this shock, or wanted this book to be more like the aspirational writing which has come after it, but I never quite managed to let go and enjoy what this is: an solid debut with plenty to enjoy.

Saul Dawson-Smith is a ten year old with a gift. He can memorise the sequence of a shuffled deck of cards, recite pi to a thousand decimal places and will be tested to the limit in the upcoming World Memory Championship. For his father Les in particular, both proud and proprietorial of his son's gift which he thinks entitles him to 'the respect of all parents, of all people everywhere', this is the moment it has all been leading towards. Into their life comes Howard MacNamee, a grossly overweight Glaswegian whom we first encounter in a gym of all places (though only working there in the laundry), who is befriended by the family as the man on the spot to help Saul's grandmother when she collapsed and visit her in hospital (where he was recovering from a chip-fat induced skin graft) until her death. Howard is obviously not comfortable in their house but not simply for the obvious reasons.

These people were geniuses, no doubt about it, and never calm, never just watching telly and vegging out. Howard really missed the telly. Without it, he couldn't switch off and hang his tired mind in the wash of colours and friendliness. He thought of all the comedy shows he was missing, major new adverts he wouldn't even know about, all the gardening shows he could be learning from. Not having telly kept Howard inside himself at all times and this wasn't good. What with Saul's questions, all the tumult in his life, the questions provoked by every scrap of difference between his old life and the lives of these strangers, he was starting to have memories.

Those memories are slowly revealed through the book. A difficult childhood of bullying and domestic violence, not perhaps what you might have expected from the whimsical cover but it is a mark of Foulds deftness that he manages to handle both humour and pathos with equal assurance.

He saw his father uncontainable, unstoppable even by himself, approach his mother in two awkwardly overlong strides. His arm goes back. His mother, matter-of-factly, as if this is just something happening, an ordinary thing, like a bus going past or a shop closing, without crying out, doubles over and falls to the floor. Howard hiding under the window, has already had his and has nothing to do now but count how many times he kicks. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. A pause; his father is tiring. Seven. He leaves with a crash, a great sucking commotion of sound through the front door, and the two of them are left on the carpet, far apart.

The road-trip that this odd couple embark on, born out of an attempt by Howard to rescue Saul, is really an opportunity for him to confront and atone for the past that he has managed so far to block out of his life, to attempt to rescue himself. This means that Saul is limited as a character, only really serving as a means of extracting Howard's story and the less said about the Russian bride sub-plot the better. That the climax towards which the novel builds is a bit of a non-event may have been intentional but it can't help but diminish the impact of the book.

On the positive side Foulds displays several talents along the way including some nice one-liners ('Howard's heart felt like a fat man trying to get out of a chair') and descriptive prose that captures the wonder of simple things like the moment when Howard and Saul play together with a flyaway football from the sweetshop or huddle together for warmth as they fall asleep in a field overnight. There are several moments where the prose takes on the qualities of poetry as when Howard watches those last moments pass over the face of Saul's grandmother in hospital, 'suddenly something changed, went, like water sinking into sand'. In fact I think the source of my frustration may have been the sense that this was a writer marking time, getting the first book finished before going on to write something closer to what he is really capable of. Which isn't the worst problem in the world, particularly when that book is on your TBR pile.


Tuesday 16 June 2009

Missing The Apprentice?

You can find more from 'Cassetteboy' here.


Friday 12 June 2009

'One that kills, and one that loves'

by Hugo Wilcken

When Apocolypse Now Redux was released in 2001 the public had a chance to see many scenes which had been cut from the original film. In one of these Willard stumbled upon a French plantation, a hangover from Vietnam's colonial past, over dinner he and the family discuss the current conflict and the first Indochinese war, with most of them leaving angrily. Eventually Willard is left with Roxanne, a widow, who apologises for her family, shares some opium with him, before taking him to bed. At one point in her conversation she tells him "There are two of you, can't you see? One that kills, and one that loves". I mention this for a couple of reasons. The film's visual impact is such that I couldn't help but think of it when reading this book, particularly after Wilcken's mention of Heart of Darkness as an influence. But there is also something about the theme of identity and shifting states of reality that are part of both that film and this fascinating novel.

