Wednesday 28 October 2009

'the dark and rotting heart of the earth'

An A-Z Of Possible Worlds
by A.C. Tillyer

I am going to have to face the fact that at the moment I am a bona fide commuter. For the last few weeks certainly the regularity of my journey into town has placed me next to men in suits tapping away on laptops, power dressed women alternating the application of make-up with Blackberry scrolling and countless people with their faces buried in either one of the Twilight books or the latest Dan Brown. Now don't get me wrong, I love a journey into work, it provides me with at least half an hour of dedicated reading time, but appropriate reading matter can be more problematic. Hauling Bolano's 2666 around for a few weeks was enough to cause serious injury and as John Self commented after finishing Mantell's Wolf Hall "that's a weight off my lap". A combination of that commuter curiosity and a yearning for small digestible narrative lead A C Tillyer to write one of the more intriguing publications I have come across this year: a beautifully produced box containing 26 individually bound stories, one for each letter of the alphabet - from The Archipelago to Zero-Gravity Zone - which come together to make a book difficult to summarise; a journey through the sub-conscious, an insight into what makes us human, brief flashes of insight that may alter the way you look at your journey and the people you share it with for good.

Tillyer manages to recall some of the big names in literature with some of her stories. C is for Casino had me thinking of Borges with its description of a life lottery, D is for Dormitory Town is a Swiftian satire with a Chief Justice who is cared for as a baby whilst his work is willingly done by servants around him and K is for Kingdom is a chilling horror tale worthy of Poe. But these aren't just homages to other writers. Taken as a whole there is a surprising political and philosophical thrust to the stories which tackles notions of power, control and authority. E is for Excavation makes archaeology a political act and demonstrates the importance of resistance to absolute authority. In N is for Neutral State the state in question has become a specialist in torture, used by the warring states that surround it. Sometimes the political\battleground is more personal. I is for Inn could be said to show the malign influence of alcohol on society and in P is for Peep Show Tillyer creates first a strip club popular with its clientele because each female dancer has some form of deformity and then sees how far they would be prepared to watch a woman go. A story both shocking and provocative in a way that strip clubs no longer are.

U is for Underground is one of the most entertaining and unsettling tales, especially for a denizen of the tube like me. In that space where people famously keep themselves to themselves, almost making an effort to avoid any kind of contact with their fellow passengers Tillyer places a breed of vampiric hunters who use that anonymity to disguise their hunting of human prey. They first monitor, then stalk the most ordinary of people (usually men) before surrounding and then driving them away from busy platforms (the rest of the travellers completely unaware with their heads down or buried) to be devoured in secret, the remains carried out in everyday bags and pulverised to make feed for the border plants in their suburban gardens. Looking up from reading a story like that can lend a curious expression to your face as you scan your fellow commuters.

With the booklet format you could select a few to take on your journey each day, each story taking between 5 and 15 minutes to read or if you don't mind some inquisitive (and envious) glances you can carry the entire box with you and dip in as you see fit. The collection is published by Roast Books, an independent publisher which seeks to publish new and interesting fiction in formats which tally with our modern lives. What that means for many I suppose is short books which fit easily into what you carry with you each day; unlike those literary doorstoppers in other words. Each of Tillyer's stories may be slight in size but it would be a mistake to underestimate their themes or ambition and the powerful effect they have as a whole. This review is part of the A-Z blog tour on which the next stop will be author Charles Lambert's 'A place for everything that doesn't fit anywhere else' on Nov 2nd.


Monday 26 October 2009

'what is the fourth dimension?'

From Hell
by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

My graphic education continues with another Alan Moore title and another of his which has been adapted into a terrible film (I say this without having seen it, but the only comments I received from people when reading this book were 'Oh, that was a s**t film'). I think this may be a consistent problem as V for Vendetta will be next on my list and I don't even need to watch that to know it's not much cop. The various volumes of Moore's take on Jack the Ripper were originally published through the 90's and collected together at the end of that decade. In his appendix The Dance of the Gull-Catchers Moore illustrates the impossibility of satisfactorily solving these infamous murders (over 100 suspects have been proposed over time) and beyond that shows that to find a single culprit would be to ignore the fact that almost all killings have a society around them that is as much to blame as the person who wields the weapon itself. That appendix also serves as a potted history of Ripperology (what would Maureen Lipman's BT mum have made of that!), which reminds a modern reader that further theories and ideas have developed in that field since the publication of Moore's book meaning that it lost some of its power for me, feeling a little dated if anything.

