Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake presents the reader with a significant but rewarding challenge. Though as an author she rejects any association with the term “science fiction”, that basically is the genre in which this novel lives. And it really does come to life, though exactly which life-form might be open to debate. Oryx and Crake are nicknames. Both are animal species and both are extinct. Oryx is female and Crake is male. They are both acquaintances of Snowman, who is really Jimmy. We are in a dystopic future – a common enough setting for a sci-fi. 

But where Margaret Atwood’s work transcends such clichés of genre is in the development and description of character. Not only is their situation remarkable, so are their responses to it. What they sense as mundane is quite different from the reader’s. From very early on in the book, we engage primarily with the characters and their responses, but we know immediately that we are in a different world that we see only through their assumptions. This is writing of real skill.

Eventually it is the nature of the dystopia that provides the tension. We are all products of environment and circumstance., but in Oryx and Crake both of these are to some extent the products of the characters’ labour. Though there are no lengthy descriptions to set the scene, it is the events that led up to the world’s parlous state that are central to the story. We are in a future where human society is fragmented and disjointed. What began as the operation of a market has forced a complete separation of social classes. The clean, even sterile, world of the middle class intellectual is a closed world. Filtered, protected, disease-free. Genetic engineering has bred out of existence many of those annoying aspects of humanity. 

That was, of course, before the environment was declared toxic, a fact that is a mere given for the book’s characters. Growing up in such a world presents its own challenges. The usual ones of family break-up, unrealised aspiration, selfishness, self-obsession and power-lust obviously survive. But in a world where anything has a price and everything is sold, at least virtually, how is a growing lad to approach life? Well, no doubt, they’ll make a pill for it. Education is rigidly class-based, of course, so no change there then. And then enter, jointly, a genetic engineer so brilliant that he can transform every aspect of even the already transformed and a willingly sold-on sex slave who has starred in many a virtual experience. Bring the two together and the chemistry surely has to reach instability. Jimmy the Snowman is their admirer, colleague and acquaintance, though never in that order. And, if it can go wrong, it probably will, just like it did in the past. 

 Oryx and Crake is no “Genetic Mutants Rule Manhattan”. It is a much more subtle and engaging idea than that. But perhaps the idiom did take over too much, thus allowing Margaret Atwood to get just a little too much frustration with contemporary life off her chest at one go. When it came, the emergence of a plot and denouement seemed a little contrived. And there were places where things did seem to get bogged down. But Oryx and Crake is also an experimental book. It is written from inside the experience of characters whose values have been sold on as cheaply as life itself. When, eventually, you cut your foot, however, it still hurts, despite what the product claims on the tin. 

So, as ever with Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s the humanity and character that comes through, making Oryx and Crake a strange but rewarding glimpse of a strangely familiar future. View the book on amazon Oryx and Crake

Another Part Of The Wood by Beryl Bainbridge

Another Part Of The Wood by Beryl Bainbridge first appeared in 1968. It was a significant year. The book’s vintage shows through via passing reference to recognisable ephemera. Characters rejoice in wearing flared trousers, for instance, and remark when P J Proby sings on the car radio. Quaint, wasn’t it? There’s a holiday retreat in the north Wales hills. There are some cabins in the wood. They offer what would sound like very basic accommodation in today’s terms. But back in the 1960s, when foreign package holidays were still not the norm and no more likely encountered than a week in a caravan at Flamborough, the holiday-makers in the book no doubt looked forward to the experience. It was then, as now, a trip back to nature. Beryl Bainbridge’s forté is the presentation and juxtaposition of characters. In many ways, the discovery of their relationships is the plot. So it does not help the prospective reader if I give a detailed description of them in a review. But a cursory glance at them reveals how, after more than forty years, their identities and their concerns have remained remarkably modern. There’s a couple of families. There’s marriage and not marriage. There are children, both vulnerable and exploitative. There are flashbacks to a wartime experience that still makes everyday life hard to bear long before the term “post-combat stress disorder” had passed a campaigner’s lips. There is both pride and fear wrapped together. There are others who can’t cope with who they are. Someone is overweight. How modern can you get? Someone else stammers when over-wrought. There is someone who is easily led, and someone who wants to lead. There are people getting away from it all, and other who actively want to seek out experience. There are those who regard the rural area as a threat because of its lack of urban familiarity, and then there are those for whom it is a liberation. While a family argues over a game of Monopoly, someone almost burns down the real estate. There’s even more going on under the surface. A contemporary reader might find the obvious lack of linear plot somewhat confusing. Reading Beryl Bainbridge is a bit like sitting on the sea. Waves come with regularity. They are all different, but eventually a pattern emerges. And it’s a pattern where all the usual – and remarkable – human traits can be found. The final act may be over-played, but the experience is lasting, just as long as it lasts. It’s a bit like life, actually. View this book on amazon Another Part of the Wood (Penguin Decades)

