Saturday, 25 June 2016

Catching the Millennial Bug? Purity by Jonathan Franzen

When my birthday came round I had two matching sized presents (from different generous people) - two big hard gift wrapped blocks.  Both were the new book Purity - the latest from probably my favourite contemporary writer Jonathan Franzen - the gift givers know me well.  The novel had a weighty feel (literally) to it.  Great I thought,  an epic up there with Freedom and Corrections - fiction so strong I speculated that JF may give up on that style and just focus on new journalism (which he also does very well).  

Purity is a disappointing work.  Not terrible nor unreadable but a meandering mass.  The sharpness of tone and language is there in parts as is his understanding of  America's place  in the world yet overall it is blunted.  I think there are several major issues 

The title first of all is not an abstract concept with which to view the body of the work like “Freedom” or in Austen or Dicken’s work “Pride and Prejudice” or “Hard  Times”.  Well it is sort of but not just that as it is also the name of one of the central characters of the piece – a twenty something female college graduate although she is known universally as Pip. This nod to Great Expectations – explained in a pointless interaction in the work and indeed Victorian novels and novelists in general is an apt comparison.  For in many ways it seems that Franzen is trying to create a big old school 19th Century novel.  However unlike his previous large works (which I think could be put into this category) this seems a lot more contrived and inorganic as the themes rather than the structure of the work ape conventional Victorian novelists.

At the core of the book is a search for identity – Pip grew up alone with her mother and wants to know who her father was.     Their existence is a meagre one in almost complete isolation.  There is no mention of her father apart from one story of escaping an abusive partner and having to change her name. Tied to this comes a puzzle of missing legacies and challenging inheritance.   These devices could come straight from Thomas Hardy or George Eliot.  The problem though is that the plot becomes over powering and invades the areas which are Franzen’s considerable strengths : character development and understanding contemporary issues.  In fact at its lowest ebb (which is not maintained throughout) it becomes a little like crime fiction where the plot distracts from any other aspect of the book.  Not a whodunit but a who is Purity’s dad?  When I was most frustrated with the work I had flashbacks to the trashy 80s book Lace with its equally trashy Dynasty/Dallas style mini-series and its tag-line : “Which one of you bastards is my father….”  Not helped by the cover design of the dust sheet which looks like a glossy 80s piece of work.

This problem is exacerbated because it ostensibly is a book of big themes – notably the modern tyranny (an analogy over used and abused throughout) of the internet and social media.  Moreover how this has overflowed into a generational gap – with the coming of age of the so-called millennials who have emerged into the post credit crunch capitalist world to discover everything is broken and it’s their parent’s fault amongst other things.  In fact in a way (and if it worked properly as a novel on these terms) it could provide an explanation for the remarkable Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016 (or in a way Corbyn’s landslide Labour leader victory in the summer of 2015) the basis of which has largely been this group.  And STOP PRESS  the massive gulf between the Brexit vote where there was a landslide for remain amongst the younger generation - the plus 50s swung it for Brexit in England  These worthy and important themes are drowned out by plot but this leads to another issue: voice.  

It is always a big gamble when a male novelist adopts a female protagonist and tries to see the events through her eyes.  Although JF does not attempt a first person narrative - big chunks of the work are the perspective of Pip (unsurprising given the title of book) and a sizeable chapter from an older woman journalist Leila.    The work similar to Freedom adopts a number of perspectives throughout  - male and female, older and young. This in itself can be problematic particularly when intimate or sexual feelings are discussed.   Add to this Pip's age - she is the millennial in the work - and her approach to social media.  Potential boyfriends tell her to look at their relationship status,  key points in the work are revealed through short texts, communication through text and online chat is second nature and her identity is determined by her digital profile.  In theory this is an accurate picture of Pip and her generation but at points you can see JF  (a self -confessed opponent of social media) as someone at least 25 years older struggling with the terminology and the use of digital media like a pensioner with the screen of  a smartphone.    Thus an attempt to contrast the younger generation with the older characters (who make up the majority of the work) struggles with the lack of deftness in this area.

The focus on Pip seeking her father has a global dimension.  Although Pip is a debt laden graduate living in the Bay Area at a crappy telesales job (another plight of the millennial) her life in an alternative squat -type community (this part of the work lets JF make some fairly funny and accurate comments on the Occupy Movement of a few years ago)  leads her into an entanglement with a global star of the Internet - Andreas Wolf - a German in his 50s known for leaking international information through his online empire.  It turns out he has another motive for dragging Pip into his circle as becomes obvious as the overbearing plot intervenes.

Wolf  (predator - geddit?) say you mean Assange surely a charismatic man of a certain age with a dodgy past and aspect to his character.  Well no and this leads to another major problem of the work.  Explicitly Wolf is not the Australian embassy dweller as Assange is mentioned as a person in relation to Wolf.  This is poor form as the work carried out by Sunlight Project  is almost explicitly the same as Wikileaks.  Further in the lengthy piece outlining Wolf's back story growing up in East Germany - the son of leading bureaucrats in the Stalinist regime-  where he exhibits a controversial sexual interest in alienated teenagers and the development of an eventual uncontrollable narcissism.  Given these traits even though he is not Antipodean I could not get image of Assange out of my mind wherever Wolf is involved in the work.  Try it!  Franzen obviously has struggled with this in writing this hence the crowbarring in of mentions of Assange.  Apparently Daniel Craig has been pencilled in for this role in a TV adaption (the plot makes this an easier proposition to televise than Franzen's other work) - even he is going to struggle to give Wolf another face than the Australian facing investigation over sexual offences. 

