Oh Shillings!

Original creative and critical writing by Scott Morris

My Sister

My sister’s face is flat like her chest. Even so, the executioner must admire how serene it remains as her ill-fitting dress catches light. I never thought she’d smell so.

(Winning entry to Peirene Press’ ‘Mini Short Story Competition’: a historical novella in 30 words and 3 sentences)

The Brothers – Asko Sahlberg

Originally published at The Cadaverine.

It’s entirely appropriate that Peirene Press begins its 2012 series of ‘Small Epics’ with a Finnish author, as Finland is essentially a country born from epic. The Kalevala, a collection of folk stories, poems and songs compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the early part of the nineteenth century, has been credited with inspiring a sense of national identity and a shared mythology amongst Finns, as well as elevating the long subordinated Finnish language. This new imaginative consensus and feeling of cultural autonomy gathered momentum over the course of the century and paved the way for 1917, when Finland finally shrugged off the Russian Empire and declared its independence.

Asko Sahlberg’s The Brothers is not, however, an epic concerning the birth of nations, but their ownership and domination. It is set on a farm immediately after the end of the Finnish War of 1808-1809, in which Russia wrested the country from Swedish hands and re-christened it the Grand Duchy of Finland. Familiar, epic themes of conflict, treachery, violence and tragedy are vacuum-packed into this novella.  Two brothers, Henrik and Erik, have spent the War on opposing sides. Henrik has long estranged himself from the family, after being cheated out of a neighbour’s prized horse (by the neighbour) and the neighbour’s prized daughter Anna (by Erik) in his youth. He has lived for the last few years in St Petersburg, making only sporadic visits back to the house, each time appearing with more ostentatious horses and women at his side. The novel begins with his unexpected and unwelcome arrival back at the farmhouse, which can only spell trouble.

Despite the specificity of the time period, this novel wears its history lightly. This is not a costume drama; period details are largely disregarded, balancing the drama between the familiar, the contemporary and an ancient timelessness. Space is prioritised over time, and Sahlberg shows a real talent for depicting place. Throughout the book, he establishes the snow-coated homestead as a character in its own right. ‘At least the place hasn’t been left to rot,’ are Henrik’s first words to the farmhand – ultimately spoken too soon, as he later comes to admit:

 ‘This house is a cadaver. The others are too close to see it, but it has already begun to decompose… It is as if a collection of bones had been unearthed and dressed up in fine clothing to create the illusion of a real body. The wallpaper and chandeliers make no difference.’

The Brothers is a novel of perspectives and proximities, told through a series of first person, present tense monologues. Information is conveyed or withheld depending on whether certain characters happen to be in earshot. Henrik’s conversation with the farmhand, for example, is narrated by neither of the men, but by Anna, who has sneaked behind the cowshed to listen in.

The opposite is the case in a masterfully crafted centrepiece scene, in which the Crown Bailiff arrives to relay the novella’s crucial twist. All the characters are present, ‘[coming] into view as if by mutual, fateful agreement’, arranged around the snow-coated yard like actors awaiting direction. The revelation and its reaction are narrated with cold precision by the house’s Old Mistress, positioned too far away to hear the exchange. This removal from the drama allows it to unfold as if watched in widescreen with the sound off – a silent, stylised, beautiful sequence, in stark contrast to the frenzied emotion of the actual event.

Sahlberg writes with restraint, each short, serious sentence loaded with melancholy, and the occasionally striking image. A man’s fear of other men is distinguished from that of women, ‘like water newly drawn from a well compared with water that has long been standing in a jug.’ The Crown Bailiff speaks as if his words are ‘squeezed out through a tangle of worms.’ For all his austerity, however, Sahlberg just as often misfires with awkward phrasings: Henrik is ‘echoey with emptiness’; Anna says of Henrik that she ‘did not allow him to throb inside me.’ It is possible that these expressions lose something in translation, but they certainly cannot be excused as idiosyncracies of the different voices. All eight of the novel’s narrators speak in a markedly similar way, all blending into a uniform, flat tone by its close.

In a prefatory note, publisher Meike Ziervogel describes The Brothers as a book ‘as Finnish as a forest in winter but that resembles a work from the American South: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.’ The structural similarities between these two novels, namely their headed character chapters, are obvious, but for me the more immediate point of comparison was Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Both books chart the deathbed twitches of proud families confined to disintegrating houses, picking themselves apart through acts of petty vengeance. The Old Mistress, the widowed, damaged and yet magisterial matriarch, reads like Faulkner’s Mrs Compson; Mauri, the malformed, exploited relation, is like a malevolent version of Benjamin Compson. But while Faulkner manages to elevate domestic disputes to the level of true epic tragedy, Sahlberg does not get half so far. The Brothersultimately feels like a sketch for an epic, using big themes but failing to handle them with much originality. His terse language evokes an absorbing, frozen backdrop, but The Brothers is a predominantly lukewarm  read.

The Alma Effect

A short piece of mine, ‘The Alma Effect‘, has been published at Notes from the Underground.

Best European Fiction 2012 (so far…)

Dalkey Archive Press is fast becoming my favourite publisher (though with strong competition from And Other Stories), dedicated as it is to promoting or reviving the overlooked, the unheard-of, the out-there. In 2011, it introduced me to the likes of Juan Goytisolo, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Dumitru Tsepeneag and Eileen Myles, and its volume of The Review of Contemporary Fiction on ‘failure’ is yet to leave my bedside. Its annual collection of European short stories was, therefore, an obvious choice for a Christmas present. I’m currently thirteen stories in (out of thirty-four), but these are my thoughts so far.

The collection opens a little underwhelmingly, with not one of the three authors included in the section named ‘love’ offering a distinctly original take on that cuddly subject. Maja Hrgović’s ‘Zlatka’ is a euphoric read at least, presenting the disarmingly uplifting story of a one night stand between a hairdresser and her client. ‘This Strange Lucidity’ by Agustín Fernández Paz, on the other hand, suffers from an overused and clumsily deployed conceit, having a dog as a narrator. Bulgakov and Kafka have shown that there is some creative mileage in this idea, but in Paz’s hands it becomes wearily sentimental and obvious. ‘My Hand is Exhausted’ by Patricia de Martelaere is not the sort of love story you’d expect from its title, but rather an examination of the relationships a portrait painter forms with her sitters.

Things get much more exciting when we reach the second section, ‘desire’, and more specifically, ‘The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus’ by Janusz Rudnicki. It’s a real metafictional salad of a story: its title recalls Goethe, its narrator quotes relentlessly from fellow Pole, Bruno Schulz (‘I could become chairman of the Schulz Club, if such a thing were to be founded’) and it reads like a blackly comic retelling of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Like Mann’s Aschenbach, an ageing author-academic flees to an Italian town where he becomes infatuated with a youth while the people around him are threatened by a deadly epidemic (or bird flu, in Rudnicki’s case).

The decision to organise the stories thematically (love, thought, music, children etc) rather than geographically allows these stylistically diverse writers to escape any kind of nationalising theory, the idea that these authors are representative of a national tradition. As you would expect, the borders between the sections are impossible to police. In the first part of the anthology, war is especially predominant. There is a chapter set aside specifically for the subject. This includes a piece from David Dephy, cult poet and innovator of the new Georgian generation and author of the ‘STOP RUSSIA’ slogan; a powerful story of gang criminality in Limerick by Desmond Hogan; and ‘The Telescope’ by Russian author Danila Davydov, a fantastic piece reading like an excerpt from a Beckett novel, in which war threatens to come variously from outer space, China and a young boy’s mind. However, editor Aleksandar Hemon has arranged the collection so that the stories bookending this section also toy with ideas of the battlefield: Rui Zink’s ‘Tourist Destination’ (‘elsewhere’) charts a suicidal holidaymaker’s journey to a conflict-ravaged, unnamed country, while Jiří Kratochvil (‘thought’) tells his story of Second World War perversion and barbarity from the perspective of an intelligent and articulate Cossack cavalry horse (an animal POV that works far more successfully and imaginatively than in Paz’s story). Themes spill into one another.

So far, my favourite story is Arno Camenisch’s ‘Sez Ner’, something of an alpine fable, a fairy tale sparsely peopled by what could be the cast of a Werner Herzog movie. The piece opens with a striking and hilarious image: ‘The dairyman’s hanging from a paraglider, in the red firs below the hut on the alp at the foot of Sez Ner. You can hear him cursing from the hut.’ It’s as if you’re watching the scene from a distance, viewing it in wide screen, and there is an element of creepy detachment that pervades the rest of the story – the characters are unnamed, the narrator dispassionate.

The trouble with growing to love stories in this anthology is that it can lead to a romantic cul-de-sac. Typing Camenisch into Google or Amazon, for example, yields no other translations from Rhaeto-Romanic or German. The same goes for many of these writers. This is frustrating for those looking to delve deeper into the backlists of these new finds, but it also emphasises the importance of this collection. Access may be somewhat limited for English monoglots like myself, but I am thankful to Dalkey Archive Press and their cadre of translators for at least providing an insight into some of the continent’s more unusual and innovative storytellers.

John Martin / Bruno Schulz

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

“I must beg forgiveness if in describing these scenes of enormous crowds and general uproar, I tend to exaggerate, modelling myself unwittingly on certain old engravings in the great book of disasters and catastrophes of the human species. But they all create a pre-image and the megalomanic exaggeration, the enormous pathos of all these scenes proved that we had removed the bottom of the eternal barrel of memories, of an an ultra-barrel of myth, and had broken into a prehuman night of untamed elements, of incoherent anamnesis, and could not hold back the swelling flood. Ah, these nights filled with stars shimmering like fishscales! Ah, these banks of mouths incessantly swallowing in small gulps, in hungry draught, the swelling undrunk streams of those dark rain-drenched nights! In what fatal nets, in what miserable trammels did those multiplicated generations end?”

– ‘The Comet’, Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (trans. Celina Wieniewska)

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

 This review first appeared in The Cadaverine, October 2011.

In reality, depression is a terrible illness, but in the realm of fiction, film and music, it can often be little more than a worn-out cliché. Lars von Trier’s recently released Melancholia seemed determined to avoid identikit, angst-ridden narratives; it uses a highly stylised cinematography and a conceit so utterly bombastic (Kirsten Dunst’s character’s descent into depression coincides with the earth’s collision with the planet ‘Melancholia’) that it drags the audience out of its comfort zone. Orbiting somewhere between The Bell Jar and Deep Impact, the result is a startlingly beautiful and original take on depression, challenging our ‘overfamiliarity’ and conveying something of the very real horrors of the condition.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home adopts an opposite approach. Rather than escaping them, she wilfully recycles the clichés and over-familiar scenarios associated with depression. We have heard it all before. Kitty Finch, a beautiful, damaged, frequently naked girl infiltrates the middle-class Jacobs family and their guests, while they holiday at a villa in the south of France. As the novel progresses, we uncover a history of eating disorders, institutionalisation, electroconvulsive therapy. There is a suicidal cry for help, thinly veiled within a poem. There’s the brash, hypermasculine hunter who dismisses Kitty as mad; the sensitive poet with a similar mental health history who can best understand her. Levy confronts these formulae of depression head-on, straining them until they crack, revealing something strange, unique and exceptionally moving.

Her characters are instantly recognisable and react in recognisable ways, becoming almost types. Levy describes the holidaymakers in the terms they use to pigeonhole each other. To Madeleine, an elderly neighbour, Mitchell is ‘the fat man who liked guns’; to Mitchell, Joe Jacobs is ‘the arsehole poet known to his readers as JHJ (Joe to every one else except his wife)’. Isabel Jacobs, on the verge of leaving her husband, is referred to over the course of only a few pages as ‘the journalist wife’, ‘the betrayed wife’ and ‘the exotic wife of the poet’. If these characters are foisted between pre-written roles, it is because Levy is keen to emphasise that this drama has been playing itself out for millennia. Considering the prehistoric humans that once inhabited the area, Joe realises a continuity between them and him: ‘They knew the past lived in rocks and trees and they knew that desire made them awkward, mad, mysterious, messed up.’

The novel is written with a discreet, discomfiting surrealism. Take the opening sequence, in which a body is spotted floating in the villa swimming pool. The holidaymakers’ reaction is absurdly cool, illogically indifferent: ‘’Jozef thinks she’s a bear,’ Isabel Jacobs replied in her detached war-correspondent voice.’ Shortly after, this bizarre comment is put into context when we learn that the party has been reading reports of a bear taking a swim in a celebrity’s Los Angeles pool. Still, from the very beginning, Levy wrong-foots her reader; even when we know that the ‘bear’ is in fact Kitty, and that she is alive and well, we cannot shake off the strangeness surrounding her entrance into the Jacobs family.

Levy works with a limited set of metaphors, which she reuses, placing them into striking contrast with one another. Characters fall back on the same language, are unwillingly drawn together through the same symbols: ‘[Madeleine’s] eyes were cloudy like the pool Kitty Finch had complained about to Jurgen and she thought she might be losing her sight.’ Often, metaphors are stretched, awkwardly. Suddenly desperate to secure his wife’s love, Joe asks if she likes honey: ‘He would poke his paw inside every hollow of every tree to scoop up the honeycomb and lay it at her feet if he thought she might stay a little longer with him and their cub.’ What at first seems overwritten falls into place when we remember the opening talk of bears, when we notice the dead bees dotted around the pool, when we find the block of honeycomb that Joe eventually does buy his wife.

It’s maybe tempting to assume, from all this talk of self-conscious language and character types, that Swimming Home is a dehumanised, abstract novel. Indeed, judging from Tom McCarthy’s overcooked introduction, in which he laboriously namechecks Deleuze, Lacan, Freud and Robbe-Grillet, you’d think it to be one big exercise in literary theory. However, this would be to completely disregard the subtlety of Levy’s writing and to brazenly ignore the defiantly human and positive message of the book. This is not merely a meditation on the destructive potential of depression, but also a poignant case for resisting it. Nina, Joe’s daughter, remarks that people ‘have to dream themselves out of life and back into it, because life must always win us back.’ It is this mixture of style and sentiment that gives Swimming Home its mysterious, disquieting power. On the one hand, the novel unfolds with all the restrained, cool assurance of French nouvelle vague cinema (think Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad), but this is tempered by an urgent optimism, an unashamedly compassionate portrayal of lives losing their way. In a novel so full of clichés, Levy’s writing transcends them all, producing instead something profound, unsettling, magnificent.

Jude in London – Julian Gough

This review first appeared in The CadaverineOctober 2011.

Julian Gough’s Jude in London is best described as a ‘metafictional titty-pincher’, to snatch David Foster Wallace’s phrase. The titty-pinching is real and ever present, not to mention the titty-stroking, the titty-grasping, the fellating and the fluffing (corrective surgery has left Jude, our hero, with a nose made from erectile tissue). However, Gough is no less caustic, madcap and irreverent when dabbling in the metafictional side of things – that is, books talking about books. But beneath the slapstick humour of the book’s literary references, there is a deadly seriousness. Again and again we are reminded that this is a ‘State Of The Irish Novel’ Novel. And, as one character suggests, it is in a very sorry state indeed:

‘Ours is the first generation in three hundred years… in which the Novel has made no progress. Indeed, it has retreated. And a novel which is not novel is not a novel.’

The supposed villains and perpetrators of this decline are those Irish novelists who bog their writing down with funerals, family secrets, the rain – and more funerals. These are the likes of ‘Colm Tóbleróne’ (Colm Tóibín) and ‘Shawn Bawn’ (John Banville), the latter even making an appearance in cruelly caricatured form, as the Fantastic Four’s ‘The Thing’.

Gough is on a mission to rescue the novel from this dreary rut. But how to go about it? A blind Librarian, encountered by Jude in the cellar of a Soho pub, prophesies that the saviour of literature will come ‘disguised as a comedy’. Elsewhere, Gough has written about literature’s ‘lopsided’ over-fondness for the tragic mode, and has urged a return to the criminally trivialised comic tradition. In an article for Prospect magazine, he advises writers to ‘steal from The Simpsons, not Henry James’, to aim for ‘realistic texture and a cartoon event-rate with a broad range of reference.’

Such a novel is Jude in London. Second in a trilogy, the novel continues the adventures of Jude in Ireland (a summary of which is provided as prologue), following orphan Jude on a double quest to reclaim Angela, his (seemingly disinterested) True Love, and to expose the Secret of his Origins. Ultimately, this quest matters to nobody aside from Jude, and Gough uses the quest narrative as a way of stringing together a series of often brilliant set pieces. As a result, Jude is a sequence of almost self-contained episodes: The One Where Jude Recreates the Universe in a Particle Accelerator, The One Where Jude Wins the Turner Prize, The One Where a Somalian Cameraman Explains the Irish Banking Crisis to Jude in Terms of Goats Mown Down by Landing Planes.

But is it funny? The comedy is wide-ranging, unrelenting and, often, hilarious. Gough draws on farce, wordplay, satire, absurdism, sitcoms, cartoons, slapstick and toilet humour; he accumulates references pinched from sources as diverse as The Sound of Music, Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’ and Roland Barthes, building these up with impressive comic timing to arrive at excellently atrocious punchlines. A particularly funny scene sees a gaggle of Irish speculators attempt to build a wall using a single brick (‘I’ve an asset I want to leverage. Will you give me ten on it? … Now I’ve ten blocks’); another finds Jude debating literature with a Great Irish Novelist in a pub-cum-porn-studio (a writer renowned for having ‘translated Finnegans Wake into English’).

Gough knows his comedy lineage, and wants us to know that he knows this too. He returns obsessively to Ireland’s great comic novelists, casting them as ‘superheroes’ against the villainous likes of Sebastian Barry and Anne Enright. Trying to get his bearings on the canon, Jude envisions James Joyce as Superman (‘A journalist. Wore glasses. Lived in exile, from a lost and distant world to which he could never return’), Samuel Beckett as Batman and Flann O’Brien as Spiderman. Elsewhere, positive reference is made to Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift. These writers have clearly influenced Gough’s approach to language and grotesque characterisation, but his comedy sometimes suffers from making these connections too forcefully, too desperately. In these instances, the humour feels militant and contrived, humourless as a result.

Most of the laughs derive from Jude’s cataclysmic innocence; he merrily swans through events with an almost autistic inability to understand situations as they really are, mistaking a motorway for a river, a prostitute for an artist’s model. The dramatic irony of these misperceptions lends them an amusing charm, but it occasionally backfires. In a concluding scene at Tate Modern, the oblivious Jude goes about making Tracey Emin’s bed, cleaning out Damien Hirst’s ‘fishtank’, sweeping away Chris Ofili’s elephant dung and switching off Martin Creed’s light. Taking potshots at the Young British Artists not only comes fifteen years late, it’s also a cheap joke that has been overdone a hundred times already, not least of all by reactionary voices that I’m sure Gough would not like to align himself with.

Moments of this novel induce that feeling of awkwardness you get seeing a stand-up comedian fall flat but, mercifully, they do not ruin the enjoyment of what is, for the most part, a fast-paced, engaging and clever novel. Through certainly not the ‘new Ulysses’ that his characters urge Jude to write (Gough is an ambitious writer, but I think even he’d draw the line there), Jude in London is a genuinely unusual bit of writing, and a refreshing anomaly in modern fiction. Feck knows what will become of Jude in the final part of the trilogy, but it is probably safe to assume there won’t be a funeral in sight.

Elephant

Last night a minor celebrity died. The name is not instantly recognisable,  but she had one of those faces. There are those who caught the news late last night and who, now, feel a sense of superiority watching those learn of her death at this moment, reading the front page of a commuter paper over the shoulder of another passenger, held together in a full carriage waiting for the train ahead to leave Kentish Town.  The carriage is silent. A man’s phone begins to vibrate in his pocket. “Hello.” His interlocutor is perhaps female, perhaps a high-pitched male. There is an accent. “I’m on the train.” It is possible that she, or he, has not heard the news. “Elephant.” A couple of passengers look up from their paperbacks. “I’m at Elephant,” he lies. He tries his best to go unheard in the silent carriage. Each syllable sounds like an unwanted weight, a persistent cough, a magician’s mouth laying eggs. “Eh-luh-fun-tt, I’m at Elephant.” As if turning each bit of a word into a wordless object, a heavy breath, makes it somehow go unheard. “I’ll speak to you later.” He hangs up halfway through the final word, reattaches his headphones. It is safe to assume that nobody in the carriage has any idea that the minor celebrity was born in a house not far from Kentish Town, a flat above a supermarket a short walk from the station. For the last twenty years of her life, however, she had lived in Worcester, and it is to Worcester that her fellow cast members make their way, to stand in silence and think respectful thoughts.

Walking the North (extract)

I was southbound, travelling in the shadow of the TransCity Shuttle Line. It hunched over me, managing somehow to retain the awe and arrogance that had guaranteed its place on so many postcards, as well as the front covers of so many of my publications. And yet, even this, our architectural spinal cord, seemed to wrinkle with self-consciousness; it must have been missing the steady thrill of carriages shuttling back and forth across its length, the silent gratitude of its passengers. It was quite lost without them.

I wanted, so badly, to lift my head and shout something in reassurance. If only it could understand that soon, in no time at all, in a little time, the shuttles would all be back. They would creep, cautiously at first, stopping and retreating at each new frontier, at each newly reopened city, steadily resalvaging its former glory. With each journey, the shuttles would grow in confidence. They would grow faster. If only it could have understood all of this, I might have shouted up.

And perhaps I did, at one point in my travels. Perhaps I threw up a few words of comfort, but no doubt they lost their energy half way, blunted and dissolved in the dead air. Just another moan from the empty landscape. It might have gained some courage from the sight of a passenger-shaped form, wandering the wasteland but, seen from half a kilometre’s height, I more than likely reinforced its loneliness.

What business had I, comforting concrete? You could call it my only business. It is the reason my card is paid off weekly without question, regardless of expense, by those I’ve left behind. I am a senior writer for the Tourist Board, one of the last celebrated and meaningful roles we have left to assign ourselves. That is not said lightly. I am charged with the task of lifting the concrete’s self-esteem. With my words I must transform its unused and weather-soiled bulk into a grand landmark, our towns into objects of outstanding beauty, our gorse prairies into the daintiest of rose gardens. What they once were they shall be again, only this time doubly polished with the spit of nostalgia.

In the long term, we shall rebuild. Years of hiding have crippled the nation’s resources. As time went on, and as our hopes of ever seeing the sun rise again, of breathing fresh air and reclaiming our land, our semi-detached houses and hanging baskets – as these hopes fell, so too did our sense of prudence and moderation, so too did our moral decency. I am not the only one who, during these last twelve months, saw fit to fritter his future away on petty luxuries, spurning the state markets for alternative wares on offer in poorly lit tunnels, burrowed into the rocks by rogue traders – emaciated men who could squeeze themselves further into the mountains and pick the pearl-white, psychedelic mushrooms that grew there. I am not the only one to visit the bored wives of our doctors and politicians, the only ones amongst us with private rooms. In fact, for the past year, only the drug-dealers and the sex-sellers have cared for profit, stashes stashed away for a sunny day. The rest of us have seen little point in saving. We have seen little point in wide-eyed survivalism, with such little hope for survival. How could we have predicted this fortuitous change of circumstances?

We are a poor, unhealthy, but optimistic nation. Our economists predict that within no more than three years we shall be able to afford to replace these tired, clustered buildings with a new, astonishing architecture. There are artists developing this style right now. They are busy sketching landscapes pillared with alien and erotic towers, coiling up towards the clouds in shapes and colours and materials man scarcely imagined possible. We are at the vanguard of a new, radical aesthetic that shall surely attract global acclaim and bring hordes of tourists across our borders, forging a new era of peace in the flashes of their eager photography. The classical concrete formality of the TransCity Line shall find its homage in the nation’s bridges, spanning our rivers’ rebooted ecosystems. We now have genetic engineers experimenting with the cells of our hackneyed fish and bats, reconditioning the blind caveworms we share our hibernation with, determined to create a refreshed wildlife for our re-emergent society.

Until that time, we must make do with what we have. We shall never be able to rebuild our banks and supermarkets and swimming pools with ideals alone. We must have income. And we shall secure this income only by surrounding the corroded banks and rotting supermarkets with velvet ropes and charging an entry fee. It has been so long since we saw our cities, our people shall spend what little they have to see them once again.

There are four of us, carrying out this honourable yet dangerous task. We split the nation into segments. Vaclav and Hunz are, in some respects, the lucky ones. They are to write pieces on the southwest and southeast territories respectively, areas of the nation where nature is already in their favour. There, the gentle waves of the sea fall against clean beaches, ringed by coral and laughing dolphins. The ruins of resorts and shopping complexes will surely require little repair. At any rate, my colleagues will have little to do in the way of convincing the people to settle in the south.

It is Jens, alone in the northwest of the country, who faces the biggest threat. There lie our sole political borders, and though relations with our neighbour states have always been comfortable, who knows what liberties they have dared to take in our absence.

It is my task to staple the whole project together. It is the lonely rail, always above me, that will convey the new pilgrims from their retreat. The TransCity line once directly served all our major urban centres. From these nodes, smaller shuttles moved away at right angles from the line, out into the country. You continued in this way, moving at right angles, a pretty geometric dance from node to node, until you reached your destination. Tediously Romantic foreigners, on hearing these details, regularly accused us of an unnecessarily drawn out and impractical public transport system. The kind of bumbagged visitors who prefer to wile their holidays away in stuffy and illegal taxicabs, shouting at their immigrant drivers in a racist and incomprehensible imitation of our language. No actual passengers on the rail-lines could conceivably have criticised its efficiency.

Memories of this efficiency should be enough to entice the population from their holes. My first memories of the line revolve around my Aunt Sorella. They are memories from the fresh days of my youth, as well as the fresh first days of the line’s existence. What a shame that I cannot claim to have been born on the day of the momentous first railride, on the morning when the first foundation was laid or the idea found its conception in the mind of the visionary Transport Minister (this last claim is the only one I can cherish as plausible, though lament as incalculable). At any rate, I cannot honestly remember a time without the rail, and so this amounts to the same thing.

My mother’s youngest sister was a short, sweet but shy lady. She lived a reclusive life in the mountains with her reclusive husband, some high profile magistrate who had suffered a breakdown, forcing him into seclusion, where he spent his time making short, clay animation films based on his turbulent childhood. I’ve never seen any of them. I have not even seen her, Aunt Sorella, since that day. To see her now, withered and toothless, most probably running her very own boudoir, that would ruin that picture I have of her, the first time I saw her, on the TransCity platform of our hometown. I can hardly recall her face, only its freckles, and those I almost certainly exaggerate – but she was never meant to be a relative to me. I was not interested in our common blood. Her significance was symbolic, a welcome excuse for my mother to dress me in my smartest clothes and take me to the station. Aunt Sorella was coming to stay, she was leaving her chateau for the first time in perhaps five years – it does not matter. What matters is that stark May morning, my feet pushed tight against the yellow line of the platform, only just heeding the yellow-worded warning to step no further. The platform was crowded, all of us with slicked hair, boots and skin. Those were the early days when people would make trips to their nearest stations, with no intentions to board, just simply to stand and wait for the trains to arrive. People came to anticipate, for the unspoken, collective countdown, the checking of watches, the fixation of faces at the end of the line, eyes strained for it; the strain, the cramp, the tension that clasped the muscles in one’s throat, one’s thighs, as the shuttle pulled into the station. The pride we once took in defunct monarchs was resurrected and redirected towards those magnificent machines of chrome and glass that did us the great honour of passing through our towns once an hour. I returned again and again, but the triumph of the line will always remain for me in the squeeze my mother gave to my hand, the waft of kinetic heat slyly lifting my carefully-slicked hair into disarray, I stood so close.

Aunt Sorella could only come as a disappointment. A short, tight-lipped woman with a weak “hello” found us, hugged us both, and I was dragged, reluctantly, from the platform.

Embassytown – China Miéville

Embassytown finds China Miéville moving from science-fiction towards something that might more accurately be classified as a ‘semiotic-fiction’. Of course, the novel is full of androids, monster races and intricately realised worlds; indeed, it is more unapologetically alien than its immediate predecessors, the more terrestrial Kraken and The City and the City. This is a universe in which space travellers move through the ‘immer’, an ambiguous dimension that ‘underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole’; aliens farm half-living, ‘biorigged’ architecture, vehicles and weaponry, transported across their planet by colossal oesophagi. However, it is not just the limits of physics and biology that Miéville shows interest in – Embassytown is, first and foremost, a masterful interrogation of the limits and possibilities of language itself.

The novel centres on the Ariekei, a race of beings incapable of lying. In an evolutionary development that would have given Derrida a nervous breakdown, the Ariekei speak a language (known as ‘Language’) in which words correspond directly to ideas, in which the signifier is indistinguishable from the signified. As the book’s humanoid narrator, Avice, explains:

‘In the beginning was each word of Language, sound isomorphic with some Real: not a thought, not really, only self-expressed worldness, speaking itself through the Ariekei.’

As a result, Language is distinctly anti-literary. It has no grasp of hyperbole, of metaphor – it can just about stomach the non-committal vagueness of a simile, and only then if the events it describes are ritually enacted and preserved in the Ariekei’s cultural memory. This is what happens to Avice who, following a sinister childhood encounter with the Ariekei, is now used to describe things ‘like the girl who ate what was given to her’. She becomes Language. Avice is a citizen of Embassytown, an outpost colony that maintains prosperous trade with the Ariekei (its ‘Hosts’) via a cadre of Ambassadors – genetically engineered doppelganger pairs who, alone amongst the non-Ariekei, can speak Language and be understood. It takes a good hundred pages to get to grips with this complex linguistic symbiosis, after which point a strange new Ambassador arrives and unwittingly begins to dismantle it.

Throughout his career, Miéville has coupled a visionary sci-fi talent with a keen appreciation of the built environment. Consequently, his made-up cities are described with a lurid conviction that makes him something of a space age Baudelaire. He consistently portrays city life as a clash between the different and seemingly mutually exclusive experiences of individuals and communities. This idea is expertly literalised in The City and the City, in which the ‘doppel-cities’ of Besźel and Ul Qoma share the same geographical location, but manage to conceal themselves from one another through an amazing act of collective ‘unseeing’. Embassytown portrays yet another bifurcated, ‘doppel-city’, in which language renders two groups virtually unknowable to one another. When the mediating powers of the Ambassadors are thrown into question, Embassytown very much becomes a book about rescuing inter-group relations, about empathising with an alien ‘Other’. While Miéville’s plots are often as high-octane as the best thrillers, Embassytown successfully evokes and then derails notions of goodies and baddies and escapist star wars, in favour of pragmatic political strategies. This is a writer, after all, with a PhD in International Relations to set alongside his three Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

In opposition to the anti-figurative ‘Language’ stands Miéville’s own skilful stylistics, and Embassytown certainly demonstrates his development as a literary craftsman. Early works like Perdido Street Station, imaginatively ambitious as they may have been, were spoiled by clunking sentences and monstrously purple prose. With each new novel, however, his words take on a new tautness, an added muscularity, and Embassytown contains some of Miéville’s most exhilarating passages to date. His descriptive powers are most impressive when describing the Ariekei’s ‘biorigged’, half-sentient architecture: he depicts ‘walls sweating’ and ‘window-ventricles opening’, houses with ears that ‘flex with expectation’. His sentences also betray an increasing awareness of the limitations and drawbacks of his own language; midway through the novel, Avice admits with defeat that she can no longer tell her story in line with her intended structure – ‘for whatever reasons, it doesn’t want to be what I want to make it.’ ‘Literary sci-fi’ is an ugly and insulting phrase, often used to ‘rescue’ adept writers from the perceived evils of genre-writing, and is constantly applied to Miéville and his work. Embassytown, moreso than any of his previous novels, shows a willingness to tackle the big questions of language, literature and creative communication, while defiantly sticking to the tropes and tentacles of the genre.