My work is not yet done – Thomas Ligotti

This is the closest thing to traditional writing that I’ve read by Ligotti, but it doesn’t disappoint in its dose of supernatural horror and, in fact, humour.

Frank Dominio is a supervisor at a large corporate; he tolerates the mundane work but despises his colleagues, especially, six supervisors of other departments and their boss Richard, which he dubs ‘The Seven.’

After making a proposal for a new product to The Seven, they conspire against him and he is sacked. Frank plans revenge by visiting a gun shop and ordering seven guns. All very Falling Down. But then, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but entail a large black fog and, it seems, a mystical deal, he finds himself in his apartment in possession of supernatural powers.

He uses these to take revenge on each of The Seven, through some bizarre, macabre and disturbing acts. One of the seven finds herself sucked into an oozing substance in a door, for example, while another is trapped inside the body of one of Ligotti’s trademark motifs, a mannequin.

Frank only comes unstuck when it transpires that Richard himself has some supernatural links and that his earlier deal allowed him to kill only seven people; a problem because he had to deal with another office worker during his activities (trapping him in a never-ending series of doors.) To be honest, this results in a slightly weaker ending than I’d have expected, but nevertheless the book remains great regardless.

I love Ligotti’s work – his writing, his ideas, his weirdness – and this book is no exception. In fact, it’s got everything you’d want from a Ligotti story but puts it into a scenario it’s easy to relate to – dissatisfaction with all the bullshit of work – making it in many ways a stronger and perhaps more disturbing read.

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The Town Manager – Thomas Ligotti

One of Ligotti’s finest short stories, The Town Manager is a disturbing allegory for urban politics and decay.

In an unnamed town, the protagonist tells of the role of the Town Manager, whose job is to run the town. The last one – the latest in a long line – has disappeared, and a new one comes along.

Their first job is to undo the best work of previous managers, in this case getting residents to destroy the tram service, with the driver found dead. Then they demand everyone in the town change the organisations and businesses they run, creating a bizarre carnivalesque world, in which shop fronts open into distorted or horrific scenes.

The narrator discovers that there are brochures for the town in nearby places, and the town manager has been marketing it as a bizarro-town to visit. It’s a success for a while, but when the tourists die down the town manager disappears.

The narrator leaves the town and travels through nearby no-hope towns until, in a diner, he meets a stranger whose job is to recruit… a town manager.

Like so much of Ligotti’s writing this is a great story and more: an indictment of political power and the willing gullibility of citizens, when there is no hope or wealth in a perhaps once great American city.

“All of us had problems, it seemed, whose sources were untraceable, crossing over like the trajectories of countless raindrops in a storm, blending to create a fog of delusion and counter-delusion. Powerful connections and forces were undoubtedly at play, yet they seemed to have no faces and no names.”

Thomas Ligotti, Gas Station Carnivals

I’ve seen the future baby; it’s murder – Tara Isabella Burton

A hugely relevant short story with a cutting critique of our apolitical narcissistic times.

Henry and Susan are the kinds of people who hate each other: he a part of the American elite, she a left feminist. But in their late twenties they meet one another at chance and strike up a loveless relationship based around sex and drink.

Their relationship is really a series of nights at hotels, where they antagonise and sometimes discuss politics with one another, both knowing they’re diametrically opposed to one another and stand for what the other hates.

Their first night together is the one when David Bowie dies, the second when Prince dies. The third, and the focus of the story, is Trump’s election. They are in a hotel, getting wasted as it happens, and they end up arguing, waking up with little recollection of what they did, then driving home via a sleezy motel where they argue, have sex and Henry gets beat up pointlessly defending his Porsche.

This is a good read but more than anything is a story for the Trump era, one that perhaps explains to us why Trump can succeed: irony and self-absorption are such motivating factors for Henry and Susan that political and social events, however much they dislike or care about them, are nothing more than a backdrop to their lives. They dislike one another’s politics but ignore it for the hedonistic pleasure of being completely other than themselves.

