Apr 26

The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge

There are times when Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean reads like a very well written article for a fanzine. The novels numerous forays into the personal lives and political attitudes of the Futurians, the gossip surrounding Lovecraft’s sexuality and the speculation around Richard Barlow’s suicide are obsessively researched and replete with multiple footnotes. Taken like this it’s the sort of book that would sit comfortably in the Best Related Work category of the Hugo Awards. Except, of course, The Night Ocean is so much more than that. What starts as an investigation into whether Lovecraft was gay becomes an intriguing discourse in revisionist history. By the sheer coincidence of being published in a post-fact world of fake news and tribal epistemology, LaFarge’s nested story-telling and unreliable narration has resonance beyond the novel’s subject matter.

Our primary narrator for the course of the book is Marina Willet, a psychiatrist who is coming to terms with the disappearance, or suicide, of Charlie her husband. Charlie made a career from profiling the lives of people who might have been famous if not for a flaw in their character or fate playing them a rough hand. His search for subjects leads him to the story of Robert Barlow* and the speculation and gossip that Barlow, in the summer of 1934, had an affair with H. P. Lovecraft. Barlow, who co-wrote The Night Ocean with Lovecraft and was known (at least at the time) for his expertise in Mexican culture, sadly took his own life after being blackmailed for his homosexuality. Or did he? Because it would appear that Charlie has found Barlow living in Canada under the assumed name of L. C. Spinks.

Ostensibly Willet is attempting to come to terms / understand why her husband vanished. However her narration never focuses on that one subject but rather shifts, constantly, making the reader wonder whether this is a book about –
• Lovecraft’s secret gay love affairs?… or,
• A man who escaped to Mexico to free himself of the salacious gossip, innuendo and hate only to fake his death when Mexico wasn’t far enough?… or
• A journalist whose unwillingness to question the veracity of the story he’s uncovered sets him up for a fall?… or
• A plaintive cry for attention from an old man?

– and that’s without mentioning LaFarge’s take on the Futurians – Pohl, Kornbluth, Wollheim and especially Doris Piserchia – or brief but lovely guest appearances from S. T. Joshi and a young Ursula K Le Guin. This lack of focus though plays to the novel’s themes about how historical truth is only as good as the memories of those relating the past. Like the reader Willet is piecing together what’s true, what’s a lie and what’s irrelevant in real time. It makes for an exciting, slightly insane, but always fascinating journey.

As clever as the novel is, its true strength isn’t its Russian doll structure but how almost hidden amongst the fact (and fiction) about these people who formed the bedrock of science fiction and dark fantasy, LaFarge is chipping away at a story of loneliness and unrequited love, of a desire to be noticed, to be significant, to leave a legacy of sorts, even if it’s a tissue of half-truths and lies. I don’t want to say much more – I know, I know, it’s a poor effort when a reviewer does a runner before getting his hands bloody with the innards of a novel – but in this instance the joy is unpeeling the novel’s many layers. While it might not always seems clear for all the footnotes and factoids, The Night Ocean is always leading the reader to a specific end-point, one that’s revelatory and shattering and like all good fiction exposes our human frailties.

* I’ll be honest here and say that I thought Barlow was a fiction of the novel. And in a sense he is… but in a more concrete sense he was a real person and much of what’s related in the book about his life is true… except for the important bits that aren’t.

Apr 20

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel

Daniel Magariel’s debut novel*, One of the Boys, is not a happy clappy book. It features child abuse (physical, rather than sexual), drug addiction and parental betrayal. It’s grim, confronting and tragic. If escapist fiction lives on one side of the spectrum than One of the Boys owns a hovel on the opposite end of spectrum-town. As dark as this book it avoids becoming misery porn by providing a raw but compassionate portrayal of a man, a father, in decline.

Following a bitter divorce a father – no character is named – decides to take custody (legal or otherwise) of his two teenage sons. Leaving Kansas they drive, almost non-stop, to Albuquerque. If the father is to be believed this mad rush embodies a desire to press a reset button on their lives without the interference of their weak-willed mother. On arrival in Albuquerque the boys go to the local public school, make friends and show off their prodigious basketball talents. Dad, on the other hand, never seems to leave the house or for that matter his room. He says it’s because he’s taking care of an important client but his moods – manic and joyous, dark and violent – tell another story.

