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The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (2011) 325 p.

The Western seems to be enjoying a revival in the last few years, at least as far as my personal tastes are concerned. Of the top ten films in my Best of the 00’s list, one is a classic Western (The Proposition) one is a modern Western (No Country For Old Men) and one is a sort-of Western (There Will Be Blood). Had I seen The Assassination of Jesse James before I compiled that list, it would have placed very high. True Grit was awesome. Deadwood is one of the most well-regarded TV series of recent years. I’m currently playing Red Dead Redemption, one of the best video games I’ve come across in a while. Last year’s Vogel Award was won by The Roving Party, an Australian Western. Westerns Westerns everywhere. Westward ho!

They have changed a lot, of course, since the chiselled-jaw John Wayne films of the 50’s and 60’s, which I occasionally catch on daytime television. Those were stories about man triumphing over nature, about man surviving against the wilderness and the natives, about man being manly. These days Westerns are generally used to explore the human psyche, particularly its capacity for violence.

In this sense, The Sisters Brothers is very much in line with other recent Westerns. Where it differs is in its quirkiness. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “hilarious,” as some reviewers have, but it’s certainly “darkly comic” and “off-beat,” to use other favoured terms. As an example, in the opening sentence Eli casually mentions that he and his brother have new horses, as their previous ones were “immolated.” But – like True Grit, another funny Western – it has a serious side as well.

The novel follows the titular Sisters brothers, hired killers employed by “The Commodore” in 1851 Oregon, on a mission to find and kill a California gold prospector named (in the delightfully ridiculous 19th century style) Hermann Kermit Warm. Along the trail to San Francisco they meet many strange and amusing characters, from starving children to weeping cowboys to prostitute accountants, and these encounters serve to remind Eli of other lives he could be living. He is the less dominant member of the partnership, and is not particularly wedded to life as an assassin. Eli narrates the novel with a mixture of wistfulness and resignation; when they abandon a child to his fate in the wilderness, he thinks “Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.” His character arc follows his desire to leave this life of killing, matching it against his unwillingness to leave his brother’s side.

This a unique novel, and despite the strangeness of it all, DeWitt manages to give Eli a pitch-perfect voice. He is a confident and gifted writer. Of all the Booker nominees I’ve read, The Sisters Brothers is second only to Jamrach’s Menagerie as my favourite of them.

BOOKER VERDICT

I was surprised when this made the shortlist, and prior to reading it I doubted it had a shot. A comic Western? But this year’s judges have shown that they are free of prejudice and more than happy to embrace the unusual, and so I believe The Sisters Brothers is a serious contender. I would still describe it as “an unusual choice” if it won, but wouldn’t be massively surprised.

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (2011) 273 p.

Snowdrops is one of the books most people were surprised to find on the longlist, including the author himself, and it was apparently even more surprising to see it shortlisted. The reason for this largely appears to be the fact that it was slotted into the “thriller” genre pigeonhole – wrongly, in my opinion. I’m finding it an interesting experience to read all the comments and reviews and hearsay about the shortlisted novels, and then notice the gap between the reality and the truth when I read the actual novels.

Snowdrops follows Nick Platte, a thirty-eight year old British lawyer who has been living and working in Moscow for several years, one of those expats who isn’t happy with his life but would be even unhappier if he went home. One summer afternoon he saves a girl named Masha and her sister Katya from a mugging in the Metro, and soon becomes Masha’s lover; however, there is a mysteriousness behind the two girls, which slowly draws Nick into a dark and dangerous tale of duplicity and corruption.

I can see why it’s considered a thriller, but my own store had it placed it general fiction (even before it was longlisted) and that’s the right decision. Miller is a far more talented writer than any of the Scandinavian hacks whose grisly titles sully our back corner. He has a knack for language, spinning a beautifully atmospheric description of Moscow, and of the terrible haze of theft and savagery and predation that hangs over post-Soviet Russia. He is particularly good at concisely capturing awkward social situations:

It could have been nice. There was no reason for it not to be nice. It was just that we’d gone our separate ways and lost each other, leaving nothing much in common but a couple of soft-focus anecdotes, featuring donkey rides and ice-cream overdoses, that you’ve heard a dozen times, plus some old irritations that flare up like a phantom itch when we get together.

