Thursday 16 December 2010

2010 - A review of my year

Well I started this year with the aim to read more translated fiction and more titles from independent publishers and I'm pretty pleased with how that turned out, exposing myself to books I would never normally have come across and still making room for some of the big titles too. In a year when new books from Franzen, Amis and Roth have gathered headlines and Howard Jacobson finally landed the Booker Prize my fondest memories have been books that haven't had anything like that kind of blanket coverage and may have struggled to get mentioned in the mainstream media at all. You don't need me to confirm the worth of Booker nods to David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Tom McCarthy's C or Damon Galgut's In A Strange Room. They're all worth a read. It's just not possible for me to pick a single book of the year, or even a top three so here is a selection of the best.


Easy Reads

Tony and Susan - Austin Wright

You may notice that this title is missing from the picture above and that's because I lent it to someone at work who then passed it on to someone else and it still hasn't come back yet. I think we can call that a word-of-mouth success and that's exactly what this book needed. Originally published in 1993 when the author was 70 years-old the book garnered positive reviews but never really took off. Wright died ten years later leaving behind a body of work but Atlantic Books reissued this literary thriller earlier in the year to more positive reviews and hopefully many more readers. A novel within a novel that plays on the very act of reading it combines the guilty pleasure of a pulpy thriller with something far more high-minded.
(original review here)

Nourishment - Gerard Woodward

Another book which has proved popular at work, Woodward's follow up to his impressive trilogy about the Jones family is easily the oddest book of the year and one of the funniest too. During the Second World War, a time of rationing and 'make do and mend', we follow Tory Pace as she deals with living with her mother again, her husband's internment as a POW and his request for dirty letters. The theme of nourishment is expressed in many ways and I'll eat my hat if you can find a more enjoyable novel that combines cannibalism, starvation, self-immolation and public conveniences.
(original review here)


The World Of Yesterday - Stefan Zweig

It may not have been to all tastes but I loved reading this memoir from an author who crops up time and again on this blog. A must read for any fans of Zweig and indeed anyone who wants an insight into the passing of a golden age in Europe. Zweig's intelligence, political acuity and deep connection to the cultural life around him make him a fascinating guide through inter-war Europe and the poignancy of the ending, given that we know he was to take his own life shortly afterwards, unavoidable.
(original review here)

Footnotes In Gaza - Joe Sacco

If anyone wanted to make the case for comics being taken seriously they should move away from the serious sounding 'graphic novels' and take a look at the reportage of artists like Joe Sacco. His previous books on Palestine and the war in Bosnia helped me to understand those complicated conflicts in a way that no serious article or news item ever had. Using personal testimony to tap into the human stories behind the fighting he helps us to understand that large scale conflicts are often about very personal feelings and a sense of grievance passed down through generations. Nowhere was this more obvious than in his latest work which brought to life two historical massacres that have everything to do with the tensions that still exist in Gaza and showed that Sacco essential reading.
(original review here)

The Lost Gem

The New Perspective - K Arnold Price

Discovering a book that hardly anyone knows about and yet which deserves praise and a wider readership is one of the many ways I get a major kick from reading and blogging. I have Colm Toibin to thank for this slim debut novel which was written when the author was 84 years-old. It is a perfectly distilled portrait of marriage that had it been written by a new writer today would surely be being hailed as a masterpiece and nominated for awards all over the place. Subtle, intelligent, sensitive and painfully honest it is a novel that took a lifetime's experience to write and yet takes just a small portion of your day to read. It's finding a copy that's the tricky bit.
(original review here)

The Wildcard

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Only just reviewed and making it onto the list purely because it's too bonkers to leave it off is the 700 page, self-published leviathan that channels the spirit of Pynchon, Melville, Gaddis and Price; combines boxing, both sides of the law and even the laws of physics into a vast, sprawling, digressive monster that probably scared off any editors who looked at it but deserves to be read by far more than the handful who can have made it through to the final page. If you fancy a challenge then I dare you. I double dare you...
(original review here)

Looking Back, Looking Forward, Looking You Right in the Eye

Stoner - John Williams

NYRB Classics have done a quite incredible job of resurrecting classic books that might have remained in obscurity if it weren't for their endeavour. This book has received ecstatic praise from bloggers, reviewers and even A-list celebrities and if you don't believe any of them then please believe me when I tell you that it is a masterpiece. The kind of novel that if you were forced to pitch it today would probably be considered un-marketable, it is quite simply the life of a man called Stoner. Everything you need to know about a man's life within the pages of book. That is a gift. I feel under no compulsion to say any more. You really should read this book at some point in your life, it's fine if it isn't right now, it will be ready for you when you are.
(original review here)

The Canal - Lee Rourke

One of the few novels I've read recently that feels as though it's talking about the world I live in right now, Lee Rourke's debut has won the Rising Stars award on Amazon and was also joint-winner of the Guardian's Not The Booker Prize, taking some pretty hefty flak along the way. It won't be to all tastes but who cares about that? A novel about a man who embraces his boredom that is never boring is something to cherish and the fact that it has lots to say about how we live, connect, and deal with everyday terrors makes it a vital read, filled with an energy that a novel about ennui aught not really to possess.
(original review here)

Beside The Sea - Veronique Olmi

I've read some amazing books this year, books that haven't even made it onto this list for a mention, but if I was to pick one that knocked me about more than any other it would have to be this one. Pound for pound this is easily the hardest hitting piece of fiction I have encountered in the last twelve months. There are so many reasons why we should be championing it. Peirene Press is a new indy publisher bringing literature in translation to an English-reading audience in handy novella-sized portions, and have already made themselves essential reading with just their first three titles. The first of these is still the best for me, containing the kind of ambiguity that makes fiction as a medium such an exciting place to be. In only 120 pages Olmi manages to make the reader complicit in the judgement of what they read and whilst dealing with similar themes to the much vaunted and Booker-nominated Room, she manages to knock that novel into a cocked-hat without resort to sensation, gimmicks or whimsy. If you can think of a decent excuse as to why you shouldn't go out (or online) and buy a copy right now I'd like to hear it...
(original review here)

Not Book Of The Year

Room - Emma Donoghue

You know why.


BiRd-BrAiNs - tUnE-yArDs

Two close runners for album of the year were The National for High Violet and Deerhunter for Halcyon Digest. What do these artists and albums have in common apart from being excellent? They all come from the same label: 4AD. This is no fix and it's not really a matter of taste; these albums aren't particularly similar. Their only common attribute is excellence. Oh, and excitement. So before I get into the specifics let me first heap huge amounts of praise on a label that produces consistently amazing work of a wide and varying nature and that got behind an album that might have remained an obscurity without them. tUnE-yArDs is Merrill Garbus who has a past as a puppeteer but used a digital voice-recorder and shareware mixing software to entirely self-produce this album. Defiantly lo-fi this is an album for those who are bored by polished performance, style over substance and the general sheen that comes with a lot of modern music. By concentrating on lyrics, original instrumentation and a genuine need to express through music you get an album whose very flaws are its strengths. A word I find myself using again and again to describe works of art that I admire is 'genuine'. It is worrying that it is a word that you can't use more often to describe the artistic output that we consume but I guess the 'c' word is the important one there. In an age of easily consumed and forgotten art it is refreshing to hear an album that doesn't sound like another, doesn't want to seem like another and stands or falls by its own standards. All of which is far to poncey a way of describing one of the most enjoyable albums you're likely to hear.
(original review here)

Not Album Of The Year

20Ten - Prince 

It was given away free in the Daily Mirror.
(original review here)


Ok, so this year the LoveFilm subscription was cancelled as there just wasn't the time to meet even the minimum requirements. Therefore I haven't had the chance to watch many films at all this year but what I have seen has been great. Three films played in different ways with the notion of cinematic truth. Duncan Jones made a striking debut with Moon, a film that put British sci-fi back on the map, Christopher Nolan cashed in on the success of his Batman reboot by making a good-looking, intelligent cinema experience in the form of Inception and from the left-field came the intriguing Certified Copy which still has me confused today about what the real truth might have been.

