The Lola Quartet – Emily St John Mandel

This is as gripping as any crime fiction I’ve read but with such powerful themes of innocence undone and lives unravelling, it’s so much more.

Gavin, Jack, Sasha and Daniel play in a jazz quartet at their Florida high school, and the story follows the fallout after they finish and go their separate ways, revisiting them ten years later. The charismatic and wayward Anna is at the heart of it, after she leaves Florida amid rumours of being pregnant and then steals $120,000 from a drug dealer and goes into hiding. 

Daniel helps in the first place, but leaves her to it after Anna meets a musician who helps her escape and get into hiding. Ten years later Daniel, now an overweight cop with a string of failed marriages behind him, helps when they try to deal with the pursuing dealer once and for all.

Gavin is the main character, a journalist in New York who unravels when he realises that his girlfriend Anna was pregnant ten years earlier and he’d somehow ignored the signs in a bid to move away from Florida and on with his life. A decade later he is keen to know the truth.

Jack was a fine musician but he realised early at music college that he ‘didn’t have the music’ and spiralled into a sad dependence on anti-depressants.

Sasha is the strongest character. She has never left Florida, developed a gambling addiction and works nights in a diner. There’s a great scene later in the book when she tries to win some money playing poker at the casino, with her sponsor on-hand to pull her out when she needs it.

The way the book weaves the lives of these rich characters is fantastic, and just as good is the atmosphere of jazz joints, all night diners, drug dealers, casinos and the sad desperation of a group of people who’s lives have not turned out at all as planned.

There’s such a strong theme, too, of small mistakes having big consequences: Anna getting pregnant, Daniel wanting the baby to be his, Anna stealing the money, Sasha falling into gambling, Jack inadvertently telling where Anna was, Gavin seeing a photo of Anna’s daughter….

A fine, fine book.

Advertisements

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

This is both a pro and anti war book, as well as a gripping story about a young boy who becomes a great leader at the expense of nearly all else in his life.

It’s a world supposedly at war with aliens from other planets – the buggers – and as a child Ender is picked as as a possible leader who can win the war once and for all. He is subsequently taken to training academies and space stations where generals and teachers make things harder and harder for him. He keeps on excelling at battles – which are brilliant to read – through unconventional yet highly effective strategies. But the cost is friends, family, happiness.

He keeps on training and training until late in the book there’s an excellent and unexpected twist. After that he has to find a new role for himself as a much-loved leader and hero.

There’s also a slightly odd sub-plot around his brother and sister, Peter and Valentine, who somehow establish themselves as influential voices in political debate despite being children.

There’s a strong anti-institutionalisation theme to the book: Ender’s life is lived within unexplained rules and laws of the kind that young people experience all the time.

And I’ve heard it said that this is an anti war book – about people following orders and killing millions of unknown people in distant lands – and it certainly has elements of that. But it’s just as pro-war, with the games and training made to sound incredible and Ender becoming a venerated leader and hero. There’s a nice ambiguity to the book.

O City of Broken Dreams – John Cheever

This is a frenetic short story about the hope and hopelessness of the American Dream.

Written in 1948, it’s the story of Evarts and Alice Molloy who withdraw all their savings to travel to New York after meeting a Broadway producer who expresses an interest in Evarts’ play and says he can make it happen for them. They check into a down-at-heel hotel and begin a frantic series of meetings across New York, ultimately burning their bridges with the original producer and hooking up with another that they meet through the hotel bellboy, Bitsie, and finishing up deciding to move on to LA where they think there might be more hope for them. 

What this superb story captures is the American Dream. On the one hand is the hope – that all Evarts needs to do is write the play and meet the right people and he can make it, and become a star playwright. On the other is the tragedy – they are clearly chasing a most likely hopeless dream of success, and so is everyone else. The producers and agents are just as unrealistic as Evarts, but are cut-throat too, lying to one another and threatening law suits to make things happen. By the end of the story Evarts and Alice are poorer, severed from their old home and unsure of their future, yet they have a naive hope which will drive them on until they make it or are destitute.

