The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguru

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GIANTThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguru features themes of memory and forgetting playing out against the type of vague backdrop so beloved of the author.

A great mist has descended on the populace of ancient Britain obscuring the memories of the indigenous Britons and their Saxon neighbours alike.

The novel follows the fortunes of a pair of pilgrims, Beatrice and Axl. Both native Britons are haunted by their lack of memories.

They inhabit a dreamlike post-Roman Britain which is populated by half-imagined monsters such as ogres, pixies and an amnesia inducing dragon.

Determined to regain their past, the pair resolve to undertake a journey to their son’s village where they hope they will be welcomed and find refuge from the mist.

Along the way the couple cross paths with some fellow wayfarers, an exiled Saxon boy who carries a terrible wound, a warrior whose skilful swordplay is matched only by his impeccable politeness, and an aged knight in rusting armour accompanied by his clapped out steed.

These characters, seemingly drawn together by chance, are niggled by a sense that they may know each other. As is often the case with quests, the journey soon evolves into something beyond the characters’ original intentions.

Much controversy, and of course publicity, has greeted Ishiguru’s disavowal of the fantasy genre, with heavy-weights like Ursula Le Guin giving their two cents about the author’s perceived sniffiness towards fantasy.

While I do find more ‘literary writers’ resistance to being identified as having produced genre fiction amusing and somewhat precious, this time I feel myself siding with Ishiguru.

The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. Readers of the novel can, and will, argue the toss endlessly, but one particular point disqualified The Buried Giant as fantasy for me. That was the seemingly intentional unreality of its supernatural beings.

To my mind, fantasy seeks to convince us of the literal reality of its monsters. Not that monsters in fantasy are necessarily without a metaphorical dimension, but that the metaphorical dimension functions alongside a sense of the reality of the monster within the text.

When the Nazgûl were hunting Frodo in The Lord of The Rings I could feel them breathing, if ring-wraiths do indeed breathe, down the back of my neck as they mercilessly sought their quarry. The danger they represented in and of themselves seemed very real to me as a reader. In The Buried Giant the fantastical beings are more hallucinatory and less consequential than in fantasy novels.

Some readers have reacted with frustration at the marginal role which Ishiguru has granted the supernatural creatures, perhaps agreeing with Chekhov’s maxim regarding guns:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” The rifles being ogres in this instance.

I for one found these creatures all the more intriguing for their elusiveness and lack of consequence in the story.The monsters in the novel act as beautiful scenery which helps to construct a pleasing  phantasmagoria for the characters to inhabit. I found it liberating to walk by ogres, admiring them in passing, without dwelling too much on them.

The Buried Giant borrows some of the clothing of the fantasy genre but underneath its surface lies a very different beast.

The fantasy elements are a backdrop for the human drama central to the story. Of course fantasy can feature human drama, but in The Buried Giant the novel is almost exclusively concerned with its themes of collective memory, psychic repression and the nature of love and forgiveness. The dragons and sword fights really don’t matter much at all, whereas in fantasy proper, for better or worse, they do.

Literary references ranging from The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Greek myth are interspersed throughout the tale. These references and fragments contribute to building the novel’s peculiar  kaleidoscopic atmosphere.

I am a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguru’s work and enjoyed The Buried Giant. Perhaps my familiarity with his previous work inoculated me against the disappointment others may have felt with the book.

I never expected balls to the wall fantasy from Mr.Ishiguru, but rather restrained melancholic prose and bitter-sweet musings on memory and forgetting. All of which I found present in abundance.

While The Buried Giant is certainly not the author’s strongest novel, it still has enough going on in it to warrant a reader’s attention. It seems to be a novel which pushed the writer outside of his comfort zone.  The result is this wilfully odd genre bender which is hard to pigeon-hole, and as such worth a look.

I’ve included the link to the original article which sparked the fantasy/not fantasy furore below: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html?_r=0

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The GoldFinch by Donna Tartt

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Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is reputedly the most unfinished novel of 2014 with only 44% of readers making it past the finishing line. This fascinating figure comes courtesy of e-booksellers Kobo and raises the interesting question of which books would qualify for this dubious accolade were the data available down through the ages. But that’s a topic for another post with suggestions welcome.

 

The Goldfinch is staunchly traditional in its structure. It tells the story of Theo Decker, a young man who is violently de-mothered when a bomb explodes while they are visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

In the aftermath of the explosion the disoriented Theo has a package pressed on him by a dying old man, which he accepts out of deference to the old man’s imminent demise. It transpires the package contains the 1654 Carel Fabritius masterpiece, The Goldfinch.

