issue 40: Jan - Feb 2004
index of book reviews for all issues
|Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by Amazon.com unless otherwise noted.|
Demonized by Christopher Fowler: Serpents Tail, February 2004
With at least ten novels and eight short story collections under his belt and more due in June, Fowler is amazingly prolific considering he has a rather hectic day job running The Creative Partnership, a film promotion company handling just about every movie ever made.
Be it novel or short story Fowlers writing style is very chameleon, from his 1988 collection Personal Demons (See TBR review), through the two under review here, there is not really one example where one could say Here is a typical Christopher Fowler story. This therefore gives him a wide palette to play with and he can, and does, mimic traditional tales, as in The Scorpion Jacket (Demonized) or experiment with new devices to structure a plot as in At Home in the Old Pubs of London (The Devil in Me) or even impersonate, as he did with Bram Stoker in Personal Demons. But if Fowlers writing style is changeable, certain themes appear regularly in his work, or at least used to. London is a recurring theme and not solely as a place but almost as a living character, at times a major protagonist. England also seems blessed with a beating heart. Another regular image is the aftermath from World War II, especially bombsites. Personal Demons was full of these images and most of the stories were London based.
The Devil in Me follows in similar vain with some lovely historical tours of the city as backgrounds to tales of rape and kidnapping see Crocodile Lady and the aforementioned Old Pubs of London. The WWII aftermath story is Seven Dials. But in this collection there does seem to be a shift away from London, with fewer stories centered on the old lady. What is still in the forefront, however, is Fowlers black but playful sense of humour, which is given full vent in Rainy Day Boys and Eighteen and Over, a non-too subtle attack on film censorship. The nasty world of modeling is also cheekily attacked in The Look; and, influenced by P.G. Wodehouse, Fowler set out to write something light and came up with Something for Your Monkey. Twelve stories in all, each very different and each hard to box under any one label, but horror it is not. Fowler, though deeply respecting the horror genre, wants to move on, and that he does.
For The Devil in Me Fowler wrote useful author comments before each story; in Demonized he quickly talks about them in the foreword, which also acts as a kind of war cry against those who say English writing is dead and serves as a rallying cry for Dark Fiction, a natural progression of the earlier mystery, imagination, horror genres. Fowler also lays down his intention in writing the collection: The first trick is to make each short story cheerful enough to keep you from slitting your throat. The second is to take you with me as I gently move the goalposts. He also adds Of the stories here, youll find five outright happy endings, seven dark conclusions and a number of split outcomes. To me, that seems like an even handed reflection of what life deals out.
Halfway through this collection it was obvious that Fowler was going to be as chameleon as ever but also going to bury his familiar themes London appears simply as a place not a character; there is no WWII aftermath story; and not only do most of the stories take place outside of England, one gets the impression Fowler has turned his back on the country; somehow the Englishness of England has died. At the end of the strange Where They Went Wrong, where misfit meets misfit, we get: all they had sought was a fair way to live their lives, in the quiet, forgotten way that explains what it means to be English. This seems to be a new Christopher Fowler, now with an even wider palette. Only Fowler would kick off his latest collection with a reasonably traditional horror story that borrows an idea from a Cliff Richards movie, Summer Holiday, and cheekily names the tale after a line in the title song Were Going Where The Sun Shines Brightly.
In Hitlers Houseguest a journalist gets himself into deep shit by faking his way into the Führers Bavarian holiday home . . . but to then also suffer from Tourettes syndrome? Oh boy. Dealing With the Situation sees harassed housewife Angie already at boiling point with children and faulty plumbing when an annoying guy rings saying it was him who killed her husband. More horrible than any horror story is when a total prick is proved right as happens in The Green Man, a Fowler homage to stories of yesteryear, set on a jungle island. Following that comes some lovely disjointed dialogue in a bittersweet story called Breaking Heart.
In Safe Hands might have been a laughable paranoia piece a few years ago but now ? Seven Feet gives the battle between Faith and Reason a strange twist in a dying London dominated by rats. And, boys, if you think waitresses are there for more than just serving you, well, after American Waitress you might want to think again. Above the Glass Ceiling is a neat little gem in this dog-eat-dog, go-getter world; followed by two wonderful stories, Personal Space and Hop that, more or less, have the same idea: the meek are going to inherit doodly-squat so being kind and thinking you are helping is just, in the end, going to get you nowhere and cause you more problems. The Scorpion Jacket revisits the sort of traditional revenge story that might have been told a hundred years ago. Fowler did something similar in Personal Demons with The Man Who Wound A Thousand Clocks.
Feral gives an indication of why Fowler seems to have turned his back on twenty-first century England. It is not a story, rather more of a brokenhearted attack, as it lists the type of wild animals to be seen in inner cities, i.e: Did you know that many London squirrels can also pick your pocket and forge your cheque-card signature? Some hang around the entrances to parks making sexist remarks about passing girls and throwing nuts at old people. It is not funny and with the excellent short intro about the death of the countryside, I dont think it is meant to be. One Night Out is a sweet tale of past and present enough said. Emotional Response is the sixth story from a female perspective - revenge is a key word; if youre out on the pull in the London area, lads, beware of girls called Nell, Hope or Miranda. The book literally ends in the trash with Fowlers 100th published story Cairo 6.1. What at first seemed like a possible reworking of Total Recall, isnt.
