Wednesday 28 April 2010

'the insignificant weft and weave'

Burley Cross Postbox Theft
by Nicola Barker

Barker's previous novel Darkmans was a vastly ambitious (not to mention weighty) tome that looked at a couple of days in that most modern of towns, Ashford - Gateway to Europe, and was literally bursting at the seams with inventiveness in language, character and form. Not exactly a book to recommend to friends but one that those who had made their way through it would talk excitedly about, and a nod from the Booker panel duly followed. So I was very excited to get my hands on her new book, 'a comic epistolary novel of startlingly originality and wit', and therefore hugely disappointed to find it to be an occasionally humorous but mainly verbose, slow and uncompelling read.

As is obvious form the title and cover art the set up is that we are reading the contents of the recently broken into postbox in the 'chocolate box' village of Burley Cross in West Yorkshire -'a tiny, ridiculously affluent, ludicrously puffed-up moor-side village, stuffed to capacity with second-home owners, southerners, the strange, the 'artistic', the eccentric and the retired'. Whodunnit? Well, I guess we're supposed to find out as Barker slowly builds up her cast of characters and their intersecting relationships and story-lines. The case is laid out first by Sgt Everill as he hands over the job that very nearly broke him to PC Roger Topping (described in a later letter as 'a huge, forlorn elk, a tragic bison, lumbering about the place in that improbably gigantic pair of perpetually squeaking loafers of his like some heavily tranquillised mastodon'). We then read through the stash of letters found dumped in the alley that runs behind the local hairdressers, a litany that shows 'how fiercely different local factions like to guard their own patch' and includes their personal obsessions - planning permission, bequests, privacy, debt, manhole cover theft, unrequited love...

One immediate problem that occurred to me was that if this was a theft then presumably the incriminating letter(s) won't be amongst the stash found dumped in the alley behind the village hairdressers; therefore if we're going to learn anything from what we read then it's certainly going to be by taking the long route round. And it is a long route. Twenty seven letters over 360 pages. The first challenge that a reader might raise, questioning whether we're really a nation of letter writers any more, is handled conveniently by placing an attractive new member of staff in the sub-post-office who tempts the residents of Burley Cross to put pen to paper with a new fervour. However, I'm not sure if I swallow that people are in the habit of writing letters that run to more than ten pages and are written in a vernacular that so closely apes the speech of each author. We have digressions, parentheses and even footnotes in some cases, all of which help Barker in her acts of ventriloquism - and to be fair she is very good at creating the voice of each character this way - but it always feels more like speech written down rather than like reading a real letter. The one instance in which it really works is when we read the transcript of a tape recording made by local music star Frank K Nebraska to his agent, complaining abut his ghost-written memoir. The foul-mouthed, 14-page tirade, delivered whilst going to the toilet, is hilarious, leaving you almost disappointed when the tape runs out.

Much of the writing is caught up in the service of illustrating these grotesque character studies, the language profane, idiomatic, vernacular, but every now and then (but far too infrequently) something beautiful emerges - in fact to describe the infrequent, badly distributed kindnesses of one character Barker uses the image of 'those tiny scraps of burned newspaper that fly out of a bonfire - delicate tornadoes - on a gusty autumn afternoon'. It's a shame because the book is in part a paean to the lost art of letter writing. However annoying and unlikeable many of the village residents are Barker is essentially writing a sympathetic homage to the disappearing village community.

I know that pubs are on their way out (hundreds are closing every week), that they're merely a sad reminder of things past (the way we once were, The Good Old Days), just like 'community spirit' is, and communities themselves, and churches, and local bobbies, and pickled walnuts, and brass bands at fetes, and tall hedgerows, and handwritten letters, and home-cooked meals, and sparrows, and boredom, and books, and gob-stoppers, and ladybirds, and innocence...

It doesn't matter how many times I tell myself that life is too short to waste time finishing books that one isn't liking, I still find it hard to condemn a book without finishing it, ever hopeful that it might redeem itself by the end. It was that rather than a burning desire to know whodunnit that kept me persevering to the final letter, more fool me, I'll just have to be sterner with myself next time. Perhaps I should write myself a strongly-worded letter.


