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Under our present denomination of British subjects we can neither be received nor heard abroad: The custom of all courts is against us, and will be so, until, by an independence, we take rank with other nations.
There was a great moment in The Last Days of Newgate by Andrew Pepper when a moral philosopher complains that the city of Belfast used to be filled with people who ‘read Paine and Franklin as avidly as they did Knox and Calvin.’ This inspired me to hunt down Thomas Paine, as I had not read anything by him previously. His pamphlet on Common Sense defined in ideological terms the independent state of America. Its wording can be seen in everything from the idealistic dialogue of characters in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing to the signs of Tea-Party protesters. Paine’s writing underpins the conceptual core of America and so means many different things to this nation of many races, religions and cultures.
Common Sense is a classic piece of Enlightenment rhetoric. Following the credo of rationalism above blind faith, Paine first outlines argumentation against the very idea of a king, or monarchy in order to lead into his critique of the British Empire. To this end he first focuses on our inherited understanding of a king, citing Biblical text regard the disjunct between the much-called for ‘King of the Jews’, and the dominion of God Almighty.
Following from his reading of the text, he argues that any self-appointed ruler acts against the authority of God. By claiming territory on Earth, that king rejects the role of God as creator of everything upon the Earth. Interestingly Paine does not treat of the Messiah, Christ Jesus, himself. He also alludes to the practice in ‘Popish countries’, to forbid the reading of the Bible for fear of encouraging, in his view, anti-monarchist thought.
It follows on from this that America, as a much larger continent, is beyond the ability of Europe to rule. Firstly, he argues, accepting British rule exposes the Americas to whatever conflicts should occur between the closely seated neighbouring European regimes. Secondly Americans have no recourse to their ruler, the British king, whose legitimacy as a ruler Paine questions. There is an apt assessment of monarchs introduced, that in taking the throne a king is immediately raised above all other people, yet when called upon to rule, the king is expected to have some knowledge, or experience of the issues that affect his subjects.
Finally though, and here Paine’s rhetoric gives way to facts and figures, America is simply too big to be dominated by an island separated from it by an entire ocean. The continent has the means to be almost entirely self-sufficient. Whatever imports are required can easily be afforded by sale of its natural resources. Paine even introduces in later editions of the original pamphlet a table illustrating a cost analysis of British rule.
It is this upfront assessment of the material benefits of American Independence that impresses the most. In fact my edition includes a shorter work by Paine, Agrarian Justice, which outlines his views on the creation of a national pension service. The business of civilization, in Paine’s view, is to care for the lives of citizens. He self-identifies as a pragmatic humanist, urging a violent break from Britain in order to facilitate a truly equitable state.
Of course even he admits that while the cause may be just, citizens of such a future America might slide back into the oppressive behaviours of their one-time rulers. At every stage of Paine’s argument there remains an essential questioning. It is this aspect of Common Sense that I find most appealing, as it acts as a check on those who would take the blood and fire revolutionary rhetoric to justify present-day acts of terrorism against elected US officials.
Paine himself of course received little of the post-humous acclaim he unquestioningly has today while he was still alive. The double-edge sword of his rational argumentation made him quite unpopular among the newly emerging American upper class. This is a great shame, as Common Sense is far too practical in its view of political duplicity to be written off as another basket-case utopia.
A classic Enlightenment text, as relevant today as when it was first read.
‘It’s not as if I’d expect you to tell me the truth, dear boy. My readers don’t give a damn about the truth. They just want a good story with someone they can cheer for. We could even make you look good.’ He glanced at Pyke and shrugged. ‘Or bad, if you wanted to be bad. Good or bad. Just not both at the same time. It confuses people. They can’t work out whether to shout for the man or rail against him.’
