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.

“Something terrifying and majestic at the same time” – From “Broken April’, Ismail Kadare

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Without the knocking at the door, everything would be so different that at times he was afraid to think of it, and he consoled himself with the notion that perhaps it had to happen this way, and that if life outside the whirlpool of blood might perhaps be more peaceful, by the same token it would be even more dull and meaningless. He tried to call to mind families that were not involved in the blood feud, and he found no special signs of happiness in them. It even seemed to him that, sheltered from danger, they hardly knew the value of life, and were only the more unhappy for that. Whereas clans that were in the blood feud lived in a different order of days and seasons, accompanied as it were by an inner tremor; the people were more handsome, and the young men were in favour with the women. Even the two nuns who had first passed, when they had seen the black ribbon sewn to his sleeve that meant he was searching for his death or that his death was searching for him, and looked at him strangely. But that was not the important things; what was happening within him was the important thing. Something terrifying and majestic at the same time. He could not have explained it. He felt that his heart had leaped from this chest, and, opened up in that way, he was vulnerable, sensitive to everything, so that he might rejoice in anything, be cast down by anything, small or large, a butterfly, a leaf, boundless snow, or the depression rain falling on that very day. But all that – and the sky itself might fall down upon him – his heart endured, and could endure even more.

William Gerhardie – a perpetually “lost writer” rediscovered again. SAU Blog, 2005

William Gerhardie is a writer whose fame rests on obscurity. Prominent early in his career, and feted by Waugh and Greene as their better, he later became “lost.” Being “lost” became his kind of fame. This can be a form of pleasing eccentricity; the glamour of shabby neglect. Even his biographer, Dido Davies, had something of this quality.

All this obscurity can obscure the books themselves. I wrote a few pieces on Gerhardie a while back. Here is one focusing on two of his better-known novels, Futility and Doom. I would place The Polyglots above Doom (but behind Futility)

William Gerhardie, the “rediscovered” author, and the “cult” novel

“Cult fiction” is, as I have observed previously, a marketing term with vague connotations of youthfulness, of eccentricity. It is also meaningless, or rather only meaningful when applied to works which have inspired a genuine cult-like devotion (such as the novels of Ayn Rand) for reasons unconnected with their literary merit (putting it mildly). It is applied to novels such as Catch 22 and To Kill a Mockingbird which are high in the list of all-time best sellers. It is applied to novels about drug dealers and serial killers. It is applied to any book which is turned into an artificially “edgy” Hollywood film. “Cult” and “mass market” are interchangeable, really.

William Gerhardie is established so firmly as a “lost writer” that, in fact, it seems churlish to encourage his rediscovery by a wider readership, and I recoil at the prospect of labelling him a “cult” writer. Part of the pleasure in reading Gerhardie is the sense of ownership, and thus it would be somehow disturbing if Gerhardie became as well known as, for instance, Evelyn Waugh. Even the loyal if somewhat obsessive devotion shown by admirers of Anthony Powell would seem excessive if Gerhardie were its subject.

Gerhardie, today, has a knot of literary champions – William Boyd and Michael Holroyd seem to feature on the blurbs of most reissues of his books – and, in his own time, was seemingly marked out by the Waugh-Greene-Powell generation as the real genius of the age. Waugh said of Gerhardie:

I have talent, but he has genius.

Greene said:

to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.

Those of an earlier generation were also admirers; Katherine Mansfield described his debut, Futility, as a:

living book … one can put it down and it goes on breathing.

Edith Wharton provided a preface for Futility, saying:

Mr Gerhardie’s novel is extremely modern; but it has bulk and form, a recognisable orbit, and that promise of more to come that one always feel latent in the beginnings of the born novelist.

