The Harvestman by Alison Moore

moore.harvestmanI recently read ‘The Harvestman’, the latest in Nightjar Press‘s ongoing series of standalone short stories, published as chapbooks. I’ve been an admirer of Alison Moore’s stories for years – she’s one of a breed of writers I have to list as my favourite, those whose fiction lurks disconsolately on the threshold of horror fiction, even sidling through the back door every once in a while but always fighting shy of becoming a fully paid-up member of the horror club. I thought Moore’s Booker-shortlisted debut, The Lighthouse, was pretty sensational, a masterclass in the short novel form so beloved of Ian McEwan (and way better than On Chesil Beach, in fact). More than that, it grows in the imagination, the kind of novel (less common than you might think) that will deliver an equal and in all likelihood greater measure of enjoyment on a second reading.

I have Moore’s second novel, He Wants, here on my shelf, and I’m looking forward to reading that, but I thought I’d sample ‘The Harvestman’ in the meantime, to whet my appetite. The story is only a few pages long, but it’s a beauty. During the short time it takes to read it, it is impossible not to become aware of how well made it is. The motifs – long-legged creatures that lurk in the shadows, broken legs, hammers, accidents, repeating patterns of injury, fires, unlucky escapes – are sewn artfully into the narrative like diamonds on velvet, each perfectly placed to maximise its refractive qualities. There is enough detail and insight, in these few thousand words,  to make us feel we know the three main characters – Eliot, Abbey and Big Pete – well enough to recognise them on the street. And yet there is not a single extraneous detail in this story. Authorial control lies uppermost. You could even call ‘The Harvestman’ radically concise.

It occurred to me while I was reading ‘The Harvestman’ that when I say (as I frequently do) that I’m not actually very good at writing ‘real’ short stories, it’s stories like Moore’s that I’m thinking of: stories that fit naturally and comfortably into a few thousand words, stories whose imagery and action are tied together so perfectly that it feels as if one simply could not exist without the other, stories in which nothing happens that does not need to happen and where there are no untethered threads.

You frequently find people describing stories like this as being like jewels: worth more than its size might suggest and perfect from every angle. One of the most notable features of a story like ‘The Harvestman’ is that it has the marvellous natural alignment of a piece of found art, so right within its own skin you can’t imagine it any other way. Which of course belies the horrendous difficulty of writing a thing like that, the endless weighing and polishing to get those facets – the cut – just right.

One of the most important factors in developing your voice as a writer is discovering, by experimenting, by trial and error, in other words, what kind of writer you are. For me, the past couple of years have been about coming to understand that I am a naturally discursive writer, that I am obsessed with creating stories that ‘bag out’, that run off at tangents, and that my main task as this kind of writer is not to eliminate that tendency by streamlining my writing but to bring a sense of cohesion and logical progression to the various loose ends. To attach them to each other to make something that, while it is an intricate collation of minutiae, is also subject to an overarching order.

Rather like a spider’s web, I guess.

In her use of language and in particular the subject matter she chooses, I feel a great affinity with Alison Moore. I feel I understand instinctively why these stories were made, and even some of the how. I’m drawn to a character like Eliot immediately – I totally get that he’s afraid of harvestmen, which is why he notices every detail about them, and even, ironically, looks a little bit like one.

What I could never, ever do though is write his story in the way that Alison Moore has. She, unlike me, can write short stories. She is a master of the form.

Why not treat yourself and buy a copy of ‘The Harvestman’ here? And hurry – this is a limited edition of 200 copies, so they won’t hang about.

Diary, 8.30 am

,,,red campion, fool’s parsley, hogweed, rough chervil, common evening primrose, foxglove (winding down now), convolvulus (first of the season), tufted vetch, meadow buttercup, leopard’s bane, broad-leaved willowherb…

These are all super-common native plant species of the kind most people call weeds, but for me there are few more thrilling avenues to explore in natural history than these widespread British wildflowers. Of course there are many more spectacular and scientifically interesting species found elsewhere in the world, but none that better define the landscapes I write about, the landscapes I grew up in and that trigger my most immediate, honest response as a writer and as a human being.

The sight of red campion in the hedgerow (at its peak, a couple of weeks ago, it was breathtaking in its profusion) can set my heart racing. The Devon hedgerows themselves, which this spring I’ve been able to watch daily as they’ve thickened and quickened, are so bounteous, so diverse in composition, so vast you could spend most of a day just looking at one small stretch of one, identifying, photographing and cataloguing the plants on display. These hedgerows and the fields beyond form what can rightly be called a Fowlesian landscape, a landscape that is somehow so deeply rooted in many of us Britons that it is instantly recognisable at a level that has more to do with the gut than with the eye, instantly home, even for those who live in the city.

On Tuesday I wandered down a lane that led to a bridleway that led to a meadow bursting with clover and singing with bees. SO many bees here, bees all around us, up first thing in the morning and already about their business.

In that same meadow a pheasant broke cover just yards from my feet. At the end of last week I spotted on one of our garden shrubs a bronze shield bug. Haven’t seen one in years. These things too I find thrilling.

Although my bookshelves contain an ever increasing number of books on natural history (bear in mind that this is someone who requested – and received – W. S. Bristowe’s The World of Spiders for her twelfth birthday and still has that same copy) and though I rejoice in the current upsurge in popularity of nature writing by the likes of Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald and Melissa Harrison, Marianne Taylor, Richard Kerridge, Patrick Barkham and Dave Goulson, I find it practically impossible to write about these landscapes except through fiction. The experience is too intimate, too revealing of self. There is the ever-present danger of slipping into a mode of expression that sounds like sentimentality, when what one wants to express is fierceness. Fierceness and passion and urgent necessity.Cow parsley 20 05 15

I’ve probably just inadvertently listed another ten reasons why I love Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border so much. I could say sorry for harping on this book all the time, but I’m not going to.

