Monday, December 31, 2012


Hogmanay again. They come round fast.

A time for memories.

see you in 2013

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues

Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang, recorded in 1928. The blues meets jazz, sensational stuff.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Blog queries

It is always intriguing to know how people arrive at this blog. The most popular searches are “racism in Heart of Darkness” and, latterly, “Life of Pi”. Last year, I noted some of the more unusual search engine queries which, somehow or other, ended up here. These are some of this year’s crop.

Often, you can tell the precise question that students have been set for class essays, because they are typed straight into Google. For example:

“In the secret agent how does conrad present the anarchists”
“what word does kurtz overuse?”
Other times, you suspect these students may not be near the top of their class:
“what is the literature in the short story the ascent by ron rash”
“the sense of an ending please explain”
“what are some psyche in pincher martin”
And one suspects that the searcher looking for “literary review of john fowles's the collector by some writer” may not have a career in the arts. Nor will these searchers:
accountable for leibovitz book "who wrote blindness"
"bellow silver dish sparknotes"
"scottish author carson mc"
"what century was the collector written"
On the other hand, the following enquirers may be onto some fascinating new avenues of research:
"mr verloc and huckleberry finn character differences"
"sylvia plath was a racist chinese"
"tom and huck engagement"
And as for the “Beast Jesus Restoration Society”, I’d quite fancy joining that myself.

One class was given quite an imaginative creative writing exercise to do this year: “Write a scene in which clarisse mcclellan reappears in farenheit 451”. That would be quite an interesting challenge.

The curse of students everywhere – failing to make a note of the page number for references, surfaces a couple of times:

“what page the stars up close to the moon were pale; they got ...” a “in the novel shattered what page is the quote all that is required for evil to prevail”
“what page does the judge mention kkk in clocks without hands”
You get the feeling some of these students would much rather be doing something else:
how long is don delillo's mao ii"
"How does Don Delillo's Cosmopolis end?"
"a.m. homes music for torching about?"
"what was steve frinks from winesburg ohio father's name?"
On occasions the searches seem curiously personal. How about: “is heart of darkness a racist novel tom”? Well, since you ask, no it isn’t racist, and Chinua Achebe is entirely wrong in his analysis.

Matters sexual and scatological always make a perplexing appearance. The ideas are strange enough, but what I don’t understand is why Google directed them here. It must be a great disappointment to searchers for:

“blogspot brown assholelicking”
"www.debonair pissing"
“woman tied up in window”
“little flower girl sex stories 1,2,3”
Some searchers simply seem stuck for inspiration. I feel for the person who wanted to find out “how to write a composition on occasion when i mistook someone for somebody else”. It’s almost an existential crisis.

I was tickled by the fact that someone working for the Irish government was googling for the “historical price of a pint of guinness”. One wonders why they wanted to know?

Sometimes, I just want to talk to some of the searchers, because their interests sound so close to my own. I’d love to chat to the person who was looking for “comparisons of death valley sorley maclean and dulce et decorum est”.

And it would be great to be able to put people in touch with each other. Within the space of half an hour I had these virtually identical queries:

24 Dec, Mon, 06:16:50 Canada Google Images: "ww2 bombed city"
24 Dec, Mon, 06:47:56 Argentina Google Images: "wwii bombed city"
Anyway, another year rolls by. Another year awaits, and another collection of curious searches.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Malian music

This is a heartbreaking story. Islamist fundamentalists have taken over areas of Mali including the hometown of the late Ali Farka Toure. They have banned music and instituted the usual restrictions on women and children. The music of this genius cannot be heard in his own town.

Listen to this. It was recorded just before his death in 2006. It is an astounding piece of music, so alive, so vivid, so dynamic, completely hypnotic. One day, this will be heard again in the streets of Niafunke.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck wrote: “Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.” The base theme of all honest writing, he concludes, is “Try to understand each other.” This is the crux of his 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men. The novel is an extended combination of setpieces in which a group of men and one woman, in a number of different permutations, try to come together, try to become a community, try to understand, or care for, or even acknowledge one another. Through it all, the fragility of true community is laid bare: we see the danger of those moments of misunderstanding or self-interest or anger or fear or jealousy that countermand the basic human instinct to cooperate.

The thematic force in the novel comes from its contrast of loneliness and community. There is tremendous loneliness endured by these characters, but also a fragile sense of community and the overwhelming need for human companionship. Thus, we see some of the negative forces that impel us – greed, anger, bitterness – but, much more than that, we see some of the positives, those moments of connection that make us all – to use another Scottish expression alongside that which informs the novel’s title – Jock Tamson’s bairns. And every character in the novel possesses a combination of these positive and negative impulses in varying degrees.

There is much to criticise in Of Mice and Men: it is too pat, too forced, too obvious, above all it is too melodramatic. From the outset there is only one possible way the narrative can end, and this ending is further emphasised all the way through the novel. At every turn it is obvious what will happen next: Curley will undoubtedly pick a fight with Lennie; Lennie will end up doing something bad and hiding out in the pre-appointed spot at the riverside; Curley’s wife will be the catalyst which provokes Lennie’s final midemeanour; the euthanasia of Candy’s dog will foreshadow the ending. All of it flows with an inevitability too great to be truly satisfying. Chekhov’s famous dictum is that, if a pistol appears in Act 1 it must be fired in Act 2. That is true, but in Of Mice and Men, when the pistol appears it has a sign hanging from it in large print saying “this pistol will be fired soon”. All of this serves to lessen the emotional impact of much of the action. As a study of community in adversity it can’t hold a candle to, say, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

But, as ever with Steinbeck, there is so much to admire, and so much that is simply breathtaking. He manages to instil a sense of basic human decency in the most unpromising of material, and his characters are real, heartbreakingly flawed, trapped between the height of their aspirations and the depth of their fears. Only Curley, a one-dimensional pantomime villain, doesn’t feel satisfying. The other characters live. Even Curley’s wife, a character so indistinct she doesn’t even warrant a name, nonetheless comes across as a living, breathing, self-deceiving woman, warranting dislike and pity in equal measure.

The narrative structure is deceptively simple, as much of Steinbeck’s work is. The story is in three acts, each with two self-contained scenes. Through this, Steinbeck works a series of combinations of characters, each of them exploring different facets of the troubled community which subsists on the farm. Principally, of course, we have the story of George and Lennie. Lennie is a giant with the mind of an infant, mentally handicapped and incapable of comprehending the consequences of his actions. George is his friend, nobly sticking by him despite the fact that Lennie causes nothing but trouble. As the novel begins, they are on the move because Lennie was hounded out of Weed on suspicion of attempted rape. The reader is privileged with the knowledge that this was not an attempted rape: rather, attracted by the dress of a little girl, Lennie grabs it and refuses to let go, and when the child panics and tries to escape, this causes Lennie to panic too. As soon as we hear this, we know the scene will be replicated in some form as part of the novel’s climax, and so it transpires. Lennie is incapable of change. But George is shown to be an honourable man: it would be easy for him to abandon Lennie, and few would criticise him for so doing, but he stands by him throughout.

The two men arrive at a new farm and they and we are therefore introduced to a new set of companions. Each of these is flawed in his own way. Most of them are shown to have some hidden dream. Only Carlson appears devoid of ambition or empathy. In turn, we are presented with a series of character combinations which begin to reveal the layers of human hope buried deep within the truculence of these working men. George and Slim, the main man in the mule team and the person to whom all of the men – even Curley, the owner’s son – defer, offer the most intelligent analysis of their respective hopes and fears. It is through his discussions with Slim, for example, that we learn the nature and depth of George’s friendship with Lennie. We know, too, that both George and Lennie aspire to have a smallholding of their own. When Candy, the ageing handyman who has lost a hand in an accident, hears the two talking of their dreams, he offers to help finance it with money he has saved from his compensation for the accident. Growing old, he knows he will soon become too useless to continue to work and will end up in a poor house. This is his means of escape, and he joins George and Lennie in the great dream. They will establish a community of the disconnected.

Later, when all the men have gone to a cathouse, leaving Lennie behind, he visits Crooks in his room. Crooks is black and disabled, a double outsider who is excluded from the community of men on the farm and suffers intense loneliness. He doesn’t want Lennie invading his private space, and he knows the giant offers no real prospect of conversation, but he is also deeply lonely. It is Crooks who makes some of the most telling points in the novel. "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got anybody. Don't make any difference who the guy is, long's he's with you”, he says aloud. Crooks is dismissive of the trio’s grand plan for establishing their own place, but it is obvious, to us and him, that what he wants more than anything is to be included in their plans. He offers to join them for no pay. His is one of the most poignant histories in the whole novel, and when he is threatened by Curley’s wife, his response is horrifyingly realistic. He turns himself into a non-person, divesting himself of all personality and outward appearance and disappearing into a shell of nothingness. He becomes a blank, an invisible man. It is the only means of escape for outsiders in a world dominated by those who disparage them. It speaks of cruelty and abuse. It was against this sort of intolerance that Rosa Parks rebelled in 1955 when she refused to make way on a Montgomery bus for a white person. For a moment, in that room, in Crooks’s automatic defence mechanism, we are taken into another world, and it is a repellent place. This is beautifully, powerfully written. Crooks’s defence is, of course, what Lennie cannot do: when Curley is looking for trouble, Lennie calls attention to himself by laughing at his own thoughts and Curley, thinking he is laughing at him, lashes out. The capacity for invisibility, then, is a powerful defence mechanism, and all too often it is called on by the dispossessed of the world.

