David Hebblethwaite

Wild swan 1170 Reputation points Help-d956b624e3a70f299ff60fb4f6e79359
  • The Rehearsal

    The single best book I read in 2009; simply brilliant.

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    Where to start with The Rehearsal, a book that fizzes over with invention and exuberance; that rummages through haystacks of artifice and returns with surprisingly many needles of truth; that demands attention from its readers, but pays it all back, many times over — that comes laden with praise, every word of it justified? We could start with the plot, though that might be something of a red herring. There’s a scandal involving a girl at Abbey Grange school and one of the teachers there. The students at the local drama college decide to use the incident as the basis for a production; but it all gets too close to home for one of the actors when he discovers that he’s embarked on a relationship with the sister of the girl at the heart of the scandal. That’s all accurate enough, but it tells you precious little of what The Rehearsal is actually about; and practically nothing of what the experience of reading it is actually like. From the very first page, we understand that not all i...Where to start with The Rehearsal, a book that fizzes over with invention and exuberance; that rummages through haystacks of artifice and returns with surprisingly many needles of truth; that demands attention from its readers, but pays it all back, many times over — that comes laden with praise, every word of it justified? We could start with the plot, though that might be something of a red herring. There’s a scandal involving a girl at Abbey Grange school and one of the teachers there. The students at the local drama college decide to use the incident as the basis for a production; but it all gets too close to home for one of the actors when he discovers that he’s embarked on a relationship with the sister of the girl at the heart of the scandal. That’s all accurate enough, but it tells you precious little of what The Rehearsal is actually about; and practically nothing of what the experience of reading it is actually like. From the very first page, we understand that not all is as it seems. We meet a saxophone teacher who says this to the mother of a prospective student: ‘Mrs Henderson. At present your daughter is simply too young. Let me put it this way: a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud…Do you hear me, with your mouth like a thin scarlet thread and your deflated bosom and your stale mustard blouse?’ She’s not the only character to speak in such a mannered way, and nobody bats an eyelid over it. With hindsight, the clues are there all the way through, but it took me a hundred pages to see what was happening (and I think I only really understood it in the final chapter): we’re witnessing a theatrical performance. But it’s not the same performance as the one the drama students are doing; and it’s no ordinary piece of theatre, because we’re privy to characters’ thoughts as well as their dialogue, just as in any standard prose fiction. This is part of the unique atmosphere of The Rehearsal: Catton keeps it wonderfully ambiguous whether the scene we’re reading is what actually happened, or a later theatrical reconstruction, or something else. The narrative itself is non-linear (I didn’t bother trying to keep track of the true chronological order of events, but never felt disadvantaged for that); we often hear about key events rather than witnessing them directly; and sometimes we even get conflicting reports of what happened. In short, the novel is a maze of fractured realities. If all this makes The Rehearsal sound like a cold, unreadable exercise of a book, let me assure you it is not — the pages fly by. Nevertheless, Catton has a very good reason for taking such an unorthodox approach to her novel. But, before I delve into it, I should step back and paint in some details on the generalities I’ve been describing. The chapters of the novel alternate between two narrative strands, which merge in the last. The first strand concerns some of the girls at Abbey Grange, and three in particular, who all have private lessons with the same saxophone teacher: there’s Isolde, whose sister Victoria is the subject of the scandal; Julia, with whom Isolde eventually becomes friends (and perhaps more); and Bridget, who seems destined to be the eternal ‘other girl’. The second strand