Saturday, 31 October 2015

illogic in kassel [vila matas]

Vila Matas’ novel describes a writer’s visit to the Kassel Documenta art-fair of 2012, where he is commissioned to write in a Chinese Restaurant, something he’s not terribly keen on. The writer in question is Vila Matas himself. Which instantly raises the question, is this a work of fiction or is it a factual account. Or is Illogic in Kassel in fact ‘faction’. The artists whose work the book describes in rigorous detail are real enough, as are the works of art themselves.  One assumes, therefore, that Vila Matas’ commission was also real.This is the European nouveau-roman, one that uses the purported real as its point of departure, with a purportedly real author as the protagonist. It reads as much like a journal as a novel, and perhaps it’s the dissonance between what the writer writes and what he has the character of the writer say that lends the book a certain amount of dramatic tension. If the writer and the ‘writer’ are not one and the same person, which one is which and who is leading whom?

Although it has to be said, that dramatic tension is not there in spades. Rather this is another novel which mines the furrow of the writer’s ruminations. Some of which are engaging. Vila Matas is never short of a sideways glance at the world and its wives. However, the book lacks the easy, refreshing charm of Bartleby and Sons. Or perhaps its just that this reader currently has less patience for the meandering rhythm of a novel which sometimes feels like an anti-narrative. It feels as though the author is wallowing in the richest, most fertile of material: the relationship of art to the world; the shape of the avant-garde; the need for immediacy and urgency in art; all of the above and more; tickling the contradictions of conceptualism and the art market itself, which has become nothing more or less than the biggest market out there. The author’s there in the mud and muck of the early 21st century intellectual pretension (for better of for worse) but it’s never clear how this encounter affects him. At the end will he crawl out of the post-cordial slime a changed man? Or is this just cultural tourism dressed up as lamb? 

This, for me, is where the act of storytelling might have been beneficial; whether or not the narrative the writer embellished reflected his views on the subject matter. Because as readers we discern meaning not just through observations and reflections, but also through the way in which the writer shapes these observations and reflections into a vision which is contained within story. Even a post-modern story where the author is protagonist. At times it feels as though Vila Matas hides behind his supposed transparency, and his real, contradictory feelings are stifled as he seeks to honour a commission he never really wanted in the first place. 

Saturday, 17 October 2015

the yacoubian building [alaa-al-aswany]

Alaa-Al-Aswanys novel has a curious timelessness about it. The Egypt it depicts doesn’t seem all that far removed from Albert Cossery’s Splendid Conspiracy. The matrix of heat, poverty and power generates a torpor which suggests an unchanging world, one where none of its three defining elements will ever change. Power, above all, resides in the grasp of a select, military-protected few, whose grubby self-centredness ensures the nation remains in a state of neo-feudalism. What affects the country is not capitalism, communism or Islamism; it’s venality, dressed up as politics. In the face of this monolithic governing principle, for ordinary citizens to aspire to anything better feels hopeless. Against this backdrop, the lives of the novel’s multiple protagonists play themselves out, almost all headed towards a desultory conclusion. 

However, this isn’t the fifties. it’s the nineties, with the US and its allies, including Egypt, on the point of going to war with Iraq for a first time. As a result, this is a Cairo which is both old-hat and new-hat. The events of the past decade are prefigured. Something is stirring, something which will continue to incubate over the course of the next twenty years or so before it erupts in Tahrir Square. Literature has the power to act like a depth sounder, dropped off the side of the boat, fathoming the deep. In the lives of Taha and Busayna, above all, the currents which are dragging Egyptian society towards revolution and conflict are sounded out. The novel’s artistry lies in the way it knits its portrait of its world together, illustrating, through the present tense of its action, Egypt's past and future. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

inherent vice [thomas pynchon]

OK, so this isn’t vintage Pynchon. In amongst the laurels there were quite a few brickbats for the novel when it came out. It’s not hard to understand why. There’s a relentless frothiness to the narrative and prose, something akin to the holy surfer who is one of the dozens of barely-fleshed-out characters who pops up. Like the surfer, Pynchon seems to ride the waves of his prose, waiting for the one that will propel him onto a higher plain. This doesn’t occur all that often in what is a typically lengthy, if not meaty, tome. However, in the decision to riff off Chandler and Hammett, (with even an occasional nod to his contemporary, Elroy), Pynchon doesn’t seem too fussed with the transcendental or the parabola. This is a nostalgic, amiable text, where the hero, Doc Sportello, will not end up propelled into space, where the hero is, in fact, a hero, who tends to the meek and skirmishes with the forces of evil. It’s more Tolkien than Dostoyevsky. The novel doesn’t even have the metaphysical aspect of a similarly secondary text, Vineland. However, who’s to say that every writer should always emulate his or her peaks? If twere all peaks, the land would be flat. Inherent Vice has enough to keep the reader on their toes, trying to keep pace with the manic process of the detective novel, something Pynchon embraces with delight. This is a Maltese Falcon of a novel, ridiculous and charming at the same time. If anything, it would seem to suggest a paean to a youth the author may or may not have known, the beguiling simplicities of a pre-connected world, when personal space still existed; before we were all plugged into the mainframe. For those that remember that time, Inherent Vice is a treat; for those who, increasingly, will not, it is a pseudo-archeological record, as befuddling and vital as a Mayan codex.