Thursday, 28 April 2011

'a music that embraces everything in life'

Monsieur Linh And His Child
by Philippe Claudel

This novel is the third in a loose thematic trilogy written by Claudel about the impact and aftermath of war. The second part, Broderick's Report, won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year and I have yet to read a review, or encounter a reader who is less than totally gushing about it. However, when this latest arrived I didn't have a copy of Broderick's Report and decided that the looseness of the link between each book would make it OK for me to read them in any order. This is more a novella really, weighing in at 130 pages, and is written in the kind of spare prose that I enjoyed so much in Gerbrand Bakker's The Twin. It seems to me to be particularly well suited to a story of buried trauma. Having finished it I immediately got hold of a copy of the book that preceded it and it that turns out to be as good as everyone says then I may well go back to his debut novel Grey Souls but let's concern ourselves with this latest for the moment.

An old man is standing on the after-deck of a ship. In his arms he clasps a flimsy suitcase and a newborn baby, even lighter than the suitcase. The old man's name is Monsieur Linh. He is the only person who knows this is his name because all those who once knew it are dead.

It's the kind of opening paragraph that tells you enough to feel immediately part of the story and seems to hold back so much that you can't wait to find out more. The old man is Monsieur Linh, a refugee from South-East Asia who has left his own war-torn country after the death of his son and daughter-in-law to make a new life in Europe for himself and that newborn grand-daughter Sang diu. 'Thousands of days away from a life that was once beautiful and delightful' Monsieur Linh is adrift in a busy French city where everything is alien, even the food.

The soup is like the air of the city that he breathed in as he left the ship. It does not really have any smell, not really any taste. There is nothing familiar about it. There is none of the delicious tang of lemongrass, the sweetness of fresh coriander, the smoothness of cooked tripe. The soup enters his mouth and passes into his body, and he is suddenly filled with all the strangeness of his new life.

Then one day he happens to meet a man on a park bench, Monsieur Bark. Though they don't share a language they somehow manage to communicate, sensing what the other means, with plenty of humour along the way for us as we can witness the small misunderstandings which mean that Bark thinks that Monsieur Linh's first greeting is actually his name, and Linh's only grasp of French is the word for 'Good-day.'

From now on, as soon as he wakes up, the old man looks forward to the moment when he will go to meet his friend. He refers to him as 'his friend' in his mind, because that is what he really is. The fat man has become his friend, even though Monsieur Linh does not speak his language, even though he does not understand it, even though the only word that he uses is "Good-day". It is not important. In any case, the fat man himself only knows one word of Monsieur Linh's language, and it is the same word.
The relationship between these two men is beautifully drawn, each of them damaged in their own way, Linh as I have already described and Monsieur Bark a widower. They have no common language and yet look forward to their daily meetings where some form of communion is achieved. Trauma is one major theme of the book and memory is another, the two men have only memories it seems to console them and perhaps the faintest glimmer of hope in the future. In his own review Stuart Allen compared their relationship to that of the assassin and the ice-cream vendor in Wim Wenders' film Ghost Dog, which is spot on in many ways. I was also reminded of Brian Friel's genuine masterpiece of a play, Translations, which also deals with language and communication (altogether more brilliantly if I'm honest, but this is Brain Friel we're talking about). There are small stumbles like the confusion around 'Good-day' and even a misunderstanding around the name of Linh's grand-daughter ('Sans dieu...,' the man continues, 'that's a funny sort of name.') but more often than not the two men really do share some connection through their shared trauma, recognising something in the other that unites them.

He listens to the fat man's voice, this voice that is so familiar to him even if it says things he never understands. His friend's voice is deep and hoarse, it seems to be negotiating stones and enormous rocks, like the streams that gush down the mountains before reaching the valley, making itself heard, laughing, weeping at times, and talking loudly. It is a music that embraces everything in life, its caresses as well as its struggles.

I don't want to say any more about the 'plot' of this novel or its construction. I don't even want to say...no, I'm not going to say it. Read it uninformed beyond anything I've mentioned so far and you will experience the full power of Monsieur Linh's story. Leave a sufficiently enthusiastic comment below and you may even get to experience it courtesy of the publishers who have a few promo copies to give away.


Tuesday, 26 April 2011

'time had gone by too soon'

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake

I open the truck's door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I've looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop's dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the cafe.

That is the opening paragraph from Trilobites, the story that opens this collection and the first of Pancake's to be published by the venerable magazine, The Atlantic, at the end of 1977. It is also the reason for his rather odd name, the result of a typing error on the first galley proofs that Pancake received, an accident he apparently embraced with humour - 'Fine, let it stay that way'  - finding amusement in the release of his sense of strain - the strain of trying to get things perfect. That strain never eased sufficiently; despite having other stories published in the same magazine Pancake died from a self-inflicted shotgun wound less than two years later, an apparent suicide at the age of 26, perhaps never realising just how good a writer he was.

