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Salamander by Thomas Wharton (2001, Washington Square Press 2002) – A clever work in the postmodern mode that normally I would enjoy, but I found this a little disappointing. I think it was because the cold surface mechanic was allowed to swamp the emotional story underneath. It is actually a series of tales within tales, some of which work, such as the journey of a fake mechanical man through 18th century China, but others don’t. We open at the siege of Montreal on the evening before the British scale the Heights of Abraham. A French officer comes across the ruin of a bookshop, and settles down to talk to the woman who owned it. She starts telling a story which is our true framing narrative. An eccentric Austro-Hungarian nobleman builds a fantastical castle inside which everything, including walls and fittings, moves by elaborate clockwork. To find your way around this castle you don’t need a map, you need a timetable. To this castle comes an English printer who specialises in producing novelty books, he is commissioned to print an infinite book (Wharton does not wear the influence of Borges at all lightly). As he sets about his task he falls in love with the nobleman’s daughter. The two share just four illicit nights before the nobleman discovers them and imprisons the printer in the bowels of the castle. Years pass, the daughter is delivered of a daughter of her own, who is locked up from birth in a Venetian nunnery. Eventually the old nobleman dies, the girl, now grown to adulthood, escapes the convent and returns to the castle where she releases the printer, her father. The two then set out in a curious ship to sail the world in order to complete the infinite book and at the same time find the printer’s lover who has long since gone missing. The journey takes them by a lunatic route to remote Pacific islands, to China, to Egypt, to the Arctic icefields and finally to London. Along the way they have a series of bizarre adventures, are told even more bizarre tales, and amass the rare Chinese paper, the curious Venetian printing frame, the unique ink that will allow them to print the book. Finally in London they briefly meet again with the printer’s lover, but what should have been the culmination of an epic doomed love affair is treated as if it has no emotional impact whatsoever, and that’s where I fall out with the novel: it is clever but it has no heart.

The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons (2003, Orion) – During the 1960s, while I was growing up, it was a classic period for comedy. I was slightly too young to have anything but a secondhand or belated awareness of the granddaddy of them all, The Goons, but I was very well aware of That Was The Week That Was (in various incarnations) and what seemed like its natural successor, The Frost Report. Such shows started to familiarise me with a particular group of performers: Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett and John Cleese who did the classic three classes sketches on the Frost programme, for instance; and others like Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Michael Palin and so on. Some of these names and others started to crop up in less satirical, more surreal shows such as At Last The 1948 Show, Do Not Adjust Your Set, and, on radio, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again (I still find myself singing the Angus Prune Tune at regular intervals, and can quote lines from the show – ‘They came upon a man-eating tiger. Hmm, tasty.’ – after getting on for 40 years). Then, in 1969, the funniest members of the 1948 Show team and the funniest members of the Do Not Adjust Your Set team got together for a new show, which I remember going out fairly late at night and with little fanfare. Fortunately, as an obnoxious teenager I pretty well had control of what we watched in our house, and despite constant expressions of bemusement and dislike from my parents I religiously watched every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. For years after, particularly once I got into fandom, I kept encountering people who could (and would) recite entire Monty Python sketches at every conceivable occasion. Let’s face it, even when done for the 20th time by a distinctly inebriated John Jarrold, the Dead Parrot Sketch is still funny. This ‘autobiography’ (an inordinately heavy coffee-table book with loads of photographs) has been constructed from what appear to have been long interviews with the different members of the team (including extracts from previously published material by Graham Chapman along with interviews with his lover, David Sherlock, and his brother and sister-in-law), none of whom seem to have been aware of what any of the others were saying. These have then been spliced together to form a more-or-less chronological account of the period from University to The Meaning of Life. It’s odd how many of them seem to have been the one who finally came up with the name Monty Python, and how often key incidents are recalled very differently, sometimes apparently taking place in different countries. Some of the things we were aware of vaguely, or learned a little about later, such as Chapman’s alcoholism and the near open warfare between Cleese and Jones, become much clearer here. In fact as a joint biography the book works extraordinarily well, and feels a lot deeper and more honest that such efforts usually are. At the end of the day I found that Eric Idle, the Python I had always liked least, was the one I had most respect for.

Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001) and Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster, 2004) – These two books resonate off each other interestingly. The Hajdu is subtitled: ‘The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina’ and basically covers their rise to fame from Joan Baez’s first performances in Cambridge to Richard Farina’s death in a motorcycle accident on the day his novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, was published, a fairly intense period of little more than seven years. None of the four come across particularly well. Baez is seen to be ruthless in her pursuit of fame right from the start; Dylan at first seems a pleasant innocent, but as his own fame grows he seems even more ruthlessly unpleasant than Baez; Mimi Farina is a rather colourless child shaped by those around her rather than her own will; while Richard Farina is a lier and a fantasist who somehow became more charming and attractive the closer he came to achieving his ambition of getting a book published. Although the book doesn’t venture into the period when I really got into the music of both Baez and Dylan, it is still a nostalgia-fest for that long forgotten period when folk music somehow seemed to collide with politics and with rock and roll. There are some fascinating little asides in here, too, such as the fact that the best man at the marriage of Richard and Mimi Farina was Thomas Pynchon. Much of Dylan’s book overlaps with the early part of the Hajdu (the construction of this book does not follow a chronological pattern, after two opening chapters centred on the time Dylan arrived in New York in 1961 the story shifts to the period of ‘New Morning’ at the end of the decade, then shifts again to the recording of ‘Oh Mercy’ in the mid-80s, before dropping back to 1961; whether subsequent volumes will allow us to construct a single coherent narrative I rather doubt). I am mystified by the number of people who have rated this as one of their books of the year; it is far better written than most of the other attempts at prose I’ve seen from Dylan, but it is no masterpiece. And comparing it with the Hajdu, you get the impression that Dylan is no more telling the full truth here than he has in any of his other accounts of hife, while at the same time it looks like Hajdu is misinterpreting Dylan’s behaviour in the worst light possible. Dylan is very much in control of what he reveals about himself, but at the same time there is a suggestion undercutting the story that I think is not put there consciously. Time and again you get the impression that Dylan becomes bored or unhappy with his life and so reinvents himself, but then becomes unhappy that others expect him to conform to his new character and runs away to reinvent himself again. This sense of flight from what he is making of himself, an oft-repeated quest for a ‘freedom’ that he never seems able to identify, is a motif that recurs throughout the book but is nowhere explicit.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon (4th Estate, 2004) – Chabon has become restless with genre. Having moved significantly towards genre with Kavalier and Clay, he has since relentlessly moved from genre to genre. Having tried fantasy with Summerland and alternate history with the story that began in McSweeney’s and which is apparently due to be his next novel, this novella plays with the detective story. It is not, however, a straightforward engagement with the genre, even though he goes back to its most iconic figure. The central character in this rather charming story is an unnamed Sherlock Holmes, but it is an 89-year-old Holmes who has, for 40 years, tended his bees in Sussex, a Holmes who lives alone, receives no visitors, and worries more than anything about the debilitations of his great age. It is 1944, the war is on, and outside his home on the Sussex Downs the retired detective meets a small boy who does not speak, but who bears a parrot which repeats sequences of numbers in German. Then a man is killed, the parrot disappears, and Holmes reluctantly finds himself drawn into the investigation; though what interests him most is not the murder but the disappearance of the parrot. The puzzle is slight, and the mystery of the numbers, which relates to train numbers heading for Auschwitz, remains unsolved (we can guess the answer only from a chapter daringly told from the point of view of the parrot), but Chabon plays fair with the detective element even if it is clear his interest lies more with the characters than their stories. In fact the only thing that niggled in an otherwise delightful work was the constant mention of zips when I’m sure most clothing would have been buttoned.

The Whalestoe Letters by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon, 2000) – As I said repeatedly at the time, Mark Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves was one of the most dazzling works of fiction of the last decade. In a book full of invention, typographical play, cross-references and general weirdness, one of the things that stood out was an appendix devoted to a sequence of letters from the hero’s mother sent (or at least written) during her final years in an insane asylum. Reminiscent, in an odd way, of Flowers for Algernon, the way these letters charted the breakdown of her mind was one of the most touching and humane things I have read for a long time. Danielewski has also abstracted those letters from the novel, added a handful more and some other material, bulking the whole thing out to form this short book. While I suspect they would not mean a thing to anyone who was not already a devotee of House of Leaves, they do work surprisingly well on their own. Tragic, bitter and comic all at once, the sense of watching a real mind fall apart with suspicions and confusions is uncomfortable and moving. The existence of this slim volume suggests that Danielewski may not be able to move away from House of Leaves, at least for some time; nevertheless, it also demonstrates what a genuine talent he has.

First published at Livejournal, 29 December 2004.