Book Review – Peace On Earth, The Ghost Road

An Unhappily Prosperous World

(Originally published in L:Scene magazine, February 1996)

It must be that famed Polish sense of humour. It lies in the art of being dryly hilarious about something of the utmost seriousness. Even Roman Polanski made Dance Of The Vampires.

So it is with dear old Stanislaw Lem and his latest book Peace On Earth (Andre Deutsch – £14.99). He’s been writing the most extraordinarily imaginative books for decades now and as he gets older, so he grows funnier. Still living in Krakow – the universal acclaim for his books has yet to make him move to some Western literary hotbed – his books have been a bit thin on the pasture recently. So it was with some delight that Peace On Earth was received.

The story is typical Lem. Ijon Tichy, our unflappably stoic hero, has been on a secret mission to the moon which has not only left him with amnesia but two separate personalities, thanks to the two hemispheres of his brain being forcibly separated. With two personalities controlling each side of his body, he has to find out why this has happened and whether he might be in possession of some top secret military facts which his less dominant side is keeping under wraps.

Around this, Lem wraps a beautifully portrayed satire of espionage and military buildups. All weapons have been sent to the moon to fight amongst themselves, but the people back on Earth are missing them. Whoever finds out whether the moon is beyond intervention will have the world in their power. Lem leaves no moment of pomposity unturned as he wheedles every ridiculous possibility out of the paranoia and mistrust of an unhappily prosperous world.

And of course it’s all deadly serious. Tichy is as dislikable narrator as is possible. He treats everyone with a disdain which they don’t always deserve. Hollywood would describe this main character as ‘impossible to sympathise with’. I’m sure Lem wouldn’t have it any other way.

And though it all there’s Lem’s wit, dry enough to make a Martini. There is no character or situation which is not wrung through the mangle of Lem’s barbed observations. You know you are guaranteed another jaw dropping aspect of this world and a scathing scintilla of wit at the turn of the page.

Now after all that do I have to actually ask you to get this book? And while you’re at it, get his other books as well. They may not be as funny but they’re just as fun.

The Ghost Road (Penguin – £6.99) was the Booker Prize winner of last year, in which a supposedly serious novelist delivers the third part of what we must now call a trilogy. David Eddings look out.

Not that it stopped every critic in the land reacting with slavish hunger and effusive verbiage at the latest book from Pat Barker, the follow up to Regeneration and The Eye In the Door. Set in the closing months of World War I the narrative picks up once again on the story of Billy Prior, professional Interesting Character: homosexual, shellshock victim, asthmatic, working class officer, former spy and a bit of a nutcase deep down.

Surrounding him are a bunch of real people. Barker is nothing if not a name dropper and if you happened to have read Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That then you may recognise these bods. From Siegfried Sassoon to Wilfred Owen to Lewis Carroll, you too can wade in all that reflected glory. If Barker were to write a fourth book my money’s on Lawrence of Arabia being the special guest star.

Having an ‘in’ on these people, especially if you’ve read the previous two volumes, makes The Ghost Road very readable. A novelist can’t really go wrong with the first world war and Barker presents us with a paradoxical book, vibrating with the nervous energies of characters who have witnessed the war in all its horror but can’t avoid its almost macho pull. She also has a genuine talent for those little insights into the human condition, especially inherent class structures that Mary Wesley would chew her own foot off for.

Around all this sociology we have the figure of William Rivers (another real life character) the elderly psychiatrist who treated Prior and now spends his time drawing stocking tops on paralysis victims and thinking back over old times. Somehow he makes a connection between Charles Dodgson, the vicar who told him stories when he was a child, and the strange rituals of a group of ex-headhunters in Africa where he was assigned as a student doctor.

If all this has already got your attention then that’s what the book is supposed to do. Barker writes for literary reviewers in Hampstead who are eternally relieved not to have to read another turgidly written ‘novella’ about how a ‘relationship’ went ‘wrong’. She won the Guardian Fiction Prize for The Eye In The Door, a competition deliberately set up to provide an alternative to the unreadable rubbish which gets nominated for the Booker Prize each year. Then she went and won the Booker over the seemingly unassailable Salman Rushdie, a provocative gesture on behalf of the judges. But through all the cultural politics Pat Barker is nothing more than the sensible person’s Iris Murdoch.


Book Review – Got Your Back, End of the Century, The F Word, Manchester, England

Gangsta Flippin’

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, September 1999)

Chances are, the world of Gangsta Rap is something that you know absolutely nothing about, aside from being aware that the people involved tend to swear a lot, get killed or locked up and clearly don’t know how to spell. That was all I knew as well, being the averagely frightened middle-class Caucasian that I am, but Got Your Back (Boxtree, £9.99) by Frank Alexander (with Heidi Siegmund Cuda) helped get me some what I believe is referred to as ‘education’.