The writing is brilliant, a sense of urgency and looming disaster is evident from the first few lines – though you never really know how much Evarts and Alice might lose. And there are excellent, heartbreaking scenes, like the one where Alice sings at a party of producers and actors. They listen intently, enjoying the performance, but then she ends with a fake collapse that had been a key part of the routine in their rural home but appears ridiculous and results in hilarity in suave New York.

A great, sad story.

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt

A stark but affecting existential Western about the need for – and struggle to find – meaning.

Eli and Charlie Sisters are, it turns out, pretty notorious mercenaries in nineteenth century mid-West America. They are commissioned to search out an inventor who had somehow created a mix of chemicals that makes gold clear in the bottom of lakes, providing an easy way to get rich in the time of gold-rush.

The plot charts their slow pursuit of the inventor – Warm – as they befriend, meet or kill a host of other people on the way: lawyers, prostitutes, farmers, Native Americans, other cowboys. They eventually catch up with Warm and his friend Morris, but it turns out that, although the invention might be effective, it is also pretty lethal.

The big theme of the book is about finding a meaning in life. It’s narrated by Eli, who is a thoughtful soul stuck in the mercenary business. He largely wants out, to leave the death behind, but this is what he is, what he does. His brother Charlie is less reflective and altogether meaner, and it’s hard for Eli to break away from his brother when in many ways the relationship with his brother in in fact all he has of value or meaning.

The pursuit of gold appears to give meaning to the lives of so many characters, but often it appears to be self-defeating – acquiring gold often results in being robbed or killed, and the chemical agent that can help find gold is itself toxic. Charlie and Eli are brilliantly philosophical about material gain. A number of times they make enough money to retire only to lose it somehow, yet they just live with the loss and move on. Perhaps the point is that the journey and what they do en route is what provides meaning, not the gold, the end, itself?

And what I like about the book too are the little things. Eli is wonderfully conflicted, he has different moods, he is aware that he thinks different things at the same time; his mind is tricky, and real. He is multiple. Despite being murderers you can’t help liking Eli and Charlie and somehow rooting for them, for their success. And there are some excellent scenes – a Western style shoot-out with a nervous but affronted lawyer stands out as a lovely addition.

It drags sometimes, and the lack of substantial women characters in the book – although it may well reflect Eli’s attitudes – feels like a limitation, but nevertheless The Sisters Brothers is an excellent existential Western.

Elmore Leonard – Bandits

Another top-notch caper from Leonard; too good to be true, but a brilliant, brilliant read.

It tells the story of ex-con Jack, now working as an undertaker, who meets a Nun called Lucy. Together with Jack’s co-worker and ex-policeman Leo, they confront and double-cross a leader of the Nicaraguan ‘contras’ who is a ruthless and violent killer stealing a load of cash from American donors to the anti-communist government.

As always, the plot is gripping though at times hard to follow, the characters fun and complex but sometimes a little stereotyped, the dialogue consistently droll and cool and Tarantino-like.

There is a strong theme of ridiculing anti-communist right wingers in the US, but in a way that very nicely never gets too deep into the politics, just skirts around the edges highlighting that the bad guys are on the side of the American administration and Nicaragua’s authoritarianism. Good stuff as always.

Claudia Rankine – Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Full of surprise and humour and melancholy, this is a beautiful book that offers insight after insight.

Even to try to characterise what Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is about risks over-simplifying a complex and subtle piece of writing – mis-representing as about this or that. There’s so much more to it than any one thing. But it’s main theme, it seems to me, is how people – who are fundamentally defined by their relation to and perceptions by others – can live in an individualised culture where sharing and emotion are bottled up and replaced by TV and pills. 

This is done through short vignettes, anecdotes and aphorisms about racism, TV, friends, traumas, drugs, movies – modern American life. They are readable and light, but the messages they convey – the ideas they express – are big.

There is no formal structure to her book as far as I can see, but what she often does is introduce a concept through an anecdote or story or two. Then perhaps clarify that concept with reference to a quote – Hegel gets a few mentions in this book. And then she’ll tell more stories or anecdotes to give perspectives on it or to amplify it.

I love the way she starts so many of the vignettes with ‘Or’, using them as ways to explain or bring alive an idea, gently circling it, exploring it from different angles, gradually moving the ideas and the book along. And I love the way it’s hard to see any parts of this in isolation – you could read them as single pages but you get so much more when you read page after page of her gentle insights. A remarkable and rare book.

