Monday, 6 June 2011

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Michael Chabon

There's something bittersweet about delving into a favourite author's early work. It's pretty exciting to see how an author has grown over the years; what talents they always had, what weaknesses they have or haven't lost, which aspects were seeded long before they were developed.

But on the other, more emotive and less rational, hand; what tainted greatness, how boringly humanising, how utterly demythologising. I mean, it's really comfortable to believe that greatness is something separate, inherent and unchanging; that it is emergent, changable and the outcome of (shudder) work is far more awkward.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a great example of this bubble-bursting, but an even better example of the growth of an author. For all it's weaknesses, it is still undeniably from the same hand as The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Kavalier & Clay (although I know there's people who don't agree with that).

Thematically Pittsburgh is completely on-canon. It's almost a mission statement for the rest of his ouvre to date, complete with a nod to the world of genre in its hidden mafia background. The weaknesses mentioned are not thematic, they're in the prose and structure.

Much of it is overwritten, and the cleverness is pushed too far forward. The structure feels somehow naive, complete with unsatisfying but overly-ended ending. 'But he was only 23 when he wrote it!', some might say. And while that is fantastically impressive, it's not an excuse.

A lot of the novel's strength, its perfect render of the intensity of youth, are due to Chabon's age when writing it; if he gets the praise for age-related pros, he can take the criticism for age-related cons. 23 is not an excuse.

My favourite thing about this novel is what's wrong with it. Unsatisfying structure and unwieldly prose? This is Chabon! Those are among his greatest strengths, in recent works. And greatness as the outcome of (shudder) work is not so bad after all.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye

Christopher Brookmyre

Like with every Brookmyre I've ever read, all I could think of after finishing this was how soon I could get another Brookmyre to read. If I saw a granny reading one in the street within an hour of finishing this, I would have robbed her. These books are drugs.

I think I know why. There's a brutal humour, cleverness and charm in Brookmyre's writing, but there's something else too. A third of the way through All Fun And Games, I faced up to the truth that I was reading a thriller. There. I said it.

I don't tend to read thrillers or crime novels. And maybe it's because my system is so unused to them that when I'm tricked into reading one via a very non-genre example, they hit hard. I'm like a teetotaller who's had his water bottle switched with Vodka.

It's good news, I think. As long as I don't become an alcoholic and only read high-percentage books which get you drunk instantly and straightforwardly. It's good that I have that option, now; sometimes you need it. Brookmyre is my crime/thriller writer, and I can go there whenever I choose.

Which is why it's worrying news that I saw his latest on the New In table at Waterstones yesterday, and it was by 'Chris' not 'Christopher,' and was boasting a 'new direction.' The new direction sounded like it was focusing on the serious-crime side, and forgetting the humour and blistering originality that first got me interested.

I'm ten Brookmyre-novels away from catching up, anyway, so it's a long time before I'll have to explore the new direction. I just hope this isn't a gateway drug situation.

Changes of direction, do you follow them? Do you buy the latest from your favourite author because you like his/her writing, or because you like her/his direction? Or is it the way they dress?

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Writing's on the Window

Literary Blog Hop

Talk about one author that you love and why his or her writing is unique. Please be specific.

I'm gonna talk about David Lodge, because a) I love him and b) I never see him mentioned anywhere.

Often writing that is 'unique' -- and especially writing that is unique enough to be noticed and discussed in a blog post -- can be affected. Maybe I mean a less pejorative word than affected, because some of my favourite authors do it. What I mean is, the writing itself is openly, forwardly the point (or part of it). A Vonnegut plot written by anyone else would not a Vonnegut novel make: it's obvious from the first page that how he tells it -- and what drawings there are, and where he puts the asteriks -- are part of the experience.

David Lodge completely does this, and completely doesn't. Orwell said good prose is a window pane, and Lodge strives for that -- you don't notice it, you notice what you see through it. It's harder than it sound. But even so, there are plenty of authors who have a talent for clear prose that puts narrative and character centre stage, right? So that's not unique, even if he does it uniquely well.

The singularity enters when we realise that Lodge is a massive fan (also known as wind turbine) of writing. It's his favourite subject. And so his window pane isn't quite as simple as it looks, because he can't resist playing round with the fundamental idea of writing/writer/reader/page.

