Sorry for the absence of recent reviews, Mad Teddy fans – I haven’t gone anywhere, but have been ploughing through the multitude of corrections to the second draft of my novel, Here’s What Happened. In the meantime, and in the style of other book bloggers, here’s a sample of what I’m currently part way through reading.
Everything is related to everything else. A universe… I live in my writing – it consumes my thoughts.
I love Paul Auster, he’s one of my all-time favourite writers. I love the variety of his work, the way there’s always something new to be learned from a second or third reading of any of his novels, as well as the sheer pleasure to be taken in immersing oneself in his rich, mesmeric narrative voice all over again. This, however, is the first strictly autobiographical work of his I’ve delved into; it’s part of a trilogy, and, perhaps perversely, I’ve started with the third instalment (I began the first, The Invention of Solitude, some time ago, but managed to misplace it) I don’t think that matters, however. Like everything else by Auster, it stands alone.
While The Invention of Solitude details the external, physical world of Auster’s childhood, various ailments he experienced as a child, Report from the Interior– as the title suggests – goes deeper and inward, and is expressed throughout in the second person (you are doing this, you are saying that), in an almost-stream-of-consciousness in which sentences sometimes go on for pages. This might seem ostensibly exhausting or laborious, but it really isn’t, and the reader will soon find themselves swept along, surfing the tsunami of his deeply involving, hypnotic narrative, sucked languidly into his rich inner life.
Report from the Interior divides itself into three major chunks, and is therefore – appropriately for a writer of meta-fiction – a trilogy within a trilogy (although there is a fourth and final section, an album of images, but we won’t concern ourselves with that here). The first part details Auster’s childhood proper, up to and including high school, his passion for and immersion in reading from an early age, a recurring dissociative experience that somehow went away and yet in a wider sense didn’t, his sense of separation and his empathy for the underdog and the excluded, and his love of and aptitude for baseball and other sports. This is great, but it’s the second chunk that’s really the most striking, and it takes the form of a detailed breakdown of two films that had a profound effect on him as a child (the chapter entitled Two Blows to the Head), The Incredible Shrinking Man and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Both films, viewed by the young Auster on a small black and white television set, embody the theme of the outsider cast adrift, the loneliness of the perennial outcast, the stranger in a strange land, and this would have reified his sense of isolation and otherness. The Incredible Shrinking Man had a similar effect on me at a young age: I too viewed it on public television (albeit on a different continent and in a different decade – both the film and the novel really are both placeless and timeless), I felt shattered and dislocated by it , as if the scales had fallen from my eyes, and I would go seek it out and watch it again now, were it not for the spider. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang I haven’t seen, although the title is familiar, and the detailed dissection here reads a little like the Cliff Notes for any great work of literature; set just after the first world war, it tells the story of a combatant returning from the carnage with high hopes for the future, only to have those hopes dashed over and again by terrible luck and the ravages of unfettered capitalism and a cruel and corrupt legal system. Released in 1932, Auster asserts that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is really about the great depression, and it’s impossible to disagree. It’s also reasonable to assume that it informed his later political outlook, just as The Incredible Shrinking Man informed his personal perspective on the world.
The third part of Report from the Interior is harvested from a series of letters written to Auster’s first wife, the writer Lydia Davis. Davis told him in later life, long after their divorce, that she was thinking of donating their interpersonal correspondence from when they were both in their twenties to an academic library. Only she wondered if he might like to look through the letters first, in case there were anything contained therein that he might not want to be made public – he’d quickly given up on keeping a journal as a young man, seeing it as rather pointless. There was no auditor, he’d argued to himself, and what was the point in telling yourself things you already knew? This later left him with something of an enormous blank space from his young adulthood, vague and foggy notions and memories of what might have happened, and moreover, what he might or might not have feeling at that time. This is, for me and others, the weaker part of the volume, and yet there is still much to be learned here, Pinter’s famous quote that any memory more than twenty years old is fiction, the idea that you are not remembering something that happened back then, but instead remembering the last time you remembered it, the memory changing a little each time, like the proverbial Chinese whisper, like an incrementally decaying jpeg. So there is a slight philosophical backdrop to this last chapter in that sense, taking the reader beyond what is essentially eavesdropping on private conversations, and it really is the portrait of the artist as a young man. There is also his time spent in Paris in the 1960s, his fleeing the city just before les enragés of May 1968, only to encounter what was essentially the same phenomenon soon after with the Columbia University strike in New York City, and his near nervous breakdown of the same time. Four stars then, because I don’t particularly like reading my heroes’ diaries, Charles Bukowski’s collected letters being a case in point, but an essential read nevertheless.
