Thursday 29 April 2004

Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man (1952)

Edition: Penguin, 2001
Review number: 1234

Invisible Man is one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century not so much for its literary impact (though Ellison's writing is admirable in itself in many ways) but for what it has to say. Together with To Kill a Mocking Bird and Go Tell It on the Mountain, it portrays in novel form the experience of the black man in America in the same way that jazz, the blues, and now hip hop portray it musically. (The novels all belong rather more to the jazz age than to the hip hop era - there must be new novels about the subject but they have not come my way.)

Invisible Man is built around the metaphor which provides the title. The idea is that someone who is black has difficulty in being accepted as being a person, instead being put into a variety of stereotyped roles by society (even by activists working for civil rights). At times the narrator is truly invisible (in the prologue, for example); at others, no one can make out his identity; and at still others he is a generic stereotype of some sort. Being unnoticeable because of race that Ellison is talking about is perhaps more a specifically American problem, though we all tend to turn people we know only a little into stereotypes (kindly nurses, dishonest politicians, and so on) and are surprised when someone acts contrary to the picture we have of them. That this is partly Ellison's meaning is shown by the way that even the organising committee of a civil rights activist group in Harlem refuse to allow him to be an individual. In the UK, I would say that the sort of prejudice this engenders applies more across class than racial lines (though that may be my liberal middle class background speaking - and, of course, for reasons to do with restrictions of opportunity these boundaries often coincide). Another aspect of invisibility is also more to the fore - the feeling that someone considered inferior is so unimportant that they might as well not exist. A good example of this in another context is throughout the film Gosford Park, where the servants only exist as far as the houseguests are concerned when they are forced to notice them. In fact, many books about training servants would say that a good servant is one who is invisible.

The reason that Ellison's novel is so gripping, so effective, is that it combines something real to say and an interesting central idea with brilliant writing. Invisible Man uses a wide range of emotional tone - from anger to resignation, satirical humour to pathos, enthusiasm to despair - and all shades of feeling are masterfully handled. Of all the novel, my favourite passage is the funeral oration, delivered by the narrator for a fellow civil rights campaigner, a plea that the dead man should be remembered as a man, not as a symbol. Invisible Man is enjoyable even when it makes you uncomfortable, and it is certainly a book which makes the reader think.

As a novel, Invisible Man gives the impression of having come out of nowhere; I can't think of a writer who appears to have had a significant influence on Ellison. In turn, it is clearly a precursor of magic realism, and I suspect that Joseph Heller read it before writing Catch 22. The clearest link to the past for me is with Kafka, particularly apparent in the relationship between the narrator and the committee organising activists in Harlem; there is the same air of being the only person who doesn't quite know the rules followed by the society around him as is experienced by many of the Czech writer's central characters.

Friday 23 April 2004

Iain Banks: Whit (1995)

Edition: Abacus, 1996
Review number: 1233

One of the methods satirists use to poke fun at the way we live is to write a novel from the point of view of an outsider of some kind. This is particularly suited to use in the science fiction genre, where an outsider can be literally alien and so question even what may seem to be even the most fundamental of human values. In Whit, Banks doesn't go so far as this, but uses as his outsider a member of a cult who grew up in a commune in Scotland where modern technology - phone, TV, computer - is banned, making her seem completely out of touch with modern British society and giving her an outlook sceptical of the assumptions we tend to live by unquestioningly.

The central character of Whit is Isis, granddaughter of the founder of the Luskentyrans and considered God's Elect by the Cult by virtue of her 29 February birth date. The commune receive a letter from Isis' cousin Morag, who (they think) has gone out into the world to realise here musical potential and become an "internationally renowned baryton soloist" (a baryton is a Baroque instrument rather like a cello). The letter says that instead of being the focus of the Luskentyran May festival she won't be attending at all, having found true faith elsewhere. The decision is made to send Isis out into the world so that she can find Morag and persuade her to return. All is not quite as it seems; Morag, for example, is not a famous musician but is renowned in quite a different field - she is a hardcore porn star.

Isis and the Luskentyrans are portrayed extremely sympathetically; this is not the sort of stereotypical cult which brainwashes followers into following every whim of the leader which tends to be brought to mind by the word "cult". (And note that this was probably particularly true at the time Banks was writing - just after the Waco siege in 1993.) Their self-sufficient way of life doesn't require much money, the land itself being a legacy from an early follower. Banks has thought through their theology quite carefully, and it actually seems to me to hold together more convincingly than some of the absurdities believed by real life cults. Those who live in the commune are at least generally happy, and this is the main point of the satire, that all the technology that we are unable to live without and the leisure time it has brought us has not made us any happier.

Whit is one of Banks' most enjoyable novels; funny, accessible and yet having something to say. It, The Crow Road, and The Business are a trio of his novels with many similarities, including being an ideal way to introduce this important modern writer to those who are yet to catch on to his genius.

Wednesday 21 April 2004

Robin Hobb: The Golden Fool (2002)

Edition: HarperCollins, 2003
Review number: 1232

Hobb's policy of making life unpleasant for her protagonists has wavered somewhat in the second novel of her third trilogy, though she does not end up falling into the trap typical of the middle parts of fantasy series where often very little happens. (A typical trilogy is organised as: volume one, set up a quest; volume two, travelling to destination; volume three, carrying out task which is the purpose of the quest. This means that volume two either has to have a lot of scenery, character development or action to keep the pace up.) The release of pressure actually works rather well as this novel is in a large part the story of how Robb's protagonist Fitz begins to cope with the death of the animal with which he had a magical bond through the Wit, the wolf Night-Eyes.

