Wednesday 30 July 2003

Iain Banks: The Bridge (1986)

Edition: Futura, 1989 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1174

Of Banks' early experimentation with narrative forms, The Bridge is the most successful novel. Like Walking on Glass, it uses interlocked but seemingly disctinct narratives, and combines ideas from science fiction and literary fiction; its influences are writers like Kafka and Dick, while one of the threads is a Scottish dialect parody of pulp sword and sorcery fantasy, such as Conan the Barbarian. Rather than keeping the threads separated as he did in Walking on Glass, Banks uses common images and symbols to relate them even before what is happening becomes clear: geology (the book's sections are even named after geological eras), the body of an unconscious man in hospital, and, above all, bridges - including a more metaphorical link in one of the narratives between the lands of the living and the dead.

The narrative thread which makes the strongest impact on the reader is about an amnesiac, rescued from the water surrounding an immense bridge inhabited by thousands of people. It is this story, of the senseless bureaucracy and outlandish customs he encounters which reminds me of Kafka. A small literary connection is that this character shares his name with the Lieutenant in Catch 22 (another book about impossible bureaucracy) who rows to Norway.

In the end, there are two things which determine the success or failure of The Bridge, or any experimental fiction of this type, as a novel. The first is the reader satisfaction produced by each narrative, which is here consistently high even though the stories do not seem to have a particul purpose or direction to them. Then there is the way in which the connections are used to roll the narrative together in the end, and this is also quite well done though I wouldn't give it full marks (it seems rather unimaginative for a writer of Banks' gifts). The third aspect, which I don't think is quite so successful, is the justification for splitting the narrative up in the first place. Perhaps more could have been put at the end to make this clearer as the stories are brought together. (It is easy enough to work out what is going on, but it would be more satisfying if the reader could see more about what each thread means in the context of the whole.)

In many experimental novels, the only interesting thing is the ingenuity of the idea being tried out, whether it is the form of narrative, an unusual point of view, the novel's structure, or whatever. Compared to more traditional literature, which has centuries of reader familiarity with its conventions, they can be hard to read and provide little reward for the effort required. The Bridge is not like that, even if it isn't completely successful; it is a fascinating and enjoyable novel.

Tom Holland: The Bonehunter (2001)

Edition: Abacus, 2002
Review number: 1175

Dinosaur bones are something that people have been obsessed by since the earliest investigations into fossils, and the field was especially exciting in the second half of the nineteenth century for several reasons: the possibility of making sensational discoveries, and the thrill of being involved in the controversies about Darwinism and geological ideas of the ancient earth. Tom Holland has moved from historical horror novels to historical thriller with The Bone Hunter, a novel which features several men obsessed with finding dinosaurs in the American West in 1878.

Holland's story begins in a liner crossing the Atlantic, heiress Lilian Prescott returning home to New York after a trip to England culminating in her (Henry James style) engagement to a peer. She and her brother meet another passenger, a former British army captain named Dawkins, who is travelling to New York to meet their father. Captain Dawkins is, like their father, a dinosaur fanatic, but when he meets Sheldon Prescott it soon becomes clear that something is going on which is more serious than the admittedly fierce competition that exists between rival dinosaur hunters. This rivalry is stirred up when Prescott offers to see a great secret to the two best known Americans in the field; and this is is when people start dying.

The novel's first part is mainly set in New York, and is similar to another story set in the same time and place, E.L. Doctorow's The Waterworks. The second half, a quest into the still Wild West, is far more brutal, a picture of a sordid and vicious culture of violence without the romanticism later provided by Hollywood.

The Bonehunter is generally gripping (as might be expected from a writer who cut his teeth writing horror novels) and well written, an unusual thriller and proof that Holland can produce as good a novel without the supernatural elements of his earlier work. The one flaw it has is the treatment of the romance which grows up between Lilian Sheldon and Captain Hawkins; the descriptions of their inner feelings and of their conversations seem artificial and unconvincing.

For anyone who wants to read something different in the historical thriller line, however, The Bonehunter is a novel well worth looking out for.

