Monthly Archives: September 2015

Crime blog #9

In the Woods by Tana French

in the woods frenchThis is very much a book of three halves.

For the first fifty or so pages, I thought I’d discovered that holy grail I seem to spend a fair amount of my reading life searching for: the crime novel that works equally well as literary fiction. A lot of Patricia Highsmith’s oeuvre is up there, of course, as are a generous handful of Barbara Vine’s, James Ellroy’s, David Peace’s. All too often though, genre crime novels tend to exhibit the same core flaw that plagues genre horror fiction: amazing set-up, shit denouement. The biggest problem with In the Woods isn’t so much its denouement (although it is kind of shit) as the complete-arse status of its narrator-protagonist, Rob Ryan.

As readers of this blog will already know, I have no problem with arsehole protagonists – indeed I rather enjoy them. My problem with Ryan is that it is not sufficiently clear from the text whether French knows him as the dick he is, intends him to be a dick in fact, or whether it’s more ‘ooh, poor Rob, his tortured past, his damaged feeeelings’.

There’s just not enough definition here. And that lack of focus, for me, made the book very disappointing indeed, all the more so because In the Woods begins so promisingly.

Rob Ryan was once Adam Ryan, whose childhood was defined first by his friendship with Peter and Jamie, who grew up alongside him on a Dublin estate, and then by Peter and Jamie’s disappearance in nearby woods when the kids were twelve. Rob is recovered alive but traumatised, and with no memory of what happened to his friends. Rob’s parents moved away to England, and Rob went to boarding school and then to university. After bumming around London for a couple of years, he realises that his vocation lies with the Dublin Murder Squad. He makes a success of his chosen career, and is happy in his work. Our story opens as Rob is chosen to head up an investigation into the murder of another pre-teen, Katy Devlin, who grew up on that same Knocknaree estate where Ryan, Peter and Jamie once lived and played.

French’s set-up is not just intriguing but beautifully written. This opening segment of the novel contains so many insights, so many wry and clever observations, so many passages of lovely prose  that I frequently found myself smiling with pleasure at the fluency and sagacity of French’s invention. The first instances of Rob’s sexism came as a bit of a shock because I’d been enjoying the story, the writing and, let me add, Rob’s narration so much I just wasn’t expecting him to be that guy. That was the point where the narrative lost some of its shine for me. Instead of being marvellous, it settled down into what was a perfectly acceptable police thriller with above average writing. I was still enjoying myself – it was just that I had to readjust my expectations.

But things kept getting worse. I tried to convince myself that French was making some kind of statement about sexism in the police force and in murder investigation units in particular. Not a bad idea at all – I’m sure there’s plenty of sexism in the police force (!) and what more absorbing and intricate task for a writer to set herself than to create a protagonist who is a very good detective but so flawed in his attitudes that he eventually misses out on solving a case because of them? That’s a book I’d make a grab for. But Rob isn’t complex enough for that. He’s just a sexist who doesn’t realise he is one (almost the worst kind) who treats his (investigations) partner appallingly (I honestly cannot bring myself to find one mitigating clause in Rob’s behaviour towards Cassie) and who has this pig-annoying habit of searching for princesses to rescue. I suppose one could argue that the princess-rescuing thing does turn out to be the main reason Rob doesn’t spot the criminal mastermind on his first throw of the dice (and why he makes even more of an idiot of himself than he has done already) but it’s not enough, it’s too loose. Rob’s thoughts and actions remain insufficiently interrogated by the text itself.

And while we’re on the subject of the criminal mastermind, I’m bound to say that [-] was one of the most unconvincing – nay, downright ridiculous – pieces of characterisation I’ve ever found amongst the pages of a novel by someone who can obviously write. Who can write rather well, in fact – which makes the lousy, stupid portrayal of [-] even more unforgivable and baffling.

I mean, that whole sequence where Cassie is wearing the wire and [-] does their ‘I will kill you, Mr Bond, but first let me explain exactly how and why I decided to bring about your eternal damnation’ spiel. Just. No.

