Thursday, March 29, 2012

Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs has died at 88. A wonderul musician.

Christopher Priest as critic

Christopher Priest, a top-class novelist, reveals himself as a first-rate critic, too. He has railed against the nominees for this year's Arthur C. Clarke award for the best UK science-fiction novel of the year.

In particular, he criticises China Mieville's shortlisted novel, Embassytown. The Guardian quotes him as saying:

And as for Miéville, according to Priest "Embassytown contains many careless solecisms", as well as "lazy writing" and a "lack of characterisation". Unless, says Priest, the three-time winner of the Arthur C Clarke "is told in clear terms that he is underachieving, that he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces, he will never write the great novels that many people say he is capable of".

Well said. Priest is a superb writer of SF/Fantasy. His The Glamour and The Prestige, for example, are brilliant novels which clearly transcend genre and stand as great literature in their own right. All good genre fiction should be able to do this. In SF, the writing of Philip K. Dick did, and Arthur C. Clarke, and JG Ballard. In crime, the works of PD James, Ian Rankin et al are studies in character. They are great works regardless of genre.

But China Mieville, it has always seemed to me, is wearing the Emperor's new clothes. Sure, there is great writing in his work. But there is also seriously bad writing. It seems lazy to me, badly edited, cavalier about craft. Far from transcending genre, it seems to wallow in its cliches and its more simplistic rudiments. Mieville has attracted a great reputation, and I'm not entirely sure why, but he is surely now living off it. He's no Tim Powers, that's for sure. Christopher Priest is absolutely right to upbraid him the way he does.

Sylvia Plath and Carson McCullers

I think I'm right in saying that Sylvia Plath is on record as being a great admirer of Carson McCullers. Wikipedia notes, in its article on McCullers's The Member of the Wedding:

The poet Sylvia Plath was known to admire McCullers' work, and the unusual phrase "silver and exact", used by McCullers to describe a set of train tracks in the novel, is the first line of Plath's poem "Mirror".

I think the opening of Plath's novel The Bell Jar also offers a deliberate echo of The Member of the Wedding. This is The Bell Jar:

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'm stupid about executions.

And this is The Member of the Wedding:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.

In both novels, the fact it is summer is a bold, declaratory statement. Both Esther and Frankie are depicted as outsiders: Esther doesn't know what she's doing in New York, while Frankie is an unjoined person belonging to no group. Esther describes herself, pejoratively, as stupid; Frankie is afraid: negative emotions are attached to each of them.

Moreover, Plath's use of "queer" in the opening line mirrors McCullers's use of the word on the first page of The Member of the Wedding, when Frankie's first words in the novel are: "It is so very queer... The way it all just happened."

It seems to me that Esther, created in 1963, is a deliberate echo of Frankie, written in 1946. At the very least, these remarkable young women would surely have found some affinity. If only one could have known the other.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Our split personalities

I was going to include this in my review of The Member of the Wedding below, but it didn't quite fit in. F. Jasmine has been arguind with Berenice, but Berenice has just done a kind deed for her. She is conflicted:

She would have liked for her expression to be split into two parts, so that one eye stared at Berenice in an accusing way, and the other eye thanked her with a grateful look. But the human face does not divide like this, and the two expressions cancelled out each other.

"Cheer up," said Berenice.

Burns talked of the great gift he would like the giftie to give us: "to see ourselves as others see us". In a sense, this is the inverse: for people to see us as we see ourselves.

Oh, wid the giftie no gie us that wee gift as well?

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Frankie Adams is an “unjoined person.” Part of her craves connection, part of her is attracted by disconnection. She is contrary: sometimes sweet, sometimes bad-tempered; sometimes practical sometimes ethereal. She is an innocent, a twelve-year-old still baffled by the adult world and simultaneously drawn to and repelled by it. She is deeply in love with her brother and his soon-to-be bride and the focus of the book is her implacable but doomed resolve that, after the wedding, the three of them will drive off together into the wilderness. The Member of the Wedding is the most beautiful evocation of loneliness I’ve read since – oh, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Carson McCullers has officially become my new favourite author, and Frankie Adams joins Mick Kelley in my list of favourite characters.

