Saturday, 25 October 2014

Terry Pratchett's Discworld 22- The Last Continent

The Last Continent
Corgi Press

Terry Pratchett
1998


“Any true wizard, faced with a sign like 'Do not open this door. Really. We mean it. We're not kidding. Opening this door will mean the end of the universe,' would automatically open the door in order to see what all the fuss is about. This made signs rather a waste of time, but at least it meant that when you handed what was left of the wizard to his grieving relatives you could say, as they grasped the jar, 'We told him not to.”  

After sending the Ankh-Morpork City Watch on some rip-roaring adventures in the exotic foreign lands of Klatch in Jingo, Terry Pratchett returned to a rather more familiar tour guide for his next expansive book. The Last Continent is by definition a landmark book in the Discworld series for being ostensibly the final installment to feature the series' original lead character as the headline attraction. In his sixth starring role, following The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Sourcery, Eric and Interesting Times, Rincewind the Wizzard sets off on his most mysterious journey yet as he fights to survive the madness of the magical continent XXXX (or Fourecks), where time and space are but mere unfinished constructs in a land that the creator hasn't quite got around to finishing yet.

Having been accidentally magically transported to Fourecks at the end of Interesting Times, Rincewind has been rather busy trying to avoid the million things trying to kill him. Back in Ankh-Morpork at Unseen University, meanwhile, the simian librarian is mysteriously ill and therefore unable to keep control of the chaotic magical library books. The wizarding faculty propose a magical cure, but unfortunately none of them know what the librarian's real name is, which is essential for it to work. The only wizard who does know is, of course, Rincewind. The wizards' attempts to track Rincewind down do indeed lead them to the isolate continent of Fourecks, but inconveniently manage to get there several million years in the past, interrupting a literal creation myth that's also connected to Rincewind's plight.

The Last Continent is a very well-balanced mix of satire and fantasy that I consider the best Discworld book since the. last Rincewind one, Interesting Times. Pratchett's integration of a classic British humour (taking from Monty Python and Douglas Adams in style and imagination) with an ambitious, Neil Gaiman-like tale of magical creationism plays entirely to his and the Discworld series' strengths. Rincewind and the University faculty share the page count fairly equally (or so it feels), allowing Pratchett to split his satire based on the time differential, with Rincewind coming into contact with contemporary Australian stereotypes and send-ups while the university wizards experience Pratchett's take on aboriginal creation myths.

If there's one real criticism to aim at The Last Continent, it would be that the direction and development of the plot ultimately relies heavily on the crutch that magic explains everything. As a result Pratchett doesn't really rely on a winding, conspiratorial plot as he often does, but instead pushes his characters into increasingly strange and mystical situations that eventually sort themselves out. With that in mind I wouldn't classify this as one of Pratchett's best books, but it sits comfortably on the shelf underneath. It returns to the classic Rincewind style of running from one dangerous encounter to another, like a series of connected sketches (similar to Python's Life of Brian, it strikes me). The wizards are an endearing collection of characters, if not as good as Rincewind, and the completely unique (yet to be revisited, at least) setting of Fourecks distinctly separates this from every other Discworld book.

As Rincewind's final starring role, it's a good one. I specifically say 'starring role' rather than appearance though, since the world's worst wizzard still crops up occasionally for cameos; and that's without even mentioning his crucial supporting role in the epic illustrated Discworld blockbuster book The Last Hero, which I shall some day here be fawning over.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Paul Auster- Travels in the Scriptorium

Travels in the Scriptorium
Faber & Faber

Paul Auster
2007


“Without him, we are nothing, but the paradox is that we, the figments of another mind, will outlive the mind that made us, for once we are thrown into the world, we continue to exist forever, and our stories go on being told, even after we are dead.”

