Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Review: Look At Me by Anita Brookner

Look At Me by Anita BrooknerLook At Me (1983) by Anita Brookner

Frances Hinton is an introspective woman, 'loyal and well-behaved and uncritical', with aspirations to become a successful writer. She works in a medical research library where she studies her colleagues and makes notes for short stories, perhaps a novel. Her mother has recently passed away, and every evening she returns to a vast, outdated Maida Vale flat where she is attended by the ageing family maid, Nancy. Of indeterminate age herself – she seems to feel both young and old – Frances is chronically lonely, constantly battling to convince herself that she is content, or at least that her stark existence is a choice.
Fortunately, I am not a hysterical person. I am used to being on my own and sometimes I doubt whether I could endure a lot of excitement. This remains an academic question, for I have never yet been tempted in this way. I am very orderly, and Spartan in my habits. I am famous for my control, which has seen me through many crises. By a supreme irony, my control is so great that these crises remain unknown to the rest of the world, and so I am thought to be unfeeling. And of course I never speak of them. That would be intolerable. If I ever suffer loneliness it is because I have settled for the harsh destiny of dealing with these matters by myself.
Until, that is, a carelessly glamorous couple, Dr Nick Fraser and his wife Alix, take an interest in her and involve her in their social life. (Said social life sounds rather dull – they're either going to the same restaurant night after night or watching films at home – but as far as Frances is concerned, she's hit the jackpot.) Alix in particular treats Frances like a child might treat a pet, displaying her to friends, openly mocking her in supposedly affectionate fashion, and forgetting her altogether when she's bored. But it is through her association (one can hardly call it friendship) with the Frasers that Frances meets James Anstey, and the love she has longed for seems, at last, a real possibility.

Naturally, that's not the end of it, but it wouldn't even matter if it was, for Look At Me is, regardless of its plot, at its strongest as a detailed analysis of the fascinating, tragic, endlessly quotable Frances. Her sensitivity is fathomless, yet her forced detachment verges on inhuman. She describes herself as an 'observer' seven times, and by the closing chapters she has reached the point of describing herself in third person. Despite her own situation, she is moved to horror by the loneliness of others, showing little sympathy. 'I hated every reminder that the world was old and shaky... that everyone was, more or less, dying.' In one particularly revealing scene she describes the effect of having seen a group of people in a launderette on Christmas Day. Imagining they have nowhere else to go to find companionship (though there is no evidence that this is really the case), she is aghast, and tells us so in the most melodramatic terms:
[I] saw inside the steamy window three men and one woman, quite well-dressed, reduced to spending their day like this, and finding what company the desperation of others afforded them. I never wanted to see that again... The day was ruined. I could not wait for Nancy to retire to her television, and I even went to my mother's bathroom cabinet and took two of her sleeping pills from the bottle. I did not need them; I simply wanted to kill the day.
Instead, she seeks the company of gilded extroverts like the Frasers – as though their personalities will rub off on her without any effort being made on her part; as though the isolation and dullness of fellow outcasts (such as former library employee Mrs Morpeth, who she visits monthly out of a sense of duty she can never quite banish) might, too, be catching. 'I do not seek out friends so that they will offer consolation: I have a horror of that.' Inevitably, she is an unreliable narrator, and even as Look At Me delves so astutely into Frances' inner life, some details remain obscure. Surrounding her obsession with the Frasers and James is the spectre of what she implies was a devastating love affair. She refers to it repeatedly as 'the time of which I never speak' – a falsehood, as she often narrates its effect on her, but the circumstances are never properly revealed.

As Alix seems cruel and dismissive towards Frances from her first appearance, it's painful to keep reading about the self-abasement Frances engages in to keep hold of her 'friendship'. Yet when Alix rhetorically asks Frances 'it's all self with you, isn't it?' it's hard not to agree. The title, 'look at me', is her constant internal refrain, both a cry for help and an infantile demand for attention. She maintains that she does not love James even as she builds an imagined future around him; insists that she doesn't mind, even likes, Alix's patronising habit of calling her 'Little Orphan Fanny', despite the fact that on the very first page of the book she baldly states 'I do not like to be called Fanny'; tries to play down her adoration of the Frasers by claiming that the time she spends with them is all simply research for her fiction.

