Tuesday, September 30, 2003

A review of Twisted Tenderness, by Electronic,
CD 4983452, Parlophone/Clear Productions Ltd, UK 1999.

As a New Order devotee, I'd approached the eponymously titled first Electronic album with gusto. It was entirely different to the bassline founded New Order, yet I wasn't disappointed - Electronic hooked me instantly, especially Idiot Country, Tighten Up and Get The Message.

Twisted Tenderness was different again.

Going abroad is supposed to be a culture shock, yet, as a UK national, I've always found that returning to this disunited land from another country to be a much harder experience. And so it was with Twisted Tenderness. Comparing this album to the debut Electronic album was far harder than relating the debut album to preceding New Order albums (forget Electronic album 2 - it was relatively crap) . Gone were the dizzying electronic riffs of the first album (did Johnny Marr really play on album one?), replaced by savage guitars and throbbing basslines, merged with Barney Sumner's beautifully scratchy and delicate voice.

Some reviewers say that Twisted Tenderness takes time to grip. I suggest that these reviewers review their hearing abilities, or obtain replacement audio equipment. Or else try Boyzone, or some other inane and manufactured band. Twisted Tenderness gripped from track one and held my attention to the end of the final track, the prophetic Flicker - "Going to school with Saddam Hussein?" Too right.

Standout tracks? Make It Happen. Haze. Vivid. Twisted Tenderness. Prodigal Son, with it's spine tingling Indian feel, enhanced to sublime levels by the lyrics. The remaining tracks are, at worst, very good, especially Can't Find My Way Home and Late At Night.

Buy this album. Electronic are not the poor cousins of the spectacular New Order, or the overrated Smiths. Electronic make inspiring and enduring music. This album has not dated. It evolves every time you listen to it. Listen to this album. Evolve with it.

A review of Nicolo’s Gifts, by Neil Ayres,
ISBN 0954379667, Bluechrome Publishing, UK 2003.

There’s good news and there’s bad news with this, the debut novel from Neil Ayres.

The bad news is that Nicolo’s Gifts is both too long and too short. Too long? The first three and a half chapters are slow going, and the prose feels stilted and artificial at times - it’s oddly reminiscent in this respect of early JG Ballard. And, while relevant, the first story within the story is too long, and, in coming so soon after the difficult early chapters, threatens to divert attention away from the developing story thread - potentially catastrophic for readers who may have been struggling up to this point. These first few chapters and the story within the story could have benefited from some sharp editing.

Too short? There are some interesting people in Nicolo’s Gifts, but some of them felt underdeveloped. No, they’re not cardboard cut-outs, on the contrary, these are real people, and very well drawn - Ayres is a natural at the understated character study (which happens to be in the first and third person present tense, together with third person past tense - an excellent strategy, because it keeps the reader unsettled) - but I had that feeling one gets at a party when the person who is just getting interesting calls a cab and leaves. I just wanted to get to know some of them better.

The good news. A transition occurs in the fourth chapter of Nicolo’s Gifts, when Ayres finds his rhythm and his voice, and the book becomes simultaneously easier to read and far more interesting. To say that I devoured the book from this point in one sitting would be to exaggerate only slightly - I had to rise from my Landaise armchair several times to recharge my glass with a robust Bordeaux. By the end of the evening a host of characters had converged, diverged and changed. All had lived, some had loved and some had died. Tears were shed - and not just by characters in the book. Wine notwithstanding, the final few pages of Nicolo’s Gifts moved me a in a way that only a few other books ever have.

Nicolo’s Gifts is difficult to categorise, occasionally frustrating, requires your full attention and is intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Because of these factors, it may struggle to find a wide audience. I suspect that this will not bother Neil Ayres too much, nor should it. Despite it’s flaws, Nicolo’s Gifts is a deeply memorable read, and an impressive debut from a writer I hope to savour again.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

This one appeared back in August on the home page...

A brief review of ‘Under Compulsion’ by Thomas M. Disch (first published in the UK in 1968, US title ‘Fun with your New Head’).
Edition reviewed: Panther, ISBN: 0586032657.

Some writers are stylists. Thomas M. Disch is one of the greatest. Only JG Ballard equals him.

Some writers are black humorists. Thomas M. Disch is one of the greatest. Only Philip K. Dick equals him.

Some writers are satirists. Thomas M. Disch is a sublime satirist. Only Jonathan Swift equals him.

Why then is Thomas M. Disch relatively unknown compared to the above writers? An American, he lived for some time in the UK, and was a member of the New Wave in the 1960s, hanging out with Ballard and Moorcock . The answer is perhaps best given by John Clute and Peter Nicholls in their essential Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

“Because of his intellectual audacity, the chillingly distanced mannerism of his narrative art, the austerity of the pleasures he affords, and the fine cruelty of his wit, TMD has been perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers.”

Disch has written several first rank SF novels. However, to aquaint yourself with his narrative art, you should first read ‘Under Compulsion’, his premier short fiction collection containing 17 superlative stories. True, you may have to read some of them three, maybe even four times, before you get the idea. Maybe you’ll never fully understand some of them. But you will appreciate the writing, I promise you that.

Disch is supremely bright. I get the impression he is a man who absolutely does not suffer fools gladly, a man who is utterly confident with his literary gift. Many people are uncomfortable with these who are clearly more gifted, more intelligent than themselves. I feel that Clute and Nicholls sensed this. In Disch, I sense a man who wants you to taste his words, to enjoy the sentences they create, to observe the paragraphs as they assemble themselves before you, to feel uncomfortable with the direction you are being pulled in, to feel your mind being stretched. And what’s wrong with that? Much of the dross that strains the shelves today is safe and easy. It’s also dull, inane, useless and derivative. These attributes are fine for TV, but for literature? Pass me the blowtorch.

For existentialist style, consider this excerpt from ‘The Contest.’

“They walked together before the Racquet Club and were mirrored in the glass facade of the Seagram Building. Beneath their feet, sewers flowed silently into the sea.
By a curious chance, the two men wore identical suits. From the upper stories of the Pan-Am Building they were scarcely visible: all suits seem identical from these heights.
The younger, less garrulous man stepped on a dog turd and grimaced. His companion smiled. ‘To pursue the metaphor,’ he said apropos this new unpleasantness, as though it had been a parenthesis in his conversation, ‘some poet - Goethe, I think - said that architecture is frozen ordure.’
‘Architecture is the empty spaces in between.’
They stopped and considered these empty spaces. Light, sound, electro-magnetic waves, and orgone energy contested for their attention. Somewhere, a defective toaster sent out signals to aeroplanes. Every five minutes a retarded child was born, but elsewhere cybernetic machines were being assembled at a much faster rate.”

In ‘Casablanca’, a holidaying, elderly American couple start to mentally and physically disintegrate as they become aware that their homeland has been obliterated in a nuclear attack. Disch’s gift is in making you feel a combination of pity and disgust, despite, or perhaps because of his clinical prose.

‘A-1’ is black, black humour and savage satire. I’ll give nothing away, other than to say I was reminded of Bill Hicks’ classic rant: “Anybody dumb enough to want to join the military should be allowed in. Case closed.”

‘Descending’ is pure Kafka. A man gets on a down escalator, and just keeps on going.

Perhaps the best story is ‘Flight Useless, Inexorable the Pursuit.’ The title alone - Disch is also a fine poet - is worth the purchase price. Sexual disgust, disease and love converge to a killer punch in under three pages.

In the end, I’m reduced to quoting the blurb on the back of this edition, as you are urged to:

“...read them (the stories). Eat them. But be sure and get them into your head somehow.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

A review of Prey, by Michael Crichton.

I read Prey in one sitting, as the blurb promised I would. Unfortunately, this was simply because I wanted to get the turgid experience over as quickly as possible. Like vomiting, I just have to see the experience of reading a crappy book through to the end - I’m incapable of stopping halfway, ever fearful of a sour taste lodging in my throat or mind.

You see, if there’s one thing I expect from a writer whose work I’ve read before, it’s their ability to demonstrate to you that they’ve evolved; you know, written a better story than the last one. This of course makes you desire them in all sorts of ways, which in turn is good for them in all sorts of ways. Crichton’s first book was The Andromeda Strain - an original and gripping read. Twelve books later, Prey is a throwback to this first story, right down to the boffins trapped in the building routine, except that the boffins in Prey are dull, dull, dull - even the homicidal ones.

Oh - you really want to know what it’s about? OK then. Capitalistic cost cutting combines with stupidity, causing the release of killer nanomachines which go on the rampage. There. Thrilling suff. Not. Not as unthrilling as a “story” by the liar and convicted criminal known as Jeffrey Archer (yes, I’ve “read” one of his “books”, and I had to be restarted after the awful experience with a course of ECT).

Anyway, when I was almost halfway through Prey, and congratulating myself on that clever vomiting analogy - I suddenly got it! Prey isn’t a novel at all, it’s a Hollywood screenplay. How embarrassing that I - a sincere and qualified cynic - had failed to pick up on this fact. Yes, the film will star Ben Affleck and various other anodyne and vacuous nobodies. The special effects will be competent, the acting abysmal, and it will be at a Blockbuster near you two weeks after it’s cinema release.

So, in plot and character, Prey is a deeply lazy book. It’s just about saved from complete Archerness by Crichton’s writing style, which is spare, terse and flowing. Very similar in fact to the owners manuel of my Citroen C5. I wonder if Michael wrote that too?

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