Monday 26 April 2010

'drowning very slowly day by day'

It's Just The Beating Of My Heart

by Richard Aronowitz

You may have seen that I made a pledge to try and read and review more fiction from smaller and independent publishers this year (publishers take note, I am ripe for exploitation) and when I was contacted by Flambard Press about the latest novel from their stable I thought I'd jump in with both feet. The novel itself presents a problem for the reviewer, there is an aspect to the book which if mentioned might act like a spoiler, so I shall present this post in two sections: the first is nice and safe, the second could fundamentally alter your reading experience and so may be best read by those who have already read the book or those who think they never will. Certainly read the first and if you want to you can move onto the second.

Part One

Aronowitz is the author of a previous novel, Fiver Amber Beads, which was commended for using 'the language of art' as a fresh way to look at the Holocaust. Working in the art world himself his central character here is again a member of that same scene. John Stack is a gallery owner and art dealer who made a name for himself a few years ago when discovering young talent but who is trading on past successes now. In fact his life is on a pretty steep decline. His wife has left him, his gallery is dangerously close to closure with bank loans remaining unpaid whilst business slows down and he's drinking far too much, although he has his own view about what the significance of that.

I am not an alcoholic. I have days off drinking and can control my intake. It is just that I really like it. It is just that I do not want to stop the drinking surge that I began when they left me. It is just that I am often frightened that I want to die.

Stack lives away from the hustle of the London scene in the Gloucestershire countryside where he enjoys rural retreat. Aronowitz is a poet too and so knows how to use the right language to create a picture for the reader of his native Gloucestershire. There are moments of beauty but what he really aims to show, amongst the teeming life of the valley and forests, is the deep loneliness of Stack.

There is one set of footprints in the snow behind me; there will be one pint glass at the pub table at lunchtime; there was one bowl and one spoon in the kitchen sink this morning. I am bloody fed up of speaking in monologue.

That solitude is broken only by the occasional visits of his twelve year-old-daughter Bryony (the choreographed handover from his wife in London, allowing the estranged couple to remain estranged, is a nicely realised touch) until that is he encounters a neighbour, Nicola, who holds the promise of conversation, companionship; all the things that are missing from his life as it stands. Alcohol remains a stumbling block, perhaps fuelling his suspicions about the circumstances of Nicola's previous husband's death. I mentioned that Stack is on a downward trajectory as the book begins and this continues, with alcohol and suspicion contributing to a fragile mental state that slowly collapses. That all sounds rather depressing but the strange thing about it is that it's only really in the opening pages that it feels that way. It may not be the most energetic place to start a book from but Aronowitz skilfully charts Stack's descent and arouses sympathy with Bryony's attempts to keep her father on the straight and narrow.

Part Two

This isn't a spoiler in the traditional sense, I'm not going to give away a detail of the plot so much as a fundamental part of the book's structure.In the email from Flambard was a link to an article by Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent in which he discussed this novel, and the latest from Tim Pears, both books united in their use of a twist. There, I've said it. The book has a twist. And that's all you need to know for it to radically alter your reading experience. You don't even need to know what the twist is. If you know there is one then you cannot help but guess at it, and if you're anything like me then you're going to work it out before the writer gets to do his big reveal (almost on the very last page here) and therefore be left a little underwhelmed by it. This is also because, as Sutcliffe notes in his article, 'you suspect Aronowitz's novel is built around its twist and wouldn't exist otherwise'. As far as the book's power goes, it's all about the twist really, and if you've guessed it early, or just aren't into twists generally, then the book may disappoint. However, I think there's enough to admire in the book before worrying about whether the twist performs the coup the writer may be aiming for. As a study of loss, loneliness and hope it has plenty to say, in prose that is shot through with the sparkle and description one would hope to find from a poet.


