Monthly Archives: April 2012

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes recounts the tale of the real-life Great Wyrley Outrages – where a small town outside Birmingham saw a number of animals gorily murdered and the blame fall at the door of the mild-mannered son of the parson, George Edalji, until Arthur Conan Doyle himself became involved in the case. Two men of very different temperaments and extremely different backgrounds, Arthur and George are quietly but significantly bound together by this mystery.

Coming to this novel without having read any Barnes before, I was slightly apprehensive of finding this unlikely partnership to be a Holmes and Watson double act, and was relieved that this is an entirely different kind of a novel. Meticulously researched, it instead traces how the lives of both men brought them to meeting in such bizarre circumstances, and the unlikely but important effects that they have on one another’s life. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be frustrated, as Barnes skims lightly over any mention of Doyle’s writing him, apart from to acknowledge his growing antipathy towards his most famous creation.

Doyle is desperate to be the champion of somebody other than his detective, whom he cannot kill off, whether that is his mother, his wife, his lover or poor George Edalji. For his part, George merely wants the world to be a much simpler, more comprehensible place than it is. A stickler for the law and a lover of railway timetables, the atmosphere of quiet racism and official prejudice that he encounters is more perplexing than intimidating.

The novel has a lot to say about Englishness – both what Doyle and Edalji’s notions of it are, and how it is at odds with the England they find themselves pitted against at various stages of their lives. However, the thing I liked most about it was its picture of two very different lives, almost taken at an arbitrary cross-section, and showing the ways two men try to make them mean something. If it is a little slow-moving in parts, thanks to the subject matter and also to the painstaking research that Barnes has obviously done to recreate a faithful portrait of 19th century England, then I found the end an exceptionally moving coda to that stately pace throughout. Sometimes the distanced narrative can feel a little forced – moments of crisis seem to be met with the same steadfast observation as more mundane affairs – but perhaps this is just as truthful a recognition of the way that people often don’t react as they would in a novel – moments of tragedy creep up on us when we are unprepared to recognise them until later.

But there is something about this tone, and Barnes’s extensive research, that made me find it hard to love this book, however much I liked it.

In a tweet: Some mysteries are too big to solve.


I shit ye not. Katniss Barbie

The Hunger Games wasn’t really part of the secondshelfdown pledge, in that I hadn’t read the books until I went to see the film, and that was only a few weeks ago. They certainly weren’t in the queue. But the second I bought them (on Kindle, no time to wait for the postman), I gobbled those books right up like a bacon sandwich on a hangover. They are brilliant.

I didn’t blog about them because a synopsis is pointless – if you haven’t already read the book or seen the movie, you will have at least seen a trailer or, failing that, have absolutely no interest in anything I’m going to say about it. Also because they’re precisely that brand of YA dystopia that I like to gorge myself on without feeling like there’s homework involved.

But I was gobsmacked to hear about Katniss Barbie. Behold:

With no hint of irony (not their strong point, I grant you), Mattel have released this doll, ‘specifically created for the adult collector’ (their actual words – could this get any creepier?).

I mean, yeah, she looks great, the outfit looks very authentic, and I guess we should be grateful that she’s got a bow instead of, I don’t know, a pair of heels and a mirror to check her makeup AND send out a distress signal, but there is still something very troubling about this to me.

Katniss is not a doll-y person. She’s a hunter and a survivor. The idea of a doll is pretty much an antithesis to her. There’s a whole bit about how happy she is when, after her initial beauty treatments in Panem, she can grow her leg hair out again. Leg hair! On a teen fiction heroine! I nearly wept for joy. Now, this photo’s only waist up, but I’m pretty sure they won’t have drawn in any three-day shaving stubble below the knee in tiny Barbie biros.

Plus, the whole point of The Hunger Games is that it sends up, rather than plays to, that ‘Bella Swan’ ideal of the girl whose only value is as a romantic interest. Katniss and Peeta pretend to be in love because the crowds want to see her as desirable. The Hunger Games is a hideous, macabre exercise in image. What’s more, she spends most of the third book desperately endangered by various people’s need to make her into a figurehead for their movements, as we realise that it’s not just in the Arena where people try to shoehorn you into roles that don’t quite fit. Or, I don’t know, hammer your identity onto a pre-formed one.

Ahem. I present, Katniss-Barbie.

I guess the one good thing to say about it is that at least they didn’t make a Bella Swan Barbie. Whether they create a Peeta-Ken, a Gale-Ken, or maybe both – they can choose their favourites, remains to be seen.

Getting into Drugs

Catching up on some of the book blogs I follow, I came across this little gem courtesy of Reading Matters. A word/art installation by Marten Søndergaard that wins all the prizes.

Drool over the website here.

Death Kit by Susan Sontag

Not an enjoyable novel, perhaps, but a thought-provoking one. Sontag is known for her criticism and philosophy, and it would probably be fair to say that she has a certain cult appeal among adolescent literature students that’s based more on a love of precocious grey-bestreaked intellectuals with exciting love lives as it is an interest in her actual criticism. I guess that probably includes me. Until picking this up in a charity shop over New Year I didn’t even realise she had written novels, and the idea of something as potentially pulpy as a thriller (as this edition was classifying itself) was pretty intriguing. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t your average high-octane Michael Crichton.

Dalton  ‘Diddy’ Harron is your average 33-year-old American bachelor, with a reasonably good job promoting microscopes, an apartment in the city, and an innocuous charm that means he gets on with everybody without really knowing anybody. Or, in Sontag’s words, ‘Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Hardly the same. Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives.’ For he is also barely recovered from a deep depression culminating in a suicide attempt. Taking the train to New York for work, he strikes up a flirtation with a blind girl in his carriage, and while they are stopped in a tunnel, he goes out to investigate and kills a railway worker. These two bizarre events become the points around which Diddy’s world rotates, as he tries to unpick why he killed the railway worker, whether he will fall under suspicion, and whether it even happened – Hester, being blind, can neither confirm nor assuage his fears. The writing is, as has often been described in reviews, very Kafka-esque – Diddy veers between perplexity at his own actions and paranoia at being discovered. Similarly, the difference between dream and reality becomes increasingly blurred as he shuts himself and Hester into a suffocating apartment in which vision becomes increasingly unreliable and is certainly no guarantee of truth.

I’m in two minds about this novel. It’s a thriller without any real thrills. The murder occurs relatively early on, and we’re not so much worried about whether Diddy should have done it, or whether he gets caught, as what the point is supposed to be. That seems to me to be the driving force behind the novel – what are we getting at? The ‘visual’ imagery – Diddy’s job working with microscopes, Hester’s blindness, the constant juxtaposition of vision and insight – sometimes seems to be heavy-handed but does feed into this constant question. It is more a rumination on philosophical issues, conveyed through a novel, and I think approached from that attitude, it’s much more successful than if you try to approach it as an entertaining or diverting read. As a narrative, it becomes rather tedious, but Sontag has loftier ambitions. However, it does mean that it’s quite hard to argue with more frustrated reviews like this one on Goodreads, or this from a contemporary New York Times reviewer, who complains that the novel ‘skips, shuffles and snoozes’ over philosophical notions of reality and perception. The revelation at the end isn’t much of a surprise, and if I’m being honest, was something of a relief.

In a tweet: Diddy is tired. Diddy is tiring.