That isn't to take away from the book's considerable achievements. The dark black and white drawings maintain a consistently grim outlook, there are some genuinely electrifying moments and for anyone coming to the subject without prior knowledge you couldn't ask for a more accessible medium to take in a lot of information. Or almost. You could certainly never argue that Moore hasn't done his research, there are 42 pages of notes in the first appendix which explain the sources behind many of his decisions, even explaining that some of the backgrounds have been meticulously recreated from the originals. I started trying to read the notes simultaneously with the story but found it was making my progress incredibly slow. Even without the notes themselves some of the early chapters are a little heavy going, reading like research presented as narrative but if you can slog your way through it there is certainly a pay-off nearer the end where the creativity is given a freer rein and the panels begin to open up (or close down) to great effect.

Based heavily on Stephen Knight's theory that the murders were part of a conspiracy to conceal Prince Albert Victor's fathering of an illegitimate child, Moore has no worry about placing Queen Victoria herself in our line of sight, issuing a vague order to her physician Dr William Gull "We leave the means to you, Sir William. We would simply it were done, and done well." It is Gull who leads his driver, and us, on a tour through London, his masonic credentials giving him a knowledge of the pagan symbols and teachings hidden amongst some of London's most famous landmarks and buildings. Chapter 4 is one example of some fairly dryly presented research, the dialogue about as unnatural as you can imagine, but even so Moore manages to build to a moment of drama at the close and with that knowledge now in place he is able to return to it later in the novels closing chapters to far more dramatic effect.

Rather than go into too much detail about the plot I thought I'd highlight some parts of the book that worked really well for me. The black and white artwork was a bit hit and miss for me actually, the inconsistency with faces sometimes making it harder to keep track of who was who, the panels which really excited me were where something different happened. To contrast the different lifestyles of Gull and Polly Nicholls in chapter 5 there are suddenly only three long panels to each page; Nicholls' presented in the style we have become used to, Gull's softened like pastel drawings or watercolours. This is the only time that the artwork changes significantly and it can't help but catch your eye. The rest of the time the eye-grabbing effects are achieved by playing with panel size (they're always rectangular though) or by throwing in something you don't expect. The brutality of the final murder of Mary Kelly makes chapter 1o one of the book's stand-out sections. There is a rhythm built up by the regularity of each nine-panel page and when that rhythm is interrupted by a larger panel it has a strong effect. On top of that it is here that Moore and Campbell achieve their greatest coup de theatre; Gull's delusions making manifest that fourth dimension which has been posed throughout the book, showing that time is a human illusion and that all times co-exist in eternity. This dramatic effect is perhaps only topped by the audacious final chapter where Moore manages to unite many of his themes and present a daring conclusion to his meditation on evil, power and death.

The thing that I find fascinating about Moore is the process by which he creates the story lines, dialogue and presentation of his books (in collaboration with each artist to a certain extent I'm sure) without making a single drawing himself. His extensive notes are infamous and on Eddie Campbell's blog it is possible to see some of the original scripts together with the artwork he created here and here. It is a fascinating insight into one of the most creative minds I've come across.


Thursday 22 October 2009

'A father, after all, is a lot for a thing to be.'

Legend Of A Suicide
by David Vann

As the title suggests this book from David Vann isn't so much a single narrative but a collection of stories (one really a novella) inspired by a single event. The root of this comes from his own life, his father having committed suicide in 1980, an event that was presumably earth-shattering. From those shards Vann has reflected in different ways on the effects of that suicide, particularly on those people left behind in its wake. For the reader there is a slightly unsettling sensation as each story develops; the names of the principal characters remain the same but the circumstances and facts in each case seem to be slightly different - this ensures that the book remains resolutely a piece of fiction rather than a factual exhumation. This fragmented approach is incredibly effective for focusing attention on particular themes and also provides the book as a whole with a truly jaw-dropping shock, slap bang in the middle, which I wouldn't dream of revealing in this review.

Looking quickly at the stories first, Ichthyology shows the choices and decisions Roy witnesses his father make that lead toward his suicide. Whilst his father pursues various ill-advised ventures on the water Roy is living with his mother far away in California. His father's fishing boat (on which he puts the gun to his head) contrasts with the fish tank that Roy keeps at home and the final image of a fly 'mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic' serves to highlight how far those shock waves can travel. Rhoda looks at Roy's relationship with his stepmother, a woman whose unknown quality makes her so intriguing. The eyelid of her right eye is drooped, never opening but also never quite closing, a sight which on closer inspection Roy realises 'made her terribly beautiful.' In A Legend Of Good Men whilst Roy's widowed mother goes through a series of unsuccessful relationships he develops his own relationship with that most American of accessories: the gun. It begins harmlessly enough (if such a thing is possible) but after shooting out street lights and stop signs Roy then breaks into his own house, shooting out windows and doors. Vann turning this cry for attention into something personal as Roy sits on the porch, waiting for the police to arrive, hoping that one of his mother's past suitors will be one of them.

