Friday, 21 November 2014

Not Books IX- Objection!


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Films-

  Brazil (1985)

I'd been meaning to watch what I've commonly heard referred to as Terry Gilliam's best film for years, but but there's always that sight hesitancy that comes from the director's ability to become just that little bit too zany. I would've watched it sooner had I known that the plot was Gilliam's take on Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four- since that's a pretty easy premise to get a handle on- but after I finally did see it I was left underwhelmed. I suppose the key feature of Brazil is the visual aspect, where Gilliam and his team uses their imagination to make the most of his budget, creating am expansive-feeling, futuristic dystopian England. Though I've seen enough later work from Gilliam to expect a certain style, Brazil seems to be the most iconic-looking I've seen.

But unfortunately overall I didn't really like it. Maybe I just wasn't paying enough attention to the details of the plot, something that probably happened when I realised how close to 1984 it was. I also didn't realy care for the performances that much either; Jonathan Pryce was apparently lauded by many for achieving his breakout role, and he is a convincing character, but for me just wasn't a remotely likable one. He had all cowardice needed to play the fairly stereotypical role of unassuming English guy forced to take a stand, but no likability factor. Even worse for this viewer, Michael Palin just was not very good in his role here. That's hard for me to say because I love Palin, I think he's the most talented comedic actor out of all the Pythons, but in this role he was as flat as a pancake.

So, the ending then (spoiler alert, obviously). The key difference in tone between Brazil and 1984 comes down to the ending. In 1984 Winston Smith meets a bleak fate as he is brainwashed to love Big Brother. It's very downbeat. In Brazil, lead character Sam Lowry is similarly captured, his girlfriend presumably murdered and his hopes of escape nil. Rather than resist as Smith does, to defend his ideological values, Lowry simply goes mad instead- drifting off into a fantasy world where he and his love have escaped the clutches of the government once and for all. In a way, I think it's supposed to be a 'happy' ending, but honestly it did very little for me. I'm happy Gilliam didn't totally rewrite 1984 into some sort of heroic toppling of the fascist powers, but the difference between this fate and that of Smiths' seems to suggest a sense of triumph over adversity that I just didn't buy. Lowry happily losing his mind as some sort of victory rings hollow against Smith's constant defence of his.

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How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

I wanted to like this, I really did, but it turned out to be another generic, apathetic waste of time. Well, if you're an adult, anyway. How to Train Your Dragon 2 looks like the billion dollars it probably cost to make, and is probably sure to delight shallow kids everywhere with its combination of said looks, childish humour and hardcore marketing efforts (that sounded bitter). It thoroughly entertained my girlfriend purely on the fact that there were cute dragons in it. Unfortunately I'm way too cynical, easily bored, and totally the wrong audience for the film. That's not going to stop me from a rant about how things were better when I was a youth, etc.

The aspect with this film, and with the majority of Dreamworks (apart from Rise of the Guardians) films that I've seen is down to the lazy treatment of the true target audience by assuming that they can't handle any variance in characterisation, and won't notice inconsistent plot details. As a result, every Dreamworks lead character and their supporting acts act like wisecracking teens from the Disney channel (kind of ironic). If the character isn't human then it doesn't really matter, since they're anthropomorphized to such a degree that they basically are (maybe not so much in this film, but in the hits like Madagascar etc.). The wisecracking little shit who filled the role of lead character here particularly annoyed me, due to his being completely infallible, while the adults around him all act like idiots (another common lazy trick). Annoying me most of all was the fact that all of the adults had strong Scottish accents but the children were all American for some reason. I hate lazy writing like that in children's films. Oh, and there was some kind of plot, or something. Let's speak no more of this silly film.

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 Highlander (1986)

Like Brazil, a film I've meant to watch since time immemorial, but unlike Brazil a film I quite enjoyed for what it was, even though what it was is stupid. The apparent immortality of the Highlander franchise always caught my attention, and the desire to see Christopher Lambert's most famous role (after enjoying him so much in Mortal Kombat) was what finally brought me to it. It was, in almost every way, exactly what I expecte. Lambert appeals as a kind of Jean-Claude Van Damme alternative, and the culmination of his charisma, the intriguing high concept, and the film's dedication to being as 80's an action film as possible all made this fun.

To be a fair critic, most of the acting is appalling, the plot intricacies often don't make sense, and the fight scenes are underwhelming. Also, Sean Connery playing an immortal originally from Egypt? How long would it take for an Egyptian to pick up a Scottish accent, exactly? Ridiculous stuff. Despite all that, there's a certain unquantifiable coolness about the atmosphere, and it all looks pretty nice too, with the contrasting scenes in the Scottish highlands and modern day New York providing a memorable visual effect. Plus, how could I not like a film that starts out with a wrestling show at Madison Square Gardens with the actual real-life Fabulous Freebirds? 

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

I really, really wanted to enjoy Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to the intelligent franchise-reviving blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes and thus the next installment in a re-imagining that jettisoned the cheesy crap of the past forty-or-so years. Since I read and utterly loved Pierre Boulle's one off science fiction adventure original Planet of the Apes, I've grown far more attached to the potential of the idea and also its origins in pseudo-scientific Conan Doyle-like adventure fiction. Rise was a great example of careful, well-planned plotting that suggested that the writers had already compiled their own version of the fictional chronology leading to the full rise of the apes and downfall of humans, and I was anxious to find out the next step through this sequel. Unfortunately, I found it to be a big let down.

The first thing that caught me out was the minimum ten-year jump from the end of Rise and the start of Dawn. I wasn't expecting an immediate sequel, but when it was quickly revealed that the majority of the human race had been wiped out by a deadly Simian-flu virus, I felt like I'd missed a film in between. Again, I wasn't expecting a comprehensive chronological coverage of events, but these are some pretty big parts of the story being missed out. It wouldn't be so bad had the characters explained the events of the past in more detail, but they didn't bother. It also wouldn't have been so bad if it didn't feel to me like the events of this film were far less important and dramatic than the mystery of how exactly this all happened. Instead, we start with the introduction of a status quo where the apes, led by Caesar (the star of the original) are living happily in the forests surrounding San Francisco, riding around on horseback. How exactly Caesar managed to train hundreds of apes into doing things like riding horses and talking in English without the benefit of the special scientific brain potion he received isn't mentioned. Nor is it explained why the pre-Simian flu Human civilisation didn't just go into the jungle and recapture the apes that caused such a fuss on the Golden Gate bridge in the last film.

Anyway, some barely characterised humans inevitably turn up in the jungle, causing friction and strife. As you might expect, some of them are good, altruistic lead characters, and some are selfish, right wing villains like Gary Oldman (which becomes a theme of the film when Caesar must understand the capabilities of apes to be similarly divergent, something I quite liked). Similarly as you might have expected, trouble ensues, as the bad people and apes fuck everything up for the good ones, leaving the two species on the brink of a larger war as the film ends. This is all well and good, but not particularly original. Caesar is a great character, and Gary Oldman is naturally very, very good too, but everybody else, human and ape, falls into the trap of being as boring as possible. The billions of scenes starring two apes sitting in the forest, having meaningful conversations in sign language before finishing their conversation in stunted spoken English became very old very fast, almost insulting in the way that they seemed to demand that I care and respect the sanctity of nature as it was presented, despite the fact this was all a CGI blockbuster Hollywood film.

Ultimately (and in an attempt to cut down the length of this review/critical assault), I think this was a hopefully forgettable misstep in a new franchise still trying to find its feet presenting an admittedly ridiculous concept. I genuinely think the decision to skip the human downfall so dismissively and join the apes at a key point after the development of their society was overly ambitious and didn't make me care about their fate one bit. The humans were also totally forgettable aside from Gary Oldman, and the assumption that I'd care about the CGI-ed apes just because nature was stupid. I can see how the writers were trying to introduce more potential fascist style ape culture development, to presumably lead on to the more recognisable future of the ape dominated world, and I think this film might look better in the future as a piece of a larger puzzle, but for now it was a big let-down to me.

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) 

As much as I find myself increasingly annoyed by the blind fanboyism of the majority of people on the Internet regarding Marvel film studios, I was rather excited about Guardians of the Galaxy (though not enough to bother going to the cinema to see it), having been a fan of Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning's comic source material. Both the comics and movie succeeded in livening up the outer-space portion of the Marvel Universe, thanks to a set of very-well matched characters and just the right sense of humour, and it was no surprise to me the ease of which the characters transferred on screen. Lots of credit needs to go to the filmmakers for taking just the right aspects of the comic, then remixing the characters' back stories to fit into the onscreen MU (though when the script turned to the issue of potential intergalactic war thanks to Thanos' obsession with the infinity gems it all sounded notably vacuous), as well as casting a great set of performers to bring them to life.

