Tag: comedy

Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is a Thomas Pynchon novel. That…pretty much sums up what I have to say about it.

In what the publisher is billing as a sort of hard left on Pynchon’s part, it’s a murder mystery. It’s also set in 1970s California, among permanently stoned hippies. So, you know, we’re right back in Pynchon territory again.

Our Hero is Doc, a private investigator who also happens to be one of those permanently stoned hippies. (Think Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, only with prettier sentences.) He’s asked by his ex-girlfriend Shasta to find her new lover, Mickey, a real-estate mogul who’s gone missing. Then someone frames Doc for the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and, oh, the plot from there on out is best described as “labyrinthine”. Or, indeed, “Pynchonian”, which is much the same thing.

I liked it. There are things that threw me out momentarily – the male gaze is strong with this one – but, overall, I liked it. That’s, I think, because I’m a sucker for gnarly books, books with long winding sentences like this one:

Uphill and invisible, traffic out on the boulevard to and from the freeway uttered tuneful exhaust phrases which went echoing out to sea, where the crews of oil tankers sliding along, hearing them, could have figured it for wildlife taking care of nighttime business on some exotic coast.

Dreamy, elegiac, cluttered, full of stuff that never quite comes into focus, Pynchon’s prose is a microcosm of the world his novels evoke – a world teetering on the edge of comprehensibility. Murder mysteries are supposed to bring order out of chaos; what Inherent Vice does is bring something that could be order, in a certain light, just to the point where it’s not quiiite in focus yet. It’s like listening to someone with a heavy accent: true clarity remains tantalisingly unachievable.

Anyway. That’s what I liked about Inherent Vice. It’s not Pynchon’s best novel. It’s not particularly memorable as Pynchon goes. But…it was pretty cool to live in for a little while.


Review: The Compleat Discworld Atlas

The Compleat Discworld Atlas is a lovely book. Let’s get that out of the way first. Thick, richly-illustrated pages describing each of the colourful countries and lands that make up Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; one of those elastic loops to keep the book closed; an impressively detailed fold-out map, complete with lines of latitude and longitude (appropriately adjusted for a flat world), magic concentrations and temperature ranges. It’s very geeky. And, for a Discworld fan like me, it’s…fun.

But less fun than it should be. Because there’s a sense in which a book like this (which was, it seems, one of Pratchett’s last creations) misses the point of Discworld. Discworld was built out of a series of jokes. There are consistencies between the books, especially as the series goes on, but we always have the sense that Pratchett’s happy to bend the setting around the story he wants to tell. It’s not a place that was ever meant to be mapped. (I think there’s actually a joke to that effect in the preface to one of the books. It goes something like: “This book does not contain a map. Feel free to draw your own.” Fourteen-year-old me loved that.)

That’s…not a problem per se. The problem is, I think, is that this particular book completely misses the sense of fun and parody and transgression that characterises Discworld as a body of work. (There are fun Discworld maps that exist! I’ve seen an Ankh-Morpork map drawn by Stephen Player which I particularly covet.) It takes itself too seriously, its mock-encyclopaedic objectivity unleavened by the wit and wordplay of the novels. (There are some puns. They are leaden and over-explained.)

And codifying Discworld in an atlas like this makes the novels’ Anglocentrism particularly overt and particularly problematic. Everyone knows that Ankh-Morpork is the heart of the Discworld. It is its vital, beating heart; it feels like a real city even in the early novels. It’s also pretty explicitly a London analogue. That’s sort of fine in the novels, because Pratchett was a British author, and the books’ humour is specifically British, and most of their main characters are recognisably British in some form or another (with a few exceptions): so it makes a certain amount of sense that this vast and teeming world should be filtered through a British point of view.* But the objectivity of an atlas means that equal weight is ostensibly placed on each country. Which makes it very obvious when many of those countries are made up of vaguely racist stereotypes. Seeing “wives” listed alongside “camels” as an export from an African-coded country of nomads was a particular kick in the teeth: a vicious form of sexism thrown off as a careless, racist joke.

There is a vague conceit that the atlas has been partially compiled by Rincewind, the cowardly wizard-hero of some of the earlier Discworld novels, who comes with his own bundle of (partly-unexamined) insecurities and prejudices. But this is mentioned once in the preface and then never again; the text has none of the colour that might otherwise serve to distance narrator from author. (See, by way of contrast, the Discworld companion book Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, which is a delight throughout, sprinkled with quintessentially Ogg-ish gems like “If you go to other people’s funerals, they’ll be sure to come to yours.”)

I don’t want to say “this is a terrible book”. Pratchett gets a lot of leeway from me, in part because it’s impossible for me to have any kind of critical distance from his novels. But this doesn’t feel like Discworld, this overly fannish work of codification and reification. (It’s perhaps telling that the Discworld Emporium, the company licensed with selling Discworld merchandise, is listed as one of the copyright holders.) Or, rather, it feels like the worst of Discworld. The map itself may turn out to be a lovely reading companion; but I can’t imagine ever really going back to the gazetteer. Which is a shame, given how expensive the whole package actually is.

*Even so, I think Interesting Times and Pyramids might make me uncomfortable if I read them for the first time now.

Top Ten Series I Want to Start

  1. The Orphan’s Tales – Catherynne Valente. I have made no secret of my desire to read everything Valente has ever written. I’ve never seen The Orphan’s Tales on sale in the UK, though.
  2. The Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold. Ohmyword, I said back in February I’d definitely start reading these this year. I HAVE FAILED.
  3. La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman. The first in the series, The Book of Dust, just came out, and I am excited! (Like, His Dark Materials was a significant presence in my childhood, so revisiting the world will be lovely. Hopefully.)
  4. The Dandelion Dynasty – Ken Liu. Because I’m trying to read more SFF by POCs, and this series sounds like it could be fascinating.
  5. The Alliance-Union series – C. J. Cherryh. This…is another series that’s been on my list since, um, January. To be scrupulously fair, these are actually quite difficult to find in the UK.
  6. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor. I’ve been wanting to read this for ages. Weirdly, my local library – in the manner of libraries everywhere – only has the sequel, Binti: Home. Which is frustrating.
  7. Johannes Cabal – Jonathan L. Howard. I am assured this is a fun series. It sounds like a fun series. My library has the first book. A fortuitous concatenation of circumstances.
  8. The Southern Reach trilogy – Jeff VanderMeer. This kind of feels like it’s essential reading for SFF fans, and I still haven’t made my way to it.
  9. October Daye – Seanan McGuire. It’s really getting embarrassing how many things I said I’d read I actually haven’t.
  10. Dune – Frank Herbert. The Dune series is a perennial on my want-to-read lists; it never manages to make it to the top of them. One day. One day.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Soulless

This review contains spoilers.

Mrs Loontwill…burst into the room. Only to find her daughter entwined on the couch with Lord Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, behind a table decorated with the carcasses of three dead chickens.

Which is Soulless in a sentence. And it is glorious.

Some context: Soulless is the first novel in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, an immensely satisfying confection of steampunk, paranormal romance and British wit. (Which is particularly remarkable given the fact that Carriger’s actually American.) When a lone vampire is found murdered in a library (totally not stabbed with a sharp parasol, no not at all), Alexia Tarabotti, confirmed spinster with an unfashionably Italian complexion and decidedly unbiddable demeanour, becomes drawn into the investigation, alongside the ruggedly handsome werewolf alpha Lord Maccon.

High jinks ensue, as they inevitably do in these situations, helped along by the fact that Alexia has no soul, and can thus turn vampires and werewolves temporarily human while she’s touching them.

The best thing about Soulless is that it is completely aware of how utterly ridiculous its premise and its plot are. It knows that no actual Victorian gentlewoman would ever be allowed to get herself into half the compromising situations Alexia finds herself in (let’s just say that there’s a lot of entwining). It also knows that letting Victorian women do what they would never have done is part of what steampunk’s for: it is wish fulfilment, and also an exploitation of a historical moment (Soulless is set in an alternative 1873) when femininity was on the cusp of becoming something new. It’s partly that tension, between tradition, etiquette, the trappings of wealth (Soulless is obsessed, again in a gloriously knowing, over-the-top way, with stuff: colourful Victorian costumes – many of them worn by the gay vampire Lord Akeldama – mouthwatering cakes, carriages and carpets and those devoured chickens), and social progress, the boldness of youth, that draws us back to steampunk, I think. It’s a space in which the future is both full of potential and bounded in very specific ways, and that’s an interesting site to explore.

Of course, because it is steampunk, and a romance, its progressiveness is limited. It centres privilege: Alexia may have been passed over for a husband, and her mother and stepfather may not be loving parents exactly, but they hardly deprive their daughter. Delightful as the novel’s interest in manners is – Alexia is more likely to spike a piece of cake with her fork than drive a stake into a vampire’s heart – it’s also symptomatic of steampunk’s central flaw: its conviction that, to put it flippantly, etiquette and breeding make the world more shiny. Adam Roberts explains it better than I do (in his review of Aurorarama, printed in Sibilant Fricative):

…the ground of [steampunk’s] appeal is a sense that the modern world is lacking in refinement. What steampunk tells us is that there’s nothing to prevent the marriage of contemporary technological convenience with the elegance and good manners of the 19th century. shorthand for this, of course, is breeding, and to think of it like that is to understand the extent to which steampunk is embroiled in reactionary ideologies of class superiority.

And: Alexia is headstrong, intelligent, pragmatic and active – in other words, a female character who’s allowed to be as complex as her male counterparts – but she does also end up married. Her revolutionary potential, her infinitely-horizoned future, is tamed, redirected into heterosexual romance. It is, undoubtedly, a particularly satisfying romance, and a better match than a lot of female characters get – I don’t want to downplay that at all – but it does still represent a closing-down, a narrowing of horizons. This is not a novel that has solutions for other women like Alexia, or indeed for lower-class women.

But that’s not what Soulless is aiming for, after all: it’s aiming for affectionate parody, for lovely romance, for a bold female character who knows what she wants, for a swift plot with vampires and werewolves and insults and cake.

So: take it as it is, and it is glorious.

I’ve asked for the sequel for Christmas.

50-Word Review: Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee

Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, Meera Syal

Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee follows four Indian women in London, tracing their friendships and their romantic entanglements over a year. It’s a novel about culture clash and the weight of parental expectation. Like life, Syal’s writing is lyrical, lush, with the sting of realism in its tail.

Theatre Review: The Tempest

Well, this review is well out of date, I’m afraid. I managed to catch what I think was the last performance of the RSC’s The Tempest at the Barbican, directed by Gregory Doran, on the 18th August, a good two months ago.

I’m reasonably familiar with the play – I did a close reading of “Come unto these yellow sands” as part of the coursework for my degree, and I’ve read it a couple of times – but I’ve never seen it on stage before. So this is not so much a review as a series of scattered thoughts.

My general impression was that Doran didn’t particularly have anything to say about the text. Its USP, so to speak, involved giving Mark Quartley, who played Ariel, a motion-sensitive camera and projecting a CGI sprite on hanging screens at particularly dramatic moments. Which, given that you can access CGI literally at the flick of a switch nowadays, feels like a bit of a cheat onstage, and too over-the-top for The Tempest anyway; perhaps it would work in something like the riotous Midsummer Night’s Dream, but The Tempest is subtler and sadder and stranger, and, to my mind anyway, needs a magic more tenuous and less obvious.

Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero, on the other hand, was fascinating and not at all sympathetic: veering unpredictably between generous patriarch and jealous, insecure tyrant, afraid of losing what power he has over his daughter and the people of his island, but tired of his isolation. If the Barbican Tempest was about anything, it was about the tragedy of old age, the loss of it. In this context, I found the final speech of the play – “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/Let your indulgence set me free” – really quite interesting; a fourth-wall-breaking appeal to the audience to applaud Prospero, end the play, redeem his faults, give his story meaning and purpose through the closure of an ending. I actually did some work on similar endings to plays of the period for my degree: plays like Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Apprentice and Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, which end in judgement scenes which also tend to break the fourth wall. There’s a sense in which Doran’s Tempest leaves the questions and contradictions of Shakespeare’s text open for the audience to judge.

