Sunday, October 21, 2007

46. Fury - Salman Rushdie

Wow! This book blew me away from the first page to the last!

It was funny, sweet, unpredictable and endlessly surprising. All the characters were so lovingly drawn that even the most minor passerby was instantly imaginable. Take, for example, this image of the 'hero' attempting to lose himself in New York's varied culture:

Professor Solanka, who thought of himself as egalitarian by nature and a born-and-bred metropolitan of the countryside-is-for-cows persuasion, on parade days strolled sweatily cheek by jowl among his fellow citizens. One Sunday he rubbed shoulders with slim-hipped gay-pride prancers, the next weekend he got jiggy beside a big-assed Puerto Rican girl wearing her national flag as a bra. He didn't feel intruded upon amid the multitudes; to the contrary. There was a satisfying anonymity in the crowds, an absence of intrusion. Nobody here was interested in his mysteries. Everyone was here to lose themselves. Such was the unarticulated magic of the masses, and these days losing himself was just about Professor Solanka's only purpose in life. (6-7)

Professor Malik Solanka was born in Bombay, educated at Cambridge, happily married, father to a young son... With his wife's support, he gives up his work as an academic professor in order to follow his fascination with making dolls. His figurines are a great success, particularly 'Little Brain', who starts out by having her own tv show where she interviews various historical philosophers, but is gradually taken over by the marketing gurus and becomes bigger than Barbie. Malik is raking in the money, so he can't protest at the transformation of his beloved creation. Then one night he finds himself standing over his sleeping wife & toddler, testing the sharpness of the carving knife in his hand. Horrified by his unexplained fits of rage and the possibility that he poses a danger to his family, he jumps on a plane and flies to America, sure that there he will either be killed or cured. His family are bewildered, as is Malik himself, who reads about a mystery killer in the paper, targeting beautiful young socialites, and worries that the killings coincide with periods for which he has no memory.

As the story continues, we learn more of Little Brain, and how her commercialization is a major factor in the development of Malik's fury.

This creature of his own imagining, born of his best self and purest endeavour, was turning before his eyes into the kind of monster of tawdry celebrity he most profoundly abhorred. His original and now obliterated Little Brain had been genuinely smart, able to hold her own with Erasmus or Schopenhauer. She had been beautiful and sharp tongued, but she had swum in the sea of ideas, living the life of the mind. This revised edition, over which he had long ago lost creative control, had the intellect of a slightly over-average chimpanzee. Day by day she became a creature of the entertainment microverse, her music videos - yes, she was a recording artist now! - out-raunching Madonna's, her appearances at premiers out-Hurleying every starlet who ever trod the red carpet in a dangerous frock. She was a video game and a cover girl, and this, remember, in her personal appearance mode at least, was essentially a woman whose own head was completely concealed inside the iconic doll's. ... Professor Solanka remained aloof, refusing all invitations to discuss his out-of-control creation. The money, however, he was unable to refuse. Royalties continued to pour into his bank account. He was compromised by greed, and the compromise sealed his lips. Contractually bound not to attack the goose that laid the golden eggs, he had to bottle up his thoughts and, in keeping his own counsel, filled up with the bitter bile of his many discontents. With every new media initiative spearheaded by the character he had once delineated with such sprightliness and care, his impotent fury grew. ... Fury stood above him like a cresting Hokusai wave. Little Brain was his deliquent child grown into a rampaging giantess, who now stood for everything he despised and trampled beneath her giant feet all the high principles he had brought her into being to extol; including, evidently, his own. ... Malik Solanka was forced to admit a terrible truth. He hated Little Brain. (98-100)

He meets Mila Milo, intelligent daughter of Yugoslavian poet, playing at being a street teen-queen, and one of Little Brain's biggest fans. She even looks like her. Mila 'adopts' Malik and gets him to take another look at the world. I laughed out loud at her response to Malik's confession, quoted above. She told him about her father, having a great time drinking, smoking, loving and working himself to death, until he decided he was needed in the war between the Serbs and Croats:

That's what I started out to say, Professor, don't talk to me about fury, I know what it can do. America, because of its omnipotence, is full of fear; it fears the fury of the world and renames it envy, or so my dad used to say. They think we want to be them, he'd say after a few hits of hooch, but really we're just mad as hell and don't want to take it any more. See, he knew about fury. But then he set aside what he knew and behaved like a damn fool. Because about five minutes after he landed in Belgrade - or maybe it was five hours or five days or five weeks, who, like, cares? - the fury blew him to pieces and there wasn't enough of him found to collect up and put in a box. So, yeah, Professor, and you're mad about a doll. Well, excuse me. (114)

Mila turns out to be an extremely interesting character, one who kept me reading late into many early mornings.

