I’m sat here writing on Tuesday evening, a mess of more or less unrelated ideas flying around my head.
I’ve been thinking about statistics – how numbers are absolute, but the meaning is flexible. I’ve been wondering how exactly a character gets a cult following. I’ve received a blank envelope recently, which I know is the result of an administrative error, but I’m unsure what type of error – and I’ve been wondering if there’s the potential for a story growing out of it.
I’ve had two different pieces of writing published by two different sites today, and I’ve currently got two more longish things half-written. On top of all that, I’ve only just realised in the last ten minutes that, with today being Tuesday and the last day of the month (two things I realised separately) that makes tomorrow the first Wednesday of the month, and therefore Insecure Writers’ Support Group Day.
I’ve done something that I really don’t do often enough, and sat down with no distractions, and written a short piece of prose from beginning to end. No grand, ambitious plans for a multi-storyline epic that fizzle out into nothing, just a brief, punchy little story.
I hope you enjoy it.
Shukhov’s Glass Ceiling
Comrade Sidorova stood on the Middle Line of the Moscow GUM, looking down to the Lower and observing what capitalism had brought upon his country.
Huge arches, maybe fifteen feet across each, contained the glass storefronts of shops owned by multinational corporations. The architecture was stunning – Pomerantsev’s genius had survived communism from beginning to end, which at one point he feared nothing in his beloved homeland would manage. But their use was a barbaric joke – he could see three arches in a row containing the name and products of an American jeans company.
Sidorova had never been able to follow the logic of jeans as a luxury product. He had worn them on occasion in his younger days – they were uncomfortable against the skin, and downright abusive when wet. It was the propaganda which swung it, he had decided – marketing, to use the capitalist term. Perhaps knowing that the product itself was not much use, units of the rough material were moved out of stores worldwide by using imagery of rugged American cowboys and trendy modern party-goers.
It hurt Sidorova’s pride to know that, for many young Russians today, their ideal of masculinity was not their fathers and grandfathers who had worked without complaint in the fields and the military, but an American posing in the Texas sun.
Sidorova looked upward. Shukhov’s glass ceiling was magnificent – even a century after its construction there were few like it anywhere in the world. It flooded the building below in so much light that Sidorova could almost believe a God must have created it. There was a train station in London whose roof was also built more of glass than metal. But even there the ratio of iron to glass weighed more heavily on the side of practicality. Saint Pancreas? Some body part, but he wasn’t sure which. Even the great Victorian engineers – perhaps the greatest engineering nation ever to have lived – could not match the innovative genius of Shukhov.
Beauty comes from that which is natural, Sidorova felt, and man should only interfere when it is a necessity. Centralised planning is the worst form of human interference.
This building had played it’s part in Sidorova’s awakening from his propaganda induced childhood stupor. As a young man, he had been assigned here, in the days when queues for the more practical items it stocked stretched across Red Square.
Although the desperation on the people’s faces were hideous, his superiors had drilled it into him that one day this magnificent, palatial shopping centre would serve it’s purpose, to help feed and clothe the people of the world’s rising superpower. The problem was that the party simply had not had enough time to get things working the way they should.
But the offices of the shopping centre silently debated this point. A few were still used, a faded image of the days when this was the central point of planning for Stalin’s first five-year plan. Many more laid empty, abandoned.
It was as he stood here, in this very spot so many years ago, that he was struck with an idea. Simply seeing the sheer amount of light that flooded in from the ceiling, while the ceiling held solid, was a revelation to him. A combination of nature and man – the warmth of the indoors, with every inch of the hallways flooded with natural sunlight. He saw the beauty of the natural world with eyes that he had never used before, and realised immediately that it must have been a genius who could build such a structure. A genius who built a thing of beauty before the Communist party rose to power.
It was a beauty that was misused by the party – he could see thugs in state uniforms pushing around the poor as they merely looked for enough food to keep their families alive.
Sidorova had thought of the entire building as a new form of propaganda, created not for the glorification of Stalin, but the glorification of the natural world, and the men who could tame it.
As he took the train journey back home, Sidorova appreciated the beauty of the fields, the skies, even the ramshackle huts, in a way he never had before. The thought had simply never occurred to him that Mother Russia could thrive without the party’s blessing, that his dissatisfactions were circles that could not be squared.
By the time he reached home, his mind was consumed with blasphemous ideas.
Sidorova did not consider himself a killjoy, he knew there were important things in life beside bread and water. But he also knew the profit margins on trousers, sports shoes, jewellery, and considered it a sick joke that so much of the price went to the propagandists. In Asia the clothing was crafted by workers who toiled for pennies.
