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. 

The Last Feast of Harlequin – Thomas Ligotti

Classic Ligotti, this short story is an eerie and macabre comment on contemporary society, told through a supernatural town and terrifying clowns.

The plot is relatively simple. The narrator, an academic fascinated with traditional clown festivals visits the town of Mirocaw to experience its annual festival. On arrival the place is unnatural and the festival, far from a celebration, seems to be an opportunity for the established part of the town to attack an underclass who are forced to dress up as clowns and endure jeering, abuse and violence.

Nothing in the story is clear, not the festival, not even the motives of the protagonist.
There’s a striking moment when he gets swept up by the festival’s atmosphere and pushes a clown to the ground, but his actions are ignored and he instantly feels he has violated a code he didn’t know existed. And we never find out. 

Equally there’s a moment when the protagonist is told that the clowns are chosen for the festival from across the town’s population so it could be anyone next. But this again isn’t clarified and elsewhere the clowns are described as picked from the underclass.

It ends with a mysterious and underground ritual, in which the protagonist is spared, and he drives away leaving the terrifying figures behind.

Apart from the sense of dread the story conjures up – like a cross between Stephen King and Kafka – what is striking about this story is the comment on the symbiotic relationship between a group and its other,  where one can only exist because of the suppression of the second:

Towards the end of the story the protagonist reflects in his journal on what he’s seeing, where this is made clear: 

“One thing that seems certain, however, is the division of Mirocaw into two very distinctive types of citizenry, resulting in two festivals and the appearance of similar clowns – a term now used in an extremely loose sense. But there is a connection, and I believe I have some idea of what it is. I said before that the normal residents of the town regard those from the ghetto, and especially the clown figures, with superstition. Yet it’s more than that: there is fear, perhaps hatred – the particular kind of hatred resulting from some powerful and irrational memory.”

“As I wobbled from street to street tonight, watching those oval-mouthed clowns, I could not help feeling that all the merrymaking in Mirocaw was somehow allowed by their sufferance.”

Touch – Elmore Leonard 

At the heart of Elmore Leonard’s novels is the combination of a fast-paced plot and the  rolling patter of a bunch of low lives on the make and ordinary Americans trying to find their way. Touch delivers all this, but adds a remarkable insight into the weird place of evangelical Christianity in the US.

Written in 1977 though not published until 10 years later because it was not a crime novel in Leonard’s typical sense, it tells the story of Juvenal, a humble man who for some reason has the ability to heal the sick and, when he does so, experiences stigmata.

As his gift becomes public he is surrounded by people wanting him in some way – part time record promoter, Bill Hills, wants to market and profit from him; right wing religious zealot August Murray wants to use him to convert people to his brand of traditionalist Catholicism and elevate himself to the position of an inflammatory religious leader; TV presenter Howard Hart wants him on TV so he can cut him down and humiliate him in front of millions; and Lynn wants him because she’s genuinely in love with him.

What Leonard brilliantly highlights is the human, all too human, concerns of the protagonists. None are interested in what it means for someone to experience stigmata, in the spiritual questions it raises. Even Juvenal himself is uninquisitive about the origins of his gifts. Instead, everyone is focused on the material and largely self-interested consequences of Juvenal’s condition.

Lynn and Juvenal are the only likeable characters in the novel, and this largely because they are not on the make, are clearly happy with one another and try hard to see Juvenal’s condition as just one element of his personality.

The fact that this was written in the 1970s adds an additional dimension to it: evangelical Christianity, particularly in the form of the Southern Baptists, has become more prevalent in the forty years since, and so what Leonard presciently describes is how the spiritual dimension of religion is subsumed by the petty concerns of everyday life, from basic survival to the media circus.

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.

 

Mr Majestik – Elmore Leonard

It’s surprising, but there’s no one else quite like Elmore Leonard. His stories are gripping, his style pared down and his characters likeable and mean in equal measure. If his novels had a soundtrack I’d guess Curtis Mayfield, probably.

Mr Majestik is classic Leonard – a focused tale of crime, injustice and comeuppance.

Majestik is a hard working melon farmer who is visited by Kopas, a local small time crook. They face off and Majestik is mistakenly jailed. In jail he meets crime boss Renda organises an escape that involves Majestik who takes advantage of the situation, tricking Renda and turning him into an enemy intent on killing Majestik.

