Sunday, 31 August 2014
As a teenager in the 1980’s J.G. Ballard was a name that had been dropped by some musicians I admired, such as Ian Curtis and David Bowie. Dutifully I went out and bought Ballard’s novel Crash (1973). I was ill prepared for Ballard’s psycho sexual narrative about a character with an unhealthy obsession with car crashes. I haven’t read it again since, but it has certainly stayed with me. Ballard is a unique writer who is not easily pigeonholed into a specific genre; some of his short stories can by recognized as science fiction, but the majority are distinctively his own voice. This is the definitive collection, with 96 stories across 1184 pages and like Crash, most of them are now nestled in my subconscious, destined to emerge and take flight like the sand-rays that populate Vermillion Sands.
The stories set in Vermillion Sands, a surreal coastal desert-scape dotted with settlements, are perhaps Ballard’s most impressive short stories. Ballard wrote the Vermillion Sands stories between 1956 and 1970. This collection opens with one of his first published stories, Prima Belladonna (1956), which is set in Vermillion Sands. The Vermillion Sands stories are populated by listless, often psychologically intense protagonists who encounter other characters that are eccentric, or are involved in surreal and intense situations. These stories contain some of Ballard’s best imagistic prose. Vermillion Sands itself is a desert dream-scape; an environment of the subconscious that compliments the intense psychology of many of the adventurers, drifters and artists staying there. The desert of Vermillion Sands features sonic sculptures, rocks that grow and emit sounds when influenced by people or the environment around them. They feature heavily in Venus Smiles (1957) and The Singing Statues (1962), but appear in most of the other Vermillion Sands stories. Perhaps my favourite of these stories is Cry Hope, Cry Fury (1966), which features typically psychologically fraught characters creating paintings that are made with photosensitive paint that interprets an image of the sitter over many days. As with all the Vermillion Sand stories, the blend of weird technology and intense psychology is spellbinding.
In Ballard’s brief one page introduction he states that “Short stories have always been important to me. I like their snapshot quality, their ability to focus intensely on a single subject.” He goes on to say that “...there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.” Such a statement is, of course, debatable, but a great percentage of these collected stories are either perfect, near perfect or at least satisfyingly thought provoking. It is fascinating to witness Ballard’s development across thirty six years of short story writing. There is an evolution of style and ideas across the decades, but perhaps what is most interesting is what they have in common. The complexity of the human psyche held a strong fascination for Ballard. Many of the stories have significant psychological themes, such as My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974), in which the protagonist, Melville, is obsessed with digging up wrecked WWII planes from coastal sand dunes and flying to Wake island in the Pacific, which is a near impossible journey. The story is a representation of a mental state, rather than having a plot with a traditional narrative arc, which is the case with many of these short stories. Minus One (1963) is particularly brilliant; set in Green Hill Asylum, the asylum’s director decides to deal with the seemingly impossible problem of an escaped inmate by concluding that he didn’t actually exist and that he was the result of a mass delusion by the asylum staff. The ultimate problem this creates results in a darkly humorous and disturbing ending.
The environment, both natural and built, and how it can influence humans psychologically features strongly in Ballard’s work. I’ve been reliably informed by a work colleague that the correct term for this is psycho-geography. The coastal desert-scape of the Vermillion Sands stories certainly fits that description. Ballard’s infamous experimental story, The Terminal Beach (1964) best represents this theme. A man called Traven lives on an island entirely given over to the machinery of war and nuclear testing; an island that is “...synthetic, a man made artifact...” The synthetic island that Traven lives on is a manifestation of the post war human psyche. It makes for disturbing reading and its effect on the reader is almost subliminal. The psycho-geography theme is taken even further in the 1976 story, The Ultimate City, which is set in a future where fossil fuels have run out and most people live in self sustaining rural settlements. Ballard’s protagonist, Halloway, ends up back in a deserted city much like New York and gets caught up in a quest to bring back a portion of the city to how it was before everything changed. It gradually becomes apparent that the transition in Halloway’s psyche is a direct result of the built environment, shifting the story from a post apocalyptic adventure into a dark satire on the subtle terrors of modern life.
