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issue 36: May - June 2003

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Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood: Bloomsbury, May 2003

In 1985 Atwood gave us The Handmaid’s Tale, a speculative novel (a term the author prefers to the genre-restricting label of “science fiction”) that presents a near-future dystopia. In this latest she returns to a near-futuristic setting that is darker and more desolate than before. Themes include the future of genetics, global warming, “hostile bioforms,” and the social imbalance arising from the ultimate in gated communities.

The novel begins with a naked man, wrapped only in a dirty sheet, sitting in a tree. He calls himself Snowman (as in “Abominable”); he’s weak, starving and suffering from the intense, burning sun. At first one might think he’s a homeless person, but we soon learn it is much more than that. Civilization has vanished and he’s very likely the last human being on earth, now a wasteland littered with the debris (and dead bodies) of the past.

He’s not exactly alone, however. On the seaside, near Snowman’s tree, live a beautiful, perfectly proportioned, green-eyed tribe of all skin colors. They are gentle and childlike; they eat only grass and roots; and they have no understanding of the time of civilization. Snowman refers to them as the Children of Crake. He interacts with them at times, but there is not much they can talk about. They have never known Crake, but because Snowman has referred to him as their creator, they ask for information. He begins to create a story of how “Crake did the Great Rearrangement and made the Great Emptiness.”

But most of the time Snowman sits in his tree and ruminates about his past. Little by little we begin to understand how things were before the Great Emptiness and how things came to be the way they are. Hooked from the beginning, the reader is pulled along in search of answers: Who are the Children of Crake? and Why is plant and animal life referred to as Children of Oryx? Who exactly were Crake and Oryx? Who is Snowman? and What apocalyptic event happened to bring civilization to a halt?

What we learn fairly early on is that back before the Great Rearrangement, Crake and Snowman, known then as Jimmy, were schoolhood buddies living in comfort in one of many enclosed corporate Compounds, areas separated from the wild and polluted urban territories referred to as the pleeblands, described much like inner cities of today. When Jimmy was little, his father worked for OrganInc., a Compound specializing in the development of human tissue organs. A pig has been “designed” to produce several kinds of organs at once - one pig producing five kidneys at a time, another livers, etc., which can then be transplanted to humans. These fat creatures are called pigoons and can be vicious if one gets near them. OrganInc also cross-breeds animals and there are now, among others, rakunks (raccoons/skunks), one of which Jimmy had as a pet, and wolvogs (wolves/dogs), which look friendly, but attack when touched.

Jimmy meets Crake, “during one of those months that used to be called autumn,” when his father gets headhunted by another Compound to head up the NooSkins project (the goal being to find a method of replacing older epidermis with fresh skin.) It is fun, if disconcerting, to read of the boys’ teenage activities, which naturally revolve around computers. Favorite games include Extinctathon, Three-Dimensional Waco, Kwiktime Osama (“tossing to see who got Infidels”), and so on. Favorite sites to surf: the animal snuff site known as Felicia’s Frog Squash, Noodie News (regular newscasters, only naked), (which shows live executions in Asia), from the U.S., and an assisted suicide site called, which provides a sort of This is Your Life presentation before the suicide (and boasts a long waiting list of contestants). There is also a load of porn. Jimmy becomes mezmerized by an eight-year old whom he sees on a porn site called HottTotts. The boys download her photo. This enigmatic female, most likely Southeast Asian - whose past fills us in on what life can be like outside the Compounds - will enter their lives later on. Her name is Oryx.

Life in the cushy Compounds is not without its own problems. Although the CorpSeCorps men (Compound security) try to keep it under control, there is always threat of sabotage - sabotage from other Compounds, from within the Compounds, and from those outside the Compounds. There is an unknown group, for example, that has created a tiny parasite wasp, which invades ChickieNobs installations. (ChickieNobs is a fast-food franchise, whose product comes from genetically altered chickens that have no heads and produce only one chicken part - legs, breasts, etc. Described as a kind of “chicken wart.”). Happicuppa, a huge coffee corporation with its own cafČs, has also been sabotaged by a new weevil created to kill its beans. Not hard to identify their present-day counterparts.

