A Girl Is A Half formed Thing by Eimear Mc Bride

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isbn: 978-0-9571853-2-6

isbn: 978-0-9571853-2-6

Being an Irish writer is no easy thing. Who would envy a young novelist sitting down, squint-eyed and daunted, trying to write in the half-light created by the shadows of literary giants on an island where they seem to be particularly prevalent?

While the anxiety of influence can affect writers of any nationality, there is something especially onerous about inhabiting a national literary scene where the apex influence is a certain Mr.James Joyce. Both a cause for the illogical phenomena of national literary pride and an ogre who must be slain in order to proceed as a writer, what does one do with a problem like Joyce?

Well if you’re Eimear Mc Bride you write your debut novel in the stream of consciousness style made famous in Ulysess, acquit yourself with panache, and become a potential literary sensation. Problem solved.

A Girl Is A Half formed Thing by Eimear Mc Bride is as ballsy as it is brilliant. It tells the story of a marginalised unnamed protagonist who lives in an equally anonymous small Irish town; or rather it puts us behind her eyeballs and in her head. We get to experience her life from the age of two years old to the age of twenty.

As her lifetime unfolds we witness her relationships and the pressures they exude on her. Abandoned by a feckless father and raised by her overly pious and religiose mother, the protagonist struggles to find her place in the world.

Respite comes in the form of an older brother who she adores, a young man much affected by a childhood brain tumour and the procedures it necessitated. We soon discover her brother has not been left untouched by his childhood trauma, and is in the colloquialism of the town a little “slow”.

The hero-worship she felt for him as a child soon subsides giving way to teenage self-consciousness as she realises that he is never going to be able to be the “normal” brother she needs.  Torn between embarrassment and love, this relationship is at the core of the novel.

While her childhood is not exactly a bed of roses, things take a darker when she hits her teens and a visiting uncle takes an unhealthy interest in her. After she is abused by him she makes the mistake of confusing victimhood with control and acts out accordingly acquiring a “reputation” in the process.

Although she eventually escapes the confines of small town life and moves to the city to study, she cannot leave her experiences behind. She continues to enact her destructive sexuality, both with strangers and the uncle who originally abused her.

Her rejection of religion and small town life is not presented naively as a clean solution to all of her problems, as is the common scenario in the “small town girl moves to the big city” genre. Instead we get a convincing and sympathetic portrait of a damaged individual unanchored and alone. Seeking respite in sex and alcohol she finds herself trapped in an escalating spiral of self-loathing.

The most striking feature of A Girl Is A Half formed Thing is the virtuosic use of language employed by the author to tell the tale. Mc Bride is like a potter moulding malleable language into the form she requires to express what is necessary at that moment.

Her stream of consciousness style so convincingly approximates the fluidity of thought at times I forgot I was a reader and felt I actually inhabited the head of the character that Mc Bride had constructed. Initially some readers may find the style off-putting but if you stick with it the result is worth it.  A Girl Is A Half formed Thing is a promisingly powerful debut and I look forward to more from Mc Bride.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

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ISBN:978-1-4722-0032-7

ISBN:978-1-4722-0032-7

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is the title of British fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman’s latest novel. It tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who revisits his childhood hometown while on his way to a wedding. On arriving there he pays a visit to the home of the Hempstocks, a neighbouring family who live on an isolated farm.

The Hempstock family are comprised of three feisty, independent minded women who represent three generations of the family. If you are familiar with fantasy/mythological tropes or know your Macbeth, I needn’t tell you the significance of a triumvirate of females who live outside society…

While visiting the Hempstock house as his adult self the protagonist takes a while to sit by a pond, the “ocean” of the title. Here long forgotten/ magically repressed memories of a childhood adventure come flooding back allowing him to revisit them from his present day adult perspective.

The narrator recounts an incident from his past involving the suicide of a lodger, who stole the protagonist’s father’s car in order to commit the dark deed. This act triggered a sinister supernatural shift which altered the benign world of the narrator’s childhood into something altogether more unsettling. Help comes in the form of Lettie Hempstock, the youngest, in appearance at least, of the Hempstock women.

Lettie helps the narrator battle a supernatural entity that has been causing chaos, by granting wishes in an over literal manner, tending to the baser more materialistic side of human nature. The narrator and Lettie defeat the malign entity, or so it seems. Alas the narrator commits the classic mythological error of not following instruction given to him by the magic literate Lettie down to the tiniest detail.

Gaiman is writer who has a compendious knowledge of global mythology and incorporates these tropes into all his work. Magic as presented in fairy tales and myths is mercilessly legalistic and is defined and regulated by tightly bound ritual contracts. By having his protagonist deviate from the instructions given to him by Lettie, Gaiman pays his mythological dues, and signals to us the reader that there will be consequences.

These consequences come in the form of a sinister new house keeper Ursula Monkton. Ursula insinuates herself into the heart of the narrators family by seducing those around her. To the narrator’s mother she is a young woman with impeccable qualifications for minding children, to his sister a glamorous role model, and to his father an object of sexual desire.

Only the narrator is immune to her charms, as his adult self recounts, “She smiled at us both, brightly. She really was pretty, for a grown up, but when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative. I wonder what I would have done if she had smiled at me like that now: whether I would have handed my mind or my heart or my identity to her for the asking, as my father did.

