Category Archives: writing

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.

Crime blog #7

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ngeverything.ng

If there’s one sub-section within the crime genre that I have a particular fondness for, it’s crime novels in which no actual crime takes place. Ng’s novel opens not with a death, but with the knowledge of a death – Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. A family sit together having breakfast, filled with their own concerns and immersed in routines so familiar they perform them on autopilot with no idea that these moments of normality are about to end. This feels so familiar, the opening of so many crime novels and TV series. A body will be discovered, the family, devastated, will be plunged into a new routine of suspicion and counter-suspicion, dark secrets will be uncovered as we, along with them, seek insight into the identity of the murderer.

This novel is different, however. Ng selects an omniscient third person point of view to tell her story, a choice that is not only unusual these days, but – to my mind at least – the most difficult to engineer successfully. I felt discomfited by it at first – multiple viewpoints in a single paragraph, I thought, ugh – but it wasn’t long before I was entirely seduced by Ng’s storytelling. Her writing has an honest, unfettered quality that is compelling. She tells instead of shows whenever she damn well feels like it, and I was cheering her on. It would seem that what matters most to Ng is not to appear clever, to demonstrate virtuosity or fireworks or how much she knows about how to write, but to tell this story about these five (six, if you count Jack, which you should) characters, to allow us access to the hidden corners of their lives.

Other readers have spoken about this book as a social novel, a novel about racism, about women’s emancipation, about the 1970s, about family. It is all of those things. The feminist and race issues are sensitively handled – one experiences sympathy for both Marilyn and James as a dull ache, an echo of their own isolations and anxieties – and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel about family that so wonderfully evokes the tangled skein of relationships and resentments, fears and conflicting loyalties that exist between people who have become estranged but who nonetheless are bound together, indivisibly, by love. But there’s more than that here, and there’s nothing even remotely ‘worthy’ about this novel, which is, fundamentally, a story about individual people struggling to find their way.

It’s a book about mistakes, and regret, and accommodation. There are moments of pure linguistic wonder, observations and feelings so perfectly, so effortlessly caught, it’s like watching a film.

the fever. abbottWhile I was reading I couldn’t help comparing this novel with The Fever, by Megan Abbott, another ‘odd’ crime novel (my favourite kind) that I read last month. Abbott’s mastery of the teenage mind is amazing – I’ve not read so accurate a transcription of the madness and malice and vulnerability of schoolgirls in a long time – and her use of language is superb. I’d say that The Fever is ‘better written’ than Everything You Never Told Me – Abbott’s turns of phrase are sublime, disturbing, and difficult to ignore – but that it is Ng’s book you will best remember, and enjoy, and recommend to others. In spite of everything, it ends well, it ends beautifully. A quietly resounding success.

On the side of the ogres and pixies

Ishiguro.buriedgiantMost people with even a passing interest in what we care to call the politics of genre will have been aware of the recent pseudo-spat between Ursula Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro. I say pseudo-spat because that’s exactly what it was. Le Guin reacted to something Ishiguro never said, or rather, he didn’t say it in quite the way she thought he meant it (he explains himself here). Two days later she apologises for any offence she might have caused, and then admonishes Ishiguro for taking her own words in vain. “Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc,” she says. “They were hot on the scent for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?”

Le Guin may have been a little hasty in ‘flying off the handle’, as she herself put it, but she is certainly justified in her assessment and condemnation of internet blood-lust. As Le Guin suggests, these kind of clickbait articles are annoying and pointless and increasingly tedious precisely because they polarise opinion so swiftly and so absolutely they shut off the opportunity for a more in-depth debate. Read what they’ve actually said and it’s quite obvious that Le Guin and Ishiguro have far more in common than divides them, and I for one would love to see a conversation between them in which they could discuss, as Le Guin suggested, the fictional validity of dragons versus pixies (and I’d lay money on Ishiguro being up for it, too). But then, so far as the internets is concerned at least, informed and reasoned discussion isn’t anywhere near as thrilling as gladiatorial combat.

Far from being dismissive, Ishiguro’s views on the uses of fantasy would appear to be cogent, inclusive and sophisticated.  In the original New York Times interview that sparked all the fuss, Ishiguro states the ‘barren, weird England’ of his fictional Dark Ages provides an ideal metaphorical landscape for the story of moral evasion and wilful forgetting he wanted to explore. In another interview for The Guardian, he explains his own magic system straightforwardly and without prevarication: “I didn’t want a fantasy world where anything weird could happen. I went along with what happened in the Samurai tales I grew up on. If it’s conceivable that the people of the time had these superstitions or beliefs, then I would allow it.”

I would say Ishiguro totally gets what fantasy is for and what it can do. So why the disinclination, in certain quarters, to admit that, even as a possibility?

The longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night. It’s an odd one. It includes a number of books – historical, social-realist fiction – of the kind that I find least interesting, at least in outline. (Personally I much preferred Naomi Frisby’s hypothetical line-up at The Writes of Woman which, just in case you haven’t discovered it yet, is one of the best book blogs around.) But the list does include some outstanding writers (Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, Xiaolu Guo, Grace McCleen) and it also includes six novels that are either blatantly speculative, or that contain strong speculative elements. Looking down the longlist for the first time, I found myself wondering whether novels such as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laline Paull’s The Bees, or Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star (I’m a big Station Eleven fan, but seeing The Bees and Ice Cream Star here pleases me especially because these two books have been excluded from SFF discussions more or less entirely) would have stood a chance of being selected even a decade ago. Does the appearance of such books here now signal a genuine shift in literary attitudes towards the leitmotifs (see, I’m deliberately eschewing the word ‘tropes’) and preoccupations of science fiction and fantasy, as Ishiguro seems to suggest, as Le Guin appears so reluctant to believe?

I don’t know if this question has an answer yet. But it’s worth putting out there.

Only forward

We’ve reached that time of year when everyone is posting their best-of-year lists. I feel a bit ambivalent about doing this in 2014, because although I’ve read plenty of interesting stuff, no one book seemed to proclaim itself ‘overall winner’ for me. So I thought I’d do something a bit different, and post a summary of all the SFF novels I’ve read over the past 12 months that will be eligible for awards in 2015. This should hopefully get me in the mood to start thinking about my nominations ballots. So in the order of reading:

1) Wolves by Simon Ings

I wrote a bit about Wolves here at my blog. I loved this novel. Even if I can see objectively that the plot is a bit woolly in parts (could a teenage boy really get an adult dead body into the boot of a car unaided and unobserved?) I didn’t honestly care, because the style and ambience of the novel, together with what it had to say about unsustainable development and the destructive power of future-consumerism for its own sake, resonated so deeply with me that I was won over more or less from page one. If Wolves doesn’t make it on to a shortlist or two, I’d be severely disappointed.  And a shout-out to Jeffrey Alan Love for the cover also, which has to be the best of the year bar none.

