Books, 2012 (4)

89. Iris Murdoch, The Unicorn. 9/1. This was Murdoch's seventh novel and the first for me to be an echt-Murdoch work. It is a Gothic novel. Marian Taylor, a young woman dissatisfied with her life, accepts a post as a tutor at Gaze Castle, in a remote and unpopulated part of Scotland. When she arrives, she finds that she has been hired as a literate companion and French tutor for Hannah Crean-Smith. Gaze Castle is populated by the usual cast of a Gothic novel. The beautiful Hannah had an affair and then tried to kill her husband, Peter, seven years earlier. In retaliation, Peter has decamped for New York City and virtually imprisoned Hannah in Gaze Castle, leaving her in the care of Gerald Scottow, a handsome brooding man. Also present are the brother and sister Jamesie and Violet Evercreach. Jamesie is rather of a gamin; Violet is the traditional Gothic housekeeper--the sort of character whose 'Good Morning' comes out portentous and ominous. Rounding out the household are several maids, always dressed in black and frequently speaking incomprehensibly, and Dennis Nolan, the accountant for the estate. The only nearby 'gentry' are the Lejours. Max Lejour is a retired professor of philosophy who is writing a book on Plato. His son Pip is the man who had the affair with Hannah; his daughter Alice is a retired biologist. Effingham ('Effie') Cooper, a high-level civil servant and a former student of Max Lejour's, is visiting.

Hannah is the Unicorn. Effie calls her that, glossing the Unicorn as a legendary beautiful beast. Max reminds him that the Unicorn is also the symbol of Christ, particularly the suffering Christ. Hannah means different things to the other characters. She is seen as a prisoner trying to atone for her past sins, as a scapegoat who suffers for others, as a romanticised figure imprisoned against her will, as a sinner, as a princesse lointaine. Max even suggests that she may be like the Good, something that has to be reverenced but that ultimately cannot be understood.

One theme here is romance vs. reality. Marian wants romance. She wants to make a heroic attempt to free Hannah. She would also like to be in love with Scottow (who it turns out is a homosexual and a former partner of Peter, and now of Jamesie). Effingham is in love with Hannah but has learned to be content with conversation and whiskey. Alice was in love with Effingham and is now in love with Dennis Nolan. Pip is waiting in the wings for Hannah to gain courage and take up with him again. Dennis sees Hannah as a religious figure.

Matters come to a head when Marian and Effingham try to kidnap Hannah and take her to freedom. Alice and Scottow foil this attempt. The turmoil continues when it is announced that Peter is returning. Scottow seduces Hannah at this point and makes arrangements for her to leave. Before this happens, Hannah shoots Scottow.

Hannah points out that she is no longer a figure of mystery. She has proved to be a false god. Shortly thereafter, she commits suicide since she cannot continue if she has no symbolic value. The fantasy and romance of Hannah cannot survive reality. Peter dies soon thereafter--he, too, cannot outlive his role. The Evercreaches leave when they discover that Hannah left the estate to Max Lejour. Pip dies in a 'hunting accident'. Max finishes his life work and suddenly grows old. Alice stays to care for him. Dennis Nolan takes on Hannah's role as a sufferer and takes up a life of wandering. Effingham returns to London, disabused of any love he had for Hannah and the reverence he felt for Max. On the train back, he sees Marian getting into another carriage and his romantic inclinations turn towards her (Marian has no interest in him, however). In the end Effingham is the one who cannot live without illusions.

Throughout fish serve as a metaphors. While showing Marian a salmon stream, Dennis compares the struggle of the fish to get to their spawning grounds to the struggle of the soul to reach god. Dennis also takes care of the ornamental fishponds around Gaze Castle. He explains to Marian that the ponds have to be covered with nets to keep out the cranes. I'm not sure whether the 'Crean' in Crean-Smith is pronounced 'crane', but at the very least it is an anagram of 'crane'. Dennis takes one of the fish with him when he leaves to start his mendicant life. There is a close association between Dennis, who was formerly the Lejour's gilly among other things, and fish. In his first appearance in the work, he is returning a goldfish to the ornamental ponds. He had brought the fish into the house to wash it. Dennis also kills Peter by drowning him. He's a complex character--religious, good, a sufferer, murderer.

90. John Boyne, Next of Kin. 9/3. An entertaining and carefully plotted work.

91. Carlos Fuentes, The Eagle's Throne. 9/8. The Eagle's Throne is the ceremonial chair of the president of Mexico and is here a metonymy for political power. This is a political novel set in 2020 (I wonder if 20/20 means 'perfect vision' in Mexico) in which various politicians plot to become president or to make someone else president. The current president has discombobulated Mexico by offending the United States, which retaliates by cutting off Mexico's access to all electronically generated communications, such as email, phones, radio, television, faxes. Communications has devolved to written forms, and the novel consists of the transcripts of letters or of recording tapes. There are fifteen or so correspondents. Because of the epistolary form, all the communications are written in the first-person. This allowed Fuentes to present the action from the point of view of the various characters, which in turn allows the reader access to the ironies the characters are blind to.  It's a good device for avoiding either the omniscient narrator or the restrictions that come with presenting the story from the perspective of one main character.

The novel's details are based on Mexican politics but the characters represent more universal stances in the political world: Machiavellian, idealistic, romantic, criminal, dictatorial, exploitative, ambitious, principled, liberal, reactionary, conservative, realpolitik, anarchistic, terrorist--often conjoined in various combinations in the same character. The novel is filled with scheming, duplicity, betrayals. More often than not, the characters deceive themselves with their plotting and end up being the victims of their own schemes. Two of the major character, a woman who tries to be a kingmaker and a man who wants to be the next president, had a child out-of-wedlock many years earlier. The child has Downs syndrome; because public knowledge of an illegitimate child, especially one that is less than perfect, would put an end to their political ambitions, they hide him away in an asylum. The last chapter of the novel is an interior monologue of this child. He wonders why the nice couple who used to visit him and whom the doctor instructs him to love no longer visit. He is the ostensible object of politics--the people, the country, the commonweal--that is abandoned in all the politicking.

92. Iris Murdoch, The Italian Girl. 9/12. Murdoch's eighth novel. When I began this project, I ordered all my copies of Murdoch books by publication date. I was missing only three titles. This was one of them. This is a first read for me. The Italian Girl is a short work--only about 60,000 words--and an impatient one. Events and revelations occur in rapid succession, without much delving into their impact on the characters.

Edmund Narraway has returned to his family home to attend the funeral of his mother. He intends to leave on the first train after the funeral but gets drawn into his family's convoluted relationships. His brother is a drunk, who is sleeping with the sister of his assistant. The assistant is sleeping with both the brother's estranged wife and their teenage daughter, and has made both of them pregnant. The daughter appeals to Edmund for help in getting an abortion. When Edmund refuses, the daughter goes off on her own. The brother breaks up with the assistant's sister; the sister confronts the principal characters; her dress catches on fire; she dies; brother recovers his sanity; wife moves out, determined to carry the baby to term; daughter returns, no longer pregnant, and stays to take care of her father. The assistant leaves, telling as is his (and his sister's) wont several conflicting stories about himself. Behind all this is the Italian girl, the dead mother's maid-of-all-work. At the end, Edmund runs off to Italy with the maid. That's a bald summary of the plot, but it all happens at just about this breakneck speed, with each event tripping on the heels of the previous one.

