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One Freeman's War
Mark Emery

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Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro book cover
The Buried Giant (2015), Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade, is a complex and allegorical mediaeval-style fantasy set in post-Roman Britain around the sixth century, which has as much to say about modern life as it does about the slaying of dragons. Across the fictional land, an unexplained fog hangs, which causes a kind of collective Alzheimer’s, with all memory being slowly lost to the mist. The novel’s main characters – Axl and Beatrice – are an ageing couple who set out from their small village to visit their long-departed son, who lives only a few villages away. With the war between Britons and Saxons not long finished, lands are not always hospitable and along the way the couple encounter a handful of major characters with whom they travel, some friendlier than others. There is a young boy, Edwin, who is cursed and seeking his lost mother; Wistan, a warrior who is honourable but dangerous and derives, surely, from Beowulf; and, finally, Sir Gawain, a famous if ageing knight of King Arthur’s court, here closer to Don Quixote than the fresh-faced knight of the famous story. In the haze of the mist, their stories mingle as, in classic quest story tradition, Axl and Beatrice face all manner of test, from negotiating difficult terrain and devious monks to fighting Querig, the dragon who has doomed their lands to the collective amnesia. All the while, they make their way towards their son, who lives, it transpires, on an island away from Axl and Beatrice’s own country. To reach it, they must claim passage with a boatman: strange and mythical men who, it is said, will only on rare occasions carry couples together to other lands, and only then if they are able to prove their devotion to each other. This is the final, defining test that Axl and Beatrice must face, no matter how heavily the odds are weighted against them.

The fog of collective amnesia that is slowly overtaking the inhabitants of Ishiguro’s world is an excellent conceit: the buried giant, more than Querig, refers to the memories deeply buried (or perhaps lost altogether), a mass forgetting that has allowed two peoples – Saxons and Britons – to find peace and reconciliation after a bloody war, just as, on a personal level, it has allowed Axl and Beatrice to be reunited after trouble in their own relationship. Within this giant allegory of a novel, this is the central and most powerful metaphor. It is reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s Blindness, in which a collective loss of sight amongst a city’s people is used as a metaphor for humanity’s failure to see even in clear daylight. Here, Ishiguro’s metaphor is as relevant to the reader as to his characters: if forgetting brings happiness, then how far ought we to excavate our own buried giants – the dark memories that dwell within us, unspoken for fear of their implications? And without memory, what of identity, individual or national? What holds the threads of life together if it is not memory? Without it, there is only an unending present.

This idea of truth hidden beneath the surface not only acts as a metaphor for the human relationship to memory but also to Ishiguro as a writer. No matter which genre he writes in, Ishiguro’s novels deal with life on the surface level, the meat of his works hidden deep beneath the words – The Buried Giant is no exception, although one might argue that in such an openly allegorical tale this fact is concealed less so than in some of his other works – and in this way The Buried Giant is almost a critical analysis of Ishiguro’s own attitude towards writing characters.

If the novel is about a way of living – about how relationships are formed and sustained, the trials that one must face in life and how they can be met with love, and the knowledge that not all is as it seems – then it is equally as much about death. The son that Axl and Beatrice seek has passed over to an island beyond their reach – they must persuade a boatman to carry them across the water to this isle – and the Mediaeval tradition, used by modern authors like Tolkien and Pullman, informs the reader that such a journey represents more than a simple crossing of water but a trip to the afterlife, a passing from this life to the next. In Ishiguro’s world, the boatmen who carry people from one isle to the next determine whether a couple are carried together or separately. It is a rare privilege for both to make the trip together, and Axl’s repeated anxiety about this journey throughout the novel is representative of the very human response to potential loss; the wrenching of a long loved one from one’s arms. As the novel progresses and the mist that engulfs the reader and the characters begins to lift (note, another subtle metaphor for the reading experience), the sense of existential dread that hangs about the novel begins to solidify into a very real, precise fear. In this way, Ishiguro creates an incredibly poignant journey that mirrors the experience of ageing with a partner and the creeping move towards the ultimate separation.

Ishiguro is always readable but although plain in its language, The Buried Giant describes a world that is full of classic mediaeval tropes – monsters that must be vanquished, knights and civil wars – as well as drawing on the traditions of various other mythologies to form a narrative space that is uncanny and somehow both filled with interest and almost devoid of character. Everything is muddled, from literary reference-points to the geography; all this contributes to the undeniable sense of confusion and dream-like suspension of reality. For Ishiguro, these half-formed allusions represent memories falling to the failing mind, and say something about the value of remembering and the threat of not, a fact that any historian will keenly confirm.

