Monday, 31 May 2010

Iron Man (2008)


Two years late on this, I know. I mentioned to a friend that I'd never seen it, and his bug-eyed astonishment persuaded me I ought to give it a go. I've seen it now. Verdict: fairly jolly.

Longer verdict: for much of its length, this almost lives up to the ideal; the ideal being that the title is short for Irony Man. There's some movement in this direction, with Downey Junior's wisecracking screen persona, but only some. In fact the heart of the film (the gleaming, metallic, circular heart) is clumsily, even painfully unironic. It's the dream narrative of US military involvement in the Middle East: one American is able to go to Afghanistan, kill only the bad Afghans, leave all the good Afghani men women and children alive and leap away into the sky.

Iron Man's suit, classically, is a wish-fulfulment dream of invulnerability, in medieval-knight or Ned Kelley mode. What this film adds is a twopetal garnish to that ancient human fantasy: first, the magic-carpet dream of jet-flight mobility and second, the equally potent dream of perfect moral choice. For Stark's magic suit comes fitted with software that allows him not only to see everything (from the kid's icecream blob falling from his cone, to the wicked Taliban fellah hiding behind the wall) but also to lock-on and, assisted by his silky-voiced computer advisor, discriminate good from bad. That's the film's major mendacity: that accurate moral judgement and effective ethical action are predicated upon an ontology of perfect, mechanical invulnerability. The exact opposite is the truth. Our ethical potential is grounded in our vulnerability.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time 10: Crossroads of Twilight (2003)


Let me see if I can boil down Crossroads of Twilight’s 700-pages for you.

Drivel.

There you go.

I was warned. Many people warned me. Jordan writes. He doesn’t revise what he has written, and nobody edits what he has written. He writes a great fog of fretfully realised detail, very loosely bunched into clusters of pointless character interactions. Nothing else happens. Jordan writes many ill-formed and many more gangling, clumsy, clause-carcrash sentences of the ‘Sashalle was no taller than she, not to speak of, but she had to hurry to keep up, as the Red glided swiftly, along wide, square-vaulted corridors’ and 'Sheriam's shriek shattered the stillness in more ways than one' and 'the stream of people flowing the other way was mostly Seanchan, soldiers in ordered ranks, with their segmented armour, painted in stripes, and helmets that looked like the heads of huge insects, some marching and some mounted nobles, nobles who were always mounted, wearing ornate cloaks, pleated riding dresses and lace veils, and voluminous trousers and long coats' kind. But we’re used to that from previous books.

Jordan writes: ‘but then, who would have expected to see Bertholme Saighan walking peacefully with Weiramon Saniago, neither man reaching for the dagger at his belt?’ [81]. And we read (for reading is in part a process of interpreting writing): ‘but then, who can honestly say they remember who Bertholme Saighan is, or why he should or shouldn’t be walking peacefully with Weiramon Saniago, or whether we’ve ever encountered either of them before, oh god when will this end, haven't we suffered enough?’

Jordan writes: ‘the odour of horse dung seemed strong.’ [286] Well, quite.

Is there tea? There is tea. Even better than that, there is explosively detonating honey: ‘Without thinking Elayne picked up her teacup and took a sip. The tea had gone cold, but honey exploded on her tongue. Honey! She looked at Avienda in astonishment.’ [351] Exploding honey would astonish me too.

Have you ever nodded to somebody? Ah, but have you ever nodded like this: ‘After a moment, his chin moved, the vestige of a nod’ [541].

Oh. You have?

‘Loial’s ears trembled with caution, now.’ [553] That’s a neat trick.

Towards the end, Jordan writes in a way that might even betray that most un-Wheel of Time quality, ironic self-awareness (‘so many fabulations drifted out that telling reality from nonsense became difficult’, 363). But no; it’s all painfully earnest; he really thinks that we will be interested in all this clothing, and furnishings, and terrible terrible sentence constructions.

