Friday, 21 September 2012

Birds and bullets

Two (brief) reviews for the price of one!

Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn and his squad, the Bravos, have returned as national heroes from active duty in Iraq. As they tour the US, everybody wants a piece of them – ironically, preventing them from fulfilling another cherished American image and spending more time with their families before returning to war. This novel covers a day in Billy’s life as he and the Bravos attend a Dallas Cowboys football game, form part of the entertainment at half-time, chat up cheerleaders, drink whiskey and coke and try to sell the rights to their stories to a major Hollywood producer. In this surreal pause in Billy’s life before he returns to combat, he is given the chance to reflect on the disconnect between his own experiences and the way the American public sees him.

Billy is an instantly sympathetic character, and it is through his eyes that Ben Fountain is able to convey the sheer weirdness of a certain type of American world-view. The comparison that most obviously strikes the reader is the contrast between the lower-class, badly paid, struggling soldiers, and the pampered, wealthy football players, who play out a mock type of battle without ever actually risking their lives. There’s also the Hollywood version of war that the producer is trying to promote through his fictionalisation of the Bravos’ story. However, through a couple of stylistic tricks that are never overused, Fountain conveys the impact of this experience on Billy. When fans bombard him with meaningless works like ‘nina leven’ and ‘curraj’, they scatter around the page like formless poetry. Billy isn’t stupid – indeed, his thought processes are, if anything, almost too complex and all-encompassing to be believable – but he’s simply unable to digest these crazy experiences.

If there are flaws in this novel, they’re Fountain’s choice to make Billy a conscript through his tangles with the law, rather than tackling the more difficult prospect of exploring the mind of a soldier who freely chose to go to war, and his tendency to focus so strongly on the ideological point he wants to make that he forgets everything else. However, this is a slight niggle, and in all other respects this is an excellent book – Billy’s grief over his dead comrade, Shroom, the characters of the other Bravos, especially Dime, and the scenes with his family are all well-written. I’m now keen to read more of Fountain’s work.

This brief novel is, on the whole, absorbing and beautifully observed. Set in the 1950s in an isolated Australian settlement, we follow the lives of Harry, a dairy farmer, Betty, who cares for a group of old men at a home for the elderly, and Betty's two children, adolescent Michael and the rapidly maturing 'Little Hazel'. Certain passages are exceptionally written; Harry's observations of his cows, or his fanciful daydream that they are a dance troupe that he must control, or Hazel's fears of being pecked on the head by a magpie, and her other notes on nature. However, Betty's relationship with the old men she looks after leads to some of the most touching scenes in the novel, especially when she pretends to exit the home and comes back in with handbag and coat as a visiting 'wife' for several of those whose minds are wandering. This novel is earthy and unflinching in its descriptions of sex and sexual desire, but these never felt gratuitous to me, except for the letters that Harry writes to Michael. These, I felt, should have been omitted; they were not only inappropriate, but deeply misogynistic in places, and accurate as this might have been as a depiction of the mindset of a provincial 1950s farmer, Carrie Tiffany did not explore this strand thoroughly enough to allow me to retain sympathy with Harry's character, which was a shame. Another addition to the novel that seemed to carry little weight was Harry's poems about the kookaburra family that he observes throughout the year; these dragged, were largely uninspired, and either paralleled the novel's plot too obviously or seemed to have little to do with the rest of the story at all. And because these poems took up so much space, we are left with something that feels more like notes for an excellent novel than the novel itself. However, Tiffany is clearly a very talented writer, and I'd like to read more of her work.

I've also just finished Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski - which was so brilliant I may have to wait some time to review it. I'm highly disappointed that it's currently his only novel...

Monday, 10 September 2012

Tigers Five: the red-weather variety

I’m slightly at a loss as to how to review this novel. Not only was this hyped heavily pre-publication – and subject to a rare bidding war between publishers – it has received glowing reviews from both readers and professsional reviewers since then. How to say that I found it not only cliched, but bloodless and boring? Usually, I would rely on the old chestnut that this ‘just wasn’t my kind of novel’ – unfortunately, it really is, and that was part of the reason I was so excited to read it in the first place.