Tuesday 22 July 2003

Michael Moorcock: Byzantium Endures (1981)

Edition: Fontana, 1982
Review number: 1173

The creation of Maxim Pyatniski, or Colonel Pyat, is Moorcock's supreme piece of literary artistry. Many writers, even some of the best, find it hard to write a convincing, three dimensional character who has a different voice from their own. In Pyat, Moorcock's aim seems to be a narrator who is the diametrical opposite of himself in as many ways as possible. The one thing he is unable to do is to make him admirable or sympathetic - he is rabidly anti-Semitic, self-aggrandizing, foolish, vain, cocaine-addicted (and that is just what comes across in his own autobiographical narrative).

Byzantium Endures is the first of four lengthy novels, which means that it is possible to pursue Pyat's repellent personality at great length through the twentieth century. Myself, I find that a relatively small quantity of this goes a long way, despite the fascinating backgrounds (in this case, Russia just before the Communist revolution and during the subsequent civil war). This feeling was exacerbated by not having read the series in the correct order, as I purchased them as I found them in bookshops, and so there weren't really any surprises by the time I worked back to the first of them. By warned - the impact of Byzantium Endures is drastically reduced by doing this. Even taking this into account, I think that some of Moorcock's less ambitious writing is more successful, and certainly more congenial.

Sunday 20 July 2003

Jonathan Carroll: Kissing the Beehive (1998)

Edition: Vista, 1999
Review number: 1172

Most of Carroll's novels have fantastical elements - spirits, blurred boundaries between fiction and reality, and so on - even if they start out seemingly realist. Kissing the Beehive is an exception to this, and is thus less individual than Carroll's other novels. It lies more within the crime than the fantasy genre, though it has other elements.

The central character and narrator of Kissing the Beehive, Samuel Beyer, is himself a best-selling novelist, who at the beginning of the novel is suffering from writer's block. We seem to be about to have a novel about the ideas he has and discards, rather like Joseph Heller's Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man. He fairly quickly has an idea - he returns to the small New England town where he grew up, and begins to write about one of the most dramatic experiences of his childhood, when he and a friend found the body of a young woman while swimming in the creek. Again, Carroll confounds the expectations - the reader things that the remainder of Kissing the Beehive is to be some kind of voyage of self-discovery. In a way this is true, but the novel is far more complicated than that. When someone begins to kill the people Sam interviews, and starts leaving him taunting messages, we move partly into thriller territory. And then there is his relationship with a beautiful but obsessive fan - shades of Stephen King's Misery.

The magical commonplaces of Carroll's writing seems to be entirely absent; there are no talking dogs, ghosts of alternate realities. But the quality is still there; this is one of the best novels I have read all year.

Tuesday 15 July 2003

Iris Murdoch: Bruno's Dream (1969)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1171

An old man lying on his deathbed, barely understanding what happens around him, may seem an unpromising central character for a novel. It may be that this is part of the reason that Bruno's Dream is not one of Murdoch's best novels, but it is certainly a theme which suited her style, which itself has dreamlike qualities, more than it would that of many writers.

Bruno's concerns are those which might be considered typical of someone in his position. He wants to seek a reconciliation with his son Miles, with whom he quarrelled because of his marriage to an Indian woman against Bruno's wishes. He suspects that those who care for him are doing so for the sake of his possessions, principally a stamp collection which is eventually destroyed when his house is flooded. Bruno's illness has affected his mind, so that a lot of the time he doesn't remember who he is talking to; he has more interest in memories of his past than in the people around him, so he misses the dramatic events which occur in the lives of the other characters, prompted by the return of Miles to the fold.

The point is, of course, the reality or otherwise of what's described, as the novel's title signposts. The story may be written in the third person, but is it actually happening or is it Bruno's dream? The reader cannot be sure (though the title for me tips the balance to fantasy). As a dream, it is remarkably lucid for someone in Bruno's condition (one of the reasons why the reader might feel it is not a dream at all), and he is able to consistently invent all kinds of things about people whose names he can't even remember when he (thinks he) meets them.

There are two famous quotations from Jane Austen in which she describes the small scale of the novels she wrote. "3 or 4 families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on", and the limits of her work described as "the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which with so fine a Brush". Of later writers, Iris Murdoch is one of the few who shared this delight in the miniature. There are only seven or eight living characters (a couple of people who die before the start of the novel also have an effect on the plot). In a novel on so small a scale, the author has to work hard to keep the reader's interest, so it is not surprising when the melodramatic creeps in (think of the number of elopements in Jane Austen). Here, melodrama adds to the dreamlike atmosphere - events like the flood and a farcical duel seem to be almost anti-realistic.

