Thursday, 28 October 2010

Big City, Deep Time

I’ve finished The Book of Dave and it has been one of the most intense and enthralling novels I’ve read for a long time.

At one point, Self uses the phrase ‘deep time’, and this is the book’s real appeal for me. It is soaked in time and place, and the two are irrevocably linked. The past is heard through Dave’s recollections of stories told by his grandfather: how, during the war, sand was dug from Hampstead Heath to fill sandbags, and when buildings were reduced to rubble by German bombs the rubble was deposited back in the pits from which the sand was dug. The city’s past is cannibalistic, a constant series of recyclings which infest the present.

It is in the present, in London circa 2000 AD, that Self is at his best. The grime of the contemporary city is phenomenally well-expressed. The London Show continues, in its two thousandth year at the same venue. The then rumbles seamlessly into the now, and Dave’s present is full of the knowledge of his city and its past.

The future reflects the past, and London’s auto-cannibalism continues, albeit somewhat distorted. Names become warped with repetition through the generations, and it seems that the real tragedy of the future inhabitants of Ham is their lack of a distinct past. Their history all stems from the book of Dave, and the reader’s awareness of its twisted psychoses exposes the flaws in any society’s dependence on a revealed religion or a single version of events. These people need more history, a second book to set the record straight.

So, history is powerful in this book. But by my reckoning, the present is the most intriguing part of the book. I initially wondered whether this could be labelled a failure in terms of dystopian literature, since the depicted future is not the most immediate part of the novel. On second thought, this seems like a very narrow reading. This is not a dystopia, but something much broader.

I think that our present is always likely to be the thing we can relate most closely to, particularly in a novel with such a sense of place. But I also think that our present, Dave’s present, acts as the conduit for the history and future which Self creates. Does that make sense? It is the focus. Dave’s actions, shaped by the past, shape the future which we are privileged enough to see running alongside the present.

I can’t articulate any of this as well as it is implicitly expressed in The Book of Dave. But this sense of deep time is one of the biggest things I took away from this novel.

Oh, and the storyline is ok as well.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Ubiquitous Cities

I read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino a little while ago because I heard a few of my friends discussing it. Here are my thoughts.

The book is a fictional account of the travels of Marco Polo, as related by the traveller himself to Kublai Khan. His descriptions of various cities are interspersed with a dialogue with the Khan, in which it gradually becomes clear to the reader that all the cities described are really facets of a single city, Venice. I feel no compunction in spoiling this for you, because Vintage Classics, in their infinite wisdom, spoilt it for me by putting that morsel of information on the back cover.

Invisible Cities almost seems like a rough draft or a scrapbook full of ideas. Each city is unique, whether this is because of its unlikely location, bizarre architecture, or the characters and actions of its inhabitants. In one city, the citizens trail threads between themselves and all of their acquaintances, with different colours of thread symbolising different relationships; familial ties, business dealings, romantic entanglements. Finally, when there are so many threads that normal life becomes impossible, the inhabitants will abandon the city and move somewhere else, leaving their deserted, spider-webbed homes to be gradually destroyed by the elements. In another city, the residents build an exact replica of their metropolis underground in order to house the dead and make the transition from life to death less jarring. Or was it the dead who built the upper city?

Each city is a puzzling vignette, a glimpse of a different society and an entirely different way of going about one’s life. Many of them are very beautiful and thought provoking.

For me, it is precisely this that makes Invisible Cities so unsatisfying. Calvino dangles an idea in front of your eyes, and then whisks it away. Each city is given just a page or so. I’m sure the idea is to tantalise, but I found that the arrangement of the novel into single-page chapters was clunky and awkward, and many of the cities read like frustratingly abortive potential places. Somehow, they do not quite exist. Many of them cry out to be entire novels, beautiful and paradoxical ideas for societies that could be almost infinitely expanded. Why not do what Borges does, and take a philosophical trinket and stretch it to its logical conclusion? There are so many worlds that could be spun out from this book, but perhaps the elegance of these cities and ideas would be lost if they were used in this way. Their brevity and ambiguity certainly grants them a spell-like fascination.