2) The Moon King by Neil Williamson

I’ve known Neil practically from the first con I ever went to, and so I felt particularly eager to see what he’d come up with for this, his first novel. I actually read The Moon King at the back end of last year, in ARC format, and was pleased to provide a blurb for it just prior to publication.

“Part dream, part nightmare, part memory, Neil Williamson’s Glassholm is a city that hovers on the brink of violent change. Through the intertwined stories of a cop fleeing his dark past, a young artist in rebellion against the social order, and an engineer who would most certainly not be king, Williamson has woven a story that teems with ideas and imaginative power. There is beauty in it, and strangeness, and page-turning adventure. The marvellous conceit at The Moon King’s core also conveys a powerful message about man’s relationship with nature and with his environment. The commitment shown to the characters by their creator is intense, and palpable. An intricately constructed, heartfelt novel that does its author proud.”

This feels like a worthy British Fantasy Award shortlistee to me.

3) Wake by Elizabeth Knox

I reviewed Wake for Strange Horizons back in February, and what an intriguing, original horror novel it is. I would love to see it on some shortlists, because it’s different, because it’s thought-provoking, because it stays with you. This is a book that still hasn’t had anywhere near enough exposure.

4) Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

I wrote about Shadowboxer at my blog here. This novel presents as cogent an argument as any for why we need separate award categories in SFF for YA novels. As a subgenre, YA is important, increasing and with its own unique dynamic, and it’s high time it was granted this distinction at award level. Shadowboxer is a little too sparsely plotted in the final third, and it could have done with a bit more fleshing out in the sections set in Thailand, but as a portrait of a young woman in search of her destiny this is an engaging, emotional read for all ages. The material about women martial artists, and the martial arts writing in general, is superb.

And just to add that I’ve read a draft of Tricia’s forthcoming (adult) SF novel from Gollancz, Occupy Me, and it is amazing…

5) Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

I reviewed Cataveiro at my blog here. The thing that delighted me most about this novel – and there is plenty to delight – was the clear progress, in terms of narrative structure, in terms of emotional engagement, in terms of a maturing approach to the genre, that Swift has made since writing the first part of her trilogy, Osiris. If she’s made a similar leap forward in the third part, Tamaruq, to be published in January, then watch out, everyone, we have a major talent on our hands. Actually, I think we know that already. Cataveiro is skilfully written, energetically plotted and is a compelling reading experience. It will be fascinating to see where Swift goes next as a writer. I have the feeling she can achieve anything she wants to.

6) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I wrote a little about Annihilation here, but not nearly enough. For something approaching a proper appreciation of the Southern Reach trilogy, go read Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons. This is a landmark work, and if it wins all the awards next year you won’t find any complaints here. None at all.

7) Maze by J. M. McDermott

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I found this novel really hard going at first. Indeed, if I hadn’t been commissioned to review it, I might well have abandoned it. I am so glad I was reviewing it, and that I didn’t, because Maze is seriously good shit. For a good half of the novel you won’t have any idea what you’re reading – science fiction, fantasy, horror, new weird, wtf? But keep going and you’ll find that this is one of the most original and most daring novels of science fiction you’ll have read in months, if not years. It has things in common with Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, but if anything it’s even weirder than that. The writing, the execution, is flawless. We seriously need more writers with this kind of creative and intellectual audacity. I would love to see it get something approaching proper recognition.

8) Descent by Ken MacLeod

This is an odd novel, but I have a sneaking fondness for it and wish there were more writers willing to employ this kind of thoughtful ambiguity and quietness in their approach to SF. It’s the story of two childhood friends who may or may not have experienced a first contact with aliens. The moment has far-reaching effects on both their lives, but in differing ways. Set in a deftly, minimally realised future Scotland, Descent is the story of one man’s tortured search for the truth, with added Men in Black. It’s very much worth noting that no unknown first novelist would be able to get away with such meandering almost-plotlessness these days and still land a book deal, which, given the very real and very solid intellectual and political value of this novel should be a matter of keen regret and self-questioning within the publishing industry. Read it – we need more like it.

9) Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

With its flavour of weak tea, this YA-ish debut just wasn’t for me. I reviewed it for Arc here.

10) The Way Inn by Will Wiles

I reviewed The Way Inn for Strange Horizons and found it good. Very good, in fact.  It’s cosmic horror, but that part of it doesn’t become apparent until near the end. For the most part, it’s a blisteringly deadpan (if that makes sense) unmasking of the horror we’re letting into our lives on a daily and increasing basis, the horror of corporate enterprise, of limitless car parks, of infinite Ballardian motorways. I would love to see The Way Inn on the World Fantasy Award shortlist, not least because it’s such a magnificent illustration of the versatility of the fantastic genres. Recommended.

11) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I wrote something about The Bone Clocks here. I was very disappointed by this novel, which might best be summed up as kind of like Cloud Atlas, only not nearly as good.

12) J by Howard Jacobson

I wrote a bit about J here, too. If The Bone Clocks was my disappointment of the season, J was my unexpected find. One of those books that resoundingly repays the effort you (have to) put into it. It’s not science fiction though, not really. I’d be amazed to see this making it on to any awards shortlists, not least because Jacobson himself is so problematic. Do read it, though. There are so many interesting ideas here. And the way the novel actually manages to become involving and – nay! – emotional defies all logic.

13) All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I love this book very much, and if it doesn’t sound contradictory I’d say I admire it even more than I love it. I also can’t help feeling an odd kind of affinity with ATVE, because it seems to me that Park was playing a similar game here to the game I tried to play in The Race, only playing it harder and fast enough to leave me puffing in his wake.  I would hazard that ATVE is in fact harder to read – tough by virtue of its ironclad commitment to its own cause, sparing in its use of actual story, dense with allusion to the point of opacity. But God, it’s just so good. Seamless in its fusing of the real and the unreal, playful and knowing, yet absolutely serious in its use of science fiction, flawless in its construction, which is unassailably superb.

I guess it’s here that I do that thing they do at Wimbledon, where the loser shakes hands with the winner across the net. Park wins, three sets to one. Allan outclassed and outplayed.

14) The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

I reviewed this book for Strange Horizons here. Falls very definitely into the interesting but flawed category. For me, the interesting quotient far outweighed the flaws, but sadly I think this novel will divide opinion too severely to end up on many awards shortlists. I would love to be proved wrong.

