Yesterday I promised a run-down of my holiday reading, so, without further ado, and in no particular order, I shall start with Deer Island, a memoir by Neil Ansell – a short book, but in its way, perfectly formed. Ansell recounts his life as a secular mendicant, working with the long-term homeless and other hard cases left behind in Margaret Thatcher’s Great Leap Forward in the 1980s. The background of derelict houses and squats is squalid and desperate, but the characters have their own rugged grandeur. There is nothing patronising here. The bald accounts of London’s grimier side are punctuated by two all-too-brief interludes on the Scottish island of Jura – the Deer Island of the title – where Ansell went by way of recuperation. It’s a kind of metaphor for heaven on Earth. Apart from its wistful air, this book left me with a lingering admiration for people who hold on to worldly possessions but lightly, and who have the confidence to take off into the blue with hardly more than the clothes they wear and no thought about their next meal or where they will spend the night. Perhaps most people in the world live like that.
I have alway enjoyed Bill Bryson’s easy way with a phrase. The sentence in A Short History of Nearly Everything where he compares the time it took for the Universe to inflate from a dimensionless point to the size of a grapefruit as ‘less than it takes you to make a sandwich’ is one of the reasons why this has to be one of the most entertaining popular science books ever written. By the same token, his biography of Shakespeare is short because, as he says, there is rather little to say.
And this is rather the point. Our apparently secure knowledge of England’s national poet is based on surprisingly little documentary evidence. What we think we know is largely based on subsequent mythology. This gap, between the stories we tell ourselves about the past, compared with how little evidence survives, resonates with me, as it’s a major theme of many of my own writings, in particular my
shameless plug next book. So, Bryson investigates the evidence, winnowing truth from fancy; giving us, by the way, a lively account of life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England; and showing us that if we don’t know much about Shakespeare, we know even less about many of his contemporaries such as Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson and John Kyd, let alone the many playwrights whose lives and works must have perished utterly without leaving so much as a germ to posterity.
Shakespeare’s obscurity contrasts with the depth and insight of his dramas – so much so that quite a few people, gripped with a kind of circular monomania, doubt that the son of glove-maker from the provinces could have expressed such a breadth of experience, and seek a more ‘qualified’ author for Shakespeare’s plays. And so, like creationists, flat-earthers, UFO-hunters, aquatic-apers, sasquatchers and others of that kind, they cling onto such dubious threads of half-evidence that convince them of the truth of their prior conviction, while ignoring the vast chasms of doubt that beset them on all sides. In the face of such enthusiasm to show that Shakespeare didn’t write Othello, one has to ask whether anyone doubts that Marlowe, say, wrote The Jew Of Malta or Dr Faustus. Of course they don’t. Which, in a way, explains Shakespeare’s enduring genius.
And so to Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, a book loaned to me by a Mrs H. F. of Edgefield, who wasn’t sure whether she should bother reading it. The initial auspices are not favourable. The setting — a boy’s boarding school in Dublin, next door to a girl’s school — made me groan inwardly. Oh no, I gasped, this is a school story, full of the perils and agonies of being a teenager, a genre now more than fully mined by the likes of the Harry Potter series, not to mention ghastly eructations from Grease and Fame to Glee and High School Musical. In Skippy Dies, at least, the school concert which, as in many of the above is a set-piece near the end, is vastly surreal. You’ll be pleased to note that the book improved as it went on, and it reads as a seamy satire on the genre, as well as an intriguing exploration of the teenage mind and how it is wilfully misinterpreted by adults.
Among the adults, you’ll see that those who rise to the top of the managerial heap are those who are prepared to bury any sincerity or refinement of human feeling.
Just don’t hand this to a sensitive twelve-year-old. There are f-bombs on every page, and graphic descriptions of porn and underage sex in various guises, and the book is simply swimming in drugs from painkillers to heroin. How very unlike Grease it is. And for that we can all be profoundly grateful.
When I wrote that the books in this post were to be discussed in no particular order, I lied. I have saved the best until last. By now you’ll appreciate that I am a sucker for huge, labyrinthine, kaleidoscopic epics full of literary allusion as well as humour and action. This is why Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell hit me with the impact of a wrecking ball on a rotten watermelon. To be fair, I hesitated before plunging in to a book that many people seemed to admire but were harder put to it to describe. What, for example, is it about? That’s kinda hard to say. Does it have, by any chance, a plot? Well, yes – and, then again, no.
Baldly, Cloud Atlas is a compendium of six self-contained novellas, each one set at a later time in history than the one before. They aren’t arranged linearly, however: the sixth is at the centre, with the first and second halves of the fifth story surrounding it, like peach flesh around a stone. The first and second halves of the fourth story surround that, and so on, like a Russian doll, such that the book starts and ends with story number one.
The stories differ in tone, content and style. Story the first is a series of diary entries from the journal of earnest, God-fearing Adam Ewing, a San Franscisco notary on a journey across the Pacific in around 1850. Second is a series of letters sent in 1931 by a dissolute young English composer named Frobisher to his friend, Sixsmith. Third is an action-packed political thriller set in 1975 California. Fourth is a Tom-Sharpe-style farce, set in the present day, about a vanity publisher named Timothy Cavendish, one of whose books becomes a bestseller. Fifth is the transcript of a prisoner interview set in a Korean consumerist dystopia a few centuries in the future. Sixth – and centrally – is a story of the final descent of human civilization into barbarism, set in Hawaii, even further in the future than story Five.
Still with me? Now, here’s the fun part. Each story contains a reference to the one before, almost always en passant, and in such a way that one begins to doubt the ‘truth’ of the accounts set in each one of the various fictional universes. So, whereas Frobisher comes across a copy of Adam Ewing’s Pacific journal in the home of a fellow composer in which he is staying, and Frobisher’s hitherto silent correspondent Sixsmith appears in the Californian action thriller (as does the sailing ship from Adam Ewing’s story), that thriller appears as a novel – a work of fiction – in Timothy Cavendish’s slush pile, and Timothy Cavendish’s story appears as a film in the Korean dystopia.
What, then, is truth? What is fiction? This very Borgesian theme (and, yes, the author references Borges at least once) raises all sorts of questions about the nature of reality. Do the people who haunt our dreams have any self-consistent existence as entities, and, if so, do they realise that they are being dreamed? If they do, and they aren’t, who is dreaming us? Are we all fictions in the mind of some higher entity? If we are, then it is singularly uncaring, for the theme running through all these stories is the seemingly unquenchable human thirst for power at any price, a desire which contains the seeds of self-destruction.
All of which sounds rather lofty, or, as Mrs Crox might have it, up its own arse. But don’t be put off. The best way to enjoy Cloud Atlas is to just to step into it and enjoy the ride.