Pre-funeral, Edmund lives a non-life by choice, in reaction to a childhood made horrible by his terrible mother. He is an unsuccessful engraver, living in straitened circumstances, with no friends and few human contacts. During his sojourn with his family, he has to confront all of this and becomes enmeshed in life again. Somehow he finds love: both his brother's wife and the Italian girl declare their interest in him--their reasons for being attracted to him are improbable. The wife says she fell in love with him shortly before she married his brother because Edmund explained to her that the Russian poet Lermertov's ancestors came from Scotland, where their name was Learmont, which is the wife's maiden name. The Italian maid says that she fell in love at first sight, when she met the seventeen-year-old Edmund. Despite Edmund's subsequent and total absence from their lives, they have remained in love with him. Anyway, Edmund is saved by love, and the other characters are left only slightly bruised by all the melodrama.

This is not Murdoch's best work. It is hasty and lacks her usual gradual exposure of the characters' psyches.

93. Iris Murdoch, The Red and the Green. 9/28. This was Murdoch’s ninth novel. It is also the second of the three novels missing from my bookshelves. Murdoch’s family was Anglo-Irish, and this was her Irish novel. The main narrative takes place in the week leading up to the Easter Rising and deals with the members of a sprawling Anglo-Irish family. Members of the family occupy various spots along the continuum of English vs. Irish loyalties, Protestant vs. Catholic, etc. Murdoch mentions the use of woman as a figure for Ireland in much of Irish verse, and the women in this novel stand in for various aspects of Ireland. There are a great many incestuous relationships in this work, brother-sister, in-laws, aunt-nephews. The two main protagonists are Andrew, a young officer in the British army who is on leave in Dublin to recuperate from an illness, and his cousin Pat, an Irish nationalist and a participant in the Easter Rising. There are strong suggestions throughout that both are homosexual and that Andrew is attracted to Pat. It would take too much space to chronicle all the relationships. Andrew and Pat’s Aunt Milly attempts to seduce both of them. In acts of desperation, both attempt and fail to have sex with her. The father of Andrew’s fiancĂ©e pushes Milly to marry him throughout much of the novel, and Pat’s stepfather is also a would-be suitor of Milly. In the end, Milly accompanies Pat on his way to the GPO and serves as a nurse. That’s typical of the soap-opera-style relationships of the novel.

This reminded me of Carlos Fuentes’ The Old Gringo, which similarly used two male protagonists and their relationship with the same woman to figure the relationship between Mexico and the United States. Murdoch has more actors, but her characters bear such heavy historical burdens that the national allegory drowns out the humans in this.

94. Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum. 10/5. Another of the discworld series. My usual feelings—entertaining but not engrossing. It occurred to me while reading this that the reason I find Pratchett’s novels less than engrossing is that their characters are not real people. They are fictional characters—too wise, too witty, too foolish, too cute but not human, messy, difficult, varied.

95. Susan Dunlap, No Footprints. 10/6. This is the first Dunlap mystery I've read in years. Nicely plotted. Dunlap roots her works in the San Francisco area--travel routes are detailed through street names, places are carefully described. Local idiosyncrasies noted: the heroine of this is a stunt driver on a movie set filming in Berkeley. A madman tries to commit suicide by driving the stunt car off a pier and into the bay. When the film crew discusses whether to retrieve the car, a Berkeley cop says, 'Don't even think of leaving that vehicle in our waters. This is the city of Berkeley you're dealing with. We take illegal parking very seriously.'

96. Iris Murdoch, The Time of the Angels. 10/9. Murdoch's tenth novel probes the question of what happens to morality and notions of the Good when there is no authority figure such as God. 'The death of God has set the angels free. And they are terrtible.' Thus Carel Fisher, rector of church in London destroyed during WWII by bombs. Only the manse remains. Carel and his household have been moved from a parish in rural England to London shortly before the novel begins, because of some unexplained scandal. The household also includes Muriel, his daughter (mid-twenties), Elizabeth, his niece (daughter of a deceased brother) and ward (late teens), and Patti O'Donnell, the household servant, the illegitimate daughter of an Irish prostitute and a West Indian sailor, and Carel's former mistress. Elizabeth is an invalid and remains secluded in her bedroom in the manse, tended by Muriel. Also part of the household is the parish caretaker, Eugene Pleshkov, a Russian emigre and survivor of Hitler's work camps and the postwar refugee camps, and his son, Leo. Carel and his daughter and niece remain sequestered in the manse, refusing to meet anyone, particularly three frequent visitors: Carel's younger brother Marcus, headmaster at the boys' school that Leo attended; Mrs Anthea Barlow, who represents herself as an interested member of the parish; and Norah Shadox-Brown, a retired headmistress of the girls' school that Muriel attended, a friend of Marcus's, and a relentless common-sensical force for interfering in others' lives.

Carel no longer believes in God but asserts that the death of God has made priests all the more necessary. Muriel and Elizabeth are non-believers too but see Carel as an authoritarian figure like God. Patti believes in God but confuses him with Carel, an identification that Carel fosters. Marcus is writing a book entitled Morality after the Death of God. Norah is a conventional believer. Eugene represents the sufferer. Leo is cheerfully amoral. Anthea Barlow, it is revealed at the end, is a psychologist hired by the local bishop to assess Carel's mental health, who represents herself as a parishioner in order to meet Carel, a task she never accomplishes.

Patti and Eugene fall in love, but are thwarted by Carel, who after a lapse of several years, has sex with Patti, which makes her guilt-ridden. Muriel, who also fancies herself in love with Eugene, reveals the affair between Patti and Carel to Eugene. Leo, who needs money for some reason (he offers several versions why he needs money), steals his father's icon, which is all that remains from his Russian family, and sells it. Muriel is appalled by this and forces Leo to confess his crime to his father and then to get the icon back. As an incentive, she reveals the existence of Elizabeth to him and promises to introduce him to her. Leo gets Marcus to buy the icon back and return it. As Elizabeth is about to introduce Leo to Elizabeth, she discovers her father having sex with his niece. In retaliation, Carel forces Muriel to move out. Patti, in retaliation for Muriel's disclosure to Eugene, reveals to Muriel that Elizabeth is not her cousin, but a half-sister, fathered by Carel on his youngest brother's wife. As Muriel is moving out, she discovers Carel in the process of committing suicide. She does nothing to save him. Muriel and Elizabeth inherit his money, buy a house elsewhere and leave. Patti leaves to devote her life to tending African refugees. Eugene is sent to yet another way-station for refugees. Leo uses all the money he has swindled from a great many people to go to Spain. Marcus visits the manse after everyone has left searching for something of his brother only to run across Anthea Barlow, who, it is revealed, is an old flame. He uses her to escape the clutches of Norah Shadox-Brown.

As a side note, the Pleshkovs have incarnations in early works; Leo is like the assistant in The Italian Girl, who is also a Russian and equally adept at spinning stories. Eugene is like the Polish brothers in The Flight from the Enchanter. Murdoch seems to have found something in the Slavic psyche that intrigued her.

