Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Inevitably there are a couple of spoilers in writing this review, but hopefully nothing that you wouldn't get from reading the blurb and the first few pages of the novel.

Bestselling authors into their fifth decade are not expected to change the template much, but Stephen King, in his last few books has tackled American history in the time travel novel "11.22.63", future apocalypse in "Under the Dome", revisited his earlier horror classic "The Shining" in "Doctor Sleep" and now, in "Mr. Mercedes" has written a contemporary crime thriller.

I probably stopped reading King's books avidly around the mid-90s, partly as he branched out into expansive fantasy novels, and partly as my taste's changed. Yet "11.22.63" which used a wormhole into the past to look at Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination is close to a masterpiece,  and having found it hard to get started on a few recent novels, I picked up his latest "Mr. Mercedes" on a whim in Sainsbury's - after all, King is never anything less than readable.

Atypically for King this is a crime novel, with a retired detective, finding it difficult to cope with the loneliness and inactivity of his new life, finds himself drawn back into an old case, an unsolved crime where an unknown assailant drove into a queue of people queueing for jobs in the harsh economy of 1997. As ever with King, he flinches neither from the horror and carnage of the scene, nor from describing the humanity of the victims. It's a harsh, and somewhat grandstanding start. When the killer contacts retired detective Bill Hodges its through a letter that tells him to log onto a website "Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella" which is a social network for private, untraceable conversations.

Taking the bait, but determined to turn the tables on the killer, Hodges starts this symmetric communication by pressing the killer's buttons. He doesn't believe the killer is who he says he is. But we, as the reader, know different, for King gives us the two sides to the story - we meet Brady, "the Mercedes killer", living at home with his alcoholic mother, holding down two normal but low-grade jobs as computer technician and ice cream salesman. Its an old, but effective technique. In this book, King telegraphs his intentions early on - its a cat and mouse story, like the Michael Mann film "Heat" or even Forsyth's classic "The Day of the Jackal".  But its also clear where King's latest reboot is coming from - he mentions The Wire, Dexter and the BBC's Luther. Its obvious that these 21st century masterpieces in storytelling - some of which probably owe quite a lot to the influence of Stephen King - have been feeding back into his own work. Though early in the book, you feel that it is more second tier stuff such as "The Mentalist" or "Hannibal", exciting but formulaic procedurals, that "Mr. Mercedes" most resembles.

I was enjoying the book from the start, but it takes a while to get into gear - as the lone detective, unable to call on the old resources, except as occasional flavour, takes a while to get things together. He knows that the mass killing weren't the only victims of Brady, for the lady whose car was stolen to commit the crime was also somehow culpable. This slight twist is in fact King's way of getting us deep into his tale. We hear nothing more about the victims of the queue, but King tracks down the sister of the woman who owned the Mercedes. Here we have the typical King gothic. The rich but mentally disturbed family who can be preyed on by the psychologically disturbed Brady. Brady himself is a fascinating creature, one of King's many darkly imagined murderers, whose own life, full of sexual abuse, domestic tragedy and sexual frustration feeds into his crimes.

Hodges pulls together an unexpected support team to help him in what becomes a race against time once the killer strikes again. Yet though we keep moving back and forth between the two - King is a master at keeping options open. Some of the stranger machinations of the plot have purpose later on, and if during the first half of the book I was enjoying it, but aware of it being high class schlock, by the second half I was gripped.

Impressively, King understands modern technology and incorporates it into this novel which feels genuine. Whereas a writer like Robert Harris (and his editors) struggle with even a basic understanding of modern tech, or younger writers might throw in emails and social media nonchalantly, King is both inventive and plausible. Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella (the marketing people have set up a site so it actually exists!) is a highly plausible private social network rather than a reworking of Facebook or whatever, whilst the electrical gadgetry that Brady uses is both possible, and neatly described. (Brady's invention he calls "Thing 2", enabling him to unlock cars with a few electronics from Radio Shack.) Whereas classic King sits in smalltown America, this is a novel of the small modern city - and deftly centres it in our modern world, of scarce jobs, mobile phones and (a highly plausible) boy band.

