Friday 26 February 2010



by David Small

Thanks to Trevor over at The Mookse And The Gripes for pointing this one out. David Small's graphic memoir tells a story so extraordinary it feels like something from the Twilight Zone and his filmic and slightly gothic style creates a suitably dreamlike or nightmarish atmosphere for it. Growing up in 1950's America, Small shows us his household and its occupants all living isolated lives. His father spends his evenings venting frustrations into a punchbag in the cellar, his mother communicates her own pent up frustrations through the percussion of slamming kitchen-cupboard doors and his brother uses the more traditional form of percussion that is a drum kit. David himself remains solitary in his love of drawing and artwork, but his childhood is defined by his constant illness, suffering from respiratory problems.

David and I share the fact that our fathers were doctors and like Davd's my father couldn't help but use our family as guinea-pigs occasionally for some of the new treatments that became available. Whilst my father was a Consultant dermatologist and the new treatments were restricted to the odd lotion or potion, David's was working at the vanguard of the new medical technology of x-rays. At a time when it was thought that radiation could be used to treat a multitude of ailments David's father subjected his son to massive doses in order to cure him of the chronic respiratory problems that had plagued his youth. It can never be certain that these singularly caused David's later problem but they cannot but have contributed to the lump in David's neck, first spotted by a family friend, that would turn out to be cancer.

Amazingly it is several years before this lump is actually treated, mistaken at first for a benign cyst, and it is here that the really shocking element to the story occurs. After the initial operation David's parents, not wanting to worry their son unnecessarily, don't tell him about the severity of the second operation. In a telling moment, the significance of which David will realise later, his mother goes to the hospital bookstore to buy him a copy of Lolita, a book of 'filth' she had previously confiscated from his room and burnt. Like the final request granted to a condemned man, David's mother is prepared to grant him possession of a book she doesn't expect him to have the chance to read. When he does awake it isn't the now missing book that shocks but the devastation of the surgery which has left him with only one vocal chord and a scar on his neck that resembles a hastily tied bootlace.

David's life as a virtual mute makes up the rest of the book, the struggles with his family, a group of misfits who have loomed large in the story so far, like characters in a gothic horror, often illuminated by shadowy light. An isolated figure, David's vivid dreams are brought to life well by the illustrations here, text is kept to a minimum, and the panels flick past to create something close to the feeling of a silent movie (Trevor appositely mentions The Invention Of Hugo Cabret as a similar experience - another filmic book which has actually been optioned by Martin Scorcese). You cannot help but be cheered as he makes his escape from this upbringing, a sensation which leads to a slight chastening when Small reveals some family secrets at the book's close. It has been published for the Young Adult market in America and part of me did feel that there was a simplification of the story. It may be 330 pages or so but they literally fly by and whilst there are some nice visual touches and a sensitivity running through the book that engages the emotions, I did wonder whether a book aimed at a slightly older audience might have been able to develop some of the themes and secrets only hinted at here.


Wednesday 24 February 2010


I watched Finding Nemo with my 2 year old the other day and almost immediately remembered that within the first couple of minutes of the film they kill off Nemo's mother and all his potential siblings. He hasn't quite worked out the significance of that opening scene yet, but I'm not relishing his dawning realisation. It made me realise that if you think about it, a lot of Disney films for children don't tend to pull their punches. I believe those film classification types call it 'mild peril' or something like that. Kids that are too young to get it, don't, and so their films work on those different levels for the wide audience range and when kids make those connections as they grow up perhaps the medium of the film helps to soften the blow.

With the opening section of Disney and Pixar's latest however it's the adults who may need to have a hanky at hand. In another of those magical sequences with no word spoken we are presented with almost the entire life of Carl Frederickson with all of the love and loss that entails. If you can make it through that without a lip tremble then you're made of tougher stuff than me. After a trash compacting robot in Wall.E Carl is another unlikely hero for an animated family film. A 78 year old balloon salesman with hearing aid and walker, Carl is cantankerously voiced by Ed Asner. As housing developments and blocks of flats spring up around the home he has occupied for most of his adult life Carl makes an extraordinary escape, house and all, in order to purse one of his life's ambitions. Piloting a detached house (no pun intended) is presumably hard enough but when Carl finds a stowaway in the form of Wilderness Explorer Russell you know things can only get tougher. The double generation gap and Carl's general impatience create a nice tension, of which Russell is entirely ignorant, for their adventure in South America. The fauna they encounter, especially the non-indigineous variety, add further to Carl's obstacles in achieving that long-held ambition.

So, yet another engaging, charming, quirky, and original film from the Pixar lot. What this film manages like no other before it is to be heart-breakingly romantic without a touch of sentimentality. You can see the love of the filmmakers in every scene. Their successes from Toy Story onwards were allegedly all sketched out in a single meeting, what a meeting of creativity that must have been. One wonders what they might come up with next (after Toy Story 3 that is).


Monday 22 February 2010

'playing cards with the devil'

by Paul Auster

After reading and reviewing Oracle Night recently I was surprised to see what a cool reception the book had received on publication. Indeed, many reviewers at the time felt as though Auster may well have performed his meta-fictional loop-the-loop so much as to disappear up his own backside. Perhaps it was the break from Auster that had come before my own reading that made it seem far more palatable than that at the time, but having now read his latest novel, Invisible, a book in which Auster delivers on his talent more completely than in any I have read since The Book Of Illusions, I can begin to see their point. Let's not dwell on that though but celebrate the achievements of this return to form.

