19 reviews follow in descending order – several were published first in Albedo One (magazine & website) and some formed part of my old Crazy Diamonds series of review columns:
Falling Man by Don DeLillo, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, Caedmon’s Song by Peter Robinson, Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel, This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor, The Fall of Ireland by Dermot Bolger, Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell, Affluenza by Oliver James, The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black, The Book of Evidence by John Banville, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, The New Heroes: Superhuman by Michael Carroll, Miss Katie Regrets by Jack Barry, Revelation by W A Harbinson, Hidden Camera by Zoran Živković, Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham, The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq
FALLING MAN by Don DeLillo (Picador – 246 pp)
Finally got around to reading a DeLillo and Falling Man did not disappoint. This short novel tells the story of a fragmented family and how members of that family cope with the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York. The story progresses from one family member to another, but also, on occasion, veers into the minds of the terrorists. The writing is as close to perfection as one can get. DeLillo’s text is page-turning and movingly told, full of humanity, compassion, insight and understanding. Despite the short page count, this is a substantial novel made of many parts: childhood, gambling, Alzheimer’s, isolation, separation, art, loss, love, memory, perception, meaninglessness – multi-various threads blend into an extraordinary whole that is a must-read. The disconnect of modern life is rendered in a manner that is masterful to behold, and a mind-churning joy to read. DeLillo has the ability to lift the lid off his characters in an unobtrusive, almost casual, but massively effective way, exposing their inner workings and secret-most hopes and desires. A very rewarding read, one to make you think, and weep.
ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage – 171pp), CAEDMON’S SONG by Peter Robinson (Pan – 328pp) & WALK THE BLUE FIELDS by Claire Keegan (Faber & Faber – 180pp)
Winterson’s book was hailed a masterpiece when first published in 1985. Sadly, it has dated badly. The first half is still a terrific read. However, once the central character outs her sexuality to those around her, the novel just seems to run out of steam – or perhaps what seemed daring in the eighties is no longer so. The latter half still retains some electric moments. It’s clever and audacious in parts, but time has been unkind.
Caedmon’s Song is billed as a psychological thriller based loosely on the story of the Yorkshire Ripper. As with Oranges … it features a young female central character. Also like the Winterson book, it starts brilliantly, a real page turner, but somewhere about three-quarter ways through I found my sense of suspending disbelief being, well, suspended, frankly. The main character’s actions and thought processes did not ring true as the novel reached its conclusion.
Walk the Blue Fields contains eight tales set mainly in rural Ireland. Two of these, The Long and Painful Death and The Forester’s Daughter are simply outstanding. Not so with the other half dozen. The book’s McGahernesque title did raise alarm bells in my head at point of purchase. What is it with so many modern Irish writers, even relatively young ones, that they cannot tear themselves away from the GOO – the Grand Old Oirish background?
THE ASSASSINATION OF MARGARET THATCHER by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate – 256pp)
This much praised short story collection first saw light of day in September 2014, but I only got around to reading it recently. Like many others, I was drawn by the intriguing title story – and what a title THE ASSASSINATION OF MARGARET THATCHER is, a publisher’s dream. Who would not want to discover how she gets her comeuppance, or at least be mildly curious about how such fictional death is achieved? Strangely though, the title story is one of the two tales that I did not enjoy in this collection. The plot just failed to grip me in the way I had hoped, but let’s not focus on the negative. Overall, this book is a superb read, and if eight out of ten cats prefer a certain brand of cat food, I certainly preferred eight of the ten short stories on offer here. Stylistically, Mantel’s fiction is not in any way ground-breaking. Unlike say, Jon McGregor or other more avant-garde writers, Mantel does not experiment with the short story form. What you get are good, solid, some might say traditional, plots brilliantly crafted by a master storyteller. One of the stories is so traditional it relies on a revelation in the last sentence for impact – but what an impact. Several stories are autobiographical, including a long and convincing tale about Mantel’s experiences in the Saudi Arabia of the nineteen eighties. Some of the lighter tales are based on her writing career, and are guaranteed to raise a smile on the faces of readers who are also writers. But there are plots here that border on horror. An ideal blend then: the counterpoint of humour underpinned by an undercurrent of terror. There are also well crafted tales within these pages dealing with such diverse topics as nurses and doctors in Harley Street, and childhood companionship between two children of very different personalities and backgrounds. Mantel is in top gear when it comes to the skills of description and observation, and for me the best story in the book deals with anorexia and childhood cruelty. The book is worth reading for that story alone. It is called The Heart Fails Without Warning and is perhaps the stand-out work on offer here. Go on, satisfy your curiosity as to how Maggie is killed, and feast your mind on the other fine stories herein. You will not be disappointed.
