Category Archives: Fiction

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock.”

o-OCEAN-AT-THE-END-OF-THE-LANE-facebookOne of the first novels I read this year was Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Wonderful, wonderful book. The day I finished it, I wrote, “I know it’s only January, but I can’t imagine reading another novel this year that’s half as magical as this one.”

We now approach the end of March and I stand by my prediction. Like N.D. Wilson and the late Sir Terry Pratchett, Gaiman is one of a handful of contemporary fiction writers I feel it my solemn duty to recommend to everyone I meet.  (On that note, if you’re looking for somewhere to start, pick up Coraline. You can’t go wrong with it.)

And while it’s a popular style of compliment among reviewers to call this or that novel “like nothing I’ve ever read before,” I can’t say this of Ocean. It would be untrue, and further, it would be damning it with faint praise. It is because I have read something like it before that Ocean is such a formidable bit of storytelling.

Gaiman is no hack – the very idea is farcical. But he is carrying on a tradition, and the mantle of writers like C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander looks rather splendid draped across his shoulders. I can’t help but think they would be chuffed to see it worn so well.

In Ocean‘s opening pages, our protagonist (nameless throughout the story) declares his affection for the myths of old: “They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”

How fitting that Gaiman’s own story should achieve this very quality. Did you ever stand in your pajamas under a full moon, no shoes, just your naked feet touching the ground? Ocean is like that: a perfect marriage of the tangible and the transcendent. In a word, timeless.

Thank God, the fairy tale lives.

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Book Review: Boys of Blur

18209370“When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame…”

Every now and again you get your hands on a book that feels older than it really is.  The pages are appley crisp, the publishing date not long past, but you’d swear there’s an old soul humming inside the polished dust jacket. I felt that way about N.D. Wilson’s first novel, Leepike Ridge, and I feel that way about his latest, Boys of Blur.

It takes a special kind of nerve to mix football, Beowulf, panthers, and grave-robbing into any kind of coherent narrative, let alone one with emotional tonnage, but NDW – like his father, never lacking in the Chutzpah Dept. – does both in Boys of Blur. It’s a parable and a romp. I do wish the Gren were allotted more “screen time”, and a few of the plot points could’ve used more time in the oven. Despite these faults, I liked the story enormously, and it grows on me even now, a week after finishing it. There’s something Wilson has always had going for him: staying power.

His writing, too. There are scenes rendered with such magic and perfection – boys gone rabbit-hunting through fiery cane fields, Charlie chasing a panther across a crowded football stadium – that they seem immediately aged, enduring as Tom Sawyer and whitewashing and fences.

I mentioned Beowulf. Wilson tips his helm more than once to that ancient saga, especially near the end. Boy, was that delicious.  “Thanks to my pops,” Wilson writes in the acknowledgements, “for first introducing me to Beowulf and the growling rhythms of Anglo-Saxon, and for his own brilliant verse rendering.”

I’ll drink to that. Pass the mead.

Book Review: Foucault’s Pendulum

foucaultspendulumLast week I did the unthinkable and put down a book I’d only half finished. Put it down, I say, with no intention of picking it back up again – a sign of readerly metamorphosis if there was one. Get Kafka on the phone pronto.

Foucault’s Pendulum is the book I could not bring myself to finish, and while I do regret having to shelve it, I’m happy to be rid of the thing. Eco’s writing is terrific, but he’s a smothersome storyteller with a fetish for excruciating detail – a tolerable idolatry so long as the story is going, you know, somewhere. Forty five chapters and three hundred pages in, the pendulum had hardly budged, and all the Templars and conspiracy theories in the world can’t save you then.

A few months ago, dropping any book halfway through would have been unconscionable, so what gives? Between work, planning, and other writing commitments, my reading time now is significantly less than it used to be. (This isn’t a complaint, just a bald fact.) I’m more jealous of that time as a result: less forgiving of books that seem to be wasting it, and unwilling to invest energy into that which is not enjoyable, or enlightening, or at the very least, interesting. Three strikes, and Foucault’s Pendulum was thrown out on its ear.

