Wednesday, 3 November 2010

JPod: Douglas Coupland

Published in 2006, ‘JPod’ is a seemingly sprawling account of Ethan Jarlewski, a twenty-something games company employee sharing a cubicle with five co-workers who, either by some weird computer glitch or the twisted designs of Human Resources, also all have surnames beginning with the letter J.

Ethan may come from a statistically average nuclear family but there is nothing average about his cannabis-growing mother or his ballroom-dancing, wannabe actor father, both of whom expect their younger son to drop whatever he is doing at the drop of a hat whenever they need him to boost their ego or sort one of the many problems they accumulate through their unorthodox lifestyles.

What differentiates this from other Coupland novels is the constant interruption on the pages of bizarre streams of erroneous information: a list of countless prime numbers; pi, calculated to a thousand decimal places; marketing slogans; blue screen computer information; glyphs of Mandarin words which are translated into English below. Although these insertions are largely reflective of early 21st century culture but their random appearance reminds me of nothing so much as the odd illustrations and narrative interruptions of Laurence Sterne’s 1759 publication, ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’. Indeed, just as ‘Tristram Shandy’ shifts narrators from time to time, so ‘JPod’ includes snatches of other narrative perspectives through the inclusion of the word games and bizarre self-advertisments the JPodders indulge in to pass the working day.

Another literary landmark also springs to mind during certain passages which are presented in a smaller typeface and with narrower spacing on the page. These passages are usually stream-of-consciousness ramblings, possibly the work of Ethan simply dumping his thoughts down after a particularly long or troublesome day at the game-designing coal-face, but they are also reminiscent of fragments of ‘Ulysses’, especially the ‘Molly pages’ which comprise the last sixty or so pages of James Joyce’s meaty, meandering tome.

Is Coupland trying to create a postmodern Modernist work, then? Ethan Jarlewski could be equated to Joyce’s Harold Bloom in various respects – both are ostensibly ordinary men buffeted hither and yon by the designs of those around them and the apparently indifferent hand of Fate; both are prone to a level of introspection that must at least ensure their navels are spotlessly clean; and both are the central characters in novels which, for all the winding plot twists, actually allow them to progress very little.

If Coupland really was trying to add to the literary canon the attempt has met with mixed responses from the critics. One even considered the structure ‘lazy’ when it first came out, which for me proves that the journalist in question didn’t appreciate what the novel is actually trying to do. In the long run the Joycean echoes are probably stylistic rather than any endeavour to produce ‘worthy’ literature as ‘Jpod’ is far more a satire on the information saturated life we now all live. The appearance in the narrative of Coupland himself adds weight to this interpretation, particularly when it slowly becomes clear that the entire narrative has allegedly been constructed by the author using Ethan’s own computer hard drive. This explains the random insertions, of course, but also implies that Coupland is trying to tell us that our lives continue to be stories, continue to be suitable material for fictionalisation, irrespective of how insignificant or unimportant the gadget-driven, cyber-obsessed 21st century can make us feel.

As ever, Coupland proves his mastery at inhabiting the characters he creates. And if there is less diversity of character here than in previous novels – such as the luxuriant ‘Hey Nostradamus!’ for instance – perhaps that’s indicative of the homogenisation of the individual engendered by certain modern work cultures. As a satire on contemporary corporate practices this novel succeeds far and above Scarlett Thomas’s ‘PopCo’ which makes it more than a winner in my estimation.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

BabyBarista and the Art of War: Tim Kevan (Bloomsbury)

Expanded from his BabyBarista Times blog, this first novel from Tim Kevan is an uproarious diary of intrigue, backstabbing and dubious moral attitudes, set in the allegedly morally upstanding world of law courts and Chambers. BabyBarista himself is a Machiavellian young pupil barrister whose early claims of naivety are quickly rubbished when it becomes clear that he will stop at nothing to ensure he, and not one of the other four pupils in his chambers, is granted tenancy at the end of the year.