Literature is a filled with stories of unfulfilled potential and it must be very easy to overstate the case with so little to go on; how many actors have been hailed as potential masters of the craft on the back of a few okay films, good looks and a pharmacological mistake? This isn't a perfect collection, some of the stories are definitely better than others, but the best of them really are utterly brilliant and the collection as a whole has a sense of something so genuine, something rooted in the West Virginian landscape that shapes them, that they deserve to be protected with some kind of official stamp, something like the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) that lets you know that your Prosciutto is the real deal.

West Virginia is known as the Mountain State, a region of forests, gorges and hollows rather than the flat plains of the American midwest. That kind of topography influences these stories that might be said to share the theme of stasis vs the need to escape. They are peopled by ordinary men and women with ordinary hopes and fears; coal miners, boatmen, labourers, fighters. The huge success of these stories and  one factor that makes them so influential to other writers is highlighted by Andre Dubus III in his excellent new afterword.
'with some of the other writers I'd been reading at the time, I could feel a slightly judgemental quality in the prose, as if the characters in the story were not so much real people as they were props being used to make wise, sardonic points about the human condition. With Pancake, there is none of this. On the contrary, there is the opposite feeling; his stories' characters are not mere inventions but flesh-and-blood human beings whom he suffers along with, believes in, and ultimately loves, no matter how far they might fall.'
This is also part of the reason why writing a satisfactory post will surely prove impossible because whilst reading, when I should be marking passages and keeping an outside eye on my critical response, I came instead under the same spell as Dubus 'moved by all these people and their tough lives'. A first reading isn't enough but I'm not convinced that I'd ever be able to write the perfect post without actually going back to school and studying it all. So the short version: Buy this book immediately and read it when you feel the need for a literary shot in the arm. You won't regret it (and that's the closest you'll get to a money back gurantee from me)

(this line break represents several weeks)

In fact in an unusual admission I am going to hold my hands up and say that after several failed attempts I am going to admit defeat on this post. Now normally I would just delete it and put it down to experience but I really want you to read this book so I'm taking a hefty dose of humility in the hope that you might do just that. In the original Foreword by James Alan McPherson he speculates about what might have contributed to Pancake's death. He was a great giver of gifts apparently and McPherson wonders whether the man who had cultivated the persona of Provider also expected things of others, needed perhaps just a simple gesture but was so frustrated by his attempts that it looks to be 'hopeless except through the written word? In such a situation, a man might look at his typewriter, and then at the rest of the world, and just give up the struggle.'

I'm going to give up my own struggle and trust that these links to the stories Trilobites and In The Dry will be enough to help you understand what a special writer Pancake both was and is.


Friday, 22 April 2011

TV On The Radio - Nine Types Of Light

The problem with TV On The Radio is that they just have too many ideas. Their earlier albums were bursting with innovation and Dave Sitek's heavy production so that the listener was left battered and slightly bruised by the experience, which was admirable no doubt but never quite fulfilling. The marvellous Dear Science, came closest to realising the band's potential becoming album of the year for me and many others. It has been a couple of years since that however and after a creative hiatus that could have been permanent it is very exciting to have a new album to talk about, eagerly awaited by plenty I'm sure and I'm glad to say it doesn't disappoint. It might not quite match its predecessor, the band seem to be enjoying themselves far too much to worry about that, but it certainly consolidates their position as 'art-rock' band it's almost impossible not to enjoy.

The first album to be recorded in California rather than Brooklyn, following Sitek's westward migration it's impossible not to comment on the positivity of an album bathed in light and dealing with themes of celestial convergence and that good old universal - love. It opens with Second Song which slowly builds its brassy call for 'Every lover on a mission shift your known position into the light,' before breaking down musically to ask for something far more radical: 'Oh body-mind leave me behind/And I'll do you one better/While you define/Your heartless time/I'll defend my love forever.' This is followed by the album's only slight bum note for me, Keep Your Heart beginning well but never quite developing into anything other than a rather horrible falsetto screech near the end. Things get back on track with You which is one of those songs that sounds retro and futuristic at the same time with its Vangelis-like keyboard sweeps, something exploited not so long ago by the Fever Ray album. In fact there's something reminiscent of that album at the beginning of No Future Shock but that is quickly jettisoned in favour of jangling guitars and an insistent call to dance. Killer Crane strikes a very different chord slowly building its piano, choral tones, strummed guitars and even what sounds like a banjo for those who are impatiently awaiting the new Fleet Foxes album. It is a gorgeously orchestrated piece and by that I don't mean that it is neat, far from it, it has the kind of honest instrumentation that makes something like A Day In The Life such a joy.