15) The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

I’ve written an article about this book which should hopefully be appearing in the next issue of Interzone. I found it to be far more a novel set in the future rather than a novel of science fiction, but there’s no crime in that, and I would recommend this original, beautiful and superbly executed novel to anyone and everyone. Even though I feel it dodges the issue science fictionally speaking, I still wouldn’t mind seeing it on some awards shortlists, for the outstanding quality of the writing and for the heartfelt honesty of its expression. I loved reading it. I still can’t help regretting that Byrne didn’t make more of the actual science fiction though, because the stuff that’s there – her vision of the future – is compelling, convincing and so economically conveyed there’s a lesson in there for all of us. For more on this outstanding debut, read Richard Larson’s insightful review at Strange Horizons here.

16) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

‘Friends’ did not mean what it meant between adults, a balance of selves and strengths. It meant setting standards your children could not maintain, because if they could you wouldn’t need to set standards for them. It meant child-rearing by remote and by phone. It was an abdication, for parents who never wanted to admit they were grown-ups, who dressed from shops which were too young for them and listened to the new music to stay in the swim.

To do the job right was something else, older and different and patient and endlessly enduring, something which got stronger the more it was clawed and scratched, which bounded and uplifted and waited delightedly to be surpassed. Which knew and understood and did not shy away from the understanding that there would be pain. Which could accept shattering, could reassemble itself, could stand taller than before.

Tigerman isn’t a science fiction novel at all, but it is about genre, and it does use the materials of fantastika to tell its story. That story takes on the nature of heroism, fatherhood, and more specifically the dilemma of an ordinary man forced into being a hero for the sake of his son. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films attempted to show the man behind the mask, the truth of what being a superhero might actually involve. For me at least, they fail in this objective – they remain stolidly what they are, which is Batman movies. Tigerman, fascinatingly, moves one hell of a lot closer to Nolan’s objective. Sergeant Lester Ferris has seen service in Helmand and Baghdad, but he talks and thinks more like a wistful Colonial retainer from the late 1940s (and perhaps unsurprisingly displays a similarly casual, similarly unintended sexism). There is a lot about tea, and past mistakes, and muddling through. This book is so British it’s almost a parody, but it is saved from being that – just – by the author’s clear commitment to and passion for what he’s set out to do. The glacial pacing over the first third of the book is a real problem – I can imagine a casual reader giving up out of sheer boredom – but as the novel reveals more of its cards even that begins to make sense. I kept wanting to groan ‘oh no!’ at the novel’s Bond-film structure and plot arc, but of course that structure has been worked at and put in place, quite consciously, by the writer, and so I found myself grunting ‘hmm, clever’ instead. There’s not enough here about what must surely be the historical inspiration for the core story – the catastrophic desecration of Bikini Atoll through US nuclear testing and the forced resettlement of its inhabitants – and if I’d been writing the book myself I would probably have been more interested in the xenobiologist Kaiko Inoue than doughty Lester Ferris. But no novel can contain everything, and what Tigerman does contain is interesting enough on its own merits. I salute the author’s bravery in giving the reader only one half of the ending they might have wanted, and in writing a novel which is so clearly an expression of what he wanted to say at this point in his career. Tigerman is trying to do something, which is really one of the highest compliments a novel can be paid.

For a more in-depth and articulate discussion of Tigerman, see the recent book club roundtable at Strange Horizons. At a tangent from that, I might mention Harkaway’s own recent article for the Independent, in which he expresses gratitude and relief that Tigerman landed itself a shortlist place in the ‘Fiction’ category of the 2014 Goodreads Readers’ Choice awards rather than the ‘Science Fiction’ category:

“Talking to someone the other day, I mentioned that I’ll be on stage at the British Film Institute this month talking to William Gibson about science fiction films, and I saw his interest falter at the words. Science fiction wasn’t properly serious to him.”

Writer, beware! If I’d been having that conversation with someone, and their eyes didn’t light up in a blaze of hero-worship at the very mention of the name William Gibson, it would be their taste and judgement I’d be questioning, not my own, and no matter what their establishment clout. I might add that the establishment mainstream is a very fickle and – more importantly – often a very blinkered and conservative arena to be fencing in. You won’t find many people in the mainstream discussing Tigerman with the insight, knowledge and enthusiasm of these SH guys. The so-called wider literary world won’t get half your references and will miss quite a bit of what you were trying to do with Tigerman. The science fiction community will get it, and they will see why it matters. They will be actively looking forward to reading what you write next. Think on that, is all I’m saying.

Books I very much intend to have finished by the end of January in time for my BSFA nominations include Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (I’ve just started this), A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (up next), and Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson,  Further reading to be completed by the time the Clarke starts flexing its muscles in March will include The Peripheral by William Gibson and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. I’m also intrigued by Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle and I really do need to read Bete by Adam Roberts, too.

This has been fun. Should I stick to a ‘genre only’ reading policy in 2015, or would that drive me nuts..?

.

 

Women in SF #5

The Dry Salvages by Caitlin R. Kiernan

What a gift of a book.

Kiernan’s novella The Dry Salvages was published as a standalone in 2004 by Subterranean. It won no awards, and so far as I’ve been able to ascertain, it wasn’t even nominated for any. I can only assume this was because its limited print run of 250 copies meant that it slipped under a lot of people’s radar, because this little work is as close to perfect as it is possible to come. If there was a better novella/long fiction published in that year I’d be hungry to read it.

The story takes place four hundred years in the future. Our narrator is Audrey Cathar, a palaeontologist specialising in alien fossils and last surviving crew member of a deep-space mission to investigate the remains of an abandoned alien mining operation on a moon named Piros. Now an old woman, she gathers her courage and her memories to finally put down in writing what happened to her and her colleagues when they set out to discover what became of those who landed on Piros before them. This is not a happy story. But it is deliciously compelling and joyous to behold in its formal accomplishment. It is also a page-turner. I was saying to Chris just the evening before I read Kiernan’s novella, how tiring and how tiresome it is sometimes, to be forever chipping away at other people’s fiction to find out what they’re doing, how they did it and where they went wrong. ‘What I’m looking for is the book,’ I said. ‘You know, the book that will make me forget I’m a writer, just for a bit, and have me chasing the story to the point where that’s all I want to be doing.’

You know, the way it used to be before you started writing for publication.

The Dry Salvages felt like exactly the book I’d been looking for. But the fact is, Kiernan’s fiction always makes me feel this way. She doesn’t make me forget I’m a writer, exactly – it’s more that I feel so instinctively in tune with what she’s doing that I don’t have to worry about it. I know the writing will be lovely, I know she will interrogate reality in a way that feels urgent, and real, that whichever direction she chooses to go in, I’m not going to be disappointed. I can leave all that stuff up to her. Me, I can just turn those pages and revel in a story that will remind me of the ambitions I nurtured when I decided I was going to take my writing seriously in the first place. And ‘revel’ is the word. It’s wonderful to be reading a writer this talented. It’s something to be cherished.

