Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Making Of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon

Now everything mattered less, 
but also more.
Forgiveness please for the ongoing tardiness of my updates. This is due in part to an ongoing proofing commitment (which is proving diverting) and also because I'm all turned around by Laird Hunt's Indiana, Indiana, of which more anon.

I'm an advocate, a fan, of Aleksandar Hemon. His Chicago-based Liverpool Football Club affinity aside, his writing, even short stories (or perhaps especially short stories) has always filled me with wonder and excitement and pathos and joy. There is a hard-earned, droll, dry stoicism even as he delivers tales of the horror of the Balkans war. But in trying to cultivate that drollness into a full-blown comic novel I wonder if he's not overreached. 

Joshua 'Jacky' Levin (wait, I'm having Jacky flashbacks) is a struggling screenwriter and uncommitted teacher of English-As-A-Foreign-Language in Chicago. His ideas fill digital note books as evidenced by their liberal seasoning of the novel in attempts to shoe-horn in more absurd levity, but the only one that his peers in the screenwriting group consider to have merit is the titular Zombie Wars, a highly derivative post-apocalyptic zombie screenplay, a scene from which prefaces each chapter (or perhaps serves as an epigraph to the previous chapter–I couldn't decide, or didn't care to try, in most instances). His network consists of the aforementioned and particularly unsupportive screenwriters, his collapsing familia diaspora, his landlord who appears to suffer from PTSD of a peculiar sort, his cold and mysterious (and irritatingly Japanese) girlfriend, and the rogues gallery that is his mostly Eastern Bloc teaching cohort. Throughout, Joshua appears to court divine intervention with random exhortations, makes odd remarks about his grand parents who survived internment in the camps, and seems, generally, only Jewish as an afterthought. Heavy (and heavy-going) use is made of not very entertaining repeating tropes and the oft-repeated ideas seem laboured. 

To balance this unfavourable-sounding experience, there are some excellent moments, echoing the Pulitzer-Prize winning character Dick Macalister from Love and Other Obstacles, usually centred on the charismatic yet brutally practical Bega, a fellow writer (although we never hear or see any evidence of this other than his presence at the writing group) and Bosnian immigrant who serves as a catalyst for some of the more brutal action, particularly when involved in the desperately self-destructive rage of the cuckolded Bosnian husband of Joshua's antagonistic love interest, sultry student Ana. Crazy landlord Stagger does add some genuine comic relief with his repressed homoerotic behaviour, almost permanent state of undress and willingness to wield a samurai sword over which he has only the very basic control, and there is pathos to spare in the implied lives of Ana and her daughter, the casual indifference to animal cruelty when offset against the atrocity of wartime experience, and in the willingness of any given human animal to mortgage his or her future against what appears in retrospect to be temporary gains in general happiness. In that respect it is intensely thought-provoking. However, it fails somewhere along the line, and the humour, which could have been underplayed and understated, interrupts such thoughts, rudely in places. Maybe I mean to say it is gratuitous, somehow. And the ending, wherein the screenplay becomes prose and the family meal at Passover becomes the screenplay, well, I could draw inferences but at that point I was kind-of glad it was over.


However, (a big however, get it?) there is absolutely nothing in this book that would ever put me off reading everything Hemon writes in the future. This is not Yellow Dog by Martin Amis, the novel that stopped me caring about Martin Amis. This is a stretched but still accomplished novel which I will give time to settle and re-read, to ensure that a man to whom a Genius Grant was given hasn't just written way over my head. And of course, he kills you right at the end. In Joshua's cinematic vision, humans have found a sanctuary, a prison whose walls and gates have stopped, temporarily, the advancing hordes of the undead. Major K and Jack, two characters from the screenplay, look down over the dishevelled and dispirited masses of humanity in the prison yard.
"It was a beautiful, big dream. Big enough for all of us," Jack went on. Before he could say anything else, somewhere below, somewhere in the silent human crowd below, a cell phone rang. First once, and then it rang again. The silence between the rings was crushing.
"Pick it up!" someone cried, but nothing happened. The sea of zombies slowly funnelled towards the entrance to the prison. The first wave to reach the closed gate simply stopped. They didn't really know what to do, so they just stood there, uneasy, rumbling with hunger.


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Embassytown by China Miéville

The stone that was split and put
together again.
Forgive me, dear readers, for opening yet again with a craven apology, but I am hamstrung with admiration for this book, tongue-tied by its completeness, and ill-equipped to do it justice. First the history. Searching for a book the buying of which would calm some forlorn disquiet brewing in me, I took my son to The Cowbridge Bookshop (don't bother with its website, the domain licence has lapsed, but do patronise) and chanced upon Embassytown. The owner talked at length about The Scar and The City & The City (funny, because purchasing Peridodo Street Station recently from Goliath Books–I mean Waterstones in town the bookseller made the same pitch) while my son was gentle molested by two overly aggressive terrier-crosses, and I walked out marginally less disquieted but also anxious to get stuck in. True to form it was three or four books later before it bubbled to the surface of my to-be-read pool. 

I'd always assumed Miéville was sci-fi. Or horror. Covers hinted at both, at neither, at something other, and measuring the bulk of Peridido in hours of my life spent I'd found other, shorter versions of temporary happiness in which to indulge. Then I bought The City... for a short road trip on the e-reading device, and was sold on his brand of New Weird. I quickly found it's not fantasy, or sci-fi, or horror, it's all of that and more, it's Carlton Mellick gore and H. P. Lovecraft odd and Philip Kerr noir. In Embassytown, Miéville adds Saussurean semiotics and mixes in all the political intrigue of a Roman senate meeting. It is glorious.

