The Drama of the Good

The Portal
The Portal

I’ve now read six of Andrew Norriss’s books and I think I know what his work is about: every story I’ve read has been a drama of the good. But if drama requires conflict, how can there be drama where all the characters are good? That is the question Andrew Norriss seems to me to be setting out to explore in his books, and his writing, and its success or otherwise, represents an answer to that question.

‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Thus begins Anna Karenina, with one of the most famous quotations in literature. And of course, if happy families are all alike, they must be inherently less interesting than unhappy ones. But thought and experience both tell me Tolstoy was wrong. Happiness ramifies, producing unique results; misery contracts, collapsing everything down to a cold, solid core. In this, Dante was right over Milton: the devil in the Inferno is encased in the ice of his own evil, immobile, but seeking to draw everything and everyone down into his own eternal stasis, whereas the Satan of Paradise Lost is active and engaged, more of a character than anyone else.

Here, Milton and other writers and film makers have fallen foul of one of the great shortcuts of dramatic art: it’s much, much easier to write an interesting evil character than a fascinating good one. Why should this be? One answer is that evil, at least in its everyday modes, is encoded into our substance. You don’t have to be an Augustinian to note the evidence of something very like original sin in our substance: simply think of the ease, the positive relief, with which good habits are shucked off when compared to the struggle against bad and destructive habits. We are creatures bent out of true, and thus it is much easier for a writer to understand what is so readily to mind in his or her own nature.

But goodness, true goodness, now, that is something else. Rarely encountered, even more rarely written about, it is almost impossible to capture in words or images precisely because it escapes the categories of thought: the normal binary operations of our mind (black/white, right/left) fail when we encounter true goodness and real evil. Evil is not the opposite of good, it is its absence, the hunger of the abyss for a being it is determined to expunge.

We are empty creatures, seeking fulfillment, and goodness is that fulfillment, in all its various, simple, ordinary forms. Each happy family is unique; it is the unhappy families that are alike, tending towards the dark attractor that is the cause and gourmet of human misery.

Andrew Norriss, is his deceptively slight books, provides a glimpse of escape from that core of despair. In his stories, good people are, genuinely, good, and work towards good ends, yet the threads of circumstance and the workings of providence (which is not without its own humour) conspire to provide the narrative tension that, on the artistic level, pulls the reader along, a smile of unknowing recognition on his face, towards the denouement. For, somewhere in our hearts, buried under the hurts of lives, we know that, really, this is what the world should be like – and will, one day, be.

Adventures in Bookland: Hornblower and the Hotspur by CS Forester

Hornblower and the Hotspur
Hornblower and the Hotspur

Hornblower and the Hotspur is the third book in the series by character age, but the last novel for Forester himself. It was published in 1962 and the author would only live four more years – long enough to start another Hornblower but not to finish it. So, his creation has outlived him by nearly 50 years and looks set to continue on for a while yet.

This is no necessary outcome – a visit to any second-hand bookshop or a trawl through old best-seller lists will reveal shelves of books, famous in their day, and now as forgotten as the mouldering men and women who wrote them. So, why has Hornblower endured? One reason, sad to say, is fortune itself – as the screenwriter William Goldman says about the film industry but which could be as well applied to publishing, ‘Nobody  knows anything…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.’ So, for the public, Hornblower worked – and continues to work. In large part that must be because of Hornblower himself: a character of sufficient quirks to make him interesting, but with enough heroism to make him an admirable hero through a series of novels. But another reason must surely be Forester’s command of tension and release. Throughout Hornblower and the Hotspur, situations personal and naval are brought to crisis point and resolved, within the overall arc of Hornblower’s ascent from Commander to Captain to, at the book’s closing, Post Captain, and the security of assured command. Maybe it was Forester’s work in the film industry that tutored him in writing in subsidiary climaxes through the course of his work, maybe it evolved naturally in his writing, but it is quite masterly in its execution. I shall be following Hornblower as he ascends the ranks to admiral!

 

Adventures in Bookland: Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr Mercedes
Mr Mercedes

Question: when to stop reading a book. I have no problem starting a book – and there’s a teetering pile next to my bed waiting for attention – but when should I stop reading a book once I’ve started it? All right, there’s some easy answers to this: if the book in question is so incompetently written as to become annoying; if, even after giving it a fair chance, the prospect of picking it up and carrying on seems more chore than pleasure – although there is an exception to this in the case of recognised classics: I’ll keep ploughing through these, even if they seem tedious, in the expectation that they would not have achieved classic status for no reason (and I’m just enough of a literary snob to want to tick another off the classics’ list even if I do find the reading tedious).

But as for Mr Mercedes – confession time here; although I am reviewing it, I did not read the whole book – I stopped reading despite the fact that it was a good, indeed riveting book. I stopped precisely because it was a riveting book, with all the page-turning compulsion that’s made Stephen King what he is and made me read a good fraction (although by no means all) of his books. I stopped because it was too good – or, rather, one of the characters, Brady Horsefield, the mass-murdering Mr Mercedes, was too good – in the sense of too vividly depicted – and, since nearly as much time is spent with him as the narrative point of view, I decided I really just did not want to have him inside my head any longer. So, having read to the end of part I, I skipped to the end, read his comeuppance, found out which characters had been sacrificed along the way in the service of the narrative, was dearly relieved to find out that the dog seemed to have survived, and then put the book down, satisfied and relieved. You know, much though I hate to say this, sometimes the best thing you can do is not finish a book.

