Deleted Notes from a Coma

 

Earlier this month I was notes-from-a-comadelighted to contribute an article to the Irish Times about Mike McCormack’s 2005 novel Notes from a Coma (the story of JJ O’Malley, a troubled young man who volunteers for an experiment in the use of deep coma within the EU penal system).

As with any piece of writing, I am left with a handful of notes and observations that didn’t make the final cut (mostly because they didn’t fit with the direction the piece went in or they exceeded the word count; in one or two cases because they’re nothing more than asides). But I thought it might be fun to share the excised bits and some of the thinking behind them here as a kind of addendum to the article itself …

  • I made an effort to structure the piece as a reflection of the novel, with JJ O’Malley at the literal centre of things. Though that didn’t quite work out! Thus my discussion of how JJ lies at the centre of the book’s singularity is a little more than halfway through the article.
  • The sense of JJ O’Malley as a Jesus figure is compounded by his adopted father and virgin mother… of sorts (the latter being the Romanian nun who runs the orphanage where he lives as an infant).
  • The five narrating characters essentially offer five gospels of JJ O’Malley.
  • On the “contingent riffs” (what people have mistaken for footnotes) which form the broken boundary of McCormack’s effort to inscribe JJ’s story as widely as possible: It is surely no accident that “riffs” (the author’s term) contains a phonetic echo of “rifts”, and so suggests tears in narrative integrity.
  • One striking comment about three-quarters of the way through the novel describes how “fiction and history are put through narrative loops beyond all unravelling”. It serves as a nod to the Irish experimental fiction tradition – which Notes from a Coma is consciously situated in relation to – and, just maybe, specifically to a work like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  • The participants in the novel’s coma remind me of another group of sleepers wired up to machinery aboard a ship (and in their case receiving literal messages from the future): the subjects of Galania’s Exordium experiment in the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds.
  • McCormack’s Louisburgh is an important and increasingly storied part of his fictionalised Mayo topography (look no further than the recent Solar Bones). Given time it could yet become an Irish analogue to something like Stephen King’s Castle Rock.
  • One of the key themes of the novel is the struggle to resolve the spiritual with the scientific: the question of self-definition against “the technological phenomena of image and information dispersal”. Hence the novel’s obsession with ghosts as much as with digitality.
  • Note the book’s original cover (pictured above): A child – “the type of face new Ireland doesn’t wonder at anymore” – considering their own reflection. Or, just maybe, his own ghost…

Notes from a Coma will be republished by Canongate next year as part of their Canongate Classics series.

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Other posts you may find of interest:

The Horrorstör… The Horrorstör…

HorrorstorHorrorstör
Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books; $14.99
Review: Val Nolan

‘We never stop. We never sleep. And now we’re in your home.’ That’s the promise of Orsk, the ‘IKEA knockoff’ which is the setting of Grady Hendrix’s new horror comedy novel. Or possibly it’s better described as horror satire. I should just ask Grady because, full disclosure, he’s a friend of mine (he’s also the only good thing about the TV version of Under the Dome). I was horrified by the scale of his talent back when we were Clarion classmates, and, this Halloween when I finally sat down to read Horrorstör, I was horrified anew by the sheer glee he takes in tormenting his characters.

Horrorstör is written with the kind of brutal efficiency I’ve come to expect from Grady. Or, you know, from serial killers. It’s a lean book and, much like the products offered by its ‘all-American furniture superstore in Scandinavian drag’, it does what it has to do with deliberate minimalism. The novel pivots on a supernatural occurrence exactly halfway through and, up until then, the reader is grounded among characters and humorous jabs at American corporate culture. After the gear change, however, Horrorstör become a straight-up horrormövie (and Grady, as one of the directors of the New York Asian Film Festival, knows a little bit about movies).

His protagonist here is Amy, a rebellious (and heavily in-debt) college drop-out who is, along with the ‘committed and responsible’ Ruth Anne, recruited by overbearing manager Basil (‘I’ve been trained in retail crisis management!’) for a ‘secret overnight shift’ to find out how merchandise is being damaged each evening. For you see strange things are happening in this Ohio Orsk. Peculiar smells. Sightings of odd figures. It could be ghosts… or it could be the EM field of the store’s massive lighting grid making everyone think they’re seeing ghosts. Or it could simply be a homeless person hiding out in the store at night.

