The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi

TQTHannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief occasionally does this really interesting thing whereby it wilfully undercuts its own hyperbole, often to grand (if a tad saccharine) emotional effect.  The greater part of the book’s aesthetic comprises a kind of rampant over-the-top-ness; it’s very, very far-future SF: every character is a quasi-immortal (don’t ask) posthuman, the action transpires on a walking Martian city, nanotech implants enable instantaneous telepathic communication, everything is surrounded by a data cloud called the ‘exomemory’, and the titular thief himself can manipulate physics to steal quantum time off a person’s life.  The whole thing is wildly inventive and stylistically zappy: an exuberance only matched by the book’s stratospheric levels of pre-publication hype. But after the umpteenth description of planet-sized this and million-year-old that, your reader began to feel justifiably (I think) exhausted by all the cold techno-babble and sense-of-wonder fetishising of big numbers and weird technologies.

I’ve read in numerous places that all of this book’s ideas are scientifically on the money (Rajaniemi has a PhD in quantum or string something-or-other, so it’s fair to say he knows his tachyons from his, er, apples).  And yes, sure, the book can be exhilarating in its wry challenge to the reader to keep up with lots of strange new words (most of which are given no explication whatsoever), and there is something pleasingly hypnotic about being swept up in a relentless stream of terminology (which you can either let wash over you, or spend hours trying to unpick the weird etymologies of); but such things can only carry a novel so far.  As I read The Quantum Thief, I often found myself longing for something recognisably human – emotionally, socially, even politically – amid the salvo of jargon and un-relatable plot twists.  Happily, such moments do pepper the narrative, but always with an accompanying sense of bathos, as Rajaniemi has to deliberately undermine his own stylistic and lexical extravagance in order to make them work, resulting in such narratively interesting passages as:

I scan my fragmented memory for images. An ice castle in Oort, comets and fusion reactors tethered together into a glittering orrery, winged people chasing them. Supra City, where buildings are the size of planets, domes and towers and arcs rising up to meet Saturn’s ring. The Beltworlds and wild synthbio covering them in coral and autumn colours. The guberniya brains of the Inner System, diamond spheres adorned with the faces of the Founders, filled with undeath and intrigue.

The odd thing is that all that feels less real than sitting in the sun with her, pretending to be human and small.

So The Quantum Thief willingly destabilises itself; the stylistic status quo of large-scale imagery and high-level geek speak undercut by emotive language to create a kind of contrast or tension, out of which comes the book’s more successful emotional moments.  It’s an admittedly interesting technique, but to be honest I can’t decide if Rajaniemi’s reliance on such a thing to create tone and feeling is a brilliantly self-aware critique of hard SF genre proclivities, or just a rank failing of his predominant style.

It is, however, unfortunate that such moments are so few and far between, as many of TQT’s descriptive passages are so jargon-filled that I often had no idea what I was supposed to be visualising: a frustration that would undoubtedly have been mitigated by more such bathos as that quoted above.

But what’s it all about? Well, for the record, any statement I make about the book’s plot should be assumed to carry a parenthetic “(I think…)”, as the narrative is so fast-paced, confusing and hinged upon terms that the author refuses to elucidate that now – several days after having finished reading it – I’m still not entirely clear on what happens.  But here goes… Jean le Flambeur is a master thief broken out of jail by a warrior, Meili, who wants Jean to steal something for her.  First, however, they must travel to Mars to steal Jean’s own memories that an older version of himself has hidden away. Meanwhile, also on Mars, Isidore Beautrelet, a gifted young detective, is investigating a conspiracy while guided by a flying law enforcer who dons a top-hat and steel face plate and who goes by the moniker ‘The Gentleman’.  It’s not long, unsurprisingly, before the stories of Jean and Isidore intersect.

In reality, though, this meagre synopsis doesn’t scratch the surface of Rajaniemi’s inventiveness: there’s the ‘gevulot’ system of perception-based privacy, also the armies of ‘Quiets’ – machines inhabited by the consciousnesses of Mars’ dead (before they’re re-born to live again, that is) – and (a personal highlight), Perhonen, Meili’s flirty, vivacious and sarcastic space ship. It would take several review-sized posts just for me to list, verbatim, the myriad SF weirdnesses that comprise TQT, so let’s suffice it to say that Rajaniemi is mindblowingly creative, and his universe impressively consistent within the remit of a narrative framework in which almost anything goes.

Amid all of the unrestrained chaos of such imaginative outpouring, however, TQT is centred upon a fundamentally well-established and familiar character conceit: the gentleman thief versus the detective savant. The fact that the thief has no idea what he’s stealing, and the detective no idea what or who he’s investigating is equal parts amusing and frustrating though, as almost every character has the advantage of the reader in terms of the information available to them.  Equally as frustrating is the fact that the entire cast speaks with the same voice: the book’s dialogue is undoubtedly impressive, a fast-paced, flippant and snarky style that’s predicated on wit and banter-esque exchanges, but it’s let down by its uniformity.  The sharp and oh-so-droll conversation isn’t consistent in its quality, either, occasionally reading like a sub-par Aaron Sorkin or Joss Whedon: all of the snark, but none of the depth: “She knows pop culture references! I’m in love.”

The narrative that surrounds the dialogue, however, is consistently brilliant (if, as I’ve stated, frequently confusing), and manages to combine swift pacing with convincing philosophical asides, flitting comfortably between third and first person perspectives without the pretentiousness that such a gimmick often involves.  I also enjoyed the sly references to the roots of SF; with the thief/detective dual narrative paradigm functioning as a definite call-back to early 20th Century noir magazines, and the Martian horde of rampaging ‘Phoboi’ a nice nod to the mutant alien swarms of hero-centric SF pulp.

Jean le Flambeur himself is equally hit-and-miss in his presentation. His gentlemanly charm and politeness is pleasingly at-odds with his morally dubious profession, and the emotional rawness that comes to the fore as his forgotten past is slowly revealed is well realised. But his irresistible sexual allure and string of in-novel liaisons (even Meili’s space ship falls for him) borders on farcical (and not in a good way); a throw-back to the male adolescent fantasy-fulfilling aspect of pulp SF that I didn’t welcome.

The Quantum Thief, then, is a frustrating book.  The gigantic architectures of Rajaniemi’s imagination are on full display, and many of the book’s ideas are truly original; no mean feat in 21st-century SF. But punctuating the craziness and unfettered creativity are several problems with characterisation, clarity and an obtuseness of language that obstructs the book’s imagery. Where China Miéville or M. John Harrison might employ terminological obscurity as a narrative device to drive momentum, or an aid to a kind of immersive estrangement, TQT is just bafflingly convoluted, alienating, and kinda smug with it. Rajaniemi’s scientific knowledge is impressive, but the refusal to explain the terms of his world doesn’t have the aesthetic panache he seems to think, nor does it carry the depth of reference to be passed-off as somehow modernist. It is a good book: fast paced, highly original, and occasionally undercut by a moving sense of emotional bathos, but every success is counterpointed by a frustration that tempered my whole experience. I’ve never read anything quite like TQT, but I can’t help but feel that it could have been… more…


By Light Alone – Adam Roberts

BlaYou know zombie movies, yeah?  Zombie movies? Okay so you know how in zombie movies there’s often a protracted period in the opening act during which the characters have no idea that the world has gone to shit and that the zombie horde is almost at their front door, and the only way that the viewer has any idea about the zombies is because she’s given glimpses of subtly-placed newspaper headlines and T.V. footage telling her about the zombies – reportage of which the characters all seem blissfully unaware?  Well, Adam Roberts’ By Light Alone begins in very much the same vein.  There are no zombies, but the world has most definitely gone to shit.  This may be painfully obvious to the reader, but the rich, self-centred protagonists, sealed off in the hermetic paradise of uber-affluent Manhattan, have no idea about the true state of things – reading the news, you see, has become distinctly unfashionable.

I say there are no zombies – but that’s not really true.  By Light Alone is set 100 (ish) years from now, when humans have genetically engineered the ability to photosynthesize through their hair, thus eliminating the need for food.  This results in a kind of extreme Marxian two-class society: the rich (who can afford real food) are completely sealed-off and unreachable, and affect baldness as a visual signifier of their wealth. The poor masses, by comparison, grow long flowing locks and spend their days prostrate in the sun in order to survive. (I suppose the “jobsuckers” (those who work) form a third class – analogous with the petite bourgeoisie – but the novel never deals with these directly.) The so-called ‘longhairs’ are seen by our rich protagonists as the zombie plague: socially worthless (they don’t need food, so there’s no motivation for them to work the low-paid jobs of the poor), nomadic and emaciated, they ring the walled-cities and lay-about on rafts, just existing in their millions, described using imagery highly reminiscent of cinema’s zombie hordes: gorging all day (albeit on sunlight), walking about, and not doing very much of anything else.

In order for By Light Alone to work, then, the reader has to swallow the ridiculousness of photosynthesizing hair, and for what it’s worth I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief in this regard (who says Science Fiction has to be about real science, anyway?).  I was wary going-in to a book that so obviously functions as a thought experiment, a transposition of our real world concerns about a growing rich-poor divide that utilises a science fictional gimmick (the “hair”) to both simplify and radicalise the terms of the enquiry (I’ve always been more interested in sci-fi as a poetics than as an extrapolation). But the clinical and gloomy investigation into the nature of poverty is pleasingly tempered by Roberts’ knack for charming characterisation and frequently hilarious satire.  This, if anything, is what justifies Roberts’ couching of his debate in the form of a novel (-as if such a thing needs justifying…).  The satire in question isn’t especially subtle (and his caricatures of the vain, ignorant, unsympathetic rich are so extreme as to be unhelpful in some passages), but I generally found the jokes to be successful, and the culture criticism to be biting and astute.