The narrator’s immediate suspicion of Ursula Monkton soon puts him at odds with the rest of his family. With no one else to rely on he must seek out the Hempstocks for assistance, but this is more easily said than done when you are seven years old and grounded.

The Ocean At The Lane is a fun but rather slight read which is not without its flaws, the primary one being missed opportunity. By using the device of having an adult recount his childhood adventure from the perspective of middle age, Gaiman creates a potentially fascinating way of exploring the disparities between our adult and childhood selves.

Instead of being used to explore the rich psychological seam it promises, this device is used in a rather mechanical way to propel the narrative which doesn’t do justice to the premise of the novel. His narrator credulously recounts his fantastical childhood adventures without once doubting the veracity of these memories.

My other problem with the novel is a recurring one I have with Gaiman’s work, his characters seldom become more than archetypes. Perhaps this is due to the influence of myth on the authors writing where archetypes are the norm and stories are told in broad strokes in order to convey ideas rather than nuance, sadly it doesn’t work well in the novel format. The main character is an empty vessel who reacts to the exigencies of plot in a rather clockwork way.

The supporting characters, with the exception of the Hempstock women, are paper-thin, the mother in particular being an absent cypher. Her existence barely extends beyond the letters used to spell the word ‘mother’ on the page. The Hempstock women are a portrayed with a little more success. Their characters are more rounded and their interaction feels genuine.

The depiction of the Hempstock women is interesting as it reveals a certain laziness on behalf of the author. One gets the feeling that the author was more invested in thesecharacters, their magical nature making them more entertaining to write. The evidence suggests that Gaiman can write characters with a bit more depth, but only when they are of particular interest to him.

All in all, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a novel which doesn’t live up to its promise. A tangible element of auto pilot has entered Gaiman’s work and one feels a change in genre might be in order. It is hard not to feel that Gaiman’s writing has suffered since he moved away from comic books to the novel form, a feeling which is confirmed by rereading his majestic Sandman series published by Vertigo comics.

The Ocean At End Of The Lane is by no means terrible it is also not particularly memorable.  This novel will keep Gaiman’s fans happy but is hardly likely to win over the unconverted. Regardless there is a large audience for this kind of thing in our post Harry Potter cultural landscape and the book will no doubt be a smash hit. Expect an inevitable movie version.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías

ISBN: 978-0-241-14537-1

ISBN: 978-0-241-14537-1

The Infatuations is the title of Javier Marías’s latest novel. It tells the story of María Dolz, a middle-aged woman who works in publishing. María is a habitual loner who gets drawn into a web of intrigue when a murder occurs. The victim is an innocuous seeming businessman who takes breakfast daily with his wife at the same restaurant as María.

The handsome couple seem to be exceptionally well matched, and due to this have become a subject of interest to María. Despite the fact that María has never communicated with them, the couple occupy a background position in the everyday routine of her life, their routine providing a sense of reassurance and constancy.

This sense of reassurance is shattered when one day while reading the newspaper María is shocked to discover the husband, whose name she learns was Miguel Desverne, has been stabbed to death by a homeless man for no apparent reason. When she next meets with the widow, Luisa Alday, she decides to introduce herself and offers her condolences. This results in an invitation to the grief-stricken Luisa’s house. Here María is introduced to the deceased husband’s former best friend, the handsome and charming Díaz Varela.

Diaz Varela has offered himself as a shoulder to cry on for Luisa in accordance with the wishes of his departed friend, as it transpires.  María is quite taken with this suave gentleman, and after a chance meeting in a museum they become lovers. Alas the affair is rather one-sided, its progress driven on by María’s infatuation with Diaz Varela rather than by any initiative on his behalf. Over the course of their one-sided courtship María overhears a snippet of conversation which reveals that Desverne’s murder may have not been the random tragedy it initially seemed.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy and various collections of his short stories, I picked up this book with high expectations which unfortunately were dashed. It is not that the novel is a complete failure. There is much to commend in it, but rather it fails in comparison to the high quality of the author’s previous work. If presented by a less illustrious author it would no doubt be hailed as a career highlight.

My main problems with the novel lie in the narrator María Dolz. For some reason her voice didn’t convince. I constantly felt I was reading the thoughts and opinions of the sixty-two year old author rather than those of the character, a woman in her mid-thirties. This seemed particularly apparent in the passages where María muses on mortality. The tone feels wrong, a little too jaded for a woman with so much ahead of her. This left me with the rather disturbing mental image of an elderly author trying squeeze himself into the body of a younger woman, wearing her as a costume in order to perform an unconvincing literary drag act.

While some authors have no problem representing a range of ages and genders, the singularity of Javier Marías’s voice, its distinctiveness, renders it hard to separate it from the author. This is reinforced by the characters often becoming a mouth piece for what seem to be the authors’ views. Chapters are taken up with long exchanges between characters where they expound on the author’s favourite themes such as memory, mortality, the banality of violence, and literature.

Much room is also given to characters interpretations of Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, and inevitably in a Marías novel, Macbeth. These dialogues are unconvincing as they are too coherent to have merely occurred in spontaneous conversation. At times the novel feels like an essay with a story tacked onto it at the last minute.