The tyranny of plot

“I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Rachel Cusk in an interview for The Guardian, August 2014.

For Levy, the line to tread lies between needing facts ‘to tune the reality levels of my books so I can do a deal with the reader and subvert that reality’, and veering away from ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing that has tragically died in the crib’… As a steely, soft-spoken critic of literary orthodoxy, Levy has a gift for languidly dismissive metaphors. Coherence is ‘the bloody, mauled fox’ of the writing process, while rigid narrative convention is ‘a sort of painkiller’ resulting all too often in the ‘sacrifice of poetry on the altar of plot’.

Laura Garmeson, reporting on a seminar given by Deborah Levy on Form and Content in the 21st-century Novel at Birkbeck College.

 

I recently read Rachel Cusk’s Baileys- and Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Outline, in which a writer travels to Athens to teach a creative writing workshop. She describes the flight, the apartment in which she is staying and its immediate environs in unfussy yet precise, quietly harmonious prose. She recounts in detail her conversations with those she encounters – the businessman who happens to be sitting next to her on the plane, two writers she has dinner with, the students on the course – and her internalised thought processes relating to those conversations. Nothing at all happens, apart from what happens. There is nothing in this novel that might be analogous with ‘narrative tension’. There is no such thing as plot. The book is what it is. It makes no claims for itself. It has the feel and texture of a found document.

The eschewing of plot elements is a very deliberate decision on Cusk’s part, of course, and whether Outline is a thinly fictionalised work of autobiography is beside the point. What Cusk is doing here is something other than ‘telling a story’. She is replicating the fabric of lived experience through the incompatible medium of words.

Cusk’s prose is certainly flawless, an act of mimesis so perfect that as a writer it is almost impossible not to admire it. Such moment-by-moment evocation of ordinary occurrences is notoriously difficult to achieve, the kind of writing that can only succeed through, as Cusk describes it, an ‘annihilated perspective’, a willed invisibility on the part of the writer, style that moves beyond style and into a kind of verbal photo-realism.

But to paraphrase Jerry Leiber, is that all there is to a novel? This question has been preoccupying me ever since I reread Cusk’s interview in the context of having read Outline, and the article about Deborah Levy only added to my feelings of fascination and unease. The warning bell began ringing for me, I think, when I realised why my reaction to Outline was so divided: as a writer, I found the book admirable, an experiment in form and fiction well worth pursuing. As a reader, I couldn’t think of a single reason to continue the book to its end. As a reader, you can learn everything there is to know about Outline in fifty pages (or even fewer, if you feel like being callous about it). As a reader, once you have grasped Cusk’s take on the tyranny of plot, there is nothing here for you. You will exit the narrative in the same semi-passive, semi enervated state in which you entered it.

I find it ironic that in a novel which seeks to annihilate authorial perspective, what you end up with, finally, is a novel that is wholly, tirelessly, overbearingly about authorial perspective: this is how it feels to be a writer, this is how we see, this is what we do, this is how we never switch off because everything is work, everything is live meat, everything must be exterminated captured and descrrrribed. Yes, fine – as a writer I’m kind of down with that. But as a reader? God, it’s tiresome.

I’m aware even as I write this that I may no longer be properly qualified to speak as a reader, to offer my opinions on what a reader may desire or find provoking. One of the unspoken penalties of being a writer (I’m not going to do a Cusk here, I promise) is that you give up your reader privileges. Everything you read, you read as a writer: what is the author doing, how did they do it, do I like it/hate it/agree with it/find it relevant or irrelevant to what I, as a writer, am trying to do myself? Those moments when you’re completely swept away, when you find yourself so lost in the narrative and your reaction to it – the very feeling that made you want to be a writer in the first place – become vanishingly few. Far more often you find yourself distracted by that crushing sense of yes OK I get it, so what now?

Which makes it all the more rewarding when it does happen. If a novel can succeed in not bugging you, if you find you’ve read 200 pages and not thought once about the next book you absolutely have to read before the month is out, you know you’re on to something amazing.

Need I add that this did not happen for me with Rachel Cusk’s Outline. My two top reads of the year so far have been Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, which is pretty much all description and character (so much for them being dead, then) and Sara Taylor’s The Shore, an act of mimesis every bit as convincing as Cusk’s, yet combined with elements of mystery and speculation that gave that mimesis – yes! – a narrative engine, a sense of urgency and relevance that felt almost entirely lacking in Cusk’s novel.

In terms of its form, there is nothing in the slightest bit revolutionary about The Wolf Border – and yet the power and urgency of the writing, the conviction Hall brings to her narrative, together with a plot hook (the importance of conservation and rewilding) I’m passionate about and (YES, I ADMIT IT!) a protagonist I loved and was totally rooting for, makes this novel a keeper, the kind of book people will still be reading and loving decades from now. The Wolf Border feels like a book Sarah Hall really needed to write and perhaps that’s the entire point.

Sarah Taylor’s The Shore is fired with that same passion for communication, the same depth of resonance – with a landscape, with its people. The Shore is a fractured narrative (my favourite kind) a multiplicity of mini-narratives that build a greater whole. Taylor is not afraid of being elliptical, in other words, she is not afraid to dispense with the concept of linear, mimetic narrative in favour of something more wayward, that owes as much to the imagination as to the author’s inner documentary maker. Yet this is also a novel that feels comfortable with the idea of story, not only as a vehicle for self expression but equally as a necessary and vital component of human experience. It is almost impossible, as a writer, to not bring an element of autobiography into your work. What you bring to the page is yourself, after all – not just your opinions and passions, but the amalgamated sum of your personal experience. This is bound to seep out somehow, no matter what area of literature you choose to work in. And this investment of self in the unlikeliest of places and characters – this is what makes a novel feel true, even if it happens to be set three hundred years in the future (or in sixteenth century London).

