Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Viaduct by David Wheldon

There was a brief moment in the early 1980s where strange, short minimal novels, often set in abstract or non-realistic worlds, were being published, partly as the influence of Ballard and Carter seeped into the works of the next generation of writers, and partly, I think, through a sense of longing for a more European cultural scene. Britain, with its rhetoric of stability against any kind of political revolution, is not an obvious place for the stateless work of art, yet our writers - perhaps knowingly hemmed in by our island state, have often dreamt of an elsewhere, or another time - whether a "Flatland", a "News from Nowhere" or the future found through "The Time Machine." Of course, it was also a way of coming to terms with the trauma of the post-war, where, it might be said, we had survivor's guilt. The British response to the Second World War was so often a humorous one, think "Dad's Army". Writers of a more serious inclination were likely to see Europe through a narrow lens, and in the distance, and there books reflected this displacement.

Alongside "Riddley Walker", "The White Hotel", "Utz" and"The Cement Garden", we should perhaps include the debut novel by David Wheldon, "The Viaduct." Wheldon is still writing (a recent story in Confingo for instance), and I only came across his name through recommendations from David Rose and Nicholas Royle. At the Old Pier Bookshop in Morecambe yesterday I came across his debut "The Viaduct" on the way home and read it in a single sitting.

The viaduct remains long after the railway has gone, yet it towers above the anonymous city. A man is walking his dog along the viaduct when another man approaches him and asks what time the train goes and where from. The man tells him the railway was closed a long time before, but of course the vast viaduct still dominates the skyline. The man (later known as "A") has been a political prisoner, but these earlier scene settings - we see the police  visiting his ex-partner in the hope that she is hiding him and they can recapture him for another trial - are merely a prelude. For once he is seen, the man gets chased along the viaduct and only escapes by getting rid of his backpack which contains his seditious manuscript.

He comes into contact with two travellers who tell him he is safe now - that the people in the city will never cross over a certain barbed wire border. We later discover that the ownership of the railway line has been handed over to the various towns and villages it passes through. He joins these two travellers, again unnamed, one is a simple man and a thief who only speaks in sentences he has learnt from others, whilst the other is an outcast for a different reason - he has epileptic fits which change his personality - and he prefers to walk the railway than risk the embarassment of where he came from. This motley crew then starts walking the railway line. There is much talk of where they are going, where the terminus might be. "A" as we now call him is curious about the new life but soon becomes a traveller like the rest. It is summer so they do not need to go into the towns along the route, but in the winter they often do for food. Similarly, life on the rail is harsh and many travellers die.

In many ways the tale is a picaresque fable - with the nature of the world as unknown to us as it is to A. The travellers and the town dwellers are two different tribes, keeping a distance from each other - but occasionally interacting. Some of those interactions have led to suspicion - but mostly it is because those on the rail have reasons to be there, whilst those who are settled fear the travellers - don't really know where they are going or why. This otherworldliness is written in a simple, straightforward prose, which makes the reader empathise with A and the other travellers, at the same time, the characters are philosophical ones, questioning the unknown world they are walking through. All have things to hide, are unreliable tellers of their own tales.  It is the people in the cities and towns who seem oppressed and provincial and somehow threatening.

The book is a short one - and at some point tragedy intervenes meaning that A has to leave his fellow travellers, but like any good picaresque, he picks up others along the way. Yet he is more troubled than the others about his destination. The railroad he is on seems endless, some people have even been born on the track and not known any other life. By the time the truth becomes known, there is an inevitability to it.

It's pointless to ask for an understanding of what Wheldon's world is meant to be - dream world, allegory, future dystopia or Dantesque purgatory - for it exists in a very European tradition of the un-place. Moreover, its strength is something that is beyond the Ballardian trope of imagining a world reduced to a tower block, a traffic island, but something more fundamental. We don't know (like A is Josef K) what he actually did or why, and this is no longer relevant; similarly the railway is surely an allegorical device, like the river Styx might have been for an earlier generation. "Older" travellers remember the railway when it existed, but its almost as if it never did except as a way to delineate the landscape. As the numbers of travellers grow I'm reminded of Magnus Mill's later philosophical book "Three to See the King" or even the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - where individuals are compelled to seek a particular place or way of life.

