“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.

“Genius is a much abused word” – piece on Goethe and the “Great Man” school of history for Eurotimes, 2008

“Genius is a much abused word” – piece on Goethe and the “Great Man” school of history for Eurotimes, 2008

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Goethe’s Colour Wheel (source: Wikipedia)

On my other blog I have very occasionally posted copies of reviews I did for Eurotimes, the journal of the European Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons. Such gems of popular appeal as “Femtosecond laser – Principles and Applications in Ophthalmology.” and “Corneal Ulcers – Diagnosis and Management.” As I wrote on A Medical Education:

OK, undoubtedly the writing I have been paid the most for over the years – the writing that has been the closest I have been to earning some kind of living via the pen – were the book reviews I wrote for Eurotimes, the publication of the European Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons, from 2004 until 2010. With a payment by the word, and a brief essentially to write a piece about a book that would include a physical description of the size, cover design and proportions of the book, this was an assignment that ultimately became too much “for the money” rather than any great emotional investment on my part. Perhaps that was all to the good. Generally I would hold forth for some paragraphs about some wider issue inspired by the book, and this is fairly typical of my efforts

I was upfront with the magazine about my lack of specialist knowledge of ophthalmology (although it has always been an interest and even quite far into psychiatric training I thought of changing specialties…. occasionally I think of it still) but that didn’t matter – the ability to write serviceable prose on a reliable schedule was the important thing. I tried to make these pieces interesting. I am not sure I always succeeded. Payment by the word may have engendered a certain long windedness.

I did a couple of forays into non-book review pieces for Eurotimes, one on the Venetian ophthalmologist Giuseppe Gradenigo (which was actually quite interesting, might dig it up if I can) and one on the optic work of Goethe, which incorporated some digressions on the overuse of the word “genius”:

Genius is a much abused word. Its connotations of exceptional ability have been lost when every talented fashion designer, or computer game programmer, or even every high school student who does well in their exams, is dubbed a genius. Even ophthalmologists use the word to describe gifted categories, yet an interesting after-dinner game at a conference might be to make a list of the true geniuses of eye doctoring.

My own view is that the word “genius” should be reserved for those few figures whose influence on culture in the widest sense is so profound that that influence in unquantifiable. And a remarkable number of the figures who have a claim on the title had ophthalmological, or at least optic, interests. In the era that straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an age of towering figures, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) towers above all, and is one of those historical figures no one can dispute was a genius. His major fame now rests on literary achievements, and these alone beggar belief. He managed to be one of the founding fathers of romanticism and yet maintain a classical distance from the overheated romantic world that helps prevent his work from becoming dated and keep it fresh.

As well as this, he did considerable work in a variety of scientific and philosophical fields. Ironically, it was for his work in optics that Goethe himself thought he would be remembered. Another over-used term, “polymath”, equally applies.

In the Anglo-Centric world, it is hard to get a grasp of just how towering Goethe was to his contemporaries. Most English-speaking general readers will have heard at least of Goethe’s version of Faust, and perhaps his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Yet Goethe, for instance, played an integral part in creating the modern celebrations of Christmas – his adoption of a Christmas tree, traditional only in Alsace, lead to its population in the German-speaking world and thereby internationally.

This of course was an age during which the distinction between the humanities and the sciences was not as sharp as it is now. Indeed, the term “natural philosopher” was used to describe scientists, and the overlap between scientific, political, literary and artistic interests was considerable.

Of course, the advent of specialisation, and the current trend to micro-specialisation, have lead to far greater efficiency in science at any rate. One could argue too that mass literacy in Western societies has made this an age where towering figures are less likely to emerge, and perhaps this is no loss. Certainly academic historians tend to dismissive of the “Great Man” school of history., Nevertheless, with the academic unfashionability of the Great Man school of the history in general and history of science in particular, there is a concomitant popular interest in the lives of the scientists. In many ways this is analogous to the popularity of books and television programmes about battles and royalty – the “maps and chaps” approach history that is frowned on in teaching and academia. Children (and undergraduates) are supposed to be interested in how the Romans made porridge, not Julius Caesar.

Since the success of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, there has been a mini-boom in books about the personalities of the history of science. Lively biographies of the names best known as units or constants proliferate. The titles alone demonstrate the popular resistance to the death of the “Great Man” school of history of science – with the likes of The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell and The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century: Nikola Tesla. The success of these books must be, in part, due to a yearning for exactly those tales of exemplary lives that we have allegedly grown out of.

And in considering figures like Goethe, it is hard not to feel that we have lost something in the drive to specialisation and the drive to depersonalise intellectual history. As well as his more purely literary work, Goethe did lasting work in mineralogy, in the developing theory of evolution, linguistics, philosophy, and many other fields.

