Saturday, 29 May 2021

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway

 Hemingway's classic roman a clef - also known as Fiesta - was published in 1926 to instant acclaim.  A group of expats meet up in Paris and move on to Pamplona for the Fiesta of Saint Fermin and the bullfighting.  The relationships of the expats is mirrored by the rivalry between bullfighters and their deathly dance with the bull.

Jake Barnes is the Hemingway figure but he is no bull because he has been neutered by a war wound.  He loves the beautiful Lady Brett Ashley and she loves him as much as she loves anyone else.  But she also loves other members of the group, Robert Cohn, whom she has recently spent a holiday with, and Mike Campbell, the British bankrupt she is engaged to.  Unable to have a sexual relationship with Jake, she prostitutes herself with other men, including the young matador Romero, who is only half her age.  Meanwhile the drunken Campbell baits Cohn in the same way Romero taunts his bull in the ring, and Cohn - a college boxing champion - ultimately strikes back.

In one sense Brett is the ultimate New Woman of the Twenties - sexually promiscuous, hard-drinking, frankly doomed.  But Barnes is a Catholic and, as narrator, takes a high moral tone, contrasting Brett with the working girl (Georgette) he picks up in Paris.

The Sun Also Rises is short, complex, multi-layered, experimental and, in summary, a modern masterpiece.  Is it Hemingway's masterpiece?  I haven't read enough to take a view.  But I was enthralled from the first page and became completely immersed.

Monday, 24 May 2021

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse - Otsuichi


Otsuichi (Hirotaka Adachi) is a master of Japanese Horror.  The origins of the form lie in the 19th century when traditional Japanese ghost stories became a fad in the West.  Nowadays it means horror stories arising from everyday contemporary life.  Thus, for example, Black Fairy Tale, Otsuichi's first novel and the longest item in this collection, is fundamentally about transplant surgery.

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse was his debut, a novella written when he was only 18 and still in high school, which went on to be nominated for the prestigious Shirley Jackson Award.  That is about nine-year-old Satsuki who dies in a childish accident but whose death is covered up by her playmate Yayoi and her slightly older brother Ken.  The action is narrated by Satsuki, even after death, which is a fascinating device and I did not see the final twist coming.

Next is 'Yuko', a short story about a widow who gets a job with keeping house with a wealthy writer and his invalid second wife Yuko.  Only the housekeeper is never allowed to see Yuko and naturally begins to suspect that she doesn't exist.  The story, set shortly after Japanese defeat in World War II, is beautifully elusive and I'm not entirely sure what happens at the end, which is fine by me.

Then we have Black Fairy Tale, in which teenager Nami receives a donated left eye to replace the one she lost in an accident which also cost her her memory.  She is not the same Nami she was before the accident and her parents and schoolfriends cannot accept the change.  She starts having visions in the transplanted eye and realises they are things seen by the donor.  She sets out to track him down and finds he was a young man killed in a hit and run accident.  She goes to his home town to investigate further and blunders into a real horror.

The great thing about Otsuichi, especially in Black Fairy Tale, is his layering.  For example, who is the author of the Black Fairy Tale collection of stories, one of which - 'The Eye's Memory' - is included here.  In that story a talking raven steals human eyes which it gives to an eyeless girl.  When she puts them in her sockets she has dreams of what the eyes had seen.  Thus the parallels seep over into the main narrative and, when we look back after reading the novel, provide key clues.

I really enjoyed this collection - it's the perfect way to plunge into Otsuichi's grim world as well as a useful introduction to the genre.  I certainly want to try more of both.

Friday, 21 May 2021

All Shot Up - Chester Himes


All Shot Up, the fifth in the Grave Digger Jones/Coffin Ed Johnson sequence, aka 'The Harlem Cycle', is a great introduction to Himes's work.  Set in a snow storm, it is one of those capers in which everything ties together - the man stealing tyres who watches a stick up by fake police in a stolen car and the old woman who gets run down by the gold Cadillac who isn't either old or a woman and who gets up straightaway, only to wind up very dead shortly after.

Such complex interweaving is hard to bring off but Himes does it brilliantly, in a beautifully short novel full of grotesque black humour and smart dialogue.  Every character who so much as strolls across the scene is full realised, every motive is reasonable in its own cockeyed way, and Himes even finds time for commentary on corrupt ghetto politics and the Harlem transvestism scene which was obviously thriving in and around 1960 when this book was written.

As indicated above, this was my first taste of Himes's dark brew.  It certainly won't be my last.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Agency - William Gibson


The 2020 follow-up to The Peripheral (2014), Agency is the second of Gibson's 'Jackpot' novels - set after the oligarchs have hit the jackpot and destroyed democracy.  In this very near future, the first autonomous artificial reality laminar is about to be launched.  But first it must be tested, and ace app tester Verity gets the gig.  Only Eunice isn't a game.  She is very much weapons grade AR and soon sets about building herself a network of branch plants through which she accesses wealth and technology, all for the public good.  And anybody or anything that operates in the public interest obviously has to be stopped.

By this time cyber technology has enabled the present to communicate and interact with the past, but only the recent past - times sufficiently technological advanced to answer back.  And in this case we are talking 2017 and an alternate past in which Trump didn't win the 2016 election.  The problem is, as this alternative indicates, is that if you interfere even slightly with your own past you don't change your history, you create an alternative, a time branch or 'stub'.  The present has got a handle on this - people whose role is to protect the past, but of course the perception of what's worth protecting and what should be interfered with is subjective.

Anyway, the hunt for Verity and Eunice spreads across several stubs, which means a lot of layers and a lot of characters, most of whom (I'm guessing) featured in The Peripheral.  We don't always get enough back story for us to engage - I couldn't give two hoots about Wilf and Rainey and baby Thomas in cosplay London, but Connor, the gung-ho drone pilot, is great fun.  Fortunately Verity is interesting enough, and Eunice has been given a sassy African-American avatar that keeps us amused.

It's a complex story in a complex narrative.  The core idea is dazzling and confronts the challenge of time-travel literature head-on and, by and large, successfully.  I get bored, however, with super-rich superstars like Stets and his super-cool artist girlfriend.  Somebody wants to blow them up, be my guest - which rather undercuts the tension at the end.

For all my reservations, Gibson remains miles ahead of the pack and always worth reading.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Les Diaboliques - Barbey D'Aurevilly


Latest stop on my tour of decadent French fin de siecle literature is Barbey D'Aurevilly's collection of scandalous short stories from 1874 - so scandalous that it was confiscated by the Ministry of Justice.  You might think, so what?  Victorian sensibilities, even across the Channel, were very different to ours.  But no, the fate of the promiscuous woman in 'At a Dinner of Atheists' is horrific bordering on pornographic in any era.  Likewise the nature of the 'Woman's Revenge' in the final story.

It's called The She-Devils in most English translations but I think that leads to misconceptions of misogyny.  Each of the six stories features a strong, transgressive woman but I don't think for a moment that Barbey D'Aurevilly looks on them with contempt or disgust.  On the contrary, I believe he is fascinated by them - aroused, certainly, but also intrigued.  The stories are long - forty to fifty pages - and he gives himself plenty of time to probe their psychology and motivation - in itself a counter to any she-devilishness, because of course devils do devilish things for the sheer hell of it.

The authorial style, especially the at-one-remove (recit parle) storytelling, is not to everyone's taste but it is of its time - the parallels with Huysmans are obvious - and I was held spellbound.  Very dark material, not for beginners, but I want more.