Monday, May 28, 2007

I Love 1982

I'd not had any great rush to read David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green" since - him being two years younger than me - I had a feeling a book about being an adolescent boy in a small town in the early 80s wasn't exactly going to tell me anything I didn't already know. It's thankfully a little light on period detail - too many ra-ra skirts and rubik's cube and I'd have felt it was trying too hard - whilst far fuller with the remembered detail of everyday life, the what's it like to be a kid. The difference's with now are interesting - TV and video and video games are exotic possibilities only - whilst the kids in the novel are free to wander - only rarely been given a lift somewhere by their parents. School is a battleground, where you have to make sure you don't become one of the stricken, hated by everyone in the school. Mitchell's brilliant on the school hierarchies, and thankfully, and rare in English fiction, its actual a real school, a village comp, where this "fitting in" is all that really matters - not being clever, or good at football or getting on. The more rarified world of the middle classes is more seen in Jason's home life, where his elder sister dates boys with sports cars, and his parents, mired in a crumbling suburban marriage, are willing participants in their own facade. Honestly, I could have written most of the book, so uncannily similar are the school scenes - and in fact I think I did, in two novels I wrote for the Lichfield Prize. Mind, where Mitchell's backdrop is the Falklands War, I wrote about the Queen's Jubilee. With a lead character who is "triple invisible" because of his stammer, because he doesn't want to be bullied, and because his parents are falling apart, we have an observant narrator which is the book's real strength. Although it's about his life, he's neither important or unimportant enough to dominate. Like all of Mitchell's books, theres a sense that this is partially a collection of short stories - and I'm reminded of Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" for its interlinked stories of small town life. There's a fantastical element as well, seen through an adolescent's eyes, still not too grown up to make up stories, which serves the novel well. I'm reminded a little of Kate Atkinson, or even that master of adolescent fiction, Stephen King. What passes for plot is diversionary enough - very much a novel of the provinces - my old tutor Richard Francis would find much he recognises here. Though no tour de force like "Cloud Atlas" there is much to recommend it, yet in some ways it's likeability is perhaps its downfall. Jason so wants to be liked, to fit in, and so does the novel. The plot comes across as a little too pat, the middle England novel of early Kingsley Amis, with small details telegraphed across the pages to link the episodes, and though Mitchell sometimes able to be able to write beautifully and believably about everything, his gypsies are a particularly ripe charicature I could have done without. Its real strength is Jason himself, a sensitive boy on the verge of adolescence, toppling over into it, as the world around him gets increasingly confusing. The book often talks about "truth" and he is a true character; yet the world of Black Swan Green, so typically English, so neither one thing or another (in one telling detail: "Black Swan Green closes on a Saturday afternoon. England clsoes on a Saturday afternoon.), can never be the kind of canvas that might have made a better book. If the "I Love 1982" programmes are about nostalgia, it is this "safety" of the past that comes across as nostalgic in this book. Nobody (that matters) gets hurt. Like Zadie Smith, there seems an unwillingness in Mitchell - or perhaps in his readers - to delve into any real darkness. I recognise that cosiness, since I've used it in my own writing, but I guess what I'm looking for - as reader and writer - IS something darker, is something with a greater truth. There are some good jokes - his dad works for supermarket chain Greenland - and a few anachronisms, (was "a bit gay" really in use as a phrase then to describe things that are weak? Which Roxy Music album was he playing that included "Virginia Plain"? Must have been the TV advertised greatest hits...). I have a feeling this is a book that he had in his locker - even before success - two chapters appeared earlier in Granta and New Writing - so is more a byway than a follow up to "Cloud Atlas." Much to recommend it, but unlikely to blow you away. I love 1982 myself, but mine was a little darker than this. (Worth re-reading Lee Rourke's thoughtful review of it here.)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

