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Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep (2005)

Prep chronicles four years in the life of Lee Fiora, a girl from Indiana who gains a scholarship at Ault, a prestigious Massachusetts prep school. The book is structured episodically, effectively becoming a series of linked novellas that reveal how Lee struggles with the reality of life at Ault being very different from the rosy image presented in the glossy brochure, and the difficulties she faces finding her niche in the school as an outsider.

What Curtis Sittenfeld does particularly well here is capture something of the confusion and contradictions of teenage life, those years when identities are still being formed, the perceptions of others seem so vital, and friendships are constantly in flux. Lee is never quite sure what she wants from her life at Ault (‘I was always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely’ [25]). Her relationships with her fellow-students can be fluid: for example, the way Lee and Cross Sugarman, the class basketball star, behave towards each other resembles an elaborate dance – moving closer together, then further apart, then again closer; they never become anything as straightforward as boyfriend and girlfriend. Lee puts on an air to get by at Ault, then finds it taking over as her real self. One senses just how difficult these waters are for her to navigate.

Sittenfeld does something else with Lee’s character that makes the depiction of her more interesting – and, I suspect truer. Lee is not easy to warm to: she can be cold and selfish; she can push away people who like her. For all that she goes on about not having friends at school, Lee seems uncomfortable if people get too close to her – when one character tells her that her tendency to spend time alone is not as strange as she thinks it is (because anybody dedicated to a pastime has to spend time alone on it), to be understood in that way is ‘the most terrifying thing in the world’ (453) to her. Lee is a complex character, and it’s her characterisation which is at the core of Prep.

There's a ‘but’, though – I think Prep is too long to sustain the story that it wants to tell, particularly as Lee’s character doesn’t seem to change all that much over the course of the novel. I think it could probably still work at even half its length. That quibble aside, Prep is an incisive study of a teenager not just trying to fit in, but trying to decide if she even wants to fit in.

Some other reviews of Prep: Iris on Books; Amused, Bemused and Confused; Fervent Reader; The Bookish Type.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s website

Michael Moorcock, ‘Stories’ (2010)

I don’t quite know what to make of this. ‘Stories’ is the first-person account of a magazine editor reflecting on his friendship with a writer named Rex Fisch, who has recently committed suicide. The idea of telling stories in both fiction and real life runs through this piece, and Moorcock is doing something of this himself here — his narrator is named ‘Mike’ and apparently modelled on himself, whilst Rex Fisch and the other characters are apparently fictional. I’ve no idea how far Moorcock has fictionalised his own life in the story — and therein lies the difficulty I had connecting with it.

The portrait of the characters’ lives and relationships is interesting enough; but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to know more about Moorcock’s life (and, perhaps, his work) to really appreciate this story. That’s why I’ve ended up feeling ambivalent about it.

Rating: ***

‘Moorcock’s Miscellany’ website

This post is part of a series on the anthology Stories; click here to read the rest.

Douglas Thompson, Ultrameta (2009)
If you thought Cloud Atlas was a little too conventional, Ultrameta may be the book for you. Trying to interpret (let alone synopsise) Douglas Thompson’s extraordinary first novel is probably a fool’s errand, but let’s see what happens anyway. Subtitled “A Fractal Novel”, Ultrameta is constructed as a series of linked short stories and story-fragments, but exactly how they’re linked is open to debate.

Ultrameta centres on Alexander Stark, a university professor who disappeared, and then apparently began sending letters to his wife Charlotte – letters written not as by him, but as by a series of different characters, some describing events thatcross over into the surreal. Later, Stark reappeared, with no memory of what had happened, but took his own life – and more notes were found on his body. Subsequent investigations undertaken by a journalist named Martha Lucy, and DI Walter Dundas of Strathclyde Police establish that many of the people named as the “writers” of Stark’s letters actually existed. Is Stark deluded. Might it be that Stark was all of these people? Could there really be such a place as Ultrameta, the “city of the soul” to which Stark refers, that constantly refashions itself? Or is Stark just deluded?

The novel Ultrameta is presented as the collected notes of Alexander Stark, bookended by correspondence between Martha Lucy and Charlotte Stark, and introduced by Walter Dundas. But Stark’s notes link together in an unusual way: the first fragment ends with the narrator listening to a radio play whose words begin the second chapter, narrated by a ten-year-old Stark in the library of his house; that chapter ends with the boy reading a manuscript which begins with opening words of the third chapter, and so on. The twenty-five chapters are arranged in twelve pairs, running from 1a to 12a, and then from 12b back to 1b, on either side of the central chapter 13 (also called ‘Ultrameta’. In effect, the novel is a journey through a series of nesting shells, and back out again.

A complicated structure, then, but what does it do? To my mind, it sets up two contrasting views of what Ultrameta is: on the one hand, a linear narrative; on the other, a set of smaller narratives. The first view, perhaps, invites an interpretation of continuity (i.e. the narrator is genuinely the same person throughout, taking on different personas); the second, an interpretation of separateness (i.e. these are all different people, and Stark is deluded). But no single interpretation quite fits.

