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Trilemma by Jennifer Mortimer

Trilemma-3D-No-Background

Writing fiction is all about voice and point of view. As writers, we think about how we would tell the story face-to-face and then modify that version so the story works on the page. The inherent problem, of course, is that the page can’t represent all the body language, facial expressions and voice modulation that goes into a live performance. The best we can do is approximate the voice, add in more description, and hope for the best. As to point of view, assuming the writer is not going to be omniscient, we readers are invited to see the events through the eyes of one or more characters. This makes first-person narrative one of the traps for the unwary. Given that the author can “become” the protagonist and write as if he or she was thinking, speaking or doing, it’s easy to believe everything about the protagonist is interesting to the reader. After all, most authors find themselves interesting and therefore assume readers will like them as first-person narrators.

So here we go with Trilemma by Jennifer Mortimer (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) which is a first-person narrative featuring Linnet Mere. She’s a project manager superstar, specialising in large technology projects or bringing start-ups to the market. In this instance, she’s come to New Zealand to help launch a challenger in the broadband market. Although she was born in that country, her father took her to America when very young. This means she’s had no contact with her two sisters. She also has an “ex” who lives in New Zealand. So, from her point of view, there are three reasons for coming to the islands. Obviously she’ll be well paid for her work, she can put out feelers to her family, and make tentative moves to resurrect her lost relationship. Because this is a first-person narrative, we’re with Lin as she speaks for and about herself. The point of this novel, therefore, is that our protagonist cannot know the generality of what’s going on around her. The Board of the start-up has its own political agenda and it’s not being honest with all the key people whose job it is to get the technology up and running. Lin delays contacting the family because she’s uncertain of their welcome. And then there’s Ben. This is one of these complicated situations. He lives in a fairly remote area, earning a living by making furniture and looking after his daughter now aged seventeen. Getting him to leave his comfort zone and potentially take up a globe-trotting lifestyle while being “kept by” a woman is not going to be easy, even if it’s desirable.

Jennifer Mortimer

Jennifer Mortimer

So this is what the reliable voice tell us about the set-up. But in the first-person, we’re faced by an inherently unreliable narrator. There are so many things he or she cannot know. Think of Watson to Sherlock. He’s limited in what he sees and has to depend on Sherlock to tell him what’s actually happening. So Lin is highly competent in her professional capacity and as responsible as any normal person can be in her personal life. And, for a number of reasons, she’s a target. Take the work environment. She has to take tough decisions and this leads to resentment. Not only is she a woman in a country which celebrates the macho ethic through its rugby culture, but she’s also a decisive leader who works out all the angles and sees clearly which way to go. So whether she publicly berates a male colleague or quietly terminates his contract, it’s the same result. She’s made an enemy. What she cannot know is how far this resentment will go. Some men may just move on to another job. Others may allow the anger to fester. It’s the same in families. She does not know exactly why her family split and avoided contact. Approaching the New Zealand end of the break-up story may be the proverbial can of worms. In life, she’s not oblivious to danger, but she’s tough enough not to allow worry to hold her back. At some point, she’s always going to take the bold decision and do whatever’s necessary to get the right result.

In many ways, this is a book exploring the sexism inherent in patriarchal societies. New Zealand, like many developed countries, prides itself on the steps it’s taken towards gender equality. Yet, when you scratch the surface, little or nothing has changed — the men still think they are in charge. Hence, this is a fascinating exploration of the mindset a woman has to develop if she’s not only going to survive in the corporate world, but also climb the career ladder. It’s worth reading if only for that insight. The structure of the book also carries its own interest. I suppose it ends up being a kind of hybrid. It starts off as a conventional piece of modern literature about the corporate world. It interweaves elements of romance and the uncertainties of family relationships. And, in retrospect, it’s a thriller. Notice the key word, “retrospect”. Such is the strength or weakness of first-person narration. Since our protagonist is oblivious to the danger, so are the readers. The result is a clever piece of writing. As a purely personal reaction, I confess to being less than engaged during the first half of the book. I prefer a more real sense of menace to permeate the text. I’m also less than interested in the commercial exploitation of technology and the politics of competition. But as a reviewer, I’m very conscious of the general appeal of this type of book. Many will enjoy the scene-setting and, more importantly, the end result gives us the chance to reprise events to see which were significant and why. This makes Trilemma better than average on all three limbs of the “lemma”.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Reel Stuff by Don Bruns