The first section of the book, Spring, is presented as a standard first-person account by Adam Walker of a meeting whilst he was a student at Columbia in 1967. The enigmatic Rudolf Born, a visiting professor, and his partner Margot are like studies in European chic, he dressed in white, she in black, and their befriending of Walker at a party is just the beginning of a complex trinity. Whilst Margot remains almost silent Born enthusiastically encourages the young student predicting that he will write his biography, and it isn't long before Born is proposing a venture: a literary magazine that he will finance and Walker will edit. In every aspect of this partnership Born is in control and Walker passive; even when Walker and Margot begin an affair in Born's absence it is something he has almost pushed them into and we feel that it may be at Born's behest. This sexual awakening is a revelation for Walker, 'a beginner in the arms of a veteran',

...Margot was so comfortable with herself, so knowledgeable in the arts of nibbling, licking and kissing, so unreluctant to explore me with her hands and tongue, to attack, to swoon, to give herself without coyness or hesitation that it wasn't long before I let myself go. If it feels good, it's good. Margot said at one point, and that was the gift she gave me over the course of those five nights. She taught me not to be afraid of myself anymore.

On Born's return however the rules of the game change after an act of random violence, an event that blows apart Walker's world and sends Born fleeing to France. Then we come to the second section of the book where a college colleague of Walker's, Jim Freeman, a novelist, receives a parcel with a covering letter explaining that now, 40 years later, Walker is dying of leukaemia and trying to write a memoir, the first part of which we have just read. He is struggling with the next section, Summer, so disgusted with the story he needs to tell and it is on Jim's advice that he employs the unfashionable second-person narration. That distance allows him to return to the dysfunction within his family, the grief that followed the death of his infant brother and the night he spent in sexual experimentation with his sister when both were teens, a night deemed safe and harmless due to its isolation and the agreement that it would never be repeated. A regular feature of their relationship since has been to meet and reminisce on the anniversary of their brother's death and it is on this day in the summer of '67 that the two of them fall into 'an unholy matrimony' in the days leading up to Walker's journey to study in Paris. As in the first section this period of sexual adventure is by definition finite. Constrained by Born's impending return in the first case and Walker's approaching flight in the second, each encounter is heightened in its intensity, dangerous for different reasons.

Fall, is the third section in which Freeman fleshes out the notes left by Walker into a third-person narration of his sojourn in Paris. Sojourn is a rather cosy word for what is a tale of intrigue and revenge in which Walker attempts to outwit the man who eluded him back in New York, a dangerous game given the ruthlessness and connections which Born clearly possesses. Paris also sees a resumption of relations between Walker and Margot, for whom the importance of sex is not to be underestimated.

If she couldn't have sex she would probably kill herself to escape the boredom and monotony of being trapped inside her own skin.

Very French. The fillip in the final section is achieved by having Freeman in the present day follow up on the characters that have played the supporting roles in Walker's story. Through his conversations and another manuscript, which continues the story of Born we become party to new information that forces us to question the veracity of everything we have accepted as true. This is classic unreliable narrator territory, and Auster keeps it ambiguous. Some other reviewers have found this book too to be self-reverential in its literary playfulness and narrative shifts but it felt to me as though each shift in style was justified and the exploration of storytelling compelling. All of that cleverness is no good naturally if it gets in the way of the story or slows the pace too much but Auster keeps the pages turning by employing thriller like plotting, intrigue, revenge and revelation. I think the novel benefits, in a manner similar to The Book Of Illusions, from wider vistas. By moving beyond the closed world of Brooklyn, familiar from much of his writing, and including Paris and even a remote Caribbean island in his canvas there is some room to breathe.

There is still the matter of distance and connection. Comparing Auster to other writers can remind you what a safe distance he maintains from what he is writing about. One can only imagine what Roth for example would have made of a story involving adultery, murder and incest; how close one would have found oneself to the heat, the fear, the anger and the danger. But I'm not sure Auster has ever been that kind of writer so it may be unfair to accuse him of not connecting in that way. What he does, when he does it well, has its own merits, and in Invisible he seems to be doing it once again with confidence and, perhaps more importantly, with relish and enjoyment.


Friday 19 February 2010

'this wayward machine'

The Unnamed
by Joshua Ferris

I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of this novel several months ago and have put off writing up my thoughts until the timing became more important. It isn't often that there's such a large gap in between reading and writing for me but I can say that my enthusiasm for this book hasn't dimmed in the interim; in fact because I started off feeling fairly ambivalent about it and gradually became caught up in its many strengths, it is a book that I am as enthusiastic about now as when I finished its final page.

I remember when Ferris' first novel And Then We Came To The End was published to some acclaim. I gathered vaguely from what I read that it was set in an office and was funny. I was working in an office at the time and it wasn't in any way funny so I gave the book a miss. Whether that was a mistake or not I don't know but his, by all accounts, very different follow-up shows him to be a writer unafraid of making some bold choices and producing some dazzling prose along the way. At first it seems as if the concept is all; Tim Farnsworth seems to have everything going for him: Successful career as partner in a law firm, beautiful wife, attentive daughter, large house in the suburbs. All of which makes his condition all the more baffling.

