Sunday 28 June 2009

The Spider's Web: Joseph Roth
A dark, vivid little novel that follows the fortunes of an ambitious young man involving himself in right-wing maneuverings during the Weimar Republic. Not especially intelligent, but brutal enough to be effective in times when brutality was in the ascendant. He is, of course being manipulated by everyone, including a Jewish double- or more- agent who stands out as the most remarkable character in this book: sly, patient, cynical but with a hidden fervour.

Rings Of Saturn: WG Sebald
Sebald rambles along on a walking tour and riffles through history and literature to find patterns in the broken remnants of the past. His sympathies are with the dispossessed, the marginalised, the quixotic, his erudition is sweeping and by the end of the book I had a clearer picture of the complex ways in which culture and exploitation co-exist in an uncomfortable alliance most of us prefer to ignore.

The Moth Diaries: Rachel Klein
Disturbing if the supernatural elements were true; perhaps even more so if they weren't. Adolescence, the female variety - as told by a girl who is far more intelligent and disturbed than a dormitory full of Holdens. I loved the subtle commentary on the ways in which people engage with books that are interspersed through the book. It's worth re-reading some of the things referred to here to see how Klein cleverly draws on everything from J Sheridan Le Fanu and Robert Chambers to Proust and Nietzche to add resonance to her characters and her story. It should ideally be read by precocious teenagers who will want to read everything that is read by the characters in this book, especially the narrator.

The Invention Of Morel: Adolfo Bioy Casares
Somewhere on the intersection of Italo Calvino and Philip K Dick (as comparisons, not influences - I have no idea if Casares ever read either author). A fugitive thinks dark, Malthusian thoughts and hides out on a deserted island, which soon turns out to be all too crowded. Who are these strange people? Along the way, thoughts on sentience, artificial intelligence, machines as aids to memory and immortality, the possibility of editing in new elements into an old recording and more. Brilliant. I want more

Love: Angela Carter
As morbid and gothic as they come, this early novel (her first, I think) is about two somewhat damaged brothers and the very unstable woman who falls into their orbit. It's a full-blown tragedy and melodrama given a sheen of exoticism by Carter's eye for the bizarre and instinct for making unlikely characters seem somehow believable. I give it full points because it is a gripping read at a concise length, wonderfully written, sometimes to excess, and, without the afterword added in the 80s, incredibly dark and haunting.

The Book Of Lost Things: John Connolly

This book hooked me early with its concept of imaginary tales coming real, and kept trying to shake me off along the way with uneven writing and a Campbellian journey of self-discovery. I hate those damned Campbellian journeys of self-discovery. Sounds great on paper, then what do you get in practice? Star bloody Wars, that's what.

I especially dislike stories where a sojourn in a fantastic realm gives the protagonist 'life lessons' that help normalise them back into their lives in the mundane realm. Travellers returned from other worlds should be like Gulliver, sadder and wiser in some ways, outright eccentric in others, their perceptions changed and deranged from the norm in ways that seem reasonable to them and demented to the mundies. Otherwise, why posit a fantastic realm at all? May as well take a stroll down the street and learn about life's ways, like Gauthama and his Three Great Sights.

But a lot of Connolly's fairy tale twists and retellings are rather cool. There are some very grim doings, just a little humour (not quite enough, and all concentrated in just a couple of chapters in the first half) and sometimes, Connolly forgets that he is writing this book in this awkward style that is part fairy tale, part juvenile fantasy and part thriller, and churns out passages of absorbing action or haunting darkness. There are also a lot of extremely predictable outcomes, but again Connolly surprised me with the bittersweet ending, almost totally redeeming many of the book's drawbacks in the last few pages.

It's about as good as any of Neil Gaiman's novels about misfits discovering parallel worlds in which they are people of great significance. Phrase for phrase, Gaiman is the better wordsmith, but Connolly has put together a story that sparkles with just as much raw imagination and human insight.

After Nature by W.G. Sebald

The thing with blank verse is that you can mentally string it back into prose and it often reads equally well either way.

The thing with Sebald's prose is that it always seemed poetic to me, in a forlorn, elegiac way.

The thing here, in the three blank-verse poem/essays that constitute 'After Nature' is the music imposed by the line-breaks, the halting rhythms that emerge, the occasional breaks from the controlled if gloomy, peripatetic Sebaldian tone into something more abstract and fraught.

The first and second poems are closer to versified approximations of typical Sebald material - essays on Matthias Grunewald (which made me take a new look at Grunewald's works, not particular favourites of mine in the past apart from the cool monsters), botanist Georg Steller, they use biographical facts as a peg on which to hang reflections on our ongoing assault on nature and one another. The last, autobiographical, piece, delves into Sebald's own life and family history to reflect on the burden of history and ends with an inspired segue into a vision of Alexander the Great contemplating the continent of Africa - a prelude and overture to so much of the colonial history Sebald so often looks back on and deplores in his other works, and in that sense an effective prelude to themes and concerns that were later explored again in his prose.

