Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Bad Sister - Emma Tennant

Often billed as a retelling of James Hogg’s masterwork, it is a great deal more than that, and to suggest otherwise seems to me to belittle what the author has achieved. Indeed, this is Emma Tennant at her very best. Confident, intelligent, and searching, she has produced a novel of great simplicity and enormous power.

The simplicity lies not in the story which is an interweaving of many layers, but in the telling. A lesser author would have made a hash of trying to keep so many narratives moving forward in such a way. Yet we are never lost in these layers, just as we are never lost in the mysteries. Nothing is explained, yet we are never left behind, because the author paints such a convincing picture.

The narrative is tight, tense, and slips in and out of the surreal in a way that many so-called magic realist writers have never managed. Such seamless writing is a joy to read; the use of such techniques enhancing the story. And there is extra joy in the fact we are left to engage with the story at our own level. A fantastical show is put on for our delight, both entertaining and thought provoking. How far we wish to go in looking behind the scenery is up to us. The door is there should we choose, but it is never once pushed at us.

Jane’s journey is one of feverish nightmare, never certain what is dream, what is hallucination, and what is real. Her encounters, her memories, and her actions move in and out of these different realms. And the end of the book takes us out of the quintessential urban setting with its noise and business back to the wilds where one can feel the cool, green, damp and the loneliness that lies at the heart of this sad tale.

Buy. Read. Marvel.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction - Jonathan Culler

Like other books in this series, this is surprisingly comprehensive for such a short text – especially given the complexity of the subject. The author takes an unusual approach to the subject, leaving an explanation of various schools of theory to an appendix. Instead, he concentrates on questions and approaches that are shared by these various schools. In this way, he is able to introduce the subject in a way suitable for complete beginners without compromising depth. You come away from this book with a grounding in the subject sufficient to move to more comprehensive introductions, especially those that look in depth at the various schools. For that, this book is to be recommended.

On the other hand, as someone who knows something about the subject, the book simply entrenched my own thoughts about literary theory. But I’m a writer and I have never really understood the vast edifice of literary criticism and theory that has grown up around works of fiction. To me it seems like a Gormenghastian labyrinth encrusted about some simpler core whose goal was to make the reading of works of literature a more pleasurable experience through the medium of a greater understanding of the text. It often seems to me that the subject of literary theory is no longer literature, but literary theory.

For a writer, these things are a distraction. The many different ways in which people pull a work apart makes the assumption they know better, that their view of the world is superior, and gives the impression that somehow they need to (a) find a sense of humour and (b) get a life. These are books they are discussing. They may be important. Some works certainly change the course of history. But the extremes of literary theory treat literature (when it remembers that is the subject) as the be all and end all. This ignores the fact that a huge proportion of the world’s population cannot read, and that of those who can, only a minority read literature for anything other than pleasure.

So, if you are interested, this is a good book to get you started. But don’t take it seriously. By all means think about the things you read and the assumptions that the author seems to be making about the world. But remember also to read for pleasure – elevating small sections of literary output is to create divisions that should not be there. It also contributes to the somewhat absurd situation in which works now touted as ‘literary’ by publishers are mostly vacuous. Many works of the past now considered canonical were popular works. We have, through the literary industry, elevated them to an imaginary strata fit only for the intelligentsia; those in the know; those with the wit to ‘understand’ them properly. People should be allowed to approach books for their own reasons and pleasures, not those dictated by others. Readers should certainly have the basic tools beyond an ability to read, but the relationship they have with a work or with an author should be personal.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Visitants - Randolph Stow

In perfect tune with the setting (Papua New Guinea), this seems to be a languorous work. Each of the main participants in the story take their turns to tell short fragments, building a complex, multi-coloured, mosaic. This too adds to the atmosphere, painting a picture of life in tropical climes, hopping from island to island, walking through the humid air, taking everything at a gentle pace.

But this is a deceptive novel. Using a real event as its starting point (the Boianai Mission UFO sightings of June 1959), the book explores ideas of what it is to be alien, to be a visitant, the effect of different cultures on one another, and how that impacts on individuals, especially those living in an alien environment. That said, this is not science fiction. The UFO event is a trigger, but everything else is very much down to earth and part of everyday life.

