Monday, 28 December 2015

Glass Soup by Jonathan Carroll

God was a polar bear named Bob?
On the face of things, it might be easy to write-off Jonathan Carroll as a facile fantasist, someone who uses vaguely oblique references and metaphors for the whole meaning of life and love, and is overly obsessed with battles of good and evil and the grey areas in between. God knows, when I first read The Land Of Laughs I was confused as to why it merited a place in the Fantasy Masterworks series of books, and was left feeling distinctly bamboozled and empty afterwards. But there is a positive insidiousness about the writing, a depth betrayed by its apparent shallowness, and despite being annoyed at myself for seemingly confusing obviousness and profundity in the book, I went out and bought a load of other books by the same author, and have been steadily working my way through them for the best part of fifteen years. I still have a couple more to go. 

What does that tell you about Carroll? That he has a gift for reminding us of the ubiquitousness of the human experience? That he tells us we should trust ourselves, work hard at love, enjoy the wonder of life and not over-think things? That he sees there is poetry in a slice of chocolate cake, a shop window, a name carved on a tree? All of the above. In addition, he writes simply of complex things, creates impossible worlds in which you just have to believe, and uses vaguely oblique references and metaphors to make the most profound and startling suggestions about the world and our perceptions of it, our relationship with it and each other, and our often blinkered and ignorant solipsism. 

Each character in Glass Soup, lovers Vincent and Isabelle, friends Flora and Leni, conjured memories Broximon, Bob the polar bear, even the octopus driving the bus, serves a deeper purpose, pushes the story to its climax and revelations, and does so with surprisingly biting humour and an astonishingly casual panache. This novel is ridiculous, daft, bonkers, and wonderful, and if I don't appear to have said much about it, that is because I am still working out what to feel; something that is guaranteed to keep a novel in my thoughts and heart for a long, long time to come.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

A Man In Love: My Struggle Volume 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Indifference is one of the seven
deadly sins, actually the greatest
of them all, because it is the
only one that sins against life.
First off, Merry Christmas everyone, and also, here's wishing you all a very happy new year. Let's all hope that 2016 is the year that we all learn just what it is we want and how to get it.

To the task and book at hand, and I am trying desperately to space out my intake of Knausgaard, despite my usual trick of buying everything he's written as soon as I've read half of one book. I am an author-glutton, it's undeniable, but defensible in this instance as, after all, Knausgaard's work is compulsive reading, and very much like life itself it has episodes of great intensity dotted with moments of total self-immersion, acute scrutiny of the minutiae of existence, and rambling discourses on the nature of everything from emasculated fathers to whether madness is desirable in the literary arts. But I have one great reservation about this project, to which I'll come shortly. 

Book two follows on from one, picking up on the new, exciting relationship with Linda Borström, poet and dramatist, who fills the Tonje-shaped hole in his life almost as soon as he has left his first wife for life in Stockholm, hence the subtitle. It is almost very satisfyingly bookended by the story of an abortive and stressful-sounding holiday taken with their three kids, but of course, bucking all literary tropes (or perhaps using all that derive naturally from the storytelling arts) it can't possibly end in such a formulaic fashion  As it turns out that he had met Linda before, at a Nordic writer's seminar in Biskops-Arnö, where she spurns his drunken advances so he cuts up his own face. But she returns by dint of coincidence–she lives in the building in which he miraculously finds an apartment (which he refuses because he was ashamed she might consider it more than a coincidence)–and thereafter he discovers she really does hold a candle for him. So they get married and have the aforementioned three children, which changes his life in so many frightening, uncomfortable and instantly recognisable ways that he almost can't cope with it all.

It's does get a little post-modern. Towards the end of this book, Karl Ove is starting to write the first book, for some reason thinking it a solution to the cycle of anger and frustration on which both he and Linda are stuck. I may have missed the bit where he explains how that works. This book also seems to end with a tacked-on segment, after the spurned opening for the nicely circular ending, which rushes through his best friend mother's funeral to an ending in an unusually forthright manner, with little discussion or digression considering it takes in a revelation from his mother about his father (nothing earth-rending, but it does appear to have come out of the blue for Knausgaard). But honestly, it has me champing at the bit to read book three, so who's laughing now, eh?