Renda keeps coming for him through the book but all Majestik wants to do is harvest his melons before they go bad.

It’s an implausible story – Renda gets too obsessed, while Majestik and his girlfriend Nancy are too good to be true – but nevertheless it’s a fantastically entertaining read, like reading a Tarantino film.

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

Like its contemporary Girl on a Train, Gone Girl is part of a supposedly new genre of ‘psychological thriller.’ 

It tells the story of a couple who start off happy but end up with disappearances, accusations and murder. It alternates between each of their stories – Amy a rich New Yorker, Nick from parochial Missouri. Both out of work, they move back to Nick’s Missouri hometown and their relationship unwinds.

We see his chauvinistic tendencies first and then her controlling insecurities. The story twists and twists some more until the bizarre, if slightly far fetched truth, emerges. The end is strong in its ambiguity, revealing one of them as a dangerous murderer; yet they stay together because they need one another, despite everything.

Whether the label of psychological thriller describes anything new or not I don’t know – probably not – but Gone Girl, like Girl on a Train, works. What they in common is alternating first person narratives from unreliable narrators that gradually reveal what has happened. And what they both share, too, is a sophisticated understanding of our inner-minds that goes beyond the average crime fiction novel. Girl on a Train’s particular insight is into alcoholism and the psychology of being alone. Gone Girl’s is into relationships, what we know and don’t know about people we are close to, and how we can choose something because we need it, even if it is no good for us.

A strong novel worthy of it’s acclaim.

Canada – Richard Ford

Read August 2015

The story of a boy, Dell, and his sister, whose lives are transformed when their parents, fairly desperate but highly unlikely criminals, rob a bank.
When they are caught, the mother arranges for them to be transported to Canada to live with the strange brother of her friend. Berner, the sister, runs away, leaving Dell to make the journey alone, where he experiences a strange, desolate and ultimately violent period of time. It appears that after this he establishes a normal if somewhat detached life, becoming a teacher and, possibly, writer. Berner’s life, from the little we see and hear of it from Dell, is more troubled and plagued by bad relationships and drink, and the book ends, fifty years or so after the initial incidents, with Dell visiting her as she dies.
Themes – the whole idea of America’s rural land as a place where people can invest, reinvent and hide their acts is a major theme, with Dell’s parents and Arthur Remlinger both thinking they can get away with robbery and murder by simply disappearing in to the large land of America and Canada.
We also see a lot about deception and the ways people hide their different natures and the ways they hide them from themselves.
And what is interesting is that Dell, despite all he has been through, is a fairly untroubled character. He is somewhat distances, detached, and on a quest to understand what happened but importantly, without digging too deep into how people think and feel. He wants thing to be surface level only, whilst knowing that they aren’t. It’s interesting to see, and have a story told through the voice of, a person who isn’t crazed or duplicitous but rather shows remarkable resilience in the face of a difficult and troubled upbringing. His voice throughout is one of simple and honest explanation, though still searching, indicating that people can and do live through terrible experiences and survive.

George Pelecanos – Right as Rain

right as rain

Read Nov 2014

The story: private detective Strange is asked to look into the death of black cop (Wilson) who was killed off duty; he hooks up with the white cop (Quinn) who killed him and they end up working together, uncovering a drug operation that resulted in Wilson’s sister (Sondra) becoming an abused drug addict. Quinn did kill Wilson but it turns out that he was a pawn in bigger game. In the end Strange and Quinn take down the drug killers and rescue Sondra in a big showdown.

Right as rain is a good book as far as it goes – it’s kind of like The Wire, but without the depth, and a Quentin Tarantino film, but without the cool. The story is good, kind of makes sense, and as always George Pelecanos does dialogue and realism really well. And he tackles big issues like inequality, racism and drug use.

But, but, but . . . I can’t help feeling it’s all so formulaic now. Not just the plot but the characterisation, the heroic but flawed main character who saves the day but is plagued by insecurities stemming from a dark and difficult past that he tries to overcome everyday. Pelecanos’s Nick Stefanos novels and the DC Quarter felt fresh, but the more recent novels, less so.

