Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (2020) 561 p.

There was a time when David Mitchell could write about paint drying and I would’ve bought the book. But I was disinterested to begin with in the premise of Utopia Avenue: the story of a fictional British band in the heady musical world of the 1960s. Clearly a passion project for Mitchell, who’s always weaved a thread of music through his writing, but not a topic I’m particularly interested in compared to, say, body-hopping immortals, 18th century trading outposts in a closed-off Japan, or even a year of childhood in provincial Britain.

Utopia Avenue won me over in the end, containing as it does enough other interesting stuff: deaths, romantic affairs, troubled familial relationships, a brief stretch in an Italian prison, and the obligatory cameos from the David Mitchell Extended Cinematic Universe. One of the band members is Jasper de Zoet, a descendant of the titular Dutch clerk in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and from the age of sixteen he finds himself troubled by auditory hallucinations which, as it turns out, are not hallucinations at all but rather a very real and very dangerous attempt by a spirit to take over his body. It’s rather telling that the most interesting part of this story thread comes in Jasper’s early troubles and attempts to figure out what’s going on, rather than the inevitable deus ex machina arrival of Dr Marinus. Mitchell has at this point made the interconnected nature of his novels a signature move, but I’m not the first of his loyal readers to express a wish that he would leave all this behind and write something as strikingly fresh again as Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas.

It’s possibly because Mitchell’s quirks have started to wear on my patience that I’m noticing his other flaws. Dialogue has never been his strong suit: every character speaks like David Mitchell writes, and I lost count of the number of times a character had a brief encounter with a stranger (usually a Spot The Famous Figure moment – Utopia Avenue is replete with obligatory but ultimately pointless 1960s celebrity Easter eggs) who would dispense some clever witticism about the nature of life. The other regular encounter is one of the main characters giving a cool retort to a Sorkinesque straw man. It’s frustrating to see an author who is otherwise capable of writing characters who display depth and growth continually whipping out these shallow caricatures.

Still, despite all its flaws, I enjoyed Utopia Avenue – slow to start, but it picks up more steam by the second half. A weak novel by a great novelist is still a good book.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (2014) 181 p.

One of the most popular non-fiction hits of recent years in Australia, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu re-examines 19th century explorers’ journals and other sources to argue that pre-contact Aboriginal Australians were more technologically advanced than the primitive hunter-gatherer society assumed by most modern-day Australians. The most publicised aspect of this argument is that Aboriginals harvested grains, but Pascoe touches on many other areas, some more contentious than others – fisheries, aquaculture, towns, animal husbandry – across the course of this relatively slim book.

As a pop science book rather than an academic text, Dark Emu wears its heart on its sleeve, and I have neither the ability nor the inclination to do further research to confirm or reject Pascoe’s claims. I do have the ability, as with any other complex subject like climate change, to weigh up the respectability and the motives of the people who have done the fact checking – or who claim they have. Dark Emu is no more or less inherently political than any other historiography, but it’s certainly become a political touchstone in Australia in the last few years. If you want to dramatically oversimplify the two sides, imagine an inner-city Greens-voting twenty-something on one side (disclaimer: I am two of those things, but sadly no longer the third), accepting every claim in Dark Emu as gospel and buying a copy for every member of their family; on the other, imagine a red-faced, balding, baby boomer subscriber to The Australian boiling over with rage about a book he hasn’t read.

I think it’s reasonable to say that white settlers conducted a genocide on this continent. I think it’s reasonable to believe that a wealth of knowledge and history was lost when a society with no written language had their oral records wiped out by invaders who decimated, dispossessed and scattered their people. I think it’s reasonable to argue pre-contact Aboriginal society would have been complex and diverse, that rather than a continent of identical hunter-gatherers there were certainly fishers and whalers and farmers; I also think it’s fair to note, as Russell Marks does, that Pascoe often implies that the exception was the rule. I think that Pascoe, who is not a professional historian, makes some odd choices which cast some of his more seemingly reasonable claims into doubt, such as his citation of the thoroughly discredited pseudo-historian Gavin Menzies to suggest that Aboriginals might have visited Beijing in the 1400s. I think Pascoe is a decent and well-meaning man whose core thesis is broadly plausible, particularly his assertion that white Australia deliberately ignored or minimised evidence of more complex Aboriginal civilisation, even as his enthusiasm for his subject sometimes leads him down the garden path of outright speculation.

