Another catch-up.Fascination by William Boyd (Hamish Hamilton, 2004). I’m a great fan of Boyd’s novels, to the extent that I’ll read everything he does, but I’m generally less enthused by his short fiction. There are some superb stories in this collection; ‘A Haunting’ tells the story of a successful garden designer whose mental disintegration and eventual recovery is intimately connected to a theory of wave motion concocted by a long-forgotten 19th-century Scottish engineer; ‘The Mind/Body Problem’ is the story of a weedy youth whose parents are champion body-builders; while the best of the bunch is ‘The Ghost of a Bird’ about a psychiatrist and the final days of his patient, a young war victim, whose fractured memories seem to be reconstructing a work of fiction. This last is so good that you wish Boyd would expand it into a novel at some point. But these stories, and the others which work best in this collection, like ‘Varengeville’ and ‘The Pigeon’, are the most traditionally constructed. Boyd tends not to go in for structural experimentation in his novels (Any Human Heart is a fairly mild exception), his strengths are in story telling and character building, and his work is best when you are not being forced to look at how it is written. But in several of these stories he has decided to play with structure. ‘Adult Video’, which opens the collection, is made up of fairly short paragraphs headed with titles like Play or FastForward or Rewind or Pause; to be honest they add nothing to the tale and could be dropped without us noticing any difference. ‘Notebook No.9’ is a series of jottings a failed film maker makes, usually over lunch; again the structure adds nothing to the story. Lunch seems to be something of an obsession with Boyd, there’s another story here called simply ‘Lunch’, in which the fall from grace of a high flyer is annotated by the date, location, company and menu for a series of lunches; this is one of those stories which seems to exist purely for its structure, as does ‘Beulah Berlin, an A-Z’, which is pretty self-explanatory even if Boyd really does have to stretch to force his heroine’s life into an alphabetical order. There seems little point in these stylistic experiments, they don’t seem to be Boyd’s natural style, and they mostly don’t work, all they do is turn a fairly good collection into something that appears below par.
The Professor’s House by Willa Cather (1925, Virago 2003) – otherwise known as PK trying to keep up to date with whatever the hell Maureen is doing at university. I’ve never read anything by Cather before; on the strength of this I wouldn’t necessarily seek her out again, but I wouldn’t really be averse to doing so. It is a very transparent work, you can see the author’s plans all the way through, so that in the end it is a work that succeeds, for me, on its ideas more than its literary qualities. It’s about how safe the past is and how unpleasant the future, it’s about the corrupting effects of modern business versus the cultured champions of the old ways. The professor has just become rich due to the unexpected success of his multi-volume work on the early Spanish in America, but though he has bought a big new house on the proceeds, he still prefers to write in the attic of the old house. Meanwhile one of his daughters and her go-getting businessman husband (possibly Jewish?) have become rich on the commercial exploitation of a scientific invention by Tom Outland, who was the Professor’s protege but who was killed in the First World War. The implication is clear that the daughter and her husband have been spoilt by their new wealth, especially when they refuse to help the professor’s other daughter, and also the old and sick physics professor who worked with Outland on his invention. Embedded within the novel is another story, that of Outland as a young man in the American West, who discovered the superbly preserved ruins of an early indian pueblo, but who cannot get the archaeologists of Washington interested in his discovery because all their attention is turned on Europe: America’s past is sacrificed to the wealth and glitz of the East. There is no real plot, rather the novel is structured as a series of incidents presented in isolation (there are almost no continuity words like ‘later’ or ‘afterwards’ or ‘next’ anywhere in the book) which accumulate this sense of the worthiness of the old and the West and a distaste for the new and the East.
x, y, z, t: dimensions of science fiction by Damien Broderick (Borgo Press 2004) – read for review in Science Fiction Studies, and I’m still trying to work out exactly what I want to say about the book. It’s infuriating, the way Broderick nearly always is, but this time not in a way that is energising or which forces you to look anew at things. Rather he has crammed together reviews from a wide variety of places into themed ‘chapters’ which don’t really explore their themes as thoroughly as they might because the particular books he has reviewed don’t really allow him to cover the ground as thoroughly as would be required. When he’s good, Broderick can really grab you by the lapels and make you pay attention, but in this book he doesn’t seem to be good enough, enough of the time.
Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Gollancz 2004). Before I read it, judging only by the reviews I’d read, I was convinced this book was going to sweep onto every award shortlist going, this, everyone was saying, was his breakthrough novel. Now, having read it, I can understand exactly why it did not make the Clarke shortlist. It is a book in which he is clearly trying to stretch himself, but the bits that work best are those closest to what he has already done done in the Arabesque, while those parts of the book where he’s moving into new territory really do not work at all well. It is a novel made up of three interweaving story strands, but in reality we can take two of those strands together. In 1970s Morocco a young boy grows up in the lawless back streets, attempting to keep both the local criminals and the local police at arms length while carrying on a tentative relationship with a girl his own age and being seduced by the glamour of a visiting American rock star. This is all excellently done, the atmosphere of the place and time and the subtle humanity of the boy are brilliantly portrayed: I have not seen Grimwood do anything better. Interwoven with this is the story of a nameless ex-drug addict in more or less the present day who makes a futile attempt to assassinate the president of the United States, and whilst being interrogated to find out why he did it reveals himself to be a mathematical genius who makes a crucial scientific discovery. This nameless character is clearly related to the 1970s passages, though Grimwood keeps us guessing whether he is the rock star or the boy. Unfortunately this strand is less humane and less atmospheric than the other sections, it is all about process not character. There is very little in the sketchy character of Prisoner Zero to tie him to either the rock star or the boy. Nevertheless, these two strands together work as an ingenious intellectual puzzle tied in to some very effective writing. The problem is with the third strand of the book which takes us right away from the familiar world to a curious collection of worldlets far distant in space and time. Here an archetypal gritty run-down sf world is ruled over, for some reason, by a reinvention of a Chinese Emperor in all his pomp. The person selected to be Emperor (in a process that is part fantasy cliche, part selection of the next Tibetan lama) doesn’t want the position, someone breaks in to the Palace to kill him but is stopped, then a girl sets out on a curiously long and arduous journey to kill him. The trouble is that nothing that happens in this strand of the story feels as if it matters in the slightest. It is artificial, over-long, and largely irrelevant; Grimwood’s heart just doesn’t seem to have been in it. Whenever I was reading the Morocco sections I just wanted it to go on; whenever the scene shifted to this far future China it took all my willpower not to just put the book down and walk away.
First published at Livejournal, 23 February 2005.