Thursday, 24 February 2011

Veggie Books: The Year of the Flood

In the future, when it all goes pear-shaped and we find ourselves eating our words/faeces/neighbours, I don't want to be brave. I want to be the wife in The Road - take a few pills and call the whole thing off. No walking large distances with only a pointy stick to protect myself. No scrabbling up roots to chew for energy whilst avoiding crazed cannibal rapists with bad hair.

I don't know if reading books about dystopian futures really does do a person any good. I end up thinking too much about what I would do in case of such an emergency, and yet there is no answer to that question, is there? What would you do if everyone else melted, like in Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood? It's impossible to say. And reading about other people having to cope with it invariably makes me depressed.

So, in the novel, we have a pre-melting incident tribe of organic natural type people called The Gardeners, and they are at odds with the dog-eat-any sort of meat whatsoever people living packaged existences in decaying cities.

The Gardeners used a lot of soap, because they were so worried about microbes, but some of the cut-up soaps would be set aside. They'd be rolled into leaves and have strands of twisted grass tied around them, to be sold to tourists and gawkers at the Gardeners' Tree of Life Natural Materials Exchange, along with the bags of worms and the organic turnips and zucchinis and the other vegetables the Gardeners hadn't used up themselves.

This is the reminiscence of Ren, a girl who has survived the melting (known in Gardening circles as The Waterless Flood) and is living alone in the sex club where she once worked. She grew up as a Gardener, and she is hoping to be saved by the one real friend she made during that time. Will the savvy Amanda come and rescue her? Is Amanda even alive any more? Or is she just another gooey puddle?

The Year of the Flood carried me along in its skilfully portrayed awfulness, but I did feel a bit grubby by the end. I've gone off dystopias. I know there's a lot wrong with modern life, but does it have to end in utter disaster? I suppose I like my fiction with a little more hope in it ever since I produced a Munchie.

Also, I would add this is a follow-up to Oryx and Crake, which I haven't read. And maybe I should have because a few things happened at the end that left me bemused. If you were thinking of giving it a go, maybe read Oryx and Crake first.

Top Five Novels of Futures With Utter Despair In Them (not including 1984 for some reason):

1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
2. Z for Zachariah by Robert C O'Brien.
3. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
4. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.
5. The Watchmen by Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons.

Got any other literary bleak futures for me? I used to love all these books and now I cry when I think about them. Sob.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Veggie Books: Human Traces

I was half way through Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces when I watched the first episode of Faulks on Fiction (BBC4). This was a mistake. Suddenly I kept hearing Sebastian Faulks' voice and picturing his face as I got to the more didactic sections of the novel. Because it is a novel about teaching, in lots of ways, and how information is passed on. At the beginning of psychology, just starting to understand the brain and mental illnesses without resorting to terms such as hysteria, two young men from different backgrounds become friends, and eventually set up a sanatorium/clinic together. They spend a lot of time formulating ideas and giving lectures, sometimes touching on knowledge which is common to us nowadays, and sometimes going very wide of the mark.

Yeah, they do that a lot. A bit too much, really, I'd say, particularly as I kept hearing Faulks' voice in it. Having said that, I loved the female characters and their occasional interjections into this world, filled with common sense that gets roundly ignored.

And, of course, there were vegetables, which redeemed it in places. Here the two friends and their mutual muse, (Queenie/Sonia), have dinner after a lecture by a distinguished doctor:

'Yes,' said Thomas. 'That view. Queenie, did you understand the significance of what he said?'

'It was hard enough to understand the words.'

'Omelette,' said the waiter.

'The most important part was when he made it clear that emotions and memories can lodge in a part of the mind outside the usual mental processes - as it were in a vacuum, a sort of psychic Deauville. Here, they can actually be transformed into bodily symptoms which -'

'Herring and potatoes in oil?'

'When they are ready, can be expressed as tics, or pains or partial paralysis or -'

'And this,' interrupted Jacques, 'is the kind of authority we have long been looking for.'

Sonia sat back and smiled as Thomas and Jacques waved their knives and forks at one another.

There's a deft touch of humour here that I wish had punctuated other parts of the book. Overall, I'm glad I went along for the ride, but much preferred the inner workings of Engleby to the outer explanations of how the mind ticks.

As an afterthought, how interesting it is that knowing the author's face and voice should have been so offputting to the reading experience. Isn't this the antithesis of what modern publishing would have us believe?