The first half of By Light Alone is uncomfortable reading. We spend most of our time with George and Marie: grotesque, vain, vulgar millionaires entirely ignorant and dismissive of the wider world and its myriad problems.  They spend their time holidaying and eating various expensive and exotic foodstuffs; partly because it’s fashionable, and partly because they just can.  George and Marie’s children are cared for by a full-time nanny, who is occasionally commanded to bring the kids out so that they might be shown off for 5 or 10 minutes to George and Marie’s equally abhorrent friends – this being the total extent of the interaction between parents and children.

I experienced a strange cognitive dissonance when reading about George and Marie, somewhere between voyeuristically delighting in their vileness, and morally despairing at the unapologetic pride they have in their own ignorance.  Much of the language in the first half of the novel is equally divided: there’s a limited narratorial point of view that seems similarly unaware of the wider “real world”, but which simultaneously satirises the protagonists’ despicable ignorance and gluttony.  It’s impressive stuff, coloured by Roberts’ characteristically dry sense of humour. For example, when Marie admits to a friend that she has two children, the narrator chips-in with this sly description:

‘Two!’ repeated Ys, as if this number were one of those mind-stunning statistics you hear on documentaries about the vastness of interstellar space.

The primary catalyst for dramatic action occurs when George and Marie’s daughter, Leah, is kidnapped while on holiday.  Leah is returned to them after several months’ frantic communication with the local police, but something about their daughter isn’t quite right. She’s lost the ability to speak English, has been forced to grow her hair long and, after months in the capture of poor “longhairs”, hasn’t eaten “hard food” since her kidnapping.  After various psychological and pharmaceutical therapies, Leah slowly returns to her old self, but the process takes its toll on her parents, and this traumatic event inevitably exposes the cracks in their marriage.

The change in George’s world view at this point is a slightly garish and parable-esque U-turn that’s just about in keeping with his pre-established character, but the more interesting emotional fallout is definitely Marie’s, whose search for solace in various lovers, drugs, therapies and hobbies reveals an emotional complexity that tested my pre-conceptions of this rich, vain woman.  She’s still patronising and ignorant, of course, but it’s satisfying that Roberts’ caricatures attempt some emotional depth.  There’s a strange amount of posturing in By Light Alone, and the book constantly had me shifting and re-adjusting my opinions of its characters.  I’m not sure if this is a consequence of deliberate misdirects and red herrings designed to play on my own prejudices, or if it’s just down to some clunky writing.

When ‘what happened to Leah’ is eventually revealed to the reader, for example, I was equal parts pleased by the originality of the twist, and disappointed by its implications for characterisation. I guess it’s down to the caprice of the individual reader to decide whether he can buy-into the idea that Leah’s parents wouldn’t have immediately sussed what was going on, even though Roberts had laid some of the groundwork for their parental ignorance in advance. I’m still not sure what I feel about it, to be honest.


The second half of By Light Alone entails a dramatic shift in narrative focus, and the book now concerns itself with Issa, an itinerant “longhair” trying to reach New York.  The change in register at this point is welcome; long descriptions of food, affluence and luxury are replaced like-for-like with accounts of hunger, poverty and violence.  The tonal move is jarring, but deliberately so. As Issa travels through (I think) Turkey, she is variously assaulted, dehydrated, lost and forced to deal with the Spartacists (revolutionaries set on overthrowing the superstructure of the real-food-eating rich).  It’s harrowing and often deftly-handled stuff, but I found many of the long passages that recount Issa’s wanderings to be tedious, repetitive and a bit too vague in their imagery (I had a lot of trouble actually visualising the landscape).  Perhaps you could generously describe such sequences as the novel’s form mirroring the experience of its subject… but er..hmmm.

Seen from the perspective of the “longhairs”, of course, it is now the super-rich of the book’s opening chapters who appear to be the zombies: constantly stuffing their faces, ignorant about, well, everything, and just kinda brain dead and detached.  I don’t want to take this whole zombie analogy too far (I admit it’s a bit fatuous and vague), but it’s definitely helpful in describing the somewhat ironic way in which the book’s two groups of people (the rich, and the longhairs) see one another. The most successful aspect of By Light Alone is the way the novel appears to set-up simplistic binaries, but then perpetually interrupts the process by shifting the perspective to the other side, to detail the pains and flaws of what was heretofore an “other”.  As I’ve said, the rich aren’t exclusively depicted as emotionally depthless and selfish, and likewise Roberts is keen to avoid any stereotypes of the noble poor (many of the “longhairs’” actions are truly despicable).


So By Light Alone is an odd thing, really. It makes a lot of demands of its readers: you have to buy-in to lots of nonsense that can’t always be waved away as “just satire”, but if you’re willing to read it without too much cynicism, then you’ll find the book to be frequently funny, engaging and, at its action-packed dénouement, genuinely moving.  I found myself having to constantly re-orientate my opinions of its characters and their actions, and this, in some ways, is a good reflection of the complexities and problems of the debate at hand.  The second half of the book is a little too earnest, and definitely over-dependent on unlikely coincidences to drive the narrative forward, but By Light Alone remains a fascinating thought experiment, and definitely worth a read.


Bedlam – Nick Spencer & Riley Rossmo

Bedlam coverWhat I like most about Bedlam is that the de facto hero of its noir-inspired universe – a guy oh-so-facetiously called ‘The First’ – is relegated to the margins of the work, dismissed as a curiosity and given what is undoubtedly the least significant narrative role of any of the comic’s characters.  We know he’s a hero because his attire is so laden with all of the visual signifiers we’ve come to expect from that archetype: a long flowing cape, an armour-like, skin-tight bodysuit tailored to show off his ridiculous Adonis physique, and a head piece which, of course, obscures his true identity.  But what soon becomes apparent is that ‘The First’ has no true identity (at least not yet – the comic is on-going), and if we look closely at the few panels in which he makes an appearance, we can see that his mask is blandly anonymous: a completely featureless blank surface. Indeed, he doesn’t look like anything so much as an artist’s wooden mannequin, something deliberately under-designed.  And on the rare occasions that he does show up, the illustrations always seem unfinished, as if Riley Rossmo – whose inky, loose artwork is usually so concerned with transmitting expression, detail and atmosphere – just couldn’t be bothered.

The First

My over-laboured point is that the featureless-ness of this hero (featureless in terms of his dress and his personality) is no happy accident, nor is it the result of lazy writing. The world of Bedlam comprises much of the stuff of familiar super-hero comics, but writer Nick Spencer doesn’t care about the individualist mechanisations of a blandly moralistic hero.  Rather, Bedlam takes as its subject the philosophy of evil, and poses its major question in a provocative by-line “Is evil just something you are, or something you do?”.   And so ‘The First’ is representative of the entire visual and narrative aesthetic of Bedlam, a comic that hugs genre conventions close with one hand, and stabs them in the back with the other.

Bedlam’s primary focus is the fidgety and garrulous Fillmore Press, a one-time murderous psychopath who worked under the guise of ‘Madder Red’.  Fillmore has spent 10 years undergoing a kind of psychotropic therapy that has erased all of his homicidal tendencies and moulded the former super-villain into an upstanding member of society.  The story of his treatment is intermittently told in flash-backs, made visually distinct from the ‘present day’ scenes by an ingenious pallet swap.  Fillmore has entered into an informal working partnership with detective Remira Acevedo, and together they attempt to discover the identity of the city’s newest serial killer.

There’s a lot of dialogue in Bedlam, and it’s a testament to Riley Rossmo’s abilities as an artist that long sequences of convoluted exposition (that often veer dangerously close to plain old info-dumping) always remain visually interesting and inventive.  Juxtaposed against these explanatory conversations are frequent passages of uber-violence and gore, characterised by a liberal application of splashy red ink.  But for me the comic’s most successful moments come when the two leads – Fillmore and detective Acevedo – interact.  There’s a definite odd couple vibe to their relationship, and the tension between Fillmore’s Joker-esque anxious hyperactivity, and Acevedo’s cool professional focus is a delight to watch unfurl.  This contrast plays out on a visual level, too, with Rossmo’s contrasting character designs offering the perfect complement to Spencer’s lively dialogue: Fillmore is all messy corners and pale skinny-ness, whereas Acevedo’s lines are confidently curved and definite.

Fillmore and Acevedo

As Bedlam is still on-going I can’t write about the plot in any completionist sense, but writer Nick Spencer’s refusal to let the comic settle into any kind of monthly status-quo is refreshing and keeps the tension high.  I’d be surprised if Fillmore Press has really become the wholly new man he attests to being; there’s too much of a disparity between his former identity as the truly terrifying and psychotic Madder Red, and his new life as the helpful assistant to a detective – I just don’t trust him… And I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a further development of Bedlam’s refusal to re-cycle old comic clichés, the as-yet unknown serial killer doesn’t have some philosophically complex motive that belies the seemingly base sadism of his acts.

