Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Second Son - Jonathan Rabb

Rabb is one of many contemporary crime novelists exploring the Nazification of Germany from the point of view of non-Nazi policemen.  Philip Kerr is by far the best of these.  In this, the third of his Berlin Trilogy, Rabb takes us to civil war Spain at the time of the alternative Olympics in 1936.  Again this is not new (see Alan Furst, Midnight in Europe, and Jack Ludlow, A Broken Land) and would have been better had he told us something worth knowing about the event.  The alternative Olympics would be a great theme for a novel but it is not the theme of this one.  Quite what is, I'm not sure. Perhaps I'm in the dark because this is the third of a trilogy and I haven't read the other two.  It shouldn't be the case - you can read Smiley's People, for example, without having read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  I certainly did.

Forcibly-retired Police Inspector Nikolai Hoffner takes himself off to Spain in search of his second son, Georg, a newsreel cameraman who has gone missing.  Previous novels presumably deal with his estrangement from his older son, Sasha.  Hoffner has cryptic clues to follow in a telegram that is nowhere near as implausible as the later revelation of where it came from.  He meets a female doctor, Mila, much younger than himself, and they (again slightly implausibly) become lovers and set off on a cross-country quest.

That's pretty much it.  Rabb clearly knows his subject matter but does not feel the urge to share it adequately with those of us who don't.  He writes well, his style crisp, well-paced and authoritative.  I'm sorry, but whilst the narrative kept me interested, I found I couldn't care less about the characters.

Disunited Kingdom - Ian MacWhirter

The story of "how Westminster won a referendum but lost Scotland" from a distinguished Scottish journalist tells us everything we weren't allowed to know south of the Border.  We all knew, for instance, that Cameron's instant backtrack on devo-max the morning after the vote was so callous that it almost certainly lost him next week's General Election and equally surely guaranteed that Scotland's disassociation will lead to a federal Britain in the coming decade.  My view of that possibility?  Good.  Can't happen soon enough, provided England is divided into regions too.

What MacWhirter tells me which I didn't know is how many community groups sprang up spontaneously in Scotland to take the campaign out of the hands of the professional politicians and, more importantly, bypass the lies and smears of Britain's poisonous rightwing Press.  MacWhirter became drawn into this alternative movement and found himself moving from an instinctive unionist to a sceptical nationalist.  His personal story mirrors the national narrative.

This is how a political campaign should be run.  There are lessons for us all here.  I cannot recommend this beautifully written and deeply insightful book strongly enough.  It should be on the school curriculum both sides of the Border.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

High-Rise - J G Ballard

Reading J G Ballard’s High-Rise (1975) quickly put me in mind of Golding’s Lord of the Flies from 1954.  The resemblance goes beyond mere dystopia.  Both are about civilised man’s predilection to run wild when deprived of his creature comforts.  For both Ballard and Golding, the veneer of social cooperation is tissue-thin.

I don’t want to labour the point because there are obvious differences between the books.  Golding wafts his schoolboys off to a tropical island whereas Ballard maroons his adult male protagonists in a suburban London tower block.  To begin with at least, both locations smack of the paradisiacal.  But, just as Eden had its serpent, so Ballard’s suburbia houses an underlying menace: 

The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for this concrete landscape.  Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence....  The cluster of auditorium roofs, curving roadway embankments and rectilinear curtain walling formed an intriguing medley of geometrics - less a habitable architecture, he reflected, than the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event. [Ballard 1975: 34-5][1]

For me, massive high-rise developments bring to mind the disastrous social experiments of the 1960s in northern cities like Sheffield and Manchester.  Streets of slums wiped away in favour of jerry-built slums in the sky.  Ballard’s London high-rise is very different.  This new-built development of a thousand apartments is for affluent buyers only; professionals at the very least (Laing, for example, is a lecturer at a medical school), preferably stockbrokers and above.  It remains a social experiment, though.  The size of the apartments, and naturally their cost, increases the higher up you go.  The architect himself, Anthony Royal, occupies the penthouse.  The utopian idea was for the residents at all level to come together in the communal areas like the shopping mall, the swimming pool, and the Royal’s rooftop sculpture garden.  In practice, even as the last of the residents moves in, the middleclass has subdivided itself into three - lower, middle, and upper - and never shall the twentieth floor, let alone the ground floor, aspire to the fortieth.  What was meant to be a single community has become an amalgam of a thousand islands.

