Saturday, 23 July 2011

A Visit fron the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. Review by Charlotte Penny

Much has been made of the structure that author Jennifer Egan employs in her Pulitzer- Prizewinning and Orange-nominated novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. It is true that the narrative is presented in an unique style, Egan mixes first person and third person with a non linear time line and some experimental devices such as a chapter presented in ‘Power Point’ and another in the guise of a journalistic article. This variety served to keep the read fresh for me; some things naturally worked better than others and will appeal to different people in different ways. But it is not, in my opinion, challenging in its format and I found it an effortless, cohesive and fluid read with the structure actually enhancing the content rather than detracting or distracting from it. It allows a deeper, more probing access to the group of characters we meet during the book. We are allowed far into the psyche of some of them, can cross reference their shared experiences and trip back in to their pasts to understand their motivations and attitudes.

During Chapter 4, a third person narrative, we are directly addressed, ‘But we are getting off the subject’. From this point on I was hooked and increasingly aware that getting off the subject we were not. Every detail forms part of a spider’s web of interaction which spreads out from two focal characters, Bennie and Sasha, to include a myriad of equally important characters over a span of some 50 years.

This allows us to journey not only into characters’ past experiences but also into their futures. Some lives are played out over many chapters but what was most appealing, distinctive and brilliant, were the snapshots Egan instantly develops for others. Paragraphs disarm by swift, unexpected movement from the present into the future fate of one or more characters. Not all are happy ever afters but the overwhelming sense this zoom-button device gives is that of the big picture where each of us stands. Not that we are small in the grand scheme. But that we are huge. And that we are in constant motion, even when we cannot see it. Whatever our current situtuation, will it be more than a line in the paragraph of our lives?

The future Egan leaves us with is wholly unappealing but sadly believable. Technology is terrifying, childhood distorted, communication almost soundless and the planet’s ecology in ruins. But in this grand scheme her characters are still living their lives, feeling love, confusion, fear and joy. The spirit of human nature seems unbreakable, within whatever structure you place it.

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Watch this space... three upcoming editor blogs on Seals, Saints & Bardsey as Urban Centre; Indian Poets & Wales; Psychogeography: Latest Novels and Nonfiction by Iain Sinclair, Jim Perrin, Tristan Hughes and Richard Collins

Monday, 18 July 2011

Book of the Year winner proves illusion will nourish, even if it won't feed us

‘Don Quixote,’ John Harrison says in his Book of the Year winner Cloud Road, A Journey Through the Inca Heartland, ‘is usually portrayed as an old man who… leaves his home and steps into the world of his delusions…. I discovered in the first few pages that the old fool was close to fifty: same as me.’ DQ accompanied Harrison along a five-month hike on the 1500-mile Inca Camino Real running through the Andes between Quito in Ecuador to Cuzco in Peru.

Considering the weight of Harrison’s pack (carried mostly by donkey Dapple to save his crumbling spine) Don Quixote does well to evade being among the items jettisoned (toiletries), stolen (fleece, at the altitude of the Matterhorn) or lost (his partner Elaine’s patience). But the Don earns his place: as the A-Z of Menopausal Man.

It may consider be ill advised to spend nights in an icy tent watching your breastbone emerge from underfed flesh. And suffer diversions caused by mistranslation or malicious misdirection, rabid dogs, and a recalcitrant donkey with the top speed of a tortoise.

But Harrison’s philosophy, borrowed from Cervantes and Gabriel García Marquez, that ‘while illusion won’t feed us, it will nourish us’, won over this sceptic of the epic. First up at village dances; game, when teenage girls lead Dapple across a packed football stadium at kick-off, his exuberance is catching. Reflections on poverty, charity and political treachery, are compassionate. And Cloud Road is a saddleful of laughs. The ass is the butt of many jokes, not least because, despite being cojone-less, ‘she [suddenly] use[s] a large grey penis to pee’ upstream from where the couple are washing. Surely Harrison’s humour must have given Elaine pause before she exiled him to the spare room on his return?

And yet this is not just a comic author. He guides us elegantly through the politics of the Inca, Moche and Cañari peoples, enlivening figures such as the great Inca king Atahualpa and his nemesis, Spaniard Franciso Pizarro.

Harrison knows his genre and lifts above it, for instance in his hilarious riff on the Travel Books with Animals niche, which ends, ‘I want to say that I shall hate that little bastard [Dapple] until the end of time.’

Arresting imagery gives us inroads into an alien landscape and culture. Rainy puddles have ‘surfaces like cloth drawn up by rising needles’; a prisoner is skinned and stuffed to beat his own belly’s drum. And an Incan oracle to out-humbug the Wizard of Oz: the Lanzón Chamber at Chavín, Peru, pierced by a fifteen-foot granite lance carved with a fanged deity which once wept blood and roared in stereo. Cloud Road reveals how it was done, circa 1500 BC.

