Friday, 29 August 2003

John O'Hara: Appointment in Samarra (1935)

Edition: Penguin, 1997
Review number: 1183

Set in an American small town during the Depression, Appointment in Samarra is the story of a man who takes to drink and then kills himself after a social faux pas. It was hailed as a great novel by Ernest Hemingway no less when it first appeared (though his praise was in part an attack on Sinclair Lewis, who had described it as obscene). From such a high, O'Hara's reputation could only dwindle, especially as he ended up as an author who outlived his talent. Even so, Appointment in Samarra made it into the Modern Library's list of the hundred greatest English language novels of the twentieth century.

One interesting thing about this novel is the naive style in which it is written. O'Hara is unwilling to introduce a character without telling the reader a great deal about them and their history (something that would-be authors are often warned not to do). In places this is irritating, but O'Hara usually manages to make it fascinating. These little portraits can be quite barbed, as when he says of the local doctor that "some of his patients even lived".

The central character, fairly closely based on parts of O'Hara's own early life, is massively important in this novel. Julian English begins as an insider, a rich young man who spends much of his time meeting other rich young people at exclusive clubs in and around his home town. He gives way to a drunken impulse (throwing his drink in the face of a man he doesn't like very much) and becomes an outsider, unable even really to see why he is no longer accepted. (His crime may seem trivial, but the man he attackes is someone to whom he owes a large sum of money, a particularly strong tie in the Depression, and is a pillar of the town's Catholic community while English is a Protestant, leading others to assume sectarian motives for the attack.) It is one of the strengths of Appointment in Samarra that this slight difference in status is so clearly portrayed.

While this all makes for an interesting read, it hardly amounts to sufficient reason to put Appointment in Samarra in the top hundred novels. What is unusual about it for its date is its sympathetic portrayal of feminine sexuality in the person of Julian's wife. D. H. Lawrence is famous for having introduced the woman as an openly sexual being into literature, but the women I know who have talked about this have told me that he doesn't really describe what, say, a female orgasm feels like; his portrayal is more a masculine idea of what it should be like. It seems to me that O'Hara is more believable in what he says, even if this is the aspect of the novel which was attacked as obscene. (I obviously can't be sure, as I have never experienced sex as a woman!)

The title of the novel deserves some comment. There is a story which I thought was in the Arabian Nights (though my dictionary of quotations attributes it to Somerset Maugham). A man in Baghdad met Death in the marketplace, a sure omen of his death. Although he saw that Death looked surprised, the terrified man leapt on his horse and galloped to Samarra. But there Death took his soul - no one can cheat death. The point of this little story is the reason for Death's surprise - it was because he met the man in Baghdad when he had an appointment with him for the next day in distant Samarra.

Friday, 22 August 2003

Ann Patchett: The Magician's Assistant (1998)

Edition: Fourth Estate, 2002
Review number: 1182

Sabine has worked most of her life as a magician's assistant, hopelessly in love with her partner Parsifal even after she realises that he is gay. Then Parsifal's lover dies of AIDS, and he marries Sabine because he wants her to inherit everything he and Phan had without a massive tax bill (Phan was a programmer who wrote a massively successful game); he dies soon afterwards not from HIV but from an unexpected aneurysm. It is only a few days later that Sabine discovers that almost everything that Parsifal told her over the past twenty years about his family background has been a lie; instead of being from New England, his parents and siblings dead, he came from Nebraska, and he has left a letter with his lawyer asking that his mother and sisters be provided for. And so they come to Los Angeles to meet Sabine, visit Parsifal's grave and see a city none of them have ever visited before, and Sabine begins to find out something of her husband's true past, and why he had cut himself off from it so profoundly.

This, then, is a novel of discovery, but not the self-discovery which is so common a literary theme (though as Sabine gets to know her ex-husband's real family, she learns some surprising things about herself too). It is mainly about being able to move beyond initial snap judgements to a better understanding of people.

Patchett uses the setting to help herself underline the differences between Parsifal's life as a stage magician, accepted as gay by his friends and successful in his profession, and the repressive atmosphere of his upbringing in what must be one of the most old fashioned small towns in the United States, to judge by this account. She does this with the simple device of setting the novel's action in winter, so that Los Angeles remains a place of warmth while Alliance lies under a blanket of freezing snow.