Read on a simple level, The Member of the Wedding is a gentle, beautiful, witty and sad story of adolescent confusion. Even read on this level it is a great work. But it goes deeper than this, of course. Otherwise we would be left with a novel presenting only the cliched oxymorons of teenage angst, that life can be bitter and sweet, funny and sad. That isn’t to decry such works – they have a power of their own – but Carson McCullers’s perception of human nature goes far beyond such truisms. Her disconnection is a cry for love, and her love is fractured by disconnection. It’s a circularity that is all too common. It’s been the basic theme of my own writing for as long as I’ve been a writer, and I’ll never come close to approaching McCullers’s insight or literary genius.

In The Member of the Wedding, she presents us with three fragile human beings: the gangly outsider Frankie; her black, four-times-married maid, Berenice and her first cousin, six-year-old John Henry. The interplay between these disparate characters is remarkable. These ordinary people, none of them eloquent in the ways of human love, together nonetheless manage to reveal extraordinary truths. Each has been born into a fixed identity, into a role that society expects of them – Berenice already to service; Frankie, in time, to marriage and children; and John Henry, even later, to a lifetime in the workplace of men. But each of these characters, in their own way, eschews convention.

The pre-war certainties of gender and race give way here to an understanding, simply, of people as people. John Henry reckons people should be “half boy and half girl”; Frankie wants them to change back and forward between sexes; Berenice imagines a world where everyone is light brown with blue eyes and black hair. Theirs are worlds of fairness and goodness. They even begin to criticise the Creator and each, in turn, assumes the role of “Holy Lord God” and decrees a better world. John Henry’s is “a mixture of delicious and freak”; Berenice’s contains no war, “[n]o stiff corpses hanging from the Europe trees and no Jews murdered anywhere”; Frankie’s is “the hest of the three worlds”, in which she builds on Berenice’s basic concept, but adding “an aeroplane and a motor-cycle to each person, a world club with certificates and badges, and a better law of gravity”.

Their conversations around the kitchen table are perfectly judged. They are slightly stylised, so that some of the subject matter, when considered rationally, would be beyond at least the two children; but, even so, the fictive dream holds: their visions of a better world are lucid and appealing and we remain in thrall to these three uncommon sages.

This is no, Eden, however. McCullers is no Pangloss and the imagined worlds of her characters are ultimately revealed not to be El Dorado. Although wildly humorous and broadly uplifting, The Member of the Wedding is explicit in its depiction of the disconnection of modern life. The experiences of its characters make this clear.

The central character is Frankie, our free-spirited, lonely, happy/unhappy, bored/engaged young tomboy. Her mother died giving birth to her and her father is remote and incomprehending of his daughter. Frankie feels herself an outsider and dreams of escape. The novel begins:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.

She has dreams, and as the novel begins those dreams coalesce around her fantasy of accompanying her brother and his fiancee on their imminent honeymoon and beyond. She will, literally, become a “member of the wedding” and the three of them will head afterwards into the wilderness of Alaska and eventually they will make “thousands of friends, thousands and thousands and thousands of friends.” They will be, she concludes, “members of the whole world”. Thus, we have escape and flight, those essentials of freedom; but we also have family connection, the assertion of familial bonds more loving than those attaching Frankie to her father; and, more than that, we have a strong sense of human connection, a promise of companionship among the entire human family. The confusion wrought by her childhood alienation is thus, in Frankie’s eyes, brought to a perfect resolution: freedom, with control; escape, with ties; family, with community; private, with public. In Frankie’s adolescent mind, such contradictions offer entirely practicable solutions to the intractable problems of loneliness and hope and fear.

But Frankie’s entrance into adulthood is not, as we readers quickly intuit, going to be so easy. The day of the wedding is, naturally, a disaster. The bride manquée is spurned. But even before this, Frankie’s lessons are harsh. Styling herself F. Jasmine to separate her grown-up self from the childish Frankie she has come to hate, she goes into town and enters a bar. Here, she is mistaken by a soldier for a much older girl and, unable to refuse, goes with him to his room, where he attempts to seduce her. F. Jasmine is so innocent she doesn’t even realise what is happening, only later making a connection between this and an earlier experience, when she witnessed the lodger and his wife in their room, as the lodger appeared to be having some form of fit. Growing up, then, is not an idyllic rite of passage, and those who dismiss The Member of the Wedding in such terms are not doing it justice.

