Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The 80s is Now History

This is really just another excuse to mention BBC4's exemplary "In their own words" and suggest that you watch all 3 episodes on iPlayer before it disappears next Sunday or so.

I had a feeling that the 70s and 80s episode would be far less interesting than the previous two. However, perhaps because they had more footage to choose from, or because there was more linkages between history and literature during this period, it stood up well. We get McEwan, Rushdie and Amis Jr. in spades, of course, but their contemporary younger selves. Respectively earnest, mischievous and slightly prissy, which possibly reflects their books of that period, the show pulled out a great piece with Martin Amis appearing as Martin Amis in "Money" opposite Mel Smith, as well as a weird dramatisation of Rushdie over some blue-screen animation. Even better was the legendary footage of a leggy Selina Scott making a buffoon of herself by asking Booker judge Angela Carter (a) what she thought of the judges choices and (b) who she was; the other Booker highlights - Rushdie's anecdote of being invited to meet Indira Gandhi at Downing Street, and John Berger's giving away his prize money to the black panthers, were equally fantastic.

As a study in literature of the 70s and 80s, it was a little thin - the seventies hasn't worn well, after all - and a shame they hadn't anything of Doris Lessing on this episode, whose "The Good Terrorist" remains one of the best novels about the 80s - but it was great footage, nonetheless.

That the 80s is now history, no different than the 60s or 20s, seems strange, but is emphasised by the other worldiness of some of the footage, as well as a few perceptive comments. Thatcher had quickly gone from being ignored to being a mocked charicature. A little like George W. Bush twenty years later, the liberal intelligentsia's hatred for Thatcher meant that in novels of the day she was dismissed satirically, despite her dominant appeal to a certain element of the British psyche. If someone's not already done it, there's a clear essay to be written on depictions of Thatcher in fiction over the last 30 years. Songwriters like Elvis Costello and Morrissey mocked her, and took her seriously, in comparison. It's perhaps why the portrayal of her in Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" received such attention. Yet if the Spitting Image-ish Thatcher of 80s novels is a dangerous reductionism, I'm not sure that the latter's revisionism, so centred on the monied England that she so appealed to, is any more valid.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Past Scrapings

As its a bank holiday, as good a time as any to go back through old writings, and start archiving things properly. It's a Herculean task - fifteen years of computer files, before I even look at boxes of pre-computer typescripts - yet, I'm trying to be my own "literary executor" - for if not now, when will I ever find the time? I recently read Jon McGregor's excellent "If nobody speaks of remarkable things" and was surprised that it was published as long ago as 2003. I was reading it as a new reader, yet its a work the writer probably let go of seven or eight years before, began on a decade ago. My "ancient" manuscripts may yet have an after life.

It's not that you just discover past fragments you hardly remember, but whole stories that you lovingly sent off to this magazine or that, but haven't read for a decade. I like these "past scrapings" of a literary lifestyle, but they also perplex me. Roads not travelled mostly, or, more often, travelled down a bit, then reversed away from. I've suddenly found a story "Last Train from Euston" that I remember well, but apparently never included in any of the photocopied story magazines I used to hand out to friends. I have a feeling its pre-2000, but can't be at all certain (as its been copied from one computer to another over the years.) Another story is sat on my computer in a half-finished version, yet I've a copy of the full story in print somewhere. It's like the file somehow got half erased, like digital termites got in and began eating it away. There are two or three stories of autobiographical youth, a genre I rarely think about - genre stories; fairy stories; travel stories. My collected works would be the size of a house!

