MonthJune 2009

E-books and readers

I’ve been trying out a couple of e-book readers today, and thought I’d post a few thoughts. My previous experience of e-books has largely been limited to reading them on desktop computers, which is okay for short stories, but not really for anything longer, and hardly ideal in any case. How would handheld devices fare?

First, I had a go with the iPod Touch. To be fair, this was not really designed for reading e-books, so it’s no surprise that it was very awkward to use. Trying to do almost anything using the touch-screen interface was such a fiddly job, and moving to a specific page with the ‘page meter’ (don’t know the official name) was practically impossible. It’s not very comfortable to hold for purposes of reading, either.

The Sony Reader was better – and, indeed, much better in general than I expected. You can actually hold it like a book; and there’s no screen glare, so it’s quite comfortable to read (though the unit itself is a little heavy). The controls took some getting used to, and I could do without the brief inversion of colours that comes with each transition between pages. But I could certainly see something like this becoming a viable alternative (price notwithstanding)) to lugging around 800-page novels (if I felt like reading many).

And yet… I still feel that e-books are not about to supplant the paper variety any time soon – and not just for relatively superficial reasons like ‘printed books look nicer’ (although they do). I think there are real practical concerns; I’m surely not the first person to suggest this, but it strikes me that there are key things that printed volumes do well and e-books don’t – and that the best kinds of electronic book are those for which the traditional format is too restrictive.

For example, a dictionary you can search online is far more practical than a huge tome you have to pick up and flick through. But when it comes to reading fiction, where you don’t want to be concerned with the mechanics of how you’re reading, a printed book is an ideal format – you just pick it up and read. This, I think, is the real sticking-point for e-books and e-book readers – they have portability on their side, but their current format is inferior to what they’re competing directly against. And I’m not sure whether refinements to the technology I saw today are going to address that.

‘Survivor’ by Douglas Coupland, and various senryū: McSweeney’s 31 (2009)

Issue 31of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is published as a beautiful hardback folio of the kind you’d find a library, which is quite appropriate given its theme: they’ve asked writers to produce new pieces using (relatively) lesser-known liteary forms. I’ve picked out a couple here that I like in particular.

‘Survivor’ by Douglas Coupland is a biji. A biji is a Chinese literary form conisisting of passages in various styles; as well as standard first-person narratives, Coupland’s includes geographical writing, recipes, and even a list of links to YouTube clips of people eating rather unpleasant things. Our protagonist is a washed-up television presenter who had a messy divorce and has ended up on a remote island fronting a new series of  the reality gameshow Survivor. Then world events take a turn for the worse, and the game of survival ceases to be a game. I’m impressed with what Coupland does with the biji form, both the way he uses contemporary styles to tell a contemporary story whilst remaining true to the spirit of the form; and with his management of the story, as the situation and its effects gradually emerge from a collage of texts.

But my favourite pieces in the magazine are the shortest: a page of senryū, a Japanese verse form somewhat like haiku. Again, I’m impressed with the range of effects that the five poets who attempt this form achieve. Am I allowed to quote one in its entirety? I will do so, because I can’t exactly quote part of one; but I apologise if I shouldn’t be. This senryū is by Nicky Beer:

After ten years, I wrote him: “Now?”
He returned the word,
one letter gone.

Nicely done, I think. So are the other senryū, in their different ways.

Little Boots – Hands

Video: ‘New in Town’

For the last few years, the BBC website has run the ‘Sound of…’ poll, in which a bunch of music industry bods are asked to vote on who they think will be the new acts to watch in the coming year. Topping the Sound of 2009 poll was an electro-pop artist from Blackpool named Victoria Hesketh, aka Little Boots, who got a record deal after leaving her old band and posting videos on YouTube of her playing songs at home.

It’s not hard to see why Hesketh came first in the poll. Hands begins with the single ‘New in Town’ which is, to be frank, an absolute corker of  a song. A stuttering opening gives way to an intrguingly odd melody, which then explodes into a mighty chorus that promptly takes up residence in the mind and refuses to leave (I’m still humming it now). One of the best songs of the year so far, no doubt.

