Friday, 27 February 2015

Paul Auster- Winter Journal

Winter Journal
Faber & Faber

Paul Auster

“Most other people, your wife included, with her unerring inner compass, seem to be able to get around without difficulty. They know where they are, where they have been, and where they are going, but you know nothing, you are forever lost in the moment, in the void of each successive moment that engulfs you, with no idea where true north is, since the four cardinal points do not exist for you, have never existed for you. A minor infirmity until now, with no dramatic consequences to speak of, but that doesn’t mean a day won’t come when you accidentally walk off the edge of a cliff.”

After his last piece of fiction, 2010's Sunset Park, Paul Auster suggested (though I can't seem to find the quote) that he might be done with fiction. I don't quite believe that, at least not completely, but for now it has resulted in the author switching his focus primarily to an alternative obsession and writing a thematic sequel to his first notable work. From almost thirty-five years ago that book was The Invention of Solitude, consisting of Auster's personal memoirs relating to the recent unexpected death of his father. I found it to be a powerful, absorbing read. Approaching Winter Journal, though, I was admittedly more apprehensive.

Cool Auster
As Auster recognises in his prose, Winter Journal was 'inspired' (if that isn't an inappropriate term) by the death of his mother, naturally causing another outburst of emotions and memories from an extremely introspective writer. As a die-hard Auster fan I was quite happy to read another memoir, but already it became hard to ignore the fact that he might have already drained his personal anecdotes in previous releases. The aforementioned Solitude took a serious look into the structure of his family and upbringing, The Red Notebook (later released as part of The Art of Hunger) took a scattershot look at notable incidents of coincidence and apparent fate in Auster's life, and Hand To Mouth was a more amusing, honest look at Auster's life as a struggling student and aspiring author.

That leaves the twenty years or so since Hand to Mouth (1997) to cover, and while that seems a long enough time I doubt that the latter, success-filled years of an established author are anywhere near as interesting as his origins. Auster must have realised that, and as a consequence Winter Journal again takes in the whole scope of Auster's life until that point, this time (as the title suggests) looking at it all from the perspective of a much older man observing the changes and declines in his physical well-being. Not really an immediately exciting concept, I know.

Henry Holt & Co. Publishing
The key stylistic choice that essentially defines the novel as a whole (and which I probably should've mentioned by now) is that Auster goes the Slaughterhouse-Five route of chronologically flying all over the place with each paragraph- loosely following his themes to connect each one. As a result of this division each paragraph gains its own sense of relevance and own artistic identity, of a fashion; quickly switching between drama, tragedy or comedy when required. There's also the sense that each segment carries its own sense of poetic integrity, its own evocative notions and balance of ideas and style. Earlier on in the book I found this seemed to make an easy read, such was the variety.

Unfortunately I found it became less and less interesting the further I read. Despite being only 230 pages long in a typically-modern large font, Winter Journal outsays its welcome two thirds of the way through, where the lack of a particular journey and too much of a focus on mundane life events (mundane to me, anyway, obviously not to Auster, but compared to his usual standards of intricate stories quite mundane) made it fairly clear that Winter Journal is ultimately a self-indulgent project. Don't get me wrong,. Auster has clearly achieved enough to justify a personal side-project, and there are some genuinely emotionally resonant sections, but as a whole there's not enough interesting content to keep this up to Auster's usual standard. Considering  that his next book Report from the Interior is a companion piece, I'm worried that the inevitable future review of it will be even less flattering.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

John Buchan- The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps
Pan Books

John Buchan

“If you’re going to be killed you invent some kind of flag and country to fight for, and if you survive you get to love the thing”  

I have to begin by admitting my ignorance; I started reading John Buchan's adventure novella The Thirty-Nine Steps without knowing anything about it, save from the fact I found it in the 'crime' section of the bookshop, that I'd vaguely heard the title (a very good title) somewhere before, and that the cover of the edition I bought were so evocatively pulp in style that it added to the aura of the whole thing before I'd even opened it. One hundred and forty pages later, and I was left ruminating over a well-regarded piece of genre fiction that stands out through helping to define a developing style of action story, but which lacked enough quality of its own to be really worth recommending.

John Buchan
Alhough Buchan would later become known for expanding the adventures of the lead character of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Richard Hanney, into a series with four sequels, the author's dedication essentially explains his intended purpose of replicating the style of a typical US 'dime-novel', or a 'shocker', where almost-unbelievable drama drives the reader on, often at the expense of any kind of quality prose. Yet looking back at the book one-hundred years later it's now offered far greater gravitas than that, as a dual pioneer of both the classic twentieth century spy novel and what I suppose we now call the modern day thriller novel.

