MonthJune 2010

Jodi Picoult, ‘Weights and Measures’ (2010)

Along with Roddy Doyle, Picoult is an author I wouldn’t instinctively associate with the fantastic (though I’ve not read her previously); I find it interesting that those two authors’ stories are my favourites in the anthology so far. ‘Weights and Measures’ is the story of Sarah and Abe, a couple who lose their baby daughter, and then find their bodies subtly (then not so subtly) changing.

I found Picoult’s story to be a delicately observed portrait of loss and grief, with an added metaphorical undercurrent, as the contrasting physical changes in Abe and Sarah represent the drifting apart of their relationship. Neatly done.

Rating: ****

Jodi Picoult’s website

Richard Adams, ‘The Knife’ (2010)

My first experience of reading Adams (Watership Down being one of the considerable number of books I wish I’d read as a child) is this very short (three pages) piece set in a boarding school in 1938. The protagonist, Philip, is being bullied by Stafford, the head prefect of his house; he harbours fantasies of revenge, but has never acted on them – until, that is, he finds a knife. I appreciate the way Adams portrays the knife as the focus of Philip’s desires; but I feel that the ending doesn’t quite work, and the rest of the telling is not quite intense enough to compensate, so ultimately this story falls short for me.

Rating: ***

Walter Mosley, ‘Juvenal Nyx’ (2010)

Another vampire story, but unfortunately one that’s not as successful as Roddy Doyle’s. Mosley’s protagonist is a student radical in the 1970s, when he is seduced by a woman who turns him into something like a vampire and dubs him ‘Juvenal Nyx’ – ‘child of the night’. Thirty years later, Nyx falls in love, sets himself up as a professional ‘problem solver’, and takes on a rather mysterious client.

‘Juvenal Nyx’ is constructed from several different elements, which may be fine in and of themselves – for example, Mosley is particularly good at evoking the uncomfortable desire caused by the vampirism – but they sit awkwardly together. For instance, into the midst of a tale which portrays its subject matter in an otherwise ‘realistic’ fashion, walks Nyx’s client, who is every bit the stereotype of a supernatural femme fatale; she just doesn’t seem to fit, and there isn’t room in the story to indicate her place in the wider scheme of Mosley’s fictional world. In the end, ‘Juvenal Nyx’ is too fragmentary to truly satisfy as a complete piece.

Rating: ***

Walter Mosley’s website

Derren Brown – Enigma @ Milton Keynes Theatre, Friday 25 June 2010


Lines Drawn in the Air: literary and genre fiction

Occasioned by the Gaiman/Sarrantonio Stories anthology, David Barnett has written a blog post for the Guardian on ‘literary’ versus ‘genre’ fiction. I can’t help thinking that it’s based on a false opposition. He writes:

The ongoing, endless war between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction has well-defined lines in the sand. Genre’s foot soldiers think that literary fiction is a collection of meaningless but prettily drawn pictures of the human condition. The literary guard consider genre fiction to be crass, commercial, whizz-bang potboilers. Or so it goes.

Well… Maybe some people do hold views like these, but I struggle to accept it as a generalisation. From my point of view, the kinds of distinctions to which Barnett refers are simply artificial. I’d agree with Aliya Whiteley that all the plot in the world is no guarantee of a good read, not if you don’t care about it; and that that both fast- and slower-paced novels can be worthwhile. I also think that Sam Jordison has it right in his comment on Barnett’s post when he points out that plenty of ‘literary’ fiction tells a good story. And I would disagree with the implication that a page-turner must be plot-driven. We turn the page because we want to know what’s written on the next one; I don’t see that it makes much difference whether what’s written there is a plot point, or a character observation, or whatever.

I define the focus of this blog as ‘literary fiction’, but I deliberately take a broad view of what that term means; some of it would be considered genre, some perhaps not. As far as I’m concerned, no matter what I’m reading, my basic approach doesn’t change: what I want is for a book or story to be the best it can, whatever it’s doing – and I hope that attitude comes through in what I write.

