Saturday 31 July 2004

John Fowles: A Maggot (1985)

Edition: Vintage, 1996
Review number: 1256

In The French Lieutenant's Woman, Fowles wrote a knowing twentieth century version of a nineteenth century novel. A Maggot is more conventionally a historical novel, set in 1736 but despite fitting better into the genre, it shares much of the ironic self awareness of Fowles' best known work.

The novel starts with something very small - a group of travellers riding across Exmoor, who stop overnight at a small village before heading on again. But a few days later, one of the party, a mute servant, is found dead, having apparently hanged himself. The rest of the novel deals with an investigation, not so much an attempt to find out what actually happened, but to do so as a stage towards finding the rest of the party, who have completely disappeared and who included at least one important person. Thus, the form of most of the novel is records of the interrogations of witnesses, separated (to indicated the passing of time) by excepts from the Gentleman's Magazine, a journal of the time, apparently reproduced in facsimile. While outwardly more like The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Maggot actually has more in common with The Magus. The witness interviews reveal that the ostensible purpose of the trip to Exeter hides another more sinister motive; that the people involved are not who they seem to be; that what is really going on involves some kind of occult ritual.

Anthony Burgess described this novel as "subversive", and there are several ways in which this might be considered to be true. There are both overt and covert attacks on the ideas behind the class structure of Georgian society, some of which are fairly clearly meant to make the reader think about those in positions of authority today. The idea that someone from a higher class would necessarily be a better person is not one readily believed today, but some relic of it is surely part of our hunger for scandal about the morals of politicians and celebrities - do we now believe that people in the public eye should be better than we are? There are also attacks on religious hypocrisy, particularly when the political nature of the Anglican church of the time is compared with the unsettling intensity of the Dissenters. This doesn't have quite the same resonance with the modern world, however, and attacking hypocrisy is not exactly subversive. Dissent is a sufficiently important theme that it as a focus may be said to be another aspect of subversion in the novel.

The way that A Maggot is structured is another element which is more truly subversive. Historical novels are generally quite descriptive, because part of the aim of the genre is usually to convey their background to today's readers. Here, there is very little description, apart from that in the opening pages which are entirely of this form but which could be set in any time period in which groups of travellers rode horses across Exmoor when it was a remote dangerous wilderness and not somewhere frequented by tourists as it is today - in other words, any time before the arrival of the railways. After this beginning, atmospheric as good historical novels are supposed to be, yet not positioning the narrative in time or even (initially) in place, the historical context is mainly provided by the Gentleman's Magazine excerpts, which most readers probably find difficult to read as they're in extremely small type and a hard to decipher font, apart from their lack of relation to the story.

There is also literary subversion of the same type as in The Magus. In both novels, layers of deception are gradually exposed; but here the use of interrogation reports makes the revelations less effective, even though the reader will still spend most of the novel wondering what is really going on behind all the lies.

The way that the title refers to several aspects of A Maggot is not so much subversive as clever (and Fowles obviously thought it important enough to spell out why he chose it in the introduction). In one sense, it refers to the maggot as symbol of corruption, but a maggot is also a rather old fashioned term for an obsession. Several of the characters have obsessions, including the questioning attorney who is more interested in allegations of homosexuality than in the murder itself. But the novel itself arose out of an obsessive picture in Fowles' mind, of a group of horse riders in a wilderness. This became A Maggot's opening scene, and it is an arresting image. The literal meaning of the word also makes a surprising appearance.

While those who do not know Fowles' work will probably pick up A French Lieutenant's Woman or The Magus, A Maggot is definitely worthwhile reading for anyone who enjoyed either of the other two novels.

Wednesday 28 July 2004

Len Deighton: Winter (1987)

Edition: Grafton, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1255

After the phenomenal success of the first trilogy of Bernard Samson novels, Deighton wrote Winter as a sort of prequel. "Sort of" because it doesn't actually involve many of the characters from the trilogy - being mainly about their parents and grand parents during the first half of the twentieth century - and has a very different focus - it is really about the rise of Hitler. This is Deighton's attempt to explain just why so many Germans came to support the Nazis.