So it’s not a thriller. Just because it’s psychologically disturbing and set in a snowy foreign locale and involves crime and missing people and murder, doesn’t make it a thriller.

Is it a good book? Yes, but not a great book. The climax felt like a bit of a let-down; the book is rife with foreshadowing and ominous portent, which in the end doesn’t amount to what I expected it to. It’s readable, and creates a brilliant atmosphere, and Miller clearly has more talent than the average writer – whether they’re thriller writers or general fiction writers. But in the end, Snowdrops doesn’t really do anything new or particularly memorable. That’s perfectly fine for a debut novel, but it does mean that…

BOOKER VERDICT

…it doesn’t deserve the Booker prize, and won’t win it.

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (1988) 308 p.

Taking a break from the Booker Prize 2011 Challenge with some classic science fiction. William Gibson, incidentally, comes up with the most awesome titles.

Mona Lisa Overdrive is a more direct sequel to Count Zero than Count Zero was to Neuromancer. It picks up several years later, following a number of different characters, the most important of whom is probably Angela Mitchell – the gifted teenager rescued from a mesa arcology in Arizona in Count Zero, who has subsequently become a world-famous simulation star. We also meet Kumiko, a Japanese girl sent to London for protection while her father is threatened by a Yakuza war; Slick, a robotics mechanic living in an abandoned factory in a rusted-out wasteland somewhere in America’s heartland; and the titular Mona, a Cleveland prostitute who gets entangled in a dangerous scheme far beyond her understanding. From these disparate threads, Gibson generates one of his complex storylines.

Gibson’s novels, to an extent, feel formulaic: the same story structure, with different threads converging into one climax, the same quick and neat resolutions, the same grungy low-lifes coming into the orbit of somebody with a lot of money and nefarious plans. If Neuromancer followed this formula, I don’t remember it – or maybe it did, but it’s okay to do it for the first time. In any case I recall Neuromancer generally being far more creative, gripping and flat-out awesome than any of Gibson’s other books. Again, though, that’s a catch-22. Perhaps all his books are brilliant, but Neuromancer was the first, and eclipses all else.

But I’m inclined to believe that Neuromancer really is superior. The second two are very similar to each other, and different from their predecessor. As with Count Zero, the European scenes in Mona Lisa Overdrive struck me as not quite belonging in the world of the Sprawl. Neuromancer was a grungy, filthy, terrible place to be, whether one was in Japan or New York or Istanbul. There were some brief scenes in Paris, but I don’t recall them salivating over the Old World splendour in the way that Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive do. Count Zero had Japanese tourists snapping photos of the regal old buildings and famous landmarks of Paris; Mona Lisa Overdrive has warm, smoky British pubs, people selling junk on Portobello Road, wealthy mansions in Notting Hill and noble history seeming “the very fabric of things.” I suspect that Gibson, a New Worlder like myself, is somewhat in awe of Europe’s historical grandeur. But this makes his London barely different from the real London (or, for that matter, the London of Pattern Recognition) and that simply doesn’t gel with the 1980s cyberpunk Sprawl of Neuromancer.

I think that’s the problem I have with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive: they fail to live up to the vision of his first novel, and not just in terms of plot and innovation. They feel less outlandish and futuristic than Neuromancer. More recognisable, more down to earth, more near-future rather than distant-future. Either I’ve become more acutely aware of our society’s myriad fucked-up problems since I read Neuromancer three years ago, or Gibson radically shifted gears when designing his fictional world.

