There But for The by Ali Smith

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Words are all we have – said Samuel Beckett once, but I don’t know where he said it and in what context. Anyway, I agree with him, being a fanatic of words myself.

And Ali Smith is a fanatic of words, too. Sometimes she does get on my nerves (I’m not such a devoted fan of puns and word-plays as she is) but mostly I just look (and experience) with awe and wonder what she does with words.

For example, on the day when I wake up and suddenly realize the connection between the short story the main character had written once in his teens and the thoughts of an old lady about some awful event her daughter told her about a long time ago. I don’t want to go into details – suffice it to say that I was leaning to the kitchen table for a good long while the morning I made the connection, and I very much wanted to go back to bed, curl up, and cry, because it breaks my heart to think how one can make beauty out the horrible. (Must things be horrible before there can be beauty?)

Words are all we have. Imperfect, sometimes false, sometimes true.

And our lives are all we have. Imperfect, false, true, unknowable, impossible to share.

As far as I know her work, Ali Smith always writes about this. About unknowable lives – like here, about a man called Miles, who goes to a dinner party, and in the middle of the party he excuses himself, proceeds to shut himself in the spare bedroom, and doesn’t leave it for months.

Certain questions arise:

Who’s this Miles?
What the hell does he want?
Why doesn’t he leave the room?
And who are the other people in his life?

Words are all we have. Certainty – we don’t. So all we get by way of answers is:

He’s an average middle-aged guy.
I don’t know, perhaps he doesn’t, either.
I don’t know, perhaps he does.
Just people – nothing special.

More questions:

Why’s this good to read?
And what’s all this, anyway?

More possible answers:

It’s good to read this because this story is just as accidental as any life, and life’s accidental quality and randomness always fascinates me. And anyway – perhaps tomorrow you will shut yourself in a room. And perhaps you’re already shut in a room today.
And what’s all this – a celebration of imagination and of the power of words, words, words – most of all.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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When I was reading The Goldfinch a few months back, I enjoyed it so much that I embarked on all kinds of crazy schemes and did a number of other things just in order to put off the moment when I reach the end. The same thing happened now; I removed myself from the vicinity of this novel for several hours at length, but the day was long, and the novel, sadly, short, so I couldn’t make the pleasure last too long.

This is such an amazing novel.

I guess it’s already a separate sub-genre, the kind of novel that’s based on supposedly found footage, and that describes the events from multiple points of view, and besides the events themselves it also contains their (possible) interpretations. It’s a wonderful technique which often makes me doubt the trustworthiness of the characters, and makes me question not only the mental workings of the characters, but my own powers of understanding. Additionally, it also makes me read with bated breath until the very last page because any moment might reveal an important detail that can put things in an entirely new perspective.

The novel tells the story of a brutal triple murder that happened somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, in 1869. Roddy, a young village boy (who is, according to some people, highly intelligent and articulate, and according to others, not completely right in the head) one fine day ups and kills the village foreman, and a couple of other people, too, who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I won’t go into the questions of why and how – the novel deals with all of that, and I wouldn’t want to take away the pleasure that arises from disentangling (then further entangling) the motivations of the characters and the connections between the events.

The novel comprises mostly of Roddy’s memoir written in prison, of a summary of his trial, based on contemporaneous newspaper coverage, and of a case study of a famous criminal psychologist-anthropologist, and then there’s also a couple of coroners’ reports thrown in, and a preface where the author describes how he came across Roddy’s case (this story is also fictitious, of course).

The novel deals with the questions typical in these cases: how different people remember the same thing; who is trustworthy; what makes something believable; and why we tend to trust someone more than someone else.

These are serious questions, and the novel treats them seriously. For instance, it’s highly thought-provoking why everyone believes one of the trial witnesses, a pretty neighbor from Roddy’s village who – despite her village background – looks and behaves like a city dame, and why everyone doubts the words of Roddy. The short answer: even though both the neighborhood lady and Roddy are very articulate, and they both employ a rich vocabulary, the lady is attractive, while Roddy is – as it’s often mentioned – a seedy-looking village type, and no-one expects him to be an intelligent language user (or even to have a brain).

