Tuesday 31 August 2010

Happy Birthday to ... me!

Crikey. I started this blog three years ago apparently. I must have been very tired (nowhere near as tired as I am now, mind).  I guess I wanted to say a quick thank you to all those who regularly read and comment here. There have been plenty of times when I've thought about packing it in recently as the pressures of parenthood and work take their toll (and their time) but it doesn't take much appreciation to make you want to keep it up, a few comments and messages recently have acted as a tonic, and I hope that it has continued to be something worth reading. Given the lack of response to non-book posts I probably won't be writing about the other arts so much (that said I've already written a film review for tomorrow and a TV series review later in the month) and book reviews are likely to become slightly less frequent. I'm hoping less quantity will mean more quality, although I've always worked hard to make sure that my thoughts on books are as well-reasoned and written as possible. I would love to have even more discussion with other readers about them, to get more people reading and commenting, so if you want to recommend this blog to anyone I won't be in the least offended.

As for the recipe for the perfect cheesecake that I was searching for three years ago, I'm almost there. I may not quite know what the perfect recipe is but I do know what it 'aint. You have been warned...


Monday 30 August 2010

'no spell can last forever'

Too Many Magpies 
by Elizabeth Baines

Does Twitter sell books? It's a question often asked in the media and on the site itself. The answer is yes. It has to be, or I'd never have bought this one. A few weeks ago a discussion began on the site. Using the Hashtag #dearpublisher, readers were invited to submit questions and opinions to publishers, to get a dialogue going between those that publish books and those that read them. It was a huge success (unlike a similar experiment #dearblogger which apparently descended into abuse fairly quickly) with really interesting points made on both sides. I had mentioned the importance of publishers using sites like Twitter for dialogue rather than simple declaration, and received a response from Chris Hamilton-Emery, Publishing Director of Salt Publishing, who agreed. So we had some dialogue about things and later I came across their campaign Just One Book. Last year, as a small independent publisher, they were facing ruin, but a campaign to encourage readers to purchase just one Salt title and tell others helped them to avoid disaster. This year the campaign continues to help them 'survive and thrive' and I asked Chris to recommend a title from their catalogue after letting him know the kind of thing I liked. This was what he went for, and so I duly purchased my copy and jumped in. Elizabeth Baines is a writer of both fiction and plays for radio and stage (as well as an 'occasional actor' - oh, it's only ever occasional dahling!) and Too Many Magpies is a novella that looks at superstition, science and infidelity. I was incredibly impressed by what she was able to pack into 123 pages, the economy in the writing coming from focussing on important moments, those that are often accompanied by emotional jolts, allowing Baines to cover a huge amount of plot and incident without it ever feeling overloaded.

Our unnamed narrator is married to a scientist and has always thought of herself as a rational person, finding solace and safety in her marriage to a man of certainty. After the birth of her second child she goes through a period of post-natal depression, a name inadequate to describe the debilitating effects of a hormonal reaction. In a moment that echoed the disappointment of reality in Veronique Olmi's Beside The Sea, the family journey to the seaside on a grey day, walking mistakenly towards the estuary rather than the open sea, her children returning from their frolics 'tired and hungry and rattled', hands dirty with oil.

Everything shrivelled. It seemed to me then that everything afterwards would be tired and grey.
And in that moment of loss I realized what it was all along I'd been wanting. Not quiet science after all, not the steady sanity of rational explanation. Not sane names, but magic ones: lavender, thyme; yes, some kind of blessing, some kind of spell.

The day before her baby's first birthday, in the mundane setting of an educational committee room, she meets a man. He remains nameless throughout the book, only ever the mysterious 'he', adding to his mysterious power over her and forever one remove from us the reader.

  As we crossed the park afterwards, suddenly there were birds again. magpies, dropping out of the trees, like bunting, like Jack-out-of-boxes. They cackled, they seemed hilarious.
  We tried counting
  'Seven,' he said. 'What does that signify?'
  I said, too sternly, that I didn't believe in charms or spells.
  He laughed. I saw that his teeth were bad, stained and very full of fillings. He said: 'There are charms and there are charms, and there are spells and there are spells,' and I had no idea what he meant.
  The sun came out, dazzling and disorientating between the trees. the magpies glistened then, medallion green and alchemy blue. They were watching us sideways, they cocked their heads slyly over their bird-shoulders, waiting, or maybe taunting, it was hard to say.
  We moved on, and they flapped away into the columns of sun between black tree trunks, still there but suffused and melted with the light.
  He said, 'Seven for a secret never to be told.'
And so an affair begins, although Baines has no interest in describing the details of that so much as its fallout, the way in which it affects her protagonist. In chapters named from the rhyme of those totemic birds (For Sorrow, For Joy, For a Secret, To be Told) we witness the battle between two modes of thought: science and magic. In fact the book opens with an image that throws us straight in. The Smarties on that first birthday cake have gone frilly round the edges. 'Magic,' says her four-year-old and indeed so does 'he', but Daddy is there to explain it away through the science of osmosis. To have lived in a world that is certain and rational and to then have that challenged by fear and uncertainty is what makes it such a bumpy ride for her and Baines also knows that for someone who is both wife, mother and lover there is a constant conflict of interest.