Chris Pratt hits all the right notes as Star Lord in quite probably my favourite lead performance by any MCU actor yet, hitting his comedic notes perfectly without damaging the emotional subplot about his mother one bit. His supporting cast are all fantastic too, with each of Drax, Rocket Racoon and Groot making a play for the award of funniest supporting superhero character and running away with the top three spots easily. The plot is simple, but well-constructed and paced, with generally superb dialogue. The action scenes look like a billion dollars, which is what they may have cost. I have to admit that I've been completely spoiled by the power of CGI in films, to the point where I find myself switching off during less inventive CGI set-piece. Strangely enough these CGI action scenes were what I found least interesting about the film in general, to the extent where I came out of them barely remembering what I'd just seen.

In conclusion, my favourite Marvel Studios film so far, easily. Still nowhere near as good as Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films or any of Bryan Singer's X-Men ones though. 

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Video Games-

Ace Attorney- Phoenix Wright- Trials and Tribulations- Nintendo DS (2007)

This third edition of Capcom's ingenious newer take of the classic adventure game genre brings together every long-standing plot and character ark of the series so far into one cohesive, tightly-written continuity fest that had my hooked on every line. The gameplay is exactly the same as the previous two, as spiky-haired defence attourney Phoenix Wright is called into action in an episodic series of court cases, where the player must use their knowledge and intuition to gather evidence in more traditional adventure scenes, before heading into court and cross-examining witness statements to unravel the mysteries and win the case. It's entirely story-based gameplay fueled by dialogue, and challenges the player's detective skills in such a way as it feels very rewarding. Unlike the two previous games, here the five cases are all strongly interconnected to form one long story, the culmination of everything left unsolved to this point.

If you've not played earlier games in the series, this is too mired in continuity to be initially accessible, and similarly if you didn't like the said prior games then this obviously won't change your mind. For fans of the series, however, it's a total joy to experience, as past favourite characters turn up en mass, and the newer ones are equally as memorable. My one slight criticism is that the nature of the longer storyline makes some aspects of the earlier cases frustratingly mysterious and confusing, but everything is eventually explained in the final case; the most dramatic and revelatory case of the series so far. I've already ordered the final two Ace Attourney games for the Nintendo DS,  though I'll try to resist jumping straight in before playing something else first. 

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Ken Kesey- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Penguin Modern Classics

Ken Kesey
1962

“Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn't it?”

Forgive me for becoming too introspective on this, but reviewing an undoubted cultural classic like Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest always seems an awkward proposition- particularly if the reviewer hasn't read it before, nor indeed anything by that author. The problem isn't the need to theoretically try and critically ravage a classic book, because that's not particularly hard at all; you just need to become as obnoxious as possible and target the legions of people who, over time, have built up its acclaim. No, the problem becomes the effect of slight criticism (nitpicking, essentially), and the art of portraying it as, in your opinion, only a four star book rather than five, since it's so, so easy to casually  publicly overrate popular things out of general kindness and the will to succumb to popular opinion. Goodreads is a testament to all of this, a database where legions of casual readers constantly give five stars to contemporary pieces of utter shit, distorting the overall review scores compared to genuine classics that suffer through being more challenging to read and absorb.

Ken Kesey
With that said, I should mention that I gave Cuckoo's Nest four out of five stars on Goodreads, which I know should (if they ever see it) upset a few people I know who consider it to be an undeniable five star classic of American literature; one of the defining novels of the entire nation and up there with books like The Great Gatsby and Slaughterhouse-Five in both quality and influence. In regards to its cultural influence, I can one hudnred percent understand how that's true, despite my relatively short experience with it (I've never seen the even more famous 1975 film adaptation so the story was totally new to me).  I like to view the scope of twentieth century American literature as an incomplete puzzle, where the missing pieces are impossible to define until properly explored, after which it's impossible to view the puzzle without them, and in that respect Cuckoo's Nest is a vitally important piece.

Written within a framework I increasingly respect (through novels like the aforementioned Gatsby, and W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence), where the narrator shares and maybe even relinquishes the role of main character to another messianic figure, Cuckoo's Nest introduces a very memorable and sympathetic cast of mental asylum patients trapped in a repressive, dictatorial facility where the staff use the patients' syndromes as aides to keep them in line. The stoic, silent Chief Bromden narrates the novel as a long-time Native American resident who has fooled his fellow residents and staff into thinking he is a deaf mute, all the while listening and observing their conversations. When McMurphy, a sane convict who successfully argued his way into what he thought would be an easier internment, becomes his new room mate, Bromden witnesses first hand his attempts to lift his new associates from the repressive doom and gloom of their lives- putting McMurphy into direct conflict with the head nurse, the manipulative Mrs. Ratchford.

