“Still Life With Woodpecker” by Tom Robbins (1980)

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“If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.”

No, it hasn’t taken me eleven days to read a book, but I appreciate that the blog has been quiet for a while. Before the book I’m about to review, I also read Joined-Up Thinking by Stevyn Colgan which, while excellent, was a book of random trivia and difficult to review without merely repeating back all he’d written. There’s also been a lot of drinking and watching Christmas films going on – ’tis the season, after all. But I’m here now with one final pre-Christmas review, for one of the oddest books of the year.

Still Life With Woodpecker is inexplicable. Here, we meet Princess Leigh-Cheri, who is living with her parents in Seattle after they were kicked off of their European throne and sent to live in exile. Leigh-Cheri maintains an interest in environmentalism and being a good person, and seeks to attend Care Fest in Hawaii, to hear Ralph Nader speak and find out more about the state of the world. The king and queen allow it, providing she takes along their one remaining servant, Gulietta, an old woman who doesn’t speak any language understood by the family.

While in Hawaii, the centre where Care Fest is supposed to be held is bombed by the Woodpecker, an outlaw actually called Bernard Mickey Wrangle, who has been responsible for a spate of bombings over the last couple of decades, yet has never been caught. Leigh-Cheri performs a citizen’s arrest on him, but before she can turn him in, she finds herself falling in love with him, bonded primarily of the fact they both have bright red hair. The two swiftly fall into a heavily sexual relationship, and when Bernard is finally arrested for his crimes and sent to solitary confinement, Leigh-Cheri returns to Seattle to do exactly the same, locking herself away in an attic with no furniture and painted-over windows, where the considers a packet of Camel cigarettes and begins to philosophise over the nature of pyramids, choice, bombs and love…

Despite the weirdness of the plot that feels a bit like it was constructed from a random generator (and I don’t knock that because that’s pretty much exactly how my first novel came to be), it somehow all works and is above all hilariously funny. Robbins has a way with words, puns and bizarre similes that is on par with Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams and Tom Holt, and they don’t let up. It’s intelligent and bonkers in that perfect measure that’s so hard to do, and the surrealism is just spot on – weird but not so much that it overwhelms the story and takes over.

One of the ongoing themes (aside from the difference between a criminal and an outlaw, or what is to be done about all the redheads) is the question of how love can be made to last. I’m certainly no expert on the topic, but Robbins does manage to wax somewhat poetically on the subject, pointing out the differences between lust and love, and even comes up with a half-decent and poignant explanation on what exactly it is that causes love to disappear from a relationship. It never gets too schmaltzy though, as it’s liberally peppered with incredibly graphic sex scenes that are almost hilarious in their construction and not in the least sexy.

Very weird, but hilarious and curiously moving.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

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“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell (2004)

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cloudatlas“Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.”

I’ll wager that many of you have heard of Cloud Atlas. I started reading it ten years ago when I was seventeen and thinking that no book was able to stop me from plundering its secrets. I never finished the book then. In my head I’d made it about quarter of the way through, but upon picking it up this time, I found the bookmark on page 59 of 530. Not quite a quarter, then. If you don’t know the plot, you may at least know that it is one of the most intricate of modern literature. I’ll try and explain it as best I can, but please be prepared that I’d imagine this will be a long post. Strap in.

We begin with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, the personal diary of an American notary. It’s 1850 and in New Zealand, he awaits repairs to his ship. While there, he witnesses a slave being beaten by his Maori owner and the slave, Autua, notices kindness in Ewing’s eyes. When back on board ship, Ewing finds that the slave has stowed away with him and begs Ewing not to reveal his presence. Meanwhile, Ewing approaches the ship’s doctor Henry Goose to discuss an ailment that he is suffering from. Goose thinks it a parasite and begins to prescribe medicine to his friend. The ship makes sail for Hawaii and…

There the story abruptly ends mid-sentence and turns into Letters from Zedelghem. We are now in 1931, Belgium, and reading the letters of an English musician Robert Frobisher, which are all addressed to his lover in England, Rufus Sixsmith. Recently kicked out of his family home and now penniless, he flees to Belgium to work as an amanuensis to the composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who can no longer write his own compositions down. While here, he begins an affair with Ayrs’ wife, and also starts selling off his employer’s books to keep himself in money. Frobisher agrees to stay until the following summer but…

The third story, Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, takes place in California in 1975 and is written like a thriller novel. The titular Luisa Rey is a young journalist who comes across a story suggesting that a new nuclear power plant poses a threat. She is tipped off by none other than Rufus Sixsmith, now an old man, who has a report documenting his findings on the danger. Before Sixsmith can get the report to Luisa, however, he is murdered and her car is driven off a bridge, sending her plunging to…

