Monday, February 10, 2020

sentenced to death

The other point I was going to make in the last book review is that Jonathan Coe is one of those people who write broadly "literary" fiction to some critical acclaim and healthy sales but rarely seem to be in the running for major literary awards, of which the most prominent UK one is the Booker Prize. Now if I were one of the characters in Middle England (a Leave-voting one, naturally) I might tuttingly hypothesise that this is because Coe is a straight white male and that's the equivalent of being LITERALLY HITLER these days, political correctness having long since GONE MAD, and so on and so forth. In fact an almost exactly parallel scenario does arise in the book, when Sophie's husband Ian is passed over for a promotion in favour of his British Asian colleague Naheed, and sure enough Ian's mother trots out pretty much exactly that argument.

In fact, I suspect it's more likely to be for the same reason that David Lodge has never won - a general perception that the novels are a bit cosy and parochial and that the awarding committee prefer something a bit more exciting and formally experimental, at least in years where they're not doing the Lifetime Achievement Award thing I theorised about here. I suppose you could translate "exciting" as meaning "exotic" and therefore implicitly "non-white" if you really wanted to.

As it happens, though, with regard to the "formally experimental" bit above, Coe is reputed to be the current record-holder for the longest sentence published in English-language fiction, the epilogue to his novel The Rotters' Club being a continuous sentence apparently comprising 13,955 words. In this interview from 2002 he says he did it as a tribute to Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, whose 1964 novel Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age is written as one long sentence.

This is one of those esoteric literary claims that is tricky to verify and is highly dependent on your precise inclusion criteria, a bit like the "longest novel" claim which I did a post about in the aftermath of reading Infinite Jest in early 2013. Of novels on this list the one that might have been in the running is The Autumn Of The Patriarch, which consists of several-pages-long sentences throughout and is therefore somewhat challenging to read.

Finally, quite a bit of Benjamin Trotter's participation in Middle England is in the form of mooning around reflecting on the past while repeatedly listening to the song Adieu To Old England by Shirley Collins (from her 1974 album of the same name), with the lyrics being prominently featured in the text, presumably to help conjure up some vaguely wistful feelings in the reader and leave them with a profound sense of, I dunno, something or other. I am a bit of a sucker for an English folk ballad, the more hilariously glum and misfortune-laden the better, but I must say this leaves me a bit cold. There isn't much of a tune and Collins has a much less appealing and expressive voice than her contemporary Sandy Denny or, more recently, Kate Rusby.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

the last book I read

Middle England by Jonathan Coe.

There is, I think, a reasonably convincing argument that there was a moment in 2010 when the UK's reality timeline diverged into two radically different futures: the normal one where everyone continued bimbling along, muddling through, not really worrying too much about customs unions, non-tariff barriers, regulatory alignment or overt and unashamed displays of racism (not to mention actual murdering of MPs in the street), and the shouty dystopian right-wing fractured hellscape we currently inhabit, and that furthermore that moment can be identified as the few hours during which the Gillian Duffy affair played out in the public eye. Perhaps there is even now a wibbly-wobbly parallel universe where Gordon Brown either remembered to remove his radio mic before getting in the car, or provided a more robust response to her criticisms than caving in and issuing a grovelling apology.
Broadly speaking, Middle England takes the same view, or at least it starts in the same place, in the run-up to the 2010 UK general election. That is where we meet most of the major characters: Benjamin Trotter, his sister Lois, her daughter Sophie, and various of Benjamin and Lois' schoolfriends - journalist Doug Anderton, publisher Philip Chase, and a few others. All of them would be in their early fifties (Sophie is younger, obviously) and will be familiar (in younger incarnations) to anyone who's read Coe's earlier books The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle, to which Middle England is a loose sequel.

Benjamin is really the focal point of the story here, as he was in the two previous books, and he's currently living a comfortable enough life in a nice riverside cottage, single, no particular need to work for a living, spending a lot of time honing his magnum opus, a gargantuan novel with accompanying self-composed prog-rock soundtrack. Lois, meanwhile, is still married to, but living apart from, her husband, and their daughter Sophie is in the early stages of an academic career and nurturing a fledgling romance with Ian, whom she met when he was the instructor on a speed awareness course she was obliged to take.

