Read & Recommended, July 2007
Against the Day – Thomas Pynchon
Perhaps fitting that it comes first in the list, as there’s been nothing quite like this colossus on the literary landscape for as long as I can remember. Against the Day towers with erudition and lovingly rendered detail, it overpowers and enchants, and above all it bluntly refuses to be put into boxes of any sort. In short, it defies the critical establishment to do anything more meaningful with it than any other reader, that is, to simply go with the flow and cope as best you can. It has, not surprisingly, attracted the disfavour of said critical establishment as a direct result. Well, ignore them – Against the Day is a brawling, sprawling 1000+ pages of pure literary jazz, virtuoso story-telling, improvised to all appearances for the pure joyous hell of it around a loose set of themes, scientific and pseudo-scientific concepts, genre echoes and geographic locations. Incident and idea are their own justification, fired up, teased out, ridden as far as they’re fun to ride, and then just as unceremoniously dumped in favour of something else. My personal favourites were the ball lightning – all of a page and a quarter, hilarious and touchingly melancholic in equal portions, flourish and vanish, sheer genius – and the brief and abortive post-modern critique of a musical about a musical about Jack the Ripper called ‘Waltzing in Whitechapel or A Ripping Romance’. The novel is stuffed to groaning with quite literally hundreds of similar riffs, all stamped through with a level of humour that literary fiction almost never permits itself, or fails at dismally when it does. At the same time there’s an underlying human frailty to it all, as the longer stories unwind at a pace all their own and with a stately untidiness befitting a narrative that spans decades and continents and dozens of different lives. It’s only fair to say that this untidiness can on occasion be a challenge, or a problem, or just a real pain in the arse, depending on how tired you are when you stumble across a particular narrative dead end or re-direct. But these glitches are few and far between, and to my mind forgivable given the scale of the work. Against the Day is maybe not Pynchon’s finest novel – personally, I’m a big Vineland fan – but it’s certainly his most ambitious to date, and in the end it’s a glorious triumph in its own right. (It deserves, incidentally, to be short-listed for – though not necessarily to win – every science fiction / fantasy prize going, in which company it would, among other things, show up Neal Stephenson’s later and weightier works for the enervating, pale Pynchon-imitations they so wearyingly are). I am officially In Awe.
Brasyl – Ian McDonald
Well, the cover quote I gave this book says it all – I read the first half of Brasyl shaded lightly green with envy that I hadn’t come up with the riotously beautiful SF concepts it contains. Quantum knife blades, anybody? A scrap-heap city of technojunk? Surveillance angels? Quantum ghosts? And all in beautifully rendered prose. It’s also worth admitting that I’d quite like to have done the obviously glorious foreign travel research in Rio and Sao Paulo upon which two thirds of the novel is based – as with McDonald’s previous triumph, River of Gods, this book is full of acutely observed cultural detail and backpacker snapshot views. But where River of Gods was a stately flow of narrative echoing the Ganges it’s named for, Brasyl advances to a more rapid, percussive Carnival beat. It’s true that towards the end, the book feels as if there’s far too much narrative fabric to be easily sewn up in this fashion: I could see the case for a couple of novels, maybe even a – the dread word – trilogy, all cut from the same cloth and without coming even close to exhausting the ideas base – but that’s a small complaint for what is overall a scintillating bright-light flare in this year’s SF sky.
Brotherly Love – Pete Dexter
Two and a bit years back, a good friend bought me Dexter’s last novel, Train, as part of a birthday present, and I raved about it on this website (see Read and Re’d December 04). I also went looking for his other stuff and found it surprisingly hard to get hold of – only the National Book Award-winning Paris Trout was readily available at the time, and I’d seen the movie, which by all accounts is pretty faithful to the original, so I let it drift. Fast forward to January of this year and wandering around New York’s Strand bookstore, I suddenly came upon Dexter’s entire back catalogue in the second-hand stacks. I bought the lot, and Brotherly Love was the first one I dived into. My initial impression from two years before came back reinforced in concrete – Dexter is a master. His prose is as clean, as lucid as any writer’s working today in the English language – comparisons with Ian McEwan or Rupert Thomson would not be out of place, and in fact Brotherly Love reminded me as much as anything of Thomson’s Five Gates of Hell. The difference is that where Thomson is an interloper on the American social landscape, relying on human constants and vague but iconic scenarios to bridge the gap, Dexter has an intimate cultural grasp of his subject matter, and his characters, locations and dialogue all hit home with sparse but perfect detail. As with Train, what you have here is a deceptively simple tale built around a handful of individuals exposed to the sandblasting effect of life in a criminal or semi-criminal context. But where Train covered a period of a few months, Brotherly Love is the story of twenty-five years in the life of a family shattered by tragedy and barely suppressed rivalries. For all that, it’s a short book and a very fast read – a grim, beautifully-lit masterpiece that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have big trouble putting down at any point before the end. (Oh yeah, and PS – my next Dexter choice, The Paperboy, turned out to be every bit as good. Damn, I wish this guy would write faster).