This is the conclusion to which I have come: Jordan is the Fantasy-writing equivalent of this Belgian man, rolling his marbles endlessly, happily round and round the same track. He’s enjoying himself. It’s not really for our benefit (although it's performed under the polite fiction that it is). It's for his own benefit, and does us no harm. Can’t we leave it at that?



Here’s the opening paragraph I originally wrote for this review:
The Wheel of Time does not turn, and books freeze and stall, leaving memories that become confused as to whom all these minor characters are, actually. Minor characters blur to one another, and even quite important figures are long forgotten when the series that gave them birth comes again. In one Book, called the Tenth by Jordan, a Book neither future nor past but interminably, tediously present, a wind rose at the Punkadiddle waterfall. The wind is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. The wind says: I was warned. And yet, to encounter textual stasis of quite such magnitude is a staggering experience. My God, and I thought earlier books were slow.
But riffling through some of the 1000 amazon.com readers' reviews of Crossroads of Twilight, I found this—which is the same gag, done not only first but rather better:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Books come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Book that gave it birth comes again. In one Book, called the Tenth Book by some, a Book yet to be written, a Book already burned, a yawn rose in the Crossroads of Twilight. The Yawn is not the beginning, there are neither beginning nor endings in the Wheel of Time (not if Jordan is still paid by the word.) But it is a beginning.
…which busted my flush somewhat. I also liked Time Traveller’s review from the future:
Greetings Fellow Humans. I come from a thousand years in the future and have traveled back in time to tell all of you that the end is in sight and it is worth the wait. Robert Jordan, having his consciousness digitized has greatly increased his efficiency and is on Book 1452 and is now writing at a clip of 2 books per year. Each book now spans a time period of 1 minute, and he has introduced over 5 dozen new characters, none of whom (like Jordan) can die. But as I said before, the end is in sight. Robert Jordan X20485 has promised that he plans to end the series at Book 1500. So I urge all of you to stay the course. Be diligent and read the books. And finally, there is a twist in Book 438 that will simply blow your mind. It is so great that it was instrumental in brokering peace between Pakistan and India after WW4.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 9: Winter’s Heart (2000)

So now we're up to Wotix, another ‘international No.1 bestseller’. So here we are. This is a book that makes explicit something about Jordan's multivolume endeavour which has been previously only implicit. This series, though it starts as a more-or-less conventional Heroic Fantasy product, has by this point metamorphosed into something much odder; a kind of anti-Fantasy, a deconstruction of the premise of Fantasy as a genre.

As Samuel Beckett’s career progressed, his writing became more and more pared down, less and less verbal, increasingly approaching the asymptote that was at the heart of Beckett’s bleak vision: silence. The great, productive paradox at the heart of Beckett was that one of his century’s greatest verbal artists mistrusted the ability of words ever to articulate truth—not just particular arrangements of words but verbal art itself. The Unnameable, in that near-sublime novel, says: ‘I’ll speak of me when I speak no more.’ For him silence is ‘the only chance of saying something at last that is not false.

To step briskly ab sublimi ad ridiculus, Jordan’s career manifests something similar. Insofar as Heroic Fantasy is a fundamentally narrative artform, to which readers go in order to experience the pleasure of following the movement of characters through time, Jordan says: no. Wotix is the closest he has yet come to a book that disperses that force of narrative momentum—that great strength of the novel as a mode—into a great swarm of indistinguishable coexistent characters and non-progressions. If the traditional novel takes the shape of a quest, a linearly horizontal progression through narrative time, Wotix explodes that linearity in a bewildering near-dimensionless knot or tangle of non-progression.

Wotviii ended at the point when Egwene and her rebels laid siege to Tar Valon. The reader expects Wotix to carry the story on from that point; but instead Jordan rewinds the narratives a week or so and plays through more-or-less the same events over again. The narrative works on this minus scale, as it were, for almost the whole book; only passing through zero and into the plus for its big-gosh-wow conclusion.

Or, another example of what I'm talking about: the first six chapters here concern Perrin’s quest to recover his kidnapped wife Massive Fail Bashere. Is his quest successful? Unsuccessful? Do interesting things happen on it? The reader has no idea, because after chapter six this plotline vanishes completely from the novel.

