Monday 19 December 2016

The Drought - JG Ballard (1965)

It seems to be an unlikely conclusion to make, but perhaps the most interesting and significant section of The Drought are the two essays at the back of the book. One is by Ballard himself, entitled Cataclysms and Dooms (1977), in which he ruminates over the tradition of world cataclysms in literature. Here he states that “Psychiatric studies of the fantasies and dream life of the insane show that ideas of world destruction are latent in the unconscious mind.” The second essay is by British author Will Self, entitled The Ballard Tradition (2003), in which Self notes that “...Ballard has issued a series of bulletins on the modern world of almost unerring prescience.” Self goes on the conclude that “Indeed, the time has come to entertain the notion that one of the new seasons we are experiencing - dry spring, warm winter - should be named, simply, ‘Ballard’.”  During the post war period many of the possibilities offered up in science fiction have come to pass, from advanced computer driven technologies, medical breakthroughs, astronomical discoveries and most recently significant advances in the development of robotics and AI. Unfortunately the sad reality is that one of science fiction’s dominant tropes, a post apocalyptic world ruined by humanity’s short sighted hubris, is looking more and more likely to come to pass.

As Ballard himself noted, a novel such as The Drought does belong to the rich tradition of the cataclysmic, or post-apocalyptic novel. Human pollution results in the breaking the hydrologic cycle, creating successive years of drought, causing rivers to stop flowing and then civilization itself to collapse. Dr Charles Ransom, the novel’s principal protagonist is a typical Ballardian character, a brooding loner adrift in a situation in which he is more of an observer than an actor. An appropriate ensemble of eccentric and desperate characters surround him; Richard Lomax and his sister Miranda, wealthy eccentrics who exude a sophisticated kind of denial; Philip Jordan, denizen of a dying river; the brusque Reverend Johnstone, and Quilter, Lomax’s dwarf assistant. Rather than being a portrayal of a world-wide apocalyptic event, Ballard focuses the narrative on the lakeside town of Hamilton. As the drought progresses a sometimes surreal microcosm of civilization in decline plays out within the town. Fishermen hunt humans in the semi-deserted streets with nets, lions are let loose from the zoo, Quilter lurks in the half shadows and Ransom vacillates between leaving along with everyone else to the coast or staying with the Lomax siblings in their luxurious home whilst they blithely waste precious water keeping the lawns alive. Eventually Ransom does leave for the coast only to find the last vestige of civil order, in the form of the army, is attempting to keep the teeming hoards from leaving the mainland.

The Drought provides a timely reminder that from early in his career Ballard’s ability to explore human psychology under strain from unusual circumstances, and more significantly, under supposed normal circumstances, is one of his most enduring contributions to speculative fiction. It can be argued that The Drought stands as an early example of psycho-geography. Developed by Guy Debord, a French Marxist theorist, psycho-geography is “...the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Throughout the novel Ballard’s protagonists exist in a psychic limbo between the decay of humanity’s built environment and a natural environment rendered dysfunctional by human interference.

Although The Drought is a worthy read for Ballard fans, it is perhaps not a good place to start for novices. Often the novel seems unfocused, promising apocalyptic drama, only to have it resolve into a narrative plateau characterized by the psychological drift of Ransom. The writing is clunky at times and Ballard’s characteristically dry, almost emotionless tone is not yet fully formed, something that gives his subsequent work an almost unbearably pleasurable tautness. The novel’s endgame, although initially promising, passes by like a surreal dream during an afternoon nap on a hot day, leaving you feeling uneasy and then ultimately unsatisfied; as with most great and important artists and writers, the best was yet to come. The Drought makes up one part of a loose quartet of novels featuring cataclysmic natural phenomena; the others being The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962) and The Crystal World (1966), which is where things really start getting interesting. Meanwhile a good place to start for the curious will always be The Complete Collected Short Stories of J.G.Ballard (2009).

I’m not sure whether it was some kind of subconscious decision on my part, but I began reading The Drought during the last month of the US presidential campaign. I’m sure that Ballard, who died in 2009, would have been fascinated by the election and the manner in which it was conducted. The concept of a ‘post truth’ era and the osmotic bleed between the hyper-realism of both cyber and broadcast media and what passes for ‘reality’ these days would have stimulated him enormously. As his daughter noted recently in an essay for The Guardian, we are living in Ballard’s world now (with some Philip K Dick thrown in for good measure I believe...). Perhaps the most unerring and frightening aspect of this era is the retreat into the irrationality of conspiracy theories, in particular those of the climate change deniers, whose voices are nightmarishly becoming louder and louder. The conspiracy theorist displays a special kind of narcissism that allows a retreat into the safety of the ego, from where they can proselytise what they believe to be the ‘real truth’, a ‘truth’ that irrationally counters the carefully researched scientific conclusions of the majority. It makes them feel special and powerful, giving them an agency over the world that they would not otherwise have; I’d almost feel sorry for them if it wasn’t so horrifying. Significantly the climate change deniers only confirm Ballard’s theory that ideas of world destruction are innate within the human psyche (or, pointedly, just those of the insane?). Meanwhile as I watch in horror climate change deniers do all they can to protect and reassert the status quo that is ultimately only steering humanity toward an apocalyptic future of its own devising, I’m going to prepare myself further by reading Ballard’s The Drowned World.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

The Gustav Sonata - Rose Tremain (2016)

After finishing the first section of The Gustav Sonata I found myself wondering about just how many novels have been inspired by WWII. The war had such an impact on humanity that there is perhaps no end to the events, themes and existential issues that can be explored by novelists. The Gustav Sonata approaches the impact of the war in an unconventional manner, exploring the effects the war had on characters living in the neutral country of Switzerland. Although it is certainly not particularly innovative, The Gustav Sonata is quality literature and exactly the kind of novel that book club members love to read, so much so I also took some time to wonder whether there is a particular formula that novelists adhere to in order to attract the attention of the book club hoards that mill about in lounge rooms, cafes, pubs and libraries throughout the world.

The novel begins in post war Switzerland, a period of particular austerity for young Gustav and his mother, Emilie, who only just makes ends meet by working at a local cheese factory (accordingly she often smells strongly of cheese). Emilie tells Gustav that his father died because he helped to save Jews during the war. Emilie also tells young Gustav to be more like Switzerland itself: neutral, separate and strong. Gustav’s rather grey world improves when he befriends Anton, a child prodigy pianist and the son of Jewish parents who were sheltered from the horrors of the war by being Swiss citizens. Gustav and Anton initially share a fragile friendship, which then deepens across their shared childhoods. During the second part of the novel Tremain explores the lives of Gustav’s parents both before he was born and before the war. This section deftly provides a significant backstory and also further explores the novel’s major themes, in particular family dysfunction and how it often shapes the psychology of the individual. Gustav’s father, Erich, is a particularly well drawn and sympathetic character whose moralistic outlook is not shared by Emilie. Their marriage is blighted by differing perspectives and circumstances, providing ample narrative fodder for exploring the human psyche under pressure.

The third section explores Anton and Gustav’s lives as adults' right up to the early twenty-first century. Here the disappointments, tragedies and bitterness of the past haunt their lives. Gustav owns and runs a hotel in the town of his birth and still works hard to earn the love of his mother, which is often contingent and therefore rarely forthcoming. Anton lives a dissatisfied life as a piano teacher, having never had the nerve to succeed on stage. After an opportunity too good to be true takes Anton away from Gustav and their backwater town Gustav faces a life even more bereft of meaning. In other hands such existential bleakness could be over-bearing and exhausting, but Tremain’s classy, erudite style carries the narrative beautifully, allowing the reader to connect emotionally with the characters. When the final denouement comes it packs quite an emotional punch and it is here where the darker themes explored throughout the novel resolve into something like catharsis.