THIS ISN’T THE SORT OF THING THAT HAPPENS TO SOMEONE LIKE YOU by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury PB – 258pp £7.99)
A haunting, rhythmic scaffolding surrounds this short story collection first published in the UK in 2012, a rhythm built in no small way on McGregor’s careful and hypnotic use of repetition. The rhythmic sense is helped by common features: stories all set in and around the East Anglia area, each written in a talkative, colloquial style. This wonderful sense of locality is aided by the rhythms of the characters that inhabit these pages. Most of them are blue collar, making McGregor in many ways the Springsteen of the literary world – and if McGregor is the Boss, then the Fens is his New Jersey. His writing is accessible and populist, also powerful and subtle, rendering it blindingly obvious why he has won the IMPAC Prize and many other awards. In this collection he depends quite often on an arresting final sentence for impact and meaning, which works more often than not and sometimes works brilliantly. Often the stories are slices of life, vignettes where nothing much happens, so it seems. Some shorter pieces are flash fiction. Several of these do not quite succeed. Other stories are too obvious in their direction, a few lack a bit of meat on the bones of the plot – a rare event in this book where McGregor is not afraid to be daring in scope and ambition. One tale consists of a ten-word sentence; another is a list of place names. Phrases and words are etched out or redacted in some stories – all of which points to this being no run-of-the-mill collection. The man has the literary ability to paint pictures in the reader’s head not so much by the words he chooses, but by the words he chooses to leave out – letting his readers fill in the blanks themselves better than any other writer I can think of. He also has the uncanny capacity to create a sense of menace that is, at times, unnerving. This book is versatile, humorous and electrifying; a tour-de-force well worth investing your time in.
THE FALL OF IRELAND by Dermot Bolger (New Island – 113pp)
This novella-length story, published first in hardback in 2012, tells the parallel events of crisis and collapse both on national level (economic disaster in Ireland) and in the personal life of a mid-ranking civil servant named Martin, a fifty-five year old protagonist who is civil in every sense: cautious, nervous, boring, scared of risk and adventure. He finds himself on a St Patrick’s Day junket – a trade mission led by a junior minister to China. Intricacies of failing relationships – marriage to the recently retired Rachel is on the rocks and he does not know how to relate to his three teenage daughters – these things plague Martin as he sits in his Beijing hotel room pondering how things have reached such a grave impasse. But there is more to his unhappiness than family strife – he begins to resent all aspects of his life including work and neighbours in the well-to-do estate where he lives back in Ireland. Bolger’s writing is reminiscent of Živković’s Hidden Camera in that layer after layer of the central character is carefully and painstakingly exposed, but The Fall of Ireland is a better book. Within its pages repetition is skillfully used to patiently build a comprehensive picture of Martin’s neuroses about life and self-worth. As it happens, his comic-pathetic encounter with a hotel masseuse proves central to the entire narrative and provides further reasons for Martin to question and re-hash the cards life has dealt him. His foibles and complexes are expertly handled in a resolute manner that also contains undertones of what has happened to his country. For instance, on foot of scenes with the masseuse, Bolger writes: For him (Martin) this loss of control would never recur because, even if tempted, he had sold his innocence and understood the emptiness of having purchased something you didn’t actually want merely because you could. There are many such layered passages throughout, adding depth, value and insight to the novella. This book is highly political but in a non-preaching sense. Opening pages detailing descriptions of the political role of junior ministers will not be ground-breaking for readers tuned into the vagaries of Irish politics, but do stick with this story – you will be well rewarded.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press PB – 324pp £7.99).