The night before, he had been wheeling the trash down the drive to the curb, one in the morning. It was the second of three bins. He knew halfway down that he would not be back for the third. He knew the sensation as an epileptic knows an aura. As an epileptic feels the dread of an uncoming seizure, he was crestfallen, broken-hearted, instantly depressed by what was now foretold. It's back.

What has returned after a four year absence is Tim's 'condition', something either physical or mental or both that sends him walking out of his own life, away from his home until his body collapses, exhausted, when it can go no further.

He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. That was the helplessness, this was the terror: the brakes are gone, the steering wheel has locked, I am at the mercy of this wayward machine.

It is an action which Tim cannot control, irrational by any definition, a risk to himself and a strain on his family. Like a wayward teen he has often made a phone call home in the early hours, giving his location so that his loyal wife, Jane, can come and pick him up. But what can you do when your condition has no precedent, when medical and psychiatric authorities can provide you with no treatment, prognosis or even a name? Tim attempts to absorb this compulsion into his working life; when it sends him careening out of the office as he works to defend a client on a murder charge he invents a family crisis as cover, pretending that his wife has cancer. But as his walks continue and nature begins to wreak its impact on his body, the cold weather stealing a toe, then a finger to frostbite, his position becomes more and more untenable. His mental state is questioned too, what to make of his encounter with a shadowy figure bearing information and even a murder weapon for the case on which Tim is rapidly losing his grip? His locomotion doesn't allow him to pursue the lead and we wonder if such a meeting is even possible.

At home the returning crisis and its remission have the effect of momentarily bringing Tim closer to his daughter, Becka, whose social awkwardness and problems with weight have isolated her. With this newly dependent father the two are able to converse with a new openness. Tim begins to find pleasure and worth in small things, determined not to take his life for granted, but any progress is short-lived and before long he is on the move again. For his wife, the effect of all this anxiety and second parenthood is a descent into alcoholism, a condition that mirrors Tim's own addictive compulsion. What is extraordinary throughout the novel is the strength of the connection between Tim and Jane, even in their disconnectedness. In the face of huge obstacles they have moments where they remain as united as ever, an impressive, touching and ultimately sad predicament.

They stared into the essential mystery of each other, but felt passing between them in those rare moments of silence the recognition of that more impossible mystery - their togetherness, the agreement each had made that they could withstand the wayward directions they had taken and, despite their inviolable separateness, still remain. It had nothing to do with how age and custom had narrowed their circumstances or how sickness had shapes them outside their control. It was not a backward but a forward glance.

So what does this condition represent? What is Tim running from? What I feared initially was going to be another novel about early male crisis or rejection of modern progress or middle class convention has far grander ambitions. Tim's condition is open to many interpretations and opens up many social and philosophical ideas, even developing into a kind of dialogue of Cartesian dualism between the competing forces within Tim. As his condition worsens and he wanders alone, having rejected any help from his family, giving himself over to 'it', his mind and body separate; or perhaps more accurately, his reason and this other become discernible voices, battling it out for control.

"You go on and on about how cold and hungry you are," he said. "The night is long, you say. Good shoes are not just a luxury. But then you're off and thee's no appeal. There's no explanation for your behaviour and no memory of your complaints. Are you not still cold? Are you not hungry? What is your purpose, your aim, but to hurl us both into suffering and darkness? Speak to me! You destroy my life, you rob me of my will, you troll me through the streets like meat on a hook. You have laid plain all my limitations and my total illusion of freedom. To what end? What do you gain from this?"
The other limped along steadily, saying nothing

Ferris also maintains the ambition for his tale by keeping the scale grand. The time covered, the landscape traversed, the cost exacted; Ferris really makes Tim suffer, those lost digits are just part of the toll paid during his odyssey. You cannot help but admire a book this brutal, a book prepared to make its central character suffer so much in the examination of fundamental ideas about human freedom, purpose and ability. It is a bold statement to take on the literary heritage of someone like Beckett, some of the fans of Ferris's début may well get the shock of their lives, but that ambition should be rewarded. It isn't a perfect book, the wandering of its hero leads to the odd moment of wandering on the page, but it is a brutal look at Man in the modern world, and heralds Ferris as a writer to take very seriously indeed.


Wednesday 17 February 2010


If it hadn't been for the vociferous praise from a friend, wild horses couldn't have dragged me to watch Lars Von Trier's latest controversy. Not only did it seem to be thoroughly unpleasant but having recently been joined by our second son the timing couldn't have been any worse for a film which follows the tortured path of a couple grieving after the death of their toddler. It doesn't matter who you are though, or what your familial setup might be, Antichrist is always going to be an uncomfortable and uncompromising watch. Deeply troubling, controversial in the truest sense of the word and as admirable as it is repulsive, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel but after a week or two I am at least ready to get something out there.

