Ineffective Art — The Last Days of New Paris

In George Melly’s autobiography, Owning Up (1965), he describes how he became the victim of a violent assault outside a hotel in Manchester. He had been singing with Mick Owning Up (Melly)Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band and at the end of the gig he was standing on the steps of the building, breathing the fresh air, while the rest of the band were still inside packing up their instruments. A group of young thugs approached – one of them had earlier been ejected by Mulligan for pulling a razor on him, and he and his mates were now looking for revenge. One of them had a bottle, which he started tapping with increasing strength against a brick wall. Melly writes, ‘When that breaks, I thought, he’s going to push it in my face.’ The assault began with a head-butt, making Melly’s nose bleed.

Melly, who says he was ‘anaesthetized by fear’, reached into his pocket for the only thing that might work as a defence: it was a book of Surrealist sound poetry, written by Kurt Schwitters, the Dadaist. Melly briefly explained to his attackers what the poems were, and started reading aloud from one called ‘Ursonate’. The first four lines go as follows:

langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
Ookar.
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi (… and so on)

‘Slowly, muttering threats, they moved off,’ writes Melly. (George Melly had a lifelong commitment to Surrealism, being a noted collector, critic and lecturer in the genre.)

I kept remembering Melly’s anecdote, which I interpret as evidence of how effective art can be when well deployed, all the way through my reading of China Miéville’s new novel, The Last Days of New Paris. Much the same thing happens.

Last Days (Mieville)The story, such as it is, describes the aftermath of an ‘S-Blast’ (Surrealist Blast, I assume) set off in Les Deux Magots in Paris, in 1941, during the Nazi occupation. The S-Blast unleashes a nightmare brigade of beasts and ‘manifs’ from the world of Surrealist art. These empower but also threaten the small band of Surrealists still hiding in Paris: La Main à Plume. Soon a violent three-way battle is convulsing Paris, between the ‘manifs’, the Surrealist fighters and the Nazi occupiers. The war, an extension of the Nazi strategic plan Fall Rot (‘Case Red’), continues until at least 1950, which is when much of the novel is set. The only surviving member of La Main à Plume is one Thibaut, who insofar as the novel has a leading character other than the narrator, is the leading character.

There is hardly any trace of story, but what there is describes the appearance of one Surrealist icon after another, which either attacks or is attacked or avoids being attacked. At the back of the book nearly all of these manifestations are carefully cross-referenced to the original artwork, or sketch, or pensée, by page number. (Thus, very early in the novel what appears at first to be two women crazily riding a tandem bicycle, soon turns out to be a ‘manif’ of Leonora Carrington’s Goya-like pen-and-ink drawing called ‘I am an Amateur of Velocipedes’. This is a bicycle-like machine with a female figurehead mounted on the handlebars – a reproduction of it is quickly discoverable online. An endnote exists. The narrator of the book, in a dialogue with an elderly Thibaut, carefully documents the source. No one can be left in any doubt about what it is.)

As the novel proceeds a whole bestiary of Surrealist oddities enters the book, each similarly traced to source by the narrator. Some are famous: Max Ernst’s painting of an elephant-like metal bin, ‘Celebes’, is one, and ‘Exquisite Corpse’, a collage by André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy, not only comes alive but takes a prominent role. Soon, the unstoppable carnival of spinning Surrealist images becomes dizzying.

I hoped and intended to like this novel, assuming it was a return to form for China Miéville after a period of some uncertainty. After finishing it, I felt Miéville should be congratulated on writing a unique novel. It is ambitious, obscure, unusual, difficult, provocative, fantastic, vainglorious, and not at all too long. His language is at its best bizarre, experimental, sometimes daringly impressionistic. I cannot recall another novel like it. All this is to its advantage. However, it also presents a congeries of literary problems, serious ones.

‘Weird’ is a word sometimes applied to Miéville’s work, often by the author himself. In fact, there is little about the novel that is weird. If you accept the conceit of the S-Blast, and the madness of war extended almost indefinitely, much of the novel reads like the catalogue of a Surrealist exhibition, or a Thames & Hudson book of art reproductions. We move from one ‘manif’ to the next, programme notes to hand, like captions to illustrations or narrative cards attached to the wall beside the piece of art. The reader is not given a story to follow, or the emotional lives of the characters to grow with. We know nothing of the lives of the characters outside the events in the novel – where do they live?, what do they do at the weekend?, how do they eat?, etc. There is as well a lack of comprehensible dialogue, no plot to speak of, and an extremely poor sense of place – Miéville writes ornately, but the ambience is thin. There is none of the evocative descriptive prose of (e.g.) The Scar.

And because it is a narrative totally lacking in atmosphere, sensuality, character, motivation, and much more, it becomes a struggle to maintain interest. This is the kind of book you press on reading not because you have found something to enjoy or be intrigued by, but because you are determined not to be beaten by its extraordinary flatness.

Like the Surrealist art that the novel describes, The Last Days of New Paris is not weird at all, Dali Clock Aug 2016but odd and fanciful. Surrealism developed from Dadaism, which was based bizarrely on anti-war feelings in the years 1914-18, and is full of fancy. Trains emerge from fireplaces or chug through someone’s beard, ants crawl across melting watches, lovers kiss with their faces shrouded, skeletal bones clutch an egg, a urinal is presented as an object of beauty and usefulness.

Miéville’s novel, by adding nothing to these fanciful works of art beyond making them move and cataloguing them, is full of fancy. It even becomes more fanciful still, because a novel is itself a work of art and this one should have brought something to the intriguing subject of Surrealism, more than being simply an illustrated list of examples.

The early work of J. G. Ballard (notably his stories in the collection Vermilion Sands) is wonderful proof that the images and feelings of Surrealism can be summoned and enhanced in English prose. Ballard, like Melly but seemingly unlike Miéville, was dedicated to Surrealism. Throughout his career he often cited its images and manifestos as being major influences on his writing.

Fancy is related to fantasy, but it is a slot lower. While fantasy literature draws on psychic archetypes and symbols, images of the dream state and the human wish for a sense of otherness, it also inspires imaginative ideas unconnected to the reader’s experience of reality. Fantasy often summons a series of pleasing or exciting or gratifying mental images, serving the reader’s need for the feeling of well-being not present in the real world – equally, it can suggest frightening or disturbing or warning images, again satisfying a need for excitement or menace or apprehension not often encountered in real life. Written well, fantasy is powerful stuff, ultimately based on reality and psychological experience. And yes, fantasy is often genuinely weird.

On the other hand, fancy is a whim, a surprising thought, an unexpected juxtaposition, an anachronism, a party piece. It treats the ridiculous with unfruitful solemnity. It lacks metaphorical depth. While fantasy can move, excite, depress or stimulate a reader, fancy gains only a reaction: at first it is one of amusement, or even of being impressed or astonished, but when fancy piles on other fancies, as in Miéville’s novel, then it is all too much. It becomes risible, annoying, irrelevant, even unsurprising – it provokes irritation, anger, a wish for better things.

An example from Last Days: It was one thing for the poet Paul Éluard to suggest fancifully that L’Arc de Triomphe should be turned into a giant urinal – it is quite another order of fancy for Miéville’s ‘manifs’ to tip the monument on its side, then have it streaming with self-generated urine. Self-generated urine? Where does that sort of image lead us, what does it mean, what on Earth was the author thinking? (P 54.)

A sense of the author’s abstraction, or distraction, recurs too often for comfort. Miéville is presently at the top of his game, and we expect him to be committed to his work and thus give a great performance. Far too often in Last Days there are lapses of style, grammar. The narrative is told in two tenses, the present and the past perfect – we switch between the two without apparent purpose. On pp 68 and 69 there are two such switches: from present to past perfect, to present again. This is a sign of something going wrong: either the author was not concentrating on what he was doing, or it was a meaningless stylistic mannerism he rather liked, or he didn’t realize he was doing it, or he didn’t care that he was doing it. Whichever of those four betraying signs is the one, it’s a no-win.

He has also not been well served by his copy-editor. She was not much older than Thibaut, he thought. She looked at him with urgent eyes (p 6). Who thought that? Who is ‘he’? The entire passage before and after this is in the third-person, and it is about Thibaut, but in the first of these sentences Thibaut appears to be thinking about himself. In the second: how can passive organs like eyes ever be ‘urgent’?

This sort of carelessness is a betraying detail – there are more than a few others, and it would be tedious to list them all. The four revealing conditions under which the author allows changes in narrative tense apply here too.

I found myself breaking a personal rule and began making pencil underlines of dodgy words and phrases. Like most of its kind the thing is obviously in pain. But that size, whatever its injuries or sickness, they will not help him (p 19). We expect better writing than this from a serious and successful author — we are entitled to expect better.