November 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Reel-Stuff-3D

One of the delights in reading so many books is you get to see all the narrative tricks played out in their different forms. One of my favourites is the use of the unreliable narrator. When an author sets off down the track of a first-person point of view, the reader is limited to what the protagonist sees, hears and understands. So when our “hero” is not paying proper attention or is distracted, we also miss vital clues from the environment. Of course, the omniscient author can play the same game simply by choosing not to tell the reader or to limit the salience of information so the reader will pass quickly by without noticing. Trickery by omission or misdirection is standard fare. But the least unfair way of paying this game is through a first-person narrator. In Reel Stuff by Don Bruns (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) we have a particularly elegant way of presenting a puzzle for solution. To understand this bold assertion, a few words of explanation are required.

This is the seventh in the Stuff series featuring Skip Moore, the narrator, James Lessor, his partner in a not wholly successful PI business, and Emily, Skip’s rather good-looking girlfriend. This time, our dynamic duo have picked up a job providing security on a set being used to shoot an episode for a moderately successful television series. Skip is beside the director while a stunt is being set up. A big star is doing a cameo which ends with him falling off a scaffolding structure. All the safety angles have been worked out. Even though this is a seventy-foot fall, there’s a very impressive inflatable bag to absorb the impact and lower said star safely to earth. It’s therefore a surprise to everyone when, during a rehearsal, he jumps off the scaffolding and falls twenty-feet to one side of the bag. The body is rather spread around by the impact. Of course, this looks like a suicide. Except perhaps it isn’t. The puzzle, of course, is how a scene being filmed (this production company uses old-school technology) could actually be a murder. Indeed, having been there and seen what happened, Skip is firmly of the opinion that it can’t possibly be a murder. As I said, it’s set-ups like this that make reading such a joy. As experienced readers, we know this will be a murder. The only question is how to overcome our hero’s failure to understand what he saw. In defence of poor Skip, it’s not his fault he thinks this is a suicide. In takes days for his certainty to weaken and for the investigative genes to kick into play. Of course, his partner’s willingness to take an advance to prove it a murder does set him on the right track.

Don Bruns and Dick Smothers celebrating stuff

To discover what happened, the team is forced to divide its forces. Skip and Emily go to Los Angeles. The victim’s wife runs a talent agency so our couple “go undercover”. Emily pretends to be an actress. Skip is her manager. They fake a resume and union card for Emily, and she dazzles them with her smile. Much to Skip’s annoyance, the agency is immediately on high alert and arranges an audition. Within twenty-four hours, Emily is on a high. She has a part in a new television series and finds well-established stars hitting on her. This is not the response Skip was looking for. Their relationship comes under pressure and the pace of the investigation slows a little. Fortunately, Skip eventually makes the breakthrough and, with various attempts being made on his life, grows confident he’s on the right track.

Reel Stuff is a superior example of the form of writing I describe as amiable mystery. Don Bruns is one of these laid-back authors who makes the craft look easy, propelling the reader rapidly through the mists of uncertainty until our hero emerges into the light of understanding with the solution. As a whodunnit, this is satisfying. It also works as a gentle thriller. Perhaps of equal importance, the dynamic of Skip’s relationship with Emily is developing rather nicely. Too often the immediate mystery dominates and limits the space available for us to watch the characters live their lives. Reel Stuff gets the balance right and leaves us with a bittersweet ending. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next episode.

