Microviews Vol. 50: Hell Is Popular Fiction

on Thursday, February 27, 2014
Seven Terrors by Selvedin Avdic
It is a rare book that can engage meaningfully with genocide. Conflict often begets cliche or, worse, trivialisation. Selvedin Avdic's masterful debut, Seven Terrors, avoids such pitfalls with a unique blend of magical realism, gritty crime and something strangely comtemplative that recalls Beckett and Walser but is still very much his own. The conflict in question here is the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, particularly the central battleground of Bosnia. Avdic doesn't take us to the front, though. We witness the war through allusion and fleeting glimpse, as if in a fable. Spectres slip through cracks, haunted by the living memory of war. Marquez gets a serious nod here - particularly novels such as Autumn of The Patriarch and The General and His Labyrinth. Avdic's narrator is the prism through which we come to understand what has happened and how it has impacted on the people of his country. As the book opens, he has just dragged himself from almost a year's isolation following the death of his wife. He is roused, more than anything else, by the daughter of his old friend Aleksa. The girl is desperate. Her father has disappeared. The only clue - Aleksa's war diary, found in a library in Sweden. What follows is a descent into a harrowing underworld (both real and mythical) that will seem immediately familiar but wholly disorientating. All roads lead to Rome, or hell, or, in this case the Pegasus brothers - two heartless thugs who rule with iron fists. They hold answers that are genuinely horrific but which must be overcome for there to be any sense of closure. Seven Terrors is quite possibly the most important novel to come from the war in Bosnia thus far. I feel like I've been waiting fifteen years for its arrival.
4.5 Out of 5 Coal Mines

Ed The Happy Clown by Chester Brown
Those seduced by Brown's autobiographical works (I Never Liked You, Paying For It, some of The Little Man comics) might well be taken aback by this crazily surreal, confronting and, at times, offensive (in a good way) story of what might best be described as the Job of the clown world. Bad shit happens to Ed. Every time we meet him he is in a deeper state of degradation. But his decline is merely the springboard for one of the wildest brainfizzes I've had the pleasure of reading. I don't want to give away too much but, suffice to say, it involves the president's head being transported through a wormhole to a parallel dimension and winding up on the tip of our hapless hero's penis. The only way back - through the arse of the guy who shat him out. You do the math.
3.5 Out of 5 Blocked Toilets

The Farm by Tom Robb Smith
Whatever he writes in the future - hell, it could even be the next War & Peace or Great Expectations - Tom Robb Smith will, to literary minds at least, always be the dude at the centre of Stellagate. His novel, Child 44, came to represent everything that was going sour with the Booker Prize under the stewardship of Stella Rimmington. Sure, it was a passable thriller, but a contender for one of the literary world's most prestigious prizes? Oh no he di'n't! Needless to say, The Farm is no Tolstoy or Dickens. Unfortunately, it isn't even a Child 44. True to its genre, the book sucks you in with an excellent opening chapter. Daniel's parents, Tilde and Chris, have moved to the Swedish countryside to live out their twilight years farming the land. Daniel, for his part, has kept his distance, making the most of life in London. One day he receives a panicked call from Chris to say that Tilde has had a psychotic episode and disappeared. Soon afterwards, she too calls. She is in London, having escaped Sweden and the terrible conspiracy that threatens to have her put away. What's worse, Chris is a key player. Who to believe? For the most part, The Farm is the mother's recounting of what happened in the lead up to her escape. Social exclusion, bullying, land grabbing, child trafficking and, ultimately, murder. It is all terribly plausible until you recall Chris's initial warning. What if he is right? What if it is all in Tilde's head? Smith mines Daniel's torturous schism to full effect. He wants to believe his mother but that means accepting his father is a monster (or, at least, beholden to one). It all comes to a head when Chris arrives in London and then, well... I'm not going to spoil it. Apparently based on Smith's own experience, The Farm is a great premise gone awry. The device of story-telling through a journal (read in Daniel's presence) is tiresome and unrealistic. The denouement is sad, it is something we fear happening to our own parents, but by the time Smith gets there you are likely to have stopped caring. I suppose he ought to be commended for tackling the very sensitive issue of mental health. Alas, the book does very little to shed light or encourage empathy. Perhaps it just cut too close to home.
2 Out of 5 Dancing Queens

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
Here's a pleasant surprise. Adam Sternbergh, he of the high lit pedigree (GQ, The New York Times Magazine, New York), throws it all to the wind in this raucous mash-up of hardboiled noir and cyberpunk. Both elegy and satire of the city he clearly loves, Shovel Ready is the story of Spademan, a ruthless killer-for-hire who finds his soft side when hired by big time evangelist TK Harrow to find and kill his daughter. Sounds pretty straightforward noir, right? Sternbergh's real clincher is the city he imagines - it's New York, but not as we know. What we get instead is a wasteland metropolis brought down by a dirty bomb and a wave of terrorist attacks where the rich plug into a virtual world and the poor do their best to survive in what's left of the city. Skirting the fine line between the virtual and real worlds, it doesn't take long for Spademan to find the girl. Only problem - she's pregnant and even he won't stoop that low. The two form a bond and, as her story unfolds, Spademan realises he'd set out to kill the wrong Harrow. How the tables turn. Shovel Ready reads like a post apocalyptic computer game penned by James Ellroy. It's fast, gritty and funny. Heck, it even has end level boss fights. Just play it... I mean, read it.
3.5 Out of 5 Shallow Graves

