I was thinking about the books I list as my favourite reads the other day. I haven't read some of them in years. Here's the list (in no particular order):
1. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
2. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
3. Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry
4. The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje
5. American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis
6. The Sheltering Sky - Paul Bowles
7. Beloved - Toni Morrison
8. Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy
9. The Crow - James O'Barr
10. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
11. Watchmen - Alan Moore
12. Lord of the Rings - J R R Tolkien
13. The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood
14. Possession - A S Byatt
15. As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner
16. 1984 - George Orwell
17. Ulysses - James Joyce
18. I, Claudius - Robert Graves
19. The Stand - Stephen King
20. The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner
I haven't included drama. Looking at my choices I can see I'm clearly a bit of an Americaphile (if that's even a word) - although Canada is getting in there too. I also have an unhealthy obsession with modernism, tragic love stories and anything set in a desert.
Anyway I thought I might re-read 'the list' and reassess each book's merits.
Watch this space...
Saturday, 18 May 2013
Sunday, 5 May 2013
Australian writer Chris Womersley’s début novel The Low Road (2007) has just been published in the UK for the first time. It’s an intense thriller focussing on three men linked through crime and the ghosts of their past: Lee who’s on the run with some extortion money, Wild, a disgraced doctor struck off due to gross negligence connected to his morphine habit (and facing a prison sentence) and Josef, an ageing criminal sent to hunt down and kill Lee.
When Lee’s wounded by a gunshot to his stomach, Wild ends up using his medical skills to save him temporarily – although he can’t take the bullet out – so they begin a journey together towards another doctor friend of Wild’s in a safe place in the country. All the while Josef is edging ever closer to the pair, intent on getting back the cash (a paltry sum we’re told time and time again. Lee is risking his life on nothing really).
Let’s get the Cormac McCarthy comparisons out the way first (because there will be). The Low Road does have flavours of both The Road in its dystopian bleak journey and No Country for Old Men in its depiction of a collection of interlinked characters travelling towards each other for an inevitable Western-style show-down. But that’s no bad thing. Womersley’s book shares a similar fatalistic tone, aided by his dense evocative prose. This style is a selling point, and works in agreeable juxtaposition to the highly plotted thriller-ish narrative. Like The Road, there’s also a sense of dislocation and timelessness – this could be any place, any time. Instead it’s more a story about mankind’s capacity for violence and self-destruction which could happen equally in Australia, America, Europe or beyond.
Womersley jumps between all three characters’ perspectives – although Josef’s view only features in a few chapters. That’s a shame really because I wanted to know more about Josef – especially in the light of some of the decisions he makes towards the end of the novel. Wild and Lee are more developed, but again there’s still a distance. Their dark horrible secrets are hinted at but held back till the final section – and you might look at Lee in particular in quite a different light once it’s revealed. His section also features three present tense chapters focussing on his secret (an event during his prison sentence) that clearly shaped the man he’s become.
The Low Road is one of those rarities – a fusion of the literary with a pacey filmic plot. On the whole it works (although occasionally I felt it was one metaphor too much). But be warned – it’s a dark, bleak and ultimately nihilistic world view with no hope of redemption.
Saturday, 16 March 2013
Thursday, 14 March 2013
Waiting for Sunrise (2012) tells the story of Lysander Rief, a vaguely famous stage actor, who travels to Vienna in search of a cure for his (ahem) embarrassing problem of a lurve-related nature. It’s 1913 and he’s interested in trying out this new-fangled “talking cure” everyone’s on about so he finds a psychoanalyst in the Freudian tradition. Soon enough, Lysander’s noting down his dreams, lying on a couch, talking about his mother and recounting a cringe-worthy primal scene when he was found doing something best left as a solitary pursuit by his mother (again with the mother – what else did you expect?).
It’s in his analyst’s waiting room that he meets Hettie Bull, a clearly neurotic unstable (but sexy) sort, and Lysander immediately embarks on an ill-conceived fling with her. I quite enjoyed this section of the novel. The beginnings of the affair are suitably intriguing, and we even get a brief cameo from the man of the moment, Freud. However Waiting for Sunrise soon morphs into a different kind of book and I found I was reading some sort of thriller. Lysander is pretty much blackmailed into joining the war effort as a spy. I'm not really sure what qualifies him as a spy. But I guess he’s an actor – we get a lot of explanation about how good he is at assuming a disguise by smearing Vaseline all over his upper lip (makes you look like a snot-dribbling crazy apparently). Some stuff goes on the Front Line, there’s a set of interchangeable upper class army toffs and everyone acts a bit suspicious. Lysander is trying to find code-name Andromeda – an informant who’s sending top secret info to the German side. He follows clues here, there and everywhere…leading back eventually to (you guessed it) his mother. Is this some kind of joke on Boyd’s part?