Will Do opens with some lyrics that I think Prince would have been proud of in the past for the way they mix humour with polite propositioning for sex - 'It might be impractical/To seek out a new romance/We won't know the actual/If we never take the chance/I'd love to collapse with you/And ease you against this song/I think we're compatible/I see that you think I'm wrong.' But it is actually a touching song about memory - 'Anytime will do/What choice of words will take me back to you.' TVOTR know how to change the atmosphere and New Cannonball Blues comes in heavy with a funky, bassy keyboard swagger for an instant change-up. Then we have Repetition's plucked bass undercurrent, which runs along like something from a 70's TV series. It seems at first to be a song fraught with danger, 'But I can't stop thinking/That it's all gone wrong/And the truth will be out there/Before it's too long,' before that celestial convergence arrives and the hollered repetition of the chorus drives it into a jumping rock-out finale. Forgotten eases you down nicely after that racket, or does for a while at least, building its menace first through lyrics that speak of 'Beverly Hills/Nuclear winter/What shall we wear/And who's for dinner?' and then musically too when it builds into a whistled military chorus, a song that equates fame with becoming one of the undead. I don't think I'll be the only one to hear the influence of INXS of all bands on album closer Caffeinated Consciousness with its alternating stanzas of shouted agitprop and softly sung chorus. The album seems to end there rather abruptly and there's a bit of me that thought 'Oh, is that all of it?', as I said this isn't quite the total album that Dear Science, was but this is a small disappointment that can easily be remedied by getting back to track 1 and starting all over again.

With the sad announcement on Wednesday that bassist Gerard Smith lost his battle with cancer it is worth mentioning that this album is not just an album, there is also a 60 minute film featuring all the music available here and which includes some poignant footage and even a hilarious California get together scene which I won't explain any further. For those who just fancy a listen to a straightforward stream of the album you can follow this link. For a quick shot just click play below to hear the gorgeous Will Do (it may take you via YouTube).


Wednesday, 20 April 2011

'one last stab at romance'

Mister Wonderful 
by Daniel Clowes

After the misadventures of the glorious Wilson comes another Clowesian anti-hero, Marshall. Previously serialised in the New York Times, this collection of strips is brought together in his latest book through Jonathan Cape and presents an opportunity for us in the UK to follow another middle-aged man with a unique take on the world around him. With one failed marriage behind him ('I won't go into detail but let's just say my wife had some issues with fidelity, and several of my friends were involved, and when it ended I had neither wife nor friends.') and without having been on a date for six years it could well have been a future of 'increasing irrelevance' for Marshall had he not been recently bolstered by the evening he was '"befriended" by a strange woman' ('It was sort of like "Breakfast at Tiffany's," except in this version, Holly Golightly is an unstable, crack-snorting sociopath.'). So we join Marshall as he waits alone at a table for the blind date that has been organised by his friends.

His date is late however so we are thrown straight into Marshall's interior monologue which will dominate the story, sometimes riding over the speech bubbles themselves so that we get a sense of his losing track of the conversation as he comments on how the evening is going. After having virtually given up on his date and downed a couple of beers she suddenly appears. Natalie is a good-looking woman and so Marshall is simultaneously smitten and convinced he doesn't stand a chance ('Jesus, why am I self-deprecating even in my own interior monologue?'). This book is subtitled 'A Love Story' and described as a 'romance' by Clowes but anyone who has read any of his work before will know that things are never that simple. Damaged in their own ways, Marshall and Natalie stumble their way through an evening that always threatens to derail completely, events finally coming to a head at a party that Natalie had arranged to go to previously and to which she brings Marshall.

Marshall's fantasies about where this meeting may lead are dotted throughout, as is his tendency to let his temper get the better of him. There is certainly a more positive outlook to this book compared to Wilson but there is enough of that sharp humour to stop things getting too sappy. What is lovely is that Clowes wants to show that no matter what relationship disasters may lie in the past there is always the hope that there will be someone out there to help us make a better fist of things - even on a potentially disastrous evening where fists themselves will come into play on more than one occasion. Ah well, 'The course of true love never did run smooth.'


Monday, 18 April 2011

The Last Werewolf Giveaway Winner


It is (or was) a full moon and I know you're all excited to know who won the copy of Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf. I hope these pictures capture something of the thrill of the draw...

The Names In The Hat

 The Random Generator

The Draw

The Winner!

So the winner of a copy of Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf is "RJR"

Congratulations! Please email me your address by clicking on the 'email me' button on the left and I'll get it into the post to you faster than you can fashion a wooden stake.

