I have been reading a lot of Patricia Highsmith recently, notably her novel This Sweet Sickness. I carried the book with me on a recent journey to France, one that took several hours in both directions and involved much hanging around in airports and train stations. It did what I hoped it would do, and that was distract me from the endless noise and discomforts of travel delays.
This Sweet Sickness (1960) is about a clever, educated and not unattractive man called David Kelsey. Kelsey has become obsessed with a young woman, Annabelle, whom he hopes and intends to marry. He has constructed a secret alternative identity, which he adopts every weekend. Under a false name, William Neumeister, he goes to stay in a house in the countryside close to where Annabelle lives. Here he lives out a fantasy in which he imagines himself greeting his paramour, showing her proudly around the house, preparing lavish meals for two, opening bottles of fine wines, and so on. Between all this he writes letters to Annabelle, pleading with her to give up her present life and move to be with him (but she has married someone else, and has had a child). Sometimes he telephones her and sometimes he goes to hang around the place where she lives. From time to time Annabelle relents and agrees to meet him, but only to emphasize forcefully that he must back off and leave her alone. Kelsey always wrongly interprets these contacts with her, wilfully blinding himself to reality. Kelsey is, in short, a stalker. A death takes place, partly caused by Kelsey’s actions, and to try to divert police attention from his own role in the incident, Kelsey poses as Neumeister and approaches the police with a false story about an accident. ‘Neumeister’ having diverted suspicion from Kelsey then contrives to disappear into the web of lies that has sustained Kelsey’s fantasy life. For most of the book Kelsey manages to keep Neumeister at a distance from himself, but later there is another semi-deliberate killing.
It’s an interesting study of the psychology of a stalker, but also a fascinating illustration of the way apparently harmless lies create an inescapable trap, as only new and more complex lies must be devised to evade justice. Kelsey moves slowly to an inevitable (but not entirely predictable) fate.
Highsmith’s novels intriguingly often feature non-murders, or semi-murders, almost as if the author shrinks away from the brutal act.
Her third novel, The Blunderer (1954), is typical. Walter Stackhouse is plotting in a blundering sort of way to kill his unstable wife Clara, when she happens to die anyway. Because Walter was closely shadowing her movements at the time, the police treat her death as murder and start to investigate. Meanwhile, Walter becomes obsessed with a similar unsolved crime, in which a bookseller appears to have murdered his own wife. The two men meet. The cop investigating them both is a dangerous psychotic.
The Cry of the Owl (1963) is about another stalker, or more accurately a Peeping Tom. Robert Forrester is spying on Jenny, fantasizing about her life in the house where she lives. Jenny spots him one night as he lurks in her darkened garden, and unexpectedly befriends him. A weird relationship develops, but her fiancé Greg is unsurprisingly not too pleased. Robert and Greg fight violently, and Robert comes off the better. Greg’s body then disappears, leaving Robert in the familiar Highsmithian dilemma of not knowing for sure if he is a murderer or not.
A Suspension of Mercy (1965) is one of my favourites, with a plot not dissimilar to The Blunderer: Bartleby, an American writer living unhappily in Britain with his young wife Alicia, plans to kill her. While Alicia is away visiting a friend, he rehearses how he would actually perform the deadly act, and this includes acting out the murder, then going through the motions of moving her body away from the house and concealing it. Unfortunately, Bartleby’s rehearsal is witnessed by an elderly neighbour (or is it?), and he is incriminated. When Alicia does not return from her visit, and appears to have gone missing, the police start investigating.
In Those Who Walk Away (1967), a man called Coleman blames his son-in-law Ray for the recent and premature death of his daughter, even though Ray too is of course mourning his loss. Coleman attacks Ray while they are in Rome and leaves him for dead. Ray however recovers and escapes to Venice. Coleman follows him, not certain if Ray actually died or not. Ray seizes an opportunity for revenge and Coleman is apparently killed, but again there is no certain evidence of Coleman’s death. The two men stalk each other through the wintry alleys and along the dark canalsides of Venice, both descending into a web of concealment, deception and sudden violence.
These books are classic page-turners and any of them would make a great film, as some of her books already have. My first awareness of Highsmith’s work was in the early 1960s, when Alfred Hitchcock’s film of Strangers on a Train was briefly re-released into cinemas as ‘classic Hitchcock’. (His film Psycho had been a major success in 1960.) This was a time when I was starting to take note of writers who wrote films, or whose work was adapted. I had never heard of Highsmith – Strangers was her first novel, published in 1950 – and I began looking with interest for her books. In spite of Hitchcock’s film she was not then a well-known or widely distributed writer, and the only book of hers I could find was a paperback tie-in of the film.
Over the following years Highsmith built her reputation steadily through her novels. Most of her books were initially published in hard covers, although in Britain at least the editions were usually cheap-looking, aimed at library buyers. An early adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley was made in 1960 in France as Plein Soleil (or Purple Noon), directed by René Clément and starring Alain Delon. Other films have followed, including The Cry of the Owl in 1987, a remake of Mr Ripley in 1999, directed by Anthony Minghella and starring Matt Damon, The Two Faces of January in 2014, and Carol in 2015. Highsmith’s books are now much easier to find, both new and second-hand.
Gradually, her work is coming to identify in a loose sense with America in the early 1950s, although through nearly all of her working life she was living in Europe. In Highsmith’s novels most of the characters have regular jobs, they drive cars, buy houses. In those pre-internet days they make phone-calls and write each other letters. They become engaged and sometimes marry, and they do not, usually, have pre-marital sex. They drink a lot but rarely do drugs. Other than Tom Ripley her characters are not career criminals, but are ordinary people with slightly dysfunctional lives, who drift into murder on an impulse, or by mistake, or as a consequence of an earlier, lesser crime.
There’s a good biography called Beautiful Shadow by Andrew Wilson (2003), and she wrote an excellent book about thrillers called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966).
A Muslim is ‘one who submits’ – Michel Houellebecq’s new novel is called Submission, and it describes the Islamization of France in the near future. A self-aware novelist, Houellebecq makes clear his particular, peculiar understanding of Islam. The title in French is Soumission, and the straightforward translation to the English equivalent is obvious, but ‘soumission’ has a secondary meaning in English, and probably in French too: submissiveness. There’s a fine difference. Authors often pick titles which use secondary meanings to suggest another way of interpreting the novel, a deeper level of intent.
