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Fantasy, Galley Beggar style: Mordew by Alex Pheby

It’s a year or so now since I heard that Alex Pheby’s third Galley Beggar Press novel was going to be fantasy. I was intrigued as to what sort of fantasy novel Galley Beggar might publish, but also wanted to have some idea of what Pheby’s other work was like. That’s what led me to read Lucia earlier this year. It was a powerful experience of vivid language… and so was Mordew.

Reading this book took me back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense of a fantasy novel that was vibrant and wide open, that could go anywhere it wanted. Mordew is built on archetypal foundations: Nathan Treeves, a boy from the slums with a mysterious ‘Spark’, is sent on a mission by the powerful Master of the city of Mordew. There are echoes of many a classic fantasy city, but Pheby’s novel is something all of its own.

For a start, there’s the writing. Here, towards the beginning, is Nathan wading through a patch of Living Mud, which can spontaneously generate life-forms:

Deeper and there were things brushing his knees, some the size of a finger, moving through the darkness. Then, occasionally, the touch of something on his thighs, seeking, groping, flinching away by reflex. There was nothing to fear – he told himself – since whatever these things were, they had no will, and would be dead in minutes, dissolving back into the Living Mud. They meant nothing to anyone. They meant nothing. 

It’s easier for Nathan to tell himself these things are nothing than for him to act that way in reality. This passage made my skin crawl when I read it!

Mordew also lingers in my mind because of the extent to which Pheby pushes his novel’s imagination. I could list examples, but I find that I don’t want to, because a large part of this novel’s effect lies in the discovery. Suffice it to say that, if you like the sound of Mordew, I highly recommend it.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced last Wednesday, and it was the one I hadn’t finished reading at the time. So first of all, congratulations to Mike Harrison on his win — I’m pleased he’s had this recognition. Now on to the book itself. 

On the face of it, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again would seem the most conventionally written novel on the Goldsmiths shortlist — there are no contrasting voices or unusual layouts here. But what Harrison does, gradually and comprehensively, is to undermine the basic qualities that we might expect a conventional novel to have. Coherence, progression, resolution… all dissipate as you look at them more closely. 

Harrison’s two protagonists are caught in the midst of something strange, not that they seem to notice. Shaw is getting back on his feet following a breakdown. He moves into a small room in a damp London house. He meets one Tim Swann combing through the soil in a cemetery, and later discovers he lives next door. Tim offers Shaw a job in an office on his barge, obscure administrative tasks and trips to niche shops that are barely hanging on:

The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it was still 1981 — denizens of futures that failed to take, whole worlds that never got past the economic turbulence and out into clear air…

In one sense, then, the ‘sunken land’ of the title refers to people and places worn down by austerity. 

The novel’s second protagonist is Victoria, with whom Shaw is having an intermittent affair. Victoria has moved from London to the Midlands, to work on renovating her late mother’s home. She finds the people quite distant, and seemingly more knowledgeable about her mother than she is. She becomes sort-of friends with Pearl, a waitress, who lives in a house whose rooms seem to shift and where people come and go without warning. 

You would never know there was anything unusual about Victoria’s life, though, if you judged by the banal emails she sends to Shaw (not that he usually reads them). Failures in communication are a recurring feature of this novel, whether it’s Victoria and Shaw not telling each other what’s really going on in their lives, or Shaw’s struggle to connect with his mother, who has dementia and can never get his first name right.

A breakdown of communication is one thing, but this is also a novel where the world itself fails to come together. Images of water abound, and there are rumours of humans being born with the appearance of fish. Tim Swann researches such fringe phenomena, and there are hints at a unifying explanation of all the book’s strange happenings. But when one’s actually reads Tim’s writings, the semblance of coherence disappears:

Stories reproduced from every type of science periodical appeared cheek-by-jowl with listicle and urban myth. These essentially unrelated objects were connected by grammatically correct means to produce apparently causal relationships. Perfectly sound pivots, such as ‘however’ and ‘while it remains true that’, connected propositions empty of any actual meaning…

The same goes for Sunken Land more broadly. Whatever’s really going on here, it’s not within the sight or comprehension of our protagonists — and therefore of us. If there’s a promise of escape from (or for) this sunken land, it will be fulfilled somewhere else. Harrison’s novel is unnerving because there are echoes of motion throughout, but ultimately what we experience through its characters is stasis.

