Microviews Vol. 58: More Words From The Weird

on Monday, February 29, 2016
How To Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
Here's something I thought I'd never say: Jesse Ball has written a relatively conventional story. Yes, five novels (plus apocrypha) into a truly extraordinary career and he has deigned to leave the singular world of his own making and grace us on earth with his presence for the sixth. That isn't to say that How To Set A Fire and Why is a 'normal' book by any stretch of the imagination, only that it unfolds in a world that the reader will recognise. All the more so if you're a fan of counter cultural film classics like Heathers, Gummo, SFW or pretty much anything made by Todd Solondz. Once again Ball gives us a young female protagonist, though Lucia is about as different from The Curfew's Molly as you could possibly get. She is, in many ways, your typical fucked-up teen. Father: gone. Mother: vegetating in a home, staring into the distance, her mind obliterated by early onset Alzheimers. School: A bust - she was kicked out of the last one and hates the new place. To top it off, she lives with her aunt, a loving but seemingly desiccated crone. Oh, and she is obsessed with fire. It's something with which I could instantly relate. What kid doesn't go through that stage? But Lucia takes it to a new level. Her father's Zippo is a thing to worship, to fight over, to connect her with the world. A few weeks into the school year and she learns of an underground arson club. It may or may not be legit but it's something she wants to join. From there the trajectory is set. She rattles it all off in short, sharp chapters that guarantee a good pace for the plethora of typical teen shenanigans built into the narrative: family drama, friends and frenemies, sexual exploration and exploitation, the desperate need for acceptance into something. Unfortunately, Lucia's circular obsessions border on painful at times and while I get the need to fill out her world, I couldn't help but feel she was overplayed. It seems to me that How To Set A Fire And Why is ultimately about "belonging". Jesse Ball uses this damaged teen to explore much bigger themes of fitting in and finding your place in the world. There is a noticeable irony, perhaps intentional, that this should be the book that sees him dabble with literary convention. He too is having a go at "fitting in". The novel builds toward the inevitable great arson moment, the point at which Lucia will set the fire that will destroy the world she despises, allowing her to leave her past behind and start anew. We all know it can't go well. Ball, however, leaves the ending open. There is every chance that this book is a declarative statement about his own endeavours: he simply doesn't belong in our formulaic, trope-laden literary world. He is, after all, the king of "the other", the prophet of the imaginative apocalypse. Hopefully, he will now return to those creative dreamscapes to which we acolytes have built our shrines. It would be a shame to have to set them on fire.
3.5 Out of 5 Kindling Sticks

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
Pity the poor brainiacs slaving away in their labs when a certain patent clerk happened upon his theory of relativity. All the more so if any one of them similarly formulated the theory but was beaten to the punch on having it published. So begins John Wray's intellectual supernova of a novel, The Lost Time Accidents. Told as a confession of sorts - a 'reckoning' - by the great grandson of Ottokar Gottfriedens Toula, professional pickler and amateur physicist, this weighty brick (in both the literal and metaphorical senses) will bend your mind in so many different ways that you'll be lucky to come out of it without your head pounding. From the cafes of Vienna to the crowded streets of New York City, Wray takes in the best and worst the 20th century threw at us and makes a rich stew of complex ideas and hilarious set pieces with a whole bunch of pointed satirical barbs. There's so much to be said about this book but I'll try limit myself to a few very notable points. First up, the obvious: The Lost Time Accidents is a pretty unsubtle satire on the Church of Scientology. Here, the narrator's father, Orson Card Tolliver, is a D-Grade sci-fi writer whose unremarkable output becomes the basis for a batshit crazy cult, The Church of Synchronicity. Next up, some historical appropriation: the narrator is taken in by his twin aunts, eccentric New York socialites who become battier as the days go by until they are locked up in their apartment surrounded by the junk they've hoarded. Collyer brothers anyone? Then there's the references to any number of classic pulp sci-fi novels (hell, the dad's name is a play on Orson Scott Card). Not to mention the quite brilliant interweaving of an Holocaust subplot that is as morally challenging as it is harrowing. Uncle Waldemar, after whom our narrator is named, was a Nazi war criminal known as the Timekeeper of Czas, who tested his various theories about time on Jews and other prisoners in the camp. Needless to say, he killed a good many of them. His legacy would be problem enough for any grand-nephew, but it's all the more troubling because it's quite apparent that he is able to move through time and hide away in the present. Or perhaps young Waldy is Great Uncle Waldemar reincarnated. To some degree, The Lost Time Accidents can be read as a companion piece to another extraordinary novel, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Just replace comic books with theoretical physics. Like Chabon, the depth and breadth of Wray's book is nothing short of astounding. In telling the story of four generations of a broken family, and positing it all on a non-linear plane, he is able to challenge many of our assumptions about ourselves and the weight of history as it presses upon our shoulders. It is also damn funny and you will often smirk when he sticks it to some some very recognisable targets. I suspect it's the kind of book that rewards multiple reading and, if it weren't so long, I'd probably give it a go. Or maybe, in a parallel universe, I already have. Thankfully, in another, I will have the pleasure of reading it for the first time.
4.5 Out Of 5 Black Holes

