Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’

The Man Who Collected Machen by Mark Samuels


Now I’ve retired (except when people pay me to write which, perhaps surprisingly, remains moderately common) I get to spend my days doing what I like the best which is reading and writing for fun. For all I’m reading professionally most of the time, the motive remains the same — to find authors whose work is interesting. With tens of thousands of books published every year, there’s no way I can read them all, and with Sturgeon’s Law endlessly proved correct, it’s a case of serendipity or following the recommendation of others to find the good stuff. With The Man Who Collected Machen by Mark Samuels (Chômu Press, 2011) it’s a punt into the small press world to try someone new to me. We start of with “Losenef Express”. This is rather elegant as a piece of atmospheric writing. We’re so far off the beaten track, even the track has given up caring where it is. Eddie Charles Knox, a disillusioned human being, looks up from the bottom of a bottle and sees a man in the shadows watching him. When the man leaves and goes into the foggy streets, Knox follows. It may not be the most original of plot ideas but the execution works well as an exercise in existential despair. The titular “The Man Who Collected Machen” plays with another well-known trope as a poor man who’s fascinated by the author but can’t afford to buy collectible editions, meets a man who’s been able to put together an impressive collection of books and ephemera. The outcome is rather pleasingly Machenish as a veil is lifted.

Mark Samuels

Mark Samuels

“THYXXOLQU” is a quite wonderful idea. In many ways, language remains one of humanity’s greatest achievements — the perfect system for communicating meaning both face-to-face and over distances. If there’s a flaw, it’s that, as a species, we never agreed on a single language. Consequently, we’re left with a veritable Babel of different scripts, syntaxes and vocabularies. Would it not therefore be convenient if we could all agree to speak the same language? No more problems with translation. Just universal understanding. Life would be so much richer if there were no barriers to communicating ideas. And talking of universality, “The Black Mould” shows us a rather more cosmic version of the drive to bring the multiplicity into the singular form. This story shows pleasing self-discipline, spending just enough time on the set-up and development, and finishing before the idea runs out of steam. “Xapalpa” is a small town in Mexico which may have had a slightly less than savory reputation in earlier times, but may just be the place for an American ex-pat to retire to. Or not, as the case may be. So when our hero sits down in the most obvious bar and finds a friendly face prepared to talk to him, he hears a little of the town’s history. The result is nicely understated.

It’s somewhat ironic to find a story like “Glickman the Bibliophile” in a collection from any publisher. It’s message is that the annihilation of meaning is double plus good and, if you don’t agree, we haff ways of making you zink zo as Nazi book burners pursuing Säuberung in 1933 might have said. “A Question of Obeying Orders” is a delightful joke, albeit one based on a rather obvious confusion. As you might expect, a German soldier might balk at continuing to fight once the battle has been won. It’s only natural he should run away. It’s just unfortunate he chooses this particular path out of the forest. “Nor Unto Death Utterly by Edward Bertrand” is another very effective atmosphere piece in which a village doctor is called in to examine a dying recluse only to find something rather unexpected. It has a nicely judged Victorian air about it as the veneer of his medical detachment is pierced, leaving a mixture of superstition and religion to fight over the ruins of his mind. “A Contaminated Text” returns to the central notion behind the earlier “THYXXOLQU” and produces a very elegant variation on the theme. In this case, we have a Mexican library receiving a consignment of books from a local collector, recently deceased. When they are shelved, something rather interesting occurs. “The Age of Decayed Futurity” moves along a parallel track and speculates there might be some truth to the conspiracy theories of a secret cabal running Earth. In some of these theories, these are beings from the future. But such beliefs are just the product of delusional minds. And, finally, we come to “The Tower”, an original story, which takes a highly political view of the world and an academic interpretation of how we perceive it and attribute meaning to it, and produces a kind of postmodern or semiotic horror story. Obviously we are all surrounded by our own small plot of geography as it moves slowly through time from the past to the future. If we were to become alienated from the world, we might withdraw into a small subsection of our environment. At times we might meditate. Alternatively we might explore the remnant of our world in search of a symbol, something to inspire us. If we conceived a tower as that totem, how might we approach it — assuming it was possible to do so? The answer is given here.

