Reading Diary: Moll&Sarah&Alfred&Rupert

…and Grace and Lia and Sky. Herewith, the last few weeks of reading, not including #20booksofsummer titles.

51y5ybibh4l-_sx320_bo1204203200_Sometimes I just miss the eighteenth century. Not in a way that can be assuaged by contemporary historical fiction; in a way that can only really be dealt with by reading a novel rife with variant spellings like “chuse” and the persistent Capitalisation of every Noun, for Reasons. Daniel Defoe and I have a vexed history – the first of his novels that I ever read was Robinson Crusoe, which bored me almost to tears, although possibly this was because I was eight years old and not equipped to find interest in Crusoe’s devotion to the Protestant ethic through list-making, material culture, and stewardship of resources. Moll Flanders, though, I’ve always got on well with. She narrates her own story with vim, and an almost total lack of shame: her initial fall from grace, a seduction by the son of a woman in whose house she lives as a companion, is something about which she expresses regret, but mostly because she doesn’t “manage” the affair well and fails to get a promise of marriage and security. “Management” is essential in Moll’s world; the word crops up again and again. It’s interesting to consider its use as set against the idea of household management as a married woman’s primary duty; for Moll, “managing” is also a matter of maximising efficiency, but in her case it is the efficiency of graft, or theft, or of the socially approved form of prostitution that constitutes the marriage market. It’s also interesting to see how long it takes her to fall to actual crime: for most of the novel, she might be considered immoral (making various marriages for money and advantage, including the notorious incestuous one), but she doesn’t do much that’s illegal. The career of thieving comes much later, at a point where she’s not sufficiently sure of her own youth and beauty to try marrying again. The other delightful thing about the novel, of course, is that she ends up all right, with a husband she likes and a large, regular income from a plantation in Virginia. Roxana, a later Defoe novel, explores the darker and more realistic consequences of being a fallen woman, but Moll Flanders is like a glorious fantasy of transgression. I’ve always rather liked it for that.

the_reading_groupfrontpanelfinalThe Reading Party is set in the 1970s, not my favourite decade to read about but in this case made interesting because it was the time at which previously all-male colleges in Oxford and Cambridge began to admit not only female students, but female dons. Sarah Addleshaw is Fenella Gentleman’s protagonist, a social historian who becomes the first female don in the history of Wadham College. She’s selected to help an older, crustier colleague with the college’s annual reading party, in which a handful of students are chosen to go off with two tutors to a house in Cornwall for a week before their exams, to revise. (This tradition doesn’t exist in all Oxford colleges – it didn’t in mine – and I can think of many, many more pitfalls to it than advantages, but that’s by the by.) Her instinctive attraction to a Rhodes Scholar, Tyler, must be balanced against her constant awareness of being a test case, and her professional role as an academic mentor. On occasion, Sarah’s innocence about the subtlety of male belittling almost feels disingenuous; we’re so aware of it now that it feels remarkable that it was ever so widely accepted. And there’s a little too much in the way of non-dialogue exclamation points and quotation marks (the latter, I imagine, intended as signposts for readers not familiar with Oxbridge slang, but jarring.) It’s a fascinating view, though, into a time relatively near my own but which seems to have been governed by rules and convictions so vastly different that it might as well be alien. Is there any time more exotic than the recent past? And Sarah, frustrating though she sometimes is, is a doughty heroine; you want her to do well without losing her spark, and on that score, the epilogue satisfies.

53d8a8d0f1a13adde9ec4476a1b570bbI saw the film of The Prestige, based on the novel by Christopher Priest, years before reading the book. Christopher Nolan takes some liberties with plot and structure, which is, to be honest with you, a pretty good thing; Priest’s ideas work on their own, but they work slightly better when Nolan tweaks them. The heart of the story is still the rivalry between Victorian stage magicians Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden, and their achievement of a trick that appears to involve teleportation. Priest includes a framing story that features Angier’s and Borden’s descendants in the present day (which, if we assume it’s contemporaneous with the book’s writing, is the mid-1990s). It’s a further angle on the rivalry, but it doesn’t really go anywhere; the tantalising hint of resonance established by the report that sends Borden’s descendant in search of Angier’s (a potential news story about someone being in two places at once) is never resolved. The science-fiction element of the story is represented by Nikola Tesla, who makes a brief appearance as the inventor of a machine that harnesses electrical energy in the air; much as in The Bedlam Stacks, the time period of The Prestige muddies the waters about whether what’s happening is science as we’d understand it, or an illusion resulting from the limitations of Victorian knowledge. This is the first of Priest’s books I’ve read, but checking out his back catalogue after finishing it, it seems obvious that he has an artistic obsession with twins and duplicates; several of his other novels, including The Affirmation and The Separation (which won the Arthur C Clarke Award), use twinning as a device. Ideas of illusion, deception, and truth are so closely bound up with notions of identity that, at least in The Prestige, Priest carries it off, but it makes me wonder where he can possibly go with the same themes in other books.

81j4lg4hk8lMisogynistic dystopias are kind of where it’s at with culture both high and low at the moment. I think we’re either rapidly approaching saturation point, or got there some time ago (we sure as hell have passed the station where we should all have been given a collective run-down on the differences between “dystopic” and “post-apocalyptic”, two different concepts whose frequent and inappropriate blurring is the ridiculously petty hill I am prepared to die on.) Sophie Mackintosh’s entry in the genre is better than the text on the hardback back cover would lead you to believe (it reads as though it’s quoted directly from the novel, which it isn’t; Mackintosh’s prose is better, if not very interesting.) Her take involves three sisters—Grace, Lia, and the little one, Sky—and their parents, King and Mother. They live on an island off the mainland of somewhere that’s probably North America. They have been taught from a young age that the world beyond the horizon is poisoned, that their bodies and minds must be trained for assault by sickness as well as by the actions of men. It’s implied that they used to run some kind of cult there, one that appealed mostly to vulnerable women, but that no one comes for cures anymore; it’s just the girls and their parents. King vanishes without trace one day, and shortly afterwards, three men appear on the island. These two events precipitate a crisis in the girls’ worldviews, particularly that of Lia, who embarks on an affair with one of the newcomers.

