No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, September 28, 2006

#85: Not the End of the World -- Kate Atkinson

Thirteen linked tales (or possibly eleven linked tales and a framing narrative): recommended by several friends, and I can see why. Atkinson's stories don't always have a beginning, a middle and an end -- at least not on the page -- and, though they echo Greek myth, they don't precisely mirror it. The Persephone figure is a mother: Atalanta's immortality draws as much on modern myths as ancient ones: Artemis is a nanny, and really rather good at it.

Most (though not all) of the stories are told from the point of view of a female character, and the same characters appear again and again: Hawk, the seducer of older women (who may also be the Egyptian sun-god, who falls prey to a rather unusual cat); Heidi and Trudi, the twins; the myriad Zane women; Pam McFarlane, English teacher and ineffectual mother ...

And there are recurrent themes too: wedding favours, the number five, twins and doppelgangers, a soap opera called Green Acres, a rare beast called the wolfkin, a striped grey cat, Buffy, Playstation games, and rosy-fingered Dawn.

Though the stories are influenced by, rather than derived from, Greek myth, there's a strong sense of a familiar setting: as though, if I sat down and mapped all the relationships, the dysfunctional families and absent fathers and metamorphoses, and then filed off the names, the shape of the tree would be familiar.

Not all the stories would be as effectual without the supporting structure of the others. I'm especially intrigued by the post-apocalyptic city (possibly, as in so many of the stories, Edinburgh) that's the backdrop to the first and last stories in the book, 'Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping' and 'Not The End of the World'. Atkinson's definitely of the 'never apologise, never explain' school of writing, which can lead to confusion: but her cultural references and recurrent motifs provide enough context for the engaged reader.

Monday, September 25, 2006

#84: Margery Kempe -- Robert Gluck

Some stories, threaded together in a single narrative, illuminate each other. Some don't. The tales of Margery Kempe and L., 'Bob's' aristocratic young (male) lover, fall into the latter category.

I don't recognise the Margery here, whining rather than roaring, perpetually running after a Jesus who looks and acts, not like the divine ecstasy of her visions, but like a spoiled, modern-day brat. Margery seems defeminised, too: her experience of womanhood feels very much an outsider's view. She, and the other women who feature in the medieval parts of the novel, seem acutely aware of their sexual organs at all times. There's little sense of Margery as wife or mother: come to think of it, there's little sense of Margery as anything other than a woman -- well, a person in a woman's body -- who makes a fool of herself over a young man who eventually abandons her.

I suspect I'd have got more from the novel if I'd been reading Margery's tale as an allegory of the state of affairs between 'Bob' and L: a tale of unrequited love, imbalance, a person who doesn't fit into his lover's life but can't give him up. But I've been fond of, and intrigued by, Margery since I first read her Book at university -- she was something of a local celebrity in Norwich, and some of her possessions are on show in the Castle Museum -- and I couldn't step back far enough to read her as a cipher.

Some of the prose is beautiful, though a few phrases -- "the ostler's in-a-blue-dress daughter" -- jar. And Gluck is not dishonest about what he's writing:
I kept Margery in mind for twenty-five years but couldn't enter her love until I also loved a young man who was above me ...I asked my friends for notes about their bodies to dress these fifteenth-century paper dolls. I clothe the maid, Willyam Wever, the Archbishop of Lincoln in Camille's eruptions of physicality, Ed's weekend of tears, Dodie's tangled nerve endings, Steve's afternoon nap. My story proceeds by interaction. (p.12, p. 90)

It's the story of a failed love affair, but it never engaged me enough to sympathise with any of the characters.

Friday, September 22, 2006

#83: Conundrum -- Jan Morris

Jan Morris was born James Morris: Conundrum is the autobiographical account -- first published in 1974, and reprinted with new introductions that reflect the changing times in 1986 and 1997 -- of that transition. From the very first sentence the author's viewpoint is clear: "I was three or perhaps four years old when I realised that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl."