The overall effect of this book is of a writer who loves ideas and the power of words to express them. Each of the stories is most carefully controlled. Young writers feel length is important and they overwrite. These stories which, I suppose, one classifies as supernatural, weird, or postmodernist horror are told with economy and therefore power. I’m pleased and relieved the recommendation given to me proved correct and I pass on the recommendation to you.

Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

February 24, 2012 Leave a comment

John Donne started the ball rolling with the idea that, “no man is an island. . every man is a piece of the continent. . .”. In our postmodernist times, we routinely accept the idea that we only understand the present by placing our “man” in his social context and then interrogating the past. We aim to learn about him by identifying the “facts” reported about him, determining whether they are salient and then forming them into an evidential pattern. In such archaeological diggings, sometimes we identify significant silences and they are just as eloquent as the apparent facts. Once we have all the available evidence, there’s always going to be an argument about what it tells us. Given all our current theories and and beliefs, it’s unlikely one interpretation is always going to be better than any others. That would be the triumph of prejudice. In the best objective sense, we should always be looking for explanations of the past that give the best fit with the “facts” as we have them. So, when searching for a reasoned way of resolving the debate, it may be necessary to conclude one interpretation is right because all the others are wrong. As Sherlock Holmes used to say, “. . .when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Ah, the “truth” — such a complicated concept in these relativistic times.

Such are the games played by those who put together the plots of the better detective stories. When it comes to the blend between current reality and history, I don’t think anyone has more consistently hit the bullseye than Anthony Price. His early books are masterful in their exploration of the relationship between people and their past. He specialised in the construction of meditative dialogues as the lead characters discussed how they should view and then solve their problems which were always rooted in relevant history. So, in The Labyrinth Makers, a missing Dakota aircraft resurfaces. It had been presumed lost at sea shortly after the end of the WWII, so to find it at the bottom of a recently drained lake is disconcerting. That it then triggers interest from the Russian intelligence service brings our series hero, David Audley, into play. If you have not read this book, you should. It won the Silver Dagger Award in 1971.

Barry Maitland with half a Vulcan mind meld

All of which brings us to Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland (Minotaur Books, 2011). This is the eleventh police procedural featuring DCI David Brock and DI Kathy Kolla so, in novelist terms, this is a mature partnership. They know each other well and, together with their Serious Crime team, enjoy tight mutual loyalty. We start off with what might look a random crime. An elderly American tourist is literally thrown under a bus when walking back from the Chelsea Flower Show to her hotel. There’s no obvious motive of a robbery gone wrong. The first theory is mistaken identity yet no-one can suggest whom she might resemble and so justify death. Our heroes are just getting started with the investigation looking at her hotel in Chelsea when the rich Russian who lives next door is also murdered. In a hastily convened meeting between the police and the Intelligence Services, it’s now suggested that our American might look like the dead Russian’s mother. Quite why this has prompted the death of the Russian son is not explained, but it becomes a kind of official assumption for those at the meeting.

Needless to say, our heroes are sceptical. Well, that should be Kathy Kolla who’s sceptical. Brock has succumbed to a mystery bug and the team is covering for his absence while he tries to sleep it off. The problem, of course, is how an elderly American woman might be related to a Russian multi-millionaire. This is where the history comes into play. At first, Kathy Kolla is on her own but she comes across a youngish Canadian attending a conference in London. He’s staying at the same hotel as the dead American and proves to have forensic document skills. In due course, he’s recruited as an independent expert and begins his own parallel investigation. As Brock slowly gets back on his feet, the investigation goes through various crises and changes in manpower. Slowly, they begin to sense the wider picture and, after a trip to America, they have a much better idea of how the two victims may be linked.

