Go West: An Interview with Jonathan Evison

Jonathan EvisonRooted in the history and traditions of the Pacific Northwest, Jonathan Evison’s West of Here rethinks the epic American novel for the 21st century. Dan Coxon talks to the author about the difficulties of selling his American vision overseas. Portrait by Keith Brofsky

For a New York Times bestselling author, Jonathan Evison has remained remarkably true to his origins. Those who are familiar with the literary scene in the Pacific Northwest – and particularly in Seattle and nearby Bainbridge Island, where Evison has made his home – will undoubtedly have crossed paths with him at some point. At times he seems to be the connective tissue that holds Seattle’s growing literary culture together, and it’s not unusual for Evison to appear unannounced at readings and events around the city. Speak to any author in the region, and you’ll almost certainly find that they know ‘Johnny’.

When it came to selling his novel West of Here overseas, however, Evison has encountered more resistance. The market for a sweeping, widescreen novel about the Pacific Northwest wasn’t immediately apparent, and publishers repeatedly shied away from committing to such a locally-rooted epic. Luckily Evison’s bold, energetic style of storytelling was enough to win them over, and West of Here is now – finally – heading east across the Atlantic.

You’ve just had a pretty incredible year, including the release of West of Here in the US and your first appearance on the New York Times bestseller lists. Has this brought any major changes with it, or is life pretty much the same as before?

This year was a dream come true. Life is the same but even better. In spite of all the touring and other public stuff, I’m dealing with less financial anxiety, so I have more time and energy to focus on my art, which is bliss. Also more time to chase my boy around. And a cabin in the mountains to inspire me.

But really, I’ve been living the dream all along. I’m simply grateful to have the work, the focus, the sense of purpose writing provides me. As odd as it sounds, I get a little wistful when I think of all those late nights in Kinko’s collating stories and packing them in envelopes, and sending them off like little packages of hope – even though they invariably came back as form rejections. I was perfectly happy living off pot pies and cheap beer. I just like being in the game, you know? Not that I wouldn’t be stoked to be so rich that I could finally buy that thirty foot inflatable duck in sunglasses I’ve always wanted. That would look badass in my yard.

You’ve been in a variety of ‘games’ over the years… radio host, comedian, punk rocker. Do you consider these to all be part of the same progression? Or is your career as a novelist totally different to what came before?

I’ll be honest, all the other stuff, besides the punk bands, was just stuff I did because nobody was publishing my novels. All I ever wanted to do was write novels. I wrote my first novel when I was 18 years old. Nobody published me until I was 40. And I’m still considered a “young” writer – ha! I learned a lot writing screenplays, writing comedy, doing talk radio – stuff that has informed and instructed my writing in various ways, but it was all vaguely dissatisfying. If it weren’t for my career in radio, I’d probably have a couple more unpublished novels sitting around.

West of HereWest of Here has been a huge success in the US, but it’s taken a while for it to be accepted overseas. Why do you think this is? Did you always intend to write such a region-specific novel?

I’m perversely proud of the fact that every single non-English speaking European country dismissed West of Here as “too big and too American.” After all, I did set out to write a big American novel. If I would have written a big Chinese novel, I doubt this would be the case. America literature just isn’t considered as relevant as it used to be. Fine. Whatever. Neither is Bordeaux wine or German engineering. Or clogs. That said, the themes in West of Here are universal – personal destiny, national identity, reinvention. I’m a believer that if the themes are universal and the characters live and breathe, nationality shouldn’t get in the way.

Do you think American literature will have to change to remain relevant? Or is this, in fact, the time to turn back to the classics?

America is in the throes of a massive re-invention, and I think it will make for fascinating literature, and if the rest of the world is smart, they’ll pay attention. What is our national identity now that we’re no longer the world’s producer, that we’re no longer at the head of the world order? What is our new idealism? How will we adjust to a new standard of living? Politically, how will we restructure and reform from within? These are huge questions!

Whitman and Emerson used to talk about the “American Experiment” – and guess what? It’s still a big experiment! I think American Literature is poised for a big comeback, and I think the west, particularly the northwest, is going to be the nerve center. Between myself and Patrick DeWitt and Vanessa Veselka and Benjamin Percy and Jess Walter and Jim Lynch and Joshua Mohr and Jenny Shank, etc, etc, I think over the next decade the world is going to see an incredibly rich and dynamic body of work coming from the American west.

Did you purposefully set out to write a big Pacific Northwestern novel with West of Here? What was the original inspiration?

Oh yeah, I totally set out to write a northwest epic. The Olympic peninsula is a fascinating and rugged place. I wanted to write a story about how the land shaped the people, and how the people shaped the land. My goal was to write a sprawling egalitarian novel which would subvert many of our accepted notions about history, and to frustrate readers expectations about what we expect from “historical” fiction. I didn’t want to write historical fiction – I wanted to write a story about history and how it works.

And do you feel that you succeeded in achieving that? I know that I loved the book, and it dealt with many of those ideas – but I also know that the writing process is a complex one, and the end result isn’t always what you originally set out to achieve.

To be honest, I feel like I accomplished more than I set out achieve. That said, not everybody gets it – including some critics. Readers who lose sight of the big picture run the risk of getting lost in this novel. The first 175 pages might feel like one character introduction after another. But if you keep your eye on the big picture, you’ll begin to see all these characters and story lines converge and coalesce. In order to create the effect I was going for, I had to have 70 characters and 40-odd points-of-view – that was the whole point! History is not some linear progression peopled by a few great men, history is the sum of all the small vividly realized moments in each of our lives, and how they interact and relate to one another. History is connections and convergences and shared themes.

Can you talk us through your writing routine? Where do you write, when, how many drafts… and has this changed much as you’ve progressed and changed as a writer?

For me, discipline is the key. I approach writing like an athlete. Some mornings I don’t feel up to the task, but I strap on my trainers nonetheless and do my workout rain or shine. My optimum writing day begins at about 5am., that quiet hour when most of the world is still asleep and I don’t have any distractions. I’ll write until about noon. That time literally seems to pass in an instant. If I can write a page a day I’m feeling pretty good. I like to spend an hour in the evening going over the day’s work with a red pen – making notes in the margins and whatnot. I begin the next day by addressing these notes. That way I’m never stuck, I always have a starting point. I’m an obsessive revisionist. I must write 20 drafts of stuff. It’s never finished. At some point somebody just has to pry the manuscript out of my hands.

I know you’ve been working on edits of your next novel over the past few weeks. Has that process changed for you at all, now that you’re with a bigger publisher? Have you found that your approach towards edits and rewrites has changed over the years?

Nah, my approach is pretty much the same as always. I’ve been lucky to work with amazing editors, and also with an agent who gives great editorial. The key is to work with people who want to help you make the book that you want to write the best book it can be. I’ve heard horror stories from writers whose editors try to make the novel their own. I was fortunate enough with West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving to work with the editor of my choice, Chuck Adams. When I was entertaining offers, I talked with each of the editors at great length about WoH, and Chuck was the guy who best understood my vision for the novel and how to make it better.

All About LuluYou’ve used the places you’ve lived in as the settings for your two novels to date: the Pacific Northwest (West of Here) and California (All About Lulu). How important do you think it is for authors to draw upon the environments that have influenced them? Do you think you’ll stick with these settings, or do you have plans to write further afield?

I’m going to Alaska for research on my next novel, but part of the novel will still be set here in Washington. I’ve got a bunch of notes for a novel that takes place in Montana, too. I also want to write a novel that takes place in Baja. Mostly because I want to live down there for a year and get fat on fish and tequila.

Is it too early to ask about The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving? What was the inspiration for it, and when can we expect to see it on shelves?

Galleys for The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving are going to print any day, and the novel will be released in October 2012 in the States – not sure about UK. It’s a very different book than West of Here. While West of Here represented a huge technical challenge for me, TRFoCG was a huge emotional challenge. It’s a coming-of-middle-age about a male nurse in crisis. Without talking too much about the subject matter, I’ll just say that the novel really took a lot out of me emotionally. In the end, it’s probably my funniest book because it had to be. I’m really excited to get the novel in people’s hands because I feel like it’s one of those novels that’s going to be cathartic for a lot of readers.

Not that you asked, but I’m almost finished with another novel now called The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, which is another departure in that it actually employs something of a thriller apparatus to frame 16 different limited points of view. I’m really excited about this one, too. I thrive on pushing myself into new and uncomfortable places as a artist.

Do you think it’s necessary for a writer (or any artist) to keep pushing the boundaries of their craft in that way? Or is that more of a personal decision to keep things fresh and interesting?

I don’t think it’s fair to make it some kind of general edict, but as an artist, that’s certainly what I’m after. I want to be developing tools as I go along, surprising myself, frustrating my own intentions, learning, facing new problems all the time. Otherwise I feel like I’m just going through the motions. Sometimes this can make novel-writing an excruciating exercise that leaves me totally exhausted, but I feel like it’s always worth the effort in the end. Especially for the reader. They say hard writing makes for easy reading and I believe that on every level. I do think there is a danger of alienating your readership at times, or at least those readers who have certain expectations for a specific artist. But I can’t worry about that. I just need to keep pushing myself.

I know that you’re constantly reading new writers, and you’re noticeably active in the writing community. Whose books have you particularly enjoyed over the last year?

I read two Ron Rash books this year which really impressed me: Serena, and the forthcoming The Cove. I also read two by Stewart O’Nan this year: Emily Alone, and the forthcoming The Odds. These two guys are among the best American novelists working in my mind. I’m also a big fan of Dan Chaon, along with Adam Ross.

And finally… you’ve interviewed a lot of authors yourself over the years, so what’s your favorite question to ask? And what would be your own answer?

Hmmm. I guess I don’t have a favorite question. I suppose if there was one question I’d ask every writer it would be: Why do you do it? Why do you endure all the heartache and frustration and financial duress and existential discomfort that comprises devoting your life to writing novels (which people may or may not ever read)? And I guess my answer would be that it makes me a bigger person – a more expansive person, a more understanding, thoughtful, empathetic person. A better problem solver, a better husband, a better dad, a better son, and a better friend.

Mapping the Wilderness: An Interview with Alexi Zentner

Alexi ZentnerSet in the harsh forests of the Canadian wilderness, Alexi Zentner’s debut novel, Touch, draws upon mythology as well as literary convention. Dan Coxon finds that its author is rooted in the power of traditional storytelling. Portrait by Laurie Willick.

For a debut novel, Alexi Zentner’s Touch has already earned a startling number of accolades, including nominations for the Giller Prize and the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Awards. These nominations are less surprising, however, once you open the pages of Touch. Zentner has managed to craft one of the most compelling stories of hardship and loss to hit bookshelves in recent years, coloured with mythical encounters that might have been lifted straight from the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The combination of his characters’ bleak, hand-to-mouth existence and the fantastical events that underline their lives is both refreshingly new and shockingly traditional, and has led to the coining of an entire literary subgenre – mythical realism. Canadian by birth, but currently living in Ithaca, NY, Alexi Zentner has handcrafted a new literary landscape for the frosty wildernesses of the North.

How (and why) did you settle on the title Touch? The connection to the narrative isn’t immediately obvious, but it suits it so perfectly!

I usually know the titles of stories or books I’m working on early in the process, and the same was true of Touch. The impetus of the book was an image of a girl trapped under the ice. I was fascinated – terrified might be a better word – by the idea of having somebody you loved so close to you and yet to be unable to help them, unable to even touch them.

When I first started writing Touch, my daughters were younger, and though I think, as a father, the feeling never quite leaves you, I was acutely aware of just how dangerous the world can be, and how little, ultimately, I can do to keep my daughters safe. You never want your kids to get hurt in any way, but it’s almost worse when you can see it happening and can’t quite get there in time to stop it, and that is part of why that image stuck with me.

It’s interesting, because I have been asked about the title, and it was never something that I questioned. I had that title before I was more than a page into it. Almost everybody reacted positively to the title, although my French editors had to change the title to The Woods of Sawgamet, since Touch didn’t really translate well. I do think the title fits well, though. Aside from the image of the girl trapped under the ice – something that almost every reader has said stays with them – there are all of the different ways in which characters touch or fail to touch each other. Obviously, that’s in a physical sense, but also in the way that stories are passed down and changed from generation to generation, and the way that somebody who is long dead and gone can reach out and touch somebody else through myth and memory.

Do you find that your fiction tends to develop from single images in this way? Or do your stories generally spring from a different impetus?

My fiction always comes from an image, a first sentence, or a situation. Very, very quickly, that impetus is surrounded and shaped by characters and settings, but I’ve always had to have that spark to build the fire. I was given an assignment for the Canadian magazine The Walrus to write a story that had to follow five rules selected by another author, and it wasn’t until I had the first sentence that I had the rest of the story. I know that other writers can do it, can pick a theme or a character or even a place and just build a world, but I need something to hang it on to avoid ending up with a character study.

Weather and physical conditions affect a large aspect of what happens in Touch, from the first chapter onwards. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors? Is this an important theme for you?

