There are emotions that work best with a drum-beat behind them, snarling guitars and perhaps the wailing of a horn section. I want to be with my love, on the open road that crosses a continent, but people do not understand our love, and we had best die, rather than wait tables to pay for petrol. Mark Z. Danielewski's second novel Only Revolutions is a virtuoso display of lyrical inventive language but what it has to say has been said often in the three or so minutes of hit singles.
This doesn't just apply to Danielewski's hymns to young love, which is the same in every language and culture. His fetishism of fast cars, for example, feels forced here in a way that it does not in the songs of Chuck Berry or Bruce Springsteen - and once someone had written 'Maybelline' or 'Racing in the Street', a standard had been set that one needs to surpass or just not bother.
This might not bother in a novel that bothered with plot, and character, and social observation; most novels are novels, after all, and not in competition with songs.. Only Revolutions, though, is stripped down to a lyrical ecstatic language that can be wonderful for whole lines at a time, and may seem intoxicating chanted aloud, but more often slips into a second-hand Whitmanesque or Ginzbergian rant:
'I'm howling calamity on
this Plutonium hitch, my
Buick Electra's spongies bashing
from Asheville to Oak Ridge.'
After a few pages of this, you realize how tired you can get of brand names, place names and remorselessly inventive portmanteau words - the last another imitation of Berry..
Nor does the book's format help. Both Sam and his love Hailey monologuize for three hundred and sixty pages in print that slowly shrinks in size towards their inevitable icy doom. You read one version, and then turn the book and read the other: it is recommended by author and publisher that you do this every eight pages or so, regularly turning the book through three hundred and sixty degrees. The title then refers both to the revolving wheels of the novel's many fast cars and to the way you read it; did no-one concerned with the project notice that this level of over-cleverness is, in fact, mildly insufferable.
At times, we get a sense of how good a book this might have been had Danielewski thought things through otherwise and more wisely. The dying fall of the book's conclusions 'I could never walk away from you' is surprisingly moving by the time you get to them. There are moments of comedy as their rough wooing takes them racing through a gallery of American types that have a splendid tall-tale vivacity. There are one or two moments also when the book seems suddenly to tell a very different story of social pressures that are more of the real world and less of pastoral - when Hailey is ill, and Sam takes her to hospital, they are told 'we don't treat her sort here', and we are never told precisely to what those words refer.
Elswhere, his refusal to be specific, insistence on being general - timelines fom the Civil War to Hurricane Katrina run down the margins - are frustrating, not least because they remind, by contrast, of how concrete Danieleski is capable of being. His first novel House of Leaves was the stuff of nightmare - a space behind a cupboard that stretches out into labyrinthine infinity - yet the house, its owners, the exploration were all solidly imagined. That book's length stood effectively for the scale of its perilous caverns; unlike Only Revolutions, the immense House of Leaves is excessive, but never dull. and SOVEREIGN by C.J. Sansom ( Macmillan 583 pp. £14.99)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
When Aztec priests or Tudor lawyers become detectives and prowl mean streets, there is always an element of fraud in the mix. The men and women of other times were not like us; they had ideas, as we do, that helped them survive in inhuman times, become complicit in the abominable. We have different sins and condemn those we are not prone to; accordingly, any thriller set in the past needs a protagonist who is as much of our time as their own.
The smart move is to show how, as they uncover mysteries and solve crimes, they move out of one mindset and towards another. C.J. Sansom's hunchback lawyer Shardlake used to be an enthusiast for the new religion of Protestantism, but has seen too many crimes committed in its name to feel that joyous rage any more. Beheadings and burnings are sights and smells of which he has sickened; his conscience, and his stomach, has been turned.
In this third Shardlake book, he and his clerk Barak go North, where King Henry VIII is on his progress through lands that rebelled and were ravaged. A simple legal job is complicated by the secret mission Archbishop Cranmer gives him - to ensure that a political prisoner lives long enough to be tortured in London. Conspiracies abound along with rumours of royal bastardy and royal adultery, in a time when even to know such things may be to find oneself hanging from a chain in the Tower of London with men working on your teeth with pliers.
Sansom's hero wins our respect and attention because, in a time where to pursue justice is to be half in love with painful death, he retains integrity, obstinacy and curiosity. This is an atmospheric thriller where velvet and silk hide putrescence and beyond the grandeur of a Court there is a world where people rot alive or choke in deep mud; Sansom does a nice line in irony and savage humour, as well as the simple affections which keep people going in nightmarish times. and SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl (Penguin 512 pp. £16.99)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
Sometimes a book will jog along pleasantly most of the time you are reading it. Ah, you say, this is the book about the doomed high school teacher who gets fatally close to a selection of her pupils. Or, this is the novel about a bright and precocious girl whose relationship with her father is far too close. Or, this is the novel about how books are no substitute for life. Marisha Pessl's accomplished, heavily wrought first novel is all of those things, but it is something else as well.
Something that in due course snaps shut on you like sharp-toothed traps.
Blue suffers from the delusion that her life is more normal than it is. Her butterfly-collecting mother died in a car crash when she was young, and her father, a political scientist, moves constantly between colleges. When he announces his intention of spending Blue's last year at high school in one place, she welcomes it, less because of the chance to have normal friendships than because it will enable her properly to shine academically.
In the event, she makes friends - with the clique known as the Bluebloods and with their mentor, film teacher Hannah. We know from the start of the novel that Hannah is doomed, that Blue will find her hanged. Nothing is as it seems; Blue learns the hard way that this is an ugly world in which those who love you may betray you utterly at any moment - books safer guides than people.
Each section of this book has the title of a classic novel and Blue endlessly quotes, often from entirely fictitious books; the game-playing of this - there is also a final exam at the end - is a clever diversion from the fact that Pessl is a mistress of misdirection, who tells us everything we need to know about Blue and her father and persuades us to ignore it. It would be easy to think of this, for most of its length, as a predictable and precious comedy of manners; it would, however, be a mistake., the last of those involving a difficult job of writing spoiler-free.
Having linked to liz_marcs on the subject of The road to 9/11, I should also link to an excellent post by Avedon under the heading Thou shalt not bear false witness
And I need to praise Volver and Bride and Prejudice and talk about my less than stellar opinion of Gordon Brown, but I am too tired and tomorrow will do...