Thursday 29 July 2010

Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse present Dark Night Of The Soul

An album mired first in legal wranglings and then in tragedy finally sees the light of day and proves to be filled with at least a gem or two and a fine tribute to two of the creatives involved in it. I'm not sure I understand the exact nature of the legal problems between EMI and producer Danger Mouse that prevented the album getting a proper release initially, the photographic art book accompanied by a blank CD and instructions to 'Use it as you will' (which for most people meant downloading the music from the net). All of that silliness has been overshadowed by the suicides of Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) and Vic Cestnutt; the former a driving force behind the project and the latter appearing on the track Grim Augury. Linkous and Danger Mouse worked together on the Sparklehorse album Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain but there were several works in progress where Linkous felt he couldn't do justice to the vocals. Danger Mouse suggested the use of guest vocalists and the result is this album which rises above it's dark sounding title and tragic trajectory, filled as it is with energy and creativity and where the contributing artists seem to be having fun. An album filled with collaborations can sometimes vary wildly in quality and approach and it may also depend on how you feel previously about the vocalists but there is some fine work here.

The Flaming Lips begin proceedings with Revenge, a track filled with the bitter taste and destructive nature of that notion, even whilst the beautiful strings swell and Wayne Coyne sings tenderly - 'Once we become/The thing we dread/There's no way to stop/And the more I try to hurt you/The more it backfires.' There's even a bit of auto-tune that I don't hate. Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals) guests on Just War, his gentle, dreamy voice well suited to an appeal against conflict. Those, like me, who mourn the end of Grandaddy will be pleased to hear singer Jason Lytle return with a couple of tracks here, the first of which is the brilliant Jaykub, about a man who sleeps and dreams of collecting an heroic award only for a rude awakening to arrive - 'Then the alarm goes off and you're a sad man in a song.' A brilliant opening is capped off by Julian Casablancas (of The Strokes) and Little Girl which is a great little pop song that bounces along with jangly guitars as he sings of the 'tortured little girl' he's besotted with.

Less enjoyable for me are the slightly more performed (and certainly noisier) cameos of Frank Black (as Black Francis) and Iggy Pop. Weirdly, it's David Lynch himself who settles things down with his own vocal contribution on Star Eyes. There's something oddly charming and endearing about this track but it's hard to say why that is; its simplicity perhaps. Anyway, it isn't long before Jason Lytle returns with Every Time I'm With You, a slow, stumbling paean to drunken abandon. James Mercer (of The Shins) guests on the aptly titled Insane Lullaby, a track that might be a gentle number if it weren't for the chaotic noise-rhythm in the background. After having been hidden in the shadows for so long it is a joy to hear Linkous himself on Daddy's Gone, an album highlight with guest vocals from Nina Persson (of The Cardigans). It's a beautiful, sad and yet positive track -'When you lay your head/On your pillow, I'll be gone/ I'll be gone/ Will you breathe your dreams/ To your pillow like a song?' Suzanne Vega appears on the gentle tale of transformation, The Man Who Played God, a pleasant track that in no way prepares you for the nightmare vision provided by Vic Chesnutt on Grim Augury form its opening - 'We're cutting a baby out/With my grandmother's heirloom antler-handled carving knife' to the image of catfish 'wriggling in blood and gore in the kitchen sink' it is the most Lynchian of the album's tracks. The man himself returns on the closing title track, his vocals treated and reverberating as an upright piano plods along. A fittingly spooky ending to an evocative album.

You can enjoy a conjunction of sound and image below.

Dangermouse & Sparklehorse - dark night of the soul from Antonin Brault Guilleaume on Vimeo.


Monday 26 July 2010

'the deep and secret yes'

by Paul Harding

There was a great deal of surprise when Paul Harding was announced as the winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A debut novel (the last time a debut won was Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter Of Maladies a decade ago) and one from a tiny publisher (you have to go back even further to 1981 and John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces for a comparable success), Bellevue Literary Press had sold 15,000 copies before it was announced as the winner, but there were plenty who hadn't even heard of it, let alone read it. One can only presume that sales have rocketed since then. In the UK it is published by William Heinemann in a high quality hardback with a spine so stiff it's hard to keep it open, the matt dustjacket highlighting the sheen of the bronze-foiled lettering. You may just see that the dot of the 'i' is in fact a small cog and this is a book that uses clocks and horology as one of its major themes and images. As a clock marks out the divisions of the day and acts as a countdown we will read about three generations of an American family, knowing that the story will end exactly as a clock runs down. Time is played with, much of the novel coming in flashback as George Washington Crosby lies dying in his bed at home, and in the last few days of his life he thinks back on his childhood, remembering his father and in turn his father's father, the narrative moving with the fluidity of memory.

In a stunning opening Harding flexes his stylistic muscles immediately, presenting us with George's dying hallucinations. Rather than seeing his life flash before his eyes we literally see it falling about his ears as he imagines cracks opening in the floorboards beneath him and his bed falling down into the basement. Then the floors above collapse, mementoes and artefacts strewn about him before the house itself loses all integrity.

The roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation. There was the sky, filled with flat-topped clouds, cruising like a fleet of anvils across the blue. George had the watery, raw feeling of being outdoors when you are sick. The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.
   The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George's confused obliteration.