The divide between literary and genre can vanish with a tweak of perception. Consider this post by Larry Nolen, in which he responds to another blog post that identified lack of sf/fantasy authors in the New Yorker’s recent list of 20 American writers aged under 40, and contrasted  that with the  Daily Telegraph’s similar list of British writers.

(I will pause briefly to wonder what definition of ‘British’ led to the inclusion of Paul Murray in the Telegraph’s list, then move on.)

Larry points out, quite rightly, that the New Yorker list does include some authors of fantastic literature; it’s just that their work tends not to appear on the science fiction and fantasy shelves. However, we could go further, and note that China Miéville is the only writer on the Telegraph list who is published as a genre author. All the others on that list who could be considered to have written science fiction or fantasy, from Rana Dasgupta to Scarlett Thomas, are published as mainstream – just like the writers Larry mentions.

If there are lines between literary and genre fiction, I would suggest that they’re not so much drawn in the sand, as drawn in the air – and can be stepped over just as easily.

Joe R. Lansdale, ‘The Stars Are Falling’ (2010)

Lansdale tells the story of Deel Arrowsmith, a soldier who returns home to East Texas from the Great War, to find a wife who thought he must have died, a son who’s never really known him, and a life from which he is now impossibly distanced. Haunted by memories of his wartime experiences, Deel struggles to fit back into his old world.

The portrait of Deel in Texas is carefully observed, and I appreciate the parallels that Lansdale establishes between his protagonist’s two sets of experiences. But what makes the story ultimately come unstuck for me is that the narrative voice so suited to describing events in East Texas doesn’t draw me in to the wartime sequences, and that unbalances a tale whose success depends on its equilibrium.

Rating: ***

Joe R. Lansdale’s website

Michael Marshall Smith, ‘Unbelief’ (2010)

There’s a kind of story which I’d characterise as the fantasy equivalent of a shaggy dog story, one where the fantasy is used as a ‘punchline’, and the rest builds up to that reveal. It’s a risky strategy to use, because it puts a disproportionate amount of weight on the ending, on making sure the ‘punchline’ has all the impact it needs.

‘Unbelief’ is a story of this type. Mostly, it is a conversation between two men in a New York park, one of whom has been hired to assassinate the other. The ‘punchline’ here is the identity of the victim; sad to say, it’s not particularly surprising or interesting. The story takes off a little towards the end, when we see there have been serious consequences to the protagonist’s actions; but this piece is still some way short of Smith’s excellent best.

Rating: ***

Michael Marshall Smith’s website

Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)

Five-star read

The other week, Jackie from Farm Lane Books asked for recommendations of literary science fiction and fantasy. I recommended (amongst other names) Christopher Priest, as did Amanda of Floor to Ceiling Books; Jackie subsequently read The Prestige, and now it’s one of her top 20 favourite books. Of course, I’m pleased that Jackie enjoyed it so much; but I was also reminded that I am not as well-read in Priest’s bibliography as I’d like to be, so I took his 1981 novel The Affirmation down from the shelf.

Having lost his father, job, home, and relationship, all in quick succession, Peter Sinclair is at his lowest ebb. He takes on some work helping to renovate a friend’s country cottage; inspired by his ability to turn his vision for one of the rooms into reality, Peter resolves to write his autobiography, in the hope that, by doing so, he can make some sense of his life. After trying various approaches, he decides that the best way to achieve what he wants is to write metaphorically about his life; it won’t be what ‘actually’ happened, but it will attain (what Peter sees as) the ‘higher truth’ of capturing what the events of his twenty-nine years meant to him.

So, Peter creates an alternative version of himself, with the same name, but living in an imaginary world, and all the key people in his life given different names – and writes this Peter’s life story to represent the ‘higher truth’ of his own. Peter has almost completed the manuscript when he is interrupted by the arrival of his estranged sister, Felicity, and is forced to break off his work mid-sentence.