The dialogue of the novel is oddly formal, characteristic of language when it is not coloured by memory, but left as a functional tool of communication. This style introduces questions about the art of language and what elevates it beyond its rudimentary use as a means of communicating ideas. So too, the knock on effect this has on the formation and nurturing of ideas themselves: if language is functional, impoverished even, then thought must lose something. Like the people who inhabit Ishiguro’s world, when memory fades and words fail, nothing quite fits together. It is an interesting technique and one that fits with the wider ideas in the novel, but for the reader, the dialogue-heavy passages can leave one feeling a little dry.

Beyond the most obvious examples, there are metaphors all over the place in the text if one looks hard enough – try, for example, to read Querig the fiery she-dragon who terrorises a people as a stand-in for Margaret Thatcher and the novel becomes an intriguing political allegory. Or consider the suspicious monks who, it is suggested, keep Querig alive – and The Buried Giant becomes an attack on theologies that attempt to remove free will and keep people spellbound and stupid, burying logic rather than facing the existential reality that would see them dispel all theology. Indeed, the scope and range of valid readings is enormous and, at times, one wonders if Ishiguro quite manages to pull off the huge number of, often conflicting, things he attempts in The Buried Giant. On the whole, one would have to say that he does, and where he doesn’t the sheer ambition more than makes up for any slight issues.

As the final pages close in, much of the mist has cleared for the reader, but things are by no means clear. The strange ending leaves one in undiscovered territory, unsure how things stand within the novel and forced to delve into the questions raised in the previous three hundred pages. It is an oddly appropriate end to an unusual and thought-provoking read, which is reminiscent of The Unconsoled in its dream-like quality. The reverberations of what Ishiguro has attempted here will run on long after the final pages for the reader, and, as a more accessible piece than The Unconsoled, might find wider acclaim. Expect to see The Buried Giant on the shortlist for many a fiction prize over the coming year (those, at least, that can see past its nominal categorisation as a Fantasy novel – a genre that doesn’t seem to find favour too often).

There's been quite a lot of negative press about this (and plenty of good too) and while I understand some of the points I really can't see this as the failure that some reviewers are labelling it. It is comfortably the best book I have read this year so far and found it profoundly moving.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Buried Giant on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Buried Giant on Amazon (US)

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Review: Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
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Quotes #002: Famous First Lines

Great stories stay with us a long time after we read the last page, and close the book. But how many of these famous first lines can you identify? There’s no connection between the books, but all are considered classics in their own right. Post your guesses in the comments below, and let me know how you got on.
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure.

I am an invisible man.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.

All children, except one, grow up.

Review: The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer

The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer book cover
The Restoration of Otto Laird (2014) by Nigel Packer introduces the reader to Otto Laird: an ageing architect who has long retired from the hustle of the London scene to a quiet villa in Switzerland where he lives with his second wife Anika. However, when he hears that a high-rise building he designed in the 1960s – London’s Marlowe House, a brutalist masterpiece – is to be demolished and its residents evicted, he is spurred to action. Invited by a television company to stay for a weekend in the building as part of the campaign to save it, Otto – in poor health but with his old fire quickly rekindling – sets off for London for the first time in twenty-five years. It is a poignant journey and as he rediscovers the London landscape he once knew well, so too Otto retraces memories past: of how a Viennese Jew who spent much of his childhood hiding in a Belgian basement from the Nazis grew to be a young man of imposing stature who established himself as an architectural prodigy in London, met and married his first wife, Cynthia – a fellow architect of some genius – had a son, fought the socialist fight, became estranged from his son, lost faith in the socialist movement, retreated into a bourgeois life, and found himself happily married to a younger woman and hiding away in the Swiss Alps. It turns out that Otto has had quite a life but as his memories spread out, they paint the picture of a life full not only of great triumphs but pathos too. As Marlowe House’s chances of survival fade, what chance that Otto’s dwindling life can, at least, be saved?

