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The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen by Jess Lourey

October 13, 2013 Leave a comment

The Toadhouse Trilogy

Those of you who know me will understand books like The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen by Jess Lourey are not my usual reading fare. This is both a book intended for the young adult market and it’s self-published (available from Amazon). Under normal circumstances, either of these factors would predispose me to ignore the title. But I’m something of a fan of the author’s fiction for adults. She writes rather good murder mysteries. So I thought I would look at how she approaches a different market. Before starting to read, I confess the fact she had not found a conventional publisher for the book is disconcerting. When someone with talent and a track record of now nine published books, fails to place a book through her agent, this suggests either that there’s something wrong with the book or the publishing industry is irrationally turning its back on a good book. With that thought in mind, I begin to read.

The obvious point of comparison for this book are the Thursday Next and associated novels by Jasper Fforde. These are great fun with the older Ms Next able to use a Prose Portal to enter the fictional worlds of both existing great novels and new books still being written. A part of the humour is the self-awareness of the characters in each book and the ability to rewrite the text — for example, the ending of Jane Eyre is changed. Jess Lourey develops this trope by allowing her protagonists to change anything they want in a book they visit but, if they do, this destroys the book and all the characters in it.

Because this book is explicitly YA, it has two children as the protagonists: Ania, aged eleven, and her blind brother, Spenser, aged nine. As a form of homage to To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, we start off in Alabama during the Great Depression where, with the disappearance of their mother, they are being cared for by their supposed grandmother, Gloriana (think Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene). They travel from one book to another with the help of the enigmatic Gilgamesh, who pilots a magical room in the shape of a garden toadhouse (it miniaturises the travellers who then take exactly nine minutes and eleven seconds to resume their usual size, a potentially dangerous delay if you look like food to a passing predatory bird or animal). They acquire a ten-year-old “stowaway” called Tru — it’s a reference to Truman Capote. Ania has the Enigmata on her hands, i.e. she has a Gort imprinted on to the flesh of each hand. The Gort is the twelfth letter of the Ogham alphabet — sometimes called the Celtic Tree Alphabet — and places us firmly in a fantasy story drawing on Irish faerie mythology in general and the Tir Na Nog in particular. To get to this land, heroes needed luck or a helpful guide. Our heroes have to play the book version of the video game, solve clues, and find three “treasures” hidden in plain sight inside classic novels.

Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey

The mandatory evil enemy is Biblos Skulas (or Βίβλο σκουλήκας which translated from the Greek means Bookworm). This appears to the children to be a giant man, i.e. he follows in the footsteps of Piers Anthony’s “adult conspiracy”, first introduced to the world in Crewel Lye, as the adult who devours rather than savours books. He will stop at nothing to capture Ania, killing Gloriana in the first section of the book. Indeed, later on, Ania meets refugees from other books. Many have been tortured by Biblos in the hope they will reveal where our heroes have been hidden. Although it’s not the fault of the children, this does not prevent the survivors from being somewhat bitter.

There’s a great deal of adult sophistication on display in this book. For example we meet Kenning in Ellipses. But instead of descending to the level of punning adopted by Piers Anthony (increasingly excruciating as the Xanth series has progressed), this author is embedding knowledge in the work. If readers are curious, there’s an entire world awaiting exploration both in the language she uses and the books she draws from and propels her protagonists into. For those of you into the technical side of writing, this is a work of intertextuality, extensively revising the work of others to fit into this story.

We first trespass into The Time Machine by H G Wells where we avoid direct interaction with the time traveller. His machine has been pulled inside the sphinx, so all they have to do is get the door open. Except, of course, it’s not that easy and requires a brief diversion into the Indian epic, The Ramayana. Then needing medical attention, we pass through A Tale of Two Cities on to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson. You should have the message by now as we jaunt off to the Sinbad books.

The syntax is relatively rich and, in vocabulary terms, is probably ahead of the lower end of the young adult market. This is good. Younger readers should be stretched. Showing them the range of words and their meanings helps them to grow. Choosing to make the book longer also indicates an older age. I’m not sure where this leaves us in terms of market. It flirts with unpleasant truths but sees our small band of heroes making steady progress, although not without some struggles, which makes it suitable for younger readers. It gently explores some potentially significant moral issues and, in conceptual terms, plays with some interesting metaphors that would be relatively incomprehensible to most young people. I’m therefore left with an ambivalence. I think it falls between the two stools. It has elements that certainly fit into the YA niche, but in terms of language, concepts and length, it’s tending to adult fare. Except it lacks the “meat” to be an adult book. It pulls its punches too much as it stands. Given that this is the only book written so far in the trilogy, I class it as an interesting failure. But there’s real potential as a dark fantasy for adult readers in the mechanisms of creating, amending and ending books. Rewritten this could become something powerful. The backstory as to the origin of Biblos points the way.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see
November Hunt
December Dread
January Thaw.