Of course there wasn't a spell for this: for splitting yourself down the middle, dividing yourself between your lover and your kids. Your kids are so much part of you; you take your lover with you wherever you go. He breathes in the rain whether he's really there or not, and pricks the children's ears up. Their eyes grow wide seeing his spirit in your gestures and the longing gleam in your eye.

As the book develops and she loses more and more control of her life Baines also introduces the theme of guilt. Her narrator may not be in charge but she begins to remember her responsibilities and so make the journey back from the irrationality of her affair to the rational world in which she used to live. I realise that a fair portion of this review is made up of excerpts but the reason for this is that with such a short book, and with such a pleasing lyricism to the prose, sometimes it's best to let the writing do the talking. There are memorable phrases like the 'satirical high heels, and a black silky dress with an insolent cleavage' that she wears to provoke her husband, but most notable is the way in which the writing swoops in and out of moments of emotional importance creating a sense of heightened reality. That makes for a powerful and emotional journey for the reader and one that makes this book an easy one to recommend if you'd like to help Salt and buy Just One Book from them. You can also click on the link above to see the rest of their catalogue which includes poetry as well as fiction.


Thursday 26 August 2010

'Modernism with a human face'

Asterios Polyp
by David Mazzucchelli

David Mazzucchelli has illustrated work as diverse as the superhero antics of Batman: Year One and Daredevil to a graphic novel version of Paul Auster's City Of Glass. For his first original graphic novel he has created a work of philosophical enquiry that uses style in a manner I haven't come accross before in graphic fiction. A first name like a super hero, a surname like a medical complaint; together it sounds like it could be the name of a particle discovered in the Large Hadron Collider, but Asterios Polyp is none of these things. He is what's known as a 'paper architect', famed, renowned and revered for his architecture even though none of his plans have ever been realised into bricks and mortar (or something far more complicated more likely). It would be tough to outline any real plot as such but the fact that it draws heavily on The Odyssey and myths such as that of Orpheus will give some idea about this tale of a man making a journey back towards a woman he has loved and lost. Unusually the book is 'narrated' by Asterios' twin brother who died before birth. It is one example of the polarity of the book, Asterios is a man who sees things as either one thing or the other and part of his journey is to see the wealth of what lies between. Throughout the book Mazzucchelli makes use of various styles in order to display the distance between characters and the moments when that distance closes. Here for example is the moment that Asterios meets Hana.

Asterios is rendered in classical solids, Hana sketched in detail and the two of them amongst all of the other types at the faculty party become unified in the final panel. The book is filled with moments like this where the graphic part of the novel speaks as loudly and perhaps even more clearly than any of the text. The relationship between Asterios and Hana is always in retrospect, we know that things have gone wrong, and as Asterios remembers, he learns. There is a fantastic section where the essence of intimacy in personal relationships is rendered almost wordlessly. Here are some examples.

Anyone looking for a compelling narrative may be disappointed. This is a slow journey filled with philosophical thought and dominated by style. The book's structure and execution are dictated by style, it is there for its own sake. But I think that it makes for a mature read, one livened by occasional visual or textual jokes and references, and one that looks at what it takes to bring two things, poles apart, together.


Tuesday 24 August 2010

Reading Matters

I'm moonlighting today on Kimbofo's blog Reading Matters. She has a little feature called Triple Choice Tuesday where other book bloggers choose three books: a favourite book, one that changed their world and one that they think deserves a wider audience, and explain a bit about them and why they were picked  It wasn't easy, it was even a little bit surprising and the only way you can find out more is to head on over and have a read.


Thursday 19 August 2010

'on the edge of a precipice'

Beside The Sea 
by Véronique Olmi

There's a trending topic on Twitter called #translationthurs (brainchild of Winston's Dad blog).  If that sentence means nothing to you then just know that there are people out there who want to shout from the rooftops about literature in translation and a few weeks ago I recommended this novella from new publishing outfit Peirene Press. Peirene was a Greek nymph who turned into a water spring, from whence the poets of Corinth drank to receive inspiration. Metamorphosis is a fitting emblem for a publisher dedicated to bringing translated literature to an English audience and Peirene's motto - "Bored watching films? For a fascinating night in: Sink into a two-hour book!" - makes clear that these are all books of less than 200 pages (Beside The Sea is just 120 pages), novellas to be enjoyed in a single sitting instead of watching the latest monstrosity from the Cowell empire. The first of these is a tale of a mother who decides to take her two sons, Stan - nine and Kevin - five, to the seaside. I mentioned in my review of Room that it was this book that had pointed up to me the big weaknesses of Emma Donoghue's much hyped, Booker longlisted novel. The fact is that in a far shorter work Olmi writes completely convincingly about someone alienated from the world they live in and about a mother's desire to protect her children from harm, two of Room's major themes. She does this with a simple narrative voice, without a grand concept and the book is all the more effective for it, with the final few pages delivering a dénouement that hits you right in the solar plexus and left me just a little devastated.