Anti-heroes and noir fiction detectives go hand in hand. That moral equator gets crossed so many times, the reader is left wondering if the book’s protagonist is possessing of any morality at all. The best kinds of anti-heroes, to my mind at least, are those who possess a sort of bruised romanticism. Once they believed in a better future, but the present has consistently disabused them of that notion. Death-dealing ‘antiheroes’, such as say John Rambo, launch themselves across that moral line without a second thought. For them killing is something that barely needs to be rationalized as a ‘necessary evil’.
It is obvious that the different forms of anti-hero makes for attractive protagonists in any genre, hence Elric, or Thomas Covenant in fantasy and the Stainless Steel Rat in science fiction. In The Last Days of Newgate, author Andrew Pepper suggests a very early progenitor of the trope – Machiavelli’s classic political satire The Prince. For the purposes of this novel, however, he meets the reader halfway, introducing us to a typical Private Eye type named Pyke, who happens to live in 1820’s London.
Of course Pyke is not known as a private detective in this era. Instead he plies his trade as a thief-taker working for the Bow Street Runners. He also enjoys a small sideline in selling on stolen goods that he was unable to secure a reward for recovering. In fact the very first page of this book has him being attacked by a criminal associate, an Irishman known as Michael Flynn in a double-cross. As this is sectarian London, with Daniel O’Connell’s calls for Catholic emancipation inspiring riots in the streets between Protestants and Irish immigrants. Merely knowing Michael Flynn is enough for Pyke to be suspected of unseemly behavior, but the captured criminal is not helping for confessing everything about his partner’s role in his fence operation.
It is a time of great change in London. In addition to the proposal to give rights to Catholics under British law, the politicians are also debating the creation of a Metropolitan police force. This would of course render the Bow Street Runners null and void. In what seems like his last job, an ordinary investigation lands Pyke in the middle of a gruesome murder. The victims are initially identified as a Protestant couple, which causes further riots within the city. Pyke realizes that a patsy suspect will be accused in order to sate the anger of a bloodthirsty public. In his pursuit of the truth, he has to journey from London to Belfast and back, not to mention the little matter of a jail break.
This book captures the pre-Victorian era with an impressive degree of period detail and mixes in a plot strongly reminiscent of Mike Hammer. Occasionally characters quote Machiavelli to let us know this is not low-brow material, but by the same token it is great fun to see Pepper ducking and weaving through the associations.
Most impressive is how the sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants is mapped onto the familiar themes of race hatred from American detective fiction. By doing so Pepper cleverly establishes the extent of the conflict between the two religions, with the British Home Secretary at one point casually stating ‘I believe the Irish race to be an inferior one’.
This is also a book about the gulf between classes. Pyke’s ability to mingle with land owning aristocrats as well as pub brawlers marks him out as an anomaly. He enjoys partaking of laudanum and has little respect for women – but holds himself to an unusual moral code, despite being informed by his study of Machiavelli. In that he regards himself as superior to the men who rule Britain with an uncaring pragmatism, as well as the folk of his childhood whom he can barely relate to anymore.
This book is fascinating in its mixture of genres and informed by an incisive approach to the historical period.
‘Do you mean to say,’ he began, ‘that if I take the trouble to observe your directions – place myself in the condition which you demand: solitude, night, and a tallow candle – you can with your ghastliest work give me an uncomfortable sense of the supernatural, as you call it? Can you accelerate my pulse, make me start at sudden noises, send a nervous chill along my spine, and cause my hair to rise?’
Before Robert W. Chambers, before H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, there was Ambrose Bierce. The increasingly more excessive supernatural tone of their stories, with an equal increase in the overwrought standard of prose – at least in certain examples of the above, was initially derived from Bierce’s use of melancholic horror.
His name is often mentioned as one of the founders of the Cthulu Mythos, which would have been much to his amusement I imagine. For the horrors he unleashes are neither squamous, nor cyclopean, but often the very real horror of war. Certainly this collection of short stories, divided into two sections ‘Soldiers’, and ‘Civilians’, is rooted heavily in the events of the American Civil War, with the division of families and loved ones a recurring theme. What there is of the supernatural on show is weighted by Bierce’s own agnosticism.
