Microviews Vol. 34: The Tender Technique

on Sunday, June 30, 2013
The Devil's Workshop by Jachym Topol
A very strange book by the Czech Republic's contemporary master, The Devil's Workshop is both horror and farce, thoroughly enjoyable yet totally despicable. The narrator is mistakenly identified by a weird Belarussian cabal, as the man who 'saved' Terezin and made it a popular destination for Holocaust tourists. Hoping to build a monument of their own, they kidnap him and set him on the task of popularising The Devil's Workshop, the 'ultimate' house of horrors. A short, absurdist fairytale, Topol's book hilariously lampoons its subject while giving pause for serious thought about the boundaries of respectable commemoration.
4 Out Of 5 Mass Graves

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
From all the hooplah surrounding this book, I was expecting another Yellow Birds. The war-torn setting of Chechnya, seldom the setting for literary fiction. The poetic language. The heart-wrenching story of a little girl rescued by her neighbour and brought to live in a hospital under the care of a feisty female doctor. The moral dilemmas of complicity and survival. Alas, I got The Kite Runner. If Oprah still had her show, I'd expect to see this named book of the month and Anthony Marra jumping up and down on her couch. A lovely book, to be sure, but that's all.
3 Out Of 5 Splendid Suns

Learning To Pray In The Age of Technique by Goncalo M. Tavares
I finally bit the bullet and read the last Tavares available in English translation. A companion piece to Jerusalem and my personal favourite, Joseph Walser's Machine (Walser even makes an appearance here), Learning To Pray... is another fine but disturbing work from my discovery of 2013. Lenz Buchmann is the greatest surgeon in an unnamed, but oddly familiar city. He is also pure evil, the kind who refuses last wishes and revels in the suffering of his patients. Following the death of his brother, Buchmann give away medicine to pursue a career in politics. A Machiavellian scoundrel, he quickly rises through the ranks but, just as he is about to assume the second highest-job in the country, he is struck down by cancer. At last, Buchmann has lost control. It is a chilling portrait, though to Tavares's great credit I felt a certain sympathy for this throughly dislikable man. Now can Dalkey please publish Klaus Klump?.
4 Out Of 5 Roman Daggers

Equilateral by Ken Kalfus
Oh those wacky fellas of the 1800's! Convinced of life on Mars and the need to make contact, a group of astronomers, engineers and like-minded dreamers set about constructing a giant equilateral triangle, 300 miles long on each side, in the Egyptian desert to fill with petrol and set alight at the precise moment Mars comes closest to Earth on June 17, 1894. Employing thousands of locals, it is an engineering marvel of the grandest kind. It is also a madcap folly, colonisation and Empire expansion gone nuts. With Equilateral, Kalfus has pulled off a delightful intellectual romp of a novel, showing our silly species at its best and worst. I'm just dying to know if it was at all based in historical fact.
4 Out Of 5 Old Plastic Protractors

Bough Down by Karen Green
Not once is his name mentioned and yet his spirit dwells on every page, in every word. Green confronts her pain in stunning wordscapes of free form verse, building bite-sized temples to grief, longing, anger, frustration. Only the odd line deals with the realities - cutting him down from the roof, being questioned by police, propping herself up with drugs, coming to terms with his absence - each one coming like a suckerpunch to the solar plexus. "It's hard to remember tender things tenderly, " she says, but that is precisely what she does. An amazing little book, though perhaps to be expected from the wife of David Foster Wallace.
4.5 Out Of 5 Finite Jests

Microviews Vol. 33: The Sandman Versus The Succubus

on Sunday, June 23, 2013
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
So here's a fantastic idea. Write the Great Post 9/11 American Novel, work out what made it so good and then try to recreate it it with another story using exactly the same tricks. At first I was excited; TransAtlantic opens pretty well with Alcock and Brown's flight from Newfoundland to West Ireland in 1919. Jump back eighty years and we get Frederick Douglas, the free American slave, visiting Ireland to spread the word of democracy. Now jump forward another one hundred and fifty years to a tense retelling of the diplomatic acrobatics that would ultimately bring about the Good Friday Agreement. The book continues to jump around time and space, slowly revealing the common thread: the unsung role of women in each of these great moments. By the time I realised what it was really about, I had stopped caring.
2.5 Out Of 5 Stumbling Trapeze Artists

Viennese Romance by David Vogel
Not since Hermann Ungar's perverted, claustrophobic masterpiece The Maimed, have I been so throughly enthralled by something so ghastly. Indeed, this long lost novel by David Vogel shares much with Ungar's book - a young man takes lodgings with a family and soon becomes entangled in a lust triangle with both mother and daughter. It is creepy and unsettling, with fairly graphic descriptions of illicit underage sex and all sorts of other dirty underworld dealings, but don't let any of that put you off. Viennese Romance is like watching the most spectacular train wreck. You simply cannot look away.
4 Out Of 5 Salacious Speakeasies

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Who doesn't enjoy a bitter crone ranting against the world? And while 42 might be a little young to qualify as a crone, Nora Eldridge is most certainly a bitter, bitter woman. Her youthful aspirations to artistic greatness have long ago given way to an ordinary life as a primary school teacher. But the arrival of an exotic new student, Reza, in her third grade class offers Nora the chance of redemption. The boy is quiet and fragile, his parents boho archetypes. A chance accident sees Nora insinuate herself in their lives, eventually renting a studio with Reza's mum, Sirena, an artist on the cusp of big things. Friendship develops into obsession and, ultimately betrayal (though Messud deftly forces the reader to reconsider the user/used dynamic), all recounted in Nora's thoroughly pitiful drone.
3.5 Out Of 5 Nancy Ganzes