My view of Invisible Cities is partly coloured by The Book of Dave, which I’ve nearly finished reading. Will Self calls London ‘the once and future city,’ and toys with the same kind of timelessness which Calvino does. London and Venice are both magical in the way they stretch away before and behind us, but I personally find the depth and saturation of Self’s 500-page vision of a city more enchanting than Calvino’s brief work.

This may be a little unfair though, since I’ve never been to Venice.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Back to Reality

I’m now about two-thirds of the way through The Book of Dave, despite the best efforts of the man on the train who kept almost falling asleep onto me. I’m really enjoying the book, and I would highly recommend it. Yes, it’s bleak and miserable, but it is also incredibly readable. The two parallel worlds reel you in, as each one gives you just a little more background on the other. It’s very well done.

As we witness the deranged cabbie, Dave Rudman, construct his own universe and system of beliefs, it becomes apparent just how fragile any such system is. One of my favourite words from the book’s bizarre vocabulary is ‘toyist’ – essentially it means that something is phoney or ersatz. Dave deploys this word regularly against anything he particularly dislikes, branding the subject false and invalid. This leads to intriguing clashes between the reader’s reality and the very persuasive reality which Will Self constructs. The humble pig, recognisable to us, is monstrous and ‘toyist’ to the inhabitants of the future island of Ham, because it cannot talk. Their livestock, in contrast, are initially grotesque but eventually endearing. They are the shambling, lisping motos which belong somewhere between a pig and a giant baby, and who vacuously but cheerfully greet their masters with an ‘orlri mayt’ even as they are being led to slaughter.

To the pig-farmers, the motos are vile and toyist beasts. To the inhabitants of Ham, the pigs are poor toyist copies of the motos, bereft of the power of speech. We should sympathise with the former, but we do not, because the novel works.

I’m sure this is all very poorly-explained and confusing. The main point I wanted to get at is that the word toyist is a well-executed, made-up word for something that we all do all of the time. It is a way of dismissing someone else’s reality if it does not accord with your own.

I’ve already started to adopt a few pieces of Self’s misanthropic vocabulary. It is impossible not to. The fragments of shattered glass from a car window are ‘ackney diamonds. A bloke who talks a load of rubbish has more f**king rabbit than Watership Down. In a similar vein to the adjective ‘toyist’, we see the invention of ‘chellish’ – that is, someone or something bearing a resemblance to Dave’s ex-wife Michelle, and being laden with all the bleak emotions that she evokes for our protagonist.

So, the creation of a vocabulary is a very powerful thing. It imprints Dave’s hate-filled psyche onto the reader, and it does it forcibly. Since we have only Dave’s words through which to understand the situation, we are forced to accept a landscape saturated with impotent rage. This is toyist, that is chellish, this is phoney, that is hateful.

In the same way that calling something toyist forces the namer’s perception of reality onto the named object, Dave’s inescapable vocabulary forces his twisted perceptions onto the reader.

Phew.

The Book of Dave does what I like in a novel, it plays with reality. And it does it very well.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Traveller's Theory

I’m working on a theory, bear with me.

Travelling long distances over short periods of time is something that the human being is evolutionarily unprepared for. It’s like those hippies who say that drinking milk is bad for you, because it’s not natural to drink it apart from mother’s milk when you’re a baby, and your gut can’t cope. Evolution hasn’t caught up. I think this explains why travelling is always such an exhausting experience.

Somehow, some part of you realises that you’ve travelled a couple of hundred miles, even if it only took two hours. Some deep-rooted instinct knows that something quite remarkable has just happened. So, you become tired, grouchy, and feel compelled to purchase an overpriced hot water-based beverage from the buffet trolley. And of course, something else remarkable has happened, as it is difficult to tell what goes wrong in such a simple formula to produce a cup of scalding fluid that tastes... brown. But I digress.

