To sleep, perchance to dream

Girlfriend in a Coma
by Douglas Coupland

This is a strange novel in many ways. It’s about the end of the world, and this is made clear from the start, and yet it doesn’t feel like a story of apocalypse. The story starts with a group of teenagers and, though it spans 20 years, the characters don’t progress much. Which is the point of the whole story.

Jared died when he was 16 years old. He was a football star with more sexual experience than all of his friends combined, then he died of leukaemia. He narrates the story of his friends’ lives. It is a story of middle-of-the-road ordinariness. Its characters exist on the brink of failure. They don’t fulfill their dreams or achieve greatness. And yet these people are somehow important in the story of the end of the world.

It’s an interesting concept, that the people who have an important role to play aren’t the statesmen or the philosphers or the rich and famous. Instead, they are the lost, lonely people who need some persuasion to see that they are lost and lonely. But it’s also frustrating because you feel that they don’t deserve to be chosen, that they should be handling the survival of the human race better. Or at least I did.

It’s well written and the characters are very very real. For most of the middle section I would recommend not reading this last thing before you go to sleep (you’ll understand when you get to that part). It’s gripping and enjoyable. However, my frustration with the emptiness of the characters overtook my enjoyment of the story at times.

Published 1998 by Flamingo
ISBN: 978-0-0065-5127-0

Immersed in darkness

The Angel’s Game
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
translated by Lucia Graves

This is a dark, brooding, action-packed thrill of a gothic mystery. All of the essential ingredients are in place. There’s the unreliable narrator, the setting that’s at once beautiful and dangerous and absolutely a character itself, a host of potential good guy/bad guy switchovers and more than one beautiful woman who life has not treated kindly.

The main character, David Martín, is, appropriately enough, a writer of cheap crime fiction, a writer who has made a name for himself but feels that he can produce something better, worthier of his talent. He describes his home city of Barcelona the way he knows best – as a romantic place filled with dark, crime-filled back streets and a suffocating atmosphere that holds him there against his better judgement. His judgement is of course highly questionable – more so as the story progresses. It can be hard at times to understand the decisions he makes but to truly enjoy this story you have to give in to the almost cheesy gothic craziness of it all.

It would be a shame to reveal too much of the story but, essentially, Martín has always scraped a living, being helped out by kind benefactors more often than his pride would like, so when he is offered a fortune by a stranger (the angel of the title) to write a book it is too good an offer to turn down. Unfortunately the commission and the stranger are both strange forces that Martín underestimates the power of.

This is a very enjoyable, fast-paced read but it does have some down sides. There is some extreme violence that I found off-putting and the lead female character is very weak and feeble. However, there are other stronger females in here and the violence certainly has its place in this type of story. Because the mystery is that of an over-arching evil it is easily maintained even as secrets are revealed, though not all secrets do get revealed in the end. Ambiguity is something I tend to enjoy, particularly when, as here, it is quite subtle to begin with. The broody gothic atmosphere is very effective; many’s the time I had chills run down my spine while reading a scene.

The story is set mainly in the 1930s, adding a certain something to the ambience. Though it is only occasionally mentioned, the political turmoil is somehow part of the darkness of the story. It certainly helps with the feeling that this a film noir on paper.

And that might just be the reason why I didn’t like this quite as much as I had hoped to (having rated Zafón’s previous book, The Shadow of the Wind, extremely highly) – there were too many scenes that felt like they’d been written with film in mind, rather than fiction. Don’t get me wrong – Zafón is not spare in his descriptions. On the contrary, his language is beautiful, evocative, atospheric. But some scenes felt false, with writing akin to stage directions. It’s a feeling I last got when reading Dan Brown, much as I hate to compare these otherwise very different authors.

Published 2009 by Phoenix
ISBN: 978-0-7538-2644-7

UPDATE: For another viewpoint, check out this review on And the Plot Thickens.

More chills than Hitchcock

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

I can only imagine that everyone who has read this novel came away with the same dumbstruck combination of awe and horror. It is an absolutely terrifying book. The twists in the story rarely manage to surprise but they do keep it interesting and the narrative remains believable and human at all times.

For the three people in the world who don’t know, the story is told in the form of letters from a woman, Eva, to her husband, all talking about their son Kevin; a son who took a gun to school and killed several of his classmates, a son who was always chillingly distant, detached and unreachable, a son who manipulated his parents from a very young age. Eva always felt that he was evil, or at least capable of evil things, but was desperate for that not to be true and tries hard to rationalise Kevin’s actions as a consequence of her parenting.

The details of the horrific homicidal rampage are gradually eked out inbetween tales of Kevin as a baby, about Eva’s life before him; but most of all about her feelings as a mother who cannot connect with her child.

