“Exercises In Style” by Raymond Queneau (1947)

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“On the S bus, in the rush hour.”

Quick review today from this classic exploration of writing from Raymond Queneau.

The plot is simple enough – on a crowded bus, a long-necked young man challenges another passenger who he believes keeps treading on his toes every time someone else gets on or off. He darts for an empty seat when one becomes available. A couple of hours later, the narrator sees the same youth being advised by a friend to add a button to his overcoat.

That’s it. But what happens next is quite remarkable.

Queneau takes this banal tale and retells it 99 times, each time in a whole new manner, be it in a different tense, from a different viewpoint, or in an entirely new medium, such as a sonnet or an official letter. In some, he plays around with word structure leading to some stories that make no sense, whereas in others he’ll adopt words to do with food, or focus solely on the smells or sounds involved in the story. Each new retelling gives us a slightly different interpretation of the story and new details filter through, building up a richly diverse story, whether it’s being told through the eyes of a poet or a Cockney.

There’s not really much more to it than that, but it’s a great thing for writers to read in particular, I think, as it shows how much narration matters. Just a slight twist and you can get almost an entirely different story depending on what you’re focusing on. An interesting experiment.

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“The Saltmarsh Murders” by Gladys Mitchell (1932)

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“There are all sorts of disadvantages in telling a story in the first person, especially a tale of murder.”

After reading a parody of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it seemed fitting to dip back into a genuine one. I’ve long been ignorant of Gladys Mitchell, which seems odd given she was so prolific. Perhaps her profile is simply lower, or maybe even not all of her books are currently available. I can only make excuses for my ignorance. Nonetheless, I’m here now with the surprising The Saltmarsh Murders.

Noel Wells, the curate in the small village of Saltmarsh, sets about telling us the story of the murders that he got caught up in. He prefers to spend his time dancing with the vicar’s niece, but the peace is shattered when the unmarried housemaid is found to be pregnant, and the vicar’s shrewish, vindictive wife throws her out. A few days after the baby is born, the housemaid is strangled and the baby disappears, with no one ever having set eyes on it. Questions are raised – who had the motive and the opportunity? Why was the girl so secretive? And was there even a baby at all?

Noel calls on Mrs Bradley, an amateur detective and psychologist who happens to be staying in the village, to investigate the murder and together they find themselves dragged into Saltmarsh’s seedy underbelly as the story grows to incorporate a false letter, a kidnapped vicar, smuggling, the village lunatic, a missing corpse and an excavation of the local quarries. With Mrs Bradley convinced that the wrong man has been convicted, it is a race against time to find the true culprit and save an innocent man from death.

For much of the reading, I was worried I’d have to come here afterwards and give a negative review. The opening chapters were slow, somewhat repetitive and I kept losing track of who was who. It took a while to get to the actual murder, giving us some strange plots earlier on that quickly get discarded and prove not to be so important. I’d also made guesses on a number of plot points and was rapidly proven right on them all. However, when Mitchell finally reveals who the murderer was, the rug was pulled out from under me and I wasn’t anything like close. It’s a curiously satisfying solution.

The style of its time, with language and attitudes one would expect of the 1930s, so there are some terms that seem questionable to modern readers, but in many other respects there are some curiously modern topics involved, including pre-marital sex, incest, racial tension, and pornography. It was undoubtedly quite a shocking read at the time, and indeed, parts of it are still so today. Many other elements remain typical of books of the sort – small village, missing people, a secret passage and a country vicar.

I’d probably read Mitchell again, although I don’t necessarily see Mrs Bradley as one of fiction’s “most memorable personalities”, but I’m in no particular hurry.

“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler (1939)

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“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

Last week, I watched – for the first time – the 2012 comedy film Pitch Perfect, and I promise you there is a tangential link coming here in case you’re wondering why I’m starting a post about Raymond Chandler by talking about Anna Kendrick. Upon finishing the film, with my friend unimpressed at my unimpressed reaction, she said, “This is the trouble when you come to things too late. You’ve built them up in your head and they never live up to your expectations.” She’s right. As someone who gets to things in his own time, I’m often behind the curve on some of the big titles in popular culture. In the case of Raymond Chandler, I might be about eighty years too late…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe has been hired by General Sternwood to track down a blackmailer who’s causing trouble for his daughter Carmen. He also lets slip that the husband of his other daughter, Vivian, has gone missing, and while he doesn’t ask Marlowe to find him, it seems that just about everyone else expects that he has. The Sternwood daughters are something of a handful, and Marlowe is caught up in something rather full-on, and that’s before the first body turns up. He finds himself embroiled in a case involving a missing car, some nude photographs, a stalker without a clue, and the disappeared wife of a gangster.

