Friday, 31 December 2010

The Pilgrim's Tale

There was an almost universal reaction in the house when I slapped down a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on the arm of the sofa, and it went something like this: ‘Ooh, Slaughterhouse-Five!’ Everyone vaguely knows what it’s about – the destruction of Dresden, nominally – and everyone (including me) is vaguely aware of a nagging sense that they Should Have Read It By Now. It has also been on various English Lit syllabuses for a few years, which I think compounds the feeling of schoolboy guilt.

I said I vaguely knew what it was about, but I was surprised by just how little Dresden features in the story. The book has a conversational tone and a first-person introduction, which feels a bit like you’re being addressed by a grown up version of Holden Caulfield. Throughout Vonnegut’s prose there is a vein of laconic, sardonic wit which allows the reader to progress through the wretched life of the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, without becoming utterly miserable. Billy is absurdly tall, skinny, clumsy, fragile and utterly detached from the real world, but he has a ‘tremendous wang’ and ends up impregnating a famous movie starlet. So it goes.

‘So it goes’ is the narrator’s catch-all philosophy throughout. It is derived from Billy’s travels to the planet Tralfamadore (I told you it wasn’t really about Dresden) and his encounters with an alien species who see all instances of time simultaneously, in the same way that we can look across a landscape. What happens in any particular moment is unavoidable; we are all like flies trapped in amber.

And this is true most of all for Billy Pilgrim. He is shunted along from time and place to time and place, not unwillingly, but certainly not of his own free will. He tumbles through the plot just like Joe Christmas does in Faulkner’s Light in August. I think Billy’s name perfectly encompasses this as well. He is a pilgrim, bumbling along through life in an extraordinary way. His father tells him to call himself Billy, not any other variant of William, because there is something magic about the name. It certainly has a Peter Pan quality, somewhere between an ordinary kid playing in the suburbs and an all-American action hero. Billy Pilgrim. The ordinary American boy, the optometrist-turned-chaplain’s-assistant, as comically unsuited to war as he is to life in general. Billy Pilgrim, victim of, well, everything.

My main criticism of Slaughterhouse-Five would be the abrupt way in which the novel ends. For a book which everybody thinks is about Dresden, it spends a long time getting there and very little time in that charred, otherworldly landscape. Perhaps the point is that the reader is shunted around the place just like the protagonist. Billy’s journey is far from linear, but fortunately Vonnegut’s repetitive use of language is a useful crutch. Familiar themes surface and re-surface in peace and war alike, from simple descriptive phrases to the sinister opalescence of wartime candles made from the rendered fat of human beings. This repetition is paradoxically both reassuring and disorientating. We share Billy’s disconcerting journey until one morning the war ends, and so does the book. And although the ending of the novel is abrupt, it happens exactly as the narrator tells us it will in the first chapter, which is in itself is a baffling experience. So it goes.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

As I Lay Reading

This is just a brief post-mortem on William Faulkner’s Light in August. One or two other matters seem to have got in the way lately. 
Overall, I’m glad to have read it, as it was considerably better than As I Lay Dying. But I’m also glad to have finished it. Faulkner’s reputation for verbose and exhausting prose is well earned, and although I was complimentary about the first half of the book, it soon began to drag. 
One particularly annoying feature of the novel, and one that I certainly didn’t expect from someone accepted as a masterful storyteller, was the clumsiness with which Faulkner kept introducing new characters. ‘At that time there was X, who had lived in the town for Y years...’ This happened several times, and was so formulaic and cumbersome that I almost suspected that Faulkner had run out of storyline and was introducing new characters in order to coax the plot along for a few more pages.
It is easy to see how Faulkner earned his title as one of the great American novelists, and it is equally obvious that he has shaped whole generations of authors. His metaphors are vast and captivating, his language poetic and sinister. For me, the problem is that some of his modern protégés seem superior. If I want to see blood spilled in the Deep South, I’ll turn to Cormac McCarthy, an author whose style and use of language owe so much to Faulkner, but who is far more accessible to the modern reader. He doesn’t have the lulls that Faulkner has.
Perhaps fast-paced modern literature has spoiled me, although I am still happy to trudge through classics like Don Quixote and Moby-Dick. I think Faulkner’s major problem is that legions of writers have come after him in the Southern Gothic tradition, and the style that was so uniquely his is now readily available elsewhere. He may have been original then, but he is not unique now. And although he writes with incredible power, his voice is lost among those of his imitators. Faulkner has been a victim of his own success.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Danger on the Edge of Town

