Sunday, May 24, 2020

it's 10pm and time to get speyed

Very belatedly - even more belatedly than last year, it turns out - here's the post-Christmas whisky round-up. I was lucky enough to get a good selection of stuff, including a few things I hadn't tried before alongside the old favourites like the Highland Park and the Johnnie Walker Black Label. There were four new ones, in fact, so what I'll do is compare them in pairs over two posts, to avoid either of the posts getting arse-numbingly long.

First up are Tomatin and Speyburn. Both solid, well-established distilleries that, coincidentally, were founded in the same year, 1897. Despite being only around 30 miles apart as the crow flies, the two distilleries are in different whisky regions, Speyburn being (as you'd expect from the name) in the Speyside region and Tomatin being in the Highland region. It's all about the water: despite the distilleries' geographical proximity the River Findhorn from which Tomatin takes its water finds its own way to the sea without being a tributary of the River Spey.

Back in the 1970s Tomatin was one of the biggest distilleries in the world, operating 20-odd stills (about the same number as Glenfiddich has today); things are somewhat reduced since then and it hasn't ever really been a big player in the single malt market. But here is Tomatin Legacy, conforming to what is the new standard for entry-level whisky by not carrying an age statement. Next one up in the range is a 12-year-old which will set you back an extra ten quid or so.

A quick scan of the box reveals no cryptic foreign text simultaneously announcing and concealing the presence of artificial colourants, so that's probably a good thing. It's quite a light golden colour, as befits something which claims to have been matured (for an unspecified amount of time) in ex-bourbon and virgin oak casks. There's a slightly "hot" estery magic marker whiff which is a hallmark of relatively young whisky - I should also add that this stuff is bottled at 43% so it's slightly "hotter" than some others purely by virtue of this.

Very few surprises when you drink it - slightly sweet, slightly biscuity, none of the corned beef and parsnips you get with some of the more wild and hairy-chested ones. Basically it's a perfectly quaffable dram which I would struggle to distinguish from a whole host of other non-peaty Speyside and Highland whiskies which have appeared on this blog; just from the recent-ish archives you've got Aberfeldy and Tamnavulin which would both fall into the same category.

Next up is the Speyburn: this one is 10 years old, though there is an entry-level no-age-statement one called Bradan Orach. So you can argue, if you like, that already we're not quite comparing apples with apples here, and I can (and will) say: bollocks.

Speyburn is guilty of having a slightly boring name; this isn't entirely its own fault, as it genuinely does reside on a burn that is a tributary of the Spey, and the obvious name making use of the name of the nearest town had already been bagged. It is nowhere near as rubbish, to be fair, as the new Speyside distillery which opened up in the 1980s and decided to call itself, after (presumably) literally minutes of brainstorming by the marketing team, *drum roll* The Speyside.

As you can see from the picture below, there's almost no difference in colour between the Tomatin (on the right) and the Speyburn; this is slightly surprising for no fewer than three reasons: firstly the Speyburn is older, which generally means darker, secondly it claims to have been at least partly matured in ex-sherry casks, which generally impart a darker colour, and thirdly the packaging carries the weaselly German and Danish disclaimers which denote the inclusion of a whack of caramel colouring.

There's very little to distinguish the two on having a sniff, either: big magic marker action, maybe just a hint of something a bit more meaty and interesting underneath, but you don't really get a significant difference until you have a sip, at which point you notice that the Speyburn is less sweet than the Tomatin. I mean, it's not exactly a chalk and cheese kind of thing, but there is at least a discernible difference.

Since there is barely a fag-paper of difference between them I'd struggle to express a firm preference for one or the other: on balance I'd probably go for the Speyburn just because there is a hint of slightly greater depth. But, you know, they're both perfectly fine if the polite end of the range is your thing. My preference remains for the west and north Highlanders and the non-Islay (no disrespect to Islay) Islanders.

it's all there in black and white, and blue, and possibly red

A couple of other thoughts in the wake of the House Of Leaves post:

There is a bit in the acknowledgements page at the front of my copy of the book which caught my eye, here:

My book is indeed in black-and-white, as most books are - or, more accurately, not in colour, since the word house is rendered throughout in a very slightly lighter grey and offset from the rest of the text slightly, as if typed into the gap afterwards on a different typewriter.