As has been mentioned it is difficult to say too much about the plot of this novel without spoiling its strengths as a book. It is set in 1928 in a penal colony in French Guiana where master criminals share time with those who have deserted or committed crimes of passion. Escape looks easy but is in fact almost impossible, even those who make it are only recaptured and returned at a later date. The settlement itself is incongruous, having 'the air of an unremarkable French village, miraculously transplanted to the South American jungle. Its little pink bungalows and spruce gardens look faintly ridiculous, cowed by this river and rainforest of unearthly proportions.' The Commandant has grand plans, beginning with the construction of his house, a replica of his home in France, the landscaping of its gardens by the convict Sabir who finds himself working there, extending into his wider plans for the settlement, which could be his own 'little kingdom', following the Australian model. This introduces one of the themes of the novel: the attempt to cultivate the land that surrounds them and the impossibility of that task in the face of a jungle which threatens to destroy and devour any attempt to civilise it. Fecundity combines with decay making the very fabric of the jungle terrifying. And this theme extends to the convicts in the camp of course, almost all of them armed, loosely guarded, the threat of exploding violence never far away.

For Sabir the strains of convict life come from within as well as without. We know that each of these men has a story and that none of them is innocent, the wish to escape the colony is the same as the wish to escape their past, a murky place indeed.

Memories. . . Stay still for long enough, deprive your brain of stimulation for long enough, and they'll always assault you. Faces from the past, people you haven't thought of in months or years, some still alive, but most dead. Men from the prisons, men from the trenches, they all crowd together in the theatre of Sabir's mind. Strange how you can forget names, forget almost everything about a person, but somehow the face remains.

That sense of limbo which permeates Apocalypse Now is what makes Colony such an atmospheric and unsettling read. After such a strong recommendation from John I'll be absolutely honest and say that for parts of the book I was disappointed, not so much by the book but by my own reaction to it; why wasn't I loving it? The writing is unshowy, the characters for the most part uncomplicated but slowly I found myself being caught up in that atmosphere, Wilcken's writing demands and rewards the efforts of the reader to wrestle with what's on the page. Like those first moments on waking from a dream, it can be a fight to grab hold of what's real. All of this has I think helped it to linger in my mind long after putting it down.

The past is dead, the future stolen away, the present an endless desert - so you retreat into a fantasy world, where finally you're in control. Among the lifers he's known, Sabir has seen the syndrome time and time again. You lose yourself in grandiose plans, unrealisable dreams, until life becomes a mirage. And escape can be the worst dream of all.
John is spot on to mention Damon Galgut whose The Impostor featured as one of my books of last year. The two share that sense of unreality but also give a single female character extraordinary power over the men. The wife of the property developer in the new South Africa, the wife of the Commandant in colonial South America or the widow and colonial relic in a dream-like pocket of time during war. Each has the power to use a man to effect change and to hold up a mirror to him and expose that duality reflected back. One that kills, and one that loves.


Wednesday 10 June 2009

Generation Kill

Suffering from box-set withdrawal and scrabbling around for something that didn't involve retarded members of the public being patronised by three mismatched and almost entirely unqualified arbiters of talent (although I did watch that too) it was time to sign up for the latest from David Simon and Ed Burns, creators of The Wire. If, as Ed Burns asserted, The Wire was a programme made for the cops and the pushers of Baltimore then Generation Kill is for the soldiers in Iraq or perhaps more accurately, the Marines. If like me you aren't exactly clear about the differences between a Marine and a Soldier then don't expect to have it explained so much as made very clear that there is a difference and that the Army are idiots and the Marines are cold, hard killing machines (at least according to them) especially The 1st Recon Marines.