But I think, most of all, that Dark Emu’s most compelling evidence in favour of its central argument is found not within the pages of the book itself, but rather in the thousands of column inches dedicated to Having A Normal One about it in Australia’s conservative press. In the past few years Dark Emu has become the latest battleground in this country’s long-running history wars (themselves just a theatre of our broader culture wars), with apoplectic responses from the usual quarters: people like columnist Andrew Bolt, who decided to muck-rake Pascoe’s Indigenous ancestry despite having been convicted of racial discrimination for doing the same thing to others in the past; or Quadrant contributor Peter O’Brien, who was so incensed by Dark Emu he published a rebuttal book, and, hilariously, currently has for a top Google hit a Quadrant piece in which he whinges at length about getting into an edit war on Dark Emu‘s Wikipedia article. Beyond these illustrious contributors to Australia’s public discourse you can see the layperson’s response on Goodreads: a whole raft of one-star reviews, “questions” and comments by users who, with a glance at their avatar-less profiles, were apparently so triggered by Dark Emu they felt compelled to go to the bother of registering to the site solely to attack it.

All of this simply underscores Pascoe’s central point: the legitimacy of contemporary white Australia was built on a dark legacy, and many white Australians feel instinctively in their bones that any threat to the doctrine of terra nullius (struck down in law but not in spirit) must be aggressively challenged. “Any suggestion that Aborigines are anything other than furtive rock apes has to be destroyed by these people,” an Indigenous leader told a journalist for The Saturday Paper, who cross-checked many of Pascoe’s claims against the original sources at the National Library and found them to be accurate.

I find the likes of Bolt and O’Brien very sad. I feel sorry for them. This is not because, as they would no doubt retort, that I’m some kind of self-hating, latte-sipping, inner-city white Australian. I love my country a great deal – all things considered, looking at the broad sweep of human history and the world today, Australia is one of the freest, fairest, safest and most prosperous places a person could hope to be born. But I can believe those things and love my country while still acknowledging that it was built on dispossession and has a long and enduring history of racism; that the freedom, safety and prosperity I enjoy is not extended at remotely the same length to Indigenous Australians. Knowing those things makes me want to change Australia’s future, not deny its history. Some of Pascoe’s assertions may be sketchy or exaggerated, but the over-reaction to a fairly innocuous pop science book from some demographics in Australia tells you everything you need to know about Dark Emu’s broader truth.

A Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss (1973/2007) 590 p.

As near as I can tell Brian Aldiss published and revised a number of these collections, this being the most recent edition, put out in 2007. Apart from half a dozen more contemporary pieces injected into the mix, it’s mostly the same collection of early sci-fi stories from the 1950s and ‘60s that I remember reading as a battered old paperback when I was a young teenager – possibly, I think, the first short stories I’d ever read.

Many of these don’t hold up, coming as they do from the golly-gee-whiz era of science fiction. (And some of the modern insertions, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s thoughtful Notes on Sexual Dimorphism, stand out against them like a sore thumb.) But highlights include:

Lot by Ward Moore, about a father packing his family into the car and onto a jam-packed highway to try to escape what’s implied to be a nuclear attack on Los Angeles; I must have remembered the tone and urgency of this story, since it’s subconsciously reflected in my own short story West Gate, but as a teenager I missed Moore’s subtle use of the father as an unreliable narrator, a bitter and hen-pecked man who secretly resents his family and fantasises that the collapse of society is going to finally usher in his time to shine;

The Liberation of Earth by William Tenn, a satirical story about Earth finding itself a battlefield between two opposing alien militaries, constantly taken and retaken and declared “liberated” each time while billions die and entire continents are vapourised;