Published by Gollancz.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Bina by Anakana Schofield

I can’t help associating Anakana Schofield with the Goldsmiths Prize. I read her for the first time when her previous novel, Martin John, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths in 2016, and now here we are again with Bina.

Like Martin John, Bina was a minor character in Schofield’s first novel Malarky (you don’t need to have read Malarky to enjoy Bina – I hadn’t – but there are several references to the earlier book). In Malarky, 70-something Bina was arrested for taking a hammer to an aeroplane at a protest. Now she spends much of her time in bed, with medical waste in her garden, and assorted activists camping outside the house as the threat looms of being arrested again.

I described the novel Martin John as being organised to create meaning for its protagonist rather than the reader. Bina runs along similar lines: although its narrator wants to tell her story and be heard, she’ll do it in her own time and her own way. This involves scribbling on the back of receipts and whatever paper she can find, which explains why some sections break down into short single-sentence paragraphs on the page. Bina is a choppy novel to read, reflecting its main character’s restless mind.

Bina’s account revolves around three characters: her late friend Phil (Philomena), the protagonist of Malarky; her ex-lodger Eddie; and the mysterious Tall Man, who recruited Bina for something that I’m not going to reveal. These characters exist in the novel more as shadows than presences (at least, so I found). Their stories grow out of oblique snippets (such as Bina commenting that she found Eddie in a ditch), and only gradually does it become apparent what has been going on in Bina’s life, and how the dark the book will grow.

Bina is subtitled “A Novel in Warnings”; Bina herself is clear what she’s about:

I’m only telling you this to warn you. I’ve better ways to waste my time than mithering on here. I’m a busy woman. Of that be certain. People think old women have nothing to do but stand around. They’re very wrong and very ignorant and do take that last combination of wrong and ignorant as another warning. If people think you have time to stand about, let them know otherwise, by not standing about. Take off! Take off when they least expect it.

So, Bina has several types of warnings for her readers: warnings not to do certain things, to walk away from certain situations – but also not to make assumptions about people or overlook those left in the margins.

My abiding memory of Bina is of a deeply affecting book. I didn’t realise how much it had affected me until the end. Those stories unfolding obliquely within the novel got under my skin, and I hadn’t noticed. But I’ll remember that feeling, long after turning the final page.

Published by Fleet.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

The lover: a Chinese woman who moves to London to study for a PhD. At a picnic one day, she sees a man picking elderflowers. She meets him again at a book club, and they get talking. From such random moments, love blossoms.

The discourse: a chronicle of the woman’s new life and an examination of her love, inspired by Barthes’ book of the same name (which I haven’t read). It’s told in a series of short chapters, snapshots in time.

Each chapter of Xiaolu Guo’s latest novel begins with a brief passage of dialogue that appears in the text later on. For me, this affects the experience of reading in two key ways. First, it emphasises the fragmented structure: you recognise the dialogue when you read it again, and the chapter seems to revolve around it, to become a self-contained piece. Second, the dialogue starts to feel more like a performance.

We end up with a love story that’s ragged in form rather than smooth. This is appropriate, because the experience of moving to London is far from smooth for Guo’s protagonist. There are immediate issues such as unfamiliar terminology (the word ‘Brexit’ appears everywhere when our narrator moves over, but not in her dictionary) and loneliness (“What were we supposed to do at night in our rented rooms, if we didn’t drink or watch sports?”).

As time goes on, the stumbling-blocks evolve, becoming subtler and, in some ways, more profound. The narrator would like to put down roots, but her partner is much more at ease with a transient lifestyle – at one point, they move into a houseboat, but it’s not her idea of home. The protagonist’s boyfriend is German-Australian, with family in both countries, while her parents have both passed away. Unlike her, he is at home in multiple cultures, and comfortable moving between them.