These flaws however are not fatal. If I am going to read large passages about memory, mortality and literature etc… there are not many people I would rather hear expounding on these topics than Marías. The author is a master of his craft, even if he does err occasionally. His treatment and subversion of tired genre tropes is a pleasure to behold. He expertly leads a reader through the story, his set ups unfolding in unexpected ways. He is also an expert at depicting the selfish sides of attraction and romance, and the potential barbarity which exists just beneath the surface of society.

The Infatuations is an imperfect novel. It belongs to the interesting literary tradition of the relative failure. That is, it is a failure, but only in relation to the authors previous work. There is still much to engage the reader and provide an enriching literary experience. I would have no problem recommending this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction, but would urge that they also read the authors other work in order to contextualise this flawed but still worthwhile novel.

Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre

ISBN: 978-1-4087-0407-3

ISBN: 978-1-4087-0407-3

Video games seem to be undergoing something of a makeover in popular culture at the moment. While previously viewed to be the preserve of anti-social spotty teenagers who are just a hair’s breadth away from shooting up their high-school, there seems to be a shift in this perception. While traditional media outlets still insist on marginalising video games, through allocating tiny sections of their publications to lip service reviews of video games, the rest of the culture seems to be catching on to the significance of this exciting and revolutionary young medium a little faster.

Evidence of this may be seen in Disney’s latest 3D animation Wreck-it Ralph, which moves away from the horrible concept of the video game script adapted for the big screen such as the Resident Evil series or the abomination that was the Streetfighter live action movie. Rather than bastardise an existing video game story Wreck-it Ralph serves up an original script using video games and their characters to create original premises. Crime novel writer Christopher Brookmyre’s latest novel and first foray in Sci-Fi, Bedlam continues and expands upon this trend.

Bedlam tells the story of scientist Ross Baker, an everyman type character who is working for an ethically dubious tech company named Neurosphere. Undervalued by his colleagues and facing difficulties in his relationship, Ross is dissatisfied with his lot in life. Upon volunteering as a guinea pig in order to help a colleague test a revolutionary new medical scanner, Ross finds himself transported to a strange world which he somehow finds familiar. On top of this he is inhabiting the body of a monstrous cyborg, and a war is raging all around him. A little investigation soon reveals that Ross is trapped inside Starfire, a first person shooter videogame he played obsessively in his teenage years.

The twist is that this time he is participating in the game as one of the villains, rather than as the square-jawed hero. Ross must learn what has happened to him and try to figure out a way back home as well as dealing with the existential questions his plight throws up. If Ross is fully conscious inside a video game what does this say about his previous presumptions about reality? With his certainties about the nature of reality shaken, Ross becomes fixated on a sophistic proposition he read many years ago in Philosophy Quarterly. The proposition forwarded by professor Nick Bostrom states one of the following must be true: “ One: The chances of a species at our current level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small. Two: Almost no technologically mature civilisations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours. Three: You are almost certainly in a simulation.

Without giving too much away Brookmyre expands his concept to include the multiple video game universes which will be familiar to gamers. Brookmyre treats the subject of video games with the affectionate humour of a fan unafraid to point out the more absurd aspects of the medium. For instance, early on Ross is frustrated to find that he can’t simply pick up the more powerful weapons possessed by his opponents as it is not the correct stage of the game for him to possess such potent weaponry. Fun is also made of Non Player Characters, or NPC’s as they are called in gamer lingo, difficulty in negotiating doors. While not hilarious to the casual reader, any gamer will immediately recognise these familiar frustrations and smile. As a Skyrim fan I laughed aloud when an adventurer complained about an “arrow to the knee”.

Brookmyre also plays with notions of nationality and how they conflict with the generally default cheesy American accent of most video game protagonists played by English-speaking gamers. When speaking to video game characters that are space marines, the Scottish Ross must speak fluent macho ‘videogamese’, or as Brookmyre puts it, “he had to give it the right ring of authentically macho bollocks so that they would grasp the situation quickly. ‘The fight back starts here,’ Ross said, dropping his voice an octave… It sounded pretty good, and the looks on their faces suggested his tone had hit that sweet spot somewhere between Jesus and arrogant wanker that Americans seemed to respond to so well.”

Bedlam is written by an author who seems to have a genuine affection for the medium of video games. While pointing out some of the current flaws inherent in game-worlds, due to technical limitations, Brookmyre never looks down on or patronises the world of games and gamers. Instead he seems alert to the possibilities of a medium still in its infancy. Bedlam is, above all things fun to read. Brookmyre has a combative sense of humour which works well within his fish out of water premise. My only reservations would be whether a non-gamer would enjoy the novel as much as I did, given the amount of video game based in jokes present in the world Brookmyre has created. The novel is the first in a trilogy but is satisfactorily self-contained and avoids leaving story threads hanging.

