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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane (2012) 432 p.
This is one of those books that has enough pages filled with glowing praise at the beginning to choke a hippo. It was shortlisted for a number of awards and praised by writers ranging from John Banville to Philip Pullman. I didn’t go out of my way to read it, but saw it at the library and figured, why not?
The Old Ways is not a travel book, per se, but rather a meditation on paths: footpaths, trade routes, seaways, all kinds of ways in which humans over the years have travelled from one place to another, or (more importantly) from one place to nobody in particular. It sees Macfarlane travelling not just through the well-established byways and old footpaths of England, but the stormy islands of Scotland, the dangerous wild places of the West Bank in Palestine, the Camino de Santiago in Spain and the high altitude mountain paths of Tibet.
Macfarlane is a wonderfully descriptive writer, and this is the sort of book where you can really feel the landscape around him: the salt spray of the Hebrides, the frost on his sleeping bag in the Himalayas, the scented pine resin of northern Spain. Much of the book is also taken up with philosophical speculation about the nature of walking and pathfinding, which I sometimes grew weary of, but you can’t really complain – it does what it says on the tin. Many of Macfarlane’s journeys, especially in Britain, are heavily imbued by the spirit of the English poet Edward Thomas; Macfarlane seems to consider him a great inspiration. I sometimes found this a little overbearing, but it culminates in the book’s penultimate chapter, “Ghost,” Macfarlane’s heavily fictionalised accounting of Thomas’ life and final days in World War I, up to his death in the Battle of Arras. I don’t know how much of this chapter is taken from Thomas’ journals and letters and how much (I suspect a lot of it) is purely fictionalised, but I hardly cared – it’s a brilliant piece of writing, one of the standout sections of the book. It’s actually so good that I found the final chapter itself, about Macfarlane walking alongside prehistoric footprints in Liverpool or something, utterly pointless. He should have ended it with Thomas’ death and the final words of that chapter:
What was Thomas seeing as he wrote those last verses in his Arras notebook? The old ways of the South Country, or the shell-swept support roads that wound to the front? Both, perhaps, folded together, the one kind of path having led its way to the other.
No matter. The Old Ways is, overall, a really lovely book: a collection of thoughtful back-to-nature journeys, bound together with a far stronger unifying theme than one usually finds in books of this type. It’s the sort of thing that makes you realise how much of your day you spend indoors, staring at various glowing rectangles; how much you should go outside and just be amongst some trees and dirt for a while.
That night, though, far out into the North Atlantic, there were no lights to be seen, for there was no shipping. The deep-water lanes that ducted the big freighters stayed much closer to the Lewis mainland. There was the Hebridean, 500 yards or so off our port stern, its green starboard lamp winking as it rose and fell in the waves. Otherwise, the only lights were celestial. The star-patterns, the grandiose slosh of the Milky Way. Jupiter, blazing low to the east, so brightly that it laid a lustrous track across the water, inviting us to step out onto its swaying surface. The moon, low, a waxing half, richly coloured – a red butter moon, setting down its own path on the water. The sea was full of luminescent plankton, so behind us purled our wake, a phosphorescent line of green and yellow bees, as if the hull were setting a hive aswarm beneath us. We were at the convergence of many paths of light, which flexed and moved with us as we headed north.
– From “The Old Ways,” by Robert MacFarlane
The Prestige by Christopher Priest (1995) 360 p.
Christopher Priest has never been a novelist particularly well-known outside of science fiction circles, despite the fact that he brushes closer to the literary genre than most of his cohorts. (His novel Inverted World, one of the most gripping I’ve ever read, features on the NYRB Classics list.) The Prestige is probably his most famous book, largely because of the successful film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.
