A different normality

Non-fiction
by Chuck Palahniuk

A few years back I considered myself a big fan of Palahniuk’s novels. Then either they got worse or my reading tastes changed. Either way, this collection of his essays, many of them previously published in newspapers and magazines, lay around unread until I had an urge to read more non-fiction and this seemed to fit the description well!

While I may have gone off his fiction, I still love Palahniuk’s writing style. His short punchy sentences, repetition and colloquial phrasing break all sorts of rules about writing and grammar but they work. He can be very critical of the world but he can also be very sweet in his genuine interest in people, often people no-one else is interested in. He’s led an odd life, some of which he talks about in these essays, and that has no doubt coloured his view of the world. I don’t admire him for doing strange, sometimes dangerous things, but I do admire him for working with dying people, for telling stories that deserve to be told, for openly analysing his reasons for writing what he does.

If you’ve read any of Palahniuk’s fiction these essays will make sense to you. He collects facts and stories about real people and files them away for later use in a novel. Literally, it turns out. He has a wall of filing cabinets full of this stuff. The essays range from moments in his own life, to people he’s met casually, to people he has deliberately researched. There’s the crew of a US navy submarine, three men who built their own castles, a woman who trained her dog in search and rescue, professional wrestlers. There’s Palahniuk’s experiences of having his novel turned into a Hollywood film, of having an annoying faux psychic woman genuinely unearth a troubling childhood memory, of dealing with his father’s murder.

My favourite pieces were the more positive ones, which were mostly about writing. Palahniuk’s career took off when he attended a creative writing class and he writes movingly about the greatness of his mentors and some of his favourite writers. His cynicism is still there but it’s aimed at himself and not the subject.

I didn’t enjoy every essay. Palahniuk does his research thoroughly and in some cases that meant trawling through paragraph after paragraph on a subject I don’t care about, like wrestling or demolition derbies, but the essay as a whole is always worth reading because somewhere in there will be a gem of a portrait or observation, a really real person saying or doing something that makes you stop and think.

These essays don’t get as dark as his novels do, possibly because they’re mostly written for the wider audiences of magazines with editors who don’t want to publish Palahniuk’s darkest thoughts. But they’re clearly written from the perspective of a person who has dark thoughts, who questions the acceptance of any “normality”, who has frankly been through some shit. It’s interesting stuff.

Published 2004 by Jonathan Cape.

Not as sweet as it sounds

The Heart of a Dog
by Mikhail Bulgakov
translated from Russian by Michael Glenny

This book was selected for our local book group, partly because most of us had never read any of “the Russians”. Including me, unless Nabokov counts (I’ve only read Lolita, which he wrote in English, and he left Russia when he was 18 so it’s a bit tenuous).

I’ve always wanted to explore this group of authors but didn’t know where to start. The Heart of a Dog was probably a good choice in that it’s short and easy to read, but it’s crammed full of analogies to history and politics that I suspect I’m not familiar enough with to get the most out of it. I did study the Russian Revolution as part of A-level history but that was a few years ago now and I had rubbish teachers.

The story is a combination of the real setting of Moscow in 1924–25 and the surreal. Rich, successful Professor Preobrazhensky appears to be protected from the ravages of the Party by his specialism – STDs and “sexual rejuvenation” – and when he first picks up a scarred, mistreated stray dog and takes him back to a plush apartment it seems like a sweet friendship is developing. But the professor has more sinister reasons for adding to his household and the Party sees an opportunity to hold the rich man to account for continuing to have more rooms and more money than anyone else in the building.

A lot of the book is narrated by the dog, which sounds bizarre but is actually very well done. Bulgakov uses humour and empathy to create a novel viewpoint of the poorest of the poor. I liked the logic given for the dog being able to understand most of what is said around him and the way he loyally repeated his master’s political views without understanding them. When the surreal part of the story takes over and switches to a conventional third-person narrative, I found it harder to connect with the characters I had previously liked immensely. I began questioning my previous judgement and was uncertain I liked where the plot was going. But although the undercurrent is one of fear, this book doesn’t get too dark or scary.

I liked how, as the book went on, the descriptions of the professor’s assistant, Dr Bormenthal, get increasingly canine, referring to him as loyal and faithful and having been rescued from poverty by the professor, just like the dog. I also found the book genuinely funny, much of it mocking the Party, so I was not surprised to learn that the manuscript was confiscated from Bulgakov and not published until after his death.