The plot is more a family saga than a thriller; two brothers, who grow up close but are divided later when one is caught up by the Nazi bandwagon while the other marries a Jew and plays the piano for Brecht and Weill. While Deighton really has nothing new to say about the early days of National Socialism, which must be one of the most closely studied parts of twentieth century political history, the story of the Winter brothers illuminates the history and makes it personal; they are exactly the sort of well drawn, well placed fictional characters which are a part of many good historical novels. And that is really what Winter is - an excellent historical novel, not a thriller. It's closest companion in Deighton's work is the alternative history SS-GB, but it is also like his Second World War novels Bomber and Goodbye Mickey Mouse in that its purpose is to put well realised imaginary characters in immaculately researched historical settings. Of all these four novels, Winter is the most successful, the Winter brothers being two of the best written characters in all of Deighton's output. Winter is by a large margin Deighton's longest novel, but it is definitely worth the read.

Tuesday 27 July 2004

Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)

Edition: Penguin, 2000
Review number: 1253

Sheridan Le Fanu's work has never really become an established part of the English literary scene's collection of classic novels. Although his reputation has gone up and down, and though he has boasted some quite famous fans (including Dorothy Sayers), he has always been an outsider. His Irish origins may have had something to do with this (though they didn't prevent his relation Richard Sheridan from becoming massively successful in the London theatre a couple of generations earlier), but it was perhaps more his style of writing and his subject matter. As early as the publication of Northanger Abbey in 1817, it must have been hard to write a Gothic novel intended to be taken seriously, but that was precisely what Le Fanu wanted to write, almost half a century later.

Uncle Silas was Le Fanu's first success in England, and was based on an earlier short story published in an Irish journal edited by the author. It has probably remained his best known novel ever since.

The plot of the novel is quite simple: Maud Knollyes is the daughter and heiress of a rich, eccentric recluse; when he dies, she is placed in the guardianship of her Uncle Silas. This is intended to be a public declaration of one man's confidence in his brother, for Silas was disgraced years earlier when a man to whom he owed money died in his house leaving his neighbours gossiping as to whether it was suicide or murder. Maud will be completely in her uncle's power until she reaches her majority, and if she happens to die during this time, then Silas would inherit the whole estate. Clearly, the only element missing from making this a Gothic tail is the supernatural, the source of a spine tingling chill in the reader - and this is where Le Fanu does something completely unexpected, and very modern.

For throughout the novel Le Fanu piles on the supernatural atmosphere - almost every metaphor and simile is about ghosts or magic - but the uncanny itself never appears. Most Gothic novels are full of "horrid apparitions", occult ceremonies, and so on, but nothing like that happens in Uncle Silas. Northanger Abbey does the same thing, of course, but for comic effect; Le Fanu is using the conventions of the Gothic novel to induce a similar atmosphere, without the absurdities. (This was, after all, the rational Victorian age.) While occasionally clumsy and sometimes lacking in subtlety, Uncle Silas is well written, atmospheric and tense - while the reader expects Maud to escape an uncle who then experiences his just deserts (good to the good, bad to the bad), the road to this ending is neither straight not following the most obvious route. It has funny moments too; Le Fanu may be taking the unlikely clichés of the Gothic novel seriously, but that does not mean he is lacking in a sense of humour.

Of the writers contemporary with Le Fanu, the closest to him in style was problably Wilkie Collins, and their brand of fairly genteel chills fairly soon lost out to the more flamboyant influence of writers like Poe. Nobody would be likely to place either of them in the top rank of Victorian novelists, but Uncle Silas does not deserve to be forgotten either.