Accompanying Frankie through much of the narrative are Berenice and John Henry. Berenice, old (“I bet you are forty years old,” says Frankie) and wise, represents the adulthood to which Frankie aspires, and John Henry, her young cousin, the childhood from which she is retreating. The truth, of course, is more complicated than that: at various times the woman retains the sense of a child, and the boy reveals the insight of a man. But, in this way, the three form a unique bond. At one point, one of the most beautiful in the novel, they each burst into tears at precisely the same moment: “suddenly it started, though why and how they did not know; the three of them began to cry... and though their reasons were three different reasons, yet they started at the same instant as though they had agreed together.” It is one of the most arresting scenes I’ve read in a long time, a middle-aged black woman, a tomboy half-girl, half-woman and an infant boy, sitting round a table, crying. It is inexplicably moving.

Berenice is lost in the past. She has married four times, but the latter three occasions are to men whom she married only because, in different ways, they reminded her of her true love, her first husband Ludie, who died of pneumonia the same year that Frankie was born. She married him when she was thirteen – that is when she was only a year older than Frankie is now. Thus, while Frankie is straining to embrace the future and move into adulthood, Berenice’s emotional development has stalled completely: an adult, dismissive of Frankie’s childish whims, she is nonetheless stuck in the past, holding to memories of younger, happier times, and is as confounded by visions of the future as the confused child.

The final member of the triumvirate is John Henry West. How difficult is it to write convincingly of a six-year-old main character? Cormac McCarthy tried and failed in The Crossing: in the early drafts Boyd Parham is only seven, but by the time of the published draft he has aged to fourteen. But John Henry West is a living, breathing boy. In a way, in some emotional or spiritual sense, he is the eldest of the three, wise beyond his years, calm and sensible, except when he is covering the walls of the kitchen with “queer, child drawings” or picturing the freaks from the Chattahoochee Exposition who so excite his interest. His heartbreaking fate represents the end of childhood and, no matter how much we always want to break that bond at the time, age and experience and weariness usually return us, at one time or another, to a sense of nostalgia for those lost days. John Henry reminds us that we cannot.

So what is The Member of the Wedding about? For McCullers, it is about belonging. She writes:

I to think the idea of wanting to belong haunts every child. And not only children. I think it is the primary question: ‘Who am I? What am I? Or, where do I belong? and where can I belong?’ But childhood or adolescence is a time of crisis, and such questions are more haunting, more immediate, then.

It is that, and it’s more than that. Belonging is a basic human desire but it brings with it, too, a sense of need. And it requires love, and faith, and trust. The necessity of love and the difficulty of love – whether that is romantic love or familial love or societal love – that is what this novel addresses. That something so necessary and so beautiful can be, at the same time, so painful is what makes love such a difficult emotion to manage. And that is why our human connections are always so fragile.

The saddest, most beautiful reflection of this sad and beautiful book is that, throughout, Frankie is connected. All along, she is indeed part of a marriage of three – a marriage between her and Berenice and John Henry. But, as it transpires, this marriage is as illusory as the one in Frankie’s imagination, and it fractures into tragedy. The triumph of The Member of the Wedding is that, through this tragedy, a sense of hope remains.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Death, Sleep and the Traveler by John Hawkes

Death, Sleep and the Traveler is a bit of a rarity when it comes to John Hawkes’s fiction: the plot can be understood at the first reading. That’s not to say I know what the book is about: it is as allusive and dense as ever; it’s just that it isn’t veiled in narrative mystery like everything else of his that I’ve tackled so far. Frederick Busch says of him: “Hawkes is our dark dreaming map-maker. What is underneath is his province... He is the necessary haunting of our house.” That seems to get to the heart of this troublesome writer. He is hard work, for sure, and at times I despair of finding a light to guide me through his opacity, but he does write of troubled times and troubled people and troubled mores, and that’s what writers need to do, isn’t it?

