Thursday 31 March 2011

'When does it end?'

A Mile Down
by David Vann

David Vann has had more firsts than most authors. His first novel, Caribou Island, might have been considered his second if the book that came before it, Legend Of A Suicide, hadn't been packaged as a collection of short stories in the US. His very first book however was this non-fiction title published by Thunder's Mouth Press, a memoir detailing his disastrous career as a charter-boat captain. There's a danger in delving into a writer's back-catalogue, especially one who has made such a splash with his first (whichever one that was) forays into fiction. There's no doubt that this memoir doesn't match the accomplishment of the writing in either of his books since, in fact in many ways it seems like an entirely different writer altogether, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a compelling read, the literary equivalent of rubbernecking at the scene of an accident, so consistently awful is Vann's luck in his pursuit of the American Dream.

Vann was working as a lecturer at Stanford, teaching creative writing, but unsure of achieving tenure when he decided to set up a business providing educational courses on a chartered boat. The success of his initial forays led him to look at purchasing a larger boat and to purse his dream of achieving the kind of financial independence and satisfaction that had eluded his father. For yet again, this is a book tainted by the impact of that one event which anyone who has read Vann before will know about.

My father killed himself when I was thirteen, so my knowledge of him is limited. No one can tell me exactly why he decided to quit his dental practice and build a commercial fishing boat or what he felt when he had to sell the boat and return to dentistry.
So as we read about the trials endured by that dentist's son (a touching photo of the two of them on a fishing trip appears on the first page) both he and we cannot help but compare the two men's experience and we wonder how close this catalogue of errors came to pushing the son to emulate the father's final act. And it really is problem after problem. It is quite staggering how many things go wrong, and perhaps because of the book's title(and cover), knowing that it will end in complete failure, you can't help but feel that the plan was doomed to failure from the start. It is whilst in Bodrum, Turkey that Vann sees the 90ft steel hull upon which he can see himself building his dream boat. His contact there Seref, 'pronounced like the good guy in one of your westerns,' seems to be able to promise everything that Vann wants from his boat and with significant savings in cost compared to other sites. That said, the amounts of money required are staggering, tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised from creditors and investors but Vann always seems to be juggling debts, credit cards and favours in his quest to keep his head literally above water.

Nothing it seems is immune from the possibility of failure. There are significant problems with the boat's construction (made worse by the constant language barrier in Turkey) which return again and again, crooked bureaucrats, freak weather conditions, unhelpful and potentially criminal fellow mariners, poor rescue efforts and of course the constant battle against sleep deprivation, fatigue and falling spirits. Much later in the book Vann admits that 'A boat simply does not allow for genuine rest. Its essential nature is peril, held in check only through enormous effort and expense.' As a friend of his helpfully points out when he asks when it ends: "It never ends, David. It's a boat." That peril is so constant that the book is an exhausting read at times; sometimes in a good way - there is something undeniably exciting in reading about near-death experiences; sometimes less so, as when we go into the detail of finances or boat technical specifications. Anyone coming to this book from Vann's fiction might be a little disappointed by the prose, there is none of the control or craft that you'll find in the two books that come after it, he has certainly become a much better writer in recent years but there is plenty to fascinate in the story itself and in particular with what this experience helps Vann to learn about himself and, by extension, his father.

Anyone setting up their own business cannot help but see that business as an extension of themselves, its failures or successes a measure of personal achievement. Having been a high-achieving, award-winning student it's possible that this was the first time Vann had experienced any real failure in the goals he had set himself. When the person you believe yourself to be is challenged then a natural reaction is fear.

And I knew my father had felt this same fear, of becoming something other than what he had always imagined himself to be. I wondered if this was part of what had made suicide begin to seem reasonable.

Vann's dogged pursuit of that dream in the face of such hardship leads us and eventually he himself to question whether he might be 'doing all of this for unconscious reasons, trying to relive my father's life, for instance, or testing whether I'd kill myself as he had if things got bad enough.' And this is a test that he comes through, never contemplating ending it all no matter how hard things become. In fact having reached his first nadir (oh yes, things don't just go totally wrong once) and somehow finding in himself the determination to carry on regardless he manages to locate something positive in his father's own actions.

What I enjoyed most was the new portrait of my father that was emerging. For at least fifteen years after his suicide, I had been very angry at him, hating him for abandoning me and for killing himself in such a dirty, shameful way, blowing his own head off. But now, after my bankruptcy and all of my other smaller frustrations and failures in this business, I could see a man struggling, a man who had been almost exactly my age, who had shared a similar dream of wanting to be able to invent his own life, instead of going every day to a job he hated, a man drawn to the same frontier.

But the fact remains that Vann's father did put that gun to his head and this journey by his son which he had hoped would be 'about how everything had worked out after it had seemed all was lost' is actually about how Vann manages to do what his father could not and 'after ten years of insomnia and fifteen years of being fairly sure I was doomed to kill myself,' finally, finally escape his legacy.


Tuesday 29 March 2011

'A transmutation of reality'

A Dance
by Alexander Barabanov

In his introduction to this collection of photographs Barabanov, after stating that dance must be one of the earliest forms of creative human expression, makes a strong case for the importance of dance photography.

Dance photography provides a further level of art, which is perfectly attached to the original creation, yet exists independently within its own medium. As it guides the eye, the photography focuses the viewer's attention on particular concepts. Photographs reveal those powerful moments, which remain fixed like passages of prose or of music, that can be recalled long after the novel is closed or a symphony completed.

That prose may not have the same kind of flow as the movement it alludes to, I'm guessing that it loses some fluency in translation, but it does point out that photography really does seem to be the best medium through which to capture the essence of dance. Photography has always been about using light to capture a moment, and whilst in its earliest forms the technology demanded that the subject remain as still as possible for a lengthy period, the changes in technology have allowed photographers to capture ever-decreasing fractions of a second in which we might hope to view the impossible. Barabanov is insistent though that 'The eye of the artist, not the technology, makes the picture' and indeed some of the most recent photographs on display in this book are static tableaux that exploit the technology to provide detail and texture rather than the ability to freeze the moment itself.

At its best, dance photography enables us to hold on to the emotion and preserve a sense of the energy of the performance. A transmutation of reality can occur.

In just a short introduction Barabanov is able to give a potted history of dance photography from the small carte-de-visite of the first ballet stars like Nijinsky above, onto the more lavish studio photographs produced in France, Russia, Italy and Japan as the bigger names in the dance world were able to achieve the kind of fame usually reserved for actors or singers. Barabanov has rifled through the stacks of glass-plate negatives in theatrical archives to unearth some gems from the end of the nineteenth century onwards and these can be as fascinating as the pictures of more recent success.

What sets this book apart is the attempt to create something which isn't just another anthology of dance imagery but a cohesive work were the images have been 'choreographed' in order to express something about the very capture of movement. There are ten sections in total and we begin by meeting the men. From the amazing versatility of Baryshnikov (who features in two pictures from the same ballet - The Creation of the World - one which shows his impish acting ability, the other an extraordinary leap that no dancer in the same role was ever able to repeat) and the raw power of Nijinsky, there are also images from the Breakin' Convention just a few years ago at Sadlers Wells. The variety continues to dazzle in the next section focusing on women, from the exotic studio print of Mata Hari to the erotic derriere captured by Phile Deprez.