There’s nothing that you would call precisely ‘new’ in The Dry Salvages. You could point to the Alien tetralogy or even the inferior-to-Alien but highly watchable and sometimes hilarious (‘I don’t need eyes where I’m going’) Event Horizon as precursors of the ideas on display here. But what marks out Kiernan’s novella as exceptional is the superlative execution of those ideas, the economy and ease with which concurrent themes – posthumanism, gender stereotyping, environmental collapse – are interwoven and made a piece with the core narrative, the intricacy and beauty of its formal construction. This novella is ten years old now, yet it has not aged a day. There is nothing showy or ostentatiously ‘current’ about it, and in its exploration of contemporary themes it never makes the mistake of letting its guiding ideologies overbalance the story. Like all the best science fiction, The Dry Salvages is approachable by anyone, even if they’ve never read a word of SF in their life. Like all the most convincing science fiction, it takes its starting point as now: there’s no attempt to exoticise the future here, to give it strange accents or outlandish clothing. What we see here might be tomorrow, only with today’s certainties removed.

Kiernan is never afraid to let her literature grapple full-body-contact with genre – these stories are about monsters, they’re about otherworlds, they’re about the supernatural and they’re about people falling prey to powers beyond our realm. They don’t fanny about, these stories. They don’t hint at monstrosity, only to sidle away from the genre aspects at the last minute and afford us a ‘rational’ explanation for what has happened. Kiernan is quite prepared to speculate that sometimes the only rational explanation is that the monsters might really be out there. But equally and why the hell don’t more people try this? she is never afraid to let her genre be literature. She gives her monsters and the people that encounter them, the cities or lonely places or deep-space stations the literary weight such subjects demand to be convincing, the psychological insight that does them justice.

One of the unfortunate things about SF du jour is how quickly and how embarrassingly it dates – at least in part because it’s consciously speaking to a community of fans who are familiar with the issues, who know about the hierarchies, who kind of love the in-fighting. But when that particular cohort of fans and hangers-on moves on, or gets ousted by a new crowd, what are we to make of the fiction that ‘season’ engendered? All too often, not much.

The writers who tend to produce what we know as classics are usually a law unto themselves. I think The Dry Salvages could become a classic, the kind of story people will still be devouring with pleasure and amazement a hundred years from now, the way we still read The Time Machine, or The Yellow Wallpaper, or Frankenstein.

We read these stories because we are thrilled by them, and horrified. We return to them because in their language and their ideas there is always more to discover.

I happen to believe that Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of the greatest writers on the planet right now. I think it’s scandalous that she doesn’t get more recognition for that, and that few readers or writers outside of genre circles will even have heard of her.

Necessary drudgery

“Ninety years on from Virginia Woolf’s essay [Character in Fiction], the market into which novels get pitched is still deeply conservative: the choosing of what gets published, reviewed, wins prizes. But the novel is not ruled by the market. Kate Webb, reviewing Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS in July this year, suggested that Teju Cole’s work ‘occupies a now common ground of uncertainty in twenty-first-century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture’. Hari Kunzru, reviewing Ben Lerner’s 10:04 in the New York Times earlier this month, suggested that the book ‘belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer’. The precedents for this date back decades, but there seems now to be momentum, and this too I find liberating.”

So writes Charles Boyle, founder and director of CB Editions (and publisher of Will Eaves’s Goldsmith’s-shortlisted novel The Absent Therapist). in an elegant and necessary blog post that speaks of the need some novelists feel to break away from traditional forms and assumptions about what a novel should be and to turn instead to a mode of expression that actually interests them.

I’ve found much to inspire me here, and at Charles’s blog generally. I’ve been making new reading lists, setting myself new goals in reading for the months ahead. As always when I’m making new discoveries, I find it profoundly exciting to realise how many good writers are out there, doing the kind of work that interests me.

All this feels very timely, because I’ve just started work on a new novel. Strikingly different from anything I’ve attempted before, it incorporates ideas and formal approaches I’ve felt increasingly drawn to but never quite dared try. It seems that’s about to change. I’m 12,000 words in already, just trying to get down a working first draft so I can get the basic drift of where it’s going.

The process feels very different from how it felt when I was drafting The Race. I can see this book’s outlines more clearly, and I know (more or less) how it ends. But that’s a long way ahead. For now it’s all about stretching my abilities to match the potential of the idea, which is daunting, but exciting. Mostly exciting.

Digging for gold

The shortlist for the Goldsmith’s Prize – inaugurated last year specifically for ‘fiction at its most novel’ – has just been announced:

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions)
J by Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Penguin)

Interesting perhaps that one-third of the Goldsmith’s shortlist happens to overlap with the Booker’s – does this mean that the Booker is actively striving to include more innovative fictions in its choices, or simply that the shortlist reflects, as all jury-selected shortlists must, the individual proclivities of a set of judges? The latter, probably. I’m beginning to think that the only way of getting around this problem lies in greater clarification of what any given prize is actually for. The Goldsmith’s jury is actively looking for novels that are interested in some kind of innovation, whether it be in the language, the form, the approach, the subject matter or all the above – an advancement in the novel project, in other words. Or to put it more simply, the Goldsmith’s Prize is interested in writers who are ‘genuinely inventive’, who are engaged to some degree in literary experiment. The Booker, on the other hand, is vaguely in pursuit of ‘the best’. ‘Best’ is notoriously difficult to define – indeed it is a word that can only be defined subjectively. Hence the more muddled, rag-bag kind of shortlists we have come to expect from it.

It’s the same with the Clarke versus the Kitschies, incidentally. The Clarke shambles off in pursuit of ‘the best’ science fiction novel of the year, whilst the Kitschies encourages its judges – and its wider readership – to think about speculative novels that are ‘progressive, intelligent and entertaining’. A more definitive brief gives the judges something concrete to focus on, and in the years since the award’s inception has given the readership an increasingly purposeful-looking set of shortlists to investigate.

I love the idea of the Goldsmith’s Prize, and I hope it will garner increasing critical and media attention in the coming years. So far as I’m concerned at least, this prize is already way ahead of the Booker in its attitudes and goals. And the one thing I notice immediately about this year’s Goldsmith’s shortlist is that all the books on it are of interest to me. Not just one or two, as with most prize shortlists, but all of them.

I note with interest that Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline, passed over by both the Booker and the Bailey’s, is here, which is pleasing to see. Cusk is a writer who has aroused hostility, frequently of the most appallingly sexist kind, and I was fascinated earlier this summer by an interview in which Cusk attempted to analyse the source of this:

“I think it is because I’m not interested in the group, only in the individual. What happens is my message enters the conflicted person reading it who is half self, half society but does not know where one begins and the other ends. I light up that conflict and it makes people angry.”

