Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Maigret Meets a Milord

Georges Simenon Maigret Meets a Milord (1931)
Originally published in French as Le Charretier de la Providence, the retitling of this one seems bizarre even by the standards of this series of translations; but milord is apparently a colloquial French term for an upper-class English tourist encountered in the French countryside, derived - as I suppose seems obvious - from my lord or m'lud, which is what English people say to their betters. I didn't really have plans to read any more Maigret books seeing as there's about a million of them and I'm way out of my comfort zone with detective fiction, but I found this alongside Maigret Stonewalled in Half Price for an improbable couple of dollars each, original Penguin editions from the sixties, and it would have seemed weird to not buy them.

I suppose having been written back in simpler times, there was less pressure for Simenon to thread his amiable creation through a cat's cradle of plot twists, sleight of hand, and ingenious deduction, and essentially what we have here is a man looking at a bunch of suspects for a little while and then announcing which one of them did it. This suits me fine as I've never been any good at crossword puzzles, and the atmosphere alone is enough to ensure my interest. For something so reliant on atmosphere, or at least reliant upon my picking up on the same, it's surprising how much is achieved by either Simenon's tight, undemonstrative prose, or possibly the tight, undemonstrative prose of Robert Baldick, his translator. There's very little fat here, no padding whatsoever, just wistful utilitarian descriptions bordering on the mathematical, pinning out the details of each scene with every so often a sudden, unexpected flash of the poetic.

And Maigret imagined himself where the carter was, seeing the partition coated with resin on his right, with the whip hanging on a twisted nail, the tin cup hooked on to another, a patch of sky between the boards above, and on the right the horses' muscular croppers.

The whole scene gave off animal warmth, a sensation of full-blooded life which took one by the throat like the harsh wine of certain hillsides.

Reaching the end of the novel we come to a description of a motor-driven propeller moving a boat through water, which is oddly the first description of anything particularly technological, excepting a couple of telephone calls and Maigret getting around on a borrowed bicycle. The appeal of this novel may therefore be, at least for me, its invocation of a world very much like the one of my childhood, muddy waterways below cold, grey European skies containing not one single cellphone signal. This is a quiet, grey world with not even the unveiling of the murderer disturbing the sombre calm, instead bringing only sadness, regret, and other seemingly Gallic moods recalling the less colourful impressionist landscapes. The novel might be tough going were it much longer than one-hundred pages, but as it stands Maigret Meets a Milord seems to represent a kind of perfection in its own quiet way.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Old Records Never Die

Eric Spitznagel Old Records Never Die (2016)
I vaguely remember a point at which I made a vow to avoid the traditional mid-life crisis, mainly due to how terminally wanky it always looked on other people. That said, having recently passed the age of fifty, I'm aware of having spent a lot of time rummaging around in my youth. I've never been very good at throwing anything away, and I've always been fairly organised with a tendency to assemble the detritus of being alive according to something resembling a system, and so I've used up much of the last couple of years working on a forensic reconstruction of my own existence, something I will eventually self-publish purely for the sake of a point of focus towards which I can work. I've been transcribing material from old diaries, notebooks, correspondence, and even copies of spoken tape letters I've sent to people. I don't think of this exercise as nostalgia because frankly, most of my life has been disappointing up until recent times - not anything I'd wish to relive - and at the risk of sounding boastful, my life has been generally fucking amazing since about 2011; so it's more like a mapping project, something which answers the question, how did I get here? My past occurred so long ago in subjective terms that it may as well have happened to someone else, which is why I find it so fascinating now.

For reasons which clearly relate to the above, albeit by means I find difficult to define with any degree of clarity, I've tended to steer clear of books by Nick Hornby, notably High Fidelity, or things in that spirit: Stuart Maconie and Peter Kay chortling over Wacky Races and Curly Wurly. I may be wrong about Hornby, but it seems sappy and sentimental to me, even slightly unhealthy. The closest I came was reading Andrew Collins' excruciatingly twee Where Did It All Go Right?, one of the worst books I've ever read and yet another drearily self-deprecating account of growing up in the seventies and having an hilarious punk hairstyle for a bit and failing to shag some girl and listening to the Smiths, because it's always the fucking Smiths.