As mentioned above, Goethe himself believed his contributions to optics would win enduring fame. His 1810 treatise “A Theory Of Colours” outlines this. It comprises three sections – one observational, one polemical against the theory of Newton, and one historical. Despite the title, it lacks a theoretical structure, but describes various optical phenomena. Both wave and particle theories are rejected because they not directly perceived by the senses. From looking at light through a prism, Goethe observed that the spectrum was not discretely divided into seven colours, but that there were borderline zones between each colour. Therefore colour was a compound phenomenon – “Colours arise at the borders, where light and dark flow together” – and there were only two pure colours, yellow and blue. Darkness held a pivotal role in Goethe’s optical theory. It was not simply the absence of light, but a positive entity, polar to light. Colour derived from the relation between darkness and light.

While the theory as such has been effectively demolished, it retains a power as Goethe’s descriptions of the phenomenology of colour have not been equalled. The philospher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that the “Theory of Colour” was not really a theory, but a vague schematic outline, and it is an outline that has inspired thinkers and philosophers up to the present day.

Goethe’s lasting contribution to medical science is an indirect one – “the Werther effect”, named after his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. This tale of adolescent passion – the original bildungsroman or coming-of-age tale, caused a sensation upon its publication, and was held responsible for a wave of young male suicides throughout Europe.

Ironically, given the thoughts on the overuse of the word “genius” with which this piece begins, it was German authors of the eighteenth century who began to use it in its current sense, although largely to distinguish innate great abilities from those derived from study or effort. Classically, “genius” referred to “tutelary god or attendant spirit allotted to every person at his birth, to govern his fortunes and determine his character, and finally to conduct him out of the world; also, the tutelary and controlling spirit similarly connected with a place, an institution” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as other meanings (thus readers coming across the word “genius” in pre-eighteenth century literature should be cautious about its meaning) Thus during a time when genius in its true sense was perhaps more evident than any other in history, the power of the word began to be diluted.

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.

A butterfly in the woods: guerrilla forest art in Millennium Forest Kilkenny

A butterfly in the woods: guerrilla forest art in Millennium Forest Kilkenny

Walking in the Millennium Forest in Kilkenny I saw in the distance what seemed like an unbelievably considerate butterfly lying still on a tree trunk:

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As I approached, it was suspiciously still and increasingly, well, plastic looking:

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On closest inspection, it was indeed a plastic model someone had inserted onto the trunk:

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I prodded it with a twig, just to make sure. Yep, my ability to distinguish a real butterfly from a plastic model remains undimmed by the passage of time.

This wasn’t there a week before. Someone has evidently placed it on this prominent tree beside a bench (possibly the single most prominent tree in the forest)

There seems to be something of an underground trend of what could be called guerrilla forest modification (I am sure there is a better term than that) I’ve posted before about a seemingly spontaneous sign proclaiming a spring in Wilderness Gorge in Clonmel a “Holy Well.” While the popular fairy trail concept is generally an officially sanctioned one, I have seen unheralded Fairies and Fairy Doors in Castledermot Co. Kildare and also on a recent visit to St Berrihert’s Kyle (in a grove of trees beside the Kyle itself)

While one can imagine This Kind of Thing going a bit far, it is a pleasingly spontaneous artistic intervention, one that seemingly has occurred without official sanction or the need for some kind of proposal to be written.

“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.

“occultist, explorer, traveler, cannibal, and journalist”

Reading F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up  I came across a reference to a William Seabrook:

 

William Seabrook in an unsympathetic book tells, with some pride and a movie ending, of how he became a public charge. What led to his alcoholism or was bound up with it, was a collapse of his nervous system.

Resorting to the all too inevitable source when looking someone up, Wikipedia, I came across one of the more arresting opening lines of a Wiki biography page:

William Buehler Seabrook (February 22, 1884 – September 20, 1945) was an American Lost Generation occultist, explorer, traveler, cannibal, and journalist, born in Westminster, Maryland.

The book Fitzgerald is referring to is presumably this one:

In December 1933, Seabrook was committed at his own request and with the help of some of his friends to Bloomingdale, a mental institution in Westchester County, near New York City, for treatment for acute alcoholism. He remained a patient of the institution until the following July and in 1935 published an account of his experience, written as if it were no more than another expedition to a foreign locale. The book, Asylum, became another best-seller.[citation needed] In the preface, he was careful to state that his books were not “fiction or embroidery”

The cannibalism bit is slightly less dramatic than it sounds:

In the 1920s, Seabrook traveled to West Africa and came across a tribe who partook in the eating of human meat. Seabrook writes about his experience of cannibalism in his novel, Jungle Ways; however, later on Seabrook admits the tribe did not allow him to join in on the ritualistic cannibalism. Instead, he obtained samples of human flesh from a hospital and cooked it himself