Saturday, November 22, 2014

JG Ballard's Great Period 1973 - 1984

According to historian Eric Hobsbawm the twentieth century really began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his car in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. It was a century dominated by assassinations, cars, aeroplanes, wars, mass production and American pop culture. For me the novelist who perhaps best captured the obsessions and imagery of the twentieth century was the Shanghai-born English novelist J G Ballard. Pigeon holed early as a science fiction writer, for a long time Ballard was not noticed by critics. He had his champions, of course, such as Martin Amis, but in general his books seldom broke through into the popular consciousness until the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1984.

Ballard’s early apocalyptic novels from the 1960's such as The Drowned World and The Crystal World cut against the mainstream science fiction of the time with their concern for the effects of disaster on the protagonists’ psychological states. In 1973 Ballard’s most remarkable period as a novelist began with the publication of Crash, a book famously rejected by one London publisher’s reader with the phrase “This author is beyond psychiatric help - DO NOT PUBLISH.” Crash is the story of Vaughan, a television psychologist who is fixated by the sexual power of the car crash and who wishes to die in an auto-erotic accident with Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine. A damning indictment of, and also a love letter to, American celebrity culture, Crash reads as fresh, subversive and lively today as it did forty years ago. It prefigures the deaths of Princess Diana and Grace Kelly and recapitulates the deaths of Franz Ferdinand, JFK and screen siren Jayne Mansfield who was reputedly (but not really) decapitated in the 1967 crash of her Buick Electra 225.

Ballard’s follow up to Crash was a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, Concrete Island, about a man who crashes his car and is trapped in it at the junction of many motorway flyovers and sliproads, living desperately on his concrete island and finally dying unseen by the thousands of commuters passing by on their way to work. High Rise (1975) is a funny, perverse and oddly believable novel about the collapse of civilisation’s norms within an apartment building. Satires on the English sense of decorum seldom get this ribald or excoriating.

For me, though, the climax of this period in Ballard’s evolution is the willfully strange, surrealistic novel The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) about a man who hijacks a small plane and crashes it into the Thames in the sleepy suburb of Shepparton. It’s never clear whether the pilot died in the crash or not but certainly some kind of apotheosis takes place and throughout the novel London is transformed into a seething, primordial, tropical city (similar in many ways to the London of The Drowned World) rich with sexual and avian imagery. The Anglo-Saxon world has generally been uncomfortable with the erotic and surreal in serious fiction but Dream Company is a book which treats both these tropes with the gravity they deserve and it may be Ballard’s finest work.

Empire of the Sun (1984) is a novelistic retelling of the young Jim Ballard’s imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp from 1942 - 1945. Although the story is told in conventional matter-of-fact prose the book throbs with Ballard’s usual obsessions: war, repressed sexual desire, cruelty, ruined cities, America, cars, flight. As a novel of people in extremis it is a psychological masterpiece as well as being probably the last great novel to come out of the direct experience of World War Two.

In the 1990's and early 2000's Ballard wrote more volumes of memoir and interesting novels about the growth of advertisement speak, business parks, motorways, urbanisation and the spread of pop culture into all walks of life. In 2009 Ballard died of prostate cancer and the British obituaries were respectful but somewhat restrained in their praise. Ballard had been hard to categorise and he was never completely embraced by the British establishment even after his success in Hollywood. It’s a shame because many of Ballard’s contemporaries have dated rather badly and their books read like peculiar period pieces, but Ballard has hardly dated at all. Like Philip K Dick his voice is that of the clear sighted Cassandra warning us of the perils and strange joys ahead. Ballard agreed with the poet Horace who famously said that “they change their skies but not their souls, those who run across the sea,” which is true even when the seas are black with pollution and the sky is a radioactive hell.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Barry Award

award photo courtesy Stu Neville...
On Friday night my second Sean Duffy novel, I Hear The Sirens In The Street, won the 2014 Barry Award in the best mystery (paperback original) category. The awards were announced at this year's Bouchercon crime fiction convention which was held in Long Beach, California. Stuart Neville was gracious enough to pick up the award on my behalf as I couldn't get there this year. Many thanks to the judges, to Deadly Pleasures magazine and to everyone who voted for me. I really do appreciate it. You can find the full list of winners in all four categories, here. And thank you again Stuart for picking it up for me and to Seana Graham for cheering like a - nice - banshee. 
This is going to sound a little bit like solo trumpetry but as this blogpost may become a google gravity well for people searching McKinty Awards or Sean Duffy Series Awards etc. I'd like to stress, for those people who have never heard of me, that each of the Sean Duffy books has won a different crime fiction award: 