One film still haunts me though and that is why I will raise it above the others.


Lars Von Trier is not an easy man to like and I had some great debate with friends about his previous work after watching his latest. I have no doubt after Antichrist that the man is an artist and a serious one at that. Dark, difficult, disturbing and very adult (in the mature sense of the word rather than the sensational reaction to the pumping penis on display here) it is a film difficult to watch in many places but which challenges you to watch it again. Beautifully filmed and acted, if you think you're up to the challenge then I really recommend it (and would welcome the opportunity to discuss afterwards).
(original review here)

Not Film Of The Year

The Da Vinci Code

I'm not even sure of the weakened mental state that placed me in front of the TV watching this one but it was nothing compared to the vegetative state the film itself reduced me to. I haven't read the book but the film was so stupid in its need to explain everything and leave the audience nothing to do that I could feel myself getting stupider by the minute. Every actor in it was appalling and looked uncomfortable, the script was laughable and I can't think of a less thrilling thriller. Give me the X-Factor over this any day.

So, there's a quick look back at some of my 2010. How was yours?


Tuesday 14 December 2010

'People do not always notice miracles'

The Topless Tower
by Silvina Ocampo

Hesperus Worldwide is a new imprint from the independent publisher that reflects more accurately than ever their motto Et Remotissima Prope" or "bringing near what is far." Of their initial titles I was intrigued by this slim novella, in no small part because of Ocampo's relationship with Adolfo Bioy Casares who wrote one of my reading finds (thanks to Trevor) since starting this blog - The Invention of Morel. The thirty-year-old Ocampo caused something of a scandal amongst the Argentinian literati when she took Casares as her lover when he was only 19. They were later married and she even adopted Casares' lovechild, the couple remaining together until Ocampo's death at the age of 90 (followed tragically three weeks later by the death of that daughter in a car accident). Ocampo was a writer of both poetry and stories famed more for her children's work (and association with Borges) but translator James Womack in his introduction is keen to point out that 'Ocampo never really drew a distinction between writing for children and for adults.' The best children's writing has always had something for the adult reader, long before the concept of crossover fiction was coined and marketed. This novella has a child narrator and recalls writers like Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak but didn't strike me as really being aimed at children. Those who enjoy the nonsense of Lear, absurdity of Carroll, or magical realism of much South American writing will find themselves in familiar territory (which is itself an absurd way of describing the completely fantastical premise of the book)

A long time ago, or else not so very long ago, I couldn't say, summer held out its green leaves, its mirrors of sky-blue water, the fruits in the trees. The days were not long enough: I could never finish swimming, or rowing, or eating chocolate, or painting with the watercolours from my black paintbox. I'd got prizes from school, but I am disobedient. I imitate people, like monkeys do. I even imitate the way people write. Like some famous writers, I use the first and third persons simultaneously. My parents have a lot of books. Sometimes I can't understand what I write, it's so well written, but I can always guess what I wanted to say. I'll underline the words I don't understand. Someone once said to me, and I suspect it was the Devil, 'The great writers are those who don't understand what they write; the others are worthless.'

And so begins the story of nine-year-old Leandro, a precocious youngster who one day laughs at the wrong man, a wealthy-looking chap selling paintings (the aforementioned Devil?), and finds himself instantly transported into the tower that features in one of them, a prisoner. In one of the rooms of this tower he finds an easel set up with a canvas and a table of paints, brushes, paper and more canvas. He begins to paint picture after picture, trying to imagine a landscape that is denied him by this windowless room, and is amazed at one stage when he finds that a branch he has painted not only looks real, but is real. With new hope he paints more and more pictures, confident that they too will become real but he has little control over what he ends up painting. First a spider, then a snake cause terror by moving from the canvas to his room, thankfully shut on the other side of the door eventually. Like any lost boy what he wants to paint most of all is his mother but it never seems to be her that appears on the canvas. A bird and a monkey called Bamboo and Iris, a wizard with a hyena's face that might be the Devil, even a double of himself will all come and go, each brief encounter bringing a small excitement in creation and a little loss when they depart.

This fantastical set up acts as a metaphor for any act of artistic creation. There is fear before he puts brush to canvas; lack of control over what he might paint; there is the almost dreamlike state of creating so that what he often sees is the confusing end result, pictures he has no memory of painting; and with a clear aim of what he wants to paint - a portrait of his mother as he last remembers her, knitting underneath a tree - the confusion about how to realise it.

There was no one to tell him what he wanted to know: whether it was practice which led to pictures being like their subjects, and if the look in his mother's eyes would appear into the drawing as an untimely gift which he himself would not be able to explain. What he did understand, as surely as if someone had told him straight out, was that he would eventually manage to draw the exact expression in her eyes, and as he drew the delicate line in her eyelids he felt what great artists feel, the inexplicable happiness that comes from drawing the line that you have hunted for so long and which is only just recognisable as you draw it.

His concentrated attempts actually result in the portrait of a young girl who comes to join Leandro and with whom he falls instantly in love. When he eventually loses her too then his first letter to her hints at the frustration of trying to recreate artistic success and the new fear that comes with it.

Dear Ifigenia,
I've thought about you so much that I can't imagine anything apart from your face. I draw it desperately, but instead of your eyes I draw other eyes, and I am scared that you will come out of the painting transformed into a different person.

I mentioned Sendak at the beginning so you may have an idea what the conclusion might be, no boy goes on a journey like that without learning something, and this adult fairytale may help the reader learn something too as well as having a particular resonance for those with any kind of artistic bent.


Tuesday 7 December 2010

'without remorse or restraint'

A Naked Singularity
by Sergio De La Pava

A 700-page self-published novel. I can't think of anything I'm less likely to read apart from maybe anything by Dan Brown. Or Jeffrey Archer. Or Mills and Boon. Actually scratch those, why on earth would I bother to buy a novel that couldn't get a single publisher to take it on, and a long one at that? Because some reviews are tempting, and I'm up for a challenge, and something about it lit a fuse within me. A review that alludes to Pynchon, Gaddis, Melville, Dostoevsky and Rabelais might just as easily send you running for cover as rushing to see what's within the covers but it does at least give an indication of the ambition and scope of this leviathan. This book certainly won't be to all tastes but if you like any of the writers above and might be goaded into action by a book that says, 'Go on, I dare you' then I dare you too.

A Naked Singularity is one of those books so large, so ambitious and so bonkers that it makes the task of writing a review almost impossible. You either write something as bloated as the book itself in an attempt to include all of its maddening variety or you end up paralysed and providing little more than a pithy summary and some hyperbole. Let's see if we can find a compromise but I make no promises. The book does at least have a single, central character. Casi ('kind of like Lassie but not really') is a public defender in New York. We never learn more than his first name but learn its interesting origin from his mother at a gathering of his Colombian family.

'I almost died during the delivery Dios mio. The next day they asked me if I had a name yet. I said casi because we were getting close to deciding, I kept waiting for them to ask me again but that's the name they put down.'

In a fabulous opening we are thrown into his daily existence as a lawyer representing those that far from being presumed innocent are usually regarded as guilty, that fact having very little to do with whether they can be got off or not. In fact Casi is quick to correct one client who thinks his lawyer needs to believe in his innocence.

"You're wrong I don't, I just don't. It's not going to make me work harder on your case like in some stupid movie and it's certainly not going to make it any more likely that you walk. In fact, if you really are innocent then it's probably going to hurt you and your case more than anything because, for one thing, I would probably be so distracted by the novelty of the situation I'd be rendered ineffective..."