It's a testament to the disorienting effect of the book on the reader's mind that my first assumption on looking at this page was that this was probably a bit of authorial fuckery similar to the inclusion in Zampanò's footnotes of a host of academic-sounding works that don't actually exist (and a few that do, just to keep the reader on his/her toes). In other words I was initially sceptical that any of these supposed colour versions of the book actually existed. It seems that they do, though, and you can purchase one for yourself if you're prepared to shell out somewhere in the region of 40 dollars (about 32 pounds at today's exchange rate).

To be honest I expected that they might go for even more absurdly inflated prices than that, since this seems to be a book that invites slightly geeky obsessiveness in the same way as Infinite Jest. It's too much of a lazy cliché to invoke some sort of "extreme male brain" autism spectrum theory (and the whole autism gender split thing is more complex than that anyway) as an explanation, but this sort of thing does seem to be more of a male thing, for whatever reason, possible a purely cultural/societal one. There are ironic echoes here of the blizzard of cultural analysis of The Navidson Record referenced by Zampanò's text, although since even in Zampanò's and Johnny Truant's fictional universe The Navidson Record never existed, presumably all of the hundreds of carefully referenced critical works never existed either.

An example of the way people spend waaaaaayyy too much time thinking about this stuff is the number of videos that are available online about it, some of them just basically doing a description and/or loose review of the book (and some touching on the different versions I mentioned above) and some attempting some more interesting analysis. This video is probably the most interesting (of the small selection I've watched any of anyway) and just to undermine my theory above is voiced by a woman. Interestingly she pronounces Danielewski's name as Daniel-oo-ski throughout (by analogy with brewski, presumably), rather than the more usual (but not universal) rendering of Daniel-eff-ski. This short clip featuring the man himself (I mean, if he even exists, right?) suggests that the second rendering is the correct one.

Monday, May 18, 2020

the last book I read

House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski.

Where to start? Well, let's start with Johnny Truant. As the desperately hip (and doubtless made-up) Bachelor Johnny Cool name would suggest, Johnny is a bit dangerous, a bit whooooah, a bit wheeeyyy, a geezer. His latest dead-end job is as an assistant in a Los Angeles tattoo parlour; the money's not great but he does get to meet some interesting characters, and the law of averages dictates that there will occasionally be a smoking-hot stripper who wants her arse tattooed.

So Johnny is bimbling along in his own way, occasionally meeting up with old pal Lude (again, the clue is in the name) for sessions of drinking and other assorted misbehaviour. On one of these sessions Lude lets slip that there's this old guy in his apartment block who's just died, and that Johnny can come over for a snoop around his old place if he wants, you know, see if there's anything the old guy had that's worth taking. Well, the old man, whose name turns out to be Zampanò (we never find out if he has any other names) didn't have much, but Johnny does come away with a massive annotated manuscript which has caught his eye.

The manuscript turns out to be a minutely detailed analysis of a film called The Navidson Record, a compilation of various home-video footage shot by the eponymous Will Navidson (a semi-retired photojournalist and former Pulitzer Prize winner) in his house in suburban Virginia. Big fat hairy deal, you might say, but wait: there are Strange Goings-On afoot. Fairly newly-moved-in, Navidson, wife Karen and kids Chad and Daisy are just finding their feet when they also find a mysterious corridor between two of the bedrooms that wasn't there when they moved in. Moreover, Navidson takes some measurements which reveal that the house is a fraction of an inch longer on the inside than on the outside. Focusing far more obsessively on this infinitesimal spatial anomaly than on the fact that a corridor has just poofed into appearance out of freakin' nowhere, Will enlists the help of his brother Tom (with whom he has had an intermittently difficult relationship in the past) and his engineer friend Billy Reston (no relation).

Their obsessive laser-calibration of the measuring tools is rendered a bit meaningless when another corridor appears literally overnight in a previously blank section of wall in a downstairs hallway; unlike the blank one between the bedrooms this one features other openings down its length and seems to change and lengthen over the course of the next few days. As you would, the Navidsons install a multiply-bolted reinforced steel door over the end of it, just in case any slavering demons of Hades decide to wander out during the night and drag someone off to hell after stopping off for a Marmite sandwich and a glass of lemonade.

Horror movie cliché dictates, though, that Will Navidson won't be able to resist the temptation for a bit of a snoop, and sure enough he makes a 3am expedition into the corridor and one of its side-passages that reveals not only that some of the connected spaces are unimaginably vast, but that also the whole place is prone to occasional warpings and rearrangements of its entire structure, which makes it extremely dangerous to explore, and it's only by blind luck that he manages to get back into the house.

