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.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

A Sparse World: Dave Eggers - A Hologram for the King

Space.   Time.  Quiet.  In the West's interconnected world there is so little of all of these.  Cascading information and Big Data means we are all overpowered with everything.  Even 21st century art has fallen prey to this with the tendency to overpower the senses or shock rather than understate or imply.

Dave Eggers in some ways is a personification of this trend.  Still only in his early 40s he has poured out gallons of work - all forms of prose, establishing literary magazines, running charitable foundations.  He seems the last person that would take a breath and consider the lilies but in this remarkable novel that seems to be precisely what he is doing.

On the face of it a slight plot - a failed American executive has a (last?) shot at recapturing glory by giving a state of art presentation to the King of Saudi Arabia - as the title baldly states -to win a telecoms contract for the King's ultimate vanity project a new city in the desert - hides a novel that dissects the crisis facing the West in societal and individual terms.

What is also innovative for a 2010s work though is the prose style which echoes Hemingway in its sparse description and detatchment from the surroundings. Hemingway seemed to adopt this to illustrate emotional distance from the tumultuous events of the 20th century where most of his work was set Eggers it to illustrate the daze and confusion of his hero, a man out of time even if only by a few years.

This approach means the writing can be a bit cold but that is appropriate as the hero (rather clunkily named Alan Clay - as in man of) explicitly has shut his emotions down following the messy breakdown of his tempestuous marriage and the suicide of his neighbour. Both of these events dominate Alan's memories.

The writing style means that the surreal complex world of globalised capitalism can be explained through being understated.  The undercutting of the language with the events is also an excellent device for humour which is used throughout the book.

Clay and his much younger co -workers are left waiting in a Becketian way (Sam B's prose is also not a million miles removed from this) for the King to arrive for what seems to last an age,  To consolidate the humiliation  they are based in a tent on the fringe of the modern complex of the new age city with (horror of horrors) no wi-fi! The ennui is filled with sleep, for Alan drinking illicit moonshine and worry about death, for his younger colleagues sex and anger.

In some ways the repetition of each day and suddenly nothing happening echoes the movie Groundhog Day - yet the characters do not seem to gain any enlightenment by being held in stasis.

Alan has other worries - a lump present on his spine.  An almost constant presence in the work and thus in his mind.  It ultimately proves to be benign but it performs its task by constantly reminding him of his mortality as does his recall of the suicide and his neighbour's body after he drowned.

One criticism you could make of the work is that it perhaps is a little too allegorical - Alan in his 50s illustrating the decline of US capitalism.  He made his name and precarious fortune in sales of bicycles - a manufacturing industry - until he was wiped out by Chinese low cost manufacturing.  He is sitting  about waiting to be called by an oil rich nation playing on toys (ipads etc made by China).  There is a very funny scene of the American group being almost paralysed by the lack of wi-fi and stroking their smart phones like they were small pet animals to encourage them to connect to the net.  Ultimately and unsurprisingly the Chinese win the contract for the telecommunications as well leaving Alan to his debts and unsustainable lifestyle.  It IS obviously an allegory but I think the focus on a "successful" Western man wiped out by the credit crunch, his memories and his interaction with others lifts it from a purely period piece.

He befriends a Saudi driver who shows him the reality of life in the Kingdom. as does his wandering off the beaten track in the complex as he discovers the migrant labourers being used to  construct the King's folly of a city - which is a real thing.  This relationship does not end well - perhaps showing the distance of the US from the rest of the world. He also gets involved with two women - a Danish expat and a Saudi doctor - who remedies his lump - but proves to be quite impotent with both ; deliberately with the first and frustratingly with the latter.  Again the inability to consummate looks a little bit clunkily symbolic of modern American capitalism.

Eggers has produced a very disciplined work here - his breakthrough and brilliant memoir a Heartbreaking work of Staggering Genius overflowed with prose - he used footnotes, tiny fonts, wrote in the margin.  This does the opposite.  It has lots of space but with it discusses all the issues surrounding globalisation, personal disintegration and mortality. Although I think it slightly overdoes the allegory the characterisation and humour lifts it from that.  A great read and although it adopts an old-ish prose style it is completely on the pulse of our 2014 world.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Red and Black: The Gambler by Dostoevsky

It's not every writer that can take a break from writing a classic to pen an excellent novella but as we should know by now FD is not every writer.  For this is exactly what he did with this work alongside one of his masterpieces Crime and Punishment.  Apparently he wrote this in four weeks and in a very un Dostoevsky Hollywood moment he fell in love and married the young stenographer who helped him.  This has been the subject of a pretty ropey movie with Michael Gambon -  interspersed with the plot of the original book - which to be honest would need a bit of padding as it is a fairly slight story.