Thanks to everyone who took part. There will be more giveaways in the future. Watch this space...


Thursday, 14 April 2011

'Somebody loves somebody'

The Illumination
by Kevin Brockmeier

I was encouraged to read this novel via a virtual nudge on Twitter from writers Lee Rourke and Stuart Evers. Now you have to be careful with these writer recommendations because what they're often enthusiastic about is the technique or something that has tickled their writerly instincts rather than those of a reader, but there was something about their enthusiasm that struck me as from the heart, especially when coupled with the book's potential mawkishness. It is one of those novels with a simple concept like Saramago's Blindness where a universal change to human experience suddenly appears and alters perception. Here, pain suddenly becomes visible as light, a phenomenon we get to relive a few times in the novel with its multiple narrators, but first through the eyes of Carol Anne Page who cuts her thumb whilst attempting to open an aggressively sealed parcel from her ex-husband. It is later in the hospital that she notices the event that someone will eventually dub the Illumination.

It was steady and uniform, a silvery-white disk that showed even through her thumbnail, as bright and finely edged as the light in a Hopper painting. Through the haze of drugs, it seemed to her that the light was not falling over her wound or even infusing it from inside but radiating through it from another world. She thought she could live there and be happy.

In the bed next to Carol is a woman hospitalised by a car crash. With the doctor's instructing her to rest and telling her little about the condition of her husband who was also in the car, she presumes the worst and slowly succumbs to her injuries. One possession she had tried to press on Carol before her death is a journal filled with her husband's daily professions of love.

I love the little parentheses you get beside your lips when you're smiling - the way the left one is deeper than the right. I love the fact that I know I can keep telling you things I love about you for the rest of our lives and I'll never run out.

I've deliberately chosen a couple of icky ones there to highlight the potential danger of this book. The journal and its trajectory through various hands is the linking device of this novel and so we get to read plenty of those sentences that begin with I love... and when you combine that with the very idea of pain that glows there are plenty that might be turned off right away. But not so fast. Brockmeier's central conceit might be dazzling but he doesn't use it to show off. In fact he almost leaves it alone. This isn't a novel about what the world learns from this change, in fact you could say it's almost the opposite, as one character remarks - 'Funny how quickly a person can get used to a miracle.' Brockmeier is totally focused on his characters and their personal pain. Carol finds companionship from her doctor so that the two of them transform 'from doctor and patient to two fragile human beings both afflicted by nostalgia and self-pity.' The husband who had made those quotidian quotations turns out to have survived the accident but with plenty of scars including the curse of memory. When he accidentally befriends a teenage girl, who along with many of her friends is a self-harmer (something quite literally illuminated by Brockmeier's understanding), he sees a way in which he might be able to move into another life without his wife - 'she would teach him how to manipulate his body, inflicting those small, perfect impairments that rid him of his entire history.'

Now, I'm sure in the past I have mentioned my inherent dislike of child narrators and it really only comes about because they are often done so badly. Authors: if you are considering writing as a child narrator can I please implore that you read the Chuck Carter section of this novel for some guidance on how to do it properly. We realise there is something a little different about Chuck almost immediately as he explains to us the basic rules.

The house was where he lived when it got dark. He also lived there on weekends, plus during snowy weather. He lived in school for eight hours a day. He wasn't allowed to sleep there, only in the house. The school had three separate times: class-, lunch-, and recess-. The house had five: chore-, play-, meal-, bath-, and bed-. Both the school and the house were two stories tall. Both had time-out corners, and both had magnolias around them. They were different from each other in one big way. The school kids who shouted and knocked Chuck over. In the house there was only him and his parents.

See. That's how you do it. Not irritating or false or cute or tricksy. Specific, consistent and, even in that short paragraph, enlightening. If you add to that the fact that Chuck always refers to his 'pretend dad' then you know all you need to know about this boy to begin with. The Illumination for Chuck is slightly different, coming not so much as a revelation but a confirmation of what he has always known.

When you hit people, or pushed them, something terrible happened. Their bodies changed underneath the skin, straining, tightening like ropes...It looked like something inside them was trying to escape. It looked like a ghost wanted out of their bones...So when the light came, he wasn't surprised one bit.
He has always seen pain but seen it inanimate objects too, ever since lashing out at his toy train at the age of five and breaking it. In the same way that everyone can now see each other's pain, Chuck can see the glow that emanates from that journal and after he steals it and then places it in the hands of a missionary for it to continue its increasingly battered journey there is a sense that it is a symbol of the buffeting love must still endure even in a world where the pain of others is as clear as the light of day.

It's also worth pointing out the achievement of writing about light and luminescence with barely a repeated phrase. Brockmeier's variety in describing the Illumination is astounding.

