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Fiction Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

This week my contribution to Judith Reader in the Wilderness’s meme is my shelves of recent fiction written in English. They include UK, US, Irish, Canadian, Australian, Nigerian, Malaysian and Egyptian writers and even one part Vietnamese author. Click on the photos to enlarge.

There’s barely a dud here. Notable to me are Philip K Dick’s non-Science Fiction novels (stretching recent there a bit.) Sadly these were not published till after his death.

Also there, though, is Samuel R Delany’s autobiographical book The Motion of Light in Water not to mention some commemorative china and wooden elephants.

English Language Fiction Books

Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee would be there too if the good lady hadn’t swiped it for her 20 Books of Summer reads.

However that would be on the next shelf stacked on its side as it’s one of those large paperbacks. I put those and some hardbacks from below upright to take the photo below. (The James Wellard is also hardly recent.)

English Language Fiction Tall Books

Philip Roth

I heard on the radio news this morning that Philip Roth has died.

I must confess I have not read much of his work, apart from the (ahem) seminal Portnoy’s Complaint – which I was moved to sample partly because of the attention it received – and My Life as a Man which covered much the same ground. Anything you ever wanted know about living as a young(ish) male Jew in the USA was here.

I do remember being intrigued by a long ago television programme about him which featured, as I recall, his creation Nathan Zuckerman fantasising about Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust and making a new anonymous life for herself in (I think) the US, which may have been another spur to reading him.

I can’t say I much took to what seemed from the evidence of those two books to be his perennial subject matter but he was obviously an important US novelist of the second half of the twentieth century whether I favoured his work or not and his ability as a writer shone through in any case.

Much later I read his Altered History novel The Plot Against America which I reviewed on this blog here. The impulse behind his decision to write it was admirable – and arguably necessary – but I felt that overall it was an opportunity missed, that the punches the book threw were somewhat pulled.

Sadly that impulse might be even more necessary in today’s political climate than it was when he published it thirteen years ago.

Philip Milton Roth: 19/3/1933 – 22/5/2018. So it goes.

Speculative Fiction Not SF Shocker

They give with one hand and take away with the other….

Also in Saturday’s guardian review was the first part of the Guardian Book Club feature on Robert Harris’s Fatherland, wherein John Mullan says “Speculative fiction” might once have been synonymous with SF but now more strictly refers to an alternative, but plausible, historical scenario.

More strictly? There is a definition of speculative fiction which excludes SF?

This seems to me to be a dismissal of the more explicitly SF altered histories. Is Mullan attempting to distance his preferred examples from what he sees as less worthy; or am I too sensitive?

Nevertheless I had to laugh when Mullan immediately wrote that a modern classic of speculative fiction is Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. That book not only failed as a novel, it failed as an Altered History (for my review see here). Can a story where history is restored swiftly to the “right” path really be considered speculative? Is it not then an author’s ill-thought out musings, onanistic even?

I’ve not read Fatherland but from the description it seems to invest more into its scenario than Roth ever did in his.

In that extent Fatherland is SF, and Roth’s book isn’t.

Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2008. 553 p.

In the first part of the novel a shy boy called Robbie Coyle is growing up in a village called Kenzie in 1960s Scotland with the ambition of going into space. Since his father is an ardent socialist and anti-American Robbie therefore wants to be a cosmonaut. A frequent attender at his local library, he devours knowledge about the Soviet Union and discovers that “Russian is a language where some letters are written back to front and others are completely made up.” Quotes such as this display Crumey’s excellent ability to inhabit the world of a pre-adolescent. As he matures he starts to hear a voice in his head. The section ends with that voice saying, “I guess we’re not in Kenzie any more.”

The story then flips into a scenario of a Soviet-style Britain where a young adult Robert Coyle has been recruited into a space project to reach, before the wicked capitalists do so, what is possibly a black hole travelling through the solar system. The secret “Installation” where Robert is in training is suitably grim, the illustrations of the many compromises people have to make in such a society convincing, though whether dissidents could flourish there is another question. Perhaps this exists in the same British Democratic Republic which featured in the author’s Mobius Dick.

This central section could be considered an Altered History novel where the Jonbar Hinge lies in whether or not a man named Deuchar died while trying to rescue twins from drowning many years before the time the action is set. Yet its juxtaposition with the preceding and following parts, set in the “real” world, argues against this. And Crumey’s treatment of his subject matter does not have the feel of SF. The Soviet section can be read to be implicitly a figment of Robbie’s imagination. The subtlety of the point of divergence also marks this out from SF treatments of Altered Worlds. While Crumey pushes credibility a little by having characters in the central section behave and speak, or have the same names as, those in the book-end segments he does certainly avoid the trap into which Philip Roth fell in The Plot Against America of restoring the altered world to normal by the end.

