Inside out, from a world apart to a part of the world, from a transcendent virtual reality to mundane experience, from a mysterious, invisible abstract world to a still mostly invisible (but real) data-grid that we move through every day in the physical world.
Taken from The Emergence of DH, this could just as easily describe the experience of living in Miéville’s cities.
What happens if we make a map (similar to those made by players of text based adventure games) in Google API based on the cities is Miéville’s The City & The City (rather than, say, a Franco Moretti style map of the events)?
Being a trusting consumer, when Amazon for the fifth time recommended a book with the entertaining title The 100 year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared, I pressed Buy, and started reading.
I had not heard about the book, didn’t know the name of the author, hadn’t even seen the cover. This was a whole new level of judging a book by it’s cover – judging the book by it’s title (and Amazon rating). I was right away taken with not only the premise, but the names.
The story is set in the “not what you’d call bustling” Swedish town of Malmköping, and circles around the centenarian Allan Karlsson. Intrigued by the pervasive swedishness of these facts, I went to the home screen of my Kindle and checked the author’s name. His name was even more agressively Swedish: Jonas Jonasson. So it turns out the book was, in fact, translated from Swedish, in which the original title reads Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann.
I immedately felt a little sheepish, even more so when my grandmother a few weeks later asked me which language I was reading it in – Swedish or Norwegian. For once, I was reading something from, if not my own country, at least it’s neighbour and previous owner, and I didn’t even know! Moreover, I was reading it in translation! After my initial emotional response, I decided it didn’t really matter as I hate reading Swedish anyway, and continued on in Allan Karlsson’s cheery and vodka soaked path.
As the story unfolded, I was struck by three things:
1) The incredibly and surprisingly epic scope of the storyline considering it concerned a pensioner escaping his retirement home in his pee-stained slippers
2) the similarity of writing style to one of my all time favourite authors, Dan Rhodes, and
3) the similarity of the epic sweeping historical event based plotline to one of my all time favourite films, Forrest Gump.
The story starts, as the title makes clear, with Centenarian Allan Karlsson deciding that he really cannot be bothered with the fuss of the 100th birthday party arranged for him at his retirement home, and so he climbs out the window. Making his way, logically, to the bus station, he encounters a thug with a suitcase. Allan, despite being one hundred years old, is a character of gumption and a low tolerance of rudeness. Thus, when the youthful thug is obnoxious, and thereafter asks Allan to watch his suitcase, Allan does as any 100 year old explosives expert would do; takes the suitcase, boards a bus, and, effectively, disappears.
To this small but already eccletic ensemble of characters is soon added Julius, a rural character of dubious morality. Thereafter joins Benny, a man with a curious background story that has led him to be a nearly-doctor, nearly-architect, nearly-botanist, nearly-vet, to mention a few. This trio seeks escape from an increasing band of less-than-intelligent thugs and police officers, as well as the unpleasantly authoritative Old Folk’s Home Director Alice, while the accidental murders pile up in their wake. Though outlined like this the plot may seem like something out of a mediocre 90s movie featuring Jeff Daniels, the novel is in fact hilarious. With a huge and quirky character set, dubious morals and the delightful opposition between the Swedish small-town centenarian and his previous life which, Forrest Gump style, includes roles in the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Chinese Communism, the development of the atom bomb (to mention a few).
Can we all just please agree how outrageously, delightfully Swedish Mr. Jonasson looks??
Ringing with Dan Rhodes-oddities, moral ambiguity and slight uncanniness, “The 100 year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared” is a gem of a popular novel, and a delight. I will however take a moment to lament the fact that Dan Rhodes is not as widely read and recommended, because he should be. So please, please; read this, and read This is Life, read Gold, read Timoleon Vieta Come Home – and be excited for Marry Me, which is out January 31st!
Three months. No posts.
This is because for the last three months, there has been NO COMMUTE (pivotal point in the lack of reading time).
Also, I moved to Norway. Then I moved to Chicago.
Today, however, I found something thoroughly inspiring which makes me want to go read read read. This:
Even though most people around me aren’t reading novels (yes, it is true.) people still are.
And they love reading books.
And they are engrossed in the reading of said books.
I miss being engrossed in book on public transport. So now I am going to take one of my six books (that is all I have over here. So naked.) and go read.
Because reading is fun. It is beautiful. People reading look great. And damnit if it isn’t instructional as well.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every hugely successful work of fiction will spawn numerous official and unofficial sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. (Joey, Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, Private Practice, Mean Girls 2, Joseph Andrews and Shamela, etc.) Some, like Joseph Andrews and Shamela, are more enjoyable than the original, whilst others are just appalling (American Pie 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…). Some very few take on a life of their own, and can comfortably stand by themselves simply as work of art inspired by another. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys (1966) is one such.
Though Jane Eyre is the object of fewer terrible “re-imaginings” than, say Pride and Prejudice, there are nonetheless endless TV and movie adaptations (HOW dull was Mia Wasikowska as Jane? No chemistry with Michael Phoawrbender. What a pointless film). Wide Sargasso Sea is, thankfully, neither pointless or boring.
Telling the story of Antoinette “Bertha” Mason, Mr. Rochester’s fearful and insane first wife, locked up in a tower of lunacy (and the object of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar‘s groundbreaking feminist study The Madwoman in the Attic), Wide Sargasso Sea shows the part of the story Charlotte Brönte tactfully avoided for dramatic emphasis. If the wife in the attic is not only cunning and simultaneously an object sold by her even more cunning relatives, but also completely animalistic/dehumanised and with no back story and personality, it is so much easier to avoid the niggling discomfort at Jane Eyre’s treatment of her.
What Jean Rhys, the reclusive author of the thoroughly depressing Good Morning, Midnight (1939) does, is create an incredibly multi-faceted portrait of one of literature’s least multi-faceted characters. The “history of family insanity”, so scathingly hissed by the sex-starved and suppressed Mr. Rochester is recounted in vivid, tender and frequently painful detail. The “crazy mother” is given a reason of insanity, as is Bertha herself.
Set against a humid and highly political background of Bertha’s native colonial Jamaica, this novel has very little in common with the puritan classrooms of Lowood and the rainy moors of Thornfield Hall. The novel is filled with characters for whom the readers sympathy constantly sways, uncomfortably realistic in their flaws – this does not exclude Bertha or even the youthful Mr Rochester himself. Yes, he is to be pitied, but there is a lot more unease about him than in Jane Eyre.
This book is not a romp to read. There is no happy ending (although it is quite sexy, I have to say). Do not mistake it for a flippant “Happy ever after at Pemberley” or whatever they are called. But it is stunning for it’s concept, it’s portrayal of psychological trauma, and the fact that it is so independently good though it is, in effect, a really well written fan fic.
(Oh, and after writing about this book I realized there is a 2005 movie based on this book, with Rebecca Hall, who I love. She is way better than Scar-Jo in Vicki Cristina Barcelona. There is also a 2003 movie with Karina Lombard, who is in The L Word. Better and better.)
So, while I was jet setting, I also had my birthday (kind of. I got presents. In advance. Which counts). One of the presents I got from my parents (the other was, awesomely, a dot com. writingaboutbooks.com and .co.uk So exciting.
So much pressure) was Western Lit Survival Kit: How to read the classics without fear, by Sandra Newman.
Now, I know most of you must be thinking “How rude! Obviously Hannah has read all the classics, or very nearly! And those she hasn’t she would never fear! She is fearless when it comes to literature! (and has really boringly obvious taste)”, right? Right.
I hugely, immensely enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. And obviously (obviously, right?) I know how to be a woman. So it should be no different reading a book telling me to have no fear face to face with the classics. Also, reading the classics is much like being a woman. Pretty much self-explanatory, and people have been doing for aeons, but still everyone is making such a massive fuss about doing it. (Much like other things I could think about as well, actually).
So I dove in, headfirst. And guess what.
IT IS AMAZING.
This woman is hilarious. About everything. (actually, she is funnier about stuff the older it is. Maybe easier, politically speaking, to take the piss out of Chaucer than out of some modernist, people who love modernism are so holier-than-thou they might start a hate campaign: How dare dare emotion dare you you how dare time how memory fade dare you stein dare dare you genius no stein. Punchy.)
So here, for example, on Athenian Old Comedy:
Aristophanes (446-386 B.C) is a deadly cocktail of bawdiness, toilet humor, political satire , and men being hit with sticks. In his plays, what all these ingredients have in common is that they’re not funny. While Aristophanes can be surprisingly contemporary and clever, it is always in a way that adroitly avoids humor.
See? Informative, clever, and funny.
Newman covers every part of the canon, from the abovementioned Old Comedy, to the also abovementioned Modernism. Sensibly, she mainly stays away from the 20th century, as that is one hot mess of things that may very well turn out to be terrible in hindsight. And one wouldn’t want to be seen to endorse that (imagine how embarrassing if one publicly said one enjoyed, say, Ian McEwan, and thought him a beacon of 20th century brilliance … oh, wait #booker).
On the way, she includes chapters such as
Here Come the Puritans: Parade, Meet Rain.
Unwelcome Realism: The French and Russians Team Up to Depress Mankind
And, of course it helps that I share her opinions on large parts of the Canon. Like Beowulf. It is awesome. A “speardane” rips the arm off some green monster who lives in a cave with his mum. His mum goes off to avenge him. Beowulf follows her to her swampy underwater cave (and can miraculously breathe underwater for days on end), and in the end, as Newman so adroitly puts it:
Monsters who keep a loaded sword in the lair for self-defense are much more likely to be killed by intruders
This books will make you want to read the (good) classics you haven’t read, make you feel clever but not smug about having read the ones you have read, make you want to re-read your favourites, without feeling smarmy and all “I’m just casually reading Kafka on the tube IN YOUR FACE LOSER READING GAME OF THRONES“.
Firstly – an apology.
I have quite literally been jetsetting the past few weeks. I am not the sort of trendy jet-setter with a laptop typing away in transit, as I am always reading, and as such there have been no blogs, but lots of reading (and desperate, but ultimately failed attempts at tanning).
First of all I started – and finished – my first James Frey novel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. I have always been a huge fan of books concerned with religion (which makes me realize I still have not posted my Top Ten Fiction Featuring the Devil – coming soon! I promise! It is written – it is just very long). I loved The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman, and The Screwtape Letters by C.S.Lewis, and so forth (and actually even contemplated studying religion after finish school). I also love, love, love anything that gives society a good whack across the head. Not just defying convention (like postmoderism, modernism, Tristram Shandy, Damien Hirst bla bla bla) but actively saying “Hey! Society! A lot of things suck about you! Let’s change them!”. I also love things that have gay activism in them. As such, it should come as no surprise that I jumped at Frey’s book immediately when I was sent the following description of the book:
What would you do if you discovered the Messiah were alive today? Living in New York. Sleeping with men. Impregnating young women. Euthanizing the dying, and healing the sick. Defying the government, and condemning the holy. What would you do if you met him? And he changed your life. Would you believe? Would you?
And guess what. This book wasn’t just good. It was completely, all-absorbingly, compulsively pageturningly amazing. True story:
I sat opposite a colleague on the tube for half my journey home without seeing her, and she didn’t even want to interrupt me because I was, apparently so completely absorbed in my book as to be oblivious to everything else.
The short pitch above pretty much sums up the book. I can include that it is written in several different narratives, with each section being told by someone whose life Ben (i.e. the Messiah) touched, in some way or other. Some sections are told by Mariaangeles – a young, impoverished single mother in a particularly poor district in Brooklyn, one is told by a Catholic Priest whose entire life was shaken upside down after the meeting. All the narratives each tell a strong story, as well as tying together a narrative of questioning basically everything established in society, but firstly and foremostly what influences religion has in the world.
What is striking is that Frey proposes no utopia, no different world, no changing of the past – simply the act of embracing the present for absolutely all it is worth. This novel questions a lot of “truths”, and practices, frequently in a way that, to me, is obvious. But I certainly could not have phrased it so beautifully. (But then James Frey himself is slightly beautiful as well:)
If I do have one (completely forgot the word for objection – was so absorbed in Peter Andre on ITV – he went on a date with a belly dancer! Called Nelly!) (see what I did there? Lightening the mood with a bit of high/low contrast) (though not sure James Frey qualifies as high)(unless we are talking about the kind of high you get from illegal substances, in which case he definitely does, more on on that in a different post when I review A Million Little Pieces) ( brackets over) objection it is that Frey perhaps goes too much in extremes in the messages Ben gets from “God”. For a specifically undidactic, undogmatic nonreligious religion, Bens “rants” are remarkably anti-everything and extremist.
I have no problem with most of the things he says, but sometimes, even for someone who considers herself pretty pro-liberalism, pro-gay, anti-traditionalism and religious extremism, it feels a bit like someone who is venting his personal issues more than writing a balanced and powerful critique of the state of the world. Now I am not saying there is something wrong with venting personal issues in literature. However, this book could potentially have such an impact that I am worried the rants could scare off people who might otherwise find some eye-opening truths, or at least could see their own half-formed ideas confirmed.
Please do not let this stop you, though. Read it. It may not be for the faint of heart, but I think everyone could learn something from this. It is very frank, and does not pussyfoot (sorry, I just love that phrase) around anything. At all.
This book is a piece of terrific writing – raw, completely new, absorbing, awakening.
Suffice to say, I am already halfway through A Million Little Pieces.
This turned into a quite a long post, so there will be no “secondly”. The rest of what I have been up to whilst jetsetting will be revealed over time – but there will be some non-fiction, there will be some Ibsen, and other exciting things, so stay tuned.