Wednesday, 4 December 2019

The White Peacock


D.H. Lawrence The White Peacock (1911)
This was his first novel, rewritten three times prior to publication but never quite shaking off that first novel quality of meandering whilst simultaneously trying just a bit too hard. Prior to this effort, he mainly wrote poetry which shows in so far as that the opening chapters read very much like an accumulation of poetic material - florid descriptions of the natural world, landscape and so on - in which an indeterminate number of characters are embedded like raisins in a currant bun. These characters are naive, vaguely middle-class, and slightly unworldly - possibly for the sake of contrast with the violence of their environment, which itself is rooted in nature red in tooth and claw with the occasional brusque intrusion of earthier, seemingly more substantial working class persons whom, it might be argued, serve as extensions of the environment. Not a page seems to go by without either a rabbit strangling, mention of a sheep killing dog, or some other reminder that the refinement of our civilised lives is an anomaly in the great scheme of things, at least not until we come to the awful, sugar coated sub-Dickensian Christmas celebrations at the close of the first of the three parts into which the novel is divided; and even the festivity is itself briefly punctuated by:

There was a great fall of snow, multiplying the cold morning light, startling the slow-footed twilight. The lake was black like the open eyes of a corpse; the woods were black like the beard on the face of a corpse.

...then right back into the Quality Street choccy box for another couple of dozen pages.

My first guess would be that Lawrence didn't want to take too many chances with his first novel, and maybe thought the swearing coal miners of his own upbringing would alienate potential readers, so he gave us Dickens-lite and so much so that I found myself waiting for some comic misunderstanding based on a pair of gloves having been left on the drawing room table rather than in the parlour as would ordinarily have been the case. The problem is that it's difficult to care about these characters one way or the other, and the first person narrative only serves to muddy their definition - I only realised his name was Cyril after a hundred or so pages. Cyril and his friends seem slight in their wispy thoughts and passions although, as I say, it seems to be on purpose, as this exchange perhaps suggests.

I laughed to see her so enthusiastic in her admiration of my sister. Marie is such a gentle, serious little soul. She went to the window. I kissed her, and pulled two berries off the mistletoe. I made her a nest in the heavy curtains, and she sat there looking out at the snow.

'It is lovely,' she said reflectively. 'People must be ill when they write like Maxim Gorky.'

'They live in town,' said I.

'Yes — but then look at Hardy — life seems so terrible — it isn't, is it?'

'If you don't feel it, it isn't — if you don't see it. I don't see it for myself.'

'It's lovely enough for heaven.'

The point eventually becomes clear, this being the tragedy of the disparity between the dreams and aspirations of these four young people, and how the world actually works; but the absence of forward thrust results in a narrative which more closely resembles music, and probably ambient music at that, so it's only once we reach the last hundred or so pages that anything really begins to feel as though it's saying something, and the way in which all has been kept isolated from the intrusion of the twentieth century at last makes sense.

One of our boys settles into respectable nineteenth century conservatism where the other embraces modernity and the rights of the working man, with Lawrence himself more concerned with what drives their impulses than where those impulses lead.


Of course, I am in sympathy with the socialists, but I cannot narrow my eyes till I see one thing only.

So, I suppose you might say it's a nineteenth century novel waking up to the harsh industrialised daylight of the twentieth century, this being its subject as much as it might be considered a description. Most of Lawrence's major themes are already there, not least the casual homoeroticism and the pagan undercurrent, here most visibly expressed as the death of Annable, the gamekeeper and a sort of Green Man holding out against the encroachment of Christianity; but The Trespasser does at least some of this in half the page count, and without suggesting that the writer has gone into a room looking for something but is now unable to remember what it was.

There was a gap between to-day and tomorrow, a dreary gap, where one sat and looked at the dreary comedy of yesterdays, and the grey tragedies of dawning tomorrows, vacantly, missing the poignancy of an actual to-day.

See, that probably boils the whole thing down to a single sentence, or at least as I understood it; so it's a mostly decent novel, and particularly so for a debut, but mainly in the context of Lawrence's back catalogue.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Sex Pistols - the Inside Story


Fred & Judy Vermorel Sex Pistols - the Inside Story (1981)
Here's an actual crappy 1970s paperback with airbrushed Sex Pistols on the cover, and probably not worth reviewing because it isn't like I have anything profound to say. D.H. Lawrence's White Peacock was getting a bit too chewy for bedtime reading so I took to dipping into this, the expanded edition of a book published soon after they split first time around. It's mostly excerpts from Sophie's diary - Sophie being McLaren's secretary, roughly speaking - coupled with verbatim transcripts of interviews with everyone involved, thus allowing the band to pretty much speak for themselves; which is great. The material which I gather has been added to form the expanded edition doesn't really do much, maybe even detracts from the first and otherwise snappier part of the book. The added interviews with record company types aren't particularly interesting, and there's Fred Vermorel's lengthy essay, When Malcolm Laughs, which is at least better than the usual bollocks people tend to write about Malcolm the Master Situationist, except that it never fully escapes from being the usual bollocks people tend to write about Malcolm the Master Situationist. Oh well. This book is still better than a lot of the stuff which has been written about this group.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

The Twilight Man


Michael Moorcock The Twilight Man (1966)
A couple of years ago I spent about a month wracking my brains trying to remember some novel wherein the moon had fallen from the sky and was to be found in the middle of the ocean, which turned out to be Moorcock's The Shores of Death, which I read about a decade ago. By the time I noticed that this was Shores of Death retitled for America, I was already home; but then the book was probably overdue a re-read, so why not?

The Twilight Man harks back to those wonderful pre-Gernsbackian science-fiction tales taking their cues from poetry rather than the strict letter of any scientific law, and as such seems part of whatever tendency inspired all those ponderous, allegorical science-fiction movies of the early seventies before George Lucas decided there were still a few more drops to be squozen from the Flash Gordon cow.

It's the far future, the Earth no longer turns, the moon has fallen from the sky and is sat in the middle of the Pacific - like I said - and what little is left of humanity is pretty much sterile; so the future doesn't look too bright. On the positive side, humanity has settled into a vaguely Utopian existence - probably the most perfect in history, so it is written, anarchist and peaceful. Unfortunately, the gloom of extinction hangs heavy on our final descendants, giving birth to fear, and the Brotherhood of Guilt who take it upon themselves to destroy things in response to the fear; which in turn brings about an authoritarian movement, and thus does it all go tits up.

Our hero, the Twilight Man of the title, seeks a solution to all of this - without it feeling like anything so prosaic as a quest - leading him to the fallen moon wherein dwells Orlando Sharvis whose scientific knowledge is such that no problem is really beyond his ability to solve it. Sharvis might represent Satan in the Faustian sense, or at least some pre-moral version of the serpent bringing light or illumination at a cost without necessarily implying evil.

I'd prefer not to simply summarise the plot, so I'll leave it at that, but this one delivers a whole ton of mind-candy in the form of what may be one of the strangest tales you will ever read, something very much inhabiting the same space as all of those paintings by Ernst, De Chirico, Remedios Varo and others. Moorcock, as ever, is amazing.

Monday, 25 November 2019

The Devils


New Juche The Devils (2019)
This will be the best book you read this year, said Philip Best in some facebook post I can no longer locate. I've read some pretty great stuff this year, and while I'm not convinced that The Devils sits at the absolute top of the pile, it's clearly among the best. In the context of New Juche's body of work, or what I've read of it, he hasn't yet topped Mountainhead from 2016, but then Mountainhead may conceivably be the greatest thing I've ever read so comparisons probably aren't fair.

The Devils takes our author back to his roots, the soil from which he was born and which formed him. It's a non-linear account of growing up in Dalkeith, semi-rural Scotland, blending childhood impressions with historical detail of Thomas Dalyell - a seventeenth century Royalist general - and the murder of Jodi Jones in 2003. Jones' supposed killer, one of the author's contemporaries, seems to have been convicted more or less entirely on the strength of owning a Marilyn Manson record, and The Devils is accordingly thick with the background noise of witch hunts, lynch mobs, and random beatings. I myself grew up in a similar environment of awful deeds perpetrated in rustic isolation with specific urban estates to be avoided, and The Devils captures it perfectly, just in case anyone could have mistaken childhood for anything so endearing as The Railway Children. In fact the mood of this thing is so familiar that it's chilling.

As with Mountainhead, The Devils approximately inhabits the spaces between an individual and his environment. Psychogeography seems to have become an overused term of late - not least with twats like [name withheld because I can no longer be arsed to directly identify the shitehawk] now happily dropping it into casual conversation - but this is something else, an account which maps territory as part of the individual's psychology, and which in doing so, is likely to resonate fairly strongly with most sentient readers.

Simply writing the above has made me want to read this again. Maybe it is the best book I've read this year.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Iceman


J.M. DeMatteis & Alan Kupperberg Iceman (1985)
This was a four-issue limited series from before the comic grew up - an era for which I've been feeling increasingly nostalgic. Iceman, as you may know, was from the first line-up of the X-Men, the sixties incarnation which quietly blew my mind before I was old enough to be certain that these weren't real people. He's a fairly obvious attempt to duplicate some of that Human Torch magic but it worked for me; and I guess it still works for me considering I've just read this thing.

Iceman is one Bobby Drake, essentially a variant on Peter Parker, Richard Rider and others. He's a teenager, old enough to be a role model, but not so old as to seem inscrutably adult to anyone under twelve. He's slightly neurotic, and his adventures tend to be seasoned with thought bubbles full of stuff about not wanting a career in accountancy, contrary to the wishes of parents, and the potentially terrible consequences of what will happen if some girl discovers he's really a super-powered mutant; and so on and so forth. If the Marshall McLuhan references seem a bit thin on the ground, it's because Iceman is approximately aimed at twelve-year old boys.

As such, whilst it's hardly life-changing, the series nevertheless does its job very well - telling a story which is surprisingly unpredictable given the rigorously traditional mechanism of its telling. Visiting his parents, Iceman realises that he fancies the girl next door. Naturally she turns out to be a time-traveller fleeing from a terrible authoritarian father figure, unwittingly instigating a series of events which result in Bobby Drake accidentally murdering his own father before he's born, subsequently ceasing to exist and ending up in a realm of non-existence. It's actually a bit like Faction Paradox if Faction Paradox had been created by Jack Kirby in the late sixties; and it could be argued that the series is really just a series of hoops through which Iceman is made to jump, but who cares?

Kupperberg's art is a little uneven, but comes into its own with those peculiar Kirby-inspired outer realms, and DeMatteis keeps you reading, all the while presenting just enough of a glimpse of a truly peculiar background cosmos to demonstrate why Marvel were consistently shitting all over the rivals back in the mid-eighties.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Women


Charles Bukowski Women (1978)
I was told this one wasn't so great, but I can't remember the specific thrust of the objection. As with Factotum, Post Office and the rest, it's fictionalised autobiography with the author recast as Henry Chinaski presumably so as to allow for a little wiggle room where an artistic truth makes more sense than a literal one. Being rooted in autobiography, references to Bukowski's career as a writer - by this point fairly successful in so much as that strangers are now paying him to fly across the country to give readings - seemed initially awkward, at odds with the tone of the novel and its focus on smelly realism; but I stopped noticing once the narrative settled into a steady rhythm of arbitrary fornication. There might also, I suppose, be some objection on the grounds of it being difficult to mistake Charles Bukowski for Margaret Attwood, but I'm not convinced accusations of misogyny really hold, excepting readers who just really need to find something over which to get pissy.

If I had been born a woman I would certainly have been a prostitute. Since I had been born a man, I craved women constantly, the lower the better. And yet women—good women—frightened me because they eventually wanted your soul, and what was left of mine, I wanted to keep. Basically I craved prostitutes, base women, because they were deadly and hard and made no personal demands. Nothing was lost when they left. Yet at the same time I yearned for a gentle, good woman, despite the overwhelming price. Either way I was lost. A strong man would give up both. I wasn't strong. So I continued to struggle with women, the idea of women.

Women might therefore be regarded as Bukowski struggling with the idea of women but failing to achieve any solid or consistent understanding. He drinks, he writes, he visits the race track, and he falls slowly apart as a seemingly endless succession of women beat a path to his bedroom door, one after another, each grubby union doomed before his pants have even hit the floor. His success, if we're going to call it success for the sake of argument, is bewildering, but its occurrence is massively enlightening, not through explaining anything but because of the range of questions it raises; and through all of this, despite Chinaski's raging libido and one track mind, he never quite reduces any of his girlfriends to just another series of holes. He remains transparent and committed to the truth, not least to the truth of his own bullshit.

I poured another wine. I couldn't understand what had happened to my life. I had lost my sophistication. I had lost my worldliness. I had lost my hard protective shell. I had lost my sense of humour in the face of other people's problems. I wanted them all back. I wanted things to go easily for me. But somehow I knew they wouldn't come back, at least not right away. I was destined to continue feeling guilty and unprotected.

I tried telling myself that feeling guilty was just a sickness of some sort. That it was men without guilt who made progress in life. Men who were able to lie, to cheat, men who knew all the shortcuts.

Women as a feminist text is probably a bit of a stretch, but it scores higher than you might think, at least as an unflinching inspection of one dude's attitude to women; and of course, he writes like a dream so it doesn't really matter whether we approve of his serial knobbing. No-one but an absolute fucking twat is going be cheering him on, or reading Women as an instruction manual.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Fantasy & Science Fiction 471


Edward L. Ferman (editor) Fantasy & Science Fiction 471 (1990)
Occasionally I've had cause to search for a particular issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction on Google, and for some weird reason this always seems to be the first issue which comes up as an image, regardless of whether or not it relates to my search; so when I happened upon a second-hand copy, I could hardly not buy it. The universe had obviously been trying to tell me something.

What it was apparently trying to tell me is that I probably should have been buying this thing regularly. I've always been reluctant to commit to the digests given that I always have more than enough to read as it is, but on the other hand, based on the five or six issues of this magazine which I've now read, I might have to make it a regular purchase, or at least splash out on a few more back issues. I always seem to pick it out when whatever I've just finished reading has turned out to be a bit of a slog, and due to some apparently subconscious belief that Fantasy & Science Fiction probably won't let me down; and, Robert Silverberg notwithstanding, it never has. It's short, snappy, suggestive of serious care and attention in the editorial department, always with one or two surprises, and with enough going on to reduce the impact of an occasional bum note.

This 1990 issue may not be life-changing, but it scores pretty high. Firstly we have Ian Watson's In the Upper Cretaceous with the Summerfire Brigade, which is mostly great - weird and yet breezy with just the right kind of bizarre delivered in casual fashion; and Daryl Gregory's In the Wheels, a vivid tale of voodoo road racing in rural post-apocalypse America, is sufficient to get his name on the list of authors of whom I need to read more. Then we have The Three Wishes by John Morressy in which elves and fairies find themselves stalled by bureaucracy, which is very funny and so ingenious as to make it seem crazy that no-one thought of it before. We Were Butterflies by Ray Aldridge is a bit of a mess but with a nevertheless powerful story in there somewhere. His Spirit Wife by Karen Haber is decent and moody, and Asimov's science column is, as ever, excellent. Finally there's Gregg Keizer's Days of Miracle and Wonder which is actually a pretty tough read, given the subject matter, but worth the effort.

For the sake of balance, Herself by Katherine Newlin Burt, first published in 1930, lays it on a bit thick and the prose is like wading through treacle; and something about Ian Watson's Asian characters doesn't sit right and ends up seeming faintly insulting. It's nice that Watson was shaking a fist at those who want to send them all back, but unfortunate that his Asian characters all turn out to be terrorists, somewhat conforming to stereotypes favoured by those who want to send them all back. Further along the line we have a couple of pages of nutters objecting to something Asimov wrote in a previous issue, a couple of which use the term liberal as a pejorative, so fuck those guys; and Poul Anderson for praising Margaret Thatcher. So that's a couple of bum notes, but the rest of the song is of such quality that there doesn't seem to be much room for complaint.