And that’s not the only great song on here. There’s the weird clattering of ‘Meddle’, the skewed disco of ‘Remedy, the drum-led march of ‘Ghost’… There’s also something notable about Hesketh’s lyrics: not so much particular turns of phrase, but she pulls off the neat trick of building entire songs around single metaphors (all the mathematical language on the aptly-titled ‘Mathematics’, for example, or the driving-themed ‘No Brakes’) without it seeming strained.  This doesn’t quite work on ‘Click’, which tries to pack too much in; but I’d say that’s the only sub-par song on the album.

More than this, Hesketh is a good singer (although the spoken interlude on one track was a bad idea), and she’s amde an electronic album of heart with its own distnctive feel. If good pop music can be defined as music that stays in your head and is welcome there (well, that’s how I’m going to define it here); then Hands is an album of good pop music, and Little Boots deserves to be a star.

Video: ‘Meddle’ (live)

Fantasy and Crime Fiction: The Cases of China Miéville and John Grant

(NOTE: As I once discovered after leaving a post on an old message board, China Miéville used to work with someone called David Hebblethwaite. For the record, I am not that person, and have no other connection to Miéville; John Grant, however, has been a friend for the best part of ten years. None of this, I trust, has had any bearing on what follows.) 

The City & the City by China Miéville (2009)
The City in These Pages by John Grant (2008)

Here are two fantasy-inflected police procedurals, or perhaps two crime-flavoured fantasies, or perhaps both. The two texts offer interesting approaches to mixing crime fiction and fantasy, yet in some ways they are polar opposites.


mieville First, to China Miéville’s new novel, The City & the City. (I’ve been reading discussions on this book by Niall Harrison, Dan Hartland, and Adam Roberts; I’ll be referring to them a few times in this post.) Two things you can almost guarantee of a China Miéville novel are that it will have an urban setting, and that it will play games (albeit probably with serious intent) with genre. And here, indeed, we get both: our setting is somewhere in the region where Europe and Asia meet, in the fictional cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are unique in that they overlap in physical reality.

(Technically, this is a spoiler, but I reveal it because it makes the book more interesting, and because Miéville reveals it himself forty or fifty pages in. Actually, it’s possible to work out what we’re dealing with before then, because the very first chapter mentions an area called a ‘crosshatch’. Now, ‘crosshatch’ was coined as a critical term in the Clute/Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997); it means a region where different realities intersect — and, in this novel, crosshatches are the points where the realities of Ul Qoma and Besźel become intertwined. Like Jeff VanderMeer in the comments on Niall Harrison’s post, I’m not sure why Miéville feels the need to employ misdirection over this: if you know what a crosshatch is in a fantasy context, there’s no mystery; and if you don’t, the first-person narrator is happy to spill the beans soon enough, so why does he pussyfoot around to begin with?)

Anyway, the cities overlap, and it’s possible to sense both of them at once. It’s not wise to do so, however, because if you cross the border illegally (and there’s only one place to cross legally), you will have committed ‘breach’, and the mysterious forces of ‘Breach’ (more distinctively different names would have been nice) will take you away and… well, nobody knows, but you won’t come back. So people in both cities try their best to ‘unsee’ the other place.

(Another aside, but I found this ‘unseeing’ business rather wearying. It’s very tempting to read it as a metaphor for the way we ‘unsee’ people in our own lives — indeed, the instinctive ‘pull’ towards this metaphorical reading is as strong as any I’ve felt in a long time — but I don’t think it holds up to close examination. To generalise, the people we may choose to  ‘unsee’ tend to be [so we believe] worse off than ourselves; but the default ‘other’ in The City & the City is Ul Qoma, which is better off than Besźel. And actually, we don’t really ‘unsee’ people in the same sense; we ignore them, we might even pretend that they don’t exist — but that’s very different from actively trying not to perceive something, as happens in Besźel and Ul Qoma.

(My point here is that I’m left unsure whether I’m supposed to take this metaphorical reading seriously, and there are problems either way. If I am, the metaphor doesn’t work; if I’m not, it’s intrusive. Miéville is surely too canny a writer not to know that this reading is possible, but why make it so noticeable if it doesn’t work? Unless he’s making a point about metaphors themselves, in which case, I wish he’d found a less annoying way to make it.)