The characters are beautifully drawn; all the subtle detail extracted through the relationships each has with the others in the small communities through which they move. And whilst the book moves at a gentle pace it soon becomes clear that there are strong, deadly undercurrents. The notion of alienness runs at many levels. This is made especially clear by one of the characters toward the end and the way in which this reflected in the events is a masterful piece of story-telling.

It is a book that stays in the mind for a long time, with images clinging like exotic and heady perfume. Deeply moving, in places shocking, there is an alienness in the almost clinical observation of people and events. Yet the book manages at the same time to be warm and sympathetic. Well worth reading.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Entropy Exhibition - Colin Greenland

Between 1964 and 1973, the magazine New Worlds came under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. With a change at the helm, the magazine took off in a different direction. It wasn’t an about face as some have claimed any more than it was sudden, but there was a definite air of new direction and a sense that there might actually be a destination to the somewhat rambling pleasure cruise.

Originally a science fiction magazine, Moorcock encouraged the development of new kinds of writing. Science fiction was the starting place, but he (along with many others) was deeply dissatisfied with what science fiction had become – dull and so cut off from the mainstream it might as well have been on another planet (called 'The 1930s').

The time, of course, was ripe for revolution. Set firmly in a milieu of experiment and exploration that saw a blossoming of music, art, and socio-political concerns, it was inevitable that literature would also undergo an upheaval. That it cam from this particular quarter is something that most literary critics and theorists still fail to understand or acknowledge.

Very often, the change in literature at this period is attributed to the ‘gritty realism’ of the ‘angry young men’. Yet this was not a revolution. It stayed well within the bounds of what had gone before yet was feted as a step forward into ‘daring’ territory by people who probably thought not buttoning your collar under your tie was an act of revolution.

To the dismay of entrenched hard sci fi fans, a new tranche of New Worlds authors tore everything up (sometimes literally) and started again. From scratch. They questioned everything. Many of the experiments in writing they tried didn’t work, but they were exuberant, interesting, and for me it was a real joy to read them. They were keeping pace with the music and art scenes (which most of the rest of literature was not), they were political, and they dived headlong into inner space and came back with trophies and reports stranger than any that had ever been brought back from outer space. And they changed literature.

Greenland’s book concentrates on three of the core writers – Aldiss, Ballard, and Moorcock. And in discussing their work, he explores what motivated the revolution (ideas about entropy sit at the heart of much of the work that was written by these and other contributors); how it developed; how it became saddled with a label none of them wanted or agreed with (New Wave); what they achieved; and what the coterie of New Worlds writers really were.

One thing they were not, nor did they ever pretend to be was a ‘movement’. The whole point of what was happening at New Worlds was that serious writers were being allowed to experiment and find a genuine new voice for their writing. Science fiction was the ideal basis for this (and it is gratifying that all the great writers that grew out of New Worlds and rode the shock waves like crazed surfers – Ballard, Moorcock, Aldiss, Bayley, Zoline, Russ, Sladek, Harrison, et al) have never once turned their backs on their roots (unlike many so-called literary writers who have plundered the worst of sci fi for ideas and then had hissy fits when they got busted). Given that each writer involved with this was looking for their own voice, they could never be classed as a movement. The writing styles, the content of their work, the things they were experimenting with and trying to achieve were so diverse, differed so much from writer to writer that call them a movement is absurd. One only has to read statements some of them have made over the years to see how different they were as writers.

Greenland’s exploration of this is insightful and well written (and desperately difficult to get hold of). It casts light on what is often dismissed as a sideshow. Yet this really was a breeding ground for literary revolution. If you don’t believe that, then look out for a copy of this book, and then look out for Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition; Aldiss’s Report on Probability A; Moorcock’s two Glogauer books – Behold the Man and Breakfast in the Ruins; and the Moorcock edited New Worlds an Anthology published by Flamingo. They might not be entirely to your taste but it will demonstrate that these are writers who have immeasurably enriched the literary scene and who, in some cases, were so far ahead of the scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s that everyone else is still struggling not just to catch up, but to find any sign of the route they took.