Tremain is certainly a skilled writer, exploring human temperament, morality, familial dysfunction and the complex nature of love, with subtlety and class. In an interview Tremain gave the following advice to writers: rather than writing about you know, try writing about what you don’t know. The same could be said about what you choose to read. The Gustav Sonata is a great example of the value of belonging to a book club; I simply would never have read the novel of my own volition, instead I was forced out of my comfort zone and into the splendid little world of a Rose Tremain novel. Although the novel will not go down as one of the most memorable books I have ever read, it was certainly worthy of my valuable reading time, and perhaps yours too.

Sunday 6 November 2016

Decline and Fall?

College girl Clinton

In 1776 Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his six volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of the great achievements in historical literature. Just what caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been one of the most contentious subjects within the discipline of history. Gibbon cited a decline in civic will coupled the pacifism of Christianity as prime contributors to the Roman Empire being susceptible to successive waves of barbarian invasions. More generally there were also many specific events and particular individuals whose abuse of power contributed to Rome’s eventual fate. There certainly would have been many occasions when the Roman Empire was at the crossroads of history.

How will future historians view this point in history in which the closest we have to a modern day analogue of the Roman Empire, the United State of America, stands at its own crossroads? Will it be the point when the decline becomes the fall if Donald Trump is elected president? Trump should be a very recognisable figure to anyone familiar with history - a true demagogue taking advantage of the fall-out from nearly forty years of neo-liberalism. Capitalism is itself also at the crossroads, but that is another story. The difference now is that rather than an empire’s future being at stake, the very future of humanity is on the line. The fact that Trump is a climate change denier (therefore a climate change criminal) is of much more concern than his racism, his misogyny, his unbridled narcissism, his anti-intellectualism and his blatant disregard for the facts. As hopeless as much of humanity’s attempts at addressing climate change has been there is still some hope, but the time to act is now and if Trump is elected then future generations world-wide will be the hapless victims of America’s poor judgement (or to take kinder point of view - the victims of the vicissitudes of history).

Hopefully the coming days will be viewed by future historians as an unprecedented time when America followed the election of its first black American president with the election of its first female president. It will be viewed as a time when action on climate change took its next crucial step and millions of Americans continued to enjoy some hard won freedoms. Perhaps never before in world history has one woman had such responsibility, and perhaps never before have the stakes been so high. So Hillary Clinton, for all your flaws and all your past and future mistakes I desperately hope that you are the next President of the United States of America and not Donald Trump, the greatest, and perhaps most dangerous, narcissistic fool of our age.

Monday 31 October 2016

The Name of the Wind - The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One - Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

Rothfuss attempts to stop stroking his beard

The Name of the Wind is the very first fantasy novel I have ever read. I thought that I would never actually read fantasy until a good friend recommended the novel to me just as I was desiring something different to read. During my childhood and teenage years I tried to read some fantasy novels (only getting a few pages in...), but they just never appealed as much as science fiction, and lets face it, the Stainless Steel Rat is hard to beat right?  As with many novels in the fantasy and science fiction genres it is merely the first part of a trilogy, the second being The Wise Man’s Fear (2011). The third part is yet to be published and from what I can gather fans of these books are getting a little impatient with Mr Rothfuss. On Goodreads there is an entry for the third book, Doors of Stone, and somehow there are five star ratings, one star ratings coupled with complaints and also some entries professing disappointment in Rothfuss for taking so long and wasting everyone’s time. There are even some pretend reviews of the novel and Rothfuss himself makes an entry and hilariously concludes that it all must mean that “Time travelers love my books.” Passions, high expectations and narrative greed seem to run very high regarding this series, but after reading The Name of the Wind I can understand just why.

Perhaps the principle reason why The Name of the Wind is such a brilliant novel is that it is character driven, rather than relying on regular action scenes or a tense narrative pace, although the narrative certainly does have its moments. Essentially the novel is a coming of age story and the protagonist, Kvothe, is an engaging character who both possesses great talents and personality flaws such as hubris and impulsiveness, both of which cause him many problems. At the beginning of the novel Kvothe tends to his tavern somewhere in the backwoods of the lands that are mapped out in the front of the book (yes, of course there’s a map!), which immediately hooks the reader into wondering just how such a set of circumstances came about. Subsequently the arrival of a legendary scribe called ‘Chronicler’ ultimately causes Kvothe to agree to narrate his life story, recounting his experiences from childhood through to his attendance at a place known simply as ‘The University’, all of which takes one day. Kvothe’s storytelling is certainly engaging, but more importantly it raises many more questions than answers, which entices the reader ever onward through the narrative, which is never in a particular hurry. Fortunately Rothfuss possesses an admirably disciplined, yet poetic writing style and his descriptive powers are something to be admired. The Name of the Wind is a fine example of genre writing that is literary in both style and quality.

The Name of the Wind is infused with both magic and myth, but is also recognizably very human. This realism brings an added depth to the fantasy elements, creating a believable world, which makes for a powerful and intriguing narrative. Magic, which has its roots in physics, is taught at the University Kvothe attends, however any similarities to Hogwarts and Harry Potter end there. The long University section is brilliantly realized, filled with scenes rich with the adventure and drama of youth. Kvothe’s search for information and the whereabouts of mythical characters called 'The Chandrian' drives his studies and also provides a narrative arc that will no doubt cover all three books. Rothfuss is undoubtedly an author in love with storytelling, resulting in a novel that is richly layered with narratives. The sections in which Kvothe is telling his story, set in the present and told in the third person, act as a counterpoint to the main narrative. Much of the novel is told through the first person voice of Kvothe, but throughout there are many story songs sung by traveling performers (including Kvothe, whom is skilled with the lute and comes from the Edema Ruh, a troupe of traveling performers) and also storytellers spinning yarns in taverns about a past that may or may not be real.

After reading The Name of the Wind I can understand the impatience for the arrival of the third novel. Despite the fact I have nothing to really compare the novel to in terms of the fantasy genre, its attributes are such that it is undoubtedly an excellent novel. Rothfuss does almost nothing wrong and the novel is seriously addictive, drawing the reader into its world slowly and surely. There are a multitude of intriguing characters inhabiting its pages, but non more so than Kvothe, who stands as one of the great protagonists in speculative fiction. Fortunately I still have the second book sitting on my desk waiting patiently to be read (if books can be patient, then why can’t readers?). After I’ve completed that book then perhaps I’ll become one of the frustrated hoards waiting for Rothfuss to stop stroking his beard and do what all good fantasy writers should be doing, producing another epic 600 page plus tome to complete Kvothe’s story, and then everybody can be happy.

Sunday 9 October 2016

Green Island - Shawna Yang Ryan (2016)

Green Island begins in 1949 when Taiwan came under martial law instigated by the Chinese Nationalist Party, who had fled mainland China after finally being defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. In 1986 I studied Chinese history as one of my year 12 subjects. Green Island reminded me of some of what I learned, but mostly it alerted me to what was left out of our curriculum, as if the ensuing history of what then happened in Taiwan was irrelevant. Shawna Yang Ryan has provided Western readers with an accessible account of what life was like for the Taiwanese from February 1947 onward, from the massacres that resulted from the influx of Nationalist forces, through to the SARs epidemic of the early 2000s.