There are a couple of animal relationships in the novel, too, and each of these is significant. Firstly, there is Lennie and his pets, a mouse in the opening scene which he has petted too forcibly and killed, and later a new-born pup which he is given at the new farm and which, again, he is too rough with and kills. Nothing Lennie does is out of malice: he simply does not understand his strength or the consequences to others of that strength. And secondly we have Candy and his old dog, a lame, ill, half-blind thing, probably not far from death. In an early scene, Candy is persuaded, against his will, that the dog needs to be put down and Carlson takes it out and shoots it. The dog is Candy’s only friend. Companionship is lost. It is a poignant moment but, of course, the euthanasia of the dog, with a bullet in the back of the head, is a direct foreshadow of what George does to Lennie at the novel’s conclusion.

The catalyst for that ending is the final meeting of Curley’s wife and Lennie. From the outset, it is obvious what will happen, but it does not make it any less horrifying when it does. Again, Lennie cannot understand his own strength, again he is panicked by the panic of someone else, and again this fatal conjunction of events overwhelms him. He breaks Curley’s wife’s neck. Before this, however, we see something of her nature, and this scene is important in terms of turning her from being merely a McGuffin into a character in her own right. She is naïve, not particularly bright, as manipulable as she is manipulative. She dreams of a career in Hollywood but we know such dreams are as impossible for her as the dreams of a smallholding are for George and Lennie and Candy. She simply wants something better. She wants something good. In her heart, she knows it won’t happen and she settles instead for marriage to Curley and a loveless life and endless longing.

Thus, through this series of character combinations we are taken into different conceptions of personal happiness and its link to community. There is genius at work in prosecuting these descriptions. To create sympathy for characters who are as resolutely self-centred or pathetic as some of the characters in Of Mice and Men is remarkable.

The ending, although utterly predictable, is nonetheless very complex. It is simplistic to portray it, as many have tried to when banning the novel from libraries, as advocating euthanasia. Clearly, there is a direct correlation being drawn between the killing of Candy’s aged, infirm dog and the killing of Lennie: the inference, then, is that euthanasia for dogs and for humans should be regarded in the same way, and the concomitant of that, the argument goes, is that euthanasia for mentally ill people must therefore be acceptable. But that is too reductive an evaluation of what is happening in this novel. It ignores the rest of the contextual detail of the narrative and reduces everything to a contrast between those two events. This is exactly the opposite of what Steinbeck is trying to posit in this deceptively complex piece of fiction.

It is important not to make twenty-first century judgements when reading twentieth-century novels. It is important not to decontextualise the events of this novel and suggest that they must offer a single and perfect solution to any example of the issues raised. What Steinbeck so carefully displays in this novel is the complexity of human nature and human community. Within that particular community of men, at that time, the only course of action that was humane is that which they take: they kill the dog because it is in pain and nearing its end; George kills Lennie because he knows the alternative is either lynching or incarceration in a lunatic asylum. Both decisions were honestly made, both caused inconsolable pain to the people who made them. Within the fragile community of the farm, those were the only viable options. Within the structures and beliefs of that community they were the right decisions to make, the honorable thing to do.

To extrapolate from that and suggest that, in any circumstance, euthanasia is correct, is to simplify Steinbeck’s narrative too much. If one attempts to do that, the beliefs of that close-knit community, which led to those decisions being made, are adulterated with modern-day sensibilities, and this renders the actions meaningless. It is for precisely this reason that Cormac McCarthy offers a completely neutral description of the violence of the 1840s west in Blood Meridian: to do otherwise, to filter it through modern-day sensibilities, would completely lose the impact of the story. Of Mice and Men must be read within the context of its own narrative, and any meaning which one can derive from it must be derived within that context. If one can take a message from George’s actions at the end of the novel, it is not the facile suggestion that “euthanasia is correct”, it is that “love forces us to do things we would rather not”. That is an altogether different, and more complex, and more sombre message.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Leonardo da Vinci in Hull

Back in 1985, when I lived in Aberdeen, I went to the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci drawings from the Codex Hammer. I was too young, then, to think about how surprising it was that such a piece of art should end up in a place like Aberdeen.

Cycle forward 27 years, and there is a Leonardo exhibition in my local gallery, the Ferens in Hull. And it's proving amazingly successful. People are queuing around the gallery and out the door and up the street to get in. For a small, provincial gallery like the Ferens, this is a tremendous success.

If you're up this way, it's well worth a look. There are only ten drawings, and they are all small, but the detail in them is simply extraordinary. How he could even see the detail, let alone draw it is remarkable. And that he did so with quills and home-made implements is even more remarkable.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


You may have noticed I've been rather quiet of late. I'm heavily involved in the writing up of my thesis at present - about 30,000 words of 100,000 written to date - and it means I have no time at all for pleasure reading. Haven't read a novel for pleasure since my last review on here, Boneland, and I'm really missing it. Every moment is spent working on the thesis, alas.

However, as a bit of light relief, I've collected together some of the reviews from here, tidied them up a bit, and put them into a collection which is available through Lulu Press here. There's nothing that isn't already published on this blog, but it's all neatly gathered together. The price is a bit steep, but that's pretty much what it costs to produce.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Michael Marra

Just heard tonight that Michael Marra died last week. Michael was a brilliant singer-songwriter from Dundee. His songs were witty, wise, literate, joyful. He was a fine humanist. I only got to see him play live once, at a very eccentric festival in Whitby. It seemed a highly appropriate occasion for such an individualistic singer. He did what he wanted, he followed no fashions, he just wrote and sang beautiful songs.

Here's an example of his eccentric brilliance:

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Faulkner's estate sues Woody Allen

One of the best films I've seen recently was Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, a whimsical piece in which a frustrated writer finds some sort of portal into the past and carouses with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein et al. It's very funny indeed. Now, Woody Allen is being sued by the estate of William Faulkner for misappropriating a quote of Faulkner's in the film. The line in question is:
The past is not dead! Actually, it's not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.
It seems pretty innocuous to me. It even gives Faulkner as the source of the quote, although his estate are quibbling that it's actually a misquote. It's all a bit silly. But, worse than that, it seems somewhat menacing. This is what one would usually call fair use, where quotes from an author may be used by others as long as appropriate acknowledgements are made. This blog, for example, would not be possible if I could not quote from literary works. What Faulkner's estate are doing seems ridiculously heavy-handed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

James Tait Black Prize

Britain's oldest literary award is doing a "best of" competition. The six chosen novels are:

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
A Disaffection by James Kelman
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips
The Mandlebaum Gate by Muriel Spark

I must admit, it seems a most curious list to me. Presumably, it's only novels that previously won the annual prize which can be nominated. That's the only reason for the selection of some of these novels. Many people like, even love The Road, but I think you'd be hard-pushed to find any McCarthy scholar who rated it his best. Similarly, The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene? And Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter.

As for James Kelman, although I'm a fellow Scot I've never been able to see the appeal. If you want a Scottish novel, look no further than the scandalously under-rated Lanark by Alasdair Gray.

However, it's always the way of these shortlists that some smartarse like me comes along and says "I wouldn't have chosen that..." So roll on the announcement, in December.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Southport Writers' Circle short story competition

I have no affiliation with this group, but they sent me an email with details of their current competition, so I'll pass it on.

Southport Writers’ Circle Open Short Story Competition 2012

1st prize: £150 Second prize: £75 Third prize: £25

Closing date: 31st October 2012

Online entries available at

Chief Judge: Dr. Valerie Williamson

Val Williamson's short fiction has been published in magazines, and in collections including Time Out and Richard and Judy’s Winning Stories, and broadcast on BBC radio. She writes in several genres for adults and children, and has been published in magazines as diverse as Back Street Heroes, My Weekly and Twinkle Comic. More recently she has published chapters in academic books about cultural engagement with fiction and its genres in several media. Val has tutored writers at events including the Writers’ Summer School and the Writers’ Holiday, and has now possibly adjudicated more competitions than she has entered.


Your entry should be an unpublished, original story on any theme of up to 2000 words.

* Don’t put your name on your story but do give it a title.