On page 217 Houellebecq describes what he thinks the real meaning of Islam might be. The narrator of the novel is François, a middle-aged university lecturer, who is having the new French world explained to him. Houellebecq puts the words into the mouth of one Robert Rediger, a charismatic French academic who has reacted opportunistically to the democratic rise to power of an Islamic régime in France. Rediger has joined the new government and converted with alacrity to Islam. With several young female students, he has quickly caught on to the attractions of polygamy. He and his multiple wives now live in a sumptuous house in rue des Arènes, in the 5th arrondisement of Paris, the same house, apparently, where Anne Declos wrote the novel of female sexual submissiveness, Story of O. Through Rediger, Houllebecq makes a link so crass that it is momentarily stunning. Rediger explains to François:
‘… there’s a connection between woman’s submission to man, as it’s described in Story of O, and the Islamic idea of man’s submission to God.’
Houllebecq is notorious for causing offence and presumably saw this political satire as an affront to the French bourgeoisie – it seems more likely that the elders of Islam are going to be upset by a comparison of their faith with Anne Declos’s graphically described novel of male sexual dominance.
Houellebecq is confusing the trappings of Islamic culture with the tenets of Islamic faith, a fundamental error made by many Islamophobes in the West, but the consequences of that are his problem. I’m more concerned with his novel.
There are superficial similarities with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, few of them flattering. Rediger, for instance, fulfils roughly the same sort of role here as O’Brien in Orwell’s novel: he is the party insider, who explains and defines the new and authoritarian régime to François, the book’s narrator. His function is first to explain to François where he has gone wrong, then to offer him salvation. Rediger’s passages of explanation are maddeningly dull – they seem to be based on political party handouts, or newspaper articles, or debates on TV current affairs shows.
Rediger has no literary function beyond exposition, which is why the apparent similarity to Orwell is a trite one: O’Brien was a false-flag operative, luring Winston Smith into a feeling of trust before betraying him, a crucial and memorable sequence which Orwell used as an illustration of the ruthlessness of the Big Brother régime. Houllebecq lacks that kind of subtlety, or any sense of drama. Rediger finishes his explanation and François now is ready to convert to Islam, presumably much taken with the idea of a new beard and some polygamy with his young students. In his own way he too is now loving Big Brother.
Houellebecq has hardly any story to tell: a presidential election in France in 2022 leads first to an inconclusive result, then after the run-off a Muslim politician called Ben Abbes, leader of the so-called Muslim Brotherhood (but not the same one as in Egypt), forms a government. Almost overnight the constitutionally secular French Republic is transformed into an Islamic nation, rather along the model of Saudi Arabia. All women wear veils in public, alcohol is banned, universities are closed, beards are grown, Shariah is introduced.
François has a job at a university, but loses his job at the university. For a while the novel feels like a watered-wine version of The Day of the Triffids – the old order is breaking down and survival is imperative! Riots on the streets of Paris! Shortages in shops! Time to get away from civilization! François jumps into his car and drives out of Paris in his powerful VW Touareg – ‘a turbo-diesel V8 and 4.2 common rail direct fuel injection, it could go 240 kilometres per hour’. He thus speeds down ‘strangely empty’ motorways while everything in the country seems to be ‘broken’. He finds a hotel in Martel (TV not working, no food), then a more congenial one in the Christian shrine village of Rocamadour. He settles down comfortably and spends a lot of time sitting in a church (this is where we and Houellebecq part company from Triffids). After a return to Paris, where the riots appear to be over, or more likely forgotten, he leaps on a TGV (SNCF still working OK) and escapes to become an oblate at a monastery, returns to Paris, listens to Rediger explaining and explaining …
A secondary theme in the novel is François’s interest in the 19th century novelist J.-K. Huysmans, who was the subject of his dissertation years before. Huysmans worked as a civil servant for many years, and was noted for his pessimism and interest in the decadent movement. He became a religious convert after he spent time as an oblate in a monastery. This is the same monastery at Ligugé that François flees to. What sort of point is Houellebecq making here? Are we being invited to see a parallel between François and Huysmans? So it would seem, but Houellebecq’s infilling about him is sketchy to say the least. The thinness of the connection looks perilously like a bit of sophistry, a factitious attempt to give some kind of literary extra meaning to his otherwise uninteresting story.
Speculation about the near future seems these days to be increasingly attractive to writers who would otherwise disdain the idea of writing what they appear to presume is trashy genre science fiction. Houellebecq is just the latest and by no means the worst … but he’s close to the worst. The point is that the literary requirements of all fiction remain necessary when writing speculative or fantastic fiction.
In the first place, a metaphorical level is required: the basic theme of the novel (in this case the Islamization of France) needs poetic irony and resonance: a sense of place, or dread, or rationalism, or humour, or distance, or invention. If you write as Houellebecq has written here – spouting the knee-jerk fears of the tabloid press, or the homilies of ambitious politicians, or the sonorities of newspaper leader writers – then you end up at best with a sort of manifesto. But if you fall below that best, as Houellebecq does in Submission, you do little more than rehash clichés and generalizations and ignorant assumptions and political gobbledegook. Islamophobia is already familiar to us, the daily stuff of headlines, politics and journalism. And in a novel even metaphorical content is not enough on its own: a novel of course requires characters, a mood, a sense of place, a love of language, a story, a plot, a reason for the book to exist that is greater and more lasting than the passing fears of the moment. Houllebecq delivers none of these novelistic qualities, but at least his book is short and soon over. The translation, by Lorin Stein, is well done.
Submission by Michel Houellebecq – William Heinemann, 250 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1-78-515024-1
Patrick Ness’s extraordinary fundraising endeavour for the migrants (Save the Children) has passed the half-million pounds mark. It is genuinely mind-boggling. Rejoice, and join in the excitement here.
But although those Syrian families and lost children are justifiably grabbing the headlines, don’t forget that the crisis on the British doorstep, a short distance away in Calais, has not gone away. Mary Jones’s initiative is to build up the little library that has been created in the migrants’ encampment. This is about somewhere to find shelter, somewhere to read a book, somewhere for the kids to play and learn, somewhere to learn a new language, somewhere to keep warm as winter approaches. Please see my earlier post here.
Mary Jones wants to raise a modest £10,000 — she has recently passed £3,000, with just over two weeks to go. Her project is flexibly funded, so every donation will reach her, even if the main target is not reached. This is a link direct to Mary’s fundraising page.
Predicting the future – events, developments, discoveries – is not the main aim of writing speculative fiction. All fiction is made up, so when you make up a story set a few years into the future you inevitably throw in a few guesses about such things. Most of them, nearly all of them in fact, turn out to be wrong. But every now and then, by accident, by following a hunch, by a stroke of luck, we get things right.
By exactly that sort of good or bad luck, I now witness an upheaval of historical proportions taking place across Europe. Some forty-five years ago my second novel, Fugue for a Darkening Island, dealt metaphorically (as I saw it) with such an upheaval. Things were bad in the novel – I believe them to be just as horrific in reality. More so, in fact. I make no claim for the novel, but the Gollancz paperback edition of 2011 has a new Introduction that attempts to set the context.