I only took a certain amount of pleasure from reading it, thanks to its simple design. Buchan quickly introduces Richard Hanney shortly after his move to London upon returning from colonial Africa- during a time where tensions across Europe are high and war seems inevitable. As these things go, Hanney meets a panicked American named Scudder who claims to be a spy, and who tells the apparently very trustworthy-looking Hanney about a plot to assassinate the Greek Premier on his upcoming trip to London. Hanney allows Scudder to hide out at his place, but a few days later finds him dead with a knife through his heart... with Haney set-up to seem the most likely suspect. He flees the scene (though not without an ingenious plan) and heads for the safety of the Scottish highlands, with his only evidence an encrypted notebook left by the victim, but determined to clear his name and avert the assassination.

Essentially the novella is a series of dramatic set-pieces, where Hanney must use his wits and his fists to escape difficult odds, investigate the murderous cabal who're quickly on his trail, and clear his name with Her Majesty's finest. Behind all this is the insinuation of a much bigger political plot, of course now known to us in real life as this little thing called World War I; causing Hanney to quickly morph from an unfortunate victim of circumstance to a highly-capable, self-motivated patriot, all within a very short page span. With so much plot, including a lot of travelling around, and so little page-count, stylistically Buchan's prose is quite minimalist; not like Charles Bukowski and his powerful, punctuating statements, but like an author too eager to rush to the finish line.

Not that I particularly wish to downplay Buchan's talent; he's clearly a decent writer with an eye for creating a certain mood, and his speedy pacing does help create the lasting impression of a breakneck thriller... but to me it still absolutely needed an extra fifty pages. Not for extra plot, simply to expand upon the events already here, particularly towards the conclusion of the story. It felt to me as if Buchan put less and less detail in as he progressed further, sacrificing meaning for pace, and as a result the supposedly dramatic conclusion culminating in Hanney's final escalation into a deadly super-spy (he's surely a heavy influence on Fleming's Bond) is given so little detail it felt of little importance.

As a specifically experimental type of storytelling though, it clearly was a great success as portrayed by its lasting cultural impacy (helped of course by Alfred Hitchcock's famous adaptation, which I haven't seen but will look for). It was mostly enjoyable, easily read in one sitting, and Hanney's character sits nicely between the classic adventure style and the more exciting spy fiction set to develop with the aid of landmark books such as this. Very much worth reading, but perhaps only once.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

John Wyndham- The Kraken Wakes

The Kraken Wakes

John Wyndham

“I'm a reliable witness, you're a reliable witness, practically all God's children are reliable witnesses in their own estimation--which makes it funny how such different ideas of the same affair get about.”

Like everybody else in the known 'verse, the first and until now only John Wyndham novel I'd read was of course Day of the Triffids- his 1951 apocalyptic science fiction novel about a deadly invasion of extraterrestrial fauna, the novel that made his name and is now regarded as a must-read classic for fans of the genre. To be completely honest though that was a good few years ago and I dare say I didn't pay as much attention as I should've, so I can't give any more detailed thoughts than that I remember quite enjoying it. It didn't strike me as a genre-transcending piece of brilliance, but as a well-constructed fantasy thriller, inspired mostly by standard-bearers H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rather than Wyndham's more recognisable contemporaries Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

John Wyndham
The Kraken Wakes was Wyndham's first novel following Triffids, and it quickly shows his willingness to follow up on that success with a similar plot. The copy I found is the same edition as the cover above, the images alone from the start conjouring up the right connotations for such a piece of fifties sci-fi. The story wastes no time in delving into another unexpected planetary invasion; the opening frames the rest of the narrative as the personal testimony of EBC (yes) news reporter Mike Watson, faithfully accompanied by his wife Phyllis; their own uncensored recollections of the slow invasion of Earth by hostile but unseen alien forces.

Over the course of 200+ pages, Watson recalls the initial sightings of mysterious shooting-star like objects falling into the deepest parts of the world's oceans, and the increasing panic, disbelief and paranoia of the human race as shortly after ships begin sinking without trace. While Watson and a few others close to the heart of the matter come to the correct conclusion of an alien invasion, the general public as a whole and governments around the world are extremely reluctant to agree, instead preferring to blame each other. By the time undeniable proof forces the human race to come to a concencus. it is far, far too later, as the aliens' ultimate plan is put into place and the Earth is changed forever.

It's dramatic, world-breaking stuff, and I'd wager it'd make a good modern-day Hollywood adaptation. I found the pacing to be unforunately too drawn-out across the majorty of the novel, but there was just enough progressive action in segments, leading the reader with a slight increase of pace towards the final act. For me though, it was too little, too late to have much of an impact beyond the recognition that some of Wyndham's ideas were quite interesting, as there was far too much else that just wasn't. The main overall problem for me was the tone of the narration, which then effected the other features of the story.

The character of Watson was initially an appealing one; amiable, polite and unmistakably English. His almost-naive optimism and relentless good manners seemed like a veil to cover a deeper character when put under pressure, but though there was a growing introspective intensity as things became calamitous it never became a particularly strong one. Somehow Watson and his wife stay unruffled despite the world falling apart around them, and this British steel damages the legitimacy of the alien threat. This wouldn't matter if Wyndham were a better philosopher, but he's not. That's not to say he doesn't have a good eye for some political criticism; his depiction of the world's governments as made inept through the paranoia of the west/east divide has some Orwell to it.

Ultimately the main flaw of The Kraken Wakes is that it just doesn't have enough interesting content to justify the length, not enough direct sci-fi or action for the genre, and not enough philosophising, satirising or post-modernising to be anything more. Wyndham hits upon some interesting ideas, but I think was hamstrung by some of the details of his plot, in particular the constant separation between the human race and this new threat. I'm all for an heir of mystery, but Wyndham gives so little away about the invaders that he makes them generic and uninteresting, unlike the distinctive Triffids of his past successes. I don't want to call it a bad book because it's not; the plot makes sense and Wyndham's prose is well-constructed- but it is the very definition of a three star science fiction book, entertaining enough in its way but with nothing new leaving any kind of lasting impression.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Not Books XI

TV Shows-

Prison Break- Season Four (2008-2009)

Prison Break; a nice idea for a series, with just enough effort (or budget) put into it to fool audiences into believing that it might at some point become good. After finally reaching the fourth series (after taking a massive break between two and three, then powering through the latter though it was not good at all), I was encouraged by the first round of episodes. Unlike previous series, where the characters' joint focus was on achieving one big task (like escaping prison for example) that they failed to do over and over again until the final episode, the writers smartly broke up the character's goals into episode-size portions, at least for a little while. Having finally pushed themselves smack bang in the middle of the mysterious conspiratorial events, the main group of characters are offered immunity from prosecution if they just help out the CIA (or FBI, or whatever, I can't remember) in bringing down the evil Company and procuring the mysterious Cylla device.

The existence of Cylla was like a carrot dangling on a stick for the audience; just what the hell is it? To this extent I enjoyed the first ten or so episodes of this series more than I'd ever enjoyed the show before, thanks to some decent characterisation and fast-moving action. Well, I say 'decent characterisation', but what I mean is 'decent characterisation if you imagine this is a new show', because as long as you're able to ignore just about every prior relationship between them prior to this then it's quite good. At the half way point of the series though, it just falls off a massive, massive cliff where it seems like the writers run out of prepared material and so instead come up with a bit of cliched nonsense ('oh nos my family were behind everything in the first place'), followed by another ten episodes of character juggling, where the regulars run around from place to place to waste time, until they reach the final episode and everything is resolved in the most anticlimactic way possible. Oh, then at the very end they jump forward for a short scene six years in the future, where it's revealed that the important character who viewers were supposed to be caring about ten minutes earlier is dead now.

Oh yeah, and there's a feature length DVD-only episode called The Final Break an episode showing the fate of the surviving characters and giving them one last heist to pull off. It also resolves the mystery of what happened to the aforementioned dead character, and not-surprisingly the answers are boring and worthless. Pretty much Prison Break in a nutshell, actually.


Red Dwarf II (1988)

Though I don't think the first series of Red Dwarf blew anyone away upon first release, it was popular enough for the BBC to quickly commission a second. Red Dwarf II returns to the scene of the last human, a hologram, a senile computer and a humanoid life-form evolved from a pet cat, flying through space three billion years from home. While it's not one of my favourite series on an episode-by-episode basis, creators Doug Naylor and Rob Grant wasted no time in developing the show further from origins, coming up with more varied ideas for episodes that allowed the crew to get off the ship. Red Dwarf I was very funny, but heavily focused on the character relationship between Dave Lister and Arnold Rimmer set on the mundane early ship sets, while series two brings more adventure to the forefront.

The first episode begins with that mindset, as the crew get off the ship in order to answer a distress call. There they meet the bumbling mechanoid Kryten, who leaves again by the end of the episode but who'd be back for good come series III. The next episode, Better Than Life shows the shows desire to vary up the scenery, but also their limited budget, as despite having a virtual reality compute game that can fulfill a person's every desire, the crew still somehow end up at the English seaside; probably the least likely destination for unbridled fantasy that I can imagine.