This happens in the fourth chapter of The Affirmation; the fifth is again narrated by Peter Sinclair (his voice is recognisably the same), but it’s the Peter of the imaginary world (a world, incidentally, also used by Priest as the setting for his ‘Dream Archipelago’ stories), who is sailing south to a clinic, having won a lottery to undergo a medical procedure which will effectively confer immortality on him. Okay, one supposes, this must be an extract from the ‘real’ Peter’s manuscript – but, no: the Peter in this world has also written a fictionalised autobiography; and the events of this strand subtly contradict what we know of the other Peter’s manuscript. One is left with no option but to conclude that the ‘imaginary’ world has its own valid reality.

And so, as the novel continues, the two realities shift back and forth, with the reader never allowed to pin down one of them as being more real than the other. Even the nature of the text presented to us is uncertain: we never knowingly get to read any of the manuscripts referred to, so what exactly is the testimony that we’re reading? And we only know Peter Sinclair through his words on the page, so what can we trust? This is what Priest is so good at: undermining our expectations, hiding the truth, making the realities of his stories profoundly uncertain.

There are imaginative pleasures a-plenty in The Affirmation, then; but the novel also works on other levels. It’s a fine meditation on memory, and how it can make us who we are. Peter believes that memory is central to the creation of identity, but he also knows how fallible our memories can be; this is played out in several different ways in the novel, including a quite literal one in the shape of the athanasia treatment – a side effect of the procedure is to erase patients’ memories; they’re required to complete a questionnaire beforehand, which will be used to reconstruct their memories – but can they possibly be the same people afterwards?

The Affirmation is also an acute portrayal of a man in a fragile mental state (though, as noted, it resists being interpreted as solely a tale of delusion). We discover early on that Peter hasn’t actually painted his ‘white room’ at all (though he imagines it painted, and it’s that ‘higher truth’, he insists, that really matters); this is only one of the first indications that the world viewed through Peter’s eyes may not be what a third party would see. This leads the protagonist into difficulties relating to other people. For example, Peter’s ideas of what his girlfriends (in both worlds) are like don’t reflect the reality, which puts a strain on his relationships; the way Priest reveals the ramifications of this is simply superb.

I’ve read three of Chris Priest’s novels now, and they have all been excellent. Seriously, if you have yet to read him, you’re missing out. As for me, I doubt it will be long before I read another of his books, and I very much look forward to doing so.

Some other reviews of The Affirmation: John Self at The Asylum; Matt Cheney at The Mumpsimus; David Auerbach at Waggish.
Christopher Priest’s website

Neil Gaiman, ‘The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains’ (2010)

In a mythical-historical Scotland, a child-sized man arrives at a house in a valley, searching for one Calum MacInnes, who is said to know the way to a cave on the Misty Isle, a cave in which there is gold. Thus, the two embark on a journey that will have tragic consequences for at least one of them…

The great strength of this story lies in its manner of telling. Gaiman’s prose creates an atmosphere of a bleak, half-legendary world, less through particular descriptions than through careful use of archaic structures. I rarely find myself associating stories with colours, but I imagined this one strongly in shades of white, grey, and wintry green.

Rating: ***½

Neil Gaiman’s website

Joanne Harris, ‘Wildfire in Manhattan’ (2010)

‘Wildfire in Manhattan’ is, as far as I can gather, related to Joanne Harris’s 2007 YA novel Runemarks (exactly how, I can’t say, as I’ve not read that book). Long after Ragnarök, the Norse gods remain with us, and Aspects of several currently reside in New York. Our narrator is one such, Lukas ‘Lucky’ Wilde, now a semi-retired rock musician. In this story, Lucky and Aspects of other gods are being hunted by agents of the Shadow, who seek  to destroy them.

The idea of gods from historical pantheons living in the present day is not an unfamiliar one, which means this story has to do that bit much more work for it to shine, and I’m not sure that it succeeds. It’s a jolly adventure, but the plot is not inventive enough, nor the sense of magic deep enough, to make ‘Wildfire in Manhattan’ anything more than that. Harris’s breezy first-person narration ensures a fun read, but that’s as far as this tale goes.

Rating: ***

Joanne Harris’s website

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