Yet funnily enough, this slightly distant past - some of it seemingly a lifetime away - seems nearer than things I've started in the last year or two then neglected. Perhaps its a sense of distance, but I can recognise the writer I am then, easier than the one I am now. Going through old works allows me to reconstruct my own narrative - give it form - in a way that has some coherence to it. The future, in comparison, remains an open book.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Festival Season

This weekend is culmination of the "festival season." The late August bank holiday, a holiday without any religious or symbolic pretensions, has created it's own traditions. Manchester has Pride, Liverpool has the Matthew Street Festival and London has Notting Hill. Then there's music, with the double-venue event that is Leeds/Reading. Throw in a Rugby League final, the Grand Prix on tele, and the 3rd weekend of the football season (and the first before the international break), the culmination of Edinburgh's festival summer and a myriad of localised events, and it's almost like a national party. But whereas Christmas and Easter might have some kind of common thread, August bank holiday is random in the extreme. And, if you can't face the roads and the trains, then the stay-at-home weekend probably offers a level of calm that is only available when everyone else in the country is travelling to or from somewhere. Given that we're not all teachers or students it's a little odd that we have these "last party of the summer" rituals, but there's not much I can do about it.

It only seems appropriate then to share a poem that I wrote a couple of years ago from my recent Salt collection "Playing Solitaire for Money." Have a good weekend.

Festival Season

India’s gone to Glastonbury
For the first time
Packed Wellingtons and combats
Bikini top and Marlborough lites.

Her mother went twenty years ago
Now she’s queueing for centre court,
Paying tenners out for punnets,
Applauding Roger Federer.

Her ex-husband’s paid a fortune
To catch the Who at Wembley,
Then on to Silverstone,
£200 for a circuit;

And Andy’s borrowed money
From all his friends & family,
For a one man show at Edinburgh,
Mixing nudity and poker.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Dead Weeks, but Future Promises

Manchester in August. Nobody would write  a poem about it. It seems to be one of the wettest months, not only this year, but the last two or three. I'm hoping for an Indian summer. Having took a week off, I stayed in mostly, reading books, and recording music. These are the dead weeks of summer, and I look back a little on school days, or my long university holidays (youngsters: in those days they not only gave you a grant, but unemployment pay during the summer).  I wrote most of my music and stories during the summers, always something to do when you'd a pen or a typewriter or a 4-track to hand. So, not a bad time for it to rain, and for me to have some time to myself. If you can judge your state of mind by dreams then woke up this morning after dreaming I'd been to see an intimate Joni Mitchell concert in Albert Square, just her and her guitar and an audience of no more than twenty. I've woke up before now having dreamt a job interview in its entirety thinking "thank God, its over" only for it still to come, and in a particular piece of dream-engineering I learnt to drive, passed my test, etc. only to wake up as baffled by cars as when I went to bed. So a dream which finishes with a virtually private rendition of "Carey" and "Amelia" can be seen as some kind of psychic progress, I think. And if a week of solitude, poetry and music manifests itself in the wonder that is Mitchell's "Hejira" I should clearly do it more often.

But dead weeks won't last for long and come September everything will kick back in with vitality. First up, on Thursday 2nd September is Howard Jacobsen reading from "The Finkler Question" at the Anthony Burgess Foundation, just off Whitworth Street. My (and other people's) new favourite venue in town - I imagine it will be one not to be missed. A son of Manchester who seems to genuinely relish returning (as he did in fiction in "The Mighty Waltzer") it's certainly a new term event worth getting a new pencil case for.

For soon after, it's festival season. I'm reading from my new collection, alongside the estimable James Davies on Thursday 30th September at Pizza Express, as part of the Didsbury Arts Festival.  Not that we're the only poets or writers, reading that week. I'm sure I'll try and get to a few things, but particularly Nicholas Royle's "Nightjar Press" night, and a reading by Jon McAuliffe. You can download complete listings on the DAF website or find them on Facebook.

...then a couple of weeks to go before its Manchester Literature Festival, though my highlight would have to be the appearance of the wonderful American poet CK Williams at the Martin Harris Centre on 4th October. Anyone who loves poetry should make a beeline for this event. Williams, who I met, and saw read in Norwich two years ago, has a poetic sensibility that we rarely see on these shores. His collection of late middle age, "Repair" remains a particular favourite.The literature festival itself has the usual collection of the unusual - where literature  seems too staid a word for a diverse range of events, that, yes, are all somehow literary.  Its usually a horribly busy time of year for me, but I'm hoping that I'll get a few passes out.