There is a physical reaction to extended travel, and it doesn’t have to involve skipping timezones or anything complicated like that.

Admittedly, it does perhaps have something to do with the fact that you’ve just spent two hours staring out of the window and listening to Joy Division. Travel is a time for introspection. I enjoy the chance to do nothing but sit and listen to music or read a book, but it can encourage melancholy. Does mental languishing account for physical tiredness? Quite possibly.

The landscape doesn’t help, I think. I wonder if seeing so many things, flashing past, affects us. England from a carriage window is generally beautiful; you only need to read The Whitsun Weddings to know that. Even Yorkshire’s smoking stacks have something about them. Perhaps there’s a kind of sensory overload. We see quantities of things that, a couple of hundred years ago, it would have taken us weeks to see. Here is another city. Here are several hundred more people. Surely we should expect to be exhausted afterwards? Or are we already desensitised? I think not, because people-watching is always interesting, and trains are a good place for it. Seeing so many people and places is naturally exhausting.

Or perhaps it is because people are essentially conservative. With a very small ‘c’. They are, if not resistant to change, then at least affected by it in different ways. Or is that just me? Changing surroundings will result in changing moods, I think. When this is gradual, it is easy to deal with. When it is forcibly accelerated by the wonders of modern transport there is a gut reaction. It might not be as tiring as if you’d walked the whole way, but there’s definitely something there.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Love and Hate in Hampstead

Another dystopian novel. Sorry about this. Normal service will be resumed soon.

This is certainly the most modern novel I’ve read for a while, Will Self’s The Book of Dave. It’s set in Hampstead in around 500 years time. In this future, rising sea levels have left the inhabitants of the island of Ham isolated from the other areas of high ground, visited only once a year for purposes that I don’t quite understand yet. Their religion and their entire society is based around a book written by a London cabbie from our time, named Dave Rudman.

This is a dense book. Self has created his own language in the Burgessian style, littered with Londonisms, cabbie slang and text-speak. The standard greeting of the inhabitants of Ham is ‘Ware2 guv?’ This makes for a lot of off-putting dialogue to be ploughed through. The first few pages were particularly difficult, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it. The strategy is just like reading Middle English; if you can’t decipher the word, reading it out loud normally helps. Eventually, this becomes good fun. It is enjoyable to be immersed in this bizarre vocabulary, to spot all the puns and references.

The same goes for the cosmos which Self constructs. Just like the vocabulary of the Hamsters (as the inhabitants of Ham are known), their ordering of universe is based around the book of Dave. Christianity is mercilessly parodied. Chronology is measured ‘in the Year of Our Dave,’ the omnipotent one can always see us through his rear-view mirror, and so on. The world of Ham is so sophisticated that the book even has a glossary at the back, but I always feel a bit like I’m cheating if I have a look in it. For the most part you can work out what he’s talking about, although it might pass you by at first. It reminds me of a grimy, mundane version of Eliot’s Wasteland, a system of allusions and references far too complicated for its own good. But somehow, Self manages to pull it off, I think because it is all very tongue-in-cheek.

Mentioning The Wasteland also reminds me of how London-centric this book is. I really enjoy this, but I wonder how much of the novel’s vitality would be lost on a non-Londoner. Self’s grubby view of London is devastatingly accurate, and perhaps unfamiliarity with the places in question would make it less interesting. I’ll have to lend the book around and ask for some opinions.