* You don’t need an entry form. Send us a cover sheet for each entry with the story’s title, word count, your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address for results.

* The fee is £3.00 for each story, or £10 for 4. You can pay by cheque or postal order made out to Southport Writers’ Circle.

Copyright remains with the author but winning entries may be displayed on the website for 12 months.

Send entries to:

Short Story Competition
Southport Writers’ Circle
Flat 3, 35 Saunders Street

If you have no e-mail please supply SAE for results.
Online entries available at
Winners will be informed in December.
Optional – Single-Spaced ‘Green’ entries encouraged.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The lost art of proofreading

This is a school textbook with a Faulkner short story. It doesn't inspire you with confidence, does it?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Boneland by Alan Garner

The gestation of Boneland is now famous: it is the third and final part of a trilogy begun in 1960, with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and continued in 1963 with The Moon of Gomrath. Those latter titles were books for children, and they were meant to be the end of the series; Boneland is an adult novel whose presence has slowly insinuated itself in the author’s mind over the intervening years. On the surface it sounds an unlikely undertaking; for fans of Alan Garner’s outstanding work, though, it is entirely natural and wholly welcome. Boneland is a book that has been waiting fifty years to be written and now its time has come.

Weirdstone and Gomrath are superb children’s novels, among the best of the last century. Their inventiveness, their use of myth, the wonderful rolling rhythms of the language, the thrilling sense of adventure and danger and supernatural fear, all combine to produce something truly memorable. And Boneland, though far from flawless, is an extraordinary sequel: it somehow manages simultaneously to be entirely different from and wholly consistent with its predecessors. Such a contradiction would probably please the author. It is a remarkable feat.

Colin, the child protagonist of the original stories, is now a forty-something astrophysicist still living in the myth-haunted space of Alderley Edge where the earlier books (and most of Garner’s works) were set. His twin sister vanished as a child (as was suggested at the conclusion of The Moon of Gomrath). Colin is obsessed by her. He is deeply troubled, possibly bipolar, certainly subject to manic periods. He can remember every moment of his life since the age of thirteen (when the previous novels ended) but nothing at all of what happened before that age. As Boneland begins he is clearly approaching a crisis, quite possibly a total breakdown.

The narrative shifts between a straightforward and realist description of Colin’s daily life, his travails at work, his singular home lifestyle, the counselling he undertakes with the mysterious psychiatrist Meg; and a dreamscape in which myth and time and sumptuous descriptive passages meld into a breathtaking otherworld. This takes place in some pre-lapsarian existence of our earliest ancestors and yet, at the same time, one feels its centre is in Colin’s consciousness, that troubled and tormented place. There is more than one time, there is more than one story, there is more than one moment. We are taken into a Nietzschean whorl of infinite return, time cycling and recycling, never linear, never simple. We spin round our mortal realm, we reach out into the stars, probing, searching, looking for clues, but what is truly out there is too far, too long, too remote for us to grasp. It is beyond. It is not, nor ever will be, us. The answers are there. The answers are nowhere.

This is the nature of the myth world into which Colin is thrust. And that we cannot – quite – grasp what is happening reflects the turmoil that Colin, too, must endure. There is a juncture where myth and history collide, and Boneland describes that space. It is a boundary, and as Colin explains: “Boundaries aren’t safe... They occupy neither space nor time. Boundaries can change apparent realities. They let things through.” These passages, then, are uncomfortable, unsettling, both unreal and hyper-real, as though the senses are operating at the edge of their experience.

Great fiction will always use the personal to explain the universal. But truly great fiction will use the universal to explain the personal. One thinks of Crime and Punishment, for example, which could not exist without the reader being aware of both the inner sensibilities of Raskolnikov and the outer, moral pressure which defeats him. Or Pincher Martin on his island, in his death. Or Suttree in the wilderness of his imagination balancing fears that are, at once, private and eternal, his dead twin and his dead self. In the character of Colin we have just such a conjunction of personal and universal; through him we come to a greater understanding of humanity while, at the same time, through the novel we come to better know an individual human being. Only the great writers can achieve this. Garner is a great writer.

I’m not convinced, however, that Boneland is a great novel. In particular, Garner has some difficulty with dialogue. It seems remarkable to me that someone with such an acute sense of the rhythms and beauty of language should have such a tin ear for dialogue. One gets the feeling that, in real life, Garner may be someone who thinks a lot but wastes little time on the trivia of chitchat. And that this matters in the novel points to a second problem: by consciously writing the main narrative in realist mode, these shortcomings in dialogue become all too apparent. As Ursula Le Guin points out in her perceptive review, the mixture of realism and fantasy is a brave literary choice. For the most part it succeeds, and it is certainly true that the prehistoric era passages grow in weight and depth and resonance as the novel progresses, but there remains a disjunction when a writer writes in realist mode and unnatural elements such as clunky dialogue intervene. I do not know what else Garner could have done, because I believe the overall approach he takes is both brave and correct, but the dialogue remains a problem with the novel.

In the end, though, I don’t believe it matters. Boneland stands as a fine piece of literature. It takes a true and honest approch to myth, far removed from elves and dragons and childish quasi-medieval posturing. Mythology is a serious enterprise, a generations-old attempt to explain the inexplicable: who we are, why we are, where we are, when we are, how we are, what we are. This is the true nature of myth, and it is a difficult and troubling thing. Those who use myth properly write dark novels – McCarthy, Golding, Coetzee et al. They know what myth is and they know its power. When asked in Boneland about myth and science, Colin, the astrophysicist, makes the perhaps startling declaration that they may have equal validity. Each is real in its own ways but “they occupy different dimensions”. If this isn’t the message of Cormac McCarthy I don’t know what is. And it is certainly the message of Alan Garner’s work, beautiful, wise and powerful as it is.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

For some time in Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears, it is quite difficult to identify the precise theme. Near the end, however, it is made clear in a key conversation between the main protagonists (held, significantly, over the telephone rather than face-to-face – the problem of communication is a secondary theme in the novel).

Catherine Gehrig, a conservator of horology at the Swinburne Museum in London and the narrator of half the story, calls her boss, the avuncular Eric Croft, for advice. It is specific advice she seeks, on a Latin translation, although it is clear that Catherine really needs an outlet for her emotions. Eric says to her: “I find the notion that mysteries must be solved to be very problematic.” He goes on: “Every curator finally learns that the mysteries are the point.” Aha! So we’re in the field of mysteries, then, we’re in metaphysics, we’re confronting the eternal questions. “Why do we always wish to remove ambiguitity?” Eric continues. “Without ambiguity you have Agatha Christie, a sort of aesthetic whodunnit. But look at any Rothko. You can look and look but you never get past the vacillations and ambiguities of colour and form and surface.” How very Careyian, you have to say, to distil the mysteries of the universe into a single Rothko canvas. On this occasion, however, it is a weak image. It is a typical of Carey to invoke high art to bestow gravitas on a concept and, in most instances, it works: when that concept is the nature of existence itself, however, the conceit comes close to bathos.

However, that is to quibble. The significant thing is that here, it seems, the novel is taking us into theological territory. This is somewhat surprising, as it is not traditional Carey material, and we shall return to this point later.

Catherine is grieving after the sudden death of the museum’s Head Curator, with whom she has had a thirteen year affair. Her boss, Eric Croft, the only person who knew of the affair, tries to help by assigning to her a new and prestigious project. Consequently, she begins conservation work on what appears to be a spectacular automaton duck. Packed alongside the automaton’s machinery are the notebooks of Henry Brandling, the Victorian patron for whom the automaton was built as a play-thing and health-aid for his consumptive son. Brandling’s notebooks form the second strand of the narrative. It is clear that the automaton – which Catherine discovers is actually a swan, rather than a duck – is of exceptionally high quality and technically it is remarkably advanced. It is designed to move around in a water-filled hull, eating fish and grain, digesting it and and finally defecating the excreta. What we have, then, is a mimetic representation of the natural life-cycle, inevitably suggesting notions of a creator and the created, what it is to be alive, ideas of free will and control, life and death and so on: the mystery of life recreated, in other words.

There is more. The novel explores surfaces, truths. Written on the automaton, in Latin, is the inscription “What you see cannot be seen.” Again, this takes us to the sense of mystery. Nothing we know in life is truly known to us, because we do not – cannot – know what comes after: there is never any clarity or truth, no matter how close we feel we may be to understanding something. Again, the automaton is a powerful image here: it is in poor repair, its parts disarticulated and stored in eight wooden tea chests. Many years later, conservators try to rebuild it, not understanding what it is for, not knowing the story behind its creation. That story is gradually revealed to us through Brandling’s notebooks but, once again, truth serves only to obscure: the final answer is, as it must always be, elusive. Mystery remains.