The fight which ended the first novel in the Tawny Man trilogy, Fool's Errand (in which Fitz saved the life of Prince Dutiful at the cost of Night-Eyes) has thrust him right back into the forefront of the secret world that maintains the Farseer regime in the Six Duchies. The various elements which make up this novel have to be fitted around Fitz's public identity, as servant Tim Badgerlock to Lord Golden. He is also expected to train Prince Dutiful in the use of the Skill, the other major branch of magic known in the Six Duchies, spy over the delegation from the Outislands who are negotiating to marry the Prince to one of their heiresses to cement the treaty which ended war between the islands and the Six Duchies, advise the queen on her quest to bring an end to the persecution of the Witted, and protect the Prince from the Piebalds who sought his life. At the same time, he has concerns in his private life, in addition to coming to terms with his grief; he has to look out for his foster son, Hap, now an apprentice, and he is in the middle of a stuttering love affair.

There is a lot going on in The Golden Fool, but even with its complex little plot lines Hobb finds space to expand on her characters and their relationships. Most of the plot remains unresolved, as is only to be expected in the middle of a trilogy, and, likewise, much is not going to make as much sense to a reader who hasn't read Fool's Errand (and it would be helpful to have read the Farseer Trilogy as well). There are many fantasy authors who would be well advised to read The Golden Fool and think about how Hobb has put it together; it is a paradigm of how to hold the reader's interest in the middle of a series.

Friday 16 April 2004

Len Deighton: Close-Up (1972)

Edition: Pan, 1974
Review number: 1230

This is the last of Deighton's experiments outside the spy genre for a long time, and it is the only one of his novels which cannot be described as a thriller of one sort or another. Close-Up is a satirical portrait of the Hollywood film industry, based presumably on stories heard or impressions gained during the filming of many of Deighton's novels during the sixties. (I would hesitate to say, particularly given the clear disclaimer at the start of the novel, that the characters are based on any real individuals.)

Close-Up is the story of superstar Marshall Stone who, in the early seventies after twenty years a star is frightened - that his career is coming to an end, of the young up-and-coming actors who might take the roles he regards as his own. Then there is what the press think is a romance with young model turned actress Suzy Delft, though in a twist typical of the novel, she is in fact his daughter from an affair hushed up by the studios at the beginning of his career. The whole novel is about how different the reality of the film business is from the image fed to (and eagerly lapped up by) the media. Stone, for example, may be charming, but he is also an utterly self centred hypochondriac. His real name, Eddie Brummage, points to the difference between appearance and reality - "brummagem" was slang for shoddy mass produced goods.

The subtle aspect of the novel is the way in which the reader is given insights into why Stone is the way he is - how his insecurities made him a great screen actor, and how his success in turn feeds his psychological problems. This blunts the edge of the satire - the film The Player, for example, is much more vicious - but makes Close-Up more effective as a piece of fiction about characters who seem real.

Close-Up may not be the most immediately appealing Len Deighton novel, because it is so different from anything else he wrote. It is in this way similar to John le Carré's The Naive and Sentimental Lover, but is less ambitious and, partly as a result, much more successful. This is one of Deighton's best novels - it is just not a thriller.

Ian R. MacLeod: The Light Ages (2003)

Edition: Earthlight, 2003
Review number: 1231

The small number of books that I would consider my favourite serious fantasy novels (E.R. Eddison's Mistress of Mistresses, Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time series, Jack Vance's Lyonesse, John Crowley's Little, Big) share one important quality - atmosphere. There are other novels with similar power that I don't actually like very much, notably China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, and at least one series that I suspect would join the list if I got round to reading it, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Now The Light Ages has to join the list; it will surely also establish itself as one of the classics of the genre.

The setting of The Light Ages is an alternative industrial England, a place where the essence of magic, a mineral named aether, is mined alongside iron and coal. It is the story of a man born in a Yorkshire town which is a centre of aether mining, and how he travels to London and becomes part of a train of events which threaten the power of the Guildsmen who are the magnates of the Age, the Third Age of Industry that many think is coming to its end.

This background is itself enough to make The Light Ages stand out as an original fantasy novel. Alternate histories are almost always fit better into the science fiction genre than fantasy, with a special version of the "What if..." question that is the core of the genre. It is almost commonplace to ask questions like "What might have happened if Nazi Germany and Japan had wone the Second World War?" (Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle) or "What might England be like if the Reformation had never happened?" (Keith Roberts' Pavane). But almost always these are straight extrapolations from the science and technology of the time, without the extra magical dimension used here. Where magic is interpolated into the real world, or a background as clearly related to the real world, it tends to be at the fringes, "beyond the fields we know" or in an unseen world underpinning the everyday, as in Neil Gaiman's novels. The Light Ages is pretty much unique as an alternate history which seriously looks at how things might be different if magic is real. (The only novel I can think of comparable in terms of the use of magic in an alternative reality is The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - a children's classic in the genre.) The Light Ages is also one of only a small number of fantasy novels in which magic is an industrial raw material used in processes which produce pollution. (Saruman's industrialisation in The Lord of the Rings is easily the best known example, though there and in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant it is the misuse of magic which pollutes. Holly Lisle has also set her novels in a world contaminated by fallout from an ancient war between wizards.)

The England portrayed in The Light Ages is very much the polluted, industrial and worker-exploiting England of the Victorian era, Dickensian in inspiration though MacLeod is able to be more explicit in his depiction of squalor than Dickens ever did. While the quality of his evocation in places approaches Dickens, its attention to the industrial poor and radical politics is more akin to the writing of Elizabeth Gaskell. This fantasy novel is one of the best ever written, and any reader of the genre would be well advised to pick it up. They may find that it's too slow for their tastes, but I just found it magical.