Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A Long Way Down: Nick Hornby

I ignored Nick Hornby's novels for some time but for entirely ridiculous reasons. 'Fever Pitch', his non-fictional account of growing up supporting Arsenal Football Club, culminates in the final game of the 1988/89 season in which Liverpool played Arsenal to decide the league title. Liverpool were favourites and could have actually lost the game by a single goal and still be crowned champions. Arsenal managed a 2-0 victory and thus stole the title away. Guess which of the two teams I support and why 'Fever Pitch' was therefore too painful for me to read?
It was the film of 'High Fidelity', Hornby's first novel, which led me to re-evaluate him as a writer. So I couldn't cope with the painful memories captured by one of his books, was this a reason to dismiss him entirely? No, of course it wasn't. And 'High Fidelity' proved that not only was Hornby as fanatical about football as me but was also completely nerdish about music too. My kind of guy, in other words, and the novels I have since read have confirmed it.
Of them all, 'A Long Way Down' is possibly his most ambitious: narrated by four different narrators in a tag-team style reminiscent of one of my other favourite contemporary authors, Chuck Palahniuk, the novel is a darkly comic interrogation of what drives people to the brink of suicide and then leads them away from the parapet again.
Put like that, of course, it doesn't sound very amusing, but Hornby mines a rich vein of macabre comedy through his four diametrically opposed characters. Martin is a disgraced Breakfast TV host whose troubles are largely of his own making. Jess is a seriously disturbed teenager who appears to have no concept of the personal space or emotional needs of others. JJ is a failed American musician reduced to delivery pizzas. And Maureen has spent the best years of her life tied to and cleaning up after a son so disabled he is practically a vegetable. They meet one New Year's Eve when all four have climbed to the top of a building which has become an infamous suicide spot. Frustrated at first that their decision to off themselves has been hindered by the presence of the others, they make a pact to try and stay alive and to meet up regularly.
Like some super-dysfunctional family their meetings are usually chaotic, argumentative and apparently pointless. And yet they keep coming together, so something about this bizarre gang of near-suicides must be doing them some good. What they learn along the way is not that they hate life but that they are far too attached to life as they want it to be and yet have not been brave enough to make the at-times hard choices which can sometimes make life feel more fulfilling.
From opening with a bunch of people ready to throw themselves off the top of a tall building Nick Hornby fashions a hilarious, touching, astonishingly believable tale of four misfits attempting to turn around the tragic supertanker of their individual lives. He gets under the skin of his characters with an apparently effortless ability to reveal depth and detail with the lightest of touches. For me this is Hornby's best writing, if not quite his best novel. The conclusion, though satisfying despite being open-ended, does not underline the entire thread of the narrative in the same way as does 'High Fidelity'. Perhaps there could be a sequel? And while we're on the subject of sequels, could he not write about Arsenal's last four, trophy-less seasons, just to cheer me up on the football front too?

Friday, 23 October 2009

Narziss and Goldmund: Hermann Hesse

Considered at the time to be Hesse's greatest work, this poetic novel continues the Jungian search for harmony within the self that underpins much of his work and is most prominent in the two novels which preceded 'Narziss and Goldmund' - 'Steppenwolf' and 'Siddhartha'.
The narrative follows the life of Goldmund who arrives at a secluded medieval monastery deep in the forests as a fresh faced, dreamy young boy. He is quickly taken under the wing of Narziss a highly talented scholar and teacher barely older than the new arrival. The unlikely pairing of the disciplined aesthetic and ultra-logical Narziss and the romantic, easily distracted Goldmund provides a metaphor for Hesse's take on Jung's ideas of needing to balance the masculine and feminine halves of the individual soul. Goldmund eventually departs the cloisters to search for a mother he can hardly remember but whose image drives him on through the trials and tribulations of life in the outside world. For almost two hundred pages, once he has taken leave of the monastic life, Goldmund is the sole focus of the narrative with Narziss encroaching more as an inspiration and a sense of absence than anything. In a way, then, Goldmund's journey is a search for his lost mother figure and it is a long, slow return to the most authoritative father figure in his life - Narziss.
Hesse's imagery throughout is masterful: his understanding of the way that thwarted creative instincts must find an outlet and expression was learnt first-hand. As with all his work, there is much of Hesse's own life, in here. He himself was pushed into religious pursuits by his parents only to rebel and set himself up as a poet and then novelist. The horrors of the First World War, against which he wrote prolifically before and during the conflict, probably lie behind his gruesome descriptions of Goldmund's experiences of death and despair in plague country. The Jungian subplot springs from the therapeutic restructuring Hesse underwent after several breakdowns and years of depressive interludes. By 1930, when this novel was first published, he appeared to have reconciled himself to the apparent contradictions within his own soul, thus 'Narziss and Goldmund' has a far more forgiving and acceptant tone than even 'Siddhartha'.
My one minor gripe is that the Penguin translation by Geoffrey Dunlop does not seem to allow Hesse's metaphorical talents to flow quite so well as modern versions of his works by translators such as Sherab Chodzin Kohn. But this is a trifling complaint as the imagery and the power of the narrative still transcend Dunlop's occasionally clumsy hand. A masterpiece.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Of Mice and Men: John Steinbeck

While many consider 'The Grapes of Wrath' to be Steinbeck's finest literary achievement, I have always preferred the economy and pathos of this 1937 novel. The tale of the mentally impaired hulk Lennie and his diminutive friend and mentor, George, takes its title from the Robert Burns quote and, during the course of just over a hundred pages of tense dialogue and rustic narrative, unveils the ways in which plans can go wrong even when they are the kind of simple pipe dream men fantasize about to make the hardships of the Depression that little bit more bearable.
The bulk of the action takes place on a Southern farm where George has secured work for the pair. They are running from an incident in the more Northerly town of Weed in which a girl mistook Lennie's childlike obsession with the feel of her clothing for a more sexual motive. Before they arrive at their new workplace George tries to drill into Lennie the importance of no more 'bad things' happening otherwise it will ruin their plan to earn enough money to buy their own place, where Lennie can raise rabbits. This opening scene allows Steinbeck to give his descriptive powers full rein: his use of active verbs breathes constant motion into the natural world he depicts and thus renders the trees and the river and the wildlife fully alive. Lennie and George's hopes for the future echo the scenery, seemingly full of life and new-bud green.
The final moments of the novel also take place in the same idyllic spot a mile or so from the ranch but this time the overriding sense is of absence, silence, even stagnation. By now, of course, Lennie has yet again 'done bad things' and is expecting George to come and find him and 'give him hell' again. The wind dies in the clearing, the sun leaves the valley, the water is still - Steinbeck racks up the tension with such delicate ease that the mechanics are barely noticeable and we are kept in the moment right up until the novel's dreadful yet inevitable conclusion.
The narrative works so effectively because, as well as being so in tune with the natural world around him, Steinbeck seems to know and love the Dustbowl people so well. He does not judge them, leaves us enough space to make our own decisions. He merely opens a door into the frustrations and restrictions of their life and times and leaves the business of value judgements to our own consciences. It takes a great writer to keep their own morality out of their work in this way and, in his most economical and most telling novel, Steinbeck proves his greatness beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Runaway Jury: John Grisham