The story opens with the adult Theo in a state of disarray in an Amsterdam hotel room.   From here he recounts the previous 17 years of his life following the fateful  explosion which, unsurprisingly given the physical heft of the novel, are quite eventful.

After a brief stay with alpha-WASP’s the Barbour family following the explosion, he is uprooted from his native New York by his dissolute estranged father who has an obligatory brassy blonde girlfriend in tow, and is taken to the plastic fantastic world of Los Angeles.

The painting, which accompanies him wherever he travels, has become both a burden and a consolation for Theo. On the one hand it is a sort of Telltale Heart which may reveal him as crook at any moment. On the other it was once his mother’s favourite painting, and as such it feels it connects him to her and bathes him in a special aura.

In Los Angeles he pairs up with another semi-orphaned individual, the world weary Russian teenager called Boris. Together they embark on a series of misadventures which eventually bring Theo back to New York where he becomes a ward of the kindly Hobie who teaches him the antiques trade.

This leads to Theo’s involvement in counterfeiting antique furniture and brings the reader full circle to his eventual arrival in the Amsterdam hotel where we find him at the novels opening.

So does the Goldfinch deserve its status as the most incompletely read novel of 2014? The answer is yes. In its favour the novel is cinematic in its scope and moves along at a breezy pace. Unfortunately a breezy pace can only propel a reader for so long, and over the course of 771 pages it’s a matter of time until a reader hits the doldrums.

The bones of a good novel are present but are obscured under layers of flabby improbability. The unlikely scenarios required to keep its narrative engine running eventually exasperate. The Goldfinch could really do with some ruthless editing, perhaps by Stalin.

On top or this the novel is a tonally strange read, and not in a good way. At times it feels like it belongs in the young adult section of the bookshop. Some of the characters veer dangerously close to caricature. Specifically Hobie the twinkly eyed kindly antique storeowner is hard to swallow. He seems like a refugee from a fairy tale where he was perhaps employed as a saintly toy maker.

Tartt’s description of the Fabritius’ painting are also uninspiring, her interpretation being as conventional the structure of her novel. This is particularly apparent when compared to other books which include discussions of art such as Ali Smith’s sublime ‘How To Be Both’.

All in all I found The Goldfinch to be an unsatisfying read and after persevering to the end found myself envying the 56% of readers who had the good sense to put the novel aside at an earlier stage.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

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To Rise Again At A Decent Hour cover - Copy“Life changing” is a phrase we often use to describe a work of literature which strikes a chord deep within us perhaps altering our world view. But can we palpably quantify the extent of that change?

And how long will it be before the effect of whatever we have read wears off and we revert to our familiar way of looking at the world?

Well I had my life changed by a novel three weeks ago and this monumental shift shows no sign of abating. What was this life changing book I hear you ask? Well the book in question was Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

What changes has it wrought? I hear you ask eagerly. Well I, previously an unbeliever, am now a confirmed devotee of dental floss.

Okay, this may seem modest when compared to the metaphysical insights sometimes offered by reading the right book at the right moment, but in reality the effects of frequent flossing are probably far more enduring.

Anyway enough about my dental Damascus, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour tells the story of neurotic insomniac dentist Paul O’ Rourke and his struggle to find meaning in an absurd universe.

A curmudgeon and instinctive technophobe O’Rourke is at odds with the modern world and haunted by a gnawing sense of emptiness. He seeks something beyond himself but is persistently eluded. He is an atheist with an itch.

Unlike sneering, snarling, triumphalist Dawkins devotees this doubt filled dentist views his inability to believe as something of a tragedy, an amputation of sorts. Worst of all it makes him feel a bit left out.

He tries to fill the hole in his life with hobbies such as golf, walking tours, or learning Spanish but inevitably finds that “Everything was always something, but something – and here was the rub – could never be everything.”

Relationships are impossible for the self-involved O’Rourke and are little more than ballast for the void he feels.

His two significant romances, The first with a Catholic and the second with his Jewish secretary are little more than attempts to buy himself front row tickets into their respective faiths.

There are only two constants in O’Rourke’s life. The first is his devotion to his favourite baseball team the Red Sox. Although even his devotion to the Red Sox is waning. Since they have found success the Quixotic romance of being one of their fans has diminished.

The second is dental floss. Flossing is of the utmost importance to O’Rourke who cannot comprehend the minds of those who neglect this vital regimen.

For O’Rourke flossing is a heroic Beckettian act. One flosses in spite of ones inevitable expiration and the inherent futility of fighting decay, It’s the closest thing he has to faith.

