TagMark Watson

Elsewhere: Shiny New Books issue 3 and the Strange Horizons book club

News about some external stuff today. There’s a new issue of Shiny New Books out, where you’ll find a couple of pieces by me. One is a celebration of the short story, with a few recommended story collections. The other is a review of Mark Watson’s new novel Hotel Alpha, which chronicles forty years in the life of a hotel and its people, and comes with a hundred bonus short stories online – one of which is also up at SNB.

Then there’s something new over at Strange Horizons: a monthly round-table book club. Each month, a panel of participants will discuss a particular title, with the opportunity for others to contribute in the comments. I’m involved in two of the initial instalments: later this month, I’ll be taking part in the discussion on Patricia A. McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow; then I’ll be moderating the December panel on Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. The other discussions coming up concern Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman (November) and Rachel Pollack’s Unquenchable Fire (January). I’m really excited by the book club, which is planned to be a regular feature; I hope you’ll take a look and perhaps join in.

A story from Hotel Alpha

Hotel AlphaToday is publication day for a novel I’ve been looking forward to since I first heard about it: Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson. Although best known as a comedian, Watson has also been written some very smart novels (I reviewed his Eleven a few years ago). Hotel Alpha is his fifth, and chronicles forty years in the life of a central London hotel. What’s particularly intriguing, though, is that Watson has written a hundred short stories (from the length of a tweet to a thousand words or more) to go with it – stories that exist within and fill some of the gaps in the novel.

I’ll be reviewing Hotel Alpha for the October issue of Shiny New Books; for now, though, I’m hosting one of the hundred stories here. It’s only a couple of paragraphs, but I love the emotions that it evokes. You’ll find the rest of the stories at http://www.hotelalphastories.com.

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Story 48: Room 76, 1970

Every time someone knocks on any of the bloody doors in this place, it sounds like it’s yours. This is the third time he’s sprung to his feet, gone to jerk open the door, and not found herthere. Once it was a visitor for the person the other side of the wall: a visitor who ought not, from the look on her face, to be there. Once it was a housekeeper in a uniform so white it looked brand new; she glanced wryly at him before being admitted two doors down. And this time there is nobody there at all. Whoever made the knock has been noiselessly admitted to a room, or was the product of his imagination. Or a ghost.

It’s not as if it could be her, anyhow. She isn’t coming back. He has lost her. She is with somebody else; or she’s with nobody else, but happy; she’s happy without him, that’s the point. And that’s how it has to be. He doesn’t deserve another chance, probably. It’s just that a hotel promises everything, or at least rules nothing out. Anything, in its neutrality, can be imagined. Nobody made of the ordinary human stuff can hear a knock on a door, even the wrong door, without believing for a few seconds that the impossible has happened, and the person they have longed for is here after all.

Mark Watson, Eleven (2010)

Here’s a chain of consequences: early last year, I was at a work conference where, one evening, a group of us went to see Mark Watson in stand-up. His name was half-familiar, though I couldn’t quite place it; but I love good comedy, so I decided to take a chance and go along anyway – and I’m glad I did, because Watson was hilarious.

A few months later, I was in an unfamiliar part of town, and popped into the local library, where I saw a novel by an author named Mark Watson. A quick glance at the biography established that this was the same Mark Watson; apparently he’d written a couple of novels several years previously. If his fiction was anything like as good as his stand-up, I thought, then I wanted to read it – so I borrowed the book and, sure enough, it was very good.

All this meant that, when I heard earlier this year that Watson was going to publish a new novel, his first in six years, I was very interested in reading it. And the reason I’ve introduced this review as I have is that Eleven is all about chains of consequence. The central chain of events begins when Xavier Ireland, the host of a late-night radio phone-in show, witnesses a group of youths beating up another boy and tries to intervene, but fails to stop them. The novel continues to follow Xavier’s life whilst, alongside that, Watson traces the seemingly random consequences of that one incident – the bullying angers the victim’s mother, who then writes a harsher review of a restaurant than she might have otherwise; incensed by the review, the restaurant’s owner ends up firing one of his staff, and so on. We also discover what it was that led Chris Cotswold to leave Australia, change his name to Xavier Ireland, and take such an unsociable job – and why everything comes back to the number eleven.