Coming to the end of what I have to say about this novel, it seems that there is more to Bruno's Dream than I thought when actually reading it. Even if it is not one of Murdoch's greatest novels, it is definitely worth reading.

Tuesday 8 July 2003

Paul Johnston: A Deeper Shade of Blue (2002)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002
Review number: 1170

After five crime novels set in a near future Edinburgh dictatorship, Johnston has moved on with A Deeper Shade of Blue. Set in contemporary Greece, it updates such thrillers as Mary Stewart's My Brother Michael as an Athenian private detective investigates the disappearance of a young woman on the remote Cycladean island of Trigono.

One similarity between this novel and My Brother Michael, other than the setting, is that it is quickly clear that at least part of the mystery here is connected to the activities of British agents and the (in this case rather reluctant) activities of the Resistance during the War. The tortuous politics of Greece since then are also involved (the detective himself is the sone of one of the one time leaders of the Greek Communist party - a similar connection to that existing between Quintilian Dalrymple and the rulers of Edinburgh in Johnston's other novels). In fact, everything you could imagine about the darker side of Greece seems to be a part of A Deeper Shade of Blue - black market antiquities, drug smuggling, extremes of sexual depravity, village vendettas and resentment of tourists - and this makes the novel rather difficult to get into.

The complexity of the background to the puzzle is not the only problem with A Deeper Shade of Blue. While reading it, the impression gained is that it is too long, and that each chapter is too long. Something of the tension and excitement that this sort of crime story, at the thriller end of the genre, needs is missing. There is much to enjoy in A Deeper Shade of Blue, but it should move faster.

Tuesday 1 July 2003

Iain M. Banks: The Player of Games (1988)

Edition: MacMillan, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1169

The second Culture novel is a good deal less ambitious than the first, Consider Phlebas. Indeed, it is outwardly, at least, one of Banks' simplest novels. The Culture is concerned about its relationship with a distant, aggressive interstellar empire named Azad. There, position in life, and even imperial policy, are determined by a game, also named Azad, which is a massively complex simulation of life which has aspects akin to such games as chess, Diplomacy, Risk, go and bridge. Contact, the aspect of the Culture which deals with the outside, chooses a famous game player to take part in the annual grand tournament, and he is the book's central character.

The story is simple enough, but what The Player is about is a little more than this. There are several ways in which the ideas of the novel could be related to the real world, and I suspect that Banks means some or all of them. Many games, of course including the board games mentioned above, model aspects of real life, usually emphasising combat for obvious reasons. We don't tend to equate skill in such games with social success; a chess grand master may be considered clever, but most people would probably feel it was a pretty nerdish thing to be. This is partly because of the limitations of the games' representations of the real world (a simplification which also provides a reason for some people's obsession with them), but also partly that players become engrossed in the games themselves to the extent that they can't be bothered to attempt to succeed in the real world. (This is of course particularly true of computer and role playing games.) To such people, the game is the world, in the same way that Azad the game is Azad the empire.

On the other hand, one of the major tools which is used to determine government policy in the Western world, particularly in the economic sphere, is computer simulation, based on the ideas of game theory. These simulations are basically games without human players, though setting the conditions of the simulation (such as interest rates) is one activity analogous to game play, and the actions of agents simulated by the computer program form another. Azad has elements of this sort of simulation in it, particularly in the parts of the game which are affected by the philosophical statements set down by the players in advance. (The connection is clear if these are thought of as the ideologies which suggest if not determine policy.) Azad is this development exaggerated (though, curiously, without any explicit mention of computers), and the attitude that Banks seems to have to the empire is his commentary on where this might lead. Azad is a stagnated society run by an elite for their own benefit, regardless of the brutalisation of two thirds of the population (the dominant species has three sexes); even the game itself is manipulated. Of course, no government would dream of faking the results of simulations for their own ends...

Other suggestive aspects of the novel include the game-like machinations of Contact to get the Culture's champion to Azad, or the possibility that Banks is commenting on the tendency of the science fiction genre to have a hero prevail by lateral thinking, solving a puzzle about as realistic as a Bond villain's mechanism for killing the famous spy, something which makes some novels seem like poor role playing scenarios.

The Player of Games is not the only Banks novel which gives game playing an important role; the futile, impossible games in Walking on Glass are another example. Here the author is successfully playing a little game with the reader, hiding a great deal of complexity under a simple surface.