Thursday, 16 October 2008

Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth

Vacation (Mcsweeneys)This book is typeset, designed and manufactured with wonderful skill and attention to detail. The paper's so soft you could use it to upgrade your baby's bottom. Holding the book in your hands feels luxurious; reading from it is a privilege.

In comparison, the novel itself was just okay. It's nicely written, if a bit bland. The narration is arch and distanced, which suits the subject matter but becomes a bit dull after a while. It jumps around in time quite a bit, often from one paragraph to the next - as a result it gives away the ending long before you get there, making the rest of the book a bit of a chore. Maybe that's too strong a word, because the rest is still fairly enjoyable to read, but from about halfway in you stop learning anything new about anything that's going on, other than the minor details; you're just watching things play out in more or less the way you expected, and my enthusiasm for the book waned the longer it took to get there.

The other main problem is that the plot relies upon the characters being stupid, and not just normal everyday people stupid, but Neighbours stupid. By that I mean the type of plot where a character is angry or suspicious about something their partner is up to, but they don't just try to clear things up - purely because that would short-circuit the plot. Instead, they decide their partner would have told them already if they really loved them, and stew about it until their partner leaves them for being such a grump. The entire plot of this novel derives from such dopiness. Maybe it makes sense for these characters to not talk to each other - the author gives them reasons for not doing so - but over the course of years it's hard to believe no one ever got drunk and said something like, "So, you've been following this guy around?" or "Tell me about the time you jumped out of a window."

The story makes a bit more sense to me when considered as a metaphor, or a fable, and the characters as symbols, of what we do in life, for questions of leaving and staying, and so on. There's something being said about relationships, and following each other, and routes not taken, and that kind of thing. But I'm not sure I agree with what is being said. The worst that can happen to a married couple in this book is to sit and watch television together, and then talk about it. That really didn't seem so bad to me: in fact, the characters could really have done with watching a few daft sitcoms to remind themselves what laughter felt like. Almost every character in the book was utterly humourless; to the point of inhumanity, even.

If Vacation had been a film by Wes Anderson, perhaps I would have loved it; if it had an appropriate soundtrack to put me in the right frame of mind; if the characters had been played by actors I like and trust enough to follow on a strange journey; if the foreign locations had been shot in living beauty by a master cinematographer. It had a lot in common with The Darjeeling Limited: both feature characters questing in exotic foreign lands, and both are meticulously crafted, deliberate, and confident of their own worth. But where The Darjeeling Limited instantly became one of my all-time favourite films, Vacation was just that little bit underwhelming.

But take everything I say with a handful of salt: any book lacking aliens or spaceships will struggle to make me totally happy. (I only got through David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia by pretending it was set on Arrakis.) That I even finished this book, despite its shortcomings in the extraterrestrial department, shows it must have been pretty good. All credit to McSweeney's Book Club for getting me to try something new. If I've focused on the negative, it's only because those things preoccupied me while I was reading it: others may find much to love in this book.

Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth, McSweeney's, hb, 240pp.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Zot! The Complete Black-and-White Stories: 1987–1991, by Scott McCloud – reviewed

The modern Superman comes in for quite a bit of criticism for being a bit of a wimpy new man, but the Superman of the 1950s was as much a product of his time, with his gratingly patriarchal attitude.

Zot, on the other hand, is like a Superman out of time, free of the need to appear in twenty comic books a month or to maintain a status quo. He’s happy, comfortable with his powers, accepting of the things he can’t change, determined to change the things he can. He has no hang-ups, but is understanding of the hang-ups of others. He’s everything Superman has the potential to be.

This superb and substantial book contains nearly all of his adventures in black and white (leaving out backup strips and a couple of issues drawn by Chuck Austen – though Scott McCloud’s layouts for those issues are included). The stories are light-hearted, funny and exciting, with a bit of soap opera to keep you going from issue to issue. McCloud’s approach to super-heroics and super-villainy is imaginative and innovative.

If the book has one flaw it’s that the author’s notes, which appear at the end of each story, might have been better collected at the end of the book. They are fascinating, but it feels sometimes as if the author is trying to overdetermine the reader’s response, in particular in his attitude to the later issues, which take place almost entirely on Earth.

He obviously loved those issues (as did a lot of readers), but after reading so many notes about how much better the comic is without the superhero stuff, I found those issues rather underwhelming. I much preferred the bulk of the book, in which the relationship stuff is just one element among many.