Already a dysfunctional group, Amy and company are joined by Trinity and Matt, amateur paranormal investigators and ‘the most annoying people in Orsk’. They have snuck along because this store is built on the old site of the ‘Cuyahoga Panopticon’, a prison which was part workhouse and part psycho religious torture palace. ‘Underneath the cells were three sub-basements where the penitents’ – as the warden called the prisoners – ‘worked in giant labyrinths full of mindless tasks designed to rewire their brains […] Just like Orsk’. The novel uses the prison as a kind of capitalist version of the old Indian graveyard horror movie cliché. ‘My partners grew fat off the labour of my penitents’, the spirt of the warden says as the crimes of the past spill over into the world of the characters. Because, spoiler alert, that happens in grimy, bloody, slasher flick fashion.

More than this, however, Horrorstör’s great strength is the manner in which it captures, indeed relies upon, the maze-like and manipulative store design one finds in places like IKEA (I remember trying to escape from one once myself; I didn’t encounter the floods of rats which Grady’s characters do, but it was still pretty traumatising). There’s a lot of talk here about ‘scripted disorientation’ cooked up by ‘retail psychologists’, and the way in which architecture is used to create ‘a sense of confusion and geographic despair’ lends itself well to the horror conventions of characters wandering in the dark, getting separated, and the uncanny sense of the familiar growing strange around them.

This is further reflected in the book’s design (by Andie Reid) and illustrations (by Michael Rogalski). Order forms, store maps, and small print relating to pricing and returns are scattered throughout this slightly oversized novel. Yet as the story progresses, these give way to the increasingly disturbing product descriptions and illustrations of torture devices which pepper the book in an oblique commentary on both the genre and on contemporary commodity fetishisation. This aspect of Horrorstör is more reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s irreverence in Generation X than, say, Marx’s seriousness in Critique of Political Economy, but that’s totally in keeping with the lightweight nature of Orsk’s crappy furniture (no disrespect to Mr. Coupland intended!).

A fast and fun read for its first half, Horrorstör becomes a Saw-esque ‘gallery of rotten and humiliated flesh’ as it barrels towards its conclusion. Its characters grow more substantial even as Orsk’s products are revealed to be more and more flimsy. Meanwhile, linking the drudgery of work at a big box store to a literally torturous ‘mill for the manufacture of lunatics’ casts the modern retail experience as a kind of horror in and of itself. This might not be the most ground-breaking idea but the novel sells it completely with the ghoulish prison warden declaring things like ‘Work is the whip that mortifies your failed flesh and shapes your sins into something more pleasing’. A great read for a long, dark Halloween night, someone should really think about developing Horrorstör into a TV show. Oh, wait…

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Other posts which may be of interest:

Like a Hand on the Shoulder…

Always a pleasure to engage with the work of the late John McGahern. Here’s a recent piece I wrote for the Irish Examiner on the newest edition of his Collected Stories

John McGahern - Collected Stories

John McGahern – Collected Stories

Collected Stories
John McGahern
Faber; £10.99
Review: Val Nolan

Even in death, John McGahern remains Ireland’s greatest living writer. A strange thing to say, perhaps, but then, as an author known for decade-long silences, it does not feel as if he has truly left us. We might have expected a new novel from him by now if he were still alive but, in place of that, comes this reminder that he is in fact gone. It provokes sadness, yes, but also gratitude for the powerful work which he gifted us in the time available to him.

Famously, McGahern believed that Ireland was less a coherent state than a mosaic of ‘little republics called families’. Something similar can be said of his Collected Stories. It is a volume which exceeds the sum of its varied contents; a selection which both echoes and enhances McGahern’s long form prose in terms of its symbolism and its use of local reference. The stories here speak to the author’s working through – or, to borrow the title of his second collection, perhaps Getting Through – of the themes and architectures which have ultimately come to define him.

But McGahern’s stories are far more than exercises in narrative style or structure; they are masterpieces in their own right. ‘Korea’ surely ranks with Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Frank O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’ as one of the greatest Irish short stories. ‘Eddie Mac’ and ‘The Conversion of William Kirkwood’ deliver fresh angles on the well-worn ground of Anglo-Irish decline. The striking but atypical ‘Peaches’ plumbs McGahern’s own autobiography while ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ unravels the impact of the Irish emigrant experience.

Of course, there are differences between this volume and the previous edition, styled Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories and chosen by McGahern before his death. The contents here return to those of the 1992 Collected Stories and so, while the fine valedictory offerings ‘Creatures of the Earth’ and ‘Love of the World’ are absent, a number of key pieces are reinstated. These include not just the Spain-set ‘Peaches’, but also ‘Coming into his Kingdom’, in which a young boy discovers the adult world, ‘Doorways’, an urbane, and at times satirical novella of romantic entanglement, as well as the haunting ‘The Beginning of an Idea’.

The result is a stronger collection in that it presents more facets of McGahern, especially the work of the 1970s and 1980s. It foregrounds his outsider perspective at the time, something which allowed him to articulate the harshness of Ireland in a way few others have achieved. Indeed, it is debateable whether McGahern would have produced such striking short fiction had he not been sacked from his teaching job at the insistence of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and forced into exile after publishing The Dark in 1965.

And yet McGahern forgave the Church. Although he ceased to be a believer, his maturity – evidenced by his Memoir and by his decorum in general – makes him a very Christian writer at a time when the clergy were embarrassing themselves or, worse, actively harming the vulnerable. The complex relationship he developed with Irish Catholicism is apparent when one compares the sympathetic portraits of priests in stories like ‘The Wine Breath’ to his uncompromising critiques of the nation’s mid-century theocracy in pieces such as ‘The Recruiting Officer’.

What would McGahern have made of the ruinous state of the country today? Of the economic crash? Of the clerical sex-abuse scandals? In a way it doesn’t matter. ‘It is a writer’s job to look after his sentences. Nothing more,’ he once said, and when he broached such subjects in his work it was out of an interest in the way external forces squeezed the lives carved out by Everyman and Everywoman figures.

It is therefore the privilege of the reader and the scholar to explore his life and work anew with every passing year. For instance, Peter Guy, writing in Studies, has ably read McGahern’s fiction through the lens of the Murphy Report. Denis Sampson has recently published a volume on the author’s early, formative years and the influences which led to his fiction. Meanwhile academics such as Antoinette Quinn and David Malcolm have given detailed attention to the stories collected here.

Writers too continue to look to McGahern in an effort to emulate his credible depiction of Ireland’s conflicted heart and tortured soul. As he told Sampson in 1979, ‘Fiction always has to be believable, I mean that you have to convince the reader that it happened’. A corollary, perhaps, is that life is not just misery; life is going on despite the misery, as the characters of ‘Crossing the Line’ and ‘All Sorts of Impossible Things’ do. Though that said, the central, Chekhovian third of this volume can be hard going.

Those heavier pieces contribute to the impression that McGahern’s writing is mostly concerned with the old and the dying and the dead, but in fact young people predominate throughout the Collected Stories. Likewise, work such as ‘Gold Watch’ and ‘Bank Holiday’ is downright optimistic when compared to McGahern’s early novels. Sex, in particular, is acknowledged as an essential part of life. Its musk infuses the figuring-out of relationships in the twin vignettes of ‘Along the Edges’, the bittersweet comedy of ‘My Love, My Umbrella’, and the dagger pangs of want which stab at the heart of ‘Sierra Leone’ amongst others.

Thus these are stories about bodies as much as about characters. There is a physicality to the work collected here, and the timeless vitality of McGahern’s writing derives from the impact of just this weight upon the reader. The pieces here often arrive violently – Anne Enright has rightly called them ‘the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor’ – but they also linger long after the initial jolt. They lodge imaginative shrapnel, slivers of difficult choices, deep within the mind of the reader.

Such an effect ensures that the Collected Stories is less a time-capsule to be sealed and buried than it is a box of vivid memories to be opened and experienced again and again. The book possesses an instructional quality, this is true, but it never becomes didactic. Instead the pieces here are reassuring like a hand on the shoulder. They comprise a volume in which pragmatism is spiked with ambition, pleasure is tempered by realism, and out of which a unique vision of an Ireland in transition emerges. Reissued eight years after his death, McGahern’s Collected Stories presents us with the opportunity not for reassessment – his reputation is secure – but for reengagement. It is the work of a writer who will no doubt live forever.

Dr. Val Nolan teaches at NUI Galway. His work includes the definitive account of the McGahern banning, “If it was Just Th’ol Book”, published in
Irish Studies Review.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 5 July 2014 (Weekend, pp.24-25).

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Consider Iain Banks…

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the 65th British National Science Fiction Convention, or Eastercon, in Glasgow. An absolutely fantastic weekend! A great opportunity to catch up with old friends and, of course, to make some very wonderful new ones.

The four days weren’t all socializing, mind (although they could easily have been). There were great panels on fiction, on space technology, on representation and politics and the future of the genre. All very enjoyable and informative. I was particularly impressed by the warmth of – and the huge turnout for – the Iain Banks memorial panel, ‘Consider Iain’ (Saturday, 19 April 2013), which consisted of authors Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, and John Meaney, along with David Haddock (editor of The Banksonian) and moderator Andrew J. Wilson. While I didn’t managed to jot down every word they said, I do hope that the notes I took will be of interest to Banks readers:

David Haddock: “My first interaction with him was as a fan. He poured me a drink at an Eastercon.”

Ken MacLeod: “I met him at high School, the year after his O Levels in the early 1970s. I remember reading Private Eye over his shoulder and I asked him for stories for the school paper. I narrowly missed out on being his first editor!”

Charles Stross: “I met him at an Eastercon in the 90s. Then I moved to Edinburgh and we drank in the same pub. We used to call it The Scottish Socialist Science Fiction Writers Vanguard Drinking Party”.

John Meaney: “I didn’t know him well. My first long or private conversation with him was in the pub and that was because of Charlie and Ken.”

Andrew J. Wilson: “How do you think his SF and his mainstream writing related to each other?”

John Meaney: “The divide in genres was not in Iain’s mind. It is a product of our own limited mindsets”.

Charles Stross: “Genre categories are marketing distinctions. They’re a way for critics to draw a line in the sand.”

David Haddock: “He saw himself as a carpenter. One day he was making a chair, one day a table”.

Charles Stross: “He was writing ‘The Fantastic’, as John Clute would say, all along. There’s lots of good literary fiction tackling The Fantastic now but it wasn’t respected in the 1970s and the Fantastic elements of The Bridge could be dismissed as ‘art’”.

Ken MacLeod: “I was reading his novels as they came off the typewriter. He wrote several SF novels but they kept getting rejected. He eventually admitted that he would try a mainstream middle-of-the-road novel and the result was The Wasp Factory” <At which point the audience breaks down in laughter>.

Andrew J. Wilson: “I interviewed him once. He said there ‘was no difference, but perhaps the SF was easier because you could just make it up. The mainstream novel requires so much bloody research’. But perhaps that made it a little more satisfying. I don’t know if he enjoyed the writing but he enjoyed having written.”

Charles Stross: “He was also guilty of stunt writing, like Feersum Endjinn… Or any of his less accessible works”.

Andrew J. Wilson: “It was an act of hubris to structure a novel after the Forth Rail Bridge”.

David Haddock: “He wrote the first draft of The Player of Games in three weeks and didn’t write for four of those days”.

Ken MacLeod: “Iain came around as I was clipping a hedge and said, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a story’. He told me the whole story of Against A Dark Background in two or three hours and, when he was finished, the man who was working with me said, ‘You have some very strange friends’”.

David Haddock: “It was at university that Iain began to plan his books. He was caught writing a 400,000 word novel which wouldn’t end”.

Andrew J. Wilson: “Every 100,000 words he would try to finish it”.

David Haddock: “The Culture was born as a background in the late 1970s. The Player of Games was almost published by Gollancz and so there’s a parallel universe out there where he just wrote SF as a result”.

Andrew J. Wilson: “The Culture was his reaction to right-wing space opera”.

Ken MacLeod: “He was reclaiming SF for the left. He read a lot of classic SF as a schoolboy, but he also systematically read the classics. He used to say, ‘Read through them when you’re young, that way you don’t have to read them again’. Specific SF influences came from enjoying the ‘Starship Stormtroopers’ style of novel – and being annoyed by them – and from reading SF criticism. He was a huge fan of Moorcock, Clute, Mick Harrison, New Worlds…”

John Meaney: “Iain’s influences? He sprang fully formed from the brow of Ken.”

Charles Stross: “Circa 1990, I was asked by an editor where I saw myself going. I said my daydream of success, my object of emulation, was Iain Banks. He was having his cake and eating it. He was playing all kinds of music.”

David Haddock:  “I don’t think you can pick out individual influences for Iain. He was writing in response to right-wing American space opera and ‘dismal English’ SF.”

Charles Stross: “The way SF works is a dialogue. Books speak to each other. When you’re writing, you’re writing very often because  you have a been in your bonnet about something someone else wrote.”

David Haddock: “He was writing not in response to authors, but to movements.”

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Iain Banks fans may want to note that the academic track of Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, will also host a panel on Banks’s work. Chaired by yours truly, ‘Reading Iain M. Banks’ will run from 09:30-11:00 on Monday 18th August at the ExCel Centre and will feature the following papers:

  • Michael Morelli: “‘I’ve seen things’: Sex, Sexuality, and the Subjectivity in Iain M Banks’s Culture Series”
  • Ivaylo R. Shmilev: “From a Galactic War to a Hydrogen Sonata: Warfare and Ethics in the Culture Novels of Iain M. Banks”
  • Jo L Walton: “All in a Day’s Play: Science Fiction and Gamification”

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Other posts which may be of interest:

Love letter to New York that explores a sense of personal violation at 9/11

My review of the latest Thomas Pynchon novel, written almost two months ago but only published in yesterday’s Irish Examiner

Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon
Jonathan Cape; £20
Review: Val Nolan

He’s a literary giant but you won’t see him on magazine covers or even on the jacket of his own books. No, Thomas Pynchon has never given an interview and never allows himself to be photographed (only a handful of verified images exist) but, as with most things, he seems to regard seclusion as one big joke, having happily appeared on not one but two episodes of The Simpsons with a paper bag over his head shouting, “Hey, over here! Have your picture taken with a reclusive author!”. Now comes Bleeding Edge, a mystery both slapstick and Chandleresque where a sombre treatment of September 11th undercuts the usual Pynchon tomfoolery. It is, in the biggest surprise of all, the closest thing to an autobiography he is ever likely to produce.

The year is 2001 and Maxine Tarnow, citizen of New York’s “Yupper West Side”, is a recently de-certified fraud investigator juggling a Beretta and two pre-teen sons, dallying between a “sort of semi-ex-husband”, a Spetsnaz tough turned mobster, a violent neoliberal fixer, and a “professional nose” (“born with a sense of smell far more calibrated than the rest of us normals enjoy”). Things get ugly when she is tipped off to irregularities at a computer firm run by billionaire geek Gabriel Ice, who may be the devil or, worse, an IT contractor for the Bush-era national security apparatus.

Maxine, like Pynchon, has “a tendency to look for patterns” and a “paranoid halo” vibrating to the hum of propriety’s outer boroughs. Certainly there is no shortage of things to ping her investigative antennae – let alone her more amorous receptors – in the months between the explosive burst of the dot-com bubble and the even bigger bang of 9/11. Her pursuit of “bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs” circles a larger conspiracy, or at least a conspiracy to create the sense of conspiracy – a United States “being silently replaced screen by screen with something else” – and one cannot help but see in Bleeding Edge what Salman Rushdie saw in Pynchon’s Vineland (1990): “A major political novel about what America has been doing to itself, to its children, all these many years”.

Readers new to the manic and famously difficult Pynchon will find Bleeding Edge a brisk and accessible introduction to a septuagenarian who established his reputation with an early trio of postmodern masterpieces: the enigmatic V. (1963), the labyrinthine The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and the bawdy, pseudo-encyclopaedic Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the latter best described as the kind of Ulysses which Joyce might have written if he had been a Boeing engineer with a fetish for quadrille paper. Pynchon’s more recent fiction has varied in quality but rarely in tone, with 1997’s Enlightenment buddy-comedy Mason & Dixon being both the pinnacle of his later work and, arguably, one of the greatest American novels.

Like that book, Bleeding Edge is a romp. On full display are Pynchon’s trademark linguistic and imaginative acrobatics as Maxine contends with a “schadenfreudefest”, a “karmic crime scene”, and a “boot camp for military time travellers”. It may sound frivolous but an emotional maturity counterpoints the silly songs, deliberately bad puns, and pop-cultural references. Indeed, those who deride the author for such things miss the point, if one dares attribute such a thing to Pynchon, that these half-remembered pieces of the past are what our present days are made of (that said, were we really so obsessed with Jennifer Aniston’s hair in 2001?)

For existing Pynchophiles, Bleeding Edge supplies a familiar thematic palette which segues seamlessly into contemporary scepticism of government surveillance and late capitalism’s progress towards “a pyramid racket on a global scale, the kind of pyramid you do human sacrifices up on top of”. There is suspicion, of course; there are improbably named movers and shakers who elude constraint; there is irrationality and delusion, absolutely, but though Pynchon’s characters include 9/11 “truthers”, the author’s own misgivings stem as much from longstanding dissatisfaction with America’s political and social order as from inconsistencies in the official narratives.

Which brings one neatly to the novel’s autobiographical element. By setting the book mostly in Manhattan, on ground he has stomped for at least two decades, Pynchon allows us see the city through his own eyes. It is a place not officially mapped, an Escherine metropolis of “dope-scourged hipsters, funseekers who have failed to hook up,” and cops “dealing with bagel deficiencies”. Bleeding Edge is a love letter to New York, the kind of true love where one partner’s tics infuriate and inflame the other in equal measure, and, as the ominous shadow of the Twin Towers grows across the page, one realizes that the author is not merely unpacking national tragedy here, he is exploring his own sense of personal violation at 9/11 and the conservative kneejerk it engendered.

“But wait,” as the Simpsonized Pynchon once declared, “there’s more!” It’s impossible to read Bleeding Edge without feeling that each of the female characters here is an iteration of the novelist himself. There is Maxine, pursuing a shaggy-dog story while trying to maintain familial normality; there is Tallis, Gabriel Ice’s wife, coyly manipulating everyone with her assumed persona; there is Tallis’s mother, a grizzled old conspiracy theorist; the list goes on… Meanwhile, stand-ins for the readership are to be found among the male characters, reliable consumers of media from computer games to ill-advised movies-of-the-week (anyone for “Anthony Hopkins in The Mikhail Baryshnikov Story”?).

Likewise, Pynchon’s definition of the “bleeding edge” itself might well serve as a description of his own fiction: “no proven use, high risk, something only early adoption addicts feel comfortable with,” though those brave enough will find in it an astute dissection of fears both personal and societal. Mind you, if you’re wondering what the point of it all is then you already know the point. The Pyn-zen of Pynchon, as it were.

Dr. Val Nolan teaches contemporary literature at NUI Galway. 

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 9th November 2013 (p.18).

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‘But for the tune I did it’: Gunn’s bagpiping novel strikes Modernist note

Sometimes reviews get lost. It happens. You file something, it falls through the cracks of a busy editor’s schedule, and, though you might have really enjoyed the book (as in this case), you overlook the fact that the piece never appeared on account of the constant rush of new reading which is the life of a reviewer. Here’s an instance of that, an article I wrote last year which I only re-discovered (and realized that it never appeared in print) when going through old files at the weekend…

The Big Music

Kirsty Gunn

Faber; £20.99; eBook 14.99

Review: Val Nolan

When called upon to defend the Modernist novel, the critic Malcolm Bradbury was quick to praise the form’s unmatched ability at balancing “referential and discursive and aesthetic functions”. It is a dictum which derives from the heyday of writers like Joyce and Woolf and which, many decades later, finds purchase again among the pages of Kirsty Gunn’s astonishing novel The Big Music. A university professor as well as an established creative writer, the New Zealand born Gunn has crafted one of the few recent fictions to have truly unified Bradbury’s “polar distinctions” between “on the one hand, the novel’s propensity toward realism, social documentation and interrelation with historical events and movements, and on the other its propensity toward form, functionality, and reflexive self-examination”.

Rejecting a traditional narrative in favour of “journal entries, papers, and inserted sections of domestic history”, the novel takes its cues from the Piobaireachd, the titular Ceol Mor which is the classical compositional form of the Highland bagpipe. The Piobaireachd is a music written to be played outside, “in a wide space that may best set off its sound and range and scale, addressing large themes of loss and longing”. It is also music with a social function, a call to gathering or a lament; in this case a dirge for one John MacKay Sunderland and those who knew him.

John is 83 and a man who doesn’t allow himself to be free or open with anyone, even the women with whom he was most intimate in his life. A respected if eccentric heir to a centuries old piping school called the Grey House, the first thing we see him do is steal an infant and abscond up a strath to a hidden cabin. The child is to be the inspiration for his most accomplished music, the “Lament for Himself”, which he has been composing in secret as a means to preserve the traditions of his father (crucially the “great twentieth century Modernist piper”) and as a final contribution to the library of compositions established by his Grey House forbearers.

For Gunn too, The Big Music is a labour of love, a means to marry her avowed interest in literary Modernism with the unique musical identity of her adopted Scotland. In the foreword – a convincing fake-out that what follows are, in fact, genuine documents – she cites T.S. Eliot’s assertion that “the novel need not be just a simple form of communication from and about the real world but, like a poem, can be intricately and fully ‘written’.” While Gunn definitely fulfills her ambitions in this regard, her “arrangement” of The Big Music’s fractured notes and asides is, if anything, more resonate with Eliot’s assessment of Joyce’s writing, “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”.

For like history, indeed like life itself, John Sunderland’s music is impossible to describe accurately. Its value therefore becomes clear only when the four movements of The Big Music are read in concert with the novel’s academic trappings, its appendices full of genealogies, maps, and sheet music, along with footnotes riffing on the stylistic aspects of the narrative. This additional level of discourse provides “a context – emotional as well as economic, practical and historical – for a particular way of life that is defined by living in a part of the world that is far off and remote”. Though Gunn notes that it is “in no way necessary to read all or any of this material”, this is in fact where her novel truly becomes a masterpiece, where the social function of the Piobaireachd finds its counterpoint in one of the core ideas of heroic Modernism as practiced by Scottish nationalist writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid: the artist as occupying a “high and honoured position” and teasing out new meaning from a world which defies straightforward explanation.

Some may sense a crusading quality to the appendices’ digressions and they would not be incorrect. Within them, Gunn does not limit herself to the topics of hereditary pipers or the changing face of northern Scotland; she also delves into Gender Studies, the ‘invisibility’ of motherhood’, and the changing role of women in literature over the last hundred years. Helen, the daughter of John’s housekeeper and life-long lover, is in some respects an authorial surrogate here. A scholar with, of course, “a particular emphasis on the fiction of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf”, Helen’s strand of the story is Gunn’s comment on women’s increasing centrality to the historically male-dominated academic study of literature.

As such it is tempting to dismiss Helen, like John’s adult son Callum, as a mere cipher for the author’s pet peeves. Yet to do so would be to disregard Gunn’s use of them as the literal embodiment of John’s composition, grace notes repeated to deepen and vary the novel’s themes: the relationship between authors and texts, between parents and children, and between familial responsibilities and personal desires.

With all of this filtered through the book’s Modernist obsession with experimental form and expression, The Big Music’s emerges as the work of an author acquiescing fully to the notion of novel-as-intellectual-game. The result is Joycean, not so much in the wheel-reinventing fashion of Ulysses but in the mode of a people’s moral history pioneered by a volume such as Dubliners. “Challenging” is probably the best word to describe Gunn’s writing, but “challenging” in the best possible way. The Big Music is an extraordinary, immersive reading experience which succeeds in being innovative and clever while avoiding the associated peril of self-indulgence. Filled with “curious sentences and half-stories”, and with its language exhibiting all the poetry associated with the best of the literary genre, the vast spaces of this novel more than live up to the example of its musical precedent.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on 20th century and contemporary literature at NUI Galway.

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Robinson paints a vivid portrait of Ice Age art and life

My Irish Examiner review of the new KSR novel… I was also very happy to recently see Robinson hailed as “our greatest political novelist” in the New Yorker. A well deserved accolade.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman

Shaman

Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit; £18:99

Review: Val Nolan

The earliest Human societies remain a mystery to us. Archaeology reveals that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, yes, but what were their day-to-day lives like? How did they love and fight? How did they express themselves in art? How did they die and how did they grieve?

Offering fictional answers to these questions, Kim Stanley Robinson’s impressive new novel unfolds thirty thousand years ago in the Upper Palaeolithic Era, the closing act of Europe’s Old Stone Age. It is a time of change and transition, a time in which abstract thought and creativity begin to emerge in their modern form. In all, it is a period evoked perfectly by Robinson’s choice of an adolescent protagonist.

His young hero Loon is an apprentice shaman in a small community along what will someday be known as the Ardèche River in southern France. When we first meet the boy he is enduring his “wander”, a solo rite where he must “face something, learn something, accomplish something, change into something else: a sorcerer, a man of the world”.

It is a demanding experience for Loon but also an inspired means for his creator to introduce the basics of Palaeolithic life. Thus before the reader meets the rest of Loon’s “Wolf Pack”, they too have undergo an initiation. Loon’s wander teaches how to start fires and snare prey, how to deal with adversity and, crucially, how Robinson’s early people conceptualise themselves. We are in an adjusted mind-set as a result when finally allowed to meet the rest of the novel’s cast: Thorn, the cranky but ultimately kind-hearted current shaman; Heather, “the midwife, the herb woman, the loudmouth, the witch, the crone, the horrible hag, the deadly poisoner”, the book’s sympathetic heart; and Elga, the long-legged bringer of change with whom Loon inevitably falls in love.

Though the plot is straightforward bildungsroman material, Shaman brims over with some of the finest writing Robinson has yet produced. It immerses us in a vivid world of flickering lamplight and intricate ritual, a life of “smoke and mushrooms and dancing and flagellation”. The author’s pedigree as a writer capable of bringing landscape to life in all its wild variety is again confirmed by a story which ranges from the Wolf Pack’s camp beneath the famous stone arch of Pont d’Arc to its caribou hunting ground on the northern slopes of the Massif Centrale. The second half of the novel travels ever further, visiting the “Northerners” whose territory abuts “a stupendous white wall”, the edges of the ice cap itself.

Most vivid of all are Loon and Thorn’s journeys deep beneath the earth. Robinson sets most of the novel around the Chauvet Cave site, home to some of the oldest, most spectacular prehistoric art in the world (readers may know it from Werner Herzog’s recent documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Robinson interprets these paintings as “earthblood and charcoal” offerings, a way for the pack to tell Mother Earth what animals are needed for the hunters and a means for individual shamans to honour those who have come before.

In an ancestral tribute of his own, the author derives much of the factual detail regarding Palaeolithic existence from research and expert speculation on the people who created Chauvet’s mysterious galleries of horses and bison. Of course, this is not to say that the novel is a dry recitation of anthropological facts. Far from it. The pack’s sexual politics are, for example, as developed and intricate as any contemporary society. Meanwhile its members transcend their somewhat stock origins and achieve a credible life of their own. In particular, Robinson’s shamans are a colourful lot who consume heroic quantities of “berry mash” in order “launch their spirits out of their bodies”. They are part-medicine-men, part-counsellors, and deeply immersed in the oral literature of their people.

Through them the author rejects the so-called Great Leap Forward, eschewing any notion of a sudden cognitive revolution in favour of the slow accumulation of Human knowledge over generations. “It’s fragile what I know,’ Thorn tells Loon. “It’s gone every time we forget. Then someone has to learn it all over again”. He must pass on his wisdom the same way embers from an old fire are preserved to light a new one. In fact, this is exactly the lesson which Loon and the reader learn on the first night of the boy’s wander: the difficulty of kindling a fresh spark, a symbolic new idea, when all alone in the wet, ignorant darkness.

Closely allied to the book’s emphasis on sociocultural continuity is Robinson’s use of an enigmatic narrator, a kind of Anima Mundi referring to itself as “The Third Wind”. This omniscient presence speaks to us in our vernacular and so allows the author sidestep the issue of just what language his characters are conversing in. To generate a sense of antiquity for their short utterances, the author instead digs into his linguistic rattle-bag. Proto-Indo-European, Basque, and even a touch of Old English are all apparent in the speech which “The Third Wind” reports to us, and, though true linguists will dismiss this as a fluff approach, it is both systematic and surprisingly effective in a fictional context.

Indeed, Robinson’s artistic licence is well judged in this regard for, at its heart, Shaman is a novel about how artists find new ways of representing the past. “Remember the old ways and all the old stories,” Thorn teaches, but even he recognises that, in the end, everybody will pick out different facets of the tale to focus on. For Robinson, stories are about optimism and the belief that life, in its many forms, will always go on. Shaman is no different. It is an earnest, intelligent, and at times mesmerising novel. The perfect book for archaeology buffs, those who love the outdoors, or readers who prize an unusual perspective in their fiction.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on contemporary literature at NUI Galway.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 28 September 2013 (p.16).

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