Tuesday, April 15, 2014

celebrity lookeylikey of the day; special non-celebrity edition

A three-way today: current Prime Minister of Spain Mariano Rajoy, my beardy friend Phil, and Fred the busker from the Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler story book Tabby McTat, one of my daughter's current favourites.

incidental music spot of the day

Don't Worry About The Government by Talking Heads in episode 2 of Zeitgeisters on Radio 4 on Saturday. The programme's subject, Rem Koolhaas, is a renowned architect (or, if you will, "starchitect"; no, me neither), so the song was presumably chosen for its building-related lyrics, like these:
It's over there, it's over there
My building has every convenience
It's gonna make life easy for me
It's gonna be easy to get things done
This song is from the mighty Heads' first album 77 and was presumably partial inspiration for the somewhat self-mocking title of their (better) second album More Songs About Buildings And Food.

Monday, April 14, 2014

the last book I read

O-Zone by Paul Theroux.

There's been an apocalypse! Yeah, another one. This one seems to have been caused by the US government trying to dispose of several thousand tonnes of nuclear waste by stuffing it into some caves in the Ozarks, with predictably disastrous results, i.e. whole swathes of Missouri and neighbouring states rendered uninhabitable glowing wastelands. It never rains but it pours, and at around the same time the Big One has hit California, chopping Los Angeles in half and creating a new area of low-lying land called the Landslip, populated by various undesirables.

All of which has made the city-dwellers (seemingly any city, though most of the action here centres on New York) super-paranoid about being infiltrated from outside by the great unwashed (and/or starving/maimed/irradiated etc.), and so they instigate a ruthless system of checkpoints on entry and exit from the city, and employ a whole host of private security firms to police the streets, occasionally offing some innocent civilians who've been unwise enough to take a stroll after dark. Not that many people do that, though, as everyone's got their own personal jet-rotor which they use to shuttle to and from the landing pads on the roofs of their high-rise apartment blocks.

The areas affected by the eco-catastrophe retain a fascination for the city-dwellers, though, even though you need a permit and a load of protective gear to be allowed to travel out there. Fortunately Hardy Allbright works for a company that invests in vast weather-influencing technology and is always on the lookout for vast open spaces to be exploited. So on the pretext of doing some research in "O-Zone", as the area is know known, Hardy organises a New Year's jaunt out there as a novelty New Year's party for some friends and family, including his wife Moura, son Fisher (aka Fizzy; it later transpires that he's strictly only Moura's son, as there was some murky artificial insemination thing going on) and brother Hooper. It's basically your standard New Year's bash with some wine and nibbles, plus some anti-radiation suits for everyone and the addition of some deadly ray-guns just in case the area turns out not to be as uninhabited as it's meant to be.

Unsurprisingly there turn out to be people about, just wandering about eating nuts and berries (and probably the odd three-headed beaver) without so much as a bar-coded identity card between them. And when the party meets up with some of them during an excursion into the wilderness, pleasantries are soon exchanged in the form of disintegration rays, two of the primitives are offed in an explodey fashion and the party quickly sours and the partiers return to New York.

Hooper Allbright has some video footage of the excursion, though, and soon becomes obsessed with watching it over and over again, particularly the section featuring the lovely willowy 15-year-old girl, who he quickly concludes that he is in love with, and sets about organising another expedition into O-Zone to find her. He takes Fizzy with him as technical backup, Fizzy just happening to be some sort of tech-savvy super-nerd, with the usual associated raft of social interaction difficulties. Inevitably there is another confrontation and mutual grabbing of hostages, Hooper jet-rotoring off back to New York with the leggy 15-year-old and Fizzy falling into the hands of a band of "aliens", who aren't really aliens at all but various people dumped in O-Zone by the private security firms at the secret behest of the New York authorities who didn't want them in the city.

Hooper is too busy entertaining his new lady friend, so eventually Hardy decides that he'd better organise some sort of rescue expedition to go and look for Fizzy, and enlists the help of some contacts in Godseye, one of the terrifyingly deranged private vigilante groups. They head out of the city and discover that not only is there a huge expanse of America out there that's neither New York nor O-Zone, is largely indifferent to the problems of either, and is just getting on with life as it has done for decades, but also that maybe Fizzy doesn't want to be found.