The afterlife here is not so much damnation below, or a heavenly reward, but that brief moment when the dying soldier imagines that they have escaped their fate. There’s an excellent line in the story Parker Adderson, Philosopher that illustrates Bierce’s perspective on religion. A Union soldier – the Union throughout is referred to as ‘Federal’, which was a term I was unfamiliar with in this context – has been arrested by the Confederate army as a spy. Parker Adderson proves to be a witty and bemused subject for interrogation, engaging the enemy Confederate general in a battle of words. When it is made clear that he will be executed, Adderson refuses to speak to any priest, as he says: You can hang me, general, but there your power of evil ends; you cannot condemn me to heaven.
A Horseman In The Sky and The Coup De Grace both treat of the costs the war brought to bear on families, with fathers turned against sons and husbands leaving wives and offspring to a doubtful fate when called to the field. The former story features a native Virginian following his principles and joining the army from the North, setting him against his family and community. The hallucinatory story Chickamauga, resembling at times a gory Hideo Nakata movie, shows how children playing soldier games are blind to the inhumanity of the battlefield.
Cthulu scholars should read An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Haita the Shepherd with interest as both stories feature names of gods and places referred to by successive authors, although the deity known as Hastur here appears in a far more benevolent form than in later supernatural fiction. The opening story The Suitable Surroundings, from which my opening quotation was taken, even has an early progenitor of the ‘evil book’, trope although once again, Bierce’s materialism does not allow for the amorphous threat posed by the Necronomicon. In fact I would argue his matter of fact scary story is far more frightening, as it is more plausible than outer gods threatening our reality through the gateway of mouldering, old books.
The real star of the collection though is Bierce’s seminal story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. This is an excellent study in suspense, with the protagonist a civilian devoted to the Confederate cause attempting to aid them and survive capture by the Federal soldiers. The story is as much a study of the lengths a man can go to when motivated by feelings of patriotism, as it is a mediation on death itself. An excellent story.
Many of Bierce’s writings can be found in different collections. This book that I have read was published in 1964 and his reputation has grown since then thanks to the generous credit given to him by contemporary Lovecraft scholars.
Suspenseful, thoughtful and chilling, this is classic supernatural fiction that does not stretch plausibility.
But, in a sense, they all already had a fever just as murderous and treacherous: emigration fever. It was burning them up and driving them on.
Ok folks, here is a quick update on the status of your friendly neighbourhood blogger. This afternoon Stephanie and I moved into our new home – for four weeks that is. We’re house-sitting for a lovely couple and keeping two very affectionate cats company.
The most exciting news (for me) is this house has an incredible collection of books! I am very happy. So I will expect I will be sourcing many of my reviews from the books here for the next few weeks.
Moving along, this book is yet another addition to the American dystopia canon. This time the culprit for the devastation of the world is a highly contagious disease. The title is derived from the practice to isolate infected members of communities in a lonely house outside the inhabited area.
Franklin Lopez, left to his own devices by his hardier brother Jackson, finds just such a structure and takes shelter during a violent storm. Together the two brothers, like many others become emigrants in the wake of the disaster in America, are travelling eastward to a mythical port that will lead to safer climes. Jackson is tempted to leave his younger brother behind though. Already their family was broken up when the two boys left their mother behind at their home when they struck out. One more separation would not cost him much.
Franklin is ignorant of his brother’s desire to abandon him. He has discovered within the pesthouse a young, beautiful woman, whose shaved head and deliriousness testifies to her infection with the flux. At first compelled to flee from the obvious signs of infection, Franklin finds himself returning to the young woman Margaret, his attraction to her outweighing the danger she poses. She tells him she comes from the settlement of Ferrytown, where he had his brother had been travelling to, as many others had before them, to cross the treacherous river to the next stretch of road leading to the coast. The inhabitants of the town charge those travelling eastwards almost everything they own for the right to cross. When the flux passes thanks to Franklin’s ministrations, the two travel down to the settlement, only to discover every soul dead.