It is an ambitious opening and one that introduces many of the books defining features. The prose is ornate, sentences packed with details often extending to breaking point under the weight of their lists. It's intoxicating in these opening pages but I found myself beginning to lose strength midway through the book before rallying myself for the finish. It may be less than 200 pages but there were times when this book felt a lot longer and it seemed to require more time and attention than I expected at the outset. This is not necessarily a bad thing of course and probably says more about my reading habits than anything else. The language isn't so much dense as detailed, much like the intricate workings of the clocks George spent  his life working on and I found myself appreciating the writing far more when I went back to look at sections in order to write up this review. It seems to me that it's a book that can be far better appreciated on a second or even third reading.

George's father, Howard Aaron Crosby, was a tinker in Maine, who drove a cart that amounted to 'a chest of drawers mounted on two axles and wooden spoked wheels.'

There were dozens of drawers, each fitted with a recessed brass ring, pulled open with a hooked forefinger, that contained brushes and wood oil, tooth powder and nylon stockings, shaving soap and straight-edged razors. There were drawers of with shoe shine and boot strings, broom handles and mop heads. There was a secret drawer where he kept four bottles of gin.

There's those lists again, and later some of Harding's trademark language.

He tinkered. Tin pots, wrought iron. Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam. Quicksilver patchwork. Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle of tin sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest. Tinkerbird, coppersmith, but mostly a brush and mop drummer.

You may already be forming an opinion of whether this is the kind of book for you based on the style but Hading has the skill to try many things, coming closer to something like poetry at times.

Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets. There was also the ring in Howard Crosby's ears, a ring that began at a distance and came closer, until it sat in his ears, then burrowed into them. His head thrummed as if it were a clapper in a bell. Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unravelling. This was his aura, a cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure.

For Howard has epilepsy and it is something passed over in silence by the family, especially after George, whilst attempting to help his father during a fit, receives a nasty bite on his hand. Howard assumes that this silence 'was one of kindness offered and accepted.' But in fact it is shame. Whilst he rides out with his cart his wife makes plans that will mean George losing his father whilst just a young boy. We will learn a little too about Howard's own father, a preacher who slowly brings disquiet to his congregation, his sermons seeming to veer further and further away from the straight path as his mental faculties decline. In another memorable section Howard goes out into the woods searching for his father, who has gone missing. In an attempt to connect with him he wears his father's boots, three pairs of socks employed to combat their large size, his hat and carries lunch in his fishing basket. He wanders through all the places they had been together, looking for what his father had referred to in his sermon's as 'the deep and secret yes.' It is a search that encapsulates the whole book; men trying to connect with fathers who are lost to them in various ways, a task infinitely harder than the re-assemblage of cogs and wheels.


Thursday 22 July 2010

Prince - 20Ten

I mentioned that even Prince hasn't sounded like Prince for a while now when I reviewed the latest album from Jamie Lidell. I said that without really having listened properly to any of his recent releases but I happened to see his purpleness emblazoned on the front of the Daily Mirror on Saturday (10th July) and realised that his latest album was being given away with paper and that this would be the only method of its release. 2.5 million copies were made and the paper costs 65p. I don't know how that makes any kind of financial sense, especially as Prince has barred iTunes from stocking his music as they won't offer any kind of advance (!), but he seems to think this is the future and he's very happy to be away from worries about the charts etc. Part of me wondered whether it was simply because it wasn't any good (Tony Parsons in a barely believable piece of puff writing, providing the Mirror with its exclusive first review, called it Prince's best album in 23 years) so I made my first and only ever purchase of the Mirror to find out. Short version: It aint that great. It isn't totally awful, there are even some hints at a genuine return to form, but there are also some moments, usually lyrical rather than musical, that made me want to curl up and die for him.

Prince has never been great at album covers

But this latest is truly hideous, looking like something from a Prince fan's GCSE art project. It all adds to the feeling that this is a slightly cheap production and some of the music within only adds to that worry. Things start off relatively well and with a distinctly retro feel on Compassion. Electric drums and keyboards kick to a rhythm similar to Let's Go Crazy, there are even electric handclaps but as soon as he starts singing the wheels start to come off. Portentous doesn't even begin to describe a track where 'zero point approaches' and 'dreams become reality' and the polar ice caps even feature. Pretentious might be closer. Endlessly Beginning at least wears its pretension on its sleeve as Prince riffs on the hidden nature of the universe. Future Soul Song is a slow spiritual swamped in 'oo-ee-oo' and 'sha-la-la' backing vocals that aren't quite enough to hide yet more awful lyrics. Sticky Like Glue threatens to be actually rather good, funky guitars and sexy vocals build up a nice atmosphere, but then the unthinkable occurs and Prince begins to rap. Yes, rap. I'll leave that with you and move swiftly on.

Act of God is weighted down by socially conscious lyrics that remind us that 'freedom 'aint free' and even refers to Sadam and his non-existent weapons, instantly dating the song. Lavaux lightens things up musically before Walk In Sand provides a half decent ballad. That's followed by Sea of Everything, an after-hours love song with a heavy dose of his new-found spirituality. The album ends (kind of) with Everybody Loves Me. I mentioned Let's Go Crazy at the beginning of this review. That is a great party song. Everybody Loves Me wishes it was, but isn't. The reason I said it 'kind of' ends the album is because there's a hidden track. After seventy odd 5-second tracks of silence we have what might be called Laydown where the 'purple Yoda' provides perhaps the most interesting track on the whole album. Why it's hidden away like that I don't know but by then it's too late I'm afraid. This isn't his best album in 23 years and the frightening truth is that the Mirror's cover price of 65p might be just about right.