The expansive and dynamic early Miéville novels find few echoes here. The Last Days of New Paris is, I am sorry to say, a thinly achieved novel, apparently book-learned, lacking narrative and descriptive skill, lacking passion.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville — Del Rey, 2016, 205 pp, $25.00, ISBN: 978-0-345-54399-8

Owning Up: The Trilogy by George Melly — Penguin, 2000, 594 pp, ISBN: 0-141-39001-8

The Sound of Things Falling

A male hippopotamus escapes from a private zoo – it is shot with high-powered rifles and the marksmen pose with the body for photographs. The entrails are buried on the spot and the head and legs are sent to a research laboratory in Bogotá. This particular hippo was one of several who broke out of their enclosure — most of them were not hunted and are now feral in the surrounding area. The zoo was owned by one of the richest men in the world and was part of a heavily guarded private compound called Hacienda Nápoles (“Naples City in Italy”). As well as the zoo, the compound contained an artificial lake, numerous pieces of sculpture and life-sized models of dinosaurs and a mammoth. The compound was owned by Pablo Escobar, a drug lord, trafficker and terrorizing murderer – over the gate was a replica of the single-engined aircraft in which Escobar’s drugs were delivered to the USA. After Escobar was cornered and killed, and his cartel dismantled, his former fortress has been opened to the public

Things FallingAll of this is real, not fiction, but it provides the opening image of the novel The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Vásquez is a Colombian writer, born in Bogotá in 1973, but who moved to Europe after he graduated from university. He lived in France, Belgium and Spain, returning to Bogotá four years ago. Although Things Falling is his sixth novel, it is only the third to be translated into English (all of them by Anne McLean, who has won several awards for her work).

Vásquez pays tribute to his eminent predecessor, Gabriel García Márquez, but distances himself from magical realism, claiming that the genre requires the reader to reinvent history, or the truth. Things Falling is a realist novel, with a strong narrative voice. Even so, the style is leisurely, considered, evocative of landscape and feelings and character.

The story is about Antonio Dammara, a disaffected law professor living and working in Bogotá. He is seriously injured when he is struck by a stray bullet while in the company of an acquaintance from his youth called Ricardo Laverde. He has not seen Laverde in many years, who has aged badly and has become a withdrawn, enigmatic person. Laverde is killed in the drive-by shooting. After a long and painful recovery, which indirectly causes his marriage to start to fail, Antonio determines to find out the reason for the murder. This involves an exploration not only of Laverde’s past but of his own, growing up in Colombia while the country was held to violent ransom by the drug wars caused by Escobar and his cartel. His discoveries about Laverde’s life, the story of Elaine, Laverde’s American wife, and his only daughter, Maya, make up the substance of the book.

It is a highly unusual and ambitious novel, one of the best I have read recently.

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Bloomsbury, 299 pp, £16.99. ISBN 978-1-4088-2579-2

Jerzy Kosinski — tainted

Kosinski 3I have been reading this biography* of the Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski, a figure of deep ambiguity, a man of endless contradictions and apparent deceptiveness. He was a liar, a plagiarist, a shameless social climber, a hater and abuser of small dogs, a manipulator of women, a constant user of whores, an annoying player of unfunny and sometimes dangerous practical jokes. All of this was routinely denied by Kosinski, while most of his strange and dysfunctional acts were known and witnessed by many others. I knew none of it myself at the time, while not seriously doubting it when I became aware of what had been said. Rumours and accusations followed his career (intensifying after his death by suicide, a quarter of a century ago), with many people coming forward to claim that they had actually written his books for him. Some successful writers attract hostility and jealousy – Kosinski suffered these in spades. Everything is described in detail in the biography. Whatever the truth, for me Jerzy Kosinski was a novelist I found inspiring and influential.

Kosinski 2I first came across his work in 1968, when his second novel, Steps, was published in the UK. I had never read another book like it: almost every page was a shock, a revelation. This was partly because of the period – Steps seemed to fit naturally into the social upheavals of the time – but also partly because I was a young and beginning writer, trying to write and sell my own first novel. I was seeking a voice, seeking encouragement, seeking almost everything. I was dissatisfied with the conventional narratives of the novel, knew that there were ways to try to break out into more adventurous methods, but I was also stricken with a kind of stage fright, a nervousness about my own limitations.

Incautiously reading Steps was for me like suddenly throwing open a door without knowing what might be on the other side of the steep wall that contained it – there was what seemed to be a burst of light, revelations, openings, possibilities, a view of scenery I had not suspected was there, or ever could be. Steps consists of many short narratives, told in an icily clear, unemphatic voice. It is all description, with hardly any dialogue. It is written in a detached narrative voice, first person, unemotional, worryingly dispassionate – but the steps in Steps are violent, abusive, sometimes disgusting, dangerous, always unexpected.

I have not re-read Steps since that first time, but its images still haunt me. I soon found Kosinski’s only other book available then: it was in fact his first novel, The Painted Bird, published a couple of years before Steps. The Painted Bird is a more linear narrative, but also Kosinski 4consists of a series of shocking scenes or events. As the Germans invade Poland in 1939, the middle-class parents of a young Jewish boy place him for safety with peasants in a remote part of the countryside. This arrangement quickly breaks down, and the boy endures the rest of the war alone and sleeping rough, fending for himself in a strange and hostile landscape. He witnesses, or endures, appalling events as the Holocaust goes on around him – what you read in Steps is mild when compared with The Painted Bird. Some of the material is so horrifying that it is almost literally impossible to read. Again, Kosinski’s narrative voice was hypnotically calm, but because of what I knew about the author’s personal background (from the brief author descriptions on the book jackets) I assumed it was an autobiographical novel. If so it was unlike anything of that sort I had ever read.

Most people made the same assumption. By the time his novels were published, Kosinski had social-climbed his way into the upper echelons of the New York literary establishment. A regular at dinner parties, he repeatedly told his horrifying anecdotes: parental abandonment, trying to pass as a non-Jew, the violence of ignorant peasants, mutilation by criminals and SS members, being struck dumb. When he worked these stories into a book the publisher, who had heard them from Kosinski’s lips, accepted it as a non-fiction work. Kosinski insisted it was fiction, and as such it was published. When people read The Painted Bird, thinking as I did that it was a novel heavily influenced by personal experience, Kosinski would say in public that “it was all true”.

Who really wrote his books is a question that I think will never be answered. There have been various allegations of plagiarism or cheating. Perhaps the most damaging of these was that one of his most successful novels, Being There (1971), appears to have been a rewrite of a minor best-selling novel, published in Poland in 1932. The plagiarism would be obvious to many readers in Poland, but the original novel was never translated into English. One George Reavey, an unsuccessful poet, came forward and claimed that it was he who had written The Painted Bird. Others said that Kosinski had worked in some mysterious (and undescribed) way with the CIA – his escape from communist Poland and entry into the USA was suspiciously easy and his political background was always undefined, but the thought of CIA spooks collaborating with him on a novel about the Holocaust is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. His first two books (non-fiction, about the Soviet Union, published with the by-line Joseph Novak) were dictated in Polish to a bilingual secretary. She then fleshed them out into readable English. It is no secret that Kosinski employed a private editor to work as rewriter and adviser on many of the novels, or that Kosinski produced many different versions of his manuscripts, bearing multiple changes with each appearance.

I knew none of this when I read Kosinski’s first two novels, nor, for that matter, when I caught up with his later books. The books existed, they worked as books. Of course, as an author I believe the name of a writer on a book is a sort of guarantee, a brand, a vouchsafing of true identity. But many books are published under pseudonyms, many books are heavily edited by third parties before publication. Were his actions just a matter of degree?

Knowing what we know about Jerzy Kosinski, or strongly suspect, adds something to the intrigue, not something that is particularly flattering, but it made him different, odd, disturbing. Anyway, the novels were for me a terrific stimulus. I often went to read sections of them when I was stuck on one of my own books, not to copy or imitate the style, but partly to try to renew that first revelatory discovery of Kosinski’s unique way of showing the art of the possible.

Kosinski 1Reading James Park Sloan’s biography I frequently felt glad that I had never been part of Kosinski’s circle, that I had never met him. But then, suddenly, I remembered that I had met him once, very briefly. In 1983 he came to London to deliver the annual Scott Dawson Memorial Lecture to members of P.E.N. (of which Kosinski was a past president). It was held at the Royal Festival Hall, and the place was packed. In the interval I saw Jerzy Kosinski in the foyer, so I boldly approached him and asked him to autograph my copy of Steps. He looked at it, checked the print information, then said, ‘Have you any idea how rare and valuable this edition is?’

I said I did, and watched as he used a felt-tip pen to double its rarity and value.

* Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography, by James Park Sloan. Dutton, 1996, ISBN 0-525-93784-6

A Dish Best Served Cold?

This is a recommendation to the Argentinian film Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes), which we watched on DVD last weekend. It came out last year and has won prizes and awards at film festivals all over the world, although largely in South and Central America. It gained nominations for the Oscar and BAFTA awards (in the categories embarrassingly and chauvinistically called respectively “Foreign Language” and “Not in English”). It was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Somehow, though, perhaps because it was thought to be “foreign”, it did not gain a theatrical release in the UK, and opened on a paltry four screens in the USA. Traditionally, English-speaking audiences are assumed by distributors to loathe sub-titled films. (It is exactly this kind of unthinking chauvinism that is ultimately behind the current controversy about actors in this year’s Academy Awards.) Whatever the reason, Wild Tales can be fairly said to have slipped through the Anglophone net. More fool us.