Gretta and Robert Riordan; a retired couple with three offspring: Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife. One day, during the hot summer of 1976, Robert walks out the door of the family home and fails to return, leaving wife and grown-up children in a state of crisis. The Evening Standard states that this book ‘… teeters on being a thriller’. Heaven knows that reviewer must lead a dull life because thrilling this is not. The story is relentlessly domestic, the endless recounting of everyday activities, of mundane marital circumstances. Consider the following – these lines apply to Monica, the family’s repressed neurotic: She was still trim; she was careful what she ate, these days. She kept celery on hand in the kitchen for those moments of hunger. Now you know what you’re in for – yet there is good writing at work here. This is from page 144: The Irish are good in a crisis, Michael Francis thinks, as he eases back the clingfilm on a tray of sandwiches his aunt Bridie has left in the kitchen. They know what to do, what traditions must be observed; they bring food, casseroles, pies, they dole out tea. They know how to discuss bad news: in murmurs, with shakes of the head, their accents wrapping themselves around the syllables of misfortune. So quality lurks beneath the lightness as the text flits, via flashback, from present tense to past in a way that appears initially promising and deftly handled. Likewise, the author moves from one character to another just as something key is about to be revealed. This coy method of postponing delivery grates on the reader after a while, as does the overuse of flashback for much the same purpose – the stretching out of narrative and plot so that too much detail is overdone. We are told everything; each of the major events in the characters’ lives. How Michael Francis met so-and-so, and what happened; how Monica met so-and-so, and what happened; how Aoife (far and away the most interesting of the Riordan family) met so-and so, and what happened; and, of course, how Gretta met Robert, and what happened. It seems as though no minutiae are too trivial for inclusion. Overall this novel is a disappointment. It’s a good picture but drawn on a minor canvas, a miniature in scope and ambition.
AFFLUENZA – HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL AND STAY SANE by Oliver James (Vermilion – 570pp £8.99).
The back cover blurb states: ‘an epidemic of ‘affluenza’ is sweeping through the English-speaking world, an obsessive, envious, keeping-up-with-the Jones that makes us twice as prone to depression, anxiety and addictions than people in other developed nations … in this eloquent account, James reveals how issues like consumerism, property fever and the battle of the sexes vary across societies …’ Eloquent it is not. One of James’s favourite adjectives is ‘shitty’. He also has the less than endearing habit of addressing the reader as ‘guv’. This is presented as a seemingly scholarly work complete with appendices (three), questionnaire (six pages), notes (sixteen pages), bibliography (also sixteen pages) plus index (sixteen pages again). The book addresses serious issues such as materialism and the pressure to be ‘successful’. ‘Selfish Capitalism’ is an interesting recurring theme. Though it draws on serious studies, James turns this tome into little more than pop psychology dressed with the veneer of academia. The text is full of tabloidisms and laden with contradictions (even the full title of the book contains an inherent contradiction). The author sets up Denmark as an exemplary society in which to live, and reinforces this again and again before demolishing this myth in the second half of the book. The text is repetitive beyond belief. Where it gets interesting (advertising, politics), James repeatedly fails to hit home. For the purpose of this book the author made extensive visits to New York, Sydney, New Zealand, Singapore, Shanghai, Moscow, the above-mentioned Denmark and of course the UK, and these locations – where he meets a lot of rather flaky people – form the mainstay of his book. Pity he left Ireland out. It would have been interesting, given the explosion in ‘Selfish Capitalism’ in the Emerald Isle in recent times, had he visited us prior to 2007 – when this book was published and the Celtic Tiger roared loudest – now that would have been a basketcase for James to examine. But the question is: had he visited Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore back then would he have noticed how incredibly materialistic and money-centred we’d become? Would he have damned us or praised us? That question is hypothetical but there’s a fair chance we would have pulled the wool over his eyes and hoodwinked him entirely, begorrah.
THE SILVER SWAN by Benjamin Black (Picador – 345pp) & THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE by John Banville (209pp).
