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.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Hot in the City:Crime and Punishment - Dostoevsky



I always have a trepidation of approaching work considered as a "classic".  Not that I would feel any compunction about saying er it's not very good but rather there seems to be too much history around it - particularly in literature.  I found this weight appeared more than usual with Dostoevsky's stand out book as it is related to law in the broadest sense, the area of human "knowledge" in which I work.  But sometimes all your worries are blown away and the term "classic" is completely appropriate as in this case.  A brilliant novel.

One good sign is that the book surprises you in lots of ways.  Even having spent the last couple of years reading the novellas/novels of  Dostoevsky I still have a picture in my mind of the setting being bleak, dark, wet, cold like Russian winter cold.  But this novel is hot - really hot set at the height of summer "early July, in exceptional heat" as the first line of the novel puts it.   The crime - a double axe murder which even now in these anaesthetised times is a shocking read - takes place in the smelly, cramped heating setting of a St. Petersburg tenement flat.

Like most of Dostoevsky's other works to this point it is also unarguably an urban novel .  People and cultures are living on top of each other in the city - interacting in lots of chaotic ways.  One of the characters is killed by being run over. Again touching on another common theme of Dost the tensions are clear between the strict feudal hierarchy of Tsarist dictatorship and the burgeoning urban life/squalor of Russia's biggest city.  Immigration is also a reality with many different nationalities mentioned in particular German landlords.   One scene has the accent and lifestyles of Germans living in Russia mocked - a very modern development as nation states interact through people.

In the midst of this world a  murder happens. It occurs early in the book and we know the perpetrator.  Raskolnikov - a drop-out law student  living in the archetypal garret room not even a flat.  By the end of the work he confesses to the police.  And that's about it as far as plot goes (apart some family developments with his sister and his burgeoning relationship with a prostitute Sonya).  This is not a who-dunnit or even why -duunit this is an exploration of human psychology, interaction and ideas.

This is not a sprawling family saga but a tight, rich exploration of humanity in a very contemporary (for 1866) setting.  I cannot really understand the phenomenal success of crime fiction - puzzle solving maybe -but everything that could be strong about a crime novel was covered here by Dostoevsky:  the thinking of a killer, the consequences of meaningless violence and the ending of human life.  Every crime book or the sub genre (apparently) psychological thriller since then that touches on this pales in comparison in my view.

Dostoevsky even creates  a bumbling intellectual detective Porfiry who solves the crime early on.   His interactions with Raskolnikov are excellent mind games .  Porfriry was apparently the model for legendary TV Detective Colombo (and the structure of each show was broadly based on this work too) which you can see.  In fact every cliched detective maverick with a brain (which he's not afraid to use!) has some roots in this little man - I'm thinking Cracker with his centre piece interviews/analysis with the criminals or more obscure  Frank Pembleton in Homicide Life On the Streets -  a forerunner of the Wire.

So plot is not really the thing but characters and ideas are.  This probably explains why three has been quite a few dramatisations of it  - not because of the story but the continuing power of Dostoevsky's creations.

Some of the ideas explored are pretty basic - why kill someone?  What affect does it have on a killer, any?  Although Raskolnikov seems to create a motive -  the woman he murders is a "hag" and a money lender - he can use the money for a greater good - to re-establish himself as a student (tuition fees were about then!) and help his widowed mother and sister.  Yet he ends up killing an "innocent" - the hag's half sister and never spends the money which he steals.  In a vague echo of Johnny Cash - is he killing her "just to watch her die" or to see what will be the impact on him.    Well it's not good - Raskolnikov retreats into his shell, but life goes on and his attempt to exist with his actions as the banality of life goes on around him is spellbounding to read.

Along with these fundamental questions there is also a lot of nineteenth century ideological debate.  Another powerful aspect of this novel is that the discussion of these concepts neither seemss dated nor contrived.  Often in fiction when the author is linking the novel with an idea it seems shoe-horned in.  For Raskolnikov makes an attempt to intellectually justify the murder of "lesser" people - it is discovered that he has written an academic article (which Porfiry has read, obviously).  He argues that exceptional people have the right to overcome their conscience as they have a higher and greater aim.   Indeed the greatest people in history have introduced new laws and systems which traduce earlier ones thus they are by necessity turning things on their head.   Napoleon is a recurring (and for the time current) example.   His greatness and plans allowed him to take endless lives.  It is still a symptom of psychiatric illness to believe you are the reincarnation of Napoleon or related to it.  This is part of Dost's attack on the Nihilists and Early Utopian Socialists - essentially ascribing Raskolnikov with these views.  The ends justify the means at one level but it is a bit more than that - the ends almost require these means.    Some have seen this as an attack on Marxism but that is very unlikely as Marx's work was only in limited circles by then.  But it is an attack on "modern" or "European" responses to the radically altering world in the nineteenth century.  Particularly there are many side swipes at "What is to be Done" - the Utopian Socialist Novel.