To say any more would be to provide real spoilers from a novel that is an excellent read. Whereas the King of the 70s and 80s used to invent rabid dogs, ghostly cars and firestarter children as a surrogate for America's malaise, the contemporary King doesn't need to - the horror is there in our murderous, abused children, their anger hardly fictional compared to the mass killers we see on the 24 hour rolling news. In the crowded world of crime fiction, King doesn't essentially add anything new, but brings his usual talents to bear on a compelling cat and mouse story. At first, the "love interest" of the 60 something Hodges seems contrived - a middle aged writers fantasy that, like in the Stieg Larsson books, or "Luther" sees the messed up investigator getting into bed with the first young woman he meets on the case - but even this becomes a key aspect of the plot. If the novel ends up a little conventional in its outcomes, its none the worse for that.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tove Jansson

The Moomins were absent from my childhood. It seems that though the books were in English by the late 60s/early 70s, I never really remember them, and by the time there was a TV adaption I was too old for them, yet I've got vague unsubstantiated memories of the latter - one of those foreign import TV shows that the BBC used to fill its schedule with. The Moomins were these strange looking creatures living in a strange land. Had I encountered them at the right time I'd have probably been a fan.

Despite this being my fourth visit to Finland, and having seen Moomin toys all over (as you see Smurfs and Tin Tin in Belgian) I'd not given much though to their creator, the Finnish (but Swedish-language) writer and artist Tove Jansson, but in the centenary year of her birth there's a lot of activity going on. From a new biography, to English issues of her adult novels and stories, to various exhibitions of her work.


In Helsinki this week with work, I found an hour or so before my flight visit a retrospective of her life and work at the Ateneum Gallery. Its an appropriate location, as Jansson studied there when it was the Finnish school of art. Born in 1914 into an artistic family her talents soon became clear and she began painting and drawing. The retrospective unpicks the fame of the Moomins and puts it in a context that gives due precedence to her other work. There are large early tableaux that are fairy tale or fantasy scenes, and it seems that she was always fascinated by the mystical side of Finland's natural world. Yet if there was an openness and flowering in North Europe in the years between the wars, particularly as post-revolution, Russia's grip on its neighbours lessened, the coming storm of World War Two had a major effect on those artists who were in their twenties and thirties when it began. Jansson became an illustrator for a Swedish satirical magazine, poking fun at the Nazis - though a not unfamiliar humour to British eyes, there's a whole different level of bravery for writers and artists criticising these forces in countries uneasily neutral. 

Part of a Finnish demi monde, it seems that Jansson spent much  of her life with other artists and intellectuals, but her politics were through the eyes of an artist. When I recently saw the Hannah Hoch exhibition at the Whitechapel in London I was struck by Hoch's war, which she survived to moving to an anonymous suburb of Berlin where nobody would think she could possibly be the radical artist of the 30s. After the war Hoch returned to her work with a new vigour, and a sense of inculcating the fantastic into her work; and there seem some parallels with the younger Jansson here.

Jansson had long parallel careers as artist, writer and illustrator, and in her art she's a highly credible 20th century painter. To my mind the best works were some of her large fantasia scenes, which seem drawn from dreams and deftly use a wide palate of bright colours, with echoes of Van Gogh in some of her oils, particularly in her still lifes and self portraits. Her use of colour is particularly striking, even when, in line with the trends of the time, she becomes more abstract and expressionist in the 50s and 60s. The sea pictures she did around this time capture something of Finland's natural rawness. Yet I can't help but thinking that in the Moomins, however commercially successful they were, she finds a genuine mechanism for mixing the myth and reality of this northern land. As well as the books, she wrote and drew a comic strip for years, where the tiny frames are as immaculately drawn as her larger pictures. But in addition, either for the fun of it, or for dramatic adaptions of the Moomin world, she had a part in making various Moomin houses. Her other art is never less than accomplished, but its subject matter is often quite straightforward, still lifes, landscapes and immaculate portraits that on their own wouldn't elevate her beyond many of her peers. It seems that in Moominland she found an alternate world where she could speak more clearly about the world. Its perhaps no surprise that she also illustrated the Finnish translation of "The Hobbit.".

