Saturday, 26 June 2010

Albert Rides Again - Jack Trevor Story

Horace Fenton Spurgeon meets Albert Argyle; Story meets Blake (Sexton); past meets present; reality meets surreality; and the collision spills out into a metafiction of absurd humour that is so far off the wall, the wall can no longer be seen. This is, in fact, classic Story, recapturing (in 1990) something of the lighter hearted mood of his novels of the ‘60s. Yet the darker period through which he had travelled never completely lost its hold on his work. There is a harder edge beneath the romp.

Story ties together the chaotic lives of his two major ‘creations’ through the medium of Claude Marchmont, a tally man stepping into the shoes of the deceased Albert Argyle and inheriting all of Albert’s troubles. But the background story, offering a different perspective on A Company of Bandits (one of Story’s Sexton Blake novels) and mixing in various other criminal concerns, is just a vehicle. The true heart of this novel are the characters who, as in many of Story’s novels, are both caricatures and very real at one and the same time.

With a deft hand we are shown the chaos of human life and the way in which we muddle through against all the odds, how we are driven by some very basic concerns, how we find warmth in the dark from very simple pleasures.

Yet this work does something else. Quite apart from its wonderful character portraits and its cast of strange extras, it is a metafiction that wanders with ease between fiction and reality in a way that would make some ‘serious’ ‘literary’ novelists weep with envy. We move between layers of fiction (Albert Argyle had something of Story in him, but his books were as much a portrait of an age as anything else; Horace Spurgeon Fenton was a lightly fictionalised self portrait; we find mention of work that Story produced for television and film, as well as his novels), we move between past and present, we move inside and outside of the author’s head.

At no time, however, does Story lose sight of the fact he is writing an entertainment. The structure (in form of the story about a train robbery) is there and well constructed; the characters are (in terms of the novel) believable; and the whole thing zips along at a wonderful pace. You barely have time to draw breath; events are often confusing because of the pace although the reader is never cheated. If you treat the novel with respect and allow Story’s style to unfold, you are rewarded with an intelligent, exuberant, and first class piece of writing.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Female Man - Joanna Russ

The Female Man is a truly astonishing novel. It first appeared in 1975 and I have since worn out two copies. This is my first reading of a new copy and it still surprises me, not to mention the awe and jealousy I also always feel. Awe that such a superb work can be written; jealousy that such a superb work can be written and I know I’ll never come anywhere near.

Words like ‘visionary’, ‘powerful’, ‘classic’, ‘significant’ have all been applied to this work. And they are all true. If you have not heard of the book it is probably because it also has two other labels: ‘feminist’ and ‘science fiction’. Yes it is both, because at heart it is about the experience of women and it uses the idea of alternate worlds to make its point. But it transcends those labels in a way that makes them almost irrelevant. Only almost, because Joanna Russ, thankfully, has never shied away from be a writer of sf.

In the novel four alternative versions of the same person are drawn from their four alternative worlds. And that’s about it. There are subplots, but the vehicle itself is more than enough to carry the dark wit that is used to explore what it means to be a woman. The different worlds offer different perspectives, such that we can also conclude that rather than four worlds we are offered a glimpse into four archetypes, jostling for room in a single mind.

We see a world that never climbed out of the 1930s and never shed the psychic straightjacket that most women wore throughout their lives. In another we see a world where men have long since died off (and it is no utopia). A third world is torn apart by a literal war of the sexes. And sadly my dull description does none of it any justice. Because Russ is an impeccable stylist, some who has a real power over words, someone who makes them run as smooth and warm as honey, as dark and rich as chocolate, as sharp and powerful as a storm.

The intricate weaving of the four tales contrasts and compares the experience of the women in their different worlds. The sparse action allows both character and ideas to have a life of their own that is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as any action thriller. The writing is assured, subtle; at times laugh out loud funny, at others the sharpness leaves you bleeding.

It is also a work of metafiction. The author is present (she is one of the characters), and we are treated within the text to some accurate observations on how the book (and feminism in general) is and will be greeted by all the usual suspects. Yet this is no vitriolic polemic; no rant. It is a clever and compassionate piece of writing; a superb piece of science fiction; a well argued work of feminist philosophy; and to my mind one of the truly great novels of the twentieth century.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric & Discredited Diseases - Vandermeer & Roberts [eds]

Not the sort of book you’d read at a single sitting, this is a truly eccentric work. The premiss is simple. Invite a number of distinguished writers to compose an entry to a medical dictionary of imaginary diseases. The result? Something that is playful, hilarious and deeply disturbing, sometimes at one and the same time.