For the problem with Raskolnikov is that even though he may believe the great man can do what he wants philosophical action the double murder he has carried out is impossible for him to bear and maintain his grip on reality.  The dichotomy of actions that end in people's deaths - it seems easier to do this when ordered from a distance - like Napoleon or even Tony Blair.  Interestingly it is the detective Porfiry who outlines the argument from the article to Raskolonikov in another memorable scene.

Again that highlights the strength of the work it is not a dry academic analysis on the impact on human pschye of killing one or two people (although it is partially that) it is a fast paced work with memorable scene after memorable scene.  In many ways like a great piece of cinema.

There are dark characters found in the grottiest bars in back streets of St Petersburg - one called the Crystal Palace accurately enough.  Early in the book he stumbles into a bar-room bore drinking his family's money away.  He gives a brilliant monologue outlining the tedium, self indulgence and delusion of all drunks.  This is so strong I almost hoped it wouldn't be referred to again - just existing as a stand alone piece.  But there is a nod to the 19th Century novel plot and the fallen daughter which the drunk refers to becomes entangled in Raskolnikov's life - Sonya.

A true villain Svidrigailov also exists in the piece - although ironically we don't discover if he actually has killed anyone (though the murder of his wife and others is hinted at) where we do know that Raskolnikov did.  He is attempting to seduce and pursue Raskolnikov's sister which he almost does in a chilling scene near the end.  He also seems to be a peadophile - marrying a 15 year old in his fifties, grooming other children.  Again a very modern, nasty dark truth written about by Dostoevsky.  Svidirigailov also kills himself which Raskolnikov cannot bring himself to do.  The nature of suicide is something which obsessed Dostoevsky.

There is so much in this work (in fact it is a book you could get obsessed with in itself).  A disturbing scene where Raskolnikov demands Sonya reads Biblical passages to him.  The comical uselessness of Luzhkin - a clerk on the make who manages briefly to convince Raskolnikov's sister to become engaged to him.  And of course the creation of Porfiry. All of the work is of its time : St Petersburg 1866 - streets, events, people are referred to but also universal.

Dostoevsky really found his voice with this book - although he had written some strong pieces as I have outlined on this blog.  Literally - this is a third person narrative although it follows Raskolnikov almost through every page: he apparently rejected the version where he was the narrator.  There are two exceptions to this - near the end the narrative breaks from Raskolnikov to follow Svidrigailov - ending with his death. Also the Epilogue which has a strange distant tone - it follows Raskolnikov (or the criminal as it calls him) to his prison exile ( a la Dost himself) and his redemption through Sonya's love and (of course for FD) religion.  I am not sure about that ending but it follows Dostoevsky's spiritual belief - the truly dark figure kills himself.
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It is great when "classics" live up to expectations and I have not really done it justice.  In contemporary writers the balance of the very new with the universal is often attempted but never that successfully.  Old Dostoevsky shows how it is done.  Amazing.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Music makes the people come together: Yeah, yeah, yeah: The Story of Modern Pop - Bob Stanley.

In the mid eighties I remember hearing John Walters (Peel's legendary producer - also sadly deceased) reviewing the first ever Q magazine and speaking about the quiz within it.  He thought it was a bit sad as it seemed like to complete it you needed O levels in Pop.  An intricate study of any cultural phenomena runs this risk. Rather than appreciate the joy of a comedy routine, a painting, a poem or  even a World cup goal  you are trying to find the strings, the work behind the moment rather than see it and enjoy it for what it is.  Pop music has an immediacy and a reliance on emotional response that means a clumsy approach to analysing  it could either be tedious or ephemeral - the song could just dissipate under the weight of the microscope.

Bob Stanley (Member of St. Etienne and music journo)'s musical history of Pop is certainly intricate - weighing in at 750 pages. It certainly skirts with over the top analysis - a mentioning of a key change in  a Big Fun (not missed at all 80s Stock, Aitken and Waterman glove puppets) track- but pulls back on the whole to offer a sprawling, argumentative, informative work.  Bits of it reminded me of a long afternoon/evening in the pub with mates dissecting music track by track as pound after pound gets stuck in the juke box.

