Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Back to Black (Benjamin)

I am doing VERY poorly on my Goodreads promise of three books a month - I keep jumping from book to book halfway through and never seem to finish one. Perhaps because I keep buying more of the fuckers, and faster than any human can read.


I was in Folio Books in Brisbane last week (Archives Rare Books secondhand store was earlier in the week, no Oakley Hall in the Westerns section, damn) and, while I was buying the new biography of Stefan Zweig, I saw the latest Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) on the shelf, with a picture of Gabriel Byrne on the cover, dressed up in period costume almost as he was in the movie Miller's Crossing. Obviously they (who? BBC One and RTÉ One) have started placing the shambling Dublin pathologist, Dr Quirke, into a TV series! But I realised when I looked inside the cover that I was several books behind. I thought, hey, I won't buy it now anyway because bought-too-many-books-already/overweight-luggage/double-stacked-shelves/too-small-apartment (Ha, say my friends).

Back in Singers I go to check the last of the dour Quirke sagas I have read, the fourth - A Death in Summer. There it is, correctly sited in Fiction, alphabetical Author, publishing date order... with a bookmark poking forlornly out the top between pages 220 and 221. One third through. I didn't finish it. Oh, well there are a plethora (veritable, literal, actual) of other unfinished dusty* old tomes here, no great surprise there. I was no doubt enchantedly distracted by fresh pastures of augmented literary verdancy then as I still succumb to now.

I decided to restart it on the spot, catch up to the latest in the series and then download, ahem, purchase the TV shows.


Straight away, just a few pages in, I knew why I had not finished it. It was not that I had been distracted by something else. I think instead I had consciously decided not to finish it. I didn't enjoy it, it was too light (despite the grisly death) for what I was expecting from the early books. Too much sunshine, or something (not even sure if it mentions sunshine, but...). I'd given up on it. When the author is named Black, you expect darkness. Perhaps the women are too beautiful, too photogenic, and that is where the sunshine comes from. But Quirke in love with that snooty-French bitch, the gorgeous, newly widowed (Femme Fatale alert) Francoise? You've got to be joking.

Sigh. Well... The plot also seemed (and still seems) terribly formulaic, something of a pastiche, a parody, an Agatha Christie-like passionless, vaguely intriguing mystery to read on the train. It seems to steal something from every other crime mystery ever written. Oh no, it's not suicide after all! The usual suspects; the rival blustery businessman fresh from verbal with the deceased; the surly, estranged daughter; the sensitive ex-con estate manager; the ice-hearted widow due for the inheritance; the businessman's mysterious son just back from (shades of Inspector Hound) Canada... This feeling was so strong, I recall I could almost see Banville/Black surrendering to a How To Write A Crime Mystery Writer's Workshop rigidity. The mindset that forces him to use hoary old tricks to keep us reading on past the chapter breaks. Perhaps they're not so much a cliff on which to hang, as a street gutter outside a pub to stumble over, but I hate that type of overly dramatic pause with a finishing sentence that doesn't finish anything. I might just be me, I despise airport (or train journey) thrillers because of it. It's an hiatus that clangs of ad-breaks for the TV shows (ironically), so that you can rush to the toilet... I fight against it. I prefer closure to the Perils of Pauline while I hold my piss. I much prefer watching cable-TV shows or movies that are edited to be watched all the way through, rather than to the fifteen minute ad-cycle of free-to-air TV I am forced to sit through with the FLOs in Australia. And it is the same with books.

Meanwhile other novels I have dug my head into lately (and not finished either, mostly) include ones by Thomas Bernhard, Jose Saramago, and Låszlo Krasznahorkai, writers who confront you with great slabs of un-paragraphed text for many, many pages, and even in Bernhard's case a whole novel, and when so the break does come, it comes not with a short gasp of suspense, but with a sigh of completeness. That's that part of the story done, OK? Now let me tell you the next bit...