Perhaps part of the enjoyment of discovering Gerhardie is the Ozymandias effect; encountering a writer whose reputation once threatened to be vast and who ended up dying in obscurity and penury. To a certain temperament, sic transit gloria mundi is a beautiful lament.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1895, Gerhardie’s father was English. During the 1905 Revolution Gerhardie senior was thrown into a sack and taken to the dock to be drowned. A revolutionary asked who was inside the sack, and misheard the name as that of Keir Hardie, thus sparing Gerhardie to be ruined by the 1917 Revolution. After a Russian education, Gerhardie junior – marked out as “the dunce of the family” – was sent to England to begin a vague commercial career. Gerhardie preferred to affect a languid expression and a Wildean demeanour, dressing dandyishly while lounging around dreaming of theatrical triumphs.

During the First World War he was posted to the British Military Attaché in what was now Petrograd, where he witnessed the 1917 Revolution. Later he would serve in the British Military Mission to Siberia, taking a part in the attempted intervention by the Western Powers. This would feature in Futility, and his long return journey from the East – via Singapore, Colombo and Port Said, and bearing the Order of the British Empire for services rendered during the expedition – would feature in his second novel, The Polyglots. On his return he began study in Worcester College, Oxford.

Oxford would feature in much of his work; as he wrote in The Polyglots:

Oxford is best in retrospect … There are as many fools in a university as elsewhere … but their folly, I admit, has a certain stamp – the stamp of university training, if you like. It is trained folly.

He was very glad to have gone there, because otherwise he would have had an exaggerated respect for an Oxbridge man. His time at Oxford was not entirely wasted, for while there he wrote the first book in English about Chekhov and Futility.

Erotic longing – as well as awareness of the absurdity of erotic longing – dominates the novels. All through his life Gerhardie craved female company – as an officer in Russia, he attracted the disapproval of his fellows for regarding:

the bodies of [lovers or wives of other men] as his own.

The novels feature a cavalcade of beautiful, teasing sisters, with interchangeable names like Nina and Zina. These ladies are, inevitably enough, accompanied by platoons of eccentric relatives.

For this reason, reading two novels of Gerhardie in one consecutive sitting can be somewhat disorientating. One expects the characters of one to wander into another. One reason advanced for his relative lack of success compared to Waugh is the tighter plotting of Waugh’s work; one can drift in and out of a typical Gerhardie novel, beginning at the end or the middle seems to make little difference. Futility is, however, more accessible in this regard than other Gerhardie novels.

The title of the first section, “The Three Sisters”, is an obvious nod to Chekhov. The Anglo-Russian narrator, Andrei Andreiech, is adrift in the dizzyingly complex family life of Nikolai Vasilevich, his three young daughters, and his longtime live-in lover who he has now abandoned for a young woman, Zina, who brings her own retinue of eager dependants. Nikolai Vasilevich is seen by all as a man of considerable means, based on what turn out to be utterly worthless mines in Siberia.

The eager dependants are exemplified by Uncle Kostia. Uncle Kostia is a writer, who has of course never published a word or given any indication of writing anything, but is nevertheless allowed to live as he wishes by the family out of respect for his apparent vocation:

one was never never sorry to give him all he wanted since the man is clever, you understand, and writes.

Eventually, when Revolution and Intervention make generosity even more expensive, Andrei Andreiech is prevailed upon to try and persuade Uncle Kostia to publish something:

“What have you been thinking about, Uncle Kostia?” I asked.”That’s just the trouble,” he said. “I can’t tell you.”

I waited.

“I don’t know myself,” he explained.

I still waited.

“I have been thinking of this and that and the other, in fact, of one thing and another – precious but elusive thoughts, Andrei Andreiech. Beautiful emotions. A kaleidoscope of the most subtle colours, if I may so express myself. And, Andrei Andreiech, it has taught me a great truth. It has taught me the futility of writing.”

Thus the eternal preoccupation in Russian culture with the proper role and duty of the intellectual is reduced to absurdity. Rather than the habit of some authors of attempting to create “character” by piling on detail, Gerhardie gives each character a recurrent phrase which manages to pinpoint them in the mind – the perpetually drunk Russian general who repeatedly mourns the “damrotten game” that is politics and greets any halfway attractive women with the words:

What eyes! What calves! What ankles!