On any city street you could spot the pulse flares of impacted heels, in any city hospital the elongated V's of stab wounds, while at any country fair, any minor-league baseball game, you would find skin cancer pocks like small clusters of stars, sprained knees like forks of lightning, dislocated shoulders like the torchlit rooms of ancient houses. People in the city exhibited the sickly luster of pollution rashes and the silver sparks of carpal tunnel syndrome, while in the country they wore the shimmering waves of home tattoo infections, the glowing white zippers of ligature abrasions. In the city you had your lungs and your stomach to distress you, in the country your skin and your liver, and everywhere, everywhere, there were the agonies of your head and your heart.

It is also beautiful so that even if the event itself doesn't seem to lead to any great progress in human interaction, the reader of the novel does feel as if a light has been shone on something about our human soul.


Monday, 11 April 2011

'when giants collide'

City Of Bohane
by Kevin Barry

Have you ever had that experience when someone asks what you're reading and your attempt to explain makes it sound like the worst idea for a novel ever? That was exactly what happened as I read Kevin Barry's debut novel which I failed to summarise satisfactorily by mentioning it was set in a city on the west coast of Ireland about 40 years in the future where rival gangs fight for control - and it's funny. Cue thoroughly unimpressed look followed by my weak proposition - it's really good! Eventually I fell back on the book's blurb which I thought sounded terrible at first but actually summarises quite succinctly what it's like - 'As if Joyce had sat down and written Sin City' (to which I would only add - but in a good way!). Barry recalls not only Joyce and Miller but Anthony Burgess, Brett Easton Ellis and even Dylan Thomas too. All of these influences in no way overshadow Barry's unique voice which is inventive, exhilarating and entirely sustained throughout this riot of a novel. He has created a location and characters as vivid as in Thomas's Milk Wood, an idiomatic language as realised as Burgess' nadsat in A Clockwork Orange and writes with the purpose and poetry that Irish writers seem to be born with.

So can I do any better at describing this novel with the length of a blog post at my disposal? Fingers crossed. How about the opening paragraph and a visual aid first.

Whatever's wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city's air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we're talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin' wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: the city of Bohane.

As you can see from the map above the City of Bohane is divided into distinct provinces. The ordered streets of New Town on one side of the tracks and the winding warren of the Back Trace on the other; the looming towers of the Northside Rises look all the way down on the festering streets of Smoketown ('Smoketown was hoors, herb, fetish parlours, grog pits, needle alleys, dream salons and Chinese restaurants'); all of it surrounded by the boggy wilderness of Big Nothin'. Sitting pretty on the coast in Beau Vista is Logan Hartnett, aka the Long Fella, aka the 'Bino (for his pale complexion) the man at the head of the Back Trace Fancy, the gang long in charge of the various schemes and criminal enterprises that run throughout Bohane, 'all of it as bleak as only the West of Ireland can be.' See him walking down the street:.

...a dapper buck in a natty-boy Crombie, the Crombie draped all casual-like over the shoulders of a pale Eyetie suit, mohair. Mouth of teeth on him like a vandalised graveyard but we all have our crosses. It was a pair of hand-stitched Portuguese boots that slapped his footfall, and the stress that fell, the emphasis, was money.
Clothes are deemed to be very important in Bohane with full descriptions given of outfits, a technique familiar to anyone who's read American Psycho although it never reaches the brain-numbing tedium of those. You'll also be starting to get an idea of the language at play here in this novel. The Bohane accent can be heard everywhere, 'flat and harsh along the consonants, sing-song and soupy on the vowels, betimes vaguely Caribbean.' It is an extraordinary mash-up with its roots in the west coast of Ireland but that Carribean influence tending to make itself heard at the ends of sentences with that question at the end already familiar today: 'y'sketchin?', 'y'check me?', or in their appeals to the almighty 'Sweet Baba Jay'. As a reader it takes a few pages to get used to and tends to slow the reading pace generally. This is only a good thing, the dialogue is hilarious, the descriptions fantastically rich and the overall effect completely immersive. The idea of a city in the year 2054 sounds potentially rubbish, the reality of reading it is always compelling.