Everyone they know is gone. Franklin and Margaret decide to make the rest of the trek to the East alone, braving the highways haunted by people rustlers and the prospect of further outbreaks of disease.
The comparison will be made, so obviously I have to get it out of the way first. This is not The Road. For one Jim Crace’s writing is far more lyrical than McCarthy’s spare prose. Furthermore there is a far greater leeway for hope, with Franklin and Margaret’s growing love granting them a brighter future than an aging father and his young son.
Surprisingly Crace is not writing about the apocalypse. He is inverting the format of American manifest destiny, with the huddled masses that have survived the plague travelling east instead of west, seeking safety overseas as America itself and all it represents has been lost to them. His conclusion, given the misery of this book’s setting, is an optimistic one, reflecting Franklin’s youthful enthusiasm for life.
Poetically written, without shying for the darkness at this novel’s heart, this is a wonderful book. A dystopia that does not give up on the future.
She got in, and took the wheel again, and me and the Greek kept on singing, and we went on. It was all part of the play. I had to be drunk, because that other time had cured me of this idea that we could pull a perfect murder. This was going to be such a lousy murder it wouldn’t even be a murder.
The pleasure in reading noir fiction comes not so much from the plots, but from the manner in which the author plays with such familiar tropes, the use of language, the characters sketched in this genre of bitterness, frustrated desires and disappointment. Of James M. Cain’s fans, one obvious pair is the Coen Brothers, whose first film Blood Simple was a love letter to his stories of barren lives competing for survival.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic noir tale that manages to sum up the themes and tropes of the genre within a single slim volume.
Frank Chambers is a drifter, a bum and an ex-con, who wanders into a hot-dog diner twenty miles outside of L.A. to try and scam a free lunch. The owner Nick Papadakis is in need of a willing employee to help run the shop and indulges this drifter in order to convince him to take the job. Frank is not falling for the false concern of the Greek and is moments away from saying no when he sees Mrs Papadakis, Cora. From that moment on Frank wants nothing more than to make her his own.
Wasting no time he manages to seduce the lonely former beauty queen from Iowa, discovering that she carries within her untapped frustrations that won’t simply settle for skipping out of town and living on the road. She sees Frank, despite her passionate love for him, as little more than a bum. Her solution to their problems is more elaborate. Kill the Greek and fake his death as an accident. Despite himself, Frank finds himself plotting Nick’s death.
This book races along to its grim finale, with its black, skewed morality never flagging for a moment. Cora is not quite Lady MacBeth, but her ambitions put the self-proclaimed smarts of Frank to shame. For a man who supposedly lives by his wits, he often manages to succumb to lust and fear often enough to be taken for a fool. Of course the most immoral character in this book of insensitive husbands, ex-cons and murderers is – a lawyer, named Katz, whose sole interest is in winning the cases he fights, regardless of the innocence, or guilt of the defendants.
The Postman Always Rings Twice has been favoured by Hollywood by adaptation to film more than once. It is easy to see why. This is a tightly plotted narrative, bound up in the self-pitying reflections of Frank, who makes for a willing confessor. It also dips into, controversial for its time, themes of sadism and rough sexuality, ensuring its place in the history books by having been banned.
Worth investigating for anyone interested in the genre.
Perhaps we would be justified by proclaiming that the Centre writes straight on crooked lines, and what it takes away with one hand, it gives with the other, If I remember rightly, that business about crooked lines and writing straight used to be said about God, remarked Cipriano Algo, Nowadays, it comes to pretty much the same thing
I went to a preview of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later at the Dublin Horrorthon, for Halloween 2002. As the producers were trying to build up positive word of mouth for this pseudo-zombie pic – and it is instructive to remember that the current horror glut had not yet washed up on the shores of the mainstream – the screening I attended was followed by a Q&A session featuring the director and stars Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris. One member of the audience commented that the film reminded her of a novel by José Saramago.