It is a great opening for two reasons the first of those being De La Pava's ease with the technicalities of law enforcement, legal process and the underbelly of New York. There's jargon flying about all over the place, a feeling familiar to anyone who has watched The Wire, something that I find pleasingly intoxicating and it isn't long before you feel you're starting to get a handle on how it all works. With so many crimes and misdemeanours Casi's perspective is that the police have 'the special ability to in effect create Crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished, so widespread was wrongdoing' this decision often based on 'the relevant officers' need for overtime'. So we quickly meet his caseload and this is where the second strength immediately comes into play. The snappy dialogue of these early interviews is brilliant, idiomatic and well-observed. In fact it's in stark contrast to most of the dialogue in the book which can be florid, digressive, erudite, verbose, sometimes all at once - oh, and I mean that in a positive sense. Casi has warned us early on after all that he 'can wander a bit whilst storytelling' but some friends and colleagues also have a tendency to hold forth (with, for example, the 'mind numbing, intentionally yawn-inducing detail meant to replicate the utter inanity of such societal questions' as one character puts it later)

One in particular is a fellow lawyer called Dane who drives what you might call the plot. Dane has theories about many things but one of his obsessions is the pursuit of perfection. How on earth can we achieve perfection in such an imperfect world? Following on from his interest in perfect numbers (those numbers that are the sum of their divisors, excluding the number itself e.g. 6 (1+2+3=6) and 28 (1+2+4+7+14=28)) Dane determined to offer the perfect defence to one of his clients (number 6 on his caseload naturally). What is a perfect defence? Not just an acquittal but the most rigorous preparation for trial ever mustered so that acquittal is guaranteed. His research extended from an in depth knowledge of the case and even the possible judges, with a little manoeuvre to make sure that they would be assigned the one most favourable to their case, to a similar familiarity with his client. It may surprise you to know that the pursuit of perfection means a crash course in crack smoking so as to be able to empathise and understand one's client all the more effectively. That kind of commitment combined with another of Dane's obsessions, the human desire to leave a legacy, leads him to propose something equally shocking to Casi when their discussions lead them around to the allure of the heist.

"But then you need the will Casi. The will to execute it the one chance you get. This is where the adrenaline comes from and this is the universal attraction. This is why people love crime, the singularity of the will involved. And don't tell me people don't love crime to the point of near obsession. Just look at the newspapers, the visual news, and all other forms of popular entertainment, crime is their favourite process. The only question is whether crime is inherently a perversion, meaning error is necessarily built into it, or whether some degree of perfection can be achieved in that area."
"Meaning the commission of a truly perfect crime."
"Guess anything's possible Dane."
"And everything."
"So get cracking on it, could be your legacy."
Casi will live to regret giving Dane any encouragement in that direction, but I don't want to spoil anything by saying any more about the plan to commit the perfect crime itself. What is just as important as the thriller-like plan is what it means to each man. Casi's relationship to the plan is 'dysfunctional', for all his involvement in its formation he has his eye firmly on a hasty exit and yet something keeps him involved, something to do with the visceral connection this gives him to underbelly he is used to representing and the ability to impose his moral imperative at the same time (If reality is sometimes so intense and bizarre that it feels like bad, unpersuasive fiction, then this was fiction so powerful it outrealized reality.). Dane needs Casi for the plan's fruition, he knows instinctively that two heads are better than one and that Casi's own natural tendencies towards caution and disbelief will be the perfect partner to his own total conviction.

"You're as capable of perfection as I am. Join me in this and learn what it means to truly exhaust a potentiality."

I couldn't help but be reminded of the verbal sparring and jockeying of Tyler Durden and the Narrator in Fight Club. This mismatched pair have a lot to offer each other and the extraordinary conversations between the two of them and the thrust of the plot itself might be enough for some writers but De La Pava has much more in his sights. The novel is like a compendium. We have already encountered themes like justice, perfection and legacy; dialogue that ranges from the pithy to the polemic; characters that manage to attach themselves to your reading consciousness whether they are granted several chapters or a single paragraph. But there are also thought experiments in which another tenant in Casi's building aims to watch a TV series in its entirety, without commercial interruption, from start to finish, in order to prove his hypothesis that it will make the main character contained within as real or manifest as anyone else in his life. There is a satirical look at our reality obsessed Television (that word always significantly capitalised) and the public bands armed with cameras, known as the Video Vigilantes, who provide news outlets with footage of the gruesome crime-de-jour (a child abduction and murder that will have UK readers thinking of Jamie Bulger), and even the sanctity of the church confessional is in danger of being invaded by video cameras and our leering gaze for a new TV series ('It's not TV, it's HBO' - shouts the priest as comfort).

Significant sections of the novel are given over to the history of boxing involving one fighter in particular: Wilfred Benitez. I have no real interest in boxing but there was something fascinating about such a comprehensive examination of one man's career, particularly someone I had never heard of and yet who to this day holds the record as the youngest World Champion (he was just 17 when he won the light welterweight title in 1976). Benitez was famed for his defensive skills, seeming to hold an almost telepathic ability to evade blows, leading one opponent, Sugar Ray Leonard, to comment, 'It was though I was looking into the mirror...I mean no one can make me miss punches like that.' Like the best sports writing it makes you want to watch footage of it immediately, possible with ease thanks to YouTube, and that in turn makes you realise how good the prose description is, the detail of movement it contains like watching slow-motion footage with expert commentary. What is the purpose of these boxing sections amidst the plot of a crime thriller? That theme of legacy is one connection, a boxer's career defined by three numbers, the most vital of statistics, that measure wins, draws and losses (with KO's in brackets), that are often all that's left behind by those like Benitez who find themselves close to penniless at the end of their career and even their own memories destroyed by the degenerative brain disease that is the true legacy of those punishing blows in the ring. Boxing also picks up on the decisive moment, the need to face one's fear and not run away. There comes that moment in a fight when you get hit, hard, and then there's a decision to make. Do you go into a defensive shell, lose on points, sure, but 'avoid embarrassment and avoid needless pain'? Or do you step into the danger area and fight, make sure that if the other guy wants victory he will have to wrest it from you? That same choice is faced by Casi and Dane as they stand on the cusp of action in a moment typical of this novel's audacity. Invoking the theodicy of Leibniz and the modal realism of David Lewis, Dane uses his belief in all possible worlds to argue for what he sees as their only course of action.

"And I have nothing but contempt for these people, if you can call them that, who will turn around at this point," he said. "And when I think that one of them looks just like me and has the audacity to go around calling himself Dane it makes me want to draw blood from the anger. Remember that because right now it is certainly at least possible that you and I will go get that money, that means at least two of our counterparts will in fact get it. Don't we need to be those two? Of course we do, it absolutely must be us. I don't care what it entails. You have total power and control here. You just have to decide who you want to be and that's who'll you become."

Melville was mentioned earlier and there are many comparisons to be made with Moby-Dick, comparisons invited by De La Pava by his naming the novel's giant, almost non-human nemesis Baleena (balena being Spanish for whale). Melville's masterpiece received a mixed and often baffled response on its publication but now stands as one of the cornerstones of American literature. It's not possible to know what fate has in store for this leviathan, although we can say that in at least one possible world it is a bestseller, but De La Pava is well aware of what is at stake. After working tirelessly on an appeal document Casi is brought face to face with another possibility.

"I hate to say it but you may have poured your very soul, as you obviously did, into the creation of this work and it may never be read by anyone, it may never so much as influence a single person's actions. I just came to that realization, how awful."

It's tempting to say it would be a crime if that turned out to be the case, but the awfulness of the pun aside it's already inaccurate. More positive responses from readers and reviewers are certain to follow and if there is a publisher (and editor) with enough balls out there then there's no reason why this world shouldn't be the best of all those possible for De La Pava.

Oh, and I haven't yet explained what a naked singularity is. Here goes: The gravitational force around a black hole is so strong that light emitted from beyond that singularity's 'event horizon' cannot reach the observer. This means that the singularity cannot be directly observed. A naked singularity is a (so far) theoretical singularity with no event horizon and therefore observable from the outside. I'm not going to tell you how that fits into all of the above and you'll have to read until the very last page if you want to find out. Go on, I dare you.


Tuesday 30 November 2010

'how unsure of ourselves we are'

The Brainstorm 
by Jenny Turner

I mentioned Fiction Uncovered earlier in the month (you can find out more about it here) and on the day it launched this title was the first (of what I fear will be many) to inspire me towards a purchase. Recommended by novelist and journalist James Meek, he describes it as 'Funny, clever and disturbing, with a uniquely subtle, British take on 9/11'. Well the take on 9/11 must be very subtle because I'm not sure what he means by that, especially with a book set in the late 1990's, but it is certainly both funny and clever. It also has a rather lovely jacket - nothing says 'office tension with hilarious consequences' like several colourful elastic bands straining around the cover. Another recommendation was the realisation, thanks to good old Twitter, that Jenny Turner was the author of easily the best review I read of Tom McCarthy's C. If this novel contained anything like the enthusiasm and erudition of that piece then I was sure to be in for a treat.