It is an uncompromising start, Von Trier seems keen to set out his stall early. The first few minutes of the film, shot in beautiful slow motion black-and-white, show Willem Defoe as 'He' and Charlotte Gainsbourg as 'She' making love, including a close-up shot of a thrusting, erect penis so that you can accuse him of pornography and the simultaneous, slow, almost balletic sequence events that leads to the couple's son falling from their apartment window onto the snowy street below. We are then into Grief, the name of this first section, which has hospitalised and medicated her and left him, who is a therapist, with the cold detachment of a professional, searching for the best way to help her through her grief. At first we feel huge sympathy for Gainsbourg, crippled by her grief, lashing out for some kind of purchase on her emotions, whilst at the same time being repelled by Defoe's clinical and arrogant treatment of his partner. You sense that there can only be danger once the barrier between lover and therapist has been broken down and this feeling only intensifies when the couple leave the oppression of their apartment for the rural retreat they call Eden.

After Grief come sections entitled Pain (Chaos Reigns) and Despair (Gynocide) where rural retreat becomes a place of frightening isolation, Eden becomes Hell, and the couple embark on a course of tortured treatment, recrimination and confrontation. Von Trier's landscape is dark hued and frightening, populated by totemic animals like a doe with a stillborn fawn hanging behind it, and a rank fox which even speaks to Him ("Chaos reigns!") a horrible visual representation of Her assertion that Nature is Satan's Church. The increasingly nightmarish feel to the film continues as the violence escalates and all is enhanced by Anthony Dod Mantle's amazing cinematography; Eden is fecund and rotting, a harsh light cuts through the night and the black and white sections are deep and textured.

The torturous violence meted out wouldn't look out of place in the rash of horror flicks from the Saw stable but it isn't that or the explicit sex that worry me. It is of course the sexual politics and the inevitable accusations of misogyny. I've already mentioned our differing sympathies for He and She and these shift through the film with Von Trier providing revelations that alter our perception particularly of her. She had been working on a thesis of historical violence against women (Gynocide) but her endeavour stalled in the face of her unacceptable conclusion. Human nature is evil and therefore women are evil, a conclusion dangerously close to 'she asked for it' and one rejected emphatically by He. But those revelations about her would seem to support her thesis and the last of these is such a paradigm shift that it risks alienating part of the audience entirely. This is what I'm still struggling with. Von Trier can't really be suggesting that women are evil, their sexual desires perverse and murderous, and their relationship to their offspring ambivalently abusive; so what is he trying to say exactly? The final scene in which a crowd of faceless women surge over the hill on which He now stands alone, baffled, is perhaps an indicator of Von Trier's own bafflement and certainly a neat symbol of mine. What I can say for sure is that the film is a work of art rather than pornography of sex or violence. It is uncomfortable and difficult, challenging and unique. There is no right time to watch it but it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand.


Tuesday 16 February 2010


The Wild Things

by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers has become a hugely influential figure in American publishing, presiding over his McSweeney's empire like a beneficent dictator, encouraging careers, providing blurb, leaving a legacy for younger generations and even finding time to write a little himself. After the breakthrough memoir A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius there has been fiction, non-fiction, faction, short-stories, articles, screenplays and much else besides. The news that Maurice Sendak's seminal children's book Where The Wild Things Are was to receive the big-screen treatment was made at least palatable by the pairing of Eggers and Spike Jonze at the helm, a duo who might just have the right combination of childishness and vision to make something of a book whose chief virtues are its brevity and distinctive artwork. Accompanying its release comes The Wild Things, 'a novel by Dave Eggers adapted from the illustrated book....and based on the screenplay...' conjuring horrible thoughts of those novelizations of popular films written by authors you've never heard of, or perhaps even worse, the continuation of literary franchises that print the name of the original author nice and large and that of the real writer rather anonymously at the bottom. What could possibly be achieved by a novelisation of the film of the book?

When setting out to write the screenplay together both Eggers and Jonze decided that the Wild Things and Where they Are were to be real. Max was to go on a real journey and encounter real things. That means he has to begin in the real world and my biggest worry starting out was that this would make it all a bit mundane. Max inevitably comes from a broken family, living with his mother and sister and that set-up and the difficult dynamic it has created (with Mom's boyfriend in particular) are at least part of the reason for Max's behaviour. But actually the fleshing out of the story at home isn't the problem, in fact Eggers creates a nice sense of Max's spirit immediately when he is pursued whilst riding his bike home by an over-protective neighbour.

How could he shake her? Would she follow him inside his own house? She was no doubt waitingg to get him alone and indoors, so she could do something to him. She could knock him cold with the coffee canister. Or maybe she'd grab a pillow, pin him down, and suffocate him? That seemed more her style. She had the clear-eyed, efficient look of a murderous nurse.
Now there was barking. Max turned to see that the Scola's dog had joined them, barking at Mrs. Mahoney and nipping her ankles. Mrs. Mahoney took little notice. Her eyes were bigger than ever. The exertion seemed to make her ever-more gleeful.
"Endorphins!" she sang. "Thanks, Max!"
"Please," he said. "What are you gonna do to me?" It was about ten miles houses until his own.
"Keep you safe," she said "from all this."

The Wild Things in your life needn't be fantastical. The strains at home elevate petty squabbles into heated rows and it isn't long before Max sees again that mask, that costume that enables him to show how he is 'boss of this house and all of the world known and unknown.'

Then Max caught sight of his wolf suit, hanging on the back of the closet door. He hadn't worn it in weeks. He'd gotten it for Christmas three years before, the last one with both his parents, and he'd immediately put it on, and kept it on for the rest of school break. It had been too big then, but his mom had pinned it and taped it to make it work until he grew into it.
Now he and it were the perfect size...