Sean Duffy #1 The Cold Cold Ground won the 2013 Spinetingler Award
Sean Duffy #2 I Hear The Sirens In The Street won the 2014 Barry Award (best pbk original)
Sean Duffy #3 In The Morning I'll Be Gone won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award

The series has been shortlisted for numerous other awards & Duffy #1 has also been shortlisted for the 2015 Prix SNCF Du Polar and that can still be voted on, here, if you are so inclined. Merci.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Arguably - Christopher Hitchens

a post from November 2011
Writing is a craft and like all crafts it takes practice to become a master. Christopher Hitchens has been writing short form essays for 40 years now and he's gotten very good at it. So good that he may be the finest polemicist working in the English language today. In the crazy circus of contemporary letters it's nice to read someone whose prose uses the right word at the right time and whose cup foameth over with intellect.  Arguably, is his latest collection of book reviews and his longer pieces from Slate and Vanity Fair. Reading Hitch is like watching a skilled circus performer wow an audience with his derring do. Hitch often seems like a high wire walker who has no alternative but to keep going as turning back wd be fatal. The latter comes to mind when reading Hitch's attempt to square his advocacy for the invasion of Iraq with his acerbic and angry opposition to the first Gulf War in 1991. Hitch's logic is, at best, strained: 1991 had a clear casus belli, a clear UN mandate and a very clear mission and Hitch's pitch that the case for invasion was stronger under George W. Bush is bizarre. The Iraq essays are definitely the lowlight of the collection. Hitch argues with straw man pacifists and conspiracy theorists but he doesn't engage with someone like Tony Judt who is at least as well read as he is. I'm no pacifist when it comes to Iraq (I, of course, supported my little brother served with the Brits in Anbar province for a year) but I don't see how any reasonable person can think the Iraq of 2011 is a better place than the Iraq of 2001 as Hitch repeatedly claims it is. 
The finest parts of Arguably are the sections on literature where Hitchens shines a fresh light on some familiar texts. Hitch's enthusiasms are mostly infectious: WH Auden, George Orwell, PG Wodehouse, Gore Vidal's fictions, Philip Larkin's poetry. Hitchens is largely batting on his home field here and I wish he'd chanced his arm a bit by venturing into the rougher American terrain of Pynchon, DeLillo, McCarthy etc. But perhaps that's something that's just a bit beyond him. Although Hitchens took out American citizenship and knows the Constitution backwards no one will ever mistake the old chap for anything but an Englishman abroad. 
Apart from the stuff on Iraq the weakest essays in Arguably are where Hitchens dips his toes into the world of science and mathematics, here he is especially credulous and even a little naive. Hitch seems to believe everything the Astronomer Royal or Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins has told him and hasn't the intellectual background to wonder whether these men are as significant as they think they are within their own fields. (Hawking and Dawkins for example have never come close to winning a Nobel Prize). Hitchens seems to think that science just exists "out there" without further need for interpretation and the work of Kurt Godel, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Feyerabend seems to have passed him by. Hitch is a little bit wide eyed when discussing people like Dawkins who aren't really scientists at all, merely science writers. Hitch's atheism is untroubled by Max Tegmark's work on infinity or Nick Bostrom's simulation hypothesis.  
But ultimately these are minor quibbles which irritated me but might not irritate other people. Hitch has stage IV cancer of the oesophagus and has been fading recently. I hope he's around for a long time because I sure will miss him when he's gone. I'll miss his intelligence, his humour, his honesty, his insights and most of all the fact that even when you disagree with him you are usually too bowled over by his prose to complain very loudly.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Emperor Has No Clothes - The Films of Christopher Nolan