A clear focus of the novel is how the brothers deal with their father’s mood and increasing paranoia. It’s harrowing stuff, especially when the father attempts to turn the brothers against each other. But as much as this is a book about survival in impossible circumstances, it’s also about a son trying to understand why and how his father became this drug addicted, violent, woman-hating human being. The novel generates it’s power and depth not from scenes of horrible abuse – though they are certainly present and difficult to read – but by refusing to cast the father – and to a lesser extent the mother – as villains. The picture that is ultimately drawn with great care by Magariel is of a man who dearly loves his children but whose love has been twisted and distorted by the burden of responsibility and drugs. This is evidenced in the father’s misguided attempts to justify his actions and engender loyalty in his youngest boy:

“You were my decision,” he started. “Did you know that? Your brother was an accident. He wasn’t planned like you. To be honest I didn’t even want him. I should have guessed how he’d turn out. But as soon as he was born, I knew we needed a second child.” He looked up at me. “Do you understand what I’m driving at? You wouldn’t exist without me. I thought you up. Trippy, right? Far out. That’s what bonds us together. That’s the glue, boy. Some cultures might even believe that you owe me your life, wouldn’t you say?””

More than the physical abuse it’s moments like these that I found the most gut-wrenching.

Thematically this is a novel that questions whether some people are not suited to be parents, highlights the toxic nature of certain types of masculinity and reinforces our view that society needs a better way of dealing with drug addiction. But for me One of the Boys derives its power and depth from its honest exploration of corrupted parental love that never points a finger of blame.

* It’s technically a novella but who am I to quibble over a few thousand words.

Apr 18

A Natural by Ross Raisin

I remember having doubts about Stephen King’s long essay, “Head Down”, the penultimate story in his 1993 collection Nightmare & Dreamscapes. The piece, which was originally published in the New Yorker, chronicles the 1989 Little League baseball season for Owen King’s team, Bangor West. Surprisingly, it happens to be the most compelling work in the entire collection as King adroitly combines the rats and mice of baseball with a funny and heartfelt profile of a group of young boys struggling with the troughs and peaks of competitive sport.

At the time I decided two things (a) Stephen King has the writerly chops to make any subject fascinating and (b) baseball, while a sport that rivals cricket in the boredom stakes,* lends itself to high drama as evidenced by the following classics of cinema – “Field of Dreams”, “Bull Durham”, “A League of Their Own”, “Major League”, “Moneyball”, that George Herman Ruth biopic where John Goodman played the eponymous “Babe” and “The Natural.” In comparison American Football has “Remember the Titans” and not much else, and the less said about basketball or ice hockey films the better.**

Coincidentally Ross Raisin’s third novel is titled A Natural. It has nothing to do with baseball but if you follow the same critics I do then you’ll have seen a great deal of hype for the book earlier in the year. To say it’s been well reviewed would be like saying that Donald Trump sometimes uses Twitter inappropriately. All the plaudits and backslaps are well deserved because A Natural proves wrong my second assumption, that when it comes to sports and great story-telling baseball has a monopoly. The novel, which is all about soccer – a pastime I couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about… well, unless it’s Australia playing in the World Cup – is as enthralling as Stephen King’s “Head Down”, except in the case of Raisin’s book it’s 100,000 words longer, deals with the professional side of the sport (not Little League) and happens to be fiction.

The main focus of Ross Raisin’s novel is Tom, a 19 year-old who, when the book opens, has just been released from his contact with a local Premier League club. This is a body blow for the young man who always believed he was bound for the English Premier League. Tom is forced to move to a town he’s never heard of, hundreds of miles away from his family, to play for a Division Two team. The club – aptly named “The Town” – is coached by an arsehole, is comprised of a mix of also rans and coulda beens and is facing relegation after an awful start to the season. With the coach unwilling to give Tom game-time, he starts to doubt his ability. In addition he fears the day when a long-held secret becomes known.

While the novel starts with Tom, and while most of the page count is devoted to his ongoing challenge of trying to fit into his new environment while also being true to himself, A Natural isn’t just Tom’s story. Raisin also focuses on the team’s Captain, Chris, a bitter man, who like Tom nearly reached the big-leagues, but was never good enough, and who spends his free time surfing online forums (Raisin nails these forums… sometimes it felt like I was reading about my Aussie Rules football club). More importantly, we also get the perspective from the Captain’s wife, Leah, who worries about her recalcitrant husband – especially after he suffers a horrible injury – while also juggling a toddler and thoughts of a career in textile design.

