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Snatched: A British Black Comedy by Bill James

April 13, 2014 2 comments

snatched by bill James

Snatched: A British Black Comedy by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2014) finds us in the Hulliborn Regional Museum and Gallery with its director, George Lepage who’s now in dead man’s shoes, the previous director having passed on to a place only a platypus would know. It seems there’s a riot in the hallowed halls. Crowds baying for blood run through the museum. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and our director knows this is his time for heroic action. I should explain that, like all public enterprises, museums have had to adjust to economic realities. There have been economies. Older staff have been persuaded to take early retirement, while the middle-ranking remnants have been promoted beyond their pay grade to do the work of the departed for only slightly more cash. It’s a tough life when you’re trapped in a senior management role. So now underpaid fortysomethings must outperform those they have replaced in a museum running on a reduced budget. At first, this is going well, but then comes the riot. It seems someone dressed up and inserted himself in a tableau of life in earlier times. When the party from the girls school entered, he stood, exposed himself and departed before anyone had a chance to catch him. Now Lepage must take control of the situation before the reputation of the museum is damaged — they are negotiating to take a display of early Japanese medical instruments and want nothing to prevent this coup.

 

One of the board decides to take direct action to protect the museum. Simberdy and his wife dressed in black, with a burglar his wife has recruited as backup (she’s his solicitor), wait in the darkness outside the museum to catch the man. Except the burglar, living up to the high standards of his trade, breaks into the museum, steals four painting which may, or may not, be valuable, and drives off in the Simberdy’s car with the loot. This comes as a surprise to Lepage who’s inside the museum waiting for a telephone call from the female teacher who was so outraged by the indecent exposure during the day. He’s not sure, but he may have found someone simpatico whom he can dissuade from taking action against the museum. The burglar, respecting the status of his solicitor, returns their car and three of the paintings. This is a poisoned chalice. If the paintings are never recovered, they can be worth millions on the museum’s insurance policy. But should they be returned, an expert evaluation might find them fake and expose the museum’s incompetence in parting with millions to buy them.

Bill James

Bill James

 

I should remind you Snatched is billed as a “British black comedy” with satirical overtones. All life involves some degree of suffering and, for the most part, we view those who do the suffering as deserving of our sympathy, if not pity. So it can make a refreshing change when an author decides to recalibrate the response to those who are victimised by circumstances. This goes beyond the prat fall on the banana skin. Every one of us has slipped and fallen at some point in our career as walkers. A laugh generated by depicting such a scene is a there-but-for-the grace-of-God-go-I moment of relief. It’s human and understandable. But suppose we take a more alienated point of view and show existence as pointless and so somehow comic. This would enable the author to use all the standard tropes of physical and emotional violence, and death, in a different light. They may still be seen in some sense as tragic events but, with a satirical twist, they elicit a humorous response because the point of view is unexpected, perhaps even shocking, to the reader.

 

So here’s a museum: an institution which should be considered an ultimately safe and rather boring place (unless Hollywood decides to bring exhibits to life in a moment of fantasy mayhem). If we use stereotypes, the people who administer these cultural and educational organisations are staid and unimaginative. They are married or partnered with fellow professionals who never take risks because they have reputations at stake. Well, all such expectations are turned on their heads by the situations which emerge in this book. The problem, for me, is that the situations are slightly too realistic. The true art of the black comedian is to be able to dabble in the grotesque. This is sharply observed, not a little satirical, occasionally surreal, and somewhat farcical, but I don’t think it’s a black comedy. Does this matter? Well, probably not. It’s highly readable as the plot takes our small group of characters careening down an ever-more vertiginous slope, but I don’t find any of it even remotely humorous (although I do confess to a slight movement of the lips when the security guard gets the name of one of the missing paintings wrong). Perhaps it’s an age thing causing me to be slightly out of the mainstream when it comes to modern comedy. So if you want to see an author at the top of his game in constructing a plot of increasing complexity as even nicknames sprayed as “graffiti” are absurdly misunderstood as suggesting individuals may not be as dead as previously thought, this is the book for you. Snatched is great fun albeit not in the smile or laugh-out-loud league.

 

For the review of another book by Bill James, see:
Disclosures
Noose.