none of this has aged well
I used to think that Chris Nolan made films for intelligent 13 year old boys. I was wrong about that. Nolan's films are full of violence, sentimentality, bathos and passion - which pretty much describes your average 13 year old lad - but they are deeply uninterested in sex which, alas, is all teenage boys are thinking about when they're not blowing stuff up on their Xboxes. No, Nolan writes and directs films for intelligent 10 year old boys. They've got spaceships and gun battles and Batman and if I was 10 I'd probably love them too. But these are not films for grown ups. They create the illusion of cleverness, which, presumably is what they teach you in the English private schools, (where sadly most British directors now come from) but it's all surface cleverness - there's nothing going on underneath. All that matters is that you convince people that you're smart, you don't actually have to be smart. David Cameron and crew have learned that message as have the people at the forefront of British culture in the arts, books, movies, TV, etc. You probably know the sort I'm talking about.
Nolan's childish and dimwitted Batman films were ridiculously overpraised by supine critics. Inception was a silly series of embedded action films inside a pretty good high concept. A high concept I would love to have seen exercised by, say, a French director. (Someone who knows that the best way of getting a man to reveal his secrets is not to point a gun at him but to point an attractive woman (or man) at him.) Insomnia, Nolan's remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg's original was just ok. Nolan's best films Memento and The Prestige weren't bad at all - The Prestige in particular almost lived up to the source material, an excellent novel by Christopher Priest. 
Nolan's latest film, Interstellar, is a strange amalgam of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff, Contact & Disney's The Black Hole. The first 2 of those flicks are classics whereas Contact & The Black Hole are cheese festivals. On the basis of strong reviews in the UK and Australian media I went to see Interstellar but I should have realised that most film critics are science illiterates who were clearly baffled by the pseudo science of the movie. Nolan hired Kip Thorne as a 'physics advisor' to Interstellar but that doesn't mean anything - there's no physics in the film worth speaking about. No physics but much hokey magic (& no dont bother quoting Arthur C Clarke at me). Interstellar is an unholy mess, which like The Black Hole & Contact is sentimental and mawkish and deadly dull. As usual with Nolan the art direction and the cinematography are excellent, the female leads are good and the music is up to snuff and maybe with stronger source material there cd have been a good film in amongst all this. But the writing kills it - the writing is all over the shop: humourless, portentous, silly, fake smart. Nolan must have shat himself when he finally saw Gravity this year, a film half as long and twice as good as Interstellar, a film which will deservedly join The Right Stuff and 2001 as classics of the genre, which Interstellar will not. Distrust any film critic who gives this movie a good review. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gun Street Girl - The First Review & How To Win A Proof

Jon Page, from Bite the Book, got himself a VERY early galley of Gun Street Girl. He read the galley and reviewed it over on his excellent site, here. I've worked on the book quite a bit since this first draft, tightening the story a little and adding a few more jokes. (In fact I'm still working on the book now.)
The novel of course takes place in Ulster but the wider net of the narrative brings in the biggest American political scandal of the Reagan administration, a famous cause celebre from 1980's Oxford and the chaotic weeks in Belfast that followed the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985. The book begins with an echo of and on the same night that Rorshach's journal begins in Alan Moore's Watchmen, which also has one or two sneaky resonances throughout the text. Anyway, old chums, this is what Jon Page thought:
Sometimes a recurring crime character is brought back and the story feels forced or the attempt feels lame. But then there are those rare times when, despite the series being over, the character comes back and exceeds what has been done before. And that is exactly what Adrian McKinty has done with Sean Duffy.

In the last Sean Duffy book, In The Morning I’ll Be Gone, it appeared the series had finished with a bang. Adrian McKinty had flagged his intention to halt the Duffy books at three and had given us a more than satisfactory conclusion. Better to finish wanting more than for a fantastic character to get stale. However an idea came to McKinty for a book four, but he still resisted until he literally dreamt how he could end that book, and that was what he needed to begin writing book four in the Sean Duffy series. He wrote about that experience, here. And yes, the ending really is one of the best things McKinty has done.

Not only has McKinty done justice to the previous books with Gun Street Girl but I think he has actually exceeded himself. The Sean Duffy trilogy was already something special and Gun Street Girl not only reaffirms that but makes it even better. The year is 1985 and The Troubles are still in full, nasty swing in Belfast with the flames about to be fanned by the so-called Irish-Anglo Agreement. Sean Duffy is now an Inspector in charge of CID at Carrick RUC. When a local bookie and his wife are killed in what looks like a professional hit Duffy only takes a passing interest in the case letting his detective sergeant take the lead and blood two new detectives. However when the case takes a nasty turn Duffy dives in up to his neck of course ruffling any (and all) feathers that get in his way. Conspiracies loom and the bodies start piling up as Duffy quickly uncovers a sinister plot well above his pay grade. But to crack this case he’s going to need someone to talk and the first thing they teach you in Northern Ireland is to never talk, especially to the RUC, even when you’re supposed to be on the same side.

