Lucas by Kevin Brooks

I cannot recall the moment when I decided to read this novel. I guess I must have read a sentence or two on a blog somewhere which made me conclude that this was a sufficiently sordid, tragic and dramatic novel, consequently, I was going to like it. Well, I was wrong, so much so that I almost put the book aside after laboring through the first 50 pages – and let me add that I am not in the habit of leaving books unfinished. Even if I do not like a novel at all, I keep hoping that the end will make up for everything, this is why I read Lucas to the end, but it failed to live up even to my most meager expectations. However, while reading this story, I kept debating with myself whether I had the right to scorn a novel which is not particularly bad, and the only problem with it is that I am clearly not its ideal reader. This post is the result of this unanswered question, and while writing it I try to think of the novel both as an adult and as a teenage reader.

The story is told by sixteen-year-old Caitlin, and it is a recollection of the dramatic events of the past summer. Caitlin lives a quiet life on a small island with her father and brother but one day the mysterious Lucas appears. Lucas is very good-looking, he is not afraid of anything and even the way he walks shows how fearless and confident he is. However, no-one knows where he comes from and what he wants. Cait is inexplicably attached to the boy (sometimes it is even spelled as Boy) from the very first moment, while the rest of the islanders are just as inexplicably repelled by him, and a couple of teenagers and adults go to great lengths to denigrate Lucas and expel him from the island.

I guess it is not necessary to go into more details to give you a sense of what this novel is about: besides other things, it deals with topics such as xenophobia, the fear of the Other, standing up for our beliefs and growing up. Naturally, these topics are of great importance, and in fact, the author managed to depict and fictionalize some of them quite nicely. The figure of Caitlin, for instance, is quite authentic as a relatively naive, thoughtful and moody teenage girl who does not want to join the company of the average disco-goers. And I also believe that people like the islanders, who shun the outside world and treat everyone from the outside suspiciously, can indeed readily make a scapegoat of a person such as Lucas. And I do not have anything to say against the style of the novel either, I think Brooks depicted the language usage and the way of thinking of a sixteen-year-old girl very well.

However, the fact that the novel is a huge collection of clichés and moralizing attracted my attention before long. The book displays all the elements necessary for a story which deals with the joint themes of sad-adolescence-and-human-monstrosity: there is a dead mother, a mildly alcoholic but nice father who could never forget the death of his wife, a lonely teenage girl, a mysterious boy, a sudden rush of emotions towards this mysterious boy, wicked and dangerous youngsters well-loathed by the heroine, suspicion and misunderstanding, courage and self-sacrifice.

Kevin Brooks did what he could with all these character types and motifs, however, this is not enough for me – or perhaps this is too much for me. At my age, there is no need for me to read rather childish commentaries about the wicked and cruel ways of man – I know about this already. Similarly, I do not find either the evil youngsters or the enigmatic Lucas too convincing: I am already grown out of the age when I find a character appealing and interesting just because he carries around a picture of his unknown mother, has a scar on his wrist and walks in a confident way – and apart from these, we really do not get to know anything about Lucas.

If I had read this novel at the age of sixteen, perhaps I might have been very much moved by it – given the fact that this is a truly sad story, and at a young age I needed obvious morals and black-and-white characters. But being as old as I am, this novel irritated me to a great extent and I could hardly wait to finally reach the end of it.

Slow Learner by Thomas Pynchon

After reading The Crying of Lot 49 last year, I became enthusiastic to read any other Pynchon books I can lay my hands on. So when it turned out that one of my colleagues owns a copy of Slow Learner, I was happy to accept his offer that he lends me the book. Slow Learner is a collection of five short stories that Pynchon wrote early in his career, and I was quite eager to read them, as I had only read one of his short stories, “Entropy” earlier, and I loved that so much that I wanted to know if he could write other stories which were similarly good.

As I adore both The Crying of Lot 49 and “Entropy”, I was greatly biased towards this volume, and it is not easy for me to admit that the book was quite a disappointment to me, even though it started out in a highly exciting way: Pynchon himself wrote a preface to the decade-old stories, and this must have been quite an event in the life of such a reclusive author who avoids every kind of personal interaction with his audience. No wonder that I devoured the pages of the preface and I tremendously enjoyed Pynchon’s wit and style. But then a strange thing occurred: because of Pynchon’s preface, I lost my interest in the stories themselves, or at least my attitude towards them underwent a great alteration and I could not really appreciate them when I finally got around to reading them.

Here is what happened. In the preface Pynchon takes each of the five stories one after the other, and systematically disparages them, while displaying his huge reserves of self-irony and wit. However, it is not only that the older, more experienced and more mature Pynchon mildly ponders over the deficiencies of his early writings. It seems to me that he positively relishes in disclosing his earlier weaknesses: his penchant for choosing a scientific or philosophical concept first, and then writing the story around it; his pretense that he is an expert in a lot of different American dialects even though this is hardly the case; his tendency to fill his stories with words he likes, regardless of (and sometimes not even knowing) their meanings; or his habit of using his characters only as illustrations of certain concepts, and failing to fill them with life in the meantime.