Identities and realities are constantly shifting in Ultrameta. Multiple characters return home with amnesia and start reading through their mysterious notes. The letter from Charlotte to Martha placed at the end of the book is a world away from the one at the beginning to which it’s replying. Even the novel’s structure cannot be relied upon to stay the same: the chapters don’t all flow neatly into the next; and the second chapter in a pair isn’t always a direct continuation of the first. There probably isn’t a definitive interpretation of what’s going on in Ultrameta, but that hardly matters when the ride is so intriguing.

And, though Thompson’s prose can be overly dense at time, there are some very fine moments to be found within the pages of Ultrameta – to name two, I was struck by the chapter that brings Icarus into the present day (rendering modern technology strange by having someone from the past describe it isn’t a new idea, of course, but Thompson does it very strikingly); and the eerie section in which the narrator makes an organism out of his house, with himself at its centre. But it’s the entirety of Ultrameta that impresses the most; there’s nothing else quite like it, I’m sure.

Douglas Thompson’s website
Eibonvale Press

Maria Barbal, Stone in a Landslide (1985/2010)
“I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days…” (89)

Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide (first published in Catalan in 1985, and now available in English for the first time, thanks to Peirene Press) is the life story of Conxa, who is sent away as a child, in the early years of the twentieth century, to live with and work for her aunt and uncle. The years pass, she falls in love with a young man named Jaume, they marry and have children – and then their lives are disrupted by the Spanish Civil War. But, of course, life continues beyond even this.

Like Laura McGloughlin’s and Paul Mitchell’s translation (which has the kind of precise simplicity that deflects attention away from it), Conxa’s life both is and isn’t as ordinary as it appears, in the sense that all lives can be – and are, in their own way – extraordinary at times, just as a simple stone can be part of an extraordinary landslide. Conxa’s life is one lived largely for, and in relation to, other people: right at the start, she is sent away from home because there isn’t enough room for her in the house; when she falls in love with Jaume, she becomes a different person and defines herself by him (“Now I could only be Jaume’s Conxa” [42]); growing old comes almost as a surprise to Conxa, because she has been so used to seeing her children grow, and suddenly they’re adults.

What I find most striking about Stone in a Landslide is the way that key historical events are experienced (or not, as the case may be) through the domesticity of Conxa’s existence; Jaume is political, but Conxa has no knowledge or interest, and it’s a rude awakening for her when history finally intrudes on her life.

Stone in a Landslide is a quiet study of a life, a life whose treasures vanish all too soon, before the woman living it fully grasped what they were. But the book remains, and its treasures are plain to see.

Some other reviews of Stone in a Landslide: Winstonsdad; Novel Insights; A Common Reader.
Peirene Press

Kurt Andersen, ‘Human Intelligence’ (2010)

A twist on the staple sf idea of an alien spy living on Earth, disguised as a human. In this story, the alien’s Arctic monitoring station is discovered by a scientist; the twist is that the scientist , far from trying to deny that she has found an extraterrestrial artefact, is so enthused at the thought of meeting an alien that she tracks down the spy’s house and pays him a visit. The knowingness of Andersen’s telling makes ‘Human Intelligence’ a pleasure to read; but, unfortunately, after such a good beginning, the story seems to fizzle out after a shaggy-dog-style revelation.

Rating: ***½

Kurt Andersen’s website

This post is part of a series on the anthology Stories; click here to read the rest.

Al Sarrantonio, ‘The Cult of the Nose’ (2010)

This is fun: a researcher believes he has found evidence of a vast historical conspiracy involving people who wear ‘the Nose’ (exactly what kind of nose is left to the reader’s imagination) — but is he right, or delusional? Sarrantonio keeps it nicely ambiguous, and amusing, too.

Rating: ***½

This post is part of a series on the anthology Stories; click here to read the rest.

Tim Powers, ‘Parallel Lines’ (2010)

Caroleen Erlich reaches her seventy-third birthday, her first without her twin sister BeeVee. But it looks as though BeeVee may turn out to be as domineering in death as she was in life, because she’s writing out messages with Caroleen’s right hand. I like the way this is introduced and handled – Powers’ down-to-earth treatment gives the idea a freshness –but I don’t think the ending lives up to the promise of that beginning.

Rating: ***½

‘The Works of Tim Powers’ website

This post is part of a series on the anthology Stories; click here to read the rest.

Jeffery Deaver, ‘The Therapist’ (2010)

Martin Kobel is a behavioural therapist who specialises in treating patients who have (he believes) been affected by ‘nemes’ — bodies of negative energy that cause people to commit harmful actions. On encountering Annabelle Young, a teacher who has clearly come under the influence of a neme, Kobel is so concerned for her pupils that he ‘treats’ Annabelle by stabbing her to death. A court case follows, whcih hinges on the question of whether or not Kobel is insane.