For such a short book, this book was able to generate a reasonable amount of discussion in our group. We talked about whether you can enjoy this as a story without worrying about analogies and historical context, what that professor character was really up to, where Bulgakov’s sympathies lay, the development of the dog character and particular moments and phrases that stood out for us. It was postulated that the distancing of the narration was a deliberate ploy to make the reader look more analytically at the characters. That made a lot of sense to me.

I’m not sure I would ever had read this book without the book club so thanks Bedminster Bugbear for choosing it!

First published (in this translation) in Great Britain in 1968 by The Harvill Press.

Flabby round the edges

Arthur & George
by Julian Barnes

The only other Barnes book I’ve read was Flaubert’s Parrot, which is about 100 pages long, so this great heavy thing is a bit of a change and yet in many ways the same. It’s based on actual historical events, drawn heavily from police records, diaries, letters, newspapers etc, relating to some very famous people at the turn of the twentieth century. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker prize and for a while it seemed to be everywhere and yet I somehow picked this up without having a clue what it was about, which I’m glad of.

My reaction to this book fluctuated a lot while reading. I borrowed it from the library (my first library loan since leaving university, and I only went there to try out the cafe, which turned out to be closed) and at several points I found myself wishing I’d bought it because I was enjoying it so much, only to change my mind a chapter or two later and be relieved that I’d not spent any money on it.

Why the variation? It’s a well written book, with some brilliant turns of phrase and some of the best characterisation I’ve encountered in a while but the same excruciatingly slow build-up that results in those thoroughly fleshed out, believable characters also means that the storyline drags. A lot. Although there are events that are the intended focal point of the story, they get a little lost among everything else that is detailed, often minutely. And that could be deliberate. The George of the title is a very detail-oriented person, for one thing. But this is also, to some extent, a detective story and every detail could turn out to be vital. Or to be a red herring.

The story follows the two title characters in turn, with occasional joint chapters when their paths cross, which is an effective way of pointing out the similarities and differences between their lives, but the timeline was not entirely linear and it became clear that it was carefully constructed so that information was revealed in a specific order, deliberately leading the reader to react one way and then another.

Partly because I came to this book so free from spoilers, partly because I believe it’s written in a way that suggests certain details are intended as clever twists that shouldn’t be given away by reviewers, I can’t mention some of the things that I most want to talk about without a big fat ** spoiler alert **, so here it is: DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER if you haven’t read this book and think you might want to. Okay?

So, this may in fact be widely known by everyone except me (me about two weeks ago, that is) but the Arthur of the title is Arthur Conan Doyle and this book is a sort-of novelised biography of him, from birth to death, concentrating in particular on a criminal case that he got involved in when he decided that there had been a miscarriage of justice. It was big news at the time, with headlines screaming “Sherlock Holmes investigates” and led to the creation of the Court of Appeal. It’s quite amazing that the story isn’t better known, really. Anyway, I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan and fascinated by anything related, so I was saddened to discover that I didn’t like the depiction of Doyle presented here. I liked the story of his childhood, told concurrently with that of George, despite it later being revealed that George was actually almost 20 years his junior, and I empathised with some of the events in Arthur’s life, but he comes across as a self-absorbed, brash person with some rather backward misogynist ideas, even for the time.

George is a cold, and yet curiously sympathetic character. He of course suffers from a great miscarriage of justice, so there’s that in his favour, but I felt that for much of the book the possibility that he might in fact be guilty was kept alive and there were a few occasions when I wondered if that was why these events have been forgotten. The fact that George’s surname is Edalji, inherited from his Indian-born father, is saved until a long way into the book. By this point George has spent his childhood and early adulthood suffering from various forms of bullying and with hindsight it seems likely that the colour of his skin was at least a factor, but by not being aware of that fact at the time the reader is led to be curious about why George is continually picked on and called “not quite right”. Maybe Barnes chose this route because George himself states later on that he doesn’t think race was a factor, or at least not the main factor, in his victimisation, and he considers himself as much an Englishman as any other man born in England. Is he being generous to his torturers with this statement or is he in fact more astute than others who jump to the “it’s racism” conclusion just because he’s not white?

In all, this was certainly absorbing, as the tagline on the cover promised, but it did suffer a little from including too much beyond the end of the Edalji case. There’s a long section at the end set after Arthur’s death that I felt was entirely extraneous. I lost the sense of pleasure I had built up and closed the book for the last time feeling mostly bored. It’s a real shame because for long sections of this book I loved it.

Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape.

