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

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Tourniquet: Tales from the Renegade City -- Kim Lakin-Smith

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, Autumn 2008

Tourniquet, the debut novel from Kim Lakin-Smith, takes us to an alternative Nottingham; whether by 'alternative' you infer a variant history, or a dance to a different beat, the epithet rings true. Nottingham's transformation began some years before the action of Tourniquet, when 'the most revered band in the history of rock', ubergoths Origin, decided to turn their back on the mainstream and retire to the city, provoking an influx of adoring fans and followers, and an outflux of ordinary, decent Daily Mail-reading folk. Gradually Nottingham, its municipal bodies suborned by the wages of Gothic rock, has been transmuted into the darkly magical Renegade City, its familiar landmarks and thoroughfares -- Sneinton Market, St Mary's Church, Maid Marion Way, the legendary venue Rock City -- overseen by the Drathcar (the four neo-vampyric members of Origin) and overrun by the tribes that have evolved.

Tourniquet opens with a Fae girl, Jezebel, fleeing an army of Skinwalkers, one of whom turns out to be her estranged brother Harish. Next, we encounter Druid, Origin's drummer, vowing to avenge the reluctant martyrdom of lead singer Roses, who burnt to death in a fire that may have been no accident. Roses, it turns out, was Druid's brother, which may explain why Druid's so keen to discover the truth behind his death when the other members of Origin, slinky bassist Sophia and lilac-eyed lead guitarist Adeudas, seem fashionably unconcerned.

Fame can be its own punishment, as many a rockstar's found to their cost: but in this case Druid's famous face is his salvation, for he can pass as no more than one of the Drathy, obsessive fans who emulate the clothes, the physiology and the lives of their idols. It's the mysterious "D", then, who mingles with the lowlives of the Renegade City; who encounters the sassy and streetwise IQ (Irvine Quirk), his battleaxe grandmother Queenie, and a host of other colourful characters who seem drawn as much from legend and ballad as from the counterculture.

Lakin-Smith's prose is extravagant almost to excess, glowing as a stained glass window and spiky as baroque barbed wire. The Nottingham she paints is not one of soft-focus spires limned with dark fire, but a convincingly gritty cybergoth city, dangerous and dirty. There are motorbike tourneys, Fae wings patched with duct-tape, wireless pirates plying the canals. It's visually arresting, and often rather frantic as D and Jez progress on what's either a quest or an extended pub-crawl through the underside of the city.

Like Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love sequence, Tourniquet posits a world where rock'n'roll is really as important as it thinks it should be. Unlike Jones' amiable dystopia, the Renegade City is an isolated (and likely barricaded) polder in a land of normality. Very little is said of the rest of England, the rest of the world, save as something to be fled. Whatever the goths and hippies and punks hope to find in the Renegade City, it's not peace. The different tribes -- Trawlers, Castclan, Skinwalkers, Fae -- are engaged in constant internecine conflict, as exclusive and elitist as playground cliques: 'apartheid', Jez terms it, and Druid is increasingly aware that Roses' libertarian notions haven't translated well to reality.

Tourniquet's so tightly and intricately knotted a novel that it's sometimes hard to see through the gloss of poetic prose to the shape of the story. There's an unresolved feel to it, a haziness to the last few chapters, that makes me wonder if the stories herein are to be continued. I'll certainly look forward to more of Lakin-Smith's work.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

#23: The Cleft -- Doris Lessing

The Cleft, Doris Lessing's latest novel, is a primeval fable about the origins of the sexes. The introduction gives an idea of what to expect: I had been wondering if men were not a younger type, a junior variation. They lack the solidity of women, who seem to have been endowed with a natural harmony with the ways of the world. I think most people would agree with this ...

Originally there were only women, the Old Shes, lolling around like mermaids (or like something from Elaine Morgan's The Descent of Women) half in, half out of the water. All babies were girls, until the frightful day when one woman -- impregnated as usual by 'a fertlising wind, or a wave' -- produced a Monstrosity. It (he) was not the first. Eventually it became common practice for the Monsters, or Squirts, to be exiled (with the help of some convenient giant eagles) to an inland valley. And all might have remained thus if not for an enterprising female who visited the valley and began the process of sexual reproduction. (I simplify, a bit.)

The story of the Old Shes, the very first sexual revolution, and the invention of housework (no, really) is wrapped in the story of a nameless Roman historian (male, of course) who's inherited a sheaf of documents purporting to be the oldest history of all. He provides context, and a certain perspective, though he's not without his own bias. Women, in his opinion, are prone to nagging and talking down to men, and he writes of the furtherance of the human race and the greater value of a pregnant female slave in the same sentence. The historian provides commentary as he recounts the adventures of one Horsa, first male leader -- whose expansionist tendencies indicate that he was, in spirit, a Roman -- and his female counterpart Maronna, who is either indignant or hysterical depending on which history you believe. There's plenty of revisionism going on here, in the historian's assumptions as well as in his account of the original tale.

All well and good. There's plenty of nice rich symbolism -- eagles! a rock with a huge, eponymous Cleft! an island that may be a peninsula! -- and some sense of character, even with the most ancient of archetypes. But this novel could have been so much more: there are passages which seem poorly edited, and loose threads that surely could have been tied off. The climax of the book is, well, anticlimactic. And The Cleft only escapes being labelled (by me at least) as misogynist because it's negative about everyone. True, the 'Old Shes' are barely human, rolling in layers of blubber, slow-witted, semi-aquatic and prone to murdering baby Monsters: but the Monsters are no better, being murderous, sex-crazed, unable to plan ahead, reckless and messy. (Their rude shelters are full of debris: luckily, when the women visit the valley, they "[tear] branches from the trees and used them as brooms," thus inventing housework and the battle of the sexes in one fell swoop. Oh, for ... no.)

There are issues with editing, too: with phrasing, with imagery, and in the absence of any prose that leapt from the page. I'm also suspicious of the distinction that's made -- by the historian -- between Diana and Artemis (the latter being the Greek original of the former, I believe) and wonder if there's some confusion between Artemis and Aphrodite. The Roman statue of 'Artemis' calls sea breezes and the seashore to the historian's mind, and she's smiling: it's Diana who gets the bow of gilded wood and the 'frisking skirt'.

I'm puzzled by the ecstatic reviews this novel has garnered. It is certainly not the height of Lessing's literary achievement: if it had been written by an unknown writer, I'd have been surprised if it saw print. And I'd hate to think that readers unfamiliar with Lessing's work would take this as representative.