As you might expect if you've seen any of The Wire there is no concession made to the viewer who doesn't understand military jargon, procedure or politics. You'll need to keep that finger near the pause button for a breather every now and then or revel in the barrage which ranges from profanity to poetry. The credits roll to a soundtrack of radio communication, a familiar crackle of static and codewords for those Wire viewers. This is also another programme whose strength is in its ensemble, and whose storylines are legion. Based on the book written by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright we ride with him, embedded with the Marines spearheading the invasion of the most recent Iraq war. Before the action we see the troops sparring with each other both physically and vocally, this is a tight knit group who revel in mocking each other, and Wright is immediately targeted as a Left-wing hippie faggot until they learn that he wrote Beaver Hunt for a pornographic magazine. Kudos!

A documentary about the making of the series shows the actors involved attending a boot camp where they were drilled by Rudy Reyes and Eric Kocher, both Marines and both acting in the series. Reyes is particularly extraordinary, built like some kind of Greek god/movie star, a highly trained killing machine and yet filled to the brim with zen-like calm at all times. What the training has clearly helped the actors to do is bond as a unit and get as close as possible to portraying the reality of men in conflict. These are men of a generation interested in pop music and video games and yet also interested in reading Chomsky and debating race relations. The big mistake would be to assume that they're stupid. Even at their most profane they manage to extend they insults to Shakespearean levels of intricacy. James Ransone as the driver Person is particularly hilarious; fuelled by uppers his riffs on everything from patriotism to global instability are worth the price of admission on their own.

Humour plays such an important part in the daily lives of these men so that moments after being engaged in firefights they are cracking jokes. There are longer running gags too like the reporter's photo of his girlfriend which he is constantly trying to relocate as it passed around by the men. The officer class come in for some stick too with 'Encino Man' taking stupidity to alarming levels and the perfectly dubbed 'Captain America', with his hysterical and alarmist responses to just about any situation, becoming a danger to his own men. That is how the programme develops it serious themes, not through the po-faced seriousness typical of TV drama in this country but by making the audience complicit; laughing one moment at the antics of an officer who later will become a liability, perhaps even a war criminal.

The skill to take a subject like the Iraq war and make a programme which remains un-judgemental and impartial is the really impressive thing. Because the programme isn't about the Iraq war, it's about the Marines, it's about these men and through them, through the presentation of the reality of their situation you are exposed to ideas and opinions which you then have to make your own judgement on. We see the fatal results of what seems at first to be a comical episode involving a young recruit shooting at a camel in a desperate bid to fire his weapon in anger. We see the results of nervy men at a checkpoint without a clear strategy for stopping vehicles. We watch with the Marines as they observe a village, contenting themselves that it contains only civilians before a decision taken by their superiors somewhere else takes the mater out of their hands. But no judgement. In one scene, when inspecting the body of someone they have shot, they discover his passport and the fact that this is a jihadist from Syria, someone who crucially came into the country to fight the Americans only after they had invaded; a shock to all the Marines. Knowing now the extended horror following the end of 'combat operations' it is interesting to see the first hints that America was not prepared in any way for what they found when the crossed the line into Iraq.

Comparisons to The Wire are pointless for many reasons and unimportant for just one. David Simon and Ed Burns are committed to giving you the chance to see something you haven't seen before (unless you happen to be a Marine or drug cop). It's then up to you to decide what to do with that. It makes for fascinating TV which also happens to be provocative, funny, well made, impeccably acted and well worth seven hours of your time.


Monday 8 June 2009

'the empty page between the sky and the earth'

Watch Me Disappear
by Jill Dawson

I was so impressed by Jill Dawson's The Great Lover that I wanted to read more of hers and lighted upon this novel not only because it had received favourable reviews but because it afforded me the opportunity to read the classic Lolita as a form of preparatory work. The parallels between the two books are clear, perhaps even blatant when you consider the surname of its main character (Humber), and Dawson has mentioned that she actually placed some direct phrases from Nabokov amongst her text. But these connections aren't so much plot related, what we have here is not a female response to Lolita, but it does go some way to filling in the gaps I mentioned in that book, to sensitively look at the burgeoning sexuality of a young girl whilst simultaneously examining the effect of a society that places that pressure on youngsters sooner and sooner.