Man and woman come together in the third section in an exploration of creation myths. There is something Edenic about these pas de deux as opposed to the erotic charge that comes in later sections. 'Eroticism is one of the primary instincts of dance' and there are plenty of images that capture that instinct. One image is not published but described in a fabulous anecdote of one session between Richard Avedon and Rudolph Nuryev; where the dancer slowly raised his arms above his head, his penis rising at the same rate as his hands. What we can see from one of their sessions is a photo that shows that the body itself, especially when pictured in close-up, becomes something far more mechanical, we can see the muscles, sinew and dried skin on Avedon's portrait of Nuryev's foot and other pictures in that section are testament to the extraordinary architecture that lies behind the expression of dance.

There are of course amazing images that seem to freeze time creating impossible suspensions of movement. These don't always feel the same however. The dust-jacket of the book actually features an image of Baryshnikov, famed for his jumps, in mid-leap; but where the DJ crops the image to fit the book's square format, the copy opposite gives a better idea of his ability to hang in the air more like a bird than a man. In Denis Darzacq's image below however, the freeze of movement has something dangerous about it. We are milliseconds away from something catastrophic it seems and it is difficult to even relax when looking at it. Both images freeze movement, both have an air of impossibility about them but both feel very different.

Fast speed films and ever-shorter shutter speeds may be one development but the photographing of tableaux has been another innovation. Several images show dance that is static so that the camera hasn't captured movement so much as the choreographer's vision. Pictures by Clinton Fein for example are inspired by Abu Ghraib (you can compare his image below with the original, below that), pictures inspiring pictures, and add an injection of contemporary relevance and danger that might be missing from the archived images of old (that once caused sensations of their own of course)

At the end of all that however this is a coffee-table book and there is simple pleasure to be found in flicking through the images, enjoying the thematic cohesion that comes from Barabanov's selection and curation of wildly eclectic images, and marvelling (whether you be a dancer yourself or not) at the amazing range of expression that can come from using our bodies alone.


Thursday 24 March 2011

'the right amount of crazy'

A Visit From The Goon Squad 
by Jennifer Egan

This book was highly praised by Trevor over at The Mookse and The Gripes and chosen by him as one of his books of last year, so it was with not a little impatience that I waited for it to arrive on these shores (which it does this month thanks to Corsair). It turns out that Trevor wasn't alone in his admiration for this novel, the press release comes laden with fantastic quotes from just about every American newspaper you'd care to mention and plenty of others picking it as one of their books of the year. That's quite a weight of expectation, and indeed a couple of respected bloggers have recently voiced their disappointment with it, but that came after I had already read and enjoyed one of the more original and entertaining books of recent memory.

The novel has an interesting structure coming as several interlinked stories rather than a single narrative, characters from one appearing in another and the reader moving forwards and backwards in time from the late sixties up to the near future of 2020. 'Time's a goon,' one character says and the free-wheeling shifts from one section to the next I can only compare to what it must feel like to be Doctor Who's companion; you suddenly find yourself in a new place and time but something or someone will be vaguely familiar, the first few pages an acclimatisation before the rest provide some kind of revelation. I am going to refer to it as a novel because whilst you could read the stories separately there is so much more to be gained from reading the book as a whole. In such a fractured novel it is hard to pick a central protagonist, the book's blurb names Bennie Salazar, ageing music mogul, as the man for that position, although it is his PA Sasha who opens the book. She suffers from kleptomania and in the opening story/section we find her trying to resist the urge to lift the purse from an unattended handbag in a toilet. The fact that she is doing this whilst out on a date will give you an indication of the seriousness of her condition - this is not just an opportunistic hobby. The scene that follows as her date becomes involved in trying to help this woman retrieve her stolen goods is excruciating (and funny) but suddenly becomes poignant when he goes back to Sasha's apartment and comes across her collection of stolen items. Most of these are trivial items and one photo causes passing mention to be made of a friend of hers who drowned. That story will be picked up and fleshed out later and this is one of the fascinating things about this book. Some seemingly inconsequential characters or moments suddenly assume a much larger significance later when they are given their moment. Others are more immediately satisfying like the note that she finds in her date's wallet, presumably given to him some time ago, on which is written 'I BELIEVE IN YOU', and of course you know that she has to have it.

Even with all that going on the story isn't content to leave things there, the narrative switches effortlessly from the events of that evening to the retelling of them by Sasha to her therapist Coz. This is done effortlessly and simply sheds an entirely new perspective on the behaviour on display in the story as well as placing Sasha in a slightly wider context. Egan has several different ways of performing these  lightning fast switches in narrative technique, one other favourite is to suddenly cast forward into the future and let us now what lies in store for a particular character, something that allows us to see what seeds are being sown by their current actions or the dramatic irony that will be achieved in their later life.

It is in the next chapter that we meet Bennie, trying at the age of 44 to arrest the slide clearly happening in his life, divorced from wife Stephanie with whom he has battled over their son Christopher and struggling to retain his musical intuition, his desperation summed up in the red-enamelled box from which he takes a pinch of gold flakes to add to his coffee (having read somewhere that the combination in Aztec medicine was reputed to ensure sexual potency). Throughout the book we will pick up with him at different stages of his life, at the height of success amongst the big houses and Republicans, back into his youth as part of a group of punk rockers in San Francisco. The effect of these shifts is that the same character can be viewed both sympathetically and unsympathetically within a few pages. Another record company executive, Lou, appears first to us as an exploiter of young girls before another chapter shows him in a much warmer light on safari with his family. Even the most peripheral of characters can suddenly be shown in a new light when their story comes to the fore later on.

Throughout the book Egan produces several examples of character description so concise and barbed it's a bit like seeing the butterfly collector put the pin through his latest acquisition. Sometimes personal ('Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him'), other times political ('Kathy was a Republican, one of those people who used the unforgivable phrase "meant to be" - usually when describing her own good fortune or the disasters that had befallen other people.') Egan even uses the recent release of Stephanie's brother Jules from prison (the reason for which we will come to shortly) to take a satirical swipe at post 9/11 America.

"I go away for a few years and the whole fucking world is upside down," Jules said angrily. "Buildings are missing. You get strip-searched every time you go to someone's office. Everybody sounds stoned, because they're e-mailing people the whole time they're talking to you. Tom and Nicole are with different people...And now my rock and roll sister and her husband are hanging around with Republicans. What the fuck!"

Jules' incarceration came after he assaulted an actress he was interviewing for a magazine. This article is reproduced in the book to hilarious effect where he states that he hopes it will prove to be as revelatory as his other pieces on 'hunting elk with Leonardo DiCaprio, reading Homer with Sharon Stone and digging for clams with Jeremy Irons'. It is one of the book's sections that makes it worth the price of admission and possibly because one of Egan's great strengths is the satire of modern culture. One extraordinary strand of the novel has this in spades as we follow the rise and fall of Dolly (or LA Doll as she was known professionally), a PR guru who in her later life is becoming a specialist at image makeovers for military dictators. Her spectacular fall from grace came at a party she organised, something to rival Capote's famous Black and White Ball, with all the biggest names attending. Dolly's moment of hubris came when she saw herself as a designer as well host, suspending large perspex trays of oil and water from the ceiling on chains, lit by spotlights that caused the oil to swirl about and project patterns across the walls. Her miscalculations about 'the melting temperature of plastic and the proper distribution of weight-bearing chains' resulted in a horrific scene of boiling oil pouring on her assembled guests

They were burned, scarred, maimed in the sense that tear-shaped droplets of scar tissue on the forehead of a movie star or small bald patches on the head of an art dealer or a model or generally fabulous person constitute maiming.