The coda, a (present day?) exploration of the situation of Robbie’s ageing parents and a young boy who meets a mysterious stranger on a mission (which he is unwilling to explain) provides counterpoint and a resolution of sorts.

Sputnik Caledonia is excellently written and engaging, with convincing characters, but not quite as full of verve as Mobius Dick. I will look out for more Crumey, though.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Vintage, 2005

The Plot Against America cover

This is Roth’s Altered History, set in a 1940s America where Charles Lindbergh became President – apparently mainly as a result of taking to the air on the campaign trail in the Spirit of St Louis – then forged an understanding with Hitler and so kept the US out of World War 2. Given Roth’s lineage the book unsurprisingly deals with the implications of this outcome for America’s Jews, who are increasingly made to feel alien in their own land. As a result, the Roth trademarks from the other books of his that I have read (Portnoy’s Complaint and My Life As A Man,) viz masturbation, obsessive sexuality and male angst, are muted, if not absent.

The story is rendered more rooted than it might have been otherwise by the fact that our narrator is named Philip Roth. We are hence invited to believe that the family depicted is the author’s own from his youth, reimagined in the changed circumstances. This allows Roth the author, through the medium of Mr Roth the character, to express more forcibly the anger that any citizen must feel in being deprived arbitrarily of the benefits of citizenship.

Coming from a mainstream literary perspective Roth’s handling of this material is distinctive. A Science Fiction author would likely have approached the scenario from a completely different direction. And Roth does that rather annoying mainstream thing of giving us a potted biography of every character who happens to pop up whether we need this information or not. In this case it may be of everyone whom the actual young Roth met in the 1940s. There are also longueurs in the narrative which would be absent in a more plot driven Altered History.

At times, too, so much background is loaded into it that the novel reads more like a history book. Roth presumably believes that his setting is too far removed from the present day to be accessible without it. This approach culminates in the penultimate chapter where the book ceases to be a novel at all and instead descends into a – nevertheless thoroughly readable, Roth’s prose easily encompasses exposition – recitation of events and a farrago of ever wilder conspiracy theories all told by Philip at one remove, rather than experienced by him at first hand. The unlikely heroine of the piece (and this is not really a spoiler as there’s nothing there to spoil) turns out to be Mrs Lindbergh. That the impact of these events is brought home to Philip in the final chapter, through the medium of his fellow-travelling Aunt and some former neighbours, in no way remedies the egregiousness of this colossal info dump. Quite simply this is not the way to write a piece of fiction; high- or lowbrow.

It has to be said that not much in the way of jeopardy ever befalls the Roth family, most of it lies in Mr Roth’s mind. Yes, Mr Roth has to change his job to a poorer one; but there are no outrageous restrictions on civil liberties, no concentration camps – only the intermittent attentions of an inquisitive FBI man and a later series of riots spilling over into pogroms which don’t affect the Roth family directly.

Ultimately the book is really a long discourse on what it means to be American (that is, I feel obliged to say, being a citizen of the US rather than born in the continent in which that country lies) and the inclusiveness that entails. Here is where more of the doubts creep in. Whatever Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic views may have been – and Roth goes some way to exculpate his Lindbergh from them – a fascist takeover in the US would surely have had other, more obvious, targets for dehumanisation. In the end, perhaps because he is unwilling to believe the worst of his fellow countrymen or else as a sop to their sensibilities Roth rather lets the US off the hook. This, I note, is in stark contrast to what the English SF writer Keith Roberts did for the UK in his excellent short story of a Nazi-dominated Britain, Weihnachtsabend.

Is The Plot Against America a commentary on the recent Bush administration? On how easy it is for freedoms to be subverted; how the price of freedom is eternal vigilance? If so, it is rather too diffuse to be effective.

I was so, so disappointed in this book. Its central idea has the potential to be huge but in his tight focus on the family Roth the author renders it far too small. Mainstream literature sometimes prides itself on illustrating the universal by anatomising the particular. In this context choosing as the narrative voice a boy between the ages of 7 and 9 is too limiting. The themes simply cannot be dealt with adequately from the young Philip’s perspective.

