Archive for February 2009
Coolness is a fickle thing: in less then twelve months Fleet Foxes seem to have gone from hot ticket to snoozecore in the collective consciousness. So, by the time I saw them last night at the Roundhouse, expectations had slightly wilted and there was a touch of cycnicism in the air. If the band didn’t seem to be on quite the same psychic wavelength as the very mixed crowd then it didn’t effect their performance or reception though. Live they are surprisingly forceful, the music rolling and insistent, the many rough edges adding to the organic charm. It is all powered by Robin Pecknold’s extraordinary voice, good on record but quite amazing in the flesh.
They were supported by Vetiver who it has been my misfortune to see several times and who remain snoozecore to the max.
I went to see Shun-kin on Saturday night after a last minute full-bellied sprint from Pho to the Barbican that has by now become a tradition. This is the second collaboration between Complicite and Setagaya Public Theatre following 2003′s The Elephant Vanishes.
It is a rather slender narrative, particularly in comparison to the richness of Complicite’s recent works. Shunkin is the daughter a merchant in 19th Century Japan. She is blinded in childhood and becomes both a spoilt brat and a master of the shamisen. Sasuke, a servant boy a couple of years older than her, is the only person she will allow to act as her guide. They form a life long relationship of dominance and submission with a strong – at first implied and then explicit – sexual element. As is inescapable these days this simple narrative is nested within a couple of framing devices: the original story within a contemporary investigation and re-telling within the recording of a radio dramatisation of this re-telling. Again, this compares unfavourably to similar layering in The Disappearing Number.
Complicite was never really about narrative though. As always this is an extraordinary multimedia feast, precise minimalism and sumptuous detail, bound together by a live shamisen score written and performed by Honjoh Hidetaro. At the centre of thisl is Shunkin, at first a doll and then a puppet and then, finally, played by a woman but with such a seamless continuity that means that when she is eventually manifest in flesh and blood by an actor on the stage this fact is not immediately clear. Such innovation never suggests gimickery, only boldness and skill.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Lyn Gardner when she suggests this is a pale imitiation of previous work. Pale Complicite is still potent though. The production has now finished but I would imagine there will be another run at the Barbican this year or next and I would recommend you keep an eye out for it because, detrimental comparisons notwithstanding, it is essential viewing.
The artistic director of Complicite, Simon McBurney, has many strings to his bow, from playing the Duke in Measure For Measure at the National a couple of years ago to writing and producing Mr Bean’s Holiday (which is perhaps less surprising that it might at first seem when you consider his background in physical theatre). He also pops up in front of the camera from time to time, recently as Fra Pavel in The Golden Compass. I saw this for the first time earlier in the month and, despite being a critical and commercial failure, I thought it was rather good. Admittedly it is very much a group of individual set pieces strung together like beads on a necklace but what a well-wrought necklace. I’m disappointed that the appearance of the sequels now seems increasingly unlikely.
In Hackney, perhaps more than anywhere else in Britain, or even Europe, the messy, unruly inner city has become a desirable commodity. Artists and bankers, squatters and politicians, punks and estate agents, in the last ﬁve decades all have moved to Hackney in large numbers, in search of excitement, kindred spirits, aﬀordable property. London’s centre of gravity has shifted accordingly. When I first moved to Hackney 15 years ago, to Stoke Newington, by then a relatively well-known and gentriﬁed bit of the borough, most people I knew in richer parts of London had still never heard of my area. Now most of them live there.
This is from Andy Beckett’s review of Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire by Iain Sinclair. Some how, without really meaning to, I am approaching my sixth year here and I would imagine I will be around at least until the totemic date of 2012. M John Harrison likes to remark that in literary terms Hackney is the new Hampstead. I was never particularly convinced by this but it does chime with another part of Beckett’s review:
And [Sinclair] perceptively suggests that the borough may attract a certain kind of middle-class incomer: “intelligent, focused, aggrieved … conforming in nonconformity”.
I admire Sinclair more for his existence than his actual body of work – I found both Lights Out For The Territory andLondon Orbital hard work – but I will definitely be picking this one up.
Villjamur was a granite fortress. Its main access was through three consecutive gates, and there the garuda retained the advantage over any invading armies. In the centre of the city, high up and pressed against the rock-face, beyond a lattice work of bridges and spires, was Balmacara, the vast Imperial residence, a cathedral-like construct of dark basalt and slick-glistening mica. In this weather the city seemed unreal.
The opening of Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur has been posted at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. His favourite novels are Underworld by Don DeLillo, The Scar by China Meiville and The Book Of The New Sun by Gene Wolfe so I am hoping for interesting things from this debut novel.
Some extremely meagre details of Christopher Nolan’s new project, a science fiction film called Inception, have surfaced. Now, usually the only people who would try and make a blog post out of this are io9 but apparently Genevieve Valentine at Tor.com wants in on the act. Obviously it is a fluff piece, complete with pros and cons of the project made from a position of total ignorance. One sentence near the end (prefigured by one near the begining) stood out for me though:
Aside from my instinct to send Nolan a “Please Don’t, Because We Care” package with Virtuosity, Being John Malkovich, Cube, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Cell in it, I am genuinely excited for this project.
Is Valentine really suggesting that these films are all not only similar but bad? She grouped them all under the banner of films about the architecture of the mind but is there really a set that meaningfully contains Virtuosity and Eternal Sunshine?