The entire final quarter of the novel is irrevocably marred by this lazy reliance on tropes, the kind of imaginative failure that ruins many a genre novel, and most Hollywood movies. And I just don’t get why a writer would do this to themselves. An intricately plotted crime novel is a skilful thing, a beautiful thing that takes time to invent and accomplish. So why not go that extra mile and invent a plausible antagonist and motive, rather than settle for having the thing play out like an indifferent TV cop drama?

I love crime novels. For pure reading pleasure, it would be a crime novel for me every time. Which is why I want them to be not just OK but great. Keith Ridgway gets this point better than anyone:

I do read crime fiction. Usually in binges. I enjoy crime fiction a great deal. Or two thirds of it. By which I mean the first two thirds of each book. The last third of a crime book usually pisses me off. I love the exposition, getting everything set up and into position, and then the cranking out of the mechanics that are going to get the thing to dance. But in the last third it seems to always end up in a sort of badly choreographed dogfight and the pacing goes haywire and there’s so much chasing after loose ends that it ceases to have anything to do with our experienced world and becomes more a sort of fantasy of resolution, a kind of neurotic tidying of life’s mess, like sport.

(I think I may have pointed up this interview before but the points Ridgway makes here are just so spot on.)

Ridgway gets around this beautifully by refusing to write a conventional crime novel and I applaud him for it. But wouldn’t it be great if, every now and again, one could find a ‘real’ crime novel that didn’t spiral downwards into lunacy?

The thing is though, I will probably be giving Tana French another chance, 1) because in spite of everything I say above I still enjoyed the hell out of reading this and 2) I think she has it in her to produce a crime story that is properly special. I’m tempted to try the second in the Dublin Murder Squad series, because I know it’s about Cassie (even though we only ever get to see her through Rob’s self-pitying male gaze, it is abundantly clear that Cassie is by far the best character in In the Woods) but I may leap forward to the most recent book in the series first, just to see if French has learned from her mistakes. Here’s hoping.

Booker shortlist 2015

Well, that was a surprise. The two longlisted books I most wanted to get on to the Booker shortlist actually made it. I’d previously thought that Satin Island in particular wouldn’t have a chance of being selected – too terse, too prickly, too abstract to be a Booker book, and I had the feeling that A Brief History of Seven Killings wouldn’t make it either, mainly because the judges – who were definitely going to wave A Little Life straight through the starting gate – might baulk at shortlisting a second 700-page epic (the 2013 shortlist wasn’t big enough to include both The Kills and The Luminaries, after all, and although both are outstanding novels, for me The Kills still stands the test of time as the more outstanding of the two).

Well, I’m intending to read at least two more of the contenders before the final announcement, so I’ll report back once I’ve done that and give my final guess as to which of these six novels might actually win.

At the moment, I still have the feeling it might end up being A Little Life. As discussed in my previous post, I think that novel is all over the place in all kinds of ways and should definitely not take the prize. But, for reasons that elude me, it seems to have gathered a momentum that makes it unstoppable. And as I said before, it has Booker book written all over it.

A Little Life – altogether too small?

littlelife.yanagA Little Life, the 700 pp second novel from Kitschies Golden Tentacle nominee Hanya Yanagihara, has been greeted by ecstatic reviews, in the US especially. Even in the UK, where the book’s reception has been a little more muted, the critics seem to be in broad agreement that, in spite of its flaws, the novel is something of a masterpiece. A Little Life is currently the bookies’ favourite to take the Booker prize, and readers especially have warmed to the book, losing themselves in its extended narrative like rabbits in a warren. I’ve seen a large number of reader reviews stating that for them, A Little Life is one of the most affecting books they’ve ever read.

I don’t get it. As someone who loved Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, A Little Life was one of the novels of 2015 I was most looking forward to. To say I’ve been disappointed would be something of an understatement. The People in the Trees was characterised, above all, by its author’s masterful control of her material: a heinously unreliable narrator, brilliantly drawn, a grasp of form, of the novel as a conceit that has not at all ridiculously been compared with Nabokov’s, a sense of place so vibrant and detailed the reader leaves the book convinced of the reality of everything in it, and a story so compelling it remains with me still as one of the literary highlights of last year. Yanagihara has stated that The People in the Trees took her more than a decade to write and it shows: her passionate attachment to the manuscript is visible at every juncture, and the result – a provoking, terse, brilliantly observed narrative of speculation – is entirely worthy of the time investment, both hers as writer and ours as reader.