Wednesday 21 April 2010

'they always turned their faces to the wall'

Bright Centre Of Heaven

by William Maxwell

When I was a blogging newbie back in 2007 I wrote a post on William Maxwell, a writer I felt was due some recognition and praise; a quiet unassuming man of letters who not only edited the New Yorker for many years, helping to shape the prose of some of America's foremost writers (Welty, Nabokov, Updike and Cheever amongst others) but also wrote stories and novels of his own, all of which I had read apart from one that eluded me. Maxwell's first novel had been out of print for more than 70 years when the Library Of America printed it in 2008 as part of their two-volume collection of his works. Up until that point a first edition might pop up every now and then but with a price tag running into hundreds of dollars it was always beyond my grasp. There was also Maxwell's own attitude to the book to consider, he had resisted attempts to see it reprinted, embarrassed perhaps at this early effort but I'm so glad to have finally got the opportunity to read it. It may not be his best work, and there are many ways in which it feels like a writer trying things out, finding a style, but Maxwell was always a writer who underneath the conventional feel of his prose was making exciting little leaps in viewpoint and structure and this book is no exception. As Kevin pointed out in his perceptive review the book is like a writing exercise based on one question: 'Can an author create a piece of fiction, with numerous characters, who share only one trait — each is totally self-preoccupied and virtually uninterested in the people around him or her?'

Mrs. West, a widow, has been forced by the Great Depression to open her farmhouse in rural Wisconsin to guests. I'll encourage you to read Kevin's post as he summarises very neatly the many different people who are staying there but her son Thorn also gives a brief rundown as well as showing his twin feelings of protectiveness and embarrassment. His mother is forever scrutinised by the neighbours having become 'chief source of gossip for the whole countryside'. When Thorn is questioned by one of them about their guests he feels the need to 'protect her in his father's absence'.

He turned away slightly, that he might conceal from the neighbours the Negro reformer who was coming that afternoon, and the crazy woman who practiced on the first floor of the Tower, the man without a job who lived on the second, and the woman who painted oranges and oil-cans on the third. He turned away that he might conceal from the neighbours his love.

One of the guests, Paul, an ex-teacher searching for a new direction in life is slightly less charitable.

It seemed to Paul that a really high class insane asylum must not be so very different from this. Not so out-of-the-way, perhaps, and without the pleasant landscape. But the inmates could not be much farther from sober sanity than most of the people here. Doubtless in a nuthouse there was less going on, and the inmates were probably allowed to retire from time to time and be free of interruption in their padded cells.
Like a roving camera Maxwell chooses to focus on each of the characters individually, allowing him to develop them fully but also to highlight the isolation of each of them. Again, like a young writer demonstrating their ability to render different voices, his characters are highly individual and memorable. Nigel, a young actress (her name coming as a result of her father really wanting a boy, although - 'Even if your father did have his heart set on a boy, there was still no reason why he should pick out such a strange name to name it.') lives on an almost fantastical plane, Aunt Amelia, who subsists only on cottage cheese and weak tea, floats about like a ghostly presence, whilst her ward, bumptious Bascombe, bumbles about talking amiably mad nonsense. Each has an internal monologue so strong it is a wonder that they manage to keep them so hidden from those they live, eat and socialise with. Maxwell adds some fuel to these characters with two set-pieces, one a group walk and picnic which reads like a rather brilliant self-contained short combining the best of Chekhov and Austen, and the other the arrival of Jefferson Carter, the 'Negro reformer' mentioned earlier, bringing the issue of race to 1930's rural Wisconsin with unsurprisingly explosive results.

Whilst you could criticise the novel for its disparity, you have to acknowledge that for the most part it actually works. Maxwell also displays several moments of the effortlessly evocative prose that fill his later work, particularly when creating landscape and environment.

The tufted marsh grass swayed softly to the north. The crickets sang and sang, like dry fiddles. In the shallows the water caught bright bits of sunlight, held them for a second, and gave them up again to the bright air. Solemnly, like a procession, the current swept by the pier, bearing on its surface pieces of water-weed, sticks, fragments of leaves, white specks, air bubbles. And these in turn clung to the knees of the willow that had waded out into the water and knelt down there, the way cattle do.

He also has a heartbreaking way of depicting love, as with his description of a canoe ride taken by Thorn. But there is also his depiction of familial love. Mrs. West, who for most of the book has been a figure of fun, suddenly becomes a lonely figure worthy of our sympathy as she goes about the house at night pulling covers over her grown-up sons, realising just how isolated she is even within such a crowded household.

Thorn too, was half-uncovered, but he lay on his side and perfectly straight, like a young tree. As she bent over him he stirred slightly in his sleep and turned his face to the wall.
Mrs. West sighed and made her way back to her own room. It seemed to her that in a way Thorn was no different from all the people of Meadowland, each one so extraordinary, and each one living within himself, so alone. When she came and looked at them, they always turned their faces to the wall.