These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth century life.  They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed. [Ballard 1975: 46]

Royal has built himself a vertical kingdom, with courtiers and even courtesans.  To be able to be the top of the pile means that someone must be at the bottom, and the lower orders always have the potential to become unruly.

In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology. [Ballard 1975: 47]

It begins with a fifteen-minute blackout on just three floors.  Residents isolated on the tenth floor concourse stampede.  Some are briefly marooned in the lift between floors.  Somebody, for reasons unknown, drowns a dog in the communal swimming pool.  From that point the veneer cracks, faultlines spreading from the centre like a spider’s web.  Inhibitions slip, the garbage disposal shutes become clogged, people smear dog shit, parties run on for days, a man dies.

Class turns against class, floor against floor.  People defend their territory to the death.  No one leaves the high rise.  No one calls the police.  Their world turns in on itself, becomes self-contained.

The true light of the high-rise was the metallic flash of the polaroid camera, that intermittent radiation which recorded a moment of hoped-for violence for some later voyeuristic pleasure. [Ballard 1975: 133]

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman

I remember Neverwhere the original TV series back in 1996.  I remember quite liking it, but those were busy times for me, long before any sort of recording equipment in my house, and I don't think I watched everything.  Recently, Neil Gaiman has been cropping up a lot in my reading.  When I saw this in Hunt's bookshop in Rugby I thought, why not?

There are two versions of the Neverwhere novel, the TV tie-in from 1997 and this, the author's preferred text, from 2000.  What the differences are, I don't know.  Anyway, just be to clear, I am reviewing the 2000 version, which we must take as the definitive one.

I keep saying I'm not a big fan of sci-fi or fantasy, and I keep reviewing them.  Obviously, these days, I must state I am quite a fan of witty fantasy and reasonably down-to-earth sci-fi (i.e. not cowboys in space).  What I really like are fantasies set in the dark underbelly of London, the London nobody knows.  Thus William Gibson's Zero History, Kim Newman's Anno Dracula (of which I have just a acquired the second volume), the Felix Castor series by Neil Carey (like Gaiman, a renowned British practitioner of US cult comics), and - probably my favourite - Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch.  Neverwhere keeps good company.  The TV origins are evident but I don't find that a problem in any way.  I wonder, though, how well Nineties Visual Effects coped with the grand set pieces like the Floating Market in Harrod's basement.  As to how I will soon find out, see below.

The characters are likeable and well-drawn.  Poor old Richard, who finds himself marooned in London below simply by being a good samaritan.  Door, the recipient of his generosity and the girl with a mission.  The flamboyant Marquis de Carabas, the Morecambe and Wise of hired killers Croup and Vandemar, various rats and, of course, the Angel Islington.  The invention is unceasing, the wit flows flee and I really enjoyed it.  Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I immediately laid hands on a DVD of the BBC series, which I will ultimately be reviewing and comparing on my Media & Culture blog.

Friday, 3 April 2015

The Red Road - Denise Mina

Tartan Noir, I suppose, really began with Val McDermid, who in turn built on the work of Ian Rankin and especially William McIlvanney.  There are so many practitioners now - MacBride, Black, Ferris - that there even sub-genres.  But Denise Mina has to be up there with the very best, purely because she manages to maintain such a high standard.

I have to confess that my heart sank when I realised that The Red Road was going to keep switching the narrative between 1997 and the present day.  But the writing was so good, so clever, that it kept me reading, and then when I came upon the central hook (which I obviously can't reveal here) I was well and truly caught.  The mark of a writer not trapped by genre is the roundedness of characters.  Do they live or do they just perform.  Agatha Christie and many more rely entirely on their protagonists in this regard.  Mina's protagonist, DI Alex Morrow, on the other hand, is a bit dull, even prosaic.  Mina turns this to advantage by making the transitory characters Morrow comes in contact with vivid, even spectacular.  For example in The Red Road we have the drunken peer and barrister Anton Atholl, and the superannuated hippy Simon.  Even her scrotes are three-dimensional.  Take Michael Brown, the dying lifer, whose entire existence has been stolen from him.  To make us empathise with him takes writing of the very highest order.

Highly recommended.