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Sunday, 13 September 2020

Communion - Whitley Strieber (1987)


Rating: Admirable

When I was a child in the 1970's I was obsessed with UFOs and aliens. I'd have dreams that featured seeing the night sky filled with alien spacecraft, including one in which a bright white cigar shaped UFO hovered over my backyard. I was taken to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) by my father, which both fascinated and freaked me out. I remember when Communion was published and seeing it on the shelves gave me the creeps, even though I was older (17-18) and my perception of the UFO phenomenon had changed. In my adult life I've read a lot of science fiction and books on cosmology, astronomy and physics and I've given the possibility of advanced alien life a great deal of thought. I'm sure it's out there, somewhere; but the universe is so massive and space/time so difficult to traverse that the question of whether alien life has visited Earth is, for me, mostly tinged with scepticism, which is how I approached reading this book. 

Initially Communion is very convincing. Strieber outlines his emergent memories when he is prompted by his increasing paranoia and other psychological disturbances to seek help and undergo hypnosis. His memories of being visited by the aliens in his country home and his experiences on their space-craft is genuinely creepy. Strieber's musings about just who these creatures are, their possible influence on humanity, their motivations and his own philosophical position on the phenomenon is interesting and sometimes even compelling. However as the book progressed through his childhood memories, his family's recollections and finally Strieber's thoughts about the possible mystical influences of the alien creatures (revolving around triads) it became less interesting and even laughable. Aside from being a sceptic I approached reading the book in an anthropological manner because I've long thought that the UFO/alien phenomenon is tied to humanity's need for the 'other'; the strange, half seen creatures that inhabit our imaginations that used to manifest as fairy creatures but now, with the advent of the technological age post WWII, manifest as aliens. Were Strieber's experiences a manifestation of an inherent need for the 'other', something beyond ourselves that therefore defines who we actually are? Possibly, but in any case it was nice to read the book that introduced many of the alien abduction tropes into popular culture pre The X Files (1993-2018), but other than that I remain both unimpressed and sceptical. 

Sunday, 30 August 2020

The Man Who Saw Everything - Deborah Levy (2019)


Rating: Mediocre

The Man Who Saw Everything is a novel in two parts. I quite enjoyed the first part, but unfortunately my level of interest completely fell away during the second half. The novel concerns Saul Adler, a very good looking young man who is hit by a car having his photo taken by his artistic girlfriend at the famous Abbey Rd crossing in 1988. His girlfriend then breaks up with him just before he embarks on a trip to East Berlin to undertake research, where he becomes romantically entangled in the lives of a brother and sister who are compromised by life in the Eastern Block. The first section is told from Adler's point of view, however during the second half of the novel you come to understand that his self perception and his perception of those around him is significantly lacking. Adler is again hit by a car at Abbey Rd (or is it the first and only time? I have my suspicions...) in 2016 at age 56. He is badly hurt and spends the second half of the novel in a hospital bed being visited by people from his past, while ruminating over his life in an opiated haze.

The Man Who Saw Everything is an ironic title, as Adler does not see himself as others see him and Levy uses this as a means to explore the notion that life, perception, and history itself is fragmented and unreliable. An argument could be made that the the novel is quite clever in its exploration of such themes (it's a divisive novel, with a portion of my book club members loving it - the others were totally dismissive), however both Adler and the narrative failed to hold my interest and I became totally indifferent to its (actually limited) charms. Adler is not a particularly likeable character, he is obviously both damaged and narcissistic, which is fine, as I often enjoy antiheroes, but coupled with the fact that the narrative becomes so diffuse and opaque, there is very little motivation to spend the time to work out what is actually going on. While I was still writing this review I began reading the Christos Tsiolkas novel Damascus (2019) and the difference between the two novels made me realise that post-modernism is totally dead. Tsiolkas' brutally straight-forward writing style was incredibly refreshing and dynamic compared to the oblique exploration of the subjectivity of reality in The Man Who Saw Everything

Monday, 10 August 2020

Dead Babies - Martin Amis (1975)


Rating: Admirable

Way back in 2014 I decided to read all of the Martin Amis novels in sequence, having just read his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973). Now finally, six years later, I've read another! Dead Babies is, firstly, not quite as good as The Rachel Papers, although Amis's prose style is consistently excellent, the themes and subject matter are more dated in comparison. It comes across as a primary influence on the English TV show The Young Ones (circa 1980s). The novel is a satirical skewering of empty hedonism, class snobbery, the faded hippy dream and pretty much everything else that was happening in culture at the time. It's also full of nasty solipsistic characters whose decadence and desperation knows no bounds. The narrative takes place over one weekend in a manor owned by the extremely rich neurotic Giles Coldtstream, called Appleseed Rectory, where the residents are joined by three Americans and a"golden hearted whore" called Lucy Littlejohn and also a "practical joker" called Johnny. The characters are too numerous to comment on with any depth, but Keith Whitehead warrants a particular mention due to his sympathetic status as a fat, short, disgusting "court dwarf", who bears the brunt of the others questionable behaviour, particularly from the Americans toward the end.

