Paul Auster- The Book of Illusions

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Reading Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions is like reading Stephen King without the violence and the horror. Auster writes in a similar style to King, succinct and direct, focusing on the narrative drive, teasing the reader with hints and cliffhangers, drawing them in with extensive descriptions of personal trauma. In fact the narrator of The Book of Illusions reminds me of King’s narrator in 11/22/63 – another character who is self obsessed, preoccupied and introspective, but also has no verbal tics or mannerisms to make him seem real.

Auster is a Post-Modernist. Now postmodernism is a literary movement characterised by parody, self reference and intertextuality. Check the link – it’s all there.

So Auster is parodying King’s narrative style whilst using it as the starting point for a whole different kind of novel, because despite appearances The Book of Illusions is not really a thriller, it’s a book about texts and intertextuality. Here’s a brief run down:

David Zimmer is a university lecturer. His wife and children die in a plane crash, and he sinks into depression. He blames himself for rushing to get them on that plane. Only the silent movies of Hector Mann, his texts, offer a glimpse of optimism, an escape through humour. But Hector Mann disappeared without trace back in the 1920s. There are only a dozen or so films. Becoming obsessed, Zimmer sets out to watch them all and write a book about them. The Book of Illusions goes into some detail in describing these films.

Then Zimmer gets asked to write a translation of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, and is doing so when out of the blue he receives an invitation to meet Hector Mann. Apparently Hector is still alive, a voice from Beyond the Grave! But Zimmer refuses to believe this at first, and then he refuses to go to see Hector.

Eventually a woman turns up at his house and threatens Zimmer at gunpoint: Hector is on his deathbed and Zimmer must go and see him now. It’s all to do with what happens to Hector’s work when he dies. Now a key point about Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave is that the author insisted it was not to be published until after his death. Make what you will of that intertextual connection, and all the others. Auster never tells you what to think. He just lays a litter of clues in what is effectively a literary detective tale.

There’s a violent argument with the woman, a brief reconciliation, and then he agrees to go with her in the morning to see Hector. The woman is given the sofa overnight, but in the early hours she climbs into bed with him! They fall in love. The next day they fly to Hector’s house. En route she tells him the story of Hector’s life – a life ruined by guilt and self condemnation. It’s a detailed episodic tale focusing on Hector’s inability to move on from his involvement in the traumatic death of a lover. The events of Hector’s life stretch credibility. It’s quite hard to believe in his character and antics, and equally hard to believe that this woman jumps into bed with Zimmer and they fall in love, just like that. This is Auster questioning the tropes and cliches of modern popular fiction.

The climax of the novel concerns what happens to Hector’s life’s work – the films he made in the years of exile from Hollywood. You will need to read it to find out the details, but the basic structure is there – the parallels between the lives of Hector and Zimmer, their grief and inability to forgive themselves. It raises the ultimate question for all writers, all those who create texts: does a man’s work, indeed a man’s life, have any intrinsic value, Beyond the Grave.

The Book of Illusions. What is real? The fiction of Hector’s life? The illusion of guilt? Zimmer’s story? The love for this strange woman? In the end as a reader you  question it all, never quite sure where the threshold is, between fiction and reality. And that’s the point, which is to say what is the point of fiction?

Should you read The Book of Illusions then? Possibly. But it’s only fiction, and fiction about fiction at that. How abstract, how far removed from reality do you want to be?

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Milkman – Anna Burns

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Milkman is without doubt the best book I have read this year. It’s funny, clever, original and packed full of insights and interesting characters. In the current political climate, and considering the possible impact of Brexit on cross border relationships in Northern Ireland, it’s also very timely.

There are lots of first person narrators out there with dull and boring voices. I’m currently reading Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions in which the narrator is an American academic, like Auster himself, and you can tell that from the way he speaks to the reader. But sometimes authors break this mould and produce authentic personal voices that resonate down the years. Huckleberry FinnThe Catcher in the Rye and Vernon God Little are like this. So is Anna Burns’ Milkman.