I don’t spend as much time outdoors as I’d like. Part of it is a simple laziness. As much as I love hiking and camping and being outside of the city, I’m not particularly good at getting myself to do it in the first place. It’s usually my wife who suggests we take the dog and the kids for a hike, and after I grumble about it, I end up asking why we don’t do it more often.

Before I had kids, I used to spend a lot more time in outdoor pursuits. I actually met my wife because we both rock climbed, and there was a period of years where I lived in the American Midwest, and going rock climbing outside of a gym meant driving anywhere from three to seven hours. After work on a Friday we would pile into a car and drive to Kentucky. We’d set up camp at three in the morning, grab a couple of hours sleep, and then climb until we could barely lift our arms.

Now, we live in a smaller university town, and part of what I like about it is the ability to find spaces where I can still feel like I might be alone. I try to take trips to parts of North America where there is still wilderness – or, at least, the feeling of wilderness – but the city I live in has pockets that feel more untrammelled. As a writer, the appeal of locations that are more removed from big cities is that they strip things down for the characters. In Touch, and in the novel I just finished, The Lobster Kings, which is set in a lobster fishing village on a small island, the decisions that the characters make have real ramifications. If you are underdressed in a snowstorm in the city, you get cold. If you are underdressed in a snowstorm in the woods outside of Sawgamet, where Touch is set, you can die.

I would never argue that weather or landscape serve as characters in and of themselves, but they can have profound impacts on the decisions that characters make. In a story, setting is simply the stage upon which the characters play their lives, but if that stage is a place where the natural world has a certain dominion, it can amplify the actions of characters. In Touch, in particular, this is true, and I found that the world I created in Touch was one that I was very drawn to.

I should add that, as a writer, I find the natural world is where I prefer to be. I’m not particularly precious in my writing habits – give me a laptop and a pair of headphones and I can write anywhere – but I envy the idea of having some sort of a cottage on the ocean or in the mountains, somewhere hard pressed against the natural world where I could write for part of the year.

TouchA lot has already been made of your use of myth and fantasy in the book, and you’ve coined the term ‘mythical realism’. Can you explain what mythical realism means to you, and why it attracts you?

On a base level, when people hear magical realism, they think Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I admire Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera is still one of my favourite books – but I’m not trying to ape him, and I use the term mythical realism at least partially to distinguish what I’m trying to do from his work. Magical realism is very strongly associated with the landscapes and traditions of central and South America and Europe, and I think that when you take those frameworks of magical realism and just map them over a different culture and landscape you end up with a work that is a palimpsest; the ghostly images of those other cultures and landscapes show through your own work.

There are plenty of writers who have created interesting work this way, but I’m trying to do something new. I’m trying to wrestle with the questions of myth and storytelling, trying to figure out how it is that in my cultures and landscapes – Canada and the USA – stories become myths, how the vastness of the North American landscape and immigrant experience shapes who we were, who we are, and who we will become. I actually think that in the past year there have been a number of books that are experimenting with mythical realism, fumbling with trying to figure out the role of myth in our cultures. I’d argue that as far as literary trends go, we went through a painful period of detached irony as the main driving force for writers, and that one of the things that I want to do is to try to reclaim the sense of wonder that I think all readers strive for.

Look, what I really want to do is to try to tell good stories, to give readers the chance to lose themselves in a book, to remember what it was like as a kid to hear a story and to believe in something greater than ourselves. Mythical realism is something that should be woven throughout a book, in the same way that myth and story are woven through our lives, not just dropped in like a parlour trick. I don’t want a reader to think, “oh, that’s beautiful.” I want them to feel it. And if that means that, as a writer, I need to risk being overly sentimental, I’d rather risk that than risk nothing at all.

Which books stood out to you as being in this vein? Are there any particular writers you admire right now?

I hesitate to speak for other writers, because I think that not all of them would agree with my assessment of their work as mythical realism, but there is a new generation of writers who are including myth and magic in their work in an unapologetic way that is completely different from the way it has been used in magical realism. As for writers who I admire right now, it’s kind of an endless list. One of the great things about writing a book is that it gives you a chance to meet other writers. Both Peter Mountford (A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism) and Alan Heathcock (Volt) had books come out around the same time as Touch, and I both admire their work and was glad to have brothers-in-arms to talk with as the publication process moved forward.

You’ve recently returned from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and while I know that many American writers rate it highly, I’m sure that readers elsewhere have no idea what it is. Can you explain Bread Loaf for us briefly, and give us some insight into what it’s done for you?

I love Bread Loaf. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a conference for writers that takes place near Middlebury, Vermont. The campus – and outpost of Middlebury College – is within sight of Bread Loaf Mountain, hence the name. The conference is about ten days, and consists of workshops in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as readings, craft lectures, and other activities. The entire conference revolves around the written word. It’s a bucolic setting that’s in a part of the USA that I love, and it’s an incredibly intense period of focus on writing. I think, because the campus is sort of isolated, it’s a heightened experience.

I’ve been twice. The first time was as a work-study scholar. The work part of it is that you work as a waiter during the conference, which is pretty demanding on top of the packed schedule, but you become very close with your fellow waiters, all of whom are picked for their “promise” as writers. This past summer I went as a “fellow,” which meant that I assisted the faculty member in workshop, taught a craft lecture, and gave individual consultations. More than anything, what it’s done for me is help me to become close with other writers, so that no matter where I travel or what festivals I attend, there is usually somebody there that I know. It’s a way of making the writing world smaller and friendlier.

Do you think writers are naturally driven to seek each other out? Or are we more private, solitary creatures?

Reading teaches you how to be alone, and any successful writer is also a reader. I need a certain amount of time to myself, and find that when I have house guests or am staying with somebody else for an extended period that I end up hiding out in my room so that I can read or write.

That being said, I also love hanging out with friends and enjoy doing literary festivals. I like doing panels and am comfortable on stage, and I love teaching and being in front of a room. I need a balance of both. I love meeting other writers, because it’s such an odd profession and it’s nice to have other people who understand what it means to be alone at a desk. Part of it is that other writers are also readers, and I love talking about books and literature. I’m not sure that I necessarily seek out the company of other writers – because I have kids and don’t teach right now, I have a large group of friends who aren’t writers – but I do enjoy the company of fellow writers.

Still, after every trip, every conference, every festival, no matter how much I enjoy it, I’m always happy to get home again. To get to the point where people want you to come and talk about your book you have to spend a lot of time in a room by yourself.

You strike me as someone who loves telling a story. What’s the attraction to storytelling for you? Do you think the nature of storytelling is changing at all as we move further and further into the digital age?

I don’t think the digital age changes storytelling. That’s the short answer. That makes for boring columns, however, and it’s a lot easier to freak out and write about how the internet is changing everything, how storytelling is dying – but we are hardwired to respond to stories. I realise that the way that stories are conveyed is changing, but the human need for stories isn’t. Stories are how we figure out who we are as humans, both individually and in the aggregate. We seek out information so that we can know things, but we seek out stories so that we can feel things.

I love telling stories, but honestly, what I like even more than telling them is being told them. I think that most writers – most storytellers of whatever ilk – follow that path because at some point in their development they came across some sort of a book or a movie or even a piece of music that captured them, that made everything fall away. I’d argue that reading in particular is important. Aside from the idea that stories help us figure out who we are, reading teaches us how to be alone, how to be comfortable with ourselves.

For publishers, there are business model concerns. I can’t even pretend to understand the business model of publishing and making films. Speaking specifically about movies, it’s frustrating to me to see the amount of absolute shit that is produced, the number of films where the budget for fake blood has to be triple whatever they spent on writers. I’m personally quite happy to go see an action movie, but I’d say that about half of what I see could have been made a lot better if I’d been given the script and a weekend to rewrite it. Story comes first. Story comes last. True for books, true for movies. The movies and books that stay with us do so because they tap something inside of us. I don’t care how it’s delivered – though an e-reader, a real book, on a movie screen, on your phone – what matters is that there’s something that captures the reader/audience.

I know you’ve just finished writing The Lobster Kings… is it too early to ask for a preview? Will readers see similar themes to Touch, or is it a departure from your first book?

It’s set off the east coast of North America on an island that is actually contested territory, neither Canadian nor American. It’s told from the point of view of Cordelia Kings, a lobster fisherman (though she’s a woman), who is one of three daughters in a line that can trace itself back to the first white settler on the island, Brumfitt Kings, who was both a fisherman and a painter. There are Shakespearian undertones – which is probably evident from the name Cordelia, though this is certainly not a retelling of King Lear – and mythical realism: the Kings carry both a curse and a blessing through the generations. I think that The Lobster Kings is very different from Touch, and yet it will still feel familiar to readers. So it’s both a departure and similar.

The Colour of Money: An Interview with Peter Mountford

Set against the backdrop of South America’s poorest economy, Peter Mountford’s first novel is a smart read on the human side of economic, political and ethical dramas. For the author it was also a long road to publication, as Dan Coxon learns. Portrait by Jennifer Mountford

Peter Mountford by Jennifer MountfordIn a literary landscape dominated by celebrity memoirs and vampire soft porn, Peter Mountford’s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism, stands out like a shining nugget of gold. Telling the story of equities analyst Gabriel de Boya as he collects information on Bolivia for an unscrupulous hedge fund, it’s a novel that feels both steeped in tradition and undeniably of its time. As Gabriel wrangles with his conscience and falls in love, Mountford uses his plight to comment on the political situation in South America, the financial bubble of 2005 just as it was about to burst, and the ethical implications of our Western culture of greed.

It’s also a fantastically good read, and it’s little wonder that the literary world has taken note of Mountford’s achievement. Marrying thriller and romance aspects with unashamed political and financial commentary, A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism is one of the most exciting novels to have come out of the current financial crisis to date–and it’s all the more remarkable for being a debut. Peter Mountford currently lives in Seattle, where he is writer-in-residence for the Seattle Arts and Lectures programme.

When and why did you decide to become a writer?

I started writing by accident. I was 11, I think, and I had this very ornate daydream, but I couldn’t keep track of it all, so I started writing it down. Next thing I knew, I had 50 pages, a novella. When I was 14 I outlined a fictional diary of Vlad Tepes, the medieval prince who was the model for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Needless to say, I was slightly out of my range with that one and it never came to be.

As an undergraduate, I studied economics and international affairs, and then I went and got a sensible job at a think tank writing about international economics. But I was already a writer, I just didn’t know it. I was sneaking off to write fiction, and the way I was looking at the world, the way I was cultivating and maybe even hoarding interesting life experiences–it was as if I was doing research, and I think I sort of knew it. So, after a couple interesting years being a policy wonk, I quit and started reading Nabokov, Annie Proulx, Milan Kundera–dozens of other great writers. And I started writing three to four hours a day, seven days a week. I haven’t stopped.

Now, mind you, that was 2002 and my ‘debut’ novel was published in 2011.

So what was your journey to publication like during that time?

After embarking on the writing life with lots of youthful vim and vigour in 2002, I began to encounter what’s known, in the business, as the real world. And it was humbling, if not to say crushing. I wrote huge volumes of fiction and got lavished with rejection. My first acceptance for a short story came in 2006, when I was 30 years old. On the plus side, it was an acceptance to the anthology Best New American Voices 2008, but still. By that point I’d collected about a thousand rejections (I keep them all). I’d written and abandoned two-and-a-half novels, and 20-some stories–at least a thousand pages of fiction that will never see the light of day.

In the summer of 2005, my writing turned a corner. I remember it vividly. I was in the middle of the MFA program at the University of Washington and I went to Ecuador for a few weeks, feeling very dejected. The first year at the UW had been a deep low-point. I got savaged with rejection and some very demoralizing critiques. It really broke me down. I began to realise how much higher I needed to aim, how much better I needed to be. At the end of that year I had a very revelatory class with David Shields, who said something to the effect of: ‘Do you really just want to be this dutiful craftsman, creating these quaint stories that are totally antique, totally separated from the world we actually inhabit?’ He said he couldn’t stand to even read that stuff, and I had to admit that I felt the same way.

That summer, Shields got me reading J.M. Coetzee. I went to Ecuador and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read. And when I came back, I was a very different kind of writer and it was obvious, immediately. Within a year, I’d started winning some awards and fellowships and grants. I started publishing in some well-regarded literary journals. In fact, most of what I’ve written since then has been published.

A Young Man’s Guide… reminded me strongly of Graham Greene, specifically the combination of exotic setting, intrigue, and an underlying discussion of everyday morality. Did Greene influence you at all?

Yes, Graham Greene absolutely was a huge influence. In many ways, I more or less aspire to write like he did–both the so-called diversions and the weirder stuff. He was obsessed with God, seemed incapable of not writing about God. I think I’m similarly obsessed with money, how it operates in our planet and in our minds–I set out to write a story about my granny and I end up with a story about money. Other writers I adore include Deborah Eisenberg, Milan Kundera, J.M. Coetzee. Nabokov. And scores of others, of course. The list could go on for days. I’m reading Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists right now and it’s tremendous.