There are indicators that the novel is set in the era of its publication, the early 1980s, but they are few and far between: a passing reference to 'horrible shops' selling, among other things, 'video cassettes' is one of the only clues. Otherwise, it could be set in the early 1930s or mid-1950s, and the book it most reminded me of was Claude Houghton's I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930). It, too, concerns a character who has accepted his lot as a lonely, quiet observer, only to find his life transformed when he is inducted into a circle of glamorous friends. Frances, however, lacks the often comic voice of Houghton's narrator (although there are some moments of dry humour – and I found it interesting that she so often insists her own stories are very funny).

Frances is also a clear precursor to the eponymous antiheroine of Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen, and has a similar effect on the reader – she is both heartbreaking and maddening. Like Eileen, Frances wants others to really SEE her, yet does nothing to make this happen; like Eileen, Frances is frustrating and offputting, yet I think many readers will recognise parts of themselves in her. Frances is nowhere near as candid or, frankly, as scatological as Eileen, but the two characters talk so nakedly of their own unhappiness, inner turmoil and longing for more that at some points they could be speaking with one voice. Where Eileen has her inscrutable 'death mask', Frances has her manners:
The trouble with good manners is that people are persuaded that you are all right, require no protection, are perfectly capable of looking after yourself. And some people take your impassivity as a calculated insult, as Alix seemed to be doing now. Still I smiled.
I found Look At Me so devastatingly incisive about loneliness, longing, having an acute awareness of how others see you, and the exquisite pain of dashed hope. It certainly won't be my last Brookner.

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Sunday, 17 July 2016

This week's links: 17 July 2016

  • If you've ever wanted to read the definitive history of Yankee Candle, here it is.
Sasha Rudensky From Remains (2004-2007) by Sasha Rudensky

Writing on books & literature:
David Burdeny
From Russia: A Bright Future, 2014-2015 by David Burdeny

Writing on the internet & tech:
Writing on music, TV and film:
Ralph Bull
Alexandria, Virginia 2012
 by Ralph Bull

Other essays, opinion pieces, blog posts and things:
'This week's links' is a compilation of interesting things I've seen or read online recently. Important disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing every word of it.

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Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Reading round-up: June

June 2016 books

Where Love Begins by Judith Hermann, translated by Margaret Bettauer Dembo – Full review / Buy
There's something pervasively dreamlike about this novel, the story of a woman who keeps being bothered by a neighbour. It's written in a simple, matter-of-fact style, and not much really happens: the 'stalker' doesn't do much more than knock on the door and write letters, which remain mostly unread. And yet I found it weirdly gripping. One for those who value atmosphere over a dramatic plot.

Invincible Summer by Alice AdamsFull review / Buy
Like a mash-up of David Nicholls' One Day and a much lighter version of Linda Grant's Upstairs at the Party, this debut follows a group of four friends for twenty years, starting with their first summer as students. Their disparate backgrounds and fates make for an enjoyable, if forgettable, journey through the past couple of decades.

Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts by Grafton TannerBuy
This slim non-fiction volume (what's the non-fiction equivalent of a novella? Should I just call it an essay?) seems at first to be almost absurdly niche: it sets out to examine modern ideas of 'hauntings', whether the incorporeality of our digital selves or what Tanner calls 'Western culture's preoccupation with the past', through the lens of musical microgenre vaporwave. But its scope becomes much broader than that, exploring contemporary notions of the uncanny and the fraught relationship between capitalism and culture. While it comes a little unstuck at the end (some of the conclusions are a bit hysterical), it's a really interesting read.