Wild TalesIt is a wonderful film, one of the best made and most enjoyable I have seen in a long time. It is, though, difficult to describe and review, because of the form it takes. It is a portmanteau film, consisting of six individual short stories, without linking between them. In Wild Tales the stories have nothing in common beyond the theme: they are all about revenge.

The wish for revenge is an intriguing subject, and here it is treated with flourish. Each of the stories is original and unusual, each is well told and skilfully filmed. The cast consists of actors who are not instantly familiar to British and American audiences, but are obviously well known in Argentina – perhaps the most familiar of the actors is Ricardo Darin, who was the lead in such (Argentinian) films as Nine Queens and The Secret in Their Eyes. But the ensemble acting is terrific throughout.

Each of the episodes is imaginatively constructed: there is an ingenious plot as well as the story, and the characters are properly and convincingly drawn. There are memorable images galore: you will never forget the astonishing image with which the first story ends, but it’s not a film of cinematic trickery. The concluding story, for example, is based entirely on character and good writing, and leads up to a most satisfactory and surprising ending.

Wild Tales was produced by Pedro Almodóvar, and was written and directed by Damián Szifrón. I hope Szifrón has a long and successful career ahead of him. I can hardly wait to watch his film again, and I suspect others will enjoy it as much.

However:

During the same weekend we saw a second film. This, oddly enough, had several features in common with Wild Tales. Much of it was filmed in Argentina, for instance. A lot of the dialogue has subtitles in English. It too is about revenge.

It was (perhaps not obviously from that brief summary) the recent blockbuster vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy: The Revenant.

Whereas Wild Tales glories in superlative writing and storytelling, The Revenant is minimally scripted, has hardly any story at all and no plot to speak of. It is no more than an anecdote, padded out for two and a half hours. You will know the anecdote before you go into the cinema: DiCaprio is savaged by a bear, left for dead by his colleague Tom Hardy, and after he recovers he goes off in search of Hardy to exact revenge. There is nothing more to the film than that: apart from a lot of hanging around in cold weather, fabulous photography of cold weather, a dip in a freezing river, endless violence in cold weather, a lot of cruelty in the snow … and a quest for revenge.

Wild Tales was budgeted at $3 millions. The Revenant spent $135 millions. Wild Tales, as I said, opened on a mere handful of American screens. The Revenant opened on more than three thousand.

Wild Tales is the better film.

George Clayton Johnson

Mr Johnson died on Christmas Day — my obituary of him appears here. I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but after intensive researches while drafting the article I rather began to wish I had.

Part of my researches involved having a look at what online extracts I could find of the film of his novel, Logan’s Run, released in 1976. (He co-wrote the novel with William F. Nolan, who survives him.) I remember reading Logan’s Run when it came out in the mid 1960s. By the more modest standards of that long-ago era it was fairly heavily hyped by the publishers, but when I read it I found it was a straightforward dystopian satire, better done than some of the other books of that type but not exceptionally so.

It was filmed a few years later, directed by Michael Anderson from an adapted script by David Zelag Goodman, and starred Michael York and Jenny Agutter. I can’t remember much about the film beyond the fact that I did go to see it, so looking at some of it again was a revelation, especially in the context of the currently released Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The ‘first’ Star Wars film was released less than a year after Logan’s Run, and of course transformed forever the interest of Hollywood in the science fiction idiom. The two films came out less than eleven months apart — because of the amount of process work that followed the live action shooting, Star Wars was probably filmed in the UK around the same time as they were making Logan’s Run in Hollywood. Yet they seem to come from different decades, not to say that they emerge from bizarrely different imaginative cultures. Logan’s Run is slow, preachy, unconvincing. The sets and special effects look phoney, the acting is coy, forced and lacking in conviction. As for the costumes: the scenes of life in the community are rather like an especially demented Abba video. Young extras tirelessly walk to and fro, holding hands, chatting and smiling in groups of two and three — the chaps all wear body suits and have blow-waved hair, the young women are in diaphanous one-piece mini-dresses. It’s a ghastly reminder of the awful ‘styles’ that were prevalent in the 1970s. ‘It begins where imagination ends,’ promised the trailer. Never was a truer word —

We saw the new Star Wars release a day or two before Christmas. Whether or not I liked the film is neither here nor there: in terms of the visual effects, acting styles, the costumes, the kind of writing and storytelling, the type of humour, The Force Awakens is entirely consistent with its predecessor, made nearly four decades earlier. Neither film dates the other. Of course, special effects techniques have changed out of all recognition in that time, and there are gentle in-jokes about some of the original actors looking a bit faded, but everything is put to the same service as before. And even in those pre-CGI days, the Star Wars miniatures were convincing, the script had wit, the explosions were not wobbly and semi-transparent, the costumes were non-specific to passing fads and hairstyle fashions. For the full embarrassing truth, check out the Logan’s Run trailer here.

There has long been a plan to re-make the film. Not in itself surprising, but I was astonished to discover how many top film makers and writers had been dragooned into the project, and for how long it has been going on. Efforts to make a new version go back to at least 2004, with directors like Nicolas Winding Refn and Bryan Singer attached, and writers such as Carl Rinsch, Andrew Baldwin and Alex Garland commissioned to write new screenplays. All have come and gone. As recently as July 2015 the experienced producer and writer Simon Kinberg was taken on to re-boot the old project.

I tended to see all this from the point of view of George Clayton Johnson himself. A modern remake of his book would obviously have brought him some welcome recognition, and an injection of cash. I went through something similar a few years ago, while I waited for a Hollywood studio to get around to filming my The Prestige — but in the end I had to wait only five years for the project to be greenlighted, and another twelve months to see the finished film on the screen. For Mr Clayton, the inexplicable process was going on for at least the last ten years of his life, when he was elderly and unwell.

I hope when they get around to it, they do him justice.

The Art of Incidental Murder

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 SicknessThis 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.

The BlundererHer 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 OwlThe 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 MercyA 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.

Those Who Walk AwayIn 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).

Less than a Manifesto

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.

SubmissionOn 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

For Openers

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.
Fucked.

It stinks of something to me, but not of demons.

“Open Your Balls”

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.

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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!

MortdecaiThere 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!

Standing on shoulders

Station ElevenI 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

The Stars my Mutteration

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.

A Dream of Inception

A Dream of WessexHere 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

His Beast Yet

BeteBête 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

Let the notebook be the judge

Ian McEwan and I are almost contemporaries. He is five years younger than me, and his first book was published about five years after mine. The mid-1970s was a good time for a young, apparently radical writer to appear, because around then several literary commentators had been perceiving there was a vacuum, where no young or apparently radical writers were coming through. McEwan, an alumnus of the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing Course, then emerged and was greeted as the new best hope. Like a lot of people I read his first couple of books (both of them story collections), and I was impressed. I saw him as a bit of a literary rebel, independent-minded, someone who wasn’t going to be easily categorized. He was clearly gifted, had a nice sense of the macabre or disgusting, and his use of English was excellent.

I was not alone, though, in noticing that some of his stories bore remarkable similarities to stories by other writers. The first of these was ‘Dead as They Come’ (1978), which appeared in his second collection, In Between the Sheets (1978)This was almost exactly the same story as J. G. Ballard’s ‘The Smile’, published two years earlier. Several people pointed out other alleged examples of McEwan similarities, but the most publicized from this period was his first novel, The Cement Garden (1978), found by many to be a retread of Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House, published fifteen years earlier. Gloag himself was so irate about his work being pilfered that he wrote a novel based on McEwan’s assumed plagiarism, called Lost and Found (1983).

McEwan himself of course denied being a plagiarist. At the time I believed him, but I also thought that he was guilty of something almost as bad for a writer serious about his work. He wasn’t imagining properly, not thinking deeply enough.

He kept producing stuff that was like other writers’ work. It happens from time to time to many writers, but most of those coincidences are one-offs. McEwan has been dogged by accusations of copying all his career – it’s beyond coincidence. So what was going on if it wasn’t plagiarism? I came to the conclusion he had a lightweight imagination: he would see something on TV, or he would read a newspaper article, or hear an anecdote of some kind, then think he could get a story out of it. If you respond in such a shallow way, it’s inevitable that somewhere else in the world another writer will have had the same ‘inspiration’. Later I discovered from a television interview that McEwan carried his notebook everywhere and filled it with thoughts – some of them were his own, but many of them were extracts he found in other books. Nearly all writers use notebooks, so that doesn’t make him unusual. But apparently McEwan neglected to note the source – he made the excuse that years later he might come across something in one of his notebooks and not realize it was by another writer.

In recent years his copying has become even less ashamed than before. He was castigated in the press for copying out (and minutely modifying) passages from Lucilla Andrews’ memoir No Time for Romance, and including them in his novel Atonement. McEwan wisely kept his head down and waited the storm out, which duly blew over, but the plagiarism remains like a malignant lump in a sensitive part of the body. (Atonement is one of his most widely read novels.) When I reviewed his novel Solar (2010), I pointed out that a central plot-turn was obviously based on an identical sequence in the film Groundhog Day. Later in the same novel, he reported as a real event a familiar urban myth (the one about unwittingly sharing chocolate biscuits, or potato crisps, with a stranger in a station buffet), but on second thoughts he made a belated ham-fisted attempt to convert it into a serious point about industrialization.

