Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The Circle

The CircleThe Circle, Dave Eggers

It is interesting that no word yet seems to exist relating specifically to distaste for or distrust of social media. The word ‘technophobe’ is unsatisfactory, carrying with it as it does connotations of fear and outright rejection of technology generally, and taking no account of the simple distaste one might feel for the tyranny of the unsolicited advance so often wielded by tweeters and pokers. I have decided to style myself a ‘technowarian’ until such time as something more Greek can be tracked down.  But, I hear you cry, were it not for social media, your review would not be broadcast to the universe. Yes, yes, dear reader, but in that case, I would be nailing these reviews to the door of one of our fine local Ranelagh coffee houses (#ErBuchetto), eateries (#TheWildGoose), or hostelries (#Humphreys), and probably to more advantage.

But to th’effect, as a chap who wrote with a quill and still managed to reach millions, once said.

The Circle by Dave Eggers is a terrifying book. I knew it would be as soon as I read the blurb on the back: ‘The Cirlcle [the world’s most powerful internet company], run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency.’ What’s wrong with that?, I hear you ask. Nothing, of course, nothing at all.

As the story opens, it’s Mae Holland’s first day at work for the Circle, and the novel effectively tracks her life and progress from that point. The campus is perfection itself (‘heaven’, the opening line tells us); free this, that and the other on offer to employees, delicious food, countless social activities. (Every customer to whom I have described the premise of the book comes up at this stage with the same corporate name, which already means that the tale has a chance of being convincing.)

The first thing that strikes one on reading the book is how bald the prose is. There is no adornment, and on occasion the writing borders on bad (‘Mae turned to find a beautiful young head floating atop a scarlet scarf and white silk blouse’). If you like your prose sophisticated and your arguments teasingly subtle, this will initially disappoint. For the first few pages it reads like a teen novel (almost as if Mae is the narrator, though she is not), but after a short time you forget the medium and begin to concentrate on the message. And that, indeed, is part of the point: in a culture where assent or disapproval is conveyed by means of a simple icon – a smile or a frown – allowing for no subtlety of expression or argument, there is no need, or indeed opportunity, to pause and craft your communication. And so the book in one way might be said to mimic this mode of hackneyed expression, which may well be part of its cleverness: it’s perfectly designed for the principal target it needs to reach, the wide-eyed Maes of the world who are happy to respond by reflex. If the thought of unsophisticated style is offputting to you, then the best way to approach the tale is with the idea that it is a parable, upon which the issue becomes largely redundant.

This is one of those books where to give a detailed plot synopsis would be to detract from the reading experience. This technowarian (yes, thank you, Windows, for the red underlining to tell me that there is something wrong with that word) – anyway, this technowarian was gasping in horror very early on in the book at the notion that Mae ends up having to deal instantaneously with varying business and social communications on four different worktop screens, so you can imagine the strangled noises that were being emitted four hundred pages later as the technological advances proceeded apace.

One of the cleverest things about the book is that none of the technological innovations seems beyond the bounds of possibility. There is no feeling that any of this is so far off as to be of no real concern. On the contrary, one reads with the increasing certainty that much of it is already well under way. The other clever thing is that for almost every unsettling proposal a benefit is posited (install cameras in the home of your elderly parents so that you can always be sure that they’re safe and well; tag your children and know where they are at all times, etc. – this gives nothing away; these are just the early ideas). There are so many issues raised by this book that it should almost be required reading. In fact, it’s a book that when you’ve read it, you’ll want to hand it to someone else and urge them to read it quickly so that you can discuss the ideas it sets up.

By the end of the book, the arguments and metaphors are signposted, highlighted, and hammered home in the most blunt fashion. A particular event is described as “natural in a way seeing a plane falling from the sky can seem natural, too. The horror comes later.”

Leaden, but laden.

Harvest

HarvestHarvest, Jim Crace

Harvest, Jim Crace has stated, is to be his last novel. If that is the case, what a way to go out. Harvest tells the tale of the events of seven days in an unnamed village at an unspecified date some centuries in the past, told by a narrator, Walter Thirsk, a townsman who “tumbled into love” with the countryside and then with one of its womenfolk twelve years previously. As the novel opens, three strangers have set up a shelter in one of the village fields and have lit a fire, which, custom dictates, gives them the right to stay. But there is another fire, this time in the dovecote of the local manor, and by tacit agreement of the villagers, the three strangers are held to be responsible for that blaze also. From that point on, consequence upon consequence unfolds, and with each inevitable consequence comes a further unravelling of a whole way of life that to that point has been measured only by the rhythm of the seasons.

There is a wonderful marriage in the novel between form and content. Like the simple ear of barley which is described at one moment in the book as containing “barley pearls”, the unassuming narrative style produces a deceptive richness of imagery throughout. The ostensible simplicity echoes perfectly the way of life it describes. The short sentences create a natural forward momentum; there is a soft pulsing rhythm to the prose, which almost invites reading aloud.

The simplicity of the telling, however, belies the many and weighty themes raised by this tale. The setting in the past allows for the initial establishment of an innocent, Eden-like world; beyond that the period matters not. The questions are eternal: justice and natural justice, revenge, loyalty, loneliness, courage, the irreversible march of ‘progress’, the fracturing of society. Many of the characters, like the village, remain unnamed; responsibility for several of the pivotal incidents remains largely unconfirmed. This openness means that although the novel is very definitely set in the past, it also achieves a timelessness.

A beautiful and thought-provoking book, and a fitting end, if end it is, to a distinguished career.

Footnote:

At the time of writing, Harvest is vying for the position of favourite to win the Man Booker with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a novel three times its length. While the latter is undoubtedly extremely well written and intricately plotted, there is nothing in the first 150 pages at least to rival the depth of Crace’s work.