Having said all that? Mona Lisa Overdrive is a good book. It has well-developed characters, an intriguing plot, and a tone consistent with Gibson’s unique style of writing. No author, science fiction or otherwise, captures our logo-soaked, corporate-controlled and technology-driven society quite as well as William Gibson, and he’s up there with J.G. Ballard as an author who deserves to have his surname turned into an adjective. Mona Lisa Ovderdrive fails to live up to Neuromancer, of course; nothing could, because Neuromancer is one of the most important novels of the 20th century. It’s a good book nonetheless.

I feel like I’m repeating my review of Count Zero here. These novels leave me with very mixed feelings; they’re much better than most stuff I read, but they come nowhere near to generating the feelings in me that Neuromancer did. It may be rose-tinted retrospect, but I recall that novel being a blinding kaleidoscope of ass-kicking glory and unprecedented awesomeness. I need to read it again.

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011) 348 p.

While wandering the streets of 19th century London, in the harbour district of the East End, eight-year old Jaffy Brown encounters a Bengal tiger and brazenly strokes it on the nose. The tiger takes Jaffy up in its jaws, and he is only rescued by the timely intervention of its owner, Mr. Jamrach. By way of apology, Jamrach gives young Jaffy a job at his warehouse, where he imports and sells a diverse menagerie of exotic creatures: a lion with the “stern, sad face of a scholar,” snakes “faintly flexing upon one another like ropes coiled high on the quay,” and a giraffe, “immense, coming down at me from the sky to wet me with the heat of it flexing nostrils.”

Jaffy is enchanted by the animals and grows to love his job dearly. He becomes half-friend and half-enemy to an employee a few years older than him, Tim Linver, as well as falling in love with Tim’s sister Ishbel. They grow up together on the filthy streets of Dickensian London, and when Jaffy is sixteen, he and Tim find themselves dispatched by Jamrach to the Dutch East Indies, charged with finding and capturing a mysterious “dragon.”

Jamrach’s Menagerie is one of the novels on the Booker shortlist that I was most looking forward to reading, largely based on its intriguing plot synopsis. And the novel, while dripping with deserved literary grandeur, certainly has that wonderful sense of adventure to it: leaving London behind on the “watery road” of the Thames, serving aboard a whale ship, the serene volcanoes of the Azores, and the culmination of the dragon expedition on a stifling tropical island swarming with terrifying monsters. Yet it’s what comes after all this that truly makes the novel: a calamity befalls the ship, and the story suddenly leaps from a rollicking boy’s adventure into a struggle for survival that is grisly, horrifying and profoundly sad. I don’t want to spoil anything, but those of you familiar with the notorious tale of the whaleship Essex should be able to guess what lies in store for the crew.

This sounds like a very disconcerting jump, and it was to a degree, but Birch is a hugely talented writer who is able to make the novel’s various parts – Dickensian urchin days, mariner’s adventure, monster-hunting expedition, survival at sea, and bittersweet homecoming wracked with guilt – come together without ever straining the flow of the story. I was personally ambivalent about the first half of the novel, and felt that it only truly began to pick up once the crew landed on Komodo Island; however, beyond the wreck of the ship, I was completely hooked and finished it in one sitting. Jamrach’s Menagerie is an excellent, multi-layered novel that combines an exotic adventure with a more subtle story about the sweetness of life and the inevitability of death, and it’s one of those books that I’m certain would only grow stronger with multiple readings.

BOOKER PREDICTION

A very serious contender, definitely knocking Half-Blood Blues out of the running. It would be a worthy winner, too, superior to several other Booker winners I’ve read in the past.

Jamrach’s Menagerie at The Book Depository

I hadn’t read nearly enough of the Booker longlist to make an informed prediction before it was announced yesterday, but I did anyway, on Twitter…

#manbookerprize shortlist prediction: stranger’s child, pigeon english, on canaan’s side, jamrach’s menagerie, sense of an ending, far to go

…and was way off the mark. The actual shortlist is:

Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman
Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt
Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch

2 out of 6 is pretty bad, but I’m actually quite pleased with the real selection. My shortlist prediction was based around the idea that more interesting, unconventional genre works would be excluded, because for some reason I imagine the Booker panel to be comprised of people like David Stratton, who cluck their tongues and stroke their beards when given something unconventional.