McEwan's new novel
McEwan’s new novel

And now here we are with his most recent novel, The Children Act, and he is still revealing either his lightweight thinking, or his willingness to copy stuff down and transfer it to his novel. It’s done a bit more subtly this time, and his source is impeccable, but he remains in literary terms a copyist.

The plot of the novel, though, is original to McEwan. Here it is: Fiona Maye is a middle-aged woman whose husband suddenly announces that he wants to have an ‘ecstatic’ sexual affair with a younger woman. He walks out on her. Fiona immediately has the locks changed. A few days later she finds her chastened husband sitting in the hall outside their apartment, his possessions scattered around. She reluctantly lets him back in, and they co-habit in separate rooms. By the end of the book they have reconciled, and are sleeping together again.

That’s a thin plot for a 200+ page novel, so there must be something more? Of course: there’s a sub-plot, and this concerns Fiona’s job. She is a High Court judge in the Family Division, and she has to make a tricky decision about an adolescent boy whose parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses. He is dying of leukaemia. The parents will not agree to the blood transfusion that might save his life, which the doctors feel they have a Hippocratic obligation to provide. Fiona finds for the doctors, the transfusion goes ahead and the boy survives. She reads his romantic poetry. He begins stalking Fiona and on catching up with her asks if he could move in and live with her. They share a brief but passionate kiss. Afterwards, Fiona thinks better of this, and cuts off contact. A few months later she hears that after the boy turned 18, and was therefore capable of making his own decisions, the leukaemia returned. He himself refused another transfusion, and died.

This sub-plot is much more complex and interesting than the main plot (although it does include an overlong description of court proceedings, page after page of barrister characters, legal references, applications, statements, witnesses, meticulous post-Rumpole stuff without John Mortimer’s wit), but a sub-plot it remains.

Unfortunately, the dying Jehovah’s Witness is not a McEwan invention but an actual case, presided over by a leading Appeal Court judge in 2000. By McEwan’s own admission, freely made and repeated, he met the judge socially, rather admired the elegant linguistic style of top judges, made friends with the judge and listened avidly to his recollections of tricky decisions made in the past. (If you’re wondering how this formerly radical and independent literary firebrand came to meet top judges socially, the story is here: ‘Some years ago I found myself at dinner with a handful of judges’. As one does.)

Of course, McEwan attends to details, introduces differences – the real boy was a football fan and not a poet, the judge took him to a football match, not a quiet moment in a judges’ lodgings – but the story is the same and it carries the same literary freight as any extended passage in a novel. In this case it is in literary terms a fake.

It can be argued, and McEwan would presumably argue, that all novelists research their subjects, take notes, interview people who have had experiences, and that in this he is no different from any other novelist. There is a difference, though. A serious writer will consider the information gained from research, digest and absorb it, think about it and wonder about it, seek a significance that is greater than that of mere plotting, look for any relevance that might exist on a symbolic or unconscious level, then write it from the heart. Ian McEwan does none of this: he copies down a story, fiddles around with names and a few details, then presents it as his own, written from the head. (There is a back-page acknowledgement to the real judge, so that’s OK then. I wonder if the learned judge realizes McEwan made a similar back-page acknowledgement in Atonement, to Lucilla Andrews?)

Ian McEwan is routinely described as Britain’s leading contemporary novelist. Could that possibly be true?

The Children Act by Ian McEwan. Jonathan Cape, 2014, 213pp, ISBN: 978-0-224-10199-8, £16.99

The Best Brits?

Nick Royle - Best British Short Stories 2014There are twenty short stories in this anthology: nearly all of them are good or interesting or unusual, deserving to be in a book with this title, nearly all are by writers whose work I had not previously come across. The publisher is Salt, the editor is Nicholas Royle.

Three of the stories are of outstanding quality, each one of which would alone justify the cost of buying the book.

“Getting Out of There” by M. John Harrison (first published as a chapbook by Nightjar Press – a Nick Royle imprint), is a story set in what sounds and feels like my former hometown Hastings. The sceptical, defensive mood of the seaside town on its uppers is accurately if selectively caught. The two characters have a marginal, edgy, entirely believable relationship, fleetingly based on knowing each other years before when they were kids. They both reek of authentic Hastings-ness. Mike Harrison is writing better than ever. His reputation seems overshadowed by his contemporaries – Kureishi, Swift, McEwan, etc – but they are shallow, minor, facile writers in comparison.

“The Faber Book of Adultery” by Jonathan Gibbs is the first story in the book, and it set a standard I thought would be difficult to match in what followed. A middle-aged writer seduces (or is seduced by) his best friend’s wife. They do it standing up, leaning against a bookcase. Perhaps that makes the story sound unoriginal, but the delicacy and natural observation of the writing makes the story exceptional. The sub-text is the man’s rambling, almost disorganized thoughts about books, the adultery that is always in them, the way adultery is written. Books are sexy. I particularly liked the description of a book pulled away from a shelf that is too tightly packed with titles: “When it came free, almost with a pop, the books alongside seemed to sigh into the space it left, their pages filling with air.” The story was first published in Lighthouse 1.

The book concludes with a story as good as, or even better than, the Gibbs. It is “Barcelona” by Philip Langeskov, first published by Daunt Books. A man plans a surprise anniversary celebration for himself and his wife, in Barcelona. In spite of several minor worries and problems – pre-existing plans, lost baggage at the airport, the presence of his wife’s former lover in Barcelona, a sudden illness – they arrive there more or less intact, and the holiday goes ahead. It is another story about the effects of literature: Langeskov riskily summons the ghost of Graham Greene, specifically in a short story he reads on the plane, “The Overnight Bag”, which describes a not dissimilar European flight. The uncertainties of the Greene story resound through the visit to the Catalonian city. I think the risk Langeskov took came off: “Barcelona” is a sort of post-Greenean study of a loving marriage, with its nervous ambiguities and shadows. From beginning to end the reader senses unease, things about to go catastrophically wrong, the impact of the past not fully comprehended.

The Best British Short Stories 2014, edited by Nicholas Royle. Salt Publishing, 2014, 240pp, ISBN: 978-1-907773-67-9, £9.99

The Way Ahead

A man is seeking an appointment he has to keep. He is inside a vast modernist structure, made of concrete and glass, with unsignposted stairwells and unobliging elevators. Other people are present: tourist groups, businessmen, transient visitors. Meeting rooms have long tables and reconfigurable walls to make the rooms into whatever size, shape and function is necessary. Abstract paintings hang on every wall. Members of staff are present, unfailingly courteous and blandly unhelpful. There are hints and suspicions of close personal contacts: rooms where people are eating, where there is a dance floor, where bedroom doors are firmly closed and labelled Do Not Disturb. Offices are glassed-in, or set up as boxed workstations. A motorway runs past. Could this be a hotel? Or a hospital, an office block, an airport terminal, a convention centre?

The images come from a masterpiece of the cinema, these days a forgotten and largely unseen one: Playtime. Three years in the making, and then delayed by several post-production snags, Playtime was eventually released in 1967, starring and directed by the French comedian Jacques Tati. It was then the most expensive film ever made in France, but it did not receive the worldwide success it needed to recoup the expense of filming, and Tati was bankrupted by it. It is rarely seen these days. Although Playtime is available on DVD, the original 70mm frame is cropped, and there have been cuts made to the immense running time. However, with the hindsight of nearly half a century it can be seen as a brilliant foresight into the worst and most soulless aspects of our modern life.

Playtime was made at roughly the same time as two other comparable French films – Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), and Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), although the delays meant it came out some time later. All three films have a distinctly Ballardian flavour – not a coincidence, because J. G. Ballard’s work has always been highly regarded in France.

The Way Inn by Will WilesTo say that Will Wiles’s new novel The Way Inn is strongly reminiscent of Playtime is intended as a compliment. The narrator, the protagonist, has the symbolic-sounding name of Neil Double. Double is a professional conference-goer, standing in for middle-grade executives who either do not want to go to the conference, or cannot. He attends the symposia on their behalf, takes notes and reports back. This is his job, and he moves from one hotel and conference to the next, frequently running into the same individuals, and always encountering the same types of people. He has relationships with some of them: he knows which of the other attendees are bores or pests, and he is constantly interested in the women he tries to pick up.

However, Double’s true passion is hotels. He loves hotels, everything about them: the furniture, the abstract paintings, the cuboid armchairs, the TV screen that displays an electronic welcome, the hum of the air-con, the room-service pan-seared salmon, the electronic door key that stops working if you carry it next to your mobile phone, and so on. He also relishes the environment of the modern business hotel: the adjacent motorway, the half-constructed new buildings next door and the muddy areas which will be developed next, the vast parking lots, the nearby airport and its lights, the attached conference centre that can only be reached by courtesy bus. Wiles describes all this with economy and precision, almost a litany of the details of that over-familiar if faintly repellent world of the chain hotel. Anyone who has stayed at the Radisson next to Heathrow Airport (location of several SF conventions in recent years) will recognize the endless corridors, the mile after mile of corporate carpet, the soundproofed windows, the view from those windows across concrete to nothing of human scale, the ease with which you can get lost in the identical corridors and landings and the concomitant habit of always taking the same, safely memorized route to your room, the particular type of bland “international” cooking, the inoffensively abstract paintings, the sense of being surrounded by a Ballardian urban wilderness which you cannot enter or understand, and which will endanger you if you try to walk through it or traverse it.

