Wednesday, June 27, 2007

And tonight's piece of descriptive writing

After the sublime Norman MacCaig, something more prosaic. Who do you imagine could have written this? A fourteen year-old, perhaps?

The sky was utterly dead. It looked cut out of matte black paper and pasted above the silhouettes of the towers.

Okay, I know you're dying to know what literary genius concocted that sublime description, so I'll maintain the suspense no longer. It is...

our old chum China Mieville. "Very possibly greatness," as we're told.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Crofter's Kitchen, Evening

How's this for a piece of description? You're there, you can see that room, hear that dog.

Crofter's Kitchen, Evening

A man's boots with a woman in them
Clatter across the floor. A hand
Long careless of the lives it kills
Comes down and thwacks on newspapers
A long black fish with bloody gills.

The kettle's at her singsong - minor
Prophetess in her sooty cave.
A kitten climbs the bundled net
On the bench, and, curled up like a cowpat,
Purrs on the Stornaway Gazette.

The six hooks of a Mackerel Dandy
Climb their thin rope - an exclamation
By the curled question of a gaff.
Three rubber eels cling like a crayfish
On top of an old photograph.

Peats fur themselves in gray. The door
Bursts open, chairs creak, hands reach out
For spectacles, a lamp flairs high...
The collie underneath the table
Slumps wit a world-rejecting sigh.

Norman MacCaig

Sunday, June 24, 2007

China Mieville - Looking for Jake and other stories

I was recently advised by Toby Litt (after he read one of my stories) to read China Mieville. I have to confess I'd never heard of him, but I checked out some stuff in the library and borrowed the one Toby recommended, "Looking for Jake and other stories."

It's a "stunning, imaginative force... very possibly greatness," according to the Boston Globe. The Times Literary Supplement calls the stories "powerful tales of paranoid complicity." The Scotsman, once my favourite newspaper (if only for Robert Conisburgh's crosswords) reckons that "energy and imagination abound here." The BBC says "utterly, utterly compelling." Wired (never heard of it) claims it's "the year's best short story collection."

Wow, praise indeed. I couldn't wait to start it.

I was worried that the first story, the title story, "Looking for Jake," was a trifle thin. In fact, it is incredibly thin. In fact, it is dull to the point of predictable. It even ends, God help us, with it being "the last letter," written before the MC sets off on the journey that he knows will kill him.

One of the first rules is no dead narrators. One of the next rules is don't be a smartarse and have an about-to-be-dead-any-second-now narrator, because every hack wannabe writer who ever switched on a laptop has written one of those. I have several on my hard-drive.

Next we have Foundation, which is an admittedly creepy idea, though the truth on which Mieville based the story - that American troops bulldozed live Iraqi soldiers into the ground, is infinitely more creepy than what Mieville imagined.

There is the same story told twice, in Details and Different Skies. This is something that fantasy is very bad at doing, dressing up the same mundane idea in fancy clothes so you think you are reading something new. All these two stories boil down to is that there is something out there, in a kind of parallel universe, and it has some way of leaking into ours and some poor schmuck unleashes them and they take over. Yawnity yawnity yawn.

Entry taken from a medical encyclopedia is all style no substance. It is interesting enough but remains, frankly, puerile. The Ball Room is pure Roald Dahl. Reports of certain events in London is intriguing, a curious idea about feral streets that roam the world and the centuries, but unfortunately it just fizzles into nothing.

'Tis the season was unreadable. The author was so determined to be ironic-witty with all his ChristmasTM and YuleCo and Coca Crissmas and stuff it became utterly intrusive. There was AUTHOR all over this story. You couldn't escape him, or the fact that he thought he was being incredibly humorous. Stuff like the Gay Choir singing "We're here, we're choir, get used to it," is a funny first draft line, gives the writer a chuckle. But then it has to come out because it's just silly and intrudes.

As with a lot of this sort of writing, it owes a huge debt to Do androids dream of electric sheep, especially the story Jack, with its Remades and fReemades and alternative life forms.

What these stories lack is any real point. So fucking what? Yes, Mieville can turn a decent phrase, though he is singularly unfrightening, to be honest. But what really strikes me about this collection is how completely shallow the stories are. They do nothing. They're unambitious, lazy, predictable, undergraduate musings. What do they say about life? Even the so-called political one, inspired by reported American atrocities in Iraq: did I read that and immediately feel outraged, or even mildly provoked? Alas not, I thought "mmmm."

I was reading Michel Faber last night, from his "Some rain must fall" collection, and there was a story called Fish. Fantastic. Such precision, such clear writing. Faber effortlessly conjures a dystopian world where fish have taken over. There is no smartarsery, no author showing off, no invention of puerile FishCo type words to ratchet up the strangeness. It simply tells a story straight and draws the reader into it with complete ease. This is what Mieville should be aspiring to. This is real writing.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Forever, somewhere

We may note, page by page, the new
And the old works of time; how all
Fall into ruins, or go dancing
Towards green April harps.
Forever, somewhere, are joy and dancing.

George MacKay Brown

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

To Hell with dying - Alice Walker

This is another story I downloaded from Miette's brilliant site, and it caused me no little embarrassment as I walked to work this morning.

