Tuesday 31 May 2005

Lawrence Durrell: Justine (1957)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1961 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1295

The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell's most famous work, begins with this story of an obsessive affair, between the young poet who narrates the novel and society woman Justine. The novel is more about the setting of postwar Alexandria, though, and Justine herself is to some extent a symbol of the city, which makes the novel extremely atmospheric even without lengthy passages of description. The groundwork is laid here for themes which become more important later in the series of novels (particularly since the first three cover the same events from different perspectives) - cabalism and gnosticism, for example - but Durrell is careful only to hint at what later volumes hold.

With this novel, Durrell's background as a poet is very clear, perhaps more so than in any of his other prose. There are certain kinds of literature where every word should have a purpose - thrillers are one, where the aim is to advance the action - but it is of poetry that this is most true, as it is an art form where words are almost everything, like the notes in music (rhythm being the most important other component). In most poetry, every word (with the possibly exception of particles like "the" - which may still contribute through rhythm) is there to contribute to an effect. Lawrence Durrell's prose has the same feeling: the position of every word in every sentence seems to be carefully thought out. Sometimes when writers do this, it can have the effect of making what they produce hard to follow: but this is not Finnegans Wake or The Wasteland. And while I'm thinking about Joyce and Eliot, it is clear that both are influences; but the novel's title also indicates a homage to an earlier writer with a different kind of notoriety: to de Sade, who also wrote a novel with the title Justine.

The novel ends with a fascinating little series of notes, apparently made as aids to composition (and I suspect designd to look like this) and entitled "workpoints"; these include translations of Cavafy, the poet of Alexandria whose work is a major influence, and three-word sketches of Justine's characters.

As well as being his most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet is the ideal introduction to Durrell. The Antrobus stories, while fun in a Yes, Minister vein, are more like his brother Gerald's writing and are not at all typical, and the travel writing is much more journalistic, as one might expect. It would be safe to say, though, that any reader who enjoys Justine will like the rest of The Alexandria Quartet, The Avignon Quintet and so on; but a reader who dislikes Justine will not find reading any of these other novels worthwhile. They are novels where the pleasure of reading them requires work from the reader; they are not meant to be read at speed but carefully, allowing each sentence to have its effect. I think the effort is well worth it; others may well not.

Tuesday 24 May 2005

Jane Stevenson: London Bridges (2000)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2000
Review number: 1294

Margery Allingham's classic novels are generally set in the most rural parts of Essex and Suffolk or in London. The latter had a particular atmosphere which is more or less gone from the genre: she specialised in eccentric faded gentility. Perhaps there is less of this about than there was in the thirties, and even thoguh there is still a great deal of crime fiction being set in England's capital, it is dominated by the police procedural. In Allingham, this air of eccentricity extended even into the police force - which brings me to the most obvious connection between her work and London Bridges. In one of her later novels, The China Governess, her policeman Luke becomes the father of a baby girl, who is mentioned in passing. Hattie Luke, now grown up, is one of the main characters in this novel, acting as a catalyst for the story.

The structure of London Bridges is simple, but unusual. Basically, the reader knows what is going on and who is responsible, but each major character only knows a piece of it - some isolated, odd, maybe mildly suspicious incident that is easily dismissed as one of the quirky things that happen to an inhabitant of a big city (they're about on a level with the sort of bizarre conversations strangers used to have with me on tube trains when I was a student in London). It is only because Hattie brings them together that one mentions something that strikes a chord with another, and they begin to compare notes.

Of course, this plot device uses something that I frequently object to in crime novels: co-incidence. There are links that might draw these people together (they are all to some extent involved in Greek culture, either academically or through the Greek community in London, or both), but it is still extremely unlikely. However, there is an excuse, in that the co-incidence is the whole point of the novel rather than being used to get over an awkward, poorly thought out, part of the puzzle as is usually the case in the crime genre. There must be crimes which go unnoticed because the people who know bits and pieces are never brought toghether; to do so (once) is an interesting idea for a novel.