Adventures in Bookland: The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde

The Eye of Zoltar
The Eye of Zoltar

The Fforde Invention Meter, having crept towards the red line in the first two books in the series, goes into the red, inspiration, zone. As ever, the joy is in the details, from reality grades I to IV, to the wild beasts of Wales, rather than the characterisation (Jennifer Strange is about as close to perfection as anyone outside the hero of a Dean Koontz novel can come). It’s just as well, really, that characterisation isn’t Fforde’s strong point, as this means I didn’t get too upset when some characters met unexpectedly terminal ends (the sort of ends which suggests they really really really won’t be coming back in the fourth and final book).

Adventures in Bookland: Word on the Street

Word on the Street
Word on the Street

What’s the strangest thing you’ve heard people say on the street, in a tube, on the bus, anywhere in London? As I’ve usually got my nose buried in a book on the tube, I usually miss what people are talking about, but luckily for me plenty of others are busy taking notes and then tapping the questions, phrases, sayings and bon mots into Twitter on their iPhones to send to Time Out, which publishes them every week in the ‘Word on the Street’ section. This little book is a collection of some of the best – and when I say best, I mean most bizarre, ranging from ‘White bread is like the ninja of the food world. It’s a silent killer’ to ‘Clearly, there’s a reason nostrils are the same size as fingers’.

They’re surreal, rude and, sometimes, probably certifiable, but definitely compelling, which is what makes the ‘Word on the Street’ section of the magazine the turn-to page it is. This little book is probably ideal toilet or bathroom reading (and also very useful if, like me, you’re running behind on the Goodreads Reading Challenge) but at £6.99 it is really over priced. £5 would be more like it, and £2.99 would be ideal: there are, after all not that many pages (rather craftily, the pages aren’t numbered so without sitting down and counting you won’t know how many) but in terms of pence per word, only something like Where the Wild Things Are is worse value (although the Wild Things has the better pictures!). So, I’d advise sticking to the magazine – now a freebie – rather than paying for the book.

Adventures in Bookland: The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

The Song of the Quarkbeast
The Song of the Quarkbeast

What is the song of an imaginary creature? Admittedly, the creature in question is a (metaphorical) mixture of velociraptor, knife block (with the knives all sticking blade up) and labrador, so not the most obvious candidate for song, but the question stands. Well, it turns out, rather than the sparking clash of metal, or the grind of tooth on bone, the song of the Quarkbeast is enchanting: yearning, lonely, and ever reaching towards a barely glimpsed and often receding, yet certainly there, consummation. Unfortunately, in a curious nod towards MAD (mutually assured destruction/desire) the Quarkbeast sings only when its twin approaches, and union with said anti-twin will bring absolute destruction, as when an electron and positron meet.

This is unfortunate for the Quarkbeast. It’s also unfortunate for anyone else within a mile or two. But it’s good for the reader. Jasper Fforde’s invention drive, which was revving nicely in the first volume of the series without getting much second gear, begins to pick up speed in this second book of The Chronicles of Kazam. And, after all, this is what we read Fforde for: invention, imagination, wordplay and dreadful puns (not so much character development). As with Thursday Next, where the Fforde invention drive (or FID for short) took until the second or third volume in the series to really kick into overdrive, so with The Chronicles of Kazam: after a few jerks and shudders in the first book, the story is really beginning to rev up nicely here and I anticipate the third and fourth will explode into the inventosphere. Three and a half stars for this one and anticipating four for the next.

Adventures in Bookland: Fiefdom by Dan Abnett and Nik Vincent

Fiefdom
Fiefdom

OK, if dogs could talk, what would they say? It’s easy with cats: they, of course, can talk, but they’re obviously not going to have conversations with the servile class. But dogs, what would they say?

At first thought, I’d have said, ‘Bone!’ or ‘Walks!’, with great enthusiasm. But that is to do down dogs – and besides, that’s pretty much what they always say when they can talk (or, in the wonderful film Up!, ‘Squirrel!’). You know, that’s too easy. Sure, some would go for the monosyllabic whuff of enthusiasm, but others would be more considered, more thoughtful, more mellow: they’d drop their head to one side, loll their tongues and say, ‘Bones, walks, sleep, huh, huh, master, love.’

Yes, I set off this review trying to make a case for literary dogs and I don’t seem to have made it to my destination. Neither does the Dan man (the world’s hardest working author): the protagonists of Fiefdom are dog soldiers, genetically modified to protect mankind and then, finding themselves the only survivors of an Ice Age, living on in the U-Bahn tunnels under Berlin. But, being dogs, once, their vocabulary proves rather limited, and though the book has all the Dandroid’s usual narrative drive, there’s a limit to how many times you can hear a dog soldier saying, ‘Tougher and tough’ before it begins to pall a little. Still, for a blood-soaked light tube train read (particularly appropriate given its U-Bahn setting), it rattles along as quickly as the new rolling stock on the Metropolitan line.

