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“Georgian Dublin”, rots in constant damp,

The way it always has, I guess – although

Only weeks have passed since I moved in,

And I’m in no position yet to know

The letter from the flashy postage stamp;

Which decay comes from without – which from within.

One of the categories I created for tagging purposes on this blog is ‘Poetry’, but sadly I have not reviewed much for the site. This is a shame, as there was a time I loved reading poems. My dad often describes poetry as ‘condensed thought’, an idea captured in verse with an exactness that can elude prose writing.

The poet is also a role more suited to an outsider than a novelist, as s/he in transcribing thought and action to verse is already describing the world in a skewed fashion. That perspective lends itself to the estranged observer, a narrator who questions what he sees far more readily. The scene is not set for the slow unravelling of plot, it is an eruption, a sudden reveal of intimate feelings that would go unsaid otherwise.

I am also curious as to why there is not more well-known poetry derived from an urban setting. So many of us spend each and every day living, working, socializing within the concrete and glass borders of cities. Surely there is plenty of material there for a poet, however, poetry today carries a nostalgic cachet, with ‘poetry lovers’, insisting on the bucolic poems of yesteryear over the urbanised sprawl. Cities have been occupied by prose stylists, let the poets labour in the golden fields of memory.

Quincy R. Lehr’s poems situate themselves directly within the city landscape. There are repeated themes of urban alienation, the suddenness of violence, the isolation of people trapped together in close spaces, with the poet just another anonymous face in the multitude. Why there is No Socialism in the United States of America neatly encapsulates the malaise that sets in on a late night on the town, with fellow commuters eyeing each other suspiciously, constantly aware of the threat posed by ‘strangers’. In New York everyone’s a stranger –

Each one of us was tired, pissed-off, and bored,

Angry at the hour and with those pricks –

That fat-assed bitch, who muttered at a cell phone,

That rat-faced airline worker at the front,

That punk-ass hoodlum, glaring at his feet,

That stuck-up twat, that sad-eyed brown-haired schmuck

Gawking at New York’s predawn, backlit blackness.

The anger that comes with this anonymity is coupled with Lehr’s own frustrations with adult life, the precarious negotiations of romance and the expectation of matrimony, as well as coming face to face with the vision of his father’s self sapped by cancer. The ugly inevitability of death throws the idealism of youth into question; all the poet’s adolescent dreams and plans seemed to have fluttered away like dry leaves caught in a gust of wind. Sex and life seem like traps, chipping away at anything individual, or distinct about the person who dreamed once about what waits in the future.

Lines For My Father addresses this disillusionment with the promises of a better life that come with youth, promises that in their heedless enthusiasm can set the older generation and its offspring at each other’s throats. When younger the poet expressed contempt for the “Ambitions of an ordinary size” of his parent, but concludes that he and his peers are even worse off, “we’re no happier than you, and can’t quite seem to sit for tests that you had failed”.

Drink and eager lust are engines for youthful action and reflecting back on them can cause embarrassment, yet those were the times the poet felt most alive, when he was “A bookworm almost trying to be mean”. In rejecting the symbols of the past, the young fail to learn how to live in the present, instead relying on pretension, shows of quick wit, or aggression.

The lonely city lives captured by Lehr, with the spirited arguments of drunks whose voices are already cracked by tobacco inhalation and broken relationships that fade in the memory (where therapy fails, a friend’s invite to watch Dario Argento giallo flicks succeeds!) display a certain kind of beauty, reminiscent of Beaudelaire’s inverted elegy to his city in Le Spleen de Paris. There’s a honesty to the ugliness on display that makes the imagery delicate and precious. Recommended.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishing for the review copy.

In the System – at least the parts of it that I lived in – all that mattered, all you really had, was your reputation. Two men went into a box, and one got killed and one climbed out, it doesn’t matter if you were bloodied and beaten. It doesn’t matter if you begged and bribed, wept and cursed inside that box – all that matters is that you lived and he died. That’s all anyone ever remembered.

I like swearing. There’s nothing like an inventive outburst of expletives. I pepper my everyday conversations with ‘colourful language’, usually without even thinking about it. Curse-words are wonderful fun and were generally the only reasons for my fellow pupils in primary school cracking open a dictionary.

“What’s a bastard miss?”