As well as the Assange problem the character of Wolf has other issues.  In writing his background JF goes over the top with a Hamlet analogy.  His mother is a Professor in English Literature and leading party apparatchik as is his father.  However she is promiscuous as witnessed by a young Andreas and there are question marks about his parentage.  He is even visited by the "ghost" of his biological father twice within the works. There is also an Oedipal dimension to his relationship with his mother - a theme explored in many productions of Hamlet.   The Shakespearean quotes and metaphors are completely overdone and don't go anywhere.  They are also incongruous in a literary sense as it seems the work is meant to be like a nineteenth century novel not a Shakesperean tragedy - it just seems tapped in.  It also disappears after this part even though Wolf is involved in much of the rest of the book 

 In Wolf's past something happens (plot device) involving a young woman who is being abused by her stepfather and murder .  Wolf becomes obsessed with Annagret who in turn becomes a key figure in the work and in Pip's life eventually.  This event dominates even in an unspoken way the rest of the novel.  What is done well in this part (along with the description of East Germany which seems accurate and non accusatory) is the growth of narcissism amongst men and those who try to be leaders of anything.  Wolf becomes a dissident in Stasi-East Germany but really as an act of maternal rebellion and becomes a "leader" in 1989 really because he wants to cover up his past and hide his identity - not from any real commitment to anything.  This ego mania is very much Assange and others I could mention and have seen close up.  Franzen is perceptive in his analysis of this and this stands out from many others who buy the whole Assange myth.  But there is the problem - it is viewed again through the Assange prism not from the work as a whole.

This leads into further problems when Assange brings Pip into his world in Bolivia.  JF sets up a sexual tension between the two - which is only partly resolved.  This in itself is tricky for me given the 30 year age gap and Wolf's past.  The scenes are difficult to read in for this reason which I wonder if is deliberate on Franzen's part especially as he explores the nature of abuse with Annagret who is also younger then Wolf but not in the same dimension.  It is also problematic because of Pip's unresolved paternity - given the plot leaps is it not possible that Wolf is her father?  There is a particularly unconvincing part where Wolf admits his love for Pip - incongruous given his narcissism and his eventual end which I will not reveal.

The other major character (along with journalist Leila) is Tom Aberant - an old style investigative journalist and magazine editor who has had an entanglement with Wolf way back in the heady days of 1989.  His job allows for lots of comparison with the new media and the old ways/values of journalists.  Aberant hires Pip who is essentially working undercover for Assange (whoops sorry Wolf) and is still intent on finding her father.  Is it Tom?  Well another "clue" - that blooming plot again - comes from a lengthy journal/essay/unfinished memoir written by Tom which is presented in full.   This part is by far the best written section of the book outlining a difficult and tempestuous relationship between Tom and performance artist/alienated heiress Anabel growing up together from the early 80s on.  This is JF's time obviously and the ease with which he does this contrasts with his struggles over Pip's time and place.  

But even this is a problem as it is a device used almost identically in Freedom where the pivotal points of the relationships between the protagonists are revealed in Patti (the leading female character in Freedom)'s journal which is published in full as the central part of the novel.  It is an effective device but using the same approach in subsequent novels is disappointing for a writer of JF's quality.  

All comes to a head in the concluding characters and fathers are revealed, inheritances are received and Wolf's destiny comes to a predictable conclusion.   It ends with an argument between Pip's parents and her contemplating that "it had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn't sure she would". The essential millennial problem now being played out in full in post-Brexit UK.  This would be also more valid if Pip had not just inherited millions of dollars- but again this is central to plot!

There are good elements to the book - Tom's writing, the dissection of narcissism, the understanding of Occupy.  But other points there is just a hint of Franzen's skill.  When Pip is confronted by Tom about Wolf she breaks down in a very young immature way which contrasts with her general persona - this was very well written but not explored enough.  There are hints of Franzen's love of nature and wildlife but in very small patches unlike his previous work. These give a glimpse of what JF is and potentially what Purity could have been but sadly it is not these things.  A meandering and problematic disappointment and I never thought I would write that about a work of Jonathan Franzen.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

I Know You and You Cannot Sing That's Nothing: The List of the Lost by Morrissey

Oh dear....

The recent death of Bowie illustrated how he in common with many iconic stars on the avant garde side of popular culture make a concious choice on their artistic direction.  Bowie trained as a mime and idolised Warhol but although he dabbled throughout his career with acting with widely variable results music was his thing.  Though his last testament - the film to Lazarus demonstrated his lasting mime performing abilities.  Patti Smith (along with her early life companion Mapplethrope) experimented with almost every form of artistic expression before settling on performance poetry which sort of transmuted into alternative rock star with the energy of New York Punk.

I would put Morrissey in that category,  though he sent slight pamphlets out into the world in the 70s on James Dean and the New York Dolls, he emerged almost from a cocoon in the early 80s aided by Marr with a fully formed and completely thought out pop music model with him at the complete centre.  That was his world and his weapons were his lyrics.  There was no foray into acting (a cameo in Brookside off-shoot doesn't count) and no bloody awful display of paintings (Bowie, Lou Reed and Dylan have all fallen victim to that).  So why a novel?  And why now? Why, why, why?  A question you will ask yourself a lot if you ever immerse yourself in the 118 pages of the List of the Lost.

The spark  I suppose must have been the publication of his autobiography in 2013 (Interestingly something Bowie never did).  A great piece of work all round but of particular weight was the first  two hundred pages or so outlining his youth in the grim decay of 1960s/70s inner Manchester amongst the Irish community.  Powerful - it was almost a stream of consciousness output.  Perhaps this gave Moz the taste for the pen and the printed (rather than sung) word.  Perhaps a hiatus from music - although in 2014 he released an incredibly strong album followed by an almost inevitable struggle with the record company- gave him more time on his hands.  Perhaps he was asked to do it.   Whatever the reason though this is a misstep from Moz.  The novel is not his form and one of the worst things for me as a fan is that Morrissey himself didn't see it.

My own theory is that it is an amalgam of all three reasons and Morrissey dusted off something that had been on his shelf for a while - maybe decades - and reworked elements of it on the basis that no-one was allowed near it and it was published as seen.