Nick and Hughes are settling into a rather uncomfortable marriage after their long separation during the Second World War, as Nick expresses her ennui by drinking endless martinis and shocking the neighbours by wearing her new two-piece bathing suit in the garden. Nick’s cousin, Helena, is also newly married to the unreliable Avery, although Nick fondly remembers their camaderie during the war, when they drank gin from jelly jars and dealt with the horrors of disintegrating stockings. Fast-forward thirteen years and Nick’s daughter Daisy is struggling with the demands of adolescence during a hot summer at the Tiger House, thrashing her rivals on the tennis court but failing to win in games of flirtation. While Helena struggles with depression, her peculiar son, Ed, watches everything that is happening and begins to uncover secrets that have been long-buried. When the body of a local girl is found, these existing tensions inevitably rise to boiling point and relationships begin to break down.

From the back cover, one might assume Tigers in Red Weather is a long set-piece, something like LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, with the increasing summer heat proving the catalyst for emotional revelations. Actually, it spans more than twenty years, and suffers for it. At times, the plot seems to build momentum, drawing the reader in, but no sooner are we engaged then the years skip forwards or backwards, and what pace was gained is swiftly lost. This is particularly noticeable in the two sections set in the 1940s. The novel begins strongly, with the sense of pressure Nick feels expertly conveyed, and we immediately realise that she must find some release, or something catastrophic will happen. However, this immediate tension is resolved in a couple of pages – and the novel didn’t grip me again until another flashback to the 1940s, when temptation visits another character. Compounding this pacing problem, the novel uses the device of multiple narrators, which can be extremely effective – however, once we leave one character’s head, we never revisit them, which means that many of the stories feel artificially unfinished and foreshortened.

However, it wasn’t only these structural problems that made me feel this novel was a failure. Quite frankly, it didn’t seem sure what it wanted to be. Lisa Kraussman seems to be gesturing towards The Beautiful and Damned, but ends up with something that is closer to Revolutionary Road, but without that novel’s fascinating analysis and insight. These characters are not the decadent bohemians that Nick apes in her early chapters, but essentially ordinary upper-class people with banal everyday problems to deal with. The exception, of course, is the baffling Ed, but Kraussmann characterises him in such a way that pretty much every cliché you can imagine for such a boy is ticked off the list, with the unfortunate side-effect of making the novel’s plot fairly predictable. In consequence, the novel falls uneasily between two stools; it can’t decide whether it’s a glamorous thriller about avant-garde people who drink whiskey sours and take drugs and engage in exciting affairs, or whether it’s a much more mundane dissection of family life. It is at least new to read about characters who are both boring and dissolute.

Finally, I was not convinced by Kraussman’s writing. She faces the double challenge of writing individual voices for each of her characters, and placing these within a convincingly historical setting, and I believe she falls short on both counts. The five characters who narrate sound disconcertingly similar, and occasionally I found myself forgetting that we had in fact switched narrators. It’s difficult to detail this in a review, but one minor example is that both Hughes and Daisy describe Nick’s new skirt as ‘poppy-red’, a simile that seems too specific to be shared. And as for the history, the novel has been well-researched and it shows – far too much. It commits the irritating crime that a lot of historical novels share of name-dropping brands and details to create ‘atmosphere’ – for example, when Daisy lists her special possessions for little reason; ‘ten Archie comics; the Silver City Pink nail polish she had brought at the five and dime... a pair of oxidising copper clip-ons’. (Nick does a similar thing earlier on when she pointlessly itemises the contents of her trunk.) The most striking thing about this novel, in fact, is the title – borrowed from a 1915 Wallace Stevens poem – and although Kraussmann tries to live up to that evocation of a life starved of imagination, this wasn’t what I got from this.

Ultimately, I enjoyed reading most of this novel, but don’t believe the hype – this is light fiction, little more.

[For my other posts on supposedly tiger-related novels, see Tigers One, on Lionel Shriver's The Female of the Species, Tigers Two, on Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch, Tigers Three, on Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, and Tigers Four, on The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obrecht.]