I have summoned the spirit of J. G. Ballard a couple of times, not accidentally. The Way Inn strikes me as the first authentically post-Ballardian vision of the world as it has become and as it is going to continue to be. Towards the end of his career, Ballard produced a couple of social satires: Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), with discernable elements of social satire in the two much stronger novels that preceded them: Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000). Will Wiles has taken up the satire where Ballard left off, while joyfully reviving memories of the great Ballard novels from an earlier period: The Drowned World (1962), Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974).

There are also Ballardian echoes in the way Wiles characterizes women (in particular the dominant, Amazonian and sometimes enigmatic figure of the hotel para-manager Dee) – there is a constant sense of male sexual awe, without anything ever happening. (Not true of Crash, though!) Wiles’s dialogue too has that odd Ballard characteristic: an errant, oblique, declarative, almost shouted way of coming at you, non-realist but also mundane and worldly. It gives the novel the weirdest feeling, a sense that there is more going on than you think, and then you find out that there is. The final Ballardian touch I will not spoil, as the pleasure in revealing it should be Wiles’s, not mine, but I was reminded happily of one of Ballard’s Borgesian short stories published in 1982. I’ll leave it to others to trace the reference, but to narrow the search the story I’m thinking of was included in his collection War Fever (1990).

I loved The Way Inn, read it with endless pleasure and interest, and am delighted that in this year, apparently doomed to be eponymed by a class of emergent young science fiction sensation-mongers, a mature, expert and wonderfully original talent has appeared in the person of Will Wiles. For me, The Way Inn is the most satisfying and radical new novel I have read so far this year, way ahead of the rest.

The Way Inn by Will Wiles, Fourth Estate, 2014, 343pp, ISBN 978-0-00-754555-1, £12.99

More or less bunk

Lavie Tidhar’s new novel The Violent Century has been packaged as a general novel, with no hint of what is inside. The cover, with its silhouette of Brandenburger Tor, and anti-aircraft shells bursting in the sky around looming bombers, suggests a WW2 novel. The blurb refers coyly to a gunshot, a body in a river, a plane crashing into a skyscraper … and a perfect summer’s day. That the publishers (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) are not letting on about something is manifest. However, I suspect most early readers of this novel, at least as long as it remains in hard covers, will have come to it because they admired Tidhar’s earlier novel, Osama. I certainly did. Those readers, like me, will not be misdirected by the cover, as our appetites for what this young writer might do after the brilliant, if slightly flawed, Osama were well whetted.

The Violent CenturyIt turns out that the publishers’ guilty secret is that the novel is about superheroes. The Violent Century presents an alternative view of the history of the 20th century, as seen by a group of Übermenschen, or super-men. But these are not Nietzsche’s Übermenschen – they are the sort of superhero characters you find in comic books. The comics of course partly originated from the Nietzschean concept of men and women who should aim to rise ‘above or beyond’ the normal – but they were no longer super-men in that philosophical sense. The comic book writers created the popular idiom, but the Nazis were there two or three years before them. Both took the concept literally and then dumbed it down.

Nietzsche of course never intended the concept to mean a body-builder in a brightly coloured skin-tight costume who can halt a hurtling train with his hands, and neither did he mean the breeding of a genetically managed master race. This interpretative misnomer provides much of the plot tension of The Violent Century, as Tidhar’s small group of super-men witness or observe or marginally take part in various violent episodes of the Nazi era.

The central character, Henry Fogg, has the ‘super power’ of creating a blinding miasma of mist or smoke or fog, with which he can confuse, obfuscate, escape, etc. His friend and would-be beau, Oblivion, has the power when sufficiently provoked to, well, cast into oblivion those who threaten him. Other super-characters appear: a Whirlwind, a Tank, a Tigerman, a Machentraum, and so on. The plot largely turns on the quest to find the Übermensch who has, so to speak, gone over to the Nazis, one Schneesturm, as well as Fogg’s more personal quest to be reunited with Klara, after a romantic and sexual interlude with her. Klara is the daughter of Vomacht, the scientist who is said to have developed the process by which these people were ‘changed’, and she was in fact the very first to be changed.

The novel concentrates on Nazi atrocities during WW2, although there is a postscript set in the ruins of Berlin in 1946, and a brief incident in the Indochinese wars during the 1960s, and an even more fleeting reference to 9/11. Because of this over-emphasis on one relatively short period of history the main events of the novel really constitute a violent decade, rather than a century. An author should not be held ransom to his title, but this one does suggest a deeper engagement with history than is in fact the case.

Fogg and Oblivion mostly observe incidents which are well known to history: the D-Day landings, the military occupation of Minsk by the Nazis, the hideous experiments of Josef Mengele in Auschwitz, and so on. As observers they are inert. What is the point of these superheroes merely looking and commenting? When they do involve themselves, the brief action is almost always on the fringes, the historical outcome not being affected in any way. The implication is that superheroes should not act effectively. Wouldn’t that be contrary to the whole idea of being a superhero?

It is unclear what we are intended to learn about history that we did not know before. Fiction provides a mirror to reality, a way of testing what we believe to be known, and we can presume that this was the sort of instinct that lay behind writing the novel. In an afterword Tidhar sets out the reality behind his fiction, but it merely confirms the facts that most people are already familiar with. What he does not address is that because his characters are inert his take on history can never be more than superficial. The novel is also partial. By concentrating on the 12-year period of Nazi rule in Germany it says nothing about other events that were as bad, or worse: the Stalin purges, the killing fields of Cambodia, the massacres in Rwanda, the use of nerve gas by Saddam Hussein, the fire-bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Pforzheim, the nuking of Nagasaki. And there is another kind of partiality: the novel concerns itself for instance with the division of Germany and the building of the Berlin Wall, but is silent on the equally brutalist West Bank Barrier. Tidhar’s history is more or less bunk.

In essence, the novel is told on two levels: a sort of debriefing in the present day by a George Smiley figure called the Old Man, who takes a paternal interest in his young heroes, with the main narrative consisting of flashbacks to the incidents themselves. The conversations that take place in the Old Man’s office throughout the book are banal, chatty and inconclusive, so really serve as a sort of narrative continuo, quiet bits that link the exciting bits. But the main passages, the flashbacks, are also curiously uninvolving.

All of this raises the connected problem of using superhero characters in a serious novel.

Seriousness is Tidhar’s own agenda. Attempts at it spill from every page of The Violent Century, with the same sort of interest in psychological realism, human urges, emotional complexity, etc., that has been the inspiration of the recent Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan. Superheroes have become big business, at least in film, and their presence is starting to be taken for granted, a sort of donnée that by sheer persistence is no longer questioned.

In this, superheroes are similar to what has happened to zombies, a current infatuation of many writers, readers and publishers. Familiarity does not eradicate the essential silliness of such trivial notions. There is not a crumb of scientific possibility (or, for that matter, of imaginative viability) for reanimated corpses wandering down apocalyptic streets – or, to keep to the subject in hand, neither is there for adapted humans who can breathe underwater, kill with a well-aimed spit, put back time by a few minutes, and so on. The superhero comics celebrated by Tidhar in this novel are by design simplistic. Problems and crises are usually of a single issue, and are resolved in their pages in an emphatic and single-minded way. Comic book apologists often point out that the characters’ self-doubts, foibles, weaknesses and heroic shortcomings are part of the tradition too, but such sub-plot materials are resolved only by sub-plot devices. Both zombies and superheroes have become so familiar and degraded that they are clearly in what Joanna Russ described as the Decadent stage of worn-out genre materials.

The tropes of superheroes are fanciful notions, not ideas with metaphorical depth, and any attempt to dignify them with a serious purpose is to try to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of narrative material that has been debased for years by shallow and exploitative work.

Finally, Tidhar’s chosen style of writing cannot be ignored. Most of the narrative is told in short, unparsed sentences. Here is a typical short section from close to the beginning of the novel:

Walks away, towards the building. Fogg follows. Nondescript building. Can’t really tell what, if anything, is inside. Could be a bank. Could be a warehouse. Could be anything.
They go around to the side of the building. A narrow alleyway. A door set in the wall. No handle. They stop in front of it. Stare. [p.17]

This is lazy, evasive writing. It is lazy because no trouble is required to type one expressionist ejaculation after another. It is evasive because it uses what amounts to bullet points to establish every image, and does not take the trouble to find the best arrangement of words to convey the message. It seems to seek to recapture the quality of narrative panels in the comics, the voice-balloons which accompany almost every action, no matter how violent. It also smacks of an attempt to reproduce the terse, effective noir style of thriller writers like Hammett or Chandler. Formal prose (which Tidhar employed well in Osama, and which as a matter of fact both Hammett and Chandler excelled in) has not been developed as a sort of posh mannerism favoured only by literary writers. English prose can be subtle, exciting, descriptive, rhythmic, mood-inducing, beautiful, shocking. Good prose is a required art, and to scatter short sentences in undigested lumps throughout a novel is a wicked thing to do. It is a type of writing familiar to anyone who has read a screenplay: the words are deployed as shorthand, a simple code to convey images and ideas without distracting the presumably busy producer or director. Film scripts are never read for style – they are seen as a halfway house before the storyboard is drafted. Film people only feel safe with pictures.

