1491. Oakham, a fictional village just outside Bruton in Somerset, is a dump. Its villagers are a rowdy, bad-luck menagerie of “scrags and outcasts”. A row of poor harvests has devastated their investment in arable farming. Isolated in a bend of the river, they need a bridge to the outside world. The surrounding villages are getting rich on imported sugar and the new sugar products; they’re still getting rich on wool–while even in that established trade Oakham lags technologically, spinning with distaff and spindle, fulling the wool by foot. “There are goats richer than us,” John Reve, the local priest, ruefully admits. Then, a few days before the beginning of Lent, a corpse snags briefly on a fallen tree in the river, then vanishes… Read the rest of my review of Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind here.
A man walks into a bar and orders a whisky, “Just an ordinary sort of Scotch.” He reads for half an hour, then gets up, and pays his bill in cash. Thereafter he returns once or twice a week. He drinks the Scotch, he reads a book. Kino the barman thinks perhaps that he’s a gangster. In the end that’s not really an issue; it’s Kino’s story we’re going to get anyway…
A cockroach wakes up to discover that he is Gregor Samsa. He is already forgetting he was a cockroach and when he tries to remember, “something like a black column of mosquitos” swirls up inside his head. He decides to give up on that. His first concern, he thinks, should be to get up off the bed, because lying on his back makes him vulnerable to attack by birds…
A woman’s ex-lover gets a phone call from her husband, who tells him she has committed suicide then hangs up. The lover has no idea where she lived after she left him, or who with. He can’t even imagine what her life was like, let alone find a way to reconnect with it. She’s the third woman he’s been with who killed herself…
Murakami’s Men Without Women are self-centred and lonely. They’re rather too puzzled, given their intelligence, as to why those two conditions go hand in hand. They present as tentative but act impulsively; expose histories founded on some early act of self-alienation; then, after jumping their lives inexpertly from one track to another (often from a low energy state to an even lower one), become tentative again at the last. Murakami–alert, relaxed, whimsical–watches them. He’ll tell the story in his own good time. My review for the Guardian here.
Lots of really good writing on the Saboteur Awards short & long lists, including The Night Visitors, Jenn Ashworth & Richard Hirst; Zombies Ate My Library, Tony White; An Unreliable Guide to London, Influx Press; Attrib & Other Stories, Eley Williams (also Influx). Eley Williams is having an excellent response to her short stories; and Influx are crowdfunding the next phase of their operation–you should support them if you can, along with all the other UK small presses. In the absence of mainstream publishing–which has been having a holiday from its responsibilities in this direction since the 80s–these heroes have taken on the risk- and work-laden task of finding and developing the new and the out-of-the-way, the smart, well-written, interesting stuff.
First the corporate bakers replace bread with a packaged, highly uniform item based on the cheapest ingredients and most cost-efficient production methods. By comparison, old fashioned bread is too slow, too difficult to make; it has a shorter shelf life and can be shown to appeal to fewer customers: they drop it from their repertoire, on the basis of the fall in demand they themselves have stimulated. As a result, perhaps a generation later, there begins to be seen a minor but discernible movement in the population itself towards “real” bread, generally defined as “wholemeal”; a bread which, though it is slower to make and harder to store, has all the qualities manufactured bread now lacks–taste, texture, substance & so on. The corporate bakers ignore this “new” bread until it begins to win publicity & shelf-space, at which point they claim that its entire raison d’etre is baseless: their product adheres fully to the regulations that define bread; it is just as good, just as wholesome, nutritious and fulfilling to eat; and anyway, people prefer its qualities of softness, reproducibility and long shelf-life. They commission advertising around these points. They commission nostalgia advertising. The wholemeal market, though still small, continues to grow. The corporate bakers commission cultural attack advertising, which shows ordinary, decent voters trying to make fish-finger-&-tomato-sauce sandwiches with “difficult” & foreign breads. But while these ads are comedy & rhetorical gold, and work well with the confirmation biases of eighty percent of the bread market, it’s now clear to corporate accountancy that there is in fact money to be made from the other twenty percent. Achieving by political lobby a change in the rules that define the notion of “wholemeal” which allows them to make a cheap, long-life, soft-feel imitation and still call it “real bread”, the corporates begin their move back into the slice of the market they voluntarily vacated a generation before, publicly condemning the “crushing consistency” of their own core product and tempting wholemeal experts away from their start-ups to design & package lines of the new real bread they will move through locally branded outlets set up on the sites of the old high street bakeries. Equilibrium returns. Everyone is safe.