After high school the boy-genius Crake gets snatched up by the finest EduCompound, Watson-Crick Institute, where he will focus on transgenetics. (“It was like going to Harvard had been, back before it got drowned.”) Jimmy, who is a word guy, not a numbers guy, and not a genius, goes off to a school for the humanities, the Martha Graham Academy, that is smack next to the pleeblands and on the decline. He majors in Problematics, more commonly known as “Spin and Grin.” (His senior dissertation is on the self-help books of the twentieth century.) He’ll end up in the only field available - marketing and advertising. The boys stay in touch and even go on a “pleebcrawl” together. Like you do.

The novel follows the boys into their careers and middle age, building to the cataclysmic occurrence we know lies ahead. One can’t say more without giving too much away and spoiling the thrill.

The overall direction of the plot is not ground-breaking (we’ve seen many variations on the theme), but it is an utterly fresh and imaginative take from a master storyteller, and what truly sets it apart are the many futuristic details Atwood supplies along the way. Her observations - from the games to the workplace to the living areas - are astute, well-researched, ingenious and inventive, yet all too familiar. This brave new world is nothing like Huxley’s, which we’re as much as living in, but a haunting and prophetic view of the world that lies ahead, just around the corner. Don’t you just know how some fool marketeer would seize on the chance to develop the website ideas, and don’t you just know how popular they’d be. Hey, Noodie News rather appealed to me. And there’s a pill called BlyssPluss that pharmaceutical companies would die for. Didn’t sound bad either.

Read and take caution. This is Atwood - the writer, entertainer, social critic and savvy seeress - at her very best. J.A.


Tilt by Iain Bahlaj: Pulp Books, London, 2003

Pulp Books, called by Jeff Noon “the literary equivalent of an indie record label,” is an imprint of Pulp Faction, a paperback series of underground and contemporary fiction from the UK (titles include Go by Simon Lewis and Too Much Too Soon by Joe Ambrose). In Tilt, the debut novel by Scottish author Iain Bahlaj, we have an indie hit that pays tribute to Dennis Cooper. We’ve seen the plot and characters in Cooper’s work: most notably the confused and fucked-up teen Ziggy in Try, who passively permits “Uncle Ken” to film him in porno videos. Ziggy is the obvious prototype for Bahlaj’s boy Scott. Drugged, abused and indifferent to their exploiters, these boys glide through life in a daze of “whatever.” But whereas Cooper, in his elliptical style and fixation on sex, veers off into macabre sexual fantasy, Bahlaj keeps us grounded in the here and now. His focus is on the pychological. For that reason perhaps, Tilt lacks the black humor of Cooper, but offers instead, in its realistic portrayal, an emotional connection. Although we don’t strongly empathize with Scott, we can relate to him on a psychic level.

Tilt begins in early 1999. The Balkan War, with “imminent air strikes,” plays nightly on TV. Eighteen-year-old Scott Lanovy thinks “it’s cool, in a diversionary sort of way.” He’s living alone in Fife, Scotland, the family having moved up to Scotland from England a few years ago because of some “stuff.” The family has since split up with mum and brother now living in Cornwall. Scott tells mum that he works in window-fitting with a guy named Mike, but Mike spotted Scott working as a rent boy in a local park and introduced him to Gerard, a sleezy porn maker. When Scott works, it’s either freelancing as a rent boy or doing whatever Gerard instructs him to do on video with other males. Gerard is a sicko, who particpates in the sex stuff, but perhaps even more deviant is Mike, who never takes part, but stands on the sidelines with a hard-on, especially when things get violent.

