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the-machineJames Smythe’s Clake Award-shortlisted The Machine is like a wedding: it sports both something borrowed and something new. As refreshing as its focus on characterisation, mood and style can be when stood next to something as generically lumpen as Ancillary Justice, it also has as its McGuffin a device we’ve seen many times before: a contraption which can erase a person’s memories, reach into their subconscious and reshape it around a new story. Indeed, The Machine goes further in its weird resemblance to stories we’ve read before, asking questions not very dissimilar to those posited in the 2004 Michael Gondry film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: who are we without our memories, and how do we know we won’t make even worse mistakes without them?

Smythe’s answers are much grimmer than those offered by Gondry and his co-writer, the not usually sunnier-than-the-next-man Charlie Kaufman, and it is in the dour determinism of his novel that we can find the best argument for reading it. The Machine is in many ways a taut and tantalising horror story: the machine itself, fittingly resembling in its faceless opacity Arthur C Clarke’s own monoliths, is a classically implacable monster, squatting in the spare room of the novel’s lonely female protagonist, Beth, a schoolteacher based on the Isle of Wight. The gizmo’s mechanics are not understood either by her or the reader (and in this sense the novel isn’t science fiction at all, since the Machine essentially operates by magic); there is a constant nagging implication that it has its own purpose, its own agenda, and that it will pursue that goal remorselessly.

Beth has illegally purchased her Machine, since it and all other devices like it have been banned by the authorities following a series of disasters resulting from their use. Beth’s own husband, Vic, is one of them: now practically comatose in a specialist facility established for victims of the Machines, he was a soldier returning from the front with memories that tortured him. Like others, Vic opted for them to be removed – and, like others, emerged from the treatments a vegetable: “they’re more like the dead. There’s nothing inside them.” Beth blames herself: she rushed the treatments, she believes, in a desperate bid to get her husband back. The engine of the plot, then, is this guilt, this tragic weakness of the narrator (again, we think of horror).

Beth intends to undo the effects of the Machine on her husband by undertaking the Machine therapy in reverse. In one of the novel’s wittiest turns, she learns how to do so by logging onto internet forums resembling the ones we might search today if we wished to root our phones (this might immediately suggest to any reader unfortunate enough to have followed the wrong online instructions that matters will not go well). The first third of the novel, then, involves Beth’s preparations: the delivery men turning up, being given the excuse that the huge boxes of equipment contain a home gymnasium; their removing Beth’s window to get the parts into her flat (the first of many hints that Beth hasn’t entirely thought this process through); Beth whiling away the end of the school year until she can begin her project in earnest.

That so large a chunk of the novel is spent on build-up gives a sense of the languid pace at which Smythe tells his story. This gives him plenty of space for gentle, unobtrusive worldbuilding. Beth’s near-future is one in which global warming has made summers intolerably stuffy, and economic malaise has turned the young against the older, schools sharing the metal detectors and security guards of the American heartlands that “people the world over [once] laughed at as something that they would never need themselves”. There’s something woozy and dream-like about Beth’s world, since she drifts through it distracted and others stagger through it sweating; but it is also punctured by shocking acts of violence, of the estate’s feral kids threatening the local takeaway restaurant, or Beth herself, or being attacked in turn. Something simmers in Beth’s world, but Smythe’s story is not about the boiling point.

Instead, he moves on. First to the treatment: Beth plans to remove Vic from the centre, since “inside the Machine [...] are the exact constituents of what – who – Vic will be.” This is a painful process, physically gruelling and psychologically taxing; Smythe does not spare his reader the details, maintaining the careful spacing of incident in order fully to dwell on Beth’s own state of mind and on the costs of the Machine’s reverse therapy (“hasn’t she already decided that she’s going to live with him and his temper and – if they start again – the dreams?”). Of course, the Machine remains unknowable – and, Beth comes to think, not entirely to be trusted: “I didn’t put some story about you going back to war in you,” she says to Vic, “That’s from the Machine.” At one point during this painfully drawn-out period, she thinks of Greek statues, wondering how they were crafted: whether artists filled in the “seemingly unimportant parts – the flats of [the subject's] backs, or the flattened plateau of an inner thigh” – from memory or imagination, and whether that matters to the final likeness. The Machine is compared by its publishers to a modern Frankenstein, I suppose because Beth isn’t sure what it is she’s creating. But in a real way she’s worse than that other Vic, Frankenstein: he at least understood the process of creation, the body parts and the electricity; Beth simply has a Machine with a hard drive.

Perhaps it’s this uncertainty which leads to the novel’s slightly unbalanced final third: suddenly, Things Happen and all must be revealed, if not quite understood. An unfortunate catalyst for this change is one of the novel’s few mis-steps, Beth’s accidental best friend, Laura: another teacher at the school, Laura also turns our to be a caricatured evangelical, who hollers at Beth, as she plays with Vic’s soul, that she is bound for Hell and Damnation. “This is creation, Beth,” she rants (later she will pound on Beth’s door, spitting and snarling at her. “You don’t mess with creation, as it is the purview of our one God, Beth.” Leaving aside the fact that few people actually talk in this way, Laura’s fire-and-brimstone might reflect a theological turn in this otherwise successfully sketched-in future, but also seems by-the-numbers and crude, much like another scene in the novel’s final third, in which Beth takes clippers to her hair before a mirror. The familiarity of Smythe’s core conceit begins to re-emerge, then, as soon as he moves away from lingering on Beth’s perspective, her contorted vision of and relationship to her husband and his trauma. The novel’s final twist, though devastating, feels tacked-on and over-neat; there is a real fumble here in the final furlongs, as if the novel strolls nonchalantly and productively away from its borrowed elements for much of its length, and then, like Jim Carrey barrelling through his memory palace, sprints back towards them in order to find the exit.

Smythe’s spare and thoughtful prose may have here been better suited to a shorter length: at times, The Machine felt like a superb novella stretched, in that final third, a tad too far. It is in that prose, however, that The Machine more than earns its keep. Smythe turns a world as well as a phrase gently and yet powerfully, and this is a stylist’s trick often in short supply in a genre which conversely often lives and dies by the subtlety of its infodumping. If The Machine doesn’t quite spit out a product perfectly fashioned from those initial raw materials, watching it working is a pleasure.

ancillary justiceHere’s how my review of Ann Leckie’s rapturously-received – and Clarke-shortlisted – debut novel originally began:

I don’t get it. Ancillary Justice is by no means a bad book: it is competent, even rigorous, and despite some extensive longeurs it is also in places pacey and handily plot-driven. It has a certain singularity of voice, and something to say with it. It manages to tackle some big issues – gender, artificial intelligence, gestalt consciousness – with a real lightness of touch, an unshowy seriousness. It is solid. But I don’t get it.

The buzz for Anne Leckie’s debut novel has been, in tonal quality, closer to a thrumming bass note from a Marshall stack. From advance notice to considered think pieces, reviewers have fallen over themselves to get excited about this big oil’ slice of space opera, as if its mix of interplanetary romance and high-concept mil-SF really is something to write home about. To take the temperature of large parts of SF fandom on the topic of this novel has been to send the mercury soaring. It has been, in fact, rather like the hoop-la a couple of years ago around the US publication of Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, a book with which, since it has now been published in the UK, Ancillary Justice has quirkily enough found itself competing on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist.

Nevertheless, I’m not ooh-ing. My aahs are muted at best. I do not think Leckie has written a book as good as the punchily patchy God’s War, much less one about to reinvent the genre’s ratty old wheel. I don’t get it.

And, then, dear reader, I paused. I ruminated. I checked the jerking of my knee. I’m as up for offering entertainment in the form of wilful gadflyery as (more than) anyone, but my tastes are so often peripheral not just to ‘core’ fandom but a certain literary subset of it that for once – just for once, mind – I wanted to understand. So I fired up Google, and I found Nina Allan at Arc.