Monday 19 April 2010

'how would I cope without my cup of tea?'

The Pendragon Legend

by Antal Szerb

The admirable Pushkin Press have been shining their spotlight on the Hungarian novelist Antal Szerb recently. Perhaps best known for his novel Journey By Moonlight, Szerb was one of the many victims of German anti-semitism, refusing to leave his native country despite many opportunities and as a result deported to and later beaten to death in a labour camp in 1945. He left behind three novels, the first of which was inspired by the year he spent on a post-doctoral scholarship in England. Happily ensconced within the Reading Room of the British Library, preparing what would become his landmark reference works, the Histories of English Literature and World Literature, he was also able to indulge his interest in Rosicrucianism and the Occult. Combining these with his intelligence and awareness of the popular fiction genres of the time he produced this, his first novel, one of the more downright enjoyable reads I have had recently; a guilty pleasure you needn't feel guilty about, filled as it is with an outsider's insight into British culture and a scholar's erudition about moral and religious quandaries.

At a soiree near the end of the season Janos Bátky, 'Doctor of Philosophy, specialising in useless information, with a particular interest in things a normal person would never consider important', is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd, just the kind of person who might consider them important. We are well used to our gentry being on the eccentric side but stories swirl around the Earl and his family seat of Pendragon Castle that are enough to raise the hairs on your neck, or at least a chuckle from a friend of Bátky's.

'...what should I make of the story that he buried himself alive like a fakir, and after two years, or two weeks - I forget which - they dug him up and found him in perfect health? And in the war, they say, he went around during the gas attacks without his mask on and suffered no ill effects. He's supposed to have magical healing powers...'

An invitation comes for Bátky to join the Earl back home in Wales, an invitation he is keen to take up; after all 'He seemed to embody an historical past the way no book ever could.' But before he can head off he receives a mysterious phone call.

"Hello, is that Jonos Batky?" a man's voice asked.
"What are you doing at the moment?"
"I'm talking on the phone. Who are you?"
"Never mind. Are you in an enclosed booth?"
"Janos Batky...you would be well advised not to get involved in other people's affairs. You can be quite sure that the people you are working against are aware of your movements."
"I'm sorry, there must be some mistake. I've never worked against anyone. This is Janos Batky speaking."
"I know. Just bear this in mind: everyone who pokes their nose into the Earl of Gwynedd's little experiments comes to a sticky end. Dr McGregor died in a road accident. The same thing could happen to Dr Batky."

He ignores the warning of course and is soon heading towards Wales accompanied by Maloney, a man from Connemara who befriended Bátky whilst working in the aforementioned Reading Room, and who just happens to be heading to the Earl's estate himself. There is no need to get too involved with the plot here, that would take away some of the fun, but a large family inheritance, ghostly apparitions, murder attempts and cunning disguises all have a part to play and with the Pendragon motto being "I believe in the ressurection of the body", those rumours about the Earl might just be worth investigating. It is a riot of competing genres which combine to create something that might have been written by the lovechild of Christie, Fleming, Doyle, Brown (Dan), Wilde, and Poe (I mean that in a positive sense).

Written with love for the genres he is satirising and a clear relish for his subject matter, the book has an infectious energy which, when combined with a strong sense of humour, help the pages to fly by at quite a lick. You often read of books described as a romp - this book is a romp in the most delightful, positive sense of the word. Bátky, as a central character, has an intelligence matched equally by his inexperience, helpfully leading him into scrapes and pickles from which he eventually extricates himself. Particularly amusing are his amorous advances, for in the same way that he is fascinated by the Earl for what he represents, his daughter holds her own fascination as the lady of the castle with Bátky as her errant knight.

Szerb's finely tuned observations of Britishness and Len Rix's excellent translation make for an effortless read with delight after delight that belie the book's age (first published in 1934). The Earl's private library of ancient texts and codices will have even the slightest bibliophile salivating, the fast-paced plot should satisfy those in need of a thrill (Szerb even manages to pull off a genuinely chilling and stylistically adventurous ending) and the colourful cast of characters are brilliantly rendered through the eyes of our companion Bátky. I'll leave you with his attempt to describe his long time friend.