Anyone with a taste for the Fleet Street novel will lap up this skewed take on the inner workings of a newspaper. Turner herself worked for the Independent on Sunday in the 1990's but the fictional broadsheet at which she places her heroine, Lorna, as part of the editorial staff, is a newspaper that 'had a good name and an illustrious reputation, though the reputation, by the time Lorna got her job there, had long since begun to drop.' This is the modern world of newspapers, away from the ink and nicotine-stained corridors of Fleet Street into the glass-fronted and sterile towers in Docklands. And the period is a specific one, socially speaking, the economic consequences of which we are living with today.

Back then, in the mid-to-late 1990's, the spots to which the mad glare of wealth did not extend were beginning to look burnt out and forsaken, although they had looked just normal, only a year or two before. Wealth was getting more intense and more prevalent, and the world shone like the television inside it. Poverty was getting more forgotten, more marginal, more squeezed out by the day.

The novel has a central conceit, the brainstorm of the title, and from the opening sentence we are aware of its impact.

Lorna looked around her, puzzled. Good, she thought, I'm still here then. I'm sitting in an office. I have a desk and chair.

Is it some kind of memory loss? Almost as though she has come to at her desk Lorna must bluff her way through the rest of the day, slowly feeling her way through the motions that will help her to establish who she is, what she does, who she likes, where she lives, and how all of these pieces fit together. This conceit allows Turner to play with quite a few things. Firstly we have the perfect opportunity to see the workplace afresh. Turner is a great observer of people and the office is filled with characters who may recall some of the real faces from that era but which are very much their own. Lorna has only her instinct to turn to when sorting out the friends from the foes and she can often sense how she feels about each character from feelings buried somewhere deep inside,  but we all know how deceptive first impressions or hunches can be.

We also get a chance to look at the environment in a new way. Turner has a wonderful way of making the office a place not of beauty but at least of promise and potential. Processes, technologies and systems that we take for granted are suddenly seen as the miracles that they are, especially by someone looking for structure and order.

Lorna, too, felt excited as she booted up her computer. She loved the way the pages came to the desk, electronically, through plugs and cables. She loved the shapes of the letters, the way they leaned into one another to make words. She loved the way the words made phrases and sentences, and somewhere in that, the miracle of meaning, lucidity and purpose: the possibility of structure, the possibility of hope.

Environment extends into a sense of place too. The glass and steel cityscape of Docklands and the constant construction around it refer back to that polarisation of wealth mentioned earlier and also Lorna's search for her own personal architecture.

Lorna's eye bounced and bounded across in freedom. 'As Hegel would say, it's a dialectic, innit,' she thought to herself quite suddenly, with an awareness that she voiced this thought quite often, and that she said or thought it because in some way it was true.

The dialectic is hugely important to this novel. I'm not going to pretend to know anything about Hegelian philosophy or phenomenology but Turner clearly does and Lorna's dialogue with herself (which could be seen as a dialogue between old Lorna and new Lorna and their quest for agreement) and the way in which the book itself is constructed (together with the structures of consciousness as they return to Lorna) make this a novel that doesn't attach philosophy to itself to appear clever but has it as its very foundation and support, all whilst remaining an easy read - that really is clever.

I've read so many novels now where some conceit or other leaves the narrator as a blank slate or the world as a mystery. Some are more successful than others but the sheer prevalence of them now means that they need to be special to stand out. Whilst this book didn't bowl me over like Remainder, by the author Turner so clearly admires from her review of C, or indeed impress me for exactly the reasons Meek highlighted it for in the first place, it was an impressive and intelligent read, a book rooted in reality that dares to play with something just outside of it and one that despite the difficult journey of its heroine manages to contain a hopeful message.

She didn't know what it was or how it had happened, but she was being given another chance.


Tuesday 23 November 2010

'language is the sound of longing'

The Secret Lives Of People In Love
by Simon Van Booy

The very marvellous Rob Around Books has been a passionate advocate of Simon Van Booy, a writer I'm ashamed to admit I had never head of before Rob brought him to my attention with pieces about each of the stories from this collection in detail. Once you've seen a picture of him he's difficult to forget, cutting a distinctive figure with his trademark smart clothing and typewriter or even when divested of his vestments for this rather bizarre portrait with bookshelves and picnic. Born in London, raised in Wales, with stints living in the US, Paris and Athens, Van Booy's stories have a similar internationalism, moving from location to location as they explore various themes around love and allow us into the private world of their protagonists.

This rather handsome collection from indie publisher Beautiful Books has a P.S. section at the back with more information about the author and words from him about his process, inspirations and the importance of finally finding his own voice. Unlike some other examples of this kind of postscript, it was genuinely enlightening to read his thoughts about hotels written on their distinctive hotel stationary and to see copies of the discarded train tickets that had been the seed for some of his stories. The discovery and adherence to his own authorial voice is all important as it dominates the style. This is both his strength and perhaps the only criticism I would make of this collection. Written in a pared-down prose, Van Booy's stories are characterised by memorable phrases, moments of poetry and what I will call the surprise of profundity - sentences hidden amidst the story that jump out with humane observations like maxims. The slight criticism is that this style is so consistent that despite several first person narrations it is Van Booy's voice we hear rather than an individual character's. I say it is a slight criticism because this consistency never feels like homogeneity, it is an author proudly displaying the voice he has developed, and that voice produces so many moments of pure reading pleasure that this reader easily forgave him.

The very first story, Little Birds, provides one of those surprising maxims on only the second page. It is a prosaic scene: our 15-year-old narrator observes American tourists on the Pont des Arts laughing politely at the jokes of a filthy homeless man. He is mature enough to spot their politeness but that still doesn't prepare us for the throwaway comment that follows.

I suppose the key to a good life is to gently overlook the truth and hope that at any moment we can all be reborn.

The stories are filled with moments like this. I hope I haven't made it sound like fortune-cookie wisdom in isolation as that isn't how they read. Our narrator's perceptiveness about others is matched by his naivety of himself and we will learn more than he can through his own words. His father figure, Michel, provides a rather neat description of how Van Booy's writing can linger with you after closing the cover having explained his love of the poet Giorgio Caproni: 'his words are like little birds that follow him around and sing in his ear.'

Quite often those birds are a pitch-perfect phrase. A train that 'grieves into the station', a cold warehouse where workers wear their 'breath like beards', or 'the fleshy star' of a child's hand. But Van Booy isn't limited to occasional fireworks. Some Bloom In Darkness is a perfect short story. Saboné works as a ticket clerk at the train station. A lonely man prone to dreaming and sketching, his dormant desire for the companionship of a young lady is awakened after witnessing a violent incident at work. He finds himself suddenly obsessed with a girl who stands in a shop window that he passes every day on his way to work.
For days he held the image of this shopgirl in his mind, carrying it around like an egg until he could get home and escape into sleep where it hatched into fantasy.

To say anymore would genuinely spoil a quite magical story about loneliness and desire, a story that left me feeling that I needed no more from this collection for it to have been worth reading. Apples is another gem where we learn the genesis of an apple orchard in the middle of a vacant lot in Brooklyn and the perennial apple festival it has inspired. In the midst of grief and shortly before leaving his native Russia, Serge spends an evening in his family orchard.

At dawn, with a film of dew upon his skin and clothes, Serge rose to his knees in order to kiss the gravestone one final time. However, at some moment during the night, an apple had swollen just enough to sit perfectly on the head of the stone. Serge was breathless and picked the apple so the branch - madly and gratefully - could return to the tangle of branches above.