There is more than that, though. This book brings out the inherent irony of Hampstead. Let me try to explain what I mean. Like the Christian universe, the cosmos of Hampstead, and indeed the whole of North London, is ripe for parody. (I should point out that I lived in Gospel Oak during my formative years. Being situated between leafy, upper-middle-class Hampstead [only the estate agents call Gospel Oak ‘Hampstead’] and the ever-delightful Kentish Town lends a real variety to life...) North London is easy to parody because it is so middle class, darling. But I also think that many of its inhabitants are aware of this. It is a land of patisseries, boulangeries, and artisan bakeries. It is organic, it is free range. It is concerned with the poor, from the distance of the rich. Sometimes I love the place and sometimes I loathe it. But I certainly can’t afford it. And I think a lot of people feel this way.

By isolating Hampstead and cultivating his primitive society on its shores, Will Self pierces the fa├žade and shows just how transparent it all is. He goes back to the bare earth of a place which actually has a remarkable and vibrant history. He uses it as his canvas, reshaping much of it, but keeping just enough intact to anchor his novel in reality and provide a generous serving of in-jokes. Whether or not these are funny to anyone else is a good question.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Man in the High Castle

I want to write about this book, but I need to return it to the friend who lent it to me and who hasn’t had a chance to read it. So this might be a little bit tricky.

About halfway through The Man in the High Castle, I thought Philip K. Dick had a slightly irritating awareness of just how clever he was being. The man in the novel’s title is an author who writes a book which is, in the world of the novel, immensely popular. The book, called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is about what would have happened if the allies had won WWII. I know, crazy, right? Philip K. Dick’s characters seem to spend a lot of their time fawning over how clever the author was to think of such an impressive vision of an alternative world, with the clear implication that Dick’s own book is wonderful.

Without wishing to spoil it, the book within the book is very important. This is revealed with an irritating lack of subtlety. One character is troubled by the fact that the alternate world of the author, a man named Abendsen, is ‘somehow grander, more in the old spirit than the actual world.’ Later on, a different character meditates on the relevance of the novel within the novel: ‘He told us about our own world... This, what’s around us now.’

Of course, this is the mark of a good sci-fi book. (I don’t think it can really be called a dystopia, as it takes place in an alternative present, when the book was written in the 60s, rather than an alternate future.) It tells us about the society which produced it as much as the fictional society which it creates. But surely this doesn’t have to be directly observed by a character in the novel for the reader to notice it?

Despite this sledgehammer approach, the book is good fun. I always really enjoy an author who plays with the boundaries between truth and fiction, between various different layers of reality. Dick certainly manages that, and there are elements of subtlety. The book’s subplot features the forgery of historical and cultural artefacts, before the characters who do the forging become original artisans in their own right, creating beautiful and unique jewellery. Reality and artifice flow throughout the book, and the relationship between the two is highly ambiguous. Many things are not as they seem, helping to create a classic atmosphere of paranoia.

One of my favourite lines relates to this. There is a discussion, at one point, about how the historicity of an artefact is what creates the item’s value. The forgery was not there, at that time, when that event happened. Although it is identical in every other way, it lacks this authenticity which is provided by its historical circumstances. One character shoots a couple of people dead, and watches horrified as their blood pools on the floor. Even when it is all cleared away, and no visible sign remains, he is aware of the ‘historicity’ bonded into the nylon tiles on the floor.

So, this is the division between truth and reality. Inanimate objects are witnesses to various atrocities, whether in the alternate present of the The Man in the High Castle or the alternate-alternate present of The Grashopper Lies Heavy... which should therefore be the actual present. Or something. Very little is objectively verifiable. What is clear is that you can’t trust what people say, and you certainly can’t trust what they write.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Don Rides Forth

Because I'm too knackered after a horrible day at work, here's one I prepared earlier. It is grave robbing of the worst order. Both Cervantes and Dante may feel justifiably violated... This is the prospective prologue to the never-to-be-released sequel to Don Quixote. To establish some kind of context for the exhumation, here is an extract from the end of Cervantes' original:
 
For me alone Don Quixote was born and I for him. His was the power of action, mine of writing. Only we two are at one, despite that fictitious and Tordillescan scribe who has dared, and may dare again, to pen the deeds of my valorous knight with his coarse and ill-trimmed ostrich feather. This is no weight for his shoulders, no task for his frozen intellect; and should you chance to make his acquaintance, you may tell him to leave Don Quixote’s weary and mouldering bones to rest in the grave, nor seek, against all the canons of death, to carry him off to Old Castile, or to bring him out of the tomb, where he most certainly lies, stretched at full length and powerless to make a third journey, or to embark on any new expedition.
 
(Part II, Ch.LXXIV)
 
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And here is my ostrich-feather effort, lying somewhere between reverent pastiche and macabre mockery...
 
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Carry me not to Old Castile, sir, only permit me to lie in the place I have carved for myself, and earned, by the virtue of my many deeds. It is my opinion - and I flatter myself that I have a little learning - that I have been placed here for a purpose. In life, my function was to succour the needy and aid the distressed, and though I have been laid low by the hand of my creator, I trust in his wisdom, and I know that he places me here so that no unrighteous hand may disinter my weary bones.
 
For myself, I believe that my adventuring days are far from over. Eventually, as the attentive reader knows, I recanted and realised the folly of my life, and was mercifully allowed to end my days in sanity and wisdom and the company of friends. And although I count myself cured, I await with interest the exploits of this soul for whom mere life was studded with so many glorious adventures, like stars in a clear night sky.
 
As my reader will doubtless deduce, there have been certain difficulties in the transmission of this new history. The insight of the fine historian Cide Hamete Benengali, author of the original book of my adventures, is of course absent, for he hung up his quill shortly after he buried me with it, and has not yet come this way himself. However I have read his words and hope to imitate, in my own poor prose, his most exceptional and incisive style.
Likewise, my gallant squire Sancho Panza with whom, despite his frequent baseness and many embarrassing outbursts, I parted in the greatest friendship. He has been sorely missed throughout the trials into which I have lately ventured, though perhaps more for his humour than his bravery. Yet I believe that I have had such a fill of his speech and mannerisms and proverbs (may God help me!) that the reader will not miss my good companion too much. After all, one bad apple soon turns the others in the basket.

I. Of the many noteworthy adventures that befell the valorous Don Quixote de la Mancha as he journeyed through the plains of Purgatory to his allotted place in Paradise...
 
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Such an exhumation will never be dignified. The Don rides forth, strapped to his trusty steed like the Cid, and just as incongruous.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Finishing and Starting

Finished One Hundred Years of Solitude yesterday. Ironically, about a page and a half before the end, an old neighbour of ours came over and stayed for a twenty minute chat, thereby utterly derailing my train of thought.

I eventually resolved my problem and decided that I like the book. To me it seems to follow the same pattern as Kafka’s Trial. Initially, it is enchanting, mesmerising, it reels you in. This is followed by a tedious midsection, caused by a lack of activity, and in Marquez’s case I think it is also arduous because of the oppressive solitude and misery which he conjures so effectively. Ultimately, both books end with catharsis, but I won’t say more than that.

Next on the list is a book lent to me by a friend with an interest in dystopian literature. It is Philip K. Dick’s 1962 masterpiece, The Man in the High Castle. I’m not really a sci-fi fan, despite my fondness for Red Dwarf and the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but I think this is mostly due to snobbery. There is an interesting question as to where exactly science fiction and dystopian “literature” overlap. Someone like Huxley clearly belongs in the latter category. I’m intending to re-read Brave New World soon, as it has faded from my memory remarkably effectively. I am a literary snob, and I like to feel that I’ve got something out of a book at the end of it. We’ll see if this happens with Dick’s book, and that will be the outrageously subjective basis for my categorisation of it.