The Children's Home by Charles Lambert
Some books simply defy categorisation. Sure, there are thematic or conceptual touchstones, but the particular mix is so beguiling, so confounding that you just have to give yourself over to its singularity. The Children's Home is one of those books. A few pages in and I was wondering, "What the fuck is this?" Strange kids turn up at the secluded, fortified mansion of Morgan, a disfigured hermit. No reason is given for their appearance. No explanation is given as to who Morgan is or what he is doing in the house. The children are tended to by Engel, a warm but mysterious housekeeper, who takes each one in without question. Soon enough the house overflows with kids, like some forgotten Victorian orphanage. Then there's the stuff about the intricate, anatomically-correct wax figures. Yikes. As I tumbled down the cliff of incomprehension I grasped out frantically for twigs of familiarity. Is it a classic gothic? A horror story, perhaps? Might it be something Hitchcock would had written before palming it off to M. Night Shyamalan? But I sensed an eerie tinge of Children of the Corn in there too, not to mention JG Ballard's unsettling novella, Running Wild. Gaston Leroux gets a look in too, with Morgan's obvious likeness to the Phantom of the Opera (the novel, not the musical). To be fair, Lambert does lace the tale with allusions to what's going on. The hermit is an ostracised member of the ruling family. There is some kind of terrible war being waged outside the walls of the house, rendering it the last oasis of serenity and, perhaps, salvation. The kids... ah... nope. Nothing. About halfway through, when government agents arrived to investigate the children's presence, I decided to just give up on my pathetic attempts to pigeonhole the book and commit myself to its world. With the agents banging on the door, the kids disappear. A sympathetic doctor, who visits Morgan and tends to his and the children's needs, tricks the agents into leaving but they soon return and a tense showdown ensues at the end of which one little girl is taken away. To save her, Morgan must venture outside the gates, into the ravaged land, and face down his sister. Lambert remains aloof on what it all might mean, except for one passage that suggests an anchor in time - World War 2 - and the tragic fate of many children in the Holocaust. That said, almost every other identifying factor points to some near-future dystopia so it's hard to ever feel you've quite got the grasp of what's happening. The Children's Home is a dark yet wholly enthralling novel. I doubt I'll read anything quite like it again this year but that's ok; I can only cope with the ghosts of so many children if I wish to remain sane.
4.5 Out of 5 Spectral Diapers

Microviews Vol. 57: A Word From The Weird

on Sunday, February 28, 2016
This Census-Taker by China Miéville
A strange boy comes running down a hill into the nearby village to report that his father has just killed his mother. So begins China Miéville's unsettling but almost hypnotic new novella, This Census-Taker. A search party is mobilised and an investigation of sorts is carried out. The mother is indeed missing but there is nothing to suggest foul play. It's hard to tell whether this is Miéville's Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Nighttime; has the boy misinterpreted his mother's desertion or did something more sinister actually happen? It is quickly apparent that the villagers don't want to upset the boy's father. He is the maker of keys, talismans that promise the fulfilment of their deepest desires. But he may also be a killer. If only they could penetrate the great chasm in the mountains where the boy says he throws the bodies. The whole thing comes to nought and the investigations abates until, one day, a census taker appears and takes the boy on as an apprentice. At which point it gets weird. Some readers (and critics) have been panning the book for its obtuseness and seeming lack of direction. I really don't get their gripe. Sure, it unfolds like the incantations of a fever dream, but This Census-Taker is Miéville at his genre-defying best.
4 Out Of 5 Shifting Realities