BabyBarista’s first pupilmaster, known simply as TheBoss, hands him a copy of ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu on his first day but it is clear from the off that nobody is going to put Baby in a corner anyway. Without the ancient strategic text, Kevan’s narrator would have been a formidable enough proposition; armed with it he acts out ever-darker and underhand schemes to achieve his ends. Nonetheless, BabyBarista remains charming and entertaining enough throughout to guarantee we’re still rooting for him come the denouement. This is, in part, due to his wry observations on the pomp and circumstance which lays like a veil over British legal proceedings. Why wear 200 year out of date wigs and gowns in court, he wonders, when modern defendants might have more faith in somebody wearing a superhero outfit? Why should prosecution and defence counsels spend hours arguing to and fro to reach an out-of-court settlement when they can decide the matter with a quick game of Battleships and spend the rest of the day drinking champagne?

There are shades of Francis Urquhart, echoes of Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey and a degree of Iago to this would-be-Rumpole, but many of the external cultural references are actually drawn from television comedy. One of the most entertaining scenes consists of BabyBarista’s pre-courtroom war of words with a more experienced counsel he refers to as TheCreep. TheCreep attempts to undermine Baby’s confidence by haranguing him on the train heading for their court appearance, but is rebuffed at every turn by the Catherine Tate catchphrase ‘Bothered.’ Worryingly, this episode and many others are told so convincingly that I began to pray I never need defending by a junior, or even senior barrister. Some of Kevan’s counsels do not appear to come armed to the battle of wits that is crosscourt debate.

As the novel rattles towards deadline day pretty much every character either falls apart, usually as a result of BabyBarista’s machinations, or reveals themselves to be even more loathsome than they first appeared. With one notable exception. OldRuin is unmistakably the conscience of the piece, full of avuncular advice and driven by an awareness that life is not about avoiding mistakes or behaving perfectly, it is about what we learn from our errors of judgement, morally as well as practically. Without this virtually lone advocate of human decency the novel would be less effective and our sympathies for BabyBarista himself might falter, the more he becomes embroiled in smearing his rivals. What OldRuin allows the reader to understand, however, is that Baby might not need throwing out with the bath water; he just might realise that skulduggery can only get him so far. Is he redeemable? Quite possibly, but then, a rehabilitated BabyBarista would rule out any possibility of a sequel, wouldn’t he?

Tightly written, interspersed with enough out-of-chambers action to keep the layman riveted, peppered with keenly-observed, if rarely likeable characters, and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny in places, Tim Kevan’s debut is an absolute delight.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Lord of the Rings: J.R.R. Tolkien

Can anything new be said about Tolkien's one thousand page epic? Not particularly but familiarty should not breed contempt, especially not when this is one of the most popular novels of all time, and especially not when it is always a rewarding and enthralling read.
I was probably sixteen years old when I first read it and can still remember the shock and surprise I felt when it began to dawn on me that this was no lighthearted adventure story in the way its predecessor, 'The Hobbit', had been. The tale of Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy the ring of power grows ever tense the closer he draws to the fiery mountain into which he must cast the ring. I can almost smell the sulphur on the air, feel the stench of evil grasping me by the throat. And, despite this being probably the tenth time I've read the novel, I still expect it to end disastrously, such is the thrall that the ring appears to hold over all those who come into contact with it.
Tolkien's knowledge of mythology, of religious symbolism, and of folk lore served him well in his construction of an entire world. Middle Earth is so comprehensively imagined that we almost take his attention to detail for granted as we travel his lands. This is the culmination of a life's work (despite living fo for some twenty-odd years after finishing 'The Lord of the Rings' Tolkien never completed another novel and the posthumous publications issued under instruction from his son, Christoper, were, to all intents and purposes, notes and fragments of Middle Earth history.
What strikes me most on reading again is the same sensation that struck me when I first saw Peter Jackson's superb adaptations of the individual books contained within the novel: this is a tale of a lost age. By this I do not mean that Middle Earth was once real - I am a literary critic, not a believer in fairies - but that the values and human sentimentality at the core of the work seem to have been ditched by modern society. it is difficult not to read of the love Samwise Gamgee feels for his master, Frodo, without 21st century cynicism creeping in and wondering whether Tolkien knew how homo-erotic it all sounded.
And yet to allow such postmodern knowingness to override the morality play underlying the tale is to miss the point. Chivalry, valour, honour amongst companions and love for one's fellow man are qualities sorely lacking in today's world. Perhaps they were already gone in Tolkien's time, given that he wrote the bulk of the novel during the Second World War, the bloodiest and most depraved example of inhumanity and hatred the world has ever known. If so then Tolkien himself was crying out for a mislaid sense of honour and for the triumph of good over evil. I would like to believe that such values are attainable in life, not only within the pages of epic novels, but this possibly proves that I too have reached an age when I fear for the future and romanticize the past?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin: David Nobbs