For a review of another book by Don Bruns, see Hot Stuff.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Corrupt Practices by Robert Rotstein

July 3, 2013 1 comment

Corrupt Practices by Robert Rotstein

Time passes slowly for reviewers as we move steadily from one book to the next, never quite sure what the next book will bring, always hoping that next book will be worth reading or better. It’s that hope of finding the diamond in all the rough that keeps us going. Something, nay anything, to break the monotony of the reasonable to the outright dire that are paraded in front of our eyes by professionally optimistic marketers. Well, the first of this year’s possible diamonds has just hit my radar. Corrupt Practices by Robert Rotstein (Seventh Street Books, 2013) is billed as the first novel featuring Parker Stern. I think it’s terrific but it will not be for everyone. Some will legitimately feel the theme is too explicit and not want to read it. So what exactly do we have?

Put simply, this is a book about family relationships. As a child, Parker proved to be photogenic and ended up in front of the cameras in some moderately successful films. This should have set him up for life but his mother and one of the succession of men who acted as surrogate fathers as he was growing up, found a way to work round the law protecting children’s earnings. At the age of fifteen, Parker sought emancipation and left his mother and his acting career behind. Finding he had some interest in the law, he qualified and was offered a job by Harmon Cherry, the de facto head of Macklin & Cherry, a reasonably successful firm of lawyers. As a litigator, Parker found his acting skills of great use and he was soon building a reputation for himself (and the firm). After a few years, the firm began to represent the Church of the Sanctified Assembly (a cult not unlike the Scientologists but without the SFnal core beliefs). This put a strain on the office. Parker threatened to resign and was only persuaded to stay when Chinese Walls were put in place to prevent him from ever coming into contact with the Church or its members. That work increasingly fell on Rich Baxter, a less than stellar but conscientious attorney. Everyone was surprised when he joined the Church. The other key players were Grace Trimble, the most intelligent but the least emotionally stable, Deanna Poulos a fellow litigator, and Manny Mason, the most intellectual. Everything moved forward well for twelve years until Harmon Cherry committed suicide. At this point, the firm imploded. It had been like a family for Parker but, for different reasons, they went their separate ways. Grace disappeared. Deanna opened a coffee shop. Mason joined the local university as a member of the law faculty. While Parker, who had related to Cherry as the father he never had, lost his nerve and found it impossible to go into court again.

Robert Rotstein

Robert Rotstein

Fast forward one year and Deanna passes on a request from Rich for legal representation. He’s in jail, accused of stealing seventeen million dollars from the Church. Out of loyalty, he goes to visit Rich who both denies being guilty and alleges that Harmon was murdered. Reluctantly, Parker agrees to take the case but before he need do anything, Rich apparently commits suicide in jail. The Church now comes after the estate for recovery of the missing money. With equal reluctance, Parker agrees to represent Rich’s old father. It seems he’s going to be forced to confront the demons of his own anxiety and take a case in court. Out of loyalty, Manny offers him a few hours teaching a final year option on advocacy to the current cohort of students. Only three sign on but one of them is Lovely Diamond, the daughter of a man who made his money out of porn and who knew Parker as a child actor. Each of the three students has to undertake a case under his supervision and Lovely wants to take a First Amendment case involving a woman who has published some very explicit short stories about child abuse on her website. This now has everything in place for the legal thriller to get into top gear.

The Church plays dirty and, when simple intimidation fails to work, it resorts to physical violence. After a minor brush with one of the “faithful”, Parker is very scientifically beaten and warned not to proceed with the case involving the Church. For very different reasons, Lovely’s defence of the “paedophile” author also proves challenging and, to his surprise, he finds he can make a positive intervention when his young apprentice gets into trouble on a pre-trial motion. He’s also relieved he can still be effective when taking a deposition from the man who “represents” the Church. Nevertheless, the prospect of a full trial is daunting. Were it not for the emotional support offered by Deanna, Manny and Lovely, he would have given up.

Parker is almost an unreliable narrator because he’s less than forthcoming with the readers as to precisely what happened to provoke him into litigation to break the custody of his mother. We’re left in the dark until about three-quarters of the way through when all is revealed. Needless to say, this places a completely different light on the relationships before and after his emancipation as a minor. The detailed backstory that emerges is perhaps not a complete surprise. There have been hints and some of Parker’s emotional difficulties as an adult would suggest this type of scenario. That said, you get the feeling Parker is finally coming to terms with his experiences and that he will be the stronger for it in the future.

This leaves me with praise for the quality of the plot which all slots together very smoothly, and considerable delight in the courtroom scenes. The author is a lawyer and he manages the neat trick of making some complex legal issues accessible for the lay reader. The only caveat which I need mention is the presence of some explicit language and descriptions of sexual activity. Personally, I found it all in the best possible taste, but if you find it difficult to think about the abuse of children, this may not be the book for you. As a final aside, the only slightly jarring note is that Parker falls in love with Lovely. This is an unfortunate drop into cliché in an otherwise highly original plot. Corrupt Practices is highly recommended to everyone who wants the best in legal thrillers.

For a review of the sequel, see, Reckless Disregard.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges is by Caitlin R Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney. Pausing there for a moment, you may wonder why Ms Kiernan should chose to publish the first in a new trilogy using the device of a disclosed pseudonym. The answer is she intends this project to be sufficiently different to the usual run of material that it must be presented to the world “differently”. So unlike the first Barbara Vine book which did not announce Ruth Rendell as the author on the jacket, this book uses both the author’s name and the pseudonym on the jacket. That way, random potential buyers are told it’s a Kiernan book but “different”. So those of you who enjoyed The Drowning Girl and are waiting for the next of Kiernan’s “real” books, can kill time by reading this trilogy by “Kathleen Tierney” which is “different”. My apologies for the repetitiveness of the explanation.

So exactly how is this book “different”? Well, you may think you know what urban fantasy or paranormal romance is, i.e. a largely anaemic, usually chaste, ramble round the supernatural sandbox with a female protagonist in danger but pulling through bravely and, depending on the publisher, sometimes bedding the romantic interest. But this book takes the anodyne formula and tramples all over it. I suppose the classification of the result depends on your own definitions. Some might call it a pastiche, others a parody or even satire. After a few drinks in a bar, its true nature as a general exercise in “taking the piss” would probably get the vote of approval (a British idiom meaning to ridicule or mock). As is required, we’ve got a woman as our protagonist. Except Siobhan Quinn is our unreliable narrator du jour. She’s an addict and all addicts lie about everything, including their addiction. Better still, she’s earned a reputation as a a killer of supernatural nasties except, in the classic tradition of a true klutz, the various nasties meeting their doom variously slipped or fell over with fatal consequences. It’s ever thus that legends are born. So, ironically, if she’s to live up to her own reputation, she’s actually got to learn how to kill something intentionally. Believe me when I tell you she’s not the fastest learner on the planet. As an example, take her approach to tracking down a werewolf. She goes into his kill zone and then shoot up with heroine. I mean, is she a fuck-up or what?

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

So here we go with a first-person narrative and metafictional commentary with the author cracking jokes to the reader: no really, I’m not making it up. I’m not the one being paid to make up shit like this, OK. It’s the author who’s playing with your head and generally pointing out the many absurdities in the subgenre out of which she’s taking the piss. But if that’s all the book was about, the joke would wear thin very rapidly. This forces the author to write a conventional story about a female Buffy-type screw-up who sequentially gets bitten by a werewolf and then bitten by a vampire. This makes her a werepire or vampwolf depending on your colloquial preferences. Now armed with a voracious appetite for human blood and an alarming tendency to turn into a wolf when she gets excited, she carves a dangerous furrow through Providence, doing slightly more than chewing on the furniture until she gets to the end of her adventure. Alarmingly, she fails to mate with anyone or thing during the contemporaneous action thereby holding true to the usual requirement for a chaste romance. This is probably due to her uncontrollable desire to exsanguinate or simply eat anyone or thing she encounters. The only one even vaguely approximating a mentor or sidekick spends most of the book hiding from her lest he too gets sucked into the action in the more fatal sense of the words. He’s very prudent.

