Friday, August 12, 2005

Odd, Surreal and Ambiguous Books

I seem to have read rather a lot of ambiguous, or even downright surreal, books so far this year. First there was the frankly scary Timon's Tide by Charles Butler, which I read early this year and didn't dare to read before bed in case it gave me dreams. In it Daniel's elder brother was drowned six years ago and his body was found near the Bristol docks, bound with plastic cords. Or was it ? It seems unlikely as there is no doubt that the down-and-out who accosts Daniel in the street is in fact Timon. Daniel is 16 and has a complicated family life, so he is already finding things difficult before his brother reappears. This a relatively short story which moves quickly towards a dramatic conclusion that sweeps up the whole of Daniel's family.

Then there was the somewhat surreal Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which I read shortly after Timon's Tide. This 800 page novel is set in the early 19th century, and the action moves between the genteel drawing rooms (admittedly a mischievous Faerie king sips tea with the wife of a very human government minister in some of them), to the bloody battlegrounds of Waterloo, where magically-created giant hands of earth drag men to their doom. The apposition of a perfectly realised magical world with the everyday one has been successfully created by both Philip Pullman and J K Rowling (amongst others) and the social comedy of Austen and Thackeray are easy to recognise, but it is not so easy to pastiche the ability of these writers to induce sheer narrative pleasure. Clarke succeeds with this strange yet compelling book.

A little later in the year I finally got around to reading Diana Wynne Jones' rather ambiguous book Fire and Hemlock, in which it is difficult to know where fiction ends and reality begins. This is a fantasy story that spans nine years. There is a photograph of fire and hemlock above Polly's bed which sparks memories in her that she can't quite seem to find. Nine years ago, at Halloween she accidentally gatecrashed a funeral party at the big house in the village. There she met Thomas Lynn for the first time and in spite of the fact that he is an adult and she is a child, they immediately become friends. They begin to make up absurd stories together, in which Tom is a great hero, and Polly his assistant. However, these adventures have a habit of coming true. Now, however, Tom seems to have been erased from Polly's mind, and from the rest of the world as well. During the course of the book Polly uncovers the truth and at Halloween nine years after she first met Tom, she realises that his soul is forfeit to demonic powers unless she can save him. We are going to do a "group read" and discussion of Fire and Hemlock on Child_Lit during September and if anyone is interested in participating, you can subscribe to this international email discussion list at the Child_Lit website.

The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke by Mark Chadbourn is an award winning short story which I read in the Spring and found rather surreal. Hanging in the Tate Gallery in London is a mysterious painting that captures the imagination of nearly everyone who sees it. It was painted by an artist who was later consigned to the infamous lunatic asylum, Bedlam, after he killed his father. The painting is mystical, enthralling and disconcerting; it purports to be a vista on to fairyland itself. In every aspect, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke is an enigma.

But for Danny, Chadbourn's elusive protagonist, it is a key to life and death, magic and wonder, hope and salvation. A former child prodigy, Danny has been obsessed with the painting all his life, and he knows it the key to a mystery about his mother, so Danny sets out on a quest into the life of Richard Dadd. By following in Dadd's footsteps to Egypt, where he first went insane, Danny himself risks madness, but the prize is worth it. But the question remain: is The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke really a gateway to the wondrous land of Faerie that has haunted mankind's dreams for centuries, or is it something much, much darker?

This book is available from PS Publishing. Whilst you're there, check out Juliet E McKenna's short story collection, Turns and Chances, which I can recommend as a good introduction to her Tales of Einarinn series.

Then this week I've read Neil Gaiman's collection Smoke and Mirrors, which contains 36 of Gaiman's favourite stories, prose poems, and verse pieces. This contains some stories and poems I found odd, surreal or ambiguous. Amongst them are a murder mystery set among angels in heaven; the discovery of the Holy Grail in an Oxfam shop (a marvellous piece which I really enjoyed); some variations on vampirism; a firm of contract killers with a very remarkable discount scheme; Beowulf retold as a Baywatch episode; an odd amalgamation of computers and black magic; and, in the introduction, a rather grim wedding present of a manuscript that tells a bleak and different story of the recipients' unfolding marriage, which I found very disturbing.

Finally, I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin's Changing Planes which is Armchair Travel for the Mind: "It was Sita Dulip who discovered, whilst stuck in an airport, unable to get anywhere, how to change planes - literally. By a mere kind of a twist and a slipping bend, easier to do than describe, she could go anywhere - be anywhere - because she was already between planes... One day, on the way back from her sister's wedding, she missed her plane in Chicago and found herself in Choom. Le Guin, armed with this knowledge and Rornan's invaluable Handy Planetary Guide which, though it is not the Encyclopedia Planeria (which runs to forty-four rather non-portable volumes) has spent many happy years exploring places as diverse as Islac and the Veksian plane. It's touted as being a combination of Douglas Adams' The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. I'm not too sure about it as yet, being rather more familiar with Earthsea than anything Le Guin has written in the Science Fiction genre, but I'll see how I get on with it.


Anonymous said...

And don't forget the Queen song that was also inpsired by that painting "The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke". The song is quite as strange as the painting - typical early Freddie Mercury.

Michele said...

I don't recall the song, although any Google search on FFMS will turn it up... It's not a case of forgetting it though - the song isn't really relevant to my reading of odd, ambiguous or surreal books.

Anonymous said...

i love jonathan strange.. ms clarke really writes well..