Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Aquarium

Aleksandar Hemon’s ‘The Aquarium’ seems likely to be the most affecting piece of writing I’ll come across in a while. It’s a story, but a factual one, an excerpt from Hemon’s new memoir The Book of My Lives, the account of the illness and death from brain cancer of his nine-month-old younger daughter Isabel. It would be natural and probably necessary for Hemon to find words for what happened, because that is what writers do. It is still an act of extreme bravery. The narrative can be described only by reading it.

The quality of thinking behind Hemon’s writing powers through in passages like this, where Hemon talks about the necessity of story in human lives as a means of survival:

One day at breakfast, while [my older daughter] Ella ate her oatmeal and rambled on about her [imaginary] brother, I recognized in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I’d been doing as a writer all these years: the fictional characters in my books had allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, has been nearly everything). Much like Ella, I’d found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my own biography. I’d needed narrative space to extend myself into; I’d needed more lives. I, too, had needed another set of parents, and someone other than myself to throw my metaphysical tantrums. I’d cooked up those avatars in the soup of my ever-changing self, but they were not me—they did what I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do. Listening to Ella furiously and endlessly unfurl the Mingus tales, I understood that the need to tell stories was deeply embedded in our minds and inseparably entangled with the mechanisms that generate and absorb language. Narrative imagination—and therefore fiction—was a basic evolutionary tool of survival. We processed the world by telling stories, produced human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.

I first encountered Aleksandar Hemon through his unnervingly brilliant first novel The Lazarus Project, which uses interlinked timelines as a means to coming to terms with identity in exile. Hemon is obsessed by language at every level – as an expression of identity, as the cornerstone of self expression – and the language he uses is enviably eloquent, what I would choose to call idiosyncratically direct. I found reading ‘The Aquarium’ as close to unbearable as a reading experience can be – and yet as a writer as much as a reader it demanded my attention.

It also presented an odd coincidence, a glancing relationship to my own autobiography. When I was a little less than four years old, I was in a car on a motorway somewhere in the south of England, travelling with my family from our home in the Midlands to spend a weekend with friends. For a young child – and this was just a year or so prior to that time when forever afterwards long motorway journeys would be synonymous in my mind with hours-long, blissful opportunities for reading – such a journey might have seemed both endless and dull, but my dad was always an intrepid motorhead, and already such lengthy expeditions were a commonplace in my life. This one though turned out to be different: sinister, unnervingly truncated. Because of the age I was then – more or less exactly the same age as Hemon’s older daughter Ella when her sister died – I am left with the sense that I never quite grasped its seriousness, even today.

Seemingly out of nowhere, my brother fell ill. He was just a baby, not quite two years old. One minute everything was normal, the next my dad was pulling us over to the side of the road, my brother was being wrapped in a blanket and we were headed for the nearest hospital. Most likely because she was a trained nurse, my mother had spotted something definitively abnormal in my brother’s feverish, at first agitated and then increasingly unresponsive state, and it’s likely that her prompt assessment of the gravity of his situation contributed significantly towards his later recovery. Because my brother had contracted viral meningitis. This was in 1970, when laypeople weren’t as alert to this disease as they are today.

Reading Hemon’s descriptions in ‘The Aquarium’ of Ella’s attempts to understand what was going on – the instant disruption of her normal routines, the sudden and total incursion of anxiety into her world – gave me the oddest feeling of experiencing his account through the wrong end of a telescope. For I do remember the things, to some small extent similar, that happened to me: instead of the expected weekend with friends (I was even at that age an intense child, a jealous child, a child that disliked the meaningless small talk and enforced jollity that seemed to characterise such encounters and I had not been looking forward to it) I was left with those friends, hurriedly and with scant preparation, while my parents dashed back to spend first one night and then another at the hospital. I remember not making nearly as much fuss about this as I might usually have done – I did somehow grasp that my brother was seriously ill and that anything I might do or say that did not directly relate to this or help the situation would be embarrassingly inappropriate – but I was confused, and a bit scared, in a kind of emotional stasis. I remember standing in water up to my knees in a kind of public outdoor paddling pool – so was it summer then? – while my mother’s friend Margaret watched carefully over me. I remember wondering if my brother might die, whilst not really having a clue what that actually meant.

I must have had some notion of what was going on, because I handed over my favourite toy – a beagle glove puppet – with the firm instructions that it be given to my brother at the hospital. I was inseparable from that thing. The idea of giving it away under ordinary circumstances would have been unthinkable to me.

My brother made a full recovery. He was critically ill for perhaps a week. Not long after that he was boasting about the monster injections (lumbar punctures) he had been given. He was soon back to normal and we all went home. But when I read Hemon’s words in ‘The Aquarium’ about being with Isabel in hospital – ‘If I found myself envisioning holding her little hand as she was dying, I would erase the vision, often startling [my wife] Teri by saying aloud to myself, “No! No! No! No!” ‘ – I can’t help but think of my own mother, the image of her from that time that is still imprinted on my brain, like a single snapshot, her leaning over into the back seat of the car and reaching for my brother, abnormally still, wrapped in that yellow blanket, and how easily things might have taken a darker turn.

Read more about The Book of My Lives, and John Freeman’s wonderful interview with Aleksandar Hemon here.

Oh, thank God

Just as I was getting all hot under the collar over the ludicrous accusations being levelled at Hilary Mantel over her supposed ‘attack’ on the Duchess of Cambridge (how many of those pumped for soundbites about this on the one o’clock news today had actually read Mantel’s article? I suspect the answer to that question would be a big fat zero) and thinking I really should say something about the wilful misuse of Mantel’s words (are Tory MPs deliberately stupid, or just made that way?) author of Angelmaker Nick Harkaway has done it for me!

What Mantel’s article proves – if proof were needed – is that she is one of our very finest writers, and in her prime. The piece is elegant, rapier-sharp, and presents a powerfully exhilarating indictment of the way certain sections of the media feed off the social and political hypocrisy they should be decrying. Thank God for writers like Mantel, brave enough to speak their mind and to do so with such enviable style. The LRB piece Royal Bodies is a joy.

Read it here.

Update: I take issue with Hadley Freeman’s excellent piece in The Guardian this morning on one point only. When she says that ‘if, say, Martin Amis said anything vaguely similar to Mantel’s comments about Kate, he would not have received anywhere near the same amount of publicity’, she is (sadly) wrong. Perhaps Hadley underestimates the media establishment’s obsession with Martin Amis. What you can bet your house on though is that at no point in this theoretical coverage would mention have been made of Amis’s weight, the clothes he wears or his ability to sire children.

Shame on you, Independent – appalling sexism in the Daily Mail is a daily commonplace, but in this piece here a newspaper that supposedly prides itself on informed journalism does wrong to both parties on so many levels it would take me all morning to properly enumerate them.

Thought for the day

I didn’t read anything that I would have considered to be horror until I started working for ChiZine Publications because I’m very susceptible to it. I will spend nights up, awake and terrified. At the same time, because of that genuinely visceral response I find myself more and more interested in what horror is and how it works because it’s so affective. And that’s what art should be, isn’t it? Art should move us. Art should scare us. Art should go too far. And so in some ways I like that horror really can be a sort of avant garde art form even though it’s seldom recognized as such.

(Helen Marshall, from her recent interview at Weird Fiction Review here.)

I really love what Helen says here about horror being a kind of avant garde, because it shows an understanding of the genre – of what the genre should be and what it can do – that passes way beyond many people’s conception of it.

I was blown away by Marshall’s collection Hair Side, Flesh Side, a book that combines fantastically original ideas with writing so assured and so strikingly lovely that – as with Sam Thompson’s Communion Town last year – it’s actually quite scary to think that this is a fiction debut. I’ve already nominated HSFS for Best Collection in the British Fantasy Awards, and will be doing the same for the World Fantasy Awards when I send in my ballot.

You can read Helen’s story ‘The Mouth, Open’ here. It’s my favourite story in the collection – one of them, anyway – and I do wholeheartedly recommend it. I’m delighted to learn – from the aforementioned interview – that Helen is currently working on a novel. I honestly can’t wait to read it.

We’ve just returned from a weekend in the New Forest, where we attended the wedding of a good friend of ours (film director Gerald McMorrow, who’s been scripting The Glamour – more on this soon, watch this space) and then spent a morning wandering around Milford-on-Sea, the little town Chris got to know very well during the 1970s when it played host to the annual Milford SF Writers’ Workshop. It’s not the first time we’ve called in there, mainly because I love hearing Chris’s stories about the place. A lot of writers passed through Milford – Richard Cowper, John Brunner, Chip Delany, Lisa Tuttle, Neil Gaiman, Nicola Griffith, Rob Holdstock, Alastair Reynolds and Brian Aldiss to name but a few – and the workshop is undoubtedly a unique little slice of UK SF history.

We walked out along Hurst Spit towards the castle (where Charles 1 was imprisoned immediately prior to his execution – there’s something I never knew before now). The sunshine was so bright it turned the water to metal. Difficult to believe it was February.

Now back to working on the story I began writing last week – this is another of my SE12 stories, closely related to both ‘Wilkolak’ and ‘The Tiger’ and which I am hoping to submit to Tartarus Press for their Strange Tales 1v anthology. It’s good to be writing.

Watching: Benh Zeitlin’s remarkable film Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Reading: Gordon Burn’s Happy Like Murderers. This man can write. Truly. It’s a privilege to read him.

Hurst Castle - photo by Ian Stannard

Milford mudflats from Hurst Spit - photo by Chris Priest

Bellony at Lightspeed

I’m thrilled to announce that my novella Bellony, which originally appeared in the Eibonvale Press anthology Blind Swimmer, will be reprinted in the April issue of the very wonderful Lightspeed magazine. Lightspeed publishes some of the best shortform fantasy and SF around – the current issue features stories by Genevieve Valentine, John Crowley and Robert Reed – and I’m delighted that Bellony will be finding its way out to a whole new audience. The issue will also feature a mini-interview with me – I’m working on that right now. The questions they’ve come up with are fascinating.

Another very pleasing piece of news is that my novella Spin should be going to press in the near future. Having now handled and read the first in the TTA Novellas series, Mike O’Driscoll’s excellent Eyepennies, this is something I’m even more excited about than I was before. These little books are truly wonderful – beautifully designed and produced, lovely to hold and with an elegant and clear layout that’s a pleasure to read. At £25 for the complete set of 5, the TTA Novellas subscription offer really is superb value for money and I’m very much looking forward to reading the other titles in the series as they appear.

Aside from nipping up and down to London a couple of times on various errands, I’ve spent most of the past week at my keyboard, working on the third draft of What Happened to Maree. The book is now almost 20,000 words lighter – a lot of the joy in redrafting lies in cutting words! – and the whole thing feels smoother and cleaner and more free-flowing as a result. There’s been a pretty radical restructuring, too. Anyone who was at my BSFA gig back in October might be interested to know that the section I read out no longer exists…

Reading: Helen Marshall’s extraordinary debut collection Hair Side, Flesh Side. Wonderfully original, lyrical, and delightfully dark. Kind of like Borges mixed with (Clive) Barker and a generous pinch of HPL thrown in for good measure. I am loving it.

Watching (for the fourth time): Michael Mann’s Thief. Awesome. That opening sequence – second to none.

Thinking about (very cautiously): new work.

Flight from reason

I like books and films about people who fly aeroplanes for a living. William Langewiesche’s books Fly by Wire and Aloft both proved heart-poundingly exciting for me, the very best kind of serious, elegantly written, passionate investigative writing, and with enough dramatic tension to sink a dozen more conventional thrillers. Last year I finally sat down to watch Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, with mixed expectations (at 193 minutes a film better have a reason for existing or you’d walk out in protest) and even now some many months later I’m still a little in love with Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager, and the movie seems unlikely to be dislodged from its joint pole position (with Tarkovsky’s Solaris) at the top of my personal pantheon of cinema any time soon.

I could go on about how weird this all is, given that I am a very nervous flyer to say the least, but we’ll save that for another day. But from what I’ve written above you’d probably have no trouble in guessing that I was very much looking forward to Robert Zemeckis’s new movie Flight, starring Denzel Washington as a maverick airline captain, fighting to save his reputation after an investigation into a fatal air accident proves that he was drunk at the controls. Even the trailer had my pulse racing. I couldn’t wait.

We went to see it on Saturday night. It’s not as long as The Right Stuff, but it’s 138 minutes, which doesn’t exactly make it a short. The opening thirty of those minutes, which deal with the air accident itself, created an atmosphere of what I can only describe as rapt tension – it felt as if everyone in the cinema was holding their breath, so much so that when the plane finally hit the ground I felt a noticeable shift in air pressure as the audience collectively exhaled. And for the following hour and a half, that sense of drama and involvement continued. Washington was just great – wholly believable in his role, dignified yet tragic, brilliant yet dangerously flawed, his Captain ‘Whip’ Whitaker seemed likely to go down as a 9 carat portrayal of the kind of addictive personality that is so often the burden of the highly gifted. Kelly Reilly gave a powerful performance as Nicole, the recovering drug user who befriends Whitaker, only to leave him when it becomes clear that their relationship is likely to push her back over the edge into dependency.

But bugger me those last fifteen minutes. If you ever want to know what it feels like, watching a decent script being strapped to a gurney and having its throat cut, I would urge you to go and see Flight, whose numbingly sententious, tritely simplistic and just generally godawful final act made me so physically and mentally uncomfortable I couldn’t sit still in my seat. What Flight finally and sadly reminded me of was that spate of bizarre films from the late seventies and early eighties (Run Baby Run was one, The Hiding Place was another) which cast themselves as gritty dramas with serious themes but turn out to be little more than propaganda, the peddling of a particular brand of judgemental morality. Just who was responsible for this appalling blunder, which in a matter of moments reduces a credible and creditable exploration of human fallability to a mawkish mess? Whether it was the scriptwriter himself or a Hollywood committee, they ought to be rounded up and made to watch Zemeckis’s earlier outing, What Lies Beneath, which similarly falls apart disastrously in its final half hour. Only that didn’t matter so much, because it was just a stupid ghost story with Michelle Pfeiffer in it. Flight could actually have been a serious movie.

But if Flight seemed an apt demonstration of that old adage about a leopard never changing its spots, the other film I saw this week, Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering Django Unchained, appeared to prove that it is after all possible to come back from the grave. Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, which I looked forward to loudly and at every opportunity, turned out to be so crass and so embarrasingly bad it still makes me squirm to think about it. (I’ve actually sat through it twice to date – and God it’s long – because Chris, who’s not QT’s biggest fan anyway, refused to believe just how awful it was, and so I watched it again with him just to prove the point. Turned out I was right the first time.) But Tarantino is one of those directors I enjoy so much that just as I forgave Woody Allen for Whatever Works, so I was looking forward to Django more or less as if Basterds had never happened.

What a movie. Fellow director Spike Lee has criticised Django for being ‘disrespectful’, but as the film’s star Jamie Foxx asserts, Lee’s position is considerably weakened by him not having seen it. Foxx is a passionate defender of the movie, and he should be proud of his role in it. If he ever gives a better performance than he does in Django I look forward to seeing it.

Django effortlessly achieves what Basterds so memorably failed to do: it combines drama with brio, furious seriousness with QT’s unique brand of deadpan, pitch black humour. Oh yes, it’s daring, controversial even – it treads close to the edge of madness on so many levels. But somehow – miraculously – it keeps its balance. What Django is not is a documentary about the American slave trade. What it is is a grand fantasia, a Wagnerian behemoth of insane brilliance. If it proves something that I was crying during some parts of this film and laughing with delight in others, then there it is.

And bloody hell, that QT man can write. His timing, his feel for dramatic irony and structure, his love of narrative gamesmanship, above all the skilful construction and effortless power of his sentences, is a thrill to experience, every time. That, more than anything else, is why I love him.

It’s worth paying the ticket price of Django Unchained just for the soundtrack. And me? I don’t mind admitting I paid it twice.