Thursday 30 September 2010

'What does it mean to live a good life?'

The Golden Mean 
by Annabel Lyon

I first heard of this book when following the Shadow Giller Prize Jury over on Kevin From Canada's blog. Whilst they went on to award their top honour to The Bishop's Man (reviewed by me here) they had lots of good things to say about Annabel Lyon's debut novel which is published over here by Atlantic Books. The book's cover caused a mild controversy when ferry firm BC Ferries refused to stock it in their gift shops unless the publisher put a belly band around the offending naked buttocks, leading to inevitable headlines about a bum-rap. The picture itself couldn't be more tasteful and the idea of banning a book which makes its central characters, Aristotle and the young Alexander, so accessible is shortsighted in the extreme. Lyon has been brave to attempt to bring such ancient history to a modern readership and whatever faults there are in the book she has breathed real and surprising life into characters that feel a million miles away from present concerns.

I didn't get off to a great start with this one however. The first fifty pages or so of this book were hard going, not because there was anything particularly tough about the prose, but a large cast of characters that demands a cast list at the beginning, and more importantly the slightly dry nature of Aristotle as a character meant that I worried initially whether this was a book I'd finish. I'm glad I persevered, things definitely improve, and in many ways, perhaps fittingly, the book's strongest sections are its dialogues (or duologues). This isn't limited to those between Aristotle and Alexander by any means but before I delve into that cast list let me quickly summarise the set-up.

The book catches many of its characters at a midway point. Aristotle hasn't yet returned to Athens to set up the Lyceum, Alexander isn't yet Great, and as well as choosing a period of transition Lyon also keeps her focus away from the noteworthy historical events, the battles and intrigue, and focuses instead on the personal story behind the scenes. Aristotle arrives in Macedon with his wife, Pythias, and nephew at the invitation of Philip II who may be ruler but has a friendship with Aristotle closer to that of a contemporary. His first duty is to see whether he can effect any influence on Philip's eldest son, left physically and mentally disabled after a rumoured poisoning attempt by Philip's new wife Olympias (mother of Alexander). After that comes the tutoring of Alexander himself, always with the knowledge that a return to Athens is the 'promise' Philip has made after completing his work in Pella.

The relationship between fathers and sons is aligned with that between master and pupil. When teaching Alexander, Aristotle talks of the moment he began to challenge his own master, Plato, who responded in turn that 'it was in the nature of the colt to kick at its father.' We begin to get a sense of the fractious relationship between Alexander and his own father, and the powerful politics of succession, in a scene involving the animal that adorns that controversial cover.

Philip begins to tease him, offering him a skittish horse, daring him to ride it...The boy turns it toward the sun, blinding it, and mounts it easily. Philip, drunk, makes a sarcastic remark. From the warhorse's back , the boy looks down at his father as though he's coated in filth. That's the coin I'll carry longest in my pocket, the image I'll worry over and over with my thumb.

If Aristotle represents thought and knowledge, then Alexander of course represents action, and the golden mean of the title is the pursuit of the middle course between the two, the perfect balance for a potential ruler and indeed for any human being. Aristotle's mission remains to impress upon his pupil the value of contemplation and the danger of rashness but their exchanges only highlight the differences between the two spirits, The one insisting that whilst conquering the world makes it larger 'you always lose something in the process. You can learn without conquering.', the other responds, 'You can.' The scenes between the two of them, which could so easily have become the dry exchange of conflicting ideas, are made far more interesting by Aristotle's grasp of the psychology of a young man who is in many ways still a child but who at the same time is already beginning to show a dangerous streak of violence.

He's looking at me so brightly and expectantly, now, waiting for praise, that I falter. Such a needy little monster cub. Shall I continue to pose him riddles to make him a brighter monster, or shall I make him human?

The element of the book I really wanted to look at is the man at its centre. I have already mentioned the dryness that made it a rocky start for me and I see that a few other reviewers have identified this as the book's weakness. It is certainly true that this empirical man has a strange way of living. Sexual relations with his wife can be interrupted to make an observational note about the 'substance like the white of an egg' that appears when he works on the 'pomegranate seed' of her sex. These soften slightly after the birth of their first child and we realise that the slightly clinical approach is not simply a character trait but the behaviour of a couple struggling to conceive. What finally intrigued me about Lyon's depiction of the man is her thesis that he suffered from what we now call Bipolar disorder.

I am garbage. This knowledge is my weather, my private clouds. Sometimes low-slung, black, and heavy; sometimes high and scudding, the white unbothersome flock of a fine summer's day.

These words early on are the first hint that we receive and at regular intervals through the novel we learn more about this affliction.

There is no name for this sickness, no diagnosis, no treatment mentioned in my fathers medical books...Metaphor: I am afflicted by colours: grey, hot read, maw-black, gold. I can't always see how to go on, how best to live with an affliction I can't explain and can't cure.

His own father had diagnosed an excess of black bile, which can be either hot or cold, 'Cold: it makes you sluggish and stupid. Hot: it makes you brilliant, insatiable, frenzied.'And so Aristotle's teaching of Alexander and his own 'need to avoid extremes, perhaps because I was so subject to them.' suddenly makes the ideal of the golden mean not simply an abstract philosophical thought, or even a personal political crusade but the quandary at the very heart of the man. It may have taken a while to get there but this notion of personal balance suddenly altered my perception of Aristotle as a character and helped to anchor the book's central theme. As I said at the top, the book has its flaws, but Lyon has not only managed to wear her research lightly and thus avoid the pitfall of much historical fiction but also worked hard to unify the many extremes contained within and thereby come close to Aristotle's own desire.