Bedlam doesn’t always hit the mark: the chain of murders inspired by various biblical figures and punishments is already a cliché of middle-brow crime fiction, even if it is given a moderately fresh take here.  Elsewhere, many of detective Acevedo’s actions – such as giving Fillmore access to ludicrously high-level information and materials – seem at odds with her pre-established concerns for professionalism and propriety; such actions seem, to me, more in service to driving narrative momentum than to saying something about Acevedo as a character.  But these are small niggles in what is an otherwise very successful new comic, one that challenges the precepts of its own genre, while simultaneously remaining deeply respectful and enamoured of its forbears.


Utopia – Thomas More

I feel bad that I’ve not posted anything for over a month, but various circumstances have conspired to prevent me from writing anything new and so, to assuage my blogger’s guilt, here’s something you’ve not seen before. This is an extract from a dissertation essay I wrote at University; I’ve removed a few paragraphs from its original 2,500-word length, just to make it digestible as a blog post.

New stuff soon, I promise.


UtopiaCritical approaches to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia fall largely into one of two camps: those who conceive of the book as an exercise in material idealism – a literal representation of More’s perfect society; and those who consider it to be fantastical irony, a satire of early Sixteenth-Century political practices and attitudes, not a pamphlet for social reform.  It’s true that large tracts of the text are dominated by a meticulous and microscopic focus on the exact mechanisms of ostensibly utopianist economic and social ideologies, but there’s also a definite undercurrent of cynicism and incongruity that perpetually destabilises the narrator’s appeals to seriousness.

In the opening book, for example, Cardinal Morton comments that “One might rather hear of something […] than have any real or perfect knowledge of the same”, and it is striking that just after Morton challenges the the veracity of secondary report, Thomas More (the narrator) reveals that he has only heard about the land of Utopia himself via the testimony of a rather baroque and eccentric individual – Raphael Hythloday – whose surname translates from the Greek as ‘peddler of nonsense’.  This playful warning against the reliability of third-party accounts acts as a signifier to the reader that Utopia shouldn’t be taken at face value.  Popular readings conceive the work to be an idealist suggestion for a new order of society, but beneath Utopia’s façade of social idealism sits a dark satire profoundly critical of the politics of contemporary England.

The interpretive pluralism that colours the critical landscape surrounding Utopia is markedly antagonistic, with commentators variously attempting to categorically pigeonhole the work as either i) entirely serious, or ii) entirely satirical; as John Guy surmises:

Idyll or Ideal? This is the enigma of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).  What is the book about? How was it received […]?  Does it represent More’s ‘ideal society’? Or is it merely intended, like Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, to ‘laugh men out of folly’?

The result of this essentialist approach is a tradition of criticism that is often negligent of the full intent of More’s multi-faceted writing, the problem so eloquently put by Alastair Fox:

Commentators have numbered the streaks on Utopia so often that one hesitates to try yet again. They have identified variously its function as a paradigm, […] its seriousness, its frivolity as a jeu d’esprit […] yet somehow Utopia escapes from all attempts to contain its meaning

It follows, then, that a reader should not attempt to dismiss one side or another of this dichotomy between satire and seriousness, but should remain open to the multiplicity of meaning and subtle ambiguity in More’s work.

Warning bells should initially sound before the reader even arrives in the land of Utopia, when Hythloday makes comments about its geographical remoteness. In addition to Utopia (the place) being geographically remote, Utopia the text is elusive on more subtle levels.  Textually the work doesn’t actually exist in a single, definitive edition. John Guy, again:

 There is no holograph or definitive text.  Until recently there has never been a single Utopia.  A standard edition […] was not available until the Yale Edition of Utopia appeared in 1965, and even then doubts must be expressed about the accuracy of the English translation.

Indeed, Utopia was originally composed in Latin, and More’s original manuscript, which he sent to the Dutch humanist Erasmus during printing, has been lost.  So much textual uncertainty must be viewed as an appropriate circumstance when the tone of the book is considered; much like the eponymous land and the philosophical ideal itself, the very text of Utopia eludes us, and without an authoritative script how can we really know its philosophy?

There are problems with authenticity on a narratological level, too.  More is not the primary narrator of Utopia, and his fictional counterpart, Morus (“Fool”), is merely an interested onlooker.  It is the aforementioned Raphael Hythloday who describes the land of Utopia to the reader. So, to break it down: Hythloday reports his journey to Utopia to Morus, a semi-fictional character in an overall work of the imagination composed by Thomas More, no definitive text of which has survived.  Supplementing these several voices, the reader also has to wrestle with Ralph Robinson, the original translator of the book, responsible for the marginalia that are included in most modern editions.  While it’s often tempting to trivialise marginalia as nothing more than a historical curiosity, in the case of Utopia they function as a crucial aid to narrative coherency.  For example, when Hythloday describes Utopia’s cities:

None of the cities desire to enlarge the bounds and limits of their shires, for they count themselves rather the good husbands than the owner of their lands.

Robinson has added in the margins:

But this nowadays

is the ground of all


So many narratological layers definitely function as an alienation device, and further distance Utopia from the ‘real-world’. This was undoubtedly More’s intention when he contrived such a complex narratology; by removing Utopia from any realistic and graspable set of discourses, More is both covering himself against personal accusations of heresy or treason (the land of Utopia isn’t especially Tudor-friendly) and establishing his work as satirical by highlighting the unreachable-ness of Utopia.

Nonetheless, Utopia is not entirely facetious and distant.  The book pretends to a very high literary tradition, and treats its inspirations with a dour sense of reverence.  It begins with the familiar classical motif of a scholarly conversation in a garden: a scenario that mirrors the opening of Plato’s Republic, and is even reminiscent of key scenes in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. In a twee way, the ‘conversation in a garden’ is also suggestive of an older English tradition of dialectic which includes The Owl and the Nightingale, (and in some ways Utopia parodies this secondary English interpretation of a classical Greek trope).  In mimicking the form of such influential works of writing, More is instituting his work in a specific convention of philosophical literature and all its attendant seriousnesses and pomp.

If the book’s content is tricksy and ambiguous, then its form is conversely a somber reference to high philosophy. What Utopia seems to be offering, then, isn’t either total satire or total seriousness, but a convergence of the two.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the book’s lengthy treatise on the value of gold in the land of Utopia.  Thomas More pre-empts Marx’s abolition of personal property by several hundred years, and with gold having no worth as a commodity, the Utopians put the metal to more practical uses:

Of gold and silver they make commonly chamber-pots and other vessels that serve for most vile uses not only in their common halls but in every man’s private house.

In simply using a chamber pot, the Utopians are, unknowingly, defecating over the entire value system of mercantile Tudor England. Hythloday remarks that the worship of gold is meaningless; which is at best a simplistic observation in humanist terms, but More’s criticism is more complex than it may initially appear.  In combining the images of gold and excrement (whose relative market values, it must be obvious, exist in the most extreme polar opposition) the writer is commenting on the state of the contemporary European economy.  The importation into Spain of a very large amount of gold from the ‘New World’ had led to a debasement of the coinage. Spanish gold travelled all over Europe as troops in the Spanish army were paid, and with this massive influx of the metal, gold lost its value and this importation became a cause of inflation, which very few people in the Sixteenth Century understood.  Though More’s analogy is comically hyperbolic, its intention is obvious; gold was becoming increasingly less valuable, and he is utilizing the satirical aspects of his fiction (a nation of people shitting into gold pots) to make a serious contemporary economic comment.

Many of Utopia’s more ‘liberal’ ideologies (to employ a modern usage) would have been viewed as unrealistically extreme, treasonous, even blasphemous in Sixteenth-Century England.  Legitimizing euthanasia and divorce would just have been ridiculously excessive (even for a Lutheran!).  Sir Thomas More, a stringent Roman Catholic, would never have advocated such ideas, yet in Utopia euthanasia and suicide are endowed with special moral validity, even praised: in certain situations a man of Utopia may righteously “dispatch himself”.  Such crude language is hardly reflective of More’s personal philosophy; obviously this is not a serious suggestion for a new social practice. The references to euthanasia or suicide, as with all other Utopian policies, are examples of More expressing his serious contemporary concerns via the medium of mocking, satirical devices – a making-stupid of those ideas to which he is opposed.  We have established that the land of Utopia is impossible, and so by placing euthanasia inside it, More highlights what he considered to be the unfeasibility of the idea; mocking extremist and irreligious social reformers whilst ensuring his more serious ideas, for example those about greater and more available hospital care, are also channeled to the reader.

As a resolution, then, Utopia clearly cannot be defined under any single, reductive critical criterion, and any attempt to do so remains an ultimately futile endeavour.  Utopia is a convergence of two ostensibly conflicting literary discourses: hysterical satire on the one hand, and a solemn program for social reform on the other. More’s satire and his social reform are not mutually exclusive disciplines.  Despite what traditional criticism surrounding Utopia dictates, the presence of satire does not destroy the moral integrity of realistic, socially reformative ideologies, nor vice versa.  As the gold chamber pot pertinently demonstrates, More’s culture criticism is expressed via his satire: they function as one in the same, each enriching the other. Utopia is not a tug-of-war between two differing goals, it’s a fundamentally modern bringing-together of opposites, and therein, to me, lies its enduring appeal and literary successfulness.