Ultimately this collection is a tribute to the brilliant sensibility of J.G. Ballard, which has been appropriately labelled ‘Ballardian.’ Ballard’s almost genre-less stories are a world unto themselves and throb with a singular luminous intensity that is wholly satisfying. Ballard’s style is literary, experimental, erudite and at times darkly satirical. The scope of Ballard’s writing is overwhelming, however many of these stories can be found in smaller collections, which might be a good place to start for the Ballardian novice. The Vermillion Sands stories have been collected in an eponymously titled publication that was first released in 1971, but has been republished many times since. The Vermillion Sands stories are addictive and to paraphrase the late William Burroughs, they give you a literary high; read them and I can guarantee that you’ll be ready to move on to this collection.
Image: An analogue to Vermillion Sands and the singing sculptures? The Pinnacles, just north of Perth.
Monday, 18 August 2014
|The axe and block used to behead Agnes Magnúsdóttir|
I’ll get straight to the point: Hannah Kent has written the best debut novel I have ever read. Burial Rites is a superlative piece of historical fiction that was inspired by a year long stay as an exchange student in northern Iceland when Kent was just 17 in 2002. While she was out with her host family she asked about the significance of a valley they were driving through and they pointed out a cluster of three hills and told her about Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830. Nearly ten years later Kent chose the story of Agnes as the subject for the novel she would write for her PHD.
Burial Rites is an intensely emotional and psychological document of an obscure event in the history of Iceland that displays Kent’s ability to write complex and nuanced characters. Agnes, a morally ambiguous and complex character is central to Burial Rites, however all of the other characters are also brilliantly realised, giving the novel great depth. After her trial Agnes is removed from a makeshift prison and is taken to the home of the Jonsson family to wait out her last days. The Jonsson family are torn between duty to state bureaucracy, in the form of the pompous and stern Blondal, and their fear of the murderess in their midst. Charged as the savior of her soul, the youthful priest Toti is at first tested by Agnes’ request that he help her through her last days, but is then dedicated to her beyond the call of his religious duty. The relationship between Toti and Agnes allows the story of Agnes’ life to be revealed at a natural pace, making it a brilliantly subtle narrative device to generate tension. The Jonsson daughters, Steina and Lauga, are divided in their reactions to Agnes’ presence. Their mother, Margret, is initially distrustful, yet the presence of Agnes ends up bringing out the best in her. There is a particularly poignant scene in the which the two women share a late night hot milk whilst Agnes tells of the events that led her to her fate. Agnes and Margaret are powerfully complex female characters that are so real and vital that you feel like you’ve shared many months with them in their badstofa, the Icelandic communal living and sleeping space used during that era.
The fact that Kent had lived in the area for a year and had then conducted six weeks of research to uncover the available records concerning the murders Agnes was involved in no doubt significantly helped her write such a quality novel. Letters and documents from the era feature throughout the novel, giving a harsh bureaucratic contrast to the tragic events and their aftermath.
Such details give Burial Rites some historical credence, but it is the brilliance of Kent’s prose that really stands out. Kent’s prose style is beautifully poised and pared back; there’s nothing excessive and nor is there anything wasted. The bleak landscape of Iceland is unavoidable, yet not once does Kent overdo it with florid adjectives; nor does she waste the metaphorical power of the Icelandic environment. Her descriptive powers are such that the reader is right there with the characters, trudging through the alien landscape and huddling in the badstofa on freezing cold nights. Kent also generates compelling narrative tension by contrasting her third person omniscient narrative with sections in Agnes’ profoundly authentic first person voice.
Ultimately Burial Rites acts as an affirmation of the worth of historical fiction. Historians have been been known to be suspicious of historical fiction, worried that authors distort facts and invent persons or situations that never occurred, giving readers a false impression of important historical events. Historians do have a valid point and I’m sure that some historical fiction does lead to inaccurate assumptions about the past; however a novel like Burial Rites brings alive the past, allowing readers to experience what it might have been like to be alive in an otherwise unknowable past. Kent has done us a great service, as it is unlikely that most people outside of Iceland would have ever known about Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Read Burial Rites and you will know exactly what it would be like to live through your last hours knowing that your head was going to be removed by an axe on top of a lonely Icelandic hill in the depths of a nineteenth century winter. The last chapter of Burial Rites is one of the most chilling and emotionally intense endings to a novel I have ever read and it will stay with me for a long time to come.
Endnote: Recently I’ve been wondering whether I’ve been harsh in my assessments of some of the books I’ve read recently, having given amazing books my second highest rating of excellent. After reading Burial Rites I find that I was correct in my judgements. Burial Rites deserves the sublime rating. It is the best literary historical fiction novel I have ever read, and that includes Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall (2009).