You could almost do with a cast list at the beginning but the characters are so memorable (and named with almost Dickensian subtlety) that you won't have any problems keeping track. Logan's mother, Girly Hartnett, is the all-controlling matriarch, 89 years of age 'on a diet of hard booze and fat pills against the pain of her long existence' and happily ensconced at the Bohane Arms Hotel 'regally arranged on the plump pillows of a honeymooner's bed.' Logan's lieutenants Fucker Burke and Wolfie Stanners are both sadistically violent, although Wolfie's lovesickness threatens to compromise his focus. Playing all the angles is 17 year-old Jenni Ching, a 'saucy little ticket' who knows how to use her charms (and her excellent supply of opium or 'the dream') to keep all of the competing alpha-males panting obediently At a time of  potential uncertainty and weak leadership the big news in Bohane is the return of The Gant Broderick, missing for the last 25 years and what you could only describe as the natural enemy of Logan. Where has he been, why has he come back, what does he intend to do? He certainly wants to know as much as he can about Logan and his wife Macu ('from Immaculata') and it is the teenage Fucker Burke who eventually starts to spill the beans.
'Long Fella, he come 'roun' the dockside evenins, late one, I mean you be talkin' pas' the twelve bells at least, when he come creepin' the wharf, an' that's when you'd catch him cuttin' Trace-deep, an' he walk alone, sketch? An' it's like maybe he head for Tommie's - you know 'bout the supper room, sir? I can make a map for ya - or if mood take him maybe he haul his bones 'cross the footbridge, stop in at the Ho Pee, that's the Ching place, he might suck on a dream-pipe, coz Long Fella a martyr to the dream since the wall-eye missus took a scoot on him, and the Chings is known for the top dream, like, but o' course you mus' know 'bout the Ching gal, Jenni, the slant bint that been workin' her own game, if you askin' me? An' she got my boy Wolfie in a love muddle 'n' all, and that ain't like Wolfie, no sir it jus' fuckin' ain't, like, and the way I been seein' it, Gant, what's going down with the Back Trace Fancy, or I mean say what's on the soon-come with the Fancy, if it all plays out the way I'm expectin'...'
Mercy, the Gant thought, there's no shutting the kid up.
Sorry for the long quotation but I just had to give you a fair run at the dialogue. There isn't too much that I want to say about the plot: gang warfare, folklore, divided loyalties and bloody revenge; themes and ideas utterly familiar to just about any period of Irish history over the last 500 years, given a violent and entertaining twist here with characters that grab you by the lapels and force you to listen. Kevin Barry has already impressed those who have read his shorter fiction. His first 'feature-length' creation wasn't at all what I was expecting but I enjoyed every single second I spent in Bohane and might just have picked up a bit of the taint whilst I was there, y'check me?


Friday, 8 April 2011

The Last Werewolf Giveaway

After reviewing the book and interviewing the author there is really only one way to complete this week and that is by giving a copy of the book away. If you have been intrigued enough by either of the previous posts and want to have a read then please leave a comment or contact me by pressing the 'email me' button up on the left and I will place your name into the draw. A winner will be announced at the next full-moon - Monday 18th April, using my highly complex random selector (a blindfolded 3 year old), and will receive a copy of the rather beautiful, gold-edged hardback.

Good Luck!


Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Glen Duncan Interview

There are a few authors who I happen to have caught at the right time in their career and in my reading patterns to have been able to read their entire oeuvre. Glen Duncan is one of those. I am always interested to know what he will write next and never really surprised when it turns out to be something completely different from the last book. That said, I was a little surprised to see the title and premise of his latest which I reviewed on Monday. I was therefore very grateful to Glen for giving me some of his time to answer a few questions about that novel and the rest of his work.

As someone who has read all of your previous novels I must admit that part of me was a little surprised by the appearance of a werewolf book. Can you explain a little about what lead you to write this particular novel?

Here is the honest answer. After A Day and a Night and a Day had been published and had performed exactly as its six predecessors - which is to say not enough people bought it and it didn't win anything - I had a very frank and curiously refreshing conversation with my agent, which went like this:

Me: If I write another literary novel, do you think you'll be able to sell it?
Agent: No.

So I decided to write a straight, commercial genre novel, and began work on a Victorian serial killer story. The pitch was Oliver Twist meets The Silence of the Lambs. I didn't enjoy it much. I hated all the research, for a start. Plus it turned out I wasn't very good at plot. By New Year's Eve 2009 I knew it was going nowhere.

Traditionally my partner and I celebrate New Year at the house of the musician, The Real Tuesday Weld (aka The Clerkenwell Kid, aka Stephen Coates) my oldest and dearest friend. 2009 was no different. After the freezing roof terrace, abused fireworks, forced down champagne and collective psychic wobble at The Actual Stroke of Midnight, we all come back inside and try not to slash our wrists. Invariably talk turns to what we've done over the last year and, more worryingly, what we plan to do in the new one. When it was my turn, having drunk my annual cocktail of self-pity and boredom and fraud and rage to the dregs, I found myself saying that I was going to write a novel about the last werewolf on earth, titled - and here's where creative genius really sidestepped the obvious - The Last Werewolf. The idea met with unanimous feeble approval. And so a work of art was born. In line with the original plan, it was supposed to be a straight commercial genre novel. It didn't turn out quite that way.