Tuesday 20 July 2010


I'm off camping for a bit so please don't be offended if I don't respond to comments until my return. There will be a few posts over the next couple of weeks to keep you going. I look forward to your own thoughts when I get back home...


Monday 19 July 2010

'Look! I am alive.'

by John Williams

People have been lining up to praise this novel. Press reviewers like the New York Times Book Review ('a perfect novel'), fellow bloggers Kevin From Canada ('may be the most overlooked novelist in American history') and John Self ('quietly magnificent') have been joined by Tom Hanks who was quoted in Time magazine a few months back - 'It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher.  But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.' The only problem with praise like that is that it can be crippling. First the anxiety - what if I don't like it?! - and then the comfort of assuming it will of course be brilliant and can therefore sit on the shelf until such time as brilliance is required - which means it can sit on the shelf for an awfully long time.

Well, I finally got it down. It is brilliant. Thank god. It is one of those books where the author does nothing less than give you the entire life of the title character. I don't mean literally following him from birth to death, but the kind of rich reading experience where we feel that we have been witness to the essence of a real person. Not all novels do this, even the great ones don't always succeed in pulling it off, but you will recognise the sensation of having to remind yourself that the person you're reading about isn't actually real. The last time it happened properly for me was when I read The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page (incidentally another nyrb classics title) by G.B. Edwards, but that book had the advantage of first-person narration. The third-person narration of Stoner keeps us at the distance of an observer but it is a gap that I often wanted to close down so that I could grab hold of William Stoner, sometimes to give him a shake, other times a hug.

William Stoner was born in 1890 on a small farm near the village of Booneville, Missouri. Born into a life of   hard work which has made his father look fifty at the age of thirty, 'stooped by labor', his school lessons were 'chores only somewhat less exhausting than those around the farm.' But when the University in Columbia opens a new College of Agriculture, his parents determine to sacrifice what it will take to send their son there. As part of his course, along with all of the other students, Stoner is required to complete a semester survey of English literature, something that fills him with apprehension. It is under the tutelage of Archer Sloane that his affinity with literature is unlocked and the transition from farmhand to bibliophile begins.

Sometimes he would pause, remove a volume from the shelves and hold it for a moment in his large hands, which tingled at the still unfamiliar feel of spine and board and unresisting page. Then he would leaf through the book, reading a paragraph here and there, his stiff fingers careful as they turned the pages, as if in their clumsiness they might tear and destroy what they took such pains to uncover.

Unknown to his parents at first he switches his courses; science and agriculture are replaced by history, philosophy and literature; he learns basic Greek and Latin in a year; his progress is swift but to what end he doesn't know. It takes Sloane to finally open his eyes to what, for him, is obvious.

"But don't you know, Mr. Stoner?" Sloane asked. "Don't you understand about yourself yet? You're going to be a teacher."
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Sloane said softly.
"How can you tell? How can you be sure?"
"It's love, Mr. Stoner," Sloane said cheerfully. "You are in love. It's as simple as that."
The contrast between learning and working the land was well used by Allan Seager in his sadly forgotten novel, Amos Berry, where a poet seeks to understand what might have driven his farmer father to commit a seemingly motiveless shooting. Here it is more about watching the transformation of Stoner, not that of a butterfly or a budding flower, which would be far too romantic, but a man slowly settling into the role that he seems destined for.

He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was...He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book was true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.

Slowly is an important word at this point. The pace of the book is unhurried even though the same number of pages might cover a single event or the passage of several years. The prose is uncluttered, never flashy, but always finding the important gesture or the telling phrase in dialogue. I was reminded of William Maxwell, a similarly patient writer, and his novel Time Will Darken It. By coincidence the first lady of book blogging, dovegreyreader, recently read and reviewed the book here, but it seemed to me that Austin Wright in that book has a similar character flaw that leaves the reader unsure whether he is kind or foolish, passive or well-mannered, weak or restrained. Stoner as we have seen is sent off to university, told what he should become and lives his life within that institution. The one occasion when he can certainly be said to have exercised his will is when he marries Edith Bostwick (and perhaps even then we would have to say that his falling in love is what dictates his choice) and it proves to be a disastrous choice.

His marriage to Edith is one of the most terrifying portraits of married life I have ever read. That may sound terribly dramatic, something along the lines of Martha and George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, when in fact it is almost the opposite. It is a relationship that begins with minimal communication, physical alienation, and the quiet sense that a battle is being fought at all times. Tiny gestures or utterances become significant, loaded with import or meaning. Even the conception of their first child is an act of aggression, one that signals the way in which their daughter will continue to be used as a pawn. The restraint with which Williams charts the constant decline in their relationship is masterful and just one of the fronts on which Stoner is forced to fight during his life. Having used his position to avoid fighting in the war he finds more than enough hostility to make up for it, both at home and within the university. And what makes this quiet conflict all the more heartbreaking is our suspicion that, despite all his faults, Stoner is genuinely driven by a force that we can only call love. Even when circumstance has forced him to shut down, to protect himself, he recognises what has been the common driving force in his life and we realise too that Williams has given us something of an existential hero.

Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him - how many years ago? - by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.

Stoner is one of those books that you immediately feel you could recommend to a wide range of readers, each of whom would find something different to specifically connect to. Its universal appeal comes from the humanity contained within. For either of those reasons I urge you to read it too.


Thursday 15 July 2010

'a strange kind of happiness'

The Devil In The Flesh 
by Raymond Radiguet

Raymond Radiguet was only 23-years-old when he died of typhoid fever, leaving behind two novels, a volume of poetry and a reputation enhanced by that tragic early death and his association with Jean Cocteau. The Devil In The Flesh was written between the ages of 16 and 18, making it by definition a juvenile work, but one inspired by his own affair with a married woman so let's not be too quick to dismiss it as the work of a boy. The book caused a scandal when it was first published in the year of his death, not because of any overtly sexual content but because it looked at the phenomenon, common during the years of the Great War, of those married women who had been left at home by their husbands fighting at the front taking young lovers. Our adolescent narrator speaks shamelessly from the start.

I am going to bring a great deal of criticism on myself. But what can I do about it?...People who reproach me should try and imagine what the War was for so many young boys - a four-year-long holiday.

Just twelve when war breaks out and shielded by his protective parents from friendship with the opposite sex he has a sensuality that has 'gained rather than lost ground' as a result. When the family go to spend time with the 'agreeable people', the Grangiers, he meets their 18-year-old daughter, Marthe. She is engaged to Jaques who is fighting on the front line but immediately our narrator shows his intentions and his first act of revenge when he is enlisted by Marthe to help choose the furniture for her marital bedroom. This is just the first example of his ability to exert power and influence over her and his first victory against her fiance as he thinks of the wedding night they will spend in 'my bedroom!'

Under the veil of friendship the two of them spend more and more time together (whilst her now-husband spends more and more time away) their intimacy growing until the moment where 'like the needle that strays a mere fraction into the forbidden zone and is drawn to the magnet' their lips meet in the kiss that changes everything. Just before this moment our narrator has given just one example of his adolescence: the bold contradictions - 'It was only now when I was certain that I no longer loved her that I began to love her.' The book is filled with them and with the equally strident statements of fact that tend to run through adolescent poetry. I remember it well! That period of sexual maturation, when passion is perhaps at its highest, causes one to speak like one has just learned a great truth about the world, about human relationships and you cannot help but say it out loud as if it is your duty to let the rest of the world know - 'love is like poetry...all lovers, even the most unremarkable, think they are breaking new ground'.

There is a darting roughness to the thoughts and narrative in this novel. It is difficult to know whether this is a result of author's youth or a brilliant depiction of it. If the book had been written by someone older then I'm sure we might think how clever they had been to communicate so clearly the fractured thoughts and callous behaviour of the adolescent narrator. Given the fact of his age and the autobiographical nature of the storyline its difficult not to think that the book is that way through necessity rather than choice. Does that diminish the artistic merit? I don't know, but what it does mean is that there is a searing honesty about the way in which Radiguet opens himself up for criticism (as he promised he would). He has no interest in making himself a sympathetic character, he behaves appallingly towards Marthe at times, she 'subjected to the whims of a callous boy'. But this is absolutely right it seems to me, the inexperience of a boy living in an extraordinary time, and exposed to the kind of experience that he is ill-equipped emotionally to deal with - 'I was using up all my nervous energy on cowardice and effrontery, exhausted by the thousand and one paradoxes faced by a person of my age wrestling with an experience that belonged to the world of men.'

One of the novel's other significant achievements is the way in which this extraordinary time is depicted. Near the opening of the book there is an incident where a demented maid seeks sanctuary on a rooftop providing entertainment for our narrator and others in the street and embarrassment for her employers.

If I dwell on this episode like this, it is because it helps to understand, more than anything else, what a peculiar time the War was, and how I was struck less by what was picturesque than by the poetry of things.

Our couple's secret affair always threatens to be pulled into the public arena. Danger lies not only with their respective families but with landlords and neighbours too. In another memorable set-piece Marthe's neighbours, the Marins, throw a society soiree to aid Monsieur Marin's political comeback. The Mayor is guest of honour and our couple are scheduled to provide the entertainment with their scandalous lovemaking. When our narrator gets wind of the plan he and Marthe frustrate them by keeping silent until the party disperses, the Marins safely disgraced, at which point they go at it with 'belated passion'.

It's impossible to know what Radiguet may have gone on to produce, but with this early work you can already see a remarkably mature understanding of love and relationships, a complete lack of vanity and a good eye for capturing the prescient details of the time. Before the notion of 'teenagers' even existed Radiguet captures something of their essence. I'd be interested to see whether his other novel, Count d'Orgel, backs up the promise shown by his first. Luckily that's published by Pushkin Press too so I have no excuse not to find out. And neither do you!