Saturday 17 July 2004

Philip Kerr: A Philosophical Investigation (1992)

Edition: Vintage, 1996
Review number: 1252

Having already read a couple of Philip Kerr's thrillers that seem to be heavily influenced by Michael Crichton, I was not expecting A Philosophical Investigation to be the kind of novel that it is. It is in the crime rather than thriller genre, even if it picks the crime theme most conducive to a thriller style, the serial killer. With a serial killer, the traditional methods of detective fiction, relating means, motive and opportunity to the people surrounding the victim, are either hard to apply or hardly relevant. Even so, Kerr's novel lies between the two genres, but is closer to the core of the crime genre than the thriller. Among its deviations from the standard practises of either genre is the background - it takes place in a stylised, science fictional alternate reality that reminds me of Jasper Fforde's England of The Eyre Affair - but stripped of its silly touches.

The plot of A Philosophical Investigation is hard to describe without giving away some of the fun details that make the novel different, and which is so much better as a reader to discover for oneself. The changes made to create the alternative world are cleverly woven into the investigation; and the alert reader will pick up all kinds of literary and philosophical references and other touches - this may strike some as tedious and too clever by half, but I find it fascinating. (A familiarity with some basic ideas of Western philosophy gives a reader a big advantage - something on the level of Sophie's World should be read before this novel.) It is a rare crime novel that makes me feel inspired to read Wittgenstein - and the enjoyment is not just intellectual, as A Philosophical Investigation is full of jokes, too.

Friday 16 July 2004

Len Deighton: Goodbye Mickey Mouse (1982)

Edition: Book Club Associates, 1983 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1251

It seems obvious to compare this novel set in an American fighter unit stationed on a Norfolk airfield in the Second World War with Deighton's earlier Bomber. But although the setting is similar, there are many differences between the novels, at several levels. The tensions between the Americans and the locals - the pilots trying hard to live up to the "overpaid, oversexed and over here" cliché - bring a different atmosphere to the story, as does an unusual interest in public relations, not an aspect of the war effort which gets much attention. (And it resonates - spinning war stories for a media circus is not new to wars fought in the eighties and nineties, by any means.)

Bomber reads as though it's a book based on a documentary, because of its twenty-four hour timespan and the careful research into the background details. While Goodbye Mickey Mouse is obviously as well researched, it doesn't feel like a documentary, because the action is spread over several months, the research is presented less obtrusively, and it has a more complex plot which leads up to a veterans' reunion thirty years later. Deighton has also ditched the German characters which are important in Bomber and drastically reduced the descriptions of flying; Goodbye Mickey Mouse is a far better novel as a result.

Comparisons with Bomber proving something of a red herring, it is actually quite hard to find novels which are much like Goodbye Mickey Mouse. It is mainly the theme of the relationships between the Americans and the local British civilians - not quite conquerors and vanquished, but it must have sometimes felt like it - that is so unusual. A British writer almost exclusively using American points of view is also not common.

Goodbye Mickey Mouse - the title relates to the name given to one of the planes and a discussion about whether a phrase like "goodbye" in a name is unlucky - is not really a thriller, centring as it does on relationships not action. That is, of course, Deighton's intention, but it would not make the novel appeal to fans of, say, his early novels. For the general reader, Goodbye Mickey Mouse is also not perhaps Deighton's most immediately appealing writing, though it would repay the effort required to read it.

Wednesday 14 July 2004

Alice Sebold: The Lovely Bones (2002)

Edition: Picador, 2003
Review number: 1250

It would have been easy for this novel to be saccharine and sentimental; I picked it up and discarded on the assumption that it would be before a copy was pressed on me by someone who had enjoyed it. Generally, it is not, and the moments where there is sentimentality - a hospital scene near the end, for example - are handled well enough to be endearing rather than sickening.