(Suddenly those 'tender, circular burns' on Bennie's forearm back on page 17 make sense) A law suit that wiped out her savings and six months in jail for criminal negligence were one thing but the altered state in which she emerged from her incarceration - 'thirty pounds heavier and fifty years older, with wild grey hair' meant that crucially no-one recognised her and she effectively disappeared. That might be enough but the extraordinary volt face occurs later, when she hires an actress (and given the way in which things tend to tie together in this novel it is of course the actress interviewed by Jules earlier) to pose as the girlfriend of the military dictator of an African state in order to soften his image, and she notices burn marks on her arms.

"I made them myself," Kitty said.
Dolly stared at her, uncomprehending. Kitty grinned, and for a second she looked sweetly mischievous, like the star of Oh, Baby, Oh. "Lots of people have," she said. "You didn't know?"
Dolly wondered if this might be a joke. She didn't want to fall for it in front of Lulu.
"You can't find a person who wasn't at that party," Kitty said. "And they've got proof. We've all got proof - who's going to say we're lying?"
"I know who was there," Dolly said. "I've still got the list in my head."
"But . . . who are you?" Kitty said, still smiling

The distances between the stories in this novel and the means by which those distances are closed are no less mechanical (or perhaps at times even deus-ex-mechanical) than time travel itself. There is no doubt that some readers will find this book annoying, some because of structure, some because of content. Personally, I enjoyed the ride and loved those moments where a connection would suddenly spark. Is a chapter written as a Powerpoint presentation just a gimmick or a genuine innovation? Well, it worked for me but I'm not sure I want to see it repeated. Just about every time Egan gets away with it, even when moving into the future (a notoriously slippy place for the non-genre novelist) which she presents with small believable developments from the prevalence of 'handhelds' (as I edit this on my own phone) to the fallout of the 'Bloggescandals' where enthusiastic, word-of-mouth success had been shown to be nothing more than corporate-sponsored advertising using bloggers as 'parrots' (erm...). You have to take a few risks when trying something new and Egan certainly does that. How well she succeeds may be down to personal taste but her intelligence, humour and compassion made for a read that sparkled for this reader like the flakes of gold Bennie Salazar dropped into his coffee.


Tuesday 22 March 2011

'c'est exactement pareil...'

A Time To Keep Silence
by Leigh Patrick Fermor

I have recently gone through another re-rehearsal process in the long running play War Horse, a time that frankly tests the spirit in a number of ways. Each time (this was my third re-rehearsal) I have picked my reading matter carefully, indulging myself last year with David Mitchell's historical epic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Maybe it was because I was so exhausted this time around but I felt my reading capacity would be diminished and that what was in fact required was a book that didn't so much offer escapist thrills as a form of retreat and sanctuary during the hustle and bustle of mounting this beast of a show. Quite opportunistically I happened across a recommendation from Adam Haslett, author of last years grievously overlooked (in the UK anyway) Union Atlantic. On an NPR segment called 'You Must Read This' he spoke about Fermor's 1957 travelogue, a book he used to help achieve calm and peace on a trip away from city life. Fermor, "Britain's greatest living travel writer", was born in 1915 and set off at the age of just eighteen to walk all the way through Europe from Holland to Constantinople. After that staggering journey he travelled around Greece before joining the amy at the outbreak of the Second World War where his knowledge of Greek allowed him to work undercover and play a crucial role in what would later be filmed by Powell and Pressburger as Ill Met By Moonlight, with Fermor portrayed by Dirk Bogarde.

A Time To Keep Silence details Fermor's visits to Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries not because he wished to go into retreat but because he was 'in fact, in search of somewhere quiet and cheap to stay' while he continued to work on a book that he was writing. This isn't about a man discovering faith on his travels but simply about the experience any one of us might endure if secluded within the strict confines of a religious order. I say endure because whether the experience is viewed as positive or negative it is one that forces the monks and Fermor to radically alter their lives. The book comes in three sections: The Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, From Solesmes to La Grand Trappe and The Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the shock to the system that comes from conversion to a life of isolation, privation and contemplation the most compelling section is the first, as Fermor comes to terms with a completely different way of living and thinking. The later sections deal more with the monk's history and the extraordinary architecture of the hollowed out rock monasteries, all interesting but in a slightly detached, travel-literature kind of way whereas that first immersion into religious retreat at St Wandrille are fascinating from a human point of view.

As I think I might be myself, Fermor cannot help but be fascinated by the men who populate these dark spaces, their physicality at first the thing that he remarks on when he gets his glimpses of men...

'preternaturally pale, some of them nearly green. The bone structure of their faces lay nearly always close beneath the surface. But, though a deep hollow often accentuated the shadow under the cheekbone, their faces were virtually without a wrinkle, and it was this creaseless haggardness that made their faces so distinct from others.'
'Their eyelids were always downcast; and, if now and then they were raised, no treacherous glint appeared, nothing but a sedulously cultivated calmness, withdrawal and mansuetude and occasionally an expression of burnt-out melancholy.'

After that slightly prurient interest in the monastery's residents Fermor is challenged by his own reaction to being cooped up in such an unfamiliar environment. I've never been on any kind of retreat and the advent of children in my life means that the relaxation of a holiday is something I can barely remember. Surrounded by such silence and the contemplation of both life and death through scripture, art and thought, Fermor feels as if he has literally been buried alive, his brain totally unaccustomed to having so much time to idle and roam. But slowly things begin to shift.

My first feelings in the monastery changed: I lost the sensation of circumambient and impending death, of being by mistake locked up in a catacomb. I think the alteration must have taken about four days. The mood of dereliction persisted for sometime, a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition from urban excess to a life of rustic solitude.

Freed from that oppression Fermor is intrigued by the way in which 'the same habitat should prove favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed.' For his hosts 'the Abbey was a springboard into eternity; for me a retiring place to write a book and spring more effectively back into the maelstrom.' The irony being that when the time comes for him to make that journey back into the world he is surprised to find it an even more painful adjustment than the one he had made when entering the Abbey.

If my first days in the Abbey had been a period of depression, the unwinding process, after I had left, was ten times worse. The Abbey was at first a graveyard; the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders and sluts and crooks. This state of mind, I saw, was, perhaps, as false as my first reaction to monastic life; but the admission did nothing to decrease its unpleasantness.

The even more strict surroundings of the Trappist orders cause Fermor to examine not how the sins of the outside world might encroach on the peace of a monastery but how the danger lies in one's own thoughts. He was able to ask a friend who had previously been part of a Trappist order how it felt to have one's spirit's tested.

As often as not, profane and carnal visions would be reinforced by by the murmurings of religious doubt, and at the end of these alarming onslaughts, from which he emerged unscathed only with the help of prayer and a kind of mental flight, he would feel utterly exhausted (but victorious)...no monk, however holy, could say that he was immune for life; the Devil, incensed by defeat, lulled his foe by inaction, and then returned to the attack with sevenfold reinforcements.
When the scene shifts to Cappadocia then we really move into the territory of descriptive travel writing. These ancient monasteries and churches, carved out of the very rock of this unique landscape, provide a fantastic subject for Fermor to demonstrate just why he is regarded so highly.

It was the landscape of a planet, the surface of the moon or Mars or Saturn: a dead, ashen world, lit with the blinding pallor of a waste of asbestos, filled, not with craters and shell-holes, but with cones and pyramids and monoliths from fifty to a couple of hundred feet high, each one a rigid isosceles of white volcanic rock like the headgear of a procession of Spanish penitents during Passion Week. These petrified cagoulards extended for leagues to the farther end of the ravine, where they were reduced by distance to a barrier of shark's teeth.