Taken overall, I think the book a success in both its aims. As a narrative in the fantasy mould with supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, trolls, and so on, it satisfies all the basic requirement for adventure. As unreliable narrators go, Siobhan Quinn also proves credible. Although she starts off incredibly dim, you always feel there’s enough native wit inside that not so pretty head to enable her to join up all the dots to work out who’s pulling the strings. If I have a problem with the book, it’s in the second element of piss-taking which may go on slightly too long. There are some genuinely amusing monologuing debates about how characters are expected to act in books of this type. Indeed, I can understand why it’s taking so long to write the sequel. I think Ms Kiernan may have discovered she rather shot her bolt with Blood Oranges. Without repeating herself, it’s damn difficult to write two more in the same vein. The sequel, after some toing and froing, is called Red Delicious. I’m hopeful it will be worth reading.

For a review of other books by Caitlin R Kiernan, see Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart and The Ape’s Wife.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Oblivion (2013)

May 15, 2013 2 comments

Oblivion poster

I suppose Oblivion (2013) makes a change. Instead of dealing with the crash-bang defeat of an alien invasion and stopping the cameras rolling before Earth gets to do the clean-up operation, removing all the damaged and destroyed buildings and the bodies of the aliens we managed to slaughter, this film starts off with the notion that the aliens turned up and attacked the moon. Don’t you just love science fiction. Knowing they could never hope to defeat Earth’s military might, they took on the one target they knew they could beat. Oh, and of course, substantial destruction of the moon changed the gravitational effect of said moon and there were earthquakes and tsunamis down here that pretty much did in Earth’s defences. Pretty sneaky, huh? Except the military had enough nuclear firepower to defeat these pesky creatures when they did land. The price of Earth’s victory? Contamination on an epic scale.

At this point, i.e. about two minutes into the film, we get a major inconsistency in the narrative. If Earth was seriously damaged by all this, how come we could develop the technology to build this superduper space station and go into residence around Titan? This is clearly beyond our abilities, even without the odd high tide washing over cities. More importantly, if Earth didn’t beat all these scavenger beings and they hang around still attacking our hero, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), why not get more systematic to exterminate them before settling into a life in outer space to wait for the planet to heal? Failure on this front means they breed while we’re away and can build defences to stop us coming back. We’re also immediately shown that “they” are messing with our hero’s memories. He keeps getting flashbacks to the pre-invasion Earth and sees this dominant image of a woman. This must be some imperfection from the last security memory wipe which occurred almost five years ago. Except Jack is obviously an unreliable narrator and we can’t trust anything he claims to remember. His minder (and lover), Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is apparently there to keep Jack on mission and acting within the “rules” laid down by Sally (Melissa Leo), the liaison officer in command from the space station.

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in the mile high club

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in the mile high club

So we hypothesise that the aliens won and, having wiped Jack’s memories, are now using him to repair their drones while they steal our water. The images of the beached ships and odd bits of building left exposed are quite impressive and confirm destruction on an epic scale. Assuming this is replicated across the planet, it’s inconceivable humanity survived in any numbers. As you would therefore expect, this homely drone maintenance engineer and his consort believe they are the only folk left on Earth and they have one of these idyllic homes perched on top of a mountain while he completes the establishment of the drone network (except the trailer has already shown us that Beech (Morgan Freeman) is alive and well and living in semidarkness so he can see where the end of his cigar is to light it when he strikes a match). His sidekick is Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who looks difficult to kill. OK so what’s the verdict after ten minutes? It seems Earth has also developed antigravity because these drones move around without regard to little constraints like mass and momentum. There’s also this nifty flying thingamagummy for Jack to patrol his allocated quadrant which is also way beyond anything we could have developed.