“This week the indie channel is playing and replaying Spaghetti Westerns. Always someone gets shot or pierced through the heart with an arrow, and just before he dies he says, I am not going to make it? Where? Not going to make it where? On some level maybe the phrase simply means not going to make it into the next day, hour, minute, or perhaps the next second. Occasionally, you can imagine, it means he is not going to make it to Carson City or Texas or somewhere else out west or to Mexico if he is on the run. On another levels always implicit is the sense that it means he is not going to make it to his own death. Perhaps in the back of all our minds is the life expectancy of our generation. Perhaps this expectation lingers there alongside the hours of sleep one should get or the number of times one is meant to chew food – eight hours, twenty chews, seventy-six years. We are all heading there and not to have that birthday is to not to have made it.”

Claudia Rankine, Don’t let me be lonely

 

The Doll-Master – Joyce Carol Oates

The Doll-Master is a selection of six haunting stories rooted in the horror of the subconscious as much as the supernatural.

At the core of them all these stories, though each very different from the next, is the sense that fear and tension come from the unknown inside of us, and that it is this which gives rise to the kinds of terrible things which might are sometimes associated supernatural terror.

Oakes uses some of the tropes of weird fiction but reverses the twist, so that events seem supernatural but turn out to have plain every day causes. The Doll Master is about a young man screwed up by the death of his sister who turns into a murderer, and Mystery, Inc is written in the style of classic Poe but is just straight up greed that motivates the killing of the bookshop owner.

What amplifies this theme of the horror residing within is the realist style of writing for which Oakes is known. The characters and settings are very much in the descriptive real-life style that we know her for in books like We were the Mulvaneys and Carthage, and so when we learn about the boy collecting dolls or the woman who fears her husband will murder her while they are on a trip to the Galapagos Isles, the story throws the reader between malevolent spirits and people just being people.

Even Big Momma, a story about someone who is befriended by a family who own a room-sized human-eating snake, is built around the sad reality of a child whose parent is so pre-occupied with her own life that she doesn’t see the danger her child is on.

What’s great, then, about these really readable stories is how much they tell us about subconscious drives that cause odd and apparently supernatural events.

“Europeans have always liked typifying American literature as being primarily about brooding male figures alone on a vast, windy continent, wishing hopelessly and romantically to keep in check some awful brutality we secretly love.” 

Richard Ford, in his introduction to The Granta book of the American short story: vol 1

Revival – Stephen King

A readable story of one man’s life, a gradual piece of horror and a psychoanalytic revelation, this book shows why Stephen King is such a popular author.

It begins when Jamie Morton is a young boy in small town America and the Reverend Charlie Jacobs is the new and well-loved minister in town. He experiments with electricity and manages to heal Jamie’s brother’s muteness through some weird science channeling ‘secret electricity’. But after a fatal accident involving his family, brilliantly described by King, Jacobs turns from God, blasting out a blasphemous sermon in the pulpit before leaving town.

Flash forward twenty or so years and Jamie, a musician now, is in a bad way, hooked on heroin. He meets Jacobs randomly who, using his alternative methods, cures him of his addiction. From there Jamie’s ambivalent relationship with Jacobs begins; he tracks him, now a healer preaching with a ‘carny’ show, bring in lots of money through incredible acts of electric healing that have cured hundreds maybe thousands of people. But Jamie discovers that there are often psychological aftereffects to a healing by Jacobs, sometimes lethal, often disturbing.

It comes to a head when Jamie joins Jacobs at a final experiment to discover what lies beyond the living, which they do in an page-turning scene on top of Goat Mountain, where flashes of lightening power Jacobs and he connects with a dark world beyond ours, one that haunts Jamie for the years he las left.

It’s a fantastic allegory for the kind of tumult and horror that resides just beneath the thin veneer of ‘reality’ and is almost psychoanalytic in its revelations, though whether King would see it like that I don’t know. The contrast between the realism of much of the novel – which reads at times like something by Richard Ford or someone – and the supernatural horror of the culminating scenes has an odd effect, though it’s this which ultimately makes it so readable and so disturbing.

The Nightmare Factory, vol. 2 – Thomas Ligotti

The Nightmare Factory is a graphic novel version of four of Thomas Ligotti’s chilling stories, an approach that I think both adds and takes away from their telling.

