The Colonel’s Son – Roberto Bolano

A characteristically fun, tantalising and slightly odd short story from Roberto Bolano – just fourteen pages – that describes the plot of a B movie zombie film from the perspective of an excited narrator.

The narrator begins with a page of caveats to explain that the movie is terrible yet he loves it, see it as a mirror to his life, before the rest of the story’s pages describes the plot of the film. In the film the son of a colonel falls in love with a girl who shortly after becomes a flesh eating zombie. They are pursued by gangsters, police and the army, and the girl kills most of them quite disgustingly, but despite this he maintains his love for her. The colonel himself, at the end, deserts his mission to kill the zombies in order to protect his son, who is in turn trying to protect the zombie girl.

It’s an unusual story that simply describes the film, a film which may or may not exist. It’s classic Bolano in its ‘and this happened, then that happened’, where the meaning comes from what is included in the descriptions as opposed to deeper introspection or reflection in the story itself. And it’s perhaps a strong allegory about the powerful pull of love, it’s ability to lead us to do things we would not necessarily choose – even kissing and protecting flesh eating zombies.

And, of course, it’s brilliantly written: page turning, visceral, amusing – the kind of writing that makes you want to watch this film even though we don’t even know whether it exists!

Oh, and how’s this for an opener?

You’re not going to believe this, but last night, at about 4am, I saw a movie on TV that could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet. It scared me so fucking shitless I tell you I just about fell of my chair.

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Quiet – Susan Cain

Quiet explains a lot: why I like to spend time alone, need down time, prefer to write not talk, struggle to participate in groups, prefer the ‘flow’ of a focused activity, can wax lyrical about something I care about… and much else. And it says it’s ok, too.

Cain’s book is a piece of polemic, journalism and popular psychology in the style of Malcolm Gladwell. It was apparently years in the writing and researching, and it shows in the depth of learning and breadth of interviews and ideas.

She covers a lot of ground but never loses the core of her argument: that introverts are a significant part of the population yet are overlooked by our cultural bias toward the louder, charismatic, quick thinking but shallower extroverted ‘man of action.’

She shows the costs of this at work, in our social life, in schools and in our parenting. Not only do individuals who are introverted often suffer from lower self-esteem and don’t always flourish, but society doesn’t benefit from their creativity of introverts.

There are so many good ideas and ‘policy’ prescriptions in this book that I won’t summarise them, other than to say that we need to recognise, accommodate and value introversion not try to push people or ourselves to overcome it, as if it’s some kind of problem.

Any criticism of the book? Only one, a little one. Cain sets the book up as a battle between two personality types: the introvert and extrovert. But the reality is much more complicated. Because she adopts broad definitions of these terms most people will have elements of each, and they will be different at different times in their lives. (As the not normally pithy philosophers Deleuze and Guattari say at the start of A Thousand Plateaus: ‘The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us were several, there was already quite a crowd.’)

Few people are pure introvert or pure extrovert and so the complexity is, in fact, that elements of both are within all of us and we must find ways to recognise, accommodate and value introverted qualities whenever and in whomever they arise.

Rose Tremain – Trespass

A gothic tale of retribution, family, abuse and the effect of histories, real and imagined.

Set in the South of France, it tells the story of two sets of brother and sister. First there is Arundun and Aramon, the former sexually abused by the latter for 15 years, with the encouragement of their father Serge, and the power relation is now embodied by their housing, with Aramon in the large and increasingly decrepit manor house and she in a small bungalow, ambiguously on the edge of his land. Tired of the house and the responsibility, he wants to sell up. She continues to harbour murderous thoughts of revenge, but is yet to enact them.

Then there is Veronica and Anthony, she living in France with her partner Kitty, he an antiques dealer still in London, but fed up with the work, struggling with his business, and wanting to move to France.

He is interested in buying Aramon’s house, though worried about the bungalow on the edge of the property, and as the to and fro of the house purchase goes on Arundun sees an opportunity to take revenge on her brother for the abuse he subjected her to and the life he destroyed in the process. 

What is really strong in this novel is its gothic style, with the house and the land has a force and presence of their own; stronger than any of the characters in many ways. People – with their histories, families, houses, memories – they come and go, but land is always there. 

And equally powerful is the ways in which our histories and memories shape and ruin our lives. For Arundun and Aramon these memories are real: the abuse suffered has destroyed both their lives in different ways, and at the very end, when in prison, he expresses sorrow and appears happy with his lot, finally. For Anthony, his life is determined by his connection to his mother, Lal, but according to Veronica, it’s an imagined connection – his love for her was largely unrequited, and the mother was interest in her life and apparently lacked the maternal affection Anthony holds so dear.

Trespass is a very good book. I was expecting something more action-packed, so it’s slower revelatory style was a surprise at first, particularly given the opening chapter sees a you girl finding a body. But when you realise it’s more family saga than crime drama, it’s brilliant.

Benjamin Markovits – You don’t have to live like this

The way this book conveys big ideas about race and urban renewal through an unreliable but captivating first person account makes this remarkable and in some ways unlike anything I’ve ever read.

The book cover includes comparisons to The Wire – in fact a relatively accurate description, both in the way the city of Detroit is itself more a character than a setting, and in the way it spans the big social issues while giving an on-the-ground story.

It tells the story of Marney, a Yale graduate in his early 30s, working at Aberystwyth University, who goes back home to the US on for the vacation, meets with his old friend and uber-successful Robert James and ends up moving to Detroit in a new socially liberal scheme Robert is organising to buy up chunks of the real estate and bring in new largely middle class pioneers who can bring jobs, money and community back to Detroit.

Marney manages to make close friends among both the incomers and the mostly African Americans living in Detroit already, particularly the hard and unpredictable Nolan and a teacher, Gloria, with whom he becomes romantically involved, as well Astrid, Tony and others who have come for the cheap property and the idea of creating a new way of life.

In the end, though, the experiment in urban renewal breaks down after a black kid is hit by an incomer’s car,  and then an incomer’s child is taken, it seems, by Nolan. Marney is stuck in the middle, he ending up in court and the neighbourhood in riots.

Beside the balance of the political and personal there are some remarkable elements to the novel.

Marney is an excellent character: subtly flawed in his account of everything that is going because of his indecision, his inability to confront or perhaps even see the reality, and his unwillingness to look beyond himself.

There is a cool simplicity to the prose. It’s in the first person and on the first page Marney explains that he’s already had ‘then this happened, then this happened’ approach to story-telling. It is a device that Markovits uses effectively to allow the story to unfold gradually and to allow Marney to say what he thinks is happening without reflecting more deeply on it.

There is an enormous complexity to the characters in the book. There are lots of people, all with back stories, but despite the number and the scale of the issues dealt with in the book, there are very few stereotypes: the people are multi-layered and realistic.

Robert James is an example of this. A dotcom entrepreneur now wanting to do some good, he thinks bringing in new people and fixing up the Detroit neighbourhoods can change the nature and fortunes of the city. His motivations? Some kind of wild megalomania? Political ambitions? The desire to do good? Probably all of these and more. Throughout the book there is moral ambiguity – events that make you wonder whether something is right or wrong. We glimpse all this, but often from afar, because we are only seeing through the eyes of the self-absorbed Marney – and it is this, the complexity and ambiguity, that makes this such a quality novel.