The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'reading'
I just read Christopher Brookmyre's most recently published novel, A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil. It took me a while to get around to it, because I found his previous book, All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses An Eye, somewhat disappointing; it seemed almost as if someone replaced the wickedly dark satirist who wrote Quite Ugly One Morning and A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away (whom some have called the Bill Hicks of Scottish crime fiction) with a committee of Hollywood script-doctoring hacks; virtually all the bite was gone (with the exception of a few token bampots and numpties and a dash of rote Old Firm sectarianism), and replaced with a schmaltzy wish-fulfilment story. This was centre-of-goodness plotting at its most formulaic and uninspired. As such, I only picked this book up when it was half-price from Amazon and I needed to pad out an order.
I am pleased to report, then, that A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil is a return to form. The plot involves various people who went to school in the early 1980s in (you guessed it) greater Glasgow, and their lives in the present day; more specifically, one of them has apparently been murdered, and two others look like the suspects. The characters' school days, in all their petty viciousness, brutality and moments of levity, are fleshed out quite realistically (one can empathise with the children in their schoolyard conflicts as much as with their grown-up selves), and the way the characters grow, gaining perspective and no small amount of regret. Needless to say, dark secrets are revealed and some people turn out to not be what they initially seem, in various ways. And Brookmyre, perhaps acknowledging the shortcomings of his previous book, sets up an obvious wish-fulfilment plot line, and then proceeds to swerve well wide of it.
I have just read Hallgrímur Helgason's 101 Reykjavík, of which I found a copy (in English) recently. This novel is probably best known for having been adapted into a film (one of the best-known Icelandic films of recent years in the English-speaking world, partly undoubtedly due to Damon Albarn having done part of the score).
101 Reykjavík is the story of Hlynur, a thirtysomething slacker who lives with his exceedingly indulgent mother in the central postal district the title is taken from. However, beyond that, the book and the film are quite different; the film is much lighter, fluffier, more stylised and cooler, almost like a tourist ad for hip young people, whereas the book goes into darker territory; where the movie is Human Traffic, the book is Trainspotting.
The movie Hlynur is a lovable hipster doofus, a comical flightless bird, an adorably bumbling geek-chic Everyman plucked out of a Jarvis Cocker impersonation contest at Kaffibarinn. The book's Hlynur, however, is a much darker figure; a pathetic, sociopathic nihilist, destructive and self-destructive. In both, he ends up possibly fathering his mother's lesbian lover Lolla's child, and angsting considerably about it and his relationship to the lover and the child. In the book, he does a number of un-cuddly things like sexually molesting the mother of a girl he picked up, stealing one of his sister's birth control pills (and causing her to fall pregnant), and deliberately attempting to contract AIDS in a fit of self-pity, in between the numerous somewhat unflattering observations in his narration. The narrative voice of the book goes into long, poetic monologues (perhaps this is typical of Icelandic literature?) expounding jaded views of the human condition and contemporary Icelandic society, and (with one exception) betraying no empathy with any person other than the narrator. The Hlynur in the book is not a likeable or sympathetic character.
The book also doesn't have the redemptory ending of the movie; the tragic narrator of the novel does not magically find his feet, experience personal growth and come out a better person like the once cynical hero of an American romantic comedy, but continues much as he has ever done. A number of other elements (Hlynur's Hungarian penpal, a trip to Amsterdam and Paris, and the whacked-out barfly mystic who follows the teachings of white limousine-riding guru "Waldorf") were inevitably cut along the way from book to movie. And, in case you were wondering, making Lolla Spanish (so that she could be played by Victoria Abril) was the filmmaker's invention.
The book is interesting, though those who have been to Reykjavík, or are familiar with Icelandic society, would probably get the most out of it. (If a trip to Iceland is out of the question, at least read The Xenophobe's Guide to the Icelanders).
A few days ago, I was at Fopp near Covent Garden, where I found an interesting-looking book titled Lost Cosmonaut, by one Daniel Kalder. I picked up this book, along with a handful of others, and over the next few days, read it, finding it fascinating.
Lost Cosmonaut is a travelogue around various far-flung parts of Russia, with a difference. For one, in the spirit of what he calls "anti-tourism", the author eschews the exotic, beautiful or spectacular, instead seeking out the mundane, boring and depressing. The book starts with an anti-tourist manifesto, titled the "Shymkent Declarations", declaring the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China and Pyramids of Egypt to be "as banal as the face of a Cornflakes packet", and that the true unknown frontiers lie in the "wastelands, black holes and grim urban blackspots" of the world. The book itself follows in this vein, as the author (a somewhat sardonic Scotsman) visits four parts of Russia's ethnic republics where no tourists normally go, and describes them and the people with great wit and some embellishment. At times it verges on a sort of Borat-esque poverty porn, finding humour in the grimness of it all (and one of the people he talks to, an Udmurtian actress, actually accuses him of this), though the book transcends this, casting a more philosophical eye at the world: in many places, Kalder speculates on the myriad of small secrets in the various distant corners of the world, the minor triumphs and lesser geniuses whose works will be lost to obscurity, the languages and cultures dying out and falling out of living memory, and comes close to funding a sense of wonder in the mundane and bleak. Such flights are usually followed by wry illustrations of the general shittiness of the particular place he is currently visiting.
In the book, he visits four places, all of which are technically within the European part of Russia, though are, to varying extents, culturally alien to most Westerners' idea of Europe (glass buildings and Ikea furniture, as he puts it). He visits Kazan, once the glorious capital of the Tatars, since destroyed several times over and now rebuilt as a typically grim Soviet provincial city (and at the end speculates that perhaps the original Kazan is better off razed, because that way it can never decline into a tawdry tourist cliché), the Kalmykian republic (which is run by an eccentric despot who is obsessed with chess, and quite possibly murderously corrupt), Mari El (centre of the mail-order bride industry, in whose forests an ancient pagan faith still flourishes, or at least several half-complete reconstructions of one do), and finally Udmurtia, whose population has been so thoroughly assimilated into Russia that nobody knows exactly what the indigenous culture was like.
Costumed crimefighters seem to be the big thing in Britain these days: firstly there was the one in Tunbridge Wells, then Angle Grinder Man came along to defend London motorists from having to take responsibility, and now two chaps dressed as Batman and Robin are protecting the residents of Reading from muggers and football streakers.