MonthJuly 2010

Kurt Andersen, ‘Human Intelligence’ (2010)

A twist on the staple sf idea of an alien spy living on Earth, disguised as a human. In this story, the alien’s Arctic monitoring station is discovered by a scientist; the twist is that the scientist , far from trying to deny that she has found an extraterrestrial artefact, is so enthused at the thought of meeting an alien that she tracks down the spy’s house and pays him a visit. The knowingness of Andersen’s telling makes ‘Human Intelligence’ a pleasure to read; but, unfortunately, after such a good beginning, the story seems to fizzle out after a shaggy-dog-style revelation.

Rating: ***½

Kurt Andersen’s website

Douglas Thompson, Ultrameta (2009)

If you thought Cloud Atlas was a little too conventional, Ultrameta may be the book for you. Trying to interpret (let alone synopsise) Douglas Thompson’s extraordinary first novel is probably a fool’s errand, but let’s see what happens anyway. Subtitled “A Fractal Novel”, Ultrameta is constructed as a series of linked short stories and story-fragments, but exactly how they’re linked is open to debate.

Ultrameta centres on Alexander Stark, a university professor who disappeared, and then apparently began sending letters to his wife Charlotte – letters written not as by him, but as by a series of different characters, some describing events thatcross over into the surreal. Later, Stark reappeared, with no memory of what had happened, but took his own life – and more notes were found on his body. Subsequent investigations undertaken by a journalist named Martha Lucy, and DI Walter Dundas of Strathclyde Police establish that many of the people named as the “writers” of Stark’s letters actually existed. Is Stark deluded. Might it be that Stark was all of these people? Could there really be such a place as Ultrameta, the “city of the soul” to which Stark refers, that constantly refashions itself? Or is Stark just deluded?

The novel Ultrameta is presented as the collected notes of Alexander Stark, bookended by correspondence between Martha Lucy and Charlotte Stark, and introduced by Walter Dundas. But Stark’s notes link together in an unusual way: the first fragment ends with the narrator listening to a radio play whose words begin the second chapter, narrated by a ten-year-old Stark in the library of his house; that chapter ends with the boy reading a manuscript which begins with opening words of the third chapter, and so on. The twenty-five chapters are arranged in twelve pairs, running from 1a to 12a, and then from 12b back to 1b, on either side of the central chapter 13 (also called ‘Ultrameta’. In effect, the novel is a journey through a series of nesting shells, and back out again.

A complicated structure, then, but what does it do? To my mind, it sets up two contrasting views of what Ultrameta is: on the one hand, a linear narrative; on the other, a set of smaller narratives. The first view, perhaps, invites an interpretation of continuity (i.e. the narrator is genuinely the same person throughout, taking on different personas); the second, an interpretation of separateness (i.e. these are all different people, and Stark is deluded). But no single interpretation quite fits.

Identities and realities are constantly shifting in Ultrameta. Multiple characters return home with amnesia and start reading through their mysterious notes. The letter from Charlotte to Martha placed at the end of the book is a world away from the one at the beginning to which it’s replying. Even the novel’s structure cannot be relied upon to stay the same: the chapters don’t all flow neatly into the next; and the second chapter in a pair isn’t always a direct continuation of the first. There probably isn’t a definitive interpretation of what’s going on in Ultrameta, but that hardly matters when the ride is so intriguing.

And, though Thompson’s prose can be overly dense at time, there are some very fine moments to be found within the pages of Ultrameta – to name two, I was struck by the chapter that brings Icarus into the present day (rendering modern technology strange by having someone from the past describe it isn’t a new idea, of course, but Thompson does it very strikingly); and the eerie section in which the narrator makes an organism out of his house, with himself at its centre. But it’s the entirety of Ultrameta that impresses the most; there’s nothing else quite like it, I’m sure.

Douglas Thompson’s website
Eibonvale Press

Al Sarrantonio, ‘The Cult of the Nose’ (2010)

This is fun: a researcher believes he has found evidence of a vast historical conspiracy involving people who wear ‘the Nose’ (exactly what kind of nose is left to the reader’s imagination) — but is he right, or delusional? Sarrantonio keeps it nicely ambiguous, and amusing, too.

Rating: ***½

Booker genre

This hasn’t passed without comment, but I wanted to add my own thoughts. In a Guardian article on the Man Booker longlist, Mark Brown notes the lack of genre fiction, and reports the comments of Andrew Motion, chair of the judges: “Motion said they had not consciously set out to exclude genre but stressed that the Man Booker prize was an award for literary fiction and there were plenty of prizes for crime and sci-fi.”

I’d agree with Niall Harrison that this comment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I’d agree with Cheryl Morgan that it paints ‘literary fiction’ as just another genre. Most of all, though, I think it needlessly cuts people off from good and interesting fiction.

