Monday, 30 May 2011

Options - Robert Sheckley

This book starts out in a fairly straightforward, if somewhat clichéd fashion. A space pilot is sitting at his controls when something goes wrong and he has to make a forced landing on a backwater planet. There he goes in search of a pare part. This being a superficially well-organised future, he heads for the nearest depot where spares are cached. This being a superficially well-organised future, they have every spare part conceivable except the one he wants. So far, so humdrum; but this is a Robert Sheckley novel.

There would be enormous mileage in this as a straightforward satire that exposes the sheer chaos of modern life and parodies the ultra smooth futures of much science fiction. Sheckley, however, takes a different turn altogether and in the course of this novel explores the meta narrative of writing a novel, well before it became the angsty province of ‘literary’ writers and with considerably more than a dozen of the aforementioned could muster between them.

On being told there may be a spare part on a different part of the planet, the pilot is given a robot to guide him through the dangers he will face. In keeping with the original premis, the robot has been delivered to the wrong planet and is programmed for an entirely different eco-system.

The journey starts out Carrollian and then gets bizarre. As attempts to progress are constantly thwarted, the author intervenes and constructs new narratives in an attempt to help the pilot reach his goal. Along the way we are treated to philosophical discussions and ideas, subverted pulp adventures, what appear to be entirely unrelated events (but which are, of course, the author trying to keep his narrative on course).

The result is exuberant chaos, shot through with hilarity and enough ideas to last other writers a lifetime. Yet it also manages to remain subtle. The jokes aren’t flagged or repeated to make sure you see how the author is. And it also manages to explore some of the fundamental problems of philosophy in an understandable way. What is more, this package is wrapped in a sure style; even when Sheckley is exploring and experimenting with language, it never gets to the point of self-indulgence or obscurity.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Naked Lunch - William Burroughs

William Burroughs made notes during his journey to the otherworld that is Interzone and when he returned he formed them into a novel (for who would believe it was non-fiction?). In doing so, he created one of the most influential pieces of writing in the second half of the twentieth century. And it is influential not just in literary terms, but culturally in general, socially, and morally.

It is far too complex a text to treat properly in this form. A few paragraphs could say very little other than the fact that Burroughs taught a whole generation how to write anew, how to make music anew, how to view the world anew. For the breadth of his influence on a generation one need only look at the number of bands that have taken names from this and other books by him.

Yet this influence derived not so much from someone creating everything anew for themselves, rather it sprang from Burroughs honesty about the world he inhabited and an honesty in the way in which he recorded it. He drew on his experience (hence his insistence on writing what you know). The language and ideas come from the people he mixed with and the pulp literature of the day, much of the best of which also drew directly from the street.

Burroughs’ genius lay in the way in which he drew all that together, not just with honesty but with a vibrant prose and equally vibrant style that allows the reader to experience the hallucinatory weirdness of the world from the perspective of someone who gives not the slightest fuck about social, cultural, or literary mores.

The book still shocks and offends some (perhaps most) people. If there is shock and outrage it should be that our world is such that people feel the need to use drugs and gratuitous sex as an escape. Unfortunately, the outrage is often because someone has dared to expose the world for what it is.

All that aside, this is blistering writing: uncompromising, dark, and often very beautiful.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Story Of The Amulet - E Nesbit

The third of Nesbit’s books about the Psammead and the children who encounter this wish granting creature. (And yes, before I am again accused of simply rewriting book blurbs, I know the Psammead only appears in two of the three books and only grants wishes to the children in the first…). This one draws heavily on Nesbit’s knowledge of ancient cultures (especially Egypt) and her involvement with Socialism.

The children, parted from their parents and desperate for their return, are living in London with their Nurse. One day, whilst exploring shops near the British Museum, they come across the Psammead in a cage and, at the same time, acquire half an amulet. On returning home with the sand fairy and the ancient talisman, they learn that if they find the other part of the amulet they will be able have their hearts’ desires – the return of their parents.

A series of time travelling events ensue in which the children and, later in the book, an adult scholar who lives upstairs, have adventures. They travel to Egypt, Babylon, Atlantis, and a Tyrenean ship bound for the Tin Islands. They also go into the future, one that resembles Morris’s vision and in which Wells is revered as a prophet.