On a matter of much less importance:
The Met Office in the UK has decided that from this winter all storms arriving in Britain and Ireland will be given names, in the same way as cyclones in the Pacific and hurricanes in the Atlantic are named. They are soliciting suggestions from the public for a naming system in alphabetical order. I modestly suggest that the search could be a short one as I have already created a unique naming system. I think the weather people should adopt it straight away.
In my novel The Adjacent (which came out in 2013) I described a series of violent weather systems, partly a result of climate change, called temperate storms. The book is set some time after the season has begun, so the earliest named in the book is TS Danielle Darrieux. Mme. Darrieux is followed by Edward Elgar, Federico Fellini and Graham Greene. Soon to come would be TS Hermann Hesse, but the story moved on and Herr Hesse was not required. Before the book begins, northern Europe has already been ravaged by the (undescribed and unmentioned) TS Alan Alda, Brigitte Bardot and Charlie Chaplin.
The difficulty of finding a storm with the initials I. I. was something I shrank from, but considered that eight storms were probably enough for one winter in Europe, and certainly more than enough for the purposes of my novel.
Something I discovered while researching this subject was that the naming of storms was started by the American author George R. Stewart, in his novel Storm (1941).
There is a library in the jungle. It is a small building which has become a focal point of calm and order in the chaos of the waste ground near Calais where thousands of people are being forced to camp out. It has books, art materials, facilities for teaching children and also for them to play. As winter approaches there are plans to put in extra lighting and heating.
Mary Jones, a British resident in Calais, has worked with the migrants to build and equip this symbol of the quiet values. In the worsening human crisis, which the authorities seem incapable of coping with, the ramshackle, temporary building is a practical refuge but also an expression of hope for the future.
Mary Jones is seeking crowdfunding of £10,000 by 24th September. This is by most standards a modest amount, but it would enable her to buy generators, cooking kits, groundsheets, etc. She also wants to get hold of four or five laptops for the school, and for people anxious to make contact with their families through Skype. Within the first few days she has raised just under £1,000.
More details here. Do it now?
From the plays of William Shakespeare, through the novels of the Bronte sisters, the social novels of Charles Dickens, the scientific romances of H. G. Wells, virtually every work of literature that becomes recognized as a classic was conceived and written in the first place for a popular audience. (The only exception to this generalization that I can think of is the work of James Joyce, which has achieved classic status without a groundswell of popular support.)
Recognizing writers in the present day who are likely to achieve long-term recognition as a classic author is a risky business. Popular success often comes about because of the public’s unpredictable reaction, or a wish to find an undemanding read, or because of a response to perceived matters of the moment. Happenstance comes into it, and so does the luck of timing. Best-seller success is therefore usually ephemeral. Can anyone seriously suggest that the ‘Grey’ novels of E. L. James, the ‘Twilight’ novels of Stephenie Meyer, the nonsensical best-sellers by the likes of Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer, are destined for anything but the dustbin of literary history?
Who now reads, or even remembers, the author Hervey Allen? Or for that matter James Hilton, Dorothea Brande, Alexis Carrel, Franz Werfel, Munro Leaf? The works of Hervey Allen, and all the others, were discussed seriously and in detail in a book called Best-Sellers – Are They Born or Made? (1939, by George Stevens and Stanley Unwin). With the possible exception of James Hilton, who I suspect is remembered more for the iconic ideas of Shangri-La and Mr Chips than for present-day reading of the novels in which they appeared, all these writers have vanished more or less without trace. Yet in their day their books were immense popular successes. Ephemerality has struck – posterity has eluded them.
In 1981, John Sutherland published a book with a similar subject: Bestsellers – Popular Fiction of the 1970s. Sutherland then was interested in such popular novelists as Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, Michael Crichton, Jacqueline Susann, Frederick Forsyth, Jackie Collins, Mario Puzo, Len Deighton and a score of others. Most of these names are admittedly more familiar than those of Hervey Allen and his contemporaries, but I suspect their familiarity rests on the fact that popular films were made of their novels and are still being shown on TV. I also wonder how many people are still actually reading The Valley of the Dolls or The Dream Merchants or The Odessa File?
So the correlation between popular success and impending classics status is by no means certain. Because of this, one should be nervous of pointing to this or that contemporary success and predicting that posterity will accept it into its halls.
Certainly, the modern literary novel, at least in Britain, is not the place to look. Although they enjoy critical admiration and (one gathers) impressive sales figures, the books by writers like Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis are unlikely to survive much beyond their authors’ physical demise. McEwan is a skilful stylist but he has an unoriginal mind and an unadventurous approach to fiction. Barnes is a writer of middle-class dilettantism, diverted into subjects rather than passionate about them, and one day will be regarded, I believe, as having many constricting contextual class and social assumptions. Amis is a more complex problem because he is ambitious and committed, and probably more intelligent than the other two, but as a novelist he peaked more than thirty years ago with his novel Money (1984), and his subsequent work has depended increasingly on verbal invention, much of it rather clumsy.
We are more likely to find literary posterity, or the possibility of it, in the genres. For instance, thirty years ago who would have guessed that Philip K. Dick would be seen, at least in the world of Hollywood studio films, as a paradigm of science fiction? Most of his novels were quickly written for commercial publishers, aimed at and read by a genre audience. But as a result of several hugely successful films, Dick’s many routine SF books have returned to print, he is taught in universities and schools, and he is generally regarded as the finest modern SF writer. Yet in 1981, roughly at the time Blade Runner was being filmed, John Sutherland gave Dick no more than a passing mention. Of course, this was largely because at the time he was not actually a best-selling author, he was still alive, his writing was past its best, and he was recognized mainly for his Hugo-winning novel The Man in the High Castle (1962).
Stephen King is the one contemporary author who seems to me destined for status as an enduring classic. His books are of course aimed resolutely at a popular audience, but his social awareness, his easy use of a myriad of contemporary cultural references, and his sheer bravado as a storyteller seem to ensure a timeless quality. In these respects his work strikes me as similar to that of Charles Dickens, but like Dickens he has written too much and not always well. Some of Stephen King’s books are over-long, and (like Dickens) he has stylistic and narrative mannerisms that, once noticed, can be annoying. However, his best work is intelligent, unexpected, personal, original in concept and told with ruthless skill.
I think the jury is still out on the work of J. G. Ballard, at least as far as enduring popularity is concerned. Since his death in 2009 Ballard’s reputation has grown steadily, so there is room for hope. Although most of his best work was originally published in the kind of popular science fiction magazines despised by the literary establishment, in the years following the publication of Empire of the Sun (1984) his work was taken up and accepted not only by critics and the literary world in general but by the book-reading public too. Because some of his work from the end of the 1960s is avant-garde and ‘controversial’ (I’m thinking of his Atrocity Exhibition period, with its references to American presidents of the day, the Vietnam War, and so on), long-term status as a classic writer is not certain. But the early short stories, as well as the novels The Drowned World, The Burning World, The Crystal World and Crash, are distinctively original, metaphysical in impact and told in almost transparently lucid prose, waiting to be discovered by those who have so far not done so.