The central metaphor – of a phallic building that represents hope, social justice, and more, about to be toppled, mirroring the decline of its architect, and his personal loss of virility – is a good starting point for a novel, as is the general premise of a spatial trip triggering a psycho-temporal journey in the narrator. Packer’s idea, too, of using Otto’s long life to encompass some of the big events and ideas of the twentieth century is reasonable, if a little reminiscent of Forrest Gump-style excess (I will hold my hands up here and admit that this particular style rarely works for me). However, from these promising seeds fails to grow any substantial exploration of memory and aging, of the cyclical nature of ideas and the spaces in which we live, or even of the gap between intellectual concept and practical reality in the case of Marlowe House (although there is some good if limited stuff on the attempts by the production company who have facilitated Otto’s return to package his cause for a television audience and also on the reality of living in a building like Marlowe House and being pulled about by the ‘powers that be’). Where this could have been a poignant reflection on frailty and family, however, it is instead a more tepid amble through a collection of, often, badly conceived vignettes.

The plot, while on the surface intriguing, is relayed in a rather heavy-handed way, with far too much told and not enough shown. Sometimes this weakness for direct telling is delivered through Otto’s own voice, but more often it is via the crude interjections of the selectively omniscient narrator. The memories that Otto relays are somewhat better in this respect, examining as they do different periods of his life and showing the construction of the man who narrates the story. However, Packer opens up so many plot strands – in an attempt, one suspects, to encompass as many themes and points in twentieth Century history as possible – that many feel superfluous or poorly constructed. To give an example of the former, Otto’s youth spent hiding from the Nazis in a cellar seems, really, to have nothing to do with anything else in the plot – it is diverting enough, but essentially unnecessary. To look to the latter, the relationship with Otto’s son, Daniel, is constructed via a few short memories and the whole trajectory of this plot strand is (i) rather weakly mapped out, and (ii) entirely predictable.

On top of this, the dialogue is, sadly, completely wooden and painfully clunky: the characters lack distinct voices and too often speech is used purely for conveying plot points without any real feeling for the rhythm of a conversation or the feeling beneath the words. Otto is a reasonably drawn character but not quite as engaging as he is sold to be; enough, however, that the reader grows close to him. This allows for moments of genuine melancholy in the novel, predominantly in the sections towards its end as Otto nurses his wife through the final days of her life, and these are well done. One can’t help but wonder how much stronger the book could have been if the plot had been more concentrated on Otto’s two marriages and the interweaving of his decline with that of Marlowe House. Nevertheless, what exists of this plot strand is good and worth reading.

It is worth remembering with these gripes that this is only Packer’s first novel and that these are all issues which can be ironed out. In interviews he has said the he drew on his personal interest in some of London’s brutalist buildings as well as the architecture of Erno Goldfinger to form the basis of the book and this shows in the passages that revolve around architecture. Although this isn’t enough to hold the story together, these passages do point to a good observational eye and offer hope for Packer’s future projects.

Here, the central idea of The Restoration of Otto Laird is really good and the blurb does a great job of selling the novel’s strong points, however, the execution of the ideas leaves a fair bit to be desired. Sadly, the blurb rather oversells the book and one might easily be left wondering where the “funny, moving, and heart-warming” novel is, and exactly how Otto could be seen as one of the “most endearing protagonists you will ever meet”. None of this, of course, is the novel’s fault, but it does create false expectations that the novel will always fail to deliver. Instead, what one actually gets is a gentle but melancholic meandering through an old man’s fading memories. This, clearly, is not quite dynamic or precise enough to work as a sales pitch, but perhaps that points to the more deeply rooted problem with Otto Laird and his rather muddled restoration.

I was disappointed by this: the pitch was really good, but the book just didn't really deliver. It was too messy, ponderous, and poorly executed. This sounds like I disliked more than I probably did, but being luke warm, as I was, is a pretty big indictment of a book.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Restoration of Otto Laird on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Restoration of Otto Laird on Amazon (US)

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Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
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Reading Plan: April 2015

The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer book cover
My good reviewing form stalled a little this month, I know. Not sure what happened there – March rather ran away with itself. Time to write another of these monthly plans, however, and I shall hope to have a little more time for reading and reviewing what with the Easter break. If nothing else, I shall be running on copious amounts of chocolate and that’s always good for productivity!

My main read for this month is going to be The Restoration of Otto Laird, which I mentioned in last month’s reading plan. It is the story of an ageing architect travelling back to Britain from his Swiss villa to try and save a building he designed some forty-odd years previously. I’ve read a little of this already and it has been pretty good so far: it’s a good idea and a neat way of having a character retrace old steps and memories.

Other than this, I’m looking back myself. Firstly stopping off with Jean Brodie when she was in her prime, and then further back still. It is a funny thing, but I am sure I have read Muriel Sparks’s short novel before – reading it now is a mix of de ja vu and half-remembered scenes – and yet I really don't think I have actually read the book before. Do you get book de ja vu – have I reached that point where I can no longer remember things I’ve read? When I used to work in a public library, readers would frequently return books and claim they didn’t bother to read them as they realised, after a few pages, that they had already read the book. Pulp fiction, I thought, disappointingly formulaic to the point of being entirely unmemorable. How wrong I was, probably.