Queeg and Thanks for the Memory are two funny if limited episodes that lack the inventiveness of future stories, but go back to the formula of the first season, focusing on the character relationships in the face of misery. Stasis Leak is probably my favourite of the season, an imaginative time travel episode that adds a little more detail to the events that sent Red Dwarf three million years into deep space. Finally, Parallel Universe completes the season with a dash of continuity, following up on the series one episode Future Episodes to explain the mystery (or continuity head-ache) of how Dave Lister would manage to create two sons despite being the only human left in the galaxy. Not a great episode by any means, this one, probably the worst of early Dwarf. It doesn't set much of a stage for Red Dwarf III, but Grant & Naylor were ready to move the show into a more exciting direction upon its eventual return.



Total Recall (1990)

Another in a long list of movies I'd been meaning to watch since forever, Total Recall was mostly fun to watch but also somewhat disappointing, considering my lofty expectations. Like many I'd enjoyed director Paul Verhoeven's other two famous sci-fi movies, Robocop and Starship Troopers, and a couple of years ago I'd seen the 2012 remake of this film starring Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel. The remake was a piece of typical throw-away modern sci-fi in that the leads were as bland as it's possible for a human being to be, and the direction was... I can't even remember, so let's go with unmemorable. I did like the idea behind the plot though, and I had full faith that Vehoeven's original would make much better use of it.

Unfortunately I didn't count on the power of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's not that I don't like Schwarzenegger's performance in this film, because I do. He's a crummy actor, yeah, but he has amazing screen presence and a kind of dull idiocy that allowed me to believe that he really was confused by the strange identity-questioning plot of the film. The problem is that Schwarzenegger is obviously a massively famous action film star, and so about halfway through this film it transitions from an interesting post-modern sci-fi story to a normal Arnold Schwarzenegger film, with everything that entails. Again, I usually like typical Schwarzenegger films, even if they're objectively bad it can be easy to switch off your brain for 90 minutes, but in this case it seemed a waste of potential.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

In a move bound to make me popular amongst film fans on the Internet, after slagging off Total Recall I'm going to talk about how much I enjoyed the most recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. It's really just down to my expectations; I expected a lot from Recall and expected less than nothing from Turtles, and was pretty hesitant to even bother trying it beforehand. Honestly, I though I'd hate Turtles, especially with Michael Bay's name attached (the first Transformers is the only film I've ever walked out of the cinema on, and I've never seen the sequels), but in the end it was basically just a decent version of an early 90's Turtles cartoon bought to life with computers. It was juvenile, very simply plotted, and had some suspect humour, but that's kind of what I want from a Turtles cartoon, so it was fine. 


L: Change the World (2008)

I put off watching this, the third installment of the live-action Death Note anime franchise films, for a long while, since on the surface it seemed an almost utterly redundant concept. For those who haven't seen anything from the Death Note series, it was a successful Manga comic which was then adapted into an even more successful anime series, and then in to the live film versions. The first two Death Note films adapt the story fairly closely, and I found them to be quite enjoyable. The story of Death Note, by the way, consists of a highly intelligent but unfortunately psychopathic high school student named Light coming into possession of a Death Note; a small blank notebook formerly owned by a Japanese spirit of death that has the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it. Light is both the central character of the plot and the villain, and his nemesis emerges in the form of the young detective genius named simply L.

Through the course of the two films L eventually manages to outsmart Light, but only at the cost of his own life- though just not immediately. This third, spin-off film explores the final days of L where, during the final days of his life he becomes tangled up in a web of events involving a domestic Japanese terrorist group attempting to forcibly lower the population of Earth through a devastating virus, before taking over what's left. The key to understanding the virus lies within the prodigal genius mind of its creators' young daughter, who injects herself with the only sample of the virus in a fit of anger/stupidity. Much of the film consists of L and co. running around the suburbs of Tokyo, trying to outsmart the fairly generic bad guys, and to be honest there's not much else to add to that generic plot.

The key to the film though is the performance of Kenichi Matsuyama as L, who is intended to be the ultimate oddball maverick detective. Matsuyama's performance dominates every scene, full of idiosyncratic quirks very much in the manner of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, to the extent that it's impossible to take your eyes off him. It's necessary, because without him the film offers very little but genericism, but Matsuyama's distracts all attention away from that. Without the dominant Death Note storyline hanging over him, the character of L is given more room for emotion and compassion, and Matsuyama takes advantage of L's terminal condition to add more gravitas to the character's every gaze. That said, despite the quality of his performance and strength of the character, there simply wasn't enough quality anywhere else in the film to make it seem worthwhile.