O-Zone was published in 1986 and was Theroux's first proper-sized novel since his most famous book The Mosquito Coast in 1981 (the intervening Doctor Slaughter was a long short story, or a novella at best). While the setting is very different, a lot of the central themes are the same - the dire consequences of man's losing touch with the natural world, forgetting how to make things, cut down trees, start fires, roast three-headed beavers, all that stuff, and the dehumanising and alienating effect of too much technology. The "science fiction" setting is unique in Theroux's novels, and I'm not sure it really works. Too many unanswered questions, for one thing - how long ago are these catastrophic events meant to have happened? What area was affected? What about the rest of America - places like Florida, well away from the range of the radiation leak or the west coast earthquakes? Can we have a map? Even Riddley Walker gave us a map, and that was pretty vague about a lot of detail.

Other little plot annoyances: the whole business with Hooper's abduction of Bligh (the nubile 15-year-old girl) is a bit Seven Brides For Seven Brothers in her quick acceptance of her fate and acquiescence into a relationship with Hooper. And the sub-plot about Moura's search for the anonymous "donor" who fathered Fizzy is a bit inconsequential, which makes it all the more odd that it's allowed to provide the epilogue to the story, to no particular purpose. It's also quite long (547 pages in my Penguin edition) for a book in which not a huge amount actually happens.

Incidentally the weird stylised mask-wearing ritual attached to the "donation" process, presumably to draw attention away from its being just some anonymous fucking, is reminiscent of the similar rituals in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (a much better book, it must be said). The setting of a small amount of the action in a post-Big One California also echoes the similar setting of Virtual Light. And the concealment of nuclear waste by just hiding barrels of the stuff in holes in the ground was faintly reminiscent of the bit at the start of the Simpsons episode Marge vs. The Monorail where Mr. Burns gets arrested stuffing barrels into tree trunks in the park.

I stand by my earlier unreserved recommendation of The Mosquito Coast as the Theroux book you really have to read; if you want other novels I'd suggest the semi-autobiographical My Secret History, the MR James-esque ghost story (but with extra sex) The Black House and the grimy London-based The Family Arsenal. O-Zone isn't as good as any of those, so I suppose it gets categorised as a flawed but interesting genre experiment. If it's specifically a post-apocalyptic novel you're after, you'll probably be better off with The Road, Riddley Walker, The Handmaid's Tale, The Chrysalids or any of a whole host of others.

I bought O-Zone shortly after it came out, in the midst of a big splurge of buying up all the Theroux books I could get my hands on in the wake of reading The Mosquito Coast. That means it's been sitting on my bookshelves for something like 26-27 years without being read, which I suspect is some sort of record.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

headlines of the day

Here's a couple of good ones off the BBC website today. The first is a sort of crash blossom as previously featured here, here and here and extensively catalogued by Language Log. As you can see, it would appear that one of the side-effects of discredited wonderdrug Tamiflu, at least according to a "major report", is that it gets you completely off your tits:

The second one falls into the separate category of stuff that is just completely impenetrable to any sort of parsing unless you already happen to know what the story is about.

It might surprise you to learn - it certainly did me - that MP Robert Syms does not in fact own any sex dolls, at least as far as anyone knows, and that moreover he was the one complaining about them. A fairly radical departure for a Conservative MP.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

gladiator? i hardly noah

Couple of footnotes to the rather long Noah post:

Ray Comfort's complaining about the film (among all the shameless promotion of his own effort) reaches an adorable crescendo of utterly oblivious lack of self-awareness here:
No wonder it was listed as ‘fiction.’
Yeah, because some of the stuff they shoehorned in there was just ridiculous! Nonetheless the studio (Paramount) have felt obliged to put out a weaselly self-justifying press statement, as follows:
The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the Book of Genesis.
It's hard to see who they're going to satisfy with that, as the actress said to the bishop. The religious fundamentalists would have wanted it to say "based on a true story", despite that clearly being nonsense, and no-one else gives a rat's arse about any supposed controversy. I guess they just did it so that they could say they'd done it.