In Milkman nothing is given a name. The setting is no doubt Northern Ireland, the period the seventies. More specifically Milkman is almost certainly set within the Catholic community, but it is never specified. That’s probably because the protagonist, an unnamed 18 year old girl, would rather not get involved in all those political shenanigans. She just wants to get on with her life – reading, exercising, going to French class. But there’s no escape. Walking home from work, reading Russian novels to avoid noticing what’s all around her, she is spotted by Milkman. Funded by crime, terrorists like him dominate the area, using their power for personal gain.

Soon Milkman appears next to her when she is jogging. Uninvited, he runs alongside. He never meets her eye, but the message is clear: he is taking steps to draw her into his world. Next he pulls up in his car and offers her a lift. She refuses, but tongues begin to wag.

The situation unfolds like a grim tragedy. Milkman pursues her, intrudes into her life. There is always a subtext to their meetings, a hidden agenda. She begins to think Milkman is  making threats about maybe boyfriend. But is she just being paranoid? The veiled threats are straight out of the Sopranos. But her perspective on Milkman and his world offers comic insights too.

The girl likes maybe boyfriend but is not sure he is the one, so she refuses to let him meet her mother, loath to be railroaded by her into an unsatisfactory marriage. Maybe boyfriend hoards car parts, heaping them on the lounge carpet, and piling them in every room in the house. A typical bloke. Could she live with that?

When maybe boyfriend brings home a Rolls supercharger neighbours are impressed. But someone points out the car was built over there. And one of the parts has the flag from over there. It’s not the part maybe boyfriend has stashed away on the living room carpet, it’s a different part. But questions of loyalty are raised.

So the protagonist is feeling her way into adulthood in an environment made even more dangerous and confusing by The Troubles. Driven to despair by the deaths of family, and fearing for their own lives, the locals settle for numbness, or for second best. Sister one was in love with a terrorist who was killed. Heartbroken, she refused to admit to the loss, and married a nasty bully on the rebound. The narrator has brothers lost to the Troubles – one on the run, another dead. Whole families have been torn apart. There is envy, anger, fear gossip. There is tarring and feathering, kangaroo courts, and punishment without trial.

But there is also hope. The younger sisters are knowing and informed. She reads the classics to them at night. There is love at the heart of the family. There is Real Milkman who will not be intimidated. Finally the girl’s mother is transformed by love: there is a vulnerable human being beneath her partisan religiosity.

Milkman has so much to say about the Troubles, but it casts its net much wider than that. There is hypocrisy and lies, gossip, rumour and scandal, bullying, love and loss. All of human life, if you want, intensified in the boiling pot of Northern Ireland and presented throughout with wit and humour.

Brilliant.

 

 

Normal People – Sally Rooney

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Sally Rooney has achieved amazing success, and in Normal People it’s easy to see why. For the first 150 pages I couldn’t put it down.

Rooney writes about ordinary people, in ordinary language, and rarely wastes words. She is precise and evocative in her descriptions. The dialogue is realistic and the characters seem real too. Despite all these attributes I’m still not completely convinced. In some ways I feel unfairly seduced by Rooney, by the simplicity of her prose and by the story itself.

Connell, a young, illegitimate working class boy waits at a rich girl’s house for his mother, the cleaner, to finish work. He is popular, handsome, clever, talented, top of the class, centre forward on the school football team. His mother, a single working woman, loves him dearly. He is well balanced, mature.

Marianne is the opposite. Generally considered to be ugly, she has no friends, spends her life reading and whilst wealthy is unloved at home, abandoned by a father we never see and bullied by her brother. At school she is scorned.

Connell and Marianne fall into a relationship that stumbles on through university and beyond into the beginnings of adulthood. At first it is just sex, at least for him. He refuses to acknowledge to his school friends that they are even in a relationship. But she encourages him to apply to Trinity College Dublin rather than a local college in the backwoods of Ireland, and of course he gets the grades, top of the class.