I've admired Jan Morris's travel writing for years, but this is a more intimate journey (though never crude and seldom explicit). It deals in the higher forms of love (though the lower forms are present too: as James, the author fathered several children). Morris writes of the 'fierce calculating love' that, even unrequited, binds things to the lover:

"Whole cities are mine, because I have loved them so. So are various pictures scattered through the art galleries of the world. If you love something hotly enough, consciously, with care, it becomes yours by symbiosis, irrevocably. I love Wales like this, I love Admiral Lord Fisher (d. 1920), and the greatest pleasure I get from my Abyssinian cat Menelik is the feeling that I have, by the very magnetism of my affection, summoned him from some wild place ..."

Morris makes interesting points about the differences between the sexes, though there's a certain arrogance to them simply because this woman is born not made. Speaking of the peak of physical fitness (climbing Everest in 1953) and admiration of one's own body and strength as a 'machine of quality', Morris notes: "Women, I think, never have quite this feeling about their bodies, and I shall never have it again." I suspect that female athletes do have similar feelings about their bodies: perhaps Morris lost it from being well past peak by the time he became she.

"Women are more self-contained than men, and at heart less gregarious." Or maybe it's just a reaction, conscious or not, to Morris's ambiguity. Or maybe it's the older generation.

Morris is more interesting when less general: on the subject of penis envy:
"It is not merely the loss of androgens that has made me more retiring, more ready to be led, more passive: the removal of the organs themselves has contributed, for there was to the presence of the penis something positive and stimulating. My body then was made to push and initiate, it is made now to yield and accept, and the outside change has had its inner consequences." (p. 143)

And there's a poignant passage towards the end of the book, where Morris admits that 'the androgynous condition was a positive asset in reportage, [but] disqualified me for fiction', going on to say that she's now capable of more liberated self-expression, because of feeling less isolated from the human race. It's easier to imagine how others feel, and easier to know her own feelings.

Divorced from Elizabeth (who was James' wife), the two remain close, a meeting of minds that transcends sex. "One recipe for an idyllic marriage is a blend of affection, physical potency and sexual incongruity." Indeed, Morris is of the opinion that transsexuality isn't primarily about sex: she wonders, in the final chapter, whether 'by denying physical sex a supreme importance in my life ... I am ahead of my time.' Indeed, as noted above re the higher forms of love, it's travel that engages Morris most intensely: she writes of "the most truly libidinous of a lifetime's various indulgences -- the lust of Venice."

Overall, this is a fascinating account of a transition that most of us will never make -- and one that, I think, reflects a world that's already gone, already lost.
"Sometimes the arena of my ambivalence was uncomfortably small. At the Travellers' Club, for example, I was obviously known as a man of sorts -- women were only allowed on the premises at all during a few hours of the day ... but I had another club, only a few hundred yards away, where I was known only as a woman, and often I went directly from one to the other, imperceptibly changing roles on the way -- 'Cheerio, sir,' the porter would say at one club, and 'Hullo, madam' the porter would greet me at the other." (p.114)

A difficult transition, made gracefully and elegantly: that's Conundrum encapsulated.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

#82: The Devil You Know -- Poppy Z Brite

An anthology of short stories with no central theme, though many are set in New Orleans, and several in the restaurants (and kitchens) of that city. Like many anthologies, this is interesting as much for the author's introduction, which discusses the 'writer's fatigue' that saw her turning her back on a 'serious' novel and writing for fun, the result of which was Liquor, as for the stories themselves.

Quick catalogue as much for my own reference as anything: 'The Devil You Know' is influenced by Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and looks at Carnival krewes. 'O Death Where is Thy Spatula?' is a Doc Brite story (Doc Brite being the author's 'alternate life' as coroner of New Orleans), with a voodoo element and a modern twist. 'Lantern Marsh' is an old-fashioned horror story. 'Nothing of Him That Doth Fade' is probably my least favourite in the anthology: it's Open Water territory, but somehow never rises above the mundane. 'The Ocean' is an everyday tale of rock'n'roll folk, with mythic resonance. 'Marisol' (based on a real New Orleans restaurant) is another Doc Brite tale. 'Poivre' is a deliberately pretentious take on food snobs. 'Pansu', a tale of demonic possession in a Korean restaurant. 'Burn, Baby, Burn' is backstory for Liz Sherman from Mike Mignola's comic Hellboy. 'System Freeze' is set in the world of The Matrix, though the characters don't appear elsewhere (and if I hadn't read the introduction I doubt I'd have recognised the setting). 'Bayou de la Mere', 'The Heart of New Orleans', and 'A Season in Heck' all feature characters from Liquor and its sequels, in one way or another: 'The Heart of New Orleans' is also a Doc Brite story. And a ghost story. And it's set in New Orleans.

The quality's uneven. There are moments of simple human truth as delicious and understated as anything in Liquor, Prime etc. There's a nice wry humour that pokes fun at, but doesn't mock, eccentricities and has ample space for the surreal. Those passages make up for the competent but somehow lifeless tales -- perhaps just the ones that didn't stir me -- and they're in a minority to start with.

#81: The Astronomer's Garden -- Kevin Hood

(Playscript, published with Beached, which I didn't read)

The year is 1717: the setting, observatory at Greenwich. Dramatis personae include Halley, Flamsteed (the Astronomer with the Garden), Mrs Flamsteed, Sir Philip Anstey, a manservant-cum-astronomer named Abrahams, and Lizzie the maid. Flamsteed is embittered at Halley's success; Mrs Flamsteed embittered at her husband's detachment; Ansty, apparently after anything in a skirt but revealing more dimension as the play proceeds; Abrahams, a good man wasted ...

The dialogue's witty and irreverent (Mrs Flamsteed to Halley, as her husband lies dying on New Year's Eve: "His last reference to you was, and I quote, 'Halley, the laptop that licks Newton's ...' the precise anatomical detail escapes me"). Mrs Flamsteed's first kiss is utterly and wholly unexpected, and rather more pleasant than her second: her happy ending neither traditionally happy nor an ending. Ansty accomplishes his transformation from libertine to scientist -- "merely a shift of emphasis" -- and Flamsteed's memory lives on, poisoning them all. It's not a very nice tale, really.

I would have liked to see The Astronomer's Garden staged: unlike some plays I've read, it didn't quite come to life on the page.

Monday, September 04, 2006

#80: The Lies of Locke Lamora -- Scott Lynch

This is a rather belated write-up -- I read the novel over a month ago -- but I do remember enjoying this much-publicised book more than I'd expected to, though I'm not convinced it is the Next Great Fantasy Epic.

Camorr lies, conceptually, on the trade route from Venice to Bas-Lag. It's a maritime city with nasty things in the harbour; magic that works; elderglass towers that glow at dusk, relics of a forgotten elder race help, I'm stuck in a 70s rock lyric!; a cast of vividly eccentric, almost Dickensian characters (criminals, noblemen or both); and a great deal of apparently-irrelevant digression that reminded me, more than anything, of Pratchett's footnotes.

Locke Lamora is an orphan who, through an innate talent for deception, tricks his way into an education as a thief, and a career as one of an elite band of confidence-men -- the Gentlemen Bastards. Locke is not a hero in any traditional sense: his crimes are selfish and self-serving -- 'He robs the rich. And that's it', to quote the Plunkett and Macleane tagline -- and he doesn't really fit the heroic mould, being short and unmuscular, and not especially accomplished with any weapon except his wits. That weapon, though, is sharp indeed, and Locke talks himself out of (and, to be fair, into) a number of risky situations.

Lynch's pacing is excellent, switching between Locke's childhood and his adult adventures (though there's still a teasingly mysterious gap between one thread and the other), building up expectations and then switching perspective, endearing us to characters and then ... well, there's some pretty nasty events in this tale. Plenty of bad language, too, which gives the prose a very modern feel (compare and contrast Fritz Leiber's career criminals, Fahrd and the Gray Mouser) and, though plentiful, is never superfluous -- always in character. And there's a broad streak of farce which reminds me of classic B-movies: escaping via a window only to discover that another fellow's doing the same one floor below; improvised disguises that don't quite cut the mustard; double- and triple-dealing that blurs an already complex plot.

I like Lynch's prose, his characters, his world: I'm hoping he doesn't prolong this 'sequence' (an unsettling term for a series, in that it offers no concrete expectation of arc and finale) beyond the point where it ceases to entertain and becomes merely (if enjoyably) indulgent.