More disappointingly, Darren Aronofsky himself, generally a more spiky and uncompromising character than the bland corporate drones who put out his films, can't quite bring himself to follow through on his supposed atheism and drops this little turd of wishy-washy accommodationist nonsense into the mix:
Ultimately, though, the director has little patience with literalists on either side of the believer-atheist divide. It's ungenerous to insist, as some Christians do, that there is only one way to interpret Genesis, according to Aronofsky. But it's also pointless to argue, as some atheists have, that no ark could possibly hold all the animals. The story of the flood has lasted for millennia not because it’s "right" – or wrong – but because it’s deep and alive and unsettling, the director said.
I have literally no idea what a "literalist" on the atheist side of the divide would look like, unless he just means someone that believes the Bible in general, and the flood myth in particular, to be literally not an accurate reflection of historical reality. And it's far from pointless to make the obvious point that pretty much every detail of the story is incoherent nonsense that doesn't stand up to the merest whiff of scrutiny.

Incidentally I've had the Ray Comfort film going in another window while I've been writing this, and I can report that it's really not what you'd expect, given that you'd presumably expect it to be mostly about Noah and the ark and the flood and all that stuff. I mean, there is a bit of that, but mainly it's far more lazy and directionless and dishonest than that, consisting mainly of Comfort's bizarre attempts to draw parallels between the lead-up to the flood and modern-day evils like gay marriage and how they may presage another Godly tantrum and a cleansing bout of vengeance, and Comfort's well-worn shtick of accosting various barely-coherent slack-jawed stoners on some Los Angeles beachfront and running rings round them with his well-practised huckster's patter. As an exercise in drumming up controversy, and more importantly business for his Living Waters ministry, while expending almost no budget whatsoever, it's quite impressive, although the naked unscrupulousness of the whole enterprise is a bit shocking, though possibly not as shocking as the Just For Men beard and hair-dye job Comfort is sporting these days.

No mention of Ray Comfort is complete without linking to the magnificent banana video. His subsequent attempts to pass it off as "satire" just make it even more delicious, since they demonstrate his utter failure to grasp what was wrong with the original in the first place.

croah's ark

Tricky times for Christian fundamentalists at the moment: what to make of the new Biblical epic Noah? You might naïvely think that it would be cause for celebratory glee, after all this is a core bit of the Christian religion being served up to a worldwide audience in a blizzard of CGI special effects and with some pretty heavy names on board - director Darren Aronofsky (a "self-professed atheist", apparently), star Russell Crowe and supporting cast including Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson and Ray Fackin' Winstone.

But it's not as simple as that, apparently. While a lot of the more hand-wavey moderates have got behind it, or at least managed to rationalise some of the more noticeable liberties it takes with scriptural orthodoxy, most of the usual suspects have queued up to decry the movie for a variety of barely-comprehensible reasons. Scary Amish-bearded loon and noted ark enthusiast Ken Ham was far from impressed, and banana fiend Ray Comfort even went as far as making his own Noah movie for release (though not quite as widely, I would imagine) at the same time as the big-budget one. Meanwhile, Glenn Beck and Rick Warren blast the movie for perceived "inaccuracies".

The thing is, though, it's a bit rich to criticise the film for some fairly minor crimes against biblical orthodoxy - as far as I can gather these mainly revolve around the film suggesting that humanity's crime was the despoilment of the environment rather than (as the Bible says) general ill-defined wickedness, which I take to probably mean unauthorised sexy sexy times and general ignoring of God. There also seems to be a problem with the film's portrayal of the Creator who wants Noah to help him out - firstly he is a bit vaguely defined, and referred to throughout as "the Creator" rather than "God" as the literalists would prefer, and secondly Noah's attitude towards him is a bit bolshy and insufficiently forelock-tuggingly deferent and servile. Then again it's Russell Crowe, so I'm not sure what they were expecting.