Oh, frabjous day.

Leckie [...] embraces the [science fiction] mission statement fully. Ancillary Justice gives us teeming galaxies, evil empires, a version of warp drive, and all without a hint of irony as the commonly accepted imagery of the particular version of SF that ranges itself against the mainstream as “a literature of ideas”.

When examined up close, however, the ideas contained in Ancillary Justice seem disappointingly simple: empires are evil, class systems are oppressive, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ancillary Justice is an SF novel of the old school: tireless in its recapitulation of genre norms and more or less impenetrable to outsiders.

The novel I happened to read immediately after Ancillary Justice was Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. Both novels are debuts, both are the first instalment in a trilogy. Both deal with far future empires, both have war as a central leitmotif, both have important things to say about society, faith and gender. At a surface level at least it would appear that these two books have much in common, but in fact, I would argue, they are different beasts entirely.

Allan has written her review so that I don’t have to, nailing all the ways in which Ancillary Justice underwhelms: in its characterisation, in its prose, in the execution of its core conceits. She even makes that same comparison with God’s War, pointing out what a properly adventurous debut novel really looks like (the comparison is made all the more damning for Leckie when one considers that Hurley’s effort is itself far from flawless). Here is a novel which routinely inserts its worldbuilding just after a character makes a reference to it: “I’m having trouble imaging you doing anything improper,” one says to another, before Leckie informs us that, “The word was weighted in Radchaai, part of a triad of justice, propriety and benefit.” This simultaneously offers a pretence of depth and the nagging feeling that we are less inhabiting a world and more taking a tour around it. Likewise, dialogue again and again services the plot – characters speak in the same voice, primarily to tell us how to interpret events and where they may next be headed (“It started at Garsedd,” another character explains to yet another. “She was appalled by what she’d done, but she couldn’t decided how to react.” “Oh,” the other doesn’t – but may as well – say. “OK.”)

One one level, perhaps all this is deliberate: Ancillary Justice is set in a quasi-fascistic empire in which to be civilised is to conform totally, and around which we are directed by Breq, a first person narrator who was once merely a tiny component in a gestalt intelligence. Breq is Pinocchio – a Spock or Data figure who was once an outpost of a spaceship’s AI and who may well now, it is strongly implied, be capable of a kind of personhood, about to transmute into a real girl or, since genders are often satisfyingly uncertain in this book, boy. It is in this addition of just a dash of zest to a hoary, tired old conceit that Leckie’s project is most evident: she is not reinventing science fiction so much as holding up a mirror to the genre’s best possible side. Allan suggests that Leckie hasn’t written her novel with anything like a commercial motivation, and in many ways that’s true of what is ultimately a rather awkward debut; but I’d also ask what novel better rushes to the aid of a core genre more embattled than usual, defending itself from all sorts of accusations of gender bias, from the assaults of new fangled literary modes and speculative writers not entirely interested in the genre itself; by new means of production and new forms and fora of criticism. Why, how much that core genre needs a novel from its own patch which doesn’t use the male pronoun. Cue predictably rapturous joy. “We can do this,” cry the SF massive. “We are not yet defeated.”

None of which is necessarily bad, but some of which goes a little way to understanding why Ancillary Justice has been hyped beyond its capacity to fulfil expectations. If it is not quite pedestrian, it is a gently jogging novel with some nice ideas but a ponderous style. The excitement around a book like this reminded me of the work of Algris Budrys, some of which I recently reviewed for Vector but which has also been considered in much the same vein by Paul Kincaid, for Foundation and, briefly, on his own blog: in the 1970s and 1980s, as Kincaid writes, Budrys read science fiction through “a series of columns that turn again and again to John W. Campbell, Lester Del Rey, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein and a host of writers of the same era”. In much the same way, Ancillary Justice does not feel like a new work of science fiction, but rather as a zeitgeisty iteration of the same old same old. (Lila Garrot at Strange Horizons, in a review full of praise for the book: “The novel’s core questions, such as the meaning of personhood in a world containing artificial intelligences and the meaning of individual identity in a world containing multi-bodied minds, are not new to speculative fiction, but they are combined in ways which shed new light on them, and Leckie never allows anything to resolve into a simple answer.”)

This leaves the Clarke Award looking more like a commemoration of what science fiction likes than it often prefers to seem: where Ancillary Justice ports SFnal conceits, it doesn’t transform or even bend them out of shape very much. It’s comforting and well-meaning all at the same time. On that level, at least, perhaps I do get it, after all.

hurleygodswarukOf the six novels shortlisted on Tuesday for the 2014 Arthur C Clarke Award, I’ve already reviewed two. One, God’s War by Kameron Hurley, was published in the US some time ago (and has already also been shortlisted for the BSFA award for best novel, in a tacit acknowledgement that the British sf publishing scene really needed some help ‘finding’ female authors to publish). Its shortlisting is a Good Thing: if the trilogy it kicked off perhaps didn’t quite have total follow-through, God’s War was a gutsy, pungent debut novel. I don’t have much more to say about it than I did way back in 2011:

Here is a novel simultaneously feminine and empowered—Nyx doesn’t “bend her knee to God,” let alone anyone else (p. 278)—which unlike many a lesser attempt to achieve the same effect strikes imbalances in an odd kind of equipoise. Will any other novel this year address issues of faith and gender quite so squarely, quite so entertainingly, and with such heft? The promised sequels may even iron out the first installment’s creases, caused almost entirely by the weight of background lain upon the structure and the story. Most pertinently, Hurley indeed creates in her lead character a thoroughly unlikeable, but wholly independent, female Conan. Actually, that’s wrong: Nyxnissa would quite clearly kick Conan’s ass. In her own words, “Women can fight as well as fuck, you know” (p. 64). Coarse and inelegant, but bold and pungent: Nyx’s retort might be this punchy, refreshing, and imperfect novel’s grating, gutsy epigram. Just what the genre ordered.

adjacentThe second of the shortlisted works about which I have droned on is Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent, also on the BSFA’s shortlist. This second review has, admittedly, not yet been published – I submitted it to Foundation‘s doughty reviews editor, Andy Sawyer, only a week or so ago. I won’t, however, pre-empt my review here, except to quote a short excerpt which I think helps explain my positive reaction to a curiously self-reflexive novel: “The Adjacent offers as pure a distillation of Priest’s peculiar art as he has yet produced, in which form matches subject and style substance [... it] refracts and reflects our own fragile, challenged present.” (I’ll let you know, dear reader, when the full thing is published – but in the meantime, subscribe to Foundation anyway.)

What strikes me most about my judgements on both books is my equivocation: they are each in their own way very strong pieces of work, and yet they each simultaneously have their characteristic and consistent weaknesses. They are, perhaps, birdies rather than holes in one. Taking my uninformed cue from the discussions which have surrounded the other shortlisted novels, my initial feeling about the shortlist was similar. for instance, Niall Harrison was entirely unimpressed with Philip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise; and whilst the buzz around Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has been in some quarters ecstatic,  something about its spaceships-in-space setting has left it idling, unread, on my Kindle for weeks already.

Indeed, it’s hard not to receive the Clarke shortlist in the spirit of my recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “one of the challenges faced by contemporary science fiction is that our own present world resembles so much — and yet so little — the world imagined by the genre’s founding writers.” Much ink has been spilled about Paul Kincaid’s theory of generic exhaustion, and one critic or another might take issue with one or another of its elements; but this shortlist, too, has some cyberpunk and some space opera, some science fantasy and some first contact. Meanwhile, it is not just in its chosen subgenres that the shortlist feels a bit dusty. Despite a valiant attempt to argue the shortlist merely replicates the make-up of the works submitted, the demographics of the authors – two women, one person of colour, the Brits all male – feels like a lost opportunity. Science fiction, even when exhausted, is more diverse than this.

