Sunday, 15 November 2015

Book Review - Satin Island by Tom McCarthy and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Forged from a technobabble portmanteau of modern jargon buzzwords comes this novel with a narrative that muscles in with a highly linguistic style. It is both enthralling and enraging. I was compelled to read it whilst despairing of its conceits. I remain unconvinced that the author is not simply toying with his readers, leading them on in the belief that his work is a fresh approach, an antidote for his perceived notion that literature is in need of some new form, some literary force that thrusts the art back onto an explosive trajectory as though it were literatures answer to ‘Brit Art.’  I think it has more to do with Dada or possibly Surrealism but that’s just my jaundiced opinion. Is he the new J.G. Ballard or a pen pal of Will Self’s? Perhaps both. He certainly has a sense of humour that’s as subtle as French mustard. The more I read the more I liked author and prose. More importantly did I enjoy it? The answer is an emphatic yes.
I think what I like about Tom McCarty is his wry sense of humour. I feel it is as if he is teasing us all. There is a strong sense of his not being best pleased with contemporary literature and by that I mean the conventional dry rot of same-old-same-old gritty crime thriller. Not that there is anything wrong with that genre apart from the world and his wife jumping on the bandwagon and making like Stieg Larsson. No, Tom McCarthy reveals in his work a sense of adventure; an attachment to creating fiction that stretches the boundaries as well as the imagination.
U is the central protagonist, a man who apparently is an ‘anthropologist’. U spends his time researching for a big project he has to produce for an elite consultancy. The world he lives in, close to our own time, perhaps a little in the future, is one where bullshit truly baffles brains. So much so that the corporate world designs our thinking by decoding information the better to manipulate our desires.  Much of the story has a feel of repetition running through it as though it were a song by The Fall. Again and again, just as the tale takes us down unknown avenues, so we are pulled up and returned to a reoccurring theme. Madison, his lover, his fuck-buddy; the parachutists; oil spills.
The familiar world we live in is thrown at us with a twist, a curve ball spinning, coruscating half-truths that present a set of unpleasant possibilities, a future reference that is as oblique as it is vague as it is terrifying.
I have no idea whether or not this Booker Prize shortlisted novel will make it to the number one spot. It would be glorious if it did. It has all the hallmarks of a better-than-the-rest work. We will have to wait and see. For me there is no question of doubt. I enjoyed this in ways that intrigued and excited me. This is my book of the year.
A God in Ruins
Something about writing a companion book rather than a sequel, or the awfully named prequel, seems to cause both critics and readers problems. That though is precisely what this novel by Kate Atkinson is.
The immaculate ‘Life After Life’ gave us a set of memorable characters notably Ursula around whom the story was crafted but also her family.  The former provided us with a memorable novel that rightly drew critical acclaim for its brilliant invention.
I wrote this about that novel – ‘Atkinson deals the cards of her creation: Kings and Spades, Aces and Deuces. She fires them onto the green cloth in random order. It isn’t until all the cards have been laid out that some perspective is gained. Each chapter is a snapshot in time, shuffled then tossed. They form a mosaic as ink on white paper, fragments of a tale jig sawed apart.’
This, ‘A God in Ruins,’ could quite easily be another, albeit lengthy, chapter in that first tale. It deals with Ursula’s brother Teddy and offers an alternative life to the ones provided within that first fiction. It is not as experimental as its companion. It does not shuffle time offering infinite chances but is formed in clear linear detail. Even though years appear as chapters in fragmented form, which adds tension but also allows for character development, there is no sense of ‘Groundhog Day.’ It offers no loop by which alternative realities can be lived and then re-lived again.
Teddy’s life, from his days as bomber pilot flying Halifax’s, through his married life, his years as a man at odds with the world he finds himself growing old in , is portrayed by a sequence of events captured as though they were images hung upon a photographers drying line. Collective snapshots as it were. This effect enables the reader to view not only his life but also those of the people around him, a collage defining events but also individuals.
What we get is on one level a fiction. We read of Teddy his loves, his life his moments of despair and loss; of his marriage; of Nancy his wife; of their offspring Viola, a thoroughly unpleasant form of person; their dysfunctional grandchildren Sunny and Bertie who suffer miserably at the hands of their fashionably dropout mother and their narcotic dependent nonce of a father. These people reveal to us the results of actions taken. Of how one set of circumstances can give birth to another seemingly poles apart.
On another level it is about the passage of time bringing with it that foreboding sense of intransigence, a lack of compromise, of life being ever so fleeting, of passing too soon leaving behind unresolved issues.
It is also about war. If time is an invention of man then war too is man-made. It is our turning our backs upon all we hold dear, our dreadful fall from grace, from our potential to achieve god-head as we embrace our malignant, malevolent creativity with all its barbed cruelties and its own bleak logic.
I found myself at times moved to tears as Teddy reflects on given situations from his life. His sense of impending doom is only ever a brief thought away. His memories the things he clings too much in the same way his former RAF compatriots clung to life as they fell from the skies their parachutes alight.
Judging this book by comparing it with ‘Life After Life’ is futile. This is another book entirely.

Originally published on New London Writers

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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