Monday, 27 April 2015

The Book of The New Sun, Volume 1: Shadow and Claw, by Gene Wolfe

My review is over there...


Thursday, 9 April 2015

Orfeo by Richard Powers

A wonderful, noisy novel
I'm in a rare state of euphoria. This past week I've had a few epiphanies, most of which might be pretty unremarkable, mundane and trivial and with none of which I will annoy or bore you. I've also watched what might be my favourite film (which isn't The Big Lebowksi) and read one of my new favourite books. To this end, please forgive the trotting out of superlatives that is bound to follow. 

Firstly, before we begin, I urge you to find and watch Synecdoche, New York, a 2008 film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (also of The Big Lebowski), written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and rather amusingly mis-labelled by iTunes as a comedy. Mind-blowing.

Secondly, here come the superlatives. Richard Powers' Orfeo is the best book I've read this year by a significant margin. Similarly mind-blowing, I'm indebted to whomever it was suggested I splash out 99p on the Kindle version , and who has both gifted me great joy and also robbed me of the delight of reading this in hard copy. The story, to trivialise it with a clumsy synopsis, follows avant-garde composer Peter Els, ostensible Orpheus referred to in the title, whose life's works moulder and decay unplayed and overlooked, while he searches for something beautiful and beyond his grasp. He is also on the run from the police, the FBI, the FDA, and NSA for acts of bioterrorism. 

Punctuated throughout by what sound like short passages from a confession of sorts, and which are explained very late on in the novel, Els' life is charted from youth through to dotage by an omniscient narrator, only switching to a sort-of second person view in his final moments. His messy love life, his family - traded for the pursuit of music - his compositions and collaborations are traced over the map of world events, global disasters, wars, assassinations, deaths, political upheaval and social change. In a linear recap, his early life flirtation with composition in chemistry as an alternative to pencils and blank staves leads to a later life fascination with biochemistry and his creation of a microbial menace, by accident. However, the narrative unfolds alternating between present and past events. Only the power of Powers' storytelling leaves the final twist, unseen by me as I was swept along, a very enjoyable surprise. Through it all is a constant soundtrack, music in every passage, on every page. Descriptions of pieces, dribbles of the lives of composers, including some so moving that I spent a lot more than the seven pounds I would have spent on a paperback on downloads of things like Olivier Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time, abound, sometimes dissonantly, perhaps deliberately so, but always apposite, and Powers' apparent depth of understanding translates into a love that shines through, even when criticising movements, pieces, critiques, composers. It's an infectious, cacophonous novel; a deeply moving novel covering friendship and love, music and technology, fathers and daughters, government and the media, art and consumerism. Els is a deeply flawed, wonderfully human character, empathetic and identifiable. And the title hints at poetry, prophecy, deep love and the power to make the world move, referencing Pindar's 'Father of Songs' and the anonymous Middle English poem Sir Orfeo

Powers is a novelist to whom I will be returning again and again on the strength of this one. He left me sitting still, awaiting the music that would find me.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Day by A. L. Kennedy

Worra int'restin' book, like.
Alas, here I go with another apologetic opening line. I've had a signed copy of this book on my shelves since Alison Kennedy attended a book signing in Cardiff way back in April 2007, and have studiously ignored it since. Sorry. I'm sorry because A.L. Kennedy is a brave and interesting person. Not only has she had the pleasure of my company for a beer or two (hence brave), she is also a stand-up comedian* and a successful essayist. She has won prizes and awards**, and was smashing to talk with, albeit briefly. But the truth should be known - I dislike novels that dwell on the world wars, and was terribly afraid that I would hate this book and thus sound like an arse. 