In a third way, too, the Clarke – ordinarily the most interesting of the science fiction awards to readers not embedded in the ‘core genre’ – disappoints this year. It can only shortlist those works which are submitted, and it can do little when those mainstream novels which were amongst the most interesting works of speculative fiction in the last year choose to remain outside of sf’s sphere of influence: this year, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is conspicuous in its absence. But why not reignite the ages-old Margaret Attwood debate, given MaddAddam has been generating some of her better reviews for some time; or acknowledge the warm reactions to Wu Ming-Yi’s The Girl With The Compound Eyes? Even Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time-Being, which was not to my taste, has many cheerleaders within the sf community. With so many options open to it, the final shortlist felt like less of an event than it often does.

This may or may not leave the Clarke Award looking, as Ian Sales has suggested, like another symptom of sf’s alleged primary interest in recycling its own history. One ignores Nina Allan at your peril, however, and in her opinion the shortlist is wilfully diverse: “these are far from conventional choices,” she says, “and they’re all quite different from each other, too.” Which, I suppose, is as good a nudge as any to cease writing about four books I haven’t read – and get down to this year’s Clarke reviews.

Here’s to unexpected surprises.

truedetective

I’ve just finished a review of Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent for the journal Foundation, and have consequently been thinking a good deal about misdirection. Here’s Priest, reanimating the pledge and the prestige, on the art of the conjurer:

The magician places two objects close together, or connects them in some way, but one is made to be more interesting (or intriguing, or amusing) to the audience. It might have an odd or suggestive shape, or it appears to have something inside it, or it suddenly starts doing something the magician seems not to have noticed. The actual set-up is unimportant—what matters is that the audience, however briefly, should become interested and look away in the wrong direction.

An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacent distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates.

For the last eight weeks on HBO, Nic Pizzolatto has been conducting a series of elaborate sleights of hand with the first season of True Detective, his mooted anthology cop series. Written by him in its entirety, and wholly directed by Cary Fukunaga, True Detective has possessed many of the hallmarks of auteur cinema: distinctive visuals, languorous pacing, and an air of artsy portentousness. In its opening three episodes, the first of which began with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s detectives attending a ritualised crime scene with a murdered woman at its centre, there was the maddening sense that the show’s disappeared coin was hidden in plain sight, that Pizzolatto had a truly tremendous reveal planned for it, but that the misdirections were so subtle and engaging that the trick’s depths were unplumbable.

The atmosphere conjured by True Detective in those early episodes (currently airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic) was remarkable: doomy and uneasy, it felt like a total, peopled world – heavy and oppressive in the way south Louisiana should be, but also degraded and collapsing in the way of America’s end of empire. Endless cane fields competed with ubiquitous petrochemical plants; down-at-heel suburbs bled out into rural poverty, backwater brothels were given the nod and wink by churchgoing sheriffs. Harrelson’s character, Marty Hart, is a Louisiana native who largely accepts this environment whilst seeking to adopt the crime-fighting moral high-ground usually reserved for the “big dick” cop; McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, however, takes a position at the other extreme.

Cohle is a remarkable creation: he ticks every antihero box, from dark past to brooding good looks, from dubious methods to fundamentally moral core. His criticisms of the corrupt and corrupting society in which he finds himself (he is Texan, and at the story’s beginning has been in Louisiana only a matter of weeks) are pungent and bleak: “I see a propensity for obesity,” he says during a visit to a revival tent. “Poverty. A yen for fairy tales.” When Pizzolatto introduces characters with fingernails rotted away by petrochemicals, or fishermen so disconnected from the wider world that their language barely resembles the English spoken by the men from the city, True Detective gives the sense not of being a police procedural, but an examination of the shapes into which people trampled by modernity can be crushed (one of the witnesses questioned by Hart and Cohle was once a college baseball pitcher, but now sits immobile in a filthy trailer following an unexplained “cerebral event”).

This disconnect between Cohle’s nihilism and the show’s sympathy for the poor and the lost, however, renders him, despite those immediately apparent generic signifiers, a repellent and failing figure. At times in the last few months, I have felt myself to be the only person in the world to have ever previously thought Matthew McConaughey a decent actor – despite his string of romantic comedies, I always felt surprised that the man who had put in such creditable, charismatic performances in A Time To Kill or Contact should wish to appear in Tiptoes. Without a doubt his work on True Detective is improbably committed and convincing, but viewers used to writing off McConaughey as a washboard stomach on legs seem to have been taken in by his charisma: on the fanatical subreddit devoted to the show, viewers week in and week out latched on to Cohle’s every pronouncement as if he was the voice of the series, the mouthpiece of Pizzolatto. McConaughey had them fooled, the coin was in his other hand: True Detective never believed the words of Rustin Cohle any more than it believed in Thomas Ligotti’s. Time, True Detective was here to tell us, is not simply a flat circle. Between Hart’s total absence of self-knowledge and Cohle’s absurd nihilism lay the real heart of the show (it was, in fact, perhaps best represented by Michelle Monaghan as Hart’s wife, Maggie, but more of her short-changed presence later).

That heart, it turned out, was much less contemplative or recursive than the season’s opening brace of episodes. At the close of its fourth instalment, True Detective switched gears, with a six-minute tracking shot following Cohle, taking leave from the state police and reverting to his undercover narco alter ego of ‘Crash’, across a chaotic housing project with a hostage drug dealer as a human shield. It was a shattering sequence, and one which might have suggested that the series was seeking to explode more than one crime fiction cliché – but which ultimately led it away from the rural metafictionality of its fake-out villain, the meth-cooker and paedophile Reggie LeDoux, and into a much more well-trodden story of frustrated detectives spending years recovering from a case they never solved. By the series finale, even that subreddit – once a hotbed of some of the most bizarre theories about a TV show since Twin Peaks first aired – was descending into parody and fan art, just as the show to which it was dedicated was settling, too, into a more conventional televisual space.

True Detective had built atmosphere through allusion and symbology: Hart’s daughters arranging their dolls as if at a crime scene or gang-rape, characters spouting references to the cosmic horror of R.W. Chambers, birds wheeling in the sky into the shape of a spiral found painted on the victim’s body. But these symbols were revealed, ultimately, to have no real purchase or substance. They were designed to add texture to a conventional serial killer mystery, which in its final hour saw two detectives chasing a reclusive pervert through a series of corridors until a final climactic battle saw both injured but, thanks to the commitment of a refound partnership, alive. This was all done very well – gloriously shot, beautifully acted, and – within the grand guignol confines of gothic southern horror – even tastefully drawn. But it wasn’t the show that presented itself to the viewer seven weeks previously.

True Detective‘s scepticism about Cohle extended, despite the apparent assumptions of many, to his investigative practices: McConaughey portrayed an obsessed, deranged detective so compellingly that – like the readers of a fictional play, The King in Yellow, which was cited by the show’s characters on many occasions (and again to little final effect) – the audience went mad. They, too, were looking for clues everywhere in what was ultimately a simple mystery: Hart’s father-in-law or wife were not involved, Cthulu was not involved, Cohle’s past was exactly as presented, not some elaborate cover for an Internal Affairs officer investigating the police captain who never had any lines. “Like, why do you think we’re tricking you?” Pizzolatto almost pleaded with his viewers in an interview with the Daily Beast. “It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years.”