Banner after banner on the Lower Line bore a single message – advertisements for a perfume company. Giant bottles were painted on the sheets, repeated over and over, lest consumers forget their implicit message – CONSUME! – in the seconds walking from one to the next.
Despite Sidorova’s melancholy, he knew that, beyond doubt, what he saw around him was better than what had gone before. He had no doubts over the side in the struggle he had chosen, and, were he required to do so, he would do the same again without a moment’s doubt. But he had dreamed – more than that, believed – that the fall of communism would see power given to the people. That they would no longer be manipulated into actions for the benefit of the powerful.
Thinking back over his life, Sidorova realised what it was he missed about communism – the struggle against it.
The secret meetings. The walks through the streets of Moscow on winter days when the poor starved and his breath seemed to freeze in the air… He was warmed by the knowledge that he and his colleagues were struggling together for the common good.
But now… Who was left who would struggle with him against the modern propaganda for over-priced trousers?
The Devil Rides Out is a story of Satanic worship in upper class 1930s Britain.
Wheatley was a very prolific writer, and Devil is drawn from his Modern Musketeers strand. The titular musketeers are 4 friends – the elderly French exile De Richelau, the American adventurer Rex van Ryn, family man Richard and supernaturally curious Simon.
The characters are colourful but not that complex. Going back to the original Three Musketeers, Aramis wasn’t that good a fighter, and was waiting for his opportunity to join the priesthood; one of the others had a secret past that was slowly unveiled. They’re surprising and contradictory in ways that draw you in, make you want to learn more about them. In addition, there’s not much in the way of inner desires – D’Artagnan wanted to prove himself, Aramis to reconcile his womanising and desire to become a priest, but there’s not much of that here.
Having said that, the characters are easy to tell apart, ‘iconic’ and recognisable in their own ways, but lack depth and interesting contradictions within their characters. The Devil Rides Out has no real mystery, though clearly by design – within about three or four chapters
Action stories (film, television or prose) tend to have action and mystery, a chain of dramatic events, each leading to the next, but also a mystery. Who’s involved, what are they doing, how deep does it go. There’s none of that here – you can tell from early on roughly how it would end, and who’d be involved in the climax.
The magic, black and white (or ‘right hand’ and ‘left hand’ paths) feels real – it goes beyond the stereotypical trappings of magic – eye of newt and so on – and feels like a system of magic that could have grown up over time, that has it’s internal consistencies that make sense on their own terms. The Devil Rides Out is a ‘smart’ action adventure – the antithesis of something Michael Bay would produce.
The characters share a love of food – there’s beautiful descriptions of various meals, and the four Modern Musketeers seem to regard taking a light evening meal free from meat (something to do with sharpening the mind for the use of white magic) as a kind of torture. At one point, two characters are searching through a mansion trying to rescue a third. They may or may not be alone, and magic has been performed recently, but stop to make themselves sandwiches from the buffet they left. It threw me at first, but it’s the kind of strangeness that adds detail and quirk to the characters
There’s not enough tension or mystery to make the story as compelling as I’d like it to be. It’s a bit hard to put my finger on the problem – the action moves pretty fast, the ‘rules’ of magic are believable, and the characters were interesting enough to make me care about them. But I didn’t feel the kind of compulsion to race back to the book in the same way I did with Reacher and The Hunger Games – it’s almost a matter of being worried that the protagonists will be okay, but with Devil, I didn’t feel for them.
Writing this review made me think about rules particular to the action genre. I’m a fan of the Jack Reacher books, and I’ve this year read the first two Hunger Games books. In The Hunger Games, it’s obvious the main character isn’t going to die in the middle of the book (partially as she’s the narrator) but there’s always the belief that other, well-developed and likeable characters will die, and horrifically.
With the Modern Musketeers being in a series of books, it feels a little like when watching an ongoing TV programme – they won’t kill him, he’s a main character – and they won’t change dramatically over the course of the story either. The Devil Rides Out is over-written compared to them, and slows the speed of the action. It’s fine for Dickens to spend time describing the appearance of a person or building, but in an action novel, the story needs to move more swiftly than Devil does.
Each chapter with a cliffhanger, and I think they were pretty much all interesting ones, there is still a lot to enjoy here. Despite how it may seem above, I enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t totally gripped by it. The Devil Rides Out is a derring do/boy’s own adventure, fantastical and escapist, and while darkness and the possibility of failure would go against the point of what the writer wanted to achieve, the lack of real danger stops it from being a page turner.
Verdict: A well-written, well thought out action adventure, but which lacks mystery or tension.
I’ve recently finished reading Heart of Darkness, Joseph Konrad’s novella set in late 19th century Africa, which inspired Apocalypse Now. I’m one of the few people who’ve not seen the film, so I won’t be able to make any comparisons – though there was a disappointingly low number of helicopter attacks.