Young Mans Guide To Late CapitalismMoney is one of those topics that great literature often deals with (like love, or religion) but it seems that modern writers are sometimes afraid to address it, or they wilfully avoid it. Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s a topic that should be addressed more often?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, recently. It seems that literary-minded people have quietly agreed that finance is somehow not central to the zeitgeist. Money is a deeply taboo subject, obviously, and all the more so among people who consider themselves to be artists. Finance and economics are complicated and often poorly understood, also, and they’re not thought of as sexy. A lot of writers I know are proudly dismissive of economics–they paint it boring–it’s either viewed as nerdy, in the unattractive way, or it’s associated with these cartoonish preppy monsters.

That is nonsense. A cursory glance at our recent history reveals that economics and money are not just the engines of our era, not just what defines virtually everything about our time, but they’re also spectacularly dramatic. It’s not an abstract subject. It’s not just a guy with a calculator. It’s very emotional and makes and breaks the lives of–well, everyone. So, yes, I think it’s a topic that should be addressed more often in literature.

The foreign location feels like a big part of A Young Man’s Guide… too; it’s hard to imagine it being set anywhere else. How early did you settle on Bolivia as your setting? Why that country in particular, and South America in general?

I’ve travelled a lot and most of my writing therefore concerns people living in or visiting foreign countries. It’s not a conscious thing, but I suppose I think that when you’re away from your comfort-zone, your home, you have a slightly heightened perception of things, and it casts your own community, your circumstances, in a radically new light, so it can be an awakening. I like having that space as a kind of foundation for a story. That change in perception is all the more true if the place is extremely different, like Bolivia, rather than, say, England.

Bolivia’s also the poorest country in South America, and it’s a bit intense, a bit too hardcore for most people. Not a big tourist destination. So I liked that. And it’s gorgeous, like you’re on the moon–the moon with shantytowns.

And, finally, and maybe most importantly, Bolivia’s history is a near perfect example for the overall experience of countries that were colonized and brutalized by the Europeans. Their history is heartbreaking. It’s occasionally bizarre beyond belief, too–they lost their coastline in a war with Chile over bat guano, which Bolivia wanted to tax (it contains a useful ingredient in gunpowder). There are countless other surreal milestones, like when someone traded a vast swath of oil-rich jungle with Brazil for a nice white stallion. But beneath it all there’s a harrowing history of Northern-hemisphere-dwelling people, mostly Spanish–although the US certainly did its part during the Cold War, in particular–siphoning natural resources from the land without properly compensating the Bolivian people. In Bolivia this aspect of their history it’s referred to ruefully as ‘El Saqueo’–the sacking.

Having spent so long writing about Bolivia (and talking about it in interviews!) do you feel a stronger bond with the country than you used to? How did writing about it change your relationship with it?

When I started writing the book, I was very interested in Bolivia, and I thought its history was gorgeously bizarre and also very apt, a kind of perfect model for the corrosive long-term effects of centuries of colonial pillaging. Now, I love the country and feel a very personal connection to its people. I have a Google alert on Bolivia and so I now read the news about the country daily. Also, I’ve been very heartened by the responses of Bolivians who’ve read the book, because it’s not the most flattering portrait of the country–but I’ve been contacted by a number of Bolivians who told me that they felt I’d captured La Paz perfectly.

I know you teach creative writing in addition to producing your own work. How do you find that it feeds back into your own writing? Is it an integral part of being a professional writer today?

Richard Ford was in Seattle the other day for an event and an audience member asked him what he liked most about teaching, and he replied, ‘The money.’ So, yeah, it’s an integral part of being a professional writer, especially if you’re not writing bodice-rippers. If you’re writing books that take years to write, the kinds of books that don’t sell very well because they’re ‘difficult,’ then teaching is probably how you pay the rent.

There’s another reply to this question, of course, one that talks about how inspired one gets by one’s students, but that’s nonsense. Or, if someone says it sincerely, they’re probably not much of a writer. I like what David Foster Wallace said about this in a Charlie Rose interview, he said something to the effect of, ‘The first couple years it’s really revelatory, you learn a lot from your students and it’s a very hard experience. Then, once you’ve seen a few thousand undergraduate stories, it becomes just another day job and you no longer learn anything at all from it.’

I like teaching because it gets me out of the house, and it generates some income, and I like the act of talking about writing–that’s why I’m friends with a lot of writers, and when I teach I get paid to have those kinds of conversations. Also, it’s very fun to discover a writer who is fucking amazing and doesn’t know it yet. Some woman, say, who does data entry at a medical supplies company, and I get to inform her that she’s ready to get published, and that she should get in touch with a top-shelf literary agent in New York City at her earliest convenience. That’s fun, but it doesn’t happen that often.

If you were given a time machine that allowed you to go back and tutor your younger self, what advice would you give to the younger you? Or are there any particular skills that you’d tell yourself to work on?

I’d tell myself to aim higher, stylistically, intellectually–in every way. Like so much fiction by beginners, mine felt like the writing of a person who just wasn’t working hard enough, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. If a sentence isn’t doing several jobs at once, it’s probably dead weight. I’ve heard that there’s only one rule with writing: never be boring. I like that, the writing needs to be fucking riveting, one way or another. I’d add that authenticity is very important–if you’re not writing about something that really matters to you, deeply matters to you, it’s probably going to feel a little trite.

No Country for Young Men: An Interview with Urban Waite

Sidestepping the industry circus and downplaying his own achievements, Urban Waite isn’t your typical thriller writer, and his debut, The Terror of Living, isn’t your typical crime novel, as Dan Coxon finds out. Portrait by Sean Hunter

Urban Waite portrait by Sean Hunter

Crossing into similar territory to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, The Terror of Living offers more than just plot twists and cliff-hangers–although there plenty of those. It also explores the lengths that people will go to when thrust into unfamiliar circumstances, and the unlikely heroism that can emerge from pain and suffering. If it’s starting to sound more like a literary novel than a genre thriller, that’s no coincidence–The Terror of Living is one of those rare books that transcends its genre with every page. Stephen King recently called it “one of those books you start at one in the afternoon and put down, winded, after midnight”.

Its author isn’t exactly what you’d expect, either. For a young man who’s written about organized crime, shootouts and extreme physical torture, Urban Waite is surprisingly laid back and amiable. You’d never guess that his calm, smiling exterior hides the gloomy depths that he sometimes reveals on the page. Currently living in Seattle, the setting for The Terror of Living, Waite has given the city–and the entire Pacific Northwest–a new voice for its dark places and hidden secrets.

Given that The Terror of Living is your debut, can you tell us a little about how you got to this point? What path led you to publication?

For about a third of my life I’ve been working to become a writer. I never thought it would turn out the way it has. I never thought I’d have a novel, or even a job that centred on putting words to paper. It was always just a hope, a sort of dream to aspire to. For the most part I really did think that my life would continue the way it had for so many years, working nights to pay my mortgage, while keeping up my hobby of writing during the day.

A few years ago that all changed. I’d been out of school for several years when things just started to click. The stories I wrote before heading off to work were starting to get picked up in small literary publications. As a result I started receiving summer fellowships, grants, and residencies, while the publications started to become larger and larger. All this attention soon led me to an agent. And while I was still so engrossed in publishing stories, I didn’t see that the opportunity to write a book had simply appeared as if from nowhere.

Perhaps that’s just how blinded I was at the time, not even able to see that everything I had been doing, publishing short stories, taking these fellowships and residencies, had led me to the perfect place. Where everything I needed to strike out, as an author, was right there in front of me. I never thought I’d publish a novel. The idea seemed too bold, but there it was in front of me, an opportunity to do just that.

Did you set out to write a crime thriller when you started The Terror of Living? Or did the characters lead you in that direction?

I started out with the character of Phil Hunt. At the time there was a lot I didn’t know about him that I wanted to know, while also there was a lot that I knew already. He was an ex con, released twenty years before, and in those twenty years he’d never really forgiven himself for the crimes he committed. In this way, as I was writing out his first few scenes, I was very much interested in trying to understand why a man like him was working such a ruinous living in order to get by.

Part of what I loved about writing Terror, was that as I went on I began to understand the characters better, the situations they inhabited and the circumstances that had brought them there. They opened up for me, revealing more and more as the pages went by. In this way, and with characters like these, I found much of what I was writing about did have to do with crime. Though I certainly didn’t intend to write a crime thriller, the characters began to lead me in that direction. The truth of it was that as I got deeper into the novel, the more I enjoyed what I was writing.

I know The Terror of Living has been published in several countries, and some seem to treat it as a genre crime novel, while others have given it a more literary treatment. How do you feel about the industry’s need to divide their ‘product’ into genres like this? Is there a point when a crime novel becomes so good that it transcends its genre, and becomes a literary work?

I really try not to pay much attention to things like this. I don’t really care all that much if my novels are placed in the genre category or the literary category. All I care about is if people will read them and, if they do, what their reactions to my work will be. I put my all into everything I do and I hope that comes across whether I’m waiting tables, writing books, or building a deck. Good writing is just good writing and it doesn’t matter what genre it comes in.

The Terror of Living

The title strikes me as interesting too. It perfectly conveys the thriller elements of the story, but at the same time it avoids the clichés, nursery rhymes and cheap puns of most crime fiction. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

Thanks for the compliment about the title. Sometimes I love it; sometimes I think I just went overboard. I don’t mean to throw myself under the bus here, but I also want to tell you that it was a very tough decision to go ahead with The Terror of Living as the title. At the time I had about 320 pages or so and I needed to present the manuscript to my agent. I didn’t have a title and I didn’t want to send him a nameless manuscript. While I felt the story and the characters within were well polished, I also felt I needed to present the novel in as finished a way as I possibly could.

The title, The Terror of Living, was a mix of a few things. It needed, at least for me, to be something that would link all the characters within. It needed to be strong and to infer the inherent danger of the lifestyles I was trying to convey. It also needed to be something that would catch the attention of a prospective reader, as the novel sat facing out at them from the shelf.

It was about a week or so before I was due to present the manuscript to my agent when by chance I happened to go to a poetry lecture. I was sitting in the audience listening as the speaker began to talk about the pain of the terminally ill, especially those that would die young. I listened, hanging on every word, wondering what I might have done in a similar situation. How I would react if someone were to tell me something like this, to give me the news that I would die of a disease that could not be averted. This moment haunted me for a time, and though I don’t like to dwell on it too much, it certainly stuck with me. Of course the thought that we all die is always there, it was the suddenness of that lecture and the ideas it stirred in me which truly led me to my title. Every character in The Terror of Living was running from that same inevitable problem. One we simply cannot outrun.

I want to ask you about your influences, as it seems that they’d be an unusual mix for someone who’s been published as a genre writer, but I don’t want to resort to the typical “which writers influenced you” question. So… which five people would you want to invite to a dinner party? Living or dead, writers or otherwise, the choice is yours.

I feel like I’m going to disappoint you on this one. I doubt very much there would be a single writer at this dinner party. The people I write about are not writers but people who usually are working some sort of blue-collar job, living pay check to pay check. Those are the types of people who influence what I write. And while I certainly learn a great deal from the books I read, I learn so much more from sitting back and having a conversation with someone about a subject I know nothing about.

I know you’ve been touring a lot with The Terror of Living. How daunting is this for a debut novelist? And how relevant is it in this age of blogging and online interviews?

Most of the promotional process I really don’t understand. There are authors who live for this sort of thing, for touring and shaking hands and telling jokes. Sometimes I wonder if those guys, the ones that almost seem like politicians, are even in the business of writing.

I guess what I mean to say is that I’m no socialite. I like having a beer every once in a while or telling some stories, but the whole business side of things is something I never even considered when writing Terror. The months leading up to publication and the touring that followed seemed more to me like work than anything I’d ever done before. It put me outside of what I was interested in, which in my case was writing.

I don’t mean to be so blunt about the business, but I do think that writers are artists and making art a commodity becomes tricky. It’s the reason why people like me have agents and publicists and people who know what they’re doing. Whose jobs centre on helping bungling shut-ins like myself get back to doing what we love.

To make a long answer short here, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing when it comes to touring, or blogging, or interviewing. I just try to make it up as I go along, and in that way it’s somewhat like writing. I’m just trying to make it up as I go, all the while hoping it all turns out okay.

Any crazy stories from your time on the road, promoting the book? Or has it all been cheap hotel rooms and early nights?

In Boston I worked in a restaurant waiting tables. I did it for five years and a few months after I left the restaurant went under. All of those people I worked with lost their jobs and a lot of them moved, some to other restaurants, some went back to school, or others still decided to go on and move into something else. Now, in every city I turn up in, there is an old friend I used to work with waiting to take me out for drinks, show me the city, and catch up.

A lot of them can’t believe this is what I do for a living now. Writing was always kind of a hobby, it was something I did with my alone time before I went to work. It wasn’t exactly who I was. I’d say it would be hard to define me by it. And so when I go to these cities on tour, I do my reading, I talk about books for a little, then I get back to life as I know it. A life where there aren’t readings or book discussions. There’s just a few old friends, a few drinks, and maybe some food. Pretty simple, but it seems to work out every time.