O’Rourke’s world is turned upside down when after a bizarre encounter with a patient of a spiritual persuasion, his online identity is hi-jacked.

Suddenly a twitter account appears in his name spouting esoteric mysticism and claiming to represent the Amalekites, a Biblical tribe long believed to have been wiped out by the Israelites.

What’s worse is the public interest which this persona receives. O’Rourke soon becomes obsessed with the mysterious impostor and begins a quest to track him down and hold him to account.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour addresses interesting ideas about religion and the ownership of sacred texts. Ferris is well versed in the Abrahamic faiths and puts this knowledge to good use.

The book wears its learning lightly but contains worthwhile observations about the nature of religious faith.

It is also laugh out loud on public transport hilarious, so be prepared to irritate your fellow commuters if you pick it up.

It runs out of steam a little in its final quarter when the mystery of the Amalekites is resolved, but this is forgiveable in light of the fact that it is a genuinely funny novel.

I really enjoyed this To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. and found Paul O’Rourke to be an excellent comic creation.

On top of this my dentist will no doubt be delighted with the unexpected consequences of me having read this novel.

J by Howard Jacobson

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jHoward Jacobson’s latest novel J, tells the story of two lovers Ailinn and Kevern, each unsure of their respective origins, who are thrown together by circumstance in a dystopic future Britain. Before I proceed I think it is only fair that I include a spoiler alert as it is very difficult to discuss this novel in a meaningful way without disclosing aspects of the plot which only become apparent as the story proceeds.

While I usually don’t ascribe to the notion of spoiler warnings feeling a plot should stand on its own two feet regardless of a readers prior knowledge of its outline, Jacobson has taken such care in ensuring the revelations occur gradually and has done so with such evident skill I’d feel a bad sport for ruining this experience for potential readers.

The dystopia presented in J, is of a particularly British flavour, an event of some magnitude has taken place, and is referred to as “What Happened If It Happened”. A kind of creepy super polite fascism is enforced throughout the land, performed through congenial evasion and denial.

Certain cultural artefacts are, if not outright banned, then certainly discouraged from being owned by a collective disapproval reinforced by Ofnow, the government body responsible for maintaining the collective amnesia. Ofnow are responsible for Operation Ishmael the initiative responsible for the cultural coyness.

Ofnow’s ideology is expressed through asinine injunctions such as, “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, The Over Examined Life Is Not Worth Living”, and “ Yesterday Is A Lesson We Can Learn Only By Looking To Tomorrow”.

Obtaining information about “What Happened If It Happened” is discouraged through tactful deferment; “Buildings are not barred to you. Doors are not closed in your face. ‘Yes, of course’ will be the polite rejoinder to any request you make to inspect certificates of birth or death, or voter lists, or even newspapers dating too far back. But the forms you fill in are never read by anyone. Calls are not returned, applications are lost, the person you were talking to in the morning won’t be there in the afternoon.”

The effects of this collective repression has a deleterious effect on the general population who exhibit increased aggression and seem to be buckling under the strain of their lie. Domestic violence is on the increase and people seem restless, dissatisfied and ready to tear each other apart.

J is an interesting novel as it is a piece of genre fiction written by a writer who, by his own admission, turns his nose up at genre writing. Unsurprisingly it features some of the classic problems of the literary writer dabbling in genre writing.

The biggest of these problems are that he gives precedence to literary considerations, subjugating his plot to allegorical ends, rather than building a thoroughly convincing dystopic world. Jacobson’s dystopia makes no sense economically or socially. Also the plot contains logical problems.

So here’s the spoiler. “What Happened If It Happened ” turns out to have been a pogrom where the Jewish population were set upon by the general populace. Kevern and Ailinn are of interest to the government who wishes to re-establish a Jewish population through a breeding program. The reasons for this are far from benevolent.

The logic behind reintroducing a Jewish population lies in a government sociologist’s theory that society needs a scapegoat population to vent its anger on and stop it from tearing itself apart. The reason that this population needs to be specifically Semitic are given as follows:

You have to see a version of yourself, A reflection you cannot bear to see. An echo you cannot bear to hear. In other words, you must have chewed on the same bone of moral philosophy, subscribed to a similar spirituality and even, at some point in the not too distant past, have worshipped at the same shrines. It was difference where there was so much that was similar that accounted for the unique antipathy of which they were in search. And only one people with one set of prints fit that bill.

The above quote is a good observation of how sectarian hate operates, but ignores the specific history of British sectarianism, where the primary antagonism has been between Protestant and Catholic Christians, with anti-Jewish sentiment being little more than a grotesque sideshow.