So Max's journey is one of flight from domestic unhappiness which is fine, if a little different from the magical forest that grows in his own bedroom in the original book. His sailing is real, time consuming and arduous, so that he finally arrives on the strange island exhausted, and then we finally meet the titular beasts. Strangely it is here that the fleshing out makes the story mundane. The Wild Things have names (overtly ordinary ones at that), there is conflict amongst them and they seem on the whole to be a rather depressed and unhappy bunch. There is a 'wild rumpus' but it has consequences and the time that Max spends with them has moments of tension, release, conflict and fear; he is a self-appointed head of state whose subjects begin to lose patience with his lack of positive impact. It makes for quite a sad read really, although a brief one, aand one which I think misses the point of the original. And this is where we come to what's interesting about the original. I mentioned to my wife what I thought the book was about (boy realises that being wild all the time isn't all it's cracked up to be and being responsible for others makes you realise how hard it is to please) and she had got something completely different from it (it's ok to go a little crazy). Our son who hears it read to him at least once a week probably gets something else again. The original is enigmatic, magical and open to interpretation and enjoyment whereas the novel is by its very nature specific, mundane and unlikely to be read again. The prose is clearly written for a young audience which makes it all feel like short sentences written in big type (it is pretty big type actually) and I couldn't help returning to my original query once I finished the last line: Why bother?


Monday 15 February 2010

Skippy Dies Winner

I mentioned that quantum mechanics would be used to decide the winner of my inaugural book giveaway. Ladies and Gentlemen I present to you, The Randomizer.

Ok, it's a hat. But a rather natty one, I think you'll agree (most recently worn by our snowman).

And so the winner was: Rob

(who thought it highly unlikely that the first name in would be the first one out - that's quantum mechanics for you)

Congratulations Rob, please email me your address (click on that email me button top left) and I'll get the book off to you pronto.


Thursday 11 February 2010

'Comrades, who's last in the queue?'

The Queue
by Vladimir Sorokin

I was reading this as another of my preparatory reads. Olga Grushin, whose debut novel The Dream Life Of Sukhanov I absolutely loved will be following that with a novel called The Concert Ticket which taps into a cultural phenomenon peculiar to Soviet Russia: the queue. Sorokin's own debut novel originally published in 1983 and translated into English in 1988 looks at the same thing. Sorokin is now one of Russia's most popular novelists but it wasn't always that way. Under Soviet rule his writing was banned and it was only due to emigre dissident Andrei Sinyavski that The Queue was initially published in France. With the end of Soviet rule came the publication of Sorokin's Collected Stories and a nomination for the Russian Booker. It seems that he aims to retain his underground credentials however with his writing regularly including sex, violence, rape, incest, cannibalism and coprophilia. He even managed to spark public demonstrations with his novel Blue Lard and its sex scene between clones of Stalin and Kruschev. With all of that, The Queue feels rather quaint. For all its post-modern structure, with the entire text presented in non-attributed speech, it is a novel which is almost affectionate about its setting and even includes a happy ending for its hero. But we'll get there in a moment.

In his informative Afterword Sorokin traces the history and significance of the queue through Russian history, even connecting it with the birth of the 'collective body' that would eventually build in the rising towards revolution. In the late 70's, the Soviet 'years of stagnation', the queue was all about getting your hands on whatever was available. As booths sprang up, the queues would form and from those long lines Sorokin provides a soundscape of voices, indistinct at first, but slowly becoming more recognisable, articulating the opinions and concerns of the people. I mentioned a quaintness, which is a bit unfair, Sorokin merely allows his characters enough rope to hang themselves with classic examples of rose-tinted remeniscence about even the most brutal of times.

-Those days, I remember, come the first of April, everything'd be cheaper reduction in prices, see.
-Nowadays it's the other way round - things get dearer all the time.
-That's it. Yet everyone complains about Stalin.
-That's all they know how to do in this country - complain.
-And yet he won the war, strengthened the country. And everything was cheaper. Meat was cheap. Vodka - three roubles. Even less.
-And there was order then.
-'Course there was. You'd be brought to court if you were twenty minutes late.
-Fifteen it was, I think.
-Twenty minutes. Once in the Urals, in springtime it was, my late wife ran
to work over the mountains, through the ice, so's not to be late for the factory. The bus had broken down, and she set off running. There you have it. Who'd go running to work these days?
-Funny to think of it, really.

The major concern for the queue is the queue itself of course. Who's last in line, who's pushing in, what's at the end of it, will there be any left? Amazingly, it takes days (one overnight section of sleep represented by 11 blank pages), with some people dropping out, monitors allocating numbers and taking roll calls to keep everything fair. In one section, where it is discovered that a woman has a barrel of kvass in a sidestreet the queue hatches an ingenious plan to sate their collective thirst.