Last time I had a tussle with Faulkner, he won. I still finished As I Lay Dying, because I couldn’t bear not to, but it was an incredibly tedious process and I didn’t enjoy the book. Happily, Light in August, which I’m now about halfway through, is a much more gripping read.

Light in August - William Faulkner
As you might expect from Faulkner, this novel sits slap bang in the middle of the Southern Gothic genre of which its author is one of the chief architects. In nineteenth-century Mississippi, a man named Christmas struggles with his own identity and free will. He is part black, with all the stigma attached to that, but not such a large part that anyone can immediately tell. He is despised by the whites who know his secret and rejected by the blacks.

Christmas is trapped by his blood and his upbringing. In a masterful flashback, Faulkner reveals the cold, puritanical foster-father and the young man’s inevitable violent reaction. Beaten daily for not learning his catechisms, the young Christmas becomes imbued with his foster-father’s disdain for women and icy capacity for violence.

Faulkner’s genius lies in his ability to create a brooding, pervasive sense of impending disaster. Christmas’ upbringing inevitably shows itself, and the reader bobs along just as helplessly as the protagonist. It seems very likely that there will be no escape for either. The book is claustrophobic, despite the vast open spaces of the Deep South; and the limitless potential of a young country is arrested by the furtive, sweaty dealings of the town of Jefferson.

At the end of the flashback, Faulkner is at his haunting best: the outcast Christmas is a man and a parricide by the age of eighteen. He wanders a single dusty road that stretches through countless towns and cities and fifteen years of whorehouses and fistfights. After all we have learned about Christmas in an incredibly detailed flashback, the fifteen years of wandering between the novel’s past and its present lasts for a breathtaking page or so. It’s not what he’s known for, but at times Faulkner can be an extraordinarily economical storyteller. Christmas is propelled into the future by some terrible, unseen force, and all one can do is keep turning the pages.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Kings and Fools

I have returned to Anthony Burgess, with his novel Any Old Iron, which follows the remarkable Jones family throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The old iron of the title is Excalibur, a.k.a. the Sword of Mars, once wielded by Attila the Hun before ending up in the hands of King Arthur, according to popular legend.

For a story ostensibly about Excalibur, the first major surprise is how little the sword itself features. It does, however, hang over the fates of the various members of the Jones family, and by charting their fortunes Burgess is able to cover an extraordinary variety of subject matter. The sinking of the Titanic, the Russian revolution, two World Wars, the struggle for Welsh independence, and the founding of the nascent State of Israel are all effortlessly and mercilessly scrutinised.

When Burgess writes about the Second World War, his acerbic wit is reminiscent of Joseph Heller. One Private Jones suffers so many bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia, and minor war-related injuries that, despite serving his country for several years, he never actually sees any fighting. There is a powerful sense of the absurdity of war. Another Jones, defending his classical education as a means to interpret the mad situation around him, reduces war and Homeric verse to the level of crapulent nightmares, concluding that “We’re all living in the aftermath of a cheese supper.”

Burgess’ view of Welsh independence and Zionism are just as jaundiced. The two struggling states are set up as parallels, with the bumbling Welsh independence movement robbing post offices and giving old ladies heart attacks. Perhaps because it is still a delicate political issue, perhaps because Wales is more integral to the plot, Israel is seen as a distant absurdity, used by the Welsh freedom fighters as an example of what could be achieved. This absurdity is brought out by discussions of the ethnic similarities between the two groups, and the suggestion that the Welsh are a fragment of the Jewish diaspora.