Will is not an idiot, though, and instead of doing some half-arsed and doomed exploration himself enlists the help of some professionals, including gnarled veteran explorer Holloway Roberts, who arrives with two sidekicks and a van-load of equipment in tow and, after a couple of exploratory recces, sets off with a couple of weeks of supplies for a deep exploration of the vast chamber that Will found and the huge and seemingly bottomless staircase that leads down from it. Will and the others remain in the house to act as support crew, manning the radios.

Much of what happens next is only fully understood later when all the tapes are recovered and edited, but the Holloway expedition soon encounter some weird spatial phenomena - it takes them several days to descend the Great Staircase and markers left by the team seem to have been torn and mutilated by some force on the team's return. And are the strange low growling noises the team hears just the sound of the house's periodic re-alignments, or something more sinister ... and perhaps hungry?

Once it becomes clear that something terrible has happened to the Holloway expedition, Will, Tom and Billy Reston set off to rescue them, Reston somewhat handicapped (though commendably undeterred) by being in a wheelchair. The rescue crew encounter similar weird spatial distortion on their descent, and soon discover that Holloway seems to have taken leave of his senses and shot one of the other expedition members in the shoulder with a rifle. During the course of the rescue Holloway reappears and shoots the third expedition member (this time fatally) before seemingly being consumed by the house. The rescue party completes its long and arduous ascent to the top of the Great Staircase, all except Will, who is trapped by one of the spatial rearrangements and does not emerge until several days later. No-one can relax, though, as the house itself now starts to change around them and they are forced to flee. Everyone escapes except Tom, consumed by the house in the act of rescuing Daisy.

Following their shared traumatic experience, Will and Karen find it difficult to adjust, and eventually separate for a few months. Will returns to the house on Ash Tree Lane to conduct a further, final exploration, for reasons which aren't completely clear - some sort of desire for closure? a faint inkling that he might still be able to rescue Tom? and, armed with a battery of camera equipment, sets off into the corridor. No-one hears anything from him for over a month, and it is only when Karen moves back into the house that it finally vomits up Will back into the world.

And so ends The Navidson Record. It's far from the end of House Of Leaves, though, as there is a further 150+ pages of annotations, appendices, a collection of letters from Johnny Truant's mother from the mental institution where she seems to have been incarcerated for some years, some cryptic photographs and a comprehensive index. Even the text of The Navidson Record itself is far from straightforward, being criss-crossed with Zampanò's own footnotes, Johnny Truant's footnotes on Zampanò's footnotes, and a third set of footnotes by an unidentified team of editors. Things are further complicated by the fact that, despite Zampanò's obsessive citings of other critical works referencing The Navidson Record, and his inclusion of various celebrity interviews referring to it, no evidence for the existence of The Navidson Record, a man called Will Navidson, or any of the rest of the events in the text exists outside of Zampanò's manuscript.

As I said at the beginning, where to start? Perhaps with a few parallels, most obviously (in terms of other books on this list, anyway) to Infinite Jest. Similarly massive, similarly massively footnoted (though Infinite Jest's were at the end whereas House Of Leaves has its inline), similarly averse to the idea of just getting in, telling a story and getting out again, preferring to hold the "story" at arm's length and examine it obsessively from a number of angles. Things House Of Leaves has which Infinite Jest does not include a simpler and more compelling central narrative (the, if you will, "story"), and a whole battery of typographical tricks which are meant to mirror the narrative in some way. One of the things which this does is to make the reader's perception of progress through the book somewhat of a rollercoaster - having slogged through dense full-page text as far as about page 150, suddenly the reader is in a section where there may be only a couple of words on a page, and plummets through the next 100 pages in next to no time. Sections of text are upside down, back to front, printed vertically or diagonally on the page.

The basic story is a compellingly weird take on the basic haunted house story, modern versions of which include The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist. We've all had those dreams where we are running down a corridor towards safety and suddenly the corridor stretches out infinitely and the rescuing hand gets further and further away ... um, haven't we? The occasional grinding noises presaging a rearrangement of the labyrinth is vaguely reminiscent of the film Cube, which I remember seeing many years ago and thinking was really good, much to the bafflement of everyone else in the room who thought it was shit. The several immensely long lists of stuff which no sane reader would be expected to actually plough their way through were slightly reminiscent of some similar ones in Georges Perec's Life: A Users Manual.

That's the basic story, as for the framing device I would say I'm in general agreement with this Guardian review which finds the Johnny Truant character a bit tedious - not necessarily to the extent that I think he should have been left out altogether, but we could probably have done with fewer and shorter interventions. The central story idea is so brilliant that the entire time we spend in Johnny's self-obsessed company, or at least the time where he's writing about things unrelated to the Zampanò manuscript, is time where we're looking at our watch waiting for the good stuff to restart.