The setting of 1970s middle America and the personnel of four body beautiful athletes (two Hispanic) suggest that Moz is attempting to run as far away as he can from what the expectation of broader society would be for his literary outpourings.   No gritty Northern re-work of Sillitoe or Shelagh Delaney.  No expose of the 80s music industry.   Although anyone that pays attention to Morrissey's lyrics know he spreads his net widely for subject matter - Mexican Gangs, the Kerouac/Ginsberg entourage, World Politics er Bull fighting.

The foursome are a  Champion relay team in an American Uni with the world at their feet.  Ezra is their leader and in love with Eliza - tenuous aliteration ahoy. They can do what they want without consequence or so they think.   Their encounter an almost feral hobo then and kill him (!) accidentally and all of their lives and ambitions fall apart and end - literally.  So far so sub- sub Dostoevesky but then throw in some zombie like horror scenes - a sub-plot (fairly gratuitous) about child abuse and murder and that is it.

As a sign of how poor this book is that I can summarise it in this way because that is what Moz gets Ezra to do on page 109 - to an incredulous Eliza and helpfully the reader who if they have made it that far will be wondering what the hell just happened.  A summary of the plot by one of the characters is more akin to a bad pot boiler or terrible movie script.  However it shows how tentative Morrissey is with the form of the novel.

That more than anything shocked me about the book was how unsure Morrissey is.  One thing I thought Moz knows is his voice - he has spent his life cultivating and controlling it.  But in his autobiography or in his best songs or even in a curt witty comment thrown away in an interview  he has shown that less is more.   Call it cryptic or enigmatic but Moz seemed to understand the power of suggestion or symbol rather than the sledgehammer.   Not here it doesn't.  In fact at 118 pages I would say this is overwritten and no point is left unmade. Of particular annoyance is his use of compound words to elaborate on pretty obvious ideas "their actual blood-and-guts experience"  "blue-pencilled out of history and her-story" (!) the "mega-gnarly cave dweller" and so on.  No internal edit - this is so frustrating given how well and precisely Moz uses words in other contexts

I wondered if the book was an attempt at one of those well thumbed horror paperbacks that were passed around classrooms 30 or 40 years ago - the Rats by James Herbert, Flowers in the Attic or something by Stephen King.  If it was the question Why ?  would emerge again.

The "voice" of Moz is a problem also in a way that it wasn't in his autobiography.   You could take Becket's point that all fiction is based on the author's reality but Moz's obsessions and valid political points emerge from the mouth of all the characters - in a contradictory and quite confusing way.

Eliza for example as a Young American in post -Watergate America seems to know an inordinate amount of an obscure British politician Margaret Thatcher that has just been elected to the position of leader  of Conservative party!  This however is one of the only references to any form of hinterland from the characters - they are either two (or one ) dimensional or sound like Moz.  

Fictional writers do crowbar their voices and views into their work but this is uncrafted and just reads like a refusal to let the work have its own momentum or direction.  The dialogue runs aground because of this and in some parts is just unreadable : "Your emotional permanence is all that keeps me level"...

There is a fair amount of reference to sex along with the ghosts, zombies and violence which may have been shocking if you can translate the prose at these parts.  For although Moz overwrites everything these parts are pretty impenetrable (pardon the pun).

There is no momentum in this book it shudders to a halt every couple of pages.  I ended up dragging it to the finishing line solely because it was Moz and it (despite itself) had the odd glimpse of wit and righteous anger.   But this is not Morrissey and I hope part of him realises that.  Novels are hard and many people have crashed on the rocks of writing bad ones.I would guarantee that if Moz had submitted this under a pseudonym it would not have passed Go.  At  least Moz has all the other things he has done but not novels, never novels.

No more Morrissey you have so much more to give in other forms.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Reality Bites - The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sprawling nineteenth century novels  it would seem don't really come like this.   Not for the Idiot a 6 part Sunday night drama in the run -up to Christmas nor the scrabbling around of a Hollywood script editor to churn it all down to a two hour screenplay.  Not to say these acts would be impossible - Russian TV attempted the serial thing (although it was 10 parts) and Kurosawa adapted some of the work into a piece of Japanese cinema.  But the difference from say a Dickens and Austen is the sheer amount of intellectul material FD throws at the page.  To continue the cinematic theme one Polish film was made based solely around the last 20 pages of this tome.

However that weight is not always necessarily a good thing nor does it make the Idiot an easy read. As it was written in instalments - common for the time - characters can come and go.  Large polemics can be advanced by characters where it is difficult to identify the context.  Using similar forms writers would rely on plot devices - cliff hangers and so on to give the reader some sort of guide or helping hand through the hundreds of pages.  Plot is not really the thing for FD here (although there is one which is not negligible) rather the force of ideas and strong central characterisation are what pulls you through.

The book begins with a return as a train pulls into St. Petersburg from the outskirts of Western Europe.  For FD this was also a sort of return -  his last novella the Gambler being set solely in the casinos of the West - as he himself gambled his way across the city states of 19th Century Europe. He wrote this work when abroad.  In a sense that dislocation is reflected in the work itself as although set in his regular haunts of St. Petersburg - the urban setting does not have the same central role as in Crime and Punishment or the Double.  In fact more than half the work takes place in a Russian resort town Pavlosk - near the city - fairly anonymous and removing the tensions of the urbanisation of Russia which is a continual theme of Dostoevesky and indeed Russian literature.

The returner is Prince Myshkin - the "Idiot" - who has been released from an asylum in Switzerland being treated for epilepsy (FD's own condition).  Given the nature of the novel it is not really revealing much to say that the narrative arc of the work sees the Prince returning to hospital care.  So in a sense the whole book is coverage of a period of so-called lucidity from Prince Myshkin.   The title is a bit of a deceit but again symbolic of Tsarist Russia as Myshkin has the title but little else in terms of property or money.   What he does have though is purity and child-like innocence as he has developed in a cocoon thousands of miles away from the internecine tensions of St. Petersburg.  He is thrown into the deep end of the messiness and realities of human interaction almost immediately as he meets a character on the train - in some ways his polar opposite - Rogozhin.