In some ways the book is unreviewable, despite brilliant notices from William Trevor and Graham Greene on the cover. But despite a few occasional moments that perhaps date it (women are referred to disparagingly by the authorities, like in a seventies sitcom; and in fact women are hardly present at all in the novel), it seems ridiculous that it has entirely disappeared. It's a small masterpiece, particularly for a debut novel, that even half a lifetime after it was written still resonates strongly - the sort of short book that stays with you. As a devotee of early 1980s Picadors often with European authors, it fits snugly into that tradition (though it was published by the Bodley Head and Penguin). In 1983 of course, something else happened in the British book trade. Granta published its special edition about the "20 novelists under 40" and the publicity circus around that could well have drowned out any author not amongst the 20. More than that, it ushered in an age of realisms, satirical, dirty and realism, as well as Booker-friendly historical novels. Like post-punk, a genre that sold very little and was a little too cold and unshouty for mainstream exceptance, this sort of brittle fable has never been well looked on by the publishing mainstream with its desire for TV adaptions and beach reading. That said, it's well worth seeking  out.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Farewell, my Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler's novel "Farewell, my Lovely" is a 1940s noir classic, and rightly so; but its also, like a number of other older books I've read recently - "The Man in the High Castle", "The Day of the Locust" - a very strange novel. I'm not sure whether it is it's strangeness or its familiarity - those noir tropes that Chandler partly invented - that make the book so compelling a read.

Philip Marlowe is our hero, a down on his luck Private Eye, who is also our slick talking narrator. He is looking for a missing husband, a mundane job, when he sees a man thrown out - literally hurled out - of a bar. Intervening he gets more than he bargained for, coming across the aptly named Moose Malloy, just out of jail and looking for the barmaid or showgirl that he was in love with when he went in. The bar has changed - its now in a black quarter of the city - and the new proprietors don't take kindly to the interruption, but Malloy is not a man to be trifled with - he is 6ft 5inches tall and a size to match. This man mountain literally drags Marlowe upstairs with him, getting him involved even if he didn't intend to be. It doesn't go well - and Marlowe finds himself having to report a killing to the local police, who, in 1940s L.A. aren't particularly interested in a dead black man.

Marlowe, with nothing much else to do, starts his own investigation, and this is where the convoluted plot kicks in. If Malloy is looking for the mysterious Velma, then this set back is unlikely to stop him. Marlowe tells the police they should look for the lady, but they're more interested in wild goose chases. Marlowe does the basis work himself and finds another dead end but something doesn't quite add up. The widow of the previous bar owner is definitely holding something back - even hiding the photograph of Velma. It seems that the Malloy/Velma plot is a shaggy dog story, when Marlowe gets called up by an unreliable playboy, Marriott, to ride bodyguard with him as he pays a ransom for some missing jade that has been stolen - on behalf of a rich woman he has been spending time with. The money is good, and Marlowe goes along with it, even though it doesn't feel right. He finds himself knocked unconscious and his patron, Marriott, dead. So now we have a real crime. He is partially rescued by a daughter of a cop, and sometime journalist Annie Riordan. She immediately takes a shine to Marlowe, but he only likes dangerous women.

But to detail the plot - which includes plenty of scrapes where the hapless Marlowe gets beaten around, drugged, and even incarcerated at one point; as well as a corrupt Bay City police force; gambling ships off the coast; and a bizarre encounter with a medium - would be to miss the point. Chandler's skills are in the evocation of a down at heel L.A. and the characters that reside there. Marlowe speaks in a coarse street slang of his own, even to Riordan, yet he has a certain rogueish charm, which certainly appeals to the rich temptress he meets when he begins investigating the jewel theft that led to Marriott's death.

The novel was cobbled together from three separate stories, which I think explains its complex structure, but it hardly matters, because though the cloth might be uneven, the weave is expertly done. Who knows what the connection is between this motley crew of characters, the most important of which are missing (Velma and Malloy) or dead, Marriott. Marlowe follows his nose, and doesn't entirely share his hunches with the audience.

Every page is fast moving, yet there's also a tendency to write compelling descriptive passages about the city. Together it makes the novel an absolute joy to read however complex the actual tale being told is. Even at this distance - the book was written in 1940, the prose is alive and exciting, and a template for any number of lesser writers since. Marlowe, famously portrayed on film by Bogart, is himself a fascination of whom we know little of his background, but a lot of his character. This is the first Chandler I've read, and I hope to read more.