There’s enough misogyny floating around that I’m never going to say we don’t need a book like this, but The Water Cure partakes of a vagueness that makes it feel generic, and therefore less urgent than many of its kind. Perhaps we’re truly not meant to know whether to read it as a speculative fiction or as disturbing realism, but the material about controlling one’s body and emotions, turning to self-harm as a form of release, and the manipulation of young women by older men is all stuff that’s been done before. What can make a book like this intensely compelling is the voice in which it’s told, but that doesn’t happen here, firstly because the narration is parceled out to three separate characters—for no readily apparent reason, like for instance a plot point where interpretation can be altered by different points of view—and secondly because none of those voices are differentiated from one another. Another way of injecting freshness into a story of this type is narrative structure, or a radical social approach (both of which are present, for instance, in Naomi Alderman’s The Power), but The Water Cure, for all its baton-switching, is a linear story, and its (tiny) social world is nothing we haven’t seen before in documentaries about cult leaders and in our own experiences with controlling men. The question with a book like this is whether holding up a mirror to experience is enough; does The Water Cure need, necessarily, to be Saying Something or Making A Statement? Perhaps not, at least not in a moral sense; but aesthetically, as a piece of art, it’s fatally weakened by bringing little new to the table.

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02. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

615zhd3me2bl-_sx323_bo1204203200_Ken McLeod once said of Neuromancer‘s plot that it was “intricate and forgettable”, a phrase which holds in its depths a clue as to how the entire damn book should be read. Like Pat Cadigan’s SynnersNeuromancer is considered a foundational text of cyberpunk, and one of the core tenets of that particular movement is the refusal to explain anything at all. From the very first sentence, almost as famous as that of Pride and Prejudice – “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel” – Gibson has pushed us into a world where the measure of the human is the machine. The metaphor that a mind in this world initially reaches for is technological, not organic. The reader, as a human, is responsible not for arbitrating meaning, but simply for keeping up.

Reading this after Altered Carbon is also an exercise in comparison. Gibson’s protagonist is Henry Case, a jaded criminal who’s saved from death by a group of shady individuals who need him to pull off just one more job. He shares a literary bloodline, part of a motivation, and a position of vulnerability with Morgan’s damaged ex-cop, Kovacs. The sense of machinations going on much higher up and behind the scenes is also familiar. There’s even a bad-ass female character whose bad-ass-ness doesn’t quite extend to allowing her to be more than a prop and sexual partner to the male protagonist (though Neuromancer‘s Molly, with retractable scalpels embedded beneath each flawlessly varnished nail, gets a lot of page time: she’s the one who effects the physical break-in that the plot requires).

On the other hand, the more time you spend with Neuromancer, the easier it gets to move through its weird cyberspatial world. Gibson invented the idea of the matrix, and the standard pop-culture visualisation of what hacking looks like from the inside. Once you’ve learned to adjust to that – and to the slangy dialogue, full of abbreviations and redolent with cynicism – everything makes a lot more sense. The plot is intricate, involving a schizophrenic AI whose two halves are known as Wintermute and Neuromancer, but its finer details are entirely forgettable (possibly because Gibson never makes a terribly strong effort to articulate them.) And somehow that’s okay. The point isn’t necessarily what’s happening on any given page, but the atmosphere that Gibson creates. It means that Neuromancer‘s value, at least to me, is more historical than literary; that it matters more for having done things first than for the objective quality of the things it does. But a historically significant book is still a book worth having read, usually, and it is in this case. I might prefer to reach for another Richard Morgan title the next time I want a cyberpunk fix, but what Gibson did is respect-worthy. (And I still want to read Pattern Recognition.)

01. Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

51dwaae3rzl-_sx320_bo1204203200_At last, I’ve read Altered Carbon! It’s interesting to have read this just before William Gibson’s Neuromancer; it’s like seeing influence in reverse, tracking details of Morgan’s worldbuilding and plot to their antecedents in Gibson. Anyway, Morgan’s innovation is the idea that humans have developed a way of remotely storing consciousness, so that your body isn’t the vehicle for your life in the same way as we understand it. Instead, that which is you—memories, cognition, personality—can be found in a small implant near the base of the neck, known as a stack. Bodies are referred to as “sleeves”; poorer people go “on stack”, their consciousnesses divorced from their physical selves, and rent out their bodies to those who can pay, who upload their own stacks into these sleeves. Incarceration happens along the same lines: a particularly egregious crime can see the offender being placed on stack for perhaps two hundred years, during which time their body, or clones thereof, can be used as a sleeve by whoever particularly wants it.

Prisoners can also be remanded in order to do particular jobs while they’re serving their time. This is what happens to Takeshi Kovacs, a former Envoy (or special forces officer) who finds himself decanted into the sleeve of a man whom he eventually discovers is an ex-cop from Earth, currently on stack for corruption. In this sleeve, he must do a job for Laurens Bancroft, an obscenely wealthy entrepreneur who “committed suicide” two months previously by taking his own head off with a flare gun. Bancroft, however, maintains that he was murdered: since he always has multiple clones on ice, and backs up his stack to a remote location every forty-eight hours, he argues, he would have known that shooting himself wouldn’t exactly be permanent. (One of the great weirdnesses of Morgan’s world is the distinction between killing someone’s body, and causing Real Death; the former is quite routine, while the latter—effected by destroying a stack, and the backed-up data if there is any—is considered a serious offense.) Kovacs must find out who shot Bancroft, and why, and who wants him on (or off) the investigation in the first place. And he’s got some demons of his own to exorcise, related to a military operation in his past that went horribly wrong and to a crime boss whose path he’d hoped never to cross again.