This book will make your evening

A. M. Homes' "This Book Will Save Your Life" has already made a bit of a splash, a surprise Richard and Judy choice, perhaps, for this established, but ironic American writer. I've always liked her short stories, full of splintered debris, yet with a kernel of real truth. The cover of this new novel is strewn with doughnuts, and it seems not an inappropriate - or inadvertent - symbol. Our "hero", Richard, is a man in his fifties with nothing in his life that is not paid for - his cleaner, his trainer, his nutritionist. The "hole" being his relationship with his apparently callous ex-wife and his son, Ben, who is just coming on a trip across America, to end up in L.A. In a Los Angeles that is both insane, and utterly plausible, a corruscating pain, whilst he's in his apartment is the signal for his life to start filling up again - with the detritus of people and events that he starts to find by simply going out and looking for them. He has been asleep, and opens his eyes to find that the world is raucous, overwhelming, and willing to engage with him. A whole cast of absurd but plausible characters come his way, each in their own way similarly yearning to fill the vast holes in their life. Richard recreates a new family, a new group of friends from nothing - his own wealth, and time on his hands, allowing for this fantastical reconnection. Yet he also needs to relocate, as his own house starts to fall into a hole, a precursor perhaps of L.A.'s inevitable dicing with the San Andreas Fault. Homes is both a true original, and sometimes irrevocably an echo of other writers. There is DeLillo's punchy New York dialogue, discussing everything with a quickfire wit, more Seinfeld in Homes, than Salinger; then there is an echo of Heller's grumpy satire of middle-age, the sardonic "Something Happened", and then again the pathos of Coupland's "Girlfriend in a Coma" - perhaps this books' closest twin - or Easton Ellis at his most flippant. Yet these precursors don't really do justice to her surface level joi de vivre - the "trip" is a vastly enjoyable one, as the insane minutiae of rich (of course) L.A. life is satirised and amplified. Richard - this non-involver - becomes the Good Samaritan, saving lives by chance in a post-Lost American interior. It's a long book though, and once the cast has been assembled, there's a sense of the book itself falling into a hole, as the middle section sags under its peculiarity. Yet as soon as his son arrives, the tone darkens, the plot thickens, and the modus operandi becomes focussed. The last third of the novel is astonishing, a tour de force of chance, serendipidity, hope and regret. Richard's own memory-free past - his own hole - is filled in, and the limp macrobiotic diet he's been existing on gives way to a more doughty doughnut filled existence. It feels like a book that is post-disaster - though the disaster's are personal, never spoken of, again, like Coupland's "Girlfiend in a Coma" - yet the novel also comes to a head. Not to give the game away, the tropes and tricks that have both entertained us, and at some point enraged us, fall by the way side as the bigness and insanity of this vast coastal city takes over. Its a powerful, rollercoaster of a novel, that even at its most infuriating, never fails to entertain - yet Homes is far more than a party trickster. If the "everyman" here is at times a little predictable in his past mistakes, and insecurities, it is his humanity, that in the end gives the novel its humanity and it's not inconsiderable power.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"The Distance Men Need in Their Love"

I'm finding each issue of the American "Poetry" magazine dropping through the letterbox an absolute joy. A reduced price subscription is still available via Ready Steady Book. I subscribed because of the lack of exposure to American poetry; and deciding that in the absence of any "guides" it was probably the easiest way to keep in touch. I was blown away by the opening poem, by a name new to me, Bob Hicok, "O My Pa Pa", a funny poignant poem about how "our fathers have formed a poetry workshop." "I don't know why it's so hard to write a simple and kind poem to my father..." he muses, before ending with that endless imponderable, about "the distance men need in their love." Incredible stuff.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Middle Aged Men (and Younger Women)

Is it just coincidence that the book I'm reading, and the book I've just read are both books about men having a mid-life crisis written by (younger) women? Fiona Campbell's "Death of a Salaryman" follows a "salaryman" who loses his job in contemporary Japan, through a series of episodes where he creates several new lives for himself. Lead character, Kenji, is entirely engaging, and you root for him throughout - even as the rug keeps being pulled from him - sometimes by the world, more often by those close to him, (his very unsympathetic wife, in particular). Like a modern day Candide, whatever befalls him makes him a little stronger, a little more optimistic despite the disasters. In A.M. Homes "This Book Will Save Your Life", the protagonist is older - in his fifties - financially rich beyond his needs, but emotionally poor to an equal degree, a literary equivalent of Bill Murray's unfinished character in "Broken Flowers." Here, the awful wife is (so far) out of picture. It's interesting that as the publishing industry becomes more feminised - predominantly female writers writing for a predominantly female audience - that this literary cross-dressing (and it doesn't go far - both books are 3rd person), is perhaps the more interesting option. Interesting to know what fascination the writers see in such fallible non-alpha males?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ten Years On

With Tony Blair's expected departure being announced today, I thought I'd dig out the first chapter of my novel "High Wire", which begins on election night 1997 (and finishes 6 months later). This small extract sees the main character, Adam Challis, compelled to go to the Royal Festival Hall to see history in the making, as Blair arrives by helicopter from his constituency. It's a scene I pulled pretty much directly from memory - and wrote it hardly six months after the fact.