But here, at least, Hawkes’s themes are up-front. Indeed, they are in the title. Allert, the main character, is Dutch. He is on a cruise. His dreams are of life and death, increasingly intermingled. There is death surrounding him, but not his own. Here we are, then: the Flying Dutchman made flesh, and Allert is our helpless wanderer through the tribulations of life. He is sent on the cruise – alone – by his wife following the death from a heart attack of the third partner in the couple’s highly sexualised ménage à trois, Peter. On the cruise, however, Allert meets and becomes involved with the mysterious and libidinous Ariane. Once again, he becomes a participant in a ménage à trois, Ariane’s affections being simultaneously sought and won by both Allert and the ship’s wireless operator. But once again, however, death interferes with this traveller’s peregrinations.

And that, in broad terms, is the plot. So what does it tell us? Sex, in this novel, is an ambiguous act. It is at once intimate and public, erotic and mechanical, romantic and pornographic. It is as though the act itself is some sort of mutation, capable of beauty but leaving behind it – perhaps even creating – some residual malformation, some necromantic juju which begins to attack the soul. Life, death, consciousness, sex, contentment, oblivion, they begin to meld and become indistinguishible one from the other. It’s a dark view of love, it must be said, but you don’t come to John Hawkes for lightness.

In the end, it all begins to take us into gnostic territory: life is something to be endured, an ambiguous state in which nothing is as it seems and even the transitoriness of the sexual act isn’t truly transitory because all of this is part of the eternity of existence, the gnostic life-as-hell. Allert even tells us at one point that myth – the original historical repository of all that is human – can “only be experienced in coma”. If, as I believe, myth is the original mimetic reflection of our humanity, then this statement can almost be read as a negation of life itself. While the context of the passage in the novel – Allert and Peter are discussing psychiatric interventions which are so extreme they take the patient to the point of death itself – is significant, even suggesting, perhaps, a partial inversion of meaning, it presents, for me, an uncomfortably morbid view of life. Interestingly in a later interview, Hawkes agrees that he is in accord with his character’s sentiment, going on to suggest that “myth is precisely that traumatic, that powerful, that real, that devastating”.

Well, if you like your worldview this dark then John Hawkes is the man for you. Me, I like to hold on to the vaguest notion of hope. I’m that romantic.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I’ve read a few testosterone-driven books in a row recently, so this is definitely an example of “now for something completely different”. I don’t think you could ever go so far as to describe Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as light relief, but in the context of a diet of Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, John Fowles’s study of violent mysogyny (The Collector) and Graham Greene’s story of another homocidal mysogynist, Pinkie Brown, a novel that quietly and beautifully portrays a woman’s emotional descent into darkness does offer a completely different perspective on life. The Bell Jar is a seriously wonderful piece of writing. The way Plath melds humour and pain is remarkable: the unfolding of Esther Greenwood’s emotional crisis is perfectly handled, and the balance of laughter and tears is superbly controlled, the former sliding inexorably into the latter, but with faint echoes remaining throughout, the tracks of hope in a landscape growing increasingly darker. I suspect it is impossible, now, to extricate the novel from the history and Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath. After all, it is so autobiographical that Plath originally felt the need to publish it under a pseudonym and it didn’t appear under her own name until three years after her suicide. But it is unfortunate, really, if the novel is submerged beneath the myth of its author, because it needs no external pathos to give it power.

When we first meet Esther Greenwood, an ingenue from Boston, she is working as an intern in New York, working on a successful magazine. This is not her milieu, and while she is not exactly gauche, she is far from assimilated into New York life. We first get a hint of her dissociation from the activity around her in the novel’s famous 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.” That the Rosenbergs’ electrocution is barely mentioned again in the novel further establishes her disconnection from reality (although, of course, this high-tech execution acts as an ominous foreshadow of Esther’s subsequent, highly traumatic electroconvulsive therapy).

Initially, though, one has little inkling of what will follow. The early passages, even the darker ones, are shot through with humour. There is a deftness and lightness to them that is, in retrospect, extraordinarily skillful. One often hears people say of those around them who attempt suicide that they had no idea, and this is the case with Esther. She appears a complicated young woman, certainly, not entirely comfortable in her skin or her surroundings, but her breakdown, which is precipitated when she returns home to provincial Massachussetts and is overlooked for a writing course on which she had set her heart, nonetheless comes as something of a surprise. And just as people will do in similar circumstances in real life, one retrospectively picks over the evidence of the past for clues of her distress and indeed they are there, submerged in the minutiae of daily life.