Roy is 30 years old in Ketchikan where he returns to 'the place my dead father had first gone astray, the place where this father and his suicide and his cheating and his lies and my pity for him, also, might be put to rest.' What he actually hopes to do is meet the woman with whom his father had had an affair, 'to talk with her and maybe tell her who I was'. His life having been so shaped by this one event, or to be more accurate the stories surrounding the event, the narrative he has made for himself, what he is looking for is some kind of revenge. What though, if things are not as he has imagined.

The real act of revenge though comes in Sukkwan Island, the novella at the centre of this book. It comes in two parts; the first seen from Roy's point of view, the second his father Jim's. In an attempt at bonding Jim takes Roy with him to this remote island in Alaska where he has a house. Vann's descriptive prose is extraordinary in this section, creating the vast impenetrable wilderness that surrounds them, the harsh weather, the constant threat of danger from both the elements and wildlife with whom they share the island. Whilst the house in its dilapidated state presents the first challenge for father and son the real danger to them both is the mental state of Roy's suicidal father. Ill prepared and irresponsible, incapable of caring for himself let alone another, and exposed in this setting to the harshest possible challenges there is something primal about the atmosphere which reminded me of Cormac McCarthy amongst others and had me gripped from the first page to the last.

Over the next two days, in the rain, they cut the poles for the roof and a smaller second roof. They sawed the lengths and stripped off the branches with a hatchet, Roy watching this father with his grim unshaven face when he worked, the cold rain dripping off the end of his nose. He seemed as solid then as a figure carved from stone, and all his thoughts as immutable, and Roy could not reconcile this father with the other, the one who wept and despaired and had nothing about him that could last. Though Roy had memory, it seemed nonetheless that whatever father he was with at the time was the only father that could be, as if each in its time could burn away the others completely.

There is something so sad about the lack of connection between father and son, not just in this section but throughout the book. On Sukkwan Island Roy realises that this trip, designed to throw the two of them closer together, feels no different from any of their previous vacations and he wonders whether that will change. So as not to ruin anything I will say no more about a story which is as powerful as anything I have read this year, the year before that and possibly ever and hope that that is enough to pique your interest to find out why.


Monday 19 October 2009

'every word seemed a morsel'

A Gate At The Stairs
by Lorrie Moore

Famed for her short fiction this is Moore's first novel for 15 years. You might have thought that the publishers would have made slightly more of that rather than saddling it with one of the more hideous covers it has been my misfortune to confront this year, a bright assault that looks like it should produce one of those 3-D images of a dinosaur if you stared at it long enough. It was only my skimming of Geoff Dyer's glowing review that convinced me it was worth sampling my first taste of Moore's work and whilst I can't be quite as fulsome in my praise as he was she is certainly one hell of a writer as the copious post-it notes that now run through my copy attest. There are so many quotable lines, images and jokes that I shall have to be careful that I don't just copy the whole thing out (how can you resist the description of a fortune cookie as "A short paper nerve baked in an ear"), but it certainly encourages me, as it should you, to take a look at her shorter fiction.

Pitched as a 'post-9/11' novel, Moore places the action in an America still learning to deal with those attacks and getting prepared for another war in the Middle East. It is in America's Midwest that we meet Tassie Keltjin, 'half-Jewish' farmer's daughter, as she heads to University in Troy, considered so smug by its provincial neighbours that they joke it is a place where they 'drink their own bath water'. Tassie compares this change to the awakening of a priest-child in Colombia she read about, who having been raised in the dark and given only stories rather than experience of the world, emerges into it in a 'perpetual holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder'. Then comes her punchline:

The ancient cave, of course, had produced a mystic; my childhood had produced
only me.

