Does this make sense? And does it matter?

September 2nd, 2011

In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

A few months ago – signed off sick and desiring something easy to read – I picked up Richard Brautigan‘s In Watermelon Sugar. Brautigan’s books are short and written in sentences of childlike simplicity. I find them highly enjoyable to read, yet I never quite know what to make of them – which is to say, I can’t decide whether their apparent simplicity is deceptive or not. On finishing these books, I’m often left with the feeling that something of significance has just brushed past me, but I’ve failed to fully apprehend it.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that this hunch about a deeper meaning is misplaced. Maybe the surface is all there is. As I entertain this possibility, I find myself wondering if a lack of deeper meaning actually bothers me. Given Brautigan’s poetic talents – his ear for language, his eye for imagery – should I really feel short-changed if there’s nothing beneath the beautiful surface? An interesting question, to which I’ll return.

Narrative Techniques

It may be useful at this point to try to pin down what it is about Brautigan’s work that produces this curious effect. I think it boils down to this: Brautigan writes in such a way as to discourage a literal reading, whilst simultaneously ensuring no metaphorical interpretation can be determined with any confidence.

In the case of In Watermelon Sugar, this general strategy is applied at several levels. The story, taken as a whole, “feels” like an allegory – it has the simplicity and economy of something like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea – yet taken on these terms it doesn’t lend itself to any definitive interpretation.

At a smaller scale, the situations and events presented within the story also tend to discourage a literal reading. This is because they are so often anti-realistic. Take this passage:-

One morning the tigers came in while we were eating breakfast and before my father could grab a weapon they killed him and they killed my mother. My parents didn’t even have time to say anything before they were dead. I was still holding the spoon from the mush I was eating.

“We’re sorry,” one of the tigers said. “We really are.”

“Yeah,” the other tiger said. “We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t have to, if we weren’t absolutely forced to. But this is the only way we can keep alive.”

“We’re just like you,” the other tiger said. “We speak the same language you do. We think the same thoughts, but we’re tigers.”

“You could help me with my arithmetic,” I said.

– In Watermelon Sugar

Not only do we have talking tigers, we have a boy who responds to the death of his parents with a remarkable absence of emotion. Impossible facts, implausible psychology. Yet if this is not to be read literally, how do we construct a metaphorical reading? We have no frame of reference to work with. What’s the deeper message? Is Brautigan trying to say something about the realities of the food chain? Or how the ruthless justify their actions (choice posing as necessity)? Or about the general harshness of the world? Does this scene represent something of his own childhood? (Brautigan grew up a neglected and unwanted child during the Great Depression.)  His fans argue endlessly about these things, but there really is no good evidence to support one interpretation over another. Once again, Brautigan has undermined the possibility of a literal reading without providing a framework to establish a definitive metaphorical one.

Perhaps the most interesting level at which Brautigan applies this strategy is the level of individual words and expressions themselves. Consider this passage, for example:-

I live in a shack near iDEATH. I can see iDEATH out the window. It is beautiful. I can also see it with my eyes closed and touch it. Right now it is cold and turns like something in the hand of a child. I do not know what that thing could be.

– In Watermelon Sugar

This is a classic example of how Brautigan cuts a noun adrift from any definite meaning. That word ‘iDEATH’ immediately grabs attention; for a start, its capitalisation scheme inverts the recognised convention. It’s not a standard dictionary word – but it does contain two, with very strong resonances – “I” and “death”. Thus it generates an emotional response, a certain atmosphere – but we still don’t know quite what it means. When we try to establish this from context, the initial clues suggest that it must be the name of a place – a village, or building perhaps. Yet then we are told it can be seen with the eyes closed (so is it an idea, a metaphor?) – but that it can also be touched (so no, it must be something concrete). Finally it’s described as something in motion (so not a place then?), and then – perhaps with some irony – we are teased with the prospect of a simile, only to be let down by the failure to specify exactly what sort of thing it’s like. What we have are several contradictory contexts, undermining the possibility of a single fixed meaning. We are left with a signifier – ‘iDEATH’ – which has several associated impressions, but no definite signified.

These techniques are not unique to this novel – Brautigan’s better-known novel, Trout Fishing in America, uses the trick of conflicting contexts extensively, particularly in relation to the book’s title phrase. There are also various impossibilities – for example, in the chapter The Cleveland Wrecking Yard:

O I had never in my life seen anything like that trout stream. It was stacked in piles of various lengths: ten, fifteen, twenty feet, etc. There was one pile of hundred-foot lengths. There was also a box of scraps…

– Trout Fishing in America

In this case, by contrast with the tiger scene, it’s pretty clear what the author’s driving at – he’s plainly satirising American culture, in which everything becomes a commodity, no matter how unsuitable – even nature itself.