Heart of Darkness in the Belgian Congo, where crews of various nationalities are working under the power of ‘the company’, who have established a more imperial than capitalist foothold.
The story begins with Charlie Marlowe on the banks of the Thames as night falls, telling the story that follows.
The blurb of my copy claims that Konrad inspired Orwell, Golding, Celine, Borges and Eliot. Being a bit of a philistine, Orwell is the only of those I’ve read, but the writers that came more to mind as I was reading were JG Ballard and Joseph Heller. Ballard’s novels use strange worlds and situations to look at what happens to seemingly civilised people when taken out of civilisation. Heart of Darkness reminded me in particular of The Drowned World, set in a London that’s became a post-apocalyptic swamp. As for the comparisons to Heller – the company appears to be a beauracratic mess. A specialist and highly skilled brickmaker is sent where there are no materials for him to work with, and when a ship runs aground and rivulets are needed to repair it, Marlowe is able to get his hands on everything but. The comedy (or it might be better to call it cynicism) is played deadpan, as opposed to the sometimes zany tone of Catch 22, but there were a few moments that were sharply funny in the same way.
The main idea running through the novel is the effect the environment (the heat, humidity, distance from home) has on people – are they driven slightly mad, or are their true selves coming out? There’s grand talk of civilising the natives, but most of the characters don’t seem to think much of them, and there’s regular use of the ‘n word’. (No, I don’t mean native.) There’s an interesting comparison with Roman soldiers travelling to primitive and remote Britannia, far from their loved ones and what they considered civilisation, so the author clearly knows what he’s doing, rather than having ‘outdated’ views himself.
There isn’t a definite, clear narrative – the novel is more a series of things that happen. Whereas in Apocalypse Now, the hero is assigned to retrieve Kurtz near the start, the plot in Heart of Darkness develops in stages. It’s personal ambition, rather than orders, that take Charlie Marlowe to Congo. He spends time adapting to the environment (where he hears a series of whispers about the missing genius Mr Kurtz) before he is assigned to bring him back to Europe.
But the absence of a strong narrative works well for the book. The substance is the taking apart of moral frameworks – imperial worldview of the company, Marlowe’s more subtle morality, and Kurtz’ grand ambitions.
All of this is told in prose that’s detailed and enveloping without being too rich, does a lot to build the feeling that Marlowe is feeling, of the Congo getting under the skin.
Verdict: A landmark and influential novella, with provocative ideas and a dash of cynical humour.
I wasn’t optimistic about Veronika Decides to Die when I first picked it out. Paulo Coehlo is a name I’m aware of vaguely, but I’d never read anything of his before I noticed Veronika on the shelf of a charity shop.
The blurb also gave me pause for thought:
Veronika has everything in life she could wish for – young and pretty, with plenty of attractive boyfriends, a steady job, a loving family. Yet Veronika is not happy and one winter’s morning she takes an overdose of sleeping pills, only to wake up some time later in the local hospital. There she is told that her heart is now irreparably damaged and she has only a few days to live…
Through these intense days Veronika comes to realise that every second of existence is a choice we all make between living and dying. This is a moving and uplifting song to life, one that reminds us that every moment in our lives is special and precious.
While others may disagree, to me that sounds like a routine, by the numbers, ‘heartwarming’ story, in which the hero discovers the joy of life, realises there are things worth experiencing, opens her heart, instantly embraces joy, skydives from a plane, blablabla.
It’s not that I disagree with that sort of outlook on life, but in my experience it’s usually handled badly – superficially and cleanly. If I am cynical about ‘heartwarming’ stories, it’s only because it’s a story format that’s hard to pull off in my experience. Its more likely to end up cheesy and sickly sweet, rather than upbeat and optimistic as they’re intended to be.
And Veronika Decides To Die does pull this off – it’s a genuinely sweet book, with the sharp edges – dealing with subjects like misery, mental illness, the difficulty of connecting with others – intact.
I really like ‘magical realism’ as a style of prose – the type of world that feels more real than reality, a bigger, quirkier and more colourful version of the real world, but still rooted in the complex and sometimes dark emotions of the world around us.
This is achieved partially by the colour and poetry of the prose, and partially with playful ideas – there’s Veronika’s suicide note, Coehlo writes himself into the novel, and one of the doctors believes he’s found a single cause of all madness (one that isn’t totally implausible).
The story begins with the main character, Veronika, deciding on suicide, not because she’s been worn down and is unable to cope with life, but because, on a more intellectual than emotional level feels her life is pointless. It’s an interesting choice for the writer to make, as is the whimsical way the scene plays out – considering placing the blame for her suicide on a magazine article that was mildly rude about Slovenia, her home country.
As mentioned in the blurb, Veronika’s suicide attempt fails, leaving her, weeks from an inevitable death, in a mental institute. But she doesn’t open up straight away – the opposite in fact, shutting down and withdrawing from those around her, so as few people are hurt by her death as possible.
The book takes a long time for the positivity I was expecting to kick in – not only is Veronika consistently negative, but it’s persuasive, logical negativity as well.
As Veronika embraces her loneliness, the scope of the story expands, showing us the patients of the institute, with conditions ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia, and the characters are well drawn, sympathetic and believable.
Having said that, none of the characters are given mental illnesses that place them into an unwinnable situation, and I’m not sure schizophrenia works the way it’s depicted here.
There’s also an event towards the end of the story I found hard to buy, but by the time I reached it, the book had built up enough goodwill, through its tenderness, humour and depth, that I was willing to set my objection aside.
Verdict: A genuinely inspiring and empathic novel, with tenderness and sympathy for it’s flawed characters.
I’ve been updating this blog irregularly for about half a year now, with a variety of subjects. I’ve dropped links to my articles on Born Offside, and rather silly spoof news on The Leaky Wiki, as well as a few reviews and analysis of books and television here, and off-format silliness that wouldn’t fit on The Leaky Wiki.
But despite being an asipring fiction writer, I’ve not actually put any fiction up yet. Partially this is because of not finishing things off, partially this is about not wanting to share small things that could be developed into something bigger and longer. But I intend to start putting up some short prose on here, for your reading pleasure as you wile away a few minutes on the weekend. I hope you enjoy…
Don’t Tell Me To Be Quiet
Joanie and Mitchell had been tossing and turning through the night, woken again and again by their beautiful young genius.
As new parents, they’d followed tradition, and taken it in turns to respond to the demands of the new life they’d created – this was the third time Mitchell had been called from his bed that night. He wished he was a more old-fashioned man, wished he was some sort of horrible old-school misogynist, who left all aspects of child-rearing to his wife. He wasn’t a bad man – at least he didn’t think so – he just wanted sleep.
Already, nine days after birth, Precious Symphony Polyphonic Jones was progressing faster than the books said she should. Mitchell was sure he’d heard her say ‘ma’ the other day, but it could have been a belch.
Mitchell held his armful of joy, whispering to her in a cheerful tone.
“Who’s a special girl? You are! Yes you are!”
Holding her tightly, he swung round, hoping the motion would relax her. It was a sort of a centrifugal effect, with Precious pressed tightly against his body, in an intimate grip.
“You’re going to do something amazing with your life, because you’re my indigo princess, aren’t you? Aren’t you, sweetie?”
Mitchell was tempted to say something really awful, something he knew he shouldn’t.
“But if you’re going to be a lawyer or a doctor, and save the whales or cure malaria, you’ll need to get some sleep. Sleep is good!”
Mitchell knew it was wrong to tell a child how to behave, and they should decide for themselves. He felt awful as soon as he’d said it.
But it seemed to work.
He placed the quiet Precious into her cot, hoping he hadn’t traumatised her too badly. He knew she would grow up to be something amazing – he saw it in her eyes. He just had to make sure not to destroy her natural spark.
As he turned to leave, Mitchell heard a voice coming from the cot.
“Don’t tell me to be quiet!”
If you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you may have noticed that I’ve fallen behind on book reviews.
At the turn of the year, I started a commitment on another website, to read at least 52 books over the course of the year. The idea is that, with so many easy distractions – televisions that can record entire series to watch at the viewer’s convenience; a whole internet full of articles on every subject, written in sizes that can be digested in ten minutes – sometimes it’s important to arrange the time to read, as a little more effort is required.
In addition, I’ve been intending to review all of the books I read, partially in order to keep in the habit of writing, partially in order to think about why I like or dislike the stories I read, partially in order to advertise my reviewing abilities to anyone who’s interested.
However, I’ve fallen a little behind the schedule of a book a week in reading, and quite far behind in reviewing. I’ve reviewed six books so far, (one of them reviewed on another site) and am currently reading my fourteenth book. (I know, way behind schedule…)
I have made notes on each book after reading, and I intend to catch up soon, in addition to other things here on the blog and elsewhere. For the moment, here are the books I’ve read this year, with links to those reviewed:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Catching Fire (Hunger Games 2) by Suzanne Collins
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I intend to get back into the groove of reviewing as I read, so I can do so while thoughts are fresh in my mind. There will be exceptions – obviously some of the thoughts I’ve had on the two Paulo Coelho books are interlinked, so I’ll review Veronika first, to pass on the thoughts I had in the order that I had them.
Hopefully by the end of June I’ll be up to date, provided other things don’t get in my way.