This particular edition of The Magician's Assistant has a massively misleading blurb, which has led my local library to classify it as fantasy. (Mind you, they have also put Michael Connelly's Void Moon in the science fiction section, for even less reason.) The novel is described as being about Sabine's discovery of powers of actual magic - which might make for an intriguing fantasy novel - and this simply is not what The Magician's Assistant is about. There is one aspect of the supernatural in the apparent reunions with Phan and Parsifal that Sabine experiences in her dreams, and there is a hint that she goes beyond the possible in one magic trick that she performs, and that's all; far less than in magic realist novels like Midnight's Children that no library would put into the fantasy genre shelves.

Wednesday, 20 August 2003

Raymond Chandler: Killer in the Rain (1964)

Edition: Penguin, 1969 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1181

There is one official, authorised, collection of Raymond Chandler short stories, The Simple Art of Murder, and then there are the eight collected in Killer in the Rain. So why was Chandler against the re-publication of these stories (he was very unhappy when several of them appeared in other, unauthorised collections). They are all early, and the development of the famous Chandler style and of the character who eventually became Philip Marlowe is easy and interesting to trace. The problem is not, though, that the stories betray an apprentice writer; they only appear to do so in relation to Chandler's later work.

When Chandler came to write his first novel, The Big Sleep, he turned back to these short stories - not just for inspiration, but for plot and character, and even for the details of description. (he aptly described this process as "cannibalization".) He then did the same for his next three novels, with the result that any fan of Chandler's work will find much that is already familiar in Killer in the Rain.

The result of this is paradoxically that these stories might well appeal to Chandler novices - the stories are good enough in their own right, and authentic examples of his work - and to die-hard fans. The latter will find themselves constantly running into nuggets that they recognise, which is a fascinating experience, and they can start to trace how both Chandler's style and one of the most famous characters in both literature and film developed. And, of course, that would also make the collection indispensable for Chandler scholars.

Wednesday, 13 August 2003

Iain M. Banks: Use of Weapons (1990)

Use of Weapons coverEdition: Orbit, 1992
Review number: 1179

This Culture novel, the third, combines two of the themes common in the writing of Banks' other persona (the one without the central 'M'). It has the multiple interlinked narratives (just two of them; one is a series of flashbacks, nearly in reverse chronological order), and it has some sickening, unpleasant violence.

Like many of the other Culture novels, Use of Weapons is built around a thriller style operation by Special Circumstances, which is really the covert operations section of what amounts to their secret service (in the midst of the anarchy that is the apparent form taken by their government). The mission itself isn't really what the novel is about, though (Banks' treatment of it becomes extremely perfunctory towards the end); Use of Weapons is more interested in the background of the agent Cheradiene Zakalwe than anything else.

Apart from the presence of standard Iain Banks tricks, Use of Weapons is of interest for the way in which the author subverts some of the standard cliches of the thriller genre (the Culture series as a whole tends to do this with science fiction). Thus, it features the flawed maverick central character haunted by his passed, the disillusioned missing operative selected as the only one who can carry out the mission, and so on. It breaks little new ground; and, like its near contemporary, Canal Dreams, can be seen as Banks marking time as he prepares to move to a new phase in his writing.

Joseph Heller: Something Happened (1971)

Edition: Black Swan, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1180

It took a decade for Heller to produce his second novel, and it is one on which critical reception has been divided. It is the story of Bob Slocum, a successful executive (and even after 550 pages we still don't quite know exactly what he does or what the company he works for produces) in late sixties Connecticut. He isn't particularly happy at work despite his success, and he doesn't have a particularly happy home life (he has three children, a teenage daughter and two younger sons, one of whom is seriously brain damaged). As narrator, Bob spends much of the novel looking back on his past, in a way to me reminiscent of the Talking Heads' song Once in a Lifetime. His problem is that he ought to be happy - he has succeeded in everything that is part of the American Dream - but he isn't.