Jessica Anthony – The Convalescent

Dan Coxon

You have to give Jessica Anthony credit: in this current climate of MFA-educated clones it’s unusual to come across a truly unique narrator. We’ve all read plenty of Holden Caulfield rip-offs, or various takes on the Kerouac drifter-philosopher, the William Burroughs educated-junky, or the Paul Bowles traveller-adventurer. There haven’t been too many Hungarian meat-selling dwarves who live in an abandoned bus in a Pennsylvanian field, though.

In case that makes Anthony’s The Convalescent sound like a freakish novelty, we should point out that she’s an outstanding young talent, and was the inaugural winner of the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award in 2004. While there will undoubtedly be plenty of copies of her debut novel sold on the basis of its eccentric subject matter, it has far more going for it than simply cheap laughs and a handful of meat anecdotes. There are echoes of Grass and Gogol in its embracing of the ridiculous and the sublime in equal measure, and you can’t help feeling that Jessica Anthony must have lived in Eastern Europe in a previous life.

The convalescent of the title is Rovar Pfleigman, a mute dwarf descended from a peculiar line of Hungarian misfits and failures. Interspersed with his story is an imagined history of the Pfleigmans, stretching back centuries to the particularly dark ages of expansion and conflict in Europe. Rovar’s ancestors aren’t the heroes, though: they’re the outcasts, the unclean minority who live on the fringe of the new settlements, surviving on scraps and eking out the most sorry, meagre existence imaginable. As is befitting of their low status, they also perform that most disgusting of tasks: the cutting up of meat.

Rovar has more specific problems on his plate, though. The land that his bus-home stands on is being claimed by a developer, who seems determined to eject their eccentric squatter, by force if necessary. Meanwhile his host of physical illnesses and deformities, which include a disturbing tendency for his skin to peel off in long strips, mean that he’s become a figure of ridicule and disgust in the nearby town. Local paediatrician Dr. Monica takes an unlikely interest in his condition, providing Rovar with a friend and supporter, as well as an unpleasantly graphic crush, but there’s clearly something going on that extends beyond the purely physical. Given the peculiar nature of his existence there will be no easy solutions to Rovar’s problems.

The Convalescent does suffer slightly from a few narrative holes, as Anthony struggles to develop a story around her unique, deformed hero. The subplot surrounding the land developer is never fully resolved, and while the Kafkaesque conclusion to the novel makes thematic sense it’s unlikely to satisfy the majority of readers. Explanations are few, and you may put the book down wondering quite what it was all about.

Where it succeeds, though, is in its narrative voice, and it’s this that pulls The Convalescent out of every sticky situation with our interest intact. Rovar Pfleigman is one of the most amusing and poignant anti-heroes since Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and his constant railing against a world that has cast him and his kind aside for generations manages to encompass both the ridiculous and the curiously touching. He’s a true character in every sense of the word, pulling the novel’s narrative along behind him like Oskar Matzerath’s battered old drum.

It’s possible to pick holes in The Convalescent’s final act, but for a debut novel it’s still a remarkable act of creation. By the time you come to leave Anthony’s curiously warped world of grumpy mute dwarves, medieval giants and packaged meat, you’ll find yourself wishing that real life was actually this vibrant and colourful. And when you find yourself being envious of a Hungarian dwarf with a rare skin condition, you know that the author has pulled off a very remarkable feat indeed.

Patrick McGrath – Trauma

Dan Coxon

There’s something to be said for the contemporary novelist having a background in psychology. While the mass-market thrillers and romance novels that pack the supermarket shelves are happy to remain plot-driven page-turners, the modern literary novel prides itself on its ability to unravel the thoughts and emotions of its characters rather than relying on narrative thrills, to show us what Barton Fink memorably termed ‘the life of the mind’. One need only look at the works of Ian McEwan or Paul Auster to see that contemporary fiction is as much about internal ponderings as it is about external events.

Patrick McGrath’s novels have always been distinguished by his ability to work his way into damaged and abnormal psyches, and, as you may have guessed from the title, Trauma is no exception. The story of Charlie Weir, a psychiatrist specialising in trauma victims in New York City, it shows that even those who analyse people for a living can’t always see inside their own heads. Charlie could use a few sessions on his own couch.

Admittedly his life is more chaotic than most, although it’s not so far removed from reality that we can’t identify with him. Charlie’s marriage has fallen apart following the death of his brother-in-law, a war veteran who Charlie was treating for post-traumatic stress syndrome. Charlie’s ex-wife Agnes blames him for her brother’s suicide, and he is now abandoned to a life of solitude and self-recrimination. Following the death of his mother he reopens an ill-advised fling with Agnes, but at the same time he is introduced to Nora, a friend of his brother’s who he begins to date. Nora has issues of her own, and she often wakes up in the middle of the night suffering from horrific nightmares; naturally, it isn’t long before Charlie offers to treat her for what he diagnoses as an underlying trauma.

It’s not immediately obvious where McGrath is heading with Trauma, as Charlie’s life meanders between these various threads, and even once the narrative has finished you may be left wondering what it was all about. Fortunately McGrath’s prose style makes for easy and engaging reading, and in Charlie Weir he has created an intriguing and troubled central character, rebounding from a lifetime of failures, poor choices and traumatic events. Even if you can’t see the point in this expose of a fictional psyche, you can’t helped being dragged into Charlie’s own particular circle of hell.

In fact Trauma works far better as a thesis than it does as a novel, as Patrick McGrath seems determined to push the modern novel’s obsession with psychological realism further than any of his peers. Conventional plotting is largely sacrificed in favour of the complex puzzle that is Charlie Weir’s brain: Trauma doesn’t unfold as a series of events so much as a sequence of revelations concerning its narrator’s mental state. For some of you this will be an infuriating diversion from the more conventional approaches to plot and narrative, but you have to admire McGrath’s ability to dissect the psyche of his central character so acutely that we feel we know him better than he knows himself.

As for those mass-market thrillers, Trauma is as far from them as Freud’s The Interpretation Of Dreams is from this year’s latest John Grisham paperback. And that can only be a good thing.

Chuck Palahniuk – Snuff

Dan Coxon

Over the last few years Chuck Palahniuk has revelled in the sordid, the grotesque, and the downright dirty like a particularly literate pig in shit, and for many readers his decision to set a novel within the pornography industry must have seemed like a marriage made in Heaven, or at least the more carnal parts of Hell. He seemed to have reached his high (or low) point with the short story ‘Guts’, which also made a gruesome appearance at the start of his pseudo-horror novel Haunted, but Snuff threatened to eclipse even that snippet of filth when it came to bodily fluids, disgusting urban myths and the deviant imagination.

Unfortunately Snuff comes as something of a disappointment after all that expectation, a few muffled grunts in a dimly lit room when we were hoping for a glorious pop-shot. There’s still plenty to keep the Palahniuk fans happy, including a vast number of his trademark factual asides and fictionalised urban mythology, but somewhere in the mix the story goes missing. If you strip out the non-fiction snippets and deviations from the main narrative, you’re actually left with a story that could have been told in a handful of pages. Snuff would make a great short story, but as a novel it feels thin and drawn-out.

We should attempt at least a brief description of the book’s events, although it’s hard to summarise the minimal plot without revealing everything in one ill-judged full-frontal shot. Legendary porn actress Cassie Wright is intending to make history with a 600-man gang-bang, and the event is to be captured on film with the explicit intention of reviving her flagging career. The narrative flits between four characters in the waiting room, where the 600 prospective porn stars stand around in their jockey shorts awaiting their thirty seconds of fame: there’s Sheila, Cassie’s assistant and right-hand woman; Mr. 600, also known as Branch Bacardi, a veteran porn star; Mr. 137, also known as disgraced TV presenter Dan Banyan; and Mr. 72, a young unknown who claims to be Wright’s abandoned child.

As events unfold there are a few surprises thrown in, particularly when it comes to the relationship between Cassie Wright and Branch Bacardi, but these are largely secondary to the constant stream of anecdotes and factoids about the porn industry, Hollywood starlets, and the history of human sexuality in general. There are even parallels drawn to Valeria Messalina, the wife of Roman Emperor Claudius, but there’s no disguising the fact that most of Snuff exists as a vehicle for a potted history of the sex industry as seen through Palahniuk’s distorting eye, along with an entertaining list of fictional porn movie adaptations in the margins (Chitty Chitty Gang Bang is a personal favourite).

As such Snuff is entertaining enough, but on the strength of Palahniuk’s other work you’d have to say that he could do better. The fragmentary narrative device doesn’t always work, especially when the characters’ voices all start to bleed into one, and as the plot races along to its premature conclusion you can’t help wondering if you’ve missed something along the way. While Fight Club and Survivor treated us to a wonderfully skewed version of the world, driven by a sense of anger and injustice, Snuff often feels like nothing more than a collection of dirty schoolboy stories.

Of course, Chuck Palahniuk is such a master of the English language that he manages to make the most sordid sex act or human degradation resonate with a warped minimalist poetry, but it’s not quite enough to hide the hollowness at Snuff‘s core. Even at his worst Palahniuk is still more interesting than the vast majority of contemporary novelists, but Snuff falls a long way short of the pornographic masterwork that we’d all hoped for. Like every porn movie ever made, this is a novel that eschews plot in favour of titillation and plenty of naked flesh – and ultimately it pays the price.

Daniel Wallace – Mr. Sebastian And The Negro Magician

Dan Coxon


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Daniel Wallace
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Thanks to Tim Burton’s movie adaptation, Daniel Wallace has become best known for his novel Big Fish – but his latest book, Mr. Sebastian And The Negro Magician, shows us that he’s still a wordsmith at heart. Despite the title, this is largely the story of Henry Walker. Or maybe that should be ‘stories’, as Wallace presents us with more than one account of events, and, eventually, more than one truth. Just as Henry Walker bases his career on his ability to sustain an illusion, so Wallace can make reality disappear with a wave of his pen.

Henry Walker is the Negro Magician of the title, a down-on-his-luck attraction in Musgrove’s Chinese Circus (which, incidentally, has never included a single Chinese person – already the layers of illusion are starting to pile up). Appearing alongside the likes of Rudy, the Strongest Man in the Entire World, and the tragic Ossified Girl, Henry peddles some poorly executed card tricks for his paying audience. The only thing that makes him stand out from the crowd is the fact that he’s dark-skinned – and that brings with it some problems of its own.

When three bigoted young men take an interest in Henry, it seems that his days are numbered, and even an intervention from his strongman friend Rudy can’t deter them (Rudy may be strong, but he’s also a hopeless alcoholic). The young men kidnap Henry and drive him out to a deserted field, where they proceed to deliver a ferocious beating, one of the few moments when Wallace reigns in his literary flourishes in favour of a brutal realism. It’s only when they go to wipe his face that they discover Henry’s secret – for the darkness wipes away easily, revealing his light skin beneath. The Negro Magician is not a Negro at all.

This is only the first of Wallace’s many sleights of hand, as he weaves together the story of Henry’s life from the testimony of a variety of different characters. We see Henry growing up in a hotel where his father was the janitor, and his apprenticeship to the mysterious man in room 702, the pale-faced magician known as Mr. Sebastian. Henry believes that Mr. Sebastian may be the devil, especially when he disappears on the same day that Henry’s sister Hannah vanishes. Encumbered with the knowledge that he may have contributed to his sister’s kidnapping, Henry’s life takes a turn for the worse – and for the weirder.

Given his subject matter it’s natural that Daniel Wallace should attempt some authorly tricks, and his multiple points of view allow him to play with the concepts of truth and illusion. By the end you’ll be uncertain whether Mr. Sebastian was the devil, whether he was actually several different people – or even if he existed at all. Despite the kaleidoscope of different perspectives, however, Wallace can’t help coming back to his own distinctive authorial voice, and at times it’s difficult to distinguish one narrator from another. When you have a voice that’s as witty as Wallace’s that’s no great complaint, but it can’t help weakening the believability of his narrators – and here, as in all illusions, believability is everything.

Mr. Sebastian And The Negro Magician provides a playful tour de force that leads us up one blind alley after another, but in the end it’s this very playfulness that undermines some of its effects. While Henry Walker’s life is undoubtedly intriguing, and the multiple points of view allow Wallace to toy with our perceptions and expectations, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in any kind of reality. The reader is left with little more than a series of outlandishly tall stories. Daniel Wallace may have pulled off one of the greatest conjuring tricks in the history of modern literature, but ultimately it’s just a little too fantastical to look like anything other than a large-scale illusion – which is a shame, as there are some valid insights into the concept of self-image buried among the card tricks and vanishing rabbits. A little more reality and a little less smoke and mirrors wouldn’t have gone amiss.

On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

Dan Coxon


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On Chesil Beach
Ian McEwan
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There’s something rather disappointing about Ian McEwan’s latest book. It’s not the quality of the writing – that, after all, is rarely a worry when it comes to McEwan. It’s not the accessibility of the characters either, or the setting, or even the way in which his story ends. In fact, apart from this one failing On Chesil Beach is a startling achievement: it engages us from the outset, pulls us into its narrative, then wraps it up neatly at the end without any sense of triteness or heavy-handedness.

