What We're Reading: September 2016

George

In September my bedside table – trooper and stalwart that it is – finally waved a little white flag and begged for mercy. This meant that my ‘What to read next?’ decision shifted from the classic recommendation-caprice calculation to a more simple, ‘How big is the flipping thing?’ process.

Interestingly, this has resulted in making my reading month less eclectic…

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

First up was a beast of a hardback. This monster formed a significant layer in the geological record, which means it was the first to go under the new regime. Now it’s been a good while since I’ve read a contemporary white male US novelist scratching at the holy grail of publicity, the Great American Novel. I seem to remember feeling they weren’t quite relevant to me, or my life.

This book has reminded me why.

The pros first – Franzen can write sophisticated prose and handle intricate plots which hinge on nuanced character decisions and the development of their emotional journeys. The craft here is more than competent.

So why am I running for the hills, tearing pages from the spine with one hand and the hair from my head with the other? Why am I chewing the cover, my eyes twitching, my wife retreating in fear? The characterisation, especially the women (or at least, what Franzen offers up as women). They’re a collection of clichés: the kind that all have issues with their fathers; the kind that are defined by their desire to have children with a Great American Novelist rather than their own successful career in journalism; the kind that can only achieve orgasm during a full moon. John Crace catalogued the crimes more thoroughly, for those so inclined.

It’s there throughout in lines like this: “A cat cried out behind us. There came a second cry, somewhat louder, not a cat, it was a woman receiving pleasure.”

Particularly jarring straight off the back of Hilary Mantel as well.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

The Chimes caused a small stir in 2015 by getting longlisted for the Booker Prize despite being (whisper it now) genre fiction. This perhaps says more about the Booker Prize than anything however, as this sits in familiar territory for any reader of post-apocalyptic fiction.

It’s mostly set in London after the Allbreaking has destroyed civilization and we’re in familiar territory. A pre-industrial barter economy exists, places we know still exist in corrupted but recognizable derivations and privilege manifests in the divide between those in the Order, middle-class merchants and ‘pactrunners’ who scavenge for a living on the banks of the Thames. No prizes for guessing which the heroes are.

What Smaill really invests in is the language. Her world depends on a link between music and memory, with those two things creating a new linguistic environment – blasphony, lento instead of slow, tacet instead of quiet. The book is a prolonged meditation on memory, how we use it to define ourselves, what it means for a society and what happens when it’s taken away. Coupled with the musical intent it makes for dreamy prose, a sometimes bewildering and shapeless world.

All of that is well-handled, and makes for some elegant writing – there’s a particularly interesting dynamic around having to remember every specific detail that happened, because the narrator can’t be trusted to remember – but it also leads to a very slow start. If you’re after literary genre writing on the nature of memory you’ll love the first half, but if you’re after the plot you’ll need to push on through to the second.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

I particularly enjoyed North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August last year, that being a great example of well-written commercial fiction with a real sense of theme. What we have with The Sudden Appearance of Hope is at once much the same thing, and something completely different. This time, instead of living a life over and over, Hope Arden is forgotten by nearly everyone she meets (her sister is exempt for some reason), starting with her parents.

Narratively I found it to be much the same as Harry August. We have Hope (who, refreshingly, is mixed-race and from up north) introduce herself, explore her world, become a jewel thief because, well, why not, discover she’s not alone, unveil a conspiracy, and finally defeat the conspiracy. All familiar stuff.

Where it carves its own ground, however, is in the style and execution. Because no one remembers Hope, even those of her own kind, the book becomes about her efforts to define herself outside the social contract. It’s one hell of a challenge North sets herself in fact – it’s hard to plot a conspiracy when no one has any ongoing relationship with the narrator after all – which is maybe why she resorted to a familiar structure.

Her solution to this problem, however, is the best thing about the book. Hope resorts to mantra, to memory tricks, to learning and repeating everything. The narration is delivered in a strangely fractured and solipsistic running commentary and she has to be everyone in society she needs to survive, including doctors and translators.  The result is she is torn between disinterest in other people and an innate desire for companionship. She falls in the most unrequitable of love, and when she gets hurt she starts cataloguing her injuries and prognosis as a way of staying conscious, sustaining the story, because if she falls unconscious everyone forgets…

The Codex Epiphanix by D.E Oprava

This was an odd one. I get excited about ergodic literature and books that are also beautiful objects, the ones that play with the structure of a page, and mess about with artwork at the same time. It’s probably Alan Moore’s fault – Promethea fans will know what I’m talking about. So when I saw the Codex Epiphanix announced by Bluemoose, I couldn't resist it.

This is a fascinating composition with a wonky typewritten font overlaid and interrupted with sketches and strange symbols. There’s something compelling about the idiom it develops with layers of the text, the runes being paired and combined to create illustrated arcana. From a certain distance it’s gorgeous. The text itself left me cold, however, as it is very definitely experimental fiction. This means a sort of stream of consciousness delivery with strong psychosexual themes. It certainly features the most uses of the word ‘quim’ that I’ve of seen in one place. It's never been my thing, so I admit I'm not the best reader for it as well. 

Vigil by Angela Slatter

Last up is Vigil, the debut novel from Angela Slatter. I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of this at our Unsung Live event, where Angela read a new short story of hers (audio coming on our Soundcloud page soon!).

