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The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon (2016) 218 p.

Mark Haddon had this to say about short fiction in the Guardian while promoting this anthology:

“…the Chekhov/Joyce/ Mansfield/Carver idiom, an idiom that has become a kind of ruling orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic over the last 30 years: modest, melancholic stories, not arcs with beginnings, middles and ends, so much as moments and turning points, stories often about things not happening and people being absent, not really stories at all according to the everyday meaning of the word… if you are writing a short story and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.”

It’s not a coincidence that the two pieces I liked least in The Pier Falls are precisely that sort of story: Breathe and The Weir, both stories which are mostly about interpersonal relationship drama. Nearly all the other are excellent, however, and live up to Haddon’s observation that a story, as the word is typically used, should fundamentally be about something unusual and interesting. The titular story The Pier Falls is probably the standout, a slow-motion observation of a mass death catastrophe as a pier collapses into the sea, which you can read free online. I also greatly enjoyed The Woodpecker and the Wolf, about an expedition of astronauts stranded on Mars, and Wodwo, an excellent modern-day reworking of Gawain and the Green Knight. Highly recommended, even if you don’t typically read short stories.

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore (1952) 194 p.

One of the earlier entries in the alternate history genre, in this case laying out the popular scenario: what if the South had won the Civil War? Bring the Jubilee is very similar to its contemporary in alternate history fiction, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in that it largely ignores an interesting premise in favour of characters waffling on about uninteresting crap. In The Man in the High Castle that’s jewelry counterfeiting and the I Ching; in Bring the Jubilee it’s philosophy and the main characters’ tedious romantic drama.

Further points are docked from Bring the Jubilee for suggesting that a single moment in a single battle in a single war could somehow, regardless of the war’s outcome, transform the Union into a moribund, impoverished rump state and transform the Confederacy into a dazzling powerhouse of industry and technological innovation. The North won not because of the righteousness of their cause, but because they had more men, more money and more industrial capacity, while the South was an agricultural economy utterly reliant on the export of a single product harvested by a literal slave caste. Those circumstances arose across hundreds of years of history and immutable facts of geography; and while history does sometimes turn on a dime, an alternate history which presents such a wildly divergent scenario based on such a small change feels more like fantasy and is rather less interesting.

The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brian (1991) 338 p.

The Nutmeg of Consolation. It’s the name of a ship, in turn named after a florid royal title Jack took a shine to in the Malay archipelago, but it’s still probably the silliest title in the series thus far. It begins as The Thirteen-Gun Salute left off: with the hundred-odd survivors of the Diane stranded on an island in the South China Sea (which both I and the Patrick O’Brian Mapping Project agree feels a bit more like the Java Sea), trying to put together a makeshift schooner from the shattered wreck of their beached vessel. They soon find themselves attacked by local pirates, in what is probably the only land battle I can remember O’Brian describing. Maybe because of that – or because a land battle can be grasped more easily by a landlubber even if said landlubber is a civilian whose sum total of combat experience is with a PlayStation controller – I found this to be one of the more gripping battles the series has served up, since I long since gave up any hope of understanding what goes on during the naval engagements. Part of it is the unique and exotic nature of it, with English sailors and marines stranded far from home on a tropical island; part of it is the chess-like nature, with Jack confident that because they can launch the schooner before the pirates can arrive with reinforcements in the next few days, it’s safe to let them retreat; until everything changes:

‘Yet even so, sir,’ said Welby, ‘I do not believe this is the end. Their general has lost a power of men and he has nothing to show for it. They have no water – see how they dig! – and they won’t find any there. So they cannot wait. The general cannot wait. As soon as they have rested a little he will launch the whole lot at us, straight at us: he is a death or glory cove, I am sure. See how he harangues them, jumping up and down. Oh my God they have fired the schooner.’

As the black smoke billowed up and away on the shifting breeze the whole camp burst out in a yell of desperate anger, frustration, plain grief.