I was aware of Tom’s secret before I read the novel and it didn’t impact on my enjoyment. This is a book that expertly explores the pressures that come with the expectation of others while also deconstructing the blokey world of professional male sports. Raisin clearly has a deep love for football, and his descriptions of play, especially for a hater like me, were lovingly realised. But he’s also aware that masculinity, mixed with disillusionment and cynicism and a fear that you’ll end your career as a footnote in the history of a club that no-one has heard of, creates an environment where prejudice and insularity – euphemistically described as closing ranks – can destroy a person.

I often see a divide between people who read and enjoy books and people who are passionate about sport. But as Raisin and Stephen King highlight this binary is false. The competitive nature of sport and the personalities involved drive the narrative as much as any literary or genre novel. It’s even possible for a person who is ambivalent or hates a particular game to, for a brief moment, suspend their judgement and become as fanatical as the supporters screaming from the stands. That’s the atmosphere Raisin creates in this superb novel. I’ll be stunned if A Natural isn’t long-listed for the Man Booker.

* And I say that as a cricket tragic who will happily watch all five days of a Test series.

** I am clearly trolling here: The Waterboy is a fantastic film unfairly shunned by the Academy.***

*** Also, please note that as an Australian the only sports I’m referring to are those played by Americans. Because other than “Bodyline” and “The Club” (which came out in 1980… my God, I feel old) you ain’t gonna find many films about cricket or Aussie Rules.

Apr 17

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

In Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West doors begin to appear across the planet connecting countries around the world. Whether the actions of a cheeky God, or the activation of a network of wormholes, Hamid never provides a reason as to why these doors exist. They simply do. For the alt-right supporter or ethno-nationalist, who for sado-masochistic reasons is reading a book by Mohsin Hamid, this premise is a nightmare scenario. How do you defend national borders when a magic door can abruptly appear in someone’s living room? But for those of us who are sympathetic to migrants and especially refugees fleeing violence and persecution, just like our two protagonists Nadia and Saeed, Exit West is a bitter-sweet but ultimately optimistic novel about the inevitability of change.

Initially, Nadia and Saeed don’t want to leave their home. They’ve just met, discovering a commonality in the fact that they are two very different people – Nadia independent and agnostic, Saeed thoughtful and religious. But as their unnamed Middle Eastern country tips into all out civil war they recognise that running away is a matter of survival. Cue those magic doors.

Hamid’s Narnia inspired McGuffins are an agent of change (or chaos for our alt-right readers). For all the recent anti-globalist talk which has less to do with people and more to do with the greedy elite*, Hamid argues that whether we like it or not technology and progress has tied us together. Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation in the 90s that history was done and dusted is dismissed together with whatever purity we associate with our own cultures. There’s no need to worry about Caliphates because as Hamid shows we’ve passed the point where any mono-culture will be able to stand alone.

If that all sounds a bit dry, fear not. Hamid’s writing is lovely and accessible, the relationship between Nadia and Saeed is portrayed with depth and realism and the novel is elevated by these lovely vignettes scattered throughout as people across the world consider and experiment and deal with the doors. The most profound observation in the novel comes from one of these brief side-steps. We are introduced to a woman who has lived her entire life in California and is ruminating about the changing nature of her neighborhood. How once she had known the names of everyone on her street but how over time, as people sold their homes, as people died, as new people moved in she found herself to be a foreigner in her own suburb:

When she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it.

We are all migrants through time.

*AKA the (((greedy elite))).

Apr 14

From the Wreck by Jane Rawson

If the world was fair and just Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck would win numerous awards, both literary and genre. Not that shiny trophies are the arbiter of great fiction, but they do draw attention to the nominees and this a novel that’s worthy of the hype and buzz regularly applied to lesser works. From the Wreck is an extraordinary piece of writing, in the way it blends genres, in the way its ambitions are matched by sublime prose, in the way it explores and questions life in all its varied states.

