Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin 

I can’t say I loved this book, though it’s entertaining, gives insights into a different era and most interestingly illustrates the complexities of power and liberation.

It’s set in 1970s San Francisco, when a new generation of people – and some older – are living footloose and hedonistic lives that were unimaginable to most earlier generations.

There is Mary Ann Singleton, who has just moved to San Francisco; Mona, her friend from back home who has been there a while; Michael, Mona’s gay and promiscuous roommate; Brian, a straight philanderer; Beauchamp, who works where Mary Ann does, and his troubled wife De-De; Norman, an apparently dull but actually odd and perhaps sick guy who Mary Ann befriends; and Anna Madrigal, an older bohemian lady who owns the building, 28 Barbary Lane, that many of the characters live in.

Most noticeable to me about the book, first off, was the style: there is almost no description, nearly all of it is dialogue, and very short, snappy dialogue at that. You learn about the characters almost entirely through what they say. It’s like a play as much as a novel in that sense.

The big theme of the book is liberation, both as a positive and negative force. It’s positive insofar as the characters are living free and experimental lives, doing things for themselves that few others would have dreamed of. San Francisco gives them amazing possibilities for living differently, for creating their own way of being.

But despite their liberation from conventional ways of life, they appear trapped by the new one they have embraced. They are troubled by relationships they are and aren’t having, they end up forcing themselves to do things against their better judgement (one woman pretended she was black for years, using hardcore pills that coloured her skin, in order to get on in the modelling industry), and there’s a lot of sadness that their hopes about how life could be are constantly unmet. 

The great thinker on power – Michel Foucault, who incidentally spent time in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s for precisely the reasons the characters moved there – is quite clear on what’s going on here. He says there are always power relations and discourses in society that define how we live. New generations might liberate themselves from old conventional lifestyles but then new ways of thinking, new conventions, new forms of normality, take their place and despite being different and perhaps better than the old ones, they are still a constraint on people’s lives.

For Foucault we need to develop an ‘art of the self’ where, through reflection and hard work we craft a way of being for ourselves that takes bits of different discourses and become something that as far is possible our own, making us free subjects not just objects of discourse and power relations.

What we see in Tales of the City are a group of people trying – to different degrees – to tread a line and find their own ways of being between the new and old discourses about how to live, sometimes being trammelled by power relations, sometimes finding flashes of freedom.

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The missing protagonist at the heart of Joyce Carol Oates’s Broke Heart Blues

An evocative story, Broke Heart Blue weaves the voices of countless upper class Americans together in a powerful tale of memory, perception and class.

The background to the plot is the early years of John Reddy Heart, a working class teenager from our of town and new to a well-off school in Willowsville in upstate New York. Adored by the girls for his rugged aloofness and admired by the boys for his manliness, he ends up shooting a man – Melvin Riggs – apparently after Riggs has a fall out with Reddy’s Mum, the beautiful and out of control Dhalia Heart. We subsequently learn that John Reddy was not responsible but takes the fall anyway in order to protect his family.

What’s interesting is how little John Reddy Heart is in it. The book is split into three parts. Part 1 is at high school and told through the eyes of various teenagers, first focusing on their lust for him, later the trial. Part 2 is twenty years later when John Reddy is trying to make his way as Mr Fix It, an odd-jobs person, and build a relationship with a young woman, Nola. And Part 3 is a 30 year reunion for the school, where the privileged kids of yesteryear reunite in a decadent party that is fuelled by alcohol and the lack of John Reddy a Heart.

Beyond the missing Heart, so to speak, the most striking feature of the book is the style. At no point is there a clear narrator but instead a range of interweaving voices and perspectives. The technique is at once gripping and difficult, and has the effect of reinforcing the subjective views on what’s happening and the impossibility of getting clarity. It’s all emotion, conjecture and desperation. Other than John Reddy there are no strong characters developed, despite this being a dense 500 page book.

In their youth, the mass of teenagers – Verrie Myers, Art Lutz, Kate Olmsted, Dwayne Hewson and countless others – are so in thrall to their passions that they can’t get a clear sense of what’s going on for John Reddy. He is living a difficult life with a neglectful mother, forced to be the grown up rather than her – but none of them ever appear to realise the gravity of the situation.
And thirty years later, at the reunion, their memories of school are idealised and often wrong. There are events they have completely rewritten, people forgotten – and John Reddy Heart looms large in their lives despite them not knowing him while at school or since.

They are, it seems, all successful white upper class Americans who were always destined to do well. Their love affair with John Reddy Heart represents a shallow infatuation with the working class and troubled life of John Reddy Heart which they appropriated for their own stories, entertainment and collective memories without ever thinking of his life. In this sense, John Reddy Heart is missing from the story both in the sense that he isn’t much part of the plot and in the sense that his thoughts, motives and life are never seen or understood by the other characters that place such significance in him.