For the record, not one bit of the “science” in this science fiction film makes any sense. If aliens blew up the moon, we could have a ring like Saturn which would be really cool when the sun shines on it or there could be a big dust cloud which would have substantially the same mass as the moon in solid form, i.e. have the same gravitational effect. If the moon was pushed away, the sun would take over as the dominant gravitational force and we’d get high tide at noon every day. Oh, and people would stop changing into wolves when the moon was full. The assertion Earth would have been pulled to pieces because of this sneak attack is ludicrous. The only point of this scenario is to justify the montage of CGI images that provide a context for the actors to say their lines which, for the most part, are ditchwater dull and make little sense.

Morgan Freemen and Nikolaj Coster Waldau looking stealthy

Morgan Freemen and Nikolaj Coster Waldau looking stealthy

Perhaps we can save the film by dignifying it as an SFnal examination as to the meaning of identity. You know the kind of thing. We are the sum of all we remember so, if there’s an artificial block on our memories, our character changes. Why? Because if we can no longer remember how we reacted in the past, experience stops guiding us in the present. Except all this film does is prove these damn fool aliens don’t have a mind machine to beat the mind of Tom Cruise. He’s back in the past remembering football games and this woman on top of the Empire State Building. You just can’t keep the mind of a good hero down. It bears mentioning that the main plot set-up and twist is the same as in Moon (2009) which was not unlike Eutamnesia (2000). It’s difficult to be genuinely original when there have been so many books and films on this theme. So perhaps we can say the CGI is great and the action exciting? Well, the first fight sequence is chaotic and the behaviour of the drone makes little sense. Then an old piece of technology crashes and, after forcing the drones to pull away, Jack rescues Julia (Olga Kurylenko). She’s been in suspended animation for sixty (or more) years and, yes, she’s the girl he keeps remembering. What? Earth had suspended animation technology? Perhaps they also had stealth technology as well.

At this point, lots of stuff happens and then it ends. Perhaps this would not have been too bad if it had only been a ninety minute film but, at one-hundred-and-twenty-four minutes, it feels like Purgatory. It’s an excuse to watch Tom Cruise ride his motorbike, fly this cool thingamagummy and shoot at whatever moves (and do environmentally sustainable things in a patch of jungle). Andrea Riseborough is there to look good and prove that the alien mind machine works on women. Olga Kurylenko is there as the “other woman” and to perpetuate the species. Morgan Freeman lights up the screen and his cigar for about ten minutes. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is effectively invisible. For me Oblivion is appropriately named because that’s where the film should be consigned.

What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli

What Makes You Die

What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli (Apex Publications Book) is a novella and an impressive riff on an old idea. Being a guy from the last century who’s read an incredible number of words over the decades, I’m reminded of the Galloway Gallegher stories by Henry Kuttner writing as Lewis Padget. This hero (using the word somewhat ironically) was an alcoholic. While insensible, he became a phenomenal inventor except, with his subconscious in command, he would surface from the latest bender with no clear recollection of the last few days. This produces much hilarity in an old-fashioned kind of way as our hungover hero is forced to try and work out exactly what he’d invented while drunk. To say this is challenging is to indicate the level of potential amusement as he faces some entirely incomprehensible solutions to the unknown problems he solved while drunk. Well that was life during the 1940s when, by modern standards, mere alcohol was the boring norm. Coming up to date, our technology has given us a remarkable array of liquids, gases and solids with which we can adjust our moods and blot out conscious thought.

So here comes our protagonist Tommy Pic (not in any way an autobiographical version of our author, of course). He’s one of the Hollywood screenwriters who’s had his moment of lucid success but is now back in the bipolar, alcohol-fueled manic depression which is his more usual state of mind. The fact he’s not self-disciplined means he frequently neglects to take his meds, so he’s not unused to waking up in a psych ward wearing restraints. On this occasion, he awakes to a Gallegher moment. It seems while he was enjoying one of his psychotic moments, he dashed off [part of] a screenplay — appropriately bearing the title What Makes You Die. He has no recollection of sending the opening portion to his agent, Monty Stobbs, but according to this reliable specimen of humanity, it’s one of the best things he’s seen in at least the last thirty minutes. He wants the rest of the script on his desk yesterday and is promising big bucks if the quality continues at the same level. There’s just the one problem. Tommy has absolutely no idea where the rest of the script now resides and no recollection of writing what was sent, so he cannot attempt to complete it. Worse when Monty Stobbs gives him a copy and he tries to read it, he gets an attack of hysterical blindness. After his tortured peepers finally manage to absorb one of Monty’s marginal notes, a fierce migraine descends like a wolf on the fold, and he has to resort to the nearest bar. With alcohol fueling his eyes, he reads one more note which, like the first, is totally bizarre.

Tom Piccirilli — probably the one on the right

Tom Piccirilli — probably the one on the right

Since this is a first-person narrative, we’re firmly inside the head of an unreliable narrator, a fact that’s immediately obvious because he calmly admits to seeing and talking with dead people, starting off with his dead father who’s by his bed when he wakes. So here’s the question of the day. Through films like Being John Malkovich (1999), we’re used to the idea of literally spending a little time inside someone’s head (for these purposes, I’m ignoring the more excessive Inception (2010)). What would it be like to spend a little time looking through the eyes of a crazy screenwriter? Since he’s prone to major episodes of depression and has attempted surgery on his stomach to remove the Komodo dragon called Gideon (not a suicide attempt, you understand), this whole trip could be a real downer. Yet, surprisingly, it turns out sporadically humorous and, in reaffirming family values of love and loyalty, quite affecting. Some of the set-piece descriptions of life in the world of film, television and theatre are genuinely amusing. There’s some fierce irony in Trudy’s relationship with Monty Stobbs, and in any live show, Bango the Clown would most likely be strung up and/or shot by an audience provoked to anger. Gideon the dragon is interesting because he leaves Post-it notes around for our hero to find, and then there’s Eva when she’s not dancing naked around a ritual sacrifice in the back room of the Weird Sisters store.

In this situation, the man’s solution to the problem is to try to get back into the same frame of mind when he wrote the first section of the script. That means some heavy drinking except his subconscious prefers not to co-operate. When it comes to the weekend and he only has a few hours left to produce a complete script, he goes to a party at Eva’s home. She tries psychoanalysis in a witchy style. And then there’s the missing Kathy Lark. And I did notice the character’s full name is Trudy Galloway. That’s just a coincidence, of course. Putting all this together, What Makes You Die is rather pleasing. Although the ending is perhaps a little like many Hollywood scripts which insist of a positive outcome, I enjoyed it.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

First Novel A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle (Jonathan Cape, 2013) is a slightly challenging but ultimately fascinating book. Think binary: to read a printed book or digital characters on a Kindle screen, read only the first novel or read all the novels by one author, turn left or right, stay or move on. Individually, each decision is insignificant, but significance comes in the accumulation of such decisions, particularly if the choices are skewed by external factors or prejudices. Indeed, the more “ordered” the mind, the greater the potential for obsessional behaviour. A possible example would be placing dummies in a bedroom. This could be Sylvia Plath translated into the real world or the representation of a surrogate family. Talking about obsessional, there’s Grace, a young student on the university course our “hero” teaches on first novels. She’s interested in our first-person narrator, maybe even following him to a bookstore he frequents. And just who is this man who teaches creative writing at a place of higher learning in Manchester? And how reliable a narrator is he, he who sometimes claims to be unable to distinguish between being alive and being dead? Or to know whether to be unfaithful to his wife? And if she finds out, whether the marriage will survive — barring suicide, of course.