Art and community

This weekend Totterdown opened its doors for the Front Room Art Trail, an annual neighbourhood event that was one of the things that attracted us to this part of the city. Although people come from all over the city and beyond, I get the impression that most of those on the trail are local residents meeting their neighbours, seeing what an impressive range of artists live nearby.

The “front room” of the title comes from the fact that the majority of the art is displayed in people’s homes, with bright orange flags and wide open front doors indicating where to go (there are also maps freely available). Proprietors are ready with warm welcomes and friendly chatter to guide you around the art they have displayed.

In contrast to complaints I hear that these days no-one knows their neighbours, especially in cities, we have found Totterdown full of community feeling, with an endless rollcall of events, groups and meetings. The art trail is a fantastic addition to this mix. There’s something quite wonderful about walking into a stranger’s house to the warmth and smell of a wood fire, being handed a glass of mulled wine and encouraged to look out of their window to compare their view with your own!

Between the drizzling rain and my attempts to use a film camera rather than digital, I only have one decent photo from yesterday. This sculpture, built primarily by local schoolchildren, stands outside Fig. 1:

Light sculpture art community fun

I am already looking forward to next year’s event. Who knows, we may even open up our own front room!

Not that Herzog one again

It’s Only a Movie
by Mark Kermode

I bought this book at an author event for the Bath Literature Festival just before I launched this website. I thought about writing up the talk and book signing but writer’s block prevented me and I figured I’d just combine it with the book review I’d surely be writing in the following few weeks. And then the book sat around for 8 months before I read it. So all I can really remember about the event was that I had a great evening, Kermode was good fun, smug and self-deprecating at the same time, and I failed to think of anything to say to or ask him when I got my book signed. Hey ho.

This book, and indeed the talk about it, are really just like extended versions of listening to Kermode on the radio, which is something that I have enjoyed doing for about 16 years. He has a genuine deep-rooted love of and enthusiasm for film but he doesn’t come across as snobbish or exclusive in any way. I have always preferred his reviews to anyone else’s, even if I don’t agree with him any more or less often than other critics, and this book helped me to see why.

Firstly, he’s immensely knowledgeable on the subject. He has a PhD and is a visiting lecturer in film studies and all he has ever really wanted to do is review films. He genuinely enjoys watching as many films as he can and still finds time to watch his favourites over and over (and over). His favourite films aren’t highbrow inaccessible fare but the rather more approachable The Exorcist, Mary Poppins and Local Hero but he can argue intelligently and cogently why they are great films.

He’s also a good storyteller. He recognises good anecdotes and knows how to tell ’em well. He opens the book with the admission/warning that he has a bad memory and is prone to exaggeration, so this is the story of his life as seen through his own viewpoint, or rather camera angle. He uses the analogy of this being the film of his life (complete with who would play all leading roles), which is a fitting, if slightly cheesy, way of looking at it.

Some things I learned that I hadn’t previously realised (though perhaps if I was paying more attention over the years I’d have figured this out) – Kermode is an ardent feminist and formerly a bit of a political radical (a “red-flag-waving Bolshie bore” in his own words), a vegetarian (or “near-vegetarian”, according to Wikipedia) who keeps chickens as pets and he has an appalling lack of geographical knowledge (he once flew to Moscow to get to a film set in the Ukraine, failing to realise that Odessa is significantly closer to London than Moscow). Really the only one that’s a surprise and yet clearly affects his response to films is the feminism and I’m not sure why this surprised me. I certainly don’t disapprove; it’s good to see a high-profile, reasonable man talking feminism rather than it being a fight between extreme and less-extreme women.

This isn’t a very personal autobiography, it lives up to its title in that respect. While his wife and children get occasional mentions, this really is the story of Kermode’s love affair with film and his resultant career. Which is what he’s good at talking about, so fair enough. It’s structured thematically, with an almost chronological order, and really my only problem with it is that it starts and ends with that Werner Herzog incident, the one I watched on The Culture Show and read about in the paper and listened to Kermode talk about in various interviews since. Yes, it was interesting, shocking even, at the time, but it’s not the only interesting event in Kermode’s life and I do wish he’d stop banging on about it.

Published 2010 by Random House

Future possible?

More Than Human
by Theodore Sturgeon

I generally trust the SF Masterworks series to be of a high enough standard that I can pick any of its titles and I greatly enjoy scouring the shelves in Forbidden Planet in search of a new read. This was one of my random picks and, as usual, proved to be excellent despite my never having heard of it before.

