Archive for July, 2010

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

July 14, 2010

Recently I seem to be reading more short fiction than I have in quite some time, but this debut collection from the Canadian writer Wells Tower was one that I was particularly anticipating so many positive comments had it generated. It also has probably the best title since A. L. Kennedy’s Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains.

The title story, however, is quite unlike the other eight stories which make up the book and, in my opinion, also the least successful. While the other stories are set in the recent past (though perhaps not entirely contemporary as an absence of mobile phones and references to cassette tapes indicate), ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’ concerns a Viking attack on Lindisfarne. Tower intends to have a little fun by using a contemporary register:

“Just as we were all getting back into the mainland domestic groove, somebody started in with dragons and crop blights from across the North Sea.”

Of course, a narrator in the style of Thor (I mean the Marvel superhero, not the Norse god – presumably he didn’t speak English) would be funny in an entirely unintentional way, but Tower’s language undermines any sense that this isn’t a simply a modern day American who happens to do Vikingish things. Towers is also such a good writer that he can’t resist granting his narrator a similar turn of phrase: “…where a wide blue fjord stabbed into the land…watch the sun stitch its orange skirt across the horizon…” Not only do these poetic flashes clash with the contemporary colloquialisms, but they further confuse any sense of the narrator’s character. The story’s intention seems to be to highlight the tensions created by settling down:

“Just catching up over a jar turned into a hassle you had to plan two weeks in advance. And when we did get together he would laugh and jaw with me a little bit, but you could see he had his mind on other things. He’d gotten what he wanted, but he didn’t seem too happy about it, just worried all the time.”

While there is a certain amusement in such an extreme example, Tower writes so well about this century that I can only imagine this story results from a refusal to accept limitations rather than an entirely artistic choice. The rest of the stories focus on relationships which have already broken down: a husband separated from his wife; two brothers who barely speak to each other; a son estranged from the father who no longer remembers him. Within a few pages Tower highlights the fault-lines and often widens them a little. An apt symbol is the sea cucumber in ‘The Brown Coast’ which poisons all the other fish in an aquarium, and the main character’s urge to throw it towards a young couple on a boat who beam at each other “in wholesome conspiracy”.

My favourite story is probably ‘Wild America’, about a young girl waiting for her father to visit while coping with the presence of a cousin that she no longer bonds with, and the attentions of a neighbouring boy. For a start, it contains some wonderful images. A baby pigeon which the cat has caught is:

“like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute.”

The velvet from an elk’s antlers is:

“like carpet from a murder site.”

It also contains the greatest variation in relationships, and captures that adolescent sense of not being quite sure who you are or what you feel about anyone. At the beginning, Jacey feels her cousin, Maya, “had already been here too long”, yet soon they are lying “on the daybed in companionable style”. In the woods, however, Jacey lets her anger at Maya show when she feels her cousin is moving in on a potential boyfriend. The curtailment of her encounter with a stranger which follows, particularly as it is caused by her father, reminding us she is not yet an adult, sustains the idea of her character in development, preventing the story from descending into certainty.

Throughout this collection, Tower shows he is comfortable writing from a variety of perspectives: male and female; adult and adolescent. He also has an arresting turn of phrase, which reminds me a little of Richard Brautigan. What he writes next should be worth reading, even if it’s about Vikings.


July 8, 2010

Sum, as its subtitle ‘Tales from the Afterlives’ more than implies, is a collection of forty versions of life after death. ‘Tales’ is perhaps a slight exaggeration – descriptions might be more accurate – particularly as no characterisation is included, with most stories being written in the second person and lasting typically between two and four pages. The focus, instead, is on what each afterlife will consist of. In the title story, for example, we will re-experience our life in sections where similar actions or states are grouped together:

“You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep without opening your eyes for thirty years.”

Even at this early point, you may not be surprised to learn that David Eagleman is a scientist, though his contention that we spend more than twice as long looking for lost items than having sex is, hopefully, not based on research (though a low sex count may be explained by the frankly saintly two days of lying). It’s an amusing conceit, and it ends, as many of the stories do, with a plea to enjoy life as it is, as we spend four minutes imagining:

“…a life where experiences are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.”

Despite the fact that the image doesn’t quite work (it describes the movement but in the context of a monotonous landscape and an unpleasant feeling), and that the conclusion contradicts the central idea (this afterlife is supposed to be based entirely on what we did and thought in our life) we can see the point Eagleman is making. Many of the afterlives seem designed to deliver this same message. In one God creates true equality, and everyone is miserable; in another our life seems unchanged until we realise that we are only able to meet those we already knew on earth.

