Review: The Reactorside Reader

The Reactorside Reader is a kind of miscellany of side stories – both graphic and prose – associated with Shaenon K. Garrity’s webseries Narbonic. Here we get glimpses into the childhood of mad scientist Helen Narbon, and into married life between her and IT guy Dave (spoiler: it’s chaotic).

The first two stories, “Space” and “The Other Time She Made Him a Sandwich!”, both of them comics rather than prose, are rather sweet little standalones: it’s a pity there aren’t more stories of Dave and Helen post-marriage, as I found them more interesting than the strips in the main run. The whole book exudes a general sense of fannishness: these aren’t texts that have coherent narrative projects but rather spaces in which to hang out with beloved characters. There’s a sort of metatextual dialogue going on too, an awareness of a community that’s formed around the texts; an atmosphere of co-creation between the reader and the author.

Of course, with these strips bound into a physical book, distanced from their original circumstances of production, it’s impossible to access that community any more, or to participate in that dialogue; which might be why I’ve struggled to get into Narbonic as a whole. It’s the kind of morphing text that’s responding to ephemeral cultural circumstances – in-jokes, tropes, fannishness – and that probably needs to be experienced over a period of years, not days or hours, to achieve its intended affect. I just don’t think it’s ever going to be For Me.

Review: Sixteen Ways to Defend A Walled City

I find myself thinking quite often about this essay by Adam Roberts quite a lot when I’m reading contemporary fantasy. Its central thesis is that style and language are crucial to worldbuilding: that “a bourgeois discursive style [typical to 20th and 21st century literature] constructs a bourgeois world”; and that, therefore, evoking a pre-industrial setting is not just a question of set-dressing, it’s about recognising that pre-industrial mindsets and habits of thought were radically different to those that modern Western societies currently possess. It’s precisely the mismatch between style and content which Roberts identifies in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind that bothered me about K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.

The novel’s protagonist is Orhan, colonel-in-chief of an engineering regiment belonging to what is essentially the Byzantine Empire except with all the names changed. One of life’s natural con artists (he has strong Moist von Lipwig energy), Orhan finds himself, through a series of calamitous events, the highest-ranking military officer in a not-Constantinople besieged by a mysterious barbarian army. The situation looks dire: the entire chain of command has fled, the emperor is in a coma and the closest thing there is to a military force in the city is three thousand carpenters with blunt swords. Orhan must come up with a string of increasingly unlikely and desperate schemes to keep the city’s remaining population alive and stave off the barbarians’ inevitable assault a few hours more.

It ought to be entertaining, even thought-provoking, touching on such weighty themes as institutional racism, the fall of civilisation and the ingenuity of ordinary people. Its lack of meaningful engagement with the actual sociocultural and moral dynamics of the period, though, means that it ends up just being slight. The novel is meticulously researched, the world carefully built; Parker can, and does, tell you all about how military supplies are distributed, about the workings of the city’s criminal underworld, even about its sewage disposal systems. None of it changes the fact that Orhan expresses himself in a jarringly 21st century idiom.

He stabbed me. I hadn’t seen the sword in his hand. I thought; what the devil are you playing at? He pulled the sword out and swung it at my head. I may not be the most perceptive man you’ll ever meet, but I can read between the lines; he didn’t like me.

More egregiously modern are the novel’s racial dynamics: Parker trots out that old faux-profound chestnut, “What If White People Were The Oppressed Ones???” (The besieging barbarian army are all white, as is Orhan, whereas the civilised people in the city are called, derogatorily, “blueskins”.) I will admit I don’t know much about the racial dynamics of the period, but it seems unlikely to me that they would have so closely mirrored our own constructs of whiteness and Blackness only conveniently flipped (the flipping in itself a misunderstanding of how modern Western culture treats race).