As to be expected, despite the hair-raising adventures, all ends well. This is typical Nesbit fare. Well written, informative without ever being dull, humorous, and socially aware without ever preaching. All in all a wonderful piece of escapism with the Psammead as bad tempered as ever

Jack On The Box - Jack Trevor Story

A collection of short non-fiction pieces peripherally connected with the television series of the same name (exploring similar territory and themes), these first appeared in the later part of the ‘70s. JTS was best known for his Sexton Blake stories and for his comic novels that together in a culture that tends to look down on pulp and comedy has done much to mask the author’s considerable talent.

I have written before, of his fiction, what a superb craftsman he was and this is evident just as much in his non-fiction. Economical, highly literate without once putting this talent before the subject matter, and always accessible without ever making any concessions. You have to engage with his writing – he has put in a lot of work and rightly expects readers to do the same.

And the result is a witty journey through his world. It is sometimes honest, sometimes heartbreaking, and there are times you want to kick his shin, but it is never less than entertaining and thoughtful. You cannot help but think how these things (love, work, family, and the absurdities of modern life) apply to one’s self.

And for writers it is also a journey into the experience of the majority of those who graft away at a keyboard. It is all too easy, if you read the literary pages of the papers, to assume that writers live privileged and refined lives, pulling in the dosh whilst doing an easy job in pleasant surroundings. The parties, the erudite chatter, the big fat royalty cheques.

As if.

Read this book and you’ll find out what it is really like. The hard slog writing, the hard slog selling, royalty cheques not worth the paper they are printed, living in cheap, rented accommodation; not to mention the strain on relationships (or the sheer luck of finding a partner who puts up with the depressions, moods, the need to tiptoe quietly when creativity is in full flow). It’s all there. Not exactly a coherent treatise on the writing life, but the writing life is anything but coherent.

Over it all, there is one impression it is difficult not to come away with. No matter how annoying JTS may have been at times, now matter what his faults (to which he readily admits), no matter how surreal the writing and his vision of the world, you cannot help but feel the real warmth of the man.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Trouble With Trudy - Jack Trevor Story

A sequel to The Trouble With Harry, this takes up the story a year later. The same characters in the same location are suddenly inundated with the arrival of babies. When a runaway unmarried mother stumbles on the scene, followed in short order by an American Marketing Executive, the fun begins.

Clearly intended as a light piece to the darkness of Harry (although these terms are relative as Harry was anything but dark, despite the dead body) it doesn’t have quite the same edge. Yet it still manages to be well-written, thoughtful, with some excellent touches of characterisation, and giving just a hint of what Story would later develop as his major themes.

Whilst this may be a lightweight piece, it demonstrates that this should never be equated with sloppy writing. Story always gave value for money with his work and this is full of little gems. Moments in the narrative that made me smile and laugh, moments that made me re-read a phrase, sentence, and sometimes a whole paragraph for the sheer enjoyment of his craft, the ease with which his own voice shines through without ever drowning out the tale he is telling and the characters it involves.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Kleinzeit - Russell Hoban

A novel about coming to terms with creativity really doesn’t sound like it would be scintillating. Indeed, writers who write about writing tend to be pompous, whining middle-class white men who have led charmed and privileged lives. Russell Hoban has always ploughed his own furrow (usually at 480º to everyone else’s) and has produced a delightfully surreal work that manages to be funny, philosophical, intriguing, so far off the wall there isn’t a wall in sight, and touching.

Kleinzeit, who works for an advertising agency, gets fired. Very quickly afterwards he finds himself in hospital with a recurring geometrical pain (his hypotenuse is a bit dodgy). Thereafter he is pitched into an adventure that has more than a touch of Lewis Carroll about it whilst remaining firmly a work by Russell Hoban.

Beyond that it is difficult to describe what happens. Kleinzeit encounters various characters and concepts, converses with Death, and falls in love with Sister. In the process his ailments fade and he begins to get to grips with whatever it is he is writing. Yet as you follow the journey, you realize you are in the hands of a writer who really should be celebrated as one of the great talents of literature.

This is, for all its themes, an accessible work, warm, beautifully written, full of momentum, overflowing with ideas, and great fun to read.