The night of a million books!

I love the idea of World Book Night –  To be held on March 5th 2011,  this event will see a team of thousands of volunteers each being given 48 books to hand out, potentially to people who normally  wouldn’t get the chance to read.  There are some great books on offer, some of which I have read, others not.   Well worth volunteering for!

Margaret Atwood – The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood - The Year of the Flood

Image by srboisvert via Flickr

I so wanted to enjoy The Year of the Flood. I loved Oryx and Crake, to which it isn’t a sequel as such but a companion piece.  I’ve also been really affected by The Handmaid’s Tale and The Penelopiad, both of which gave me an appetite to learn more about Margaret Atwood and her work. 

Did I enjoy it?  All the while I was reading I had a nagging sensation of “what’s the point” – Oryx and Crake had been such a well-conceived and contained novel that I felt myself constantly questioning whether this other angle on the story, on the move to the “waterless flood” which I had known from that previous novel would occur, and would be the result of Crake’s megalomania (he’s a minor character in this novel, and actually arguably slightly more rounded).  The end of the novel didn’t seem to offer much hope for the future, and that seemed to be that.    This time, that ending is shown to be less desolate, less definite.   There does seem to be some hope for humanity, and its future.   Other reviews have focused on the annoyance and absurdity of the God’s Gardener sermons and hymns (which Atwood turned into a touring show, appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival for example).  I shared that annoyance, and will admit that I skipped the majority of the hymns.

The novel focuses on two characters briefly mentioned in Oryx and Crake – Ren and Toby, and we see the development (or more correctly existence) of a society where cloning, body transformation, environmental degradation, and  technology have developed well beyond our current level, with little thought to ethics or morality.  This is a world where anything can and does go.  The elite, employed by biotechnology companies, are kept in sanitized compounds, while the “pleeblanders” like Ren and Toby live outside that safety perimeter, and are bought and sold like the manufacutred rakunks, liobams and pigoons that come to dominate the landscape. Integrated into that landscape are the environmental cults predicting disaster.  God’s Gardeners, populated by Adams and Eves, predict and prepare for environmental  apocalypse, the so-called “waterless flood.  Interestingly, Atwood will be appearing at the Royal Society in November to talk at a Royal Society of Literature event on climate change, and it’s obviously something that she cares passionately about, but (as with McEwan’s Solar), I would question how she has set about providing that message to the reader.  A less fervent Adam One, for example, and a more sympathetic approach to the Gardeners themselves, may have created a more powerful message.

Again, there are some confused (or realistic) attitudes to science and technology within the novel, with both their benefits and abuses being vividly depicted.  We see the downside of new developments, and their impacts in created a morally bankrupt world, but equally they enable the Gardeners and those remaining after the flood to maintain contact with the outside world, and to survive the “flood”, which has itself been enabled by science.

So, have I answered my question on whether I enjoyed it or not?  I think so.  This is a multi-faceted novel which can be read on its own or with Oryx and Crake.  It deals with some current issues, and presents a message of the need for action being taken in a measured and considered way.    It’s more hopeful than the previous book, and all in all I’m glad that I have read it.

BBC interviews with modern writers

534(To The North)

Image by via Flickr

I’ve  just discovered this archive,  In Their Own Words: British Novelists – the BBC website on writers interviewed about aspects of their writing.  I’ll explore it in more detail when I have more time, but it ranges from Zadie Smith back to Virginia Woolf and covers many authors I’ve either just read or studied.  How spooky to hear disembodied voices, and how different some of those voices, like that of Elizabeth Bowen, are from what we might expect from their writings.

Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird

Written by Nick Laird, poet and husband of Zadie Smith, this is the story of five days in the life of lawyer Dan Williams. His past and present lives collide with the arrival of Geordie, an old friend from school in Northern Ireland.

Utterly Monkey

Hailed as one of the ‘post troubles’ novelists, Laird’s work is characterised by the black humour of those writers. Dan’s hometown is a not even thinly veiled version of Laird’s own, Cookstown. I’m not sure that I recognise his version of Northern Ireland but then everyone’s experience of life during the 80s and early 90s was different, depending on location.

The language and imagery is recognisable though as Laird blends the comic and the everyday and brings his character back to NI on the eve of the 12th of July to help oil the wheels of a takeover of Ulster Water, a company staffed by aunt like figures who eventually force him to question his corporate loyalties.  And that pull of the past and questioning what it means to be Northern Irish are two of the novel’s key themes, both explored in a comic but sensitive way.

There are echoes of Smith’s White Teeth in the language and locales in London. But this is a Willesden/north London populated by corporate types with few of the issues of Smith’s characters. And we see more of the city, inevitable given the similarities with Laird’s own profession of lawyer.