Ryan’s unnamed narrator recounts the story of her family, beginning when she was born in the family home in Taipei on the night of the first massacre (up to 30,000 people ended up dying at the hands of Nationalist soldiers). Ryan, a Chinese American, lived in Taiwan for two years in order to research for the novel, exploring the island, accessing historical media and talking to people who had lived through those times. Such commitment and depth of research does give the novel an authentic tone, which is something that can be absent from historical fiction. Throughout the novel there is a great deal of familial detail, which can sometimes result in an uneven narrative pace, however this is offset by the resulting emotional connection developed over the course of Green Island. I had underestimated Ryan’s writing, believing that I was reasonably indifferent to the lives of the characters, even through their many hardships, until late in the novel when the narrator returns to Taiwan after a long absence and is placed in danger by the KMT. I felt protective of her and her partner, the idealistically naive Wei, and I realised that Shawna Yang Ryan had hooked me without me even noticing.

My interest and involvement in the novel increased once the narrator marries and subsequently moves to California where her husband lectures at Berkley University. The narrator not only has to navigate a new culture but, more importantly, she is given first-hand experience of the reach and power of the KMT, something that she could only imagine previously through the experiences of her father who had suffered through eleven years in captivity during the first decade of martial law. In California they give shelter to an escaped activist, Jia Bao, who plots with Wei to expose the evils of the KMT regime. The narrator’s relationship with the stoic Jia Bao and the danger it puts her and her family in gives the narrative an injection of tension that acts as a pay-off for some of the more prosaic sections earlier in the novel.

Although Green Island is certainly flawed, by the concluding chapters the novel had revealed itself to be much more accomplished than it had initially promised. More importantly Green Island deserves admiration for raising awareness in the West of Taiwanese history. Significantly the novel gives a voice to the multitudes of Taiwanese who suffered under the longest period of martial law (40 years) in modern history. Green Island is also an example of the importance of quality fiction. Fiction reveals histories, ideas, psychologies and foreign cultures that would be otherwise inaccessible to readers who find the idea of reading door-stop sized history books unappealing.

Monday 5 September 2016

The Age of Reinvention - Karine Tuil (2013, 2015 English translation)

With the publication of The Age of Reinvention French author Karine Tuil has added to the vast pile of literature that has been directly influenced by 911 and the West’s endless war on terror. The attack on the twin towers, the wars and the terrorism that have followed have had such a profound impact on culture that perhaps it is finally time to view this period as being apart from the Post-Modern era that developed since WWII. Coupled with the absolute reach of the World Wide Web and a myriad of other technological innovations surely cultural theorists can be inspired to come up with something, or are the stylistic tropes of Post Modernism really the last word in examining the current predicaments humanity finds itself in? (actually, the way forward lies in science fiction, but that’s just my opinion...) The Age of Reinvention does not offer anything new stylistically, but it does, depending on what you want from a novel, offer a relatively compelling exploration of human identity within the context of the current cultural and political climate.

At the centre of The Age of Reinvention is a love triangle between three university friends: Nina, the downtrodden goddess, the complex and brooding Samuel Baron and the French -Tunisian charmer Samir Tahar. The bulk of the narrative takes place twenty years after Nina and Samir have had an inevitable affair, which was subsequently curtailed by Samuel, who then proceeded to bind Nina to him with the worst kind of emotional blackmail. After twenty years Samuel is a failed novelist and Nina is a fashion catalogue model. In contrast Samir is now a successful lawyer living in New York and is married to the daughter of one of the richest Jews in the USA. The crucial plot device is that Samir has stolen Samuel’s life backstory, remodelling himself as a Sephardic Jew and in the process has disowned his mother and his much younger half-brother, who are both still living in poverty in the ethnic slums of Paris. When Samuel and Nina discover Tamir’s subterfuge (via the internet, of course...) they are drawn back into his life, with huge consequences for all concerned.

In an interview from last year Tuil states that “...there are novels which exist to entertain and novels which exist to ‘disturb’...” The Age of Reinvention can certainly be placed in the latter category. The curious thing about the novel is that its strengths are also its weaknesses, depending on the readers’ perspective. Tuil’s narrative style is intense and much of the action takes place in the present tense, which gives the novel an edginess that successfully conveys the desperation inherent in the protagonists' lives. Tuil delivers some fantastic lines, particularly in the first third of the novel, with some sentences covering almost half a page. These stylistic attributes drew me into the novel’s world and I felt a compulsion to read on to find out what would happen, but by the middle of the narrative Tuil’s style grew wearisome and I began to find certain aspects of the novel, such as the dialogue, to be jarring and melodramatic. Despite these flaws my enthusiasm remained undiminished; however other readers may find Tuil’s style to be overwrought and heavy-handed. There are also some quirks, such as footnotes that are used frequently to elaborate briefly on a minor character’s background, a technique I personally enjoyed, but others may find irritating. The wild swings in the fortunes of the protagonists may seem unrealistic and characterizations cliched and shallow, in particular that of Nina, who could be seen as a mere cipher for the submissive kept female, although, like the male protagonists, she does find a way to reinvent herself late in the novel.

The Age of Reinvention is a political novel, but is ultimately focused on the politics of the self rather than that of nations and the war on terror. The demands placed on an individual’s identity, ethnicity, sex and status by the forces of culture and history are Tuil’s chief obsessions here. Although the novel’s overall tone is bleak, in the end Tuil offers a glimmer of hope that the individual can ultimately be the master of their own destiny. The novel resonated with me, despite its flaws, and it provided an appropriate counterpoint to Michel Houellebeque’s controversial novel Submission (2015). I’m certain that The Age of Reinvention will not be the last word on this era’s discontents, but will it be remembered as one of its defining texts? We’ll see...

Sunday 7 August 2016

The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber (2014)

I first became aware of Michel Faber when the movie adaptation of his novel Under the Skin (2000) emerged in 2013, starring the mesmerizing Scarlett Johansson as an alien lure for hapless humans. I saw the film, which was creepy and beautifully shot, and made a mental note to read the novel. Instead I bought The Book of Strange New Things, lured by its fascinating premise and beautiful cover art (yes, I have a total fetish for book covers - don’t you?). Typically however, it took me two years to get around to reading it, but I’m grateful I finally did. It turned out not to be the book I initially envisioned it to be, but in the end that turned out to not be such a bad (or strange) thing.

The Book of Strange New Things
is a curious novel. Initially the novel appears to be set up for an exploration of a weird alien culture that will react to humanity’s presence and religion in unpredictable ways. Set on the alien world of Oasis that has been relatively newly settled by a small population of humans attempting to prepare for eventual colonization in what appears to be the near future (within the next 100 years?). The unhurried narrative centres around Peter Leigh, a Christian pastor who is sent by a faceless corporation called USIC to undertake missionary work, as demanded by the Oasian natives. The aliens are quite taken by Christianity and Peter leaves behind his devoted wife, Bea, to dutifully spread the word of God. The aliens are outre enough, with faces described as looking like two human fetuses side by side, and with no discernible sensory organs to speak of. Their speech (“like fruit being thumbed into two halves”), habits and culture are inscrutable and suitably alien, as is the planet itself, which is mostly featureless except for swirling torrents of rain driven by an atmosphere that drives the humans crazy by delving into every nook and cranny. Faber certainly succeeded in creating a profound alien sense of place, however despite some beautiful descriptions of the alien world and a satisfyingly bizarre alien birth scene, the novel is essentially about humanity itself.