The story is of a raped and murdered fourteen year old girl (Susie Salmon), told as she watches the way her death affects her family and friends over the years from heaven. Watching them is her main occupation; Sebold portrays heaven is a place where desires are granted, and that is Susie's greatest desire, apart from the one thing that is forbidden, making real contact with the living. Since this is the principal ambition shared by almost all the dead, at least at first, this leaves heaven a curious, rather nondescript place (especially as inhabitants interact only as their dream worlds overlap in some way). Of course, Susie as a victim of an unsolved murder, is even more keen than most to communicate - even if only to say, "It was him!"

The novel of which I was reminded by The Lovely Bones, in terms of genre if nothing else, was Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Both are basically murder mysteries from unusual points of view; Agatha Christie writes from that of the murderer (though not revealing this until the end), while Alice Sebold turns this on its head and writes from the point of view of the victim - who reveals the killer's identity right at the outset. Perhaps the similarities are not really there, as the styles are very different, but at some fundamental level the fact that they are both about unusual ways to look at a murder seems to link the two novels.(From a stylistic point of view, someone like Carol Shields would be a better equivalent to Sebold.)

The most admirable trait of The Lovely Bones is the way in which Sebold is able to deal with such strongly emotive subjects as paedophilia and child murder without seeming any of crass, insensitive, or (the other side of the coin) sentimental. This partly comes from observation - the way that the various members of the Salmon family cope or fail to cope is believeable - but it also is due to high quality writing. This is certainly a novel I would recommend.

Friday 9 July 2004

Len Deighton: XPD (1981)

Edition: Hutchinson & Co, 1981
Review number: 1249

The second of an (otherwise unrelated) trio of Deighton novels concerned with the Second World War, XPD is actually set in 1979, contemporary with its writing. It is close as Deighton has got to the idea driven thrillers of Frederick Forsyth, and has many similarities to The Odessa File, published almost a decade earlier. It deals with a plot by a group of former SS officers to sieze power in Germany. Their plans are based around the publication of some Third Reich documents about a secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in June 1940, in which Churchill offered a British ceasefire on terms that would destroy his reputation, if known. These papers ended up with a huge consignment of looted gold in a salt mine, and the American soldiers charged with removing it at the end of the war proved to be less than totally honest. They managed to steal enough gold to set up their own private Swiss bank - and they picked up the documents at the same time.

The story becomes exceptionally complicated, and in the end is not among Deighton's most plausible plots, even if the original idea was obviously sparked by thoughts about oddities in published details of Churchill's itinerary in June 1940. (We see the central character of XPD carrying out what must be the same research in the middle of the novel.) The SS officers' plot is bizarrely backed by the KGB, something which might have made more sense in the late seventies than it does now, and I found it hard to see how the documents, however scandalous, could cause the kind of chaos in West Germany that would have been needed for the coup. Indeed, it occurs to several of the characters to wonder who precisely would care enough if the meeting became public knowledge. (When one says "It would destroy the Tory party", that does seem to be the most likely consequence, and unpleasant though that may have seemed to Margaret Thatcher, the newly incoming prime minister at the time, I could hardly care less.)

The title comes from a subplot; there is clearly a leak exposing details of the British Secret Service investigation into the affair, and at one point the central character of the novel, heading the investigation, wonders if he has possibly been made the subject of an expedient demise order or XPD, which is basically an instruction to kill an agent who has become a liability. This becomes another part of the plot which doesn't quite work for me, as it seems to be a paranoid fantasy and remains unconnected to anything else in the novel for too long.

Comparing XPD and The Odessa File does reveal how much better Deighton is at characterisation than Forsyth. The background, whether flashbacks to the forties, the Hollywood film industry or the meeting rooms of Whitehall, is also extremely well done. Were it not for the clunkiness of the plot, this could have been one of Deighton's best novels.