I’d read over the years a number of quotes from Chandler, most of them being either incredibly wise (“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”) or very funny (“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”), and I think this had led me to believe that this books were a non-stop riot of one-liners and witty words of wisdom. At yet, instead I found myself being the one having to fight off a big sleep as I ploughed through the text. I found that characters blurred together and I wasn’t particularly bothered about the eventual fates of any of them.

It’s not badly written, and it has a fairly interesting story, but something about it failed to capture me. I was told that Chandler was better than Hammett, but there’s not much of a difference. Chandler possibly just clinches it with his dry wit. (“You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.”) Like Sam Spade, Marlowe isn’t necessarily a fully unlikable character, although that’s purely in the context of him being fictional. He’s an interesting creation, but I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him. Is he as iconic as Sherlock Holmes as some people claim? To me, no, but I can see the tropes and cliches being put into place and he is the Ur-PI that all others will come to follow.

Hard boiled crime looks fun from the outside, but whenever I dive in I just find that it doesn’t live up to my expectations.

“Of Men And Monsters” by William Tenn (1968)

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“Mankind consisted of 128 people.”

Earth has been invaded by aliens so many times in fiction. On most of those occasions, whether first contact is friendly or not, we are equals of a sort, in size, shape and intelligence at least. But what if aliens were to come to Earth that were so enormous, they didn’t even notice humans were here, and just dominated the planet thanks to sheer size alone. What would happen to humanity then? Of Men and Monsters explores this idea.

Eric the Only is a boy in his society of Mankind, but today is the day of his Theft, and if he’s successful, he will come back to be declared Eric the Eye, meaning he’s a full man and able to mate. Under the guidance of his uncle, Thomas the Trap-Smasher, he pledges to steal not food or an item usable by Mankind, but a Monster souvenir. He flees the burrows for the first time ever and makes his way across the treacherous landscape inhabited by the giant Monsters to complete his task.

But when he gets back home to safety, he finds that a rebellion occurred, led by his uncle, as those who want to use Alien-Science tried to rise up against the traditional methods of Ancestor-Science. Now an outlaw, Eric the Eye goes on the run, stumbling across another tribe in another burrow. He joins their number and soon he begins to learn the truth about who he is, where he lives, and what the Monsters are.

You can’t help but think about The Borrowers with this novel. The difference is, of course, that humans haven’t actually changed their size, it’s just that the aliens that invaded were so huge that, to them, humans are merely vermin, living in the walls of their houses like cockroaches or mice, stealing food and potentially spreading disease. The use of scale is impressive, but it’s difficult to imagine something like this. I kept imagining the Monsters to be our size and the humans to be small, but then you get a reminder that if the humans were to go outside, rain or trees would also look tiny compared to the invaders.

It’s clever in it’s use of detail, or rather lack of it. Because the humans can only see on a different scale, they cannot adequately describe the Monsters – we know they are grey, with six legs, tentacles around their necks and small heads – and their technology seems bizarre. Human technology is now quite primitive, with people using spears, but there is evidence of higher technology. For example, when Eric’s name “the Eye” is chosen, it is done so via a mystical Record Machine, which seems to be a television displaying old infomercials.

The human societies that have built up are the most interesting aspect of the novel, even if the individual characters are quite flat. Eric’s tribe, Mankind, call themselves that because they believe they are the most superior of all the tribes. The men are all warriors and thieves, the women have knowledge of healing and history. Days and nights are measured simply by when the tribe’s chief goes to sleep and wakes up, and there is a strict hierarchy. We meet other societies living in the same wall (that’s how huge these buildings are) who have different ways of doing things, and at one point we see humans who have come from the building next door, and they may as well be a whole new species.

It feels like it should be a quick read, but I got bogged down in it trying to work out what some of the technology was, before realising that the Alien-Science is a lot like Gary Larson’s “Cow Tools” – there is no human equivalent. Or maybe there is but it’s being described in such an unusual way that we don’t notice? There’s a satisfying ending, at least, with the realisation that of all the species of vermin on our planet, humans may just be the most successful of them all…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet an entirely different race of aliens as Dexter, who sees himself has the last single person on Earth, flees his home, along with his friends, to escape the invasion. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)

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“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

“I’m reading Frankenstein at the moment,” I said over Thursday afternoon cocktails (because that’s the sort of life I have). My friend looked at me from over his Manhattan and said, “Boring, isn’t it?” I sighed. “Yes.”

“Thing is,” he explained. “You have to read it through the lens of Frankenstein’s own hubris. He is melodramatic and you’ve gotta go with that to make it tolerable.” Yes, not only is this history’s first science fiction novel, it’s also probably the first emo committed to paper. Frankenstein spends the vast majority of the book moping, hand-wringing, cursing the universe, sobbing and generally wallowing in despair, leading him to be rather an unpleasant and irritating hero.