This has left me wanting to find out more about Laird’s work – he talks about the formative landscape he shares with Heaney, and that’s something I can certainly relate to.

Reviewing Solar

Reading this on the train, I found myself laughing out loud – the first time I’ve said that about an Ian McEwan novel I think! Whether I was meant to be laughing is another question, of course. This novel reverberated with me on so many different levels: its main character is a not exactly likeable and corrupt scientist, Michael Beard, who works on the boundaries of energy and science policy. He’s on his fifth marriage as the book opens, and living on the strength of a Nobel prize gained for work he did in his early 20s. He has an obsession with food, and his interest in saving the planet from the perils of climate change doesn’t extend to saving himself from an unhealthy emotional and physical lifestyle.

A newspaper reviewer compared this to a West End farce, and that is what it’s like in many respects – characters come to grief on a polar bear shaped rug (ironic as climate change is a major theme); have comic mix ups over bags of salt and vinegar crisps on the Heathrow Express; and have embarrassing experiences in sub zero temperatures!!

I guess we could call this novel a postmodern romp. There are familiar McEwan traits here: again, we have a deeply unlikeable character; the novel is compressed into a few key days, with the character’s fate shaped by key events. It’s split into three parts, spread over ten years, and all parts are essentially tragic-comic leadups to realisations or events that will change his life. Action is played out against a wider landscape of memories and reminiscences. There’s even a false imprisonment, but no burning desire to atone for it.

There’s a great deal of poking fun at the relationship between the arts/social sciences and the natural sciences, while literature (and the study of it) comes in for a great deal of satirising. Postmodern attitudes are themselves lampooned, as Beard struggles to convince investors and social scientists of the reality of climate change and his solution for that and a looming energy crisis. I guess that lampooning of his own craft makes this novel postmodern in its own right.

We get pathos too – the looming energy crisis is matched by Beard disintegrating before our eyes. This is firmly a novel of its time, not only because of the emphasis on climate change, but it positions itself in a world shaped by financial crisis and MP expenses scandals.

The Mad Scientist in 19th Century Fiction

This event at LSE was a real mixture of work and pleasure.   I heard about it with a couple of hours’ notice, and it was great that I was only 15 minutes away. I spoke to the researcher (Jane Roach who’s doing her PhD at the Institute for Science in Society at Nottingham University) beforehand and her background is in genetics, so an interesting take on her topic.

It’s quite hard to condense some of the concepts as I know little if anything about Vladimir Propp, structuralism and many of the sociological contexts and themes that surrounded her work. Her research focuses on myths, and in particular how “the scientist” is presented in both Frankenstein (at one of the 19th Century) and Dracula (at the other end). To illustrate this “twin image” of the scientist, she used two pictures of Peter Cushing in the role of both characters. She viewed Frankenstein as a “Disordering” scientist, and Van Helsing as “restorative”. The first category sees the science as initiator and creator, while the second suggesting a role for the scientist as one who responds and contains threats. In the discussion afterwards, I said I’d found it interesting how we all view Frankenstein as inherently evil and forget his own quest, similar to that of Van Helsing, and the suffering he goes through as he tries to atone for his actions.

This split in roles was compared to a similar split in Victorian detective fiction, where scientists (like Sherlock Holmes) also featured. They were often accompanied by scientists who used their analytical skills to help out the detective. In all cases, the scientists presented were emotionally distant, driven and typically wild in appearance.

This was a “Public Understanding of Science” audience, so a lot of the conversation was around how these categorisations still impact on constructions of science and the scientist within literature, and how public attitudes to science can be impacted as a result. We talked about how more contemporary works by authors such as Michael Crichton show scientists adopting both roles – so, in Jurassic Park, we see mad science being promoted by power and wealth, but the more rational science coming in and helping solve the problem created initially. There was some discussion on the detective theme – so, for example many fictional detectives (from the 19th Century, and indeed from contemporary tv, film and fiction) are presented in similar ways, are depicted as often sociopathic and lacking in many areas of personality. While scientists express concern about this depiction, their detective counterparts would seem to be less bothered.

I think I would even argue that the purpose of fiction (post reading Woolf) is not to present the tame and the structured, but as we know contemporary fiction’s focus on uncertainty might mean that science is only ever going to be presented disruptively, and that often the novelist will not be so concerned with presenting the ongoing mundaneness of being a scientist. That equally applies in media representations of science, where tabloid newspapers often focus on the sensationalist, the disruptive, and the hyped, Bad Science as opposed to the day to day activities which all research rofessions engage in without comment.