Wednesday 7 July 2004

Len Deighton: SS-GB (1979)

Edition: Triad Grafton, 1980
Review number: 1248

Because of Deighton's long history as a successful thriller writer before the appearance of SS-GB, it is packaged as a thriller; but in fact it is science fiction dealing with a classic theme of that genre, and would doubtless have been classified as such if it had been a first novel. For this is alternative history, set in a Britain occupied by the Third Reich after a successful 1941 German invasion. Central character Douglas Archer is a senior officer at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS. Like many in occupied England, he tries to carry on with his job - criminal investigation - without getting in the way of or thinking too hard about the German occupiers. Crime is, after all, still crime. However, he is gradually drawn into a Resistance plot, much against his better judgement.

The Second World War is a conflict which, because of the hateful policies of the Nazis, has generated many myths, ideas which have become entrenched in popular culture and unquestionable, especially in Britain, no matter what their historical accuracy. These myths include the plucky but ineffective Home Guard, the dedicated airmen and so on - and one of the most powerful is the role of the Resistance in occupied countries. Everybody was apparently on the side of the Resistance, even if they were unable to do anything active, apart from a small number of moral degenerates, congenital traitors. A moment's thought would show that this could not have been the case, particularly given the exceptionally vicious fighting between rival Resistance groups in countries like Greece and Yugoslavia, but it would be hard to write a novel as cynical as Deighton's about a country that had actually been occupied without causing offence. In SS-GB, most people collaborate to some extent or another; many even welcome the Germans for all kinds of reasons; the Germans are far more attractive characters than a lot of the Resistance members.

Another reason for writing this kind of novel is the ability it gives the author to make oblique criticisms. About three quarters of the way through, in a conversation about German brutality, one character says "I wonder if we'd be as bad as they are, if we'd won the war and were occupying Germany". You don't hear much about brutality from the British and American troops occupying West Germany after the war, but it is certainly a comment with an uncomfortable resonance these days in which we hear all the time about abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. It rubs against another Second World War myth, that the Germans were all brutal bullies and the Allies honourable young men.

SS-GB is a fascinating novel, extremely convincing (being based, of course, on Deighton's exhaustive knowledge of the period).

Friday 2 July 2004

Brian Stableford: Year Zero (2000)

Edition: Five Star, 2003
Review number: 1247

Year Zero is about the Millennium - an odd novel to see its first (American) publication in 2004. Odd, too, to find a novel by a British author in a British library - in an American edition. Central character Molly makes the decision that she won't be year 2000 compliant - to her, 2000 will be year zero and she will be able to use this to make a new start in her life. She is a former prostitute and drug addict who has two daughters housed with foster parents, and her aim is to be able to persuade social services that she can take over the care of the two girls herself. Soon after she makes her decision, strange events begin to happen to her - she meets Elvis in a local supermarket, befriends an angel, is abducted by aliens (and this is only in the first few chapters!).

Year Zero is a problematic novel. There are two main issues. The first is that there is too much going on; each little scenario (Elvis, the angel, the aliens, and so on) could fill a whole novel - something by Tom Holt or Robert Rankin, for example. Sometimes this works, but here it just irritates. Maybe it is because the encounters come too swiftly one after another, and they are not allowed space to develop and interest the reader.

The second problem is that this is clearly meant to be a humorous whimsical fantasy in the style of Holt or Rankin, but it is just not particularly funny. There are amusing moments, and sometimes clever jokes, but on the whole Year Zero reads as though it were intended to be taken seriously. If it is, then there are other problems - Molly is not a very convincing character, and she does not really change as a result of her surprising experiences; the eventual reason which is revealed as to why she is the centre of all this is glib and extremely hard to accept, even in science fiction; and the tone of the writing is too light.

There are good things about Year Zero. It is sufficiently entertaining to keep the reader going to the end. For the genre aficionado, there are little homages to other science fiction writers, nods to novels like Stanislaus Lem's The Futurological Congress as well as the more obvious use of fringe popular cultural motifs like the alien abductions. But all in all, it is a second rate version of a Tom Holt novel, only worth reading to pass the time.