I hadn’t seen the film, but I knew the outline: a deadly feud between two stage magicians in Victorian England. I vaguely recalled being spoiled on one of the plot elements or twists, which I worried would compromise the book, but fortunately the plot is a bit more complex than that and The Prestige still had more than enough twists and turns to keep me intrigued. One of the early mysteries involves how one of the magicians, Borden, performs an illusion in which he appears to travel from one cabinet to another on the other side of the stage in no time at all. Clues in the text make it fairly clear early on that he has somehow managed to create a living, breathing double of himself, but this is far from the end of The Prestige’s mysteries.
The Prestige was one of those books in which I knew my final verdict would depend on how it turned out. It could have been either stellar, or hugely disappointing. (Although I suppose theoretically anything can have a stellar ending. Schroedinger’s Cat.) It doesn’t quite wrap up all the loose ends, but in a way that’s a good thing. Suffice to say I was satisfied with it – although I was a little puzzled that one of the characters’ seemingly mundane theories about one of the other characters was, apparently, correct after all. It’s that sort of confusing, multiple viewpoint epistolary novel, where people set forth theories or come to their best conclusion, and you naturally assume they’re wrong.
Having not seen the film, I can’t say how closely it sticks to the book, and whether it’s still worth reading The Prestige if you already know the plot. But if you haven’t, I can definitely recommend it as one of Christopher Priest’s better novels; an intriguing story of mystery and deception in 19th century London.
The Pesthouse by Jim Crace (2007) 308 p.
The Pesthouse is a post-apocalyptic novel set in an unspecified future America. Technology has regressed to a medieval level and brave pilgrims make the journey east to seek ships for passage to a safer, more prosperous Europe. The novel opens with a landslide releasing noxious gases which kill the sleeping inhabitants of Ferrytown, a small river settlement which is a popular waystation for eastbound travellers. The only survivors are Franklin, a young man headed for the coast whose brother left him behind on a hillside for the evening because he hurt his ankle, and Margaret, a townswoman suffering from disease who has been shorn of hair and sent for quarantine in the “pesthouse,” a wooden shack out in the hills. Following the destruction of the town, Margaret and Franklin decide to travel to the coast together.
Crace is a poet first and a writer of prose second. Like Harvest, the only other book of his that I’ve read, The Pesthouse seems curiously detached from the world it inhabits. Much time is spent inside Margaret and Franklin’s heads, on the details of their movements and actions, on the stark reality of their landscapes. It’s all very well-written, but it leaves the plot of the book undernourished. There are various misfortunes, acts of violence, and run-ins with bandits gangs, none of which – for all their gory description – feel particularly menacing. It lacks the gut-wrenching savagery of a book like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or even something like The Walking Dead. Perhaps this is because Crace isn’t really interested in the mechanics of domination and predation in a post-apocalyptic world, and only inserted them because it seemed necessary; or perhaps I was just never invested enough in the characters or Crace’s writing style to care much.
I liked Harvest well enough, but found it ultimately unmemorable. I liked The Pesthouse less, although I can understand why some readers might appreciate it. Jim Crace is a talented writer, but I don’t think he’s my type.
Normal price: £14.99
Sale price: £7.49
I heard about this yonks ago, when somebody linked me to the Kickstarter, but it wasn’t until Christmas that I realised an early access version had been released. I’m always wary of early access games; it seems like a cheap and lazy shortcut for developers, especially when some of them charge what seems like a full price for an incomplete game. The Long Dark, fortunately, is completely bug free. Early access simply provides two sandbox maps, rather than the fuller story mode.
The Long Dark is a post-apocalyptic scarcity survival game. An electromagnetic pulse of some kind has caused all of the world’s electronics to fizzle out forever. You’re a bush pilot who has was flying when the pulse went off, and survived the plane crash only to find yourself stranded in the Canadian wilderness: cold, hungry, and completely cut off from whatever’s going on in the outside world.