Writing about music, or specifically about one's love of music, is an inevitably subjective undertaking because it would be pointless were it otherwise; which can additionally leave the writing in question somewhat reliant on whether or not the reader shares the same musical taste as the author, at least in cases where the author isn't up to much and you probably wouldn't be reading but for the fact that he also digs St. Winifred's School Choir. I still have Smiths records, and I can appreciate them, and How Soon is Now? was wonderful; but the first music I really began to take seriously as a kid seemed a bit more wide-ranging in certain respects, beginning with Devo - working through Crass and Killing Joke, probably ending up in the general vicinity of Throbbing Gristle. For the most part it was music beginning from the point of view that all western society is fucked, that we're all living a lie, and that maybe you need to face up to it, shithead.  Doubtless it all took itself too seriously, but that was part of its job. Then the Smiths turned up, and I recall the interviews about how they only wanted handsome people at their little pop concerts, and This Charming Man sounded like the theme tune to a kid's show, and although the second single actually had a tune, everything since has been a heavy sigh of my life is shit and I feel a bit sad. I don't understand how that could really have changed anyone's world, or how anyone could be satisfied with just that, and no-one who ever wrote about it has been able to explain it to me.

Old Records Never Die is the account of one man's mission to track down all the records of his youth, not just the songs, but the actual same copies rescued from dusty boxes in basements and thrift stores. Needless to say, I approached the book with some trepidation, reading mainly on the grounds of it having been a birthday present from my brother-in-law, a man of generally sound judgement. I still don't quite understand why Eric Spitznagel really needed to reunite with the copy of Kiss' Alive II on which his brother Mark had scrawled HANDS OFF!!! across the cover in ballpoint; and I had a tough time getting through the first couple of chapters worth of references to the Travelling Wilburys, Billy Joel, and other artists I'd rather not have to think about; but as the book finds its stride, it becomes clear that this is not about the music or fat old fuckers going misty-eyed over the malts and shakes of a sunnier age, not exactly. Spitznagel's quest is a genuinely bizarre one, almost a ritual working, not really trying to bring something back so much as to understand its power; and I can identify because it seems reminiscent of what I've been doing with all my own old crap. It doesn't really matter whether or not the Smiths changed anyone's life, and in any case Spitznagel writes about the change and how we understand it rather than the source of musical revelation. If anything, the sources of musical revelation seem the least important detail of whatever the guy is going through in this book, so it's communicated as what may as well be a universal experience. More than anything it reminds me of Harvey Pekar's wistful tales of stealing jazz records from a radio station or finding a cheap pair of Stetson shoes in Goodwill. It has a certain passion, a certain affection, but there's nothing sappy or sentimental here.

I still haven't read High Fidelity, although if it's anything like the film, then Old Records Never Die really isn't a particularly close relative. It's about much more, the entire experience of memory, and while it's often very, very funny, the gags come naturally as part of the discourse - none of that gormless chuckling over old photos in which people look a little bit different to how they do now.

This one has really surprised me.

Monday, 20 November 2017

All the Traps of Earth

Clifford D. Simak All the Traps of Earth (1962)
What with the Open Road reprints, it feels as though I've read quite a few of Simak's short stories of late, although of late is a relative term here given that I read I Am Crying All Inside back in March, 2016, and that was where I first came across Installment Plan and All the Traps of Earth, two of the six short stories gathered here - although apparently there were more in the hardback. Strangely, much as I appear to have enjoyed both of those first time around, my recollection of having read them is vague and based only on the familiarity of the titles. Either I'm getting old and my memory is beginning to go, or the tales in question simply had a greater impact this time around, for some reason.

It could be that I was simply in a frame of mind more conducive to reading Simak, or that - as seems more likely - there's just something about a collection such as this which leaves a bigger impression. It's a one shot rather than part of a daunting series comprising many, many volumes, just six great stories which someone or other picked as either the best or the best which worked together at time of publication; and there's the powerfully evocative cover; even the unfortunate fact of yellowed pages crumbling at the corners as I read them.

Whatever the reason, as a single volume this one serves as a powerful argument for Simak as one of the greatest in his field, and certainly top three. These six tales play very much to Simak's strengths, with my only possible gripe being that Installment Plan takes a little longer to get going than seems necessary - although once we hit the second chapter, all is well. The tone is pastoral, as one might reasonably expect, and yet there's very little repetition. Good Night, Mr. James suggests the influence of van Vogt with its central protagonist in constant motion through a mysterious urban landscape, in pursuit of something terrible whilst simultaneously struggling to recall the particulars of his own identity - which additionally suggests Philip K. Dick may have been taking notes at this point, both from this story and the peculiar Drop Dead with its surreal, dreamlike composite livestock. Simak populates his universe with regular people just trying to get by, and not a science hero nor even a big city swell in sight. The robots are also regular people just trying to get by, as are the aliens in most cases, and travel beyond the limits of Earth very much resembles the settlers of old striking out across the American west, although this time with a better developed sense of responsibility. Simak achieves a warm familiarity without ever quite getting too cosy, and the power of his tales is to be found in how this contrasts with where he sends his people, or his robots, or his aliens.

I'd argue that this might even be one of the best, most convincing, and satisfying collections of short science-fiction you're ever likely to read of any author. It might also be that I've simply over-appreciated something of quality after ploughing through Neil Gaiman's posture as storytelling, but whichever way you look at it, this really is a wonderful book.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Miracleman: The Golden Age

Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham Miracleman: The Golden Age (1999)
Is anyone else getting bored of the increasingly labyrinthine publishing history of Marvelman, or whatever he's called this year? I know I am. This reprints a reprint of an Eclipse comic which apparently no longer ever happened, may not actually have needed to happen in the first place, and may even have been redrawn according to some online article I can no longer find which was admittedly probably referring to Miracleman: The Silver Age, but never mind.

To briefly digress, some decades ago I went through a phase of wishing I could write superhero comics. I longed to be taken seriously as an author of frowning material involving capes, powers and important messages. The main obstacle to this career swivel was that I could barely string a sentence together. I wasn't particularly literate and what strips I had scrawled up to that point were improvised and heavily reliant on knob gags, so I sat down with a stack of my fave comics - mostly X-Men titles and things written by Alan Moore - and I tried really hard to work out what was going on so as to arrive at a method by which I too might tell a story. Eventually I accumulated a loose group of guidelines and techniques strip-mined mostly from the aforementioned Moore, methods I might employ so as to conceal my not actually having any story worth telling; roughly speaking, this sort of thing:

  • Mess up the lives of your characters and the story will form around what happens as you try to get them back into shape.
  • Don't be afraid of novelty. It looks like imagination and most people can't tell the difference.
  • Quote freely, make frequent references to music, films, or literature generally regarded as cool. References to persons generally regarded as interesting are also to be encouraged - Crowley, Jung, Shakespeare and so on.
  • Quote yourself freely, treating your story thus far as something of inherent weight and mystery. Maybe that person in the background back on page four could turn out to be some kind of mutant mastermind orchestrating everything from behind the scenes.
  • Repeat yourself. People will mistake it for a motif and assume you know what you're doing.

Unfortunately, I learned just enough to immediately recognise my own efforts as complete bullshit once I got to work; and perhaps equally unfortunately, every time I pick up something written by Neil Gaiman - although admittedly it's been a while - it really looks to me as though he's using the very same checklist.

I discovered Neil Gaiman with an early issue of Sandman, went briefly nuts for the guy and bought up everything I could get my hands on; although within about a year I'd begun to detect the faint essence of something which I found difficult to like. I kept on buying Sandman, but Lordy those faux-Shakespearean issues bored me shitless; and I wasn't that wild about Harry fucking Potter even when he was Timothy Hunter; and eventually it all became too annoying so I flogged the lot on eBay. I recall the first twenty or so issues of Sandman as essentially decent, and I'd buy the collected editions but for the bloody awful art which somehow bothered me less at the time; and then there was Miracleman.