If we want to get technical, this is a work of metafiction with a very precise interest in the creative processes that go into writing. The question most pertinent is whose responsibility it is to tell the story and whether it should be told in a linear structure. As an example, there’s the elegant short horror story about salt that wraps up the first section in this book. Reading the main body of the text in order, our narrator instructs his class to write a piece about a recent experience. After hearing the readings, he may independently verify the substance of one or two pieces written. This intertextual story, set in a different font, may be about one of these students visiting his house except the protagonist does not mention it or comment on it. This may be evidence of his unreliability as a narrator. He’s protective of his privacy, particularly when it comes to his own first novel. If one of his students read this story out in class, he would not fail to mention it. So it may be the student who wrote it did not hand it to another to read in or no-one read it out in class, or it may prove to be something else entirely like a story written by Helen, one of his MA students, and taken out of context.

Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

Image by Julian Baker showing Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

This signals the novel as a work of intertextuality. As one very obvious example, the text of one of Nicholas Royle’s short stories, “Very Low-Flying Aircraft”, which was first published in Exotic Gothic 3 and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One is scattered through the first sections of this novel. The authorship is later attributed to Grace. In other words, the format of this novel is like a jigsaw and, as the title suggests, it’s for the reader to reassemble pieces like a puzzle and, thereby, to solve the mystery of who this protagonist is. Nicholas Royle is reflecting on the craft of the novelist which is usually to take his or her own experiences and to recast them as fiction. This is not to say the writing of fiction is essentially autobiographical. But we readers expect events to match our own experiences of the world. The test of credibility is whether we’ve seen the same thing ourselves. To fictionalise and get the best results, it may be necessary for the author to change the point of view so the readers get a different understanding of the events described. So if a wife and children leave home in one version, they may be killed in another. Either way the marriage ends. The fact of its ending will feel emotionally credible. We’ve all known marriages that fail, often because of infidelity. The surviving husband will be devastated, particularly if he’s to lose custody of the children. So for the readers, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth of what happened. All that maters is whether the fictional version reads as if it is true. It may also benefit to switch from first- to third-person. After all, omniscient authors know what’s happening.

The implicit question posed in the title of this book is, I suppose, why some authors only write one novel or later deny it. That singular excursion into text can be wonderful yet it’s never followed up, or the author does keep writing, but every time a new novel appears and the backlist is mined for titles to rerelease, the first novel never seems to reappear. It’s as if the author or the publisher is somehow embarrassed by it. An example of a brilliant first novel would be The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt which is a study in female identity suggesting that our culture objectifies and denigrates women. Initially the female protagonist is lost and confused as if trying to navigate social relationships while wearing a blindfold. Then she experiments by assuming the role of a young man. In the end, her fragile ego is overwhelmed by the stronger men around her. There’s no happy ending. In this novel, we have multiple views of a male character who’s fundamentally uncertain who he wants to be or where he wants his life to go. Were it not for the odd episodes of sex in cars, you might think him entirely passive, living helplessly if not arbitrarily on the basis of binary decisions: to do or not to do, that is the question.

Taken overall, First Novel: A Mystery is a fascinating piece of writing, exploring the nature of identity and how to capture it on the page. As in the real world, we can often only build up an idea of who a person is by assembling facts and impressions from multiple sources spread over time. Not everyone can afford a private inquiry agent to put together a comprehensive dossier on a person with everything neatly set out in chronological order. So Nicholas Royle here reflects the fractured nature of a personality. We might see different aspects of a character at different times in different circumstances. Only in retrospect can we piece together the most coherent view of the person, lifting the blindfold and looking back with more perfect vision. Sadly, it’s often the case that the most chameleon-like of individuals have something to hide.

For a review of another novel by Nicholas Royle, see Regicide.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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