There are two modes of narration in ‘The Therapist’, and it’s along those lines that my opinion of the story divides. I think the passages narrated in first-person by Kobel are very good, as the journey in his company becomes ever more disturbing; but I found the courtroom sequences rather dryby comparison. Still, Deaver keeps the state of Kobel’s mind nicely ambiguous, and the twists of the court case pay off in a very satisfying way.

Rating: ***½

Jeffery Deaver’s website

This post is part of a series on the anthology Stories; click here to read the rest.

Pen Pusher Magazine 15: Spring-Summer 2010
Okay , so I’m reading Pen Pusher (‘Where new writing finds its voice’) for the first time – and a good read it is, too. It’s a varied selection of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction; but, as usual, I’ll be concentrating here on the prose fiction – which gives us:

Wayne Holloway-Smith, ‘Big Time’
An extract from the author’s debut novel, about one Dexter Hammond, who wants to be famous and thinks he’s found an unoccupied niche for a ‘rock ‘n’ roll preacher’. On the basis of this extract, Holloway-Smith’s novel is certainly one I’d want to read, because this is hilarious. Hammond is full of his own self-importance, and so desperate to be cool that one winces at seeing him try to emulate the latest-big-thing rock star, Tristan Rasclott – but, by the end of the piece, it’s starting to look as if Hammond might pull it off. I’ll be interested to read whether he does.

Grace Andreacchi, ‘Ikebana’
A short piece about a woman waiting at an ikebana demonstration for her older lover. There’s a subtlety and depth to this story, as Andreacchi portrays the doubts and conflicting emotions experienced by her protagonist. The woman’s changing attitudes to ikebana – at first, she thinks she’s not interested in it, then maybe she is, but maybe not – reflect her thoughts on her relationship. An insightful tale.

Ruth Davis, ‘End-of-Life Liaison’
This is a story about one of those things which one hopes will never happen, and which probably won’t, but to which there’s a certain nagging plausibility all the same. In this case, it’s that, in the face of continued pressure on resources because of an ageing population, anyone who reaches the age of 85 is compulsorily euthanised. It’s the routine way in which Davis’s fictional authorities handle this which makes the story particularly chilling – the policy has its own acronyms (such as ‘MPA’ or ‘Maximum Permitted Age’), and those approaching 85 are offered ‘End-of Life Counselling’. Davis’s tale follows one octogenarian, George Herbert, as he attends this counselling and unexpectedly presented with a possible way out. All is presented in a very down-to-earth manner, which gives the story its power.

Ross Sutherland, ‘Unexpected Flow’
During a school trip to London, young Connor ditches the rest of his party and wanders around Tate Modern, listening all the while to a Jay-Z album. This may not sound like much when I summarise it like that, but it’s the rhythm of Sutherland’s telling that makes the story work, with the rap lyrics acting as a counterpoint to the events. I could imagine ‘Unexpected Flow’ working very well as a short film.

Sarah Day, ‘Exposure’
A woman agrees to be the muse of an artist-geologist whom she knew as a child, and with whom she becomes reacquainted by chance as an adult, but it turns out to be a bad idea. This is a carefully written piece that builds up detail to create an effective study of both the narrator and the artist.

Michael Amherst, ‘What I Feel’
Another good character study, this time of a man who struggles to feel to feel any emotion about anything, and is now present when a woman falls from a railway platform and is run over by a train. The twist in the story is perhaps no great surprise; but that’s less important than the cold tone of the prose, which brings the character to life vividly.

Elsewhere in this issue of Pen Pusher, we find: a selection of poetry; some interesting reviews; an interview with Diana Athill, which makes me want to read her work; an interview with Helen Oyeyemi, which would make me want to read her work, except I’ve already done so and know how good it is; a superb non-fiction piece by Susan Barker about her time staying in China whilst studying Mandarin;  Paul Francis’s reflective graphic tale, ‘Tidalism’; a list of literary quotations about horses; and even more besides.

Pen Pusher website
Websites of contributors mentioned: Michael Amherst; Grace Andreacchi; Paul Francis; Ross Sutherland.

Jonathan Carroll, ‘Let the Past Begin’ (2010)

‘Let the Past Begin’ sits squarely in the middle of what I’d think of as ‘Jonathan Carroll territory’, in that it gives the impression of a world that, if only you scratched the surface, would be far stranger than it appears. Carroll’s protagonist hears from his pregnant girlfriend, Ava,  about the time she visited a fortune-teller/sage in Azerbaijan, whose powers (Ava believes) were genuine, and who told Ava that her child was cursed — its life would be the same as its father’s, in every major detail. The thing is, Ava doesn’t know whether the father is her current boyfriend or her ex, Eamon Reilly — and Eamon’s life is one that Ava would certainly not wish her child to live.

Carroll evokes ambiguity very well in this piece — if Ava’s oracle appears beyond belief, the known details of Eamon’s life are almost as strange, in their own way. I didn’t quite feel the full affect of fantasy that I have from some of Carroll, but this is still a fine story.

Rating: ***½

Jonathan Carroll’s website

This post is part of a series on the anthology Stories; click here to read the rest.