Leaving behind a brother whose lack of options in life have him considering a life in the military, and a father concentrated on his speciality vegetables, Tassie is soon immersed in college life where her courses in Sufism and wine-tasting have appropriately punning titles, and even finding time for her first forays into romance (of which more later). To support her studies Tassie seeks out work in childcare and is taken on by Sarah, owner of an absurdly posh restaurant in town (which uses Keltjin potatoes). Sarah is looking to adopt a child and eventually she and partner Edward take a young mixed-race toddler, Mary, into their home. Moore has already softened us up with a one-liner on race earlier in the book by giving Tassie's mixed-race friend Rachel the moniker 'Inter-Rachel'. She then takes things much further, poking fun at the right-on middle class values of Sarah and Ed, who set up a support group for other mixed race parents, their increasingly ridiculous utterances caught by Tassie as she looks after their children upstairs.

Tassie has a narrative voice which is a little problematic. Written from a point in the future there is a wisdom and maturity which is more than would be expected from a girl of her age. This is all well and good until that perceptiveness intrudes on the present-tense thoughts of Tassie. When she accompanies Sarah to the home of Mary's present carers she not only spots that it is the teenage daughter who has been fulfilling the role of mother, but also that this teenage girl has 'secretly, quietly' encouraged Mary to call her "Mama". That level of perception doesn't ring true in the present moment, especially from a girl of Tassie's age, despite her intelligence. These confusions or inconsistencies are a small price to pay however for a narrator who is sometimes naive, sometimes aware, intelligent, funny and trying to make the best job she can of growing up.

Much has been said before of Moore's humour and its possible intrusiveness into her writing leading to 'gag-fatigue'. There are many different laughs in this book: Deprecating ('My father had one day stood on the porch and flung his arms out and said, "Someday kids, all this will be yours." But his knuckles had hit the porch supports. Even the porch wasn't that big.'), clever (I would imagine that ergonomic meant 'thereforish' ), indignant (in response to Sarah's carmelized sage finished with hand-raked Norman sea salt: 'So this is what Americans were busying themselves with in Normandy now that it had been liberated from the Nazis: hand-raking sea salt. Soldiers' tears shipped thousands of miles and sprinkled on a fried leaf. Look D-Day in the eye and tell it that!'), and irresistible (Bread with 'a powdery blue mold that would have made a lovely eyeshadow for a showgirl - perhaps one who also needed penicillin.'). Only occasionally do the gags feel unwelcome, which is an achievement in a book which deals with adoption, race, war and other serious themes which I won't declare for fear of spoiling the rest of the plot. The one jarring moment is not of humour but rather the opposite, when Moore develops Tassie's love interest into an overtly (and unconvincing) post-9/11 plotline. It feels unnecessary when elsewhere in the book she has shown so effectively, and far more subtly, the dislocation of the characters.

The people in this house, I felt, and I included myself were like characters each from a different grim and gruesome fairy tale. None of us was in the same story. We were all grotesques, and self-riveted, but in separate narratives, and so our interactions seemed weird and richly meaningless, like the characters in a Tennesee Willliams play, with their bursting, unimportant, but spellbindingly mad speeches.

It is these aspects of the book: the relationships that never connect, the things not said, the pauses, the gaps, that are the real success of this novel. The division that was clear in how people responded to 9/11 has been one of its lasting shocks. Moore shows how large the small gaps between us can become and for the characters in this novel, the attempt to make the family unit work is one which falters. It is worth noting that the titular gate, which we find at Sarah's house, is broken.


Thursday 15 October 2009

Sukilove - Static Moves

I know what you've been thinking: When's he going to review some more Belgian indie-rock? Well, don't worry, the time has come, and how could I resist the opportunity to review an album frontman Pascal Deweze described as "homo-erotic rock without the glitter"? Sukilove formed in Antwerp in 2002 and have gained a reputation at home for twisted pop and textured songwriting. When Mojo magazine commissioned a Beatles cover project, Sukilove contributed Love You To and the band have also enjoyed support slots with David Bowie. Their new album is available through Jezus Factory Records and the band will be playing some live dates in the UK between 28th November and 5th December.

So, what does twisted pop and layered songwriting mean? Well, I know I keep making this comparison but there are plenty of moments that sound like Radiohead on this album and Deweze's voice inhabits the same kind of register as Thom Yorke although he seldom takes the opportunity to break free or use more of his register. New Beginning begins with a bouncy bass which isn't a million miles away from sounding like a slower version of that which underpins the theme tune to Flash Gordon. There are layered vocals and a melody which manages to sound positive and twisted at the same time. There is good use of haunting piano lines on tracks like 4AM but the backing vocals are never quite fully wedded to the rest of the track. Rebel rocks out with power chords and the kind of amplified bowed-strings that made Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds soundtrack such a prog-rock powerhouse. There's something very dramatic about a track that has so many sections to it; think Bohemian Rhapsody or Paranoid Android. You need something gentler after that onslaught and Sugareyes is just that, still multi-sectioned but progressing slowly to its layered conclusion. This is certainly music that doesn't intend to leave you short-changed, each track often bursting with ideas, whether or not these always come together successfully is another matter. Memory As A Skull is a bit of a mess for example and contains a strange section where Deweze sounds as though he is trying to clear a frog in his throat.