If True Detective really read like this kind of explosion of its audience’s collective case of Stockholm Syndrome, it would be a masterpiece. If it had been cast in so grotesque but cohesive a shape as some of the fan theories suggested, it would have been a landmark series of one kind or another. In fact, it was a straightforward cop show with a little more time and star-power with which to explore its central protagonists. This meant that it was not terrifically interested, ultimately, in its female characters, both alive and dead; it did not wish to delve into the power structures of the cover-up and conspiracy that hid the grotesque crimes of an in-bred bastard scion of the state governor’s family; it did not even, in the final analysis, care for its own mythology – for the backwoods elite murder cult which seems to have petered out even before Cohle and Hart arrived at the crime scene in the show’s opening minutes. For a series which seemed at first to luxuriate in its background, indeed to make the props and landscapes of its crime the very foreground of its investigations, the show retreated into the singular, into the comforts of genre. At the close of its final episode, Cohle accepts that his relentless nihilism isn’t the whole story: that the blackest night is dotted by the pinpricks of stars. True Detective didn’t abuse its audience, but it certainly left them watching a television show.

“We ain’t gonna get them all,” says Marty Hart at the close of an investigation which has captured one serial killer but left a cult uncovered. “That ain’t the kind of world it is. But we got ours.” The question of True Detectives first season – written as it was by a television novice – must be, “What was its target?” Ultimately, I’m not certain it was sure: it had many, and for want of choosing a single theme of interest it wound up asking a lot of questions it couldn’t fully answer: thus we were treated to a crooked sheriff made to say he was only following orders, Hart’s wife and children nodding awkwardly at his post-showdown bedside, the rural poor forgotten and the politically powerful protected. This might be all part of its point – “true detective” describes not one or both of the flawed Hart or Cohle, but a piecemeal, incomplete process which TV usually denies by wrapping up and matching to a single theme. But precisely that uncertain pregnancy of its opening episodes felt poorly served by the more straightforward denouement. Likewise, the traditional and well-turned pleasures of its event-laden final act could not attain noirish worldweairness (“forget it, Rust, this is the French Quarter”) following all the philosophising and mysticism of what had gone before. There was a disconnect, in short, between style and substance, function and form.

“True crime,” Hart explains to an old police colleague. “That’s the genre, not the title.” True Detective was remarkable on almost every level of its execution: direction, soundtrack, acting. Its writing, all pop cultural references and recurrent motifs, hit a very real nerve; but perhaps it also lacked a little discipline – and not just in Cohle’s much-lampooned trademark monologues. The show’s approach to misdirection was to gesture at everything – and then deliver a reveal we’d seen before. There’s nothing wrong with the trick, but when the original object was so interesting, the revealed one has to match up, whatever shape it decides to take, and however it collapses the waveform. The set-up, it turns out, is important after all – and, in the event, True Detective‘s pledge may have been more elaborate than its prestige.

sherlockseries3

“What effect do you think it will have upon his plans now that he knows you are here?”

“It may cause him to be more cautious, or it may drive him to desperate measures at once. Like most clever criminals, he may be too confident in his own cleverness and imagine that he has completely deceived us.”

Sherlock Holmes had disdain for the self-satisfied. Though he once remarked (in ‘The Creeping Man’) that, “I have never sought to inspire confidence in others - I have quite enough of my own”, many of his triumphs arose out of a knowledge that, eventually, his enemy would grow over-confident. “Pure swank!” he spits of the too-proud villain in ‘The Retired Colourman’. “He felt so clever and so sure of himself that he imagined no one could touch him. He could say to any suspicious neighbour, ‘Look at the steps I have taken. I have consulted not only the police but even Sherlock Holmes.’” To Sherlock Holmes, swank was a quality to avoid.

What, however, of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock Holmes? From its first episode, Sherlock has tweaked the nose of expectation: many might have scoffed when they first heard the idea of transplanting Conan Doyle’s sleuth to the modern day, but it’s an idea with such currency that it hasn’t only been done since – it’s also been done before. Moffat and Gattis’s genius was to do so unapologetically, almost rudely: texts instead of telegraphs, blogs instead of a tin dispatch box. Sherlock has also been bold enough to reimagine the central characters themselves, almost from the very off: though ‘A Study in Pink’ introduced us to characters we at first recognised, by ‘The Great Game’, and with it the close of the show’s first season, it was clear both Sherlock and John were quite different to Holmes and Watson.

In the former’s case, however, it is arguable that the show’s vision of Sherlock as a “high-functioning sociopath”, as was declared at the close of its third series finale (aired last Sunday), is rather less layered than the original. Conan Doyle’s Holmes could certainly be obsessive and detached; but he could also be compassionate and connected. The confidence – perhaps the over-confidence – with which the show has chased this limited vision of its lead character has led it to make several odd mis-steps in the latest trilogy of episodes. Where Sherlock has always been a populist show written by Holmes nuts with irreverence and some pugnacity, in the latest run it has been given the room to follow its preferences at the expense of those concerns of structure, plot and pacing which once kept it – barely, but with often giddy results – in check.

That final episode, ‘His Last Vow’, was evidence enough of what Sherlock can do if it tries: superlative performances (in particular from Martin Freeman, of which more shortly), comforting and clever canon references (an east wind, a false marriage proposal, a chance meeting in an opium den), a vivid premise rolled out in surprising ways. But both ‘The Empty Hearse’ and ‘The Sign of Three’ were palpably over-interested in themselves, in pulling those shapes and popping that swagger: in both episodes, the central and peripheral mysteries alike were unworthy of the supposed intellect of the lead, and were subsumed beneath an over-riding interest in baiting or servicing the show’s fans, in aggrandising or undercutting its own mythologies, in the business of being a television programme.

I am not invested in an idea of what Sherlock should be, or in the idea that it should follow the same plot-heavy pattern of the original stories. I’m happy to countenance Moffat’s vision of his show, which is that, “it is not a detective show. It is a show about a detective.” But Moffat then went on to say: “It is a show that celebrates a clever man. So we make the show look complex.” There are a couple of problems with this. First, Sherlock doesn’t celebrate Sherlock: it suggests his high intellect is not so much a virtue as a mental illness; at its moment of crescendo, indeed, ‘His Last Vow’ allows no intellectual escape for its clever man, but instead asks him to fall back on the worst behaviours of his supposed condition.  Secondly, there’s that issue of appearance: why go to the effort of making a show look complex if it is complex already?

‘The Empty Hearse’ archly refused to provide an official explanation of Sherlock’s escape from death at the close of the second series. That’s fine – in fact, it’s rather neat, resisting the urge to render Sherlock as some sort of magician, whose genius is besmirched when we understand the turn. Of course, withholding knowledge was not enough for Sherlock – providing three separate explanations is what a “clever” show would do. Likewise, in ‘The Sign of Three’, a full third of the entire third series is more or less devoted to a best man’s speech delivered by Sherlock at John’s wedding to Mary Morstan; a bizarre structural choice, certainly, but made complex and clever, or so the episode willed us to believe, by a series of mini-adventures imparted as component elements of the speech (that the monologue ends by connecting all its dots into a single mystery that needs solving immediately never quite follows from the baggy pace of all that preceded this most sudden of denouements). The directorial flair which has always been part of the show’s look, the snappy dialogue and self-aware comedy, is now so focused upon as to become its centre, almost its raison d’être, rather than the seasoning which made so strange and sometimes flawed a dish so confoundingly flavoursome.

In this way, ‘His Last Vow’, alone in this series, was quintessential Sherlock: fast-paced and funny, awkwardly structured and occasionally tone-deaf, all carried through by stellar performances and a pointed sort of wit. Freeman’s John in particular shined in the finale, with all the suppressed rage we were somewhat unconvincingly, given Freeman’s simultaneous total humanity, told was a sign that he, too, was a sociopath. In contrast, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock felt faintly under-powered. One wished for the Cumberbatch of Parade’s End, endlessly subtle and compelling, rather than the occasionally one-note actor he was forced by Sherlock‘s third season scripts to be. He was given, of course, his workshop moments: the memory palace scenes, his arrival at the restaurant in ‘The Empty Hearse’; but he was also asked to put his hands to his temples and squint a lot. I’ve previously praised the show for its characterisation of Sherlock, but this third series felt to me to be asleep at the wheel, its high-point coming too late to change direction. The trajectory of Sherlock is now not (if it ever were) from great to good man; it is from narrow to narrower, from the sorrowful, considered jump of ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ to the hemmed-in final, fatal action of ‘His Last Vow’.