So it’s a shame I wasted weeks slogging through Alan Hollinghurst’s ten-kilogram novel The Stranger’s Child, but on the bright side I now have a number of books I look forward to reading. I’ve already read Half-Blood Blues, and wrongly bet that it wouldn’t make the shortlist, but I still doubt it will win. I’m currently halfway through Jamrach’s Menagerie, and not enjoying it as much as I thought I would, but it is starting to pick up a bit. I particularly look forward to reading The Sisters Brothers, a rollicking Western adventure, and Snowdrops, a literary thriller set in Moscow. The Sense of an Ending is the most firmly literary of the group, but is also quite slim and will be a breeze to read; Pigeon English is a tale about African immigrants and gang warfare in London, which I suspected would be shortlisted after the recent riots gave it a topical boost.

I’m not going to make a prediction for winner yet, but I’m definitely going to read all of them and do so before the winner is announced in October. And they’ll doubtless pick the wrong one, and I’ll bitch and moan about it, but this year I’ll be qualified to do so!

I had an epiphany yesterday: bookstores deserve to die.

I have wanted to be an author my entire life. I work in a bookstore. In the brewing war between traditional brick stores and ebooks/online retailers, I would have previously been galloping into battle alongside fellow bookstore lovers. I love browsing, I love discovering books I’ve never seen before, I love the different moods and characters of independent stores. I love the musty smell and quiet atmosphere of a second-hand store – I recall one store in Marylebone that was so cram-packed full of books that you literally couldn’t get down the aisles. I love the jumbled decorations and hipster music of stores like Readings or Planet Books. I love being in a foreign country and tracking down an English-language bookstore, a homely refuge of familiar Western culture – the best English-language bookstore in Asia, by the way, is What The Book in Seoul.

All that was my point of view as a reader, a consumer and a customer. I’d be lying if I said I never used online retail – it’s vastly cheaper than inflated Australian retail prices, and I’m more or less guaranteed of finding the book I need. But I felt guilty about it, especially using The Book Depository, which I’m pretty sure is deliberately selling books at a loss in order to gain a market share. I still shop at independent stores, and when I use Abe Books I always try to shop from stores in Australia or New Zealand. I’m no hippie, but I don’t feel comfortable having a book flown all the way from England or the US just to save myself a few extra bucks.

But my point of view as a bookseller? I’ve worked at my current store for about six months. Recently our stock manager went on holiday for a few weeks, and I accepted the offer of covering for her, since it meant regular hours and less customer service. Yesterday I tackled the thousands upon thousands of overstock books in our warehouse and spare room.

When a book in a bookstore is not sold, it is not marked down – at least, not at my store. It is “returned,” and packaging and sending returns is a huge part of a stock manager’s job. Nobody had done returns at my store for months, which was why we could barely move in our back room. Yesterday I went through the shelves and pulled all the books that had been there for more than five months; some had been there longer than a year. Today I packaged some to be mailed back tomorrow. I filled 33 large cardboard boxes merely with United stock (Allen & Unwin, Simon & Schuster and Penguin). The place is still drowning in a swamp of books from Harper Collins, Hatchette, Random House and dozens of smaller publishers.

I would estimate that we sell less than 30% of the books that enter our store. The rest, ultimately, become returns. As I understand it, the distributors send them to other stores after they’re returned; maybe they return them too, and the cycle goes on until the books are all sold. Or maybe they get pulped. The number of books that get damaged during shipping, or when I’m scraping price stickers off with a razor blade, means a large number of them probably get pulped anyway.

But their ultimate fate is irrelevant. What I’m getting at is that the system in place is monumentally inefficient. We ship massive numbers of new releases and promotional stock into the store, sell a handful of them, eventually relegate them to the normal shelves, sell a few more, then – once they’ve been out for a month or two – leave a few copies on the shelf and shove the rest onto the teetering piles in the back room. Allegedly they’re kept there to restock the shelves when those few copies out there are sold, but in reality those copies don’t sell, and the extra two dozen copies out the back sit there until they’re returned.