True, it was immensely entertaining to read these trains of thought, since Pynchon’s irony is virtually inexhaustible, but this was basically all I could get out of this book. After reading twenty pages of ruthless (though funny) self-criticism I automatically kept looking for the faults in the stories, and only wanted to find the parts in each of the stories that the mature Pynchon criticizes in the preface.

But even if I forgot my obsessive search for faults, the stories on the whole still failed to impress me, and I only liked two stories out of the five. One of these was “Entropy”: I found this story just as fascinating and creepy now as five years ago when I had first read it. The other good story was “Secret Integration”, which is a happy blend of humor, mystery and a distressing picture of its age and society.

This time I would rather not go into the story-lines themselves. As these are short stories, and one is quite different from the other, I cannot give you any idea of the whole volume if I write about one specific story only, and I certainly do not want to outline all five here. So I only will add one piece of advice: if you want to enjoy the stories and form your own opinions without the author’s influence, make sure you leave the preface to the end.

Crash by J. G. Ballard

Since I had seen the movie version of Crash (directed by David Cronenberg) a couple of years ago, I have been planning to read the novel. Judging from the movie, I could imagine what the book might be like, and usually I am not the one to complain about the disgusting elements of any novel, but I still have to admit that I find Crash to be quite impressive, morbid and transgressive.

One day the narrator of the story, James Ballard crashes into the car of Dr. Helen Remington and her husband. Helen’s husband dies in the accident, while Helen and James suffer serious injuries. Surprisingly, however, the accident gives a new direction to James’s sexuality when he discovers that the experience of the crash and the sight of wounds and permanent scars becomes irresistibly exciting for him – and it quickly turns out that he is not alone with this perversion. After the accident James gets to know Vaughan, a man who is constantly taking pictures at the sites of crashes, and whose distorted imagination centers around images of accidents, dead bodies, sex, violence and wounds one might get in a car crash. It turns out that Vaughan is the head of a small but thriving community, the members of which had all been through at least one crash – since then, they are continuously looking forward to other crashes and the sexual pleasure they can derive from them.

I guess it is clear from the previous paragraph that the characters of the novel have pretty unsound imaginations, and they can only find pleasure in their empty and sterile lives by engaging in more and more violent actions and by courting danger and disaster. On the other hand, however, the sickly deeds and desires of the characters stem directly and almost naturally from the space they inhabit: the story is set in West-London, in a futuristic apartment complex, and on the multi-lane roads and in the multi-storey car parks which surround it, and in the background of the events we are always aware of the constant stir of a million of cars, the traffic jams and the aircraft departing from and landing on the airport nearby. The novel is thus set is an extremely impersonal world, one which is endlessly fascinated by modern technology and speed, and it is quite natural that this world plants insane desires into people: if so many people spend a significant part of their days in their cars, and if so many people die in car crashes, then it only seems logical that the setting for sexual satisfaction and the most intimate human relationships should also be the car, and that these relationships should be infused by the sense of danger and speed conveyed by motorcars.

Of course the world of Crash can be quite disgusting at times, but the reader is constantly aware that what is depicted here is not reality, but a highly stylized fantasy world. It is stated several times in the novel that the sexual and other acts committed by the characters are “only” the ritualistic substitutes for real car crashes, and this alienated me from the characters to the point that I was not disgusted by them, but I did not pity them either. They behave in a highly unlifelike, inhuman way and this prevents me from feeling any human emotion towards them.

In this respect it was very intriguing that the most unsettling scene for me (and for the characters of the novel as well) was not the depiction of an actual crash or some bizarre sexual practice, but the chapter in which the characters watch a crash test. During the expertly planned test a motorcyclist crashes into a car in which a family of four is travelling. After the test, the characters watch the video footage of the event, and we get a vivid description of the injuries suffered by the crash test dummies. And even though the description concerns dummies and not real people, this scene seems much more tragic and real than any of the novel’s scenes of real crashes. This is observed by the narrator as well, and he remarks that the test is realer than reality for every spectator because everyone imagines themselves to be in the places of the dummies.

Besides the many unsavoury and brutal scenes, the tone of the novel is frighteningly apocalyptic, and the obsessive way of thinking of the sick mind is also expertly (and appallingly) shown: for instance we hear much more than enough about Vaughan’s scars (which become increasingly attractive for the narrator); and it is also stated at least a dozen times that the crash is seen by the characters as the symbol of the marriage of eroticism and modern technology. If the whole novel were not so morbid, perhaps I would even say that Ballard is being didactic when he wants to hammer home his ideas with so many repetitions – I do not usually like novels which repeat their key sentences or symbols with such insistence. But in Crash I feel that the constant repetitions are the direct consequences of the distorted imaginations of the narrator and mostly Vaughan: since their lives are mostly shaped by their bizarre sexuality, it seems natural that they keep repeating themselves and telling us over and over again what is most important for them.

Naturally, reading all this is not a pleasant experience, but I guess it was not meant to be one. And of course the unpleasantness does not change the fact that Crash is an impressive, frightening and very modern novel.