Man Crazy – Joyce Carol Oates

True to form, Joyce Carol Oates’s Man Crazy is a powerful and affecting book. It tells the story of Ingrid, whose father mysteriously chose to leave after involvement in a murder and whose mother lived a needy and unsettled life, largely reliant on a series of men for a mix money and adoration. As Ingrid hits adolescence she experiences the same kinds of neediness as her mother, desperately craving the attention and lust of men.

It ends with her living as a sex slave in a biker – Satanist cult led by the depraved Enoch Skaggs. She exposes the cult, in the end, though it’s not clear entirely to her how that happened. Throughout the book the sheer sadness and desperation of Ingrid’s upbringing and its impact on her personality is so present, so powerful, that at times it’s difficult to continue reading.

The most affecting point is Ingrid’s poetry reading at secondary school. She has won the poetry competition and is to read out her winning poem during the end of year assembly. She cannot believe that anyone would think it worthy of winning and works herself into a state of panic in the run up to the reading. She scratches itches on her face so she is bleeding from her hairline and decides at the last minute to find another poem, by a classic poet, to read instead, which she mumbles through, the teachers and pupils in shock. The build up to the performance, excruciating to read, conveys such a strong insight into her insecure, under-confident and needy character.

Teatro Grottesco – Thomas Ligotti

I don’t read a lot of horror which may or may not explain why I was captivated by Ligotti’s book of short stories.

There are around twenty stories, each telling an eerie and disconcerting tale of strange occurrences in a world devoid of hope. It is horror (or perhaps what seems to be referred to as speculative or weird fiction) with a focus on creating an atmosphere or creeping terror rather than any recourse to violence or gore. Each story is written in a flowing but formal matter of fact tone, which adds to the distance the reader feels.

Take The Town Manager, which tells the odd story of a town which has a manager who runs it. There has been a succession of managers, each bringing in new and stranger decisions, with the latest boosting tourism by forcing all the shopkeepers to turn their stores into bizarre carnival-like attractions. As always the town manager eventually disappears. The protagonist leaves the town, only to be approached and asked to be the next town manager.

Our Temporary Supervisor is perhaps the most powerful in the collection. Written in the first person it describes a factory where the supervisor is replaced by a dark phantom like presence and, more strangely still, where a new worker appears who is faster and works harder than everyone else. Not to be seen to be lazy or inefficient, everyone else starts to work longer and longer hours until their lives are spent working in the factory, rarely leaving or stopping.

Many of the stories are driven by themes of determinism, of dark forces – both supernatural and the very material power of capital – driving everyone’s behaviour, of our lives being the plaything of others. The books are full of despair and almost entirely lacking in warmth or character. Yet they are absolutely compelling reading, as if you are being forced to read on by powers beyond your control ….

The Switch – Elmore Leonard

Read Feb 2016

Elmore Leonard is a brilliant crime writer. Reading him is like reading a Tarantino movie. Great dialogue. Great plot. Menacing and fun characters. It’s surprising how few people write like him. Early George Pelecanos, maybe, but few others capture the reckless and entertaining violence of his books.

The Switch is the best of his novels I’ve read so far. *Spoiler alert* He tells the story of Mickey, an overlooked wife of rich but corrupt husband, Frank. Newly out of jail, Ordell and Louis decide to kidnap her and hold her to ransom. They are dodgy, but relatively harmless criminals, though unfortunately enlist the help of Richard, a psychopathic Nazi.

The kidnap itself goes as planned, but less so when they contact Frank to demand $1 million as ransom.Frank has just decided to divorce Mickey, and so doesn’t want to pay up. Eventually the blackmail fails and they let Mickey go, though not without crazy Richard causing problems that result in a shoot-out with the police.

But when Louis says she is free, Mickey doesn’t want to go home! In the best scene of the book, she hangs out for the day with Louis, drinking and smoking grass, letting herself go in a way she never does and determining to not go back to being the brow-beaten tennis mom Mickey.

After confronting Frank she ends up back with Louis and Ordell and – the final twist, the final switch – together they plan to kidnap Frank’s mistress, Melanie, and hold her to ransom ….

The Switch, more than anything, is great reading, great entertainment. But having said that, the characterisation is so strong. He captures, through dialogue rather than introspection, Mickey’s sense of being trapped and squashed by Frank, and Frank’s utter indifference to Mickey, in a way that many more ‘literary’ writers would struggle to do.

First class.

Little Green by Walter Mosley

Read January 2016

Another classic in the Easy Rawlins series, in Little Green we join Rawlins as he comes out of a coma caused by an alcohol induced crash at the end of the last book.