The other thing about House Of Leaves is its monumental physical size. My edition is what would be called a "trade paperback" in the UK, which means it's the same size as a big hardback. It's hard to see how it could be published in an edition any smaller than this and retain the typographical layout. The first photo below shows my edition next to the last two books on this list, a standard A-format small paperback (Picture Palace) and the slightly larger B-format (Lanark). So you can see that the current lockdown is the ideal time to tackle a book of this sort, as it would be almost impossible to transport anywhere with you without some serious supporting luggage (a rucksack, probably, as a minimum). In fact I see I mentioned House Of Leaves in precisely this context in an earlier post (note that the coyly-referred-to A-format paperback in my coat pocket was actually Under The Volcano). There are other side-effects of possessing a book of this size, not least that it has for some years been the benchmark for vertical spacing on my IKEA bookshelves.

Anyway, enough of this. House Of Leaves is simultaneously brilliant, thrilling, utterly bonkers, absurd, flawed, impractically huge, and while it's certainly not for everyone I thoroughly recommend it to anyone with the slightest interest in experimental fiction. Plus the physical workout incurred while reading it will give you biceps like Arnie.

Finally: this is the third book on this list to include the word "leaves" in the title (A Fringe Of Leaves and The Leaves On Grey are the other two) and the second to begin "House Of" (House Of Sand And Fog being the other).

Sunday, May 17, 2020

hello darkness my old friend

Just a quick update on the kitchen light bulb situation, as I know you've been positively moist with anticipation. You'll recall I made a fairly low-risk (since there are only twelve bulbs) nomination of bulbs 5, 7 and 12 as the next one to go; well, sure enough bulb 7 has now bought the farm. Previous demises of this particular bulb occurred on or around May 27th, 2014 (a mere 28 days after the start of the experiment) and then around October 8th of the same year after a span of 134 days.

The greatly increased lifespan of the non-incandescent bulbs means that it's only now that it's gone phut and indeed fring again after a span (if you take today as the date of its demise; it was actually a week or so ago) of 2048 days. That's all great, of course, though it is interesting that after a gap of around four-and-a-half years when no bulbs expired at all we've now seen three go in around six months.

As always if you have NO FREAKIN' IDEA what I'm talking about or need a refresher on the bulb-numbering protocol then please do refer to this post which will explain everything. Anyway, I'm keeping a close eye on bulbs 5 and 12 and will report back as soon as anything enlightening (or, indeed, endarkening) happens.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

the last book I read

Picture Palace by Paul Theroux.

Maude Coffin Pratt is a photographer. Seventy-ish, she is semi-retired but currently assisting a younger acolyte, Frank, in preparing some of her work for a big retrospective spanning her entire career. Not the easiest job, or certainly not for him anyway, as Maude is an irascible old bird who is resolutely unimpressed by most things, including most of the subjects of her photographs, which include among others many of the big literary beasts of the 20th century: Lawrence, Eliot, GreeneHemingway.

Such a retrospective requires Maude to delve into her past, and we are invited to tag along for the ride. So we see her experimenting with her first camera, a Box Brownie, taking pictures of her family (at their sprawling property on Cape Cod), as most aspiring photographers start off by doing. Maude's motives here are a bit more specific, though: the camera gives her a licence to gaze at length upon her brother, Orlando, about whom she nurses a deep and consuming obsession. More on this later? You betcha.

Maude is muddling along making a living from the old photography (hardest game in the world, the old photography game) through the 1920s and 1930s but only achieves proper celebrity after the publication of some photographs she took after sneaking into a secret quasi-Masonic event where circus performers were performing in the nude for an audience of well-fed baying Florida businessmen. The fact that this group of businessmen includes her own father makes for some family tension, although HOO BOY nothing to the tension Maude herself experiences upon returning in triumph from the shoot only to catch a glimpse through the window of Orlando and her younger sister Phoebe in the throes of sexual combat. It turns out he has a FLASH UNIT with a GLOSS FINISH and, well, I expect you can make up your own jokes. Stunned by the irony of finding Orlando open to a bit of the old incest (always Maude's self-confessed ambition) but preferring her younger sister, Maude experiences a prolonged (a few months, I think we're meant to assume) episode of what would be colloquially called "hysterical blindness" but is now apparently one of a group of conditions that go under the more anodyne banner of "conversion disorders".