The A26 – Pascal Garnier

The A26I guess it’s customary for me to begin my reviews by writing about the genre in which any given book functions, but darn it this one has me stumped.

Stylistically The A26 borrows from mid-Twentieth-Century hardboiled noir; stuff like Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon.  The writing is often cynical, curt and metaphor-heavy, characterised by an unsympathetic portrayal of gruesome violence.  In fact, many of the narrator’s observations are so close to something Philip Marlowe would say that they can only be viewed as appreciative nods in Chandler’s direction.  Where The Big Sleep equates bodies with heartbreak:

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

The A26 follows suit with the slightly less eloquent:

They say there is nothing heavier than an empty heart; the same is true of a lifeless body.

Of course this specific reference to Chandler may just be an idiosyncrasy of the translator (I don’t have a French copy (or a French speaker, for that matter) here for comparison); but needless to say there’s definitely a noir-esque tone that pervades the prose.  Acts of violence are described with a glib matter-of-fact-ness, and when the writing does become more lyrical, it’s always with a snarky undertone and dark sense of poetry:

The countryside, accustomed to low skies and drizzle, looked ill at ease in its Sunday best.  The bricks were too red, the sky too blue, the grass too green. It was as if nature felt embarrassed at being so extravagantly made up.

These stylistic proclivities, coupled with the story’s bodycount and focus on social outsiders, should make the act of genre classification an assured thing, right? It’s a noir. But once you’ve read a few chapters, and you start to get to grips with the actual plot, things don’t seem quite so clear-cut.  The A26 has murders, sure, but it’s not about the murders, per se; there are no procedural or detective elements, and without meaning to sound dismissive of noir and its pulp roots (of which I am much-enamoured), The A26 just seems too… literary.  It’s a novel about the strange hinterlands between spaces – both physical and figurative – and the inevitable fallout that ensues when people try to bridge the gaps between, for example, the rural and the urban, past and present, love and hate, life and death.

This thematic pre-occupation with boundaries is made readily apparent in the book’s opening chapter, a metaphorically loaded scene that sees Frenchwoman Yolande staring out at the world through a tiny peephole drilled in the wall of the boarded-up house that she never, ever leaves.  Yolande believes that World War II is still on-going, and that all of her neighbours are ‘boche’ informants.  She is cared for by her brother, Bernard; a retired rail worker obsessed with the construction of the ‘A26’, a major road (and obvious metaphor for death) slowly impinging on their rural community.

Yolande and Bernard have lived in this old house – separate and hermetic – for decades, and the real substance of this book is found in the ways these characters react when the outside – illness, neighbours, the new road, technology, the present – begins to push against and trespass their borders.  It’s as much an investigation into solitariness, love and desperation as it is a forensic examination of the circumstances surrounding some particularly imaginative murders.

So might we just call it Literary Fiction with noir tendencies, then? Well, no, because to do so would be to perform an almost sacrilegious disservice to another of the book’s defining traits: The A26 is really, really funny.  It’s so funny that (you could probably argue) calling it anything other than a Black Comedy is to decidedly miss the point. The blogger WinstonsDad is correct when he likens the book’s premise to the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is comedy to be found in the new road, with all of the traffic and metaphors it brings with it. But WinstonsDad’s second comparison – that the siblings of The A26 evoke the reclusive brother-sister duo Edward and Tubbs from the T.V. show The League of Gentleman – is much closer to the descriptive mark.  The comedy is decidedly a gallows humour; Garnier’s descriptions of a bic biro being used as a murder weapon are gruesome, but also very funny.  And the humour isn’t exclusively violent; between the book’s murder sequences the comedy is frequently scatological and sexual: preposterous in a way that’s reminiscent of medieval fabliaux (a genre of writing that emerged from Northeast France – and I imagine it’s no coincidence that The A26 is set in Picardy).

But in order to stop the novel descending into abject farce, which would bathetically undermine the book’s more serious concerns for loneliness and mental illness, much of The A26’s grotesque comedy is undercut by, well, stuff that’s just genuinely grotesque: grotesque in a way that provides some nice tonal variance, but also establishes a disconcerting and genuinely unnerving tension.  Somewhat predictably, then, this leads me onto another of Pascal Garnier’s genre appropriations: horror fiction.  Converging with the noir-esque narration, the literary concern with boundaries and the book’s strange sense of comedy, are some passages that wouldn’t be out of place in Lovecraft or Ligotti:

Always at the end of this dream, however, his two halves would be wriggling on either side of the track and would manage to stick themselves together again.


Something had smashed on the floor, her bowl half-full of red wine.  Some creature going past no doubt.  They were everywhere.  You couldn’t see them but they were there, nibbling, scrabbling, gnawing at even the very shadows.

And this description of a rictal grimace is absolutely a reference to Georg Heym’s The Autopsy:

On the mattress the exposed corpse gave a toothy grin.

But much like the other element’s I’ve discussed, the horror isn’t prevalent enough to warrant labelling the entire novel as such.

I could go on and on: the changes that Bernard undergoes when he realises his illness is terminal could encourage me to read The A26 as a kind of late-life bildungsroman.  The quasi-incestuous nature of the siblings’ relationship make me want to tag the novel as a love story (albeit a dark, twisted one); and the neighbours’ investigations into the strange murders almost (almost) make this a piece of straight-forward crime fiction.  But simply listing verbatim all of the different literary genres that Garnier has appropriated, though providing some glimpse of the book’s aesthetic, doesn’t really offer, in itself, any kind of critical understanding of the work.

So, why, then, is The A26 such an obvious smorgasbord of so many disparate genre conventions?  Well, as I understand it, this blurring of genre borders acts as a deliberate structuralist reflection of the book’s actual plotting and themes.  Bernard and Yolande have spent decades trying to erect walls (both physical and figurative) around themselves, but their efforts are ultimately proved futile as their borders are all breached with violent inevitability.  Within their tiny house, Bernard and Yolande’s approach to life seems divided: he is obsessed with death, she insists that “Nothing [is] ever supposed to stop” – but even this distinction is proven to be permeable, as the novel’s denouement so powerfully demonstrates: both characters choose the same path, regardless of their individual approaches to death.

The A26 is a warning against hermeticism, blockades and isolation: an illustration that the borders we so unthinkingly put up – even those literary distinctions between genres – are in fact unstable and transient.  The proper word for this rejection of boundaries and certainties is probably “modernism” and this, it seems, is the best label for the book: at least it’s better than the bullshitty genre compound “Horror-fiction-literary-black-comedy-noir”.  But the fact remains that whatever you do decide to call The A26, the book is absolutely fantastic.


Thaliad – Marly Youmans

Thaliad cover by Clive Hicks-JenkinsSo it seems that literary post-apocalyptic narrative is undergoing something of a renaissance here in the early 21st Century.  The genre’s most famous works (Earth Abides, A Canticle for Leibowitz,Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, maybe Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren etc. and etc.) set early standards of poetic and intellectual brilliance so dazzlingly high that it was beginning to look like nothing would ever challenge them, and that perhaps the genre itself was imaginatively all used-up.  Thankfully this appears not to be the case, as starting with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in 2006, the floodgates have opened on post-apocalyptica, and recent years have produced some of the field’s finest books, notably China Miéville’s Railsea, Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World, Michael Cisco’s modernist weird-fest The Narrator, and – less successful but nonetheless prominent – The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by David Almond, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl.

Yup, the genre is definitely on a roll, and Marly Youmans’ Thaliad is no exception; in fact, it’s one of the best examples I’ve ever read.  Thaliad has a commonality with The Road in that it comes from a literary tradition decidedly outside of the SFF mainstream: it’s a mythopoeic epic poem about seven children attempting to survive the aftermath of some non-disclosed apocalyptic event referred to only as ‘The Fire’.  One of the children, a girl named Thalia, soon emerges as the de facto leader of the group, and together they settle in the ruins of an abandoned village on the edge of lake Glimmerglass (which a quick Google search informed me is James Fennimore Cooper’s alternate name for Otsego Lake in New York).  What follows is a desperate and genuinely moving cling to life that’s equal parts bleak and uplifting, harrowing and hopeful.

A lazy crib would be: ‘The Road meets Lord of the Flies in verse’, but such a label, however succinct, fails to encapsulate the sheer inventiveness and lyrical exuberance of Youmans’ writing. Who, for example, could resist such beautiful and strange and violent language as:

Nothing could have halted them from verdict

And vengeance, save angelic messengers

Arrived by unexpected thunderbolt.

A wail went out from Thalia and streamed

Across the mire, across the slough of blood

It’s structurally formal, but the poetry never feels rigidly metered or constrained; a feat entirely due to the beauty, flow and vitality of the writing. Sure it’s heavily stylised in the way you’d expect from epic verse that channels, among others, Homer; but the writing isn’t at all arch or overbearing.  Furthermore, the book has some strikingly novelistic traits: chapter divisions, direct speech, and a first person narrator, all of which should act as a helpful way-in for those readers more familiar with novels than poetry.