is set at the Drama Institute, and focuses especially on nervous young Stanley, who first meets Isolde when she stumbles accidentally upon a rehearsal at the college; and their relationship blossoms haltingly from there. Catton has a sharp eye for characterisation. It’s presented unusually, to be sure: given the nature of the dialogue, the characterisation is often ‘external’, and even exaggerated (as the author reminds us, ‘theatre is a concentrate of life as normal’). But there are many insightful observations of human behaviour to be found here. The saxophone teacher (who often functions as a kind of twisted Greek chorus, saying things that I doubt most people would even want to think) sums Bridget up as ‘always wanting to be somebody else.’ Stanley wants to be an actor because he wants ‘to be seen…if somebody’s watching, you know you’re worth something.’ The most potent weapon that the girls of Abbey Grange have to use against each other is to define each other: who’ll marry first? who’ll cheat? ‘It is the darkest and deadliest of their arts, that each girl might construct or destroy the image of any of the rest.’ And these examples all hint at Catton’s main theme: performing, pretending, rehearsing. She is concerned with the myriad ways we put on performances in life, such as pretending to be what we’re not; telling others what we think they want to hear; putting the interpretation we want on different events; and so on. That’s the reason for all the elaborate games with form and structure: the text itself mirrors the theme — some characters are literally performing roles. To elaborate on some of the other ways in which the theme manifests itself: we never do learn the truth of what happened between Victoria and her teacher.We don’t know if it truly was assault, or something more innocent; whether he was the predator or she the instigator. It could be either, and because it’s unknown, people can make whatever they want of it. And they do: the girls at Abbey Grange feel betrayed by Victoria, because she broke away from the group — at least, that’s what we’re told they feel. Youth is ‘the rehearsal for everything that comes after,’ says the saxophone teacher. Well, adolescence as presented in this novel is a confusing time of not knowing quite who you are or who you want to be… Yep, that seems a pretty accurate view of it to me. Arguably, of course, adulthood can also be like this; and certainly there are adults, as well as adolescents, in the novel who are putting on a show. The teachers in The Rehearsal don’t receive names (actually, some of the drama teachers do, but they’re mostly referred to by titles), and remain largely anonymous; but two in particular — the saxophone teacher and the Drama Institute’s Head of Movement — seem keen to live vicariously through their students and/or memories. Both find different ways of trying to do that; neither seems, to me, to do all that well out of it. Performance and artifice are, the novel seems to suggest, everywhere. It would be neat and tidy to view one narrative strand as the heightened, theatrical representation, and the other as ‘real’ reality; but The Rehearsal doesn’t permit such a simplistic reading. The drama teachers seem as outlandish in their own way as the saxophone teacher; and Stanley’s father (who suggested that his son could get rich by taking out a life insurance policy on the child at school most likely to die) feels no more ‘real’ to me than all the interchangeable mothers who are content to let the saxophone teacher insult them and their daughters. Even the very last scene — which may be when we can trust most completely that what it says on the page is what actually happens in the ‘real world’ of the novel — ends with one character saying to another, ‘I’d be happy if you told me just enough of the facts so I could imagine it. So I could recreate it for myself. So I could imagine that I was really there.’ After reading The Rehearsal, one might well come to the conclusion that this is an impossible dream. Have I nothing bad to say about this book? Not really — the features that would usually be conasidered flaws become strengths in context. So it’s undiluted praise for The Rehearsal from me — and I don’t give that out lightly. Eleanor Catton was 22 when she wrote her début novel, and the craft and artistry it shows are superlative. I think she will be one of the best and most significant writers of her generation. (more)

