Thursday, May 22, 2014

Book Review: The Silence and the Roar (2004) by Nihad Sirees

In a recent article in the Guardian, British novelist Will Self proclaimed that the "serious" novel is dead. If the chewy prose style and rambling arguments in the article are any indication of what his novels are like, Self is his own worst enemy when it comes to putting literature on life support. Perhaps if Self had looked outside the Anglo-American axis of novelists he might have realized that serious novels are very much alive. In particular, he should look towards Syria where a trio of novelists, Rafik Schami, Khaled Khalifa and Nihad Sirees, show that "serious" novels are alive and well and terribly important. The novels these three have produced are deadly serious in that they deal in their separate ways with the cruelties inflicted on the Syrian people by the state and by a society riven with injustices based on religion, class and gender. These writers have chosen novels instead of non-fiction because only the novel can capture the psychology and emotion of terror and oppression in a way that newspaper articles and histories can't. Rafik Schami's The Dark Side of Love (review here) is an epic novel that X-rays Syrian society from top to bottom, and Khaled Khalifa's In Praise of Hatred (review here) shows how gender discrimination and persecution can produce a religious fanatic.

The Silence and the Roar follows a writer named Fathi Sheen as he runs afoul of the state security services over the course of one day. The country and its "Leader" aren't named, but it's very clearly Syria. Sirees' novel is an exploration of the mass psychology used by the state to keep its citizens both loyal and fearful. The character of Sheen is a special case for the state because as much as it dislikes his seditious writing, it badly wants one of the country's most prominent writers on its side. So while Sheen is being harassed and threatened by the state, he's also being courted by them with promises of a prestigious job.

Sirees' novel is short but brutally effective in describing the hysteria, fear, and violence that attends any kind of political personality cult. The feverish mass street demonstrations in praise of the Leader that begin the story are strikingly described, and become a counterpoint to Sheen's intensely sexual relationship with his girlfriend; Sheen's only escape from the impersonal roar of the crowd is to turn to the intimacy of lovemaking with his girlfriend. In tone the novel is reminiscent of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, and structurally it borrows from Ulysses, with Sheen traipsing around the city trying to hold his life and career together, and map out some kind of future for himself. I'm not entirely sure what Will Self's definition of a serious novel is, but if this isn't it then there really isn't any future for literature.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Book Review: Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany (2012) by Charles Portis; edited by Jay Jennings

Charles Portis can inspire boredom and loathing in people who've never read his books. This is because he's one of those writers whose works have created a legion of devotees who carry that True Believer gleam in their eyes, much like Jehovah's Witnesses or Breaking Bad fans. Poritis-lovers, like members of any cult, are terrible and unrelenting proselytizers for the Bard of Little Rock, Arkansas, and for the average reader there is nothing more tedious and annoying than someone who relentlessly tells them that they must read this author because he's absolutely the best writer no one's ever heard of and if they don't read him they will remain in the outer darkness. Yes, Portis is one of those writers, but he has the talent to backup the claims to greatness made on his behalf. I must admit that I'm a member of the Portis fan club and have the poma to prove it. You see what I did just there? I made a knowing reference to Portis' Masters of Atlatntis (my review), and if you get on the bandwagon with me, you'll understand what a "poma" is.

Escape Velocity is a sampler of Portis' short stories, travel pieces, journalism, and a three-act play called Delray's New Moon. If you've never read anything by Portis it's probably best not to start with this volume, but for devotees such as myself, this is a very welcome addition to the all-too-skimpy Portis canon. One of the highlights of this collection is Portis' news reporting on the civil rights movement in Mississippi and Alabama. His journalism is a beautiful balance of the anecdotal and factual, and, as Jay Jennings points out in the introduction, it's surprising his writing on this subject hasn't found a wider audience.

