Friday, August 29, 2014

The Writer's Blog Tour

Chris Miles, author of the hilarious new YA novel Spurt: A Balls and All Story, has tagged me in the Writer’s Blog Tour. I say it like he’s just done it, when in fact it was some time ago. Sorry Chris! Anyway, here, at last, is my contribution.

What am I working on?

Short answer: not telling!

Slightly longer answer: I’m still not telling! I avoid talking about things I am writing, or considering writing, unless that’s part of the process, eg. if I’m working with an editor.

That said, I am currently working on - or around, anyway - a couple of short stories and the early stages of a no*el. The latter is so tentative that I can’t bring myself to write the word in full.

Informative, aren’t I?

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

In terms of non-fiction - the category in which my published work to date falls - I possess much the same attributes as plenty of other writers: curiosity, a not entirely satisfactory formal education supplemented by desultory auto-didacticism, a good sense of humour (multitasking here by simultaneously drafting my online dating profile), enthusiasm, an openness to the strange and wonderful, and a disdain for the cliched and jejune. (I also possess a thesaurus.)

Fiction-wise… ask me in a few years. Having written quite a bit of fiction in my teens and early twenties, I more or less gave it up and have returned to it only recently. Hence it’s a touch premature to be asking what I bring to my genre - assuming I have one. Is “unpublished and a bit lost” a genre?

Why do I write what I do?

Compulsion. Love of language. The fun of making things up. The physical sensation of bashing away at the keyboard. To find out stuff about the world or about myself. To clarify an intellectual opinion. To challenge an artistic trope. The little dopamine hit/ego boost when somebody laughs at my work - especially when they’re meant to laugh - or finds it affecting or informative.

How does my writing process work?

I stopped writing altogether a few years ago. We don’t need to go into the unpleasant details here, but suffice it to say that stuff was happening in my life, and writing was slowly edged out by other concerns. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t have time to write, or I had “writer’s block”, or some other imaginary ailment. I mean I didn’t want to write, and even if I wanted to I couldn’t. There was no writing in me. There was, to be honest, very little of anything in me.

When I finally got my head above the mire, I felt the absence of writing as a great void. I was going through the agonising process of rebuilding myself, and I knew that writing - the creative act, and since I can’t sing, play music, dance, paint, draw, sculpt, or afford to preserve a tiger shark in formaldehyde, writing is it - was essential to my conception of who I was. But it felt beyond me, inaccessible. In that rose-tinted way all fuck-ups have of misremembering their pre-fuck-up selves, I felt this enormous disconnect between who I was and who I had become. Talk about the writing process: did I even have a process when I was younger? Surely the process was: sit down and unleash an endless torrent of words. It was so easy! But that was in the past, a sweet bird of youth that had flown into a window and broken its neck.

Such is the bullshit one spins into the wool of despair that is knitted into the cosy jumper of self-loathing. I recognised that what I needed to do was write, without fear, or at least without expectation. I’d lost my writing fitness, and what I needed was a way to build that again before I started worrying about whether I was any good.

I tried several methods. I scribbled thoughts on cards. I kept diaries. I set myself weekly targets. I made a point of writing down ideas when I had them. The going was slow. I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe I had lost interest and it was time to consign writing to the past and get on with something else.

In August last year I saw somebody on Twitter mention the website 750 Words. The idea behind the site is that it provides a space for private, sustained writing. Sure, you can do the same thing using any word processing program, but there was something appealing about the 750 Words interface. I liked the extensive range of stats on offer - as a general rule, give me stats and I’m yours - and the fun/lame idea of earning animal badges for various achievements.

So I gave it a shot. The first few days were tough: getting to 750 words was a real drag. But soon my hands loosened up, my brain started ticking over, and the words began to flow. I was writing every day, often 1000 words or more. It was pretty random stuff: memories, anecdotes, reviews, diary-type entries, stories, rants, fantasies. I wrote in the spirit of the exercise, with an emphasis on getting words down without paying much, if any, attention to quality or potential utility.