"...Lene Kretzsch is a robust, fine-looking creature. Her figure is quite perfect, in the classical sense..."
"Do you mean she has large feet and hands, like a Greek statue?"
"Hm. And her character?"
"Very modern."
"That is to say, of easy virtue?"
"Not exactly. She is sachlich. Neue Sachlichkeit. Bauhaus. Nacktkultur. The chauffeur type. Love is a psycho-physical fact. Nothing romantic or complicated about love."
"And this is what you call 'modern'?"
"Well, according to the international conventions drawn up by journalists and women-novelists, this objectivity is what characterises modern love."


Wednesday 14 April 2010

'life teaches us who we are'

The Lessons
by Naomi Alderman

One of the circumstances in which I will always read a book more than once is when I am preparing to narrate it as an audio book. I know I should do it more, because it always helps me to appreciate a book much more, but as many other avid readers will know - so many books, so little time (this is even more true with small children to look after). The obvious strengths of Alderman's second novel lie in her characters, which are all nicely individual and well realised through dialogue and description, and in the unsatisfying way in which love fails to be realised by just about all of them. Further reading helped me to identify some of the subtle themes that she manages to weave into her story about a group of privileged youngsters at Oxford and their education in that more unforgiving of institutions, the University of Life.

Our narrator is James, a middle-class boy who finds himself a small fish in a big pond when he follows his sister's footsteps and goes to Oxford. Consistently trying to keep his head above water he is dealt an early blow when he injures his knee while out running one morning. Falling further behind in his studies and at his lowest ebb he meets Jess.

This was the chance I'd waited for. Here, if I said the right things, I could enfold her into my life, and wrap myself in hers, in the Oxford life I had somehow missed. Fear and panic engulfed me again, that I would not find the right words...And, to my own surprise and horror, I began to cry.

That wish to be taken care of, to attach himself to someone else's life will become an important realisation later for James but for now, befriended by Jess it isn't long before he gets exactly what he wished for. Unknown to any but a select few, an unassuming wall on a backstreet of Oxford conceals a secret.

At last we came through the tangle and out on to a stone-flagged area with two curved sets of stairs leading up to a crumbling Georgian house. It was enormous - the main section was three storeys tall, with seven windows along each floor, and its façade had faded into mottled beauty. The paint peeling in crackled strips from the shutters on the ground floor windows had scattered green and white shards across the paving stones.

This is the home of Mark Winters, a charismatic fellow Oxford student with a trust fund lifestyle to make the eyes water - when James sees the balance of a bank account he suggests that a sum like that should be put somewhere better in order to earn interest to which Mark rather dismissively comments 'Oh, I think that is the interest on something.' Mark assembles a retinue around him, a surrogate family to replace his own (his father is virtually absent and his mother lives in Italy) which includes the musician Jess, Spanish seductress Emanuella, occasional lovers Franny and Simon and now James too - the beautiful paramour.

When money is no object then it seems you can exist for a while in a daydream of parties, playtime and love affairs. The removal of responsibility is an indulgence for James who exists on a social plane several rungs lower than his contemporaries, but it is a danger too leaving them all ill-prepared for the complications of adult life. I won't go into too much detail about what those complications are but for James it is a journey which contains paradigm shifts in self-awareness and more than just a little heartache. Mark remains the book's most fascinating character, not only because of his humour and charisma, but also for his enigmatic qualities. Trying to piece together the history of this charming man who clearly hides deep psychological scars, hinted at by various other characters including the family's priestly confidante, is a bit like solving a riddle and Alderman, by making almost everything about him ambiguous in some way, leaves you questioning the truth of just about everything he says. A supposedly religious man he understands the notion of sacrifice, one of the novel's themes. It is just such a moment that brings James firmly into the fold when he offers himself up as the culprit when Mark's mother demands to know who broke a family heirloom. And it is that same spirit that provides Mark with his one redeeming action, a life-endangering act of selflessness completely out of character.

I'm getting dangerously close to revealing plot points here so I'll leave it there. Alderman's book seems at first as though it will be a superficial tale of excess and sexual awakening but, just as its characters do, it matures into something far more complex. Youthful exuberance and ambition give way to disappointment and discontent before each of these indulged 'siblings' is forced to stand alone, separate from the institution that has bred them and the protection of their circle, and make their own life.


