Thursday, 2 April 2015

Not Books XIII- With Extra Added Sci-Fi


Films-


Prometheus (2012)

The first time I saw Prometheus I was disappointed that it didn't immediately seem like the blow-away sci-fi instant classic I think we all wanted from a new Ridley Scott film of this type, and I undoubtedly underrated it without considering that it had more depth than my bad attention span could cope with. The second time I saw it, any ambiguities regarding the plot were quickly cleared up, and it also automatically became more enjoyable that I wasn't constantly waiting for any massive revelations, nor for a legion of Aliens to suddenly run from the hills. This was the third time I saw Prometheus, and this time it was pretty damned great.

I should admit that I'm often not the most attentive of movie-watcher, and so any increased enjoyment found in a re-watch will naturally take me a few more goes than the average person, which is why it only really clicked this time just how much of an impact Michael Fassbender's android David has both on the direct plot and the thematic exploration of the film- as the human beings so desperate to meet and understand their makers completely forget about their own sentient creations. Fassbender was the star of the film for me, and watching it this time with the clear knowledge that he was pulling the strings leading to the demise of his creators gave it a sadistic black humour.  There's no great plot twist, nor much of a sense of existentialism, so I don't think it matches classic sci-fi like Scott's own Blade Runner, but I'm still very much looking forward to the eventual sequel.


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Star Trek- The Motion Picture (1979)

Despite wasting way too much time from my life on episodes of Star Trek, for some reason I'd never seen films I-III or V before- probably because I worried they'd be terrible. After mostly-enjoying every episode of The Original Series, and particularly being sold on the Kirk/Spock/Bones trinity, it seemed the time to change that. From the very beginning the ten year gap between series and film and presumed huge budget increase gave the proceedings a very different vibe. The sight of the older, fatter cast-members covered in infinite layers of make-up was not a good sign- Nimoy aside as a never-changing icon of course- and things just went down-hill from there as soon as things started to happen.

The transition from TV to film essentially ruined everything about James T. Kirk for me, as the ravages of time and the growing eccentricities of William Shatner transformed the character from a dynamic young space hero to a doddering, wry old bore. Not that I'm claiming he was ever a good actor in the typical sense, but the difference here is that before every line reading he pauses to adopt a thoughtful, smug look as if he can't quite believe how great he is, and it's massively annoying. Kirk is made twice as boring by the inclusion of new character Captain Decker, Kirk's replacement after he ascended into Admiralty. He is nothing more than a black gravity vortex that sucks any subtle remnants of charisma out of every scene.

The plot has a decent premise but doesn't really go anywhere, and its history as an episode for the cancelled Star Trek: Phase Two project is horrifyingly exposed as the writers try desperately to extend the script to two hours. The visuals, while an obvious 'homage' to 2001, are at least interesting, although I may have been watching a digitally remastered edition. Whatever the case, it didn't stop me taking three attempts to get through this phenomenally dull and disappointing film.


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TV Shows-


Red Dwarf IV (1991)

I was surprised to find that Red Dwarf IV was made so long ago; if you'd have asked me I would've labelled it as mid-90's, partially due to my first exposure to the show during childhood, and partially because of how much better this series looks than the three prior. In mine and most people's opinions (or so it seems, anyway), Red Dwarf IV marks the beginning of a two-season golden period of the show's peak. Most Internet reviews suggest to me that the majority of people prefer Red Dwarf V, but I've always slightly favoured this iteration. Whatever the case though, it's notable how all the elements of the show come together to create a fantastic sci-fi comedy that I think as good as Douglas Adam's Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Things kick off well with Camille, a strange but hilarious sci-fi take on Casablanca, where the crew respond to a distress call and find a female who appears differently to each crew member, existing as their own personal fantasy- a pleasure GELF (genetically engineered life-form, I feel I must add). Despite really being a giant green blob monster she and Kryten fall in love, leaving Kryten to make a tough choice as to their future. It's both completely ridiculous and quite touching, expanding upon Kryten's personal evolution into more of a free-thinking individual.

DNA, the second episode isn't quite as good. First of all it's another Kryten-centric episode, which is just bad episode arrangement. This time the Dwarfers encounter an amazing machine on a derelict spaceship that can transform DNA molecules into pretty much anything, and thus Kryten temporarily becomes human. The biggest annoyance is the way how Kryten, formerly an intelligent, capable android, suddenly becomes a massive idiot as a human, incapable of understanding the basic tenants of human biology. It might be a nit-pick, but it really does hurt the episode for me.

Smoke me a kipper...
Justice continues the trend of getting the cast out and about, to an abandoned (as everything is 3 million years in the future) prison complex in which they must fight for their lives against an insane rogue android. Not the funniest episode, but the action is a cut above anything the show had ever done before thanks to the much more convincing sets and props. The fourth episode White Hole continues on the theme of visual improvements with some much tidier digital editing than ever before, as an attempt to boost Holly's intelligence leaves them dead in the water.

Dimension Jump
is my favourite episode of any Red Dwarf, as the crew encounter Ace Rimmer- a version of the hapless Arnold from another dimension who just so happens to be the greatest adventurer of all time. Both hilarious, poignant and iconic, Dimension Jump put the Rimmer character in a whole different perspective for me, and is the greatest example I think of the writing team of Grant Naylor using alternate versions of their characters to full explore the original's psyche.

The final episode, Meltdown is another funny action adventure, though not without a few plot holes. Kyrten discovers hiding away on the ship a piece of experimental technology that allows them to teleport great distances across the universe. They head to the nearest planet with life and an atmosphere, and wind up in the middle of a wax-droid theme park (full of famous historical figures from Hitler to Ghandi) run amok and at war. The guest actor look-a-likes are all pretty funny, making this a pretty memorable gimmick episode, but I'll never get over the logic hole where the crew never use their incredibly-useful transportation device ever again.


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Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997)

Yes, I am a nerd. Dragon Ball GT is easily the most unloved installment of the Dragon Ball franchise, the follow-up to the anime juggernaut that was Dragon Ball Z. The show was handicapped from the start by virtue of not being based on an original Akira Toriyama manga, with Toriyama having little to do with the project. Of course that wouldn't have really mattered so much had Toei Animation actually been able to come up with at least a competent story for it. Running for only 64 episodes compared to the 291 (and legion of films and spin-offs) of DBZ, before this recent re-watch I'd only seen half of them at most simply because it just wasn't worth the effort to try and get home at the same time each day to watch Cartoon Network. Thanks for helping me out, Internet.

The younger version of myself was one of many DBZ fans put off by the lack of quality and awkward style displayed from the very first episode. DBGT attempts to recapture some of the spirit of the original Dragon Ball series by having old enemy Emperor Pilaf and chums turn lead character Goku back into a child through use of the magical Dragon Balls- which then disperse themselves across the universe, leaving Goku and friends to the task of finding them again before the Earth explodes for some reason. That kind of back-tracking annoyed me a little, but what it essentially resulted in, at least to begin with, was a series of self-contained stories slowly leading towards a larger plot, as Goku explores the universe with his immensly annoying grandaughter Pan, and former DBZ bad-ass turned DBGT pathetic nerd Trunks. There's a massive focus on humour, again going back to the original DB series style. That's not necessarily bad by itself, but as a sequel to the steroid-fueled super-heroics of DBZ it simply doesn't match up.

By the time the writers seemingly realised this, it was already far too late. About half-way through the run they bring the action back to Earth and create a series of super-powered villains to threaten the world, while also bringing back many popular DBZ characters in prominent roles. In a sense this was the lazy and safe option to fix the show, but it doesn't quite work thanks to the generally awful plotting, although things do get better further in. The final saga of the show beings with about fifteen episodes left, and is easily the most entertaining and compelling of everything GT thanks to its success in re-using elements of DBZ but with a few fresh ideas. I particularly enjoyed the very last episode, essentially an epilogue to the whole Dragon Ball concept that I personally thought in terms of writing it was a level above almost anything else the franchise ever produced, in terms of providing a great,thematically-relevant and even emotional finale.

Still, now with the new DBZ film series looking like it'll be successful for a good long while, DBGT sits in a curious position within the DB continuity- Battle of the Gods was particularly careful never to actually ret-con (or should that be future-con?) the events of DBGT (which take place after all of the DBZ action, including the new films), though certain aspects of the plot and the promise of more to come does suggest that a full ret-con might be in the series' future. That doesn't bother me too much, since as a fan I'm happier for them to re-write the post-DBZ series events rather than continue on past those of DBGT, though I am disappointed that the GT final will likely be wiped out of continuity with it.

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Video Games-

Full Throttle (1995)
LucasArts (PC)

Though I've played through Full Throttle more than a couple of times in the past, this current run of adventure games I'm on quickly led me back to it, one of LucasArts most popular and stylish efforts. Released during the heyday of the greatest adventure games development team of all time, Full Throttle was the first game to give the position of project leader to now-iconic designer Tim Schafer, who'd previously co-designed the first two Monkey Island games and Day of the Tentacle. Developed with the trusty SCUMM graphics engine (and the help of some 3-D extras), Full Throttle places the player in a Mad Max-style future world, in control of grizzled biker outlaw Ben- leader of the Polecats biker gang.

After a chance meeting, Ben and the Polecats get caught in a vicious battle for control of bike-makers Corley Motors, as cartoon villain Adrian Ripburger (voiced by Mark Hamill) attempts to seize control of the last motorcycle manufacturers in the country to build minivans instead. At the start of the game Ben is stranded with a trashed bike in a town in the middle of nowhere, and so the player must exploit the usual adventure game mechanic of 'find thing, combine it with other thing' to get him back on the road and after the villains.

The voice acting, dialogue and visual style of Full Throttle are all superb, absorbing the player into an atmospheric and edgy cinematic universe from the start. The puzzles are inventive, and the interface is one of LucasArts' best. The game offers a couple of opportunities for simulated action, giving the player limited control over driving sections and disguising a simple puzzle sequence as an action one. What there is of Full Throttle is slick, dramatic and funny (if not laugh out loud) stuff. Unfortunately there's just not enough of it.

Comfortably the shortest proper adventure I can remember playing, Fully Throttle is extremely, notably short. Compared with your average LucasArts adventure it's twice as short as most, and in comparison to, say, Double Fine's Discworld game it's positively minute. The game fits a lot of story into the time through a series of excellent lengthy cut-sequences, but in exchange there are very few puzzles, none of them particularly challenging, and even fewer non-player characters, with little interactive dialogue. As a result of its shortness, I found Full Throttle to be a quick burst of solid entertainment, but realistically from a gameplay standard I can't consider it a true classic of the genre. 


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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

W. Somerset Maugham- The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil
Vintage

W. Somerset Maugham
1925

Other Maugham Reviews- The Magician - The Moon and Sixpence - Cakes and Ale - The Narrow Corner - The Razor's Edge

“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art."

One of the things I like the most about keeping this obsessive blog flowing is the ability to look back at the past few years and map out my own progress, altogether giving me a better understanding of my typical reading habits. On top of that, it stops me from finishing one book and rushing straight into another, instead forcing me to more fully contemplate each book with the goal of producing a blog review so that I feel like I've achieved something. No author has benefited more from this process under the gaze of my critical eye than one W. Somerset Maugham (I'm sure he'd be very proud), whose bibliography first captured my imagination almost three (!) years ago with the hastily-reviewed The Razor's Edge. Since that fateful moment I've become more and more appreciative of each Maugham book I've read, with the pinnacle standing as the sublime The Moon and Sixpence.

Furious Maugham
Still, despite all that, when I sat down to begin reading The Painted Veil (chosen randomly from the four Maugham books on my to-read pile) I wasn't expecting to do something I haven't done since 2007 with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and sit and read the damn thing start to finish (well, with the odd break to make coffee and such)- and I only did that with Potter because I had a six hour window before the book's owner, who had just purchased it on midnight release, took it away on a bus journey, so that's my excuse. But anyway, I didn't intend to read The Painted Veil so quickly, but found it so engrossing I couldn't help myself, and at roughly 250-pages it was just the right length to finish in around 2-3 hours. Oh, and before I started reading I dropped my copy and broke the spine, so I had to literally hold it together to read.

It's not even as if I was blown away to the point where The Painted Veil became my new favourite Maugham novel. For the first thirty-or-so pages I thought I was set to be very disappointed, as Maugham led me down a false path in regards to the genre before opening up into his usual quality. Written in the third-person, The Painted Veil is the story of lead protagonist Kitty Garstin, a pretty young girl living amongst the British gentry of colonial Hong Kong. The opening segments of the book duped me into assuming the worst, that this book might be an uncomplicated romance novel. Maugham described Kitty, unhappy with her boring, inattentive scientist husband Walter, throwing herself into the arms of the witty and dashing (but also married) Charles Townsend- and all that was left, seemingly, was for them to find a way to get free of their partners (what with divorce being difficult back then and infidelity being illegal) and they'd be set for a future together.  

Pocket Books
When Kitty spills the truth of her affair, Maugham finally pulls back the wool from his reader's eyes to reveal the characters in a far more detailed light. Kitty, reveals her naivety by failing to realise Charles is simply one cad of many, promising Kitty a future life together to get her into bed. Walter, meanwhile, transforms under the realisation he is a cuckold, abandoning the image of a loving, devoted husband to reveal himself as cynical, dangerously intelligent, and unpredictable. He tells Kitty that he is to travel to China in a seemingly-selfless attempt to use his medical knowledge in the fight against a deadly outbreak of cholera. With nowhere else to go, she follows him to the sight of a convent acting as a make-shift hospital, where death is a constant presence.

Maugham uses these morbid and depressing surroundings and its characters to effect a transformation in Kitty, to replace her immature naivety with tougher worldly experiences. The eccentric new characters Kitty meets here essentially shape her personality, giving her increased strength through opening her up to alternate ideas about the world. Maugham's carefully-selected prose is outstanding and compelling,  shifting the his writing style to represent the changes experienced within Kitty. I mostly followed and enjoyed her transformation, mostly admiring Maugham's ability to hold such a delicate, changing character study so carefully, but by the end I must admit I hadn't been completely sold on the character, mostly because despite growing as a person as she does, Kitty still has the propensity to cry at every available opportunity, which became somewhat annoying closer to the end of the novel.

I think that's down to Maugham's insistence on never making his central characters too appreciable- he avoids a predictable heroic outcome or much of a happy ending by resisting the temptation to ultimately make his creations too successful, leaving the reader ambiguous as to their eventual fate. His character development is so focused that I think Maugham would have  done himself a disservice through writing a happier ending; as always he leaves the reader with plenty to contemplate and no hard answers. Though I raced through the book I wasn't left with the same sense of thoughtful awe that I was with Moon and Sixpence or The Narrow Corner- part of that because I wasn't as emotionally invested in the central characters- probably because, as good as Maugham is, I can't buy into his portrayal of female characters as I do his males.

In conclusion, I wouldn't recommend The Painted Veil as anyone's first Maugham book since there are better ones available, but after I had become immersed in his style and themes from prior books this was another interesting take on his central themes of human obsession and spiritual discovery.

Friday, 27 March 2015

It just occurred to me I never talk about books that I find so bad I give up on them for the sake of saving my precious seconds left on this Earth. Mark Gattis' The Vesuvius Club is one such book, abandoned this morning for being so obnoxious it hurt my brain. That counts as a review, right?