The Silver Swan is John Banville’s second novel written under the name of Benjamin Black. Here is the story of Quirke, a world-weary pathologist living in 1950’s Dublin. An acquaintance from Quirke’s college days approaches him about his wife’s apparent suicide. Slowly, the pathologist is drawn into a twilight world of drug addiction, sexual obsession, blackmail and murder. Quirke’s daughter figures prominently throughout, as do other members of Quirke’s circle such as the policeman Inspector Hackett. The Silver Swan is the second in a series of novels featuring Quirke and his world but can be read as a stand-alone book. The story opens slowly but builds into a satisfying read. The atmosphere of 1950s urban Ireland is well realised and characterisation is superb, deftly drawn by an author who has that rare gift: the ability to bring to life a whole person with the use of one appropriate word. Quirke is endearing not because of his foibles (he has a few), or the fact that he is a run-of-the-mill pathologist drawn into a detective case, but because he is a very human figure caught up in events that overtake and sweep him along. The second half of the book is gripping, not because of a fast-paced narrative (the pacing is deliberately languid throughout), but because the reader is enmeshed in the lives of the characters, a feat rarely achieved in a standard detective novel. Do not let the slow-simmering opening put you off. This is one that rewards perseverance.
Banville is a true master of putting the right word in the right place. Witness The Book of Evidence, another crime novel, this one published in 1989. To describe this work as a mere crime novel would be to pigeon-hole it in a manner scarcely deserved. The Book of Evidence established Banville as one of the world’s finest authors and has been compared to Crime and Punishment and The Stranger. The entire text of this short novel consists of the first-person testimony of Freddie Montgomery who is convicted for the heinous and seemingly motiveless kidnap and murder of a young woman. The crime destroys his life, and the career of a widely-known, indeed famous, friend who unwittingly harbours him. Much of this occurs in rather the same way as the real life story of how Malcolm MacArthur murdered a young woman and subsequently destroyed the career of Ireland’s Attorney General in a series of events that became known in Ireland as GUBU – a word coined from the phrase ‘grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented’, a description famously used by Ireland’s former political leader – a politician who makes a thinly disguised appearance towards the end of this book. The novel’s monologue is brilliantly written, resulting in a compelling and sometimes hilarious novel, a remarkable blend of thriller, farce and dramatic tragedy that stands as one of the best Irish novels of this or any other time.
MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs (Quirk Books – 352pp $9.99) & EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin – 362pp). The Riggs review appeared first on the Albedo One website www.albedo1.com
Ransom Riggs’ novel opens with a horrific family tragedy in the USA that sets sixteen-year old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales where he discovers the crumbling ruins of a home for children. As Jacob explores abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the charges under Miss Peregrine’s care in her Home for Peculiar Children were more than just peculiar. An extraordinary debut – a novel that works its magic not only through words but also by the judicious use of vintage black and white photography. The text/image combination seems as fresh and innovative here as it does in other books – the Foer novel mentioned below, for instance. Many of the images in Miss Peregrine’s … are intriguingly weird, adding much to the atmosphere and plot. However, by story’s end certain plot threads are left hanging and the Welsh setting is hardly convincing, but overall this is an excellent read. A fantasy that breaks the mould, suitable for readers of all ages, recommended especially for cynical adults jaded by the whole fantasy genre. This 2011 first novel could become a classic.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was published in 2005 and deals with the horrific events and aftermath of 9/11. In the story, nine-year old Oskar Schell goes on a secret mission through the five boroughs of New York. His goal is to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, Thomas, who was killed in the World Trade Centre. Oskar seeks to find out how, exactly, his father died. He meets all sorts of characters on his journey, but the novel is not just about him. It’s also about his mother and especially his grandparents and how they arrived in the USA and their travails in settling down there. As such, this is a complex plot that deals with a lot more than the Twin Towers. The viewpoint shifts from Oscar to his grandparents and back again in a deliberate, almost languid, manner that works well. As with the Riggs book, images form an important part of the storyline. In this case it’s not only photographs – drawings and typewritten pages, even blank pages, are used to good effect. This is not a light read but neither is it heavy-handed. It demands concentration and attention, and justice would not be served if it were labelled simply a ‘9/11 novel’. Many of the passages in the book are hauntingly written and very moving, especially a chapter dealing with the bombing of Dresden in World War II. In many ways Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close touches on being a Great American Novel and if Oskar appears to act and think a little too precociously for his age then that is a minor flaw, and one of few, in a story that resonates with symbolism, vision and literary ambition.