Back to the story: our narrator is Tyador Borlú, a Besź detective investigating the murder of a young woman who turns out to be an Mahalia Geary, an American archaeology student, working on a dig in Ul Qoma that was looking at artefacts of the mysterious Precursor civilisation that existed before the two cities became conjoined (whether Besźel and Ul Qoma were originally two cities that fused, or one that split apart, is unknown). Mahalia, it transpires, believed in the existence of Orciny, the third city rumoured to exist in the interstices of the other two, and thought by most to be superstition. She also seems to have made enemies amongst the myriad extremist political factions of the cities. Borlú’s investigation takes him not only to Ul Qoma, but on a journey of discovery to the very heart of his reality… but you’d expect nothing less, would you?

Some negatives: Miéville’s prose and characterisation seem… not so much lacking as unsatisfying; these may be consequences of the story he has chosen to write. There are, of course, moments of very effective writing (on the contrast between the office and the crime scene: ‘Black tea and bread and paperwork, the boredom and striplights, all so much not like the peeling back of that wet-heavy, cumbersome mattress, in the yard, in the dark’), but on the whole, the prose seemed so restrained that the individual cities didn’t come to life in my mind. There’s much more spark when Miéville is writing action and describing the intersection of realities; maybe it’s that the investigation format restricts the author’s opportunities to write those kinds of passages.

In terms of characterisation, Tyador Borlú’s voice comes through as a voice, while nevertheless exhibiting Miéville’s signature style. But Borlú and colleagues feel somewhat flat; they don’t seem to have much personality (though this may be because the narrative is so focused on the investigation that we don’t get chance to see the characters ‘in the round’), nor are they distinctive enough individually.

Be that as it may, the real interest of The City & the City lies elsewhere. Between them, Harrison, Hartland, and Roberts raise two related issues (at least, to my mind they’re related) that get at the heart of what I think is most interesting about this novel. These issues are how far it is possible to accept the fantasy notions as existing in the real world; and how well the modes of fantasy and crime fiction work together. And most interesting about the novel for me is what I think Miéville is trying to do with the fantasy: to take something fantastic, and make it part of reality — and not just in the sense of ‘what would it be like if..?’, but in a truly fundamental, formal sense.

Niall Harrison and Dan Hartland both have problems ‘believing’ in the overlapping cities, or at least in the cities’ existing in our world. I was trying to pin down exactly what they meant, when I realised there was an unspoken assumption in their discussion: it seems to me that they assume the conjoined cities are a product of shared delusion, that Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city, and that the ‘boundaries’ between them are just in people’s minds (so are all place boundaries, technically, but I trust the distinction I’m making is clear).

Now, it never entered my head — and still doesn’t — to think that the situation in the book is anything other than as literally described; I assumed, and still assume, that Besźel and Ul Qoma are two places whose realities are intertwined; their inhabitants don’t have to ‘believe’ in the relationship between the cities, because that is how things are. So, from that point of view, I have no trouble accepting Miéville’s basic reality, because he imagines it solidly enough.

Why do I assume all this is ‘real’ and not delusion? Because of the words Miéville uses: ‘crosshatch’ is the clearest suggestion that we’re dealing with physical realities here, but there are subtler hints. The author makes other critical terms into everyday words (I spotted ‘alterity’ and ‘equipoise’, to name two); people talk about ‘invoking’ Breach, as though it’s not clear to them whether that agency is supernatural or not, or whether that makes any difference. This all seems to me an attempt to deliberately blur the lines between the fantastic and the mimetic, at the level of the text itself; and in that respect, I think it works very well indeed.

(This is not to imply that I have no problems with Miéville’s reality-building; I do have trouble accepting his characters’ response to their reality. I can’t believe people would have the discipline to keep ‘unseeing’ things for hundreds of years; the sheer effort would surely be too great, not to mention that it’s impracticable (you have to be able to dodge out of the way of traffic from either city, for one thing). I also can’t believe that the rules of Breach, shown as they are to be absurd and morally reprehensible (Breach will come down on you like a tonne of bricks if you accidentally stray across the boundary, but will leave the most heinous crime untouched if it didn’t involve actual breach), could have lasted for so long without protest. Perhaps this is Miéville’s comment on people’s unthinking adherence to unjust rules; if so, it’s too exaggerated to have real impact.)