The death of God leaves the god field open to other contenders. Carel represents the authoritarian side of deities; Eugene the suffering saviour. Patti is caught between them by her desire for meaningful action. In the end she escapes both to become a saintly figure. Marcus tries to find a rational basis for morality in a world without God, but ends up seeing his brother as God and preparing to restructure his book to include a belief in God. Both Leo and Norah are unaffected by God's death--Leo because he has no morals and Norah because she had convention, which for her is morality. Muriel and Elizabeth are prisoners of their fantasies and delusions and the realities of their relationship. A lovely, complex book.

97. Joyce Carol Oates, High Lonesome: Selected Stories, 1966-2006. 10/17. A collection of 36 stories selected by Oates. In an afterword, she mentions that she was unable to include stories that were in other collections still in print and that prevented her from including several stories she thought were better than the ones in this collection.

I can't recall one happy person in this collection. Everyone is suffering and appears doomed to repeat the cause of his or her suffering endlessly. The stories don't have resolutions; they end when it becomes apparent that continuing would mean repeating what has already been said. 'Will You Always Love Me?' is typical. A man, a lawyer, falls in love with a strange woman in her early thirties. After they have moved in together, he learns from her that her older sister was raped and brutally murdered. The police arrested a drug-addict, who confessed and plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Twenty years have passed, and the man is now up for parole. The woman is invited to the parole hearing to make the case against granting parole. The man looks up the transcript of the case and realises upon reading it that the man accused of the crime was innocent. He tries to tell the woman this but ceases when he sees that she cannot accept this. He decides that it is the responsibility of the convicted man's lawyer to make this case. The woman's testimony convinces the parole board to deny the application. The man realises that every four years, when the convict is eligible to ask for parole, the woman will return to testify against it. For the woman (and indeed for the man and the convict) the murdered sister is more alive in her psyche that she would be had she never been attacked and murdered. Several of the stories in this collection make the point that the dead continue to live on in this way, as do our past actions. 'Will you always love me?' is not only a question that the woman asks the man, it is a question that we imagine the dead asking us.

One common complaint about my stories is that they don't have neat endings. Readers who want resolutions in short stories should avoid Oates.

98. William Styron, Sophie's Choice. 10/20. At first this seems to meander in and out of various stories. What ties them together is Sophie's experience in Nazi-occupied Poland and Auschwitz and the United States' history of slavery and its legacy. Horror and the moral choices it forces upon us distort us.

The book is interesting for the way it weaves Styron's personal history into the fiction. Styron is clearly the narrator and speaks in the first person throughout. The main story occurs in 1947, when Styron was writing his first book, and his struggles to make fictional sense of the suicide of a young woman from his hometown in Virginia becomes his first book. This personal narration lends Sophie's and Nathan's stories (and the reasons behind the elaborate fictions they tell about themselves) and their interactions with the narrator an aura of reality. In an afterword, Styron reveals the source for Sophie's choice was a memoir of a camp survivor, a Hungarian woman married to a Jew, who made a similar choice about her child. It's clear that Styron has read deeply about the camps and slavery and their implications for others, both survivors and bystanders, and thought about the impact of slavery on people like himself. There is a struggle here with the question of how fiction deals with realities like these and how authentic it can be in conveying them and who has the right to speak for these realities.

99. Zadie Smith, NW. 10/22. A series of interlocked stories about four people from a set of tower blocks in northwest London, all of whom have in various ways left the council estate of their childhood. Leah and Natalia (aka Keisha) were best friends in childhood and now in their late 20s and early 30s have grown apart. Leah, of Irish background, works for the local government in an office dispensing charitable grants. She is married to Michel, a hairdresser from Africa, and the two of them are striving to move upward. Michel wants children, but Leah does not. Natalia is a successful barrister dealing with commercial lawsuits; she is married to a rich half-Italian, half-Jamaican man and has two children. Felix is a young black man who is trying to better himself; he is killed because he crosses the wrong man on the tube. The wrong man is Nathan, a childhood friend of Leah's and Natalia's, who has moved out and down, into drugs, prostitution, and thuggery.

The encounters between people in this work range from the banal to the terrifying. It's a landscape in which things can go wrong very quickly, yet people manage to live with some satisfaction and to survive.

It's told in large chunks--Leah's story, Felix's story, Natalia's story, and then Nathan's story, which becomes intertwined with Natalia's as they roam about NW London one night. The writing and even the typography differ from story to story. Leah and Nathan converse in small type, their utterances introduced with em-dashes. Natalia's and Felix's are in the same size type used in the descriptive passages in the books and enquoted. It's as if Leah's and Nathan's lives can only be presented as smaller than Natalia's and Felix's. As always, Smith reproduces and mixes, seemingly effortlessly, both high and low registers of speech.

100. Joyce Carol Oates, Mysteries of Winterthurn. 10/26. This is presented as three linked "private detective" stories featuring Xavier Kilgarvan, first as a boy of sixteen, second as a young man of twenty-eight, and finally as a jaded veteran of forty. The stories take place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in Winterthurn, a city in upstate New York, with several old families grown rich in manufacturing. The stories are told in retrospect by an aficionado of famous crimes.

Oates reproduces the melodrama and breathlessness of mystery novels of the period along with the intricate plots and sententiousness. She uses the inflated latinate vocabulary favoured in this period and even mimics the punctuation conventions of the age. At one level, it's great fun to read and very entertaining. Wilkie Collins or Sheridan Le Fanu could have written much of this.

The story is, however, told with late twentieth century sensibilities. The first tale has suggestions of spousal and child abuse as well as incest. There are also anti-Semitism, capitalist rapacity, police corruption, judicial malfeasance, lynch mobs, and racism. True to the ethos of the age, the novels present these without editorialising against them and without even naming them. The good citizens deplore them but do nothing about them. The rich literally get away with murder in these stories.

Running throughout this is a love story between Xavier and his cousin Perdita. Perdita is a cock tease, a liar, a perpetual virgin, a guilt-ridden, bipolar, moody manipulator. In the third story, she apparently murders her husband, a clergyman; his mother; and a female parishioner who has been seeing a lot of the husband. Suspicion falls first on a bankrupt workman, who dies after a police interrogation, and then on the husband of the murdered parishioner. Xavier figures out Perdita's role eventually but marries her anyway. He also gives up detecting.

There is a tension here between fictional mysteries such as those found in detective stories and real-life mysteries. The fictional mysteries, as the narrator points out, have an ending. The mystery is solved, the culprit is punished, and good, under God's aegis, triumphs. That is why we like to read them--this is the world as we want it to exist. In real life, however,  the wrong people pay for the crimes,
and the guilty either get off scot-free or are never found. The mysteries remain mysteries.

As long as Xavier attempts to be a detective, he remains mired in fictional exploits. It is only when he abandons the attempt to solve life's mysteries that be begins to live.

101. Elmore Leonard, Dutch Treat. 10/27. This contains Leonard's first three novels, The Hunted, Swag and Mr. Majestyk. Leonard's novels are not so much good guys vs. bad guys as rogues (mostly loveable or admirable) and/or scoundrels (occasionally loveable) vs. villains. His heroes are never completely good. For the most part, the characters are not all that smart and none of them is a superhero. The works are thoroughly grounded in the everyday.