The resulting novel is hardboiled science noir, and it is a huge amount of fun. Morgan treads in cyberpunk territory, but he is happier to make things readily comprehensible than the great names of cyberpunk usually are. The action scenes are terrific, violent and delivered with cynical flair by Kovacs’s first-person narration. If it sometimes gets a little difficult to work out who’s on which side, well, that’s the point of the mystery. (I’ve read criticism that finds Morgan’s resolution of the mystery plot a bit of a let-down. Perhaps it is. I found it convincing enough, and also found that there was more than enough atmosphere and verve to carry me over whatever plotholes or lack of plausibility there might be.) Morgan’s female characters err somewhat on the side of being Tough Cool Girls; they are undeniably both tough and cool, but they tend to function as vectors for Kovacs’s feelings. Abigail Nussbaum notes that Morgan’s novels are “a rare example of the gap between taking the problems of masculinity seriously, and being interested in feminism”—in other words, feminist novel Altered Carbon is not, but it does engage seriously and thoughtfully with toxic masculinity, and the culture of violence and damage that it promulgates.

It’s worth noting that Altered Carbon contains graphic scenes of both torture and (consensual) sex, and the fight scenes are often also explicitly violent. If, like me, you find it much easier to read such things than to watch them on a television screen, you may not have much of a problem with the book—you can always read faster, or even skip ahead a few pages. (The fact that Kovacs is downloaded into a female sleeve for the torture is interesting from a critical point of view; for a noir hero to be personally subjected to the particular vulnerabilities of having a woman’s body is one of those things that Morgan does that both acknowledges female experience and makes it not quite the point, since Kovacs identifies firmly as a man, and is in a male body at all other times. It is also, however, one of the things that might make it harder for women to read this book.)

What remains is the fact that Morgan writes like a demon—gripping, compelling, bursting with brilliant, weird, revealing ideas about how societies work—and that makes me want to read his Clarke Award-winning novel, Black Man, as soon as possible.

Reading Diary: what day is it again?

I’ve read seven books since my last confession reading diary entry, and I can’t keep track of days anymore, and I also can’t write a soooper long review of every single one of them, despite them having been almost universally extraordinary. Here we go with a roundup, anyway.

cover2Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper: I didn’t read Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, but I gather that Our Homesick Songs shares with it a lyrical but straightforward prose style. It reads with the simplicity, and the judiciously applied repetition, of a child’s fable—but don’t take this to mean that the book is naive or twee. Finn Connor is growing up in an isolated Newfoundland fishing village in the 1990s; his father, Aidan, was a fisherman, and his mother, Martha, used to make nets. But the fish are gone, the island is dying, and Aidan and Martha must take turns working hundreds of miles away on the mainland, a month at a time. Finn’s older sister Cora tries to feed her thirst for adventure by transforming every abandoned house on the island into a representation of a different country, but it’s not enough and soon she strikes out on her own. Struggling with his sister’s abandonment and the difficulty of his parents’ situation, Finn assigns himself the task of bringing the fish back to his home waters. Our Homesick Songs is suffused with the Irish ballads that Newfoundland fishermen sing, and with a sense of deep melancholy; Hooper comes down firmly on the side of family love as one of the few forces that can withstand so much loss. It’s a book with a core of sorrow, wrapped in gentleness.

cover132346-mediumSocial Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton: Louise is twenty-nine and living in New York, barely keeping her head above water—and her time is running out. Between barista shifts and SAT tutoring hours, she can live, but she has no time to write, or think, or do anything other than survive. All that changes when she meets Lavinia: golden, fabulously wealthy, deeply romantic, alarmingly charismatic. So when Lavinia dies—not a spoiler; we know it almost from the beginning—what’s Louise going to do? Can she…perhaps…keep fooling everyone?

I’ve said on social media before now that the genius of Social Creature is in Tara Isabella Burton’s depiction of someone who is poor, not all that young, without a safety net, and terrified. Louise is the dark side of renter culture, of moving to the city without a dime; she’s all the New York stories you never hear, all the millennials who have nothing and no one. Her characterisation is the bedrock of this book. We need to be convinced by her slide into desperation; her sins need to seem merely venal to us because we understand her. They do, and we do, and that, more than anything, is why people have been comparing this to Tartt and Highsmith: because Burton is at the same level of play when it comes to characterisation, and because she understands that, at bottom, she’s writing a book about money, and about the awful things that people do when they’re afraid of life without it. (Lavinia, incidentally, is a fantastic creation: the pretentiousness of her constant Instagram posts featuring quotes by Rimbaud, and the sinisterness of her history with other young women like Louise, is achieved gradually, but insistently. She’s a wonderfully horrible antagonist.)

cover3Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage. She was arrested, imprisoned, force-fed, and maltreated. Now, women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. The reappearance of an old friend from suffrage days—now married and espousing Fascism—prompts Mattie to start a group for girls that promotes imagination and curiosity (and a bit of self-defense), but not everyone is in favour… Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book, suggested not just by Mattie’s stagnation but by Evans’s delicate outlining of class issues. (Mattie’s first recruit is her young maid, who comes to her after being fired from a job at the first-class ladies’ cloakroom in St Pancras for having a sty, which might offend the ladies. Her feelings about being made to run about in the rain are initially, let us say, mixed.) The downside of Mattie’s forceful character is a tendency to trample, which Evans acknowledges; there is also a ballast of personality in the form of The Flea, who works as a health visitor, tackling poverty and inequality in places that Mattie, for all her fire and dedication, cannot reach. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.

61iucjvvmwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Sea and Summer, by George Turner: In his Clarke Award-winning novel, Turner imagines a not-too-distant future (2041) ravaged by climate change. In Australia, the social gap has widened into a chasm: on one side, the Sweet, who retain jobs where most employment has been taken over by automation, and on the other, the Swill, the 99.9% who mostly live crammed into tower blocks and at the mercy of the State. The plot, which is slightly too slow-moving for its own good, at least at the beginning, concerns a conspiracy to speed up population control and a family whose fortunes leave them in a curious limbo between Sweet and Swill. But it’s Turner’s vision of the future that really startles. You can see the effect of his own times (he was writing in 1987, and the Swill system of supermarkets and vouchers is reminiscent of Soviet-era department stores; characters talk a lot about “the greenhouse effect”, a term that has mostly gone out of fashion now). Yet many of his imaginings about the medium-term effects of climate change are prescient: constant flooding, toxic groundwater, the aforementioned takeover of most industries by automation, and an offensively huge income gap are issues that we’re all talking about now, with increasing urgency. When Turner was writing, few politicians seemed even to be aware of climate change, let alone willing to talk about it publicly. The Sea and Summer is a less pessimistic portrayal than some (its framing story is set in a future beyond the Sweet/Swill time, when the planet is cooling again and parts of humanity have survived), and its prescription for social healing is education: the development of “new men”, neither Sweet nor Swill, who teach themselves the information they need in order to survive a changing planet. It’s an approach that has something to teach our age.

51wwwsztqml-_sx324_bo1204203200_Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss: A deceptively short book, almost a novella at 150 pages, with a core of menace. Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver whose love for Ancient British history is tinged with racism and nationalism. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students on an “Experiential Archaeology” course—are less devoted to dogmatic historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen; how could it not, given Silvie’s father’s propensity towards violence, and the expedition’s growing obsession with the ritual murders that culminated in bog bodies? But Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere (the discomfort of heat without insulated walls or air conditioning; the endless round of finding something to eat, laboriously preparing it, cooking it, eating it, and starting again). It is also a very tightly written book: everything is thematically connected to everything else, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. The first three pages, and the final five, caused a physical reaction in me when I read them: Moss’s evocation of emotional states is that strong, that subtle. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.

4633870306_259x395Crudo, by Olivia Laing: I adore Laing’s nonfiction, and although Crudo is thought-provoking and up-to-the-minute, her first foray into fiction didn’t have the same effect on me. It follows a writer called Kathy, who, the cover blurb says coyly, “may or may not be” Kathy Acker. The reason for this ambiguity is unclear, and if it is meant to be Kathy Acker, the reason for this is unclear too: she died in 1997 in Tijuana, so is Crudo then meant to be the alternate world in which she lives and marries an Englishman, or is the world the reader lives in meant to be the alternate? Are we perhaps meant to be asking these questions? The action takes place in the summer of 2017; like Ali Smith in her Seasons Quartet, Laing is writing almost immediate reportage of current events. Also like Smith, Laing sometimes doesn’t achieve enough of a sense of distance, so that what we get is simply the bludgeoning effect of last year’s news all over again. (Particularly painful to me is the fact that she mentions, two or three times, last summer’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where I grew up. I happened to read this book in a park in Paris, sitting next to my childhood best friend, who was counter-protesting that day; she was punched in the face by a Nazi, and several people she knows were struck by the car that killed Heather Heyer. The past is not.) If Crudo‘s point is that the headlines are awful and it’s hard to live in the world, even when you’re a critically acclaimed white writer with enough spare cash to contemplate buying a second home in the Barbican Centre, well…that’s not news. I can’t deny that it’s smart, or even that it has heart. I’m just not sure what the purpose of the exercise was.

36628420Melmoth, by Sarah Perry: Few, if any, contemporary novelists are doing as much as Sarah Perry is to make Calvinist thought sexy again. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) Her first two novels, and this one, are all suffused with a sense of the reality of sin, although that word is rarely used: perhaps more in Melmoth than elsewhere. And yet the book is also a Gothic romp; it is disturbing and serious, but it’s scattered with delightful ghost-story tropes, starting with an eminent Czech scholar who inherits some papers from an elderly friend who dies at his carrel in Prague’s National Library. They tell the story of Melmoth the Witness, a woman cursed to wander the earth forever, feet bleeding, clad in black, bearing witness to all of the cruelty that humans are capable of displaying towards each other. Helen Franklin, an expat translator who has been punishing herself for twenty years for some nameless crime, comes into possession of the papers, and develops an obsessive interest in the Melmoth story. The novel is intensely atmospheric: you can almost feel the chill of the wind swirling snow on the bridges of Prague, see the jackdaws tilting their observant heads. It also asks enormous questions about morality: is one good deed enough to offset a dozen bad ones? How much atonement is enough? Is atonement necessary, or productive? What Melmoth offers her victims is understanding, but understanding of a very bleak kind: if you have committed a terrible crime, she affirms, no one will ever love or forgive you, so come away with me, wander the earth, at least we can be damned together. It’s a nice metaphor for the sheer indulgence of self-flagellation, the way that martyring yourself allows you to forgo other responsibilities. Perry’s prose is still sometimes too lush for its own good—it occasionally tips over into a style so swooning and wide-eyed as to feel consciously naive—but the combination of creepy ghost story and philosophical inquiry will make Melmoth the most spectacular fireside book, come October.

Thoughts on recent reading: It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a streak of good books, though none of these are out yet, except for the Turner (hooray for reading one title off my backlist!) The final three (Moss, Laing, Perry) were picked for a long weekend in Paris, and I will never stop congratulating myself on the excellence of that decision.