My first encounter with your writing came after I picked up a hardback of Love Remains on Charing Cross Road, intrigued by the blurb and sold by the cover. I was genuinely shocked by the darkness and bravery of what you were willing to confront in your writing, something repeated in your subsequent work. Is it fair to say that you write about dark topics and if so why do you think you are attracted to writing about them?

It's not that I set out to write about dark things, it's that other writers set out to ignore them. The novelist's business is with the whole human animal, a business still best expressed in the Auden's poem:

'For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.'

Anything less is shirking. So yes, there are dark ('filthy') things in my books, but there's a good deal of the vulgar complaint, too. Plus compassion, friendship, comedy, tenderness.

You've collaborated with your friend Stephen Coates (aka The Real Tuesday Weld, aka The Clerkenwell Kid) in creating soundtracks for your novels I, Lucifer and The Last Werewolf. Is music important to you whilst writing and in what way?

I never listen to music while writing, and am amazed that anyone who wanted to write well would try. There might be an argument for instrumental music, I suppose, but it's not for me. If I've had a particularly productive day or nailed something tricky there's a good chance I'll put on some Led Zeppelin and swagger around the kitchen with testosterone renewed, but that's about it.

Stephen's soundtracks are a whole different phenomenon. We did the I, Lucifer double-act just for our own amusement, but people liked it, so we're doing it again for The Last Werewolf. It's not really even a collaboration: I have zero musical input (commensurate with zero musical talent) and there's no imaginable universe in which I'd invite literary input from Stephen. That said, once both the book and the music are done there is a peculiar, satisfying symbiosis. It only works for some novels (rule of thumb is the fiction needs to have an element of self-consciousness or play) but we share a pretty solid intuition for which those will be. He has an occult and depressing knack for getting what I've just spent ninety-thousand words on into three verses and a chorus.

I described you as something of a mercurial writer in my review, there's no telling quite where you might head next, but in thinking about your work as a whole I wondered if a unifying theme might be how your characters come to terms with monstrosity (often their own). Would you say that that is something you have been writing about?

Coming to terms with ourselves and each other is what art and imagination are for. The novelist is always trying to outgrow himself, to accommodate, to become something bigger than his vices - but bigger than his virtues too.

It's nauseous to say that writing the books I've written has made me a less frantic and tormented being (the aforementioned annual cocktail notwithstanding) but unfortunately it happens to be true. The real trick of course is to make your readers less frantic and tormented beings. If art's doing its job that's what should be happening to the species. And by and large, however strange this might sound, I think that is what's happening.

Is there an under-appreciated  book that you'd like to recommend to readers of this blog?

Birds of the Innocent Wood, by Deirdre Madden. Understated, unsentimental, lapidary, heartbreaking. One of the saddest novels I've ever read.

I like to invite authors to do a Hemingway and write a story in 6 words. Would you have a go?

Hail horrors! Hail—fuck that's hot.


Monday, 4 April 2011

'Reader, I ate him'

The Last Werewolf 
by Glen Duncan

Some writers are hard to pin down. I mentioned Jed Mercurio's mercurial qualities when reviewing his last novel, American Adulterer, a somewhat dry account of JFK's philandering which followed his debut, Ascent, a high octane space-race thrill written from Russia's point of view. Glen Duncan has shown similar abilities to confound expectations. His debut novel Hope was a frank view of pornography, male sexuality and angst . This was followed by Love Remains, the first book by Duncan I read (completely by chance), which continued his examination of sex, love and violence. With such attention on human relationships it was a bit of a surprise to find Lucifer himself as the narrator of his next novel, even if it did allow him to show afresh the curious world we live in and the temptations that lie in our way. Duncan's fascination with the darker side of life found the perfect arena in Weathercock with its look at sadism. Another metaphysical leap occurred in Death of an Ordinary Man which saw one man search for the reasons for his death beyond the grave. In his last two novels Duncan has kept himself firmly rooted to the ground, exploring his own Anglo-Indian ancestry in The Bloodstone Papers and the impact of torture and terrorism in A Day and a Night and a Day, so it was with no little amount of surprise that I discovered the title and premise of his latest. Could Duncan have possibly decided to cash in on the Twilight era and the current obsession with all things occult? The snappy sale of film-rights to this novel might suggest he has but my lingering thought was that if anyone could pull off a literary werewolf novel, Duncan was the man.