At first From the Wreck reads like a traditional historical novel. George Hills, a steward on the steamship Admella, is one of a handful of survivors when the hapless boat sinks off the South Australian coast in 1859*. A second survivor, who plays a significant hand in keeping George alive while they’re lost at sea for eight days, is Bridget Ledwith**. Years later and George who is married with children is haunted by what he and Bridget did to survive (which given they had no food or water should have been impossible). Bridget vanishes soon after reaching shore and George spends his free time trying to find her, hoping she will explain his fractured memories of those eight days at sea.

I’d rather not mention the primary genre element – though for your own safety KEEP AWAY FROM THE BLURB – not because it’s a twist, it’s introduced in the second chapter, but because the novel’s lens, so focussed on this one tragic sinking, abruptly widens its gaze, reminiscent of that famous final shot of “Men In Black” as the camera zooms out, in all its CGI glory, from a street on Earth to the Universe at large. And that abrupt shift generates a giddy sensation, an indication that this intimate story about a man dealing with post traumatic stress is something so much stranger and transcendent.

While the novel is always wonderful, it somehow finds another gear when Rawson’s discussion of the natural world bleeds into a meditation on mortality and the bounty of life. George’s son, Henry, is endlessly fascinated with the skeletons of dead animals, a collection of which he keeps hidden in the house. This fascination with death isn’t expressed in a dark or creepy manner, but as something complex and layered – inevitable and joyful and frightening and numinous. Or as Rawson beautifully puts it:

[Henry] plunged into the swarming ocean, felt its wriggling abundance. […] Henry felt his place in it – just to be this boy and never wonder why or who or how to be better, braver, otherwise. Just to be and to love. To notice it fresh every day. Not to fear it leaving; to know it always was and always will be, and that when this body stops and rots and makes itself food that still it will all go on just like this, just like always. Tiny tragedies, tiny triumphs and none of it meaning a thing against the great still monstrousness of forever and always. This always ocean, this always world, these always stars, this stretching, boundless, eternal universe. This quiet space.

The ease in which Rawson articulates complex thoughts around mortality and eternity, the way she seamlessly slides the narrative between historical and science fiction and how her characters – especially George – are as complex and flawed and brilliant as the themes Rawson’s tackling is, simply put, a master-class of storytelling.

I’m not saying that reading From The Wreck was a spiritual experience – because there’s only so much hype and I can slather on one book. But I truly doubt I’m going to read anything this year that as rich and deep and intelligent as this tremendous novel. And if I do it will be one helluva year.

* There was an Admella. It did sink in 1859. Of the 113 on the ship 24 survived.

** Also a real person and the only woman to survive the wreck. She even wrote a book about it.

Apr 13

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

The praise for Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut novel Amberlough has been voluminous. Out of 200 ratings on Goodreads it has an average score of 4.11 out of 5, which is better than a kick in the teeth.* One of my favourite bookish sites, “Literary Hub”, marked it out as one of February’s great novels you might have missed, quoting from Holly Black who described Amberlough as “James Bond by the way of Oscar Wilde.” When one of my mates asked on his Facebook feed what books were generating buzz and hype Amberlough was the clear winner. This is a book that people clearly love, a book that is likely to feature heavily on award ballots next year, a book that was initially meant to be standalone but has now spawned a trilogy.

Of course, I didn’t finish it.

I put Amberlough down around the halfway mark (shortly after Cyril and Cordelia attend a party, for those interested). I felt guilty doing so, partly because I always feel guilty when I don’t finish a novel – well, with the exception of that awful shit nominated for genre awards a couple of years back – and partly because I genuinely wanted to enjoy this book. Yes, the James Bond / Oscar Wilde comparison is pure hyperbole, but even so a work described as the first gay fantasy spy novel should have been in my bailiwick. Instead I found it tedious.

I didn’t mind the setting – Amberlough is essentially Paris before the Nazis. And initially I thought the prose was strong, like the neat use of “freckled” in this sentence: “An early spring storm freckled the bedroom window with rain”.