Reading Diary: Mar. 25-Apr. 7

51vgjyqjsil-_sx324_bo1204203200_It took me a long time to read Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners: three and a half days, which is half a week and a timespan in which I can usually dispatch two books. It’s been a while since I read something that forced me to work out its rules as I went along, and the mental stretch felt good, although possibly also ill-timed; by the end of April, I won’t have had a weekend to myself for over two months, and for an introvert in a customer-facing job, that doesn’t put my brain in a happy place. Still, the unmerciful in-your-face-ness of cyberpunk is something I find quite charming. Cadigan’s novel is set in a future LA, a city where big business, entertainment and media conglomerates are even more obsessed with capturing the consumer’s attention than they are now. Into this maelstrom of competing adverts, music videos, and immersive games, Cadigan introduces a technology called sockets, which allow humans direct neural contact not only with the Web (which, fyi, didn’t exist at the time she wrote the novel), but with each other’s brains. The implications, both for business and for things like, you know, human rights and privacy, are huge and not altogether positive. The novel’s final fifth is a huge set piece in which our heroes and heroines – a team of misfit hackers and makers – try to stop the global Internet from having, basically, a stroke. It’s a very exciting book, and incredibly prescient; it was 1992 when it won the Clarke Award, and, as other people have noted, apart from the curious lack of mobile phones, Cadigan’s vision of future tech is not terribly far off where we are now (although I don’t think music videos are quite the cultural force in our world that they are in Synners. It was clearly written when MTV was more of a thing.)

Its major problem is that sense of disorientation. I wouldn’t give this to anyone who was a novice science fiction reader; it asks a lot of you from the very beginning, jumping point-of-view character each chapter for the first five or six chapters while also throwing tech-speak at you with both hands. (There are slightly too many characters, I think, and Cadigan opens with a chapter focalised through someone who turns out to be not very important, which is sort of representative.) The big set piece at the end is hard to visualise, too; it takes place inside various systems, consoles, programs and augmented-reality environments, as well as the “real” world, and the action can get hard to follow. What Cadigan does do very well, however, is achieving emotional roundedness for her characters. Sam, a seventeen-year-old hacker who has emancipated from her parents, has some wonderful moments: pragmatic, with an agile mind, an insouciant attitude, and a crush on someone too old for her, she makes a believable smart teenager. Gina Aiesi, whose lover, Mark, is the reason for the net-wide stroke, is given an incredibly engaging emotional arc—the need to decide between having her own life and sticking around for someone who has never been there for her—and a characteristic rage that prevents her from being a passive figure. In a novel that sees the melding of human and machine as virtually inevitable, the fact that I came to care deeply for the humans in the pages says a lot about Cadigan’s skill as a writer.

overstorybritproof

The proof cover is nicer than the finished cover, IMO.

Richard Powers is fast making his way into my favourite writers of all time (a permanently shifting category that at the moment includes A.S. Byatt, Sarah Hall, and William Thackeray). The Overstory, his latest book, is maybe his most ambitious yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. That Powers actually manages it is confirmation that he is one of the most skilled writers currently working that I can think of.

The Overstory starts with a section called Roots, divided into six separate strands that introduce us to our main characters. They range from Nick Hoel, whose family farm houses virtually the only chestnut in America to be spared the blight that kills other specimens, to Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam vet whose life is saved by a banyan tree, to Olivia Vandergriff, a feckless college girl who experiences a short period of death (shower, light switch, poorly wired house) and emerges back into life convinced that she has been chosen by mysterious entities to help save the California redwoods. There is also Neelay, a paraplegic video game designer; Adam, an academic psychologist; Patricia, a botanist disgraced by her assertion that trees form communities; and Dorothy and Ray, a couple constantly on the brink of disaster. Over the course of the book, these characters will (mostly) become intertwined with each other’s lives, and with trees: studying them, living in them, trying to protect them, listening to them.

The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. It is easy to love and feel for the people in this book, but it is also impossible to come away from it without the understanding that they – and, by extension, you – are the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time, of which they – and you – can only ever be a tiny fraction. The Overstory doesn’t preach about environmentalism, but it does lay out facts, and those facts reach for you. It has made me reconsider, once again, whether I can in good conscience choose to have children. It is an astonishingly well-written, empathetic, heart-rending, blink-inducing book, and I recommend it without reservation.

51hqy7tubclJodi Taylor is, I think, the nearest anyone has yet come to being the obvious successor to Jasper Fforde. Instead of rootling through the backstage area of literature, however, her protagonists jump into the past; her Chronicles of St Mary’s is basically The Eyre Affair for historians. Taylor’s writing isn’t quite as nimble as Fforde’s was at the start of his series: you can generally see the jokes coming from a mile away, although one or two of them are a delightful surprise. In this first volume, we’re introduced to our heroine, Madeleine Maxwell (more often referred to as Max), who embodies a lot of the badass-tough-girl tropes that genre fiction is often guilty of endorsing, but manages also to be sympathetic. Mostly, Taylor achieves this by juxtaposing Max’s relentless up-for-it-ness with another set of tropes: the hopeless klutz. But she has a sense of humour, and it’s not difficult to see why her friends like her, so the reader is pretty much along for the ride.

The plot of Just One Damned Thing After Another can best be summed up by that title; there are at least three natural ends to this novel, and it might have made more sense if Taylor had chosen the first or the second. The main action centers around a jump to the Cretaceous period; St Mary’s is a historical research institute whose employees “investigate historical events in contemporary time.” (They’re instructed not to call it time travel. It’s time travel.) Taylor takes my personal favourite way out of the science-y bit of all this: she acknowledges it before refusing to engage (Max asks how it all works, and is met with stony looks and a sarcastic “Really?” from a tech). It’s as good a strategy as any, and better than either pretending the reader doesn’t know how bonkers time travel is, or going full metal technobabble and over-explaining. The Cretaceous jump is meant to be a simple observe-and-report mission, but Max’s partner betrays her, leading to the discovery of a plot from the future to monetise St Mary’s’ activities and develop a chrono-tourism trade. The rest of it is buddy-adventure with a big old beating heart, a bit of romance (and a surprisingly good sex scene), and a delightful cliffhanger at the end. Great fun, and you don’t have to check your whole brain at the door.