[money quote coming up:]

Full of McKinty’s trademark wickedly black humour and with the usual taut plotting this just may be the best book in an exceptional series so far. Sean Duffy has come a long way from The Cold Cold Ground and everything he's been through is starting to leave scars. I was reluctantly happy to see the series finish after three books but after book 4 I think there is even a little more life in this awesome series to come. At least I hope so!
Still reading all the way down here? Good for you. Serpents Tail are having a competition whereby they are giving away some early galleys of Gun Street Girl. If you click this link you'll be taken to the competition page. Alas this compo is open only to British and Irish readers (because of postage costs).
You can, of course, read the first five chapters of Gun Street Girl, for free, here...

Friday, November 7, 2014

4 Belfast Noir Events

November 7th at NYU Irish House in Manhattan the convincingly bearded Stuart Neville, the moderately bearded John Connolly and the clean shaven Lee Child will be launching Belfast Noir!
November 14th The terrificly bearded Peter Rozovsky will be talking all things Belfast Noir at Bouchercon Long Beach with the goateed Gerard Brennan, the bearded Stu Neville and the clean shaven Paul Charles.
November 22nd at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast, Belfast Noir's Irish launch will be hosted by the completely hairless Dave Torrans and No Alibis books and will feature as many of the authors who can make it as possible. (I'm told there's going to be a pretty healthy turn out for this one!)
December 17th at the Celtic Club in Melbourne I'll be shaving, putting on a clean shirt and talking all things Belfast Noir.
There you go, 4 Belfast Noir events on 3 continents. Maybe the Wall Street Journal and the Irish Examiner are right in saying that Belfast is the hip new Scandinavia or, er, something 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Kinglake 350 by Adrian Hyland

I grew up in Greater Belfast during the Troubles and as a consequence was in and around a lot of bad stuff going down. I used to get a lift to school every day with a man who was one of the IRA's "legitimate targets" and who consequently had to check under his vehicle each morning for mercury tilt switch bombs. In school once a kid sucker punched me in face breaking my glasses and leaving me with 17 stitches and a repaired tear duct. Another time I was run over by a police Land Rover in a hit and run...everybody who grew up in Belfast in the 70's and 80's has stories like these. (Probably the scariest thing that ever happened to me was when I lived in Jerusalem and three Hamas suicide bombers dressed as women blew themselves up at a cafe I'd been sitting at minutes earlier)... All of those incidents however were over in a few seconds, what happened in Melbourne on Saturday February 9th 2009 lasted all day and into the night, affecting everyone in the city. This is how Adrian Hyland begins his story of those events in his book Kinglake 350:

We were lucky at first. At the end of January 2009 the State of Victoria [Australia] sweltered through three successive record-breaking days of 109.4°F-plus heat. In Melbourne the mercury climbed to 113°F, the third-hottest day on record. Birds fell from the sky, bitumen bubbled underfoot…the next morning [the newspaper] the Age carried the prescient headline: ”The sun rises on the worst day in history.” Black Saturday. Our luck was about to run out.”

Wikipedia explains what happened next:

As the day progressed, all-time record temperatures were being reached. Melbourne hit 46.4 °C (115.5 °F), the hottest temperature ever recorded in an Australian capital city and humidity levels dropped to as low as six percent. The McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index reached unprecedented levels, ranging from 120 to over 200. This was higher than the fire weather conditions experienced on Black Friday in 1939 and Ash Wednesday in 1983.

By midday wind speeds were reaching their peak, and by 12:30 pm powerlines fell in Kilmore East due to the high winds. These sparked a bushfire that would later generate extensive pyrocumulus clouds, and become the largest, deadliest, and most intense firestorm ever experienced in Australia's post-European history. The overwhelming majority of fire activity occurred between midday and 7:00 pm, when wind speed and temperature were at their highest, and humidity at its lowest.

