Postcards from the Edge of Croatia

Well, you’re read­ing the second draft of this post; the first had four more books reviewed, but it was swal­lowed by a com­bin­a­tion of a Blogger foul up (it’s API is goof­ing around) and bugs in my own blog­ging soft­ware (Ecto; any­body recom­mend a good Mac blog­ger)? I’m just too tired to put the hyper­links back into this post, but would feel defeated if I went to bed with the post unpub­lished, so here it is: mini­ature reviews of some of the books I read over the last couple of weeks. Click a graph­ic to go to a book’s Amazon page.

Michael Allen — you know him caped in the cru­sad­ing garb of Grumpy Old Bookman — has recently pub­lished, via his own Kingsfield Publications, ‘How and why Lisa’s Dad got to be fam­ous’. This is a short book (think of a novella punch­ing above its weight) with a neat found­a­tion: Harry, a car­penter, is offered the chance to star in a real­ity TV show and win one mil­lion pounds for his daugh­ter, Lisa, who he has not seen since a dif­fi­cult divorce some years before. This book is whim­sic­al and straight­for­ward; its sen­tences are short and neat — they reflect Harry’s unsoph­ist­ic­ated out­look, and lend the story some imme­di­acy to coun­ter­act the rather pre­dict­able arc. Overall a per­fectly enga­ging work, not espe­cially demand­ing, but ideal hol­i­day read­ing.

I’ve read only one Cormac McCarthy book pri­or to this — All the Pretty Horses. Blood Meridian pred­ates Pretty Horses, and the style that McCarthy almost per­fec­ted with Pretty Horses is nas­cent and rough-hewn in Blood Meridian. The story is one of odys­sey: some­time towards the middle of the nine­teenth cen­tury, a char­ac­ter known only as the kid leaves his abus­ive fam­ily and embarks upon a jour­ney across the wild­est of wests. At length, the kid joins a quasi-legit­im­ate posse charged with the dis­patch of trouble­some Indians (the book employ­ees con­tem­por­ary lan­guage that we would now call racist). Each page of this book runs with blood — Indian, American, Mexican — and scalps and neck­laces of ears. Guns and sun­sets are described in heart­break­ing detail. It is dif­fi­cult to describe the magic­al effect of McCarthy’s prose style. The story, such as it is, is not the strength of the work. Indeed, there are some clangingly sym­bol­ic ele­ments that might be described as a clumsy trans­plant of the Old Middle East to the Old West, so bib­lic­al and brim­stone is it. Here is an example of McCarthy’s prose, pulled at ran­dom (if you know what I mean):

They rode on into the moun­tains and their way took them through high pine forests, wind in the trees, lonely bird­calls. The shoe­less mules sla­lo­m­ing through the dry grass and pine needles. In the blue cou­lees on the north slopes nar­row tail­ings of old snow. They rode up switch­backs through a lonely aspen wood where the fallen leaves lay like golden dis­clets in the damp black trail. The leaves shuffled in a mil­lion spangles down the pale cor­ridors and Glanton took one and turned it like a tiny fan by its stem and held it and let it fall and its per­fec­tion was not lost on him.

I mean, blimey.

Regular read­ers of this blog (i.e. Dad) will recall that I hold Mitchell in high regard, and I greatly looked for­ward to this work. One caveat: number9dream is, in some respects, an homage to Haruki Murakami, and this feted Japanese author is not one I rate highly, and I might have main­tained this pre­ju­dice with this book. Anywho, number9dream opens with young Eiji Miyake, a poor young coun­try boy in Tokyo for the first time. He’s there to find the fath­er who aban­doned him at birth. Meanwhle, Eiji is haunted by the ghost of his sis­ter and thoughts of his estranged, alco­hol­ic moth­er. The book erupts from there: each para­graph gleams with at least one pol­ished meta­phor that stops the show, and Mitchell suc­ceeds in mak­ing Eiji an enga­ging char­ac­ter (in con­trast to lead­ing char­ac­ters of Murakami’s fic­tion, from whom Mitchell — I believe — draws his inspir­a­tion; cf. Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’, which I haven’t read). As ever, Mitchell is metafic­ton­al to a fault; the book is diced into nine sec­tions (the num­ber nine recurs at vari­ous levels through­out the book) and each has a secret them­at­ic iden­tity as sub­text. A tir­ing device in oth­er hands, but Mitchell is com­mit­ted to mak­ing the book work at a nar­rat­ive level, too. In gen­er­al, I’d regard this as the weak­est of Mitchell’s books (in that, it is stronger than most con­tem­por­ary fic­tion I’ve read). It has the usu­al Mitchell strengths: sub­ver­sion of cliché, a will­ing­ness to engage with genre, and nods to the gal­lery. However, I think it is let down by a ‘switch­back’ struc­ture where the read­er is informed, a few pages into a breath­tak­ing scene, that the scene is only a flight of fancy. This is an annoy­ing device that should be used, in my opin­ion, as often as neces­sity requires: nev­er. When extraordin­ary things do indeed come to pass, the read­er is left to won­der if this is a dream or true exper­i­ence. We can nev­er be sure. That, per­haps, is the point, but it is sand in nar­rat­ive gears; as such, I fear it might be inher­ited from Murakami. But that’s just my inter­pret­a­tion.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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