Alexander was Tupac Shakur’s bodyguard, right up to the moment when his job description was thoroughly compromised by Shakur getting killed in a drive-by shooting. For a bodyguard, Alexander comes across as surprisingly intelligent and caring, lovingly detailing all of Shakur’s movements in his final year on Earth in a dry, just the facts ma’am tone. Only occasionally does he dip a toe into the jacuzzi of sensationalism, despite plenty of opportunities provided by Shakur’s energetic lifestyle. In fact Shakur doesn’t come out of this at all well; portraying every stereotype of the egomaniac young pop star craving serious respect and serious money and unable to realise that the two can’t be reconciled. Add in a serious gun fetish and you’ve got the perfect twisted modern celebrity who positively defies you not to hate his guts.

But despite all this Alexander clearly liked him. His sadness at his death – and the fact he was unable to prevent it – comes across as genuine, as does his annoyance with Tupac’s label Death Row, who blamed Alexander for the murder. Death Row doesn’t come out of this story at all well either, but that’s expected. What wasn’t expected is how fascinating this seemingly basic story is – detailing a world and a lifestyle which you’ll never experience.

The U.S.’s obsessions with the Great American Novel can also be a source of fascination, as it seems the entire population is currently writing their version of it. Blame Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, who let it be known that such a thing could exist. Kurt Anderson is the latest American to have a go and his End of the Century (Headline, £17.99) is a worthy attempt to apply millennium fever to our nutsoid obsession with the latest technologies. Carefully passing a laser-sharp eye over modern totems like mobile phones and the Internet (natch – soon all novels will be, in some way, about the Internet), he satirizes the vacuities of modern life to amusing effect, using the same archetypal central characters – in this case a money-obsessed couple working in the media – that all Great American Novels tend to do. Like Tom Joad, Yossarian or Hannibal Lecter, GANs want their characters to be verbs as well as nouns.

A word that is both verb and noun, as well as adjective, adverb and transitive simile is, of course, fuck. Despite its ‘underground’ nature, it is probably the most commonly used word in the world, able to transcend almost every vagary of language. I once heard a huge blazing argument in a Chinese restaurant, entirely conducted in baffling Cantonese. However, like that Fast Show sketch where the words Chris Waddle kept popping up out of the nonsense, the word ‘fuck’ made heartwarmingly common appearances.

Trivia such as this and many more features in a book that is one of those ideas that you wonder why nobody has thought of before. The F Word (£5.99, Faber and Faber), edited by Jesse Sheidlower, collects everything you ever wanted to know about our heavily consonanted friend, from its origins in 15th century Germany to such modern icons as Kenneth Tynan, the Sex Pistols sparring with Bill Grundy and the helplessly profane Jerry Springer Show, complete with details of the repetitive strain injury suffered by the man operating the bleep machine. Both an academic treatise on an unfairly maligned subject and thoroughly entertaining dissection of something more insidious than Mel C and McDonalds combined, The F Word is the book of the year so far, and a perfect Christmas stocking filler for Granny.

Manchester, England (£12.99, Fourth Estate) is a book about everyone’s favourite Northern city after all the other ones. It’s bad enough that people still think there is some kind of spirit that inhabits the streets and turns every band and footballer to grow up there into world-beaters, without having this sort of hopelessly reverential pile of crap as well.

Book Review – Iain M. Banks: Look To Windward

Lapsed Pacifist

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, December 2000)

It is with sweaty nervousness that the spine is cracked on the latest book to plop on my doormat. Possibly my favourite author and possibly my favourite series of stories at the moment can cause palpitations in the sturdiest of hearts. What if it doesn’t compare with what’s gone before? Iain M. Banks’s Look To Windward (Orbit, £16.99), the latest Culture novel, will be arresting my attention for the foreseeable.

I’m strongly of the opinion that, much like the works of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen were seen as populist fluff but are now heralded as great literature (whilst those books of the time which really got the critics frothing have disappeared without trace), so Banks’s anthology of tales from a futuristic, and very Socialist, society will come to be seen as classics in years to come.

For a start they are populist; that this is ever thought of as a bad thing is the biggest crime most highbrow critics have ever bestowed upon printed fiction. Iain Banks, when addressing matters termed science fiction, doesn’t write book you exactly struggle through. His first Culture book, Consider Phlebas, was a rip-roaring space opera deserving of a multiplex movie. That he added some gorgeous themes and parallels to what was a very basic plot didn’t hurt either. This stuff of ‘hard’ literature should always enrich a story, never replace it.

Recently, he seems to have been seduced by the allure of the literary crowd. His last Culture book, Excession, was dislikably obtuse as all hell and seemed to be the work of an author who no longer respected his own creation. People can laud Revolution No. 9 for its bravery all they want. It doesn’t exist on the same level as I Am The Walrus. Thankfully, Banks seems to have learnt this lesson as Look To Windward returns to what Banks does so well.