  • The Turing Test

    A worthy award-winner

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    In July, the winner was announced of the Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. The shortlist included collections by a Booker Prize-winning author, and two former Booker nominees — and this Elastic Press book of science fiction stories by Chris Beckett. A classic case of tokenism, one might think — except that Beckett won. ‘It was…a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand,’ commented one of the judging panel. Well, the obvious thing to say to that is that you don’t need to consider yourself a ’science fiction fan’ to appreciate science fiction, any more than you have to be a ‘literary fiction fan’ to enjoy literary fiction (not, of course, that the two need be mutually exclusive). Readers interested in good fiction shouldn’t be surprised to find stories of interest in any given quarter — but apparently some still are. Anyway, I don’t know the other books, but it’s not hard to see why the judges thought The Turing Test a winning boo...In July, the winner was announced of the Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. The shortlist included collections by a Booker Prize-winning author, and two former Booker nominees — and this Elastic Press book of science fiction stories by Chris Beckett. A classic case of tokenism, one might think — except that Beckett won. ‘It was…a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand,’ commented one of the judging panel. Well, the obvious thing to say to that is that you don’t need to consider yourself a ’science fiction fan’ to appreciate science fiction, any more than you have to be a ‘literary fiction fan’ to enjoy literary fiction (not, of course, that the two need be mutually exclusive). Readers interested in good fiction shouldn’t be surprised to find stories of interest in any given quarter — but apparently some still are. Anyway, I don’t know the other books, but it’s not hard to see why the judges thought The Turing Test a winning book, because Beckett’s stories are superb. He’s especially good at examining human concerns against the background of a science-fictional future. The title story sums this up nicely. The ‘Turing test’ refers to a means of assessing whether an artificial intelligence is convincing enough in conversation to be indistinguishable from a human being. Our protagonist is a gallery owner named Jessica, who finds herself the recipient of a highly sophisticated ‘virtual PA’. Jessica is feeling rather insecure with life (one of her first acts is to ask the PA to change its avatar to something less attractive, and hence less threatening to her self-esteem), and the real question Beckett asks is not whether a computer could pass the Turing test, but whether a person could — perhaps Jessica’s greatest fear is that she could not. The theme of artificial intelligence returns in ‘La Macchina’, where a man finds his ideas about robots challenged when he vists his brother in Italy. Robots are now commonplace, but they’re not supposed to talk to humans, except in superficial, rote ways — so when one tries to strike up a friendly conversation with our man, does that alone make it a ‘Rogue’ that could cause havoc, and hence needs to be destroyed? Then there’s the ‘Safe Brothel’ staffed by sinteticas made to look indistinguishable from human women– but sinteticas are more popular, so some human women pretend to be robots. What’s the protagonist to make of that? All adds up to a very different kind of robot story; the experience of reading it is distinctive. The same could be said of many stories here; Beckett transforms SF staples with the ‘ordinary’ grounding he gives them. ‘Dark Eden’, for example, is a space opera where a small group of people travel to an exotic world — but the ups-and-downs of their relationships are not so different from ours. And ‘The Marriage of Sky and Sea’ puts yet another spin on the form with its tale of a spacefaring writer who makes a living from books about the cultures of more ‘primitive’ human colonies than his own — but his latest trip, to a Viking-style society, makes him question his attitude… My favourite story in the book (which forms the first half of a pair) is about virtual reality, though with Beckett’s characteristic twist. ‘The Perimeter’ is set in a London where the vast majority of people are ‘consensuals’, living in a virtual world; and the more they can afford to pay, the higher their resolution. Only a few, very rich, individuals remain flesh and blood, inhabiting the ruined ‘real’ world, and able to experience the virtual reality through an implant. This story tells of how young consensual Lemmy meets the physical Clarissa Fall, and has his very sense of self challenged. But the tables are turned in ‘Piccadilly Circus’, where we meet Clarissa again a few years later, and she has to face up to her increasing irrelevance as a ‘physical’. To my mind, these stories — and ‘The Perimeter’ especially – have the best fusion of ideas and human consequences; but many of the other tales are almost as strong. In his introduction to The Turing Test, Alastair Reynolds makes what has turned out to be a very appropriate comment: that he hopes the book will bring more attention to Chris Beckett’s fiction. He ends by saying, ‘I’m confident that you’ll finish The Turing Test wanting to turn more people on to this singularly underrated writer.’ So I’ll end by saying: yes. Yes, I do. (more)