I don’t have a lot to say about The Man in the High Castle just yet, as I’m only around sixty pages in. It is a vision of post-WWII America following the victory of the Nazis and the Japanese. Dick’s main concerns so far are the logical yet dizzying conclusions of Nazi racialism and eugenics. The whole of Africa has been wiped out in a grotesque experiment. Relations are defined by race, with the few remaining blacks and Jews at the bottom of the pile, and the Aryans and Japanese uneasily coexisting at the top, now rival powers on the opposite seaboards of the former United States. The mongrel Americans (my choice of adjective, and before anyone gets upset I believe it is both flattering and accurate) tip-toe around, desperately kow-towing to their new masters, whilst denigrating those below them in accordance with the esoteric rules of a culture wholly alien to them. Once more we return to Kafka. As with all good dystopian visions, paranoia is everywhere.

So far, so unremarkable. But I know I’m being unfair.

There are always dangers in reading a classic of dystopian literature almost half a century after it was first published. Some of them age gracefully, and others do not. Dick seems to have done fairly well. The what-if-the-Nazis-had-won scenario still holds a terror for Europe and America, I think, since it is impossible to look back on such a period of bloodshed without wondering what could have happened. On the other hand, it does seem to be a fairly easy recipe for creating a story: take what might have happened, and stretch it to its logical conclusion. This is one root of many dystopian visions, although it would be unfair to paint the author as a mere follower when, fifty years ago, he was a trailblazer. Hopefully, Dick has not become a victim of his own success in the way that other visions of the future have, becoming trite because of their incredible popularity.

While I read the book, I’ll have to keep reminding myself that he got there before a lot of others did, and I’ll wait and see whether The Man in the High Castle yields something special along the way. HuHu

Friday, 1 October 2010

More on Marquez

I still can’t quite make up my mind about One Hundred Years of Solitude. I really enjoyed it to begin with, then went off it, and now I like it again. I think the problem for me is that Marquez’s characters are so fundamentally unlikeable, but his descriptive writing is so good that he achieves an awkward ambivalence, at least for me.

The Buendia family is a parade of grotesques. From the mad Jose Arcadio Buendia, tied gibbering beneath a chestnut tree, to the seemingly immortal Colonel Aureliano Buendia, whose guerrilla campaign is both tragedy and farce. Reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, and even his own attempt at suicide was a failure because his doctor predicted it and gave the colonel false information when he asked precisely where his heart was. These characters appear in the first half of the book. They are roguish and have their own charm; they are romantics, explorers, adventurers.

I am currently in the middle of the book, and the later generations of Buendias do not, for me, have the same charm. Many of them are dominated by their own fleshly pursuits, chasing women old enough to be their mothers, or women who are in fact their half-sisters or aunts. I’m not a prude, but it gives me a little British shudder.

The book is unquestionably visceral, and this comes through in the musty, sweaty sex scenes. It is also manifested in the periodic outbursts of bloody violence, the daughter who eats earth and whitewash from the walls when she is upset, and the suffocating closeness of the village of Macondo, in seeming isolation from the rest of the world. It is a dirty place, and it is testament to Marquez’s evocative style that the characters and their vices are so repellent to the reader.

I find myself willing forward the conviction of the matriarch, Ursula, that one day the family will have a Good Son who will be a priest. But since the previous priest had an unusual fondness for female donkeys, even this idea seems tainted. She begins to be superstitious that the family’s run of ne’er-do-wells is a result of the reuse of names, and she rows with the younger generations over the proposed names of their offspring. This too, is a conviction that the reader shares. Despite the family tree at the beginning of the book, it is virtually impossible to keep track of all the Jose Arcadios, the Aurielianos, the Aureliano Joses, the Amarantas, the Rebecas, the Remidioses.

Eventually – and for me this came only about a third of the way through the book - they coalesce into a repulsive tangle of dirty habits which is not easily resolved. They procreate, and the same names and the same vices become perpetual. This, of course, is the point of the book. It is a catalogue of misfortune that spans so many generations that one all but loses track, lost in the rottenness of the family and the village. We become irrevocably involved.

I’m not a sucker for a happy ending, but I hope there is a priest, and I hope he turns out alright.