The American Dream gone sour is, in fact, what the novel is about. The emptiness of the idea plays the same role here as the evils of war do in Catch 22. This is obviously a less exciting subject, and despite the extra work Heller puts in it still leaves his second novel less successful than his first - less funny, less biting, less tragic, less gripping. Where it succeeds best is in atmosphere; in this, it inhabits the same claustrophobic, dysfunctional worlds as the much later films with similar backgrounds and purpose, The Ice Storm and American Beauty. (I actually watched the latter while reading the novel, and they are so close in tone, partly because the situation of the narrator is basically the same, that the one seems almost an adaptation of the other.)

There is irony in the novel's title because it is almost entirely reflection on how Bob got to his current situation; virtually nothing happens. Something Happened is a long novel, and it is quite repetitive, making it seem even longer. This can be a bit of a problem, and some parts are hard going (the section about how his able bodied son hates gym at school, in particular). But there are plenty of interesting and funny observations about human nature to encourage the reader to keep going to the end. This is a novel driven by character and by Heller's insights into middle class America, and it is mostly successful; it's problem is that it is not a classic on the scale of Catch 22.

Friday, 8 August 2003

George R. Stewart: Earth Abides (1949)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 1178

Of all the post-apocalyptic science fiction novels ever written, Earth Abides is probably the most poetic. George R. Stewart wrote only the one science fiction novel, and his is one of the less well known classics of the genre. Most literary writers seem to adapt poorly to science fiction, overusing its clich├ęs, but Stewart is one of a handful (in the company of Orwell, Huxley and possibly Atwood) to have found something to say and a way to say it which has expanded the reach of the genre.

The narrator, Isherwood Williams, is working in the high desert mountains of northern California, alone in a remote cabin, when the disaster strikes. Like John Wyndham in the contemporary The Day of the Triffids, Stewart eschews the obvious atomic apocalypse to eradicate almost all of humanity with a plague, survived only by those naturally immune or particularly remote. (Today, the plague, especially if caused by human tampering with genetics, is the fashionable apocalypse.) The novel has three main parts - the initial disaster and its immediate aftermath; the situation twenty years later, as a small group of survivors faces some major crises; and a fast forward to the last days of Ish's life, as possibly the last old American left alive.

Many novels of this type are about the process of rebuilding civilization after the catastrophe, but Earth Abides has one feature which really makes it stand out. Almost immediately after discovering what has happened, Ish sets out to travel around the States, to try and understand it. The descriptions of the deserted cities (and the handful of people that Ish does find alive) is the novel's major strength; it is an elegy for the end of the civilization we still see around us, and evokes such things as the empty city marvellously.

When describing the beginning of the renewed rise of civilization, most science fiction novels assume that the intellectual legacy of the past will be important, and that everything a group does will involve sensible planning (for example, ensuring the preservation of seed). This is at least partly because of the history of the science fiction genre, in that both readers and editors (especially in the States), approved of stories in which the intellectual man of science with whom they identified was able to triumph (sometimes writers seem to be trying to write a manual on "how to survive the coming catastrophe" rather than fiction). In Earth Abides, Stewart is not so optimistic about the ability of reason to reign supreme, and it must be admitted that there is a great deal of evidence on his side. Ish may be the most vocal member of the small community which grows up around him and the woman that he meets after returning from his travels, but he never manages to persuade them of such things as the importance of education and the preservation of learning. Ish is not as all knowing as tends to be the case with the characters with a scientific background in this situation, either (think of Heinlein's omnicompetent heroes for the standard examples from the time). He is caught out by the various waves of animal population explosion and collapse which follow the removal of checks and balances imposed by mankind (which occur at different times, depending on the reproductive rate of the animal concerned); as a result he is unable to have seed stockpiled before a plague of rats makes it virtually impossible to scavenge. (The group live for years mainly on tins recovered from around San Francisco.)

Earth Abides is the sole example of Stewart's distinctive voice in the science fiction genre, and it remains something of an outsider, a forgotten classic.