And after making this journey with Fermor it is worth reflecting briefly on the parallels between my own environment and that he described. Without wanting to make light of the serious dedication and commitment made by those entering the monastic life I couldn't help but laugh as I compared the virtual imprisonment of tech week at the New London Theatre to the period of internment that Fermor described in his first few days at St Wandrille. Cut-off from the outside world with little light or stimulus, immersed in the past and focused entirely on one thing; who wouldn't go a little mad? And emerging exhausted from the other side, stepping back into the hustle and bustle of modern London; who wouldn't feel disoriented and confused. There was a wider comparison too, when considering why anyone would put themselves through the absurdities of trying to make a living as an actor; after all, it may be exhausting when you're working but it's just plain hellish when you're not. What possible return could be great enough to make that vocation worthwhile?

I asked one of the monks how he could sum up, in a couple of words, his way of life. He paused for a moment and said, 'Have you ever been in love?' I said, 'Yes.' A large, Fernandel smile spread across his face, 'Eh bien,' he said, 'c'est exactement pareil...'

(That's the romantic version, the fact of course is that I'm not trained to do anything else!)


Thursday 17 March 2011

'borrowed from ghosts'

He burned the house of God, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.

Great House
by Nicole Krauss

Sometimes you need a gentle nudge to engage with an author for the first time (and sometimes a bloody great shove) and for some reason this is even more the case with authors that you suspect are actually very good but just haven't tickled your fancy enough. Huge thanks then to @wayfaringreader (as she's known on Twitter) for convincing me to read this superb novel (something she backed up rather hilariously with a tweet from Ivanka Trump who was enjoying Great House by the side of the pool). All of the reviews I have come across have been wonderfully positive and a belly band that came wrapped around my copy included one that mentioned Krauss as being Philip Roth's most likely literary heir. I wasn't quite sure what a comment like that was supposed to mean but as I read I began to have an inkling what Yevgeniya Traps meant in the New York Press. Krauss is the kind of writer who creates characters with such detail and specificity that they don't feel like characters in a novel at all, but real people whose stories we long to hear. She does this with the kind of mature psychological observations, emotional detail and interconnectedness that you can find examples of time and again in Roth's work. Regular readers of this blog will know that when I come on strong in the opening paragraph it's because I want to save you the time (if time is a luxury) of reading on and speed you towards a purchase. I'll join the chorus of approval and recommend this novel wholeheartedly: complex, engaging writing that slows down the reader; characters that live and breathe and even have the ability to affect your own breathing; a novel that deals with loss and memory so tenderly that it makes itself unforgettable.

The novel has four main narrators all of which are united by a desk. This piece of furniture holds an unusual amount of power over those who encounter it, there is something totemic about it, coming to represent different things to each of them. The first of these is Nadia, a novelist in her fifties, who was given the desk after the end of a relationship left her in a virtually unfurnished apartment and a single encounter with a Chilean poet called Daniel Varsky found her then guardian to his donated furniture when he left for a trip back to Chile. Having shared their love of poetry and interest in each other a relationship of sorts continues with Varsky's postcards but when these dry up and it is discovered that Varsky has been arrested, torutured and killed by Pinochet's goons the desk remains with the rest of his furniture as a haunting reminder of him 'sometimes I would look at it all and become convinced that it amounted to a riddle, a riddle he had left me that I was supposed to crack.'

Nineteen drawers of varying size, some below the desktop and some above, whose mundane occupations (stamps here, paperclips there) hid a far more complex design, the blueprint of the mind formed over tens of thousands of days of thinking while staring at them, as if they held the conclusion to a stubborn sentence, the culminating phrase, the radical break from everything I had ever written that would at last lead to the book I had always wanted, and always failed, to write. Those drawers represented a singular logic deeply embedded, a pattern of conciousness that could be articulated in no other way but their precise number and arrangement. Or am I making too much of it?
She isn't making too much of it. Having always thought of herself as 'only a temporary guardian' she remains unprepared for the impact of its removal from her life, something that happens when she is contacted by someone claiming to be the daughter of Daniel Varsky. Having happily written seven novels on it she finds her creative routine disturbed sufficently by its absence to encounter something close to a breakdown, finally settling on a trip to Jerusalem where the desk itself has travelled after she let it go.

The next section is narrated by an elderly man, Aaron, who has recently lost his wife and regained his son, Dov, who left Israel after his stint in the army and trained in law in America, going on to become a judge. This isn't a happy reunion, Aaron's narration is angry, impassioned and frequently hilarious as he wrestles with his complex feelings towards his children. One of the novel's themes is the impact of parenthood and how we relate to our offspring and Aaron's frustration with Dov's childhood histrionics will be familiar to any parent who has been confronted by a stroppy toddler who seems to be screaming for no clear reason (his hilarious response to one bathtime incident is to lift Dov clear of the water and deliver a lecture about the privations suffered by his ancestors during the pogroms and persecutions of the twentieth century). Now that Dov is an adult and his widowed father approaching the age of dependence there is a shift in that dynamic, something humorously undercut once again as Aaron sees his two sons talking confidentially

...trying to figure out what to do with me now, your old man, without having a clue, just as once you had no clue what to do with a pair of tits.

From New York and Israel we travel next to England where the two other narrators are based. First is Izzy, who remembers her time as an Oxford student and her relationship with fellow-student Yoav. Their intimacy always seems to be compromised by Yoav's unique familial relationships. His domineering father, almost always away with his work (of which more in a minute), is kept at a distance even on the few occasions he returns to London. Most unusual is the intense connection he shares with his sister Leah, a bond close enough to appear incestuous to many observers including their former school principal and enough, although it remains platonic, to have an impact on his relationship with Izzy. Their father's work looks from the outside like the dealing of antique furniture but is in fact slightly more specific than that. His speciality is the re-location of furniture confiscated from Jews during the Second World War so that those survivors and descendants might reclaim 'all that furnished the lives they lost or the lives they dreamed of living.' He himself is on a mission to recreate his own father's study exactly as it stood on the day in 1944 when he was forced to flee Budapest, 'As if by putting all the pieces back together he might collapse time and erase regret.'

We also meet an elderly man who has recently lost his wife. Always secretive about her past in mainland Europe it is only after her death that he begins to discover the full extent of what she had kept to herself and we will learn even more about the history of that desk and how it came to be in Varsky's possession in the first place. Not all of the sections are given an equal weight. There is no doubt that Aaron's narration is the strongest from a character point of view but it is Nadia and her meditations on writing itself that really held sway for me. This is where Krauss really deserves her comparison to Roth for providing a story that not only satisfies on its own terms but also has something to say about the act of writing itself. In her sections, begun and punctuated by the appeal Your Honor so that she is almost like a witness on trial, Nadia is unapologetic about the process of writing. Knowing that she has not been free in her own life she is strident that 'the writer should not be cramped by the possible consequences of her work. She has no duty to earthly accuracy or versimillitude. She is not an accountant; nor is she required to be something as ridiculous and misguided as a moral compass. In her work the writer is free of laws.' Later in the novel she has to admit how that isolation may have turned her into the kind of person so singularly obsessed that they neglect even the closest relationships in the the real world.

...someone so selfish and self-absorbed that she had been unconcerned enough about her husband's feelings to give him not even a fraction of the care and attention she gave to imagining the emotional lives of the people she sketched out on paper, to furnishing their inner lives, taking pains to adjust the light on their faces, brushing a stray hair from their eyes.

And like every great writer, having dedicated so much of her life to the creation of art she is struck by the most paralysing question of all about her belief in its validity: 'What if I had been wrong?'