Madonna at 60

Madonna has tnrned 60, and if you should never mention a lady's age, I guess this has been hailed as a milestone as much because with her reaching (what once was) pensionable age, so much of our own youth goes with her; but also because of all the massive superstars, few embody youth like Madonna. Where did the years go? And more importantly, what's the party going to be like? Understandably, the Guardian has published a couple of pieces both bemoaning the press that she has got over the year - seeing her as a woman who won't be quiet and an underappreciated genius.  Sure, Madonna has had her fair sure of criticism over the years, and has caused more than an average amount of outrage, but ironically, there are few artists who have had such consistently good reviews for their art - and more importantly, very few of those have continued to sell albums and singles in the millions.

The world that Madonna came out of was the New York club scene, predominantly gay and black. Musically, New York was not only home to many record companies and recording studios, but its backstreets and warehouses held an underground. When Sonic Youth covered "Into the Groove(y)" as Ciccone Youth, it wasn't an alt.rock band taking pop music ironically, but as one time peers on the New York underground scene. Just as Blondie had done half a decade before, Madonna came out of an underground club millieu and took herself to the top of the charts. Her biography is a well known one - arriving in New York from Michigan, waitressing, getting work as a backing dancer, and doing the later infamous nude photo shoot to make ends meet. But there was another side to this. She signed pretty early on - albeit to a singles deal - to the astute Sire records, an indie that had ideas above its station and with bands such as Talking Heads, had turned art rock into hits.

The dance music scene of 1983, when she would release her first single, was an interesting one. On the one hand, new wave and new romantic bands were increasingly hitting big with danceable tracks, like Tom Tom Club's Wordy Rappinghood or Yazoo's Situation, or Thompson Twins' In the Name of Love, on the other black music was increasingly moving away from its soul roots, and production based music - often anonymous one offs - were hitting big. Madonna's first album has the same kind of electronic looping that Jam and Lewis were playing with SOS Band and Change. Her first number one on the U.S. charts - "Holiday/Lucky Star" - would be knocked off the top by Shannon's sublime "Let the Music Play." But whilst this would be a career high for Shannon it would only be the start for Madonna.

Hits with "Holiday", "Borderline" and "Lucky Star" had given her a platform to be more than just another producer's replaceable lead singer. Her second album, trialled by its flirtatious, "Like a Virgin", turned her into a superstar. I was at sixth form at the time, and had liked "Holiday" but this, and particularly the cynical "Material Girl", with its aspirational video, were anathemic to the bands I was listening to - the Smiths, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen. The girls understood, as they would throughout her career. Madonna mania - though I don't think it was every called that - saw "Holiday" back in the charts, and as well as the singles off "Like a Virgin", film tracks such as the middle of the road ballad "Crazy for You" were also massive. An astute performance as a version of herself in the film "Desperately Seeking Susan" saw Madonna's "look" appearing on the high street. Talking with a friend the other night, I pointed out that it takes a special kind of talent and empathy for a megastar to make music that can worm all the way into suburban lounges via Top of the Pops and Smash Hits. Madonna spoke directly to every girl who had dressed up, every teenager who'd aspired to something. In retrospect it looks astute, but I think it has always had the value of being real. Cyndi Lauper, the other platinum artist who emerged from America at that time was too studied, too kooky, too much a stage performer even if she had a better voice and (at first) better songs.

For me, it was another soundtrack song, "Into the Groove", that turned me into a Madonna fan. In the forward-looking UK it became her first number one, despite being initially only on "Desperately Seeking Susan" soundtrack. It was quickly added to the "Like a Virgin" album, though its pure dance exuberance was a little out of sync with the rest of the album. In retrospect, Madonna's early career seems incredibly well planned - like Bowie before her, and Prince at the time - each appearance of Madonna had a new look. Whereas Prince would lose half of his fan base after "Purple Rain" with musical about turns, Madonna kept and grew hers with each record. "True Blue" gave her the confidence to channel that obvious influence, Marilyn Monroe, whilst musically it was her most commercial record, Blindingly modern, but retro - and tastefully so - in its influences, it belied the idea of Madonna as someone always out to shock. "La Isla Bonita" channelled ABBA, whilst "Papa Don't Preach" was like a Raymond Carver story in miniature, more acute about young people in trouble than anything that Bruce Springsteen has ever penned.  The album also includes her best ballad, "Live to Tell", and this willingness to show different sides of her, and to tell these different stories - each video being a mini-movie - was at the heart of her imperial period success.