Lions by Bonnie Nadzam – Buy
This second novel from Nadzam may have a pleasing complementary title to her first – Lamb – but it is a very different type of book. Set in a Colorado ghost town where only a few families remain, it keeps flirting with touches of fantasy, but ultimately it is a quiet story about family relationships and the power of tradition. Where Lamb was tense and disturbing, Lions is vague and sedate. It has its own peaceful charm, but for me, it didn't live up to the author's debut.

Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand – Full review / Buy
This collection is filled with unpredictable, creepy tales for which the label 'strange stories' seems perfectly appropriate. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole book, but it's particularly notable for 'Near Zennor', an absolute masterpiece of a story about weird events, both past and present, surrounding a remote Cornish farm.

The Execution by Hugo Wilcken – Buy
A combination of thriller and character study, The Execution charts the existential crisis experienced by its narrator Matthew after a strange accident involving a colleague, followed by the discovery that his wife is having an affair. Matthew is a contemptible character and, on top of that, he relates the story in a flat, emotionless voice, but its pace is exhilarating, with suggestions of unreliability that give it a surreal tone. If you liked Wilcken's The Reflection, chances are you'll like this too: it's like a less-polished practice run (but still more than worth a read).

Mythologies by Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers – Buy
While some of the essays collected in Mythologies are inevitably dated, their basic premise – the idea of cultural phenomena, everything from washing powder and cars to wrestling matches and the face of Greta Garbo, as 'modern myths' – remains both relevant and accessible. Culminating in the longer, linguistics-heavy essay 'Myth Today', the book is intellectually demanding, but it's also playful and even funny at times. A challenging and thought-provoking break from fiction.

Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox – Buy
Having already read a number of extracts (an example), I knew Pretentiousness was a book I wanted to read, but I still approached it with a certain amount of caution, aware that a defence of pretentiousness might feel automatically exclusive of the likes of me. But it is actually quite the opposite, as Fox's argument goes back to the roots of the word and its ideas of performance, putting on a mask; he discusses autodidactism and how notions of pretentiousness are often tied to classism (the mistrust of those who have 'ideas above their station'). Ironically (or perhaps not?), it's so readable that I raced through it and was left wanting more.

The Many by Wyl Menmuir – Full review / Buy
An unnamed seaside town is in decline; fishermen are lucky to bring in meagre hauls, and the fish they catch are usually deformed. When an outsider moves into a long-empty house in this dismal place, curiosities and suspicions are aroused. The Many has a creepy, vaguely threatening ambience, but the source of this is hard to discern, and indeed the story as a whole remains inscrutable. I'd recommend it to fans of The Loney.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Review: The Many by Wyl Menmuir

The Many by Wyl Menmuir The Many (15 June 2016) by Wyl Menmuir

The Many takes place in a seaside town gone to seed, a half-derelict place in which bountiful catches have become the stuff of legend. Most fishermen have abandoned their boats; those who do still venture out either return empty-handed, or bring back meagre hauls of lean, deformed fish. Newcomer Timothy Buchannan has moved into the house previously occupied by Perran, who died in an accident at sea some years ago. The house has been in disrepair ever since, but the locals don't take kindly to Timothy's arrival, and so insistently refer to the place as 'Perran's' that soon even Timothy finds himself doing the same.

Why has Timothy chosen to come to this decrepit town? The answer is found in a series of flashbacks: to Timothy's past (we discover he has been to the town before, with his partner Lauren, now inexplicably absent and perpetually about to 'join' him there) and to the memories of Ethan, a fisherman whose grief for Perran is still raw. Ethan acts as a second main character, his sadness and anger initially providing more solid foundations for the plot than the ambiguity around Timothy.