I have not always been a fan of Cusk’s work, but what I have always admired, unstintingly, is her bravery: her refusal to compromise, her commitment to absolute honesty as a writer. Personally I think it’s this – her honesty, which is not so much confessional as forensic – that makes people uncomfortable. Especially men. And here we are, back to it: when we think of the kinds of words often used to describe Cusk’s writing and even Cusk herself – excoriating, ruthless, furious, lacerating, brutal, self-obsessed – we inevitably rub up against the dictum that female writers aren’t really supposed to be like this.  And nor are their books. It’s interesting to wonder if Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novelistic memoirs would have been half so popular with both critics and (male) readers had their author been not Karl, but Kari. Are men allowed to be more daring, more progressive, more outspoken as writers (think Hemingway, Mailer, Bret Easton Ellis, Frey, Knausgaard, the list could go on forever) while those women who venture into similar territory (Plath, Sexton, Kavan, Frame, Zelda Fitzgerald) are only acceptable when there is a tragic and self-dooming aspect to their endeavour?

While male writers are encouraged to be innovative, outspoken, avant garde, are women writers still being told, either directly (through not having their books published) or indirectly (through an underhum of hostility in the press and in society at large) that they should stick to ‘women’s issues’ or shut the f**k up?

Is it harder to be a woman in the avant garde?

I overheard a fascinating conversation on Twitter the other day about women writers and the avant garde and how experimental or ‘cult’ writing is still largely seen by the industry as a male preserve. This led me in turn to a brilliant two-part essay by the writer Sam Mills (please do read this), examining the ways in which “cult female novelists are usually forgotten or ignored, whilst male cult authors, from Burroughs to Hunter S. Thompson, remain literary icons that are cherished by the public imagination.” Mills picks out the Women’s Prize for Fiction for particular censure, pointing out how although the prize has done plenty to promote ‘big themes’ in writing by women, it has still tended to shy away from writers who take a more experimental approach, whose work is not so readily assimilable by a mainstream audience:

“In recent years, whenever I have picked up a Women Fiction’s Prize winner, I have to come to expect a novel that will be brilliant but traditional. It seemed that the Women’s Fiction prize had settled into a pattern of celebrating our more conservative female writers and ignoring the avant-garde ones. This year, though, the revolution happened. Eimear McBride’s experimental A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, published by the very small press Galley Beggar after all the main publishing houses had turned it down, took the crown. That said, whilst the win is wonderful, I still fear it will be the exception rather than the norm, given the number of cult and avant-garde authors the prize has ignored over the years.”

Mills consolidates her argument in the second part of the essay, which shows (as mentioned above) how experimentalism in women’s writing has often been equated with madness. After reading Mills’s essay I took a look at the list of previous shortlistees for the Women’s Prize and was dismayed to see how right she is. It is a source of perennial disappointment to me that Nicola Barker is almost invariably passed over not only for the Booker, but for the Orange/Baileys Prize too. It’s not just Barker though. What about Helen Oyeyemi (how could Mr Fox not even have been longlisted)?  Janice Galloway? Scarlett Thomas? A. L. Kennedy? Even Jeanette Winterson, for goodness’ sake? And given that the Women’s Prize has allowed Americans in right from the start, it is inconceivable to me that neither Jennifer Egan nor Helen DeWitt has thus far made it on to the shortlist.

Even the Women’s Prize, it would seem, prefers to promote women as great storytellers rather than great thinkers. Whilst I would never argue that this problem is exclusive to women – persuading the industry that readers are open to fiction that does things other than ‘just’ telling a story is a devil’s bargain, whatever your gender – I think it is almost certainly harder for women writers who are perceived as ‘difficult’ in some way to get their work taken up and discussed in a manner befitting their literary and intellectual achievement. You only have to look back on the coverage of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries last year to see how quickly discussion of Catton’s masterpiece descended into remarks about her age, dress or appearance, barbed comments on the suitability of the zodiac as a formal template for a serious novel, or whether The Luminaries was in fact serious at all, as opposed to some sort of elaborate hoax, a tedious piece of nineteenth-century pastiche. Some of the press Catton received would have been laughable if it weren’t so shameful. “Male writers get asked what they think, women what they feel,” Catton affirmed in an interview for The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with writing a negative review (in fact literature would probably benefit from more of them) – it is the tone of derision that leaves one reeling. I don’t think there’s any mileage in pretending that any of this would have happened had Catton been a 27-year-old man.

2013 saw Canadian novelist and professor David Gilmour totally unapologetic about his exclusion of stories written by women from his university teaching schedule, the inference being that fiction by women could not possibly stand up to the kind of rigorous scrutiny Gilmour goes in for. This arrogant, almost cursory kind of sexism is a world away from the more hesitant, intricate soul-searching demonstrated by the British writer Jonathan Gibbs in a blog post he made this February, wondering why it is that he doesn’t read more women:

“Do I cut male writers more slack than women, or do I genuinely prefer male writers to women (my personal pantheon of contemporary writers, as I said before, starts with Geoff Dyer, Javier Marías, Knausgaard, Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker… and goes through a few more, probably, before it hits Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis.”

Gibbs is a writer of huge talent (please read him). It would appear that he is also a writer who genuinely wants to understand his attitudes, and is taking active steps to change his perceptions. Both Gilmour’s stance and Gibbs’s though share a tone of mistrust, the sense that whilst novels written by women might be all right for some people to read – other women, probably – they are by definition never going to be able to compete – philosophically, intellectually – with work created by men. Gilmour’s grudging admiration for Virginia Woolf carries with it the hidden subtext that Woolf is a fluke, a quantity of one. Gibbs’s grappling towards an understanding of his ‘instinctive’ preference for male writers for the thing that it is – cultural brainwashing – still cannot quite bring itself to fully acknowledge how bizarre it is that he is still tending towards a view of women writers that lumps us all together as one group, with specific ‘concerns’ and ways of writing that inevitably reveal themselves as female and therefore less durable, less serious.

How peculiar it would seem to these men, how blinkered, if I were to write a blog post explaining how my favourite writers – the writers I most looked up to – all happened to be female (Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Ali Smith, Caitlin R. Kiernan) and that although I had read Nabokov and D. H. Lawrence and George Orwell and David Foster Wallace, I still found they didn’t really speak to my concerns.

As if the spectrum of ‘concerns’ and range of styles and approaches among male writers were not as diverse as exists among writers who happen to be female. Talking about ‘women writers’ in this way is as bizarre as automatically equating Dan Brown with Umberto Eco.