The next album, "Like a Prayer" was her finest, with the title track causing controversy again, through a video that used Catholic iconography (the church had never much liked that Madonna now meant this pop star as well as Mary), but it was also a brilliant, widescreen album, inventive and imaginative. Only the collaboration with Prince was a let down. For those who question Madonna's star status she always comes off as the brightest one in the room - and her occasional collaborations with others have never been amongst her best work. The album also seemed highly personal with the evocative "Oh Father."  As ever she kept one eye on the dancefloor, with "Express Yourself" one of the best that she did with frequent collaborator Stephen Bray, but her newer songwriting partner Pat Leonard was at the helm of much of the album. She's always been very careful in her choice of collaborators, as songwriters or producers, and Leonard and Bray both acted as brilliant foils to her.

As an eighties superstar, perhaps something had to break - her world record breaking "Blonde Ambition" tour, her performance alongside Warren Beatty in "Dick Tracy" (and subsequent soundtrack album, "I'm Breathless") and finally, her brilliantly timed and assembled "Immaculate Collection" double album saw 1990 as the peak of her powers.

Yet, whereas Prince, Springsteen, Janet Jackson and others would have tailspins in their careers, Madonna's next stages were simply less stellar. Life got in the way sometimes - highly publicised marriages to Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie, alpha males who didn't really seem to have her range and class. With Ritchie being a Brit she would relocate to London, which would please out tabloids. Yet the hits and albums would keep on coming. If "Erotica" and "Bedtime Stories" felt less essential, it always seemed because Madonna's eyes were elsewhere. Her film career, again like Bowie she is almost too much of a presence to make it as simply an actor, did well enough when the role suited. Of course she would play Eva Peron in "Evita" the movie, even though her voice, a pleasing, but limited instrument, would struggle with Lloyd Webber's epic tunes. The "Sex" book, a massively selling art-porn book that brought S&M into the mainstream was a sensation of the wrong kind in the early 90s. Madonna's ability to sell sex had always been done with it being on her terms, and I guess it was here as well - but neither this, the raunchy "Body of Evidence" movie, or the sighs of the "Erotica" single were anything as sexy as the work she'd done before. In retrospect, this slightly transgressive period - flirting with both bondage and bisexualism - was probably something she needed to do as a person, but as an artist it seemed only guaranteed to create controversy.

The last thing we expected on a comeback was an album as good as "Ray of Light" - where her new producer William Orbit - gave her a whole new more mature sound. When Madonna gets critical acclaim, as she did for this, she also sells lots of records. A mature record - but still with one foot in the dancefloor. With perhaps the exception of the ill-chosen "American Pie" cover, Madonna has never really embraced rock the way that maybe Prince and occasionally Michael Jackson did. Instead she has always taken elements of other musics, and placed them firmly in her own style, so that the country-stylings of "Don't tell me" on the "Music" album are through the lens of a DJ and dancer. Its easy to have lost track of her over the last twenty years as albums have become less frequent - but both "Music" and (especially) "Confessions on a Dancefloor" are superb records whilst singles such as "Hung Up" and "4 Minutes" continued to give her massive worldwide hits. Over her last two records, "MDNA" and "Rebel Heart", there have been more collaborations, and the payback has been less successful. In the meantime she moved from acting to directing with the film "W.E", about Wallace Edwards, another American woman who found herself in the full glare of the press. The Madonna influenced artists have kept coming in waves, whether its Britney Spears or Nicky Minaj. She's always remained supportive of women coming along in her wake, yet mostly by carrying on doing what she's doing. Controversies have also followed her, because she is Madonna, whether adopting a child from Africa, her relationships with younger men, or probably a dozen other things I've missed. A business woman as well as an artist, she signed Alanis Morrisette to Maverick, the imprint she ran through Warner Brothers until the early 2000s.

With her children growing up and coming into the spotlight, I think the glare of publicity for simply being sixty, is one that she would look wryly on. After all, she has always been in the news - because its Madonna its newsworthy. One of those artists known by a single name, she's never really looked back despite some astute compiling of her music on compilations. Just playing all her singles would take you the best part of a day.

So happy 60th Madonna, and like you sang, Where's the Party?