The radio was broadcasting from the Royal Festival Hall. Crowds waiting expectantly for the helicopter that was ferrying Tony Blair from Sedgefield to London, anointing Caesar.

'We've just had twenty cars from Millbank booked there,' the driver told him.

'Royal Festival Hall it is,' he told the driver. He stared out the window at London by night, taxis all heading to the river, everyone collecting there. He felt not so much alone as compelled by the mass, ant-driven.

He was on the Waterloo Bridge side, coming up towards the mass that was squeezed in at the front of the Royal Festival Hall. He thought momentarily: they weren't expecting many people, choosing here. He couldn't even see the podium. Around him people stood expectant, drunk, but mostly bored. Strange, at a time like this. He looked at the faces and saw students, tourists, many of them younger than himself, mostly the coming, and he already felt that he belonged to a missing generation. The beards and beer bellies that he remembered from Labour party meetings were curiously absent. He swigged on his blush wine as others shared bottles of champagne, or sipped Hooch slowly. It was like a Techno crowd after the electricity went, some still oblivious, most just stopped, obediently waiting the restart. This mob wasn't going to scream for anything. But that was where he was wrong - there had been the distant whirr of Police choppers inching in and out of the capital, but now the whirring was more insistent, our own Air Force One, and the whoop went up and off. He tried to make his way further into the crowd but he was pushed back, almost angrily, you won't get through mate, there's no room. Now it was a Live Aid crowd, a Billy Graham crowd, fierce, self-protective. He couldn't just stand there rammed in between jostling lines of people, seeing nothing, hearing only the echo. He turned and forced his way angrily out, pushing back the crowd to part them, moving with some force, oblivious to their complaints. He headed out towards Waterloo Bridge trying to find the way back down, past the Hayward and over by M.O.M.I. The numbers here were fewer, everyone who was coming was already here. Why had he even come?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Knob Jokes with Germaine Greer and Sam Mendes

A friend went to Stratford to see King Lear, last week, and mentioned that Germaine Greer was in the front row. She was on her own (Greer, that is), and was apparently looking around all the time, nervously, presumably to make sure that everyone realised that she was Germaine Greer. I said to my friend something I've noticed before, that people who are forever the centre of attention (whether on TV,the guys who stand up and make presentations, or ASBO kids) are almost incapable of just sitting there, being quiet and watching something. So, it probably wasn't a surprise, given her famous person's-ADD, that she gives Lear such a scathing review. It reads like she was always intending to - and, inevitably, to concentrate on one thing, the naked Ian Mckellen. (Which, of course, is probably why the Guardian sent HER to review it in the first place.) My friend thought it was a er...pointless and gratuitous display, and thought that McKellen clearly just gets off on this. Like a reversal of those old Hollywood "no nudity" clauses, it would be, "I'm only doing this if I can get naked," "can't we go for underwear Sir Ian?, or subdued lighting." "Stark bollock, or the deal's off." Thanks to Extras I think we can now believe the worst of every actor and actress and actually be not too far from the truth. However, I also just watched "Jarhead", Sam Mendes film about the first Gulf war (the one after the invasion of Kuwait - we've since renamed the other first Gulf war as the Iran-Iraqui war). Obviously taking a single soldier's view of the conflict - it's from a memoir - is limiting; but how limiting! I tend to like watching war films (and boxing movies and gangster flicks), clearly in some sort of macho over-compensation for my bookishness, (and yes, there's a guy with glasses, who kind of messes up, and writes porno letters for the Major back to his wife back home), but "Jarhead" was very weak. Mendes' direction is his usual mix of competent fluidity, and episodic predictability - Hollywood clearly sees him as a safe pair of hands, he's certainly no auteur - but, in a film with hardly a woman to be seen, being in the US Marines around 1990 clearly involved mainly around making and responding to knob jokes. (In the showers. "Hey, it's like a penis, but smaller.") As my recent novella begins with a man waking up with an erection, perhaps I shouldn't criticise, but it seems the spirit of Donald McGill is alive and well and in a theatre or cinema near you.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Who needs Tromatic Reflexxions?