Scott has a kind of crush on a girl working at MacDonald’s, where he chows down when he’s not eating Pot Noodles. They even go out together, but Scott has difficulty in forming a relationship with her - sexual or otherwise. He’s more comfortable doing nothing or going through the motions at Gerald’s “studio” or sitting at home cutting himself with a razor, the cuts “like the ones I did as a kid.” Drawing the red lines helps calm his breathing. Likewise, after a particularly grim porno shoot, which has left him raw and bleeding, he comments that he feels “so good it’s unnatural . . .my body feels faint, but it’s blissful, calming.” Far from being an innocent young boy lured into the porno racket, Scott seeks it out, like a narcotic.

The graphic details of the pornography shoots are sharp and telling, such as the description of the jar of Vaseline he’s given that “looks clean, but smells of shit.” And the action itself: “Shane pushes my head down to his cock. I taste piss as I lick the head of his dick like I’m told to do, and retch a few times before vomiting orange Tango into my mouth and swallowing it again . . . Then Shane is behind and Marcus is in my mouth. I can taste soap and Shane’s cock makes me bleed slightly.” Strong stuff, but nothing gratuitous, all to the point.

Scott’s brother speaks of how Scott used to be so great and talented in school. And Scott admits he was “university material.” We wonder what has happened to him. Memories threaten to surface now and then, but as they do, Scott progresses to a more dangerous activity on his own. And this too will be replayed in film, which becomes a mirror to his personal reality.

Scott may appear to be emotionally dead - he certainly works at it - but there are hints of feeling inside. Mike lives with a woman named Shirley and her four-year-old kid, Lee. When Scott visits, he’s uneasy at seeing porn and snuff videos stacked three, four feet high in Lee’s bedroom, although he says nothing. Ditto for the marks and bruises on Lee.

As the novel moves to its unpredictable conclusion, we warm more to Scott, not because of any momentous revelation, but because of his struggle to stay clear of it. An impressive debut, which takes us behind the scenes in a world of sex, sleeze and psychic disorder. It’s tough terrain, and Bahlaj covers it superbly. J.A.

Note: See Iain Bahlaj’s short story “Sugar” in TBR, which serves as a prequel to Tilt.


Shoedog by George P. Pelecanos: Serpent’s Tail , U.K, 2003

There are just too many books to be read and it is always the case that those you want to read slip you by. So when a 1994 book by an author you have heard a ton about is given a 2003 re-release, well, you have to hold back the flood and check it out.

A name like George P. Pelecanos sticks out and I have always wanted to read his acclaimed 1998 King Suckerman. After reading Shoedog I am now desperate to track it down, as well as some others, then find the time to get a better overall feel for the man and his work.

Shoedog is basically a very laid-back book, primarily because the main protagonist, Constantine, is…well, laid-back. He is a drifter with a big ‘D’. “Long as we keep drifting. That had been Constantine’s sole conviction for the past seventeen years”. Yep, he’d put Dion’s “The Wanderer” to shame as that guy only went from town to town; Constantine goes global leaving broken hearts and broken dreams across continents. He wants something, a meaning, a reason to be, but like many, he finds the grass always seems greener elsewhere and dies as soon as he arrives.

While aimlessly hitching back in the U.S., he is picked up by an old hood called Polk, who senses Constantine’s inner frustrations and knows that a bit of crime is not beyond him. He first uses him as a ‘body’ when meeting up with the gang he usually works for, to negotiate the fact they still owe him money. Polk is old-school and basically OK; the others are an oddball mix of ageing, trigger-happy glue-sniffers and boozers who seem only to still be in the robbing business because it is the only thing they know how to do. Caught up in their intrigues, Constantine becomes involved in a robbery plot that one feels is heading to where Reservoir Dogs picks up. For the intended heists, the gang use other trusted men outside their immediate circle. Among these is Randolph, who is the virtual opposite of ‘Connie’ and gives the book its title. Randolph is a simple but effective creation and I wonder if he appears in later books.

