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


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