So, a few random events for your diary, but heralding a fine literary autumn, rain or no rain.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The 20th Century Writer

BBC4's new 3-parter "In their own words" shows the best of the BBC (and BBC4). A whistlestop tour of twentieth century British novelists, the first show, last Monday, covers the interwar years - 1919-1939. The series, in conjunction with the OU, uses archive footage of writers, often - in this early episode - later in their lives, from the BBC's vaults. This is without exception wonderful stuff, an off-camera Graham Greene (he refused to be filmed), Christopher Isherwood in the US reflecting on his time in Berlin in the 30s, a beautiful few seconds of Virginia Woolf's considered thoughts on the English language, E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh and others. There's no George Orwell, as in a slightly Orwellian move, the BBC wiped every word of their most famous employee, and rather too much Barbara Cartland. The existence of footage clearly being the main driver for the choices, and much of it is wonderful, worth watching and re-watching for this alone. As an educational programme, it lacks any coherent narrative, and many of its assertions are questionable to say the least, but there's something visceral about seeing and hearing the voices of so many true greats. The 2nd episode is on Monday night, and it's also available on the iPlayer, and more information is available here, and, even better, you can watch the full interviews on the BBC's archive.


The 20th century novel was on a few minds this week with the death of the critic Frank Kermode. I know the name well, but I'm not sure I've got any of his books, or even read much of his work. Yet John Sutherland's great piece on him in today's Guardian makes me think I ought to.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Playing Solitaire for Money

I've spent quite a bit of the last few months preparing my first chapbook for Salt Publishing. The book, "Playing Solitaire for Money", is the 2nd in their new series of chapbooks, Salt Modern Voices, and as you can see from the picture, it's a handsome little thing. The book has 24 poems, and when I was first asked to submit a collection for this series, I had to give a lot of thought to what poems I'd choose, and how far back I'd go, for what is, to all intents and purposes a first proper collection.

So I've lived with the choices through the last two or three months of proofing, and I'm happy with the poems, and, as importantly, how they hang together. For a chapbook, I think its quite a substantial collection, and one I'll be more than happy to "take on the road" at readings over the next six months or so.

I really hope than anyone who has enjoyed this blog over the years, will take a look at the collection (more details on my writing website here).  "Little books" such as the Salt Modern Voices collections, have their own pleasures - one step up from the homemade - they seem to more accurately document the time and place of their publication than larger publications, that made have been the culmination of many years work.

I enjoyed putting the collection together and think it gives a good overview of my poetic practice, and includes many of my best poems. I've always thought that titles are important, and without an overarching concept, I always wanted to take a line from one of the poems. "Playing Solitaire for Money" is a line from one of the signature poems in the book, "My Monster", and seemed the correct title for a collection of poems that often plays with contradiction.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Beats Working

Strangely enough I'd never got round to reading Charles Bukowski's prose (I've a collection of his poetry somewhere, that I always quite liked). I never had enough interest to buy the books. I picked up "Post Office", ironically enough, in the Heart Foundation charity shop in Stafford earlier in the week, and having just finished one book, thought I'd give it a go. The story of Bukowski's 12 years working as a postal worker in California during the late 50s and 60s, its quite hard to understand its cult appeal. Perhaps this kind of demotic, beat prose, spoken straight to camera has become a de facto standard since it was published in the early 70s. It does read like a book that was pulled together from different scraps of life. There's a great sense of claustrophobia here. Bukowski's lead character, Henry Chinaski is another in that great line of American literary Henrys, an everyman - in this case a hard drinking, hard womanising everyman. He takes no shit from his supervisors, yet ends up staying in the job longer than anyone else, an immovable object. It's as if the beat dream of packing your bags and travelling finds its immediate endgame in Bukowski, a dead end job, a dead end life, because at the end of the day, if all you want is another bar, all bars are essentially the same. There's no glamour in Chinaski, even in his womanising, and you realise the writer was over 50 when the book came out, old enough to have fought in the war (he wasn't deemed fit for service), and two generations out from the hippies who were probably going to be his first readers. I think it's the "out of time" sense of the novel that gives it a lasting power, for there's no sense of optimism here - this is the harsh real hangover of an alcoholic's life. Reading about Bukowski, a bit like Carver, you warm to him, as a writer to his bones, who had enough talent to rise through against the obstacles. At the end of the book, despite its episodic nature, and its narrow parameters, its Bukowski's literary style, an extended anecdote like the funniest guy in the bar, and the warmth of his little-man-against-the-world schtick that gives it resonance. We've seen Chinaski since of course, he's the Dude in the Big Lebowski, he's every Micky Rourke character (and not just when he played Chinaski in "Barfly.")