Cultural osmosis is such that when people think of Frankenstein, and this includes myself, they tend to picture a spooky castle, a stormy night, the hunchbacked assistant Igor and the birth of the Creature. Turns out that this is entirely becuase of the films. The novel is a different beast altogether. There’s no Igor here, and Frankenstein certainly doesn’t appear to be living in a castle. He’s much younger than I anticipated too, having been not long out of university, not even completing his degree, so any title of “Doctor” is a misnomer too. The actual event of him reanimating the Creature feels almost “blink and you’ll miss it”. In fact, I’m loathe to say, I did. It was only when Frankenstein encounters his creation in the Alps later on that I realised his experiment had been a success. I had to go back and read the pages again and there, buried beneath more pages of crying scientist, is a short section where it’s noted that life was indeed created, but Frankenstein immediately freaked out and hid in his bedroom while the Creature fled.

The action is really three stories, each nested within one another. It opens with Captain Robert Walton sailing a ship to explore the North Pole. He is writing letters to his sister, and details that he and his men saw a large, humanoid figure piloting a dog sled across the ice. Not long after, they take on board the very ill Victor Frankenstein who then tells his story.

Frankenstein tells of his life and his scientific experiments. A lot of time his given over to his family life and history, so the science almost seems to become incidental to the story. His tale is interrupted in the middle when he meets the Creature again. The Creature then tells his story and explains that since he ran away he’s been living in a hovel next to a cottage of some poor people, learning to read and speak, and about the world, from their conversations. He demands of Frankenstein that he make him a wife to love, as he doesn’t want to be the one being in the world who is forbidden from having anyone to love.

The story then goes back to Frankenstein’s exploits and how he becomes haunted by the Creature and his plans to bring to life a bride for his creation. Eventually deciding that he doesn’t want to bring about anymore monsters, the Creature then begins to extract revenge and make his creator’s life a living hell. The story ends with Captain Walton writing to his sister again, telling her Frankenstein’s story.

The thing is, the bits that don’t involve Frankenstein are easily the best bits. The Creature has a wonderful way of speaking and is deeply insightful, but I have so many questions. How is it he has to learn about to read and write and speak all over again, when he was once living before? He knows nothing, which seems a bit bizarre to me, although given the whole nature of the novel, it seems odd to focus on something like that. Frankenstein himself isn’t a likeable man, I felt, and many academics have since claimed that he’s really just written to mock Lord Byron, who Shelley knew well. An overemotional drama queen who dropped out of education because he thought he knew better than everyone else, and hated when things didn’t go his way? Sounds about right.

I’m not sorry I read it, but my brief love affair with the classics has, possibly, come to a natural resting point again. It’s remarkable how little of the original novel has seeped into popular culture, but then I suppose that’s the power of film, and maybe this is one where, to get the real sense of drama and horror, it needs to be more visual.

Of course, in this case there is a version of Frankenstein that is definitely better than the book. Morecambe and Wise did it years ago with guest Ian Carmichael. The usual nonsense occurs, with Ian occasionally slipping into song, Eric convinced that he’s in a pantomime, and Ernie being the least terrifying incarnation of the monster ever. Take it away, boys:

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961)

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What’s the catch?

“It was love at first sight.”

In my ongoing mission to see if reading the classics makes me a better person, I come roaring down the runway to meet Catch-22, said to be, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the greatest American novels of the last century. Despite knowing it spawned a phrase from its title and that it featured army pilots, much else of the detail had escaped me.

Captain Yossarian is a pilot assigned to the Mediterranean island of Pianosa. He’s furious because people keep trying to kill him, which may have something to do with the fact it’s the height of the Second World War. He is desperate that he should return home alive but his officers keep upping the number of missions he has to complete before he can go. The only way out is to declare he’s crazy, but there’s a catch. Catch-22 in fact.

If he refuses to fly the missions, then he must be sane, so he has to fly them. If he accepts the missions, he’s obviously crazy because only a madman would want to fly during a war, and he doesn’t have to do them. That’s one hell of a catch. Surrounded by friends and enemies – some of whom are on the same side – Yossarian must find a way to keep his head while losing it and make it out of the war alive, without sacrificing another friend. But it’s not going to be as easy as that, as everyone is plotting to keep themselves safe too.

28-year-old Captain Yossarian is the main character and is determined to survive the war, eventually refusing to fly anymore, but it’s hard to say that there are any minor characters. Most chapters take the name of a character and show their involvement in the unfolding drama. The list of characters is enormous but includes: Colonel Cathcart (who continually raises the number of missions the men have to fly), Doc Daneeka (self-obsessed medical man), Milo Minderbinder (who is running a syndicate and only does things if they gain him a profit), Nately (who has fallen in love with a prostitute), Scheisskopf (who is obsessed with parades), Clevinger (who disappears on a flight one day), Major —— de Coverley (who is feared but rarely seen), Major Major (who can only be visited while he’s out of his office), General Dreedle (who is apathetic towards war unless the men fight and die on demand), Nurse Duckett (who sleeps with Yossarian), Hungry Joe (a pervert and photographer), Orr (a bomber pilot who always crashes), McWatt (who seems crazy because he has remained sane), Sergeant Towser (de facto head of the squadron),  and Chief White Halfoat (a Native American whose family had to keep moving because they always settled where oil was found). That’s barely half of them. It’s an amazing cast and everyone feels nicely sketched out and there aren’t any superfluous cast members. It’s just a task remembering who’s who and who outranks who else. I need a diagram.