In these brief summaries, you can probably already see the attraction of the book. The stories seem to suggest an infinite number of possibilities, they tend to be cleverly thought through, and there is an element of the parlour game about it as the reader begins to construct his own afterlives. However, reading through them (and perhaps this is a book best dipped into), certain limitations become apparent. Science and technology play a significant role in the large majority of the stories, many of which are based on concepts that a reader of science fiction would find familiar. In more than one the earth is the result of an alien experiment, or we are part of a giant computer, or we are “mobile cameras” mapping out our world. Cameras and screens feature prominently. In one afterlife we are recreated using all available data:

“The ReCreators analyse every existing frame of video footage on the planet for your every appearance: buying coffee at a convenience store, standing in front of an ATM withdrawing money, clutching a diploma, walking unwittingly in the background of other people’s home videos, eating a hot dog on the bleachers during a basketball game.”

In another, where we are allowed to observe life on earth, this takes place in

“…a vast comfortable lounge with leather furniture and banks of television monitors.”

The 21st century, rather than eternity, echoes through the pages. Twice sushi is associated with luxury. When it comes to relationships, lovers are frequently mentioned, but not parents or children.

This may seem over critical – the book is both entertaining and imaginative – however, it does not the excessive praise with which it has been garlanded. The prose is functional, the ideas are often clever but rarely profound, and little of it remained with me as I turned the final page, with the promise that I would one day read it all again, in reverse.

The Testament of Gideon Mack

July 4, 2010

With And The Land Lay Still due in August, it seems an opportune moment to look again at James Robertson’s previous novel, The Testament of Gideon Mack, published in 2006. A 400 page autobiography of a Church of Scotland minister does not seem, at first, to guarantee a gripping read, but it is the marrying of a coming-of-age narrative with a tale of the supernatural that provides the novel’s power.

Gideon Mack, even more so than Robertson’s previous novels, is self-consciously in a Scottish tradition. Ministers feature frequently in Scottish novels, from Galt’s Annals of the Parish, to Chris Guthrie’s second husband, Robert Colquhoun, in A Scots Quair. The novel it owes most to, however, is James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, something which is hinted at as early as the introduction when the journalist who has found the manuscript refers to it as:

“Your man’s memoir, autobiography, confession, whatever you want to call it…”

The structure is also similar, with the main narrative book-ended by editorial rationalisation. Of course, the found manuscript is a common literary ploy (in Scott, for example, whose novels Gideon reads as a child), but it is particularly effective in a supernatural tale where the editor can provide the scepticism that would otherwise come from the reader and prevent the suspension of disbelief. In Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the main character, Robert Wringhim, is tormented by a supernatural double, Gil-Martin. Gideon not only shares Gil-Martin’s initials, but his own satanic tormentor comments on the same initials in a book he claims to have given Gideon’s father:

“I have many names…But in this instance the letters stand for Gil Martin.”

Robertson’s devil is a creature of contrasts. Gideon finds him when he falls into the Black Jaws ravine while attempting to rescue a dog. He describes his “tenderness, the care with which he went about removing my sodden and torn clothes”, yet moments later, when Gideon suggests he has “dragged” his belongings into the cave he inhabits:

“For the first time his calmness deserted him. Her glared at me angrily. ‘I didn’t drag anything anywhere,’ he said. ‘Do I look like someone who drags things around? Do I?’”

The devil heals Gideon’s broken leg, fusing the bone with intense heat, but in doing so he leaves him with a limp. Most perversely, he encourages Gideon to tell the truth.

This is a pivotal moment for Gideon as, up to this point, his story has been one of living a lie. His upbringing also borrows heavily form the Scottish literary tradition of the tyrannical father, as exemplified by George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters. Gideon’s father, James, is described as “serious, sombre and religious” and his character can been understood from his courtship of Gideon’s mother:

“In 1957, having known Agnes for ten years and never spoken alone with her for more than three minutes, my father proposed to her.”

James is not a caricature, however, and is humanised, for example, by his love of football, even allowing a television into the manse for the 1966 World Cup. Gideon naturally rebels against his father in various ways: quitting the Scouts, watching Batman on Sunday mornings, and not believing in God. His decision to become a minister is not the result of a calling, but something he falls into while remaining an atheist. His marriage is also built on a false premise. He meets his wife, Jenny, at university, along with her friend Elsie. It is Elsie he loves, but she chooses his best friend instead:

“Elsie and John started to dance, and as they danced they started to kiss, and I knew that there was no longer any hope of my being mistaken.”

The novel is therefore also about the compromises we make and then live with. Ironically, the devil becomes an advocate for truth, though a truth that causes Gideon’s life to implode. Gil-Martin is a clearly malevolent character who, again and again, tempts Wringhim into sin. Hogg’s aim was to satirise those who believed they were saved regardless of their actions. Gideon, on the other hand, undertakes good works without believing in salvation at all. Robertson is also satirising religion, in this case one which has become secularised to the point where a minister who believes in the devil is regarded as mad. But this is more than satire: Robertson is sketching the marginalisation of religion in Scotland in the last century with his great talent for outlining history in the detail of individual lives. Above all, he shows us Gideon’s battle for his own soul.