The Book of Strange New Things pays mere lip service to the usual science fiction tropes, instead concerning itself predominantly with relationships. Various plot arcs subtly explore interpersonal relationships, the relationship with the self, and the individuals’ relationship with God. Faber’s exploration of these relationships creates both an investment in the characters story arcs and an appropriately strange compulsion to find out how the novel will unfold. As usual I kept on trying to guess what twists could emerge as the novel progressed, but I was wrong on all counts, but in the end it didn’t matter - the very human heart of the novel was enough. Despite nothing much happening, seemingly most of the time, the novel is absorbing; managing to transcend an often sedate narrative. Undoubtedly this is due to the novel’s great psychological depth, including the aliens themselves, who struggle with the very nature of their existence.

After reading The Book of Strange New Things I happened upon an interview that crystallized just why a novel in which nothing much really happens in terms of drama, action or weird plot twists was ultimately just so absorbing. The novel that Faber initially intended turned out differently because as he began the task of writing his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The novel was profoundly influenced by his relationship with his wife as he cared for her and faced the reality of her passing. At the beginning of the interview he states that he “...wanted this to be saddest thing I’d ever written.” Faber also made clear his intention of retiring from writing, citing the passing of his wife as the demarcation point in his career and life. If it is his last novel then it a worthy farewell, representing a unique take on what it is to be human in what is, essentially, a tragic universe of inevitable loss and irreversible change. If you want a science fiction novel full of the usual tricks then this isn’t the book for you, but if you appreciate the kind of literature that explores profound themes in a subtle manner then you will be well rewarded.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter - Mario Vargas Llosa (1977, English translation 1982)

The imperiously named Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa, 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa, is a Peruvian writer of some renown, with a prolific career both in literature and in politics. Now eighty years of age, his latest novel has recently been published - The Discreet Hero (2013, 2015) as has a collection of essays, aptly named Notes on the Death of Culture (2015). Llosa also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, among many other prizes throughout his career. I’m quite an admirer of South American writing in general, so I was looking forward to reading Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which had been selected by my library book club group. The novel did not disappoint, proving to be a humorous farce that also featured some deft post-modern experimentation with narrative form.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is set in the Peruvian city of Lima in the 1950’s and is based on the author’s early life, in particular his marriage to Julia Urquidi at the age of 19 (Julia was 29). The principle protagonist, just one character among multitudes, is Marito (or Mario, as he is referred to later in the novel), an 18 year old aspiring writer who works as part of a news team at a local radio station. The much older Aunt Julia, a recent divorcee, unwittingly stirs the youthful passions of Marito and soon they are innocently romancing in secret away from the unforgiving gaze of the extended family (or so they think, of course...). The brilliantly eccentric character of Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian renowned for his ability to churn out brilliant scripts for radio serials, is employed by the radio station to improve ratings. This amazing character was actually based on a coworker of Llosa’s when he worked at a radio station, which makes me wonder just how much of Camacho’s unique idiosyncrasies are based on reality, such as asking the radio soap actors to masturbate so their voices are suitably relaxed for romantic scenes.

Like many South American writers Llosa’s style is intense, detailed and highly descriptive; there’s kind of fever-dream quality about it, although it is not as surreal as his former close friend’s writing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Llosa famously gifted Garcia Marquez a black eye in their final encounter). The novel’s style is influenced by post-modernism, experimenting with form and meta fiction, whilst also providing entertaining light comical farce. Not only is Llosa writing about his own relationship, but also what it is like to be an aspirational writer who sees both situations and the people he meets as potential fodder for stories; essentially Llosa is writing about writing. Camacho’s role in the novel is both as an eccentric mentor for Marito and as a writer of increasingly surreal radio serials. The radio serials provide the material for every third or forth chapter, acting a counterpoint to the chapters involving Marito and Julia as they desperately attempt to be together in the face of family resistance. Toward the novel’s end their story becomes as dramatic and surreal as the serials, of which Camacho has lost control, mixing up the characters and events so much so that these chapters become like parodies of avant-garde writing. Despite Llosa’s experimentation the novel is engaging, funny and features a poignant ending. The novel is also crammed full of arcane and unusual words, so much so that I advise having a large dictionary on hand (or, yes, the internet...).

A film adaptation of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, called Tune in Tomorrow, was released in 1990, starring a young Keanu Reeves as Mario and Barbara Hershey as Aunt Julia. The actor who undoubtedly steals the movie is the late and undeniably great Peter Falk, who plays Camacho with a brilliance that does the novel justice. I actually saw it at the time and I have to say that it makes for a great first date movie. It is worth both reading the novel and watching the film, as there is enough difference between the two to make it worthwhile and both are, in their own particular way, funny, farcical and ultimately touching in a manner that causes you to fondly recall your first love, and that is not such a bad thing.

Sunday 19 June 2016

The Dark Forest - Cixin Liu (2008, English translation 2015)

The Dark Forest is Cixin Liu’s sequel to his excellent novel The Three Body Problem (2008) and is part of a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past, although in China they apparently refer to the series by the first book’s title. The Dark Forest finds humanity at the crossroads, with a complex plot that unfolds over four hundred years. Liu imagines a future in which humanity has both achieved enormous scientific progress and yet is also held back by severe constraints. As with the first book, The Dark Forest presents such a unique take on well worn science fiction tropes that its flaws are mere background problems in comparison to the novel’s epic scope.

In my review of The Three Body Problem I went to great pains to not reveal key plot concepts, so that logically means I’m also limited in what I can say about this novel. What I can say however is that the major theme of the novel is revealed, with the help of an ant, in the opening prologue, which establishes a brilliant premise that then unfolds over the course of the novel. Anyone looking for a fast moving narrative had just better read something else (Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat (1961) that’s going back a ways...). The novel frequently moves at a glacial pace, establishing the groundwork for later sudden revelations and events that do not fail to both excite and intrigue. On the whole this narrative structure works well, although it is sometimes hampered by a flat tone that stems possibly from the translator, Joel Martinson. A Chinese writer translated the first novel, which had a more poetic tone, whilst The Dark Forest’s prose can sometimes be stilted. Don’t let this put you off however, regardless of its flaws The Dark Forest is once again an extremely refreshing science fiction narrative, avoiding many of the familiar narrative signposts that feature in British or American novels.

Liu’s portrayal of humanity’s future across four centuries has fun with some treasured science fiction themes (underground cities being one), but he steers clear of outright parody, taking the future seriously enough to please the most demanding of science fiction fans. Liu’s vision of humanity’s slow crawl into space is also satisfying, particularly the manner in which it may be achieved and nature of its functioning.  There are also some surprises, such as the unlikely idea that Osama Bin Laden was a fan of Isaac Asimov’s brilliant Foundation series and therefore could be lured into cooperation by being painted as a Hari Seldon figure (I’m not making this up...). At the core of the novel is the meaning of the dark forest concept, an idea that can perhaps be easily guessed at by seasoned science fiction readers; however Liu’s final reveal at the very endgame of the novel is well worth waiting for.