We were the Mulvaneys – Joyce Carol Oates

20140727-134700-49620168.jpg

On one level this is a classic family saga – it tells the story of what at first sight seems like the perfect post-war American family – homely successful and self-made. But there’s a sense of foreboding. The seventeen year old daughter, Marianne, is raped after a Valentine prom by a boy from a wealthy established family. The rest of the book deals with the fall-out for the family: the Dad, Michael Sr, can’t handle it and sends his daughter away, effectively never seeing her again; the Mum, Corrine, maintains the facade of strength but denies what has happened, supported by a deep Christian faith; one brother, Michael Sr, just gets on with his life; another, Patrick, becomes more and more obsessed by it, eventually confronting and executing justice on the rapist; and the final brother, Judd, tells the story in this book.

The book is very impressive on psychological minutea and insight, delving subtly but deeply into the reactions of each person. It doesn’t always try to explain in full what people are doing or thinking, and why, but you can always see the ripples from the incident. The level of denial about what happened by the parents, especially Corrine, and the level of self-blame by Marianne, is astounding, with the former very much feeding the latter.

An interesting theme running through the book is faith: an unswerving Christian faith in god guiding their lives, despite everything, is crucial to the Mum and daughter’s reactions of denial and self-blame. Patrick, on the other hand, becomes a Dawkins-like Darwinian, ridiculing the idea of faith, though one is led to wonder whether his conviction about empiricism and science is in fact exactly the same as his mother’s faith: an appeal to something bigger to make sense of what had happened to their family.

Class also features heavily, though subtly. The Mulvaneys are working class made good, with Michael Sr the classic self made man who has built a successful roofing business and is now part of the civic elite in the area – in the country club, the chamber of commerce etc. Marianne is raped by the son of a local lawyer who is part of the traditional elite – landed, historically rich and powerful. It is this class difference between the two parties that has the impact: the rapist and family face no consequences from the event, whereas the Mulvaneys are ostracised, indicating that their status was contingent on the success and good will of the elite, whereas the elite’s status was solid. Who would be believed if it came down to it – the farm family or the establishment? Class may also be cause of the inherent inferiority the adult Mulvaneys feel, which seems to deter them from pursuing justice and leads then to blame themselves and Marianne for the rape, rather than the rapist.

An excellent and very thoughtful novel that successfully combines a gripping story with fascinating, believable characters whilst tackling some big issues.

Philip K Dick, The Man in the High Castle

PKD-high_castle-penguinclassics

Read July 2014

An interesting book with a complicated and obscure message. It’s the story of a world in which the Nazis and Japan won the war, and split the world, with the US being a kind of occupied buffer in the middle. It follows a number of people: Childan, who sells ‘authentic’ American wares to Japanese and German officials wanting to own a bit of the old world; Juliana, an American woman living a precarious existence who eventually goes on the search for the author of an underground book about what would be like if the Germans had lost the war; and a number of Japanese and German high officials who are trying to govern in a paranoid and unstable totalitarian regime.

It’s hard to say that there’s a moral to the story, but there is a theme: fictions. Through the book, nobody is who they say they are, nobody says what they mean and everything is obscured by the layers of lies, pretence and bluffs that are essential to propping up a totalitarian regime. It’s more subtle than Orwell’s 1984 though. It’s not simply that there is a totalitarian power that everyone knows is horrible but can’t speak about, or that they are indoctrinated unquestioning dupes. It’s that the people believe the fictions even whilst they see evidence to the contrary and are constantly unsettled and decentred by it.

Juliana goes near-crazy because she is travelling with a man she knows is lying to her, and is in fact a Nazi using her to get to the underground writer; Hawthrown, the underground writer, is reputed to be safely secured in a high castle (of the title) but is in fact living a normal suburb without any obvious threat or concern; Childan realises that his Japanese clients have seen through the sham that is the mass production of ‘authentic’ US wares but that they continue to pretend to themselves that they are real nevertheless; a senior Japanese official kills some Nazi thugs in his office but the Nazi’s pretend he didn’t to maintain order; Another senior official buys authentic wares from Childan because, though he doesn’t believe they have any traditional or spiritual value, he wants to believe; and in the end it transpires that the underground book may in fact be true, the Germans and Japanese lost the war, but the world continues to act otherwise.

The opaque nature of the story is amplified by the style of writing. To reflect the difficulties of communication between people from different countries, the dialogue is written in pidgin English, which strengthens the feeling that this is a world that is hard to to understand.

As a book it’s like its theme: obscure, hard to see through, difficult to get any clarity on.