So the novel gives ample opportunity to think about how prejudices work, especially since the criminal psychologist, Mr Thomson (who was a real person), who writes a case study of Roddy’s crime, concentrates heavily on the question whether Roddy, based on his physical characteristics, is a criminal type or not.

Besides all the serious topics, though, this is a fascinatingly ironic novel, which continuously questions the authenticity of all the documents and story versions it contains. For instance: in connection with Roddy’s memoir, it’s mentioned that even if no-one would have thought that a young boy from a remote village could write so well, so elegantly, one shouldn’t forget that village schools provided a surprisingly high-quality education to children in that era, and that Roddy was an eminent pupil. And just when I’m almost ready to believe that it might have indeed been possible for Roddy to write the way he writes, I realize that he often uses the kind of grammatical constructions and expressions and writes with a learned eloquence that would put persons with even the highest academic degrees to shame – and then I start to have serious doubts whether village elementary schools could have been so amazingly good, or if Roddy is not the author of Roddy’s memoir, after all.

And then: like I said, one part of the novel is a summary based on the newspaper coverage of Roddy’s trial, and other documents. So – it’s based on newspaper articles written by journalists who regularly retired to the neighboring pub during the breaks of the trial, and didn’t exactly refrain from consuming alcohol there. And it’s based on commentaries made or offered by people who were not at all well-versed in the intricacies of the law, by people who were seriously prejudiced or actively wished Roddy harm. And so on. So the question is: how much can we trust a summary (which is a kind of interpretation) that’s already well-removed from the original events and that’s based on other texts (that were also interpretations)?

I have no answer, of course, but this is another fascinating topic the novel makes you think about. So yes, this is a mind-boggling novel, and a deeply satisfying and enjoyable one at that.

Besides all this, this novel is funny. Not exactly satirically funny, and not even funny in the way when we laugh in our pain – its brand of humor is more like something I’d call “village-style Kafkaesque”. What I mean by this is that the humor mainly arises from the absurd, exaggerated conflict between the village authorities and the simple men, and even though here the authority figure isn’t faceless and nameless, and he’s supposedly approachable, the same things happen as in the worst Kafka nightmare: the rules don’t make sense, the authorities select their victims seemingly at random, but after the damage is done, it’s impossible to say whether the authorities really behaved irrationally, unfairly, and cruelly, or if it’s the supposed victim who behaved in a paranoid fashion, and no-one in fact wronged him.

And still besides: this novel isn’t only a pleasure to the mind – it’s a deeply emotional experience, too. It’s possible to feel for these characters, to worry about them or root for them, and I simply love it – when a novel has real characters.

Submergence by J. M. Ledgard

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Submergence is a strange, heavy, dense, deep novel.
Sometimes it’s poetic, sometimes it’s deeply unsettling, and sometimes it’s almost unbearable due to its sheer brutality.

The story: the British spy, James More (a descendant of Thomas More), who pretends to be a water engineer, is captured by jihadists in Somalia. (Water will become important again soon, right in the next sentence.) Meanwhile, Danny (who’s female), a bio-mathematician is preparing for an important dive deep into the ocean, which will probably supply her with hordes of data about the most ancient, most primeval, most indestructible life forms of the planet.

(Danny is obsessed with depth, and she often ponders about the fact that both for individual human beings, and for humanity as a whole, it’s much more difficult to travel inside, downwards, where there’s more and more darkness and pressure. Compared to this, discovering the space and emptiness above us – traveling outward, forever farther, higher, faster – is much easier and much less painful.)

While James faces deprivations in captivity and Danny prepares for her dive – both locked up in their eternal loneliness and abandonment, both afraid of the unknown inside and out – they often think about the other, and about their story together: a past Christmas in a small hotel in the French countryside where they first met, and where they had an affair that only lasted for a couple of days, yet engulfed their whole life and being in that short time.

The story of these few days unfold slowly, tucked in between the chapters dealing with the present life of the main characters (mostly of James).

The intention is clear: while he’s being brutalized in captivity, the few days of intimacy, real closeness, and deep human bond he experienced with Danny start to occupy a unique place in his mind, and his memories of the time spent together become something he can hold on to in order to keep his sanity – even if all the depth and intimacy he experienced with Danny was more or less an illusion, because Danny is unable to simplify her work – which is her innermost essence – in a way that others can understand it, and James isn’t even allowed to disclose his real occupation.