Monday 12 July 2010

in the shade of the banyan tree

Saraswati Park 
by Anjali Joseph

The New Yorker recently published a list of twenty writers under forty who captured 'the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction'. People were soon up in arms about the selection with one person quipping 'Any new writers on this list?', so established were the names on it. Shortly afterwards The Telegraph published their own list, offering it up as a challenge 'If the exercise gives us a snapshot of what our most exciting young novelists are doing right now, it also raises questions about what any list might say about a country’s writing, and about the differences in fiction on each side of the Atlantic.' The names on it will be well known to many readers of this blog ( I say this in confidence at your awareness rather than expecting you to have read them all) but there's at least one name I know you won't have read before as her début novel was yet to be published at the time of the list's appearance. Anjali Joseph might be described as a writer with pedigree: she read English at Trinity College, Cambridge, has taught at the Sorbonne and written for The Times of India as well as being a commissioning editor for Elle in the same country. I mention all of this because I always wonder what helps writers whose books are yet to be published get onto lists of this sort. Is the book really so amazing that the few who can have read it have already created the buzz or with that kind of background is it expected that a writer like Joseph is bound to have a bright future? After reading her solid début it may be worth noting that part of the reason for her inclusion on that list was their 'expectation that these writers have their best work ahead of them'

Joseph's novel is very much a portrait of the 'new India' focusing on a middle-class family in Bombay. Mohan is a letter-writer, a profession which is dying out. From his seat under some tarpaulin near the GPO he sits and writes missives for those who are illiterate, anything from heartfelt letters to the completion of bureaucratic forms. Joseph soon conjures the bustling and colourful street scene that is his daily existence.
For a while he sat and watched the world, framed at the upper edge by the fringe of the tarpaulin - hairy bits of rope and a jagged piece of packing plastic, once transparent, now grey, hung down. Beyond this, all around the letter writers, life persisted at its noisiest. A fleet of cockroach-like taxis in black and yellow livery waited at the junction outside the GPO. When the lights changed they all, honking, took the u-turn. A man on a cycle passed; he carried a tangle of enormous red ledgers, each wrapped in plastic, atop his head. The gold on their spines flashed in the sun.
He is also an avid buyer of second-hand books, particularly those that contain marginalia, and deep within himself is an urge to be a writer himself of something far more creative. That urge is deeply hidden however and even his passion for books is frustrated by the closure of his favourite second-hand book market. His wife Lakshmi is frustrated by her domestic station and the way in which the simple daily living of their married life has clearly taken her and her husband far away from what they had enjoyed together in the first place. Joseph again provides a suitably domestic image to encapsulate all of those frustrations.
Four of Mohan's shirts, collected this morning from the ironing boys, lay on the bed. She looked at them in exasperation. It was still there, the mild ring of dirt inside his collars, like a smudged pencil line. It wasn't his fault; nothing could be done. She had scrubbed at some of them to remove the mark, but it had been the collar, not the stain, that had begun to despair and fray. It was in these things, which didn't talk or, strictly speaking, have lives, that her days played out: her relationship with the shirts, neatly ironed and folded, was so much more direct that any other interaction these days.
So both Mohan and Lakshmi have seen their lives slowly slide away from their promise and it will take a couple of events to shake things up. First of all comes the arrival of nephew Ashish. Forced to repeat his final year of college after falling foul of the attendance record Ashish is nineteen years of age and a potent mix of developing sexuality and approaching manhood. Whilst the home of his aunt and uncle is supposed to provide the kind of solace and support to help him complete his studies he finds himself trusted to a certain extent and left to get on with his own studies whilst Mohan and Lakshmi deal with their own challenges. What he does in fact is embark on a couple of troubled relationships, firstly with a wealthy fellow student and then with a tutor. Ashish seems at first as though he will be the sub-plot of this novel but in fact he comes to dominate the storyline. Personally I thought this was a shame as I was far more interested in Mohan, his writing and the troubles of making a marriage work. Ashish doesn't seem to learn much from his escapades and is as incapable of dealing with the fallout from latter affair as he was from the first. That kind of naivety is far less engaging than the subtle ways in which Mohan seeks to reconnect with his daily life and realise something more of his creative impulses. Lakshmi too, as she deals with family crisis in one form or another is a sensitively realised character. Joseph manages to create a vivid picture of city life in Bombay without resorting to the kinds of exotic clichés that I am always wary of in fiction from the Indian sub-continent and beyond. She does this mainly with an un-showy display of well rendered detail and also the way she uses the shifting seasons, the changing rhythms and the various locations of the novel to keep it progressing forwards. That's why I called it a solid début. I enjoyed it without being blown away which seems entirely in keeping with what that list was supposed to be highlighting. Joseph is a writer of potential and it will be interesting to see what she does next (Her next novel, set in London, Paris and Bombay will look at the way your twenties can challenge the morals and sense of self you have developed, the journey into the world and back into yourself).


Thursday 8 July 2010

'remembering the forgotten'

The News Where You Are
by Catherine O'Flynn

I never read Catherine O'Flynn's Costa-First-Novel-Award-winning and much-prize-nominated debut, What Was Lost, but I do remember that much was made at the time that this was great breakthrough for a woman who had once been a postwoman (although it was her work in a series of shopping centres that clearly influenced the subject of that novel). Her previous jobs are detailed once again in her author biog and amongst them is a brief stint in journalism which may have influenced this second novel. We follow Frank Allcroft, a presenter on Heart Of England Reports, the local television news programme for the Midlands. Frank is something of a local legend, not because of any kind of journalistic scoop but because of the terrible jokes and puns he uses as links between items. These are something he has inherited from his predecessor, Phil Smethway, who died 6 months ago in a hit-and-run accident. The jokes are actually the work of a gag-writer, Cyril, who Frank has inherited, but where Phil was smooth and charming, Frank is clumsy and awkward, and whilst that might seem to be a problem it has actually helped to pull in more and more viewers - 'developing a cult status amongst students in the city...Eventually a website was dedicated to him - www.unfunniestmanongodsearth.com'

But Heart Of England Reports is a long way from the journalistic frontline. So many years of reporting the kind of fare that serves only as background noise have lead to the kind of generic news coverage with which we are all familiar.