It might seem like I am nit-picking but for me this was a major flaw, and showed a lack of historical understanding, again revealing the author’s willingness to steamroller over inconvenient realities in order to make a point.

The author’s take on Middle Eastern politics are also a little simplistic to say the least, one suspects a certain element of intentional provocation.

I am also wary of fictionalised Holocaust’s, and worry that an over-accumulation of them create a cultural context where the real historical tragedy is perhaps in danger of being trivialised.

Despite the above reservations I enjoyed reading J, The novel’s eventual revelation is expertly handled and creeps up on you gradually enveloping you in the novel’s genuinely unnerving landscape.

J is a prickly and problematic book which is no doubt the author’s intention, and one admires him for his willingness to step on toes, and for this alone he should be applauded. It is an atmospheric novel filled with jet black humour, and is best enjoyed on its own terms rather than being taken too seriously.

The Narrow Road to The Deep South by Richard Flanagan

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untitledTaking its title from the famous Basho poem, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize 2014 winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep South tells the story of working class boy done good Dorrigo Evans, surgeon, war hero, and national celebrity.

The novel opens with Dorrigo’s earliest childhood memories and proceeds to chronicle his life -time in a non-linear epic narrative which weaves in and out of its key moments.

We see him before, during, and after the war and watch how these strands combine to weave a story about survival and its aftermath.

The passages portraying the older Evans shows a man who has grown cynical about his renown as a war hero and feels himself to be a fraud.

We observe as he does the rounds of receiving various honours befitting a national treasure in an alcohol induced haze and pursuing a multitude of marital infidelities. He seems to be a haunted man unreconciled with himself.

The reasons for this unease with his present are rooted in his traumatic past. We learn that Dorrigo’s wartime experiences entailed being taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to work on constructing the infamous Burma Death Railway.

In the midst of the horror Dorrigo has leadership thrust upon him and finds he must inhabit the role of the “big fella” a name his fellow prisoners have given him.

Knowing he must live up to the legend created by his men, he labours under the weight of leadership. In this role his is called upon to make unimaginable decisions which his post-war self struggles to reconcile with the decisions he made.

Also playing on Dorrigo’s mind is a torrid love affair he conducted with his uncle’s young wife before the war. This passionate encounter casts a long shadow over Dorrigo’s life and haunts him for the rest of his days casting a pall over his engagement and marriage.

Unsurprisingly, I found the parts relating Dorrigo’s war time experiences to be the most gripping part of the narrative. The sections featuring Dorrigo in old age also paint an interesting portrait of a survivor’s difficulty to reintegrate into everyday life. I also enjoyed the sub plots which followed the fates of some of the Japanese guards.

The passages portraying the affair were a little bit too Mills and Boonish for my tastes and I read them cringing a little as the prose veered towards the purple end of the spectrum.

I also found the story a little dragged out, and am still puzzling about the authors decision to follow a well-managed revelation in the plot to be followed closely an unlikely chance encounter, which for me was a coincidence too far and as such rendered what preceded it false.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a staunchly conventional novel which is both its strength and weakness.

Don’t expect any avant garde innovation, the prose is common place and isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire, but if you are looking for a big pacey slab of narrative to get stuck into you could do worse .

 

 

 

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

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How to Be Both is a delightful novel from the very start, beginning with its format. The book is split into two sections, and is published in such a way that either half may come first.

This innovation adds a random element to how a reader will experience the novel and sets the playful tone of what is to come.

The half which I encountered first, told the story of deceased and almost forgotten 14th century fresco painter Francesco Del Cossa, a real historical figure.

The ghost of the post-mortal painter first appears on the page in a stream of consciousness which eventually stabilises as she recollects who she is.

In Ali Smith’s telling Francesco is really a Francesca who takes on a male identity so that she may pursue her dream of becoming a painter.

We hear her recount her childhood as the daughter of a stonemason, and we watch as she develops into an renowned artist, pursues patronage, and eventually observe her untimely demise.

Francesca is a charming narrator who is hard to resist. As a character she is utterly convincing and has a personality which suits the paintings attributed to her.

Smith’s ekphrasistic elucidation of Del Cossa’s work creates an appetite in the reader to go and see the pictures described for themselves.

The paintings serve to link both parts of the novel as does the ghost of Francesca.

Throughout the telling of her tale, the ghostly Francesca describes a girl who she is observing who turns out to be the thoroughly modern teenager George. George is the protagonist of the second part of the book in the form which I encountered it.

George has recently lost her mother and lives with her family who aren’t coping well. I found this sudden switch in perspective a little jarring at first having been so taken by Francesca, but soon settled in.