A Little Life, on the other hand, took just eighteen months to write, and again, it shows. What we have here, it seems to me, is more like a vast, working outline for a novel, a ream or two of notes. Enthusiasm for the project blazes through, and occasionally we are caught up in the rush of that enthusiasm, but this is not the finished article. Not the superbly finished article that The People in the Trees was, at any rate. In short, it’s a decent enough first draft – decent enough to catch the interest, worth reworking definitely, but no one (unless you’re Joyce Carol Oates) can complete a 720-page behemoth of a book in just eighteen months and hope for it to be her best work.

I’m not going to go overboard in rehashing the plot here – plenty of people have done so already – but briefly what we have is the story of four friends, room-mates in college, who progress from renting scuzzy apartments in Lower Manhattan to forging conveniently meteoric success in their chosen careers, namely art, architecture, acting and law. Things toddle along for a while. The boys get richer and go to more parties. We gradually discover that two of the four (Malcolm and JB) are pretty much sidekicks, that the story (such that it is) is mostly about Willem and Jude, and Jude in particular. In spite of his success as a lawyer, and his universal belovedness among his friends, Jude has a troubled past, and injuries to both body and mind that have left him crippled. A Little Life presents the gradual uncovering of Jude’s secrets.

The whole ensemble would have been improved a millionfold by making everyone in it less offensively, less boringly rich. The easy accession to success, to wealth, to an entirely unconflicted symbiosis with the jet-setting, gourmet-fed, gorgeously housed capitalism of the highest-end American glossies robs the novel’s ongoing present of agency, tension or of anything more than a passing, disconsolate curiosity. Is this meant to be inspirational, allegorical, what?? It certainly isn’t cautionary – the text seems as at ease with its prevailing attitudes as do the characters that populate it. Everyone loves these guys. everyone knows them or wants to know them. Is this the American Way? For a tiny minority, maybe. But to put it in context for UK readers, how would you feel about a novel in which the four protagonists were a corporate lawyer who specialised in exonerating multinational corporations from allegations of environmental vandalism, an architect hell-bent on levelling large parts of the East End to make way for luxury apartment complexes, an artist who made it his life’s work to portray – uncritically – members of the economic elite, and – let’s say Jude Law? (No offence to JL but his persona as a cypher for Willem’s fits more or less exactly.)

If you were me, you’d probably want to punch everyone in it. Moreover, the whole endeavour would be doomed to instant cultural irrelevance, not to say ridicule.

It would have been so simple to make these guys ‘normal’, to introduce some genuine struggle and conflict into their lives. Not to do so seems one of the oddest authorial decisions I’ve ever encountered.

The lack of any discernible story, conflict or point is not A Little Life‘s only problem, however. For me, the manner in which it is told – endless swathes of the most colourless, tedious form of exposition, punctuated by desultory minor episodes of what passes for action – is the most telling indication of what I’ll call first draft syndrome: the author telling herself what the novel is about (fine) and then forgetting to shape, refine, and above all prune, prune, PRUNE the damn thing into the form of an actual novel. The excess of padding in A Little Life could comfortably fill several king-sized (ideal for one of Malcolm’s boutique apartments in fact) sofas. ‘This happened, then that happened, then the other happened. Then Jude remembered he had a friend who had a private plane, so he wouldn’t be late for their reunion dinner in Paris after all’. Whatever.

Some critics have commented on the novel’s atemporality, the fact that there’s precious little sense of place, no mention of politics, presidents, AIDS, 9/11, indeed anything that might have given A Little Life a greater cultural, geographical or sociological resonance, so I won’t repeat those observations here except to say amen.