102. Thomas H. Cook, The Cloud of Unknowing. 10/28. Another of Cook's works on how our pasts affect our presents.

103. Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas. 11/1. Maud, a motherless teenage heiress, is charged by her father on his deathbed with restoring the reputation of his younger brother, Silas, who was in his youth suspected of killing a man to whom he owed money and has since suffered social ostracism. Silas is appointed her guardian until her majority. Maud is pursued by fortune hunters, not the least of whom is Silas's son, Dudley. Unbeknownst to her, this is part of her uncle's scheme to gain control of her fortune. When it is learned that Dudley is already married, Silas plots to murder Maud and thereby as her heir get her money.

This is a high gothic novel and has all the usual accoutrements--an abandoned heroine in peril, a derelict mansion, an evil governess, evil with a fair face, etc. It also manages to be more than this. The naive Maud is tempted towards goodness and the restoration of her uncle's reputation. The psychology behind her actions is quite good. Silas, Dudley, and the governess are tempted by Maud's wealth. Maud's folly is the source of her education.

This is told as a retrospective first-person account written by Maud in middle age. There are enough hints in the narrative to let the reader know that she has survived and prospered. So we know she will survive and that her uncle will not marry her off to Dudley or murder her. This doesn't keep the story from being haunted by evil and treachery but it does shift the suspense from the question of whether Maud will survive to the issue of how she managed to survive. The only person who gets killed is the governess, who drinks the drugged wine intended for Maud, falls into a stupor and collapses on Maud's bed, and in the depths of the night is mistaken for Maud by Dudley, who kills her and then helps bury her. Maud witnesses all of this from the shadows and, while the killers are busy with the corpse, makes her escape.

It's also a omnibus book. There is pathos, humour, religion, naivete, a variety of good and evil. The speech of the lower classes is rendered in dialect; the French governess mixes French with a fractured form of English that includes criminal argot.

104. T. C. Boyle, San Miguel. 11/2. San Miguel is an island near Santa Barbara, California. This is based on the real-life experiences of two families, both of them sheep ranchers on the island. The Waters live there in the late 1880s and on into the twentieth century. The Lesters arrive in 1930 and leave in the 1940s. The main characters are women, Marantha Waters has tuberculosis, and her husband brings her to the island with the promise that the air will improve her health. It doesn't and she is miserable and eventually forces her husband to move back to the mainland. After her death, the husband returns to the island taking their daughter, Edith, who wants to and finally does escape from the island. Elise Lester is the daughter of a wealthy New York family who marries Herbert Lester when she is 38. Unlike the Waters wife and daughter, she loves the island and leaves only when her husband, who appears to be bipolar, kills himself.

The stories seem to be explorations of the American dream. Captain Waters served in the Civil War and goes to the island to pursue 'increase and profit'; his wife's health seems little more than a pretext. Herbert Lester was injured in WWI and is hired by a rich friend to manage his ranch on the island. His motives are more a longing for independence and self-reliance. Both achieve part of their dreams. In Waters's case, this costs him his wife and daughter. Lester achieves the independence he wants but quickly wants other things--money foremost among them. The only person who loves the island is Elise, and she has to leave it.

105. Joyce Carol Oates (writing as Rosamond Smith), The Barrens. 11/3. A young woman artist living in central New Jersey disappears, an obscene drawing is found on her bed, and several of her most important works have been slashed. In her diary, she mentions several meetings (all but one of which are fantasies) with Matt McBride, a successful real-estate agent, a husband and father of two, and a successful occasional photographer known as Nighthawk. The police suspect that Matt abducted and killed the woman, but have to release him for lack of evidence. Matt feels guilty because he rejected the young woman's advances, and he comes to think himself in love with her. He tracks down her real killer (who turns out to be a serial killer of young women), nearly dies in the process, loses job, wife, and kids, and moves to California, where he takes up with the murdered woman's twin sister.

Oates identifies the real killer early in the novel, and so the interest is not identifying or finding the killer but on the develop;ment of Matt's feelings about the dead woman and her sister. A psychological study rather than a suspense novel. Oates can see beyond the ordinary words of conversation to the concerns and fears behind them.

106. John Banville, The Infinities. 11/07. Adam Godley, also called 'Old Adam' (the names are not irrelevant to the tale), has had a stroke and lies dying in a bed set up in his study in his country house. He is paralysed. With him are his second wife, Ursala, and their two children, Adam and Petra, and Adam's wife, Helen, who is an actress about to play the role of Alceme. Also present are a housekeeper (and former owner of the estate), Ivy Blount, and Duffy the cowman, both of whom have  largely non-speaking roles; Roddy Wagstaff, who wants to write Godley's biography and is thought erroneously to be Petra's boyfriend by her family; and three Greek gods. Hermes is the narrator of the story and general facilitator of the action; he is waiting for Godley's death in his role as psychopomp. Zeus is backstage in his role of seducer of young maidens such as Helen; and Pan, who has off on on throughout Godley's life appeared in human form as Benny Grace. There is also a dog, Rex.

The story occupies most of one day. The characters awake. Hermes makes us privy to each of the major characters' thoughts, including those of Rex. Zeus disguises himself as Adam Junior and makes love to Helen. Hermes woos Ivy Blount in the guise of Duffy. Roddy Wagstaff arrives. Benny Grace arrives. Everyone visits Godley, who, though paralysed, is capable of thought, some of which Hermes reports. Ursala, Adam Junior, and Petra ruminate on their relationships with Godley. Godley ruminates on his relationships with the others and his past history. The characters eat lunch. Adam Junior and Ursala have a talk. Helen and Roddy wander off. Unknown to them, Petra witnesses the two of them kissing. Helen slaps Roddy for taking liberties. Roddy leaves. Petra slits her wrists (not fatally; she does this often). Benny Grace announces that Godley will not die after all. His children check on him, and then carry him downstairs to rejoin the family. Hermes arranges for happy endings for all.

The story is set in a country mansion, apparently in Ireland. The world surrounding this is not ours, however. Mary Queen of Scots deposed Elizabeth I. Godley revolutionised physics and mathematics by disproving the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics and developing a new notion of infinities. Sweden is a notoriously bellicose nation. Cold fusion works, and cars are propelled by seawater.

The story is really an opportunity for Banville to muse on life, death, the nature of reality, family relationships, and immortality. It's probably the wittiest book Banville has written. There are nods to various early authors as well as myths and history. Joyce would have enjoyed some of the puns. It's quite an entertaining read, not something usually said of Banville's novels, which tend to be thought- but not smile-provoking.

107. Joyce Carol Oates, Black Dahlia & White Rose. 11/08. A collection of eleven stories dealing with the fragility of life, the constant threat that an ordered, regulated, perhaps even satisfactory life will shift and become messy and dangerous, and the impacts of such changes, or even the possibility of them, on us.

Many of the stories venture into surrealism. The title story is a retrospective telling of the Black Dahlia murder by the ghost of Elizabeth Short, the woman who became known as the Black Dahlia after she was murdered, by Marilyn Monroe (the White Rose), and K. Keinhardt, a photographer specialising in nude shots who introduces Short to her murdered. In 'A Brutal Murder in a Public Place', a sparrow trapped inside an airport waiting lounge attracts the attentions of a group of people waiting for a plane. The bird's cries particularly upset one woman, who begins imagining the bird's story. The perspective abruptly shifts from the woman to the sparrow, who first studies the woman. The woman merges with the sparrow, the hybrid becoming more sparrow than woman, and then the two consciousnesses note two workmen approaching with a ladder and a broom, who presumably become the murders of the title. In 'Spotted Hyenas', a woman whose marriage is rather hollow begins seeing an intruder who is something between a human and an animal around her house and property. She goes to see a former instructor in graduate school who now studies spotted hyenas. The visit unsettles her. When she returns home, she becomes a hyena and kills her husband.