My book club are reading Far From the Madding Crowd over Easter and, Hardy being one of my favourite authors, I’m looking forward to this one. I’m also planning to read Mansfield Park as I attempt to get through those Jane Austen’s novels still on my TBR pile and catch up to the majority of the rest of the reading world!

That’s enough to keep me busy this April – what will you be reading this month?

Notable Posts from March
Review: The Library Book by The Reading Agency
Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews book cover
All My Puny Sorrows (2014) by Miriam Toews is a heart-breakingly personal stories of two sisters caught in an impossible struggle: as the narrator puts it, “[s]he wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” Elfrieda von Riesen (Elf) is a world-renowned concert pianist, attractive and with a loving partner. She also wants to die. Yolandi (Yoli) is her younger sister, writer of pulp fiction, and partnerless mother to two; she has but one crucial quality her older sister doesn’t, the Darwinian survival instinct. Opening after Elf’s latest suicide attempt, in which she has drunk a bottle of bleach and slashed open her wrists, the story examines what it means for a family, and more particularly a sibling, to live with a loved one whose heart is not just set on oblivion, but whose spirit is already there. Yoli’s narrative traces the sisters’ early life in Canada, raised by Mennonite parents, through the suicide of their father, and into their chaotic adult lives – All My Puny Sorrows is more than a story of suffering and grief, but of life in all its messy shades.

If the subject matter sounds heavy, it is made all the more weighty by the knowledge that Toews was able to draw strongly on her own experiences for the book: her father committed suicide by kneeling before a train in 1998 – an experience that Toews wrote about in Swing Low: A Life – and, ten years later, her sister repeated the act. But Toews writes with humour and clarity, and elevates the novel above the base sadness of its theme. Like Toews, the von Riesens grow up in a stifling Mennonite village – a familiar autobiographical theme of Toews’s writing. In such an oppressive atmosphere, Elf’s wild spirit is constantly clipped by the conservative, patriarchal society she finds herself growing up in. Even her piano playing is seen as an improper pastime and, for Elf, becomes an act of rebellion. It is hardly surprising then, to find that she turns this talent into a career – the ultimate act of rebellion, escape gleaned through her individuality – but equally that she spends the rest of her life trying to reclaim her body through starvation, pills, and violence.

After the constricting atmosphere of her small town Mennonite upbringing, come the demands of her fans, and the dehumanising psychiatric profession, which sets up new protocols and demands that Elf must adhere to if she is to receive their compassion and care. As Elf lies helpless – voiceless, her throat scarred so badly from the bleach she has swallowed that she cannot speak – doctors quibble over how she communicates with them, and nurses expend more energy trying to enforce arbitrary rules than they do trying to find compassion and healing for their patient. It is a pretty damning picture of indifference from those that, often, stand between some of the sickest in society and death.

Toews’s prose is littered with tight sentences – overwhelming emotions kept, for the most part, in check – which express powerful, thought provoking ideas in simple forms. Much of the prose is laced with a gallows humour too and while the weight of the situation is often thrown off by the characters in throwaway comments, the overall pathos never gives way to optimism; at best, it can be said All My Puny Sorrows is a book about survival, and the pain and promise that brings. The quietness of Toews’s writing, the non-dramatic style of death and dying, is very well done, and far closer to life than any melodramatic depiction of mental illness that glamorises suicide and pain.

In large sections, the dialogue is not punctuated, the story a free flow of experience through Yoli’s eyes. As a narrator, Yoli is so focused on her personal faults, that it is very easy for the reader to miss all of her strengths; to spend your life pulled across the country, or even the world, flying to the bedside of a loved one after their latest attempt to leave you permanently is no small act. To do so without bitterness, while your own life and those of your children are disrupted, and with generous love is something quite special – a quiet form of heroism that many locked into similar situations will empathise with.

For the most part, All My Puny Sorrows exists without a plot and in a particular snatch of time for the von Riesens; it’s an examination of the end of a life, and in that sense the only real movement in the plot is the inevitable rolling towards the final conclusion. As death lurks about her sister, waiting its call to arms, life for Yoli can be quite repetitive – constant drives to and from the hospital to visit Elf hardly constitute high-octane adventure – and inevitably this affects the reader a little, the monotony of caring for and about someone who is on the brink infecting the prose, as it should, and causing the plot, which is slim anyway, to falter at various stages.