It is also extremely insightful, not just of the contributing authors (for in their contributions we see snapshots of their preoccupations and their unique view of the world), but also of the modern world. Download Syndrome (a compulsion to record everything along with the use of appliances for thinking and communicating) sounds like a very real Syndrome to me. Printer’s Evil sounds equally plausible – although I suppose it helps to have a slightly twisted mind.

If you like curios. If you like things that are just plain odd. Very odd. The very essence of odd. This is a book worth looking out for. However, it is not recommended for those who cannot read a medical dictionary without immediately being certain they have every symptom described therein. For such folk, reading this volume would be disastrous on a grand scale.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Tank Girl - Hewlett & Martin

Guaranteed to reawaken those fantasies of being a mutant kangaroo.

Virginia Woolf - Hermione Lee

During my teenage years I rode the train to and from school. Twice a day I passed the spot where Virginia Woolf drowned. Even given the changes since those dark days, the contrast always gave me pause for thought. I used to cycle and walk out that way as well, enjoying the peace, the wildlife, the beauty.

Naturally, I looked at Woolf’s writing; which was enough for me. The woman was a genius with words. I have since revisited her books a number of times, each exploration revealing more about her and more about me. Yet I could never quite wrap my head around the way her life closed in on her so acutely she could think of only way out.

Having now read Hermione Lee’s superb biography I now begin to understand. It is only a beginning, but that is usually the best place to start. I am not a big reader of biographies, especially of writers. As one myself, I know that the great bulk of their lives involves sitting at a table putting words on paper. Not very interesting in itself. And in many cases, their life is irrelevant to the finished product. But when the writer uses their own life and experience as the basis for their exploration of the human condition, then their life is often key to their interpretation.

The other reason I do not often read biographies is that they are usually dull reading. The author either sticks to recounting a series of events or tries to analyse them and ends up making a pigs ear of the silken purse they were first handed. Hermione Lee avoids all the pitfalls. Yes, she recounts the events of Woolf’s life. Yes, she attempts an analysis. But she manages both with great style, with vitality, sympathy, and considerable insight.

At no time does she shy away from Virginia Woolf’s difficult side (which Woolf herself was all too often painfully aware of), yet she treats this with an even-handed approach. Some of it can be explained, but people are often what they are and we have to take them as a whole. Just as we have to take the harrowing episodes in her early life along with the desperately dark inner turmoil that would squeeze the joy out of her life.

Unlike most biographies that leave me feeling like I know a character better, this one has left me feeling I know a real person a lot better. It is a model of biographical writing: scholarly and inclusive, warm and caring. I no longer travel past where Virginia Woolf died. I do not know if I will ever return to that part of the world. But I do know the unquiet ghost of my own lack of understanding will have begun to fade. I hope Virginia Woolf’s spirit has found peace because she has made my world a better place.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Queen Of Stones - Emma Tennant

This novel chronicles the ill-fated events that occur when a party of girls on a sponsored walk become separated from the world by a heavy fog. Set in Dorset, we follow the young girls as they wander ending, by a circuitous route, on the Isle of Portland. Cut off from ‘civilising’ norms, the girls quickly enter a dreamtime state in which they must provide all the explanations for events from their own limited pool of experience. The result is a potent mix of fairy tale, half understood (if keenly felt) observations of the adult world, and all the bits of knowledge that have yet to find a framework from which to hang.

All the normal tensions between the girls become exaggerated and all their obsessions become heightened. Alliances form and reform at great speed. The thin veneer of respectable behaviour is quickly stripped away. If this feels familiar, it is clear from the parallels in the book that Tennant is visiting old ground, but with a fresh eye. Applying a Carteresque sensibility to the question posed by Golding, we see young children becoming adults without the wherewithal to cope - physically or emotionally.

The episodes of what happened are interspersed in the novel with commentary by several adults. One is the author. Another is a doctor who has made a poor and outdated psychological assessment of one of the girls. These calm, reasoned voices contrast with the dreamy, chaotic, emotional journey of the children. They are dull and flawed; just as flawed (if not more so) than the elemental girls.

A sense of magic, of dream, and of raw emotional power, imbues this work. It throws out many more questions than it answers and remains the better for it. Any attempt to explain what happened (beyond that of the clearly flawed adult observers in the book) would have drained the work of any power. Readers of the book are treated as intelligent. The language, as ever with Tennant, is sharp and sparse, glimpses of events as the fog shifts, vignettes lit but sudden sunshine and just as quickly hidden.

I am not familiar with Tennant’s later work (something I intend to rectify), but revisiting her earlier work is enlightening. Based on those early works alone, she is for me one of the great writers in English, head and shoulders above the all the usual (male) names that get trotted out and laved with adulation.