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.

Osama by Lavie Tidhar

December 5, 2012 Leave a comment

osama_dj_final1

I want to start off thinking about Osama by Lavie Tidhar (Solaris Books, 2012) with what may seem like a totally irrelevant connection I made about thirty something pages into the book. We’re talking about Osama and the publisher of a book about him in this work of fiction is Medusa Press so, of course, I’m immediately reminded of The Medusa Touch by Peter Van Greenaway because of the cover to the first hardback edition. It’s not the Empire State Building but, as you can see below, the image on the dust jacket is strikingly appropriate. This has to be deliberate. If not, then it’s a spooky coincidence. The question I’m left asking myself is whether I want to know the answer to this question. Here I am living a relatively comfortable life. Do I want to disturb it by inquiring into the way this author works his magic? It doesn’t benefit me to know whether this is an example of the author’s arcane knowledge of modern firsts. Perhaps it’s better to live in ignorance. That way, I can say admiringly of the author, “Wow, fancy a young man knowing about that old book!” and have no-one disabuse me of the right to praise him. Did I mention the other day, as I was out walking, there were shots nearby. I ducked down. Not the most rational thing to do. After all, who would want to shoot me? I think it was men sent by the local council to shoot the crows. They didn’t seem to be looking at me. So I went on my way, unhurt. Although I did later think it was strange these men should be wearing polished boots like those worn by policemen. Yes, I know this is the stuff of paranoia and it’s completely irrational I should fear the possibility of death just because I thought of contacting the author. . .Medusatouchcover

Several reviewers have compared this book to the work of P K Dick so we need to deal with this early on. Essentially Dick was an ideas man and, since he was out of his tree because of drug use for much of the time, many of those ideas betray symptoms of mental illness. This includes thematic paranoia about the authoritarian surveillance state and the direction in which global capitalism was headed. In the midst of all this he questioned what it means to be human and what we should understand as reality. This was wrapped up in the politics of simulation, deceit, and self-deception. In 1960s terms, we should describe this as “heavy” but, because it was usually buried in a science fiction context, many people overlooked the philosophical implications of what he was writing about. He was a cult science fiction writer, not a cult philosophy writer. However, for all the fascinating subtexts in many of this novels and short stories, there’s one truth. He was not a very good writer of prose. It’s serviceable at best. Whereas Lavie Tidhar’s prose is in a completely different league, being elegant in the primary narrative and functionally factual in the quoted extracts from the books — yes, it’s another work of intertextuality in which the primary protagonist sets off the track down the author of books which are extensively quoted in the main text.

Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar

So where are we with this text? As a metaphor, let’s think of a mouse living in someone’s clothing. To the mouse, this is a pocket universe, kept warm and comfortable with food supplied at regular intervals. Mice are notoriously unimaginative and so rarely wonder where they are, what the heat source is, nor how the food is so conveniently delivered. So what would happen one day if the mouse decided to look out of the pocket? Such a change of view might force the mouse to reappraise its position in the world. Not that mice have beaks, but it would establish a new pecking order for it. Or perhaps the perspective might change if the clothing somehow because infected by opium. Although it’s not hallucinatory, the absence of stimulation provokes a change in mental state, helping our mouse to see things differently.

This is a gently melancholic book which has a private detective reluctantly leave his “safe” environment and venture out into the world on a commission to find the author of some books about Osama. As in all good PI novels, he follows the trail, asks questions, drinks too much, smokes endlessly, and gets beaten for his trouble. What he finds is disturbing. He begins to wonder whether something is nibbling at the reality of the world. Are all the people he sees really there, or are they, well, just a little fuzzy round the edges? In the end, it’s no longer clear who he is but, by then, in a sense, it no longer matters. No matter who he is, he’s not going to change. Indeed, the more fantastic his experiences, the less impressed he becomes. This could be because he has deep roots or, lacking any roots, he retreats into a kind of stubborn refusal to admit any alternatives to his version of reality. If we must think in P K Dickian terms, does it occur to Rick Deckard he’s anything other than human? He would be in full denial mode if even a hint of it arose. So, in Osama, Joe is so comfortable as a private detective living in his quiet unassuming backwater, he would always deny he was anyone else. This is beautifully written and a most thoughtful and engaging story that flirts with the conventions of science fiction and fantasy to think about what it means to be human and to resist the attempts of anyone else to make you into something you’re not. For the record this won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