Both of these last two stories, as well as the story 'Roma', feature middle-aged women who lead rather hollow lives. The three women are much alike; the two of them who are married have very similar husbands and nearly identical relationships with them. Both of them break away from the relationships, one by becoming a hyena who murders her husband (perhaps only in fantasy) and one by searching for the more authentic life she can see on the street in Rome behind the hotel in which she and her husband are staying.

Two of the other stories concern prison education classes, and five of them deal with parent-child relationships. All of them are fraught and make for tense encounters.

I did something I rarely do in reading--peeked ahead to see how the story ended. In 'The Good Samaritan', a college student, a young woman, returning home for a weekend, discovers a woman's wallet left on a train. She lives in the same town as the woman and decides to return the wallet on her way home. When she arrives at the house, only the woman's husband is at home. It quickly becomes apparent that the wife has run away. The husband is disturbed (and disturbing) and coaxes the young woman into the house. At that point, I became so concerned about the fate of the young woman that I had to check the end of the story to see if she escaped unharmed. She does, but she is marked psychologically by the experience. Many of the other stories similarly made me anxious.

108. Brad Smith, Crow's Landing. 11/09. An entertaining suspense novel. Smith writes convincingly about manual labour--farmwork, carpentry, car repair, house demolition. His bad guys are nasty, sometimes in colourful ways, sometimes in quite pedestrian ways. His good guys aren't without problems--they do bad things for good reasons.

109. Thomas Mullen, The Revisionists. 11/10. This is interesting on several levels. In terms of plot, it's a well-written political thriller. Zed, an operative from the future, travels back in time to our era to prevents hags (historical agitators) from preventing events that will lead to a cataclysm known as the Great Conflagration, which ultimately results in what the people of Zed's era know as the 'Perfect Present', a society they think of as utopian, or are told is utopian. In our era, Zed's work involves several private companies involved in espionage work, a South Korean diplomat and his wife, their Indonesian maid, a lawyer who has leaked information on one of the private companies' misdeeds, and a group of left-wing protesters. Along the way, Zed realizes that his society is as flawed as ours and begins to suspect that he may not so much be hindering the hags as facilitating the formation of greater social engineering in his own times. He deserts his cause and takes steps that he hopes will derail the Great Conflagration.

At another level, this is a consideration of the role of history, both real and manufactured, in the formation of our beliefs and our lives, both personal and public. Is it possible to create a perfect society or will our faults always get in the way?

110.  Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box. 11/11. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Vonnegut made a living as a writer of short stories for popular magazines. This is a collection of those stories. None of them is particularly good. They are what I remember as being typical of short stories published in this era--most end with a moralistic ironic twist. A couple of the later ones are better, chiefly because the characters are more realistic.

111. Thomas H. Cook, The Crime of Julian Wells. 11/11. Another of Cook's novels in which a young man makes a decision that colours the rest of his life. As a recent university graduate, Julian visits Argentina during the period of the post-Peron dictatorship with his best friend, Philip Anders. They hire a tour guide, a young woman named Mirasol, who appears to be apolitical. Julian is trying to figure out what to do with his life. At the suggestion of Philip's father, a bureaucrat in the US State Department and a dreamer along the lines of Walter Mitty, Julian decides to play at being a spy. His antics bring Mirasol to the Junta's attention and result in her disappearance and eventual murder. Julian's response is to become a writer specialising in books on historical crimes. Eventually he commits suicide. Philip's attempt to learn why leads him back through Julian's and his own lives to the discovery of Mirasol's arrest, torture, and murder. At several points, Philip or others point out that childish men playing games cause many problems and they need to grow up.

The detection process is unfolded in a retrospective first-person narrative. Since Philip is a literary critic, there are many references to other works on human evil and to other detectives. Philip understands the world as a novel and something of a fiction and filters his responses to events through his reading history. Cook here moves the language in a direction that serves as one more clue to Philip's mindset.

Cook does have trouble giving background information, however. Quite often he pulls in one of the characters to give an information dump on questionable grounds (the two characters engaged in the dialogue would surely already know the information and would have no need to discuss it in detail). He also feels the need to apologise for using the cliched plot devices by remarking how much like fiction they must seem.

112. Joyce Carol Oates, Where is Here? 11/14. A collection of stories published in 1992. Many of these are quite short--some less than a printed page in length. Some of them seem experimental--attempts to describe what severe pain feels like or a madman's mania. As common in Oates's stories, the characters lead very fragile lives threatened by casual intrusions of chaos--in the title story, a family's pre-dinner routine is interrupted by a man who says he lived in the house as a child forty years earlier. As he looks around and reminiscences about his life in the house, his behaviour grows odd, and the husband and wife grow uneasy. Finally they ask him to leave, but the intrusion unsettles them and stains their house. That's typical of the longer stories here.

113. Iain M. Banks, The Hydrogen Sonata.  11/16. Another of the Culture series. AIs and civilisations so advanced that they can run simulations so accurate in detail that the inhabitants of the simulation think themselves real and behave and act as if they were real. Does one let the inhabitants know of their status? In a way, Banks (and other writers) create simulations, or at least the outlines of them. The reader fills in the gaps that are important to him or her.

114. Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell), The Blood Doctor. 11/17. A man (the narrator of the story) tries to reconstruct his great-grandfather's life. The great-grandfather was the leading late Victorian expert on hemophilia and a doctor to the royal family. He was made a baron for his efforts, and his great-grandson is the fourth holder of the title. The modern action takes place against the late 1990s reforms of the House of Lords and the efforts of the narrator and his wife to have a child. It turns out that the great-grandfather deliberately married a woman he knew to be a carrier of the gene for hemophilia in the hopes of finding a cure or a treatment for hemophilia. The narrator traces the origins of the gene back through his female ancestors and forward into the descendants of his great-grandfather. The modern story in many ways parallels the late Victorian story. It's the usual carefully plotted and smoothly written novel that Rendell has been delivering for years. Rendell's characters have the advantage of being realistic human beings, with both good and bad points.

115. Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good. 11/18. Familiar Murdoch territory in her eleventh novel. A large cast of  mostly middle-class characters engaged in emotional tangles. The central character is John Duncane, who had been charged with the task of discovering if the suicide of a middling-level bureaucrat has any adverse political implications for the Government and, if so, neutralising them. That's merely the background device for bringing in the more commercial and less savoury aspects of relationships. The upper levels of relationships are provided by a bevy of women, most of whom live in a country house near the southern coast owned by the head of the department for which Duncane works. The department head's wife and Duncane are engaged in a platonic love affair, with the full knowledge and approval of the husband. Also living in this rural retreat are a pair of precocious twins, a lovelorn teenage boy and the girl who is the object of his inchoate lust, a philosopher who survived Dachau, a surly housekeeper, the disgraced homosexual brother of the department head, an ancient but tolerant dog, and a cat. Outside of this there are several other characters: an unsavoury porter at the government department who abetted and then blackmailed the man who committed suicide, the porter's prostitute-wife, the divorced husband of one of the women living in the country house, Duncane's protean servant, and Duncane's ex-girlfriend (Duncane has not heeded the poet's advice to be off with the old love before getting on with the new). Several possible combinations of these people are explored before everyone settles down with their predestined mate at that end.