Each of the strands is built around the idea of how we construct narrative around memory. The novel's title is taken from the Book of Kings (the phrase quoted at the top of this review) and more precisely the idea that 'every Jewish soul is built around the house that burned in that fire' - when the Temple was destroyed as the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem. A people without a Temple or even a homeland must turn 'Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book. A book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form.' Each narrator is bent around the shape of something lost and in this intricate, mature and deeply resonant work, where the different stories mirror and echo each other, Krauss has created a book of her own to follow that Talmudic ideal.


Tuesday 15 March 2011

'how terrible love can be'

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
by Wells Tower

So universal was the praise for this debut collection of stories from Wells Tower that the copy I was lent by a friend at work was purchased by him for just a few quid along with a newspaper, the kind of promotional stunt usually reserved for populist fiction and chick-lit. Anyone used to that kind of fare may have received a bit of a shock on diving into this volume with tales ranging from rape and pillage by a group of marauding Vikings in the title story to the sexual abuse of a young boy in a carnival toilet. Don't worry, it isn't as grim as it sounds (well the abuse bit is, obviously), there is humour too, but always of a distinctly dark hue and the collection as a whole has a grimy and slightly rotten feel to it. I say this as a good thing, reminding me of a similar trait that runs through the work of Denis Johnson and his own story collection Jesus' Son in particular. The situations and the characters that populate them may be far from perfect but each has its moments of yearning for something beautiful, something that redeems the very human pursuits on display. If there isn't hope itself there is ways the hope that hope will appear. You hope.

The quote on the cover highlights 'sentences so good you want to cut them out and pin them to the wall' and there's no doubting that there are plenty of memorable phrases, images and dialogue. The story Wild America gives you all of those, first with the opening paragraph describing the scene when a cat brings in the gift of a baby pigeon stolen from its nest -

The thing was pink, nearly translucent, with magenta cheeks and lavender ovals around the eyes. It looked like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute.
Then later with some of the brilliant idiomatic dialogue that had me chuckling on several occasions.
'Well, I had this boss. I'm telling you, if you asked me for an asshole, and I gave you that guy, you'd have owed me back some change.'

In fact whilst we're at it let's get a few more of these pinned up. See how easy it is to visualise 'a face like a paper bag smoothed flat by a dirty palm'. Or to feel a little twinge when someone remembers rare conversations with their father - 'He'd tell me love was like the chicken pox, a thing you get through early because it could really kill you in your later years.' And be ready for the odd line that might test your resolve; reviewers try to avoid spoilers but my warning this time is that the following line is almost bound to offend - 'I'd eat her whole damn child just to taste the thing he squeezed out of.'

That's the kind of dialogue you should expect in the seedy world of the carnival, a world brought frighteningly to life in one of the standout stories On The Show. In a collection that fizzes with memorable lines you could be forgiven for thinking that the writing would be like a firework display: plenty of pyrotechnics but plenty of standing around in chilly silence too, but Tower knows how to go about his work quietly too. On The Show has a deceptively soothing beginning.

Shadow falls across the Crab Rangoon stand. A Florida anole, cocked on the shoulder of the propane tank beside the service window, slips down the tank's enamel face into a crescent of deep rust. Against the lizard's belly, the rust's soothing friction offers an illusion of heat, and the lizard's hide goes from the color of a new leaf to the color of a dead one.

But that switch from something living to something dead is significant. The carnival is populated by some pretty rotten characters and within a few pages a young boy has been subjected to sexual assault in a portable toilet

In Retreat we meet a property developer who has recently bought himself a mountain (a fairly grandiose sounding claim which is actually the truth), a place where he hopes to not only build his own piece of the American Dream, a cabin in the woods where he can take secluded breaks, hunt, fish and other manly pursuits but a dream he intends to sell in lots to other men of a similar age, making himself a small fortune in the process. Having struck up an enforced friendship with the man who sold him the land who is now his neighbour he then receives a visit from his brother with whom he shares a fractious relationship. When the three of them go out hunting together there is plenty of testosterone flying about but also some brilliantly observed male relationships. A trip which aught to bring a group of disparate men together ends in poison and difference.

Complimenting by association with other writers is a common review tactic which I don't tend to indulge in but when reading  Executors Of Important Energies I couldn't help but be reminded of Cheever's Reunion. Tower's story is just as uncomfortable to read in places and doesn't suffer as badly as you might expect when standing next to that genuine masterpiece of the short form. As with Reunion a man meets with his ageing father in a restaurant. Here he is clearly suffering with the onset of dementia and the cast includes his new wife as well as an innocent bystander but both stories share that same conflict between love and embarrasment and also tie rather neatly into one of the collections overarching ideas - that love is a painful thing, something that hurts and damages the afflicted.

The title story sums all of that up rather well and in a manner that is as surprising as it is original. To write a story about a group of marauding Vikings is one thing, to write it in the modern vernacular is another, but to use it as a way of expressing the danger of falling in love is inspired. Because that I think is what a lot of these stories are about, the danger that you bring on yourself by caring about someone else. The Viking setting simply makes the threat more obvious, the violence more visceral, the need to protect more desparate. Our narrator describes a raid that ends with death, evisceration and finally the kidnap of a one-armed female but the conclusion he comes too at the end of the tale, after having made a family for himself during this period of unrest and conflict, is what a dangerous thing it is to invest in another human being when you know what humans are capable of.

I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It's crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it.


Thursday 10 March 2011

'coincidence counters'

Vignettes Of Ystov 
by William Goldsmith

Goldsmith is an illustrator based in Brighton who trained at the Glasgow School of Art. Vignettes of Ystov is his debut graphic novel and is comprised of several short graphic stories, illustrated through pen and watercolour, that seem at first to be about the lives of disparate characters in a fictional Eastern European city but which gradually mesh together as their lives intersect. A page at the start introduces us to the cast list and we will discover as we read 'their everyday absurdities, restraints, and small triumphs' The city's skyline is dominated by one large building, The Trexlar Tower, and it is here that one of the book's major events happens. A man is killed by a discarded coin that falls from the tower's summit and when his apartment is cleared we discover more about this janitor, a secretive man whose converted his apartment into a kind of museum cataloguing not items of great worth but the everyday rubbish that he found through his job. A discarded piece of gum, a 'scuffed silver star', nothing is too small or seemingly insignificant to not be included in his collection, each with its own speculative history like the gum for example which was perhaps 'chewed by a loved-up youth combatting the day's garlicky goulash.'

Another significant character is Eugene Tusk, once a poet and part of the Strombold collective, 'a man in love with all things obscure' who is hired to write the story of the janitor's death. He will also find himself loosely connected with Leopold Weiss, a man always guided by his sensitive nose who began making sculptures of the proboscis after seeing a 'nose so pure he hyperventilated' on the tram one day before being arrested for 'nose crimes'. The exact connections between these men aren't entirely clear until the epilogue which suddenly casts a different light on these vignettes and we realise that each short burst of narrative is an act of creative expression, so important in a rigid society or large city, especially one where the heavy hand of government is never far away.

There is something about this book that reminded me of the films of Wes Anderson. That affection for minutiae (that some might find sentimental) mentioned above is one thing, but each story is also rendered in a dominant colour so that it is a bit like watching a very clearly art-directed film. The brevity of each story also lends them toward my Anderson comparison, he's always been good at providing a few clear details about a character which I was going to call telling before I remembered that the very effect of all that design and thumbnail sketching is that it doesn't tend to reveal much at all. Something of that might have prevented this book from making a huge impact with me but maybe that's a question of asking it to be something it was never meant to be. These are 'vignettes' after all, a very European approach to storytelling with characters appearing and disappearing, each flash giving us a new angle from which to view them from and there is a charm about them that fully merits that cast list at the beginning. If it were a TV series you could almost imagine them all waving to the camera as the titles rolled across: You have been watching....