-Off they run, and we just get to stand here. No, really. Everyone keeps going off, and we stand here like stumps.
-You're right. Why don't we go first, then you.
-You're young, you can hold on for a bit.
-That's not the point...
-Listen, maybe we can all go somehow?
-How d'you mean?
-Go in a big group.
-Then the people at the back'll start yelling...
-And won't let us back in...
-Come off it, sure they will. Still, it's a bit awkward...
-Look, comrades, how about shifting the whole queue over there?
-What d'you mean?
-Just shift it! It's just round the corner! If we bend the queue everyone can have a drink. That way ther's no fuss and we stay in the right order.
-Great idea! Here's somebody with a head on his shoulders! Comrades, let's move!

And so the entire line bends and shifts into a scene of revelry and optimism. Amongst the myriad voices there is a hero of sorts, young Vadim, a failed journalist who suffers setback after setback before meeting the alluring Lyuda and the happy finish I mentioned earlier. I mean that literally with Sorokin answering that age old question of how to represent a vigorous sex session with only speech.

An entertaining look at a now defunct feature of Russian life, I suspect that Sorokin's debut lacks the real bite of his later work but his queue shows clearly a people at the mercy of other forces beyond their control, whilst hinting at the potential within them for subversion and action.


Monday 8 February 2010

'Death is ressurection'

Nazi Literature In The Americas
by Roberto Bolaño

Well, you can't say I'm not giving him a fair crack of the whip. After the thrill of The Savage Detectives came the bruising of 2666 and finally the damp squib that was Amulet; with each successive read pushing me further and further away and even thinking that it might be time for someone to point out that thing about the emperor and his clothes. But I thought I'd give him another chance and Picador do keep producing these rather lovely editions. Presented as a kind of encyclopaedia of fictitious writers with some kind of fascist bent the book is apparently a wicked satire on literary pretension and hypocrisy at both ends of the political spectrum. I say apparently because unless you are sufficiently well versed in the literary figures of the Americas then for the most part this book is like being told joke after joke where you don't understand the punchline. It's a bit like those people who laugh at obscure Shakespearean references and jokes during a performance which lead you to think 'you have made abundantly clear that you understand the cultural hilarity of him having a white hair upon his chin but even when you understand it, it isn't that funny'.

For a philistine like me there are odd moments where the jokes are pretty base and accessible as with Ernesto Perez Mason and his subtle use of acrostics to hide secret messages within his writing.

The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Perez Mason defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter's second paragraph made up another acrostic - THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS.

Elsewhere there is the odd pithy line ('A Mexican poet inclined to mysticism and tormented phraseology.') that raises a smile but it isn't until the raised eyebrow is lowered and the arch authorial tone dropped into something more personal with the final portrait that I found something to latch onto. Narrated overtly by 'Bolaño' the thirty or so pages that make up The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman combine art and violence to chilling effect and tap into that era of quiet terror at the beginning of Pinochet's regime in Chile. With just that little bit more narrative, and an end to the detachment that defines the rest of the book he suddenly lights up the whole endeavour. Throughout the book, and indeed throughout Bolaño's other writings he shows an extraordinary imagination in creating these fictitious 'real people'. This book comes with an Epilogue For Monsters which lists all the figures, publishers and even book titles in Bolaño's imagined world. By then I had lost patience however and where I have recently found Borges stimulating and Sebald moving, Bolaño eludes me yet. If anyone would like to suggest the title that may appeal more to me then the comment box awaits...


Friday 5 February 2010

Skippy Dies Giveaway

'What?!' I hear you ask, 'A giveaway!'

Yes, a giveaway. Penguin were kind enough to send me a copy of the completed box-set of Skippy Dies after I had read my proof and I have decided to pass my bounty on to you. As you'll see from the picture on the left it's a handsome beast and, if you haven't already, you can read my thoughts on the book here.

So what do you have to do to secure yourself this prize? Not a lot really. Just comment below or email me by clicking on the link on the left there (If you're reading this through Facebook then you can use the comment box there too), and I'll use quantum mechanics to decide a winner by the end of Valentine's Day.

(I'm afraid I'm going to have to keep it UK only due to postal charges)


Thursday 4 February 2010

'if there is a substitute for love it is memory'

Skippy Dies
by Paul Murray

No need to worry about spoilers on this one then. Irish author Paul Murray even places the titular death at the very beginning of this vast and multi-stranded novel. Let there be no doubt: Skippy does indeed die. But it's not as simple as that of course. How could it be in a novel that looks at a group of school children and their teachers in an elite religious school in Dublin and includes everything from string theory to fatal donut eating contests. The 600+ page book is split up into three separate volumes, collected in a slipcase and whilst the first is easily the most enjoyable the whole book is a rollicking ride that displays some extraordinary stylistic flourishes along the way.

The fictional college of Seabrook, run by the Paraclete fathers provides an institution where Murray can assemble a large cast of characters and also contrast those two sides of Ireland; the traditional and the modern. Whilst the Principal, Father Furlong, lies recuperating in hospital (his order are quite literally a dying breed) Vice Principal Greg Costigan, nicknamed 'The Automator', a progressive, has the opportunity to forward his agenda of modernisation. Nothing is sacred to him in his campaign to bring the school into the 21st century whether that be ancient school buildings or even the Paraclete fathers themselves. One might expect to encounter raging hormones amongst the boys of Seabrook but there is turmoil too for one of the masters there, Howard, as he struggles to keep things happy at home with his girlfriend whilst rather in thrall to the enigmatic new geography teacher, a fascination which helps contribute to the first section's brilliant set-piece finale.