This book centres around a small group of characters who are outsiders in various ways, a glimpse of the future of humanity, the next development beyond Homo sapiens. The story is told from various characters’ perspectives, and there are a couple of big jumps in time that have to be filled in by recall. This is something the author repeats – you are just getting to know a character well and then suddenly the story switches in time and perspective so that you’re lost again and need to piece together how this fits with the previous section.

It’s a valid reflection of the main characters’ experience. Because they are different, but take a while to understand their differences, they spend time struggling to fit in to the rest of society before discovering their place.

Their place seems to be together. As a group they can function as one sort-of superhuman, which is a very interesting idea and one that could have been explored over a lot more pages. But this book is a nice length and manages to fit in background, self-discovery, group functioning, romance, disagreements, relationships with “normal” humans and a lot more besides. I was a little discomfited by the ending, which seemed to go a bit religious experience-y.

The first character we get to know well is Lone, an adult with learning and possibly social difficulties. He is not named for a long time and his section, of drifting through the world being misunderstood/hated for no reason until he seems to find his place was very powerful. Sturgeon has done an impressive job of fully fleshing out a character who speaks only a handful of words and never truly understands what he is a part of.

I hugely enjoyed this book. SF Masterworks has yet to let me down!

First published in 1953.

It’s how you tell ’em

yann_martel_the_facts_behind_the_helsinki_roccamatiosThe Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and other stories
by Yann Martel

This set of four stories are incredibly moving, but each one begins so simply and matter-of-factly that you don’t realise how much you’ve been sucked in until the emotional force suddenly hits you. It’s a wonderful skill for a writer to have.

The stories appear to be taken from Martel’s own life, which may or may not be true. The narrator is certainly the same in all four, with just a few years passing between them. Whether or not they’re true doesn’t really matter, because the point isn’t the storylines themselves but how Martel tells it. He has a way of simply stating facts about the world as he sees it that somehow produces beautiful, emotionally powerful prose.

The first and title story is about a young man at university whose friend is dying of AIDS. The narrator devises a method of passing the time/distracting themselves from the horrors of reality, which is for them to invent stories about the fictional Roccamatios family, living in Helsinki (a place neither man has ever visited). They decide that it should be a saga of the twentieth century. They take turns to choose a historical event for each year and then tell a story about the Roccamatios that reflects it.

The story of the Roccamatios is not what is printed here. The historical events are given as a sort of structure to the story and they often reflect the mood of the characters, with war or murder chosen in darker moods, artistic or liberal events in brighter ones. It’s a fascinating device. But, really, this is the story of the friendship, the family, the coping methods, the horrors of an illness that was only just beginning to be understood (it is 1987) and death.

In fact death is the overarching link between all of the stories. The second is about a concerto written by a former soldier about his friend who died in the Vietnam War. The evening of the performance is described in great detail, from the venue to the musicians to the music itself. Again, it’s a curious device for getting at the story of the soldier and the life lesson that is learned, but it works wonderfully well.

The other stories delighted me with their surprising forms so I won’t reveal anything about them but that they are wonderful things. As far as I know this is Martel’s only short story collection, but his third novel was published this year so I will buy that as soon as the paperback is available. He’s a masterful writer, truly.

First published in 1993 by Faber and Faber.
This edition, revised and with an introduction by the author, published 2004 by Canongate Books.

Under their skin

The Black Album
by Hanif Kureishi

Despite having been written 15 years ago, this book is very relevant to the world of today, giving a frighteningly believable insight into the world of British Asians. I say “frightening” because the story’s main theme is Muslim fundamentalism and it definitely gets scary.

Shahid was raised in well-to-do south-east England and moves to London to study at college and get away from the family business. He is tired of being looked down on for his bookishness and wants to experience “real life”. Quiet and studious, he finds himself a little lonely and excluded, so when a group of British-Asian neighbours led by the charismatic Riaz reach out to befriend him, he is eager to please them. Although it is clear from the start that the relationship is all about what they can get from him (his clothes, his typing skills, his links to some college professors, his good looks) Shahid doesn’t seem to notice the bizarre nature of their interaction and agrees to everything he is asked, even when it places him in danger.

At about the same time, Shahid’s favourite college professor Deedee prompts the start of a relationship that is almost the opposite in nature – it is loving, giving, free-spirited, frenzied, with a cacophony of drugs and wild parties interlaced with their bedroom adventures. It is against college rules, which concerns Shahid, but it is also against Allah, which concerns his new friends and his life turns into a tug of war between the two.