But, the characters…

The worst offender is Cyril DePaul. He’s meant to be a master-spy and yet he’s utterly incompetent. His last mission went ball-ups (which is why he now has a desk-job, even if it’s as division head). He’s fallen in love with a man who he’s meant to be keeping an eye on – that would be Aristide Makricosta, Amberlough’s foremost smuggler (and emcee at the Bumble Bee Cabaret) and when his boss decides to send him on a mission to infiltrate the One State Party (a fascist group on the rise) his cover is blown almost immediately. To be fair this might have something to do with a mole in his department… but then again this would be a department that he’s a division head of. Cyril then spends the rest of the novel – OK, the chunk I read – struggling with his guilt now that he’s become a double agent for the OSP (annoyingly referred to as the Ospies). It’s extremely hard to take Cyril seriously. If I was being charitable I’d say that Donnelly was subverting the cliché of the competent super-spy, but there’s something so clueless and banal about Cyril that if it is a parody it’s one that undermines the reality of the novel.

The other main characters like Aristide and Cordelia Lehane are non-events in as much as their character development is limited. To be fair to Cordelia, of the near half of the book that I read she gets little screen-time (something I’m sure would have increased if I’d kept going). But that’s another problem with Amberlough. For a novel purporting to be a spy-thriller, the plot meanders. The first quarter is spent setting up the setting and the political situation – that’s fine – but in amongst this we have Cyril preparing for his mission, which ends in failure and pages and pages of the politics and sexual shenanigans at the Bumble Bee – which I admit for some will be a thrill but for me was a yawn-fest. Maybe the novel needed to begin with Cyril already a turncoat (though not necessarily revealed to the reader). I don’t know. All I can say is that poor characterisation coupled with ponderous pacing and my attention drifted to the point that I found the book a chore.

All that said I probably would have kept reading if I’d not read an article on Literary Hub entitled, How Many Books Will You read Before You Die. I found the answer so disturbing that Amberlough became the first casualty of my Stop Reading Because Life Is Too Short policy. I would be interested though to hear from people who loved the novel. I warn you though, I won’t accept the argument that the book gets good after the halfway mark.

* The rating on Amazon is 4.9 but with only 44 ratings. Still not a bad effort.

Apr 07

Down The Hume by Peter Polites

I stumbled across Peter Polites Down The Hume in an article published in (I think*) The Guardian discussing the new wave of Australian noir. Because I’ve always been interested in noir and because I was neck-deep in the sub-genre during January / February for a forthcoming episode of Shooting the Poo I decided to give this new generation of Aussie noir a fair dinkum chance with Peter Polites début novel as my go to book.

Set in Western Sydney, Polites introduces us to Bux a gay man and second generation Greek who is addicted to pain medication, namely a drug called Syrinapx**. Working as a nurse in an old age home Bux’s favourite patient is Bruno, an Italian man, who Bux suspects to be gay. Bux’s main squeeze is No Arms Pete, a muscle-man who gets his rocks off from choking and punching Bux while they’re fooling around (To be fair, I didn’t get the impression that Bux had a problem with this). Possibly as a result of the opiates or an unhappy family life – Bux’s father barely recognises his son’s existence – Bux’s paranoia and obsession with his violent boyfriend slowly, but inevitably spin out of control.

There’s allot to like about this novel, especially in how it presents gay culture, the West of Sydney and what it is to be the son of migrants, especially when you also happen to be gay. I appreciated the smattering of Greek throughout the novel, *** often without translation (Marvin has a helpful link to Google Translate, an ebook reader I can heartily recommend). It’s also illustrative of the two worlds that Bux is struggling to come to terms with, his needs and desire as a gay man and the expectation that he settle down with a nice Greek girl.

Typical of good noir, the novel really sings when it describes Bux’s landscape. While I’ve never visited Sydney’s west, Polites evocative descriptions of this inner-suburban setting neatly overlays on places I frequent in Melbourne, whether it be Fitzroy or Carlton or Richmond. For example, Polites almost heart-felt tour through Belmore could easily apply to Brunswick in Melbourne:

My Belmore had three or four takeaway food places. Some sold chicken and chips, those corner-shop hamburgers where they grilled the bread, a kebab shop with a sugary chilli sauce. Chinese. Greeks. Turks. Freshies, broken English shop owners who’d change the prices on you depending on their mood. My Belmore had gambling dens. Places that pretended to be coffee shops. First-wave Greek immigrants ran them. They were above the shops on the main drag. A narrow carpeted staircase up to a room with some tables in it. A gas stove for the briki. Packets of sunflower seeds, walnuts and almonds on plates. Posters of eighties pinups with thick blonde perms, high-cut leotards. Scrunched-up leg warmers against oiled limbs. Legs and arms slimy with an orange tan. The old men inside were slimy too, a different kind of shine. One that sweated too much. Greasy thick foreheads. Smoke floating around Brylcreem and fisherman’s caps.