There is also a tie-in video game published by Red Bedlam studios scheduled for release soon, the quality of which remains to be seen given the previous dire history of writer/video game maker cross overs. Perhaps this time we should have faith. Brookmyre has successfully created the world’s first video game tie-in novel which isn’t a steaming pile of crap so maybe Red Bedlam can rise to the challenge and create something a bit special. I have included a link to the Nick Bostrom proposition mentioned in the novel below if anyone is interested:

http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html

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Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

ISBN: 978-1-908276-02-5

Swimming Home is the title of the Booker prize shortlisted novel by playwright and author Deborah Levy. The book opens with a rather heavy handed introduction by Tom Mc Carthy which advises us on how the novel should be interpreted. This unacceptable act of literary tyranny is further compounded by Mc Carthy, who seeks to reassure potential readers with a resume of Levy’s literary influences, which includes Lacan, Barthes, Deleuze, Duras,Stein, Ballard, Kafka and Robbe-Grillet.

It is a pity that Mc Carthy does not seem to have shared Levy’s reading choices. If he had he would have encountered Barthes 1967 essay, the The Death of the Author,which argues against exactly the type of literary analysis which his introduction subjects Levy to.

Mc Carthy’s introduction does a further injustice to the novel when he states; “If the setting and plot of Swimming Home are borrowed, almost ironically, from the staid English-middle-class-on-holiday novel, all similarities end there.” In fact all similarities do not end there. The book is undeniably what Mc Carthy claims it isn’t, despite his snottiness and half-assed claims of irony. This in itself need not be a bad thing if the writing is up to scratch, which is a decision the reader, not Tom Mc Carthy, must make. While I feel introductions may serve a purpose when contextualising historically important novels and their effects, for example D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and its attendant obscenity trial, doing so with a newly released novel is both boorish and presumptuous.

If you skip past the introduction you will find a novel featuring impeccable prose, which is perfectly acceptable if not a little predictable. The story involves Joseph and Isabel Jacobs who are holidaying in a villa located in the south of France, along with their teenage daughter Nina, and their friends Mitchell and Laura. All present are members of the upper middle class. Joseph is that most elusive of beings, a rich poet and his wife Isabel, is a hard bitten,( is there any other kind?), international correspondent. Laura and Mitchell run a faltering antiques store which specialises in primitive weapons. One day over the course of their holiday the group of friends arrive home to find a beautiful young woman, who introduces herself as Kitty Finch, naked in their swimming pool. Stranger still the young woman is invited to stay by Isabel, a surprising move given her husband’s predilection for infidelity. Could she be plotting an end to her dissatisfactory marriage?

As Kitty settles amongst the holiday makers it becomes more and more apparent that she is a cuckoo in the nest. Obsessed by the poetry of Joseph, which she believes to be a mode of exclusive communication between them both, her goal is to have him read her poetry. Over the course of the novel it transpires that Kitty suffers from mental illness, the nature of the illness, as is often the case in literature, is never really defined. Whenever the mental illness occurs in the novel it manifests in a glamorous and cinematic way, as it tends to in stories involving Botticellian pale skinned, flame haired female poets.

The only other character to suffer from mental illness in the novel is Joseph, who you will remember is also a poet. This naïve perfume advertisement approach to mental illness detracts significantly from a novel which seems determined to take itself so seriously. Further flaws lie in the use of clichéd supporting characters, a randy French waiter, and a nature loving, German, dreadlocked stoner amongst them. Even the novels strengths are not without their downsides. An atmosphere of impending doom is successfully evoked but when said doom arrives it is unconvincing.

Where Swimming Home succeeds is in its portrayal of female characters excluding Kitty. Isabel, Nina and Laura are nuanced and complex creations. Of particular note is the depiction of the friendship between Isabel and Laura. When reading these passages it struck me how little genuine adult female friendship appears in literature without being simplified or over sentimentalised. While refreshing, this portrayal of adult female is not enough to carry an entire novel. I would hesitate to recommend Swimming Home to anyone but the most hardened Levy fan.

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

ISBN: 978-1-907-773174

The Lighthouse is the title of the Booker nominated debut novel by Alison Moore. This debut novel possesses a curious atmosphere all of its own, the sum of its parts adding up to a much greater whole. As such, the difficulty involved in the task of synopsizing the plot is proportionate to the amount of enjoyment a reader will obtain from this distinctively eerie novel.

We begin on a ferry where we meet the hapless Futh on deck feeling seasick. He is on his way to Germany to take a hiking holiday in the wake of the breakdown of his marriage. As the trip unfolds we journey through Futh´s recollections of his put upon past.  Hampered from childhood with a violent cloddish father and a self-absorbed mother who soon abandons him, Futh seems doomed from the get go. The only memento Futh retains of his mother is a perfume container in the shape of a lighthouse from which the novel takes its name, this sad keepsake also seeming to inspire his career choice of developing synthetic smells. The container is much treasured by Futh and accompanies him on his trip.

As Futh´s memories move from childhood to his teenage years we witness his awkward interactions with his neighbour Gloria, who would in the parlance of today be termed a cougar. Gloria seems to vacillate between wanting Futh as a lover or a son, having effectively lost both of these figures due to her infidelity, finally shacking up with Futh´s father instead. Her belligerent son Gary reluctantly visits only occasionally. Gary and Futh were firm friends as children but their friendship did not survive when Gary and his father moved out and they ceased to be neighbours. Now they regard each other warily, the diminishing returns of their relationship mutating into a peculiarly intimate form of hostility, particularly on Gary´s behalf who resents Futh’s regular visits, at Gloria’s invitation, into his one-time family home.