  • Tender (Salt Modern Fiction)

    Moments in the life of a family...

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    Tender is not strictly a novel, nor is it a conventional short story collection; it’s not even a typical mosaic novel, story cycle, or whatever name you care to give to a collection of linked stories. It is, however, a series of episodes in the lives of the Dax family, beginning in 1974 (when the parents meet), and spanning a total of thirty years. The title appears in the text, not in an emotional context, but in the context of a lamb stew which Ali Dax serves up — but her husband and son don’t seem to appreciate the tenderness of the meat, which had to be cooked slowly for it to attain that texture. All that care and effort, for what? This reflects what is perhaps the main theme of Tender — feeling discontented with life, looking back and wondering what happened, where it went. The stories in Tender switch (though not in strict rotation) between the viewpoints of Bill and Ali Dax (who meet when he is a footballer and she his physiotherapist), and their children Sean and Rosa (and...Tender is not strictly a novel, nor is it a conventional short story collection; it’s not even a typical mosaic novel, story cycle, or whatever name you care to give to a collection of linked stories. It is, however, a series of episodes in the lives of the Dax family, beginning in 1974 (when the parents meet), and spanning a total of thirty years. The title appears in the text, not in an emotional context, but in the context of a lamb stew which Ali Dax serves up — but her husband and son don’t seem to appreciate the tenderness of the meat, which had to be cooked slowly for it to attain that texture. All that care and effort, for what? This reflects what is perhaps the main theme of Tender — feeling discontented with life, looking back and wondering what happened, where it went. The stories in Tender switch (though not in strict rotation) between the viewpoints of Bill and Ali Dax (who meet when he is a footballer and she his physiotherapist), and their children Sean and Rosa (and, for one story, Ali’s brother Frank, who later dies). at different stages in the characters’ lives. Naturally, this structure means that quite a lot is missed out; but the overall effect is of a gradual accretion of detail — not necessarily of plot detail, but of emotional detail — that builds up a portrait of the family. (One technical gripe: Tender is presented as a single entity — no details of original publication are given, and the author’s acknowledgements page suggests that he has revised at least some of the stories for this volume — yet some later ‘chapters’ describe past events in detail more appropriate to stand-alone stories than the format of the present book.) One of the most impressive things about Tender is the way that Mark Illis gives equal weight to all four of his protagonists. I don’t think it would be unreasonable, to anticipate the book to portray certain of the Daxes more fully than one or two of the others; but it’s not so — all of them feel equally rounded at all stages of their lives — even Frank, in his brief appearance. It’s fascinating to see the characters from both the inside and outside, and how they change subtly over time. What sorts of moments, then, does Illis give us? Ali, single, dreaming of swimming the Channel and then, twenty-five years later, discovering it’s not what she hoped, and neither is her life. On holiday for the couple’s first anniversary, Bill tying himself in mental knots over what — indeed, whether — to think about the handsome American that he and Ali have met, and the pretty young woman who flirted with Bill. The teenage Sean wondering what to do with his life, and using a stray horse he comes across as a focus for his hopes. Rosa’s habit of listing three things that she’d like to happen, and how these change poignantly between the ages of thirteen, seventeen, and twenty-two. I am not sure how well the stories in Tender would fare if read in isolation; but it hardly matters, because they’re best appreciated as a whole. One closes the book feeling that its author has observed and articulated something true about life. Well worth reading. (more)