I can’t tell you how liberating this was. I became addicted to the freewheeling, brain-taxing, keyboard-pounding fun of it. Most days I was topping 1000 words, often 2000, occasionally 3000. I think I may have hit 5000 words a couple of times. In the month of November alone I wrote over 70 000 words. By the time I decided to stop using the site, I had written over 260 000 words in about 220 days, without a day’s break.

Six months on, those figures feel meaningless, even a little embarrassing, but at the time it was exactly what I needed. Whereas previously I had been edging slowly out of my shell, a few sentences here and there, now I had burst forth, shattering the shell and grinding it beneath the heels of my bespoke seven league writing boots. It was invigorating and showed me that when it comes to writing, sometimes what is needed is a new approach.

This has been a really roundabout answer this question! (How does your writing process work, Tim? Well, first I go off on a 700 word tangent…) But my experience since using 750 Words has underscored how important it is to keep myself challenged and interested. I set goals, I take notes, I use different materials. Most of the time I like writing on the computer - typing seems to me almost an extension of thinking - but I am now supplementing this with writing by hand. I use index cards (as recommended in Anne Lamott’s excellent Bird by Bird), and recently I have started keeping a notebook, which I use to write down ideas, observations, quotations, as well as to list books I want, unusual words I encounter, and whatever else doesn’t fit in with what I think of as more formal, “computer writing”.

When I write I try to get things down as fast as possible. Typing fast gets my brain going and is often the quickest way to achieve some kind of flow. Then it’s a matter of going over it until it’s as good as I can make it. Often I will print drafts and rewrite them onscreen from scratch, moving bits and pieces around. With non-fic, I usually gain momentum as I go, with each pass being an improvement on the last, until finally it is as together as it will ever be. Fiction is a different matter, and I am slowly adjusting to the different demands this form makes.

Tag time

Still with me? Now I am tasked with tagging three writer types who will then hopefully post their own Writer’s Blog Tour entries.

First is Mike Lynch, who blogs at Nannygoat Hill. Mike has a keen wit, a curious mind, and is always a joy to read on any subject.

Second is Essie, proprietor of the new blog Mama Finch, and generally awesome writer, artist, thinker, and person.

Third is Anna Ryan-Punch, author of at least three thousand published poems, YA critic, blogger, yodeller, coat-wearer, pizza-eater and soup-disliker.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Books I read in June

The Stand, Stephen King. I read plenty of King in my teens, but if picked up his books during my twenties it was to mock what I considered his sub-par prose, his folksiness, his unbridled enthusiasm for emphatic italics. Well, more fool twenty-something-me, because King is a tremendously powerful writer, and The Stand is the kind of book that you don't so much read as live. Sure, King's writing is wobbly at times, but taken as a whole The Stand is an immersive, weirdly leisurely adventure, stuffed with brilliant scenes, memorable characters, darkness, humour, horror.

The Hunters, James Salter. Set in the rarified world of jet fighter pilots in the Korean War, Salter's debut is a lyrical, drily witty examination of honour and thwarted ambition, and a gentle yet firm riposte to the Hemingway school of literary masculinity. The combat scenes are glorious - Salter's descriptive language is brilliant, and the man knows his way around a simile. The internal and interpersonal conflict is depicted with equal skill.

A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter. I adored this novel: it is intoxicating and beautiful, full of explicit sex, and an equally explicit depiction of loss and regret. It seems extraordinary that words on paper can make a person feel as this novel made me feel. Glorious.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

I listen to music (24/6 - 30/6)

Devotion, Jessie Ware (2012) [3] Impeccably produced, but kind of lifeless. Part of the problem is that with a few exceptions the songs aren't especially distinguished. Then there is Ware's voice, which can be lovely but often lacks personality.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill (1998) [5] Always nice to put on an album you haven't heard for a while and find it as fresh and appealing as the first time you played it. Hill's performance across the album is, of course, superb.