Back to the Point

So what is the point of a book that invites metaphorical readings, but offers no guidance on how to choose from a conflicting array of possibilities? Is this merely a symptom of authorial cowardice – a sort of semantic commitment aversion? Does this abundance of possibility equate with a lack of substance? Above all, does it suggest the author has nothing to say?

Judging from a handful of negative reviews – bristling with words like ‘pretentious’ and ‘vacuous’ – there are clearly those who think so. I’m not so sure. The ‘P word’ always arouses my suspicion – it’s so often the calling card of sloppy-thinking, lazy readers; the type who consider themselves “maverick truthtellers” and will denigrate any book that requires a little effort or imagination.

While reading these books – enjoying the pleasing cadences, the language games, the surreal imagery – I’m prepared to keep an open mind to the possibility that there is something deeper going on, which perhaps my intellect isn’t quite up to grasping fully. But then, maybe nobody’s intellect can fully make sense of these novels; and if so, then doesn’t their ultimate elusiveness rather resemble the world we live in? And wasn’t that perhaps Brautigan’s point all along?

Desert Island Decisions

June 1st, 2011

I don’t usually post about music here, but several of my online pals have responded to the BBC’s recent request for people to submit their Desert Island Discs – and I didn’t want to feel left out. It is of course absurd to reduce 40+ years of music appreciation to a ‘Top 8′, and so I must admit I haven’t thrown hours at this. If I did it again next week it would probably be a significantly different list.

Anyway, without further ado, and in no particular order:-

1. Flow My Tears, John Dowland (Andreas Scholl)

Yes I am a melancholic sort, though melancholy music tends to cure rather than induce melancholy – it’s the bloody cheerful music that depresses me! I’ve loved Elizabethan music ever since first encountering it as a choirboy. I find the free movement between various keys and majors and minors refreshing compared to later classical music. I think Andreas Scholl has the perfect voice for this kind of song. I could have picked many other Dowland songs, but this one has particular resonance.

2. Sinfonietta, Janacek

This is such a thrilling piece, from the clashes of the opening fanfare through the mood swings of all 5 movements. I love the rhythmic excitement – reminiscent of Stravinsky, but combined with a more lyrical sensibility. I believe this is quite a late work, and Janacek’s earlier work is more romantic/less modern in style. My favourite movement is the 4th, hence the choice of clip (3 & 4).

3. Trois Gymnopodies, Erik Satie (no 2)

I could equally well have gone for a Debussy prelude, or Claire de Lune, maybe – just as beautiful – but what I love about Satie is the economy of means. No 3-stave nonsense for Satie – he wrote pieces that even I can play! The performance here is an amateur one, including a couple of bum notes and a few missed bass notes – but I prefer this leisurely tempo to that of a typical professional performance (rightly or wrongly). No 2 is my favourite (though arguably the least popular) of the 3 Gymnopodies, hence the clip.

4. Hurt, Johnny Cash (written by Trent Reznor)

Is this the greatest valediction in pop music? Cash knew he was dying when he recorded this. He had recently lost his wife. I think you can tell – there’s a genuine sense of regret, of loss, of desire for redemption. The song choice is such a perfect fit, a lot of people mistake it for his own composition rather than the cover version it is. In purely musical terms, I love the way it grows, that repeating piano note anchoring the building emotion towards the end. Simple but powerful.

5. Hallelujah, John Cale (written by Leonard Cohen)

Again it is the simplicity of this that appeals. Leonard Cohen’s original was a rather overblown 80s production, with a full gospel choir backing the chorus. Cale stripped it back to simple voice and piano, which brings the poignant lyrics and simple but effective chord pattern to the fore. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love Cale’s voice, complete with his rather odd Welsh-New York hybrid accent. Most people prefer Jeff Buckley’s later recording, which was heavily influenced by Cale’s, but for me this is the perfect version.

6. Beethoven 7th Symphony

For me, this is the finest symphony ever written, and the second movement is the most profoundly moving piece of music I’ve ever encountered. I like the tempo a little slower than Karajan takes it here (can you see a theme emerging?). The 5th symphony and 5th piano concerto are also excellent, but if I have to choose just one Beethoven work it must be this.

7. Summa (for strings), Arvo Part

To quote Spinal Tap: “simple lines, intertwining”. But so, so beautiful. The first time I heard this was at a concert in the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill. I was utterly blown away, and the rest of the programme was rather put in the shade. Though I’m not remotely religious or spiritual, I appreciate a sense of the ineffable, and I think this is what Part captures in his music (Satie too, for that matter), and I respond very strongly to it.

8. Bottle of Smoke, the Pogues

Well if I’m going to be stuck on a desert island, I will need at least one record to leap joyously round like a madman to, and there can be few better suited than this exuberant burst of life-affirming vulgarity from the Pogues. Lyrics not suitable for Radio 4, of course, but who gives a ****?