In Dublin the relationship changes. She is the one at ease now, with rich boys and girls at fancy parties in their large homes with pools. Their love affair is on then it’s off then it’s on again. In this way Rooney leads you through the story. It’s unresolved sexual tension I suppose. But more than that possibly. These two characters are believable and sympathetic. Despite his heroic status – top of the class scholarship student – he is flawed, uncertain and in love. But she drifts into a relationship with a new boy. With him there are elements of sadism and violence which echo her childhood, and she submits to them.

The love affair between Connell and Marianne is traced throughout the novel in chapter headings such as Four Months Later (August 2011). Each charts a new phase in their relationship, a series of incidents as first one and then the other is in the ascendancy, the loved one. Rooney has the reader on the line like a good Irish salmon.

The credibility is sustained by a range of minor characters whose motivations and behaviours seem spot on. There are crude and drunken teenage boys, there is the brutality and bullying of high school, the pecking order, the girl who is the prom queen. She is beautiful and confident, and Connell takes her out. He yearns to be with Marianne instead, but he can’t admit that to his peers. How typical.

Like Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, you might think of Normal People as Chicklit. There are so many of the stereotypes in here. The boy is the personification of the teenage romantic hero, the girl, misunderstood, an ugly misfit who triumphs in the end by winning the boy’s heart is also a familiar trope. You can trace these characters and themes to The Last Picture Show and before, and I wonder whether the scenes at the party by the pool are a tribute to that film.

But Rooney examines these people more closely than you’d expect in a genre novel, the boy’s motives especially, and I think that’s what holds the reader’s attention.

Then there’s the shades of grey issue. It turns out that Marianne has masochistic tendencies and these are explored quite extensively later in the novel. She breaks free from two explicitly sadomasochistic relationships, asserting her independence, though ultimately in Connell’s hands she is putty, willing to do whatever he wants. Luckily for her it’s just love.

I found these later chapters less compelling than the first part of the novel, and wondered about Rooney’s allusions to Fifty Shades of Grey. I have never read that and so can’t comment on its relationship to Rooney’s novel. From my position of ignorance it does look a bit like ticking genre boxes, going after an audience who might like to read about that, but I may be wrong.

Kate Atkinson – Transcription

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Transcription is the next in the sequence of Kate Atkinson novels related to the second world war. The others are Life After Life and A God in Ruins.

Juliet is a clever grammar school girl who is unable to take up a place at university for personal and financial reasons. During the phoney war in 1939 she joins a group of secretaries working in the War Office. Many of them are spoiled, privately educated debs who wear party dresses, and picnic on champagne during their lunch breaks.

Juliet is more serious than that and is recruited as a typist on a sting operation in which Nazi sympathisers are invited to a flat in London. Here they meet a member of the SS and provide him with information that might be helpful to a Nazi invasion. In truth the man is an agent for MI5, and Juliet’s job is to transcribe the conversations recorded through the walls.

As a one off her boss asks her to help him expose members of the Right Club, a secret society of wealthy and privileged aristocrats who support Hitler. She infiltrates their friendship groups and meetings in an attempt to find a list of group members. The denouement of this subplot is especially exciting.

Juliet is young, naïve and sexually inexperienced. Her colleagues are men, and she shares her romantic thoughts and feelings about them with the reader. Her boss invites her on trips into the countryside and takes her to expensive restaurants, but she is never quite sure whether he is trying to seduce or recruit her. Other men cross her path as she seeks to find her identity and place in the world. Would they be suitable partners for life?

In an interesting plot complication she is asked to keep an eye on another agent, and finds reasons to suspect him of double dealing. However it seems to her that the loyalty of everyone in the service is open to question, and a series of events leads to her covering up for him.

