Monday, 30 August 2010

The new lit part two: a beast with many heads

The previous post in this microseries fumbled about with new forms of fiction, mostly involving using computers and the internet to transmit arty words in different ways. This time I’m going to look not at the words themselves but at the people behind them, and how people are starting to challenge and reconstruct the concept of an author. 

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths

Jorge Luis Borges has a tremendous reputation among slightly odd people (I think I first encountered him during my efforts to read everything JG Ballard ever wrote, from classics to curiosities to shopping lists), so he’s been on my radar a while, without my ever having read anything by him. He was fairly notable for his essays and poetry, too, but I concentrated on his short stories and what Labyrinths classifies as ‘parables’, which, thankfully, ain’t exactly New Testament material. 

So after meandering through this greatest hits collection, I’ve come to the conclusion that ole’ Borges was a bright fellow. I found myself reading a surreal series of short stories packed with ideas about reading, writing, metaphysics, identity, and all that sort of thing. Some of them even had plots and characters, too. 

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Green Man 2010

It might be precisely because its climate is entirely unsuited to festivals that Britain is so obsessed with them. By now there must be enough to give every farm in the country a weekend off in favour of being tramped across by several thousand drunkards in wellingtons. In other words, just like normal farming, but with more people.

The unwieldy excesses of the festival scene lead to a few difficulties, even beyond finding enough empty weekends. First there is a limit to the number of people willing to spend cash on a trip involving the highest chances of trenchfoot since the Somme. Admittedly there is less shelling and fewer machine guns (although plenty of bad poetry and poison gas), but a festival is definitely a dirty weekend: you leave hygiene at home, unsuspecting, while you run off with another lifestyle. Obviously this is not for everyone, and I doubt many could find it in their hearts and wallets to go to more than one or two in a year.

Then there's the music. A glance at last year's lineups gave the impression that Jarvis Cocker was spending most of his summer's Saturday's playing to several different crowds at the same time. Yes, there are plenty of minor bands willing to fill up the lunchtime slots in exchange for a shiny wristband and a packet of crisps, but if you're going to draw crowds you need headliners, and until someone discovers a way to clone musicians that doesn't involve Simon Cowell, that means a bit of a struggle.

Finally there is the tyranny of the calendar. In an average year (assuming no cataclysmic climate alterations that will see Glastonbury 2024 being nostalgic about mud as a jolly alternative to tornadoes and earthquakes) there are only about three weekends that are really suitable to standing outdoors for the entire day, staring at a stage. Including all the ones that are just about acceptable if you're not picky (and if you own a tent in the first place, it's a fair bet that you aren't), you could probably double that. Triple if you're a masochist. That clearly isn't enough to share between all the festivals, and the major ones don't want to clash because they're often aiming for the same groups of people. The little ones don't want to clash either, but they don't tend to have a choice.

I've just come back from the Green Man, and it's pretty much nailed most of the festival problems, even if it is in turn nailed by the last one. I'll get the grumbly bit over and done with because there's already too much weather ranting in the world. Look, mid-August in a Welsh valley is no time to be anywhere near open sky. Apparently they had the site blessed by druids to avoid rain. Call me a cynic, but after this weekend I'm starting to lose faith in ancient pagan rituals. I hate to think of all those goats sacrificed in vain.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake

You know how there are some authors who cobble together book after book that win award after award solely because they’re so dull that they must, automatically, be in some way worthy? The kind of writing my Dad calls ‘middle-class women’s books’, and that the papers will describe, archly, as ‘likely to be nominated for the Booker’? Well, Margaret Atwood isn’t one of them. She wins award after award and sells book after book solely on the basis of being exceedingly good.

What’s more, she has some kind of magical rut-evading device nailed to her typewriter, which means she can slink from genre to genre and setting to setting, throwing together sentences with a dark wit; a long, indulgent sigh over the weaknesses of humanity; and an honest rage at the injustices of society.

Oryx and Crake is up there with Atwood’s best, and Atwood’s best is up there with the best (whatever that means). Yes, she has been known to get a bit snotty about people calling some of her books science fiction, but if she’ll carry on writing them I’m quite happy for her to call them what she likes. I’m charitable like that.