I am not always a fan of books that are quite this introspective and self-examining, but this book is utterly brilliant. I am torn between thinking that everyone should read this to understand a little more about how hard parenting can be and how huge an effect the tiniest decisions can have, and wanting to protect everyone I love from the awfulness of the book’s events and conclusions.

Published 2006 by Serpent’s Tail.
Winner of the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction.

UPDATE: I can highly recommend listening to the episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Lionel Shriver discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to July 2009.

Sketches from the edge

After the Quake
by Haruki Murakami
translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin

Murakami’s style is well suited to the short story, being sparse and slightly distant. These stories are character studies, making the most of his ability to briefly sketch a vividly real human being.

This collection might be termed fragments rather than stories because only one feels like a complete story (Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, which was adapted into a stage play shortly after the English publication) but they are all compelling. The stories are linked by an earthquake that none of the characters experienced directly but all are affected by it. The disaster tugs at their darkest thoughts and memories.

Murakami manages to take very ordinary everyday lives and experiences (again excepting Super-Frog Saves Tokyo) and make them strange, mysterious, beautiful in their darkness. He writes as though an over-arching mystery awaits a resolution that will pull all the threads together, but the clues are never followed through to the end. Because there is no ending, characters are left pondering their dark thoughts or just getting on with life, not very far from where we met them.

For me the one blip was Super-Frog Saves Tokyo. It seemed too randomly weird. Murakami is generally pretty good at incorporating surreal elements into his work without them standing out and usually they have a clear purpose. This story – man comes home to find a giant frog telling him that together they must fight the evil worm to stop an earthquake from destroying Tokyo – was not badly written and could be seen as a nightmare or a psychotic episode or as a metaphor or just plain old surrealism, but for me it just doesn’t work. It jarred.

However, overall this was another great book from Murakami and I continue to rate him highly.

Published in the UK 2003 by Vintage
ISBN: 978-0-0994-4856-3

The most ancient words can have the strongest effect

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments
by Sappho
translated by Aaron Poochigian

Sappho lived from 630 until 570 BCE on the island of Lesbos and has been renowned throughout the intervening centuries as one of the greatest poets who ever lived. Sadly, little of her material has survived and what we do have is largely in fragments.

Sappho wrote about love, family, marriage and war with wit and warmth. Her poetry had a huge influence on writers for centuries after she lived. All of the major ancient Greek and Roman writers are name-checked in the notes.

In this new (2009) translation, Poochigian provides a thorough introduction as well as notes on each fragment. I have a tendency to ignore these bits when I pick up a classic book but in this case the background is extremely interesting…so I skimread it. I did find it useful to glance at the notes where fragments mentioned a name or were particularly short.

Poochigian has tried to follow the metre of the original work but has added rhyme where there was none previously to make the fragments more songlike. Because this is a translation, and from an obscure ancient dialect at that (one of the many reasons why so much of Sappho’s work has been lost) it is hard to know how close reading these fragments comes to the original experience of hearing them sung. Probably not that close, but they are still worth reading.

For me not all of the fragments work as poetry. For instance, the shortest fragment included in this collection is the four words “A handkerchief / Dripping with…“, which has an intriguing air of mystery about it but hardly counts as a poem. However, the longer fragments (and indeed the two complete poems) are beautiful and emphasise what a loss we have suffered. Sappho fragments do continue to surface every so often but it seems unlikely that a great deal more will be found.

The book ends, neatly, with one of my favourite fragments:

I declare
That later on,
Even in an age unlike our own,
Someone will remember who we are.

How true.

Published 2009 by Penguin.
ISBN: 978-0-1404-5557-1

I can see why people study this

As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner

Addie Bundren is dying. Or is she dead already? Nothing is ever quite clear in this brilliant but challenging American classic. It probably helps if you are familiar with the vernacular of 1920s Mississippi. I really am not.

The story is told by various characters in or observing the Bundren family as their matriarch dies and is transported to her hometown to be buried. Stream of consciousness is used rather than past-tense “this is what happened”. The voices are very different and, except for the occasional lapse into straight storytelling, the characterisation is excellent.

Characters are not formally introduced, with it sometimes taking several chapters to figure out how two people are related, which has the effect of making you feel that you have come into the story partway through. This is fantastic in terms of realism but can make the story hard to follow. There are also some scenes that are described by more than one character, making it appear that time is not quite linear.

Helpfully, the character who narrates the most – Darl – is a dreamer and his descriptions are more poetic than the others’. In his voice Faulkner writes some beautiful vignettes of simple scenes of life, from flowing water to the night sky. The other characters regard Darl with suspicion but it is not until near the end of the book that it becomes clear why.

This is a very poor family, farmers who feel strongly their differences from the likes of town folk. They work hard for the little they have and pride overrules most everything else. This is central to what would otherwise be a very difficult book to understand.