I said in an interview recently that as a writer and as a reader I am mostly allergic to linear narrative. I love the idea of ‘the novel’, not simply as a words-on-paper version of a drama or narrative that might just as well be played out on TV (and perhaps more compellingly so) but as a construct, an abstract idea – a symbol of intimate communication between one human mind and another. The novels I enjoy most are novels that play with the idea of what a novel should be – in the characters and events they describe, but mostly in the way they are constructed. I like to be in dialogue with the writer I am reading – I like to feel I am a part of the process, in other words. It doesn’t bother me at all if I’m not always one hundred percent sure of what is going on, or if the novel has loose ends that are never tied up, or if the protagonist is an absolute arse. So long as I feel compelled to discover more about what the writer had in mind.

For the most part, this means there has to be a story, a mystery, a reason for reading. This does not mean eschewing autobiographical or non-fiction techniques – if in doubt, read Emmanuel Carrere or Gordon Burn. It certainly does not mean adhering rigidly to nineteenth century models of narrative realism. But to deliberately withhold all forms of narrative tension, to deny story its importance or its seriousness, seems not only self-aggrandising but also selfish. I’ve ploughed through ‘stories’ that seem so wilful in denying the reader anything approaching ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing’ to quote Levy – so clever, so self-aware, so pedagogic in their pursuit of obscurity they have made me want to go away and read – I don’t know, Jeffrey Archer in retaliation.

I suppose that what I am saying is that as a writer I happen to believe I owe the reader something in return for their investment of time and patience, not to mention money. A reason to go on reading, in other words. A story they can care about, or even love.

 

Thought for the day

“People don’t tend to believe me, but our default mode in the east was scepticism towards the government, especially among those who still believed that socialism deserved a better chance. When we read a newspaper, the first question was always “What does that really mean?”. It gave us a much better training, an alertness to potential manipulation. Sometimes I think that people in the west were much more streamlined, much more easily manipulated with their 100% faith in democracy while remaining largely unquestioning of the economic system.

“I do believe it is still a valid starting point to say that the means of production as we have them under capitalism, the fixation with growth, will eventually lead to the end of the world, perhaps in our own lifetime. Hope in a more human society, where people are treated fairly independent of race, gender or appearance – I still take that very seriously. And when we look at what is happening with refugee boats in the Mediterranean, we see that the west doesn’t always take these things as seriously as it should.”

Jenny Erpenbeck, winner of the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Read the whole of her marvellous interview with Philip Oltermann for The Guardian here.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well, I loved it. Coming out of the cinema last night, I couldn’t stop laughing for at least ten minutes because I’d enjoyed myself so much. The last time I had that kind of very hyperactive physical reaction to a movie was when I saw Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell on its London opening night back in 2009. DMTH left me with the similar impulse to head right back inside the auditorium for an immediate second viewing, although I happen to think that Fury Road is infinitely the better, the more meaningful film, more lasting as art than the hugely entertaining but ultimately disposable DMTH will ever be.

A great deal of perceptiveinsightful, enthusiastic, original, and thought-provoking criticism of Fury Road has already been produced, with critics working hard to get inside the (generously distributed) meat and bones of this movie. That’s not what I want to do here – this is a personal reaction only – but just for the record, I do want to say that I loved what this movie did with male-female interaction in the context of the Hollywood action movie. In her truly excellent review, Abigail Nussbaum has some words of caution on this subject:

“A lot of what Fury Road does with regards to women–making the prime mover of the story a woman who is not sexualized or treated as the hero’s prize, featuring multiple female characters, not all of whom are young and beautiful, passing the Bechdel test–is not so much revolutionary as the very baseline of what we should expect from most movies–what we would expect, if we hadn’t become so accustomed to the toxic sludge of misogyny that Hollywood blockbusters have been serving up for twenty years.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more Fury Road seems not like a revolution, but like a throwback to the action films of the 80s, before the genre gained the respectability that comes from being Hollywood’s primary source of revenue, back when it was still possible to put women and people of color front and center, to be weird and grotesque, and not have to worry about courting an audience made up of thirteen-year-old boys.”

Whilst I applaud what Abigail is saying here and agree wholeheartedly, neither can I deny the sheer joy I did experience in seeing what we should be seeing up there on the screen… up there on the screen.  I loved the ‘passing the gun’ moment – because it was so understated, because it happened so naturally, and without even a flicker of resentment or attitude on Max’s part. I didn’t find anything male-gaze-y about the ‘women bathing’ scene. There is no hint of ogling in Max’s expression – just shock, incredulity at the sight of something so massively at odds with the horror and violence he’s just been experiencing. And the sight of water, of course – indeed, it’s almost as if he’s looking right past the women, at the water.  Neither did I feel that Furiosa’s autonomy was compromised by her reliance on Max. What I saw was Furiosa making deft use of the opportunities that came her way – Max turns up, he clearly shares some of our aims, let’s go with it. It’s not Max showing Furiosa what to do, getting her out of a tight spot – it’s two people, working together because they choose to and because it benefits them both.  What I saw was mutual respect, not timely rescue.

For those who felt that Max almost gets sidelined in the movie, I’d say no way does he. I felt my attention drawn by both characters equally. I think the difference here is that people are so used to seeing the action guy take the lead they don’t quite know where to look (the same as that thing you get when there are three women out of ten in a boardroom and the men start muttering about women ‘taking over’).