The other part of this story is that the reason he wrote it was to pay off a gambling debt.  This segues into the most striking element of the book - that is the element of autobiography.  All the early Dost traits are here: doomed unrequited love with unattainable woman, mediation on the nature of addiction and vaguely xenophobic characteristics of the main European nationalities.  In some ways the work this most resembles is his travel journal of his continental travails.

I think one of the most significant elements of the work is that it is his first fiction set completely outside Russia.   This gives a sharpness to his description of the Russian psyche when they are far from home.  The nominal "hero" works in the loosest sense for a "family" of chancers - an ostensibly aristocratic group who have washed up in the elite mittel - European gambling resort of Roulette-enberg.  Headed by the General the pretence is that they have untold wealth - he has attracted a few parasitic good looking hangers-on with this story.

In reality there is nothing there.  Quite a telling comment by FD on the flimsiness of the image of much of the entourage of Tsarist Russia in the 19th Century.  Money means status - nothing else; it is not related to work  or wages.  A common theme of some of the weaker aristocratic figures in Dost's work. When there is no money everything else crumbles away.  This is similar to FD's characterisation of a French nomadic aristocrat who does seem to have wealth - maybe making an ironic point of the relative wealth of an aristocrat who comes from a country that overthrew its feudalism to the poverty of ones from a country that they nominally rule.  The pragmatic Englishman  (Mr Astley! Never gonna give him up) who is in the ambit of the group has a stable financial background - the nascent bourgeoisie then beginning to dominate all of Europe - if not Russia.

Given that context gambling is the perfect activity.  Dostoevsky explains brilliantly in parts of the work the attraction of beating the casinos: in the novella (and in FD's actual  life) this is roulette.  He also explains the double think and calculations gamblers make with every transaction in life - including in the final analysis with the "Gambler" Alexis' romantic obsession with the femme fatale Polina.  He also provides a whistle stop tour of the finer technical points of "rouge et noir" or the roulette wheel -useful for any online gambling addicts out there.  Money and the weird forms of coin that make up the currency are a constant in the work - all relations are measured in some financial way - with wins and losses.

There is no real narrative direction the Gambler wins and loses but it is full of very funny vignettes.  In particular the appearance of the General's grandmother - who the General is expecting to drop dead at any minute to give him his legacy - at the resort and her arrogant behaviour which sees her believing she will beat the odds.  In short measure she loses all her wealth outlined in painful detail as the General sees his Russian inheritance essentially disappear before his eyes.

Another thing I noted about the work was the absence of any real ideological debate which underpins most of the dynamic of Dostoevsky's fiction.  Perhaps this is what leads to the slightly disposable feeling of the piece.  It seems to focus solely on the dynamic of inter-Euro relations of the nineteenth century and Alexis own obsessions with gambling and Polina - the former wins.  There are a few broad swipes at comparing Russia with other European countries but that is about it - no detailed dissection of nihilism or the necessity of religious feeling.

It is an enjoyable 100 pages though and actually given the utter reliance on gambling which late capitalism has  - with house prices, credit and the stock market - there is a telling insight into the psychology of people thrust into this world.  In 2014 in a sense that is all of us if we want to navigate the choppy waters of capitalism.  I think Dostoevsky saw this even in early nineteenth century capitalism and could see the problems attached - he wrote this to clear his own gambling debts for God's sake!

All in all a slight detour from the wonders of writing Crime and Punishment then but a worthwhile little rest.  That he created this in essence as a throwaway tells us a lot about the writer and the man.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Goodbye, My Friend: The Quarry - Iain Banks

Some books are beyond review.  Their iconic status means they become elevated from the normal rules of criticism.  Forever, "The Quarry" by Iain Banks will be remembered.  Not because of its writing style, plot or characterisation but because it was his final work before he died far far too early of cancer.  In fact it came out two weeks after his death.