Authors are, unsurprisingly, prone to dropping in characters who quote poets, and possess all the qualities a lit-chic bohemian should. At times this wears a little thin, and here Elf’s character could have stood a little more development and a little less intellectual peacocking (and why, as a pianist, so much emphasis on poets and books – again, a slightly too familiar penchant of the literary author?). This does allow, however, for some good stuff on the inability of art to save a life, even if it manages to ornament it and sustain it in the short term; art is, against the harsh reality of the world, a palliative that holds in it everything that is life. From the title – a reference to a Coleridge poem that laments the loss of a sister – onwards, literature is heavily interwoven with the story, William Wordsworth to A. A. Milne, Italo Calvino to Raymond Chandler – and this is an unashamedly literary work. At times the references feel a little forced, but at others they work well to express the culture in which Elf and Yoli have immersed themselves; their escape from the reality of small-town Canada.

With all the literary allusions and focus on life through Yoli’s eyes, the connection that Toews builds between Elf and the reader is only just strong enough to make the story take; although all is seen through Yoli’s eyes, the reader still needs to feel that connection that tethers Yoli to Elf, and the reader to the story. Toews pulls this off, but only just.

All My Puny Sorrows is a delicate and sensitive novel on death and living; a personal, human story laced with bittersweet humour and moments of poignancy. It’s a knowing, engaged book that faces the decision to opt out of life that many people take, with an unflinching but never flabbily emotive style. More than this, it is a novel about sisterhood – a unique relationship – and everything that entails; the love, the fighting and competitiveness, and ultimately the conspiratorial notion that only siblings can conjure of themselves against their parents, against the world. To lose your only sister is to be a solo-conspirator; a place of irreparable loneliness. It’s a truth that both Yoli and Toews share.

This is a painful but still enjoyable read, which is quite an achievement - it's hardly surpising that it's doing well at the awards this year. It does falter occassionally, but that is more than forgivable.

Useful Links
Reviews of All My Puny Sorrows on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of All My Puny Sorrows on Amazon (US)

Review: The Library Book by The Reading Agency

The Library Book by The Reading Agency book cover
The Library Book (2012) is a collection of twenty-odd essays and a few of short stories, which celebrate the unique pleasures and value of libraries. Published by the Reading Agency as part of their on-going campaign to protect public libraries from cuts and nurture the love of reading, this is a book that exists solely – as the title might suggest – to praise libraries. With contributors ranging from Alan Bennett to Nicky Wire (of the Manic Street Preachers), Seth Godin to Stephen Fry, it offers a range of reminiscences and polemics from some of the country’s top library-fanciers, all contained within one slim volume. A diverting read, The Library Book helps reaffirm Britain’s – or at least some of its eminent residents’ – love affair with the library.

Although from a variety of sources, a good many of the essays pertain to the contributors’ personal experiences (normally during their formative years) of libraries; mythologising the humble library and turning it into a sanctuary, an inspiration, and a pillar of community. Alan Bennett’s piece leads the way for these dew(e)y-eyed remembrances of bookshelves past and, although many of these accounts homogenise after a while, there is something reassuring and comfortable about the shared experience of the many – an experience that most readers of this book will likely share. Beyond the cosier pieces, Zadie Smith’s essay is probably the most political and thus the most angry – a refreshing mini-tirade that represents the feelings of those who love libraries and feel the aching sadness as they are dismantled as an institution.

Not all the pieces are intent on hanging onto libraries in their current form, however; Seth Godin’s imagining of libraries as modern information hubs and networking spaces sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the woolly sentimentalisms. For him, the librarian ought to be closer to their modern incarnation as an information professional who is "a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user." The disjuncture that Godin’s article creates within the book as a whole only goes to highlight how homogenous the other pieces become: it may set the library out as a quite unfamiliar and even disagreeable place to be, but it is still a valuable change of perspective, the like of which is in short supply in The Library Book.

The short snatches of fiction, from China Mieville (an extract from Un Lun Dun), Julian Barnes (an offshoot of his novel England, England), and Kate Mosse (a short story called “The Revenant”) provide a pleasant break from the essays, giving The Library Book an easy flow. Some of these short pieces work a better than others, with some, being extracts from longer works, sitting a little uncomfortably as standalone pieces.