First single Choose Your Gods has a nice melody underpinned by a bass line which threatens something else. This comes in the middle when jangled guitars are at odds to the melody and at the end when they combine with that bass. The video below gives you a chance to hear it and if the contradicting elements aren't to your taste then this may not be the album for you.

By persevering into the second half of the album there are some real moments of interest. Fear, a track which doesn't begin with much promise develops nicely with Deweze showing that he has far more in the tank vocally than we had imagined as he hollers the refrain "We're all just meat/Waiting to die". Contemplaying has an interesting 2/2 rhythm that makes the track trip along with menace and the album closes with Leave Me Alone, perhaps the most overtly Radiohead track, which combines powerful guitars with gentle piano and soft vocals. It's certainly not a dull album, If Deweze could make more use of his full range and try and control some of the songwriting so that tracks don't become overwhelmed by too many ideas then Sukilove could be capable of producing something really special.


Tuesday 13 October 2009

'But I was beginning to need that disgust more and more.'

Hecate And Her Dogs
by Paul Morand

When I reviewed my last title from Pushkin Press I hinted that I had asked them as publishers what they would recommend I read. One of their recent books from another author unknown to me was the reply and it is a truly interesting book indeed. I described Julien Gracq as a man who seemed to have integrity running through him like a stick of rock. Paul Morand in contrast saw his reputation tarnished by his anti-semitic views and collaboration with the Vichy regime during the second world war. So great was the effect of this that De Gaulle vetoed his election to the Académie française, Morand finally joining 10 years later. This friend of Proust, socialite, diplomat and writer of everything from plays to travel books made something of a return to the French literary scene with this novella which is surely as shocking today as it was in 1954.

A business trip sends our narrator, Spitzgartner, back to Tangier, the city he swore he would never return to when he left it 30 years previously. Then a banker he pounced on the opportunity to work there with 'missionary zeal'.

I was by birth, temperament and education a Hugenot. Propriety, Decorum, Decency, these three Protestant spirits had attended me since I was in my cradle...everything about me was square shaped.
Wth methodical precision he is soon set up with the appropriate house, servants, office and staff. All that is wanting is a mistress. This he soon aquires when he meets Clotilde at a reception. Her assertion that "The important thing...is to take life as it comes" acts like the right password to entice Spitzgartner and they begin their sexual relationship. Whilst the book contains sex it would be difficult to describe it as erotica. It isn't that the descriptions are business-like, although there is a cool, detached quality that comes from character and remembrance but in the same way that Spitzgartner has accrued the elements of his lifestyle like someone might furnish a house from a catalogue his affair with Clotilde follows a schedule. At its most consuming when the couple inter themselves indoors to pursue a marathon love-making session it is the effect of it that is reported rather than the sex itself.
In the bitter hour which follows the expenditure of sexual energy I ached all over, in my back, oviously, in the nape of my neck, in my muscles. Every part of me, irritated with so much chafing, swollen, tumescent, became the seat of new pain. Our bed sheets were smudged with the black of our cigarette ash, carmined with lipstick, stained with the yellow of our breakfast eggs, sticky with marmalade.

Spitzgartner begins to sense that something darker is driving Clotilde, some depravity that is only hinted at for several chapters. At first he thinks that it is another man, Ibrahim, whose name she had spoken aloud, a 'devil' who 'melt[s] in the mouth'. But he then discovers that Ibrahim is just a child and Clotilde's depravity is laid bare.
Three personed Hecate, queen of the night ate dogs for her sustenance; like the dread goddess, Clotilde ate puppies, I mean the children she made her fodder.

The intensity of this relationship sends this man of Decency spinning off down a dark alley, desperate to understand his mistress' motivations and convinced that the only way to achieve that is to follow the same path himself. A classic descent into the hell of sexual desire and jealousy. The book is made up of 67 short chapters, some just a few lines, and the title of this post is chapter 37 in its entirety. Morand makes good use of this brevity to deliver information when it's needed but without saying more than he needs to, without making explicit what can be hinted at or left for the reader to decide and discern. It is surprising to read Umberto Pasti describing it as a 'masterpiece of camp' in his afterword but he does so because of the contrast of the 'dusty' language and the disturbing world it describes, what Morand chooses to leave out of his story and the masterful way in which he decides what to put in. I'm not sure I'd describe that as camp but I would certainly describe it as a book whose small size belies its ability to shock and unnerve over 50 years after its initial publication.