Julian by Gore Vidal

When you are born into greatness, you may be forgiven for exhibiting a sense of destiny or an assumption of purpose. When you also find yourself marginalised, you may also be praised for a decision to pursue philosophy and learning alongside religious purity. When the celebrity that is your birthright also suggests that others might prefer you dead, you might be excused for wanting to keep your head down. But then you were born into greatness and had no choice in the matter. Your head is permanently above the parapet. 

 Gore Vidal’s masterpiece of historical fiction works on every level. The Roman emperor Julian is his subject. The novel charts Julian’s origins and early years in the eastern part of the late Roman Empire. He thinks of himself as Greek, never really masters Latin and never willingly expresses himself in it. Neither is he one of those new-fangled Galilean types who espouse a new religion with three gods. No, Julian is a traditionalist, though not because of a propensity for conservatism, but more because the tried and tested has worked for centuries, continues to do so and, crucially, reveals itself to him. Like his own pedigree, the old religion has an identity and record all its own and, alongside that, proven power. He takes this stand despite the habit of conversion, manifest in Constantine’s adoption of the new faith, running in the family. Julian’s form - in the sense of literary form – works with remarkable success and consistency. It is presented as his own journal, jottings toward an intended autobiography. 

But these notes have been pored over by two readers, Libanius and Priscus, both of whom the emperor has known since childhood. Since they are both also teachers, philosophers and advisers, their marginal comments are themselves interesting, enlightening and definitely not to be trusted. The book, thus, is a linear progression through a life, something akin to an autobiography in note form. It describes Julian’s early formation and education in detail and his almost Masonic adoption into the old religion. It captures beautifully how pragmatism must rule, despite the necessity of being faithful to ideology. It relates with great skill how greatness can be thrust upon even a willing recipient, be accepted, and yet be no more than a manifestation of cynical pragmatism. So when Julian is summoned to the status of Caesar, we see immediately that power prefers him on the inside projecting minimally outwards, rather than outside and potentially polluting. 

His changed status warrants a posting to Gaul to clear up the mess left by others less competent, a hospital pass if ever there was one. But Julian astounds all. He succeeds. He has the Midas touch. Everything goes his way and his pragmatism marries itself to opportunism to generate a populist mongrel that fights better, schemes more ruthlessly and thus wins. What it never does, however, is forget its origins. Throughout it remains frugal, thrifty and to the point, the greatness thrust upon it is reinvested towards achieving a greater, but ever-receding glory. Gore Vidal’s Julian thus raises its subject to Augustan status and follows the new leader to the east where he engages Persia and dreams of conquering India. Is this Alexander reborn? What the book does not do – thankfully – is offer detailed descriptions of military matters, since Julian himself has already written on these things elsewhere. This neat ploy keeps the focus of the book on the man, not his exploits. Late sections are in note form only, since the emperor was engaged with his day job of attempted world domination. As historical fiction, 

Julian has it all. It recreates a feeling of the places. It relives decisions and options in a thoroughly convincing way. It fleshes out events with credible, fallible people, despite their occasional god status. Above all, it takes you there. View the book on amazon Julian

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Knot Of Vipers by Francois Mauriac

When you reckon your time is up and that you’d like to get a few things straight before you peg out, the temptation to take up a pen and use it as a weapon might become all-consuming. Louis does precisely this, and thus the text of Francois Mauriac’s novel, The Knot Of Vipers, comes alive. Louis is well-heeled. He has made millions from his business interests over the years. But, realising he can’t take any of it with him, he considers how best to dispose of his fortune and, at the same time, analyses various aspects of the relationships that have filled his life. 