The faces changed but the stories were the same. Another sick child hoping to get an operation abroad, another old couple swindled out of their life savings, another bare paddock of neglected horses. Sometimes he almost anticipated them. Like counting cards and knowing when to expect the next king. The different incidences became compacted in his mind to form generic news staples and the faces merged to form the composite face of a local news victim.

He hasn't, he hopes, become desensitized. In fact the opposite may even be true. Frank has become interested in the stories of those that die alone, seeming to leave no trace at the end. He becomes the lone mourner or flower bearer, determined to remember those that seem to have been forgotten or left behind by their friends and family, the kind of bodies that are only discovered after a neighbour reports a funny smell to the police and the front door is broken down -'It was always the gaps that drew Frank's attention. They seemed to matter more than the other pieces.' When a local man is found dead on a park bench Frank decides to dig a little deeper and finds that their may be a link between this man, Michael, and the previous incumbent in the Heart Of England Reports chair, Phil.

Frank also has his own family to think about. His grumpy mother is interred in an old-people's home, all doom and gloom when she's with him but concealing a hidden sparkle for some of the other residents, and O'Flynn has lots of fun with their exchanges His sparky daughter Mo is a constant source of youthful enquiry into the way the world works and there is a real charm to her conversations with her father. Frank wants her in particular to see some of the buildings in Birmingham designed by her grandfather. Frank's late father was an architect working at a time of concrete municipal buildings and tower blocks, the kind so out of favour with modern developers and in danger of destruction. Frank's need to protect his father's legacy taps into one of the book's major themes. Just as he feels the need to save this final building from demolition, he is desperate to find out what legacy, or trace may have been left behind by the man on the park bench. Whilst he lives everyday with Phil's comical legacy he also talks to his (much younger) widow about the lasting effects of his sudden death. For Frank personally this will mean a journey to confront his own father's passing and why it is that he doesn't see himself as perhaps the most important legacy his father left behind.

Fiction writers in the UK have been accused in the past of thinking small, of writing novels that feel far too domestic in comparison to the pursuit of the Great American Novel over the water and the grand generational epics elsewhere. Whatever one feels about that argument there's something of that here. Despite the big ideas, there is something about this book which makes it all feel a bit light. The comedy is there, but light; the bigger themes are there, but lightly sketched; the character development is there, but kind of obvious. The biggest problem for me was one of credulity with the machinations of the plot. The vain figure of Phil is (perhaps understandably) the biggest absence in the book and I found the depths of his unhappiness hard to believe in with the denouement of the plot even harder to swallow. It all feels a bit sensational, something you'd be far more likely to come across in a soap rather than the local news, and it detracts in the end from the nicely realised character comedy that O'Flynn has created throughout the book.


Monday 5 July 2010

'a song of self in dissolution'

A Preparation For Death
by Greg Baxter

Catchy title, eh? Doesn't it just make you want to dive right in? It was probably this that made me ignore the proof that came through the door one day - in fact I donated it to the internal library we have at work, where it has sat ever since. When the arrival of a second proof coincided with the appearance of some quotes from the book on the Twitter feed of one @john_self then I decided it was time to take a proper look. He loved the book and raved about it here. In the end I was slightly less enamoured, a failure on my part possibly, but proving that it's a book likely to split opinion. Greg Baxter was born in Texas and it was in America that he wrote and published a novel to little critical acclaim. Aghast at joining the ranks of unpublished authors in an America where bad writing 'had become institutionalized', Baxter moved to Dublin where he sat unemployed for seven months, revising that ill-fated novel, before gaining employment as a reporter on a weekly newspaper for doctors, 'a job I was not qualified for and did not want, yet I remain there today.' But it was his response to an job advertisement, for a teacher on a creative writing course, that proved to be the real turning point. Whilst he exhorted his pupils to tell the truth he did the same himself, reading the books that jealousy had masked from him before, discovering a new honesty within himself and writing once again but with that new honesty at the core. This book was written whilst the author was experiencing it so there is a relentlessness about it that keeps the pages turning. We read on horrified and intrigued so that it feels a little like driving past a car crash, rubbernecking to take in the detail only to discover another and then another crash on the same stretch of road.

Baxter has several demons to contend with and these are only encouraged by his desire to self-destruct. Alcohol plays the major role with sex and failed relationships coming a close second. In the first chapter we get the first of many lines that combine toe-curling honesty with a black humour after a drunken Baxter drops some change in the street.

I was surrounded by the naked calves of office girls and solicitors in high heels. It does not take too many naked calves to make one feel surrounded by them. I wanted to lick them. I often feel one drink away form whatever makes a dog hump women's legs.

