MonthAugust 2009

Link: Jeff VanderMeer on genre ‘culture wars’

Just wanted to share this insightful post by Jeff VanderMeer, in which he argues against drawing lines in the sand between ‘genre’ and ‘literature’. An extract:

I just want smart and savvy and, yeah, I veer between wanting simple and wanting complex, of loving and appreciating a novel that gives me traditional pleasures and then loving and appreciating a novel that has no interest in giving me those traditional pleasures but something else just as pleasurable instead (to avoid using false oppositions like “entertainment versus literary”) and there’s nothing pretentious or pulpish about that.

I would tend to agree with that.

Confessions of a Fallen Angel (2008) by Ronan O’Brien

A childhood brush with death leaves the (unnamed) narrator of Ronan O’Brien’s Dublin-set first novel with the kind of ‘gift’ he could do without: dreams of his best friend drowning. Convinced that these dreams are prophetic, he tries to avert the fatal events; but inadvertently causes his friend’s death — which occurs in exactly the manner foretold. A few years later, the visions return, this time showing the death of Mrs Horricks, the old (and later retired) librarian whom the boy has befriended. In due course, the dreams again come true — at the same time as an innocent mix-up over a defaced library book escalates into an incident that lands the narrator in a young offenders’ institution.

Upon his release, the young man (now aged 19) manages to get a job behind the bar at a rough pub named Happy’s. It’s here that he meets his soulmate, the beautiful Ashling; the two fall head-over-heels in love and, in short order, marry. But we know (because the narrator has already told us) that it will end in tragedy: our man dreams of his wife’s death, and destiny proceeds as before. The loss of Ashling sends the protagonist into a downward spiral of depression and alcoholism, and he is placed in a psychiatric unit.

When he’s released into society once more, the narrator decides to sell his house, and unwittingly ends up moving next door to Norman Valentine, a violent thug he first met back in the young offenders’ institution. He meets — and, over time, finds that he cares deeply for — Valentine’s abused wife Chloe, and daughter Zoe. Then our man provides the evidence that  leads to Valentine’s arrest for assault; and the dreams come back, foretelling the death of Zoe. Will tragedy strike once again, or can the protagonist defy fate at last?

The great strength of Confessions of a Fallen Angel is the portrayal of its central character and his journey through life. It is quite disarming at first to discover that this lively, amiable narrative voice belongs to someone who has seen so much of life’s darker side. But what O’Brien does so convincingly is to show how an intelligent, fundamentally decent lad with a sharp tongue could fall through the cracks. School doesn’t really interest the boy, then his stepbrother wrecks the library book; one thing leads to another, and he ends up where he does, instead of on the more successful path one senses he could have taken had life worked out just a little differently.

Another aspect of the plot that I thought rang particularly true was the way our man falls in love. This happens twice, and each time is subtly different. The first time, with Ashling, O’Brien captures the whirlwind of ‘true love’, and just about succeeds in making it nearly as wonderful to read about as it is for the characters to experience (though it does feel a little too sickly at times). The second time the narrator falls in love is with Chloe, but it’s love of a different sort (though no less genuine) — not the intensity of falling for ‘the one’, but a more gradual flowering of attraction. One gains the impression that O’Brien is a skilled observer and depictor of life.

As a character, the narrator comes vividly to life; his sharp wit is especially welcome, as it undercuts even the bleakest episodes of his story, and maintains a constant thread of hope. O’Brien’s secondary characters don’t have quite the same depth (perhaps inevitably, as they’re all viewed through the lens of his narrator), but some leave quite a strong impression — in particular the librarian who replaces Mrs Horricks (he’s something of a comic cut, but you’ll surely have encountered people like him); and Norman Valentine, the kind of dangerous individual one wishes didn’t exist and hopes never to meet.

O’Brien gives his tale a light dusting of fantasy, which ultimately soured it for me a little. The narrator’s dreams aren’t a problem: they’re just a harmless plot device. But the author’s use of the afterlife gives the novel (particularly the ending) something of a fairytale aspect that O’Brien doesn’t manage to reconcile with the harsh reality of the protagonist’s life. It makes the ending feel cosier than it really is. Nevertheless, Confessions of a Fallen Angel shines brightly as a character study, and is a fine début.

SHORT FICTION REVIEW: Jupiter XXIV, Iocaste (April 2009)

I have a review up at The Fix of the April 2009 issue of the science fiction magazine Jupiter. I won’t say much here, as it’s all in the review; but this particular issue has stories by David Conyers; Gustavo Bondoni; Andrew Knighton; A.J. Kirby; James McCormick; and Gareth D. Jones.

Read the review in full.

Mercury Prize: Led Bib – Sensible Shoes

Video: ‘Sweet Chilli’

Led Bib are a jazz act from London; and the difficulty I have writing about Sensible Shoes — their third album — is that I’m not much of a jazz person. I haven’t the first idea how to describe or evaluate jazz; so I’m concerned that anything I say about the album here will come across as silly, naïve, or damning with faint praise — none of which I want. I think the sleeve notes say it best when they describe Sensible Shoes as ‘a cataclysmic offering of free-jazz, jazz-rock, avant-skronk, funk-rock, noise-metal and whatever else [the band] can lay their hands on.’ With that, I’ll let the music here speak for itself.