'Madly and gratefully', that's the part of the sentence that elevates the writing into a higher tier for me. There is humour too, often in the strangest places. Perhaps no more so than in The Shepherd On The Rock which finds a mad Irishman living out the last days of his life in John F. Kennedy airport, a place he sees as quite natural given that he'd 'always been attracted to the idea of heaven'. A former seminary student he has reason to question the existence of a God - '(I'm not saying there isn't - I'm just saying that I don't believe in Him, like a mother who's given up on her son's delinquent ways)'- and it is it is quite an achievement to include a wry humour in a story that details his madness and retreat into himself. There is something far more experimental in French Artist Killed In Sunday's Earthquake, where we are witness to last moments of the life of Marie-Françoise; a literal translation of a life flashing before one's eyes, carried off with far more aplomb than my rather pat description of it. 

Having recently discovered his voice Van Booy's stories in this collection have a bravery about them, he's nailing his colours to the mast whether you like them or not. The final story, The Mute Ventriloquist, gives another description of their appeal, and of the short form generally.

Children spend the mornings of their lives in a sea of imagination before being hauled out onto rocks by jealous adults who've forgotten how to swim.

Occasionally it pays to live like a child again and dive right in.


Tuesday 16 November 2010

'You bear what is'

A Clash Of Innocents 
by Sue Guiney

This is another review that I shall begin with a disclaimer. Sue Guiney, as well as being a writer, is Artistic Director of Curving Road, an organisation that aims to support the artist at some point in their career. The artist might be a playwright, actor, visual artist or something else but the aim is to support them in a way that allows them to truly develop and 'go on to produce art that changes societies and lives.' One example was their support of Leo Richardson, a young actor and writer. His play Sh*t-Mix was produced by Curving Road and directed by my wife at Trafalgar Studios. Since then it has been adapted into a TV pilot called Stanley Park for BBC3 and has just been bought by Fox for transfer to screens in America. I think we can call that a pretty successful piece of artistic nurturing. So, I know Sue, and when she contacted me about her new novel she was aware that I might feel a bit odd about reading and reviewing it. She was right, I had thought about it and stalled especially after the furore that erupted over on the virtual pages of The Guardian during their Not The Booker Prize competition. Accusations flew around about authors getting their blogging mates to promote their books, using social networking sites to drum up votes, and the whole enterprise ended with a slightly nasty aftertaste. But, I decided to rise above all that and approach the book as I would any other. If Sue is brave enough to send it to me then I'm sure she can take both the compliments and the criticism on the chin.

A quick word first about the new publisher Ward Wood. With a similar ethos to that of Curving Road, commitment and nurturing are an important part of their relationship with authors. As well as publishing work by established authors they aim to foster long term relationships with emerging talent, helping them work towards publication. Sue has previously published novels, plays and poetry and this new novel was inspired by a trip she made to Cambodia and the conflict that coloured her own life the most: Vietnam. To be honest, it's unlikely I would have read this book based on its blurb as I'm not naturally attracted to books set in faraway places (don't ask me why, it's an irrational aversion). The cover I'm afraid wouldn't have drawn me in either, there's a clash all its own happening there. But let's get past the outward appearance and into the meat of the book itself. Our narrator is Deborah, an indomitable 60-year-old American, matriarch at the Khmer Home for Blessed Children in Phnom Penh, an institution once run by nuns but now maintained by Deborah and irregular support from others. How does a woman brought up in the America of the 1950's and 60's, 'a make-believe land where every child had two parents, home-cooked meals and a black-and-white TV set', find herself running an orphanage in Cambodia? We will slowly discover as the book progresses, for this is a novel where the details of people's pasts are slowly revealed and their hidden motivations with them.

I was a good girl. Maybe that's why when the tornado that was America back in 1970 finally did suck me into its eye and spit me out again with such ferocity and violence, I landed on the other side of the planet feeling nothing but anger and humiliation.

That storm was America's involvement in the Vietnam War and for Deborah in particular the Kent State University shootings of 1970. Opposition to American attacks on Vietnam's neighbour Cambodia found voice on the campus of many universities. When state troopers opened fire on one such protest in Ohio, leaving four students dead and several injured it became a defining moment in their cultural history, particularly with regard to the rights of protesters and the idealogical differences between the younger hippie generation and Nixon's 'silent majority'. Directly involved with the trauma of that dramatic day Deborah has been able to bury many of her feelings about it by employing her nursing qualifications in Cambodia itself and dedicating herself to the care of those in need. But as her own adopted daughter, Samnang, nears student age and the opportunity of attending that very same university appears she cannot help but reconnect with the fear and confusion, all of which plays on her anxieties about letting her daughter grow up and leave the safety of her protective wing.

For Samnang it is about achieving her potential. Near the beginning of the novel Deborah has told us that there is no hope in Cambodia - 'It may sound horrible, but here in this tiny, useless, captivating country, the less hope you have, the better you can get on with living every day.' But the novel's plot plays out against the background of the looming tribunal which is supposed to bring the perpetrators of Pol Pot's brutal regime to justice. As it slowly comes closer and closer to becoming a reality we begin to sense the very hope that Deborah has deemed absent, and find in Samnang a symbol of a younger generation who might just be given the opportunity to draw a line under the past and be whatever they want to be.

The plot is driven by the arrival of another American, Amanda, who literally turns up on the doorstep offering her help. We of course know as little of this woman as Deborah does and she turns out to have significant reasons for hiding details of her past. Driven by the need for help Amanda manages to make herself indispensable and it is only when there is another arrival on the doorstep, this time an abandoned infant close to death, that the fragility of her seeming self-confidence begins to be exposed.

For the first time Amanda started to approach. She even reached out to touch the baby's cheek who then grabbed onto Amanda's finger. I have never seen a more complex set of emotions surge across one person's face in my life. I didn't know what Amanda was feeling but evidently she was feeling quite a lot, and my instinct told me I had to put an end to it - quick.

Echoing Faulkner, Guiney aims to show that 'We're never really free of our pasts'. Deborah is still affected by the events that sent her half way around the world, Amanda becomes totally absorbed in The Baby (the only name they ever attach to the abandoned infant), seeing in it a chance to redeem her own past, and Samnang has a long way to go before escaping the cultural shackles that convince her she is not worthy of anything more in life. But what also unifies these character's journeys is the theme of the nourishing love of a mother and the difficulty that comes when it's time to let go. As a physician, one of the orphanage's allies, explains to Amanda

'Children die for many reasons...They live for only one. Love. Without love no child can live. With it they can hold on even when their bodies are gone.'

Deborah's whole existence in Cambodia has been about providing the love and support that her charges lacked and yet of course she finds it difficult to make the final expression of that love to Samnang by setting her free. Amanda's personal trauma finally catches up with her and turns out to be the very thing that she has nurtured like a child, protecting her pain as though it made her special, something that she is shocked to discover is far from the truth in a country where almost every family has a story of brutality and violence. She has also forgotten the crucial fact of her survival and that, at the end of it all, is what unifies them. They are the survivors, they are the ones with the responsibility to make something of their lives.

So definitely a book for readers who enjoy a redemptive personal journey. I appreciated a look into another country that never felt like it was bonking me on the head with 'exotic' details or heavy research, believing entirely in this experience of Cambodia. In fact a slightly strange criticism might be that there were times when I felt more as though I was reading memoir than fiction. Perhaps this was because Deborah, as a narrator, has a tendency to make everything explicit, leaving little work for the reader in terms of making our own connections and conclusions and the dialogue too in places seemed to sacrifice character and truth in the service of plot development. But that con is also a pro, the book feels genuine and there is no doubting what Guiney wants to say.


Tuesday 9 November 2010

'There is nothing here but danger'

The Mountain Lion 
by Jean Stafford

When I reviewed A Meaningful Life, another NYRB Classics title, back in May, it was part of the Spotlight Series tour highlighting the output of this marvellous publisher. As a thank you for taking part they sent me an attractive tote bag and a proof of this novel which was to be published by them shortly afterwards. It seems entirely fitting that I publish this review during a week that is being called NYRB Reading Week by a couple of bloggers keen to draw more attention to this fabulous publisher. It has taken me a while to get around to reading it for a variety of reasons, one of which being that if you haven't chosen a book for yourself then the 'right time' for it can take a while to come around. A quick glance at the blurb didn't make it seem like the kind of book I'd pick myself either but the joy of finding a publisher like NYRB Classics is that it's almost possible to choose blind and not be disappointed. That said, I'm not sure I ever really connected properly with this book. Having finally taken it down from the shelf I found it very slow going, often losing track of what was going on and struggled to know how I might approach a review. That's why you're stuck with this rather lame opening; it may not be the most ringing endorsement but I shall at least try an honest response.