The reason it's a bit rich is that it ignores the elephant in the room, which is that those criticising the film still implicitly support the idea that this guy, God - supposedly omniscient and omnipotent, let's not forget - having had his initial attempts at giving his creations free will blow up in his face in a farcical series of apple-based shenanigans, did not then magically and painlessly discorporate the handful of people who existed at that point and start again, but instead let everyone rampage around the surface of the planet for a few generations, breeding uncontrollably, until he eventually got so pissed off that he thought: fuck this shit, I'm going to drown everyone's ass, since that seems like literally the best course of action at this point, what with me being some sort of vengeful psychopath and all. To put it another way, I think basically if we reboot the human race with a tiny number of cripplingly inbred, traumatised, seasick, animal-dung-encrusted people, that'll probably improve the situation. Not only is that shockingly incompetent by any standards, it's also breathtakingly evil by any standards except the kind of standard that says: well, he's God, he can do what he wants and it is by definition good and right. Some call this the Euthyphro dilemma: I like to call it the Nixon defence.

The only reason to care about how accurately the film matches the source material is if you believe the source material to be literally true. Needless to say this introduces some problems, particularly if you also adhere to the Ussher chronology which would also have you believe that the earth is around 6000 years old, rather then the accepted scientific figure of 4.5 billion years. You will be far from surprised to hear that there is a whole branch of creationist apologetics devoted to shoehorning a whole swathe of inconvenient geological evidence into the 6000-year narrative, including some fantastic stuff about where all the water came from. As most of its adherents are American, they tend to focus on stuff like the Grand Canyon, since it's an obvious landmark that's not all foreign and suspicious. As I understand it from this version of the theory, the original flood laid down a load of sediments, in the process conveniently jumbling up a load of drowned animal carcasses into the fossil record we see today, and then a subsequent catastrophic outflow from some leftover ponded-up floodwaters carved the canyon in a matter of days.

Now obviously this is so stupid as not to really need refutation, but one of the really cool refutations that can be offered is that we actually know what landscapes carved by catastrophic floods look like, and they can be found only a thousand miles or so away from the Grand Canyon, in Washington state. These are called channelled scablands, and are the remnants of a catastrophic flood caused by the sudden emptying of a glacial lake about 15,000 years ago. Needless to say they look nothing like the Grand Canyon.

Picking holes in this sort of bullshit is all very entertaining, of course, but I must confess I don't really understand what motivates the creationists to try and come up with these just-so stories. I mean, if you believe that your God just magicked the WHOLE FREAKIN' UNIVERSE into existence in a week - a week which included a duvet day on the Saturday, let's not forget - what's to stop him just SHAZAMing all the water out of thin air, or KERPOWing the Grand Canyon into existence, or just casually excavating the whole thing himself with one scrape of his mighty fingernail? Why bother to contort yourself so horribly constructing these risibly childish theories? I suppose one answer is that otherwise the ex nihilo creation of stuff with the outward appearance of age makes God look like a bit of a prankster, and the other one is that not everyone has the critical thinking faculties to see through this stuff, and moreover some of those who don't have money that can be deposited into church coffers. Money that may now instead be spent going to see Noah, I suppose - suddenly the animosity makes sense.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

throw grammar from the train

I'm always up for a bit of pedantry about grammar and word usage, and like everyone else I have my own personal line in the sand regarding what's tolerable and what's not, so that everything on one side is all THIS WILL NOT STAND and WELL THAT'S JUST NONSENSE and BLOODY KIDS RUINING EVERYTHING and everything on the other side is all well, you know, language evolves, it's fine, take a chill pill, grandad.

The obvious problem is that no two people have the line situated in exactly the same place, which makes for some interesting disagreements. So for instance when I was listening to Midweek on Radio 4 this morning and Libby Purves started complaining about people saying "it looks like X will happen" instead of "it looks as if X will happen" I had a moment of scoffing at her clearly ridiculous pedantry, just because that happens to be a usage I don't care about, or, probably more significantly, don't bother to observe in my own writing or speech.

The context of the conversation was that one of the guests on Midweek was Rebecca Gowers, the great-granddaughter of Sir Ernest Gowers, author of the still-in-print usage guide Plain Words, which she's just edited a revised and updated edition of. (You'll note that ending a sentence with a preposition is a grammar law about which I am not especially bothered about.) As far as I can gather the original purpose of the book was to encourage the cutting away of unnecessary frills and jargon from written communications - presumably of the "I remain, sir, your lordship's most humble and obedient servant" variety originally, but still relevant in these days of thinking outside the box and leveraging our core values going forward.

