Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Pearl - John Steinbeck

Steinbeck's ninety-page novella from 1947 is a fable about the evils of capitalism.  Kino the dirt-poor pearl-diver finds the biggest, most beautiful pearl in the world.  He should be set for life but in fact has only days to live.  He cannot sell the pearl in the village where he lives because all the so-called independent pearl buyers are in fact agents for the one buyer.  They operate a cartel which goes through a sham bidding process which results in one take-it-or-leave-it offer of less than 5% of the pearl's true worth.  Kino might be poor but he's not stupid.  He knows he can do better - he knows his wife and baby son deserve better.  While he mulls over the situation, attempts are made to steal the pearl from his hut.  Kino is attacked - he strikes back with his knife.  Suddenly the safe haven of brush huts where his family has lived fior generations is no longer safe.  Kino knows he must go to the city to sell his pearl.  His wife Juana doesn't want to go.  She is fearful of the change that has come over Kino, his dark obsession with the pearl.  For Juana the pearl embodies unwanted change and loss.  She wants to throw it back into the sea.  She tries it one night - Kino catches her and beats her.

Steinbeck's world-view might be simplistic, dwelling on the ancient simplicity - the songs that succour the pearl-diving community - rather than the grinding poverty that diminishes their humanity, but that is the purpose of fables.  The writing is unbelievably beautiful, the perfection of the prose mirroring the beauty of the pearl itself.  They should use this in school as a teaching aid.  They should certainly have it on every Humanities reading list to remind scholars that text doesn't have to be prolix to be effective.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Edmund Campion - Evelyn Waugh

Waugh, one of our better-known Catholic converts in his day, wrote this, his only biography, in 1935, to mark the relocation of Campion Hall, the Jesuit college in Oxford.  Whilst Campion was executed in 1581, it is a measure of the suppression of Catholicism in England that the Hall was only founded in 1896 and only renamed in memory of Campion in 1918.

At that time Campion was not yet a saint - that didn't happen until 1970 - and interestingly Waugh makes no claim for canonization.  For him Campion was a leading English martyr for the faith and a very real person, to be noted as much for his scholarship as his sacrifice.  Indeed, for me the last of the four parts (scholar, priest, hero, martyr) is the weakest.  The other three I found masterful, even thrilling.

Waugh himself was only a recent convert (1930) and he writes about absolute faith with the intellect of the Enlightenment.  Catholicism gave him emotional comfort but he struggles to blind himself to the flaws of Rome.  The popes and cardinals do not do well in his account.  For Waugh, and for me, the heroes are those who chose to leave their English comforts, especially those who chose to return and succour the faithful.  This last is important - Waugh's point is that these men were never traitors, despite suffering the traitor's death; their mission was purely to provide comfort to the oppressed.  It was clearly ridiculous to claim, as Burghley did, that merely celebrating Mass was an attempt on the Queen's life and state.

Campion is well characterised - an eminent scholar and rising star of academia who, even at the very end, the authorities were prepared to welcome home provided only that he abandoned Rome.  This is the Campion who emerges in his notorious Brag, included as an appendix here.  He, too, was a master of English prose.  In the Brag he could not declare more clearly:

I never had mind, and am strictly forbidden by our Father that sent me, to deal in any respect with matter of State or Policy of this realm, as things which appertain not to my vocation, and from which I do gladly restrain and sequester my thoughts.
I am a big fan of Waugh.  It is a measure of his achievement that even when I disagree with his views or have no interest in his subject-matter he stills holds me enthralled.  I don't disagree with him here, and I am interested in his subject, so I absolutely adored this book.  My only regret is that his skill as a novelist ("All I have done is select the incidents which struck as novelist as important, and relate them as a single narrative.") does not allow him to include foot- or end-notes.  I would dearly have loved to find out what became of Campion's colleague and co-leader of the Mission Robert Persons.  According to Wikipedia he lived another thirty years and died in Rome.  Waugh, I'm sure, could have told it better.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - Philip K Dick

Stigmata is Dick at the height of his powers, in the early Sixties, when he was knocking out books at the rate of at least two a year.  It appeared a year or two after The Man in the High Castle, which I reviewed here a couple of months ago.

The setting is the late 21st century.  The world has become an uncomfortable place to live, with temperatures fatal by lunchtime.  Capitalism has progressed to the inevitable stage, where a few monopolies control the world.  The elite pacify the plebs with the drug Can-D and the miniature world of Perky Pat, a Barbie-type doll with every conceivable accessory to collect, forming a perfect self-contained picture of the world as society's romantics would like it to be - essentially, smalltown America circa 1968.  Indeed, Perky Pat (and Can-D) is the only thing that keeps conscripted colonists sane on the dust-bowl that is Mars.