Vee Vee, Archers of Loaf (1995) [5] As one of the songs here puts it: "Nostalgia! [frenetic guitar] Nostalgia!" I had this dubbed onto one side of a C90 cassette (other side: Betty by Helmet), which I listened to again and again while traveling to and from my girlfriend's place in Ringwood. Why didn't I have any other tapes? Were blank cassettes really that expensive in 1995? Anyway, this still sounds great, a winning mix of dissonant guitars, jangly pop, and moments of jagged beauty.

Vs. The Greatest of All Time, Archers of Loaf (1994) [4] Along with Vee Vee, this is my favourite Archers record. A concise five tracks that demonstrate everything that was great about the band in this period. They had a knack for combining noisy guitars with moments of drifting unease, like Sonic Youth but I think better - possibly a minority opinion. Eric Bachman's melancholy, funny, angry - and yes, ironic - lyrics are delivered with a croak and a shout. The whole thing is enshrouded in whisps of feedback - very 90s, and marvellous for it.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd (1967) [3] Poor Syd.

Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd (1975) [4] Poor Syd: The Album.

The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd (1973) [5] I must have listened to this and Animals a thousand times on my crappy record player while writing essays in Year 12. It's kind of imprinted on my mind. The stuff about growing old and regretful doesn't get any less cutting with time, strangely enough.

I Wish My Brother George Was Here, Del the Funky Homosapien (1991) [3] Really enjoyable, but a bit generic production-wise.

No Need For Alarm, Del the Funky Homosapien (1993) [4] Outside of Deltron 3030 this is the best Del album. It's got that inimitable Del weirdness, but with a harder edge.

Animals, Pink Floyd (1977) [5] Misanthropy as prog epic. I'm not much of a guitar solo guy, but I love the ones here. Did you know you can sing "I Was Made For Lovin' You" to the closing bass line of "Pigs"?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

I listen to music (17/06 - 23/06)

Inspired by a few blogs I've been reading lately, in particular Halibut Threesome, whose format I am ripping off wholesale, I've decided to keep brief notes about the music I've been listening to. Probably just a few sentences per album, at minimum a rating out of five. (There will be no Christgau-esque wingdings.) All ratings are provisional and therefore meaningless.

Yeezus, Kanye West (2013) [3] Edging closer to [4] with every listen, although it does feel vaguely insubstantial. (What wouldn't, following My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?) Sonically abrasive, lyrically it's Kanye at his obnoxious, egotistical, self-parodying best/worst. Amazing that an album this fucking weird is one of the year's biggest. Say what you like, but Kanye isn't just working to a formula.

Bach: The Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould (1955) [5]

Among the Living, Anthrax (1987) [4] The A-side is a demolition derby.

Mischief & Mayhem, Jenny Scheinman (2012) [4] Favourite Scheinman to date. Great band: Nels Cline, Jim Black, and the awesomely-named bassist Todd Sickafoose.

All the Nation's Airports, Archers of Loaf (1996) [4] Refines the oddball guitar pop of the Archers' earlier albums, adding more diverse instrumentation ("Chumming the Ocean" is probably the most jaw-dropping - and atypical - of Archers tunes) while maintaining the dense guitar interplay.

Settle, Disclosure (2013) [4] Immediately enjoyable. Need to hear it a few more times for it to sink in - it's pretty long - but clearly a winner.

Equilibrium, Matthew Shipp (2003) [4]

Nu Bop, Matthew Shipp (2002) [3]

New Orbit, Matthew Shipp (2001) [4] First Shipp album I owned. Remains a marvellous mix of lyrical and abstract themes.

Psychic Hearts, Thurston Moore (1995) [2]  I really loved this back then, but it sounds fairly average now.

DE9: Transitions, Richie Hawtin (2005) [5] A minutely detailed epic journey of an album, appropriately titled given the smoothness with which the often very different sounding tracks glide into one another. I love putting this on when I'm PTing around town.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Books I read in May

Moondust, Andrew Smith. Since the dawn of time, humanity has longed to grind the face of the moon beneath its collective boot. Yet it wasn't until the 1960s that technology became sufficiently advanced to propel to the lunar surface not only boots, but people, too. (All the better for sending more boots.) Thanks to the political will of John F. Kennedy and the efficient German know-how of various former Nazis, between 1969 and 1972 twelve American men had the honour of standing 'pon Luna's pock-marked surface. In this delightful book, journalist and probable boot-wearer Andrew Smith seeks out the remaining moonwalkers (there were nine at the time the book was published; Neil Armstrong of course died last year), to find out what, if anything, of this extraordinary experience can be conveyed to the rest of us mere mortals.