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman fans will no doubt lap up this not-quite-for-kids but not-quite-for-adults fable, ignoring the fact that it follows a pretty standard formula. Think every book ever where a child protagonist must fight the evil monster (in human babysitter form) and you'll have a pretty good idea what's going on here. Apparently, this was a labour of love inspired by Gaiman's newish wife, the creative succubus, Amanda Palmer. What can I say? Rilke he ain't.
2.5 Out Of 5 Pockets Full of Kryptonite

Pink Mist by Owen Sheers
Tales of modern war, it seems, are best left in the hands of poets. Last year it was Kevin Powers, who strayed from his usual medium to gift us with the amazing novel Yellow Birds. This year it is Owen Sheers, whose devastatingly brilliant prose poem does for the war in Afghanistan what Powers did for Iraq. Very few books drive home the reality of war like this - the fear, the anger, the stupidity and, ultimately, the regret. The language is stunning, the imagery shimmering with brutal clarity. Absolutely unmissable.
4.5 Out Of 5 Angry Amputees

Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Quarry by Iain Banks

on Thursday, June 20, 2013
Grief is a pretty crappy basis for a book review. Iain Banks's untimely death earlier this month was sad - especially for those of us who worshipped his early work - but we must be careful not to lionise his final novel without bothering to properly read it. Try tell that to other reviewers, who have called The Quarry a return to form, classic Banks catching his second wind or any number of similar platitudes. Put simply, it isn't. Thankfully, it also is not the sort of abomination that saw him demoted from my DEAR list three books ago. So while you had better not approach it expecting The Bridge, Complicity or The Wasp Factory, you can also safely pick it up without catching syphilis from another The Steep Approach To Garbadale.

By now you all would have heard the plot - Kit, an Aspergers teen (apparently Banks wasn't hip to the new DSM-5), lives in a house with his cancer stricken dad when a bunch of the latter's old friends come for one last weekend hoorah. They talk, they reminisce, they fight, they search for the home made porno they made as uni students. When he's not playing computer games, Kit tries to figure out who his mum is. Then, of course, there is the quarry itself, ever-expanding, soon to consume the land on which Kit's house stands. Hello thinly-veiled metaphor.

It is a strange beast, this book, almost a crucible of Banks's earlier works. It's got the slightly off-kilter narrator (although Kit is extremely reliable given he cannot lie whereas Frank in The Wasp Factory was the polar opposite - even he didn't know the truth). It takes place in a typically Banksian environment; hostile, menacing, yet strangely familiar. There's a science fiction thread, weak though it is, with occasional narrative forays into HeroSpace, a World of Warcraft-like online game. Heck, one of the climactic scenes even takes place on a friggin' bridge. Unfortunately, it also has a lot of what I didn't like about late era Iain Banks. That guy liked to grab a bunch of mostly annoying characters, all of whom had long ago fled their home towns, and plonk them right back where they started. There's always a 'big' reason, in this case Guy's cancer. There's always a lot of waxing lyrical, a settling of scores, a lot of boring chatter. The Quarry is no different. Guy's friends can talk. A lot. Of shit. Banks pretends there's a plot to be found - the porno, the mum, the quarry - but even the most generous reader would struggle to credit them with any substance.

The novel's real saving grace is Guy himself, a truly wonderful Banksian creation. The bloke is bitter, cantankerous and full of hilariously jaded opinions on just about everything. It is the luxury of the dying, I suppose. Obviously, many people will read Guy's opinions as those of Banks himself. The two have (had) a lot in common. Yet, according to the author's wife, Banks had finished the novel well before being told of his diagnosis. If that's true, it certainly is a strange coincidence. Either way, Guy gives Banks a fantastic platform to air a whole bunch of home truths about our shitty world.

Going purely on recent form (The Steep Approach To Garbadale, Transition, Stonemouth... well, pretty much everything post-Complicity), The Quarry ought to have sucked wasp factories. It doesn't. That said, it is nowhere near the calibre of his early works. Neither whimper, nor bang, Iain Banks has gone out with a moderate pop. At least I'll always have The Bridge.

3 Out Of 5 Crow Roads

Holy Horizons! Doctorow's Back (But Don't Hold Your Breath)

on Monday, June 10, 2013
Well, this might be looking forward a little too much, but I just got word that there will be a new E.L. Doctorow book, Andrew's Brain, coming out in January 2014. Looks weird and fascinating. Pretty great way to kick off the year. Could it be that we will have two amazing literary years in a row? Tell me there's also another Cormac McCarthy and my year will be complete six months before it's even started. Oh the joy!

Vale Banks and Banks 2.0

A great loss today to my personal literary universe with the death of two great authors in one, Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. Although his literary incarnation kind of died five books ago, sci-fi Banks was still alive and kicking, adding another worthwhile volume to the Culture series last year with The Hydrogen Sonata. Think what you will of him, but I will always credit The Bridge as the single most important book of my young adult life, teaching me that 'literary fiction' need not be limited, that emotion can defy logic, so long as imagination is given free reign on the page. Now I await The Quarry, due for release next month and hope against hope that it isn't crap.