The Library Book will, it seems more than likely, be read predominantly by those who already support the cause of libraries and swoon at the notion of free books on tap, for everyone, forever. This isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion, instead it is a cosy act of sentimentalism and an ode to an institution that already bears little semblance to the sepia-toned memories contained between the pages of The Library Book.

Libraries are one of the few refuges away from the swirl of hyperactivity that represents modern life – spaces of tranquillity that still value Slow over Quick – repositories of knowledge and spaces of community, with genuinely egalitarian principles. To let such institutions die or be shamefully mutated into pseudo-coffee shops or PC suites before our eyes would be to oversee the failure of an irreplaceable service; The Library Book is a gentle reminder of all that is being lost at this very moment.

It's pretty much impossible for me not to like books like this - they're full of people giving voice to experiences I can completely empathise with - but there could perhaps have been a bit more variety in the pieces offered up here.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Library Book on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Library Book on Amazon (US)

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Reading Plan: March 2015

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews book cover
Spring is coming and the cosy nights in front of the (electric) fire are receding. Boo. Still, it’s almost warm enough to read outside and that I really like. But what to read? Well, I have been a bit more organised in my reading so far this year and reviews are actually happening. On my review site. Imagine that.

I’m mid-way through a few different books at the moment (ok, that’s the normal state of affairs but I think I am actually going to finish most of the current concerns) so there’s a few potential reviews in the pipeline. The main one I’d like to get out this month is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, which is on the shortlist for the Folio Prize this year. It’s all about two sisters, one of whom is committed to dying and one who is committed to stopping her achieving this end. Cheerful, I know. But quite good (in a meandering sort of way) so far so I’m hopeful that it’ll turn into a really good read.

In another bid to shamelessly follow the crowd, I’m also reading one of Waterstones’ (how do you deal with the apostrophe now they’ve dropped it!?) book club books, The Restoration of Otto Laird. I was totally swayed by the blurb on this one – it’s about an aging architect and his fight to save one of the buildings he designed from demolition. A promising premise that could well yield a lot of good stuff about memory, legacy, etc. It’s going ok so far – easy enough to read, pretty clunky dialogue, but I’m optimistic here too.

My book club are reading Alice Munro at the moment, so I might well delve into one of her short story collections, but we shall see. Other than that, I’m thinking it might be time to pick up another Jane Austen. I keep thinking it would be good to polish off her novels – but which should I go for next: Emma, Mansfield Park, Persuasion? Someone help me out!

Have a beautiful March everyone.

Notable Posts from February
Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Review: Generation A by Douglas Coupland
Review: The Third Man by Graham Greene

Review: The Third Man by Graham Greene

The Third Man by Graham Greene book cover
The Third Man (1950) by Graham Greene is a short novella, produced originally as a preparatory document during the writing of the screenplay for Carol Reed’s iconic film. Here the story is narrated by Colonel Calloway, a law enforcer mixed up in the story. Englishman Rollo Martins, a writer of cheap Westerns, arrives in post-war Vienna – a city still bearing the scars of war and split into four sectors: British, American, French, and Russian – to meet his friend Harry Lime, a charismatic but mischievous man. However, on arrival Martins learns that his friend has perished in a traffic accident and aspersions are cast, by Calloway, on Lime’s character. Unsettled and suspicious, Martins attends the funeral and, setting out to investigate Lime’s death, learns from a witness that three men were seen carrying Lime’s body from the accident that killed him. Two of these men have been identified, but the third has vanished. Martins’s pursuit of the man sends him on a thrilling chase through crumbling Vienna where he tangles with many people who have stories to tell of Harry Lime, not least his girl, Anna Schmidt, who Martins takes quite a shine to. Will this distract him from his task and is he prepared, anyhow, for the secrets he might uncover about his friend?

As becomes clear very quickly, The Third Man is not simply a thriller but there is an added depth to the story. Indeed, it is concerned not only with Cold War politics and the remnants of war – perhaps the most clear themes – but with a turn from modernism and idealism towards something less ordered and more conflicted. There is a recurring use of Westerns – the genre of fiction that Martins writes – to satirise the idea of heroes, hero worship, and the individualist loner fighting the system. Here, with strong women and weak heroes, old myths and ideals are easily shed. Post-war Vienna is not a place for sentimentality and yet Martins views everything through his own lens as a writer of Westerns, narrativising his story so that Vienna becomes a surrogate for the Wild West (an updated take on east versus west), police men standing in for sheriffs and Martins himself the loner seeking justice for a fallen friend. In this way, Martins’s need to understand his situation within the framework of narrative becomes satire on the pervading human need to draw on well-established archetypes and understand / interpret the world in relation to them. As the post-war world was still grappling with Big Ideologies, this was certainly prescient, and without taking sides Greene undercuts the idea of both Western and Communist ideology. Like many of the characters who blindly support Harry, it becomes clear that mindless loyalty to a Big Idea, as to a person, is futile.

