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…


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

“I thought of Uriah and all the black men and women I knew who woke up angry and went to bed in the same state of mind. Life was like a bruise for us back then, and today too.”

Walter Mosley, Charcoal Joe

4321 – Paul Auster 

A colossal exploration of the different paths a person’s life might take, and the role personal circumstance and political events play in shaping that.

4321 is a massive novel, in many ways. Massive in its ambition, telling four different versions of the main character, Ferguson’s, life, which takes different courses depending on circumstances. Massive in its scope, covering Ferguson’s place within and perceptions of major events in the 50s and 60s, like Kennedy, Vietnam and race riots. And massive in its size, at over 1,000 pages.

Ferguson is the son of Rose, who he is close to in all the versions of his life, and his entrepreneurial Dad who owns a TV and electrical goods store. And in a way the direction of his life is determined by their fates, whether they are successful, stay together or even die. Despite the epic political context it’s the minutiae of personal relationships that determines Ferguson’s lives far more than anything else. 

In the end we see one Ferguson going to Princeton, another to Columbia, another moving to Paris and another *spoiler ahead* dying early. Their lives are different. But interestingly not radically so. All of them are wanna-be writers. All combine sport with writing. All have a close relationship with Amy, but in one she’s a girlfriend, another a cousin. 

It’s interesting in this respect that what Auster (so often seen as a postmodern writer) is saying is that there are core traits to Ferguson’s personality that circumstances might shape but will always be there is some way or other.

What 4321 does brilliantly is combine historical sweep with detailed intimacy. The book covers some major events and periods, but because each story is focused on Ferguson and his place within it, we circle around him, gradually honing in on his views, feelings, emotions, strengths and weaknesses, making it a very full and powerful character study. 

Despite being written by Auster now rather than four deviates ago, 4321 really brings to life the experience of being a teenager and then young man, especially in a time of major social change. Ferguson is exploring his sexuality – in one life he’s interested in men, in another not all – and trying to understand his commitments to politics and activism rather than to art or sport.

And despite its length, the book is just so well written too. It has all the trademark characteristics of Auster (see this in-depth review of his New York Trilogy). But the style is different, with long sentences, sometimes up to a page long, exploring things in depth from different angles – just like the book. It’s light on dialogue and big on analysing inner thoughts and external circumstances. 

“One of the odd things about himself, Ferguson had discovered, was that there seemed to be several of him, that he wasn’t just one person but a collection of contradictory selves, and each time he was with a different person, he himself was different as well.”

Paul Auster (channeling Deleuze and Guattari) in 4321

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.

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.