  • Nocturnes

    Not great

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    My first Ishiguro book, Nocturnes is a cycle of ‘five stories of music and nightfall’ (says the front cover). I spent most of the book feeling curiously unsatisfied; and I still feel that way now I’ve finished it. As far as I can see, the stories are linked so tenuously as to be hardly worth considering as a ‘cycle’. If Ishiguro has a wider point to make with them, I’m not sure what that point is. And if the tales are meant to be entertaining, insightful, or moving… well, bar a couple of moments, I didn’t really find them so. To take each story in turn: we begin with ‘Crooner’, in which a guitar player in Venice encounters Tony Gardner, a faded American singing star. Gardner enlists the musician to help him give one last serenade to his wife, Lindy, from whom Gardner is about to separate, despite the couple still being very much in love. I don’t follow the logic behind the separation, but this sets up one of the recurring features of the five stories: people (and especially couples...My first Ishiguro book, Nocturnes is a cycle of ‘five stories of music and nightfall’ (says the front cover). I spent most of the book feeling curiously unsatisfied; and I still feel that way now I’ve finished it. As far as I can see, the stories are linked so tenuously as to be hardly worth considering as a ‘cycle’. If Ishiguro has a wider point to make with them, I’m not sure what that point is. And if the tales are meant to be entertaining, insightful, or moving… well, bar a couple of moments, I didn’t really find them so. To take each story in turn: we begin with ‘Crooner’, in which a guitar player in Venice encounters Tony Gardner, a faded American singing star. Gardner enlists the musician to help him give one last serenade to his wife, Lindy, from whom Gardner is about to separate, despite the couple still being very much in love. I don’t follow the logic behind the separation, but this sets up one of the recurring features of the five stories: people (and especially couples) behaving in ways that don’t make much outward sense. In ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, the narrator, Raymond, is invited from his life as a teacher in Spain to stay with old university friends in London . The couple’s relationship is strained, but Charlie believes that if, whilst he’s away at a conference, his wife Emily spends time with Raymond (the musical connection here is that Raymond and Emily shared a love of old Broadway songs at university), she’ll stop thinking that Charlie hasn’t made much of his life, because she’ll see that Raymond has achieved so much less. Eh? I know it takes all sorts to make a world, different people react to situations in different ways; but how many people would really stand for effectively being dismissed like that, as Raymond does? And what sort of person would come up with a scheme like that in the first place? The whole thing gets more and more farcical, as Raymond reads Emily’s diary and tries desperately to cover his tracks. The tale goes so far into absurdity that it comes out the other side and ends up strangely believable; it reminded me of Roald Dahl’s work, which is no bad thing. It’s the absurd humour that makes ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ one of the more enjoyable stories in Nocturnes. Next is ‘Malvern Hills’, in which a struggling guitarist leaves London for the summer to help out at his sister’s Herefordshire café. He meets a Swiss couple whose attitude seems to change with each encounter; and discovers that the relationship between his sister and her husband may be more fragile than he thought. This story highlights one of Ishiguro’s weaknesses: his five first-person narrators sound very similar, which he might just about get away with in the right circumstances; but the narrators in Nocturnes are too diverse – the voice that suits middle-aged Raymond doesn’t suit the (presumably) young guitarist, for example. Ishiguro has more success in creating the voices of characters whose first language is not English; though, admittedly, that slightly formal, awkward manner of speaking is not too much of a stretch from (what I assume to be) the author’s ‘default’ style. In the story ‘Nocturne’, we meet Steve, a saxophonist who’s reluctantly undergoing plastic surgery at an exclusive clinic, the operation being funded by his ex-wife’s new lover (again, this does not make a lot of sense to me). We learn about his dealings with the patient next door, a recently divorced Lindy Gardner (the only character to appear in more than one of these stories). There’s one very amusing scene where Steve and Lindy are trying to return a trophy that she’s pinched to give to him; but the rest – like so much of Nocturnes – feels quite flat. Finally, ‘Cellists’ relates (at one remove) how a jobbing European cellist met, and became mentored by, the self-proclaimed virtuoso American cellist Eloise McCormack, who never played a single note on a cello in all the time he knew her. Again, I don’t follow the reasoning behind her behaviour, such reasoning as there is. What does Ishiguro say about music in these stories? To be honest, the presence of music seems almost incidental (pardon the pun). My best guess is that Ishiguro aims to say that a shared love of music can be the glue holding together a foundering relationship, or the only thing left after a relationship is over, and variations on that theme. In which case, fine – but one could say the same about food, or books, or gardening, or myriad other things. I gain very little sense from these tales of what is special about music specifically. What does Ishiguro say about human beings in these stories? The problem here is that the most significant relationships in Nocturnes are being examined from the outside; the enigmatic characters whom we’d like to know more about stay enigmatic, because the narrators can see no further into their minds than we can. The blurb mentions a theme of ‘the struggle to keep alive a sense of life’s romance’; I can see this in some of the stories, but I doubt I’d have picked it out as a ‘theme’ were it not for that hint in the blurb. It’s a strange situation when the best parts of a book are the exact opposite of its dominant mood, but such is the case with Nocturnes. I don’t know if Kazuo Ishiguro has ever written comedy, but I’d love to read the results if he did. As for this book, however… aside from the odd hilarious scene in two of the tales, my overriding impression of Nocturnes is of a collection of stories that, rather politely, don’t say or do very much. (more)