If there's anybody who's looked at this blog more than once and become reasonably annoyed at the constant stream of positive reviews for Paul Auster books, then this is your lucky day; an Auster book that I really did not like. Preceded in the author's bibliography by The Brooklyn Follies (which I have not read yet, though I hear and expect good things), and followed by the previously-reviewed similarly-sized novella Man in the Dark, the novella Travels in the Scriptorium is, an ambitious and confident piece of post-modernism. It's an author literally calling back to his characters and concepts of the past in order to try to create something distinctly new with the aid of a ton of metafiction. Far too much of it, as it turns out.

Auster, like all of the authors I most enjoy, has made a career out of focusing on certain deep-seated philosophical themes that become the basis for most of his novels. He's also a pioneering postmoderinist harking back to his debut collection of stories The New York Trilogy (mandatory reference complete) who uses his characters to toy with our notions of identity. I can see why the intensely focused strangeness of the genre can (fairly) put off casual readers, but usually with Auster's books, no matter how strange a plot development or how seemingly irrelevant a side-story might be, it all pays off for the dedicated reader by the end, and then I write an annoyingly positive review.

Spot the difference
The problems I had with Scriptorium arrived at the beginning. First of all, the main character is a non-entity with no memory and barely any personality. His name is Mr. Blank (or at least that's the name the narrator gives him, while insinuating he has another) and he lives in some sort of medical facility. Throughout the novella he is visited by a selection of different people whom he doesn't remember, but who know him, and they have a selection of pointed ethereal conversations where none of them actually explain what's going on (just like watching Lost). The real kicker, and the thing that's set to initially appeal to dedicated Auster fans, is that these visitors are all characters from prior novels of his. Anna Blume, from In the Country of Last Things is the most prominent one. Ultimately, though, there's no real established connection bar the character names.

The overall tone is a little bit irritating, written in the present tense with a certain sense of smugness, also minimalistic in style and explanations to the extent where I found it hard to care. I get the sense that Auster was trying to present an ourobourian piece of metafiction; Mr. Blank is clearly meant to be a simulacra of Auster himself, and some of the characters hint at knowledge of a higher relationship between them and he. I found it to ultimately be an unappealing mess thanks to the incoherent structure. Auster's typical elements are there in various ways, like a story-within-a-story tangent, but none of them hit the right note, and in this 120-page paperback have little time to leave an impact. Maybe other readers out there have deconstructed a clearer understanding of Scriptorium, but even if there is one the overall writing drove me away from seeing it. i hate to criticise Paul Auster's writing because I usually love it, but Travels in the Scriptorium was a big miss for me.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Not Books VIII- Lazy Reviewer Edition

 

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Films- 
Alan Partridge- Alpha Papa (2013)

Although I have enjoyed what I've seen, I've never been as big a fan of Steve Coogan's iconic comic creation Alan Partridge as many other Brits. My appreciation of Coogan's undoubted subtle comic talents comes from other projects he's done, such as The Trip (with the great Rob Bryden), A Cock and Bull Story and fantastic biopic Twenty-Four Hour Party People. As a result, I wasn't particularly bothered with how Coogan would present Alan in his first big screen outing, as long as it was funny. After seeing Alpha Papa, I came out with a smile on my face and a new appreciation of both Coogan's talents and intelligence, regards to the way he presented Alan in this new medium. As I said, I'm not expert on the history of Alan Partridge far from it, but the various episodes of his different comedies that I have seen (shout-out to The Day Today) suggest to me that he might have been too awkward to portray in a film as he was without a bit of necessary tweaking.

The key impression I got from Alpha Papa was that this Alan Partridge, while still a bit of a conniving coward in places is a far less embarrassing creature than his previous incarnation. The old Alan Partridge was a character who was as embarrassing as possible as often as possible. He was far from an idiot, but he seemingly had no real understanding of social ettiquette or other people's emotions, to the extent where he was often the villain of the piece through his sheer obnoxiousness. That Alan Partridge would probably not have been able to carry a high-tempo 2014 feature film to appeal to a larger swathe of people, so Coogan seemed to wisely modify the character to make him a bit less of a bastard- even a hero, in places. Thankfully there's a great little plot behind this modest film, where Alan's co-worker Pat Farrell (superbly played by Colm Meany) goes a little bit nuts after being sacked as a DJ from Radio Norwich, and stages a hostage situation at the radio station that Alan inevitably has to try and sort out. Very entertaining, funny, and charming, with hopefully a couple of sequels to follow.
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Batman- Assault on Arkham (2014)

