Not the End of the World, by Christopher Brookmyre

Not the End of the World, by Christopher Brookmyre

A fundamentalist Christian TV mogul, an ex-pornstar, an awkwardly oversized Scottish photographer, a cop who doesn’t want the job, and a failed abortion clinic bomber walk into a foreign distribution event for American B-movies in Los Angeles at the tail end of the twentieth century. That setup alone sold me on this one, and it all plays out to hilarious effect. The fact that it’s written by the brilliant Scottish crime fiction/satirist Christopher Brookmyre, pushed it to the top of my to-be-read pile. Seriously, this writer is completely unknown in the US, and that needs to change.

Christopher BrookmyreI’m impressed with the depth of character development present here, especially in the antagonist(s). Most crime fiction I’ve read had fairly cookie cutter characters, or comically one dimensional bad guys. But Brookmyre took some of the people I despise the most, and made me empathize with them to some extent. That’s good writing. It’s still abundantly clear where they’ve gone wrong, but you can see why they made/make the decisions that they do, however misguided. In our protagonists, particularly in the retiring pornstar, he’s done a wonderful job of demystifying a profession that is generally demonized. And the writing during the sections dealing with her past, internal conflicts, and struggles are some of the best in the novel.

I tend to read a couple books at a time, usually one novel, and one non-fiction book on some subject that I’m interested in. I unintentionally started reading this one around the same time as We Did Porn, by Zak Smith, not knowing that the two books would inform each other splendidly while reading them together. Both dealt with the pornography industry, Los Angeles culture, fundamentalist Christians, and the republican party at length. I’ve heard others say that this book came off as too preachy for their tastes, and I can understand that sentiment, as the story was probably a bit too heavy on the wish-fulfillment for a general audience, but it satisfied my inner liberal, socialist, atheist, feminist, godless heathen heart to no end.

 

The Somnambulist’s Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

The Somnambulist’s Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

There is something tragically romantic about lighthouses: The structures themselves stand watchful and solitary, a beacon of warning and assistance to those at sea. The broad scope of protection proffered by one individual toward so many others. It makes the profession of lighthouse keeper appear selfless, but in my mind it’s more symbiotic than that. I imagine a lighthouse keeper as someone who strives to be useful, but requires isolation the way others require companionship. Introspective in a world that forces continual socialization; the job facilitating a way for them to achieve fulfillment while maintaining the functional distance they inherently need. I imagine them as superheroes in a way. Working alone in the dark for the betterment of humanity, but if they’re really being truthful, they do it for themselves more than anyone else. I’m obviously taking a lot of liberties here, but it’s how I’ve always imagined that world and those who inhabit it.

As far as I understand, modernity has mostly removed the need for lighthouse keepers, relocating that profession to an era of the past. This only adds another layer to the romance and tragedy for me. Basically, this is a long winded explanation of why I am inexorably drawn to stories featuring lighthouses, or lighthouse keepers, and what a story this one was.

We have two main points of view nested within each other: A third person narrative of a lighthouse keeper on a particularly cold night, reading a parcels worth of letters written by his somnambulant predecessor, each detailing a dream experienced during his sleepwalk events. These personal accounts are where the bulk of the story is contained, and in my opinion, where it really shines. The third person interludes between the dreams felt unnecessarily repetitive to me. I wanted something more introspective from these sections. However, I do believe the context in which they reside would change on a subsequent reading, so that may be a rash judgement on my part as a reader.

Lars Boye JerlachThe story itself has some strong elements of Paul Auster’s style of storytelling. Mystery upon mystery. Or maybe it’s more along the lines of Haruki Murakami’s fantastical realism. In his dreams, the somnambulist momentarily inhabits the bodies of others (or sometimes Poe’s raven Nevermore). Some of these characters are historically known to him, others are known to the lighthouse keeper reading the somnambulist’s accounts, and others still, aren’t known by either (but should be apparent to the reader of this book itself). There are a few fun surprises here as you become aware of who is being inhabited, and the way that these characters relate to each other. The somnambulist is unsure whether his dreams are genuine experiences, premonitions, or merely dreams. It’s really a clever story structure; each additional dream sequence adding to the mystery and intrigue as the story unfolds toward its conclusion.

The writing style took some time to become accustomed to. The whole book is double line spaced, there are almost no first line indentations, and the author has an on-again/off-again relationship with paragraphs. It feels like a stylistic choice, and I’ve seen it before, but I’m still unsure of the reasoning.