In fact, Tidhar’s style is not half bad when he can be bothered to write properly. There is a short sequence in the middle of the novel, a lyrical passage describing Fogg’s affair with Klara, where the ugly machine-gun scatter of words temporarily ceases. Here he writes plain descriptive language, and although at times it teeters on the edge of being something that could be nominated for the annual Bad Sex Award, it is written in a way the reader will comprehend and so it becomes one of the best scenes in the novel.

Nor is the lack of descriptive prose the only thing that’s wrong. For some reason, Tidhar has opted in this novel to abandon the conventions of dialogue, and sets out all the characters’ words so that they blend with the rest and are indistinguishable from it. Maybe some will see this as a dramatic and even daring innovation, but it is a gimmick many have tried before and it is always tiresome for the reader. Tidhar compounds it by sometimes leaving off question marks, and although his solecisms are not as bad as those of many of his colleagues he should be more careful of details.

A fug of smoke cannot ‘crescendo’; the word ‘oblivion’ means the state of being forgotten or disregarded, and is not a synonym for ‘annihilation’; similarly, there is no such word as ‘obliviating’; air does not condense out of mouths in cold weather, but breath does (Tidhar gets this right later, so he knows the difference); someone who has a hole blown out of his head is described as ‘very dead’, which is presumably much more dead than just dead; ‘“We don’t age,” the Old Man said’, which suggests he must have been born old; colours don’t ‘leech’ away.

A copy editor, or Tidhar himself in a final draft, should have corrected all of these. They weren’t corrected, though, and as Tidhar is clearly being treated now as a high quality writer, the question of his style is important.

In spite of all this, Lavie Tidhar is a gifted writer. When he puts himself out he writes effectively and well, but in this novel those occasions are few and far between. He researches thoroughly and displays discernment over what he uses. He clearly has an original mind. His vocabulary, when he chooses to deploy it properly, is good and varied. I hope he will grow to see The Violent Century as an aberration, an error of judgement. Osama quite rightly drew attention to Tidhar’s real qualities and genuine promise as a novelist of the fantastic, but this is not the novel he should have written to consolidate his reputation. It is boring and shallow, clumsily written and not at all pleasant to read. It required a conscious struggle to stay interested enough to get to the end.

Slipstream Lite

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – Doubleday, 2013, £18.99, 477pp, ISBN 978-0-385-61867-0
Life After LifeThis is a beautifully written book, the language precise, evocative, sometimes lyrical, sometimes referential, often witty, sometimes even vernacular. You can open it at almost any page and you will find good English, plausible dialogue, well-balanced narrative, attractive passages of description. Kate Atkinson is an excellent stylist and this book is a pleasure to read.

But the paradoxical question arises: does beautiful writing make a well-written novel?

While reading Life After Life, my thoughts often turned to the celebrated novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001), with which it has several features in common. (A review I wrote of the McEwan novel is no longer part of this main website, but a copy of it can be read here.) There are similarities, and not only superficial ones.

Both the McEwan and the Atkinson are centred around fearful and traumatic events in the second world war – in Atonement it was the humiliating military evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, and in Life After Life it is the Blitz on London during the winter of 1940-41. Both novels are notable for their fine prose. Both novels cover a sweep of years, although there are more years in Atkinson’s novel. Most interestingly, both books are experiments with the novel form: in Atonement McEwan toyed with metafiction (an unconvincing hidden narrator is wheeled out in a moment of last-minute authorial desperation), while Atkinson is experimenting with what might be called the unreliable event. I had not come across this before, and my interest was sparked.

The event in question is the death, in fact the multiple deaths, of the central character: Ursula Todd … the punning German meaning of the surname is probably significant. (Something is made of her given name – ‘little bear’, and so on – so this suspicion is not just fanciful.) Ursula dies repeatedly, or is killed, throughout the novel.

In the opening sequence she is depicted as a young political assassin, stalking Adolf Hitler in a Munich café in 1930 – she produces a gun, aims it at Hitler’s heart and pulls the trigger. Hitler’s henchmen instantly have their guns out and they fire back. ‘Darkness fell.’ These words, or variations of them, are used in the novel whenever Ursula dies. We might assume Hitler has been shot dead, but we are told only that she pulled the trigger of the gun, not that it went off.

She dies again two pages later: now it is twenty years earlier, February 1910, and she is being born. The house is isolated by snowdrifts, and the urgently expected doctor and midwife cannot get through. Ursula’s umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck and she is strangled. Darkness falls a second time. In the next chapter the doctor is miraculously present, he snips the cord with surgical scissors and little Ursula is safely born.

The pattern is set: throughout her life Ursula will face a series of crises and threats, yielding to most of them, but managing to reboot her life afterwards. She dies of Spanish flu at the end of the first world war, almost survives another bout but succumbs again. Later she marries an abusive man and ends up being murdered. In another strand she commits suicide. In yet another she is killed when a bombed house collapses on her during the Blitz. A second attempt on Hitler’s life is described, the henchmen getting her again, but again there is a question mark. We know only that Ursula pulls the trigger. Afterwards, the second world war breaks out and continues to 1945, so are we to presume that either the gun did not fire or that she missed?

Around her, other people are affected by her reboots. A beloved brother in the RAF is killed in a bombing raid over Berlin and the evidence of his death is unchallengeable – yet does a miracle later occur? In one of Ursula’s reincarnations he survives to marry his beloved young Nancy, herself murdered by a vagrant in an earlier Ursuline life-experience. In a weird variant alternate life, Ursula moves to Germany, befriends Eva Braun, marries a German officer and becomes part of Hitler’s inner circle in the Berghof.

All of these sequences are written convincingly. The author’s research material is impressively absorbed into the background and narrative so that it is not in any way obtrusive. The sheer boredom of life with the Führer in Berchtesgaden is brilliantly evoked. Atkinson’s long scenes in the London Blitz are particularly effective, with strong descriptive writing, several hair-raising scenes of attempted rescues from the rubble of bombed buildings and a genuine sense of the chaos created by the nightly bombing. Fairly deep research has gone on, because although such matters as Hitler’s mind-numbing table talk are documented they are not widely documented. There are many popular myths about life during the Blitz, misleading for writers who do not research too closely: the American writer Connie Willis is one recent example. Atkinson is made of sterner stuff and has done her work well.

Much of this would make Life After Life a well-written but conventional family saga, or a novel of the recent historical past. It is of course more than that: everything turns on the matter of Ursula’s repeated deaths.

It is absolutely unimportant that there is no attempt to explain how they happen: this is literature, not reality. The meaning is not rational – it is elsewhere, the result of a literary device.

Literary devices have a point. They promote fiction into metafiction, demanding the reader should examine the text as well as merely read it.

It is a long book: 477 pages. For most of those pages it is not at all clear what Kate Atkinson’s point is, and in fact it is delayed (by my reckoning) until about page 440, when the author’s intention slowly starts to become clear. Even then, it is merely hinted at, almost shyly, shrinking away from tackling the subject the reader has been wondering about for the previous 439 pages.

What are we to make of these repeated deaths? Dying is traumatic: how does apparent survival from it affect her psychology? Does the character learn from repeated deaths? Is the course of history changed by them? Is there a darker symbolism to it than a mere second chance, a rebirth? Is Ursula’s life noticeably changed by death? Yes, there are alternative paths taken, but are they in themselves fundamentally different from before?

The Hitler and Blitz passages aside, most of the first 400+ pages are concerned with what might broadly be called domestic matters. We read page after page of English middle-class family life in the first half of the twentieth century: an adored but distant father, a rambunctious older brother, a sweet-natured younger brother, a problematic cook, picnics, servants, birthdays, someone being trampled by a bull, a family dog or two, shopping expeditions, tennis, neighbours, lawn mowing, trips to London, walks in the park, weather, illnesses, infatuations, boyfriends, a semi-scandalous aunt who writes YA best-sellers.

The chronology of events is never clear: the novel darts to and fro in time, returning again and again, for instance, to the day of her birth. As the complexities of Ursula’s life-after-life mount, this miasma of mundane detail starts to rise around the reader’s perception of the book, clouding concentration.

One of the real problems is that Kate Atkinson’s writing of character is rather thin. To take an example, we know that the distant father is named Hugh, that everyone loves and respects him, but that’s about it. He pops up a few times, passes through with a mild manner, and leaves no apparent trace. The name ‘Hugh’ conveys vague and paternal niceness to the reader, but that’s all. The same lack of depth is true of almost all the other characters. Ursula’s mother is called Sylvie and she is in the book for most of the way, but she acts and talks very like Ursula, and several times I found myself briefly muddling them up. We also meet George, Pamela, Harold, Derek, Old Tom, Millie, Benjamin, Bridget, Teddy, Margaret, Ralph, Fred Smith, Mrs Appleyard, Jimmy, Crighton, amongst others … and a further medley of more or less interchangeable names during the Blitz sequence. (One good and memorable character emerges from the rubble: Miss Woolf, an ARP volunteer, plausibly intelligent and humane.)