At one stage I thought Waiting for Sunrise was going to turn into something else again. Lysander becomes hooked to chloral hydrate, prescribed for his insomnia, and we’re told it can result in fantasies and delusions. Perhaps his spying career is all in his head? His analyst is a big fan of something called Parallelism – the idea that you can work through the bad troubling stuff from you past by creating an alternative reality where things worked out differently (a bit like Atonement I guess). But no, nothing really evolves much further here, despite some promising signs. Boyd jumps between telling Lysander’s story in the third person and the first (part of his Autobiographical Investigations or a journal that his psychoanalyst instructed him to keep) and I really thought that perhaps we’d see some gap between events and narrations. Instead, there doesn't seem to be any point to the shift in narrative modes and I found the jump very jarring and pointless.
There are certainly some merits to Waiting for Sunrise. Boyd’s creation of pre-war Vienna is evocative and anyone interested in psychoanalysis will enjoy the Freudian nods. And whilst it’s plot driven, like a thriller should be, I had enough interest in Lysander and his philandering ways to turn the page. But again some characters felt underdeveloped. I was waiting for some craziness with Hettie (the latter part of the novel felt like it was building up to some sort of confrontation with her), but she just sort of slips from view. It feels like Boyd never really got going and the narrative relies on too many densely plotted strands once the setting moves to London.
I can see this becoming some sort of ITV hour long series and I think it would work for TV. But Waiting for Sunrise sadly hasn't persuaded me to try out any other of Boyd’s literary thrillers.
Sunday, 17 February 2013
A work colleague lent me this book because he said it reminded him of my life. I opened it and read the first few pages on a cold, wintry Sunday in February. I read, ‘It was a cold Sunday in early February’…intriguing… I continued: ‘I’d spent most of [the day] curled up in bed in the damp and disintegrating terraced cottage.’ I looked at the walls of my damp and disintegrating house. Curiouser and curiouser.
OurTragic Universe is a storyless story told by our narrator, Meg. Meg is a writer who’s been trying to finish her literary first novel for years but spends most of her time obsessing over her dog, eating tangerines, knitting socks and bumbling around the Dartmouth area. She seems to be in Devon due to some self-imposed exile from Brighton and lives in this mouldy leaking house (the rent was cheap) with her miserable boyfriend Christopher (who spends a lot of his time moaning and lying on the sofa being pathetic).
But then into Meg’s life comes… well not a lot really. She’s interested in narrative theory and loves discussing different ideas of stories with her various friends and acquaintances. So we get all the big names and ideas here: Propp, Jung, Campbell, Chekhov. She’s sick of writing formulaic genre fiction (she’s a ghostwriter for a series of YA novels) and wants her literary opus to be a work of ground-breaking post-modern genius. At one stage she considers turning her almost unintelligible notes for her ever-changing novel into the actual novel itself and calling it NOTEBOOK. She duly deletes most of her gazillionth draft and finds her word-count at 43.
Scarlett Thomas mirrors and explores a lot of these ideas through her plot and structure – not that there is much of a plot to speak of, more a series of random events. Although are they random? Meg tries a bit of cosmic ordering and can’t quite work out whether some things that happen are as a result. Who knows? You certainly won’t. There’s also the Beast. The Beast is roaming Dartmoor, howling at night and snuffling under doors. Meg's dog goes to investigate and snuffles under the door too (as I was reading this my cat went to investigate some strange noise coming from under the front door). Now just as you think you've got a more conventional plot device…well, let’s just say don’t expect Hound of the Baskervilles.
This is an ideas book. You've really got it all: reincarnation, cosmic ordering, narrative, cultural norms, parapsychology, Tarot, archetypes, animal psychology, Zen, magic… But often a lot of this knowledge is delivered to us through a long conversation and info-dump from characters just hanging round Devon, not doing a lot. This would be my main criticism of Thomas’ book. However when the narrator is interesting, the ideas good and the writing wonderfully witty and insightful, you probably won’t mind.
But did I get any insights into my own life? Did fiction continue to mirror reality? Well let’s look at the evidence.
- Lives in a mouldy, disintegrating house (check)
- Leak in ceiling (check)
- Persistent cough due to damp (sort of check. Only while I was still sleeping in the room with no ceiling)
- Thinking of moving (check)
- Co-dependency with her dog (check – well, cat)
- Loves having pretentious conversations about narrative and stories with friends (check)
- Tarot (check)
- Cosmic ordering (check – I thought it had worked too! But then it didn't)
- Believes in magic (check – Sort of. When Derren Brown hypnotised the nation it rather embarrassingly worked on me)
- Trying to write literary “opus” (yawn, check)
- Favourite poem is Convergence of the Twain (check)
- Mum is obsessed with scanning all her old photos (God yes)
- The Beast (check – if we can count the foxes living in the garden)
Yes Meg is clearly me. It’s official. The whole experience reminded me a bit of that story – you know the one – where this girl is putting together a jigsaw puzzle. As she adds the pieces she realises the picture on the puzzle is her own room, and there she is, sat at a table doing a puzzle. How strange. But what’s that at the window? Only a few pieces left. Is it…is it…some slavering axe murderer waiting to pounce? Wait a minute, what’s that sound….?
