Sunday, 17 February 2013

Book Review: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

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

The rules of attraction: what Bret Easton Ellis has taught us about dating

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

Book Review: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

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.

Book Review: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Theroux’s Strange Bodies is an immensely readable literary thriller which actually works quite well. It follows a strange but recognisabl...