An Alien Agony by Harry Harrison, about a human missionary arriving on a planet populated by peaceful and very literal-minded aliens;

The Store of the Worlds by Robert Sheckley, in which a man approaches a trader who has developed a drug that allows one to see their heart’s truest desire;

Night Watch by James Inglis, following the journey of a space probe launched off into the galaxy;

Great Work of Time by John Crowley, an 80-page novella capping off the anthology, which is one of the most thoughtful and literary time travel stories I’ve ever read, about a secret society which attempts to alter history to preserve the British Empire and the complications which arise from that. Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big is one of the few books I’ve ever given up on shortly after starting it, finding it not to be to my taste, but on the strength of this novella alone I’ll definitely be taking another look at Crowley’s work.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead (2011) 219 p.

I’m not really interested in reading zombie fiction, having had my fill of the genre in years gone by, but how many zombie stories are out there written by a Pulitzer winner? (A two-time Pulitzer winner, in fact, one of only four novelists to ever achieve that and the first to do it in such quick succession since Faulkner).

Zone One takes place in Manhattan after the worst of the zombie “apocalypse” has passed; the protagonist, nicknamed Mark Spitz, is a member of a military clean-up crew tasked with mopping up the last few zombie stragglers as the reconstruction government in Buffalo slowly reclaims the island. Stragglers are the 1% of zombies who are completely non-hostile, found standing silently in places that meant something to them in life. The novel takes place over the course of a weekend, mostly inside Mark Spitz’s head, presenting a non-linear narrative laden with flashbacks.

There’s little in this short novel resembling a plot. What Zone One does instead is present all the myriad scenarios and tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre – scavenging, the ad hoc formation of disparate groups of survivors, the initial collapse, the psychology of survival, suicide, memories of the old world – in the accomplished, professional prose of a literary heavyweight. There are too many segments I’d like to post; here’s one, part of a description of the initial marine operation to retake Manhattan:

Some of the marines died. Some of them didn’t hear the warnings until too late for all the gunfire. Some of them lost their bearings in the macabre spectacle, drifting off into reveries of overidealized chapters of their former lives, and were overcome. Some of them were bit, losing baseballs of meat from their arms and legs. Some of them disappeared under hordes, maybe a glove sticking out, waving, and it was unclear if the hand was under the direction of the fallen soldier or if it was being jostled by the feasting. Funeral rites were abbreviated. They incinerated the bodies of their comrades with the rest of the dead.

They nozzled diesel into the bulldozers and dump trucks. The air filled with buzzing flies the way it had once been filled with the hydraulic whine of buses, the keening of emergency vehicles, strange chants into cell phones, high heels on sidewalk, the vast phantasmagorical orchestra of a living city. They loaded the dead. The rains washed the blood after a time. The New York City sewer system in its bleak centuries had suffered worse.

Most of the novel reads like this: Cormac McCarthy meets Godspeed You Black Emperor. It’s not a novel for everyone – even people who happily read both literary fiction and genre fiction, like me, might be put off by its snaking narrative and confusing flashbacks. I wouldn’t say I loved Zone One – it’s not the kind of novel you love – but I certainly appreciated it and admired it.

South by Ernest Shackleton (1919) 505 p.

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Polar exploration never interested me when I was younger. I had a settler’s heart, probably from playing too much Age of Empires. By all means tell me about the Vikings in Vinland, or the Maori in New Zealand, or the discovery of tropical islands… but why would anybody want to explore a frozen wasteland? What joy could there be in cresting a ridge only to see more inhospitable ice, rather than a green and pleasant land?