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Subjects for Poetry

Imagine you are an anthologist. The subject could be anything (and has been anything, I've seen anthologies for therapy, books of beasts, poetry about cinema...the list goes on), where do you start - with the poems or the idea?

Anthologies of nature poetry, religious poetry, poetry about children, poetry about death... these would probably be easy subjects, with most poets having written about most of these subjects over the years, and some poets being "specialist" nature poets or religious poets or whatever. A sensible anthologist might pitch a "poems of the city" book, (I'm sure there is one), but what about "poems about Manchester" (I'm not sure one's yet appeared, despite the number of poets based here - passing through here)?

As a writer you don't always choose your subjects, but sometimes your subjects choose you. In the collection I've got coming out shortly there are a number of "subject" poems (not all poems are so easily categorised) - a poem about the cinema ("Cinema"), a poem about festivals ("Festival Season"), and a poem about American literature ("Love and Death in the American Novel.") I'm not always that literal, and I'm not sure poets generally are.

I can't imagine writing a book of elegies, or love poems or nature poems, though I'm fond of the sequence and the longer poem. I admire writers who can focus their poetry on a particular subject, but I'm not sure I always like that approach, unless the poetry stands up to it. Prizes seem to be often won by themed collections - and a poet who manages the difficult trick of extracting a whole collection from a subject (even one as strong as love or death) probably wins them for having achieved this particularly difficult challenge. But a poem can also be a stand-alone object. Looking at recent poems I've written one about Cyprus (after going there) and one about Indonesia (after reading a newspaper article). It seems that there's always an element of chance, just as there was for Larkin when he caught a train journey safe one Whitsun, seeing the weddings taking place en route. Perhaps a poet has a keen antennae for the poetic subject, as well as the poetic image...and it can be a Georgian Techno Star (Don Paterson) or an inconsiderate snipping of a woman's hair (Alexander Pope).

Activity Holiday

A mid-August break and I'm not going anywhere; but I am doing things. Since my week in Norwich in June, I've hardly had time to process the creative thoughts from that week, so I'm wanting to spend this week being creative. It's not so easy to kickstart the creative engine in the summer months after a few weeks or months of disuse. There's so many half projects I need to pull together; quite a few ideas that have been left mouldering; and lots of the usual "I also need to find time to do that" stuff as well.

So, what's my methodology? Had a couple of days away already, and today has to be a clear the decks, get things nice and shiny kind of day. I'd like to have got up this morning and written several thousand words, but I'm not quite at that point yet. So, a bit of reading, a bit of wandering, a bit of sorting things out is in order. Later, I might even get my 8-track out and immerse myself in a bit of recording for a few hours.

Too many blogs and too many tweets and you know that I've not managed to achieve a thing...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

My Own Rhythms

There have been a number of deadlines - either for specific magazines or competitions with specific themes - or more "open" but still requiring X number of poems, or Y number of lines. One by one I've missed them. I realise I should be more organised about this. Perhaps, like some kind of literary cost accountant, you could have Writings on the left of the margin, with Opportunities on the right. Ideally your writings should all be in for a competition or sent to some magazine, matching up at the end of the summer or year to a zero sum. An audit of your literary season comes up satisfactory then: 8 things written, 6 things published, 2 in contention.

