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The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker’s debut novel was first published in 1988. It’s set during an office worker’s lunch hour, and consists of his lengthy thoughts on the minutiae of life, such as why both his shoelaces snapped in quick succession (were stresses caused by tying the laces, or by the laces rubbing against the eyeholes of his shoes?). 

To give you a flavour of the prose, here the protagonist imagines what will happen after he’s bought a rubber address stamp, paid his bills, and taken some chairs for recaning:

Molten rubber was soon to be poured into backward metal letters that spelled my name and address; blind people were making clarinetists’ finger motions over the holes of a half-caned chair, gauging distances and degrees of tautness; somewhere in the Midwest in rooms full of Tandem computers and Codex statistical multiplexers the magnetic record of certain debts in my name was being overwritten with a new magnetic record that corresponded to a figure diminished to the penny by the amount that I had a written out in hasty felt-tip pen on my checks…

The technology fixes Baker’s novel in time to an extent, but in an intriguing way. The protagonist is fixated on the workings of mechanical systems, and of course this is a time when office work is full of them, right down to the frequent use of staplers. There is a real sense of the character interacting with his environment, because what he’s thinking is inevitably tied to the physicality of things. 

I’ve been trying to decide whether The Mezzanine is poking fun at its protagonist’s obsessions, and I’m still not sure. Sometimes it all seems over the top, such as when the character is deciding on the most politic spot to sign his name on a get-well card (not too close to the boss’s name!). Sometimes I just think, this guy is enthusiastic and interested, so good for him. 

Maybe it’s there in the book’s title. The character’s office is on the mezzanine, so when he travels up the escalator, his destination is only part-way up and no further. Looked at another way, he’s found his level, and seems happy with it. Whichever, I’m glad I spent time in his world. 

Published in Granta Editions.

Lanny by Max Porter

In the countryside near London stirs Dead Papa Toothwort, a nature spirit who moves through the different layers of life in the village, and revels in the music of human voices. These curl and overlap strikingly on the page:

Lanny is a dreamy young boy from the village with a wild imagination. Many people can’t work him out, as we hear from his parents, a commuter and novelist who are recent arrivals from the city. We also hear from Pete, a local artist who spends time with Lanny, and seems more on his wavelength than most. 

Papa Toothwort understands Lanny, though: he sees that here is someone with an affinity for nature – someone who would respect the deep tales of old, rather than treating them as tourist fodder. As the novel’s first part ends, Toothwort decides the time has come to reassert himself – and Lanny goes missing. 

The second section is my favourite part of the book, as the prose turns into a collage of voices echoing Toothwort’s passages in the first part. Max Porter explores not just the relationship between his village community and the natural world, but also relations within the village – for example, the way suspicion soon falls (unwarranted) on Pete.

The theatrical third part turns to the question of what Lanny means to those closest to him – whether they’ll be honest about it or not. It’s the feelings in Lanny that remain strongest in my mind, the way emotions twist and unpeel as the novel goes on. 

Published by Faber & Faber.

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

I wanted to read Russell Hoban: the question was, where to start? Hoban’s website has a handy page of suggested introductions, and I just went for the book billed as “the most accessible” – 1975’s Turtle Diary

Two characters take turns to narrate: bookseller William and children’s writer Neaera. Both are middle-aged, living in London, lonely. They don’t know each other, but there’s one thing that unites them: a concern for the sea turtles at London Zoo. Held captive, these creatures are unable to follow their natural instinct to navigate to the sea. William observes: “Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean that couldn’t be said.”

Neaera and William have a dream to take some turtles from the Zoo, travel to the coast and set them free. What’s striking to me is that, when the pair first come across each other and recognise their shared preoccupation, they are reluctant to join forces. I kept imagining another version of Turtle Diary, a more straightforward tale of ’empowerment’ in which the protagonists get together readily, pursue their goal single-mindedly, and find their lives changed permanently for the better. 

