The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: Complementary readings

Posted on: March 10, 2008

Yeah, yeah, my entry is late, what’s it to ya? 😉 This weekend I was entirely snowed in. I devoted my time to eating, sleeping and…on work, I’m afraid, but it was relaxing if not idyllic.

Sarah Hall’s latest successful effort fired me up to cram in two other books before I completed the review’s first draft. I went looking for her first novel, Haweswater and, despite the dreaded adjectives “lyrical” and “poetic” — isn’t that what they thought 0f Electric Michelangelo? I shuddered — placed a hold on a library copy.

I don’t know what use the aforementioned adjectives have any more. They’re used to describe so many writers of different styles and often the reviewer uses it without expanding upon what she means in it’s relation to a particular writer. But in their other worn out pronouncements the (largely British) reviewers were on target: Haweswater did declare the presence of a gifted new novelist worth watching and her attention to her character’s natural surroundings is strongly reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s own writings. (This marks one of the few times I’ve ever been able to detect a classic writer’s influence in a reviewed author’s prose.)

Haweswater also explained why Electric Michelangelo turned out the way it did. Sarah Hall loves the fictional worlds she creates. There is a strong sympathy and devotion to every sentence to every nature or character portrait, to every dramatic scene or quiet moment. It reminded me of a computer nerd’s obsessive dedication to her past time. Brand new, fully accessorized hardware is passed over in favour of customizing one’s own system, for only she could give it the kind of minute attention it deserved. In Haweswater each word carefully holds each unit of that enthusiastic passion; in Electric Michelangelo Hall doled out more and more words to try and contain it but they all went to waste.

Occasionally Hall’s hand slips and you get the sort of saccharine, overly reverential scenes of northern England rural life that (sorry Hall) remind me of Nora Roberts similar tactic when writing about Ireland or things in relation to it. Hall also has a bad incomplete sentence habit (again, like Nora Roberts) which, rather than placing an idea or image in stark relief, just forces me to rescan lines in confusion. Break the rules, by all means, but make it feel necessary. I could only find this minor example with the time I have:

At first she will not let him touch her. She bangs her head back off the bark of the tree trunk when his hand reaches for her waist. Her scalp is cut on the sharp wood, as if she is demented, trapped in an asylum with walls of precipitation….Her banging head damaging the seduction that she cannot otherwise articulate no to. He waits for her. Rigid with anticipation as she calms.

It’s not a terribly bad example but to me, that period between “her” and “Rigid” doesn’t do anything that a simple comma (or no punctuation mark at all) couldn’t have managed. The word “rigid” alone, I feel, works wonderfully to convey his body’s extreme tension, especially since he is a character who is almost never so, who excels at appearing and being comfortable, settled, capable, relaxed yet alert in whatever situation he finds himself in. Even the word’s pronunciation, the sound of the “g” followed by the hard “d” helps to evoke the meaning of the word and conjure the image. That break there is the kind of faux poetics I can’t stand and helps to ruin it for other authors. I tend to be really suspicious of “poetic” novelists: if I’m not familiar with your work chances are I read two pages of that and throw you under the bed (or look for my receipt).

Everything else about the novel is so good, though, that I was able to pass over such instances without too much trouble. I read it, as I said, for the strict purpose of situating it in relation to The Carhullan Army so, in an effort not to write out my review here, I can’t say much more on it, except that I do think it’s worth your time, especially if you appreciate writers able to infuse their natural settings with as much vitality as their human characters without indulging in a lot of sappy, grandiose nonsense.

I also read V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd because I noticed the similarity in how Hall and Moore envisioned the response to an authoritarian state. But first, could we get rid of that silly “graphic novel” misnomer? I turned the first page of the Moore book and laughed aloud because it was clearly, and unashamedly, a damn comic book. Everything, from its structure to the visual style, points to it. I know it’s more sophisticated than an Archie strip but then, so is a Sorrentino book over a Dean Koontz and no one’s clamouring to give the latter populist fare a new name. I feel silly when I use it to describe a book I’m reading to someone — I smile sheepishly, with lowered eyelids, as if I were sporting one of those stupid (and uninspired) adult Harry Potter editions. But, damn it, whenever I say comic book, the person assumes I’m reading Betty & Veronica and when I reply with, “No, it’s Maus by Spiegelman” they roar, “But that’s not a comic book then it’s a graphic novel.” Mofo, please.

That over with I say…this Moore doesn’t pull punches does he? The beginning starts out in a conservative, fairly uninteresting fashion: Neo-Nazi govt is ruining Britain and our intrepid hero goes around saving damsels and blowing up buildings, hurrah freedom. Moore admits in the introduction that his story writing abilities were a bit shaky when he started out so one should pardon the weakness of the beginning and anticipate the story coalescing better as it went on, for it was written over a number of years. The story and themes did get stronger but they also became more…I don’t know. Incomprehensible? No. Absurd, maybe. Abstruse, although not obstructively so. Denser, certainly, woven with political philosophy and literary references, some of which I could identify, some I couldn’t. I definitely did not take it all in on a first reading which I could not say even for Spiegelman’s respected Maus. (That, in part, may because I’m still adjusting to comics and can’t read them as closely or as insightfully as prose.)

It didn’t fit in as neatly with Carhullan as I had expected, not on a story-line level anyway, a notion I had based on the film adaptation. What does it mean when a movie has to simplify a comic book to take it to the big screen? (Not a complimentary assumption there about comic books but just go with me for a minute.) In the film Natalie Portman’s character Evey is a journalist, I think, or has some job in the media world, anyway. In the comic book Evey is a 16 year old reduced to factory work for minuscule pay and is forced to prostitute herself. On her first awkward attempt she offers herself to an undercover vice cop and he and his goonies are about to rape her and then, so they promise, kill her when V swoops in to save the day.

The book’s a lot bleaker, as you can see, and its characters a little more ruined, more twisted, and less easily admirable or hateful, even the Hitler stand-in, Mr. Susan. V is crazier. I mean the movie V is rather dashing, even while espousing worrisome rhetoric, and fabulous more of a gallant figure and, because of his background in the resettlement camps where he was used as a human guinea pig, more sympathetic. In the comic Moore gives more room to the possible interpretation that V’s genius — his elaborate, fool-proof stratagems, his copious artistic knowledge — bends too close to fucking mental territory for one’s comfort. And perhaps that view is also tied into how seriously one regards anarchist philosophy, of which V is an emphatic promoter.

The two books though — V for Vendetta and The Carhullan Army — do raise the important question for authoritarian countries with a recent democratic past: in such situations is the most effective anti-government resistance one that doesn’t fit a democratic vision at all? Must it be violent and to what extremes? And — oh crap, I’m writing out my review again. See you. 😉

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5 Responses to "Sunday Salon: Complementary readings"

Amen. Let’s call a spade a spade, and a sheaf of papers full of illustrations and dialogue-bits a comic book. ‘V’ sounds interesting, though. Maybe I’ll finally get around to giving up my graphic novel virginity.

“Lyrical”, “poetic” – words often applied to the most flat, plain prose imaginable. Sometimes makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with the reviewers eyes, or brain. They’ve become cliches, totally devalued. Good protest.

Ooh, in case you’re in need of some background on Sarah Hall, I interviewed over on ReadySteadyBook a year or more ago:

http://www.readysteadybook.com/Article.aspx?page=sarahhall

Enjoy!

I’m suspicious of “lyrical” and “poetic” writing too, and I can’t stand fragments. I agree it’s possible to use them well, but most often they annoy me terribly!

raych it’s as good a book as any to start with, I’d think. People generally seem to prefer the comics that aspire to be more “literary” but if you’re more interested in work by passionate, talented, imaginative illustrators who can tell a good tale I’d recommend the “Flight” series edited by Kazu Kibuishi. It features a lot of brilliant work.

Amateur Reader thank you! Yes, a lot of the time, I wasn’t even sure what the words meant anymore because writers seemed to use it willy nilly to describe any ol’ nice sentence work.

Mark T. thank you kindly for the link. It proved useful.

Dorothy W. yes, I could probably count on one hand the authors I know who use it with any remarkable success.

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