I would have thought that men who pride themselves on their intelligence and cultural refinement would feel a bit more uncomfortable in letting themselves be so readily prompted, guided and defined by a set of societal directives they would hotly deny allegiance to if presented to them in the abstract. “I don’t have a racist, sexist or homophobic bone in my body,” David Gilmour asserts, whilst still insisting the only writers he finds worthy of teaching are “guys – serious, heterosexual guys.”

It serves only to demonstrate the thoroughness of Gilmour’s brainwashing that he seems genuinely not to understand that he has a problem.

Flesh and Bones

“Kevern, look. I don’t know when your mother did these, but they are of another time. Art has changed. We have returned to the primordial celebration of the loveliness of the natural world. You  can see there is none of that in what your mother did. See how fractured her images are. There is no harmony here. The colours are brutal – forgive me, but you have asked me and I must tell you. I feel jittery just turning the pages. Even the human body, that most beautiful of forms, is made jagged and frightful. The human eye cannot rest for long on these, Kevern. There is too much mind here. They are disruptive of the peace we go to art to find.” (J, p 272)

 

When the longlist for the Man Booker prize was announced two months ago, I expressed delight that David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks had been selected – a choice that could only, I suggested, be good for speculative fiction’s relationship with the Booker – and surprise at the inclusion of Howard Jacobson. Not that the choice of Jacobson himself was anything out of the ordinary – he’s won the prize once already – but that in J he had produced a work that everyone seemed to agree was science fiction. I felt curious about that, to put it mildly, and thought it might be interesting in the run-up to the prize to read both works and compare them, to discover how two such outwardly dissimilar writers had chosen to approach speculative themes, to see which – if either – eventually made it through to the shortlist.

We now know the answer to that last – Jacobson’s J made the cut, Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks didn’t. But what of the books themselves? Mitchell’s novel was the bookies’ favourite right through the longlist period, with both mainstream and SFF critics expressing strong opinions about it, and its disinclusion came as something of a shock. Conversely, no one seemed to be talking much about J, and the previously Booker-crowned Jacobson appeared something of an outsider. At the time of the shortlist announcement I was about halfway through The Bone Clocks, and planning to move on to J as soon as I’d finished. Having now read them both. I think it’s safe to say that my opinions coming out of this particular reading experience are pretty much the opposite of what I expected. That in itself has made this mini-project worthwhile.

I went into The Bone Clocks from the position of having read all Mitchell’s previous works bar one (The Thousand Autumns) and considered them all well above average, both in terms of the writing itself and in terms of what Mitchell was trying to achieve with it. I had a particular fondness for Black Swan Green, and thought both the concept and execution of Cloud Atlas close to miraculous. I was expecting big things of The Bone Clocks, especially given that it had been widely tagged as Mitchell’s most openly speculative novel to date.

That is true – it is – but that goes no way towards mitigating the fact that in my opinion it is also Mitchell’s weakest novel by quite some distance. The mainstream critics who thought the novel was let down by its ‘plunge’ into fantasy in the fifth segment pointed to the rest of the novel – its five realworld sections – as proof of Mitchell’s gifts as a storyteller and a wordsmith. If only he’d ditch all this awful genre nonsense, they seemed to be saying, we might actually have a decent writer on our hands. Many of those same critics have pointed to Mitchell’s characterisation – and his portrayal of his central character Holly Sykes in particular – as the chief strength of the novel, but for me it felt patchy at best, bland for the most part, and dire at worst. Far from being a brilliantly realised creation Holly is something of a cipher, acting out the roles Mitchell requires for her rather than taking on any discernible life of her own. We learn little, if anything, of Holly’s interests or ambitions. As she appears in ‘A Hot Spell’ (the novel’s first long segment) she is deliberately set up to be a ‘typical’ fifteen-year-old girl, enamoured of the wrong boyfriend and looking for any excuse to cut loose from her parents. I found Mitchell’s realisation of the teenage mind unconvincing. He deliberately sets out to make Holly as ‘average’ as possible, scattering her speech with contractions and ‘causes, but his portrayal of her is inconsistent – he has Holly referencing Radio 4’s Thought for the Day at one point, and her stroppiness and decision to become a runaway feel like bolt-on elements, exercises in youthful alienation rather than the real deal. In contrast with the beautifully evoked, deeply felt ambience of Black Swan Green, the whole of this part one seems strangely flat, a recapitulation stripped of weight and personal investment. The checklist of references to contemporary politics and music has all the verisimilitude of stage decoration for a 1980s theme party. As the book progresses Holly becomes even less her own person, dragooned into action first as a winning waif pursued by an amoral serial seducer, then as the pissed-off partner of an obsessive war reporter (some of the dialogue that is given to Holly in that section is just awful) and as ‘mysterious other’ for a morally bankrupt author later on. We are asked to see Holly as ‘special’ – yet aside from the fact that she hears voices, we know nothing about her specialness, because we know next to nothing about her. We are interested in her because our attention is caught by the way she keeps cropping up throughout the book – but shorn of the forward momentum granted to her by the plot, there is remarkably little substance to Holly Sykes. She is wooden throughout, a narrative placeholder. When you consider the wonderful characterisation we saw in Cloud Atlas – the Sixsmith/Frobisher section contains some of the finest writing Mitchell has yet produced – and the brilliant portrayal of the teenager Jason in Black Swan Green, this is still more of a pity.

The most consistent character-building we find in The Bone Clocks comes in ‘Myrrh is Mine, its Bitter Perfume’ (the novel’s second segment) and ‘Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet’ (its fourth). The ‘hero’ of the former is Hugo Lamb, who gave a cameo appearance as Jason’s loathsome cousin in Black Swan Green and who appears here as an even more loathsome Cambridge undergraduate and amateur-soon-to-turn-professional sociopath. Hugo’s attitudes and behaviours are worse than vile, and he is brilliantly written. Equally so is Crispin Hershey, an embittered novelist who takes his revenge on a literary critic with appalling results. (In a recent interview on Radio 4’s Front Row, Mitchell insisted that the character of Hershey was not based on Martin Amis. Dessicated Embryos, he reminded us, was the title of a piano work by Erik Satie, not a backhanded reference to one of the younger Mr Amis’s early successes. But Red Monkey? Hal ‘The Hyena’ Grundy?? Come on.) Both Lamb’s portion of the narrative and Hershey’s are dynamic and vigorous, enlivened by moments of genuine comedy and, in Hershey’s case, pathos. A shame then that ‘The Wedding Bash’, part three of the novel and potentially just as interesting as the two sections that bookend it, turns out to be another misfire. Its protagonist Ed Brubeck was interesting in ‘A Hot Spell’ – intelligent, mature beyond his years and a bit of a loner, he came off the page far more forcefully than Holly. But when he reappears as a war journalist in ‘The Wedding Bash’, it seems to be for the sole purpose of expounding Mitchell’s views on Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not that one disagrees with Ed’s views – indeed the section might have been a lot more interesting if one had – but that they would appear to have zero importance to or impact on the novel as it progresses. I initially believed that Mitchell was playing a long game, that he would be bound to link this realworld war in some ingenious way with the ‘secret history’ that is revealed two hundred pages later. As it turns out, no – Ed Brubeck is just the author having a go at Tony Blair. Not a bad thing in itself, but not relevant to the story either.

Which brings us to the crux of this novel, or its downfall, depending on your point of view. In ‘An Horologist’s Labyrinth’, part five of the novel and its longest section, we learn that Holly has been a pawn in a larger game all along, a centuries-long battle between two opposing groups of immortals, the Horologists (the goodies) and the Anchorites (the soul-sucking baddies). It is these meddlesome demigods who variously ‘stole’ Holly’s brother, co-opted her lover to the dark side, helped her to find her missing daughter and plagued her with invisible voices from the age of seven. Now is the time of final reckoning, a fight to the death between the Blind Cathar and his Forces of Evil and our plucky band of Scoobies, outmanned in numbers but not in moral strength.

Where do we even start?? In his review for The New Yorker, the critic James Wood stated the following:

As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself…the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism – the human activity – is relatively unimportant.

I earlier wrote a lengthy criticism of Wood’s essay, because it seemed and still seems to me that to equate ‘the human activity’ solely with the realist mode is to denigrate a mode of literature – the fantastic – whilst remaining ignorant of its capabilities. I stand by that assertion, and would go further in saying that Wood’s main purpose in this essay seems to lie in using The Bone Clocks as a proof of the inherent crapness of speculative fiction generally. I think he’s got it the wrong way round – one bad book is no proof of anything, and he doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in putting a rocket up The Bone Clocks for the direness of that fantasy section.

It is the imbalance that is so embarrassing, the use of the kind of broad brush gestures and clichéd dialogue that would and should not be taken seriously in any literary context. Contrary to what Wood says in his review, the best speculative fiction works precisely because the writer sees no inherent difference, in fictional terms, between the quotidian realm and the fantastical, and approaches the writing of each – characterisation, sense of place, the use of language – with equal care and weight. In terms of a story’s seriousness, whether the ‘human case’ to be examined resides in a fictional Glasgow or a fictional Gormenghast should be of little importance. Mitchell himself clearly understands this – even if some of the science fiction in Cloud Atlas feels a little clunky, there can be no doubt that Mitchell fought hard for the soul of that book and won. The central SFnal sections feel as integral to the whole as the outer, realworld sections, and in formal as well as plot terms each thread of the story leads logically and elegantly from one to the next. In ambition and execution, Cloud Atlas as a novel project more than measures up to Mitchell’s formidable talent as a storyteller.

Why then is ‘An Horologist’s Labyrinth’ so rife with genre cliché – decades-old genre cliché at that? Why does Hugo Lamb, so brilliantly realised in part two, reappear speaking like a badly-written Bond villain in part five? Why does Holly suddenly start bellowing about FAHMLY in upper case? I sought desperately for some ironical, authorial awareness of just how ham-fisted this section is, but failed to find it. It felt like being trapped in a particularly dreadful episode of Doctor Who.

The sixth section, ‘Sheep’s Head’, is not much better. We’re into science fiction territory now, so of course everyone starts capitalising their nouns: Convoy, Cordon, Village. Then someone says: ‘There’s a link between bigotry and bad spelling, I’ve met it before’ (p542), the Chinese are blamed for slaughtering the last elephant herds for the luxury goods market, and Holly wonders what it’s going to be like for her granddaughter Lorelei, being raped by born-again Christians and forced into servitude in some even-worse version of Saudi Arabia. The novel’s eventual denouement is so lazy and so – I hate to use the word of a writer like Mitchell – trite it barely merits discussion. One reader review I happened upon suggested that the Horologists are ciphers for writers, that the novel’s ending is a wishful rewriting of ‘the Script’. This could have been an interesting idea, but there is little evidence that this is what Mitchell intended, and if it is, then he has fumbled the execution so badly that it scarcely matters. Ian McEwan performed that trick better at the end of Atonement, and I say that as someone not keen on praising McEwan at the best of times.

I think the best word to describe my feelings about The Bone Clocks is baffled. Here we have six loosely linked novellas struggling to find a core narrative. Here we have a use of genre tropes so hackneyed and two-dimensional they would feel out of place and old hat even in a more conventional core genre urban fantasy. What is Mitchell trying to tell us here, what was he trying to do? Was it simply that he struggled with this book for so long that it finally overmastered him? I can empathise with that situation, one-hundred percent. But no amount of fellow feeling, or admiration for the talent that still bursts suddenly and unexpectedly to life in parts of even this book, will prevent The Bone Clocks from being anything other than a baggy, directionless mess.

I fully expected to love The Bone Clocks. I thought this might be the year Mitchell won the Booker. I came away thinking that he’d have to pull something pretty special out of the bag to make me trust him again. Howard Jacobson’s J was another matter entirely. Jacobson is one of those writers whose flagrant self-regard seems so unwieldy it is almost comedic. I went into the book assuming I would hate it, that it would be both useless at being SF and so up itself as to be more or less unreadable. I was prepared for almost anything but what I actually found: a work that is unlike anything else I have ever read, a book that has nothing do to with science fiction but that is nonetheless fascinating in the way it approaches speculative materials, a novel that will remain with me long after the discussion of the current Booker Prize shortlist is over and no matter what the result.

J has been widely described as a dystopia, bearing comparison with classics of the subgenre such as 1984 and Brave New World. I personally think this is misleading, and anyone picking up J expecting a gory slice of police brutality and the perils of being a subversive in an authoritarian State with a capital S is going to find him or herself confounded almost immediately. No doubt there will be complaints in some quarters – indeed I’ve already encountered a few – that Jacobson shows no interest in what I would reluctantly describe as worldbuilding, in constructing a quid pro quo equivalent of a fully realised dystopian universe complete with depleted landscapes, alternate technologies and carefully delineated chart of alternate history. I would argue that Jacobson’s scattershot attempts at worldbuilding – there is a thing called a utility phone that will only accept local calls, the internet has been deconstructed or abolished, the names of places and people have been rearranged – are kept deliberately vague, because worldbuilding was the last thing on Jacobson’s mind (he has probably not even heard of the concept and would doubtless sneer at it if he had). Unlike other mainstream dabblers, Jacobson does not fail at science fiction, because he wasn’t trying to write science fiction in the first place. Where mainstream writers trying their hands at SF so often go wrong is in concentrating so hard on reconstructing what has already been done that they lose control of the central thrust of their idea – or else discover that they never had one (see above). The resulting texts often feel pallid, an emotional or intellectual void. Gutless. Once the second hand trappings of dystopia or post-apocalypse or whatever have been stripped away, there is nothing to see. Jacobson has provided us with something to see, a thought-experiment so effective and so original that there is only one way to read this book: forget SF, forget dystopia, forget any preconceived ideas you might have about Jacobson and read the book for what it is.