Nothing is more important in fiction, or for that matter in metafiction, than good, deep characterization. We know, for example, who Derek Oliphant is and what he is like while we are reading about him – for several pages he is a significant character in Ursula’s life, or at least during one extreme passage of it. But she dies at the end of that passage and is re-born, and the name and the character of Derek fade as quickly from the mind of the reader as they do from Ursula’s life. This is because in spite of his behaviour we learn almost nothing about Derek beyond his actions. He is a function of plot, not of character.

But this is a book with a point, even if it takes about 440 pages to make it. Until then, the reader doesn’t have much to go on, once one’s appetite for middle-class English families is first satisfied, then exhausted.

Thirty pages from the end of the novel, and not a moment too soon, Ursula starts reacting to images from her past lives. She is taken to the family psychiatrist, complaining of persistent déjà vu. The reader, still alert for the true content of the novel, perks up. This is in one of the few chapters that does not carry a date, and there is no internal evidence to indicate how old she is – Sylvie, her mother, is there with her, so perhaps Ursula is still a child at this point. We are coming to the end of the book, but chronologically the scene appears to be close to the start of her life. While in the psychiatrist’s office she notices that a photograph of his dead son, formerly placed on a side table, has gone missing. She asks about it, but the psychiatrist draws a blank. He knows of no son. Alternative reality is nudging her.

From here, it is almost as if the first long part of the novel is recapitulated synoptically, this time lightly tuned by Ursula’s ghost memories. For instance, she happens to meet again the abuser, Derek Oliphant, but this time takes fear and runs away from him. To paraphrase a thought of Ursula’s: practice makes perfect. Things are coming right – even at the moment of Ursula’s birth Sylvie is ready with the surgical scissors. Does Ursula get it right, as seems to be implied, in her second attempt on Hitler’s life?

Kate AtkinsonMy main criticism of McEwan’s Atonement was that the only interesting feature of the novel was put in as an afterthought, a rather unconvincing way of trying to address the plot weaknesses exposed at the end. For all that novel’s success and apparent popularity, and its carefully wrought high literary style, I believe it is one of McEwan’s poorest novels. I do not feel as strongly about Life After Life, even though it shares something of the same failing in not coming to terms with its formal invention until far too late. I believe Kate Atkinson stumbled across the innovative technique, became enraptured of its narrative possibilities, but did not think through in literary terms what she was tackling. It is a brave book, but the conventional family goings-on immensely clog the bulk of the novel, and work depressingly against her. There is some terrific material in her book, and some lovely prose (she is a better, less adorned stylist than McEwan), but because the author did not take on the real challenge of her interesting idea it is not the novel it might have been.

However, to conclude on a positive note – it seems likely to me that Life After Life will scoop many of the major literary awards this year. Good style counts for a lot with book-prize judges, and Kate Atkinson’s prose is almost faultless. The novel also contains its special extra, the rebirth of its protagonist, a formal surprise, another kind of literary catnip. It is not in fact an alienating surprise, but one that will seem rather more daring than it really is, a piquancy that can be argued sets it aside from, or ahead of, other novels in its year. I believe a sequel is planned.

John Clute wrote about Life After Life in his column in Strange Horizons.
Paul Kincaid reviewed it on his blog, Through the Dark Labyrinth.
Kate Atkinson writes about the background to her novel, and provides a list of her sources.

The Explorer by James Smythe — Harper Voyager, 2013, £12.99, 265pp, ISBN 978-0-00-745675-8

The Explorer is the second of James Smythe’s novels to be released within a few months. This UK publication is datelined 2013 although it is copyrighted 2012, perhaps from an earlier US edition. Could this be a first novel, or would that be The Testimony, released a while earlier? The instinct is of course to go critically a bit easier on a first novel, so just in case …

First impressions are good. Smythe is young, he writes good clean prose, he is obviously serious in intent (and therefore we might assume he is ambitious as a writer, ambitious in a greater sense than just becoming a best-selling or highly paid author, but maybe those too), and at a time when many young authors are coming into the field of fantastic literature equipped with not much more than a love of fantasy epics or Doctor Who, he seems to be well versed in the various tropes of serious science fiction.

The story of The Explorer is simply described: a spacecraft is launched from Earth bearing six astronauts. Within a few days of the launch the crew members start dying, and soon only one remains alive: a young journalist called Cormac Easton. Cormac is unable to steer or control the craft, so he is trapped inside while it continues with its programmed mission: to go further into deep space than any manned craft has gone before. Gradually the spaceship runs out of fuel and supplies until it is inevitable that Cormac will not escape with his life. Before the craft becomes completely unusable he activates some kind of auto-destruct system, and he and it are destroyed. This happens before the end of page 52. More than 200 pages of novel remain. What then follows I will leave to Smythe to relate as it is where the book becomes unusual and intriguing.

Stop reading here if you believe that first novelists (or even second novelists) should have their attempts rubber-stamped with routine approval. It’s also a good place to stop reading as the partial plot synopsis in the previous paragraph might well make you curious about what happens next. I certainly was curious, and in fact Smythe keeps the mystery going almost until the very end. I don’t want this blog review to make people think, even for a moment, that this is not a book worth reading. The uncommon quality of its plot makes it a novel that stands out from the rest, and certain details and anomalies add to that.

The novel has many such anomalies, some of them minor. The spaceship, for example, is called the Ishiguro, named after a Japanese scientist called Hidemori Ishiguro who designed the ship’s engine. Ishiguro is a fairly common Japanese name, so that’s OK. But it’s also the name of Kazuo Ishiguro, a well-known Japanese-born novelist who has already shown a more than passing interest in novels based on speculative ideas. The use of his surname here leapt out at me and it made me wonder if it was some kind of metaphysical cross-reference, a hint that the author was writing about something more than a straightforward journey into space. Maybe that’s just a detail.

But a larger anomaly, larger because it continues throughout the novel, is created by all manner of practical descriptions and accounts of the lives of the astronauts and the spacecraft itself. I was unconvinced by the astronauts themselves, simply because they behave like no other astronauts I have ever heard of or seen in action on television. The one thing everyone knows about astronauts (and Smythe knows it too, because he describes it) is that they go through years of selection, preparation and training, and detailed physical, mental and psychological testing. Even if all their personal idiosyncrasies are not entirely ironed out or controlled before the launch, the training imposes a high standard of teamwork and practical precision. The five or six allegedly trained and tested astronauts in The Explorer go to pieces within a few days of the start of the mission: a couple of them are shagging in a spare storeroom, they call one of the women astronauts “Dogsbody”, they bicker and argue about trivial matters, and soon they start dying in mysterious circumstances.

As for the spaceship itself, it is described as having bags of unused space (including the spare storeroom), seems clean and tidy for most of the time, but above all has a double-skinned hull. This design feature seems to have more relevance to the needs of the plot than to the operation of the craft, because it becomes essential as a long-term hiding place. I was sometimes reminded, uncomfortably, of the similar narrative device in Flowers in the Attic – not a comparison a good writer like Smythe will welcome. This double skin is apparently sufficiently wide for someone to move around in, and contains enough air, heating and, I think, plumbing for a man to occupy the area for weeks on end. Secret viewing hatches are everywhere, and these enable the story to continue. It is all too contrived for comfort.

Then we find that the craft is capable of “stopping” in space more or less at the throw of a switch, and as soon as it stops the “gravity” comes back on. When the engine is turned on again, the occupants of the spaceship immediately suffer the conditions of free fall. (Surely this, or something like it, would be more likely to work the other way round?) Astronauts carrying out maintenance or repairs during any of these “stops” have to don spacesuits and carry out space walks – throughout these EVAs they continue to argue about personal matters and disagreements, and when they do get down to perform the tasks for which they have left the spacecraft most of their work is to sort out a mass of wiring contained behind an access plate, a bit like telephone engineers repairing crossed lines in a terminal on the side of a suburban street.

None of this (or a lot of other stuff like it) convinced me on any logical or practical level, and I say this from the point of view of someone who does not have much grasp of technological or space-science procedures. But the overall falseness of the set-up, taken together with my much more instinctively dependable doubts about the behaviour of the characters, had the promising effect of making me wonder what the author might really be up to.

The text quickly starts showing evidence of these irregularities, and so I began musing about the whole thing being somehow in quotation marks, perhaps a dream or the ravings of a madman, or a description of a real-time simulation being carried out in a closed hangar somewhere in the Nevada desert, or maybe even a reality TV show. Something more than the events being described seemed to be going on. These totally implausible astronauts, flying in a spaceship like something out of Dan Dare, on a mission which appears to have no scientific or exploratory purpose at all, could not really be doing what the author insists they are doing. Could they? There must be another layer to all this nonsense. My interest was therefore held, and continued to be held for most of the rest of the novel.