So what is this fault? Well, put simply, On Chesil Beach is too short. Why is it that publishers feel the need to wrap up novellas as if they were novels? (I’m looking for an answer other than the obvious ‘to make more money’.) McEwan’s latest is padded out with thick paper, large print, wide margins… and it still only just stretches to a halfway respectable length.

It’s hard to imagine any debut writer having a story this short published as a stand-alone novel, yet because McEwan is one of the literary world’s big earners the public are expected to pay more than twice as much for his work as any other book on the New Releases shelves. He’s good, but he’s not that good. His publisher could at least have done the decent thing and packaged this as a novella with a handful of short stories. As it is, however, we’re left with this slight but thickly padded volume, and a story that’s short enough to devour in one sitting (I’d suggest reading it in your local bookstore one afternoon, and keeping your money firmly in your pocket).

As with much of Ian McEwan’s work, the narrative revolves around one incident, examining its repercussions as they spread out like ripples through a pond. In this instance the incident is one of inaction rather than action, as newlyweds Edward and Florence come together on their wedding night. The year is 1962, and as the world slowly blossoms into the Summer Of Love they find themselves tied to the past, hopelessly old fashioned, and inadequately equipped to deal with the subject of sex. Of course, until now they’ve managed to sidestep the issue entirely: but once the ceremonies are over and they retire to their room, there’s no choice but to face it head on.

The core of their problem isn’t that Florence is repulsed by the very idea of sex, or that Edward is inexperienced and clumsy, but rather that neither of them has the necessary vocabulary, or the freedom, to be able to express these feelings to one another. Instead the encounter goes horribly wrong, and as events spiral out of control they seem to take on a life of their own. The aftermath on the nearby beach is both remarkably simple and perfectly executed, displaying McEwan’s writing skills at their very sharpest.

Once again, however, we’re brought back to the abrupt length of On Chesil Beach. In the final few pages we race through the following years, as if someone has pressed the fast forward button and forgotten to resume play again. In fact the final pages feel more like an epilogue than a true ending to the story, and you can’t help feeling that it may even have been labelled as one if the book weren’t already so short. As the keystone of a short story collection, On Chesil Beach could have impressed us with its economy and insight; but as a stand-alone novel it can’t help feeling like a minor work. Still, I guess the publishers have kept their options open, and they could still include it in a collection at a later date – along with another hefty price tag, of course.

Jim Crace – The Pesthouse

Dan Coxon

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Maybe it’s natural, in the early years of a new millennium, for our writers and artists to turn their thoughts toward what the future could hold. After all, we’re in the 21st century now: the future’s already here. While Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance looked at the near future, however, and predicted where we might end up if the current political climate continues, Jim Crace takes us several centuries further into this brave new world. Except it’s not so brave, and not even so new. In fact, it’s positively medieval.

The Pesthouse is set in America at an indeterminate point in the future, although all the hints suggest that it may not be quite as far away as we would like to imagine. Rather than being a sparkling, technological dream – or even the tarnished urban sprawl of Bladerunner – America has lapsed back to a pre-technological state, where metal objects are rare and valuable, and ancient metal vehicles rust by the remains of cracked highways. Not only has scientific thought regressed, but society itself has reverted back to a feudal state. Matters aren’t helped by a viral epidemic that’s sweeping the country: known only as the Flux, it carries echoes of the bubonic plague in the stories of pus-filled sores and agonising death. The only known defence is to shave all your hair from your body, and isolate yourself in a smoke-filled hut.

Into this brutal world Crace introduces his two protagonists. Franklin Lopez is travelling with his brother Jackson to the eastern shoreline, hoping to join the crowds there buying, cheating and sneaking their way onto the ships bound for Europe. In this time of decay escape is the best that anyone can hope for. His knee won’t stand up to much walking, however, and Jackson goes ahead to Ferrytown, leaving Franklin behind. Margaret, one of the residents of Ferrytown, is showing all the early signs of the Flux, so her family shave off her bright red hair and send her up to the pesthouse, an isolated cabin in the woods. When Franklin and Margaret meet there by chance, it feels like destiny. When it emerges that the rest of the population of Ferrytown have died inexplicably overnight, they have little choice but to become travelling companions.

In many ways The Pesthouse sits comfortably within a well-trodden genre. After all, there have already been countless stories of dystopian futures where man has regressed, including childhood classics like John Christopher’s Prince In Waiting trilogy or Peter Dickinson’s The Changes trilogy. All of them depict a return to medieval values as society goes into decline, whether that decline be due to disease, war, or plain old climactic change. Crace does nothing more than hint at how his fictional world came about, but it fits neatly into the pre-existing genre mould. There are even surviving artefacts from more advanced times (in this case a pair of binoculars) to remind us that this could be our fate if we don’t heed the warning.

This novel is far more than a simple, moralistic warning of things to come, however. Yes, its starting point is the implied failure and collapse of modern society, but Crace is careful not to dwell upon the issue, or to theorise too closely on how it might come about. This crude, brutal future is taken for granted, and then he moves on. The Pesthouse’s main concern is not how the world it depicts came about, but – as in all good fiction – is instead the drama that unfolds between its protagonists. It soon becomes clear that Franklin and Margaret are falling in love, but the world they inhabit is not an easy one for would-be lovers. Their own survival is frequently at risk as they join the stream of travellers heading for the coast, and the ghost of a chance at freedom, security and a better way of life.

Anyone who knows Jim Crace’s work will already be aware of his considerable writing talents, and this novel feels like a major work in every sense. It may not be the most accessible of his books – you have to buy into a whole new view of the world before you can begin to appreciate the story, after all – but once things get going it becomes almost impossible to put down. The fact that he reveals the details of this projected future with such a delicate hand quickly enables the human story to take centre stage, and in Franklin and Margaret’s tale there rests something more than a dystopian fable – there are more lessons here about the nature of human wants and needs than any futuristic story has given us since Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The future may not be bright, but Crace shows us that while there’s still human life, there will always be a spark of hope.

Anne Michaels & Jeremy Padewsa – Fugitive Pieces

Fugitive Pieces

Jeremy Padewsa

Dan Coxon

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Transferring literary bestsellers to the big screen is never an easy business. Firstly, there’s the problem of length: something has to be cut in order to reduce most novels to a two hour movie (Fight Club being the only exception that springs to mind). It doesn’t help that literary readers are almost as protective of the original source material as Harry Potter fans. Then you have the matter of the tone: deep introspection may work well on the page, but when it comes to the cinema people expect a little bang for their buck. They expect not just to be educated, but to be entertained. Plus it takes a brave actor to tackle a literary lead role – not only might they make a bad movie if they get it wrong, but they could derail their entire career.

Some adaptations get it right, and some get it wrong. Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient is a fine example of the former; John Madden’s version of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin a not-so-fine example of the latter. Luckily Jeremy Padewsa’s Fugitive Pieces, based on the Anne Michaels novel of the same name, falls into the first camp. Die-hard fans of the book will undoubtedly still find fault with the way in which he’s simplified its narrative structure, or the changes to the finer nuances of the plot, but everyone involved should consider this movie a success.

For those who are unfamiliar with the source material, here’s a brief rundown of the plot (the abbreviated movie version). Nine year old Jakob Beer witnesses the death of his parents and the abduction of his sister by German soldiers in Poland in 1942, but luckily for him he’s quickly rescued by a visiting Greek archaeologist before the soldiers track him down. The archaeologist, Athos Roussos, smuggles Jakob out of the country and back to Greece, where he cares for him until the war is over. Athos is then offered a position overseas, and the two of them move to the relative security of Canada. Jakob grows up to become a successful author, and after one failed marriage he finally finds some sense of solace, and a hope for the future, in the arms of younger woman Michaela.

At least, this would be the plot if it were told from beginning to end, but Padewsa avoids much of the obvious bathos by switching backwards and forwards in time, revealing facets of Jakob’s character, and his struggle, in gradual increments. The end result is that he’s made all the more human, and a startlingly subtle performance by Stephen Dillane slowly unpeels his many layers for us until we see this long-suffering, lonely man laid bare. It’s not a comfortable ride, but it makes for riveting viewing.

Of course, Fugitive Pieces is still not a perfect movie – those only come along once or twice in a lifetime. On the whole it gets things right more often than it gets them wrong, however, and in an age of simplistic Hollywood weepies it’s good to see Anne Michaels’ novel get the sophisticated treatment that it deserves. The fact that it has some of the wartime tragedy of The English Patient – along with a hopeful, optimistic conclusion – should only help its box office receipts, too. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about it, though, is the fact that Fugitive Pieces was made on a small budget, outside of the Hollywood system, with a cast and crew of largely unknown faces. Maybe literary novels don’t always have to turn into simplistic, tear-jerking blockbusters after all.

Jonathan Raban – Surveillance

Dan Coxon

The political climate in the US has become something of a cause celebre in the popular media over the last few years, with journalists, novelists and filmmakers attacking the present regime from every conceivable angle. When even Green Day can achieve international success with a Bush-whacking album, then you can be sure that something’s going on in the public consciousness. Jonathan Raban takes a slightly different approach to the subject with his new novel Surveillance, and brings some refreshing new insights along with it – although it’s still not without its flaws.

Ostensibly the story of freelance journalist Lucy, her daughter Alida, their gay neighbour Tad and the bestselling memoirist August Vanags (who Lucy has been sent to interview for GQ magazine), the real star of Surveillance is the world that Raban has created. Firmly rooted in contemporary Seattle – which also happens to be Raban’s home, after relocating to the US from the UK – this is also a work of near-future science fiction, set in an unnamed year that lies not too distant from the here and now.

In fact, the world Raban presents is so similar to ours that you’d be mistaken for thinking that it was set in the present day. Alida spends most of the novel listening to Green Day’s omnipresent American Idiot album on her iPod, and it’s still recent enough to sound fresh and new to her young ears. It’s only the staged terrorist attacks being arranged by the government that give the game away, a daily routine of faked bombings, gas attacks and explosions designed to test the readiness of the emergency services. (Lucy and Alida’s neighbour Tad works as an actor, mainly on commercials and as an ‘extra’ in these staged acts of terrorism.) The US may be in political turmoil, but things haven’t gone quite that far. Not yet, at least.

Whether we see the world of Surveillance as a near-future prediction or an alternate reality where things have spiralled even further out of control, Raban’s intention is clear: to criticise the current climate of fear and reciprocal aggression, and to some extent to satirise the ‘war on terror’. Amidst all this chaos and confusion, however, the novel’s narrative ploughs a different path, following Lucy’s assignment to interview August Vanags, author of a bestselling memoir detailing his life in a concentration camp during World War Two. Both Lucy and Alida become fond of the eccentric old man and his wife Minna, but then Lucy uncovers evidence suggesting that his book may have been plagiarised, and that he may have spent the war years in a farm in Dorset. Is everything he’s written a lie? With a lack of conclusive proof one way or the other, how should she present him in her article? How can she reach the real truth, and the essence of August Vanags?

It’s these questions that Raban circles around, and which feed artfully back into his main conceit. The title gives us a clue to his intentions: here is a novel that deals with the act of watching other people, and with the difficulty of making judgements about truth and honesty when the world is only painted in shades of grey. The intermingling of these story threads to serve the one purpose shows a literary master close to his best, but ultimately the ending of the novel lets him down. Perhaps it’s in the nature of the questions Raban asks, but he adamantly refuses to offer any answers at the book’s conclusion, instead leaving his inquiries – and his characters – hanging, almost in mid-sentence. Given the subject matter it may be the only way that the novel could end, but it’s deeply unsatisfying to the reader, and ultimately threatens to undermine everything that’s gone before.

Fortunately the writing is strong enough to withstand this derailing, but it makes Surveillance a good novel rather than a great one. It still stands out from the cacophony of voices arguing against the Bush regime, thanks to its intelligence, wit, and its willingness to look at the bigger picture rather than simply blaming the world’s woes on one man, but its dissection of the current atmosphere of fear is no less sharp for taking this broader view. Raban may not achieve the international success of Green Day, but his is certainly a voice that we should listen to.

Neil Smith – Bang Crunch

Dan Coxon

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It has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy that the publishing industry can’t sell debut short story collections. If it’s a new collection by the likes of Richard Ford or William Trevor then they don’t seem to struggle, but when it comes to unknown authors they’re often reluctant to put substantial money behind anything other than a full-length novel. Because the major publishing houses don’t publish much short fiction – and rarely back it with a marketing campaign when they do – the public quite rightly tends to assume that these short story collections aren’t worth reading. If they were then they’d be making more of a fuss of them, right?

All of which makes Bang Crunch something of a rarity, even if it’s still not been afforded the media attention that a novel might have earned. It undoubtedly helps that most of the material on show here has already been tried and tested. Of the nine stories that make up the collection, seven have previously appeared in anthologies or journals. Some have even cropped up in both. Most of them will have passed us by, however, so at least there’s some justification for this ‘new’ collection.

The other justification, of course, would be Neil Smith’s innate storytelling ability. Like many of the younger wave of fiction writers working on both sides of the Atlantic (Will Self and Chuck Palahniuk spring immediately to mind), I sincerely doubt that Smith could write a dull sentence. Every phrase and every character is imbued with a sense of otherness and wonder, as if Smith is viewing the world for the first time, wide-eyed. The atmosphere he creates is that of a place where anything could happen – and often does.

Opening story ‘Isolettes’ is a fine example. The protagonist is called An. Not Ann, but An. It makes for awkward reading at first (an what?) but it draws the reader in, making the everyday strange and intriguing. The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where An’s child is undergoing treatment is pronounced ‘NICK U’ by the hospital’s doctors, ‘as if it were a University. “Our kid is studying at NICK U”. ’ The story also features a top floor apartment known as the pent-up suite, due to the residual anger left behind by its bickering prior tenants.

Sometimes all this invention becomes a little overwhelming, but by and large it’s put to good effect. What undermines the collection as a whole is the varying quality of the material, and it’s soon clear that these stories must span several years of writing. Either that or Smith learned how to iron out his faults at a disturbingly fast rate. The most impressive achievement is the closing story ‘Jaybird’, one of the two stories making its debut here. It’s also the longest work in the collection, and it shows just what Neil Smith can do given a little space to work in. It certainly bodes well for that first novel, whenever it might come.

Bang Crunch is ultimately a little too erratic, and a little too slim, to buck the publishing trend and prove that a collection of stories can be just as powerful as a novel. It may have over 230 pages, but those wide margins are fooling no-one. You can’t help feeling that if it had contained another five or six stories – and ‘Jaybird’ had taken its rightful place centre-stage – then it could have been a truly noteworthy publishing event. As it is, Neil Smith’s debut collection maps out the potential arrival of a noteworthy talent. We’ll just have to wait and see if it lives up to its promise.

Ross Macdonald – The Barbarous Coast

Dan Coxon

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Originally published in 1956, as the sixth novel in the Lew Archer crime series, The Barbarous Coast demonstrates exactly why Ross Macdonald’s name has survived when so many others have been forgotten. Punctuated by a sharp, dark wit, and twisting subtly through an untold number of well-plotted revelations, this novel shows why Macdonald was considered the natural successor to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It also makes for a damned good read.

If you haven’t stepped inside this noir-ish world before then here’s a brief rundown of what to expect: hot-headed gangsters, scheming women, smart-talking detectives, guns, seedy motels, under-the-table business deals and more than one murder. It’s the world that Roman Polanski portrayed so realistically in Chinatown, or that James Ellroy still plunders to this day. It’s dark, dangerous, and the flip side of the American dream.

In many ways Macdonald’s Lew Archer is the archetypal private eye, quick tongued and always struggling to stay on the right side of the law. He also has a heart of gold, naturally, but after so many years of being dragged through the mud it’s tarnished a little. Actually, it’s tarnished a lot. The novel opens with Lew being called to The Channel Club, a private building at the southern end of Malibu beach. He encounters an angry young man called George Wall at the gate – the action kicking in almost before the end of the first page – and once he’s inside the building the club manager, Clarence Bassett, explains what the disturbance is all about.

One of the girls who used to work at the club, Hester Campbell, married Mr Wall in Canada; since then she has abandoned him and returned to California, and Wall’s worried that she might be in trouble. He’s been leaning on Bassett for information, but Bassett pleads ignorance, along with a bad case of nerves. Needless to say, Hester Campbell was strikingly beautiful. Needless to say, there’s a lot of dirt to be uncovered before the truth comes out.

If you’re already a fan of hardboiled detective fiction then this novel’s a dusky gem that’s well worth searching out, and kudos to the editors at Vintage Crime for uncovering it again. Its plot coils tightly around the secrets of the Malibu jet set, and by the time everything’s finally unravelled hardly anyone comes out clean. Macdonald also has a great turn of phrase, spinning out endless wisecracks mixed in with the occasional nugget of homegrown wisdom. You can’t help feeling that he could keep you entertained even without the colourful characters and breakneck plot. Luckily he doesn’t have to.

The most impressive thing about the Lew Archer novels, however, is how much they’ve influenced what’s come since. James Ellroy’s name has already been mentioned, but the likes of James Lee Burke and Robert Crais can also trace their roots back through Ross Macdonald’s work. The one tragedy is that Ross Macdonald wasn’t actually the author’s name at all – his real name was Kenneth Millar, and he used the pseudonym to avoid confusion with his writer wife, Margaret Millar. But perhaps it’s fitting that such a crime-writing great should be best known by his alias.

Martin Amis – House Of Meetings

Dan Coxon

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Any new Martin Amis book always comes with plenty of baggage, and House Of Meetings is no exception. As his first full-length fiction since 2003’s Yellow Dog, it comes complete with high expectations and the ugly face of his previous achievements leering over its shoulder. You can almost hear the critics sharpening their knives even before it hits the shelves.

Like so many of his previous novels, it also brings with it some worryingly dense prose and more than a few literary references. His books have never made for easy reading, but that’s exactly where their strength lies, and it’s good to see that one of the English language’s greatest wordsmiths still shows no sign of sugaring the pill as he grows older. You may love Amis’s work, or you may hate it – but it’s hard to view it with anything other than admiration.

House Of Meetings is significant for more than just the long wait that preceded it, however. It shows Amis dipping his toes into the waters of historical fiction, and coming back with what feels like a political fable from start to finish.

This is the story of a Russian survivor of the Arctic gulags, told exclusively from his point of view and taking the form of a lifetime confession. We learn of our nameless narrator’s early life, his acclimatisation to the challenges of the gulag, and his struggles to re-acclimatise to the real world afterwards. We also learn of his rivalry with his half-brother Lev. Both siblings lust after the enigmatic Jewess Zoya, but it is Lev who eventually marries her, before he too is sent to the gulag.

Of course, this is a Martin Amis novel, so it is also filled with unspeakable deeds and horror at the pain and suffering that man inflicts on fellow man. As if it’s not enough that he fantasizes about his brother’s wife on a daily basis, the narrator also confesses that he’s a multiple rapist, his crimes having been committed in the aftermath of the war. Life in the gulag is shown with a characteristic harshness too, as Amis turns his spotlight on the historical atrocities and everyday barbarism of a country in turmoil.

All of this should come as no surprise to this who have read his work before, and here he delivers the same kind of intellectual violence that we’ve come to expect over the years. What marks House Of Meetings out from his other novels – and, in some ways, undermines its considerable effects – is the need to present historical facts in large, indigestible chunks scattered throughout the fiction. The outcome is that these puddles of historical reality dilute the narrative, and while they are often intriguing in their own right, they don’t make for a great novel.

Historical fiction is a delicate balancing act between its two disparate elements – history and fiction – and here Amis doesn’t always get the mix right. In the end, the story of two brothers and their troubled love lives is swamped by the weight of the history surrounding it, leaving the characters feeling shallow and unfulfilling. They’re at their most vibrant and intriguing during the chapters set in the gulag itself, but what may have made an interesting novella starts to drag as it progresses, and the ending feels more like a political rant than the kind of fully-realised fiction that we’ve come to expect.

By all means read House Of Meetings for the vivid descriptions of life in the gulags, or for snapshot of the last century of Russian history – just don’t expect it to be vintage Amis. We may have to wait at least another three years for that.

Joseph M Marshal III – Hundred in the Hand

Dan Coxon

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On the surface, the idea behind Hundred In The Hand sounds like a surefire winner. For decades the story of the American West has been told from the point of view of the white settlers, the ‘cowboys’ in all those childhood games of Cowboys and Indians. This novel sets out to redress that balance: it’s set in the American West, but it’s told from the point of view of the Lakota people, and is written by a surviving Lakota member.

The writer’s credentials are impeccable too. Already the author of nine books, Marshall’s work is taught on several Native American literature courses at both high school and college level – the man can definitely write. He was also a technical adviser on the TV series Into The West, and appeared in two episodes as Loved By The Buffalo, a medicine man. He’s about as close to an authority on Native Americans as you’re likely to get.

All of which only serves to make Hundred In The Hand even more disappointing. Let’s be clear about one thing from the outset: it’s not actually bad. It’s just not the literary event that it might have been. In many places it’s extremely well written, yet there’s still a sense of anti-climax about it that’s hard to avoid.

In part this is due to the simplicity of the narrative, a device that may have been employed as a reflection of traditional oral storytelling forms. What might have worked for a spoken story, however, sometimes falls flat on the page, and the simple style often lacks the linguistic flourishes that might have spiced up the tale.

There’s also the fact that the narrative itself is relatively simple, and the characters are too frequently divided into ‘the good’ and ‘the bad’, with a few of ‘the ugly’ thrown in for variety. Westerns have always thrived on such black and white characterisation, but literature often relies on shades of grey. It may be what has made Wild West movies so much more popular than Wild West novels: Hollywood loves battles between good and evil, but most readers usually require something more complex.

Then there’s the ‘new’ Lakota perspective of events. For too long the Native Americans have been portrayed as brutal barbarians, with the settlers painted as being courageous and honourable. Unfortunately, all Marshall has done here is reverse the polarity. Here the settlers are barbaric and brutal; the Native Americans are now the courageous ones. It may be closer to the historical truth, but it’s hardly a new tale – just an old tale flipped upside down.

It’s worth reiterating that this isn’t a bad novel. If you like historical military fiction then the depiction of the battles is both exciting and believable, and if you’re familiar with the facts behind the Fetterman Massacre of 1866 (also known as the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand) then this story sheds some light on the true events that caused it.

If you’re looking for a challenging, original Native American voice, however, then this isn’t it. Joseph M. Marshall III has written a credible novel set in the American West, that just happens to have the native Lakota people as its protagonists. After all that, however, it’s still a Western at heart, complete with all the genre’s weaknesses and failings. Those who expect something more will only be disappointed.

Arthur Nersesian – The Swing Voter of Staten Island

Dan Coxon

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‘A Novel By Arthur Nersesian, Author of The Fuck-Up’ proclaims the cover of The Swing Voter Of Staten Island. It may not be the world’s greatest claim to fame, but it’s certainly a notable one. The Fuck-Up, in addition to having one of the best slacker-lit titles ever to have been put down on paper, has garnered something of a cult following since its publication in 1997, and rightly so. It’s hard to improve on Hal Sirowitz’s succinct opinion that the The Fuck-Up was ‘Trainspotting without drugs’, and it had almost as large an impact on underground literary culture as Irvine Welsh’s career-making hit.

In comparison, The Swing Voter Of Staten Island is a big disappointment. It sees Nersesian branching out from his usual witty observations of New York life and trying his hand at dystopian satire instead. The novel is still set in New York City, but this is not the cleaned-up NYC that Rudy Giuliani is currently trying to use as his passport to the White House. Instead Nersesian presents an alternate version of the metropolis, constructed in the Nevada desert for military training but now used to house – or, rather, imprison – all the social elements that the current regime has deemed undesirable. Its inhabitants have split into two political factions, the Piggers and the Crappers (no bonus points for guessing which parties these are supposed to represent), and its urban battleground resembles Giuliani’s worst nightmare. Life is necessarily complicated in a city where everyone’s got an axe to grind.

Into this hellhole Nersesian throws his protagonist, the oddly named Uli. It’s entirely possible that this isn’t his real name, as somewhere along the way he’s acquired a severe case of amnesia – all he remembers is a set of instructions to assassinate someone called Dropt, which cycle over and over through his mind as if he’s been subjected to the worst kind of hypnosis. As events spiral beyond his control he finds himself lost in the grotesque urban maze of the new New York, staggering from one bizarre encounter to another with very little idea of what’s actually going on.

Unfortunately Uli’s confusion is also the reader’s, and while Nersesian has shown himself to be a master of contemporary urban satire, his touch is not so delicate when it comes to dystopian fantasy. While it’s admirable that he wants to expand his repertoire, there’s much to be said for sticking to what you do well. With The Swing Voter Of Staten Island he tries to construct an Orwellian vision of an alternate America, spiced up with some of Philip K Dick’s political paranoia, but all too often it falls short of the mark. There are some nice touches amid the jumble of images, but too much of the imagery strikes a false note and ultimately there’s too tenuous a grip on reality for the average reader to buy into Nersesian’s fable.

It doesn’t help that this book finishes mid-story, with a follow-up promised later in 2008. Having battled through almost three hundred pages, it’s not unreasonable to expect at least some kind of resolution – although many of the characters are so two-dimensional that most readers may not care about not finding out what happens to them.

Like much dystopian and utopian fiction, The Swing Voter Of Staten Island works well as a philosophical and political treatise, but it fails as a novel. Maybe the second instalment in the series will rescue it from the literary slagheap of failed experimental fiction – only time will tell. In the meantime we can only hope that Arthur Nersesian recovers some of his trademark wit and ditches the political fables before his next outing.

Russell Hoban – My Tango With Barbara Strozzi

Dan Coxon

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On most occasions the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover holds true, but with the latest offering from literary maverick Russell Hoban the cover picture does a pretty good job of summing it up. That’s a difficult admission for a critic to make – let’s not forget that I’d be out of a job if books could be judged by their covers alone – but for once the novel’s artist has done much of our critical summarising in advance.