Or to state it more plainly still, and at the risk of repeating myself: on the most fundamental level nothing happens for 620 pages of this 650 page novel. It’s a bold experiment in un-narrative. It's a text worthy of an oulipo project.

Now I did wonder, as I neared the end of this textual slab of stasis, whether Jordan slips at the last hurdle and permits narrative movement, development and interest to contaminate the pure, Pollockian tangled obstruction of the whole. Because in chapter 35, Something Happens. The source of wotworld’s magic, ‘saidin’ has long been ‘tainted’ by the Dark Lord: men can ‘get at’ this magic, but the use of it inevitably corrupts them and drives them mad. Until chap. 35 that is. There, in a kind of massive good-versus-evil magical heavy-ordnance firefight, the Dragon himself, Rand al-Newman, manages to ‘cleanse’ the saidin. The scene seems at first blush very 'something-happen-y', written with Jordan’s characteristic gnashing over-style: ‘a huge ball of coruscating fire surrounded the other hilltop, red and gold and blue … a flame blacker than black, then another, another, until the dome boiled with a stygian fire. The roar of ten thousand thunders made her clap her hands over her ears and shriek soundlessly’ [653-4]. Nor is it free of bathos—the magic creates a black dome that is, in finely judged Spinal Tap idiom, quite literally none more black: ‘black no longer seemed to describe it. There was no term for it now, but black was a pale colour by comparison.'

So this, the cleansing of saidin, is ‘the big event’ of the novel. But actually it is not an event at all. It is, on the contrary, a kind of un-event. What is ‘cleansed’ in this interminable text is narrative itself: drama, plot, narrative interest. This, of course, is why the book is called ‘Winter’s Heart’; not because the wotworld is in the grip of a profound winter—although it is—and not in allusion to Rand’s supposedly ‘wintry’ heart—although some play is made of this idea. But no, actually the evident allusion is to Barthe’s Le Degré zéro de l'écriture. This is Jordan's attempt at a Barthean masterpiece, written in a weird yet ideologically freighted ‘blank’ style that is achieved not by neoclassical restraint but on the contrary by hurling great quantities (we might say, by a blizzard) of chaff at the reader: irrelevant detail and mass-produced repetition ... she tugged her braids, she smoothed her skirts. This is in a brilliantly, perversely inverted form precisely the style Barthes talks about, style which 'has always something crude about it ... a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention, and, as it were, a vertical and lonely dimension of thought. Its frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical.'

But this is only to state the obvious: that the WoT series, despite launching itself with more-or-less conventional narrative stylings, increasingly sheds its narrative momentum as it goes on: each volume covers less ground, goes slower, dissipates so-called ‘narrative interest’ in a welter of pointless detail and endlessly proliferating characters. What Debord calls 'neosemioticist narrative' replaces sequential developmental progression with a frozen constellation of semiological placeholders. Now, of course, there is a temptation to read this on the level not of text but rather of author—to say, in effect: ‘Jordan prolonged his series because he found it financially profitable to do so’. The zeno’s-paradox of Jordan’s own writing practice, turning a trilogy into (five—eight—twelve—fourteen—) many books may indeed have had a practical moneymaking aspect to it. That doesn’t interest me. I’m struck, rather, by the fetishistic nature of the undertaking on a textual level.