Before reading this I would have contended that Altered History in and of itself is always a subset of Science Fiction. The Plot Against America, however, is not SF, since Roth, within his plot, falls too short, even implicitly – never mind explicitly – of contrasting his scenario with what actually happened, and the book is the poorer for it.

But after the novel finishes we are provided with postscripts on the actual lives of historical characters mentioned in the text. Part of the joy of reading Altered History is in recognising figures such as these in their new context; one of the drawbacks is you might miss a few in the passing. Roth’s end notes can only be there to bolster his fiction; to say, “Look at the research I did – or the prodigious memory I have.” Had the novel been written halfway adequately these notes would be superfluous.

Books I Have Read (And Some I Intend To)

I’ve gone through the Guardian’s list of 1000 novels you must read to find the ones I actually have read. Italicised books await my attention.
I’ve kept them under the Guardian’s groupings.
Titles followed by question marks I believe I read during my schooldays but can’t quite be sure.

What this list says about me I have no idea.

Love (4)

Paul Gallico: The Snow Goose (1941)
Thomas Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood (1987)
Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago (1957)

Family And Self (9)

Kate Atkinson: Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)
Iain Banks: The Crow Road (1992)
Lynne Reid Banks: The L-Shaped Room (1960)
William Boyd: Any Human Heart (2002)
Jim Crace: Quarantine (1997)
Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1861)
Shusaku Endo: Silence (1966)
JD Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye (1951)
Alan Warner: Morvern Callar (1995)

Crime (12 + 2)

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (1868)
Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent (1907)
Joseph Conrad: Under Western Eyes (1911)
Len Deighton: The Ipcress File (1962)
Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose (1980)
Graham Greene: The Third Man (1950) ????
Peter Høeg: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992)
Geoffrey Household: Rogue Male (1939)
John le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
John le Carré: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963)
Thomas Pynchon: V (1963)
Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
Patrick Suskind: Perfume (1985)
Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time (1951)

Comedy (12)

Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989)
William Boyd: A Good Man in Africa (1981)
Richmal Crompton: Just William (1922)
Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows (1908)
Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana (1958)
Nick Hornby: High Fidelity (1995)
Bohumil Hrabal: I Served the King of England (1983)
AG Macdonnell: England, Their England (1933)
Magnus Mills: The Restraint of Beasts (1998)
Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
Kurt Vonnegut: Breakfast Of Champions (1973)

State Of The Nation (7)

Alasdair Gray: Lanark (1981)
James Kelman: How Late It Was, How Late (1994)
George Orwell: Animal Farm (1945)
Thomas Pynchon: Vineland (1990)
Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children (1981)
Salman Rushdie: Shame (1983)
Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

War And Travel (33 + 6)

JG Ballard: Empire of the Sun (1984)
Pat Barker: Regeneration (1991)
William Boyd: An Ice-Cream War (1982)
Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (1902)
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim (1900)
Joseph Conrad: Nostromo (1904)

Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Len Deighton: Bomber (1970)
Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers (1844)
Sebastian Faulks: Birdsong (1993)
William Golding: To the Ends of the Earth trilogy (1980-89)
Anthony Hope: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) ??
Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929)
Thomas Keneally: Confederates (1979)
Thomas Keneally: Schindler’s Ark (1982)
AL Kennedy: Day (2007)
Primo Levi: If Not Now, When? (1982)
Alastair Maclean: The Guns of Navarone (1957) ??
Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead (1948)
Gabriel Garcia Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
Frederick Marryat: The Children of the New Forest (1847)
Iréne Nèmirovsky: Suite Française (2004)
Baroness Emmuska Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)
George Orwell: Burmese Days (1934)
Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
Walter Scott: Ivanhoe (1819)
Nevil Shute: A Town Like Alice (1950)
Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon (1999)
Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped (1886)
Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island (1883)
William Styron: Sophie’s Choice (1979) ??
Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace (1869)
Jules Verne: Around the World in Eighty Days(1873)
Jules Verne: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) ??
Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
HG Wells: The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

That makes a non-SF total of 77 (though some of them I would classify as SF.) Add in the 60 from the SF/fantasy list and I’ve read 137 of the thousand. I must be spectacularly ill-read.
The good lady notches up 145 with quite a few in common between our two lists.
I could also add the parts of series and the converted short stories from the SF list but that would only take me to just above 140.

Still a long way to go, then. I won’t have time.

For some of them I’ve seen a film or TV adaptation so feel I perhaps don’t need to read them.

A lot of the rest, however, I have no intention of ever picking up.

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