Centre stage is given to a depiction of Barbara Strozzi herself, the seventeenth century Venetian singer and composer of the book’s title, but surrounding her is the paraphernalia of Hoban’s story. There are glass eyes, a baseball bat, the HMS Victory, an astrological constellation and a 24-hour pizza restaurant. And, of course, the basic steps to learn the tango.

My Tango With Barbara Strozzi is ostensibly a love story, although it often feels more like a study in postmodern realities and the nature of fiction. Phil Ockerman is an American novelist living in London; short of stature and inclined to fits of whimsy, he has recently been divorced by his wife Mimi after his repeated failure to write an exciting novel. His most recent work, Hope Of A Tree, is nicely written but boring.

The novel opens with Ockerman obsessing about Barbara Strozzi, when by chance he meets Bertha Strunk at a tango lesson in Clerkenwell and is immediately struck by her similarity to the classical composer. As they begin to see each other outside of the classes he starts to call her Barbara, and as their relationship develops Hoban unravels both their lives at an impressive rate of knots.

Bertha/Barbara has occasionally acted as an artist’s model, and had a brief love affair with a painter called Brian; a fight between the two of them led to Brian losing an eye, and Bertha/Barbara gaining a career painting artificial eyeballs. She also suffered a failed marriage to a bouncer called Troy, who used to beat her behind closed doors, and he occasionally still assaults her when their paths cross. Ockerman is the unlikely hero who sets out to save her, or at least to share her sorrow.

In the hands of most other writers these elaborate interconnecting stories might seem contrived and unnatural, but Hoban’s greatest gift is the ability to create the illusion of reality. Ockerman’s experience is so closely entwined with Hoban’s own that it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins. We know from the book’s acknowledgements that the trip to HMS Victory was made by Hoban himself, but was there really a Bertha/Barbara Strunk? And if there was, did she really paint artificial eyes?

Reading My Tango With Barbara Strozzi is sometimes a confusing experience. Like the modern penchant for wobbly handheld cameras in movie blockbusters, the illusion of reality comes at a price, and the intricate network of characters and anecdotes can sometimes obscure as much as it reveals. Just as the camerawork in The Bourne Ultimatum left some audiences feeling queasy and off-balance, so My Tango With Barbara Strozzi will leave some of you disorientated and muddled.

From what appears to be a slim, simple story, however, Hoban weaves a complex fictional web that accurately echoes the intricacies of real life. His greatest trick is pulling this off with dexterity and wit, proving yet again that he’s one of modern literature’s true mavericks. He may share some surface similarities with his hero – but, unlike Phil Ockerman, Russell Hoban will never be boring.

Steve Dupont – Therein Lies The Problem

Dan Coxon


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It’s always exciting when a debut novel from an unknown author lands on your desk. There’s an added frisson of excitement when the publisher’s unknown, too. You can’t help but hope that these pages might introduce a new talent, or be the first rumblings of a literary giant. Failing that, they could at least unveil an intriguing new voice freshly arrived on the scene, a brief glimpse inside an imagination that the world has yet to hear from.

Of course, most debut novels fail to live up to these high expectations, especially when their editors are just starting out themselves. All of which makes Steve Dupont’s Therein Lies The Problem a pleasant surprise. Not because it’s destined to cause much of a stir on the literary scene, or because it’s likely to herald the arrival of a new master wordsmith – but quite simply because it makes for an interesting and enjoyable read.

The premise is deceptively simple: a group of friends meet regularly to discuss the idea of a modern utopia, a hi-tech pyramid that would be both self-sustaining and remarkably satisfying to inhabit. Thanks to a bizarre set of circumstances – a vast, unexpected inheritance, and an even less expected nuclear disaster – they suddenly find themselves in a position to make this dream a reality, and with the wildly eccentric Lester Ginn at the helm The Pyramid sets sail.

So far the plot sounds like a collaboration between George Orwell and Roald Dahl, but the large cast of curious characters gives the novel a tone that’s more in keeping with Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K Dick. They sometimes tread a fine line between caricature and outright fantasy, but once you buy into the slightly strange world that Dupont has crafted he takes you on a rollercoaster ride quite unlike anything else in modern fiction, populated by holographic butlers, knife-wielding apes and more than a few corrupt politicians.

That’s not to say that this is a perfect novel, and it often comes perilously close to derailing altogether. The erratic timelines sometimes confuse more than they illuminate, and Lester Ginn’s faux-English accent occasionally hits a false note that shatters the illusion (for future reference, I’ve never know a single Englishman to say that someone’s done a ‘smash-up job’, no matter how eccentric).

Dupont’s quirky vision and overactive imagination just about keep this train on the rails, however, even if it leaves us feeling rather queasy and sickened at the end. It’s certainly no groundbreaking masterpiece, but if you’re looking for an amusing and intelligent take on the utopian genre then it might surprise you with its effervescent wit. Just don’t expect believable dialogue or tight plotting – therein lies the problem after all.

Austin Grossman: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Dan Coxon


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If you’ve missed the buzz surrounding the hit NBC TV series Heroes, then you’ve probably been living in another dimension for the last twelve months. Having provided the network with one of America’s most-viewed TV series last year, it then proceeded to take over the BBC and hijack practically every conversation this side of Christmas. With superheroes still foremost in everybody’s thoughts, the timing couldn’t be better for Austin Grossman’s debut novel, a nuclear-powered crime-fighting story that puts comic books firmly back on the literary map.

While there are surface similarities between Soon I Will Be Invincible and that TV show, however, the tone of the novel quickly shifts towards the more fantastical end of the spectrum. Grossman makes no attempt to explain the world that he describes – a world where superheroes, and supervillians, exist as a widely accepted everyday reality – but instead he takes this death-defying, spandex-wearing ball and runs with it. His is a world of mask-wearing villains, magical weapons and scientific experiments that went wrong, not theories of human evolution and genetic anomalies. And there’s hardly a cheerleader in sight.

The novel opens with supervillain Doctor Impossible breaking out of his maximum security prison, as he attempts to conquer the world (again) with a potent mixture of cutting-edge science, diabolical schemes and a rather big cloak. He’s a surprisingly charismatic creation, waxing lyrical about his troubled childhood and wondering why it is that true geniuses always want to be evil, and as he attempts to rebuild his global empire from a grimy motel room he provides more than a few moments of bathetic humour.

While he goes about his diabolical scheme the Champions – a superhero collective along the lines of the Fantastic Four – are undergoing a crisis of their own. One of their number, the seemingly indestructible CoreFire, has vanished from the face of the Earth, and the escaped Doctor Impossible is the prime suspect. Without CoreFire the Champions’ powers are severely depleted, and they have to resort to recruiting new members if they’re to stand any chance of defeating the Doctor. This brings Fatale into the story, a part-human-part-cyborg who was created, and then rejected, by a top secret defence program. She shares narrating duties with Doctor Impossible, taking us inside the headquarters of the Champions as she attempts to piece together what remains of her life.

The cast of characters expands far beyond this pair, however, as Impossible’s plan unravels and we gradually discover what happened to CoreFire. There’s Damsel, the offspring of superhero legend Stormcloud and an alien princess; Elphin, a fairy warrior charged by her queen to remain on earth; Rainbow Triumph, an augmented teenager who comes across like a Manga character brought to life – and these barely scratch the surface. There are supervillians aplenty too, from the slightly ridiculous Pharaoh and his rather tacky outfit to Baron Ether, the eastern European godfather of all supervillians, currently under house arrest.

Much of the novel’s appeal undoubtedly lies in the world that Grossman has created, from the witty asides on the clichés of the superhero genre to the intricacies of the creation stories that surround each hero and villain. This DC and Marvel-influenced atmosphere can only sustain the narrative for so long, however, and the first half stretches it to breaking point. By halfway through we’re willing something to happen, even if it means Doctor Impossible taking over the world and subjecting us all to another ice age. There’s plenty of character building and literary dry ice, but not much action.

Thankfully this changes as the novel hits its stride, and the second half rockets along at a breakneck pace that even Superman would struggle to keep up with. There are heroic battles between the Champions and Doctor Impossible, more twists than Jack Bauer manages to squeeze into a season of 24, and CoreFire’s fate is finally revealed in the Doctor’s island lair. It’s a little late in coming, but it’s more than worth the wait, and Grossman handles his supercharged cast with wit and imagination.

As for how it compares with a certain superheroic TV series, Soon I Will Be Invincible more or less holds its own. Both falter at the start; both build up to an edge-of-your-seat climax; both boast an ensemble cast whose powers and secrets gradually unravel before our eyes. Grossman’s debut owes a greater debt to the likes of Superman and Spidey, however, and as an amusing take on the comic book genre it pretty much hits all its targets. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t have a cheerleader to save too.

Douglas Coupland: The Gum Thief

Dan Coxon


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In recent years Douglas Coupland has achieved a remarkably consistent output. It’s not that every novel he’s written has been a masterpiece – no writer manages that – but rather that his great novels have been regularly interspersed with his less satisfying ones. Microserfs, Miss Wyoming, Hey Nostradamus! and JPod all felt like significant contributions to an impressive body of work; in between, however, we were handed Girlfriend In A Coma, All Families Are Psychotic and Eleanor Rigby, all worthy in their own right but none of them causing much of a stir on the literary scene (maybe Mr Coupland should stop naming books after pop songs).

This pattern suggests that The Gum Thief should be a disappointment, and it certainly doesn’t feel like one of his finest. Relating the relatively humdrum tale of two ‘associates’ in a Staples stationary superstore, it often sounds like a soap opera rather than the latest offering from one of contemporary literature’s most intriguing voices. To dismiss it out of hand would be a mistake, however, as its relatively mundane surface hides an intriguing study of the epistolary form – and a commentary on the nature of the novel itself.

The Gum Thief opens in typical epistolary-novel style, swapping back and forth between two characters: Bethany, a young, disillusioned Goth working in the Staples store; and Roger, a divorced, quiet loner who spends his days restocking the shelves and walking his dog. Beth discovers that Roger has been writing a diary from her point of view, and once the initial weirdness has passed she becomes intrigued by the fact that he’s imagined her so accurately.

So far, so simple. Coupland then throws another element into the mix: Roger is writing a novel himself, the curiously-titled Glove Pond, and the letters between Roger and Bethany are interspersed with excerpts from his own novel. Glove Pond is a woefully shallow and amateurish attempt at the form, but something in it touches Bethany, and, like her, we feel compelled to read on. As the friendship between the co-workers develops, so the twists of Glove Pond begin to reflect their lives, albeit with an often-hilarious distortion.

Just as we begin to get used to this format Coupland hurls another character’s voice into the fray, and he continues to do this until the novel’s final pages: the traditional back-and-forth of the epistolary form gradually fractures into a whole chorus of voices, many of them pulling in opposite directions. We hear from Bethany’s mother DeeDee, who coincidentally went to school with Roger, and from Roger’s bitter ex-wife Joan – among others. There’s even a series of attempts to write a story from the point of view of a piece of toast, as Bethany flexes her own creative muscles.

If this sounds rather messy and incoherent, then that’s because it often is. With so many different voices pulling us back and forth it sometimes becomes difficult to discern between them, and Coupland doesn’t always manage to conjure up a distinctive voice for every new character.

It’s the novel-within-a-novel that gives us the key to this intricate web, however, and makes the most memorable contribution to The Gum Thief. Glove Pond shows us how the best fiction (and even some of the worst) draws upon the writer’s experiences in real life, twisting and morphing them to create something new. It shows us that any creative work, no matter how amateurish or muddled, has the potential to touch somebody, or even change a life. And most importantly, it never fails to entertain, as its characters stagger from one disaster to another, like the affairs of the American literati reinterpreted by the cast of Dynasty.

Like Glove Pond, The Gum Thief is a flawed novel. It confuses as much as it illuminates, and Doug Coupland’s experiments with the epistolary form don’t always come off. In Bethany and Roger, however, he has created another pair of Coupland greats, two people muddling through modern life in any way they can – with the occasional epiphany thrown in along the way. The Gum Thief may not be perfect, but it’s still a damned good read.

William Trevor: Cheating At Canasta

Dan Coxon


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There’s something pleasantly old-fashioned about William Trevor’s short fiction. The fact that he harks back to traditional forms should come as no great surprise – Trevor is, after all, fast-approaching his eightieth birthday – but it does provide an unexpected and refreshing antidote to the angry young men of English and American literature. There are no fancy devices here, no quirky narrative voices, no Gen X disaffection. These are stories firmly in the vein of Joyce’s Dubliners, and in Cheating At Canasta Trevor shows himself to be a modern master of the form.

The title story is the poignant tale of a widower returning to Harry’s Bar in Venice having made a promise to his wife on her deathbed, and the curious way in which he engages with an arguing couple at a nearby table. It’s a delicate study of grieving and loss, flavoured with some astute observations and to-the-point dialogue, and it sets the tone for the rest of the collection.