 

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

 

Fiendish Schemes by K W Jeter

November 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Fiendish Schemes by K J Jeter

As I move ever faster into advanced adulthood, I await with interest the supposed memory phenomenon which permits me to recall what happened thirty years ago as if it was yesterday. This would be very convenient for the purposes of this review. All those years ago, I was collecting the work of K J Jeter. He was considered very edgy, producing distinctly different novels upon which to feast. One of these published some twenty-five years ago, was Infernal Devices. This, you understand, was long before the label steampunk had been invented. The book was marketed as a “mad” Victorian style of adventure story in which various weird and rather wonderful things happened. As it is, I have no difficulty in remembering what I had for breakfast this morning (to eliminate doubt, I have eaten the same breakfast every morning for sixty years), but cannot remember clearly what the earlier book was actually about. All I know is that I read it. Fortunately the absence of symptoms of Alzheimer’s is not a problem for these purposes. The sequel, Fiendish Schemes (Tor, 2013), stands up well on its own.

First let’s resolve the problems of labels. The marketers would have you believe this is a return to steampunk as conceived by the prophet Jeter. In literal terms, this has some mild credibility given the majority of technology on display is either powered by clockwork or those machines have been converted to steam. Not out of concerns for the environment, you understand. This is not steam produced by the combustion of coal or other fossil fuels. For now, climate change is not rearing its head. Rather the Victorian entrepreneurs have hit upon geothermal power. Following the designs of Arthur Conan Doyle channelling Professor Challenger in “When the Earth Screamed”, they have driven deep shafts into the earth and now draw up magma to superheat water and distribute it by a complex network of pipes from the blasted landscape of northern areas to the sultry, steam-ravaged cities of the south. The result is an apparently inexhaustible supply of steam piped into every home which can afford to pay the going rate. Needless to say, the businesses investing their capital in this source of power have grown excessively rich.

K W Jeter

K W Jeter

If we had stayed at this level, we would probably have been willing to accept this as mere steampunk, but the actual book is rather more rooted in surreal or absurdist fantasy. Set in Victorian Britain, one fact is inescapable. Britain is an island that has, since recorded time began, depended on trade to survive. Secure logistics for shipping are therefore essential. This was achieved until the seas achieved sentience. Yes, large bodies of water are now intelligently watching what we do on the land. If they disapprove, they can raise or lower the water level in their area. This can rip the bottom out of ships plying routes normally full fathom five or flood low-lying farm land. To deal with the first, Victorian scientists have developed mobile lighthouses which can literally walk from one point to another as required to warn ships of changing conditions in the area. Of course, this movement is expensive, inconvenient and reactive. It would be so much better if we humans could negotiate treaties with the seas or at least predict where the shallows might move next. The answer is to talk with the whales. They can already converse with the seas. All we need do is find the notorious universal language machine built by a brilliant inventor before his death. To help us in our quest, we rely on his son. If anyone can find this machine and make it work it will be him. Unfortunately, he lacks the inventive brilliance of his father and, in many ways, is an innocent. This book therefore follows him as he moves through this alternate history Victorian England, observing his strange escapades with the steam-powered orangutan, his exposure to fex, his introduction to parliamentary debate, and his encounters with divers other strangenesses and oddities.

All this peregrination is described in a wonderfully antique first-person writing style which captures the rather dull and podding qualities of some Victorian prose while actually describing some completely extraordinary events. In general, this is a great success, producing smiles from the juxtaposition of our naive protagonist and completely surreal events, e.g. the coupling of a man and woman who have had their biological systems surgically attached to steam engines. The only problem lies in the sometimes quite extended dialogue between our innocent protagonist and the duplicitous antagonist who lures our hero into ever greater difficulty with promises of great wealth. Although these debates offer an opportunity for some satire and commentary on modern morals, they do go on. . . As to the schemes in which our hero becomes embroiled, they are genuinely fiendish in a surreal replay of future history (if you see what I mean). The resulting climactic dispute between two behemoths lurching over a burning London is an appropriate way of bringing much needed sanity to the proceedings. The only note of sadness is the essential determinism. The fate of the whales seems to be sealed no matter which version of the future comes to pass. So with the caveat that I think some of the debating goes on too long, I find myself impressed. The old master has not lost his flair for the absurdities of the world. Fiendish Schemes is recommended.