Wednesday 9 March 2011

Radiohead - The King Of Limbs

We should have expected it really, Radiohead haven't been fans of the conventional release strategy for a while now, but I can't have been the only one to pick their jaw up from the floor on Valentine's Day when a tweet popped up in my timeline announcing that they would be releasing their new album that Saturday. In the end they didn't even wait that long, releasing it 24 hours early on the Friday and catching me doubly unawares as I travelled into town, miles away from the computer where I was planning to download my preordered copy. Thank whichever Taiwanese genius is responsible for my smartphone and curse my impatience as I watched the file slowly downloading whilst I was stuck in rehearsals, it was at least thrilling to feel genuine excitement about a new release again.

So whilst everyone else was rushing to listen and pass judgement in a race to be the first newspaper/blog/forum to write a review of the album that had caught everyone napping I remembered that the thing with Radiohead is that you always need to immerse yourself in their work. This isn't the latest single from a chart sensation: a quick-fix of pop as refreshing, commercially successful and short-term as a glass of coke. This is a Radiohead album, something they've fretted over and possibly come to blows over so the least you can do is give it a bit of your time. In the course of the last fortnight I have listened again and again, changing my opinions repeatedly, finding new moments of interest, nuances and connections and the short version is: it's good.

We're talking four stars good; the kind of good that is just plain good on a first listen, nothing exceptional, then things start to make themselves clearer and it's good; before you then start to appreciate just how much is going on and it becomes Good (with a capital G). Album (although at 8 tracks under 40 mins that might be stretching it) opener Bloom is a great example. A piano intro is quickly distorted, skittering drums confuse the rhythm, electronic ticks abound and it isn't until a jazz-like bass comes in that we start to settle slightly, Thom Yorke's vocal finally bringing in the steadying line that makes it a track rather than a sketch. The kind of electronic meddling that a few albums ago felt like it was preventing the real tune from coming through here has reached maturity. Choral sweeps follow guitar lines and distortion, lead naturally into echoed horns before the track achieves its full structure with complimentary vocals before breaking down again to that fractured piano from the beginning. This is the sound of a band in control, where each constituent part has found comfort in whatever they bring to the table (and in recent times that doesn't always mean playing the instrument you thought you played).

Actual guitars begin Morning Mr. Magpie with its sinister lyrics - 'You've got some nerve coming here/ You stole it all give it back' and classic Radiohead slow build of bass, high vocals, guitars and keyboard noise, something I have found curiously moving when listening repeatedly; that oppressive build that suddenly disappears. Little By Little is redolent of Radiohead of late where it sounds like every member of the band is playing several instruments at the same time, percussion shaking away, and lyrics that sound playful - 'I'm such a tease and your such a flirt' - but develop into something far darker by the track's end when Yorke threatens to 'Drug and kill you.'

Feral sees all those dance music influences come to the fore, an instrumental piece with the occasional vocal contribution from Yorke, his voice as much an instrument as any other, there to be manipulated and played with. It's the kind of track that is easy to dismiss but would probably be celebrated if produced by a recognised electronic act. The first (and presumably only) single from the album is Lotus Flower, whose video showcasing Thom Yorke's dance moves has already produced more than a couple of parodies. However you feel about the dancing there is something distinctly sexy about this song and that's something I never expected to say about a Radiohead track. Give it to Rhianna and change the production and you've got yourself a sultry pop hit I reckon (I'll at least predict some band covering it in the near future). In Radiohead's hands it has strong rhythm, scattered electronic beats, handclaps, guitars, keyboards and that familiar vocal tone that chills and warms at the same time - 'There's an empty space inside my heart/And it won't take root/Tonight I'll set you free/I'll set you free/Slowly we unfurl/As lotus flowers

Codex is in the same style as album classics like Exit Music and Pyramid Song but whilst I found myself immediately soothed by its piano, vocals and brass I'm not sure it quite measures up to those others I've mentioned. This is to harshly criticise a lovely track in comparison to others but there's no point in being less than honest about these things. Give Up The Ghost sees the band inhabiting the area filled recently by Fleet Foxes and by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young a long time before that. Harmonised vocals sing plaintively of lost hope against a background of acoustic guitar and birdsong. One for the campfire. Seperator's steady rhythm is a skeleton on which several layers are built. Yorke's vocals conjure that feeling - 'It's like I'm falling out of bed/From a long and weary dream' - before backing vocals join him along with lightly picked guitars and moaning keyboards; the layers reverb into each other increasing that dream-like feel as Yorke calls out 'Wake me up.'

We were the ones caught napping though. Away from the excitement of the next big things and the latest disposable pop sensation Radiohead have crafted another collection of mature songs; dense, interesting and likely to come down off the shelf more than a handful of times (or the digital download equivalent).


Tuesday 8 March 2011

'what remained'

by David Miller

Having  recently reviewed a book written by someone who has worked as a critic I now move on to the debut novel from a literary agent. Now I cannot even begin to imagine my acting agent deciding to give the boards a tread but the position of literary agent is slightly different, many of them playing a hugely active role in shaping the writing of their clients in preparation for approaches to publishers. So there's nothing terribly odd about it really but I'd love to know how many other examples there are of other agent/writers. Miller's debut is petite in many ways; a small, almost square book of just 160 pages with the action taking place on three separate days, but size is just one of the ways in which he shows restraint, an approach that helps him create a debut novel that has no spare flesh on it at all, where restraint makes those flashes of insight all the more dazzling and writing that is so precise you feel you are in the hands of a far more experienced novelist.

Miller has taken his cue from a real event and the people that were a part of it, a gathering of the friends and family of Joseph Conrad on the August bank holiday weekend, 1924 at his home in Canterbury (anyone who might choose Conrad for their specialist subject may have alarm bells ringing at that date and you'd be right). Before the novel begins we come across the dramatis personae, usually the reserve of the playwright, a cast list that extends to a staggering 39 characters. Many of these will just be walk-ons and one is the family dog so you needn't worry about a book leaden with enough characters to sink a Russian epic, there are just a few that we can concern ourselves with here. At the top of the list is Lillian Hallowes, a 'typewriter', who has been Conrad's secretary for many years. She is not part of the family unit but is invited by Conrad's son John who is celebrating his birthday that weekend. The official invitation has come from Conrad's invalid wife, Jessie, who has just been released from a nursing home. These three will be most directly affected by the event that alters the course of the weekend - Conrad's death (bonus point for you if you were already there).