The aim, in other words, is precisely the necrophilic jouissance of postponement, an endless deferral, a tantric-sex approach to narrative satisfaction. So we read:
At [Shiane’s] nod, Murellin stepped aside and motioned Daved Hanlon to enter, closing the door behind him. Hanlon was swathed in a dark cloak, but he snaked out one hand to cup Falion’s bottom through her dress. She glared at him bitterly, but did not move away. Hanlon was part of her punishment. Still, Shiane had no wish to watch him fondle the woman. ‘Do that later,’ she ordered. [248-9]
That ‘do it later’ is the principle of fluid narrative deferral that, as here, is always explicitly sexualised. The text simultaneously positions us so that we watch him fondle the woman, and declares that it has no wish to watch him fondle the woman. And though this may look like a paradox, it is not: for the text’s erotic investment is precisely not in fondling, but in the deferral of fondling. This is the WoT fetish: bondage. Not sensual motion, but the 'objet petit a' of the bonds that prevent motion. Here, for spurious reasons allegedly related to ‘plot’ Tylin persuades Mat to tie her up (‘she pulled his head down for a kiss that curled his toes in his boots’):
Tylin insisted on supervising her own binding. She seemed to take pride in it. She had to be bound with strips cut from her skirts, as if she had come upon him by surprise and been overpowered. The knots had to be tight, so that she could not escape however she struggled, and she did struggle against them once they were tied, thrashing about hard enough that it seemed she really was trying to get free … her ankles and wrists had to be tied together in the small of her back, and a leash run from her neck to one leg so she could not wriggle … he gently pushed one of her silk kerchiefs into her mouth …’ [583]
A lesser writer might have been deflected from writing a scene such as this on the grounds that it ‘is embarrassing’, or perhaps on the grounds that it is ‘like, wincing, man’, or indeed on the grounds that, ‘dude, you don’t need to display your lame-ass bondage fantasies like that for everyone to see’ -- or conceivably even on the grounds that 'Christ, Bob, if you must indulge your leering bondage daydreams then at least do so properly, hombre, not mincing around the edges like this.' But this would be to miss the point. These bonds, so cheesily sexualised, are the very principle of narrative obstruction itself. In this novel they become the totems of libidinous restriction that coalesce the essence of the series as a whole. This volume of the world of time is a handkerchief stuffed in the mouth of the Muse. It is text that seeks to obstruct text.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Lion Annual (1958)


More Lion loveliness. This cover illustrates the story 'Prisoners of Space Outlaws'. That I-don't-believe-it-would-be-able-to-walk-in-real-life 'Giant Walking Machine' belongs to the evil outlaws; but here's what happens to them:

A little wonkily scanned, I'm sorry to say; but, see! (click for larger view) See those excellent propellerhead helmets the good guys are wearing. Wouldn't those crack troops just spin round and round in midair if they wore those? Ah, who cares? Boo to cowardly 'Spartza'! His dream of world conquest turned into a nightmare -- guess he reckoned without Captain Condor! "All right, Condor! I know when I'm beaten! You win. Don't shoot. I'll tell you anything you want to know, and afterwards I promise to give up crime altogether and instead join the Stone Roses as frontman."

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Chess (1984, 2008)

My position on musicals is, in a nutshell: 'unless written by Peter Townshend, they're all shit.' It's not a very nuanced critical perspective, I concede. Anyway, I downloaded Chess -- the Royal Albert Hall 2008 version -- and, mirabile, I seem to be liking it a lot. Partly this is for the very reasons many reviewers hated it on Broadway (according to Wikipedia: 'critics panned the show, most notably Frank Rich of The New York Times, who wrote that "the evening has the theatrical consistency of quicksand" and described it as "a suite of temper tantrums, [where] the characters ... yell at one another to rock music".' Luckily, quicksand temper-tantrum yelling music is my favourite kind). There are some wonderfully strange moments, necessitated, in part, by the need to inject dramatic excitement into that most undramatic of spectacles, two brainy guys sitting across a chessboard from one another. My favourite is probably 'The Arbiter's Song' and 'The Arbiter's Song (reprise)' where the match-referee in effect sings 'I am the match referee' for about seven minutes. Marvellous.

But mostly I suppose I like this because its music, by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, tastes strongly of Abba, and Abba is intensely loveable stuff.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 8: The Path of Daggers (1998)

Back in the saddle. I was rather dreading this, actually ([voices off]: ‘Then why are you reading it at all, fool?’); but once I got going it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d anticipated. I suppose these things rarely are. After about p.250 it turned into quite a rapid, bump-less slide down a gentle slope to the conclusion. Not that it's page turning. It is a treading-water sort of book. It is treading out the vintage where the grapes of stultified stupefaction are stored.