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Jim Thompson- The Getaway

The Getaway
Orion Crime Masterworks

Jim Thompson
1958

“He could be breaking apart inside and you'd never know it from the way he acted. He'd be just as pleasant and polite as if he didn't have a care in the world. You had to be careful with someone like that. You could never know what he was thinking.”

I seemed to be on an unfortunate run of feeling disappointed with supposed classics recently, so I hoped to buck that trend by picking off the shelf what appeared to be an easy option. Orion Publishing's Crime Masterworks series had so far introduced me to the sublime noir classic Double Indemnity by James M. Cain and Georges Simenon's very interesting (though not as good) The Blue Room, so I felt confident of finding something more engaging than the somewhat impenetrable international fiction of someone like Yvgeny Zamayatin. I find myself increasingly attached to the whole notion of crime fiction lately, and it's easy to recognise the similarities in that genre and that of Orion's other genre-collecting series, Sci-Fi Masterworks.

Jim Thompson
Both genres offer a universally-recognised set of story-structures that, while very malleable (especially in the hands of a genre-transcending master like Kurt Vonnegut), remain recognisable thanks to a hundred years of almost-unavoidable twentieth century literature and film, and so in theory half the work of establishing a recognisable narrative complete with relevant themes has already been done; a benefit to the author and the reader. With both genres though, the ease of access for both reader and writer naturally leads to a large number of unimaginative, poorly-written, all-in-all substandard attempts from unfortunately less-talented authors. I had hoped that the Masterworks series was also a short-cut to avoid wasting my time on those in general.

I'd been looking forward to reading something by Jim Thompson for a while now, having seen his name crop up plenty of times as a prominent writer of classic twentieth-century crime fiction. The Getaway is seemingly his most famous novel (though The Grifters is another title I see crop up often), perhaps due to Sam Peckinpah's 1972 film adaptation starring Steve McQueen. It was the obvious place to start, with the help of Orion. The break-neck plot seemed right up my alley; charismatic hardened criminal mastermind Doc McCoy and his devoted wife Carol stake their lives on a bank-job with some dicey allies, and wind-up in a gritty race for the safety of the border with the law and the underworld on their trail. Despite the usual double-crossing twists and turns, it's a fairly simple, cinematic action plot starring pulp-influenced over-the-top genre stereotypes. In short, something I've seen and read maybe too many times already, leaving it to live or die on the strength of the prose. 

This is where it all fell apart. A streamlined action-packed plot comprised of familiar stylish elements can only take a writer so far dependent on their ability to construct this world through interesting and consistent writing, neither of which are attributes I ascribe to Jim Thompson. That Thompson's goals in terms of style and impact are well-established is at least admirable, but from the very first pages of The Getaway I was immediately put off through what I perceived to be Thompson's amateurish style. The Getaway is written in the third person, giving Thompson the potential advantage of being able to describe his characters without the inherent bias of a narrating personality, but from the very beginning his establishment of characters and setting massively jarred.

My biggest stylistic hate came from Thompson's repeated habit of literally telling the reader directly what his characters are thinking, in the form of italicized quotes just lacking quotation marks, over and over again. It's a lazy technique that tries to claim the best of both worlds, but failed for me each time since every thought the characters have are just as cliched and superficial as their dialogue, leaving the marked effect of exposing them all as completely two-dimensional. I'm not expecting some sort of extended Dickensian character analysis, just a modicum of depth. In comparison to a classic crime noir character like Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, Doc McCoy is a hollow, uninteresting bore who's superficial coolness is made an unintentional mockery of through its very construction. Harsh criticism, perhaps, and I'm sure Thompson's work isn't any worse than your average run-of-the-mill thriller writer, but I expected far more from a supposed crime classic from the same publishing series as James M. Cain's Double Indemnity.

