What language will the future speak?

Parasites Like Us

Parasites Like Us
by Adam Johnson

I found this book slow to start but by the end it had a real effect on me – by which I mean I couldn’t stop thinking about it to the extent that I had nightmares! But it is the story of an apocalyptic adventure, so that’s probably a good sign. I think. It’s also a comedy – a very dark one.

The story is narrated by Hank Hannah, an anthropologist at a small university in South Dakota, moderately successful, mostly unhappy and alternately obsessed with and completely disinterested in his own work. We learn on page one that two major events are coming – he’s going to prison and some kind of major apocalyptic event is going to wipe out most humans (along with pigs and birds, apparently). However, most of the novel is about Hank’s life leading up to those events.

“The cold was a force, a pressure you felt against your eyes, and along the frosted buildings the prison lights shone sodium and shrill, casting stiff, cement-coloured halos off the corrugated roofs. The rising moon had its say too – upon open expanses, in the branches of trees, its tincture recast the night in hues of indigo, iodine and tulle.”

Hank’s area of special interest is the Clovis – people who inhabited the Americas from 11,000 to 9000 years ago. He wrote a book contending that the Clovis were responsible for mass extinctions because they over-hunted and is now half-heartedly raking through reams of data to back this up. But one of his graduate students – Eggers – is so fascinated by the subject that he has decided to live for a year as a Clovis, using only Paleolithic technology (which seems to involve being smelly and a lot of illegal hunting). Hank’s other graduate student – Trudy – has her own contentious theory about the lack of Clovis art, and is also the subject of Hank’s inappropriate crush.

There is quite a lot of scientific exposition in this book, but I couldn’t quite figure out Johnson’s attitude toward science. None of the scientists is entirely likeable and they are pretty devil-may-care with the scientific method. With the book’s overtones of dark humour, I did wonder if Johnson was mocking the scientific establishment as a whole, or just certain aspects of it, or certain types of people within it. However, the choice of Hank’s study subject was clearly carefully chosen to have parallels with the current-day story and indeed has made me curious enough to look up the Clovis. (Incidentally, the title can be read two ways – human beings as the parasites, or that parasites like to live off humans, which may give you an idea of the intellectual humour at work here.)

“To speak of the dead is to conjure them, and it would be a crime to beckon them from their graves, to prance them around in some conga line of history before vanquishing them back to the cold, as if their lives were no more than footnotes in the tale of another.”

Hank himself was also difficult to get a handle on. He has an overinflated ego and is generally selfish, but he’s also a very smart, poetic and thoughtful man who is grieving for his stepmother. He has many unattractive traits but in the end I did sort of root for him. Because he narrates the story, and because there’s lots of stuff about hunting and survival, this feels at time quite a masculine book. But it’s saved from being too masculine or at all sexist by the character of Trudy. She’s an athletic, no-nonsense, mixed-heritage woman who rejects Hank’s advances while remaining his friend. She also shows real enthusiasm for the science, certainly more so than Hank. In fact, if anything, I might argue that the women in this book are a little too perfect, but then as it’s a first-person narrative they’re all seen via Hank and he is just the type to idolise women.

“Ten thousand years from now, when people exhumed her bones, what would they know of her life, her spirit?…Would they know of her love of plants, that she longed to see Egypt…Should I have put medicine bottles and a bedpan in her grave, so the future would understand her final struggle? Should I have chiseled out her story, start to finish, in granite, and what language will the future speak?”

Once the root of the Apocalypse becomes clear, the narrative really gets going. There are sections that, as an animal lover, I found toughgoing, but on reflection I think it’s only right that those parts were a bit grim and if anything this proves that Johnson is an animal lover.

However, what really won me over to this book was this line:

“I needed to implore of her, If you leave me, what will evoke you? I should have demanded, Tell me what movie I should watch, what tune I should sing, what book should be open on my chest when I wish to fall asleep and dream of you. Tell me, dear colleagues of tomorrow, tell me that in the future these are questions no-one’s afraid to ask.”

This book was not initially published in the UK, but after Johnson’s second novel The Orphan Master’s Son won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a UK publisher picked up both this and Johnson’s collection of short stories, Emporium, which I already have waiting on my TBR. It certainly goes to prove that winning prizes does some good for authors, if it gets good-but-neglected books out there into people’s hands.

First published in the USA by Viking Penguin in 2003.
First published in the UK by Transworld in 2014.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

It’s Hell in here

Damned
by Chuck Palahniuk

This, Palahniuk’s latest offering, is every bit as crazy, vitriolic, scathingly sarcastic and darkly comic as you might expect if you’ve read any of his previous work. It might actually be lighter than usual and more funny, but it’s been a few years so maybe I’m mis-remembering.

I throw out words like “light” and “comic” and then have to tell you that this book is set in Hell. A really nasty, gruesome Hell to boot. But it’s narrated by a chirpy 13-year-old American girl whose view of both the world above and the one below is hilarious.

