What We're Reading: August 2016

George

The Race by Nina Allan

I read The Race by Nina Allan (in preparation for chairing a ‘West Country Weird Literature’ event with Nina, Catriona Ward and Aliya Whiteley in Exeter). It’s not set in the West Country, but it is weird…

Allan has a fascination with intertextuality and which is a key element of The Race, which consists of 5 related novella-length stories ranging from straight ‘literary’ fiction to SF and something notably weirder. On their own, each is a curious tale, which focuses on unresolved situations, disappearances, loss and moving on but together they become something intricate and complex. It reminded me of David Mitchell and Rupert Thomson in fact, the open-borders approach to genre and ideas. The blurb tells you it’s about genetically modified racing greyhounds which it is, to start with.

It is one I would recommend coming to cold, so I won’t say too much on the plot, the unfurling of the concepts being particularly well handled. With one of the themes being disappearances, how and when you come into information is integral to the book. The first section felt a bit strange to me, occasional gaps showing in the weave, but that all turned out to be part of the masterplan. The penultimate section following Maree is incredible stuff as well, with the whales being one of the most evocative images I’ve read in a while. Allan captures the melancholy of the sea, the incomprehensible wonder of nature and offering various complicated questions about narrative, where we belong in relation to it and just how real stories are.

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

Now I’ve come to Miéville backwards, having read The City and The City and Embassytown first, so I confess I had high hopes for this. In many respects it doesn’t disappoint either, with the first half being a wild cavalcade of ideas. Bas Lag is a bewildering world and shows his apparently innate ability to make things so fundamentally Other. The Garuda and Yagharek feel like an early exploration of the themes of Embassytown. Lin and the Khepri echo Viriconium (the phrase ‘a storm of wings’ coming up more than once) and every institution described feels complete and tangible. The Weaver, that mad-dancing god, is superb as well.

It’s a glorious love letter to genre fiction as well, reminding me of countless authors including M. John Harrison, Clive Barker, Douglas Adams (inexhaustible energy from cheese!), Terry Pratchett, Lovecraft, the SCP Foundation, Mervyn Peake and more. He writes with a boundless energy, something he contains in his later books, that’s undeniably infectious.

It’s not a perfect book though. After the first half the ideas are all established, the avalanche of raw imagination settles, and what is left is a relatively familiar monster hunt. Grim and suitably horrific monsters, for sure, but still a fairly traditional tale. I also noted a tendency for him to get hung up on particular words within sections – bathetic for instance – which jarred for me. Still, precocious stuff for a 28-year-old’s second book.

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

Another book with an unrepresentative first half. This starts with a redundant nesting of Harry Haller’s narrative via his landlady’s nephew who finds Haller’s writing. Really, that doesn’t add much, a trailing affectation of earlier literary forms, so if you’re flagging early on skip straight to Haller’s section because Haller’s journey is something quite fascinating. It evolves from the epistolary framing into navel-gazing literary fiction before flowering into a thoroughly strange fantasy world.

Essentially, Haller is an introverted man at loggerheads with the frivolous world he sees around him. Jazz is all the rage, leaving his precious Mozart behind. Social mores are shifting rapidly, the cultural idiom is moving on where he isn’t. Then one day, whilst walking, he finds a magic theatre (for madmen only) and is given a Treatise on the Steppenwolf by someone leaving. That treatise turns out to be about one Harry Haller, and is all about everything that’s wrong with his life. Pretty soon he meets a woman called Hermine who, along with her friends, set themselves on a mission to save him from himself.

Hesse himself said it should be read as a call for self-reflection. I’d argue it’s as much about the dangers of isolation and the importance of allowing imperfection into your life. Haller is obsessed by suicide and the failures of society, which lasts as long as he refuses to be a part of a community. It grows increasingly strange as well, as Haller finds the magic theatre again, this time being deemed mad enough to gain entry. The end section reminded me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in fact, with Haller’s internal world exploding into the external, with equally unsettling consequences.

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

Last up was my first foray into Mantel’s work. It’s classic boarding school stuff, following the flawed and complex Carmel McBain and second-generation East European immigrant Karina through their Lancashire childhood and onto university in London. Much is familiar here, with pressuring parents not realising the complexity of the childrens’ relationships, alienation and the teenage years being wildly complex to live through. The narrative didn’t particularly shock or surprise me, with a relatively limited number of options on the table, so it’s certainly the most conservative read for me in August.