Esther’s decent into depression and suicidal tendencies progresses through the summer. Even now, though, there is a lightness to it that beguiles the readers, lulls them into a false sense of hope. It seems at first like depression-lite, the manufactured sort of emotions you might get in a soap opera when a major character’s flirting with the blues is scheduled to last for so many episodes, after which she will snap out of it and return to normal. Or perhaps we see Esther as a female McMurphy, the sane one in the asylum ward, and hope, like we do with McMurphy, that she will prevail against the system. But we know that McMurphy doesn’t prevail and, in The Bell Jar, we come to realise that Plath’s lightness of tone masks the growing distress in Esther’s mind, and her depression is far from superficial. She is a deeply troubled woman and, finally, we begin to seriously fear for her.

She comes to feel as though she is trapped beneath a bell jar. This is a horrifying image: trapped, suffocating, no prospect of release, everything outside, visible but not touchable, out of reach, beyond your world of confinement and gloom, a distorted vision of normality in which you cannot share. Her suicide attempts grow more serious. Her first experience of ECT is horrific. Her second, for entirely different reasons, is more so. The woman she trusts, her therapist, Dr Nolan, promises her that she will not subject her to further ECT without warning her. Dr Nolan is true to her word, but it doesn’t feel like it to the distraught Esther. This scene has a terrible emotional power: if you want to know how to write, this is a good starting point; and if you want to understand other human beings, in their distress and fear and hope and need, likewise this is a piece of emotional treasure trove. Be warned, though: Esther’s terror is contagious.

The novel grows darker yet, and then lighter. It ends on a note of hope. All the same, it ends without resolution, as befits the life of a woman in torment. After all, as we know from the life of the author of this novel, the only feasible resolution is likely to be the wrong one. But in The Bell Jar, at least, the reader can imagine, believe, hope that Esther Greenwood lives on and finds happiness.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Despite having neither read the novel nor seen either film adaptation, over the years I’ve gained, by osmosis I suppose, my own impression of Pinkie Brown, the central character of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Pinkie is often used, after all, as a benchmark to gauge the depravity of characters in other works, especially younger characters. I had formed the impression of a wholly evil, entirely malevolent young man: and this much is accurate, because Pinkie Brown is undoubtedly that.

But I had also assumed in him a degree of competence that isn’t truly borne out in the novel. Partly, this misapprehension is no doubt due to the fact that I knew that, at the age of only seventeen, he was the leader of a vicious gang in 1930s Brighton: that must surely suggest some degree of malign competency, you would think. But no, not really. The Pinkie Brown of Brighton Rock is, in many ways, a serial failure. Nothing he does in the course of the novel turns out well. He is, at every stage, the author of his own demise. More particularly, though, he appears almost to welcome it, as evidence of his own imminent damnation, a state he predicts on many occasions. In this, I must be honest, I was disappointed. I hadn’t banked on Pinkie being quite so ineffective, and this ineffectiveness dissipates the power of the novel, especially its metaphysical power. And since this is where the quality of the novel truly resides, it is an interesting source of failure. Although Greene was a Catholic, I wasn’t prepared for him creating, like Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes or Tarwater, a metaphysical straw man, but that is what Pinkie Brown becomes.

I do have quite a great difficulty with Pinkie’s religious sensibility. His bland, almost blank acceptance of the concepts of heaven and hell, and sin and its consequences, of his status in life and his fate in death, the certainty of his damnation, all of this feels contrived. He is seventeen years old. He has no education to speak of. There is otherwise no evidence of any semblance of deep-rooted thought by him about anything except crime and his place in Brighton’s criminal underworld. And yet here he is discussing redemption and damnation. Perhaps poorly-educated Roman Catholic children in the 1930s did, indeed, ponder metaphysical dilemmas in this manner. Perhaps every other Roman Catholic boy of the period could and would repeatedly quote from William Camden’s Remains from 1605 (“Betwixt the stirrup and the ground / Mercy I asked, mercy I found.”) Perhaps.