Those of us in the city that day will never forget it. Melbourne was surrounded by fire on three sides and the hot wind blowing down from the north seemed to carry with it the stench of death. At least 173 people were burned to death up country (although the exact total might never been known). Adrian Hyland's book Kinglake 350 is a description of what it was like in the bush itself. In particular it's the story of Roger Wood a police officer in charge of Kinglake, a small community at the epicentre of the fire. As the firestorm engulfed the town, "he risked his life, again and again, to try and save people.With the fire raging all around, he phoned home to warn his wife what was coming. She screamed that the fire had already hit their property. Then the line went dead." As the blurb on the back of the book explains "Black Saturday was a many-headed monster in whose wake stories of grief, heroism and desolation erupted all over the state of Victoria." This is a book about the monster—and the heroism of those who confronted it, the mistakes of those who left it too late to evacuate or thought they could ride it out. Kinglake 350 is a powerful, harrowing and fascinating read from one of Australia's most under-appreciated authors, the great Ned Kelly Award winning author Adrian Hyland. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Art of George Shaw

The best book I read in the last 2 years was Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley. I've blogged about this book twice and none of you went out and bought it, but that's ok, it's your loss. It's a wonderful book and rereading it is a delight. Getting other people to read it is also a delight because they find stuff that you missed and tell you about it. After much nagging I finally got the missus to read Edgelands and of course she loved it. Everyone does. One bit that really struck her was the art of George Shaw, who was born in Coventry's Tile Hill estate in 1966 (an area of Cov I know very well because I went to the University of Warwick just down the road). Shaw started painting the area around the housing estate he lived in in a very flat, naturalistic style. His favoured medium as Wikipedia explains "is Humbrol enamel paints, which lend his work a unique appearance as they are more commonly used to paint Airfix model aircraft." Shaw was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2011 for his collection, The Sly and Unseen Day.
Shaw paints the edgelands of Britain, those forgotten bits of the landscape lurking behind car parks, or alleys between housing estates or ruined garages or abandoned blocks of flats. This is the real Britain, not Heritage Britain so beloved by the TV and film worlds and to me its so much more interesting than all that Downton Abbey/Notting Hill bullshit. Shaw's paintings resonate so wonderfully for me not just because this is pretty much the world I grew up in, but I also find a peculiar Edward Hopper like beauty in their austerity. Like I say these paintings were done using Humbrol model aircraft paints on wooden boards. I love this stuff.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

My Current Favourite Beers

1. Pliny the Elder IPA - Russian River Brewing Company, USA
2. Rutland Bitter - Grainstore Brewery, England
3. Payback Porter - Speakeasy Ales, USA
4. Fuller's London Porter - Fullers, England
5. Ravens Eye Imperial Stout - Eel River Brewing Company, USA
6. Rochefort Trappistes 10 - Trappist Quad, Belgium
7. Ayinger Celebrator Dobblebock - Ayinger, Germany
8. Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout - Sam Smiths, England
9. Old Rasputin Imperial Stout - North Coast Brewing Company, USA
10. Supplication Sour Ale - Russian River Brewing Company, USA

1 and 10 on my list come from the great Russian River Brewing Company. As you can see I'm in a weird stouty, portery frame of mind these days...
#3 is the beer that crime writers probably should be drinking, especially on a rainy evening when the inspiration just isn't coming. I liked the line from this review of #5 on my list on Beer Rater by Mike Chance: "pours as black as my kids mom's soul" - there's definitely a story there...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sun is God Interview

me on local radio here in Melbourne chatting about The Sun is God. We talk Schopenhauer, Conrad, the Boer War, cults, Coleridge, heroin, nudism, know, the usual...

Published Or Not, podcast

Oh, and thank you again to everyone who was a kind enough to leave me a review of this little book on Amazon, Audible or Good Reads. As usual I got no reviews at all in the US press but I did get very nice notices in the Guardian and the Irish Times. The Sun is God nearly didn't get written and it was initially rejected by my publishers as being too unlike my other stuff, so as a little engine that could, it is close to my heart.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Belfast Noir - What The Trades Say...