Then there are two writers of fantasy: J. K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett.
Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been so massively popular, and so widely discussed, that there is little point in adding a further encomium. Except to say that my own children were at exactly the right age to discover and be enchanted by the books as they appeared, so that I was a close witness to the impact the books (devotedly written for a wide and popular audience) had on them and their friends. It’s worth pointing out that that generation of first Harry Potter readers is now approaching the age of their own early parentage – the wheels of posterity are turning smoothly.
Finally, the works of Sir Terry Pratchett. I have been provoked to write this essay today by an article in the Guardian’s blog, by the newspaper’s arts correspondent Jonathan Jones. As a display of closed-minded prejudice, and an astonishing willingness to brag about it, there have been thankfully few precedents. Here is how Jones starts:
It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short. No offence, but Pratchett is so low on my list of books to read before I die that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary.
Unsurprisingly, the online comments on this pathetic piece of ignorant journalism have swarmed in (at the time of writing, just under one thousand), and for once almost all of them agree with each other. I will be surprised and disappointed if Mr Jones retains his job with the Guardian, at least in the capacity of an arts correspondent. I have rarely seen a letter of resignation so overtly and shamelessly revealing as this. I was forcibly reminded of a letter my old friend John Middleton Murry wrote to the Observer many years ago on another, not dissimilar, matter: ‘I note your organ does not have a reporter in Antarctica, and suggest that this would be a suitable posting for Mr Martin Amis.’
I should add that Terry Pratchett and I were respectful colleagues rather than personal friends. We knew each other better in the days when we were teenage hopefuls, trying to get our first stories sold. The years went by, we found our publishers and we went our separate ways. I doubt if Terry ever read my books – I read only a few of his. Terry does not need me to defend him – Jones’s article is contemptible.
But I would say that of all the writers I have ever known, or the books I have ever read, Terry Pratchett’s seem to be a dead cert for long-term classic status. They are written for a popular audience, so fulfilling the first condition. They have been commercially successful, not just in Britain and the USA, but in languages and countries all around the world. The books are not liked by many: they are loved and admired by millions. Uniquely, in the profession of writing, where commercial success often turns a writer’s head and (to mix a metaphor) turns him or her into an asshole, Terry Pratchett remained approachable, unpretentious, sane and generous. His immensely popular appearances at Discworld conventions were marked by his geniality, openness and amusing manner, and a shared respect between author and audiences. His premature death was a cause of sincere mourning to all those readers, most of who never had the chance to meet him.
His work is written well – no matter what Jones says about ‘very ordinary’ prose, Terry Pratchett’s novels are stylistically adept: good muscular prose, not mucked around with for effect (except sometimes!), enlivened by wit, sharp observation, a unique take on the world at large and whatever the subject of social satire might be for the time being, a brimming sense of fun and the ridiculous, and overall an approach to the reader that feels inclusive, a letting in on the joke, an amused welcome to the world he is writing about. All his books contain bizarre cultural cross-references – part of the fun is spotting them. Some of his jokes are genuinely original – I always liked the one about the Australian bush hats with the corks, and the other one about the vampire photographer who used a flashgun on his camera. Millions of people – not the appalling Mr Jones, a spectacular scorer of own goals – will recognize these references with a sense of remembered joy.
I hope Jonathan Jones packs plenty of warm underwear for his next job.
I have not been able to write here for several weeks – July 2015 appears to have vanished, as far as this site is concerned, and already we are halfway through August. The reason amounts to one matter only: I have been absorbed in writing and finishing a new novel, and, since finishing, sitting around feeling lazy. If you have emailed me in the last three months or so and have not received a reply I’m really sorry – please try again, because I know I have been a bit dilatory.
The novel is called The Gradual, and it is with the publishers now. I completed and delivered it on the last day of July, cleverly timing it for the month when everyone in publishing goes away on holiday, or is attending the worldcon in Spokane, Washington. We can be patient.
The Gradual is the first conventionally written novel I have produced since The Extremes in 1998: it is a straightforward narrative told in sequence. It is about time and the perception of the passing of time. There are those who have said they noticed certain recurring images in my recent novels: identical twins, for instance, or stage magic, or invisibility, or the sainted presence of H. G. Wells. Such critics will not find any of them in The Gradual. The narrator is also completely reliable. Hah.
Currently: working on a new collection of short stories for Gollancz. I shall be in Rennes, northern France, during part of October, on the jury at the Court Métrange film festival. Soon after that, at the end of the month, I shall be at Utopiales 2015, in Nantes.
I have recently returned from a longish visit to France. Once again I was the beneficial recipient of many compliments from readers about the first line of one of my novels. In its day (now more than forty years ago) this opening sentence had a startling effect on many French readers, helping to keep the book popular ever since. The novel is called Le Monde Inverti (1974), and here is the first line:
J’avais atteint l’âge de mille kilometres.
When I hear these compliments I am of course delighted, but I also feel the slight unease of worry that it was not wholly earned. What I wrote in English at the beginning of Inverted World was an OK sentence, similar to the French version, but somehow it did not have the same kind of grand resonance: “I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.” Furthermore, because of the belated intervention of the American publisher, who would not leave well alone, many editions in English had a three-page Prologue shoved in before the true first sentence. Sensibly, the French publisher (Robert Louit, working with the translator Bruno Martin) dumped the unnecessary Prologue, metricated the measurement, rounded it down and created the beautiful sentence I have been dining out on ever since. Good publishing and good luck often come into these things.
But calculation comes into it too. People who run writing courses, or who publish books on the subject, often emphasize the importance of coming up with an opening line or image that will ‘hook’ the reader. I notice that the writer Andy Weir, author of The Martian (2014), has published his Four Tips for ‘Breaking the Seal’. The first of these concerns coming up with a good first line. As an example Mr Weir quotes George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949):
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
It’s a good choice, even if it has become slightly outdated. The 24-hour clock is now in widespread use throughout Europe, and even in Britain and the USA, since the appearance of digital technology, watches and clocks have for years been striking, or at least showing, thirteen hundred hours. The sentence still works, though. A chill sense of difference is neatly established.
As an adult reader one of the first amusing and intriguing openings I came across was in a Cold War spy thriller called Tree Frog, by Martin Woodhouse (1966):
I was in my coffin. Why had they buried me face downwards?
That’s clever. It’s racy, sharp, memorable, and contains a nonsensical question that will spark the reader’s interest. The problem is that Mr Woodhouse doesn’t follow up – his narrative becomes unfocused, it tries to raise more weird questions, the reader is given nothing back, and a long thriller written in short sentences follows.
Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) starts with the following sentence:
This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
The trouble here, again, is that it is not entirely relevant to the rest of the book. As many critics have pointed out, The Good Soldier is not an especially sad story at all. The interest of the book lies elsewhere: it’s one of the first examples of a novel written by an unreliable narrator. Therein lies the enduring importance of the book, and it’s a classic. But it’s not sad.
Some writers get the whole thing wrong, simply by being seduced by the irresistible attraction of a clever or original image. Here’s the opening line of James Blish’s Black Easter (1968):
The room stank of demons.
This is a startlingly effective opening to a fantasy novel. In five words the author economically creates an ambience, a feeling, a situation, even a background. It’s really good writing: the use of the word ‘stank’ is perfect. However, here is the paragraph that immediately follows, one I suspect few readers can get through without falling asleep:
And it was not just the room – which would have been unusual, but not unprecedented. Demons were not welcome visitors on Monte Albano, where the magic practised was mostly of the kind called Transcendental, aimed at pursuit of a more perfect mystical union with God and His two revelations, the Scriptures and the World. But occasionally, Ceremonial magic – an applied rather than a pure art, seeking certain immediate advantages — was practised also, and in the course of that the White Monks sometimes called down a demiurge, and, even more rarely, raised up one of the Fallen.
Some novelists get it completely right, though. Here is one of my personal favourites, the opening sentence of David Lodge’s brilliant campus comedy Changing Places (1973):
High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1,200 miles per hour.
The scene is set, the tone is set, the story is under way. It goes on very much as it has started. The reader settles down to enjoy a novel where the author knows exactly what he is doing, and does it well.
Anyway, I was interested to read Andy Weir’s advice to other writers. No matter how long you have been at the game of writing, this sort of thing always has a fascination. You never know – it’s never too late to learn, and you might pick up something useful. Apart from a few minor quibbles about emphasis, I don’t dissent from anything Mr Weir offers as advice. But as he is the author of a famously best-selling novel, which has sold thousands of copies to thousands of presumably well satisfied readers, it did make me wonder how his own opening to The Martian goes. Here it is:
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
It stinks of something to me, but not of demons.
We are at the end of April and I suddenly realized that I have posted nothing here since the end of March. The Devon countryside is waking up as the days lengthen: during the winter months it is bleak of colour, the hedgerows bare, the muddy soil showing through. It still looks beautiful and peaceful, and the roads are quiet and under-used, but winter is winter. Here in the southwest that mostly means rain and wind. I can confirm that’s true. But for the last four weeks the narrow roads have been a blaze of colour. The modest, familiar British wildflowers have returned. At the moment we have sweet alison, red campion, bluebells, and the first flush of cow parsley is looming over the lanes. I have had nothing to say here as I am deep into the final draft of my next novel, a period when what I’m doing spreads out psychically to blot out other matters. Thankfully, because out there in the world there is an election campaign going on, terrible disasters in the French Alps and the southern Mediterranean and Nepal, and an attempt by a small group of bigots in America to take over the Hugo awards. The bathetic nature of the final part of that sentence is sort of accidental, but it reveals what a narrow world of desperation some third-rate writers live in. I hope to complete my novel during the next two months.
It’s the first day of Spring, according to Google, with an eclipse of the sun thrown in to celebrate the new awakening. According to the weather news on the radio there were not likely to be many places in the UK without cloud cover, but the west country was excepted. On venturing out we discovered that we had a clear blue sky, with a lovely silvery mist lightly shrouding the trees and the countryside.
I spent the hour of the eclipse wandering around our village centre and the huge churchyard, while the light slowly dimmed and the wild birds went into alternating bouts of mad squawking and mystified silence. Our cats took fright. No cars went through. The temperature dropped noticeably. The shadows became less dark as most of the sun disappeared briefly behind the moon. That weird quietude of an eclipse slowly spread across the countryside.
Afterwards I discovered what perhaps I should have known anyway, which is that it’s almost impossible to photograph an eclipse without special lens filters. All my efforts to capture the ever-reducing arc of remaining sunlight came to nothing. However, the light in the trees and across the graveyard was something I will never forget.
My obit of Terry in the Guardian is here. I knew Terry for more than half a century: we met in 1964 at a convention in Peterborough. He was still at school – I was the world’s worst trainee accountant. We both moved on a bit afterwards. I believe his conduct as a successful author was and is exemplary. The quality of his writing never failed. I would say more, but it is already in my Guardian piece.
I went to see the new film Mortdecai (2015) with a feeling of duty to an old friend. (Kyril Bonfiglioli, who wrote the novels.) The reviews of the film have been almost universally awful, and after Nina and I saw the trailer last week I couldn’t help thinking it was going to be something to get through and keep quiet about afterwards.
Bon was such a great and long-lasting friend. He bought, published and even paid for my first story (eight guineas!), but that was not the sole basis for a friendship that lasted twenty years. In the mid 1970s he began writing the Charlie Mortdecai novels, completing three of them before the dread consequences of the demon booze caught up with him in 1985. He also wrote a non-Mortdecai novel, All the Tea in China (1978). After his death, an unfinished fourth Mortdecai novel was found in his papers – this was completed a few years later by Craig Brown.
The Mortdecai books have recently been reprinted by Penguin Books. I read them as they came out in the 1970s – they struck me then as fabulous: fast-moving, extremely intelligent, funny, self-awarely xenophobic, ingeniously nasty, and full of bits you want to read out aloud to others. At the beginning of the first book (Don’t Point That Thing at Me) he wrote: “This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer.” I would recommend the books without qualification if it were not for the fact they are now more than 30 years old, and the way we perceive the world has changed a bit since then. Well, all right, then: give them a go!
There is also a book called The Mortdecai ABC, by Margaret Bonfiglioli, published by Viking in 2001. This is a wonderful compendium, arranged in a kind of alphabetical order, of everything and a bit more about Bon. There is, for instance, a series of biographical sketches – a few sample headings include Car Crashes, Hidden Jokes, Food, Lies, Parrot, Waistband and Waistline, Tea. All his editorials from Science Fantasy are here, and every short story he ever wrote. Letters to his publishers. And letters to friends: a whole chapter reprints some of the correspondence between Bon and myself in the 1970s. In her Introduction, Margaret (Bon’s ex-wife) writes: “How did I happen to put together this book? Laughter began it.”