Benjamin is persuaded by some friends (specifically Philip, who offers to publish the book for him) to trim his enormo-novel down by a couple of thousand pages to a brief novella encompassing the pursuit and subsequent loss of an ex-girlfriend and ditch all the other stuff (including the prog-rock soundtrack). Against all odds, it is a slow-burning critical success and gets longlisted for the Booker Prize. Meanwhile Sophie's relationship with Ian progresses through engagement, marriage and some post-marriage disillusionment at the realisation that basically he isn't as bright as her and harbours certain attitudes that might have been kept safely under wraps were it not for certain external factors, specifically the Conservative victory at the 2015 general election and David Cameron's offer of a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union.

So you don't need me to tell you what happens next: wild and unpredictable forces are unleashed, MPs are murdered in the street, Britain votes to leave the European Union and an uncertain future faces everyone. Sophie and Ian manage, against the odds, and perhaps only temporarily, to hold things together, and Benjamin and Lois, disillusioned with the state of the UK, decide to move to France and open a B&B.

I read both The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle (published in 2001 and 2004 but set in mid-1970s and late-1990s respectively) but I find myself oddly unable to tell you much at all about what happened in them, other than some of the real historical background they played out against (the only point where the characters' lives intersected that I can remember was when Lois Trotter's then-boyfriend was killed in the Birmingham pub bombings). Perhaps this is because not a great deal actually does happen, a criticism that could probably be levelled at Middle England as well. There's an odd sort of contrast between the low-key personal concerns of the characters and the grand sweep of history that they play out against, and to be honest I'm not sure how well it really works.

One of the obvious problems with writing about Brexit in particular is avoiding the temptation to portray all the Leave voters as frothing racists; all the more difficult because a significant proportion of them undoubtedly are frothing racists. Coe is pretty good at identifying some of the long-term causes of Brexit - Thatcher-era hollowing-out of the industrial heartlands of (mostly) the north and the failure to replace them with anything; the increasingly London-centric focus of investment, the increasing feeling of people in the former industrial areas that they were being ignored by successive governments and therefore had nothing to lose by a destructive lashing-out, however irrational, when offered a rare opportunity to do so via direct democratic means.

The problem, I think. as with any novel that purports to closely track actual history, is avoiding just writing a series of editorials about the real events you're describing, and also convincingly entwining these real events with the lives of your fictional characters in such a way that it they seem to have a real impact. I'm not sure Middle England really carries off this second bit, largely because most of the major characters are too middle-class and comfortably-off to be affected in any fundamental way. To put it another way, anyone who is able to react to Brexit by upping sticks and moving to France to open a B&B with seemingly no pressingly urgent need for it to turn a profit is someone who wasn't going to be too badly affected by it in the first place, even if they'd stayed put.

However: Coe's novels are always intensely readable, the weird fracturing of personal and family relationships that undoubtedly did happen in the aftermath of the referendum when it became apparent that apparently simpatico people had voted in opposite ways is well presented, and most of the characters (Sophie in particular, who is a bit less cosily middle-aged than the rest) are broadly sympathetic. I think my favourite Coe novel is still the slightly odder The House Of Sleep, though.

Friday, January 31, 2020

cuddlebritoy lookeylikey of the day

My younger daughter Alys' cuddly pig, which she calls Piggy but I call Alf, for reasons which are entirely mysterious to her (and may be to readers of this blog even after reading this post), and ALF, the title character in the late-1980s American sitcom of the same name.

I never watched the programme very much, mostly because it was a bit shit, and I have to admit that I'd recalled ALF's face as hairy all over - the fact that it isn't makes the resemblance less close than I'd imagined. It's really the vertical nostrils (rather than being rendered as small circles as pig nostrils almost universally are) that twanged my mental synapses.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

celebrity paintylikey of the day

The guy from Grant Wood's iconic painting American Gothic, who is supposed to represent some sort of archetypal Iowan farming type but was in fact modelled by Wood's dentist, and science fiction author and cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson, three-time featuree on this very blog. Every time I mention Gibson it is required by law that I point you towards Neuromancer and instruct you to read it, so here I am doing it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

the last book I read

Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick.