Without giving too much away, because the plot of The Explorer develops in genuinely unexpected ways, the most serious weakness in the novel is the description of the characters, not just as astronauts but as people. We learn hardly anything at all about them in the first 52 pages, so that in the following sequence, the major part of the novel, the new and significant information we are given about them does not carry much surprise or interest. Smythe is experimenting with narrative unreliability here, which I find interesting, but that is a literary technique which is really only effective when the unreliable text seems convincing and thus memorable before it transpires that the author has not admitted everything relevant. For instance, the belated news of a pre-mission relationship between Cormac and one of the female astronauts emerges as additional information, not a revelation of any kind. This is because the woman herself barely comes to life whenever she is mentioned or takes a part in the action. By the time she is promoted by the author to being a major character, we are left wondering why she was so wan and bland before. The same is true in a similar way when we learn about the reality of Cormac’s marriage – not all is what it had appeared to be at first. The two male astronauts, named Quinn and Guy, are more or less indistinguishable from each other (in the way Cormac reacts to them, and because of the equal narrative weight the author gives them), even though one of them is mad and gay and German, while the other is not. Characterization is the key to all good writing but because Smythe has his attention elsewhere for most of the book, his ambitious and clever plot is significantly undermined.

These negative comments are directed to the author, should he come across them, and are intended in a constructive way. There is a lot to like in The Explorer, and I wanted to celebrate it more. James Smythe is obviously an intelligent writer, talented and seriously intended, and I look forward to whatever he comes up with next. I gather he is writing a sequel to The Explorer, news which, from the perspective of having just finished the first book, makes me wonder yet again if some numinous endeavour is going on. Some greater or more universal reality might be at hand.

To the reader I say: set aside the reservations I have expressed and read The Explorer with an open and welcoming mind. It is different in tone, subject-matter and ambition from almost any other SF novel you might read this year. No giant moles, artful coppers or talking horses here …

The Old Devil

My Christmas present to myself was a copy of John Fowles’s novel The Magus, which I re-read over the holiday period. The copy was a well-preserved UK first edition, which I bought not all that expensively from the Fowlesian specialist book dealer: Magusbooks, run by Bob Goosmann in Sacramento. Mr Goosmann also manages the best website on Fowles, with a mass of biographical and bibliographical detail, background information on Fowles, many photographs, and much interesting trivia (such as a translation from the Latin of the last line of The Magus). The website is here, and has direct links to the bookstore.

The first copy I owned of The Magus was a paperback urged on me in 1970 by my friend Graham Hall. The cover had been torn off because it carried a photograph of the actor Michael Caine, whom Graham loathed. (John Fowles disliked him too, as I discovered many years later). Caine was the star of the 1968 film adaptation of the novel (a pretty terrible film, with a badly chosen cast). Both the film and the novel had passed me by and I had no strong feelings about Michael Caine, but it meant that when I read the book, which came into my hands lacking a blurb and descriptive text of any kind, I had no idea what was in store. Once I had started reading, The Magus glued me to a chair for an entire weekend and overall had a profound impact on me, both as a reader and as a young writer.

Four decades and several re-readings later I’m still convinced it is one of the finest and most influential novels of the last century. The writing is beautiful, in particular in the long descriptive scenes in the first fifty pages or so (the physical descriptions throughout the long novel are executed with precision, delicate language and a vivid visual flair). Much of the story is told through scenes of dialogue, and these are handled plausibly and with a real sense of place, nuance and character.

The story is gripping. In the autumn of 1952 a young English teacher takes up a position at a private school on a small Greek island. By the following summer the schoolmaster, one Nicholas Urfe, has become trapped in an existential cabal conducted by an elderly man called Conchis, who lives on the island in a luxurious villa on the south coast. Urfe’s relationship with Conchis becomes a sort of masque, a ritualistic psychodrama overseen by the self-styled mystic, for which Urfe has apparently been chosen at random. The narrative tells how Urfe is drawn into the conspiracy, how he becomes deeply entangled and what happens when he finally escapes. The plot of the novel is complex, constantly surprising the reader. Towards the end of the book, as Urfe tries to unravel the mystery that has been woven around him, the story takes on the aspect of a thriller, with one revelation after another, opening up the story not to explanation but to a deeper realization of the complexity of the conspiracy. At the end of the novel, the famous final sequence complete with its obscure Latin tag, nothing is clear or resolved in terms of practical explanation, but philosophically both the reader and the central character have moved to a different plane of understanding. It is a choice example of how an undefined or ambiguous ending to a novel places a memorable charge on the reader.

No novel is ever perfect, though, and The Magus has its imperfections. As the years go by they seem more and more problematical, partly because the novel is not yet so old that we can make excuses for it (in the way we tolerate the sexual coyness of novels from the 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance), and partly because Fowles himself was living and working in the modern age. Fowles published the original version of The Magus in 1966, and in 1977 published a fully reworked and revised version. (It was the 1977 edition I re-read last week, incidentally, not my newly acquired first edition.) Fowles should certainly have known by 1977 that sensibilities were changing. His sexualized depiction of two of the young women in the novel (they are in their early 20s, but he usually refers to them as ‘girls’) will offend some people today, as will, and much more acutely, the characterization, description and role of the (alleged) American academic Joseph Harrison.

John Fowles, who died in 2005, is of course not around to defend himself, but he might well argue that the attitudes and mores of the novel accurately reflect those of its period, the early 1950s. However, because the book was published thirteen (and twenty-four) years after its period it is technically an historical novel, a genre which usefully deploys modern sensibility in an ironic or detached way to comment subtly on the past. There is little irony or detachment of this particular social kind in The Magus.

The other problem lies in the long central section of the novel, during which Nicholas Urfe is bemused by the intricacies of the plot that surrounds him. He is constantly questioning his own take on reality. Is this mysterious old man telling him the truth or is everything a fabrication? Have these alluring young women been employed as actors, as he is told, or is a more subtle temptation being put before him? Why are people walking around in masks from Greek mythology? Are those really Wehrmacht soldiers operating in the hills of the island, or are they actors too? Is he free to leave, or is he somehow a captive? And so on. This entire sequence continues to be written in a compelling and intriguing way, and in truth it is not all that tiresome, but it is incredibly long. After the second or third time the women (or one of the women) offer him sexual favours, only to refuse him at the last minute, the reader can’t help wondering why Mr Urfe doesn’t just walk away from the whole damned thing. He sees it through, and so will the reader, with perhaps a sense that the longueurs were justified, but I felt on this re-reading that John Fowles could easily have omitted at least two of Conchis’s long autobiographical recollections, and shortened the rest.

The essential attraction of The Magus lies, I believe, in what you could call extra-literary values.

You do not, for instance, have to read far into the novel to realize that it has a strong autobiographical content. It is known that as a young man John Fowles went to a Greek island to teach English at a large private school. The real island was Spetsai (or, as it has since become, Spetses), and it is in the same part of the Aegean Sea as the fictional Phraxos. He taught there until the summer of 1953, at the end of which he was sacked, in a similar way to Urfe although not for the same reason. The villa on the southern coast of the island is a real one, it is, or was, owned by a reclusive millionaire, and Fowles visited him there. After he left Spetsai, Fowles always swore he could not return to Greece (and did not until the end of his life, when he was taken there by a film-maker), and in general he said little in public about his time on the island.

However, his Journals from that sojourn have been published, and Eileen Warburton’s biography describes his days on Spetsai in detail. Bob Goosmann’s excellent website has more about this period. Fowles himself said, in the Foreword to the 1977 edition, ‘No correlative whatever of my fiction … took place on Spetsai during my stay.’ Even so, and knowing that reality is not the same as fiction, you can’t help experiencing a sense of curiosity about the events that are described in the novel. Fowles’s own denial, or at least his apparent need to make the denial, itself fuels the curiosity. Although many novels are written autobiographically, it is unusual to find one conducted with such intensity, so intriguingly, so enigmatically, and with so many undertones of plausible or even traceable reality.

And there is a sense of something larger, less well defined, behind the book. More than the story you read, more than the language you enjoy and even relish, more than the knowledge you gain of the characters, the reader acquires a sense of complex or profound material. The Magus seems to me to be at least partly about free will and randomness – this is never stated in such explicit terms, but as Urfe begins his quest to find out what had ‘really’ happened on Phraxos, he turns up more and more evidence that the conspiracy was wider than he imagined. Even chance encounters, a girlfriend picked up in a cinema, the landlady of a rented room selected from a postcard in a newsagent’s window, waiters, taxi drivers, newspaper vendors – they all seem to be directly or indirectly connected to the mysterious events at the villa. Maybe by this time Urfe was deep in paranoia, but then so too is the reader, also seeking some kind of rational solution.

I believe it is these extra-literary qualities which have given the novel its enduring qualities, and why it has always appealed (as Fowles himself noted, apparently ruefully) to younger or more open-minded readers. It shares with fantastic fiction that vague sense of ‘something other’, of stating or implying certain truths in outline, of suggesting that life is improvable or at least capable of change, of leaving much to the imagination while exactly and precisely stimulating it with imagined events and an invented story.