In this sense, her later move to acclaimed adult fiction makes some kind of sense, as Jansson seems a brilliant storyteller, and this sense of narrative is a track through different decades of her art. I was intrigued by the self portraits, as repeated time and again through her life, you get a sense of a complex woman trying to understand who she is and what she feels. There's a lovely short cine film of Jansson on a beach, and its carefree and happy. In the Moomin stories there is always the contrast between the threat of the outside world and the safety and security of home. Finland has a small population, but a large and proud history, and from Sibelius, to Jansson to "Angry Birds" it often has an enlarge cultural footprint. The Moomins became particularly popular in Japan, and Helsinki positions itself (as its geography allows) as between east and west.

We are beginning to see more exhibitions on 20th century female artists, and this careful curation of Jansson's life was well worth seeing, and I'm intrigued to read the biography and some of her adult stories. I've not got the emotional connection to the Moomins that those who read them as a child might have, and still find them slightly odd and otherworldly. By seeing her other work, its fair to say that the "day job" of writing the Moomins was not all that she did, but also that its an important component of her work artistically as well as in the wider culture. If her other work sometimes lacks depth of subject despite its artistic quality, in Moominland she's created something that retains an essence of the strangeness of this beautiful far northern country.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Top Music Books

Jarvis Cocker has written a typically diverse and fascinating list of his favourite music books for the Guardian. He knows of what he speaks, being a roving editor for Faber as well. Cocker's own best work is often those songs which tell a story - we were dancing/listening to "Underwear" on a friend's iPhone in a hotel room in Tallinn last night coincidentally!

Anyway, I may not be a Faber editor or have written "Common People" but I do have a bit of love for music books - so here's an alternate list.

1. The Beatles Forever - Nicholas Schaeffner

I was a Beatles obsessive in my early teens, though probably as interested in reading about them as listening to them. I guess it was the start of a wider interest in a pop cultural framework - reading about the Manson cult's obsession with "The White Album" - watching "Rosemary's Baby".... I picked up this book from a bookshop in Bournemouth when on holiday with my family. Its brilliant, but a bit odd. The author is an American whose life was changed by hearing the Beatles - so the familiar story is shortcutted, his Beatles begins in 1964 and is as much about Beatles tribute records and Beatles memorabilia as the music. Somehow this helps tell the story - its also got fantastic photos. I first heard about the "butcher" cover here (and saw a picture of it.) He also continues through their solo years. The story is told better elsewhere, but he's got a lively style and I obsessed over this book for a long time. Well worth hunting down.

2. Wrong Movements - Mike King

I'm a massive Robert Wyatt fan, and with an official biog due this year, its worth mentioning this fabulous - and quite rare - book that came out a few years ago. Its a superior clippings job - telling Wyatt's story through all available sources.  A great book with a good discography (which in the days before Wikipedia was essential.)

3. Head On - Julian Cope

Julian Cope has written quite a few esoteric books now, but this was his first and the best. A rollercoaster autobiography - it benefits both from his being a decent writer, and the iconic nature of his story - from ambitious but unfocussed suburbanite, to off kilter singer in the Teardrop Explodes, to unexpected pop stardom, before imploding under too many drugs. A classic story.

4. Psychotic Reactions - Lester Bangs

Predictable, but none the worse for all that - this collection of posthumous journalism by the best rock writer of all time is something you can pick up time and again. His pieces on Kraftwerk, "Metal Machine Music", Grand Funk Railroad and others are pretty legendary, and he was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the awesome "Almost Famous."

5. Crass Lyrics

Maybe I've imagined this one as I can't find a link on Google, but I've certainly got a copy of the complete lyrics of anarcho punk band Crass. They were always so much more than noise and this lovely collection does them every bit as much justice as the Patti Smith or Paul McCartney complete lyrics. Given how important their lyrics were politically its a powerful read in its own right .

6. Nowhere to Run - Gerri Hershey

A classic, but vital regardless, this is the history of soul music. A great great story told brilliantly.
I could have filled this list with classics by Griel Marcus, Jon Savage and others, but this slightly lesser known history is exemplary.

7. Touch & Go

There have been a few "collected fanzine" collections, but this beautifully reproduced recreation of "Touch & Go" a magazine and record label synonymous with U.S. hardcore is particularly good. You get to see the evolution of a movement - the early issues are mostly reviewing UK punk and new wave, but at some point the US hardcore scene coalesces, and its around this magazine that it coalesces. As a somewhat sardonic zine, its also funny - so much more than a period piece.