And don’t get me wrong – both Danny and James do what they do out of a very real obsession, and they even keep working during their Christmas holidays, so in their case we might say that their jobs occupy a crucial place in their life, and that they devote a significant part of their innermost selves to their occupations. The occupations they can’t or are not allowed to share with the other.

Perhaps it’s due to this ultimate impossibility-to-share that this novel often speaks in a language that distances me from the characters to the extent I don’t like to be distanced.

And I feel distanced even if there’s an abundance of beautiful and cosmic passages here – about how we are such a young and perishable species (and the only species that’s mesmerized by its own consciousness), about how most organisms live hiding in the depth, in small nooks – and parallel to this, there’s a deeply human melancholy here, a desire for life, and a desire for intimacy (because, after all, we probably really are enamored by our own consciousness, and we ache to share our secret depths with someone).

(Of course that’s another question whether we feel that the parallels drawn among the themes of the ocean, humanity, individual humans, depth, and so on are too direct or not – for me they are a bit too direct.)

So there’s a lot of fine, telling, often painfully beautiful or unsettling details here – a simple but touching simile; a memory of the now far-away Christmas (for example, when James thinks he can hide himself from Danny and then it turns out that Danny can read him like an open book – which, in this case, isn’t bad because it means that someone truly pays attention); or a present event (for example, when James masturbates in his cell with the intention to soil the space around him – and he deliberately avoids thinking about Danny during his act of rebellion).

But these tender or brutal passages are often lost in the sea of encyclopedic, political, or schoolteacher-like ruminations. I often feel that Ledgard-the-journalist defeats Ledgard-the-fiction-writer, and I don’t think that’s particularly desirable in a novel. For literary fiction, the style of this novel is too dry. Sure, you can write things like: “James was traumatized by certain experiences during his captivity to such an extent that he lost all his ability to act” – but to me this feels more like journalism, not fiction. And before I get completely lost in my train of thought: this isn’t non-fiction. This book is literary fiction, only not very successful as such.

Not always successful – because when Ledgard decides to dig a little deeper (yes!) into his characters, into their thoughts, and into the way they experience their lives (be it either the invocation of memories, or the deprivations and mortal danger of the present), then I also feel this depth, and I’m touched and unhinged, and I can’t stop thinking about the characters, and they crawl into my dreams. However, when Ledgard goes on to deliver a lecture about the political situation in Somalia or about Islam, then I have a hard time willingly suspending my disbelief and accepting that these are James’ thoughts, even if the lectures are prefaced by saying “James thought that…”

In the end, my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, this is an extremely strong and affecting book (perhaps – just perhaps – partly because it’s based on real events), and it more or less works as a novel, too – that’s for sure that I want to find out what happens to the characters (I’m more interested in James’ fate than in Danny’s, though, probably because there’s much more depth to James’ character, and I naturally feel more about him than about Danny). But all the lecturing and explanations do nothing good for me here.

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

I love to read books I know nothing about, and this was one such book. I noticed it in the book store while I was helping my friend find a gift for her boyfriend, and I liked its title, its cover and the fact that according to the blurb the protagonist was called Rilke so much that I wanted to read it immediately. I don’t want to be mystical – I don’t claim that books mysteriously call out to me. They do not. But sometimes a cover, a title or a name starts off a chain of associations in my mind or reminds me of certain events in such a way that I get irrepressibly curious and I want to know the book in question at once.

The Cutting Room is set in Glasgow, and the main character is the already mentioned Rilke. In spite of his poet-name, Rilke isn’t a dreamy, poetic, sophisticated character, rather, he is a cynical and cunning man. He works for an auction house as an auctioneer and the manager of collections, besides, he smokes and drinks a lot and likes to go for night walks to the park where he engages in quick sex with other loitering men. At first sight he is a bitter man with a heart made of stone, but it soon turns out that he is softer than he seems. One day he comes across an envelope full of pornographic photos while working on a collection. Most of the photos are typical pornographic shots, however, there are a couple of snuff photos, including some depicting a girl with her throat cut.