The view expressed by Motion just doesn’t reflect what I see when I look at the fiction being written today. I see literature of quality in all categories of fiction (that’s what I think ‘literary’ should mean). And the boundaries are blurred (I’ll focus here on fantastic fiction, as it’s what I know best): even on the Booker longlist, there are at least four books that seem to be to have been written to some degree with a fantastical sensibility (Donoghue, McCarthy, Mitchell, and Murray).

Look at the Edge Hill Prize for short fiction, which happily reaches across the spectrum – and which, for the past two years, has been awarded to collections with fantastical stories. The Booker is impoverishing itself by not taking a similarly inclusive approach – and, as a result, people are missing a chance to hear about books that may well be of interest to them.

Maria Barbal, Stone in a Landslide (1985/2010)

“I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days…” (89)

Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide (first published in Catalan in 1985, and now available in English for the first time, thanks to Peirene Press) is the life story of Conxa, who is sent away as a child, in the early years of the twentieth century, to live with and work for her aunt and uncle. The years pass, she falls in love with a young man named Jaume, they marry and have children – and then their lives are disrupted by the Spanish Civil War. But, of course, life continues beyond even this.

Like Laura McGloughlin’s and Paul Mitchell’s translation (which has the kind of precise simplicity that deflects attention away from it), Conxa’s life both is and isn’t as ordinary as it appears, in the sense that all lives can be – and are, in their own way – extraordinary at times, just as a simple stone can be part of an extraordinary landslide. Conxa’s life is one lived largely for, and in relation to, other people: right at the start, she is sent away from home because there isn’t enough room for her in the house; when she falls in love with Jaume, she becomes a different person and defines herself by him (“Now I could only be Jaume’s Conxa” [42]); growing old comes almost as a surprise to Conxa, because she has been so used to seeing her children grow, and suddenly they’re adults.

What I find most striking about Stone in a Landslide is the way that key historical events are experienced (or not, as the case may be) through the domesticity of Conxa’s existence; Jaume is political, but Conxa has no knowledge or interest, and it’s a rude awakening for her when history finally intrudes on her life.

Stone in a Landslide is a quiet study of a life, a life whose treasures vanish all too soon, before the woman living it fully grasped what they were. But the book remains, and its treasures are plain to see.

Some other reviews of Stone in a Landslide: Winstonsdad; Novel Insights; A Common Reader.
Peirene Press

Man Booker longlist 2010

The longlist of the 2010 Man Booker Prize was announced earlier today. I was curious to see what would be on there, and how it would map against what I’d read. Without further ado, the thirteen nominated novels are:

Peter Carey, Parrot and Oliver in America

Emma Donoghue, Room

Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal

Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question

Andrea Levy, The Long Song

Tom McCarthy, C

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Lisa Moore, February

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

Rose Tremain, Trespass

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap

Alan Warner, The Stars in the Bright Sky

And the total number of those books which I’ve read is… one. But it is one of the best books I’ve read all year (indeed, it’s my favourite from all those I’ve read which were eligible) – so I’m enormously pleased to see Skippy Dies on the longlist.

Half of the remaining titles are, at first glance, of interest to me. I’ve already got C and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet lined up to read over the next couple of weeks, and Room has also been on my radar. Beyond those, In a Strange Room sounds interesting; I’m intrigued by the reaction I’ve read to The Slap; and I enjoyed Rose Tremain’s previous novel, so I may well give Trespass a whirl.

The other six books are largely unknown to me (I think The Long Song is the only one of which I’d heard). Any thoughts on those, or on the list as a whole?

(NB. Any links in the list above are to my reviews of the books.)

Tim Powers, ‘Parallel Lines’ (2010)

Caroleen Erlich reaches her seventy-third birthday, her first without her twin sister BeeVee. But it looks as though BeeVee may turn out to be as domineering in death as she was in life, because she’s writing out messages with Caroleen’s right hand. I like the way this is introduced and handled – Powers’ down-to-earth treatment gives the idea a freshness –but I don’t think the ending lives up to the promise of that beginning.

Rating: ***½

‘The Works of Tim Powers’ website

Jeffery Deaver, ‘The Therapist’ (2010)

Martin Kobel is a behavioural therapist who specialises in treating patients who have (he believes) been affected by ‘nemes’ — bodies of negative energy that cause people to commit harmful actions. On encountering Annabelle Young, a teacher who has clearly come under the influence of a neme, Kobel is so concerned for her pupils that he ‘treats’ Annabelle by stabbing her to death. A court case follows, which hinges on the question of whether or not Kobel is insane.

There are two modes of narration in ‘The Therapist’, and it’s along those lines that my opinion of the story divides. I think the passages narrated in first-person by Kobel are very good, as the journey in his company becomes ever more disturbing; but I found the courtroom sequences rather dry by comparison. Still, Deaver keeps the state of Kobel’s mind nicely ambiguous, and the twists of the court case pay off in a very satisfying way.