Of course, there's avant garde and avant garde, and it always seems so much simpler in music. You just order it from Amazon and give it a listen. "Tromatic Reflexxions" by Von Sudenfed may sound like something from a Keston Sutherland poem, but in fact its a collaboration between Mark E. Smith and Mouse on Mars. Mouse on Mark, perhaps. Not heard any of it yet, but it adds to his rich, albeit occasional, series of electronic forays, that has existed both within and outside of the Fall. Interestingly, in the same way that having Harry Potter helped Bloomsbury widen their list, Mark E. Smith is now on the same label, Domino, as the Arctic Monkeys. Perhaps the Fall might end up on this growing mini-major?

So Much Everything

I bumped into the poet Steven Waling last week in the Cornerhouse and he had with him a new book which he's reviewed since on his blog. A handsome affair, "50 Heads" by Tony Trehy is a collection of pieces by the curator of Bury's Text Festival a couple of years ago. At the time he got some considerable press for complaining about how the poetry that is most recognised abroad is ignored at home. What always amuses me about the self-conscious avant garde is how they behave in EXACTLY the same way as they complain about, say, the more mainstream poetry scene. Despite the occasional fights over whether JH Prynne is more important than Carole Ann Duffy, what you see is a ghettoisation on both sides, with not a moment of crossover. Two Bald men fighting over a comb in other words, to nick Borges formulation on the Falklands War. Steven made the valid point that he liked going to avant garde events since it was rate for him not to be the most avant garde person in the room. It mirrors John Burnside's recent horror in Poetry Review at the disdain for American poetry he'd recently come across. For the common reader, and I consider myself one, (for God help someone who hasn't spent their whole life immersed in sub-genre of a particular clique), its clear there's no single anthology of either contemporary British or contemporary American poetry that tries to cover the waterfront. You might be able to dig out something like "Vanishing Points" on the experimental side of things, but we're well overdue a collection, say, of "English Poets born after 1965." Since that would include forty something's like myself in its age range, its likely a whole generation has been missed, or sidelined. Going back to Tony Trehy, I believe that you can only begin to give a value or otherwise to poetry like this, when you put it side by side with both its predecessors, and its opposites. Personally, an avant garde that doesn't engage, enrich or even fight with the mainstream is a self-intended failure, since its only acting within in its own "mainstream." A true avant garde would be rejected by those who have considered themselves avant garde for 30 years or more, as threatening to their little piece of land. That they guard it so carefully, and make it so hard for visitors, means it will eventually face the fate of the Shakers, compromised by the very purity of their beliefs. Just to add, that this isn't an attack on any particular writers, that I felt Trehy did a wonderful job with the Text festival, and that what I'm really asking for is that the diversity of poetry in this country - mainstream, experimental, performance, personal - needs to develop a common respect rather than being always either/or. A couple of nights later, I bumped into John Hall from Citizen 32, laden with the latest issue, complete with Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems in it. Having to get up at the crack of dawn for a 3 hour train journey on the Friday, meant that I couldn't come along to what sounded like a great line-up at the Briton's Protection on Thursday night, with George Wallace and Derry's the Poetry Chicks amongst others.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Skinheads & S***heads

I've read a few of the interviews about the new 80s film "This is England" and I'm not sure whether I'll go and see it. A good review here and elsewhere but I'm a bit alarmed by some of the things Shane Meadows has been saying in interviews. He's talked alot about the original skinheads being anti-racist and into reggae; all true enough; but Meadows was 11 in 1983, and I don't remember any reggae-loving nice skinheads in my part of Staffordshire (he was born up the road in Uttoxeter) by that time. I was 15 at the time, and the skinheads were, without exception, the troublemakers and the terrorisers in school. Seeing Suggs in a Madness video might have seemed harmless enough, but translating his leery cheekiness into playground thuggery, the skins were our schools brooding encapsulation of terror; so I'm always a little uneasy when I hear of anyone glamourising this particular cult. Perhaps if you were in it, it made sense, but outside of it? You had to watch yourself. Last year, I was horrified to find that the BNP polled second - over 700 votes - in the village where I grew up, and with local elections today, I just checked and yet again, the only ward with a BNP candidate in Cannock Chase is my old village, Norton Canes, and sure enough, on the list of "nominees" I recognise one name from my class of '83. Whether or not he was a skinhead then, there was always something wicked in our local woodpile, and I associate the skins with that - not with reggae music and helping old ladies across the road.

Election update: the BNP fell back into 3rd place in Norton Canes, behind the Conservatives, and the winning Labour party, albeit still with 405 votes. Somewhat less than last year.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Vote Early, Vote Often

Just a reminder that there's a load of election's on Thursday. I've only a vague recollection of where my polling station is, but I'm sure I'll dig out the necessary information at some point tomorrow.