Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

A circle of British magicians trap a naked man in a glass cage and keep him locked in for 70 years. While they age and die the hostage remains silent and unchanged. The Sandman tells the story of the imprisonment of the King of Dreams, his eventual escape and his quest to recover the powers he lost over the decades.

Since its appearance in 1991 The Sandman has become a classic comic book series so I’m very late to the party. I picked this up for the RIP challenge and there’s plenty of horror here, especially when a madman gets control over the world’s dreams and draws humanity into anarchic self-destruction.

This volume might not be the best of the Sandman series – the quests are a little mechanistic – but there are some great scenes, especially in Hell where Dream meets a rather attractive Lucifer. Also, there’s an appearance from John Constantine, which just might be the reason I picked up the book in the first place (maybe the movie wasn't well-loved by the critics, but it's well-loved by me).

I’m ambivalent about graphic novels since usually I prefer to be plunged into the language of story-telling. This one was a pleasure though, full of the imaginative playfulness you’d expect from Gaiman. He’s very skilled at conveying a lot about the characters in few words of dialogue. I might pick up more in the series – graphic novels (la bande dessinée or BD) are hugely popular in France so the libraries are full them, and it’s an easy way to read French. Okay, this has been about the Sandman so here’s a little more horror and/or a great song...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Living in a foreign country has had all sorts of funny effects on my reading habits. I read a lot more, partially just to enjoy the English language, but there’s a limited choice in the libraries, English books in the shops are pretty expensive, and Amazon orders have to be rationed. This all means I’ve ended up reading lots of books that have been sitting on the shelf a long long time. Crime and Punishment has been waiting years. I don’t even remember why I bought it in the first place. Autumn’s coming on and I was feeling fairly serious so decided to tackle it this week. Well, I finished. It turns out there’s no prize for getting to the end – disappointing.

The plot summary on my copy begins: 'Crime and Punishment (1866) is the story of a murder committed on principle, of a killer who wishes by his action to set himself outside and above society.' However, I felt that this concept – the murder on principle – became more important after the event, as the main character, Raskolnikov, tries to comprehend and justify his actions. When the actual action happens insanity, anger and frustration appear more significant than philosophy. What follows is a psychological-philosophical thriller as Raskolnikov lives in dread of his crime being revealed. Dostoevsky presents a vivid and repellent portrayal of nineteenth-century St Petersburg, peopled by lunatics, consumptives, saintly prostitutes and generally sinister folk. (See that ugly cover image? It's fitting - Russia here is not onion domes, snow-covered steppes and bear-skin but dingy rooms and worn out clothes.)

Dostoevsky wrote this story following his own experiences of interrogation and trial for political activism. He was sentenced to death, but this was changed to penal servitude and exile. Perhaps this is one reason why Raskolnikov’s tortured monologues are convincing rather than hysterical. The book has become a classic for its urgent interrogation of questions of good and evil, madness, and social justice. It seems foolish to criticise it really, but for me it was too long, the suspense was weakened by speeches that lasted pages (single paragraphs that must have been more than 2000 words), and I never felt convinced that the author really cared about his characters or knew them as more than fictional devices. Dostoevsky’s thought to be one of the greatest novelists who ever lived. For what it’s worth, Crime and Punishment is a great book objectively, but it left me cold.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Murakami has narrative magic I can’t resist. He once quoted John Irving as saying that reading a good book is a mainline. Once your readers are addicted, they’re always waiting. The analogy with drugs is a cold one but it makes sense. His novels open up the strange spaces in the world and I fall right in. Having said that, I was worried at the start of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World that this novel might be just a bit too (can I say it?) weird. I love The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore best of the Murkami novels I’ve read, but their strangeness is always rooted in a world I recognise. While superficially ordinary narrators cook elaborate meals, go to the dry cleaners or the gym and look after cats pretty well, I’m ready to accept dry-well portals and magic flutes made of animal souls. But Hard Boiled Wonderland gives the reader no home ground.

The story takes place in two different worlds. Odd chapters tell a sci-fi espionage story of a man figuring out a data-encryption experiment in the sewers below a Tokyo-like city, and within his own consciousness. Even chapters take us to the End of the World, a walled, perfectly ordered city where (another?) narrator finds himself severed from his shadow and set to work reading old dreams in a library full of skulls. There’s a reason why the book cover has no plot description – it’s pretty tricky to sum up. I took a while to find my feet but as the two stories began to draw closer together and I began to understand a little bit better what was at stake the novel became not just pacy but also poignant and thoughtful.

There’s a great summary of Murakami’s stories by John Wray, interviewing the author for The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: Few novelists have written and rewritten their obsession so compulsively, I think, as you have. Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Dance Dance Dance, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Sputnik Sweetheart almost demand to be read as variations on a theme: a man has been abandoned by, or has otherwise lost, the object of his desire, and is drawn by his inability to forget her into a parallel world that seems to offer the possibility of regaining what he has lost, a possibility that life as he (and the reader) knows it can never offer. Would you agree with this characterization?