Except, of course, the fact a link has been found between the two victims does not explain why they were killed nor by whom. This drives them back into the history and, when some bones come to light, they finally get the answer. Anthony Price would approve of this plot! It’s beautifully managed. What may initially look contrived ends up perfectly explained. We even get a little more background on David Brock as some of his own history resurfaces in an unexpected way. In Chelsea Mansions, Barry Maitland has produced one of the best detective/police procedurals of the last year. If you see it on a shelf, grab a copy and reserve the time necessary to read it. You will not be disappointed.

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

House of Windows by John Langan

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Having read my first draft of this post to the end, I realised that, instead of a postscript, I need an antescript. From this, you will understand this is not a standard review. When thinking about books, it’s customary to discuss them more directly, even when what you write is literary criticism. This piece is rather oblique and, for those of you who worry about such things, it contains no spoilers. Instead and, perhaps, somewhat patronisingly, I have described what the book made me think about and vaguely projected this as if I assume it to be what the author was thinking about while writing.

For those of you who prefer reading posts on sites like this just to find out whether the reviewer thinks the book is any good, you can save yourself the trouble of reading the the end. As first novels go, this is very good. For those who want to know why, read on

The frame is a old-fashioned “club story” — in which one member of a club of adventurers pulls another to one side, offers a brandy and a cigar, and tells a story. This is very Victorian or Edwardian in approach and, in a perverse way, sets the tone of what can only be thought of as a postmodernist ghost story. This requires some explanation. Abandoning strict theory, let’s call the twentieth century a “modern” age in which we rejected the Victorian era that went before it and sought to progress to a new set of cultural ideas through our literature, art, theatre and music. As technology improved, we diversified away from the printing press, and into the new distribution systems of radio, television and now the internet. In the ways we have tried to use these different methods of communication, we were searching for new meanings. Early in the century, we had the harrowing experience of WWI. Millions of lives were thrown away in sterile conflict. We hoped there was a better way of communicating with each other to prevent such a catastrophe from repeating itself. Yet, no matter what political stance we took — whether the appeasement of the British or the isolationism of the US — future war was not to be denied.

This disturbed our certainties. The Victorians had prided themselves on the strength of their beliefs. They were invincible in trade and combat. After two world wars, we recognised that too high a price was paid for such certainty. We moved away from omniscience, and embraced relativism and subjectivism. Whereas the Victorian ghost was a practical manifestation of evil, intent upon causing harm and, even, threatening the Empire, the modernist ghost was a symptom of our own psychological insecurities. We were haunted as much by ourselves as by spirits or creatures from another dimension.

In a new century, we now move beyond modernism and look for a more coherent view of ourselves in the world. To do this, we use a kind of archaeology of the past, interweaving the fiction and ideas from earlier generations into our current discourse, allowing the past to illuminate the present. In writing this, I am borrowing the ideas of Michel Foucault and others who have helped crystalise the process, enriching our understanding of what we now think and believe by reinterpreting what we know, or do not know, of the past.

What’s so particularly fascinating about House of Windows (published by Night Shade Books, 2009) is that it becomes a form of postmodernist parable in which the two key characters mine the past for information in the hope it will explain what is happening to them. In this archaeological endeavour, they come equipped with the right skills. They are both academics, specialising in literature and, by implication, the postmodernist theories of literary interpretation and semiotics. So when they wish to explore the history of the house, they will search all records, look for contemporary witnesses from whom to collect impressions, and so on. They will interrogate the past. If they wish to know more about how the husband’s son died, they will reconstruct the past through maps, witness statements and physical re-enactment with models. There’s no tool or metaphorical device they will not use to progress their understanding of what happened and is happening.

There are supernatural events. As hopefully objective observers, they do not doubt the evidence of their senses, but this triggers anxiety about how their mental state will be perceived. It’s easy to predict how others will respond should they discuss their experiences. So they remain largely silent until the disclosures made through this novel. That they are willing to suspend disbelief is a sign of their scholarship. They become energised, determined to analyse, and so take control of events. They believe they will resolve matters satisfactorily once they have applied the scientific method, postulating a hypothesis, seeking evidence, interpreting it and reasoning to a conclusion. Such is the hubris of the postmodernist. That this may be genuinely supernatural and so not explicable in human terms, is not something they consider a barrier to eventual understanding.

