“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

What a great opening line to William Gibson’s Neuromancer

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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.

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!

Haruki Murakami – Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Having only read Norwegian Wood, this was quite a surprising read. It was Kafka-esque in the sense that the main character was led from one action to the next with no understanding of why and little control over his destiny. And it had a strong dose of science fiction and fantasy.

It turns out the narrator is a ‘shuffler’ and the last survivor of an experiment by a science professor. He meets the Professor and his unsocialised daughter and they embark on a quest beneath what is and isn’t contemporary Tokyo city – a quest at the end of which he is destined to die. The protagonist accepts his fate with a shrug and humour in the firm tradition of a hard boiled hero.

This alternates with an alternative ‘perfect’ world in which nothing happens, which it turns out is in the mind of the protagonist. It’s a slow, eerie fantasy world, a village, where he is detached from his shadow, and which ultimately he rejects for the uncertainty and danger of an imperfect but real world beyond.

It’s a strange book. Hard to follow and dragging occasionally, particularly in the alternative village. The last 100 pages pick up, as the theme becomes clear and the plot quickens. The book contains interesting ideas and a few gripping moments but ultimately it is the characters – the protagonist, his librarian girlfriend, the Professor’s daughter – who are fun, readable, well characterised and make it a strong story.

Philip K Dick, The Man in the High Castle

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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.

Un Lun Dun – China Mieville

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Read Feb 2014

An incredibly imaginative story of a girl who discovers an alternative London populated by  bizarre people and creatures. She ends up helping save Un Lun Dun from an evil smog that is trying up destroy it. What’s fantastic about the book is it’s creations and it’s imaginative ideas. It’s fun to read and very intelligent with references to post-structuralism, language and philosophy at various points. But it does lack characters you can identify with and care about. And in the end the plot is a girl reluctantly saves the world from an evil genius.