There’s a sense, possibly, in which I’m being unfair to the text. Orhan’s modernity is after all deliberate: his irreverent, working-class voice is meant to contrast jarringly, or at least surprisingly, with the antique setting, just as his lack of social status and proper respect for authority make him an extremely unlikely commander-in-chief of the empire’s forces. For me, though, this isn’t a productive contrast; it doesn’t make me revisit my understanding of the classical period the text is set in, it doesn’t force me to confront genuine strangeness. In fact the novel’s prioritisation of a Western 21st-century perspective feels pretty egotistical: the assumption that we in this corner of the globe in this particular historical moment, have somehow stumbled upon the best, the only way to understand the world around us. If I’m reading about the past, and especially if I’m reading alt-history, I want to read something that can only be set in that past; where the cultural specifics of that past are key to the author’s thesis. That’s something I don’t get from Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.

Review: Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Volume 2

So, here we are: the second half of Shaenon K. Garrity’s webcomic Narbonic, which ran daily between 2000 and 2006, recounting the adventures of mad scientist Helen Beta Narbon, IT guy Dave, intern Mell and superintelligent gerbil Artie.

Like I guess many comic strips, it’s as much a character-led thing as it is anything. Lots of plotty stuff happens – time travel, visits to the afterlife, gerbils scheming to destroy the human race – but viewed at the level of the book (as opposed to at the level of each strip, or each subplot) it’s all monster of the week type stuff: we probably vaguely want to know what happens but it’s not why we’re reading. Broadly speaking, we’re reading because we want to know whether Dave and Helen will end up together. So: character-led.

It’s a pleasant enough read: the characters are likable if broadly defined; some of the jokes are quite funny. I do think it reinforces gendered stereotypes as part of its humour; not mean-spiritedly, but identifiably. It’s also not pushing anywhere, by which I mean that it stays firmly within the bounds of its genre. But it’s fun, and non-taxing, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need.

Review: The Return of Heroic Failures

Stephen Pile’s The Return of Heroic Failures is a bathroom book. You know the type: collections of vaguely humorous anecdotes, for a certain value of “humour”, with which to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon or a visit to a relative whose taste in reading material is very different to yours. A successor to The Book of Heroic Failures, it contains stories of general human incompetence, neglect and plain foolishness. Categories include “The Least Successful Shipbuilding”, in which an Italian firm builds four ships for the Malaysian navy before discovering that the only way to the sea lies past a bridge none of them can fit underneath; “The Least Successful Attempt to Murder A Spouse”, concerning a man who makes seven unsuccessful attempts on his wife’s life without her even noticing; and “The Least Appropriate Speech”, in which a member of the House of Lords speaks for five minutes on entirely the wrong subject.

Having been published in 1988, some of the book’s humour is a little off-colour, shall we say, although I don’t remember anything particularly egregious, just the general background assumption that you the reader are a straight white male Westerner that you often get in this kind of book. As for the quality of its humour: I laughed a couple of times, but it’s more “mildly amusing” than “side-splittingly hilarious”. (But see my previous posts re my sense of humour, which is not highly developed.) Basically, it’s fine for a few hours’ entertainment, but I wouldn’t recommend shelling out more than a couple of quid for it in a charity shop.

Review: The Cockroach

I am not, as I said a couple of weeks ago, really the right reader for literary humour. It’s not something I’m very good at parsing, as someone who reads primarily for plot and symbol rather than tone or character. A work that is entirely humorous – that doesn’t, for instance, take its own comedic premise seriously – will more likely than not read to me as inconsequential and forgettable.

So it is with Ian McEwan’s Brexit satire The Cockroach, a reversal of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a cockroach wakes up in the body of the prime minister, bent on enacting a disastrous economic policy with the help of his similarly cockroach-ified cabinet.

I think my main problem with this sort of work is its self-indulgence. Who benefits from a text like this? What does it add to the cultural conversation? It’s not going to change minds or encourage readers to examine their biases and preconceptions; for all its undoubted eloquence, the jokes and comparisons it makes have already been made by any number of left-leaning social media feeds. Boris Johnson may deserve to be likened to a cockroach, and it may make us feel briefly better to do so; but does it actually get us very far? Is this not, in fact, a collective, consolatory wallowing in our middle-class liberal discomfort?