Into the space vacated by its central character, Sherlock puts an often wonderful Mary Morstan (although this character, too, is whittled down somewhat during ‘His Last Vow’), or a developing but increasingly woobyish Mycroft; it gives us gloriously nasty villains (we should spare a mention for Lars Mikkelsen, who as Charles Augustus Magnussen is memorably horrible), and some lovely moments of misdirection (Major Sholto is no villain, the woman in the blackmailer’s office does not shoot him in the chest). But most of all the show is padded with a cleverness not so much celebrated as fetishised. For all of Sherlock‘s better moments (and for all of its ongoing blind spots, where in the case of gender at least there were some noisy attempts at mitigation), it was this series a show rather more guilty than not of … well, swank. And Sherlock Holmes should not be deceived by swank.

fellowshipI wrote an A-Level essay once about how JRR Tolkien cared almost exclusively about the shape of hills. Not unsurprisingly, I did it to be contrary; but I think, too, that my Lord of the Rings reading had always been fraught with self-inflicted difficulty. My first exposure to LotR was Ralph Bakshi’s weird, but not entirely unsuccessful, 1978 animation-and-rotoscope adaptation of its first two volumes. Of course, I’d already read The Hobbit and enjoyed it immensely; and, knowing no better, my child’s brain immediately hit on the idea of trying to find the point in this wildly different text of Tolkien’s at which Bakshi’s film had left off: why read it all, I reasoned with charming ignorance of the novel’s discursive unadaptability, when I’d already seen half of it.

This was a fateful choice: not only did I start The Two Towers only to realise I knew the thrust of what happened; the separation between the text and its adaptation left me foundering. The Return of the King, with all that cod-Biblical stuff picking up threads almost entirely dropped by Bakshi, was even worse. Having confused my reading entirely, the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring read bizarrely, Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday existing in a different prosodic universe to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

So when I write not that I’m re-reading Lord of the Rings, in a real sense I’m reading it for the first time: or at least, doing so in the right order for a change. It’s also been many years since I cracked the spine on a Tolkien book, and in those years the impossible happened: a successful adaptation of his work appeared. The first thing that has surprised me about Fellowship‘s first book, however, is how of a piece it is not with Jackson’s Rings movies, but with his Hobbit trilogy: travelling from Hobbiton to Rivendell, Frodo and the gang are almost constantly referring to Bilbo, actually walk past the trolls of Tolkien’s earlier novel, still carved in the stone of Gandalf’s spell, and the wizard himself strains beyond all telling to retcon The Hobbit in order to fit this newer, darker narrative.

The story of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, the way in which it began as a sequel to The Hobbit but grew in the telling, is well known. Before the deterministic epic first beings to appear around Weathertop (“I dwelt there once,” Aragorn says of Rivendell, his syntax suddenly shifting, “and still I return when I may”), Fellowship is as interested in The Hobbit as Jackson’s second trilogy is indebted the other way around: all the forward references in The Desolation of Smaug – the appearance of Legolas, the use of Athelas, the new focus on the Necromancer – shares more with the opening of Tolkien’s great epic than many of the nay-sayers might like to recall. Like the movies, Fellowship is slow and sluggish with referential baggage.

It’s been so long since I read these books that I’d also forgotten how episodic they are: the journey from Hobbiton to Bree takes a look time, and the hobbits spend a number of consecutive nights with an array of characters, from Farmer Maggot to Tom Bombadil, Barliman Butterbur to Gildor the High Elf. In this context, the most prominent theme of Fellowship’s first book is kindness, is hospitality: each of these characters shelter Frodo and his friends from the darkness of the outside world; each thus takes on a burden, but in doing so relieves Frodo briefly of his greater one. Gildor protects the hobbits from the Nine, Bombadil from barrow-wights; Butterbur albeit belatedly reconnects the travellers with Gandalf, whilst Farmer Maggot shows quite exceptional bravery in the face of the Black Riders (who in truth only come to resemble the terrible ringwraiths of our memory at Weathertop).

In contrast, Strider – or, since the secret of his identity is kept for only a few pages,  Aragorn – commandeers the hobbits’ quest, and it’s at this point that the narrative begins to change. By the time that Frodo is galloping, on Glorfindel’s horse, away from the Nine, we have entered a very different novel. Where Farmer Maggot or Tom Bombadil belong to a pastoral world in which everyday virtues can persevere against evil, by the time the hobbits cross the Bruinen they are in a Manichean world in which only elf-magic can heal you of a wound by a Morgul blade. This all happens gradually, reducing the variation between what are otherwise forbiddingly uneven tones and moods.

None of which, of course, are original observations about this most read of novels. But for a reader who once bounced off The Lord of Rings more times than hobbits might slightly repetitive be rescued at the last minute by the arrival of an expected friend, the ease of the journey from Hobbiton to Bree came as something of a surprise. This first book is undoubtedly still a structurally unusual effort (Gandalf goes on for pages about Gollum’s story – why is this needed now, why are his exhortations to Frodo to be brave not kept, as Jackson kept them, for later in the narrative?); but those films are now separated entities from the books themselves … and reading a book from beginning to end, it turns out, isn’t always so bad an idea.

There’s still a buckletload of stuff about the shape of hills, though.

Anna’s brother, Joe, takes his lists seriously: throughout the year, he makes intricate notes about his responses to each record he buys, compiling star ratings and real-time rankings which mature across a twelve-month period into a final, incorruptible top five.

This list is nothing like that.

Subjective and skewed, my top five is drawn together in the final hours of the year, based on my looking at that section of my record collection and seeing what jumps out. Then I double-check that first instinct, and sometimes shuffle one or two out and in. This is usually to try and achieve something like a spread of genres or moods, and also to reward the exciting and eclectic over the baldly accessible. So what might be my most-listened record of the year, Caitlin Rose’s The Stand-In, is left spurned on the shelf; Ed Harcourt’s Back Into The Woods, originally part of the final quintet, is removed at round two; and, as is always the way, albums I listened to rather later in the year just can’t compete with LPs I’ve known longer (both Okkervil River’s superb The Silver Gymnasium, and Midlake’s brave and dense Antiphon miss out on probably deserved stardom).

All that is by way of apology for the below. All in all, 2013 seemed like a good year to me. Even the disappointments – Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Mosquito or Flaming Lips’ The Terror – weren’t bad records by anything but the high standards previously set by each act. Obviously I was lucky with my purchases: a year in which Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires in the City, Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams, or John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts don’t make the grade has to have been a half-decent one. So. Onwards.

ImageStornoway - Tales From Terra Firma

This was the only one of the five that was a shoe-in from the get-go. In part, my admiration for this glorious record, the band’s second, is rooted in a brilliant and beautiful live show they put on at Gloucester’s Guildhall in March: tight without seeming over-rehearsed, ambitious without pretension, it was a revelation and revealed a band at a real creative boiling point. But Tales From Terra Firma is more than just an aide memoire: it’s a thing in itself, an album with light and shade, hidden corners, twisting structures and hummable melodies. Its songs are lyrically rewarding, emotionally affecting and never less than energetic, even at their most reflective. A stunning progression from the band’s debut, Tales From Terra Firma is a real piece of work. If anything can give folk-pop back its good name, currently stashed under the stairs at the house Marcus Mumford shares with Gary Barlow, it’s this intelligent, innovative little album.