Library Journal Nov1

*starred* Belfast Noir. Akashic. Nov. 2014. 256p. ed. by Adrian McKinty & Stuart Neville. 
ISBN 9781617752919. pap. $15.95; 
ebk. ISBN 9781617753237. 
Edited by two award-winning crime fiction writers from Northern Ireland, this anthology is long overdue, since Belfast is the most noir-imbued city in Western Europe after decades of poverty, bigotry, demagoguery, sectarianism, and murder. The natural backdrop of mist, rain, and dark cloud cover also helps—as does black humor, which is a strong motif here. All the stories are compelling and well executed. Ruth Dudley’s “Taking It Serious” comes seriously close to truly portraying fanaticism within the city’s complicated tribal landscape. Eoin McNamee employs the juxtaposition of video cams and narrative to extenuate the sense of anomie in the striking story “Corpse Flowers.” Alex Barclay’s “The Reveller” is a deep psychological bear trap of a story. Gerard Brennan’s “ Ligature” makes for compelling and uncomfortable reading. VERDICT Great writing for fans of noir and short stories, with some tales close to perfection. It made this reviewer nostalgic and hopeful for his beautiful, brash, beastly Belfast.
Seamus Scanlon, Ctr. for Worker Education, CUNY


Fourteen stories that explore the darker sides of the human psyche, each from a different neighborhood of Belfast.
“The Undertaking,” by Brian McGilloway, is a tale of a switched coffin and a deadly cargo. The narrator of Lucy Caldwell’s “Poison” recalls her schoolgirl obsession with a teacher. In Lee Childs’ “Wet with Rain,” a house rumored to kill its occupants more than lives up to its reputation. “Taking It Serious,” by Ruth Dudley Edwards, follows a boy who won’t compromise along his path to free Ireland. The narrator of Gerard Brennan’s “Ligature” is a prison inmate who’s curious about why someone on the men’s side killed himself. Another prisoner is the subject of a reporter’s piece about crime and retribution in Glenn Patterson’s “Belfast Punk Rep.” In “The Reservoir,” by Ian McDonald, a supposedly dead man comes to his daughter’s wedding and confronts his enemies; a criminal barrister in Steve Cavanagh’s “The Grey” serves his client well but at a terrible cost. The teenage private eye in “Rosie Grant’s Finger,” by Claire McGowan, takes on a case of kidnapping; a more mature investigator gets a 4 a.m. phone call that he knows will mean trouble in Sam Millar’s “Out of Time.” A sting operation to break up a dog-fighting ring has an unexpected outcome in Arlene Hunt’s “Pure Game,” and an alternate identity changes hands in Alex Barclay’s “The Reveller.”
The choices made by editors McKinty (In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, 2014, etc.) and Neville (The Final Silence, 2014, etc.) celebrate lowlifes, convicts, hookers, private eyes, cops and reporters, and, above all, the gray city at the heart of each story.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Iain Sinclair

 The above is a little video blog about Iain Sinclair. I should stress that Sinclair's writing is definitely not for everyone and before you get any of his books you should read the first 3 pages or so first. Sinclair is a cult writer, but a cultist whose texts lie at the intersection of a number of counter cultural movements in poetry, film, photography, psychogeography etc. In various projects he's appeared with Jonathan Meades, Stewart Lee, William Gibson, JG Ballard etc. - who are all artistic heroes of mine. Perhaps the strangest appearance of Iain Sinclair anywhere is in Alan Moore's comic League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 2009, where a slightly disguised Sinclair shows Orlando (from Virginia Woolf's Orlando) and Nina Harker (from Dracula) the secret entrance to the Harry Potter realm at Kings Cross Station. (In this version of the story Potter is the evil Moonchild, conjured up by Aleister Crowley, who then attempts to destroy the world, which, er, is not something you see every day.) Sinclair is the bald chap with the glasses.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