Yet, it may not surprise you to know, these aren't the rhythms of the writer. I've been grazing the recent Granta Sex issue, and enjoying its irreverancies, though there's no way that - say - Marie Darrieusecq's story "Rousseau and the Pussycat" is her finest work, though it has some fine lines, and a neat little idea. You wonder? Was it already mildewing on the shelf when Granta came calling with a "we're doing a sex issue, you have to be in, Marie?" or was it written specially for it. Whether the extract from Tom McCarthy's "C" is about sex at all, or simply had to be in as an exclusive on the book is another matter. The perils of a theme of course. It can bring out the best of anthologist and writers; but also runs the risk of work that's not as good as it might be. (Though, at least with sex, there's going to be some fun trying.)

Yet, I'm not wanting to criticise the new-style fatter, livelier Granta - which is becoming, perhaps for the first time in years, a go to place for the most interesting fiction - rather to use it to illustrate that literature, despite its many practitioners goes on at its own pace. I've just read Isherwood's "Mr. Norris Changes Trains" - published in 1935, with all that we know since of the Nazi atrocities, it remains a remarkable book. We see Nazi Germany's demonic moth developing from the spent chrysalis of Weimar Germany, yet much of its power is perhaps from one we know happens after. I'm not sure there were many novels published in the mid-thirties which were so aware of what was going on. Yet, relevance doesn't mean greatness of course.

Publishing schedules seem to be going back, in some ways, to the rhythms of the 1920s, where books came out almost as soon as they were finished, marketing - in those days - being indistinguishable from publishing. A writer will now deliver a novel or a poem and see it in print six months, a year, or even longer in the future. Give it a fair wind - a prize, a good review, whatever - and it's after life lasts longer. The "next book" may never come, may be affected by the reception to the first, or may take two or three years, as that's the publicity cycle's requirements. Ironically, that bestselling genre writers can churn their books out (and perhaps have to) to a pre-determined schedule.

Back to writing: and I've been writing. I've also been thinking about writing, squeezing in the actual "stuff", though with a week off I'm hoping to do more than just squeezing. It's the thinking that has stopped me entering this competition or that, for on the left side of my margin I've got some more work to do - something a little more ambitious than a standalone short story - and the right hand side, well, I never was much of an accountant.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Clear by Nicola Barker

How is a writer to write about the very contemporary? It's an interesting question, and one that rarely gets answered in the history-centric subjects of much literary fiction. Reading "Clear" by Nicola Barker, I was surprised that it is now 6 years old, published in 2004, when it was longlisted for the Booker. It's still just about "contemporary" then - though it's narrator's interest in, and then boredom with the novelty that is the "iPod" just about stops it from being anachronistic. Barker's sizzling prose has always had a liveliness about it that echoes London writers like Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, and in this case, her young, male narrator, Adair Graham MacKenny seems reminiscent of say, "The Rachel Papers" and "Talking it Over."

Adair is an administrator working on the South Bank and so unable to ignore the summer of 2003 media event, of David Blaine, the illusionist, suspended in a glass box for 44 days. Like a medieval saint, this show attracts the bored, the curious, the lonely and the abusive. Adair stands in the crowd, chatting up women, one of whom, the distant and damaged Aphra, he becomes involved with. But it is not Barker's small cast of weird characters who dominate the novel, but Blaine in his box. Adair tries to get closer to the meaning of it all through copious readings from Blaine's biography.

If Houdini has been catnip for novelists for years, Blaine seems an entirely less interesting character. His illusions have a cynicism about them as well as a showmanship. In keeping with the age, Blaine is the central theme of his own piece. The fact is, even six years on, I had only the vaguest memory of the Blaine media-storm, perhaps overshadowed by that more recent study in boredom, Anthony Gormley's "One and Other." Written at speed following the Blaine stunt, its hard, from a distance of a few years, to see what drew Barker to this. The novel is called "Clear" and subtitled "a transparent novel", and it's an experimental work, full of digression, and with the thinnest of plots, that reminds one more of an Aldomovar movie or (it's nearest stylistic cousin) the scabrous media satire "Nathan Barley."
Barker does a great job of sketching a soulless lonely age, where nothing, not art, not work, not sex has any real meaning. There is love in the novel, but it is of a damaged kind - and the overwhelming emotion is the loneliness of the contemporary city, where we are strangers even to our work colleagues, housemates, and sexual partners, find more empathy in the blank celebrity of the Blaine publicity stunt.