So, ironically, the period of Maude's greatest celebrity for her visual images comes during a time when she is unable to perceive visual images at all, though this doesn't stop her from snapping various images (at least some of which, thanks to her years of experience, are straight and in focus) which bolster her celebrity. Her vision eventually returns, but her problems aren't over: Phoebe and Orlando drown in a boating accident off the coast next to the family property.

The windmill-shaped summer-house on the Pratt property contains boxes and boxes of Maude's old prints, including many taken during her period of blindness which she has never even seen. It's only when she reluctantly ventures in there to see what Frank has been up to and starts leafing through some of these old prints that she finds one that she must have snapped almost instinctively: Orlando and Phoebe, glimpsed through a window but clearly and identifiably naked, on the floor, and going at it like knives. Had Phoebe and Orlando discovered this print, carelessly discarded in a pile of other photographs, and decided that a dramatic lovers' death at sea was preferable to the shame of discovery, or at least the unbearable knowledge that Maude KNEW and had always known?

Regular loyal big-hearted blog-readers who don't skip over the book reviews like some of those other lazy bastards will immediately say to this: hang on, this seems awfully similar to the plot of Sweet Caress a few years back (August 2017, actually), doesn't it? And you are of course correct: famous photographer, born in the early decades of the 20th century, long and varied career, difficulties with men, settling into a formidable old age.

What Sweet Caress doesn't have but Picture Palace does is a bracing dose of incest. I've no idea what the statistics are like for real-life incest, and I don't know what novelists as a general group get up to in private, but it does seem to be a plot device that features surprisingly often. Just on this blog there are The War Zone, Walter, Statues In A Garden, Not That Sort Of Girl, Clea, Invisible, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Notice, and possibly just a whiff of it in On Chesil Beach as well. It is perhaps somewhat implausible to get what effectively amounts to a double dose within the same group of siblings as we do here: Maude has explicit designs on getting at Orlando only to find that Phoebe has beaten her to it. Maude's only sexual encounter, or at least the only one that's alluded to in the book, is with a serviceman friend of Orlando's during the war, and this only happens because she's crept along to Orlando's room in the dead of night without realising he'd swapped rooms with his mate. Rather than raising the alarm he gives an enthusiastic WAHEY and climbs on with some gusto. Well, I mean, there's a war on: why wouldn't you?

If it's a direct comparison with Sweet Caress you want then the Boyd book is more of a rollicking event-filled journey through a life (as Boyd books usually are) while Picture Palace is a bit denser, a bit stranger, and brings its central protagonist's work more vividly to life by (perhaps paradoxically) not being encumbered with the slightly clunky device of including actual photos in the text. If it's a direct comparison with the rest of Theroux's oeuvre that you're after then Picture Palace doesn't have the exotic setting that some of Theroux's books have (contrast it with, for instance, the other two Theroux novels on this list which were set in Hong Kong and a post-apocalyptic North America instead) but is none the worse for that. I enjoyed it, but not as much as The Mosquito Coast, which remains The One, if one is the number you want.

Picture Palace won the Whitbread Award (later the Costa Award) in 1978; The Children Of Dynmouth, Every Man For Himself, Leading The Cheers, Spies, The Accidental, Restless and Middle England are the other winners on this list.

Speaking of William Boyd, as I was a moment ago, I forgot to mention in the Lanark post that my Canongate edition carries a foreword by him, an occurrence (i.e. a book on this list having a foreword by another author who also appears on this list) which mirrors the ones in True Grit, Stoner and The Queen's Gambit.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

the last book I read

Lanark by Alasdair Gray.

Where do you start with a book like this? Well, it's subtitled "A Life In 4 Books" so obviously you just start with Book 1 and go from there, right? Well, only if you're some sort of hopelessly gauche naïve ingénue who expects fictional narratives to follow a linear pattern, hahahaha, I mean, can you imagine? No, of course we're going to start at Book 3.

And Book 3 starts thusly: a man is on a train. He seems to be the only passenger in the only carriage, and he can't remember how he got there, or who he is. The train is headed for the city of Unthank, a dark and dingy place closely resembling Glasgow. Our friend, now calling himself Lanark after a dimly-remembered place-name on a poster in the train carriage, does his best to settle in, but some weird shit is afoot quite apart from the lack of daylight. People disappear at random, and others are afflicted with a variety of strange ailments ranging from an outbreak of mouths all over their skin to outsized scaly limbs ("dragonhide"). Afflicted with this latter condition himself, Lanark finds himself swallowed up by a rent in the ground and wakes up in a strange medical facility with various other unfortunates who have arrived by the same route. Cured of his dragonhide and reunited with Rima, a woman he'd met in Unthank, he soon discovers that some sinister shit is afoot involving recycling the dead for food, and decides that he and Rima are going to return to Unthank to take their chances there. We are led to understand that this is a pretty unprecedented course of action, and involves traversing some sort of Forbidden Zone on the way where the regular rules of space and time don't apply, but Lanark is adamant that's what he wants to do, if only to be able to attack a sausage sandwich again with a clear conscience.