There's some humour in the novel, but mostly it's extremely dark, particularly once the Americans arrive and start doling out weird drugs that are meant to make the recipients experience whatever state of mind they desire. It sounds like fun, but it isn't, not for the characters and not for the reader; personally I don't mind these sorts of narratives, but Dead Babies made me react at times as if I could catch the scent of day-old vomit. There is a narrative thrust in the form of a plot based around the mystery of just who Johnny is and why he is, for example, leaving Diana nasty letters and tearing up treasured porn magazines (Keith's). Apparently the novel is a parody of the very English county house murder mystery narrative of the type popularised by Agatha Christie, but they were never as gruesomely perverse as this. The ending is entertaining enough, but I didn't really care what happened to the characters, which I suspect was Amis's aim all along.

Monday, 27 July 2020

Querelle of Brest - Jean Genet (1947)

Rating: Excellent

I've long known about Jean Genet by reputation, but initially through Bowie's sneaky play on his name for the 1973 song The Jean Gene. I found a copy of Querelle of Best in WA's Mostly Books about five years ago when it was closing down. I was amazed at the time as it was the only Genet book I'd ever seen around. I didn't really know what to expect, but such was the quality of Genet's prose within the first few pages I felt more than willing to be be immersed in the seedy sailor world of Querelle. Ah yes, Querelle - a young sailor (matelot) full of raw sexual swagger, ranging about in the fog shrouded harbour town of Brest in the south-west of France. Querelle is somewhat of a sociopath, robbing, killing and taking advantage of those around him. He also just happens to be gay and most of the sex in this novel is of the homosexual kind; some of it is quite explicit, but some is merely implied. If Querelle of Brest were published today it would still be regarded as shocking, but not necessarily due to to the homosexual sex scenes (although they'd still shock some people, but then they wouldn't be reading Genet in the first place really), rather it would be for the extreme psychologies of Querelle and many of the other characters. There's not a great deal of love in this novel, rather human relations are presented as sadomasochistic and desperate. Coupled with Genet's unyieldingly rigorous prose style, this makes for compelling reading.

Genet was certainly a great writer, although style-wise barely any authors write with such florid and knowing prose any more. No doubt the likes of Bukowski would have hated Genet's style, being the opposite of his pared back existential prose. The novel flirts with postmodernism, with its slightly hyperreal tone, fragmented form (although subtly) and Genet's meta authorial interjections; even suggesting toward the end of the narrative that Querelle had being getting up to things that were unknown even to the author. Since finishing the novel I've read that one of Genet's main themes in his work over-all was the struggle for identity. Many of the characters in the novel, including Querelle himself, are in a state of psychological flux, and as such the homosexual elements throughout the novel are actually secondary to the exploration of the human psyche. However this would not stop many people from being perturbed by some of the scenes in the novel and I had to be a bit careful reading it on the train lest someone read over my shoulder, receiving an early morning shock to their conservative senses. Still, I'm sure Genet would have enjoyed the thought of one of his novels' still causing consternation seventy or so years after publication.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Ziggyology: A Brief History of Ziggy Stardust - Simon Goddard (2013)

Rating: Reprehensible

Although literature is a key passion in my life, music does take precedence and Bowie is my main-man (excuse the pun, fellow Bowie fans...). I approached Ziggyology with optimism due to its rather unique premise of exploring the cultural influences brought to bear on Ziggy as a concept and as a character unto himself. It is well known that Bowie readily acknowledged that Ziggy took over his persona at times during the height of Bowie's ascension to stardom. Instead what I read bitterly disappointed me in almost every way. Ziggyology is unfortunately a totally wasted opportunity, as it does not provide serious Bowie fans with anything particularly new regarding Bowie's Ziggy Stardust period and also it fumbles its attempts at presenting an alternate view.

Goddard's attempt at a different take on a familiar story, with a long initial synopsis of the varied cultural influences brought to bear on both Bowie (and therefore Ziggy) and his generation, including Beethoven, H G Wells, Japanese kabuki theatre, the BBC show Quatermass (circa 1950s), Vince Taylor and the Stanley Kubrick films A Clockwork Orange (1971) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is squandered by a quasi academic style that renders any real insights as superficial. Goddard could have provided a serious account of such cultural influences, but instead it reads like a rush-job to endure before you get to the juicy bits about Bowie and Ziggy. The fascinating cultural influences are indeed there, but who really cares? The second great sin is Goddard's flawed approach at examining Bowie's psychological state during the period he evolved the idea of Ziggy and, more significantly, the intense effects it had on his psyche once things really got going. A potentially decent stab at this is marred by scenes in which Goddard depicts Bowie as locking himself in a bathroom at his twenty-fifth birthday party, looking at himself in the mirror and saying "What's it going to be, eh?" A number of times he also depicts Bowie as thinking to himself that "It takes a lot to pretend to be someone else...' Such an insight! This trite approach is unfortunate when a far more interesting and reasonably obscure influence on Bowie regarding the human psyche and concepts of self was Ronald Laing's book, The Divided Self (1960), in which Laing attempts to make madness comprehensible, by, in part, examining personal alienation and the invention of other 'false selves'. This would have been far more interesting than the pop psychology and potted family history presented.