The four stories are ‘The Gas Station Carnivals,’ ‘The Clown Puppet,’ ‘The Chymist’ and ‘The Sect of the Idiot.’ The strongest of these is the ‘Gas Station Carnivals’, a story I’d read before a couple of times – and had stayed with me – about a man’s *possible* memories of visiting gas stations across the US and finding in the back terrifying shows featuring supernatural creatures.

The graphic style adds to Ligotti’s original short stories by helping them feel more contemporary and giving them a visual flair that helps you to picture some of the most obscure and terrifying parts of the story. The creatures the character (Quisser) sees at the gas stations for example are stranger for seeing them illustrated.

The graphic style does take away a little though, mostly in that Ligotti’s stories are complex and rich with detail, but the comic book necessarily pares it down to a minimum, meaning some of the depth of character or setting, and explanations of the twisting plot, are missing. And part of the appeal of reading horror like Ligotti’s is letting your imagination do the work because so much is left to your mind, and to some extent seeing it illustrated gives you a particular image that you can’t shake afterwards.

“I am an offspring of the dead. I am descended from the deceased. I am the progeny of phantoms. My ancestors are the illustrious multitudes of the defunct, grand and innumerable. My lineage is longer than time. My name is written in embalming fluid in the book of death. A noble race is mine.”

Thomas Ligotti, The Lost Art of Twilight

“With reluctance, I found myself becoming convinced of (as they are now often called) libertarian views, due to various considerations and arguments.

Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid, and filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being, my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company. I do not welcome the fact that most people I know and respect disagree with me, having outgrown the not wholly admirable pleasure of irritating or dumbfounding people by producing strong reasons to support positions they dislike or even detest.”

Robert Nozick on how his reasoning changed his views when writing his libertarian classic Anarchy, State and Utopia

Walter Mosley – Little Yellow Dog

The eponymous dog belongs to femme fatale Idabell and appears to be the cause of many of the problems in this, the fifth novel in Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series.

It’s set in JFK-era US and deals characteristically with the reality of racism and race relations. Easy is a black private investigator who’s had a hard upbringing, spent time on the street and is now trying to live straight. But his skin colour, and his difficult past, keep getting in the way.

He’s now working as a supervisor in a school overseeing the building’s maintenance, but after the brother of Idabell, one of the teachers, is discovered on the school he quickly gets himself involved in unearthing what is going on. The plot as always thickens inexorably, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing even after you’ve finished the book, and Easy finds himself stuck between the police, gangsters, city officials – and the small dog he ends up looking after – all of whom want him gone.

The plot is good, like his other Easy novels, but the reason I keep reading Mosley is in part the hard boiled style and, more than anything, Mosley’s understanding of racism and poverty, of how the two are intertwined, how they define the way so much in the US works, and of how circumstances can make people do things that they would not otherwise do.

Two hours – Ed Caesar 

Wow! What a book. I don’t know anything about marathon running or runners but I loved this.

It’s the author’s ability to tell a gripping story that does it. He traces the aspirations of a small group of elite modern day marathon runners intent on running a marathon course around a city in less than two hours. As he points out, it’s insanely fast, and the amount of training and dedication required to get anywhere near it is all-consuming.

To bring the story alive he follows in particular Geoffrey Mutai, an incredible Kenyan runner who is among the top athletes in the sport. We get to see up close his frustrations as individual runs don’t come off and he’s left knowing he could have done better.

He shows, too, that Mutai is more than a runner, he’s the source of a local economy in Kenya: because the rewards from sponsors and race organisers are so high, he – like the many other Kenyans who excel at the sport – supports his family, friends and neighbours as well as himself in the village where he lives.

Ceaser explores the success of Kenyans in particular in the sport, and what comes through is the complexity of reasons for their dominance: ancestry, upbringings involving a lot of distance on foot, high altitude villages, traditions of running, scouts, hard training, diet… so many things.

This book, well, it’s just great writing, great reporting, on a group of people who are doing amazing things.

Mediated reality: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

maxresdefaultA gripping read that not only keeps you on the edge of your seat, but also highlights how our self-understanding is often mediated by and defined by how we are viewed.