If you’re even remotely environmentally conscious, consider the impact of all those trucks and planes going back and forth, ferrying unwanted piles of books between suppliers and stores, all so we can have a fully-stocked promotional display for Paulo Coelho’s new book, or because the last Harry Potter movie was released and there might be a few families left out there who don’t own the books, or because somebody at head office had a gut feeling that “Last Man In Tower” would sell 140 copies (I’m not exaggerating, we literally got 140 copies).

It might seem like a leap to go from complaining about this, to saying that bookstores deserve to die. We live in an interlinked, global society, and probably everything you or I own was manufactured overseas and shipped to us in the first world. There are already tens of thousands of cargo ships criss-crossing the oceans, gradually killing them; already thousands of planes in the sky, already millions of trucks on the road. What does it matter if the bookstore supply model is part of that ravenous machine?

It matters, I think, because we have a more efficient alternative. We have e-readers – which I’m not a fan of, but which are unquestionably more efficient in terms of both transport and raw materials, and which will probably endear themselves to the next generation. Closer to my point, we have online retailing, which still provides readers with the comfort, style and possession of a physical book. Ordering books from Amazon or The Book Depository or Abe Books still involves mailing them out to you, still involves that global supply chain – but there is no wasted travel. You select the book online, pay for it, and it’s sent directly to you. None of this zig-zagging back and forth like Odysseus, shuttled from store to warehouse to supplier to store, in the vain hope of finding a buyer.

All this makes me sound like some kind of efficiency-devoted robot who cares nothing for books and literature, but that’s not the case. We will always have second-hand books, and as James Bradley argues, we’re likely to see physical books become more of a status or prestige item in the coming years. I always notice when browsing at Readings that they tend to stock nicer editions of books; hardbacks, and books with interesting covers, like this edition of “The Slap.” I think independent bookstores will persist for some time yet, out of customer loyalty if nothing else; I know of nobody who was sad to see Borders and Angus & Robertson close down (apart from their shareholders), but there were plenty of long faces when Reader’s Feast closed its doors. For dedicated book lovers, I suspect there will always be a few places in any major city where they may indulge themselves.

But for casual readers, who comprise the vast majority of the buyers – people who buy paperbacks from supermarkets and newsagents and chain bookstores like Dymocks – a more efficient model has emerged. The online retailer is more environmentally friendly, more likely to have the books in stock that the reader wants, and has low overhead costs which are passed on to the consumer. Bookstores (like all stores, I suppose) were the only option for many centuries. That’s no longer the case. Like recording companies and real estate agents and video stores, they are middle-men, struggling to stay afloat after being rendered useless by a ubiquitous global communications network.

There are three responses I can see people making to my argument. The first is, as always,“But jobs will be lost!!!” This is never an excuse for anything. Eventually technology renders jobs obsolete. Deal with it, and get a new job. As I said, I hope there will still be a few independent and second-hand stores around, providing jobs for those who are truly passionate about being booksellers. For the vast majority of booksellers who work for companies that treat books like potatoes (which includes mine), there will always be plenty of other general retail jobs.

The second response is that I may be wrong about the scope and extent of the inefficient system, and it may simply be that my company is exceptionally badly-run. This would come as no surprise; they run a wide variety of retail stores, and head office often fails to grasp a lot of the fundamentals of being a bookstore (because, as Henry Rosenbloom points out, books are a hands-on, detail-intensive business which can only be run successfully by people who love books and know their stuff). Our staff turnover is amazing, and one of our senior employees told me the other day that she has never in her life worked for a company more poorly run than this one. Maybe other stores sell a lot more than 30% of their stock. If anyone well-informed would like to correct me, please leave a comment.

The third response is that it’s hypocritical of me to say that bookstores deserve to die out while still hoping that plenty of cool independent stores and second-hand stores survive. Well, you try spending all day boxing up Eckhart Tolle books and Snooki’s autobiography and see how you feel at the end.

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