This was first published in Gwen's Saturday books column, The Insider, in the Western Mail, 16 July 2011

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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Kindle Single and Masters of Ecstasy

‘The Great Master of Ecstasy’ was the story that ‘sent’ me most out of those in Glenda Beagan’s book of the same title. ‘Muscles Came Easy’ is easily the best from Aled Islwyn’s collection Out With It. Both are novella-length magnets, drawing you into the world of a novel, so that you treat the tales at the end like you would the secret track on a CD. As a reader, I enjoy the unspooling of character motivation that can only happen over thirty plus pages. My hunch is that a reader needs a set number of pages or a minimum timespan, book stuffed in bag, in order to bond with its characters. Maybe such bonding is a factor making many of us avoid short stories? Wily publishers and authors therefore cannot be blamed for trying to make story collections more palatable with a very long lead-story or the interweaving of characters across a book.

Novellas per se sell even worse than story collections. But just as capitalism abhors a vacuum, so Amazon created the Single Kindle: a marketplace for digital texts (including nonfiction and essays) of between 10,000 and 30,000 words. Parthian, ever quick off the mark, have brought out SK versions of the lead novellas from longer print editions: Aled Islwyn’s Muscles Came Easy (42 pages, £2.39) and Susie Willd’s Arrivals as well as highlights from classic Library of Wales authors Hilda Vaughan and Arthur Macken's 'The Great God Pan'. Hopefully Seren will give Glenda Beagan's similarly titled ‘The Great Master of Ecstasy’ the same e-treatment.

As for the proper single shortie of 2-3000 words, when will the App-knight ride to her rescue? This damsel’s still tied to the tree in terms of book publishing deals. However, the single story is scooting merrily to grab the living-wage prizes offered by the Sunday Times, BBC and Frank O’Connor International Short Story competitions. The latest BBC winner, David Constantine (who has family near Aberystwyth), collected £15,000. The Sunday Times award, meanwhile, shortlisted Roshi Fernando, brand new Swansea PhD graduate, whose interlinked collectionHomesick will be published by Bloomsbury next autumn.

There was concern for the genre in Welsh last year when the Allen Raine Short Story Competition failed to award first prize in the language (though why on earth refuse to honour runner up Jon Gower, and why aren’t they working with our literary magazines?). But solutions are more readily found in creative enterprise than committee. Gower has created a story-chain or collaborative work of fiction (inspired by 1997’s Finbar’s Hotel) where readers must guess, among authors such as Fflur Dafydd, Siân Melangell and Gower himself, who wrote which chapter-story. Short in stature some stories may be. But that didn’t stop Napoleon!

This was first published in Gwen's Saturday books column, The Insider, in theWestern Mail, 9 July 2011

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Monday, 11 July 2011

Forget the Heels

‘Those shoes will send you straight to hell!’ Gee told me on Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. Four-inch heels and straps coiling up the leg like a pair of pervy pythons. The kind men love and women can walk in only as far as their love of male attention holds out. Mine were in my handbag.

It was the 2008 Edinburgh International Bookfair and we were celebrating Gee Williams’ nomination to the UK’s oldest literary prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, for Salvage.

Salvage’s subject – what would you risk to keep a piece of priceless beached contraband – is exactly that of Cynan Jones’ Everything I Found on the Beach, I realized, as the books bobbed into Aberaeron quay at their recent launch within a launch. It goes to show that whatever disunites the writers of Wales - identity politics, language, chips on shoulders – the landscape, and inevitably our coastline, will winkle its way into their work.

Jones’ novel, bookended by two dead bodies saddled with cocaine, is, like Salvage, a literary crime thriller. But Everything I Found… could only have been written by a man. Its two main characters (the drug-dealer doesn’t figure much), Hold and Grzegorz, are men with young families of a sort, who cannot think beyond providing and deciding on their behalf. Their failure to communicate any of these admirable feelings leads to tragic self-sacrifice. Whether skinning a rabbit, gutting fish, queuing to pee at the Polish hostel, or communing with a knife in the shed of a dead best friend, Jones’ writing takes you there. His emotional perception has all the more impact for its base within a philosophy of maleness akin to Hemingway’s in The Old Man and the Sea.

On 19 August, Charlotte Square will again play host to a Welsh writer, when Michael Nath, who grew up in Swansea and Pembrokeshire, hears whether his James Tait Black shortlisted novel La Rochelle won the big prize. This is an author keen to brew up Nietzsche, neurology, war films and quotes from Goethe on Napoleon. Riskily, his protagonist, Dr Mark Chopra, is a misogynous pain. Older than his years and erudite to the point of constipation, he has an opinion on everything and a blind spot on his own dysfunctional love triangle with his best (only) friend’s wife. Nath’s writing is eccentric and very witty: akin to that of Lloyd Jones in Mr Cassini. Just go with the flow of La Rochelle, a place where McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers meets Jules et Jim in the dog-days of Diana’s death. But if you happen on Edinburgh that night and are une femme d’un certain age: forget the heels. Dr Chopra wouldn’t give you a second look.

This was first published in The Western Mail, Saturday Insider column, 2 July 2011

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