In the same way that – as an adult with an appreciation of my own mortality and fragility – I’ve become more interested in nuclear war fiction, which as a teenager I spurned in favour of “cosy catastrophe” apocalypses, the age of polar exploration is more interesting to me now. This is partly due to the excellent TV series The Terror, which is a retelling of Franklin’s lost expedition with a supernatural twist, and is one of the best TV series of the past decade which I urge everybody to watch. But exploration is perhaps the wrong word; it’s the survival aspect I find compelling, the attempt to salvage lives from a catastrophe. I was vaguely aware of aspects of Shackleton’s expedition, but this was the first time I properly read about it, and it’s a genuinely impressive feat of heroism.

The official name of the expedition was the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, launched in 1914 with the aim of being the first party to cross Antarctica from one coast to another. (Amundsen had reached the South Pole and then retraced his steps in 1911, pipping the doomed Scott to the post by just five weeks). To do so, the vessel Endurance would depart the Falklands and land on the coast of the Weddell Sea, while the vessel Aurora would depart New Zealand and make base near McMurdo Sound, sending parties inland to lay supply depots for the overland party from the Endurance that would be approaching from the South Pole. Both sides of the expedition met with disaster, but the inspiring part of the story is how they managed to survive – and in Shackleton’s case, leading the crew of the Endurance, how he managed to get the entire party home safe without a single loss of life.

Shackleton’s side of the story is the more famous and compelling one. In sight of the Antarctic mainland, the Endurance become stuck in unusually thick sea ice in the southern winter of 1915, and drifted with the pack for eight months before finally being crushed, leaving Shackleton and two dozen men camped out on the ice. As the pack began to break apart in the autumn of 1916, they took to their three remaining lifeboats from the Endurance and sailed for the South Shetlands, the closest ice-free land. Here they landed at Elephant Island, stuck on a miserable surf-pounded beach below towering cliffs, with no likely prospect of rescue nor long-term survival, and the southern winter setting in.

Next is the most impressive part of their entire ordeal, in which Shackleton and four others took one of the lifeboats and set out to fetch help from the only place they could feasibly reach given the prevailing winds: not the few hundred miles to the Falklands, but the 800 miles (about the distance from London to Rome) to South Georgia, where a handful of lonely outposts constituted the end of the civilised world for teams of whalers, but the beginning of it for Shackleton and company. This journey in a 22-foot boat across some of the roughest oceans in the world, at the beginning of winter, with only ten hours of light per day, is now considered one of the greatest small boat journeys in human history, alongside Bligh’s post-mutiny navigation to Timor. I think the bit that I find so personally compelling is that, due to a quirk of wind, geography and weather conditions, they were forced to land on the uninhabited western side of the island; which meant that after everything they’d been through – across all that vast ocean – they were still 20-odd miles away from help on the island’s east coast, as the crow flies. That was 20 miles of treacherous mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers on a remote island which nobody had ever bothered to explore the interior of before. There’s something fascinating about all that vast, ancient amount of land with no human presence in it across history until Shackleton and his band of weary, bearded, exhausted survivors came slowly clambering through it – knowing that if they made a mistake, if they fell into a crevasse or fell asleep in bad conditions (as nearly happened at one point) it would spell not only their own deaths, but probably the deaths of the two dozen men left behind to shelter through the winter on Elephant Island.

The tale of the survivors of the Endurance is a fundamentally compelling story, and this is normally the part where I’d gripe about it not being told in a compelling way. But Shackleton is a surprisingly talented writer, with turns of phrase and moments of candour even behind all the stiff-upper-lip tosh you’d expect from a man of his generation, and he has an eye for the most illustrative passages that he lifts from the diaries of his men. This is one of them describing the moment the Endurance finally slipped beneath the ice after being crushed for weeks:

