Thursday, 25 April 2013

Reykjavik! Reykjavik!

....which is a seriously obscure Scottish punk rock quotation, from the wonderful single Radio Iceland, released in, oh, 1980-odd by Inverness band Those Intrinsic Intellectuals. How I wish I still owned it...but I don't need to, as it's on YouTube! Hooray!

But that's not important right now. I wish to delve into the world of Icelandic crime fiction, sub-set as it is of what we must call Scandic Noir. I nearly  gave up on Arnaldur Indridason's The Draining Lake as I couldn't make head nor tail of bits of it. Especially on the first page, which has one of the most confusing first paragraphs in crime fiction history:

"She stood motionless for a long time, staring at the bones as if it should not be possible for them to be there. Any more than for her."

Sorry. Don't understand. Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's a translation thing.

Now, I'd read a couple of Indridason's books in the past - Jar City, which became a much-praised movie, and its much inferior sequel Silence of the Grave - and quite liked them, although I felt they owed an uncomfortably large debt to the awesome Martin Beck, the Laidlaw of Scandic Noir, as written by the husband and wife duo of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I plan to read that entire series again soon. It's a cliche to say that without Beck there would be no Wallander, no Girl With Dragon Tattoo, no Killing. But it's true. And none of Wahloo and Sjowall's inheritors come close to being as good.

Indridason for me worked as much lesser Scandic crime does - unfamiliar, absorbing setting, predictable procedural plot - but I have to say that I'm glad I persevered with The Draining Lake. I was drawn into the doomy, obsessive world of Detective Erlendur, with his various, very Icelandic interests - family history, abandoned children, missing persons, history, Halldor Laxness - and the Cold War elements of Iceland's political past were both enlightening and fascinating.

Anyway, it was only two quid from the Red Cross, as was his early novel Operation Napoleon, which I'm going to read next. Or at least try.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Iain Banks: one or two thoughts

I used to think that the Iain-and-Iain-M-Banks phenomenon was as if somebody, say Kazuo Ishiguro or Ian McEwen, roughly his contemporaries, wrote twice as fast, twice as much, twice as wittily and with double the range too. Don't forget Banks began his career as the enfant terrible of literary fiction, with The Wasp Factory  , Walking on Glass and The Bridge. How were we readers to know he was actually a frustrated sci-fi author, with several completed, unpublished books already under his belt? Well, Walking on Glass should have clued us in, I suppose.

Late last year I finished his latest 'M Book', The Hydrogen Sonata - a real return to top form, I thought, after the not completely satisfying Surface Detail. I felt seduced once more by The Culture, Banks's near-utopian civilisation where death is essentially optional and technology unlimited, and decided to re-read the entire series, becoming satisfyingly stuck after Excession. I would, I thought, return to the brilliant wit of the ship minds in due course.

Stonemouth, the last 'M-less' book, I wasn't sure about. An unaccustomed looseness of plotting was eased by the assurance and ease of the writing, but there was a nagging sense that we'd been here before. Transition, on the other hand, the 2009 book that crossed the division between 'M' and 'M-less', I loved in every way. Bracing and brimful of ideas, slippery and full of pungent fun, trenchant questions.

It will be apparent that I am a Banks fan. I have read the entire canon, much of it twice, in one instance - Raw Spirit -  with a degree of irritation. I have interviewed him, never face-to-face, on several occasions, always enjoying encounters with a man of great good humour and insight, but who I always felt, even in a full-on Stark Talk encounter with Edi Stark, gave a lot away to avoid giving away too much. Maybe kind of shy, I don't know. He's responsible for the only daytime play ever on BBC Radio Scotland of a Frank Zappa tune.

And now this. Now this foul and appalling news, two days after April Fool's (doubtless a quirk of timing that appeals). Bravely and humorously faced. No way out but the worst.

Things can happen. It's not over yet. Like thousands of others, I wish Iain and his wife Adele the best during the difficult months ahead. I look forward to the new book, which like all the others I could afford to, I'll buy in hardback.

"There's an old Sysan saying that the soup of life is salty enough without adding tears to it."
Iain M Banks, Look to Windward.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Martin Amis's Other People: A Mystery Story.

It’s not that the bookfields on which I normally graze don’t provide pleasure, stimulation and the alleviation of boredom. It’s just that sometimes you’re made to realise that they’re full of crap. And you’d stopped noticing.

Such has been my experience over the last few days as I’ve read Martin Amis’s 1981  novel Other People. It’s subtitled ‘A Mystery Story’, which drew my eye to it, in the British Heart Foundation charity shop described below. But the mystery, or mysteries it delves into are a great deal more metaphysical than in the run-of-the-word-processor thrillers I’ve been used to of late. Other People is a long way from pulp fiction.

Using a very formal circular, or elliptical, or double-helix structure, Amis tells the story of  an amnesiac woman called (by herself) Mary Lamb, whose descent into a hell of ‘other people’ is recounted in prose of such breathtaking brilliance you smell, see, hear and feel her every newly-discovered sensation.
Part Kafka, part Amis’s beloved Nabokov - there’s a quote from Lolita towards the end - this is a transitional book, the bridge from early work like The Rachel Papers and Success to the great London trilogy - Money, London Fields, The Information. The immersion in London’s underworld, the grotesque characters, the physicality and griminess of the later books are all here. But this is essentially a book of ideas. Identity, gender, time, perception, good and evil. It’s also very funny, and may be the best ever novel about drunkenness.

It’s tricksy, but not in the way a generic detective novel is. Amis’s literary skills and intellectual firepower are, as usual, fully on display. In no way is he slumming it, as many downmarketing academics playing with crime fiction are . He’s not ‘using the form’. It’s a complex, difficult book.

I found it enormously rewarding. And disturbing. Because it made me appreciate the self-imposed banality of much of the stuff I’ve been reading. The thick-ear, masturbatory stupidity churned out by highly-educated writers who should know better. Who’re after cheap thrills, cash and public impact, with maybe one dumb moral point sticking out like a hammered thumb: Newspapers are dodgy; greed is bad; people do bad things; gosh, even good people sometimes do bad things. Duh.

These are the kind of people who hate Amis because he makes them feel inadequate. He makes their prose look turgid and their ambitions small.

This book was written 32 years ago. It is as visceral, shocking, formally brilliant and verbally pyrotechnical as it was on publication. It's a short book. It makes a lot of thicker tomes seem shrivelled.