You can see there is a lot going on in Transcriptions, and the sub plots give Atkinson plenty of scope to develop a range of interesting and credible characters, and to explore aspects of pre-war British society – the spoiled and treacherous aristocracy, the incestuous nepotism of MI5, life in the blackout, the woman’s perspective.

In Transcriptions Atkinson makes use of flashback and other narrative quirks, as she does in both A God in Ruins and Life After Life, although here it is less intrusive and annoying, more integral to the plot. Matt Thorne would hate it though:  New Puritans.

The novel opens in 1950 when she is working for the BBC as a children’s programmer and in the episodes set then you get a sense of the way in which these great British institutions, MI5 and the BBC, were, and perhaps still are, intertwined.

Then she meets an old MI5 colleague on the street. He pointedly ignores her, leaving her to wonder why in a series of flashbacks to 1940.

The novel ends in 1980 with Juliet on her death bed. It is at this point that we realise how far MI5 was infiltrated by foreign agents during the war, and beyond.

I enjoyed Transcriptions, but Kate Atkinson has developed a leaner style in this series of three books set around WW2. She is using simpler sentences and vocabulary as if she is appealing to a wider audience. I preferred Emotionally Weird and her earlier Jackson Brodie novels such as Started Early Took My Dog. These were more imaginative, more surreal and poetic in their use of description, and I like that.

Transcriptions reminded me of the Stephen Poliakoff BBC series Summer of Rockets. I’ve just finished watching this and really enjoyed it, though the denouement was a little disappointing. Like Transcriptions it is about treacherous aristocrats and MI5 agents, and once again it’s never quite clear until the final episode which of them can be trusted.

It says something for the nature of patriotism, and of England, that amongst the ruling classes men with political ambitions and ideologies group together secretly, intent on bending the country to their will. As history is written by the winners these men are the patriots or traitors of tomorrow. It’s no coincidence that the far reaching social revolution that is Brexit. incubated in the privileged far right of the Tory party, far from public scrutiny, has coincided with the release of two fictions which explore this theme.

History repeats itself.

 

Perfidious Albion – Sam Byers

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Perfidious Albion is set in Edmundsbury, a small town in Silicon Fen and the birthplace of The Field, a cutting edge technology created by a company named Downton. Highly skilled people live and work here, in IT, the media or politics, but not everyone is benefitting from the wealth created.

On a local housing estate, ripe for redevelopment, a lonely and disabled old man, Darkin, won’t leave his flat at any price, frustrating the rich businessmen who are trying to force him out so they can make a profit. Ironically some of them are involved with England Always, a political party that Darkin supports.

England Always is the political arm of right wing thugs, and the plaything of an anonymous international group fronted by a smooth and ruthless operator named Teddy. At the other end of the political spectrum two young men run an internet café. They are almost anonymous, known, interchangeably, as Zero and One, the binary pairing of all computer languages.

Darkin is struggling, then Robert, a young journalist, visits him. He stirs things up in his online blog by portraying white working class men like Darkin as victims.

Robert at first appearances is a right on chap politically, but when his blog makes Darkin’s plight go viral, he begins to succumb to the temptations of fame and success, and Robert’s girlfriend Jess realises he is not quite the man she first thought he was. Amongst other things she thinks his feminism is a sham.

Trina, a black woman, responds to the Darkin phenomenon in a controversial tweet and has to go into hiding. She is part of a ménage à trois, living with her lesbian lover and the man they share a child with. Jess meets Trina and they team up with Deepa to challenge the male dominated xenophobia and misogyny that is at the heart of both Downton and England Always.

Does this sound a bit like painting by numbers to you? Look at the items of contemporary culture that Sam Byers has introduced to this novel. Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Steve Bannon, The Sun, The Daily Mail, Facebook, the internet, white working class men, racism, LBGT, the EDL. They are all here. Perfidious Albion is the result.