From this point on, the book becomes about the battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratchford,  essentially representing liberal and conservative viewpoints. McMurphy is an initially reluctant hero, but who grows as a leader through his friendships with his fellow inmates like Bromden, all of whom respond positively to McMurphy's own form of mental health treatment. Kesey's key themes are essentially very, very simple, easy to follow from the very beginning of the novel and equally as easy to sympathise with. The events of the plot are fairly low-key (until closer to the ending, of course), with a strong focus on characterisation. As the narrator, Chief Bromden grows in confidence and self-respect as McMurphy pushes him to do so, and Bromden's understanding of the system in which he lives in become clearer and stronger.

By making Bromden a Native American, Kesey further establishes a tone of injustice in regards to how the 'combine' (referring to the faceless figures in charge) exists as a system to repress those it deems ill-fitting. As a moral thesis, Kesey's writing is easy to understand and agree with, but then in fairness didn't really go very much further than that. He seems to have the ideals of a George Orwell, but limits the scope of his fiction to embellish the effect on individual human lives, which is part of the reason I don't feel this book hits the heights of premier American literature.

Stylistically, the tone is somewhere between Orwell and John Steinbeck, but I felt that Kesey's prose lacked the effortless majesty of those I consider the best. As a result it was fairly easy to read without too much thought, for better and for worse. The constant human interest and strong character development goes further towards that, but, again. is limited. Perhaps I'm being too unfair considering that Kesey and this novel exists as a bridge between the beatnik generation of the 50's and the unmitigated hippies of the 60's- but even considering that I felt Kesey's prose and stylistic standards to be less adventurous than Jack Kerouac, for example. It's still very good, engrossing, and enjoyable, but didn't have the same impact with me as books by authors with similar reputations, like Vonnegut, Pynchon, or of course Fitzgerald. All of this is a long explanation of why I gave Cuckoo's Nest four stars instead of five on a different website, even though I don't give scores here. In actuality, I very much enjoyed it and could see myself going back to read it again in a few years, as well as reading Ken Kesey's other work.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Sorry, blog.

Sorry, blog, I've neglected you for a couple of weeks. I haven't finished a book since Fever Crumb, thanks to a combo of overtime at work, laziness, and a recent addition to my Nintendo DS. Normal service will resume at some point, probably.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Phillip Reeve- Fever Crumb

Fever Crumb
Scholastic Books

Philip Reeve
2009

 “Godshawk looked surprised, the way that people generally do when you ask them philosophical questions in shrubberies in the middle of the night.”

Over a year after I read and reviewed Phillip Reeve's debut young adult novel Mortal Engines, I felt the urge to indulge in another piece of imaginative sci-fi/fantasy from the same world. The Mortal Engines universe had been a hit upon release back in 2001, leading to a bunch of sequels (research be damned) featuring the same characters. I skipped all those in one foul swoop, and instead moved straight to Reeve's first installment in a prequel series; Fever Crumb. Truth be told my very first knowledge of Reeve's work came from a recommendation from a friend about five years ago to specifically read Fever Crumb in liu of us both being very big fans of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, making this book just another example of me finally getting around to an old installment on the mental to-read pile (and let's not get into the details on the physical one).

Anyway, Fever Crumb is set a few centuries before Mortal Engines, which still means it's set in the far, far future comparative to us. The whole premise of the universe is that it's set far after the fall of civilisation as we know it, even far after the rise and fall of civilisations after that. Secrets of old-world science and technology are either lost forever or hidden by those cultivating power, and so humanity goes on in an interesting hybrid of medieval-like surroundings and societal structure supported by the constant archeological hunt for mysterious old technology, manifested in things as varied as space hoppers and zombie cyborg sentinels. The action is set in future London, crucially differentiating itself from the Mortal Engines series with the city not yet having developed the huge trank tracks and massive engines to make it mobile. Reeve also introduces the concept of a genetic race war between humans through the Scriven, genetically advanced humans who consider themselves homo superior. It all makes up for an interesting world, though not original or charming enough for me to find particularly memorable.

Cool dude Phillip Reeve
As this is young adult fiction, the lead character is a young adult. Fever Crumb was a child of mysterious origins who suddenly finds herself questioning everything she knows about her past and her place in the world. Fairly standard stuff, but surely influenced by Pullman's Lyra in the way she's written and developed. As she becomes entangled with important figures in London and the leader learns more about the delicate power structure of this contrasting universe, the plot becomes more action-packed and revelatory, enough to keep my attention at least. It had to be like that, to push through the key problems I had with Fever Crumb, which upon reveal will surely prove that I'm a grumpy old man who probably shouldn't have been reading this book because it wasn't for me. Of course I'm talking about the quality of prose.