That’s not to say that Polites setting is a cookie-cutter rendition, but that Bux’s sharp and keen insights of the world he inhabits resonate because they are familiar.

Where the novel is less successful is in its tone of voice. As an Aussie I can appreciate some ocker in my fiction, but Bux – and Polites – take things about eighty steps too far. Maybe it’s cultural cringe on my part, maybe if I was more in tune with my own lingo I’d be more accepting, and maybe I should be thankful that Polites is willing to embrace language in a manner that distinguishes the book from traditional literary noir… but there are times when it all gets a bit indulgent. You can make up your own mind:

I used to work on the pokies. Deros and reffos would put a dollar in the Emerald Oriental Bride machine. Ask for free Pepsi and coffees. I’d never talk, only fake smile and ask them, ‘What can I get for you?’

We had homos come in sometimes. Around Christmas and New Year’s, the poofs who came good came home. They wore thin blue polos tucked into tight beige chino shorts with braided patent belts so shiny you’d think the leather was sweating. Their families dared them to drink VB. They came to the bar heroically.

While Polites nails that aspect of noir that focuses on setting and sense of place, he’s less adept in regard to plotting and pacing. To be fair Bux’s self-destructive qualities, another important aspect of literary noir, are there in abundance. But so much of the noirish bits happen off-screen that it’s hard to view Bux as a victim of a con perpetrated by his boyfriend. In fact, with all the stalking and spying Bux commits in regard to No-Arms Pete you’d think he’d have figured out what was actually going on and how it linked back to the man Bux is caring for, that is Bruno and his wealthy estate.

Still there’s more than enough to like here that I’ll certainly be looking our for more work by Peter Polites, noirish or otherwise.

* It’s possible I imagined this article because I can find it on the interwebs.

** Drug does not exist in the real world according to my pharmacist wife.

*** Even if the Greek is poorly written (according to comments on my Facebook page).

Mar 28

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan is a novella that mixes together Lovecraft’s mythos with men in black suits and Area 51 (the Dreamland of the title). In one sense the novella feels like a throwback to the 90s when the X-Files was popular and every second slice of pop culture had something to do with the Illuminati, the masons, deep state conspiracies or the dreaded, unknowable greys. But Agents of Dreamland is not a journey into nostalgia or a satire on some well-worn tropes. It might be influenced or inspired by those ideas but it’s very much it’s own thing.

The novella opens by introducing us to the Signalman, your typical Government special agent, a seasoned campaigner who has seen it all, has a liver fermenting in alcohol and is close to either blowing his brains out or disappearing into the desert. He’s anxiously waiting in an Arizona diner for his contact. If we pause things at this point inspite the superior prose there’s a familiarity to both the character and the setting. And then in enters Immacolata Sexton, the woman the Signalman has been waiting for, and almost immediately the tension amps up and the familiarity of the scene takes on an unexpected and darker shade.

I’m going to leave things there partly because who reads plot summaries anyway – you’re interested in my thoughts on the novella, not my witty recap – but mostly because one of the great enjoyments of this very smart, sometimes gory story is piecing together what exactly is going on. Kiernan doesn’t make it easy, there’s a deliberate avoidance of exposition, but all the pieces are present. Let’s just say that the outlook for the human species aint great. Also you might never eat a mushroom again.

With a prose style that seamlessly moves from weary noir, to hallucinatory lyricism, to visceral horror this is high quality, literary story-telling that doesn’t spoon-feed, that’s anything but escapist. I’m always impressed at how Kiernan, with an economy of words, blows your mind and punches you in the gut and leaves you wanting more. Another fantastic novella from tor.com.

Mar 23

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami is a collection of three novelettes which, according to the back cover blurb, won the Akutagaw Prize in 1996. This is their first translation and publication in English by the wonderful Pushkin Press who continue to bring fascinating, offbeat translated work to the public.

The opening piece, which provides the book with its title, is surreal and experimental and yet utterly accessible. The story has the most eye-catching of openings:

What was that itch on my back? I wondered. And that it was the night – the night was nibbling into me.