Doubtless there are heaps of good books about the Space Race and the Apollo Programme - I have Wolfe's The Right Stuff on my shelf, and Andrew Chaikin's  A Man on the Moon sounds terrific - but I can't imagine many are as purely enjoyable as Moondust. In just 350 pages, Smith sketches a lively portrait of the Apollo era and its major personalities, its tragedies, triumphs and scandals. He tracks down even the most reclusive astronauts - the notoriously private Armstrong, for one; also Apollo 15's elusive David Scott - and coaxes them into discussions that range from blunt to enigmatic, all handled by Smith with skill and compassion. He also finds time to discuss various aspects of humanity's relationship to the moon, and, by extension, our often ambivalent relationship with space exploration.

Smith is a diligent, skilled journalist, and it's obvious that he enjoyed being let off the chain here. He makes for a warm, witty companion, and even the inevitable "journey" narrative - now apparently required of all authors of book-length non-fiction - is relatively unobtrusive.

The Other, Thomas Tryon. Creepy twins and plenty of them! Well, two. And only one is creepy. OR IS HE? (Spoiler: yes.)

Tryon was a B-movie actor who, according to the bio in my copy, was so bullied by Otto Preminger on the set of The Cardinal that he threw it in and became a writer. The Other was his first novel, and what a nasty, dreamy, sneaky thing it is. Much like its twisted protagonist! But hush, I have said too much...

One of the great things about The Other is that it has a twist, and I knew it had a twist, because of course it had a twist, but then, then the twist twisted in a different direction than I was expecting! So that was good. I also enjoyed Tryon's nostalgic, beautifully detailed evocation of a 1930s New England childhood, which gives the novel a vaguely pre-modern, old world feel. Oh, and there are creepy bits and gory bits and lots of other stuff, too. A rich novel, worthy of its pleasing new NYRB Classics edition.

The 13-Storey Treehouse, Andy Griffiths & Terry Denton. I read this to my 7yo while she was laid up with an ear infection. Coaxing belly laughs from an ill child is no mean feat, but Griffiths and Denton are so much fun here. The book is about the writing of the book, albeit a fictionalised account, unless Griffiths and Denton do live in a massive treehouse and regularly battle sea monsters with the aid of a flying cat. Which they might. I don't know them personally.

The interplay between Griffiths' words and Denton's illustrations is hilarious, as are all the crazy metafictional twists and turns.  Kids appear to be naturally comfortable with such playful artifice. If a novel for adults was built around similar conceits it would probably be labelled "pretentious" - or, just as damning, "experimental". Here, it is allowed to be what it is: great fun.

Beauty's Sister, James Bradley. Beauty's Sister is a superb novelette. A version of the Rapunzel tale, it balances the "feel" of a traditional fairy tale with a distinctly modern sensibility. The key to the story's success is its total lack of quaintness. Bradley doesn't attempt to impersonate the Grimms; rather he writes with contemporary directness leavened with a kind of timeless, otherworldly demotic. The pacing, too, is perfect, building, as a good fairy tale must, to a surprising, yet logical, close.

Formerly a digital-only Kindle Single, Beauty's Sister is now available in paperback, resplendent in orange Penguin livery. It comes highly recommended in either format.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson. A masterpiece of unreliable narration, up there with Pale Fire, The Turn of the Screw, and George W. Bush's Decision Points. This book ticks so many boxes for me: screwy adolescent narrator, hermetic setting, idiosyncratic ritual, generalised misanthropy, crackpot uncles, mysterious poisonings. I found the Gothic atmosphere, black humour, and especially the narration irresistible. I love strange little novels, and this is one hell of a strange little novel.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Books I read in April

Lacklustre month reading-wise and in so many other ways. The lustreless nature of this post reflects this.

Saga, Vol. 1, Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples. My interest in comics has waned over the past couple of years, but I had to have a look at Saga, given half of my Twitter feed spontaneously orgasms every time a new issue is published. I'm glad I did, as Saga is an extremely smart and funny sf saga. (That's about the limit of my verbal playfulness just now, sorry.) The initial six issues do a masterful job of establishing the setting and characters, and the story is gripping from the first frame. Which, incidentally, features a close-up of a major character grimacing and saying "Am I shitting? It feels like I'm shitting." If you find that kind of talk amusing, or at least intriguing - why is she shitting, if shitting she be? - then read on...

A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold, George R.R. Martin. Loses none of the preceding volume's vitality (see my review in last month's round-up), indeed  bests it by drawing various storylines together or to an apparent close. Which is to say, lots of characters die, suffer unexpected twists of fate, and/or have various indignities forced upon them by their gleefully unsentimental creator. As a whole, A Storm of Swords is the best of the first three ASOIAF novels by a Westeros mile . (Westeros mile = the distance the average citizen of said land can walk without chancing upon brigands, having a limb hacked off, being drawn into a web of aristocratic intrigue, or having his or her surprisingly-well-sculpted and always hairless arse exposed to the world. So, about twenty of our Earth metres.)

Pobby and Dingan, Ben Rice. Charming novella set on the Lightning Ridge opal fields. Narrator Ashmol is the cocksure son of a miner; his sister Kellyanne is a more fragile child, devoted to her imaginary friends, Pobby and Dingan. When the fantastic duo go missing and Kellyanne becomes ill, Ashmol sets out to "find" the missing friends, in the process drawing the entire town into Kellyanne's fantasy.

Meditations on the importance of make-believe can tend towards the twee, but Pobby and Dingan is grounded by Ashmol's pragmatism and resourcefulness. His voice is wonderfully realised, even if the ockerisms are sometimes laid on a bit thick, and there is the occasional misstep - for instance, I doubt Ashmol would say "ass" instead of "arse". The pacing is perfect, building to a affecting, bittersweet climax. Pobby and Dingan is 90 pages of reading bliss.

My edition features a second novella, Specks In the Sky. This one reminded me of Magnus Mills in its straight-faced absurdity and lurking darkness. Again the teenaged narrator is brilliantly rendered.

Friday, April 26, 2013


Pinknantucket Press has published Crank, a magazine in which contributors "can air petty annoyances, obscure conspiracy theories and general arguments about what is wrong with the world." It's like a letters-to-the-editor page with better literary values, or that guy on the bus reading MX and lecturing the other passengers about why this city/country/species is stuffed, in convenient magazine format. Crank is available at the Pinknantucket Press site for $5 (hard copy + digital) or 99c for digital only. That's a lot of spittle for your buck!

Last Friday I hurt my lower back and spent the next few days hobbling around downing Panadeine and Nurofen Plus. The upside was that I got to watch a lot of movies: Young Frankenstein, No Country For Old Men, The Wicker Man (original of course), and something else I can't remember just now, all of which I have seen before and love, even The Wicker Man which is not an especially well-made film aside from the classic denouement and the bit where Britt Ekland dances around naked, which really drives home the film's pagan/Christian-carnal/puritanical binaries and also she has a really nice bum. Anna and I watched Wake In Fright, which was more horrific than I had ever imagined. It really is an extraordinary, savage, misanthropic, hilarious, queasy, gorgeous film.

The other two films I watched were Kick-Ass and Crank. Kick-Ass is yet another "deconstruction" of the superhero mythos, raising questions like: What if a real, average person without superpowers or stacks of cash tried to be a superhero? What if we explore the damaged psyches behind the superheroic facade? What if superheros are actually fascists imposing order on an acquiescent society? What if superheros really got hurt like really real people really do? You know, the same fucking questions that have been raised in every second superhero comic and movie in the past 30 years.

Kick-Ass brings no original insights to these matters, preferring to wallow in a swamp of self-congratulatory meta-humour and homophobia. Far from showing the "real life" consequences of comic book violence, the film revels in it, wagging it's finger at the audience with one hand while jerking to a sexualised 11yo heroine cutting baddies' throats with the other. I'd have preferred Kick-Ass to be completely amoral, to own its bloodlust, but the filmmakers want to have it both ways. Dumb entertainment has no intelligence threshold, but smart-dumb entertainment requires wit and self-awareness. Kick-Ass has neither.

Crank, otoh, is unapologetically dumb but it is smart about it. Jason Statham stars as a hitman who has been injected with a poison that will kill him unless he keeps his adrenalin pumping. The concept itself is genius, a biological twist on the classic 90s thriller The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down. Statham has to try to find the guy who poisoned him while keeping his adrenalin levels up, which involves constantly running and fighting and driving fast and having sex with his girlfriend in public and just generally behaving like a maniac. And it is AWESOME, at least until it bogs down slightly in the last half hour, but until then it's non-stop inventive action, filmed and edited in appropriately hyperactive style. As various people have pointed out, Crank is basically a 90-minute action sequence, with the aesthetics - and character depth - of a wild and nasty video game. It's dumb done right: committed, inventive, and crazy entertaining.

Apparently the sequel - in which Statham is fitted with an electronic heart and must dash around town while periodically administering electric shocks to his own chest - is even more ridiculous. Screw the superhero deconstruction: bring on the high-concept dumb.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Zombies as a cultural trope jumped the shark and ate its innards several years ago, but every so often something refreshing lurches out of the night and grabs at you with its ragged, bloodied fingertips. Max Brooks's World War Z is a good example: a well thought out, impeccably crafted "oral history" of a zombie apocalypse, with enough awesome scenarios to put dozens of shitty zombie flicks, comics, and novels to shame.

On a smaller scale, the 2009 Canadian film Pontypool takes the familiar zombie movie cliches and plays with them - turns them over, tickles their belly, then vomits blood in their slavering faces. The action takes place almost entirely inside a radio studio in the eponymous rural town where Grant Mazzy, a big-time shock jock demoted to the minor leagues, his producer and her assistant are broadcasting their homely morning show when strange reports start to filter in. Rampaging mobs have been seen marauding local businesses; later it transpires that the crowds are babbling a kind of word salad, and may be cannibalising their victims. The French Canadian military is rumoured to have mobilised. (That it's the French Canadian military turns out to be significant, and points to the film's relatively subtle political subtext.) Meanwhile, the production assistant has started to stammer and repeat herself in a most disturbing manner...

The first hour of Pontypool is some of the finest suspense I've encountered in a long time. The witty script, minimal set - a converted church that feels simultaneously cavernous and claustrophobic - and a trio of committed performances deserve credit. But it is the intricate sound design that drives the mounting terror. Sound - specifically language - is the means of transmission of this particular plague, and director Bruce McDonald embeds the complexities of communication, verbal and non-verbal, in every level of the film.

The tension dissipates somewhat in the final half hour, as the threat becomes more palpable and the script forsakes wry banter for a semiotics lecture, but there's enough going on to keep it enjoyable. If, like me, you're bored with zombies, or you just want to see a good low-budget thriller, Pontypool is highly recommended.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Iain Banks

Yesterday Iain Banks issued a statement announcing that he has terminal cancer and is unlikely to live longer than a year. His forthcoming book, The Quarry (a "non-M" novel), will be his last.

This news has come as a shock to Banks's many fans, myself among them. Banks is only 59, and has always come across as youthful and energetic. It's difficult to imagine someone of such vitality being so suddenly stricken and on the verge of death. This is one of the possible fates that awaits us all, of course, but it never gets any easier to confront.

Unable to sleep last night, I scrolled through the #IainBanks and #IainMBanks feeds on Twitter. (There was also, inevitably, an #IanBanks tag, for Banks's less literate fans.) Commemorating the dead and dying is a venerable and not always tasteful Twitter tradition, but the tributes to Banks were in the main heartfelt and sorrowful. Banks is much-loved, not only for his work, but for his enthusiastic, generous and down-to-earth personality. Few people can afford a collection of flash sports cars (later sold due to environmental concerns) and still seem like the kind of person you can imagine having a quiet drink with.