Mortal Engines was rough in that regard, but I forgave it and hoped for better in the future because it was Reeve's first book. Fever Crumb was at least his fourth, and disappointingly showed me no improvement whatsoever. It's difficult to fully judge, of course, because the genre of young adult by definition requires some dumbing down in certain ways to appeal to a wider audience, so I obviously don't expect the work of Joseph Conrad or something. But even with my limited experience with the genre, I've witnessed authors like Pullman and Terry Pratchett (with Dodger, for example) crafting the style in such a way as to remain simple to read yet still convey more style and substance within it. Reeve does have a knack for the odd funny line, and his universe building skills are not to be sniffed at, but his characterisation and attempts to build tension and mystery falls a little short of his better contemporaries. As a result of that I find myself left invested in the details of the overall universe, and so I'm not sure if I'll pick up any other books from it. I am a literary snob though, so I can absolutely see how any readers who don't have unrealistic expectations and are looking to invest in an imaginative universe could very easily get hooked.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Charles Bukowski- Pulp

Pulp
Virgin Publishing

Charles Bukowski
1994


"It was a hellish hot day and the air conditioner was broken. A fly crawled across the top of my desk. I reached out with the open palm of my hand and sent him out of the game."

Apologies to anyone sick of the constant Bukowski (and Auster) reviews going up on this blog recently, but I'm on a kick to complete their bibliographies and nothing will stop me. Well, plenty of things might stop me, but I hope they don't, okay? My accelerated race through the German-born author's bibliography led to the mild disappointment of his final, thinly-veiled autobiographical piece Hollywood, which itself upon completion left only one final mysterious novel for me to look at; the enigmatic, satirical, frustrated and unresolved Pulp. Before I received my copy through the mail I really had no idea what to expect (I tend to avoid book summations of works by authors I already respect, just to keep things as a surprise), and now, coming out of the novel, I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the strange combination of thoughts it left me with. It's not a good book, but it's a very interesting one.

I don't want to go into too much detail regarding the plot, for reasons that shall hopefully seem apparant, but let me start by saying that Pulp is both completely and undeniably unoriginal, and yet something totally unique. I think I might have to explain that one; the unoriginality is rather more obvious; Pulp is a satirical pastiche of hard-boiled detective fiction that includes all of the obvious stereotypes of the genre, ramped up to a Spinal Tap-like eleven with a notable ferocity. Bukowski's lead private dick is Nick Belane, a run-down no-good scumbag who, as these things go, is unexpectedly called upon by the most fatal of femme fatale's  to investigate a case. Her name is Lady Death, and her existence leads into the more self-referential, metaphysical side to this novel, which we'll get to in a second.

“I was feeling unfulfilled and, frankly, rather crappy about everything. I wasn't going anywhere and neither was the rest of the world. We were all just hanging around waiting to die and meanwhile doing little things to fill the space. Some of us weren't even doing little things.”

As these often go, Belane quickly finds himself picking up a couple of other cases, all of which seem to confusingly entwine with Lady Death. As he investigates, Belane pushes himself further and further into trouble- more trouble than Bukowski himself had expected, and so Belane finds himself having to viciously fight his way out of these desperate situations. Bukowski dedicates the book 'to bad writing', and all reports regarding Bukowski's thoughts on the writing process suggest the corners he found himself putting Belane in were as a result of his own lack of planning. This continues throughout the whole book, and so at no point does the reader get a solid grip on what's actual going on. Bukowski might have eventually sorted these problems out, but inconveniently died before he could, and as a result the plot is very poorly structured

Love this cover.
I think that the trouble Bukowski had writing Pulp stems from his ambitious attempts to make it stand out as a notable piece of postmodernism, in trying to represent on the page the thoughts of an author struggling with mortality. Belane regularly struggles for his life in brutal fights with lowlife thugs, as well as also witnessing the amazing immortality of the beings he finds himself tangled up with, since Belane quickly discovers that some of the people he's been investigating are really immortal aliens from outer space. It's a plot development that feels very in debt to Kurt Vonnegut, and Bukowski's prose has the same unwavering straight-faced style, where the narrator swings from straight forward descriptions of surreal concepts to brief introspective comments that suggest he might just be insane. Another author who I couldn't help thinking of is the late great Douglas Adams, and his two Dirk Gently detective novels, since there's a certain tone of dry humour about the supernatural intrusion into the detective genre that quickly reminded me of the Dirk Gently series. 