The confusion of characters is compounded by the fact that the story doesn’t follow a strictly linear path, and jumps about in the timeline showing the same events from different angles. Personally, my favourite characters are Yossarian, Major Major and Chaplain Shipman, and would happily have taken a story just about those three.

A primary theme of the novel is paradox. Aside from the central one of being too mad to fly, every other page seems to contain someone making a statement and then saying the opposite immediately afterwards, either forming a joke or sometimes to highlight the insanity of the world they inhabit. Early on we see a character described as, “good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him.” Nately at one point declares, “Anything worth living for is worth dying for”, only to be told in return, “Everything worth dying for is certainly worth living for.” People adopt one another’s personas and illnesses in hospital to confound doctors and keep themselves in there longer and away from the planes they have to fly. The world here is a complicated mess where people are brought up against their superiors for not doing things, mediocrity is applauded and dead people are thought to be alive and the living are considered dead.

Frankly, my biggest issue comes down to the novel’s length. Yes, it definitely is funny, but I’d got the joke by about 150 pages in, and my edition clocks in at over 500. That’s a lot of extra time spent on something I thought we’d already covered. However, in saying that, it needs the ending it has. Towards the end, the jokes and lighthearted mood is stripped away and we see the true horror of war for what it really is. War is, after all, not a joke, and the stark reality of it hits you in the face like Orr being hit in the head with a woman’s shoe.

I’m not a bit sorry I read it, and I can see why it’s lingered. Heller has done something pretty cool here, but rather unlike anything I’ve read before.

“Ape And Essence” by Aldous Huxley (1948)

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ape“It was the day of Gandhi’s assassination; but on Calvary the sightseers were more interested in the contents of their picnic baskets than in the possible significance of the, after all, rather commonplace event they had turned out to witness.”

Aldous Huxley is almost certainly best remembered for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but he churned out several books on his lifetime. I confess though that until recently I couldn’t have named another one. I stumbled upon Ape and Essence a few weeks ago, received it for my birthday yesterday, and finished it today. It’s a short one, but interesting and engaging. It all begins with a man called William Tallis.

Tallis is a scriptwriter, and when two Hollywood writers find a copy of his film script, the titular Ape and Essence, in a pile of scripts ready to be destroyed, they are intrigued and decide to seek him out, only to find that they are too late – Tallis is dead. This is all we know of these characters, as they merely serve as a framing device for the rest of the novel which is actually the film’s script, presented without annotations, footnotes or edits.

Tallis’s story takes place in 2108, a century after the planet was destroyed by nuclear weapons in the Third World War. Our heroes are the crew of the Canterbury, a ship carrying the New Zealand Rediscovery Expedition. New Zealand, it turns out, was just about the only country to survive the war as, due to their remote location, no one ever thought them worth nuking. The ship arrives on the coast of what was once California. Botanist and mother’s boy, Dr Alfred Poole, encounters some of the natives, a tribe of humans who believe that the destruction was the fault of the Devil, whom they call Belial. They now live in a society where sex it outlawed, except on one day a year for breeding purposes, women are seen only as vessels for children, and any baby born with deformities (which is desperately common thanks to all the radiation in the atmosphere) is killed in a religious ceremony. Poole is soon caught up in their activities, but when he falls for one of the tribes women, he begins to hatch a plan.

The title of the novel comes from the vignettes that crop up in Tallis’s script. The film would apparently have featured several surreal moments where baboons are pictured as the dominant race, with scientists like Einstein and Pasteur kept on chains as mascots and pets. At first I thought that Huxley was introducing us to a Planet of the Apes scenario, and perhaps inspiration was taken from here for that film, but the scenes exist simply to show us that we humans are just as primitive and violent as the animals we claim to be beneath us. All societies will, after reaching a certain level of power and arrogance, destroy themselves. There are even suggestions that this new civilization that has built up will go on to do the same again to itself.

It’s primarily a satire of the way that humans continue to conduct war and kill off our own kind for, often, superficial reasons. Huxley had of course lived through both World Wars, so knew from experience how violent and evil our species can be. While not one of his more famous works, and containing a definite thread of pessimism throughout, it’s an interesting look at a world that, like all good dystopian novels, feels impossible and yet all too real.

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