Thematically, the main interest is in parental relationships. In theory, each generation socialises the next and fashions a new set of people capable of carrying the family fortune and the nation’s wealth to higher levels of prosperity. Except, of course, parental relationships can be seriously dysfunctional and the values that are handed down prove rather different from those intended. So we are invited to judge parents as they relate to their children. Where the focus is on a father, we are asked whether the behaviour of the natural mother and, in one case, the younger stepmother and wife, is a positive force. This is not to say that children are always the victims of their parents. A father may project his own dreams on to his son, hoping he will take up the torch and run further with it. Within reasonable limits, this is a constructive approach to parenting. But a more obsessional academic father may not to see his son’s dyslexia for what it is. When you want so desperately for your son to become a scholar, you are more likely predisposed to see the son’s difficulty in reading as defiance.

So when, for a host of sins, both real and imagined, the father curses the son and casts him out, what effect does this have? Remember, we are dealing with the supernatural here, so we are not restricting effect to physical separation or psychological torment. When the son dies without ever reconciling with the father, there will be guilt for the father to deal with and what from the spirit of the son? Indeed, the real question is what a dead son could do from beyond the grave. As a spirit, could he even find his way home without a map?

This is not a Victorian style of ghost story as in “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant, nor do we meet a ghost such as Hodgson’s Carnacki might have found. This is not M. R. James nor anything cosmic with tentacles along the lines of H. P. Lovecraft (although there’s a hint the house might be a little like the Witch House). Instead, the house is a metaphor for memories and how we see them. If we were standing inside our heads, think of the eyes as like windows through which we can look out across our memories. At any moment, we might “see” a memory of our children, or a place we visited as a child, or something we imagine. Because we are fallible, memories are rearranged, we reinterpret them and some we forget. So the house might seem to be confusing, perhaps generating the suggestion of different rooms or doors, or being able to access different spaces. If you prefer not to accept this metaphor, think of the “slow glass” stories by Bob Shaw through which we might perceive the past. Why the past? Because that’s the source of the emotions of loss and grief and guilt (although not necessarily in that order).

House of Windows is not a horror story in the traditional sense. It’s far too cerebral and dispassionate for that. Rather it’s a story about relationships which has a supernatural dimension. As first novels go, it succeeds in provoking considerable thought. This is a good thing. I believe this is a harbinger of future greatness. In terms of style, I was reminded of Peter Straub. Langan is not yet that good but, if he strikes a better balance between the ideas and the narrative, I think he might get to that level.

For a review of John Langan’s first collection of short stories, see Mr Gaunt and other uneasy encounters.

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

July 31, 2009 1 comment

For this review, I’m travelling back in time a little. I’ve been putting off reading this second in a trilogy by Brandon Sanderson until I had the time to read the last two books together. It avoids the cliffhanging ending being too much to bear for a year and more until the last episode comes along. So, off we go with another strength-enhancing dumbbell of a book. Weighing in at almost 600 pages, The Well of Ascension continues the fantasy saga of the Mistborn. But rather than a “conventional” text, it’s written with very clear postmodernist sensibilities. It would be easy to see this story as only about a small group, mainly magicians of varying degrees of power, trying to cobble a government together using democratic means while being threatened by invading armies. But there’s a lot more going on in the text.

Michel Foucault proposed in a series of articles and books that the best way to understand the present is to interrogate the past. He described this process as a type of intellectual archaeology. Researchers dig down into the early layers of documentation. Every new piece of evidence being important not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say. The lacunae are just as important as the finds. This process is central to this book as the Terris Keepers are walking archaeologists, each carrying a datastore of the accumulating knowledge about the past and present. As new facts are uncovered, the researchers cross-reference and annotate, creating an ever more comprehensive view of past events. All this scholarship does, however, rest upon a simple assumption. That no-one else can change the records they find or keep. Just imagine how distorted the research would become if someone was able to manipulate the records.

