Sunday, October 28, 2018

Novels I Don't Like

The kind of novel that circles around one character, who’s a bit weird, whose lifestyle is strange. They find it difficult to talk to people, they have odd habits, they’re tortured by something – Some Terrible Thing – in their past. The entire novel is asking: What was that thing?

The character is either lying about it, or not too sure themselves, because trauma, so the book slowly and gradually – very slowly and very gradually - discloses the Truth about that character: the terrible Thing that happened to them, the terrible Thing they did, what their damage is, their secret. The problem with this is that it narrows story and character down to a puzzle, and reading the book starts to feel like nothing more interesting, nothing richer or more surprising than solving the puzzle. The author, meanwhile, is much too present, getting in the way, looming over the whole enterprise, smugly slipping in one would-be tantalising clue after another, every fifty pages or so. The author is like a weird waiter in a restaurant who brings you your meal one morsel at a time. It gets frustrating. I can usually guess what the secret is, but even if I can’t, I tend to lose interest. If I want a puzzle, I’ll do a jigsaw, or a sudoku.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Star Wars

The only thing I remember from the first trailer was this little robot that looked like a dustbin falling over with a clang. The whole cinema laughed. We thought it was ridiculous. I’ve just seen it again online and there’s a horrible voice-over too.

So I sat down to watch it in 1977, 13 or 14 years old, without high hopes. And then it performed that trick that cinema sometimes does. Star Wars reached out of the screen, wrapped a hand round me, and pulled me into its world. I was immersed, taken through time unaware, with a big, goofy smile on my face. I already liked science fiction – Arthur C Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Philip K Dick – but this was something else. It was science fiction and romance and a Western and cliff-hangers and jokes and pure escapism and shiny chrome and lasers and mammoth spaceships. To a boy sitting in the shabby Lewisham Odeon, in the seventies, the beige decade, it was joy. It was pure magic.

The thrum of fantasy, adventure and possibility was always there after that. The buzz of a light sabre, the breathing of Darth Vader, that sense of the endless well of space existing around us. It has been with me, always.

So I saw Empire with my mate Phil in London one evening a couple of years later. Then a mini marathon of all three films when they premiered ROTJ. Then the prequels, which had their moments, and now we live with constant Star Wars and the magic’s a bit diluted.

But it’s still there. The music puts that goofy smile back on my face. That sense of fantastic stories within reach, of possibility, existing under the skin of ordinary life. Still there.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Halfway Through Swing Time

That’s Swing Time the novel by Zadie Smith, not the film from the 30’s. I’m halfway through and admiring it – the detail and texture, the character work, the sense that these feel like lives that were actually lived - but I’m also getting a little bit bored. Why am I getting bored? It’s partly the style. It’s the kind of style people call austere and lucid, but you might also call plain or ordinary. The main problem though, so far at least, is that Smith forgets, or can’t quite be bothered, to include a decent story. There’s a bit of a hook in the opening pages, the main character’s been disgraced somehow and we’re going to find out how, eventually, but it’s not really enough to keep me engaged and interested. I mean I am interested, sort of, but not very. (I used to review books for the TLS, The Spectator and the radio – you wouldn’t know it from that last sentence.)

It’s all a bit Elena Ferrante of course, but I found My Brilliant Friend a lot more involving. More intimate somehow, perhaps even more felt. The main character in Swing Time drifts along observing things and generally feeling a bit sad. I had a much more vivid sense of struggle and ambition, of joy being grabbed when it’s available, from MBF.

Anyway, only halfway through. I’ll certainly finish it. But I may pause to read a short story or two by Tom Franklin (from the collection Poachers), just for a refreshing shot of narrative punch and stylistic flourish.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Jack Reacher

There’s something about a Reacher novel. That guy walking across America, hitching, catching busses, drinking coffee in diners, never washing his clothes, just buying new ones, encountering small towns run by bad men, incompetent cops and over-confident tough guys. He goes into these mean towns and isn’t himself mean. He uses his fists mostly, and elbows, and his simple moral code, but he’ll pick up a gun if he needs it. He’s definitely not Tom Cruise. He’s a young Clint Eastwood, or maybe Robert Mitchum. Who is he these days? I’m not sure Hollywood actually produces men like that any more. Maybe Matthew McConaughey, if he dialled it down quite a lot.