I always have and always will be far more of a DC Comics fan than a Marvel one, and as such am always ready to gobble up their latest animated offering. DC's owners, Warner Brothers, have taken taken great advantage of their own quality animated studios to come up with a pretty great selection of comics adaptations, from the mid-90's heyday of the immense Batman: The Animated Series to their recent (well, last five years or so) direction of releasing stand-alone DVD releases adapting famous comics storylines, mostly involving Batman. That's not a complaint, I love Batman. Some of those releases were much better than others thanks to the varying creators and visual styles, of course, but across the years I think the overall standard has gotten better to the extent where every release seems worth checking out.  Batman- Assault on Arkham stands out as the first release from the current format that's not adapted from a comic book, but is instead an original creation. It's set in the Batman- Arkham Asyulm/City/Origins video games universe, supposedly as a sequel to the latest game, Arkham Origins (itself a prequel). I say supposedly because I've never played Origins but wasn't left confused by anything, which is surely a good thing. 

The other important thing about Batman- Assault on Arkham you need to know is that it's not really a Batman story. Sure, Batman's in it, and he's the ultimate good guy hero, but he's definitely not the main character, shown by the small amount of screen-time he gets in comparison to the true stars of the film; the Suicide Squad. If you're not familiar with that name, then the Suicide Squad is a team of government-controlled supervillains, brought together very secretly to perform very dirty jobs for the US government, in exchange for time off their sentences. In comic book-land, the Squad have a real cult popularity, though it's never translated to big sales success. I think DC/WB might be considering them as a viable future big screen property though, making this film seem like a test-drive to see how they play out onscreen. 

As I've come to expect from animated DC films, Assault on Arkham was mostly a lot of fun, with a few suspect lines and excessive amounts of fighting. As the title suggests, the plot is a one-dimensional affair about the Suicide Squad being tasked to infiltrate Arkham Asylum, to retrieve some sensitive information stashed by The Riddler. The stars of the Squad include popular Bat-villain Harley Quinn, Flash rogue Captain Boomerang (presented as the most heelish villain on the Squad), and Floyd 'Deadshot' Lawton, who's here supposed to be the most heroic anti-hero. I didn't really like this generic tough-guy Deadshot as opposed to the moustachiod self-interested bastard of the comics, unfortunately. Batman only really comes into play half-way through the film, as does, inevitably, The Joker, as the plot is thrown into turmoil later on when things predictably turn out not be as they seem. Ultimately though, the simple plot and in-your-face characterisation was easily forgivable thanks to the often genuinely funny humour and mostly likable characters. Warner Brothers are experts at putting out these fun (though sadly never brilliant) excursions into the DC universe, and although I doubt many would ever feel the need to watch this more than once, if you're a fan of DC Comics you'll most likely enjoy it.

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A Million Ways to Die in the West (2013)

I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy Seth McFarlane's second live-action comedy feature film, since years and years of Family Guy and American Dad, plus his first film Ted had offered a consistency of a certain quality sure to carry through. Anybody reading that sentence who's seen a single example of those comedies will likely already be able to predict whether they'd like the film too, since A Million Ways To Die in the West makes no attempt at all to get away from McFarlane's type of snarky shock-filled humour. In fact, the man actually stars in it, as pathetic lead character Albert Stark, whose gimmick is he constantly points out how unpleasant the old West is/was. Despite being a coward with no discernible skills, he somehow manages to charm the lovely Charlize Theron, who unfortunately happens to be the wife of utter bastard Liam Neeson (I can't be bothered to check character names anymore). It's a fairly standard plot, but I don't think it needed to be any more complicated considering the focus is really all about McFarlane's quick one-liners and rants, which, again, you'll either love or hate.