Monday 12 April 2010

'an act of piety'

The Invention Of Morel

by Adolfo Bioy Casares

When I was gifted a good old-fashioned book voucher at Christmas (I say old-fashioned, it was in fact a credit card-style gift card) I decided to use it on a little NYRB Classics splurge. The few titles of theirs I had read previously had been quite simply brilliant and whilst I didn't expect it to be possible for all of them to be quite so impressive I had the same kind of confidence when browsing their catalogue as I have when looking at the backlist of Pushkin Press for example. I was prompted towards this book after Trevor of The Mookse And The Gripes selected it as one of his books of last year and it certainly didn't disappoint. It is easily one of the most original books I have ever read, one that defies easy categorisation making it exactly the kind of book that will appeal to the lover of fiction with wide tastes in search of something a bit different. What do you by the book lover who has everything? Well, something like this would be a real treat (unless they already have this too).

So having said that it is a book that defies categorisation, how do I go about describing it? Is it science fiction, magical realism, metaphysical examination, adventure story? Knowing that the Argentine Casares counted Borges as a mentor, friend and collaborator might help to put his work into some context (In his short prologue Borges says of the book that 'To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole'). Writing anything about it is a challenge as one doesn't want to reveal too much of its plot for fear of spoiling the genuine pleasure of coming to it unknowing and attempting to solve the riddle oneself. Here is the opening paragraph.

Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time. I moved my bed out by the swimming pool, but then, because it was impossible to sleep, I stayed in the water for a long time. The heat was so intense that after I had been out of the pool for only two or three minutes I was already bathed in perspiration again. As day was breaking, I awoke to the sound of a phonograph record. Afraid to go back to the museum to get my things, I ran away down through the ravine. Now I am in the lowlands at the southern part of the island, where the aquatic plants grow, where mosquitoes torment me, where I find myself waist-deep in dirty streams of sea water. And, what is worse, I realize that there was no need to run away at all. Those people did not come here on my account; I believe they did not even see me.

Our narrator is an escaped convict hiding out on an island where he has remained undisturbed for a while, the island being host allegedly to a deadly disease that keeps both pirates and holidaymakers away. So who are these newcomers to the island, and why is it that they seem to be unaware of his presence? The museum from which he has been driven by their arrival is another of the island's mysteries. One of three buildings completed in 1924 the question remains: who built them, to what purpose and why were they abandoned? But that's enough questions for now. Another driving force through the novel is hinted at by the book's cover. Apparently inspired by Casares' fascination with movie star Louise Brooks, our narrator becomes fascinated by one of the island's new arrivals, a woman whose name he later discovers is Faustine.

I had nothing to hope for. That was not so horrible - and the acceptance of that fact brought me peace of mind. But now the woman has changed all that. And hope is the one thing I must fear. She watches the sunset every afternoon; from my hiding place I watch her. Yesterday, and again today, I discovered that my nights and days wait for this hour. The woman with a gypsy's sensuality and a large, bright coloured scarf on her head, is a ridiculous figure. But I still feel (perhaps I only half believe this) that if she looked at me for a moment, spoke to me only once, I would derive from those simple acts the sort of stimulus a man obtains from friends, from relatives, and, most of all, from the woman he loves.

It becomes a daily rite, his watching of her watching the sunset, brought to life by one of the illustrations by Borges' sister, Norah Borges De Torre, stark black and white images that communicate something of the unbearable heat of the island.

His loneliness now has a possible cure but no matter how hard he tries he doesn't seem to be able to make that connection with her that he so longs for. So the book is in part a meditation on love, loneliness and desire, but near its end, when the reader is more aware of what exactly is going on, Casares takes his themes even further returning to something our convict had been theorising about as he sat in the dock during his trial.

I believe we lose immortality because we have not conquered our opposition to death; we keep insisting on the primary rudimentary idea: that the whole body should be kept alive. We should seek to preserve only the part that has to do with consciousness.

I'll say no more and urge you to read the book. Don't wait for a voucher, make a gift of it to yourself.


Wednesday 7 April 2010

'A journey is a gesture inscribed in space'

In A Strange Room
by Damon Galgut

Described as a novel, this book is actually made up of three stories, all previously published in the Paris Review; one of which, The Lover, has been selected for this year's O. Henry Award. The stories are linked, each narrated by the same voice, Damon, and detail three episodes of travel in his life. Each also shares a narrative tense that switches between past and present, first and third person; this narrator is participant and observer at the same time and the distance of time is sometimes realised and at others collapsed.

