Monday, March 21, 2005

Book Review Compendium: Grumpy Old Men (And Other Animals)

Warning: Reviews contain SOME description of story elements that could be perceived as plot SPOILERS.

Dead Kenny thinks it was the point, about a third of the way through Kafka On The Shore when a nightmarish villain chomps on the still-beating heart of a ravaged cat, that he realised this wasn't going to be exactly standard Haruki Murakami fare. But if the author has been spending the time since his last book seemingly engorging himself on Korean B-movies he's also presumably been watching some David Lynch films, as this story of parallel lifelines (a 15-y-o runaway and an old guy who can dolittle but talk to cats following childhood trauma) which connect to give bloody but poignant resolution to each others' lives seems strongly indebted to Lost Highway (1997).

That Murakami is able to steer a coherent narrative through the crazy, surreal and downright complex spiritual and sexual elements of the story is a great achievement, helped by his success in supplying a conclusion that provides closure while still retaining an air of mystery. The only criticism would be an indulgent passage where Murakami's views on political correctness with regards to author indexing in libraries gets shoehorned into the story, in what Dead Kenny can only consider a moment of 'Martin Amis madness'. But a couple of 'meh' pages in a 500+pp book means we should forgive Murakami for not being, y'know, perfect.

Also tackling big issues and little animals is Michael Chabon (who I'm going to annoy just about everybody by describing as best-known for co-writing Spiderman 2) with his slim novella The Final Solution, in which an elderly world-renowned detective (we shit you not, Sherlock) is tempted out of bee-keeping retirement to solve the puzzle of a mute youngster's missing African grey parrot. What wartime secrets does the parrot keep, and is it dead or merely res(is)ting (capture)?

Pitting against the deviousness of the WWII war machine is a great concept, and the book is fiendishly well-written in a way that works as a splendid pastiche of 'the detective novel' as well as being bloody funny and provocative at the same time. And yet unless Dead Kenny is missing something (at last count: a working liver and a functioning small bowel) the ending didn't quite live up to the 'devastating' climax anticipated. It could have been a contender, but ended up merely making up the numbers.

Moving on from missing parrots to mechanical dodos (this stuff isn't just thrown together, you know, because throwing things together on a computer just wouldn't work, for reasons which Dead Kenny hopes are quite obvious) with Geoff Nicholson's The Hollywood Dodo in which a middle-aged English doctor accompanies his wannabe daughter to LA as she pursues a movie career by appearing in a film about the last of the dodos, directed by a chancer they meet on an airplane. These three different characters' points of view are interspersed with the script itself, and for a while the results are entertaining and intriguing, but just as it promises to lead somewhere the 'Bleeding London' author seems to lose his nerve (and patience?) and hurriedly tries to tie all the elements of the plot together with the maximium of (forced) farce and minimum of conviction. Much dodo about nothing, then.

Still, perhaps The Promise Of Happiness will cheer us all up. Erm, not bloody likely, Dead Kenny is afraid, as Justin Cartwright's state-of-the-nation novel is possibly the most determinedly miserable book your correspondent has ever read. That's not to say that his caustic observations of various members of a dysfunctional (oh, aren't they all) middle-class British family as they prepare for the arrival of the favourite daughter following her release from prison on art-theft charges, aren't entertaining, or his musings on the moral issues of personal responsibility in terms of crime and punishment aren't worthy of merit.

But it's a book best not thought about too hard afterwards, as you start wondering why you are invited to wallow in the largely self-inflicted sorrows of a family whose sheltered outlook sees them thinking of life in a cottage in Cornwall as the ultimate in social embarrassment. Cartwright also fails to fully explore the incest issues implicit in the storyline, as well as not providing enough in the plot to counterpoint the Paul Dacre-like attitudes of some of the central characters. Also, do all of the younger characters have to speak like characters from Friends to prove his point about the influence of TV/Media on the way people feel they're expected to react in certain life situations? And worst of all, the criminal conviction in New York which provides the plot impetus is neither convincing or compelling enough to serve its purpose, and having the daughter accept guilt and crave punishment on the basis that she was having an affair is a perfect example of the really rather reactionary mindset that dominates and ultimately diminishes the book as a whole.

Not sure whether Justin Cartwright and Ian McEwan know each other well, but reading their latest books Dead Kenny would hazard a guess they would get on, well, famously. Over real ale in a country pub where they could discuss their mutual loathing for short, stout, balding oiks, no doubt. In McEwan's Saturday, which portrays 24 hours in the life of a celebrated neuroseurgeon, the hero's perfect day is spoiled by a road-rage incident with (guess what?) a short, stout, balding oik (on his way out of a lapdance club, to give the full demi-monde effect) which foreshadows the rest of the day's dramatic events (set during the anti-war demos of Spring 2003). McEwan explores the minutiae of the neurosurgeon's lifestyle and attitudes with the appropriate precision and skill, yet like his lead character, he's on less secure ground with the young criminals he encounters, their group dynamic and motivations less convincing than in a particularly shoddy script for Eastenders. This brings the novel down from greatness to the realms of the merely very good indeed, it best being read not as a state-of-the-nation novel but as an impressive insight into the current state of McEwan's own brilliant mind.

Whatever Dead Kenny's views, Saturday is likely to find itself on the Booker Shortlist later this year, where it could well be joined by Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a novel about the impact of a sheltered, idyllic education on a group of young people who have been cloned to donate organs in an alternative present. Dead Kenny has never read an Ishiguro before, but the premise of this book intrigued him and he found it fantastically readable, a timeless classic which, through the medium of fantasy, is able to address wider universal issues than the more prosaic efforts of Cartwright and McEwan. It works on the level of a cracking story, poignant love triangle and a meditation on the purpose of education itself. What's the best way to prepare young people for an uncertain future - provide them with the full grisly facts and let them get on with dealing with it straight away, or provide them with a window of magical escapism they can never hope to recapture? It's a question every generation will need to answer, and a book that will merit re-reading again and again.

And, finally, Trix by Stephanie Theobald is a long, teasing journey into the hearts and minds of two women on a roadtrip across America. Dead Kenny found Trix to be something of a mixed bag, Theobald pulling some astonishing stretches of prose like hares from a top hat amidst some otherwise fairly mundane material which wouldn't look out of place on Oprah. A book best enjoyed by frustrated, bi/lesbians with a bit of a thing for Courtney Love, in Dead Kenny's ever-so-humble view.


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