Sunday, 29 June 2008

Lost the Plot?

There is something ironic in the title of Jasper Fforde’s third Thursday Next novel, ‘The WELL of LOST PLOTS’ that I think might be unintentional.

To loose the plot of something is to go a little crazy to be totally out of touch – I’m not suggesting Mr. Fforde has gone that far, but the plotting of the story does suggest a little desperation and there are a couple of details that add to an inconsistency that is not comfortable for the reader.

Prime is the fact that when characters ‘die’ in this book, they are replaced by a look-alike, act-alike ’generic’ – which makes a complete nonsense out of the first book (The Eyre Affair ) in the series where events revolved about the kidnapping and threat of death to the character Jane Eyre. If Jane could simply have been ‘replaced’ what was all the fuss about?

For anyone reading this who is not familiar with the Ffforde series, Thursday Next is a detective in a parallel world where the Crimean War hadn’t ended, where airships cross the sky and where you can enter books, if you have the know how, and hide from the big bad company trying to control the world whilst you have a baby and try to bring back you husband who has been unexisted from everyone’s memory – except for your own and your nutty granny.

It’s fantasy and funny combined with detective and is full of one liners and gentle literary references.

Which points to another problem I have with the book – once was funny, twice was amusing, thrice is getting obvious – the ‘into a book and reacting with characters’ is no longer smart, just tiresomely familiar - and Mr. Fforde hasn’t done enough to rescue the situation.

There was one point I thought he’d done it – he brought in Nemo, and things started to look up but then wasted the character.

A final moan is there is no development of character – no one really seems to change – even the ‘generic’ turning into a character had an oddness about it which meant they never really changed.

Both of the previous books in the series I devoured, this one took time to read. I felt a ‘so-what’ several times as I did read and had that feeling in my mouth at the end (the one where you try to eat slightly under cooked, unsalted, un-vinegared chips) which made me want to send it back and ask for a fully cooked version.

I shall try the next in the series, but Mr Fforde’s reputation is on the line.

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Friday, 20 June 2008

The Heart of the Matter

I cut my literary teeth on Graham Greene.

Brighton Rock was the first ‘serious’ novel of my own choosing which I connected with – which had complex characters I could both identify with and distance myself from at the same time; which had a plot and themes that have resonated down the years.

I was in the 4th year at school – so would have been around 15 years old.

Over the next 10 years I read with increasing understanding nearly everything Greene had written in novel form – and he formed the basis, along with George Orwell, of my model modern – of the real story teller.

Yes, I also did the classics and the very moderns – dutifully plodded through Elliot and Dickens; tackled the Woolf (she won the first couple of rounds – only after having to teach her did I finally understand how brilliant she was); ignored Golding – he had been a compulsory read at school so was off the ever return to - again, ‘til I had to teach him – and his star rose.

I did the Irish – and went international, with the French – dipped into some drumming Germans and swung back to the origins of the English novel – a Sterne warning to all. Sneered at the North Americans – marvelled at the South Americans – and, like generations past and to come, wondered what all the Quixotic fuss was.

All the time, Greene formed images – the whisky priest, American agent, and English agent; Third Men and the Quiet Men – Vietnam and Central Africa; the Caribbean and London sub-urb.

And then I finished with him – moved on.

About three weeks ago I picked up ‘The Heart of the Matter’ – Greene’s novel of 1948 set in West Africa during the Second World War.

It has everything I remember – but a lot more.

Perhaps because I’ve been working on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at the same time – elements of religion, marriage and identity have stood out in focus in a way I don’t remember. The Shrew is a play all about seeking salvation through appropriate partnering – The Heart of the Matter, how salvation is individual and not to be found in others.

This was a pretty dismal, depressing read the first time – it touched on the meaning of existence and right way to live – on lovelessness and the unforgivable: What I hadn’t tasted then was the existential angst, the deepness of the despair and the strength of individual choice.

Major Scobie, our everyman, is a policeman with a wife – respectability personified. He is hated by the ex-pats because he isn’t corrupt – and loved by the Syrian dealer in corruption for the same reason. His lack of corruption perversely makes him untrustworthy to his own kind – and his career suffers as a consequence. The only true friendship comes from the Syrian, Yusef – very not British – and it is a friendship Scobie can never accept.

It is Scobie’s fall from grace we follow – in the true meaning of the words: He is not ruined in any earthly way – but his spiritual existence is, at least in his own mind, spiraling ever further down through the circles of hell.

In one of the more frighteningly understandable images of the book, Scobie sees himself as fisting god – not fighting in the abstract, but physically punching and damaging the flesh: It is an image which horrifies in its very physicality – and in the clarity of self-knowledge Scobie exhibits.

Around this dying light flutter a whole cast of shadow-dwelling characters.

Scobie’s wife is damaged goods – her husband’s incorruptibility has driven her to this god forsaken land so she has plunged into the superficialities of Catholic dogma – the ritual and the literal making her empty life fuller. She reads books and poetry – replacing any real inner life with printed words and borrowed sounds.

She is not a fool – but it is her needs that keep what is left of their marriage alive – most of it died with a young daughter back in England. Her leaving to live in South Africa opens the gap needed for a replacement ‘needer’ – and the final human dilemma that shatters Scobie’s relationship with the divine.

Wilson, spy-on-his-own-kind, and writer of trash poetry; driving Scobie no more than a mosquito could - tolerated as a fact of the environment – in ‘love’ with Scobie’s wife and emptying the word of all depth.

Helen, fallen woman and siren – who is no more than a vessel the fates use to trap Scobie – from her very first appearance as love-less, dried-skin of a girl clutching a stamp-album to near-whore for the ex-pat wild boy.

A priest who knows he serves no one well – least of oll Scobie; a priest who needs to confess as much as to listen to confession – but perhaps the only one who sees the real relationship of Scobie to his god – who appreciates the complexities and ultimate unknowability of any meaning in life.

These moths flicker in and out of the life that is Scobie – contrasting their weaknesses with the immense strength he is using in his ‘psychomachia’ – his soul-struggle.

Scobie is ultimately heroic – in his choice and in facing of the consequences of that choice. He is very much a 20th Century man – having both the consciousness and anxiety William Golding identified as hallmarks in the work of Graham Greene.

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