Video: ‘Squirrel Carnage’ (extract – live)

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

My favourites of 2009 so far…

I know we’re some way past the halfway point of 2009, but I wanted to do a mini-review of the year so far, as I’ve read so many great books this year that I’d like to highlight the best once again. So these are my top five reads of the year so far (all had their first UK publication in 2009), in alphabetical order (click the titles to read my reviews):

Keith Brooke, The Accord

Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal

Rana Dasgupta, Solo

Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

An honourable mention goes to Ken Grimwood’s Replay, which is my favourite pre-2009 book that I read for the first time this year. All six books are excellent, and I woud urge you to seek them out.

(Of course, I don’t just blog about books on here; so, for the sake of completeness: my favourite fiilm of the year so far is Franklyn; and favourite album of the year so far is Kingdom of Rust by Doves, which I will get around to blogging about eventually…)

Mercury Prize: La Roux – La Roux

Video: ‘Quicksand’

Another of this year’s hotly-tipped new acts to make the Mercury shortlist (along with Florence and the Machine), La Roux are a duo from London, comprising Elly Jackson and Ben Langmaid; though they have the appearance of being a solo act — even the name ‘La Roux’ refers to Jackson alone (though, as I’ve seen pointed out online, the name is gramatically incorrect). Now, with one notable exception, music acts named for hair colours tend not to be all that good; La Roux have some way to go yet, but they’re definitely promising.

There are two main stumbling-blocks. One is Jackson’s voice, which varies from okay to downright annoying. The second is the music, which is too in thrall to the ’80s for its own good; the duo recreate their influences rather than spin them into something new. That said, they make some good pop songs, like ‘Bulletproof’ and ‘I’m Not Your Toy’. Ultimately, though, I’d say La Roux the album is more a pleasant diversion than a great record.

Video: ‘Bulletproof’ (live)

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

‘A Tiny Feast’ (2009) by Chris Adrian

This post is about the second story to be discussed in Torque Control’s weekly discussion schedule. It’s not actually due for discussion until the 30th of this month; but, as noted in a previous post, I don’t know whether I’ll be online for the next week or so, which is why I’m blogging about it now.

The story in question is ‘A Tiny Feast’ by Chris Adrian, and was published in the New Yorker (and is available to read online: click the story title). After one of their periodic arguments, Oberon presents Titania with the gift of a human changeling. We join them in a hospital, where the child is being treated for leukaemia; the story chronicles how the faeries try to deal with the alien world of mortal medicine.

I think this piece is wonderful, in more than one sense of that word. Adrian does a superb job of working through the ramifications of his fantastical idea. Most obviously, perhaps, there’s going to be humour in the juxtaposition of traditional faeries and modern society – and so there is: witness, for example, the method Titania finds for playing a Carly Simon LP, before ‘[singing] to the boy about his own vanity’; or the times when the faeries’ glamour drops, and the medical staff become dazzled by the very presence of Titania and Oberon.

Yet there’s another, less playful, side to ‘A Tiny Feast’. Adrian makes some telling observations (‘The doctors called the good news good news, but for the bad news they always found another name’), but the heart of his story concerns the emotional trajectory of the characters, and Titania in particular. At first, the boy is just another changeling to her (she never even gives him a name); gradually, though, she comes to care about him – but the story-logic by which the faeries live has the final say. It makes the tale not only a fine piece of fantasy in its own right, but also a striking metaphor for how we may react to the terminal illness of a loved one.

‘The Best Monkey’ (2009) by Daniel Abraham

Niall Harrison of Torque Control has announced that, starting this weekend, he’ll be hosting weekly discussions of short fiction. In an attempt to increase the amount of commentary out there (and because I’m unsure of how much internet access I’ll have over the next couple of weeks), I’m going to blog about two of the stories in advance.

We begin, then with ‘The Best Monkey’ by Daniel Abraham, originally published in the third Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, and now reprinted online at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist (click on the story title above for the link). Our narrator is Jimmy, who works for a news aggregator, but is tasked by his latest boss with doing a little investigation. Elaine Salvaret, a bigwig at a leading technology conglomerate named Fifth Layer, has been overheard saying something that might be a clue to the secret of the company’s strange technology – a secret that might not be ethically sound. This could be a scoop, and it’s Jimmy’s job to bring back the goods. Why him? Because he and Elaine were lovers thirty years ago.

I’m ambivalent about this story. At heart, it’s a story of ideas (perhaps the central theme is the nature of beauty and attraction, and how they relate to biological imperatives), which I found intellectually interesting; but I think the idea that acts as the engine of the plot is a little too abstract to be intellectually gripping – so the story doesn’t quite have that extra zing to turn it from good into great.