Each of these three has their own, intensely personal response to the death, for whilst it is just the one man who has died he was many different kinds of man to the people that he knew. As his wife, Jessie has to put on an almost professional demeanour when dealing with the business of death and it is only much later when she has a quiet moment alone that she can reflect and react honestly to her loss.
Jessie was aware she was lividly frozen in the chair, the only parts of her body that seemed to move were her eyes and fingers. She came upon the cardboard packet she had found on the window sill in his room. She opened it. One cigarette left. She looked at it. She had never smoked. She had known the smell of a married man, the whiff of whiskey, the scent of tobacco, the sour odour of both. Her husband rarely brushed his teeth. When he kissed her, he had a rotten taste: the kiss lasted, not always in a pleasant fashion. She rolled this, his last cigarette in her stubby fingers and put its tip to her lips and she sucked it in, unlit. Her cheeks were, immediately, lined with tears. She breathed in deeply and then removed the cigarette, small flakes of leaf speckling her lips. She spat them out babyishly, making the most polite raspberry. He will not come back.
The crowded cast-list is perfect for providing the hustle and bustle of a busy and opulent household, the kind of setting that we have been enjoying once again on television with series like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. It is the perfect background noise to show the shocked state of John Conrad as he moves around the house, his birthday celebrations obliterated by grief and his own senses suffering the same confusion that must come to the boxer who has been caught square on the jaw.
There was nothing, no sound, simply numbness. John watched small things happen around him - a fly ambling on the carpet, Scally greedily snuffling and grunting at the gap at the bottom of the closed bedroom door, the steam from his mother's teacup - and swiftly realized he would feel like this for a while: things would happen to him before he could happen to things again.
In that restrained atmosphere it is a while before he can properly give rein to his emotions, the moment eventually coming courtesy of something innocuous, the label on a jar of redcurrant jelly written in his father's hand and the first tears of a long weekend. John's brother Borys has driven down to the house with his wife and infant child and the two brothers can compare their very different views on the father they shared. To a greater or lesser extent we all return to a childlike state when we spend time with our siblings, unable to avoid whatever pecking order existed back then and Borys laments what he never had, the thing he saw given so freely to John - a proper father.

Borys took one last gulp from the glass on the kitchen table and said solemnly, 'I was never a boy,' through the ghost of a milk moustache.

On her journey down to Canterbury Lillian remembers something that someone once said, 'The dead live longer than you think'. Conrad haunts the novel through his absence, the impact coming from others contemplation of what life will be like without him. For Lillian there is the obvious professional vacuum that will need to be filled now that her employment no longer exists but she it transpires is not just grieving for him. Not only has she lost her own brother to suicide but her isolation makes it possible for her to mourn those members of her family still alive so that along with the tears she sheds for her brother Warren there are more for 'her mother, and her dead, unknowing father and her other brother, knowing once more what it is to lose love, weeping at her only-ness on the world.'

Now I realise that I am making this sound about as much fun as attending, well...a funeral but just like those TV series I mentioned earlier and films like Gosford Park there is humour to be found in even this restrained and respectful atmosphere, a humour that often undercuts proceedings. Sometimes it is something small like the description of the chauffeur giving John 'an embrace of almost Bolshevik proportion' and sometimes it comes after slightly more. The slightly bumbling Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, George Bell, holds forth at one point about a day when fog obscured not just the Bell Harry tower of the cathedral but everything around him.
'And it rattled me - having something I know so well, know as part of my landscape - it simply wasn't there. It made me think absence is sometimes so much more present than whatever we are looking at now.' he said. 'Absence so much more present,' he coughed, 'so much more present than presence.'
The man is practising material for a sermon, Lillian suddenly thought...
To be able to drop lines like that in is the mark of a man in control of his theme. This novel is full of moments that illustrate beautifully the way in which we rush to fill the void left by the loss of someone, whether that be by conversation, memory or even objects that we can hold in our hand. The control shown by many of the principal characters and by Miller himself make these moments all the more devastating when they come and show how, whether it is a surprise or not, we can never prepare ourselves for how death will make us feel.


Thursday 3 March 2011

'nothing is forgotten'

The Hunger Trace 
by Edward Hogan

Hogan's debut, Blackmoor, announced the arrival of a young writer with a distinctive voice. That most hackneyed of phrases usually means a writer with quirky dialogue or style but Hogan displayed neither of those traits, excelling instead in atmosphere and a book very much about its region: a failing coal-mining town in Derbyshire. I used to read a lot of American fiction and was always impressed by descriptions of the communities and lifestyles of those who may share English with us but could almost at times have been speaking another language. My recent reading of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake (about which I shall be raving soon) not only threw up that same feeling of region but made me realise (along with him hinting as much on Twitter) that Hogan had been influenced by Pancake's brilliant evocation of region and human transience. Pancake's story Trilobites is narrated by a man as tied to his surroundings as the fossils he digs up from the ground and Blackmoor too showed how insignificant we can be made to feel by the permanence of the landscape around us.
...this place is billions of years old. Those trees. They're going to be here when I've disintegrated, and maybe a hundred million years or whatever, they'll be a seam of coal ready for some twat to set another bloody village on.
When I say a distinctive voice, I also mean a voice that unfortunately ruled me out of contention for the audio-book version ('Ee, I'll keep workin' on it, duck') of his debut and this his follow-up. It too is set in Derbyshire and showcases again Hogan's regional eye and ear. It is a very English book and one whose specificity means it deserves praise as much as the lauded writing of less familiar landscapes like those of Haruf, Proulx, Faulkner and Steinbeck. Now don't worry, I haven't lost my marbles and begun placing Hogan side by side with those giants (I'm sure even he would baulk at that), but it's worth pointing out I think our reluctance to celebrate those homegrown authors who have something to say about the world we actually live in.

The death of David Bryant, owner of a wildlife park leaves the park with an uncertain future and turmoil in the lives of those closest to him: his younger wife Maggie, son Christopher and long time friend Louisa. Maggie is left with the lame legacy of a failing business, a singular son with specific needs who isn't hers biologically and the welter of emotions that come with grief. As the trophy wife she is isolated from those she works with, lives with and alongside; but it is through the animals that she is considered to have little understanding of that we gain insights, like the deer that she hopes to add to the park, whose  'seasonal desires' match her own increased and then waning sexuality in the wake of David's death.

...the antlers growing as the hormones raced, the blood-rich velvet nourishing the hard bone beneath and then peeling raggedly. She loved the ugly, aching bellow. It was an unmajestic, hurt sound. During the rut, the neck of a red deer stag increases exponentially in muscle mass; such spontaneous gains are unrivalled in the animal world. And at the end of the season, the antlers fell off, one by one.

She is surprised by the increase in her libido, calling on the services of a male escort, Adam; her night-time trysts observed by neighbour Louisa. Louisa is a fascinating character. Her connection to the park is as a falconer and Hogan makes brilliant use of its terms and language in order to illuminate the lives of his human characters, including the novel's title (of which more later). But Louisa also has a far deeper connection to David, having been friends with him since they were schoolchildren and, more particularly, because they had long shared a terrible secret. He and the hawks have been so important to her in fact that looking back over her forty-seven years she can see that 'almost every decision had been taken with one or both of those concerns in mind.' David has played an especially important role and that secret I mentioned, that could be viewed as a terrible sacrifice on her part, is balanced by what she still holds close to her

Louisa held parts of David within her: stories, reflections, physical gestures that she had picked up over the long years of friendship. That was precious.

It isn't always as po-faced as that sounds. That kind of familiarity also gives rise to moments of humour, as when she recalls the particular facial expression David wore when talking about his son, Christopher, 'The sort of frozen, distant smile you affect when your horse comes a close third behind your mother-in-law's.' Christopher is set up early as a dangerous presence. A child in a man's body who sees 'the world askance', a large man-child of 18 hovering somewhere between adolescence and adulthood with anti-psychotic medication and the habit of peppering his speech with' erm's' (that quickly become, erm, annoying); we as the reader are never given the opportunity to completely relax in his presence. Sometimes he seems to be harmless, other times we worry that he might be about to sexually assault Louisa or even his step-mother. His obsession with what lies behind the myth of Robin Hood helps to develop the novel's brilliantly atmospheric final section where a deluge of biblical proportions mixes with equally stormy relationships. It is here that Hogan's writing really excels; location, mood and content all perfectly matched to help the climax achieve lift-off.