This certainly isn’t a light read. It makes you think about life and death and the relative values that you place on things. It can be tough to follow and the language can be a barrier. But it’s worth the effort for those moments of poetry and the brutal honesty of people when in their darkest hour.

First published 1930 in the USA.

See also: review by Marie of Little Interpretations.

In the words of the late great Mr Peel

The Olivetti Chronicles: Three Decades of Life and Music
by John Peel

John Peel isn’t remembered primarily for his writing but it’s something he did a lot of. He wrote almost-weekly columns for 30 years, for various publications from Disc to the Observer to BIKE. He wrote in much the same manner as he spoke on the radio – warm, funny and not shy of a little vitriole.

The writing in this collection was selected by his family and his son William writes a touching introduction explaining the project, the title (Peel wrote almost exclusively on an old Olivetti typewriter) and his own reaction to his father’s writing (“well observed and entertaining”). The topics are pretty varied. Obviously music is well covered (classical as well as rock) but there’s also football, television, trips abroad, family life, friendship, comedy, hangovers and some ramblings that don’t seem to have any real subject at all. Not that that matters.

There is a difference in tone between Peel’s writing from the early 1970s – which is often surreal and generally has him referring to himself in the third person – and the writing from the last ten years of his life – which tends to be more sentimental. But it is all undeniably Peel, with a love of music and his family and friends shining above everything else.

The gig reviews are a treat. They are not something I usually enjoy reading unless I am familiar with the band in question but Peel’s reviews are a wonder. He invokes the atmosphere of the crowd, the quality of the venue and the performances with astonishing vividness. Whether enthusing, pouring scorn or withholding judgement, the depth of his music knowledge is clear and you feel sure you would agree, had you been at the same gig. In fact, to test this (and also because I was a fan of his Radio 1 show some years ago) I compiled a Spotify playlist of records that he recommends in these columns. Hopefully it will work if you click here (though there’s a chance it won’t outside the UK – apologies for that). It’s a pretty mixed bag, as anyone familiar with John Peel would expect. As he says himself, “The programmes I do for Radio 1 have always been (roughly) based on the principle that what you’re buying, listening to and enjoying is all very well but there exists also something else, less favoured, but equally worthy of your attention.”

The funniest columns are, in my view, those in which he lays into something – be it a famous person, TV show or reader’s letter – with gusto. Peel was not a man to pussyfoot over opinions. He compares Eurovision to a long-drawn-out car crash, describes John Denver and the Carpenters as “cake-mixers” and Billy Joel as “Elton John without the costume, the sense of the preposterous or the tunes”. But this is balanced by the almost-as-harsh words he has for himself: fat, boring and bald being his favoured adjectives.

Peel’s astonishing honesty and openness made him an excellent writer, if his grammar and typing skills did not. It was a real joy to hear his voice again and I will definitely be dipping back into this book from time to time.

Published 2008 by Bantam Press

Loser comedy

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
by Toby Young

This infamous “memoir” is funny and entertaining but not brilliantly written. Young repeats himself endlessly and uses too many quotes from philosophers and sociologists in an attempt to make himself sound intelligent. I’m sure he is, but that isn’t the way to convey it. He also rails on quite a bit about his slightly famous titled father, which gets tedious.

What this book does provide, and this is probably the basis for its success, is a satisfyingly glib insight into the more glamorous side of the media. He drops many a household name, giving away all sorts of details you can only assume no-one agreed to in advance. As a journalist who readily admits that he wasn’t suitable for the job he was given at Vanity Fair, Young’s viewpoint and experiences are accessible and even likeable, despite the title.

Apparently, if you want to know which friends he actually lost by writing this, you have to read the sequel, The Sound of No Hands Clapping, but I am not at all tempted. Young has a lot of fans, and maybe their ardour and hype had raised my expectations unnaturally high but, though I have no problem with the “loser” premise, I just didn’t think was very good.

Published 2002 by Abacus
ISBN: 978-0-3491-1485-9

It makes me think of shoulder pads

Company
by Max Barry

I am a fan of Max Barry so it’s no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It did take me longer to get into than his previous novels Syrup and Jennifer Government because the setting was so very…corporate. But then that’s what it’s all about: corporations.

This is a comedy, a satire really, about big business. Barry takes lots of extreme examples of corporate practices (including some that must surely be entirely his own imagination, right?) and crams them in to one extremely funny book.

Good satire uses characters and situations that are recognisable to the reader. You know that people like this exist, though in most cases you hope to not come across too many examples of them in real life. It’s the combination of extremes, plus some skillful writing, that makes it funny.