Viewing the piece from another angle: Abraham’s depiction of his future is pretty good, with some nice details like the constantly changing fashionable argot of Jimmy’s bosses (and, indeed, Jimmy’s constantly changing bosses). One gripe, though: we’re told that in the thirty years between the present of the story and Jimmy’s younger days (which may not be far off our present), there has been major environmental catastrophe; yet I don’t gain any sense of the effect of this in the story itself.

Quite a mixed reaction to ‘The Best Monkey’ from me, then (though I do feel more positive than negative about the tale); I’ll be interested to see what others think.

Mercury Prize: Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Video: ‘Underdog’

It’s strange how music appreciation works out sometimes. The Leicester band Kasabian are probably the best-known act on this year’s Mercury shortlist; but I don’t really know their music that well, because it has never really appealed to me in the past. Perhaps this had something to with Tom Meighan’s swaggering vocal style (yet it fits with the music so well), or the unusual way the band construct their songs (I have no idea why that might be, because some of my favourite bands also have unusually-constructed songs, but there it is). Anyway, now I’ve actually listened to a Kasabian album (their third) in full, I’ve changed my mind, and now quite like them. But, paradoxically, I don’t think West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum works all that well as an album. This needs some explanation.

I tend to associate Kasabian with big, anthemic rock songs like ‘Underdog’, the first (and probably best) song on this album. This is what Kasabian do best, and there are a few other songs here in that vein; however, they try to do several other things on the album, not all of which are successful. ‘Fire’ is an interesting variation, that lends more open space to the band’s signature sound. There are quite a few ballads, some of which work well: like  the nicely laid-back ‘Ladies and Gentlemen (Roll the Dice)’, or the soulful ‘Happiness’ (sung by guitarist Serge Pizzorno, whose voice suits that kind of song better than Meighan’s). Others, like ‘Thick as Thieves’, or ‘West Ryder Silver Bullet’, never really took off for me.

So, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum is quite a mixed bag; but it has made me listen to Kasabian with fresh ears, which I’m glad to have done.

Video: ‘Fire’ (live)

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Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Sunday Salon: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)

TSSbadge4The Picture of Dorian Gray falls squarely in the category of ‘books I know about and so don’t need to read; except that, when I do read them, it turns out I didn’t know them at all’. What prompted me to read it now? It was the choice for a new reading group I’ve joined, which met for the first time this afternoon; and it seems a good subject for a Sunday Salon post. (NB. This is more likely to be a series of scattered impressions than a proper ‘review’.)

If you had asked me to summarise the book a couple of weeks ago (i.e. before I’d started reading it), I’d have told you that Dorian Gray was a man who didn’t age, whilst the figure in the portrait of himself that he had hidden away aged instead. And I’d have been wrong. It’s true that Dorian doesn’t age; but the picture bears the marks of psychological ravages as well as physical ones — and it’s the former that prove more damaging.

We first encounter Dorian Gray at the home of his artist friend Basil Hallward, who’s been painting the titular portrait. Here, Dorian meets the vile Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonistic aesthete who values ‘beauty’ above all else, and disapproves of such values as loyalty and unselfishness. Dorian is at first wary of Henry’s worldview; but, when Sybil Vane, the young actress to whom he is engaged, kills herself (because of the harsh way in which Dorian dismisses her and the acting which is so close to her heart), Dorian sees the first change in his portrait — and this causes hm to throw himself into a life of decadence. The rest of Wilde’s novel chronicles Dorian’s decline, as he becomes ever more selfish, ruining the lives of others, even to the point of murder. He does start to have doubts and regrets in the end; but by then it may be too late for him.

I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a fascinating psychological portrait; what’s particularly interesting is the way that Dorian’s life and ‘self’ become distorted, even as his body stays the same; he might have escaped the ageing process, but Dorian can hardly be said to have remained immaculate, as he wished.

Related to that last point is the issue of morality. Wilde’s preface (I’m unsure whether or not it is meant to be taken at face value) includes a comment that ‘there is no such thing as an moral or immoral book’; but I do see the book as quite moral, because the Dorian’s selfishness and hedonism seem to me to be presented in an ultimately negative light. However, I don’t think a reading of the novel as a bad-things-happen-to-bad-people moral fable quite works; because, strictly speaking, Dorian gets his comeuppance for seeking to abandon his decadence (as symbolised by the portrait); and Lord Henry, who espoused in the first place the philosophy that led to Dorian’s (and others’) ruin, gets no comeuppance at all. So there is some moral ambiguity there; I think the issue is probably going to remain unresolved in my mind.

As a novel… I hestitate to judge a hundred-year-old book by my own modern standards of how a novel should be; but, for what it’s worth, I thought it well written but a little awkwardly constructed, with Wilde whizzing over a period of eighteen years between the most important events in Dorian’s life, and leaving the details of who some of the characters are rather sketchy.

Anyway, the most imprtant thing is that I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a good, thought-provoking read — deservedly a ‘classic’.

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