Jean Stafford won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Stories and whilst the short story seems to be the form with which she enjoyed most success she also wrote three well-received novels too. Originally published in 1947, The Mountain Lion follows the adolescence of Ralph and Molly, a brother and sister growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles whose lives will be altered by their regular trips to the Colorado mountain ranch of their uncle. Nosebleeds are often seen as a bad omen and the book opens with one, or should that be two, as Ralph and Molly both suffered from scarlet fever last year, when ten and eight respectively, which has left them 'half poisoned most of the time' and causes them terrible and often synchronised nosebleeds that send them home from school. On the day that they are expecting the regular annual visit of their grandfather they meet 'with gushing noises outside the art supply room' and scamper home, sharing their favourite joke (about a cow) which floors them both with paroxysms of laughter and intensified bleeding. From the outset Ralph and Molly are the book's crowning achievement. Wonderfully characterised they are immediately the misfits of the family. Their genteel mother and her two elder daughters are almost a different breed from Ralph and Molly and when the three of them leave on a tour of the world halfway through the book they seem to do so with barely a thought about the siblings left behind. But whilst Ralph and Molly are united in their difference we notice in just the first few pages the beginnings of the antagonism that comes from such proximity.

Of late, Ralph had had moments of irritation with her: often, when he had finished telling a joke or a fact, she would repeat exactly what he had said immediately afterward so that there was no time for people either to laugh or to marvel. And not only that, but she had countless times told his dreams, pretending that they were her own.

Ralph worries that she will ruin their favourite joke, one that he so wants to impress Grandpa Kenyon with, and so agrees that they should tell it together as a dialogue. The moment never materialises, Grandpa Kenyon's visit is cut short by his passing away and when his son, the children's Uncle Claude, comes to collect the body the wheels are set in motion that will see Ralph and Molly travelling to what might as well be another planet as far as they're concerned and encountering the brutal consequences of growing up into a adult world.

The house, spacious and rambling, made of white brick, faced north upon the fast stream called the Caribou River which cut the pasture land in half. On its banks grew cottonwoods and weeping willow trees, and dense amongst them, chokecherry and sarvis berry bushes. Here beavers made their clever dams and here hoot owls warned at night: there was no place that was not alive with something.

Stafford's descriptions of the Rocky Mountains and the surrounding terrain are pitched just right, never straying into romantic landscape prose or 'beautiful writing', in fact the writing throughout is far from flashy (perhaps one of the reasons why my stylistically battered reading senses were slow to adjust). The regular trips to Claude's intensify the divide opening between Ralph and Molly. Ralph occupies a larger part of the frame, the approach of manhood and his relationship with his uncle, who becomes the father figure Ralph never had, dominating. The big cat of the title also appears, another potent symbol signifying all the danger inherent in the landscape and the approach of maturity, and both Claude and Ralph become determined to be the one to shoot her down. Molly is less ready to leave the indulgences of childhood, her passion for writing expressed in her constant diary writing and the curious poetry that convinces Ralph that his sister is going crazy.

He looked at his weedy sister with dislike as she crouched on her heels, plucking the lilies all around her, and when she looked up at him, her large humble eyes fondling his face with lonely love, he wanted to cry out with despair because hers was really the only love he had and he found it nothing but a burden and a tribulation.

Despite the classic one-liners that she delivers, often puncturing the social niceties as effectively as a pin to a balloon, Molly doesn't get a chance to shine as a fully rounded character until much later in the novel. A scene in which she takes a bath is a masterful piece of character fiction, suddenly giving us what we needed to better understand the girl that 'no one could ever say...was wishy washy.' I don't need to say much about the plot as Stafford keeps things relatively simple, the book working subtly with its themes and with great compassion and understanding. There is a slight inevitability about where it's heading, those ominous symbols keep popping up but that actually doesn't take away much from what the jacket describes as the book's devastating end. I'm prepared to admit that the shortcomings are my fault and I longed to have the opportunity to read the introduction by Kathryn Davis which was unfortunately missing from my proof. It probably made clear, in a way I'm ill-equipped to, the real strengths of this book and its place amongst the rest of the publisher's fine cannon.


Thursday 4 November 2010

Fiction Uncovered

Fiction Uncovered is a marvellous new initiative that aims to draw attention to great writers and writing that may have been overlooked. I have written a little piece for them about a book originally published in 1953 that deserves to be rescued from the second-hand stacks. Before my review went up there were 19 copies on Abebooks. Two have already gone. Can I tempt you too?


Tuesday 2 November 2010

'I'm all yours'

Mr Chartwell
by Rebecca Hunt

Winston Churchill famously described the state of depression that affected him for much of his life as a 'black dog'. In Rebecca Hunt's début novel the metaphor has been made flesh or, perhaps more accurately, fur. Mr Chartwell, as he is known in the novel (named after Churchill's famous residence of course), is a black dog all right, but one who stands six feet and seven inches on his hind legs and speaks perfect English. Esther Hammerhans is understandably flummoxed when she opens her front door to the gentleman who is interested in the room she has to rent and is confronted by what seems to be a huge Labrador from whose 'monstrous grey tongue' droplets of of saliva fall to the floor. Churchill himself is less surprised by the reappearance of his long-time foe, greeting his presence with a terse 'bugger off'. I can think of plenty of books where animals have been anthropomorphised but here we have a mental state which has been both characterised and physicalised, a tactic that could have gone horribly wrong but which Hunt pulls off with great ease. The book has its shortcomings but there is a charm and sensitivity about it which tends to make you forgive and forget them.

Esther is a library clerk at Westminster Palace (the House of Commons to you and me) who is looking to fill the spare room in her home. We gather immediately that she hasn't always cut such a lonely figure but was widowed two years ago. When Mr Chartwell arrives at her door and she has got over her initial surprise she begins to probe into what exactly he does. His services it seems 'consist of periods of time when I visit specific people, people who experience a specific darkness.' That darkness is depression, something from which her husband Michael suffered, towards which Esther is heading and with which 'Churchill is a regular'. Rather neatly Hunt has Esther sent down to Churchill himself, who is on the verge of retiring from parliament, in order to help take down his final speech. When these two characters come together, each will recognise the other's association with the black dog immediately. These 'two unenthusiastic and melancholy allies driven together to complete a duty' will work together, Churchill able to impart his hard-won experience with this particular foe, his speech-making skills put to great use in order to try and release Esther from a lifetime association with his 'bête noire'.

Each of the characters is brilliantly differentiated through dialogue with Churchill unsurprisingly given some of the more delicious language. Mr Chartwell has been away from him for some time it seems and his reappearance at such a moment of finality makes his weight even more of a burden.

'I understand that we share a wicked union, and I know the goblin bell which summons you comes from a tomb in my heart. And I will honour my principles, labouring against the shadows you herald. I don't blench from my burden, but -' here he let out a deep breath, laying the glasses down gently - 'it's so demanding; it leaves me so very tired. It would be some small comfort to me if I could ask how long I must endure this visit. Please, when do you leave?'

But as Chartwell says rather chillingly to the resilient Esther, 'I can wait.' Esther misunderstands at first when Chartwell mentions depressing people, thinking of the physical act of adding weight but for both of them it is almost that physical. Chartwell does literally weigh them both down at times, in the way only a sleepy dog can, and for Churchill especially the experience of a lifetime makes the metaphorical weight of his legacy something far more manifest.

'I admit I feel such doubt about how I will be judged for the work I have done in my life. And now, as I prepare to leave it behind, I feel uncertainty bearing down on me.'