Anyway, to the reservation at which I baulked earlier. I fear this cycle is going to end no-where. That there will be no satisfaction for the reader. That Knausgaard is going to go on living, angry, ashamed, indignant, perfidious, and we don't have a climax, or a dénouement, or a cliff hanger, or anything of the sort. It may be some sort of confessional series, something Knausgaard had to write for one of the many reasons has thus far touched upon in the first two books, and serves a purpose in that respect, but as a reader expecting some sort of narrative arc, some hook other than the writing is outstanding and complex and shockingly honest and "intense and vital, ceaselessly compelling" yaddah yaddah, I fear I'll come to the end and like watching a serial that is inexplicably cancelled mid-storyline, howl frustratedly into the sky in impotent rage. Of course, as drawbacks go, it's the least worst one imaginable, but that I'm worried about it already wears a little at my generosity of spirit. 

I've committed to reading two other novels before book three, but I confidently predict I'll race through them en route to Boyhood Island. I honestly can't wait.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Empty Copper Sea by John D. MacDonald

I was leaving bloody footprints on
their shiny grey vinyl floor.
I fear the bored among you, those who clicked the wrong link or were betrayed by your search engine into clicking on to what is basically a giant advert for a real-life Evil Corp. but with added sarcasm and poorly framed* literary endeavour, will not stand for any preening or keening about the high regard in which I hold MacDonald as a gifted storyteller but the low regard in which I hold him for his insistence that masculinity, no matter how progressive the thought behind the action, is basically just about physical effort–at work, at play, in perilous situations and in the king-sized bed aboard The Busted Flush, McGee's 53 foot house boat, which he won in a poker game along with the owner's girlfriend and who he ditched at the first opportunity. For Travis McGee does pretty much bed all the attractive women he meets, unless they are actually spitting acid or filleting children. For that sort of exuberance, you can go visit my reviews for A Tan And Sandy Silence, The Long Lavender Look, The Turquoise Lament, Dress Her In Indigo, Darker Than Amber, Bright Orange For The Shroud, and A Deadly Shade Of Gold, but if you do, start wth ...Amber as it's by far the best (as I didn't write it).

No, for once, I will let the book do the talking, as despite reservations and embattled enthusiasms, the one thing you can count on in a John D. MacDonald novel is that something will surprise you, something will ring true, and make you realise that all those crazy mixed-up thoughts that spin around in the drum of your brain are felt by someone else. In this case, and because I'm feeling lonesome as it's Christmas and I'm all alone**, this is what captured my attention. Apologies for the wholesale theft of text, but I'm sure it constitutes less than 10% so up yours, Fair Use!


"Travis, I've mentioned to you the second law of thermodynamics."
"Which is?"
"That all organised systems tend to slide slowly into chaos and disorder. Energy tends to run down. The universe itself heads inevitably towards darkness and stasis."
"Cheering thought."
"Piogogine altered this concept with his idea of dissipative structures." 
I'm sure you're with me on this one. I've never felt so connected by someone else's analysis of the spiral of lonelin–– shit, hang on I'm missing a bit.
"He used the analogy of a walled city and an open city. The walled city, isolated from its surroundings, will run down, decay and die. The open city will have an exchange of material and energy with its surroundings and will become larger and more complex, capable of dissipating energy even as it grows. I have been thinking that it would not warp the analogy too badly to extend it to a single individual."
"The walled person versus the open person?"
"The walled person would decline, fade, decay."
"Meyer, dammit, I have a lot more interchange of material and energy with my environment than most."
Ugh. Always back to that. Never mind, on we press.
"In a physical sense, but you are not decaying in any physical sense..."
"The decay is emotional?" 
 "And you are walled, in an emotional sense... You are getting no emotional feedback."
 "Where do I go looking for some?"
 "That's the catch. You can't. It isn't that mechanical. You merely have to be receptive and hope it comes along."
"Meanwhile, I am being ground down by the second law of thermodynamics?"
"In a sense, yes." 
"Thank you so much." 
Yeah, that sounded a lot better when I was crying into a pint of red wine...

* And poorly executed I might add
** And milking it