It's odd seeing McFarlane act. and even odder hearing his voice unintentionally slip into the multitude of Family Guy characters he voices. Curiously I think it works out better than Mark Whalberg did as the lead actor in Ted, since McFarlane is so experienced in writing and directing his own performances that the comic timing is spot on for the type of humour it is. As much as McFarlane tries though, Theron and Neeson noticeably don't bother getting out of first gear at all and it leaves the whole thing seeming rather lackluster. Still, the jokes were pretty sharp and nicely visualised, making it a fun film to watch the once. Never need to see it again in my life, though.

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A Liar's Autobiography- The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman (2012)

I don't think I've ever mentioned it on here before, but I've been a longtime Monty Python fan since discovering them in my early teens; so much so that I splashed out to go to one of their reunion shows at the London 02 Arena a few months ago (but that's another review in itself). Despite my fandom I will admit that there's been an absolute ton of cash-in releases over the past forty years, trying with varying success to milk a little more from the genuinely classic comics name and reputation. The Pythons themselves clearly love money, so all of the tributes, spin-offs and documentaries that have appeared over the years have had generous input from whichever Pythons the producers can afford. Unfortunately such participation is absolutely no guarantee of it being good, since Monty Python are so far removed from their heyday that everything released with their name on it is appealing to nostalgia more than anything else.

A Liar's Autobiography- Volume IV, written by Graham Chapman as a highly dubious memoir of his life, was originally published in 1980, eight years before Graham unfortunately became the only Python so far to snuff it. I haven't read it, though I know what Chapman was like and I've read his posthumous collection of miscellanea, Calcium Made Interesting, giving me some idea of what the film might be like. I wasn't exactly rushing to get to it, since Chapman (and all the Pythons, in fact) have had the consistent tendency to overwrite every literary project they've been a part of, filling them with so many jokes (some of which don't even seem to have been intended to be funny) that they quirky become tiresome. This film is exactly like that, and maybe even worse, with a concept that looked doomed to fail from the start.

Obviously Chapman's demise (plus the price of physical Python appearances) made animation the way to go. Unfortunately the creators of this film went way, way over the top and involved 14 animation companies to work on adapting varying chapters of the book. In a completely unsurprising result, it's a visiual mess, as 14 different animation companies all try to imitate the work of Terry Gilliam in varying ways, seemingly on a shoe-string budget. This was bound to fail from the start, and made the film nigh-on unwatchable for me. The audio department is much, much better, as it uses Chapman's own readings from public performances to narrate, and brings in every other Python except Eric Idle to provide voices. That was cool, but not nearly enough to rescue the project, since Chapman's original script is so ridiculous that it seems obviously unadaptable. The key problem is that the original book was essentially a comedy parody of autobiographies in general, and thus does not make anywhere near a fitting tribute to the late comedic great. Avoid this film, even if you are a big Python fan, but at least thank it for bringing the remaining Pythons together long enough for them to plan out a final reunion tour.

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Computer Games-

The Curse of Monkey Island (1997)

When I worked out how easy it was to emulate the third game in the Monkey Island series on my modern(ish) laptop, I was so excited that it was almost embarrassing (and yes, I suppose technically it was illegal to do so but then I've also owned a copy of this game for about 15 years so I don't care). I spent the first few hours playing with a stupid grin on my face like someone had resurrected my childhood dog- until that grin turned into annoyance when I realised my memory wasn't good enough to remember how to complete it from start to finish. Released six years after Monkey Island 2 with an overhauled graphics engine, fully realised character voices for the first time, and without the input of original game designed and writer Ron Gilbert, The Curse of Monkey Island could have been awful. For me, it was not only the first Monkey Island game I ever played, but I think the first adventure game too, leading me on a path of cultish obsession that persists to this day. I was immediately hooked by the plot-based nature, and the focus on characters and humour to an extent I'd never seen before. In short, I liked it (and adventure games in general) because they're basically just sort of interactive novels.

