SPR I I
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Any Old Iron Anthony Burgess (Hutchinson £12.95) The dismissive title with its music-hall overtone catches perfectly the pitch ofc. Opus 30. By Earthly Powers out of Little Wilson and Big God, Any Old Iron is not the scrap metal one halfexpects from an author who has had his three score and ten. Nor is it a monkish book oftranquil thoughts, the death bed reconciliation of a man who has spent a lifetime getting up the noses of those who matter least. Rather it is the novel of a polymath, a Babel of cultures, languages. histories, characters, not quite seamlessly stitched together but carried off with the brio of a Billy Bunter determined to go to the ball in boxer shorts. For whatever his failings Burgess has never lacked ambition: who but he in the November of days would essay a history of the 20th century wrapped up in a Welsh fish supper? It begins — as near as damnit — on the Titanic and ends in Palestine with talk about an abortive plot to kidnap Prince Charles. In between you need a ride-a-card to keep up with Joneses — Reginald, Dan and Beatrix — who bv holy coincidence and omniscient authorship are privy to the big events of this madcap century. They are survivors and allow the Jewish Mancunian narrator to tell their story from inside and out. The result is anti-nationalism, anti anti-semitism, and anti-Mother England. It is improbable but one thinks so only with hindsight. Once you’re aboard it would be easier to stop a bobsleigh with a rubber band than dam up Burgess’s story. (Alan Taylor).
Caught In A Stlll Place Jonathan Lerner (Serpent’s Tail £5.95) The ‘post-nuke’ novel functions upon two solid fictional suppositions. Namely, that there will be survivors and, furthermore, that this lean sequel to humanity is likely to form insular tribal groupings (friendly or hostile), adopting relevant strategies to spin out their improbable life-spans.
By focusing on a benign chapter in this grim process, Jonathan Lerner unearths the quaint paradox that, confronted by devastation, his querulous remainder seem less troubled by the global vacuum and, instead, magnify the typical socio-sexual traumas they inhabited while the world was still dealing with a full deck.
Thus, against a low-key and indeterminate back-drop of ecological distress (represented by plague sores, forest fires and food shortage), Lerner hovers around a fairly dispassionate menage a trois. The three are a competent unmarried mother, a fretful gay married man and his restless lover who has left but then returns.
The novel is as much concerned with the restoration of adequate emotional responses as it is, putatively, a discourse on the nature ofsexual identity. To this purpose, the apocalyptic landscape merely seems an irritating convenience, which oddly enough provides reader-relief from its narrator’s feeble propensity to ‘internalise’. (Christopher Lloyd)
Dead Alive Eva Demski Translated by Jan Van Huerck (Methuen £12.95) With three acclaimed novels to her credit, Eva Demski’s wide-ranging appeal is conﬁrmed with this English translation. Though first published in 1984, the ‘better late than never’ maxim firmly applies in this instance.
The author ably and bravely trawls her imagination through the Baader-Meinhof/Red Army Faction era of recent West German history. The resulting story re-builds the intensity of political ideology in the years 1968—72, and charts its collapse into terrorism and fear.
In the twelve days between death and funeral, ‘the wife' (the author’s preference) probes her grief and pieces together her lawyer husband’s bizarre and fragmented life. Laying out dead issues whilst reconciling the living is sombre stuff, but flashes of humour brighten the mood. (Laura Wilson)
C BOOK SPECIAL
SEOUCTIVE STORY TELLING
Fool On The NIH Matt Ruff (Bloomsbury £13.95) The ancient myth of a story controlled from within has long appealed to post-modernists. Since Matt Ruff’s debut novel draws on almost every imaginable myth (Greek, Norse, romantic, Tolkienic, Shakespearean and of course Christian) it is hardly surprising that he chooses to introduce not one but three influential story-telling characters.
The mundane but outlandish plot concerns a fiction writer called S.T. George, who is seduced by The Most Beautiful Woman In The World — also one of the nine muses- and who must then challenge Evil face to face. Other characters include sprites named from Shakespeare, fantastically Bohemian students, talking dogs and cats, and Ezra Cornell, on whose University campus the action unfolds.
Ruff wrote the book while still a student at Cornell, and at times it reveals a certain immaturity. But this is easily outweighed by his ability to create a semi-fictional macrocosm, and to mould from it a delightful, witty and romantic romp. In short, Ruff has a powerful imagination and terrific narrative control. And that, in the end, is what F0010n The Hill is about. (Andrew Burnet)
GIRLS OF SLENDER MEANS
The House of Dolls Barbara Comyns (Methuen £1 I .95) The eleventh novel from the sharp pen of Ms Comyns is like Barbara Cartland through the looking-glass: a tale where seedy sex takes the place of naive virginity, and the dashing hero is a middle-aged dentist. The tale is set in a scruffy Sixties’ suburbia and is populated by blue-rinsed ladies whose respectability is somewhat compromised by their method of meeting the rising cost of living. Amy Doll’s tenants are running a brothel, offering their tired old wares to ageing Chiropodists and gentlemen with hearing aids, while in the basement, the aproned young widow worries about her unexpected role as a madame, her daughter’s inexplicable truancy, and the policeman who insists on digging her garden.
It is a hugely readable book, whose series of false endings lets the reader gently down, like locks on a canal, to sad, dry reality. Like virulent rouge on ancient cheeks, the macabre situation of these faded characters highlights their pathetic seediness. Most striking are Berti and Evelyn, two raddled old birds, stick-thin whisky drinkers, who fight and gloat, embroidering their pasts in vicious rivalry. Ms Comyns’ considerable gift for eccentric humour veils a telling consideration of her characters’ unattractive choice between uncomfortable independence and cosy normality. (Julie Morrice)
Mike Calder surveys the SF scene.
The Toynbee Convector Ray Bradbury (Grafton £12.95) The twenty-three stories in this new collection are all relatively recent but many ofthem are set in the America of the Forties and Fifties; the same era of Bradbury's most famous works. Age and memories. ghosts and remembering are recurring themes through the stories. written with the usual sure empathy for the right phrase. All but a few could loosely be described as ghost or horror stories, ofwhich ‘Banshee’ is possibly the best. but the title story is SF and ‘The Love Affair‘ is a new addition to The Martian Chronicles. Only ‘The Thing at the Top of the Stairs’ falls below the expected standard.
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WW8"! A.A. Attanasio (Grafton £6.95) In essence. this is a big, bold Pirate novel, but it should appeal to many fantasy readers. In the early 17th century the great European Powers are beginning to exploit the East Indies, but the island interiors are still unaffected. In Borneo. Jabalwan the sorcerer educates a half-breed, Matu, in jungle lore and mysticism. Later Matu leaves to seek his father and joins the crew of a pirate-ship feared throughout the Far East. Pursued by a sworn enemy. his quest takes him through the SE Asian archipelagos, culminating in a gorgeously-detailed trek across the India ofthe Moghul Empire. After he leaves India, events race along to the final truths and confrontations which leave him struggling to retain his animist beliefs while also embracing Western pioneering values.
The book is meticulously researched but the use of period place-names without footnotes or a brief afterword made following the action a bit difficult — I took a long time to realise one of the main
The List 7 — 20 April 1989 63