So, Book 7 ended with Rand killing the ‘forsaken’ Sammael in characteristically understated fashion (‘Screaming, Rand swept the balefire down toward the square, the rubble collapsing on itself, swept down death out of time—and let saidin go before the bar of white touched the lake of Mashadar that now rolled across the square, billowing past the Waygate toward rivers of glowing fray that flowed out from another palace on the other side bang crash wow! kaboom crsssh-crassh haha!’). Book 8 takes up the story, but does so in a one-step-forward-one-step-back sort of way. Or to be more precise, in a no-steps-forward-no-steps-back manner. An army of Seanchan rampages through the world. Some of Rand’s own followers are plotting against him. Nynaeve and Elayne finally get hold of the bowl of the winds that they’ve spent, I suppose, two books looking for, and use it to heal the weather. Then there’s a lengthy, minutely shuffling build-up to another big climactic battle. At the end of Wotviii we don’t seem to be any further forward than we were at the end of Wotvii. Rand is still going bonkers, but very slowly. His mates are still moodling around, except for Mat, who wasn’t in this one at all. Unless he was, and I missed him.

Is the novel too padded? Well, there’s a great many characters’ points-of-view that need to be orchestrated, and a lot of …. Oh! Time for a tea-break!
Careful of the silver pitcher’s heat, Cadsuane poured a cup of tea, testing the thin green porcelain cup for warmth. As might have been expected in silver, the tea had cooled quickly. Channeling briefly, she heated it again. The dark tea tasted too much of mint; Cairhienin used mint entirely too freely in her opinion. She did not offer a cup to … [292]
Right. Always refreshing, a nice cup of tea. On we go. So, there’s evil plotting, and several battles, and an explosion in the—ah! Stop! Time for another tea-break!
Egwene went in to find everything in readiness. Selame was just setting a tea tray on the writing table … The tea tasted of mint. In this weather! Selame was a trial … [353]
The question is not ‘is it padded?’ The question is: ‘could it be more padded? When Jordan calls one chapter ‘The Extra Bit’ is he kidding? I thought I understood, broadly, the appeal of Epic Fantasy. Surely readers don’t go to Epic Fantasy for endless descriptions of clothing, furniture, fabrics, and characters constantly drinking cups of mint tea? Does Jordan think his readership are all senior citizens?

No, but, wait: I spoke too soon! Here’s some excitement! Adelas and Isman, two important Aes Sedai, have been assassinated! Stumbling across the dead bodies—Birgitte draws her belt knife—Nynaeve surveys the scene, and
Dipping her finger into the teapot, she touched it to the tip of her tongue, then spat vigorously and emptied the whole teapot into the table in a wash of tea and tea leaves.[594]
Assassinated by tea! Fitting, fitting. Not so much Epic Pooh as Epic Miss Marple.

***

Why am I persevering with this series? Commentators on previous posts have, courteously for the most part, suggested I should stop reading, since I’m not enjoying it . At the very least, they say, I should stop publishing posts that insult the work of a (as they note) much more successful author than I am myself. By insulting the Wheel of Time I insult them, those fans who love the wheel of time. And they have the kernel of an important point. At the very least, it would be worthwhile considering whether, since so many love it so, I am missing something important.

It’s a good question. What do fans see in it? What-what? What moves people who seem otherwise rational beings to insist that Robert Jordan is not only good, he’s far superior to Tolkien and Flaubert. Is that a piece of Dadaist derangement-of-the-sensibilities anti-criticism? Look at it again: 'Jordan is a better writer than Flaubert and a better subcreator than Tolkien'. Permit me to slip once again into George III idiom: what-what?

I don’t get it.