Shoedog is classed ‘contemporary noir’ and as we all know, noir means fated love interest*. Girl in question is Delia, the gang’s boss’s beautiful-but-bored young bit on the side, who obviously gets the hots for hunky new kid in town. The feeling is mutual and soon mattresses are being put to the test, but drifter Connie knows, apart from hidden moments of quick rumpy-pumpy, he has nothing, I repeat, nothing, to really offer this girl. Or does he?

Believable characters and strong writing work well within the constrictions and conventions of the ‘noir’ genre. Many writers would retire happily having delivered a novel such as this, but it was only a starting point for Pelecanos, whose later works have gone on to win awards and much critical acclaim. If, like I was, you are a Pelecanos virgin, Shoedog is the perfect, teasing foreplay to other delights. MGS

*The term ‘noir’ seems to crop up willy-nilly on any crime book nowadays, and tagged to anything: ‘Yorkshire Noir’, ‘Black Country Noir’, etc, etc,. So much so I was beginning to question just what ‘noir’ properly signified. Until B movies with Bogart et al were reappraised, were Chandler’s books known as ‘noir’? I turned to the Pocket Essential Book Film Noir – Films of Trust and Betrayal by Paul Duncan to get some kind of general description and got the explanation below. Though it is related to film, I will use it as a yardstick for all those ‘xxxx noir’ novels.

The usual relationship in a Film Noir is that the male character (private eye, cop, journalist, government agent, war veteran, criminal, lowlife) has a choice between two women: the beautiful and the dutiful. The dutiful woman is pretty, reliable, always there for him, in love with him, responsible – all the things any real man would dream about. The beautiful woman is the femme fatale, who is gorgeous, unreliable, never there for him, irresponsible – all the things a man needs to get him excited about a woman. The Film Noir follows our hero as he makes his choice, or his choice is made for him.

It goes on to say the femme fatale is usually involved with an older, powerful man and needs to make money from the relationship. Enter the ‘hero’, usually dumber than she is, to get the money or take the fall. Obviously, the narrative point of view can be from any one character. The nutshell in ‘noir’ is simply people manipulating people, by using sexual allure, for nothing more than monetary gain – remove gender references above for ‘gay noir’. The consequences of their actions always end badly for most involved. So ‘noir’ is pliable but limited; it has conventions, boundaries and because of this, almost foregone conclusions. A novel like Shoedog takes most, not all, of the conventions, adds a twist, and shows there is still life in a sixty-year-old formula.


Harry and Ida Swop Teeth by Stephen Jones: I.M.P Fiction., U.K., 2003

There is a niggle concerning the Prologue which I should mention straight away. Breaking the unwritten writers’ law of ‘Show, don’t tell’, the author feels he needs to somehow set up the world, or environment, the reader is about to enter. Why? In something like A Clockwork Orange readers are dropped, prologueless, straight into an alien culture and language; yet the world of Harry and Ida is not that much different from ours, apart from a heavy dose of UK TV comedy show League of Gentlemen-style freakiness and one or two added machines. But after absorbing the prologue, thinking it must be important, one finds that it is largely irrelevant to what follows. More importantly, it rudely gets in the way of the sheer delight of the intriguing title and the opening paragraph of chapter one. Consider the two intros:

1. Prologue: America has disappeared under the weight of itself. It is now just a configuration of mini-states. Little France, Little Korea, Little Iraq. Little Germany……

2. Chapter One: It was a tiny room with the front door lying on the floor, unhinged. A near-perfect fit. There was maybe a little too much room above the head, but on the whole, it was as snug as standing-up gets.

The reader has both options but I do recommend diving straight in as you are in for an intriguing ride with this worthy follow-up to Jones’ excellent debut The Bad Book.

Set sometime in the nearish future (Mel Gibson has just died), the novel could be, but isn’t, broken down into three parts, ‘Mum’, ‘Dad’ and ‘The Children’, the latter being Harry and Ida. They were born Siamese twins – joined at the top of the temple – and when separated, Ida gained a little of Harry’s brain. His loss means he is the slower of the two and needs to be pilled up to suppress a violent side. He likes the simpler things in life, like listening to any hollow object that can be put to his ear. But at just seventeen he is dying, and Ida, though broke, decides on a desperate journey to find a doctor who advertises in one of her trashy mags and claims he can save her brother.