ImageSteve Mason - Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Times

The erstwhile Beta Band frontman crafted a genuinely surprising artifact with this Byzantine LP, which begins with a poetry recital and proceeds via soundscapes, electronica and Beatles singalongs towards something approaching a definitive ‘state of England’ statement. I wrote about this record whilst listening to it (usually a sign I doubted its final inclusion here), and said, “this meandering monster of an LP kicks the wedges from under the wheels of the rickety old singer-songwriter biplane and takes her for a proper fly.” I still think this is right, since there’s something defiant about the manner in which Mason denies the listener the traditional comforts of a solo artist’s record: from raps about Michael Duggan to recordings of radio football commentary, Monkey Minds asks you to pay attention to the movement of the album as a whole as much as it does its individual songs. If this makes for a certain bagginess, it also offers a useful argument for the album in a year in which half of the ten best-selling were in fact released in 2012.

ImageLaura Veirs – Warp and Weft

This one is just lovely. Veirs’s July Flame was an ‘album of the quarter-year in 2010′, but didn’t make the final cut in what, looking back, was a weirdly strong year. This one deserves to rectify that omission: in some ways it is of a piece with that LP, all swooping, weirded strings and grooving, growling acoustic guitars, seasoned with multi-tracked vocals and enigmatic lyrics; followers of Veirs will know what to expect. But the tunes are so blinking infectious, and the song structures so interesting and yet immediately accessible, that Warp and Weft also feels like a refinement, even a perfection, of Veirs’s signature sound. It deserves an audience a great deal larger than it seems to have reached. Listening back to the album today, I realised how many of its songs felt to me already like classics I’d been living with for years – I was surprised some were on this record, and not another, older, one. That’s the quality of Warp and Weft. Buy it.

ImageArctic Monkeys – AM

The Arctic Monkeys’ fifth studio album, on the other hand, has surely sold enough copies already. Its a success thoroughly deserved – this might be the band’s best and most mature album to date, an argument you’d have also been able to make about perhaps every record in the career so far, with the possible exception of mis-step Suck It And See. Lead single ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ has been everywhere, it’s chunky riff fronting even the album’s TV promo spot. If there’s a criticism of the Monkeys, it lies in this old-fashioned sensibility: if Britpop had a fevered dream as it died, coughing and spluttering over its copy of The Man Who, it was of Alex Turner. Perhaps that was why so much was made of the hip-hop influences on AM – not particularly visible anywhere but in some of the drumbeats banged out by Matt Helders. With all the falsetto, in fact, AM sounds more often like a grumpy Prince record, c. ‘Kiss’. But AM grabs you from the first second and allows not a duffer to make it into its old-fashioned 45-ish minutes running time. If any of these five albums have made it into the top flight on the basis of repeat listens, it’s AM. Go to sleep, Britpop. It’ll all be OK.

ImageJosh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

For all that I have admired Josh Ritter’s songwriting since I first heard his Golden Age of Radio around 2004 or so, I’m not sure any of his album’s have ever made it close to a year’s-end list. His third, The Animal Years, might have been close; but otherwise there has always been something rather too precise about Ritter’s impeccable songwriting quite to offer the kind of edge that cuts through at length. Ironically, The Beast In Its Tracks doesn’t offer a ‘Monster Ballads’ or ‘The Temptation of Adam’ – songs like ‘Harrisburg’ or ‘Kathleen’ which sparkle with wit and catchy energy. Instead, the album stands as an urgent statement in a way Ritter’s other albums never have. Perhaps, alas, that’s because this LP chronicles Ritter’s divorce from Dawn Landes; perhaps it’s because the songs share lyrics and motifs (“she only looks like you in a certain kind of light” Ritter sings on both ‘A Certain Light’ and ‘New Lover’); perhaps it’s because the songs taken together tell a story more focused than the American mythmaking of 2010′s So Runs The World Away. Ritter also varies his vocal delivery – the rapid-fire stacatto syllables of ‘Hopeful’ contrasting with the folky croon of ‘The Apple Blossom Rag’ (“this new girl’s got a real forked tongue”). Special, sweet and sad.

mod_bookIn an interview I did about a year ago on Severn FM, I talked a bit about Steve Marriott and the Small Faces. In the context of a discussion about my musical influences, this might have seemed strange: given the unapologetic Americana bent my songs tend to exhibit, the blue-eyed soul of those cheeky cockney Mods doesn’t seem quite to fit. But the Small Faces wrote and played songs that channeled the best of the American soul and jazz which first inspired the Mod movement whilst refracting it fairly radically through an English sensibility. If I don’t always achieve quite the same trick, it’s not because I not-so-secretly want to be a Texan, but because I don’t have the facility Richard Weight describes in my Christmas book this year, Mod: A very British Style:

A childlike awe is visible in the facial expressions of the Small Faces when they met Diana Ross and the Supremes on the set of Read, Steady, Go, the TV show on which soul stars from across the Atlantic regularly performed. [... But] Steve Marriot [...] insisted that the Small Faces were not just mimicking their black American heroes: “Everyone’s got soul, but as far as Negro soul singing goes only they can do it. But white artists can interpret coloured soul into their own. You don’t have to be born on the wrong side of the tracks. [pp. 82-3]

Marriot’s clumsy language is indicative of the ‘race music’ tourism of which some Mods were guilty, and which eventually curdled into the shape of the Skins. But Weight sets out to show how his ‘big three Mod bands’ – in this version of Mod history, the Small Faces, The Kinks and The Who – as well as other artists of the time, principal amongst them of course The Beatles, weaved music hall and other English accents into the American sounds with which they first fell into love.

Not least because of its inclusion of the Beatles and music hall in a discussion of Mod, Weight’s book is not without its critics. (Amongst Mods as amongst so many other cliques and cults, no single summative statement is ever without its critics; there will always be a self-appointed Face willing to question its purity.) Most excoriating of all has been Paul Hooper-Keeley‘s response:

Any book that has the final phrase, “We’re all modernists now”, is always going to be a broad brush generalisation of misinformation, quotes taken out of context, and another outsiders [sic] version of the truth to be taken with a large pinch of salt – and this latest book on our scene is no exception. Quite what the fascination is for non-Mods to spout on about our scene when they are neither part of it, nor even fully understand it, is beyond me.

What, then, should I make (other than my perennial status as a third-class ticket), of the fact that Weight’s book spoke rather clearly to my own experience of Mod – and suggested surprising ways in which an affiliation no longer particularly conscious still influences not just how I dress, but also how I think? You might turn to a more considered, and conciliatory, response to the book from within the Mod fraternity, such as Mark Raison’s:

The first thing to say is Mod: A Very British Style is not directly about the Mod Scene, so the events, bands, people, politics and intricacies of what could be called the core Mod Scene are of little interest here and largely ignored. What Weight’s book is, is an exploration into how the original Mod movement drew their influences from American, European and Afro-American styles in music, art, fashion, architecture and design and how those strands have been absorbed into the British mainstream. It examines attitudes towards class, consumerism, race, sexuality and countless other topics. It is a story of how a cult became a culture.