The suicide, Duncane discovers, killed his wife because she and the ex-husband had been having an affair. The ex-husband witnessed the murder. In remorse and to get revenge, the man kills himself in front of the ex-husband, who removes the suicide note, thus muddling the reasons for the suicide. Duncane's unravelling of all of this leaves him with the question of how best to dispense justice. He plays god and forces the ex-husband and the ex-wife to confront the fact that they still love each other (the ex-husband has also been hiring the prostitute-wife of the porter). Along the way, his servant and the prostitute-wife of the porter run off together. Duncane ends up hiring the porter as his new servant. The man who committed suicide also dabbled in the black mass (the prostitute was hired as the altar table) and left behind a magic square composed of letters. Duncane eventually figures out that it's composed of the letters that spell 'pater noster', which when combined with the alpha and omega (English a and o) spell out the suicide's name and the word 'god'. Duncane plays god more successfully than the suicide and more or less manages to, overtly or inadvertently, bring about a happy ending for everyone.

The disgraced brother remarks of the twins, early on, that they seem condemned by the gods to undertake an endless incomprehensible search. The same could be said of all of the characters in the novel. Toward the end of the work, the same brother thinks about the distance separating 'nice' acts from the Good and the difficulties we face of acting for any reason but promotion of self.

When I began this project, several scenes from Murdoch's novels came to mind. This book has one of them. The teenage boy decides to punish everyone for his unhappiness by swimming into a cave that is accessible only at low tide and staying there while the tide comes back in, perhaps to drown if no area above the high-tide level can be found. Duncane and the dog try to rescue him, and all three of them just barely avoid drowning when they find a ledge above water level where they wait until low tide and they can swim out of the cave. The description of this must have triggered several of my own fears.

116. Muriel Spark, Aiding and Abetting. 11/19. Spark's take on the disappearance and subsequent activities of Lord Lucan. This is set some twenty years into Lucan's flight. He has a double, and both of them visit a psychiatrist in Paris to sort out their problems, and also to blackmail her for money. The psychiatrist supported herself in her student days by pretending to exhibit stigmata and extorting money from the religious gullible. Like Lucan, she is in hiding from the police. There are other people on Lucan's trail, and other people who need the psychiatrist. Both are being sought for various reasons by their aiders and abettors, which is the point--our aiders and abettors play a major role in determining who we are and end up feasting on their notions of us (literally in this work in the case of Lord Lucan). This is a novella (166 pages, perhaps 45-50K words). It's rather desultory and gets rushed towards the end. It's as if having developed the characters, Spark either had no idea what to do with them or simply got tired of them. Much of the final action is presented in second- or third-hand reports.

117. Iris Murdoch, Bruno's Dream. 11/26. Murdoch's twelfth novel. This one is about love and death, or eros and thanatos, as Murdoch has it. Bruno, an elderly man, is slowly dying. He lives with his son-in-law Danby, who was married to Bruno's daughter Gwen, long deceased, in a decrepit house near the Thames. Gwen's love for Danby surprised everyone, not the least Danby. Since Gwen's death, Danby has cared for Bruno and run the family firm, quite competently. In other respects Danby is rather of a clown. With them in the house are a housekeeper, Adelaide, whom Danby has appropriated as his bed companion, and a male nurse, Nigel, who is Adelaide's cousin. Bruno is much dependent on Nigel, who is a strange man with delusions that he is god (perhaps, he admits, a false god). Nigel has a twin brother, Will, who is given to violence and petty criminality and is in love with Adelaide.

Bruno is estranged from his son, Miles. The love of Mile's life was Pavrati, who died many years before in a plane crash. He is a poet, who hasn't produced much since he wrote a long poem after Pavrati's death. He has since married Diana, who is more a caregiver than a wife. With them lives Lisa, Diana's sister.

Bruno tasks Danby with arranging a visit from Miles. When Danby meets with Miles, he discovers Diana, with whom he dallies, and then Lisa, with whom he falls in love. Complications ensue, not the least because Lisa and Miles discover that they love each other, and Will learns of Danby's affair with Adelaide. In the end, Bruno dies; Miles falls out of love with Lisa and regains his poetic voice; Lisa takes up with Danby as a cure for Miles but then does indeed fall in love with him; Will and Adelaide get married; Nigel confesses his love for Danby in a letter and then decamps for India; and Diana finds happiness in selfless love by caring for Bruno and Miles.

Whether love can progress beyond self-love is one of the questions the novel poses. The answer for most of the characters in the novel seems to be no. Altruistic love, however, seems a temporary and an unsatisfactory route for those characters who try it. Another question is the relationship between love and death. Love here is eros, not agape; amor not caritas. Eros leads not so much to death as to ridiculousness.

Nigel is the interesting character here. As a god, he is capricious (or simply a madman). For good reason Bruno values him as a good and gentle nurse, even though Nigel neglects and ignores him frequently. He can be an omnipresent and omniscient observer (or he may be just a peeping tom). He inspires Diana in her pursuit of caritas. He punishes Will for his transgressions and yet he initiates the actions that result in Adelaide's marrying Will. He brings about the confrontation between Danby and Will, yet at the last minute risks his life to prevent Will from shooting Danby. He suffers for the sins of the other characters, even to the point of letting them physically abuse him. In the end, he just disappears from their lives.

Bruno's dream is his life.

118. Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat. 11/30. Murdoch's thirteenth novel, and also the first novel of hers that I read.

Hilda is married to Rupert, a principal at Whitehall. They have a son, Peter, who has finished one year at Cambridge and has now dropped out, full of disillusionment with the bourgeois life of his parents and society in general (this was published in 1972). Peter has quarelled with his parents and now lives in unsalubrious lodgings with Tallis, the estranged wife of Hilda's younger sister, Morgan. Rupert read philosophy at Oxford and has long been engaged in writing a book of general philosophy for the layperson explaining how to be good. Hilda, who is not well educated and not the intellectual equal of Rupert (both Rupert and Hilda acknowledge this), belongs to a large of number of committees dedicated to improving the quality of life, both of those like her and Rupert and those less fortunate than them. She exemplifies the life of doing good that Rupert is writing about.

Rupert's younger brother, Simon, is a homosexual and the partner of Axel, a friend of Rupert's. Axel and Rupert were at Oxford together, and like Rupert Axel is a principal, in the Treasury. Simon is much younger than Axel and works as an art historian in a museum. Axel is by far the dominant partner psychologically in their relationship and has imposed and continually tries to impose his standards of behaviour on Simon. This has made Simon insecure. As with Hilda and Rupert, Axel is far more intelligent and better educated than Simon, a fact that everyone acknowledges.

Morgan read linguistics and has taught it. While attending a conference at a small college in the United States, she met Julius, an old friend of Rupert's and Axel's. Julius is a survivor of Belsen, a biochemist, and an amoral man. Morgan, who is a flighty person, falls in love with Julius and abandons Tallis, She remains in the States for two years. Eventually she and Julius fall out (each of them has a difference take on the reasons). Morgan wanders around for several months, during which time she discovers she is pregnant and has an abortion.

Tallis and Morgan have not divorced. Tallis is an inept person. Much like Hilda, he belongs to a number of committees and does good. He ekes out a living by teaching night-school classes for adults on socialism and the history of the working class. He lives in a squalid house, parts of which he rents out, with his cantankerous and querulous father, who is dying of cancer. Tallis wants Morgan to return to their marriage. He is instinctively a good person, but not someone who thinks much about what good is or has an educated philosophical view of it.

Morgan and Julius separately return to London around the same time. Morgan attempts to restart her relationship with Julius, who is scornful and supercilious, openly to Morgan and behind their backs to all the other characters. He is the evil genie in the tale, manipulating all the other characters. 

Julius has retained the love letters Morgan wrote him during their affair. He snoops through Rupert and Hilda's house and finds Hilda's stash of love letters from Rupert dating from their courtship. He sends Rupert one of Morgan's letters and Morgan one of Rupert's. To each he adds a postscript arranging a meeting at the museum at which Simon works. Because the notion of the other's love flatters Morgan's and Rupert's egos, they embark on an (unconsummated) affair fraught with their determination not to harm Hilda. Julius stage-manages both Hilda and Peter (who has in the meantime fallen in love with Morgan) by dropping hints about the affair. This leads to an estrangement between Hilda and Rupert and between Rupert and Peter. Hilda leaves and Peter departs, after destroying the only manuscript of his father's book.

Julius takes advantage of Simon's insecurities and blackmails him into cooperating in his scheme to bring Morgan and Rupert together. Axel holds Simon to a standard of complete honesty. When this proves difficult for Simon (he sins by omitting to tell the whole truth), Simon feels guilty, and his guilty behaviour convinces Axel that Simon and Julius are having an affair. This triggers Axel's rage and jealousy, and the pair heads for a break-up. Simon tells the full story to Axel. Axel, who has been less than truthful with Simon, confesses his own insecurities, and the two make up.

While they dither about what to do about Rupert, Morgan, Hilda, and Peter, Julius is confessing all to Tallis, justifying his acts as simply prodding Rupert and Morgan to do what they would have done anyway. Tallis then makes Julius explain the situation to Hilda. Hilda tries to ring Rupert to tell him that she is returning. At the same time, Morgan enters Rupert and Hilda's house and discovers Rupert dead.

There are many contrastive pairings here, both in terms of relationships and in terms of personality and situation:  Rupert-Hilda, Axel-Simon, Tallis-Morgan, Hilda-Tallis, Rupert-Axel, Simon-Hilda, Morgan-Peter.  Julius manipulates them all. The one person he has little effect on is Tallis, who is the one saint (if not god's stand-in) in the tale. It is Tallis in the end who forces Julius to do the right thing. If evil is using other people for one's own ends, Julius is evil. He amuses himself by manipulating others and excuses his actions by claiming that the others made him do what he did. He is simply revealing themselves to themselves and pushing them towards the inevitable. He has no remorse over his part in Rupert's death.

Like Bruno's Dream, this explores the question of whether anything other than self-love is possible. Any notion of the Good takes a beating here. Peter supports himself by thieving, which he justifies on the grounds that all property is theft. Tallis separately asks Rupert and Julius "Why is theft wrong?" so that he can present an argument to Peter. Rupert responds by summarising all the main theories and arrives at the wishy-washy assertion that it's just wrong because it isn't Good. Julius points out that the question is a tautology; the word 'theft' carries the meaning 'wrong' in itself. The responses are typical of the two men, just as the question itself reveals much about Tallis. Tallis and Hilda are inveterate performers of good acts. Rupert theorises about the Good and thinks that his makes him a good man and superior to Tallis and Hilda. Julius simply argues away any notion that there is good or Good and proceeds to play with the others for his own amusement.

Julius is rather like the author of this novel. Like her he sets the characters in motion and tempts them into action. Like her, he dissects them coolly and more with amusement than regret.

119. Iris Murdoch, An Accidental Man. 12/5. Murdoch's fourteenth novel.

The usual Murdoch cast of interlocked characters. This takes place during the Vietnam War, and Ludwig, a young American, is in England. He about to begin teaching at Oxford and is engaged to be married. He has received his draft notice and decides to remain in England out of opposition to that war. There are innumerable complications and relationships. It would take too long to disentangle them here.

Garth, Ludwig's best friend at Harvard, witnesses a murder while walking home late at night. Despite the victim's cry for help, he continues walking. Later he writes a novel based on his reaction to the incident, abandons philosophy, and returns to London. Matthew, Garth's uncle and a British diplomat, once witnessed a protest in Moscow. A passer-by stopped and shook the hands of the protestors just as the police arrived. All of them were arrested. Matthew continues on to the embassy, where he has a drink. Later he abandons his plans to retire to a Japanese monastery and returns to London to make his peace with Garth's father. Ludwig becomes a source of support for Dorina, Garth's stepmother, who has left her husband. Later at his fiancee's insistence, Ludwig abandons Dorina. Dorina later flees the increasingly bad situation and everyone is searching for her. At a low point, Ludwig sees Dorina on the street but ignores her. She sees him ignoring her, returns to her hotel, and accidentally electrocutes herself. There are numerous other accidents that have an impact on the characters.

Ludwig is haunted by his decision to stay in England and tries to find an argument to justify it. In the end he returns to the United States and certain imprisonment. The issue of opposition to this war seems to him to require an action. He is partly in love with the idea of martyrdom and wants to experience it. He cannot get past the feeling that opting for the easy, pleasant course is wrong. The morality is uncertain but the questions are perennial. As one of the characters remarks, we love muddles and go out of our way to indulge in them.

Two interesting techniques: every few chapters Murdoch presents letters from many of the characters to one another. Many of the writers are largely otherwise off-stage, and this allows her to have  them play a role without making them major characters. At a few points, there are chapters which consist solely of conversations at parties. The speakers are never named, although their identity is sometimes clear, but the disjointed conversations function as background noise and allow people to gossip about the major characters and provide information about them. Both techniques work well here.

120. Frederich Busch, Don't Tell Anyone. 12/09. A collection of short stories and one novella. All of these treat failed marriages and the impact of those failures on the couple and/or their children. All of them are bleak, but that's not unusual. The happy family does not generate interesting stories. These particular versions of the unhappy family are well written and insightful into character. But they are also familiar. Busch also ends about half the stories with a rhetorical bang, when a whimper would better suit the nature of the story and the characters. He tries too hard for the memorable last sentence.

The library's copy is the paperback edition. The back cover has several reviews, one of which proclaims that these stories are full of 'electrifying truths'. Coincidentally the Iris Murdoch novel I'm reading now deals with a writer who believes he is telling the truth through fiction. Why do we believe that this is possible? Certainly the 'truths' conveyed in these stories, if any, are small ones, yet we pretend that fiction can deliver the sub specie aeternitatis truths that philosophy aims at. Need to think more on this. Are the revelations about characters and relationships found in fiction 'truths'? And if so, what kind?

121. Alice Munro, Selected Stories. 12/19. A collection of 28 stories written over three decades and selected by the author. One common element in over half of these stories is a middle-aged woman looking back at her youth in rural and/or small village Ontario in the 1920s and 1930s. The women had poverty-stricken youths, went to university, bettered themselves, married well, divorced or became widowed, and then found some success either personally or professionally. They aren't supremely happy but they are satisfied. To judge from the biographical note at the end, this mirrors Munro's life in many ways. The last story, 'Vandals', is one of the best. An elderly woman rings up a young woman she has known since the woman was a child. Her husband has been taken to hospital in Toronto and is worried that they may have forgotten to shut off the water, which will freeze and burst the pipes. The older woman asks the younger woman to check. The young woman and her husband go to the house and then vandalise it. Flashbacks reveal that the young woman and the elderly husband may have had a relationship, or it may be that the young woman wanted one. She is jealous of the elderly couple's happiness and gets back at them. She then telephones the older woman and tells her that they found the place vandalised. The older woman thanks her for her concern and for the young woman's husband's care in boarding up all the broken windows. All of these are well-written; somewhat more varied in tone and subject matter than the Busch collection above. Munro writes with a longer view and a greater appreciation of the impact of social and economic change on the viewpoints of characters.

122. Amanda Quick, Quicksilver. 12/20. A combination Victorian murder mystery and romance novel based on the paranormal. Quick is a prolific and successful novelist. This is the first work of hers I've read.  A gothic thriller with romance and sex.

123. David Mitchell, Black Swan Green. 12/23. Jason Taylor is a thirteen-year-old boy in 1982. He lives with his family in a village in Worchestershire named Black Swan Green. They are recent arrivals and not much welcomed by the locals. Jason aspires to fit in and become one of the popular crowd at school and in the village. Several factors conspire against this. He is an outsider to the locals. He isn't the sort of boy who is ever popular. He writes poetry surreptitiously and publishes it in the parish magazine under a pseudonym. He doesn't share the values of the popular group. Much of he would like to do would be labelled 'gay' and expose him to ridicule. His parents are going through a rough patch in their marriage, and this adds to his isolation. His older sister is cutting towards him. His life becomes one of increasing misery as he is singled out for harassment at school. In the end, he finds the courage to be himself and discovers that this brings the respect of his peers. Just as he achieves this, however, his parents initiate divorce proceedings and Jason is taken by his mother to Cheltenham, where he will have to begin anew in a different school to find himself. This isn't quite a coming-of-age tale--Jason still has a few more years--but one senses that he will get there eventually.

124. Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince. 12/23. Murdoch's fifteenth novel.

The Black Prince in this case is Hamlet. The play, the character, and Shakespeare loom large in this novel. The lead character, Bradley Pearson, has the same initials--BP. He is labelled a victim of 'Black Eros'; he becomes sexually aroused when a young woman he has fallen in love with dresses as Hamlet.

The other major characters are Arnold Boffin, a successful novelist, and his wife, Rachel; their daughter, Julian; Pearson's sister, Priscilla;  his ex-wife, Christian, and her brother, Francis Marloe.

Pearson is a novelist. He published three works when he was young and then abandoned writing for a career in the tax office. He is now 58 and retired and feels that he is ready to write a great work of art, one that will embody transcendent truths. He has rented a cottage in Norfolk but told everyone that he will be travelling in Europe and will be unreachable. As he is preparing to leave, he gets a call from Arnold Boffin, who fears that he may have murdered his wife during an argument. At this point, Francis Marloe arrives with the news that Christian's second husband has died, leaving her wealthy, and that she has returned to London and wants to see Pearson. This initiates a series of muddles. Arnold hasn't killed Rachel, but in dealing with them Pearson falls in love first with Rachel and then with Julian. Christian wants Pearson back but manages to attract Arnold. Francis also loves Pearson. Priscilla leaves her husband and involves Pearson in her life. In the end, Priscilla commits suicide, Rachel kills Arnold but manages to pin the blame on Pearson; Christian marries an ex-colleague of Pearson's and founds a successful business; Pearson is convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment; in prison he meets a Mr Loxias, who becomes his confidant and encourages Pearson to write out the narrative of events that forms the main body of the novel; Francis Marloe cashes in on his acquaintance with the principals to begin a psychiatric consultancy and the author of a book about Pearson and the murder.

There are many suggestions throughout that Pearson is a homosexual. Many of the other characters say that he is both attracted to and jealous of Arnold. When Pearson first sees Julian, he thinks that she is a young man. He becomes aroused when he sees her dressed as a man. His relationship with Mr Loxias appears to be more than homosocial. Christian (like Julian, a gender-ambivalent name) hints that he wasn't much of a lover. He never has sex with Rachel.

The novel is framed by a foreword and an afterword by Loxias. Following the end of the main narrative, Christian, Rachel, Francis, and Julian comment on the book. Their versions of the events and evaluations of Pearson's character radically undercut Pearson's narrative. But their versions are so self-serving that they draw suspicion on themselves. The upshot is to render any attempt to say what actually happened impossible.

Pearson is devoted to the notion that art, great art, can express truth. He thinks himself capable of producing such a work but sees the narrative of events that he has written as falling short of 'great' art. He makes several impassioned speeches about art and truth and the responsibility of the writer, poet, musician, painter to aim at art. He thinks Arnold Boffin has sold out, yet he is envious of Arnold's body of work and his success--despite his constant disparagement of both.

Julian asks Pearson for help with understanding literature in preparation for a career as a novelist. One of the works he assigns her is Hamlet. Pearson analyses the play as Shakespeare's attempt to create himself as an artist in words and contrasts the artist with the scribbler. Pearson identifies with Shakespeare and sees Boffin as the scribbler. They are the two poles of writing. Boffin publishes a work every year (not unlike Murdoch to this point); he is moderately successful as a serious novelist (again, not unlike Murdoch). Pearson, on the other hand, has aspirations to be a great artist (like Murdoch?) and wants to tackle great themes (again, like Murdoch?). The question is whether Pearson might ever achieve his goals. Is he even capable of them? He undercuts himself and his claims about his access to the 'truth' by failing to understand much about those around him. In the end, his version is as self-interested and as self-serving as theirs. One suspects that Murdoch was grappling with the problem of what sort of writer she wanted to be and could be.

Again, not a novel with answers, just lots of questions.

125. Ian Rankin, Blood Hunt. 12/25. Unusually this book does not involve John Rebus. Instead of a dour, brooding Scottish policeman, it has an anger-prone, former SAS, Scottish survival instructor who becomes entangled in an international conspiracy when he investigates the death of his brother, a journalist who has uncovered evidence of chemical poisoning of the food chain. Good thriller, with the usual corporate and government baddies.

126. Philip Hensher, The Northern Clemency. 12/27. A novel about two families who live across the road from each other in middle-class neighbourhood on the edges of Sheffield. It covers the period from 1974 to around 1995 and follows developments in the two marriages and the growing up of the children. There are some melodramatics--the mother in one family just happens to work in a flower shop that is a front for a heroin dealer; the son in one family harbours a lifelong crush on the daughter in the other family, who has forgotten the incident that prompted the crush; the son eventually drowns himself--but on the whole the events are ordinary. The people cope for the most part, although the younger sons in each family have problems. The last section is entitled 'The Giant Rat of Sumatra', a reference to a passage in a Sherlock Holmes novel in which the rat figures as an untold mystery. It's a comment on the entire novel. We can talk about the events in other people's lives but much about them remains a mystery.

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