A Pleasure And A Calling by Phil Hogan
If you've ever had any dealings whatsoever with a real estate agent, be it buying, selling, renting or line dancing, prepare to be creeped the hell out. Okay, so you probably won't bother reading this book once I'm done, but know that the idea - a real estate agent who keeps the keys of every house he has ever sold and has a nasty habit of letting himself in whenever he feels like it - is so poop-inducing that I'm considering going right now and changing the locks on my place (though Sam, if you're reading this, I think you're a nice guy and am assuming you don't still have my keys). Now the downside. A Pleasure And A Calling is a waste of a brilliant concept. It plods along at glacial pace, touching on every serial killer cliche, not to mention the one in which cops are dumbasses who can't solve their way out of a plastic bag. The fact that William Hemming's success at his creepy endeavours seems to owe a lot more to luck than design doesn't exactly add to the book's plausibility. Put it next to The Killer Inside Me - a book that is what, 60 years old? - and it just pales into insignificance. I'm still changing my locks, though.
2.5 Out of 5 Skeleton Keys

The Folio Prize: A New King or Pretender to the Throne?

on Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Well, after much hoopla it's finally here: the shortlist for the inaugural Folio Prize. You remember the Folio, right? The one that aims to find the best novel written in the English language for any given year. The one that respects no territorial boundary. The one that claims to bring the 'literary' back into literary prizes. The one that sent Team Booker scrambling to redefine itself to, um, find the best novel written in the English language, respect no territorial boundaries and bring the 'literary' back into literary prizes. Yep, Folio is beating Booker to the punch by a good eight months so it will be interesting to see whether we end up with duplication and redundancy or something quite exciting, shiny and new.

For those who haven't seen it, the books in contention for (potential) glory are:

Red Doc by Anne Carson (Canada)
Schroder by Amity Gage (USA)
Last Friends by Jane Gardam (UK)
Benediction by Kent Haruf (USA)
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (USA)
A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Ireland)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (USA)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (USA)

A mildly interesting list to be sure (extra kudos for the inclusion of fresh faced risk takers McBride and De La Pava), but it does nothing to mollify the naysayers. Seems the American invasion really is here. And where are the books from the non-emancipated colonies? Nothing from India? South Africa? Australia? New Zealand? Surely there've been a few excellent English language novels from unexpected countries. Hmmmm. Is it possible that Folio have given a free kick to Team Booker to present a more even-handed shortlist when the time comes?

The literary War of the Roses kicks off on March 10. Grab your popcorn!

To Hell and Back: Falling Out Of Time by David Grossman

Is it a novel? A play? A prose poem? A greek tragedy? Well, yes. I think. All of them. A marvel? Yes, that too.

After his perfectly accessible masterpiece, To The End Of The Land, David Grossman returns to the same conceptual grounds with about as inaccessible a book as you can imagine (short of James Joyce). From its opening page Falling Out Of Time disorients the reader - a man stops eating in the middle of the dinner and announces he is going on a journey to find someone (it is unclear who at first) at the place it happened (again not sure what). As the man and his wife talk, we come to understand their loss - Grossman's own - of having a son fall in battle, of having military police turn up at the door heralding the terrible news. Theirs is a fragile tenderness, a love weighed down by absence. She understands his need, does not stop him. The man begins his walk, narrated by a Town Chronicler, directionless, only forward, in search of his dead son. Along the way he encounters others, townsfolk who have also lost their children, to accident, to suicide, to murder. Fragments of their stories creep in as they join him on the search to find where life and death meet. To the reader, at least, it seems they are simply walking in circles around their town, a slight spiral that takes them a little further out each time without ever really going anywhere. Eventually they hit a wall that just might be the gateway to the other world. Or the impossibility of crossing.

If this all seems a bit obtuse to you then you'd probably best steer clear of this book. Mine is the instructional manual version. The depth of Grossman's understanding of loss and grief is extraordinary. That much was clear in To The End Of The Land. Falling Out Of Time takes it one step further. Drawing heavily on the Orpheus mythos in both form and substance, it explores the human limits of love. How do you make sense of what remains in your heart when the person is no longer here? How can you relate to the dead when they can't relate to you? Grossman doesn't necessarily provide answers but he suggests modes of reason. And he self-consciously breaks your heart. The passage, about two thirds of the way through, where the various parents question their children's fate is one of the most painful I've ever read. And this:

But where are you, what are you?
Just tell me that, my son.
I ask simply:
Where are you?

No doubt many who loved To The End of The Land will be totally alienated by this book. It is their loss. For though you may not always fully understand what you are reading, you will never doubt that you are in the presence of true greatness.
5 Out Of 5 Greek Choruses

Trieste Conquers New York!

on Sunday, February 2, 2014
Far be it from me to gloat, but...

Twenty months after I first raved about Dasa Drndic's modern (yet timeless) classic Trieste, thirteen months after I named it my 2012 Book of the Year and six months after it was nominated for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Award, the book has finally been published in America and received a full page, glowing review in today's New York Times. Craig Seligman hails it as "a work of European high culture" with "coldly dignified" writing. Basically, he says everything I've been trying to say albeit in a much more eloquent fashion. Check out the entire review here. And if you haven't read the book yet - if my raves, the raves from Kirkus, the raves from The Independent and, now, the rave from The New York Times hasn't convinced you to read it - I despair for your reading soul.

Ok, fine... So I'm gloating.