“November 21, 1915.—This evening, as we were lying in our tents we heard the Boss call out, ‘She’s going, boys!’ We were out in a second and up on the look-out station and other points of vantage, and, sure enough, there was our poor ship a mile and a half away struggling in her death-agony. She went down bows first, her stern raised in the air. She then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over her for ever. It gave one a sickening sensation to see it, for, mastless and useless as she was, she seemed to be a link with the outer world. Without her our destitution seems more emphasised, our desolation more complete. The loss of the ship sent a slight wave of depression over the camp. No one said much, but we cannot be blamed for feeling it in a sentimental way. It seemed as if the moment of severance from many cherished associations, many happy moments, even stirring incidents, had come as she silently up-ended to find a last resting-place beneath the ice on which we now stand. When one knows every little nook and corner of one’s ship as we did, and has helped her time and again in the fight that she made so well, the actual parting was not without its pathos, quite apart from one’s own desolation, and I doubt if there was one amongst us who did not feel some personal emotion when Sir Ernest, standing on the top of the look-out, said somewhat sadly and quietly, “She’s gone, boys.”

This reminded me, I suppose, of the movie Titanic: the moment when the ship goes down and then there are just the lifeboats floating in the middle of a vast ocean. A huge vessel, even crippled and dying, is the focal point of the landscape; and its sudden absence changes the landscape both physically and psychologically.

This was another patch of writing I quite liked, as the three lifeboats arrive at Elephant Island, and the men set foot on dry land for the first time in more than a year:

A curious spectacle met my eyes when I landed the second time. Some of the men were reeling about the beach as if they had found an unlimited supply of alcoholic liquor on the desolate shore. They were laughing uproariously, picking up stones and letting handfuls of pebbles trickle between their fingers like misers gloating over hoarded gold. The smiles and laughter, which caused cracked lips to bleed afresh, and the gleeful exclamations at the sight of two live seals on the beach made me think for a moment of that glittering hour of childhood when the door is open at last and the Christmas-tree in all its wonder bursts upon the vision.

That pebbly beach, after months spent camped on treacherous pack ice, is a sanctuary to them:

The fairy princess who would not rest on her seven downy mattresses because a pea lay underneath the pile might not have understood the pleasure we all derived from the irregularities of the stones, which could not possibly break beneath us or drift away; the very searching lumps were sweet reminders of our safety.

So for something that’s a hundred years old it’s well-written and engaging. A major issue with South, however, is its structure. Shackleton recounts his own personal voyage on the Weddell Sea side, culminating in his rescue of the stranded bulk of the party on Elephant Island – but then rewinds the clock and begins telling the story, from the beginning, of the Aurora’s half of the expedition on the other side of Antarctica. Now, full credit to the lads who found themselves stranded on the mainland when the Aurora was forced away: they had an even rougher time of it, including three deaths. But from a storytelling perspective, it lacks the three-act perfection of Shackleton’s story, not to mention the benefit of his personal viewpoint. He’s reduced to recounting their ordeal second-hand, and at times it feels like reading a dispassionate ship’s log. I can understand why Shackleton felt their story needed to be told, but it surely would have been better served by chapters woven among the rest of the narrative to form a chronological whole, rather than the incongruous winding-back of the clock we get instead; one which then winds itself back a second time, to wrap up the final forty pages with the aimless and uninteresting drift of the Aurora. I’ll concede that maybe inserting chapters from the Aurora and her stranded depot-laying party might have ruined the tone of isolation and loneliness experienced by Shackleton’s crew; but if that’s the case, cut them entirely. Their story still would have been told somewhere else. South, as a book, suffers from including them. Nonetheless, it’s still an engaging first-hand account of one of history’s greatest survival stories.

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson (2003) 399 p.

Blind Lake

 

Now this is a real classic of a cover: a marvellous gem from the late 1990s/early 2000s period of awfully generated computer graphics.

Fortunately it’s a real classic of a first contact story, too. The titular Blind Lake is a federal scientific facility in Minnesota, where researchers use a network of quantum computers and scientific processes they don’t quite understand to study life on a dry and arid planet orbiting 47 Ursae Majoris. They cannot interact or communicate in any way: they can only watch, observing an individual of the large, chitinous sentient species they have dubbed the Subject. The Subject lives in a city, one of many on the planet, and lives a life which to human eyes seems tediously repetitive: he works in a factory assembling machine parts, feeds in a dank well with others of his species, draws glyphs on the wall of his sleeping chamber and has his blood sucked in the night by tiny creatures which might be parasites, symbiotes or offspring. The researchers don’t know; there’s much they don’t know, and they resist the urge to anthropomorphise while collating endless observations.