We now switch to Book 1, which is, at least at first glance, a more orthodox story involving a young man called Duncan Thaw and his childhood in Glasgow. Born into a poor family, Duncan lives through World War II, is evacuated to some rural location, endures the usual icky adolescence complete with funny feelings, you know, down there, and progresses to art school where he meets the usual parade of freaks and bullshitters (at some point here we segue into Book 2, but it's just a continuation of the same story). Duncan forms a slightly obsessive attachment to a young woman named Marjory, although she seems to just want to be friends. His tutors at art school allow him a lot of leeway as they seem to suspect he may have a talent (albeit wayward) worth nurturing, but their patience is tried to breaking point when he takes on a project to paint an enormous mural in an obscure Scottish parish church and ends up taking a Michelangelo-esque amount of time over it. Not only does this Sisyphean task cost him his place at art school but it takes a toll on his sanity as well, as he has a strange episode wherein he may or may not have murdered Marjory (most likely not, it seems) and then takes himself off to the seaside and throws himself into the sea.

We now return (in Book 4) to Lanark and his attempts to return to Unthank via the strange limbo world that exists between it and the institute he has just voluntarily left; a strange world of space and time folding back on itself, of mysterious roads disappearing in the mist only to lead you back to where you started from. Eventually Lanark and Rima find their way back to Unthank only to find it under threat of destruction by some mysterious and ill-understood forces. Lanark is chosen as Unthank's delegate to some imminent summit conference wherein its fate will be decided and is sent off in a bizarre flying contraption to the city of Provan (which looks quite a bit like Edinburgh) to put Unthank's case. He is hampered in his task by two things: firstly his own weakness for drink and pretty girls, and secondly by the fact that all the major decisions have already been made and he's just been sent over as a patsy by the people who wield the real power in the sure knowledge that he can't achieve anything useful. Returning to Unthank just in time to witness its partial destruction, he is provided with some valuable knowledge: the exact time of his own death - the next day, as it turns out.

So *cracks knuckles* what the fuck is going on here, then? The tricksy non-chronological structure conceals the basic fact that this is really two novels, a relatively straightforward Bildungsroman and a wilder sci-fi/fantasy novel, with the latter sawn in half and wrapped around the former. Clearly we are meant to recognise that Lanark and Duncan Thaw are aspects of each other, but the links are tenuous: a couple of characters refer to Lanark as "Thaw" towards the end of Book 3, and the Epilogue that crops up four chapters from the end of Book 4 spells some of this out in explicit detail, with a heavy dose of metafiction, since the character that Lanark meets who explains most of this stuff is the writer of the book.

The most obvious reading is that the end of Book 2 and the Start of Book 3 represent Thaw's death and either an extended point-of-death hallucination or a post-death descent into some sort of hell; Unthank and all its inhabitants representing some unresolved aspects of Thaw's real-life personality and experiences.

This was Alasdair Gray's first novel, published in 1981 when he was 46 years old, though he'd been working on it since his late teens. That might well have been a recipe for something unreadably lumpy and self-indulgent. It's also set in a rather forbidding close-packed typeface which makes the brain itch for a while until you get used to it; it's certainly not a book I could have contemplated reading before my recent-ish surrender to old age and purchase of a pair of dedicated reading glasses. It's also the best part of 600 pages long.

So it's a bit of an intimidating prospect, which explains its inclusion on my loose and fuzzy-edged list of outstanding Projects (as opposed to just, y'know, books) here:
As it happens, though, once you get used to the typeface it's remarkably easy to read and I scooted through it pretty quickly, by my standards anyway, Obviously being in the middle of a pandemic lockdown helps to remove distractions. So in the sense of being a long-gestated first novel which I undertook to read with some slight trepidation about how much of a slog it would be, only to find it, in general, a hoot, Lanark has much in common with The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page, a book which, oddly, was also published in 1981.