Monday, 28 July 2014
Carl Sagan was one of a select group of scientists who could successfully communicate complex scientific notions to laypersons. Sagan was an important cosmologist and astrophysicist, but it is his popular science books and documentary television series Cosmos (1980) that will be remembered by the general population. The Demon Haunted World was his last published work before his untimely death in 1996. I remember that my reaction to his death was one of sadness and but also of appreciation. Sagan achieved a great deal while he was alive and in doing so influenced me greatly in my outlook on life and my understanding of the universe.
In the preface to The Demon Haunted World, entitled ‘My teachers’, Sagan talks about how much his parents taught and encouraged him even though they were laypeople with no knowledge of science. They supported his dream to be an astronomer and inspired him with their down to earth skepticism and sense of wonder. Sagan did a similar thing for me when I watched Cosmos at the impressionable age of ten. Cosmos inspired me and nurtured my fascination with astronomy and the world around me, something that, like Sagan, was supported by my parents. In the latter chapters of The Demon Haunted World Sagan talks about the importance of not only education, but of having books in the home; something that is essential to providing that ‘candle in the dark’, keeping spurious pseudo-science and superstition at bay. As a librarian I greatly appreciate Sagan’s stance. As a society we must never lose sight of the importance of providing egalitarian access to books and information, in particular for the young.
Throughout the main body of The Demon Haunted World Sagan’s debunking of pseudoscience is eloquent and, for the most part, compelling. Many of the initial chapters concentrate on UFOs and alien abduction; in particular the typical UFO stories and the so called face of Mars. The publication of The Demon Haunted World coincided with the era of The X-Files and a plethora of pre-millennial conspiracy theories. Once again there is a personal connection here for me, having been a UFO and alien obsessive during my childhood in the 1970‘s. Spurred on by UFO and alien books and classic 1970’s movies such as E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001 A Space Odyssey, like Mulder I wanted to believe. I even had my own strong memory of seeing a large white cigar shaped UFO hovering over my neighbor’s backyard that I’m sure was real, but would have just been a dream (I dreamt about UFO’s constantly). Curiously one of the scientific explanations for alien visitations and abductions that Sagan puts forward is sleep paralysis, something I experienced during my teenage years, although I didn’t see aliens (what I did see is another story).
The Demon Haunted World is a fascinating read, but can also be a sobering one. Sagan’s passionate argument for a better educated population is profound and important. Sagan reminds us that it is essential to know something of logic and science (amongst other subjects) in order to make sound decisions. Unfortunately the statistics Sagan quotes regarding knowledge, beliefs and education in his home country of America is truly appalling. Only 9% of Americans accept that humans evolved; half of Americans do not know that the Earth orbits the Sun in a year and 63 % of American adults think that humans lived alongside dinosaurs. These statistics are from the 1990’s; would they have improved in the last twenty years or so? Unfortunately I doubt it.
Nearly twenty years after the publication of The Demon Haunted World Sagan’s argument against blind belief and pseudo-science is more important than ever. When it comes to the pressing issue of climate change humanity is at the crossroads and climate change deniers around the world, including the Abbott led conservative government here in Australia (perhaps the worst offenders of all), could benefit from reading this book. Science is under attack more than ever by non-scientists with dubious agendas and flawed belief systems who portray science and scientists as untrustworthy. The great irony, as Sagan shows, is that scientists go to extreme lengths to make sure that their findings are as accurate as they can possibly be and therefore, by extension, their conclusions too. When it comes to climate change it seems that we still do live in a demon haunted world.
Finally, perhaps the best thing about reading The Demon Haunted World was discovering that Sagan and I shared a very similar outlook toward science. Sagan states early on that: “In its encounter with nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos.” Science and a sense of wonder, even a sense of mysticism, are not mutually exclusive. Science is not merely cold reductionism, but provides a deep understanding of the magnificence of the cosmos and therefore of human existence itself.
Saturday, 12 July 2014
The day after I finished Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing it was announced that the novel had won the coveted Miles Franklin Award. I had been reading the novel for the library book club and I wondered what the members would make of both the book and the fact that it had won the prize. I must admit that the novel left me cold. It also made me, once again, ponder the nature of awards and how judges decide that a particular novel deserves to win; just how much of the decision making is based on objective criteria and how much is subjective opinion?
All the Birds, Singing is a dark tale that explores trauma and its aftermath. Protagonist Jake Whyte (no, not Jack White) is a young woman who is basically just trying to survive. All the Birds, Singing tells Jake’s tale of woe via alternate chapters, with one stream set on an island off the coast of the United Kingdom that moves forward in time and the other set in Western Australia that moves backwards in time, ultimately taking the reader back to the source of Jake’s trauma. This fragmented structure allows Wyld to build tension by drip-feeding information about Jake and her past. In the chapters set on the island Jake runs a sheep farm and some of her sheep are being mysteriously killed by something or someone lurking in the surrounding woods. The palpable sense of horror generated by the mystery of the sheep killings has psychological parallels in the chapters set in Australia, with the mystery of the traumatic horrors of Jake’s past.
Unfortunately Wyld’s ability to generate genuine suspense is undermined by Jake’s one dimensional presence throughout the narrative. This is, ironically, due to Wyld's use of fragmented structure, which keeps Jake trapped in her traumatized funk for most of the novel. After a while this state of suspension become an irritant. The fact that I did not warm to Jake at all meant that I found it difficult to connect with the novel and when I did it was only for fleeting periods. When discussing All the Birds, Singing with my fellow book club members I discovered that I’d entirely missed various subtexts lurking in the plot. I just wasn’t motivated enough to notice. Also I realised that despite The Luminaries (2013) being over 800 pages long I had not once thought to myself ‘when is this going to end?’ I found myself doing this many times whilst reading All the Birds, Singing, despite the fact that it is at least a third smaller.
Half of the thirty book club members hated the novel and the other half enjoyed it, but thought that it was an average example of literary fiction; I was somewhere in-between. Despite many being disappointed with the ending, which to some was open-ended and overly ambiguous, I felt that it was poignant and pointed towards redemption for both Jake and the mysterious Lloyd, a sympathetic character who had turned up on her farm with his own murky past to deal with. So the novel is not without its merits, but should it have won the Miles Franklin award, beating the likes of Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan and Alexis Wright? Perhaps it was the fusion of form and theme that appealed to the judges, or the portrayal of a female character who was both strong and damaged. When it comes to assessing the short listed novels how much objectivity comes into play? How subjective are the judges allowed to be? That’s something I’d love to know. If I were a judge I would have concluded that All the Birds, Singing was not good enough in both objective and subjective terms to win the award. Sorry Evie, I know you would have worked hard on All the Birds, Singing, but in the end all I can say is that it just wasn’t for me.
Sunday, 29 June 2014
When you love books there is perhaps nothing better than a book about books, which is just about as meta as you can get. I’ve been reading a number of different books lately that are taking some time to get through because they are either massive tomes, or are time consuming non-fiction. 501 Must Read Books is one I’ve been dipping in and out of lately and not only is it a beautiful book to hold and behold, it is also a superb guide to all things bibliographic.
Most book enthusiasts would have at least seen 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006). Well 501 Must Read Books is far superior; for a start it has a better title. I’ve always found the 1001 title concept to be very off putting, cliched and slightly condescending. The former book comprises almost entirely of fiction arranged chronologically both in sections according to era and then by the year the books were published. There are some impressive novels amongst them, but the selections are mostly predictable with a smattering of obscurities to pique the interest of bibliophiles. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is by no means a worthless guide to fiction, but 501 Must Read Books has so much more going for it in terms of layout and book selection.
501 Must Read Books arranges the books by genre, including children’s fiction, classic fiction, history, memoirs, modern fiction, science fiction, thrillers and travel writing. Throughout these sections there are well written reviews that contain biographical information about the author, the book’s cultural context and impact and detail about the book’s literary significance. There are brilliant photographs throughout and plentiful reproductions of original cover art. Each book featured also has an extra list of the author’s other significant works, which is very handy.
Whilst 501 Must Read Books contains acknowledged greats such as Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) and Don Delillo’s Underworld (1997), there are many obscure treasures (to me at least), which is what you really want and expect from a book like this. On the same page as Herzog there is the Regeneration Trilogy of novels by Pat Barker, all published in 1991. Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road explore homosexuality in WWI Britain and involves Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. A few pages before that there is Russian author Isaak Babel’s Tales of Odessa, published in 1916. Tales of Odessa is a series of joined novellas exploring life in Jewish ghettos. The review mentions that Babel is one of the greatest short story writers of all time, which is news to me. One of the great things about 501 Must Read Books is that it features many non English novels, such as Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and her Two Husbands (1966) and West Indian writer George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953).
A good test of this book for me is the science fiction section, which is a genre I know a great deal about. There are some notable absences, such as any of Iain M. Banks novels, in fact there are no Iain Banks novels in the modern literature section either - what were they thinking? Despite this the selection of science fiction novels is a fine one, with well known works such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) making an appearance. However it is the less well known I’m impressed with, such as Curt Siodmak’s Donvan’s Brain (1942) and Clifford D. Simak’s City (1952), both of which are new to me and sound excellent. This section is also a great reminder of novels I’ve been meaning to read, such as the great Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962).
Overall there’s much to recommend about 501 Must Read Books. It is in many ways a quality alternative to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Its series of genre sections is its great strength, providing a great guide for those who would like to move away from just reading novels. The memoir and travel writing sections are enticing for me for these very reasons. When there is a guide book about which are the best book guide books, 501 Must Read Books will definitely feature, in fact maybe that’s a section it could add for its own future editions, how meta would that be!
Wednesday, 18 June 2014
It was about time, I decided, that I paid some attention to the work of Martin Amis. After all he’s a significant figure in literature; named one the fifty greatest British writers since 1945, son of the late Kingsley Amis, friend of the late Christopher Hitchens and writer of lauded novels and non-fiction. Just as well I’d bought The Rachel Papers a few years ago when I was spending money on novels in an irresponsible fashion. In any case, it’s always good to be prepared, and fortunately Amis did not let me down.
The Rachel Papers happens to be Martin Amis’s first novel and features the first person musings of nineteen year old protagonist Charles Highway. Charles is a perfect summation of what it is like to to nineteen: gross, arrogant and horny, very horny. Charles is on the verge of possibly entering Oxford to study literature. He’s also the writer of copious narcissistic tracts about his life, which includes the Rachel papers. This never ending document details just how Charles will win Rachel over and therefore have his way with an older woman (although Rachel is barely older than Charles) before he turns twenty and leaves behind his teenage years forever. Charles is an easy character to warm to due to his witty and engaging observations of, amongst other subjects, the British class system. Also The Rachel Papers has a narrative style that’s akin to Aldous Huxley letting his hair down over the course of a drunken long weekend, which is very entertaining indeed.
The Rachel Papers reveals a late teenage mind that is obsessed with not only girls, but also gross bodily functions. There is a great deal of detail about various bodily fluids, including descriptions of of what he hacks out of his bronchial lungs and his battles with massive pimples. Although there is plenty of juvenile humour to be had throughout the novel, The Rachel Papers is much more than it initially seems. The novel presents three significant relationship stages: the youthful and lustful first flush of love in the the form of Charles and Rachel, the problematic middle stages in the form of Highway’s sister - Jennifer and her husband - the proudly lower class Norman, and finally there is the passionless endgame of Highway’s parents. The nature of these relationships provides a clever subtext beneath the grotesque that results in a life lesson for Charles Highway which, in the end, cuts through his adolescent anger at his father and his own indulgent narcissistic tendencies.
There are also some literary themes at play, with Highway constantly referencing literary greats such as William Blake and innumerable British poets. It is no coincidence that Highway is attempting to gain entry into Oxford, as it provides Amis with an opportunity to satirize the British education system. Highway is also endlessly taking notes and working on his epically bitter ‘Letter to my Father’ which ironically, it seems to me, is a letter to his future self. It’s tempting to see Amis and his father within this strained relationship. Amis has admitted that Charles is partly based on his youthful self. There’s certainly a cutting self awareness to the narrative, as well as being absolutely hilarious and unashamedly male. Amis also manages to pull off the best sex scene I’ve ever read, which is unflinching in its realism without being cringe-worthy. The novel ends with some of the coldest closing lines I’ve ever read, the kind that only a very brave writer could produce.
Upon finishing The Rachel Papers I began to miss it like an old friend who I knew I wouldn’t see for a long time. As a result I’m now a total fan of Martin Amis and I intend to read the rest of his bibliography in order of publication. Amis has been a controversial writer over the years, one who’s raised the ire of many conservative commentators in Great Britain. Over the years his friend Christopher Hitchens staunchly defended Amis, something I’m willing to take on now that Hitchens is dead. I say this with tongue firmly in cheek of course, however it is apparent that The Rachel Papers is an easy target for accusations of misogyny. In its defense I have to say that the novel is not necessarily misogynistic in nature; it is much more accurate to view it in anthropological terms. Amis shows that there is a certain confidence in a young man’s stride, but unfortunately there is also an unresolvable duality at the heart of the male psyche that perhaps few woman (and men) will ever come to terms with.
Thursday, 29 May 2014
By now most avid readers would know at least something about Eleanor Catton’s mammoth Man Booker prize winning novel The Luminaries. Catton is the youngest writer to ever win the award and at 830 pages it is also the longest winning novel. The Luminaries is set in the 1860’s on the west coast of the southern island of New Zealand during that era’s gold rushes. It is a complex novel, with a large ensemble of characters coupled with an innovative structure. These attributes may put many potential readers off, but rest assured The Luminaries is well worth reading.
The Luminaries is such a long and complex novel that it is futile to try and describe its plot and structure in any great detail. Perhaps uniquely the novel manages to be both backward looking and innovative at the same time. Catton writes in the Victorian narrative style used by many authors at the time in which the novel is set; however the novel’s structure is a modern contrivance built around the signs of the zodiac and the movements of the planets. Twelve of the characters are associated with the zodiac and are assigned to the Stellar section of the character chart at the beginning of the novel. Another eight are in the Planetary section and are given related influences such as reason, desire and force. The first chapter, entitled ‘A sphere within a Sphere,’ is as long as an average book (360 pages) and like the cycle of the moon, each successive chapter wanes until the final group of chapters are only a few pages long. Fortunately due to the novel’s other quality attributes the reader can get by without paying much attention to its convoluted form, which is something that I mostly chose to do.
One of The Luminaries great strengths is Catton’s ability to write believable characters that live and breath on the page. When coupled with the mysteries at the novel’s core, it makes for strangely compelling reading. I say strangely compelling because at one point it occurred to me that despite the novel’s slow moving narrative, fragmentation and complexity, I found myself completely drawn into the world inhabited by the characters and the mysteries they were grappling with. This is masterful story-telling coupled with beautiful writing and it is no wonder the judges of the Man Booker awarded the prize to The Luminaries.
Considering the amount of research and planning that must have gone into writing the novel, winning the Man Booker Prize is a just reward for Catton. It is, however, a novel that requires intense focus on the part of the reader. Fragmented across time and told from multiple perspectives over a complex narrative structure, it demands a certain level of commitment. After I finished The Luminaries I wondered what the average reader would make of its conventions and pretensions? My book club members, for example, mostly appreciated the novel, even if they didn’t all necessarily enjoy it. As serendipity would have it at the same time a work college referred me to an essay called The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real), written by Will Self, in which he discusses the decline of not just what he calls the paper oriented ‘Gutenberg mind,’ (as opposed to the digital mind - my words, not his) but also of the novel as a living medium (it’s a zombie art form, moribund since Joyce's Finnegan’s Wake (1939) according to Self) and in particular the ‘difficult novel.’ Self puts forward that the novel as an important medium is in terminal decline and serious literature will become the domain of the minority, both in terms of authors and readers. Is a novel such as The Luminaries a way forward, or merely the last gasp of a zombie art form with declining readership? Do people want to read novels like The Luminaries any more, or is it just going to be vampire romance and about a million shades of grey?
Such questions once again bring to bear the worth of prizes such as the Man Booker. No doubt there has been huge sales of The Luminaries since it won the coveted prize, but just how many of them would have been read all the way through? Is the Man Booker making things worse by rewarding a difficult novel that may be unpalatable to most readers? Or will it inspire people to reach beyond their comfort zone and help keep alive one of the most important cultural artifacts humans have ever devised? Personally I thoroughly enjoyed The Luminaries and am confident that the so called difficult novel has a bright future beyond this era of wizards, vampires and all those shades of grey. I believe that there will always be enough people intent on exploring the limits of literature and be willing to go beyond their comfort zones. As the demands on our time is taken up by more and more frivolous digital pursuits I believe that serious literature will come to be appreciated much more readily as an antidote to cultural superficiality. Self may be pessimistic about the future of the novel, but I wouldn’t bet on it being a spent cultural force just yet. If you are one of those people who put aside The Luminaries after a few hundred pages then prove Will Self wrong by picking it up again; you will be rewarded for your efforts.