I dunno, you wait ages for a planet-scouring apocalypse and then two come along in successive book reviews. No mystery about the cause of this one, though, it's your standard nuclear armageddon doomsday scenario.

Let's wind back to 1981 first though (it's worth pointing out, just for context, that this was still 16 years in the future when the book was published in 1965, rather than 39 years in the past as it is now). America is still broadly recognisable, despite an incident nine years earlier (i.e. in 1972, if you're keeping up) where an accident during some nuclear weapons testing resulted in parts of Earth being irradiated. The man behind the nuclear weapons scheme is the enigmatic Dr. Bluthgeld, who we meet near the beginning of the book attending a therapy session with analyst Dr. Stockstill at his surgery in Berkeley, California. Bluthgeld has some guilt to work through, as you can imagine, and a fair bit of delusional paranoia, too; he imagines everyone knows who he is and is out to get him.

Meanwhile Stuart McConchie and his colleague Hoppy Harrington are just trying to earn a living repairing bits of electronics. Stuart is just a guy, but Hoppy is a bit more remarkable - born with no arms or legs, he has a series of mechanical attachments which permit him to get around and do stuff, but is also starting to develop some telekinetic ability, although (understandably) he's keeping this to himself at the moment. Hoppy's phocomelia was as a result of the thalidomide crisis, but the 1972 radiation incident resulted in a sharp increase in odd mutations and defects, and while there are no Chrysalids-style purges, affected people are viewed with some suspicion - people with Hoppy's condition are widely referred to as "phoces", presumably pronounced like "folks", which you'd think would cause some confusion.

Human endeavour presses on regardless of the odd setback, though, and this day in 1981 is special as it sees the launch of Walt and Lydia Dangerfield in a rocket bound for Mars. The watching millions don't get much opportunity to bask in the metaphorical glow of pride at humankind's ingenuity, though, as no sooner has the rocket reached orbit than nuclear conflict breaks out on Earth and people are basking (briefly) in the literal glow of actual fiery nuclear armageddon. But what caused it? Some confusion related to the Dangerfields' launch? Something to do with Bluthgeld himself?

Jump forward seven years and humanity is hanging in there; in California the somewhat reduced number of people have banded into little self-sufficient communities, one of which is lucky enough to have Hoppy Harrington as their all-round handyman and guy who knows how stuff works. Meanwhile Walt Dangerfield, stocked with all the food and water he could ever need, floats around in constant Earth orbit occasionally broadcasting to whoever's left down on Earth. Lydia Dangerfield, having witnessed full-scale nuclear conflict play out in widescreen technicolour below her, decided that rather than orbit the Earth for several years awaiting the inevitable, she'd just cut straight to the inevitable, and topped herself.

The community of which Hoppy is a part also includes Bonny Keller, Bonny's daughter Edie, and Bonny's ex-colleague Jack Tree, who is actually an incognito Bruno Bluthgeld. It also includes Edie's brother Bill, who everyone assumes is just Edie's imaginary friend, but is actually a sentient fetus in fetu embedded inside Edie and capable of some form of telepathy, including communication with dead people. It is Bill who first realises that Hoppy is up to something that he hasn't told the rest of the community about, and that moreover his telekinetic powers have increased greatly, something that becomes apparent when, after some further nuclear detonations which may or may not have been telepathically induced by Dr. Bluthgeld, Hoppy takes it upon himself to kill Bluthgeld telepathically. Hoppy is also, for reasons best known to himself, interfering with Walt Dangerfield's periodic transmissions and substituting his own fake ones in their place.

Eventually, just as the rest of the community comes to the realisation that Hoppy has become too powerful for them ever to be able to overpower him, Bill (with help from Edie) engineers a final Scanners-style mutant Vulcan mind-meld showdown to save humanity.

