Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski. Okay, House of Leaves was brilliant, and this isn’t. But it gets better as you go on and learn the rhythm of the book – it might be better to read it as sub-epic verse rather than prose fiction. The main problem is the fiddly nature of the work. It starts in large print and the print gets smaller as the book progresses. But you don’t actually read all the way through, it is structured so you read eight pages then flip the book and read the next eight pages (a large drop capital signals the turn). What you get one way is the story of two perennial sixteen year olds on a rambunctious, sexually-charged journey through middle America between the 1860s and 1960s; what you get the other way is the story of two perennial sixteen year olds on a rambunctious, sexually-charged journey through middle America between the 1960s and 2060s. One journey is told by the boy, one by the girl, but incidents echo and duplicate between the two and each story ends in death and rebirth. And the hinge point (as we discover in the chronology that occupies the margin of every page) is inevitably the assassination of John F, Kennedy. Its hypnotic in its way, but the technical ambition isn’t matched by the literary achievement.
The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd. There was a time, probably between Hawksmoor and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (with the brilliant English Music as its high point) when Ackroyd was one of the most exciting novelists working in Britain. Then somehow the novels lost their edge, they became thinner (both in size and content), and often read more like adjuncts to his non-fiction than original works in their own right. And he was always a novelist of London, anything he wrote that drifted out of the city (First Light, Milton in America) lost any spirit or liveliness. So Fall of Troy is a novel you approach initially more out of duty than excitement – it’s a late, thin novel, and not only is it not set in London, it isn’t even set in Britain. And yet it is easily the best thing he has done in many years. It is a fictionalised version of Schliemann’s famous excavations at Troy. In this version Schliemann is Obermann, a bombastic fraud driven more by faith and enthusiasm than by any archaeological or scientific integrity. He interprets every find according to the story he wants to discover, and when inscriptions are discovered which suggest the Trojans are not the Indo-Europeans he so fondly imagines it leads to cataclysmic consequences. This is a book to restore your faith in Peter Ackroyd the novelist.
Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006 by E.L. Doctorow. I can still recall the sheer invigorating shock I felt when I first encountered Ragtime, and I have read just about anything by Doctorow I’ve been able to get my hands on ever since. (I’d still love to find his science fiction novel, Big as Life, which he ritualistically lists among previous publications in every one of his books, but which has been so successfully withdrawn from public view that copies are valued in more hundreds of dollars than I could ever hope to afford.) His non-fiction (of which several collections have now appeared) tends to be short and accessible, they are mostly written as reviews rather than essays, but they are every bit as thoughtful as you would expect. These pieces deal with the act of creation – generally covering writers, mostly Americans such as Poe and Melville, though there is also one essay on Einstein and one on the bomb. They are not so much reviews of books but insightful and often imaginative engagement with how they wrote, what they were doing. It provides a surprisingly fresh perspective on writers who have already been the subject of a massive amount of analysis.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy is one of those writers I’ve always meant to read but never got round to before. After reading The Road I will almost certainly come back to him. It is a bleak, unrelenting novel that is, I think, meant to ask what is the possibility of redemption when there is no possibility of hope. A man and his young boy walk through a post-apocalyptic America. We are never told anything about the apocalypse, but we see its aftermath: ash everywhere, no living birds or animals, a nuclear winter closing in with ash-blackened snow. The only food is what can be scavenged from the remnants of civilisation; mostly the pair go hungry. The man is sick, we know that right from the start; the boy has a Christ-like innocence; but everyone else they encounter along the way is a threat (we see often gruesome but also rather illogical signs of cannibalism). Much has been made of the spare nature of McCarthy’s prose, but it seems to me that there is a curiously gothic quality to his brevity, as if the more pared-down the prose the more baroque the image. Not an easy book to read, it is too despairing for that, but it is a haunting and powerful work.
Aegypt by John Crowley (or as I should perhaps more accurately call it, The Solitudes, since Aegypt is the title for the sequence as a whole). Since Endless Things is now on my shelf, I am setting out to read all four volumes ready for a review I’ll be writing for Strange Horizons. It’s the first time I’ve returned to the book in 20 years and I was delighted not by how well it held up (I expected that) but by how much more it seemed to contain, how it was a richer and more complex reading experience because of my residual memories of Love and Sleep and Daemonomania. Anyone who doesn’t immediately recognise this as one of the finest works of fantastic literature needs their head examining, as far as I am concerned.
First published at LiveJournal, 31 January 2007.