That deadpan response to Wray’s analysis makes me smile. Among his other virtues is that Murakami is a funny man, and he combines this with an obsessive, deadly serious narrative search that Wray describes just right. It’s hard for me to love Hard-Boiled Wonderland in the way I do The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It’s so cerebral. But I’m definitely still fascinated, and waiting for the next shot.

(I read this novel as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I picked up Their Eyes Were Watching God in the library because the title intrigued me and read the first two paragraphs:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.*

I thought this so beautiful I borrowed the book and read it straight away, and this really is a wonderful novel. It was published in 1937 and is now a recognised classic but passed me by until now.

The story is quite simple and tells the life of Janie Crawford, a mixed race woman who believes she deserves love and holds onto that belief in the face of the resignation to compromise and suffering that surrounds her. Janie comes vividly to life thanks to Hurston’s style. Much of the book is direct speech between characters framed by narration in the literary, even biblical tone that opens the book. The play between the two styles – idiomatic direct speech and poetic narration – reminded me a little of Cormac McCarthy since I read The Crossing so recently, except that Hurston is warmer and her characters’ free-wheeling conversations take over more.

I could pull quotes out of anywhere in Their Eyes and marvel at what Hurston does. Here’s one example, Janie remembering her grandmother:

It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud puddle and see and ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon – for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you – and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.

Reading Janie recover from this is a joy.

(* Given the last post I'd better acknowledge this opening is in the present tense. It's in the honoured tradition of getting going with something gnomic (Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace...), but the novel isn't in the present throughout...)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Are there too many novels in the present tense?

Had Kafka or Marquez been keen on writing novels in the present tense, who knows, perhaps my two favourite opening lines might have read like this:

Someone slanders Josef K., and one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he is arrested.

As he faces the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembers that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Okay, neither Kafka or Marquez would have written those sentences which are leaden and merely anecdotal compared with these:

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

This weekend Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher criticised the increasing use of the present tense in novels, pointing out that half the books on this year’s Booker shortlist are in written in the present, as are the majority of books on the longlist. Pullman considers the present tense to be an affectation that limits a writer’s range. Hensher points out that the fashion is symptomatic of a mistaken belief that the present tense plunges us into the action: ‘Writing is vivid if it is vivid. A shift of tense won’t do that for you.’

The present-tense story is as old as drama and plenty of novels use it in interesting ways alongside other tenses so I’m not as dogmatic as Pullman who apparently doesn’t read present-tense novels, but I am glad he’s raised the issue. The present too often feels like a gimmick and it usually makes me suspicious of the writer. Do they assume the technique will make us feel like direct witnesses to the action? It takes a lot more than that. And what about Pullman’s observation that past has more grammatical subtleties (the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect)? Maybe the present tense takes our attention for granted, like an anecdote or a joke told by a friend. Those opening sentences by Kafka and Marquez promise great things will happen. There’s something in the folding together of different past tenses that for me says, here there’s a story to be told and a great craftsperson telling us.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

Palimpsest is the story of a fantastic city reached only in sleep, filled with human-animal hybrids, ghost trains and living buildings. Four travellers arrive together one night: November, a beekeeper from California; Oleg, a Russian locksmith living in Manhattan; Ludovico, an Italian bookbinder; and Sei, a Japanese girl who sells train tickets. In their waking lives they have lost loved ones and no longer belong, but in Palimpsest they are thrown bewildered into wild love affairs haunted by painful memories. Valente shows us the city as a powerful intoxicant, a place of desire, imagination and revelation.

It’s a hard book to describe by plot because it is most of all an inventory of Palimpsest. Valente’s imagination is vivid, bold and endlessly fertile, and I enjoyed reading the novel as a ride through a strange place. The characters, unfortunately, are secondary to inventiveness so the fantastic city at times feels more real than these people. All the main characters are searching for ways to return to the city and finally to stay there. Initially the way into Palimpsest is only through sex with a stranger who has been there themselves, so there are a fair few descriptions of one-night stands. It’s never really made clear why sex with a stranger should provide access to Palimpsest, but those are the rules...

I felt the book would work best if it found the reader in the right mood; perhaps it needs someone to be longing for escape or feeling deserted to immerse in the baroque prose. For me, it half worked but I still felt the lack of characters in whom I could really believe.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

Sixteen-year-old Billy Parham leaves his family ranch in New Mexico to take a wolf he has captured back across the border to the Mexican hills he believes it came from. In The Crossing Cormac McCarthy tells the story of the boy’s journeys among the people who try to live in the border territories – ranchers, thieves, priests, gypsies, healers and murderers. It’s an extraordinary read. The story is so bleak that in most writer’s hands it would be repellent, but McCarthy’s prose is compelling, taut and revelatory. Sometimes reading I forgot to breath.

The first section’s descriptions of Billy’s experiences with the wolves are especially beautiful and reveal the boy’s character without the narrative ever having to explain his thoughts or the motivations for his actions, which are often extreme, even perverse. The later sections relate encounters on the road and include many discussions of human violence and faith, in McCarthy’s characteristic prophetic style. Here’s a blinded soldier talking to a woman whose family was killed by bandits:

He said that as the memory of the world must fade so must it fade in his dreams until soon or late he feared that he would have darkness absolute and no shadow of the world that was. He said that he feared what the darkness held for he believed that the world hid more than it revealed.