What are we to make of all this? Well, as with much of Dick's output, it's not entirely clear. Nuclear war is bad? Well, I think we can probably all agree on that. People are people, and will find a way to get along even in the most unpromising of circumstances? Yeah, sure, why not. The disabled are inherently twisted and evil? Well, steady on.

Dr. Bloodmoney occupies a slot, chronologically, in Dick's oeuvre between the fairly sober realism of The Man In The High Castle and the wild reality-warping mindfuckery of Ubik. And it's somewhere between the two stylistically and thematically, as well - the two sections are in different timelines but within those timelines stuff happens in a fairly normal orderly way. There is some doubt over how much influence Dr. Bluthgeld has over the various nuclear outbursts - we are invited to infer that it's only his paranoia that makes him think he's directly responsible for the main 1981 one, but he does seem to be directly responsible (by what means it's never made clear) for the later, smaller one, at least until Hoppy rubs him out. Hoppy's own motivations are never entirely clear, either, particularly in terms of what motivates him to fuck around with Walt Dangerfield's audio feed. We are invited to infer he's just a megalomaniac and resents the affection the general public holds Dangerfield in.

As I said earlier, that's (purely by chance) two broadly post-apocalyptic novels in a row. Apart from The Pesthouse, other novels on this list which could be described in the same way include The Road, Riddley Walker, O-Zone, and perhaps Barefoot In The Head, Cell, I Am Legend, The Memoirs Of A Survivor and Cat's CradleOn The Beach covers some overlapping themes but is technically immediately pre-apocalypse, while Orphans Of The Sky shares some themes of paranoia about genetic mutation. And the noble sacrifice at the end where an apparently innocuous character takes it upon themselves to sneak under the radar and eliminate a much more formidable opponent while their guard is down is quite reminiscent of the ending of The Midwich Cuckoos. And, of course, the thing with a vestigial conjoined twin with magical telepathic powers is reminiscent of Kuato from Total Recall, which in turn was based on the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which was written by, you've guessed it, one Philip K Dick. What can I say, I guess the guy just liked conjoined telepathic mutants. And who doesn't?

I think this, the third Dick I've read after The Man In The High Castle and Ubik, is probably not quite as good as either of the other two, but there's still plenty to like here, even if it's not completely clear what Dick's point was. It should be said that much of the language used to describe disabled people, Hoppy in particular, by both the narrator and the characters, would qualify as "problematic" to modern sensibilities.

The other obvious thing to say about Dr. Bloodmoney is that it shares some similarities in both title and theme with the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove - even down to its sub-title (How We Got Along After The Bomb). The novel was written before the film came out, but published after, so the plot similarities (which are minimal beyond the general theme of nuclear warfare and the enigmatic eponymous character) are coincidental, the choice of title less so. I acquired my copy for the princely sum of one pound in the unlikely location of the RSPB shop at the Newport Wetlands nature reserve, which is well worth a visit for many reasons, not just cheap second-hand books.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

forever and ever, ramen

It's noodle-ordering time again, and I notice on a quick trawl back through noodle-related posts that I did a table a while back detailing my noodle consumption. A few years have passed since then so it seems right to bring it up to date.

Order dateQuantityUnit priceDaysConsumption rate

By a bit of Excel-fu that must remain top secret I've converted those by-order-period stats into friendlier by-calendar-year stats. Here you are:


As you can see, consumption seems to have levelled out at somewhere between 150 and 180 packets per year, or a fraction under one every two days. What has most notably changed since the last statistical assessment is that Nia has progressed from stealing a few noodles from my bowl to having half a pack of her own (with some frankly rather tedious saving of half-sachets of soup powder between servings) to just having a complete packet to herself as she does now. The gradual increase and subsequent levelling-off of the consumption profile probably reflects that. 