This is a slippery kind of story belonging to the same emergent trend as Andrew Michael Hurley's The Loney. It's tempting to categorise it as horror, but I don't know whether that would strictly be correct. There is certainly a folk-horror influence, with echoes of The Wicker Man in the townspeople's combination of mistrust of and interest in Timothy; the atmosphere, with its gloomy horizons, just-out-of-reach dread, and of course the sinister house, is suggestive of gothic fiction; the misshapen fish, polluted waters ('the chems') and mysterious visitors from the 'Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture' lend it a sci-fi edge. (Though I'm thinking of low-budget British TV sci-fi rather than the box-office-blockbuster/space opera kind.) Yet the story is too opaque to fit into the codes of any one genre, and few, if any, conclusions can be drawn about what it all means. It's a book in which everything seems to represent something else, but those meanings are not spelled out.

The Many unfolds like an unsettling dream, shifting illogically, asking the reader to accept leaps from reality to what seems like it may be fantasy (or may be a matter of perception). But it's not just a strange fable, there is humanity in it too: Ethan's palpable grief for Perran; the locals' struggle to adapt to a world in which their former livelihoods have become obsolete; the touches of tenderness in Timothy and Lauren's scenes together. Its portrayal of a community left behind by technology and bureaucracy, suspicious of the threat represented by 'outsiders', is recognisable and timely – perhaps even more so now than the author may have intended.

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Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Review: The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel

The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel The Summer That Melted Everything (11 August 2016) by Tiffany McDaniel

I wouldn't have anticipated that a story set in the small Ohio town of Breathed in 1984, with a whimsical premise and heavily quirky details (example: characters with names like Autopsy Bliss and Dresden Delmar), would turn out to be one of the best books I've read, so far, in 2016, and certainly one of the best published this year. But here we are. I am very, very glad I took a chance on this book.

The aforementioned Autopsy Bliss, a lawyer, publishes an provocative article in the local newspaper (bearer of another quirky moniker: The Breathanian). It's addressed to the devil – 'Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear' – and extends a cordial invitation, politely summoning him to the town. The next day, Autopsy's thirteen-year-old son, Fielding, is stopped in his tracks by a bruised, raggedy boy dressed in shabby overalls. After asking whether there's any ice cream, the mysterious boy says he's there because he was invited, and pulls the newspaper piece from his pocket.

It seems a foregone conclusion that the boy will follow Fielding home, and when his family can't be traced, there he stays. In time he acquires the name Sal, which he picks because it invokes 'the beginning of Satan and the first step into Lucifer. Sa-L.' And there are many suggestions of the uncanny about Sal: his lengthy, incongruously wise monologues, the strange stories he tells about God and Hell and the people there, the inexplicable breadth of his knowledge. Not to mention the fact that after he shows up, Breathed is enveloped by a heatwave that begins to seem endless. In an atmosphere of mounting paranoia and violent heat, Sal becomes a lightning rod for the fears of the townspeople, whose passions are stoked by a self-appointed preacher. It's no surprise (and no spoiler either) that a sense of inevitable tragedy suffuses the whole narrative.

Fielding Bliss tells this story many years later, as a profoundly lonely man in his eighties. The timeline and his age suggest Fielding's 'present day' is circa 2055, but that doesn't mean it has some sort of dystopian bent, as stories set in the near future so often do; there's no suggestion of a world much altered from the one we're in now. There is little in the way of a plotline around Fielding's later life. He is simply the storyteller; but as he drops in anecdotes about his life since those days, we are left in no doubt that the summer of Sal has stamped an indelible mark on his soul.
The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
Just before I jumped from the plane, I promised myself if I landed on only the yellow blooms, I would take it as a sign of my ghosts allowing me peace. With that peace, I would no longer suffer in the worst shadow of the snake. I would stop skinning peaches. Cease all mad damage. I'd bring an end to splintering my knuckles against picket fences and running chainsaws through rows of American corn. I'd sweeten my heart. Be gentled by the small of a lover's back. I'd no longer scrape my spine against cinder blocks nor cannibalize myself in perfect bites. I'd get rid of my stash of horns and keep hell out of the honey. I would learn how to say June, July, August, September without scream and as one word. Forgiveness.