After my complaints about the narrative voice employed in Room I should say that I had similar fears at the beginning of this novella. The simplicity of the sentences, their short length, the fact that they were often reporting simply the chain of events, I was concerned that this was going to be a case of flat prose occasionally enlivened by incident or turn of phrase. But the style, conveyed brilliantly in an excellent, fluid translation from Adriana Hunter, is perfectly suited to this mother who it transpires is on psychiatric medication and struggling to cope with even basic tasks.

In the morning I don't have the strength to get up to go to school, it's Stan who takes Kevin, and I think the littl'un likes it. With Stan I'm never late, he told me once. Schools open too early. Ten o'clock would be good. I can't do anything before ten o'clock. I don't sleep well at night. It's the worrying. I couldn't tell you what about. It's like something's been lowered onto me... like someone sitting on me, that's it. No one even notices I'm here. They sit down on me like sitting on a bench. I'd like to get up, stand up, thrash and scream. Nothing doing. They keep on sitting there. How can anyone understand that?

The language remains simple throughout and the sentences run into each other with very little punctuation to separate speech for example, all of which helps to give a sense of her mental illness and adds to the rhythm of inevitability. There is a desperation to this journey, she wants so much from it and also feels the need to protect her children from what they encounter whether that be a shabby hotel room, the mockery and hostility of other people, or even the very thing she has brought them to see.

The sea had lost all its colour, it wasn't blue at all, it looked like  a torrent of mud, it was the same colour as the sky, what I mean is even the beach was like the hotel: same feeling of being in a cardboard box. It's completely blue, really, I told Kevin, but it was making such a row he didn't hear me - maybe I didn't actually say it, maybe I was talking to myself, It's breathing very loud! Kevin shouted, tugging at my arm. Don't be scared I said, it's just saying how glad it is to see you, it's really missed you! Does it know me? The whole world knows you, Kevin, that's what I wanted to say, the whole world's waiting for you, but that was wrong, I know there's no one waiting for us. But aren't we allowed to lie every now and then, to turn ourselves into fairies, children expect it and it gives them a chance to dream, what's wrong with that?

That need to protect is incredibly powerful - 'maybe it's an animal thing, it's stronger than us', and it is that that gives the tale its tragic quality. Not only has she invested so much of herself in this trip but with her collection of centimes it seems that this is a journey heading in only one direction. Her embarrassment and shame at having let down her children in the past and the way in which this trip fails to atone for that in any way actually help us to sympathise with a character who, even as we read, takes appalling care of her children. How does the book manage not to be a completely depressing read? Well, that's the trick, I suppose. Olmi's characterisation of her mother figure, the stoic and time-worn reactions of her children and the vast effort to make things work, to be normal and happy are a few of the aspects that help. Another major factor, and the one that I found lacking in Room, is that it uses its protagonist and their view onto the world to illuminate our understanding of it. It isn't about grand revelations but small observations and that they come from someone on the margins, or indeed excluded from normal society makes them all the more relevant to the reader. We could quite easily be one of the people to glance sideways at this harassed looking mother, passing judgement as she pays for her drinks with small change from her pocket.

It wasn't so nice after all in that cafe, and I couldn't wait to get out. I can't seem to stay in the same place for long, there's always something that upsets me or makes me sick. Usually people make me sick. I wish they could be more like kids: with more questions than answers, but it's often the other way round, where did they learn to be so sure of everything?

Olmi so successfully gets us into the mind of this mother that we feel sympathy where others show disgust and even manage to maintain it as the story moves towards its horrifying conclusion. I really can't recommend it highly enough, or commend Peirene Press for not only making it available in English for the first time (despite being published to great acclaim in France as long ago as 2001) but for making such a finely produced edition. French flaps, quality paper and elegant design make this a book with as much to admire on the outside as within. I look forward to reading the other books in their catalogue (and to the publication next year of a work translated by Anthea Bell).


Monday 16 August 2010

'better out than in?'

by Emma Donoghue

Long before it was longlisted for the Booker a proof of Room was shoved enthusiastically into my hand by a bookseller. He wasn't the only one excited about it. There has long been a buzz about this novel since Picador paid £200,000 for it last year and it was actually 'called in' by the Booker judges this year rather than being submitted, a fact that led one bookmaker to install it as an early favourite. In the run up to publication I have read ecstatic reviews here, there and everywhere all of which was discouraging me rather than encouraging me to take a look, especially after a quick glance at the opening page as I left the bookshop had me immediately worried. A child narrator, significant words capitalised, and the knowledge that it had been inspired by the Fritzl case all had me running to safety until I decided that I should just swallow any prejudices and give the book a chance. I tried really hard not to be irritated by the narrative voice, and to be as open as possible to how the book's perspective could enlighten the situation but in the end I couldn't get on with the conceit, found myself constantly reminded by the book's approach of its sentimentality and, I'm afraid, lack of insight. I felt very much like a lone voice of dissent, much as when I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, until I noticed a few others who weren't warming to it so much on the Booker Forum and on Twitter too. But part of the reason for my feelings about it aren't so much to do with the book in isolation but in comparison to another book I read recently. I'll review that book (Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi) soon but I basically felt that although it has a completely different story it managed to land far more effectively some of the things I think Donoghue was trying to manage with this book, and without any tricks, ticks or five-year-old narrators.

