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Last Night by James Salter: “Give”

July 17, 2015

A story that gave me little joy and left behind it only impertinent questions: – When was this story written relative to the others in the book? Just as composers will often re-use musical phrases and directors can often be found re-using particular motifs, “Give” is a story that seems to draw on images and themes that are also present in the other stories. Is this story’s lusty poet a dry run for that of “My Lord You” or did that image stick so firmly in Salter’s mind that he could not help but return to it? – Does Salter work better at certain lengths than others? The more space he affords himself, the more elegantly he describes to space around his moods and characters. “Give” is nearly the shortest story in the collection and while it does manage to gain some traction, the emotions and images it shuffles around are more simplistic than they are in other stories. Much like “Such Fun”, “Give” is a story with a distracting twist in the tale. I say “distracting” as the drama arising from the male narrator’s affair with another man is most definitely not the point of the story. This is not a story about lost love or a marriage strained by infidelity, it is a story about a world woven from lies and enforced with all the passive-aggression that the middle-classes can muster. Read more…

Future Interrupted — The Allure of Ambiguity

July 15, 2015

Issue #259 of Interzone should now be blowing down your chimneys, rattling your windows and pressing ominously at your doors. After the issue arrives, subscribers will turn on their TVs and be met by images of flooded out streets, snow-bound primary schools and the perpetual promise of travel chaos and interminable commuting times. Arriving home from work (much later than usual) they will be met by tonally jarring images of people sweeping water from the ground floor of local shops while children build snowmen until it all turns to slush and misery. Of course, the papers will ask why our country is never prepared for the arrival of a new issue of Interzone and the government will make apologetic sounds and quietly cut funding to emergency services. Sandstone is weathered, concrete cracks, chalk cliffs collapse into the sea… Subscriptions are available from the TTA Press website while digital copies are available via Smashwords.

This issue contains six stories:

  • “Silencer – Head Like a Hole Remix” by E. Catherine Tobler
  • “The Deep of Winter” by Chris Butler
  • “Rush Down, Roar Gently” by Sara Saab
  • “After his Kind” by Richard W. Strachan
  • “Edited” by Rich Larson
  • “Midnight Funk Association” by Mack Leonard, winner of this year’s James White Award

The James White Award is actually quite an interesting institution as it is awarded to non-professional writers, namely people who have not yet acquired the three professional sales required to qualify for SFWA membership. Given the on-going explosion in the number of venues paying SFWA rates and the difficulty in getting noticed even with three professional sales to your name, there is something really quite charming about the idea of an award that celebrates people who really are just starting out in their careers as writers. This interest in non-professional writers is partly a product of the history of British science fiction in that British magazines have seldom been able to compete with their larger American cousins and so many British SF writers came up through an amateur scene that has now been almost completely eclipsed by the globalisation of the field and the pressure to adopt SFWA qualification as the acid test for whether or not you can actually write. People who have been around longer than I would probably be able to tell you more about this quirk in the history of British SF but you’d be surprised by the number of prominent UK authors who published their first stories in what were effectively fanzines.

Speaking of quirks in the history of British SF, this issue includes an editorial by me that’s a response to that state of the British genre union piece published by Strange Horizons last year. The piece talks a bit about local music scenes and the idea of cultivating local scenes as an antidote to the creation of a single globalised field dominated by American authors and imprints.

Obviously, this type of conversation requires us to tread carefully as focusing on some people is often a nice way of excluding others but I think it’s relevant not only to the idea of different people and groups forming their own canons but also to stuff like the decision to bring all of Heinlein’s books back into a print in a country that had been getting along just fine without him as a cultural touchstone. Given that the hard right of American genre fandom has long used Heinlein as a means of determining who is and who is not a ‘real science fiction fan’, I struggle to see the decision to bring Heinlein back into print as anything other than the imposition of an American canon on a British scene that had been in the process of developing its own histories and selections of canonical texts. The idea of British SF being a literary tradition in its own right is beautifully unpacked in Paul Kincaid’s superb but difficult-to-find monograph A Very British Genre, which was written in 1995 and mentions Uncle Bob a grand total of twice.