The Somnambulist’s Dreams is postmodern literature with a capital P. Which I’m all about, but have to be in the right kind of mood to properly enjoy. When it comes to postmodernist writing like this that is more ontological, paradoxical, etc, I find it often helps me if I know that that is what I’m getting myself into from the start. The gorgeous cover artwork and synopsis communicate this quite nicely. Every thread may not pull itself together into a pretty little bow in the end, but that’s part of the appeal; it’s the journey, not so much the destination with this kind of novel. I enjoyed this for the type of presence it cultivated while being read, not so much the definitive conclusion or ending that a traditional story builds toward. That’s not to say that The Somnambulist’s Dreams doesn’t conclude in a satisfactory way, it does. It’s just that it’s a bit of paradox in itself, which to me can be infinitely more interesting when it’s handled with grace like this.

My Struggle Book 4, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book4, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

 

“…he would have to work out the social game for himself. He would have to learn he would get nowhere by whining or telling tales.”

Karl Ove isn’t talking about himself in this quote, but he might as well be. Eighteen year old Karl Ove spends most of the book whining about his inability to lose his virginity, and attempting to write short fiction (telling tales). You might think I’m joking, but I think the moral of this story is that people should masturbate more often, and especially in their early teenage years. Let me backtrack a bit…

Like book 3, book 4 doesn’t jump around as much as 1 and 2. It stays mostly focused on his life from age sixteen to eighteen, with an occasional leap forward to 2009; Karl Ove in his early forties writing the book you’re reading; his wife and children asleep in the next room. I have to mention that I’m a sucker for these sections where he reminds the reader of his present tense writing of the novel. I don’t know why, but I love it.

Karl Ove as a literary character, is a one of the most unusual protagonists I’ve come across, because he isn’t a protagonist at all. This is unheard of in memoirs. Usually when we tell stories about ourselves, we’re the hero, or at the very least we present ourselves and the situations we get into in the best possible light; painting others as the bully, or the one who deserved what they got, etc. Karl Ove is not like this whatsoever. He lays out every dirty detail, and is extremely hard on himself. He writes himself as the antagonist in his own life story. He also writes about his boner a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I started counting when I noticed the pattern, and eventually lost track at fifteen or so times around the middle of the book.

The main story in this volume involves Karl Ove as a young man who is lost, and his struggle to find the kind of world he fits into. His emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive father has left his mother, started drinking, and seems to be a completely different person than he was when Karl Ove was a boy. He’s starting to see that his father was never happy, and needed something different from life than what he was getting. Also, it’s appearing that he was always a very emotional person, like Karl Ove has always been, crying often, and begging forgiveness of his sons now that they’re grown. Karl Ove is still terrified of him, and doesn’t understand how to reconcile this new person that has replaced his father, with the father that raised him.

Karl Ove Knausgaard

At eighteen Karl Ove leaves home for the first time and takes a job as a school teacher in a small fishing community in northern Norway; rural in a different way than he’s familiar with. He’s grossly under qualified for the position, knows it, but wants to be alienated from the familiar. He wants to step a toe outside of his comfort zone. He’s using this experience to save money, and isolate himself so that he can focus on writing more exclusively.

He is absolutely obsessed with losing his virginity, and extremely insecure about his pattern of ejaculating before the act has even begun. In an effort to ease his nerves socially, he begins to drink heavily, which helps him to remain calm while courting the women in this new town he finds himself dislocated in. Drinking also gets him into several situations where he makes a total fool of himself. Even while intoxicated, every time he finds a woman willing to sleep with him, he gets stuck in his own head, and it happens again. This is a great source of embarrassment for him, and he takes it very hard.

 

We already know from the previous installments of his story, that he sees himself as being too feminine or “feminized” as he calls it. At eighteen, he’s scrawny and lanky, and in this fishing community he’s surrounded by what he considers men’s men: manual laborers, fishermen, tough skinned, strong and silent. He constantly compares himself to those around him, and finds himself lacking in almost every way. To make matters worse, his upstairs neighbors are constantly going at it. All of this and more adds to the feedback loop and reinforces his feelings of inadequacy and shame, which in turn reinforces his inability to do the deed.

Karl Ove KnausgaardIn addition to all of this, he’s teaching kids barely younger than himself, and having some trouble not being attracted to the girls in his class, especially the ones who have developed crushes on him. Some of them as young as 13. Oh, Karl Ove. Buddy. Come on, man. You can’t do that! About halfway through the book he has a realization that maybe the reason he Is having so much trouble maintaining control of his ejaculations, and controlling is attraction to his students, and his horniness level in general, is that he has never masturbated. Ever. He sees it as something childish that he should’ve done when he was younger, but now feels it’s too late to begin. He knows that if he were to *ahem* practice on himself a little bit, that he would develop the ability to control himself a little better when he’s with a woman, but he still won’t do it! Good lord eighteen year old Karl Ove! Jerk it already!