The First Review of Oswald: Return of the King

Liz Robinson at Lovereading has written the first review of Oswald: Return of the King: it’s lovely and, as writers rank only slightly below actors in our thirst for praise without wanting to show it, obviously thoroughly deserved!

Let’s give it the Isaac ‘Yaay!’

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Here’s the start of the review:

A triumphant continuation of the ‘Northumbrian Thrones’ trilogy; these tales are bringing to life a forgotten time, when being a King was a dangerously unpredictable job to hold. The story now races ahead to Oswald who witnessed the death of his father in the first book Edwin: High King of Britain’. This story feels even more complete than Edwin’s, knowing Oswald’s background helps to give flesh and emotion to this man and an appreciation of the difficulties battering his very existence.

To read the rest, go here.

Adventures in Bookland: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer
The Last Dragonslayer

In honour of the wonderful Jasper Fforde, and in particular his Thursday Next novels where the eponymous heroine enters Bookworld to save it from various menaces and perils, I’ve renamed the previously rather boring ‘book review’ section of my blog, ‘Adventures in Bookland’. And, in truth, that’s a far better title, for after all, when we read a book we do go on an adventure. If it’s a non-fiction book, then there will be intellectual adventure to go, hopefully, with narrative excitement and verbal fizz; if it’s a story, then, hopefully, there will be dragons!

And, yes, you’ve guessed it (the title does rather give it away), Jasper Fforde does give us dragons, or rather one (with a couple of slither ons at the end). He also gives us a version of Britain, the Ununited Kingdom, split into a myriad little principalities, rather as if GK Chesterton had sat down (on a sturdy, reinforced chair!) and divided the country up on Distributist lines. I particularly enjoyed the Troll Wall, in the far North, built to keep out what it says in its name – no doubt many Westminster politicians, looking with dismay at what is happening north of the border in this 2015 election year, would feel the same.

But now, enjoyable though The Last Dragonslayer is, can I ask a question. When was the last time we had, in books, a proper, fire breathing, maiden eating, gold hoarding, evil serpent? I know there’s been Smaug in the recent Hobbit films, but they hark back to Tolkien (to a greater or lesser extent!). But, since Smaug, have there been any properly evil worms? Thinking back over the last, er, rather too long, but let’s say forty years or so, I can remember Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, the Luckdragon of The Neverending Story, Gordon Dickson’s Dragon Knight stories, the aerial division of the armies in a modified Napoleonic war in the Temeraire series, and the dragons in George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (which I’ve not read or watched, but have been unable to avoid). At worst, these dragons can be called dangerous, but most are positively cuddly (or, at least, as cuddly as fire-breathing beasts with scales can reasonably be expected to be).

Now, I understand that authors might want to play with the stereotype, to break it down and try it from a new angle, but really, don’t you think we have a whole new stereotype here? Now, dragons are always, always, misunderstood creatures, cruelly picked on by a humanity fearful of ‘the other’. Indeed, it’s become such a stereotype that the reward of the unexpected awaits the first writer to make the dragon back into what it was, traditionally: cold, calculating and thoroughly, completely evil.

There, I’ve given you the idea, free and gratis. Now get out there and write it. I, for one, will read it, and, on this day of St George, cheer the dragonslayer!

Book review: Lieutenant Hornblower by CS Forester

Lieutenant Hornblower
Lieutenant Hornblower

Having cheerfully patted myself on the back in my last review but one that I had made the right decision to read the Hornblower series in chronological rather than publication order, I now have to withdraw the self-congratulatory pat on the back. Lieutenant Hornblower, the second in time but the seventh to be written, does not work nearly so well as the second book in a multi-volume series for the simple reason that it was the seventh book actually written. As such, CS Forester was obviously trying out narrative ideas to freshen up his work and, in this, he writes from the point of view not of Hornblower but of William Bush, who had already been established in the series as Hornblower’s best friend, but is here introduced – and introduced to Hornblower. All the action is seen from Bush’s point of view and, since he’s a stolid, unimaginative officer, very far from the high-wrought but controlled tension under which Hornblower lives, the book has a very different feel to the first: it’s dashed hard to write through the eyes of a slightly dull man without the writing occasionally being a bit dull, and Forester only just survives the experiment in point of view. Now, if I had already the first seven Hornblower novels, this would have been absolutely fine, as I’d be more than ready for a different view of our hero – and, indeed, an insight into how others see him. But, as I am only starting to get to know him, this drawing back to another point of view was disconcerting. Despite this, Forester’s narrative drive carried me along, and I finished the book faster than a sailor claiming his ration of grog, and I have already reserved the next in the series from the libarary. And, yes, having started this way, that is how I will continue – at least for the next book (although if this one is written from the point of view of the woman Hornblower appears to have decided to marry at the end of this book – a mistake, I strongly suspect – then I’m not I’ll be able to bear it).