A book as wide-ranging and stylistically varied as this is bound to throw up parallels with other works as well. Here are a few which struck me:
  • The author inserting himself into the text is done in a much more unobtrusive way by John Fowles in The French Lieutenant's Woman; that was a brief non-speaking appearance in a train carriage, this is a lot more Basil Exposition, and the Epilogue section comes with a blizzard of side-notes and footnotes which threaten to overwhelm the text in some places. This in turn is reminiscent both of Infinite Jest and also the first section of Lawrence Norfolk's powerfully baffling In The Shape Of A Boar, which retells the story of Atalanta and Meleager and is eventually more footnote than text.
  • The second of the Unthank books (i.e. Book 4) contains some fairly wild sci-fi (usual caveats apply here, obviously) elements which are simultaneously a bit steampunk and a bit reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, particularly the bureaucracy-gone-mad bits and the sense that you could be arbitrarily dragged off by the authorities at any moment for infringing some rule you weren't even aware of.
  • That last bit is pretty explicitly Kafkesque as well, referencing The Trial in particular.
  • If we go with the reading that the Unthank episodes are an extended hallucination experienced at the point of Duncan Thaw's watery death, then this is quite similar to the plot of William Golding's Pincher Martin.
  • It's an odd coincidence that two of Lanark's three immediate predecessors on this list, Surface Detail and The Affirmation, describe, respectively, Hell and a single individual split, possibly in reality or possibly just in his own fevered imaginings, between two identities and physical locations. It is a coincidence nonetheless, though: the main thing that prompted me to pick up Lanark was Alasdair Gray's death at the end of 2019.
  • Speaking of Iain Banks, who was a great admirer of Gray, Banks' own The Bridge (reputedly his favourite of his own non-SF books) appears to have some striking structural similarities to Lanark. I say "appears" as I've never read The Bridge, but some further detail can be found here.
  • This is the latest book in this series to feature some bracing female nudity on the cover (drawn by Gray himself, as was all the interior artwork) which might make it unsuitable for public reading in some company. G. and The Anatomist were two of its predecessors.
For all that, the best recommendation I can give for Lanark is that the only book it's really like is itself, and that therefore the only way you can really get a sense of what it's like is by reading it, which I strongly recommend doing.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

the last book I read

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks.

Life, as they say, is a bitch, and then you die. And then, if you're a prudent Culture citizen and have had your mind-state regularly backed up via the "neural lace" grown into your brain, you get "revented" into a new physical body and off you go again, minus perhaps the last few seconds of that ill-advised trip hang-gliding into that live volcano. And so on theoretically ad infinitum, although eventually people tend to tire of the "real" world and choose to inhabit a solely digital realm, a sort of after-life if you will (or, if you must, more a sort of après vie). Trouble is, certain less-civilised, erm, civilisations not only threaten their people with hell, with all the usual fire-and-brimstone bumraped-by-demons-for-all-eternity stuff, but actually create digital versions of such things and imprison people within them, which is a bit of a surprise if you were hoping for a nice spell of putting your feet up and learning to crochet once you'd discarded physical existence for good. Sure, it's all in the virtual realm, but the demons sawing you open with a rusty trowel and eating your entrails are real down to the last detail nonetheless. Bloody, as they say, hell.

Lededje Y'breq would love to have a philosophical discussion with you about all this, but she's a bit busy being LITERALLY MURDERED right now, and in the real world to boot. And, since she is an indentured slave on a world, Sichult, which has some pretty spiffy techno-gadgets but not the full techno-utopia of the Culture, she's as surprised as anyone to wake up shortly afterwards on a Culture ship having seemingly been reincarnated into a new body. It turns out that a mysterious visitor she met a few years previously was actually the avatar of a renegade Culture ship and implanted her with a neural lace without her knowledge or consent. But, y'know, whatever, the important thing is she's alive and obviously the first thing on her mind is: REVENGE!

There's some other stuff going on here, though. There's actually a war on, though it's being fought according to a set of pre-agreed rules in virtual space at the moment. It's about the Hells, and whether they ought to be allowed to exist. Our old friends the Culture have fingers in pies here, as always, and as you'd expect they're on the side that says the Hells are an affront to decent liberal compassionate values and should be shut down. The virtual war involves a bewildering series of war-game simulations featuring a cast of grizzled veterans whose entire existence involves getting flung into some fantasy world, taking part in some ill-understood conflict, very probably getting messily slaughtered, only to then pop up again in another world shortly afterwards to do the same thing again, like a sort of ultra-violent, ultra-nihilist version of Quantum Leap. The war hasn't been going terribly well for the Culture, and they're giving serious thought to either cheating by trying some rule-breaking hackery, or doing the unthinkable and moving the theatre of war to the real world by trying to destroy the physical substrate on which the Hells are hosted. Needless to say these locations are not widely publicised.

