Archives » Christopher Marlowe

Jelly Roll by Luke Sutherland

Anchor, 1998, 411 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Jelly Roll cover

When a book’s epigraph is the passage from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus which ends in, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” as uttered by Mephistopheles, you know its contents will not be an unalloyed bundle of laughs. Jelly Roll has its lighter moments but the subject matter is indeed serious.

The novel starts when Glasgow jazz band The Sunny Sunday Sextet’s saxophonist, Malc, who is a bit of a psychopath, decides, for domestic reasons, to stop playing with them. The ensuing discussions among the band’s members – in uncompromising Glasgow dialect – relate to whether to give up altogether or find a replacement, and even if doing the latter would be a wise move given Malc’s likely reaction. The prospect of a tour of the Highlands and Islands has the potential to sway things. The group’s drummer Paddy introduces narrator Roddy Burns (whose tipple is the unlikely Bailey’s) to his sister’s boyfriend Liam; who plays like a dream. He seems the perfect answer, young, gifted and ……. black. Embarrassments ensue when he comes along to the next band practice as Roddy has somehow neglected to mention that last fact to the other members. He thinks they are being racist and they think he is, precisely because he didn’t mention it. Liam’s response is to ignore any tension. It turns out this is his strategy to cope with the harassments he habitually has to endure because of his skin colour.

The novel then jumps forward in time to describe incidents occurring during the tour, taking in a roll-call of Scottish towns – Blairgowrie, Dunkeld, Crieff, Fort William, Inverness, Portree, Ullapool – which are usually described by an italicised gazetteer entry. (Ullapool’s is a touch harsh. It merely says herring 1788.) It is obvious we have missed something in the interim. A later return to events which occurred after Malc rejoined the band, with Liam as a supposed backing saxophonist, fills in the gaps. Malc is an unreconstructed racist, as his dubbing of Liam as ‘Banana’ emphasises. His tendency to violence and to pick fights is displayed in several scenes, including the plot’s fulcrum. Not that Malc is alone in his racism or indeed his violence. The band’s reception at one of the venues develops into a rammy due to elements of the audience taking exception to Liam’s appearance.

I assume the book gains its title from Roddy’s penchant for “jellies” (diazepam.) When I first read the blurb on the back I declined to buy it thinking it would not be for me but given my wish to complete that “100 Best Scottish Books” list (at least all the fiction on it) I subsequently could not ignore a charity shop copy at a very reasonable price. I was pleasantly surprised – depictions of violence notwithstanding: there is a lot more going on in Jelly Roll than I have commented on. Its appearance on the list may be due to its highlighting of racism (in his youth Sutherland was the only Scots-African in Orkney) but it is certainly better written than some others which are on it.

Pedant’s corner:- the speaker grill (grille,) sunk (x3, sank,) sprung (sprang,) peninsular (peninsula,) “another thing comin” (another think,) whinging (to me ‘whingeing’ is the better spelling,) duffelcoat (duffel coat,) “to fall back onto” (fall back on to,) span (spun,) the watersedge (the water’s edge,) lungeing (conversely, lunging,) “seemlessly into the cultural fabric” (seamlessly,) twinging (twingeing,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) doppleganger (doppelganger,) “‘Ah’m ah fuck?’” (‘Am ah fuck.’) “fob us of” (off,) windowledge (window ledge,) Dunkin Doughnuts (I believe the company spells it Donuts,) “a hand held short” (hand held shot,) snuck (sneaked.)

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2005, 158 p.

 Tamburlaine Must Die cover

This novella is certainly a departure from the genre and style of Welsh’s first book, her novel The Cutting Room, a contemporary (more or less) crime tale set in Glasgow. The time here is London in 1593 and we are reading Christopher Marlowe’s account of his past few days, written in case he does not survive the morrow. Drawn before the Privy Council to answer charges of blasphemy and atheism (someone has been disseminating leaflets of this nature as written by “Tamburlaine” and naturally this is assumed to be Marlowe himself after his success with his play Tamburlaine the Great,) he is set free in order to procure evidence against Sir Walter Raleigh. His efforts in this direction are taken over by his quest to discover the person who had betrayed him; a search in which we are led through the byways, hideaways, stews and fleshpots of Elizabethan London, the politics of power and the drawbacks of having an influential patron.