The play was most unsatisfactory, though, on its treatment of Caliban – in fact, I’d say it revealed exactly how much of a problem Caliban is in the original text. Like Prospero, Joe Dixon’s Caliban was unpredictable, veering between sympathetic and abhorrent; unlike Prospero, however, he was never given the benefit of the doubt – we were supposed to see him as comic relief at best, as monstrous at worst. It’s become commonplace to read Caliban as the colonised Other, and Doran’s refusal to engage with that, his decision to allow Prospero to drive Caliban off, the only character not to receive a consolatory happy ending, was vaguely troubling.

The Tempest as text is quite notoriously slippery – it’s been categorised by some critics as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, precisely because it’s difficult to say exactly what it is and what it’s for. In this context, the little uneasinesses of Doran’s Tempest make a sort of sense: they’re an attempt to render the text reasonably faithfully onto the stage; to create a kind of “neutral” theatrical version of The Tempest. In other words: this is conservative Shakespeare, an attempt (despite the CGI gimmickry) to represent Shakespeare’s text authentically. It’s a job that it does well! As you’d expect from an RSC production, it’s very competent indeed – well-acted and well-staged. But it’s not a memorable thing.

Top Ten Underrated Fantasy Novels

  1. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Nobody talks very much about Palimpsest, but it might actually be my favourite of Valente’s novels. The city of Palimpsest is at once beautiful and magical and painful and terrible; reading the novel makes the world seem wide and wonderful again.
  2. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Hardly anyone outside academic circles has heard of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which seems ridiculous, because it’s had the most enormous impact on fantasy as a genre. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste: it is dense, baroque, Gothically overwritten. I love it.
  3. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. Hardinge actually seems to be getting more press since The Lie Tree won the Costa; at least her new novel A Skinful of Shadows is being advertised on the Tube, which, surely, must be an Author Goal? A Face Like Glass is wonderful in ways that are similar to Palimpsest: the world where it’s set is horrifying and dystopic, but also lush and full of wonders.
  4. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. The few reviews I’ve read of Oyeyemi’s collection of linked short stories have been vaguely critical of its unfocused nature; but to me that’s a feature, not a bug. I love the messiness of the book: again like Palimpsest, its inconclusiveness leaves doors open for wonder to creep in.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. Ben Okri is hardly underrated; nor is he a fantasy author, strictly speaking. But I’d never heard of Starbook before I stumbled across it in the library, which is a shame, because, although it has problems, it’s also very beautiful. It’s rare that anything I read really makes me see the world differently, and Starbook did.
  6. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist is a novel from a genre completely overshadowed by Tolkien and his literary descendants. Published in the 1920s, it’s a story of Fairyland – where Fairyland is at once alluring and perilous, sitting just out of reach over the horizon. It does wonder very well indeed, maintaining Fairyland’s mystique and magic right through to the end.
  7. Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho. This is a fun, diverse Regency romance that draws on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Like Clarke’s novel, it also scrutinises the self-defeating nature of institutional oppression.
  8. The Book of Taltos – Steven Brust. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard more about Brust’s novels: The Book of Taltos is one of the very few epic fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed recently, precisely because it doesn’t take itself very seriously. And because, I suspect, of its moral ambiguity: its protagonist, after all, is a wisecracking assassin.
  9. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven feels more like fantasy than SF: it’s about dreams becoming reality, and nothing is more fantastical, probably, than dreams. I also get the impression that it’s one of Le Guin’s minor works – which still makes it better than whole swathes of SFF by other authors.
  10. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I reread this first book in Reeve’s MG series about mobile cities preying on each other recently, and was seriously impressed by a) how steampunk it is, and b) how aware it is of institutional oppression. It’s a very sophisticated work of MG, and I want to get round to reading the sequels again soon.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)