Tellingly, Susan even runs out of time to vote because she’s meeting Henry, and so feels partially responsible for Trump’s victory because she did nothing to stop it, because she was so obsessed with her own disingenuous enjoyment that she let something terrible happen.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

This has more than you could expect from a big American novel – immigration, assimilation, sprawling and complicated families, race, food, diners, urban decline, enterprise, all of it – but with an added twist that marks the ambivalence of everything.

The narrator is Calliope Stephanides, a hermaphrodite. This is her / his story but it’s also that of her Greek immigrant grandparents Desdemona and Lefty, and her parents Tessie and Milton. It begins with her grandparents living in Greece and eventually travelling to the States during war. In these extraordinary times Desdemona and Lefty, who are in fact brother and sister, realise their love for one another and marry, though vow to tell nobody.

After moving to America we follow them finding their way in the US and settling in Detroit. Lefty earns money by starting a speakeasy and then a bar – the Zebra Rooms – they have children, and the book then moves on to their son, Milton, and his wife Tessie. Whereas the grandparents remain only partially assimilated, Milton is the all-American male of the American dream, eventually creating a successful chain of hot dog restaurants, but managing to alienate his wife and kids with his posturing masculinity.

Then comes Calliope (and her oddly named brother, Chapter Eleven), and we follow her through the first 16 or so years of her life. Her gradual coming of age as a teenager sees her peers becoming adolescents but Calliope’s body refusing to grow breasts or begin periods. She falls for another girl (known as the Obscure Object), but eventually she ends up going to see a sex specialist who diagnoses her and says a small operation will make her all-girl.

But Calliope doesn’t feel like a girl, so she runs away – hitching, living in a park in San Francisco and becoming an act in a sexual freak show. And she cuts her hair, changes her name to Cal and becomes a boy.

This is just one of those huge absorbing novels, where you can get lost in the characters and the romance and the details. The lives of the family are set against the backdrop of Greek and Turkish wars, prohibition, race riots, the rise and decline of industry in Detroit, sexual liberation, all of it.

As the narrator, Calliope gives us details that nobody could know – about her grandparents, about herself in the womb – making it part research, part fantasy, part guesswork, part elaboration, part author’s license.

And throughout, what Eugenides gives us the ambiguity of life – nothing is straightforward. The Greek war with Turkey, the island of Cyprus split between the two, marital and familial love, nature and nurture, sexuality and gender, nothing is ever one thing or the other but lives in an ambiguous place in the middle. Middlesex.

“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness’, ‘joy’, or ‘regret’… I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.'”

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

The Electric Michelangelo – Sarah Hall

Told with precision and beauty, this is a hugely atmospheric story of a life both fully and partly lived.

It tracks one man’s life, Cy Parks, and how it grows and shrinks with those he love and ultimately loses – his childhood friends in Morcambe, Reeda his Mum, Eliot Riley his drunk mentor and boss, and Grace his would-be lover.

Set in the 1920s to the 60s, Cy is a tattoo artist who learns his trade in Morcambe under the tutorage of the alcoholic and ill tempered Eliot before moving to the US and taking a booth at Coney Island, where he meets the mysterious and powerful Grace. As he tattoos eyes all over her body, they appear to fall for one another, but the opportunity is cut short by an attack on her by someone who hated that she was a strong woman challenging the conventions of what it was to be a woman.

The descriptions and contrasts between Morcambe and Coney Island are vivid, conjuring up the people, the smells, the eccentricities, as well as contrasting the solid predictability of Morecambe with the transgressive-ness of Coney. Hall expresses both so well.

The female characters are strong in this book – his Mum is a hotelier by day and abortionist by night (it’s set in the 1920s to 1950s) and Grace’s life is one of fierce independence, someone who challenges the objectification of women by tattooing eyes all over her body.

So much of this book is an original and insightful exploration of tattooing – of how the skin is a vital organ, of how the skin bares the soul, how a tattoo is a way for people to express conscious and unconscious parts of their selves, and ultimately how skin, the body, is intricately linked to the mind.