Rogozhin is from the merchant class and is cash-rich but a nasty piece of work.  In one scene he literally buys off one of his potential suitors for 100,000 roubles.  This is a not very thinly disguised show of disdain that FD has for the new social forces in Russia.  The Prince gets deeply involved with the subject of Rogozhin's crude financial passion:  Nastasia Fillipovna.  This is because Myshkin tries to get established in St. Petersburg by calling on a distant relation - he subsequently becomes inveigled with her whole family - the Yepanchins whose patriarch is a General.  Nastasia is a beautiful young woman - who by the nineteenth standards of the time - is a fallen woman - kept by an older man and acquaintance of the General.  She is treated like a piece of property (not unusual for a society having only recently ended serfdom) who although with great beauty is seen as damaged goods thus open to being passed around any men.  It is the General's assistant Ganya who seems to have the biggest obsession with her. although he is also hedging his bets with one of the General's three daughters.

Yet it is Ganya that Rogozhin attempts to buy off  in a drawn out scene at Ganya's apartment where the Prince intervenes and offers to marry Nastasia as an alternative to a life with Rogozhin.  This tension between the naive romanticism of Myshkin versus the brutal wealth and violent passion of Rogozhin is a constant throughout the work.    Nastasia herself cannot decide - as her "ruined" past (which is only hinted at) means she could only deserve the nasty side of life in Rogozhin.  This has predictably tragic consequences.   It would be inaccurate to call this a love triangle - Myshkin in particular is pretty ambiguous about his feelings for Nastasia which again has consequences for him.  This unusual relationship may provide one of the frames of the work but it intersects with so many other complicated elements.  One thing that is noticeable is the continual use of ensembles - Rogozhin has a gang (quite humourously drawn),  the Yepanchins and the suitors for each of the daughters, a group of nihilist -light young men  led by Burdovsky pursue Myshkin for some non-existent legacy.  This is pretty difficult to follow particularly when they are all gathered together!

This mighty character list exposes I think the strengths and weaknesses of FD  - he has a real insight into human behaviour and character which the reader can recognise 150 years later but the work is so sprawling there seems to be inconsistencies over which character has which behaviour.  Ganya in ther first book is pretty villainous - this alters in the second book where he comes to Myshkin's aid and then he sort of disappears.  Probably one of the curses of writing such a long piece of work in instalment format.  

To some extent this same problem can be seen in the polemic that comes from the mouths of the characters but essentially they are Dostoevsky's voice or his caricatures of ideological opponents.  Within an hour of his return to Russia the Prince is sharing his experience  of facing death then being reprieved (exactly what happened to Dostoevsky twenty years before - causing his prison exile),  Dostoevsky seems to be making the points fairly randomly as the work does not have the binding coherence of a clear narrative development.  A scene where all characters have to outline the worst thing they have ever done seems more like a philosophy tutorial .  The Prince's mega-rant  near the end of  the book against Catholicism and Athiesm and the Russian character and everything really is an immediate precursor to an epileptic attack - almost like FD was venting and getting everything out of his head.  

This latter speech actually occurs in quite a funny context as Myshkin is now attempting to declare his love for the Yepanchin's youngest daughter Agalaya  - who in a way reciprocates him and definitely shares his naivety - and he makes this speech at a party in their honour hosted in honour of their potential engagement.   He then accidentally breaks an antique Chinese vase something he explicitly declared he would not do.    This relationship is doomed just as inevitably as the smashed antique.

So the work ends with Myshkin's return to hospital, Nastasia's death at the hands of Rogozin and the lack of marriage to Agalaya.  The Idiot's venture into the "real world" seems to have been a disaster but ultimately through his insight and openness many people have been affected by him - as he does inspire loyalty, friendship and in an extremely distorted way  love.    There is a lot more in the work - many other characters who touch the reader with their truth (albeit not always consistently) - the matriarch Lizaveta, Ganya's drunken father, the opportunist hanger on Lebedev.

I don't think anyone has ever quite written a novel like this - it is sprawling, confusing and packed full with contradictory and developed political and personal argument.  Ultimately though like the Prince's brief time  which is documented amongst the maelstrom of humans it is very worthwhile even if he does end up back in hospital.  A book that will stay with me but has taken me a long time to think about - this has taken 6 months to compose.  Worth it though, definitely worth it.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Life: Stoner by John Williams

If it's plot you are after (or just a good time...) you could just read the first page of this remarkable American novel which summarises the whole thing in two paragraphs.  For in these words are the bare bones of the life of William Stoner an English Literature lecturer in a minor University.  The key dates are reflected through the prism of the University as he stayed there for the bulk of his adult life  from his enrolment as a new student in 1910 until his death in 1956.

The rest of the book really unpicks the cursory summary of that first page as over the next 300 it outlines the heartbreaking reality of an ordinary person's life.  It is not often a novel can catch you off guard but this work (advertised as the greatest novel you have never read) certainly did this for me.

Showing the minor tragedies, tensions and battles that an ordinary person has to deal with and how they have the same depth and importance of the highest drama of the Gods or nobles as outlined by the Greeks and Shakespeare was not unique to Williams.  Indeed by 1965 when this book was published Western literature and drama had established the tradition of the ordinary life of being worthy of artistic focus.  The drama of Arthur Miller from the 1940s specifically did this in American theatre.   In literature John Updike's Rabbit saga of a (very) flawed ordinary man began 5 years before.  Even the development of cinema in the States with the work of Chaplin focused on the "little tramp" as the everyman.