The game gives you four meters to keep an eye on: hunger, thirst, cold and fatigue. There are also wolves about, excessively keen on ripping your throat out. The landscape (there are currently two maps: a shoreline and a forested lakeside area, connected with each other) is scattered with cabins, logging camps, forestry lookouts and fishing huts, and you can ransack these for supplies. With every passing day, as you slowly add to your collection of tinned food and meagre weapons, you feel more confident. But The Long Dark is an instadeath game. One wrong move and you’re gone, your save file erased. My first death came as I trudged across a snowy valley, low on food, but confident I could reach the structure I’d seen on top of a hill by nightfall. Then the wind picked up and the temperature plummeted, and I couldn’t find my way up the hill. It was too windy to light a fire and I started freezing to death by the time I found the path. Footsteps slowing, vision blurring, I was almost dead but confident I’d make it inside by the time I reached the top… only to see that the structure was a fire lookout, at the top of a long set of stairs. I collapsed and froze to death halfway up them.
The Arctic environment is wonderfully rendered: beautiful, but deadly. The developers have used cell-shading to give it a cartoonish feel, but you soon grow used to it, and even running it on low graphic settings as I am, it’s very pretty. The sound effects are top notch – I particularly like the howling of the wind scraping against the walls once you’re inside, as though it’s a predator deprived of its prey. And a sudden, nearby wolf howling when I was in a narrow frozen river canyon made me freeze in my tracks.
The Long Dark has a few issues. One of them is the way the developers have opted to run the scavenging: like crafting, fishing, harvesting meat or starting a fire, it’s displayed as a loading bar. This is usually fine, but there’s an awful lot of houses on the coast map, full of properties to be ransacked, and after a while it can begin to feel like you’re playing Canadian Cupboard Opening Simulator 2015. And the survival mechanics are a little odd. On the one hand, they seem to have thought of so much: animal carcasses left outdoors will freeze and take longer to carve up (but can be thawed again by lighting a fire next to them), the rifle will not automatically have a round in the chamber simply because you found it with bullets, things like that. On the other hand, it’s eminently possible to live indefinitely by drinking soda, or eating an entire box of tea, and your clothes and tools are ridiculously vulnerable to damage. (This last one seems to be an irritatingly common trait in scarcity games.) The lack of a game-style “you are here” map is an excellent choice, but it would be nice if the developers included a compass and an actual paper map as an object – it sort of defies belief that none of those ranger cabins have a map of the region.
Perhaps the biggest issue with The Long Dark – one which is fortunately temporary – is that in sandbox mode, it’s a foregone conclusion. Sooner or later you will die. My longest run thus far is eleven days before that fucking wolf in the hydro dam got me again, but I suspect that even apart from the wolves, you will die a slow death after exhausting all the canned food across the map; once you’ve used up all the bullets, all you can do is snare rabbits and catch fish, and I doubt that would be enough to get you by (especially as your tools degenerate.) Without a goal to strive towards, survival games inevitably become dull. You’re driven by survival, but you don’t actually have anything to live for.
But I’m sure that will be rectified once the story mode is released. (Which, apparently, is going to feature the familiar gravelly voice of David Hayter, a.k.a. Metal Gear Solid’s Snake.) Even until then, The Long Dark is a deeply engrossing survival simulator that I hugely enjoyed and thoroughly recommend.
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946) 367 p.
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone) is apparently a well-known and highly regarded work of British fantasy, although I first heard of it only a few years ago. It seems to be one of those works which is relatively obscure outside literary and academic circles. It’s often compared to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, though I’m not sure why – apart from being weighty tomes written by British authors in the mid-20th century, the only thing they have in common is being fantasy, and they’re very different kinds of fantasy indeed.
Titus Groan takes place in the vast, ancient and isolated castle of Gormenghast, inhabited by the Earl of Groan, his royal family, and a vast retinue of servants. The novel takes place during the first year in the life of young Titus Groan, a newborn heir to the throne, spread out across the points of view of a dozen of the castle’s more important inhabitants. Without a doubt, the castle itself is Peake’s greatest creation: an enormous, rambling mountain of bricks and mortar, imbued with an air of long centuries of neglect, decay and decline, hidebound in tradition and a mere shadow of what it once perhaps was.