This is just right, I think. As Ian Penman wrote in the one of the most thoughtful – although not always, for instance in its erroneous supposition that A Very British Style fails to mention the Situationists, the closest – readings of the book, Weight spends little thought or time on the early, critical phase of Mod, in the bifurcated jazz clubs of Trad-vs-Mod Soho. Not a history of the movement per se, then, A Very British Style is more properly a social history of youth culture which takes as its founding premise the idea that Mod has been the most visible and enduring influence on the way in which young British people, and particularly young working-class British people, have attempted to express and shape a distinctive identity within a broader culture that either forcefully or quietly denies them agency or advancement. This makes it not a book to be consulted before a trip to a Brighton boutique in order to understand the optimum length and point of a shirt’s collar; but it makes it something rather more interesting. A Very British Style may be a little rushed and even – gasp, fellow Mods! – a little populist; but it’s also about the subculture’s radical social, rather than sartorial, aspects. To illustrate this point (and it is true of his book that it turns to this device rather too readily), Weight quotes someone else:

By the early 1960s the Mods had evolved into a kind of living parody of the expectations and aspirations of post-war British life. Finding jobs in shops and offices, they adopted a mode of dress that satisfied the white-collar requirements to ‘make a good impression’ with a vehemence that turned the markers of class identity upside down. Away from the workplace they cultivated a demeanour as preoccupied and self-important as a City financier. [...] The special privilege of parody is that it allows its authors to participate in the very set of conventions they mean to debunk or transcend. [Jonathan Gould, Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America, pp. 130-5]

As an ignorant sixteen year-old A-Level student from a council house my parents had purchased on the strength of a brewery worker’s salary, I was initially interested in Mods because I liked paisley and Ocean Colour Scene. But I think there was also precisely something about the sharper-than-thou, ambiguously gendered, fierce pride of Mods which attracted me to, and then provided the tools to access, a means of being both socially fluid, doubly contrary, and true to my roots. Mods refused to accept that drinking espresso, reading literature or wearing tailored clothing were somehow the preserve of the middle class (the Skins missed this point when rejecting their forebears as class traitors during the 1970s). Their enthusiasm for the stuff of modernity was also not a capitulation to blind consumerism – the exercise of taste and discernment, that famous Mod attention to detail, was in fact a rejection of the indiscriminate materialism for which we all now seem so trained.

Weight spends some time on how the gatekeepers of Mod asked rather more of women than of men. This irony isn’t lost on his central thesis that Mod was a way of working class kids beating at their own assumed game the slumming hippie scions of doctors and lawyers, in order merely to have the chance of a toehold in the world of tomorrow (or, indeed, just of Roman Holiday). This aspirational vision of theirs was self-confessedly over-optimistically envisaged – but it was also often contradicted by their own practice. There is in this scepticism, of course, a further factor in the hostility of contemporary Mods to Weight’s book: it is both critical and revisionist. Mods of the 1970-80s revival were, for Weight, reactionary nostalgics; Britpop’s rejuvenation of Mod failed to have the international impact of the 1960s version; yet iterations of Modernism more alien to Adam of London‘s particular vision of its style – Glam Rock, for instance, or 90s dance culture – managed, in Weight’s ecumenical and sometimes willfully broad-church definition of Modernism (Tinie Tempah is a Mod?), to be progressive and impactful in the way the culture originally intended.

For all the dangers of generalisation and faulty logic this approach involves, it gives fellow travelers like me a frisson of freedom: in the same way that my membership of the Labour Party is a passive one, any full allegiance to the Modernist club founders on my knee-jerk distrust of gangs (Weight attributes this characteristic to the earliest Mods, too); but, by loosening Modernism just a little from the constraints of sta-prests and penny loafers, Weight gives it room to breathe in contemporary life (not least, he argues, in the market halls of IKEA stores). Look at it in this light, and away from the book’s slightly dubious citations, index and illustrations, and Mod still seems not just useful but maybe even vital – and certainly, surprisingly, still keeping the faith in the back of at least this particular ersatz cowboy’s subconscious.

As I said last year to the gentleman that is Alex Huskisson, whose Mystery Train show is now at Stroud FM and to which you should listen regularly: what would Steve Marriott do?

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I read ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ every Christmas Eve, and in that way it has become less a story to me and more a collection of familiar jokes, quirks and reminders. The cubic capacity of Henry Baker’s skull, the ill-tempered smugness of a Covent Garden fowl merchant, the Christmas dinner in which a bird will feature heavily: all of them are present and correct, in the best ways of tradition, when called upon.

But what actually happens in this story? What does it look like? In some ways, it is rather ugly: its very first sentence includes that higgledy-piggledy word ‘upon’ twice within the space of six words. Like Holmes and Watson’s wander through the frosty streets of the capital in search of the breeder of Baker’s gem-laden goose, the story dots and weaves rather abruptly through a number of brief episodes, to the extent that the detective’s insistence to the piece’s villain, James Ryder, that he has “all the proofs which I could possibly need” seems even bolder an assertion than usual. It has a wonderful atmosphere, but an ungainly shape.

On the other hand, it’s an excellent example of what Michael Chabon has called the Holmesian canon’s tendency to produce ‘story engines’, little perfectly-tuned motors of narrative which contain a cascade of plot and incident that helps propel the apparently meagre foregrounded story with considerably more impetus than it might otherwise have. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, slight and swift as it seems, in fact contains a whole series of other tales, a sense of happening which fits a story that rests on the conceit that it is “one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles”.

Even as Watson arrives at Holmes’s rooms – usually the start of a Sherlockian escapade – events are in motion. The good doctor finds his friend deep in contemplation – Peterson, the commissionaire, has already brought a beaten old hat and a goose to Holmes for inspection, and along with them a vignette of a boozy Yuletide evening in which high spirits became a violent altercation from which a man fled without his Christmas goose. That man, we discover, is Mr Henry Baker – whose story Holmes draws from the details of his cracked felt hat (“his wife has ceased to love him”). When Baker answers Holmes’s message – printed in those repositories of narrative, the newspapers – we discover yet more about him, including that he is party to a two dozen-strong goose club. (This latter fact gives us twenty-three other Victorian Christmases to ponder.)

We know by now, of course, that Baker’s goose contained the famed blue carbuncle, a priceless gem belonging to the Countess of Morcar which, Holmes tells Watson, “is a nucleus and focus of crime” – in short, a body around which countless stories orbit. We might wonder, too, how the Countess came upon this storied artifact, about the relationship between Lady Morcar and her lady-in-waiting, whose tip-off to the upper-attendant of the hotel in which her mistress was resident gave rise to this latest theft; we read of a previous conviction for robbery of John Horner, the man framed by Ryder for the carbuncle’s disappearance, and reassess Holmes’s later insistence upon the plumber’s total innocence; and, of course, we wonder what poor old Inspector Bradstreet, quoted in the press as to his certitude of Horner’s guilt, makes of Holmes’s involvement.

These are a lot of jumping-off points for a story so short, and help explain why there is so much space to explore within its apparently slight constraints. Holmes’s final act of festive forgiveness, allowing Ryder to flee, leaves open yet more possibilities: “there is the making of a very pretty villain in you,” the detective tells the villain, and his escape at the story’s close leaves his future career a matter for speculation.

But that, perhaps, is a story for the New Year. In the meantime, readers: merry Christmas to you, whatever your story.

The Lowland by Jhumpa LahiriIn his 2007 history India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha wrote of the militant Indian Maoists who emerged from the conflagration at Naxalbari in 1967: “‘Naxalite’ became shorthand for ‘revolutionary’, a term evoking romance and enchantment at one end of the political spectrum, and distaste and derision at the other.” [pg. 423] In her new novel The Lowland, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Jhumpa Lahiri plays with precisely these reactions, positing a long tail of consequences whipping outwards from a single Naxalite’s decision to fuse ideological fervour with murderous deeds.

The novel begins with Subhash and Udayan, two brothers living in the Kolkata suburb of Tollygunge during the 1950s. Subhash, the elder by a scant fifteen months, is cautious and prone to hesitation; Udayan “was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colours” [pg. 11]. Despite their differences, the boys are as inseparable as the twin pools wallowing in the topographical hollow of the title: “After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen. The lowland also filled with rain, three or four feet deep, the water remaining for a portion of the year.” [pg. 1] This governing metaphor emphasises not just the occasional indistinguishability of the brothers, but also how the consequences of events have a habit of squatting in our lives long after their initial happening: like water with nowhere to drain away, history lingers in the lives of each of Lahiri’s characters, turning brackish and stagnant.