What I want to focus on mainly though – perhaps because in the main people have not talked so much about this aspect of Fury Road – is the movie’s supreme confidence, coherence and staggering beauty as a work of art. I don’t normally give a toss about special effects or CGI. If a film doesn’t have a good script to back it up, I’m just not interested. In Fury Road I have found my exception that proves the rule. I don’t think I have ever seen a movie in which the special effects were more exquisitely tailored to the action onscreen. People made a lot of noise about the visual spectacle of Gravity and Interstellar. I found the former to be completely empty – I can’t stand George Clooney anyway, and whilst watching the film I was never able to forget even for a second that Apollo 13 was far more exciting and much better written. The latter was a typical piece of ego-bigger-than-the-idea Hollywood bullshittery with a ludicrous script, heavily derivative storyline and not even as good in terms of its editing and cinematography as was inception. With Fury Road, on the other hand, I felt that perhaps in this instance the almost total lack of a script was a good thing. The power of the visual imagery told its own story, was demonstrative in a way that, dare I say it, opera or ballet is demonstrative. And what a relief to be spared the inane backchat, macho wisecracks and by-the-numbers, relentless wank that normally characterises what passes for the script of a Hollywood action movie. The worldbuilding, similarly, was superbly outrageous – never laboured, never explained, just there.

But simply as a piece of choreography, Fury Road is a stunningly beautiful thing, an exercise in skill and wild abandon that feels more like a piece of modern dance (by Pina Bausch, say) than anything else. The visual coherence, the gleeful relentlessness of pacing, the effortlessly logical segue from one set piece into another, the colours – the thing left me breathless with delight, not just at what was happening onscreen but at the obvious dedication, skill and commitment expended by those who put it there. In its visual audacity and visceral wantonness, Fury Road often reminded me of Jodorowski – only a lot less up itself and one hell of a lot more entertaining.

I never thought I’d be saying this, but Mad Max: Fury Road should win all the awards. It’s the kind of film I’d hesitate to watch again, in case that second viewing cast any kind of a backward shadow upon the heart-pounding, seat-jumping exhilaration of the unrepeatable first.

Slow Books

The piece I’m working on at the moment is a story about climate change. It’s part of a project I’ve been asked to contribute to, and it’s particularly interesting to me as a work in progress because I’ve chosen to approach it by revisiting characters that first appeared in a much earlier story. I like this kind of challenge, not only because it gives me the opportunity to answer at least part of a question I’m frequently faced with – what the hell happened next? – but also because extending a story in this way casts a fascinating backward light over the original piece. My two-part story ‘En Saga’ was built like this, so too, in a way, were my story cycles The Silver Wind and Stardust, although each of the chapters in these sequences was written in the knowledge of others to come.

I can’t say much about my own climate change story yet – the project it’s a part of is still under wraps – but I do want to talk about another climate change project that’s caught my attention recently. The writer Nicky Singer, perhaps best known for her YA novel Feather Boy, is currently running a Kickstarter to produce and launch a new novel, Island, an adaptation of her own play for young people originally staged at the Cottesloe in 2012. Island tells the story of Cameron, a young boy who travels with his mother to an island close to the Arctic Circle and his growing awareness of the calamity being wrought there by climate change. Nicky was inspired to turn her play into a novel after receiving enquiries from people who’d seen the play and who wanted to know what had happened to Island: was there a book? Would there be another play? How could they bring the story to a new and bigger audience?

Nicky has written the novel – but as she has discussed in a recent interview, her long-term publisher has turned it down on the grounds that it’s ‘too quiet':

“In its previous incarnation, as a play at the National Theatre, it was quite a noisy thing. It played to sell-out audiences in the Cottesloe, did a thirty-school London tour and enjoyed a raft of four-star reviews…I liked the extra space in the book. My day-job is as a novelist. I believed I made a pretty good fist of the re-write. In fact, I rather thought the last 100 pages were some of the best I’d ever written.

My long-term publisher disagreed. ‘It’s too quiet,’ they said, ‘for the current market’.”

Well, I thought this was shameful, to be honest. Not only is there a desperate need for books like Island, an audience demand for this particular book has already been demonstrated. I could write a long screed – indeed I may already have written a few – about how publishers have been falling into the trap of underestimating their audiences. But suffice it to say that I feel almost as passionately about this as I do about the urgent necessity of confronting climate change. In a case like this, where the two matters are so intrinsically linked, it seems the most appropriate thing for me to add is please support this project, if you can, either by pledging or simply by passing on the information.

 

The production of the finished book will be overseen by Charles Boyle of CB Editions. If you needed another reason to support Island, there’s one right there. CB Editions are magic – one of the best indie presses currently on the scene (I bought their edition of Andrzej Bursa’s stories before I even knew they existed, if you see what I mean, and more recently they’ve put out books by Agota Kristof, Will Eaves, and May-Lan Tan, whose collection Things to Make and Break made the Guardian First Book Award shortlist in 2014. Charles’s blog is also fantastic).  You can read an extract from Island at Nicky’s Kickstarter page – I have, and it’s beautiful: sure, muscular, compelling writing that draws you instantly into the story and towards the characters. I know kids would love this book, would respond to it – and perhaps the most vital part of Nicky’s project is her aim of taking Island into schools, of talking to young people directly about the issues raised and getting them to think about and discuss what’s being done to our planet and what we can do about it.

I think this is the crux of it, really. One of the most insidious things about our current predicament is how powerless we, as ordinary citizens, feel with regard to effecting change. There are things we can do, though – we can talk, write, argue, discuss, refuse to be blindfolded. It seems to me that Nicky is reaching out to do all of these things, and that we should support her.

I’d also highly recommend you read the rest of Nicky’s interview here – it’s a brilliant piece, perceptive and enlightening in so many ways.