Moshin Hamid – Exit West

This is a humanising story about immigration and the effect it has on people – a brilliantly written book that feels so right for the times.

It focuses on two young people in an unnamed but presumably Middle Eastern city – Nadia and Saeed. Nadia’s a bit of a rebel, riding a motorbike, though she maintains safety by wearing a long black robe. Saeed is not so rebellious but is an honest man, interested in girls and a little weed like most his age.

They get together slowly, and then quickly, before their city begins to resemble a war zone as militants attack and the government defends. They see less of each other and Saeed’s Mum is killed in a bombing.

Then they hear about doors popping up all over the city, ones that lead to other towns and cities. First they travel to Mykonos in Greece, then London, then San Francisco. We see the stress and isolation and hardship takes its toll on their relationship, in time growing irritable with one another and ultimately apart.

The first thing that’s striking about the book is its style – short, yes, but importantly very readable and the author all-knowing. It’s written in this style, arguably, in order to present their experiences as objective in some way, or at least to be dispassionate in the telling.

Also striking is the richness of the two main characters, their depth. At no point are they stereotypes but instead are a complex mix of fun, and sadness, and music, and rebellion, and piety, and fun. Unlike say, Rose Tremain, whose plot and main character in The Road Home are gripping but follow the familiar story of the East European migrant, Hamid’s characters are of their own – as of course all migrants, all people, are.

The Independence Patch – Bryan Camp

This an intriguing and amusing short story exploring the future of humankind by an author I hadn’t come across before.

Donny is teenager who like most of his kind is fed up with school, hates his teachers and wants to have sex. The difference is he’s part robot, part human – ‘technically a cyborg’ as his Mum tells his teacher.

It’s unclear quite why he’s a cyborg (though his mother is a hacker activist which might explain it), but he’s not alone, there are others living among standard humans too. But it’s tricky for him. He’s constantly plugged into the internet and he can download information constantly, making his classes and exams a joke. He can be precise about everything because he is himself technology.

What the technology doesn’t help with, though, is negotiating his relations with other people. In particular he has a relationship with a girl who dumps him, and he struggles to deal with it, as any young kind would do. So, on his 18th birthday he downloads an ‘independence patch’, which allows him to take control of the technology inside him – yet even then it doesn’t help him understand other people.

The story is fun to listen to (it was on the Lightspeed podcast). Donny is a good character, an ultimately kind but typical teenager who finds himself in some amusing scenes with his teacher. But the story also raises good questions about the possibilities and limits of technology: it might be useful but can technology allow us to deal with human emotion or just raw data, facts?

For me, I’m not so sure that the hard data / soft emotion distinction really holds up. As technology develops, with AI and the like, surely it will be possible to both understand sentiments on a meta level through data and read emotion on an individual level, meaning that we / cyborgs will be able to predict and react to what people’s emotions.

Either way this is a great story that makes you think.

‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King

This is classic horror, pure and simple. A great, haunting novel that satirises rural America.

The first few hundred pages tells the story of Jerusalem’s Lot, introducing us to the people, the closeness, the closedness of this small New England Town.

The two incomers to the town are Ben Mears who grew up there and is now a successful novelist. He returns to write a story about the imposing Marsten House, a building with a terrible history that stands above the town – and one where he had a terrifying experience as a child.

The other is Straker, an elegant gentleman who is supposedly opening a new antique store and has taken residence at Marsten House with his partner, as yet unseen, Barlow.

As well as the day to day of small town life going on – arguments, affairs, drunkenness – odd things begin to happen. A dog’s head is found spiked on a railing, a child called Danny Glick dies – then his whole family – and gradually more and more people appear to be hollowed-out and zombie-like.

A cohort gradually understand with horror, and some shock, what’s happening – that Barlow is a vampire who is turning the whole town and they attempt to fight him, losing all the people they love – and for most of them their lives – in the process.

Ben and a teenager called Mark Petrie are the lead of a band of heroes, alongside Ben’s old teacher Matt, doctor Jimmy Codie and priest

Father Callahan, with support from Ben’s girlfriend Susan Norton. The characters, the big ones and the bit players in the town,are brilliant, so well written.