Fowler fans will be pleasantly surprised by Demonized and for those not familiar with his work The Devil in Me is a nice transitional book between Personal Demons and Demonized. The man seems to be on top form, even if he is up to his eyes in bloody Hobbits and Hugh Grant. MGS
Christopher Fowler in the Barcelona Review:
Short story 'Home Again'
Interview: Christopher Fowler, A Very Personal Demon (1988)
Reviews of Disturbia. And Soho Black
The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen; Doubleday, 2004
At just forty Hugo Whittier, a sufferer of Buerger's disease, is knowingly and willingly killing himself every time he lights another cigarette, which he does continuously. Fully aware of the painful death ahead, his plans for a painless suicide are given top priority when his wonderful solitude at Waverly, the large family home on the Hudson River, is shattered by the arrival of brother Dennis, thrown out by his wife. Hugo has spent the last ten years happily alone, cooking himself large feasts and filling out autobiographical notebooks, so the intrusion is strongly resented. Dennis is trouble enough for the anally-retentive Hugo, as he puts the knives in the draw the wrong way round, but worse is to come when Hugos wife Sonia also turns up with his daughter - a fact he hotly denies. Then he has to give up his bedroom and move to another with the arrival of Fag Uncle Tommy. Death looks like the best and easiest option, but first Hugo must get laid and Dennis au pair looks promising, as does his mistress; so, too, the girl in town who sells him his cigarettes. Then, before he dies he feels he should try and correct some wrongs and that entails hiring a mobster killer who was once hired to kill him when Hugo was a young, drug-dealing gigolo.
A reasonably straightforward plot then, except it is told via those autobiographical notebooks mentioned above and Hugo Whittier is the most pompous, conceited, narcissistic narrator/character to come along for some time. A failed poet and writer, Hugo believes that the notebooks are "a series of achievements" and writes in a totally overblown style. After describing the Hudson as having "mercurial quiddity he goes on:
Hes the type of person who calls a barman a barkeep and wonders why he doesnt get served. Apart from charting his pain, conquests and life the notebooks also go into great detail about the food writing of M.F.K Fisher and essayist Michel de Montaigne, who once wrote: "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself." Obviously an inspiration to the likes of Hugo. If his writing style is a bit anachronistic, then Hugo himself seems to be from another era. For a forty-year old, younger than most original punks, he acts like someone twice that age and even though he cooks great meals for himself and is a food snob, one cant help but notice he uses things like Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and ketchup, condiments surely relegated to the kitchen of the 1970s and not seen in one of the new century. He is completely non-politically correct, and as a confessed homophobe his rants and hatred against gays hark back to the era of Archie Bunker. He is also a hypocrite. Even worse than homosexuality to him is pedophilia in his eyes it justifies homicide - and yet he spends most of the book attempting to bed an 18 year-old. Legal, yes, but just.
The notebooks are full of sparkling wit, and though not exactly laugh-out-loud, it is a funny book with some memorable, quotable passages and the reader can laugh at and with Hugo. Hes a self-centered pedant but in the end one finds sympathy, especially if we are to believe his description of vixen Sonia. Mercurial quiddity indeed. MGS
Blind Love by Mary Woronov: Serpents Tail, 2004
How things happen: I really enjoyed Woronovs novel Niagara but felt that, as a male, I possibly wasnt the person to review this collection of short stories. Before handing it over I noticed that there were some short short stories and decided to read one at random, out loud, to the editor. It cracked us both up, so she flicked through the index, found another shortie, and read it to me; it too cracked us up. Short, funny and sassy is what we like, but if the short ones were the benchmark I had to read the longer pieces. I was ensnared. Thank god, this has to be the best collection of short stories by a single author I have read in a long time.
It is impossible to give a blow-by-blow account of each story as they are either too short or it would give something away. Love is of course the key word, but this is not the flushed faces, pounding bosoms and beating hearts of yore; its love in the twenty-first century, set mostly around Woronovs favourite stomping ground, Los Angeles, a bizarre place at the best of times. Here, real frowns form on newly botoxed brows (Looking for Love). Most of the stories are told in a sharp conversational style with cutting comments and acid observations, but when she wants to dip into the literary box Woronov can turn out beautiful, powerful imagery such as in Amazon what is it with her and rivers? or the moving Alligator Man. In stories like The Unsinkable Mr Raft and The Rise and Fall, the jokes fly out the window and it is hard to see the love angle, but they are very now-you-have-it, now-you-dont L.A stories, and thankfully, because they are downers, kept short and to the point. Insanity (Sand) and chaos (Clinic) are also not far away;
And just why is Jane flipping out in The White Plains of Western Avenue? Simple:
Love L.A style is a surreal world all right and Mary Woronov with her own intriguing past (part of Warhols Factory and star of cult classics such as Eating Raoul and Death Race 2000) is the best person around to put it all into print. Most of the stories make neat little observations and end on an upper, a downer or a zany punch line; for me only one out of twenty-two failed to deliver and even that one was OK. Hilarious yet sad, simple but full of detail, this is the type of book you can give someone without worrying if theyll like it: its a no fail. Absolutely wonderful, so glad I got to read it all. MGS
Lizard Dreaming of Birds by John Gist: High Sierra Books, Oregon, 2004
Those who love their books to finish with the plot neatly tied up at the end may be
a little frustrated by Gists second novel, but then that reader might possibly be
wary of a book with such an odd title. This doesnt mean the story has no end, just
that the author has wisely avoided the final confrontation where X
explains/confesses to Y why he or she did/didnt do it, so there are some plot
threads left wonderfully unresolved and I certainly went back over one or two passages,
out of intrigue rather than frustration, and found that careful reading actually adds a
mystery or three.