The Lost Boys (1987)

To follow-up on my disrespectfully disappointed review of Total Recall above, I was also thoroughly unimpressed by The Lost Boys, having again raised my expectations too high. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't expecting an all-time classic, nor even just a horror-classic; I was after some genuine alternative-80's teen-punk action, and with The Lost Boys I was hoping for something in the mold of The Crow, or a John Carpenter movie. What I saw instead was a pretty confused film that didn't quite know if it wanted to be scary, cool, edgy or ridiculous, and as such felt like a disjointed mismatch of conflicting styles.

My biggest problem was with the performances, which I suppose tells you I was about twenty-years too late in watching this film; what's lovingly regarded as cheesy but iconic by the people I know who love this film, I found to be really substandard and unappealing. I hated pretty much every kid and adolescent actor in this, especially that stupid little ten-year-old kid who conspired to try and ruin every scene he was in by seemingly being the character The Simpsons writers based Poochie on. The thing is I can imagine that if I were the same age as the kid when I first saw the film then I'd probably have loved him, generally as a point of wish-fulfillment, but it was that kind of character design that clashed with the horror undertones. While I know The Lost Boys was never trying to be The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, any sense of danger is quickly averted by the sight of some annoying little kids successfully fighting the supposedly bad-ass vampires.

Anyway, as I said I think I saw this film far too late in my life for it to effect me, and by the time I did it reminded me too much of aspects of other films for me to take it seriously. I will say I did quite like the revelatory reveal of the true villain near the end, and found the portrayal of the teenage biker vampires to be fairly cool early on, seemingly influential in the design of a certain 90's television show starring a slayer of vampires (of which I have the '92 movie lined up to re-watch soon).  It probably deserves another chance one day, but then again life's too short.


Video Games-

Discworld (1995)
Perfect 10 Productions (PC)

In the twenty years since its release, the first graphic video game adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe has gained a reputation amongst hardcore adventure game fans as fun, but too off-puttingly difficult to be considered a classic of the genre, a general opinion that I completely understand. When I first played the game it was on rental from a local video store, and on the Sega Saturn of all consoles (a vastly under-appreciated console that I have fond nostalgic memories of), and anyone who's played this game will know that the concept of playing this game as a rental and hoping to complete basically any of it walkthrough-free is completely laughable. Even a few years later, when I did find a copy for Windows, it didn't take me a huge amount of time to eventually give in and find a walkthrough. As an aside, if there's anyone reading this that thinks it's lazy to do that in order to complete a game then I agree, you're completely right- but life's too short for me to spend forever trying to work out those godforsaken puzzles.

So before I get into the Discworld aspect, let's get the admittedly-negative gameplay analysis out of the way. Discworld is a straight-forward traditional 2-D point and click adventure game, in exactly the same vein as LucasArts games like Monkey Island, for example. The structure of the puzzles is almost identical too, working around an expanded version of MI's 'The Three Trials' concept, where each act of the game requires the player to gather a certain number of important objects (the opening act requires you to gather the items needed for a dragon-detecting magic spell, for example). In the case of this game, the developers put so much effort into the construction of each set of puzzles that it's both creatively very impressive and annoyingly overwhelming, essentially defining the game as a whole. On the one hand, looking back at the incredibly convoluted series of puzzles after not-long completing them shows them to be very well-crafted, having surely taken a long time to design and implement, but on the other hand the level of intricacy surely must deter the average player.

It also doesn't really help (from a difficult standpoint, anyway) that the solutions to the vast majority of the puzzles are almost entirely composed in the manner of typical Discworld humour, to the extent that I seriously doubt a player without any prior Discworld puzzles would be able to to figure them out. Some of the most fiendish are based around in-jokes from the novels that are barely hinted at in the game itself, and, again, the level of intricacy in figuring out not only how to solve them, but when and where are incredibly frustrating. I don't mind admitting that even when using a walkthrough some of the puzzles are so damned awkward that it's a joke in itself- especially considering that massive amount of inventory items are available to gather early on (most of which don't hint at their purpose), and there are a huge number of locations to discover, many of them which have their own sub-screens.

At the same time, the level of difficulty and content that makes this an annoying adventure game actually make it a superb window into the Discworld universe, and it was only during this recent playthrough that I realised how dedicated the developers were to rewarding hardcore Disc fans. It's release in 1995 makes it the same age as Maskerade, the eighteenth book in the series, but in style and content it seems more inspired by earlier installments in the series. It's an out-of-continuity story, since it's actually mostly a re-write of the plot of Guards! Guards!, where a bunch of idiots named the Elucidated Bretheren of the Ebon Night call forth a full-size monstrous (and snarky) dragon to the city of Ankh-Morpork. In this game Sam Vimes and the Watch have been removed as lead characters and been replaced by original Disc hero Rincewind (and the luggage, who acts as a walking inventory). The rest of the plot is adjusted accordingly, and essentially becomes just a backdrop excuse for the game to take the player around the Disc.