There is Sir Hugo of the Admiralty whose response to most situations is an enthusiastic “Splendid! Splendid!”, and the hero of Gerhardie’s second novel, George Hamlet Alexander Diabologh, who is forever insisting to other characters and to the reader that he is:

good-looking… you think I’m conceited? I think not.

Intervention, for Andrei Andreiech, consists largely of an eternal train journey with Sir Hugo, an increasingly splenetic Admiral who is ultimately reduced to unhappily complaining, when finally worn down by the obscurantism and incompetence of the various White Russian factions, and the whole menage of Nikolai Vasilevich:

Some people think snow beautiful. I think it idiotic.

The expectations of the Admiralty are confounded by Russian incomprehension of such concepts as organisation and efficiency. It is no surprise, having read Gerhardie, that Trotsky’s Red Army won the civil war easily enough in the end. In the final sequence, Andrei throws in life in Oxford to travel back to Vladivostok and proclaim his love to Nina, the loveliest of the three sisters:

No more novels! Life, I thought, was worth all the novels in the world. And life was Nina. And Nina was life. And, by contrast, the people I encountered seemed pretentious and insincere. The women in particular were unreal. They talked of things that did not interest them with an affected geniality. They pretended a silly superiority or else an unconvincing inferiority. They said “Really?” and “Indeed?” and “How fascinating!” and “How perfectly delightful!” Nina was not like that. My three sisters were not like that. They were real. … Oxford with its sham clubs and sham societies appeared a doll’s house, a thing stationary and extinct of life, while the world, the Outside World, was going by. And I asked myself: What am I waiting for?

In Vladivostok, however, it turns out that Nina is disappointed to see him. She never loved him, she says. Andrei is just in time to see the sisters depart for Shanghai, and brood miserably on the quaside Now it is Oxford that seems to be a hub of pulsating life. Romantic longings, the whole idea that life is elsewhere, the “faraway hills” delusion – all are exercises in futility too.

Doom, Waugh’s favourite Gerhardie novel, was, confusingly, also published as My Sinful Earth in 1947 and Jazz and Jasper in 1927. It begins with a postmodern avant la lettre touch – the narrator, Dickin, reads an account of his involvement with two beautiful sisters to Lord Ottercove, the Beaverbrook-based press baron, and afterwards walks into a taxi with one of the sisters who has featured in the narrative. Dickin, constantly assumed by other characters to be a relative of Charles Dickens, is drawn into Ottercove’s orbit. Playing an increasingly large part in events is Lord de Jones, major proponent of an scheme to increase global food production by sealing volcanoes, thus increasing the Earth’s heat, and thus increasing the growth rate of crops. De Jones, it emerges, is more interested in apocalypse than in agricultural improvements.

Ottercove takes liftboys and gives them important branches of his empire to run – if they succeed he has discovered a genius, while if they fail they can always go back to being liftboys. He repeatedly promises Dickin an evening newspaper to edit as a wedding present. The restless extravagance of extreme wealth – an extravagance that is casual, without regard for power or even pleasure – is the keynote of Ottercove’s personality. Despite Ottercove’s apparent absurdity, A. J. P. Taylor – who wrote a biography of Beaverbrook – described Doom as the most convincing portrait of the press baron in print.

Ottercove is an extraordinarily vivid and dynamic creation, and his end – a literal disappearance into thin air – exemplifies the giddy, disturbing spirit of the book. It moves from romantic fantasy to evocation of what could be called High Mehgdia Mogulry to the bizarre apocalyptic coda set on a Swiss hillside. This finale – based on an idea of Gerhardie that the world might end piecemeal, in stages – was inspired by a suggestion of D. H. Lawrence that the world might end in the same way as a stocking ladders. Gerhardie also canvassed H. G. Wells for ideas on how to accomplish this bit-by-bit apocalypse, which stumped the father of science fiction.