Whether I'd recommend it to anyone is an interesting question (well, to me anyway), because it really depends on what the reader expects and what they're willing to put up with. I absolutely do not recommend it to a reader looking for a classic crime noir on the literary level of the Hammett, Cain, or Raymond Chandler and the like, because it's bound to end in disappointment. For a reader who enjoys the comfort of quick, cliched thrillers that are easy to get through, then this might be a great option. Oh, and since we're at the end of the review, it's only appropriate to mention the end of the book; a final chapter that weirdly morphs in style to an ethereal, hallucinogenic-like dream-state that's not too badly written in comparison, actually, though I've no idea what he was trying to achieve with it.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Missing Review Catch-Up III- International Edition

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The Dragon and Other Stories (1913-1937)
Yevgeny Zamyatin

Penguin Modern Classics
After Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita failed to melt the solid wall of ice standing between myself and the great unexplored mass of classic Russian literature, I wasn't to be put off so quickly. Rather than run towards the possible safety of recommended heavyweights like Dostoyevsky and friends, I rebounded in the only way I know how- something completely random, that in this case just happens to also be pretty obscure. The Dragon and Other Stories stood out with its odd cover, and of course Penguin Modern Classics status. Everything I learned about Zamyatin (not much- Russian dissident who wrote a letter to Stalin so he could leave Russia) came from a quick scour of the internet, so I went in to the book mostly ignorant. Sometimes a random book read at a random time can be a game-changer.

But not this time. Again I totally failed to connect with a piece of Russian literature, to the point where it'd be stupid to even try to write a proper review, hence this short one appearing here just to sooth my obsessive compulsiveness. Zamyatin's various short (and less short) stories collected in this posthumous volume describe with authority seemingly-meaningful tales that drift between the harsh realities of Russia's past and then-present and some more fantastical parables that take on dark fairy-tale like scenarios. I think since my knowledge of Russian history is confined to... um, no, can't think of anything... nothing, then, I was probably the wrong person to appreciate the layered allegories that I'm sure permeate Zamyatin's dense stories.

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Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (2005)
Jay Rubin


Vintage
This book, on the other hand, I was very tempted to write a full-length (by my standards, anyway) review for, only to decide at the last moment that its content and topic might just be too obscure to be interesting . Jay Rubin is a very familiar name for English language-reading Murakami fans, for being perhaps the most prominent of all yet to translate the author into our language (as well as translating Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Rashomon collection), and so it seemed only natural for Rubin to write a book about his life and works. Part biography, part critical interpretation, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words looks at the inspiration, creative process and public reaction to every Murakami novel, as well as his most important short stories.

I'd straight away recommend this to any serious Murakami fan looking to put his work into a greater context. The biographical information is interesting, though not particularly in depth- personally I prefer this to be the case, as Murakami's mystique works better without the obvious-in-hindsight revelations that he's actually a fairly normal man. As someone who pays little-to-no attention to the contemporary Western literary scene, let alone the Japanese one, it was also interesting to read more information about Japanese literary history, especially Murakami's influences and contemporary critics.

The one major criticism I found was that the book attempts to cover too much ground in too little space, particularly in regards to Rubin's interpretation of Murakami's fiction. I often found myself disagreeing with Rubin's ideas, but that made them no less interesting, and so the problem was that Murakami's longer works really need more space to accurately discuss. Rubin's reluctance to persist with spoilers also damaged his analysis for me, especially since I can't imagine there are many people who'd read this without already having devoured Murakami's own bibliography. Other than that, this was an enjoyable and informative take on an author very deserving of further public discussion. 

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The Immoralist (1902)
André Gide

  
Penguin Modern Classics
Man, French literature is just weird. Everything past the nineteenth century seems to have existentialism burnt in to its very core, and each author I read has an unstoppable fixation with looking at the worst parts of human nature in one way or another. Everything's constantly intense, everyone guilty of something, and nothing ever gets resolved neatly. Andre Gide's turn of the century novella The Immoralist was decried for years due to its homoerotic overtones, though reading it over a hundred years later it seems hard to see what the fuss was all about. Instead this novel to me, rather than focusing on the protagonist Michel's growing attraction to men was really all about his generally horrible treatment of his wife, Marceline.