I’d be responding to this differently, I think, if it wasn’t an Ian McEwan book; a book written, in other words, by supposedly one of our finest literary minds. As it is, I expected it to add more to the literary scene than Five on Brexit Island. Give me the rage that bubbles just under the skin of the comedic novels of Terry Pratchett any day; give me the radical socialism of China Mieville; give me something of substance to help me deal with the left’s crisis over this thin, conventional “satire”.

Review: Ayoade on Top

Ayoade on Top is a satirical monograph by comedian Richard Ayoade (whom you’ll know as Moss from The IT Crowd) on the American aeroplane romcom View from the Top, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. View from the Top has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 14%, just to give you an idea of the calibre of work we’re talking about here.

Ayoade has some fair if obvious points to make about this genre of film:

Cinema helps us to remember that although we all have the right to shine, some of us must shine in the background, out of focus, and not too brightly.

And I can’t help but admire the sheer randomness of this project: a parody of a type of writing most people don’t ever read, about an obscure film most people will never see? How does one even go about selling that? let alone convincing people to buy it? I suspect name recognition helps, but still, the market for this book must be less than enormous – it’s a refreshing change from big-name commercial cash-grabs like The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet.

It’s an entertaining enough read, in other words (especially if you can do Ayoade’s deadpan voice in your head), but the joke does become – a little laboured. 250 pages is about 150 pages too long for this particular gag. For all its originality, I think Ayoade on Top is destined to go down in the annals of publishing as no more than a minor work.

Review: Moranifesto

I didn’t not enjoy Moranifesto, a collection of journalist Caitlin Moran’s irreverent, feminist Times columns, together with some new content covering familiar ground. It’s well-written: Moran has a lively, colloquial style of the sort that’s very difficult indeed to achieve. It’s inoffensive, apart from a liberal dose of swearing. Even the claims of irrelevance plenty of Goodreads reviewers are making miss the mark: it’s true that the columns here cover events as long ago as 2012, but we’re talking about once-in-a-lifetime, big-ticket things like the London Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee. It’s not as if Moran’s tackling obscure current events with players nobody remembers any more.

And yet, that word irrelevant keeps coming to mind when I think about Moranifesto. Of course it’s hard to achieve anything earth-shattering within the constraints of a 1000-word newspaper column. But it doesn’t help that nothing Moran says is truly that original. She sets out, I think, to be shocking, with her profanity, her frequent references to vaginas and other taboo feminist issues, her irreverence for royalty and politicians and other things the Sunday papers like to treat as Very Serious. And it works! It works when it’s a page in the Sunday Times Magazine talking about periods or how difficult it is to find comfortable women’s shoes or how shitty and exploitative Benefits Street is – it’s a breath of fresh air amid four-page interviews with celebrities and strait-laced pieces about politics. As a book, though? There are fiercer and bolder voices out there: voices like Zadie Smith, Roxane Gay, Catherynne M. Valente. Actually even Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl is more groundbreaking: the principle of “show not tell” inherent in all fiction gives her themes greater power and greater impact.

Moranifesto is fine. There’s no reason not to read it if you already like Moran’s columns; if you’re a feminist and a little bit of a socialist too. If you’re looking for a read that’s appropriately angry without being too mentally taxing. But nor do I think there’s a particularly compelling reason to read it. Try How to Build a Girl instead.

Film Review: Love Actually

Lindy Miller’s piece in Jezebel says just about everything there is to say about Love Actually, viz., that “this is a movie made for women by a man” wherein the only expressions of straight romantic “love” on show are ones where men lay claim to voiceless women.