What adds a lightness to the novel is the charm that comes before that weight. As Esther discovers, Mr Chartwell is in many ways an intoxicating presence. For those who are lonely his company alone is refreshing and his devotion, like that of man's best friend, is complete, his attention to each of his clients unwavering. Depression it seems is a seducer, tempting the sufferer towards inaction, indolence and a breakdown of relationships and Hunt successfully embodies that in the great, black bulk of Mr Chartwell. The subtle shift that turns devotion to control is handled brilliantly and much of the novel's drive comes from wondering whether Esther will succumb to it or break free.

As one might expect from a début there are times when the writing tries a little too hard. The opening paragraph for example threatens to sink the book immediately.

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill's mouth was pursed as if he had a slice of lemon hidden in there. Now eighty-nine, he often woke early. Grey dawn appeared in a crack between the curtains, amassing the strength to invade. Churchill prepared himself for the day ahead, his mind putting out analytical fingers and then coming at the day in a fist, ready for it.

Later when Esther wakes suddenly, 'The primitive departments of her brain, the units that dealt with anciently evolved instincts, were wiring encrypted telegrams to her consciousness.' But for every sentence weighed down by too much forethought there are others that glide past with inspiration. The approach of evening that brings the kind of light that photographers call 'the magic hour' gives rise to one of the more arresting paragraphs.

Light made a pair of tennis shorts over the bedroom wall. A shirt dropped on the floor had developed a modest beauty, cultivating the painterly creases of a restaurant napkin. On the windowsill was a small balding plant. The magic of the late light made it gorgeous and exotic.

 A 'migration into the dusk' is how Churchill describes the onward march of the physical body and with this quirky novel Hunt shows that whilst there is little that we can do to arrest the approach of that darkness, our mind remains a place where we can battle to stay in the light.


Thursday 28 October 2010

'If God had intended me not to drink he wouldn't have granted me perfect balance.'

Vivian and I
by Colin Bacon

How could I, as a thesp, confirmed fan and frequent quoter of Bruce Robinson's seminal film, Withnail and I, resist this biography of the man widely regarded as the main inspiration behind the character brought so vividly to life by Richard E. Grant? I couldn't. His friend, Colin Bacon, decided that there was a story to tell about Vivian Mackerell, an actor who never achieved the fame which at one time looked inevitable and instead became a slave to the alcoholism that eventually caused his death. That summary makes it sound like a depressing tale but Bacon is keen to unearth the stories and personalities in his glorious past, a time when he and the group around him seemed capable of achieving just about anything, but got nicely distracted along the way.

Bacon's approach is suggested by his choice of title, along with Viv's life we will read of Bacon's own.

A story witnessed through the eyes of another Baby Boomer and placed strategically to move it along. It's true that the latter part of Vivian's life was largely taken up with drinking and at times, therefore, there is a need to reveal aspects of my own life that possibly might add an insight or two.

'Might possibly' is a good indication of the self-deprecating streak that runs throughout most of the book. Bacon is almost painfully lacking in confidence for his task. In the early chapters especially when he talks of his dreams of meeting famous people, his old wish to be an actor, his worries about being taken seriously, even jokes about sexual under-performance, I felt myself worrying that this was going to be a book written by someone on the periphery, attaching himself to the cachet of Withnail's success. Bacon of course is aware of this and the opening pages, in which he describes the early stages of writing the book as we read it, are as much about earning our trust and respect as the people he attempts to contact about Vivian. He doesn't get off to a great start with Bruce Robinson himself. Withnail has always been something of a millstone around his neck and his concerns about a book that was going to frame Vivian as the creative inspiration for it restrict his involvement in the enterprise to a few photos and contacts. Bacon slowly warms to the task and it is when we get to see Vivian attending Central School of Speech and Drama, forming the first memorable friendships, that we begin to get closer to the figure of legend.

By his own (self-deprecating) admission it is David Dundas who really livens up proceedings with his descriptions of life at 127 Albert Street. The slightly dilapidated house in Camden Town, bought by Dundas' father for £6000 as a pad for his son during drama school, becomes the centre of student migration. At the core was Dundas, Bruce Robinson, Michael Feast and Viv but there is a constantly shifting entourage and assortment of 'itinerant girlfriends' which some nights included 'most of the cast of Hair.' There are flashes of scenes from the film particularly with the excessive drink and drug intake (I've seen joints that resemble television aerials and space stations coming off the production line. You practically gave yourself a hernia trying to get them to draw, but they looked great.) and there's no doubting the filthy glamour of 60's London, the only place to be at the time. I was a shabby drama student myself once upon a time and can relate to the impervious bubble of confidence that can build around you. Towards the end it feels like you're capable of anything and it must have been the same for Viv too. With talents like Feast, Michael Elphick and Robinson all doing well, the latter jetting off to play Benvolio for Zeffirelli's film of Romeo and Juliet (which would provide the inspiration behind Uncle Monty's sexual pursuit of 'I'), it might have been expected for Viv to follow a similar trajectory. There are conflicting reports as to whether Viv was any good as an actor. Some describe him as sensitive and charismatic, others as underpowered and lazy. He certainly doesn't seem to have had the ability to apply himself. Many actors aren't even aware of why they're good or what they do well and it seems that Viv's great skill was more as a raconteur rather than an actor. Bacon describes with great affection his ability to build a crowd around him at the bar and keep them entertained as long as the pints kept stacking up next to him. In a similar way Dundas cites the very qualities that made him such a valued member of the group.

In a way I think his life peaked in the mid sixties when we were all at Central and there was so much fluidity and promise, and later he became stuck with the soul of that time and never managed to replace it with anything equally fecund...He had a knack of leaving the table just before the bill came, but returning to it to provide energy and entertainment and laughter for the rest of the night, and he was to a few of us in that place at that time one of the dearest and most missed friends that we will ever have.

If the first few chapters are bit of a lame beginning and things liven up mainly when others begin to speak about Viv then Bacon really hits his stride when describing the life that came after that nucleus dispersed and people began to grow apart. It is as if the process of writing the book has helped him gain confidence, as well as the fact that he comes to write about the period when he and Viv were so close. The book actually becomes incredibly moving in a sad sort of way as we become party to the decline of a man through self-abuse and the powerlessness of his friend to steer him onto a safer course. There are of course some great lines too, to provide an insight into the repartee for which he is famed but which there has been little evidence of in the book so far. The success of this final section makes good on the shortcomings of the approach in the first half, and the brutal honesty accorded to Viv's final years gives the book a powerful finish. When seeking to understand the drive of a man so hell bent on destruction there is an interesting insight from Richard Digby-Day, the theatre director who remained so loyal to him as an actor, giving him frequent opportunities on the stage, and who always had faith in his abilities.

He had a strange poetry about him. He reminded me of something like Shelley must have been like and of course Shelley had an anarchic personality. When I look back now I see the person that Vivian was most in love with was, in some weird way, himself, but he also hated himself.
After reading this book it's difficult not to wish you had the opportunity to share a drink or five with the man himself, a wish impossible to grant now but this book being the closest you could come to it.


Tuesday 26 October 2010

'We are the authors of our own misfortunes'

The Skating Rink
by Roberto Bolaño

When I had my last struggle with Bolaño a few of you kindly recommended trying By Night In Chile as the acid test as to whether I was ever going to salvage anything from my tumultuous relationship with this much-admired author. I was going to leave it a while but then Picador were kind enough to send me the next title in their steady publishing of Bolaño's back catalogue. The Skating Rink has been described as a kind of Savage Detectives Lite; an earlier work using the same multiple narrator structure as that book's large middle section, but lacking the scope and ambition of it. Seeing as The Savage Detectives was the first Bolaño I read, and the only one I've really liked, I worried that The Skating Rink would be a disappointing step backward. In fact it turned out to be an opportunity to re-engage with what attracted me to his writing in the first place.