There is no magic to speak of; no fantasy elements save the fact that the novel takes place in this completely fictional world, in a castle which appears to inhabit a wasteland with no other castles, towns, cities or nations ever mentioned. Indeed, Gormenghast is so insular that the thought of other places never even seems to occur to those inside the castle walls. Nitpicker that I am, I couldn’t help but wonder about the nitty-gritty of how Gormenghast functions. There’s a scene, for example, where a character with fat hands uses a coin to knock on a door, and all I could think of was why coins would exist in a small, closed society like Gormenghast.
But it’s best to ignore irrelevant questions like that. Peake paints a marvellous picture of his creation, which never feels less than real, no matter how bizarre it may be. He has a richly detailed but also deeply ponderous writing style, reminiscent of 19th century authors. Here’s the opening paragraph:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping arch, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
There are long, long passages of description in this book, of both the castle and its many rooms, and of the strange people who inhabit it. I can easily see how this would put some readers off, but I found it ultimately satisfying, and it makes the pivotal moments of conflict and action stand out all the more. I won’t pretend it wasn’t sometimes tedious, but the overall effect was of a deeply memorable and powerful piece of fiction. It reminded me very much of Moby-Dick: long-winded and detailed, occasionally boring, but unquestionably solid literature. I need a bit of a break from it, but I’ll definitely be reading Gormenghast soon.
My short story “Heritage,” the sixth in the Black Swan series, has been published in the latest edition of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. This also happens to be TQF’s 50th issue, a proud milestone for any publication. Many congratulations to Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood, and many thanks to them for publishing my high concept sci-fi rigmarole over the years. You can read the issue in a variety of formats here.
If you’d like to start from the beginning of my Black Swan series, a serial revolving around an oddball crew of traders and smugglers on a shabby spaceship at the end of the 22nd century, you can begin with the first story, “Homecoming,” in TQF #40.
The Golden Door: Letters to America by A.A. Gill (2012) 254 p.
Compared to Gill’s previous books, which have all been collections of short journalism pieces, The Golden Door is a more cohesive book which gathers a selection of his essays on America. The pieces can still be read independently, but I got the impression it was written to order, and it’s loosely connected by Gill’s exploration of his family tree and his ancestors who moved from Yorkshire to the US in the 19th century.
Gill remains a brilliant wordsmith and stylist, capable of creating perfectly vivid scenes and moments. One of my favourite moments is in the opening essay ‘Cuttings,’ as he imagines the story behind the buffalo head which hung on his family’s wall in England for so long:
I imagine him spending years on the wall in a modest but sturdy farmhouse, inglorious and oversized, a talking point, an anchor for the paper chains and mistletoe above a sideboard in a dining room, with brown furniture smelling of beeswax and ham and vinegar and folded linen, with hunting prints on each side, a bevelled mirror on a chain, the bone-handled carving set in its blue velvet-lined box, the slow tick of the grandfather clock, the sticking drawers lined with the yellowing pages of the Yorkshire Post, neat with saved candle-ends, comic bottle openers, plated silver pickle forks, a box of England’s Best matches, a stained recipe for Guards pudding, a china anchovy paste pot containing the charmed and silver three-pences for Christmas puddings. Perhaps they gave him a name, a Yankee name from a penny dreadful Wild West story: Tex, or Doc. Perhaps an Indian name: Sitting Bull or Geronimo. More likely, with ponderous Yorkshire humour, the name of someone he reminded the family of – Uncle Alfred, Witless Wilf. And back before that, when his name was of his own bellowing, I imagine him being picked out by a man from this valley in Yorkshire, their threads converging as the man stepped out on his long journey to the West. First the dogcart to the station, then the train to Liverpool or Southampton, the ship to New York – in comfort I imagine, not a stateroom, but not steerage – then a long, slow, rocking journey out west on that astonishing marathon of civil engineering and endurance, a transcontinental railway, to get off in some lone, blown and gritty rural town beneath the mountains, picked up by his cousins, who now look quite different, taller in their slope-heeled work boots, darker, rangier, broader, chest-out-confident, with broad hats and bandannas, and I expect they suggested a trip to hunt buffalo, to spend a night out on the prairie, sleep under the stars, eat pork and beans, drink whiskey, talk about home and the new life out here in the soon-to-be-state.