Tina Humber is a marine biologist specialising in dwarf seahorses who like her subjects has 'bobbed through my life, floating rather than swimming'. The parallels between her and those creatures don't stop there, Tina also suffers from a kind of waking blackout, later diagnosed as a form of epilepsy, affecting the part of the brain named for its resemblance to the seahorse: hippocampus. Now I'm being a bit heavy handed in my explanation of it, Dawson is far more clever at finding linking themes and ideas in her fiction and developing them. Here, it allows her to create a character for whom memory, reality and fantasy are far harder to differentiate between than the rest of us.

I've always had a poor memory in some ways; my memory for pictures, scenes from my childhood, that kind of thing, were just. . . patchy. Sometimes vivid; mostly nothing at all. Now that's shifting. The odd word has hightailed it and instead, pictures are hurtling back.

Whilst she now works in the Caribbean she grew up on the flat Fens, an area she hasn't returned to, even for her father's funeral. The wedding of her brother brings her back to that exposed landscape and brings back into focus the disappearance of her friend Mandy Baker at the age of ten. It is said of many men that they had an eye for the girls but in the case of her father it may have been far more specific, especially given that he left the family for a much younger woman. Is it possible that he was involved in some way with Mandy's disappearance, that that was why he felt the need to take his own life? But this isn't a whodunit, the plot takes a back seat to the journey undertaken by Tina into her memory and like the best journeys the destination isn't the important thing, it's about what we learn along the way. Much of this is in Tina's sexual awakening into adolescence, scenes that combine the tender and brutal aspects of growing up, but there are also the confusions of a closer examination of one's own family, that part of life that seems so set and protected from enquiry.

As well as the unreliability of memory, the waters are further muddied by Tina's guilt. After a petulant fallout she failed to ask Mandy to join the trip from which they returned to find her missing. The diary she bought as a birthday present for her is unwrapped and there is a moment of shocking reality as Tina, convinced that Mandy will not be found, writes her own name in the front page. But there is also the guilt that comes from not having been honest with yourself. Has Tina always known more than she cared to admit about that disappearance? Her struggle is against her own ability to remember and the resistance she encounters when she gets home.

Occasionally Dawson falls into the trap of signposting the era with easily recognised markers. Whether it's Love Thy Neighbour, Dairylea triangles, or the 'I Love Donny' sticker on Mandy's bike, the sheer volume of them means that at times it's like watching one of those 'I Love The 1970's' programmes rather than picking up on well observed detail. There are however a couple of occasions when these assume more significance. A Sindy hairbrush assumes almost totemic value and Tina's Girl's World toy (a life size mannequin head containing female grooming products, lipstick etc) manages to serve as a symbol of that pressure on young girls to grow up too soon, and also as a great example of sibling bickering when her brother insists on calling it Girl's Head and festoons its hair with grenades from his Action Man (see, I'm doing it now).

Other writers have made much of the Fens as a locale and Dawson is no exception. The rich dark earth, the constant threat from the water; exposure and a sense of oppression are somehow combined. The always visible horizon provides a scale which accentuates how much the human inhabitants are at the mercy of the forces that act on them. What Dawson does so well is to combine those with the powerful forces that come from within us, particularly that which unites her with Nabokov: desire.


Thursday 4 June 2009

'I shall not exist if you do not imagine me'

by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Are there three more provocative syllables? Just typing the word Lolita is enough to set off the decency filters on most search engines and give you a bit of a shock if they're turned off. Nabokov struggled to find an American publisher for his taboo breaking novel until the European sensibilities of Olympia Press in Paris brought it to the public's attention in 1955. Since then it has never failed to be controversial, spawning two film adaptations, several spin-off books and ideas and a unique memoir a few years ago, Reading Lolita in Tehran, where the book formed a central role in the social and cultural awakening fo a group of femal students living under Ayatollah Khomeini's regime.

