“an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same” – Elizabeth Taylor and Andrei Makine

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I have just begun reading Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s (not, it feels obligatory to point out, not that Elizabeth Taylor. From Valerie Martin‘s introduction:

Though I never met either of them, Kingsley Amis introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. He did it slyly, with deceptive nonchalance, as one might present a powerful relative to an acquaintance at a party; he knew she was important but had his doubts about me. This happened in his novel Difficulties With Girls. After a poor lunch of macaroni cheese, Jenny Standish, much neglected wife of the libidinous Patrick, has gone to the library in search of steady company. ‘Everything seemed to be out, bar an enormous saga about Southern Belles, but then she spotted a new Elizabeth Taylor on the returns shelf.’ At home, Jenny is disappointed to discover that ‘the new Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be an old Elizabeth Taylor in a new impression and with a different outside, and she must have been slipping not to have checked, always advisable with an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same.’

I am just starting to read Elizabeth Taylor (though I already know her mother died of politeness, suffering appendicitis on Christmas Day and refusing to bother the doctor), but, as Martin goes on to write “for any novelist, let alone one as famously cranky and hard on the women as Sir Kingsley, to stop cold the progress of his own story in order to extol the virtues of another novelist is unusual, to say the least” and so far I am impressed. The quote from Difficulties With Girls Martin cites also put me in mind of another novelist with a seemingly very different thematic concern than Taylor’s, Andrei Makine. I have had occasion to cite Makine a couple of times before. And I am nursing a longer essay on this remarkable writer, whose work is of a high pitch of lyrical intensity, who offers an unimpeachable insight into the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, with emotion but without sentimentality, managing to depict the USSR as a tyranny which treated the lives of its citizens (supposedly what the whole enterprise was about) as utterly disposable – while, without exoneration or excuse, capturing the moments of idealism that could capture youthful enthusiasm.

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But they are rather the same – a narrator born in the post war couple of decades, now an exile in the West rather like Makine himself, recovering via memory a now vanished world which was defined by the gargantuan, heroic sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is still known in Russia) There are variations – The Woman Who Waited’s erotic longing and ironic release, The Life of An Unknown Man’s satire of the New Russia, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard Bearer’s more direct focus on childhood memory, A Life’s Music musical themes – but the overall pattern is the same.

And yet, his work is marvellous. So much for range!

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Benjamin Parzybok . “The Hole in the Reef”, Reckoning #1

From Reckoning “an annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice”, comes this tight little story about a father and son, the ocean, and waste by Benjamin Parzybok.

A couple of slightly awkward sentences aside (“Sometimes it felt like gliding through a child’s crayon drawing in which turquoise had been over-wielded’) the story conveys the tensions of the father-son relationship and, by extension, different approaches to the world extremely well. Reckoning have an interview with Parzybok on the story here – worth reading the story first. The story alternates above-water dialogue with below-water prose:

The plunge over felt like entering a planet’s atmosphere. The bubbles floated past like little stars, sparks and ash, aswarm with insects. And the sound—ten million molecules all sung together with a concussive white noise.
When the bubbles cleared he made his way down, his snorkel gripped tightly between his teeth, his breath tight in his lungs. The reef swam about him, brilliant and colored—displaying more colors than the cone-cells in his own eyes could detect. He was a stranger here; an alien creature, not biologically well-equipped. Unlike his father.
He scanned about. On dry land, they lived in two dimensions. But in the reef, danger came from any angle, above or below.
It was his father’s growing incompetence that had ensnared the anchor. Drunk and sudden and impulsive. He had studied his father for signs of dementia; a hobbling thing for a man so ruthlessly independent. As he finned further down he glanced back to see the otherworldly silhouette of their small boat’s hull above, where inside, like the meat of a nut, his father hummed some dirty ditty to himself.
At fifteen feet down he held his nose and blew, to clear the pressure in his ears. At twenty five feet they ached again, but he was still not close enough.
At thirty feet he could see the anchor in the foggy blue light of the bottom, nestled into an indentation between patches of coral, but the pain seared in his head and he was out of breath.

In the interview Parzybok says that to believe the world has a designer (or creator I guess) is to disclaim responsibility for it – I think I know where he is coming from but surely notions of stewardship and responsibility being given chime as much with the idea of creation as with the idea that responsibility is something self-defined and self-ordained?

From “The Making of Mr Bolsover”, Cornelius Medvei

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Perhaps then, Mr Cruikshank suggested, he would like to tell everyone which political figures he did admire.

Without hesitation Mr Bolsover named Lord Salisbury, Queen Victoria’s last prime minister.

Amid the general murmur of surprise and disbelief, he went on to explain. It was not the details of Salisbury’s policies that Mr Bolsover admired, but his guiding principles. Salisbury had a deep aversion to officials and lawmakers. He took a quietist approach to government, and was contemptuous of those who believed that a government’s effectiveness is directly proportional the number of laws it passes.

There was also his appearance. Salisbury’s luxuriant, flowing beard and the great balding dome of his head lent him an air of immense gravitas, as did his pensive expression: his portraits generally showed him lost in thought, as thought pondering important matters of state. This was in direct contrast to his great contemporary and rival Gladstone who posed for photographs looking, so Mr Bolsover said, warming to his theme, ‘like an indignant owl’, and whose bristling side-whiskers appeared merely eccentric to modern eyes. Both men, however presented a salutary contrast the moon-faced chldren who held political office today. And Salisbury had been a supreme pragmatist: not for him the lethal devotion to an ideology at the expense of everything else. ‘The axioms of the last age are the fallacies of the present,’ he once wrote ‘There is nothing abiding in political science but the necessity for truth, purity and justice.’

Review of “Wild Abandon”, Joe Dunthorne, TLS, August 19th 2011

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This is a brief review of an entertaining second novel by Joe Dunthorne. It didn’t quite have the success of Submarine, which was a pity, since in many ways the focus expanded quite effectively. Some tendency towards journalistese (see the Happy Mondays quote I mention below) it was a very effective comic novel that did a certain justice to its characters. With thanks to Maren Meinhardt for sending me the full published text.

Countercultures
SÉAMUS SWEENEY
Joe Dunthorne’s first novel, Submarine (2008), depicted a Swansea teenager’s comically sex-obsessed, self-dramatizing existence and his tragic attempts to keep his parents together. In his new novel, Dunthorne broadens his canvas to a commune in South Wales, but the focus remains on growing up, family life and marital breakdown. These, the novel suggests, are equally painful in unconventional families and in nuclear ones. Blean-y-llyn is a secular, non mystical exercise in communal living, conceived in the early 1990s by Don Riley and his companions. The Welsh name is not significant since all the communards are English, and it is known to the locals as the Rave House after a legendary fifteenth birthday party for Don’s daughter, Kate, which turned into an all-night affair.

The opening scene, in which seventeen year-old Kate and her eleven-year-old brother Albert have a shower together – it is the only way to get Albert to wash – suggests the eccentricity of the Riley ménage, in which Freya, the children’s mother, is increasingly alienated from Don. While Kate leaves every day to attend a sixth form college, Albert, who feels “puberty’s greasy palm on his shoulder”, is still schooled in the commune, with only six-year-old Isaac for company. Sensible Kate is one of those exasperated daughters of ostentatiously countercultural parents, but Albert has absorbed the apocalyptic beliefs of Isaac’s mother Marina, a serial commune-dweller and a believer in the upcoming cosmic dislocations of 2012.

Don Riley is a monster of righteousness and ill-judged humour. In one excruciating scene he tells his unwilling eleven-year-old son how he lost his virginity: “he leaned down to Albert’s ear and whispered conspiratorially in a tone that he hoped would show his son that, one day, the two of them could be friends. ‘She had a climber’s body but alpine tits’”. Also disturbing is Don’s use of the Personal Instrument, a self-built device for the focusing of consciousness, as an initiation for the commune’s children into adulthood – he inflicts this modified motorcycle helmet on Albert as a desperate and futile attempt at control. At times the larger-than-life Don threatens to dominate the book to the detriment of its wider themes.