It was an engaging read, and I realise I need to read more of Barker's recent work (particularly the epic "Darkmans") as she's one of our most interesting novelists. "Clear" is an oddity, it's central act already a piece of historical marginalia.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Orthodox Marketing of Experimental Fiction

I've often wondered why literature hasn't learnt something from the success/hype of contemporary British art over the last decade or so. If there's not the equivalent of a literary unmade bed or pickled shark, perhaps there should have been. It's perhaps no surprise that its taken a writer steeped in artistic interventions, Tom McCarthy, to bring into the public eye the very idea of a British experimental writer. In her famous comparison of McCarthy and Joseph O'Neill, Zadie Smith posited these as two directions for the contemporary novel. (I didn't agree that these two novelists were actually doing so much that was different, simply approaching similar subjects in a different way.)

What has happened since, is that McCarthy's 3rd novel, "C", has been longlisted for the Booker even though it is only available to read from next week, and as a result, McCarthy is suddenly news, and his novel, and a discussion about it, are everywhere. Now signed to a "major" rather than tiny Alma Books (it appears that his second novel "Men in Space" may have been one he had prepared earlier), a very orthodox marketing campaign seems to have replaced any "guerilla" appeal to the blogosphere.

Amazingly it's 2 and a half years since I reviewed his debut "Remainder". I recognised it's European debt, calling his writing "taut, and unshowy", and that his response to our current "unknowable" world was one of "fascinated ennui." Its certainly not a realist novel, yet it inhabits a world that is more geographically accurate than, say, the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro.

My sense for "Remainder", and from much of the blogosphere interest in it, and McCarthy, was because it fitted a certain aesthetic drawn from writers such as Beckett, and which, to be fair, has been somewhat absent from British fiction for a while. (Though, I use the term British warily - surely readers of Kelman, Gray, Warner and even Welsh might baulk at being drawn in to that world.)

Last week we had a fascinating piece by McCarthy sketching the development of his new novel in the context of technological and artistic developments almost a century ago. Its a fascinating, if selective article, as it wasn't just the modernists, but late Victorians such as William Morris, and Edwardians like H.G. Wells who were most interested in how the technological age was changing both the world, and art. The Futurism exhibition at Tate Modern recently highlighted the electric charge of that period, yet like the imagists, the Futurists, didn't necessarily produce first rate art, for all their fascination with the electric light and the mechanical engine. Where McCarthy's piece is at its most interesting is where he talks about how a "technologically savvy sensibility might see (literature) completely differently: as a set of transmissions," - rather than as a work of self-expression. This is fascinating, and is also quite a subtle position, for it unhooks his work from modernism (which was nothing if it wasn't self-expression), and places it elsewhere. Where that "elsewhere" may be might be problematic. I already see literature absent from discussions of digital technology, arts, culture - even politics - and have a suspicion its to do with language. A poetic or descriptive language doesn't survive long in a technocracy.

In interview with McCarthy in the Observer today, is well worth reading as it reinforces the subtlety of his position. McCarthy gives good quote, but also he's unafraid to talk about his intellectual (re)sources. "The avant garde can't be ignored, so to ignore it – as most humanist British novelists do – is the equivalent of ignoring Darwin" says McCarthy, and it succinctly puts a point that I've often made about the head-in-the-sand quality of much English fiction (and poetry). Like all good writers, McCarthy is careful to map out his own canon - for him its Tristram Shandy and Cervantes as well as the modernists. It can be argued that a canon that doesn't include George Eliot, E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence isn't one that I'd subscribe to, (and I have no idea whether these are writers he would in/exclude), but I'm glad the argument is being had at all. (Just as Leavis was perfectly at liberty to leave Sterne out of his "Great Tradition.") At times like this you wonder if this is the critical-theory wars all over again...yet refreshingly, we now have writers like McCarthy, China Mieville, Alan Warner and others who have read theory, who have read philosophy.