Language itself is a contested space for Guo’s narrator. In one chapter she’s at a New Year’s Eve party where her partner is conversing in English and German, and she can’t follow it:

I thought, even though I speak English, and I can read and write in English, still, I feel monolingual. Really, I had only one language. And even worse, I could not possess this language…Whatever I spoke, whether it was my borrowed English language or my native Chinese Mandarin, I didn’t feel I had that language in me. That language spoke for me, instead of my speaking it.

So perhaps we could see this lover’s discourse as her essay at working through her feelings, taking possession of what it is to live in this place, with this language. Guo’s novel is a love story which puts love to the test, because that’s what its protagonist needs in order to find solid ground in her life.

Published by Chatto & Windus.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths

In 1823, Beethoven was commissioned to compose a biblical oratorio in the United States of America. He didn’t live to take up the commission… but what if he had? That’s the question posed by music critic Paul Griffiths in his latest novel.

I like it when historical fiction acknowledges the constructed nature of history. Mr. Beethoven goes much further than that. We begin with Beethoven on a ship headed for Boston – yet Griffiths emphasises that this is not how things were, but a plausible alternative:

It would be possible to work out which vessel this might have been, in whose dining salon these people were delving into their cabbage soup with greater or lesser pleasure. Suppose the year was 1833, as could well have been the case…

In this way, Griffiths is able to take his novel apart and rebuild it as he goes. The sense that this all provisional, contingent, raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck. There’s a brilliant chapter which rehearses a conversation between Beethoven and his librettist, Reverend Ballou, three times. In the first two versions, the composer says the same things but Ballou’s dialogue changes, giving the scene a completely different tone. In the third version, Beethoven doesn’t understand Ballou at all. Which is the ‘correct’ conversation? Take your pick.

Communication is one of the first problems that Beethoven encounters. Griffiths imagines a girl named Thankful, who uses Martha’s Vineyard sign language to interpret for him. But there’s still inevitably a distance between the composer and the world around him. All of Beethoven’s dialogue in the novel has been taken directly from his letters. Of course, it’s then out of context, which has the effect of making Beethoven seem to be at a slight remove from reality. It’s subtle but unnerving.

The subject of Beethoven’s oratorio is Job. As Thankful listens to the performance, she reflects on its meaning: “It is about this universe in which God is omnipotent. And it is about a larger universe in which God is powerless, helpless.” I’m struck that Mr. Beethoven puts its author in a similar position: totally in control over what’s between the covers in one sense, but at the mercy of history in another. If the author is like God, then – as Robert says in his review at The Bobsphere – Beethoven in this novel is like Job, undergoing his own trial of faith (in himself as much as anything).

Mr. Beethoven is a novel that twists language and history to explore what might have been, but also to expose the inherent fragility of any fictional account. I must mention as well that this is a beautifully made volume from Henningham Family Press. I’m pleased to see it highlighted by the Goldsmiths Prize.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Meanwhile in Dopamine City by DBC Pierre

A few days before the Goldsmiths shortlist was announced, I saw an episode of the game show Pointless which had a round on Booker Prize winners. When Vernon God Little was revealed as one of the answers, both presenters said something along the lines of, “I read a few pages of that but it wasn’t for me.”

This was pretty much the impression I had of DBC Pierre’s work, without having read any at all: that his writing was ‘turned up to 11’, and that he probably wasn’t someone I’d ever have cause to read. Then he was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths, and here we are.

Meanwhile in Dopamine City is set in an unspecified country that feels like the USA in some ways and Australia in others. In a town owned by the Company, Lon Cush holds out against the ever-greater encroachment of technology and social media on all areas of life. That is until he slaps his nine-year-old daughter Shelby-Ann, having jumped to the wrong conclusions about what she was doing. Lon is forced to obtain smartphones for himself and Shelby, so the authorities can keep an eye on them.