If you haven’t seen the film, it consists of multiple interlinked plotlines, all of them centred on an actual or potential straight couple. An eleven-year-old pines after a cool girl from America. The Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) crushes on his secretary. A writer (Colin Firth) falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, who speaks no English. There are lots, I won’t list them all, but suffice it to say that none of them are particularly original and/or revelatory. Straights gonna straight.

It is a fact, though, that the storylines that come closest to showcasing actual, healthy love as it manifests in the real world are the ones where a romantic connection is missed or dropped; the ones that end unhappily from a traditional rom-com perspective. So: Sarah (Laura Linney) chooses her mentally ill brother over her workplace crush, which, in the world of Love Actually, is a terrible tragedy that dooms her to a life of spinsterhood. Women: men require your complete attention at all times! Meanwhile, Karen (Emma Thompson) chooses to stay with her emotionally unfaithful husband for (it’s implied) the good of their children, a sacrifice I’m not sure I can see any of the male characters making.*

What to make of this? That romance is incompatible with real life and real commitments? I’m not sure director Richard Curtis really means to suggest this, but it’s a compelling reading of the film’s worldview nonetheless. I’m particularly thinking of that bizarre subplot where Colin, who is everything his name suggests, heads out to America to find women to sleep with. The scene where three impossibly hot American ladies ALL find him adorable and invite him back home for a foursome reads like a dream sequence, honestly, so removed is it from reality. Oh, then there’s the subplot where Karen’s husband’s hot employee throws herself at him repeatedly, despite the fact that he literally looks like Snape. And then there’s the bit when a woman whose husband’s best friend has been creeping on her is FLATTERED rather than running away extremely fast…And then

Well, you get the idea. Almost the entire film is the fantasy of an average-looking straight man: filled with women whose entire world revolves around him (because LUURVE). And woe betide them if they care about anything other than him: they shall be denied the comforts of romantic male company FOR EVER! (Just as well, you might think, given Love Actually‘s conception of what romantic love is.)

And yet. Love Actually remains quite watchable. Doubtless that has something to do with the calibre of the actors involved – it’s one of those films that will have you playing the “now, what were they in?” guessing game – but I also think there’s something about the mildly unconventional shape of the film, the various intercutting plots and subplots, that holds the attention. There’s something for even the most hostile watcher to enjoy (for me, Emma Thompson; Bill Nighy; Rowan Atkinson in a cameo as an officious department store worker). And the whole thing is nicely paced, too, bringing those interconnecting strands together towards the end of the film to place the characters in a community of sorts. Because, you know, love is all around us.

Gods help us.

 

*I’m still not sure what to do with the storyline about an ageing rock star played by Bill Nighy and his manager, which is also quite sweet. I always read them as gay/bisexual, but I am assured other people don’t.

Film Review: Knives Out

Knives Out is a warm-hearted send-up of the cosy mystery genre: the Agatha Christie-type stories where an eccentric detective plucks a murderer from a tight-knit family/social unit of seven to ten people. In this case, the eccentric detective is Benoit Blanc, a man of idiosyncratic methods played by Daniel Craig in a deeply improbable Southern US accent. He’s been engaged by the police to investigate the murder of Harlan Thrombey, a famous writer who’s amassed a vast fortune through churning out bloody mystery novels. The suspects are his family, who are all in various ways hankering after or reliant on his money, the housekeeper Fran and his Brazilian nurse Marta, whose mother is an undocumented immigrant.

Director Rian Johnson steers us through a host of twists and turns as Benoit Blanc (who we always suspect is slightly incompetent) seeks his culprit, asking seemingly inane questions and plinking piano keys as the regular police interview the suspects. This is a film both full of surprises and utterly familiar, plot-wise: a place where we can safely expect the unexpected.