A few other plot strands too numerous to go into in any detail here: two brave anti-Hell activists from the Pavulean culture have infiltrated their own particular Hell in order to bring back proof of its existence and unspeakable horror, but only one managed to escape, leaving the other trapped inside. A mysterious Culture operative, Yime Nsokyi, is on a mission to intercept Lededje on her revenge mission for reasons which are initially unclear. And Joiler Veppers, ultra-rich, ultra-powerful Sichultian industrialist, playboy, political mover and shaker, oh, and murderer of his former slave Lededje Y'breq, is involved in some ultra-delicate and risky machinations with a couple of other alien civilisations to build a secret fleet of warships under the nose of the Culture and other peace-keeping overseers for reasons which are also initially unclear.

Lededje manages to hitch a ride to the Sichultian system via another renegade Culture ship, the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, which just happens, handily, to be an ultra-badass warship equipped with some pretty serious weaponry and no qualms about steaming in and using it. And just as well, as it seems to be All Kicking Off in the vicinity of Sichult, though it's far from clear, among the large number of interested parties, who is on whose side and why.

Basically it turns out that one of Veppers' lucrative business ventures was hosting (on his own planet) the physical substrate on which most of the major Hells ran, and, having seen which way the wind was blowing, offering them up to the anti-Hell faction for destruction, thereby avoiding all sorts of awkward claims for compensation and the like should they have had to be shut down in a more controlled manner. This stopped-clock moment of alignment with the Culture's own aims cuts little ice with Lededje, though, who still just wants to see him dead. And, having spent quite a bit of time and effort thwarting her in order to allow Veppers' plan to play out and the Hells to be destroyed, the various Culture representatives still knocking around on Sichult think: hey, why not give her what she wants?

You won't need me to tell you that there's a critique of organised religion in the story of the Hells here, and the idea that it's better or more effective to keep people in line by threatening them with an eternity of fingernail-extraction than by, say, attempting to persuade them of some greater good that will be best achieved by co-operation. What the book is also about, though, is ideas of self and identity, in particular those ideas prompted by having access to brain-restoring technology. Let's say you upload your mind-state to some backup medium, and then get messily dispatched in some pod-racing accident and "revented" into a new body. Is that still you? What if you get repeatedly downloaded into various different media, some physical, some not: are they all still you? What if you get simultaneously loaded into more than one physical host: which of them is you? It's a slightly more orthodox sci-fi treatment of some ideas also explored in The Affirmation.

I suppose an obvious criticism here is that Banks is so clearly in love with his creation, the Culture, that there's pretty much no possibility of them facing an existential challenge: even the pretty advanced civilisations they run up against here, who have been squirrelling away mahoosive warships in preparation for a battle, are brushed aside with casual ease by a single Culture warship, albeit a pretty gnarly one. Just as with the climax of Look To Windward, any sense that the Culture faction would not be effortlessly superior when it comes to the crunch would probably have enhanced the suspense factor a bit. There's also a balance to be struck between the interaction of the various AI Minds on the ships, which Banks clearly finds fascinating, and the actual squishy humans (or at least pan-humans), of whom there are just about enough to keep the average reader happy, unlike in, say, Excession which I found a bit difficult to engage with.

But, sheesh, it's hard to argue with the levels of entertainment here. Just a couple of echoes of other works of art: the gruesomely imaginative depictions of the Hells have a touch of the Hieronymous Bosch about them, and the constant killing and reviving of Vateuil, the veteran anti-Hell campaigner, after unsuccessful missions, has more than an echo of Source Code about it. There is just a cheeky callback to an earlier Culture novel, Use Of Weapons, at the end here as well.

Friday, April 03, 2020

headline of the day

Just as with the William Shatner one from a month or so ago, today's headline pretty much picks itself (with the caveat that I haven't scoured the entire internet looking for better ones). Eagle-eyed observers will notice that it shares a theme and certain key words with the Shatner one as well.

It's easy to mock, of course, but who among us can honestly say that they are such a rigidly-self-controlled freakish automaton at their place of work that they have never cranked one out in a semi-public space and then put themselves away in such a hasty and slapdash manner that they have subsequently dripped or oozed fluids onto a colleague, customer or member of the public? That's right, NO-ONE.