Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lionel's latest

By Tracy

Now onto Lionel Shriver's newest novel, So Much For That.

I was offered to choose a book as a gift the other day, and couldn't help myself. This one is for leisure, not for study, so it will have to be a slower read. (Leisure?)

It's essentially a book about the US healthcare system, and if I hadn't had first-hand experience of that, it might have lost me already, because it's rather reliant on long mouthpiece speeches.

And though I've appreciated most of the other Shriver novels I've read, I would class my most recent experience of her work, an early book called Game Control, as one of the worst novels I've ever read.

In this latest, there are the usual wonderful moments of clarity and perception of human foibles; unfortunately these turn all too quickly into harping on human foibles -- there's a bleak hard edge in her writing that's sometimes hard to bear.

There's also a kind of "book-club" topicality that I find irritating (certain subjects are just always going to get an airing with the book-buying public).

That's not a hit at book clubs, just an observation that you can sometimes feel how writers cynically aim at a niche.

However, in this case Shriver is also writing from experience of a friend's terminal illness, and it's not just a "topic" for her.

Why do I keep reading her, when she keeps making me so uncomfortable? I don't want merely to feel comfortable when I read -- and she steers clear of the sentimental. But she can also steer right into the grotesque... as when one of her male characters goes in for a botched "enlargement" operation. (Well, she is dealing with the medical system in this novel...) 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pondering the parvenu

By Tracy

So I finished Piers Paul Read's The Upstart, and while it was mostly compelling, the wrap-up was ridiculous, perhaps deliberate bathos.

I won't go into it here, in order to avoid spoilers. But the story was "resolved" in a way that only a religious writer who wanted to get his "moral" in could do it.

Now I'm aware that he built in lots of ironies so as not to make it too pat; that the dénouement is more than half tongue-in-cheek. But it's also not, and you can't have it both ways.

In sum, I expected something more outlandish from a mostly outlandish book. The challenge, for the writer, was always going to be in the ending. You could argue that the "happy outcome" is the very anguish, is the punishment, that the protagonist deserves. But that's too easy. The book is unforgettable yet doesn't satisfy.

Saying more would ruin the experience for anyone who hasn't read it yet...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Starting The Upstart

By Tracy

I've never read any Piers Paul Read before, though I've been aware of him since my teens when I bought a cheap copy of Martin Seymour-Smith's Novels and Novelists (a guide I still sometimes dip into, nearly 20 years later, even though by now it's missing many later writers!).

I've begun Read's novel The Upstart (1973) because it fits into a narrative pattern I'm studying -- of the parvenu who is (self- or socially?)-driven to crime or transgression -- but it's unlike anything I've read before, except perhaps obliquely the bizarre, compelling short novel from 1970 by Muriel Spark called The Driver's Seat. (The memory of that one still makes my spine tingle. How surprising books can be. I think, though, that it has very different aims from those of The Upstart. But I haven't finished reading that.)

PP Read is disturbing -- the content is often misogynistic and homophobic, but then that content is placed in the mouth of a very unreliable narrator... and you don't realise he is so until quite well into the book. Like Spark, Read is a Catholic and to some degree this sits with the right-wing odour that pervades Read's book. (Not all Catholics are exactly right-wing, of course. I say that as one brought up Catholic myself, though long since "lapsed".) I don't like his politics but am aiming to read a wide selection of narratives with this kind of theme, so he's on my list.

To put it colloquially, this book messes with your head. Nasty but arresting, startling, and well-written. I will report again when it's finished.

Bad, Botched Brel (but still...)

By Tracy

Smitten as ever with le grand Jacques, but rarely getting time to listen these days, I finally succumbed and borrowed the DVD of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris from Planet Video in Mount Lawley last week.

Can’t say I wasn’t warned – apart from a few fanatics who must be tone-deaf or very tolerant, almost every online review I read had stressed how awful the film was.

It’s not Brel singing – though he does make a brief appearance to sing Ne me quitte pas at one point in the film. It’s the filmed version of a stage show built around translations – sometimes complete makeovers – of a clutch of Brel’s songs into (American) English.

We saw the Perth version of this stage show, minus some of the numbers, two years ago, with much better singers and far greater dynamism – a production to mark the 30th anniversary of Brel’s death. It did, however, downplay the politics and was more about pure entertainment. The original play dates from 1968 and even in the later film you can see many of the political and social concerns of that time being alluded to or openly referenced in the way the set of songs has been stitched together.

Some of the translations are quite good, or at least quite in keeping with the spirit of the Brelien universe. Some are weak.

The film dates from 1975 and feels at least as dated as that, or more. It’s as if the filmmaker was trying to cross Godspell with Hair  and Rocky Horror, and run it through the sieve of a chaotic Andy Warhol production.

That on its own wouldn’t bother me – chaos being okay to some degree, and representative of what they were trying to say about the world.

But the voices of the singers in this film version were unbearable to me. And I don’t think it’s just the inevitable mental comparison with Brel himself – Elly Stone is simply too shrill for my liking, and the others watery and wobbly. (I did find Stone's rendition of Marieke quite moving, but I suspect it was the translation and the melody itself. Here is Brel's.) Voice styles change, go in and out of fashion – some seem to transcend that, as Brel's does, but not these. I tried just watching the versions of my own favourite songs, but it was painful.

Still, I put myself through it. And survived to tell the tale. One for desperate fans only (if then).