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

Plow the Bones by Douglas F Warrick

Plow the Bones

In his introduction, Jason Sizemore, the Editor-in-Chief announces a new series titled Apex Voices in which the publisher intends to feature writers with a more unique voice. In Plow the Bones by Douglas F Warrick (Apex Publications, 2013), we’re offered a new(ish) writer with surreal tendencies. And, to prove the point, the first story in this collection is “Behindeye: A History” a most curiously surreal opening. So, if we inhabit a world based on rationality, the author’s intention is to react against that intellectual straightjacket and substitute a positive absence of reality. Now let’s ask what goes on inside another’s head. It would be reassuring to believe the conscious mind is in control. But if the mind is obsessed with the idea of self-harm or, even, suicide. . . As a metaphor imagine a blind hermit who saves a baby which, when it grows up a little, proves to have a pair of working eyes. Such a child can mitigate the suffering loneliness of the man. For all its weakness, he or she might represent hope for a better future. But in a larger context, such a reduction in suffering, if not the introduction of love, cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the looming personal catastrophe. “Her Father’s Collection” is a more straightforward supernatural story in which a father decides to include his daughter in his collection of ghosts. Although it fudges the mechanism of entrapment, there’s a rather pleasing albeit selfish viciousness in the way the ties of love are subverted. This is a most successful story.

“Zen and the Art of Gordon Dratch’s Damnation” asks a rather pertinent question for all of us who are atheists. Suppose we are wrong. In our rather self-congratulatory way, we’ve been denying Him only to discover the price to be paid is damnation for eternity (which is rather a long time to suffer). So how would we cope? Well, in this answer, it looks to be a good strategy to be into Buddhism. That way, you might actually be able to rise above all the Heaven and Hell schtick and break out of the cycle of damnation and redemption. It’s a neat trick if you can maintain the right mindset. “The Itaewon Eschatology Show” continues the discussion in a slightly different way. When you go to live in a foreign country like Korea and scrape the outside of the culture, what kind of life can you make for yourself as an outsider looking in, understanding so little of what goes on around you? Perhaps you need to believe in something, even if it’s about the end of the world, as a hook on which to hang your hat. Except even that won’t make Korea your home and won’t bridge the gap between you and the Koreans. We’re all just passing through until we reach the end of days. And in “Come to my Arms, My Beamish Boy”, when you’re eight-four years old and your mind is shot to pieces, you really do feel you’ve reached the end of your days (when you’re able to think coherently about anything, of course). The actual process of disintegration is like having your mental sustenance sucked out of your head by a lamprey which is something you used to know about when you were a biologist. At such a time, the only thing you have to hang on to is the love of a good woman.

Douglas F. Warrick surreal in his veneer of normality

Douglas F. Warrick surreal in his veneer of normality

“Funeral Song for a Ventriloquist” is nicely metafictional as the story tells itself, speaking of secrets we cannot know the answers to and telling us, no matter how much we aspire to some degree of permanence in our lives, our common destiny as humans is to die and be forgotten. “Inhuman Zones: An Oral History of Jan Landau’s Golem Band” reminds us of the mythology we create about the times we live through. In this case, this group of people were present when a new music movement took off. They were at ground zero and knew the band before they were famous. That was when it was all real, before the record company executives came along and signed up groups and tried to make money on their backs. Those golems. They were the best, man. Similarly “Drag” has a small group of students go through one of the rituals associated with the place where they sleep. It’s been handed down from one generation of students to the next so the tradition of what happens in the closet is never lost. Sometimes the point of these rituals is to confront and overcome fear of the supernatural. Except not all rituals turn out the way the older, more experienced students expect.

“Ballad of a Hot Air Balloon-Headed Girl” echoes this as a young man training to be a soldier becomes infatuated with a girl who thinks her head might catch fire. Then the war comes and innocence is lost as young men on each side kill each other for their beliefs. No-one actually knows what they are fighting for. You don’t have to know what the cause is, just believe in it. Later the girl’s head generates such heat, she becomes her own hot-air balloon and floats away. This is such a loss he also rises in more mundane terms to become president of the land. He never forgets the girl who was the source of her own freedom. And talking of freedom, the “Rattenkonig” wants to be free but it’s, well, stuck and it needs just a little help to get where it needs to go. Perhaps this couple can help or if not the couple, this woman.

“Old Roses” tells us that as dentists give birth to poets, the next generation after that may also have poetic tendencies. But when parents die what do we have left except our memories of them. Houses are not conveniently haunted so we can continue to share our lives with them. “Stickhead (Or. . . In the Dark, in the Wet, We Are Collected)” introduces two seventeen-year-olds who find a rotting corpse in a culvert. At least, it seems to be dead. Perhaps that’s just a working hypothesis we could debate, out of curiosity if not for some better reason. Perhaps we could try prodding it with a stick to see if it moves. “I Inhale the City, the City Exhales Me” takes us to Osaka, the home of manga and anime where drawings are their own reality and journalists can make the news tell the stories they invent. And I wonder whether Camille Paglia said, “Every generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead.” Finally, in the world of adult entertainment, “Across the Dead Station Desert, Television Girl” we wonder whether Television Girl can cross the desert to the City of Life. Of course this use of computer simulations is just a different form of human trafficking. These AIs have exactly the same emotions as human women. Well that can’t be right, can it? Fantasy women must match the archetypes men want, not have their own wants and desires. So if they show any sign of independence, we’d better wipe them and start over again.

Plow the Bones is not a book to run through. The author has invested considerable effort in constructing some, at times, rather beautiful prose which rewards careful attention with the revelation of pleasing ideas. We flirt with surrealism and notice elements of the supernatural. Philosophical abstractions try to attract our attention as we lie alienated in different settings. There are occasional snatches of weird as if overheard accidentally in real settings. And overall there are symptoms of intelligence at work. As a collection, it’s a positive delight from start to finish!

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

Jim and the Flims by Rudy Rucker

Years ago, before the current vogue for labelling genres really took off, we were able to use the word “weird” in the more general sense of something that was rather strange or bizarre. Yes, there were overtones that the source of the weirdness might be supernatural. But the word was equally applied to people and the way they dressed and behaved as much as to the uncanny. However, thanks to the development of the ghost story into a more mythic supernatural form, e.g. as written by Lord Dunsany, H. P. Lovecraft and others, it’s come to describe a mixture of other-worldly fantasy and horror fiction, with New Weird flowing from the likes of China Miéville. Well, in the rather more old-fashioned sense of the word, Jim and the Flims (Night Shade Books, 2011) by Rudy Rucker is weird. Or, perhaps it’s an example of absurdism. . . or surrealism. . .

Starting from basics, this book retells the classic myth of Orpheus, where our hero enters a rather curious version of the Underworld in the hope of rescuing his lost wife. Although music does play a part in this venture later on, we begin with the more usual symptom of absurdism: a hero who, because of the collapse of his life as a low-level research scientist, followed by the death of his wife, loses any real sense of purpose in his life. In existential terms, the accumulated tragedies destroy the meaning in his life. He drifts, creating a parable of modern life in Santa Cruz, California where strung-out surfers are paralleled by equally strange folk on the “other side”. Except this would suggest a relatively benign allegory with drug-induced fantasies proving all too “real” when our hero has a seizure and, thanks to copious amounts of different substances, is then able to cross between worlds that are separated only by a shy snail — yes, it’s that kind of weird. All he has to do is open the snail’s mouth and walk through. Fortunately, this is a mirror-image gastropod, so he does not have to emerge anally. There’s another mouth in the other dimension — a Janus snail, you might say. Except this is also a war story and, in war, we have propaganda so the first thing sacrificed is truth (whatever that is).

Rudy Rucker, "If only it had been an apple I could invented gravity!"

I suppose the good thing about the way the book begins is that it has quite a jaunty feel to it. There’s whimsy and elements quite fantastical. It bowls along with a kind of free-wheeling, free-association quality as we’re bombarded by different images without any real sense of logic or reality as a constraint. Except, after a while, this quite entertaining quality loses it appeal and, by the time we finish, it’s grown rather annoying. When something is novel, it seduces the reader by its difference and originality. Yet, through repetition, what was pleasingly absurd becomes normal and devolves into a cliché of itself. The mark of good absurdism is knowing when to cut your losses and stop. This just grinds on until, frankly, I kept reading only out of a sense of duty to see how it was resolved. It’s rather the way I was brought up. Sometimes during a visit, your host offers you food. Naturally, you eat it and, even if it’s the worst thing you ever tasted, you manage to find a smile and nod happily, finding an elegant excuse for refusing seconds. Well, Rudy Rucker has invested oodles of his time in writing this so, out of the same sense of courtesy, I finished it.