Male friends, maybe?  One criticism could be that this type of book is just an extension of preparing lists or (in the old days, apparently) rearranging your records, tapes, cds in alphabetic order - an aspect of male repressed emotion or something.  Or even worse it could be a mass compendium of Mojo and Record Collector articles or two years worth of Friday night BBC4 documentaries,  a male heavy audience! Caitlin Moran has a pretty damning with faint praise review comparing the book with a London A-Z.  - interestingly on the cover (smacks a bit of a publisher worried about how to market it).

Some of these criticisms may be valid but I say what the hell just accept that and dive in.   Yet another immediate problem is presented by trying to explore the entire history of pop music  - where do I begin (as many pop lyrics have asked) and where to end and er.. also what to leave in and leave out.  Broadly Stanley has gone for a chronological approach - starting with the first ever pop- chart (another list) - with some years because of their significance (good and bad) meriting a whole chapter on their own e.g 1960, 1970, 1985, 1991. Though this means that epoch spanning artists have a chapter (Dylan, Beatles, Bowie) which cuts across times - this can jar a little.  But it makes for some compelling essays the ones on Dylan and the Bee Gees are very good.

But then we get another issue which great minds have grappled with for eons (time and space).  How do you summarise the work of artists who could  - and have been - subject to massive tomes themselves?  It ain't easy (another oft used pop lyric) but Stanley adopts a variety of approaches.  One "interesting" method is to explore the Beatles through one album - the relatively obscure {well compared to the muso greatest lists of all time}: A Hard Days Night and argue that all the tensions, musical skills and potentially revolutionary sounds can be found in that work - which is stretching the point to say the least. But  I like his ambition in attempting it.

Alongside the chronological journey genres of pop are thrown in at the time they appeared or became most significant with chapters of their own.  Again, the problems of limits are here:  when does pop become something else? Country Music has a chapter (set in the 70s period) mainly because he chooses to stick the Eagles in that genre but there is none for (pre-pop) Blues or Jazz.  You can see why because the book would have become something else and it's already bloody 750 pages long (as the writer may respond to critics).

Reading the genre chapters I also became clearly aware that this is in many ways an internet book.  Not because I read it on a Kindle or it has hyperlinks or anything horrific like that.  I dutifully read the hard copy dragging the massive slab of a book around on my various journeys - looking at various locations like a manic street preacher with the bible - note the lower case. But because with an internet connection you have an immediate link to all the music mentioned.  The music writer must now be aware of this - he is a  curator who can highlight various tracks to the reader.  This changes the skill from describing music (or dancing to architecture) to knowing you can find the song yourself - so puts it in context.  The downside for this is that it can lead to play - list itis.  There are a few chapters where there are 7 or 8 songs just mentioned for the reader to discover for themselves.  It is quite fun to do this but made me wonder about the nature of music books now. The downside is you can lose an evening searching for say Pentangle Bsides...

Devoting a chapter to each genre is pretty unforgiving.  Let's say some have not stood the test of time - I'm looking at you skiffle and San Francisco psychedelia.    But at its best Stanley's writing can lighten up a whole style of music that entices you to find out more - early rock and roll and American 60s garage have now become my current obsession due to this.

Another thing which is pretty unforgiving is Stanley's decision making which is controversial but inevitable given the length of the work.  Some artists simply don't make the cut.  This must be down to the writer's own taste but I guess he does this because they are not original enough so just to name 4 there is no significant mention of Japan, Pixies, Blur and er the Eurythmics.  I'm actually serious about that last one - I think the early albums were significant in 80s pop.  But you may be surprised at some of the gaps

He is also very dismissive of bands - which at parts is very funny (his dismantling of the Boomtown Rats, the Britpop Chapter) even where I don't agree with him - his curt description of Carter USM but also could be seen as a nod to his editor who must have been tearing her hair out .    Stanley also takes strong stances on some issues which are arguable but at least he doesn't approach it with a " wow isn't all music wonderful"  Q magazine type style. His favourite Beatle is Paul McCartney, New Wave from 1978-81 is almost completely dismissed as chancers hopping on the back of the lull after the initial surge of punk,  he goes into more detail than in humanly necessary about the Bee Gees back catalogue, New Romantics are stuck in with a movement he calls New Pop. from 1980 -3 which includes Adam Ant, ABC, Dexys, he also completely dismisses Band Aid (with his own aid of a Moz quote) - though I think he could do better than quote Neo- Liberal economist Moyo in defence of this postion.  I like all this because again it equates with a pub/coffee shop/17th Century Salon argument.