Each chapter begins, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison,” in a riff on just one of the many literary influences in this story. In life, Madison, slightly chubby and hopelessly naïve daughter of rich, famous parents, liked to read romantic novels and watch feel-good films. In death she raves about how she managed to die in an outfit particularly practical for Hell and tries to make friends with fellow damned souls. We gradually hear her life story, told in-between descriptions of Hell and her attempts to get on with spending eternity there.

Initially I found Madison irritating, though the concept was funny. She repeats the same phrases, harks back to the same references and makes the same jokes over and over. Which is realistic, I don’t doubt, but not the makings of a sympathetic character. However, death forces her to examine and analyse herself, remember details she’d rather forget and question the identity she clings to, so that she gradually becomes more likeable. Perhaps it says something about me that I vastly prefer her once she has lost her innocent guilelessness!

The depiction of Hell plays on preconceptions, twisting and turning them around. There are demons, sure; in fact every demon ever invented by any culture or religion. There are fires and pits of torment and endless methods of torture, but there are also the very gruesome indeed Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, Swamp of Rancid Perspiration, Dandruff Desert and many more of that ilk. Thankfully they are not all described in detail but, well, some are. And there are strict rules. Many, many rules. In fact, it becomes a running joke. At first it seems to Madison that perhaps the Christian right had all the answers, but she slowly discovers that the rules of Hell are petty, almost arbitrary, and can trap anyone. But the fact that there are rules means that you can learn them, and play them.

From the cell in which she first finds herself installed in Hell, Madison makes the acquaintance of a cheerleader (Babette), a jock (Patterson), a nerd (Leonard) and a punk (Archer). Adding her goody-two-shoes self, that makes her very own Breakfast Club and she determines to befriend them all. When Archer uses the safety pin from his cheek to spring them all from their cells, the motley crew journey across Hell together. Patterson just tries to get off with Babette while Leonard drones on about all the different demons encountered (he’s more of a history nerd than your typical science nerd) but Archer and Babette prove themselves surprisingly useful friends to have around.

I found this book genuinely funny, but also disturbing (it is Palahniuk, after all) and even sad. I grew to like Madison’s style of chatter, though the obviousness of her references never failed to grate. With her uber-bohemian parents and Swiss boarding school, surely she could have some less mainstream books or films to refer to occasionally? And while I accept that in the parents Palahniuk is mocking a certain kind of hypocritical celebrity, I did find some of his attacks a little too broad-ranging.

I think I will continue to look out all Palahniuk’s new releases, but so far his Diary: a novel has not been ousted from the favourite spot.

Copy kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Published October 2011 by Doubleday.

The cruelty of children

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
by Christopher Brookmyre

This book took a while to grow on me. I was a little disappointed from the start to realise that it wasn’t part of the Jack Parlabane series, and its structure was at first an irritation, before I realised how vital it was to the storyline, and how clever.

Martin is a successful lawyer to the rich and famous. He gets a phonecall one night from an old schoolfriend asking him to go back to Braeside where another old schoolfriend has been arrested for the murder of…you got it, yet another former classmate. And another classmate’s dad. And another classmate is in a coma, while yet another is the policewoman leading the investigation. The scene is set for a lot of memory dredging, facing up to childhood prejudices and crime-solving.

The narrative skips between current day – beginning with two crooks trying to dispose of the bodies – and school days, tackled year by year. Hidden behind the Glasgow dialogue and ever-changing nicknames is all the complexity of childhood – the complicated tangle of loyalties that are constantly switching, the importance placed on certain games and certain moments, the favours given and the mistreatments that were never forgotten.

There’s a lot of very believable childishness here: the changing slangwords; the fear of recrimination from saying, doing or reacting in a non-uniform way; the moments of innocent naivety followed by awful realisation. It’s not exactly how I remember primary school. We weren’t all swearing in every sentence from the start as Brookmyre’s class seems to be. And the rough talk and violent threats started later to my knowledge, but then I wasn’t a boy and all that was the boys’ domain, after all. With girls it’s all about the bitching and the name-calling and the cliques and I most certainly remember that.

In fact, though I struggled with it a little at first, mostly due to the dialogue, the school stuff was far more clever and subtle and well-written than the adult part of the book. As adults, the same characters seem to be either remarkably well adjusted or in a complete mess and in need of a life lesson. Which they duly receive. Okay, it’s not quite that simplistic but there is a certain tendency for old friends to declare “I told you so”. But the adult part does have the murder mystery, which slowly unravels into a much more complicated picture than it initially appears.

Though it has its moments, this book isn’t as funny as previous Brookmyre novels that I’ve read. It’s not bleak and heavy either, and at a push I might call it black comedy, but the genuine comic moments are few and far between. There also isn’t a single main character with the charm and presence of Brookmyre regular Jack Parlabane, but by the end of the book he has fleshed out almost a whole classful of rounded, believable individuals, which is no small achievement.

I would say this isn’t quite as fun and light a read as other Brookmyre books, but it still served me well on my beach holiday.

First published 2006 by Little, Brown.