Well yes, this ad-break method is inherent in the style of the genre Black/Banville's chosen to write, that of the unputdownable (take it to the loo with you) thriller, but it makes you wonder why he is just following someone else's sclerotic old rules half-heartedly, only half-seriously when he is such a master. He still writes as well as you'd expect of a Booker winning author (maybe Noble Prize short-listed?) and has sent me to now and then ("louring turrets" - louring: lowering, looming, threatening, as in dark storm clouds louring. As in turrets. A very Thomas Hardy word, don't you think?), and I think back on the masterly works of Banville as Banville, how Kepler captivated me, etc...

The title of the book itself:A Death In Summer**, it reeks of a TV show, doesn't it? Mid-summer. Murder. Sort of thing. From the start you know there's only going to be one corpse. There's a bit of mystery already gone. And it is not to be confused with the more Hemingwayesque title of William Trevor's Death In Summer. Death as a concept, as an abstraction, as a slaughterhouse. (Is Midsomer Murders about a serial killer?)

B/B's going to have to do something special to get this penny dreadful plot to rise above a Dame Agatha level of two-dimensionality. The sad fact is those cliffhanger devices work best when the story is thrilling already, but the intrigue of whether Sinclair will bang Quirke's daughter or not hardly moves me to insomnia. (Of course he will. Or maybe not.)

Having said all that, we know and love the man with more troubles than all the other crime mystery heroes combined, the multi-troubled, diffident but determined, the grown man still tormented by memories of a childhood in those horrific Irish orphanages, the poorly-reformed alcoholic, chain-smoking, overly curious Dr Quirke, surely enough.


- Is it himself in this one?
- Aye, it surely is.
- And is he worth the flamin' effort? Just for himself, the man, at all?
- Aye, to be sure.


Ah well, I keep pushing on... There's sure bound to be more about child-abusing priests, and the stories of other victims of the horror orphanages who had made it out even more negatively affected than did Dr Quirke. And Sinclair will bonk Phoebe. Or if not, definitely in the next book - I can wait to find out.

I'm sure blacker things will lour up suitably turret-like and ominous once I push past last time's point of abandonment. Then I can get on with rest of them.


* NTS: must berate the FDW for insufficient "attention to detail". (The catch-phrase of my old Chief Radiographer, who'd sweep every horizontal surface of your monthly allocated x-ray room for any particles of germ carrying dust: "Attention to detail, Mr E@L, is the hallmark of the good radiographer." As it is for almost every occupation, E@L kept muttering under his breath.)

** I wrote this before I read the much, much better informed and more forgiving Guardian review - I see cliché, he sees homage and due respect. The reviewer seems at least to have finished it before putting fingertips to keyboard.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Put Your Feet Up, Not Your Socks

E@L was in Australia, 8 - Feb 2015 - 13 Mar 2015. Phew, glad that's over. Working mostly, but 10 days off as well. Perth, Townsville(!?), Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane.

To have paid so much for every drink and every meal (chicken parmagiana [sic], three types!) for all that time. Man, that country is expensive.

Expenses: big bill...


And then, woah, E@L comes back to pay a mere $23 for his share of a massive feast of Schezuan specialities and loads of beer (with ice) on the streets of Chinatown, Singapore. OK a lot of the dishes were vegetarian (or close to, but hey, we are talking volume here.) Awesome! Man, this country is cheap.

And the few the remaining Dionysians walk up to Ang Sang Hill Rd and E@L pays $15 for that yap for doh (one for the road). Outrageous! Man, this country is expensive.


Meanwhile, on the plane back, earlier that day, IKYN, he's eating his dinner of eye filet, roasted root vegetables and creamy mash with a glass of Bordeaux (what, you good people of Singapore, etc, don't think E@L flies cattle class on long hops do you?), when a sense of nausea creeps up on E@L, a slowly enfolding miasma of awful, permeating stink... It takes a minute or so to register that something is wrong in fact. E@L is just sitting there, and the meal doesn't taste right, the wine lacklustre (it is only French).