If I were to be stranded in the middle of a (blissfully Ant and Dec free) jungle and allowed only one novel to take to while away the hours until I am eaten by ferocious carnivores, this would be the novel. Not Dickens, not Orwell, not E.M. Forster, but Nobbs. I am fully aware that 'The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin' is not the greatest novel in the world but it is my all time favourite novel, one I have read and reread since the age of thirteen.
Originally published in 1975 as 'The Death of Reginald Perrin' the novel was picked up by BBC television and subsequent reprints were retitled to fit the name given to the TV series which was so perfectly cast. Earlier this year David Nobbs was involved in an attempt to bring Reggie's tale up to date but for my money it was wasted effort by the BBC. They should simply have shown repeats of the show from the seventies and urged people to read the novel.
When I first read about Reggie's mid-life crisis - which sees him fake suicide, assume various false identities and then realise it has all been a dreadful mistake and that he misses his wife and family - I was a teenager. Yet there was a powerful message for me even at such a tender age: the source of Reggie's malaise is the fact that he has spent his entire life working to promote desserts. All my life I have known the value of 'not giving the best years of my life to puddings' courtesy of David Nobbs.
Reggie's breakdown affords Nobbs an opportunity to take swipes at many of the conformist tendencies of the middle classes, from their mock-tudor housing estates to their habit of standing on the exactly the same spot on the train station every morning. Reggie begins to say and do the things many people wish they could say and do but can never bring themselves to challenge the apparent order of their materially comfortable if spiritually empty existence. Nobbs knows his targets well and yet, despite showing up the monstrosity of certain aspects of society he does not make monsters of his characters. Not even Reggie's boss, the brusque C.J., can be seen as a monster when he is portrayed with so many frailties, just like any of the other characters.
And what a cast of characters they are. From Reggie's long-suffering but far from subservient wife Elizabeth to his stiff-legged, staccato-voiced brother-in-law Jimmy; from pompous son-in-law Tom to mockney, leftie son Mark; and from simpering, yes-man colleague David Harris-Jones to the practially incompetent work's doctor, Doc Morrisey - all are flawed, all are fully rounded despite being sparingly sketched and coming replete with their own catch-phrases. All are gloriously and hilariously human.
On the back of my edition there is a quote from Ronnie Barker, who was initially sounded out as a candidate to play Reggie in the TV series. He says 'I laughed 287 times and cried twice...I still feel I am Reggie Perrin as I walk about, what a beautiful book.' I coudn't have put it better myself, Ronnie.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Native Son: Richard Wright