Most Portis fans are going to pick up this book in the hope of finding more examples of Portis' unique comic voice. They won't be disappointed. The star attraction in this regard is the play, which has evidently only been performed once but surely deserves wider exposure. It's not much in terms of plot, but it's a kind of seminar on the elements that make Portis such a gifted humorist. There's the obsession with the care and maintenance of cars, his ear for subtly absurdist dialogue, and what's probably his strongest comic skill, creating characters who attach a ridiculous degree of importance to the most minor of accomplishments or skills. Here's one of the play's characters talking proudly about how her parents got together:

"At that time it was unheard of for a lab chief to carry on with his rodent control officer, but Dad didn't care. He snaps his fingers at all those silly social conventions. And besides, what else could he do? Mom had fairly bowled him over with her brisk air of command and her firm hand with the rats."

It's probably the defining characteristic of Portis' comic characters that they are endlessly impressed by their own unexceptional lives and achievements. Out of the whole cloth of quotidian life they construct small-scale, yet potent, beliefs and fantasies that give them fuel for their anger, happiness, pride, and the energy that keeps them moving in their eccentric orbits. Portis doesn't mock these people, at least not in a sneering or patronizing way, instead he offers them to us as the human version of fascinating "found" objects; characters who are odd and amusing in a peculiarly American way. Portis even manages to bring this quality to his travel articles, especially a piece on motels called Motel Life, Lower Reaches that should probably find a home in every anthology of American humour for the next century or so.

Not every example of Portis' work is a gem. The short stories left me cold, probably because the humorous ones feel forced, as though Portis is trying to be conventionally funny. Aside from that minor problem, this book is further proof that Portis' fame should be far greater. It's not just that he makes us laugh, Portis is also a deceptively brilliant prose writer. Read through this collection and you begin to realize that he has an uncanny ability to never put a foot wrong; there's never a word out of place, a sentence or thought too long, or an awkward phrase or description. Portis' relaxed, plain prose is actually put together with the same level of precision and attention to detail that, to use a Portis-friendly automotive analogy, goes into the building of a Ferrari, although I think he'd probably be more comfortable with something American. So if there's a Ferrari of pickups, then that's Portis.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Book Review: Grave Descend (1970) by John Lange

I came across this crime thriller thanks to Peter Rozovsky over at his Detectives Beyond Borders blog, where he astutely points out that its most notable feature, aside from being one of Michael Crichton's early works before he became Michael Crichton Inc., is its economical writing style. Crichton/Lange is, indeed, thrifty with the descriptive prose. Landscapes and locations are described in the most perfunctory terms, and the characters are identified by their skin colour, general build, level of attractiveness, and not much else. The dialogue is equally terse, with no one being allowed to prattle on for more than three or four sentences in a row. The villain is the only exception to this rule, but that's OK because bad guys are obliged to ramble on in their orotund fashion in order to fill us in on their dastardly schemes. The plot is king here, and Crichton keeps things hopping along with great energy as his hero, commercial diver James McGregor, is hired to do a salvage job on a yacht that has sunk under mysterious circumstances just off the coast of Jamaica. There are gun fights, tense moments underwater, scary encounters with sharks and crocodiles, plots within plots, and a variety of femme fatales, each more attractive than the next.

Grave Descend is not trying to be more than a pulp thriller, but it's certainly one of the better ones of its kind from that era, and the worst thing you can say about it is that it's an inferior Travis McGee adventure.  Crichton would actually turn into a far worse writer later in his career, when his novels Congo and Timeline began to resemble Popular Science articles leavened with a bit of violence and intrigue. It's easy to get sniffy about writers like Crichton, but I look at them (and their writing style) as inheritors of the oral storytelling tradition. Once upon a time, as they say, stories only came in spoken form from the local bard or storyteller. Read any collection of folk tales or fairy tales from Grimm's onwards and you'll notice that the stories are filled with a lot of descriptive boilerplate: heroes are "fair and handsome," maidens have "skin white as milk," mountains are so high they "touch the sky," and forests are always "dark and deep." Story after story uses the same descriptors as a kind of shorthand to quickly set the scene for the audience so that the main attraction, the story, isn't slowed down by distracting detail. A storyteller would probably have risked having a drinking vessel chucked at his head if he'd tried to flesh his tale out by saying that the hero's quest was actually due to structural changes in the goatherd industry, or that forests that are dark and deep are actually quite fascinating when you study the symbiotic relation...Ouch! You get the idea. Crichton uses similar devices. Here are some samples from just the first two pages of the novel:

"He had cut through the tiny mountain villages, the native huts perched precariously beside the road; then down through lush valleys of tropical vegetation."