Better to cut yourself free and hope the wound heals.
In Summertime,we find Nobel Laureate J M Coetzee take an interesting approach to writing the final part in his trilogy of memoirs. Following on from Boyhood and Youth (both of which I have yet to read, and now probably will), an imaginary biographer tracks down four influential women and one man from the fictionalised and now dead (in the world of these memoirs) Coetzee’s life, here referred to as John. It’s the 1970s and John’s in his thirties, living in a de facto shack in what are described by one interviewee as the white suburbs of Cape Town. Here he lives with his widowed and degenerating father, Jack, subsisting on the father’s meagre pension and his own part-time tuition work, writing poetry and attempting a first novel, trying to improve the shack. The landscape is remote, quiet, breathtaking: this is an enormous continent and the family homestead, where a large chunk of the memory takes place, is a twelve-hour drive from the city. It’s the karoo, and in many ways the scenery, the land, and its effects on the protagonists are the major character here, with their sprawling hallucinogenic vistas and relentless dust and heat, their overwhelming sense of loneliness and connection, isolation and completeness. For John is indeed a man born lonely, one almost incapable of any human interaction other than through his work, and that’s pretty much the way he seems to like it. Real-world accounts have described J M Coetzee as somebody capable of sitting through a dinner party without uttering a single word, another colleague who worked with him for over a decade says he saw him laugh only once, and the interviews with the women and the one man here do seem to back this up.
The women are, in order, Julia, a frustrated bourgeois housewife who briefly takes John as a lover without seeming to like him very much; Margot, a cousin who looks to have been in love with Coetzee since childhood, though she now seems reluctant to express this, being married and seeing him seldom, and viewing him as the disassociated and somehow incomplete human being he’s presented as throughout this volume; Adriana, a failed Brazilian ballerina and narcissistic mother of one his part-time English students, who came to South Africa via Angola, met with her own tragedy, and believes John was in some minor fashion stalking her; and Sophie, a former academic colleague and part-time lover, who’s largely unwilling to divulge to the biographer any real details of her personal relationship with John, but who styles him as a hopeless idealist, a man whose only politics are a kind of anti-politics, a person so closed off to the real world of rich human feeling and interconnectedness that the overriding thing she seems able to recall about him is that he was an adequate teacher, not a great writer at all. Martin, another former academic colleague, and the sole male interviewed by the biographer, echoes this view, embellishes it, but tells us little else about him.
But there is a small-p political commentary running throughout Summertime as well, the sense of the impending end to the doomed colonial extremism of apartheid, setting the book expertly in place and time. Overall, Summertime reminds me in many ways of what little I’ve read of Karl Ove Knausgård’s multi-volume epic fictionalised set of memoirs My Struggle, beginning in 2009 with A Death in the Family. The personal disconnect and loneliness exhibited, underwritten with an unrelenting sense of despair, speak to me like little else has done since Bukowski, leaving room only for the very occasional chink of light, if any. As such, these are somewhat hard reads, albeit extremely erudite ones, but rewarding nonetheless, offering a connection with the disconnectedness of the author and concomitantly with the abject sense of separation that I find within myself. So four stars, this was a worthy read.
The voices are gone but the echo’s still there/under these bloated Yorkshire skies.
Where I come from, it wasn’t a football town, it was a rugby town. We didn’t play football at school, my dad hated football (although he now claims he used to play), so it was never on the telly growing up, I didn’t get taken to games. It was also the heyday of hooliganism, really brutal tribal violence, darts and stabbings and slashings and kickings. That was what was on the telly, in the 1970s, that and The Sweeney and World in Action. I recall standing on my own at the edge of a grey and rainy uneven football pitch at primary school, the other boys far away, kicking a ball up and down the slope. My form teacher, a red-faced man, Alex Hurley, known to all as Big Ben for his use of the slipper, approached me.Why aren’t you playing football, boy? he asked me. Don’t like it sir, I replied, looking down at my Winfield trainers and the mud. Don’t be stupid, he said, all boys like football. But a boy needs a hobby, and at the big school, at the age of about twelve, I discovered Liverpool FC, who were winning everything then. I was dimly aware of Leeds United’s former success. But I came in at the end of an era. Brian Clough and Peter Taylor had transformed Nottingham Forest. They were pushing Liverpool aside in the first division and in Europe. I had just about missed the glory years. Clough was everywhere. My dad hated him, called him a bighead, held the same views on Muhammad Ali. So of course, despite Clough being the opposition, I loved him.