THE NEW HEROES: SUPERHUMAN Short Story Collection by Michael Carroll (MaxEdDal Publications – 160pp). Review originally published in Albedo One magazine #35
This comes to us in a limited edition of one thousand signed and numbered copies from the author of The New Heroes series. Superhuman is intended as a companion book to the New Heroes novels, which are aimed at a young adult readership. It’s a well-produced book consisting largely of a collection of nine back- (and future-) stories, each of which sheds further light on how the original superheroes, and their children, acquired their powers. It also tells us more about the character of the heroes. As such it will be lapped up by fans of The Quantum Prophecy, Sakkara and Absolute Power – the original trilogy available in a bookshop near you. Having come to this book with no knowledge of the series mentioned above, this reviewer was concerned that lack of familiarity with Michael Carroll’s original body of New Heroes work might interfere with the readability of these new tales. Happily, this was not the case. One of the stories, Flesh and Blood, takes up over a third of the book and seems long, but overall these are well-crafted pieces that, as is rightly stated in the introduction, add extra depth to the mythology that lies behind the world of The New Heroes. Introduction and stories apart, Superhuman also contains notes from Michael Carroll on each of the tales herein, as well as a retrospective article by him on his development as a writer, entitled Origins of The New Heroes Series. All in all there’s a lot to enthuse about in this jam-packed, excellently written collection. Don’t let lack of familiarity with the terrain of The New Heroes put you off. This is a highly recommended little gem of a book, available from the http://www.quantumprophecy.com website. The online price of ten euro includes P+P worldwide.
MISS KATIE REGRETS by Jack Barry (Brandon Books – 254pp €12.99 – £7.99) & REVELATION by W A Harbinson (Booksurge – 494pp). Both reviews first published in Albedo One #33
Miss Katie Regrets is a gripping police-procedural story of guns, drugs, prostitution, paramilitaries and political corruption. The kaleidoscope plot revolves around the premise that many of the IRA bombings during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland were contract-bombings designed to provide cheap building sites, the bombed-out properties, that could then be bought at knock-down (pardon the pun) prices for easy profit. The consequence of this ingenious property speculation comes home to roost decades later in new-millennium ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland, which is after the ‘Troubles’ have ended. With Jack Barry, what you see is what you get. His central character, Det Sgt Thomas Barrett, is a typical hard-nosed, drink-sodden, embittered cynic – a Drumcondra Cracker. He has a father complex and his marriage is on the rocks. What remains of his love life is clumsy and half-baked. He has a sidekick of course, and it’s all told in the first person so we are in no doubt as to the main character’s rapid-fire, caustic wit. This is a good crime thriller, a real page turner, but it could have done with a few more twists in the surprise department. Jack Barry’s excellent writing would also have benefitted from better editing. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ Dublin of 2005 is incongruous. There doesn’t appear to be a smoking ban in effect, and plastic bags seem readily available in shops (though counter measures were taken before this to diminish their easy availability). There’s not a sign of the huge influx of immigrants into the Irish economy, and Sky News is seen as an outside agency though Sky had an Irish wing established at this stage. Extraordinary for a book set so firmly in ’05, and published in mid-’06, that these anachronistic elements were not spotted before the final edit stage. It makes the modern setting oddly dated. Overall though, this is a good read. Unputdownable, in fact.
