Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Our Man In Havana - Graham Greene

This is one of what the author describes as his entertainments. As such it works admirably. It is a gently comic novel of deception in pre-Castro Cuba, with a mild-mannered vacuum cleaner salesman fooling almost everyone into believing that he runs a group of agents for SIS in London.

Well written, with a lightness of touch to be found with all good writers, the absurd situation unfolds quite naturally. Wormold, the central character, wanders through the mayhem with a charmed innocence (and it is role so admirably suited to Alec Guinness in the film adaptation). Some have criticised the book for not examining the horrors of Batista’s rule, for making light of a terrible situation. But the book is not about Cuba. That was merely an exotic location that Greene knew in which to set a tale about the incompetence of the British Secret Intelligence Service, for which Greene worked for a while.

Yet there is an undertone of seriousness about the book. Elements of the darkness of Batista’s regime do surface – in much the same way they would have bothered the expat community at the time. A discussion on whether a person is of the right class to be worth torturing is quite chilling. The violent deaths that occur in the book are quite casually treated in a way that sits uncomfortably with the notion of a comedy or an entertainment. And the way in which Greene portrays the SIS may be for the most part an affectionate parody, but it does have a harder edge of criticism for a Service that did (and still does) teeter on the verge of rank amateurism.

As with any good writer, Greene does not let these issues (or his wonderful descriptions of the way in which field agents live and work) get in the way of a good story. Well worth a read (or re-read).

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Nova Swing - M John Harrison

M John Harrison is, to my mind, one of the most under-rated authors alive today. His prose is rich and unselfconscious and he produces smooth, complex work. He conjures place, atmosphere, and character like a… I was going to write ‘magician’, but there is no sleight of hand here, and the only smoke and mirrors are those he writes about.

A sequel, of sorts, to the equally brilliant (sorry) Light, Nova Swing reads a bit like Roadside Picnic as written by Dashiell Hammett. It is cool, dark, a fable of the seamy side of life, lived in bars and fight clubs, docksides and beachfront promenades, mostly at night and into the early hours. But it is Harrison’s own book, very much his own. The world he creates is made believable in the detail – so much like our own world, yet so very different.

There will be many who never get to see this book as it will, if it is there at all, be in the science fiction section. Forget that. Ignore it. Harrison writes fiction. Excellent fiction. Some of it just happens to be set in exotic locations that are so beautifully drawn, it is breathtaking.

This is not a novel about spaceships and alien invasions. It is a novel of atmospheres, a tale of people making the best of their lives in unusual circumstances. These people are so finely observed I would not in the least be surprised to find that Harrison had lived on Straint Street for a year, drinking in the Black Cat White Cat, scribbling endlessly in his journals just like Emil, following Vic up and possibly into the zone. I, for one, hope there is enough material for another visit to Saudade.

Making Money - Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett doesn’t produce bad books, just some that are not as good as the others. This isn’t destined to be one of his classics, largely because it is a re-run of Going Postal, and if you’ve told a story, why revisit unless you like the characters? And if you like the characters, why not give them a chance to develop?

Here we find an amiable romp, with a collection of the usual suspects in terms of plot devices, and no sense of danger, no sense that the villains might actually be nasty, with a background cast of cheery city dwellers who belong in a musical rather than a satire. Which is a shame given the subject matter. The banking system has always had a very dark underside and the inept guess work by which international finance is run has the potential (often realised) to destroy the lives of millions of ordinary hard working people.

Indeed, perhaps Mr Pratchett’s fire has died down a bit. Not surprising given the recent news about his health. I do not know how that would affect the quality of his writing but certainly, his third Tiffany Aching novel was a poor parody of his own work. You could see a powerful story there trying to get out. But it was smothered by the incessant and weak attempts at making the Nac Mac Feegle into a comic interlude whilst rewriting a story already written. The same is true of Making Money.

Having said that, I would far rather sit down with a Terry Pratchett novel than most of our lauded literati. Even his not-so-good books outstrip them in so many ways. His subject matter, his style, his magical use of prose and humour, all combine to produce works that are far better studies of the human condition and human society than many an angst ridden piece of high literature. And he has given us a body of work that any five other authors would have been pushed to produce between them. Long may he continue to do so.

Friday, 6 June 2008

The War Of Art - Steven Pressfield

Of the myriad books produced for writers there are few that I would recommend. This is one of the few. And the reason is simple. It addresses a real problem faced by anyone engaged in a creative process and it offers solutions. They may not work for everyone, but they are sufficiently fundamental to make this a book worth reading.

It does not concern itself with elements of style or how to get an agent; it isn’t worried about how you format your work or what software you should be using. It goes to the very core and looks at the inner demon (or whatever you want to call it) that prevent us from working. It offers ways of combating that demon. Although, in the end, the author is realistic enough to point out that in the end it is down to the will power of the individual.

This is a sharp book, tightly written, insightful without waffle and, at times, downright earthy. The author says what he has to with real economy using short chapters that go straight to the heart of things. It does not ramble and it is not dressed up with pseudo-psychological statements. Which does not mean the author is talking piffle. Indeed, this is the common sense that is not so common. It spoke directly to me as a writer, clarified my thoughts, and gave me to think about and plenty to act upon.

If you have tried to embark on any long-term project that derives from what one might call your higher nature and have had trouble getting started (or trouble finishing), read this book. Think about what it says. Then get on with it.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Roderick At Random - John Sladek

These continuing adventures of the robot Roderick have a different tone to the first book. Still sharply satirical, the book relies less on farce and dives into deeper and darker waters for where the first book relies on absurdity to make its point, this one uses reality.

The shift in technique also reflects the nature of the world seen now through the eyes of an adult robot as opposed to the former book in which the world was seen through the eyes of a child. And what a world. It is a mess of madness which Roderick finds more and more difficult to understand. I know how he feels.

As an example there is a strand through the story that is a frightening and uncannily accurate description of the direction publishing has taken in recent years. Central to this is the chilling image of authors working at computers that analyse each sentence in terms of projected sales figures. Yet even this is not enough for the publishing house in question. They find authors an inconvenience and have decided to have books written by computers. Some might think we have that already.

It is sometimes hard to remember this book was published in 1983 as its depiction of early 21st century life is all too real. Big business running the world, life and death decisions transmitted, quite literally, through crossed wires. A news media led more and more by sensation. Ordinary people sidelined and, for the most part, uncaring as long the bread and the circuses keep coming.

It is a world that Roderick can find no place in. He has been treated as a commodity by everyone he has met, yet is the sanest and most compassionate character of them all. These messages are subtly conveyed by Sladek’s tale but they are no less powerful for that. The author is a great writer and I suspect the only reason this is not considered a twentieth century classic of literature is that it was labelled sf.