Tuesday, 12 February 2013
It’s that time of year again when stands in book-stores are filled with the complete works of Jane Austen and frilly pink gift editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Yes, Valentine’s Day is upon us once more, with its tantalising whiff of love, smooches and stuffed teddies. But what would bad boy of postmodernism, Bret Easton Ellis, have to say about this love thing? What advice might he offer to those in the dating game?
1. It’s always important to look one’s best
One thing’s for sure, surface is everything. Whether you’re dressed to impress with your latest designer duds like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman or name-dropping your celeb friends like Glamorama’s Victor Ward, you owe it to yourself to be utterly beautiful and glittering. Prepare carefully for your romantic evening: exfoliate, wax, tweeze and moisturise. Don’t forget to floss. Then you’re ready to hit a nice restaurant like Spago with your date, and maybe a club or two later. Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it. Who cares what’s underneath?
2. Money = sexy time
There’s nothing more attractive to the opposite sex than walking into a bar and buying three bottles of Cristal, a Mexican dancing girl and a dwarf. And if you’re whining that you can’t afford it maybe you should just shut the fuck up and take a Xanax or something.
3. Pick your locations carefully
We all know some places are better to pick up that special person than others. Go for college dorms, parties, late night bars, restaurants with six month waiting lists and badly lit street corners.
4. If you haven’t got anything nice to say don’t say anything
It’s absolutely fine to be racist, homophobic and sexist. Just don’t let your date know that you’re racist, homophobic and sexist. It’s all about looks remember? But the thing to note carefully here is this only counts if you actually care about your date’s opinion. If you don’t, well you just keep right on venting.
5. Drugs make you popular and hot
Stuck for witty banter and topics of conversation on your date? Follow the example of Clay from Less than Zero; do some fat lines and you’ll be ready to impress the object of your affections with your sparkling wit, confidence and intellect. When you’re ready to go some place a bit more secluded and comfortable, take Valium to get the mood right.
6. Be quick! You've got a shelf life
You've got to be fast in this dating game. No amount of riches is going to help when you’re old and wrinkly at twenty-eight. Surgery can only assist you so far. So get yourself out there and hook yourself a real looker before it’s too late.
Just remember – there’s not someone for everyone out there, so you’ve got to be at the top of your game. But hopefully if you borrow a leaf from Bret’s bibliography you’ll soon be ready to put on those Wayfarers, hit the bright lights of the big city, and find some hard-body to love all of your very own.
Sunday, 10 February 2013
The best character in China Mieville’s second novel is the city of New Crobuzon itself – a sprawling, crazy and psychedelic metropolis that would have made Hunter S Thompson proud. The hub of this city is Perdido Street Station. From here the city spirals out into different boroughs, districts and oddities; there’s slums and high rises occupied by bird-men, sewers and abattoirs, a glass dome full of sentient cactus people and a dump which is home to HAL 9000 and his buddies. Oh, and there’s bugs. Christ, are there bugs. There’s a whole bug ghetto and the protagonist Isaac (a tubby and edgy scientist) is dating a woman with a scarab beetle for a head. Yes, you read that right. Add to this mix a giant spider that shimmers in and out of reality and likes cutting off people’s ears and some giant moths that suck your mind out and there’s a real bug-fest going on.
Isaac is approached by Yagharek, one of the bird-men (a garuda) who’s been maimed by his own kind and had his wings sawed off. He wants to be able to fly again and hopes Isaac can help him. Although Isaac is a scientist, the science studied in New Crobuzon is all kinds of fantastical: magic and demonology sit beside physics and chemistry here. The plot threads are disparate to start with; we move from Isaac and his research to his creepy-crawlie girlfriend Lin, who’s crafting a sculpture of a local crime lord with khepri spit (don’t ask) to the corrupt heads of state to an underground politically active newspaper. These strands all eventually combine into what’s essentially an overblown bug-hunt, as giant slake-moths terrorize the city each night (Isaac inadvertently hatched one and let it escape).
In a way this seemed a bit of a cop-out to me. Mieville spends so long world-building and creating his wide-ranging cast that once it all becomes focused on hunting moths Perdido Street Station falls into more familiar and lacklustre ways. And at nearly 900 pages this is a long book. If I wanted giant creatures attacking each other in a city I’d be watching Mothra vs Godzilla. Still, the ending re-awakened my interest. It’s pleasingly bitter-sweet and downbeat, raising a load of ethical issues and questions. Fans of urban fantasy, the new weird and speculative fiction will love Perdido Street Station. But be prepared for an acid trip of a plot and lots of creepy-crawlies.