He sits on the edge of a raised stone floor and stares out unseeingly into the hills around him and now he is thinking of things that happened in the past. Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was. But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching.

All very Sebaldian as writer and critic Stuart Evers pointed out on Twitter (I told him I'd nick that). The notion of travel as a literal and metaphysical journey is an obvious theme in literature and Galgut subverts it somewhat by making his own wanderer a man ill at ease with his role, travel is really flight; flight from oneself.

The truth is he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstance. He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety, which makes everything heightened and vivid. Life becomes a series of threatening details, he feels no connection to anything around him, he's constantly afraid of dying. As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forwards to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something, but always away, away.

The title of each section is a description of the role that Damon will play, so in the first part, The Follower, Damon meets Reiner, a German traveller intent on climbing and hiking through Greece, the two men initially heading in opposite directions until Damon follows him and the two eventually set out together to climb in Lesotho. The distinctive prose style employed here is excellent for hiding emotion and underneath the solemn exchanges of the two men there runs a current of homo-eroticism that threatens to break through at some point.

Would you like some, he says, holding out an apple, I found this in my bag. The two of them pass it between them, solemnly biting and chewing, the one lying propped up on an elbow, the other sitting with his knees drawn up, all it will take is a tiny movement from one of them, a hand extended, or the edge of the sleeping bag lifted, would you like to get in, but neither makes the move, one is too scared and the other too proud...

The two men circle and weave around each other like a pair of butterflies attempting to mate and their uneasy relationship, playing out like a power struggle with no malicious intent, is the same bob and feint of any attempt to be intimate with someone, including the need to protect oneself from danger or rejection, all of this felt all the more keenly by our inexperienced narrator. Reiner is always in control, exploiting his strength and independence almost to goad Damon towards action. Something like money, which appears to be no problem for Reiner and a big worry for Damon, is a good example of something that acts symbolically, here as the currency of affection, for 'on this trip how much you have is a sign of how loved you are, Reiner hoards the love, he dispenses it as a favour, I am endlessly gnawed by the absence of love, to be loveless is to be without power.'

It is in this section that Damon remembers the lines from Faulkner's As I Lay Dying that give the novel its title.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.

The very next line, that he tellingly doesn't recall, sums up perfectly what these journeys are really all about for Damon with his different titled roles and switching narrative viewpoints.

I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not.

In the central story Damon questions his ability to love 'people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is.' knowing full well that 'Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.' During his travels through Africa (which allow Galgut to explore themes like the remorse and hypocrisy of the Westernised traveller, with their 'luck and money' as they pass through and exploit the third world) he hooks up with a disparate group of travellers as they stutter and stumble through the corrupt checkpoints of border controls. One of them, Jerome, holds a fascination for him, the two separated by language, communicating instead with significant looks. There is something of that restriction and frustration about the remembrance in this story, I found it the one I struggled to connect with most (perhaps because it is the subtlest - a second reading may well reveal more), and despite being titled The Lover, it is more about the distance that separates the two men and their connection through it, rather than any physical union. One suspects that there is something autobiographical about all of these stories but this one in particular has a ring of truth and honesty about it.

...if I can't make you live in words...it's not because I don't remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning. But it's for precisely that reason that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it's all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life.

It is all about physicality in the final story, The Guardian, in which Damon travels to Goa with his friend Anna, someone whom he regards as a sister and who is attempting to find a place that will provide the solace required to recover from a long history of mental illness, suicidal thoughts and alcoholism. As with the other two stories Damon is not in control of the situation from the outset, Anna orders herself drinks when she has vowed to avoid alcohol, she talks about betraying her lesbian lover, Damon's best friend, and she continually tests the strength of the bond between them and Damon's vow to look after her.

It's begun to feel as if a stranger has taken up residence in her, somebody dark and restless that he doesn't trust, who wants to consume Anna completely. This stranger is still cautious, still biding her time. Meanwhile the person that he knows is visible, and sometimes in the ascendant...But the dark stranger always appears again, peering slyly over her shoulder...