Published in 1940, two decades before America finally began attempting to dismantle the inherent segregation within the mind's of many of its white citizens, this is a telling tale of a young black man who accidentally murders a wealthy young white woman. Bigger Thomas, twenty year old hoodlum, is offered a job with a rich family who are sympathetic to the problems of black people living in Chicago at that time. Within hours of stepping over their threshold he has faltered into a path that, in restrospect, he comes to feel is the only one his life was likely to have taken anyway. Mary Dalton's death truly is an accident but, knowing he will not be believed because of the colour of his skin, Bigger feeds her body to the furnace in the cellar, gruesomely having to remove her head to fit her in.
In his mind he feels he has murdered countless times: the confusing and heady combination of guilt, hatred and lack of self-esteem that his society has bred in him ensures that his feelings towards the whites he encounters are part rage, part helplessness. As though the act of killing Mary has freed him in some way, allowed him to see himself as a real man, capable of taking action, no matter how wrong the action, Bigger toys with pride in his behaviour until he realises that the law will undoubtedly catch him and sentence him to death. Or, more likely, he will be killed at the hands of a lynch mob whose hate and fear are being cranked up and up by a propagandist press.
Bigger kills again, this time it is his girlfriend who dies because he's afraid she might betray him when he goes on the run. The papers do not appear concerned about the death of a young black woman and simply use the details to portray Bigger as even more of a monster than they've already painted him. Almost at every turn Bigger is faced with anger and prejudice, both of which are fuelled by an underlying fear of a black American population which at that time numbered twelve million.
When he is caught he finds no comfort in the words of his mother who urges him to confess all to God so that they might meet again in the afterlife. He holds out no hope that anyone will understand the emotions coursing through him, many of which he himself has only come to understand because of what he has done. For the first time in his life he sees the extent of segregation and the limited channels of thought and expectation such a system imposes upon the lower caste. The only one who understands this, the only one who seems capable of drawing it out of Bigger in conversation, is the Jewish lawyer who represents him. A Communist sympathiser, Max attempts to negate the death sentence by arguing to the court that, while readily admitting he has murdered, Bigger is a symptom of a skewed and oppressive social network.
Richard Wright's narrative style is abrupt, it is heavily muscled and downright pushy. The novel was dismissed by James Baldwin, another black writer who, like Wright, first came to priminence through the 'Harlem Renaissance' (in the 20s and 30s Jewish publishers began to print books by black writers which other publishing houses had turned down, thus a new generation of writers and poets were able to find a wider audience for their unique perspective on American culture). Baldwin considered 'Native Son' to be a 'protest novel', and it is true to say that there is a powerful odour of propaganda inhabiting the book, much of it arguing for black equality but some of it also shaped and driven by Wright's own sympathies for the Communist cause. And yet Max's impassioned summing-up plea for imprisonment instead of the electric chair for Bigger, for all its Bolshevik rhetoric, is the most compelling part of the novel for it is the sole instance of a character who can see the larger picture when it comes to American society. Max appreciates that every time a black criminal is treated with so much more hostility than a white criminal, every time the press and public hound black people for the misdemenours they themselves might equally be capable of, the social problems which raised a generation of men like Bigger will never improve.
Wright died in 1960 and therefore witnessed only the fledging changes finally ushered in during the sixties when segregation was outlawed. He did not live to see black culture become increasingly intergrated into American society during the seventies and eighties. He did not live to see what might have been considered impossible in the 1940s: a black President. But he knew exactly what the problems were and trealised hat centuries of indoctrination needed overthrowing before such changes could come about. No country is ever perfect, Utopia was not what black people were arguing for in Wright's time. Equal rights to earn a living, to choose their careers, to decide where they wanted to live: those were the freedoms black society were being denied. And Wright tells such an evocative tale of the effects of such restrictions that it becomes patently obvious that habit, not logic or reason, was keeping those restrictions in place. If only white America had known and acted on this fact earlier, novels like this would no longer hold such resonance.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife: Audrey Niffenegger