The fabric of Eleven is shaped by the theme of chance moments and their ramifications. It’s there in Xavier’s life, as the nature of his job means that most of his connections with other people are transitory – the callers to his show enter his life briefly, then dart back out again; and the odd hours Xavier keeps mean that his producer/co-presenter Murray is probably the person he sees most regularly. The theme is there, of course, in the main consequence-chain; but it’s also there in Watson’s many asides, which reveal connections between minor characters, or glimpses into their futures. These asides act as a reminder that, beyond the protagonist’s life (and, in reality, our own), there are countless webs of other stories which remain unknown to us.

Watson also captures the raggedy nature of life in his plot progression, as events don’t necessarily tie up neatly; what seems as though it’s going to become the novel’s key relationship actually fizzles out early on; and an apparently throwaway gag – one woman Xavier meets at a speed-dating event introduces herself as a cleaner, and before their three minutes are up, he’s made an appointment with her for that weekend – grows into one of the main plot strands.

The character development in Eleven is also smartly done. As I said earlier, Xavier’s relationships with other people tend to be fleeting; when someone does start to become more of a permanent fixture in his life, Xavier doesn’t know how to handle it – but he learns to so in a halting fashion which is very believable. More generally, Eleven could be seen as the story of how Xavier slowly breaks out of the old pattern of his life – but then comes the ending…

I really like the ending of Eleven. It reminds me of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, insofar as both books have endings which are no way to end a novel, and yet are completely right for the story they tell. But you’ll have to read this novel to find out what I mean. And perhaps, as a consequence, you’ll have found a new book to enjoy.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of Eleven: Learning to Read; Booking Passage; Words, Words, Words; Booktopia.
Extract from Eleven at Bookhugger
Mark Watson’s website

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 3

Part 1 of this diary is available here, with part 2 here.

Friday 16th

10.00 am: Today is deliberately light on events for me; but now it gets even lighter, as the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy is unfortunately now unable to attend. I was looking forward to his talk, but now I’ll have to find something else to go to instead.

6.00 pm: Last night, I pretty much abandoned the private game of ‘Guest Director bingo’ I’d been playing. And now I walk past Anthony Horowitz, today’s Guest Director; I could have had a full scorecard!

7.00 pm: Here’s the ‘something else’ I chose to attend – ‘Castaway’s Choice’, in which a panel are asked which book they’d take to a desert island (the name of a certain radio programme is apparently not allowed to be mentioned). Apparently Geoffrey Howe chose The Good Hotel Guide in a previous year, but we get three fiction choices here. Booker nominee Adam Foulds chooses Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (a book I’d never heard of before, but it sounds interesting. Writer and Times Literary Editor Erica Wagner chooses Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. And PR agent Mark Borkowski’s choice is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve never read any of those (I know, I  know…), but it’s an entertaining and interesting session all the same. (Particularly amusing is the moment when Borkowski tries to find the last page of The Catcher in the Rye on his e-book reader, so he can read a passage, only to give up in frustration and pull out his good old paper copy – there’s life in the printed word yet!).

8.45 pm: Rich Hall is interviewed, and reads from his new story collection. I was sitting at the wrong side of the theatre to get a really good view, but it didn’t matter. Hall was excellent, by turns both funny and insightful; and his book sounds like a good read, too.

Saturday 17th

3.00 pm: A late start, as another of my planned events has been cancelled, and my first choice of replacement was full. I go along first to the Highland Park marquee, where a number of Canongate authors are reading from their work – and free shots of whisky are being offered. The author at this session is a new novelist called Trevor Byrne, who reads from Ghosts and Lightning; I’m so impressed that I go to the book tent and buy a copy. [I’m reading it now, and if it finishes as well as it starts, you can expect a very positive write-up on this very blog before too long.]