The next story, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, takes us to modern day England and is the most comedic of the tales. Sixty-something publisher Cavendish is in trouble with a gangster client and his brothers after an issue with the contract that has made Cavendish rich and left the author with very little to show for his work. Seeking help from his brother, Denholme, Cavendish is shipped off to a hotel where he signs himself in, only to find the following morning that his brother has tricked him and he is now in a nursing home run by the barbaric Nurse Noakes from which there is no escape. He plots a way to escape but before his plans are complete…

An Orison of Sonmi~451 takes place in Nea So Copros (Korea, to you and me) about a hundred years into the future, and is a recorded interview between the clone servant Sonmi~451 and an archivist who is recording her story with great interest. As a clone, she has been bred simply to work at a fast food restaurant called Papa Song’s. There, she stands for nineteen hours a day, shows no interest in the exterior world, drinks her Soap before she sleeps, then repeats the whole thing the following day. However, when some of her kind begin to show signs of self-awareness, she too is forced to realise that there must be more to her life. Saved by a student, Hae-Joo Im, she goes on the run with the authorities always a few paces behind. When she finds that her rescuer has been arrested …

We come to the final story, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After. In a post-apocalyptic world, Zachry, tells a story from his young days. He lives in Hawaii, worships a god called Sonmi and doesn’t know what the ‘Old Uns’ did to bring about the end of their world. He’s more concerned with not ending up a slave to the rival Kona tribe. The primitive visitors are occasionally visited by a group of people of vastly superior people in terms of both intelligence and technology known as the Prescients, and the natural order is disturbed when one of these, a woman called Meronym, comes to stay with the village for a while. Zachry’s world is turned upside down and…

Well, actually, there is no interruption here. We hear all of Zachry’s tale, then return back to Somni~451’s, hear the second half of Timothy Cavendish’s ghastly ordeal, find out what happened to Luisa Rey, read Robert Frobisher’s last letters and finally once again meet an ever-sicker Adam Ewing. The six stories nest into one another and if you’re still here with me after all of that, well done to you. Just try reading the book.

There are so few faults with his novel that it’s hardly worth throwing any of them up. Each story has an entirely new voice that is fitting with the character and the time they’re from. While Cavendish reads like a modern novel, Ewing is most certainly from his time, a Christian man who does not swear, and Zachry comes from a future where language has changed again somewhat and involves a lot of apostrophes and words that have had their meanings subtly shifted. The idea of having them interlock is so smart, and allows for much foreshadowing to occur. Vyvyan Ayrs, for example, has a dream of Papa Song’s one night. Both Robert Frobisher and one of Luisa Rey’s peers share a thought about money, but reach different conclusions. There’s an implication throughout that the main characters are reincarnations of one another, emphasised by the fact they all share a comet-shaped birthmark, but this is never made explicit.

The interlocking also works (and the midpoint cut-offs are admirably explained) by the fact that each character finds the previous story. While at Ayrs’ place, Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s diary, but only the first half of it. Luisa Rey inherits half of Frobisher’s letters. Cavendish reads the first half of Luisa’s story, as it has been submitted to his publishing house. Sonmi~451 watches a film adaptation of Cavendish’s plight. And Zachry worships Sonmi~451 as a god. At the end of each of their stories, they find the second half of the material, and so we wind down and get to share them too.

It’s mostly a sublime tale of how humanity never changes. The same themes of love and hate, time and space, slavery and power, life and death, run through the whole novel. Later events reflect earlier ones, and the issues that are present in the 1850s are still just as valid in Zachry’s time, hundreds of years later. In fact, it’s fairer to say this is a collection of six short novels, each about eighty pages long. I’ve had to put it into several categories to accomodate its scope, but that just really shows what a talent David Mitchell is. This is the book that he will be remembered for best, I guarantee you that.

I feel I’ve mostly just described the plot rather than reviewed the book, but I’ve still left out so much. It’s a hugely intelligent, confusing, conflicting, masterpiece of a novel, and it’s totally worth the time you put into it. Still, if you’re not tempted, there is also a film version that came out a couple of years ago that is similarly masterful, mixing up the stories and further emphasising the reincarnation theme by having the same actors play different roles in the six stories, although often swapping age, sex and even race as they do so. It’s also a book that has shown me that old adage brought real – books will find you when you are ready for them. At seventeen, I wouldn’t’ve got the same things from it. Evidently I didn’t. But this time I found a real beauty about the novel, and I promise you that if you want to, you’ll find it too.