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

End of Watch (2012)

October 23, 2012 Leave a comment

The question that lives in the mind some hours after leaving the cinema is what constitutes entertainment. If I wanted to see real life, I could sit on a street corner and watch it walk and drive by. Admittedly it wouldn’t be as exciting as in this film, but it would pass the time. So I just spent 109 minutes watching two youngish officers in End of Watch (2012) patrol around some of the more violent streets in South Central LA. Although it starts off with a car chase and, from the camera mounted on the black-and-white’s windscreen, we see the occupants of the chased car emerge with guns blazing when they are cornered, this is not completely typical of their days. Yes, there are moments of action but, equally, they simply drive around and keep the peace. This means telling people to turn down the volume on their music if they’re having a party, or remonstrating with an angry man who’s been threatening the mailman. Their view of the world is passive-aggressive. The law of search-and-seizure does not permit random stops. The team has therefore developed a number of strategies to tiptoe around the law with pretexts for the stop. It’s the same with entering houses without a search warrant. If they are able to see a possible offence from outside, they force their way in. Otherwise, they simply drive around, drink endless coffees and Red Bulls, and talk.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña at home

 

It’s the talking that features. If I was asked what the film is about, I would say the screenwriter/director David Ayer is interested in studying them as individuals and a team. They’ve been together for seven or eight years. Brian Murphy (Jake Gyllenhaal) was a marine. Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) is a second-generation Mexican, not as well educated, but passionate about his work. Despite their cultural differences, they have grown close. Unofficially, they relate to each other as brothers with Brian adopted into the extended Mexican kin group. In the cliché favoured by the so-called buddy movies, they’re like family.

 

So the question remains. Is it entertaining to spend almost two hours watching two men drive around in a car together, emerging every now and again to exchange fire with local criminals or save kids from a burning building? Ah yes, you see the catch. There are moments of excitement in the midst of the pervasive boredom of their lives. If they wanted, they could game the system and never get into any situation where their lives might be at risk. Only their feet or backsides would grow calluses. But, whether it’s their professionalism or a desire to “make a difference”, they always seem to be leading from the front. Sadly, this means they are noticed by the local representatives of a Colombian drug cartel. First, they tell them the music is too loud, then they make one of their stops of a “suspected” vehicle and find a small quantity of drugs and some gold-plated weapons. Then there’s a house full of people. But it’s the house they enter near the end that causes the real problem. They actually chose this job because it looked really boring. A daughter who was worried about her mother. Yes, such public service jobs always carry that extra element of commitment.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña leaving home for work

 

Anyway, back to this recurrent question. . . Is a film that shares in the boredom of its characters’ lives a legitimate form of entertainment? No matter how much we learn about these fine, upstanding members of the community, no matter how much we might come to empathise with them, they are doing a shitty and dangerous job. At any moment, some individual high on drugs might attack them and get in a lucky blow, a gang member with anger management problems might shoot one in the head. As we sit in the cinema, we’re in no better position than the wives who have to stay at home and pretend their husbands will come home safe at the end of each shift. Well, we’re probably worse off than the wives because we have to watch the dark shadows collect at the end of the screen as they drive around this neighbourhood. So what does that make the message of this film?

 

I think End of Watch as a phrase says it all. We have the chance to watch the lives and deaths of some police officers in LA. As the credits roll, it’s the end of this opportunity to watch. If there is a message, it’s that there will always be some people who will survive to carry on the fight. Some may retire from the force because they are disillusioned or afraid, some because they are permanently injured, and some because they are dead. But so long as we have a need for law enforcement, there will always be some people with enough courage to stand up for righteousness and carry on the fight. It could be inspiring but, in this particular film, there’s not a shred of passion in promoting propaganda to encourage us to sleep well in our beds. There’s a dry, factual quality to the delivery and, to be honest, I was mostly bored. The inclusion of a few body parts and a little heroism fails to prevent the general feeling of depression. You can admire men like this and bewail the awfulness of a society that allows itself to degenerate into this state, but films like this accentuate the negative without any obvious purpose. David Ayer could have delivered a film to provoke outrage and foster a political desire to leave the cinema and exert pressure on government to change. But I just felt like giving up and, despite the likeability of Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, it’s not entertaining. As a final thought on the structure of the film. Much of the action is delivered through discovered footage from various cameras, some of which are part of a personal log being kept by Brian as a part of a part-time degree course. But there’s no consistency as to when the camera will switch from on-board and hand-held to third person. This is distracting and fails in what I take to be an intertexuality attempt to give the film some credibility as cinéma verité.

