After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Last weekend (31 January) Jonathan Strahan, James Bradley and I got together to discuss Adam Roberts’ superb novel The Thing Itself on the newly launched Coode Street Roundtable. The reason this podcast exists is explained in the episode but suffice it to say it’s given me the excuse to read more novels published this year.
In our discussion of The Thing Itself we noted that part of what makes Roberts such a remarkable writer is his refusal to write the same or similar novel again and again. In fact the only certain thing about Roberts’ work is that he’ll bring a level of erudition and wit to each project. But the subject matter, and more than that the shape and tone of the novel, will change significantly from book to book. This is exciting, but sadly it’s not very commercial and while we were effusive with our praise, there’s this lingering sadness that writers like Roberts aren’t better appreciated and more successful.
This segways neatly into Douglas Lain’s After the Saucers Landed which is precisely the sort of book, while not perfect, that deserves attention simply because it’s not a variant on something we’ve seen before. It’s also the sort of book that may struggle to find a wider audience because, like Roberts’ work it challenges rather than comforts.
Douglas Lain’s After the Saucers Landed is definitely a book that sits firmly in my wheelhouse. Not because it’s deliberately self-aware or because it’s a “post modern” and “post capitalist” take on the UFO phenomena or because it wears its academic and literary influences on its sleeves. It tickles my fancy because it’s like nothing I’ve read before. And given the amount of cookie cutter fiction that’s published on a regular basis, reading a novel that doesn’t give a shit if the reader “gets it” is genuinely exciting and, yes, enjoyable.
The novel’s title is a neat summary of the central conceit. In 1991 UFOs land on the front lawn of the White House. The aliens that emerge are straight out of an old B-Movie, humanoid and dressed in sequined jumpsuits. Even the saucer’s internals look like something that’s been cobbled together on a shoestring budget. The ordinariness of the aliens shatters the beliefs of Ufologist Harold Flint who expected something so much more profound. Flint, who’d written a number of novels about the UFO phenomena (prior to their arrival) and who is dealing with the death of his wife, decides to walk away from his life’s work. But then one day his co-writer, Brian Johnson, brings home a female alien named Asket who asks Harold to return to his investigation into UFO phenomena. While Flint says no he’s steadily drawn into an increasingly paranoid world of missing time, identity swaps and the most banal of invasions.
While the UFO craze hit its straps in the 1950s, it’s never really left us as exhibited by Mulder’s lengthy conspiracy rant during the opening episode of the newly resurrected X-Files. But Lain pokes fun and wonderfully deconstructs the mythology, all those poorly lit rooms hiding coffee stained files of alien infiltration, by having the Pleidiens (the aliens) reflect a nostalgic expectation of the flying saucer phenomena. The cherry on top is that rather than rely on alien probes and men dressed in black, the Pleidiens invade by converting people to their version of New Age enlightenment.
Identity sits front and centre throughout the novel, specifically the fragile nature of human consciousness. Lain cuts the topic in a number of ways, both through the philosophy of Rene Descartes and via hypnosis as Asket details her identity swapping adventures. Lain’s overall thesis might be that we’re losing (or have already lost) our identities to a capitalist / consumerist culture that prides the Real Housewives and the Kardashians over genuine philosophical interrogation. At least that’s the message I took away from the novel.
If I have a problem with After the Saucers Landed it’s that it lacks a human touch. Brian Johnson, our narrator, but not necessarily the protagonist, is a thinly drawn character. There’s a plot reason for this, but it does mean that I found it hard to engage with Johnson’s plight, in particular the disappearance of his wife who may, or may not, have surrendered herself to the Pleidiens. Asket, who follows Johnson for most of the novel, is a far more interesting and developed character – which is ironic given her personality never stays stable for more than twenty pages.
After the Saucers Landed might be described as pretentious by some. There were certainly easter eggs and references scattered throughout the text that I didn’t register until later, such as the antecedent to the name Asket. Other reviewers have noted a level of critical theory embedded in the novel that, if there, went completely over my noggin. But Lain’s mix of philosophy, nostalgia and identity is interesting and exciting because it does require some chewing over, because it doesn’t speak down and because it takes the risky move of avoiding cliché.
I didn’t read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena back in 2013 when it attracted critical hype and was nominated for a National Book Award. Now that I’ve finished Anthony Marra’s second novel, The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories (and it is a novel, inspite of the word “stories” implying otherwise) I’m not only going to go back and read his début but I intend to add Marra to a small but growing list of writers whose work I’ll read on publication.
At first blush the book is a mosaic novel, a suite of interlinked, though self-contained, short stories set In Russia and Chechnya. Aesthetically Marra constructs the book like a cassette tape, with a Side A (featuring four stories, or tracks) and a Side B (also featuring four stories or tracks). In between there’s a bridging story, but I’ll get to that in a second. The four tracks on Side A, beginning with a gut wrenching piece set in 1937 during Stalin’s purges dealing with a “correction artist” whose job it is to paint over and erase those no longer loyal to the Party, are all self-contained. While the subsequent “tracks” on Side A do link briefly to each other through characters and events – all featuring a 19th Century landscape painting that grows increasingly in importance as the book progresses – each one tells a complete story.
Things change though once the cassette is turned over to Side B. First off, there’s a bridging story – the longest piece in the novel – that’s not only a powerful exploration of brotherhood, lost opportunities and the possibility for redemption – but it also reinforces the connection between the first four stories. It’s also the first piece that’s not self contained because as a bridging story is relies on the reader having read Side A to fully appreciate it. That’s the case for all the stories on Side B. While each distinct in terms of perspective and tone, there’s a clear shift in momentum as each piece, like the best type of mix tape, builds on the one before. This all comes together in the penultimate piece, a story that features all the main characters (well, the one’s who are still alive) and has the same effect as the climax of a traditional novel. The final track is more a coda, a beautiful, heartbreaking piece that earns every tear I shed precisely because of what had come before.
In a recent piece on his blog David Hebblethwaite discusses the manipulative nature of fiction, especially in how it evokes an emotional response in the reader. He argues that the better novels are those where the very shape of the narrative, it’s structure and tone, is critical to the story that’s being told. The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories is an example of that type of book. Tell the same story but without the unique structure and you’d have a vastly different and – I would argue – less interesting book. Because while Marra’s insights about Russia of the 1930s and Russia under Putin are disturbing and upsetting, what truly elevates the novel is how each track provides a different flavour, different taste – whether it’s a story about a man obsessed by the photo of a ballerina whom he’s been asked to erase; whether it’s a story about an ex Director of a Museum in Chechnya who now finds himself providing tours to Chinese businessmen; whether it’s a story about an old woman who allows drug dealers to use her house as a place to package their product – which marry together into one magnificent voice. A chorus that bemoans the war in Chechnya, that is horrified at those who suffered in the mines of Siberia, that sheds tears at the thousands of innocent people who were interrogated for alleged disloyalty to the Party and, most importantly of all, finds love and hope and laughter in among it all.