I have never read Grisham before and, seeing as the cover boasts that he is 'the world's most popular author', I thought I'd give this one a go. I enjoyed the film version but they clearly made some big changes to get it to the screen.
Being Grisham, this is a court-room thriller, or rather, it is a jury drama, as most of the focus is on the members of the jury. Nicholas Easter is clearly delighted to have been selected for jury service in a huge trial for liability and damages against a tobacco company. As the trial unfolds and the plaintiff attempts to prove that cigarettes are often too addictive for smokers to quit despite knowing the health risks, Easter and his mysterious accomplice, Marlee, gradually work at the other jury members until they are certain they can deliver a verdict whichever way they choose.
Marlee is in constant contact with one Rankin Fitch, a shadowy, manipulative figure who uses means both fair and foul to try and ensure that the tobacco company wins the case. If it were to lose the industry as a whole would be liable for endless further such cases and might be financially ruined. He is very interested, then, when Marlee contacts him to say that she can swing the vote his way, for the sum of ten million dollars.
This is the stepping off point for Grisham to leave the solid ground of the courtroom and postulate about all manner of skulduggery and manoeuvring most of which is frankly beyond the realms of the believable. Whereas the first hundred and fifty pages keep the focus tightly on the realities of such types of litigation cases, the remaining three hundred pages unravel the real and replace it with farcical, barely credible scenarios. Jury strikes - would a judge really tolerate such behaviour or would he be far more likely to threaten the jurors with contempt of court? The latter, surely. And as for Nick Easter's ability to escape the motel where the jury is eventually sequestered for the remainder of the trial, in the first place the security would be far heavier than described, and in the second he'd be facing criminal charges himself when caught.
Are all of Grisham's novels too long? I got the sense that this tale had been stretched a little too thinly in the end. Perhaps his publishers pay by the word. It is a shame that I came away feeling so disinterested with the novel as Grisham's actual writing style is good. He does not need to flaunt how clever he is for the reader, unlike Dan Brown, but he does manage to impart quite a lot of specialised knowledge. Maybe the problem for me is that this is not the sort of novel I generally read. Were I a regular thriller reader then perhaps I'd have been gripped throughout. As it was, I was gripped by the initial idea and then grew bored as things became more and more ridiculous. No wonder they changed the ending of the movie.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams wrote endless versions of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: initially there was the radio version in 1978, swiftly followed by this, the first novel. A television series and four further novels were to follow, along with various treatments for a film which must have seemed destined never to exist, as far as dear old Douglas was concerned. That it took his sudden death in 2001, aged just 49, to initiate the fresh round of studio interest and rewrites that eventually resulted in the 2005 film version was the kind of tragic irony he might well have appreciated (and no doubt would have somehow incorporated into a Dirk Gently book).
I cannot now recall how old I was when I first read this book but I was probably still at school so it might have been while the television series was first on British screens. I was not entirely sure I understood throwaway snatches of intergalactic philosophy such as 'Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.' Nor did I have a clue how a spaceship could be powered by an Infinite Improbability Drive and somehow pass through every part of the universe at the same time. But the characters were utterly believable, which is what makes any science fiction novel work. Throw your protagonists into the most bizarre and outlandish of situations but ensure you focus on recognisible characteristics and you will keep your readers enthralled even when they don't have a clue what the science is all about.
As the central human (possibly only human - isn't Trillian revealed as only part human in a later novel?) Arthur Dent stumbles his way across the universe after the destruction of Earth in just the kind of tetchy, resigned yet barely engaged manner I would hope to display myself if such a turn of events befell me (and I was lucky enough to have a friend like Ford Prefect who was actually from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and not from Guildford as he had previously claimed). Ford seems odd at first but then we are properly introduced to Zaphod Beeblebrox who takes odd to another dimension. President of the Galaxy, equipped with two heads and an extra arm; this is the man who had whisked Trillian away from a party in Islington six months before the Earth's demise, after Arthur had 'totally and utterly failed to get off with her'. Trillian herself has four or five degrees and probably knows more about flying the Heart of Gold spaceship than any of them (when it comes to gadgetry, even alien men don't seem to think they need to read the manual).
That they are all thrown together and embark upon Zaphod's insane quest to discover things about the universe that are so enormous he has even tampered with his own brains to prevent himself finding out what his motivations are, is improbable. But that's the point. Douglas Adams was famously atheistic but even atheists need to find some workable thesis for how and why the universe exists. For Adams, God is not in the details, but quantum physics is, along with copious servings of extremely unlikely events and plausibility-stretching coincidences. And if the universe as we already know it is wildly improbable then it is a short leap to populate it with depressed robots, pan-dimensional beings masquerading as mice to conduct experiments on Earthlings, planetary destruction fleets led by gargantuan Vogons whose idea of torture is to read poetry to their prisoners, and super computers who spend seven and a half million years considering the question of life, the universe and everything and come up with the answer '42.'
The film that eventually hit cinema screens some 26 years after this novel was published took one or two liberties with plot but the intrinsic absurdity remained intact. Die-hard fans who have taken against it should give it another chance - Hollywood investment practically demanded that the potential for a romance between Arthur and Trillian had to be more fully explored (a fact Douglas Adams himself had recognised in several of his own versions of the script). Beyond this, Arthur is English, put-upon yet heroically stoic, and spends pretty much the entire film clad in a dressing gown.
That said, sometimes the original really is best and in the case of the first Hitchhiker's novel that is almost true. I say almost because there are one or two places where you can see the joins of the transition from radio script to novelisation and there are even one or two continuity errors. The very best Hitchhiker novel, in my opinion, is So Long and Thanks For All the Fish, simply because by the time he wrote it Adams had fully completed the transition from script-writer to novelist. A shame that in his own lifetime he never quite managed to reverse the transition enough to come up with a film script that would have allowed him to see his creation on the big screen. His legacy, however, is to have created a world that I, for one, have always hoped really does await us out there, if only we can find an Electronic Thumb and grab ourselves a lift with a passing spaceship.