Crime blog #8

What She Left by T. R. Richmondwhat she left.richmond

The books that annoy me most are usually those I feel most let down by. When I first heard about What She Left I couldn’t wait to read it. The novel was billed as a crime story with a difference, an account of a death and the solution to a mystery, pieced together from emails, letters, diary extracts, online forums and newspaper reports. I like found documents, I like mosaic novels, I like non-linear narratives. I was expecting to like this novel very much. In fact, the experience of reading it was like watching Broadchurch or Missing. You know that point about half way through the series when you know you’ve been duped into thinking this would be good (less pointless, more strongly characterised and better written than all the other crime dramas you’ve become unwillingly addicted to over the years) when it patently isn’t, when you wish you had the willpower to end your relationship with the programme right now but you can’t quite do it? Reading What She Left feels just like that.

The plot is pretty simple: on an icy February morning in 2012, the body of a young journalist, Alice Salmon, is found floating in a river in Southampton. Alice, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Southampton some eight years before, was by all accounts a lovely person: adored by her friends, admired by her colleagues, cherished by her family and boyfriend. Who could possibly have wanted to kill Alice? And surely her life had too much going for it for her to consider suicide? Her death must have been an accident – she was drunk, the bridge was icy, she slipped and fell… But of course there are secrets in Alice’s past, as there are in everyone’s. Enter Professor Jeremy Cooke, a TV anthropologist, lecturer at Southampton University, ex-mentor of Alice. We soon learn that Cooke was once intimately acquainted with Alice’s mother, Liz, and has more than a passing interest in the case. Newly diagnosed with prostate cancer, he sees it as his final mission to discover what really happened to Alice, to set the truth on record in the form of a written account. The book he eventually publishes, compiled from the various documents Cooke has gathered together and its conclusions a secret until now, is ostensibly the book that you are holding in your hands.

Which would all be great, if only, well, so many things. If only Richmond had taken more care in the creation of his various found documents, for a start. As it is, we have letters and diary entries that read pretty much like standard narrative prose, complete with conventionally formatted dialogue and extended flashbacks. Of course it would be OK for the writer to take some liberties here, it would be impossible not to, but no one writes letters like this, it just doesn’t happen. It’s as if Richmond enjoyed the idea of constructing an epistolary novel, then found out how difficult it would be to convey a whole story in that way and decided that no one would notice if he cheated. The blog entries and emails are, if anything, worse. The blog posts are nothing like the kind of blog posts anyone would actually publish. Richmond tries to get around this problem by having the point of view character (in this case Alice’s best friend Megan) make self deprecating remarks along the lines of ‘only six people read this blog anyway, so who cares what I write here?’ which do nothing to mitigate the unfitness of said entries for stated purpose. Indeed, Richmond’s conception of ‘internet language’ is a problem generally. The novel contains numerous self conscious instances of young people making jokes about the cluelessness of old people on the internet, couched in language that already sounds like old people on the internet. Does anyone use the term ‘bestie’ except ironically? Did they ever? When employed by those writers with a decent ear for it, the language of the internet (like any other spoken or written language variant) can take on the characteristics of poetry. In What She Left it is tepid at best and more often a matter for squirming embarrassment. This book was already dated before the publisher hit ‘print’.

But there are other problems, too. If you’re writing a thriller, you need either an amazing plot or compelling characters. Ideally you’ll have both, but all writers have their different strengths and if you skew more naturally towards one of these key ingredients that need not matter. If you write your favoured key ingredient well enough, your reader may well not notice that the other is lacking. But they are certainly going to notice if you people your completely banal standard-issue yuppie thriller plot with completely banal standard-issue yuppies. Professor Cooke is your typical kind of lecherous middle-aged lecturer, still ogling his students, still looking back nostalgically to the days when his ogling actually got him somewhere, still regretting that he was never as brilliant as his (off-page) brilliant best friend. He reminisces about roaring around the Hampshire lanes in his TR7. (Who ever heard of a university lecturer driving a TR7? A beat-up Fiat Uno was more par for the course when I was at uni.)  He’s a dick, in other words, but he doesn’t even have the consideration to be a dick in an interesting way. His narrative is egregious, self-serving, and above all dull. The character of Alice fares no better in Richmond’s hands. She too is dull, and Richmond gives us no reason to care about her or be interested in her, save for the fact that she is dead. Her narrative voice veers excitably all over the dial from too-young to too-old, she’s meant to be into hard-line vigilante crime journalism but her portions of the narrative – the unconvincing diary entries, mostly – give us no sense of this other than her feeling sorry for old ladies on the tube or whatever. Her much-vaunted interest in Sylvia Plath is a clichéd not to say lazy touch, put there for the sole purpose of advancing the plot (in a really corny way – but you’ll get to that).

It should also be noted that the novel is sexist in a dozen unthinking, low-level, predictably depressing ways. Alice is there to be ogled and stalked, Megan is there to be treacherous and crazy, Liz is there to be alcoholic and unbalanced. Professor Cock, sorry Cooke is there to analyse these scintillating facts for us, to patronise literally every single woman who walks into the narrative and to normalise the ogling and objectification. I don’t automatically go around checking whether works of fiction pass the Bechdel test, but does this one? No, of course it doesn’t.

Do I even need to add that the eventual denouement is preposterous?