On the same day that a trio of journalists (including our plucky yet flawed hero) arrive at Blind Lake to begin writing a piece for a New York magazine, disquieting ripples begin occurring in the community. Traffic is backed up; the gates appear to to be closed. The occasional security lockdown isn’t unknown to Blind Lake, but this one also involves a block against communication with the outside world: no data comes in, no data goes out. As the hours and then days go by without explanation, complete with an unmanned military resupply and fatal attempt by one of the few thousand stuck inside the facility to get past the gates, it becomes clear that the authorities have placed an unexplained, indefinite quarantine on Blind Lake. At the same time, the Subject breaks his monotonous routine and departs the city for the desert wilderness of his planet.

Blind Lake is thus a dual mystery, engaging the reader with both the fascinating extra-terrestrial mystery of an evocatively rendered alien world and what appears to be some kind of unexpected pilgrimage, and the more down-to-earth airport thriller mystery of why this sensitive research facility has been placed into indefinite isolation without any word from the outside wold. As sci-fi goes, Wilson’s characters are competently drawn, his scenarios largely plausible, and – most importantly – both these mysteries have satisfying resolutions. I can’t say Blind Lake emotionally moved me or that I’ll remember the names of any of the characters by next week, but I can say that it’s the most engaging and compulsively readable sci-fi novel I’ve picked up since Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy or Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (1979) 295 p.

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My edition touts Kindred as the first science fiction novel ever written by an African-American woman, which is probably correct; certainly no others spring to mind. It’s probably better described as a fantasy, but never mind that. The novel follows the travails of Dana, a black writer in modern-day California who finds herself repeatedly, inexplicably travelling back in time (against her will and beyond her control) to a slave plantation in antebellum Maryland.

I was prepared to dislike this from the start, for a reason that was almost immediately obvious: good on Butler for being a pioneering POC science fiction writer, but at the end of the day she’s still a science fiction writer, with all the stiff dialogue and wooden characterisation that entails. (The only other novel of hers I’ve read is Parable of the Sower, which suffered from similar flaws.) As soon as Dana returns from her first confusing foray into the past, she and her husband Kevin discuss it matter-of-factly and begin game-planning various scenarios and hypothesising causes and effects – precisely what a science fiction writer might do in that scenario, but not an actual flesh and blood human being who’s just suffered a disorienting, traumatic experience. It’s fine if that happens to characters once they’ve had a chance to adjust to the craziness of it, but this is literally page 11.

However, if you can suspend your disbelief on that rough start, Kindred is quite a good book. Some of these flaws never go away – most baffling is that even after truly coming to accept that Dana is a time traveller from the future, and even discussing that fact with her, neither the other slaves nor the white slaveowners display a shred of curiosity about the future. But Kindred is a pacy, tense, gripping story of survival, human relationships, and Dana’s developing Stockholm syndrome. There’s lots to unpack here about the nature of American slavery both in theory and actual practice, and the deeper attitudes and cultural institutions that it was a part of in both the American South and even the North. Most fascinating is Dana’s personal ethical conundrums. She determines that her life is tied to Rufus, the plantation owner’s son and heir, who also happens to be her ancestor; and as she revisits him again and again over the course of his life, bearing some measure of influence on his fate, she ends up indirectly influencing the lives of the slaves under his control, and is forced to make an endless series of morally grey decisions with respect to their lives. Rufus himself is easily the most well-drawn character, likeable on a surface level, yet capable of selfishness and cruelty; a man with whom it’s difficult to tell how much of his personality is a product of his era, and how much of it is just inherent narcissism and sociopathy.

There are certainly novels which examine the horror of American slavery on a deeper and more highbrow level, and plenty of them. But Kindred explores serious themes about privelege, culpability, and cultural inertia while also being a readable, engaging piece of airport fiction.