Then there’s the issue of crime versus fantasy, and whether there need be a ‘versus’ at all. Roberts in particular argues that the two modes don’t really work together in The City & the City; and I agree with him — but I also think the novel depends on that being so. I’d agree that the fantasy keeps the pages turning more than does the mystery (certainly I was gripped the most when I was reading about the fantastic elements); but the two are bound together as tightly as the cities themselves. The mystery element plays into and, to an extent, subverts our expectations of the fantasy — and, ultimately, eats away at the fantasy until all that’s left is a core.

The City & the City works well enough as a detection: it has the requisite plot twists, and the denouement is as satisfying in its unmasking of the villain — but that’s all. The fantasy element is by far the most interesting part of Miéville’s novel; and his stripping away of the fantasy to bring the crime story to the fore means the book loses some of that interest. It’s a case of a book which is fine at what it does, but still makes one wish it was doing something else instead.


grant John Grant is another writer who’s not afraid to push the buttons of genre to see what happens (and, by coincidence, he was one of the editors of the very same encyclopedia in which the critical term ‘crosshatch’ was coined); that quality is richly displayed in his novella The City in These Pages. As its title suggests, this is an homage to Ed McBain’s ’87th Precinct’ novels — though it soon becomes rather more than that. The basic story is that the boys of New Amsterdam’s 14th Precinct have a serial killer on their hands; they dub him the ‘Humor Guy’ because of the darkly comic nature of his modus operandi (the first sees a local crime boss found inside a giant condom, for example). The killings grow more and more incredible, until the Humor Guy turns himself in, claiming that the world itself is not as it seems…

I’ve read only two Ed McBain novels, but all the same, I recognise enough of the similarities Grant’s novella shares. There’s no need to be familiar with McBain’s work, though. For one thing, the style of prose Grant uses here is a joy to read; rapid-fire, with tongue nicely in cheek (‘[the cops] watched in close-up the stationary back of a truck belching pollution at them. It was in town to deliver farm-fresh organic produce for the health benefit of everyone whose lungs it was corroding’), I’d say it’s more successful than Miéville’s style, in its different way. Characterisation is broad-brush, and sometimes feels awkward (one of the cops occasionally ponders some Big Questions, which proves necessary for later in the story, but still jars a bit with the way the rest of his character is presented), but they’re still engaging, thanks to Grant’s humour.

The crime story is… not really a crime story at all (there is a ‘crime’, in a sense, but it’s not the one you think it is). Certainly it’s not a detection as such, because the protagonists don’t undertake a proper detective process — the Humor Guy calls all the shots. In short, the crime story isn’t the point. What is the point is the fantasy, and here Grant excels. I’ve read quite a lot of his fiction and, enjoyable though I often find it, I sometimes feel that, if I know where he’s coming from, I might be able to see some of where he’s going. Not in this case.

The City in These Pages swings from humorous police procedural to grand cosmic speculation — as I kind of expected it would. But, just when you think you’ve got it pinned down, it wriggles free of your grasp and does something else. Even now, having read it, I can’t decide on a definitive interpretation of what happens. The novella offers many ideas to fire the imagination, of which I’m prepared to reveal one: you know all those brief period of life that you can’t recall in detail — boring journeys to work, and so on? What if those periods of time ‘escaped’ and someone else could live in them? Grant’s skill in juggling ideas like this, and all the other elements of his story, makes for a remarkable novella


Let’s conclude by asking once more: do fantasy and crime fiction work well together? Based on these texts, in one sense the answer is ‘no’, because neither is comfortable with being both genres at the same time: Miéville sacrifices fantasy to tell his crime story; Grant uses crime fiction as a springboard into his fantasy story. On the other hand, the friction between fantasy and crime has produced a couple of fascinating works here, even if those works aren’t entirely successful. Maybe a little antagonism between genres isn’t such a bad thing after all.

The City & the City has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.

One by Conrad Williams (2009)

Conrad WilliamsThe Unblemished was one of my favourite books of 2008; sadly, his new novel, One, doesn’t reach the heights of that earlier work — but it’s an interesting read with some very fine moments nevertheless.

The novel is divided into two distinct parts. In the first, ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’, Richard Jane is a saturation diver working on an oil platform off the coast of Aberdeen, when the apocalypse occurs. Eventually making his way back to land, Jane’s only thought is to travel to London in the hopes of finding his young son, Stanley. He sets off, gaining along the way a number of fellow-survivors as companions, notably a hospital radiologist named Becky, and a five-year-old boy named Aidan. After the requisite trials and tribulations, the party reaches London, and the first part ends. The novel’s second part, ‘Lazarus Taxon’, takes place ten years later. Jane still hasn’t found Stanley, but he is now part of a group of survivors in the capital who call themselves the Shaded (because some form of shade, or depth, is what apparently saved them from the disaster). They have to contend with not only the pitfalls one might imagine would be found in a collapsed society, but also with something unimaginable — the Skinners. These are creatures grown from the spores that came with the apocalyptic ‘Event’, spores that invaded the bodies of the dead, distorted and animated them. Even a minor wound could turn you into one of them. There are rumours of a raft floating off the Kent coast, built by scientists and waiting to rescue people. Is it true? And what rescue could there be in this world anyway?

One is the kind of work which makes plain that genre distinctions (in this case, science fiction and horror) are ultimately limiting and artificial. There is a scientific underpinning to the ‘Event’, but it’s never explained in the story itself; Williams’ acknowledgements page refers to gamma ray bursts, so one assumes that’s what did for us here. But Williams is noted as an author of ‘dark fiction’, and his novel is tilted firmly towards that end of the spectrum; which, I think, is just as it should be — after all, if the average person got caught up in the aftermath of an apocalypse, they probably wouldn’t understand what had happened; and what wouldn’t matter nearly as much as what next? There are also scenes of great horror and carnage, that one is wary of visualising, in case they turn out to be even more horrifying in the mind’s eye than they are on the page. But this too is appropriate: One is horror because its subject is horrific, because there could be no response to what happens other than horror. Williams is not a writer of gore for gore’s sake; he understands the gravity of horror, and makes one feel its pull.

What I particularly like about One is that it’s intensely personal, despite the vastness of its backdrop; the novel is very much about relationships and character, and especially those of Richard Jane. There’s a pleasing complexity to his depiction; he’s not a straightforward heroic figure, but can decry selfishness in others whilst at the same time being willing to put his search for Stanley ahead of anything else (and if he’s doing this for his son, is it selfish or not?). Making Jane a diver was an interesting choice on the author’s part, as it automatically generates a certain amount of difference. It’s not just that the image of Jane wandering through the devastated landscape in his protective gear makes him seem like an astronaut exploring an alien world. It’s that being a diver (according to the novel) changes you, subjects you to pressures (figurative and literal) that others don’t experience, involves being away from home and in isolation for long periods, could lead to sights that others would never see (like the bends: ‘All the limbs withdrawn into an impossible core of pain. The welter of blood at every orifice, fizzing bright red. Bubbles opening in the jelly of the eyes’). The demands of his profession have driven a wedge between Richard and his (now ex-)wife Cherry; and Williams skilfully shows the thoughts and feelings of both parties, even as he writes only from Richard’s viewpoint — and the author is just as adept at writing about the personal as he is at depicting epic disaster.

Of the novel’s two parts, I think the first is the better: what could have been just a repetitive trudge through lists of examples of destruction and scavenged foodstuffs (I did wonder how long it would really be possible to survive in such an environment without proper medical facilities, having to travel mostly on foot and live off whatever tinned food you could find — but the strength of the telling soon put such concerns to one side), instead gains genuine power, most especially from Williams’ ability to evoke the reality of the situation, the sense that, whether or not Jane succeeds in attaining his goal, there can be no lasting escape.

The second part of One is still good but, as it’s necessarily more fantastical, it doesn’t have quite the same resonance — it doesn’t allow one to feel that this is how the world could become, not in the way that the first part does. Still, Williams once again creates that profound sense of unease which is the true affect of horror — an affect born not from blood and guts, but from the utter and irrevocable destruction of what we know. And the ending (which I’ll admit I didn’t fully comprehend) returns to the personal — which seems entirely appropriate for this very human view of world’s end.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (2006)

Blue van Meer has lived a peripatetic existence with her father Gareth, a professor of political science (her mother having died in a car accident several years previously), until her senior year of high school, when he deigns to let the two of them stay in the same town for the whole year. At her new school, Blue becomes drawn into the world of the glamorous, captivating film studies teacher, Hannah Schneider; and the select circle of students, nicknamed the Bluebloods, whom Hannah keeps close. Then, on a camping trip later that year, Blue finds Hannah’s body hanging from a tree — apparently suicide, but could it have been murder? What Blue discovers subsequently may draw into question everything she thought she knew. This is her story, in her own words.