Liu’s dark forest concept caused me to think long and hard about the nature of the universe, something I haven’t done for a while, and the truth is that I felt a twinge of real fear. As simplistic as it seems it is not such a big leap to apply Darwinism to the wider universe, particularly in light of recent discoveries of just how many habitable planets may be out there. Coincidentally recently whilst I was leafing through a copy of The New Scientist magazine at the library I happened upon an article about one of our planet’s most remarkable life forms, the Tarigrade (Water Bear), a microscopic creature that can survive in outer space for up to 10 days, can survive up to 10000 times more radiation than other lifeforms and can also survive extreme atmospheric pressure up to six times the pressure of Earth’s deepest point. The article highlighted a characteristic of Tarigrades that I didn’t know about before - the ability to enter a desiccated metabolic state by expelling the majority of water from their bodies and then survive undamaged for up to five years. What does this have to do with the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series? Read The Three Body Problem to find out, meanwhile I can’t wait to read the third and final book, Death’s End when it is published in September of this year.

Monday 16 May 2016


Last week a plot based on an idea I had years ago suddenly came to life fully formed in my mind, triggered by a few simple words written on a random Facebook post, of all things. Later that night I decided that it was time to get really serious about fiction writing and so I’m going to reduce my reviews on Excelsior from two books a month to one. This will give me more time to write fiction and will also have the added benefit of encouraging me to read some of the larger books I’ve had laying around for years, such as The Recognitions by William Gaddis (1955) and Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (2004). I will not have the pressure of having to read quickly enough to generate the bi-monthly reviews. 

As good as the regular writing of reviews has been for developing discipline and technique, it’s time to move on to bigger and hopefully better things. I’ve been writing some short stories, but this idea may develop into a novel and the time to start is now, otherwise I’ll still be tapping away whilst groaning under the weight of old age. Meanwhile I’m reading Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest (2008), the sequel to his excellent novel The Three Body Problem (2008). Expect the review shortly, hopefully in June.

Thursday 28 April 2016

The Natural Way of Things - Charlotte Wood (2015)

Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem have only one thing in common: they have both won major awards. Cixin won the 2015 Hugo Award and it has just been announced that Wood has won the relatively new Australian award for female writers, the Stella Prize. From that common point both diverge, with Cixin’s novel standing as a brilliantly fresh take on an old science fiction theme, with quality writing and relatable characters; Wood’s novel is thematically heavy-handed, stylistically flawed and unrelentingly bleak. My dislike of this novel could mean that I’m a lone dissenter, after all the novel has garnered many positive reviews and literally just as I finished reading it the result of Stella Prize was announced; but if so I’m not afraid to be a lone voice in the wilderness because any judgement of a novel’s worth is a mixture of objectivity and subjectivity and I can’t deny the fact that I did not enjoy this novel at all.

The Natural Way of Things explores the particularly important and relevant issue of the misogyny that is an inherent feature of our patriarchal society and its sometimes close relationship with the nastier side of capitalism. The novel opens with two young women, Yolanda and Verla, who are struggling to awake fully from a drugged stupor and make sense of alien surroundings. They soon find that they are being held captive along with a group of other young women in an abandoned outback farm. Their immediate captors are two men, Boncer and Teddy, and a woman, Nancy, who seem to be in the employ of a nefarious corporate entity.The novel’s plot is not presented as a challenging mystery the reader can enjoyably try to solve, rather it is an allegory for the manner in which women can be treated by the patriarchy. Just why the women are being held captive is soon solved once they begin conferring between themselves during the rare times they are not being hounded by a stick wielding Boncer. The novel’s oppressive tone and its serious themes are not unusual in literature and can often be a successful technique to get the reader thinking, however in this case the novel’s effectiveness is hampered by Wood’s gratingly self-conscious writing style. I just could not warm to Wood’s writing and this seriously affected my interest in the plight of the women and what would eventually happen to them.

The Natural Way of Things
is a challenge to read, not because it is a brilliant and complex example of contemporary literary fiction, but because it is completely bereft of subtlety and humour. This compromises what would otherwise be the novel’s strong points, such as the friendship between Yolanda and Verla and the psychological challenges the women face as they attempt to stay alive when things don’t go as planned for the captors. Another problem is that the two male characters are basically caricatures. Boncer is like a walking talking definition of misogyny and no one is surprised that despite his confident way with a stick and propensity to bark orders he is essentially insecure. Teddy is a cliched surfer dude who practices yoga when he’s not being Boncer’s sidekick or smoking dope while complaining about the bouts of nagging his ex- girlfriend put him through. The female characters do develop over the course of the novel, however the allegorical necessity for many of them to still be hapless victims by the end the novel proved to be a serious weakness. When the ending finally arrived I threw the book down onto the vacant seat next to me on the train, hoping that I would forget to take it with me when I disembarked.

I feel almost guilty for disliking The Natural Way of Things so thoroughly, after all Charlotte Wood spent a great deal of time and effort writing it, and believe me, it is a difficult thing to actually write a novel, let alone a good one. There is no doubt that the novel explores worthy themes and I am under no illusions regarding the nature of the patriarchal society we live in, however rather than causing me to think about these issues seriously I just couldn’t get past the novel’s flaws. This was a book club read, so I’m wondering how my fellow members will react to the novel during next week’s meetings. I have a feeling that it could go the way of that other infamous prize winner, The Finkler Question, when 33 of the 35 book club attendees thoroughly disliked the novel. For a long time now I wondered whether I’d ever read another novel as completely dreadful as The Finkler Question. Finally I believe that I have and that means that The Natural Way of Things suffers the ignominy of joining The Finkler Question on this blog as being only the second book to be rated as truly and utterly reprehensible.

Sunday 17 April 2016

The Three Body Problem - Cixin Liu (2008): Translated by Ken Liu (2014)

Cixen Lie has been described as China’s Arthur C. Clarke, which is mighty praise indeed. The Three Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo Award in a year beset by controversy caused by a rogue group called ‘The Sad Puppies’ who claimed that the award was unfairly favouring work that represented minority groups, rather than solely on merit. Ursula Le Guin referred to them as “..insecure white guys”, which pretty much sums that issue up. Pay the ‘Sad Puppies’ no mind because The Three Body Problem is quite brilliant and a worthy winner. Cixin takes a well worn science fiction trope and manages to make it all shiny and new, something that is a difficult undertaking in a genre in which pretty much any and every idea has been given a good thrashing.

Science fiction was severely restricted in China for most of the 1980’s, which makes sense considering just how subversive the genre can be in the hands of the right author. The novel’s very existence indicates that things have obviously significantly changed in China, but even more significant is that the novel begins in 1967 during China’s Cultural Revolution, using that era’s shocking events as an unlikely first step in a plot that continues to unfold in unexpected ways. I began the novel knowing nothing of its contents, which meant that I had the rare pleasure of trying to work out what was going on and then finding out that I was wrong. With this in mind I will reveal very little about the novel’s plot. What I will say however is that The Three Body Problem is a beautifully paced novel; keeping the reader intrigued in the slower sections and then enticing with hints and reveals as the novel progresses. Cixen’s style is economically precise, not wasting a word or scene as it flows ever onward. Ken Liu, a science fiction author in his own right, is a skilled translator, even providing footnotes to explain certain important cultural points.