The background to this, only partly understood and therefore difficult to explain, is that the particular emphasis on Britishness that seems to be the fall back position for writers, both novelists and screenwriters, makes me spectacularly uncomfortable. For some reason on which I don't have a handle, I squirm at the sound of British accents. That chinless upper-class BBC plumminess, those thick regional dialects and phoney-sounding despite being ostensibly authentic patois, turn me right off. Odd, given I'm usually quite good at understanding accents - after all I didn't need subtitles to watch The Wire and Irvine Welsh is no real challenge for me to whizz through. I admit, I worked at losing my terribly parochial Pembrokeshire accent, and have a frustrating tendency to mimic the accents of those to whom I speak. But back to war novels, and it's irritating that all I can think of when I read those jolly chappies talking of giving Fritz a good spanking is David Niven. Now I don't mind Niven, but it turns every situation into a wry BBC comedy in my brain.

To the detriment of what is otherwise a very tight and claustrophobic novel, when I hear Alfred Day talk to himself or to others, or use the oddly intrusive second person narrative style, all I think about is Ozzy Osbourne. Considering the book tugs at the fraying fabric of a severely damaged young man, his childhood experiences and the trauma of war and imprisonment combining to add a patina of sweaty insanity to the well wrought and considered prose, this might not be inappropriate, but then I can't help but imagine Alfred Day has ashtrays sown onto his knees and buries booze in the back yard so his wife won't find out he's drinking again. That doesn't help. However, from that aspect, Kennedy's perceptive ear for and bravery in representing a Staffordshire accent (yeah, I know Ozzy isn't a Staffordshire boy, but Black Country isn't far off) must have been successful. In moments of stress and anxiety, the well-read and self-educated Day slips back into his thick tongue, especially when reprimanding himself in the italic passages throughout. In fact, the prose skips about a little between first, second and third person, and although easy to follow, muddles things a little, as though finding the view from inside Day's head too suffocating Kennedy has to let some air in. It works and it doesn't, but it contributes to the feeling that our protagonist is only an evil look away from killing someone (someone else that is). 

What I do like, and find interesting, is Kennedy's perceptive portrayal of Day as an outsider. His childhood was dominated by his abusive father, making his early years a struggle to find his own identity, which he believes he finds as the tail gunner of an RAF bomber crew. But this comes at the cost of his involvement in war, and almost inevitably, the camaraderie he finds as part of a team, his nickname is Little Boss among the crew, is shattered when almost at the end of his tour of thirty missions his Lancaster is shot down and everyone but him dies. He finds solace in the company of a holy fool he finds in the German POW camp, Ringer (a character about whom I felt not enough was disclosed), but his death on the long walk home after their release shatters him anew. At all times, his search for connection, for belonging, and failure thereof, is driving spikes into his heart. His dalliance with a married woman, Joyce, whose husband is presumed MIA, is almost fatal, her presence (and absence) pressing those spikes further into him. He chooses to hide himself from others in the pretence that this will save him from future harm, and therein lies madness. 

A word on the ladies represented. There are but two - Alfred's mother and his lady friend - and they are treated quite lightly, never really progressing beyond an archetype. Joyce's hidden depths are hinted at, gently, but she seems to exist as a device first and foremost, for some less-than-gentle ribbing from his crew and as the potential salvation he seeks towards the end. His mother barely gets a mention, except as his drunken father's punching bag and representing the tactile memories of his brief moments of childhood happiness. Maybe that's fitting, maybe it's an oversight, it's hard to know. Of course, written as it is from Day's perspective, maybe this is how he sees women and therefore carries verisimilitude. 

Whatever its flaws, Day is an interesting and challenging read, one I can't believe*** I've put off for so long. Enjoyment is probably too strong a word, but I did want to read on and see where it went. It is successful in terms of the frank portrayal of war for an RAF crew, very believable in that respect, and is harrowing in parts, particularly the infamous Operation Gomorrah raid on Hamburg. Day is pitiable, understandable, if not likeable, and his time on the set of the POW film is an interesting way to illustrate his loss of connection with the world and his sad realisation that he thought he needed the war to fill a hole in himself. Of course, I felt most affinity with the irascible bookshop owner, Ivor... Just saying. Don't let me put you off making your own mind up about this one - it's definitely worth a read.

* I don't remember where society stands on the use of the feminine noun comedienne so won't attempt it for fear of looking the fool.

** Including the Costa Book of the Year award for this very novel.

*** Not true - it's fairly chuffing typical.