61s7thv4z7lThe next book on the Women’s Prize longlist for me was Sight, by Jessie Greengrass, a novel which I’d been anticipating, since Greengrass was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award back in 2016. If Sight hasn’t quite made me a rabid fan, it’s at least made me understand that shortlisting. Greengrass is at ease with language, and her sentences reflect that ease; she’s never uncomfortable or dull to read.

Where Sight is open to criticism is in its relentlessly autobiographical-seeming and narrow focus. I’m wary of saying this, especially because it is a book about motherhood, pregnancy, daughterhood, and grief: all subjects that women seemingly cannot write about without being asked if they too have experienced such things as their characters experience. But the choice of person and narrative style in Sight pushes us towards such an interpretation: it’s an extremely tightly focalised first person throughout, except for sections on the history of medicine (Röntgen, Freud, and John and William Hunter are of main interest, for their relevance to the protagonist’s physical and mental state throughout the book). Insofar as it has a plot, Sight is focused on the protagonist’s choice (or not) to have her first child, but we know from flashes back and forward that she has a daughter, so her agony of indecision is not especially suspenseful for the reader. What we’re left with, essentially, is a collection of meditations on the body and on grief, but the protagonist’s voice so rarely makes connections between her own experience and anything in the wider world—she doesn’t seem to have a job, for example, or any friends except for her partner; there’s no discussion of how societal pressure might be affecting her decision-making about children—that it reads more like disconnected autofiction. This is absolutely a matter of taste, but the trend towards fiction writing that might have been better off as memoir is not one that I feel very positively about, so although Greengrass is a skillful and thoughtful writer, I’d feel obscurely frustrated if Sight made the shortlist.

33229395The Guardian’s books site wrote a piece not long ago about “up lit”, and cited titles like The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon’s first novel, as examples. Naomi then tweeted about how inaccurate she found this: neither Cannon’s work, she said, nor some of the other examples (Eleanor Oliphant, for instance), are particularly cheery or uplifting, they’re just marketed that way. Opening Three Things About Elsie, I was dubious (look at the cover, for Christ’s sake); closing it, I was in agreement with Naomi. It is not a jolly, Jonas Jonasson-type romp about picturesque elderly people getting into scrapes. It is a book about dementia, and terrible loneliness, as well as about the pasts that people choose to forget. Its ending is, in a strange sort of way, uplifting, but I suspect there will still be readers who are less uplifted than distressed by it.

This means I liked it a great deal more than I was expecting to. The plot is, in many ways, the weakest thing about it: it revolves around eighty-four-year-old Florence’s belief that she has spotted a menacing figure from her past, one Ronnie Butler, in the nursing home where she now lives. His attempts to discredit her are made easier by the fact that paranoia is the one symptom of dementia everyone knows. As Florence remembers more and more about the past, the coincidental connections with staff and other residents of the care home start to seem a little too good to be true, and the comments made in dialogue about the effect of even an insignificant person’s life on those around them are rather heavy-handed. Where Three Things About Elsie absolutely shines, however, is in Cannon’s slow revelation of the huge gap between how someone believes they are perceiving the world, and how the world perceives them. Florence’s narration initially makes her seem a crotchety, but basically sound, old lady. As the book progresses, other peoples’ reactions to her make it clearer to us that she is fairly far gone (which makes it easier for Ronnie to cast doubt on the legitimacy of her allegations), and also that she is painfully lonely: she daydreams about inviting the carers, or the man in the corner shop, round for tea and cake; she stockpiles shortbread for visitors who never drop by. That’s a state of mind we need to be reading more about in fiction, and for my money, Cannon writes about it more effectively and movingly than Gail Honeyman in Eleanor Oliphant, a book touted as being all about loneliness.

Thoughts on this fortnight’s reading: That I’ve read at all, in between a flying visit to Dorset, preparations to move north of the river, and an Easter weekend hen do, feels vaguely miraculous.

Reading Diary: Mar. 18-Mar. 24

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f68b321b2-7061-11e7-8eac-856e9b33761e-1H(A)PPY, by Nicola Barker, is the second book I’ve read as part of the Women’s Prize Shadow Jury this year. It’s different in almost every conceivable way from most of the other Women’s Prize longlisted titles that I’ve read so far; primarily, as readers should by now expect from Barker, it’s much more formally challenging. Which is to say, H(A)PPY looks weird. Right from the start—as certain words are highlighted in blue, or red, or pink, or a slightly darker shade of pink—all the way through to the end, by which point the text is in a state of permanent breakdown, riddled with images and figures. (There is a magnificent page of a cathedral, of sorts, composed of typographical symbols; on another page, words appear to be literally floating in bubbles. Barker won the Goldsmiths Prize, which is awarded for the most formally inventive book of the year, but I reckon whoever did her typesetting ought to win some sort of award too.) The plot is minimal, but revolves around Mira A, an inhabitant of a utopian future Earth where The Young are cared for, and relentlessly surveilled, via The Information Stream and The Graph. (There are a Lot of Capitals. I am pretty sure they are Satirical.) Mira A’s brain, however, seems not to work seamlessly in conjunction with the Graph, and H(A)PPY is a story, ultimately, about what constitutes happiness, and what freedom. Into this fairly standard speculative plot is woven information about Augustín Barrios, a famed Paraguayan guitarist, to whose story Mira A—also a guitarist, of a sort, since she plays a perfected version of the instrument—is drawn.

I think I understand, in a general sense, what Barker is going for: an interrogation of the relationship between perfection and art, best represented by Mira A’s relationship with her instrument, as she tunes and untunes it, makes it imperfect and then perfects it again. (It’s this sort of behaviour that brings her to the attention of the authorities.) What I don’t quite understand is the evident disconnect between the formal inventiveness and the underlying ordinariness of the plot. It’s not a particularly interesting or unusual story: Helpless Rebel Cast Out Of Deceptive Utopia powers plots from Nineteen Eighty-Four through to The Matrix. (Candide might even qualify. Dicuss.) There are two questions a book has to answer to justify its existence: why this story, and why this way? Barker seems much more interested in the second question than in the first, and although her focus as an author is entirely her own prerogative, it gives the impression of there being a missing step, somewhere.