Dunthorne creates sympathetic adolescent characters. Kate’s alienation from the commune reaches a crisis point, and she leaves to stay with her boyfriend Geraint and his nice, average suburban family – local television news producer dad, devoted and supportive mum. Having grown up on a diet of films depicting bourgeois life as a repository of hidden dysfunction, Kate expects dark secrets amid the mown lawns and plasma screens, and some of Dunthorne’s most acute humour exposes the limits of Kate’s apparently clear-eyed world-view. There are some false steps – a long expository section dips into Sunday supplement generalizations (“Black Monday revealed the vulnerability of the stocks markets; the Happy Mondays revealed the quality of drugs coming from the continent”) and the final rave seems set up for a sentimental resolution. Fortunately, a powerful last scene is able to reconcile Kate’s new maturity, the altered dynamics of the Riley family, and even Albert’s millennial anxieties, and Wild Abandon comes to a satisfying close.

“the overbearing mother, the emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant guilt and fear ” – draft review of The Cure, Rachel Genn, TLS, 2011

The TLS ultimately used a much edited version of this review of a book I evidently didn’t like. Perhaps I was uncomfortable with the line “having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet.” Bad sex writing ahoy!

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Eugene Mahon is a familiarly depressive fictional Irish male, living a
life of quiet desperation in Salthill, Co. Galway. He is kitted out
with the accoutrements of his type – the overbearing mother, the
emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant
guilt and fear. His father, Séamus, died some years before, marinated
in alcohol – his drinking accelerating after a Shoreditch building
site accident which left another man worse off than dead. And in a
familiar move both in reality and fiction, Eugene lights out for
London town; specifically to work on the sites and to live in The
Beacon, the pub lodgings where his father had stayed.

Della, landlady of the Beacon, receives Eugene’s letter announcing his
arrival with dismay. She recalls, in a passage that alternates
logistical and lyrical modes, having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet
(“Between the sink and the toilet there wasn’t much room for the V of
her thighs – ‘Weightlifter’s thighs,’ Seamus had kidded, his fingers
digging into the underside of them for a second … Even then, at the
moment where wanting becomes having, she had known that she would wake
with the barbs of who and where carelessly jagging over her” ). Jack,
a confrere of Seamus’ from the old days, is still is residence at The
Beacon. Della’s Oxbridge educated daughter Julia (“Little Miss May
Balls” as her mother mockingly calls her), and Julia’s shiftless
philosopher-boyfriend Rhodri (working on a volume of aphorisms and
daydreaming of a column: “’Grey Matters – where Psychology meets
Philosophy meets the Popular.’ The better Sunday supplements were
crying out for it. Perhaps even the TLS if he shaved off the
expletives.”) also populate this dive.

Upon arrival, Eugene goes to work on a site presided over by the man
who employed his father, tough but benevolent Buck O’Halloran and his
far from benevolent son Noble. The sites are no longer the preserve of
Irish refugees from miscellaneous misery; this is a truly
multinational crew. Eugene livens up – a little. Of course, an
Irishman in a novel cannot be all that happy for all that long, and
Eugene eventually wakes in a police cell, with a charge of racially
aggravated assault and no memory of how he got there or what lead to
the charge.

“The Cure” reminded me inescapably of Fitzgerald’s dictum that “Begin
with an individual and you end up with a type, begin with a type and
you end with – nothing.” Eugene’s almost stereotypically miseryguts
Irishman may live a little in London, but never takes on a spark of
life. His mother, his brother, his girlfriend back in Salthill – all
seem barely reheated leftovers from an Edna O’Brien novel. The writing
is slightly livelier, slightly more engaging, dealing with the
multiethnic crew of the site – but even these figures feel half formed, and tend to speak in the contemporary equivalent of Kipling’s aspirate-free Tommies.
Of all the characters, Rhodri’s absurd philosophising and pretension
(“he believed that writing in pencil let more of the self out”) are
closest to memorable, striking attributes.