In steep contrast with The Bone Clocks, J is not an easy reading experience. I don’t just mean the content, I mean the style, which is terse, undramatic, frequently wordy, sometimes opaque. It is, as they say, hard to get into. But if there is a secret to reading J, it is not to try to get into it, but instead to let it get into you. Let it possess you. See what happens. Although evasion – not saying things, not clarifying, not noticing – forms the very fabric of J, the novel is not in the end evasive, and its central characters, though rendered elliptically in muted tones and without any of Mitchell’s gestural verismo, become insistent in their reality, terrifying in their vulnerability. They linger in the mind. In the very best sense of the word they are durable. For all Jacobson’s reticence in revealing her, Ailinn Solomons turns out to be just about a hundred times more convincing and important than Holly Sykes.

Another misconception about J is that it is ‘about’ the Nazi Holocaust. Although the fictional event at the centre of the novel – referred to throughout as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED – concerns the massacre of Jews, Jacobson has said in interview that J is not about antisemitism or the Holocaust specifically:

The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.

To ‘write what he knows’ has been a sound decision for Jacobson, because the sense of quietly determined, indeed passionate personal investment that permeates this text allows it to be transformed all the more forcibly into the universal. In essence, J is about all othering – scapegoating, politicised hatred, the corruption of a whole society by the sense that there are ‘some people’ who it is all right to ostracise, blame, dispose of because they don’t really belong, who are ‘not like us’. What J does most effectively is to deprive us of the ‘just obeying orders’ defence, as put forward by concentration camp functionaries and SS officers at Nuremberg. J shows us a society sanctimoniously in mourning for itself, even while the cells of resurgent hatreds – hatreds that have never in fact gone away – bubble like septic sores just beneath the surface. The atmosphere of unease, of dread – especially in the more openly fantastical ‘Necropolis’ section of the book, which reads like a half-remembered nightmare – is palpable. The complacency of individuals – the bland smiles, the bland music – becomes ever more chilling as the book progresses. In the end you realise – as our protagonist has suspected all along – that you are standing on ground that looked solid, but that has been fatally undermined and is about to collapse:

‘What will it take? The same as it has always taken. The application of a scriptural calumny…to economic instability, inflamed nationalism, an unemployed and malleable populace in whom the propensity to hero-worship is pronounced, supine government, tedium vitae, a self-righteous and ill-informed elite, the pertinaciousness of old libels… Plus zealotry. Never forget zealotry, that torch to the easily inflamed passions of the benighted and the cultured alike. What it won’t take, because it won’t need – because it never needs – is an evil genius to conceive and direct the operation. We have been lulled by the great autocrat-driven genocides of the recent past into thinking that nothing of that enormity of madness can ever happen again, not anywhere, least of all here. And it’s true – nothing on such a scale probably ever will. But lower down the order of horrors, and answering a far more modest ambition, carnage can still be connived at – lesser bloodbaths, minor murders, butchery of more modest proportions.’ (J p 292)

In his New Yorker review, James Wood argues that the fantasy element of The Bone Clocks is so overbearing it renders its human protagonists impotent – in fact the central issue with Mitchell’s novel is that the fantasy element is actually meaningless, a paper tiger, a bit of cheap decoration pinned on to a story that doesn’t have a clear idea of what it’s trying to do. The novel wears its fantasy on its sleeve like a row of brass buttons polished to mirror brightness but does nothing with it. The Bone Clocks is easy and often enjoyable to read, but when you ask yourself what it is about, you are forced to conclude: not a lot. By contrast, J takes those elements of speculative fiction that make it so versatile and so important – the idea of disjuncture, of discomfiture, of imagining – and fashions from them something that is both remarkable in terms of its concept and vital in terms of what it is saying. The novel is meticulously crafted, a concentrated amalgam of thought and emotion that entirely repays the effort of getting to grips with it. It is a resolute book, a tough book. Is it valuable as literature? Yes. Should Jacobson feel proud of what he has achieved here? Certainly.

I have been here before

My first encounter with J. B. Priestley’s time plays was in a 1983 BBC adaptation of his 1932 play Dangerous Corner, starring a young Daniel Day Lewis in the role of Gordon. The play explores what happens in two alternate versions of reality – one in which certain secrets happen to be revealed, the other in which the protagonists wisely keep them hidden. I was mesmerised by the play, by the idea of a ‘dangerous corner’, a moment where time splits in two with dangerous repercussions. I was sixteen years old. I hadn’t heard of J. B. Priestley and didn’t consciously remember him as the playwright, although the work itself remained with me in crystal clarity.

Two years later – at Christmas, if I remember correctly – I saw another TV adaptation of one of Priestley’s plays, the 1937 Time and the Conways this time, starring Claire Bloom as Mrs Conway, Phyllis Logan as Kay, a young Simon Shepherd as Robin and Simon Russell Beale, of all people, as a party guest. This play explored time in another way, giving characters a sobering and tragic glimpse of their own future. Two years after that I saw I Have Been Here Before on the stage of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. This third play, also premiered in 1937, explores the time-stacking phenomenon of deja vu.

Priestley’s time plays are seldom claimed for science fiction, yet they make bold and ingenious use of conceits that have become central tenets of science fiction literature. It would be difficult to overstate the cumulative effect these emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating works had upon me, and looking back on them now, their influence is obvious. Two nights ago I happened to hear – with great pleasure and some emotion – a radio adaptation of Dangerous Corner, starring Martin Jarvis as Robert and first broadcast in 1984. The character upon whom events turn – and yet who never appears on stage – is called Martin. As the other characters recount their memories of him, and of exactly what happened at his house one night the year before, we learn that their versions of Martin are so at odds with one another that they might as well each be describing a different man.

When I wrote the stories that make up my story cycle The Silver Wind, I was not consciously thinking about Dangerous Corner, or indeed any of Priestley’s time plays. But it seems clear to me now that they were an abiding inspiration, nonetheless. I still feel moved and excited when I think about these extraordinary works, and my own memories of first encountering them will always remain precious. I have no doubt that to anyone coming to them now, Priestley’s time plays might seem dated, especially in the adaptations I’ve mentioned, complete with BBC accents and Anglo-Saxon attitudes. But these plays are getting on for a hundred years old. They’ve worn pretty well, considering, and in their intellectual curiosity and human emotion they remain timeless.