Thursday 8 October 2009

Girls - Album

I know you like it when I get excited about music, and I am excited about this album, but don't worry, this isn't going to be me going off the deep end and making it sound too significant. I'm excited about this album because I can't stop listening to it, because it's just so enjoyable, and that's saying something at a time when finding a moment to listen to music has been near impossible. Ok, what I want to talk about is the music but the story of frontman Christopher Owens' life so far is too colourful to ignore so here we go: He was raised within the Children of God religious movement, or cult for those of us who think that using the bible to make women prostitute themselves might negate your ability to call yourself otherwise. His older brother died as a baby when medical attention was denied due to the group's beliefs. His father left the group but the family remained, Owens' mother forced into prostituting herself. Owens' eventually made his own way out and was eventually taken under the wing of a millionaire. A move to San Francisco, a meeting with Chet "JR" White and Girls were born.

The main trick of the album is to use that life story as the starting point for lyrics which are both painful and funny and combine them with music which ranges from west coast harmonies and 60's infused pop to rock 'n' roll and shoegaze. There's an exuberant energy and wonder to the album which had me thinking of the way a character describes herself in a book I'm reading right now. A priest-child in Colombia, having been kept in darkened seclusion for their whole life and told only stories of the outside world without the experience of it would, once brought out into it find themselves in a state of 'bedazzlement and wonder'. It's possible that Owens seclusion and nomadic existence within the Children Of God and his subsequent escape has led to some of the joy that emanates from this album.

Lust for Life opens proceedings with a bounce in its step, countering against the lyrics in which amongst other things Owens wishes for what he didn't have: "I wish I had a father/ Maybe then I would've turned out right/Now I'm just crazy/I'm totally mad". But this is a song about the possibility of making a new start and handclaps lift it to a promising close. The frank lyrics continue on Laura; a pop song filled with yearning after a broken relationship. "You've been a bitch/I've been an ass/I don't want to point the finger/I just know I don't like it/I don't want to do this." It would have been really easy to repeat the name of the girl he misses on every chorus but the song is all the more effective for using it only the once, the vocals doubled up here for extra impact. There's a gorgeous swirling finish with vocals and instrumentation warping together. It's break-up again that dominates Ghost Mouth, a song which basks in its 60's influences, Owens calling himself a 'ghost man' after the end of a relationship. It is the desire to get a relationship started that drives God Damned a lo-fi track with echoey vocals that sounds as though it has been recorded on improvised equipment because he simply had to get the feelings down as soon as he had them.

It's old-school rock 'n' roll on Big Bad Mean Mother Fucker and Owens' "high school crush on a California girl". We then reach the literal and artistic centre of the album, Hellhole Ratrace. A previous single it is a great example of the lyrical and musical thrust of the album. Owens may need "some love and attention." but the optimism of a new shot at life is best put when he says that all he wants is to laugh and dance and to do those things with whoever the song is intended for. Halfway through the track is bolstered by big guitars which lend it an epic feel.

Owens' song titles are sometimes at odds with their content. Headache is actually an incredibly gentle track whilst Summertime contains warped keyboards, a heavy bass guitar and a grandstanding middle section where both rear up and wash over in a wave of sound. A little out of nowhere Morning Light is three minutes of shoegaze guitars followed by the pastoral instrumental Curls. The album finishes on hugely positive note with Darling in which Owens makes explicit how low he had been and how music has altered all that. "It's coming straight from my heart" he sings and there can be no doubting that. The great thing about Owens finding his "way in the song" is that it bodes well for what comes next. If their next album is even close to as eclectic, heartfelt and downright entertaining as this début then it'll be a treat.


Tuesday 6 October 2009

'something completely pointless and beautiful'

by Tim Winton

One of the joys of reading can be to transport yourself to another place entirely from the one you are living in. A regular journey to work for example can be transformed into a journey of a far less mundane variety and even a short coffee break can give you a few minutes to leap off to somewhere more exotic. Holed up in a theatre recently for two 12-hour days doing technical rehearsals I wanted something that would not only take me somewhere else, but somewhere that was almost the opposite, a place filled with light, energy and open space. Rather neatly the word antipodes means any two points on the earth diametrically opposite each other and has come to mean Australia to us in the UK. Tim Winton has twice been nominated for the Booker and is so well regarded in his native Australia that he has been named a Living Treasure by their National Trust. This most recent novel of his uses that national pastime of surfing to explore themes of escape, flirtation and flight from death, in a coming of age tale that bubbles with energy and that sense of risk. Perfect in other words for keeping me awake in a darkened theatre.