Why do I persevere? Because I said I would; and because I’ve been thinking about pulling together some critical writing on Fantasy as a mode, and to that end I’ve been noting the holes in my reading. I know Tolkien frighteningly well, and it used to be the case that I was pretty well-read in the post-Tolkien tradition: Lewis's Narnia; Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea; Stephen Donaldson’s The Land, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar, Gene Wolfe’s variously shaped suns, Alan Garner, Adams (Rich, not Doug), Peake, Lloyd Alexander, Silverberg's Majipoor, Zelazny, Louise Cooper, Ray Feist, Rob Holdstock, Jack Vance, the sublime Sheri Tepper. I read hundreds of Arthurian fantasies to write this, now long out-of-print critical study. The last big-book non-Arthurian Fantasy series I read entire was probably Tad Williams’ Memory Thorn and Sorrow, when it came out (which dates me), though I’ve read individual volumes of Robin Hobb, Steve Erikson, Steph Swainston, Miéville of course—and it goes without saying I’ve read Pratchett, Rowling and Pullman. And, to leapfrog to recent years, I’ve read books by, for example, James Barclay, Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan (but more because these gentlemen are friends of mine than for any yearning I had to immerse myself again in Epic Fantasy). In all these cases I very much enjoyed what I read; in some cases it moved me very much; and for some of these writers—Le Guin, say—I feel something approach writerly reverance. But I’m too ignorant of the 1990s and much of the noughties. That’s one reason why I decided to give Jordan a whirl.

I get that for many people the deal is escape. Leave your worries behind; you enter this better world. It’s a world in which you don’t work in the accounts department of a mid-size educational supplies firm; where, instead, you live in a palace and command servants and have magic powers and enjoy exciting sex with beautiful people and are able to vent your repressed aggression in fighty-fight. Jordan’s twist on this venerable textual strategy is, partly, giving his readers much more detail than his market rivals; and partly, more cannily, creating the illusion of psychological depth. Simple wish-fulfilment gets old too soon; so Jordan's Alexander-the-Great-alike is troubled by the fear he’s going mad. It’s not much, but it’s enough to separate him from the bulk of competitors. And otherwise, the wotworld is coloured and detailed like a Pre-Raphaelite painting, and to similar aesthetic effect—viz., the embourgeiosification and prettifying of a notional past:
Across the harbour the wind roared, tossing small ships and large, across the city itself, gleaming white beneath the unfettered sun, spires and walls and color-ringed domes, streets and canals bustling with storied southern industry. Around the shining domes and slender towers of the Tarasin Palace the wind swirled, carrying the tang of salt, lifting the flag of Altara, two golden leopards on a field of red and blue. [36]
But—I keep coming back to this. But—really, it screams from the books—but it is all terribly written. I don’t just mean the style, although the style is awful. I mean the whole kit-and-kaboodle: the overall structure, and the narrative, the pacing and focalisation, the characterisation, the dialogue, the tone. All of it. The writing is bad from the get-go. ‘She managed to be pretty if not beautiful despite a nose that was overbold at best’—at best? How would it have been if it had been the worst? ‘Gaunt cheeks and a narrow nose hid the ageless quality of the red sister’s features’: so ‘cheeks’ and ‘nose’ don’t count as features?
Her eyebrows climbed as she directed her gaze back to them, eyes black as her white-winged hair, a demanding stare of impatience so loud she night as well have shouted. [47]
Her eyes are black, they’re white, her eyebrows are escaping, her gaze is audible. This, this is terrible writing.