So I think I have explored the sprawling magpie (is that possible?) like approach of the work.  But overall it comes together.  He throws up gems of tracks - for example showing how the turn of the decade Kylie singles were her best work and pretty phenomenal pop songs.   He dissects throw away tracks like the Archies' Sugar Sugar - he won me over with that one.  There is a slight tendency a la Paul Morley or Bill Drummond to say a pretty unremarkable track is the best record every made. Morley said Fantasy Island by Tight Fit was better than Led Zep III for example. Stanley does this with a lot of songs - say a couple of Bucks Fizz tracks - notably My Camera Never Lies  - which you can sort of go along with.  The power of this disposable pop is one of the reasons that 80s music is so resiliant in my eyes.  Alongside this he puts forward a case for Public Image by PIL as the most important record ever made.  But he goes too far when he says an early 90s abomination of a  single by Slade(!) with UKIP cultural spokesperson Mike Read is "stellar" - this is it!  I suppose that I feel so strongly about this shows the strength of debate you can have over what is supposedly such a short-term form.

The history is also skewed.  Bob's own preferences shine through.  There is a detailed dissection of almost every element of dance music from 1980 onwards track by track - every element of Detroit techno minutiae to the growth of happy hardcore in Rotterdam(!).  Very informative and in Moran's terms encyclopediac but compare the discussion of 80s indie music over two pages (Morrissey's solo career 25 years old is literally covered in a footnote).  Debatable over which was more influential on pop but not in thie work.  There is an element of student dissertation here - he quite simply seems to run out of space so has to cram a lot in.  The ending is a bit unsatisfactory - the essential conclusion being that nothing new, original or listenable has been made since the turn of the millenium.  I am not clear if that is what he really thinks or if it just a question of time (as Depeche Mode -brief mention in work- said).  It also has a geographic bias - key Scottish and Welsh bands aren't really explored but my god he does a lot in the work.

A book to read, cross reference when searching you tube, spill coffee on and argue about.  Big, all encompassing - probably too much - and flawed.  And much better than 2 years worth of BBC 4 Friday night documentaries.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Money doesn't talk it swears: Rabbit is Rich - John Updike

1979.   It seems to loom large in my existence at the moment.  35 years ago it may be but the current Top of the Pops repeats on BBC4 are from this year: great episode last week - Sunday Girl number 1 - and Bowie and Elvis Costello on! It was also the year of the first constitutional referendum in Scotland relevant in 2014 - a victory but a defeat for devolution.  Of course it also lives in infamy as the year of the first election triumph of Thatcher although the economic model she devastated society with had already a couple of years behind it having its birth pangs in Chile amongst other places.  So the end of an era or the beginning - or a bit of both.

Such contradictory times are an ideal setting for a good novel and the year 1979 is when Updike chose to set his third Rabbit novels Rabbit is Rich - a decade on from the racial tension of Rabbit Redux.  For although Rabbit has still not moved from Brewer the economic beginnings and ends over the Atlantic in Uk plc were global and Rabbit Angstrom was right slap bang in the middle of it - as the ambiguous title of the work tells us.

By this work Updike had decided that there was going to be four of these novels which meant there was always going to be an inherent danger that this being the 3rd it would fall in to a bit of a rut.  It could have just been a review of the 70s, popular references, fashions etc and lose its focus as a novel  But as a piece of work it never fell into any of these traps - in fact I think it could be the strongest of the three I have read so far.  One of Updike's skills as a writer of contemporary fiction writer I have found is that he can identify things about living in the era that are immediate but universal.  So, the observations of the time are neither kitsch or immediately dated.  Nixon  - a critical figure for the American  70s - gets a throw away mention on page 2 although the Watergate hangover arguably fuelled the dash to consumerism and the tone of the novel.

The other benefit of the Rabbit series is that we are in his head and know of major events that have crashed into him.   The narrative itself is almost exclusively from his perspective with a slight detour with his twenty something son Nelson, now a college dropout.   So the reader can hit the ground running or not (!) for I think you could enjoy it on its own mainly because of the period where the characters operate.

Ironically given the context Updike has really struck oil by setting the work at this transitional time of consumerist capitalism.  For Rabbit from the opening scene of him standing in his dusty car showroom where he works to the final scene settling into his heavily mortgaged "dream home" has the trappings of success defined by the wealth of American capital.  He is Rich... or is he?

Now back with Janice (they were reconciled at the end of Redux) almost totally - he lives with his mother in law (father dead) in her house, has a job at her dead dad's car dealership - notably a Japanese brand: Toyota.  Even his sexual proclivities - such a big part of the other novels are for the most part focused on Janice - with one fairly major exceptions.

