Friday, August 07, 2015

Cataract

I lay on my back with a sheet laid claustrophobically over my face. An area cut out of it over my right eye, which comically had a bandage stuck above it with an arrow pointing downwards. I didn’t feel a thing, the surgeon was excellent, and I’m enormously grateful for the wonderful NHS. Privileged to receive such great care. But still, I lay there in the dazzle, watched dark shapes flicker like birds of prey above me, listened to the buzz of, presumably, a tiny saw, and I mostly wondered about torture scenes. The spy always seems to be strapped to a chair and then beaten up a bit and electrocuted. He can scream in a way that shows he’s enduring great pain, then leap to his feet shortly afterwards and kill everyone, walking away possibly bruised but essentially unscarred. Lay him on a table, do what that brilliant lady was doing to me, only without the anaesthetic, see how well he copes with that.


In other news in this eventful week, I’m shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story prize. Very pleased. I do love the short story, the challenge of opening a door into a world and leading the reader in, then having that world vanish after a few thousand words but trying to make it linger in the reader’s mind, trying to leave them still half behind the door, still tangled in the lives you’ve created. Most writers don’t get much encouragement, so it’s nice when it comes along. Also won a Northern Writers’ Award earlier this year, another very encouraging, and very practically helpful thing. It’s allowed me to focus on completing a draft of my YA novel, The Impossible. Writing fiction, writing TV pitches, teaching writing – feeling fortunate.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Station 11

Six months of the year has slipped away, we’re on a shallow slope heading towards Christmas, and my book of the year so far? It’s been a good six months. Plainsong by Kent Haruf, The Son by Phillip Meyer and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, Pig Iron, by Ben Myers, Dark Star by Alan Furst.

But my book of the first six months of 2015, by some distance, is Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel. It takes a genre subject – an apocalyptic flu wipes out most of humanity – and treats it in a contemplative, melancholy, compelling way. It makes you nostalgic for a life you haven’t lost, a life involving phones and flights and oranges. King Lear is woven into the narrative, but so is an invented comic book, and Star Trek Voyager (not even the original series.) We follow different characters for a while, leave their stories, return to them, and I found myself convinced, believing in this beautifully evoked world. Most of the characters were decent people, which is something that I enjoyed, it was a quietly optimistic book, or not glibly, cynically pessimistic anyway. It was the mood though, and the style, that most engaged me, I felt like I was liable to wake up and find myself living in this world.

Is it a bad thing that the first five books I mentioned are all by men? Maybe it is, I do read more men than women, I think, and I don’t want to close myself off to that whole other perspective on the world. And as a male writer I want to be read by women as much as by men, (or by girls as much as by boys, since I’m now writing a Young Adult novel). I know a guy who’s reading nothing but women this entire year, having noticed that he’s only been reading men for a while. I don’t want to do that, I don’t think I do, but I am reading Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey next, and perhaps I’ll catch up with How to be both by Ali Smith after that and is The Green Road by Anne Enright in paperback yet? God, I love reading.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Spring


A view that stretches maybe ten miles. Builders hammering on a nearby roof, their tinny radio singing something. It’s April, and sunny at last. In my head upcoming trips to Wales, Burnley and York, and why don’t I know the names of even the commonest birds, and when am I going to plant those wildflower seeds my son gave me for Christmas, and will they flower, and those friends I’m in danger of losing touch with, what am I going to do about that? Sipping tea. Everyone else has gone on a bike-ride, the roofers are hammering like someone knocking on a door, the view is unwinding into hazy distance, and it’s sunny at last.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Bone Clocks

I liked Holly. From her running away in the first section to her dismal, scarily plausible, just this side of The Road life in the final section. The fantastical side of the story worked fairly well too, the immortal good guys and the slightly less immortal bad guys and their endless war. It provided a satisfying underlying narrative, a sort of muscle that helped the whole thing cohere and kept it moving forwards. Perhaps not the showdown in the Chapel. It was quite tense but a bit too silly, with (spoilers) good guys and bad guys firing mind bolts at each other, then the bad guys gloating that they’d won, in that way that bad guys do, until the good guys broke the Chapel and, basically, made it fall on them. If I understood that correctly.

But the main problem was the three long sections of the novel devoted to the men. Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey. Ed was fine as a teenager but a bit dull as an adult, and seemed to be there mostly to earnestly explain to us that Iraq was a hideous mess, in case we didn’t know. (Nice sequence involving a missing toddler though, reminiscent of the beginning of McEwan’s Child In Time.) Hugo was loathsome and – this is possibly a naive response - I didn’t want to spend that long in his company. He and Crispin were both almost, sort of saved by loving Holly, but Crispin’s section was the weakest of the three. It seemed to arrive from a different novel, it could have been removed entirely without any damage to the plot. Crispin was a cross between David Mitchell himself and Martin Amis, a successful author whose success was ebbing, and the whole section smacked of a writer who’d run out of things to write about.