Thaliad is composed in blank verse (that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter), and there’s a definite tension between the book’s future-looking, Science Fictional premise, and the New Formalist way it eschews free verse in favour of this more traditional approach to rhythm and prescribed syllable count.  Wrapped up in this tension between the book’s setting and its form are Youmans’ playful references to the canon of classical epic poetry.  The opening line, for example, “It was the age beyond the ragged time” references the first line of The Iliad, with “age” and “ragged” bearing more than a passing phonic and visual resemblance to Homer’s first-line repetition of “rage” (as it’s translated in English, obviously); and this serves as a definite tonal signifier for the poem that follows.  Similarly, such chapter headings as ‘Seven Against the World’ make reference to Greek Tragic drama (as do the frequent allusions to masks), and the text itself is replete with lively puns, such as this clever nod to both the Icarus story and the fabled fluid that supposedly ran in the veins of the Greek Gods (the ‘ichor’):

The heavens, ichorous, let down a rain

That seemed as if it could have been the blood

Of dying Gods dreamed up in ancient worlds.

The most striking Classical reference is, of course, in the book’s name. Using the titular suffix ‘-iad’ would have been an act of pure hubris in the hands of less able writers, and initially I was sceptical, expecting Thaliad to be open to accusations of self-aggrandising pomposity and stylistic misappropriation; after all, calling your book ‘Thaliad’ and hence inviting comparison with Homer could be mistaken as a very cocky move indeed.  Happily, there’s a fantastic inter-textual rationale behind this book’s title and its neo-classical form.  The narrator (and supposed writer) of Thaliad, Emma, is speaking 60 years after the events she describes, and learnt her trade as a poet-historian by salvaging what books she could (presumably the Classics) from the ruined world’s libraries.  So Thaliad, then, fictionalises the story of its own creation; the book itself is supposedly a piece of history, written as a record of the first years following ‘The Fire’.

It’s not unlike China Miéville’s post-apocalyptic landscape the ‘Railsea’, whose inhabitants have re-ordered society through a kind of collective performance of Moby Dick.  The world of Thaliad likewise addresses the problem of overcoming the apocalypse through an act of textual salvage: Emma and Thalia have re-constructed the world’s history via this filter of Classic literature, and the results are surprisingly uplifting.  It really works, but only because the post-apocalyptic setting provides suitable thematic gravitas: no other genre of 21st Century fiction could get away with appropriating the language of classic Greek literature without simultaneously committing some enormous faux pas.

But don’t worry if Homer et al isn’t your particular thing.  Thaliad doesn’t pre-suppose an understanding of Greek literature, and knowledge of the Classics is not a pre-requisite to fully enjoying this poem.  The book’s real appeal is its language, its characters and the heartbreaking decisions they find themselves making.  Marly Youmans takes great pains to ensure that Thaliad isn’t one of those post-apocalyptic narratives whose characters are mere passive bystanders swept along by Big, Important, Global events beyond their control.  Choices made and not-made are the thematic heart of the poem, and for me the book’s most significant event occurs at its very beginning, when the children make their first collective decision: to abandon one of their number, Gabriel, a boy who won’t stop crying:

They shouted at him that he’d learn a thing,

Or two, to not be so unendingly

Unbearable, to weep as all could weep

But did not do.

[…] They drove away.

They drove away! And left that little boy

Alone with bridges, river, blowing ash,

Immensity.  He was eleven, a child

It’s in passages like this that Youmans’ writing really shines.  There’s a rare use of rhyme here (‘two’ with ‘do’), but it’s buried and makes you trip over your own tongue.  The heavy mid-line caesura stalls the previously graceful, swift rhythm, as does the prominent repetition of “They drove away”.  In essence, the poetry wilfully disrupts itself in sympathy to the unnatural, unsettling events taking place; the poem’s voice is mimetic of its subject – it’s brilliant.

The six remaining children soon realise what an appalling thing they’ve done and turn around, hoping to find Gabriel once more:

Three times they drove the distance of the bridge,

But nothing did they see, nothing at all

Of Gabriel the weeper, vanished, gone

As if a messenger had flown to Earth

And snatched him up to ashless paradise.

The abandonment of Gabriel influences the moral identities of the children more so than any other of the book’s events. Chapters and decades later, it remains the significant episode of their lives, presumably because, unlike ‘The Fire’, discarding Gabriel is a tragedy of their own contriving.  If the apocalypse can be read as a second Fall (and there’s plenty of Biblical imagery at play: “There is no peaceful land, / And gates of Eden long ago clanged shut”), this first decision made by the children is definitely their loss of innocence.  On numerous occasions various speakers equate this early naivety with all their future tragedies:

– For where is Gabriel, that child of light,

Who might have been the father of the world? –


 Perhaps the sin of Gabriel, forlorn,

Abandoned on the track has weighted us

Like pocket stones in deepening water.

If you want to be twee about it, you could probably argue that Thaliad functions as a metaphor for the end of childhood and the violent emergence into the adult realm of moral responsibility.  I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you really must.

And while I’m wary of claiming that Thaliad espouses any particular moral message or ideology, there’s a graspable celebration of life, literature and re-birth that belies the oftentimes dark and violent nature of its plot.

Thaliad Chapter XXIII

It would be remiss of me at this point not to mention Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who as well as designing the book’s cover, has illustrated small iconographic vignettes that head each of Thaliad’s twenty four chapters (note: the same number of books divide The Iliad).  These striking black and white collages definitely influenced my conception of Thaliad’s world, and the grey-tone in which they’re rendered acts as a satisfying visual call-back to the descriptions of ash and rubble that dominate much of the poem’s imagery.  As well as being unusually beautiful, Thaliad’s artwork is loaded with symbolism and connotation.  The image that heads chapter twenty three, for example, depicts two of the children (now fully-grown) fighting over Thalia.  The icon itself is a silhouette-esque depiction of two men locked in combat, with their swords provocatively placed so as to resemble the positioning of erect phalluses in a way that alludes to the lust that is the deeper subtext and reasoning behind their feud.

Thaliad is an extraordinary, deeply moving and fiercely intelligent poem, and I hope I’ve given some indication of its many achievements.  I’ve not written much about the plot because, frankly, it’s difficult to do so without resorting to massive spoilers, but suffice it to say that several of the story’s twists are genuinely shocking, genuinely original.  Its greatest accomplishment is the way it successfully melds so many disparate literary traditions into something cohesive, without seams.  References to Diana Wynne Jones can be found adjacent nods to Ovid or Cormac McCarthy and Andrew Marvell.  It plays with form in memorable and mischievous ways (the first fourteen lines of chapter 18, for example, could easily be isolated as a kind of weird blank verse bucolic sonnet), and it always works.  Thaliad is a convergence of genre spaces, and we Science Fiction fans, sometimes so rigid and stubborn in our reading, would do well to embrace it.


Both Flesh and Not – David Foster Wallace

Both Flesh & Not CoverBoth Flesh and Not is the first of what I assume will be several posthumous bringing-togethers of David Foster Wallace’s shorter non-fiction.  This collection offers a somewhat disparate array of brilliant and not-so-brilliant essays plonked in concert with seemingly little concern for chronology, consistency of subject matter or overall theme.  As such, I’ve decided to structure my review accordingly:

Both Flesh and Not – The compilers hit the ground running with what is arguably DFW’s most well-known essay; a long and performative piece about Roger Federer’s tennis genius which acts as a way-in for DFW to examine the state of modern tennis in general.  Possibly the best example of his tripartite prose style, Both Flesh and Not melds hyperbolic and lyrical writing with high-level technical language and a penchant for multi-page, off-tangent footnotes.  The overly long and microscopic focus on, for example, a particular ground-stroke of Federer’s or the ballet of his backhand, is equal parts tedious and hypnotic, but plough through the jargon long enough, and you’ll eventually be rewarded with such gems as:

The truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.

Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young – In which DFW successfully equates the 1980’s rise of utilitarian, adjective-hating, snarky prose with “the aesthetic norms of mass entertainment”.  The idea that “Television’s greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding” would later become a significant and oft-repeated part of his critical ideology.  It’s unfortunate that a beautifully written and thought-provoking essay is occasionally undermined by such essentialist bullshit as “Today’s trash writers are entertainers working artists’ turf”, but all is forgiven by a thinly-veiled yet wonderful end-game jibe at his bitter rival (or so the press would have you believe) Bret Easton Ellis: “many of our best-known [young writers] seem content merely to have reduced interpretation to whining”.

The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’ – A difficult and meandering book review that’s not for the philosophically uninitiated.  Some of it I got, a lot of it I didn’t get. But mostly, I imagine, there was stuff that I don’t even know I wasn’t getting.

Back In New Fire – The infamous AIDS essay, and, it seems, the absolute low-point of DFW’s writing. Here he lambasts the sexual revolution of the 1960’s for taking away any sense of danger or thrill or human connection from sex.  He imagines your typical chivalrous knight assailing a castle to win a fair maiden (yes, this really is his metaphor of choice for talking about sex…) but instead of a dragon to defeat (religion, parental control, societal perceptions, unwanted pregnancy etc.), thanks to modern contraception and an openness about sex, there IS NO DRAGON.  The knight can saunter in and his maiden will be waiting, legs akimbo. No risk, no taboo. Sex is now easy, so where’s the thrill etc?

Ignoring for a second his problematic rendering of sexual relations as exclusively a man assailing a maiden in a castle, he states:

 The casual knights of my own bland generation might well come to regard AIDS as a blessing, a gift perhaps bestowed by nature to restore some critical balance, or maybe summoned unconsciously out of the collective erotic despair of the post-60’s glut. Because the dragon is back, and clothed in a fire that can’t be ignored.