However, what Mantel has in spades is great characterisation and a deft ease with the poetry of language. Each of the girls is well-defined, full of the vagaries and rough edges of teenagers. They’re frequently selfish, self-obsessed and unpleasant. There’s a real callous edge to so much of the story in fact, with the adult Carmel narrating a very unsympathetic version of her younger self. It leaves you with a damaged cast to find sympathies with, so even when they are unpleasant to each other it reads as much as self-flagellation as viciousness.

As for the language? Mantel can write, that much is clear. I’ll leave it on this: “Life do your worst; we are plump of knee and mild of eye, we are douce, glib and blithe; we inherit the semi, while others inherit the wind.”


GARY

For various reasons, my reading in August has been pretty minimal. I can console myself with the fact that part of the reason for this is the high number of literary events that have happened this month. So that still counts as doing book things. I also read an awful lot of short stories from the Unsung submission pile, some of which are excellent and will be unleashed on you in the coming weeks. 

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham

First thing to say: I am a Chris Packham partisan, which probably makes me unqualified to give this book any kind of objective review. Still, on we go.

There’s something deeply satisfying about a public figure who you loved as a child in the 1980s remaining relevant, using their status to achieve good things and annoy the correct people. As a birder, landscape enthusiast and punk fan myself, Chris Packham is the kind of person I would have tried willing into being did he not already exist. I find him a fascinating figure, somehow able to be a cosy BBC family-favourite on Springwatch whilst weaving in references to The Clash and Manic Street Preachers, an ardent and outspoken campaigner (just see how much he has upset bird-killers in Malta and the Countryside Alliance), and, it turns out, not a bad writer.

This memoir, covering roughly the years between ages 5-16 (mid 1960s through to mid 1970s) veers sharply away from any established form of autobiography that I’ve come across. Third-person narratives intersperse the main first person POV, characters from his childhood observing him, a small, strange boy, obsessed with animal life and struggling to communicate with his peers. The language is hyper-saturated, perhaps overwritten at times but capturing ecstatic encounters with animal life, and bleaker interactions with the human world. He is disarmingly frank about the bullying and isolation he suffered as a child, and, in short sections set in the early 2000s, failed suicide attempts. He talks about living with Asperger’s, about the kestrel he trained (a real life Kes), the joy of discovering ‘New Rose’ by The Damned, his decision to eat some tadpoles just to see what they’d taste like, and a burning fascination with the living world. 

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar reminds me of other works of obsessional interactions with the natural world rather than any dull work of celebrity memoir; I see the obsessive desire and distaste for the human world found in J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, the intense lyricism of a writer like Niall Griffiths, the rush of excitement provided by the best punk songs.

It’s excellent. 

Content Provider: Selected Short Prose Pieces, 2011-16 by Stewart Lee

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I’ve been dipping into this collection of Stewart Lee’s columns, written for The Guardian and The Observer over the last five years. Described as ‘a magic-carpet ride through five years of topical and ephemeral broadsheet liberal-newspaper-comedy-opinion journalism, which was meant merely to be smiled at and then used to line a cat’s litter tray’, your enjoyment of this book will very much depend if you’re a Stewart Lee fan or not. If you’re not, then this will definitely make you hate him more.

Clearly writing as a kind of exaggerated character rather than ‘himself’, the Stewart Lee here is baffled, incoherent, arrogant yet inept, politically outraged, exceedingly bizarre and very funny. These short pieces are an intentional amplification of everything his critics dislike about him, and perceptions of ‘liberals’ in general. A deliberate act of provocation, where the point is often made by the bewildered or angry responses that accompany each piece as much as the article itself. The decision to print the choicest online comments that people left under each article was a great idea, and on a basic level, hilarious.

Two wonderful examples:

‘Incomprehensible and probably neoliberal. He should leave the EU, join JC’s Red Army and get some truth back into his life.’

and

‘We await your sneering article on Islam with bated breath.’

Recommended.


I did obtain the following books this month, which I will almost certainly read in September. They are:
The Race by Nina Allan
Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers
Vigil by Angela Slatter
The Fisherman by John Langan