I read somewhere that Lee Child basically starts a story and follows his nose, and sometimes it shows. The books can meander. I read one where there was barely a fight in it and the story wandered around a bit aimlessly till it ended. Not very satisfying. That gruff, matter-of-fact style can suddenly look a bit exposed and ordinary if nothing much is happening. If the momentum of the plot sags, then it can get boring. But mostly they work. Take a clearly defined character, aim him at trouble, see what happens.

Genre is of course fluid, not clearly defined, but with these books you know exactly where you are. No character development, no big themes, nothing interesting going on with the language. Just Jack Reacher, doing his thing.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Drunkenness of Things

Some writers fill the little biographies in their books with unusual jobs. Something involving funerals and embalming for instance, (you’re wacky, unconventional), macho pursuits sometimes, (you’re rugged and, probably, gruff), or horny-handed, man-of-the-people jobs like docker are good for credibility, (you wish you were James Kelman but, unfortunately, you aren’t.) Tom Franklin, a writer I like a lot, is a good example. His biog says he was a clerk in a hospital morgue, he worked in a grit factory - a grit factory! - and he worked in construction. That's three out of three, right there.

I haven’t had any jobs like those. The nearest I’ve come to funerals is filing hospital records, the nearest to a macho pursuit is a paper-round, and the nearest to being a docker is probably also the paper-round. I’ve done lots of workshops, varieties of teaching, some reviewing, and I’ve done jobs with titles that mean very little to people who aren’t involved with them. Researcher for Shape London. Literature Development Worker. Centre Director for The Arvon Foundation. Royal Literature Fund Fellow.

In my second novel, The Alchemist, my winning and hopeful but partly doomed young hero, Billy, writes a story in school at the age of about 8. That’s what I did. I began it in class and continued it at home, and it finished up, I think, 13 pages long. I felt like I’d written The Lord of the Rings. I drew a cover for it too, which was probably no worse than some of the covers my published work has had. (EG the one where a miserable looking bloke glares at potential book-buyers, miserably.) In The Alchemist, Billy goes on to eat some newsprint, in the hope that this will somehow imbue him with a writer’s qualities. This whole area is difficult and subjective, but I think I can safely say that eating newsprint is not how to become a novelist.

Obviously, you have to eat a bit of a novel. Maybe at some time in the past I ate a bit of the Radio Times and a bit of a screenplay too. Probably not. But I like the jobs I’ve done. It reminds me of a line from Snow by Louis MacNeice: ‘The drunkenness of things being various.’ To me, that suggests accidentally stumbling from one thing to the next, always surprised, and usually pleased. And that's fine, because I could cope in a morgue, but I don't think I'd do well in a grit factory.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017


The trip to Sweden (see below) arrived out of the blue, but then so do a lot of things these days. I’m writing an essay on forgetting for Radio 3. (I might have used that old post called Going, Going, but I forgot that I’d written it of course.) I’m also pitching to be involved in a new podcast, and I’m trying to make people aware of the new book with readings, interviews, a feature in the local paper, library and school visits, festivals. I’m editing the sequel and writing a new one. Plus working a day a week at York St John and preparing a couple of workshops.

It’s all a bit different from the days of Emmerdale. Things didn’t arrive out of the blue so much in those days. Other projects, projects I’m very proud of like Tender and The Last Word, got fitted in around the edges. There was a big, dominant presence, and not much room for anything else. Remove the whale, and a shoal of fish appears. They’re unpredictable, darting around all over the place, sometimes just a few, sometimes lots of them. They’re unreliable too, because often they don’t show up at all. But when they do, look at their interesting colours, their variety. See how they glitter.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Reservoir Thirteen

This took some getting in to. An omniscient narrator several steps back from the action, withholding judgement or emotional involvement, coolly observing a large cast of characters navigating their often mundane, sometimes funny and occasionally tragic lives. The book builds a portrait of a community in fragments, frustratingly slowly at first but gathering power until it becomes a hypnotic accretion of detail. Nice to find a novel that doesn’t make it easy for you, doesn’t seem needy, doesn’t seem to care whether you like it or not. It just gets on with its work, like the weather.