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell (1973) 375 p.

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This is the second book in J.G. Farrell’s very loose ‘Empire’ trilogy, which share nothing more than a common theme: the decline and decay of the British Empire. Troubles was one of my favourite books of last year, a mordant satire set in a decaying Anglo-Irish hotel during the years of the Irish guerrilla war for independence. The Siege of Krishnapur jumps back in time about sixty years to India’s 1857 sepoy mutiny, an uprising of some of the colony’s native Indian regiments against their British rulers, and follows the story of about a hundred white British men, women and children and their loyal Sikh troops who find themselves trapped in a small complex of buildings, surrounded and besieged by an army of sepoys – very closely modelled on the Siege of Lucknow, and indeed the NYRB edition of this book uses the ruins of The Residency in Lucknow as its title image.

Based on Troubles I was fully expecting to love this book, and was surprised to find that it didn’t quite gel together for me. Farrell maintains the same wry comic tone he used to great effect in Troubles; but the key difference is that in Troubles the privileged British characters were utterly insulated from the actual impacts of the war going on beyond their doorstep, making their pompous opinions and wildly off-base political predictions all the more amusing. In the Siege of Krishnapur, on the other hand, the British characters suffer greatly from actual, genuine hardship and misery. Violent battle, medical amputations, cholera, literal starvation, plagues of insects, the indignity of disposing of the corpses of loved ones by throwing them over the wall for the jackals – all of this and more is visited upon them, and for the most part they bear it with stiff-upper-lip Victorian Stoicism which, considering the circumstances, feels less like a Troubles-esque skewering of the ruling class and more like something to be genuinely admired. The disconnect is particularly jarring when it comes to Fleury, a character who has recently arrived from England and, once the siege is underway, involves himself in more than one combat engagement with the sepoys which can only be described as slapstick. Fleury is certainly a pompous twit, but he’s no coward, and the tone of these encounters is at odds with the rest of the book; I found myself uncertain of what Farrell was trying to accomplish with this character.

It’s quite possible the ‘Empire’ label was only applied retrospectively, after Farrell finished The Singapore Grip and his premature death in a rock fishing accident left us with only six novels, three of which display a clear theme of British colonialism. It’s perhaps unfair, then, to compare The Siege of Krishnapur to the more openly satirical Troubles. Farrell’s afterword makes it clear that the subject of the sepoy mutiny genuinely fascinated him. Re-examining the novel with that in mind, I think it probably stands better as its own work than as a follow-up to the style and themes of Troubles; though I still think aspects of it don’t sit right, and that Troubles is the far superior novel.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (1975) 439 p.

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This is King’s second novel, and one which hasn’t really entered the mainstream pop culture consciousness in a way that many of his others have, like It or The Shining or The Stand. I knew what it was about because the story of one character is continued in the Dark Tower series, but since a lot of people may not, I’ll avoid spoiling anything. Suffice to say that it begins in media res with an unnamed man and boy driving across the country and then fleeing into Mexico, haunted by something that happened to them in Maine, which a newspaper article identifies as the gradual disappearance of the population of Jerusalem’s Lot, rendering it a ghost town. Snap back to last summer as young writer Ben Mears arrives in his old hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot and it’s quickly obvious who the man from the prologue is.

There’s a widely held view (which I agree with) that King’s early work is far better than his later work, but in this case maybe I went a little too early. Salem’s Lot is a fine, enjoyable book, but it’s very clearly the work of a younger man. King has always been a little bit self-indulgent, but in his best work, like The Stand, that self-indulgence is at least interesting. In Salem’s Lot, the excess narrative around the enormous cast of characters in this small town is far more like the tedious bloat that afflicts his later work. This book easily could have shed 100 pages for the better. The group of trusted people Ben gathers around him as the crisis deepens all sort of blend together (it doesn’t help that they all have very generic names) and display an uncanny ability to accept the situation as relayed to them before experiencing the supernatural themselves. This feels particularly odd given that King has a good knack for writing characters who refuse to accept horrifying events even when face-to-face with them – notably Richie in The Talisman and many of the people trapped in the supermarket in The Mist.