If you enjoy an amusing line in abusive language I would recommend Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, which features a character named Malcolm Tucker, the most foul-mouthed, gloriously filthy ‘swearer’, in fiction.

Unfortunately some writers simply cannot capture that level of dizzying scatology.

Avery Cates is known as the ‘king’, of New York. A professional killer, who survived an assault on the legendary ‘Electric Church’, in London, he cannot be touched by the city’s cops as for some reason his name has been included on a protection list.  He cannot be harmed by any law officer in New York, despite a well-known reputation as a cop-killer.

Nevertheless, Cates is a marked man. Kidnapped and blindfolded, he is taunted with information about his past that only someone who knows him could be aware of. Then his unseen assailants insert something into his throat and he is abandoned on the street. Consumed by rage, Cates sets out to discover who attacked him, but he has bigger problems to deal with.

One by one everyone he meets falls sick from a debilitating disease, suffering a gruesome death within two days. Cates, it is revealed, has been injected with a virus designed to emanate from him, killing everyone in New York, but leaving him unharmed. That list of deaths he is responsible for keeps growing and growing. Cates sets off on a race against time to discover who is responsible, before he can wipe out the whole of humanity.

Ok, everyone in this book curses. Every line of dialogue slumps on the page, stuffed with expletives. It is not even funny, just tiresome posturing and insults. It irritated the hell out of me, almost as much as Somers’ references to the first book featuring his callous killer, The Electric Church. Unfortunately I had not realized this was a sequel before I took it out from the library. There was this Church you see, and it was electric. Lots of people were killed in this Church, the electric one you see, but Cates survived. Over and over again we hear about the events of this previous book. I feel like this novel needed a ‘Previously On…’ opening chapter, much like in a prime time thriller.

In an unusual move many of the surviving cast of The Electric Church die, signifying that Somers at least is not interested in writing a formulaic franchise revolving around Mr Avery Cates. Yet the multitude of deaths soon renders the tragedy of this plague excessively logistical. We no longer feel any sense of despair in Cates’ friends being picked off, because death itself becomes repetitive. Much like the cursing! The descriptions of people coughing up bloody phlegm lose their shock value quickly. Honestly Jeff Noon’s Pollen dealt with the idea of a surreal disease in a far-future setting much better.

Poor fare and pretty ho-hum as a work of science fiction.

In the men’s room, he finally took the trouble to examine the money and was encouraged to see the face of Ulysses S. Grant engraved on the front of each bill. That proved to him that this America, this other America, which hasn’t lived through September 11 or the war in Iraq, nevertheless has strong historical links to the America he knows. The question is: at what point did the two stories being to diverge?

First off apologies for the late posting. I was miles away from my trusty Asus this afternoon. While this is being published still within the borders of the prerequisite ‘day’, it is late and I hope you were not waiting in vain. Auster’s novel is a traumatized reaction to the events of September 11 and the invasion of Iraq. I found myself comparing it critically to a number of other writers, yet at the same time Man in the Dark is a statement confronting the failures of American liberalism in the wake of these horrific events in recent history.

August Brill is a man trying to hide from his past. Mourning the death of his wife, he lives with his daughter Miriam and granddaughter Katya. Further tragedies haunt this family, but they retreat into silence, or obsessions to escape the necessary catharsis.

Twinned to this narrative is the story of Owen Brick, a man transported to another America, torn apart by civil war. Several states have followed the example of New York and seceded from the United States. Brick finds himself an unwilling military recruit, ordered to assassinate the man responsible for the horrors being visited on the American people. He protests that he is only a magician and cannot bring himself to kill. The men who have chosen him threaten the lives of his loved ones back in the ‘real world’, if he does not comply. The target for assassination? A writer named August Brill.

I picked up this book as it describes the imaginings of a chronic insomniac. If you ever wondered how I have managed to read 46 titles in as many days, well now you know. Auster also refers to Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno as an explanation for his ‘many worlds’, premise. I took issue with his conclusion that Bruno was executed for the thesis of the plurality of worlds. I always understood the Vatican having ordered his death as his belief in Christian magick fell out of favour with the new pontiff Pope Clement VIII. There is an excellent book by Frances Yates on the subject if anyone is curious.

The world of Owen Brick is quickly established to be a fiction. I was strongly reminded of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark throughout, despite Auster employing the shadow of 9/11. The difference is that for Gray the fantasy world is just as ‘real’, as ours. Philip K. Dick would also do this on occasion, refusing to clarify which perspective of reality is the ‘true’ one. Auster instead describes this alternate America as a distraction from grief, with the endless film viewing of Katya and August fulfilling a similar function. Their shared tragedies must be evaded at all costs.

It is a slim book, perhaps I expected more meat on the bone. I have never read Auster before and I have heard nothing but good things. If anyone can recommend another title by him, I would love to try him out again.

Tomorrow – Scott Pilgrim!

To the left of this blog’s main page, there’s a display of the most commonly used terms in the last thirty two reviews. With every reoccurrence of a search term, the display of that particular word or phrase begins to grow, to indicate how often I have mentioned it. Alan Moore’s name has been growing I noticed, so I thought I should actually write about something he has done.

A Small Killing was welcomed as a departure for the comic writer sometimes referred to as the Northampton Magus. No superheroes, no deconstruction of American comic book tropes, just a simple story about a man who works in advertising looking back on his life. Oh and giant insects.

Timothy Hole has landed the contract of a lifetime, marketing a major cola in Russia. A successful advertising creative based in New York, he decides to go on a holiday to his hometown of Sheffield, so he can recapture his spark and come up with some ideas for the campaign. While he’s managed to achieve a lot in his professional career, his marriage to his college sweetheart failed, due to an affair he had with an artist named Sylvia. Timothy obsesses about whether or not he was at fault, more troubled by his later being dumped by Sylvia than his betrayal of his wife Maggie. Going over and over the events of years ago in his mind, he finds himself unable to focus on his job. Then a mysterious boy appears and Timothy is compelled to follow him. At first he catches glimpses of the figure in the distance, but soon he begins to suspect that the boy is trying to lead him into danger, even kill him. When Timothy flies to London he discovers the boy is somehow already there, a phantom presence taunting him.

Timothy’s troubled thoughts are relayed to us by Moore’s precise prose, while Zarate conjures up nightmarish crowded scenes – a party filled with advertising colleagues, a long queue at customs, a packed plane journey, a London pub exploding into violence – to contrast with the main character’s inability to think about anyone else. The people in his life are excuses for his own failings, somehow always at fault regardless of what he has done. The title refers to the little sins in our past that we cover up, never revealing to anyone no matter how close we are, in the hope that the guilt will somehow disappear.

This being Moore there’s a healthy amount of intertextuality as well. Timothy finds himself relating to Nabokov’s Lolita, although he can’t decide if he’s the predatory Humbert Humbert, or the eponymous innocent girl. Nabokov’s book was written as a twisted love letter of sorts to America, summing up the Russian émigré’s feelings about the country he had come to call home. Timothy, conversely is going to Russia to sell images of capitalist excess to the Russians, marketing Americana to them and disregarding the socialist imagery he was so fond of as an over earnest teenager –

“Blue jeans. That’s it, isn’t it? Blue jeans is it. Whatever the West means to them, that’s what we associate Flite with…They want to be American. It’s obvious. No point second-guessing their needs. We just sell them ours. Our culture. Our appetites, our..”

A Small Killing itself was Moore’s break from the over commercialised American comic’s scene, so choosing an ad-man as his protagonist is certainly interesting in that respect. Babylon by Victor Pelevin is an interesting contrast, being a Russian novel about the divide between advertising and art.

Zarate’s artwork is beautiful, matching the reflective tone of the writing by resembling the drawing of an adult who never stopped using crayons. The imagery is childlike, yet disturbing also. The abovementioned crowd scenes are filled with freakish grotesques and animalistic facial expressions. Timothy himself is a needle-thin adult version of Harry Potter (although this predates Rowling’s books by some time), surrounded by overweight bodies and skinhead boozers. The boy he keeps seeing is depicted with a wicked, mocking smile, that perfectly captures the puckish spirit of the character.

Alan Moore is one of the most important creators of the last thirty years. If you want to avoid the cape and tights brigade in sampling his work, you should check A Small Killing out. A confident, heartfelt reflection on past mistakes and the broken promises we make to ourselves when we are young.

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