Friday, 24 October 2014

Book Review - "Wazata" - Ted Korsmo - "Shark" - Will Self

This novel could have so easily slid off the shelf onto the heaps of detritus where are gathered hundreds of other copycat novels were it not for one saving grace - make that two. First - it is not a copy cat. Two - it has a damn fine story. Yes, it owes a huge debt to that genius of modern crime fiction, Raymond Chandler, and his hard-nosed creation Philip Marlowe. So what? Count the influences any author has. This book is more than that, though.

For me Chandler, even more than Burroughs who may have helped invent the cut-up method the impact of which has shaped art, music and literature but whose work was, as far as I am concerned, okay, was the great modernist. His prose was minimal and fluid. It had its own pace, its own rhythm.  It sent not just the crime genre into new unchartered waters but clipped the wings of wordy authors kicking out wasted verbs. It even opened the way for the likes of said William.
From page one of Ted Korsmo's book, just as with Chandler, you enter the world so very like ours as to be indistinguishable  from it and yet conversely alien. As with Chandler, a beguiling para-reality set inside a time vacuum  somewhere in the forties leads you on. Korsmo's cadences rise and fall taking the thread of the tale down a twisted, knotted path. Think that excellent film 'Chinatown' and you'll get the picture - similar but not same.
Contrary to what the author says this is no pastiche. Wayzata is not simply  tribute nor  continuation. It is an affirmation of a method as valid as Joyce or the aforementioned Burroughs.
Carroll LaRue  is a PI. He is hired by Sam Fortesque (wife of millionaire Leslie Fortesque) to trail a duplicitous female who's apparent affair with her husband needs investigating. The narrative, when stripped of stylisation, is as riveting and as convoluted a murder mystery as is conceivable to imagine. It has pace, enough twists, and turns to satisfy all who enjoy this genre. It has well-crafted characters but above all it has humour. OK, a slightly warped, dark humour that leaves you smirking at its snappy delivery rather than laughing out loud but humour all the same.  The other saving grace is the ending. It breaks a few rules. This is a good story. Well written and smartly executed.

High aloft the modernist flag flies held proudly by this man. If nothing else he does the tradition justice. His words flowing in Joycean fluidity even if the debt owed is more Ballardarian. Forearmed by previous work 'Umbrella,' a tome I found enjoyable if a little difficult at first, 'Shark' gathers pace and marches on from where that novel, its sequel, in fact, went first.
If you dislike English literature that bends the rules brazenly, takes liberties where Mister Strunk, the literary equivalent of a Catholic priest, one who preached the gospel whilst lifting the choir boys cassock, would fear to tread then this isn't for you. If however you appreciate the fact that The English language, and therefore also literature, is an ever evolving form then grab a copy.
Will Self is a man of words, targeted perhaps and always weighted in favour of narrative and character, who's work exemplifies experimental fiction. The history of this style has a pedigree and Self is an adherent if not an acolyte. His grasp of words reveals someone who values verbs, adjectives, and the rest as though he be a living literary lexicon, or, put plainly, his work is playful yet remains targeted, focused, direct and intelligent.

'Shark' sees the return of Zack Busner, a character I first encountered in 'Umbrella,' a psychiatrist who works in the deceptively named 'Concept House' based in Wealdstone.  From this prequel, and from Busner's visit with male offspring to the local cinema where the pair watch 'Jaws' so we, with the protagonist, learn the awful truth of the sinking of USS Indianapolis where of the 1,196 men 300 went down with the ship leaving 900 to suffer dehydration and dreadful shark attacks.
Through survivor Claude whose fractured brain, set in some sort of psychotic vacuum, we switch back and forth, without stop, without paragraphs, without chapters or convenient pauses on the way, between histories and other characters. The feeling I got was of being in the water of life surrounded by those fearful fish as they prowl. Jeanie morphs into Genie who appears to have an affair with Kins. Mumsie who is Jeanie's mother. The whole thing spins the predators circle. Are they a metaphor? Are those sharks us? Is this the message? Is there a message?

Time shunts between the forties and the seventies. These shifts bring the characters to life revealing them to have foibles and flaws, unpleasant odd traits.  Each fragmented segment hones the characters as Will Self chisels away shaping and defining but also propelling the story forward.  Each shift reveals what we have always known, mankind is freaky ugly.  The time changes do nothing but highlight that fact. We are fooled into believing we are moving forward as each decade drifts past, that we are improving ourselves. We are not. This perception is false. Time is a fiction. Our primal instincts remain. We fuck, we steal, we exist in the now. Our minds shaped by fearful events crumble then accept the madness as though it is easier this way - acceptance adding justification.

'Shark' also has an element of the grotesque about it. This is found in many of the descriptive passages used to define characters. This technique in Will Self's hand describes a character in razor slashes - a sharp, incisive, spiky and oft times brutal view. I like this.

This aside, the cut upstream of conscious narrative tightens tension leaving you eager to learn how these seemingly disparate individuals are connected. And of course, they are. The delightful last one hundred pages deliver answers as it does explanations. The end, as it slips-slides into a repeated psychosis, a Bowiesque  "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family," made me feel as though the madness unleashed by Claude's LSD driven act lifts a mirror on me and my fellows.
Perhaps I was more mesmerised by the book than I should have been. I would like to think not but this novel does have that ability. Will Self is, to use an inadequate term, a wordsmith. His writing is electric. He has the skills that set the short hairs on the back of your neck standing up. I have not the prerequisite learning to be able to dig deeper into his motivation for delivering such a richly entertaining work so all I am able to do is appreciate at a level of sheer beguilement. And this book is that - beguiling. It is also a well paced and thrilling piece of fiction; part of a trilogy apparently.

'Shark' is not linear but exploratory. I also felt, though I have neither proof nor knowledge of this, that much of it is referential. I suppose coming from the wellspring it does it would have to be but unlike Alan Moore's recent work, the references are harder to spot unless you are one of the privileged who is acquainted with such. At the end of the day, I enjoyed it and that surely is what matters.

Quite why it hasn't won the Booker is beyond me. It would get my vote. Brilliant book.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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A Utility Fish Shed Blog