There’s also a central problem I was never really able to suspend my disbelief about: the notion that an ancient evil could pick people off one by one, eventually dominating a town of a thousand people, without the outside world ever noticing. It revolves around King’s half-baked thematic kernel, the idea of small towns slowly dying or disappearing, given a horrific slant which doesn’t translate well into reality – particularly given that one of King’s strengths in the first place is juxtaposing supernatural horror against the humdrum, everyday world of small-town America. There is a newspaper article about the mysterious vanished populace of Jerusalem’s Lot, inserted into the prologue, but the state police spokesman quoted in it shows an incurious nature which we can only assume is matched by the county police (even after their sheriff is killed in the course of the novel), the school boards, the Portland coroners, the insurance companies, the utility providers, etc. The events which transpire in Jerusalem’s Lot – over the full course of a year – would be more believable if the town were smaller or more remote, or if the story was set in a much earlier era.

None of these are really huge problems, but they accumulate enough that Salem’s Lot is merely a decent yarn rather with some good moments rather than one of King’s truly great novels. I didn’t love it, but it was fine; he certainly went on to write far worse.

Journalism by Joe Sacco (2012) 192 p.

sacco

 

I feel instinctively compelled here to say that Sacco is doing “important work,” but the more I reflect on that the less clear it is. Unusual work, certainly, to be rendering warzone journalism in cartoon form. But is that intrinsically more valuable than a traditional feature article in the same magazine or weekend publication in which all these pieces originally ran? Ultimately the cumulative effect Journalism had on me – running the gamut from Yugoslavian torture to Chechen refugee misery to Palestinian besiegement to Indian caste poverty – was identical to the effect that any number of longreads on the same barbaric topics has on me: a sense of resignation, a glazing over of the eyes to the myriad ways in which human beings are determined to inflict pain, humiliation and deprivation on each other.

Documenting all of that is of course important work, at least in theory, and I admired the way Sacco refused to follow what he calls the “American” style of journalism which strives for an impossible impartiality; he always draws himself (literally) into the story, and is well aware of the way in which his very presence as a white outsider with a translator changes the way people are going to react to him, and the answers they’ll give to his questions. This works better in some cases than others. While embedded with a unit of US Marine reservists (who knew the USMC had reservists!) in Iraq in the mid-2000s, he veers quite close to a Ken Burns vision of America as a fundamentally well-meaning force for good, and is unable to interview any actual Iraqis apart from those who have volunteered for the new American-trained army; while examining the African immigrant experience in Malta in 2009, on the other hand – possibly because he’s Maltese-born and speaks the language – he’s able to fairly examine not only the Africans’ stories of genuine persecution and suffering, but also the point of view of the Maltese, who have seen the demographics of their tiny island change dramatically in a very short period of time; the kind of scenario that right-wing pundits in places like Britain or Australia can merely threaten about. Ten years later, with not just Malta but Greece and Italy shouldering an unfairly huge burden of the African and Middle Eastern refugees who arrive in the EU, this piece feels particularly prescient.

I remain unconvinced, however, that Sacco’s comics contribute anything above or beyond traditional journalism. I certainly don’t think they debase the trade, which he makes clear (especially in the afterword to his piece on the ICTY) that a lot of other people do. But they’re mostly interviews with the broken and downtrodden – there are a lot of images of people simply sitting there and talking to him and his translator – and various simplistic illustrations of people in the act of labouring outside their village, or sitting in an overcrowded boat, or being pushed around by soldiers or the police. It becomes repetitive, and begins to feel superfluous. Sacco is without a doubt a good journalist, but I’m not sure his perfectly competent artistic abilities add anything to his career. On the other hand, I’m not sure he’d argue they need to; he’s just a good journalist and a good illustrator, hence the comics. Maybe, unlike the intractable political conflicts he covers, it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

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