London Bridges does not truly belong in the crime fiction genre - I think that not having to puzzle over who commits the murder rules it out. It is much more about character and atmosphere, too, than is usual in the genre, and that is really what makes it worth reading. The atmosphere here (and, indeed, the characters) are reminiscent of Margery Allingham, combined with generous helpings of a writer of the ilk of Iris Murdoch. Altogether, this is an intelligent, fascinating and absorbing read- I wish I'd come across Jane Stevenson five years ago.

Tuesday 10 May 2005

Steph Swainston: The Year of Our War (2004)

Edition: Gollancz, 2004 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1293

The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston's debut, does everything a genre novel should: it brings new life to familiar ideas, and has something unusual about it. The unusual aspect is not the plot, which is typical of the genre: the empire under attack from faceless hordes (known as Insects, which on occasion gives the story the air of a fifties B-movie) and can only be saved by the heroic acts of a small number of people. There are some interesting features in the background: the band of potential saviours are immortals, the Eszai, granted eternal life by the emperor because they are the best at some task useful in the fighting - the fastest messenger, the most skilful sailor, and so on - and they have little in common save their immortality and are mostly limited in anything outside their specialisms. While this is not the kind of idea often encountered in a serious fantasy novel, the Eszai are clearly a band of flawed superheroes who could well have come from an Alan Moore comic strip.

The part of The Year of Our War which is basically unique is the central character. Jant is one of the Eszai, plucked from the gangs of a large city because of his unique ability: he can fly. He has a really major flaw, however: he is a drug addict. The drug, known as cat, is an addictive psychodelic, which has effects something between crack and LSD. Being part of a fantasy world means that something can be made of the visions perceived while under the influence; they shift the consciousness into another world. One of the biggest acheivements Swainston pulls off (in, as must be remembered, her debut) is to make the two imaginary settings of the novel quite different in style, and with different derees of versimilitude: the drug world seems more arbitrary and artificial.

There are parts of the novel which could be better. The title is poor; it's punning nature suggests something much lighter than the novel inside the covers. Lifting character building above plotting is not a problem (and makes a change from complicated versions of the hero's journey populated by cardboard cutouts - the clichés of the genre). However, the novel's structure betrays some inexperience; given the lengthy buildup, the denoument is too short and too facile. Even so, this is an enjoyable, well written fantasy novel with an adult grittiness missing from most of the genre.

Drug addiction and the experiences induced by drug taing have long been part of science fiction. The history of this generally seems to lead back to influences from crossover readership in the sicties between the genre and the cult writing of people like W.S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. SF provided some of the important books in hippy culture, such as Stranger in a Strange Land. Novels as diverse as Aldous Huxley's The Island, Stanislaus Lem's The Futurological Congress and Robert Sheckley's The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton all fed into or followed from psychodelic ideas about mind expansion through drug taking. But the darker side of drugs really became part of the SF mainstream only from the advent of cyberpunk in the eighties, though the psychodelia in Philip K. Dick is already less optimistic, and there are hints that drugs might be used for control in dystopian fiction back to Brave New World (which shows how much Huxley's mind changed on the subject over the years). Despite this long SF tradition, there is far less history of serious treatment of drugs in the sister genre of fantasy. It is hard to think of anything before the turn of the millennium which is more serious than the trivial references in (say) the Spellsinger and Belgariad series. (David Eddings created an entire race of addicts in the Belgariad, but the Nyissans are generally minor characters and the consequences of their drug taking are never treated in human terms - it is at best a convenient plot device.) It is really only recent writers like China Miéville how have begun to introduce the sordid to their fantasy worlds: that is one reason why he is an important writer, even though I don't like his work personally.