So, where does Excalibur fit in? Having been looted by the Nazis and captured by the Soviets it resides in a Russian museum. There Reg Jones, half mad with his love for a Russian woman and his fear that she will be sent to the Siberian work camps, liberates it from the icy grasp of the Soviets. He does so with no nationalistic intent, his wartime experiences having destroyed any such naive ideals. But when he returns it to Wales, and when the Luftwaffe unintentionally expose some apparently Arthurian ruins, the nationalistic fervour of others is whipped up. For Reg, the end of the war is sadly not the end of pointless quarrelling.

Clearly, for Burgess, the absurdity of war is inseparable from the absurdity of nation-building. Thousands of Russians were worked to death in Stalin’s USSR because they had been exposed to the decadence of Western society, and could have spread word of its success. Welsh nationalism seems the nostalgic province of petty thugs. Wars, and the thought of dying for one’s country, are absurd.

Any Old Iron tumbles majestically and mockingly through the terrible events of the twentieth century. The Sword of Arthur almost seems like an afterthought, until you look closely and realise that it symbolises all the nostalgia for conquests and golden ages that motivated so much of the bloodshed in our recent history. It is a rusty relic, quite out of place in the modern world.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Come out to play...

The front cover of Sol Yurick’s The Warriors bombastically proclaims that it is the most dangerous book since A Clockwork Orange. It is not. Yes, there are ritualised stabbings, gang-rapings and casual violence aplenty, but the comparison was clearly made by the sales team rather than the critics.

I read The Warriors because of the movie of the same name, which is something of an 80s cult classic, all urban decay and hipster slang. The same two features dominate the book, but whereas in Paramount’s version the hero and the tart-with-a-heart get together, in Yurick’s original she is raped and left in an alleyway beside a bleeding corpse. Predictably, the Warriors have been neutered for Hollywood.

The bombast of the front cover sets the tone for the whole novel. It follows a gang, the Coney Island Dominators, in a not-too-distant New York future, as they make their way home through fifteen miles of hostile territory after a huge peace talk between all the NY gangs ended in anarchy. The young men of the gangs are obsessed with their machismo, their appearance, their ‘rep’. If you look at them the wrong way, they’ll bop you. Or jap you. Or waste you.

While one or two scenes make for slightly uncomfortable reading, there is certainly nothing as distressing as Anthony Burgess’ wilder moments. The most uncomfortable aspect for me was the narrator’s – perhaps the author’s – tacit assumption that the female victims of the Dominators nocturnal activities were a) asking for it, and b) enjoyed it. The book was written in the eighties. Whether it was behind the times then and seems even more so now, or whether the author is attempting to be provocative, is difficult to tell.

What the novel does do well is evoke the sweat and seediness of a hot New York night. I’ve never been, but I have experienced enough American culture and been through the arse-ends of enough big cities to find it convincing. All the talk of fairies, fags and whores is reminiscent of Travis’ skewed view of the nightlife in Taxi Driver, while the sweaty, paranoid road trip aspect reminded me of Kerouac’s On the Road.

The Warriors is not a sophisticated work of literature. I read it in about three hours flat. But given how much I enjoy the film, and how many times I’ve seen it, I was impressed that the book wasn’t a disappointing experience. Yurick’s prose is nothing special, but it isn’t actively bad, which is what I’d been bracing myself for following some friendly warnings. And for a novel unashamedly based on gang violence, it does at least voice some intelligent thoughts. One character’s aspiration is to earn a fearsome ‘rep’ and make others follow his orders by sitting behind a desk and working hard, by having a big house, a nice car, a pretty wife. There’s that latent misogyny again, but at least these are reasonably honest aspirations.

The real tragedy is that by the end of the book, the one character that has developed the most, who conquered his inadequacies in a ten-cent arcade shoot-out game against a shinily handsome plastic sheriff, is back where he started. His home is his prison, and his potential as a leader of men and as an honest person seems likely to remain unfulfilled.