Tag Archives: literature

Book – “Red Shift” by Alan Garner (1973)

Back when I was in secondary school, I tore through Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor. Red Shift, along with its immediate predecessor, The Owl Service, was tougher stuff altogether. His earlier novels were full-blown fantasy of a particularly intense and mythic kind. Back then, they left one feeling that the reality of the world could at any moment be torn away. Nowadays, I’d understand that as a visceral sense of the sacred, the wildness and the connectedness inherent in the world around us and within ourselves, and the power that stories and words have over us. The power that almost anything has to become, and wield power as, a myth.

Red Shift confronts that wildness and connectedness head on, without recourse to fantasy but through the interlocked stories of three couples dominated by the myths of their own times. The first couple, a Roman deserter in early Roman Britain and a tribal ‘corn goddess’ survive through capitulation to the mythic discourse shaping their world. At the time of the civil war, conflicting political myths bring nothing but death to a village in the same part of Cheshire and the couple there are nearly destroyed in the process. In the ‘modern’ Cheshire of the early seventies, two teenagers struggle with discourses of science and class – contributing myths of our own time – and ultimately break up. All of this is held together by a sacred axe passed from age to age and a mysteriously sacred landscape.

As was becoming typical of Garner, all this is communicated through intense, elliptical dialog and starkly visionary evocations of time and place (and the reality is that he’s always thought this way). It’s hard to believe Red Shift was written for a teenage audience and it suggests that YA fiction hasn’t exactly progressed in the last few years in comparison. Mind you, most fiction suffers in comparison with Garner.

Some things about Red Shift sting a lot more today than they did then. The smothering nature of modern-day Tom’s family  is both poignant and horrifying and uncomfortably reminiscent of my own awkward relationships with my father and mother. The incessant jargon and in-jokes and the atrocities committed by the gang of deserting Roman squaddies (survivors of the lost Ninth legion?) are a little too obviously paralleled on American actions in Vietnam but the violence is economically and brutally evoked.

It’s not an easy read but those of you who remembered Garner from your childhoods and felt bemused by Boneland‘s challenging ‘completion’ of the Brisingamen trilogy may find it a bridging work that helps you make a little more sense of his most recent novel (which I loved, by the way).

Five reasons to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in 2012

  1. It’s the closest you will ever get to being able to quite literally read a cathedral. Medieval cathedrals are gigantic assemblages of Christian theology, philosophy and apologetics in stone. Each surface, angle and cornice is drenched in sign and symbol, from the number of sides to the baptismal font to the number of windows in the nave. Everything works in threes and fours and aligns with the grand intersection of the Cross.
  2. It’s only way short of a Vulcan mind-meld you’ll be able to experience the point of view of one of the greatest of the high medieval intellectuals. Dante’s thought ranges from the apparently profound to the (from a modern perspective) shockingly bigoted and back again via arrogance, piety, humility, horror and every shading in between. And all of it in the most complicated rhyming scheme known to epic poetry. Or most other kinds, come to think of it.
  3. It’s one of the greatest works of speculative fiction known to man. Forget Cyrano de Bergerac or Jules Verne or any of the other pretenders to be the founding father of SF – Dante spun his web of invention on a rock solid (for 14th century Italy) foundation of natural philosophy, optics, astronomy and classical thought. Then took it literally beyond the boundaries of the Heavens.
  4. It’s a work that challenges our ideas of Christianity and makes us look beyond our regular feeble stereotypes of bigoted American baptists and milksop British Anglicans. What we find is full-blooded, ferocious and undeniably at the centre of whatever it is that we call a culture. And I speak as thoroughly heathen individual.
  5. It’s one of the most lovely books ever written. Dante claimed that words failed him as he tried to describe the impact of the most profound experiences death had to offer. Then he went ahead and wrote them down anyway.

You can read – or listen to – the whole thing here in a a quite wonderful translation by the Hollanders. Go on – take a walk on the really wild side for a change. Better than Twilight or your money back.

The despair of the Inter-Galactic Hitchhiker

I’ve been re-reading Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels over the last week. It’s been an odd sort of ride, pulling me deeply into my past in some ways and highlighting the present in other, surprisingly depressing forms.

Encountering the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy proper for the first in thirty years time-warped me straight back to being fifteen and glued to Radio 4 via my family’s one pair of big, padded headphones, waiting at the dinner table for the expansive FM stereo of (unbelievably) The Eagles ‘Journey of the Sorcerer‘ (the rest of the music was provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). It was 1978. In the outside world, things were about to get seriously unpleasant. Then there’d the announcement of the title in those fruity Radio 4 tones that now seem so cemented to a certain time and set of assumptions.”The story so far…”

And then I’d be gone.

On another planet or spaceship or space-time continuum entirely, wrapped up in this strange little world that only I and a few privileged friends at school had heard of. To my family, it was utterly meaningly and once they’d established that there was no swearing, no readily discernible blasphemy and zero sex references (I was very lucky with the ten minutes they actually listened too), they left me and the luxurious headphones to it.

The show was wonderful. And hilarious. And utterly, magnificently true – the Universe (as I was discovering) really did make no sense. Forty two was as good an answer as any. A gang of white mice who were really extensions of pan-dimensional beings conducting frightfully sophisticated experiments on humans was as credible (and certainly more attractive) an explanation as a God who’d let his only son be flogged, nailed to a tree and stabbed with a spear after days of horrible torture.

I think there were many ways I’ve since forgotten in which it must have helped me survive a pretty grim adolescence*.

The book itself came after the radio series in 1979 and I promptly saved up and bought it, along with the first two sequels – The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe (1979) and Life, The Universe and Everything (1980). After that, I went to university and lost touch with the series. Or did it lose touch with me? Loftier things (the worst relationship in the world, being in dreadful bands, drink etc) got in the way.

Returning to the books, my 49 year old self notices two things. Firstly, I’m now at the age Douglas Adams was when he died (see the extended kvetch on this subject in my last post) and secondly, how astonishing it is in some ways that Adams lasted as long as he did. I can only assume he existed at the same level as some sort of Zen Master, serenely and ironically composed in the face of the singular horror of a universe with no rhyme or reason other than the entirely futile and random rationales that its hapless inhabitants project upon it. These are seriously depressing books if you approach them in the wrong frame of mind. A handful of pages into the first volume, the entire human race is wiped out to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Later, the ‘hero’ (the books don’t really have heroes, actually, except possibly for Trillian), Arthur Dent, finds himself returning to his doomed home planet again and again and each time the horrors and the pathos redouble.

Does anything lighten the existential murk? Well, a few things.

For one thing, the books are funny. Very funny, in the nihilistic, absurdist vein mined by Monty Python or the Goons (especially Spike Milligan). Adams was actually a minor Footlights alumni and had a couple of writing credits for Monty Python. He revels in demented neologisms (“the mattress flurried and glurried. It flolloped, gupped and willioied…” I should mention that we’re dealing with a sentient mattress here), silly names (Slartibartfast? Zaphod Beeblebrox?) and complex puns.

And they’re also bursting with ideas. Like Philip K. Dick, Adams is an ideas man first and a plotter second. One meets SEPs (Someone Else’s Problem) field generators, Infinite Improbability Engines and an altogether convincing general theory of time travel. Doors talk. The mighty marketing machine of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation embeds annoying personalities in every moving part of a space ship. A huge computer and a sentient drinks machine nearly kill everyone trying to solve the problem of how to make tea. And so on. The characters in his books are pretty much identical at the end to the way they are at the beginning. Their lack of progression is almost the whole point.

But as the series goes on (and I’m about to start the fourth volume, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish), it gets darker and darker and the satire shifts its targets from petty bureaucracy and marketing to bigger, less easily laughed away evils – war, genocide, environmental havoc, the entitlement felt by the very rich and the powerlessness of the rest of us to change, well anything. Very little light gets through.

Except for one thing. At the climax of Life, The Universe and Everything, Trillian the closest we get to a sympathetic character in the entire series, notices that the most hideously feared warmongers in the entire history of the universe quite possibly don’t want to kill anyone. They’d rather play ‘krikket’ with them. And for a few pages, a character changes the small, dark space around her through an outpouring of what is, effectively, love. Earlier, one saw her struggle to reach the titanically solipsistic Zaphod Beeblebrox, fail, and quietly walk away. Here, Trillian succeeds, on a planet where a cloud of dust has blocked out any of the light from the surrounding universe from ever reaching it.

Love. Love the people immediately around you. That’s the only meaning the books dare offer, they only way in which they attempt to make any kind of sense whatsoever. As things get bleaker and bleaker (and the books are full of appalling prophecies ranging from Kindles to the deforestation of an entire planet to avoid hyper-inflation of a currency consisting of leaves to a civilisation descended entirely from the survivors of a spaceship full of marketing managers and accountants) it’s as good a message as any.

*Believe me, the Ravenous Blugbatter Beast of Tral** would have been light relief, with or without a towel.

**Read the damn book, ok?

Reading: Ranger Apprentice, The City & The City; Hideous Gnosis

Ranger Apprentice: 1 – The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan is the first in a middle grade series that seems to be coming out at the rate of three a year and accelerating. Dudelet (who’s on Michelle Paver’s sixth Wolf Brother novel but taking a break to feed a serious Wimpy Kid habit) took one look and shook his head.

“I like books like this,” he said, pointing out the mix of comics and text in Wimpy Kid, “without too many words in.”

I point out the half completed Michelle Paver and Roman Mysteries by his pillow. He deals with the inconsistency with his usual, eerily adolescent shrug.

Anyway, I read it and moderately enjoyed it. It’s the kind of book I’d classify as ‘efficient’ – craftsmanlike, linear, uncomplicated and resorting to the most fearsome stereotypes, especially in the coy little hints of romance. For the uncomplicated eleven year old boy in your life, perhaps. Or perhaps not.

China Mieville’s The City & The City is not a children’s book, though a patient sixteen year old with a thing for noirish urban fantasy might find a lot to like. It’s a slow burning detective novel set in a vaguely Mittel-European city. Or cities. There are actually two of them occupying the same geographical space but acting as if they were as separate as East and West Berlin. Or Jewish and Arabic quarters in Jerusalem. Or the hopelessly intermeshed interracial interstices of London or any other European space. It’s indebted to Calvino, the Inspector Zen mysteries, Borges and (most of all) John Le Carré by turns and repays the initial patience it requires (though the character of Cowie still seems like a certain female police Sergeant met in a previous Miéville novel). Recommended.

Hideous Gnosis is a collection of essays derived from the academic seminar of the same name. You’ll find more information at the  Black Metal Theory blog. It takes on, in occasionally impenetrably abstruse terms but also in terms of photos, oral documentary and much else, issues of gender, race, right wing ideologies (and their rejection), nature worship, differences between the Scandinavian and North American strands and many other interesting aspects in contemporary and early 90s black metal. Beginners should probably start with Pitchfork writer Brandon Stosuy’s Slate article on Heavy Metal For Hipsters then watch the the venerable Fenriz’s Black Metal 101 (below). Hideous Gnosis itself is on Google Books under an open access licence and pdfs are freely available.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, review-type thing

How to write about a monster like 1Q84 (official site) without giving too much away?

I suppose I could start by mentioning the things that it isn’t.

It isn’t, ultimately, the crushing disappointment that I feared after Kafka On The Shore or the insubstantial After Dark (which read more like Banana Yoshimoto* than Murakami). It isn’t short. It isn’t, in many ways, difficult to follow or seemingly random. It isn’t lacking in Murakami’s trademarks (erotic sex**, shadowy organisations menacing the lead characters, powerfully felt senses of fate or destiny, transgressive sex, young-girl-psychopomp figures and so on).

So what’s new? Why did 1Q84 ultimately engage me so powerfully where other of his more recent books have left me cold? Firstly, I use the term ‘ultimately’ quite advisedly. One strand of the book constantly references Proust in a way that comes to seem a little knowing, as if Murakami is sending us a clear message about what he’s doing here. The challenges that I imagine Proust offers – I confess I’ve yet to tackle him – relate to the need for the reader to submit absolutely to the writer’s envisioning of another’s inner life and Murakami is quite thoroughly immersing us in the inner lives of three highly contrasting characters at some length and in great detail. The other hint provided by Proust is the requirement of stamina. 1Q84 takes patience and commitment and probably only works for the reader prepared to be enchanted by its steady, rolling flow.

This isn’t a meandering trek through a world of meditation and madelines, however. It does have its own madelines and the memories and past lives of the two lead characters suffuse the text. But 1Q84 is also a thriller and a mystery story, albeit a rather metaphysical one. The stakes are high – the existence of a world, the persistence and transformation of inner lives, the fulfilment of a destiny possibly set in motion in childhood. It’s also a thoroughly unapologetic love story. There’s redemption, death, sorrow, ruthlessness…It is, after all, a very large book.

1Q84 will take patience. I almost gave up half way through. But it rewards the effort. You might want to take a box of tissues along for the ride but I put my Kindle down (it is, after all, a rather heavy book) with a sigh of, well, fulfilment. And more than that, I’m not saying.

*Banana Yoshimoto’s most recently translated book, Hard Boiled, is actually rather good, by the way. But one’s expectations are different.

** Look, most sex in literary fiction takes a positive pride in being unerotic, okay?