Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book review: Alms For Oblivion Volume 1

Simon Raven's Alms For Oblivion is a novel sequence - ten books - centred on a group of characters from Britain's upper (& upper-middle) class around the middle of the twentieth century. Rather than being a conventional series, following a group over time, or exploring the same timeframe from different perspectives, each of the novels is essentially self-contained. The plots, settings - and often styles - differ from book to book, but they all take place within the same world, with minor characters from one novel becoming major characters in another and events in some books being referred to in others (not to the extent that you need to have read the earlier one - you should, though, of course). Thus, over the course of ten novels, or even just the four here, Raven is able to build and populate his own little version of upper-class England.

This collection contains the first four books written in the sequence (over the course of the series, Raven jumped around in time, so these books are the fourth, fifth, third and first books respectively by that measure - but it's best to read them in the order they were written, I decided). The first, The Rich Pay Late, primarily deals with business and political deals in the mid-1950s London. Donald and Jude, who co-own a printing business, try to take over a political journal. That's basically all there is to the plot, although of course there are complications, but Raven uses that simple story to begin building his world. An astonishing array of characters is introduced, and with them, the complications of their various relationships - friends, enemies, allies of convenience, lovers, ex-partners, barely tolerated business colleagues etc. And Raven has tremendous fun with these relationships and complications, telling the story with a charming lightness of touch and an admirable ability to make his characters well-rounded and occasionally unlikeable.

Book two, Friends in Low Places, takes place not long afterwards and largely deals with the same set of characters, but with a different focus. Indeed, if anything, the spread of characters is even broader, with a plot revolving around various factions trying to gain control of compromising papers, the government's attempt to set up holiday camps, competition for political election, and the personal travails of a host of characters. At times it was hard to hold in my head who was who and how they all related in Friends in Low Places, but by the second half of the book all the threads are pulled together and the surprisingly intricate plotting becomes an asset. Some of the more prominent characters from The Rich Pay Late are reduced to secondary characters here, but we also get to see some of them from other perspectives, so they're painted more (or less) favourably than they were earlier, or different sides to their personalities are illustrated, or the toll taken on them by the events of that earlier book is evident.

The Sabre Squadron essentially introduces a whole new range of characters - although a couple from the first two novels make appearances. Daniel, a young mathematician, heads to Germany to try to unravel the final work of a man who was either a genius or insane (or both). He discovers that quite a few people are interested in his results, and in the novel's second half it becomes almost a spy novel as Daniel - and his findings - are jostled between different people, each with their own agenda, and he begins to wonder whom he can trust. The Sabre Squadron begins as a campus novel, becomes a spy novel, and ends on a quite unexpected note. The realignment of characters in the series is initally off-putting, I found, but Raven soon settles us into this new cast and this book makes clear that the whole Alms For Oblivion series is not going to be bound merely to the same (admittedly large) cast in the one setting.

The final novel in this volume, but chronologically the series' first, is Fielding Gray, named for its protagonist (& narrator), who has also appeared in each of the three previous books. Set during his final year of school - in 1945, beginning just as WWII ends - and based around a few of his friends and schoolmates (several of whom are significant characters in The Rich Pay Late & Friends in Low Places), Fielding Gray is, in its first half, a fairly typical English boarding school novel - which is not a complaint, mind you, since I usually enjoy the genre - focusing on his relationships with his friends, his difficult and domineering father & meek mother, the headmaster and various teachers, and typical plotting for such books (first crushes, growing philosophical/political consciousness, sporting matches, squabbles between friends, plans for holidays etc). As has become the norm in this series, however, the second half of Fielding Gray takes some unexpected turns, mixing tragedy with comedy, action with introspection, and fleshing out the main characters, especially the title one.

These four slim novels (the four together run to just under 900 pages) are each a quick, compelling read. Raven is a master of narrative pacing, always encouraging you to read just a little more. That, along with his beautifully crafted prose, commitment to drawing out his characters and ability to keep the reader on their toes via shifts in direction, made me race through these four and look forward to the remaining six novels in the series. Raven is one of those authors who is not well-known now (he died in 2001, and most of his books - including, until recently, this series - are out of print), but who nonetheless has a group of devoted fans. This volume has added me to their number.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book review: The Yips

Nicola Barker came to my attention courtesy of Darkmans, her 2007 novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I loved that book so much that I have subsequently read almost everything she wrote before then, along with her 2010 Burley Cross Postbox Theft, and so when I saw she had another new book out, I jumped on it. And then was very glad to see it longlisted for this year's Booker Prize.

Barker is one of the most distinctive writers in modern English fiction. Her style is one that I can understand grating on some people, but I personally find her novels hilarious, imaginative and wonderfully populated. The Yips in some ways pushes her style even further - most of the 550 page book is dialogue (I've seen estimates that it's up to 90%), much of which is overlapping, stylised and tangential.

In fact, that sort of describes the book as a whole. The action, such as it is, centres on Stuart Ransom, a past-his-prime but ludicrously egotistical professional golfer, and Gene, a middle-aged man who works multiple jobs, including at a bar where he meets Stuart. (The first scene begins mid-conversation as a tipsy Stuart holds forth to Gene and barmaid Jen.) We cut away from them to meet Valentine, who lives with her mother. Her mother has recently suffered an accident which has left her confused about who she is, and who Valentine is. No connexion between the two settings is evident to begin with, but of course we expect that eventually they will meet up. Barker takes that convention further, though, by gradually adding more and more relationships, so that each character ends up having no more than one degree of separation from any other character. Charting the relationships between the characters in The Yips would result in a cobweb with every point linking in different ways to each other point.

There's not really a plot, as such. Things happen, but they seem slightly irrelevant compared to sitting back and watching the ever-increasing cast of characters come to know each other (& themselves). Few novels could have, for instance, a major character forcibly abducted by another character, left in the boot of a car for a few hours before being rescued by third character (based on suspicions of a fourth!) and yet have that barely register as an important event in the book's world. In fact, several of the characters involved seem mainly to see it as a case of an inconvenient piece of plotting spoiling their story. (The book itself is not that meta.) Throughout all her inter-connected storylines and relationships, Barker takes evident delight in confounding expectations and taking the story in different directions to what the reader may expect.

And throughout it all, we're treated to Barker's talent for eccentric characters, oddball locations (few novels have been set in Luton before, I suspect) and comically overstuffed writing. The blurb, to give some idea, lists some of the characters: 'a man who's had cancer seven times, a woman priest with an unruly fringe, the troubled family of a notorious local fascist, an interferring barmaid..., and a free-thinking Muslim sex therapist with his considerably more pious wife'.

There are many readers who would probably read that description and recoil in horror. As I said above, I can understand why people wouldn't like Barker's style. For me, though, it's a perfectly composed comic novel - dense but quick to read, largely plotless but still convoluted and joyfully highlighting characters, occupations and locations that fiction rarely touches. Not all of Barker's books are perfect, but I've enjoyed her last few in particular so much that she's one of my favourite living authors.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Book review: The Expendable Man

Dorothy Hughes is probably best known these days as the author of the novel In A Lonely Place, made into the wonderful - & wonderfully bleak - Humphrey Bogart film. I've not read that novel, but when I saw this new reissue of another of her books, I jumped at the chance to read it. Mid-century American noir is one of my abiding loves, after all.

It's a Friday night in 1963. Young doctor Hugh Denismore is driving from his home in Los Angeles to a family wedding in Phoenix. On the highway after stopping for dinner, he sees a young girl, Iris, hitchhiking and decides, somewhat reluctantly, to give her a lift. He ends up, against his will, taking her all the way to Phoenix, even though she makes him nervous and is clearly lying about her reasons for going. Once they get there, he drops her off and hopes to never see her again. 24 hours later, her body is found in a canal. Someone has seen Hugh with her, and so he becomes the focus of the police investigation.

So far, so interesting. But Hughes has bigger things in mind, and there is a revelation partway through the book that puts Hugh's dilemma in context. I've no intention of spoiling that here, of course, but serious credit to whoever wrote the blurb (see here) on this new issue from NYRB Classics for implying that there's something else going on without giving away too much. So I'm not going to say too much more about the plot, other than that Hughes handles both this revelation - which could have come across as a cheat, but doesn't - and her story's conclusion well. The endings to crime novels are fabulously risky, as too many writers (& readers) have found to their peril, as failing on the conclusion can retrospectively ruin an otherwise enjoyable book.

While working within the bounds of a fairly well-covered genre, Hughes also includes some nice sideline touches. Hugh's family plays a small but important part, as he remains desperate for them to not learn that he is the major suspect in a murder investigation. Never the main theme of The Expendable Man, Hugh's family dynamics nonetheless provide both realistic and important context for his troubles. And simultaneously, Hugh meets Ellen, one of his fellow wedding guests, and the two instantly share an attraction. She, not dissuaded by him being a murder suspect, ultimately becomes his greatest ally as he tries to demonstrate his innocence to the police. Ellen is revealed as a strong, thoughtful comrade for Hugh - and somehow Hughes manages to make the unlikely combination of Man Accused Of Murder with Boy Meets Girl work to the advantage of both plots.

Critically, Hugh's character is perfectly drawn. Hughes strikes the right note in her depiction of him both before and after Iris' murder, conveying a realistic-seeming combination of desperation, anger and determination. Seeing him exclusively during a time when he is under pressure and apprehensive, we get a strong sense of what he must be like at all times: thoughtful, resourceful, determined. Her prose is unspectacular but atmospheric, and the third-person focus on Hugh's point of view is also judged well - we know everything he knows, and nothing more. We share his confusion over the motives of others and understand his angers and fears.

It's hard to talk too much more about the themes of The Expendable Man without spoiling the plot. I will say that Hughes' revelation felt like a punch to my gut - suddenly the slightly uneasy quality of the first part of the book made sense, small details all fell into place and the book took quite a different turn from what I had been expecting. It's rare that a novel can do that, can so effectively but quietly shift the ground beneath you, so that what you thought was going on turned out to only part of the story. Rare, and certainly to be applauded when an author does it as wonderfully as Hughes does here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Book review: Ride a Cockhorse

'You can't judge a book by its cover' is an expression that's true as a metaphor but not as a literal statement of fact. We can't - & shouldn't - judge people by their appearance (although we do, all the time), but we (for 'we', read 'I') judge books by their covers constantly. Case in point: I first encountered Ride a Cockhorse when I noticed its cover & thought, 'oh, that looks lovely' (a frequent thought when I first see NYRB Classics books). I then read the blurb & thought 'I'd love that; I must read it asap' (ditto). I'd never heard of the book, or author Raymond Kennedy, before that, but the striking cover design convinced me to see what it was about, and that was enough to get me to order it.

In part my interest was aroused by the comparison to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, one of the most scathingly hilarious novels of the 20th century. Like that book, Ride a Cockhorse is not constantly guffaw-inducing, but both are nonetheless deeply funny. Set in 1987 in small town New England, Ride a Cockhorse is the story of a few weeks in the life of middle-aged widower Frankie Fitzgibbons. Her husband has been dead for a handful of years, and Frankie has settled into her quiet existence as a loans officer at the local bank. As the book begins, however, she decides she's had enough of playing her passive part in life and becomes a fierce presence everywhere - seducing a student from the high school, dominating her disappointingly earnest daughter more than usual and, most importantly, running roughshed over her workplace, demanding a promotion to CEO, hiring & firing at whim and ruling her quiet little bank like an unpredictable dictator.

She makes enemies, of course, but Frankie also attracts a little band of loyal supporters - her hairdresser, a couple of young women at the bank whom she promotes and takes under wing, her son-in-law, and a couple of others. They fall into her step, doing her bidding, worshipping her and fiercely defending her against the small group at the bank who dare to oppose this mid-level officer who has taken it upon herself to usurp the power structure and declare herself boss. She also attracts media attention - not just for being a female CEO of a local bank, but also because of her immense quotability. The blurb says Ride a Cockhorse is a 'rollicking cautionary tale of small-town demagoguery'. That's true, but in a way the most interesting factor here is the devoted following Frankie builds. Her evolution makes sense in a fairly obvious way - a response to the tedium that her life up until this point had been. But Kennedy also sheds light on the ways in which we love to follow an exciting leader, how we can counteract the boredom of our own lives by getting caught up in the drama caused by someone else - someone else who appeared to be quiet and boring just like us, but who turns out to have hidden depths. Perhaps we hope that within each of us lies a charismatic leader just waiting for the right moment to reveal itself and blow away the cobwebs of our day-to-day living?

The title comes from an old rhyme:
Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady on a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

That's a good summary of Frankie's life through these few weeks - rings, bells, music everywhere she grows. But I suspect Kennedy was not at all upset that the title also sounds dirty...

Frankie is an awe-inspiring anti-hero(ine). For most of the novel we're torn - it's exhilarating to see her take some control over her life and get some enjoyment out of it. On the other hand, she's utterly dreadful and runs the bank - & everyone else she encounters - with tactics barely removed from those of military dictatorships. Kennedy - although he tells the story almost entirely from Frankie's perspective - never hides that his main character has become a thoroughly awful person and deserves a massive comeuppance. Does she get one? Well, you'll just have to read and find out for yourself...

As for me, I'm just glad that I continue to judge books by their covers.