In Thinks..., the entire book is a stream of consciousness narrative recorded to dictaphone by a professor of cognitive science, in which he thinks alot about what and why he is recording (writing) it as he goes along. In Therapy, the narrator is self-consciously writing the book, he knows not why, and he openly plays around with writing from other people's perspectives, in an exercise for his therapist. In Deaf Sentence, the narrator decides to tell part of his novel-journal in the third person, because first is too embarrassing.

So Lodge manages the gymnastic paradox of completely clear writing, which doesn't get in the way, with an obsessive, occasionally academic, constantly fascinating study of WRITING at the same time. Lovely.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Burley Cross Postbox Theft

Nicola Barker

After the massive, incomprehensible, hilarious and bruising Darkmans, Nicola Barker decided to write an almost linear, almost straightforward novel. Then she found herself disappearing down 27 separate fantastic and obtuse tangents within that relatively straightforward, arced novel. Then she went nuts, got rid of the original novel, and just kept the tangents.

I have no evidence for any of that, of course, but that's the story I back-engineered from Burley Cross Postbox Theft. It is, if anything, more marvellously scattered than Darkmans; Barker plays on the esoteric, and makes the lack of connections as much a braggable feature of the novel as the rare/barely there connections.

The conceit of BCPT is that a bag of letters, stolen from the rusting postbox, is found abandoned by the criminal in a back alley. It's these letters, along with bookending missives from the two police officers trying to solve the crime, that make up the book. It's the perfect plan for Barker, who gets to flex her fearsome muscles in constructing wild and vibrant voices. Within the 27 letters, there is enough room to roam far, far away; and enough constriction to keep the book from ballooning into a four-inch spine.

The lack of exceptional length is really important. Because not only does Barker roam/tangent/scatter/explode more than ever before, but she also ties the whole thing together. That she even tried for an 'ending' completely surprised me -- I was fully expecting a non-ending to match the non-narrative before it. But end it she did, surpassing anything I originally expected from this book.

I demanded the impossible after reading Darkmans in January. I wanted Barker -- or anyone, really -- to make virtuoso explosivity of prose the heart of a novel, to completely disprove the need for an actual ending by being so spectacular -- and then to give me the ending to match the spectacular body. And here it is, the impossible, Burley Cross Postbox Theft.

Now I want the sort of rare steak that makes me irresistable to women, and leaves next weeks lottery numbers written in blood on the plate.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood

I like reading books in series, but they tend to be the exceptions among my library. When it happens, I am usually acutely aware of the fact that the book I am reading is one of a series; and it will be a series I follow, buy, read, sequentially.

Nothing about Atwood's The Year of the Flood screamed series at me, so none of the above was going on. If somebody had suggested to me that the book was in some way a follow on, I would have laughed, a little cruelly, perhaps, in their face. Such was my confidence.

So, obviously, it is a follow on, after all. Amazon reviewers (where were you before I read this?) make it very clear that this novel contains spoilers for Oryx and Crake -- the next of Atwood's novels, coincidentally, on my random invisible read-next list.

It doesn't really matter. The books are, as far as I can tell, free-standing. Certainly, the narratives are separate, until near the end, and any character overlap didn't stop me enjoying The Year of the Flood independently. And there's a lot to enjoy, all round: Atwood's fully realised, marvellously embellished future world; her serious playfulness; the inherent page-momentum; the messiness.

So it doesn't really matter. Only, of course, it slightly does. Because as I read, I became suspicious. Engaged as I was with the novel, a layer of my attention was taken by the Mystery of the Possible Prequel. And my attention couldn't afford the loss; the book already contains one attention-splicer -- the authorially indulgent sermons and songs, which manage to punctuate (but little else) the more interesting bits.

I accuse myself of cowardice. I lost a good few days to this novel, but it didn't quite reach the heights/hit the mark/pick the metaphor that I was hoping for. And here I am, trying to blame its failure on my own reading-order cock up. I don't think this stands up in Book Court.

How much does readerly context affect a novel's percieved quality? I mean, do I like books more when I'm on holiday? In the bath? In years Norwich City get promoted to the flipping Premier League?