I had never heard of Special Topics in Calamity Physics before seeing it in a bookshop on holiday, but it seems that it caused quite a stir on publication, being lauded as the startling debut of a young, talented author. I’ll be honest and say that I was half expecting the book to be insufferably pretentious — and, in some ways, it does try one’s patience. But it’s actually quite fun to read once you get into it; and there is much to admire within — which may be the novel’s main problem: plenty to admire, but less that’s easy to truly love.

First, the prose. Blue van Meer is a very bookish girl — very bookish, and it shows in the volume she has ‘written’. All the chapters are named after books, the text is full of quotations from books (many of which, in keeping with the novel’s playfulness, have been made up by Pessl — even one of the chapter-title books exists only in the pages of Special Topics), and Blue has a habit of making comparisons by referring readers elsewhere: ‘Jade was the terrifying beauty (see “Tawny Eagle”, Magnificent Birds of Prey, George, 1993)’. Pessl also writes Blue as tending to overdescribe and digress; in short, the narrative voice is full of quirks that become wearying over 500 pages… but not as much as you might think. If these quirks get tedious, they’re quite easily ignored; and for the most part, they make the book sparkle.

What’s less easily ignored is the voice of Gareth van Meer. We often get to hear what he thinks of this or that (he’s usually critical), in his pompous drone that makes one feel almost like tuning into some mindless, lowest-common-denominator TV show, just out of spite. Blue does come to question whether all her father’s ideas are as right as they appear; but that doesn’t stop his interjections dragging the book down. A bigger problem, though, is that, for all Pessl’s undoubted verbal dexterity, she comes up with some real clunkers. I like some of her insights and images, such as ‘Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint’; more often, though, we get lines like ‘[a] gold, five-tiered chandelier at the center of the room hung like an upside-down duchess shamelessly exposing to the paying public her ankle boots and froufrou petticoat’. It works insofar as you can see what the author means; but it doesn’t half feel awkward.

Moving on from the prose, the characterisation in Special Topics is an interesting issue. I’ve read an interview with Marisha Pessl in which she says she deliberately wrote the novel to be ‘larger than life’, and this it certainly is. Would any teenager be as immersed in books as Blue van Meer, or as beuatiful as the Bluebloods? Would any teacher be as extraordinary as Hannah Schneider, or any academic as relentlessly intellectual as Gareth van Meer? Probably not, but then again… I remember how adult some sixteen-year-olds semed to me when I started high school; and I’ve encountered my share of people who seemed as remarkable as Hannah Schneider does. They might not have been so in real life, but that’s what these characters are like: not real people, but mental images of people viewed at a distance — not how they might really be, but how one could imagine them to be.

Of course, there’s a trade-off associated with larger-than-life characters, which is that the author has to work harder to make us care about them. It’s a task that Pessl doesn’t always succeed in: for example, a scene where Blue confronts her father, and ends up throwing books at him, ought to be one of the most emotionally charged in the book; but Blue lists every single book she throws (complete with author and year of publication), and it comes across as absurd. So, although it’s possible to make real people in one’s mind out of these extraordinary characters, and it’s possible to see Blue in particular learn, grow and make mistakes; one has to dig pretty deep to be able to do so.

And then there’s the plot. Special Topics is very cleverly plotted, with many apparently incidental details brought back and reinterpreted in the final act. The trouble is, the solution to the mystery hinges on information not known to the reader in advance — information that, moreover, is entirely fictional in nature. There’s absolutely no chance of ‘playing along’, no feeling of ‘I wish I’d noticed that’, because you could never have noticed. It’s like watching someone else completing a difficult jigsaw puzzle, rather than being involved yourself.

So, as I said at the beginning: there’s plenty to admire here, but not so much of what can bring a book close to my heart. It’s possible to admire Pessl’s ability to make words dance, but not necessarily what she says with them. It’s possible to admire her depiction of extraordinary characters, but less easy to fully care about them. It’s possible to admire her ability to construct a detective puzzle, but not necessarily to enjoy that puzzle. In the end, I like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I don’t love it. It will, however, be interesting to see what Pessl writes next.