So much left out, of course. No room for Philip Glass’s splendid metamorphoses for piano; no Beatles song, no Jacques Brel or Nick Drake or Scott Walker; no Holst. No jazz or folk or blues.

Yep, if I ever get marooned on a desert island, I’ll be sure to remember my iPod!

Crimewave 11: Ghosts

March 3rd, 2011

Crimewave 11
(cover art: Ben Baldwin)

TTA Press is best known for publishing Interzone, the UK’s long-running and leading SF magazine, and more recently Black Static, which is fast establishing itself in a similar role for the horror genre. Less well-known is TTA’s Crimewave – a series of anthologies of short crime fiction. Crimewave is published in paperback format, and currently seems to have an irregular publishing schedule.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe Crimewave’s domain as “alternative crime fiction”, because the approaches here are diverse, occasionally drifting into paranormal or “weird” areas; in any case, the traditional whodunnit format is definitely the exception rather than the rule. Personally, I find this coming at crime from alternative angles refreshing, serving to re-centre the focus on crime and its consequences, whereas the traditional crime-puzzle novel tends to focus more on the mystery-solving process, which can sometimes make it feel a bit too much like a parlour game.

Crimewave 11 opens with Dave Hoing’s masterly Plainview (Part One), a finely observed portrait of a 1970s American small town which becomes the setting for a string of unsolved murders. The second part of this story closes the anthology, bringing things up to the present, and I must say they make for a fine pair of bookends. The conventions of murder mystery storytelling are completely subverted here, yet the result is to sharpen rather than reduce the sense of sadness & loss.

Nina Allan’s Wilkolak is perhaps my favourite story in the collection. It concerns a teenage boy’s obsessive pursuit of a loner who he’s convinced is “the Manor Park Monster” – a wanted child killer. The boy is a keen photographer, and discovers his quarry is himself a photographer – a retired police photographer. The South London setting and general grimness sets the perfect tone. But is the boy onto something, or is it just his paranoid imagination running riot? The game of cat and mouse between the two – and between author and reader – keeps you guessing until the very end. A brilliant psychological thriller – unnerving, and not afraid to ask some big, difficult questions.

Other standout stories are Christopher Fowler’s The Conspirators – a sort of fictional meditation on the ruthless amorality of modern corporate life, with echoes of Poe at his best; Neighbourhood Watch by Cody Goodfellow, a disturbing tale of urban vigilantism; and Alison J Littlewood’s weird and unsettling paranormal prison story, 4AM, When the Walls are Thinnest.

As is almost inevitable with anthologies, there were one or two stories that didn’t quite work for me – Ilsa J Bick’s Where the Bodies Are struck me as clunkily handled with too many false notes, which was a shame as it tackled a fascinating area of crime seldom explored in fiction, and Luke Sholer’s We are Two Lions, whilst an interesting idea, seemed a little baggy and unnecessarily long. Of course this may just be down to personal taste; in any case a few mis-fires are a small price to pay for such a fascinating and unusual collection of stories.

I should just add that the standard of proof-reading and production is extremely good, which is increasingly unusual these days – so well done to TTA Press on that score too. All in all, a splendid anthology.


December 3rd, 2010

by Mike Alexander (c. 1400 words)

This is my contribution to TTA Press’s Advent Calendar 2010. To read the other stories or find out more about Black Static, Interzone and Crimewave, please visit The TTA Press website.

The final curtain has fallen. Back in my dressing room, de-wigging in front of the big mirror, I feel a strange mixture of relief and emptiness. The gruelling, months-long merry-go-round of matinées and evening performances is over at last. Until the next time, of course. There’s always a next time.

The show has been a success. Muffled congratulations seep through from the corridor, as the young actors fawn over the writer, the director and each other. Tonight they will celebrate – eat too much, drink too much, talk too much – and after all, who can begrudge the young their excesses? I will join them, for a while at least. I shall smile politely, drink slowly, retire early – playing the benevolent great aunt, which seems ever to be my role these days.

I rub my face with cold cream, watching the stage mask dissolve. The mirror’s lights are cruel, finding every line and blemish. But this face is strictly between me and the glass – the dressing room door will remain locked until I’ve put on my other mask, the one I wear off-stage. Even the make-up artists don’t see me without a little foundation, which I insist on applying myself. I seem to have lived my entire life behind one mask or another, and I’m not about to change now.

As I’m putting the final touches to my off-duty make-up, there’s a knock on the door. A polite knock, followed by a gentle voice:

“Mrs Carrington? Hello?”

It’s her – it’s Angelique, our American ingénue. I rise stiffly, double-checking my face and hair, then step across and draw back the deadbolt.

“Mrs Carrington, sorry to disturb you…” She looks flushed, slightly breathless, which makes her appear even younger than usual. Perhaps she’s tipsy already.

“Nonsense dear,” I say. “Please, do come in.” I usher her into the spare chair.

“Mrs Carrington. I just wanted to say thanks for all the help you’ve given me over the past months. I guess there’s no substitute for experience. I really appreciate your generosity – and patience.”

“Think nothing of it, my dear. What use is experience if it cannot be shared? Besides, you’re a fast learner – patience didn’t come into it.”

She flushes a little, still unsure how to handle a compliment. “Oh, and I got your invitation,” she says. “I’d be honoured – I mean delighted.”

“Ah, lovely,” I smile. “So glad you can make it. And I do hope you’ll forgive me for booking The Clarence. I’m afraid you will find it terribly old fashioned.”

“That’s OK – I like old things.”

“Well you’ll be alright with me then,” I quip.

* * *

She arrives on time, not fashionably late as I had anticipated. Still, no matter. Everything is in place. I believe I have chosen well. In truth, I’ve grown rather fond of this jeune naïve, with her unselfconscious lack of convention. Would that I could own such innocence. Perhaps my admiration ought to be an obstacle to the act that must follow – yet it doesn’t strike me so.

We chat about the show, about our next plans. She has an audition – a small film part. I wish her luck. I do not offer advice – it seems pointless at this stage. She reminds me of the half-dozen films I made in my youth. I’m surprised, and flattered. Don’t the young have better things to do than watch tired old movies in black and white? We discuss all this over our salmon, which I can tell she finds slightly overcooked. I’m sure the vegetables are too soft for her too – young people seem to like everything half-raw these days.

It’s not until after the main course that she retires to the powder room. I waste no time. The compound dissolves quickly. I have chosen the champagne carefully; a somewhat unconventional flavour, slightly nutty, which disguises the bitterness rather well. She will not notice, and even if she does, she’ll be too polite to say anything.

* * *

“Are you sure mademoiselle is alright?” says Michel as we collect our coats. The gaunt face, with its clipped grey moustache and baggy eyes, is full of concern.

“I’ll be fine, just fine,” says Angelique. “A little too much champagne, that’s all.”

“My hotel room is nearby,” I say. “Perhaps we should walk? The fresh air will do you a power of good.”

She agrees, and we set out into the London street. But the air isn’t fresh at all – it’s a muggy afternoon in the city, and the exertion will only serve to speed the draught around her body. She leans on me, giggling, and apologising for her drunkenness. “How silly of me,” she keeps saying. We reach the hotel at last, and enter the lift. As it lurches, she staggers off balance and I have to steady her. By the time we reach the door to my room, I’m almost carrying her.

“There. You must have a rest on the bed, my dear. You’ll be right as rain in no time. Can I get you a drink at all?”

“Water… Just water,” she mumbles. The voice seems to come from somewhere deep underground. I go to the little bathroom to fill a glass. As the tap runs to cold, I catch myself in the mirror. Am I evil? I wonder. Does it show in my face? But it’s only a mask, I remind myself. And this is purely about survival. Morals don’t enter into it.

When I return, she is already deeply asleep. I set the glass down on the bedside table, then spend a moment admiring her body, like a wine connoisseur lingering over a fine bouquet. The youthful perfection of those long limbs and lovely curves stirs something in me – a curious desire; not sexual, but rather the sort of existential yearning that can never be quite defined, let alone gratified. But I do not allow myself such indulgence for long. There is an act to get through. I remove my shoes and jacket, then climb over her recumbent form. I place my face over hers, drinking in the perfection of her features, then carefully, delicately, touch my mouth to her lips. She yields beautifully – not even a groan of objection. And then I am probing softly inside her, slipping in, exploring. Merging. The migration has begun. When I feel myself completely inside her, I push the old lady gently but firmly away. The shock of the separation is like plunging into cold water.

* * *

She’s waking, alongside me. She immediately senses something is wrong.

Shhhh, I whisper. Don’t worry. I’m here to help you now. I say this without moving her lips, but simply as a voice in her head. She sits up, takes in her surroundings. She’s confused to see the old lady sitting in the chair, smiling absently – a rag-doll, an automaton. She senses instinctively that it isn’t me.

“What’s going on?” she says out loud. The old lady ignores her.

Shhh, I say. You don’t have to speak out loud. I can hear you perfectly well. It will only upset the old lady.

“But I can’t… I mean, you can’t -”

She’s on her own now, I say. Probably won’t last very long, I’m afraid. But she’s had a good innings. She’s had her time in the limelight. Whereas you – you’re only just starting out.

I sit her down in front of the dresser mirror, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her exquisitely sculpted ear. Just look at yourself, I say. You’re beautiful – young and sweet and talented and beautiful. With your looks and my experience, we can do anything we like. Maybe even go to Hollywood.

I watch her face move from disbelief to realisation, to something approaching revulsion. She feels violated, and I can’t blame her. They always do, sooner or later.

Don’t be like that dear – why not relax and enjoy the ride? We’re going to have a blast!

“Who are you?” she says, staring at our reflection. Then, barely even realising the shift, she stops talking out loud. I mean, really? What are you? We glance across at Mrs Carrington, still smiling dumbly in the little dressing-table chair. How many others have there been? How long… how OLD are you?

I laugh, silently, humourlessly. My dear, I am as old as theatre itself.

How the Owl and the Pussycat Met

November 11th, 2010

– by Mike Alexander (with apologies to Edward Lear)


One evening, despairing conventional pairing,
A feline was tempted to stray
To an internet site, where long into the night
All manner of species could play.
Stretching her claws, with the mouse at her paws
And a transgressive glint in her gaze,
Her cursor alit on a smasher, a little
Inclined to her diet’ry ways,
Her ways, her ways,
Inclined to her diet’ry ways.


“Our profiles are matching, we both enjoy catching
And munching small rodents,” she wrote.
“We ought to join forces and share all our courses.
Did I mention I have my own boat?”
Well the owl he was smitten by this sexy kitten
Who spoke of fine dining and yachts!
He replied to her email, this scandalous female,
And told her to meet at the docks,
The docks, the docks,
He told her to meet at the docks.


Later that night, a fine strigiform sight,
He swooped in to land on the quay.
“You have quite turned my head,” was the first thing he said
When his kitty he happened to see.
She said: “Your gold eyes are a pleasant surprise,
And your manners I find reassuring.”
Then, with eyes flashing green, and her silky black sheen,
She led him away to her mooring,
Her mooring, her mooring,
She led him away to her mooring.


Now this land has its laws, and they cover the shores
And even a few miles to sea;
But out in the oceans, unusual devotions
Are treated more leniently.
And it isn’t my business to act as a witness
To practices best left unclear;
If you want that report, you will have to resort
To the claims of one Mr Ed Lear,
Ed Lear, Ed Lear,
To the claims of one Mr Ed Lear.

A Good Heart

April 27th, 2010

by Mike Alexander

This was my entry for the Campaign for Real Fear competition.  Since you won’t be seeing it in Black Static magazine (boohoo), I thought I’d post it here.

AFTER THE OPERATION I felt depressed. I mean properly depressed – weighed down by an all-encompassing sense of hopelessness. The nurses told me not to worry; it was normal after major surgery and would pass. Nonetheless, I loathed myself for it. I’d never been the melancholic type, and considering I’d had just weeks to live before the surgery, I felt I ought to be grateful.

Then the dreams started. Dreams unlike any I’d had before. I’d never been in a jungle, and now I was dreaming of jungles. Not fantasy jungles, half-remembered from Rousseau paintings or Hollywood back-lots – this was the real thing, vivid, insistent, alien.

* * *

It’s hot. My clothes are sweaty, my pack heavy. Through the trees we see burnt-out huts in a clearing. Twenty-odd kids, the oldest maybe twelve years old. Most have machetes; a few carry AK47s. We squat in the bushes, watching. They’re shouting, waving knives. A girl is screaming on the ground. I hear the order, then the guy beside me’s cracking off rounds over their heads. My stomach tightens, finger sweaty against the trigger.

The kids scatter, but as they do a couple return fire. We unleash hell. One of them drops, knee-clutching, wailing something unintelligible. We break cover, ripping more warning shots. A voice ahead shouts: “Medic!”.

The girl stinks. She’s about nine or ten, lying naked, smeared in her own shit. Machete wounds to chest and abdomen. Eyes of a trapped animal, screaming hysterically. She’s been raped, and thinks we’ll do the same. But it’s the stink that gets me. I lean over my rifle and vomit.

* * *

In the supermarket yesterday, the stench swept over me again. The supermarket wasn’t real; I was in the jungle. Those eyes. I felt the nausea rising. I ran out, my shopping trolley abandoned.

* * *

We didn’t know what should be said at Paul’s funeral. We wanted to believe the motorcycle crash was an accident, but couldn’t convince ourselves. It wasn’t just the divorce that had got to him. He’d been different ever since he came back from Sierra Leone. Bitter.

The vicar was most understanding. He tried to end the valediction on a positive note. He said how unfair it was, how Paul hadn’t deserved this. Then he mentioned Paul’s organ donation. “I’m told that was typical of Paul,” he said. “He always had a good heart.”

* * *

The depression hasn’t lifted. The tablets aren’t working. I started drinking after four days with no sleep. At first it helped, but now I’m developing a tolerance. The worst thing is, I don’t feel this depression is a delusion – it’s more like my eyes have been opened. For the first time I’m seeing the world as it really is.

I’m in the kitchen, examining the long, neat scar on my chest. I never should have had the transplant. This heart isn’t part of me. It isn’t good. There is only one way to be rid of it. I open the cutlery drawer and take out the largest, sharpest knife.

Genre Ambiguity in “The Little Stranger”

March 5th, 2010

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

Disclaimer: this isn’t a review; more an attempt to articulate some ideas prompted by reading the book (and others’ responses to it). As such, it contains Major Spoilers for both The Little Stranger and Affinity. You have been warned!

MUCH COMMENT has surrounded the ending of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which leaves the central mystery unresolved, prompting endless speculation about “what really happened”. However, I would argue that the novel also exhibits another form of ambiguity, which I call genre ambiguity. When I say the book is genre ambiguous, I mean that it’s deliberately unclear about what kind of story it’s telling, and what the reader can expect from it.

Note that “genre” in this sense doesn’t refer to a marketing category (horror, lit fic, romance, crime etc.) – but rather to a class of similar stories, defined by traits like:-

  • what they promise to reveal
  • the degree to which they’re supposed to be realistic
  • the mindset with which they should be approached
  • the values by which they should be judged.

Whilst these genre categories may be somewhat nebulous, they surely exist, at least in the minds of readers. When we start reading a novel, we immediately begin picking up cues about what sort of story we’re dealing with, and form expectations about what it is likely to deliver. Within a few pages, we know a Jane Austen novel is not going to be about how a young woman solves a murder; and there’s surely no doubt that a ghost story and a kitchen sink drama expect to be approached with a different sensibility, and judged by different values.

Sarah Waters is well known for mixing literary and popular genre elements, but I think in The Little Stranger particularly she uses genre-ambiguity to play cat-and-mouse with the reader’s expectations. Indeed, the ambiguity is so well-poised that, even having finished the book, readers disagree about what type of novel it is, and what it’s trying to communicate.

When reading the book myself, I was aware of several shifts in genre. I began by approaching it as a mystery novel. There were inexplicable events at Hundreds Hall; supernatural forces were supposedly at work. A sceptical doctor was narrating the story. All seemed set for an investigation and eventual revelation of “what was really going on”.

Yet I had my doubts. I’d read Waters’ earlier novel “Affinity”, whose denouement made me think it unlikely she would provide either a rational explanation or a supernatural one for The Little Stranger. An open, ambiguous ending seemed like the only option.

As the book went on, the focus shifted more to the story of Faraday’s pursuit of Caroline. No mystery here – a story in the social-realist genre. Perhaps now this was the real story? Perhaps the mystery story was just a sub-plot; it would have a rational explanation tied to the facts of social relations.

But Faraday’s love for Caroline only got going late in the book, and in any case was never very credible – he almost had to talk himself into it. As I neared the end of the book I began to see that it was probably only a means to an end – that Faraday’s real object of desire was the house itself. This made more sense, as it formed a constant spine to the story, beginning with the recounting, early in the book, of how the infant Faraday had stolen an acorn from a plaster moulding, as though claiming a little piece of the house for himself.

This was more or less my final position on the nature of the story. The mystery was of secondary importance; the real story was a lowly doctor’s (possibly subconscious) quest to possess a country house.

Except, if that was the real story, why include the supernatural mystery at all?

On the other hand, if the mystery is the real story, why leave it unresolved?

These objections typify certain types of reader who respond negatively to Waters’ work. On the one hand, the Lit Fic Purists insist on reading her novels as literary fiction, and believe the popular genre elements are irrelevant gimmicks that undermine any claim to seriousness. On the other hand, the Pop Fic Purists object that her novels are lit fic dressed in superficial genre trappings – they don’t do the things expected of popular genre, and thus fail to satisfy. One frequent criticism made by the latter group is the failure to resolve the mystery; another is the failure to make the story really scary; yet another is the failure to commit fully to the supernatural. Of course, each of these is only really a failing if the intention was to write a book in the corresponding genre (mystery, horror and supernatural respectively).

A more positive response to The Little Stranger depends on being open-minded and flexible about genre. Those who can do this I call the Genre-benders. The genre-bender can adapt to shifts in story mode, and might even be prepared to view a book in several different genre modes simultaneously. The more inquisitive genre-bender might start to ponder what the author is trying to achieve by this genre ambiguity, this playing with genre expectations. And I might too, but that is for another day…

Berg (1964), by Ann Quin

January 6th, 2010

Ann Quin (1936-1973)

Ann Quin is a new author to me. I had heard her mentioned in the same breath as B.S. Johnson, but didn’t know quite what to expect – however, I was pleasantly surprised by this short novel of 1964.

The prose style is dense and stylised yet unpretentious and easy to read (though requiring concentration). There is no tagged dialogue, only reported speech, well blended with the main stream-of-consciousness narration. Despite this focus on interiority, the settings and events are vividly rendered, and objects take on a great deal of significance. The influence of Virginia Woolf can be seen, as can that of the Nouveau Roman, as developed by the likes of Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, and Nathalie Sarraute (with whom perhaps Quin has the most in common). There is also some common ground with her English contemporary B.S. Johnson, though Quin is aiming less for humour than Johnson often did. There is a sort of humour here, but only a grim absurdism reminiscent of Kafka or Beckett.

The plot of Berg (such as it is) concerns a young man called Alistair Berg, who, having changed his name to ‘Greb’, comes to a seaside town (probably Brighton) to murder his runaway father, who is now living with a divorcee. But this isn’t a Graham Greene style thriller. Greb rents the adjoining room to his father’s, separated by a flimsy partition wall, through which he suffers the noise of his neighbours’ lovemaking. The story develops with a surreal series of false starts, substitutions and mistaken identities, and is clearly aiming at mythic/Freudian symbolism rather than realism (surely Greb’s job selling hair-restorer is intended to resonate with the story of Samson’s emasculation?). Despite lacking a conventional story-arc, the novel is shaped in a satisfying way and, whilst not exactly a page-turner, does not lack narrative drive.

To put the novel and author in historical context, Ann Quin, b 1936, was an English experimental writer of working class origins who published a handful of novels in the 60s and early 70s, before drowning herself off Brighton in 1973. Her life and career thus strikingly parallels that of B.S. Johnson (1933-1973), who also died by suicide. At the time that Quin and Johnson appeared on the scene, there was a prevailing assumption that working class writers should stick to social realism, in the manner of John Braine or Alan Sillitoe. Johnson, Quin and their ilk went against this mindset, showing that it was perfectly valid for working class people to adapt the techniques of Woolf, Joyce, et al to their concerns.

I also have Quin’s later novel Three on my shelves, and look forward to tackling that in the future.

Secret Santa’s Christmas Blues

December 16th, 2009

A fairytale of sorts
(c) 2009 Mike Alexander.

H32197UK_Hodgson stared at the spreadsheet dejectedly. He’d expected a bigger budget this year – at worst, parity with last year – but instead… Jeez, what could he do with this pittance?

Across the partition, H21591UK_Jones looked smugger than ever. No doubt his budget had swollen substantially. Boy, could he punch that face this morning!

“Man, I love Christmas!” grinned H_Jones. “Don’t you just love spending other people’s money?”

H_Hodgson nodded, smiling through gritted teeth. Look at him, he thought, just look at that silly, fussy avatar – all textured hair and flashy suit. It’s only sim, he thought, you’re just a Helper Agent, like the rest of us.

Turning back to his 3Display, H_Hodgson ran the profiles through the Q-net again. This was the process his work depended on: raw data, collected throughout the year by the DumbAgents dotted around the Hodgson house, was fed into an n-dimensional matrix, together with data on peer-group trends, psych-profiles, market projections, and hundreds of other factors, from which was extracted a probability bundle – enabling him, their SmartAgent Helper, to select an optimum set of gifts designed to maximise the family’s happiness, self-worth and social standing over the next year.

It was a job he’d always enjoyed, programmed as he was to get pleasure from giving pleasure, but this year he had no idea how he was going to succeed. He looked across at H_Jones again, regretting the competitive streak that was the other chief motivator in his AI consciousness.

The kids were the real challenge. Little Thomas perhaps less so – he was too young to have much peer-group awareness, and his train obsession meant anything with wheels and a “chimbley” (as he called it) was likely to be a hit. But Liz-Beth was a far tougher customer. At eight, she knew only too well the humiliation of turning up to school with the wrong handbag, the wrong trainers, or a personal comms device that was so last year. H_Hodgson flicked up her Santa letter again. An expression sprang to mind – a quaint expression he’d heard Mr Hodgson use: “You can’t buy the whole store!”

Well screw it, thought H_Hodgson, Santa letters were never all that reliable – what people think they want and what they actually want are seldom the same thing, not least with children. Still, in order to avoid becoming the classroom pariah, Liz-Beth was going to need more spending than this paltry budget would allow.

Should he call his supervisor? Perhaps there was some mistake. Mr Hodgson seemed to have been working harder than ever this year – always out early, home late – so why had his budget shrunk so drastically?

* * * * *

He stretched his fingers, twisting his head slowly as the infrared eyes adjusted to the attic’s darkness. It was always strange, coming out of sim and into the “real world”. It had never felt very real to H_Hodgson, who inhabited it for just one night each year. The android body was showing its age now, the huge belly, creaking joints and heavy red robes a difficult adjustment after the effortless movements of sim.

He crept quietly across the loft boards to the synth-fab machine in the corner. Earlier that day, whilst Liz-Beth was at school and Thomas at nursery, he’d watched it via the DumbAgents, humming away as it fabricated the junky, cut-price toys and gadgets he’d been forced to select. He’d had no choice – there simply wasn’t the budget to buy better patterns. He felt very sorry, especially for Liz-Beth. He desperately wanted her to be happy, but he couldn’t fight with his hands tied. For H32197UK_Hodgson it was already the worst Christmas ever.

Sighing, he gathered up the presents into his sack. At least he needn’t wrap them – the synth-fab had been upgraded a few years back, and now wrapped everything itself. His bag loaded, he opened the hatch and quietly lowered the loft ladder.

H_Hodgson put the main presents in the lounge first, scattered around the foot of the tree. He could barely muster a proper pile. Shaking his head sadly, he went upstairs to do the stocking fillers.

Little Thomas was fast asleep. It would take more than a creaking board to wake him. Reaching across his cot, H_Hodgson sprayed a little Substance A into the air. Within seconds, Thomas was stirring. His eyes opened briefly, then opened again, and widened. “Danta!” he exclaimed.

“Shhhh”, said H_Hodgson, finger pressed to his whiskered lips. He gave a parting wink as he sprayed Substance B, putting the toddler back to sleep again.

He would not risk this trick with Liz-Beth. She was beginning to suspect already, and outrageous claims would not help her classroom cred. But he was glad he could bring some Christmas magic to the little boy – small recompense though it seemed for the sorry bundle under the tree.

His Santa duties done, H_Hodgson crept back into the loft as stealthily as his portly body would allow. He manoeuvred himself into his storage box, closed the lid, then disengaged, enjoying the liberation of pulling back into sim.

His work was not yet over, of course. Now he must plug himself into the DumbAgent network, becoming the eyes and ears of the house. He must watch the family’s reactions as each present emerged, gauging the success of his shopping choices – not a prospect he relished.

* * * * *

It wasn’t the children who were up first. H_Hodgson watched in astonishment as Mr Hodgson crept downstairs at 3.45 am, put on a coat and slipped out through the front door. He returned minutes later, a present under each arm. Having put these under the tree, he went out again. The garage, thought H_Hodgson – no DumbAgents there; a data blindspot. Mr Hodgson appeared again shortly, struggling through the doorway with a large package wrapped in brown paper.

H_Hodgson’s virtual mind was racing. What was going on? Had Mr Hodgson employed another Helper? Was his own position under threat? No wonder the budget had been cut…

* * * * *

“Santa’s been a bit frugal this year,” whispered Mrs Hodgson, eyeing the scant pile under the tree, towards which the children were racing.

“Actually,” said Mr Hodgson, “I have a surprise this year. A lovely surprise – for everyone.”

“Oh my God,” said Mrs H – it’s a holiday, isn’t it? You’ve booked us all on a holiday of a lifetime -”

“Wait a minute,” said Mr Hodgson, a little deflated. “It’s not a holiday. It’s something else.”

“A new car – I knew it! All those late nights at work…”

“No. It’s not a new car, I’m afraid.” He rubbed his chin, suddenly uncertain of himself. “I wanted to do something different this year – you know, get back some of the old Christmas magic. I wanted to do what my grandfather did for me.”

Mrs Hodgson’s enthusiasm had visibly waned. “Go on…”

“I thought it would be nice if, instead of just throwing money at Santa, I actually made something for everyone. With my own hands. I’ve been taking evening classes, you see. Woodworking…”

“Woodworking? Are you crazy? You know what wood costs these days?”

“Synthetic wood, of course. We aren’t billionaires, after all. It’s very realistic now…” But before their argument could begin in earnest, they were interrupted by their eldest child.

“What is this thing?” Liz-Beth was holding up a wooden bangle, skilfully carved and beautifully polished, with stylised Celtic motifs. “I mean, I don’t think it’s Vespucci, is it?”

“No, it definitely isn’t Vespucci, dear,” said Mrs Hodgson.

“Does Santa make mistakes? I asked for Vespucci. What is this one? I can’t find the label.”

“There isn’t a label, sweetheart,” said Mr Hodgson. “Because I made it myself.”

“Oh!” said Liz-Beth. She was so surprised she forget to sound properly disappointed.

Mrs Hodgson shot her husband daggers, then went to help Thomas open his large brown package. She tore away, revealing a splendid wooden rocking horse, with a fine proud head and mane of synthetic horse hair.

“Dommaz wonn twain,” said the little boy. More daggers. Mrs Hodgson reached quickly for the next package.

* * * * *

Watching from sim, H_Hodgson’s avatar face stretched into a broad grin as the cheap plastic train emerged from its wrappings ( “Twain!” ). Then he was laughing. For the first time in days, he was laughing. You bloody fool, Hodgson, he thought. They’ll milk this for all its worth – you’ll be paying for years to come. Christmas was turning out not so bad after all. And next year, he was certain, he was going to get a nice fat budget to rub in the smug face of H_Bloody_Jones.