Written in the form of journals by Jacob Marlowe, these are the musings of a man bitten by a werewolf in 1842, expected to live for around 400 years, but ready to bring an end to it all after years of loneliness and the recent discovery that he is the last of his kind. His extended lifespan and independent means may have given him opportunities to indulge in decadence and debauchery but it has also lead to an extreme form of boredom. What must it feel like to have been born in the 19th century and to have watched humans progress into the 21st, isolated and separate from them? That kind of perspective doesn't seem to reflect too kindly on the modern world.

In fact the news already feels post-apocalyptically redundant to me, as if (silent dunes outside, insects the size of cars) I'm sitting in one of the billions of empty homes watching video footage of all the stuff that used to matter, wondering how anyone ever thought it did.

Duncan knows that a lycanthropic novel is going to have a fair amount of silliness attached and embraces it wholeheartedly, finding an ally in another author who mixed thrills with loftier considerations.

Graham Greene had a semi-parodic relationship with the genres his novels exploited, a wry tolerance of their exigencies and tropes. Unavoidably I have the same relationship to my life. False ID's, code words, assignations, surveillance, night flights. Espionage flimflam. And that's before we even begin on the Horror Story trappings. If it were a novel I'd reject it along with all other genre output that by definition short-changes reality. Unfortunately for me it is reality.

So we soon learn that as well as werewolves there are also vampires, the two of them mortal, or should that be immortal, enemies. This antagonism comes in two forms: the first primal or animal with each species quite simply finding the smell of the other almost intolerable; the other the product of years of competition, with vampires seeing werewolves as dumb animals devoid of speech and therefore culture. Overseeing this world is WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena), charged with keeping vampire numbers steady, after a deal hashed out by 50 powerful vampire families, and hunting werewolves to extinction. Dubbed 'The Hunt' they are headed by Grainer, a man driven by that common spur to revenge.

Filial honour. Forty years ago I killed and ate Grainer's father. Grainer was ten at the time. There's always someone's father, someone's mother, someone's wife, someone's son. This the problem with killing and eating people. One of the problems.

You'll have noted the welcome humorous tone already, and from this post's title as well, but Marlowe is also a man of passion and emotion, something in which werewolves beat their vampiric colleagues hands down. True to form Duncan includes plenty of sex and violence but there is also the deep weight of guilt pulling at Marlowe as he slowly reveals the truth about the wife he no longer has and the closeness of his bond to Harley, his contact within WOCOP. All of these emotions are heightened even further when Duncan really gets the plot moving and provides Marlowe with the most compelling reason yet to keep himself alive at all costs.

In the same way that your own jaw dropped the first time you saw David Naughton change in American Werewolf in London, Duncan writes brilliantly about the animal within and the phases of the month as were and wulf struggle for control of Marlowe's body.

In my dreams a small wolf slept inside me and it wasn't comfortable. It moved its heels and elbows and paws, struggled to make space between my lungs, stomach, bladder. Occasionally a scrabbling claw punctured something and I woke. What were you dreaming? Arabella wanted to know. I knew what it was dreaming. It was dreaming of being born. The form and scale of its occupancy shifted. Sometimes its legs were in my legs, its head in my head, its paws in my hands. Other times it was barely the size of a kitten, heartburn hot and fidgety under my sternum. I'd wake and for a moment feel my face changed, reach up to touch the muzzle that wasn't there.

So how does a werewolf novel really fit into the work of Glen Duncan? Well, it's not in fact such a great leap from what he has often been writing about in the past. I'm going to suggest (and you'll find out what he thinks about my hypothesis in an interview on Wednesday) that a grand theme in Duncan's novels is coming to terms with monstrosity. He has done this by always examining the darker impulses in human behaviour and it is only the slightly more sensational subject matter of this novel that might distract us from that same theme's appearance. Marlowe has had to reconcile his morality alongside his need to kill and eat fellow humans, and then beyond that to come to terms with how easy a task that proved to be. It is his friend Harley's response to American Psycho that helps us to understand simply - 'Savage satirist or twisted fuck? he asked me, when he'd finished it. Both, I'd said. It's a false dichotomy. The romantic days of either/or are over. Who'd know that if not me?' Duncan has always been interested in the many shades of grey that lie between the two extremes and Marlowe is no different. His struggles with who he is are made all the more difficult by the nice little twist that the soul of each of his victims takes up a kind of residence within him 'the over-crowded spirit prison, the packed ghost hotel.'

For once here I've managed to review a book without giving away any of the plot but let me assure you that it rockets along when needed with the pace of a silver bullet and that Duncan clearly had a lot of fun writing it. It's a smart, sexy read; the kind of book you might press into the hands of a Twilight reader to give them a shock of real desire. This isn't a po-faced literary treatment but a novel written with a literary writer's skill and the driving force here, as for most fictional monsters, is love. With a universal like that coupled with the cult appeal of the occult this book has the potential to become a bit of a monster itself.


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