Replay by Ken Grimwood (1986)

Jeff Winston is 43, his life at a dead-end, when he dies suddenly — and wakes up back at college in 1963, with full knowledge of the intervening twenty-five years. He has the chance to create a better life for himself, and Jeff seizes the opportunity with gusto, placing bets and making investments that leave him a very wealthy young man. Jeff makes a hash of trying to impress his old wife this time around, and isn’t really keen on the heiress he eventually partners; but Jeff does love Gretchen, the daughter resulting from that relationship. So Jeff has pretty much made it — until he reaches the age of 43, dies at exactly the same moment, and returns to 1963, with the previous quarter-century erased from all reality, except in Jeff’s own memories.

And so the cycle repeats, with Jeff living out his life anew, able to remember each iteration but not to make any lasting change — until, in one ‘replay’ (as Jeff calls these iterations), the anomaly of a blockbuster movie he’s never heard of before leads Jeff to Pamela Phillips, the film’s maker and a fellow replayer. Perhaps inevitably, as the only two who know (or could ever understand) what the other is going through, they fall in love. But they discover a pressing issue: the beginnings of each replay are becoming ‘skewed’; though the moment of death for both Jeff and Pamela remains the same, the time their awarenesses return to is growing later and later — so much so that they may only have a handful of replays left.

I came to Replay with a certain amount of anticipation: it won the World Fantasy Award, and was reprinted in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series a few years ago, so clearly it had a high reputation. There was also the general sense of apprehension one often has on reading a ‘classic’ (even one that’s only twenty years old), wondering if it will stand the tests of time and of familiarity with its themes. Well, there was no need to be concerned this time — Replay is a wonderful book that deserves all the praise it has been given.

It’s important to say first what Replay is and isn’t about: it’s a time travel story, but not one about time travel per se; Grimwood attempts no real explanation of why the replays are happening. Rather, he is much more interested in the emotional ramifications of the premise on his characters, and it’s here that the novel really shines. Each replay is different, as Jeff chooses different paths through his life; and these never feel arbitrary — there’s a logic to their progression. He starts off, as one might in his situation, using his knowledge of the future to improve his lot materially. Then he moves to trying (unsuccessfully) to change history for the better; learning from his first replay to create greater contentment in his second; descending into hedonistic nihilism in the third when it becomes clear that nothing he does will last; and so on. And it rings true at every stage.

The interplay between Jeff and Pamela also changes subtly each time they meet, as their different experiences change them; and this too remains believeable throughout. There’s a moment towards the end that particularly made me smile (I’ll not elaborate on it, to preserve the effect), when Pamela reacts to Jeff in a way he isn’t expecting; and, as readers, we can see the matter from both sides — and have sympathy for both characters. The final position of the protagonists’ relationship is also unexpected and yet, with hindsight, is probably just as it would be in reality. It’s this emotional authenticity that makes Replay such a joy to read.

Something else that makes Replay a joy is the way it’s written — not so much individual nuggets of prose (though it has its share of them, such as the passage describing what goes through Jeff’s mind as he dies for the first time), as the way the novel is structured, and its general tone. There are a few times when the book gets tedious (Jeff’s hedonistic period drags in particular); but, generally, Grimwood knows exactly when to throw something new into the mix to move the story forward, whether it’s Jeff’s discovery of other replayers, or… well, find out for yourself. There’s also a very welcome lightness of tone to the book — not an absence of seriousness, but an energy to the telling. One useful function of this is to stop this moral tale feeling too preachy. There were a few a moments when I felt that Grimwood-the-author was lecturing me-the-reader, but they are few; even the ending, with its moral of ‘make the most of the life you have’, doesn’t really feel didactic, because the story has made the case for that viewpoint so persuasively.

Apparently Grimwood was working on a sequel to Replay when he died (at the sadly young age of 59). I’m ambivalent towards the idea of a second book: on the one hand, if he could have made it as good as this, I would love to find out what he had planned. On the other hand, Replay is fine as it is, needs no embellishments, and deservedly puts its author’s name down in history as one of the greats. Replay was not the first text to examine the question ‘what if you could live your life again?’, and it certainly wasn’t the last — but, in its elegance and eloquence, it must surely be one of the best.

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