Banks was vital to me as a budding reader. I came to The Wasp Factory via my teenage interest in horror fiction and went from there. His early non-M books were extraordinary, mind-expanding works, drawing from Kafka and Peake, as well as genre conventions and contemporary literary realism. When I got to the sf - published under the name Iain M. Banks to differentiate it from his more "mainstream", but often sf/fantasy-inflected novels - they knocked me sideways.

Epic, intricate, combining intellectual invention with vivid characters and bravura action, Banks's sf took the tropes of classic space opera and made them utterly contemporary. As Mike put it on Twitter last night, "it was like being given back a whole genre that I'd abandoned." Banks's major sf sequence, set amid and on various fringes of the vast Culture civilisation, was his vision of a (in his words) "secular utopia", but it was never an idealised fantasy. For all the technological wonders of the Culture universe, Banks was always concerned with the ambiguities of human character and the shifting allegiances of realpolitik. The novels were all formally different, too, from the widescreen epic of Consider Phlebas to the comedy of manners of Look to Windward via the fantasy world of Inversions and the harder-edged adventure of Excession and Use of Weapons.*

A writer producing a novel a year is inevitably going to have fallow patches. By 1999's The Business, the non-M books were starting to feel careless and half-hearted. The last one I read was the disappointing post-9/11 story Dead Air. I'm a couple of M books behind, but the last one I read, 2008's Matter, showed Banks continuing to explore new aspects of the Culture universe, and stretching his storytelling skills. Fans were divided, as fans always are, but to me it indicated that Banks still had plenty left in the tank. I'm looking forward to catching up with the two further Culture novels that followed.

It always feels a bit strange eulogising someone you've never met - in this case, someone who is not even dead yet! Yet it would be stranger to simply shrug it off, as if a personal relationship were the only possible source of meaning in life. The connections forged through art are as profound as any other, and can transcend time and space. When someone's work has been as formative as Banks's has been to me, it is impossible not to feel a personal link with that person, however intangible. I feel terrible for Banks, and for his family. I feel sorrow for what he must be enduring, and what he must face. I also feel gratitude for the hours I have spent reading and thinking about his wonderful work. Thanks, Iain.

"My gratitude extends beyond the limits of my capacity to express it." (The Player of Games)

*For those new to Banks who are put off by the length of the Culture series, fear not: the books can be read in any order, with only Look to Windward and Surface Detail considered quasi-sequels to earlier work. (Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons, respectively.) Even then, the connections tend to be thematic rather than narrative. Banks also wrote a number of stand-alone sf novels; Feersum Endjinn is generally regarded as the best of these.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Books I read in March

The not many books I read this month + Anna.
Misadventures, Sylvia Smith. A collection of autobiographical vignettes by a superficially unremarkable woman who, in her 50s, decided she would quite like to write a book.

To say Smith's prose is unaffected would be an understatement. Hers is the turgid "then this happened, and then..." style of the family Christmas letter, the postcard from a slightly dull friend, the daily Facebook update by that guy you used to work with who keeps posting "hilarious" stories about his kids. It is undistinguished, even amateurish, and the stories themselves often lack a discernible structure, or, indeed, a point.

Yet Misadventures has a cumulative effect. Smith worked a variety of jobs, mostly administrative, never married, and carried on an active social life. So, for one thing, Misadventures is an account of small but often important moments in a single, working woman's life in the mid-to-late 20th century. But the appeal of the book is more than anthropological. There is a fascinating ordinariness to the events Smith describes. These are minor triumphs, sadnesses, scares; moments of humour and kindness. Smith lived a relatively circumscribed life, but not an unpleasant one. Misadventures takes us into her world of social clubs, tour groups, dances, country pubs, rambles, boyfriends, lodging houses. Smith's prose, which at first feels so wooden, begins to seem like the perfect vehicle for her doggedly unglamourous tales.