What's also interesting to consider is my egg consumption, especially since I consume no eggs in their original form, and therefore stirred into noodle soup is about as close as I get to consuming one directly (I suppose I may consume the odd one as a binding agent in a tortilla or a frittata from time to time). I tend to use one for a 2-packet saucepanful of noodles, which probably means I end up consuming about half an egg per bowl. If we further assume I consume about half the packets that get consumed, that works out, at current rates of consumption, at something like 40 eggs per year. That must account for upwards of 90% of all the eggs I ever ingest, I should think, for all that other foods may contain small amounts, along with small amounts of lupin and sulphur dioxide.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

the last book I read

The Pesthouse by Jim Crace.

We're in North America, probably a few hundred years in the future. Seasoned speculative fiction readers will realise that there'll be one of two things happening at this point: either everyone will be scooting around on jet-bikes and some people will have started to evolve into super-intelligent shades of the colour blue, or everyone will be beating each other's heads in with rocks and Kevin Costner will have partially evolved into a fish.

Which one of these it is becomes apparent fairly early on as fiery redhead Margaret is escorted up a hill by her grandfather and left to see out her quarantine period in a rough turf-roofed hut (the Pesthouse of the title) with only a couple of jugs of water and the odd carrot for sustenance. Margaret has the flux, a virulent disease that occasionally sweeps through and ravages whole towns, and the standard treatment (in the absence of any proper medicine) is just enforced quarantine for the victim and checking in a week or so later to see if they're alive or dead.

As it happens, Margaret isn't as alone as she thinks: brothers Jackson and Franklin Lopez are passing through on their way east and Jackson has been obliged to go on ahead when Franklin sustains a knee injury and has to rest up for a couple of days. Abandoned at the top of a hill above the town of Ferrytown (so called because of its key location on a major river), he is caught in a torrential rainstorm and seeks shelter in the only available place, a rough turf-roofed shack that turns out to have a single sleeping occupant.

As meet-cutes go the movies have probably done better ones, but you've got to make do with what you've got. Once it has become clear that Margaret is going to live (although she is still very weak) they set off back down the hill into Ferrytown, only to discover that everyone is dead, seemingly just killed where they lay during the night with no signs of a struggle. They clearly can't stick around, so they set off east, hoping to catch up with Jackson.

A momentary pause for some minimal exposition might be in order here. Firstly, the cause of all the deaths in the village is known to the reader, as it's described in early chapters: a landslide in the lake just up the river valley from Ferrytown causing a limnic eruption which sends a ground-hugging cloud of deadly poison gas scudding down the valley to asphyxiate anything in its path. People of a similar age to me may remember the Lake Nyos disaster in Cameroon in 1986. This is a minor event in comparison to some momentous event or series of events in the past which have caused the remaining and much-reduced population of North America to regress to something like Middle Ages levels of civilisation and technology. There is a general idea among the remaining population that travelling east to the coast is the thing to do, and that ships depart from there across the seas to other lands, perhaps less afflicted by whatever happened here. Anyway, on with the story.

Margaret and Franklin travel east, sometimes along the shattered remains of long-abandoned highways, sometimes through rougher and wilder country. Some people that they meet along the way are just regular folks trying to get along, but some, inevitably, are marauding gangs of murderous rapists who will whittle a makeshift flute out of your tibia as soon as look at you. Ironically, Margaret's affliction (from which she soon makes a full recovery) is a help here as her shaven head (a well-known sign of the flux) makes people reluctant to come near her. It doesn't help Franklin, though, when a gang of the aforementioned murderous rapists comes upon their little group and carts off all the able-bodied men (Franklin included) as slaves.

So Margaret is left in charge of a rag-tag group comprising her, an older couple, and their baby granddaughter. After a close encounter with some more rapey ne'er-do-wells Margaret becomes separated from the grandparents and finds herself in charge of the baby. She comes upon a religious community called the Finger Baptists who take in weary travellers and feed and shelter them, as long as they're prepared to earn their keep through work and are prepared to surrender all their worldly possessions. Well, Margaret doesn't have any of those, so it strikes her as a pretty good deal, and she spends the winter with the baby (originally called Bella but re-christened Jackie) under the protection of the Finger Baptists.