How sad it was to read the previews and reviews of David Koepp’s film Mortdecai. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote: “The poster is awful. The premise is awful. To be frank, quite a lot about it is awful: a middle-aged comedy caper of the kind not seen since Peter Sellers’s final outings as Clouseau and Fu Manchu.” Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent said: “an incredibly convoluted script involving a stolen Goya painting, random changes of location (we are whisked, for no particular reason, from London to Moscow to LA), too many gags involving vomit and rotting cheese, and some incredibly dull and dim-witted dialogue that would barely have passed muster in a bad British 1970s sitcom.” Things were no better in the USA, where box office takings were said to be some $50 millions below budget. Josh Slater-Williams in SoundOnSight wrote: “a cataclysmically unfunny, unbelievably tedious disaster of baffling misjudgments and multiple career lows that feels as long as Shoah, and only a little less harrowing.” The end of Johnny Depp’s career was doomily predicted by all and sundry.
Well, we went to see it anyway. I loved it. Nina loved it. We both laughed out loud several times, laughed quietly most of the time, and at very worst were agreeably amused for the rest. The audience enjoyed it too. It has a tremendous pace, scurrilousness, wit, a ridiculous heist, stupid violence, jokes about moustaches and penises and vomit and smelly cheese and foreigners. What more do you want?
Do try to catch the film while it is still around in theatres. And don’t miss the books!
I am late to the party: Station Eleven was published in the UK about four months ago and has won many favourable reviews, it was a best-seller in the USA and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. I suspect more accolades are to come for this remarkable novel. We enjoy books on a personal level, and if we set out to write a favourable review afterwards what we are really doing is trying to express that feeling in objective terms. In other words, we translate enjoyment into admiration.
But this time, instead of trying for critical distance, let me give a more subjective account of this book. It involves an indirect approach.
In the early 1960s, barely out of adolescence and working unhappily in a London office, I discovered the existence of the National Film Theatre. It showed in repertory the sort of films I had never seen while a child in the bosom of the family: the NFT had foreign films, experimental films, old films, independent films, arthouse films. I joined with alacrity, and soon received their current programme: they were about to start a retrospective season of films by Ingmar Bergman. I sent off for tickets.
During the following two weeks I saw four Bergman films at the NFT: Sawdust and Tinsel, Summer with Monika, Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. All were in black and white; the dialogue, of course, was in Swedish (and delivered in theatrical tones, punctuated with long silences); the subtitles were erratic and shaky; the prints were scratched. The themes were sexuality, impotence, love, humiliation, betrayal, pride, death. It was a transforming experience. Nothing before had ever intrigued or satisfied me so much. A mood of gloom, wonder, excitement and ambition gripped me. Later, I was to see many more Bergman films, but the shocking impact of those first four was never quite to be repeated. For me, ever after, Bergman’s work has been an exemplar, a precedent, a goal.
The first of Bergman’s films that I saw, and therefore the one which had the profoundest effect on me was Sawdust and Tinsel. This is set in a ramshackle travelling circus, the wagons pulled by exhausted horses. The players’ circus costumes are threadbare, their audiences minimal. The mood is defiant, jealous, defensive, mystical.
Much of the action in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven describes a ramshackle group of survivors, travelling in engineless, horsedrawn pick-up trucks, working their way through the remains of the state of Michigan after a global disaster. All the characters are actors or musicians, or people who have learned since the disaster to be actors or musicians. They call themselves the Symphony, and at each of their stops they put on their threadbare costumes and perform. Sometimes they mount King Lear or Hamlet; at other times they play classical music. They also have to hunt, scavenge and kill, but at the end of the day they set out chairs for whatever audience they can attract, the conductor taps her baton on the stand and they start playing a Beethoven symphony.
The concerns and eventual destiny of the characters are different in detail from those of Bergman’s, but the subtlety, complexity, doggedness and despair of Mandel’s characters resonate strongly with his.
Around the same time as my discovery of Ingmar Bergman, I came across a novel well liked in the SF world, although at the time I had no knowledge of that. To me it was just a book I happened to buy. It was Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. Stewart was an expert in place-names, an historian and a professor of English at Berkeley. He appears to have had no knowledge of or connection with the science fiction genre. Earth Abides was not his only novel, but it was his only purely speculative work.
It describes the collapse of civilization after a global pandemic – at first the central character, Isherwood Williams, believes himself to be the only survivor, by a fluke. Later he discovers one or two other survivors. Human society tentatively begins to re-form.
An aura of loss, death, guilt, failed responsibility hangs over the background to the novel, not unlike in Bergman’s early films. There is a broader outlook, though: Earth Abides is also about the impact humans have had on the physical environment, and there are many scenes depicting the changes to the world that follow the demise of humanity, all of them thrilling and moving to read. Stewart was an ecologist, a green, decades before that awareness had any currency outside the work of a few specialist scientists.
This was powerful stuff for a teenager to read, and it left a lasting impression on me. I still believe that because of this book my consciousness about pollution, climate change, waste of fossil fuels, the dangers as well as the benefits of a technological society, was raised many years before these issues became understood in the general world. I also know that this is not a unique reaction: the book is regarded as a classic by many of the people who came across it half a century ago.
Bergman and Stewart – they are giants in my life. I can offer no higher compliment to Ms Mandel than to say that while reading her novel these potent sensibilities were re-awakened in me. Perhaps a new generation will draw from Station Eleven something of the same understanding of the frailty of life, or of the interconnectedness of the world, or of the wonderful and inspirational gloom that I drew many years ago from these giants. Her novel is complex, subtle, wise, beautifully written, layered, original and often moving. I cannot commend it more highly.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Picador, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-4472-6896-3, £12.99
Here is the beautiful new cover for the French edition of The Adjacent. The artist is Aurélien Police, and the book will be published in April, by Lunes d’Encre (Denoël). Editor: Gilles Dumay.
This is a public service entry:
Oh, my God. / Cooper, there’s no point using our fuel to – / Just analyse the Endurance’s spin – / What’re you doing?! / Docking. / Endurance rotation is 67, 68 RPM – / Get ready to match it on the retro-thrusters – / It’s not possible – / No. It’s necessary.
When I wrote the blog entry immediately below this one I had been planning to write a review of Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar, which I saw at the end of last week. That idea was hijacked by the sudden arrival of my copies of the Gollancz edition of A Dream of Wessex. Because I was thinking about Nolan I remembered I had always wanted to write about the similarities between that novel and his earlier film, Inception. So I did that instead. (See below.)
Interstellar is a problem, a long, poorly written and second-rate film with a wide popular appeal, so I briefly decided enough was enough. Other people, notably Abigail Nussbaum, have elegantly and convincingly demolished it. No point me adding to Nolan’s woes.
But yesterday there were several stories in the press, on the radio and all over the internet about the sound level of the new film. Many audiences have complained that the music and sound effects are too loud in Interstellar, while the dialogue is too low to be heard and followed. There were stories of people demanding their money back, and a theatre in Rochester NY putting up a sign saying that their sound equipment was not at fault: the film’s soundtrack had been recorded that way. Christopher Nolan himself came forward to confirm this, calling it ‘a carefully considered creative decision’, using the dialogue as a sound effect, to ‘emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is’.
