May 11, 2009
A few months ago I predicted that fatherhood would restrict my reading and blogging frequency. I was right and wrong. I still find it possible – so far – to read as much as ever, but finding time to write full blog reviews of each book I read is becoming increasingly difficult. But some such books still deserve a bit of attention, so welcome to the roundup: a brief look at some recent reads. It may well become a regular feature.
Adam Foulds: The Quickening Maze
When I read Adam Foulds’ Costa-winning narrative verse The Broken Word, I felt that he is a writer who is going to be big – or as big as literary writers get to be – and that we will be hearing a lot more from him in the next few years. Reading his second novel, The Quickening Maze, confirms that view. It displays considerable talent in prose and an ability to set a large cast of characters in satisfying motion in a relatively short book.
The story concerns nature poet John Clare’s residence in High Beach asylum in the late 1830s (“a maze of life with no way out, paths taken, places been”). From my limited knowledge of the background, Foulds seems to stick to the basic facts while embroidering characters and dialogue, rather as he did with the Mau Mau uprising in The Broken Word. Clare appears, distracted by madness, as does Alfred Tennyson, who “moved slowly, as though through a viscous medium of thought, of doubt.” Central to the story is Dr Matthew Allen, who runs the asylum and has many extracurricular interests. Foulds follows his people through seven seasons, from winter with its “hard bounce of bright light” and “sparkling, almost painful air” to summer where “the thick leaves purred and bounced under sparkling strings of water”.
None of Foulds’ descriptive gift has deserted him – “the horses bowing their way up the hill”, a mineral sample “a glittering tumble of right angles, little walls and roofs jutting out from each other like a town destroyed by an earthquake” – and he arranges such a cast of characters, and individualises them so efficiently that he should be given some sort of conservation award for keeping the book down to 260 pages. He also manages to restore to literary respectability the words “very” and “really”, which is really no mean feat.
The Quickening Maze is a book which stimulates and demands a second reading, which is my way of admitting that I would need to revisit it to appreciate it fully. But yes, Foulds is here to stay, so get in on the ground floor and read him now.
David Eagleman: Sum
Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives is a series of short pieces – two to four pages each – each detailing an imagined existence after death. The clear model here is Calvino’s Invisible Cities, or Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. So we have ‘Circle of Friends’, where in the afterlife you see only people you have known in life:
No strangers grace the empty park benches. No family unknown to you throws bread crumbs for the ducks and makes you smile because of their laughter. … The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathises with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.
or ‘Metamorphosis’, where the dead occupy a purgatory and are only released after the living speak their name for the last time. “Tragically, many people leave just as their loved ones arrive, since the loved ones were the only ones doing the remembering.” Most people are sad to leave, but not those whose names have become detached from their essence, such as “the farmer over there, who drowned in a small river two hundred years ago. Now his farm is the site of a small college, and each week the tour guide tells his story. So he’s stuck and he’s miserable. The more his story is told, the more the details drift. He is utterly alienated from his name; it is no longer identical with him but continues to bind.”
This is a book which dallies with sentimentality, and with forty ideas, not all are of equal brilliance. But it’s an absolute delight to read, a tonic of compact ingenuity and cumulative power.
Philip Ó Ceallaigh: The Pleasant Light of Day
This is Irishman-in-Romania Ó Ceallaigh’s second collection of stories after the attention-grabbing Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse (2006). Unlike Sum, this is a collection of fully discrete stories, which suffer from being read in quick succession – or at least that’s my excuse for not having completed it yet. For a more comprehensive overview then, why not try some of the unequivocally orgiastic reviews it’s received in the press (“it’s a long time since I read a collection of stories so absolutely pleasing on every level”; “an author who is already touched by greatness”)?
Ó Ceallaigh’s narrators tend to be in a strange country, seeking something, open to anything. There is typically a wit and edge in the narrative voice, which makes the stories moreish despite their sometimes knotty concerns. Uncertainty, and the triumph of experience over hope, rules: “The clouds suggested they were not prepared to procrastinate much longer. But they had been saying that for a very long time.” Later:
There were very hot days, and electrical storms, and such insistent precipitation that rivers burst their banks and you could watch on television the houses of the country people being washed away in the floods. God had promised he would never drown the whole world again, but there were no guarantees that you were not going to get it on an individual or municipal level.
These stories, of sexual jealousy (‘A Very Unsettled Summer’) and political chicanery (‘My Secret War’) are serious and satisfying, but with a twinkle in the eye. The most eye-catching story on offer, however, is a pure wicked piss-take of Paulo Coelho, aptly titled ‘The Alchemist’. It is, if not laugh-out-loud funny, surely laugh-through-your-nose funny. In it, shepherd-seeking-wisdom Pablo goes on desert guided tours (“There was a flurry of dictionary-work among the Japanese”), is required to hold the toe of Napoleon in the “crack of his behind” to receive wisdom (“But isn’t that unhygienic?” “You’re no longer a shepherd, Pablo. Time to start washing more regularly”), and ultimately meets the Alchemist:
As they travelled by night across the desert, beneath the moon, they would converse.
‘Can you really turn lead into gold?’ asked Pablo.
‘That’s why they call me the Alchemist,’ said the Alchemist. ‘Among other reasons.’
‘How do you do it?’
‘The code is written on an emerald tablet. But really, immerse yourself in creation, because all creation is in every grain of sand. Also, listen to your heart.’
‘Yes, your heart can teach you the language of the Soul of the World, then you can read the omens and follow your destiny. The real treasure is following your destiny.’
‘Yes, I agree. Still, being able to make gold is very impressive.’
Pablo listened to his heart for a while. It told him all kinds of contradictory things.
‘Alchemist, my heart is telling me to follow my destiny. But also to go back to Fatima, right away, because I miss her terribly. There’s things I’d like to do to her, I don’t even have words.’
‘That’s fine,’ said the Alchemist. ‘Keep listening. When you get to my age you have all the words but the business itself is not nearly so interesting.’
‘Alchemist, I fear suffering, defeat, sadness, age and failure.’
‘That is the dark side of the Force, Pablo. Do not yield to fear. Fear of suffering is worse than suffering itself.’
‘Alchemist, I am full of fear, because men are approaching us in large numbers, on horseback!’
‘The Force is strong in you, Pablo. Control your fear!’
‘But Alchemist, they have guns!’
In the press reviews I’ve seen, ‘The Alchemist’ is singled out for criticism, as though its brilliant explosion of sly wit, and double-barrelled attack on an easy target somehow devalues the rest of the stories in the book. Don’t believe it: it’s worth the cost of the book itself, it shows another string to Ó Ceallaigh’s bow, and it’s extremely funny. You can read other stories by Ó Ceallaigh (though not any of the ones in this collection) here.