Spring arrives, and as we know, in the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of raping and pillaging defenceless religious communities. So it's not a complete surprise when Margaret is interrupted in her duties ensuring an orderly queue at the well by a raiding party of men with swords bent on a bit of the old slaughtering. Margaret is a determined and resourceful woman, though, quickly realises what is afoot and steals one of the raiding party's horses and has it away through the open gate towards freedom. What is a complete surprise, though, is to encounter Franklin, still a captive, outside the gate, having been set to work collecting booty for the gang. On seeing Margaret Franklin does a Chief Bromden, hurls a washstand through a window, clubs a gang member unconscious, steals a horse, and makes good his escape with Margaret.

Now on horseback and able to travel a bit faster (baby notwithstanding) they soon reach the coast, but it soon becomes clear that while there are ships available, staffed by people who seem oddly-dressed and carrying unfamiliar items of equipment, it's almost impossible to get on one unless you are a young able-bodied man or a nubile young lady who takes the first mate's fancy. So while Franklin, a strapping and imposing specimen, could probably get on, he would have to abandon Margaret, which he's not prepared to do. Eventually they decide to head back west, into a land that everyone is abandoning, and eventually arrive back where they started, up above Ferrytown, in the Pesthouse, waiting for their moment to strike out westward into the unknown.

No post-apocalyptic novel published in the mid-2000s can escape a close comparison with Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It and The Pesthouse were published within a year of each other (2006 and 2007 respectively) and share some key themes: the aftermath of some vaguely-described disaster (The Road alludes to "a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions" from which we're clearly meant to infer some sort of nuclear event; all The Pesthouse offers as a clue is the line "for how could anyone not know by now how mischievous the world could be?" during the description of the lake disaster), two people struggling across a shattered landscape littered with remnants of previous occupants, occasionally menaced by those who have thrown off the vestiges of civilisation altogether and are prepared to do the unthinkable to survive.

The differences are perhaps even more stark, though: this is really a love story rather than a fable of crushing doom. It's never in much doubt that Margaret and Franklin are going to come out OK and together - even during their enforced separation the reader is pretty confident that some way will be found (in, as it turns out, extraordinarily unlikely circumstances) to reunite them. In that way it's a book with a sort of sunny optimism about it - what remains of America is still a sunny verdant land of plenty, for all that people are queuing up to leave, unlike the grey murky hellscape of The Road. It's not just The Road of which echoes can be found: some of the odd rituals of the Finger Baptist cult put me in mind of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and the whole business of exchanging your personal freedom for security by putting yourself in the hands of a restrictive regime who might not be too willing to allow you to leave left me thinking of Efrafa in Watership Down, though that was a heavy-handed allegory for various totalitarian regimes rather than organised religion specifically.

That I found The Pesthouse oddly unsatisfying in parts is really only down to a few things, many of them matters of taste rather than "proper" criticisms: I wanted to know what had happened to destroy the cities and regress civilisation, and was frustrated that nothing was offered to explain. I thought the story meandered a bit in the middle, since Margaret and Franklin's enforced separation was clearly just a prelude to their reunion and they weren't doing anything interesting enough in the meantime to take my mind off it. Finally, I found the ending where they just schlepped all the way back to where they started rather anticlimactic: rather than a satisfying rounding-off of the story, it just made me wonder what the point of any of it was.

That said, Crace's prose is always a pleasure to read, Margaret and Franklin quickly become people you are engaged with the fortunes and fate of, I scooted through it in a week and a half or so, and the fact that it was a less complex, ambitious and allegorical book than I was expecting at the start (and, perhaps, less so than either of the two previous Craces on this list, Arcadia and The Gift Of Stones) is hardly the author's fault; he wrote the book he wanted to write. As tremendously readable as this is, though, I think Quarantine is still the Crace novel that you want.

This Guardian review, which offers a few very mild criticisms (with which I mostly agree, since they echo some of the ones above) was written by former double book-list featuree and recent death-list featuree Justin Cartwright.