He finds all of them wanting in one way or another. He might be accused of a lack of both optimism and charity! So Louis pens a letter, a novel-length letter addressed to his wife. It’s to be his final statement and his way of putting the record straight, perhaps also a means of exacting retribution. He has been married to Isa for many years. Their marriage has been good in the Catholic sense, but their bed has been a cool, reverential place for some time, rather than a seat of reverie. 

The wife is the husband’s prime target. He recalls her lack of conviction, her inability to respond to him. An entire marriage relived becomes a jumble of opinions, recollections, threats and judgments, many of them petty, but all heartfelt. Louis particularly recalls his wife’s description of an episode with another man. He conveniently ignores a fling of his own. There was a much-loved daughter called Marie. But for all kinds of reasons she is not going to inherit. How annoying it is when you want to wield the dagger and find the job already done! 

So who else might Louis drag down with his pen? Well, there’s his son, naturally, and also a natural son. The former is Hubert, and his personal qualities rarely approach the old man’s professed standards. The latter, Robert, remains meek and unassuming. He’ll do all right! At least he won’t be plotting his father’s downfall! And so The Knot Of Vipers tightens itself around its own complications. Even lifetimes of highly profitable devotion produce complicated, internecine rivalries that have to be given space to dissipate. And, in Louis’s family, where even the obvious can be denied to preserve public face, what has not been expressed over the years just creates new layers of complication, layers that crowd out any negotiable space. 

I found on occasions that the scenario gave way under the weight of what had to be described. A private letter to a wife does not need descriptions of mutual acquaintances. The reader might demand this, but shared experience would only need an occasional reference. This, however, is The Knot Of Vipers only weakness. It’s a real tour de force of the concept that families f*** you up, especially Catholic ones, especially uncommunicative ones, especially… And then, of course, the book ends. View the book on amazon The Knot of Vipers (Capuchin Classics)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene

Monsieur Querry never reveals his Christian name. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t want to admit his Christianity. Perhaps he possesses it, but resists it. Perhaps... Monsieur Querry is the central character in Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case. The novel examines the relationship between motivation and religious belief and contrasts this with the gulf between personal experience and its interpretation by others. A significant gap emerges, a gap that ascribes status on the one hand or infamy on the other, depending on who might witness and later interpret events. Querry is an architect, and a very famous and successful one. When he arrives up the river at a leprosy hospital in Central Africa, however, no-one knows this. 

He is perhaps just another European running away from something and arriving ahead of a chase, perhaps to depart again just as quickly when the exigencies of daily life crowd out the self-serving romance of doing good. He meets Dr Colin who has devoted his life - and that of his wife! – to his fight against the disease. His hospital is in tatters. He has little equipment and fewer resources, and his wife is dead. He works, however, every waking minute to serve the needs of his leper patients. There are cures. If only he had the means. 

Querry, the Querrry, the famous architect, reinvents himself as a builder to realise a new hospital. So in this remote African backwater, a person who has slogged through life apparently to achieve little is partnered by a celebrity who comes with nothing, asks nothing, but can make things happen. Deo Gratias is a leper. He has lost all of his digits from both hands and feet. He is totally stumped. He is also regularly in pain, driven mad by the nervous reaction to his condition. One night he goes missing. A community member goes off in search and finds him semi-submerged in a pool. Might he be in danger of drowning? He stays with Deo Gratias until daylight and thus save a limited life. Was this Christian charity? Was it something more basic? Were there any motives whatsoever? Or perhaps was it a miracle? To judge on the latter, why not consult with the Fathers in the Mission, or the nuns in the convent? Why not try the opinion of a devout believer, someone like Rycker? He lives along the river with his wife, Marie. He is considerably older than her. His demands on life are within the confines of the box, and the box has the instructions printed on the outside. Marie’s demands on life have yet to locate the box. Querry spends some time talking to him, and then to her, and then him, and then her again... 

Rycker likes a drink. So does Querry. Arguably it is a miracle that the hospital gets built at all. Thus it’s also a story, and Parkinson arrives in its pursuit. The Querry has been located and an apparently unscrupulous paparazzo arrives via the fastest available canoe to secure the scoop. He writes for the highest bidder and is well syndicated. He’s a mercenary, an opportunist. Querry gives him the interview he requests. The resulting published piece, only a first instalment, is surprisingly supportive. Querry, meanwhile, has been supportive of Marie Rycker in a time of personal challenge. For Dr Colin at the leproserie, a burnt-out case is a leper who has lost everything that can be lost before a cure takes hold. For more than a decade, perhaps, the leprosy hospital has been a place where neither the road not the river goes any further. This Graham Greene contrasts the selfishness of professed religious conformity with the improvisation born of a humanism that dare not call itself Christian.