 

Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi

October 18, 2012 1 comment

Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi (PS Pubishing, 2012) sees the second anthology offering stories inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. I’m not convinced this is as good as the first but there are some outstanding stories to be found here (more towards the end than at the beginning).

“When Death Wakes Me To Myself’ by John Shirley is a Charles Dexter Ward type of story in which a mind from the past assumes control of a modern body, the main differences lying in the identity of the mind and the association with cats. It’s nicely done although, to my mind, it’s a little prosaic, lacking a truly cosmic feel. “View” by Tom Fletcher has a delightful sense of humour in describing an estate agent’s tour of a house for sale. With a little effort required of those viewing, they are rewarded by an exploration of a rather unusual extension. “Houndwife” by Caitlin R Kiernan is a richly evocative prose piece of temporal discontinuities as a woman iterates towards a destiny mapped out for her. She may have hints of the future courtesy of a tarot reading, or she may be the one who, in a thousand year cycle, finds a rather different role for herself as a human woman. Is this reincarnation and memories of previous lives, or are these discontinuities in memory from a single life moving inexorably to a climax? “King of Cat Swamp” by Jonathan Thomas gives a perfect demonstration of how the inexorability of the conclusion fires the tension. This is a beautifully judged piece of writing, not overstaying its welcome as the King returns to reclaim his home. “Dead Media” by Nick Mamatas is slightly flat being one of these trail-of-breadcrumbs type stories in which the curious end up in the wrong place. “The Abject” by Richard Gavin picks up the pace as human and alien tragedy overlap during an eclipse so that both get what they need to make their existences endurable. The atmosphere of this particular location is wonderfully described. If it exists, I would like to visit before I die or, perhaps that should be, so I can die happy.

S T Joshi — the ultimate Lovecraft expert

“Dahlias” by Melanie Tem is one of these unexpected stories which capture the imagination in a few words as different generations briefly share a moment and consider their own mortality. “Bloom” by John Langan is simply marvellous. The couple find a cooler sitting openly on the road and, thinking it might contain an organ needed for an urgent transplant operation, take it home and begin telephoning around the local hospitals. Only when all their avenues of inquiry come to naught does the notion take root that they have found something rather different. And, of course, after the rooting, comes growth and the blooms. As slow-burners go, this is one of the best. “And the Sea Gave Up the Dead” by Jason C Eckhardt is a not very original retelling of the usual island emerging from the sea. “Casting Call” by Don Webb shows the mark of a true professional is to stay calm no matter what’s going on around you. In this case, an actor who takes the Stanislavski method to its logical conclusion just fails to make the cut when Rod Serling holds a casting session for an adaptation of Pickman’s Model. It’s a pleasing riff on an old theme.

“The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man With the Hundred Knives” by Darrell Schweitzer is a remarkably good story — the best in the book by my standards — but I’m not convinced it’s even vaguely Lovecraftian. It’s clearly about access to different dimensions where battles for supremacy are fought, but anything else is all lies and speculation. Similarly, “The Other Man” by Nicholas Royle is fascinatingly spooky take on surrogacy, but the links to Lovecraft are tenuous at best. “Waiting at the Crossroads Motel” by Steve Rasnic Tem has the same problem if we’re going to be strict about looking for cosmic weirdness. It’s another engrossing story about the blending of humans and otherness with possible connections to themes raised in “The Mound”. Had I read it anywhere else, I would have been overjoyed. In this context, I’m not so sure. “The Wilcox Remainder” by Brian Evenson is thematically back on track with a very haunting story of an amulet that not only brings dreams but also judges the current person in possession. “Sorrelated Discontents” by Rick Dakan has that remarkable quality of a mistake in the typesetting of the title. It should, of course, be “Correlated Discontents” (as an aside, I noticed two or three other errors that escaped the proofreading stage but this is the first time I can ever remember seeing an error on the title of a short story). The story itself is metafictional in the recreation of Lovecraft, the man, through an AI project, capturing his personality and opinions through an analysis of the extensive collection of correspondence. The inclusion of the story bravely breaks with tradition and is a success. “The Skinless Face” by Donald Tyson wins the prize for the best final sentence. There’s a tradition in writing these stories that there should be something dramatic imparted by the end words. It does not need to be a “twist” but it should shed a different light on what has gone before. This archaeological dig gone spectacularly wrong is outstanding. “The History of a Letter” by Jason V Brock is a metafictional and intertextual contribution in which the author addresses us directly, explaining why he’s been distracted from writing the commissioned short story. The letter he has found is indeed intriguing and the consequences of his investigation seem to be advancing rapidly. Finally, “Appointed” by Chet Williamson is merely intertextual, finding parallels between a previous film and a con where fans can come and hobnob with the stars.

For a review of the other anthologies in this series, see:
Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror
Black Wings III: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror.

No Sale by Patrick Conrad

July 15, 2012 2 comments

Those of you who read these reviews will know that, although there’s never any chance of film or television replacing my love for books, I do in fact enjoy the visual media. It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise to encounter a book where the love of film is intrinsic to the plot. No Sale by Patrick Conrad (translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Lynn) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2012) is a wonderful, not to say magnificent, piece of metafiction dressed up to look like a police procedural and murder mystery. For those you you who like the jargon, the primary devices are intertextuality and the use of an unreliable narrator.

In the world of semiotics, the concept of intertextuality has been rather overdone of late but, if you wanted to find an example of it, this comes as close as it’s possible to get. At more or less every point during the narrative, we get examples of vertical intertextuality with references to films, or to the dialogue within films, or to the real-world identities and lives of those involved in the making of films, or to songs and their lyrics, the lives of the singers and composers, and so on. We also have significant horizontal intertextuality with long quotes from different sources based on separate literary conventions incorporated into the narrative, thereby connecting the reader to different views of the same set of circumstances. Naturally, all the text appearing in the book is written by the same author except where otherwise attributed, but the sense and meaning of the words is being drawn from the work of different creative individuals. So, for example, one character may describe the scene of a murder and, later, a second character may give the synopsis of a film plot which has features matching the initial murder. This is art mirroring cinema with the fictional serial killer meticulously staging the murders to recreate actual film scripts or real-world events associated with film stars. The author is reminding us that we should never see one work in isolation. Our understanding is always enhanced by being able to relate elements of the text being read to other texts and symbols.

Patrick Conrad

Patrick Conrad: thriller writer, poet, screenwriter and film director

I need to note one other semiotics-related irony. The author has gone to much trouble to translate many lines from US noir films into Dutch for his intended readership, only for Jonathan Lynn to translate them back into English for us to read. Presumably the meanings stayed the same even though the languages were different.

There are two narrative tracks through the text. The key figure in the expanding investigation is Professor Victor Cox who teaches the History of Cinema at the Institute of Film and Theatre Studies. He comes to the attention of police when the body of his wife, Shelley “Dixie” Cox, is fished out of one of the docks in Antwerp. The initial signs are that of a hit-and-run with the dead body thrown off a bridge. The second thread features Chief Superintendent Fons “The Sponge” Luyckx, and Detective Inspector Lannoy who assume the responsibility of trying to unravel a number of murders which, at first sight, appear unrelated. The Sponge is the quiet thoughtful one who hates to be beaten by any problem, while Lannoy is quicker to feel the frustration of being unable to make progress through the mass of detailed information that emerges.

At first, the Professor appears entirely normal insofar as anyone so obsessed with the study of any single subject can be considered normal. He’s amazingly encyclopaedic on early American cinema and we’re treated both to excepts from his lectures and memories that suddenly seem relevant given events around him. There’s also a direct link with Lolita by Nabokov in that our “good” Professor seems perpetually drawn to young women, preferring those who resemble the heroines of his favorites films. It’s at this point we encounter a real problem because he’s not proving to be consistent in what he remembers nor how he sees the world. Indeed, there are distinct indications he may be mentally ill — schizophrenia would be a distinct possibility if, in the usual way it’s shown on the screen, this involves twin personalities as in Jekyll and Hyde. The structure of the book is carefully managed so we’re never sure whether the Professor is a retired academic helping the police solve a series of murders or the murderer hiding in plain sight and misdirecting the police.

I was hooked from the outset because I love a good mystery and am a sucker for noir films. There are also some rather pleasing jokes as the book goes along. However, I’m forced to raise one slight caveat. In a way, the book is slightly too clever for its own good. It has to twist the events so that they fit the needs of the immediate plot while staying faithful to the sets of circumstances being replicated. This gives the whole a slightly surreal form. In the more general sense of the word, mysteries need not be credible. If we’ve willingly suspended our disbelief, authors can convince us their murderers can do anything. But it does raise a slight problem when we’re in a police procedural. This subgenre is somewhat more real than reel, i.e. the police should be seen chasing down criminals based on the evidence that emerges. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely anyone could actually commit these murders. That said, No Sale is a masterful piece of writing and creates a genuinely tragic figure in Professor Cox. He’s a man who seems to have the capacity for great suffering and, when reality becomes so unpleasant, who would blame him for retreating into the world of his own imagination and, perhaps, acting out what he finds there.

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

Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons

August 23, 2009 1 comment

Semiotics considers the process whereby one person communicates meaning to another. Put simply, A formulates a message in which he or she encodes meaning. In some suitable way, this message is transmitted to B who decodes the message and extracts meaning. The problem for A in this system is to ensure that the meaning he or she actually wishes to transmit is the one that B understands when the message is decoded. So, as a no-doubt-apocryphal example from the days when battlefield messaging relied on human messengers, a General receives the message, “Send three-and-four pence, we’re going to a dance.” For the young lovers of decimal currency, the old pound sterling used to be divided into shillings and pence. The phrase, “three-and-four pence” was an abbreviated reference to three shillings and four pence: just the right amount to pay for tickets to the ball. But what the battlefield commander actually said was, “Send reinforcements. I’m going to advance.” This phenomenon is called Chinese whispers and has been captured in a party game where semi-inebriated people sit in a circle and whisper a message to each other in turn and are then amused by how mangled the words get as they pass through many different ears and mouths. So authors must take care to ensure that they say what they mean, and to say it in a way that can be understood by their audience (or something).

By cultural convention, some authors achieve universality. No matter when they created their works, they can still be read and enjoyed centuries later. As plays or adaptations into visual storytelling, the audience can still find enjoyment and appreciate how little people have changed. Whether this is the original story of how Leonidas held off Xerxes at Thermopylae as retold by Frank Miller or the film, 300, or Beowulf as endlessly recycled in television or cinematic adaptations, people still respond to heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. Perhaps the writer most accepted as transcending time is Shakespeare. His poetry and plays seem to have captured the widest range of human strengths and weaknesses, and resonate through the ages.

Muse of Fire, a novella by Dan Simmons, takes as its conceit, the notion that there would be a market for a troupe performing Shakespeare in the far distant future. I am using “conceit” ambiguously as being both an artistic device for the story itself and pride in an author like Shakespeare whose work has the ability to survive technological and cultural transformation. Like Jack Vance who has a troupe of singers traipsing from planet to planet in the appropriately titled Space Opera, Simmons has a group of travelling players endlessly touring planets where there are human remnants, and performing the Bard. Things like this happen in science fiction. What then follows is an exercise in what those of a technical bent call intertextuality, where selected works from one author are woven into and interpreted to advance the telling of the new story. On a smaller scale, Muse of Fire pursues the same methodology as underpinned the Ilium/Olympos duology.

Handled well, the mediation of one text through another can produce interesting synergy. But the danger is that the modern author inflicts his or her own research fascinations on the unsuspecting reader. Striking the right balance in fiction is always a challenge. In this instance, even though I used to be a regular ticket holder at Stratford-upon-Avon, I found the Shakespearean quotes and analysis slightly overdone. While there is no disputing the ingenuity of the plot to take such a cliché and convert it into something more interesting, the end product is only partially successful. Bolting on some super-science, if not fantastic, elements as the environments in which the plays are performed and contextualising these elements in a Gnostic framework does not rescue the whole. Indeed, if anything, this story as a spiritual allegory is somewhat heavy-handed.

So I am back to yet another moment of self-reflection to justify why I buy these expensive books from Subterranean Press. I suppose the answer is that some of them do prove their value in literary terms. Perhaps, if I was a bigger fan of intertextualism, I would have enjoyed Muse of Fire more. As it is, I am unlikely ever to pick this up again. The jacket artwork is quite pretty, but this is another white elephant of a book for me.

For other reviews of novels by Simmons, see:
The Abominable
Drood
Flashback
The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz.

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