51z8wf6y64l-_sx321_bo1204203200_You know what it’s like when you’re happily munching away on a pastry, a muffin perhaps, and suddenly—unexpectedly—you hit a raisin? (Don’t @ me if you love raisins; maybe the equivalent scenario for you is a walnut in a brownie, or shredded coconut on a cake.) And you’re like Goddammit, this raisin has just ruined my bite, but you keep calm and remove the raisin and carry on eating the pastry. And then, not three chews later, there’s another bloody raisin, and now eating the muffin has become an exercise in wariness, but you can never be vigilant enough and every new raisin just knocks you for six all over again?

That’s what the experience of reading Greeks Bearing Gifts is like, except for raisins, substitute blink-inducing misogyny, fatphobia, and ageism.

I was sort of hoping that my first experience with a Philip Kerr novel was going to be completely great, á la Robert Harris, whose work I found surprisingly compelling last summer. Greeks Bearing Gifts is Kerr’s thirteenth thriller starring Bernie Gunther, an erstwhile—and reluctant—detective under the Nazis in Berlin (he does not like being reminded of this), now trying to go straight in post-war Europe. The plot of this one involves the theft of all the gold belonging to the Jewish population of Salonika in the ’40s, an insurance claim on a burned-out sailboat, and bribery and corruption at the highest levels of Greek and German government. It’s complicated, there’s a lot of double-crossing, and Kerr writes satisfyingly noir-ish dialogue, even if it does get a bit self-conscious at times. (Gunther is so relentlessly cynical that it borders on the parodic.) But the sexism! All female characters are described in terms of their sexual value to Gunther. If they are approximately his age or older, they are worthless; if they are ten years or more younger than he is, they are voluptuous, panting beauties. Women are also, apparently, liars (they can’t help it), and there’s one particularly nasty line about women being like tortoises (the punchline, in case you can’t work it out, has to do with being on your back). For a while I thought this must be meant as a sign of the times (the book is set in 1957), but it went on and on, and as it mostly comes from Gunther—a character we’re meant to see as a loveable anti-hero—it’s difficult to determine whether we’re to take it as his actual opinion, or as a kind of wry tongue-in-cheek attitude. Either way, asking a reader to overlook that aspect of Gunther’s character is asking a lot. Elli, the love interest (you will be pleased to learn that it all comes to naught), at one point tells Gunther how nice he is. Reader, he is not nice—and no, a fictional detective doesn’t need to be pleasant, but to be repeatedly informed, both explicitly and implicitly, that Gunther is merely a charming cynic is to feel that the book, and the author, are somehow gaslighting you. It’s not cool.

51dgrxyerhl-_sx304_bo1204203200_After the relentless masculinity of Bernie Gunther, Elizabeth J Church’s novel All the Beautiful Girls was something of a relief. Church tells the story of Lily Decker, who transcends a tragic childhood (parents die in a car accident; the aunt who raises her is cold and the uncle is a child molester) to become a high-earning showgirl in Las Vegas under the name Ruby Wilde. It’s a story with solid forward momentum: Lily’s childhood has left her vulnerable to predatory men, dependent on self-harm to quell the constant tide of shame and loathing inside her, and unable to trust the good intentions of her friends. With the help of the man who killed her parents – whose guilt is such that he provides for Lily as if she were his daughter – she begins to learn the consequences of abuse in childhood and to connect her trauma with her later behavior. Church’s writing isn’t quite strong enough for this to happen without all the seams showing; every time Lily has a moment of growth, it’s signposted, in case readers can’t see it on their own. The descriptions of Las Vegas in the ’70s, however, are great: the way it caters to middle America’s nostalgia for simpler times, the glitter and the glamour masking a culture stubbornly unwilling to engage with the pace of social change. The sorority of showgirls is especially well drawn; Lily’s friends, Vivid and Rose, sometimes feel more believable than she does.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A slow week, not helped by the enormity of Greeks Bearing Gifts and my reluctance with it. Still trying to balance proofs with Women’s Prize reading, too.

Reading Diary: Mar. 11-Mar. 17

61nyh599hzl-_sx325_bo1204203200_My favourite way to celebrate International Women’s Day, as with all celebrations, is to read something apt, and there is no book apter than Joanna Russ’s tour de force, The Female Man. (Note the deliberate not-use of the word “masterpiece”.) The plot of the book, such as it is, is fairly simple: there are four female characters, Jeannine, Joanna, Janet, and Jael. Each is from a different time period, and/or world: Jeannine from a world like ours, but where the Great Depression never ended and women’s lib never began; Joanna from the era contemporaneous to the book’s writing (1975), in the world as we know it; Janet from a place called Whileaway, where there simply aren’t any men; and Jael from a future where men and women are, quite literally, at war. (She has metal teeth.) The book is mostly comprised of their interactions with each other, and the ways in which these reveal each world’s priorities with regards to women and their place. Though the plot isn’t complicated, Russ’s writing is extremely in-your-face; she often jumps from one point of view to the next, frequently mid-scene, none of which is signposted. Her chapters can be six pages, or a paragraph, or a sentence. (It’s a very Vonnegut-esque approach to structure.) I’ve also read critiques of The Female Man that say, essentially, one of two things: either that society has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore Russ’s exposé of male hypocrisy and female oppression is no longer relevant, or that literature has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore that other people have since said the same things, but better. I disagree on both counts: on the first, society really hasn’t moved that far on since the 1970s (#MeToo, Weinstein, Gamergate, Trump, I can’t even be arsed to keep trotting out these examples, it’s so boring). On the second, few writers of any age have been as uncompromising as Joanna Russ is in The Female Man—she’s like Angela Carter on steroids and without any of the whimsy—and for a young feminist not to have read any of her work is for that young feminist to be missing a key part of history. “As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest. But the frogs die in earnest.”