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway is a fun book and an immensely readable one but not, in the end, a good one. This is because it falls awkwardly between two stools: revelling in its own fantastic adventure whilst stressing that it is telling the truth. This is one of those books that makes a point of saying that real life isn’t really like it is portrayed in books. Not those other books, anyway; this book, on the other hand…
The problem is he wants to have his cake and eat it: insisting that this is the way the world really is whilst at the same presenting a deeply cartoonish world. This cartoonishness manifests itself particularly in the over-sized characters (or, in the case of most of the women, under-sized) that populate the novel and this is where it most comes into conflict with the jabbing authorial finger of veracity. In his very perceptive review Jonathan McCalmont interestingly compares the novel to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and also suggests a reason for this cartoonishness:
Fourth, we have the idea that memories are a distorted picture of our lives. The book’s big plot twist did not surprise me in any way, as the shadow’s childhood is filled with ninjas, exploding ice fountains, aggressively liberal teachers pretending to be religious fundamentalists and impossibly sexy and sophisticated ex-girlfriends. These are, broadly speaking, not the kind of things that real lives are made of, but different events can loom so large in our memory as to become distorted exaggerations of themselves.
I’m not entirely convinced by this reading but it certainly explains why he reacted so strongly to the ending. I take the view from the opposite direction; that the ending – the whole final act, in fact – shows that Harkaway was never interested in this idea about people creating their own narratives in the first place. The Gone-Away World is a straightforward three act novel with a prologue (or, perhaps more accurately, a hook) at the begining. The prologue sets the scene, introducing our narrator and his band of adventurers, not to mention the strange world that now exists since the Go Away War. We then move into act one, an extremely long flash back that details our narrator’s life from childhood to adolesence to university to work. Harkaway’s dense, digressionary style – not disimilar to Neal Stephenson, except Harkaway shows a lot more evidence of having actually engaged with the real world – makes it even longer. Then the Go Awar War breaks out, the world changes and the next act is spent dealing with this. It ends in a classic second act low with our narrator cuckolded and shot by his best mate. The distinctly underpowered final act sees him trying to make sense of these acts before Harkaway ludicrously ties all the loose ends together in a dissapoitningly linear series of escaltating action set piece that conclude with our hero saving the world by having a punch up with the evil villain. You know, like in the movies.
By the way, I liked it a lot and I’m looking forward to his next novel.
The Gone-Away World is also another entry into the exciting but small and barely mapped subgenre in which the world ends not with a bang or a whimper but a wrongness. Reality itself changes, becomes sticky and inconsistent. Other examples might include Vurt by Jeff Noon and the early novels of Michael Marshall Smith. More on this later once the thoughts have properly percolated.
Tangentially but related to the idea of stories about Story I watched all three Shrek films last weekend. Interestingly the trilogy follows the same curve as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels: well executed but fairly straightforward parody; wonderfully dense meta-text; slightly over moralising shadow of former glory. Pratchett himself is responsible for The Amazing Maurice And his Educated Rodents, one of the best stories about Story and one which manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of The Gone-Away World and, indeed, his own later work.
Thankfully the Locus round table is now over. In the conciliatory manner typical of Locus editorial staff Liza Groen Trombi says:
While most have welcomed the blog and the launch discussion, we have clearly annoyed a few people by not conforming to their ideas of what we ought to be doing.
The complaints I’ve seen are that the blog is boring and it takes seven hours for comments to appear but well done to Locus for striking a blow against conformity. Anyway, with the round table finished the blog proper can begin, starting with this article by Graham Sleight on advocacy and recognition SF. Stay tuned for his inevitable post about hedgehog and fox SF.
The New Yorker published another SF story this week: ‘The Invasion From Outer Space’ by Steven Millhauser. It is a nice, short, slight story.
Nancy Kress doesn’t like it though. Despite (not entirely convincingly) claiming she is not one of those who “automatically hate any SF written by authors not in our little club” she ends by saying:
I don’t expect NEW YORKER readers to appreciate Charles Stross, but a little imagination does seem called for when you’re considering invasions from space. What was the fiction editor thinking?
The reaction in the comments section is mixed (and Jeff Vandermeer teases us by deleting his no doubt intemperate response.) There is more discussion of the story and Kress’s reaction on MetaFilter. As unfortunately so often happens it shakes out into Us and Them and, as usual, those in the SF camp come off worst. As one of the commenters in the original thread notes:
I think you’d be amazed at how many New Yorker readers appreciate Charles Stross. I’m one of them. From my perspective, it’s the Charles Stross readers who usually fail to appreciate The New Yorker.
I reviewed The Heritage by Will Ashon for Strange Horizons so I was sent a copy by the publisher. I wouldn’t have bought it otherwise because it was published by Faber & Faber in the bastardised trade paperback format, a hideous half-way house between hardback and paperback. However, since I liked Clear Water I probably would have bought the real paperback when it was released this month. Except, as Ashon reports, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity:
So, the good burghers of Faber & Faber have decided against publishing a mass-market paperback edition of “The Heritage”. I would’ve been pissed off, anyway, I guess, but I think would have understood this hard-headed business decision. After all, if you wanna kiss the ring of the Leather Pope then corporate capitalism’s where it’s at and fuck any of the considerations (art, literature, quality) you may pay lip service to. But I think my sense of fair play was piqued by being told less than two weeks before said paperback edition was supposed to be out. I mean, really, how shit is that?
This has happened so rapidly that Amazon still have the paperback edition listed, albeit as “currently unavailable”. It is an extremely cruel blow for Ashon which he has tried to soften by making the novel available to download for free. I would recommend that you do.