"In the distance, he could see blue water, with waves breaking across the inner reefs, and hotels lining the beachfront."

"He passed manicured gardens, beds of bright flowers, carefully watered palms."

With this kind of punchy, pulpy writing, details are skimped and the big picture is drawn in broad strokes, no time to wax poetic on what colours and types of flowers are in those beds, the size and variety of the hotels, what kinds of lives are lived in those huts, and, of course, we're left to ponder what might a carelessly watered palm look like. But those are worries for another kind of novel. With pulp novels the reader is expected to fill in the blanks with his own imagination once he's been given the right cues. A description like "lush valleys of tropical vegetation" is as cliche as it gets, but there's no one who can't instantly summon up a mental picture of such a landscape. Just for comparison's sake, here's what a literary writer, Yasmine Gooneratne, does with a description of a tropical landscape in The Sweet and Simple Kind:

"When the wreaths of mist lift, leaving the grass wet with dew, mornings on the estate clink and ring with birdsong, sounding very much as if a crowd of children were jingling thin silver coins in their pockets, considering the possibilities."

That's startlingly beautiful writing, but it gets us nowhere in terms of story. An essentially oral storyteller like Crichton is trying to hold the attention of a broad and varied audience by crafting modern-day folk tales that make the reader constantly, and anxiously, ask, "WTF's going to happen next?" This is a hell of a long way from literary writing, and it's often not even good writing, but I think it positions Crichton and his peers in the Guild of Pulp Writers as direct descendants of the men and women who sat by campfires and hearths weaving magical stories built out of stock phrases and familiar characters, and a whole lot of imagination and energy.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Book Review: The Middle of Nowhere (2014) by Geraldine McCaughrean

There's simply no arguing that Geraldine McCaughrean likes to see her characters suffer. It's par for the course that the lead character in a YA novel should lose one or both parents, or become separated from their family, or even grow up without any kind of family. McCaughrean, however, likes to go the extra mile and put her characters through sheer hell. In The Death Defying Pepper Roux the title character runs away from home because he's been brainwashed (by his family!) into believing God wants to kill him on his fourteenth birthday. In      Not the End of the World, a retelling of the Noah myth, one of Noah's daughters not only sees the world destroyed, she also has to witness life on the ark turn into bloody chaos and her father and brother become maniacs. And in Lovesong, one of a handful of adult titles she's written, Life and Fate take turns kicking the main character in the teeth. So where most YA authors will leaven their fiction with just a dash of tragedy, G-Mac (my own abbreviation) likes to go the full Sophocles and plunge her characters into situations that would make the gods weep. This is part of what makes McCaughrean's writing so memorable, and turns many of her novels from Young Adult fiction into literary fiction that happens to feature young adults.

McCaughrean's newest novel shows that she hasn't lost her taste for harrowing the souls of her main characters. The story opens in 1894 with a young girl named Comity Pinney sitting by the freshly dug grave of her mother. The setting is a telegraph relay station in the hottest, bleakest, most outback part of Australia's Outback. Comity's mother was killed by a bite from a tiger snake; a random, pointless death that has sent Comity's father, Herbert, into a deep depression. Herbert's in charge of the relay station, and a few weeks after his wife's death the telegraph company sends him an assistant named Quartz Hogg. Hogg is cocky, a blowhard, a weasel, and evil right the way through. We're not talking merely rotten or nasty, Hogg is a petty demon who seems to have been sent to turn a hellish place into Hell. He senses Herbert's weakness and exploits the power vacuum he's stepped into to the max. Things go from bad to worse for Comity and her father, and at times I was expecting one or both of them would end up stark raving mad or dead. As is usual in McCaughrean's novels things turn out alright in the end, but the journey to get there is tortured, to say the least, and there some shocking and fatal detours along the way.