Each story probes a different kind of relationship and in each case Damon is not only not in control but both parties also fail to really connect properly. This makes it quite a bleak read in places but Galgut's prose, pared down here to the essentials, manages to find those small moments of promise in human interaction, as rare and precious as a flower in the desert, and made all the more precious by the knowledge that they can be so easily taken away.


Monday 5 April 2010

The Hurt Locker

I found myself rooting for this film when it came to Oscar time without having seen it, sensing that it must be better than even the 'greatest ever film with blue pretend cat people'. Kathryn Bigelow created two of the greatest chase sequences, on foot rather than in vehicle, for Point Break and Strange Days, and some commentators (Mark Kermode for one) thought that a victory for her would be marvellous as it would see a woman beating the men at their own game. That seems like a pretty hollow victory to me, and perhaps even a defeat for female directors when Kermode said he'd much rather see a film like The Hurt Locker provide the first female Best Director Oscar than the films of someone like Jane Campion (he found a rather derogatory way of summarising them which I can't remember now, sneering at the arty-ness). However one feels about the sexual politics, and the tabloid feel to the oft-repeated fact that Bigelow and Cameron were once married (briefly), all I really care about is whether the damn film is any good, the time to watch anything these days being so precious.

After some early and rather worthy treatments of the second Iraq misadventure (Lions For Lambs etc) Bigelow has chosen to look at the bomb disposal experts, or Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, of the US Army. By focusing on their work she is able to examine the place of the military in a prolonged occupation, the modern threat of counter-insurgency, and the way in which war, for a certain kind of person, can be as attractive as any of the other dangerous and potentially life-threatening stimulants out there. We are thrown straight into the action and I shall throw you straight into a spoiler alert which you can avoid by skipping to the next paragraph. In Baghdad we watch Guy Pearce's sergeant deal with an improvised explosive device or IED. Donning the distinctive protective body suit he works away at the device until it is remotely detonated via mobile phone and Bigelow dispatches the first of her celebrity cameos (It worked with Drew Barrymore in Scream for Wes Craven - kill a star in the opening moments and you know it's serious). What this sets up nicely is the danger that anyone holding a mobile phone, any of the many Baghdad residents watching the spectacle of bomb disposal in their streets could be a potential insurgent.

Bravo Company's Sanborn and 'Specialist' are joined by new team leader, William James, with only 39 days left on their rotation. James however is what all military films require - a maverick. He doesn't need to use the robot to check out any suspect rubble piles or parked cars, he doesn't particularly want to wear the protective gear, and he is, crucially, very good at what he does. His recklessness and personal mission will make it an especially eventful final month for his two colleagues and a tense, thrilling ride for us. Anyone could be a potential suspect, almost anything or any place a potential bomb. This is naturally a completely one-sided representation of the conflict but this is done from a neutral standpoint. We see things only through the eyes of the American soldiers becuase it is only that way that we can really understand the jeopardy of not being able to trust even the most innocent bystander, the man they are supposed to be there to protect of course. In one of the final set pieces the protestations of a man who claims to be good and upstanding are rendered almost meaningless by the explosives and timer strapped to his chest.

Bigelow builds tension well, not only in the bomb disposal set-pieces but also amongst her core cast. James has a complicated family situation at home, Sanborn is struggling to keep a hold of the rules and protocol that have kept him safe thus far and 'Specialist' is traumatised by the knowledge that the slightest hesitation on his part could lead to the death of himself, his team or an innocent onlooker. Much like the blockbuster that featured another military 'Maverick' you even get some homo-erotic horseplay, but the close bonding that their job forces upon them is well realised and helps add to the building atmosphere. All three can see the end in sight and that causes a different kind of strain for each of them. For James a return to normality, to family, to stability, isn't the boon he might have thought: how do you replace the thrill of such an extreme 'profession'?

The Hurt Locker will go down in history as the first film to earn a Best Director Oscar for a woman but it is also the lowest grossing film to win the award for Best Film. I'm sure that'll change in wake of its victory but part of me, whilst admiring this as a good film, isn't quite convinced that it's a great film. It is well directed, well acted and brilliantly edited (both image and sound), but it only reminded me how much I had enjoyed Generation Kill which has the advantage of time as a TV mini-series, but also boasted an extraordinary script and cast. Both are worth watching however for a truly embedded look at the experience of the modern soldier.


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