Monday, 23 February 2015

The Case of the General's Thumb by Andrey Kurkov

Sausage, vodka, and a tortoise...
I could have sworn I’d read this book before; the title, the cover illustration, the date of publication (right in the middle of one of my customary author flurries) all sing out familiarly, but I can recall none of the details. This is not as unusual as it sounds. In my youth I spent many days with a creeping feeling I’d read what I was reading before, especially the 82nd Precinct novels of Ed McBain, as I was grateful recipient of the generous and occasionally forgetful book-sourcing of my lovely librarian mother. I must have re-read the first six or so Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett, and the Xanth series by Piers Anthony, maybe upwards of five times, and without complaint.

However, having now potentially re-read this novel, I can see why I may have forgotten it previously. When compared to Death and the Penguin, which is ultimately the first point of reference for anything that Kurkov writes given its pathos, poignancy and wit, this is rather turgid. Not that it’s hard to read, slow or uninteresting – far from it, as it races along with its dual storyline towards a predictable narrative convergence – but rather it suffers from being the charming yet inoffensive relative to something more interesting. The titular thumb, almost forgotten by the time it re-emerges, plays only a tiny part, unconvincingly too – would you as a diligent bank clerk, even to investors of extreme wealth, accept a dismembered thumb as proof of identity for the withdrawal of $4 billion? – and honestly, I lost track of the various players in the mystery quite frequently, mistaking one for another in the two time lines and generally being a little less than gruntled. Perhaps this is a particularly niche novel, one whose humour, direct and obvious jokes at the expense of the formerly Soviet bureaucracy aside, is lost on the product of a WASP-ish liberal up-bringing, but even so there weren’t that many instances where I thought I detected the attempt. It’s unlikely that a novel where 50% of the protagonists hurl frozen fish over the wall of a stately home is meant to be a serious satire, so I'll just have to admit I don’t get the humour. However, it didn’t stop me reading to the end.

So in conclusion, a disappointed review about a disappointing novel. I guess I’ll have to file this under Difficult Fourth Novel and not worry about it. In truth it won’t bother me, and is unlikely to bother anyone else. I don’t regret having read it, only that it doesn’t do justice to the writer that brought us penguin Misha.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Player One by Douglas Coupland


Douglas Coupland and the
Fog of Literary Ennui.
I would be very happy if I loved Douglas Coupland the way fans of Douglas Coupland love him. To be honest, I would also be happy if I hated him with the passion shown by his detractors. Is he majestically brilliant, insightful  capable of spotting and naming cultural trends before we're even aware of them, or is he a loathsome carbuncle on the face of an already sceptic society? Seriously, both of these I found on Good Reads and Amazon reviews of his books. In truth, whilst reading his novels I find them engaging, witty in places, insightful and somewhat acerbic, but as I close the pages, the feelings fade, like a headache slowly lifting. When I think back to his novels which I've read, I realise there have been a surprising amount: Generation X, Generation A, JPod, Miss Wyoming, Girlfriend in a Coma, All Families are Psychotic. I wonder why I keep reading more when I can barely remember any of them. Is it the narcissist in me preening in front of the glossy covers of a completely consumed backlist - look how culturally attuned I am, and how avant guard, and how impossibly well-read! Yah, that sounds plausible. Possibly the most recent was Generation A, and there was something about bees. I remember thinking it borrowed from Viktor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror in so far as there were multiple points of view and they all - did they? - slowly merge. I couldn't tell you what the others were about, although I could posit a passable synopsis. Something about modern culture, something about the commonalities and differences of human kind, something about cultural entropy, and so on. 

As I listened to Damon Albarn talk about the potential for pop music to endure instead of being disposable, it struck me that perhaps Coupland's books are anti-pop literature, anti-pop culture, and as popular trends fade in popularity, then so do the trends in antithesis. That would be harsh on Coupland, given the rather archetypal issues that his characters experience, archetypes that endure - loss of faith, religious fervour, lack of identity, emotional detachment, the seeking of connections, addictions, the careless hurts of family life, the atavism of humans freed of societal strictures - but it might be one of the reasons I didn't connect with this one, and haven't maintained much of a connection with any of his novels. They may have been seminal, they might have broken ground, but ground broken is ground broken; you do it once and then what?