That version of Turtle Diary wouldn’t be as good as Hoban’s. 

Don’t get me wrong: the turtles matter to William and Neaera, the pair go through with a plan, and there are consequences. But the protagonists’ concern for the turtles comes from a deeply personal place: it’s standing in for a more fundamental absence. As Neaera puts it: “The mystery of the turtles and their secret navigation is a magical reality, juice of life in a world gone dry.” This is not necessarily an experience that the characters would want to share with someone else – and setting the turtles free won’t necessarily open up the rest of life. 

I appreciate the knottiness and ambivalence of Turtle Diary: there is hope, but it’s not automatic. Hoban’s writing sparkles… I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this novel before, and I can’t ask a book for much more than that. 

Published in Penguin Modern Classics.

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy: a Shiny New Books review

I don’t read an awful lot of non-fiction, but I was particularly intrigued by the premise of this book… Homelands (published by Canongate) is journalist Chitra Ramaswamy’s account of her friendship with Henry Wuga, a Holocaust survivor. It’s part biography and part memoir, as Ramaswamy finds echoes and points of connection between her life and Henry’s.

I’ve reviewed Homelands for Shiny New Books. It felt a bit strange at times to be passing comment on a living person’s account of their recent life, but hopefully I achieved a good balance in the review. Anyway, Homelands is an absorbing book, and if you like the sound of it I suggest you give it a try.

Click here to read my review in full.

Tramp Press: Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Sara Baume’s third novel begins with a disconcerting description of a mountain in south-west Ireland. First, Baume emphasises that this apparently passive landscape is full of the eyes of animals:

And each eye was focused solely on its surrounding patch of ground or gorse or rock or air. Each perceived the pattern, shade and proportion of its patch differently. Each shifted and assimilated at the pace of one patch at a time.

Then, the mountain itself becomes an eye:

It’s kept watch on the sky, sea and land, and every ornament and obstruction – the moon and clouds; the trawlers, yachts and gannetries; the rooftops, roads and chimney pots; the turbines, telegraph poles and steeples.

The image of an eye recurs throughout Seven Steeples, along with the sense of the landscape as an antagonistic (or at least indifferent) presence. 

Into this landscape come Bell and Sigh, a couple who believe that “the only appropriate trajectory for a life was to leave as little trace as possible and incrementally disappear.” They have moved here determined to cut all ties with their old lives (for reasons which are at most only hinted at). They resolve to climb that mountain, but for the seven years of this book, it remains unclimbed. 

Seven Steeples is one of those novels that takes you into the minds of its protagonists through the way it’s written. This is not a novel concerned with ‘what happens’ so much as with the ebb and flow of the life Bell and Sigh want to lead. The rhythms of Baume’s prose reflect that the couple want to live as part of the landscape, and it’s absorbing to read. 

Published by Tramp Press.

New Island Books: Lenny by Laura McVeigh

Today’s book is from the small Irish publisher New Island Books (the last title of theirs I read was Sue Rainsford’s excellent Follow Me to Ground). It’s the second novel by Laura Mcveigh, who grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in London and Mallorca.

In 2011, a boy named Izil watches a pilot fall from the sky to Libya’s Ubari Sand Sea. The man has lost his memory, but takes the name Goose and is reliant on Izil’s people to help him survive.

In 2012, we meet ten-year-old Lenny, who lives in Louisiana. His mother has left and his father is scarred from PTSD. He spends much of his time with old Miss Julie, who longs for her husband to return from the war in Korea; and Lucy, the town librarian. The town itself has suffered deprivation and is also threatened by a sinkhole. Lenny searches for something he can do to help.

It gradually becomes clear how these two timeframes are connected. What unfolds is then a poignant tale of loss, family and belonging. McVeigh creates a distinctive atmosphere in her novel, one where time itself might potentially be held back or twisted. I enjoyed spending time with Lenny – both the book and the characterisation.