This novel made me want to weep for the opportunities lost. It doesn’t have to be this way, I wanted to say. Take the time to make this book how you imagined it would be, I wanted to say. I suppose what this all boils down to is that characters in thrillers are people too, and the thriller writer should take the trouble to reveal them as such. To give them interests and passions and character traits rather than spurious motives and annoying quirks. To portray them in language that reveals a hinterland and not just a surface. Give them something to say, in other words. It gives me no pleasure to state this, but this book had nothing to say.

dirty weekend.zahaviFor a crime novel with plenty to say and some to spare, might I suggest you turn instead to Dirty Weekend, by Helen Zahavi. This novel, first published in 1992, caused something of a stir in its day. The Observer called it ‘more offensive than pornography’. Salman Rushdie, writing for the Independent on Sunday, called Dirty Weekend a ‘hideous, kinky little revenge-novel of violence done to men’. Unfortunately the book came out just before the days of universal internet archiving, and so I haven’t been able to source Rushdie’s review in its entirety. Which is a shame, because I’d have liked to have pulled it apart more. As it is, I feel confident in saying that his words reveal far more about Rushdie and his attitudes than about Helen Zahavi’s barnstorming debut.

This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough.

She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.

Thus the novel’s opening lines encapsulate the entirety of what is to come. To put it simply, Bella goes on a killing spree. Her targets are not random. We as readers are made a party to everything that happens. I should warn you that this book is violent. It’s right out there. What it is not is gratuitous, pointless, exploitative, hideous or kinky. It is dark, powerful, angry, brutal, piercingly intelligent and brilliant. Most of all, there is the language. Helen Zahavi writes with such thrilling assurance it leaves you breathless. Being trapped inside Dirty Weekend is like being on a roller coaster – you scream as you laugh, laugh as you scream. The rhythmic potency of Zahavi’s language – like rap, like hip-hop – had me wanting to read whole pages aloud. Her dialogue is exceptional, and hilarious. Kathy Acker puts it best:

Above all Dirty Weekend is a novel composed of language so gorgeous, so precise and witty, that I found myself laughing and thought, I should be crying instead.  Nothing pleases me more than to be surprised into consciousness.

Dirty Weekend made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions. It also had me wanting to hide my face from what was going on on the page. A novel like this does not come along every day. What it says about the world we live in needs to be read. What it does in terms of language and structure needs to be shouted about. It also has a brilliant sense of place – this is Brighton after lights out, make no mistake. It’s a tough book but absolutely worth your time. I would also recommend you read Helen Zahavi’s essay, written for The Guardian, on answering the critics.

 

Ghost in the machine?

“The Familiar is a sprawling mess of a book, and it’s hard to find anything positive to say about it besides that it’s printed beautifully,” says Michael Schaub in his review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s long-awaited new novel for The Guardian. “But a novel that appeals chiefly to people who like to look at books rather than read them isn’t a meaningful contribution to the world of literature, and it’s hard to imagine why Danielewski would release a book so impenetrable and willfully obtuse.

I’ve not read The Familiar – I don’t even own a copy (yet) – but reading Schaub’s highly entertaining and voluble review yesterday evening reminded me of what I did already own: a copy of Danielewski’s novella The Fifty Year Sword, purchased on impulse on my first visit to the new Foyles last year and as yet unread. It’s a fat little book – 284 pages in all – but there aren’t many words on each page (or even on all of the pages) and Mr Schaub’s review made me feel like sampling some Danielewski there and then. (Negative reviews are like that sometimes, especially when they’re as well constructed as Schaub’s and present a contentious argument – they egg me on.)

If you glance at the online reader reviews you’ll see that The Fifty Year Sword divides opinion (as it divides everything else, apparently) which is pretty much par for the course with Danielewski. Some have loved the book, revelling in Danielewski’s obsession with innovative formats (as well as the ‘stitched’ illustrations, The Fifty Year Sword utilizes a system of differently coloured quotation marks to differentiate between the – allegedly – five distinct narrators of this single story) and his everywhere-evident love of the book-as-object. Others have thrown it aside in disgust, dismissing it as a gimmick and a con, a mostly uninteresting short story tortuously stretched to ten times its natural length.

It took me a little under half an hour to read The Fifty Year Sword. Here are the notes I made (I’ve taken to doing that this year) immediately after finishing it:

I know I shouldn’t, but I loved this. So much depends on the book-as-object, that is clear, but this is also a perfect and gorgeous piece of poetry as it stands. A book from a true original. Wonderful story!

Thinking about the book again this morning – well, there you go, I’m still thinking about it. Pared back to its basics as a horror story, The Fifty Year Sword is short and simple and packs a fair punch: a woman unwillingly attends a Hallowe’en party where, to her horror, someone from her past is also present, someone she very much does not want to see. She is tempted to leave right away, but stays on out of politeness, and so as not to disappoint the children, five orphans under the care of the very old and, one supposes, very rich host. A story teller arrives, ostensibly a Hallowe’en entertainment for the children. Ancient-Mariner-like, the bard recounts his tale. The adults are sceptical, the children enthralled. A horrific, and touching, and persuasive denouement ensues.

‘Here,’ he blinked quickly at a blade at least four feet long tapering to a blunt tip. ‘This one took me three winters to make. It kills the taste of salt. The one next to it kills the smell of Wild Lupine, Blackberry Lily and lush Evening Primrose. There’ – turning to a fat blade suspended in the buzzing grey – ‘that one kills the colour green.’ 

Shorn of the unusual formatting and intricate illustrations, this would still be a great little story, a tale with a classic feel, rather like ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ or something similar.  But it wouldn’t particularly stand out. What makes The Fifty Year Sword into something special is Danielewski’s transformation of the text into an art installation. And like most conceptual art, its success or failure depends on how far the reader – the viewer – is prepared to enter into a personal relationship with it. This is how all art functions, of course – a work that leaves you unmoved (whether to joy or to anger or to perplexity is of lesser importance) has fallen short. But in the case of Danielewski, it is not just his words you must fall in love with, but the way he has chosen to arrange them. Those coloured quotation marks – do they tempt you, even slightly, to go back through the text and read each strand of narrative in isolation, as the author has hinted you should? I’m tempted, but I haven’t done it yet – if I were writing a paper on Danielewski I suppose I’d have to. For the moment – and because the narrative works perfectly well without having to dissect it in this way – I’m content to feel intrigued that the option is there.