48398Renée Fleming is, as my friend Jon would say, a genuine goddamn treasure. Quite apart from her voice—which is a great big “quite apart from”; have you seen this? Or this? Or, good Jesus, the first nine seconds of this?—she projects this huge, warm, charming, utterly authentic personality. She wrote this book fifteen years ago as a resource for other young singers, remembering that, when she was just starting out, she devoured the biographies of famous sopranos but couldn’t find anything on what it actually felt like to build and train a voice, let alone create and maintain one’s own brand, develop a character, and all the other minutiae of an opera singer’s life. She’s so delightfully honest about being a people-pleaser from a young age, about her long years of failing to win competitions or auditions, and about not being considered particularly beautiful or stylish (although her “big face” was at least seen as an asset; she’d be visible from the upper circle.) I also love the way she writes about singing as work, both physical and mental, and the down-to-earth-ness of her love for her daughters and the life of her family. This would be an invaluable book for a young singer, but just as much fun to read as a regular opera-goer, or even just as someone who would like to know what all the fuss is about.

cover2The first book in my Women’s Prize longlist reading was Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time; it’s also the first of de Waal’s books that I’ve read, having missed My Name Is Leon. Having no idea what to expect, it’s nice to be able to report that I enjoyed it very much. Partly set in 1970s Birmingham, and partly set in the present day, it follows the love story of Mona and William, two Irish migrants to England. After their marriage, Mona falls pregnant quickly, and the future seems bright – until tragedy strikes. In the present-day storyline, Mona is living in a small seaside village, making dolls and providing an initially unspecified service for bereaved mothers, while also fielding the attentions of Karl, a mysteriously aristocratic European living in town, and maintaining a curious relationship with a man known only as the carpenter, who provides the raw material for her dolls. The way that de Waal interweaves the two timelines, and slowly reveals the relevance of Mona’s past life to her present, is masterful: every revelation is perfectly timed, the prose is always completely controlled. Particularly impressive is de Waal’s ability to unflinchingly draw out the reader’s emotional engagement. Karl, in particular, seemed too good to be true, and when the truth about his circumstances becomes clear, it is in a scene so excruciating and yet so convincing, so alive with shame, that I read it with heart pounding. The book should probably come with a content warning, if only because the nature of the tragedy that strikes Mona and William’s marriage is potentially triggering. So far, though, the Women’s Prize longlist is off to a flying start.

35148165The Parentations has received the same treatment as The Wicked Cometh – pretty cover, lots of accolades – and unfortunately it suffers from similar problems. The story, which concerns an Icelandic spring whose waters convey eternal life, and the attempt to protect a child from evil Danes who would kill him in their efforts to discover the secrets of immortality, is a good one, reminiscent of a grownup Tuck Everlasting. But it is, first of all, too long. This is not a structural problem, but a question of paragraphs having been allowed to remain in the manuscript that are not pulling their weight, or indeed any weight. Despite being over 400 pages, I read it in two days, because so much of it is not actually advancing anything that it can be skimmed. Secondly, and perhaps in part because of its length, there are some odd gaps in logic and characterisation. We learn nothing about the Danish family that is supposedly so evil: they are straw man villains, and although the book spends time in nearly every major character’s head, we never see through their eyes or even get a particularly strong sense of their motivation. Equally opaque is the novel’s real villain, Clovis Fowler, who descends swiftly into oversexed femme-fatality and never recovers. (We’re meant to believe that she’s a perfectly poised and flawless criminal mind, but some of the decisions that she makes seem wasteful and gratuitous, neither one of which bespeaks true ice-cool evil.) Is it a page-turner? Absolutely. Is it, as its publisher has said in the Bookseller, some of the most extraordinary literary prose encountered in a thirty-year career? If so, that publisher hasn’t been reading widely enough.

9780008264239Oh, man. I so badly wanted House of Beauty, by Melba Escobar, to be good. A crime novel revolving around a Bogotá beauty salon, featuring the murder of a schoolgirl and a coverup by corrupt officials involved in massive healthcare fraud? The idea of a salon as a place where women go to tell each other things and feel safe, where the world of men cannot—for a brief while—intrude? Yes please. And Fourth Estate is publishing it, so I got a NetGalley proof, trusting. I was wrong to trust.

Part of the problem—and I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand a little—is, I think, the translation. Dialogue sounds stilted, motivation is explained with cartoonish specificity. Worst of all, it’s just confusing. The book is being told from the perspective of two women, Claire and Lucía, who are upper-middle-class Bogotáns, after the events have already played out; but there’s nothing to mark their points of view apart, so I was frequently startled by hearing Claire apparently refer to herself, then realise that Lucía was now speaking. We also get third-person chapters from the perspective of Karen, a beautician at the eponymous salon; from Sabrina Guzmán, the girl who dies; and from Sabrina’s mother, Consuelo. But none of them really move us towards an understanding of the crime: we arrive at that understanding only because we get to see into everyone’s heads, which characters in the book cannot do, so their deductions are unearned. The ending, meanwhile, had me staring at my phone in baffled rage, wanting to throw the thing against a wall—not because it’s incomplete, but because it suddenly partakes of the grossest stereotype. I think this is meant to make us feel differently about one of the narrators—which it sure did—but again, it felt unearned. In between the disorienting points of view and the leaps in plot, there are some interesting and upsetting things being said in House of Beauty about contemporary Colombian society, and the place of women (especially dark-skinned women) within it, but there’s just too much getting in the reader’s way.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A great start, a disappointing end. I’m glad to have started the Women’s Prize reading and am now on my next book for that project, Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY.