Tag Archives: postmodernism

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) – Mohsin HAMID

I went to a conference for emerging Asian Studies scholars at the end of last year (don’t ask me how I got an invite—I felt horribly out of place), and there were two buzz words/phrases that got pulled out at almost every lecture. The first was “Asian Century”, a reference to the Australian Government’s recent White Paper; the second was “rising Asia”, a term to describe the  many emerging and developing economies of South East and West Asia.

This obsession is not isolated to academia. In the past few months, two novels from prominent Asian authors have dealt with this idea of “rising Asia”, of people coming to terms with rapidly developing economies, and finding their place in this new paradigm. While Tash Aw’s excellent Five Star Billionaire took a somewhat dim view of the way of life brought about in developed Shanghai, Mohsin Hamid seems to revel in it.

Much like Aw’s book, Hamid’s novel is also based around the dodgy advice doled out by self-help books that seem to litter bookstores and airport shops all around the world. But Hamid’s novel is a little more biting, choosing to mercilessly mock these ridiculous books, by subverting the aphorisms they so love to dole out.

I can’t review Filthy Rich without mentioning some stylistic features. anyone who’s ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel—where you get to be the protagonist!—will find themselves in familiar territory. The narrator is ostensibly Hamid, who is having a conversation with “you”, the reader. He tells you the story of your life, in sections corresponding to what we might see in a real-life how-to-get-rich guide, from the first step (“Move to the city”) to the last (“Have an exit strategy”). Each is a snippet of your life, an important moment in time as you move from poor village dweller to one of the richest people in the country, having control of many slightly shady drinking water deals with the local government.

Somehow, your life seems to be blessed. You manage to get all the opportunities everyone in rising Asia wants. You get into a good school, at the expense of your sister; you get into university, dabbling in religious extremism, but never committing; you start a dodgy water cleaning business, selling to enough businesses for you to hire staff; and by the end, you

What this novel does, though, is manage to transcend its cultural and temporal surroundings. It is not only the protagonist that has no name—the country we are in, even the city, are left unnamed. Though there are enough clues to suggest it is probably somewhere in the subcontinent, there is enough ambiguity that it is not a stretch of the imagination to see the action take place in south east Asia, or even Africa.

Drawing on the traditions of authors like Italo Calvino, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia has a depth of both style and substance, and should be a strong contender for this year’s batch of prizes. Along with the recent film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it should mark Mohsin Hamid out as one of the rising stars of contemporary postmodern literature.

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The Plains (1985) – Gerald MURNANE

One of Australia’s largest independent publishers, Text, have recently brought out a new line of Australian classics. This has been accompanied with a series of articles talking about why it’s important for Australians to read their own literature, and despairing so many twentieth century novels are out of print. To rescue a book from the scrapheap of out of printness takes great courage, to assume that it can live beyond its own context.

A nameless documentary maker comes to the Plains – the vast, never-ending land in the middle of Australia – to make a documentary for his fellow coast dwellers. As he begins to investigate the unique culture in which he finds himself, though, he begins to realise just how bit a task he has set himself. This will not be easy, and as time passes, he becomes more and more frustrated with both the plains, and his own inability to understand them.

There are echoes of More’s Utopia, but with a uniquely Australian bent. The novel is split into two sections, the first of which outlines some of the basic history and culture of the plainsmen, while the second deals more closely with the frustrations and struggles of the film-maker living “in country”. As in Utopia, the first section is like an introduction to the historical context, while the second finds the observer/narrator interacting with these previously abstract theories.  The created society Murnanme paints is that of the “plainsmen”, a society cut off from the rest of coastal Australia, preferring to live on the plains, and let their culture blossom from the unique landscape in which they find themselves.

Murnane teases out a lot of issues still facing contemporary Australia. The tension between city and country becomes conflated with the Great Dividing Rage, and those of us who live on the coast (which is most of us) spend our time trying not to think about what’s on the other side of those mountains. And so the basis for Murnane’s fictionalised Australian begins to make more sense. I rather suspect those who live inland view people on the coast as city-slickers, with no understanding what the “real” Australia is. So, too, the plainsmen see those who live on the coast as a little backward and stunted, people who couldn’t live up to the culture of the plains which, for the plainsmen, is inherently better. Of course, there could be another explanation. Maybe it’s the tension bewteen Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The relationship between Indigenous Australians and the unique bush of our fine continent is echoed in the plainsmen’s fascination with portraying, and indeed not portraying, the fields in their own culture.

And in the end, none of us are any the wiser. We still don’t understand the relationship between the plainsmen and the plains. We don’t know why Australia has split itself in two. We don’t know what the plains really are. Where do they start? Where do they end? This gets to the crux, I think, of what Murnane is trying to talk about – the relationship between the artist and her subject. Ultimately, the film-maker is trying to make a film about something unknowable, and he fails. Has he spent too long in the plains to be a passive observer? Does one have to be totally detached from the subject to talk properly about it? Or is his problem the opposite? Is he too tainted by the coast to ever understand the plains? I know this is a paragraph made up almost entirely of rhetorical questions, but in my defence, the entire novel is essentially one long question, so I feel somewhat justified.

I lent this to a friend of mine after I read it, and when I asked her what she thought of it, she told me she “hated it”. It’s not hard to see why The Plains originally out of print. Whatever literary merit it might have, it’s not a satisfying read. There are no hard and fast conclusions. In fact, there are no conclusions at all. Murnane paints a continent divided, where two groups of people cannot find common ground, even though there seem to be attempts to find some. There are more questions than answers, which is not always a bad thing.

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1Q84 (2009) – Haruki MURAKAMI

I need to start this review with something of a caveat – for the most part, I don’t like the work of Haruki Murakami. His works tend to leave me feeling cold, and perhaps more importantly, repetitive. But the amount of hype surrounding 1Q84 was massive – both in Japan and overseas – and so I felt obliged to give it a go. And then it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, so I couldn’t back out of it. And in case you don’t want to read the whole review (this is slightly longer than I write for most things I review here), this was pretty much my first thought after finishing this 900 page beast: there’s too many hours of my life I’m never going to get back.

I’ve never completely understood the reason for Murakami’s popularity in the West, or indeed, in Japan. Rebecca Suter, an academic at Sydney Uni, offers an interesting thesis that makes a lot of sense in my head. You’ll have to read the whole thing here, but the thrust is that Murakami manages to blend both Western and Japanese cultural backgrounds into his novels, and this appeals to both sides. For Japanese readers, to Western pop culture references are other-worldly enough to be fascinating, while still being grounded in Japanese sensibility. This is reversed for Western readers, who enjoy the glimpses of an exotic other in his work, while still being comfortable with understandable references.

This is helped, no doubt, by the two translators of 1Q84 – Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, both of whom have translated Murakami’s work before. Before we get to the issue of having two translators for one novel (I think it’s a terrible idea), there’s the fact that there seems to be a concerted effort by these translators to make Murakami more palatable to Western tastes – a simple comparison of passages in the Japanese original, and then the English translation, highlight missing words – sometimes sentences – chopped up phrases, and generally weird stuff going on. I’ve always been taught to keep as close to the original text s possible, preserving sentences and words, even if they sound a little funny, but clearly Rubin and Gabriel think differently. If I were a better person, I would have read this in Japanese, but you probably wouldn’t have the translation for a few more months…

This is all, of course, only tangentially related to this novel, but these are the questions I was thinking about as I read 1Q84. And you should all, too. As a widely publicised “magnus opus,” it has become something of a lightning rod for people’s views of Murakami’s work – everything you expect from a “Murakami novel” is here, so if you’re expecting something different, be prepared to be disappointed.

Tengo Kawana has been given an unusual request by his editor – to rework a novella from a young girl called Fuka-Eri, and enter it into the new writers’ prize. He does, but in doing so, is pulled into a world he never knew existed. Meanwhile, Aomame works as an assassin, killing men who perpetrate domestic violence. But when she walks onto a highway exit from a taxi, she too is drawn into a strange world where not quite everything is as she remembers.

Murakami’s characters have fantastical adventures to escape their everyday, humdrum lives. This is, of course, the message he has been sending us right from the beginning – that modern Japanese society is so deeply unfulfilling, so boring, people turn to the magical to fill their days. Tengo is no different to this – his own frustrations as a writer allow him to be more open to the strange request that draws him into the parallel world of 1Q84, a parallel version of the 1984 in which this novel is set.

The world into which Tengo finds himself drawn is a world of strange cults in which supernatural events are an everyday occurrence, where strange creatures are born out of thin air, only to make their own chrysalis to create more people, and where the mother/daughter (maza/dohta in the translation, マザー/ドウタ) relationship is vitally important. Murakami is a frustrated science fiction writer stuck in the wrong literary mode. So many of these ideas would be fantastic, if only Murakami could channel them into a big, bold, proper literary sci-fi novel, and deal with them properly. Instead, they are relegated to quirky post-modern window dressings, in a world of very confused sexual politics.

Which brings me around to Aomame, a character that should be far more engaging than she actually is. I love the idea of a broken woman going on a rampage and carefully assassinating men who beat their wives. There’s an entire novel in that sentence alone. But once Aomame is drawn into the mysterious world of Sakigake (先駆け, or frontrunners, in Japanese) the cult which forms the main focus of the mystery at the centre of 1Q84, she seems to lose that drive, and instead become all consumed with finding Tengo, a boy she went to school with and had a strange, but significant ten second encounter with twenty years ago.

It seems desperately unfair that a big fat horrible man should be allowed to die in a manner of his choosing. In the real world, any middle aged man who has “ambiguous congress” with underage girls is rightly punished, particularly when he says he did it because of some supernatural being. But in Murakami’s world, because these beings are real, it seems somehow more justified. This man is simply doing his job. Which is an uncomfortable thought, to say the least. And for a novel that brings questions of domestic violence, and of poorly treated women, to the fore, I feel like Murakami should be making a better point. There’s also the awkwardly and deeply uncomfortable sex scene between Tengo and Fuka-Eri (which did make it onto the shortlist of this year’s bad sex award). For me, it’s not uncomfortable because it’s badly written, but because Murakami goes out of his way to describe Fuka-Eri as child-like in appearance, and indeed manner, so it reads like Tengo is sleeping with a child. I don’t think I need to explain any further why I found that uncomfortable.

Then, of course, we get to the third section, which feels like an unnecessary addition in so many ways. Written about a year after the first two sections, it introduces a third point of view character, Ushikawa, who in many ways, is completely unnecessary. In other ways, though, he’s quite useful, because he actually has some plot to be getting on with, and his chapters allow you to understand why it is that Tengo and Aomame are being (very poorly) chased by Sakigake.

There are some positives, though. I love the old woman for whom Aomame works – there’s something really cool in the idea of an old woman crusading against domestic violence from the comfort of her upper-class house, getting other people to do her dirty work for her. And some of Murakami’s post-modern tricks work out quite well – there’s a big discussion about Chekov’s gun when Aomame is given a pistol by Tamaru, and the idea that, now it’s been introduced into the story, it must be used. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s quite cool. Bonus points, too, for making Tamaru a gay zainichi from Sakhalin, filling all of the minority tick boxes. Minus points, though, for making him poorly written, spouting weird dialogue that is comically unnatural and far too self-aware. Saying that he is gay, so naturally he loves interior design, for example.

1Q84 is messy and unwieldy. It’s far too long for its own good, partially because things repeat themselves again and again – perhaps a better editor was needed. But its ideas and politics are messy, too, and while there are some great concepts buried within these 900 pages, Murakami ultimately prefers to obfuscate them with unnecessary post-modern trickery that was old thirty years ago when he repeated it in his earlier novels. I wonder if the title “magnum opus” is being used because it’s so freaking long? Of course, it has everything one expects to find in a Murakami novel, but that’s about it. 1Q84 doesn’t bring anything new or fresh to the table, particularly in the Haruki Murakami canon.

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Beatrice and Virgil (2010) – Yann MARTEL

Finally, I’m getting around to reviewing this novel. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it – probably the longest gap since starting this site – so you’ll have to forgive me if some of the details are a little sketchy. I picked this up, more than anything else, to make sure I was up to date with new stuff. I quite liked Life of Pi, but thought the ending was a giant cop-out. So I was hoping Martel wasn’t going to pull another stupid thing like that again.

Henry is a famous author, who is riding on the success of a famous novel, and is fishing around, trying to find something new to talk about. He has grand plans for a flip book about the Holocaust, but this constantly frustrates him. At the same time, though, his wife gives birth to a child, and his family life begins to take precedence. Until, that is, he meets a strange taxidermist (also named Henry) who wants Henry to read his play, and nothing will be the same again.

Anyone who knows anything about Yann Martel – and even those of us who don’t – should soon realise that Henry is basically Martel in disguise. Indeed, Martel’s original plans for a book after Pi were indeed a flip book about the Holocaust. It is clear, though, that this didn’t work out, because we have this instead. There are some gentle jibes at marketers and publishers in scenes where Henry tries to pitch his new work to his agents, but even he realises the futility of his own undertaking.

Once again, Martel had used animals in a way that is at once both subversive and relatable. The titular Beatrice and Virgil are actually a donkey and a howler monkey, respectively, who are the two characters in the taxidermist’s play, which slowly becomes more significant as the novel goes on. The Taxidermist Henry is a man who has used these animals in his play because of his close relationship with the animal world. As a taxidermist, he has a fascination and obsession with preserving and idolising the animals he stuffs and preserves, and so animals are the only way he can get his message across in fiction. The juxtaposition of the two Henrys becomes more and more important as the novel goes on, with one man simply trying to write about the experiences of the animals, while the other wants to preserve the animals as they are, in memorium eternal.

Maybe I’m just thick, but it took me a while to connect the dots of what was actually going on in this novel – I was probably about halfway though when I realised that the gratuitous amounts of signposting about the Holocaust set up in the first act actually related to the play inside the novel, and the conversations the animals are having. The animals are, in fact, talking about the Holocaust, though they only ever refer to it as an event called ‘The Horrors’, the actuality being too horrible to think about. But just as Life of Pi reveled in its own ambiguity, Martel seems to be in no rush for us to make this connecting – he does not force the reader to instantly understand this metaphor, instead preferring to subtly hint several times. Granted, some may understand faster than I did, but there you go.

Ok, I have a confession to make. I can’t actually remember what happens at the end, though I remember it being good. And appropriate. And violent.

There’s a lot going on in Beatrice and Virgil, but alas, since I read it almost two months ago, I can remember very little of it. I remember wanting to talk about it, though, in a uni class, or with some intelligent people, because there is a lot going on. Martel piles on the metaphors and images, but not in a way that seems forced or pretentious. This truly is a novel that manages to talk about the Holocaust in a new way – one that does not feel forced to resort to an overwrought historical novel and no sentimental flashbacks. This is a Holocaust novel for the twenty-first century, if such a thing can exist.

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Money (1984) – Martin AMIS

And on goes the mission to make my way through Martin Amis’ back catalogue. I picked this up in a second hand bookstore, and had heard that, along with London Fields, was considered one of Amis’ best novels – written at the height of his popularity, and arguably, genius.

John Self is a famous director of ads, and has been finally commissioned to direct his first feature film. But unfortunately, nothing is going to plan. As his drug and alcohol addiction takes hold, so do does the ever rising inane requests of his producer and stars. As everything crashes down around him, he wonders if Good Money will ever see the light of day.

Grimy. There is no other word for it. Reading Money makes you feel unclean and a little put off. John Self is pretty much the grossest hero of any novel I’ve read. He is fat, he is an alcoholic, he takes drugs, and he treats women appalingly. He is so very, very unlikeable. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone else to like. His producer, a young upstart, is smarmy and, quite frankly, a bit of a shit. He is the epitome of the 80s, wanting to subscribe so quickly and so easily to the conspicuous consumprtion philosophy. Self has an idea of where he wants his movie to go – though he is not exactly a man brimming with ideas, he knows exactly what he wants on screen. And so the constant bickering and fighting of his three leads (who are definitely the funniest characters in the novel) means that his script, written by a woman Self treats terribly, goes through so many changes to accomodate these whims, it barely remains the same.

Amis himself manages to put himself into the novel, too, as a novelist with whom Self becomes quite close. It’s actually the most interesting, and real, relationship in the novel, and provides some interesting character developments that highlight to Self (or should, at least) that the life he is leading – a life that sees him miss days on end because of being in a drunken stupor. There is also a clued-up concierge that Self becomes quite close with, and he, too, tries to warm Self of his self-destructive nature. What is most interesting, though, is that Self seems completely oblivious to the life he is leading. He seems to have genuinely no idea that what he is doing might not be the best way to lives one’s life. And for that, we do pity him. As we pity the alcoholic who can’t stop, or the drug addict who needs just one more hit, we pity John Self. He is dirty, ugly, and gross, but he is infinitely pitiable.

This high-flying, typically 80s lifestyle, is contrasted with Self’s humble beginnings. His dad lives in a flat above a pub, and is going out with a woman who thinks that her starring in porn is some kind of higher art. It is clear that Self has managed to extradite himself from this dirty British pub, and make something for himself that he has wasted because he is not used to the wealth. Money is everything to these people, particularly since Self lent his father some money several years ago, and the debt is causing some friction between them, making for a somewhat fractious relationship.

I have to spoil the ending, I’m afraid, to talk about the rest of the novel, so here goes. It turns out that everyone – quite literally, everyone – involved with the film production, is out to get him. They have been forcing him to spend and spend and spend so that he goes broke. And so John Self is spat out at the end of this production line, broken and unwell. There are some hilarious attempts showing him trying to get out of America to return home (fantastic Amis high farce, there), and then, the final denoument. It turns out that Self is actually the son of the pub owner – the pub above which his dad lives. And so he realises something – he can never have all this money. He is not destined to be rich or famous – he should just give up trying now.

This is the best novel about the 1980s I’ve read. Not that, I think, I’ve read tha many. I, certainly, have this image of the 80s as a time of lots of blingy people showing off their material stuff to everyone who’ll look, and this novel deals with the inevitable downfall of this intrinsically flawed philosophy. But hey, what would I know? I was born in 1988…

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The Savage Detectives (1998) – Roberto BOLAÑO

The hype surrounding the name of Roberto Bolaño has been massive over the last year or so. His major works, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, have received the most coverage, so why not start with them, right? And since you could build houses with 2666, I figured I’d start with the (slightly) smaller of the two.

In Mexico in 1975, a group of experimental poets, the visceral realists, are making headways in publishing their new, revolutionary poetry.  A young man is caught up in the excitement of the newness of poetry, and is drawn into the adventures of these poets, led by two enigmatic men – Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.

I don’t think that brief little blurb does this giant novel any justice, because there is so much more going on here. There are three sections: the first and last are told, diary-style, by the young poet caught up in the excitement of the visceral realists. Straight out of school and into university, he meets up with a group of poets raging against the magical realist movement of South American literature worldwide, determined to come up with something different, something unique. What it is exactly that makes this group unique is never explicitly dealt with – instead, the lives of these people takes precedence. In this first section, Bolaño shows us his true genius – characters that are confusing, contradictory, but above all else, normal. They are real people with real concerns. Much of Bolaño’s work deals with his own experiences, and the visceral realist movement is no different – his own work in hyperrealism is here mirrored, and the fractured nature of the visceral realist group perhaps allows him to take out som of his own frustrations with his real-life literary movement.

The middle section (taking up most of the pages), however, is a history of the activities of Lima and Belano between 1975 and 1995. Yet, this history is not told by these characters, or even one omniscient narrator. Instead, we get snippets and short stories from people they have encountered around the world in their travels. This makes pinning down anything definite about these two men very difficult, but also very rewarding. For they are the savage detectives of the title – in a quest to find a young female poet, they do things that are often only hinted at, but also are occasionally explained in graphic detail. From the pieces one can piece together, it seems that Lima is the more adventurous of the two, more willing to go that extra mile – at one stage, he ends up in an Israeli prison. And while each of these narrators is a separate entity, they have similar narrating styles and observations, helping to create something more of a solid image of these two runaway poets. Some of these narrators only give us a few paragraphs; others whole chapters. Some even last the entire novel – the first narrator, Amadeo Salvatierra, has a story that has to be told over several nights, with several bottles of liquor.

There are two main themes here, too: Arturo Belano; and literature. The first, Arturo Belano, is the pseudonym for Bolaño himself, allowing him to fictionalise his own experiences, as I’ve mentioned above. But as a person, how do we see Belano/Bolaño? He is difficult to peg down, but in comparison to Lima, he seems a far nicer, if somewhat more awkward, person. He is more content to go with the flow, and chill out. But hey, I could be completely wrong.

And what do we get of literature? Bolaño is definitely an author concerned with writing, with reading, with reacting to other texts. There are gratuitous references to authors – both real and imagined – and unless you have a very deep background in South American literature, you won’t get most of them. I certainly didn’t. But, then, he mentions Stephen King, too, so that’s nice to see. It’s hard to describe just how important literature is in this novel – it’s woven into the very fabric of what’s going on all the time, if that doesn’t sound too wanky. Arguably, the main plot is Lima and Belano trying to find a lost poet – Cesárea Tinajero – so right from here, it is clear that the written word is important. But each and every character’s obsession with books – writing in particular – is so very ingrained. If someone’s feeling a little sad, they’ll write a short poem. If they’re happy, the same thing. Again and again, we encountered people obsessed with literature, some unhealthily so, as one of them has the self-reflexive nerve to point out.

Look, I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand most of what this novel is trying to say. It definitely needs to be read probably two or three times before you can begin to understand what Bolaño is trying to say. If I reread this novel in five years, I’ll probably look back at these thoughts and hit my past self over the head. But to begin to try and understand, or at least think about, what Bolaño is trying to say is worth it. This truly is a masterwork – the hype is real for a reason.

Bolaño

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The Penelopiad (2005) – Margaret ATWOOD

When I read Salley Vickers’ entry into the Myths series, I was expecting some kind of topsy turvy postmodern reconstruction of old tales. I was disappointed. So when I picked up The Penelopiad, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read any Atwood, so I had no idea what might happen as I started reading.

Penelope – Odysseus’ wife – is dead. But she lives on in the underworld, and wants to tell us her story. The story of what she did while her husband went to fight the Trojan War, and took a twenty year detour to get home. This is the story of a young girls trying to grow up quickly as the world around her becomes nothing. More than that, though, it is the story of those twelve maids who are killed as soon as Odysseus returns from his rather extended holiday.

It’s a very postmodern thing, this filling in the gaps of famous stories – looking for gaps in the grand narratives, and trying to fill them up with smaller mini narratives that tell stories of those people to whom history did not give a voice. And what a voice Penelope has been given. She is unbelievably average, and I think that’s her weakness. She is the everywoman, the best kind of narrator, because we feel for her. Her cousin, Helen, is not necessarily unlikeable, but she certainly is annoyingly beautiful, and the somewhat sarcastic tone Penelope takes with her is quite funny, particularly since Helen causes no small amount of trouble in her life.

Also important, though, are the twelve voices of the maids. I must confess, I haven’t read The Odyssey, but I do know what happens (who doesn’t?). But I didn’t know about the maids – when Odysseus finally comes home, after killing all the suitors banging on Penelope’s door, he also kills twelve of her closest, and youngest, maids. This is never explained by Homer, but here, Atwood goes out of her way to give these maids a voice. They become the chorus of this Greek tragedy, interrupting the flow of Penelope’s story with their own songs and skits, some of which are excellent. I particularly like the court scene, which is their last aside – with a modern judge trying to rule over a courthouse full of Greek gods and mythical creatures, Penelope trying to give her evidence. It’s funny, but more than that, it’s wickedly good satire.

Is this a feminist novel? Atwood herself has claimed that it is not, citing the only reason people label it feminist is the fact that a woman is the protagonist. And I think in many ways she is correct. This is not a tale of a strong, independent woman in charge of everything around her, but of a woman who is constantly being attacked emotionally from every angle – and she does spend a fair amount of time crying. Not that strong women don’t cry, but, you know.

But if we define feminism as a framework for highlighting the stories of women in history – no matter what they are – then we can definitely take The Penelopiad as a feminist text. Because that is almost all this novel focuses on. Instead of the manly battles of ancient Greece to which we have become accustomed, Atwood gives us the stories of Penelope, of Helen, of Anticlea, of Eurycleia – these sidelined women of history that do have stories to tell.

Even here, Atwood’s penchant for science fiction-ish ideas does not go unassauged. Penelope is telling us this story from beyond the grave, in the underworld of Greek myth. And it’s not much, but it is nicely done, with her meeting people who are already dead, including Helen, and Eurycleia, and even manages some interaction with the present time.

There is quite a lot going on here, and in some ways that works to Atwood’s advantage. But the time shifting that takes place means that you can’t settle into one period for very long, and the whole thing moves along at something of a breakneck speed – particularly the beginning, which doesn’t help set up the growth of Penelope into a young woman, from the timid girl she once was. But this is my only complaint, which I think stems from my wanting more. Because this is a short novel, but it left me wanting much more. If there were more, though, I feel it might drag. So there’s a conundrum for you.

Actually, interestingly enough, there is almost no plot to speak of here. Everyone already knows the conditions under which this story is to take place, so all Atwood has to do is colour by numbers. It’s the way she does it – with such verve, such sympathy for Penelope – that makes this an excellent retelling of The Odyssey, and a good novel in its own right.

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If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979) – Italo CALVINO

Over at the World Literature Forum, a book group has started up, and this month’s pick (the first one), is this novel. Unfortunately, this novel and I have some history – I first tried to read it about five years ago at school, when we studied postmodernism. I didn’t get past the first chapter though. After several more attempts the same year, it lay on my shelf, abandoned, until now. And I’ve finally finished it. It’s only taken five years, but it’s worth all the pain.

You pick up Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and get yourself ready to read this author’s excellent work. As you read, however, you realise that something isn’t right. The first chapter is not of the novel you thought at all. Returning to the bookshop, you realise the wrong pages are in your copy. However, once you read another incorrect novel, you begin to realise that something far bigger is going on here.

The term ‘postmodern’ is bandied around a lot today to describe anything that is even a little bit out of the accepted terms of realism. But here we have a bona fide piece of postmodern literature, commenting on reading and writing as acts of reader and writer, as well as being self-reflexively aware of the stories that are contained within this specific novel. Calvino’s focus is on the act of reading, and how each person approaches it, and how people can come together by reading similar novels, or by investigating the world of the novel as a group. The main character (arguably the person reading the novel at the time) meets the Other Reader, whose world is far more complicated than it appears at first glance, and together they travel across the globe trying to sort out the literary mystery of Ermes Marana, travelling through a whole swathe of literary styles as we go.

There are a lot of sly digs at literary critics in universities and the work they do in relation to telling the public how to read certain novels, and the petty fights they get into about translated and world literature. These caricatures of professors are just one example of something that pervades this novel – humour. With all the literary pyrotechnics going off the background, there was a big chance that this novel could have come off as a giant pretentious waste of time. But it’s not. This is actually a quite funny novel, which is probably for the best, because the premise is so ridiculous and bonkers, that had Calvino tried to treat it as a weighty, serious tome, it wouldn’t have worked. Instead, he is happy to revel in the insanity of his characters and situations, and allow us to remember the reasons we read – for the joy of being able to escape the world, to find out about the world around us, or any one of the many other reasons.

I should make mention of the pieces of text that we read as the story moves along. Some of them are absolutely brilliant short vignettes in their own right, and are playful nods to many literary movements and styles of the twentieth century. Special mentions must go to the first extract, with it’s murky train station and briefcase exchange, as well as the South American one, which I loved for no reason in particular. Of course, these extracts are not just sidesteps from the main narrative – they tie back in, and continue many of the themes that the two main characters are exploring in the real world. Well, in the not fake world. Well, somewhere, anyway. That’s another concern of Calvino’s, by the way, and one that certainly fits in with the postmodern mindset – what is real, what is fake, and can anything be original anymore? Does it even matter? One fictional Irish author had seen someone writing in his style and thought that the end result was better than anything he had ever done.

There’s a lot – and I mean a truckload – of stuff going on in this novel, so I should probably stop now. But this is an excellent, excellent novel. It has so much to say about literature and reading that anyone who calls themself an intelligent reader should read this. Now. I’m sure I’ve missed at least half of what Calvino was trying to tell me, but this is definitely a book that deserves a careful reread.

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Darkmans (2007) – Nicola BARKER

Ah, the joys of uni holidays. Even though I had a stupidly large amount of work to do in the last two weeks, I have done almost none of it. My bad. And I even had English novels to be reading. Which is why I ended up reading this one instead. Someone recommended it to me, and when I saw it come into work, I decided that this would be much better reading than anything the academic world had to offer.

Ashford is a new city on the edge of England. Full of concrete, bypasses and all the mod cons, everyone who inhabits this city is very much a product of its history. Beede, the environmental activist who has lost steam; his son, Kane, who deals illegal painkillers to those in need; Elen, the podiatrist married to a man, Dory, who is, at the very least, schizophrenic, with their six year old son, Fleet, who is highly precocious. When something that appears to be the spirit of a 15th century court jester begins to take control of Dory, each of these lives slowly draws together, and drags everyone around them down with it.

It’s always so refreshing to read something different and exciting. And that’s exactly what this book is. Even though it’s a beast of a book (more than 800 pages!), it takes no longer to read than any other average sized paperback. Partially, I suspect, because a large number of page have very little written on them, but also because Barker is just such an easy author to read. Her novel is filled with pop culture references that will require future editions to be laden with footnotes explaining who Miles Davis is, and what a Nokia does, but I’m ok with that. It really feels like a book of its time, and captures life in these new, postmodern towns so perfectly. Only time will tell whether or not this will make the book unreadable in future years. For now, though, it’s a brilliant way of talking about what Barker wants to talk about.

Which is not ghosts, even though the blurb will try to tell you otherwise. Yes, there is a certain amount of ghost activity, but when you finally reach the end of the novel, that’s not the part that matters. In fact, Barker’s ending suggests that perhaps the ghost didn’t even exist. Almost. I’ll leave you to work that one out. Barker is far more concerned with relationships, and how the happenings and coincidences of everyday life affect the way we interact with the people around us. Each and every character in this book seems to be inextricably connected, so by the end, you think that something bigger must be behind everything. But when nothing is revealed, it all beings to make sense. Perhaps this big, globalised world is much smaller than we think – or, at the very least, each small city contained therein is actually just a big, fractured family. Indeed, the novel ends in a traffic jam, where all the characters are stuck within the same kilometre radius of a burning house (that also belongs to another main character), and are forced to confront people they perhaps didn’t want to talk to. And if you are looking for answers to the plot questions that Barker raises, don’t hold your breath waiting for answers. They’re not spelled out for you. Though, one small, insignificant bit of dialogue does actually answer the entire book, so watch out for it. Mind you, once you start reading said dialogue, everything falls into place, and the book is brilliant.

For all the boldness and brashness this novel gives off before you open it, it is a surprisingly tight and restrained affair. Granted, there are some scenes of absolute insanity, but they fit perfectly in the world that Barker is trying to evoke – new, concrete cities that have popped up out of necessity in a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on roadways and communication. Inhabited within are not bleak, lifeless humans, but people that are simply struggling to keep their heads above water in the insanity and difference that these areas create and sustain. Go and read this book now – it really is very good.

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London Fields (1989) – Martin AMIS

Another week of insane uni essay, another Martin Amis novel to keep me amused. What is it about him? For all intents and purposes, I should hate the man. Some of his comments in recent times, especially regarding the September 11 attacks are not politically correct, to say the least. And yet, I always come crawling back for more. Well, when I say that, I mean that this is the third novel by him that I have read in less than a year. And for me, that’s pretty much regular.

In your traditional crime, there are always three participants: the murderer, the murderee, and the foil. Samson Young is an American writer who has a small problem – he can only write the truth. He has come to England in the hope that he will find a true story so outrageous, he can sell it as a novel, and finally make a name for himself. And he finds it. Three people Keith Talent (the murderer), Nicola Six (the murderee), and Guy Clinch (the foil). As these four people interact, their lives become inextricably linked, and not everyone will make it out alive.

This is an excellent meditation on story-telling. It is the insanely postmodern way (which, for the record, I love) in which Amis writes his story that makes this novel so well worth it. How are we to trust the written word? What makes us assume that those things which are written down are automatically better than something someone might tell us. Amis uses the written word here to show us the fallibility of both the media and the book industry, and how easy it is to deceive someone. Yes, he plays games with your mind the entire time, and you are never quite sure what is real and what is not (ironic, considering that Sam is an author that proclaims that he can only write the truth), helped by the alternating chapters of the book, and what Sam is actually doing.

There is a definite shift in the last third of the book – the final act. While the first two teeter on comedy (though, admittedly very dark comedy), the final act becomes this kind of essay on entropy, on what would happen at the end of the world. This novel is set in 1999, and you really feel that the world is coming to an end – London is a dirty place, and almost none of the characters have redeeming features. Even the small children are terrors – it is clear that the future will be a tough challenge. I really like this kind of stuff, and the impending sense of doom really works for me, as a stylistic choice in this kind of story.

A brief note on some of the criticisms of this book. Amis has been called a misogynist for his portrayal of Nicola Six in this book, a seemingly willing murderee. While she certainly knows and resigns herself to the fact that she is going to be murdered, it is she who holds the power the entire novel. She is the one who is constantly manipulating the other three men, and they are at her mercy at every stage. If anything, the women in this novel are far more assertive and powerful than the men, who have become sick and tired at the end of time.

In the end, London Fields is a highly rewarding novel. It perhaps takes a while to warm up to its full potential, but once it gets there, it really hits some excellent shots. Each of these characters are so terrible, you want to know exactly what they are going to do next. And the constant guessing of what is going to happen at the end will keep you on your seat until the very end.

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