5.00 pm: What can I say about the great Steve Redgrave? Perhaps simply that he’s an engaging interviewee with a fascinating story. But I have to leave before the end to make it to my next event…

6.10 pm: More comedy, as today’s Guest Director, Mark Watson, interviews Armando Iannucci. But it’s like no other interview I’ve seen at the Festival, as they open to questions from the audience at 6.15, and get through about three questions in the next 45 minutes, each answer leading into wonderful digressions. I saw Watson in stand-up this January; he was hilarious then, and he’s hilarious now. I’ve never really followed Iannucci’s work, and am not really into political satire, but he wins me over at this session. Definitely one of the two funniest and best comedy events I attended at the whole Festival [the other is my final event tomorrow].

8.45 pm: Now, for a change, an author known for writing literature – and, moreover, the only event where I’ve already read the book under discussion. Iain Banks is as animated and engaging as ever; but I do start to wonder if Transition is really the kind of novel that lends itself to an interview of this nature, as some of the discussion feels a bit dry. And one questioner from the audience casually gives away the ending of The Wasp Factory, which I do not appreciate.

Sunday 18th

10.00 am: The Guest Director for this final day of the Festival is Jonathan Coe, at whose first event my day begins. The brochure says, ‘[Coe] introduces a varied programme of his own writing, including [a short story] reworked as a performance piece for voice and piano’. Sounds interesting to me. But, when Coe takes the stage, he announces that there’s a change to the programme. What we get is one single reading (by a female actor) of extracts from one of Coe’s novels, with a live piano accompaniment. This is okay, but I can’t help feeling disappointed, as the original idea sounded better; and I’m not sure how much the ‘soundtrack’ really added. Still, it was enough to make me interested in reading one of Coe’s books.

11.30 am: Back to the Canongate tent for a reading by Mari Strachan, another début author. Again, I’m really intrigued by this, and end up buying a copy of The Earth Hums in B Flat [though I’ve yet to start reading it].

2.00 pm: Another of Jonathan Coe’s events, this time a discussion on the place for ‘serious’/’literary’ fiction at the present time. I’m interested to see who will attend this session – the audience is (sadly) quite small; most of them are older than me, though (happily) I’m not the youngest; and I can’t help but wonder how many of the audience are just here as readers, and have no connection with publishing or writing. Anyway, the panel consists of Pete Ayrton (from the publisher Serpent’s Tail), Suzi Feay (former Literary Editor of the Independent on Sunday); and James Heneage (founder of Ottakar’s). Coe suggests at the end that the debate has been largely ‘optimistic’, though I’m not sure I’d agree with him. I’m particularly struck by how much the survival of ‘serious’ fiction seems to be dependent on other factors; it’s not whether there will be a demand for that kind of fiction (there will but, as ever, it will be a minority interest), but whether the industry will be able to support it, given that the money for it will probably have to come from elsewhere.

4.00 pm: A talk by former ambassador Christopher Meyer on his history of British diplomacy. I booked this event at the last minute, on a whim, but I’m very glad I did. Meyer is a wonderful speaker, his passion and enthusiasm for his subject really shining through.

6.00 pm: My original choice of event for this slot (Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis) was fully booked, but this one is just fine instead. The joint interview with novelists Patrick Gale and Marina Lewycka is a joy, the best fiction event of the Festival for me. I’ve never read Gale at all, and only one book of Lewycka’s (A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, which I quite enjoyed), so I’m not quite sure what to expect. But both are highly engaging (though Lewycka sounds exactly like an old French tutor of mine, which takes a little getting used to), especially when they spark off each other. Some participants in events at the Festival have been too ‘chummy’ for the good of the discussion, but here it’s an asset (I’ve no idea whether Lewycka and Gale are friends in real life, but they have that kind of natural rapport here). And my TBR pile grows larger still…

8.00 pm: Last event of the Festival – the great Barry Cryer, someone who’s been around all my life, yet I’ve never really appreciated the sheer range of his work. He’s brilliant here, with anecdotes from a lifetime in comedy, and some very funny jokes. At the very end of the session, the interviewer realises they haven’t even mentioned Cryer’s new book – but what does it matter after such a wonderful hour?

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And that was my Festival. All in all, a highly enjoyable ten days. I’m glad I went, and would certainly go back. Then again, there are all those other literary festivals out there, just waiting to be explored. As ever, so many possibilities, and not enough time to choose them all…

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