Mila's special thing turned out to be the collection and repair of damaged people... (117-8)

I will leave you to discover her for yourself, and the ways in which she, herself, is a damaged person... and Neela, another brilliantly depicted, amazing character... and the new generation of puppets that Solanka creates... as I am finding myself being tempted to type out something from almost every page! At the start of this review, I referred to Malik Solanka as the hero, but in inverted commas. This is because he is not (until the very last moment) really very heroic. It is the women who shine in this novel, and the three women in Solanka's lovelife - his wife, Eleanor, Mila and Neela - who are really the heroines. (This feminine triumvirate echoes the three Furies, who are also major factors in the novel). I think I have said enough now to justify the high score I am going to give this one - and my heartiest recommendation so far!

If you have not studied English lierature, or are not American, there are going to be places where you feel a little lost among the names being dropped. However, the novel is so well-written and entertaining that you can easily let your eyes glaze over and skim these sections without losing anything of the story. Sure, at times, elements of the story are too way-out to be believable. The constant slapstick caused by Neela's head-turning beauty, for example, or the overly-simplistic responses of those involved in the civil war in Lilliput-Blefescue... but I did not find these elements out of place in a satirical comedy. If I had to choose something to dislike about this novel, it would be the dismissal of God and religion as a force in the society - but in a way, this works more powerfully than if religion were explicitly referred to, as in a novel so densely packed with cultural references, it is made more conspicuous by its absence. Where there were dismissive comments, I found myself internally arguing with the narrator, and after a while I began to wonder if this was Rushdie's intention. It is, on the whole, a very intelligent, active work that is larger not only than life - it is larger than fiction! The ending, by the way, was perfect - a joyful, hopeful image that I loved. Then there was a page headed "About the Author". The rest of the page, and the following pages were blank. I thought this was a nice touch, too - the book speaks for itself!

On finishing the novel, I have no hesitation in confirming my initial reaction - WOW! What an incredible story! The personal narrative of the characters is interwoven with social commentary so skilfully that it never really becomes intrusive or extraneous... just when you start to even think about getting bored, the plot takes a twist and you are right back in the middle of the action. It was also educational as well as being entertaining! For the first time in ages I found myself needing to look up a word (oenophile - one who appreciates and enjoys wine). There are stories within stories in this novel, and it would easily repay serious study, while remaining a fascinating experience for the casual reader. I really recommend this one! (Sorry about the over-effusive use of exclamation marks in this review. For once I wholeheartedly agree with the advertising hyperbole on the cover of 'Fury' - "A wickedly dark comedy from one of the world's truly great writers.")

45. The Body Artist - Don DeLillo

I raced through most of this slim novel with a slightly superior sneer on my face. It was weird, incomprehensible, boring. I would give it a 1/10, or even a zero, because there was no chance I was going to read it again. It started with the last, unremarkable breakfast between a man and his wife (Lauren) - he smoking a cigarette, she sniffing the foot-odour of her cereal, reading the paper, watching the birds. Then he drives into town and shoots himself in his first wife's apartment and Lauren is left alone.

Or is she? The center of the novel contains her obsession with the retarded man she finds living in her house, and her obsession with reshaping (torturing?) her own body. It feels repetitive, circular, uneventful. The reader feels somewhat embarrassed for her, pestering this poor unfortunate to repeat snippets of past conversations in her husband's voice, desperately trying to make him make sense. Then suddenly this child-man is gone and she is alone again.

It was at this point, almost at the very end of the novel, that I found myself pulled in and willingly riding "the wind-swayed web."(7) Nothing really happened, except that somehow, I began to understand - and to care. I want to quote the passage that marked my turning point:

She wanted to create her future, not enter a state already shaped to her outline.

Something is happening. It has happened. It will happen. This is what she believed. There is a story. A flow of consciousness and a possibility. The future comes into being.

But not for him.

He hasn't learned the language. There has to be an imaginary point, a nonplace where language intersects with our perceptions of time and space, and he is a stranger at this crossing, without words or bearings.

This is a man who remembers the future.

If you examine the matter methodically, you realize that he is a retarded man sadly gifted in certain specialized areas, such as memory retention and mimicry, a man who'd been concealed in a large house, listening.