This is a review of the abridged audiobook of The Damned United. I read the paperback version a few years back and loved it, loved everything David Peace wrote before he moved to Japan; The Damned United, the Red Riding Quartet, GB84. I don’t know why I could never get into his Japanese stuff, maybe it’s the nostalgia, that hankering after a long-gone 1970s working-class English childhood, that longing for a bygone age. For the casual listener, then, one not my age or a football fan, the jumps back and forth in time between Clough and his coaching partner Peter Taylor’s tenure at Hartlepool United (Hartlepools, a reference to the twin boroughs of Hartlepool and West Hartlepool, dating back to the club’s foundation in 1908), Derby County, a brief stint at Brighton & Hove Albion, and the main subject of The Damned United, Clough’s solo 44 days at Leeds in 1973 and 1974, might prove a little jarring or confusing. But stick with it, this hardly matters: because there is a brutal poetry to Peace’s prose that overrides all of that, and Life on Mars’s John Simms is the perfect voice to narrate it. At times I thought it might be Reece Dinsdale stepping in as Taylor, but no, it’s just Simms and his excellent range.
I remember thinking the full and original text was as much about Clough’s alcoholism as it was about football, and I recall discussing Clough’s drunken touchline post-match oratory on his last day at Forest with a friend who had recently put the plug back in the jug, him saying, that really made me shudder, and I was still drinking then. The boozing is also largely absent from the (also excellent) film of the same name, so perhaps I’m misremembering, but I think it more likely it’s slightly skipped over here for brevity’s sake; because the drinking is still there in the audiobook, slightly played down, but definitely there. It would have fuelled his bitterness at having his playing career cut short by injury, his arrogance and depression, his rage and his tendency toward self-destruction. And that injury would have informed his rage and resentment at dirty dirty leeds united, before his taking the job there.
Clough must have seemed the perfect fit for Leeds after Don Revie left to manage the national team: his confidence, his undoubted and proven managerial ability, and a great squad of players waiting for him at Elland Road, first division champions, despite his opinion of them as dirty cheats. It must have seemed like a chance too good to pass up, the opportunity to bring home the European Cup after going out in the semi-finals with his Derby County boys to Juventus the previous season. But his baggage came with him, all the things he had said, and the clash of personalities with team captain Billy Bremner, and the backroom staff, and then the board, proved too much for him. He was doomed. He was damned. 44 days. Poor old Cloughie. Four stars.
I have thousands of books in a one bedroom flat: it’s a dust factory. Very few of these have I read – there just isn’t room to keep the ones that are done with. I used to sell them on Amazon, but they’ve taken such an increasing cut of late (seller fees, paying tax on the transaction, paying their tax on the transaction, limited postal allowance) that it’s become more profitable to give them away. And so it was that I happened across a little free library on a garden wall, en route to Rectory Road station, and thus this biography of Courtney Love. The library thing is a phenomenon that’s been popping up hither and thither of late, one not coming with any instructions, but presumably operating on the take-one-leave-one principle.
I once shared pages in an anthology with Poppy Z Brite, in Robert Dellar’s Gobbing, Pogoing & Gratuitous Bad Language, and I’d read her earlier gothic horror novels Exquisite Corpse and Dead Souls and enjoyed them, and so Courtney Love: The Real Story aroused my interest, being more appealing than the average fare on offer from the garden wall bookcase. Although it’s marketed as the unauthorised biography, Brite and Love are friends, and Love asked her to write the book. But if Courtney Love: The Real Story is intended as either a panegyric or a whitewash, it’s either not a very good one, or it truly is the real story. Because Love comes across for much of the book as an egomaniacal and superficial monster, despite her obvious intelligence. I do have to say that in my experience, in biographies of either punk rockers or the history of the scene as a whole, none of the actors come out of it well, Jon Savage’s recent book on Joy Division (This searing light, the sun and everything else: Joy Division: The Oral History, which I reviewed last week) kind of being the exception that proves the rule. I’m thinking in particular here of Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, an oral history of the NYC punk scene spanning several decades, in which Bowie, Iggy Pop, various liggers and hangers on from Andy Warhol’s Factory, The Ramones, Johnny Thunders and Malcolm McLaren, all present themselves as complete and utter dickheads. But hey, that’s rock and roll I suppose.