While the flashbacks to Salthill largely read like an updated Angela’s
Ashes, there are some moving moments. The rain-sodden depressive
Irish caricature has a basis in reality, and Genn captures some
elements of the mother-son relationship very well – but more in discursive
passages (“it was obvious to her that her children had been trying to
get one over on her since the day they were born so she countered this
with apocalyptic predictions”) than in action or dialogue. These moments aside, The Cure moves with plodding overinclusiveness towards an unearned epiphany.

“The story-within-a-story done right” : review of “The World House”, Guy Adams, SF Site 2010

“The story-within-a-story done right” : review of “The World House”, Guy Adams, SF Site 2010

Original here. Despite my enthusiasm here – and what I wrote in the penultimate paragraph – I didn’t read any of the succeeding books in this series. I was never, even at my adolescent height of enthusiasm for SF/fantasy, all that into the multivolume series which dominate the field.

The World House
Guy Adams
Angry Robot, 2010

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Done properly, the story within a story can have a vertiginous effect, a sense of being caught in an infinite loop, best described by Jorge Luis Borges in his lecture on “The Thousand And One Nights” collected in the book Seven Nights. The world-within-a-world story can have a similar effect. In a way, the hidden world is a theme not only of literature — from Horton Hears A Who to, it could be argued, the three stages of the afterlife in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Dante enters the afterworld through “a dark wood”) — but of myth of the underworld may be the first world-within-a-world story.

Guy Adams has created a rollercoaster of a story set in a world within a box — a world-within-a-world that is itself a Divine Comedy. For the box is, for most of those inside, a kind of after-life — those humans who enter the box do so at a moment of imminent death in this world — and it is certainly more an Inferno, or at best a Purgatorio, than a Paradiso. This is a world created out of the nightmares and fears of humans themselves, contained inside a box that is in fact a prison, with a very special prisoner.

The first third or so of the book is taken up by gradually introducing the multifarious cast of characters. From Spain during the Civil War to Harlem in the early 30s to the late night bars of New York in the 70s to Florida and an unnamed corner of England today, the pre-box lives of the characters are sketched artfully and speedily.

We begin with Miles, an English antique shop owner with poor financial judgement and a gambling habit, who gets on the wrong side of some very nasty characters indeed, and just before they blow him away on account of an unpaid debt he vanishes into the box. We also meet Penelope Simmons, a fun-loving Boston socialite in the 30s, who, about to be raped and murdered by her psychopathic fiancé Chester and his chauffeur at the end of a night out in Harlem, also disappears into the box. Both turn up at the same time and in the same area of the rambling, seemingly infinite house, which is where most of the action in the world takes place. If there is a main protagonist to the book, it is Miles, whose mordant world-view and lack of appetite for heroics, and lustful longing for Penelope (in fairness to Miles, at their first encounter Penelope is totally naked having escaped from Chester’s clutches just in time) are an earthy anchor point as the surreal action ensues. Miles and Penelope luckily team up with Carruthers, an Edwardian big game hunter and general man of action along the lines of Lord John Roxton from The Lost World who is determined, with admirable pluck, to escape the box altogether.

Interspersed with the stories of the box’s human inhabitants are brief vignettes of the story of some kind of super-powerful entities, probably extraterrestrial, who are responsible for the box’s existence. The box is a kind of prison for a renegade entity, one who stayed behind to enjoy tormenting the puny, pitiful humans whom its fellows had just been bored by.

In the early stages, it seems at times that Adams is throwing in yet another character from yet another setting, seemingly at random. As the story progresses, we realise that there are connections and commonalities there. And there seems to be another kind of inhabitant of the box — who seems able to exit and re-enter both the box and our own timeline. Alan Arthur, an academic in modern Florida with a large chunk of his memory missing, is drawn to this box (which, unsurprisingly for an artefact of such power and mystery, has been the subject of confused and fragmentary articles in some of the more out-of-the-mainstream media) for reasons that become clearer as the story progresses.

