Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Recent Reads and Brief Comments on 'The Shadow of the Torturer' by Gene Wolfe; 'The Quantity Theory of Insanity' by Will Self; 'Flight' by Sherman Alexie; and 'The Bloody Chamber' by Angela Carter

Recent Reads and Brief Comments on The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe; The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self; Flight by Sherman Alexie; and The Bloody Chamber By Angela Carter

I've just read The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self, Flight by Sherman Alexie and I am currently reading The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. I'm always impressed by the variety of strong prose. There are no hard and fast rules for excellent writing - all these vastly contrasting works display an equally effective style.

Gene Wolfe's novel, The Shadow of the Torturer is part of his magnum opus. A giant in terms of the fantasy-sci-fi writing world, Wolfe has received almost every award around. I was led to this novel via a cold and clever novelette: The Death of Dr Island, a Locus Award winner (it is also part of the The Locus Awards - a collection that I've waxed lyrical about in numerous posts). 

While The Shadow of the Torturer is likeable, I cannot, however, claim to be absolutely wrapped in it - unlike Wolfe's legion of fans. The work contains glimpses of sheer brilliance, even the library scene early, where print novels come in all manner of boutique cover is something which we may be nearing ourselves (to compete with their electronic equivalent). 

There is once again that coldness to Wolfe's first person narration as well as his preference for an unreliable narrator. The Shadow of the Torturer is unusually rich in style, with many Greek and Latin words thrown in (including some newly derived ones), which has an effect of further 'classicising' or 'archaising' the future. Some readers may be challenged by this word smith's more vintage prose but I personally enjoy it. Ultimately though, Wolfe's dreamlike traversal from scene to scene may work for some but does not for me. In addition to that, I also have difficulties with the male-female relationships being so highly sexual; the ease in which the protagonist, Severian, drifts from one relationship to another irks me, as does the focus on sexual energy with regards to all his female companions.

I am interested in reading more of Wolfe's shorter works and will probably one day read the sequel, The Claw of the Conciliator (after all Shadow of the Torturer is still a worthwhile read) but for now there are plenty of other novels that have whet my appetite in a more satisfying way. 

The Quantity Theory of Insanity is Self's first anthology. I won’t digress with a discussion on Self’s uniqueness as I've written enough pertaining to his style in previous posts. The Quantity Theory of Insanity did not quite meet my lofty expectations after reading his other collections - the title story and the one following, are (in this reader's opinion) the worst of his stories in the anthology, but then again I have an aversion to some of his psych-babble narratives. The other stories are all strong and typical of the refreshing writer that Self is. The disinterested Amazonian tribe in "Understanding of the Ur-Boro" is Self at his off-beat best; and the man in pursuit of ending all 'waiting' in "Waiting" is a hoot.

In contrast to the antiquated richness of Wolfe and the quirky, showy prose of Self; Sherman Alexie's Flight is a sparse, quick and fun read. Alexie does not bother with detailed descriptions and he reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut or William Kotzwinkle in his unique ability to use humour and satire. Flight utilises the voice of an adolescent American Indian boy who has been callously fostered about. Flight remains true to the protagonist's voice and does not try to toy around as much with words when compared to Wolfe, Self and Carter. It's honest, critical and successful in illustrating the world of dispossessed people everywhere: Alexie's novel is as relevant to the Indigenous Australian as it is to the American Indian. Flight is simple, overly didactic, but thoroughly enjoyable. If you are seeking rich prose then it may not be suitable but if you like Vonnegut or Kotzwinkle, then pick Flight up. Alexie's short works are also frequently gems.

Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber is syrupy-opulent and I’m currently indulging in its decadent prose. Carter has a remarkable voice and her talent is clearly shown by her utilisation of a hybrid narrative in more than a few stories here. The Bloody Chamber reads like a Greek honeyed pastry - suitably rich and naughty. I just want to indulge in a single story at each sitting rather than ruin my appetite. More than one piece of baklava, kataifi or galaktoboureko may spoil the treat.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Overland Subscriberthon

It did not take me long to renew my Overland Literary Journal subscription. The quality of the journal and its frequently courageous stance on issues meant that it had all ticks from me. The calibre of fiction is also impressive: Christos Tsiolkas, Patrick White, Margo Lanagan, Peter Carey, Thea Astley and Charlotte Wood  are just a few names that come to me off the top of my head. Then add the artwork of Shaun Tan in #202 and you've covered almost everything.

Overland Literary Journal is not just for the left, and lets face it, many writers are left leaning, but it is also for lovers of literature. Its pages contain the finest Australian writing and we are fortunate to have it. Moreover, Overland slaves away to inform readers with its online presence: as of last count it had 3,915 friends on facebook, which is a credit to the way it has tackled the electronic age. The twitters (or tweets?), links and blog posts, are frequent and informative, and I for one, have benefited from them.

But this is also the dilemna for this independent journal. Overland produces so much that we can access for free––so why buy? It was at the Perth Writers Festival, where I heard Margo Lanagan state that when in doubt go for threes. So I'll give you three reasons:

  1. Tactility: Personally, I am still enthralled by the tactile feel of a fictional story but outside of fic, I am quite content reading away online. So, due to the fiction, usually three stories per issue, which makes 12 fiction pieces a year––it suits me to have it in the hand. 
  2. Supporting a Great Service: Overland provides us with updates on facebook and its website. These are informative, captivating, frequent and free. I go to the local independent bookstore and buy books to support them because I want to keep them around. It is the same with Overland ––yes, it is arguably our most subscribed to literary journal but if we want to keep them going in our modern 'capitalist-takes-all- age' then we have to show them the money. Pay them for the service they provide (ironically, this point probably goes against the very pillars the journal stands for).
  3. Ubiquity: I acknowledge that this point is awfully askew regarding a subscriberthon–– it's more of a plug for buying it from a bookstore. But personally, I think Overland needs to be seen. It does garner fans from lovers of good writing who discover it on the web but it needs to maintain (and expand) its place in bookstores and the better newsagencies. This way it might meet new fans who appreciate literature. The physical presence of the journal is as important as its innovative electronic one. 
There are a myriad of other reasons too. I'll give you three more quick ones––I wonder whether I am cheating, Margo? Sixing it up and all: it looks great on my coffee table; it opens up discussion; and lastly, as mentioned earlier, Overland is of the highest quality.

So I have renewed my subscription, and I say that if you are a friend of Overland Literary Journal, then you should too. Dictatorial of me, I know. 

Overland, and other similar journals, require us to help them. Writers benefit from finding suitable homes of worth; readersenjoy great writing and benefit from being kept informed. We have some fantastic journals, my personal favourite, however––and I have a harem of beloved journals ––is Overland. They also pay their writers at generous professional rates, which is a rarity in the modern era. So subscribe and send some love their way in return. Sometimes your relationship with Overland will be volatile and at other times passionate, but it will never be anything less than stimulating.