For the reader today, fifty years after its publication (and indeed nearer the time when its narrator expected it to be read - 'In its literary form, this book is being read, I assume, in the first years of A.D. 2000' - after the death of its subject) it is questionable whether it still has the same shock value. We live in a society filled with media stories about paedophiles and it was only a few years ago that the News of The World's 'name and shame' campaign led to angry mobs marching the streets and one poor paediatrician coming home to find 'paedo' spray-painted on her front door (no one has yet suggested that far from being ignorant the graffittist had read Lolita, where Humbert calls himself a paediatrician, and simply failed to note the ironic tone). The hysteria which attends the reporting of these stories might lead you to believe that paedophilia has spread through the internet with the virulence of a computer virus, all of which allowed Chris Morris to make such an impact with his Brass Eye special (Paedogeddon!). The power of a work of art of course is to cut through all the nonce-sense (thank you Chris) and provide an insight into forbidden desire.

Writing anything in response has been far from easy though, I've stumbled over it for days, for what can one possibly bring to the discussion of a book so well known, so notorious, its strengths so well known and written about and its weaknesses far better analysed by others I'm sure? Well, we'll see.

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travellers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as 'nymphets'.

And so another word is coined and the cool explanations of Humbert begin; uncomfortable to read for so many reasons. Having questioned the shock value I think it's fair to say that Humbert remains one of the most extraordinary narrators in literature. Not only expressing abhorrent views but completely unapologetic with them, he is also one of the smartest, wittiest men you could hope to meet, causing a small moral dilemma. Or perhaps not, because whatever he may be, I never found Humbert likeable for a single moment. In fact the witticisms, the puns, the plays with words in many languages became increasingly annoying, especially when combined with his wicked scheming.

When Humbert goes to the home of Charlotte Haze as a potential lodger he has his first encounter with her daughter Dolores. Spotting her as she reads magazines in the garden he is struck by her image (well captured on the front of the film tie-in cover above), bringing back his memories of Annabel, the girl he loved passionately as a child before she died prematurely of Typhus (this unfulfilled love and trauma providing the psychological explanation for his growing fascination with nymphets). He is plotting almost immediately, imagining how to capitalise on the attentions of Charlotte to get access to the real object of his desire. Very quickly he is fantasising of marriage and drugging both of them to enjoy nights of fondling 'with perfect impunity'. Later he addresses the gentlewomen of the jury to defend his reasoning, his policy of stealth is there to spare 'her purity'. Even worse is when he considers the possibility of having a child with Lolita so that when she grows out of her nymphet stage he will have something of that preserved for his future as a pederast, even going as far as to imagine a granddaughter too. And a cold shiver works its way down your spine.

We do get to understand the driving forces in their relationship, or at least from Humbert's point of view. Frank about his mental instability, his stays in mental institutions, we can observe his slow breakdown as the pressures of jealousy ('Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I travelled upon was so slight as to be practically indistinguishable from a madman's fancy') and the fear of losing her or being caught take their toll ('I often felt that we lived in a lighted house of glass, and that at any moment some thin-lipped parchment face would peer through a carelessly unshaded window to obtain a free glimpse of things that the moset jaded voyeur would have paid a small fortune to watch'). What we don't get enough of for me is a real insight into the title character. This may be a book about Lolita but she is treated so much as the object rather than the subject of the book that Humbert himself realises later how little he really knows about her.

... I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate - dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions.

But it's all about the language. In his afterword Nabokov corrects the suggestion that Lolita is a record of his 'love affair with the romantic novel' to one with the 'English language'. Every sentence is a joyful expression of that love, each word well chosen and expressive, each image replete with colour and meaning even if it is to show how Humbert through his actions is sullying the great country that he travels through with Dolores. Part two in particular begins with florid descriptions of the American countryside, long sentences filled with commas so that they extend like the mountain terrain he describes, which by the end of their journey they 'had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime'. He is not interested in moral instruction or metaphor or of explaining why he had to write this particular book. It stands as it is, our reaction to it the interesting thing and there is something intriguing about going somewhere uncomfortable, like playing with a scab. If you've read it and want to push yourself a bit further then A.M Homes caused a similar stir with her novel The End of Alice which details the correspondence between a woman fascinated by a young boy and a convicted paedophile in prison. How's that for taboo?

My reason for reading this book was as preparation for another novel, which I hope will fill in those spaces. To give an idea of how it feels to be an adolescent girl dimly aware of her growing power to allure, to tantalise, to provoke.


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