Rilke is very much disturbed by the pictures, therefore he starts out on a meaningless quest: he tries to find out whether the photos are real or staged because even though the pictures seem to have been taken at least 50 years ago, therefore the chances to uncover anything about them are slim, Rilke simply cannot get them out of his head. In order to find out something definite, he puts himself into danger, neglects his duties and gets entangled in a web of lies – and in the meantime he digs deeper and deeper into the Glasgow underworld where – despite all his previous criminal experiences – he seems like a naive young boy and where he has to face such facts which wear out even his not-too-sensitive soul.

The Cutting Room is supposed to be a crime novel/thriller, however, the investigation itself is not too interesting and the solution is not as elegant as, say, that of an Agatha Christie novel. In fact, I wouldn’t even call Rilke’s actions an „investigation” – I’d rather say it’s a manic quest in which it is painfully obvious from the very beginning that even if he gets the answer to his question, it won’t be satisfactory or won’t mean anything at all. All this is not a problem, by the way, all I’m saying is that you’d better not read this novel as a crime story because it’s not too good as such, but as a „literary” novel, it is excellent.

For instance, the way Welsh depicts how Rilke’s obsession keeps growing and how he loses touch with his ordinary reality is brilliant. The time frame of the story (minus the epilogue) is only a couple of weeks, but these few weeks are more than enough for Rilke to become dangerously disoriented and to begin to question how real reality is and what is behind that. The theme of the pornographic photos is also related to Rilke’s re-interpretation of reality: according to the official standpoint, „real” snuff porn doesn’t exist, and pictures sold as snuff all show staged scenes – however, there’s no way of knowing for sure if this is true or not. The reality Rilke encounters is unknowable, and frightening – and Welsh shows this scary quality very effectively.

Besides this, the settings and the atmosphere of the novel are also unique – it’s been a long time since I read any book as dark, bizarre and oppressing as The Cutting Room. The dingy, shady flat of Rilke’s boss, Rose, full of feminine secrets; the gay bar where transgender men can truly become women once a month; the obscure book shop which hides a cellar labyrinth underneath; or the pokey home of Rilke’s old friend, the drug dealer Leslie – in all these places people are not what they seem: the clientele of the gay bar consists of women who are in fact men, Leslie, the tough drug dealer turns out to be not-so-tough, and so on. And the way reality and illusion, true and false mingle in the novel, and Rilke’s futile quest to learn the truth makes this novel truly uncanny (and therefore truly exciting for me).

Complicity by Iain Banks

Iain Banks is a great moralizer. All his books I’ve read so far (mostly science fiction novels, apart from The Wasp Factory) were full of „big” moral issues so I wasn’t surprised to find that Complicity is also a heavily moralizing fable. (The post contains spoilers.)

In this novel the characters contemplate the way modern capitalist societies work, and they try to decide whether one is allowed to punish those money and power-grabbing, immoral businessmen, politicians, doctors and public figures who ignore common people and feel free to walk through everyone in order to attain their goals.

The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Cameron Colley, a gonzo journalist, who keeps referring to and comparing himself to his hero, Hunter S. Thompson – but in fact he only resembles Thompson in the sense that he is destroying his mind and body with all the addictive substances available to him (drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, computer games) with a Thompson-like dedication and enthusiasm. Otherwise he’s far from being a really Hunter-like mad-gonzo figure – perhaps because basically he’s a typical screwed-up liberal arts-sucker: an idealist pretending to be a cynic, who honestly believes that, for instance, he can make the world a better place by writing investigative articles for a newspaper. (By the way, I deeply appreciate and respect this way of thinking.)

At the beginning of the story, Cameron is working on a big issue: a mysterious informer keeps calling him up and tells him some details about the circumstances of a couple of strange murders which happened some years ago and which might have been interconnected. Cameron is trying to get ahead with this case, but in the meantime, there’s another murder series in the present tense of the story as well: some rich and powerful public figures are murdered, and after a while Cameron becomes the prime suspect since he happened to write a disparaging article about these figures some time earlier, and his alibi for the time of the murders is rather shaky.

