The Race and The Notebook

Nina Allan, The Race (2014)

AllanNina Allan is one of my favourite contemporary short story writers; but, as her collections often take on interesting larger shapes, I’ve often wondered what a novel by her would be like. Well, now here’s The Race, and it may just be the best thing Allan has written yet.

We begin in the company of Jenna, who lives in Sapphire, a small southern English town whose main (and pretty much sole) reason for existence is the racing of genetically-enhanced ‘smartdogs’. Jenna makes gloves for the smartdogs’ human runners, which is one of the few bright spots in her life. And her brother Del is pinning his hopes on one last smartdog race, which may yet steer his life in a better direction.

There are some indications that this isn’t the future of our world, but essentially The Race seems fairly straightforward – until we reach the second part and meet Christy, who certainly lives in a recognisable contemporary England, and is the ‘author’ of what we’ve just been reading. Christy has a dodgy brother named Derek, and the temptation is right there to map her life on to Jenna’s, even though it doesn’t quite fit. A third part jumps forward twenty years to a lover of Derek’s partner, and challenges key assumptions from Christy’s narrative. The fourth and final part returns to Jenna’s world, and Del’s grown-up daughter Maree, who was kidnapped as a child… but all may not be as it seems.

The Race is a novel of thwarted lives and limiting horizons: chances are missed, landscapes are washed out, knowledge is incomplete. This is also reflected in the book’s structure and language: its individual parts are integral to each other, yet don’t quite cohere. And rarely come across a novel so finely calibrated to the different weights of realist and science-fictional prose: when Maree’s section includes place names like ‘Thalia’ and ‘Crimond’, their effect is very precisely estranging – just as the world seems to be opening up, so it fades back into obscurity. The Race may end in incompleteness, but its sense lingers on.

Agota Kristof, The Notebook (1986)
Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (1989)

KristofTwin brothers are sent from the Big Town to the Little Town to live with their grandmother. With the local school closed, they teach themselves at home: having been given a title, one of the boys will write an account of something that happened to them; the other will check it with a dictionary, and determine whether it is ‘Good’ or ‘Not good’. The criteria for doing this seem simple enough: “the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do” (p. 27).

Of course, it’s not that simple; and the reason is right there in that quotation: everything we read is mediated through the boys’ viewpoint – and it’s a viewpoint that distorts a world we may otherwise expect to recognise. The boys eschew words that describe feelings, dismissing them as too vague. They even eschew feelings, undertaking a series of exercises to harden themselves, leading to escalating acts of cruelty – all told in the twins’ direct, matter-of-fact tone. Never again will I use an expression like ‘spare prose’ without thinking; the writing in The Notebook is so austere that it hurts.

Agota Kristof (1935-2011) was a Hungarian writer who became an exile in Switzerland at the age of 21; there, she learned French, which became the language in which she wrote her novels. The Notebook was her first, at least partly inspired by her childhood memories of Nazi-occupied Hungary. But all the geographical and temporal markers are stripped away from the brothers’ world, in sharp contrast to the precision of how they narrate events. The end result is a nightmarish timelessness that’s very hard to shake off. Kristof wrote two more books featuring the twins, which I’m sure I will go on to read one day. But The Notebook is complete in itself, ending in just the right place, ending on an image which is simple and stark, yet – in its own way – impossible to imagine.

 

Strange Horizons review: Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf

WaldorfI have a new review up at Strange Horizons, looking at Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf (published by Turtle Point Press). The book is a collection of eleven linked (or fractured) short stories revolving around the fictitious Bearden County, NY, where something strange has happened to the laws of nature. I won’t say more: I’ll just invite you to check out the full review here.

No would also be a good time to mention that Strange Horizons’ annual fund drive is currently under way; if you like what they do, why not consider making a donation? You might even win a prize in their raffle.

Elsewhere: Unsung Female Writers and SF Masterworks

After this year’s male-dominated Booker longlist was announced, Naomi from The Writes of Woman got together a few other female book bloggers, who each suggested five female writers who they felt deserved more recognition (see parts one and two of the Unsung Female Writers series). Now, as a follow-up, Naomi has sought a male perspective: she asked me and Eric of Lonesome Reader for our suggestions. She also asked me to suggest a science fiction writer, as that’s not a field she knows much about. In the end, my entire list is SF-tinged to varying degrees – but you’ll have to read the post at Naomi’s blog to find out who I chose. Eric’s list is also well worth checking out.

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In another place, the SF fanzine Big Sky has marked Loncon 3 by putting together two special issues in celebration of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. In issue 4, you’ll find reprints of my blog posts on Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation and The Prestige, and Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty.

“The letters, unbeknownst to their authors, had absorbed their entire surroundings”

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (2007)
Translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas, 2013

WLWSWhat Lot’s Wife Saw is a novel that shifts and evolves as you read it, until you can’t quite be sure what you thought you were looking at in the first place. The story goes that, at some point in the future, a great flood, dubbed the Overflow, has drowned much of the land; the world has become addicted to a violet salt mined in the Colony, a home for outcasts which is located by the Dead Sea and owned by the shadowy Consortium of Seventy-Five – and whose governor has mysteriously died.