He goes on to add “I mean no offense”, and follows this with (somewhat dishearteningly) “but” [isn’t that word just the death knell of tolerance?] “our own history shows that – for whatever reason – an erotically charged human existence requires impediments to passion”.

 It’s… it’s not his greatest moment, to be honest.

The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2 – In which DFW reveals himself to be quite the film critic by rightly pointing out the myriad ways in which the first Terminator film is far superior to the utter bathetic dross that is Terminator 2.  I, however, love this essay for the following observation, so beautifully put:

It was flat-out criminal that Sigourney Weaver didn’t win the ’86 Oscar for her lead in Cameron’s Aliens.  No male lead in the history of U.S. action film even approaches Weaver’s second Ripley for emotional depth and sheer balls – she makes Stallone, Willis et al look muddled and ill.

Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. novels > [sic] 1960 – In which DFW reveals himself to be a better film critic than literary critic.  These five short pieces on his favourite novels are uninspiring, un-insightful, flat and somewhat of a faux pas.  His one-sentence review of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (“Don’t even ask”) is glib and immature, it seems.

The Best of the Prose Poem – Very funny book review taking the form of a bullet-point list, said form employed because, DFW argues, none of the words preceding each bullet point’s title “constitute subjective compliment, appositive not any recognised grammatical unit” hence allowing to him to vastly exceed his “rigid 1,000 word limit”.

Twenty-Four Word Notes – 24 micro-essays, each concerned with an individual word or some esoterica thereof.  Here Foster Wallace insists that the word whom, as a relative pronoun, should never be replaced with that (as many people do replace it), and that any progressive linguist who suggests that the increased popular use of that in place of whom is representative of the word whom being phased out of the language is wrong WRONG WRONG.

This sort of argument is interesting in theory: ignore it in practice. As of 2003, misusing that for who or whom, whether in writing or speech, functions as a kind of class-marker – it’s the grammatical equivalent of wearing NASCAR paraphernalia or liking pro wrestling.

Well, that’s a nice helping of intellectual and cultural elitism if ever I’ve heard it.  I wish I could say he was being ironic or tongue in cheek. Alas.

Just Asking – Brilliant short, provocative essay that asks what price are we willing to pay for freedom of movement/agency/speech within a state, free of government intervention, over-zealous policing etc. and etc. “What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite everyone’s best efforts, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of terrible suicidal attack that a democratic republic cannot 100 percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?”.

Bonus: The ‘Best Footnote of the Book’ award goes to the medial-question-mark-in-sentence trick, which allows DFW to form a coherent sentence using the word that six times in a row: “He said that? that that that that that writer used should have been a which?


The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

TWUBCOn the face of it, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle seems a fairly innocent and quirky coming-of-age story; an earnest yarn about a passive, unemployed waster who only realises the true value of life and love (etc.) when his wife leaves him, an old friend dies, and his, er, cat disappears (what is it with Murakami and disappearing cats?).  But even the most superficial reading will soon reveal a cliché-riddled and structurally confusing mess of a book populated by inconsistent and ungraspable characters whose various motivations, behaviours and decisions are just completely baffling.  Worst of all, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is underpinned by the most appalling misogyny, reinforced by a fetishistic presentation of violence and a dismissive treatment of rape.  It’s a male power fantasy that lamely attempts to justify itself by gradually exposing all of its female characters as adulteresses, pathological liars and manipulators, as if in some way this validates the male-gazey, objectifying and frankly gross way the book presents women.

It begins well enough; protagonist Toru Okada – a polite, shy, loving but unambitious sort – is introduced living in suburban Tokyo with his wife Kumiko and cat Noburo Wataya.  Soon both wife and cat mysteriously vanish from Toru’s life, and what follows is an increasingly confusing sequence of events interspersed with cod-philosophical musings on, for example, the transitory nature of love, Japanese consumerism, and the modernist quest to find meaning in an increasingly homogenised world.  Punctuating the mundane, kitchen sink-ness of the runaway wife plot are some slightly more “weird” (a favourite adjective of Murakami’s) events: mysterious phone calls, visits from people with access to information they shouldn’t reasonably be expected to have access to, occasional prophesies from old, wisened herbalists etc..  It’s the sort of trendy, surreal-lite kind of stuff that literary hipsters dine out on.

The prose, meanwhile, is characteristically understated and blunt; there’s little in the way of lyricism, but the matter-of-factness of tone is perfectly charming, and the frequent off-tangent ramblings and numerous adjacent references to classical music and food preparation give the writing an identity truly its own.  The clipped, simple sentences and the author’s reluctance to indulge in polysyllabic words lend great pace to the narrative, and I found myself turning pages at a pretty good whack.

It’s not long, however, before this quirky and amiable tone is subsumed by a more sinister penchant for titillation, exploitative quasi-pornographic writing and a truly unbelievable description of one woman’s sexual “awakening” (more on this later).  Toru’s investigations into the whereabouts of his missing cat lead him to recruit the services of Malta and Creta Kano: sisters who offer a sort of life-coaching-cum-spiritualism advice service.  During Toru’s first meeting with Malta, she describes the rape of her younger sister at the hands of Toru’s brother-in-law.  This long passage of direct speech is constantly interrupted by copious descriptions of Malta’s breasts, the shape of her buttocks as discernible through her dress, the movements of her tongue as she speaks etc. and etc.  Malta is recounting an act of monstrous sexual assault, meanwhile the author’s gaze (and by proxy the reader’s) is focusing on her body.  It seems that while Murakami is attempting to elicit an emotionally sympathetic response in his readers, he is at the same time trying to… turn them on.  The juxtaposition of a distressing rape confessional with constant descriptive asides about the speaker’s body is unsettling in the extreme, denigratory towards women and patronising to the reader; as if the only way Murakami can hold our attention during what should be one of the book’s more difficult, more emotionally demanding scenes is to make cheap appeals to our sex drives.  I say ‘our’; of course the writing is actually targeting a very specific readerly demographic: probably young, definitely straight, men.  Murakami lets it be known in no uncertain terms who he wants reading his book. The overall impression of the scene is this: “yeah, her sister was raped: but phwoar!”

There’s no saving grace; this contrasting placement of rape confession and perving is not trying to make some larger, over-arching thematic or structural point: there’s zero nuance at play here, and suggestions that this scene is meant, in some way, to tell us something about Toru as a character are, I feel, generous in the extreme, as Toru’s behaviour is completely at-odds with his pre-established personal concern for sympathy, kindness and respect.

And unfortunately this is not an isolated example; there isn’t a single female character who isn’t first introduced (and then meticulously described) in terms of her physical characteristics.  Of course this isn’t by any means unusual – writers have to paint their pictures – but the descriptive focus of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is distinctly sexual and, I might add, this is a narrative idiosyncrasy that does not apply to any of the book’s male characters.

To return to the aforementioned “sexual awakening”, then.  At about mid-way through the book, the rape of Creta Kano is described for a second time, only now it has been re-evaluated not as rape “per se” (Todd Akin, anyone?), but as a kind of re-birth for the victim.  I shit you not.  Creta takes great pains to describe herself as a previously numb and empty shell, devoid of all passion and emotion; literally incapable of feeling.  All of this changes when she is raped [[and as a note, the word ‘rape’ mysteriously vanishes from the text at this point – whatever it is that happened, both narrator and characters stop calling it ‘rape’; it’s now just sex, or whatever]].  Creta Kano, upon being raped, undergoes a miraculous transfiguration and is now capable of love, compassion, anger, happiness – why, the whole gamut of regular human emotions! Now that she’s been “made to feel such intense sexual pleasure” she undergoes a “gigantic physical change” and an “escape from [her] profound numbness”.  What was initially described as a rape becomes, without any pretext, explanation or logic, some kind of sexual rite of passage requisite for any woman to truly become able to experience proper emotion.  This is reiterated later, too, when Toru’s wife Kumiko writes a cold and uncaring letter to him in which she confesses to months of promiscuous adultery (over which she has “no sense of guilt”, of course) with men she doesn’t even like, but which sex enables her to finally enter the world of stable, adult emotional life.  The Wind-up Bird Chronicle offers a “literary” (word used in the loosest possible way) equivalent of the macho cliché “what she really needs is a good seeing to”.

The conception of women as numb homunculi or empty shells incapable of feeling until true emotion is fucked into them at the behest of men’s generous cocks is just… well… the word offensive doesn’t quite seem to cut it.  The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is founded upon a deep structured misogyny, and any reading that doesn’t interpret the book in this way would be very forgiving indeed.

Of course, no journey into the finer points of what it means to be human would be complete without our hero having lots of no-strings sex with beautiful women – but there’s a problem here, too: our hero Toru is married, and Murakami has already established that adultery is wrong. The solution? Dream sex! You’ve never heard of it? Throughout the novel Toru has multiple sexual encounters with women in his dreams – but these are no mere wet dream fantasies: the women in question experience everything, but in some mutual otherland or dreamscape rather than the real world.  Imagine that shared dreaming stuff from Inception, only with lots more sex, and you’ll get the idea.

Essentially, dreamsex is a mechanism employed by Murakami to exonerate his hero from any accusations that he is committing adultery (which would reduce him to the same moral level as the other adulterers in the novel –all, by the way, female) while at the same time enabling him to screw all of the women he desires.  The point of all this dreamsex is narratively incomprehensible, seeming to serve no purpose in the wider plotting of the novel, nor in its emotional intricacies, as Toru, remember, is supposedly a man broken by the abandonment of his wife.  We must conclude, then, that the dreamsex serves no other function than to titillate the reader by breaking up the monotony of what would otherwise be a primarily thoughtful and philosophical rumination on the agony of love.  A kind of bribe to maintain our interest, treating the reader with the same disdain for our attention spans that T.V. and film producers have for their audiences’: keep the action and the sex frequent, lest we give the impression that this is a work of cohesion and depth.

The preposterous height of these non-sequitur titillations, if you will, occurs at around the three-hundred-and-fifty page mark, when Toru picks up a garden hose and is propositioned by a bikini clad sixteen-year-old school girl:

“Would you spray me with that? It’s sooo [sic] hot! My brain’s going to fry if I don’t wet myself down.”

It was warm and limp. I reached behind the bushes and turned on the tap. At first only hot water that had been warmed inside the hose came out, but it cooled down until it was spraying cold water. […] I aimed a good, strong spray at her. I looked at [her] body, hardly covered by her bikini.  She was sixteen years old, but she had the build of a girl of thirteen or fourteen.

I hope by now that I’ve established that I’m not just being prudish: quite why this gratuitous scene (it goes on for several pages) is even in the novel is completely beyond me.

Anyway, you get the idea: it would do my review a disservice were I to list, verbatim, all such sequences in the novel. But over and over again in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, women are routinely objectified, vilified and pacified by the actions of character, narrator, writer and, in a kind of gross by-proxy complicity, reader.

Elsewhere the story unfolds in myriad confusing and messy ways until the final 200 pages: an entirely baffling and bizarre sequence of events that defies any logical explication and structure.  Can Toru melt through the walls of a well? Sure! Does the black mark that appeared on his face for no reason 400 pages ago similarly vanish without ceremony? You bet!  Does Toru follow a Tokyo stranger all the way home and beat the living shit out of him with a baseball bat in a superfluously violent scene that undermines everything Murakami has heretofore done to establish his character? YES!  I’ve read various internet reviews/commentaries/forums in which critics have attempted to paste some philosophical or moral reasoning over the book’s nonsensical events, but very little actually seems to stick.  I’ve enjoyed novels by Murakami before (Kafka on the Shore and After Dark I thought were pretty good), and taken pleasure in the obvious fact that he doesn’t plan before writing (he’s admitted it, too), but The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is just surreal for surreal’s sake; a trendy misappropriation of post-structuralist genre proclivities that captures much of the style of the continental philosophical novels that Murakami is clearly aping, but none of the depth.

So, no redeeming qualities then? Well, Toru’s neighbour May Kasahara is a wonderful character: playful, puzzling-but-not-in-a-maddening-way, idiosyncratic in speech and morally aware of her own past mistakes and limitations. It’s unfortunate that about mid-way through the novel, then, Toru and May are separated and reduced to corresponding via letter; at which point May loses much of her personality and quirkiness, as if once May is out of Toru’s arm’s reach, Murakami couldn’t be bothered with her anymore – it was the proximity of their relationship and the obvious contrasts therein that made the characters work together. Adding distance subtracts tension.

But that’s about it.  The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is a sinister, misogynistic book characterised by an overabundance of pointless sex and violence, coupled with an alarming treatment of female sexuality, emotion and morality.  The placing of long, rambling descriptions of the Japanese military efforts in Manchuko adjacent meaningless sequences of dreamsex is puerile, belittling and offensive.  Ostensibly the book is about the journey from numbness to feeling – but I just don’t see it; for me and my own journey reading this book, it was the other way around.


The American Future: A History – Simon Schama

Nobody writes history quite like Simon Schama:

But when you stepped through the bails of scratchy tumbleweed that had come to rest against the broken fence you could see the place was held together by nothing more than the debris of its own ruin; the splintered wreck of a life that was hanging on in the middle of nowhere, so its reproach would endure against the Colorado sky like someone who wouldn’t or couldn’t stop crying.

Like most people, I assume, I first became aware of Simon Schama way back in 1999 when I watched his seminal BBC series A History of Britain. But it wasn’t until university that I started paying attention to him as a literary stylist, when a lecturer told me (with all the histrionic hand gestures and unintentional spitting of the enthused academic) that the moment Simon Schama decided to write history instead of fiction marked a terrible loss to the modern novel.  I took this gauche statement for all the unqualified hyperbole it so obviously is but, apparently, there was indeed such a “moment” as my supervisor described.  In Schama’s quasi-autobiographical book of essays Scribble, Scribble, Scribble he writes:

I made my choice albeit with some torment. I was a History Boy. Hector [Schama’s English master] took it badly, as if betrayed, and barely spoke to me for months.  Many years later I told him that much of the rest of my life had been spent trying to make the choice between history and literature moot.

Of course you could interpret this statement as a bashful attempt to justify the defiant, un-historian-like floweriness of Schama’s prose, but – for what it’s worth – the more books I read by Simon Schama, the more I’m impressed by not just his fluency and eloquence as a popular historian, but by the beauty, imagination and emotional insight of his writing.  His newest book The American Future, which examines the myriad ways in which America has imagined its own future “from the founding fathers to Barack Obama”, isn’t any kind of departure from his previous output of so-called “narrative history”, and as such is unlikely to convert any of his critics, but it definitely feels more socially relevant than many of his recent publications, which have leant more towards art history than politics (The Power of Art, Rembrandt’s Eyes, Landscape and Memory (which is excellent btw) etc).

The American Future, then, sweeps through two hundred-plus years of American history in just under 500 pages.  This compression of so much history inevitably results in an unrelenting barrage of names, dates and political terms that make great demands on both the reader’s concentration and memory.  Attempting to remember every place or event or person mentioned in just a single chapter is akin to standing in front of one of those tennis ball machines set to rapid fire and trying to catch (and hold onto) every ball it serves: some – if not most – are going to pass you by.  Thankfully this quick-fire and comprehensive approach is tempered by Schama’s narrative (I’m wary of saying “novelistic”) treatment of history.  Schama’s concern for his subjects’ emotional lives, coupled with frequent deferrals to diary entries, letters and photographs make The American Future a pre-eminently affecting and story-like telling of history.  There’s little concern for chronology as the book flits, sometimes in the span of a single sentence, between different decades (and even centuries) of history in a bid to make whatever over-arching thematic or structural point a particular chapter is concerned with.  Like all narrative history, then, The American Future is open to such accusations that the book is more concerned with imbuing an emotional impression upon its readers than, say, delivering as much objective information as possible – and that’s fine; it is, of course, down to the caprice of the individual reader to decide what they read history for.  The prose takes undeniable poetic license with history, but always in an attempt to (cliché imminent…) bring its subjects to life:

As if in supplication, one of the cassocked choir would every so often slowly lift both arms, palms upwards, trembling, like a marionette worked by a celestial puppeteer.

In the opening chapter ‘America at War’, Schama establishes the dichotomy that he will use throughout the book to analyse various aspects of American history: Jeffersonian vs. Hamiltonian approaches to militarism.  Thomas Jefferson favoured a limited army of well-educated specialists trained in engineering and capable of re-building a country’s infrastructure following a war – an army to defend liberty. Alexander Hamilton, by contrast, argued for a larger, more militaristic force – an army to spread liberty. The parallels with modern American approaches to foreign policy aren’t lost on Schama, who at one point describes Mitt Romney as a “neo-liberal Hamiltonian”.

The book uses these two radically contrasting approaches to Americana as a spring board to launch investigations into such wide-ranging topics as slavery, irrigation, the compulsory purchase of Cherokee land and national identity – all contained within their own distinct chapters.  Naturally some investigations are more successful than others; I found ‘What is an American’ to be a rambling and ungraspable chapter that comes to few conclusions while spreading itself regrettably thin with its examples and sources.  ‘American Fervour’, by comparison, is a passionate and moving examination of the role of religion in the lives of slaves, with frequent quotations taken from the ‘Sorrow Songs’ recorded by black army officer Robert Sutton in the 1860s; it stands as a testament to Schama’s emotional conviction that it’s not enough to simply “know” history,but that “we’ve got to understand” it too.

Determined to plant its flag firmly in the Jeffersonian camp, The American Future takes a somewhat hagiographic approach to describing the third President of the United States, and is especially praising of Jefferson’s little-studied and undoubtedly enlightened (would we say “modern”?) attitudes towards religion:

Though Jefferson held Jesus in high esteem, as perhaps the greatest of history’s moral teachers, he thought it absurd, if not offensive, to compromise that standing by fairy tales declaring him the Son of God, born of a virgin and such foolishness. […] Jefferson believed that adhesion to unexamined and irrational beliefs had been the greatest cause of contention and slaughter in the world, for there could be no arguing with those who asserted from revelation alone.

But later derisions of Jefferson’s personal life and his contradictory attitudes toward slavery build up a complex and multi-dimensional picture of the book’s primary subject: part moralistic, part reviled.  This is one of Schama’s more interesting stylistic ticks, and in this respect The American Future really is novelistic: red herrings abound as figures are introduced, praised and set-up as likeable, only to be deconstructed and exposed as bigoted or selfish in subsequent chapters.  I found myself, for example, quite taken by manufacturing giant Henry Ford when Schama describes the free schools he established for his migrant workforce and his unwavering dedication to a liveable wage, only to be crushed with disappointment when it’s revealed that Ford also penned the book The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.  It’s this up-and-down, wavering and constant re-assessment of his subjects that fuels a lot of anti-Schama criticism from readers who would prefer a more consistent and “objective” approach to history, but I nonetheless enjoyed the complex positioning of the novel, as Schama attempts to present America as very much a frontier nation: not either/or, but filled with contradictions and difficulties.

As you’d expect from Simon Schama, The American Future leans distinctly to the left, and as such the book is most interesting when constructing history via the personal struggles of down-trodden masses rather than the political lives of the elite.  Chapters are separated by short present-day vignettes describing Schama’s 2008 road trip across America following the Obama campaign, in which he interviews numerous regular Joes in an attempt to gauge not the media or politicians’ reactions to Obama, but the people’s.

The American Future is a dense, challenging history book made joyously readable by Schama’s narrative approach.  It presupposes an understanding of American history that I was unable to bring to the book (I frequently found myself Googling the dates of Presidents’ terms or the specifics of various legislation, for example) and in this regard it suffers from a lack of a comprehensive glossary.  Sure it’s a bit of a crash course (after all, who can cover all of American history in 500 pages?!) but if, like me, your reading background is more fiction than non-fiction oriented, then I highly recommend The American Future as both a helpful way-in to American history and an extraordinarily beautiful piece of writing.


Light – M. John Harrison

I’ve read in numerous places, which I’m far too lazy to reference here, that M. John Harrison’s 2002 novel Light does for Space Opera what his Viriconium sequence did for Fantasy back in the 1980s.  This is quite the claim, as Viriconium towers over the landscape of postmodern fantasy literature as a definite and unchallenged Olympus; the book that finally did-away with the literary naivety of the field by drawing direct attention to the problematic artificiality of secondary-world High Fantasy, all the while remaining deeply enamoured of the tropes, traditions and history of the genre; a genre with which Harrison is clearly well-versed and much in love.

To think that the same writer could reinvigorate not just one, but two distinct genres both of which, let’s be honest, suffer from more than their fair share of cliché, repetition and imaginative exhaustion is difficult to believe, but having read the frankly staggering (and not to mention extraordinarily beautiful) Light, I’m definitely coming round to the idea.  It’s 30-odd years since Harrison seemingly abandoned New Wave sci-fi with his early (and criminally underrated) novel The Centauri Device, but his forays into the lands of Fantasy and (later) Literary Fiction were obviously time well spent, as Light meshes a keen commitment to psychological realism with a penchant for inventive, stripped-back imagist prose.  The book toys with and deconstructs many of the familiar tenets of science fiction, but in a joyous and celebratory way, never sneering.  Harrison’s frame of reference is galaxy-spanning, and Light is replete with subtle (and not-so-subtle) tributes to the canon of famous (and not-so-famous) science fiction literature, T.V. and film.  Please don’t think the book is just some big party of self-indulgent genre references, it most certainly isn’t: the narrative is dominated by an unflinching and unsympathetic portrayal of horrific violence, manipulative sex and mental illness, but underpinning this grit is a definite comic treatment of the vagaries of space opera.  The satire is tender, and the commitment to sensawunda is genuine.

Light focuses on three larger-than-life characters; the theoretical physicist and serial killer Michael Kearney; Seria Mau Genlicher, a woman who’s been (voluntarily) cybernetically mutilated and encased in a vat of protein fluids from which she pilots a strange alien craft – an artefact from some long-extinct race of star-moving galactic engineers; and Ed Chianese (/Chinese Ed), a Virtual Reality addict enlisted in what can only be described as a… er… space circus. Michael’s story takes place in 1999, the latter two narratives (Seria’s and Ed’s) transpire around 2400 AD, with chapters alternately flitting between each character.

All three protagonists are haunted by different manifestations of ‘The Shrander’, an ungraspable and incarnately weird creature that variously functions as terrifying apparition of death, anti-hero, malcontent, surgeon, seer and sage.  The Shrander’s most memorable form is that which haunts Michael Kearney in the guise of a be-robed and spritely stalker with a horse’s skull in place of a head. Not only is this a clear aesthetic reference to the Celtic Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd (and a knowing wink to fans of Viriconium with a suggestion of a shared universe), but the horse skull-headed version of the Shrander also acts as microcosm for one of the book’s major themes: the estrangement of the familiar.  By tradition the Mari Lwyd is a luck-bringing and festive Celtic ritual, and while The Shrander definitely contains elements of this festivity, it is by turns a much more terrifying and grotesque presence: it’s the Mari Lwyd uprooted from its traditional contexts and placed, instead, within a weird and defamiliarising alien landscape.  Removed from its place as a curio of Celtic festive and musical history, the writer imbues the image of the horse skull-headed puppet-creature with more sinister connotations – death, madness, murder.  This is largely achieved by a fixation with the anatomical otherness of the Mari Lwyd.  In general the image of a skull is inseparable from the concept of death, and Harrison manipulates this to truly horror fiction-esque scales.  A big part of Lights’ aesthetic is a making-strange of otherwise common place or traditional objects.

A Mari Lwyd. My what big teeth you have, etc.

Outside of The Shrander’s haunting, much of the plotting is concerned with explaining how the three protagonists found themselves in their current situations.  Seria Mau’s life before her cybernetic implantation into an alien ship is told through a series of disjointed and cryptic dream sequences that, though initially baffling, come together in a way that rewards patience and is immensely satisfying.  The disorganized memories of her troubled childhood gradually expose the awful circumstances that led her to make the irreversible choice to be implanted into her ship, and I expect the visceral scenes of techno-surgery to stick with me for some time.  It’s a testament to Harrison’s skill as a writer that something so physical and disturbed can also be so moving.  Seria Mau is mutilated, trapped and profoundly alone, but these are truths the reader has to parse out from prose dense with scientific jargon as she concerns herself not with pitying introspection, but with the everyday mechanisations of her FTL alien ship and the technical demands of operating in nano-second time frames stretched out by mind-altering drugs to last, for her, for subjective minutes.  The tragedy of Seria Mau isn’t her present circumstance, but that the universe organised itself in such a way that she made the choice to live like this.

Decisions, then, form the thematic heart of the novel.  This is re-iterated by Michael Kearney’s work as a quantum physicist exploring the various theories surrounding probabilities, quantum states and branching, possible universes. Driven half-mad by the stalking Shrander and his failure to devise a useful system of quantum computing, Kearney defers all of his choices to a strange set of dice that he stole from the Shrander in some un-written prologue to the novel.  The dice are loaded (… I apologise in advance for this…) with symbolism… with connotations that range from choice theory and quantum mechanics to the world that could have been if only different choices were made.  Of course “dice stuff” is a big cliché of post-modern fiction, but here the beauty and pitch-perfect tone of Harrison’s prose and the playful morality of his ideas stop Light from ever seeming trite or disingenuous. Also there are cats (two cats – one black, one white) that manifest in all three timelines and that play a significant part in the choices and directions of the characters’ lives, both literally and figuratively.

This is all well and good, but where Light really (again, I’m sorry…) shines…  is in its examination of the ways these characters’ choices affect the lives of the people close to them. The supporting cast is a lowly and agency-less collection of tragically damaged individuals tossed around like ragdolls by the selfish and often misguided decisions of the three protagonists. Michael Kearney’s ex-wife/occasional fuckbuddy Anna, for example, is a mentally unstable woman in thrall to Michael’s every movement. The beautifully constructed, psychologically piercing and eloquent exchanges between the two are a stylistic highlight of the novel, albeit harrowing and difficult to “enjoy” in the usual sense of the word:

“I try to help you – only you won’t let me”

“Anna” he said quickly, “I help you.  You’re a drunk. You’re anorexic. You’re ill most days, and on a good day you can barely walk down the pavement. You’re always in a panic. You barely live in the world we know.”

But in terms of its style, Light is a book of many shades (… just take my apologies as a given from now on…).  Several long passages of esoteric technobabble (much of which I suspect is more bullshit than science) are almost David Foster Wallace-esque in their challenge to the reader to actually look up the words you don’t understand (only to find that a percentage of them actually are bullshit).   While some may argue that this renders the “science” part of “science fiction” arbitrary and spurious, I think the real point is a playful fixation on the glorious sounds and tones of jargon, absent their content, to become a kind of poetry. It doesn’t have to make sense, as the narrator puts it: this is “a place where all the broken rules of the universe spill out”.

Light is a challenging, oftentimes abstract novel that, in spite of (or maybe in complement to) it’s title, contains a lot of dark.  The novel’s dénouement ties the three narratives together in unexpected yet fulfilling ways, and the book’s examination of senseless cruelty and selfishness only lend the ending greater poignancy.  It’s a book of clichés turned in on themselves, of constant references to a saturated history of science fiction that Harrison neither attempts to ignore nor to revolutionise, but to celebrate.  I’m not sure if Light is the Viriconium of Space Opera, simply because I don’t think Space Opera suffers from the same institutionalised problems as modern Fantasy literature. It is, however, an incredible novel; perfectly balanced, relentlessly beautiful; puzzling but always fascinating.