  • Solo

    A life, a daydream... a triumph

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    Solo is the story of Ulrich, a blind, hundred-year-old Bulgarian man who has little to do with his days but reminisce and daydream. He does during the course of the novel. By most standards, Ulrich’s life would be considered a failure. Thwarted (by his father) in his early ambitions to become a musician, Ulrich turned instead to chemistry; but abandoned his studies in Berlin and returned to Sofia when his family’s investments failed. He became a bookkeeper and married a pianist, but that relationship was ultimately doomed; then came the Second World War, and after that, the rule of communism. Regarded with suspicion by the ruling party, Ulrich is nevertheless given a job in charge of operations at a chemical factory, where he works until made to retire. He then does his own experiments at home, until the Party closes down his laboratory. And that, more or less, is the sum of Ulrich’s life. The second half of Solo consists of an extended daydream of Ulrich, in which he reimagines h...Solo is the story of Ulrich, a blind, hundred-year-old Bulgarian man who has little to do with his days but reminisce and daydream. He does during the course of the novel. By most standards, Ulrich’s life would be considered a failure. Thwarted (by his father) in his early ambitions to become a musician, Ulrich turned instead to chemistry; but abandoned his studies in Berlin and returned to Sofia when his family’s investments failed. He became a bookkeeper and married a pianist, but that relationship was ultimately doomed; then came the Second World War, and after that, the rule of communism. Regarded with suspicion by the ruling party, Ulrich is nevertheless given a job in charge of operations at a chemical factory, where he works until made to retire. He then does his own experiments at home, until the Party closes down his laboratory. And that, more or less, is the sum of Ulrich’s life. The second half of Solo consists of an extended daydream of Ulrich, in which he reimagines his friend Boris (whom in reality was executed as a young man in the early 20th century) as a young, successful musician in the present day. Also in the dream are Plastic Munari, the music producer who ‘discovers’ Boris; Khatuna, a Georgian girl who goes up in the world when she gets a job working for a gangster-politician, but flees to New York when he’s shot, and later becomes Plastic’s girlfriend; and Irakli, Khatuna’s wayward poet brother, who becomes dazzled by Boris, though Khatuna hates the musician. There is happiness, of a sort, to be found in the daydream; though it’s not for this post to say which characters find it. Solo is an exquisite book, one of the best I’ve read all year; but trying to encompass why is quite difficult, because it could go in so many directions — Solo is ‘about’ man different things, so consider this post only a partial treatment. On a stylistic and technical level, the novel is superb. Here, for example, is how Dasgupta describes a change in Ulrich’s mother when her husband dies: While he was still alive, Elizaveta would say, ‘All he ever does is sit in that chair and look out of the window.’ It infuriated her to see him so inactive. But after he died she never said anything but, ‘That was the chair he loved.’ Or, ‘How he loved sitting in that chair.’ Or, ‘They are spoiling the view your father loved so much.’ The contrast between the novel’s two parts is also well-handled and subtle. It’s not simply that one depicts failure and the other success. It’s that, in life, one of Ulrich’s obsessions caused so much tragedy — chemistry destroyed his marriage, poisoned his country, took his sight; but, in his daydreams, it is Ulrich’s other obsession, music, that brings so much joy. And it’s that Ulrich’s memories, being somewhat hazy and episodic, feel much like daydreams; whilst his daydreams have a structure that make them feel more like reality (come to think of it, isn’t that often the way in our own lives?). Yet there’s much more to Solo than technique. There’s a political side, too, though it tends to stay in the background (or, more accurately, often has the feel of staying in the background), because Ulrich is rather naïve politically (in retirement, when the police describe his unofficial experiments as ‘dangerous’, Ulrich takes them literally, replying, ‘I wear a gas mask’). Now, admittedly, I don’t know much about the history and politics that the novel’s concerned with, so it may be that my reading is sketchy; but my overriding impression of the politics in Solo is that, whoever’s in power, they’re out largely for themselves, and it makes little difference to Ulrich’s lot. I’ve heard Rana Dasgupta say that one of Solo’s themes is the ‘Faustian bargain we make with modern life’. Looking at the novel through this lens… well, the twentieth century is not very kind to Ulrich, or to Bulgaria in general; and I’ve already mentioned the fruits of Ulrich’s love of chemistry. The daydream is interesting in this regard, because it’s Ulrich’s attempt to make a better life for his friend Boris, and so he does — but the imagined reality is hardly the best of all possible worlds; there are prices to be paid for the glory. Perhaps Ulrich cannot bring himself to create a world without tragedy; perhaps, Solo suggests, it isn’t really possible (’if we are to feel the thrill of progress and achievement, there have to be sacrifices elsewhere,’ says Ulrich at one point). Then there is the question Ulrich thinks about at the end of his reminiscing: what does it truly mean to call a life a failure? ‘How can a dog fail its life, or a tree?’ he thinks. ‘A life is just a quantity; and he can no more see failure in it than he can see failure in a pile of earth, or a bucket of water. Failure and success are foreign terms to such blind matter.’ Well, perhaps if Ulrich can imagine a better life for someone else, that can be his success (the way Ulrich thinks and imagines, his daydreams have equal weight to his life). And if Ulrich must fail, at least it will be — in his words — ‘a fantastic failure. A triumphant failure.’ Solo is no failure, but it is triumphant. (more)