It’s virtually impossible to read The Third Man without feeling the presence of Carol Reed’s film; with each turn of the page there is, in the words, a fresh reminder of beautifully captured scenes from the iconic film. Greene himself said that The Third Man was “never written to be read but only to be seen” and the reader’s imagination is hardly strained as it conjures up shadowy Viennese alleys, perhaps even hearing Anton Karas’s faint plucking of zither strings echoing somewhere in the recesses of memory. For all that the story was turned into a famous film, however, it stands in its own right as a fine noir novella. It is, undoubtedly, a skeletal story, but Greene’s literary instincts and ability to tell a spare, engaging story bring the hundred or so pages to life and make The Third Man, although not as satisfying as the film, a sharp thriller.

The Third Man represents a growing trend in fiction - at the time of its publication – towards realism following the modernism that held sway between the World Wars, and mixes this greater realism with a cinematic and stylised vision of the world that approaches the post-war move towards existentialism in many art forms. Harry Lime encapsulates this move towards a more hopeless cynicism when he says to Martins, "We aren't heroes, Rollo, you and I. The world doesn't make heroes outside your books."

The images of Vienna as a wasteland recall T. S. Eliot’s poem, and there is a similar sense of impending but ominous revelation in The Third Man as in “The Wasteland”. Here, though, Greene undercuts the Modernist idea of the writer as a regenerative force; the discoveries that Martins makes proving to be a resurrection only in the hollowest sense. Indeed, Martins is no artist of high ideals – he is no saviour – and one of the most amusing scenes in the book sees him arrive at a literary talk only to discover he has been mistaken for another writer – one of significantly higher literary reputation. In this scene, Martins’s refusal to bow to the pompous snobbery of the talk’s organiser and audience, too, signals a refusal to elevate authors to any great height, a turn away from the Modernist ideas around salvation and order through language (itself pointing back to Shelley’s notion of poets as legislators of the world).

Martins’s inner narrative fails to establish any great literary order to his story – he and Harry are not heroes, Vienna is not the Western badlands – and equally his investigations fail to empower him in a more real sense. Ultimately, there are forces greater than either he or Harry that dictate the story that is their lives: there are no individualist heroes here. Instead, the new world – of large indifferent ideologies looks at people as no more than ant-like dots, a price attached to each one:

“Victims?” he asked. “Don’t be melodramatic, Rollo. Look down there,” he went on, pointing through the window at the people moving like black flies at the base of the Wheel. “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving – for ever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money – without hesitation? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”

It’s probable that most readers will come to the novella via the film and, in truth, the film is the more complete vision of Greene’s story. However, that’s not to say there isn’t plenty to enjoy in the book: the end is perhaps a little too neat and conventionally moral – a fact improved upon in the film – but the thrill is certainly in the chase here, and as the conclusion rolls into sight the reader has already had their fill of old Vienna. The Third Man is an intelligent, taut thriller and an interesting accompaniment to the film.

At just about a hundred pages, this is a sharp, short thriller. Enjoyable and interesting to read in relation to the film.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Third Man on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Third Man on Amazon (US)

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Review: Generation A by Douglas Coupland

Generation A by Douglas Coupland book cover
Generation A (2009) by Douglas Coupland is a dystopian novel set in the near future – around 2020 – where bees are extinct. Honey is traded for remarkably high prices, fruit has become a luxury, and heroin addicts, like bees, are an extinct breed (“poppies require bees”). Instead, a narcotic called Solon – a drug that "mimics the solitude one feels when reading a good book" and helps its users to live in the present only – has become a staple intoxicant, helping to sedate large swathes of the population through their meaningless existence. When five, seemingly unconnected people from different parts of the world are unexpectedly stung they instantly become celebrities: Zack, a farmer from Iowa; Sam(antha), a fitness addict from New Zealand; Julian, a computer geek and amateur philosopher from France; Diana a dental hygienist and tourette’s sufferer from Canada; and Harj, a call centre worker from Sri Lanka. Remarkably, all five are stung within days of one another and then picked up by Government agents who hurry them off to observation laboratories. Each spends the next month of their life living in isolation without any contact with the world. When they are eventually released, their experiences cause them to seek out their fellow stingees. They find few answers, however, and their freedom is short-lived: before long they are once again rounded up by Government scientists and removed, en masse, to a remote Canadian archipelago. Here they are instructed to tell one another stories and, as they take part in this peculiar form of group therapy, strange answers to their questions begin to emerge.