I was also put in mind of this article from a week or two ago by Grace Dent in the Independent, the trigger for which seems to have been the Twitterstorm over Gemma Worrall's ill-advised tweet about "our" president "Barraco Barner" [picture is from here]. The problem with the reaction to the tweet is severalfold, the main problem being that Gemma Worrall's principal crime was apparently not her woeful level of knowledge about the world and dubious spelling skills, but rather just Being A Woman On The Internet. This is about the most heinous online crime you can commit, as Caroline Criado-Perez, Anita Sarkeesian and Rebecca Watson will be able to tell you after enduring an avalanche of horrific rape and death threats after having the temerity to talk about feminism and sexism in online forums.

On the other hand, Spiked's Brendan O'Neill (writing for the Telegraph) reckons it's all OK and we should stop worrying about it, and, moreover, pointing out that the astonishing invective directed at women on the internet might just possibly be a window on some underlying societal problems is pretty much literally equivalent to implementing Nineteen-Eighty-Four-style totalitarianism. On the other hand, Brendan O'Neill is a tiresome professional contrarian and an utter bellend. You can fill up your Male Privilege Bingo card here: "the standard of discussion on the internet leaves a lot to be desired", "incivility", "delicate sensibilities".

Back to the pedantry: it's also true that a nit-picky obsession with the minutiae of spelling and punctuation at the expense of engaging with the content of the writing is a bit irritating, and suggests spare energies that might be more productively directed elsewhere. If you're involved in a heated online discussion about, say, the conflict in Syria, and you're derailing the discussion by taking issue with someone's usage of the word "decimate", you're probably not contributing anything useful. Barracobarnergate in particular illustrates how fraught with danger taking someone to task for spelling and grammar mistakes on the internet is, given that Muphry's Law will always apply.

On the other hand, writing and language exists to convey meaning and some agreement on what means what is crucial. Take “infer” and “imply” as an example: we need to have agreed meanings for words or communication will be impossible. That particular example might be resolvable a) because it’s not that important and b) by reading for context, but if I start saying “banana” when I mean “horse” and then getting all uppity and DON’T YOU OPPRESS ME when people have no idea what I’m talking about, I don’t think anyone would claim it’s somehow everyone else’s fault.

On the other hand, words' meanings do change over time, and eventually the "wrong" definition becomes the "right", or at least "usual", one. "Disinterested" is a classic example where the switch is probably now unavoidable, by contrast I had literally no idea that there was any other usage for the word "nonplussed" than its standard one of "confused" until I heard my wife use it twice in fairly quick succession in a context where she couldn't possibly have meant "confused". It was only on reading this that I discovered that it's now quite widely used to mean "unfazed" or "nonchalant", which is the context she used it in. You live and learn.

As I've said elsewhere, I try (not always successfully) to be relaxed about this sort of thing as long as the meaning is clear. So I'm not at all bothered about insisting on "different from" in preference to "different to" or "different than", since that's an entirely arbitrary rule that gains you nothing in terms of clarity. On the other hand I'm not at all happy about the "nonplussed" thing, and you can rest assured I'll be having a word next time. In general these days I take the approach of not publicly correcting stuff any more as long as the meaning is clear, while still silently judging people for their crass mistakes.

The other thing to be said about the Grace Dent article is that there's a strong element of: well, you may scoff at her rudimentary language skills and flimsy grasp of geopolitics, but she's got a job and probably earns more than you, you internet pedants with your degrees and your Nobel prizes. What are they worth now, eh? The problem with that is firstly that it seems dubious to judge the worth of a job on the basis of what you can get paid for doing it - by that rationale we value Premiership footballers more than nurses by a factor of several thousand, which I don't think many people would be comfortable with. So while it may very well be possible to make a better living as an eyebrow-plucker and fanny-waxer than as a Classics graduate I'm not sure that equates to a judgment of the two things' respective value. The other thing is that there's an uncomfortable tension between expressing dismay at the internet abuse heaped on women on the one hand, and on the other hand celebrating an occupation that in large part only exists because of some fairly ridiculous societal norms about how women should present themselves to the world: entirely hairless and orange seemingly being the current preference.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