But let's meet a few of the boys. Skippy is Daniel Juster, his nickname coming from his buck teeth and the fact that some people think that the noise he makes when speaking is not dissimilar from that of the famous bush kangaroo. Those raging hormones I mentioned earlier come into play when Skippy spots Lori, from the local girl's school playing Frisbee. This sets him on a collision course with Carl, Seabrook's resident drug dealer and psycho, who has his own wishes for Lori as well as running a tidy diet-pill-scam operation with henchman Barry. The most colourful character initially has to be Ruprecht Van Doren who arrived at Seabrook 'like a belated and non-returnable Christmas gift' after both his parents were lost on a kayaking expedition on the Amazon.

Apart from being a genius, which he is, Ruprecht does not have all that much going for him. A hamster-cheeked boy with a chronic weight problem, he is bad at sports and most other facets of life not involving complicated mathematical equations.

Ruprecht has many obsessions, astronomy, m-theory, Prof. Hideo Tomashi, and a place at Stanford University amongst them and it is his unique view of the world which raises a few laughs early on. This, for example, his take on the school 'Hop', a rare opportunity for the two single sex schools to mix socially, and scene of the first book's climax.

'Fascinating,' Ruprecht muses to Skippy. 'The whole thing seems to work on a similar principle to a supercollider. You know, two streams of opposingly charged particles accelerated till they're just under the speed of light, and then crashed into each other? Only here alcohol, accentuated secondary sexual characteristics and primitive 'rock and roll' beats take the place of velocity.'

Around Skippy and Ruprecht there are a colourful retinue who don't really go beyond the two-dimensional and Murray may have created too many characters and plotlines for the book to be entirely satisfactory. Some characters suffer from lack of development and readers may find that their own particular favourite doesn't get the attention they desire. But when Murray does choose to focus on a character he shows himself to be an inventive prose stylist. Each of the main characters filter the story through their own form of fantasy so for Howard, for example, it is an exciting romance. Carl, exposed to extreme horror films and pornography, adopts the loose morals, language and values of those twin evils. For Ruprecht;the world is a grand problem waiting to be solved with no obstacle, not even time or space, too large to get in his way. Skippy is influenced by Hopeland, the role-playing-game he frequents on the computer (which lends its title to the first book here) and through which he will eventually confront his demons.

On the game-over screen, from his mist-shrouded body, you see Djed's soul is fluttering upwards. Up and up it goes, a dancing ball of light, till it's reached the title screen, to bob around the princess where she waits in her glittering cage of ice. Around and around her it dances. And suddenly you think:
His soul.
You sit up.
A soul doesn't weigh anything. It doesn't have a size.
On the screen the princess's eyes twinkle at you.
The dimensions are there at every point, too small for us to see them. But if you were just a soul -
That's when you see the air is full of little doors! All around the room, they're floating there everywhere, and when you scramble up to peep through them, you can see what's on the other side! Each one leads to a different time and place! Here's you and Ruprecht, in the basement, working on the Invisibility Gun -
Here's the Hallowe'en Hop , when the things she said on her doorstep tonight do not exist yet, and you're realizing that Lori is the exact shape of what's been missing from your arms -

The way in which these disparate elements are brought together at the close of Hopeland is a triumph and one of the most enjoyable set-pieces I have read recently. It is also the reason why the book feels to have lost its way slightly in the following two sections. Like trying to comprehend the 11 dimensions of M-theory (a theory so complex that there isn't even a consensus on what the M stands for) there are times when there is too much going on and the structure falls apart. Having said that, Murray manages to keep up the energy and interest throughout the book's significant length (something I'm sure made easier by reading it as three separate books rather than the single bound proof that I read) and also pulls that clever trick of making a comic novel tug on the heart strings occasionally, where even the most ridiculous or repulsive of characters can extract the reader's sympathy. In another section Ruprecht points to the theory of Asymmetry as a means of explaining the unfairness of the school environment, a place where 'Intelligent students get wedgies, instead of being respected as future leaders of their society. You can't get what you want, but someone else, who doesn't want it, has it in spades.' Some authors too are blessed with more success than talent and Murray scores enough hits with this bold, ambitious novel to explain away the existence of Jeffrey Archer.


Tuesday 2 February 2010

War Horse - The view from onstage

Fellow blogger Kevin From Canada asked if I would write a post about the production I am currently appearing in, War Horse. He was intrigued to know what it is like to be a part of such a successful show. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, a little background first. War Horse is a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, former children's Laureate. Written from the point of view of the horse, Joey, it tells the story of how he becomes part of the cavalry in the First World War and the lengths to which the boy who helped to raise him will go to to be reunited with him. The National Theatre in conjunction with Handspring Puppet Company adapted the book into a play which was successful enough to be revived the following Christmas and then transfer into the West End where it continues to run at the New London Theatre. The show has become famous because of its extraordinary puppets, most notably the life-size horses which are controlled by three actors. I'll tell you first a little bit about the machinations behind the show and then what it's actually like to do each night.