This novel is action packed, though not violent, funny in places, and moving in others. For example Byers takes us into Darkin’s world so that we can see his plight, and brings it to life in a series of realistic episodes. There are several other intertwining plots which are also handled confidently. Whenever I read a book like this I’m amazed at how the writer manages to keep everything in their head and draw it together into a sensible conclusion. In this case justice mostly gets done, but the big players, the key movers of the political revolution we are all witnessing at the moment, remain untouchable, as indeed they seem to be.

I thought Perfidious Albion was a great holiday read. There are times when Byers catches the moment perfectly others when he seems to have caught the Zeitgeist by lifting the tone right out of W1A  

I have read reviews which praised his clever focus on technological developments that restrict our freedom, and this is one sub-plot. Tina has made a breakthrough in managing the way individuals interact with the web and each other. It was all very well and quite interesting, but lots of it went straight over my head as I rushed on to the end. Too clever for me.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe- Rhidian Brook

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The Killing of Butterfly Joe defies categorisation. It’s of no known genre, original and unsettling. The reader has nothing to guide them, no comfortable stereotypes or clichéd plot lines to help them through.

When after 50 or so pages I told my wife I was not sure I could finish it, she agreed. She had given up at that point too. BUT I think she made a mistake.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is described on the cover as a wild eyed crazy road trip across America. But that’s just an attempt to classify it, to put it in a mould and make it easier for the reader to digest. It’s not a road trip at all.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is the story of a broken family, and about what it means to grow up. Lew, aged 23,  visits his aunt in the Catskills, New York state. Dozing over a novel by the riverside he is entranced by the appearance of Butterfly Joe and his semi-naked female accomplice. They steal his book, only to return it later, and invite him to work for their family business selling butterflies.

Lew agrees. They christen him Rip after the hero of the stolen book, and he goes to live in their ramshackle gothic house in the mountains. But it’s not a gothic tale despite the fact that Joe’s mother is a disfigured monster. She was scorched and scarred in a house fire because Joe rescued his father’s butterfly collection first, having been told by his dad how valuable it was. Only then did he pull his mother out of the flames!

The father is long gone, abandoning his family so he can collect and study lepidoptera. The mother is bitter and angry, and will have no mention of him in the house. She has poisoned her children against him.

There are two sisters. The first is the  water nymph, erotic and sexy. The second, Isabelle is more prudish. Puritan might be a better word, moral would be best. The protagonist learns through experience what these differences mean, and eventually realises which is for him.

But these two are minor characters. The book is about Joe, a larger than life figure with a comic kind of verbal diarrhoea and challenging philosophical views. Joe really does tithe, giving away ten percent of all he earns, but never to a charity or an official organisation. He is generous to ordinary people, not always the poor. It’s just the abundance of God.

Rhidian Brook is a regular contributor to Thought for the Day, a five minute slot on Radio 4 morning news. Butterfly Joe fits this mould: he is not perfect but has a Christian message for the modern world. He shows disdain for organised religion and the hypocrisy of institutions, and is in touch with the truth and spirit of the gospel. Of course this is especially relevant in the USA where organised religion has become so politicised and moral rules so entwined with social conformity.

I liked the way the character of Joe challenged orthodoxy in this way. The ideas were not new, but the message was clear and pretty sound.

Joe is desperate to make a living from his father’s butterflies. He sells parts of the collection, and breeds more, setting them in display boxes in the family house, which is also a butterfly factory. But on the road, selling, he won’t bend to the rules. That would be to give in to convention, and to deny his version of the truth. It’s inevitable that he will land in trouble, and he does. He is jailed, accused of selling mounted specimens of rare and protected species. Rip decides the only solution is to find Joe’s father who had collected the specimens in the 60s, before it became illegal.

Rip is confident he can reunite the family and rescue Joe at the same time, but he discovers that this might not be as easy as he thinks. Feelings run deep, and he is in over his neck.

The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a first person narrative, written by Rip in his jail cell. This device does create some suspense in fairly obvious ways, but I wasn’t really gripped by that, and the plot and resolution is a bit weak.

But this is a book about character and ideas. And they are interesting. The characters embody moral values in a simple way: eros and agape, motherhood, compassion. But there is more than that. Joe is complex, broken by his father’s absence. Mary, eros, needs to be loved. Isabelle also wants to please her father, even though she refuses to meet him when she has the chance.

In this respect The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a book about families, about what they mean, and how important they are, how they make us what we become.

 

 

 

Hearing Secret Harmonies – Anthony Powell

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Powell puts his finger on the essence of the late sixties in this last volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. The joyous rebellion of the mid sixties had given way to a much nastier sense of abandonment by the end of the decade. The contrasting festivals of Monterey and Altamont summed up the change in mood. Monterey was part of the 1967 summer of love, but the Altamont festival in December 69 was ruined by the violent death of a teenage spectator within twenty feet of the stage where the Rolling Stones were playing.

In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies the boys marooned on the island dance and celebrate the killing of a pig. Simon, the visionary, stumbles into the group and is slaughtered when they reenact the pig’s death. The death at Altamont has echoes of Simon’s death. Without rules there is chaos, and by 1970 the dream of freedom had gone sour. The ironically titled final volume Hearing Secret Harmonies reflects this. It describes the final tragi-comic sequences of Widmerpool’s life.

Nick meets a group of hippies on the way to a stone age monument which they claim has mystic powers. We meet Scorpio Murtlock, the charismatic and domineering leader of the group. There are magical rites and mystical behaviours that bring to mind Dr Trelawney from earlier volumes. Fiona Cutts, Nick’s niece, is part of the commune.

Widmerpool has become chancellor of a new university. He is unkempt, dirty and untidy in his dress, and has taken the side of the rebellious students of the time. He rejects all rules and regulations, all of society’s norms. Two students throw paint over him at a university ceremony and he praises them for their daring, and for challenging authority. Powell implies he is naive, riding the currents of the 60s counterculture, his judgement clouded by cranky new fangled modern ideas.

Nick is now a member of the awarding panel for the Donners Memorial Prize given for biographies of modern men of influence; Widmerpool holds the purse strings for this award as he used to work for Donners. This year they are short of qualifying biographies. Eventually the prize is awarded to Gwinnet for his biography of X Trapnel. There is some doubt whether Widmerpool will attend the prize giving, as his wife was Gwinnet’s lover.  Powell even hints that she might have killed herself to pander to Gwinnet’s interest in necrophilia!! Could he face the shame?

But Widmerpool does turn up. At the ceremony he gives a long and tedious speech about the bourgeois nature of sexual taboos. Later his interest in alternative lifestyles leads him to Murtlock. Widmerpool invites Murtlock’s commune to live at his country property, and falls under his control, but Fiona escapes and marries Gwinnett.

Sometime later there is a family wedding. Bored and restless Nick wanders outside where he sees Widmerpool, dressed in a blue robe, and leading members of the commune on a run. There are more, deliberate echoes of Dr Trelawney, who Nick witnessed leading similar runs when he was a child. Murtlock uses the same pantheistic greeting, and has similar new age views.

One of the runners is Bithel, the drunken old fool who was such a comic character in the war years. He is still drinking, and still a figure of fun. Widmerpool had Bithel sacked from the army for drunkenness, and Murtlock has insisted that Widmerpool carry out penances for this. You get the sense that Murtlock is keeping Bithel around just so he can punish Widmerpoool, who is a pathetic and broken figure by now, filled with guilt and terrified of  Murtlock.

Throughout there have been intimations that Widmerpool had a masochistic streak, and these recur here. Finally Widmerpool dies in mysterious circumstances as a result of his involvement with this group.

Once again Powell entertains and amuses. Glad to have finished this marathon now though.