The plot of the novella revolves around Michel recovering from a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis, on his Tunisian honeymoon with Marceline, who has lovingly nursed him back to health and attended to his every whim. Michel responds by re-discovering himself in the arms of young Arab men, and waxing lyrical on the new realizations he understands about life. I couldn't connect with him whatsoever, and thus the story was lost on me. Gide's work is well-written in translation at least, with an extensive vocabulary and poetical nature, but it's contents said little to me. Michel came across as such an unlikable character, with his over-bearing self-realizations clashing with his actual behaviour, that I was the most disappointed I have been by a piece of French literature.

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Saturday, 14 March 2015

Kingsley Amis- Lucky Jim

Lucky Jim
Penguin Modern Classics

Kingsley Amis
1954

“How wrong people always were when they said: 'It's better to know the worst than go on not knowing either way.' No; they had it exactly the wrong way round. Tell me the truth, doctor, I'd sooner know. But only if the truth is what I want to hear.”
  
Though Kingsley Amis is enough of a literary establishment in Britain that I'd been aware of his reputation as an author for some time, it took the knowledge of endorsements from my current favourite writer W. Somerset Maugham for me to pick up a copy of his most famous book. Lucky Jim has been lauded by the establishment as a classic piece of twentieth-century English fiction, portraying the turmoils of the life of a young teacher attempting to survive the political minefield of a chaotic new University campus. I was in the mood to enjoy a dry, sardonic comedy as a break from the typically direct doom and gloom I seem to always read, so I really wanted to enjoy my first experience reading Amis (random side-note- I did once read a Martin Amis novel once, it was horrible), but ultimately finished with mixed feelings.

Kingsley Amis
The eponymous Jim Dixon lectures in medieval history, but struggles to keep on the right side of academic politics amongst the faculty and so constantly worries for his job. His snide, pretentious colleagues patronise and irritate him, and his personal life is no better. Trapped in a volatile relationship with an emotionally insane woman he doesn't even actually like, his response is to get dangerously drunk at a party hosted by his senior professor, black out upstairs with a cigarette, and set fire to the bedsheets. When trying to conceal the crime in the morning, he meets Christine Callaghan, the beautiful girlfriend of the aforementioned professor's son. At this point the novel's true direction becomes abruptly clear, as the educational back-drop simply becomes the stage for a pained romantic conquest.

To a certain extent, this was actually something of a relief to me, since up to then I'd grown little-to-no attachment to the plot, setting or themes. I had no prior bias for or against them, but I couldn't get invested in Amis' portrayal of his comic surroundings. Amis' prose is technically excellent; flowing and consistent, but certain antiquated aspects of his style bored me; a real problem, since Amis emphasizes his main point of satire- that being the egotistical pretentiousness of those with power in academia- through his style, specifically character dialogue and Dixon's own critical trains of thought. As a result, I found the entire book to be overwritten, in the sense that each theme and subject of satire is over-laboured with a tone that itself became annoying eventually.

I won't deny that I did get a little invested in Jim and Christine's impossible relationship, and I also felt that Amis' eventual extrapolation of Margerat's (Jim's on-off girlfriend) psyche was by far his strongest writing; resembling Somerset Maugham's own fixation on the oft-disturbing motives of human obsession. Unfortunately the University setting fell almost completely flat for me, and there was so much more of it in comparison to the little I found engaging that the book became a chore. Perhaps my tastes in comedy have been irreversibly twisted by more contemporary things, but whatever the case was I just couldn't find any deeper meaning in the novel. It felt like a high-brow romantic comedy, harsh as that sounds.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

RIP Sir Terry Pratchett

An author who literally changed my life. RIP. More thoughts to come when I'm feeling more coherent.