Henningham Family Press: Pupa by J.O. Morgan

Another handsome volume from Henningham Family Press (not that there’s any other kind), this time the first novel by Scottish poet J.O. Morgan. I don’t know Morgan’s poetry, but after reading Pupa I am certainly intrigued. 

In the world of this novel, people hatch from eggs and may choose to spend their entire lives as a larval (apparently of insectoid appearance), or go through a pupal stage and become an adult (who seem to bear a closer resemblance to humans as we know them). We meet Sal and Megan, two young larvals in low-level admin jobs. The question of whether to pupate is on their minds, and Sal for one is sceptical. As he says to Megan:

“And when you end up looking so different, how can you be sure it’s really you? You can’t know if you’ll like how you’ll turn out. And you can’t switch back again. That’s it forever. You’re stuck. At least this way you already know. You can be content. Just as you are.”

Megan is more inclined to keep her thoughts to herself, and Sal eventually discovers why: she has chosen to pupate. The two then find themselves in different social worlds, and having to reconfigure their friendship as a result. 

There’s potentially a whole history behind the world of Pupa, but by focusing in on these two characters, Morgan highlights the metaphor. The larval/adult divide could stand for age, class – any social division where you could move from one side to the other. There’s an openness to Pupa which allows the reader to imagine with it in different ways. It’s a sandbox of a novel, and a pleasure to spend time with. 

Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker: a Strange Horizons review

I have a new review up at Strange Horizons. This time I’m looking at Composite Creatures, the debut novel by Caroline Hardaker (published by Angry Robot).

Composite Creatures is set in a future where nature has mostly been replaced by artificial substitutes. Norah and Art are learning to live together with Nut, their “perfect little bundle of fur”, and Norah feels she’s presenting different versions of herself to the world.

I found that reading Composite Creatures felt like peeling back successive layers of the novel, so that’s how I structured my review.

You can read the review in full here.

A bite-sized chat about The Tomb Guardians

Something a little different today, as I make my debut on YouTube. Shawn the Book Maniac is a Canadian BookTuber based in Tokyo. He has an ongoing series called Bite-sized Book Chats, where he invites different people to talk about a book they’ve enjoyed. Shawn kindly invited me to take part earlier this year, and I chose my favourite book of 2021, Paul Griffiths’ The Tomb Guardians. You can see my chat with Shawn as part of the latest episode below.

And Other Stories: Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs by Gerald Murnane

My introduction to Gerald Murnane was his debut novel Tamarisk Row, which I loved for the way it depicted childhood imagination and the sense of strangeness hidden within the everyday. Murnane’s 2005 essay collection Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs came as part of my And Other Stories subscription, and it has proven an ideal follow-up to Tamarisk Row. I’ve valued it for the chance to spend time in the author’s world. 

The essays in this collection gave me some insight into how Murnane perceives the world. For example, the young protagonist of Tamarisk Row would imagine whole worlds in the abstract patterns of light through glass. It came as no surprise to discover that, when Murnane played horse-racing games with marbles, he would focus on the patterns created out of each small movement. He also mentions a liking of charts and diagrams: some of his essays feel like diagrams put into words, as they circle back over images and memories. 

Murnane’s writing often seems to return to landscapes, but landscapes of the mind, imagined grasslands or plains. As he puts it in ‘Birds of the Puszta‘:

Plains looked simple but were not so. The grass leaning in the wind was all that could be seen of plains, but under the grass were insects and spiders and frogs and snakes – and ground-dwelling birds. I thought of plains whenever I wanted to think of something unremarkable at first sight but concealing much of meaning. And yet plains deserved, perhaps, not to be inspected closely. A pipit, crouched over its eggs in the shadow of a tussock, was the colour of dull grass. I was a boy who delighted in finding what was meant to remain hidden, but I was also a boy who liked to think of lost kingdoms.

Murnane’s work keeps evoking for me a sense of “lost kingdoms”, imaginative spaces hidden just out of sight. When I finished Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, I had been changed by it: when I looked around at the world, something felt different. 

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