And this is the part I can’t seem to get my head around: the fans know that it’s terribly written. They know and they don’t care. Why don’t they care? I don’t know why they don’t care. After finishing Wotviii, and after writing most of this post, I googled for some reviews; and I found this sfsite piece by James Seidman:
In the book, Jordan succeeds in carrying forward his stunning world building in this detailed story of a struggle between good and evil … Yet, after reading A Path of Daggers, I found myself wishing that Jordan had succeeded in his original goal of completing the story in eight books, rather than the current estimate of twelve. While the novel certainly advances the plot of the series, it fails to really introduce many new themes to keep the story fresh…. I don't want to leave the impression that A Path of Daggers is a bad book or boring. It's a piece of excellent writing that is part of an excellent series. However, this particular piece of The Wheel of Time, taken by itself, seems to drag on. It seems like Jordan could have focused on progressing certain plot lines faster to give more of a sense of progress. Fortunately, several things happen at the very end of the book that suggest that the ninth book will again be refreshing and different. I would suggest that readers with enough patience wait for the ninth book to come out, then read it back-to-back with A Path of Daggers. This will probably hide any of the book's shortcomings and lead to a more pleasurable reading experience.
This is, I think, one of the most astonishing reviews I have ever read. Seidman describes the book as ‘stunning’ and uses the superlative ‘excellent’ twice despite conceding that the novel is stale, draggy and possessed of unpleasant shortcomings. He then suggests how a reader might get through the volume in such a way as to camouflage precisely those shortcomings. Assuming that ‘stunning’ is not being deployed in its abattoir bolt-gun sense, and putting aside the theory that ‘excellent’ is used sarcastically, this amounts to a reviewer saying ‘vol 8 is an excellent novel, although, obviously in a shit way, but maybe volume 9 won’t be so shit, and maybe, if you swallow them both together, that as yet unwritten book will be sweet enough to disguise the shitty taste of this one.’

What to say to such a review other than: don't! Please don't! The libraries of the world are crammed with beautiful, powerful, moving, mindblowing literature! Read some of that instead!

‘I don’t care!’ you cry. ‘I don’t want good writing! I just want to get away to Wotworld for a while!’

Well, hey. Sure. We’re all a bit ground-down by life, I know. We all want to get a little drunk, from time to time, so as to ameliorate the grind; to step through the portal to somewhere more appealing. But getting drunk doesn’t have to mean sitting on a park bench with a 2-litre plastic bottle of strong cider. It is possible to get something more refined from the experience. How can I communicate this fundamental truth about art to you? Is there any point in me telling you: ‘look, if you just try this Château Margaux 1787, you’ll get all the intoxication you want but also a really beautiful drinking experience …’? Because, here’s the thing; with alcohol, supermarket cider is cheaper than fine wines (that of course dictates why different people drink the one and the other). But with books the difference in quality is not reflected in the cover price! Maybe it should be. Maybe it ought to cost £1:99 to buy a Robert Jordan novel and £45.99 to buy a Vladimir Nabokov one. But it doesn’t! Amazingly, it doesn’t! There is nothing stopping you going for the higher quality experience! Honestly!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (1961; rev. ed. 1972)

I'm two-thirds through this respected theological commentary on the first book of Moses, and enjoying it very much (I'm reading it not for theological reasons, mind; but rather in order to get my head around the Eden-to-Babel story under a general 'Fantasy' rubric, with a longer term view to pulling together a critical monograph on Fantasy as a mode). But the main reason I post it here is because, eminent though he was in his day, and immature of me though it is to note it, I can't get over how much I love the 1960s/Austin Powersy vibe of the author's name. Gerhard von Rad! Right on!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Rebellato/McLean/Macmillan, And So Say All Of Us ... (2010)

I'm not sure for how much longer you'll be able to use the BBC iPlayer to listen to last Sunday's broadcast of this radio play, but I'd suggest doing so sooner rather than later. It's very good indeed. Written by Dan Rebellato in collaboration with Linda McLean and Duncan Macmillan, this is a three-strand piece: a couple begin renovating their house; a pregnant woman is past her due date; election day is imminent. In each case, the situation gains an absurdist twist -- the couple end up completely dismantling the house; the woman simply refuses to give birth 'for a couple of years, at least', to the chagrin of her partner; the general election is held and not a single vote is cast by any elector anywhere in the country. Not all the scenes work fully, but enough do, and the election strand in particular provides some rich comic and satiric potential: I laughed aloud at the subsequent cabinet meetings, and media interviews with voters; and laughed louder at a scene in which not a single member in the audience of a Question Time-style show has a question they want to ask. And it's this portion of the play, with its Pythonesque twist and turns, that gives structuring coherence to the whole ... although the pregnant woman's Bartleby-Scrivneresque 'I prefer not to' is also well written, generating actual emotional heft by the end of the drama. Best of all, this play is SF; or, if you prefer, it's a comic fantasia spun from an eloquently metaphorical extrapolation of the present world: a metaphor that makes manifest the hidden passivity, studied rhetorical emptiness and conventional meaninglessnesses of contemporary life, political and personal. Also, it uses Churchill as a character in a much more effective way than the recent Dr Who/WWII Dalek episode. Highly recommended. (Full disclosure: Rebellato is a friend of mine).