He immediately ends up on a case brought to him by his hard-man friend, Mouse. It’s a typically twisting Mosley plot, with racism and justice, capitalism and hippies, drugs and lowlifes. The lot.

As well as a really great idea – a young man wakes from a five day acid trip with hazy memories of violence and brothels, and a bag full of money next to his bed – what Little Green gives us is more insight into Rawlins and Mouse’s characters – their friendship, their histories, their worries.

Rawlins remains the cool PI but with more depth, and that makes Little Green one of Mosley’s best novels. 

Walter Mosley – Little Scarlet

Read Oct 2015
For such a plot-driven genre, often the most interesting elements of hard boiled crime fiction tend are the characterisation and social critique. 

This is absolutely the case with Little Scarlet, one in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels – a hard boiled private detective series with the fundamental twist that Rawlins is black.

The twisting plot, as always in this genre, is constantly shifting. It’s the LA riots, it appears that a white man killed a black woman at the tail end of the riots, and the police ask Easy to look into it. It gradually transpires that the white man was not involved and it’s a serial killer called Harold who is killing young black women, driven by his Mum’s history as a black woman who tried to to pretend she was white.

It’s a strong plot, written in classic hard boiled style. But what matters most is the characterisation and the social critique.

Easy Rawlins is a powerful protagonist. He does everything you want from a PI in a novel like this – he’s terse, he’s a loner, he’s prone to violence, and he struggles between the woman and family he loves and his desires for others.There is a moral ambiguity to Easy, who wants to do the right thing, but often that clashes with his desires on the one hand, and with what society – and the law in particular – thinks is the right thing, on the other. Hard boiled heroes are often drawn with this kind of stereotyped masculinity, and although Easy fits the category, it’s hard not to like him. 

The social critique in the Rawlin’s series is what makes Mosley stand out. Easy is black and the ongoing theme running through the series is the inequality and injustice experienced by African Americans in mid-twentieth century US. It’s present in the police force, of course, and their treatment of people, but also evident in the politics and social life throughout the novels.

What Mosely does really well in Little Scarlet in particular is highlight the anger and emotion that racial inequality leads to, and the way it manifests itself as major events like the LA riots and ongoing incidents of ‘resentiment’ – where suppressed and sometimes unarticulated feelings occasionally burst out – that are part of the everyday lives of many of the African Americans that feature throughout the book.

Racial injustice plays a causal role in everything from the race riots and the killer’s motives right through to the way Easy is treated by the police and the life chances of a young woman that Easy falls for.

It’s this – the combination of plot, character and critique – that makes Mosely a powerful novel.

Richard Ford – The Sportswriter

Read October 2015

With its cynical, insightful and aloof protagonist, The Sportswriter is the first in the series of Frank Bascombe novels by Richard Ford. It covers a long Easter weekend when, in fact, very little happens, though a short term relationship with Vicki breaks down after a trip to Detroit and a friend, Walter, commits suicide.

The big events of Frank’s life seem to have taken place prior to the weekend and we learn about much of it through his reflections on the past and how it’s affected him: Ralph, one of his three children died; he let his relationship with his wife (known here only as X) collapse in the aftermath of the death; and, after a promising start, his career as a novelist is cut short when he chooses to become a sportswriter instead.

The core of the book is about Frank’s thoughts and the way he relates to and understands people. He is cynical, diffident, slightly lonely, though not necessarily unhappy. Throughout he offers remarkable and original insights into his own and others’ behaviour.

Interestingly, Frank is portrayed as a pretty average suburban American, not unlike Updike’s Rabbit. He is both unremarkable in his normality but also unique in his profound reflections. It is this, more than anything, that makes this such a good novel. Through Frank, Ford manages to demonstrate the individuality that underpins every apparently ‘normal’ life.

I can’t say I loved every bit of this book, though there are long sections of brilliance and Frank is a great American character who it is both entertaining and educational to spend time with. I know that I’ll be reading more about Frank Bascombe because his story, his spot-on reflections and his slightly wayward approach to life draws you in.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Read July 2015

American gods is the story of shadow, a quiet hard man, out of prison, wife dead, recruited to be the minder for what it turns out is a God. He is drawn into an underworld, existing beneath contemporary America, in which the Gods of old are. Battling for relevance in a consumerist age. It’s an interesting theme, the protagonist is great to follow, although a bit too perfect, and the plot draws you in. I got a bit lost 2/3 of the way in when it turned to lots of description and was less plot driven, but it’s a good back that balances mystery and fantasy well.

It was followed by a short story – The Monarch of the Glen – where Shadow is in Scotland and is chosen, Gladiator style, to fight for the humans against the monsters, in a house party for the mega rich, which is a modern version of a ritual that has taken place annually for thousands of years. Because – but largely because – we already know Shadow, this feels a stronger, more engaging and punchier story than American Gods.