The Summer That Melted Everything is gorgeously written – lush, shimmering, strange prose more often like a poem or a song lyric than regular fiction. Fielding sometimes seems to talk in riddles; sometimes, as in the passage above, it's not necessarily evident whether he's speaking literally or metaphorically. The narrative is chock-full of unusual metaphors, and every so often they're metaphors that don't really work but end up sounding beautiful anyway. The end result is deeply beguiling, and potent: I felt completely transported to the Breathed of the 1980s, a weird collision of small-town Southern traditions (and prejudices) and the bright, outlandish fashions of the decade, a town where, in Fielding's words, 'everything seems neon lit'. Reading the book on typically grey English days did nothing to hinder its effectiveness in portraying a sweltering, suffocating summer.

Despite its quirkiness and suggestions of fantasy, Melted contains one of the most tender and heartbreaking stories I have ever read about platonic love, particularly the relationship between brothers. It wasn't really until I finished reading the book that I realised exactly how many tricky, contentious topics the story covers – sexuality, disability, religion, loneliness, ageing, phobias, prejudice, HIV/AIDS – the list goes on, but the book really doesn't feel as though it's 'addressing issues'. Probably its greatest achievement is hiding all of that in plain sight, avoiding being preachy or not ringing true.

Ever since reading Melted, I've kept having these occasional flashbacks to just how good, how evocative, how moving it was, how clearly I could picture Breathed and how deeply I was drawn in by Sal and the Bliss family. I was so consumed by this book that it feels like a memory, like something I've seen. I can't wait for other readers to start discovering it. I try not to trot out that book-review cliche – saying I feel envious of those who are yet to read it for the first time – too often, but in this case it's not just hyperbole. Even if it doesn't sound like your sort of thing, I urge you to give it a try, and I hope you fall in love with it like I did.

I received an advance review copy of The Summer That Melted Everything from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Sunday, 26 June 2016

This week's links: 26 June 2016

  • Brassed Off is one of my favourite films, and is very close to my heart; I really appreciated this in-depth revisit from Den of Geek, which rightly recognises that Danny and Phil are the main characters and the driving force behind the story.

    From Totems by Alain Delorme

    From Façades #3 by Zacharie Gaudrillot-Roy

    Books & literature:
    Book lists and reviews:

    The last stop: America's disappearing roadside rest stops – in pictures

      'This week's links' is a compilation of interesting things I've seen or read online recently. Important disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing every word of it.

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      Saturday, 25 June 2016

      Review: Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

      Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand Errantry: Strange Stories (2012) by Elizabeth Hand

      When I started the first story, 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon', I thought I knew what I was getting. The protagonist, Robbie, begins by reminiscing about his first job, as a security guard at a museum of aviation, and remembering a particular gallery in which a projection of a disembodied head was the main attraction. But the narrative quickly moves away from the obvious creepy angle here and instead weaves a detailed and character-driven tale around Robbie and two of his ex-colleagues; it's certainly uncanny, but evasive about exactly how. The characters – like most of the characters in most of the stories collected here – are middle-aged, not inclined to fantastical speculation, and many of the most effective moments are touching rather than unnerving. 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon' is unusually lengthy for the first story in an anthology, almost a novella in itself, and it sets the tone for a collection in which the 'strange' is often not what you expect it to be, and the longest stories are the most rewarding and surprising.

      'Winter's Wife' is told by a boy whose neighbour, the eccentric Winter, suddenly brings home an inscrutable young Icelandic woman as his wife. Winter meets her on the internet, and our narrator thinks she looks like Björk – it's these humanising touches that make Hand's stories so effective; we identify ourselves in the backdrops, if not the mysterious cloud of hummingbirds in the forest, or the character with an apparent ability to bend nature to her will. 'Uncle Lou' spends so much time establishing the relationship between the main characters, a woman and her flamboyant uncle, that the ending has powerful emotional clout, despite taking a real turn for the fantastic. The brief 'Cruel Up North' is memorable chiefly because it doesn't explain its mysteries – what, for example, might the 'lava fields' be?