The first section of The Lowand is consequently bulging with Cliff Notes history, context shoe-horned into a smaller story because without it the personal, soapy tragedies which proceed from Udayan’s inevitable radicalisation make no sense. “It was one of a string of villages in the Darjeeling district,” Lahiri writes of Naxalbari, “a narrow corridor at the northern tip of West Bengal. Tucked into the foothills of the Himalaya’s, nearly four hundred miles from Calcutta, closer to Tibet than Tollygunge.” [pg. 20] We get thumbnails of American history, too, since as Udayan becomes ever closer to his Communist friends, Subhash attends college in the USA. We read of India and of Udayan at arm’s length during this stretch of the novel (difficult because Indian news is not something one will “come across in any newspaper in Rhode Island” [pg. 87]), and Subhash returns to Tollygunge only on the news that his brother is dead, shot by soldiers who have homed in on his Naxalite activities.

Subhash’s life is transformed. Not only has he lost the brother who formed his other half; he feels obliged to marry Udayan’s pregnant wife, Gauri. Yet the only love affair Subhash has undertaken in the US has been desultory and practiced, involving “a woman whose company he was growing used to, but whom, perhaps due to his own ambivalence, he didn’t love” [pg. 77]. According to Subhash’s mother, meanwhile, Gauri has no material instinct or aptitude. We think at first this is spite, but learn as the novel proceeds in elliptic fashion that it is a judgement more or less fair. Indeed, Lahiri eschews the tumescent context of her first hundred pages once Gauri joins Subhash in the USA, dropping us into strings of vignettes separated by often large – and important – chunks of time. Gauri develops a love of academia and philosophy, attending lectures on the quiet; Subhash turns his studies into a career; and the daughter they pretend is his rather than Udayan’s develops a personality at a rapid clip (by the close of the novel she is in her forties).

Lahiri intends to write a family epic alert to the irony of unintended consequences – for her senior college thesis, Bela (long since abandoned by Gauri, now a college professor, and living an itinerant lifestyle with which Subhash is uncomfortable) chooses to study “the adverse effects of pesticide runoff in a local river” [pg. 221], encouraging the reader to recall those pools of water in which, we learn, Udayan attempted to hide before the soldiers found him. All of this has a certain piquancy, and the sad, stilted lives of the main characters do have the power to move: alone and adrift, for instance, Subhash feels “that this arbitrary place, where he’d landed and made his life, was not his” [pg. 253], and we feel for a man at sea in his own cast-off-course life, “linked”, like Gauri, “into a chain she could not see” [pg. 292]. But there’s also an obstinacy to The Lowland – all that insistent commentary, crystalline-but-crafted sentences, and punished protagonists (Gauri’s desolation, in particular, feels simply unfair) – which lends it an air of inflexibility. The Indian sections have a nice ambivalence – at one moment “the sour, septic smell” of Tollygunge [pg. 89], at another the “gestures of hospitality from shopkeepers” [pg. 113] – but, in the way of We Need New Names, the prism of America over-directs the novel’s light away from this valence of detail.

The Luminaries by Eleanor CattonDetail is not something lacking in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, however. At 832 pages, it is by far the largest book on this year’s shortlist – which might be the reason that I’ve left it last to review. More than any other of its competitors, Catton’s novel is interested in capturing the sense of a single place – not evoking a milieu we view from a more familiar one (Bulawayo, Lahiri, Ozeki), not abandoning specifity (Crace), and not being so fiercely concise that all but the most essential details are pruned away (Tóibín). Catton’s 1860s New Zealand goldrush town of Hokitika emerges as a pungent presence, mapped and – aha – mined thoroughly in the course of what becomes a compendious tour. But what is remarkable – and a little thrilling – about all this detail is that the novel conspires to make it entirely irrelevant.

At yesterday’s Booker Prize shortlist event in Cheltenham, Catton discussed the dual meaning of ‘fortune’: the prospectors of Hokitiki are in search of riches, of course; but fortunes are told as well as found, and in this way The Luminaries – its title, too, offering a dual reference, to the novel’s cast of Hokitika’s leading lights but also to the celestial bodies around which Catton structures her action – considers determinism and destiny. Its first of twelve parts – we note the allusion to the Zodiac – is itself novel-length, introducing us to (again) a dozen characters who are each in some way implicated by circumstance in the death and possible murder of a rich prospector named Crosbie Wells. In the discursive style of the nineteenth-century novels which are read by the characters themselves, Catton introduces us to the most intimate aspects of each man’s self-image. New arrival Walter Moody “had studied his own reflection mutely, and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best” [pg. 4]; shipping magnate Thomas Balfour “liked very much to feel that he was at the vanguard of an era” [pg. 12]; cleric Cowell Devlin “spent the present moment in a state of constant visualisation, conjuring in his mind the untroubled future self he had determined that he would one day become” [pg. 87]. We come to know these characters entirely, and often through the medium of gloriously witty pen portraits.

But Catton’s story lies elsewhere, in a string of coincidences involving none of the characters who feature in this hefty first part – and who consequently never develop from those initial thumbnails. Significantly given the centrality of the moon to the novel’s vision of ‘fortune’, it is two women who emerge in the book’s second half as the engines of the story: the Hokitika prostitute Anna Wetherell and the scheming villainess first introduced to us as Crosbie’s estranged wife, Lydia Wells. That the tart-with-the-heart and the scheming adulteress are both wearied and wearying types is part of Catton’s project. Individuals are not the drivers of this novel’s action. At one point, Balfour’s main client, and a man himself inextricably linked with the vengeful Lydia, opines that, “Only a weak mind puts faith in coincidence” [pg. 63], but in fact life in The Luminaries is governed by it. Characters act not in relation to their painstakingly-rationalised self-perceptions, but to their star signs or schematic roles in the narrative (the corrupted chemist, the tragic Chinaman); stories have less a beginning, a middle and an end, and more a series of intersections between random events which can build accidentally into denouements; and, as the novel’s twelve parts reduce in length by a mathematical ratio, and the chapter summaries which commence each segment grow ever more rococo in inverse proportion to the wordcount of the chapters themselves, Catton plays with narrative, subverting the certainties and assumptions of precisely the nineteenth-century realism she pretends to ape.

The Luminaries is interested in the way in which the sense of self which novels impose upon us, that bourgeois conception of the individual as an independent agent making choices which forge destinies in the way of Lahiri’s brothers, might not capture the way in which the world really works. Anna is in love with Emery Staines, the richest prospector in Hokitika, a young man who disappeared on the same night Crosbie Wells died and on which Anna herself collapsed in the street; they were born, she finds, on the same day at the same time of the same year, and this seems to give them an uncanny connection, in which one feels the emotions of the other, or can forge their signature without discernible discrepancy. In this context, Staines’s individuality is not important – indeed, the way he intersects with other people and events is the real root of his character, and self-presentation or -perception merely a gloss. “Emery Staines knew very well that he created a singular impression in the minds of all those whom he met. This knowledge had become, over time, an expectation, as a consequence of which, his singularity had become even more pronounced.” [pg. 732] That is, the self is simply self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whether this radicalism is contained in a package effectively executed is a slightly different question; Catton is attempting to interrogate the novel using a novel, and this perhaps inevitably leads to a bagginess, at times even an awkwardness: all that detail, all those words, can come to feel recursive. There’s an extent to which Catton’s concept – perhaps fittingly – overtakes her material, and The Luminaries can feel stretched as a result. Indeed, I wonder if, at the other end of this shortlist’s spectrum, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary isn’t both just as radical and significantly more disciplined and artful. If The Luminaries is certainly extremely clever, the Tóibín might also be articulate. One of these two should certainly win the prize (I’d probably plump for The Testament of Mary myself), but I wonder if Jim Crace’s reputedly final novel, the elegiac-if-inexact Harvest, might not be awarded the Jacobson-Barnes Award for Life-Time Achievement. The stars will reveal their alignment on Tuesday.

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