As a meditation on what it means to be human, then, for that is what the novel is, The Chemistry of Tears has all the necessary elements for a persuasive study. It almost comes off. In Brandling’s notebooks, he describes the work of Sir Albert Cruikshank, a pioneering inventor on whose work much of the technology behind his swan is based. Cruikshank, it transpires, is something of a visionary, residing somewhere in that debatable land between genius and lunacy.

We are presented with Cruickshank’s great invention, the Mysterium Tremendum. Clearly, since most critics agree Cruikshank is based on Charles Babbage, this wooden counting machine appears to be the precursor of the modern computer. The Mysterium Tremendum, therefore, is the key to the two principal strands of philosophical thought that the novel seeks to explore and it is these two strands or, more importantly, the interconnectedness of these two strands, that leads to the ultimate weakness of The Chemistry of Tears.

Mysterium tremendum is a phrase coined by Rudolph Otto to explore the mystery that must pertain in religion, through which rational thought must be submerged beneath a sense of awe at the numinous nature of the deity. By numinous, Otto means the religious experience itself, and the response it invokes in us. There are different ways the numinous can affect us, one of which is a sense of dread, or the Mysterium Tremendum, a sense of fear of a completely different order from any mortal fear. CS Lewis describes it thus:

Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told "There is a ghost in the next room," and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is "uncanny" rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply "There is a mighty spirit in the room" and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.
That Carey has chosen to call Cruikshank’s instrument the Mysterium Tremendum, something evoking a sense of awe in the deity, is clearly not accidental. Therefore, we must suppose that he is using his novel to explore the tension between our mortal lives and the awful uncertainty about what comes before and beyond. The spectre of death hangs over both narrative strands – Catherine’s dead lover and Brandling’s dying son. In each strand, neither protagonist is in control of their lives and, for neither, their final destination is what they would have wished. Linking them both is the swan, the beautiful and mysterious symbol of the numinous, that awe-inspiring representation of a created life.

But, having taken us on this journey towards (but never into) the unknown, the novel loses impetus. Why? Because of the second thematic strand in the narrative.

This is a jeremiad about the power and inherent dangers of technology and progress. We have Cruikshank’s machine, the Mysterium Tremendum, of course, and all that must follow from the digital revolution we are still living through. But, more than this, Carey dilutes the impact of his narrative with a very contemporary but wholly inappropriate environmental theme. Alarm bells ring early on when Amanda, a (none too convincing) secondary character, is fixated on the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. At first, one wonders whether this was happening as Carey was writing the novel, and he slipped it in for verisimilitude but, it becomes increasingly obvious, this environmental disaster is a central element of the plot.

And as soon as this happens the novel loses its gravitas. The mysterium tremendum, the mystery of the before and the beyond, is relegated into a trite argument about environmental stewardship. Catherine concludes, near the end, that Brandling’s notebooks are “a critique of the Industrial Revolution”. And so the mysterium tremendum, the awe in the face of the unknown, is reduced to a hollow and secular complaint about the nature of modernity. This, to me, is absurd. If you are going to invoke the ultimate questions, don’t weaken the argument by shoehorning them into something less significant. Global warming may be a genuine concern, mankind may well be on the road to destroying the planet but, in metaphysical terms, these developments are inconsequential. Ultimately, they make no difference. They might to us, poor bloody humans, for sure, but if, in your novel, you are raising the question of there being something more significant than human beings, some motivating force, divine or otherwise, then to hook the novel’s conclusions on the fate of humanity is to completely fail to develop the point that you have elaborately tried to establish. This is bathos writ large. And this is exactly what happens to the narrative of The Chemistry of Tears.

It calls into question the whole environmental movement at present, the way it is being turned into a secular religion. Humanity has a habit of doing this, elevating whatever the principal concern of the day might be into a position of such import it becomes all-encompassing. It led, in Victorian times, to science and rationalism being bastardised into the ugliness of positivism. Now, the perfectly sensible desire to secure effective stewardship of natural resources is elevated into a whole new religion of nature. There is so much self-serving nonsense about this. The environmentalists are “saving the planet”, man is evil, the environment is everything, the environment is God. But this is essentially hypocricy: the planet existed for millennia before mankind first took its breath and it will survive for millennia after we’re gone: it needs no worship, it needs no saving. The only thing that needs saving is big, bad mankind, the very thing the environmental movement purports to oppose. There is something obscene about the way environmentalism is being turned into a religion. For that reason, I no longer like the term that William Golding coined for Jim Lovelock’s inspirational theories, Gaia. It invests a religious sensibility in something that should be secular.

The concept of a mysterium tremendum is, even for an atheist like me, a worthwhile area of study. Eric, in The Chemistry of Tears, is right: some mysteries do not require resolution, the mystery is all. The before and the beyond of our lives cannot be explicated: that is what religion is, whether or not one subscribes to the notion of a god. There must be some element of transcendence, whether that be a divine transcendence into the company of God, or a rationalist transcendence into nothingness. The environmental cause is by its nature, immanent, irrevocably rooted on this planet, this time, this realm of understanding. Why make it more mysterious? The Chemistry of Tears begins to explore fascinating territory but, somewhere along the line, it runs out of confidence and thematically it slides into disappointment. This is a great pity because, stylistically, as you would expect from any novel by the brilliant Peter Carey, it is a very fine piece of writing.

Carey's voice and POV

I’ve mentioned before Peter Carey’s fascination with voice and, in particular, how he likes to set himself challenges in his novels: Hugh “Slow Bones”, the brother with learning difficulties in Theft; the baffled and isolated Che and his fragile guardian in His Illegal Self; and Olivier, the pompous, self-important aristocratic in Parrot and Olivier in America. In The Chemistry of Tears, he does it again, and in fact he sets himself a double challenge with the characters of Catherine and Henry Brandling.

The first protagonist, Catherine is a not-especially likeable woman in her forties, shown at a time of maximum disruption to her life because of the death of her lover. Since she is mostly distraught, drunk, or both, it is hard to care for her. This is not a fault, of course, but it does mean that the narrative strand must be strong enough to withstand the lack of empathy engendered in the readers. That this narrative strand succeeds – indeed is the more interesting of the two strands in the novel – is testament to Carey’s skill. How does he do it? By making Catherine, for all her faults and reasons to dislike her – real. Her work, intricate, specialised, impressive – is described with great skill, demonstrating powerful research but also writerly restraint. We can believe in Catherine and her predicament, and this alone makes us interested.

The second protagonist, Henry Brandling, is a prickly Victorian gentleman with all the insecurities and lack of self-awareness you might expect from such a person. In Germany to procure the automaton for his ill son, and embarrassingly out of his depth, he is literally an innocent abroad. This is extremely challenging for a writer to pull off: how to invest emotion and drama in a story narrated by a man with an upper lip so stiff you could whet a knife on it; and how to suggest drama and emotion through a man who is oblivious of either?

It seems that even Carey, the master character-builder may have met his match this time. Some of Brandling’s latter notebook entries are relayed to us second-hand by Catherine, allowing Carey to filter his words through Catherine’s sensibilities and thereby invest more emotion in proceedings than the sober Mr Brandling alone could have provided. It’s a cop-out, I suppose, but it’s a very well-written cop-out, and one can excuse anything that’s well-written.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

You might call Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers a historical novel. It is and it isn’t. If it is a historical novel, it’s a postmodern one. But no, it’s not a postmodern novel, either. In truth, it’s an oddity. In tone and mood and the almost disconnected way the narrative is related, it puts me more in mind of Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist than anything else. It’s something to do with the picaresque nature and, more importantly, the lack of realism which distils every now and again into outright fantasy. What it creeates is something akin to a dream world, not wholly unrealistic but not quite rooted in our reality. Nathanael West might be a better comparison, or James Purdy.

The Sisters Brothers are a pair of hired assassins in Oregon in 1851. The year and the Western setting have drawn inevitable comparisons with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian but, apart from the casual (and neutrally related) violence the two novels have little in common. The narrator is Eli Sisters, a man who, initially, seems simple but is gradually revealed as the story progresses (to us, though not necessarily to himself) as increasingly complex. His brother Charlie, on the other hand, is initially shown to be a thug, easily the more violent and less moral of the pair and, until the denouement, that is how he remains. If Westerns are traditionally stories of travel and movement (usually westward), then The Sisters Brothers certainly fulfils that criterion, but the movement here is psychological rather than physical. So it isn’t quite a Western either, and in that the McCarthy comparison might be more usefully made with The Crossing or All the Pretty Horses. As with those novels, The Sisters Brothers is more than anything a novel about character.

The first thing to say about the novel is that it is very funny, in a decidedly black fashion. The second thing to say is that it is not, nor is it intended to be, realistic. Jane Smiley, in a surprisingly weak review of the novel for The Guardian, seems not to understand this. She suggests:

A reader looking for meticulous depiction of Oregon and California in 1851, however, will have to look elsewhere. Eli barely gives the landscape a glance, and people met along the way are simple figures in his moral drama.
This really is a crassly reductive way of reading a novel, seemingly suggesting that a realist approach is the only true way. It’s as though the twentieth century, and modernism and post-modernism never existed. For a novelist, of all people, to make such an absurd comment is particularly regrettable. Smiley then goes on:
Nor does Eli have any larger philosophical or sociohistorical insights to offer. His narrative style is flat and literal, which is perhaps supposed to be the hilarious part.
This statement isn’t just regrettable, it’s remarkable. It’s as though several generations of English literature, from Tristram Shandy onwards, have ceased to exist. The idea that the narrator must be the one to offer the philosophical or sociohistorical insights is simply naïve. Has Smiley never heard of the unreliable narrator? Has she never reckoned on what is revealed through not being spoken? Has she never heard the expression “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”?

Eli may not have any larger insights to make (although, actually, I would refute this, too) but the novel assuredly does. Consider the ending. The closure. The change. Both characters develop. In the case of Eli, the narrator, there is a finely drawn and gradually revealed revelation that, for him, the life of the assassin is worthless and immoral. Charlie, of course, is a tougher case, and his catalyst for revelation comes, appropriately enough, not through his own conviction but through an accident – which is, alongside murder, one of the occupational hazards of the assassin. But, make no mistake, he does change. The Sisters Brothers change. Their mindless life of violence and casual cruelty winds to an end.

And nowhere in this is there any crude “revelatory” moment when a character suddenly sees the light. Fiction is full of such moments, the notion of the epiphany. In reality such light-bulb flashes of realisation never happen. Life doesn’t conveniently stop to allow you to have a Condor moment of self-reflective consideration. What happens is that an individual’s feelings begin to shift imperceptibly, changing in increments so that the destination of each peristaltic pulse seems indistinguishible from the previous but finally one finds that the end-point, the revelation, is far removed from where they began. This is what happens with Eli. This is what happens in The Sisters Brothers. Anyone who reads Eli’s intentionally flat narrative in an equally flat way will not realise that. Anyone who recognises the flatness for what it is, and makes the effort to comprehend the hidden story, will find much to engage. This, after all, is what good fiction is meant to do.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jim Long

It's not often you note the obituary of a character in a novel, but in this case it is possible.

James William (Jim) Long has died in Knoxville, aged 81.

As a young man, Jim was a friend of a certain Cormac McCarthy, and he is immortalised in McCarthy's masterpiece, Suttree, as J-Bone. It seems that the real experiences of McCarthy, Long et al were every bit as wild as those of Sut and J-Bone.

In recent years, Jim was a patient guide to many McCarthy scholars who dropped by present-day Knoxville to witness for themselves the various locations of scenes in the novel. I never met him, but by all accounts he was a good and entertaining man. And, in his case, his memory will truly live on, every time a reader picks up a copy of Suttree and chuckles over their misadventures.


Before his death, Jim Long was visited by Jack Neely, a highly respected local journalist from Knoxville who has written extensively in the past on Cormac McCarthy's Knoxville connections. In the interview, Jim talks about Charlie McCarthy, as Cormac then was, and the old days. It's a wonderful interview. McCarthy is reported as saying that Suttree wouldn't exist with Jim.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Never judge a book by its cover, the old dictum goes. How true, how true. When I was at school, one of the books we were supposed to read was Cannery Row but I never did. The copies we had in school had a dreary cover featuring an almost derelict-looking street, devoid of life. The blurb on the back talked of the difficult lives of the residents of Cannery Row and the poverty and deprivation. It sounded the most dismal, boring story imaginable and I resolved to have nothing to do with it. Being something of a smartarse at school I had a habit of doing this, refusing to study the texts that were taught in class and instead answering questions on things I read on my own. And so Cannery Row passed me by. What a pity! I loved this novel, and I know my teenage self would have loved it even more.

Cannery Row is about community. It is about the ways that communities combine and relate, their impulses and resonances, the underlying tensions and, above all, connections that make them cohesive units. As ever, the best way to understand a concept is to study not a perfect example of it, but a flawed one. And community in Cannery Row is certainly flawed, only it is flawed in a triumphant way: what appears, on the surface, to be a valueless and self-serving society is shown to be invested with a deeper quality of comradeship. Such comradeship seldom presents itself in solid, positive ways, however, and the lives of Mack and the boys in Cannery Row are, indeed, troubled and troublesome, but at least their intentions, if easily deflected, are nonetheless honourable. The community these men represent is a microcosm of the rest of us – chaotic, often selfish, sometimes violent, naïve, misguided, reckless and ruthless but, beneath it all, a community that is decent.

Now, of course, anyone celebrating the underlying decency of ordinary folks is liable to be accused of being sentimental. And, indeed, sentimentality is an accusation that has hung over Steinbeck for seventy years and more. In Cannery Row, he certainly forces the reader to consider sympathetically people who would not normally receive such positive consideration – bums and drunks and whores – but to suggest, as some critics do, that this is somehow a flaw can only be described as curmudgeonly. Sure, Steinbeck presents these people in a positive light, but he doesn’t gloss over their faults: Mack, in particular, remains a character you would rather experience in a novel than have for a friend in real life, no matter how sympathetically Steinbeck treats him. Readers can discern the true nature of characters more subtly than many critics recognise. Sentimentality need not be a flaw and an instrinsic sense of hope for mankind is not a weakness.

The two most important characters in Cannery Row are also the most interesting. Doc and Mack represent opposing impulses – the former a reflective seeker of knowledge and the latter an impulsive and reactive thirster for experience. The reason I am sure my teenage self would have loved this novel is that I identify strongly with both men. How can you simultaneously identify with characters who are at opposing psychological poles, you may ask. But it is possible, and it points to the greatness of this novel: Doc and Mack, ostensibly so dissimilar, are in essence possessed of the same spirit. It may be stretching their characterisation too far to suggest they are representative of the Apollonian and Dionysian in us – Doc, in particular, is not purely Apollonian in outlook – but there is a general sense that Mack represents what Doc could become if he were to lose his self-control, while Doc’s innate decency is resident also in Mack, albeit deeply submerged, as evidenced by his attempts to put on a party for his friend. The two are yin and yang: through the combination of their characters we can see the good and bad in all of us, high and low, altruistic and selfish, contained and violent. Thought of as a single character, Mack/Doc encapsulates the entire focus of the novel. Community works because we are of necessity co-conspirators within it: this cannot be denied.

What is most notable about Cannery Row, though, is its humour. This is a genuinely and consistently funny book. The Row’s cast of reprobates forms a glorious congregation of the feckless and their scheming and planning and concomitant failures are presented in a wonderful series of adventures. From first to last Cannery Row bristles with life and verve. Mack and the boys and Doc and Lee Chong and the Palace Flophouse and Grill will linger long in the memory. Don’t judge a book by its cover. And don’t judge a person by his outward appearance. There is much, much more to us than that, as the great John Steinbeck repeatedly shows us.

Monday, September 03, 2012

How to write - Alan Garner style

Here's Alan Garner on how to write, from an article in the Guardian in which he is asked questions by Guardian readers (including yours truly):
Every word has to beg for its life. Adverbs and adjectives are born guilty until proved innocent. When something is "finished", I cut it back, and continue until what is said can be said in no fewer words. This leads to clarity and impact, and also to an extra dramatic effect when the rule is broken and the words appear to run riot. They don't. They're on a strong leash.
Perfect advice.

Writing dramatic scenes - Cannery Row

There’s a lesson about creative writing that Hunter S. Thompson never managed to learn: some things cannot be described. Some events are so momentous or extraordinary or strange that description can only ever be an anti-climax. Unless you are there, the telling can only be a pale imitation of the actual. Thompson failed to learn this over and over and over and over in his tedious catalogue of abuse, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Scenes of drunken debauchery cannot adequately be described and you had to be there for it to be funny.

To understand this, and to understand how to approach the description of such scenes, turn instead to a real writer, John Steinbeck. Steinbeck understood writing craft. He understood that if something is built up to heroic heights, no description is ever going to succeed: the anticipation will always outdo what the writer could convey in words.

Cannery Row essentially builds up, over the course of the whole novel, to the final party at Doc’s. The first party is a disaster. The second, planned with the best of intentions, will also, almost certainly, be a disaster. Mack and the boys have the capacity for destruction built into their DNA; things always go wrong around them; violence is never far from the surface.

So, having spent the whole novel building up to a cataclysmic party, how can Steinbeck make it work? He writes it the only way it possibly can work, by understating it completely. Instead of presenting the action directly, after the fight with the tuna boat boys, which is told directly, Steinbeck slips back into summary mode for the remainder of the party:

The enemy was driven half-way up the lot when the sirens sounded. Doc's birthday party had barely time to get inside the laboratory and wedge the broken door closed and turn out the lights before the police car cruised up. The cops didn't find anything. But the party was sitting in the dark giggling happily and drinking wine. The shift changed at the Bear Flag. The fresh contingent raged in full of hell. And then the party really got going. The cops came back, looked in, clicked their tongues and joined it. Mack and the boys used the squad car to go to Jimmy Brucia's for more wine and Jimmy came back with them. You could hear the roar of the party from end to end of Cannery Row. The party had all the best qualities of a riot and a night on the barricades. The crew from the San Pedro tuna boat crept humbly back and joined the party. They were embraced and admired. A woman five blocks away called the police to complain about the noise and couldn't get anyone. The cops reported their own car stolen and found it later on the beach. Doc sitting cross-legged on the table smiled and tapped his fingers gently on his knee. Mack and Phyllis Mae were doing Indian wrestling on the floor. And the cool bay wind blew in through the broken windows. It was then that someone lighted the twenty-five-foot string of firecrackers.
This is brilliant. It still conveys the anarchy of the party but the distance the author establishes by reporting it in this way gives it a strength that direct narrative would have failed to convey.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

Alan Garner has just published Boneland, a sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath, two children’s books he wrote in the 1960s. Boneland is an adult’s novel, tracking the child characters from the earlier books forty years later, in adult life. It’s a startling departure for a writer who is one of the greatest English authors of his generation. Don’t be fooled by the fact most of his work is classed as children’s fiction: Alan Garner is a serious author worthy of serious attention. The news of Boneland’s publication sent me in search of my copies of those early books, which have now been relegated to the annex where, to save space, everything is stored in piles flat on top of each other. I haven’t found Weirdstone or Gomrath yet, but I did come across another old favourite, The Owl Service.

The Owl Service, regarded by many as Garner's best work, is set in Wales rather than his customary Alderley Edge in Cheshire. It draws heavily on Welsh myth and Welsh rhythms and Welsh thought processes: notably, Garner spent four years teaching himself Welsh in order not to write stereotypical “Welshish” dialogue, the sort ending in “boyo” and “is it” and other such lazy imitations.

In particular, the novel is a retelling of a tale from the Mabinogion, the famous Welsh myth cycle, telling the story of Blodeuwedd, Lleu and Gronw. Blodeuwedd is a beautiful woman created from flowers. She is married to Lleu but cuckolds him with Gronw, whom she subsequently persuades to kill her husband. She is punished for this by being turned into an owl. The complex structure of The Owl Service essentially tells this same story three times over and, in so doing, we are introduced to mythological notions of time.

Time is an elusive element for Alan Garner. Time, age, myth, the tale and its telling, all are linked in most peculiar ways. Time is a fluid thing, not linear. It presses back on itself, it bulges, it pulses short and long, hard and soft, here and there, in and out. It cannot be understood by man, because we can have no conception of what comes before or after it, and so we invent myths with which to approach it.

Accordingly, his stories tend to operate at multiple levels simultaneously. His characters are, at once, real and archetypes, his plots literal and metaphorical. Things that happen happen once in the story, but what they represent is at the same time an eternal. Eric Voegelin, the German philosopher, adapting Plato, describes this as the time of the tale: the only way that the symbolisation of time and before-time and after-time can be understood is through the presentation of myth in which time is eternal and includes creation and transcendence, that is, what came before and comes after time itself. Within such myths, then, there is a time of the tale, which “combine[s] human, cosmic and divine elements into one story.”

What we have in The Owl Service, then, is the time of the tale, a time immanent to the story itself, such that the three narrative strands, each of which in strict temporal scales must have occurred at different times, happen simultaneously and severally. They present an everywhen, and the myth which bestrides them becomes so overwhelming it exists not as a single thread of history but as a revolving and recurring pattern of existence. This is the way myth works, from the dreamtime of aboriginal cultures of Australia through to the modern myth-making of Cormac McCarthy’s succession of blind prophets in his western novels. It tells a story, but it also, through the time of the tale, points to some greater truth. It forms an archetype, a universal way of living, as opposed to an individual life lived. Thus, it is not in the least unusual that, in The Owl Service, the myth of Blodeuwedd should replay itself through succeeding generations in the way it does. Alison, the central character, says at one point: 'Nothing's safe any more. I don't know where I am. "Yesterday", "today", "tomorrow" - they don't mean anything. I feel they're here at the same time: waiting.'

It can be seen, then, that there is a remarkably complex structure to the novel. Garner makes no allowances for his young audience because, he understands, they need none. However, this thematic complexity is, at once, the major strength and the major weakness of the novel.

It is a strength because it opens up a rich area of philosophical debate. For millennia, man has used the establishment of mythic figures and mythic events to find a way to understand the mysteries that surround our existence in this universe. Consequently, as it progresses the novel grows thematically denser. The philosophical tension expands relentlessly. It wraps itself around the reader and forces him to confront those issues of time and honour and love and betrayal and jealousy and guilt.

But, at the same time, in strictly literary terms, that is, in terms of plot development, the structure becomes problematic. Specifically, it becomes predictable. There is nowhere for the characters to go except an inevitable and pre-ordained denouement. So, in terms of literary tension, by the end it has become almost non-existent. For a story to work in dramatic terms, protagonists must be offered a series of choices and they must be forced to make those choices. This is where the tension comes from, this is where character development comes from, ultimately this is where theme comes from. The choices must be clear and they must be stark. They must be genuine choices, with genuine – and differing – consequences. As The Owl Service moves to its conclusion, however, those choices begin to disappear: the archetypal elements of the characters come to the fore and they can only respond in the way the myth dictates. Thus, while the philosophical tension is almost unbearable, the literary tension is all but lost. The ending becomes strangely flat.

Nonetheless, that Garner still manages to make the novel readable to the end is testament to his genius as a writer. Because the structure he has devised for himself is such a straightjacket it should be almost impossible to lift the narrative in story terms. But The Owl Service is and remains a towering work of fiction, something to cherish and something to return to over and again.

Monday, August 27, 2012

What's the quiz?

Hits on this blog have quatrupled today, and everyone is being directed here by search engine with this query:
Which character in Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, said its opening line: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York" ?
I suppose it's just possible that there's been a spontaneous outbreak of interest in Sylvia Plath, but more likely this is a quiz question. Must be a big quiz... Anyone know which?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Burning Bright by Ron Rash

This is a grippingly written collection of stories by a superb writer. Rash is a poet, and he has a wonderful ear for language, but more importantly he understands restraint. There is an understated power to his writing: at no stage does he ever give the impression of trying too hard, or even trying, in fact, so effortless is his prose. It flows. It is sinuous. It is simple but powerful. Ron Rash is a brilliant short story writer.

What is most impressive about these stories is that, although some fairly grotesque events unfold, Rash never tries to shock. He doesn't need to. He is not a writer given to excess or unnecessary verbiage. He shocks with his honesty, with the starkness of the descriptions, leaving the reader to imagine for himself what must be unfolding in the minds of these characters.

The stories deal with fairly typical southern material, but never in a stale way. We have family relationships and hardships, war, (in particular the Civil War), those unshakeable connections to myth and tradition, the ambivalent approach to education and so on. Together, they form a cohesive study of life on the margins, in adversity, dealing with emotional and physical trauma.

The collection’s opener, Hard Times, a story of an egg-thieving animal, includes an excruciatingly painful scene that lingers long in the memory.

Dead Confederates is a brilliant example of writing craft. Most beginning writers, having come up with this idea, would have ruined it by trying to turn it into a thriller and teasing the reader with a shock ending. Rash, realising it would have been more predictable than shocking, dispenses with any disappointment by more or less telling you the ending in the first paragraph. And this revelation, paradoxically, makes the story all the more tense. It is a great text to study for anyone learning their writing craft.

Dead Confederates links the Civil War to the present day. Return also counterpoints war and peace, in this case interweaving a man’s wartime memories with his post-war travails. Lincolnites, meanwhile, is set during the Civil War, reminding us of some of the horrors of that painful episode.

Falling Star takes on a standard southern idea, the dangers of a good education, and does a good job of inverting the usual trope. Two stories detail drug abuse and its effect on families. The first, Back of Beyond, is harrowing. The second, The Ascent, is also harrowing, but at the same time it is simply beautiful. Again, Rash’s control of the form is absolute. He paints a convincing picture of an adventurous eleven year old boy, one whom all of us will know someone like and, indeed, whom some of us might have been like when we were that age. But then the tenor shifts: we come to understand more about this boy, his secret pain, the difficulty which besets his young life, and his solitariness becomes unbearably sad. It makes the tragic end entirely convincing.

Burning Bright, the title story, is another tale of fractured families, in which a woman worries that her husband may be an arsonist. Waiting for the End of the World features a musician finding a passage through life, shunned by his family, lost in music, but not as lost as he might wish to be. Sometimes the pain of consciousness is a heavy burden. Myths and legends and ancient beliefs occur in a number of the stories. In particular, The Woman Who Believe in Jaguars tells another story of a damaged individual, clinging to beliefs about the old south. Into the Gorge, meanwhile, presents us with traditions through generations, in which memories of a long-dead grandmother resurface in a moment of current crisis, portending death. Portents of death, too, along with old ways and country traditions, provide a chilling backdrop to The Corpse Bird. There isn’t a dud in this collection. Some soar. For me, Dead Confederates and The Ascent are the stand-outs, but every story provides much to enjoy.

When things go wrong

You probably shouldn't laugh, but this is one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time:
Some poor Spanish woman took it into her head to do some amateur restoration on a fresco of Jesus, and created a picture of a baboon instead...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Last week was the 158th anniversary of the publication of Walden. I love the precision of the anniversary date and even more I love the imprecision of my responding to it a week late. I feel the former would have helped stoke Henry David Thoreau’s impressive ego, and the latter would have afforded him some offence. Although not normally a confrontational sort of person, the idea of offending the seemingly priggish and self-obsessed Henry David Thoreau is rather appealing.

Walden is one of America’s classic books. It articulates something about the nature of the country and its people. The independence of mind, the self-reliance, the abounding confidence, all are distinctive aspects of the American psyche, the positives that make American people so successful and so interesting. At its best, then, Walden attests to the greatness of America.

In it, however, too often that greatness slips into something almost solipsistic, a self-regard which is stultifyingly dense. There is a lack of empathy. Robert Burns’s rational plea for a humanistic understanding of our fellow men (“Oh wad a gift the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us”) would have no place in Thoreau’s world. The very idea would simply not occur to him. There is, rather, a lack of generosity of spirit, whereby every action, every response is parcelled out in terms of worth, or efficacy, or value. There is something soulless about an existence that can only be valued in terms of physical progress.

Thoreau insists his soujourn on Walden Pond was only an experiment. It was a study of isolation, of what it means to be entirely self-reliant, of the ways in which an individual can master his circumstances. Making the most of one’s lot is an admirable trait, but when one takes this as far as Thoreau it is a philosophy that must result in harshness. It is a negative, nugatory belief system which will end in despair. Isolation leads to resentment; self-reliance bleaches into selfishness; community gives way to seclusion; the beauty of hope withers into a stunted faith, where the individual must take precedence and where the goal of life appears to be the manly demonstration of utility. It is but a short step from here to misanthropy.

Instead of engagement, Thoreau turns to an eastern meditative approach, looking inwards, seeking enlightenment through spiritual contemplation. It is the approach of the Elder Brother in The Glass Bead Game, the need to “know thyself.” Thoreau undertook his experiment because he “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” Fine, as long as the essential facts of life don’t include communion with others. And he argued that one should experience life for oneself. Again, no argument, but that doesn’t mean one may only experience life by oneself. The deliberate shunning of social structures is reductive and damaging.

In saying this, I am not hankering after some warm and cuddly world where everyone is nice and society exists only for the greater good and everything bad is banished: no-one who has read Blood Meridian as often as I have is going to believe in that. So I am not suggesting Thoreau’s isolationism is damaging because of a simple lack of consideration for others; I am suggesting it is damaging because it is destructive.

Take, as an alternative approach, another character versed in eastern thought, Lee Chong in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. When, after he aquires the empty storage shed, he is approached by Mack and given the non-option of handing over the property to Mack and the boys, instead of refusing, which is his first inclination and which Thoreau would surely have done, he thinks things through. The consequence of refusal, he knows, will be that the property will be burned down. And so he offers a pragmatic solution, one which saves face for both parties and leaves everyone happy: he negotiates a rental for the property, over which he and Mack haggle for some time, both knowing that the rent will never, in fact, be paid. But the outcome is that Lee Chong is left with his property and the pretence of a rental income and with it the maintenance of his honour; Mack and the boys, meanwhile have somewhere to stay a place they turn into The Palace Flophouse and Grill; and, further, ever afterwards they show their gratitude Lee Chong by shopping in his store, and by not stealing from it, thereby ensuring that Lee does, in fact, gain pecuniary reward from the transaction. This is community at work. This is society functioning. Nowhere in Lee Chong’s common-sense approach is there the overweening self-regard we see in Thoreau.

None of this would matter – it is just a book written 158 years ago, after all – except that the logical consequence of Thoreau’s thought is not, as he might have surmised, some sage liberal nonconformism. Rather, it is something darker. In the casual smugness, the haughty self-regard, the conceited self-congratulation, it is easy to overlook the fact that others around you may not have the same facility, the same choices, the same fortune. Others may get lost. Others may lose the game.

Move forward 158 years. Consider Paul Ryan. How can you compare Henry David Thoreau and Paul Ryan, you may ask. But I believe you can, and I believe it’s a valid concern. The logical conclusion of civil disobedience and a refusal to observe the collective responsibilities of society (paying taxes, supporting those in need) is the wilful vapidity of the Tea Party, and the promotion to high political office of hardliners like Paul Ryan.

So I ask you, who wrote the following sentence, Henry David Thoreau or Paul Ryan?

There will never be a really free State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power.
The answer, of course, is Thoreau. While, undoubtedly, this can lead one down a path of nonviolence and honour, as espoused by Martin Luther King, for example, an alternative, and less appealing, consequence of this approach could well be Paul Ryan.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of Pi is one of those novels that is famous for being rejected (at least five times, apparently) before finally being published. It went on, of course, to win the Booker Prize. Contradictory though it may sound, neither fact is surprising. Life of Pi is a fairly extraordinary novel, extraordinary in both a good and a bad sense.

It is in three parts and these parts, although they are wildly different, are supposed to flow seamlessly, held together by the symbolism the author has created. This is a self-avowedly spiritual novel. “I have a story that will make you believe in God,” says a character, Mamaji, early in the novel. The novel as a whole isn’t so didactic – not quite – but it is certainly strongly suggesting to us that there is something unseen in the fabric of the universe. Barack Obama, for one, has fallen for it. The novel is, he told its author, “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling”. It’s certainly the latter, but it goes no distance towards proving the former. Obama does hit on something, though: this conflation of storytelling and spirituality is a significant element of the novel, as we shall see later.

Part one tells the life in India of young Piscine Molitor Patel, Pi for short, the son of a zoo keeper and a quester, in the manner of someone from a Hermann Hesse novel, after truth. He becomes a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu, all at once, much to the perplexity of his modern, atheist family and the range of gurus to whom he goes for spiritual succour. This is lightly and deftly told and, while the author clearly wants to plant some seeds in our minds, he nonetheless avoids didacticism, mainly because Pi himself is a pleasant, self-deprecating and hopelessly, unknowingly, naive narrator. Thus, although we know we’re being set up for an examination of spirituality we don’t, as we might in some of the less felicitous parts of Hesse’s oeuvre (the Elder Brother episode in The Glass Bead Game, for example), kick against it.

Pi goes on to study both zoology and theology, a pairing that might give coniption fits to some of the creationists out there but Martel slowly guides us towards the twin-track thematic impulses in the novel, nature and spirit, man and god, man and animal, life and transcendence, reason and belief.

Part one ends abruptly when the Patel family decide to emigrate to Canada. This proves a disastrous decision: their ship is shipwrecked and only Pi survives. Well, Pi, plus a giraffe with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutan and a 450 pound Bengal tiger. All on the one lifeboat. Though not – nature being red in tooth and claw and, after a few days at sea, extremely hungry – for very long. The hyena quickly sees off the giraffe, then, with a little more difficulty, the orang-utan, before falling in the third round to the majestic tiger. Only beast and boy remain, adrift on the Pacific Ocean with no hope of rescue. What next?

What ensues is simply a masterclass in creative writing. Anyone serious about being a writer must read part two of Life of Pi. It is superb. In particular, study the way Martel manages the pace. The interludes become increasingly dramatic, but they are interspersed with moments of reflection and calm. Think about it. We have a story in which wild animals and a child are adrift on a boat. What happens is inevitable. The animals kill and eat each other. The boy will be next. And yet the reader is still enthralled. To be able to spin that storyline out over more than two hundred pages is masterful. What unfolds, of course, is wholly incredible, but such is Martel’s skill that we are totally drawn into his fantasy. "I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day," Pi tells us, neatly turning himself, like Joseph Knecht in The Glass Bead Game, into a mystic. We believe. We believe it when Pi slowly, very carefully, begins to tame the tiger, Richard Parker. We endure his endless searches for food from the ocean, share his revulsion at raw fish, and turtle blood, and the process of killing itself. We wince at his constipation. We exult in his trapping of precious rain. We feel the heat of the sun, the chafe of fabric on waterlogged skin. Always, we keep a wary eye on the menacing Richard Parker. We share Pi’s wonder at their continued co-existence. With him, we endure every one of the 227 days he is adrift in the Pacific. With him, we fall a little bit in love with Richard Parker.