Although plot building and scientific concepts are certainly Cixin’s strong points, the novel’s principle protagonists, Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, are complex enough to make them both interesting and relatable characters. Ye Wenjie’s extreme experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution the 1960s are shocking and the resultant damage to her teenage psyche is central to the novel. Wang Miao, a nano materials scientist living during our time period, is drawn into an investigation of strange and unexplained happenings within the science community. Reluctantly Wang becomes involved in the bizarre world of a virtual online game that challenges participants to solve the difficult ‘three body problem’. Wang’s experiences in the three body game, his dealings with a secret society of scientists called 'The Frontiers of Science' and the mysteries surrounding both result in a sinister undertone that only becomes more prevalent as the plot develops. The science concepts presented during the course of the novel are realistic, but Cixin plays with them in a way that inspires both awe and fascination, particularly during the novel’s endgame. The result is a seriously addictive novel that I found difficult to put down, which is a rarity for me these days.

A film adaptation of The Three Body Problem will soon be released in China and if they get it right it will be an exceptional film. Hopefully it will become available in the West. Half way through reading the novel I discovered that it is only the first part of a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past. The second book, which has just been published in English, is called The Dark Forest (2015). The third, Death’s End (2016), is fortunately due out later this year. Initially I was disappointed that the story would be spread out over three novels simply because narrative greed was getting the better of me, however after reading the novel’s send half I was pleased that there would be more to follow. I feel sorry for those ‘Sad Puppies’ (actually, I don’t really) because if science fiction of this quality is emerging from China then Western dominance of the genre and its most coveted awards may well be on the wane.

Wednesday 30 March 2016

The Secret Chord - Geraldine Brooks (2015)

Saul and David: Rembrandt - 1650

Geraldine Brooks is a former Australian journalist who turned her hand at writing historical fiction with great success, winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize for her novel March in 2005. Brooks was inspired to write the story of King David by her son, who took up the harp and subsequently played Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song Hallelujah at his Bar Mitzvah. Set in 1000 BCE Israel, The Secret Chord fictionalizes the Old Testament life of King David, of whom Brooks refers to as the first historical character in literature whose whole life’s story has been recorded for prosperity. Although there is very little evidence, aside from the Old Testament scriptures, for King David’s existence, Brooks portrays him in a very realistic light, exploring both the negative and positive aspects of his life and reign as king of the Jewish people.

Brook’s portrayal of early Iron Age ancient Israel is brought to life by evocative descriptions of the landscape and the people. Brooks actually went to Jerusalem and herded sheep for a day to get a sense of the landscape David would have experienced three thousand years ago. Brooks tells the story of King David through the eyes of David’s prophet Natan (Nathan), whom is directed by David to write his biography (Nathan’s Book of David, mentioned in Chronicles but never found). This device allows Brooks to shift back and forth in time to tell the story of David’s beginnings, his rise to be king and his troublesome final years. David was a skilled warrior and tactician who reunited the Jewish tribes, but he was also a ruthless leader and a sensualist; a trait that would ultimately lead to tragedy for his family. David’s rise to power is compelling, however during the latter third of the novel, with David ensconced on the throne, Natan’s narration begins to lose some of its lustre. After David’s initial encounter with supposed seductress Bathsheba and the successful plot to kill of her husband, the brave and respected Uriah, Natan withdraws from David’s side. Thereafter the narrative feels slightly removed from the very dramatic events that follow, resulting in a flattening of tone with little suspense or emotional engagement to propel the narrative forward.

Despite a nagging sense that The Secret Chord is just a replay on the Bible story with little relevance to the secular world, an argument can be made that Brooks has written a Feminist take on King David’s story. A significant portion of the narrative gives voice to many of David’s wives, giving some insight into the lives of the women who both suffered and served during his reign. Most significant is Bathsheba’s take on her infamous tryst with David; that she did not in fact set out to be a seductress, but was actually attempting to find some privacy from prying male eyes in her own household when the troubled King David spied her across the darkened rooftops. From her perspective she was raped and placed into a cruel and untenable position by King David; subsequently suffering the ignominy of victim blaming, an issue that certainly has strong modern relevance.

Perhaps due to my secular upbringing I was fairly ignorant of Kind David’s story, therefore I found The Secret Chord to be a fascinating read. The novel has also compelled me to find out more about Biblical history from that period. I’d love to talk to a Jewish person who has read The Secret Chord to better judge what kind of an impact Brooks’ portrayal of King David has had for those who are closer to the source of his story. Would David’s overt bisexuality be a problem, or Brooks’ Feminist perspectives, or the rampant violence that led to David’s ascension to the throne? One thing this novel did remind me of is that history has indeed been mostly written by the victors, by the patriarchy and also by those who spilled the most blood. It also reminded me, somewhat sadly, that nothing much has changed in three thousand years in terms of damaging belief systems and the worst of human nature.

Monday 14 March 2016

The Female Eunuch - Germaine Greer (1970)

Germaine Greer has been synonymous with both feminism and controversy since she burst onto the cultural scene in 1970 with the publication of The Female Eunuch, a book that has not been out of print since. I must admit that I have had a rather dubious opinion of Greer in the past that was based on some of her more flippant comments (well, they seemed flippant to me, but look who’s talking...); in particular her comments about the first female Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, criticizing the size of her bottom and her choice in clothes. When I saw an American first edition of The Female Eunuch in hardback from 1971 at the Bill Campbell book shop in Fremantle (a few years ago now) I thought that it was about time I gave Greer the benefit of the doubt.

The Female Eunuch is organised into five sections: Body, Soul, Love, Hate and Revolution. After the introduction, in which Greer refers to the first wave of feminism; the suffragettes and how they relate to the then second wave of feminism, Greer gets straight into what it physically means to be a woman. Genetically the female form is expressed by the XX chromosomes and the male by an XY combination. Greer points out that the Y chromosome’s only function is to block the second X, a fact I already knew but in this context the thought sprung to mind that men are merely half a woman! I’m sure that Greer did not intend such a reaction (or did she?), but it was effective non-the-less. Throughout this section’s chapters: Gender, Bones, Curves, Hair, Sex and The Wicked Womb, Greer discusses just what it is to be a woman and how both female and male perceptions skew cultural attitudes towards the female form. In The Wicked Womb chapter Greer infamously notes that “If you think that you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your menstrual blood-if it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go baby.” As flippant as this may seem Greer’s point is that due to cultural repression women themselves had (have?, unlikely now...) precious little idea of the functions of their own female form. Whether this was true or not is open to conjecture, however perhaps just how much things have changed was hinted at when I was reading through the reader reviews for this book on Goodreads and one particular female reviewer took severe umbrage to the notion that “she had a long way to go” because she hadn’t tasted her own menstrual blood. Curiously most of the favourable reviews on this website were written by men, perhaps reflecting just how loaded the notion of Feminism is these days for women. Here in Australia much has been made about whether federal female politicians identify themselves as Feminist or not, with some in the ruling Liberal Party choosing not to, such as foreign minister Julie Bishop.

Far from being a spiteful diatribe against men, The Female Eunuch is a well written and mostly astute examination of just how patriarchal society over the course of history has psychologically molded women (and men, for that matter) into powerless role playing actors that serve only to further entrench the status-quo. Across the Soul and Love sections Greer examines how women are psychologically molded by childhood, their adult relationships and the weight of gender expectation. Such role playing continues in their work life, often resulting in dysfunction and bitterness. Although Greer’s arguments are persuasive, she does slip into some spurious speculative anthropology at times. In the Hate section Greer strongly suggests that women just don’t realize how much men hate them and that, significantly, men feel disgusted after sex. Greer cites a discussion with one man “...who...assumed that all men felt disgusted by sex afterwards.” She goes on to say that “It is too easy to decide that this is a unique case of a special kind of fastidiousness. It has grown out of the felt loss of human dignity which is the product of boredom and restriction.”  It seems that in 1970 Greer found it all too easy to generalize based on one man’s inhibitions and disgust. Surely there were studies that Greer could have drawn from, such as Alfred Kinsey’s from the 1950’s.