In the town of Z, near Barcelona, the events of a summer season are recounted by three men. Remo Moran is a successful businessman, Enric Rosquelles the corpulent right hand man of the local mayor and Gaspar Heredia a wandering poet. Whilst there are only three narrative voices employed here (compared to the panoply in TSD) there is still an impressive list of other characters in what remains a fairly taught tale of murder and corruption. As far as I was concerned the joy of Bolaño in TSD was the detailed digression and there's something of that here too. We sense almost immediately that something bad has happened but as the facts are slowly laid before us and we piece together the events that lead to a dead body there are also frequent digressions along the way. Whilst it might seem to be a conventional murder mystery there is little of the tight focus of that genre. I've worked out by now that Bolaño loves to subvert your expectations. So when Remo remarks,

I think I would have loved to be a detective. I'm pretty observant, and I can reason deductively, and I'm a keen reader of crime fiction...Anyway, as Hans Henny Jahn, I think, once wrote: if you find a murder victim, better brace yourself, because the bodies will soon be coming thick and fast.

You could be excused for thinking that this will be story where the intrigue piles up. But if there are other bodies it is really the three narrators we should focus on. The book is their attempt to make sense of the events of that summer and the effect that they had on each of them. As you might expect with a tale involving three men, there is a woman at the centre. Nuria Martí is a celebrated ice skater with whom Enric falls in love and Remo has an affair. These two men although separated for much of the novel have an antagonistic relationship, Remo describing Enric as 'a toy-size tyrant full of fears and obsessions'. That combination of power and obsession drives Enric to construct an ice-rink within a derelict pile called the Palacio Benvingut, a project he masterminds with the use of public funding that he appropriates in a manner that can only be described as daylight robbery. Neither of these men is in control of their feelings for Nuria; Enric with his fat gut and awkward manner is like a teenage boy trying to impress a girl with gifts and attention. Even Remo who might seem like the cruel man who gets what he wants from her finds the entire tone of their relationship dominated by the feeling he had when he first met her and followed her impulsive swim out into the ocean, a feat he was not well suited to physically.

...we had our first real conversation in the sea, and the feeling I had then, the conviction that I wouldn't make it back to shore, the intimation of death by drowning under a matte-blue sky, a sky that looked like a lung in a tub of blue paint, persisted throughout all our subsequent conversations.

And what of Gaspar? He and Remo knew each other years ago and it is he, as much as Nuria, who is seen to be a catalyst to the events that unfold despite his involvement with them really only coming later. Cutting a fairly dejected figure compared to the one Remo remembers from their past he comes at first as a bit of a shock.

I knew he was helpless, small and alone, perched on his stool at the bar, but I did nothing. Was I ashamed? Had his presence in Z released some kind of monster? I don't know. Maybe I thought I'd seen a ghost, and in those days I found ghosts extremely unpleasant. Not any more. Now, on the contrary, they brighten up my afternoons.

But Remo finds work for him as the night watchman at a campsite and it is Gaspar who provides the link to the two other characters that will become crucial to the story: an old opera singer and a woman with a penchant for carrying a large kitchen knife under her shirt. There's no need to say any more about them but I'd like finally to mention the other 'character' in the novel: the ice rink of the title. In his rather brilliant review Trevor over at The Mookse And The Gripes identifies the passage 'that describes the setting, the themes, and the book’s structure all in one go'. A series of packing crates have been assembled around the rink itself to create

...what looked like a labyrinth with a frozen center . . .

The Palacio Benvingut becomes a building that has an effect on those within it. Gaspar in his obsessive following of the woman with the kitchen knife comes upon the rink eventually himself and is immediately struck by the unique power of that space.

As soon as I crossed the threshold of the mansion, the sound of the "Fire Dance" put an end to my ruminations. From then on it was like I was drugged. From then on the world was entirely transformed, and my fears and suspicions shrank away, obliterated by the brilliant alliance of desire and risk within those sturdy old walls.
Desire and risk are a potent combination and Bolaño harnesses them well in a book that refuses to be a conventional thriller but manages to grip like one. It may be that this book hasn't the desire and risk that can be found in TSD but within the confines that it sets up for itself it was a timely reminder of why so many people rate Bolaño so highly.


Friday 22 October 2010

'This is the only part I'll remember'

X'ed Out 
by Charles Burns

After reading Burns' Black Hole I have been thrown back into his nightmarish take on adolescence and young adulthood in the first part of a new colour serial being given the hardback treatment by Jonathan Cape. When I first saw the cover of this new book I immediately thought of Tintin and then came across this piece which helpfully explained exactly why. This latest work is clearly influenced by the work of Hergé with artwork, character names and the look of his main character all Tintinesque. It is all infused with Burns' own unique style of course and in my limited experience of his work he joins a small band of artists with the ability to unnerve and disturb in a way that genuinely gives me the willies (I'm thinking also of Lynch and Cronenberg).

The hero this time is Doug who seems to be a troubled young man. Living in his parent's house, he subsists on a diet of pop-tarts and some kind of tranquilising medication. Looking back through his obsessively compiled collection of Polaroids he dwells on his adolescence, a time spent doing performance poetry as his alter-ego 'Nitnit', an achingly uncool thing to do as a warm up act to the new wave of punk bands sweeping the stage. But in Doug's dreams Nitnit has the central role as he wanders a post-apocalyptic world peopled by lizard-faced humanoids, grub-eating street merchants and those distinctive speckled eggs seen on the cover (this dream world had me thinking of another possible influence, William Burroughs). The disorientating moment that accompanies each new moment of awakening is that same thing we all feel when we wonder where we are and even whether we have really awakened or are still dreaming. The images flow from one world to another so that there is a connection between the conscious and unconscious states. With the book beginning in one of these dreams it takes a while to piece together what is real, what a dream, what affected by medication and the curious bandage to the side of his head has already become for me a way of charting which state he's in (anyone who has seen Inception will know the skills required to keep parallel storylines in place). Much more than that is hard to say with this just the first volume and only 56 pages at that. But I really want to know what happens next in a morbid, curious, don't-eat-the-eggs kind of way.


Wednesday 20 October 2010

Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

It's been a while since an album tempted me towards the keyboard (of my computer that is) but Deerhunter's latest has demanded play after play, containing that mix of invention, variety and hooks that make you want to listen through it just one more time. It came as a bit of surprise as their last album, Microcastle, had never made me want to listen to it beyond the little samples I heard on its release. There was something a bit rudderless about it, a meandering quality that meant it disappeared from my thoughts almost immediately. There's something different about this album though. It's much more structured and contains, dare I say it, more tunes, more songs, more enjoyment. Earthquake is an atmospheric opener; reversed drums, almost Vangelis-like instrumentation and distorted vocals follow a warped progression. The distortion continues with the jangled pop strumming of Don't Cry before Revival brightens things further with mandolins that recall fellow Georgians REM and West-coast harmonies that float on top. Sailing quietens things considerably with its tale of solitude and isolation, 'You can't take too long/Making up songs' sings Bradford Cox, something Deerhunter could never be accused of with a prolific output of two EP's and three albums in the last four years.

The pace picks up on Memory Boy which stomps along nicely before early favourite Desire Lines turns up with its portentous guitars. The longest track on the album so far the first half is conventional enough before the vocals end and the guitars take over for three and a half minutes of guitar-driven instrumental. Basement Scene's vocals begin with the word 'dream' sung to the very same notes of the Everly Brother's track of the same name. That's where the similarities end although there's something a bit sixties influenced about it, although in fact they sound most like Clinic. Helicopter (video below) is one of those tracks that piles up the layers making it sound slightly different with each listen. There's something plaintive about the tone as Cox sings - 'No one cares for me/I have minimal needs/I keep no company/And now they are through with me' - but the music has a transcendent quality that keeps it all light.

Fountain Stairs is another pleasant, two-and-a-half minute head bobber but Coronado, while only slightly longer, feels much bigger due to the big saxophone that dominates. Apparently inspired by the Rolling Stone's Exile On Main Street it is a welcome addition to the sound of the album, a chance to get down before the extended closer He Would Have Laughed. The album works so well because for all the looseness of the playing and the feel, most of the tracks are actually quite short and sound like fully formed songs rather than experiments and ideas. That's what makes it work far better for me than their last album, and a good indication of what they could be capable of in the future.


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