Too much more would give away not only the plot but the pleasure of reading the unfolding of this intricate tale. The world of the box is one of subtly altered reality, where benign seeming surfaces mask mortal dangers. From a jungle to snow-capped mountains to a sea of literal dreams, there are all the unnatural environments that one could think of. This may be a kind of after-life, but the box is a highly lethal place. Most of the visitors have a short life expectancy, and many resort to a brutish subhuman existence of cannibalism and fear.

Some of the most endearing characters are, unfortunately, not with us for long — although the conclusion does raise the possibility that the arrows of causality may have to be tinkered with, if not actually reversed. There will be a sequel, Restoration, which I for one will certainly be reading to see where the ride will go next.

World-within-a-world stories, like stories-within-stories, can be horribly self-indulgent and dull. After a while, the reader can lose interest in a story in which anything can happen with no real consequences, or in which random settings can be created. The crucial trick which Adams pulls off is to create compelling characters whose destiny becomes a matter of all-consuming interest in the reader. Adams is also adept at keeping the various strands of his highly productive imagination together, and creating a real sense of nightmare and indeed of menace in the story.

Argentina’s Dark Half-Century: Review of Lewis Shiner’s “Dark Tangos”, SF Site, 2012

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I reviewed Shiner’s definitely SF short story collection Love in Vain for SF Site also. This was a highly impressive “mainstream” novel which comes highly recommended as the review hopefully makes clear. Original here.

Few countries have had as dark a half-century as Argentina. Once one of the ten wealthiest nations on earth, and blessed with outstanding natural resources, Argentina’s post-war history became a catalogue of repression, oppression, exploitation and (perhaps worst of all) a pervasive sense that justice was never done. The most intense and damaging period of repression was the so called processo, which introduced “disappeared” as a noun to the lexicon. Anyone suspected of leftist sympathies was liable to vanish, and in one of those particularly sinister twists of the human capacity for cruelty, pregnant women would give birth in captivity only to be killed and their children adopted by the elite. The CIA and various American corporations were complicit in this abuse, yet another murky drama of Cold War powerplay.

As Lewis Shiner’s narrator observes, while the absolute numbers of dead (thirty thousand or so in the processo) is not near as high, the evil and determination to utterly destroy The Other is reminiscent of the Holocaust. In the novel, the narrator, Robert Cavenaugh, works for a fictional American corporation whose Buenos Aires office was, it turns out, complicit in all this. He himself is a relative innocent, a frequent visitor to the city even before the posting, and recovering from the breakup of his marriage. This is, for him, far from a hardship posting; he is keen to master the tango, and embraces the Buenos Aires lifestyle, the antithesis of the suburban commuter life he knew, with gusto.

Shiner has weaved a compelling and sharply observed tale. The tango is Robert’s key to the nocturnal, sensuous world of Buenos Aires nights, and Shiner takes the reader into this culture with subtle, unshowy erudition. I have never been to Buenos Aires myself, but Shiner manages to create a convincing portrayal of a vast, vibrant city with the intimacy of a village. There is plenty of local colour, but it does not overwhelm.

What follows is a by turns entertaining, erotic and disturbing account of how Argentina’s and America’s pasts and presents intersect and interact. Falling in love with Elena, a beautiful Argentinian he sees one day at his workplace and meets one night at the tango, Rob enjoys a blissful interlude of eroticism, suddenly cut short by Elena withdrawing all contact. Determined not to let this relationship just end, Rob insists of entering her world, and through this determination is drawn into the darker heart of Argentinian politics. The darkness of Argentina’s past is counterpointed with the bright, romantic world of the tango, and the gentleness of the love story counterpoints the viciousness of the political plots.

At times I found some of the contrasts Shiner’s narrator drew between Americas North and South a little laboured; Argentina, too, is the New World. However they are perhaps necessary for us to understand the transformation from political innocent to someone whose involvement goes beyond the superficial, touristic liking of a country to something deeper. Shiner, whose short story collection Love In Vain I reviewed, has written a “straight”, mainstream novel that reminded me most of all of Graham Greene’s tale of painful moral awakenings and difficult comittments. There is no real speculative element to this fiction; when you read the torture scenes, and read about the tragedy of Argentina in the last half century, you’ll wish that these were the products of imagination rather than grim reality.