But what puts Williams' work apart (and perhaps ironically is the reason it has not had broader recognition or distribution) in my view is both its tone and its setting.  Stoner's birth is in the dying decade of the nineteenth century and he lives well into the post war period of the 1950s.  So most of his life takes place in the most tumultuous period of world history,  Well placed to view two brutal world conflicts and the dynamic growth of the strongest consumerist capitalist economy humanity has ever seen William Stoner seems to live in a still calm world framed from his dirt-poor rural background.  Thus although modernity is all around him that frenzy and struggle seems to be removed.   He does not participate in either War (although loses a son in law in the second conflict) and indeed his refusal to fight in WW1 - in character this is done in an understated quiet way - is quite a defining moment of his life.  This decision is inspired by his academic mentor Arthur Sloane who is a man out of his nineteenth century time but a witness to the destruction that total warfare can rage on civil society.  It can "kills off something in a people that can never be brought back".

Thus the contrast with the cocoon of Stoner's life from the events around him is one of the recurring tensions in the work.  At times this contrast reminded me a little of the distant and somewhat jarring tone that Hemingway adopts in his fiction - which often takes place right in the middle of the maelstrom of warfare.  To document life in the twentieth century with this voice is if not unique very different and gives a special tempo to Williams' novel.  It could be viewed as a little slow which may may give some readers pause but I think that space gives you time to enjoy the prose.

Almost to identify this historical isolation Stoner's own specialism is medieval literature.  His joy at writing - sparked by Sloane's recitation of a Shakesperean sonnet when ostensibly Stoner is there to study agricultural science is in sharp contrast with the rest of his life.  Perhaps the work does not fully explain the captivation which fiction has inspired in him but by engaging in the novel itself and the prose contained within it the reader themselves is  (to some extent) a witness to Stoner's happiness with the creation of written art.

The book is also incredibly precise in his description of human relationships.  Central to Stoner's unhappiness is his relationship with his wife Edith.  The courtship is awkward and distant as both are very shy but it never changes.  As of the times (the 1910s) the marriage almost happens by accident and is compounded by a clumsy and passionless consummation which really defines everything else that follows.  I noted Ian MacEwan's endorsement of the book and thought it must be an influence on similar interactions in On Chesil Beach,  They have a daughter but becomes a pawn between the two of them - a sadness heightened again by Williams prose.  His relationship with his silent and absent farmer parents is resonant as a symbol of the generational shift between centuries in the US - rural to urban.

As a minor academic (well recognised here!) Stoner's love of his subject has to be  tempered with the straitjacket of a university with its tensions of term - time, teaching all levels of student and petty rivalries.  It is a bit surprising given much of this work was set 70-80 years ago how little has altered in the tensions around University.   The disintegration of a friendship with an ambitious and bitter colleague (who ends up as an early form of a University senior manager) Hollis Lomax is brilliantly outlined.  The tensions  between the two are exacerbated by the treatment of a completely incompetent student who Lomax is very sympathetic to, it is hinted at that this is becauese he and the student have disabilities- the nuances of the seminar room and the god awful class room presentation are all here.  Lomax labels William as prejudiced. Stoner gains minor victories but the closing down of his academic love by the bureaucracy of his institution seems a constant struggle.  In contrast his almost life long friend Finch assumes a managerial role in the Uni but maintains his humanity and (crucially) his love of the academic discipline - thus their friendship survives.  Again another familiar figure in Higher Education - although sadly I think the numbers of these are shrinking.

The other "difficulty" I think this novel has which may be an issue for a broader readership is its unrelenting sadness.  The relationship with Edith is bad but it never starts with much promise.  Worse I think is the life of his daughter  Grace whom for periods of her early life he is the main carer for.  His closeness to Grace is ended by Edith and the disintegration and distance this causes is terrible to read.  As is the fast forward story we get of her teenage years, early pregnancy, marriage, escape from the sad home, death of her young and unloved husband in the Pacific and slow descent into alcoholism.  I found the stilted and awkward conversation between Grace and her father difficult to read but brilliant.

In his life (outwith literature and the early years with Grace) William has some stolen happiness with a brief affair with a work colleague  who has attended his class (where the awful student talk took place).  Given his enclosed life it is inevitable this is where Stoner would have any form of initimate relationship.  These stolen moments as lovers throughout the University year are bound to end but it contrasts with almost every over part of Stoner's life.  It is not remembered in the first page summary but it is here that Stoner experiences love that is endlessly outlined in the literature he has intertwined his life  with.  Thus the sadness intervenes in this part of the work as well.

The end when it comes as we know it must is relatively sudden and (inevitably) solitary.  Symbolically he dies amongst his book and one falls from his grip as he leaves the planet.  One man's life gone but his ordinary struggles and sadness have kept the reader rapt.  There is no first person narration here with the problems that brings for the writer but a distant eye of the author throughout.  A great work but dripping with sadness.  One life in a small university in Middle America tells us a lot about what it means to be a human and that is some achievement.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are...Stonemouth by Iain Banks.

What if you were not the main character even in your own story?  The tyranny of the first person narrative in a novel always creates problems for the author.   In his last ever novel (sadly) The Quarry Banks used the voice of a teenage autistic adult.  Although the tone was quirky yet precise there was no question that the story in a sense centred around him because of the care he required.  Yet in general the first person approach is very risky as everything is seen through his or her eyes.

This was the main theme I took from reading Stonemouth - on the face of it a fairly slight addition to the wealth of Iain Banks' collected works (fiction and science fiction).  For the narrator here (throughout) is  a mid 20 year old young Scotsman  Stewart Gilmour- around 30 years old younger than the author- establishing himself in the adult world but in many regards still a naif. The book is timebound and covers a three day period  (albeit with fairly lengthy and quite cinematic flashbacks)when Stewart returns to his hometown which gives the book its name in the North East of Scotland for a funeral.