Revelation, first published in 1982, is a novel about Israel, Palestine, and an event of extraordinary religious significance guaranteed to shake the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Now issued from Booksurge.com as a print-on-demand paperback, Revelation, one of Harbinson’s best-known books, weaves an intricate plot of love, religion, war, and science fiction centred around a major conflict involving the Middle East, the USA and the old Soviet Union. The story revolves around the strong-willed Kate and her journalist lover, Leon. Into Kate’s life one storm-filled night on the Mount of Olives comes Israeli army man Moshe and the astounding person known as Joshua. From that moment Kate’s destiny, and that of the world, changes forever. Harbinson questions the meaning and very future of the three great religions centred in the Middle East. His plot, gargantuan in scope and ambition, features a supporting cast of military men, freedom fighters and religious leaders. He cleverly uses archetypal characters as ciphers for the spiritually strong and the cynically materialistic in a world on the verge of destruction because of a threat of conflict brought about by the appearance, or re-appearance, of a familiar figure in the old city of Jerusalem. This should be, and nearly is, an epic novel. While the opening chapters show much promise, they are slowed by all too-predictable encounters between Arab and Israeli politicians and descriptions of bombings in Jerusalem. Pacing remains a problem throughout this complex and otherwise well thought-out plot. The writing is sometimes overwrought and repetitive. Emotions are too often laboured home and there is a surfeit of exposition, particularly in dialogue. The culling of at least a hundred pages would have improved this book no end. As it is, fans of the currently fashionable Grail book industry will, no doubt tempted by the prospect of what the plot entails, have to content themselves with ploughing through a book that threatens, at times, to take wing and reach for the stars but is too often dragged back down to earth by the weight of its own verbosity.
HIDDEN CAMERA by Zoran Živković, translated by Zoran Copple-Tošic (Dalkey Archive Press USA – 217pp $13.95), SPECIMEN DAYS by Michael Cunningham (Fourth Estate – 305pp £10.99), THE POSSIBILITY OF AN ISLAND by Michel Houellebecq (Orion – 345pp £10.99) – this triple review was first published as one of my Crazy Diamonds review columns in Albedo One #31
Up for inspection in this issue’s column are three books, each written by authors of various nationalities. They have one thing in common. They, or the marketing departments of their publishing houses, positively (ie negatively) eschew science fiction. Their themes are SF, or at least speculative, yet the cover blurbs avoid those dirty SF words like the plague. Why is this? How can these authors, at least two of them darlings of the literati, be so cut off from the SF world we know and love? What have we done to deserve being ostracised like this? Why has the brave attempt to re-flag so much of the writing we respect as ‘speculative’ been such a re-branding failure? If I could cure this leprosy that has attached itself to SF I’d be getting paid rather a lot for this column. I have no answers, except for hoary old chestnuts. Let’s consider each of these novels and appraise their mainstream merits.
Hidden Camera is the eleventh book from Živković, a successful Serbian genre writer and former winner of the World Fantasy Award. In an interview he has stated that he does not like prefixes such as ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy’, yet he is associated with those labels. With this novel he is pitched to us as an author in the tradition of Borges, a writer blurring the line between the fantastic and the real. The novel takes place over the short period of a day and night. A neurotic and paranoid undertaker tells the tale in the first person, convinced he is being preyed upon by a candid camera. The nameless undertaker is obsessed with time, order and cleanliness. He suffers from a behavioural disorder whereby routine, repetition and endless self-analysis are paramount. Anything deviating from the norm causes him extreme stress. Though this is two-parts amusing – there is humour here – it’s eight-parts frustrating because the unfettered repetition is overpowering. Consider the following sentence: Had the light been better, I would have seen this before, but the lantern’s beam only illuminated our immediate surroundings. We have already been told that the lantern’s beam is not very bright. To end the sentence at before would have sufficed. Instead we wade through boundless repetition, of which the above is one of a hundred examples. Granted, this excessive need to explain, to justify everything, is part of the undertaker’s thought processes, and one can put up with tautology and duplication once, twice, even more. But when reading the delusional minutiae of the undertaker, a J Alfred Prufrock if ever there was one, for the umpteenth time as he wonders yet again where the hidden camera is, and contemplates from every angle the inanities of putting on his coat, one has to ask is this novel really about the alienation of personality and society? The mystery behind the novel remains unclear. It simply exists. Unlike Albert Camus’ The Outsider, the central character in this novel is an innocent. However, like Camus’ masterpiece, Živković painstakingly describes everyday things including the description of a man who is not fully developed in the emotional sense. But Živković writes without the same inspiration or economy as Camus. This is a novella stretched to novel length, a long series of gags moulded of the same premise: that the undertaker is caught on candid camera the whole time. It has to be said that the final two chapters are wonderful, but the preceding ten consist of the narrator re-stating the obvious again and again. The undertaker’s constant unquestioning belief that the camera is upon him goes beyond humour to the point of tediousness. Camus, and Prufrock, it is not.