  • One

    A very human view of world's end

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    Conrad Williams‘ The Unblemished was one of my favourite books of 2008; sadly, his new novel, One, doesn’t reach the heights of that earlier work — but it’s an interesting read with some very fine moments nevertheless. The novel is divided into two distinct parts. In the first, ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’, Richard Jane is a saturation diver working on an oil platform off the coast of Aberdeen, when the apocalypse occurs. Eventually making his way back to land, Jane’s only thought is to travel to London in the hopes of finding his young son, Stanley. He sets off, gaining along the way a number of fellow-survivors as companions, notably a hospital radiologist named Becky, and a five-year-old boy named Aidan. After the requisite trials and tribulations, the party reaches London, and the first part ends. The novel’s second part, ‘Lazarus Taxon’, takes place ten years later. Jane still hasn’t found Stanley, but he is now part of a group of survivors in the capital who call themselves...Conrad Williams‘ The Unblemished was one of my favourite books of 2008; sadly, his new novel, One, doesn’t reach the heights of that earlier work — but it’s an interesting read with some very fine moments nevertheless. The novel is divided into two distinct parts. In the first, ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’, Richard Jane is a saturation diver working on an oil platform off the coast of Aberdeen, when the apocalypse occurs. Eventually making his way back to land, Jane’s only thought is to travel to London in the hopes of finding his young son, Stanley. He sets off, gaining along the way a number of fellow-survivors as companions, notably a hospital radiologist named Becky, and a five-year-old boy named Aidan. After the requisite trials and tribulations, the party reaches London, and the first part ends. The novel’s second part, ‘Lazarus Taxon’, takes place ten years later. Jane still hasn’t found Stanley, but he is now part of a group of survivors in the capital who call themselves the Shaded (because some form of shade, or depth, is what apparently saved them from the disaster). They have to contend with not only the pitfalls one might imagine would be found in a collapsed society, but also with something unimaginable — the Skinners. These are creatures grown from the spores that came with the apocalyptic ‘Event’, spores that invaded the bodies of the dead, distorted and animated them. Even a minor wound could turn you into one of them. There are rumours of a raft floating off the Kent coast, build by scientists and waiting to rescue people. Is it true? And what rescue could there be in this world anyway? One is the kind of work which makes plain that genre distinctions (in this case, science fiction and horror) are ultimately limiting and artificial. There is a scientific underpinning to the ‘Event’, but it’s never explained in the story itself; Williams’ acknowledgements page refers to gamma ray bursts, so one assumes that’s what did for us here. But Williams is noted as an author of ‘dark fiction’, and his novel is tilted firmly towards that end of the spectrum; which, I think, is just as it should be — after all, if the average person got caught up in the aftermath of an apocalypse, they probably wouldn’t understand what had happened; and what wouldn’t matter nearly as much as what next? There are also scenes of great horror and carnage, that one is wary of visualising, in case they turn out to be even more horrifying in the mind’s eye than they are on the page. But this too is appropriate: One is horror because its subject is horrific, because there could be no response to what happens other than horror. Williams is not a writer of gore for gore’s sake; he understands the gravity of horror, and makes one feel its pull. What I particularly like about One is that it’s intensely personal, despite the vastness of its backdrop; the novel is very much about relationships and character, and especially those of Richard Jane. There’s a pleasing complexity to his depiction; he’s not a straightforward heroic figure, but can decry selfishness in others whilst at the same time being willing to put his search for Stanley ahead of anything else (and if he’s doing this for his son, is it selfish or not?). Making Jane a diver was an interesting choice on the author’s part, as it automatically generates a certain amount of difference. It’s not just that the image of Jane wandering through the devastated landscape in his protective gear makes him seem like an astronaut exploring an alien world. It’s that being a diver (according to the novel) changes you, subjects you to pressures (figurative and literal) that others don’t experience, involves being away from home and in isolation for long periods, could lead to sights that others would never see (like the bends: ‘All the limbs withdrawn into an impossible core of pain. The welter of blood at every orifice, fizzing bright red. Bubbles opening in the jelly of the eyes’). The demands of his profession have driven a wedge between Richard and his (now ex-)wife Cherry; and Williams skilfully shows the thoughts and feelings of both parties, even as he writes only from Richard’s viewpoint — and Williams is just as adept at writing about the personal as he is at depicting epic disaster. Of the novel’s two parts, I think the first is the better: what could have been just a repetitive trudge through lists of examples of destruction and scavenged foodstuffs (I did wonder how long it would really be possible to survive in such an environment without proper medical facilities, having to travel mostly on foot and live off whatever tinned food you could find — but the strength of his telling soon put such concerns to one side), instead gains genuine power, most especially from Williams’ ability to evoke the reality of the situation, the sense that, whether or not Jane succeeds in attaining his goal, there can be no lasting escape. The second part of One is still good but, as it’s necessarily more fantastical, it doesn’t have quite the same resonance — it doesn’t allow one to feel that this is how the world could become, not in the way that the first part does. Still, Williams once again creates that profound sense of unease which is the true affect of horror — an affect born not from blood and guts, but from the utter and irrevocable destruction of what we know. And the ending (which I’ll admit I didn’t fully comprehend) returns to the personal — which seems entirely appropriate for this very human view of world’s end. (more)

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