There are a huge amount of cameos and side-roles for popular Disc characters, and other thematic references to various Disc books, all of which gave me great joy. It's by no means encyclopedic (there's no Twoflower, Cohen, Granny Weatherwax or Vimes,  for example), but there were enough well-timed references to make me very happy. The graphics are obviously antiquated, but the retro-style visuals are assisted by some very nicely-drawn backdrops. The voice cast is limited to five which does become repetitive, but includes Brtish comic stalwarts Tony Robinson, Rob Brydon and Monty Python legend Eric Idle (as well as former Dr. Who John Pertwee). The amount of dialogue is also extensive, with long comic conversations taken from and inspired by Pratchett himself, so overall the game doesn't shortchange Discworld fans one bit.

With two sequels following, Discworld must have sold well enough with the ever-growing horde of Pratchett fams despite its fiendish difficulty. Twenty-years on it's not any better of a game and there are dozens of better adventures out there old and new for fans of the genre, but for big fans of Pratchett's fantasy universe it's highly recommended as an interactive tour, with enough charm and detail to make the effort worthwhile.



Tuesday, 3 February 2015

W. Somerset Maugham- The Narrow Corner

The Narrow Corner

W. Somerset Maugham

“When some incident has shattered the career you’ve mapped out for yourself, a folly, a crime or a misfortune, you mustn’t think you’re down and out. It may be a stroke of luck, and when you look back years later you may say to yourself that you wouldn’t for anything in the world exchange the new life disaster has forced upon you for the dull, humdrum existence you would have led if circumstances hadn’t intervened.”  

The last time this blog looked at a book from W. Somerset Maugham, it turned this reader into a veritable superfan of the author, determined to one day complete his bibliography. That book was the sublime The Moon and Sixpence, and, by complete coincidence, the next Maugham book I somewhat randomly chose happened to be technically a spin-off. As the author explains himself in his short introduction, the genesis for The Narrow Corner came from his nagging compulsion to fully explore an anecdote told to the prior novel's narrator by a grizzled old sea dog named Captain Nichols; about an incident some years earlier where he'd been hired to sail a murder suspect away from Sydney and around the south Oceanic seas. The idea refused to budge from his mind, and so thirteen years later came the publication of The Narrow Corner- part adventure, part thriller, all of it a compelling character study on the weaknesses of man.

Elderly Maugham
The structure of the novel is actually a fairly straightforward series of set-pieces, that by themselves contain a simple plot typically more reminiscent of a novella, or perhaps stage performance. The meat of the novel comes from Maugham's explorations of the themes and moral dilemmas provoked by the characters' experiences, portrayed through either long, thoughtful conversations between the protagonists or through Maugham's omniscient depiction of the thoughts of one character in particular. As the novel begins, Captain Nichols is indeed guiding a suspicious young Australian man through the South Seas, the irritable Fred Blake, who claims to be searching the area for a suitable location to invest in real estate.

On the (I believe fictional) island of Takana they encounter the enigmatic Englishman Dr. Saunders, who, against Blake's wishes, convinces the Captain to give him passage off the island, a place he has grown tired of. Saunders completes a trinity of opposing yet reflective personalities that Maugham uses to debate varying philosophies on life, resulting in the aforementioned long conversations spiked with introspective musings. Though the book is written with third person narration, Saunders seems to be very much Maugham's own persona inserted into the equation, and it is his thoughts that are directly explored in the prose, somewhat shaping the reader's impression of Captain Nichols and Fred Blake. Saunders tells little of his past, but seems to be a well-traveled unjudging sage of sorts, with a strong moral compass of his own but also compassion for the tribulations of those perceived as bad. He matches up very well with Nichols, who is himself a definite rogue; a pirate or a smuggler depending on the possibility of profit, but with a sense of good humour and self-justification strong enough to make him an amiable, likable rapscallion- or so it seems.

Fred Blake is the odd man out. Aggressive and insecure, he clashes with Nichols constantly, though Saunders as the middleman is able to discern that he's really a scared young man on the run. After the trio sail away from the island, and after Maugham has spent plenty of time establishing their personalities and creating a sense of foreboding, they find themselves stuck on a remote exotic island, where they meet the few Europeans settled there, including the spiritually and morally pure Dutchman Erik, and his beautiful fiance Louise. Erik stands as a shining example of a man who has achieved a form of nirvana, at peace with the world and himself, he exists as a marked contrast to his three cynical visitors.