In ‘At Olivehill’ we encounter another death, although this time a widow is sidelined as her children renovate her estate in an attempt to bring it into the twentieth century. Her sorrows spring not only from the change in circumstances, but from her own complicity in keeping the planned renovations from her husband. In the way in which it engages simultaneously with both the past and the present it’s a typical William Trevor short story, and its lack of resolution again harks back to Joyce’s short fiction.

Not all these stories are about death and dying, however, although most deal with loss and regret in one of their many forms. ‘Folie เ Deux’ retains some of the Gothic atmosphere of his early work, as the story unravels a moment of childish cruelty from the narrator’s past, and gradually reveals his regret at the loss of a deeply-felt friendship. ‘Men Of Ireland’ catalogues another kind of loss – that of a life wasted and spent in vagrancy – and asks us questions about the nature of mercy and charity. There are no simple solutions to be had here, but Trevor is never shy of asking complex questions.

If you’ve already read any of his short stories then you’ll know that William Trevor is one of the few living masters of the form, unveiling intricate emotions in deceptively simple prose. It’s no hollow claim to compare his work with Joyce’s Dubliners, and in Cheating At Canasta he’s proved once again that there are few who can come close to him in terms of subtle nuances of feeling and understated epiphanies.

In a world that’s increasingly obsessed with quick thrills and roller coaster storytelling, it’s good to see that there’s still room for a genuine master with a delicate touch.

Rory MacLean – Magic Bus: An Interview

Dan Coxon

In recent years high quality, intelligent travel writing has proved hard to come by. The genre that produced such greats as Colin Thubron and William Dalrymple has gone into decline, partly due to the current spate of comedy travelogues (“worst toilets of the world”, “how I followed a third-rate Eighties pop star around Europe”), and partly due to the shortsightedness of the editorial teams at various big-name publishers.

Thank Chatwin, then, for Rory MacLean. With six books to his name already, and latest bestseller Magic Bus recently out in paperback, MacLean has proved to be a breath of fresh air in a stifled genre. Under The Dragon was an insightful and often thrilling ride through war-troubled Burma, while Next Exit: Magic Kingdom saw him putting a surprisingly intelligent spin on the holidaymakers’ playgrounds of Florida.

In Magic Bus he retraces the Hippie Trail that marked the beginning of the modern travel industry in the Sixties and Seventies, a six thousand mile trek that now leads through war zones and some of the world’s most chaotic cities. Thankfully he still finds a few tie-dyed hippie leftovers along the trail as he spins his story of enlightenment, exploration and the Grateful Dead.

Mixing travel stories with history, culture and the occasional moment of Eastern spiritualism, it’s an impressive achievement and a fascinating read. I start out by asking Rory what it was that first attracted him to the story of the “Hippie Trail”. Was there a particular impetus that put the idea for the book in his head?

“Only thirty years ago Western travellers breezed through Afghanistan,” Rory explains, already animated by the mention of his subject. “English girls hitchhiked alone across Anatolia with flowers in their hair. Free-spirited teenagers from London and Los Angeles were welcomed as honoured guests in Baghdad. Now a Western passport, once respected, is a liability in many parts of the Middle East. No sane tourist visits Mosul or Kandahar. Visitors to the Hindu Kush often fear for their lives.

“I wanted to find out what went wrong. How did we squander the promise and trust of the Sixties and Seventies? In 2002, following the US invasion of Afghanistan, the classic Asia Overland “hippie” trail was reopened for the first time in a generation. I saw an opportunity not only to capture the spirit and stories of those heady years, and to compare youthful idealism then and now, but to understand why the Sixties cast such long shadows over our own fearful and protective era.”

As in all the best travel literature, he meets a variety of colourful and intriguing characters along the way — perhaps even more than usual, given the ex-hippie communities that he moves through. I was intrigued to know whether hed remained in contact with any of these people, and who had made the biggest impact on his story.

“In Istanbul I met the original Flower Child,” Rory tells me. “In Pakistan I broke bread with a one-time dope-smoking Catholic who converted to Islam and became an imam – because of Bob Dylan. In Rishikesh I met the Beatles’ doctor. But I’ve become friends with a sentimental Englishman named Rudy, a former bus driver who “followed that long line of loonies” from London to India over thirty times in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

“I never tire of hearing his amazing travel stories. Outside Victoria Coach Station he’d collect “girls in beads, guys with battered twelve-string guitars, Essex shop assistants, Welsh council workers, all of them… looking for an Adventure.” He’d drive them first to Amsterdam. In Dam Square he would open his old Bedford bus door and shout out, “Anyone for India?”. And people would get on! And off they’d go to India, levitating over border crossings because of the amount of dope he passed around.”

I’d heard that since the hardback publication of Magic Bus literally hundreds of veteran “intrepids” had come out of the woodwork, and that Rory was now involved in recreating those communities of the Sixties and Seventies with modern internet technology. How on earth had that come about?

“When Magic Bus was published, and the first reviews appeared in the press, something unexpected happened,” he tells me. “Trail “veterans” started writing to me by the dozen. They’d headed east in the Sixties or Seventies and, motivated by reading the book, they embarked on a new trek, up the stairs to the attic to unearth old boxes and dusty journals. Within a couple of months I’d been sent over 500 photographs, and enough new material to write the book all over again.

“With their permission I started relaying those stories, along with those I’d already collected, in articles and talks. I even built the magicbus.info website and Flickr blog page to create a meeting place for this community of travellers. As a result the letters and emails multiplied again: Australian grannies recognised their earlier selves in old snapshots (“It is weird to see a photo you didn”t know existed, in the newspaper, out of the blue 31 years later”); New Age travellers shared their experiences with “veterans”; one American Intrepid even asked me if I could help him to find his old flame!”

Rory MacLean
Rory MacLean

Researching Magic Bus wasn’t all beads and incense, though. Many of the areas that the original trail wound through have undergone political upheavals since then, and several are considered to be no-go areas for Westerners. Had he felt threatened at all during his journey?

“I was frightened in Afghanistan,” Rory admits, quite reasonably, “not least because every other adult male seems to carry a Kalashnikov. The country has become much more dangerous since my visit. These days I consider it totally off-limits to travellers.” With six books now under his belt, including several Top Ten hits, Rory has become one of the most recognisable names in modern travel writing. I ask him what it is that makes a travel book great. “A book or story that is written from the heart,” is his succinct answer. “As a reader I want to know how a journey affected the writer, what he or she learnt through the trip, and how he or she was changed by the experience.”

So is there anything that he has to take with him every time he travels – a lucky charm perhaps? Or is it more likely to be a penknife and compass?

“Books!” he replies, cementing his credentials as one of our more literary travellers. “The preparation for a journey and new travel book requires months of reading, which I never get through in time. My most important possession along the Asia Overland trail was my dog-eared copy of On The Road. Kerouac’s restless, seminal work blended fiction and autobiography to define the “Beat” and then the hippie-generation. Its influence in propelling countless kids onto the road cannot be overstated.”

I also ask him whether there are still places that he wants to travel to, or if he’s already ticked off the major destinations on his hit list. He’s certainly travelled more than most of us will do in a lifetime, and he’s passed through some surprisingly out-of-the-way and dangerous locations en route.

“I’ve never been to Japan,” he confesses, “its purity, aesthetic and cuisine fascinate me. Also I’d love to visit a love hotel (with my wife Katrin!). Fly Me To the Moon is in Tokyo: a Japanese love hotel that features suites with pneumatic beds surrounded by wrap-around video screens. As the wind blows through your hair, guests rock and soar above New York’s skyscrapers, through the Grand Canyon and even into outer space!”

So does he always travel as research for his writing, or does he still fly overseas to relax like the rest of us? Somehow it’s hard to imagine someone with Rory’s intrepid spirit settling down for the day on a beach towel on the Costa Del Sol — but equally, he surely has to relax somehow?

“Writing about a place always enhances the experience for me, making my travels richer and more memorable. I’m no good at lying on a beach,” he confesses, confirming my suspicions. “Perhaps the most relaxing place on earth for me is kneeling in a Canadian Chestnut canoe. Nothing, absolutely nothing, moves me like dawn in Quetico, one of Canada’s vast wilderness sanctuary parks, gliding across the dark mirror of still water, paddling into the embrace of ageless forests, listening to the call of the loon.”

As we say goodbye he tells me that he’s on his way to a conference in Italy that’s dedicated to “La Rotta Hippie”, the Hippy Trail that Rory followed as his research for Magic Bus. With his new subject he seems to have uncovered a previously untapped source of stories, a treasure chest of travel anecdotes and shared memories. Unfortunately Italy isn’t likely to offer him any ageless forests or Chestnut canoes — although “La Rotta Hippie” might prove to have more than its fair share of loons…

Patrick Humphries: The Many Lives Of Tom Waits

Dan Coxon


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There’s no disputing that gravel-voiced oddball Tom Waits is an enigma to all but his closest associates, and that he’s a prime candidate for a probing, in-depth biography. Unfortunately, despite its considerable size, Patrick Humphries’ attempt to delve into his life only just manages to scrape beneath the surface.

There are plenty of anecdotes here from Tom himself, and some insightful comments on his varied output to date, including 2006’s mammoth 3-disc set Orphans, but Humphries struggles to unravel the layers of misdirection and obscuration that Waits has placed around his private life.

Instead he fills the book with pages of background detail, placing every step of his subject’s career in an appropriate musical, historical and political context, sometimes losing sight of Waits completely along the way. Two entire chapters pass while the young Tom works in a pizza parlour, as Humphries churns out a brief history of the 60s to keep the page count ticking over – it might have a place in a sociological history of the times, but here it feels like fifteen pages of filler.

He often engages in lyrical flights of fancy, too, as if determined to beat Waits at his own game, telling us that the early songs “scratch the furniture, piss on the floor, and keep you awake all night with their wailing”, but failing to puncture the man’s own self-mythologizing about his early years.

Part of this failure is due to the lack of input from a supporting cast, and it’s noticeable that we hear nothing from Waits’s family or friends, and very little from his contemporaries. In fact the dominant voice is Waits’s own, and by the time Humphries’ story draws to a close you’re left with the feeling that you’ve just been led on a wild goose chase by alternative rock’s own Pied Piper.

For the thousands of Waits fans out there who hang on the great man’s every word, this is a worthwhile encyclopaedia of his art, wit and wisdom — for those of us wanting a rare glimpse into his life, however, it ends up leaving us hungrier than when we started.

Matt Ruff: Bad Monkeys

Dan Coxon


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Try to imagine Fight Club crossed with K-Pax – with elements of The Matrix and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome thrown in for good measure – and you might end up somewhere close to the tone of Bad Monkeys. Mixing a thriller plot with elements of pure fantasy, it won’t be everyone’s idea of a good night in, but there are enough twists and turns to keep most of us interested, as well as the occasional rumination on the nature of good and evil to ensure that our brains are engaged.

Jane Charlotte has been arrested for murder, and Bad Monkeys is a transcript of her confessions to the police psychiatrist. It soon becomes clear that Jane is not your average criminal, however, despite her drug habit and self-destructive nature. She confesses that she’s part of a secret organisation dedicated to fighting evil, and that her division, ‘The Department For The Final Disposition Of Irredeemable Persons’, otherwise known as ‘Bad Monkeys’, is responsible for dispatching the worst offenders.

Her story grows increasingly fantastical as it progresses – taking in exploding footballs, secret weapons that cause heart failures and strokes, vanishing agents, and dollar bills that contain surveillance cameras – but Ruff maintains a degree of internal logic that makes you wonder where all this is heading. Is she delusional, or is she merely describing a fictional world of his devising?

When the doctor interviewing her discovers a trail of corroborating evidence, the lines begin to blur even further, and it becomes clear that this is all somehow linked to the abduction of her brother Phil when they were children. Has she fallen into a delusional state due to her own complicity in his kidnapping? Or is there something more sinister at work?

Questions and uncertainty form a large part of Ruff’s narrative, and most readers will find themselves having to pause for breath between chapters, as they attempt to decode the lies and fantasies of its labyrinthine plot. It’s this very air of uncertainty that lends the novel its appeal, however, and by halfway Ruff has cooked up a state of paranoia that Philip K. Dick would be proud of.

Then there’s the final twist at the end. To reveal it here would be to undermine the entire novel, but suffice it to say that it almost certainly won’t be what you expect, and it will either convince you that Bad Monkeys is a wonderful tour-de-force, or make you regret having spent so many hours reading it. As twists go it certainly delivers on many levels, but the conclusions it reaches won’t be to everyone’s liking.

There’s no doubting that Matt Ruff has crafted a fine page-turner, with almost as many twists as an episode of 24, but in the end it rests upon the believability of the rather warped worldview that he has created and it doesn’t always deliver. There’s enough commentary on the state of the world to cement it in something approaching reality, but Ruff takes pleasure in pulling the rug out from beneath our feet once too often, and most readers will end up feeling disorientated and a little queasy by the time the curtain closes.

Bad Monkeys is almost certain to develop a cult following, however, if only for its distorted view of the world, and anyone suffering from Matrix-withdrawal should get their hands on a copy today. It may not be perfect, but it will get your pulse racing at the same time as engaging your brain – and there aren’t many novels that can claim that.