The politics of Knives Out, however, upend this comfortable conformity. The Thrombeys fall into two political camps: comfortably-racist-bordering-on-white-supremacist (complete with a radicalised teenage boy who spends his time viewing alt-right websites on his smartphone) and blinkered white liberals who can’t see their own racism. Both use Marta as a talking point in their immigration debates, a comment on their shared inability to see people of colour as fully human, and, when things get nasty, both camps are willing to threaten and/or manipulate her in order to get what they want. But the film – and Benoit Blanc – is firmly on her side throughout: on the side of kindness, decency, professionalism, humanity. And the end of the film sees not a comfortable return to the status quo – which is how many of these stories end; violence and discontent contained by the solving of the mystery so life can go on as normal – but an upheaval of the social order. Marta inherits the Thrombey house, and Harlan’s grasping family leave empty-handed, Marta looking on silently from an upper balcony. Not a return to the status quo, but perhaps a hopeful instatement of a new status quo, where the good inherit the earth.

In other words: watch Knives Out! It’s a beautifully-made film, colourful in character and incident, a universe to fall into and a site of hope; cosy and progressive at the same time.

Review: How to Build a Girl

I’ve always enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s columns in the Sunday Times Magazine. Her writing feels unstudied, off-the-cuff, casual, in a way that’s both very rare and very hard to achieve, the smattering of ALL CAPS SENTENCES, slang and brand names belying compelling rhetorical structures and serious political (often feminist) points.

How to Build a Girl is her first novel: a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a young woman called Johanna Morrigan living in 90s Wolverhampton and dreaming of being – someone else. Almost anyone else, really. So, she invents Dolly Wilde, a gothpunk Manic Pixie Dream Girl Lady Sex Adventurer alter ego in a top hat, gets a job as a music critic and embarks on a life of drink, drugs and moderate, grungy showbiz. So far, so standard a teenage rebellion; what makes How to Build a Girl notable is its commentary on the poverty created by the closing of traditional industries under Margaret Thatcher; the Morrigans’ ever-present fear of having their benefits cut; and the objectification of female bodies. It is altogether a more…cerebral novel than its subject matter and origin might suggest.

The conversational nature of Moran’s non-fiction writing has been dialled back here: gone is the brand-name specificity, the knowing-wink directness. In long form, and without these embellishments, the relative simplicity of her sentence and narrative structures become apparent: I don’t think I’d ever categorise How to Build a Girl as literary fiction, it is too artless for that. But, just occasionally and at its best, Moran’s prose is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s in its very artlessness, its tumble of teenage emotion:

…it is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish.

One consequence of this artlessness is that the novel is, let’s say, quite tell-y not show-y. Which is to say, instead of allowing its readers to come to conclusions based on narrative and character, it spells out what you should take from it: see the above statement on cynicism, or this, from John Kite, a singer and Johanna’s crush:

When the middle classes get passionate about politics, they’re arguing about their treats—their tax breaks and their investments. When the poor get passionate about politics, they’re fighting for their lives.

Despite the fact that How to Build a Girl is ostensibly written from Johanna’s point of view, these passages feel like statements from an insecure author who wants to make very sure we Get The Point.

Which we do. And we agree with you. Don’t worry, Caitlin. It’s all good.

And yet. This is still, I think, an important book. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is how very many sex and masturbation scenes there are in this novel. Johanna/Dolly is, after all, a teenage girl discovering all the mysteries and pleasures of incipient adulthood, all at once, with multiple partners, or no-one at all if necessary. In one memorable scene, she gets cystitis from someone with a very large penis. This is important because, as Johanna herself says, “There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck, and be fucked.” There are not many stories in which women are allowed to be like this without being seen as a kind of fascinating lusus naturae. There are not many cultural narratives as honest about the female sexual experience.

I don’t know that How to Build a Girl is going to stand as a classic through the ages, or anything like that. It is not a novel that can sustain much critical scrutiny or discussion – it wears its messages too obviously on its sleeve for that; we are never in much doubt as to Moran’s politics or Johanna’s opinions or motivations. As a “lighter” read, though, a chick-lit-style novel that doesn’t make you feel like you do when you’ve binged on Dairy Milk (unsatisfied and slightly nauseated) – well, it’s much better than Shopaholic, let’s put it that way.