This can lead to ill-formed caricatures that fail to emotionally engage the reader, which isn’t the end of the world for me but can be offputting for some people. The characters in Company are definitely three-dimensional but I must admit to lacking any great interest in their fates. The book has an epilogue featuring some of the key characters that to me felt superfluous – the previous chapter had a better, more final ending. But no doubt other readers will appreciate the confirmation of who ended up where.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned the plot at all yet. This is because there is a plot development early on that is pivotal to the story but I really hesitate to reveal it to potential readers. So if you haven’t read the book yet and think that maybe you might (and I highly recommend it) then you should stop reading this review here. No, really. But come back when you’ve read it and let me know what you thought.

So, for those of you who have already read the book or really don’t mind spoilers, I will continue.

It was suggested to me that this novel isn’t true satire because Barry uses a plot device to explain the sheer number of and extremity of the management techniques that this company – Zephyr Holdings Inc. – uses. It turns out that Zephyr is a fake conpany being used – against the knowledge of its employees – as a testbed for management techniques. The novel starts with the first of day of work for new employee Stephen Jones. His suspicions are quickly aroused when he discovers that no one can tell him what Zephyr actually does. He is an idealistic recent graduate and is appalled when he stumbles on the truth. At first he lets himself be persuaded that it’s not so bad, that the findings of research here go into extremely popular management textbooks and therefore any progress they make is good for the whole world. However, his conversations with those in charge soon dispell this myth.

I really enjoyed the brief scenes between Jones and his sister as he tries to explain his new job or Zephyr itself and it’s so clear that the situation is bizarre. They are a great contrast with daily life at the office where hundreds of employees accept the weirdness of Zephyr. It’s an excellent device that allows Barry to really push the depiction of a big international company to extremes without it being unbelievable. This isn’t about humdrum pointlessness like Office Space, this is about companies treating their employees badly and knowing that they are doing so, in the name of productivity or cost-effectiveness or whatever the latest buzzword is.

There are some interesting subplots, such as the salesman obsessed with finding out who stole his doughnut (and I mean obsessed) or the woman who falls in love with her customers. There’s also some good variations on office romance, with a few different angles covered.

So is it satire if you have an excuse for the far-fetched plot? I think so. And if not, this is still a very well observed, archly funny novel about a situation that we’re all quite happy to see picked apart.

Published 2007 by Vintage
ISBN: 978-1-4000-7937-7

Absorbing the pain

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

This is a big book and, like all the best chunky tomes, it’s a little bit heartbreaking when you get to the end to leave that world and all of its characters behind. Which is a long way of saying that I liked it.

Like Chabon’s previous books, this is a historical novel with a strong Jewish slant and a great deal of research has clearly gone into creating a believable setting for the action. Many’s the time I reached for my laptop to look up details mentioned, famous people or events named in passing, but I invariably changed my mind because I was too eager to carry on reading to pause, even briefly.

The story is that of two Jewish men, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, during and after World War II. Joe escapes Nazi-occupied Prague and goes to live with Sam and his mother in Brooklyn, NYC. Sam’s mother has somewhat exaggerated his career and influence in her letters to Joe’s family but the appearance of this strange foreign cousin – and Joe’s astonishing skill as an artist – spark an idea in Sam that shapes the rest of their lives, and proves his mother’s faith worthy. Sam and Joe create a series of comic books that take America by storm, their greatest character being The Escapist, a superhero with Houdini’s escapism skills and a particular hatred for Nazis.

The book follows Joe and Sam’s changing fortunes over a couple of decades, but it also tells the larger story of comic books in America, as well as, on a much smaller scale, looking at changing attitudes toward Jews, Germans and homosexuals in the US.

With such huge events and themes, it is inevitable that some things will be dwelt on while others are skipped past quickly. The examples that stood out for me were the excellent long passage covering a brief section of Joe’s military service – a brilliant study of loneliness and self-evaluation – and the woefully short description at the start of Joe’s escape from Prague. Joe trains, as a boy, in escapology and it is his escapology teacher who plans his escape in a coffin. The origins of the plan, based around the smuggling out of German territory of a golem, precious to Jewish clerics, are detailed over several chapters but when it comes to the actual escape, a brief paragraph summarises Joe’s route before his arrival on Sam’s doorstep. This seemed to me to be a shame but it certainly added to the mysterious silence that Joe maintains regarding his past and his violent anger toward Nazis and Germans. Having left his family and friends behind in Europe the origin of his anger is obvious and his helplessness whenever he hears more bad news is devastating to follow.

I know very little about Jewish culture or escapology and, while I’ve read a handful of graphic novels, my knowledge of the history of comic books is almost non-existent, but I don’t think any of that matters. I loved this book. The tone and subject matter could veer from light comedy to the darkest exploration of humanity’s guilt and yet it never stopped being readable. The characters and story were absorbing, the writing style a good balance between faux memoir and adventure novel, and there were some descriptions of brief moments that were astonishingly vivid. This is definitely a book to lose yourself in.

Published 2001 by Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-1-8411-5493-0