So, disappointing, slightly, from one of my favourite living novelists, but I did like Holly, and her story kept me interested and caring and wanting to know where we were going for nearly 600 pages. It’s a much inferior book, but it might make a better film than Cloud Atlas.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Why do I like this novel? Not for the plot, which is a sketchy thing, in which evil is eventually overcome by laughter, like a cheesy Star Trek episode. It’s not especially about the characters either. The two boys are Huck Finn-ish, which is nice, but the dad is a bit cliched, wise and weary, and the women are awful. Two mums, who appear only briefly to worry about their sons and tell them off, plus a fifty year old teacher who aches to be young again, and a witch. It’s of its time of course, and there’s no rule that says women have to have decent roles in a book, but it’s disappointing, and for me distracting, when they don’t.

So why is this novel impressive? The language. It sparkles like broken glass, it’s constantly reaching to describe the dark things in Ray Bradbury’s head. You get a sense of a man twisting and stretching words to try to describe a dream. This is a man who loves words, who never uses only one when he can use ten, who stokes his paragraphs with metaphor and simile, and who adores a hyphen because it means he can yoke two words together in his striving to say something new. He has an overpowering urge to evoke and make real the fantastic. It’s a unique style, occasionally a bit awkward, a bit purple, a bit overwrought, but it’s always grasping for the best possible effects, and for truth.

Interesting comparison with Neil Gaiman. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is clever and unsettling and well-shaped, like most of his shorter books. It’s a very good read, but his evil is less evil than Bradbury’s, less cloying and claustrophobic, his world is a less scary place, and I think that's down to that passionate, surprising, yearning language.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

An Unhappy Ending


It seems to be generally accepted that as you get older - assuming you avoid botox and facelifts - you get the face you deserve. The scribbled map of wrinkles, crows’ feet, frown lines and smile lines you finish up with, is determined by what kind of face you’ve chosen to present to the world over the preceding years. The same is true of a story – the ending is determined by what went before, the narrative grows organically to produce an appropriate, fitting conclusion. So with an Unhappy Ending in fiction – a death, a loss, a closing down of promising paths into the future – you see where it comes from, and thus you tend to have a feeling of acceptance along with your sadness. This is even true of surprise endings. Yeats talked about the surprising word that seems inevitable, and it’s the same with a surprise ending – you may not have expected it, but once it comes along you realise there is no other way the story could have come to an end.

But that’s fiction. Life’s not like that, it’s more ragged and various and unresolved. We talk about moving on after an Ending, we claim it’s an opportunity, we say As one door closes another opens. All of which suggests we’re turning our backs on the Ending, hurrying away from it as if it’s unwelcome, unlucky, toxic. That’s because an Ending, an Unhappy Ending anyway, leaves you disoriented – Did that just happen? How did that happen? An Unhappy Ending in life has none of that reassuring sense of inevitability you find in fiction. It leaves you sad, it taints everything that went before it, making the whole long journey look as if it was merely a path towards this bad conclusion. And then anger arrives, like bad weather, and you can appear to be suffering from Tourette’s, spitting swear words at perceived or actual injustice.

In fiction, an Unhappy Ending may be the perfect way to finish a novel. In life, an Unhappy Ending is a wound. But wounds heal. And wounds, eventually, are where the best stories come from.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

May We Be Forgiven


I nearly gave up. Over privileged Americans casually destroying people’s lives. No one seemed to have any genuine feelings for anyone. The characters felt sketchy, and they floated around in an affectless, druggy trance. Why should I care about any of them? Why should I be interested in their lives? Well, I think that question occurred to A.M Homes too. The first part of the novel was published as a short story, and in deciding to continue it, to extrapolate, to follow these people’s lives, she chose to address those two questions. How do you make your main character sympathetic? Have him be kind to children, old people and animals, give him issues with his physical and mental health. How do you make him interesting? Make him have a great deal of sex. I'm sure it wasn't quite that mechanical, but that's what happens - and it works. As the novel develops, it becomes all about absolution,  and the main character sort of inflates from the two dimensional bore of the beginning into a human being with depth, who stops floating and makes decisions, some of them flawed but most of them interesting. You read on, wanting to find out what he’ll do next, what will happen to him next, where he’s going to end up. Story is important, but what’s more important is who is making that story happen, who it's happening to. Character. It’s all about character.

One note. My copy is plastered with reviews which call the book ‘Extremely funny’, ‘Horribly funny’, ‘Brilliantly funny’. These people must be very easily pleased. It raises the odd smile, and has a nice, surprising quirkiness, but ‘Hilarious’? No.