Nothing else makes sense.

It is a thing no one understands. But it makes and shapes you. And in these nights since he'd left she sometimes sat with a book in her lap, eyes closed, and felt him living somewhere in the dark, and it is colder where he is, it is wintrier there, and she wanted to take him in, try to know him in the spaces where his chaos lurks, in all the soft-cornered rooms and unravelling verbs, the parts of speech where he is meant to locate his existence, and in the material place where Rey lives in him, alive again, word for word, touch for touch, and she opened and closed her eyes and thought in a blink the world had changed.

He violates the limits of the human. (99-100)

This question of what it means to be human, which had been so easy to dismiss and distance myself from, suddenly had me in its grasp. The author is masterful in his choice of when and how to reveal what it means to be a 'body artist'. Everything you have read so far in the novel seems altered when you realise what she, Lauren, had been preparing for. What she is and what she does as a performance artist. I won't spoil the surprise.

As the novel draws to a close, I began to suspect more and more that everything had not been as simple and straightforward as it seemed. Did the retarded man exist at all, or was he part of her creation, a rehearsal, a coping mechanism, or a madness?

Why shouldn't the death of a person you love bring you into lurid ruin? You don't know how to love the ones you love until they disappear abruptly. Then you understand how thinly distanced from their suffering, how sparing of self you often were, only rarely unguarded of heart, working your networks of give-and-take. ... Sink lower, she thought. Let it bring you down. Go where it takes you. (116)

So, with my sneer replaced by an expression of wonder, I reached the last page, regretting only that it was 3am and I couldn't immediately turn back to the first page and start again. This is one of those novels that I suspect will change and alter the reader's perceptions with every reading: "A flow of consciousness and a possibility." Externally, nothing really happens - nature and time move on, it is colder, the birds come to the feeders or they do not - but internally? The possibilities are endless.

Chances I will read it again? 6/10 For a while there it was a definite 10, but then I thought about the other 995 books on the list still waiting to be reviewed... this one was intriguing, but not fascinating enough to guarantee it an instant place among my all time favourites. Certainly one to remember, though.

Monday, October 08, 2007

11. The Lambs of London - Peter Ackroyd

When I first realised this book concerned fictionalised versions of Charles and Mary Lamb, writers of 'Shakespeare for Children' in the late eighteenth / early nineteenth century, I was intrigued. Other reviewers have attempted to unravel historical fact from the invented narrative, so I will focus mainly on the novel's effect on me as a work of fiction. I must admit I was disappointed.

This is a novel of fakes and false appearances. However, this theme appears to have pervaded every aspect of the writing. The characters felt very much like cardboard cutouts being moved around an artfully decorated stage.

Charles and Mary Lamb live with their parents - their father senile with alzheimer's, and their mildly annoying mother, whose chief sin seems to be that she nags her children and treats her husband as an infant. Mary is in delicate physical and mental health following her recovery from smallpox, yet since her mother refuses to hire another servant, the brunt of domestic life falls on her shoulders (though we never see her cooking, cleaning, shopping or anything else in this line). She is sensitive and intellectual and longs for the companionship and esteem of her brother. He, in turn, dreams of a shining future as a writer, drowning his disenchantment with his mundane job in alcohol while discussing literature with his workmates at various local drinking establishments. When he returns home 'sozzled', it is Mary who removes his boots and tucks him into bed. Mary is in fact the better scholar of the two, but Charles makes light of her achievements: "He laughed again, and ruffled her hair. She tried to smile but then lowered her head; she felt vain and foolish."

There is a strong feminist subtext in Mary's story, beginning with the association between her and the moon (symbolic of her slide into lunacy) which is drawn in the first paragraph:

"There was no one in the drawing-room with her, so she put her face upwards, towards the sun. Her skin was marked by the scars of smallpox, suffered by her six years before; so she held her face to the light, and imagined it to be the pitted moon."

However, this much more interesting story exists in potential only, for Ackroyd conjures it only superficially as part of the larger narrative. Mary herself is constantly pushed into the background whenever she tries to emerge - by the author as much as by the other characters.

Along comes William Ireland, who excites Mary with his discovery of lost Shakespearean texts and artifacts. She is flattered by his attention and confidences, and cherishes romantic feelings towards him, but is ultimately destroyed (we assume) by his lukewarm dalliance and betrayal of her trust. When Mary overhears him confessing to his father that he forged the Shakespearean texts she so ardently supported on his behalf, Mary's heart is broken. She goes home and stabs her mother to death. There is a court case, Mary is committed to a private asylum for the insane, and Charles cares for her until she dies suddenly (while watching him perform a snippet of A Midsummer Night's Dream for her amusement).

Ireland, apparently, created the forgeries 'because he could' and to impress his father, who is obsessed with all things Shakespearean. His 'art for art's sake' motivation comes into conflict with his father's profit motive. He appears to have bothered with Mary purely in order to enlist her brother's help in authenticating the fakes, having been an eager eavesdropper on Charles' drunken literary conversations.

Ackroyd's recreation of Shakespearean poetry is quite well done and believable, as is the Georgian setting. There are lots of little historical details which give a nice background to the story. Overall, however, I found it unsatisfying. The idolatry of Shakespeare feels overdone and unjustified - perhaps more 'readings' from the bard himself might have helped?

One reviewer has called the novel: "an irreverent romp, a somewhat bawdy journey through 1790s London, thrusting the reader into the stuffy world of antiquarian literature and the people who think so highly of it." (Michael Leonard, The Lambs of London, As far as I am concerned, the 'bawdy' details were thrown in for purely gratuitous effect and stuck out like sore thumbs. There were only two such scenes - in the first, 17 year old William Ireland loses his virginity to a prostitute while riding on the roof of a public carriage, with his father seated inside. This was mildly amusing, but I looked in vain for the comedic aspects of this scene to appear elsewhere in the novel! The other involves an authorial aside giving details of the pederastic abuse of a young Carribean boy by two intellectual doctors. Neither of these two scenes (or characters) are ever referred to again and they seem to exist as vignettes, simply to give a 'flavour' to the age.

My favourite character in the novel was Mr Lamb, whose non-sequiter ramblings seemed more warmly human than almost anything else that was going on:

When her mother had left the room, Mary sat down beside him on the faded green divan. ‘Did you sing at the service, Pa?’

‘The minister was mistaken.’

‘On what matter?’

‘There are no rabbits in Worcestershire.’

‘Are there not?’

‘No, nor muffins neither.’

Mrs Lamb professed to believe that there was some wisdom in her husband’s ramblings, but Mary knew that there was none. Yet he interested her more now than he had ever done; she was intrigued by the strange and random phrases that issued from him. It was as if language was talking to itself.

‘Are you cold, Pa?’

‘Just an error in the accounts.’

‘Do you suppose?’

‘A red letter day.’

My overall impression was that the novel skipped around from scene to scene without really stopping to explore its themes in detail. I would agree wholeheartedly with the reviewer from The Age, who said:

"The character of Mrs Lamb is even more sketchily drawn. We only really glimpse the inexplicable contempt of her children towards her, their desire to keep her at arm's length. As a consequence Mary appears highly strung and Charles charmless.

Ackroyd opens with his standard disclaimer. "This is not a biography but a work of fiction. I have invented characters and changed the life of the Lamb family for the sake of the larger narrative." Given Mary Lamb's historical notoriety the larger narrative might have benefited from a little more attention to the life of the Lambs and a little less to the well-chewed mutton of the literary fake." (Micheal Williams, The Lambs of London, The Age)

I must say that I think a historically accurate biography of the Lambs would be more interesting. After all, Mary did actually murder her mother with the carving knife, and Charles did look after her, but she survived him by many many years - and neither of them ever knew William Ireland... (Murder by carving knife,

Friday, October 05, 2007

1. Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a strange, sad novel and I'm really at a loss to describe how I feel about it. To quote another reviewer, it is: "an intriguing, chilling and ultimately desolate fable." (Caroline Moore, Meanings Behind Masks; The genre is most easily described as science fiction, but so restrained that the plot seems well within the bounds of possibility. It is like reading about an alternative reality which would take very little to mesh seamlessly with our own. The thirty-one year old narrator, Kathy H, is reliable and her reminiscences are told in a confiding, conversational tone that assumes the reader shares a similar background. Key terms are left undefined and the reader must piece together the clues as the novel progresses. The disorientation this creates is an integral part of the novel's strategy - the reader is constantly kept off balance and so does not ask for or expect the nitty-gritty details of how these things could actually happen. Here is an excerpt from the novel's beginning which shows how ordinary words seem to take on unexplained, extraordinary meanings, and also how Kathy includes the reader in the narrative, constructing you as a student, a carer, and eventually a donor.

I won't be a carer any more come the end of the year, and though I've got a lot out of it, I have to admit I'll welcome the chance to rest - to stop and think and remember. I'm sure it's at least partly to do with that, to do with preparing for the change of pace, that I've been getting this urge to reorder all these old memories. What I really wanted, I suppose, was to get straight all the things that happened between me and Tommy and Ruth after we grew up and left Hailsham. But I realise now just how much of what occurred later came out of our time at Hailsham, and that's why I want first to go over these earlier memories quite carefully. ... I don't know if you had 'collections' where you were. When you come across old students from Hailsham, you always find them, sooner or later, getting nostalgic about their collections. At the time, of course, we took it all for granted.

This technique seems harmlessly inclusive at the start, but by cleverly insinuating the reader into the narrative, the novel's concerns become our own, preparing the way for some frightening questions at the end. I found it easy to 'take it all for granted' while I was reading, but the real impact of this novel occurs after you have read the final page and put it away!

Most of Kathy's memories are centered on her days at Hailsham, which at first appears to be a privileged boarding school with a slightly strange over-emphasis on the children's health and creativity. The narrative revolves around the love triangle that develops between Kathy and her friends, Ruth and Tommy. The student's lives seem relatively normal, but there is a sinister, over protective atmosphere at the school which grows as they, and the reader, gradually learn the truth about their purpose in life. Even then, nothing is grasped with certainty - the language is pervaded with qualifiers: "maybe", "somehow", "perhaps", and Kathy matter-of-factly accepts her own inability to grasp any certainty about her existence: "Of course, I'll never know for sure," and "I don't really understand it."

When they 'graduate' from the school, they are released into a society which seems alien to them - a world of relationships and economics in which they exist as observors, playing no real part, waiting for the next, mysterious phase of their life to begin. I am struck by a butterfly metaphor here - at Hailsham, the students are caterpillars, voraciously devouring the education that is fed to them, and when they are released, as they cling to each other and try to adjust to their new life, they seem to cocoon themselves in their memories of the life they have left. One by one they 'hatch' and move on to start their new futures - but here the metaphor fails - no glorious flight of freedom awaits them. In a way, the students' upbringing at Hailsham (and similar establishments across Britain) seems to have instilled in them a kind of mechanical detachment, so while in one sense they are learning to live and love as typical emotional adolescents, there is always that awareness of external complications and expectations that we can't quite see or understand. This is best illustrated by the intricate mechanical animals which Tommy begins to draw:

I was taken aback at how densely detailed each one was. in fact it took a moment to see they were animals at all. The first impression was like one you’d get if you took the back off a radio set: tiny canals, weaving tendons, miniature screws and wheels were all drawn with obsessive precision, and only when you held the page away could you see it was some kind of armadillo, say, or a bird. . . . For all their busy, metallic features, there was something sweet, even vulnerable about each of them.

The reality, which the reader has suspected from the start, is that Kathy and her friends are clones, created for the sole purpose of becoming organ donors. The real mystery of the novel is ostensibly why Hailsham placed such an emphasis on their personal development, seeing as they were destined never to have any real future. The reader is not the only one who finds this bewildering.

"Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we're just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all of those lessons?"

However, a stronger underlying mystery which has kept me thinking and rethinking about this novel, is why, as adults, the students are so accepting of their fate. There is one scene where Kathy and Tommy are driving at night through a lonely countryside, returning from a meeting where all their hopes of - not escaping - but delaying their inevitable final donations have been destroyed. In a way, they are driving back to certain death. I found myself screaming at them to stop. To turn down some quiet side road and spend the rest of their lives together, instead of docilely submitting themselves to be used and thrown away - not in ignorance, but fully aware and willingly sacrificing themselves, because that is what they were born to do.

My feelings about this novel are brilliantly summed up in the following quote from The Guardian:

"It's about the steady erosion of hope. It's about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It's about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won't change a thing. Beneath Kathy's flattened and lukewarm emotional landscape lies the pure volcanic turmoil, the unexpressed yet perfectly articulated, perfectly molten rage of the orphan. ... This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been." (M John Harrison, Clone Alone; Guardian Unlimited)

We are left wondering - but the temptation to dismiss the characters as not fully human, as somehow emotionally deficient, cannot stand against the caring relationships and creative expression that the reader has shared through Kathy's eyes. The worrying conclusion then becomes would we, too, with sufficient indoctrination, willingly acquiesce in such a fate?