So who killed Jesse? Fingers obviously point to the weirdo Jubal. We get to hear other points of view from Lita, who sets out to find Jubal; and her sister, Lorelei, who is pretty convinced who did the deed. Lorelei is a true Christian, who got suckered into the group by Jesse, was forced to fuck Jubal, and now, spat out, is free to be just another Christian. Later, Lita will meet Luke who is totally into fact. "It must be rather boring, having everything figured out", she says. Lorelei equals Faith and Luke equals Reason;
people with closed minds, having no room for dreams or possibility, deaf to discussion; they are introduced purely to be thrown away, just so we can concentrate on Jubal and Lita, just so we know there must be a third possibility. The one other main human character, Ramona, seems to be Jubals quarry, and by that I do mean prey. But, as in his first novel, Crowheart, a major protagonist is Mother Nature herself; she is the third possibility.
Jubal is, or has convinced himself he is, half-man half-beast. This comes from an early vision he had and a near death experience out in the mountains when his urban dad takes him hiking. This little venture goes horribly wrong, dad shoots himself (or does he?) and the young Jubal survives months in the mountains returning to civilization more a monster than young boy, in tune with, but at the same time, at odds with all around him. Jubal at first takes to slaughtering anything with wings or four legs attacking nature - but later comes to his senses, whatever they may be as the man is a sesame bun short of a burger were he old, hed be just another babbling bit of human detritus on any city street, but he is young, good looking and dangerous.
So, apart from the basic story, what is it really about? To skim the surface a little: the title, and a raven that appears every time Jubal does, obviously leads one to explore Native American symbolism. A lizard actually signifies dreaming but also letting go and elusiveness, and a raven implies "mystery, exploration of the unknown, magick". Gist may be leading us all up a garden path with this blatant symbolism but when two American teenagers eat snails certainly not normal fare one wants to know why. (OK, snails signify perseverance and determination, but has the reader been thrown snails of the red herring variety?). Whatever the case, nature is unquestionably a major player here, and by eliminating Faith and Reason, Gist is asking us to listen to, or better yet, tune into the heartbeat of something much, much older than man, religion or science.
Whatever the authors intentions Lizard works very well purely as a story, the open-ended conclusion works effectively as it prevents the whole collapsing into cliché. It has its tensions, well-drawn and interesting characters, some fairly gory scenes, and is written in a solid, sure-handed prose with some stand-out lyrical passages. Gist takes time to give nature the respect and power it deserves; it gets all the adjectives, it is lovingly described as both beauty and beast, but I did like this simple urban description that gives so much colour and says so much without using one adjective:
The general theme and the little mysteries here and there that need expanding, ironing out or explaining,- like, just who did kill Jesse?- will baffle, annoy and perplex a few readers and may well keep a chat room happy for years to come. An excellent second novel and a challenge for those who like their reading to fight back. MGS
Dreamland by Newton Thornburg: Serpents Tail, 2004
Hippie drifter Crow decides its time to put down some roots, bury the hatchet with his ex-cop, private-eye dad, and so returns home. On the way he picks up hitcher Reno, a nymphet aged anything between twelve and twenty. But within days his dad is dead in a lone auto wreck and the circumstances look dodgy to say the least. Suicide or something more sinister? Crow tries to get to the bottom of the puzzle. The reader is way ahead of Crow and knows he is heading toward a very large can of worms. Then things really spiral out of control, and as one character says toward the end: "Its like a nightmare that wont end. A dreamworld The dream just goes on. It never stops."
Originally published back in 1983, and currently out of print in the US, this is the first UK publishing. The story fairly cracks along and is as good an amateur-sleuth vs. professional-killer saga as any. Time may have left some aspects of the story appear a wee old hat, but one thing it hasnt done is weaken the chemistry between Reno and Crow. It is doubtful a modern thriller writer would dare have a sexual relationship between a couple of such wide age difference. Crow does worry about it, but then he doesnt know how old she is. Great stuff. If the authors name seems familiar, his Cutter and Bone was made into a movie of the same name (aka Cutters Way in some countries), starring Jeff Bridges. MGS
2003The Barcelona Review
issue 40: January - February 2004