In Paris, Phileas Book is inventor of the Epistleword, a kind of three-dimensional crossword puzzle derived from finding connections between newspaper readers’ letters. Book is hired by the Consortium to work out the truth of Governor Bera’s death, from the written testimonies of six members of his inner circle. All former criminals, the six are hoping that the past will stay in the past, and nurturing suspicions towards each other.

As well as being a novelist (this is her fifth, though the first to be translated into English), Ioanna Bourazopoulou is a playwright, and it seems to me that What Lot’s Wife Saw has quite a theatrical quality, particularly in its focus on a small group of characters in an enclosed environment (the Governor’s Palace, at least to begin with); and its background, which feels self-consciously stylised. I could vividly imagine some of the scenes acted out as though on stage, such as the six hapless letter-writers frantically trying to decide what to with the Governor’s body that they’ve unexpectedly discovered.

But, though episodes like this are amusing, there is a serious heart to What Lot’s Wife Saw. At first, the idea of the Epistleword seems largely a flourish, an extravagant way to give Phileas Book the investigatory skills for the task at hand. But then we learn what inspired the puzzle: Book was separated from his family by the Overflow; he read and re-read the letters he had from them, becoming deeply aware of the personality traces left embedded in the writing. He got a job at The Times in London, where he’d pore over the letters from missing persons, searching for those tell-tale traces. Book started to notice certain resonances and patterns among sets of letters; Yannis Panas’s translation captures the rush of insight:

[The letters] are transformed, they integrate and each letter now becomes vitally dependant on the others, one breathes with the lungs of the others and speaks with the other’s voice…the letters are by nature incomplete, like most human expressions, and they struggle for completion. They merge of their own accord, like atoms as dictated by their valences… (p.200)

Having seen these patterns in the letters, Book made a puzzle in the hope that the letter-writers might solve it and recognise themselves. So the Epistleword was born in dire circumstances, and in a belief that writing might have the capacity to reunite a family. This, I think, is central to What Lot’s Wife Saw: the power to solve a mystery is contained within the letters that Phileas Book (and we) read – and with it, the power for an individual to understand and shape the world. That’s also what makes the ending work for me: out of context, the solution to the mystery may seem trite; but, coming at the end of What Lot’s Wife Saw, it symbolises just how completely the world has become subverted by the text.

What Lot’s Wife Saw is published in the UK by Black & White Publishing.

My Loncon schedule

Later this month, I’ll be attending Loncon 3, the World Science Fiction Convention, which runs from Thursday 14 to Monday 18 August. I’m scheduled to appear on three panels; here’s where you can catch me:

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Friday 15 August, 10.00-11.00
Don’t Tell Me What To Think: Ambiguity in SF and Fantasy

What does ambiguity (of setting, plot, identity, and so on) bring to a work of fantastic fiction? How is ambiguity created, and what effect does it have? Does it always work? Can a story be too ambiguous? The panel will discuss stories they have chosen, exploring exactly how they achieve their effects, and asking what divides a satisfyingly ambiguous story from an unsatisfying one.

The chosen stories are:

‘The Squirrel Cage’ by Thomas M. Disch (1966) [publication history]
Ofodile‘ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ by M. John Harrison (1985) [publication history]

[EDIT: Thanks to Niall, I’ve added in links to the publication histories of the two stories that aren’t available online, so you can track them down if you want to read along.]

Participants: David Hebblethwaite (moderator); Nina Allan; Scott Edelman; Patrick Nielsen Hayden; Ellen Klages

Saturday 16 August, 16.30-18.00
Bridging the Gap: Genre and the Mainstream

Iain Banks’ work was famously divided into ‘mainstream’ and science fiction, but this division wasn’t always applied consistently. For example, Transition was published in the UK as mainstream fiction, while in the US it was classed as science fiction, and Banks himself declared that it was ‘51% mainstream’. This sort of boundary blurring can be seen in both ‘slipstream’ texts and in mainsteam works that engage with science fiction. In this panel we will discuss writing that crosses boundaries – real or imagined – between science fiction and the mainstream. How has the divide been understood and characterised? How has this changed over time? Who is currently writing across this divide and to what effect?

Participants: Preston Grassman (moderator); Anne Charnock; David Hebblethwaite; E.J. Swift

Sunday 17 August, 19.00-20.00
Fandom at the Speed of Thought

The story of fandom and the SF field in the twenty-first century is the story of the internet: more voices, fewer gatekeepers. How are authors, reviewers, editors and readers navigating this shifting terrain? In what ways has the movement of SF culture online affected the way books are written, presented, and received — and how has it affected the way readers identify and engage with authors and books? Do the old truisms — never respond to a review! — still hold sway, or are author-reader shared spaces possible, even desirable?

Participants: Chris Gerwel (moderator); David Hebblethwaite; Kevin McVeigh; Aishwarya Subramanian; Leticia Lara

 

Ivo Stourton, The Happier Dead (2014): Strange Horizons review

StourtonThis week, Strange Horizons published my review of Ivo Stourton’s new novel The Happier Dead. The book is framed as a murder mystery set in a near future where rejuvenation treatment is available to those who can afford it, and riot is fomenting among those who can’t. To go alongside the mystery, Stourton is also interested in exploring the ramifications of the rejuvenation treatment (and the mindset that created it) for his future society. In the end, this doesn’t quite all come together, but The Happier Dead does have its moments.

Click here to read my review in full.

Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.