Monkey 3 looks and sounds quite beautiful, thanks to wonderful hand-drawn (probably) animation full of colour and character that encapsulates the general feel of the previous games in the series. The music is beautiful, full of incredibly catchy reggae-influenced hooks that expand on the original basic beeps and turn them into melodic and atmospheric backgrounds that get stuck in my head for days as soon as I think about them. Like now, for example. The voice acting is pretty good, thankfully, using talented actors with experience in voicing animations, going full-on angry pirate when necessary. The puzzles are somewhat hard for me to judge these days, since I've played through this game so many times over the years that they're more like ritualistic forms of progression than brain-teasers, though they don't seem to be particularly outlandish. My one major criticism from this playthrough is with how abrupt the ending of the game is, finishing with one near-silent cut scene that screams out that they ran out of money on the budget. Other than that playing this game again for a moment took ten years off my age. I'm probably a very bad choice for a critical reviewer for this game because it's embedded in the adolescent remnants of my brain, so all I can say is that it was a pure pleasure from beginning to just before the end. Oh, and I'm not going to play the fourth one because it's horrific.

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Music-

Gorrilaz- Demon Days (2005)
Curiously when I first bought this album, not long after release, I didn't like it very much, and paid it little attention. Almost ten years later the single D.A.R.E. wormed its way into my head and led me to rediscover and this time very much enjoy it. I think I softened up to pop electronica over the years, and as a result really fell for some of the quirky melodies that support the bulk of this album. I've heard Feel Good Inc. too many times over the years to care about it much now, but Kids With Guns and particularly Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head have seriously infiltrated my brain, and made me think maybe I should go check out their third release at some point.

1000mods- Vultures (2013)
Like Acrimony last month, my exposure to this band came from listening to Kyuss on Youtube and clicking on a sidebar video afterwards in the hope of something similar. While lacking the true intricate nature of Kyuss, Greek stoner metal band 1000mods are a very good contemporary version who don't really offer anything new, but who do a decent line in their own version of Black Sabbath-built music. Nothing that will convert non-fans of the genre, but should appease most who do.

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Sunday, 19 October 2014

James M. Cain- Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity
Orion

James M. Cain
1943

“I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn't have the money and I didn't have the woman.”

I knew within less than a page of James M. Cain's seminal crime noir novella Double Indemnity that this guy was good; real good. The power of Walter Huff's unrepentant narration jumped off the page within seconds, managing to be both dark and murky and yet as clear as day. There's only been one other time where I'd felt so totally in the thrall of such a voice, and that was Dashiel Hammett's classic The Maltese Falcon. Maybe we've been spoiled by decades of sharp genre parodies, but it's so easy to read this book and hear the narration speak out in your head, in a deep, cynical male voice. It's absolutely spot-on definitive hardboiled crime fiction in style and substance, dramatic, intense and cool from start to finish. 

The key to the whole piece is the awesome character of the aforementioned Walter Huff, an intelligent and  cynical insurance salesman in California who is inspired to instigate events that will change his life for ever when one day, during a simple visit to chase-up a car insurance renewal he meets a woman he finds irresistible. Phyllis Nirdlinger is a femme fatale from head to toe, and Huff smells it from the get-go. When she subtly asks him about procuring her husband life insurance without his knowledge, Huff knows exactly what her game is, and spells it out for her. Then he shocks her by telling her it'll never work and she'll be easily caught... unless she sticks with him. Using his in-depth knowledge of his company and insurance law, Walter Huff plots the perfect murder.

All of this happens within barely ten pages, as Cain sets a breakneck pace. Somehow he manages to make Walter's prior innocence seem realistic, while self-justifying the reasons for comitting murder for profit. There's a partly procedural tone to the proceedings as Walter and Phyllis set-up and then carry out their plan, making Mr. Nirdlinger's broken neck look like an accident following a fall from a moving train. It's tense, enthralling stuff, as Huff bitterly describes the act of murder and then the fallout of paranoia and seeds of hatred between the co-conspiritors. To make matters worse, Huff develops a freindship and then romantic feelings for Nirdlinger's 19-year-old innocent daughter. It's one glorious mess.