Thursday, 7 August 2003

Carol Shields: Unless (2002)

Edition: Fourth Estate, 2002
Review number: 1177

I have started several of last year's Booker Prize short-listed novels, but this is the first which I have felt a desire to read more than the first few pages. (I have not yet attempted Yaan Martel's Life of Pi, the winner.) The ones I put aside seemed no more than pale imitations of other writers, notably V.S. Naipaul, while Unless was able to speak to me with a voice of its own almost immediately. This is precisely why I was looking out for the half dozen short listed novels, in the hope of finding something new to enjoy. I read Unless and wrote this review before hearing of Shields' death; it made me feel that I had discovered her only just in time.

Every parent knows that eventually their child will leave them for a life of their own. For Reta Winters, middle aged author and narrator of Unless, the departure of her eldest daughter Norah has been more sudden, unusual and traumatic than most. For Norah has dropped out of life almost entirely, leaving her university course and boyfriend as well as her family to spend her days sitting on a street corner with a sign on her lap bearing the single word "GOODNESS". She won't talk to her family about her reasons for doing this, so they are left to speculate about what has gone wrong (something which comes fairly easily to the rather self-absorbed Reta) and what, if anything, can be done.

Unless is set in Toronto, something which (as Reta at one point remarks) is no longer expected to limit the market for a novel, and I was occasionally reminded of another first person narrative set in the city, Margaret Atwood's Catseye. Though both also share a feminist outlook (for some time Reta is convinced that Norah's withdrawal from the world is caused by a realisation that as a woman she won't ever get as good a deal from the world as an otherwise similar man.) Nevertheless is not as hard-edged as Atwood's writing, though it does have something of a similar air (possibly a consequence of the location and feminist sympathy already mentioned). Something which is different is that Atwood's style has the intention of convincing the reader of the sincerity of the narrator, while Sheilds makes you think that Reta manages to manifest contradictory emotions, as serene and self-observing prose proclaims violent distress and overwhelming concern for another. Nobody, of course, is completely consistent, and the contrast is obviously partly a coping strategy and partly due to guilt over her role in Norah's withdrawal, whatever that might be.

Unless has one feature which is extremely unusual. The headings of the chapters, like the novel's overall title, are single words, all prepositions and conjunctions rather than the nouns and verbs which would usually fill such a role. For me, this has the effect of giving the narrative a wistful note, though I'm not at all sure why this is. The novel generally feels similar to one of my other favourites of recent years, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. Unless is magical to read - and makes me intrigued as to what The Life of Pi must have in order to have persuaded the Booker judges to choose it rather than this novel as the winner.

Saturday, 2 August 2003

Michael Moorcock: Blood (1995)

Edition: Gollancz, 1995
Review number: 1176

When Moorcock began writing his vast collection of tales about multiple universes and the battle between Law and Chaos, there was no such discipline as chaos theory. Blood is the novel (first of a trilogy) in which he seeks to use ideas from the mathematics of chaos, particularly self-similarity and attractors, to add to his earlier ideas.

Blood purports to be part of a collection of manuscripts inherited by Moorcock, which (says the introduction) at first seemed disjointed and unconnected but whose overall coherence was eventually perceptible. The two main threads that Moorcock presents are a bizarre fantasy set in the American South and a parody of pulp-era space opera. The fantasy takes up by far the majority of the narrative, and is reminiscent of J.G. Ballard's apocalyptic science fiction. Civilisation as we know it has been changed dramatically by the appearance of pockets of physical chaos around the world; they can be used to provide power, and reckless drilling has spread their dangerous subversion of physical law. Most of the people who remain live as best they can, but there are some, the elite Gamblers, who spend their lives pitted against one another in complex games of chance and metaphysics.

The space opera sections are less serious, and are about a great struggle across the multiverse between two factions, the Chaos Engineers and the Singularity; most of the weapons and mechanisms of travel described have connections to fractals and chaos theory.

Most of Moorcock's writing seems influenced mainly by his ideas about the science fiction and fantasy genres as a whole, and by the writers he loved in his formative years. Blood is, as far as I know, unique in his output in seeming to show influences which are more individual and recent - Ballard rather than Morris and Howard, Banks rather than Peake. The space opera sections have a more general influence. The style of the novel is opaque, quite difficult to see the meaning, similar to but more successful than John Clute's Appleseed. It doesn't all work, but Blood is an interesting experiment.