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.

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Cocaine Nights – JG Ballard

Ballard’s nightmare version of our world is as astute as ever in Cocaine Nights.

Charles Prentice has gone to Estrella de Mar, a British expat resort on the Spanish coast, where his brother Frank, who runs the resort health club, has pleaded guilty to an arson attack on the Hollinger’s house that killed five people. Charles can’t believe hid brother’s guilt and begins to investigate to find the truth.

What he discovers is a resort that appears on the surface a model of middle age Britains abroad – all tennis clubs and amateur dramatics societies – but underneath is a sordid world of drugs, petty violence, prostitution and rape about which nobody speaks.

He becomes more and more involved in the world, and discovers the ambiguous figure of Bobby Crawford is behind much of it. Ostensibly a tennis coach, he had worked with Frank and a group of others to bring life into the town. What Crawford saw was that the resort was dull and desolate, populated by people just waiting to die, but that he could inject life into it with crime. Through ongoing petty crimes – from vandalism to horrific porn – Crawford provoked an enthusiasm for life that made Estrella de Mar such a thriving place.

Charles becomes more involved with and enthralled by Bobby Crawford – part gangster, part messiah figure – until he himself begins running a resort, his brother Frank’s plight almost forgotten.

What Ballard portrays through a cast of corrupt professionals and a characterless expat backdrop is the dark side of the ideal of the ‘leisure society’, a much discussed concept that many in the West have at different times seen as the consequence of technology and capitalism creating a world where work becomes a small part of our lives. What replaces work has always been the question: poetry, arts, personal relationships, fun, debauchery, laziness…?

Ballard offers a psychoanalytic critique of the leisure society, pointing to how there is always something unknowable repressed and smouldering underneath apparent order, and this repressed element will always find ways to manifest itself. We will always find the ‘return of the real’ as Lacan might say and it is this which we’re seeing ignited by Crawford, as the repressed desires of the expats are provoked and spill over, creating a criminal underground that makes life both deadly and worth living once again.

The characters – Charles, Frank, Bobby, Paula, Sangar, the Hollingers – might be unlikable but the ideas, the imagery and the unfolding dram in which they are cast make this an excellent piece of fiction that is at once dystopian and eerily accurate.

Steve Toltz – A Fraction of the Whole  

afractionofthewhole

Read June 2014

Wow, 700 pages long, an incredible book. It’s a roller coaster like story about Jasper, his Dad and an assortment of family members and friends. The plot is full of murder, arson, crime, philosophising, just-believable scenes and characters, and surprises that few writers could pull off. It’s a gripping story. Throughout it we follow Jasper’s relationship and journey with his Dad, Martin, both of whom are philosophical, socially awkward, verging on sociopathic. They are tied together by love / hate, a shared disbelief at the mundanity of the world and an inability to do anything differently. Jasper is continually haunted by his Dad’s larger than life personality, whilst Martin is constantly haunted by his brother, Terry Dean, a national legend who killed tens of sports stars for corrupt behaviour.

Ultimately, this is a kind of existential novel: it asks questions about how to live, why live, how to be a person, what’s acceptable and what’s not, how constrained people should  by social conventions, whether its better to live a remarkable immoral life or a conventional moral one . . .

One of the big themes is the struggle to find an identity. Jasper and Martin both have big personalities defined in both similarity and opposition to their other. They spend the book agonising, with Jasper in particular at times hating his Dad, at times loving him, at times accepting he’s like him, at times not. It has fantastic psychoanalytical insights. The other big theme is the smallness and largeness of the world. A huge story about big places (Australia and the Asia Pacific) and big ideas (identity, what life’s for, why live), the characters are few: Jasper, Martin, Terry, Carol (Martin’s first love), Eddie (Martin’s best friend / Terry’s spy). It seems to say: there’s so much to the world and, although we feel so overwhelmed by it, we in fact only touch and know a fraction.

Slavoj Zizek – Event

Event

Read June 2014

Slavoj Zizek’s short guide to the concept of the ‘event’ is his usual whistle stop tour of philosophy, psychoanalysis and pop culture. I studied for a PhD in critical / social theory and I struggled to understand a lot of it! He has an incredible ability to explain Lacanian theory, although he assumes too much understanding of the original concepts and, as always, fails to put ideas into their intellectual context. He tends to pluck them out of nowhere and use them to explain a particular phenomenon before tossing them away and grabbing another. But I love Zizek.

You come out of this book with a least three things. First, your imagination and critical faculties are sparked by a host of counter- counter- counter-intuitive ideas about society, politics and culture. It’s what Zizek does best. Second, you get a thorough understanding of the concept of the event. Not a definition as such (little in Zizek can be definitively defined) but you understand that an event is something occurring which transforms the frame through which both the present and the past is viewed. An event colours everything. Third, you get some brilliant concepts and ideas that can be applied to understand the things going on underneath the surface, the ‘unknown knowns’, as he puts it.

Here’s a classic Zizek-ism (pp148-9):

We all know the classic scene in cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice but goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When a political regime, say, loses its authority, it is like the cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down.