What I love about this book is partly how classic it is – the small town, the band of defenders, the nods to the traditions of horror and vampire literature, and the kind of modern day vampire and zombie stuff we see in the likes of Walking Dead.

And what I love too is how it parodies small town life – where Stephen King says he grew up. The minutiae of daily life, the gossip, the sense of isolation, the way everything is closed up after dark meaning anything can happen without being noticed. 

There’s a great bit in King’s afterword to the edition I read where he says his Mum would have chainsmoked her way through the last 100 gripping pages before declaring the book trash, but good trash. I know what he means: this book is trashy vampire horror, but of the highest, well-written and meaningful quality. 

Only Begotten Daughter – James Morrow

This is the story of God’s daughter, Julie Katz, born in a test tube to lighthouse-living outsider Murray in twenty first century Atlanta City. It’s a truly original story and a funny, scathing critique of religion.

After his death Julie’s angry because her mother (Gilid) has abandoned her, not to mention made her a deity with divine powers, powers which Murray had warned her not to use because right wing religious zealots will see it as blasphemous – not least Billy Milk and his son Timothy who blew up the clinic where Julie was born right after Murray had visited and picked up Julie in her jar. 

She tries to negotiate a life with her odd ball and eventually alcoholic friend Phoebe, first rejecting her powers and then using them in a newspaper column. Eventually she gives up hiding them and, after revealing herself to the world through a big act, accepts an offer from the devil (called Andrew Wyvern) to go to hell. There she meets her brother, Jesus, who works tirelessly providing hell’s sufferers with a morphine-like drug.

Fed up with hell she gives up her powers in return for life, and finds that a ‘church’ has been established by her former editor – and future husband – Bix, while Billy Milk and his band of zealots are in charge of Atlanta. In the end she tries to help Phoebe fight alcoholism and she is caught and brought for crucifixion…

This really is a good book. Well plotted. Interesting characters. Constant surprises. Full of apt metaphors. It has a religious or parable-like feel to it at times, but it’s so much more than that. It’s literary and weird and sci-fi and fantasy – I don’t know what genre it is.

And it’s a great satire of religion, good and evil are entirely jumbled. Julie’s the daughter of an uncaring God. Julie has powers to do good but doesn’t know if and his to use them. Jesus is in hell. Only three or four people appear to be in heaven. The devil is helping the so-called religious on earth…

Recommended.

Books I’ll never write #1: the role of the coffee shop in US fiction

The diner or coffee shop is a familiar venue with big significance in much contemporary American fiction. So here’s a book I’d like to write but never will: one looking at the reasons why diners play such a big role and what they are used to represent.

You could put a particular focus on American crime fiction, where the coffee shop is well used by the likes of George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Bloc and the like, but they crop up in the likes of Paul Auster or Richard Ford too.

What role does the diner play?

From a plot point of view, the diner is a way for the protagonist to be alone in their thoughts, but also run into other people through which the plot can easily develop. But the diner is less about plot and more about themes.

First, these coffee places often represent the diversity of real-life America, where all kinds of people rub shoulders, no matter what colour or class. In Pelecanos’s Washington Quartet, in particular, it’s about a Greek diner run by Nick Stefanos and Costa, but it’s a multicultural place frequented by Greeks, Italians and African Americans. 

Second, they function as a public-private space: somewhere where everyone can feasibly go, where it’s independent, but in a typically American fashion it’s a private business. There’s a curious – perhaps curiously American – mix of individualism and community.

Third, it is often used to portray a kind of authentic working class America, where people are taking a break from hard work at all hours. Though in principle it could be men and women, in reality it’s often a very male and masculine environment, with women often just working in the place not a protagonist using it. In Stefanos’s diner the people are united by coffee, beer and food, but also by boxing and sports.

I guess that the cafe is used in different ways internationally: as a place of discussion in French literature, for example, or a site of freedom in Naguib Mafouz’s Egypt, which might make a nice point of contrast.

