Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Inverted World - Christopher Priest

On re-reading this I remembered why I did not keep what Christopher Priest books I had. This is because, in common with his other work, he has taken a single interesting idea and woven around it what is the dullest book I have read in a very long time.

The central conceit is of an energy crisis that brings modern civilization to ruin. One man’s answer is the discovery of a means of producing energy that involves putting a very large research facility on caterpillar tracks to follow an energy field as it migrates around the earth. All well and highly implausible - it is, after all, science fiction. The problem with this solution is that the energy field alters human perception of the world.

Two hundred years later, the research facility is still crawling along and we see its final days through the eyes of one of its inhabitants. And here it all falls apart. The notion of an inverted world is fine. It would make a good short story or even stretch to a novella. But a novel requires a great deal more than the working out of a single idea. For one thing it needs good characters. And this book singularly fails to deliver.

It fails on other points as well. There is no tension. The collapse of a small, fanatical society; conflict between those on the moving ‘city’ and the lands it passes through; interpersonal relationships are all painted in two dimensions with a prose that plods along at the same speed as the city itself. Which is slow. And we are told everything, jumping from first person to third person for no apparent reason.

This recent edition has an introduction by Adam Roberts (I had to look him up) which itself reads like a pastiche of a dull literary essay. It earnestly explains how clever the book is and all the uses of inversion to be found therein. Frankly, it felt like it was trying too hard to convince. Who, I am not sure. Not me, for one.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Report On Probability A - Brian Aldiss

It is clear that Aldiss’s self-proclaimed ‘anti-novel’ owes a great deal to a number of influences. Perhaps the most obvious and openly acknowledged is that of Samuel Beckett. Aldiss has a character named Watt, and the novel has a strong affinity with Beckett’s early work. We can also see something of Pinter in there, along with Robbe-Grillet. Yet Aldiss manages to stay out of the glare of such luminaries and create a shining work of his very own.

A house in a town is under close observation. In each of the three outbuildings is a character known only by an initial: G, S, and C; although these probably represent Gardener, Secretary, and Chauffeur as these seem to have been the capacity in which each of these characters was once employed. They each observe the house whilst trying to remain concealed. This gives each of them a limited viewpoint.

There are occasional forays across the road to the café opposite the house. This is owned by Watt. And that is all. Events are minimal. The observations and situation of each of the observers is given in minute and obsessive detail. In the process we learn other details and, in particular, our attention is constantly drawn to Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Hireling Shepherd’ - also described in minute (although sometimes invented) detail.

Clearly this is a book about perception and how we can never see the whole of things; a book about obsession; a book about interpretation. This alone makes it a metafiction as there is a tendency when reading to try to interpret and make what you can of the limited information on offer. Yet the reference to Watt may also point to Beckett’s dictum ‘no symbols where none intended’.

The overall tone of the book is of a dream. The descriptions of the town and the bizarre snippets we are afforded as characters cross the road (a bloody bicycle carried on a stretcher, for example) give everything an air of unreality, drifting between one’s own psyche and that of the worlds created by the likes of Beckett, O’Brien, Robbe-Grillet - intense, enclosed, mundane, yet mysterious.

For me, this is an important work of literature. So why is it ignored by the mainstream? Why do we not see this book included in discussions of absurdist or surrealist literature? Why is it not cited in discussions of the anti-novel? Well, my edition tells me helpfully on the cover that it is a work of science fiction. And to be sure there are some short interpolated passages in which people from different dimensions observe what is happening in the main part of the novel. But they add nothing to the story and I (along with others I have discussed this with) suspect they were put in to make sure the novel made it into print. If you do get hold of a copy, ignore the bits in italics. Read it as a piece of highly-accomplished and extremely intelligent piece of literature.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Collected Stories - Katherine Mansfield

Although I have read some of Katherine Mansfield’s stories before, I have never had them collected in a single volume. And what a volume. All her collections (including those published posthumously) and all the unfinished stories. In a single volume. For £2.00. For this, Wordsworth Editions should be applauded (and there are plenty of other reasons for applause where they are concerned).

Mansfield’s work is highly influential. Rightly considered a major proponent of the modern short story, she excelled in a form that is much used but rarely perfected. Her language is luminous, and like light it opens up whole areas often otherwise in shadow, and does so without weight. We are offered glimpses of things we might not otherwise see, of emotions and relationships that would otherwise stay hidden, yet we are never left with the sense of that the author is trying to make a point.

Not all of her stories work. Some feel incomplete and others rely on attitudes that have been irrevocably changed by events. Some are a bit too well crafted and there is an immediacy in the unfinished works that has been smoothed from some of the finished works. However, even the least of her stories are so superbly crafted they are worth reading for the simple pleasure of experiencing language that dances.

The other thing that Mansfield’s work demonstrates is that short stories are an art form in their own right. To find the balance between brevity and depth; to leave the reader feeling that have been treated to something complete that could have been presented in no other way is a great deal more exacting than many believe. And anyone who is serious about writing short stories really should read Katherine Mansfield. It would be £2.00 well spent.

Hotel De Dream - Emma Tennant

In a seedy, decaying boarding house in London, the lodgers dream. Not exactly the best pitch you may have heard for a novel. But the Westringham and its locale are the sort of places one would wish to escape. And for many, dreams are their only refuge. Private worlds where they are in control. Sadly, for these lodgers, even that is denied them. Because the dreams begin to merge and they each other wandering in and out of their sanctuaries, disrupting events and fraying the edges of reality.

Emma Tennant handles all this with wit and a deliciously dark humour. Like an 80% chocolate, it is creamy, strong, with that bitter edge, but ultimately so satisfying you just have to have more. And it is a chocolate with an extra ingredient, because into the mix is thrown an author having problems with her characters who are plotting to kill her. And here, too, the demarcation between reality and fiction shows signs of breaking down. Because the below stairs staff (a vile, Beckettian character called Cridge) seems to be both real and a character from a book. Which of course he is.

It will be clear from previous observations that I enjoy surreal work that refuses to stay firmly on the page. Stories that leak into the real world, whether they are surreal like this or alternative histories, offer a great platform for exceptional stories as well as introducing questions about the nature of reality, about what makes us human. Entertainment and philosophy in one glorious package. And when produced by someone with a mischievous sense of humour, you end up with a book like this - one that proves that the intellectual can be fun; that entertainment need not be vacuous.