The composer, Hans Zimmer (a highly regarded film composer, and rightly so), is himself totally unapologetic, and says so here. But as writer and director of the film, and someone who presumably oversaw the editing and sound mixing, Christopher Nolan has the greater responsibility.
Anyone knows the reality. The ‘surrounding noise’ of space is silent. Space is a vacuum – it is incapable of carrying sound. How Hans Zimmer’s loud music can be heard in space is a mystery only Nolan can explain.
(An earlier Nolan film, his adaptation of my novel The Prestige, had similar problems with music and dialogue recording. Although overall I admired the film, I have always been concerned with these two crucial weaknesses. Until Nolan came forward today to explain his creative decision, I had assumed the muttered dialogue was a mistake, a consequence of inexperience.)
Returning to Interstellar: By chance I am one of the few people who had no problem with the dialogue of this extremely long film. The version we saw was subtitled ‘for the hard of hearing’, so every word of the script was plain. I can therefore report that much of the dialogue creatively hidden from the audience is similar to the short extract above, and the rest is … not exactly Shakespearean pentameters.
Nolan clearly uses dialogue as a sort of fill-in noise. He calls it a sound effect. For him, words are something he has to get the actors to come out with while they’re performing set-pieces or going through spectacular scenes.
This was particularly true of Inception, which had one of the worst-written scripts I have come across. I winced at its clumsiness several times while watching it – a later look at the shooting script confirmed the clodhopper style was not my imagination. (Christopher Nolan was credited as writer.) Interstellar came from a different source: it was originally written solo by Jonah Nolan for a planned film by Steven Spielberg – that original script was very different from the finished film. Jonah’s original can be read on the internet, where there are several discussion pages about the many differences between the two. As Christopher Nolan is credited as co-author of the final screenplay, we assume that he was responsible for the changes when he took over the project from Spielberg. He has said so himself.
Dialogue is crucial to film: the words given to actors to deliver humanize the story, make it comprehensible to the audience, create characters with whom we can sympathize or at least understand. Nolan’s argument that dialogue is just another sound effect is weak and unconvincing, and is of course an evasion of something much more serious. If the dialogue he has written consists of people mumbling to themselves, or shouting about retro-thrusters over the noise in space, then maybe he is writing the wrong kind of dialogue in the wrong kind of film.
Here is the Gollancz paperback of A Dream of Wessex, just released. The novel has been unavailable for several years, so I’m pleased to see it in this attractive stripe. For those who are interested in such things, it was first published as a Faber hardcover in the UK in 1977, which makes it getting on for forty years old. I imagine some aspects of it will now seem dated, but maybe that’s how it should be.
Wessex is not so dated, though, that some people were prevented from pointing out the similarities between this book and Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, released in 2010, a mere thirty-three years later. Both deal with the exploration of the dream state, and how that impinges on reality, or our perception of reality. I say straight away that I did not notice anything more than minor coincidences myself, and never mentioned the few bits I registered. Anyway I would be reluctant to make what might seem an allegation that Christopher Nolan had nicked some of my material. He and I have a known professional relationship, and I assume he is familiar with most of my books, even if he hasn’t read them closely.
The first time someone pointed out the several resemblances between the two I was surprised that I had missed so many of them, but after more people had gently explained them to me I began to see.
Like many people who went to the film, I had been dazzled by its surface, the astonishing CGI effects and photographic trickery. I found the plot more or less incomprehensible, though – it was a kind of mix of James Bond antics (buildings collapsing, explosions, chases, guns, snowmobiles), and men in business suits mouthing lines about reality and dreams, and finishing each other’s explanatory sentences. I gave up trying to follow the plot after this pungent exchange:
So how did we end up at this restaurant? / We came here from … / How did we get here? Where are we? / Oh my God. We’re dreaming. / Stay calm. We’re actually asleep in the workshop. (Pp. 66 – 67 of the shooting script, published by Insight Editions.)
The urge to describe and explain the plot through dialogue is incidentally a similar feature of Nolan’s current release, Interstellar. In this three-hour spaceship adventure there are extended dialogues between astronauts in spacesuits, risibly explaining orbits, trajectories, relativity and wormholes to each other, finishing each other’s explanatory sentences, and drawing primary-school level graphics to convince themselves the plot is going OK. This was so nakedly aimed at the assumed ignorance of the audience that it was embarrassing. As soon as a film engages in trying to meet the imagined comprehension of an audience, it loses itself. Consider instead the success of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), which showed everything and explained nothing.
But back to Inception. Some of it was genuinely beautiful and mysterious to watch: the city of Paris inverting, trick mirrors along the banks of the Seine, a super-slo-mo shot of a van plunging into an icy river from a bridge, a ruined city slowly collapsing into the sea. These are all Nolan’s creation, or that of the CGI studios who developed the images for him.
Some of it, I saw belatedly, did have an uncanny likeness to my novel. There is, for instance a scene below ground, in fact in the basement of Yusuf’s pharmacy, in which a large number of people are shown to be sharing a continuous dream, one from which it is impossible or dangerous to withdraw. This might be part of a dream within a dream! The situation exactly matches the MacGuffin in A Dream of Wessex, which is about a scientific experiment in which a large number of people go below ground, and create a pooled dreamworld, one which is so plausible that it becomes hard for them to distinguish it from reality. Withdrawal from it is difficult and dangerous. And both film and book deal with the risks attached to creating a second or third level of dream, within the dream.
I’m nearly forty years away from the writing of A Dream of Wessex, and looking at it now I find it has some surprises for me. I make no claim for it. It is what it is, and in my own writing chronology it was a tentative first step towards the material in The Affirmation, which followed it. Wessex is a sort of transition from what I wrote in the early days, to the fiction I wrote later. (Some people, not I, might argue this was a progress from futuristic or ‘science’ fiction to a more sophisticated ‘speculative’ fiction, which is, interestingly, the exact distinction Christopher Nolan makes in the Introduction to the screenplay of Interstellar, also published by Faber. His film about astronauts and spaceships and alien planets is, he says, speculative fiction not science fiction. It lacks futurism, he claims, and is true to the contemporary world.)
But I’ll say this of Wessex: it has the quality of a direct narrative, where the plot is revealed through the characters: their actions, their relationships, their discoveries. They don’t sit around discussing the plot, and helping each other explain complicated ideas – they get on with the story. Maybe that’s how we did it in the old days …
A Dream of Wessex: Gollancz, 2014, 240 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0-575-12153-9
Inception – the Shooting Script: Insight, 2010, 240 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1-608-87015-8
Interstellar – the Complete Screenplay: Faber, 2014, 380 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0-571-31439-3
Here is the cover image of a brand-new US paperback of my 1981 novel, The Affirmation. This is scheduled to be published in January 2015 by the superb American indie publisher Valancourt, with a new introduction written by myself.
The Affirmation has been effectively unobtainable in the USA almost from the moment it was published in hardcover by Scribner. Their edition lacked a certain feeling of conviction and the book received mediocre reviews. I have memories of coming across three rather battered copies a few weeks after publication, on sale in a branch of Crown Books in Houston — they looked sad and unloved, and I was tempted to buy them myself to put them out of their misery. A year later, when I was back in Houston, I found the same three copies still on sale in Crown Books, but now they were priced at 5¢ each and still had no buyers. It is moments like that which remind writers of their lowly place in the universe. The Affirmation has never had a paperback edition in America until now.
It is not the best-known of my novels, but it has always had a remarkable effect on a significant number of readers. Although it was written in what now seems a distant part of my life, I still regard it as my ‘key’ novel. I go into this in more detail in the introduction.
An odd footnote: Nielsen’s Bookdata no longer lists the Scribner edition of The Affirmation, but a search in the database for the ISBN (which without fear of contradiction or error I can state is 0-684-16957-6) reveals a book called The Affirmation by one Oliver Trager. I generously assume this is not copyright theft, but what Martin Rowson the cartoonist calls (and sometimes draws) a fur cup. I assure Nielsen’s and Mr Trager that I really am the true author of the book, and I have numerous different editions to prove it. I hope that enough readers in the US will now discover the book for themselves.
Bête is a novel of well chosen sly references – lines from pop songs, other books, puns on cultural icons, TV shows, bits of well known slang – but one of the slyest, and perhaps best chosen, since we know Adam Roberts is an English academic, is on the last page. ‘This is the best of me,’ says Roberts on his Acknowledgements page. Is that an acknowledgement, or a boast? Interest aroused, I go in search.
It takes some tracking down, but the remark comes from Sesame and Lilies, by John Ruskin. (It was also quoted by Edward Elgar on the manuscript score of The Dream of Gerontius.) Here it is in full, in quotation marks because Ruskin placed it in them:
‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.’
The context is Ruskin’s definition of the difference between the sort of book that conveys news or amusement and a ‘true’ book, which is written for permanence. Of permanence, Ruskin says, ‘The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it.’ Unless I am completely misinterpreting Adam Roberts’ intentions, I take this to mean he was aiming high with Bête, a book no one else can or would write, worthy of our memory.
That’s a classy boast, and I like it. After one novel a year for the last decade and a half, and heaven knows how many parody novels, he’s entitled to that. But is it the best of him?
It’s an unusual novel, unusual even for Roberts, whose fiction has never been what might be called expectable, but also unusual within the genre of fantastika. Like much of his work it has a distinct satirical streak, but unlike the earlier novels of his I’ve read, which depended on exact but often dodgy plotting, it is almost sluttishly freeform. It therefore escapes the need to make sense in plot terms. In fact, there is hardly any discernible plot – just a sequence of events, many of which are static or internalized, and the rest of which are the sort of long rambling conversations, full of stupid generalizations and cheerful abuse, overheard in a pub.
What will happen in the course of the story seems fairly predictable, once you understand the parameters of the set-up. Animals have gained the use of words, through the fitting of an AI chip. With the gaining of words comes an animalistic point of view, and, concomitantly, the power of persuasion. It’s not long before they are running things: e.g., farms are worked by humans, with the beasts occupying the farmhouse, so to speak. A shade of Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) is being summoned of course, and Adam Roberts, one of our most intelligent and well read writers, knows exactly what he is doing. The famous last line of Animal Farm is one of the many cultural references that are scattered throughout the book.
The sequence of events is not all that exciting: the oddly named narrator, Graham Penhaligon, a former abattoir worker, butcher and farmer, lives rough in and wanders around the Thames Valley. He is in squalid circumstances for most of the story: unwashed, starving, sleeping rough in Bracknell Forest, killing animals for food – he spends half the book crippled by a damaged Achilles tendon. He is living on the fringe of a weird and dysfunctional society, where isolated houses, villages and suburban towns are empty (there’s an ebola-like epidemic called Sclera killing humans in the millions), while the M4 motorway is a hell of rushing vehicles and roadside squatters. Canny animals (i.e. those fitted with AI chips) are fighting back, and in Graham’s case biting back. He’s a high-profile enemy to the new master race, having notoriously slaughtered a talking cow in the first five pages of the novel. He meets and falls in love with Anne, a cancer victim, and after her death, a haunted and lonely man, he seeks a sort of revenge on the world until another kind of solution is offered to him.
So it’s an unusual novel, but does that make it any good? Not all unusual books are. Most of us would accept Animal Farm and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) as good novels — properly referenced here, as their precedence is clear — but Will Self’s recent modernist novel Umbrella (2013) was both unusual and more or less unreadable. One also remembers with a shudder some of the modernist attempts at New Wave stories from untried SF writers in the 1960s. In large, the genre of science fiction is in formal terms unadventurous, employing conventional narratives and plot structures, depending more on its exploration of ideas than deep characterization or beautiful or experimental prose, so a book like Bête tends to stand out purely for its way of being told.
As anti-heroes go, Graham Penhaligon is a consummate act. His narrative is remarkable for his self-loathing, cynicism, intolerance, stubbornness and gritty determination. When he loses the love of his life the contrast in his feelings is telling. But most of the time his attitude and manners are appalling, and you can’t help liking him for that:
Eventually a junior officer came to fetch us. ‘You all right going upstairs with that stick?’ he asked me, in a voice plumped with the peculiar smugness of the very posh. ‘It’s just that the elevator is on the fritz.’
‘I can walk,’ I replied. ‘Unless you fancy giving me a fucking piggy back, lard-face.’
The answer to my question above (‘does that make it any good?’) is yes, but I think Bête is good mainly in what it tells us about the progress of the writing of Adam Roberts, rather than as a novel in itself. Although it is clearly likely to be one of the stand-out novels of 2014, I believe in overall terms Bête’s unusualness of attack is not enough to counteract the feeling of familiarity created by the smallness of its scale, the limits of its ambition. In the end, the society is drawn too vaguely, the revolution amongst the animals is unconvincing and slightly risible, the puns too many, the references to pop music and TV too dating, the events too meandering. However, the real reason to read this book is to see a good writer getting better, and doing so in unexpected and uncommon ways. The prospect of a new novel from Roberts is always a matter of expectation, but I believe after Bête we should be genuinely keen to see what he will come up with next.
Bête by Adam Roberts. Gollancz, 2014, ISBN: 978 0 575 12768 5, £16.99