It wasn’t that late, still only twilight, but the darkness seemed to have collected just above my shoulders. A black clump of it had fastened onto me, eating away at my back.

Four hundred words later and our point of view character has transformed into a horse – as you do. And yet on the following page the protagonist is walking with a crowd of people, swept along with the flow where she will meet a girl, heading in the same direction, and a singer who happens to be three stories tall. Is this narrator the same person who became the horse? Is that a question I ever imagined asking myself? The novelette is broken up into 19 sub-sections, each with a single word title – Newt, Lion, Chaos – and while some of these vignettes do (sort of) connect it’s better to treat them as individual slices of beautiful surrealism. Like our narrator(s) the reader is far better off being swept along with the rest of the crowd than attempting to parse any deeper mysteries. And Kawakami, superbly translated by Lucy North, allows you to fall deep into her eccentric world. The writing is evocative and beautiful and, importantly, uncomplicated. If I was someone who had time to re-read I would quite happily jump in and out of these strange vignettes.

The remaining two stories – ‘Missing’ and ‘A Snake Stepped On’ – are more straightforward in that they both have a single narrator and a clear beginning, middle and end. But they still maintain that lovely and lyrical surrealist tone. In the magnificent “Missing” my favourite piece in the book, a family must deal with the disappearance of their eldest son, who has literally vanished into thin air. His sudden absence is an inconvenience, rather than a horrible perversion of the laws of nature, because he was about to be married off and now the family need to train-up the second son so he’s capable of whispering sweet nothings into the ear of the intended. The story is tremendously funny – and a tad discomfiting… the eldest son does pop up now and again (and can only be seen by his sister) – as Kawakami pokes fun at family customs and traditions.

In the uncomfortable “A Snake Stepped On” a woman steps on a snake which then promptly moves into the woman’s house pretending to be her mother. This is not a unique occurrence. There seems to be a preponderance of snakes, masquerading as people’s relatives or their wives (the snakes seem mostly to be female). This is not a story for those who are bothered by slithery reptiles. Take this excerpt:

Suddenly, without a sound, the drawer of the gold-latched cabinet slid open, and from it dozens of little snakes came slithering out. Each glided across the floor to the priest’s wife, who picked them up one by one, and deposited them into the bosom of her kimono. A moist, warm breeze was blowing all around the temple. When she’d stowed all the snakes away, the priest’s wife slid smoothly over the floor, going first to Mr Kosuga. She wrapped herself around him, and gave his head a lick. Then she came and did the same to me.

It’s ick, but it’s a wonderful and giddy sort of ick.

I know surrealism isn’t for everyone, but in doses this small, with a tone that is tongue planted in cheek, but also honest and a tad disturbing, it makes for a delightful departure from genre novels that sometimes take themselves too seriously and literary novels that revel in misery.* I look forward to reading more of Kawakami’s work.

*hashtag – not all literary novels

Mar 22

The Intrusions by Stav Sherez

I can’t remember the last time I read a book as genuinely twisty-turny and as gripping as The Intrusions by Stav Sherez.

It’s the third novel in the crime fighting adventures of Detectives Jack Carrigan and Geneva Miller but don’t let that put you off. Yes this book references events from the previous books, specifically an internal investigation into whether Carrigan broke the law when investigating a case involving the Catholic Church, but Sherez – with much skill and only a smidgen of exposition – contextualizes everything so you never feel out of the loop.

The crime that’s front and centre at first has a familiar serial killer vibe until it becomes an episode of Black Mirror (“Shut up and Dance” if you want specifics). It’s a generalisation to say that novels, TV and films that deal with the internet, social media and throw around insidious terms like The Dark Web and Ratting paint the new digital age as the coming of the anti-christ. And while hacking is an actual thing, and while – as recently illustrated – other countries can manipulate the elections of first world countries without ever leaving home, rather than panic and forecast doom Sherez treats this as the new reality.

The Intrusions, for all its brilliant pacing and wonderful character work – I do love Miller and Carrigan – is one of the more mature novels I’ve read about the current digital age. It’s dangers, its undermining of people’s privacy and the murky ground that law enforcement finds itself in as it battles these issues. It’s not a positive portrayal, but it’s also not ill-informed or sensationalist. The book is worth reading just for that.

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