We didn't really need any more issues of Miracleman after Alan Moore was done with it, and I'm not convinced Neil Gaiman's run really adds anything. To be fair, The Golden Age seems to be the first of a longer three-part story, and is obviously mostly just scene setting, albeit for a story with a scene already set during Moore's run; and you can tell it's scene setting because it doesn't actually have a story. In fact it barely even has forward motion. I appreciate the device of describing something indescribable through the lives of those observing it from afar, but it reads like a series of novel images of the kind I would have tried to pass of as narrative back in my youth.

Lonely bloke looks after windmills, shags Miraclewoman.

Precocious Miraclebaby has superpowers, insults doting mother.

Geezer climbs mountain but doesn't find answer.

See, they're not really stories, just single images described at length by use of selected phrases deployed so as to suggest a particular mood, and at the end we're supposed to go wow whilst remaining nevertheless touched by the subtle poetry of human interaction; but nothing actually happens, and it really feels as though the author hopes we won't notice. It's the exact same thing which Steven Moffat does on Doctor Who, or did last time I could be arsed to sit through yet another time-wasting episode. A skeleton in a space suit does not in and of itself constitute narrative.

Where was I?

To be fair, the issue spent in the company of Andy Warhol, one of the many resurrected in Miracleman's brave new world of wonders, is terrific, and possibly the best thing I've read by Neil Gaiman; so I guess I can see what he's trying to do for most of this stuff, but none of the rest really comes close, at least not for me, because I can't read past what feels like writing by formula. We have the Kid Miracleman teen cultists drawn in apparent homage to the Hernandez brothers, because Love & Rockets is like rilly amaaazing, yeah? Then there's an incomprehensible Prisoner homage with edgily xeroxed images, and God help us yet another fucking story told as a twee children's book - novelty after novelty after novelty, and of course the poetry of the writing should be sufficient to save the thing from its own neatly modular eccentricity, except it can't because as usual it's so bleeding middle-class that it may as well be set in the same universe as Love Actually; and oh lookee - everyone meets up at the Notting Hill carnival in the final episode. Fancy that.

I realise I'm in the minority, but surely I can't be the only person to have had this reaction to Neil Gaiman's writing? Maybe American Gods is amazing. I don't know. I can only base my opinion on what I've managed to read by him, and it's all been twee; and instances of spontaneity and imagination feel calculated to invoke specific reactions; and it lacks danger or the flavour of any experience beyond the somewhat limited world of a conspicuously middle-class author who wishes only to entertain; and it feels like something for which there could never be greater praise than a glowing write up in Time Out; and when I read anything by Neil Gaiman it feels as though he's sat at my side, digging me in the ribs to see whether I'm suitably full of wonder, and it feels as though he's ever so pleased with himself.

That said, I'm sure he's a lovely bloke in person.

I expect Tim Burton's fucking smashing too.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The City of Gold and Lead

John Christopher The City of Gold and Lead (1967)
As you will almost certainly be aware, The City of Gold and Lead is the second of John Christopher's trilogy of children's books set upon an Earth dominated by the alien Tripods. Where The White Mountains seemed more obviously like something extrapolated from The War of the Worlds, this one represents the point at which the tale heads off into new territory. The White Mountains kept its Tripods as a mysterious but remote menace whilst focussing on more familiar human concerns with authority, and how we act when it spins out of control.

This time we go right into the Tripod city to live amongst them as they exist beyond the safety and anonymity of their walking machines. It could have gone horribly wrong in reducing something distant and fairly scary to a known, even potentially comic entity as the creatures from within the machines are revealed to be three legged, tentacled cones of alien flesh with hopes and desires of their own, and apparently based on George Melly - if the one who enslaves Will, our main protagonist, is any indication. Christopher nevertheless pulls it off with ease, crafting a horror story which comes close to hinting at the excesses of the Nazis despite that these Nazis appear to resemble the sort of rubber monsters we bought for five pence a throw and stuck on our pencil tops when I were a lad. It may even be the peculiarity of the Masters - essentially more personable variations on Lovecraft's Great Race - which maintains the fine balance of the narrative by keeping the Tripods at a slight remove from their operators, therefore preserving the menace established in the first book.