The art is astounding from start to finish. McCloud uses a variety of approaches to create various effects, but his main mode is a clear line style similar to that seen in Tintin, with a dash of manga expressionism.

All in all, a joy to read, and a feast for the eyes!

Zot! The Complete Black-and-White Stories: 1987–1991, Scott McCloud, Harper, pb, 384pp.

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman – reviewed

I hadn’t read any fiction by Kim Newman before, though I’ve always enjoyed his film reviews for Empire. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t read Dracula either, though I’ve seen plenty of film versions of it, so I came to this novel in a state of literary ignorance. Luckily, Newman held my head and told me that everything was going to be… absolutely horrible!

The twin premise here is that Dracula was not defeated at the end of Bram Stoker’s novel, and that he existed in the same world as many other fictional characters.

It’s hard to mention that second bit without thinking of Alan Moore’s later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There are other similarities, too, in that both authors have penned sequels taking their stories into the twentieth century. Earlier books in a similar vein include Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold-Newton books (credited here by Kim Newman), and of course just about every comic published since the 1940s.

Part of me wishes that Newman had limited himself to the characters from Dracula – occasionally the book drives you off to Wikipedia to look characters up, rather than drawing you in to its plot – but you can’t begrudge an author his enthusiasms, and in general he carries it off very well. Indeed, one of the book’s most interesting ideas is that each family of vampires has its own abilities, mentalities and power relationships, as seen in all the different vampire novels that preceded this one. Because he died before turning, Dracula’s line is said to be tainted by the rot of the grave: damaged, and more demented than most.

For most of the novel Dracula himself is an offstage, pernicious presence. When he does take centre stage, the wait was worthwhile – Newman’s Dracula is utterly terrifying, and utterly malevolent.

Overall, this is a much more plot-driven book than you might expect, and, though the mood of fear, oppression and decay is kept at a high pitch, every word compels the reader to keep turning the pages. The literary games are always subservient to the storytelling. Similarly, Dracula’s far-from-bloodless coup has serious consequences for Britain’s society, from its class system to its political organisations and its foreign policy, but we only learn about those things as they become relevant to the story.

A brilliant book.

Anno Dracula, Kim Newman, Avon Books, pb, 416pp.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon

I took one edition of this book out from the library a while ago, then half-way through got entranced by the bulging biceps and voluptuous maidens of Savage Sword of Conan, Volume 1. Soon my time with the book was up, and another had already placed a reservation, so I had to return it unfinished – always heartbreaking. Second time around, I had to settle for a large print edition from W.F. Howes Ltd, which rather embarrassingly for that company announces itself as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union on the cover. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I’m glad I didn’t make it.

So, having finished with Conan and his savage sword, and resisting the temptation to move onto volume two, I returned with excitement to Jewish Alaska. Large print turned out to be a boon – I felt like a reading wunderkind as I flashed through the pages, and it was ideal for reading late at night by lamplight. Having taken a month to read the first twenty-four chapters (more or less one each night), it took me an evening and a morning to read the rest.

So that’s how I got to the end. Briefly, to remind myself in future years of the plot, this is where it begins: a rumpled policeman gets beaten up a lot (often by inanimate objects) as he investigates a murder in the weeks leading up to the abolition of a Jewish settlement in Alaska.

This is an alternative history novel in the tradition of Kingley Amis’s The Alteration, Keith Roberts’ Pavane and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I won’t go into the details of the differences from our world, because they are seeded through the book like little alarm clocks, but they don’t seem to stem from one single change. The main difference is that the nation of Israel did not survive, and a temporary settlement in Alaska was established instead.

The story works well as a detective story. There’s a lot going on, but Chabon has a knack of having his characters gather their thoughts just as you think you’re about to lose the thread. It also works well as alternative history – everything is plausible, but more to the point it shows how even in a world quite different to our own similar pressures would still exist. They would just be applied in different locations.

It was very reminiscent of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, another fine literary detective novel, what with the snow, and the crimes, and the slight fantastical twist. It added to those things a narration in the present tense, which made me groan as I read the first page, but won me over pretty quickly. It served a purpose – throwing you into the events and feeling them in the here and now, rather than relegating them to a distant irrelevant past.

Having finally finished it, I’m in a rather giddy mood today, so here’s the movie tagline I came up with last night: Even when everything’s different, some things stay the same. The Coen Brothers can have that for free…

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon, Fourth Estate, hb, 432pp