As Futh recollects his past his pointless pilgrimage proceeds onwards, the sunburn and blisters he accumulates making it seem more like a mild form of self-harm than a holiday. Futh avails himself of a travel service for hikers which forwards his luggage to the poor quality guesthouses along his route, his baggage preceding him both literally and metaphorically as he proceeds.

It is at the first of these dissatisfactory guest houses that we encounter the novel’s second protagonist Ester. We meet Ester propping up the bar of the establishment which her husband owns, wearing make up in an attempt to conceal a black eye. Ester is a faded former beauty given to serial infidelity despite, or in spite of, her husband’s often violent interventions. Her co-fornicators of choice primarily consist of single male guests who stay at their establishment, who she brazenly approaches spiriting them away to the unused rooms where she conducts her fleeting affairs.  As we become acquainted with her past we see a complex figure emerge, more fleshed out than one might expect from what could have if portrayed by a less talented writer, been a two-dimensional stereotype of a randy tavern owner’s wife. Both Futh and Ester’s fate become entwined through their mutual possession of Lighthouse perfume, this seemingly benign object a catalyst for Futh’s terrible fate.

As I mentioned earlier this rough synopsis does no justice to the totality of this endearingly strange novel. The prose is precise and taut as a drum skin conjuring an eerie aura of foreboding throughout. Imagery is used masterfully, especially a link between a thumbed doughnut, the smell of cigarette smoke, and the subject of motor car repair which sadly I can’t disclose for fear of ruining a reader’s experience.

The characters, while engaging, are not sympathetic and the problems which they confront are mostly of their own making. While Futh is often a victim, it is hard to maintain sympathy for him past childhood as he seems to be comfortable with this situation. The author must be applauded for this brave portrayal, flying as it does in the face of the common book club complaint of “I didn’t like the novel because I didn’t like the characters!” which reduces the world of literature to some kind of adolescent popularity contest. Lighthouse is an assured and impressive debut from a fascinating new talent whose next work I eagerly await.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

ISBN: 978-0-571-275762

Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil’s Booker prize nominated debut novel, takes us on a tour of 1970’s Mumbai, then called Bombay, and its seedier spots.  We are introduced to the inhabitants and patrons of the picaresque Shuklaji Street, home to Rashid’s world renowned opium khana. Here drugs are cheap and life even cheaper.

Amongst the motley bunch of characters we meet, are the unhappily married Rashid, the idealistic transsexual Dimple, her gruff but kindly benefactor, opium vendor and exile Mr Lee as well as the unhinged and murderous misogynist Rumi. What these characters share in common is a compulsion to take refuge in the escape drugs provide, swathing themselves in a narcotic haze attempting to insulate themselves, at least temporarily, from the harsh reality of their everyday lives.

While the characters suspend time and space in the cocoon provided by opium, all around them Bombay, and India as a whole, is rapidly changing. The primary way these changes enter the characters’ lives is through the drug culture which they participate in, as it moves from opium to cocaine arriving finally at the horrific destination of ‘chemical’, low quality heroin cheaply cut and adulterated with rat poison, which becomes ubiquitous due to it being imported cheaply and easily from neighbouring Pakistan. This device works well, the drugs providing fitting metaphors, opium standing for an older, slower world of tradition and heroin bringing with it a trajectory of addiction and decline which matches the furious pace of contemporary global capitalism.

As is expected with narcotic inspired narratives, time is non-linear. Death does not guarantee that a character will not pop up a few pages later as a hallucination or in ghost form to casually partake in conversation. Reminiscent of Burroughs, apocalyptic imagery looms large in the minds of these pharmaceutically addled characters. I lost count of the numerous scenes depicting characters experiencing dreams involving end of world visions dripping in portents. I feel these passages are the line which will divide  the books audience, who will either love or hate them. I found such scenes tried my patience, their prose tending towards the purple end of the colour spectrum.

Having overdosed on the vicarious thrills of narcotic narratives provided by Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr. in my teenage years, I find there is only so much drugged up psychedelia one can write before veering dangerously close to Jim “follow the snake to the lake” Morrison territory. If you are partial to that kind of thing you may very well love Narcopolis, if not you may find it a frustrating and unrewarding read. On the plus side I found Thayil’s dark sense of humour to be amusing, particularly in a scene where a character expounds on children’s unsuitability for living in the world due to their small size and stupidity. Sadly this positive isn’t enough to sustain the entire story.

Personally I found Narcopolis to be an unremarkable novel; I just couldn’t shake off a sense of ‘been there done that’. Although the representation of the characters may reflect the realities of a life of drug addiction, the problem lies in the fact that addiction narratives the world over are quite similar regardless of setting. This results in reality taking on the appearance of cliché. I say this not to diminish the affliction of addiction, but rather to illustrate the difficulties inherent in its portrayal. Given that, I would find it hard to recommend Narcopolis to anyone but the most hardened fan of drug inspired literature.

Umbrella by Will Self

ISBN 978-1-4088-3209-7

Will Self’s latest novel, the Booker prize nominated Umbrella, is an attempt at writing a novel in the modernist style. Before evaluating the success of Self’s endeavour I feel it might be useful to briefly look at what we mean when we use the term ‘modernism’ in relation to literature. While the aims of modernism were, much like any movement, complex and manifold, the stylistic thrust of them involved eschewing traditional modes of representation in art, replacing them with ones more suited to the modern age.