There's a sense of critical moralising towards the end of this short read, as the walls begin to close in around poor Walter, perhaps to a very slightly overbearing extent, but that's really all I have to criticise about it. Cain encapsulates the spirit of noir crime within every sentence, and gives all of his characters distinctive, strong personalities. In only a short space of time he develops a compact, enthralling plot that blurs the lines between typical assertions of morally good and bad characters. Walter Huff is a complex, ambiguous man who embodies the style of a whole genre effortlessly, and I found him so likable that I couldn't help but hope he'd get away with it even though he was as guilty as sin. Double Indemnity is a damn-near perfect slice of luxorious genre fiction, as good as you're going to get and as cool as anything I've read.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Charles Bukowski- Hollywood

Hollywood
Cannongate

Other Bukowski Reviews; Post Office - South of No North - Factotum - Women - Ham on Rye - Tales of Ordinary Madness - Notes of a Dirty Old Man

“People just weren't interesting. Maybe they weren't supposed to be. But animals, birds, even insects were. I couldn't understand it.”

Back in 1971, the debut novel by one Charles Bukowski (who, by the way, was fifty-years-old at the time, giving me some semblance of hope I'll achieve something myself by then), Post Office, introduced the world to Henry Chinaski. Bukowski's barely disguised but definitely exaggerated alter-ego; a poverty-stricken, loveless poet wasting his life away working for the US postal system. Part of the appeal, alongside Bukowski's masterful writing talent, was the sheer power of the anger portrayed by the character based around his inability to fit in with or even tolerate contemporary society. Bukowski's second book (actually a prequel) Factotum continued along those lines to more critical success. Women, his third, offered a slightly mellower version of Chinaski who had earned some success as a poet, but whose rampaging affairs through girls and alcohol portrayed more sadness and inner torment. Ham on Rye took readers back to the childhood and adolescent origins of Chinaski/Bukowski, and was the angriest book of them all by some distance.

Chinaski's fifth and final printed adventure is a marked departure in tone and setting from his previous exploits, for reasons easily explained by the title alone; but does Bukowski's indomitable and unmistakable spirit suffer as a result? Or, as the man himself puts it, is he becoming something that he hates? I think it's up in the air. The plot of Hollywood appears (to me, anyway) to be probably the most thinly-disguised of all of Bukowski's roman à clefs, rewriting his experiences in the entertainment capital of the world during the production of his one and only movie screenplay, for the film Barfly. The actors and production staff behind the movie are given fake names (Micky Rourke becomes Jack Bledsoe, for example), as Chinaski witnesses the madness and inconsistencies of Hollywood and irs people first hand. Despite being cancelled about five times, Barfly (or The Dance of Jim Bean as this novel calls it) is finally made and released to moderate success, and Bukowski retires from screenplay writing for good. It's not an expansive, turn-based plot, but an aghast character study of an industry as seen by an outsider.

Smoking is cool.
The crucial difference between Hollywood and Bukowski's prior novels, every one of them to varying but notable extents, is that this Henry Chinaski is ridiculously mellow-tempered in comparison. He still drinks, but in moderation. He sticks to one, sensible girlfriend. His friends and Hollywood associates are crazy, but he simply watches in bemusement. It took this reader a good few pages to really start enjoying the book, so markedly different was the style. Ultimately I did enjoy it, since Bukowski's dry wit and memorable characterizations of his contemporaries are a lot of fun, but there was a notable edge missing. Because of this I can't help but categorize Hollywood as the 'worst' of the Henry Chinaski series in terms of how powerful I found it. This is probably due entirely to the short time-span between the real life events and the publication of the book (the author himself admits, maybe facetiously, towards the end of Hollywood that its creation was basically just something for him to do), where the line between Bukowski and Chinaski is so blurred as to become almost non-existent.