This novel’s central character exists only to witness something he doesn’t understand. The reader doesn’t understand it either; not because it can’t be understood, or because there is nothing to be understood, but because understanding comes at the price of reassembling the components of the book from a position that is only hinted-at. One way or another, everything’s a clue to a point of view. But, much as a gene’s most important function may be to switch on a cascade of other genes, that in itself may be a clue only to another clue.
Summer, 2012: Charlie and his cousin Matthew set out one evening in Charlie’s Lexus to join Charlie’s wife, Chloe, at their summer home in the Catskills. It’s a complex relationship. Charlie, you sense, usually gets what he wants. Matthew is more the junior partner, always offering, always giving, always biddable. In fact, before we know it, he has already agreed to get out of the car, catch a train back to New York and pick up a bracelet Charlie left behind. By page four you think it’s odd that Charlie’s so insistent, in his understated, manipulative way; by page five you’re wondering which of them might be the fall guy of the title… Read on
My review of James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy, up at the Guardian today.
Lots of Penelope Fitzgerald, especially The Bookshop and Offshore. Some Maeve Brennan, whose “I See You, Bianca” is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. All of Tom Drury. Beast, Paul Kingsnorth and The Gradual by Christopher Priest tied with Maylis de Kerangal’s faction Mend the Living (tr Jessica Moore) as the best extended metaphors I reviewed this year. Turning Blue, Benjamin Myers, very grim & Yorkshire upland; Underlands, Ted Neild, very geology. Permitted and Forbidden Stories, Valeria Ugazio. The Messiah of Stockholm, Cynthia Ozick and–speaking of massively clever & entertaining–Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself.
Books I meant to read but didn’t get round to: Ishiguru, The Buried Giant.
Most disappointing re-read, JB Priestley, Saturn Over the Water–loved that book when I was young, should have left it there. Best re-read, LP Hartley’s The Go Between, another blast from the deep past (of which I seem to have more & more these days). Opened out more and contained more and told me more about myself than it did when I read it in 1966 or whenever.
The most dangerous reads this year were women. The last few pages of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun made me cry. The whole of Olivia Laing, but especially The Lonely City, reminded me of more things than I wanted to know. & if you haven’t read it yet, Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be will leave you in shock–seriously, men haven’t written like this for decades. OK, she’s my friend, and we all know her here: but it’s true.
My review of Christopher Priest’s haunting new novel The Gradual, up at the TLS today.
Lovecraft’s set-ups are much more horrifying than the spaces he generates from them. The repetitive elements of the mythos act as a sort of refamiliarisation of that which has been deeply defamiliarised by the set-up. By the end of “Dreams in the Witch House”, for instance, a substitution has taken place. The human condition of being alive in a highly debatable space–a space the mathematical underpinnings of which seem to suggest something so undependable about our structures of perception that all we can do is struggle to reaffirm them–has been replaced by the condition of being alive in a threatening but clearly structured universe. The “imagined” replaces the real as a real. The new space isn’t entirely heimlich. It still trails some of the mystery implied by the set-up. But it has become describable, despite Lovecraft’s typical insistence that it isn’t. This is less an intensification of than a relief from the terror of the Witch House. In the same way, the moment the eponymous Colour Out of Space begins to act in a structured fashion, to feed itself and make its escape from our side of things, it ceases to undercut anthropocentric definitions and becomes a reassertion of them; the universe, though weird, is seen to operate on–or at least to be describable by–understandings we already possess. The discomfort of the unknowable is replaced by the comfort of being eaten by a creature with perfectly recognisable motives. Substitution of a false real is the disappointment of most generic fantasy: once the author has ushered us through an exhilaratingly scary liminal space, in which anything might be possible, new norms arrive and everything becomes ordinary again. The suggestion that things are not what they seem is always more exciting than the alternative provided. We wish we were back in the condition of not knowing. I do, anyway.
–reblogged from September 11, 2007