So, the book begins on Jack's fifth birthday and we very quickly realise (as 'Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp') that Jack has a unique view of the world. Confined to a twelve-foot-square room with his mother since birth she has decided to shield him from the trauma by pretending that everything he sees on TV is fake and that the only real things are the simple pieces of furniture and accessories, the four walls, ceiling and Skylight of the room they share. They aren't completely isolated of course and we learn of their captor as we might of a fairytale baddie.

Nothing makes Ma scared. Except Old Nick maybe. Mostly she calls him just him, I didn't even know the name for him till I saw a cartoon about a guy that comes in the night called Old Nick. I call our one that because he comes in the night, but he doesn't look like the TV guy with a beard and horns and stuff. I asked Ma once is he old, and she said nearly twice her which is pretty old.

The extent of the abuse is made more explicit later as Jack keeps quiet in Wardrobe, the place where he sleeps each night so that he has no contact with Old Nick.

When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it's 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops.

It's difficult to say much about this novel without spoilers (so don't read on if you want to come to the book afresh - you've probably gathered by now that I wasn't that keen) but from the very beginning we get the impression that Jack's fifth birthday is something of a landmark in maturation and that his mother is keen to open his view of the world, tell him more about their situation, all with an eye towards action. As the title of this review suggests it isn't simply a tale of captivity, in fact you could say that the real plot only gets going after Jack moves beyond Room and it is his reaction to the world outside that threatened to make the book interesting at one point. I'm prepared to accept that Jack's view of Room is probably far harder to write than it seems but it doesn't really alter the fact that the early sections are all set-up and, if you aren't getting on with the voice, incredibly irritating. There is excitement in the middle and then the promise of genuine interest later but Jack's limited understanding and capacity for understanding only lead to the same repeated observations about the world. Adults tend to say things that they don't mean literally. Adults lie. People fear what they don't understand. None of which feels very insightful. Other reviewers have spoken of how affecting the book is but it took me a while to get over the sensationalism of the set-up, which is affecting in the same way that a tabloid headline can be upsetting. There are moments that worked for me later on but its amazing how unaffected I was after all the tricks and hoops I had been forced to jump through, and the fact is that there were long sections when the book was actually rather boring.

Don't get me wrong, this book will be a huge hit. The age of the misery memoir was supposed to have passed with the recession but this has just the right combination of misery and sentimentality to send it to the top of the bestseller list. Picking up on a cautiously made comment by a namesake on the Booker Forum I also wonder whether the closeness of the bond between Ma and Jack, something certainly unique to mother and child, might make the book hit home more emotionally with female readers. I will second the worry that a comment like that might be not only absurd but also sexist, but the vast majority of positive reviews I've come across have been from female readers and the few voices of dissent male. I don't know what that means, if anything, but I'll point you forwards to my review of Beside The Sea; a book about a mother, her children and the cruel world; a book that I found engrossing, beautiful and devastating. Watch this space...


Friday 13 August 2010

'What kind of man was I?'

The Financial Lives of The Poets 
by Jess Walter

Nick Hornby's name is affixed to the cover of this comic novel with a nice quote ("It made me laugh more than any other book this year") but Jess Walter will be thankful to Hornby for more than just a nice cover quote. Apparently after reading this book on a trip to the States Hornby forced a copy into the hands of Penguin's head honcho and insisted that they publish it in the UK. His persistence has brought a wonderfully funny book to these shores, a novel about one man's unique way of dealing with economic crisis and a hilarious antidote to the general malaise that permeates 'the current financial climate' and writer's very serious responses to it.

We meet the novel's hero, Matthew Prior, already floundering in America's recent economic meltdown having quit his job as a financial journalist to set up a website, poetfolio.com, offering financial news and advice...in blank verse. How that ever sounded like a good idea only he knows but with their mortgage now extended way over the actual value of the house and financial demands coming from all quarters he is unemployed, on the brink of bankruptcy, losing his house and maybe even his marriage too. His wife has been spending suspiciously large amounts of time on the computer and through a bit of snooping Prior discovers online chats with a high-school sweetheart. Walter has a great lightness and in a hilarious opening chapter a simple evening trip to the store to pick up milk for the kid's cereal ('it's like nine dollars a gallon') leads to a meeting with two stoners, Skeet and Jamie, Matthew's first hit on a joint for many years (I want to make sure they haven't done anything new to the pot. Oh, but they have!'), an impromptu party and a night of no sleep. Having scored some of this high quality weed and finding it easy to pass on to a colleague with a healthy profit, the financial journalist wakes up to the economics of drug selling (something familiar to anyone who's watched the cult TV series Breaking Bad) and sees a way out of his financial troubles, and hopefully a way to lead his family back onto the tracks. All strictly within limits of course.

"I'm only going to do this for a few months, just long enough to make some house payments and keep my kids in Catholic school. Then I'll quit."
"Wait," Ike lowers his head. "You're selling pot to pay for Catholic school? Drugs for private school? That's so Iran-Contra."

This is a comic novel though so Prior is hilariously ill-suited to the task and successive nights without sleep lead to increasing errors of judgement. As he gets himself more involved with his new spliff scheme he also begins to close in on the rival for his wife's affections, and look after two boys and his ageing father. This last aspect is the one that allows Walter to add some pathos to his tale, Prior's father having lost house, savings and all after a dalliance with a young stripper, but thankfully spared the pain of regret thanks to his creeping dementia. Carrying around his trusty remote control at all times, ever ready for the moment when The Rockford Files should be on, he cuts a sad figure totally unaware of his own failings even as his son flails around trying to atone for his own and getting himself in deeper and deeper as a result.

 The book contains several examples of Prior's poetic musings, all very tongue in cheek, and several examples of his financial prowess.

I even had a popular investing column for a couple of years, although, in the interests of full disclosure, this was during the 1990's, when you could've trained a puppy on the newspaper stock section and made twenty percent a year investing where his turds fell.

Walter manages to land some pretty hefty satirical blows along the way and pinpoint some very painful truths about our modern life and attitudes to money, work, home and family life. What it really delivers though is laugh after laugh and the fact that it adds something a little heart warming along the way all helps to make for a very satisfying read, perfect for what remains of the holidays.


Wednesday 11 August 2010

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Yummy. A new Arcade Fire album. At The Quietus I came across a rather pithy summary of the band's development  "from Funeral (people die) to Neon Bible (EVERYONE DIES!) to The Suburbs (but, y'know, it's not going to happen today so just chill out)" which immediately makes you think that everything's alright, the water's lovely, come on in. Don't be entirely taken in by that notion though. There's still a big sound and plenty of drama, the lyrics talk of bombs falling, things ending and even a time when "San Francisco's gone", Arcade Fire have always had the knack of making a track sound grand and dramatic. The reason for the more relaxed approach, from band and listener alike, is that Win Butler has chosen to write about his upbringing in Texas. This is a slightly wistful and nostalgic look backwards with only the occasional worried look forwards and with a greater emphasis on tunes that stick and melodies you can't help but hum later in the day there is an unalloyed pleasure to listening to this new album which clocks in at over an hour (although could have been much longer apparently).

From the opening chords of the title track with its plonked piano and strumming acoustic guitars we are immediately in warmer terrain. It is also noticeable immediately that Win Butler's voice is maturing into something far more controlled and varied than the impassioned screech that characterised their early work and recalls Neil Young (The Suburbs), Bruce Springsteen (Suburban War)and M Ward (Wasted Hours) amongst others. And whilst he may not sound anything like Nick Cave there's something of his narrative strength here, a nice lyrical clarity with some phrases repeated through the album. As well as looking back to a childhood of seemingly endless leisure (Wasted Hours), of tribes formed (Suburban War - 'We keep erasing all the streets we grew up in/Now the music divides us into tribes/Choose your side, I'll choose my side), stifled creativity (Sprawl II - 'They heard me singing and they told me to stop/Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock), and defiance (Sprawl I - 'Cops showing their lights/On the reflectors of our bike/Said "Do you kids know what time it is?"/Well, sir, it's the first time I felt like something is mine) Butler looks forward to the time of making his own family and his worries about the kind of world they're growing into.

There are sixteen tracks so I won't pull them all apart but there's some lovely bombast on the pretension-bursting Rococo (Let's go downtown and talk to the modern kids/They will eat right out of your hand/Using great big words that they don't understand), frenetic strings and floating vocals on Empty Room and current album favourite is Sprawl II, a synth-led pop gem with vocals from Régine Chassagne. What's most gratifying about the album is that it feels like the work of a band who are here to stay. Some were ready to write them off after Neon Bible but there's a depth to the songwriting here that shows Arcade Fire are more than just a gang of noisy cranks. In the highly personal Sprawl I where Butler struggles to locate the home and playgrounds of his youth,

The last defender of the sprawl said
"Well, where do you kids live?"
Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer's worth
Been searching every corner of the earth...

With three strong albums Arcade Fire have certainly found a home in the hearts of fans and the combination of lyrical introspection and varied music on this album is a fine recipe to add a few more to that roster.


Monday 9 August 2010

'everything returns'

by Tom McCarthy

Right, deep breath. I have been looking forward to this novel for about a year. In fact you could say three years as it was almost that long ago, when reviewing his previous novel, Men In Space, that I proffered that it would be his next novel that gave us an idea of 'what he's capable of'. It was about a year ago that I read an interview where he dropped some hints about what his new novel was about that I started to get excited. I am an unashamed fan of Tom McCarthy, you see, Remainder is one of my favourite novels and I can't help but be impressed by the clear intelligence of a man who argued so persuasively the literary merits of Hergé in Tintin and the Secret of Literature. So there was a lot riding on this one, too much perhaps, my impatience at not being able to grab a proof finally allayed when the finished copy came through the door and I marvelled at the lovely hardback with its see-through dust jacket. (In a quick side note there's a fascinating article about the process of designing the cover for the American edition of the book here which touches on many of the book's themes).

The reason I mention all this fan-aticism is not because I'm about to gush all over C but because I'm going to give it a slightly harder time. This novel is outwardly conventional whilst being ingeniously clever and experimental, filled with ideas, theories and historical detail, with enough to keep a reader satisfied and surprised for several re-readings afterwards. But all that cannot take away from the fact that it is also a difficult book to enjoy and even to read in places. It may be that McCarthy is deliberately refusing to satisfy the reader with what might be expected from a novel (he has precedent for this), but for all the moments that that invigorates the mind there are others where it brings it grinding to a halt. All of which makes it sound like I don't like it, but I do. A lot. Contradictory little fellow, aren't I?

To begin at the beginning. You wait years for a book with an explosive opening involving a birth and then two come along at once. Serge Carrefax, surges into the world in the opening chapter and we follow his progress into the twentieth century in what looks at first to be a classic bildungsroman. Born into an emigre family, living on an estate called Versoie in the English countryside that doubles as both school for deaf children and silk factory, Serge is born on the cusp of momentous change, a home and time that literally buzzes with anticipation. His father is an inventor as well as principal of the school, coils of wire are delivered by the doctor on the same day that he brings Serge into the world and he certainly seems more excited about the wire than anything else. His wife, a former pupil, runs the silk operation and her deafness is counterpointed by the cacophony of sound that Serge soon becomes a part of. For all of the technical detail McCarthy is what I can only describe as a very sensuous writer. In Remainder it was snatches of smell or sight that helped its protagonist piece together a shattered memory. Here sound is the most dominant; the buzzing of bees or machines, humming wires, singing canaries, even the sound of moths coupling, Serge encounters sound as something he can almost visualise and his connection to the the telegraphic developments of his father's and the machinery that begins to surround them is closely felt.

But every night they get to watch Kinetoscope projections. It becomes a ritual; as soon as supper's over the bedsheet's hauled up, chairs laid out and reel after reel fed into the mechanism. Serge carries the sounds of the celluloid strip running through its gate to bed with him, clicking and shuffling in his ears long after the machine's been put to sleep, more real and present than the trickling of the stream or chirping grasshoppers. each time Wisdun racks up a new spool and starts running it, Serge feels a rush of anticipation run through the cogs and sprockets of his body; his mind merges with the bright bedsheet, lit up with the possibilities of what might dance across it in the next few seconds, its outrageous metamorphoses as moth's and mosquito's shadows on the screen turn into jumping hairs and speckles, then the first unsteady pictures, empty linen springing into artificial life.

McCarthy wastes no time, the opening chapters acting like time lapse photographs as we see first Serge's birth, then his near-drowning at two and a half, and then suddenly he is seven. It compliments the pace of change in the world as Serge grows up to encounter the development of technologies as diverse as wireless communication, cinema and powered flight. Serge is inextricably linked to these as well, he sees the world in terms of spatial relations and seems to be tuned in to the growing numbers of radio waves emitted. His own catalysts for change are far more personal though and it is his sister's death that sees our focus shift from Versoie to a spa in central Europe. Conventionally you might expect an emotional response from your protagonist here but from Serge there is almost the opposite. If grieving is a central theme of the book then this is not a traditional treatment of it. Whilst undergoing treatment for 'black bile', some kind of psychosomatic 'blockage' that is halting his 'transformation', he becomes fascinated radio and the hunch-backed woman who metes out his daily massage. His treatment and movement towards change harks back to the silk worm factory of his childhood.

Still lying on the segmented table, Serge sees in his mind's eye cocooned men, trapped in escritoires or trussed up in sweat-filled blankets, pulsing in figures of eight as they mutate into resin-oozing, black silk-larvae that will never become moths. From the recesses of his stomach, as though from a box, he hears again a child's or woman's scream."Out now," says Dr. Filip. "Go and start transforming."

This is an example of how McCarthy has his images and themes absolutely sewn up. There's nothing loose or flabby in that paragraph, every image directly relates to something else in the book and even beyond that to similar themes established in other books. This is the reason why McCarthy should be taken very seriously as a writer I think, he's building a body of work that is intricately linked and it's no surprise that recurring themes include codes and cryptography, one gets the impression that his art-influenced writing is as full of coded meaning as the paintings that hang in the National Gallery.

Serge is steered towards the sky's above the battlefields of the Great War by his godfather Widsun, an influential presence in the novel, where he operates as an observer in the new planes that fly over the front lines. It's no surprise that this section has a much greater energy than the rest of the book and I'll confess to having a week spot for the heroics of fly boys. Even here McCarthy doesn't give what you might expect, a seat-of-the-pants thrill ride, but distances Serge from the turmoil, his senses slowed and altered by his predilection for heroin. There's some welcome humour too, of a very British kind, when Serge asks his pilot to land, desperate for the toilet.

They bounce across the village cricket pitch. Serge slides down off the wing, lowers his trousers and relieves himself above the wicket, just short of a length on middle and off.
"What village is this anyway?" he asks as he strolls back towards Stedman, who's stretching his legs beside the machine as he consults a map.
"Tenterden, I think," Stedman answers. "Population six hundred and twenty-nine."
"Six hundred and thirty now," Serge tells him. "Let's go."
There are some well managed set-pieces here too and always a wish to thread the complex technical terms and philosophical thoughts of the early twentieth century into the text. Your appetite for those may well decide how excited you get whilst reading the book, below is an excerpt which gives a flavour of both an arresting image and a raft of technicality, but there's no doubt that the book contains much that would reward further readings. In fact it is a book which virtually demands it.

They have to fly lower to see where shells are landing, or even to get their own bearings. At one point a howitzer shell appears right beside them, travelling in the same direction - one of their own, surfacing above the smoke-bank like a porpoise swimming alongside a ship, slowly rotating in the air to show it's underbelly as it hovers at its peak before beginning its descent. It's so close that its wind-stream gently lifts and lowers the machine, making it bob. Serge knows that planes get hit by their own shells, but this one seems so placid, so companionable - and besides, if they're travelling at the same speed then both it and they are just still bodies in space, harmless blocks of matter. In the instant before their paths diverge, it seems to Serge that the shell and the pane are interchangeable - and that the shell and he are interchangeable, just like the radians and secants on his clock-code chart, the smoke-and-vapour-marked points and trajectories around him, the angles of his holding pattern's quadrant and the Popham strips' abrupt cloth lines. Within the reaches of this space become pure geometry, the shell's a pencil drawing a perfect arc across a sheet of graph paper; he's the clamp that holds the pencil to the compass, moving as one with the lead; he is the lead, smearing across the surface to become geometry himself...
After a spell in post-war London where he joins an army of narcotics users and encounters the fad of spiritualism Serge finally finds himself in Egypt, the perfect location to pick up those themes of cryptology (pun fully intended) and for McCarthy to begin to tie up some of those silken threads that have run through each page of the novel. I know I'm not close to appreciating the real achievements of this book, writing this review has taught me that at least, but I do know the curious feeling of being enthused and disappointed at the same time. I'm perfectly willing to see that as a failure of mine and I realise that other readers won't have made enough of an investment in McCarthy to be as generous but I'm sure that despite the flaws and the difficulty this is a novel worthy of its place on the Booker list and even of the prize. The judges will have to read it at least twice more if that's to be the case. I envy them the opportunity to do that for a job, as I think each time they might get closer to cracking just how good McCarthy really can be.


Thursday 5 August 2010

'the meaning of stones'

And The Land Lay Still
by James Robertson

When reviewing Catherine O'Flynn's new novel I mentioned the criticism that has occasionally been levelled at British authors for having too narrow a vision, too parochial an ambition when writing fiction. I mentioned it not because I agree with it or even because there is any real validity in the argument in the first place but because I do sometimes wonder who is writing the big books, those that will last into the future. This doesn't always equate to size but there's no doubting that when a book is handed over by the postman with an expression of both pain and relief, it has an air of importance about it. Words in the press release like epic and panoramic only add to the mix and a comparison to Don DeLillo's Underworld lead me to make a more direct comparison. James Robertson's novel 'aint small. 60 years of history covering 670 pages, charting a period of great change not only in Scotland, where the book is centred, but across the British Isles and beyond. This isn't a book to whip through quickly, which isn't to say that it's slow or meandering, but with a significant cast of characters often connected through family or circumstance I wished at times that I'd had one of those handy bookmarks that came with my edition of War and Peace with all the characters listed and grouped together by family.

The narrative is rather neatly framed by the curation of a photographic exhibition. Mike Pendreich
struggles to write the essay that will accompany his father Angus's retrospective, a collection of photographs charting 50 years of Scottish life. It isn't just about picking the right pictures, but whether the narrative or structure that Mike imposes on the work is appropriate.

'I don't think he would have approved,' he says. 'He didn't like structures much. And yet, this is the story I see in his work.'
'So it's about you as much as him,' Jean says.
'It's about us all,' Mike says.

And so as he takes a retrospective look, so do we. The first section looks at Mike's political education in the radical Edinburgh of the 1970's ('The decade when the world changed. This is how Mike thinks of the 1970s. Maybe this is because it was in those years that he himself changed, came to know who he was. And maybe that's nonsense, because who ever really knows who they are? And does the world, or anybody, ever stop changing?'), a city where you would have found

...a mysterious book shop that sold titles no other bookshop stocked; pubs stained and rich with the smoke of pipe tobacco and the smell of sweet black sixty-shilling ale, places so narrow men had to shuffle themselves like cards in order to get served; steamy, dripping cafes patronised by noisy crowds of upper-class students, who adored the chipped, the tarnished cutlery, the chewable tea and especially the abuse heaped on them by the coarse-tongued women who served them; sweaty markets and small, incense-hazy shops selling records, posters, Afghan coats, Navajo jewellery, tie-dyed T-shirts, cheesecloth smocks, denim jackets and cowboy boots. In all there was a sense of something about to happen, of things already happening in rooms just out of sight and reach.

Robertson creates a fervent atmosphere of music, political discussion and opinion which spills out from pubs like Sandy Bell's and into the houses of magnetic figures like Jean Barbour. Like the centre of the spinning wheel she is the still point around which many of this section's characters revolve (whilst also being an important figure for Mike's father). The smokey discussions of disparate political groupings pull in opposing directions, the search for common ground - so important if a Scottish politics is to take off - a constant battle.

It's easy to remember what they stood against: Thatcherism, London rule, the destruction of old industries, the assault on the welfare state, the poll tax. But what were they for? A Scottish parliament, of course. But now they have it, what is it for?...Maybe it's for saying, Look, listen, this is who we are. And maybe that is no insignificant thing, and the purpose of the parliament is to say it again, over and over. What can be more important, politically, than to know who you are, and to say it?

However, this is not a separatist novel. Robertson uses national events, both political and cultural, and shows a Scottish perspective. There may well have been murmurs to the contrary south of the border when Harold Macmillan told the British people they'd 'Never had it so good' but that was nothing compared to the chorus of disapproval that came from Scotland. Markers in the cultural maturity of the nation are a handy way of reflecting the moral reactions of his characters, particularly with regard to sex, with Lady Chatterly's Lover and Psycho two notable examples. This does mean however that the novel can have a slightly clunky journey in places. Well known events act as historical signposts and whilst these might be useful and informative in the early sections of the book they seemed to feel much more clumsy and obvious as the book moved forwards into the era that I was more familiar with. Dialogue all too often was there to impart electoral results, political theory or historical context ("This 1320 club," Croick said."Why 1320 again?" Canterbury asked. Probably he already knew, but maybe not. - and an explanation duly follows). Sometimes he gets it just right though, as when he depicts Scotland's performance at the World Cup in Argentina 1978 (scene of Archie Gemmill's famous goal against the Netherlands) as 'the surreal rehearsal to the political events of 1979' (a failed devolution referendum).

When Mike talks to Jean Barbour about his father's history she is quick to point out the shifting ground he is attempting to build foundations on - "Stories aren't static Mike...They grow, they shrink, they change with the retelling." This fluidity is well used by Robertson in conjunction with "Our ability to look back on the past, our need or desire to make sense of it" ("both a blessing and a curse") Whilst the first few sections of the book focus on specific stories (Mike's 1970's followed by the fallout of the1950's for two war veterans and then secret service work around the Scottish radicalism of the 70's again) the rest of the book begins to merge the various characters together, just as the photographs of Angus Pendreich bring their various subjects together in a single space (in fact that rather neat framing device might be a little too convenient for some readers in the way it manages to pull the narrative threads together). Running through all this is the almost haunting presence of a tramp-like man, with stones in his pockets, the subject of italicised pages that bookmark each section. His enigmatic presence is mysterious to begin with until we gradually realise who he is and a man who easily passes in and out of people's vision, the kind of man that we all ignore on a daily basis, turns out to have a fascinating personal history, one that gives this huge novel a much-needed humanity.

With all this politics and widescreen narrative it is worth pointing out that the book has a wicked vein of humour running through it too. In fact it is with one of his most overtly political characters that Robertson has the most fun - David Eddlestane  'just an ordinary young man with prospects. And a twist.' That twist isn't so much scandalous as embarrassing - a shoe fetish - but it is wickedly employed to punctuate the career of a fast moving Tory during the ascent of a certain grocer's daughter.

Margaret Thatcher - she was not desirable but she was to be desired; she was not touchable but she could be worshipped; she was not winnable but she might make you hers with a smile. At last his turn came, He was introduced. She took his hand and leaned in towards him to catch his name. the warmth of her smile as they talked, the earnestness with which she listened, the conviction in her eyes as she expressed a view, were almost enough for him. Then as she moved on he cast his own eyes down and saw her legs, her shoes, and his conversion was complete. It was the nearest he would ever come to a religious experience.

From the outset I got the feeling that I was reading an important book and how various readers react to this may determine how well they get along with it. I'm certainly glad that I persevered through what is an uneven book as Robertson is a writer more than capable of creating great atmospherics and moments of beautiful prose. Each character is absolutely clear as well, no small achievement with such a lot of them, and a couple of them have the power to stay with you after the book. At one point in the novel the man behind the National Gallery of Photography is very proud of the fact that there is no 'Scottish' in its name, 'Why do we always have to be qualifying ourselves like that? The English don't do it. They just assume.' Perhaps the same pride should be applied to this book, avoiding calling it a Scottish Underworld or even comparing it to that book at all. And The Land Lay Still is the first book, that this reader has come across, that attempts to look at such an important period of history for Scotland, making it a book sure to garner attention up there and worthy of note to those south of the border and elsewhere too.


Monday 2 August 2010


I have been away on holiday for a couple of weeks, which has been lovely but left me with a new TBR pile - the To Be Reviewed pile. I have some catching up to do, you may have to be patient, but with a Booker nominee, a huge state of the nation epic, an intriguing graphic novel and the funniest book I've read for a long time all coming up I'm sure there's something to interest just about everyone. Watch this space...


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