George is an unforgiving grammar pedant who is devastated when her Mother dies, leaving her to live with her terrified younger brother and unreliable father who has taken to the bottle.

The precociously intelligent George struggles through the shock of her mother’s sudden departure, navigating the disorienting maze of well-meaning adults and their unasked for sympathy.

As George recounts her memories of her mother and tries to construct some sort of meaning in her sudden departure she relates her mother’s enthusiasm for the work of a certain Francesco Del Cossa, now made male by history.

George’s delivery from grief comes in the form of friendship, when she meets a kindred spirit at school. The two become firm friends and their interaction brings relief to George. The character of George convincingly conveys the worldview of an acidly intelligent, yet ultimately vulnerable, teenager to life.

The novel itself is as clever as its two protagonists. Befitting its structure it features two covers. One a detail from a fresco by Del Cossa, The other an iconic depiction of Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan.

As characters in the novel repeatedly referred to these cover images I found myself repeatedly flipping the book over to scrutinise them.

Hats off to Ali Smith for contriving a way to write a passage involving a spectral fourteenth century fresco painter describing the Hardy, Vartan photo. What a stroke of giddy genius./p>

Cleverness also abounds at the end of George’s story, when we discover she is writing a school assignment on empathy.

To do this she has decided to write it in the character of Francesco/Francesca Del Cossa which may or may not be the genesis of the Francesca narrative. I myself prefer the supernatural explanation.

The novel satisfies on the level of narrative but there is so much more to it than that. Its form is a wonderful commentary on art itself and its manifold possibilities. It is an act of elegant bricolage which shows how structure and ideas are a re-combinable set of possibilities without end. On top of this How to Be Both, achieves the dazzling feat of being terribly clever without being irritating.

All That Is by James Salter

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All That IsAmbitious in its scope, All That Is tells the story of Philip Bowman from his youth to middle age taking in a few key moments of the twentieth century along the way. Using an impressionistic approach, Salter takes us on a tour of privileged post-war white East Coast America.

This is done by showing us formative moments in his protagonist’s life, as well sketching out a brief back story for pretty much every character we encounter in the story. No mean feat in a story which comes in at under four hundred pages. This is a condensed, vacuum packed novel.

A brief detour to Virginia thrown in for good measure, mainly so we can gawp at the awful moneyed hicks who, according to Salter, live there. Why their East Coast equivalents are any better is never really detailed. Perhaps it’s because they work in publishing.

The novel opens off the coast of Japan around Okinawa aboard an American battle ship. Here we are introduced to Bowman as he partakes in the final stages of Japan’s defeat at the hands of the Americans. We then follow his post-war life as he pursues a career in publishing and, after an unsuccessful marriage, endless affairs.

It is here that the rot, or should I say Roth, sets in. In common with Roth, Salter seems to be of the opinion that watching privileged white men, who work in or around publishing and who, like Ron Burgundy, have “many leather-bound books”, and an apartment which “smells of rich mahogany”, follow their boners is an inherently fascinating activity.

That’s not to say that a certain amusement can’t be derived from such scenarios, but a full novel? To compound the matter, Salter seems unaware of the absurdity of such characters. Because of this, he misses the comic possibilities inherent in these ridiculous vain creatures who accord their sterile, empty orgasms a cultural significance.

This kind of po-faced faux macho American writing just doesn’t do it for me. One almost gets the feeling that the authors are emasculated by their profession and feel the need to compensate for this.

The female characters function as little more than neurotic receptacles for these literary studs. They range from mouthy alcoholics to good time girls with daddy issues. Some of the descriptions of the these characters makes one embarrassed for the author. Take the following sentence for example: “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” Also every female character in the novel is secretly in love with James Salt… ahem, I mean Philip Bowman.

Salter’s descriptions of Europe are equally embarrassing, particularly the passages set in Spain, which have the intoxicated starry-eyed quality of a teenage backpackers prose. Everything is exotic, intense and “authentic”. Inevitably Lorca is mentioned, and Spanish Gypsies play guitar and sing laments. Oh dear. Not that I have anything against Lorca or Spanish Gypsies but the obviousness chafes.

The ghost of Hemingway also hovers around these passages and Salter suffers from the comparison. One could excuse such juvenile depictions of Europe were they merely the characters point of view but I could find no evidence in the text which suggests this to be the case.

All That Is seems to be a swan song for the 87-year-old Salters presumably lost virility. It is an infuriating read because one clearly see’s that Salter can write. Certain passages shine with clarity and precision, alas they get lost among the tedious machismo. All That Is, unfortunately isn’t all that.