Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Sabbatical by John Barth


"The first-person-duple voice of 
a well-coupled couple."
You may have heard me mention Barth in other posts as an author for whom I have all the time in the world, but time which needs to be apportioned and plotted across the linear path of my intertextual voyage, much like the course a sailor might plot as he or she or they sailed across his beloved Chesapeake Bay. His novels are course markers, between two of which I might meander or make other stops as whimsy dictates. They are also a delight, a challenge, a reproach, an encouragement, a revelation. Whilst there are other literary ports for me in times of foul weather, Barth stands as my lighthouse to guard and guide.

Okay, sailing metaphors be damned, and on with the story. Sabbatical, subtitled A Romance, engenders so many Ah! and Oh! moments, both revelatory and astonishing, and (as the Washington Post notes on the cover) visceral and bloody, that I think I won't be able to do it justice in a review. I remarked to a colleague, half in jest and half in a fit of pique at his lip-curling, eye-narrowing, nostril-flaring critique of Will Self's debut novel as, "clever but for his own amusement, not mine," that if he thought that was clever, he should read the passage of this novel where the triple narrator (both Fenwick and Susan, of whom more shortly, have distinct authorial voices but also combine to create Narrator, a separate entity and the one ostensibly pushing the pen), introduces an example of Vietnamese oral poetry couplets with strict tone and syllable constraints but, in this particular instance, referencing directly and indirectly both the poet's relationship with Susan's twin-sister, her relationship with Susan her sister, and her sons, and her sister Susan's husband Fenwick, and her sister's Susan's husband Fenwick's family, and her mother, and sailing, and life, and counter intelligence, and narrative, in fact with everything the book talks about obliquely and obviously, in such a feat of microcosmic summation that it literally blows my cognitive functions and makes me turn out sentences of breathless paragraph-lengths. He blinked his eyes and damned all such literature as onanistic and self-indulgent*. In retrospect, Barth might be a tad selfish, but he does it in a manner which comes cross as playful, even when dealing with subjects as potentially calamitous as vacuum aspiration (of twins no less). He notes devices and tropes in his own / his narrator's writing, telling then showing (and showing-off) such devices and tropes as weather to indicate or confuse characters' actions and moods. He plays with language like no-one else of whom I know, compounding his own nouns when fun dictates, verbing-up other nouns when suitable existing ones won't encapsulate the meaning as succinctly as he would like; he removes punctuation where deemed superfluous, particularly around reported speech, and some of his descriptive passages and phrases** come from an artist's view of things that I very much wish I could possess or, if not, emulate successfully. But of course, as with everything, it's not perfect; I mean, what kind of monster uses so many footnotes?!***

To recount the story, a little, for those who enjoy a narrative arc in their executive summaries; recently retired C.I.A. officer and fifty-something divorcee Fenwick Scott Key Turner, absolutely descended from author of The Star Spangled Banner, to whom many references abound, and his second wife of seven years, the younger at thirty five, and scholarly American Literature professor, Susan Rachel Allan Seckler, potentially descended from Edgar Allan Poe, to whom many, many references abound also, have just about finished a sabbatical sailing tour of the Caribbean and are headed back to home to face many questions about their joint or several futures after failing to find out any more about the mysterious disappearances of his twin brother and C.I.A. maverick Manfred, and Manfred's own son, with Fenn's wife's mother, Gus, half-brother to both Susan and her twin sister and victim of repeated acts of atrocity, Miriam. And that's about as simply as I can put it. I wonder if the subtitle of the novel relates to the Byronic influence of action and nomenclature surrounding 'Count' Manfred, hinted at and directly referenced within, particularly in relationship to Fenn's first wife, the sibling-courted Marilyn Marsh, who – spoiler alert! – crops up late on as a C.I.A. operative herself. Oh, also the first couple mentioned there, Suse and Fenn, appear to be co-authoring a novel about their time at sea and their lives on land, which, in essence, is this novel. 

Postmodern eh?

Fear not! For all its complexity it is still a joyful and surprising novel, witty and erudite, challenging and rewarding, and for the lover of sailing, replete with nautical thingameejigs and whassnames. If you've never tried Barth before, this might be the gateway novel to a future of reading pleasure.

* A nearly true story!
** Off the top of my head, one description of massing storm clouds made me squeal like a child with his hand in a tub of maggots - "...that sky over there has put on its green and black rampage dress."
*** An over-used and tiresome device to prove not only that the writer is cleverer than the reader but also that there was hard work involved, such as would require the noting of research to prove all that is said is so.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Odd Corners by William Hjortsberg


Sci-fi is a vehicle for happiness.
Something about William Hjortsberg chimes with me on a level I'm not really sure how to define. We share a few interesting commonalities - a deep and abiding appreciation of Richard Brautigan, a distaste for the generously applied literary tags of publishers and critics, a difficult surname to spell - but it is his writing that murmurs warm and comfortingly in my mind and makes it a delight to spend an afternoon deeply immersed therein. I regret offering up Nevermore and Fallen Angel to the indifferent charity shop shoppers without defending their literary honour, and so in my new found library-lite state of being I am definitely keeping this little collection, and will jealously guard it against the constraints of future living arrangements. 

For those who do like pigeon-holes with their reading, one might throw this one into science-fiction. For indeed, just as Hjortsberg proffers in his own introduction, the stories utilise aspects of future technology to deliver their morals and prop up narrative arcs. And yes, the sharp-eyed vultures amongst you, waiting for me to witter on about my general lack of love for short stories, might also have deduced that this is a collection of such. And yet, Hjortsberg also points out that it wasn't until he began ignoring what others thought he should and shouldn't write that he began to write in his own voice, developing an authentic Hjortsbergian voice, one which, when reflecting on his work, I realise demurs delightfully to the characters and action of the story, rarely if ever intruding. 

Let us quickly round up the action for those who enjoy plot synopses and such. There are only four stories in the collection, two short, one very short, and one longer piece itself split into five stages. The first, Symbiography portrays a society addicted to entertainment via vicarious experience, mainly through purchased dreamscapes but also the burgeoning market for first-person sensory immersion. A capitalist dystopia, citizens exist in walled cities whilst those competing for life outside regress to the state of nomadic tribes, primitive and fractious. Homecoming is the short story of the seeders of life in the universe, ambiguous beings of light who travel the universe knowing all that is to be known and balancing galactic karma. The Clone Who Ran For Congress is an hubristic tale of human cloning, initially to satisfy sporting audiences hungry for further athletic achievement, but leading towards a future where hive minded human replicas can manipulate mankind to fulfil their own hidden agendas. And in Grey Matter, all humanity resides in a pre-Matrix disembodied dream world, literal brains in jars, where the goal is elevation to the top level of existence through diligent meditation and ultimately enlightenment, only the three brains we follow have other ideas, proving mankind still has the potential for hate, rage, solipsistic hedonism, regardless of how much of the physical form is removed by the logic of Occam's Razor.

There is a general trend towards dystopia, a vision of the future as a battleground between humanity and technology whether humanity realises it or not, and a frustrated sense of the wasted potential of our species. But, remarkably for a man who has "committed science fiction", the technology is just another device to explore the drama of the human, its battles and struggles, the void left by diminishing usefulness and lack of purpose, and the temptations of hubris. I genuinely wish he'd commit more of the same, and far more regularly. If you don't have time to wade through the weighty Jubilee Hitchhiker to get a sense of Hjortsberg's breadth of talent go for this instead, and don't let his crimes against literature put you off.