In real life, Beaverbrook had made contact with Gerhardie, with a peremptory summons to London from Vienna to hear the tycoon discourse on the excellence of The Polyglots. Gerhardie fell into the Beaverbrook orbit just as Dickin fell into Ottercove’s. Beaverbrook would also toy with giving Gerhardie a newspaper to edit as a wedding present, although Gerhardie preferred to see himself as an artist rather than journalist. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn Gerhardie into a best seller failed, though not for want of trying. Thus, despite the praise of his peers and the might of Beaverbrook, Gerhardie continued on the path to his later obscurity. It seems clear he lacked a certain industriousness – a literary virtue rarely celebrated in all the mystic blather about “inspiration” – and a seriousness that would have perhaps anchored his books.

In the Thirties he wrote, with Prince Leopold of Loewenstein, Meet Yourself as You Really Are, which has been described as an early example of hypertext. Loewenstein would sit around talking about psychological types, while Gerhardie rendered the whole into witty, elegant English. The reader would choose which option to take at the end of each paragraph, something in the manner of those Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that were so popular in my childhood. A future of broken relationships, alcohol and relative penury loomed. Gerhardie would never achieve the glittering reputation his early praise seemed to merit.

In a 1990 biography of Gerhardie, Dido Davies discusses Malcolm Bradbury’s concept of different approaches to novelistic comedy. One is based is on extraordinary, eccentric characters and incidents – Don Quixote, the Pickwick Papers, or Tristram Shandy – and the other on a comedy of more everyday life and experience –Jane Austen, or Kingsley Amis. Gerhardie, in Davies’ view, exemplifies both types – the eccentric relatives and absurd political and military adventures revolve round a core of universal erotic longing, of the banality of everyday existence, or boredom and gaiety. Futility is Gerhardie at his simplest and most effective, as well as a book which saddens with the vastness of the promise not wholly fulfilled. His other available works are looser and more obviously flawed, with moments of tremendous wit and brio. If only “cult” has not acquired its irritating implications, it would be the perfect description of his writing.

 

The Granddaughter Paradox published in Sci Phi Journal

My story The Granddaughter Paradox has been published in Sci Phi Journal, an online journal of science fiction with a philosophical twist (or philosophical fiction with a science fiction twist?)

Reading the full story requires a subscription, or as the site says:

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So obviously I will encourage anyone reading this to follow the above instructions… but here is a preview:

Brendan McConnell’s morning began at 4.45 a.m. on a spring day in 2010. Between sleep and wakefulness for the whole night, as he realised the appointed time was nearing he willed himself fully awake. Penelope slept on beside him. When planning his actions that day, he had thought of kissing her, but had decided the risk of waking her up was too great. She hadn’t slept much lately. And if all went well he would be back before anything could be noticed by anyone. He slid out of the bed, lifting the polka-dot duvet only very slightly and replacing it so it was as if no one had slept there. Lit only by sodium street lamps, their light edging through the gaps at the edge of the curtains, the room seemed to be bulging with clothes and books and papers in every possible space. Brendan thought of the crash courses in biochemistry and molecular pathology they had put themselves through, scouring textbooks and journal articles for some hint, any hint of some answer, any answer. A paper sea of modern biomedicine in their bedroom; the books with their definitive and authoritative titles: Comprehensive Biochemical Pathology, Advanced Immunology. And the journal articles, forming blobs of stapled paper around the room, discarded part-understood. He went into the bathroom to change, folding his pyjamas and leaving them on top of the laundry basket. He had left out fresh clothes; a purple woolly jumper Rose liked to stroke, a clean white suit, black slacks, underwear, navy socks.