The plot of Hunger Games doesn’t really need restating, so famous it is. It’s a dystopian future where, each year, two young people from each of the 12 Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle in which they fight until only one of the 24 is left alive. It’s organised by the Capitol as a reminder to the Districts of the Capitol’s power, and as spectacular entertainment that is broadcast across the Capitol and is mandatory watching for the Districts.

Katniss’s sister Pim is picked to fight for the poor mining District 12, along with the baker’s son Peeta, but Katniss stands in for Pim, so Katniss and Peeta go into the Hunger Games. The book covers the build-up and preparation for the first third, and the Games themselves for the latter two thirds.

It’s told entirely from the first person perspective of Katniss, which is interesting, not only because we never fully understand what Peeta and others are thinking because we always see people through Katniss’s eyes, but also because she appears quite a poor judge of both what she feels and others feel throughout. It’s a powerful contrast with the film. Whereas in the film Katniss appears cold because we only see her from the outside, in the book she appears to be sensitive and struggling to convey feelings without giving too much away, making her a far richer character than she is on-screen.

There are two strong themes that comes through in the Hunger Games, the book anyway. The first is quite a sophisticated take on ideas around ‘performativity’ and what Baudrillard called the ‘simulcra’ – the way in which our ‘self’ is defined by performing certain roles and the perception of that among others, and the way in which our reality is so mediated by representations that we understand reality through representations of reality rather through direct unmediated experience.

This is a real struggle for Katniss in the games itself. She and Peeta are encouraged to win the support of viewers and sponsors by feigning a romance. Throughout Peeta is able to do this apparently honestly and convincingly whereas Katniss is never able to distinguish what she herself feels from what she thinks others are seeing when her performance is broadcast. Repeatedly she does things in order to appear the way she wants to be perceived but as she does it she realises it might actually be what she wants to do – whether helping one of the other competitors, Rue, appearing ruthless or kissing Peeta, she does what she wants only by performing it for the audience.

This, I think, is one of the strongest elements of the book: this complex interplay between ‘real’ feelings and performance, reality and its mediation which in fact shows that self-understanding is determined in part by how we are perceived and represented, not some a priori self that exists outside of that gaze.

The second strong theme is perhaps less sophisticated: it’s a hard distinction that is drawn between the honesty and vitality of the life Katniss leads in District 12 and the duplicitous and decadent life lived by the people in the Capitol. Katniss spends her time hunting, harnessing her skills, at one with the land and the people she lives with, despite the poverty and struggle and hardship. Capitol residents spend their time eating exquisite food in pampered luxury alienated from nature and the hard realities of life. This leads to a contrast between the ‘poor but happy’ district dweller and the ‘disconnected, cosseted elite’ which is probably too much of a caricature – though it does make for god reading!

Race and rage in Citizen by Claudia Rankine

This is a powerful reflection on the everyday experience of racism in contemporary America and it’s psychological and emotional impact.

At its core, I think, is the idea that daily acts of racism – sometimes subtle, sometimes less so – pervade interactions between people and these inevitably and understandably build up into occasional acts of rage by those who experience constant racial discrimination.

The subtle racism is highlighted through poetry, essays and short insightful vignettes covering everything from stop and search on the streets of Ferguson to professorial conversations at elite universities. 

One of the strongest pieces is a lyrical essay on Serena Williams who has experienced spoken and unspoken racism through her career, despite being perhaps the most successful ever female tennis player.

The essay is set against Zora Neal Hurston’s phrase: ‘I feel most coloured when thrown against a sharp white background.’ Tennis, surely the whitest sport there is, exemplifies the significance of this insight, as Rankin’s essay shows.

This sense of eruptions of rage is brought to life in a small section of quotes from the likes of Franz Fanon and Zinidan Zidan. The latter , a French Algerian, famously ended the final football match of his successful career by head butting another player after he made a racist insult about Zidan’s mother. In the context of Citizen, his action can be understood as an act of uncontrolled rage that appears occasionally among those who experience continuous racial discrimination.

Citizen is also a book that allows you to make connections to other things – to the concept of displacement in psychoanalysis, that of ressentiment in Nietzsche, as well as films about resistance to colonisation like the Battle of Algiers. And it makes you realise how art can reveal feelings that are hidden or misunderstood.