The funeral is of a patriarch of one of the two criminal families(the Murstons) in the small town and it marks the first return for Gilmour to the town for five years.  But this is no welcoming return for the Fisher King knight following his quests and adventures across the world.  The exile was imposed on Stewart as he cheated on his fiance the week before his wedding with a brief sexual liason in the toilets.  The problem being his bride to be was the daughter of the Murston clan  (Ellie)and his paramour in the cubicle was the daughter of the rival clan.

Ellie has a lot of brothers so as Stewart returns to the scene of the crime with a little (not much) more maturity there are lots of masculine confrontations over the weekend.  And of course he sees Ellie for the first time in 5 years - will they reconcile? And she has a little (prettier- working as a model) sister who has always caused mischief. So far so meh...

The triviality of these issues - a couple getting engaged far too young  then breaking up because of the silliness of one of them - is not helped by Stewart's voice which is also young and gauche.  He is a talented art school graduate who is surfing the neo-liberal globalised world as a "lighting consultant" to the world's uber rich.  Yet he shows no real awareness of this.  In fact unusually for Banks there is no clear political context of the book.  Even other fiction of his which are family sagas (the Crow Road - which this seems a dim future echo of- or the Steep Road to Garbadale) make some significant comment on the times in which they were set.

Maybe that's the point Stewart Gilmour is of the time - mid 20s in the late 2000s born in the 80s - no real political compass, no musical or artistic references (again something Banks uses in most of his work) - obsessed with his mobile phone.  But it does mean the work itself runs the risk of being all those things as Stewart is the narrator's voice to accompany us through these few days.

And yet and yet there seems like there is something more to this book.  The warring families,links with the Glasgow criminal underworld the unexplained death of one of the Murston boys, a bridge that acts as a magnet for suicide dominating the town's architecture.  In another writer's hands this could have been a very different (much worse) work - a study of the Tartan Mafia, family feuds - a pot boiler of crime fiction which seem to dominate the book shop shelves and the TV channels (funnily enough this has been made into a BBC drama which I haven't seen -starring inevitably Peter Mullan as the ganglord).

Stewart seems a pawn in all of that of which he only very latterly becomes aware.  He is off stage for all of those developments but in male egoist fashion puts himself at the centre.  I was reminded a bit of a couple of scenes from the first Austin Power movie where anonymous henchmen who are killed are given backstories.  This is funny because heroic narrative only really allows one perspective.

Thus the everyday love story of Gilmour with Ellie is focused on - as all romantic love is ultimately personal - whereas the drivers of the "plot" happen elsewhere.  This all sort of comes together by the end in quite a shocking way - as does Stewart's lack of awareness - but the naive narrative of the 20 something  itself always seems on the edges,
A telling quote from the book I think comes from Ellie's sister over his self created conspiracy theory that he was maybe set up to be caught in the toilet (aye right!) "Maybe it had nothing to do with you at all Stewart? Maybe you were just collateral damage? Maybe you were just used?"

Perhaps I am reading too much (geddit!) into the work which flows pretty smoothly and could pass over you in an enjoyable way with no lasting impact.  It is difficult for me to say that this will be the last Banks I ever read because I have completed all the other works and he is no longer on this planet.  But I think he was hinting at these ideas as he has explored the issue of solipsism in fiction in other works - notably Transition.

Of course there are some beautifully written scenes - in particular outlining a traumatic childhood incident (although this again seems a little bit beside the point)- and the art of having a consistent voice is skilful.  Banks at this point has been writing for over 30 years. The geographical sense of the North East is also well done as his eye for detail - the gangster recovering from his Disco Wii session sticks in the mind!

So this work provoked some thoughts in me on the nature of narrative and character.  But overall a simple coda to an impressive body of work.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Give me More and More and More: Future Days - Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany by David Stubbs

At this age you become more aware of the limits of your knowledge - ah for the arrogance of youth.  But every now and then a book like this comes along and shows you there is stuff you didn't know you didn't know.  This is especially enlightening when it is an area that you think you should know about it - the history of pop music, electronica and er post war European politics.

The phrase Krautrock until reading this for me was only really of resonance as a point of reference for other musicians I listened to or as a paradigm of experimentalism.  I knew Julian Cope wrote a book about it. Mark E Smith was heavily influenced by it and sang a song called I am Damo Suzuki - a singer from Krautrock pioneers Can. I also was a bit disconcerted with the vaguely racist 70s Stan Boardman like name itself.  But the actual sounds themiselves ?  I had heard a bit of Kraftwerk but that is as far as it went.

The curse/wonder of music writing now as I have observed before is that every tune or track is now instantly available to anyone with internet access - 40% of the world's population at last count.  It means that a writer does not really have to worry about being wilfully obscure - which is a real possibility in this area. Further the points you make about the music can be pretty specific as the reader can listen to the song almost simultaneously.  

This modern phenomena is ironic in this context as a common theme in the book is the passing around of influential vinyl albums in the 1970s and 80s amongst wannabe musicians and music journos as they were so difficult to find. For example obstructive publishers and poor human relationships meant the albums of Neu! (more on them later) didn't get released in any mass way until the mid 90s.

The downside of this immediate access to source materials is it can lead to lazy writing.  Hey everybody listen to this and this then this isn't it great.  It can have a breathless superficial flavour.  This never happens in the comprehensive and confident writing of David Stubbs who clearly has a deep knowledge and passion to act as a curator.

In fact one of the intriguing aspects of the work is that it actually takes a while to mention music at all but rather explains the political and economic setting of post war and post Nazi Germany.  Most of the leading musicians were born during or in the immediate aftermath of the war - and the peak period for this music was from 1968-76 as they matured.  This context meant that musicians wanted to have a year zero approach - a literally new sound.  Popular music in Germany post war took the form of Schlager - pretty horrific easy listening music which played on Germanic folkloric imagery.