I guess it’s not a big surprise that the murderer is not Cameron but a self-appointed avenger who hates capitalist society just as much as Cameron does, however, as opposed to the journalist, he doesn’t only hate it in theory but is willing to perform some harsh measures to make the world a better place – as he imagines it.

Of course the novel isn’t only the critique of capitalism but a lot of other things as well – or rather, I should say, it contains many other things besides heavy moralizing: for instance, there are a couple of relatively detailed, lightly sadomasochistic sex scenes; there are a lot of reminiscences about the past and childhood traumas which shaped the narrator’s adult life; and there are intriguing, almost spiritual meditations on the nature of (cigarette, drug, computer game, whatever) addiction which really do remind me a bit of Hunter S. Thompson.

Only – and this is not surprising in a book by Iain Banks – the novel is a bit crowded. It contains a lot of plot lines, which is not a problem in itself, but none of the plot lines is elaborated sufficiently, so the result is a novel which is not a crime story, not a „proper” criticism of modern society, not a soul-searching, past-processing drama, and not a mad-gonzo work of fiction in the style of Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a little bit of all these, a book which contains innumerable great touches, details and ideas, but isn’t so great or very interesting as a whole.

Hotel World by Ali Smith

I read about this book on one of my favourite blogs and I immediately felt that this was a novel I must read. After a couple of months I did get around to reading it, and Hotel World turned out to be exactly as wonderful and heartbreaking as I expected.

The events and characters of the novel are centered around the Globe Hotel, and even though the characters, with the exception of two sisters, don’t know one another, for one night they get close to one another. In the first part of the novel we learn that 19-year-old Sara Wilby had a fatal accident in the hotel earlier that year, but her ghost is still haunting the premises, although not for long, as she happens to be spending her last night on earth. During this night, the other characters of the novel (Sara’s grieving sister, the receptionist of the hotel, a journalist spending the night in the hotel, and the homeless woman who can usually be seen begging near the hotel entrance) all strike up a fleeting acquaintance with the others, but the events of the night will mean something different for all of them. For someone it will mean the end of their life and past; for someone it will signify the beginning of the future; and for someone it will start as any other night on the road, spent with work, then something interesting will happen, but finally everything will revert back to normal. What is common in the experiences of the different characters is that during the night, each of them will have to face death, grief, the passage of time and the all-permeating sense of their alienation from the whole world.

The story itself is hardly worth mentioning, though, as the basic plot functions mostly as a starting point for a long series of memories and dreams. Ali Smith shows only a little of everything, and leaves the rest to our imagination. As regards the setting of the novel, for example, we learn that the story takes place in an unspecified, relatively small town somewhere in the North, and we see some typical streets as well, but finally it remains impossible to pin down the exact location.

And Smith proceeds in the same way with the characters: we learn a couple of crucial details about everyone’s life (for instance, we can read some of the traumatic details of the past of the homeless woman, Elsa; and we get a glimpse of the budding love affair of Sara which could never be fulfilled) which is enough for us to start to care for them, but then, as we don’t get any further details about their lives, we are forced to rely on our imagination and fill in the gaps in their stories on our own. And I think it’s very good that we get only a little of everything in this novel, as that little is already dark and sorrowful enough.

As regards the structure of the novel, each part is narrated by a different narrator, and each narrator has a unique language usage, each puts the emphasis on different events, or views the same events from a strikingly new perspective. Yes, these are exactly the kind of typical postmodern games I love and can enthuse about for hours, and indeed, some elements of the novel can be labeled postmodern: its non-linear structure, the way the chapters and the characters are interconnected, and the creative language use and punctuation which characterizes certain chapters are postmodern traits.

But now it was not simply the clever use of such techniques which truly fascinated me, but the way Ali Smith uses these to express very dramatic, very human experiences, and the way she captures pain, grief and the passage of time by the gradual loss of power over words. For instance, it’s a recurring problem for Sara’s ghost that more and more words slip her mind as time passes, and the more words she loses, the more she feels separated from her old, earthly life. For Else, a similar loss of words occurs: during the period of her physical and mental deterioration she has already forgotten some words, and she is prone to omitting the vowels when she speaks. And Sara’s sister, Clare has a similar problem as well – she is unable to control her pain and the flow of her words, and in the chapter she narrates there’s no punctuation other than an occasional ampersand

All this may sound a bit strained, but believe me, it’s not. The unique language sounds natural from all the characters, and it expresses deep and painful emotions and memories in a highly poetic, beautiful, yet absolutely authentic and un-melodramatic way. However, the final effect of the novel is not like that of a mellow, sad elegy. This novel is more like a sly poison slowly taking effect in your bloodstream, and it’s only towards the end that you realize that everything is hurting and your heart is breaking for every character.