Flaws aside The Female Eunuch is, even now, powerful reading. I’m not surprised the book made such an impact at the time of publication. Greer’s writing is bold and assured, although now slightly dated by an occasional anachronistic turn of phrase. The final two sections, Hate and Revolution, pack the most punch. Greer examines the misery that women are put through by the dominant patriarchal capitalist society, but also, equally significantly, what women put themselves through. The chapters, Abuse, Misery and Resentment reveal, even after nearly five decades, all too familiar tribulations for women facing the demands of married life, work and the pressures of life under the yoke of capitalism. In Revolution Greer advises that the answer does not lie in equality if that means becoming like men, because, she observes, men are not free themselves. This is a key point and one that both men and women should be taking very seriously.  Greer advises women against marriage (good advice I say...) to free themselves of the burden of the nuclear family that merely serves to reinforce gender role-playing. Women should be, instead, self determined, rather than passively hoping for change via the establishment; they should attempt to create and experiment with new ways of relating to men and raising children.

Significantly Greer warns women against the manipulations of capitalism, something that is wholly prescient considering the levels of marketing modern women are exposed to and the damaging effect it has on their well-being. I was particularly taken by the concluding pages of the Revolution section in which she notes: “We have but one life to live, and the first object is to find a way of salvaging that life from the disabilities already inflicted on it in the service of our civilization.” Although The Female Eunuch was published some forty six years ago and Western civilization has altered enormously, much of what Greer has to say is still important. Just what Feminism means to the average modern woman seems to be, as ever, in flux, so no doubt The Female Eunuch will get plenty of attention when its fiftieth anniversary comes around in 2020.

Saturday 27 February 2016

Moominmamma’s Maid - Tove Jansson (Original comic strips 1956; 2015)

I first became aware of Tove Jansson and her Moomins about seven years ago when a new colleague at the library revealed her Moomin tattoo. It was very striking and enticingly unfamiliar. She filled me in on both the Moomins and Tove Jansson, enthusing greatly about their weird charms, but unfortunately and somewhat typically it has taken me this long to actually read one of the Moomin books. I’m a notorious late starter, but really I had little chance of being exposed to such strange children’s literature growing up in the West Australian countryside in the 1970’s, particularly to an author from Finland, which seems exotic to me even now.

The Moomins are fabulous creatures that look like sophisticated hippos, with big rounded snouts and bellies and of course they are all totally kooky. During the course of Moominmamma’s Maid they reveal to their new neighbor, a certain Mrs Fillyjonk, that they are “...very fond of make-believe...” and that they have a tree growing inside their house because they simply can’t bear to fell it. The Moomins love to throw wild parties in which everything is happening all at once, including fireworks; they have a jungle for a back yard and also wash their dishes in the sea. Into this playful chaos comes the newly hired maid Misabel, accompanied by her unhappy dog - Pimple, whom harbours a shameful secret. Misabel is scared of everything and is also terribly neurotic. A great deal of humour is generated by the clash between Misabel’s fear of life and the Moomins happy-go-lucky nature. Of course there lies the message for both children and adults alike - be yourself, face your fears and have some fun while you are at it.

It is somewhat of a cliche for children’s books to carry an underlying serious message, however Jansson’s idiosyncratic artwork and odd way of telling a story carries the message home in a uniquely natural style. The artwork is beautiful and the general tone is one of gentle eccentricity. The Moomins world is fun-filled and appealing, but also has psychological and allegorical depth. This is a hard trick to pull off and I’m sure that it would have won me over as a child; I recall that I was always suspicious of any books or TV shows that had a message, I would roll my childish eyes and display my immature version of cynicism (I started early and grew out of it by my mid twenties). I’m sure that cynicism does not even feature in the Moomins vocabulary, nor Jansson’s for that matter. 

Moominmamma’s Maid is taken from Moomin comic book series that were originally published in the Evening News in the mid 1950s. No doubt the coulourful adventures of the Moonins would have been just the thing for a weary post war Britain. For myself it provided some Nordic whimsical relief from Franco satire and a weird counterpoint to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), a book I only just finished yesterday.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

Submission - Michel Houellebecq (2015)

French writer Michel Houellebecq is a true enfant terrible, offending with each novel and his frequent inflammatory comments. Although his work has been praised widely it has also attracted its share of negative criticism, with accusations of sexism, racism and just about every other kind of ism you can think of (including jism? - undoubtedly....) In 2002 he stirred up trouble by referring to Islam as “the dumbest religion” and was subsequently tried and then acquitted of inciting racial hatred, with Houellebecq successfully arguing that he was critiquing the religion and not Muslims themselves. Aside from all the controversy Houellebecq is a clever and accomplished writer; the other book of his I’ve read, Atomized (1998), was an excellent, if bleak, existential satire on the fragmentation of the family unit. Submission finds Houellebecq tackling the question of Islam once more, but unexpectedly the novel is a spot on critique of Western culture, rather than Islam.

Submission is set in the year 2022, in which a moderate French Muslim political party becomes the logical middle path between opposing parties and takes power. Looking on is dissolute middle aged academic Francois, an expert on French writer Charles Marie Georges Huysmans, famous for his 1844 novel A Rebours (Against Nature), which defined the then burgeoning decadent literary movement (Huysmans importance here is significant, unfortunately requiring a long essay in itself, something I’m far to dissolute to even bother about...). It is very clear from the outset that Francois personifies the soulless secular Western world weakened by rampant capitalism and superficiality that Houellebecq is satirizing. Francois describes himself as being “ political as a bath towel” and although he ironically states that election night TV is his second favourite show, it doesn’t stop him from changing the channel to watch a reality TV show about obesity. Francois’ life oozes both pathos and bathos as he contemplates middle-age turning into an old age plagued by illness, regret and loneliness.

Submission, although it explores important themes, is not particularly realistic;  rather Houellebecq uses its deceptively simple, almost cartoonish premise, as a means to both satirize superficial Western culture and perhaps more pertinently, to reveal a deeper historical truth. When Francois leaves Paris as the elections are being decided he travels to Rocamadour, a medieval town in the south of France, to see the statue of the Black Virgin, one of France’s most important Christian artifacts. Francois reflects that French kings and medieval warriors knelt to pray before the Black Virgin before defending Christian France, and consequently Europe itself, against the invading Muslim forces from Spain. Before he visits the Black Virgin Francois takes some time to look out over the valleys and hills around the town, reflecting that this region was where Cro-Magnon humans displaced Neanderthals into Spain, where they would eventually become extinct. The simple truth Houellebecq hints at here is that ultimately existence is a struggle for survival and consequently peoples, nations and cultures can easily and perhaps inevitably be usurped and swept away by those that are more united and adaptable. France is no longer united behind Christianity and is instead a culture in the thrall of the gaudy pleasures and pain of capitalism and, by extension, secularism.