So, our narrator is Avice Benner Cho who is recapping her experiences of life in Embassytown, what amounts to a symbiotic city within another city, "a star within a circle", on the remotest possible planet in the federation or political alliance of what is known as Bremen. Now, this planet is not so far from it all in reality, in Euclidian terms, but in terms of the immer, the sea that flows underneath or behind or through all that is corporeal in this dimension, a permanent, ubiquitous but nonetheless terrifyingly dangerous un-place through which travel of immeasurable speed is possible by specifically selected and trained immersers, of which Avice is one, it is the edge of existence. The planet is inhabited by insect like hosts, the Ariekene, aliens with incredible ability to manufacture living flesh for any purpose imaginable, and who speak Language (deliberate capitalisation), a mode of communication that is devoid of ambiguity, despite being able to create similes with which to express new ideas, and speaks one soul directly to other souls, for want of a better metaphor. It is something perhaps like the word of God, impossible to understand and difficult to translate or approximate, the task of which falls to Ambassadors, two people who, through technology and serendipity, are able to speak the dual streams of sounds and words in a way which approaches communication. I told you I lacked the words to express this stuff.

Anyway, shit happens, something terrible, conceptually, through which the understanding of political intrigue from afar creeps, and suddenly the humans are a threat, a cancer to be cured. Facing annihilation, the only way to save themselves and their murderous Hosts is for Avice, herself a simile in Language (it gets explained, just go with it), to find a new way to communicate, which is impossible.

If this was Miéville's final book, I'd be happy to say he's finished what he set out to do, that this was the pinnacle of his achievements. It's damned awesome, one of those you race through to find out what happens and then despair because you've finished. He's tweaked English to become a far-future hybrid Anglo-Ubiq, proposed a new way to measure time as standard across worlds with differing diurnal cycles, and in the immer there is untapped potential for future exploration. The lives of Embassytowners are so vividly imagined you can see it when you close your eyes, biorigged buildings, altered wildlife, cloven-hoofed alien cockroaches eight feet tall, it's all a genuinely complete and satisfying novel. For a few moments at the start I grant you, I feared the effort of coming to terms with its new lexicon, but no detail is left to chance, and anything you don't immediately understand becomes clear as you read on. It's simply excellent. Those allergic to far-future space novels can be excused, but anyone else with an interest in language, its expression and evolution, or politics, or adventure, or terror, or reading for pleasure again, would be well advised to add this to your TBR pile. Plus, it scores innumerable geek points for obliquely referencing George A. Romero. 

Superabundance by Heinz Helle

Every car coming from the other 
direction could smash into us.
This advance reading proof was sent to me courtesy of the lovely social media people at Serpent's Tail, whose generosity I immediately abused by relegating it in the TBR list to position three behind The Mule and the long-overdue-for-a-read and tantalisingly whimsical Escape Everything, which meant of course that I was unable to finish it in time to add heft and fizz to the pre-publication literati-media frenzy, surely the main reason such generosity is exhibited by major publishing houses. For that, I'm sorry. So, late to the party as ever, I shout my opinion into the mirror seeing all the while fellow guests and my hosts move behind me to fetch their coats and tidy up spilled hors d'oeuvres and aperitifs.

For such a svelte little piece, this ass certainly has a kick to it. To boil it down, a young man, a research philosopher, moves from his girlfriend and life in Germany to the city of New York, to work for a famous philosopher on problems relating to consciousness and experience. His girlfriend follows and stays with him for a short time, before leaving to fly home. And that's pretty much it. At the lowest level of the learning taxonomy, that of remembering, this is all there is. However, our nameless German philosopher is beset at all times by the whirring of his mind, the racing of his thoughts, around each and every situation in which he finds himself, whether lusting after women, or attempting to dampen the noise with alcohol, cigarettes, drugs. His work on the function of higher order thinking is, ironically, undermined by the fact that although he remembers everything, he understands everything within his frame of reference, he is only able to analyse but cannot apply his analysis, he simply cannot learn from what he knows are his mistakes. Something is missing for him to make sense of it all, and he inevitably betrays himself.

And Goddamnit if that doesn't hit a home run right out of my ball park. What am I if unable to learn from my mistakes? What value do these negative thoughts add to my existence if they don't spur me to greater heights of endeavour or creative thought? Shit the bed, but don't I just empathise, sympathise and recognise this character in myself? A recovered addict might suggest that this is the first step on the road to recovery, but I can see that the tide of inertia will be wiping out the footprint I left in the sand pretty soon and I'll be at the start of the process once again. In fact, I'm an addict myself–for safety, a sedentary life of never trying and therefore never failing. I too rush to the bar for the faux camaraderie of beer and football, the chanting in unison, the collective fixation, the sense of a destiny which hides temporarily the void behind it.

And for that reason, this book was one of the hardest reads with which I've been faced in some time. It was a slap in the face, a buzzing, aching, filleting pain, so familiar but represented in such a fashion as to eviscerate my cosy acceptance of my life, my abilities, my fur-lined rut, and leave my stinking bowels running through my desperate hands and pooling at my feet. 

There is one passage* with which I felt empathy to the point of throwing the book out the window, so desperately, hilariously unfunny and painful with dramatic irony, that I thought I'd end with it (in the metaphorical sense–I'm not yet that far gone). Apologies for the dribbling, blubbering self-pity, and enjoy.

She looks at me, and I feel like a patient who has refused to take the medicine that could cure him because he doesn't like... the length of the Patient Information leaflet, and I realise that I'm not concentrating on what's happening. I know this is an important moment in my life, a moment when something is happening that can't be undone... and I think, For God's sake, man just think one single thought for once, take it and hold the fuck onto it, and I concentrate, and it works, and at the moment she walks out of my door for the last time and briefly turns around, I have only one single thought in my head: Patient Information Leaflet.

*Copy quoted from is an advance reading proof so may not represent the finished article