100 blogs of solitude

Couple of follow-up thoughts after the Free Fall review the other day:

Among the gazillion other awards given to Lord Of The Flies, it also appears in the TIME magazine list of 20th century novels (strictly, the 100 best novels written in English since 1923) that I've referenced here several times before. Novels in this series that appear in that list are On The Road, At Swim-Two-Birds, Infinite Jest, Snow Crash, Never Let Me GoBlood Meridian, The Catcher In The Rye, The Corrections, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Watchmen. My current count on that list stands at 39.

Speaking of lists, you'll notice I linked to this list elsewhere in the review, mainly because it's been doing the rounds on Facebook lately and makes the contentious-sounding claim that "the BBC think you'll only have read 6 of these books", which is the perfect goad (for someone like me, anyway) to make you go "right, I'll show them: gimme that list". There's some confusion over the provenance of the list - while it appears superficially similar to the BBC's Big Read top 100 from 2003, it's not the same. Needless to say someone on the internet's done the research and tracked it down to being a list constructed for World Book Day in 2007. There appears to be no reliable source for the "you'll have only read 6 of these, you plebs" quote anywhere.

The list was apparently constructed after an online survey of 2000 people - consequently, like any such list constructed after a public vote, particularly on the internet, it's a bit lumpy in terms of content. I reckon these lists are always skewed by a combination of:
  • books people may or may not have read or liked but feel obliged to nominate in response to perceived cultural obligation (e.g. Austen, Dickens, the Bible, Shakespeare);
  • books people have seen a film or TV adaptation of (I strongly suspect this, and more specifically Colin Firth, explain's Pride And Prejudice's occupation of the top spot);
  • nerdish obsessions (Potter, Tolkien)
  • what I disparagingly like to call "book group books", i.e. the likes of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, The Kite Runner and Life Of Pi;
  • fondly remembered childhood stuff (Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and The Wind In The Willows among others for people of my age or older, Potter and Pullman for the younger generation);
  • books read by people that don't really read books (I presume this explains the presence of The Da Vinci Code at #42 since I can't think of any other explanation).
I totted up my total and it came to 35, which isn't especially high compared with some people's. The distribution of books I had and hadn't read was quite interesting, though - where I really fell down was that I don't have the background of doing, say, English A-level and having to wade through a reading list with all the 18th/19th century classics on it. So I've never read anything by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy or any of the Brontës, who between them account for 16 of the books on the list. I do have a copy of Pride And Prejudice - which I once got about a third of the way through but never finished - sitting on my bookshelves, along with copies of Moby-Dick and Germinal staring out reproachfully at me for ignoring them for as long as I have. One day.

I put the Pullmans and the Potters on the "not applicable" category, really - no disrespect to them and I'm sure if I was 11 or 12 they'd be the best thing ever (I suspect I'd have enjoyed the Pullmans more, though), but since I was 25 when Northern Lights was published and 27 when the first Harry Potter book was published, those weren't options open to me at the time.

I do feel slightly bad about casually dismissing the likes of Captain Corelli's Mandolin and The Time-Traveller's Wife as "book group books", which basically just means books that were very popular and a lot of people recommended to each other. It's just an aspect of my general disinclination for being told what to do, however harmlessly. A brief reading of the plot synopsis does make it sound as if Audrey Niffenegger swiped some major plot points in The Time-Traveller's Wife from Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens Of Titan anyway. I'd be inclined to put Birdsong into the same category but for the fact that I have a copy of that one which I expect I'll read once I've completed the mental recategorising of it into the category Books Whose Existence Is Acceptable To Me.

I did get the sense that of the 35 books I ticked off, a lot of them were books I'd read quite a long time ago. That's borne out by the fact that only four of them (compared to twelve from the TIME list) appear on this blog (which documents all my fiction-reading since late 2006): The Catcher In The Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Lovely Bones and On The Road, and all of those except The Lovely Bones (which, as you'll know if you read the review, would not be on any 100 Best Books list I'd be prepared to put my name to in any case) are on the other list anyway.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the last book I read

Free Fall by William Golding.