Vigil is an urban fantasy noir set in a semi-fictionalised Brisbane (called Brisneyland) where the Normal and the Weyrd share the city. Verity Fassbinder is half-Normal, half-Weyrd, gifted inhuman strength from her deceased father. A father who is famous only for his terrible crimes… Add in classic noir elements like missing children, corruption in the ruling classes and a city going to hell and you’re off.

The thing that really struck me about Vigil is the use of the New World amidst the mythology. Slatter leaves the Weyrd unclassified so we get glimpses, sometimes familiar and sometimes not, into the other world. These are the Weyrd have been driven out of Europe, exiled to the other side of the planet. Folklore divorced from the land. Monsters fidgeting in surburbia, resenting their new home. Her take on the golem is particularly strong as well, giving fresh energy to the relationship between automaton and man. I feel like there’s a lot more to be developed in future books of the series in fact. In particular, I hope the indigenous Weyrd start getting involved. There could be a great angle on colonialism and intercultural tension. 


GARY

 

This month’s reading seems to have dominated by crime and various parts of the British landscape, both rural, coastal and urban. 

Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers

I was already a big fan of Ben Myers’ previous two novels, Pig Iron and Beastings, dark and often violent engagements with the British landscape, an anti-pastoral from the north of England happy to engage with bleak subject matter and marginalised communities. 

Turning Blue intrigued me as this novel is, technically, a foray into crime fiction. Or, at least, one of the main characters is a policeman. Though I wouldn’t say I am fan of the crime genre (and certainly not of policemen), the detective character is a peculiarly useful one in fiction – few other character-types in our society have access to all levels of the social strata, whilst standing outside of all of them. Both underclass and ruling elite can be accessed by the literary detective. There are excellent examples of the detective story being bent into different shapes in speculative fiction – think The City and the City, Finch, Osama, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – but this is one of the first examples I have come across of a literary rural crime novel (though I'm sure there are more out there).

Set in and around an isolated Hamlet in the Yorkshire Dales, Turning Blue is gorgeously written but oppressively dark. It’s not a book for the faint hearted, diving headfirst into a world exposed partly by Operation Yewtree – the book contains a clear analogue/composite of Savile and Stuart Hall – a world of grubby porn cinemas, murder and abuses of power. It’s deeply uncomfortable, essential reading, examining something very rotten in British society. I loved it, though love is probably the wrong word here...

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

Keeping up the crime theme, I was drawn to this novel mainly by its setting – the beautiful weirdness of Dungeness on the Kent coast, captured brilliantly by the excellent cover – and the fact it was about, well, a birdwatcher (I am a RSPB member and am magnetically drawn to any decent bird-writing). 

Like I said, I don’t read much crime fiction, but this standalone novel by William Shaw has a lot going for it. The landscape around Dungeness lends itself perfectly to fiction, bleak and mysterious as it is. It has a nuclear power station in sight of Derek Jarman’s cottage, on a shingle desert unnerving in its flatness. It’s one of southern England’s most compelling landscapes. There are also nice parallels made between police work and the act of birdwatching – the rewards of patience, simply looking, spotting those tiny details and small fluctuations. Birds themselves and their wonderful evocative names can’t fail to add a poetry to the writing, and if anything, I wanted more of the bird stuff. 
The plot skips around between a murder mystery in modern-day Kent, and the protagonist’s unhappy childhood in Troubles-era Northern Ireland of the 1970s, where his bird-obsession puts him at odds with his violent Protestant Paramilitary father. It’s an interesting and compelling mix of themes. 

By the end, I felt the story fell apart in a surprisingly gruesome denouement that I didn’t care about as much as I should have. Not a perfect book but definitely worth a read. 

Where Furnaces Burn by Joel Lane

I was immediately hooked by the blurb on the back of this collection – ‘Blending the occult detective story with urban noir fiction, Where Furnaces Burn offers a glimpse of the myths and terrors buried within the industrial landscape’.

These short stories are a dark and downbeat blend of weird fiction and urban-landscape writing, again from a police perspective (for, I suspect, the reasons I mentioned earlier – police have both access to, and  a certain detachment from, society’s horrors), tackling the West Midlands as its chosen locale. Expert evocations of a blighted Black Country, the derelict warehouses of Digbeth, mysterious trains rattling through dark, rainy Birmingham. The West Midlands seems a very underrepresented area of the UK in fiction; Joel Lane creates a terrifying world of post-industrial machine worship, bizarre pagan ritual and ghosts of plaster and rotten wallpaper that makes the place seem dreamlike, scary and weirdly compelling. 

A great example of why weird short fiction, with a tight focus on a specific locale, is such a thrilling genre.  

The Good Immigrant – edited by Nikesh Shukla

I’d been waiting for this anthology of essays to arrive for ages from Unbound; and it’s a wonderful thing. It’s been making headlines all over the place recently, but to quickly recap – 21 BAME writers explore identity and what it means to be ‘other’ in the UK. The project was begun before the Brexit-nightmare, and now arrives at a time when it feels both timely and essential, in a country that is taking a worrying regressive swing towards the right.

I’m slowly making my way through the essays as there’s a huge amount to digest and to consider. It’s at times uncomfortable to read; but then it should be.

Provocative and opening up a conversation that needs to be had, I think anyone who gives a damn about what’s going on in modern Britain should be reading this book.