I could write a whole separate essay on the portrayal of women in A Little Life (or at least I could if I’d been arsed to take proper notes as I went along). I don’t think it would be unfair to state that women have been almost entirely erased from Yanagihara’s narrative. Where they do exist, women are either saintly helpmeets (Julia, Ana, Sophie) or comical walk-on lesbians. If the male homosexual relationship is the main focus of interest (one reviewer even refers to A Little Life as ‘the great gay novel‘ – I think they’re completely wrong, I think A Little Life shoots as wide of the mark here as it does in other respects, but that discussion lies beyond the scope of this essay) that’s one thing, but it in no way explains why the novel goes in for such wholesale belittling of lesbians and lesbian relationships. ‘A certain kind of moustachioed lesbian’, ‘like a certain kind of lesbian couple’, ‘i knew it would only be a matter of time before you two ended up like a pair of old lesbians – the only thing missing is the cat’. I stress I’m quoting from memory here, but there really is a lot of stuff in precisely this vein, and I’m asking why??? I for one got roundly sick of it. Indeed the book seemed strewn with the kind of casual sexism that left me blinking in bemusement. I might not have noticed it so much, had the four central male characters been more interesting or more compellingly written. But they just weren’t.

There is some good stuff here. The scenes following the traumatic event described on p 627 (I’m avoiding spoilers here, because what happens at this point genuinely did surprise and affect me and I wouldn’t want to deny that unexpectedness to anyone else) and dealing with the nature of grief, the psychological motivations and self-controlling mechanisms behind anorexia, self-harm and suicidal depression are very well drawn indeed: unflinching, convincing and necessary. As everywhere in this novel, the potential for greatness is strikingly evident. Which makes it all the more of a pity that the block of marble has only been rough-cut, and not fully sculpted.

I do get why readers have enjoyed this novel. The experience of reading A Little Life is not unlike watching a TV miniseries. Once you get even a little bit invested in the characters, the whole thing rolls along more or less unassisted and it’s difficult to opt out. For a novel of this length, the hours you put in (I made sure I read fifty pages a day, just to make sure the book didn’t dominate my life for weeks and weeks) pass surprisingly quickly. The relationship between Willem and Jude is touching and – in places – well drawn. At the level of simply reading, even the stodgy exposition can work reassuringly, being reminiscent of the feeling you might remember from being read aloud to as a child. Readers like to follow characters through the course of their lives and travails – that’s why the Bildungsroman is a classic form and still popular. A Little Life, in its way, is a classic family saga.

Nothing wrong with any of that, and there is no denying the book is, even if only for its bizarre missteps, memorable. But there is, I feel, something wrong with the unequivocal praise that has been heaped upon this novel. It is ambitious, but it mostly fails in its ambition. It believes it has a remarkable story to tell, but for a greater proportion of its run-time it does not tell it very well, thus rendering it, ironically, unremarkable. In sum, I don’t think A Little Life is anywhere near as good as people seem to think it is, certainly it’s not as good as Yanagihara’s first novel. It does have ‘Booker book’ written all over it, though, so the bookies at least are on to a winner…

Two futures

charnock calculated lifeAnne Charnock‘s debut novel, A Calculated Life, was shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle last year. I remember thinking that it looked like one of the most interesting books in contention, but by the time I finally got around to reading it (last weekend) I found I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about it. This turned out to be a good thing, a wonderful thing, even. I’m one of those people who takes pleasure in information-gathering, and usually when I sit down to read a novel I’ve already consumed at least half-a-dozen reviews of it. I know, broadly, what to expect, and whilst I’ve never found my enjoyment of a text to be impaired by this kind of advance preparation – if a film or a novel genuinely can be spoiled by spoilers, it probably didn’t have that much substance in the first place – it’s great to be reminded of how surprising and thrilling it can be, to go into a book completely blind.

I found the first dozen or so pages of A Calculated Life to be curiously affectless. The prose seemed rather blank and toneless, the point of view character – a young woman named Jayna, working for some kind of faceless corporation in a vaguely futuristic Manchester – rather flatly drawn. The story was oddly hypnotic, though – I think I may have previously mentioned that I always enjoy reading about work – and so I kept reading. My initial feelings of vague frustration with the text were soon replaced by admiration and increasing pleasure as the narrative became more complicated, its particular use of language entirely comprehensible, and I discovered what Charnock was really up to.

It turns out that Jayna is a construct, an artificially grown simulant, one of many thousands leased out to (read ‘owned by’) high-end businesses that make use of their superior abilities – in calculation, in business modelling, in predicting future patterns in behaviour and trade – in the race to get ahead.  Jayna has been designed to be perfectly happy with her life, the small freedoms she is allowed giving her – and the rest of her kind – just enough of a sense of independence to stop her demanding more.  Something is changing, though. Jayna is curious – more curious than perhaps she should be – about the unexpected results of some of her calculations. Her investigations lead her in a risky direction.

I’m aware that in giving this brief outline I’m making A Calculated Life sound like Bladerunner, or 1984, even. But although it shares aspects in common with these two SF masterpieces, Charnock’s novel is entirely and definitively her own. It is lovingly crafted, beautifully made in the economical, expert way a piece of Arts and Crafts furniture is made – pure lines, and perfectly suited to its intended purpose. In the spare, clean language of her novel, Charnock makes a valid and convincing attempt to imagine how a person – for of course she is a person – like Jayna would think and feel. I found Charnock’s writing about mathematics, and pattern recognition especially to be – well, the only words that come close for me, paradoxically, are moving and beautiful.

Additionally, I found Charnock’s AI community a great deal more involving and realistic-seeming than Ann Leckie’s portrayal of Breq in Ancillary Justice, the novel that eventually won the Golden Tentacle and just about everything else that year. I’m not knocking Ancillary Justice here – it’s a different book, with different aims – but I do feel that A Calculated Life has been very hard done by in comparison, and should have received a great deal more attention than it did.

Anne Charnock is clearly a gifted and sensitive author of acute intelligence, writing science fiction of a kind – quiet, intense, thoughtful – we could do with more of. I’m looking forward to her second novel, Sleeping Embers of An Ordinary Mind, with some anticipation. It’s published on December 1st, and I’ve already pre-ordered it.

The future depicted in Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s story in the latest edition of Clarkesworld, ‘The Occidental Bride’, is several degrees harsher and yet displays some striking parallels to the one we find in A Calculated Life. The continent of Europe has literally been shattered, devastated by some new and terrible kind of weapon. One of the engineers of that weapon, a woman named Kerttu, has more in common with Charnock’s Jayna than we might initially imagine: sold by her mother at the age of six, she becomes the property of the state, indentured intellectual labour with no rights to her own life. At the beginning of the story, we see Kerttu being purchased again, this time by Heilui, a woman living on the other side of the world both politically and geographically. Heilui seems to hold all the cultural and material advantages, but as we discover, she too is the prisoner of political forces, and has her own deadly service to perform.

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things I admire most about Sriduangkaew’s stories is their complete lack of sentimentality, their willingness to be dark in a way that picks at the soul. Although there is always a temptation to refer to her language as ‘lyrical’ – because it’s so descriptively intense, I suppose – the more I read of her the less this word seems to jibe with what’s on the page. Sriduangkaew’s visions are too fraught, too disturbing for that, and even the word ‘haunting’ does not wholly convey the discomfort that comes to sit with you as you read them. As with many of Sriduangkaew’s protagonists, both Kerttu and Heilui are brittle, driven characters who exude the sense of having only just survived their memories. The beautifully polished, artfully rendered surface of the story is like mirror glass – bouncing our own gaze back at us, attracting our attention away from the shattering realities that lurk in the depths beneath before revealing them full force.

Heilui monitors Kerttu’s progress, trying to use the map of her wife’s virtual wanderings to create an image that would pierce the inscrutable, remote shell. A crucial piece that would make the Kerttu she is seeing cohere with the Kerttu the mass murderer who created weapons that destroyed the shattered continent, the war criminal. Often she thinks of asking, Did you understand what you were doing? At the beginning, she mustn’t have, a prodigy whose supple intelligence was exploited, whose mind was slowly conditioned to regard her work as normal.

The keenest pleasure of this story is the disquiet it engenders. The cultural commentary – on terrorism, on exotification, on the whole concept of mail order brides – is fiercely articulate and uncompromising. Sriduangkaew’s science fiction is radical in a way we don’t see often enough: it is angry – about the past, about the future that past is forcing upon us – and it is unapologetic in insisting that we should know it.

I would rate ‘The Occidental Bride’ as Sriduangkaew’s finest story since her 2014 ‘Autodidact’. It makes me hungry to see more longer-length work from her and I’m hoping it won’t be too long before we do.