Accompanying the McCarthy piece, William Skidelsky writes briefly about what this means for "experimental fiction?" Without having read the unpublished "C" its hard to know whether the book will fit into any such description. Tellingly he says that David Mitchell is "hardly an avant garde figure", though I'd say, and have said they are steeped in the tropes of post-modernism as McCarthy, to say the least. Mitchell, of course, has no aspirations to be a counter-culture figure. I think the problem is that the avant garde as it was defined in the post-war years is in itself a genre with its own orthodoxies. Are books like Sylvia Smith's "Misadventures", Graham Rawle's "Woman's World" or Magnus Mills "Three to See the King" "avant garde" novels for instance? What about Adam Thirlwell's recent "Miss Herbert"? Are is the term only to be used for counter-culture writers like Stewart Home?

The cross-genre book (whether its "Me Cheeta", "Elizabeth Costello" or "Schindler's Ark") has been a staple of publishing over the last two decades, whilst we've also had novels in verse, novels in email et al. The "novelty" is alive and well and probably living in a bestselling novel near you. Off-the-wall fantasias like "Pig Tales" or "Atomised" remain rare in British fiction however.

Reviews of "C" indicate it is a very different beast to the intricate but page-turning "Remainder" and as a reader with a facination for the years immediately before and after the Great War, I'm sure I'll find much of interest in it. Whether it's as modern and as innovative as Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier" (the first chapter of which appeared in Wyndham Lewis's "Blast") will be an interesting test of what those words actually mean.

(*Addendum: I've just read a chapter of "C" which was in last month's Granta Magazine, after having written this piece, and the chapter reminded me massively of "The Good Soldier" - with its sanatarium setting. Looking forward to the book immensely after reading this extract.)

Popular Fictions

I don't often read popular fiction, not out of snobbishness, but because I don't get that much time to read anything, and whether its the Time Traveller's Wife or Da Vinci Code it's quite a way down my wishlist. However, I've always enjoyed a well-written thriller, and I've had Stieg Larrson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" on my shelf for a while. Though it starts slowly, with too much exposition, and a rather dull opening to do with financial accounting fraud, it soon speeds up, and I can see why it's been successful. Not reading too much crime fiction, I couldn't really say how original or otherwise the novel is, but though intricately plotted, it felt very familiar. A cold case; a missing girl; and an unlikely hero (Mikael Blomkvist, a financial reporter rather than a P.I. or policeman). Of course the novel really comes alive when the girl with the dragon tattoo herself, Lisbeth Salander, comes on the scene. She's a brilliant creation, a hacker from the wrong side of the tracks who grew up in state care, and is still, in adulthood (in a detail that seems strange to British readers) under state guardianship. The story that Blomkvist investigates has everything - its a missing girl, Harriet Vanger, who has not been seen since the day she disappeared over 40 years before. Her family, the Vangers, are a major industrialist family, but also a pack of monsters. There's Nazism, mental illness, child abuse, and much more. What Larrson does, similar to the best crime novels, is hitch an issue onto a complex detailed story. In this case it is men's violence to women (and the original title in Swedish translates as Men Who Hate Women,) and the damaged Lisbeth is as much a part of that narrative as the awful Vangers.

I guess the book is so ubiquitous - and is already one film, in Swedish, and about to become another - that none of this is a surprise. Writers like Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton get namechecked throughout the novel, and Larsson was clearly writing in style that he knew well and loved. At times the writing is very prosaic, but it does zapp along at a pace, and with it's pacing, and keen sense of place and family I was reminded as much of Stephen King's storytelling as the detective genre. The grisliness, and action, when it comes, is told sparingly, rather than wallowed in, despite its horrible nature. The story of an undisclosed serial killer - a man who hurts women - going back over decades reminded me of James Elroy's masterly The Black Dahlia. Blomkvist, reporter on the investigative magazine Millennium, is not only endearing, but a hit with the ladies, with two women who have been abused, quickly finding themselves in bed with him. This, and Lisbeth's change from socially inept mystery girl to Blomkvist's articulate confidante, raised eyebrows, but as the pace cracked on, and Larsson trawled us round his large cast of suspects, like Poirot in a country house mystery, it's undoubtedly a good read.