Rating: ***½

Jeffery Deaver’s website

Jonathan Carroll, ‘Let the Past Begin’ (2010)

‘Let the Past Begin’ sits squarely in the middle of what I’d think of as ‘Jonathan Carroll territory’, in that it gives the impression of a world that, if only you scratched the surface, would be far stranger than it appears. Carroll’s protagonist hears from his pregnant girlfriend, Ava,  about the time she visited a fortune-teller/sage in Azerbaijan, whose powers (Ava believes) were genuine, and who told Ava that her child was cursed — its life would be the same as its father’s, in every major detail. The thing is, Ava doesn’t know whether the father is her current boyfriend or her ex, Eamon Reilly — and Eamon’s life is one that Ava would certainly not wish her child to live.

Carroll evokes ambiguity very well in this piece — if Ava’s oracle appears beyond belief, the known details of Eamon’s life are almost as strange, in their own way. I didn’t quite feel the full affect of fantasy that I have from some of Carroll, but this is still a fine story.

Rating: ***½

Jonathan Carroll’s website

Pen Pusher Magazine 15: Spring-Summer 2010

Okay , so I’m reading Pen Pusher (‘Where new writing finds its voice’) for the first time – and a good read it is, too. It’s a varied selection of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction; but, as usual, I’ll be concentrating here on the prose fiction – which gives us:

Wayne Holloway-Smith, ‘Big Time’
An extract from the author’s debut novel, about one Dexter Hammond, who wants to be famous and thinks he’s found an unoccupied niche for a ‘rock ‘n’ roll preacher’. On the basis of this extract, Holloway-Smith’s novel is certainly one I’d want to read, because this is hilarious. Hammond is full of his own self-importance, and so desperate to be cool that one winces at seeing him try to emulate the latest-big-thing rock star, Tristan Rasclott – but, by the end of the piece, it’s starting to look as if Hammond might pull it off. I’ll be interested to read whether he does.

Grace Andreacchi, ‘Ikebana’
A short piece about a woman waiting at an ikebana demonstration for her older lover. There’s a subtlety and depth to this story, as Andreacchi portrays the doubts and conflicting emotions experienced by her protagonist. The woman’s changing attitudes to ikebana – at first, she thinks she’s not interested in it, then maybe she is, but maybe not – reflect her thoughts on her relationship. An insightful tale.

Ruth Davis, ‘End-of-Life Liaison’
This is a story about one of those things which one hopes will never happen, and which probably won’t, but to which there’s a certain nagging plausibility all the same. In this case, it’s that, in the face of continued pressure on resources because of an ageing population, anyone who reaches the age of 85 is compulsorily euthanised. It’s the routine way in which Davis’s fictional authorities handle this which makes the story particularly chilling – the policy has its own acronyms (such as ‘MPA’ or ‘Maximum Permitted Age’), and those approaching 85 are offered ‘End-of Life Counselling’. Davis’s tale follows one octogenarian, George Herbert, as he attends this counselling and unexpectedly presented with a possible way out. All is presented in a very down-to-earth manner, which gives the story its power.

Ross Sutherland, ‘Unexpected Flow’
During a school trip to London, young Connor ditches the rest of his party and wanders around Tate Modern, listening all the while to a Jay-Z album. This may not sound like much when I summarise it like that, but it’s the rhythm of Sutherland’s telling that makes the story work, with the rap lyrics acting as a counterpoint to the events. I could imagine ‘Unexpected Flow’ working very well as a short film.

Sarah Day, ‘Exposure’
A woman agrees to be the muse of an artist-geologist whom she knew as a child, and with whom she becomes reacquainted by chance as an adult, but it turns out to be a bad idea. This is a carefully written piece that builds up detail to create an effective study of both the narrator and the artist.

Michael Amherst, ‘What I Feel’
Another good character study, this time of a man who struggles to feel to feel any emotion about anything, and is now present when a woman falls from a railway platform and is run over by a train. The twist in the story is perhaps no great surprise; but that’s less important than the cold tone of the prose, which brings the character to life vividly.

Elsewhere in this issue of Pen Pusher, we find: a selection of poetry; some interesting reviews; an interview with Diana Athill, which makes me want to read her work; an interview with Helen Oyeyemi, which would make me want to read her work, except I’ve already done so and know how good it is; a superb non-fiction piece by Susan Barker about her time staying in China whilst studying Mandarin;  Paul Francis’s reflective graphic tale, ‘Tidalism’; a list of literary quotations about horses; and even more besides.

Pen Pusher website
Websites of contributors mentioned: Michael Amherst; Grace Andreacchi; Paul Francis; Ross Sutherland.

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