When dressed, he went into his four-year-old daughter Rose’s room. Tubes and monitors were attached to her, keeping her breathing. He spoke to her, knowing that she too was on the borderland of sleeping and waking, but at this point in the disease’s progression, she would not become fully alert:

“Rose, I am just going for a little while. I will be back, I will be back, and when I am you will be better. I promise”

He went downstairs, opened his work briefcase, took out two envelopes—one addressed to Penelope, one to Rose—and left them on the hall table. He put on his brown slip-on shoes. He opened the front door, and stood a little back from the threshold for a minute or so. Perhaps he would need this time when he came back, perhaps he would come across himself waiting at the door with the door open, and this would allow him to slip in, do whatever needed to be done with Rose, and slip in beside Penelope. Then he left. He had parked round the corner when he had come home the evening before, knowing that Penelope would most likely be too preoccupied to notice and if she did, he would just say that he was trying to get a little bit more exercise. There had been far more erratic behaviour than that on both their parts recently. He drove to the university and parked in an asphalt car park near the back of the School of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, rather than near the School of Business where he lectured. He got out of his car, and shook hands with a bearded, burly, short man. They walked, in the gathering dawn, to the back of the Physics building.

Five hours later, in 2090, he was sitting with Rose and the grandson of the man who shook his hand that morning. Suddenly, Brendan heard his own voice cheerily announce “Rosie-Posie, time for your medicine”. He turned, and saw a contraption consisting of the top half of a teddy bear on wheels rolling towards him.

“It has your voice, Daddy.” Rosie said. “We had video files of your voice. All my robot companions had your voice, when I was a child, and then in my teens, and now here I am an old woman, with a companion robot with my daddy’s voice.”

“It looks like you’ve got a friend with you today, Rosie? What is your name?” Brendan heard his own voice, the voice—friendly, jolly in an understated, unforceful way—of the days before Rosie’s diagnosis. “I am daddy,” he blurted out.

“Really? Whose daddy?”

“Rosie’s. Rosie has had me for seventy-four years.”

“Really? Really?” Brendan wondered how the artificial intelligence routines that presumably lay behind the robot companion’s bonhomie were handling this.

It repeated in Brendan’s voice “Really?” in the exact same intonation. Suddenly a little red light flashed on the side of its head, and the thing stopped, frozen.

“You’ve ruined it!” Again she was a four–year-old, with the icy clarity to her voice that was the familiar build up to an explosive tantrum. “You’ve ruined it! I could talk to him, and it was like you never went away. Well, for a short time I could believe it, but I really could believe it for that time. And now you’ve ruined it, and I’ll never believe it again.”

“But I’m here now—is this thing broken?”

“That red light means that something stumped the nets. That hardly ever happens. The nets are as good if not better than a person at knowing what someone is talking about. It sent a file back to the manufacturers. They’ll come and take it away.”

“But how can you be angry. I’m here now, the real thing. You don’t need a robot to have my voice.”

“Don’t you tell me what I should feel. You left, out into nowhere, you left that stupid letter I got after Mum died. It didn’t help. At least the robot didn’t leave.”

“I’m sorry,” he began, with tears forming. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” This last “sorry” was said with a suddenly explosion of rage, and suddenly an angry torrent of words emerged: “I’m sorry for travelling through time and leaving everything behind to save your life, to save your life, and you would rather have a little bloody robot than me.”

She had calmed, and now looked at him with another familiar expression from her childhood, an expression of infinite patience and gravity. “Of course I would rather have you, but you have to remember you have been a dim memory for all these years. The first memory I have… holding your hand on a beach while eating ice cream, on a blindingly sunny day. I asked Mum about it before she died, and she said that we never went on a beach holiday. Yet I remember it, as clear as I remember opening that door and seeing you there an hour ago.”

“I see.” He sat, any anger gone. “At least with the companions you had something definite.”

“Yes. Yes. Daddy, daddy, I’m sorry.”

“No, I should be sorry. I’m the sorry one. You see… they said you were going to die. It wasn’t weeks, but days.”

“I felt such a hole in my soul all those years. As if part of me had been cut out.”

“Do you remember being sick?”

“I was in and out for years. Of course I remember but not really the specifics. I remember vividly enough some of the times they thought I was going to die, but as I got older it was just a sort of irritating backdrop.“

“What happened? How did you get better? They kept telling us not to hope. They kept telling us—”

“Mum always said that it just happened. I didn’t die. They thought I would die for years and years, until I was almost ten. But I didn’t die. I just got better. I think I was kind of famous. Granny used to say it was her novenas.