This review is based on a re-reading, because I’ve got The Year of the Flood languishing on my shelf, and I wanted to refresh my memories of Oryx and Crake before sitting down with the new one. However, this is not a book that relies on the twists of its plot to trap the reader: it loses little and gains much in a second glance.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The new lit part one: text's adventures

This is the first part of the short series on emerging forms of fiction that I introduced last week. Inspired by the gradual, struggling, wailing infancy of the electrobook, I've tried to assemble something coherent about fiction that exists in strange shapes - the kind of things that remind us that literature doesn't start in verse and finish in novels. 

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Thomas Pynchon: Vineland

I get the impression that Thomas Pynchon is one of those authors who are famous for writing big, wise books that nobody actually reads, like a drugged-up, American Cervantes, or Thackery, or Joyce. Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason and Dixon, Against the Day; these are less novels than they are building materials. I always remember the scene in the Whitby Witches (by the brilliant Robin Jarvis, responsible for all the best childhood terrors and a lingering suspicion that rodents are up to something shifty) when someone is murdered with a Dickens novel. You could take out an elephant with the Pynchon back catalogue.

So when I was slinking around the library and felt like seeing what the Pynchon fuss was all about, I turned to the only one of his books on the shelf that I could pick up with one hand: Vineland. I gather that this is generally considered a minor work, but it has its fans, and it had some pretty glowing quotations on the back, including one from Salman Rushdie, so I thought it was worth a shot.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The new lit: introduction

E-books, apparently, are going to destroy the universe, or at least kill p-books and dismantle publishing like some kind of revolutionary army, set on building a world in which trees can roam free without being hunted down by publishers and turned into stories. Despite these frequent warnings and a series of overblown and utterly ignored displays in chain bookshops up and down the country, I’ve so far seen a whole three people with dedicated e-book readers, and about half a dozen more with iPads. True, some of the wielders of fancy telephones might be using them to read books, too, but either way I don’t think there’s yet much sign of the great electropublishing takeover.

However, what I have seen are a bunch of interesting people lurking around and trying to work out some more radical approaches to the future of writing, publishing and reading. Because the e-book, whatever you think of having a book with a glowing screen, a battery life and a three-digit price tag, is basically just a different way of transmitting a novel. It's technology, not art. In the long term, whether or not it takes off isn’t that interesting. What’s a bit more exciting is how the introduction of digital technology to writing will affect the things that are offered to us, as readers, and how we can respond to them. I'm stroking my chin about the consequences for fiction, not economics. Mainly because I know faff all about economics. 

Friday, 6 August 2010

China Miéville: Kraken

[First, a thousand curses upon having to write this on a laptop. You don’t realise how much you miss the number pad until you’re trying to write about someone with an accent in their name.]

China Miéville is the current darling of fantasy, and for ruddy good reason: he makes it original, disturbing and political again, rather than an exercise in rummaging around in Tolkien’s bins and repeating tired old pseudomythology. Content aside, Miéville also has distinctive prose, which is sometimes impressive and sometimes irritating, but is always better than being bland and dreary.

Kraken is Miéville’s latest, in a rare example of my reading being up to date (look, there’re a lot of books out there, alright?), and it’s a frankly bonkers adventure through a deeply seedy magical underbelly of London. It isn’t his best book, since it lacks the intricacy of The Scar or the conceptual genius of The City and The City, but it’s highly enjoyable and full of ideas that will leave you cackling evilly.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

That joke isn't funny any more

I don’t watch enormous quantities of television. What I do watch has been fairly precisely identified by a mysterious focus group at the BBC responsible for making sure that there are always one or two programmes on for People Like Me, and making sure the next one isn’t far away when a series ends. It’s probably possible to construct a new system of seasons by replacing spring, autumn and that lot with Hustle, Doctor Who, Spooks and Being Human (okay, this one’s only had two series, but I need a replacement for David Bowie’s Coma Cops, or whatever the overall title for Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes is. The Hunt Supremacy? Misogyny and Fisticuffs Through the Ages?).

Anyway, there’s been a bit of a summer gap in the regulars (although I gather there are some more Spooks on their way, which is just as well, because I’ve forgotten which characters are still alive), so I’ve found myself staring at a number of book adaptations, beginning with a DVD copy of the old Neverwhere series, moving on to Sky’s Going Postal and the Beeb’s Money, and now hitting Sherlock, which had its second episode on Sunday. 

The thing that intrigues me here isn’t how far they are faithful to their sources (not very, on the whole), or how good they are (sticking with ‘not very’ for Neverwhere, and gradually working up to rather decent for Sherlock and its solid approach to Victorian melodrama with added mobile phones), but their approach to humour.