Based on a novel

Something a bit different (and hopefully a bit briefer): some thoughts on the last two novels I’ve read.

The context is that, while I used to review books fairly regularly, I haven’t done it for years; also, I hardly ever buy hardbacks, don’t go out much and don’t buy many CDs. So if I tell you about the last new film I’ve seen it will either be something I’ve gone to with the family (Toy Story 3) or something I’ve caught up with on DVD (District 9, and what a film that was). My CD purchases are several months behind the reviews, and if I tell you about the last book I’ve read, it’s as likely as not to be something I’ve picked up secondhand or got out of the library. So this is an experiment in reviewing without any novelty value; reviewing for its own sake. The other bit of background is that I’m between novels at the moment, so these books are as fresh in my mind now as they’re ever going to be.

Right, better get on with it. The last book I finished was Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing; the one before that was

Scarlett Thomas, The end of Mr Y
There’s a lot to like about this, and I’d recommend anyone who (like me) sees it going for 50p at a school fete to shell out. Several years ago, in one corner of John Lewis’s toy department, I picked up Philip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke out of curiosity and started reading the first page. My family found me half an hour later and more or less had to remove the book from my hands. Mr Y (and what a dreadful title that is) isn’t that compellingly written, but it’s not far off. It has a university setting which recalls Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally weird (although the resemblance stops there), and a plot which initially struck me as remarkably old-fashioned: obscure author! lost book! lost book found! sinister people looking for lost book! lost book has missing page! It’s all a bit Poe, or Wilkie Collins on a sober day. But this is just the setup: about a third of the way through, the main character essentially falls down a rabbit-hole into a fantasy zone called the Troposphere, and what happens next is increasingly strange. The ending is dreadful, unfortunately, but it does have I Am Tying Up All The Loose Ends Right Now written all over it, which I found appealing.

What didn’t I like about it? Quite a lot really. The Troposphere seems to be based on Popper’s Noosphere, which (as all Orb fans will remember) is a world of “objective content of thought”. “Troposphere” (the coinage is the mystery author’s) supposedly refers to the sphere of ‘character’; etymologically this mystifies me, as neither ‘trope’ nor the Greek ‘τροποσ’ means ‘character’ in any way at all. (They derive from the verb ‘to turn’ – which is why the actual troposphere is the layer of the atmosphere where air circulates.) The main character, Ariel, is a veggie and just slightly smug about it; she’s also a Bad Girl, with some very lightly sketched-in damage in her upbringing which leads her to have a lot of sex (although that’s pretty lightly sketched in too). At one stage she looks back on her departure from home for university and muses that it should have involved loneliness, Jane Eyre and biscuits, but actually involved a fling with a biker, a tattoo and speeding in a car with no tax. I was deeply unpersuaded, not so much by the scenario as by the word ‘should’: Ariel’s past struck me as ideal for an edgy, cult-crossover fictional heroine – and it didn’t seem to have left her particularly traumatised either. It’s all a bit Transgression By Numbers. The university setting wasn’t really believable, and the people in it certainly weren’t (a big difference with Kate Atkinson). Ariel’s main source of income is absurdly unbelievable – she writes a regular article, on a theme of her choosing, for a monthly magazine – and her grounding in philosophy seems to consist of quoting odd bits of Foucault and saying ‘Derrida’ every so often. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t turn out towards the end that Ariel is in fact a super-hot-shot philosopher; her philosophical chops are actually a plot device, like Doyce’s invention in Our Mutual Friend (which Dickens had the good sense to keep under a cloth at all times).

And then there’s the homeopathy. O Lord, the homeopathy. Homeopathy – which Ariel initially knows nothing about, rather oddly but usefully for the plot – is a McGuffin in this book, but it’s a very large McGuffin. There doesn’t seem to be any irony attached to it – there’s not much irony attached to anything Ariel does – and it seems simplest to suppose that the author, like the character, simply believes in it. At one stage Ariel procures a 100C dilution – that’s 10^200, an unimaginably vast number; diluting to this level would be a singularly pointless activity, since every last atom of the substance would necessarily have disappeared from the beaker by about a third of the way through (there are 10^85 elementary particles in the known universe, give or take a few). She gets this mystical drink of water from a kind of cross between Neal’s Yard and a head shop, where it’s kept under the counter; the guy serving her warns her to take care, as it’s “strong stuff”. No, it isn’t. It really, really isn’t.

Ultimately Mr Y is a fantasy in more ways than one: it’s a megalomaniac fantasy, a fantasy of a world where the central character is really really powerful and really really important, and hardly anybody else is entirely real. On the whole I’d rather be reading Kate Atkinson (or Jonathan Coe, or Kazuo Ishiguro). But it was fun while it lasted.

Eoin Colfer, And Another Thing
I was never a huge fan of Douglas Adams. I’ve got the original trilogy, obviously – I remember getting the third when it came out – and I’ve got the awful So Long… and the grim Mostly Harmless, and the Dirk Gently books (the first one’s terrific) and The Salmon of Doubt. (I think that’s it. No, wait – I’ve also got the novelisation of Starship Titanic (by Terry Jones), and I’ve got the Infocom Hitchhiker game, probably on a 5 1/4″ floppy.) I didn’t really like where Hitchhiker went after the first three books, and I always thought there was a lot of rather tedious geeky backslapping around Adams, particularly when his career as a professional rationalist started taking off. (The creationist argument from design, to squash one particularly irritating pet nit, says that there should be wonders of nature which prove the existence of God beyond all possible doubt; star-bound creationists would just love the Babel fish.)