Aside from my forays into cultural localism, this issue also contains my column reviewing Ian Sales’ magnificent Apollo Quartet, an inspired and inspiring rant by Nina Allan about A Game of Thrones, habitually brilliant film columns by Nick Lowe and Tony Lee as well as Barbara Melville’s engaging interview with Al Robertson and reviews by such luminaries as Stephen Theaker, Lawrence Osborn, Ian Hunter, Paul F. Cockburn, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Jack Deighton, Ian Sales, Andy Hedgecock and Elaine Gallagher who looks at the VanderMeers’ Sisters of the Revolution.


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REVIEW — 3 Women (1977)

July 13, 2015

FilmJuice have my review of Robert Altman’s arthouse drama 3 Women. Set in a small desert town, the film tells of a teenage girl who arrives in town and attaches herself to a slightly older woman with a similar background. Initially, the teenage girl behave likes little more than an enraptured child, hanging on the older woman’s every word as she spins lies and revels in her narrow consumerist ideas about the good life. This relationship lasts until the young woman’s naivete and the older woman’s dishonesty run afoul each other resulting in one of them being hospitalise, at which point the film gets weird:

3 Women is divided into three increasingly-short sections that are topped and tailed by these beautifully composed surrealist interludes that linger in the mind and imbue the film with a distinctly dreamlike quality. When Milly and Pinky’s first relationship falls to pieces, a dream sequence triggers a re-ordering of their friendship and a transfer of personality traits: Once childlike and naïve, Pinky now emerges as manipulative and sexually confident while the deluded and selfish Milly is replaced by a more nurturing and principled figure who tries to look after Pinky only to wind up apologising for her failings until their unhealthy relationship intersects with another woman.

The elevator pitch for this film could easily be: A Feminist Lost Highway as the exchange of personality traits and the radical reworkings of reality are very similar to those deployed by Lynch. The film was evidently quite poorly reviewed at the time and Altman himself admitted that he wasn’t entirely clear what message he was trying to get across but I was reminded quite a lot of the work of Joanna Russ in so far as the film builds towards a future without men and many of the weirder shifts are triggered by a need to find a new way to co-exist with men who are either distracted and indifferent or crude stereotypical representations of a masculinity so toxic that it borders on the absurd.

I remembered Robert Altman chiefly from the grown-up satires he produced towards the end of his career, but while The Player, Short Cuts and Pret-a-Porter always struck me as very similar to Altman’s breakthrough film MASH, they did absolutely nothing to endear him to me. 3 Women has completely changed my opinion of Robert Altman and while I suspect that it’s probably not worth my while investigating the rest of his back catalogue in search of films like 3 Women, I do now wonder to what extent I was simply not ready for his sensibility.


REVIEW — A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Upon Existence (2014)

July 10, 2015

FilmJuice have my review of Roy Andersson’s deadpan existentialist comedy A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Upon Existence.

I must admit that this film caught me completely by surprise.  Prior to this review, I was only really familiar with Andersson’s first film, the wonderfully moving teenage love story entitled — aptly enough — A Swedish Love Story. Having now seen a couple more of his films and read a few interviews, I now realise that A Swedish Love Story is completely unrepresentative of the talent that emerged after a long depression-linked hiatus. Andersson may have gone to work in advertising as a successful maker of sentimental films but he returned as a bleakly existentialist comic who produces what can only be described as the cinematic equivalent of Chris Morris’s Jam.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Upon Existence takes place in a darkly surreal version of the Swedish city of Gothenburg where the futility of everyday life is periodically interrupted by eruptions of surrealist energy that allow the residents fleeting moments of happiness or sadness before returning them to their anhedonic stupor:

Characters flirt outrageously in one scene only to wind up being unceremoniously dumped in the background of another while complete strangers lambast each other for having the temerity to suggest that a Wednesday might feel like a Thursday. The only things that seem to keep the utterly defeated population from outright madness are moments when the past unexpectedly erupts into the present and sends Napoleonic armies marching through the streets while bawdy barkeeps sing about exchanging drinks for kisses while their patrons cheer them on.

The release of this film coincides with the release of a box set including not only A Pigeon and A Swedish Love Story but also Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living. I recommend it to anyone capable of finding humour in the pointlessness of existence.


What Price, Your Critical Agency?

July 8, 2015
Thirty Pieces of Silver 1988-9 Cornelia Parker born 1956 Purchased with assistance from Maggi and David Gordon 1998

Last week, I happened to receive an email from a publicist claiming to act on behalf of a celebrated genre anthologist. Said email inquired whether I might be interested in reviewing said anthologist’s latest project despite the fact that a) the page containing my contact details specifically mentions my lack of interest in unsolicited review copies, b) I no longer regularly review genre books and c)past interactions with said anthologist directly contributed to my decision to stop reviewing genre books. Needless to say, I did not bother responding.