In fact there has never been a Banks book that looks so much to his past. But this is no self-reverential return to past glories. Here, Banks knowingly plays with the perception of his toys. Even the now-expected role call of space ships’ names is playfully presented as a not-entirely serious drunken conversation. It’s as if the author knows that people are compiling lists of these things on the internet. But at least we still get a warship called Lacking That Small Match Temperament.

Look To Windward, despite its gravedigging in the past, possesses a beautiful originality. It’s a mature work, not afraid to pace its story much slower than those early space battles. The dedication to the now largely forgotten Gulf War veterans is apt here, as Banks contrasts the Culture population’s happy, consequence-free delight in death-defying games with the livid scars of those who played the game for real.

This book has as many parallels and themes as Banks’s recent, more stodgy output, but it dares to spin these off a fascinating story that slowly constricts you until you can feel the tightness in your stomach. Sub-plots slowly converge but never in a way you were expecting. As with Consider Phlebas it has a sort of inexorable inevitability but never strays into contrivances. Events happen logically but never predictably. Much like real life; that state that never seems to appeal much to most writers, who tend to celebrate their ironic fictionality. You believe in this story, despite it happening half a galaxy away on a huge artificial ring world.

Iain Banks has virtually reinvented science fiction, dispensing with much of its menky technobabble and introducing a level of literary intelligence and outright political comment that is slowly being taken up by others. And, through all this intellectualizing, he still writes stuff you actually want to read. The generations of tomorrow will be grateful and I can return this book to the shelf satisfied that the great man has done it again.

Book Review – Will Self, Bill Bryson, Joanne Harris and Jamie Oliver

Unmarked Graves

(originally published 1/9/00 in TVS Magazine)

Will Self is an undeniably odd fish. Purveyor of cartoons which were as unfunny as they were self-indulgent, possessing a name straight out of a Martin Amis novel and as drug-addled and pretentious as a late sixties Yoko Ono exhibition. Nevertheless, he can write the odd good novel as his last book Great Apes finally attested. How The Dead Live (Bloomsbury, £15.99) is a book with an intriguingly barmy premise: when people die, they go to Dulston in North London.

Drawing on meditations about his own recently deceased mother, Self’s story centres on Lily Bloom, an abrasive pensioner who has succumbed to cancer. She is guided through the Dulston spirit realm by an Aborigine, meeting those members of her family who are dead and watching over those members of her family who are still alive. It’s a close call between who she disapproves of the most. This fascinating premise is, typically, almost ruined by Self’s pretensions to a wholly imaginary notion of great literature, of the sort that would have Charles Dickens or Scott Fitzgerald – looking down from their own versions of Dulston – telling him to lay off the night-visions and the thesaurus. And that’s before we get to Self’s preoccupation with tabloid-esque puns, which by rights should be buried in an unmarked grave for the good of mankind. Like many of his generation, Self is eager to wind up his audience, so he shouldn’t be too surprised when people give up on this half-way through and never go near his books again. It’s how he wants it.

It’s hard to know what Bill Bryson expects from his audience, although he’s unlikely to have expected the critical mauling his latest Down Under (Doubleday £16.99) has received. Well, I’ve read the book from front to back. I’ve also read it back to front, upside down and even sniffed the glue on the bindings. The only thing the book seems guilty of is being written by successful writer Bill Bryson. It seems that for daring to be popular, he has practically invited the derision dished out by that wonderful species of pond scum known as the British book reviewer.

Down Under is a Bill Bryson book about Australia, and as such does the usual thing of both conforming and subverting our pre-conceived assumptions about the nation. So we get deadly spiders and heaps of sunburn as well as urine-drinking and lifestyles of the Aussie rich and famous, shot through with an unforced sense of humour. But Bryson, in the eyes of his critics, has now been taken down a peg. Serves him right.

Catholicism is this year’s big thing. Last year it was the Holocaust – the year before that it was serial killers. These latter two are undeniably Bad Things, but whether worshipping Papal Infallibility is necessarily as bad is a tough call I, as a Proddy dog, am not about to make. Joanne Harris thinks otherwise, and has here presented a little morality tale called Chocolat (Bantam, £6.99), where the strictures of the Catholic Church during its Lenten abstinence are contrasted with a pesky woman who wants everybody to eat chocolate. Chocolate is tastier, certainly, and probably more spiritually fulfilling, but it doesn’t half show on your hips.

The “Jim Morrison of cookery” Jamie Oliver is back with the Return of the Naked Chef (Michael Joseph £20). He may make crap adverts and be an all-round annoying kind of guy who describes his publishers as ‘pukka’ without embarrassment but, er… actually there is no but. Strict but fair, that’s me. Jamie Oliver may make a ton of money from this stuff, and his wedding pictures may be an ‘exclusive’ on the front page of Heat, and he may be mates with Zoe Ball, but he’s still an annoying git, going through life thinking he’s a character from a Guy Ritchie film. Stick that up your Aga.

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