Monthly Archives: May 2015

Crime blog #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ghost in the machine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Race is a Campbell finalist!

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

Finalists for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award 2015:

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

Ruth Rendell 1930 – 2015

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

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

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

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

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