In the Country of Last Things

In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster

“Life as we know it has ended, and yet no one is able to grasp what has taken its place.”

The unnamed, isolated city state where Anna Blume searches in vain for her missing brother is extreme in its desolation, its daily hardship, its moral rot, its cruel bureaucracy, even in its nature, with a brutal, historically ‘Terrible Winter’ to make the urban nightmare even less survivable. The subcultures that spring up in this doomed world, including comically bizarre death cults, precisely different disciplines of scavenging, and a resourceful criminal underbelly, are briefly sketched, but enough to build a horrific overall impression and a gripping backdrop to Anna’s tale.

This sort of dystopian near-future setting makes this novel in one way an outlier in Paul Auster’s work, but otherwise it has so many of his hallmarks — a protagonist on an obsessive, all-consuming personal quest, a fluid, absorbing narrative marked by sudden changes of fortune, and memorable oddball characters encountered along the way.

Perhaps it’s not quite toppled the mighty Moon Palace as my absolute favourite Auster novel, but it’s up there.

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino – translated by William Weaver

“Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”

I’ve been nudged in the direction of Invisible Cities numerous times over the years, but it took a friend posting a copy to me before I got around to reading it at long last.

In the palace grounds of the Great Kublai Khan, puffing on a long amber pipe, swaying in a hammock, Marco Polo describes to his host many of the most obscure and curious corners of the ruler’s vast, unmanageable empire. Most of the places are summed up in less than a page, with just space for a splendid scenic tableau (often a traveller’s intoxicated first impression) before theres a sharp, strange turn in the telling. A report might read as a thought experiment, a satire, a gentle parable, a mind-bending paradox — most could be very different things to different people.

Certain images and ideas will fix themselves in the memory especially strongly. For me these included Leonia, so fixated on the brand-new that ‘the street cleaners are welcomed like angels’ and it exists at the centre of an enormous crater of its own expunged rubbish — a pristine city hemmed in by a chain of compressed garbage-mountains that grow by the day. Then there’s Thekla, perpetually under construction out of fear of ruin. Eusapia, with its enormous subterranean necropolis, a somewhat idealised version of the living city above, curated by a mysterious group of hooded brothers, is one of the creepiest vignettes.

Each far-flung metropolis is differently striking, and Calvino never lets Marco Polo linger too long on one and risk breaking the spell. The concentrated imagination poured into each page is inspiring.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

C Pam Zhang’s debut is a Chinese immigrant story that spans the California Gold Rush, centred on two very different siblings. Its early chapters follow the orphans Sam and Lucy on their quest to give their father’s body a proper burial. Just as this plot gathers pace, the novel darts sharply back in time, filling in their parents’ backstories, and soon we have a complete sense of the downtrodden family.

Sam takes after their father, with a volatile temper, a lust for gold, and a connection to the hills that once held so much of it – even if prospecting now means a lot of drudgery and disappointment. Lucy grasps that land, wealth and privilege will always be denied to their kind, so she’s drawn west across the Pacific, to the misty green hills and red-walled cities her Ma describes so vividly. She also feels the lure of a more civilised America over to the East, with its paved roads, neat shops and changing seasons.

Dates are presented as XX62, XX59 and so on, and very little geography is named – Zhang shrugging off specificity, giving herself space to reshape the myth of the American West. Hers is a frontier where immense buffalo and ferocious tigers once roamed, where rituals have tremendous power. This ‘unwritten history’ seems to rear up into the present when the characters move into the wild, wide-open landscapes.

While I gather some of Zhang’s other inventions are problematic, writers have always taken all kinds of liberties with the Wild West. My frustration with this novel really lies with its try-hard style. There are beautiful sentences, but so much the writing is self-consciously lyrical, and muddles the sense what’s actually unfolding. Coupled with that fussy structure, it feels like this otherwise straightforward tale has been overworked.

Rabbit is Rich

Rabbit is Rich by John Updike

“That’s why we love disaster…it puts us back in touch with guilt and sends us crawling back to God.”

Although it has this thought crossing Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s mind, the third novel in the saga doesn’t really deal in disaster. Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux both built toward cataclysms that will forever haunt the characters – but in Rabbit is Rich, John Updike spares them anything of the sort. Perhaps he is aware that another cruel twist of fate would seem ridiculously far-fetched. Perhaps he also thinks they deserve this providence.

Rabbit is certainly grateful, now 46 and running what was once his father-in-law’s Toyota dealership. Advancing age and disposable income have made him less jittery, and more smug. Where he once sought to explode the family unit, now he wants to sustain and control it. He’s all about securing his wealth, ingratiating himself with some new country club pals, and bossing around his errant, surly son Nelson (now of college age).

After the tacked-on late 60s backdrop in Rabbit Redux, the action of Rabbit is Rich is much more tightly wound around its setting, with constant reference to the 1979 Oil Shock. Fretting over too much money in the bank, Rabbit first invests in South African gold coins, then swaps it all for antique silver dollars. It’s a slight return to those youthful jitters and a plot thread that allows for some bizarre comic set pieces. Another echo of the dithering twenty-something Rabbit is his theory that he may have a grown-up daughter, conceived amongst the inglorious events of Rabbit, Run. His nagging desire to find out for sure stems from that book’s great disaster, the loss of his second child.

If we warm to Rabbit at all, it’s perhaps only because he’s more respectful toward his wife Janice than in previous books, and just marginally less obnoxious than the company he keeps. His new status has only emboldened an ugly conservatism that was always there in him. Readers are liable to snort when he berates his son, “How did you get so prejudiced? Not from me.” Updike wrote in a 1995 introduction to the tetralogy, “Readers who expect novelists to reward and punish and satirise their characters from a superior standpoint will be disappointed.” Yet again, he pushes Rabbit quite far – the unpalatable inner monologues still spill forth without a hint of authorial opprobrium. I admire that, but it’s easy to see why these novels are not especially fashionable in 2021.

400+ pages in the company of the Angstroms is kind of exhausting, but it’s hard to say what Updike could have cut. Late on in this indulgent opus, Rabbit stares up at a Caribbean night sky and waits a while for a shooting star, until ‘there it is…vivid and brief as a scratched match, a falling star, doused in the ocean of ink’. That’s something like the feeling of reading Updike – he’ll test your patience, but he is sure to dazzle or surprise you sooner or later.

Mort

Mort by Terry Pratchett

Mort was the first Discworld novel to focus on Death (previously limited to scene-stealing walk-on parts), and arguably the first one to have a proper plot. Death, for reasons never quite explained, recruits an apprentice named Mort, a gawky, gangly teenager from the Ramtops. Mort is soon upgraded from stable-cleaning to soul-reaping duties, but he bungles one of his early jobs, thwarting the fated assassination of a princess and thereby causing a schism in reality.

It’s clear Pratchett takes delight in this opportunity to flesh out (for want of a more appropriate term) Death. As the skeletal harvester of souls enjoys some downtime, we learn of his passion for cats, his bemused regard for human customs, and his confected, monochrome Domain. Death’s otherworldly presence is captured wonderfully from the very beginning – his hand ‘smooth and rather yellowed like an old billiard ball’, his cough ‘like the pistol-crack of an ancient beam full of death-watch beetle’. Pratchett can send a shiver down the spine, then immediately undercut it with a wisecrack as dry as a bone, or a (literal) pratfall.

It’s an odd experience re-reading a Discworld novel after more than 20 years – the movement of the story feels nearly new, but particular scenes and jokes are startlingly familiar, as if the better part of them had been lodged in the back of my mind all this time. Among these old favourites were a footnote about monarchy travelling faster than light, and the section where Mort visits a pub and samples the corrosive drink ‘scumble’. There’s also plenty of stuff that must have flown way over my head during my first read.