As mentioned previously animals naturally play a hugely important role in the book and the title itself comes from the world of falconry, explained when Louisa takes charge of a bird that has been neglected.
Diamond's story was written on his feathers - nothing sentimental or pretentious about that claim. When a falcon is undernourished, the feathers cannot grow properly. A fault line appears, even if the bird is fed again. The fault is called a hunger trace.
In many ways each of the principal characters has their own hunger trace, something in their past that has scarred them as obviously as any outward physical sign, and in the same way that a feather with a fault in it must have some impact on a bird's ability to fly, so to Louisa, Maggie, Christopher and Adam struggle to deal satisfactorily with what life throws at them. You might even think that the appropriation of one of a falcon's natural attributes, the extraordinary eyesight that effectively helps them to see the movement of the world in slow-motion and thus make them formidable birds of prey, might help them to see things better but even that might not be enough.
The thing about seeing the world slowed down, she thought, was that you could watch something terrible unfolding, without the ability to do anything about it. Perhaps you would not even notice that it was happening.
A character who is a male escort may be a rather convenient way of examining and complicating the desires of the two female characters (I'm not sure how common a profession it is in the peaks of Derbyshire) but, that small niggle aside, the characters themselves are well developed and the trajectory each takes in the aftermath of David's death is always interesting. Anyone who has watched an accident unfold could attest to the way in which time seems to slow down. As hinted at in the extract above the reader of this novel can be fascinated by that same inevitability, unable to look away as it reaches its conclusion.


Tuesday 1 March 2011

'Scorched but better'

Ten Stories About Smoking
by Stuart Evers

When the Evening Standard theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh stepped out of the posh seats and wrote a play of his own a few years ago there must have been plenty of actors out there who had suffered at his sometimes poisonous hands and looked forward to reading a pasting from his colleagues. They were to be disappointed as the play received not only positive reviews but a West End transfer and in the end they must have begrugingly respected the courage it must have taken to move from critiquing to writing. Stuart Evers is also a critic whose reviews I have enjoyed in the Guardian and elsewhere and I can't imagine there will anyone hoping to see his debut collection of stories stumble as, judging by his blog musings and tweets, he seems to be jolly nice chap. That said, the bravery remains, as I know it is one thing to critique the work of others and quite another to put your name to your own creation.

Before we even talk about what lies between the covers I think we have to applaud an early candidate for best book design of the year (I know, it's only March) - a delicious boxed volume that plays into the hands of any fag-packet fetishist. Whilst the stories contained within are brought together under the title Ten Stories About Smoking none, bar maybe the last one, are really about smoking as such but use it as a loose linking device. Thankfully it never feels forced, assuming different levels of importance in each story, and often a brilliantly effective way of involving the reader sensually in a story. In Things Seem So Far Away Here a young woman goes to visit her brother and his family in their large house in the country. Evers is brilliant at dropping bald statements that suggest something major about a character and then moving on with the story, a technique that leaves you slightly shocked. Here, Linda, seems to be recovering from some kind of eating disorder or physical trauma, hinted at as she freshens up after her journey.

In the mirror she was partially clothed by the steam, but she could still see where there was the odd scar. Her ribs were plainly visible, her hip bones too; she looked better though, not quite so skeletal, nor so bruised...Scorched but better, she thought. Rolling with the punches

This trip for her is not a simple family get together but one that she hopes will lead to a form of redemption, a new start as nanny to her brother's daughter (an ambition all the more important when combined with the suggestion that her own chances of conceiving may have been diminished by her recent traumas) in a house that will provide the kind of sanctuary presumably missing from her life so far and certainly from the support groups that she has been frequenting recently. The daughter, Poppy, has been awaiting her arrival excitedly and Linda, as excited herself,  has hand-knitted a jumper for her as a gift. This jumper becomes a symbol of her delusions and the difference between what she wishes for and the reality of her life. Having been warned by her partner about being too clean she realises that 'only when you're clean do you realize just how dirty life is' and her bag of belongings, after that freshening-up above, suddenly carries the strong whiff of stale cigarette smoke.

She removed the plastic bag in which she'd put Poppy's jumper. The jumper was wrapped in paper decorated with illustrations of horses. She put her nose to it gingerly, hoping perhaps that somehow the package itself had escaped being tainted with the stench. But it hadn't. It smelled dreadful.
Linda unwrapped it just to be sure. The smell was noxious, insufferable, so strong she could feel it taking over the air in the room. She held it towards the light, and noticed that the horses on the front were no longer white but a dirty yellow colour, like old men's teeth

For the new mother in Eclipse the smell of cigarette smoke is something she claims she would probably miss having appeared to have lost that sense since giving birth to her child seven months ago. Whilst her partner claims that their house always smells of 'spilled milk, talcum powder and nappies' she can only take his word for it and this is important because she is convinced her partner is having an affair. In fact she even believes that this affair is the thing that allowed them to become pregnant in the first place, coming at a time when they were wallowing in six months of 'thermometers, cycles and bored, routine sex.'

How I knew, I can't say. It just flashed before me, like ticker tape, as he took a bottle of wine from the fridge: he has fallen deeply, madly in love. That radiance you get when pregnant is nothing to the sheen that comes with such passion and devotion. It burned through him like an eclipse: beautiful, but dangerous to look upon.

But she lacks the olfactory senses to catch him out and has found no traces of lipstick on any collar, she is left to stew at home with her suspicions and when he returns at the end of the story she snuggles in close in the hope that something will give him away.

I put my cheek next to his and breathe in through my nose as much as I can. There is nothing, not even a breath. And then, for a moment, I think I can smell cinnamon and plums, and her, and then cigarettes, and then beer, and then just the smell of the outside world.

And that last part of the last sentence is the key for me. It may be a story about the suspicion of infidelity but it is fundamentally about the yearning of a woman, who has been consigned to the domestic prison of new-motherhood, to rejoin the outside world. Cut off from the daily life of her own partner she is left to construct the most dramatic narrative imaginable.

Smoking is sometimes just the spur to begin a story as in the enigmatically titled Lou Lou in the Blue Bottle. Here we move away from the British domesticity of the stories I've mentioned and over the Atlantic to Brooklyn. Rob goes to the gym owned by his friend's uncle, determined to follow O'Neil's lead in quitting smoking and kick-start a healthier lifestyle. He finds a treadmill covered up, switches on the power and steps onto it, only to be nearly sent crashing to the floor by another guy in the gym. This altercation settled by Uncle Charlie, Rob eventually gets his chance to run and discovers it is something he is surprisingly well-suited to.

And then, as I looked at my shoes, I felt something swell inside of me, like something was opening and all my body's molecules were splitting apart. I felt light, unencumbered, as though everything extraneous to the act of running had been erased...I felt that I could - no, that I should - run for ever.

Only after this first session does he learn from Charlie why the treadmill should cause such an extreme reaction, a story close to Charlie's heart, a sad tale of running, obsession and secrecy. It is a compelling tale and the collection as a whole shares that ease of storytelling, most of them keeping a single focus with only the last story, The Final Cigarette, playing slightly with the format. Here there is a dual narrative as we watch two men, one in Reno, the other in the grounds of a UK hospital, enjoy what they swear will be their last cigarette. It is a sweet story that neatly undercuts the sentimentality of the American ending by having the British counterparts use the same last words with an altogether different tone. This is a very easy collection to enjoy, there is something decidedly more-ish about Evers writing that makes you want to indulge yourself with just one more and then another, before you realise that you've polished off the lot. They might almost come with a health warning of some kind.


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