When we first meet Bruce Pike it is as an older man, working as a paramedic, as he tends to a 17-year old boy who seems to have hung himself. Pike knows far more about what might have led to this due to his own childhood which he recounts for us. For young 'Pikelet' a friendship with Ivan "Loonie" Loon sets him onto a path of risk and daring which is a world away from his quiet upbringing. Winton uses the title of this novel as a consistent theme throughout the book. Pikelet and Loonie begin with childhood games, like daring each other to hold their breath underwater for the longest. Loonie is an exciting figure, Pikelet sees him as 'solitary and feral' and notices that even at 12 he was 'more worldly than either of my parents and in a queer way they were intimidated by him'.

At each perilous undertaking - and with Loonie there were plenty of them - he always volunteered to go first. For a while I thought this was about honour, that it was his way of taking responsibility for whatever stupid idea he'd come up with - something gentlemanly, perhaps a mark of friendship - but eventually I saw that Loonie went first out of need; he was greedy about risk. He absolutely loved a dare. He would actually dare you to dare him. This wasn't optional. He required it of you, insisted on it.

This addictive quality is another theme running through the book. All of the characters in their own ways are craving satisfaction from something and unable to find it no matter how hard they try. When the two boys get into surfing they both discover the 'narcotic' feeling of endorphins rushing through their bodies. They are befriended by Sando, an enigmatic figure who becomes almost guru-like for them, the constant danger of being held down by the powerful waves they aim to ride in increasingly dangerous locations continues this toying with what keeps us alive. Sando's American girlfriend becomes another important figure for all of them as the lone female around which two pubescent boys and a man almost incapable of settling down revolve.

My first instinct on reading the book was that it was going to be one of those thrilling rides like Jed Mercurio's Ascent which maintains a thrilling pace and delivers the kind of giddy experience usually reserved for the cinema goer. Winton's descriptions of surfing certainly achieve that and there are some great touches like having one of their surfing haunts named Barney's, after the great white shark that shares the water with them. But he also raises the novel into some more interesting areas; not only describing the sport but seeking to understand the motivations behind those who pursue that kind of jeopardising thrill. There is also the portrait of male friendship and its disintegration which reminded me of William Maxwell's The Folded Leaf. A very different novel from a very different writer, using boxing as its physical centre, what the books have in common is an understanding of what can bring two friends together and the simple changes that can happen as boys become men. Returning to the book's title and major theme I was impressed by how many ways Winton was able to use it. Breathing is one thing that our body will do, and fight to do, without us having to think about it at all. It was refreshing to look again at something that we all take for granted and to consider the impulse to fight against the thing that keeps us alive.

More than once since then I've wondered whether the life threatening high jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to in the years of my adolescence were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath. It's easy for an old man to look back and see the obvious, how wasted youth and health and safety are on the young who spurn such things, to be dismayed by the risks you took, but as a youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine, and that the human will to control is as much about asserting power over your body as exercising it on others.


Friday 2 October 2009

'setting my fever down on paper'

A Dark Stranger
by Julien Gracq

Very often I read books that I have some inkling about beforehand, I think we all do to a certain extent, following an author's work or a friend's recommendation, a glowing review, or even books within a favoured genre. Very seldom do I take a blind leap into untested waters but when you come to admire a publisher because of their consistent ethos it makes such a thing not only possible but also feel almost safe. Pushkin Press have made a name, amongst some of the bloggers I read anyway, for reintroducing us to some of the lost European writers who deserve more attention. They along with NYRB Classics have done a lot to resurrect the standing of Stefan Zweig amongst readers in English and their catalogue contains many other authors who might be worthy of the same focus. Browsing 'blind' is a bit like looking at a menu, knowing that it may all be tasty but not necassarily to all tastes.

Julien Gracq died only a couple of years ago at an impressive 97 years of age. He appears to have lead a life that has the word integrity running through it like a stick of rock. Himself a product of France's elite educational system, he never stopped working as a teacher of geography and history despite being part of the literary scene. A friend of André Breton the two men admired each other and even worked together but Gracq never became part of the Surrealist movement proper (however its influence can be felt in this book very clearly). This novel, published in 1945 as Un beau ténébreux, was written whilst he was interrred as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. His best known novel The Opposing Shore won him the Prix Goncourt in 1951, an award he refused, and he further distanced himself from the glittery side of literature when he refused dinner with President Mitterand on three separate occasions. He also had the rare honour of seeing his work published by The Pléiade whilst still alive.