Even British bands - despite the Beatles learning their trade in Hamburg in the early 1960s - received short shrift.  Horrified by this cultural wasteland the musicians wanted to do something completely different.  That also included rejecting the rhythm and blues influenced Anglo- American sound. There were parallels with modern classical music where survivors of the brutal wars of the 20th century like Stockhausen experimented with everything (including primitive electronics) to challenge the traditional structure of the classical form.

What Stubbs does excellently is intertwine the musical developments with the politics, economics and geography of  Germany.  The political analogy is stark with the first bands explored Amon Duul and Amon Duul 2 who emerged from the commune movement in Munich in the 1960s.  To such an extent that to call them a formal band would be pushing it.  However they moved in the same circles and to some extent lived in the same houses as the Baader Meinhoff Group - the RAF.  The link (albeit pretty tenuous) was living in the sub-culture of a re-born capitalist Germany where many older people were coy about their role in the War and the whole history of Nazism was buried.

The Munich communes though were only one of a number of distinct areas that this new unusual music emerged from.  The vast geography of Germany is explained well by Stubbs and the ubiquity of transport being used in Krautrock tracks seems very appropriate.  The way the work is structured it largely focuses on a band per chapter but these were generally based in different places - Can from Cologne, Faust from Hamburg, Kraftwerk and Neu! from Dusseldorf and the electronic isolation of  the  experimental individuals emerging from Berlin. A veritable Bundesliga (the hipster's football league of choice) of bands.

The distinct nature of these bands is reflected in their music which remained stubbornly in the fringes of German popular culture.  They all were struggling to find new sounds but came at it in different ways - whether radical forms of studio recording (Can), state of the art electronic equipment (Kraftwerk - although not initially) having sprawling fun in chaotic settings (Faust).   As you dip into the music  you  see how different all these sounds were- a lengthy task because the musical form for these guys was the long player - not really the 45 single.  Although there were exceptions to this - Can even appeared on Top of the Pops.

One of the worries I had was the relationship with Progressive Rock - not singing about goblins and trolls like in England but lengthy sitar solos etc.  The early material has a bit of an overlap with that - particularly Amon Duul but the focus on musical innovation, collaboration and weird electronic sounds put paid to that as time passed.  Another  original (though some would say ridiculous) aspect is the complete lack of reverence of vocal ability - singers where they float in and out of the music are definitely way down the pecking order.  Much of it is instrumental but all of the bands used vocalists at some point.  I can imagine old Morrissey being aghast at some of the wailings that emerge from the  best Krautrock albums.  However have a listen to Dinger from Neu! for echoes of Rotten's vocals from the Pistols and Pil - Suzuki from Can has obviously been studied not only by Mark E Smith but Shaun Ryder as well.

The cliched phrase I kept saying when I was listening to work mentioned in the book was "this is decades before its time".  To be honest Stubbs makes this point several times as well.  It is not simply because of the electronics - bands like Can and Faust only utilised synthesisers latterly- but the arrangements and the rhythyms which predate 80s dance.  The relationship between German economic development and the electronic equipment used by Kraftwerk and some of the Berlin bands like  Cluster  is interesting, The main protagonists in Kraftwerk came from very wealthy backgrounds that allowed them to buy prohibitively expensive electronic equipment.  A problem that English groups who essentially were initially Kraftwerk tribute bands like the Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark found in their early days even several years later. Bands that couldn't afford it but were heavily influenced tried to replicate the sound in different ways - for example Joy Division.

The ultimate tribute/plagiarism of the experimental thinkers of Krautrock and who indirectly influence modern Western music even more was Bowie  who notoriously set up shop in Berlin in the 1970s and made some of his best work.   A lot of it with  Brian Eno who also had worked directly with a lot of the Berlin School people and Rother from Neu!  I think the claims of direct plagiarism are a bit unfair as Bowie put his own stamp on it - as did Iggy Pop and Lou Reed who were all equally influenced.  But it is a bit shadowy Neu's song Hero recorded a couple of years before Bowie's album and Rother was contacted to work on Bowie's albums and then unceremoniously dumped.

But the wonders of this book for me was the world of sounds it opened me up to that I really didn't have a clue about it.  The silliness of Faust, the breadth and depth of Can's (most of them ex-students of Stockhausen)work, the brilliant electronic work of Cluster and the completely lost albums of Gunther Schickert.

One criticism would be that Stubbs crams in loads of bands  vaguely linked to German  Experimental music - some of which seem pretty weak and don't have much work behind them.  I think there was a desire to provide a completely comprehensive guide but I am not sure this works particularly when some of the work doesn't seem to merit comparison with the others.   This is particularly true of the later material  and the very early 70s stuff.  But this is minor criticism - for me this book was a key to new worlds of music and that don't happen too often!

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Final Destination Approaching: Rabbit at Rest- John Updike

These thoughts on the last instalment of Updike's epic collection on the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom have been much delayed due to a large increase in my workload of marking.  An unacceptable consequence of living in the age of austerity and the cut-backs in the public sector but  a finite one.  That is I knew the marking would end - at some point to be defined in the future.  The reader has a similar knowledge of Rabbit at Rest.  As the last volume of the study of Rabbit this book is only ever going to end one it way : with his death even though by our standards Harry is too young for that (in the West) at 55.   This is a powerful reflection of out own knowledge (or denial) of our own finite existence.  To that extent for me this made the work one of the more challenging as these connection between Rabbit, me (the reader) and mortality is a difficult one to face.

One of the factors behind this is the setting of 1988/89.  Of all the Rabbit novels this is the one time that I have full memory and cultural/political knowledge of.  I was a young child during the Rabbit is Rich time of 1979.  But Updike uses the same structure as the three previous novels - set at the cusp of a new decade with around a 10 year gap.  I am glad that I have left a fairly sizeable gap between the works rather than devour it in one period  ( I have the Everyman edition with all the novels in one chunk) - this gives a sense of time and development albeit a much more compressed one than the 30 years from the starting point - it took me two years to read the quartet.