Submission certainly has its flaws; it’s uneven, with sections that are ultimately boring, in particular those dealing with French politics. The novel is written in Houellebecq’s typically flat style that engenders a palpable sense of bleakness within the reader. The novel also features his usual explicit sex scenes, in this case used as a means to illustrate Francois general middle-aged ennui. Submission is also perhaps too simplistic, with no significant female characters and a French society that totally capitulates to a radical change of circumstances. Despite this Submission succeeds because it defies readers’ preconceptions and instead stands as an intriguing and mostly entertaining thought experiment that explores the uncomfortable notion that France is ripe for the picking, and potentially the rest of the Western world.

Wednesday 27 January 2016

The Torch - Peter Twohig (2015)

Peter Twohig’s book The Cartographer (2012) hit the right note with book buyers and became a run-away popular fiction success. Set in the year 1959 in Richmond, a working class suburb of Melbourne, it featured an eleven year old boy who took shelter in the drains and lanes of the city to escape the man responsible for a murder he accidentally witnessed. The Torch begins shortly after the end of The Cartographer and the child protagonist is one year older and is, you guessed it, up to shenanigans in the drains and lanes of Richmond, this time seeking the kid known as Flame Boy before he, gasp, strikes again.

The Torch begins well enough, with the un-named protagonist (he refers to himself variously as The Spirit of Progress, The Railwayman, The Ferret and is called the Blayney Kid by most of the adults) having to move with his mother to his grandfather’s house due to their home having been burnt down by, you guessed it, Flame Boy. Unfortunately it’s not long before the flaws of this novel become all too apparent. There are a multitude of characters, literally hundreds; most are incidental and many are caricatures of what is supposed to be your typical Australian of 1960. As the book progresses there just seems to be no end to them, causing the principal characters to get lost in the general commotion. The Blayney Kid’s narration is chock full of Australian colloquialisms that are initially endearing, but soon become so irritating that the inward groaning starts to become audible. The attempt at giving the Blayney Kid some psychological depth with his angst over his twin brother’s death and his nascent romantic adventures fall flat. All the fires, car crashes and marauding criminals could have had more impact if the narrative had more tension, instead the same tone persists throughout. The rather flimsy plot, of which I do not wish to go into because, frankly, it’s just not worth it, is stretched out like an old rubbery elastic-band across the novel’s 457 pages. In the end, despite some faint hope, nothing truly significant is revealed and you look at your watch and think, my god I’m still alive (I’ll be putting in these blatant Bowie references for some time to come).

The Torch was selected by my library book club members, perhaps due to the success of The Cartographer, but at the meetings many were underwhelmed and disappointed and seemed to be enjoying their coffees much more than the book they had to trawl through. Perhaps if this shaggy dog tale had been more rigorously edited and had lost about half of its length it could’ve been a contender. The Torch came close to becoming only the second book on this blog to be rated as ‘reprehensible’, but it was saved by the fact that The Finkler Question was just so awful that other books have to try really hard to be its equal.

Monday 18 January 2016

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things - Lafcadio Hearn (1903)

A copy of this intriguing book was given to me as a secret santa present about four years ago (by my oldest brother I strongly suspect). It had been on my mind for a while so I decided to finally read it. I’m glad I did because this charmingly idiosyncratic book was a source of great fascination and entertainment. Written by Greek born Lafcadio Hearn during the last years of his life living in Japan, Kwaidan is a collection of Japanese supernatural folk tales, many of which are centuries old. Hearn traveled to Japan in 1890 to work as a newspaper correspondent but soon abandoned journalism for teaching, which eventually led to teaching english literature at the Tokyo Imperial University. Along the way he married and became a naturalized Japanese citizen. Unfortunately he died at the relatively young age of 53 from a heart attack. I wonder if he haunted anyone?

The collection opens with one of its best stories, The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi. This story was somehow familiar to me, although that didn’t stop it from being creepy. Set seven hundred years in Japan’s past it recalls the tale of a blind monk called Hoichi, whom was proficient with the biwa instrument, and his encounter with the ghosts of the Heike clan who had perished in a famous battle. Hoiche is tricked into playing the biwa for the ghosts deep in the forest at night and has to be saved by his masters who come up with a workable but flawed plan. Like many of the stories in the collection the narrative style is sparse yet evocative; the scenes described come to life with an unnerving clarity. Many of the stories are no more than a few pages long, such as Diplomacy. Diplomacy is a simple tale of a Samuri who cleverly tricks the man he is about to execute so he will not return as a ghost to take his revenge. Reading stories like these made me realize just how steeped Japanese culture is in ghost stories and other bizarre supernatural phenomena. It is no wonder they make such disturbing horror movies such as Ringu (1998). In fact four of these stories were made into a critically acclaimed film called Kwaidan in 1964.

Perhaps the best story here is Rokuro-Kubi. A Samuri named Isogai Heidazaemon travels through an isolated mountainous area. Deciding to settle down to sleep for the night a woodcutter happens upon him and warns him that he’s in a dangerous area and offers him shelter for the night. Little does the Samuri know that he’s being tricked and the woodcutter is a Rokuro-Kubi, a being whose head detaches from its body to rampage through the night. The Rokuro-Kubi heads plan to eat him while he sleeps, but Isogai has other ideas. This story is disturbing but at the same time reminded me of the giant slapstick heads in the classic Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away (2001). No doubt there are many references to centuries old supernatural tales in many of the brilliant Studio Ghibli films.

It’s a pity that this collection did not end with Horai, a story about a place where the atmosphere is made up of ghosts and the people never grow old (where did the ghosts come from then?). Instead Hearn ends by including some of his own studies of butterflies, mosquitoes and ants and their cultural significance in Japan. These pieces are moderately interesting but after the ghostly atmospheres of the preceding stories my interest began to wane and the book ended on a low note. Despite this flaw Kwaidan’s supernatural charms were enough to make this collection memorable and it has reignited my interest in Japanese literature. Many years ago my brother lent me a number of books by Japanese authors, many of which I enjoyed immensely. Lately I’ve bought a few books by Yukio Mishema, which coincidentally was one of David Bowie’s favourite authors. I’ll have to read them sooner rather than later, along with Murakami’s last novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013). Maybe on a long flight to Japan? Who knows....

Monday 11 January 2016

The Death of David Bowie

It’s strange, even though in the last couple of days I was thinking about Bowie’s mortality, I never thought that it would happen, as absurd as that sounds. I was thinking, “Well I hope he lives at least another decade, just think what else he could do.” He’s always been there for me, an inspiration, a connection with the strange and the brilliant; he shone like no other and most of all he was my friend. Bowie really was the all round entertainer - he had something for everyone and for every mood and every situation. In times of trouble you could whack that certain Bowie album on and it would help get you through. As someone once said, he was bullshit and totally genuine at the same time; he had artifice but he also had a deep soul and could articulate something universal that we could all connect with.

I loved everything about Bowie, his music, of course, but also his intellect, his artistry, his poise and grace; his darkness and his melodrama and pretense. He had it all and even his artistic failures were fascinating. He went out on the edge and sometimes he would fail, but that was ok, he could always charm his way out. It’s hard to fathom that I’ll never see another up to date picture of Bowie, to be able to wonder what he is up to and what amazing moves he could pull next. He really was a genius and I’ll love him forever. Thanks David, thanks for all the times I listened to one of your records and was transformed, thanks for all the gigs and for just being you. You gave it your all. Goodbye.