None of this would matter if Pinkie’s religious sensibility, or lack of it, was portrayed as merely a peculiarity of his: it would be easy to fashion an argument that his disbelief in heaven but ready acceptance of the fire and damnation of hell, and his simplistic notions of repentance and redemption are, indeed, the misguided and childish interpretations of scripture his poor education and psychopathic tendencies might have inculcated in him. That would be a viable analysis of his character. But Greene goes further than this. Indeed, at the novel’s conclusion, he appears to go some way towards endorsing Pinkie’s facile view of eternity. Pinkie doesn’t just die at the end: he is engulfed by flames and is “withdrawn… out of any existence” by the divine “hand”. This is so much anthropomorphic nonsense, the act of an omnipotent God meting out justice to a recalcitrant sinner. We are left, then, with those Catholic notions of sin and guilt and damnation. Indeed, Pinkie has opportunities to redeem himself but does not and cannot do so. This, then, would seem to be the message of the novel: man is mired in guilt, his future written in his soul by the hand of God. Such pessimistic determinism is depressing.

This is not to say, of course, that Greene is endorsing Pinkie’s views. That would be ridiculous. Nonetheless, there is in the presentation of the notion here of the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God” something almost anti-human. It leaves me with the same queasiness I have when Flannery O’Connor’s Tarwater achieves redemption by being buggered by the Devil or when Haze Motes is allowed to kill himself in the name of God’s love or the succession of prophets in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy are allowed to expound interminably on God’s mysterious cruelty and mankind’s basic irrelevance.

In Brighton Rock, Pinkie basically sets out to be damned. He decides early on there is no other course for him and settles on damnation, almost as a career option. In contrast, the sweet-tempered Ida, not at all religious, understands only the basic requirement that good should triumph over evil. There is no metaphysical yearning behind this, in the way of the Roman Catholic church, but rather it represents simply a desire to see fair play. In truth, Greene patronises Ida to a significant extent: thus, although she represents goodness in the novel she is still only a qualified heroine because she fails Greene’s tests of Catholic guilt and need for redemption.

Therefore, if Pinkie is a caricature of the damned and Ida a patronising representation of simple-minded decency, Greene presents us with two extremes. One might even argue that the characterisation in the novel is simplified to too great an extent. That, too, would be unfair though, and it is unfair because of the third of the principal characters in the novel, Rose. Rose is another essentially simple-minded girl. She understands right and wrong, she has a sense of duty and honour, but that sense is derailed by her devotion to Pinkie. If Pinkie is too engineered by Greene to be a truly vital character, Rose, by contrast, is a fascinating mass of contradictions, and in these contradictions some of the most interesting questions of the novel are played out.

Rose believes in love, and specifically she believes that Pinkie loves her. She accepts her “mortal sin” of sleeping with Pinkie. She accepts that he is a murderer and believes that, by standing by him in full knowledge of this, she, too, is guilty. She knows Pinkie is bound for damnation but is ready to stand by him:

He was going to damn himself, but she was going to show them that they couldn't damn him without damning her too. There was nothing he could do, she wouldn't do: she felt capable of sharing any murder.

If Pinkie is bound for the darkness of damnation, she concludes, he will not go alone. Thus, Rose becomes the most interesting character in the novel because she is the most real. Where Ida lives in a world of simple decency and Pinkie in one of evil, Rose lives in the world we all live in. This may be, as Greene describes it here, the “disputed territory between two eternities” but it is also recognisably our own world, a world of confusion and fear and misguided hope. Rose is all too human and she nearly pays the ultimate price for her emotional frailty. While, on one level, the ending of Brighton Rock does not satisfy – the hand of the deus ex machina obliterating Pinkie from memory is simply too crude for that – on another level it is a triumph. Our human heroine, Rose, is saved. But saved into what? The horror of knowledge, as evinced by the recording of Pinkie that awaits her innocent attention. I use the word horror deliberately, because her fate is every bit as horrific as Kurtz’s doubled horror at the end of Heart of Darkness.

Rose deserves a tear of compassion. Whether Graham Greene would have shed one for her, though, is open to question.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sequel to American Psycho?

This is an intriguing story. Bret Easton Ellis has been having a Twitter conversation about the possibility of reprising Patrick Bateman in a sequel to American Psycho.