As for Eoin Colfer, I’m certainly not a fan – he’s a children’s author, after all, and but for my teenage son I’d never have read any of his stuff. As it is I’ve read all the Artemis Fowl books plus the Supernaturalist, the Wish List, Half Moon Investigations, Benny and Omar and Benny and Babe. Quite good some of them are too.

So all in all, while I thought that a new Hitchhiker sequel was a pretty bad idea, I thought the project was probably in safe hands. Unfortunately I was wrong. Unlike Mr Y, I could put And Another Thing down, and once I’d put it down I could leave it put down for several days while I finished something else – e.g. Artemis Fowl and the Atlantis Complex, not to mention a couple of Jacqueline Wilsons (belonging to my daughter). I seriously considered not finishing it several times, and can’t say my decision to press on was greatly rewarded.

What went wrong? Three things, I think. One was the terms on which the sequel was drawn up. So long… is a pure contractual-obligation book, written by someone who was getting thoroughly bored with his characters and wanted them to do something more interesting. Mostly harmless has a richer imaginative universe, but it’s the book of a writer going through a divorce, which is to say that it’s bleak: the human characters are as misanthropic as the original Hitchhiker‘s Vogons, while the Vogons are essentially Himmler with a clipboard. Colfer, the publisher or both decided that this sequel should be a sequel to all five of the previous books. This doesn’t mean that everything that had happened in So long and MH has to stay happened (MH ends with the destruction of every possible Earth, after all) but it does mean that the characters have to be rather thinly-imagined real individuals, howling misanthropes or both, rather than the revue-sketch mouthpieces of the first few books. It doesn’t make for a fun read.

The second problem is the info-dumps from the Guide itself, which of course were a striking feature of the earlier books. Two problems here: Colfer doesn’t bring these off as well as Adams did, and (perhaps relatedly) he does far too many of them. Which relates to the third problem, which is one of style. Colfer has two main styles as a writer: a pared-down thriller style with glances into the main characters’ consciousness (the Artemis Fowl books) and a relaxed, yarning, and I’ll tell you another thing style (the Benny books and Half Moon). Normally you would suppose that such a style would be adopted in circumstances conducive to its pursuit to a successful conclusion, as the manuals had it – such at least were the thoughts running through the reviewer’s head that Thursday. Trouble was, the reviewer ruefully acknowledged, the manuals were one thing and real writing was quite another – and it looked very much as if the author was going to keep up this chatty, verbose, register-shifting style indefinitely, or at least until he himself got wholly bored with it or else some gobshite in the broadsheets took it upon himself to accuse him of “blarney”… Colfer can clearly turn this stuff out by the yard: there are pages and pages of it in the Benny books, in particular, and in those books it works well. In the context of a sequel to the Hitchhiker books, populated with two-and-a-half-dimensional misanthropes and repeatedly slowed down by mostly-unsuccessful attempts to make the kind of jokes about science and philosophy that Douglas Adams used to make – in that context, it really doesn’t work.

I’ll read whatever Colfer writes next – that approach has served me well until now. And I’ll look out for Scarlett Thomas’s next couple of books after Mr Y, in the library or on the next second-hand stall I pass. But I’m not in any hurry – I’ve already got my next novel lined up. Something called Wolf Hall, you may have heard of it.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted 27 August 2010 at 08:18 | Permalink | Reply

    Wolf Hall: a good read, you’ll enjoy it, but in its way explains why I don’t read contemporary novels.

  2. Posted 27 August 2010 at 15:40 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m not entirely sure you didn’t miss the point of the Babel Fish thing. Yes, a real world creationist would pounce on it as proof that God exists – that’s the joke.

    I can’t remember the exact phrasing now, but it’s something like.

    “I refuse to prove I exist,” says God, “because proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

    “Ah,” someone else says, “But check out the Babel Fish. Something that staggeringly useful can’t have evolved by chance, so it proves you exist. Therefore by your own argument, you don’t. QED.”

    “Oh bugger, I hadn’t thought of that,” says God, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

    It’s not intended as a serious theological argument ;)

  3. Posted 30 August 2010 at 11:22 | Permalink | Reply

    (Indeed, most leading theologians claim this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys…)

  4. Phil
    Posted 7 September 2010 at 21:38 | Permalink | Reply

    Aston Blank (n.): a defiant but slightly embarrassed silence, as of one who is convinced that he is in the right but ruefully aware that his memories of the subject are rather distant.

  5. Posted 26 September 2010 at 13:03 | Permalink | Reply

    Well, you get credit for the phrase ‘to squash one particularly irritating pet nit’, which deserves to be a definition if anyone can find a suitable placename to attach to it, as per The Meaning of Liff, which you get further credit for referencing. I say this a devoted keeper and occasional squasher of pet nits.

    I came up with a Meaning of Liff def the other day:

    Tullybelton (n.): the crease left on the skin by a too-tight waistband.

  6. Posted 15 October 2010 at 14:43 | Permalink | Reply

    Belated, can I just say I read Mr Y as well, and though I ‘enjoyed’ reading it, I found it frustrating for exactly the reasons you did. So thanks for articulating it far better than I could have done!

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