What would I call this book, that I’ll never write? Maybe The coffee spot: the role of the diner in contemporary American fiction.

“Of course we have a waiting list. Don’t believe everything you hear about hell. Next time you run into some anti-hell propaganda, consider the source… And remember, we persecute only the guilty, which puts us one up on most other institutions.”

Andrew Wyvern (the devil) in James Morrow’s Only Begotten Daughter  

The Sellout – Paul Beatty

I don’t even know where to begin with this book. It’s incredible and amusing and confusing in equal measure.

The narrator (unnamed) is brought up by his sociologist father as a social / psychological experiment to see what happens when a child is constantly confronted with being black and poor in modern America. He is traumatised and abused, but hilariously and ridiculously so.

The book (kind of) follows the narrator in his quest to re-establish a black ghetto in LA – Dickens – that has been, as far as he thinks, erased from the map. In the process he begins to re-introduce racial segregation and gets himself a volunteer slave (Hominy). It’s quite hard to know what’s going on most of the way through the book, but the segregation appears to be having a positive effect on buses, at schools, in the streets, until the narrator gets caught and ends up at the Supreme Court accused of offences against the constitution. The narrator has a long-term relationship with bus driver Marpessa, who loves and in infuriated by his crazy schemes.

What’s most striking about the book, quite apart from the originality, is its brilliantly scathing take on race relations and inequality in modern America. The narrator comes down hard and offensively on everyone; the government and police of course, but absolutely everyone, from those unaware of their white privilege to black intellectuals, who are brought to life in the book through the character of Cheshire Foy.

“reading Crime and Punishment changed him, Crime and Punishment was the thunderbolt that crashed down from heaven and cracked him into a hundred pieces, and by the time he put himself together again, Ferguson was no longer in doubt about the future, for if this was what a book could be, if this was what a novel could do to a person’s heart and mind and innermost feelings about the world, then writing novels was surely the best thing a person could do in life, for Dostoyevsky had taught him that made-up stories could go far beyond mere fun and diversion, they could turn you inside out and take off the top of your head, they could scald you and freeze you and strip you naked and thrust you into the blasting winds of the universe, and from that day forward, after flailing about for his entire boyhood, lost in an ever-thickening miasma of bewilderment, Ferguson finally knew where he was going, or at least knew where he wanted to go.”

Paul Auster, 4321

Walter Mosley – Charcoal Joe

Like all of Mosley’s books, this is a page tuner. And like all of his books too, that’s not because of the plot alone but because of the brilliant hard-boiled dialogue.

I can’t really describe the intricacies of the plot in fewer pages than the book itself. Suffice to say it twists, turns and jumps right to the very end. Basically Easy Rawlins is hired by a gang boss named Charcoal Joe to clear the name of Seymour, a postgraduate physics student, who has been accused of murder. In his usual style, Rawlins unpicks what’s going on, finding diamonds, $2m, a few murders, plenty of crooks and even more femme fatelles along the way.

The plot’s good but it’s as much a device as anything, a way for Mosley to explore race and racism in 1960s America. Rawlins is black, as are many of the characters. And on almost every page we see implicit and explicit racism getting played out. Being barred from shops, eyed suspiciously by police, treated unfairly, living constantly on the edge. 

“Life was like a bruise” Mosley writes at one point, echoing the impact that daily racism has on black Americans which Claudia Rankine portrays so accurately in her brilliant Citizen. In fact, Rawlins and the characters we meet in Charcoal Joe are examples of the imprint, both financial and psychological, that racism leaves.

“On TV shows like Westerns this always seemed to work. All you had to do was point the gun at an unarmed man and demand he surrender; he grumbles, puts his hands in the air, and you go home to a pot roast and the plaudits of lovers and friends.

But TV did not take into account forty-plus years of substance abuse and psychological trauma.

Eugene Stapleton’s eyes opened wider than seemed possible and his face glowed red. He reached over to a shelf on his right and grabbed an honest-to-God meat cleaver.

Then he roared.”
Walter Mosley, Charcoal Joe