It's interesting for a number of reasons, the least of which is that the exchange has come on Twitter, which is a medium that leaves this old-fashioned windbag completely cold. How few characters? What's the point?

But anyway, the idea of a sequel to American Psycho is worth considering. The original was a remarkable book. It caught the spirit of its time in extraordinary, callous detail. Patrick Bateman was an amazing character. Could that brio, and that sense of evil (or, perhaps, delusion) be transplanted into the 2010s, an era even more explosively self-serving than the 1980s? And even if it could, should it? Should authors go back?

I think it could work. I think the times are so different from the 1980s that it would inevitably open up new facets of Bateman's character. The possibilities are fascinating.

But actually the thing that intrigues me most about this story is the fact that Ellis is sharing the creative process with potential readers in this way. It offers an interesting insight. How do you write? Are you a plotter or a character-creator? Do you let your characters define your story, or do you have it all worked out in advance?

It's not clear from the Twitter discussions which type Ellis is. He may be simply brainstorming to see if there are sufficient ideas to merit a fuller exploration. Or he may actually be trying to work out the plot turns of his putative work.

I suspect the former. I'd be amazed if any of the ideas mentioned on his Twitter discussion ever made it into the final novel. I reckon this is an author toying with an idea, throwing possibilities in to see how they might work, seeing if his character might bite. That's the way I would do it, anyway. And if I did that, I wouldn't necessarily expect any of that initial brainstorming ever to make it into the final version.

It's an interesting insight into the writing process. If and when the sequel finally appears, I'll be extremely interested to see how much of this Twitter discussion makes the final cut.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Post Office by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski is one of those writers you approach with trepidation, especially if reading them for the first time in middle age: they have a reputation these writers, a cult following, the heavy weight of expectation is on those books. John Kennedy Toole is another such, and A Confederacy of Dunces passes the test. Hunter S. Thompson failed miserably. I read Carson McCullers for the first time last year and fell in love with both The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and the woman herself. So what of Charles Bukowski? Well, he’s no McCullers, but happily he’s no Thompson either. Post Office is very much a take-it-or-leave-it kind of experience.

Henry Chinaski, the novel’s central character, is apparently loosely based on Bukowski himself. That being the case, the author wasn’t a person you’d want to spend much time with. Not that this matters, of course: the writer himself is irrelevant when judging fiction. But Chinaski is a central character for whom it is impossible to develop any degree of sympathy. Again, this is not necessarily a problem: the idea that a central character should be in some way sympathetic is facile. In Chinaski, though, Bukowski does take the idea of an anti-hero to an extreme. And this is not because he is especially nasty or repulsive or evil: he’s just an, unpleasant, self-satisfied, cynical, lazy, womanising jerk. Making something cohesive out of such low-grade material is a tough ask. James Purdy could pull it off consummately. So could Nathanael West. Bukowski, whose affectedly easy style clearly echoes those two giants is, alas, not so successful. West’s and Purdy’s losers – Miss Lonelyhearts or Cabot Wright, say – have a humanity that inevitably rises above the mess of their lives. Henry Chinaski never quite transcends his solipsistic dullness.

Chinaski’s life is a succession of boring interludes. He works for the mail service and is lost within its labyrinthine and cruel bureaucracy. He finds solace in women, flitting from bed to bed and body to body with casual disinterest. He drinks excessively. He appears to positively avoid success or happiness or comfort, preferring to subsist in penury and even misery. All of this is well enough portrayed. It’s funny too, at times. It’s just that, in the end, it’s hard to care. Nicole Gluckstern calls Chinaski an “Everyman of the underclass”. I don’t know. I see her point but “underclass” has a precise meaning and Henry Chinaski is not, to my mind, included within it. An underclass is the lowest social class in the social hierarchy, unprivileged and lacking influence. There is about an underclass an element of inevitable subjugation. That is not Chinaski. Chinaski is only representative of an underclass if its definition is widened to include the feckless and the useless. Such a definition would unfairly depict the underclass in pejorative terms, the interpretation, say, of a Margaret Thatcher or a Rick Santorum. Henry Chinaski is not an everyman because he stands only for himself.