The irresistible figure of Louise is more or less an alternative example of Chekhov's gun, in that her very existence is like a flagpole to the reader that events are about to head south. When they do, Blake also confesses the truth of his situation and how it began, and the direct parallels between his past and present bring further insight into the novel's primary themes regarding the nature of man's morality when put in pressing circumstances. There's a final revelation saved for the very end that I can't spoil but which prospectively turns the readers' final perspective regarding Maugham's themes on its head, depending on one's prior opinion of Captain Nichols.

I found the novel to be a quick, compelling read, albeit inferior in aura to other Maugham novels I'd read previously; lacking a magnetic personality like Charles Strickland in Moon and Sixpence or Oliver Haddo in The Magician. It's a much tighter story with a more cohesive resolution than those books, and in the fortnight since I finished it I've found the character motivations and decisions have stuck with me, cropping up in my thoughts with a deeper resonance than first thought. There is no true hero in the novel. Erik holds noble values, he crumbles when faced with the harsh realities of the wider world. Dr. Saunders is too morally ambiguous, though he understands the truth of events more than any other character. Captain Nichols is the most interesting of all, a lovable rogue whose good nature disguises an extremely malleable moral compass.

The Narrow Corner is another exemplary novel from Maugham. Short, structured, and easy to read, but with a deeper meaning permeating every detail. He continues to be one of the most rewarding writers of those that I'm following.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Hunter S. Thompson- The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary

Hunter S. Thompson
Written from 1960-1961, Published in 1998

“It was the kind of town that made you feel like Humphrey Bogart: you came in on a bumpy little plane, and, for some mysterious reason, got a private room with balcony overlooking the town and the harbor; then you sat there and drank until something happened.” 

The key detail that most book fans know about The Rum Diary is that it went unpublished for almost forty years, until professional Hunter S. Thompson fan Johnny Depp discovered the manuscript and convinced him to finally publish it. For Thompson's legion of fans this was great news, since though Thompson was a very prolific essay writer, with numerous collections available, his long-form work has always been somewhat thin on the ground; especially considering the longevity and popularity of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The question then became as to whether Rum Diary would actually be any good or not; since its original vanishing act occurred after numerous rejections from publishers- not a good sign- and it wasn't for another five years with the publication of Hell's Angels in Rolling Stone that Thompson's name was really made. With that in mind, I was a little paranoid that Rum Diary would be no better than an early curio.

Thankfully it seems like Johnny Depp knows a good manuscript when he reads it, because I found Rum Diary to be much more entertaining and polished than I expected- to the point where I'm scratching my head as to why it was originally rejected (with my only real theory being that publishers may have felt it to seem derivative of recent counter-cultural classics). Reading it over fifty-years later the tone of the narrative is pure (albeit-early) Hunter S, like his later work, built upon the close foundation of the author's own experiences. Thompson adapts his time spent in San Juan, Puerto Rico, turning himself into the character Paul Kemp; new employee at The Daily News, the only English language newspaper in the territory.

While struggling to adapt and survive in the tense Hispanic atmosphere, Kemp and his fellow outrageous American journalists get drunk and cause trouble throughout, constantly at odds with the locals in the aggressive post-colonial atmosphere. While Kemp struggles to establish himself and stay sane, he finds himself drawn to fellow journalist and drinker Yeamon, and his free-spirited girlfriend Chenault. Together the three of them delve further into the volatile nightlife, leading to dramatic and shocking events that finally drive them off the island. From a thematic viewpoint, the events of The Rum Diary fit perfectly within the range of past and future beatnik literature, to such a strong extent that it surprised me to contrast just how early this book was written compared to more famous and well-regarded examples. Primarily it's easy to compare it to Kerouac's On the Road, at least up to a certain extent when considering the activities that the characters get up to, but knowing Thompson's contempt for Kerouac it's easy to see how the two eventually differ, as The Rum Diary seems to me to have a far heavier focus on the inner moral turmoil of its central character.

It also puts Thompson's position with Charles Bukowski in a new light; Fear and Loathing was published the same year as Post Office, making them both icons of the 70's, but Rum Diary has ten years on that, as an example of the down and out thematic direction that newer authors had taken the examples of Fitzgerald. Thompson was well-known as an admirer of The Great Gatsby, and aspects of the character relationships and plot structure (the climactic revalations of helplessness in the face of the order of things) provide a template for Thompson's novel. The Rum Diary is not as impressive a stand-alone novel as these other examples; the fate of the newspaper is uninteresting, and the non-central characters interchangeable.