It’s not that I don’t like a good challenge. It’s not that my tastes beg for blazing guns, mad scientists, and rubber-melting car chases. When I read a story, however, I do expect to enjoy myself. Enjoyment isn’t everything, but it is something, particularly where a novel is concerned.

You know that feeling you get when you’re stranded in the middle of the ocean in a crappy inflatable with no rations left? No? Well, try to imagine it. No land in sight, no breeze, and a whole lotta sun. You start to go mad. You see things. You sink your teeth into a juicy chicken drumstick, and then realize it’s your arm.  You need to be rescued. Soon. Preferably before the sharks come or you dine on your own flesh.

Can you picture it? Feel it? Good. That was me reading Foucault’s Pendulum. That was me trying to cope with the stodgy characters, the Byzantine plot lines, the seemingly everlasting descriptions of occult rituals. It all seems like super important stuff, until you realize that what you mistook for intellectual sophistication is really just an elegant, overindulgent mind-fart.

There. I’ve said my piece.

Here I stand. I can do no other.

Carry on, Jeeves.

The New Wave of Shock Fiction

In A Landscape with Dragons, Michael O’Brien makes a key distinction between the horrors found in classical tales and the horrors that saturate so much contemporary fiction:

These shocks are presented as ends to themselves, raw violence as entertainment. In sharp contrast, the momentary horrors that occur in classical tales always have a higher purpose; they are intended to underline the necessity of courage, ingenuity, and character; the tales are about brave young people struggling through adversity to moments of illumination, truth, and maturity; they emphatically demonstrate that good is far more powerful than evil. Not so with the new wave of shock fiction… This nasty little world offers a thrill per minute, but it is like a sealed room from which the oxygen is slowly removed, replaced by an atmosphere of nightmare and a sense that the forces of evil are nearly omnipotent.

Book Review: Brave New World

410JtTsdiULFunny thing about science fiction: it seldom stays fiction for long. This is similarly true of the dystopian genre. It is difficult to study writers like Orwell and Huxley without seeing ourselves reflected in the literary mirrors they hold up to us. Did I say difficult? I meant impossible. As Dalrymple writes in his essay “The Dystopian Imagination”, both 1984 and Brave New World “retain their power to alarm because they are prophetic, almost in a biblical sense: they issue permanent calls to resist trends that, irrespective of the political regime we happen to find ourselves under, will impoverish human life.”

Cold as Orwell’s vision undoubtedly is, for me, Huxley’s remains the more chilling of the two: perhaps because I believe there’s truth in the old adage that politics is downstream from culture. Neil Postman (that ever-piquant observer of pop culture) says it best in the forward to his classic Amusing Ourselves to Death:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

The idea of pleasure being inflicted is a graphic one. It evokes something damaging, something potentially ruinous, and pleasure isn’t often considered in these terms. It’s worth remembering, in our efforts to avoid being undone by external oppression, how much easier it is to be undone from the inside out. The Entertainer can be far more tyrannous than the Tyrant. Feelies will castrate a society as effectively as any state-run torture chamber.

One facet of Huxley’s ultra-sexualized, trivia-oriented culture – one hitting painfully close to home – is the complete evaporation of the family as an institution. Great pains are taken to ensure that nobody loves anybody too much. The ties between siblings, parents, lovers: all are broken. Promiscuity is not only encouraged, but required. Mother is a smutty word, while father is not obscene but “merely gross, a scatological rather than a pornographic impropriety.”

Further, when it becomes known that one of the characters has had a son, he is greeted with outrage and scorn from his colleagues – not because the sex was extramarital, but because it resulted in a child. We already have a “mild” case of this insanity. Sleeping around is considered the norm; being devoted to one bed and raising a family is not.

On a final, if rather cynical note: it is unsettling to think that we have men and women in places of power and influence who seem determined to think of books like 1984Brave New World, and even The Hunger Games as blueprints rather than warnings.