From outside, the exploits of both approaches only mean something when they are interpreted and, in this respect, any beauty is firmly rooted in the combined prejudice and assumption of the beholder. And when those interpretations invent something that never happened, or translate the ordinary into something transcendental that was never intended, then it is by these falsely recorded and misunderstood consequences that we become known. A Burnt-Out Case is undoubtedly a masterpiece. View the book on amazon A Burnt-out Case (Vintage Classics)

Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton presents an enigma seen from several contrasting, some related standpoints. It seems to deal with the concept of authenticity and its consequences. In general we like things to be authentic. We like the people we meet and the possessions we own to be genuine. But what if they are not? Does it matter? The historical basis upon which Peter Ackroyd hangs the plot of his novel is the life of Thomas Chatterton, the poet who committed suicide at the slight age of eighteen. Wallis’s iconic painting of the death adorns the book’s cover and its creation in the mid-nineteenth century forms a major element of the book’s plot. There’s also an eccentric English lady who has made money from writing and drinks gin incessantly from a teaspoon. There’s an art gallery offering some works by a famous painter. They are declared fakes. 

Charles Wychwood is an ailing, none too successful poet. He has a wonderful relationship with his young son, and a cooler one with his wife who has grown used to supporting her husband’s apparent lack of achievement. One day Charles decides to raise a little capital in a sale-room, but then ends up blowing his money on a painting. It’s a portrait, professedly of a middle-aged Chatterton. So perhaps he faked his own death so he could continue his trade anonymously. The idea captivates Charles because he knows a little of the poet’s background. 

Chatterton was born in the later part of the eighteenth century. He became obsessed with a series of medieval texts and started to copy their style. Thus he became the author of bogus medieval poetry, some of which he managed to publish. Unfortunately, he chose to publish not in his own name but in the name of a lost and forgotten medieval writer, thus passing off his own modern work as “genuine”. Writers, like academics, tend to regard plagiarism as a capital offence. But in Chatterton’s case, it wasn’t plagiarism, was it? He wasn’t trying to pass off another’s work as his own. He was merely adopting a pen name which implied that the material came from a different era. One brings to mind the myriad of pop singers, pianists, opera stars, actors or even television personalities who have adapted new names and apparently different personas in their attempts to open doors. What price a genuine article? 

I recall hawkers parading through Kuta in Bali with their open wooden boxes of watches shouting, “Rolex, Cartier, genuine imitation.” But Chatterton’s mimic status was uncovered. Scandal ensued and he earned no more. Penniless in a London garret he poisoned himself. Wallis painted the scene, albeit more than a generation later, it’s apparent verisimilitude pure fake. We know the picture. The poet’s red hair contrasts with his death pallor. An arm trails on the floor, the open window above suggesting a world beyond. But, of course, the man in the picture is a model, none other than the novelist, George Meredith. He made it into this picture of faked death only because the painter fancied his wife. So if the painterly aspects of the canvas might be genuine, its context is mere reconstruction, perhaps invention. Does this devalue it? 

But what if Chatterton did not die at that young age? What if Charles Wychwood’s painting of Chatterton in middle age is genuine? Did Chatterton fake more than poems? (Even if he did actually write them!) Charles buys the painting and then visits Bristol to uncover some roots. He meets Joynson, an elderly man who speaks only in riddles. A box of the poet’s memorabilia is secured. Is any of it real? Is any of it genuine? And so the novel unfolds. What is authentic is often fake and what is genuine is often impersonated. But if a painting is worth looking at, does it matter too much if it is merely the content of a painter’s imagination? Does it have to possess authenticity, even a pedigree to be an artwork? And so what if Chatterton did, or did not die? If he did, he died accused of being a fake, which he wasn’t, because he did write his poetry. If he did not die, then perhaps he was a fake, because in that case we have no idea what else he did not write! Like all Peter Ackroyd’s writing, Chatterton makes the reader think. And by the way, Chatterton’s characters are themselves creations of the author. They aren’t genuine, are they? View the book on amazon Chatterton (Abacus Books)