Mum, Pebble (a pilot of planes that are little more than scrap-heap ships welded together) and is never around. Dad Luther, ‘Brick’, is a multi-time failed suicide and virtual recluse; the only contact with his kids is when he uses Harry as a test weight for perfecting the technique of hanging himself. Brick is the best portrayed and most rounded character and takes up a vast amount of the story. I would have been quite happy if the whole book had been about him, although I must admit I got thrown picturing him. The ‘Brick/Pebble’ thing conjured up The Flintstones and Brick’s drinking led me to an image of another animated character, Kevin Spencer’s dad Percy. And this off-the -track image, once embedded, was hard to get rid of.

It is in this section of the book that Jones’ writing is at its most playful and wittiest. There are lines that made me laugh out loud, and are loads of simple, fresh images such as candle flames ‘bellydancing on the wick’ and ‘The TV came on like warfare’. One of my favourites is: ‘…like a kid with some stones and a catapult. Testing the patience of windows.’ With Brick’s first attempt at suicide, pulling a radio into his bath, we get, after the sizzle, an almost Douglas Adams comment: ‘But there was nothing. Brick had expected nothing, but not the sort of nothing you wake up in the middle of”. Actually that could almost be from Winnie-the-Pooh. But, curiously, popping up early on was: ‘There was no time to wallow in the mire…’. I kept an eye out for other stray rock lyrics, and not spotting any became puzzled over the choice of that particular line. Jones’ audience is probably not going to remember, or even know, the Lizard King’s original but they will know the recent god-awful cover version by a Pop Idol winner. Is the author toying with us here, and if so, why? And where else?

Even the choice of names , such as ‘Harry’ and ‘Ida’, conjure up dodgy 1950s seaside B&B owners. And a clown motif, inspiring the book’s cover, adds a sort of bizarre quality to the whole. What are we to make of all this? Are these teases solely for the sake of teasing? Sadly, the obvious playfulness drops off as we head towards the book’s end - ‘The Children’s Story’ if you like - shifting into a darker, weirder and lower gear as Harry’s plight worsens.

The main theme appears to be responsibility –or lack of it. Brick runs from it and can’t even be responsible for his own death. Pebble has the one job that denies her time with the family, to pull it together, and she wasn’t even responsible for deciding the fate of how the twins were separated. It is down to young Ida to look after ailing Harry and to make the decisions, but being paid as a drug tester is not the best way to earn money, nor the most sensible as Harry is already rattling from his prescribed medications. There is too much responsibility weighing on the young shoulders of someone who believes in the fraudulent ads in trash magazines and is distracted by the continuous worry of her rotten set of teeth. Poor Ida, she has a hell of a lot to learn.

Like The Bad Book this quirky novel left me a little dazed. The clowns and imagery, the one-off rock lyric, the prologue that isn’t a prologue – these and other little curiosities lingered with me for some time after. For me, that is a good sign, that and really wanting to see how some of the characters get on in a possible follow-up. It’s a compelling original. MGS

© 2003The Barcelona Review
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 tbr 36           May - June 2003 

Short Fiction

  Iain Bahlaj

     Tilt (novel extract)
  Ron Butlin
   Vivaldi, The Jumping Cardinal, God, Clint and The Number Three

  Greg Chandler
     Bee’s Tree

  Abelardo Castillo
     Ernesto’s Mother

     Girl from Somewhere Else

    Picks from Back Issues

  Anne Donovan

  Steven Rinehart
     Burning Luv


  Gretchen McCullough May 2003: Letter from Cairo


   Answers to last issue’s quiz, All About Books

Book Reviews

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Tilt by Iain Bahlaj
Shoedog by George P. Pelecanos
Harry and Ida Swop Teeth by Stephen Jones

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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