The magic-realist fabulism of part two could not have worked without the earthy realism of part one. We can believe Pi’s understanding of the tiger’s nature, and his gradual battle for control over it, because in the first section we were treated to an expert analysis of animal and human natures, of battles for dominance, of the interrelationship between man and animal. We know that Pi, son of a zookeeper, would have sufficient knowledge to survive. It makes sense. What could be utterly unbelievable falls neatly within the compass of the fictive dream. It works.

It begins not to work when Pi and Richard Parker land on a mysterious island, peopled by tree-dwelling, continent-hopping meerkats, an island which exhibits an increasingly sinister mien. It is, we discover, not an island at all but a seething mass of carniverous algae. Hmm. The beautifully constructed fictional universe begins to unravel, and it is not immediately evident why Martel has done this. What is his purpose?

There is a strong metafictional element to Life of Pi, of course, and this is where Barack Obama’s analysis is spot on: because this novel is indeed in part about storytelling. It is about realism and magic-realism. James Woods sums it up neatly in his review:

Martel proves, by skilful example, that realism is narrative’s great master, that it schools even its own truants. He reminds us in fact that realism is already magical, an artifice-in-waiting.
Yes, indeed, I think that’s true, but where does the magic island come into it? All realism is blown away, the carefully constructed world is dismantled and replaced by something plastic and fantastically dull (in the literal sense of the phrase). To what end? We’ll come back to that question, but first we need to look a bit deeper at the philosophical basis of the novel.

Where the novel succeeds and fails is in the roles of the respective gurus who guide the questing Pi in his home in India. Here, Martel is treading on familiar territory. Think, for example of Joseph Knecht’s gurus in The Glass Bead Game, the wise and liberal, highly cultured man amongst men, Father Jacobus and the otherwordly mystic, the Elder Brother. Or, in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp is torn between the enlightened liberal Settembrini and the proto-fascist Naphta. As with art and science, good and evil, (man and God), we are being told that these gurus represent the polars of the spirit. They offer different approaches to knowledge; they are opposites, but attached. Or, as we might say back home, they are two cheeks of the same arse. And this is true of the gurus in Life of Pi to such an extent that one dialectical pair of them even shares the name of Kumar: one an atheist teacher who shocks and confronts the pious Pi (no coincidence in the name and his nature, of course), and the other a devout Muslim baker whose humility and humanity greatly impress the boy.

The trouble, it seems to me, is that Pi is not sufficiently immersed in their teaching to take on their wisdom (or otherwise). Thus, when we get to the crux of the matter, the yearning which accompanies Pi’s isolation and his loneliness and his growing understanding of the regal animal with which he shares the boat, it does not feel fully realised. What happens instead, as James Woods points out, is that God gradually disappears from Pi’s thoughts in the progress of his passage at sea. Nonetheless, while I think Woods may be right to an extent, I think he may be missing the main point. 227 days adrift on the Pacific might indeed give one pause to ponder the nature of God and reality but, as Florence Stratton reminds us in her excellent review, Pi was also greatly exercised by trying not to be eaten by a hungry Bengal tiger. Brute reality must always intervene. This is the message of a Jacobus as opposed to an ascetic Elder Brother or, in Life of Pi, of the teacher Kumar as opposed to the baker Kumar. There is a place for God, and belief in God, but so too is there a place for action. Pi, for all his pious thoughts (and much to his horror if he were ever to realise it) is precisely an exemplar of the rational approach of Settembrini and teacher Kumar and Father Jacobus.

Stratton’s conclusion is that Martel:

is not out to prove the existence of God, but rather to justify a belief in God’s existence. Martel’s position is a post-modernist one, from the perspective of which God’s existence has the same status in relation to truth and reality as Pi’s experience of shipwreck.
She continues:
Life of Pi is organized around a philosophical debate about the modern world’s privileging of reason over imagination, science over religion, materialism over idealism, fact over fiction or story.
I think she may be right. But rather than seeing this as a positive, this is where I start to worry. This is where, from Rousseau onwards into the present day (McCarthy, for example) writers begin to create monsters out of human beings and ascribe to them the source of any number of malaises. For these people, the Enlightenment is the nadir, the moment when mankind lost its connection to mystery and faith and the holy spirit, and instead began to worship itself as its own, immanent god. In this way, humanity is set as a straw man against itself, with exaggerated claims for the malignancy of man or the efficacy of faith. Binary oppositions are created with which to “prove” that mankind has lost its way and is heading into a godless abyss.

Martel, to his credit, does not take us this far. His novel is much more buoyant than this, with a far greater sense of hope, and decency, and a feeling that man may not have travelled all the way into abjection, as our more eccentric philosophers and writers (Eric Voegelin, say) may attest. Nonetheless, he does join the brigade against reason. For all his rationality, Pi is allowed to say, unchallenged:

“Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater”
This is the sort of simplistic nonsense one is accustomed to hearing from televangelists and Hoover Shoats-like corner-street con-preachers. As a philosophical basis on which to hook a novel it is trite. Now perhaps, of course, it is said ironically, and the fact that Pi’s actions do not correspond to his thoughts would certainly bear that out.

But we return to the episode on the carnivorous island. What does it mean? I asked the question earlier, without answering. That is because, as Stratton points out, it cannot be answered except retrospectively, after the second telling of the story of his shipwreck by Pi to the two Japanese investigators which is the crucial element of part three of the novel. Indeed, it is a crucial element of the whole novel. This is where Martel tries to pack his greatest punch, his principal observation about the triumph of reason over faith.

This part, in which two Japanese loss adjustors come to interview the survivor Pi, when he finally reaches land in Mexico, in order to discover the fate of the ship which sank, has echoes of the ending of McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain, or the heretic passage in his The Crossing. In each, we are given a metastory, a story behind the story, a radical retelling of what is going on in the main narrative. And, again, the purpose is metaphysical. Here is the mystery of man, McCarthy and Martel tell us, and here is the mystery of God. Each is the same and each is different. Each speaks of truth and each is false. Wonder, wonder about it all. Well, wonder indeed, but for me, I prefer Erik Satie’s rejoinder to “Wonder about yourself”.

The Japanese investigators simply do not believe Pi’s story – and who can blame them, of course, for it is truly unbelievable. But Pi then tells them another story, this time of a shipwreck without animals but with other human beings – Pi’s mother, an injured sailor and a French cook. This short passage quickly becomes horrific, a story of murder and cannibalism and the search for the meaning of evil. The story is, of course, the same as the story with animals – for the cook read the hyena, for Pi’s mother the orangutan, for the injured sailor the giraffe and so on. Which story do you prefer? Pi asks the two Japanese men. The story with animals, they conclude, and in so doing, in finally preferring what they had previously disbelieved, they find some sense of faith and spirit and adventure and free themselves, these rationalist men, from the curse of reason.

So back to the island. What is it? It is, of course, symbolic. In Stratton’s reading, which I find compelling, she suggests it is allegorically “taking direct aim at consumer capitalism as the most secular and materialist form of human existence.” There is no sense of the individual on the island, only a collective will to consume. The island is a spiritual vacuum, a nothingness, the blankness at the centre of our modernity. Stratton says:

The deconstructive project of Life of Pi is to replace the Enlightenment belief in the power of reason to liberate humanity with a belief in the transforming power of story.
But if this is so, Martel is establishing a false binary. This is the sort of connection made by people like Karen Armstrong, who correctly note the role of myth (which is, after all, the original storytelling) in the creation of religions and religious thought. So far so good, but next these critics try to suggest an opposition between this sense of storytelling and the power of reason. No such opposition exists. The world of reason can embrace, perfectly, the idea of storytelling. It can even accept it as a means of exploring rational ideas: what are fables and folk tales, if not rationalist examinations of the foibles of humanity? There is a place for storytelling and there is a place for reason, but they can also coexist perfectly harmoniously. Those who attempt to decry Enlightenment beliefs by asserting they must, somehow, imprison humanity in some reductive, emotionless shell, or carnivorous island, are ascribing to it something completely false and alien. And this, for me, is the problem with Martel’s island and, by extension, the message of his entire novel. To criticise reason for engendering a lack of belief, and to promote belief as an antidote to reason is simplistic. To blame the Enlightenment for the ills of the world is shallow. To shelter behind the power of storytelling is naive. Man is not, nor does he want to be, an immanent god, but he can still be a transformative power for good. I think Pi Patel believes this. I’m not entirely convinced that Yann Martel does.