Literally, the atmosphere here is bad. It dawns eventually that he is becoming enwrapped in a fearful cloud of noisome wrongness and that something really smells!

He doesn't know where the smell is coming from initially, whom is the source, the culprit, except that stench is of human origin. No shit not, piss... FEET. Like his own feet get when he has been wearing old sandals in the rain. Pong. Pure and simple, sickening and foul.

And a roll of fawn cotton socks, monogrammed with a brand if not the owner's name, strikes him as incongruous.

Swear to God, the guys sitting next to him has taken the complementary pair of useless sock/slippers they give you in long hauls in Business Class, but rather than place them over his socks, he has taken the socks off, tucked them into a ball and plonked them ... wait for it ... on the tray for the small storage slot on the back of the seat in front of him. Right out in the open, up high.

Here: to give you an idea.

What the bromodrotic fuck?

What sort of ignorant creature would do this, you ask of E@L?

Let's test E@L's powers of description. Well, first of all he's a man a bit older than E@L (past middle-age by now); pale skin, loose around the jawline; light hair, curly and thinning; a bit of a paunch but no more than you'd expect; steel-glasses; well-dressed (second time in a few days well-dressed men have offended E@L: another story in Brisbane re: locked keys in car, need bus fare) in pale slacks and two-tone polo shirt; and he's eating the crispy skinned cod filet. Perhaps that's why he doesn't notice?

But when you think about it, why wouldn't a man who looks intelligent enough, mature enough, successful enough, why wouldn't he realise that it is simply rude, inconsiderate, and woefully ignorant to place your socks up somewhere in view while you and others are eating. This is the sort of thing a mother should have whupped out of him as a youngster.

Manners. This man is bereft of manners.


The feet can be a source of great offense in Asia as you know, even beyond power to demolish the olfactory aesthetics of the moment. Typically people have outside shoes which they leave at the door, and inside shoes, or they go besocked or barefoot. Dirty, profane, disgusting, bad luck. You shouldn't point with your toes, or place your soles of your feet (or shoes) in the direction of certain South-East Asians, particularly those who are Buddhist.

[There is some interesting (to some) Japanese porn about feet - footjobs, enejaculated toes, the like. What is it with the Japanese?]


E@L shakes his head. It must be the socks, of course. Yes, no doubt: This nauseating fog is a characteristic of a uniquely sock/foot emanation.

He doesn't get angry, he gets mildly offended - hey, he IS mildly offended. "Excuses me sir, are they your socks?" With a slight twist of bitter disgust at the end.

Untaken aback, he leans forward, pops them under his nose, and says, very convinced, "They don't smell."

E@L only partially stifles a guffaw of incredulity. "I beg to differ," counters E@L.

The man drops his socks to the floor, and as if to dismiss E@L, continues to eat and watch his movie.

So, E@L shakes his head again. And slowly, his appetite challenged, he chews into a chunk steak as it were cardboard, orders another vin cru bourgeois, ignores the ignorant savage right back at (or away from, it would have to be) him.

Well, yes, of course it was the socks. With them out of public view the foul air gradually dissipates and, E@L presumes, is recycled - to offend someone else in the plane, probably down at the rear end where lighter gases, such as body odour and (once upon a time) cigarette smoke, slowly driven back with the plane's slight accelerations, gather. Back where you'd think the unwashed and malodorous would typically reside and not up in the classy end where businessmen, and E@L, not to mention the jerk who was beside him, prefer to sit. Safely ensconced, unassailed by fell aromas. You'd think.


After the meal, the man unapologetically but not rudely it must be said, gathered his stuff, stepped over E@L's discretely shod feet and moved to an unoccupied seat by the window at the rear of the section. Open the window man, let the stink out.

Fuck him, smelly old twat man.


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