For a man who reads few books, I have read quite a few books recently. Three excellent pieces of fiction in particular, though only one of them could be considered fantasy and that of a rather peculiar and fungus-ridden variety. Still, I warmly recommend all three to anyone capable of reading in English, for they are excellent (as I said above), and all quick, sharp, page-turning reads as well. You could probably fit all three into a hollowed out hardcover of Storm of Swords and have room left over for a banana. And believe me, once you’d finished the last of them, you’d really need that banana.
First up – Junot Diaz’ Pulitzer prize-winning The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The exodus from the Dominican Republic of Trujillo and the immigrant experience in the US as examined through the eyes of several members of one dysfunctional family. If you expect that the winner of such a heavyweight prize would have to be written in an overbearing, difficult, heavyweight way, then (in this case, at least) you’re WAY wrong. This is airy, readable, conversational, bursting with humour and personality. My mum gave me a great piece of writing advice – always be truthful, always be real, and this book has authenticity in spades. It’s also told partly from the point of view of a geeky child obsessed with Lord of the Rings (among other fantastic and science fictional things) and so is littered with some brilliant genre-based metaphors for those of you who know about that sort of thing (not me, obviously), sometimes hilariously innapropriate (the great dictator, when assassinated, stumbles from his bullet-riddled limousine having taken 400 hit points of damage). There’s one brilliant paragraph in which Diaz manages to use a metaphor from Star Trek and one from John Boorman’s Point Blank. Has he been inside my mind? The book’s split into several parts, each from the point of view of a different member of the extended family, some going back to the 30s and 40s in the Dominican Republic (which is wild, vivid and dangerous enough to virtually qualify as a fantasy world, especially for someone who grew up in 80s Lancaster), some taking place right up to the present day. For me some sections worked better than others, but overall it’s a joyful, characterful, rewarding read.
Next up, Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch. A compromised detective struggles to solve a difficult double murder in a bizarre, crumbling city occupied by enemy forces. So far so noir. Except the enemy are giant mushrooms. I hadn’t read any of Vandermeer’s stuff before, but his reputation is … kinda literary, I guess. All these distinctions are fundamentally bullshit, of course, but nonetheless I was expecting something complicated, difficult, possibly with wild ideas and beautiful writing but perhaps not too much in the way of coherent story. But the writing, though vivid, is tight as a drum, never over-complicated, and the imagination as man meets fungus meets city and all three flow together into a noir nightmare is like nothing else I’ve read. He makes the book work both as a crazy fantasy and as a tough detective story, both parts complimenting the other. If I were to go for a filmic metaphor I might have to say Chinatown meets Naked Lunch with a sprinkling of Tetsuo II: The Bodyhammer. And a side of mushrooms. Giant, man eating, hallucinatory mushrooms. There are a few moments, perhaps, where the forward momentum slackens and we come dangerously close to infodumping, the plot seems to creak a little and there’s a risk that – like a jet fighter driven forward only by its own thrust – it might come crashing to the ground, explode and kill its pilot in an almighty fireball. But then the fungal afterburners kick in and the book blasts once more into the heavens of imagination. Nothing’s fully explained at the end, but that isn’t really the point of a book like this (if there are any other books like this, which there probably aren’t). I read this in proof form, and I don’t think it’s out for a few months, but I strongly advise you to pick up a copy when it does appear because I very much doubt you’ll have read it’s like before. A must for fans of fantasy, noir, great writing, or, of course, fungus.
And so we come to the end. Of this post, and the world. Cormac McCarthy probably doesn’t need my help in drawing the attention of readers to his (also) Pulitzer-winning The Road, since it’s been out for a long time, has been on Oprah and that and sold squillions of copies, and is being made into a film even as we speak with that nice Viggo Mortensen. But if you’ve been frozen in a glacier for the last few years, allow me to expound. The Road is an irripresible comedy of manners that will have you chuckling from the very first page. Perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. Unless by irrepresible comedy of manners you mean ash-blasted post-apocalyptic horrorshow, and by chuckling you mean gripped and harrowed. This is one bleak-ass book, but also a completely magnificent one that in the midst of its brutality, desperation and utter waste somehow manages to be strangely inspiring. I’d read a couple of McCarthy’s books before and found them interesting but difficult to get into, so stripped bare and brutal are the prose, the characters and the events. But the stark and ruthless writing matched the content beautifully in this book, no doubt. Awe-inspiring.
Anything else – er, there’s an interview up with me at SF Signal, should anyone be interested, and with that I’m off to Scandinavia to talk at some bookstores. If any of you will be attending in Stockholm, Gothenberg, or Oslo, I will look forward immensely to seeing you there. The rest of you, I will post when I get back…