Monday, 3 May 2010

Ian McEwan, Solar, 2010

Not at all a bad novel, this. I’d go so far as to call it really quite a good novel. Densely rendered in a way that builds its world and, above all, conjures its clunky central character into life—it is in essence a character study: onetime Nobel-prizewinner but now dried-up, weak-willed, venal, tubby Michael Beard: one quarter endearing to three quarters monstrous egotism, selfishness, sexist objectification of women and worse. The plot has to do with the latter stage of his double-crest career; having stolen a (dead) junior colleague’s research he makes a big splash with a new solar power technology to address global warming. The detail is well handled; the pages turned. But there’s a ‘but’ and the but is: but it’s not funny. It’s trying to be funny, but it is not funny. At no point is it funny. McEwan perhaps thinks his delineation of character is richly droll, but it is solidly, painfully, unavoidably not. He might even (this is harder to credit, but you never know) think his awful, groaning set-pieces are funny, but they are not funny, not in the least funny, totally lacking in Funny: Beard on the ice at the north pole takes a whizz, freezes his willy and, when his chapstick falls down his trouser leg, thinks his todger has dropped off. I guarantee you the sentence I have just typed, there, is eighty times funnier than McEwan’s treatment of that scene. And the sentence I have just typed isn’t in the least bit funny. There’s a scene on a train where Beard silently battles with a passenger who, he thinks, keeps eating his crisps, only to discover later that they’d been the stranger’s crisps all along. As John Crace, I think it was, pointed out in the Grauniad, this is one of the oldest and hoariest of anecdotes—McEwan has another character spiel a quantity of meta acknowledgment of this fact, but it still feels old.

The book it most reminded me of was Golding's Paper Men: another amazingly ill-advised, profoundly unfunny late-career attempt to write a Hilarous Comic Novel that was, like this one, quite interesting in other ways. Solar shares with Paper Men a self-reflexivity (the real theme of McEwan's novel is not global warming, but the sense of an unearned easy-ride in life predicated upon a celebrity the owner doesn't really deserve: a famous writer's lament), and some lovely chunks of prose. Paper Men ends well, though; where Solar's ending is very weak.

Two things, then, occur to me. One is an answer to the question: but why is McEwan’s novel so desperately unfunny? The answer, I think, is that his timing is shit. The McEwan Prose(TM) may be, and often is, an effective instrument; but it is a ponderous one, a slow-build and accumulatory one. It’s simply incapable of the necessary pace or nimbleness required to make a person laugh. Tant pis, you might say; and there are genuine satisfactions to be had from this book—you should read it; your time would not be wasted. Except that it leaves the reader wondering why McEwan thought he ought to write a comic novel, or why any people not previously having suffered serious brain damage might think it worthy of shortlisting for the Wodehouse prize. McEwan is an interesting and worthwhile, if overpraised, writer of novels; but he’s not fit to shine Wodehouse’s shoes when it comes to writing prose.

The other thing, though, has to do with the sort of ‘literary prose’ that is so dominant in writing today. To be more precise, I wonder the extent to which one of the satisfactions this sort of prose offers isn’t exactly the same thing, inflected slightly differently, offered by the observations of stand-up comedians. When a laugh-merchant makes an observation, we may laugh because we recognize the object. When Nabokov writes ‘the gas ring put out a sudden blue claw’ we experience a sort of delight of recognition: ‘yes! Yes! that’s exactly right! that’s just what it looks like when the gas ring is lit!’ Updike (say) is very good on that, and McEwan punches his weight. Except that a stand-up comedian is able to parlay that delighted recognition, that articulation of the familiar that makes it come new to us, into laughter. McEwan can’t do that.