As I mentioned, each horse puppet requires three actors to operate it, called the Head, Heart and Hind. The head operator is outside the horse, supporting the head and controlling its movement and that of the ears too. The Heart is inside the horse operating the front legs and creating the breathing of the animal with the rise and fall of the body which they are helping to support. Finally, the Hind, controls the back legs and movement of the tail, working together with the Heart to support the weight of anyone that happens to ride the horse (that's right, at the end of the day if someone's rides that horse they're sitting on the shoulders of two actors). With two horses in the show and the physical demands placed on the actors who make them live there are actually four horse teams in the cast who rotate through the weeks of the run to help stave off injury. In theory that is. With the inevitable injuries that crop up and the days of holiday that have to be taken during the long run, horse teams inevitably end up getting a bit mixed up and having to swap in and out of various configurations. One of the wonders of the show is the way the horse teams work together to create a convincing experience for the audience. Part of this is also due to the latitude that exists for them within performance. This isn't choreography; with the same kind of intentions and actions as any other actor on stage they are acting and reacting to what they receive from others. For those of us working with them onstage it really can be as unpredictable as breaking that old maxim and working with animals.

The horses are like a microcosm of the show as a whole as holiday and illness mean that at any one time there will be at least two or three members of the cast off. Before each show begins the cast will assemble and a list of 'knock-ons' will be read out in which parts and the minutiae of the show will be allocated. Now, I've said parts there, but I don't want you to think that this is some kind of theatre collective where we all know everything and just swap them around. Every part has a first and second cover so that no matter what the disaster, the show will go on (just last week we had three people away on holiday and two off sick for one show and yet we managed to make it all happen), but for those little elements of movement work or prop and scenery moving performed by the cast there is definitely an all hands to the pump kind of feel. The constant changes in this vein mean that there are hardly ever two shows that are the same, which of course helps to keep it interesting, and to keep the cast focused of course.
Much is made of the word 'ensemble' with some shows but I can proudly say that in no other show I've worked on has the word been so appropriately used. A cast of 31 actors helps to make that show happen each night, everyone an absolutely integral part of the story, no big names amongst the cast and everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone, playing multiple roles and getting their hands dirty (I mean this literally as we have to slather ourselves in 'mud' for those battle scenes and I still haven't managed to find a really effective way of getting rid of it from all the nooks and crannies). I mention this only because a quick look at a few other shows in the West End might lead you to believe that the only chance of commercial success is to place a few well-known TV faces in the cast, they don't even have to be actors necessarily, and watch the bookings come in. We may have strength in numbers but there is something very encouraging about the extended runs, the full houses, and the rapturous reception which accompanies a show which focuses on the story and the creativity required to tell it rather than any celebrity.

So what's it like to be in a 5-star West End smash-hit (he asked himself smugly)? There are several things that are remarkable. A show that is selling well is obviously a joy to be in. Performing in front of a half-empty theatre can be demoralising, not to mention much harder work. The New London holds around 1100 people and to see that theatre full, night after night, is something I'm trying not to take for granted. The response from an audience that size to a show that is as emotional as ours can be quite overwhelming. To see members of the audience standing at the end is not a very English thing and yet we had a week of shows last week when people stood every night, tears coursing down faces, smiles stretching from ear to ear. The tears. With a stage that bulges out into the audience so much and lighting that illuminates the first seven or eight rows I can see perfectly well the reactions of people to the play's final few scenes. It's quite hard to keep focus actually when you can see people grabbing onto partners arms or hiding behind tear-stained hankies. I've even seen people start crying in the plays opening moments leading me to worry about the risk of dehydration by the end of the play's two-and-a-half hour running time.

You may well have heard about the Queen's recent visit to the show. To have an unofficial visit like that was extraordinary. We knew on the day that she would be coming but the audience did not of course and it wasn't until the end of the first half that many of them twigged who exactly it was sitting in row K next to someone who looked remarkably like Prince Philip. I happened to be playing Captain Stewart that night which meant that I finished the first half mounted on horseback, sword in hand, charging right at her. Now that doesn't happen every day. Her daughter Princess Anne has already been to see the show and we have since been visited by Prince William so if The Prince Of Wales is reading, we just need you for a Royal Flush. This has helped to increase interest in the show even further of course and that is why the run has recently been extended into 2011. I mentioned the lack of celebrities on stage; the fact is that the celebrities tend to be in the audience and we have a list on the wall of some of the famous faces to have been spotted. A list like that often has some comedy amendments made to it, ridiculously famous people who haven't really seen the show, but recently it's been difficult to know for sure which is which. Just last week we were visited by Morgan Freeman no less and last night we had a visit which turned one of the long standing jokes amongst actors all over the country into reality. Many times on a show it has been joked amongst a cast that 'Spielberg is in tonight.' Well, last night he was. I know. Ridiculous. And do you want to know the punchline? I'm away on holiday this week. My moment with Spielberg will have to wait (He's here as part of preparations for his film version of War Horse).

So, a show that keeps packing audiences in, celebrities and all, for the foreseeable future, a show that keeps everyone honest and doing something a little different every night, a show that manages to make audiences laugh, cry, gasp and applaud; that's the kind of show you always dream being a part of, so I'm a very lucky chap, no doubt about it, and very pleased to be remaining with the company as the show extends its run. I hope this has given you an idea of what it's like to be a part of it but please feel free to ask any questions you want in the comment section below. I'm off now to find out Morgan Freeman's number. He needs to explain to Spielberg what, or rather who, was missing from the show last night.


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