In a sense I really don't like to criticise this book much since it's a fairly organic and honest development of a characters that never really had his own identity in the first place, but I can't help but admit it was an underwhelming way to see Chinaski go out, so to speak. Out of his element as a real barfly and too old and successful to stay truly angry, Chinaski witnesses this exorbitant facsimile of his past performed by people just crazy enough to give it some realism and doesn't seem to have enough of an impact on that world for me to fully care. In an ideal world Henry Chinaski would've died younger and angrier, with a burst of self-righteousness, and Bukowski would've written Hollywood as a non-fiction memoir, but there are just enough crazy people and anecdotes to make the book a good read.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Kurt Vonnegut- Armageddon in Retrospect

 Armageddon in Retrospect

Kurt Vonnegut
 2009 (Posthumous)

“Reading and writing are in themselves subversive acts. What they subvert is the notion that things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have.”

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favourite authors of all time, but I haven't read one of his books in a few years, thanks to running through his most popular novels during my late adolescence. Armageddon in Retrospect, the first of many posthumous collections of material from the prolific postmodern satirist, was a great reminder of how individually brilliant he was, and one that, through its selection of short stories, really gets to the heart of what the great man's work was really about. Though Vonnegut's famous short novels (such as, most obviously, the amazing Slaughterhouse-Five) wandered into the genre of sci-fi on a whim, at the crux of the matter was Vonnegut's own real life experiences during the Second World War; where he was captured as a prisoner of war by the Nazi's and incarcerated in a POW camp in Dresden. While he was there, the allies bombed most of the beautiful city to ruins. As a result, the POW's were sent out by their captors to deal with the thousands of dead bodies. Seems like the kind of thing that might leave a mark on a person.

The collection opens with the transcript of a speech Vonnegut was to deliver on stage in his native Indianapolis, but which he couldn't thanks to inconveniently dying. It's a good speech, entertaining, self-deprecating and poignant, but it's really just there for its importance as probably the last thing he ever wrote. This is followed by a letter written to his family written in 1945, the collection jumping back in time in the appropriate manner of Slaughterhouse-Five's Billy Pilgrim. There's not often the opportunity for posthumous author collection editors to make a clever mark on their work, but whoever put this one together was altogether pretty smart. After that comes an essay entitled Wailing Shall Be In All Streets, a short, direct essay about Vonnegut's time in Dresden. It's powerful, to-the-point, and more directly analytical than the typical style of his fiction.

The rest of the collection is comprised of pieces of short fiction, of varying origin and interest. When I criticise Vonnegut here I don't mean to do so of his writing; that is typically impeccable, full of the confident air of an experienced and masterful writer. As proven by novels like The Sirens of Titan and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (an unrecognised classic, in my opinion), Vonnegut has as wide as an imagination as anyone, hence his regular travails into science fiction. The problem for me with a couple of stories in this collection, such as Great Day and the eponymous Armageddon in Retrospect was that Vonnegut's imagination runs so wild that his characters and plots suffer. Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't want to change the man's writing in any way since it's this imagination that allows him to hit his greatest heights, but as a result it's fair to say that some of his stories are a bit messy.

Others are much more entertaining and poignant. Happy Birthday, 1951 is a gem of a short story about a man protecting a young boy during wartime. Just You and Me, Sammy is the best story of the lot (in my opinion, of course), going back to the ruins of Dresden to tell the tale of a group of POW's and their untrustworthy liaison with the guards. Only Vonnegut knew how much of this tale was based on true events and he wrote it as fiction, but the obvious ambiguity adds an intended slice of intrigue, tension and realism that's kept in check by a believable series of events and a great revelatory ending. As far as I'm concerned the absolute best twentieth century US literature emanates from the pen of authors mixing reality with fiction, following the development of a nation through mostly-realistic depictions of its variety of life in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac among others. Armageddon in Retrospect certainly isn't the best of Kurt Vonnegut, and for all I know so far it might not even be the best of his posthumously published work, but regardless it's still sublime stuff thanks to the sheer strength of Vonnegut's voice. This might be naive, but I simply can't imagine anyone not liking (or at least appreciating) the work of one of the most naturally-gifted counter-cultural authors of all time.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Mikhail Bulgakov- The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita
Penguin Classics

Mikhail Bulgakov
1969

“But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You're stupid.”

