Monday, 28 February 2011

Three Very Different Novels

I continue to dip in and out of Perec's Life: A User's Manual as and when ordered by the doctor for my general sense of well-being. [Bang on: that Mr. Scott Pack tries to steal my thunder with this feeble attempt of a post on Perec: The art of reviewing a book that has no punctuation or capital letters.  Too late, Mr. Pack, I sneer, I was there first.]

There is no such sense of holiday dalliance with Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, a book I read last month. This involves total immersion with no snorkel. So, before I take the plunge, let me first deal with Thomas Eidson's St. Agnes' Stand.

From his prose style, it is evident Eidson is a fan of Hemingway; his prose is taut, well-muscled, and walks with a testosterone-laden swagger.

The story is best described as a contemporary western. It opens with a man on the run with his dog who comes across a group under siege from a band of Apaches. The group consists of three nuns, lead by the eponymous Sister St. Agnes, together with seven orphaned children they have recently rescued. The Apaches have already caught and horribly tortured one nun and her Mexican wagon driver who were attempting to make a run for help. Against his better judgement, Swanson, for that is the man's name, decides to assist. To the Catholic sister, Swanson is literally the answer to her prayers and she never doubts for an instant his ability to save them for, as she constantly reminds him, he was sent by God.

The story tells of the increasingly personalised battle between Swanson and Locan, the giant leader of the Apaches, who is rapidly losing face with his party of braves. In some respects St. Agnes' Stand may be regarded as a conventional western. The characters are personalities you would expect to meet. It is no surprise, for instance, to discover the good Sister St. Agnes turns out to be a whisky-drinking, poker-player, thigh-slapping (OK, I made the last up) nun-of-a-gun. What is surprising, even questionable, is the underlying theme, which is one of faith, specifically Catholic faith versus savage superstition, and I do not employ the term savage lightly, because Eidson absolutely demonises Locan and his followers in a surprising manner given the date of publication, 1994. There is an argument to be made that Eidson is thoroughly contemporary in that he is the literary equivalent of Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers in his exploration of violence but where the latter comment, in their different ways, on attitudes today, St. Agnes' Stand reads like a good, ol' fashioned parable of good versus bad. And the bad are still Injuns and those of that ilk.

That said, it is still a good read and worthy of your own appraisal.

I think of Murakami as Marmite – you either love him or hate him, and I love him. (For those who are not Brits, Marmite is a spread*; you either love it or hate it. I hope that clarifies the analogy.)

Like with all Haruki Murakami's work, there is no simple way to summarise the plot. So I will save myself the effort and quote from the blurb on the back:

'Toru Okada's cat has disappeared and this has unsettled his wife, who is herself growing more distant every day. Then there are the increasingly explicit telephone calls he has started receiving. As the compelling story unfolds, the tidy suburban realities of Okada's vague and blameless life – spent cooking, reading, listening to jazz and opera and drinking beer at the kitchen table – are turned inside out, and he embarks on a bizarre journey, guided (however obscurely) by a succession of characters, each with a tale to tell.'


As hinted, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle explores the way life develops through circumstance, inexplicable promptings and chance events, and much of its charm, from a westerner's point of view, is the cultural difference in attitude displayed by Okada to each twist in his day. It is not that he is fatalistic but accepting, with an almost naïve curiosity, of whatever might happen next.

It is very seductive and you soon find yourself infected by his ingenuousness. To appreciate Murakami, you too, like Toru, must travel blind trusting that you will be transported safely. And you will be, trust me.

* Something you spread on bread, toast preferably, and not a large tract of land in Wyoming.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

On the back of reading Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, I have just about finished her A Place of Greater Safety.

It is an historical, factually- based  work charting the rise and eventual fall of the heads of the main characters involved in the French Revolution; Camille Desmoulins, Maximilian Robespierre, Dr. Marat, etc.

Mantel has used her considerable imaginative powers to explore the domestic background, i.e. the female perspective, of these figures during those whirlwind years while sticking to the original script as laid down by historical events.

I have a strong interest in this period. I was once intending to research a doctorate on the difference in attitudes to intellectualism between the English and the French  since the Revolution to the present day and its consequences. So, my appreciation of the book is biased. I wonder how an uninterested reader will take to it. I believe anyone will admire the writing, but there is such a cast of characters, unless you have been previously introduced to them, they can prove confusing. Also, major events, like the desire of the protagonists to spread  their ideal to other countries [so current given what is happening in the Middle East], e.g. the French invasion to liberate the Belgium sansculotte, are necessarily glossed over or the book would run to twice its 871 pages.

I have not read Wolf Hall but it seems to me A Place of Greater Safety is a rehearsal for the work that is to win Mantel her Booker. From my perspective it is fascinating. From anyone's perspective it is a lesson in how to write character and dialogue. Her women, evil, manipulative or innocent,  are marvellous.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Old Farts Smell the Best

I have hit a wall. Not literally, obviously, or I would be a flattened sort of creature with fingers of rubber.

My writing has collapsed into a litter of consonants and vowels that drift across the carpet to clutter in the corners ( how I love alliteration). My novel remains buried somewhere in the recesses of my computer awaiting the final polish from my magic duster. An idea for a series of inter-related short stories remains eleven pages of an idea for a series of inter-related short stories.

Nicola Morgan has posted on the issue of hitting walls and hit a nerve. (Well, you would, wouldn't you, hitting a wall at speed?)

The particular wall I hit was erected by the masons, Expectations, I could say Great Expectations but Arrogance may be more accurate. I had assumed I would be welcomed on a very prestigious course with rose petals strewn before me by the Dean; he turned up with thorns.

Collapse of the stout party, as they used to say. But do not weep on my behalf: the point I want to address is not the one entitled 'Managing Expectations', but 'Managing Growing Old'.

There, I've said it: I am growing old. Not a problem in itself, indeed, I read somewhere that older people are more content than at any other times in their lives. To an extent this is true but, being an awkward sod, I still have ambitions, the major of which is to write a novel worthy of serious consideration.

But what happens when you reach a certain age? All the sins of your past assemble in a single spot and assault you at once. It was once possible for me to breeze through life no matter what was thrown up with no other help than a nose-peg and cunning intelligence. Now, laxity is itself the problem.

Life, it seems to me, is an accumulation of habits and behavioural patterns. What suited when young and becomes comfortable through use is not easily dislodged in later life no matter how inappropriate

F**k it. I will now behave inappropriately. Inappropriate to my age and expectations. This is not say I will suddenly become an eccentric. That was my norm, i.e. to question the status quo, but now I will conform. I will vote Conservative and wear what few strands I have in a perm. I will get heated over issues of immigration and the collapse of English identity. Shiny faced posters of David Cameron will adorn my bedroom. Nick Clegg will be the custard on my pudding.

I will join the rich. Ha! You may laugh but all my life people have told me I would be rich. Now is the time. Personally, I am not a fan of the rich - and I know a few who are mega-rich - but it is time to join their ranks, if only to mock them for their narrow-minded, greedy assumptions.

How is this to be achieved? I don't have a clue but, believe me, it is not rocket science. It is a combination of nonce, greed, exploitation, ruthlessness, and testosterone - all qualities I have in abundance. (I would invite you to view my testicles if this were not a public domain.)

Why this sudden ambition?

i want to move back to London only to discover that all I can afford is a cupboard in a garden shed. Now, woodlice I count as among the best of my friends but I am allergic to rudimentary pots (aesthetically they cause me hives). So money is necessary.

Am I joking?

No. I will, despite others' expectations of what should, could, can be achieved by an old burst of wind like myself, find a means.