Courtney Love: The Real Story is copyrighted as being 22 years old, and I’ve no idea what Love has been doing since then, as Hole, Love’s band, have never really – other than for the occasional song – floated my boat. Love had an horrifically chaotic upbringing, born to wealthy hippie parents and then mostly ignored, being shunted from pillar to post, given LSD at the age of four, running away all over the globe in her teenage years (and being somehow able to talk herself onto various transatlantic flights absent a passport), before settling somewhere between Los Angeles and Portland and Seattle, and meeting Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Given this, the reader can perhaps be forgiven for experiencing her as a sympathetic and tragic character, but she seems to have had the luck of the gods in many respects: having a trust fund, bumping into Julian Cope of The Teardrop Explodes and being given the run of his house in Liverpool, becoming a minor Hollywood movie star almost on a whim, writing a barely intelligible letter to Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and persuading her to produce her first album, and other things besides.
After Cobain’s death (spoiler alert), and following the grieving process in the form of a lot of AOL chatroom gibberish, tediously reproduced here, Love appears to grow up a little bit, so there’s the hint of a Hollywood happy ending, or at least a hopeful one. If Courtney Love: The Real Story were presented as a novel or a movie script, it would work very well, and I’d probably like it more, but I can’t really get over all the millionaire rock star bullshit, so only three stars I’m afraid, but still definitely worth a look.
You see the mind-fields a mental experiment can land you in?
I began it on a Saturday night. I wasn’t sleeping well, was woken by bongos at 9am. Waiting for the coffee machine to warm up, I leaned out the window, saw the Hackney Half-Marathon going along Downs Road, life passing by. I brought the book back to bed with me, I had a headache, the bongos went on. Do you know that Cure song, Babble? I think it may have been the B-side to Love Song, the one that Adele murdered. Maybe, maybe not.
Three Dreams in the Key of G presents itself as an experimental novel, voiced in three alternating parts, three monologues, all female. There are no chapters as such. The first, the dominant voice and the most immediately accessible, is from a young mother of two in Omagh in the North of Ireland, beginning not long after most of the lead has stopped flying in the 1990s, the troubles replaced by the shopping trolley/stroller wars and the political quandary of what to put into a post-child’s-birthday-party take-home bag. This is her home town, she’s never left, except for the annual trip to a holiday cottage on the Antrim coast. She never pursued her dream of college in Belfast. Instead she got married to the boy next door, an ex-hood for the UDA or the UVF or the Red Hand Gang. Maybe family’s important to her, but who needs family like that? But what if there’s nothing else? How long after the GFA all of this happens seems irrelevant, time exhibiting elasticity and compression all at once, the wider world moving sluggishly forward, her immediate environment only changing on a geological scale.
Other voices come from the human genome, GATC, the four bases of DNA, adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine, one by one passing commentary on our pointless existence, smugly dispensing pearls before swine, dismissing us in our irrelevance. I don’t exist, see, they tell us, there is no such thing as a genome. But somehow you sense that they’re what’s behind the curtain of consciousness, snickering just the other side of this veil of tears and laughter, biting down hard on their fingers . The third is from a woman running a refuge for abused women in Florida, which she claims has become an independent democratic community, which she believes is seen as some kind of a radical terrorist outfit by the government, which she denies is a cult, whilst behaving all the time like a cult leader. You initially get the impression the author has read too much Joyce and Beckett, but you push on regardless and by the quarter-way point, these interconnected tales begin to wrap themselves around you, they coalesce, and then you’re caught, they’ve got you. Because Three Dreams in the Key of G is not something you experience immediately, in the way of a thriller, a page-turner with an inciting incident and a hero’s journey and conflict and resolution and all that. Oh, no. And so, you read on.