Tuesday 28 September 2010

'a cloud of memories'

Stone In A Landslide
by Maria Barbal

The second of three launch titles for Peirene Press, whose Beside The Sea I loved, is described as a Catalan modern classic. Published originally in 1985 it is now in its 50th edition but this translation by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell is the first into English. In a little over a hundred pages Barbal presents us with an entire life, that of Concepció - known as Conxa - and also describes a way of life that will be unfamiliar unless you happened to be a peasant farmer in the Pyrenees during the beginning of the last century (you didn't, did you?). Conxa narrates the book and tells us the story of her life from one upheaval to another. The fifth of six children she is sent to live and work with her childless aunt Tia in Pallarès as 'Someone had to go.' There she will live as their daughter and become their heir (the novel makes very clear the importance of legacy, as land passes through families and becomes important during the arrangement of marriage).

Initially she finds it hard to fit in and be accepted, her shyness a result of her predicament a well as the thing that helps maintain it but slowly things begin to change for her and in her first winter she meets Jaume.

I was convinced that Conxa would be fat and beefy and, since I was so thin, when people asked my name I always thought they would burst out laughing and I'd feel bad. But Jaume told me that saying my name was like eating a sweet, that it was the name of something small and delicious that he liked very much. It was as if he'd been born to take away my fears, to bring light where I saw darkness and to flatten what felt like a mountain to me.

Tia and Oncle are unhappy at first about a match, seeing Jaume as a bit of a drifter, not only a second son (and therefore not the heir) but for having not followed the family trade. Having mentioned that legacy is important, marriage is even more like a contract negotiation with families looking for advantage when proposing a match. At first it seems as if there is little to recommend Conxa and Jaume's union but slowly tempers cool, they come around to the idea after seeing potential benefits and it isn't long before they're not only married but celebrating the birth of their first child, a daughter, Elvira. The simple prose of the book tells of the preoccupations of village and peasant life: hard work, festivals, births, marriages and deaths. I was impressed by the way Barbal was able to alter her writing slightly so that the voice of Conxa, despite narrating from her old age, fitted perfectly with the immaturity of her youth, hope of her young adulthood and then on to the anguish of the period that we know is approaching. It comes disguised at first in the 'strange happiness' announced by left-wing firebrand Jaume.

I didn't see this as any great happiness to speak of, but Jaume's joy flowed from his lips and hands and it was contagious. He grabbed me and took me out onto the street where people had gathered to talk...I was blinded by so much light and overwhelmed by the sound on everyone's lips - Republic.

The departure of King Alfonso XIII and the arrival of the Republic is accompanied by a recurring dream for Conxa, of dancing with a partner whom she is sure is Jaume but whose 'features were erased'. She struggles with the meaning of this dream until one day a lorry pulls up and carts both her and her (now two) daughters away. In Monsent prison, scared and ignorant, incapable of talking to her captors Conxa's fragile stoicism provides the novella with its title.

I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I'll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I'll be here, still, for days and days.

She and her girls do stay there for days and days, finally released after five and half weeks into a world forever altered by civil war. Again there is a subtle shift in narrative voice as Conxa moves into middle and old age and we realise that we are witnessing the passing of a way of life, the younger generation unwilling to put up with the hard work that has characterised Conxa's own life. This book may not have had the same impact on me as Beside The Sea; the passivity of its narrator, as suggested by that image of the titular stone, means that for all our engagement with her Conxa remains a quiet and stoic presence. Also, as Kimbofo pointed out in her own review, it is hard to get beyond the feeling that we are observing rather than participating in her story; the complicity of Beside The Sea is absent and that makes a big difference to the reading experience. That said, this is a novella that allows the reader to accompany an unobtrusive narrator through a lifetime punctuated by a well known historical event but never dominated by it, never to my mind has such a tumultuous period been portrayed by such a gentle presence. What actually remains is the touching portrait of a woman shaped by the world she lived in, the book defined by the fact that she is the one in a position to paint it.


Friday 24 September 2010

'...and now you're one of us'

Black Hole 
by Charles Burns

Before the arrival of his latest work (X'ed Out - a review here soon) and the adaptation of this graphic novel into a film (with David Fincher's name currently attached) I thought it was high time that I read Charles Burns' iconic Black Hole. Burns' distinctive artwork has looked down at me from bookshelves for years and adorns the front of The Believer magazine, its clean lines and block colouring (if that's an appropriate term for the black and white illustrations of Black Hole) instantly pleasing to look at. With this book the emphasis is very much on the 'black' of black and white with each page's details highlighted in sharp contrast to the blackness they emerge from. That's just right for this dark and disturbing work that taps into the fears and passions of our teenage years and deals with issues like change, disease, peer pressure and alienation.

Set in the midst of 1970's suburban Seattle 'back when it wasn't exactly cool to be hippie anymore, but Bowie was still just a little too weird' we meet a variety of high school teenagers. The opening few sections (the work was originally serialised) are hypnotic and confusing but slowly we learn that some form of disease is plaguing the young, transmitted sexually, manifesting itself differently with each person. Some kind of physical change is inevitable, but whilst for some it is obvious and disfiguring for others the changes are subtler and can be hidden, for a while at least. On a very simple level this chimes with the very real threats of sexually transmitted infections amongst teenagers, something of a news item recently with numbers on the rise, and something with which teenagers are prepared to gamble in the face of raging hormones and a desire to lose one's virginity.

We watch as Keith lucks out in Biology class and is sat next to 'total fox' Chris only to suffer some kind of dream-like visions (above) before fainting. Later we see Chris behaving uncharacteristically at a party, leaving with Rob and taking him to the cemetery where he tries to let her know something before they have sex, only for her to quiet him and go ahead. Keith will eventually have his own confusing sexual encounter with Eliza, dubbed the Lizard Queen by her housemates, and each of these events will change their lives forever. Your teenage years are all about transformation, puberty does some cruel things with people sprouting height, breasts, hair all over the place and spots and pimples too. Developing these physical transformations into something slightly more alien and grotesque is a brilliantly unsettling thing to watch. However freakish they are, we as a reader 'know' something of that feeling and can't help but empathise. The real strength of the book is that it doesn't descend into a freak show or become a battle against the disease but instead taps into the neuroses of high-school, the us and them of peer groups and their power structure and also the changing fashions of the time.

I couldn't help but think of David Cronenberg with the physical aspects of this book but Fincher sounds like a great directorial choice to recreate the period after the specificity of his work on Zodiac. The project has been talked about for a while and is no nearer actual filming but if it does happen then viewers will need a strong constitution. Burns' artwork is genuinely horrifying in places and he creates a dizzying effect at just the right moments by drawing longer panels and placing both narration and speech on the same page, sometimes separated by the length of the whole page so that our eyes have to flick up and down as we read along. Sinister dolls in the woods, tortured artwork by characters, nightmares and the inevitable arrival of violence all add to the oppressive atmosphere. If you thought your teenage years were hell then there might be something worryingly familiar between the inky pages of Burns' vision.


Wednesday 22 September 2010

27 Across

When I was a drama student some carpet was replaced in the flat I rented and underneath the old stuff we found lots of old newspaper that had been used as underlay. For the most part this was tabloid pages from the 1980's but in amongst the lurid headlines and lady bumps were a couple of complete pages from The Daily Telegraph dated March 12th 1928. Amazingly preserved and here for your edification today is the daily crossword. Who fancies a go? (click to enlarge)


Tuesday 21 September 2010


I don't want to go all Guardian on you but if I see the name of David Simon attached to a TV series then I start to get excited. He could potentially create a series about the pest control workers of Watford and I would be ready and waiting for the first episode. I have tried in the past when looking at The Wire and Generation Kill to pinpoint some of the reasons why his programmes are such good television but there must be a single word out there to describe the incredible feeling of relaxation and contentment that comes when you settle down to watch a TV programme that is quite simply excellent. The look, the casting, the script, the music, it all just works and, more to the point, feels a million miles away from the so-called quality drama made on this side of the Atlantic.

After five seasons and 60 episodes Simon's superlative series The Wire had included many topics, memorable characters and set-pieces but turned out in the end to really be about nothing less than the city of Baltimore itself rather than simply its drug dealers and cops. Treme, named for a neighbourhood in the city of New Orleans, is very clearly a programme about an area and its people, a people dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, now three months in the past. It's appropriate that a natural disaster that has scattered people to the wind should beget a series of disparate characters and story-lines, but it is also part of the reason why the programme is so satisfying. There is no hurry to explain anything or the small connections between the seemingly separate threads. Frequently the scene you see isn't the one that would further the plot easily but the one that fleshes out the character (for example one character who plays the trombone goes to hospital with a split lip. In this country we'd see the scene with the doctor where he finds out whether he can still play or not. In Treme we see him in the waiting room, interacting with other patients about the state of healthcare and the city and then he sings a song, the scene ending when his name is finally called) or provides yet another example of what the programme is slowly building - a showcase for the cultural heritage of New Orleans.

The most dominant strand of that is music. Oh man, the music in this series is incredible. Jazz, Be-Bop, Funk, Soul, Creole, styles-I-don't -even-know-the-name-of; the range is diverse, the playing incredible, the sheer amount of screen time given over to performance shows how much love there is for the music and however disparate the characters, music seems to play a part in just about all of their lives. Being a David Simon series it contains plenty of real-life musicians playing themselves including John Boutte, Kermit Ruffins, Coco Robicheaux, Elvis Costello, Dr. John, Steve Earle and Deacon John. The first episode begins with instruments being tuned, drinks being poured, negotiations over payment and then the late arrival of a familiar face; Wendell Pierce, who memorably played Bunk in The Wire, is now New Orleans native Antoine Batiste, trombone player and almost inevitably a 'playa' of another sort too. Whether it's dodging cab fares or juggling his complicated personal relations I can't think of another actor who could so successfully charm you and make you laugh even whilst behaving despicably.

Clarke Peters is back too, but gone is the moral rock of Lester Freamon from The Wire, here he plays a far more ambiguous character, Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux, head of a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. If you've ever seen pictures of men dressed in elaborate feathered costumes you might be surprised to know a little more about the history behind them. I say ambiguous because whilst he is a man of principle he is also a man prepared to beat another man close to death after stealing from him. He is almost incapable of avoiding confrontation and whilst he quietly goes about restoring his bar, ruined by Katrina, and slowly working on the costumes for this year's march he is one of several spearheads prepared to take on the official response to the disaster.

The plot, if you want to call it that, is driven by the search by LaDonna Batiste-Williams (played by Khandi Alexander, the observant amongst you will have spotted that this is Antoine's ex-wife) for her brother, missing since Katrina. Aided by lawyer Toni Bernette (Melissa Leo) they become immersed in a mountain of bureaucracy as they chase paperwork from one department to another, charting the confusion of police procedure and incarceration in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has read Dave Eggers' Katrina-novel Zeitoun.

Toni Bernette is the wife of Creighton, played by the instantly recognisable John Goodman, a University professor and anti-establishment firebrand. His forays into the new social media, hilarious rants that he videos on his webcam and uploads to You Tube, will lend him a new notoriety in the neighbourhood but also provide us with something of a direct link to the feelings of those on the ground. As the series progresses it is good to be reminded that when a disaster ceases to be a news item it doesn't suddenly stop being a disaster for those living with the consequences.

Steve Zahn provides almost constant comedy in his role as part-time DJ and musician Davis McAlary. His passion for not only the music but the wider culture of New Orleans finds its expression by various, and always enthusiastic, means. From an old Louisiana family he's the kind of guy who thinks it's ok for him to use the 'n' word because he's lived his whole life in the Treme district (unfortunately for him one guy in the bar doesn't see things the same way). His on-off relationship with chef Janette Desautel provides a link to another part of the culture - food. Anyone who appreciates good food will find themselves with mouth-a-watering as the episodes pass by. A city made up of people from all over the globe of course produces cuisine that reflects those influences and as Janette struggles to keep her high-end restaurant running amidst lower numbers, gas cut-offs, and creditors closing in, her sheer passion for food is infectious.

In fact passion is a really important theme. Whether it's passion for music, food, history, literature or politics; the desire to find lost family or mark their passing, rebuild your home or even the city, uphold what's sacred or tear down what's corrupt, each and every character does so with a passion that is characteristic of those with something worth saving in the face of adversity. As a collective, the city is preparing for carnival, and doing so in defiance of those who want to stop it happening at all. The importance of the 'second line' to each member of the cast is palpable, the importance of being able to uphold tradition despite hardship, the importance of showing what New Orleans has that no other city can replicate. It is a very positive energy that drives all of this forwards. We believe what we watch is genuine because it is felt by everyone involved to be genuine, because for many of them it is. New Orleans wasn't wiped off the map by Katrina but Treme shows that the actions of politicians after the event could have had as devastating an impact as the natural disaster itself, for anything that threatens the distinctive culture of a region threatens to wash away the region itself. This series is already a testament to that culture but is also uniquely entertaining, lovingly created and thrillingly subversive. Please watch it if you can.


Thursday 16 September 2010

'what have we been all this time?'

The New Perspective
by K Arnold Price

I've mentioned this article previously when reviewing Marshall N Klimasewiski's debut novel The Cottagers, a book which has seemed to improve in my memory with time and one I would never have read it if it hadn't been for Peter Ho Davies' heads-up. Finding Colm Toibin's intriguing recommendation has been altogether harder. K Arnold Price was 84 when her debut novel was published by Poolberg Press in 1980, something to comfort anyone with a wish to write but a worry that they may have left it too late. Or perhaps not. Toibin mentions that he only knows of two other people who have read it (both writers) and when I tried to find a copy it wasn't only out of print but unavailable even on AbeBooks. I would check periodically in case one turned up and sure enough just one copy did recently; swiftly purchased and even more swiftly read, the book consisting of only as many pages as the writer's years and lots of white space on many of those. I don't know how many other people have even read this book but I can't help but feel a little sad that the number must surely be small and yet the book is in its own way quite brilliant: a portrait of a marriage that is searingly honest, beautifully nuanced and filled with the kind of detail that makes reading fiction such a satisfying experience.

Pattie and Cormac have been married long enough to raise their children and see them fly the nest, the novel beginning as they return home to Number Twelve (as the first section is titled) after the wedding of their son Bob. This event it seems is enough for Pattie to suddenly see their house differently. The family home, now without its children, is transformed quite literally into another space altogether.

What checks and chills me is that I come home unsuspectingly, and suddenly it is not home, it is an unlikeable house stamped with mediocrity and choked with trivia. I have lived in it for years, perhaps not complacently but easily. What is happening now: every object that I see strikes me - assaults would be a better word.

These assaults (and the intimacy of the first-person narration) force Pattie into revealing her true feelings about certain things, including the wedding they have just returned from.

I look down at the old brown carpet. On this carpet Bob crawled and pissed and played with his carefully chosen toys. I remember this without emotion of any kind. Then the lurking rudimentary thought darts out and snakes through my mind: Bob was a dull boy and has married a dull girl.

What Pattie describes as a 'heightened sense of myself and my environment' seems not to be affecting her husband Cormac in the same way.

Cormac must be impervious to environment, or else immune to possessiveness. This house has held the four of us together for a whole generation. And yet, I am sure, if this house collapsed, Cormac, without any repining, would make a fire of the timbers, cook our usual supper on it, and make love to me very sweetly and competently under a tarpaulin shelter.

This is part of what makes Pattie such an enthralling narrator. There is constant surprise in what she reveals to us, shocking not because it is extraordinary but because it is often the kind of ordinary revelation that you aren't supposed to voice. She can look back on her parenting without emotion and admit that her son is dull, she can talk frankly about the sex-life with her husband and its importance to her, she is lover first and then mother ('my life has been mainly lusty and lustful'). And throughout this short book there is an energy that starts from that unsettling beginning. It is similar to that which drove Elizabeth Baines' novel, Too Many Magpies, which I reviewed recently. The removal of certainty, of some kind of anchor, leaves both female narrators searching for something solid to grab hold of, but with a new ability to question what in the past would have been cast-iron certainties.

Cormac's work at an auction house brings him into contact with property and when he mentions one day that 'There's a house...' Pattie jumps at the opportunity and it isn't long before they move into Addison Road (the title of the second section). The house needs work and each of them contributes to its renovation, Pattie aware each time something of Cormac's doesn't chime with her and noting that 'We are changing this house. Perhaps it will change us.' Price describes events that subtly show the detail of this relationship. Their work on the house, entertaining guests, simply living; this is the drama of domesticity. Tiny details assume a much greater significance and one purchase of Cormac's proves to have a devastating impact.

He mentions the purchase of a violin casually enough but it points up the fact that Pattie was completely unaware that it was an instrument he could play, one he gave up at the age of twenty-one in order to quickly learn the family business of his dying father.
Over and over again I hear our voices in question and answer:
Didn't you miss it?

When has Cormac ever admitted to missing anything? To being disappointed? Depressed? Frustrated?
And yet a silent renunciation for thirty years.
Nearly all those years he was with me. This is what shakes me.
I don't know him. I don't know my husband.