Is it science fiction? Is it a fairy-tale? A fable? Perhaps it utilises aspects of all three but what Audrey Niffenegger's debut novel actualy is, is a love story. Granted it is a love story the like of which there has not quite been before: Henry suffers from a genetic defect which throws him backwards and forwards in time without control or warning; Clare has loved him since she first met him at the age of six but has to somehow fill her life in the gaps between his appearances.
By the time Clare is twenty years old she has met Henry countless times but then they meet for the first time in 'real time' - Henry is eight years older than her and has yet to experience any of their meetings. The versions of him that visitied her throughout her childhood were older. This young version is a borderline alcoholic, a womaniser and obsessed with his mother's death some twenty years earlier. Any of us might harbour an obsession with a parent we lost as a very small child, but for Henry the memories are worse: he frequently travels back to the car crash which killed his mother, and which would have killed him too if he had not (uncontrollably) time-travelled in that split second.
The title of the novel forefronts Clare because without her Henry would probably never find the relative peace and certain contentment that their love brings him. And it is the overpowering strength of that love, expertly conveyed by Niffenegger, that makes the narrative work. The intimacies, the frustrations, the joys and the occasional misunderstandings between Henry and Clare are the stuff of every relationship and compel the reader to focus on their emotional bond rather than spending the whole time pondering how unlikely this genetic defect of Henry's actually is.
The narrative style ensures the plot rattles along as it remains resolutely in the present tense. Clare and Henry tag-team in describing the events of their lifes and their love, which allows for greater exploration of the different ways in which the two of them struggle to come to terms with their unorthodox relationship (and later marriage). Once they are married Clare wants a baby to make sure she has a part of Henry with her whenever he is lost in time. It seems his genes are the dominant ones as she miscarries on several occasions due to the baby time-traveling in and out of the womb. Eventually they find specialists who take their situation seriously and work out ways of trying to suppress the chrono-dysfunction through use of certain drugs. When a child is finally born Clare is delighted, despite the ultimate irony that Alba herself jumps backwards and forwards in time.
Throughout there lies a slowly tightening sense of impending tragedy, which Niffenegger pins the whole motion of the novel on. When that tragedy finally strikes it is truly heart-rending, even when reading the book for a second time. Rather a lot to live up to and, by all accounts, the follow up - 'Her Fearful Symmetry' - is somewhat disappointing in comparison.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Norwegian Wood: Haruki Murakami

Shorter than some of his novels and bereft of his trademark immersion in supernatural and outwordly events, this is nevertheless a sumptuous and highly satisfying read. The narrator is Toru Watanabe who is remembering the emotional turmoil that was his teenage life some twenty years previously. He thinks of Naoko, his first love who had been the girlfriend of his best friend, Kizuki, until Kizuki killed himself at the age of seventeen. Naoko and Toru are drawn to one another through loss and yet find it almost impossible to express or render tangible their feelings.
The novel conveys such a consistent and overriding sense of loss and longing that it is unsurprising when other characters die. Naoko reveals that her sister commited suicide some years before Kizuki did so. And when Toru meets another girl, Midori, one of the key experiences of his burgeoning relationship with her is when he visits her father in hospital, makes some kind of connection with him only to learn he has died a few days later.
Torn between the unresolved questions of the past as embodied by his love for Naoko and the possibility of reaching into the future by commiting himself to Midori, Toru is wracked with confusion, guilt, and eventually depression when it becomes clear that Naoko's mental health problems are never going to be cured.
For a tale of a young man trying to choose between two lovers the narrative reveals more than most might, dragging us through Toru's promiscuous attempts to feel alive in the arms of random strangers. In lesser hands such details might turn us against the protagonist but Murakami writes with such tenderness, such comprehension of the failures and foibles of youth that there is no loss of sympathy or engagement with Toru. Throughout the narrative there runs an evocative portrayal of the confusions of a boy on the cusp of becoming a man. Toru's journey from selfish adolecence to self-aware adulthood is a painful and frequently traumatic one. Aren't they all? Given the choice, would many of us opt to go back and relive their teenage years again? Far better to travel in time through memories; far less disturbing to be able to finally make some sense of the turbulence from the perspective of another two decades experience on the planet.
In the end, some of Toru's choices are made for him by fate and circumstances. That he finally realises that the past will always leave him frozen if he cannot move forward, is admirable but there is a sense that the older version of Toru narrating the story still ponders what might have been now and then. In the end Murakami leads us to the only truly satisfying conclusion available to the plot. There are various other endings he might have written, but none of them would have left quite such an indelible impression on the reader's own emotions.