Upon finishing the last of Bukowski's novels, and the first to be truly fiction, I was mostly left with 'what if?' questions, about just what the author might have done in his career had he written more pure fiction. It's a moot point at the end of the day, but though I wouldn't undo any of the Henry Chinaski novels (well, maybe Hollywood if I absolutely had to) if I could, I think the evidence of Pulp suggests he would've come up with some very imaginative stuff. Unfortunately for Pulp itself, it's too handicapped by the circumstances of its writing and publication to be a really good novel by itself, but I did find it to be mostly fun from start to finish thanks to Bukowski's unwilting wit, and its explosive deconstruction of the detective fiction genre. It's a really strange way for Bukowski to bow out, but it somehow kind of fits.


Sunday, 26 October 2014

W. Somerset Maugham- The Moon and Sixpence

The Moon and Sixpence
I couldn't find a better cover.

W. Somerset Maugham
1919

Other Maugham Reviews- Cakes and Ale - The Magician - The Razor's Edge 

“For men, as a rule, love is but an episode which takes place among the other affairs of the day, and the emphasis laid on it in novels gives it an importance which is untrue to life. There are few men to whom it is the most important thing in the world, and they are not the very interesting ones; even women, with whom the subject is of paramount interest, have a contempt for them.”

After reading the three W. Somerset Maugham novels linked to above, I'd gained a solid appreciation for the author's obvious natural ability for descriptive, thoughtful and insightful prose, but I'd yet to experience a story that totally captivated me from beginning to end. The Magician was a fun gothic horror, seemingly drawing from Lovecraft and Poe, but it admittedly lacked a constant quality of prose that I did find in the two other books; both written later in Maugham's career, but themselves lacking a narrative that I felt fully engaged with. Either that, or maybe different authors, when read a good number of years after their heyday, need a certain amount of time for their style to really click with the reader. I'm usually impatient when dealing with new to-me authors I decide I don't like, but with Maugham I always had the feeling that he was a brilliant but I didn't understand him yet. The Moon and Sixpence changed that.

The 200-and-a-bit page novel (released following Maugham's most widely-praised book Of Human Bondage, which I have on the to-read shelf) was inspired and re-engineered by the real-life story of the French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (of whom I knew nothing bout prior to this). A mercurial figure whose artistic genius wasn't appreciated until after his death, Guiguin's obsession with his art at the expense of everything else in his life must have peaked the interest of an author who cares much about portraying the human capabilities for obsession. Under Maugham's re-imagining, Guiguin became the English Charles Strickland; a character who left a massive impression upon me. Rather than have Strickland narrate or use an omniscient narrator, Maugham chooses to go the route of The Great Gatsby, creating a surely self-representative unnamed writer to recount the key occurrences of Strickland's later life, from both personal contact ('friendship' would be a slight exaggeration) and later investigating second-hand accounts from others.

Stern Maugham
 This degree of seperation between Strickland and the audience is Maugham's masterstroke, as it retains enough of an element of mystery to keep Strickland as an enigma. He is, by the standards of normal civilised humans, a detestable figure; a stockbroker who suddenly leaves his unsuspecting wife and children in London with not a care for them, moving to Paris to live in poverty while persuing his obsessive need to paint. He is similarly fowl to those who treat him as a friend in Paris, callously taking what he needs from them without remorse, offering in return only a dry wit and total honesty. Ingrained in his artistic mind is a contempt for demands of society that somehow adds a pureness of personality that I found constantly compelling to read about. Unlike Jay Gatsby he is not a nice man, but his presence is the same. As the narrator loses personal contact with Strickland and later investigates what became of the posthumously famous artist, the sense of detatchment from the truth grows, and so Strickland's new life in the remoteness of Tahiti adds more mystery to the image of the unique character.

I massively, massively enjoyed The Moon and Sixpence from beginning to end, drawn in by the magnetism of the characters and crispness of Maugham's prose. Though I have almost no interest in art, Maugham presented an evocative, resonant world among poverty in Paris, driven by a fascination with a man who doesn't appear to fit, and whom bluntly challenges any typical social conventions that get in his way. Maugham's writing is just superb, whether it be the battling dialogue or careful conclusions from a considerate narrator, and it had me reading faster and more consistently than each of his prior works I looked at. I know this is asking for disappointment, but I hope that my future experiences with him offer the same kind of enjoyment.

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.