I knew this book would eventually bring Jack and Stephen to New Holland (previously only visited off-screen) and looked forward to O’Brian casting his eye on my own country; though of course in the early 19th century it was a particularly bleak and brutal hellhole. Early after their arrival in Sydney, Stephen witnesses a man flogged so severely that his shoes squelch with his own blood as he walks away, at which point I was certain O’Brian had read Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, a book which is an excellent and probably authoritative work on the colonial transportation system, but which also left me with enough descriptions of flogging to last a lifetime. The blood welling from the shoes was a detail which stuck in my head and clearly also in O’Brian’s; I knew immediately that he must have read it, which he confirms in the foreword, describing Hughes’ book as a “splendid great work… I fell upon with a delight that it would be uncandid to conceal.” (Though he also, oddly, calls it an “account of all aspects of the country’s history,” and many people often think of it a general history of colonial Australia; it’s actually very specifically a history of the convict transportation system, and as such focuses almost exclusively on New South Wales and Tasmania, where that system was most concentrated.)

Stephen finds this miserable, toxic malaise personified in the colony’s governing class, who are the worst kinds of petty English gentlemen, characterised by a bigotry against the Irish which eventually pushes Stephen past breaking point at an official dinner. The convict era of Botany Bay is still in many ways isolated in my mind from the rest of world history, having learned about it in simplistic terms in primary school; it was easy to forget that this was still the early 19th century, a time when a man could demand an insult be met with ritualised combat:

Stephen looked at him attentively. The man was in a choking rage but he was perfectly steady on his feet; he was not drunk. ‘Will you answer for that, sir?’ he asked. ‘There’s my answer,’ said the big man, with a blow that knocked Stephen’s wig from his head.

Stephen leapt back, whipped out his sword and cried ‘Draw, man, draw, or I shall stick you like a hog.’

Lowe unsheathed his sabre: little good did it do him. In two hissing passes his right thigh was ploughed up. At the third Stephen’s sword was through his shoulder. And at the issue of a confused struggle at close quarters he was flat on his back, Stephen’s foot on his chest, Stephen’s sword-point at his throat and the cold voice saying above him ‘Ask my pardon or you are a dead man. Ask my pardon, I say, or you are a dead man, a dead man.’

‘I ask your pardon,’ said Lowe, and his eyes filled with blood.

This comes as the unexpected culmination of a chapter, and at first ushers in a sense of dread that Stephen will face serious repercussions in a colony where the Nutmeg’s arrival was already looked on unfavourably; amusingly, it does nothing of the sort, as New Holland is the sort of unicivilised place where such things happen all the time:

Stephen rose, bowed and smiled, yet with a certain reserve: he did not know whether she had been told about his encounter with Lowe before she wrote to him. Her amiable smile and her apology for being late reassured him, and a moment’s reflection told him that she (again like Diana) had spent many years in India, where white officers, overfed, too hot, too absolute, fought so often that a mere wound was scarcely noticed.

So Jack continues to butt heads with the authoritarian local officials and Stephen indulges in his naturalist’s pursuits (he’s very lucky to see a platypus in the wild; I never have, and not for lack of trying) and attempts to aid his former manservant Padeen, who was transported to Botany Bay after crimes committed in the pursuit of opium. I’ve grown more and more accustomed to O’Brian’s subtle writing style as the series has progressed, but he’s still a master at shrouding some of his characters’ thoughts and motivations in mystery. Stephen is faced with a terrible conflict of interest towards the conclusion of the novel, and drops several hints that he may leave the ship entirely and possibly never even return home to England. A freak accident prevents this from happening, but I’m still at sea as to what, precisely, his plan was. Perhaps that might become more clear in the next book, as Stephen in particular often re-examines past episodes of his life in his journals, but no matter if it doesn’t; I admire this kind of intriguing, ambiguous writing.

Next up in this circumnavigatory arc is Clarissa Oakes, for some reason titled The Truelove in the US.

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February 2021