Samuel Mountjoy is a respected and established artist, but, well, it's not all been glamorous exhibitions and critical acclaim. Born to a feckless single mother and brought up in a slum, and later as the ward of a priest, he rose to the dizzy heights of having his work exhibited in the Tate.

Yes, but has it made him happy? Well, no, not really. And so as he looks back at his life with some confusion and dissatisfaction, he tries to pinpoint where the choices were made, consciously or unconsciously, that brought him to where he has ended up, and wonders whether he could have chosen differently.

As a child? It's Sammy's being manouevred by his devious friend Philip Arnold into desecrating a church that leads indirectly to Sammy being taken on (after his mother's death) as a ward by kindly old closet paedophile Father Watts-Watt.

At school? Faced with the opposing teaching worldviews of goddy, cold, bitter Miss Pringle and easy-going, gentle atheist Nick Shales, Sammy naturally chooses the path associated with the person who's been nicer to him.

In his love life? Developing a furious obsession with pretty, demure Beatrice Ifor while still at school, Sammy mounts a well-organised campaign to woo her, but, having eventually worn her down to the point of consenting to sleep (somewhat joylessly) with him, he finds that he has lost interest in her and promptly goes off and marries someone else.

Eventually World War II breaks out and Sammy finds himself taken prisoner and interrogated by the Gestapo. After a bit of verbal sparring with Gestapo officer Doctor Halde, Sammy finds himself locked in a pitch-black storeroom to reconsider his refusal to divulge any information about the series of recent escapes from the camp, and also to anticipate the delightful prospect of being tortured to obtain it. The fear and the darkness induce in Sammy what might be mild hysteria, or might be some sort of psychotic episode - and, we seem to be invited to infer, the frenzied reconsideration of his previous life that occupies most of the book - before he is released from his confinement and returned to his prison quarters, possibly as a changed man, possibly not. Who knows?

Free Fall was William Golding's fourth novel, published in 1959 at the end of the busy early period of his career that produced four novels in five years. Golding's biographer John Carey reckoned that it was the lukewarm critical response to Free Fall that prompted the five-year period of writer's block, or possibly sulking, that preceded the publication of The Spire in 1964. Frank Kermode's potted summary of Golding's early books (we'll come back to the first one in a bit) from his review of The Spire warrants reproducing here:
In the years that followed Golding did much to confirm this belief, but very little towards making himself a popular novelist. The Inheritors is a technically uncompromising, fiercely odd, even old-fashioned book about the overthrow of Neanderthal man, wonderfully distinguished but inconceivable as a big seller; Pincher Martin is as difficult as it is masterly; and Free Fall is complex, original, and in many ways reader-repellent.
I think "reader-repellent" is probably overdoing it a bit, but Golding's books are generally - while relatively short - dense, gnarly and difficult and make demands on the reader that some will find onerous and unappealing, and Free Fall is no exception. It's probably more linear and less wildly weird and eccentric than either The Inheritors (which I see I've namechecked here and here) or Pincher Martin (which I mentioned here), and to be honest, probably not quite as good as either of them, but it's still writing of great power, even when you feel like there's some Great Meaning afoot that would snap into focus if you could just look at the words from the correct angle. In the case of Free Fall this is to do with notions like choice and free will, a concept that tends to dissolve into incoherence if examined too closely, particularly with an eye not blinded by religious thinking. Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True has a series of very thought-provoking articles on free will from a secular/scientific perspective if you're interested.

Obviously the elephant in the room here is Golding's first novel, 1954's Lord Of The Flies, still appearing on Best 100 Books Ever lists 60 years after its first publication. It was one of the first proper "adult" novels that I ever read (at probably 15 or 16) and made a massive impression on me. No doubt it vexed Golding (a somewhat irascible character by all accounts) greatly that his first book was the one that defined him, but there it is. I would recommend - nay, insist - that everyone read Lord Of The Flies; what I would say to those wanting to venture further is that Pincher Martin and The Spire are probably the ones to try. Just don't expect always to understand what's going on.

Golding also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 - these two book reviews contain a couple of relevant lists.