Come on in! – Charles Bukowski

Come on in! is an evocative book of poems that conjures up a visceral sense of down-at-heel urban America.

There are themes here which won’t surprise: alcoholism, cigarettes, poverty, sex, cheap apartments, homelessness. But also reflections on being a successful writer and the contrast between the down-and-out years and the later years of Bukowski’s life.

The style of poetry is distinctively Bukowski’s: paired down language and short lines, often just a few words, are used to create strong feelings, with occasional metaphors or pieces of imagery that bring the whole thing to life. Like this:

but I cannot sleep and I sit in the kitchen

with a big black fly

that goes around and around and around

like a piece of snot grown a

heart,

– from first family

 

The comparison with the beat poets is an obvious one, but Bukowsi isn’t trying as hard as Ginsberg et al and so he impresses so much more with his simplicity. Like this, a poem that is in fact about the beats:

my opinion remains the

same: writing is done

one person

at a time

one place

at a time

and all the gatherings

of

the

flock

have very little

to do

with

anything.

 

any one of them

could have made

a decent living as a

bill collector or a

used car

salesman

 

and they still

could

make an honest living

instead of bitching about

changes of fashion and

the ways of fate.

– from the ‘Beats’

There’s something a little samey about reading these poems one after another; it is best, perhaps, to dip in and read five or so at a time. They are, though, wonderful bits of writing. Short, often vignette-like; this is poetry as its simplest, rawest, funniest, most surprising.

The Frolic – Thomas Ligotti

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve re-read one of the most chilling of Ligotti’s stories, The Frolic. It packs a deceptively large amount of peril into its few pages.

David is a psychiatrist who has recently moved his wife, Leslie, and young daughter, Norleen, to a small town where he has become the psychiatrist to what appears to be a prison for the criminally insane. The whole story is set over one evening, when he returns from work and begins to explain to Leslie that he thinks they (or he) made the wrong choice in moving because, he says, the inmates are so terrifying and beyond the help he idealistically thought he could give them.

One inmate with whom he has a long therapy session has him particularly worked up – known only as John Doe, because he refuses to give a single name, he has a long long history of abducting children and doing who-knows-what with them, which he calls frolicking.

As David conveys his worries about the frolicker he admits his fear is that, despite being behind prison walls, The frolicker will somehow do something to Norleen. And as they talk a sense of concern gradually builds. David goes to check on Norleen, finds her asleep with some kind of comforter. They talk some more and agree they should move quickly. David mentions the comforter Norleen was cuddling. Leslie says she’s never heard of it and didn’t have it when she went to bed. David runs upstairs to find Norleen gone and a sinister note from the frolicker.

There is something quite conventional about this story, compared to others of Ligotti’s, but I think he does three things brilliantly in it.

First, he builds tension, claustrophobia and fear all the way through – from the stilted dialogue to the small town where Leslie feels trapped. He gradually reveals the sinister ending, surprising us despite it being the only way the story could end in retrospect.

Second, he paints an excellent picture of a conventional and difficult family scenario – the traditional family roles, the husband moving his wife and child for a job, the wife supporting his career and moral aspirations, the wife’s unspoken sense that they shouldn’t have moved, the evidence (that he didn’t put Norleen to bed, that he didn’t know what she takes to bed) that he is at work more than home, his gradual realisation he’s put his family in danger….

And third, what makes this story – as with all of Ligotti’s writing – so much more than one about a nuclear family threatened by an external threat, is that he puts ambiguity everywhere. 

The frolicker is in the prison, but he denies his past and any names, and appears to be ageless, timeless, supernatural, such that the prison walls ultimately mean nothing. What the frolicker does with the children is never said, leaving that knowledge unknown, tantalisingly unresolved. David has the feeling that the frolicker knows his daughter’s name but this is always dressed up in riddles and it’s quite unclear as to whether he does or how he could. And, indeed, there is ambiguity about where culpability lies – with the frolicker or with David who brought the situation upon them. 

Horror works well when it plants seeds of fear in the most normal of situations – what Ligotti does brilliantly here is take a traditional family set up and inject the fear of a sinister, unknowable and supernatural threat that is both inside and outside the family.