For those who don't know it, this is one of Alice Walker's first stories. Although written as an adult story, it has since been repackaged as a children's story (despite the title which, in the US at least, is likely to be controversial, I'd have thought). It is about Mr Sweet, an ageing alcoholic blues musician who is much beloved by the children of the neighborhood because of his eccentric ways. It's essentially a story about the redemptive nature of love, with the children bringing Mr Sweet back from the brink of death on many occasions by jumping on his bed and smothering him with love and kisses.

Call me a sentimental old fool - and, yes, the ending was even predictable as well - but I was walking through Tesco this morning on my way to work, listening to this, with tears rolling down my face. It's a beautifully understated piece of writing.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Norman MacCaig - Highland Funeral

Over the dead man's house, over his landscape
the frozen air was a scrawny psalm
I believed in, because it was pagan
as he was.

Into it the minister's voice
spread a pollution of bad beliefs.
The sanctimonious voice dwindled away
over the boring, beautiful sea.

The sea was boring, as grief is,
but beautiful, as grief is not.
Through grief's dark ugliness I saw that beauty
because he would have.

And that darkened the ugliness... Can the dead
help? I say so. Because, a year later,
that sanctimonious voice is silent and the pagan
landscape is sacred in a new way.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

"God never wrote a good play in his life"

Just finished Cat's cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I can't understand how I missed this when I was eighteen - it would have been perfect for me. I'm quite convinced if I had I would be quoting this, along with Catch 22 and The Tin Drum, as the greatest books ever written.

As it is, I still think it's good, but twenty-odd years of cynicism are hard to shake off. But how could I not love a book in which the central concept is that all religion is lies, or that man never learns ("History, read it and weep!"), that there will be no grand redemption?

It rolls to a wonderful end, the sort of almost metafictional conclusion which I remember from 100 years of solitude:

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.

What really struck me about the novel though, ideas aside, was the writing. It is so simple, the sentence structures straightforward, the description sparse and to the point. It is a style that has been much copied and much abused, and at its worst ends up in a hideous Janet and John "I did this. She said that. We both went there," sort of language.

But Vonnegut transcends that. It IS simple, yes, and the language is never, ever florid, but for all that it is incredibly rich. Taken purely at random by opening the book, have, for example:

Dr von Koenigswald slipped the tholepin of an oarlock from its socket in the gunwale of the gilded dinghy. He tapped 'Papa on his belly with the steel oarlock, and 'Papa' really did make a sound like a marimba.

Very simple, but the language is interesting. I think most of us, when we are aiming for Carveresque simplicity or Barthelmic ironic detachment, could learn a lesson from Vonnegut. Simple doesn't mean boring or bland.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Offended - Anne Hebert

By rank of hunger, the indigents were lined up
By rank of anger, the seditious were examined
By rank of good conscience, the masters were judged
By rank of offence, the humiliated were interrogated
By rank of mutilation, the crucified were considered.
In this extreme misery the mutes came to the front lines
A whole nation of mutes stayed on the barricades
Their desire for the word was so urgent
That the Verb came through the streets to meet them
The burden it was charged with was so heavy
That the cry 'fire' exploded from its heart
Disguised as a word

Translated by A. Poulin Jr

Monday, June 04, 2007

Clare Chambers - The Editor's wife

Read this over the weekend - my partner got it out of the library and it looked intriguing.

It started off really well, quite an intriguing premise, good characters, wonderfully crisp narrative, some very funny lines and situations. Until two-thirds of the way through I was thinking this was a very good novel.

Then it imploded. It became ridiculous, plot-driven, a heap of sentimental drivel with a truly ghastly plot-twist at the end to engineer a happy ending. What a nightmare. This author has real talent, she writes like a dream, the reader absolutely flies through the book, but she has done this to it. It must have been for commercial reasons, and that is such a shame.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Far side of the black pit

A quote from Gustave Flaubert today:

The melancholy of the ancients seems to me deeper than that of the moderns, who all more or less assume an immortality on the far side of the black pit. For the ancients the black pit was infinity itself; their dreams take shape and pass against a background of unchanging ebony. No cries, no struggles, only the fixity of the pensive gaze. The gods being dead and Christ not yet born, there was, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, one unique moment when there was only man.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Just for the beauty of the words

Gore Vidal, a wonderful shaper of words. Even when you don't agree with him, his writing is so beautiful you just nod your head in admiration. This is the start of one of his essays, for no other reason than I think it is wonderfully well-written.

Should the human race survive the twentieth of those wondrous centuries since shepherds quaked at the sight of God's birth in a Middle Eastern stable (all in all, a bad career move), our century will be noted more for what we managed to lose along the way than for what we acquired. Although the physical sciences took off, literally, and some rightly stuffed American men with nothing much to say lurched about the moon, sublunary population was allowed to get out of control to such an extent that much of the earth's good land was covered with cement in order to house the new arrivals while the waters of the globe are now so poisoned that on the just and the unjust alike pale acid rain everywhere softly falls. As we get more people, we lose 'amenities' of every sort.