The interesting thing about this email was not the publicist’s evident desperation in trying to find someone willing to review yet another of the countless genre anthologies being dumped onto an already over-saturated marketplace but the paucity of what they had to offer in return for my time and attention. In return for agreeing to read and write about this anthology, I was being offered the exciting opportunity to download a digital ARC from a service called NetGalley.

Now… I can completely understand why the publishing biz might want to replace the old-fashioned mail-out with invitations to a central depository of e-ARCs. Back when I was still reviewing, I somehow wound up on the mailing list of an American genre imprint that would send me 2 or 3 unsolicited review copies every single week. Appalled by the waste and wracked with guilt at my inability to write about any of the ghastly books arriving at my door, I tried to get myself removed from the mailing list only to wind up having to talk to half a dozen people before the tide was finally stemmed. In my dreams, Kafka and Borges collaborated on a story in which an inhumanly perverse coterie of publishers conspires to fill a critic’s home with the middle volumes of impossibly long fantasy series. ‘So many hooded men… so little space’ the critic splutters as he sinks below the surface of his papery grave for the third and final time.

Clearly, any system that would allow such cataclysmic levels of waste is a system in need of vigorous reform and yet I cannot help but wonder what this transition will mean for the future of our cultural ecosystems.

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Sisters in Law (2005) – Part of the Solution, Not Part of the Problem

July 6, 2015

Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi’s documentary Sisters in Law is best understood in terms of its relationship with Longinotto’s earlier films Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway. Divorce Iranian Style put Longinotto’s camera into an Iranian family court where Women tried to use their country’s sexist legal infrastructure to protect them from their abusive and manipulative husbands. Eye-opening in its depiction of Iranian female agency and moving in its uncompromising commitment to women’s stories, Divorce Italian Style is a powerful film made even more powerful by Runaway, a film about what happens when the system fails and women are forced to flee their family homes. Formally very similar to Divorce Iranian Style, Sisters in Law finds the British documentarian Kim Longinotto filming various legal proceedings in the Cameroonian town of Kumba where it has been seventeen long years since the last conviction for spousal abuse.

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Last Night by James Salter: “Such Fun”

July 2, 2015
Such Fun

Looking back over the pieces I have written about this collection I am struck by the fact that I’ve effectively been dancing around an idea first put forward by the German poet, playwright and theatre director Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht was a life-long committed Marxist at a time when that meant something other than being an academic. As a Marxist, Brecht was concerned about the purpose of the theatre and people’s tendency to use it as a source of escapism and/or moral complacency: Turn up at a show, identify with one of the characters, experience their moral gyrations at one step removed, go back to your life without even pausing for self-reflection. Brecht’s response to this tendency was to develop a form known as ‘epic theatre’ that encouraged the audience to engage critically with his plays rather than relying on more traditional forms of engagement such as searching for strong characters with which to identify.

Brecht would pursue this end by deploying what he called Verfremdungseffekt, which is often translated as ‘distancing effect’, ‘estrangement effect’ or simply ‘the V-effekt’. The best known distancing effects are those that draw attention to the play’s status as a fictional conceit by breaking down the fourth wall, anything to prevent the audience from relaxing into a passive state and treating the text of the play as some sort of inviolable entity. Given the universality of postmodernism and the frequent use of meta-fictional conceits in popular culture, I suspect that today’s writers have to work considerably harder to force their audience onto a critical footing but the basic principle of the verfremdungseffekt remains intact: You cannot encourage your audience both to suspend their disbelief and to treat your text as an intriguing fiction. An audience that is engaging critically with a text is not surrendering to your attempts at emotional manipulation and an audience that has submitted to a series of carefully curated emotional experiences will be either unwilling or incapable of engaging with a text in a dispassionate fashion. Audiences can, of course, move from one footing to another but they can’t do both things at once.

The reason I mention the verfremdungseffekt is that I think something similar is going on in this collection. Every story thus far uses literary techniques to encourage us to identify with a character and their needs only for Salter to hide much of his real intent in little details that only become apparent when you step back from the stories and survey them not as the journeys of particular characters but as the interaction of different ideas and themes. This effect is definitely at work in “Such Fun”, one of the shorter stories included in this collection.


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