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue
In what I can only interpret as a sly dig at David Foster Wallace and his massive masterpiece Infinite Jest, Álvaro Enrigue opens his something-resembling-a-novel with the assertion that no great books have been written about tennis. The instant tethering of the two writers is fitting - Sudden Death is the kind of formality-averse, scattered intellectual mindfuck you'd expect from the late, great master of meta fiction. In as much as there is a story, it revolves around a 16th century tennis match between a poet and artist (you don't discover their identities until very late in the book), the result of which will determine the fate of Europe. The narrative is nominal - we get the occasional description of a point as it is played. Bets are placed, balls are thwacked into... well... balls. You get the drift. The rest of the book is an historical exposition of European conquest, especially as it stretched to and destroyed Enrigue's homeland, Mexico, interspersed with factoids, tidbits and correspondence about tennis. Central to it all is Enrigue's hilarious concoction of a set of tennis balls made from the locks shorn from Ann Boleyn's head before her execution. It is all delivered with po-faced seriousness, making it quite the romp to read. A completely original, confounding and exhilarating experience.
4 Out of 5 Djokovics

When The Professor Got Stuck In The Snow by Dan Rhodes
Dan Rhodes sure has a thing for sacred cows. Particularly, he likes to slaughter them, mince them and serve them up as hamburgers of hilarity to his quite sizeable cult following. I've long had a thing for his brand of Grade A prissy patty and am always eager to see quite how far he is willing to push his luck. If we're to believe the hype, his latest novel is the one that finally crossed the line. No publisher was willing to touch it with a ten foot pole for fear of the ensuing lawsuits. And this from people who were happy to publish books about shitting as performance art. Alas, this time he picked on too precious a subject - the cult of Richard Dawkins. In what probably seemed like a funny idea at the time, Rhodes's latest book dumps an insufferably prattish Dawkins - brimming with pomposity, arrogance, stupidity and self-righteousness - in a country town full of devout Christians when a massive snow storm cuts off the road to Upper Bottom (get it? Ha ha. Snore.) where he is scheduled to give a speech. A few chortle-worthy gags gets things off to a good start (the continuous confusion of Dawkins and Stephen Hawking is a particular delight) but any mirthful warmth soon freezes over as the tale drags on in repetitive and not overly exciting fashion. A battle of nitwits ensues; the professor and the local vicar have it out over the dinner table, giving Rhodes a chance to lambaste both sides of the science/religion debate for their respective idiocies. It's all a mild distraction and might have made for a good short story but at novel length it very much overstays its welcome. There is a small chance this went unpublished for the reasons Rhodes would have us believe but I suspect there is a much more prosaic reason: it just isn't very good. Certainly not of the usual brilliance of this literary jester.
2.5 Out Of 5 Neanderthals

The Mockingbird Silenced, The Pendulum Stilled: A Short Tribute to Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

on Saturday, February 20, 2016
Sad news this morning. Harper Lee has died. Of course, my initial inclination was to give in to my rant reflex, mount the soapbox and let rip on the exploitation of modern literature's second greatest hermit. I suspect I'll still get the chance sometime soon. Death has removed the last bump in the road to publication of other early works. Last I heard, some short stories and novellas were in the offing. Thankfully, a lovely walk along the beach with my dog gave me a chance to settle my nerves and, instead, try to think of a fitting tribute to so singular an author. I'm sure many detailed and insightful tributes will be penned over the next few days but I want to leave it at this: Harper Lee wrote the perfect novel. Very few authors can boast such an amazing feat. That it was the only one she willingly published in her lifetime (I'm going to ignore last year's crass exercise in commercialism) makes it all the more remarkable. So brilliant was To Kill A Mockingbird that it also stands as the only great novel to be adapted into a great film.

I thought I could simply leave it at that. Then, as I sat down to write this, I learned of the death of another of my literary heroes. Umberto Eco also died today. And while he may not be in the perfect novel club he came pretty darn close twice. The Name of The Rose and Foucault's Pendulum are novels of immense depth and intellectual acuity. Oh, and they're bloody fun reads to boot. Like Lee, Eco added to our understanding of the world. He wielded his pen as a weapon of morality, integrity and goodness. He challenged us to think harder, to further our philosophical horizons. His body of work across genres - be it novels, works of philosophy, literary theory or semiotics - knows no equal. How he never won the Nobel Prize is beyond me and, to be frank, lessens its worth rather than Eco's.