Though I usually enjoy picking up novels emanating from different parts of the world, the vast expanse of critically acclaimed Russian literature has (until now, I suppose) always remained an unexplored mystery to me; aside from the multitude of positive references in popular culture. Despite having the opportunity to buy any number of books by famous Russians from the various shops I frequent, I'd intentionally put-off doing so because I recognise that I'm very ambitious/obsessive compulsive when it comes to exploring new genres, and as soon as I started I'd have to really get into it when there are already enough bibliographies I'm trying to get through. Plus I needed the right book. I wasn't going to just dive into War and Peace, I wanted something that appealed to me through a subject with a certain hook, whatever that might be. To be honest, I wanted a comfortable gateway novel. When I found a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, I was sure it was the book I wanted. 

In it's simplest form, and as I first interpreted it from reading the back cover blurb, this is a book about the devil and his minions wandering through mid-20th century Moscow, causing mischief and mayhem. As an unrepentant modern day pop-culture fan, that's a pretty fantastic hook, appealing in relation to both a modern, perhaps Vonnegut-esque satirical sense and a classical gothic horror piece like Faust. My real problem with reading about Russia, you see, is that I really do not know much about it, so the idea of a horror genre-tinged satire heavily based around Moscow seemed like a great introduction. When I began reading, the opening pages seemed promising; introducing the devil in the form of a mysterious 'foreign' gentlemen, who engages in a seemingly-random conversation with an important author named Berlioz and successfully predicts his imminent death. The scene is witnessed by a young poet, Ivan Homeless, who tries to warn his literary contemporaries and is sentenced to an insane asylum for his troubles.

Authors should always be pictured smoking
While the plot seemed interesting, I couldn't help finding the prose to be rather dry. The sentence-structure is impeccable, Bulgakov obviously being a technically-gifted author, but his style of omniscient narration dragged, with the author's voice intercepting with a force I found jarring to the flow of the story. On top of that, and probably more importantly going forward, I just didn't anticipate how in-depth The Master and Margarita would be. From start to finish it's filled with a variety of characters and locations, and incorporates an important parallel side-story at the same time, a biblical tale about Pontius Pilate. The first installment of that story was an interesting curio, but I soon started to really dislike these boring, pretentious segments and the disruption made it harder to follow the main story. That itself also lost my interest more and more as it went on, mostly because the satire just didn't register with me. Much of it is seemingly regarding the Russian literary and political elite of the novels' time, and I of course haven't got a clue about any of that.

So then, The Master and the Margarita was pretty much the opposite of what I was looking for in terms of a gentle introduction to Russian literature. As a result it took me a long time to read, especially since I kept taking extended breaks to read other books, and that kind of approach to it probably made things worse, to be honest. I wonder if, had I a moderate amount of knowledge about the Russian institutes being represented and made fun of, would I have eventually accepted the particular style of prose more? Probably so, yes, since it seemed clear that Bulgakov was a smart, biting author. Further research into the book (that I ideally would've done before buying it, had it not been an impulse buy) makes it clearer that this was an important book specifically relevant to its time of publication- Bulgakov spent years writing and re-writing this novel, in the knowledge that its topics and targets would've made him a very unpopular figure, politically, and so it wasn't published until over twenty-five years after Bulgakov's death. My reading of it would be comparable to someone with no knowledge of modern Western culture reading Naked Lunch and being expected to understand its poignancy. Probably makes me a bad choice for a reviewer, to be honest.

I am glad I finished the book, even though I decidedly didn't enjoy it. Finally finishing a piece of Russian fiction gets the proverbial Soviet monkey off my back, and might hopefully help me choose a better option the next time I go back to that country.