Excellent stuff. A book I shall have to read again several times to fully grasp.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Like every DeLillo novel I've read so far (which isn't a lot; this is the 3rd), this one was well written, often brilliantly written, completely different from anything else by him I've read, and somehow left me subtly dissatisfied.

A hyperkinetic novel that reads like something penned by the lovechild of two Williams, Burroughs and Gibson, it veers between the former's breathless philosophical and sexual pomp and the latter's endless obsession with surface, with data and with pattern.

A day in the life of a ridiculously wealthy man who has made a fortune successfully predicting currency market trends. He cruises around town in his limo, having sex with his female aides and sharing obscenely cyberchic conversations with his male aides, apart from his main bodyguard whom he hardly talks to at all aside from killing him before heading out to face a high-risk assassination threat solo. Along the way, he has random encounters with a wife he hardly seems to know and also pisses away his entire fortune by betting against a steadily rising Yen.

There's little character logic here, just a roller-coaster ride through how DeLillo imagines a billionaire-whizkid getting long in the tooth at 29 might live and work and think, with sundry speculations on the outdated origins of common terms for gadgets ('ATM' with its embedded memory of that archaic thing, the teller, or the childish rhyme of 'walky-talky'), throwaway cool-sounding aphorisms and the standard trappings of a novel telegraphing how contemporary it is - a rave party in a gutted theatre, the funeral of a Sufi rapper (what frightens me most is that Sufi trap is a musical trend as inevitable as it will be deeply repugnant), a hi-tech limo stuffed with the latest info-devices, a voice-operated gun and so on and so forth. Is the protagonist's quest for a haircut, which eventually leads him to his father's old neighbourhood and a confrontation with mortality some sort of wish to regress to childhood and further back to a time before he was born? But didn't he just dismiss Freud (and also Einstein) in the opening pages of the book? What then? Does it mean anything? Dunno.

Compulsively readable but hard to interpret or to take very seriously with all that self-conscious bleeding-edge slickness.

Thursday 11 June 2009

The Portrait: Iain Pears

Pears goes back for another bash at the mystery with art connections, but from a new angle. It isn't a detective story with some Old Master as the MacGuffin but an unfolding monologue that slowly presents the picture of an artist carrying out what seems like a long-anticipated and intricately planned murder. Pears' narrative voice is mostly effective here, and even though I began to suspect the ending within the first 10 pages of this short novel, the twists and turns that lead the narrator to his vengeful act are fascinating. The pace is not even, just as in The Dream Of Scipio there are moments when it seems the author is only using the story and the character as a peg to hang his own musings, but the last 20 pages or so are completely gripping. And yes, more than only a creepy, murderous monologue, but the balance between plot and theme is much more successful than in The Dream Of Scipio.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

covering lolita

(Inspired by yet another new edition of Lolita spotted at the Landmark in Spencer's Plaza, Madras)

If Nabokov's Lolita is about anything other than how superb prose can make a chronicle of horrors seem like thing of beauty, it's about that humbug Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged, avuncular, intellectually arrogant, self-serving and self-deceiving sexual predator who is as much the real monster of the tale as Victor is in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

But, going by the covers one sees this deeply creepy and unsettling novel wrapped up in, you wouldn't even begin to suspect as much. There are a very few editions that go for a typographical treatment, or a picture of the author. Just one which shows Jeremy Irons as Humbert and was probably motivated by the desire to cash in on his fan base.

But those are the exceptions. Generally, the cover tries to depict Lolita herself in some way. There's the schoolgirl-with-shyly-bent-knees cover from Vintage, the lips-as-vaginal-analogue cover also from Vintage, Penguin Modern Classics' snapshot of a teen girl on a suburban lawn, with its suggestions of amateur porn photo shoots, another cover from Penguin which just shows a young girl serenely lying down outdoors and reading a book, a cover which suggests an entirely different novel. A Penguin Twentieth Century Classics cover, which at least has the merit of being more unsettling than covertly titillating, of a flat-chested young girl flashing her panties - this is the only cover to suggest the 12-year old who first attracts Humbert's attention, rather than the budding 14-year old Kubrick opted to depict. But not one cover with a leering satyr of a doddering fool building elaborate, verbose castles in his overheated mind to justify the abduction and rape of a minor.

It's as if the book turns everyone who deals with it into Humbert; all complicit with his elevation of a troubled, unhappy child into a knowing, sexual provocateur; as if Humbert's self-justifying intentions are more powerful than any darker truth one may discover amidst the flurries and flourishes of his impassioned narrative.

This isn't so much a tribute to Nabokov's power as a writer as it is a symptom of something else altogether.

We live in a media bubble that is, overtly or covertly, informed by porn. From comic book artists using porn stills as photo references for superheroine drawings, through the hooker-bashing action in GTA to the pictures of starlets in the morning edition of the Times, carefully cropped to suggest more indecency than they contain.