While it would be possible to put together an academic thesis on the history of drug references in SF and fantasy (and I suspect that someone already has), the interesting question is why it should be so different between the two genres, so similar in terms of their fanbase and use of the fantastic. (Afficionados generally seem to feel that the difference is in terms of the treatment of science - in pure science fiction, it should be possible to justify everything in some kind of scientific terms, though with some traditional themes of the genre, such as time travel, this is more difficult than others.) Both SF and fantasy have a strong tradition of satire and parody, a lightness not so common in other genres; thus, Terry Pratchett is the best known author of fantasy writing for adults today. In science fiction, this tendency has begun to diminish over recent years, as the oft derided amateurish writing style detractors detect in the genre begin to be replaced by more professional and polished work: the association of author and fan is becoming weaker. My suspicion is that this has come about through the huge success of genre films, since Star Wars; the equivalent film for fantasy is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that is too recent for it to have had much of an effect on novels as yet. This has left most fantasy (and certainly the popular end) either light and humourous or epic and cliched. (The biggest exception to this until recently is Stephen Donaldson.) Steph Swainston's debut novel is part of the process of bringing more adult ideas into the fantasy genre, and, whether or not it turns out to be as successful as it deserves, The Year of Our War should be welcomed.

Tuesday 3 May 2005

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)

Edition: Sceptre, 2005
Review number: 1292

Mitchell's third novel was the clear favourite for the Booker Prize in 2004, and when it didn't win, this seemed to catch many commentators by surprise. I like Mitchell's writing, and I have attempted to read several of the other novels which made up the rather lacklustre short list, and I echo this astonishment.

Like Ghostwritten and number9dream, Cloud Atlas shows Mitchell's delight in complex interlinked narratives, exactly the sort of literary puzzles which marked out Iain Banks' early novels. Here, there are six stories, arranged in layers - each one is available to the characters in the next in some literary form (journal, collection of letters, thriller in manuscript, film, recorded interview) moving from the late nineteenth century far into the future. There are other links between the tales, apart from this arrangement, which is rather reminiscent of The Arabian Nights (where tales are often interrupted while a character tells another story). There are hints that at least some of the central characters are reincarnations of others, though the chronology of the stories means that others of them have lives that overlap. A thematic link is much more important: the stories are all about resistence to unjust exploitation of the peaceful and weak by the strong, powerful and aggressive.

The best of the stories is the Michael Moore meets George Orwell dystopia, An Orison of Sonmi~415. Sonmi~451 is a clone, genetically engineered to be the perfect fast food restaurant server, who is "awakened" from her drug- and conditioning-induced acceptance of her life to an understanding of the horrows of the enslavement of a vast army of cheap workers in the service of rampant capitalism. But each of the stories could have been expanded into a full length novel in its own right, one which could have easily held the interest of readers (if not to the extent that Cloud Atlas does, where there is the additional attraction of the enigmas produced by the construction of the novel).

So the question is: why didn't Cloud Atlas win, if it is so good? Of course, not having been on the jury, I can't say for certain. There are several possible reasons that seem plausible to me, that together may have combined to spoil its chances. There is often something of a bias against the general favourite at these events, as people don't want to look as though they've just made the easy, obvious choice. There may have been a suspicion that the interlocking arrangement of the narrative is a bit facile (though certainly no more so than churning out another dull story of a dysfunctional family). There have been two quirkily different winners in the past two years (Life of Pi and Vernon God Little), and perhaps the jury felt that Cloud Atlas was a little too similar to these. Then there is a continuing snobbish attiude to novels (or, in this case, parts of novels) which seem to be genre fiction, no matter how well written: why is it, for example, that Iain Banks has never even been nominated? This applies particularly strongly to science fiction, but affects thrillers and crime fiction to an extent too. To write in a genre may bring popularity, but unless you are already part of the literary establishment will not bring critical success there, unless you are considered to write for children (like J.K. Rowling). If these are the reasons that caused Mitchell to miss out, it's a pity, for the imaginative range and dazzling technique shown in Cloud Atlas would have made it a deserving and memorable winner.