And of the man who blinded him, He said that in his opinion no one could speak for the origins of such men nor where they might appear but only of their existence. He said that who steals one’s eyes steals a world and himself remains thereby forever hidden.

I don’t know if this book is a wise one because I was too much overwhelmed by the words, but I’m pretty sure that whatever storytelling is for, Cormac McCarthy understands.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Book Forecasts: David Grossman and Amos Oz

David Grossman’s new novel To the End of the Land is released in English later this month (trans. Jessica Cohen), a story of grief and war in contemporary Israel. It’s receiving advance praise, especially here in The Guardian. Here’s the publisher’s introduction to the plot:

Ora, a middle-aged Israeli mother, is on the verge of celebrating her son Ofer’s release from army service when he returns to the front for a major offensive. In a fit of preemptive grief and magical thinking, she sets out for a hike in the Galilee, leaving no forwarding information for the ‘notifiers’ who might darken her door with the worst possible news...

Shortly after Grossman began writing this book his youngest son was killed fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and so To the End of the Land was shaped by his own grief. Any reading of the novel will probably also be touched by the knowledge of the author’s loss. I admire Grossman’s bold writing, especially See Under: Love, his tale of how the Holocaust haunted the young state of Israel. (His level headed anti-war campaigning is also impressive in the face of personal tragedy.)

Also on my wish-list just now is another newly translated Israeli novel, Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest by Amos Oz (trans. Sondra Silverston):

In a village far away, deep in a valley, all the animals and birds disappeared some years ago. Only the rebellious young teacher and an old man talk about animals to the children, who have never seen such (mythical) creatures. Otherwise there's a strange silence round the whole subject. One wretched, little boy has dreams of animals, begins to whoop like an owl, is regarded as an outcast, and eventually disappears. A stubborn, brave girl called Maya and her friend Matti, are drawn to explore in the woods round the village...

Oz looks to be working with fable in contrast to Grossman’s realism, but both write with a moral urgency characteristic of the older generation of Israeli novelists. Since I don’t usually buy hardbacks (and the French libraries only stock books in English if the original language is English) I’m in for a bit of a wait, but it’s always good to see the translations emerge.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

I’ve kept The Silmarillion on the shelf for years but put off reading it because I had the vague idea that it’s supposed to be unreadable stuff, the Finnegans Wake of fantasy fiction. This isn’t true at all. I finally picked it up this week and raced through it, daft elf-names and all. It starts with a beautiful musical creation myth and then tells the history of the races of elves and men up to the time of The Lord of the Rings. The book is more a chronicle than a novel, many different stories pieced together from Tolkien’s lifetime of work inventing the histories and language of Middle Earth. Okay, so there are some fairly dry genealogical bits, but it’s also bursting with doomed warriors, gothic love stories and the fight against evil.

The overall tone is melancholic – Tolkien’s heroes are great men and women living under shadows too dark to dispel entirely. There’s something here of Tolkien’s own experience fighting in the First World War trenches, as well as the heavy influence of Beowulf and the Old Norse Edda. Probably I would never have read this if The Lord of the Rings hadn’t been such an important book for me in childhood. That would have been a loss. Together with Tolkien’s novels, The Silmarillion is a journey into a beautiful, haunting other world.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood is an apocalyptic dystopia set a few decades in the future. It’s a loose sequel to Oryx and Crake, which first introduced Atwood-readers to an overheated, germ-infested world overrun with sinister genetically-modified creatures. People live either in luxurious sealed compounds run by bio-medical corporations, or in the seething pleeblands beyond the fences. Life is very grim: die on the street and you might end up in tomorrow’s burgers. When a killer virus arrives to clear out the general mess we follow two women trying to survive in the wreckage, Toby, a tough survivalist type, and Ren, an oddly childlike sex-worker.

The action is face-paced since there are plenty of murderous criminals hanging on to life somehow, and Toby’s pragmatism and humanity had me rooting for her throughout. Even so, The Year of the Flood does not match Oryx and Crake’s shocking vision and narrative thump. Perhaps this is because Atwood seems to be having just a little too much fun with her apocalypse. As in Oryx, there’s a riot of detail here, including a bestiary of GM hybrids such as pigoons (pig-human splices bred for organ harvesting), wolvogs (which look like friendly dogs but are unremittingly ferocious) and chickinobs (like a cabbage-chicken splice). But credibility is strained by the story’s excessive coincidences. Too many characters survive the virus that was supposed to wipe out the human race, and they’re all too closely connected to each other and to the events of the first novel. Picture the suffocated and desolate end of the world in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; The Year of the Flood is the opposite – death comes in viral proliferation and finally, it’s all a bit much.

I recommend Oryx and Crake with great enthusiasm and Atwood is one of my favourite novelists, even if this latest isn't her best. As you’d expect, Atwood gives us great female leads, but I felt the book was unbalanced by its own playfulness.