Gill is one of those people clearly very much in love with the idea of America, and while he’s not blind to its faults, this book is largely hagiography. (Amusingly, its American publication title is To America With Love.) Which is fine, and very entertaining, but you can see through the cracks; for all his wit and charm and thoughtfulness, Gill still labours under his own prejudices and background and immoveable convictions. He has no tolerance for the sneering European notion that America is “stupid” or “greedy,” but this means he simply flips that sneering arrogance back on Europe (and it’s always just “Europe,” with no concession to the vastly different nations and cultures therein). His piece on New York makes sweeping generalisations about New Yorkers, and implicitly reveals that the only New Yorkers Gill spends time around are the well-heeled ones at dinner parties and expensive restaurants.
But he also makes interesting points which aren’t usually made, or which I at least don’t usually hear. He examines the duality of the immigrant’s story: how viewed from America, it’s a story of hope and opportunity and new beginnings, whereas from Europe’s viewpoint, it’s a story of “farewell, failure, sadness and defeat,” spurred by catastrophes such as the potato famine or the Highland clearances, and how “mostly, the people who left were the ones who could be spared least…the young and the strong, the adventurous, the clever and the skilled.” This feeds into an argument against the disapproval of America as a greedy and consumptive nation, as Gill considers what such an “empty” land must have seemed like for immigrants fleeing famine, overcrowding and poverty; how a blessed cornucopia would have woven itself into the national character. He defends the US on its violent murder rate, pointing out that statistically, per capita, it only slides into the top ten – outpaced by places like Colombia, Paraguay and Bolivia. He notes that eight of the top ten lists are Spanish-speaking, “the language of inarticulate anger,” all are “notably religious,” and all of them are ex-colonies. The real reason, which he’s saved up for later, is that they’re all countries “with serious drug distribution networks.” This is the sort of writer Gill is (and I don’t say this as a criticism): somebody who deals not with facts or statistics, but with freewheeling speculation and imaginative rumination. A writer who looks at the big picture, and understands the value of narrative, of the stories that nations and people tell themselves.
Which means, as in some of the instances I highlighted above, he can sometimes be frustrating even when I know better than to be frustrated. While he concedes in his conclusion that there’s no longer any great difference between Europe and America, that we now all live in a post-modern global society, he also concludes that:
It was, in the ten thousands years of our civilisation, the last experiment in creating a brand-new nation. Idealist, reasonable, ordered, from scratch. And that will never happen again. There are no more empty lots in this world to grow countries in. There will never, ever, be another America.
Sigh. I know you need to come up with something snappy when wrapping up your Big Book About The Idea of America, but Gill knows full well that Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most of the nations in Latin America are younger than the US – and that’s if we’re only counting New World “empty lot” (!) nations, and I don’t see why we should, since they had just as many original inhabitants as modern nations like South Africa and Singapore, which also scratches off any defence that America was a properly “different” nation from those of Old Europe, unlike the apron-stringed children of the Commonwealth. I know they get crowded out in the noise, but all these little countries around the world have all their own stories and mythologies. The frame of the world can’t simply be reduced to America and Europe.
But then, I don’t read A.A. Gill for a balanced viewpoint. I read him because he’s caustically funny, wonderfully inventive and one of the most talented, interesting, readable journalists around. The Golden Door is not a book to read for any kind of reasonable or objective discussion about America, but it’s a cracking good book about Gill’s own impressions and experiences there.