McCaughrean's prose is what separates her from all other YA writers and most writers in general. Her ability to bring the natural world to life, or to bring poetry and depth to her descriptions of emotions and feelings is constantly impressive, and this novel maintains her high standards. In the pantheon of McCaughrean's work this isn't one of her very best, but her second-tier works are still worth celebrating.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Film Review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

I hadn't watched this Bond film since it turned up on TV sometime in the late 1970s, and I remember it as being the worst Bond film ever and that George Lazenby richly deserved the meagre B-movie career (kung fu films, Emmanuelle sequels) he moved onto after his one shot at playing 007. Over the last year or so, however, I've been noticing that various critics and bloggers have been saying that OHMSS isn't really all that bad; in fact, some of them go so far as to say it's one of the best of the 007 films. And then I came across this recent blogpost by director Steven Soderbergh who unflinchingly describes it as the best Bond film, bar none. That did it. I rushed right out (metaphorically speaking) and downloaded OHMSS. Holy crap, Miss Moneypenny! This isn't just a bad Bond film, it's bad filmmaking by any definition, and I can only assume that its defenders are being willfully contrary.

Let's begin the dissection with Lazenby. The pro-OHMSS forces can talk all they want about his physicality, but the fact remains that he can't act, period. Another actor had to dub vast chunks of his dialogue, for God's sake! Lazenby is simply a stiff, awkward (watch him try, and fail, to walk across a room convincingly), wooden black hole at the centre of the film. It's actually a wonder that all his lines didn't end up being dubbed because his readings of even the simplest bits of dialogue are gratingly tone deaf. The legendary Bond quips escape from his lips and simply fall to the floor with a quiet thud, gasping for life. Considering that Lazenby was a male model and had never acted, an infomercial-quality thesping job was pretty much inevitable.

Soderbergh hedges his bets in his praise of OHMSS by saying that "cinematically" it's the best Bond film. I don't think he and I watched the same film. With one exception the editing is shockingly clumsy, creating glaring continuity errors and turning the fight sequences into something resembling the saloon brawls from bad westerns. And many of the action scenes are marred by the use of fast motion, which is used to speed up the action to the detriment of verisimilitude; it's really a kind of cheat, a means to liven up an otherwise flat action scene. On the plus side, the location photography is often spectacular, particularly the shots of the Alps. The final assault on Blofeld's mountaintop H.Q. is actually an excellent combination of action choreography, editing, and cinematography, but this 5-7 minute section hardly makes up for all the wonky filmmaking that surrounds it. I have a feeling that it's this short sequence that moved Soderbergh to call OHMSS "cinematically" the best of the Bonds.

I think even Soderbergh would have to admit that OHMSS's script is a clunker. There isn't one memorable line, and even Diana Rigg (playing Tracy Draco) can't bring things to life until she gets to show off her RADA training by reciting some lines of poetry by James Elroy Flecker, a relatively obscure Victorian poet. I suspect Rigg begged for this scene so she could briefly escape from the tedium of scriptwriter Richard Maibaum's words. Bond films are always sexist, but this one adds an extra level of creepiness with Draco, the father of Rigg's character, urging Bond have sex with her often so that she'll fall in love with him. Thanks, dad, you pervy bastard! Oh, and Tracy gets slapped upside her head by both Bond and her father. Charming. The script is so bland and witless I doubt even Connery could have rescued it, and I'm certain he would never have agreed to be part of the syrupy romantic montage that's used to establish Bond and Tracy's love affair.

So if you haven't seen OHMSS yet, save yourself from the pain and watch the spoof Casino Royale (1967) instead. It's not a lot better, but even Woody Allen makes a better James Bond than Lazenby.