Halfway through reading Misadventures, I googled Smith to find out if she had written anything else. Turns out there are two further books, My Holidays and Appleby House. It also turned out that she had died in late February, aged 67. Via a couple of rather snide newspaper obits, I learned that Misadventures was widely panned upon publication. This is not surprising, given Smith's naive lack of "literary-ness". But it does raise some questions. Must literature contain, even privilege  introspection? What is the value of the mundane? Can the mundane only transmute into art when filtered through a more intellectual aesthetic, (eg Nicholson Baker)? Does the writer's gender matter when it comes to reporting on the mundane? What is a "significant" subject for memoir? Is it possible to achieve literary effects only if one is "well read" and part of a dominant literary culture? Are the accidental or incidental effects of the "amateur" as valuable as those achieved by "professionals"? What does it mean when a book such as Misadventures connects with a broad range of readers, despite lacking the obvious trappings of "good" writing? Could I use any more scare quotes in this paragraph?

Your answers on the back of a copy of Amazing Spiderman #1, please.

Whatever the broader questions raised by the production, publication and reception of Misadventures, the book works as a warm and charming memoir. It's probably a bit of a love it or hate it proposition, and that in itself is all to the good. Oh, here is Dan Rhodes's lovely post on the late Ms. Smith, may she rest in peace.

A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow, George R.R. Martin. The first volume of the third book of A Song of Ice and Fire is a 600pp behemoth in its own right. I loved the first two books, but GRRM is really revved up here. I'm not sure I have ever read a novel in which so much shit has gone down. Every chapter brings unexpected twists of fate, and at least two chapters ended with me shaking my head and whispering, "Oh. Fuck me."

If you're into this series, you don't need me to tell you to read this, and indeed you probably did so years ago. If you're not into it, or only know the tv show, I want to impress upon you how brilliant and thrilling this work is. The fantasy setting is so detailed, yet the complexity is immersive rather than overwhelming. Martin has built the world before our eyes, and even now, three books in, he's adding details that incrementally flesh out our understanding of its geography, history, and peoples. Martin's does this without info-dumping, without dry appendices. Everything that he wants you to know is in the text, and it works to build a world rich in character, story and thematic resonance.

Because the narrative flits between a range of p.o.v. characters, many of the chapters resemble short stories into which the reader is dropped, disoriented, and which then build to often nerve-wracking crescendoes. Critics tend to focus on the ASOIAF books' conceptual scope and ever-increasing length, overlooking  Martin's brilliance at writing powerful individual scenes or passages. A chapter like the one in which Samwell Tarly flees the Others (later used as the basis for the best episode of The Biggest Loser evah!), demonstrates Martin's extraordinary ability to tell a compressed, structurally complex narrative.

Another pejorative leveled at Martin - sometimes even by ostensible fans - is that he is writing "pulp". Divorced from its historical context, I assume this is intended to mean cheap, disposable  workmanlike. I can understand criticism of Martin's occasionally idiosyncratic grammar and word-choice, as well as his more lascivious descriptions of nudity and sex, but he is not a "cheap" or careless writer. In fact, his prose is usually supple and direct. I'm now over 2500 pages into the saga, and I have noticed very little obvious repetition of figurative language. (The characters' repetition of homilies and mottos is a different matter, being deliberate and of a piece with the world depicted.) Even the infamous epithet that attaches to Jon Snow isn't as prevalent here as in the tv series. (Although that might only seem to be the case because we encounter him every few chapters, rather than every few minutes.) Even the much-derided longuers involving supposedly endless descriptions of meals or sigils feel well-honed, and there are far fewer of these moments than comment thread wits would have you believe. Anyway, I quite enjoy them.

Sure, there are flaws: the occasional flat scene or chapter, moments of coincidence that challenge belief. There is also the ongoing issue of Martin's apparent preoccupation with incest and his sometimes dubious approach to secondary women characters - in marked contrast to his array of excellent leading women. But overall I was enthralled by this book, and I'm looking forward to reading the closing volume and the remaining two books in the series to date.