In conclusion, it was better late than never for The Rum Diary. Compelling, evocative and thoughtful, it would've been a massive shame had this remained in limbo. There are a number of other Thompson books that went unpublished due to his dissatisfaction with them, and I can only hope that they eventually see the light of day. Without Rum Diary, Thompson's career as a fiction writer is disappointingly thin, so the critical success of it suggests that fans have a lot to look forward to if a events conspire to expand his range of published novels.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Paul Auster- The Brooklyn Follies

The Brooklyn Follies

Paul Auster

Other Paul Auster Reviews- The Invention of Solitude - In The Country of Last Things - Moon Palace - Auggie Wren's Christmas Story - The Art of Hunger - Mr. Vertigo - Hand To Mouth - Timbuktu - The Book of Illusions - Oracle Night - Travels in the Scriptorium - Man in the Dark - Invisible

“As long as a man had the courage to reject what society told him to do, he could live life on his own terms. To what end? To be free. But free to what end? To read books, to write books, to think.”

In 2005, Paul Auster was coming off a six-year run consisting of three phenomenal novels. Seemingly determined to shed his reputation as a promising novelist to be recognised as the real deal, Auster did so in  style with three distinct, powerful novels that showcased his range and imagination as a talented postmodernist with a continually improving grasp on realistic human emotion; in 1999's Timbuktu he toyed with readers' emotions through writing from the perspective of homeless dog Mr. Bones. He followed with 2002's The Book of Illusions, a more complex story about the legacy of fictional silent film star genius Hector Mann, and continued with dark novel Oracle Night, refocusing on Auster's primary concerns of the meaning of identity and coincidence. The Brooklyn Follies, released just two years later, was under the pressure of matching-up to the collective twisted penmanship of that period while offering something new.

Auster's new approach, then, was in hindsight the obvious thing to do in order to create a new challenge for a man who, over the last twenty years, had mastered the art of alternative contemporary literature; he went completely back to basics, and wrote a novel without the aid of his once-impressive box of post-modernist tricks. Though Auster was lauded for the intelligence of the timing of his various unexpected techniques, perhaps by this point he simply tired of the pressure of coming up with another ingenious concept The Brooklyn Follies, then, is Auster's response; his most realistic novel yet, focusing on a busy period in the life of his central character Nathan Glass, where the remnants of his fractured family are brought back together following a series of dramatic events.

60-year-old Glass is at a pivotal point in his life, after having narrowly survived a battle with lung cancer and divorced his wife. This 320-page novel tells Glass' story upon his return to his native Brooklyn, where he meets the cast of characters set to change the rest of his life. At first he befriends his estranged nephew Tom and learns of the misfortunes of the separated side of his family, then Tom's charismatic and flamboyant boss Harry, and three three plot together to find a way of alleviating the financial difficulties of every day life. It's from this point that the novel begins to seriously differ from Auster's typical direction; though I was expecting the beginnings of a certain labyrinthine direction and perhaps a tinge of magical realism, in The Brookyln Follies Auster goes against these expectations to swing in the direction of a much more realistic human interest story.

I found it to be an easy, enjoyable read. Auster's central characters are likable and sympathetic, particularly the narrating Glass whose aged introspection and growth in confidence through the novel give it real direction. It's well-plotted and paced, with the shifts in tempo well-timed to prevent any dullness and emphasis the tempestuousness of this period in Glass' life. The central thread is revealed when, out of nowhere, Glass' nine-year--old great niece arrives on his doorstep, determined to stay while observing an apparent vow of silence, and as the protagonist moves to protect her he learns to reconnect and be there for other lost family members. 

Of all of Auster's novels it's relatively feel-good stuff, perhaps from an author at this point tired of the intense mystery and character misery of his earlier work. The catch to making this novel more accessible than most of his other work, though, is that it still has to be compared to it, and in comparison to Auster's best this falls short. The removal of all postmodernism or magical realism may be refreshing for Auster, but removes one of his most potent weapons. I'm not saying that every Auster book requires rampant postmodernism to be worth looking at, but his past novels decisively proved that he is at his best when incorporating certain aspects of the surreal. Moon Palace is the perfect example in a novel that doesn't break any storytelling rules but relies upon hints of surrealism through atmospheric depictions of larger than life, but technically possible situations. The Brooklyn Follies strictly keeps to real-life, and while it was engaging to read at the time, upon completion just didn't leave a particularly large impact. Overall an enjoyable, interesting read, but not up to the top standards of such a talented author.