Judging a writer's development when they have a long writing span (as Updike did) is not normally done through the medium of one character and the changing society they live in.  Crime writers and the like who use the same people tend to use a formula for the work and  deal with issues like aging as asides to the plot.  But Updike focuses on the man who has aged at the same rate as him and has some autobiographical similarities particularly with his place of birth with one of the clear differences being the date of death.  Updike lived for 20 years more than Harry - dying in 2009.

It was a bit gimmicky but the Richard Linklater movie  Boyhood filmed over a decade of a young boy growing up with the same actor deals with a similar theme in a more obvious way - the passage of time and the altering mores that an individual faces.  Although focusing on the earliest years of life (at least for the main character) where the protagonist has little self awareness and is making the first steps on the road of learning Updike's journey with Rabbit began in his mid 20s as an "adult".

So as a piece of literary fiction is this the pinnacle of Updike's work as it is the culmination of Rabbit's life?  Does it overcome the burden of being the end?

Well I would say almost.  The first thing to note is that I think (ironically perhaps) it is the funniest of the four.  This is as much to do perhaps with our familiarity with the characters and our insight into Harry's thoughts but I thought the first third is some of the funniest American fiction I have read.   This is a little unsettling when you consider that Harry is in almost constant pain throughout this part of the work - Rabbit is very overweight and out of shape with recurring chest and heart pains.

The separation of the work is done under the heading of  three states of America - this is perhaps a little surprising as it is a constant in the books that Harry almost never left Pennsylvania and seemed stuck completely to his  Middle American haven (with a brief soujourn to the Caribbean in Rabbit is Rich).  However he has managed to (partially) escape to Florida with Janice (his wife throughout) as they have bought a condo in Florida where they live for part of the year.

This has echoes of Rabbit's originally planned escape in the first book which never happened where he had ill thought out plans of running to the Gulf  of Mexico.  Well this time he has made it but it is not for nothing that Florida is called God's Waiting Room.   The mundanity of this life with its rounds of golf, institutionalised restaurants and endless TV are captured brilliantly by Updike's prose.  Harry's obesity and health means the sharpness and the sexual obsessions  of the previous works have been tempered (though critically for the development of the work not removed) with a pursuit of junk food.   The jogging he attempted in earlier books is long forgotten. Particularly funny is his description of desiring a peanutty chocolate bar in an airport.

One tension that remains though is with his son Nelson who has taken over the car selling family business (from Janice's side - as Harry is always reminded).  Nelson's own family is still standing (just) with is marriage and child (Judy born in the last chapter of Rabbit is Rich) now added to with a younger son:  Roy.
The way that Nelson comes apart and the extent of his deceit and fraud is exposed is brilliantly written as is Harry's antipathy (a constant in all the novels) and Janice's denial then ham fisted attempts to solve the problems.  Alongside the mortality the fear of your children ending up in the state Nelson does is another universal for parents,  so once again the book is pretty close to the bone.

The tensions are resumed in the fourth book when Nelson and family show up in Florida for family holiday.  There is a very funny description of the older couple taking their grandchildren (9 and 4) to see Thomas Edison's old house with predictable boredom.  The interaction of the two families though culminates with Harry's heart attack which he has in the middle of a boating trip with Judy - there is a large amount of detail of all the  hospital equipment and procedures - Updike's parents apparently went through similar heart procedures.

 Death coming to the party as Virginia Woolf put it though sends Harry back to his home turf of Brewer and he tries unsuccessfully to tie up loose ends.  This includes the affair he has had over the last decade with Thelma (his wife swapping partner of the last novel) - who is the other character that dies in the work - although all the parents of Janice and Harry are deceased although they still cast a shadow in particular Janice's mum: a critical character in the last work.

The politics and the culture of the 80s are referenced - with the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 being a bit of an obsession at the start of the book for Harry.  Although his elderly golf buddies of Florida are northern Liberals - musing of Bush's Presidential victory of the same year (Rabbit is the only one who voted for him).  Harry thinks about the dream - like quality of Reagan and his 80s era - again perhaps related to the time of his life.  But more than the politics is the endless reference to consumer products (mainly food) Oreos, Coke, McDonalds - the stuff that is clogging up Harry and indirectly the whole of the U.S.  This is the real consequence (you could argue) from the Rich period of the seventies as is the complex debt restructuring plan put in place to try - in vain - to save the family business.  The cinematic reference is the very 80s Working Girl as Janice tries to model herself on the Melanie Griffith character - also in vain- to set up in business herself as an estate agent.

What is also quite chilling about the latter two thirds of the work is that many characters including Janice behave like Harry is already dead or at least they are preparing  their post-Harry life.

I think all of the books have an unsettling and transgressive event that alters the way we look at the work - the death of the Angstrom's baby daughter in the first, the housefire in the second and the "swinging" scene in the third.  This also has one - "the worst thing you have ever done..." as Janice says to Harry involving sex and his daughter in law when he just leaves the hospital following an operation - linking sex and death again.

The reveal of this unthinkable act leads to Harry's inevitable demise as he runs (again) back to Florida in his car - where a hurricane is approaching.  The radio (as in the first one) is used to give a running commentary on the current events and as if returning to his roots old song follows old song from the 1950s.  He hides out in the condo and the artificial lifestyle it supports then ventures out to the real world.  He tries to play basketball (his one element of success in his teenage life) with a young black kid  and collapses : the cycle is almost complete.

There is so much more to this work - Harry's latterly obsession with obscure points of U.S. History, his spiky but ultimately endearing relationship with his grandchildren, catching up with some of the characters from the earlier books.  Throughout the link between these parts is Updike's effortless prose and his elevation of detail to high art - he won his second Pulitzer for this book.  A challenging work though as it makes you think of things you rather would not but it is funny (hilarious in places) and rewarding. On the whole the four books are an important part of American literature and the late twentieth century.