8. Roxy Music - Johnny Rogan

Before he wrote his infamous Morrissey and Marr book, Rogan looked at band rivalry through the lens of art rock legends Roxy Music. When this book came out it was quite hard to find out the full story of their remarkable career - and particularly the strange solo excursions of Eno, Manzanera et al. A very well researched little paperback I'm amazed its not been reissued, but worth unearthing if you can find it.

9. In Session Tonight - Ken Garner 

This wonderful piece of scholarship tells the full story of the Peel sessions - and annotates them all. It even has a CD with it. But its mostly just a great telling of this alternate history that is the Peel session.

10. The Dirt - Motley Crue

Most of my favourite music books are about artists I love, but this is a favourite for other reasons. It tells the mad uncensored story of Motley Crue, from their own mouths. If you ever wanted to know how depraved rock music can get, and how lacking in self awareness this is the book. It really dishes "the dirt" but because they are telling their own story its got a searing honesty that is part comedy, part tragedy. Hasn't made me want to listen to their music, but great fun to read.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

A Good Poet Has Fallow Years

I'm from a farming background; my grandparents being tenant farmers in the Midlands. A good farmer knows that you sometimes have to leave a field to recuperate, and have a "fallow" period. I lived for a number of years in "Fallowfield" in Manchester and never fail to smile at the name; especially given how urban and built-up this student-inhabited part of the city is. Most of the south Manchester suburbs used to be fields, but I'm not sure if "Fallowfield" was some kind of joke or whether there was a farmer Fallow.

Poetry in 2014 seems anything but fallow. Few are the writers who scrimp away their words these days. From our Laureate down to university undergraduates, overproduction is now the norm. I admire poets who seem to write verse every day, especially when they're not too precious about it. Did Eliot or Larkin really leave so little? Some of the "collected works" that you see nowadays are massive - long lives, perhaps, but perhaps also, unedited lives.

I seem to be in a bit of a fallow period myself. I'd been putting together a poetry collection (still am, kind of) wondering where it might find a home, but it was probably spending more time on fiction that has been the real reason for my falling off in productivity. Its not the first time.  I've had a good few gaps where I seem to have given up on poetry, or at least, poetry has given up on me. Sometimes its lack of a subject, but also, I think, I'm not so sure what I want to write at the moment.

So, when you're not writing poetry it becomes hard to define yourself as a poet - particularly in Facebook conversations where everyone is so energetic all the time - reviewing this book, producing this pamphlet, doing this reading. Well, I'm reading next Saturday between 3-4pm in St. Anne's square at the revitalised Manchester independent book market. I'll be reading new poems, but given what I've just said, they won't be that new.

In the meantime, "one I prepared earlier" which was published in "Bare Fiction" earlier this year is now on their website. "Impressions between places" was initially scribbled where you'd imagine, in Schiphol airport, waiting for a plane. I should probably see if KLM were interested in a sponsorship deal!

In the week I will feast on other people's genius, as the Other Room (this Wednesday), where some of my favourite artists (poet seems the wrong word for Leanne at least), Leanne  Bridgewater, Allan Fisher and Agnes Lehoczky will be reading.  I can guarantee it will be more skilful than England v. Ecuador. 

The next month of course will see any poetry readings competing with the World Cup schedule, though basically the crossover of football fans/poetry fans is pretty small from my experience. But as I'm one of that small number, I'll be having to prioritise if there are any clashes.

Finally, I  was going to write a blog post about the much-reported "banning" of "Of Mice and Men" in Michael Gove's new curriculum, but so much hot air has been spilt on the issue, that I'm not sure I want to add to it. I'm not a teacher, nor have any teenagers of my acquaintance about to take GCSE English, and really, they're the only points of view that really matter. For what its worth, we read Steinbeck's "The Pearl" pre-O-level and it put me off for life; but my love of the Metaphysicals, who we did study, I doubt was particularly shared by the 99% of my class who didn't want to grow up and be writers. We need a canon, for sure, but we also need an audience, and if that starts in a different place than where I started, then so be it.