So, that brings us full circle to my point from the beginning: masturbation, it’s something everyone should do, especially when you’re young and just starting to develop into the adult you’ll become. Most of Karl Ove’s troubles in this edition would’ve been completely avoided if he had just jerked it a little. So, like I said earlier, if there is a moral here, I think it’s a simple one: masturbate.

 

 

The Survivors, by Nick Farmer

The Survivors, by Nick Farmer

“Do I miss it? I dunno, man, maybe. I feel like everything before the sleep was a lie, and now I’ve woken up, in more ways than one. But being awake is scary.”

The Survivors is a clever viral outbreak story that takes a unique, layered point of view on survival of the fittest. On the surface there’s a straightforward tale of post-apocalyptic existence at play, but there is also a lot between the lines about transhumanism, genetic modification, living rather than just being alive, fear motivating division motivating hatred, etc. It’s a great story, and the novelette form is the perfect length for it to unfold in.

Personally, the thing I love about short fiction is that when the word count is only so long, instead of filling in every last detail, writers have the freedom to tell a smaller, more human story, while hinting toward the greater fictional universe. This lets the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps and personalize their experience, effectively meeting the text halfway. I think this serves to kickstart our sense of wonder, which is the root of speculative fiction, and why short fiction has always been SF’s bread and butter. It’s that “What if…” that gets the ball rolling, and helps us to imagine. In The Survivors, the main “what if” questions are: What if the infected were the survivors, while still representing a mortal danger to the uninfected? What if it were preferable to be infected? What if there were desirable side effects? This novelette is a jumping off point for those kinds of questions.

Nick FarmerPart of the fun of post apocalypse stories, is the fantasy that everything could change in an instant. All of the daily drags, work, responsibilities, etc could evaporate and you could live a more exciting, adventurous life full of danger and genuine struggle. I think that a lot of us are so removed from the reality of living to survive, that we almost crave it. For most of us in the western world, what we call work barely resembles anything physically demanding. We sit in front of screens, and move pixels around, which somehow corresponds to a paycheck, but it’s all virtual; we aren’t really doing anything. I think this can sometimes leave us rather unfulfilled physiologically, psychologically, and emotionally. In turn, we crave some adventure, or maybe just something more “real”, something that ties into our mammalian core, and what’s more real than the struggle to survive? This is probably why we go camping, or hiking, why we ride motorcycles, or partake in other risky activities. It’s also most likely why we tend to love apocalyptic fiction in all its varieties. It’s a thrill to read.

Something else I want to touch on is the absolutely gorgeous graphic design both outside and inside this book. Each chapter heading has a visual progression that changes as you get closer to the conclusion. Little details like this really make a physical copy a worthwhile thing in an age of easy digital books.

Farmer first came to my attention through his work as the creator of the Belter conlang for The Expanse TV series. If you’re not familiar with Belter, it’s a creole language created specifically for the Syfy adaptation of the book series by James S.A. Corey. It has a surprisingly rich history built into every word and phrase. He has been very active in the online community of fans who latched onto Belter, often answering questions, adding to the Belter lexicon, and correcting usage from his twitter account. There was obviously a remarkable amount of thought and creativity that went into the creation of Belter, and I’d suggest looking into some of the podcasts and videos featuring Nick explaining the process. It’s fascinating stuff.

When I heard that he was writing fiction, I had high hopes that his output would be as good as his conlang creation. So I’m very glad to see that Farmer is not only gifted as a linguist, but is also showing quite a bit of talent and promise as a writer. His prose is clean and straightforward, the pacing smooth, and it’s a well structured story. I’ll definitely be picking up his future writing.

The world has changed. So have the Survivors.

When Daniel wakes up from a disease he never knew he had, he finds a nearly empty New York City, inhabited by a small number of people, who, like him, were infected, yet lived. They are biologically immortal, yet as carriers of the deadliest pathogen in human history, they are feared and reviled by their uninfected neighbors. Under constant threat of attack, Daniel and this new community are looking for answers about what happened, and why.

 

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

A disturbing/enthralling allegory – class struggle, self deception, and the animalistic brutality concealed just below the surface of human civilization.

I knew of Ballard from the new-wave SF of the late 60s / early 70s, particularly Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions compilations, wherein he’s described – by Ellison in his story introduction – as one of the few mainstream lit crossovers coming from the world of speculative fiction. He is an eloquently gifted writer, straightforward but poetically descriptive at the same time.

J.G. BallardHigh-Rise is one of those few short novels that could be the topic of a very concise thesis, that ultimately clocks a longer page count than its source material. There is a simple story of ascent/descent at play, but quite a bit of expressive analogy hiding between the lines. There are three main characters, each representing a differing class; lower, middle and upper. This isn’t immediately apparent, but becomes clear through their differing motivations and desires as society in the High-Rise begins to break down. Each of their stories play out to their logical, disturbing conclusions.