It should perhaps be noted at this point that The Fifty Year Sword the physical book is a beautiful artefact. It is gorgeous to hold, to weigh in your hand. The paper is of a refined and lovely quality. The illustrations – all taken from actual embroideries designed by Danielewski and stitched by Regine Gonzalez, Claire Kohne and Michele Reverte of Atelier Z – are stunning to behold. The book even has a red stitching in the binding, glimpsed periodically as you turn the pages. This book is a privilege to own, and I don’t know precisely how I feel about that. My own tendency is to believe that text should stand without adornment, that a book could and should make as much of an impression as a plainly bound ARC as it does in its sleekly jacketed finished state. But there’s also no doubt in my mind that The Fifty Year Sword the book does something to you. It reminds you of what a ‘book’ actually is, metaphorically, symbolically. It reminds you of the unique magic of turning pages. It reminds me, in particular, of how I felt when I was eight years old, turning the pages of a beautifully illustrated pop-up book of The Arabian Nights my gran used to own. Of how the book was a treasure chest, of how the stories inside were more than just the text, they were the text plus my own questions and wondering about it, the acceleration of my heartbeat when I came to the fold-out illustration of the elephant and the tiger.

If The Fifty Year Sword the book allows me to feel those things again, can that be a bad thing? Absolutely not.

I picked up Danielewski’s House of Leaves (in the old Oxford Circus branch of Borders, if you want to know) completely by chance shortly after it was published, not because I was aware of the hype surrounding it – I wasn’t online much in those days and had literally no idea the book even existed – but because it looked to me like a big fat horror novel of the kind I might enjoy and because the cover quote from Brett Easton Ellis lured me in. Since then, I have made three separate attempts to read it. each time grinding to a halt about half way through, not because I’m not enjoying it (I love what I’ve read), but because I find the book so uncomfortable to read. Not psychologically uncomfortable, but physically. The sheer heft of the volume, combined with pages and pages of text that’s too small for me to read without magnification, acres of Courier New and other fonts I find difficult, make House of Leaves something of a visual assault course. I am committed to completing it, though – next time I set out on this journey I am determined to see it through to the end. Not just because I’m stubborn, but because the imaginative landscape of this novel – lost letters, embedded texts, faded polaroid photographs, Johnny Truant, the Navidson Record, Zampano and his insane footnotes – has remained in my mind, important to me even in this, its incomplete state, a book I wish I’d thought of and dared to compile and that I feel glad exists.

There’s this thing with the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Some people look at the smears and splashes and fountains of raw colour and say: that’s just paint flung at a wall. A child could do that.  They say the same of late Picasso also and it just isn’t true. To create works such as these, which appear to have been flung together in moments, Pollock and Picasso (and Joan Mitchell and wonderful Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner, who is a much better painter than her husband Jackson Pollock, in my view) had first to develop a relationship with paint, with light, with composition, that was so flexible, so felt, so much an embedded part of them that it allowed them to throw all their shit at the wall (that’s paint I’m talking about here, not literal excrement, although I’m sure some artists have conducted experiments in that direction) and make something new.

Writing demands exactitude, intent, perhaps more so than painting even. And yet so much of writing is feeling, in spite of that. Danielewski has legions of fans, readers prepared to follow him anywhere, who expend pages of thought and deductive effort trying to untangle what it is he really meant by such-and-such, what his novels stand for. He has, I would think, an equal number of anti-fans, perhaps more, people who dismiss him as an unbearable pseud and his books as so much MFA bullshit.

I feel that Danielewski has a relationship with words – with text – that lifts him beyond that. When I read his sentences I get a charge from them, the same charge I get from poetry, the sense that this writer has personally selected this or that word for a reason, that he has placed it next to another, equally specific word for a reason. That I might not immediately be able to discern that reason, or that the reason I imagine for myself is not the same reason as the artist’s, is of lesser importance.

Danielewski has his imitators, of course, and if many of the works that aspire to ‘be’ House of Leaves fall short of that ambition, it is because they are so busy in trying to imitate its surface textures that they entirely fail to grasp the most essential thing: the centrality of the author’s relationship with words. The JJ Abrams/Doug Dorst construct, ‘S’, was just that – a construct, a bunch of surface, Lost in book form. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes was just plain annoying (can’t be bothered to write anything new this year? Why not cut up one of Bruno Schulz’s books instead?) Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, a novel I had high hopes for, turned out to be all surface also, a poor copy of Danielewski’s tropes without any of his genuine weirdness or imaginative reach. Night Film does the imaginative equivalent of leading you down the rabbit hole into a shopping precinct. Dressed up in post-po-mo clothes, the actual story in Night Film is as banal and retrodden as any Monday night ITV crime drama.  Night Film angered me deeply, not so much because I felt I’d been conned as because the novel broke my heart in not living up to its potential. Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Tests on the other hand I loved very much. It also has the advantage of being a novel you can read without recourse to a magnifying glass. Hall loses his nerve a bit towards the end though, doesn’t he? Putting it bluntly, Raw Shark could have done with being weirder.