It is fitting that we lost these two literary giants on the same day. To my mind they were bookends to the writing experience. Their output, on opposite ends of the numerical spectrum, achieved the same thing: they bettered our lives. And for that we should be thankful. Harper Lee and Umberto Eco will both be missed. More importantly, they will both, for many years to come, be read.

Red Thunder: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

on Saturday, February 6, 2016
For a short while Martin Amis was obsessed with Soviet Russia. It was a weird dalliance for such an establishment kind of guy and one that he got quite the shellacking over. Now I'm as big a fan of Amis as the next guy that doesn't utterly despise him, but I have to concede that Koba The Dread was a very strange book and would have been remembered as one of his most misguided had it not been immediately followed by the awful stinker that was Yellow Dog. Such a dismal failure (though he still says it's the favourite of his novels - nice trolling, Marty) saw him flee in some kind of self-imposed exile where I'm sure he had plenty of time to ruminate on his Stalin fetish and come back with the massively underrated House of Meetings. I'm not convinced I'll ever understand that period Amis but I'm pretty glad he went through it. House of Meetings is one his best works.

Ten years after Amis's literary rehabilitation, another great establishment writer, Julian Barnes, has thrown his seeds into the fertile ground of Red Russia. Thankfully, the result is less Koba than House of Meetings, and perhaps better than both. Like the Booker-winning Sense of an Ending and Barnes's beautiful memoir of loss (and ballooning) Levels of Life, The Noise of Time is a slim book. Don't be fooled by its brevity, though. It is a book of big ideas and immense heart. Indeed, it might be Barnes's most philosophical work since Flaubert's Parrot or my favourite, England England. Like Amis before him, Barnes uses the context of Soviet Russia to consider the greater meaning of art, especially when played out against the kind of regime intent on defining its edges. And also like Amis, he does so through the prism of a love triangle. But whereas House of Meetings deals with two brothers and the woman they both love, the threesome in Barnes's novel is more esoteric: the individual, the Party and Art. His vehicle for exploring it is Dmitri Shostakovich, the celebrated composer who fell in and out of favour with Stalin and then, following the dictator's death, was rehabilitated only to find himself a pawn in Krushchev's equally disturbing 'new world'. The story is played out in three "conversations with Power": times Shostakovich is called before the party and destroyed in all but body. We first meet him amidst a squall of denunciations where those who once openly supported him are searching for new and original ways to slag him off. Next we follow his forced appearances in America where he sacrifices his integrity and dignity reading pre-written speeches denouncing Igor Stravinsky and other 'formalistic' composers. The third meeting shows that later life offers little reprieve - Shostakovich is railroaded by the cultural despot Pyotr Pospelov to accept Krushchev's "offer" to take up the position of General Secretary of the Composer's Union.

For Barnes's purpose, Shostakovich is the perfect subject. Few people were strapped to the Party rollercoaster quite like he was. Barnes does a wonderful job of conveying the sheer terror of life under Stalin; the image of Shostakovich spending his nights by the elevator waiting for the secret police to come and arrest him is truly heartbreaking as are the scenes of him on the propaganda tour of America where he is smugly challenged by Nicolas Nabokov. It is an exercise in forced self-loathing. Each question makes Barnes's tragic hero that little bit smaller. It is painful to witness, but oddly edifying when rendered in such perfect sentences.

The Noise of Time is a complex meditation on the collision of Art and Power by one of our greatest living (and deepest thinking) writers. As he quite correctly suggests, we can only truly understand art when it is threatened. I could pick out a whole bunch of passages to illustrate the beauty of his thinking. But it is the one from which the novel gets its title that I think sums it up best:

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art's sake: it exists for people's sake. But which people, and who defines them?

Who, indeed.

The Summer Slingshot

on Tuesday, February 2, 2016
A mere four days ago I was bemoaning the lack of interesting new releases. A mere dribble - China Mieville and Garth Greenwell - to satiate my appetite. Well, what a difference a week makes! I'm reminded of that old Road Runner cartoon where Wile E. Coyote sets up a giant slingshot. Suddenly my shelf is looking pretty damn exciting. Check out what's wedged between the cast iron poodles.

Forget everything I said last post (except how awesome the Greenwell book is). I've got me some books to catch...