Monday, May 18, 2009

Recent reviews

From the Independent on Sunday:

A Journal of the Flood Year by David Ely (Portobello, £7.99) ****
First published in 1992, this novel about one man’s fight against the authorities when he spots a leak in the massive wall built along the east coast of America to keep the Atlantic at bay, has become a kind of dystopian classic. Given the increasing conviction of the environmental argument in the last fifteen years, it’s now even more timely, and if its essential premise is perhaps less original (lone voice speaking out against the official version), its plausibility is rarely in doubt.
William Fowke is on probation, banished to the inhospitable East Coast to write up standard engineering reports on the Baltimore Canyon region which is bordered by the great wall. When he notices an unusually high level of saline along part of the wall, he reports to his superior, Dr Matthews. Matthews tells him everything is fine, but the saline level keeps increasing.
Fowke’s futuristic existence is pretty much standard fare for lovers of dystopian fiction: the future is rarely imagined as a cuddlier place and Ely doesn’t divert from that depiction. Human beings never interact physically; they are born and raised in farms without ever knowing their parents. Some human beings, called ‘the excluded’, are kept outside of this society, and as Fowke causes more fuss about the leaking wall, he is eventually banished to live with them.
With a nod to the great dystopian master, George Orwell, Fowke’s only human interaction is with an agent called Julia. Ely is excellent describing the sudden shock of fingers touching, of the possibility of affection, trust and loyalty. Dystopian fiction uses the landscape to dehumanise. What it always feels is the real horror of the future is that we will forget what makes us human. Interestingly, what makes us human is never rationality, it is always imagination. Imagination and touch.

The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life by Steven E. Landsburg (Pocket Books, £7.99) **
Landsburg’s most interesting declaration in his book is that “economics in the narrowest sense is a science free from values”, but I’m not sure that’s exactly true. Free from certain kinds of values perhaps. His opposition to environmentalism, for instance, involves a different set of values: environmentalists want to ban pesticides, he says, but the economics of such a ban would mean that when pesticides are banned, “fruits and vegetables become more expensive, people eat fewer of them, and cancer rates consequently rise.” What Landsburg does seem to be arguing is that a world run solely on economic issues would produce some bad things, some good things, but the good or the bad outcome would only be incidental. Little would actually be done for the good or the bad (the use of pesticides isn’t, in the end, to prevent cancer, it’s for profitability). This book might have offered a much more provocative argument though, philosophically and ethically, at least to me, but for Landsburg’s fondness for the kind of propositions I used to loathe in school exams (if three men carry five bags in four hours, how long will it take five men to carry ten bags, that kind of thing).

A Pint of Plain by Bill Barich (Bloomsbury, £10.99) ***
You can almost taste the Guinness pit-stops on Barich’s leisurely stroll (‘investigation’ would be far too strenuous a word) through the world of the Irish pub. Or more accurately, the global phenomenon that is the Irish pub. Barich laments the fakery that purports to be authentic in as many out-of-the-way rural Irish pubs as in foreign inner-city ones, and ponders the liking we have for such kitschy homeliness that we feel the need to replicate it in cities and villages across the world. I’m not sure he comes to many conclusions but his study is fascinating, especially facts like the Irish Pub Company owning 500 pubs in 45 countries (Italy being its best client), and the revelation that if a general British pub switches to an Irish theme, simply redecorating with some “tin signs and etched Jameson mirrors”, its profits are almost certainly guaranteed to increase three-fold. The long-standing association of alcohol with the Irish has done their economy no harm, but the damage to the general health of a nation, while perhaps not entirely represented by the extremes of Brendan Behan, is alas, more authentic than the pubs themselves, and tends to be downplayed in Barich’s account.

The Witness by Juan Jose Saer (Serpent’s Tail, £7.99) *****
Those who are new to Jose Saer’s prose are in for a treat. This beautifully carved novella by the Argentinian-born writer who died four years ago is a mini masterpiece, tracing the journey of a sixteenth-century nameless cabin boy from Spain to the New World. At its heart is the darkness of cannibalism: when the boy’s ship arrives in an island, his fellow sailors and the captain are immediately surrounded by the inhabitants and all of them, save the boy, are killed. Their bodies are taken back to the islanders’ camp, skinned and eaten, the start of a ceremony that leads to drunkenness, sexual orgies and eventually, for some of the participants, illness and death. With Swiftian echoes, the boy is allowed to leave the island ten years later, but by then he has forgotten his own language and can only communicate in the grunts and gestures of the primitive islanders with whom he has spent so much time. Jose Saer draws perhaps inevitable parallels between the so-called ‘civilised’ world and an ancient, more primitive one, to cast doubt upon the values of Renaissance Europe, values that we have inherited. It is a spell-binding, provocative and disturbing read.

Understanding Novels: A Lively Exploration of Literary Form and Technique by Thomas C. Foster (A & C Black, £?) ***
This guide is marketed at “book lovers and literature buffs” but it’s really for those who want to learn how to write novels, not read them (a claim slightly supported by Foster’s urging at the end of one chapter to “remember me in your acceptance speech” as you win an award for your wonderful novel). As a guide to how to write novels then, it’s often very useful and highly practical: he shows, in reasonable detail and with humour, how much more or less information a character is hiding or showing depending on whether that character is written in a first-person voice or a third person voice, for instance, and also does a good job of reminding would-be writers of the importance of that beguiling first sentence (“a fairly complex seduction”). As an exploration of narrative technique aimed at students of the novel form though, I think it’s less successful, as it tends to favour breadth more than depth (and is perhaps why his chapter on writers borrowing from other writers is one of the best), and it’s depth that students need. But he also provides an entertaining history of the novel to appeal to general readers, too, so if one group of potential readers is disappointed, at least two others should go home happy.

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