A kind of lyrical punch in the stomach.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

I read The Wasp Factory for the second time last year. I first read it when it was published in Hungarian three or four years ago, but then early last year I came across several reviews of and rather heated discussions regarding this book, so I thought I might refresh my memories.

The Wasp Factory tells the story of sixteen-year-old, rather strange Frank, who happens to be the murderer of three innocent children. Frank was a victim of a curious and unfortunate incident as a child: a dog bit off his genitals, therefore the boy suffers from inferiority complex and feels like an eternal outsider. Of course his sense of not being able to fit in is further enhanced by the fact that he lives alone with his father in a small island off the coast of a small Scottish village, he does not go to school, and what’s even more, officially he doesn’t even exist, as his father, for some mysterious reason, failed to register his birth with the authorities.

Frank also has a brother, Eric, who could have become an excellent physician had it not been for a terrible scene he witnessed as a university student. On account of this incident, he became somewhat deranged and then dropped out of university altogether. Then he took to harassing the kids and dogs in the neighborhood until he was finally locked away in a mental institution. At the beginning of the novel, Frank and his father learn the news that Eric has run away from the institution and is now probably on his way home. Eric’s journey serves as the frame for the novel.

While Eric is on his way home, we get to know the previous history of their family, and we also get a detailed account of Frank’s three murders, the Wasp Factory and the mythology surrounding it. The novel ends with a surprising twist, and the new information we learn at the end of the novel sheds quite a different light on Frank’s childhood accident. As a consequence, his life turns into a new direction, and the end of the story is in fact the beginning of Frank’s real life.

Reading the novel for the second time was a strange experience. As I went along, the details I thought I’d already forgotten came back vividly, so the oft-mentioned brutal, sadistic, stomach-churning and sickly details of the novel came as no surprise to me. True, it’s not easy for any book to shock me, and I don’t recall ever laying a book aside because it contained a couple of disgusting or horrifying scenes. Therefore the morbid scenes were not the ones that most engaged my attention when I read the novel – not even when I read it for the first time, and even less so now.

What I most enjoyed about the novel now was its humor, its style and the references I quite probably overlooked when I read the novel for the first time as I had no idea they could be important. But now I was aware of the outcome, therefore I also knew which references I needed to pay most attention to. I was surprised to find how often Banks refers to Frank’s gender, which may be considered the key to the novel. For instance, right at the very first page we find a seemingly casual note to the effect that Frank is absent-mindedly scratching his groin.

As regards the humour of The Wasp Factory, I consider the phone conversations of Frank and Eric, and the description of some of Frank’s adventures exceedingly funny. For instance, the way Frank exaggerates in the account of his fight with the intrepid giant rabbit is a case in point. By the way, I don’t know if the similarity is intentional, but Frank’s sadistic personality, his rituals and his self-critical, ironic way of storytelling reminded me of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and particularly to Holden Caulfield to a great extent.

Even though my favourite novel by Banks (though not by Iain, but by Iain M.) still remains (and I guess will always remain) The Player of Games, I don’t have any objections against The Wasp Factory either. It’s an interesting and well-written novel, about which I only regret two things.

One is that I consider the ending a bit hasty: I find it strange that Frank’s father reveals his long-guarded secrets so easily, and that Frank himself accepts that a new life will start for him, without making any fuss whatsoever. He even manages to explain in a few sentences how his past actions and murders directly stemmed from his perturbed identity. I might just accept that this is explanation enough, but I certainly would have liked to dwell somewhat more on these details.

And the other thing I regret about this novel is that the sickly details and its scandalous reputation might frighten several readers away, when – despite all its flaws – it certainly deserves to be read. (And in fact I’m not at all sorry about having read it twice, either.)