Archive for May, 2013

I have used the metaphor of food to describe reading for many years now. Some books are hearty, healthy and honest like a rare steak; some are delicate and fragile, like over-wrought sugar work in a pretentious restaurant, beautiful to look at but whimsical, self-indulgent and lacking taste; some are fun, entertaining chocolates and candies; some are a cornucopia of textures and tastes. Poetry is a sauce, pungent and heady and rich.

And Dan Brown? What analogous foodstuff might he be?

A pot noodle perhaps: factory-produced, mechanically put together, somewhat gelatinous and mono-textured. With a tendency to repeat on you.

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In this, the fourth Langdon novel, the Harvard symbologist is once again caught in an international crisis. Unlike the other books, Dan Brown opens this one in medias res: Langdon awakens in a Florentine hospital room, a bullet wound to the back of his head, retrograde amnesia and assassins stalking him. He is rescued and assisted thereafter by Sienna Brooks, his attending physician and erstwhile child prodigy. In fact, nothing at this point adds up for Langdon, but that is par for the course of Dan Brown. Nothing ever makes sense.

And please, Robert Langdon with your eidetic memory, when will you learn? You’re in a tense situation? Someone is offering you help and guidance? Have you not leant yet that every helpful person you meet betrays you? Leigh Teabing? The Camerlengo? Pur-lease!

The writing here is appalling: childish simplistic, clichéd, repetitive phrasing, characters repeatedly explaining what was happening over and over. It’s not that difficult! We can follow! Trust your reader to join the dots, Brown!

The plot is utterly absurd. Zobrist, a fan of Dante’s Inferno and a genius geneticist has convinced himself that mankind is on the brink of collapse due to over crowding. Fair enough, I trust Dan Brown’s research more than his writing. I’m sure his purported facts are broadly accurate. He devises a virus to combat the over-population of the planet. Langdon becomes embroiled with Elisabeth Sinskey of the World Health Organisation in the race to reach the virus before it is released. No echoes at all of the hidden phial of dark matter in Angels and Demons.

There. Job done. No need to read the book. Save yourself the time.

Bizarrely, this same mad scientist has drafted and written a series of codes to lead his enemies directly to the virus’ location. Why? Seriously, why? In The Da Vinci Code, the existence of the codes made sense: they were a fail safe guide in the event that the Priory of Sion was compromised; they needed to be obscure but they needed to lead to the right place. Here, they are pointless: why draw your enemy to the site? Being generous, the animosity between Zobrist and Sinskey may have been such that he was toying with her as a cat does with a mouse… Or the author just needed a fragile and cynical plot device to shoe horn Langdon in. I can’t help thinking that it may have been a better book without it being in the Langdon series. Sinskey could easily have carried the protagonist role.

And in the final dramatic denouement… Nothing happens. I have never read such an anticlimactic book. I’d love to warn you of spoilers here, but there are none! There is no plot to spoil!

Like a pot noodle, this book leaves you feeling emptier than when you began.

Dan Brown, if hanging upside down like a bat causes you to write this drivel, stop. Just. Stop. Stop it now.

Angela Carter is just bloody brilliant!

I mean bloody brilliant!

Being just a man, lacking in x-chromosomes, I’m sure I’m missing much of her political feminist subtlety but as a writer she blows me away! The balance she holds between the real, the fantastical and the macabre is fantastic.

Take this first eponymous tale in the collection: a re-imagined and post-feminist retelling of Bluebeard. The original tale is broadly retained: an innocent wife marries a sinister bestial man; she is left alone in his castle with a bunch of keys with the invitation to use any of them as she wished save for one; the forbidden key is – inevitably – used and the husband returns unexpectedly.

The journey from Paris to the husband’s castle is a maelstrom of Freudian phalluses in the

“great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night”

and the movement from “girlhood” to womanhood as the narrator

“ceased to be her child in becoming his wife.”

. And the husband – the marquis – is gloriously bestially described too! His beard is no longer blue but still as full and luxurious a beard as the most yokel of Devonian farmers: a “mane” which tickles and bristles on the “leonine shape of his head”. In many ways, Carter elides the image if Bluebeard with that of Beauty and the Beast.

This is clearly a tale of a coming-of-age: the discovery of the wife’s capacity for sensuality corresponds with her discovery of the bloody chamber in which the Marquis’ past wives are disposed of which itself is emblematic of the start of menstruation.

What appeals to me most in Carter’s writing is the sensuousness of her prose: the Marquis is masked by

a whiff of the opulent male scent of leather and spices” which “made me think of my father”

and the wife’s nightdress

“slipped over my young girl’s pointed breasts and shoulders, supple as a garment of heavy water and now teasingly caressed me, egregious, insinuating, nudging between my thighs”

and the Marquis’ “fairy castle” with the

“faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea with seabirds mewing in its attics, the casements opening on to the ocean, cut off by tide from land for half a day … that castle, at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place”

.

This is some of the most sensuous and sensual language that I have ever come across!

The biggest alteration made to the original story is the replacement of the wife’s brothers coming to rescue her from the Marquis with a wonderful depiction of her mother performing the same role. The “eagle-featured” mother is practically the personification of the word redoubtable: she had

“gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love” in loving a soldier who died; and had “outfaced a junkful of Chibese pirates; nursed a village through a visitation of the plague; and shot a man-eating tiger.”

It is utterly reasonable that she should be the one to come charging across the causeway to her daughter’s rescue, a “wild thing” with

“her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white name, her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh, her skirts tucked round her waist”

as the family of women bond against the predatory male “beast”.

As a man, my gender’s representation is a tad skewed: I can chose between a somewhat romanticised and definitely absent soldier-father; a monstrous and bestial husband; or a good-natured and blind piano tuner.

Not the most inspiring choice!

But with Carter, you kind of know what you’re getting as a man!

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Its odd how my book reading lurks in certain genres for a while: after a crime spree, I notice a range of horror books collecting on the pages of this blog – with more on my to-be-read list.

I wonder what it is with Scandi-Lit.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy; Jo Nesbø; Mons Kallentoft … There seems to be a certain sensibility that they share; a sensitivity for the darkest recesses of the human psyche; an unflinching a sense of social responsibility; a sympathy for the effects of the environment surrounding their characters; a keen eye for the intricate details of domestic life; and a spareness and economy of language.

And Lindqvist’s vampire novel, Let The Right One In fits into exactly this milieu.

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This is the story of Oskar, 12 year old boy, whose divorced parents struggle to keep him on the straight and narrow in the suburb of Blackeberg.

It is a typical – slightly pretentious – English teacher thing to say that the setting is a character in its own right but it is so infrequently actually true. James Joyce’s Dublin od Ulysses and The Dubliners manages it. Lindqvist’s Blackeberg also breathes and seethes throughout the novel, as dark, poisonous and insidious as the vampire itself.

The novel opens with The Location:

Blackeberg.

It was not a place that developed organically of course. Here, everything was carefully planned from the outset. And people moved into what had been built for them. Earth-coloured concrete buildings scattered about in green fields.

Only one thing was missing. A past. At school, children didn’t get to do any special projects about Blackeberg’s history because there wasn’t one. That is to say, there was something about an old mill. A tobacco king. Some strange old buildings down by the water. But that was a long time ago and without any connection to the present.

Where the three-storied apartment buildings now stood there had been only forest before.

You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn’t even a church. Nine thousand inhabitants and no church.

That tells you something about the modernity of the place, it’s rationality. It tell you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and if terror.

It explains in part how unprepared they were.

No one saw them move in.

Blackeberg – soulless and bereft of history – is an echo of the vampire itself – equally soulless and utilitarian in its hunger. It is the home of glue-sniffing teenagers, broken families, a community of drunkards, vicious bullies and the mentally disturbed.

And it is into this environment that the waif like and mysterious Eli and the hopeless hapless lumbering paedophile Hakan Bengtsson move.

And children start dying.

The plot in the novel moves with an horrific sense of inevitability. The situation is achingly familiar to anyone who has even the vaguest notion of vampirism. We know the hunger. We know the inevitable conflict that that hunger creates.

But the heart of this novel is Eli and the relationship between Eli and Oskar. Eli has endured two centuries of being twelve years old. Vampire. Manipulator. Killer. Innocent.

She is not the monster of Stoker’s invention – indeed Hakan is possibly the closest to that role – nor is she the insipid and limp fairy of Meyer’s Twilight series. Somehow the balance between her feeding – as with much Scandinavian Literature, explored without blushing from the visceral – and her childish innocence is maintained throughout. She is a remarkable achievement and a haunting creation. She is not dissimilar at all to Amy Harper Bellafonte in Justin Cronin’s The Passage (click here for my review) and The Twelve

And some of the dialogue between her and Oskar is heart-achingly realistic and beautiful.

As indeed is some of the dialogue and interactions between the drunkards, especially Virginia and Lacke. Isolated and alone, seeking comfort in alcohol and one-night stands, their helpless inability to communicate and their self-protective barbs needling each other to maintain the protective bubbles whilst simultaneously clinging to each other was painful.

The book is not without flaws – the almost inevitable attempt to explain the vampirism in medical terms – that the infection causes a tumour of brain cells to develop on the heart (and recalled unpleasant memories of ovarian dermoid cysts being opened up on some Channel Four documentary to reveal teeth, eyes and hair). There is also at one point a rather clumsy attempt to verbalise some of the implicit connections between the environment and the disease at the heart of the novel.

It is, however, quite simply one of the best, most haunting books – certainly one of the very best vampire books – that I have read.