Beyond the obvious matters of facing up to tyranny, helping your pals, and generally selfless acts, The City of Gold and Lead doesn't seem quite so philosophically weighty as The White Mountains, although there's also the possibility that I may simply have been overthinking that one; but then it doesn't need to be, because it does what it does to the point of perfection, and is as such one of the best things I've read in a while. As with its predecessor, I really, really wish I'd read this back when I was of the age group for whom it was written.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Missing Man

Katherine MacLean Missing Man (1975)
Just as Asimov had his robots and Philip K. Dick had his ontology, Katherine MacLean's writing is distinguished by her interest in systems theory, organising principles, mass psychology and so on; which may sound a little dry, but she writes beautifully, and with such poetry that we tend to forget when the book has a painting of a robot on the cover. Unfortunately though, her name remains relatively obscure, possibly because she wrote short stories to the exclusion of anything else and has thus remained more or less confined to the ghetto of science-fiction magazine publishing. Even the novel length Missing Man is expanded from a couple of related short stories.

Missing Man examines a society with many familiar problems through the understanding of a psychic detective of sorts, George Sanford whose telepathy allows him insight into the thoughts of those who hold very different views to his own. His world, somewhat conveniently, is divided into highly polarised communities, and many of them set very much against the common good of society as a whole, most notably a displaced Arab community and another which seems to be populated by teenagers. It was the Arab community with which I had the most trouble, given the resemblance of this detail to the sort of thing I presume one might expect to find in the white nationalist science-fiction of persons such as H.A. Covington. MacLean's displaced Islamic group are angry, religious, and seemingly inclined to blow stuff up, but thankfully it becomes clear that their role in the novel is simply to illustrate a view opposing that of the wider society which can be neither assimilated nor placated. She gives reasons for their militancy, and I suspect it's simply a poorly chosen device, although it may seem more so in 2017 than it did in 1975. Ultimately, despite a few disconcerting swerves of this kind, the novel demonstrates itself to be an extended essay on cultural relativism, one which concludes that we really need to stop acting like wankers if we're to get through this.

Unfortunately though, Missing Man seems to provide a clue as to why Katherine MacLean stuck to short stories. The detail is gorgeous, but taken as a full length novel, it felt like walking though fog, unable to see much further than a few feet ahead or behind with very little in the way of underlying structure to support the developing narrative as a unified whole. It felt episodic and the brief glimpses of where we were heading seemed few and far between. That said, as a flawed undertaking by one of the true greats, it still has more going for it than the work of many better publicised names in the field.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction

Robert P. Mills (editor)
The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction eleventh series (1962)
Rightly or wrongly, I've always had the impression of Fantasy & Science Fiction as the American analogy to New Worlds, roughly speaking, at least in relation to Analog, Amazing, Galaxy, and the other magazines. Whilst you could usually expect a short story involving rockets and another involving alien civilisations from most of them, Fantasy & Science Fiction seemed to be the one to publish the weird stuff which didn't really fit anywhere else. That being said, I expected to enjoy this collection more than I did.

In its favour there are characteristically wonderful contributions from Clifford D. Simak and Poul Anderson, while Cordwainer Smith and Avram Davidson have both written impressively peculiar tales of quality sufficient as to suggest that I really need to hunt down a few more by those two. Then there's an underwhelming early work by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., something by Isaac Asimov which is probably about as whelming as I expected it to be, and my first encounter with Gordon R. Dickson which at least suggests that I've been wise to steer clear of anything with his name on the cover. George by John Anthony West is okay, and then there are another five tales listed in the index which I know I read but about which I can't remember a single thing; plus there's a couple of poems which weren't really my sort of thing.

Still, I suppose this kind of deal will always be very much like a box of chocolates in so much as that you never know which one you're gon' git, excepting cases of it being one of those boxes of chocolates wherein the various flavours featured amongst the selection are quite clearly denoted on the inside of the lid. They can't all be amazing, I guess, but it's nice that some of them are. Maybe they were just having an off year.