Humour, even if it is only black, is important if you're going to write a memoir which is essentially equal parts self-deprecation and self-pity. Without humour you end up with this kind of response to being singled out as a bad seed at a writer's conference - 'It was easy to single me out - not just because I was dislikable, but because I was the nobodiest of nobodies.' There are moments of humour but it has already been flagged that this book is about honesty. Baxter has no interest in making you like him. In fact he goes some way in the opposite direction, detailing sexual encounters with little or no empathy taking almost perverse joy in listing his transgressions.

I spent a whole decade cultivating rage. I laboured to disappoint. I infected the people I knew with bitterness. I pulled them in close and betrayed them. I felt no remorse, just pity. I left the tiny battlefields of my relationships scorched and full of smoking corpses. I walked over the bodies without examination.

You'll notice there's an awful lot of 'I' going on there. There is such a piercing gaze levelled by Baxter at himself that there were times when I simply couldn't bear to hear this man talking about himself any more, it was exhausting and infuriating. Baxter knows this of course and it should be no surprise given what he says about his own preferences - 'I love the disfigured, the monstrous. All the books I admire are ogres - flawed, imbalanced, savage. They enhance me. Everything else reduces me.' How much you enjoy this book will depend on how much navel-gazing you can stomach and whether what you take away from it outweighs what it takes from you. When Baxter takes a look at his own family and their roots in Austria then things get really interesting. Anyone who writes may well find something too in the frequent statements about the act of writing.

I put on some warm and comfortable clothes, set up my computer, made a pot of coffee, and opened a blank page. After twenty minutes, I found myself cutting my toenails. I like to cut an edge and pull slowly across, revealing some of the quick, and when I am done with all ten, I air them out, and press them against the floor. After an hour, with nothing done at all, not a sentence, I was sitting on the floor in a corner, wishing I was dead. A little while later I began - as I do when all hope of writing is lost - hitting myself on the forehead with a closed fist. It is a punishment, but also an attempt to exhaust myself. I have always been like this. The fact that I cannot rid myself of such panic - such vanity - is as distressing as the panic itself...It does me no good, I suppose, to declare that my past is behind me; but I like to think that if I confess, I will be the only one left who believes my own lies...I am as much my weaknesses as I am my strengths. But to conceal them here, to myself, would be insanity. So I betray them. I hand them over like spies. I give up their identities. I have them running through the streets of a great dark city. they are chased down blind alleys and assassinated. I do not write because I am honest; I write because I am dishonest.

We know too that this book is an act of redemption and after all the destruction there is something curiously heart-warming about the lift that occurs near the end, particularly as it is about connecting with his own family and accompanied not by discoveries linked to reading or writing but by Baxter's discovery and appreciation of music. There is also some fantastic writing. As I said, infuriating at times, but also beautiful, angry, depraved and sometimes all three at once. One can be in no doubt though that Baxter has been upfront about what to expect from the very beginning and even about his truthfulness:

You think you've told an eviscerating truth about yourself, but all you've done is discover the lie that it was founded on, so you tell a new truth, and so on, until there are no guts left to rip out. And that is the end. 


Thursday 1 July 2010

'the invisible architecture of confidence'

You who celebrate bygones,/Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races, the life that has exhibited itself,/Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates, rulers and priests,/I, habitan of the Alleghenies, treating of him as he is in himself in his own rights,/Pressing the pulse of life that has seldom exhibited itself, (the great pride of man in himself,) Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be,/I project the history of the future.

'Bracing stuff, no? The question is, can you chant personality without devolving into solipsism? Can you trust the pulse of life without becoming Mr. Fanning? Because he is the future. One way or the other. His kind of rapaciousness, it doesn't end. It just bides its time.'

Union Atlantic 
by Adam Haslett

It was last year's buzz around this début novel at the Frankfurt Book Fair that first drew my attention to Adam Haslett. His first book - the story collection, You Are Not A Stranger Here - was swiftly purchased and proved to be a stunning read. Even so, the prospect of a novel about the current financial collapse, a 'parable for our time', conjured up images of a weighty tome, The Corrections meets Underworld, and more strain on my wrists in pursuit of the Great American Novel. When the book arrived however I was surprised to find that it is only 300 pages long (and the slightly smaller format hardback), a far more approachable volume and one that performs the rather magical trick of containing far more within those constraints than would seem possible. It is a book that manages to achieve all that you would expect from a novel with pretensions to something far grander, never losing its focus on a cast of three main characters, continuing the specificity of his shorter fiction but opening it out into something that manages to include 9/11, the Gulf War, race, sexism, sexuality and financial catastrophe without ever seeming to reach too far.

We first meet Doug Fanning as he mans a monitor aboard the Vincennes, an American warship in the Persian Gulf. His inaction makes him culpable in the downing of an Iranian passenger jet and the loss of 290 lives but rather than face any real censure he ends up being rewarded with a combat ribbon. That kind of Teflon coating makes him perfect for a job in finance and we next see him at his zenith having helped transform a small bank into a global player as head of the suitably dodgy sounding Special Plans. His reward to himself is the construction of a vast mansion in the area near where he grew up as a child and it is that really which is the centre of the book rather than the financial institution that lends the novel its title. Described by an estate agent as a 'Greek Revival chateau' the house has been built on once-wooded land bequeathed to the town by the grandfather of Charlotte Graves. She, as his nearest neighbour, now looks on at 'this steroidal offence' and determines to fight to regain the land and have the house removed.