Within literature this manifested itself in a departure from established devices, such as the omniscient narrator, or the clockwork like mechanics of conventional plot progression, where events tick along in a carefully managed logical order, each plot point leading neatly to the next. Rejecting such methods which they viewed to be artificial and far removed from the realities and complexities of everyday life, modernists sought to approximate something closer to the rhythms of everyday life and individual thought, deploying techniques such as stream of consciousness, novel uses of punctuation and rejection of traditional chapter structures.

Opening with an epigraph from Joyce, “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella,” Self signals his modernist intent from the get go. The epigraph is also used to establish the umbrella of the title as a recurring motif throughout the novel, the history of the object and its relationship to its owners, from indispensable to disposable, being shaped over time by the social and industrial upheavals which occurred from pre-world war one to the present day.

The story begins from the perspective of Doctor Zack Busner, a disillusioned retired psychiatrist recalling his career, as he walks the streets of London retracing the physical and psychological geography of his past. A one-time idealist and associate of maverick RD Laing, the aged Busner is filled with ambivalence towards his former profession due to the barbaric practices, such as electro convulsive therapy or lobotomies, which occurred during its formation, and present dubious practices, such as medicating difficult personalities into states of docility.

Of particular interest to Busner in his reminisces is a former patient of his Audrey Death the other primary protagonist of the novel. Death is found by Busner in a state of living coma, like an automaton, her physical actions reduced to little more than physical and verbal tics. As the novel unfolds we experience fragments of Audrey’s life and that of her family, particularly her two brothers whose life trajectories are radically altered by the war. One, a soldier, suffers the depredations of the Somme while the other takes advantage of the social upheaval to pursue some upward social mobility.

We follow Audrey from her childhood dipping in and out her formative experiences, her sexual awakening, her various employment including working in a munitions factory to aid the war effort, and the formation of her feminist politics. I found the scenes set in Audrey’s childhood to be the most compelling part of the novel; specifically a description of a trip Audrey takes around London with her effusive father. Self vividly resurrects a London past to the extent that I felt like a time traveller, savouring the sights, sounds and demotic language of a bygone era. Audrey’s eventual contraction of an unusual strain of encephalitis and descent into catatonic stupor provides the link between her narrative and that of Busner.

Busner and Audrey’s relationship comes about as a result of Busner finding employment in the hospital where she is confined. Chastened after an unsuccessful foray into experimental psychiatry, Busner attempts to keep his head down and get on with his work for the sake of his career, which is on shaky ground as a result of his previous adventures in psychiatry. Shaken by an interaction with Audrey, Busner soon develops a fascination with the post-encephalitic patients scattered about the hospital wards. Unable to ignore these patients Busner pursues experiments which he hopes will benefit those mired in the post-encephalitic state, even though such actions may cost him his career, marriage and perhaps even his own sanity.

The treatment Busner instigates involves the wonder drug l dopa, originally designed to treat Parkinson’s disease. Miraculously these experiments work and the catatonics are roused seemingly whole. Self’s account of the drug and its seemingly miraculous properties have historical provenance and have previously been dramatized by Harold Pinter in his 1982 play, A Kind Of Alaska, and documented by Dr.Oliver Sacks in his fascinating non-fiction account of experiments with l dopa , Awakenings. One can see how the narrative of a wonder drug, which wakes the lost from slumber seems like catnip to writers evoking as it does Snow White and Sleeping Beauty amongst other famous tales, as well as lending itself to all kinds of metaphor. Self’s fictional portrayal differs from the above two accounts in tone by allowing a certain melancholy to prevail, as well as a scepticism about the lasting nature of miracles.

I found Umbrella to be a thoroughly satisfying read. Its deployment of the modernist style is a refreshing rebuke to the staid and often conservative style of much of British, particularly English, fiction. I have dipped in and out of Self’s oeuvre in the past with varying degrees of satisfaction. Often while reading his novels, I had a persistent nagging feeling that I was observing a talented writer who wasn’t really pushing himself to his limits. This concern disappeared as I read Umbrella, here we see a writer at the top of his game. While much will be made of the difficulties of reading a novel written in the modernist style, such concerns are overstated.

While Self does not spoon feed the story to the reader neither does he neglect to tell it. Aspiring to the condition of music, scenes change mid-sentence, and sentences aren’t always clearly attributed in a “he said, she said” manner, time shifts abruptly and without warning from decade to decade. By trusting the author and allowing yourself to partake in the novel’s flow, without anxiety, the experience you have as a reader will be much enhanced. And even if you do find yourself having to flip back a page or two to recap, I feel a little effort on behalf of the reader is not too much for an author to ask when he has crafted such a fine work. I found Umbrella to be brave and memorable novel and Self’s closest approximation of a masterpiece to date.

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

ISBN: 978-0-224-09621-8

When is a satire not a satire? The answer to that question is apparently when the author changes his mind. Lionel Asbo, the latest novel by Martin Amis is/was a satire of British tabloid culture and how it lionises the great unwashed, elevating them to the heights of celebrity. The novel has been badly received by critics, being almost universally panned. The main points of criticism focused on Amis’ seeming inability to understand what constitutes satire.