I must confess I have not read nor seen any of Marlowe’s works – so how well Welsh captures his voice I cannot say, but it was convincing enough. Of course true Elizabethan prose would have been fairly impenetrable to the modern reader in any case so some degree of accommodation is to be expected.

On a second thought this is not actually so much of a leap by Welsh. She is still dealing with intrigue and crime. She has done it well though and is now on my look for list.

Pedant’s corner:- I couldn’t find ambidextor anywhere, on line or off, but its context was as if of people who might play one side against the other; nor could I find cosiner (but it may be a variant of cozener as it was in a list of felons of various sorts.) Otherwise:- wainscoted (wainscotted,) Baynes’ (Baynes’s,) hung (hanged, or was hung Elizabethan usage?) from whence (whence means from where, so from whence can only mean from from where.)

Asimov’s Aug 2016

Dell Magazines

Asimov's Aug 2016 cover

Sheila Williams’s Editorial1 remembers her introduction to SF via the women superheroes found in comic books and the inspiration she took from them; inspiration she hopes her own daughters will also find. Robert Silverberg’s Reflections2 discusses the software of magic (spells) with regard to ancient Egyptian papyri. Paul Di Filippo’s On Books3 is complimentary about all the books reviewed but especially a reprint of Judith Merril’s critical essays on SF and China Miéville’s This Census Taker (which I reviewed here.)
In the fiction:-
Wakers4 by Sean Monaghan is set on a colonisation starship which has suffered damage to its operating AI and veered off course. Only one crew member at a time is woken to keep things going, passing on the duty at the end of their stint. The latest waker has an idea to change the ship’s fate.
In Toppers5 by Jason Sandford New York has been separated from the rest of the world. Only the tallest skyscrapers provide secure refuges above the mists. Our (unnamed) female protagonist has to walk through the mists to get supplies.
The title of The Mutants Men Don’t See by James Alan Garner of course refers to a celebrated SF story by James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon.) Here a repressed Flash Gene may be activated by some kind of shock during puberty and changes its carrier into a superhero. Menopausal Ellie Lee fears her son will try to force such a change by endangering his life and sets put to protect him. It becomes obvious very early on where this is going. I’m afraid it doesn’t hold a candle to Tiptree.
The “Kit” in Kit: Some Assembly Required6 by Kathe Koja & Carter Scholz is Christopher Marlowe or, rather, a simulacrum of Marlowe in a computer network. Kit achieves sentience. The slightly clichéd identity of his human “creator” is all that lets this tale down. The best story I’ve read in Asimov’s so far.
Patience Lake7 by Matthew Claxton sees a former cyborg soldier, damaged in an attack and surplus to requirements, hitch-hiking to Saskatchewan and taking odd jobs to try to meet his maintenance costs. But his spare parts could make him valuable himself.
In Kairos8 by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst, a research project has come up with a way to stop telomeres unravelling and hence halt ageing. Our narrator is married to the technology’s discoverer and suffers a crisis of conscience, apparently due to the legacy of her previous marriage. The story depicts scientists as blinkered and philistine. Well, not all of them are ignorant of the humanities.
The title of Sandra McDonald’s President John F Kennedy, Astronaut9 is a trifle misleading as the story is more about the search in an ice-cap melted, flooded future world for an obelisk found by said astronaut but whose existence was subsequently concealed.

Pedant’s corner:- 1(she) learned marital arts (that would be a good thing I suppose but I think martial arts was what was meant,) no pinic (no picnic,) 2 H G Wells’ (H G Wells’s,) 3Karel apek (for some reason misses the capital letter of his surname, Čapek,) 4 “A Masters from .. but on the next line her master’s thesis (if one Masters is capitalised I would think the other ought to be,) 5 lays (lies,) 6loathe (loth or loath; loathe is something else entirely,) 7thirty clicks outside (four lines later; “the last few dozen klicks”,) augur (auger –used previously,) 8“none of them know, none of them have any idea” (none knows, none has any idea,) “so he did he” (has one “he” too many,) 9 blond hair (blonde,) gravitation distortion (gravitational,) “where whales still roamed and tropical reefs covered with dazzling life” (were covered?) “to imagine what must have been like” (what it must have been like,) “great-great-great forbearer” (forebear.)

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