I had never heard of the book before, so this proved to be my introduction to the Portuguese author. The novel Blindness does have broad similarities to Boyle’s film. A mysterious ailment causes the collapse of society, although in Saramago’s tale marauding zombies are not the cause, with the entire population of an unnamed country suddenly losing their sight. The novel has a sequel of sorts in Seeing, a political satire that is essential reading and not dependent on the previous book, although it does reveal the fate of the previous book’s protagonists.
Today’s book is once again a satire of sorts predicated on a surreal hook. Cipriano Algo is a potter whose business is dependent on the nearby monolithic Centre, a commercial/residential complex. Living in the shadow of the Centre, not only is Cipriano just barely making enough money from selling clay pottery to its residents, he is legally forbidden from selling his wares to anyone else.
The small business is run by Cipriano and his daughter Marta, whose husband Marçal enjoys an uneasy relationship with his father-in-law. Partly this is due to the young couple intending to move to the Centre, where Marçal works as a security guard. Cipriano resents that his daughter will eventually be pulled away from him by the Centre. Disaster strikes when his goods are finally rejected by the head of the buying department, with insult added to injury by the order to remove the surplus stock of clay crockery from storage.
Desperate to attempt to stay in business, Cipriano and Marta attempt to innovate by producing clay figurines instead. The Centre agrees to accept an initial order on a provisional basis, with the buying department head secretly enjoying the philosophical badinage he engages in with the quick-witted, but humble potter. Another addition is made to the small family by the arrival of a dog, named Found by Cipriano, who inserts himself into the lives of the struggling artisans. Meanwhile Marçal feels increasingly pressurized to achieve a promotion so he can earn the right to live in the Centre with Marta and Cipriano discovers a second chance at love with the widow Isaura.
Once again Saramago delivers an amazing combination of political satire, absurdism and philosophical inquiry. The callousness of the Centre towards desperate labourers such as Cipriano is masked by false niceties, symbolizing the double-edged sword of consumer culture. Issues of family loyalty are also dealt with, as Marçal finds himself goaded by his resentful father-in-law on one side and then being criticized sharply by his own parents for not agreeing to allow them to live with him in his promised future apartment in the Centre. Saramago also in a wonderful feint introduces us to the thought processes of the dog Found and its gratitude to the Algo family for taking him into their home.
Beneath all of the above, we also have several allusions to Plato’s parable about the Cave and the nature of reality. Saramago, I feel, was one of the most incredible literary stylists of the late twentieth century. Sadly the author passed away recently, but he was always fearless in describing thoughts and ideas that proved too controversial for his Catholic homeland. Reading his pages can sometimes feel like staring at a morass of words, with run-on sentences and absent punctuation increasing the feeling of alientation. Should the reader persevere, however, a natural flow to the language Saramago uses emerges, almost like poetry.
An incredible book, by an incredible literary visionary. Need I say it is strongly recommended? I thought not.
Well that was my first video blog. I hope you didn’t mind it – I certainly should not expect a career on television any time soon. Maybe radio though. I have a face for radio.
On to the competition! Here is a list of books reviewed for the site. If any of them take your fancy, drop me a line either here, via email (emmet[DOT]ocuana[AT]gmail[DOT]com), or Twitter @TalesAndYarns – and tell me why you want to read the book in question.
A review of your own would also be welcome. The more you give me, the easier it will be to decide who gets what. Of course, postage costing what it does, I can only send out one prize, so there’ll be no runners up books I am afraid. Submissions will be welcome before Wednesday 24th November.
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
Half the Blood of Brooklyn, by Charlie Huston
Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison
Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel
Inventing the Abbotts, by Sue Miller
The Happiest Refugee, by Anh Do
Wonder Woman: Contagion, by Gail Simone, Nicola Scott and Aaron Lopresti
Mysterius the Unfathomable, by Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler
The King In Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers