Tag Archives: literary criticism

Run that by me again…? Or… Wobble, My Brain, the reader said!

This week you might have seen me on Twitter recommending an indie horror movie called Pontypool (based loosely on the book Pontypool Changes Everything, by Tony Burgess) . No, it’s nothing to do with the Welsh town. This Pontypool is in Ontario and is the site of a strange viral outbreak that turns the residents into slavering, blabbering, murderous, er, zombies.

Yes, it’s a zombie flick, sort of. Except the key here is that it’s language itself that’s become infected, passed on through speech. The film has the best tag-line ever ‘Shut up – or die!’, a difficult option when the story centres around radio ‘shock jock’ Grant Mazzy who hosts Pontypool’s breakfast show.

On a cold, dark, winter morning reports start coming in of strange assaults and riots breaking out. They, and we, can’t see what’s going on, only hear it and repeat it, and broadcast the news of it, hence the virus spreads.

Clearly the film is about more than the obvious ‘radio station under siege’ setup. It’s a satire of ‘talk radio’ and the media age, its ability to literally spread panic as well as to inform. It’s about the nature of meaning and how it can be lost through repetition and juxtaposition. Er, and it’s a metaphor for unthinking mass hysteria – I mean, I think it is.

Probably. Who knows, really? It’s cracking fun though and will mess with your head.

Do you have to understand everything about a movie or a book to enjoy it? Probably not.

There can be something enjoyably unnerving about that sense of being a bit ‘all at sea’ with the grey matter wobbling in your head like an alarmed jelly fish. You might ask yourself what was the author on when they wrote this? Or, more commonly, I don’t get it! Am I just a bit thick?

In this spirit here’s a quick guide to books I ‘enjoyed’ but have no idea what they were about. Books with that dreamlike, incoherent logic that make you think someone might have slipped something hallucinogenic in your tea.

 

Anything by Haruki Murakami

I’ve often wondered if books in translation read in an odd way because they were written like that or if there really is something ‘lost in translation’. I was still gripped by the trippy, compelling language of Kafka on the Shore. There’s a boy and a weird stone in the woods that has a bizarre effect on some school kids, and jazz and a quest.

I think…

Brain-wobble rating 3/5

 

Roberto Bolano2666

There’s a missing lecturer, and some other lecturers are trying to find him, and some nasty murders – in the way only South American murders can be nasty – and some washing blowing on a line that is symbolic of loss, as the lecturers’ search for meaning is futile, like the futility of violence.

Probably…

Brain wobble rating 4/5

 

Anything by Philip K Dick.

The daddy of modern sci-fi was obsessed with parallel or alternative realities. In Flow, My Tears, The Policeman Said, (even the title is a bit bonkers) Jason Tavener is a famous TV personality. One day he wakes up to find all records of his existence erased and he’s a wanted man in a police state. Is Jason going insane? Is there a conspiracy against him? Does it matter? Life’s an illusion anyway isn’t it? Like the illusion of fame and the cult of celebrity…er..

Most likely…

Brain-wobble rating 5/5

 

Mikhail Bulgakov The Master and Margarita

Banned for decades, it’s an allegory of the dangers of communism, no, Bolshevism, no atheism… wait…it’s about a dark ‘master’ magician, possibly the devil, well it might be because Jesus is in it too, in flashbacks, and there’s a cat that’s a woman…

Possibly

Brain-wobble rating 3/5

 

Never mind, rest your weary, wobbly brain matter and look at what the reviewers have said about these classics.

The Village Voice said of Flow, My Tears, ‘Dick was many authors; a poor man’s Pynchon, an oracular post modern, a rich product of the changing counter culture…’

Of 2666 The Financial Times said ‘the arcane allusiveness of Pynchon…the acute yet stylised noir of David Lynch…yet ultimately the books most significant forebear may be Moby Dick, that symphonic masterpiece..’

Hee, hee! They didn’t have a clue what they were about either!

 

Now we can all feel better about feeling like a stupid, wobbly invertebrate-head!

 

*Note: The wobbly jellyfish rating may or may not be imbued with additional symbolism as a nod to the ‘zombie’ genre’s obsession with brain-eating and Pontypool’s ‘brain’ bug. It could just be a lazy simile/metaphor. I’m not telling. 

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Lost in Translation? It’s the little things…

A few weeks ago I was in a bar in Cardiff. It was that time of night, stupid-loud and three deep at the counter, when a big guy in his late twenties loomed up at me, bent down and yelled into my ear, ‘You’re very fat!’

Yeah – nice!

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him so I gave a too drunk/too loud/whatever smile. But he thumped a meaty hand on my shoulder and said it again. This time I made the universal hand gesture for I can’t hear you, which I couldn’t properly. I was pretty annoyed though. What a thing to say to a woman minding her own business at the bar. I don’t think I’m very fat – I’m not particularly thin but am I very fat? Am I? Either way he seemed to want to keep saying it until I responded. Eventually I made an, ahem, ‘please go away,’ face and gesture. At which point he shoved past me and lumbered away.

I was torn between wanting to rip his head off and knowing it was better to forget it. Common sense won and I got my drink. Have I forgotten it, though? NO.

Some days later (listening to some boys talking about girls in Tesco) it occurred to me that maybe what he’d said was ‘You’re very fit.’ Okay. I don’t think of myself as ‘very fit’– I don’t think I’m really ‘unfit’ – but I thought I was looking alright and he was pretty drunk and it was stupid loud etc. Maybe it was a misunderstanding? Maybe that’s why he got so ‘annoyed’. Perhaps he was trying, in his lumpen-meat-head fashion, to chat me up when I’d given him the great two finger flag-off. Naturally, I prefer this explanation to the one where he just felt compelled to tell me I was a mega- bloater!

Maybe I missed the point – was one rogue vowel, an ‘I’ instead of an A, lost in translation, literally and metaphorically. It’s the little things…

Writing is a bit like this sometimes.

A lot can be lost between what the writer writes and the reader understands or takes from a novel. I should know. I had my first one star review this week – boy did this woman hate both my books! I was baffled by the intensity of her diatribe. She hated the female characters most, saying they were vain and self-obsessed and, well, not very nice! Sorry, but may I politely suggest that she, though completely entitled to dislike my books, maybe missed the point a bit?

I wasn’t trying to write about ball-breaking heroines, kick boxing secret agents or romantic outsiders harbouring secret yearnings for the gardener/vampire/fetishist next door.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with these characters, far from it, they’re just not what I was trying to create.) I wanted women with flaws and doubts and active self-interest and well, they’re not nice all the time.

Traditionally, stories have always had heroes and heroines but, be honest, how many of us fall into this category? Oh, we like to think we’re the headliners in the story of our lives (You’re very fat!? Bloody hell, I’m the likable, attractive plucky bloody heroine, mate! Aren’t I?)

But what if we’re not? If we’re not the hero or heroine? We’re the villain, or maybe even worse, we’re not either, we’re the supporting players, the ones there’s nothing really special about. The one’s who are neither very fat nor very fit?

In Telling Stories, my first novel, Lizzy asks, ‘Which lies are the worst? The ones we tell others or the ones we tell ourselves?’ I think I know the answer.

In Joseph Conrad’s turn of the century seafaring tale Lord Jim, Jim goes to sea and dreams of the moment he leap heroically into the fray and the realm of myth – his exploits will be remembered in sea shanties and by swooning women forever more. But the ship begins to sink – the moment comes and what does Jim do? I won’t tell you but suffice to say he spends the rest of his life reliving that one moment.

Faced with adversity are you or I really heroic and self sacrificing? Do we think we could be? Know we ought to be, but underneath are scared, vain, wracked with doubt and indecision? Which lies are the worst?

But can you still care about a character who does a reprehensible thing for the right or wrong reasons? Or is weak enough to allow questionable things to happen? I certainly think so.

Sympathy for the devil goes back a long way (before The Rolling Stones sang, ‘Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name.’) John Milton invented it in the 17th century in Paradise Lost when Satan was cast out of heaven, landing on the burning lake of fire, blackened and shorn of his brilliant ‘star of the morning’ Lucifer light. In Satan’s song of his own sorrow he has been unjustly punished for his love of a tyrannical God who demanded absolute obedience. He’s not the villain! He’s the victim! And he knows he’s prey to the coils of his own mind.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” he laments.

Right with you there, Satan!

So was it all a little misunderstanding in the bar? Has Satan really just had bad press? Did Jim merely need a second to get a rewind? Has something been lost in translation? Did Ms Terminator reviewer miss the point?

Don’t ask me. I’m STILL wondering if I’m fat or fit…..or maybe I’m neither…oh bugger…

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