A lot has been made of the wordplay, but that isn’t it for me, although it’s most certainly there. In fact, if anything, Nash occasionally goes a little bit overboard with it, almost threatening to derail the Beckettian stream-of-consciousness effect, although he does manage to hang onto the track. But more than the wordplay, it’s a hypnotic fever dream. You slowly turn the pages, your fingers shaking, hoping something will go in, finding little respite at first, because it’s only later that you feel what’s really going on here. Your understanding lies in not understanding, but in letting it do its thing, in allowing it into your head and your heart and your gut. In surrendering to the rhythm of the writing, its music and poetry, its repetition and its poetry. Its repetition and its music. And its music and its repetition. Do you see?
Oh good. The bongos have stopped. The Nurofen’s working. Now I can relax. Four stars.
I received a copy of Three Dreams in the Key of G from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.
The four of us didn’t know what we were doing, and the chemistry was unbelievable… but it was easy, it was easy writing those songs and playing that well, it was easy, and it only got difficult when he died.
If you’re any kind of a Joy Division fan, then you doubtless know at least most of what you’re going to read in This searing light, the sun and everything else: Joy Division: The Oral History. But, the use of two colons in the title aside, it really is an excellent read. And it’s a great title, despite its unwieldiness. So what’s not to like? What’s to lose in revisiting this most pivotal and brief little epoch in pop music, culture, and societal change?
Beginning with the usual setting for Joy Division memoirs, the poverty and industrial decay of the English Northwest in the middle 1970s, Macclesfield and Salford and the psychogeographical talisman that is – and remains – the city of Manchester, we’re taken step by step through the ineffable moment in time and space that was Joy Division, emerging from the silly but life-altering pop chaos of punk rock, through to their heart-breaking demise with Ian Curtis’s suicide on May 18th1980, on the eve of what would have been a breakthrough American tour. The oral history method employed turns out to be the perfect vehicle for this story, even more so than Paul Morley’s journalistic collection Joy Division: Piece by Piece, enjoyable as that was, bringing in numerous bystanders you may or may not have heard of, because the story of Joy Division is so much more than a tale of four young men who didn’t quite know what they were doing or why they were doing it, pulling magic from the air as they went. Although many of the quotes are taken from the incomparable Joy Division documentary (also put together by Jon Savage), there’s still much to learn from This searing light… a case in point being record sleeve and gig poster designer Peter Savile’s lengthy(ish) explanations of art history and graphic design techniques, and Terry Mason’s involvement in Joy Division right up to the recording of Unknown Pleasures and beyond, and Tony Wilson’s explanation of where the cars-on-highways backdrop for the eternally haunting Shadowplay came from (Langley in Virginia, home to the CIA, in case you’re wondering), from their first television appearance on Granada Reports in September 1978, famously introduced by Wilson. That’s their moment in time, from there to Curtis’s tragic death scarcely more than eighteen months later, their influence and resonance incalculable.
The effect of the generally matter-of-fact delivery of personal histories and events to describe something so spiritual and visceral, so gut-wrenchingly pure and ordinary, is to simultaneously discombobulate and involve the reader, placing her both outside and at the very core of events related. As with David Nolan’s I Swear I Was There, the story of the Sex Pistols’ first gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June of 1976, you’re left thinking, no, I wasn’t there, but I feel like I was, so I must have been. Sumner and Hook’s memories in particular seem to subconsciously describe our societal fall from grace over the past forty years, the obliteration of community and its replacement with the thoroughly atomised neoliberal money-and-status-are-everything individualist quagmire we find ourselves inescapably enmeshed in today. With this in mind, it seems the supreme irony that Curtis was a Margaret Thatcher fan, and that Sumner was a little bit obsessed with the Third Reich.
Listen to Joy Division as you read This searing light, the sun and everything else: Joy Division: The Oral History. You’ll find yourself spirited away, immersed in and transported back to that wonderfully manky and halcyon time, when everything was grey and insipid and rock and roll still represented a possible path out of all the decay and hopelessness you found around you, when past, present and future all melded into one and art and pop became a singularity for that briefest of moments. You know what’s coming, you already know the soul-destroying end to this story. You know that it’s all history; and yet, somehow, it isn’t. Five stars.
It’s important to me, Mr Blank. My whole life depends on it. Without that dream, I’m nothing, literally nothing.
Mr Blank wakes up. He’s in a room. He has no memory, but, conveniently for him, everything is labelled. The chair. The bed. The desk. The lamp. The blind. Even the wall. Unbeknownst to Mr Blank, there’s a camera in the ceiling that takes a snapshot once a minute. There are microphones too, even in the bathroom. Walking is difficult for Mr Blank, standing too. He gets these dizzy spells. He’s wearing striped pyjamas. The desk is stacked with papers, photographs. This is intriguing to him. He gets out of the bed and attempts to approach the desk, but he gets dizzy again and collapses to the floor, so that he has to crawl. It’s humiliating, or it would be were there anyone else around to see it. But he makes it to the desk and looks through the photographs. One is familiar, a young woman, but he doesn’t know from where. He thinks she may be called Anna. Then there’s a knock at the door. It’s Anna.
Anna gives him pills, three different colours. They are keeping him drugged. Anna washes him. To keep him sweet, she renders him a minor sexual favour. He is to meet somebody later, and this somebody had requested that he wear all white, so Anna dresses him in a tennis outfit. Mr Blank asks her questions, but she’s largely evasive. Then Anna makes him breakfast. This done, she leaves. Mr Blank goes to the desk and begins to read the papers there. They are a manuscript, written in the style of a report, apparently detailing an alternative history of the conquest of the United States. There is political intrigue. Then Flood comes.
Flood is a cockney ex-policeman. He seems angry. He’s lost his job and his family, and he thinks Mr Blank is to blame. He demands to know details of a dream Mr Blank once had, in which he features; it’s somehow related to a novel Mr Blank once read, and is the key to Flood’s problem. Things are becoming more and more confusing, disorientating. Mr Blank can’t help Flood, Mr Blank has no memory. Flood leaves. Mr Blank returns to the manuscript.
As the days pass, there are small, discombobulating changes. The text of the manuscript alters slightly, the labels on objects are rearranged. Mr Blank suffers occasional memories from his childhood, but they are few and far between, and frustrating. Then there are more visitors. And then there is the closet.
Travels in the Scriptoriumis an exercise in meta-fiction. In places it resembles a detailed exercise from a creative writing class. Toward the end, Auster delivers what amounts to instructions for building a plot. I’m told that, barring Mr Blank, all of the characters feature in his previous novels; but I’m a little like Mr Blank here, I can’t place them. That’s the effect of Travels in the Scriptorium. It’s a short novel, 130 pages, little more than a novella, but it will leave you full of questions and wonder, gasping for breath and questioning your own existence. What does it all mean? Does anything exist outside of the room? When the other characters leave, do they cease to exist? What is in the closet? Auster’s hypnotic voice makes Travels in the Scriptorium an absolute page-turner, despite the apparent lack of action. Five stars.
A couple of weeks back, I featured Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, saying that I rarely read nonfiction nowadays, much less review it; well, here we are again. With that review, I name-checked Steven Pressfield, specifically his excellent The War of Art, recommended to me by my BA dissertation supervisor, and which I found extremely useful, not to say inspiring. Since then, Pressfield has penned a number of short volumes on the craft, and this seems to be the latest. They’re all great – punchy and direct, not sparing the aspiring writer or the reader any blushes, and completely free from soft soap or BS. Pressfield worked in advertising more than once, in between taking years off to write novels, most famously The Legend of Bagger Vance. He worked on many Hollywood screenplays too, often – by his own admission – as a junior partner, and was once a marine. He comes across as a no-nonsense tough guy with a fierce spiritual core, and he really knows his stuff with regard to the mechanics of storytelling.
In Nobody Wants to Read your Sh*t, Pressfield takes what he learned in advertising and applies it to screenplays, and then to the novel and beyond. He focuses for quite a while on the hero’s journey, something he believes has been hardwired into mass consciousness for pretty much as long as that consciousness has existed, and specifically references Joseph Campbell’s seminal 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s pretty convincing, and hard to disagree: we instinctively know whether a story works or not on a subconscious, primal level, and once you learn the mechanics of this, it becomes clear what is or isn’t happening. Everything, in one way or another, he says, is the hero’s journey. Star Wars. Jaws. Clueless. NYPD Blue. Everything.
Those mechanics of storytelling are gone into in some depth here, even more so than in his previous volumes on the craft. Once fiction has been pretty much completely covered, he moves onto narrative non-fiction, then self-help books, and finishes with a very useful deconstruction of The war of Art. One thing he lays out in detail that I wasn’t quite aware of, is that for your story to be a real success, and completely tight and finished, your inciting incident ought to contain within it your climax. This, having just read it, seems to me nothing short of revelatory, and it looks as if I’m going to have to rejig both of my unpublished novels somewhat: good call, Pressfield, and thanks. As an example of this, he uses – among others – what is still my favourite film, Thelma & Louise, but there’s so much more besides. Nobody Wants to Read your S**t is a brilliant and instructive little read. Five stars.
This is the eighth book in Patricia Cornwell’s Dr Kay Scarpetta police pathologist and investigator series. I’ve been reading them in order since I was assigned the first – Postmortem – along with James M Cain’s Double Indemnity for a genre fiction module in college. We were supposed to read either one or the other but, as I had time to get through both in a week, I did that, and persisted with Cornwell’s follow-ups, published annually with a couple of exceptions, right up to 2016, making a grand total of 24. They’re enjoyable and exciting without being too demanding, and I preferred their almost modern context – beginning in 1990, and predating the ubiquity of the internet and smartphones – to Cain’s 1930s and 1940s settings. It’s been quite amusing to read at a distance how quickly the computer references, which must have been informative and even spellbinding at the time – you’re going to need a computer with 8MB of RAM – have become old hat. As with the better crime and other genre fiction series, it isn’t strictly necessary to read them in order, and Cornwell does a neat job of inserting the relevant background information as and when. One thing I’ve noticed from other reviews of Kay Scarpetta numbers 1-7 is the opinion that Scarpetta as a central protagonist has become increasingly dislikeable; not unbelievable, just dislikeable. I have an opinion on this, and we’ll come to it soon.
So, Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of the state of Virginia, is away on a sabbatical, delivering lectures at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, when she comes across a series of dismemberment serial killings that seem to ring a bell. They’re a decade old, and they stopped suddenly. They sound identical to a series of serial murders that have happened more recently in her home state, so, after calling her confidante and co-consultant to the FBI, the brusque but effective detective Pete Marino, she rushes back to Virginia, because there’s been another one. Here we come up against the main reason for her becoming, for me – at this stage in the series – an unsympathetic heroine. Marino’s clearly in love with her, and has saved her and her niece Lucy’s (to whom Scarpetta is a mother figure, and who’s now an FBI agent herself) lives at least once. But Scarpetta, by and large, treats Marino very poorly. She seems to think he’s common, as my old mum would put it, and is therefore no prospect at all. She prefers the attentions of FBI boss Benton Wesley, with whom she’s been conducting an illicit affair, but when Wesley’s wife leaves him for another man, her interest in him withers. Scarpetta’s forever making little digs at Marino and giving him lifestyle lectures. While she’s undoubtedly right about his smoking, hard liquor intake and dietary habits, it seems unnecessarily cruel. And while Scarpetta does love Marino in her own way, this has always stuck in my craw. Marino is in many ways an objectionable character and a dinosaur, one with antiquated and retrograde views, but I don’t think he deserves to be treated this way. There are shocks in their relationship waiting further down the line (although not in Unnatural Exposure), so I’ll stop banging on about that now. The Kay Scarpetta series is an excellent franchise to get into, always intricately and deftly plotted, with local and culinary detail expertly delivered, and many twists and turns, not to mention the science and autopsy stuff for which Cornwell’s so well-famed, the brutal murders always perfectly described – and I particularly liked the fact that several of the previous books dealt with a serial killer who wasn’t simply put to bed in a single volume.
So. A little more of the plot, without giving too much away. Back in Virginia, it turns out the latest murder may not be part of a series at all, but a copycat killing. Then Scarpetta’s called to a find on Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, which turns out to be case of smallpox, leading to a period of quarantine for her. This initially feels like a sudden left turn, but one easily excusable in genre fiction, where suspension of disbelief is so important. The turn soon turns into the main plot, and I’ll leave you to read the rest and join the dots yourself. That’s the whole point and the grisly fun of reading mysteries, after all is said and done.
Overall, Unnatural Exposureis a great little addition to the Kay Scarpetta series and another page-turner from Cornwell. But only three stars from me this time I’m afraid, because of the Marino stuff. Don’t listen to me though, go out and read it for yourself. I’m sure you’ll have fun.