Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Loose Lips Sink Ships (And Other Stories)

Being a bit of a snotty little shit in my schooldays, I once demanded an explanation from my Maths teacher as to what exact relevance Pure Mathematics had to my life. He struggled for a few minutes then gave up: we both just had to get on with it was the best reasoning he could come up with. This wasn't quite the answer my precocious younger self was looking for so I quit Maths and studied French instead. I wasn't much good at French either (mais bien sur), but the teacher was as fit as fuck, wore suspenders and took me to see dirty movies (looking back, that was just about as good as my life got).

Now if my poor old teach had advised me that a grasp of Pure Maths would help me program computers and therefore earn enough money to waste on a decent cocaine habit, he might have been on to something. Or better still, had he woven the theories of Erdus, Godel and Reimann into a fiendishly entertaining tale of codes, puzzles and corporate conspiracy, he might have produced an even more enthusiastic convert. But he didn't, so many years later it's been left to Scarlett Thomas and her latest novel PopCo to explain the relevance of pure and applied mathematics to the way the world works in an entertaining and intriguing fashion.

Full of science bits and philosophy it may be, but with its plucky heroine, hidden treasure, mysterious necklace, sinister marketing practices, corporate subversion and tentative romance, PopCo provides the missing link between Enid Blyton and William Gibson. It acts like a compendium of many of the themes preoccupying modern-day authors - conspiracy theories abound about the food trade, branding, marketing and the premature sexualisation of young girls - and while little of the ideas presented are new in themselves, there's considerable value in this big Citizen Kane approach to the Globalisation Novel, particularly as Thomas writes in a style and a manner which will be accessible to teenage readers.

Any book this ambitious has its flaws: I didn't find the characters anywhere near as likeable as in her previous novel 'Going Out' (although Thomas has her reasons for keeping some characters vague in their intent) and I found myself unconvinced and ungripped by the 'central' romance (although this aspect may have been included to broaden its appeal to younger readers). But anyone who can re-imagine cyberpunk into a romantic adventure novel and still make maths as sexy as my old French teacher deserves some credit, and if PopCo re-awakens your thirst for further knowledge/reading, Thomas will consider this a job well done.

Louise Welsh has followed up her acclaimed debut 'The Cutting Room' with a rattling rendition of the last three days in the life of the playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1593. Tamburlaine Must Die was commissioned by publishers Canongate, which seems slightly odd since it is only ten years or so since Anthony Burgess fictionalised this very subject to considerable praise in his final novel 'A Dead Man In Deptford' yet the story plays to Welsh's strengths, expert as she is at evoking the sinister atmosphere of shady characters plotting dirty deeds in dark rooms and smoky taverns. Despite the book's short length and predetermined conclusion, Marlowe is such a charming narrator and compulsive risk-taker it's easy to lose yourself in the fast-paced plot as you wonder how, why and by whom he will meet his violent end. One word of warning, though: despite its period setting, an episode of graphic face-fucking about a dozen pages in makes it not exactly the best present for your maiden aunt.

Jim Crace's Six is set in a fictional European city and follows the romantic misadventures of a celebrated actor who is incapable of having sex with a woman without producing a child. The book is highly regarded by some, and there's no doubting Crace knows how to turn a phrase but while I admired his graceful sentences and clever structuring I found it a frustrating book on two counts. Firstly, I couldn't establish in my own mind why it was necessary to create a fictional city for the purposes of the plot, and secondly (and more damagingly) I didn't care much for the characters. As beautiful as Crace's writing is, his depiction of proceedings seemed so distanced from events that it was like reading a precis rather than a novel. Whereas in Tamburlaine Must Die, Welsh has you coughing on the smoke and tasting the ale, Crace provides a comparatively rarified atmopsphere, pristine but (for me) disappointingly impersonal. It's like the book should be framed by quotation marks rather than a cover.


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