Maybe that's it. Maybe it's a case of 'What now?' for Coupland and me. Maybe he doesn't go far enough - despite the interesting and handy but superfluous Future Legend he provides at the back for humans who survive the coming oil apocalypse - and like all things that don't fulfil promise, the connection just withers, fades, and dies.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before you start, read this disclaimer:

Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I don’t tolerate you very well, despite counting myself amongst you. It’s nothing personal (about you – it’s very personal to me), and I believe it’s Neil’s own fault for being such a very good writer. Please read on through the fan-bashing to the bit about the book. Thank you.


An ocean in a bucket.
Neil Gaiman is an annoyance to me. I really (REALLY) liked American Gods but found that as soon as I mentioned this fact to anyone, I got one of two responses: nose-turned-up snobbery of the most scornful sort, or sickeningly gushing über-fanaticism, if that isn’t tautological. I don’t know which is worse. The snobs I can dismiss as most will be operating within the conceit that Gaiman is fantasy and therefore unworthy of further study or consideration – they are very unlikely to have ready anything by the author. The fans, though, start dribbling on and on about the time they met him in Bath Waterstone’s or how much better he is than the Latin American magic realists, or how his The Books of Magic comic book series (of course, they would confer upon them specious mythic value by using the disingenuous term graphic novels) pre-date the Harry Potter novels and you can clearly see the influence yaddah yaddah*. Regardless of which is most irksome, it has meant that when I do read Gaiman novels or kids’ books (mostly to my son it must be said – he loves The Wolves In The Walls) I do so in secret and would not normally tell anyone.

Clearly, that would not add particular value to a blog about books**. So, when I chanced upon this one languishing on the shelves of a Tenovus shop on Clifton Street, I thought I might be able to spare 99p to rescue it and give it an afternoon’s perusal with a view to a review***. And to be honest, an afternoon was all it lasted. Not in any very bad way (although perhaps I felt aggrieved that it was actually quite a short book), but rather in one of those “I’ve made a cup of tea to drink while reading which went stone cold because I didn’t look up again till the book was finished” kind-of ways.

If I were to put this into the context of his literary oeuvre it might not merit a very high comparative score out of ten, given I really (REALLY) like American Gods which would, for me, score the highest. However, on its own in the Young Adult crossover genre, it would probably blow the covers off the competition. I don’t want to give it all away with plot spoilers, but in essence, a man returns to the neighbourhood of his childhood home (which no longer exists) and relives some magical goings-on which he had forgotten about from when he was only a young boy, in the process revealing the forgotten minor but character-shaping traumas of childhood, the deep-seated longings and dashed dreams of all adult children. As with all his novels, the language is deceptively simple, toying with big ideas in the subtext, and haunted with grief and the bitter-sweet agony of a youth lost to the fog of memory. Yes, there’s magic in there, and yes, it’s all a little bit much for the true suspension of disbelief, but it is certainly a most engaging narrative. I pondered on the prevalence of Gaiman fans after I finished, and wondered if his books are pitched deliberately just on the YA side of adult so as to tap into the child in us all and thus come close enough to the common denominator (without touching) that his appeal is as broad as it can be, given the constraints on the genre. It might be so (hence the gut-churning reluctance to be accepted into fan club), but it might also be that he has tapped into something ubiquitous and universal, something to which I’m not able to put a name as yet, with filigreed tendrils in us all. Those who reject their touch are nature’s anti-bodies. Those who accept are hosts to something magical.


*Okay, so it’s clear the fans annoy me more. Of course, I don’t want to upset the simpering idiots so I hope they don’t know how to use footnotes.
**Other than to provide a handy hook upon which to hang a review, which is most useful.