Set in 1989, one of the main storylines is the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Though he and the book in question are not named directly, his previous works are and the themes of the book are discussed a lot. The fundamentalist group are keen to get behind the fatwa and have the book banned in their district, despite not having read it. This is the point when Shahid tries his hardest to stand up to them, touching as it does directly on something that he loves dearly. The other time that he argues hard in favour of something is when he is asked to give up his music collection, including his dearly beloved Black Album by Prince.

The central themes of religious groups trying to change the world to fit their views and book banning/censorship are interesting ones but frustratingly, as is too often the case in life, they are not really debated here. Too few of the characters are willing to openly debate matters so attempts at discussion quickly flounder.

What this book does not include – and I would have to guess that this is deliberate – is any more moderately religious characters. There are fundamentalists and there are non-believers. At one point Shahid’s sister-in-law berates him for going to the mosque to pray, saying that she thought he was raised better than that. The viewpoint is very much that religion is for the uneducated, the great unwashed, and is essential to teach them basic morality and keep them in line. But once a person has money and education it becomes useless, or worse, dangerous.

In fact there are few if any moderate characters. Deedee’s life is outrageously liberal, a sea of raves, sex and drugs. Shahid’s brother Chili also seems to be caught up in this world of drugs and is spiralling downward from what was once a comfortable married life. I suppose this is to make Shahid’s choice more even, because he is so level-headed and rational that it would be hard to believe he’d stay involved with the fundamentalists if he had a more straightforward alternative. But that might also be a more interesting story, if the author had had to dig down into what would keep Shahid with the “brothers” if the alternative wasn’t a level of drink and drugs that’s beyond the average student life, so far as I’m aware. Maybe the author is trying to be equally stereotypical on both sides of the coin. There are no greatly sympathetic characters.

The threats and violence escalate, making this work better as a thriller than as a social study. There is a prescient storyline about a bomb in a London tube station and Shahid walking miles across the city in the aftermath. It’s never clear whether the bomb is related to fundamentalism or race tensions, but that’s certainly the implication.

There are moments of humour. The book begins with one of the “brothers” persuading Shahid that he has lost all of Riaz’s clothes, so Shahid will have to give him all the clothes he wants. Later on a local Muslim claims to find a message from God in an aubergine and the vegetable becomes a minor attraction, with attempts to get in installed in the town hall. But each of these is bound up with threats and violence, so that the ridiculous becomes something more frightening than if it were rational.

It’s a well written book, full of passion and anger, but it’s not an easy read. I found it hard to sympathise with Shahid for getting into trouble by failing to say no at key points. He is too meek and obedient a hero for my taste, though that’s probably supposed to be a product of his upbringing.

Published 1995 by Faber and Faber.

Lonely reflections

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and other stories
by Ernest Hemingway

This set of short stories starts with the sad and beautiful ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, a brilliant piece of writing, but for me the rest of the collection didn’t live up to its beginnings. This was a real shame after I recently read and enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea and looked forward to delving into more of Hemingway’s work.

‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ is about Harry and his lover Helen, camped out near Kilimanjaro, waiting for Harry to either die or be rescued after his leg had been badly injured. Harry passes in and out of consciousness, tries to hide his pain from Helen and tries to help her to accept that he’s going to die. He is also cruel to her, making it clear that the best part of his life had passed before he met her, picking fights and refusing to say that he loves her. It’s a painfully evocative bit of writing, intense and yet strangely peaceful.

The other stories were more varied in terms of whether they touched me. They are brief snapshots rather than whole stories, with some recurring characters, especially a man called Nick. The format is always the same: lonely man gets on with life, always an outcast in some way, often because of war. The introduction to each story is a seemingly unrelated snippet, generally much more violent than the main story. The themes of these are war and bullfighting.

The general mood is contemplative. The moments of action are brief flickers between longer scenes of loneliness, restlessness, thoughtfulness. Descriptions are very evocative and detailed. However, sometimes the lack of action or passion is just plain tedious.

The stories work together inasmuch as Harry, hero of ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, frequently lapses into reminisces about his life – adventures he’s had, moments that stand out – and the rest of the stories could almost be more of his reminisces, if only the heroes were all called Harry.

Overall, though, after the first story I struggled to remain interested and am now a little put off reading the rest of my Hemingway boxset.

First published in Great Britain in The Fifth Column and The First Forty-Nine by Jonathan Cape, 1939.