The accumulation of wealth by Rabbit is outlined with unerring mundanity by Updike - the prose is full of figures and dollar signs, interminable conversations about car finance and investments.  But this is of the time and by that I don't just mean 1979 I mean 2014.  For the period of credit fuelled capitalism really sprang into life then - fuelling Thatcher and Reagan lets not forget too- and has never gone away despite the crunch 30 years later starting in one of the banks that Rabbit keeps his deposit box.

Those are just the trappings though for like the credit Rabbit's wealth seems based on sand - all in the hands of his wife and inlaws - who abandoned him in  Redux and who he sprinted away from in the first novel.  The world he lives in is as defining - the Iranian hostage crisis so critical to the petro-economy of the US buzzes away in the background, the oil price spike in the dog days of Jimmy Carter - even the young pope John Paul II's visit to the land of Mammon all seem to directly affect Rabbit in a way similar to the moon landings in the last book.  Disco - with the voice of Donna Summer - is the partial soundtrack as Harry tries to dissect the lyrics of Hot Stuff.  Tellingly most of this news arrives with Harry Rabbit on his car radio as he drives around burning oil.

The so called success and potential social climbing which Rabbit wants to indulge in is disrupted in many ways by the past in two ways.   Firstly Nelson appears with a girl in tow strangely determined to make it as a car salesman and drop out of Uni  and also the sight of a beautiful teenage girl makes him obsessed that she is his daughter from his 1950s scandalous tryst with Ruth.

The tension between this superficial belief in "wealth" and his struggle with his family real and imagined provide the real strength of this work .  Where does Rich - ness come from? . In the other two books there seemed to be a character that acts as a vehicle for monologues that contextualise the underlying themes of the books - Skeeter in Redux and Reverend Eccles in Run.   There is no one figure like that here although Rabbit's personification of success: Webb Murket - older with a very young wife does seem to represent consumerism and the trappings of wealth - this is more reflected in what he has rather than what he says.

The conflict really comes with his son Nelson who like all twenty somethings is simmering with rage about pretty much everything but again the reader has a good chance of knowing why he would be particularly angry with both his parents - having been abandoned at different times by each of them. The narrative arc of the work largely focuses on Nelson's return home with more than usual baggage - a pregnant girlfriend eventually emerges as does a curiously dated (even for 1979) shotgun wedding. Reflecting the essential small town nature of the Pennsylvanian city they live in.  Becoming a Dad at a similar age to Nelson Updike outlines brilliantly the gamut of emotions young fathers have - fear, pride, happiness, loss, gain - a bundle of contradictions.  Repeating his father's life in many ways although Rabbit with his eye on the consumerist prize hardly seems to notice - yet Nelson still maintains his independence.  I thought the antipathy and love of the relationship between father and son was particularly well written.

The other "family" story culminates in Rabbit meeting Ruth - a much altered yet at base similar person from 20  years before.  Ambiguities hang over this encounter which I thought was  a little unfulfilled  - perhaps Updike was setting this up for resolution in the last novel : it did feel a little contrived.

 The narrative style again is stunning in places with its ability to transmit human thought particularly male thought in a readable way.  I liked the interspersing of violent fantasy with banal thoughts - acts against Janice mainly - really exposing the underlying anger within Rabbit - the intermittent flashes of this along with crude sexual imagery is genuinely shocking in places.

The endless alcohol - Nelson's slightly older other half Prudence (Shamefully for Rabbit's bigoted mother in law a Catholic) drinks constantly through the pregnancy, Janice seems permanently sozzled- the social climbing of the country club, the nouveau riche trappings of the Murkett's home provide a real seventies flavour of the establishing U.S. middle classes.  Rabbit even manages his first trip overseas in his life to the Caribbean culminating in another 70s image - a night of  wife swapping swinging.  That scene has all the awkward sweaty details that you could imagine as does the aftermath and consequences.

As well as all this the novel is very very funny in places. The drawn out scene where Rabbit and Janice change their investment from Gold to Silver dollars (as recommended by Capitalist scion Webb) and move it across town is hysterical. As is much of the dialogue between Rabbit and his greek chorus of fellow social climbers.

Are the tensions and contradictions of this era resolved for Rabbit?  There is no real conventional plot as life began before the book started and goes on after it.  Yet movingly in his mortgaged up to the hilt house the last paragraph has him holding his newborn grandaughter "hardly weighing anything but alive".  Is this the Richness? or as the penultimate sentence put it "Another nail in his coffin".  Perhaps all will be revealed in the next decade and final book. Or perhaps not.