Can-D is a social drug; it allows users to enter the Perky Pat world as a group.  But then the renegade capitalist entrepreneur Palmer Eldritch returns from exploring the outer reaches of the solar system.  He brings with him a new drug, Chew-Z, which threatens the monopoly of Can-D.  Any threat to Can-D is a threat to P P Layouts, miniaturists of Perky Pat and her world.

P P is where our keys characters work - the pre-cog Barney Mayerson, who assesses the viability of objects offered to be 'minned', and Chairman of the Board Leo Bulero.  The story begins when Richard Hnatt, current husband of Mayerson's ex-wife Emily brings in a selection of her hand-made ceramics for minning.  Mayerson cravenly rejects them.  His fellow pre-cog and current squeeze Roni Fulgate disagrees and tells Bulero.  Bulero fires Mayerson and, with no real alternative employer to take him on, Mayerson volunteers for Mars.

Actually there is another option, a rival for P P.  A strange example of humanity called Icholtz strikes a deal with Hnatt and offers Mayerson a job.  Bulero responds by offering Mayerson his old job back.  But Mayerson is determined to go to Mars and the best Bulero can do is persuade him to become his eyes and ears in the colonists' hovels.

Bulero is a bubblehead, one of the elite who pay Dr Denkmal (of the Eichenwald Clinic) to artificially evolve their frontal cortex.  Hnatt, suddenly in possession of a wodge of truffle skins (the only acceptable cash in the late 21st century) signs himself and Emily up for the full programme, although she is reluctant and fearful of the occasional glitch which is accidental regression.  For the proles, like Mayerson, who are not so low in the pecking order that they have to subsist on drugs and dreams, but who can never put together a sizeable stash of liquid funds, there is Dr Smile, the pyschoanalyst in box, who is probably a simulation because he never gets your name quite right.

Palmer Eldritch, too, might be a simulation or simalcrum.  Many times when we encounter him, he turns out to be a projection.  He is known everywhere that mankind lives by his three stigmata: the artificial mechanical arm, stainless steel teeth and wide-vision artificial eyes.  The downside of his challenger drug Chew-Z is that people who appear in your visions often display the three stigmata, as do people who are themselves under the influence.  Chew-Z is antisocial drug; you go into your inner self, a world which consists of you and simulcra of Palmer Eldritch.

Mayerson figures this out:

It's an illusory world in which Eldritch holds all the key positions as god; he gives you a chance to do what you can't really ever do - reconstruct the past as it ought to have been. [SF Masterworks edition, p. 176]
It is not so much a question of which reality is real as which reality does the least harm?  Yes, it's a genre work but The Three Stigmata is also a novel of serious intent and genuine insight.  On the one hand it forecasts the future we now have - are Can-D and Chew-Z Facebook and Twitter?  is Palmer Eldritch a simalcrum of Richard Branson?  On the other hand, it is a vision of its time and a mirror of our time.  I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Devil in the Marshalsea - Antonia Hodgson

For a first novel, this is a cracker, a welcome addition to the ranks of historical detective fiction in the generally underwhelming sub-category of early Georgian.

Tom Hawkins (not, I have to say, the most imaginative name) is a theology student gone to the dogs in the best Hogarthian manner, the friend of bawds, a menace to his true friends, and an unsuccessful gambler.  The latter, and an anonymous allegation that he was been enjoying the favours of his landlord's wife, lands him in the notorious titular debtors' prison.  The Marshalsea in 1727 was at the height of its notoriety under the auspices of the butcher-turned-gaolkeeper Thomas Acton.

Another fallen gentleman, Captain Roberts (Hodgson really does have to spice up the names of her fictional characters) has recently died in the Marshalsea.  The coroner has declared it suicide but the captain's friends and family insist he was murdered.  The captain's widow has come into money since his death and has friends in high places.  It is in everyone's best interests to have the matter cleared up.  In the absence of a police force, it falls to Tom Hawkins to win his freedom by unmasking the killer.

Every good detective needs an amanuensis and Tom's is the imprisoned publisher and part-time spy Samuel Fleet, who just happens to have shared a room with Captain Roberts and is himself the prime suspect.  This is where Hodgson's story really takes wings.  Fleet is a wonderful character, utterly untrustworthy, surprisingly free with his cash.  He is the Devil in the Marshalsea and revels in the notoriety.

Hodgson's other great strength is plotting.  There is a quote from Mark Billingham on the cover - "Fiendishly plotted" - and he is spot on.  There are so many twists and turns in the narrative, set against the ticking clock of the two days Tom is ultimately given to solve the case, that you really don't like to put the book down for fear you miss something.  Who cares who really did it?  That's never the critical factor in a whodunnit so long as someone did it.  The denouement is acceptable, the way it is delivered exemplary.

A stunning debut, then.  It says in the back that Hodgson is working on a successor.  So where is it?  Her website says nothing - in fact the site is useless and she really ought to take it down before it does harm.