This status is enhanced by the coincidence (apparently) that one of the main characters (the generically named Guy) of the work is himself dying of cancer.  The book focuses on one of the last weekends of his life where his pals from University gather together for a reunion.  A painful problem for the work is that as the ex-film students watch their friend's death unfolding so do Iain Banks readers.  A poignancy enhanced by the close relationship many of Banks' readers (and I would include myself in this) have with his work.  As a result of this I think many Banks devotees will genuinely struggle with it particularly towards the end.   

So now to attempt the impossible: how is it?  The truth is that I think the work is fairly slight.  That it was written and completed at all I guess is the wonder of it.  An immediate and constant problem for me is the authorial voice.  It takes the original (and structurally difficult) approach of having a first person narrator throughout - Kit: the 18 year old son of Guy - an autistic young man.   Using someone with a different way of looking at the world is not original - Faulkner's  "The Sound and Fury" and more recently the The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night - Time - (specifically an Autistic child).  This unreliable/reliable narrator has some advantages - it works well for humour as the deadpan approach of someone on the spectrum undercuts some of the more over the top statements of the other characters.

The problem is that the constant prose style has a clipped sparse tone - exactly like a teenage autistic would have.   In some ways (and interestingly) it is a bit like Ernest Hemingway who uses this style throughout all his fiction, I don't know what this says!  One tone throughout a novel is a difficulty though and means the work necessarily short as it runs out of places to go.   I also wonder given his illness whether it was easier for Banks to write like this - there is no need for extensive description or developed language.  When suffering from a particularly nasty painful disease  I can see the advantage of this.

The gathering takes place over a weekend in Guy and Kit's rundown Victorian pile overlooking the titular Quarry - the ambiguity of the word is used throughout and perhaps obviously as Moz put it "You are The Quarry".   The owners of the quarry want to buy the house to enlarge their working space - this is quite a powerful aspect of the book the relentless encroachment of the millennia old rocks like the coming of death to us all.  There is a prolonged scenes in the bowels of the quarry

I saw a Will Self talk at the book festival of the literary theories that there are only several ur-texts  from which all novels are derived.  One of these is the Fisher King - the quest saga: searching for the Holy Grail.   Quarry is focused on a search the Uni friends (all holding very 2010s jobs - meaningless management consultant roles, film critic, career and machine politician) want to use their time together to find a film they made together at uni which they want destroyed. It is/was  (as everyone and even Kit suspects) their attempt at porn.  Tied with this quest is  Kit's search for his mother who Guy has never revealed and could be one of the three female friends - including the one to which Kit is closest and also attracted to Hol (the critic).  

There are two pieces in the work that Banks can only get away with I think because of the nature of the  narrator - a scene where there is a literal list of films that Hol has recommended - very male.  There is also an unwise and overlong description of a role playing video game (is that what they still call them) that Kit is a recognised world expert at.  Again very stilted and reflective of Banks' own obsessions.  

The list of movies underlined to me the similarities of certain films to this work - the Oxbridge Fry/Laurie/Thompson (and Branagh directed) early 90s "Peter's Friends" and the 80s US "The Big Chill".  Like these works there are unresolved tensions, sexual, jealousy that all bubble up to a big confrontation on the last night together.  Some things are resolved and revealed, some aren't and Guy dies eventually.  

The relationship between the group is one of the strengths of the work - particularly viewed by Kit the outsider.  However although the characters do stand up on their own right Banks does fall prey to something he has done throughout his work - not really disguising his own voice through rants - Guy on "fighting" cancer (an excellent monologue in terms of content) and Hol provides the outlet against the current political system.

It is testimony to Banks' first rate skills as a writer that he pulled all this together and made it readable and fun in places.  For all its flaws it slips down as easily as one of the Islay malts that Iain Banks adored.  But on reflection I don't think it will stand as one of his strongest works - although I think it is as representative of our coalition austerity time of 2014 as any other fiction I have read. So it may have historical significance even beyond Banks.  His last Science Fiction work - also a wistful study of mortality has more to recommend it.

But as I said none of that really matters.  This is the last book Iain Banks will ever write.  And I will miss him.  That is the real legacy of this book.