By contrast, Specimen Days is a work that rises beyond easy classification – and beyond easy criticism. Cunningham is the Great New Hope of American writing. If that is so then this latest offering from the author of The Hours will do his reputation no harm at all. The novel is set in New York at various times: past, present and future. Its structure consists of three distinct parts peopled with different characters. Echoes of the same names, places and events occur throughout the text. The poetry of Walt Whitman is the triangle on which the cornerstones of this novel stand, as Whitman’s words occur in all three segments. The first instalment ‘In the Machine’ is centred on an odd, afflicted child. The second ‘The Children’s Crusade’ is a beautifully realised piece about suicide bombers who do something unusual to their victims at the moment of detonation. More than that, it is about humanity, chances lost and taken, a real story about the human condition. The characterisation is brilliant and moving, often achingly so. The cynical desperation of an adult relationship is conveyed superbly and lyrically. Consider this of one of the adolescent bombers: He’d have been a listless baby, and as he got older he’d have been passive and tearful, strangely empty, infinitely suggestible; an ‘as if’ personality, one of those mysterious beings who lack some core of self everyone else takes for granted. He’d have been, all his short life, a member of the dead, waiting for his time to come. Consider also that the opening segment, set during the Industrial Revolution, is premised on the possibility of machines secretly lusting after the blood-sacrifice of those who work them. The second instalment is centred on teenage suicide bombers bent on changing the world. The final part ‘Like Beauty’ features lizard-type aliens arriving in New York as a result of first contact a hundred and fifty years from now. But is it science fiction, I hear you ask? Of course it’s not – according to the marketing mandarins behind the publishing strategies that have made Cunningham flavour of the month in the weird and wacky world of serious literature. He is presented in the fabulist tradition, and don’t you dare even think of him as SF, tsk, tsk. In fairness, the author was recently quoted: ‘I think sci-fi books are often more interesting, deep and provocative than the tepid, thinly-veiled biographies in the serious section.’ Current PC trends in the publishing world have probably led to the labelling of his books being taken out of his hands. In an afterword Cunningham is bravely frank about workshopping and re-drafting with the help and advice of about a dozen trusted readers and friends without whom, he contends, the novel would not be as strong and true. And the result? One could quibble that the main character in ‘Like Beauty’ overly resembles Gigalo Joe from AI. Some of the SF tropes, such as atomic kitchen stoves, are, to say the least, dodgy. These are trivial details. Specimen Days, unlike Hidden Camera, is a truly great novel. It is about the alienation of personality and society. Cunningham is the sort of writer whose work evokes strong reactions: unstinted praise or the damnation of being described as phoney and pretentious. Fence-sitting is not an option in reviews of his work – and how to end this latest review? Lashings of praise; the lavish sort.
The Possibility of an Island comes from the pen of Michel Houellebecq, winner of the IMPAC Prize for Atomised (and, interestingly, author of a book on HP Lovecraft). He has been described as the Enfant Terrible of modern French literature. His latest novel is a major work, presented here in translation. Every second chapter alternates between Daniel1 and Daniel24 or Daniel25. The first Daniel lives in the present day. Daniels 24 and 25 represent the 24th and 25th generation clones of the original, so their chapters come to us roughly two millennia hence. The first Daniel is obsessed with sex, among other things, so this is not a book for your aunt who had to go into a convent. It is most definitely not an easy read, but is brilliantly realised fiction, often disturbing, about a man’s disintegration. How does our 21st century world change from what it is now to a bleak future dominated by neo-humans, as the clones are called? That would be giving too much away. Does it do so without evoking those dirty SF words? Of course it doesn’t invoke them. It’s as though science fiction had never been invented. Publish this in a pulp SF imprint and it would probably die a death. Publish it as a thought-provoking mainstream novel and the world’s your oyster. The only quibble one could have with The Possibility of an Island is the manner with which the world embraces cloning. The ease with which this happens challenges one’s sense of disbelief. Otherwise, this is a stunning book – a work that demands concentration but repays the effort with a superb exploration of our present world and the grim future that may await us. Read this, and Specimen Days, and shed a tear for the future of science fiction. The mainstream world has ditched us and their writers have stolen all our clothes.