A Dark Stranger is made up for the most part of the journal entries of Gerard, a writer who has decamped to the Hotel des Vagues in Brittany to continue his studies of Rimbaud. He is just about to leave when one of the other guests, Gregory, tempts him to stay by showing him a letter he has received from a friend who will be joining them. In Nigel Planer's hilarious spoof memoir 'I, An Actor' he talks about the technique of 'ponging' whereby a character can be developed and built up nicely, before they even make their entrance, by what other characters say about them. The mysterious Allan is built up similarly so that when he and his partner do finally arrive it is with almost operatic pomp.

Accompanied by Gregory, two new guests walked in. Him, the image of both strength and ease at once: my first thought was that he walked with genius. The only other person I've seen honour the ground with such harmony was a Slav athlete walking into the stadium during a cup final at Colombes (breathtaken, the entire stadium went "ah!") She - it's too little to say - she's very beautiful - beautiful as a dream. The second thing that occurred to me, in a sort of panic, was that what I saw in front of me was something more complicated, more astonishing than the harmony of the planets: a couple, a royal couple even. The third was... no it wasn't a thought, it was a bubbling, a fizzing in the blood, those blurred eyes, lifeless hands and dry throat you get when the great tragic actress, the Olympic champion appears decked magnificently in their symbolic attributes, and when you just say to yourself - and the whole crowd stiffens, holds up their heads at the thought alone: "There she is, it's her - there he is, it's him".

Soon after their arrival Gregory leaves but gives Gerard a 12 page letter, reading like a piece of submitted evidence, about the life of Allan. Hardly the subtlest method of exposition but from this we learn one important milestone: a night spent in a kind of bedside vigil with the body of someone who had suffered a fatal accident at school. This "diligent, all-night childhood confrontation with oblivion" is the first indication of the morbid side to Allan's character, which is at odds with the holiday season, the decadent period setting and the comfortable lives of the rest of the hotel's residents. In a similar vein there is Allan's monologue about the night, his love for it, and the time he spent overnight in a church in particular. Another epiphany of him where he realises that death need not be something that inhibits us, death can be an act too, for we can take our own lives. Gerard senses something about Allan almost immediately and as Gracq makes no attempt to disguise where his plot is heading it'll amke no difference if I tell you that one should always beware of a man who seems to blowing his life savings in the mother of all casino losing-streaks.

So if the plot isn't the important thing for Gracq, what is? I mentioned surrealist imagery earlier and the writing is thick with images, motifs and dream sequences. Sometimes this is so heavy going that it slows the reading pleasure somewhat but there are moments where the joy of writing and language is infectious. Holiday trips to Brittany are pretty common I should think for people like me who grew up in the South East, but I shouldn't think many of us would choose to describe the simple act of sitting by the sea thus:

I lay on the sand, let the dulling disaster of the waves wash over me. It's enough to occupy you completely in itself - first comes the anxious wait for them to break, for the steaming torrent (Ah! It'll be even better than the last one!) Jumping for sudden wild joy, that stomach churning joy brought on by anything that comes crashing down (the childish pleasure I felt during the war - the sole innocent pleasure - on blowing up a bridge). Then comes the savage, biting, pitiless sucking-up of sand by the salty tongue - the sound of the earth being washed, thrashed, redeemed from lethargy, from anything that isn't absolute purity of honest, upright rock, until it's grovelling, until this blonde with bone shoes is as prostrate as a figure on a tomb.

A series of bone related images follow, keeping things close to the overiding theme of mortality. This theme and indeed the whole novel takes on an entirely different hue when you learn that Gracq wrote the book whilst interred in a prisoner of war camp in Silesia during the second world war. Imprisoned with other officers from the French Army his own life was never under explicit threat, I don't mean to place this novel in any kind of holocaust literature context, but from that standpoint it makes the apparently carefree attitudes of the holidaying characters and the relative decadence of the 1920's seem not just a world away but almost unreal, indeed surreal.

So how successful was my attempt to try something new from the menu? Very, I think. Rich and challenging, Gracq's prose may not have me rushing back for more immediately but it's always good to extend one's palate and simply learning more about the life of the man behind it made it a worthwhile read. The other trick of course is to ask your waitress what's good but you'll have to wait and see what was recommended.


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