Pierre’s prose is indeed busy. For example: “Frogs fell quiet under the catmint and sea holly as he pulled the gate shut behind him, lifting it on its hinges to dampen the squeak. He went up three steps and billowed into his house like a sailor in a black-and-white bar scene.”

After Lon gets his smartphone, the novel becomes even more striking, because the text splits into two columns: a first-person voice in the left, and a newsfeed on the right that links to it in some way. I presume that this is meant to evoke the distraction of using a smartphone, but actually I found it something of a respite! Pierre’s default prose style is enough on its own to convey that sense of constant diversion.

I must admit that I lost track of the plot as the novel went on, but I don’t think that matters too much. It’s the texture of Pierre’s book that makes it for me, and the ideas at work within, such as the Universal Fluid Score, a single giant algorithmic rating that determines social standing. Meanwhile in Dopamine City shines brightest as an experience of being caught in a hyper-connected world, with all its promises and dangers.

Published by Faber & Faber.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Lolly Willowes –Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was a new name to me, but I was intrigued by the sound of her 1926 debut Lolly Willowes, newly reissued in Penguin Modern Classics. What I found in it was a very enjoyable character study.

Born in 1874, Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to the societal expectations of a woman her age:

Being without coquetry she did not feel herself bound to feign a degree of entertainment which she had not experienced, and the same deficiency made her insensible to the duty of every marriageable young woman to be charming…

Laura lives in the family home with her father – no marriage for her. After her father’s death, she reluctantly moves to London to stay with her elder brother’s family, where she is consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly.

But Laura longs for more from life. It seems the First World War might herald change, as suddenly she has a vocation (albeit the fairly tedious one of doing up parcels). But it’s not to be: “When the better days to come came, they proved to be modelled as closely as possible upon the days that were past.”

If there is to be change, then, it will have to come from Laura herself. In 1921, she announces that she is moving to a village in Buckinghamshire, seemingly on impulse (she starts thinking about it after buying some chrysanthemums that were grown in the county). But the real reason becomes apparent: Laura is leaving to practise witchcraft.

The quality that draws Laura to the countryside is underlined when it’s about to be taken from her. At one point, Laura’s nephew Titus joins her in the village. He has an instinctive understanding of the countryside, but it’s a mechanistic one. Laura understands the place on a more spiritual level, though she can feel this slipping away from her:

The woods judged her by her company, and hushed their talk as she passed by with Titus. Silence heard them coming, and fled out of the fields, the hills locked up their thoughts, and became so many grassy mounds to be walked up and walked down.

With Titus around, Laura finds herself reverting back to being Aunt Lolly. It’s a situation that seems impossible to escape – but there are ways…

Lolly Willowes is the story of a woman turning her back on prescribed social roles and forging her own path, in what turns out to be spectacular fashion. I recommend it warmly.

Three books: Pheby, Coleman, Shanbhag

It’s time for another trio of reviews that were first posted on my Instagram.

Alex Pheby, Lucia (2018)

I have quite a few unread Galley Beggar Press books, and I was in the mood to start changing that. So I picked up Lucia by Alex Pheby, which won the Republic of Consciousness Prize a couple of years ago. ⁣

This novel concerns Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter. I didn’t know much about her, beyond what it says in the cover blurb: she was a talented dancer, spent her last 30 years in an asylum, and most contemporary references to her have been lost to history. ⁣

Pheby confronts head-on the problems of what it means to write a real life into fiction. The structure is fragmented, with fragments written from a variety of viewpoints – this is a novel told around and to Lucia, not by her. Interspersed between chapters are sequences describing an Egyptian archaeological dig, and the process of mummification – the implication being that the act of writing about Lucia is a similar disturbance. ⁣

Much of what happens in the novel is traumatic for Lucia, and this is uncomfortable to read, as it should be. Overall, I found this book a powerful reading experience, and I appreciated that Pheby made the problem of what he was doing part of the novel itself. ⁣

Flynn Coleman, A Human Algorithm (2019)