Now it’s entirely possible you may like this non-stop quirkiness. After all, death is rather depressing so the idea you can pop through a convenient snail into another dimension, find the spirit or ghost of your wife, and bring her back, is likely to improve your mood. The fact you might have to become the host for an invasion force when you return to Earth is a small price to pay if you’re recovering the one you love. So, discarding my dislike for the prose style, is the story any good? If it had been written as a straight weird fantasy, would I have liked it? I think, with a different structure, it could have been rather more entertaining. At the heart of this book is a malign plot to destroy the Earth as we know it. Although, truth be told, there’s actually a further plot in motion, but we don’t have to go into spoiler territory for this review. The chain of cause and effect is quite a work of art and, if instead of this faint jokiness, we’d had the atmosphere of a threatening Egyptian mummy, real parasitism and the incidental deaths at the outset described with a sense of impending doom, I would have been hooked. As it is, we get to the other side and find farmers, a more testing skate park, and a shopping mall with a difference. You just can’t maintain the credibility of a threat when nothing is taken very seriously. So Jim and the Flims is only for the die-hard Rudy Rucker fans.

The jacket art by Bill Carman is actually quite pleasingly surreal and, for those who like this style, his portfolio is worth a look.

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

The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum

We all have our weaknesses and foibles. Ostensibly, they give each one of us some degree of uniqueness and individuality, separating us from the herd by the foolishness of our eccentricities. The reality is less flattering (as if that was possible). Because most of us are aware of our weaknesses but do little or nothing to curb them, we cultivate our personalities in a loam leavened with a fertiliser whose origin may be all too human in a fundamental way. As to me, I am a complainer. I make it sound better by describing myself as a campaigner for consumer rights — after all, if no-one ever complained, we would all get second-rate service. But I enjoy fighting with people. One of my pet peeves is the practice in some pubs to serve a pint of beer which includes the head. To me, the order of a specific volume of liquid requires satisfaction by the delivery of just that amount. To deliver less than one pint is a breach of contract. Indeed, CAMRA reports that one quarter of all pints sold in the UK are 95% or less than one pint. Since the law is unclear, I am a personal crusader and always ask for my “pints” to be topped up.

 

Which brings me to The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum, a collection of short stories where the need for substance meets the froth of style resulting in an unhappy mixture. The author is hyped as one who engages in surrealism or absurdism. Coming to the fore in the period immediately following WWI and flourishing in the 1920s, surrealism has a genuine historical pedigree. Whether “classical” surrealism has survived into our postmodernist world is the subject of some academic debate which need not trouble us here. Suffice it to say, I do not find Rosenbaum’s work to be surrealist, although I do concede some absurdism and satire.

 

The lead story, “The Ant King” is a satire on life in California. At one level, we might generously find parallels with Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco save that, instead of everyone turning into a herd of Rhinoceros, the people of California become exaggerated versions of themselves. This is not to deny there are odd flashes of wit and humour, but the whole is somewhat thin. Following Ionesco, we then have elephants that socialise but are fickle, shape changers that are voyeurs of death, and giants who hide in a distant valley. Rosenbaum certainly likes to attempt surprise but given that most stories are only a page or so long, he offers us only a few opportunities to observe how he might develop the ideas. Sometimes the ideas are satisfying: human-transmissible viruses which enable a new interface with the prevailing computer network and memories stored in commensuals that live from one host generation to the next and allow a form of eternal life to those whose memories are strongest. When it all works well, it’s really good as in “Red Leather Tassels” which contrives to match coincidence with improbability to excellent effect. The stand-out story is “A Siege of Cranes” which is a more conventional fantasy story, nicely capturing the transformation of a humble man into someone who can defeat the White Witch. Perhaps the price he has to pay for the courage to achieve this is one we might all be willing to pay.

 

But, overall, I found the collection tiresome. When at length as in “Biographical Note” and “Sense and Sensibility”, he can become overly impressed by his own cleverness. When the author thinks so little of an idea that it is thrown away in three or four hundred words, or prefers superficialities to substance, I walk away unsatisfied. The one underlying reality of a pint of beer is that at least 95% of it is usually substance that one enjoys drinking. Sadly, the balance in this collection favours the froth and, thus, represents poor value for money.

 

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