Monday, June 22, 2015

the last book I read

The Medusa Frequency by Russell Hoban.

Herman Orff is a writer. Of novels, in theory, but having published two to very little in the way of critical acclaim or sales he's been making a living lately writing material for comics. He's planning a third crack at making it as a novelist, but seems to be suffering from a nasty case of writer's block.

Providentially, at this point Orff receives a leaflet advertising a sort of electronic sound therapy which can supposedly lube up the artistic faculties and get the creative juices flowing again. It turns out that this operation is run by a bloke called Istvan Fallok, who it further turns out is an ex-lover of Orff's ex-lover Luise. Orff undergoes the treatment, which prompts an extended waking dream involving Persephone and the girl from Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring.

Well, so far so freaky, but basically not out of the normal run of stuff, you might say. OK, well how about this: on his way home Orff hears a plaintive voice coming from the muddy banks of the Thames, and finds the severed and decomposed head of Orpheus, which he picks up and has a lengthy conversation with, as you would.

Strange things continue to happen as Orff tries to decide how best to cure his writer's block: he starts up a tentative relationship with Istvan Fallok's assistant (and ex-lover) Melanie Falsepercy (false percy -> percy phoney -> Persephone, you see?), he travels to The Hague to try to see the Vermeer painting (but finds it's been loaned to a museum in America) and finds everyday objects (a cabbage, a children's football, half a grapefruit) transforming into the head of Orpheus and talking to him. Hardly surprisingly after all this he suffers an attack of angina and ends up in hospital. Eventually, via his computer, Orff has a conversation with the legendary Kraken, gives up his ideas of trying to re-tell Orpheus' story and decides to pursue something stranger instead.

This is the fifth Hoban to appear in this list and certain common themes do start to emerge, just as they do for regular readers of, say, John Irving. In Hoban's case this seems to include Orpheus (who also featured in Kleinzeit), hospitals (Kleinzeit again), Odilon Redon (briefly mentioned here, also features more centrally in Come Dance With Me), and the idea that reality is like a moving picture, a series of still images that, if it could be slowed down enough, would reveal an underlying reality in the gaps between frames - "the moment under the moment" as it's referred to here, made more concrete as the basis for the "flicker drive" in Fremder.

What The Medusa Frequency is "about" is harder to pin down - it seems to be mostly about the creative impulse, its mysterious origins and the difficulty of recapturing it once it's slipped away. It's also about lost love, the difficulty of hanging on to a reliable memory of something that seemed overwhelmingly important at the time, and the jarring effect of meeting someone else who has a whole separate set of similar memories involving the same person. There's also some serious metafictional shit going on, as it appears that the whole text of the novel is actually the text of the third novel that Herman Orff has been trying to write.

Anyway, I'd urge anyone to get into reading some Hoban - they're smart (but wear their erudition lightly), funny and short (The Medusa Frequency is a skinny 143 pages).

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