This book is a look at some of the issues around artificial intelligence. Flynn Coleman is a human rights attorney, and her book is very much focused on the ethical implications of AI and what it might mean for us as humans. ⁣⁣

⁣⁣This is not a subject I know much about, and I appreciate that Coleman is posing questions at least as much as trying to come up with answers – the book seems meant as a starting point for a conversation rather than a definitive conclusion. ⁣⁣⁣

It seems to me that Coleman is pretty even-handed in considering both the potential benefits and drawbacks of AI. She’s clear, though, that it’s urgent for us to be thinking about issues such as how we might instil morals into machines (and whose morals they should be), because the technology will continue to develop in any case. ⁣⁣⁣

I like the range of Coleman’s book, and it left me with a lot to think about, which is what I wanted most of all from it. If the subject piques your interest, A Human Algorithm is well worth your time.

Published by Melville House UK.

Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar (2013)
Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perar (2017)

The narrator of this short novel is a director of his family’s spice business in Bangalore, though it’s so successful that he doesn’t need to do any work. His uncle built the firm up, transforming the family’s fortunes in the process – though money has not solved all their problems. ⁣

The narrator structures his story around the hierarchy of his household, with his uncle at the top and himself somewhere towards the bottom. This has the effect of making the novel feel like a series of anecdotes, and there are some engaging episodes, such as the family’s attempts to deal with an ant infestation in their old shack. But this book is more than a yarn: the narrator is not telling us everything. ⁣

His wife, Anita, is often at odds with the rest of the family – she wasn’t too happy to discover that her husband earned no money for himself, for example. The particular incident on which the book pivots is when a woman arrives at the house asking to speak to the uncle, and is summarily sent away by the narrator’s mother. Anita is the only family member who feels the woman was treated badly, and tells her husband that he should have intervened. The ramifications of this play out across the novel. ⁣

Within the book, “ghachar ghochar” is a phrase invented by Anita to mean “hopelessly tangled up”. That’s what the narrator comes to feel his life is like, and with good reason. Vivek Shanbhag examines the implications of his characters looking away from what they don’t want to see. ⁣

Published by Faber & Faber.

⁣⁣⁣

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Ever since I first saw the cover of this year’s BBCNSSA anthology, I wondered: what are the walruses about? Well, here they are in Eley Williams’ story – specifically, this webcam feed of walruses in Alaska.

Williams’ narrator is messaging a – friend? lover? partner? – online when that other person admits to being unhappy. The narrator is unsure how to respond, then decides to send a link to the walrus live-stream, because it’s a favourite of theirs. But the other person doesn’t reply, and the narrator is concerned that their message may not have been taken as intended.

‘Scrimshaw’ is the shortest story on this year’s list, and the densest with language. It has the same fascination with words and exuberant expressiveness that I found in Williams’ novel The Liar’s Dictionary:

A whole town stretched between us, and I considered the surface of our separate skins blued or bluewn or bluesed by pixel-light as we typed against our own private darkness.

This is a story very much concerned with the nature of contemporary communication: the way it can be intensely solitary if you’re typing away, but can also permeate our lives. ‘Scrimshaw’ is a fine end to a strong shortlist.

Listen to a reading of ‘Scrimshaw’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Come Down Heavy’ by Jack Houston

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Of all the stories I’ve read so far on this year’s shortlist, this one has the most obviously unconventional style:

& what happened was Simone said she wasn’t sure she was really in the mood so Jackie walked the small & darkening park alone, the tower behind her, the fizzed glow of the thin-strung lamplight guiding her along the narrow concrete path to The Birdcage…

Simone and Jackie are friends, addicts who move in together in the hope of finding some stability. Their lives are fundamentally precarious, which is reflected in Houston’s writing, that tumble of words and occasionally-awkward phrasing – saying what you want to say in any way possible, because you don’t know when there will be another chance to say it.

‘Come Down Heavy’ is harrowing to read, but that prose is unstoppable. You’re right there with Jackie and Simone, feeling what they feel.

Listen to a reading of ‘Come Down Heavy’.

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