French Exit

French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

After his comic Western The Sisters Brothers, and his Alpine Gothic fable Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick DeWitt brings his addictively arch style to a novel that’s less precisely located in genre, but owes something to screwball comedies.

Frances Price is the widow of an absolute rotter, a lawyer who made his enormous fortune representing the most repugnant clients – ‘the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, the apparatus of the war machine, gun lobbyists’. She’s since been frittering away his cash. As French Exit begins, she learns it’s almost all gone. She and her adult son Malcolm will have to vacate their luxurious Manhattan home and take up a friend’s kind offer of an apartment in Paris. Across the Atlantic and into this uncertain future, they must also drag Small Frank, an elderly cat who contains the frustrated soul of Frances’ dead husband.

Malcolm is a little passive and dull-witted compared to Frances, who is ready with a shocking remark, a withering put-down or a wild non-sequitur whenever bored of the conversation. The dialogue between mother and son is always fun, and always dancing around deep shadows of unspoken resentment and remorse. More sparks fly as they travel to Paris and collect hangers-on – including a fortune teller, a needy, overly talkative fellow ex-pat, and an out-of-his-depth private detective.

French Exit is less pacy than DeWitt’s last two novels, but no less charming. It has strong characters and a sharp sting in the tail, making for a memorable book that continues his hot streak.

I thought Jacques Audiard’s 2018 film of The Sisters Brothers was great, and rather overlooked at the time, but French Exit seems perhaps trickier to adapt, and the imminent film version doesn’t really appeal.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan’s latest finds him fixated on two modern crises – elderly care and ecological ruin. Anna’s mother Francie is close to death in a Hobart hospital, and her three children face difficult decisions. Tommy – a failed artist, part-time crayfishing deckie, and as the only one who has stayed local in Tasmania, Francie’s caregiver for many years – thinks it best to let her slip away. Terzo, a successful businessman, seems to see death as somehow beneath the family, and will happily throw his money and contacts at the problem. Anna falls somewhere between these two positions. When the recurring dilemma becomes too much, she is in the habit of retreating into her architectural work, or her phone. But the latter only offers her a harrowing slideshow of our doomed planet – footage of the Australian wilds aflame, photos of charred koalas and cattle, reports of yet another species driven to extinction, and more bad news from elsewhere.

Those ‘doomscroll’ passages are deliberately unflinching. Away from the glow of Anna’s smartphone, the hospital scenes are just as hard to bear. Like Anna, we are vexed by the medical language loaded with euphemisms, and traumatised by the sight of a life so reduced that it’s barely there. Seeing her mother hooked up to a ‘vermicelli of tubes’, Anna compares her to ‘a carapace of something long ago caught and killed in a spider’s web’. So many other images are haunting and horribly accurate to an experience so many will know.

Into this complex mix, Flanagan boldly chucks a massive helping of magic realism: early on, we learn that Anna’s body parts have started vanishing – first of all her ring finger, her left hand blurring into nothing at the knuckle like a shoddy bit of Photoshop. This theme is developed in that certain characters can notice Anna’s missing parts, while most seem oblivious. The parallel with our planet’s miraculous nature being erased every single day, yet mostly ignored, is powerful.

Realism is the least effective way of describing reality. It was a way of trying to find a story that would speak to this strange way in which the more we’re confronted with horror, the more we turn away from it and refuse to acknowledge it.

Richard Flanagan on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book

The Mystery of Henri Pick

The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos – translated by Sam Taylor

Did a deceased Breton pizza chef, never known to pick up a book nor write so much as a birthday card his whole life, secretly pen a great novel? When a young couple (an ambitious editor and a fledgling author) discover Henri Pick’s opus in an eccentric Crozon library that stores rejected manuscripts, it’s a curious mystery that soon becomes a national phenomenon.

Strewn with references to Brautigan, Pushkin, Proust, Houellebecq and more, and depicting a fickle French publishing industry with bitterness and cheek in equal measure, the comedy here can be enjoyed by any voracious reader or budding writer. You’re never far from a droll observation like “Reading is a completely egotistical pleasure”, or “Writing is the only job in the world where you can stay under the duvet all day long and still claim to be working.”

Writing is the only job in the world where you can stay under the duvet all day long and still claim to be working.

With a wilfully obscure body of artistic work at its centre, a fitful plot and flashes of bluntly described lust, this reminded me most of Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. Ultimately, it’s frothier than any Auster, and for me its cuteness wore very thin in the final stretch. But it’s a promising start to this series of translations from TV box set connoisseurs Walter Presents, in collaboration with Pushkin Press — both very reliable curators of eclectic foreign fictions. It’s also, if I’m honest, a small consolation for this struggling would-be author.

Crow Court

Crow Court by Andy Charman

In the Dorset market town of Wimborne Minster, as wedding bells ring through the bright Spring morning, a choirboy is found drowned among the rushes and weeds of the River Allen. Andy Charman’s debut novel connects thirteen more episodes, spread out over more than a decade in the mid-19th century, to that initial tragedy and scandal. Key characters include a bereaved cordwainer who sleepwalks onto his wife’s grave every night, a panicked, lovestruck stablehand making a midnight flit, a young Admiral Nelson fan whose play-acting goes awry, a labourer-turned-sailor rounding the Cape, and many other memorable folk.

Each of their chapters is carefully voiced, totally convincing in its historical texture, and appropriately peppered with Victorian Dorset dialect. That ranges from the self-explanatory (‘proper trimmen crop o’ rushes’, ‘bangen girt wave’) to the more cryptic (‘spindly little gawk-hammer’, ‘dewbit’). But the language never trips up the story, and there’s a helpful Glossary at the back.

Crow Court always keeps one beady eye on the mystery it began with, but is in no hurry to resolve it. Confident that he has a cracking conclusion up his sleeve, Charman takes his time exploring each little narrative thread, finding the humour and humanity in everything. Even the episode most loosely related to the drowned choirboy (Shakespeare’s Thief) is entertaining in its own right. Indeed, some of the chapters have previously been published as self-contained short stories.

This is an impressive, innovative first novel and a piece of historical fiction like no other.

Light Perpetual

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

In November 1944, Alec, Vernon, Ben, and twins Val and Jo are being shepherded by their mums around Woolworths when a V-2 rocket drops through the roof. Francis Spufford describes the death and destruction with unflinching precision, millisecond by millisecond, from the combustion of the ‘livid gas’, to the ‘blizzard of metal jags and brick flakes’, to the crater left behind. Then he asks: what lives might these five children have led had the V-2 somehow never reached them, a misguided missile that perhaps ‘slipped unnoticed between the North Sea waves’?

I expected something like the speculative sprawl of Paul Auster’s underrated 4 3 2 1, but the structure here is much simpler. We drop in on the five at regular intervals from 1949 to 2009, for short vignettes, and we learn of the surprising turns each life has taken in the interim.

Spufford evoked 1746 Manhattan with verve in his fiction debut, Golden Hill. He’s just as good at these glimpses of post-war Britain, whether he puts his characters backstage with some Beat craze also-rans in 1964, amongst the skinheads menacing markets, playgrounds and ska gigs in the late 70s, or in a VIP box above Millwall’s Den in 2009.

At first, it’s puzzling whether the wartime what-if conceit was even necessary. If Spufford had just wanted to look at British fascists, or Thatcherite property grifters, he needn’t have fashioned an alternate reality. But there are several beautiful passages that echo that frozen moment of the explosion, and carry with them some nagging sense of how miniature and fragile a life is. They create a theological undertow that is hard to miss.

Spufford has said the novel is designed as ‘a picture with death as the frame‘ and it’s successful in that regard. The main flaw, for me, is that some of the key scenes built around music don’t have the transcendent quality that they aim for. From songs to hymns to operas, music is important to Light Perpetual, but it’s so difficult to do it justice in prose, even for the brilliant Spufford.