As you sow so shall you reap. We shall see.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

Whether strategically planned or not, J. K. Rowling’s ‘outing’ as the pen behind the name Robert Galbraith has netted her three different categories of reader: Harry Potter/Rowling fans; crime fans; and the downright curious. From someone in this last category comes the news that The Cuckoo’s Calling is a perfectly enjoyable way of whiling away some summer hours. The characters lift nicely off the page, there is detail enough to set any given scene colourfully before you, and now and again a line gives the impression that Rowling might have a satisfyingly sly sense of humour.  As to the plot – model dies in fall from balcony: suicide or murder? – well, think Monday evening ITV Drama rather than Saturday night BBC Nordic Noir and you’ve got it. It’s giving nothing away to say that the last line of the book is a quote from Tennyson: ‘I am become a name’. If Rowling really did intend to try to forge a new success for herself anonymously, what better line to offer up to an unsuspecting public as her own private joke. The line still works following the big reveal, but if she was in on the plan, it now becomes quite cynical. Here at The Company of Books, we prefer to think that she wasn’t. Sit back and and listen to the cuckoo; you’re in capable hands.

Austerlitz

AusterlitzAusterlitz, W. G. Sebald

In 1939, a five-year-old boy is sent on a Kindertransport from the Continent to foster parents in Wales. Until he comes to do his sixth-form scholarship exams, he grows up as Dafydd Elias, speaks Welsh, plays rugby, gets on well at school, remembers nothing outside of his current life. Before the exams the headmaster tells him that he must put the name Jacques Austerlitz, his real name, on his exam papers.

It is not until a good deal later in life that Jacques Austerlitz makes the journey, both literal and metaphorical, to find out about and confront his past. The narrative of this journey is a work of sheer genius. An investigation of identity, memory, dreams, loss, among many other things, it draws the reader in on level upon level, so much so that by the end, the desire to start again from the beginning is overwhelming.

Austerlitz is an architectural historian by career and the book opens with a disquisition on military fortifications. We soon begin to perceive why Austerlitz has chosen – or been chosen by – this particular interest: the greatest fortification of all is the one he has built up around himself. The voice of Austerlitz is reported to us through the nameless ‘I’ who is the ostensible narrator of the book, so that at all times we are presented with at least third-party narration. The layers even at this level are such that we occasionally find sentences like, ‘None the less, said Vera, Austerlitz continued, Maximilian did not believe that  . . .’ where the narrators are placed one inside or in front of another like protective shells. Memory is fluid, time can speed up or slow down or even become static, so that every moment is an unending now, and people may have appointments to keep in the past.  The book is shot through with misty scenes, half-lit rooms, blurred outlines, insubstantial figures.  Echoes recur and recur: swirling snow later becomes the fall of bird feathers; the two square metres of space per person in the ghetto is joltingly recalled again in the two-square-metre  television screen on a cafe wall. Ignore the names at your peril. The woman who fills in much of the past for Austerlitz is called Vera; the narrator meets Austerlitz in a bar on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui. Political activist Auguste Blanqui was sentenced to transportation in 1872, a sentence afterwards commuted to imprisonment; Austerlitz might be said to have suffered both punishments.

This is a book suffused with loneliness and melancholy which manages, by its brilliance, to uplift. It is a book about being haunted, which in turn will haunt. It is, in short, what great literature is about.

Daddy Love

Daddy LoveDaddy Love, Joyce Carol Oates

The new novel by several-time Pulitzer nominee Joyce Carol Oates should logically be snapped up by all those who raved about Room two years ago. It deals, after all, with the abduction of a five-year-old boy by what the blurb on the front describes as a “fiendish captor”.  But it will not be snapped up, or even leafed through, by most of that vast audience. Why? Because, as the blurb suggests, this is the real thing. It is unpleasant, brutal, and (again the blurb) “compelling”. No cutesy five-year-old voice here to cushion the reader. You are taken into the mother’s head, the father’s, the child’s, and yes – and this is probably the main reason why the book will repel – the abductor’s. But in visiting all these perspectives we are offered here a genuine engagement with a chilling phenomenon.  There is nothing gratuitous, either in the narrative or in the language in which it is related. There is enough to disturb and on occasion horrify, but not so much or so graphically detailed that the prurient need trouble themselves to thumb through it.

I read Daddy Love because I wanted to find out why someone would write such a book, not to mention why someone would read it. It was also a matter of trusting the author; had it been from the pen of a writer of lesser stature than Joyce Carol Oates I would almost certainly have left it alone. What I found was a harrowing but honest and powerfully affecting book. Apart from the more obvious issues it tackles, in itself it also poses interesting questions about the role of fiction. Not one for the very sensitive, but if you were happy to read Room, shouldn’t you be willing at least to try this?

Care of Wooden Floors

Care of Wooden Floors, Will Wiles

Can a page-turner really be about someone trying not to damage a pristine wooden floor?  The answer is yes, in this very engaging debut novel from architecture and design journalist Will Wiles. Oskar, minimalist composer and clean-freak (“What vodka does Oskar drink? Neat vodka”) has asked his friend, our narrator, to take care of his flat and two cats in an unnamed eastern European city while he heads to LA to organise his divorce. This is the premise of the novel, and to say anything more would be to risk spoiling the experience of being led, day by day, through the unfolding of our hero’s time in residence. And ‘unfolding’ is the word. There is a cumulative momentum to the plot, so if you’re the sort of person who flicks through a book before starting it, don’t.

The book is funny, at times darkly so. The prose is sharp and intelligent; the situation entirely believable, even when small events take on huge significance, and large ones somehow diminish in stature. Perhaps as a result of his journalistic training, Wiles has a wonderful way of providing detail without letting it become fussy or unnecessary.

One of our books of the year.

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