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Third year at Hay-on-Wye

I've been back to Hay-on-Wye for the third year running, and came back with eleven books, after promising myself that I would be restrained - however, I'm pretty excited about reading all of them.

Last year's haul proved to be a bit of a mixed bag; of the novels I'd not yet read when I made last year's post, I thoroughly enjoyed Run (Ann Patchett) and An Equal Stillness (Francesca Kay), but didn't get on so well with Born Free (Laura Hird) and The Fanatic (James Robertson). The former was simply unremittingly bleak, and I did find myself wondering what the point of the novel really was, other than to illuminate such grim lives - having now read Laura Hird's collection of short stories, Hope, as well, my opinion has largely been confirmed, although a few of the stories in the collection did break the mould. It seems to me that Hird has a problem with voice - although Born Free features four narrators, a teenaged boy and girl and their parents, they all 'sounded' largely the same, as did the narrators of her short stories. As for The Fanatic, I found the modern sections of the novel interesting but struggled with the historic flashbacks - I've always thought that switching between the (distant) past and the present is a difficult trick to pull off, and I don't think Robertson quite manages it.

As for this year...

Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster: A collection of lectures which I've always wanted to read, and which I found in this lovely edition for the bargain price of £1.25.

The Home and the School by JWB Douglas: Purchased for reference for my PhD; an important work of British sociology from 1964 discussing how a child's background affects his or her performance in school. Not terribly exciting, unfortunately...

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: A novel which I have of course already read, but I seized the chance to replace my horrible Wordsworth Classics edition with this rather nice Penguin copy.

Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith: I've had my eye on this collection of essays for a while and eventually snapped a copy up. I've already read her essay on Middlemarch, which, given my love for George Eliot, I predictably approved of - her analysis of why the novel works, and why some critics have deplored the prominence given to characters such as Fred Vincy and Will Ladislaw, is extremely insightful (essays on the rest of Eliot's novels would also be gratefully received, Zadie Smith, on the extremely unlikely off-chance you read this...). Oh - and it goes well with the EM Forster, an inspiration of Smith's.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith: Which I will finally read at last. Although I thought On Beauty failed as a novel, it's evident Smith is a brilliant writer, so I'm looking forward to her debut. I really wanted to read her new novel, NW, but decided I ought to read this first.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy: This is for a book group I take part in with two friends from university. I wasn't bowled over by Small Island - it was a satisfying novel but a little paint-by-numbers, with thematic parallels slightly overplayed, so I'll be interested to see if she can do better in this story of the last years of slavery in Jamaica.

Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski: I had never heard of this writer before, but this, his debut novel, sounded intriguing. Set in Thailand, it promises 'Christian missionaries, mountain tribesmen, invisible demons and crazed anthropologists', and the opening is immediately engaging in a way that is somehow reminiscent of The Beach ('When he was a year out of Brown, my friend Josh O'Connor won a Thai beach vacation in a lottery in a bar. He spent two weeks on Ko Samui, decided that Thailand was home, and never left.')

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons: I picked this up for a bit of light reading and because it includes a lot of my favourite things in novels; country-houses, servants, abandoned villages, nostalgia, inter-war England. The first chapter seems to suggest it will be a good read.

The Andes and the Amazon by C. Reginald Enock: First published in 1907, I bought this to help in my research for the novel I'm writing at the moment, which is partly set in Ecuador and Peru in the 1890s. I think it's difficult to grasp how little Europeans knew about South America in those days - Macchu Picchu, for example, was not discovered until 1911, and I've read another travel guide deploring the fact that so few travellers visit Cuzco - and I'm hoping this will help me to understand a Victorian/Edwardian traveller's perspective.

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett: I've been steadily reading through Patchett's novels - but I thought I'd take a break to try her memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. Female friendship is a subject often neglected by both fiction and fact, so I'm interested to see if she illuminates her subject as she does her characters in her novels.

Antarctic World by John Euller: Published in 1960 and therefore probably a bit old-fashioned, this gives a potted history of Antarctic exploration, climate, and science. I have a long-running interest in mountain climbing and polar exploration (despite never having attempted either myself) and I thought this might be a charmingly dated way to read more about the subject.