Throughout the book there is a fatal ambiguity between what Amis is supposedly satirising and how much of the detail he presents is an attempt at verisimilitude. This flaw has killed many an attempted satire before, and Lionel Asbo seems destined for the same fate.

But wait! This isn’t satire you see. It’s a ‘modern fairy tale’, whatever that is. It says so on the back of the book. This dodgy defence has been mustered by Amis repeatedly in defence of his defective latest novel. The problem is describing the book in terms of a genre you or one your marketing people have contrived at a meeting just won’t do. To be of a genre, a novel must contain identifiable features which make it so. A fairy tale by its definition demands a supernatural element, the clue residing in the reference to ‘fairy’ in the genres title, a detail which I am sure that Amis a professional writer is aware of. The novels conventions in terms of representation and style are more akin to the genre of satire than that of the fairy tale. Call me old-fashioned but I’ll judge a books genre by my own criteria which I have developed over my lifetime of reading rather than follow the prescriptions of a books back cover.

The story, in so far as there is one, revolves around the eponymous Mr.Asbo a living embodiment of all that’s wrong with Britain today. “Is he a banker or Tory politician?” I hear you ask. No, I ‘m afraid, Mr.Asbo is a member of the underclass. That Amis, a writer existing in tumultuous times of unprecedented global financial strife and chaos, caused by short-sighted politicians in cahoots with the rapacious pirates of the financial industry, set his sights on the underclass as a target for his ire is baffling to say the least.

The novel is set in fictional Diston, an urban wonderland of cartoon violence populated by grotesques who make Dickensian ne’er do wells look like shrinking violets. Describing Diston, Amis tells us, “On an international chart for life expectancy, Diston would appear between Benin and Djibouti…And that wasn’t all. On an international chart for fertility rates, Diston would appear between Malawi and Yemen (six children per couple-or per single mother).” By comparing Diston to these yucky foreign lands Amis conveys the uncivilised nature of the place. This charming piece of domestic imperialism via comparison, conjured up images of Amis’ research for the novel, which seems to have comprised of him slapping on a pith helmet and khakis, buying a six-pack of special brew, and sipping it tentatively in front of a boxed set of Shameless whilst taking notes, in his no doubt capacious and well-appointed house.

The pantomimic protagonist Asbo is a loutish figure at odds with society. He blunders from violent incident to violent incident, wilfully refusing to learn or grow as a character. Asbo is the son of Grace Pepperdine, their different surnames explained by Lionel’s decision to legally change his to Asbo in a typical display of his antisocial stubbornness and pride. Grace, a single mother, has multiple children sired by many fathers from various cultural backgrounds, because as Martin Amis would probably tell you this is what those kinds of people do.

As a member of the underclass she also has no problem in ignoring the universal taboo that prevails in every culture currently in existence, namely incest. You see Grace is improbably having sex with schoolboy Desmond, the son of her deceased daughter, and another product of one of those shocking multi-cultural couplings. This will prove to be a problem for Desmond if Asbo, a man who doesn’t take kindly to his mother having a sex life with anyone, never mind relatives, finds out. Desmond, through whom we witness most of Asbo’s brutish behaviour, is the character the reader is supposed to empathise with. In the absence of his Father and due to the premature death of his mother, Desmond has looked to Asbo as an unlikely father figure.

Despite his willing role in the incest with his grandmother we can tell Desmond is a good guy because he reads books. This clumsy indicator of the characters innate morality reminded me of the fusty ideas about the link between morality and education which held sway in Victorian times, an era that Amis would no doubt feel more at home in than our present one. As the novel progresses the years pass, Des goes to university, Asbo goes to prison, Grace gets dementia, Des gets a boring girlfriend called Dawn, Asbo gets out of prison, Des gets a job and has a kid with Dawn, Asbo goes to prison etc… During one of his many prison stays Asbo wins the lottery. The media find out. Asbo becomes a celebrity with predictable outcomes.

He acquires a glamour model girlfriend Threnody who’s pin up rival is called Danube. Geddit? Danube a river!!! Like…Jordan! This is pretty much the level the humour and satire aspires to throughout the novel. I could continue to summarise the plot for you but don’t see much point given anyone could guess it with equal accuracy, if told to imagine the most pedestrian formulaic scenarios possible involving an underclass lottery winner.

The biggest problem with the book is that it almost reads like it was written by another author satirising Amis’ perception of the underclass, in which case it would be a roaring success. Unfortunately the book is written by Amis, and as such he must be taken to task for defecating in the public’s collective unconscious. At this point you may be thinking that critical response has been a little harsh and begin to feel sorry for the writer, who has toiled away thanklessly to present his work to the only to be savaged by a hostile press.

While such compassion is useful especially when dealing with delicate emerging talents, please remember that we are talking about Martin Amis here. When a writer of his vast experience unloads such a clunker it cannot really be attributed to a misunderstanding of how literature works. The only real explanation one can ascertain is laziness. Amis seems to have lost his hunger and sits complacently on his laurels churning out sub-par copy, feeling that his half-hearted efforts are good enough. The only circumstances I could recommend this novel to be read under would be as an exercise in literary rubbernecking, where you can with morbid fascination observe the corpse of mangled literary ambition wrapped around the dense lamp-post of complacency.