And it's all male-oriented porn, at that. Women's magazines and men's magazines both favour alluring pictures of women on their covers, a travel magazine I have sometimes contributed to features more sunbathing girls than surfboarding dudes, romping kids or even exotic native life, human or animal on its covers; a health magazine for men is a rare exception where buff male bodies are the norm; which is all very well, but seeing how frankly sexual some of those images are, one wonders why they aren't seen on the cover of Cosmo, rather than in a medium where, presumably, they are once again catering to men - to gay men, closeted or otherwise, in this case.

Art and cultural history show us that this trend is nothing new; John Berger famously analysed the contradictions inherent in painting a picture of a beautiful naked woman because you like the way she looks and then putting a mirror in her hand and labeling the picture 'vanity' to stay on the good side of the moral police. Or the elaborate allegorical paintings that use culture and artistic tradition as an excuse to display gloriously painted female flesh in the corridors of (male) power. With lower standards of rationalisation and craftsmanship, the same is true of any male-dominated preserve, which is to say most public and private human spaces.

In short, we're all Humbert, my sodden, depraved, porn-haunted brothers, shivering and coughing with our illicit lust and finding elaborate excuses for it. The question isn't how or why we got this way, but what we'll do to crawl out of this pit. I suggest brown-paper covers for everything for the next 20 years as a start.

ETA: A few noble exceptions:
1: Humbert The Monster
2: Unsexualised image with a poignant childish quality
3: Image is sexual, but clearly predatory, violent, not alluring

And this is so wrong-headed it has to be ironic.

Monday 8 June 2009

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall. It's a near-future or parallel-present dystopia. A surprising number of reviews I've read dismiss it as derivative of, and adding nothing to the dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre, but I've read lots of books in that space and I must say that I don't think it was a rehash. The narrative is vivid and gripping, one of those short, intense novels you stay up late to finish. Although I felt a little uncomfortable when a girl of Indian origin is described as having 'placid' eyes and given a certain calm wisdom which feels a bit too close to stereotype, the characters are by and large interesting and in one case fascinating enough to be unforgettable.

The Carhullan Army are a group of renegade women who live in a self-sustaining farm, far beyond the reach of the totalitarian Authority that has taken over the UK. They decide the time has come to fight the enemy, before they are crushed, and the violence and uncompromising insistence on loyalty among them makes one wonder whether the lengths they go to are justified. The book also explores the extent of a woman's potential for violence if social conditioning for traditional gender roles is done away with. And whether a flawed alternative to a flawed system is worth the effort, because the Carhullan community, for all its good points, seems as deeply flawed as the society it rejects, and just as predicated on undercurrents of power and intimidation.

It's not new territory but Hall mixes it in with telling details that comment on contemporary politics, and a picture of life in a sort of all (or mostly) female society that is not strictly unprecedented but absorbing. I really liked Hall's style and the way she patterns her concerns and concepts into the narrative fabric and hope she dabbles in borderline SF territory again.

An interview with Sarah Hall.

The Dream Of Scipio by Iain Pears. An ambitious book which tries to weave together three inter-related narratives from different periods of history. The project seems to be to contrast secular and faith-based views of civilization, pragmatism and idealism, practicality and bravado, Christanity and Platonism and what it means to be complicit with the wrong side for what you have decided are the right reasons. This is explored in the contexts of the onset of the dark ages, the coming of the black plague and the Nazi occupation of France.

The historical details and philosophical by-play are very well rendered, but the narrative feels a little scattershot, with entire sections being told in a sort of discursive, academic manner, like a somewhat layperson-oriented history book, and the occasional scene that is depicted rather than reported. Told, rather than shown, you might say. It's an effective technique in shorter formats, or with a more charismatic writing style, but here it often makes for pages of rather flat narrative.

The feeling I get is that the author's reach did not quite match his grasp and, especially towards the end, there is a rushed feeling as if he is trying to plug in all his plot points before he loses it. Worthwhile for the dilemmas it touches upon, and attempts to resolve, and the feats of pseudohistorical invention, but not quite satisfactory.

An interview with Iain Pears.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

That tambram-thankyou-ma'am ad agency I used to work for is cutting leave because people have been coming in late, taking ciggie breaks and having long lunches.

Still no overtime for all the times creative staff puts in an all-nighter though.

It's fun watching as all their best people jump ship one by one.

Monday 1 June 2009

This is going to be, or already is, one of those wildfire internet memes, isn't it?
Note to the pre-literate naifs also known as the Indian press: a quip is a short, witty remark.

I admit that most of you wouldn't recognise brevity or wit if it mooned you with its Oscar Wilde-sized buttcheeks, but it would be nice if you didn't use the verb form of the word to refer to any remark that pops out of your dullard interlocutor's mouths. They're generally politicians and/or celebrities; you can take it as a given that nothing they ever say will ever be witty.

That is all, quipped jesting Pilate, and would not wait for a response.