The Decameron style metafiction – also reminiscent of Palahniuk’s Haunted – that fills the second half of the novel is a none-too-subtle nod to Coupland’s main purpose in Generation A: to explore the place of the story in an increasingly disinterested world. Harj, the most seeing of the characters, voices the problem for the modern storyteller: "In the old days, it was much easier, but our modern fame-driven culture, with its real-time 24-7 marinade of electronic information, demands a lot from modern citizens, and poses great obstacles to narrative." In essence, this is Generation A’s message: that so much of the technology by which people are now surrounded inhibits the simple human ability to appreciate the tapestry of narratives that make up the world’s collective story. In a post-modern sense, Coupland is writing about the angst of being a modern author, but in a wider sense he is writing simply about the way we now live.

Generation X remains Coupland’s best known novel and the title Generation A clearly points back to this landmark book. In his now famous commencement address at Syracuse University in 1994, Kurt Vonnegut said this to his young audience: "Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all tremendous favours when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago". Coupland is doubtless referencing this speech as much as his own text in the title here, but the characters that inhabit Generation A have the same sense of being part of humanity’s final step into oblivion that Generation X suggests. If Vonnegut was suggesting the opposite – that while each generation might judge itself to be the last before the apocalyptic end of civilisation, they are simply part of a long, on-going line of humanity and are placed no differently to any generation that may have preceded them – then Coupland doesn’t seem to be buying it.

As with much of Coupland’s fiction there are some really good ideas, from the small details to the overarching set-up, but most of these are squandered and somehow the plot doesn’t quite come together. There are points, too, at which the plot feels particularly contrived and characters are carried along without serious explanation for their behaviour: why, for example do six fully cognizant young people allow themselves to be carried off to a remote island and then go through the (seemingly) pointless exercise of telling one another stories? Are they all so vapid that it never occurs to them to resist such inexplicable and tedious use of their time?

There are a few issues with the characters more generally: they’re all young and relatively attractive, characterisation is fairly thin and occasionally falls into stereotype, and, more damningly, the majority aren’t that interesting. The best of the bunch is probably Harj – his insights into Western culture as an outsider are, at least, a refreshing break from the dull drone of the other characters. And it is a drone, with one character’s voice blending into the next, save for some ‘character traits’. Of these, Diana’s Tourette’s is particularly poorly realised as it seems to be used more as a foul-mouthed truth serum than anything else (although the most publicised effect, spontaneous shouting of curse words is a minority symptom of Tourette’s and doesn’t particularly act as a verbalisation of the speaker’s inner thoughts but more like an unconscious tic).

Of the good ideas referred to above, one of the most pleasing is the idea of Solon: a drug that stops people worrying about the future and allows them to live only in the moment. A particularly Kantian idea of time, but one that doesn’t actually seem to have any impact on the characters in the book or societies in which they exist. If Solon is a satirical device meant to examine the state of an entire generation medicated into near oblivious sedation then one might expect some stronger demonstration of the impact of Solon.

Generation A is in no small part a thriller: a rolling story that relies on the mystery of the situation to keep the reader interested. Unfortunately, the novel’s conclusion, rather than being revelatory, is unsatisfying: it opens up a lot of questions and feels like the easy way out of the story. More importantly the second half of the novel – in which the character’s own stories take over – is where, ironically, Coupland’s story loses momentum.

In The Information, Martin Amis writes about pretentious pseudo-author Gwyn Barry and his bestselling novel ‘Amelior’, in which six young people wind up on a deserted island and have to build a fresh society in a new age pseudo-psychological thriller. It’s satire, but Generation A comes worryingly close to making ‘Amelior’ a reality, and it is only Coupland’s good ideas that save the novel from falling into this trap. Of these good ideas, neat touches and details, few are developed and serve only to leave one’s whetted appetite frustrated. Many of the techniques – throw away ideas that build the world, of snatches of plot – might have been better suited to the short story form, where less depth is expected. Here, though, the result is a rather superficial novel, which never gets beneath many of the good ideas within it.

The novel doesn't really come together but there are lots of good ideas embedded in the story that make it an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Useful Links
Reviews of Generation A on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Generation A on Amazon (US)

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