No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy
It’s hard to know what exactly to make of this one. McCarthy comes highly recommended as a Grand Old Man of contemporary American literature, but in the end what you’ve got here is no more nor less than a stripped down modern noir yarn. There’s no denying the man’s ear for dialogue, the Texas / Mexico borderlands come vividly to life in the way his characters speak, but that dialogue and a stark event narrative is about all you’re given. There’s really very little in the way of the descriptive writing McCarthy’s other novels have been recommended to me for, and what you’re left with instead could almost be a screenplay. It’s almost as if – perish the thought – this one was written specifically with a movie deal in mind. (And that movie – courtesy of the Coen brothers – is now out, and by all accounts pretty damn’ good). Truth is, I didn’t have a problem with any of this. Noir is a genre eminently suited to cinematic brevity, and I thought No Country for Old Men met that spec in spades. It was a fast, powerful read, and it was truthful in a way genre crime novels (and movies) can sometimes fail to be if they’re trying too hard to please a broad-church audience. McCarthy isn’t trying to please anybody, he simply has a tale to tell, and he tells it with bleak and compelling passion.
Saturday – Ian McEwan
I read quite a lot of early McEwan, more years ago now than I care to count up, and while I could always appreciate how masterful it was, I also found it too cold and alienating to really like. I suppose it was the fashion back then – outré but joyless sexual practices, miserable urban landscapes, dog turds and dead rats and suffocatingly small-minded characters adrift in it all. In the end, already increasingly drawn to the richer pickings of genre fiction, I jumped ship and never went back. Imagine, then, my surprise when I finally caved in to the recommendations of a friend last year, picked up Saturday and found it was a warmly textured, generous and above all humane piece of work. There’s not a lot to it in narrative terms – one day in the life of a successful London-based neurosurgeon, a meditation on contemporary political, social and familial realities, and a brief excursion into the world of violent confrontation which – if we’re completely honest – never quite gels with or convinces to the same degree as the rest of the book. Nonetheless, I came away from Saturday entertained, moved and oddly uplifted by it all. McEwan has lost none of his stylistic verve in the intervening years, his observation is as acute as ever, and as before he needs very little in the way of operating space to set out his wares. But somewhere along the line, his clinical fascination with things seems to have given way to a grave but enthusiastic embrace of what you might call Humanitarian Enlightenment values, and the potential joy of living. I’m not sure when exactly this sea change dates from, but I’m very happy for him. I’m also rather more inclined now to try some of his other, more recent work.
Small Island – Andrea Levy
Speaking – as we were re Pynchon above – of the humour that literary fiction rarely permits itself, here is some of both. Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a beautifully balanced and keenly observed portrait of four lives, two black Jamaican and two white British, blown together in the historical storm of the Second World War. Levy handles the inevitable themes of race and racism with a deft grace, but what’s also present is a rich ladling of West Indian humour, brought out most notably in the narrative of Gilbert Joseph, RAF volunteer for the British Empire in its war against Hitler and later aspiring lawyer in Britain discovering the harsh realities of his place in the colonial scheme of things. The humour isn’t just good – it’s vital, as a counterpoint to the bitter injustices and sense of loss that infuse the novel, as the potential in smart, educated and motivated Jamaicans like Gilbert and his wife Hortense is pissed away by a whiter than white Britain blind to anything other than its own – already decayed and splintering – sense of imperial entitlement. The sense of period is impeccable, the choice of incident expertly revealing. Levy apparently did a huge amount of research for Small Island, interviewing people, black and white, who lived through these times, and the result is a book that’s as close to truth as any fiction can ever get.
The Great War for Civilisation – Robert Fisk
Another 1000+ page tome (though in paperback this time) which I took away to the Caribbean with me, serene in the knowledge that there was now no way I could run out of reading material. What I hadn’t expected was that Fisk’s book would be so readable – I had a selection of sparsely populated white sand beaches all within a few minutes walk or boat ride, and still found myself far too often propped up on a deck chair on the balcony determined to finish another chapter before I went off to do the tourist thing. The personalised narrative Fisk offers of the last twenty to thirty years in the Middle East, with frequent asides back into even earlier history, is to say the very least, arresting. Most of us know what a god-awful mess Europe and America have made of the region over the last century, and what a murderous bunch of scum the puppet regimes thereabouts largely are, but did you also know – for example – that in April 1991 Britain nearly went to war with Turkey when British Royal Marines detailed to protect Kurdish refugees on the Turkish border came within inches of an armed clash with Turkish soldiers looting the refugee camps and brutalising the Kurds? Did you know that there is an enduring anger among high ranking US military personnel at the way in which US aircraft, armour and ammunition was continually and summarily gifted to the state of Israel despite the objections of the US Department of Defence throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties? Fisk throws these casual grenades into the mix along with exhaustive historical detail, a fine leavening of personal account that wouldn’t look amiss in a highbrow contemporary thriller and above all a ferocious lament for the inhumanities perpetrated in the hollow names of religion, politics and commerce. Vital reading for anyone who wants to understand what has gone – and continues to go – wrong in that part of the world.
The Trouble with Islam Today – Irshad Manji
Sparky and upbeat piece of cultural commentary on the very evident insanities contained within fundamentalist – and to a depressing extent so-called mainstream – Islam. Manji may not have the gravitas of Ayaan Hirsi Ali or the academic range of someone like Tariq Ali, but she borrows respectfully from them both in targeting the problem, and she doesn’t pull her punches. Her populist assault is a much needed breath of fresh air into musty chambers of rhetoric long dominated by unpleasant men with beards and equally unpleasant doctrinal leftists in desperate search of something – anything – with which to bash the United States. It’s a clash of barbarisms in which women and other minorities have been all too readily sacrificed by both sides, and against this – eerily familiar for those of us who remember the Cold War – climate of tribal loyalties and intolerance, Manji is the Michael Moore of Islamic affairs. Great stuff!