I love what Danielewski does, because it is clear to me that he loves words. The weight and heft of them, the way they look on paper, the resonances they set up with the objects and feelings they represent, the harsh intimacy of their relationship with memory. The thing is, I think he means it, which makes his work, and what it’s doing, interesting to me. Am I planning to read The Familiar? I haven’t decided – there’s twenty-seven volumes of the thing, for goodness’ sake. But I do know I’m glad it’s out there. When Schaub quotes from The Familiar in his review he seeks to mock it as being sub-Joycean, rip-off Joyce, in fact:

“How to get at the whole pluvial thing, another Anwar beaut, which Xanther remembered, pluvial, because it was like this … rainstorm going Plooey! to a town, a ville, a … Plooooooeyville!”

I’m sorry, Mr Schaub, but I kind of like it. I like the idea of a rainstorm going Plooey! to a town. It’s something I can feel, and hear. It’s the sound of a downpour, and a character’s feelings about a downpour, expressed in words I’ve not seen used before, and I like that a lot. In a recent interview for The Atlantic, Danielewski said the following:

It’s easy for any mode of writing to calcify into received tradition. When we come across something that works, we repeat it, and ultimately institutionalize it—even though it might come at the expense of other things that might be witnessed or participated in. But one of the joys of literature is that we can always push back against established ways of speaking and seeing—and nothing has to be blown up. No one has to be dispensed with. Huge tracts of land don’t have to be obliterated. By means of these fragile panes of paper, or lighted technological tablets, we start to mingle with other possibilities.

I like that, too. You can read the rest of this very interesting interview here.

The Race is a Campbell finalist!

I’ve just learned that The Race has reached the finals of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. This is a wonderful surprise, all the more so because it’s a fascinating line-up all round. I’m particularly pleased to see Simon Ings’s Wolves, Adam Roberts’s Bete, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy make the finals alongside The Race, because all three are special books that have missed out on previous 2015 awards shortlistings and thoroughly deserve this recommendation. The full line-up is below, and if you follow this link to Locus Online you’ll also find a list of the finalists for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for short fiction. A weird one, this, and there are a fair few names I’d have loved to see that aren’t there, but another fascinating selection nonetheless and some great stories.

Finalists for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award 2015:

  • The Race by Nina Allan
  • A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias
  • The Peripheral by William Gibson
  • Afterparty by Daryl Gregory
  • Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
  • Wolves by Simon Ings
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Defenders by Will McIntosh
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
  • The Bees by Laline Paull
  • Bête by Adam Roberts
  • Lock In by John Scalzi
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Echopraxia by Peter Watts

Ruth Rendell 1930 – 2015

I was first introduced to Ruth Rendell’s work in 1985 by Dr Lindsey Hughes, later to become Professor of Russian History at SSEES, then head of the soon-to-be defunct Russian department at the University of Reading. Lindsey was a great woman, a brilliant scholar, and a lasting inspiration. She died of cancer in 2007 and as I have just discovered I still find it difficult to talk or write about her without becoming upset at the ridiculously early age of her passing away. Lindsey first told me about Rendell in the front living room of her house in Donnington Road, the unofficial hub of Reading’s small but vibrant Russianist community and the site of many a late-night election debate (over vodka, of course) or folk singing session. “You have to read her,” she said to me of Rendell. “Her books are completely addictive.” She was certainly right about that, as she was about many things. I remember a couple of years afterwards, thanking Lindsey for her recommendation and enthusing over The Bridesmaid, Rendell’s then most recent novel and for me at least a continuing favourite. I must have listened to the 1995 Radio 4 adaptation a dozen times and more. I enjoyed Claude Chabrol’s 2004 film of the same book, but for me it lacked an essential something, that quality of eccentricity that made Rendell’s work such a vital and permanent cornerstone of the English crime canon.

I loved Rendell because I found her unputdownable but also enduring. Her keen literary sensibility, combined with her clear and obvious passion for telling stories, made many of her books classics even as they appeared.  I’ve raced through many Rendells two pages at a time on first reading in a fever of longing to know what happens, only to savour the novel at a more leisurely pace on a second or even third reading, discovering new details and – and just remind yourself at this point how rare this is with crime thrillers – a pleasure that is absolutely equal with that first enthralled encounter with the plot.

Among my favourites of Rendell’s work would have to be the Barbara Vine novels. “Nobody in their senses is going to call me a first-class writer”, Rendell said of her own talent. Like PD James, I would have to disagree. In the superb Asta’s Book (1993), No Night is Too Long (1994) and The Brimstone Wedding (1995) Rendell did things with character, psychology and sense of place that make many contemporaneous so-called literary novels appear pallid and insubstantial by comparison. Her underappreciated 1987 novella Heartstones is a classic of the form. Her short stories are masterclasses of concision and suspense. I hope Rendell knew that her work will still be being read and enjoyed a hundred years from now, and counting.

Her legacy is evident equally in the inspiration she offered to other artists. I find it especially interesting that the most eloquent and startling film adaptations of Rendell’s work have come not from British but from European directors. I think Chabrol’s 1995 film La Ceremonie, an unnerving and visually stunning adaptation of A Judgement in Stone, is even better than his adaptation of The Bridesmaid. Almodovar’s 1997 movie Live Flesh is as idiosyncratic and watchable and brilliant as anything he’s done. Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001), a free adaptation of Rendell’s 1984 novel The Tree of Hands, is so good it’s a crime (ha!) that it’s not better known.  It’s strange that thus far British directors haven’t responded to Rendell’s oeuvre with anything approaching the same levels of originality and depth. The small-screen adaptations of the Wexford novels, whilst deservedly popular, do not offer anything beyond the usual run-of-the-mill TV entertainment, and I can only hope that in time, one of our many talented British film makers – Andrea Arnold or Ben Wheatley, for example, I could see doing great things – will take a look at the treasure trove of material Rendell has laid in store for them and make some magic of their own.

Whatever happens though, we have her books. Thank you, Ruth Rendell, for the perennial thrill we find in discovering and then rereading them.