This theme directly links into the second proposition that access to control over people depends on a linkage between pouvoir and savoir — power and knowledge. Societies are built on and driven by a continuing stream of discourse. In their most refined form, the discourses of constitutional law and political influence dictate the shape and operation of the state. At the lowest levels, the discourses of class and culture determine how people present themselves to the others with whom they interact. Everything is essential from the clothes they wear, their body language, the accents with which they speak and so on. Leaders dress in particular ways to communicate their right to lead. There are deliberate borrowings from semiotics in this fantasy as Tindwyl, one of the Terris Keepers, tries to instruct Elend, the potential leader, in the theories of communication and the manipulation of signs and symbols.

In this story, there is access to all parts of the discourse at a metalevel with only the records engraved on metal outside direct control. Lower down in the layering of discourse, access follows the real-world structures of political power brokers and increasingly less influential classes. But, interestingly, two of the magical skills are soothing and rioting which allow those with the power to directly interact with the emotions of those close to them. Thus, the combination of words, body language and magical ability (substitute “charisma” in the real world) endows speakers with the maximum ability to influence their audience.

Then there are matter of the heart. Hardly the concern of a postmodernist but Sanderson rises to the occasion with an extended parable about choice. In one set of relationships based on romantic, courtly love (albeit not quite in the real-world mediaeval European style), the Mistborn finds herself between two brothers who could not be more different. She is young and inexperienced in love, but the need to make a choice between the two brothers becomes increasingly real as the book continues. In the second relationship between a mature couple, we are presented with two Terris Keepers. Male Keepers like Sazed are eunuchs. Tindwyl has her own reasons for preferring to remain platonic. In this trilogy, Sanderson’s central preoccupation is on the relationship between love and trust. He muses on how people might transcend their differences and find comfort in each other. It could be an entirely rational and somewhat dispassionate process. Or it could be intuitive as the couple try to see beyond surface impressions. It might be driven by the genetically-programmed desire to continue the race by producing children, or the couple might be intellectually compatible while incapable of producing children. As a separate but allied thread in the plot, we also have the developing relationship between the Mistborn and her kandra who, by reason of his ability to take on the shape of humans and animals, is not who he seems to be. With the kandra, we have a person who feels bound by the strict letter of his race’s agreement with humanity, yet is tempted by the freedom to choose.

The danger with books of this kind is that they become too preoccupied with the discussion of ideas. Every author walks a fine line. One of the best examples of the problem is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. As an academic specialising in semiotics and literary theory, Eco could have sidelined the mystery to identify the murderer in a mediaeval abbey, but the primary narrative of how William of Baskerville “solves” the case manages to rise above its context. Although not quite on the same level as Eco, Sanderson also drives the plot along as the imperial capital of Luthadel finds itself surrounded by two armies. The threatened arrival of the third non-human koloss army keeps everyone on their toes. The merits of a democratic as against various kinds of more direct power structures are pivotal to the unfolding of events, but they remain sufficiently a subtext to let the narrative to drive forward. The emerging interest in religion also hints at future developments.

On balance, I found this an intelligent and pleasing book. I hesitate to limit it by genre. Yes, it’s ostensibly the second in a fantasy trilogy, but Sanderson’s willingness to explore the ideas and relationships gives an added depth and resonance to the otherwise simple story of daring-do. For once, I swept through a long book and immediately picked up the concluding volume, The Hero of Ages, to see how it all turned out. Five hundred and seventy two pages later, I had the answer.

For a review of the sequel, The Hero of Ages, and two YA novels set in different universes, see Alcatraz Versus The Scrivener’s Bones and The Rithmatist. There’s also a stand-alone novel called Warbreaker and a novella The Emperor’s Soul.
You also have the first two novels in The Stormlight Archive:
The Way of Kings
The Words of Radiance.

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