Canada by Richard Ford

ISBN: 978 0 7475 9860 2

Canada by Richard Ford tells the story of the Parsons family, mother Neeva, father Bev and their twin fifteen year olds, sister Berner and brother Dell. The story is narrated by Dell the younger twin who recounts his American childhood in the late 1950’s from the perspective of his adult self in the present day. This approach to narration has the advantage of tempering the observations of childhood with the hard won insights of adult life.

The father Bev was a U.S air force pilot and with that occupation came a nomadic life for the Parsons family. The family have long moved from place to place never really settling until they reach the town Great Falls in Montana. When Bev is discharged from the air force for a misdemeanour it seems that the Parson family will settle down in this sleepy small town. Young Dell anticipates the trappings of settled life such as school, peers and extracurricular activities with enthusiasm and begins to plan a future, in so far as boys do, involving bee keeping. In fiction much as in life plans rarely work out as expected.

A bank robbery committed by the parents in a moment of desperation irrevocably alters the family members lives. We are made immediately aware of this impending incident in the novels opening sentences, “First I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” As well as being a useful way of grabbing the reader’s attention Ford’s opening line puts us in the position of his young protagonist Dell. Dell inhabits the disempowered world of childhood where one is totally dependent on parents.

Dell constantly looks for clues or signs from his parents about the state of their relationship. As the adult Dell tells us, “Children know normal better than anyone”. He intuits that the state of his parents marriage is somehow bound up with his future. Due to his youth and the nature of parent child interactions his interpretations rely on fragmentary moments and overheard discussions from which he must draw his conclusions. Aware of the approaching robbery and murders mentioned in the opening sentence we the reader also scrutinise his parents looking for the cracks, seams and dysfunction which will eventually manifest in calamity.

The sense of uncertainty which hangs around his parents marriage seems to emanate from their very different personalities. Dells’ father, Bev, is an Alabama native whose air force career has landed him far from home. His Southern background sets him apart from those around him in Montana. Bev relishes his incidental individuality not knowing such conspicuousness will eventually contribute to his downfall. Bev is a man of a mildly left wing persuasion on matters such as race and government which stems from his time in the army. Such values not often associated with the USA’s south seem to mark him out as not quite belonging, even in his place of origin. He is a charming and good intentioned man but lacks any real substance. His desire to be liked by everyone around him is his Achilles heel. Of all of Ford’s characters in Canada, I found him the most interesting.

His wife Neeva is marked as an outsider by her attitude. She has an aloof nature due to her pretensions about herself as being culturally superior to her fellow inhabitants of Montana which stems from her metropolitan immigrant parents. Her views about Montana are best summed up in her sentence, “it’s just cows and wheat out here… there’s no real organised society”.  Because of her sense of cultural superiority she keeps herself apart from the surrounding community, a policy which she tries to encourage in her children. Further to her attitude, her Jewish heritage physically marks her as different from those around her.

We learn that Neeva and Bev ended up married as the result of an unplanned pregnancy and this seems to have set the tone for their mismatched relationship. Neeva’s parents disapprove of Bev feeling she should have married someone more appropriate to their imagined social station such as a college professor; as such her contact with them dwindles. Without extended family or community both Bev and Neeva must depend on each other. Unfortunately their mismatched natures make disaster seemingly inevitable.

As often occurs in Ford novels the topic of fathers and how they inevitably disappoint their son’s crops up. In Canada we find two examples of this. The two father figures are Dells biological father Bev and his Canadian benefactor Arthur Reminger. Both men seem to suffer from a similar condition of insubstantiality that is revealed to be their fatal flaw. In Bev’s case this existential lack is relatively benign. Although Bev eventually ends up committing a robbery and in the process destroying his family, we can at least say he seemed a loving father.

We may also observe that his act of robbery seems more akin to a child’s game of cops and robbers than a work of vicious criminality. Arthur Reminger is a different story. The absence within him is darker and more sinister than Bev’s. Whilst reading about the dapper and louche Reminger I found myself thinking of him as a kind of “bad Gatsby”. Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby he tries to appear to others and himself as how he wishes he was rather than how he is, to compensate for the void he feels at his core. Both Bev and Reminger want the same thing from Dell. When the adult Dell explains about Reminger, “he needed me to do what sons do for their fathers: bear witness that they’re substantial, that they’re not hollow, not ringing absences. That they count for something when little else does” he could equally be talking about Bev.

Insubstantiality is certainly not a problem with Ford’s novel Canada. Structurally the novel is split into three untitled sections. The first features the build up to and committing of the bungled robbery. Part two shows Dells flight to Canada to evade social services and the life he leads there. The third section looks at the aftermath of these events and how they have affected the adult Dell and his sister.  In each section we are introduced to an interesting array of characters and situations. I was worried that the pace of the story would slacken after the robbery was committed but thankfully these fears were unfounded as my interest was held to the end.  Fords masterful use of language and perceptive insights provide an illuminating reading experience provided by a mature writer at the height of his powers. I have no hesitation in describing Canada as a potential classic of modern literature.