Other aspects of Ziggyology also rankle, such as Goddard's 'aren't I a clever lad' writing style, which grates more and more the longer the book goes on. Even worst is the fact that Goddard is continually putting words in the mouth of Bowie. Unless these words are taken from interviews (some could be, but I didn't recognise any of them), then such a technique can't help but be a dodgy business. Goddard also regularly counters and compares Bowie's career with that of Marc Bolan's (T-Rex), which is fair enough, as they were both friends and rivals, however Goddard increasingly paints Bolan in a negative light beyond a reasonable level and he comes across as being extremely catty in the process. It is known that Bolan certainly had his moments, but there's no need to denigrate him to make Bowie look better. Frankly Ziggyology would have been better as graphic novel, as it's tone and treatment of Ziggy Stardust suits that medium better. Recently one has a appeared and even though I've just looked at it in a book shop I enjoyed that experience far more than reading this paltry attempt at depicting the arrival of Ziggy Stardust and the impact it had on Bowie's career.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Before the Coffee Gets Cold - Toshikazu Kawaguchi (2019)

Rating: Mediocre

I've read quite a bit of Japanese fiction and I love the spare, poetic prose and the unique narrative forms that are often employed by many Japanese authors. Before the Coffee Gets Cold looked promising, with an intriguing time-travel premise. In a small, very old Tokyo cafe you can sit with a coffee and travel back in time, but you can only stay as long as the coffee remains warm, and if you don't drink it before it gets cold then you are trapped in time. It turns out that there is much more to it than that, but unfortunately it also turns out that this novel is fatally flawed. Firstly Before the Coffee Gets Cold very obviously suffers from having been adapted from a play and then translated into English. The prose is stilted to the extent that I could almost be willing to believe that it was written by a wooden post. The first section - 'The Lovers', is frustrating to read due to a great deal of hesitant and fragmented dialogue, one dimensional characters and, to be frank, a flirtation with sheer narrative tedium.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold does improve gradually, with some reasonably believable emotional scenes between husband and wives, two sisters and, lastly, a mother and child. The main characters are fleshed out slightly more, but the dialogue remained very stilted, resulting in a low ceiling for sympathetic connection with the characters and their various travails. One intriguing character, who is a ghost, forever trapped somewhere in-between the past and the present (I assume...), but occupying the very seat that allows time travel, could have presented an opportunity for some fascinating narrative possibilities, however she was underused and remained merely a narrative device. I'm certain that performed as a play the novel's themes of fate, tragedy and the healing opportunity afforded by a change of attitude, would have come across much better, but as a novel it totally fails to convince.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Charles Bukowski - Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews & Encounters 1963-1993 - Edited by David Stephen Calonne (2003)

Rating: Excellent

Most regular readers of this blog would be aware of my love for Bukowski's writing. I've read most of his most important works, but I also have quite a few books like this one laying around, in this case for about a decade! Sunlight Here I Am is a great idea executed well; a collection, in chronological order, of interviews with Bukowski, ranging from his very first interview in 1963 and ending with his very last in in 1993. Calonne notes that while this is not all of the interviews with Bukowski, it features many of the best ones. It's a beautiful book, well laid out and featuring drawings by the man himself and a selection of photographs not seen elsewhere. From the first interview there comes a realisation that Bukowski is fully formed, already displaying his perceptive and blunt point of view, holding forth regarding the highs and lows of his life so far and the nature of poetry. There is a definite pattern across all thirty six interviews, the interviewer notes Bukowski's reputation (often followed by an admission as to their trepidation meeting him), Bukowski talks about his past (this aspect becomes repetitious - an unavoidable inherent flaw) and then there is a fascinating discussion that varies depending on the era the interview takes place.

What emerges out of all these interviews is that both Bukowski is as you'd expect him to be, but also there are plenty of surprises even for the hard core Bukowski fan. The fact that Bukowski was such a booze-hound coupled with his disdain of following any cultural trend meant that I was amazed to discover that he smoked grass quite regularly and that he tried LSD and magic mushrooms on a number of occasions. Although his thoughts regarding sex and women are more sophisticated that his detractors would have you believe, his views on politics and philosophy is typically blunt, as is his tendency toward misanthropy. Generally it's a real treat to read Bukowski in full flow and he pretty much provides great copy on most occasions. Along the way you also discover what he thinks of other past and contemporaneous writers, that he felt that his balls were the biggest going around, that he admired Frank Zappa, but regarded both Paul McCartney and John Lennon with disdain; that he hung out with Sean Penn who brought his then girlfriend, no other than Madonna herself, around for a visit! Bukowski notes that when he intimated that Madonna was pretentious Penn bristled with anger but backed down when Bukowski said that Penn knew deep down that he could take him (resulting in Bukowski liking Penn even more...). Such highlights mean that Sunlight Here I Am is well worth tracking down for any Bukowski fan, not only because it is pure Bukowski, but also for the unique insight it provides into one of America's greatest writers.