And that of course is what this portrait is all about. As Cormac re-engages with his musical past, Pattie is left floundering slightly to keep up with this revelation. What else doesn't she know? If the end of parenting provided her with a new perspective then the violin provides the same jolt to Cormac and through snapshot scenes we see the way in which a couple has to journey and grow together. Yet again Cormac mentions that 'There's a house...' and we move on to the final section, Stringers Lodge, and the final revelation, something that the jacket says 'may be the untold secret of many long-standing marriages', but I'm not about to give that away.

When in one scene Cormac pours scorn on the idea of him becoming involved in the local amateur dramatics one of his reasons is that 'acting is the lowest of the arts'.

Boys and girls in this country become actors and actresses overnight. That gives it away.
Gives what away?
Amateur drama. A real art needs a long apprenticeship.

Writing so late in her life, Price proves that the best apprenticeship for writing about life is the living of it. My only regret is that a book so worthy of a reading is almost impossible to get a hold of. Maybe I should start a lending service...


Monday 13 September 2010

'for adults only'

by Gerard Woodward

Gerard Woodward has made life very tough for himself. I'll Go To Bed At Noon, the second book in his trilogy about the Jones family, is quite simply magnificent and should probably have won the Booker Prize in 2004 (there's a baited hook for you). The trilogy as a whole was an incredibly rewarding read for me, set as it is in the area of London I lived in for over a decade. How to follow that success? After the publication of a collection of short stories, Caravan Thieves, comes his latest novel. With the Booker longlist already announced and Woodward's name absent it's tempting to say that he's been a little hard done by once again. Nourishment may not be quite up there with IGTBAN but it is a rewarding, entertaining and surprising read that always feels original thanks to the unique directions in which Woodward is prepared to steer his characters.

Things start with a bang, or in the aftermath of one, with the sternly titled Mrs Head on her errands and greeted by a scene of devastation where the butchers should be. Her fractious relationship with Dando the butcher (this is the era of WWII and rationing after all) cut short by a particularly heavy air-raid. Amongst the rubble she begins to spot remnants of his wares: a rasher of bacon here, a flattened sausage there, and even evidence of the steak that he claimed not to have in stock -  a veritable 'tableau of exposed meat' amongst which she spots 'an almost perfect leg of pork' that is swiftly appropriated and taken home for a rare roast dinner. She is living in the house of her daughter, Tory Pace, ostensibly to help out whilst Tory's husband remains a POW and her children evacuated to the safety of the countryside. This opening section leads up to the celebratory dinner on Tory's return from her work at the gelatin factory ('no one denied the importance of gelatin production in the war effort, though no one quite understood it either'), the language licking its lips in anticipation.

Mrs Head inserted the tines of a carving fork into the meat.  The crackling crackled, juice bubbled up and flowed down. The knife was put against the roasted skin, a few cautious strokes were made, the sharpened edge moving against the hard skin, which yielded nothing. Then suddenly, with a little pressure, she was through; the skin had broken and the meat was coming away under the knife. With a few strokes a slice had been produced, which flopped to the side, like the page of a book turning.

But Woodward knows how to turn something on its head and it is Tory who voices her concern about tucking in to meat of dubious provenance particularly with Mr Dando still missing. Any author who manages to introduce cannibalism as a comic scene in a wartime drama demands attention and it is just one example of the ways in which he confounds expectation, making light of serious topics so that an impish spirit dictates the novel's tone. Tory is his central character and there are elements that make her an admirable heroine. Having been caught in a kind of limbo whilst awaiting news of her missing husband, a letter in his handwriting finally arrives confirming he is a POW but it is the letter's contents that cause her a real shock.

Tory felt as though she had frozen into a solid lump...the letter hanging in her hand like the shred of a burst balloon...She was experiencing no emotion, apart from a distant sense of panic, such as she sometimes felt on a railway platform when gripped by the absurd thought that the innocent old lady behind her might push her into the path of the express.

Her husband Donald has asked for her to write a dirty letter by return of post, the dirtier the better, a request that shocks, confuses and embarrasses her. Has he lost his mind, been perverted by Nazis, or should she see her compliance simply as part of her wifely duties and his conjugal rights (albeit through the medium of inspected and censored post)? As the title of the novel suggests, Donald appeals for the letters as he might for sustenance, 'I need it as much as I need food and drink and I am a starving man, Tory', playing on Tory's concern and guilt so that he can seem to be a moral man even as he asks for smut 'out of a strong sense that my survival as a man depends on it.' When Tory makes her first tentative attempt, struggling even to compose a sentence that mentions her 'behind' Donald's response is forthright: 'NOT GOOD ENOUGH!!!' Her humiliation now 'official and international' Tory strives to improve but struggles in the face of their own lovemaking, whose memory 'only conjures words like "sweaty, rough, friction, grease"'

She did remember thinking on one of the first occasions that they'd done it, how he treated her like an awkward corner of a room that needed sanding and papering. Examining her closely, brushing her skin with his lips, then blowing, as if to remove shavings, or dust. Then re-examining her, his brows knotted, frowning, as though she was such an awkward, difficult thing. A problem. Then he was sanding her down again, brushing her off.

When she begins a closer relationship with George Farraway, the boss of the gelatin factory it is no surprise where the plot is heading. Donald's constant begging for Tory to be bad 'made it somehow easier for her to actually be bad.' and she feels no guilt as she begins an affair with a man who rather handily likes to talk his way through the act, teaching Tory the language of carnal desire and allowing her to launch 'a spring offensive of sexual narrative'

...she had let him have the whole artillery of sexual expression full in the face, the dirty words falling like dirty bombs square on that little hut in the middle of a German forest.

This might be quite enough to be getting on with you might think but the novel is packed full of plot and incident, much of which happens after Donald returns at the end of the war and Tory has to face up to the legacy of her own wartime experience. What stops the book from tipping over completely into melodrama or soap-opera is a lightness of touch that Woodward employs in two ways. Firstly it allows him, as with the cannibalism, to inject humour where there oughtn't to be any, a bittersweet comedy that encourages us to laugh with complicity even at moments of high drama. But what it also allows him to do is to deceive with lightness, to drop almost silent bombshells, moments of devastation that arrive without warning. One of the novel's more enigmatic characters, their intelligent son Tom, intrigues with his conviction that the home and mother he has returned to are not the originals but impostors.

"Whose to say what governments get up to in wartime?" He said, "We're just pawns, Branson, little pieces in a giant chess game. I bet the government did this all the time, rebuilt the bombed houses, replaced the dead with lookalikes, so the Germans would think their bombs were having no effect, so that neighbours and families weren't demoralized by the loss of neighbourhoods and loved ones... The Germans must have thought their bombs were just swallowed up by the city, as though they'd dropped them into a pool of syrup."

A quick word too about the overarching theme and the novel's title. Woodward looks at various forms of nourishment: the food shortages at home, the parcels sent to prisoners, the dreams of George, who sees the future of food in the pills he has developed as a side project from the rendering of animal carcasses. There is also the spiritual nourishment slyly appropriated by Donald and more accurately represented by Tory's purchase of a typewriter and her work on a fictional account of her experiences. The independence and control she gains from the creation of her fictional alter-ego not only helps to counteract her moral shortcomings but also serves as a weapon in the face of Donald's villainous development (his motivations and eventual use for Tory's letters turn out to be far from honourable). By taking a far more roundabout route Woodward's novel is a greater testament to the power of letter writing than Nicola Barker's recent epistolary novel, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, was and whilst it might not quite hold water at times anyone already familiar with Woodward's writing will be used to his rug-pulling antics. If you read a more enjoyable novel this year that combines cannibalism, starvation, self-immolation and public conveniences then I won't just be surprised, I'll be expecting you to come back here and tell me what it's called.


Thursday 9 September 2010

'the space where things can happen'

The Canal 
by Lee Rourke

Before I begin to review this book can we just take a moment to appreciate the cover. Is it not a thing of beauty? There have been some pretty snazzy books and even proofs this year but it takes a book like this to remind you that excellent design needn't involve transparent dustjackets, embossing or foiling to make an impact. The brilliant marriage of text and image on this book makes it one of the best I've seen this year. The contents match up too because in his debut novel (after a story collection called Everyday) Rourke has managed to write a book about boredom which is never boring, a book set in a single specific location that manages to be about urban spaces just about anywhere, and a book that crucially makes the reader feel that they are reading something about now. You don't need to be anywhere near the Regent's Canal in Hackney to appreciate a story of a man who commits himself to his boredom, struggles to connect with a woman (who has her own modern-isms) and is shaken by an act of violence.

Some people think that boredom is a bad thing, that it should be avoided, that we should fill our lives with other stuff in order to keep it at bay. I don't. I think boredom is a good thing: it shapes us; it moves us. Boredom is powerful. It should never be avoided. In fact, I think boredom should be embraced. It is the power of everyday boredom that compels people to do things - even if that something is nothing.

So speaks the novel's protagonist and so he does. He walks to the canal and plonks himself on a bench there. Opposite him is a whitewashed office block where he can observe the movements of a male worker as he potters from his desk to that of a colleague and back again, several times a day. Our protagonist has a job himself that he gradually neglects in favour of returning to his spot on the canal, eventually writing a letter of resignation so that he can commit himself fully to his boredom. It isn't solitude that he craves; as well as the office workers he watches the coots and swans that float on the canal, he longs for the dredger to come and clear away the scum and detritus that pollutes their water.

The word "boring" is usually used to denote a lack of meaning - an acute emptiness. But the weight of boredom at that precise moment was almost overwhelming, it sure as hell wasn't empty of anything; it was tangible - it had meaning.

Then he is joined on his bench by a woman with whom he strikes up faltering conversation. Her dismissiveness and reticence only increase his obsession with her as he probes further to try and know and understand more about her.

Little things about her began to pour into me - little by little I was beginning to see who she really was. At least that's how it felt. And the less she said the more I understood. That's how it was. And her lessness made it all the more terrifying.

There are two things that she wants to talk to him about, to confess if you like, the first of these her love for cars. Love isn't too strong a word for a woman who will instantly have the reader thinking of J G Ballard when she explains the simplicity of her affinity ('We were fused: my self... my car... fused. Atomised.') and that comparison continues as she expounds on her view and begins to talk about her fascination and excitement with suicide bombers. That may sound a little sensational there but it never feels it. Our narrator is disgusted and uncomprehending for us whilst she explains the link between her twin obsessions

"When the bomber sets off in either their designated car, van truck... whatever... when they attach their explosive belt and set of towards their pre-planned target, they are transformed, they are extraordinary... They are pure machine."
When I talk about this book being about the world we live in now that isn't simply because it mentions the July 7th London bombings but because it taps into our collective response to them. When she describes the CCTV footage of them as 'so modern, so normal', I know exactly what that means.

'They looked so real, there is nothing untoward in their actions prior to the catastrophe. Then they became those extraordinary beings...Yet in those images there's no intimation that they were about to transform themselves. They were completely part of the ebb and flow of the city, walking into that railway station, not once looking out of place.'

The normality of terror, or the terror of normality. There's something very modern about that as a concept (and different from the banality of evil) and it feeds back into the exploration of boredom in the novel. Our narrator is terrorised too by a gang of local kids whose verbal attacks are brilliantly written as a choral assault, their four voices coming always together.

"What you doing, man?"
"What you up you, man?"
"What you doing?"
"What you doing here?"
This seemed to be ejaculated at once; a cacophony of teenagers and testosterone -  a heady combination.
"What you doing on this bench for, man?"
"What you doing on this bench?"
"What you doing just sitting here?"
"What you doing, man?"
My right leg began to shake. I wanted to shout, to start running, but I couldn't muster the energy.
"Are you battyboy, man?"
"Are you battyboy, innit?"
"Are you battyboy?"
"Battyboy, man?"

Like here, Rourke's ear for dialogue is brilliant most of the time, only occasionally straying in the more formal discussions between the man and woman on the bench, and the gang continue to haunt him through the book, a sense of potential danger always palpable. For a book about a man sitting on a bench there is a surprising amount of incident that I don't want to spoil here, what I've wanted to highlight is the strength of the writing (hence the copious quotation for which I apologise - and it isn't over yet) and indeed the concept and thought behind it. For all the obvious influences (Ballad already mentioned, Beckett another, John Self mentions Melville's Bartleby and there is plenty of other august company) Rourke fashions something clearly his own in prose that avoids embellishment and yet somehow manages to dazzle and impress all the more for it. People often talk about the world that the author creates and one of the most striking things about this book is the way that Rourke manages to make a humble urban canal a place both mundane and dreamlike, beautiful and terrifying, safe and dangerous and perhaps either real or unreal. In this fictional context I heartily recommend you visit the canal yourself, bored or not. The last time I felt this excited about a debut novel it was a small book called Remainder by Tom McCarthy and The Canal is already building up a similar cult following of enthusiasts (in fact they were part of a small hoo-ha over at the Guardian recently). This isn't just about cult appeal though. Writers like McCarthy and Rourke are doing something bold, thoughtful and interesting with fiction that demands attention, using what recently has become the domain of decorative storytelling and making it a space where other things can happen.

I've often thought that we seek reality in places and not ourselves. These places can be anywhere we like them to be: a desert island, the beach, a nightclub, in the arms of a lover in a far-off land, rock climbing, up in the clouds, down in the depths of the deepest ocean, in space - ultimately in space. These places, this space, can be anything we want it to be. We need things, extra things that help us to make sense of it all; we need the space where things can happen, where these spaces can become a thing - it is only at that point, when space becomes a thing to us, that we truly feel real.


Tuesday 7 September 2010

'I love people!'

by Daniel Clowes

I've been a bit slow to read and review this one, especially as it's only about 70 pages and takes around only an hour to read from cover to cover. That cover to cover thing is worth noting as this is Clowes' first 'original graphic novel', by which is meant the first that hasn't been serialised previously, the first designed to be read from cover to cover. And yet it appears like a serial, each page a stand alone-sketch or vignette, which together provide snapshots of the middle-age of its sociopathic protagonist. According to the back of the book Wilson is 'a big-hearted slob, a lonesome bachelor, a devoted father and husband, an idiot, a sociopath, a delusional blowhard, a delicate flower. 100% Wilsonesque.' What is Wilsonesque? Well the first page should give you the idea.

From one page to the next Wilson attempts to connect with his fellow man (or woman) only for it all to crumble in the final panel. This structure had the effect in the early pages of making me laugh out loud at the end of each scene, but it's the kind of laugh that comes from the same comic stable as The Office, a laugh accompanied by a wince. As John Self said in his own review it's 'funny mainly because it’s not funny', and each punchline usually cuts right to the heart not only of the matter but the man. There is no social interaction too small for Wilson to turn into a confrontation, whether that be a casual conversation in a diner or passing a stranger in the street whilst walking his dog, Pepper.

Despite his claim to the contrary Wilson is far from being a people person and as the pages progress we realise that these random interactions with strangers really are the only human contact Wilson has, the rest of his time devoted to Pepper for whom he has developed a creepy falsetto voice ('People get really creeped out when you talk in the fake dog voice'). This wasn't always the case. In a classic page we discover something important about Wilson's past.

When he is forced into a last attempt to communicate with his father he begins a journey in which he attempts to find his ex-wife and confront a past filled with more than he ever knew. I won't say any more so as to avoid the surprises along the way, and some really are surprising, the book taking an almost surreal turn in the final third. You'll notice from the three pages above that Clowes employs various styles throughout, creating an effect (to borrow an observation from the person who leant me their copy) not dissimilar to one of those films that has multiple directors. Quite often the style will suit the sketch: a priapic nose as Wilson rhapsodises about fat girls (only for the comic pause panel to be followed by 'Of course, some of them really are disgusting'), a single colour to mark the simplicity of Wilson's staring at melting icicles, awaiting a moment of revelation. For that reason, and the huge weight of what we sense lies in between each page (and even sometimes between panels) this is a book that can be read carefully, slowly and repeatedly.


Friday 3 September 2010

'It's hard to imagine Batman in a Little Chef'

Boxer Beetle 
by Ned Beauman

I so nearly didn't read this book. A proof had been sat on the shelf for several months by the time I came across an article on The Bookseller about Twitter. I'm sorry I seem to be mentioning Twitter a lot recently but everybody else does at the moment so it's hard to resist, and it's become an increasingly important mode of communication for me. Anyway, you'll notice at the bottom of that article about whether authors should have a presence on sites like Twitter, a quote from Ned Beauman who is dead against it.

“My main objection is that it’s simply beneath the dignity of a published novelist. There needs to be some sort of exclusion zone around an author’s mental processes otherwise it undermines the autonomy of their work.

It is such a ludicrously pompous thing to utter that I was ready to discard his debut and move onto something else until some fellow Twitterers (what dramatic irony) who'd read Boxer, Beetle, declared it to be too good to miss on those grounds. The second part of what Beauman had to say offered another possibility.

“If I am ever obliged to reopen my Twitter account for promotional reasons, I will update it by sending typewritten tweets by second class post to someone at my publisher who will then update it on my behalf.”

Perhaps he was joking. After reading his debut it's certainly possible filled as it is with outrageous characters, wicked humour and more energy than a film from Brukheimer. It's entertaining in a way that only a book about a Nazi memorabilia collector and nine-toed gay Jewish boxer could be.

The Nazi memorabilia collector is Kevin who as well as having a hobby of questionable morality also suffers from a unique, or at least rare physical trait. He suffers from trimethylaminuria, whereby he exudes the unappealing aroma of rotting fish in his sweat, urine and saliva.

Along with trimethylaminuria I also have asthma, eczema, cystic acne, mild irritable bowel syndrome and half a dozen other absurd non-terminal diseases. I have come to see my body as a sort of Faulknerian idiot man-child which I must drag along groaning behind me wherever I go.

Where he goes is often at the bidding of dodgy property developer, and fellow enthusiast, Grublock. When one errand leads to Kevin (or Fishy as Grublock affectionately names him) discovering the body of one of Grublock's men and a letter in the freezer seemingly written by Hitler himself we know we are at the beginning of an adventure. Beauman's narrative flicks back from the present day to the 1930's where we meet more unpleasant characters. Seth 'Sinner' Roach is the titular pugilist, his potential as a fighter restricted by his attitude and heavy drinking. He meets Philip Erskine who aims to be a eugenicist as well as a Fascist and has designs on Sinner too. He has been using the fast breeding cycles of beetles to advance his theories of eugenics and his discovery of a unique beetle on a trip to Poland has created perhaps the ultimate project for him to advance himself within the Fascist cause too. In Sinner he sees a human subject who could aid his work.

'For the last four years I've been busy with the study of insects. there is very little I don't know about beetles. But I've had enough of beetles now. I want to study human beings. And you are the human being I have wished to study, ever since I first learnt of your unusual physiology.'
'You mean I'm a short-arse?'

So begins the verbal sparring and a kind of Faustian pact that grants Erskine Sinner's body after death, but the two of them have a long way to go before that happens. There's more murder and intrigue, sodomy, invented languages, experimental music, and beetles of course. The plot is convoluted in the right way, there's plenty of it and it flows past nicely but the main recommendation is the verve of the writing. Beauman knows a good phrase when he writes one and his soft spot for simile provides some crackers. Sometimes you can hear them like the 'butcher's-counter slap of fist on face.' Sometimes you can see them like the man who emerges 'wet and blinking like someone who hadn't quite saved his dog from drowning in a river.' Sometimes they're witty - 'he tumbled backwards over the ropes and crashed into the gamblers like a bad idea into a hungry nation' and sometimes they're just brilliant: try not to appreciate the 'man whose laughter could have torn the stitches out of a straitjacket.'

I was reminded of Michael Chabon who has a similar penchant for period and genre and the same knack for creating characters that remain just the believable side of grotesque. Beauman seems to be writing another novel set in the 1930's next, it'll be interesting to see it he can keep it as fresh and punchy as this debut. He clearly has no interest in making likeable characters (or indeed making himself likeable judging by that Twitter comment/joke) and this book isn't going to suit the squeamish but there is something perversely enjoyable about following the varied cast here and something hopeful about the book's moral expression of the importance of letting nature take its course.


Wednesday 1 September 2010

Certified Copy (Copie Conforme)

Juliette Binoche won the Best Actress Award at this years Cannes Film Festival for her performance in this intriguing film. She does indeed give an amazing performance, able to change from comic face-pulling to quiet glances and watery eyes in an instant and displaying an openness throughout that is endearing and heartbreaking. It's interesting to read that the genesis of the film came when director Abbas Kiarostami told Binoche the synopsis for the film as an anecdote which she believed as true. He then confessed to having made it up but that willingness to believe is integral to the film he went on to make after several years of struggles to get production under way. One of the problems was to find the right man to star opposite her with several actors beginning to film or slated to do it, including Robert De Niro at one point, until Kiarostami came to direct an opera and worked with baritone William Schimell, later commenting, "When I saw him, I immediately perceived in him the strength, finesse and humour of the character." Perhaps only in the world of opera was he likely to find someone capable of switching from English to French to Italian with the ease employed by Shimell, but for a début film performance he acquits himself more than adequately, particularly opposite someone of Binoche's experience in what turned out to be a prize-winning performance.

Why is the film so intriguing? Well, because it isn't easy to be sure of even the basic synopsis. In Tuscany a gallery owner (Binoche) meets an academic James Miller (Shimell) who is an expert on copies in art. He signs his latest book for her and then agrees to accompany her on a drive. Later they are mistaken for a couple and the pair pretend to have been married for many years and their dialogue plays with this very notion. If Miller's work concerns the ambiguities of original and copy, authentic and fake, then the conversation between the two of them covers similar ground with regard to relationships; what is real, what is pretend? In a village where a wedding is taking place the two of them converse, laugh, bicker and fight. Just like a real married couple. And this is where it gets tricky, because perhaps they are and those early scenes where they appeared to be meeting are in fact the false conversation, an elaborate piece of role-play for a couple whose marriage is fading. There is no definitive answer and my wife and I are still not close to agreeing with each other about what's closest to the truth (oh, the irony), which all goes to show how successfully Kiarostami has realised his original idea.

This is not a film for everyone. It is simply shot with almost all the dialogue coming from the two stars and the language changing frequently. It is slow too, but you might be thankful for that as you attempt to piece together what's real and what's performance. I've been intrigued by notions of authenticity in fiction in the past and it was interesting to see them toyed with so effectively in film, the medium perhaps best suited to explore them.


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