Charlotte is the book's best creation. A former teacher forced from the classroom after parents complained that her teaching of history was too negative ("Yes. So was Dachau.") she is now an occasional tutor living in a remote farmhouse with her two dogs, Sam and Wilkie. Her family have long historical links to the area and she herself is almost as much part of the landscape with her own physical and mental decline into old age mirrored by that of the family's house and barn.

So a few months ago the conversations in her head had grown a bit in volume, and pushing outward the bicker and debate had circled into her companions, Wilkie and Sam, with whom she'd always communicated in one way or another. So what? They'd taken to conversation in the way she would have predicted from their personalities: Sam the more arrogant of the two, convinced of himself, Wilkie making up for self-doubt with an added righteousness. Were the flower children-cum-yuppies going to cart her off for an imagination gone too florid?

It isn't quite as safe as she pretends, by her own admission 'their talk had begun to veer from what occupied Charlotte's conscious mind. More and more the topics were their own.' and Haslett is quite brave with the way writes in this 'dialogue'; Sam, the Mastiff, a stentorian preacher and Wilkie, a Doberman, the reincarnation of Malcolm X. With these two forbidding companions the battle lines are clearly drawn between the old and new America and Charlotte is the impassioned voice against 'The despoilers. The patriots of capitalism.'

'...just look at what's going on. Take a step back for a moment, and look at what's going on in this country...I mean the last thirty years. And then tell me if you can honestly say that the intrusion of that house, the cutting down of those woods, whoever they might have belonged to once, doesn't stand for something, for a rot more pervasive.'

But Charlotte isn't just some old crazy in the woods. We are given an indication of her brilliance as a teacher when she takes on a new pupil, Nate Fuller, in order to help him achieve his grades. Nate is drifting through an adolescence of drug-taking and alcohol, along with the other privileged kids that are his contemporaries, but something about the unorthodox methods employed by Charlotte begin to unlock something in his addled brain.

With her voice veering from angry to elegiac, she sounded as if she were narrating stories brought to mind by family photographs, the actors all intimates, their deeds still full of consequence and culpability.

This isn't a tale of youth redeemed however, as Nate becomes the link between the feuding neighbours when he is caught wandering around Doug's empty home. If we thought Doug was ruthless before this point then Haslett takes things even further. Nate, confronted by the 'surface tension' of Doug's body and the 'cocksuredness about him that the jocks at school could only hope to emulate', finds his sexuality exploding into action and expression, with Doug prepared to exploit it to the full in order to obtain the information, and indeed documents, to help him fight Charlotte's legal challenge.

...something in Nate's demeanor had goaded Doug on - his lack of defense, a vulnerability the shyest women lacked. It was a provocation of sorts, such weakness.

So Doug's hubris and the battle to save his house and career as the plot at Union Atlantic unravels into financial catastrophe, Charlotte's twin battle's against mental decline and modern America with the possibility of redemption through Nate and Nate's own turmoil with his awakening sexuality - all this would perhaps be enough but Haslett has the ambition to include even more; to unify his characters with something far more human than the plot of the novel. Each in their own way is dealing with love and loss and the tender way in which Haslett does this, which you might think would be drowned out by the mechanics of everything else I have mentioned, is perhaps the book's greatest achievement. It isn't a question of explaining away Doug's villainy, Charlotte's madness or Nate's malleability but of making sure that these are not their only characteristics - three characters in three dimensions in three hundred-odd pages (along with all of the themes and ideas already mentioned) - to attempt, and largely achieve, all of that is nothing short of miraculous.

 Now, my slightly garbled attempt to appreciate the book's many components may have exhausted your patience, but I crave one final indulgence, for one thing I haven't mentioned yet is how beautifully written it is. Even when detailing the machinations of global finance there is a clarity and energy that reflects the clear-thinking required when inhabiting the outer reaches of legality. Below is a passage that perhaps expresses something of my own inability to summarise the book succinctly and, metaphorically, the desire to understand the complexities of human relations and what brought the financial world to crisis; a passage which is in fact simply a boy staring at wallpaper.

Little indigo diamonds were set on an azure background and surrounded by tiny gold stars each in turn ringed by a halo of silver...Coming closer, he could see another pattern beneath, stamped in outline onto the paper itself: hexagons contained within octagons contained within circles, which were themselves woven of figure eights, each figure only an inch wide, the stamp repeated a thousand times over. Moving from background to foreground and back, his eyes roved up and down, left and right, searching in vain for a place to rest, for something to comprehend or analyze, but he could find nothing, no larger, central figure or meaning, forcing him eventually to give up and simply let the pattern enter him unconceptualized, the whole ungrasped, which strangely enough, after a few moments, produced an oddly pleasurable sensation, a kind of relief from the responsibility to understand, at which point he moved in a step closer losing all lateral perspective, as when he'd lost himself in the endless houndstooth check of his father's overcoat as he was carried half asleep from the backseat of the car up to his bedroom as a boy, pressed against that endless repetition. the sudden memory of which he now condemned as sentimental. Thus covering self-pity in self-punishment, both of them equally false, both of them walls thrown up to block the view of something hopelessly vaster.


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