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 I’m just too tired to put the hyperlinks back into this post, but would feel defeated if I went to bed with the post unpublished, so here it is: miniature reviews of some of the books I read over the last couple of weeks.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.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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