      There are missteps – or, at least, some stories are weaker than others. 'Hungerford Bridge' – a short scene in which an old friend introduces the narrator to a fantastic creature – feels too thin against the richness of many of the other tales; 'The Far Shore' contains some beautiful moments but goes in a predictable direction, the opposite of the clever feints performed by the strongest stories here; and 'The Return of the Fire Witch' is an oddity, the one slice of high fantasy among a set of what might otherwise, per the subtitle, be termed 'strange stories' in the Robert Aickman sense.

      But the jewel in Errantry's crown is 'Near Zennor', a flawless work of art that has to be one of the best short stories (strange or otherwise) I've ever read. It starts with a discovery: Jeffrey, a 'noted architect', is organising clutter belonging to his late wife, Anthea, when he finds a tin containing a bundle of letters and a cheap locket. The letters are in Anthea's hand, all returned to sender; when he investigates the recipient, Robert Bennington, he discovers the man was a children's author later vilified as a paedophile. Disturbed by references to a meeting between Anthea and Robert, and tortured by the idea that she could have been a victim of abuse she never told him about, he journeys to her native England to meet with one of her childhood friends. There, he hears a story that will lead him on a journey through the places of Anthea's past; to Padwithiel farm, near Zennor, and to Bennington's abandoned home.

      Everything about 'Near Zennor' is absolutely pitch-perfect. The Cornish landscape is lovingly described; there is a true sense of reverence, and an awareness of the power – and menace – of nature runs throughout the whole story. The revelations about Bennington's crimes and reminders of his pariah status mean there's also an underlying current of real horror that has nothing to do with unexplained phenomena. Hand captures the force of a disquieting experience endured in childhood, how the memory can magnify it, give it the status of a legend. Jeffrey's ordeal at Golovenna Farm induces pure terror without resorting to anything as prosaic as an explanation. And there is a final twist that is shocking, and almost grimly funny, but not histrionic. All in all, it achieves the strange, wonderful duality of feeling perfect and complete but also leaving you wanting more, and more, and more, and it feels so real that I was tempted to google Bennington's Sun Battles books and the Cliff Cottage B&B. (This short interview with Hand gives some fascinating context – not just the fact that she deliberately set out to write an Aickmanesque story (an aim at which, in my opinion, she has absolutely succeeded) but that the three girls' peculiar adventure was, in fact, based on an inexplicable childhood memory of her own.)

      'Near Zennor' is the second story in the book, and after finishing it, I had to take a break – to absorb its greatness, and because I was so sure nothing else could even begin to live up to it, I wasn't sure I wanted to read on. It's one of those stories that's so good, it's worth buying the whole book for it alone. Errantry is a strong, unpredictable collection of stories, but 'Near Zennor' is a masterpiece.

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      Sunday, 12 June 2016

      This week's links: 12 June 2016

      First things first: I've been struggling to find time for blogging lately, so (the now inappropriately-named) this week's links will be going up every two weeks from now on. I love putting these posts together, but they take ages! Plus blogs are dying, etc etc. I'm very attached to having a blog, and I'm not planning to kill it off, but life gets in the way. A lot. As ever, I'm still reviewing everything I read, however briefly, on Goodreads.
      • Flavorwire's always-entertaining annual list of Trashy Beach Reads includes Karl Ove Knausgård, a 500-page history of America's class system, and erotica from an octogenarian author.
        Corners by Chris Dorley-Brown
        From Corners by Chris Dorley-Brown

        L'inachevé by Julien Lombardi
        From L'inachevé by Julien Lombardi

        Books & literature:
        Book reviews:
        From Dantilon: The Brutal Deluxe by Daniel Brown
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