my review of Perfidia from last Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age. There's a little bit of a primer in the first paragraph for local readers who may have forgotten who James Ellroy is that you, oh knowledgable reader, may feel free to skip...
James Ellroy’s new novel Perfidia is the first volume in a projected quartet that will be a direct prequel to his LA Quartet which followed a group of police officers in the LAPD after World War 2. Readers unfamiliar with Ellroy will remember LA Confidential (the best book in the original quartet) which was made into the successful film that launched the Hollywood careers of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce.
   Perfidia begins on December 6th, 1941, a relatively quiet Saturday morning in Los Angeles. Hideo Ashida, the LAPD’s sole Japanese cop, is staking out a pharmacy that has been robbed on several occasions in the past month. A forensic policeman ahead of his time Ashida has invented a robotic camera to take pictures of every vehicle parked in front of the drugstore. When the inevitable robbery occurs Ashida is able to get into the good graces of the Detective Bureau by identifying the heist getaway car.
Later in the day back in Ashida’s Little Tokyo neighbourhood a Japanese family is found dead in their home. A mother, father, their young daughter and their panty-sniffing son have all been ritually killed in a murder-suicide. Someone has left a note by the bodies: “The looming apocalypse is not of our doing. We have been good citizens and did not know that it was coming.” The note makes sense when the news from Pearl Harbor reaches Los Angeles the next morning.
America is thrust into World War 2 but for the detectives in the LAPD, the Hollywood moguls and the mafia kingpins the war is just another way of making money. The interlinking stories in Perfidia are told through four main POV characters: Hideo Ashida, Dudley Smith, Kay Lake and William Parker. Ashida appears first and has the most at stake as his family and the majority of America’s Japanese community are subsequently interned in concentration camps. The clinical, intelligent, William Parker was an actual LAPD detective who fought in Normandy, became chief of police in the 1950’s and was the reputed model for the character Mr Spock in Star Trek. Kay Lake is a young socialite who has shacked up with a corrupt cop, is flirting with communism and is, alas, not a terribly well drawn or interesting figure. Dudley Smith, however, the spider at the heart of LA Confidential, is in wonderful demonic form throughout most of Perfidia.
Ellroy remains one of the most exciting literary stylists in the English language. If David Peace’s iterative, repetitious, circular method lies at one logical end of the prose spectrum Ellroy’s dry, clipped, telegraphic style is its counterpoint. Verbless sentences pile on top of another in a way that will leave some readers thrilled and others utterly baffled. The page where Ellroy takes the young Dudley Smith from the war-torn streets of Dublin to Joe Kennedy’s Boston to a bootlegging run in Canada left me exhilarated and perhaps a little exhausted:

. . .He’s in Canada, that’s Lake Erie, he’s on a moored barge. He’s holding a tommy gun. Whiskey crates cover the deck. . .Switcheroo. Instant travelogue. He’s on Coney Island at the Half Moon Hotel. He’s hoisting the canary. Don’t cry, Lee Blanchard, it’s unmanly. Travelogue back to Boston. Young Jack Kennedy’s a Navy Ensign now. . .He’s at a table with Ben Siegel and Sheriff Biscailuz. Glenn Miller’s band plays “Perfidia.” Bette Davis dances with a fey young man. . . 

At 687 pages this is James Ellroy’s longest novel, but with so many characters and wordsmithery this dense it feels longer still. Ellroy’s vision is grandiose. When it is finished the two LA Quartets and his Underworld Trilogy will span the years 1941 – 1972 offering us a vast, polyphonic, alternate history of America (where the FBI and the mob conspire to kill JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King) that is not quite Balzac, not quite Philip K Dick, but much more fun than either of them.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What's Wrong With The Booker Prize And How It Can Be Fixed

Last Monday former Booker Prize winner Peter Carey attacked the expansion of the Bookers to
include American authors. Carey was worried that hordes of Yanks would come over here with their slick talk, Hershey bars and nylons and ultimately the Bookers ‘particular cultural flavour’ would be lost. This was always an unlikely scenario for two reasons: firstly, Hershey bars are horrible and everybody knows it, secondly Brits are extremely protective of their native literature and this year’s two token Yanks on the shortlist were never going to win.
  No, the real problem with the Booker Prize is symbolised by Peter Carey himself: there are too many posh people on the judging panel and too many posh people on the shortlist. Julian Barnes, another former winner, once called The Booker Prize “posh bingo,” and that’s what it has become. Books about working class people and working class lives almost never win the Booker Prize even when they are clearly the best book of the year. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, White Teeth and Brick Lane were all famously excluded from the Booker. Write a book about a man from Hampstead having an affair in the Dordogne and you’ve got a potential winner, but write about a schoolgirl growing up in a council flat in Hackney and you can kiss your chances goodbye. That’s the theory anyway, but can I back any of this up with statistics? Actually I think I can.
       First of all how do we define poshness? Well, a useful rule of thumb is private school. In the United Kingdom only about 5% of the population actually goes to private school (this statistic always amazes the London based journalistic class, almost all of whom, it seems, er, went to private school). Now, if you do an analysis of, say, the last twenty years Booker judging panels you’ll find that a majority of the judges were educated privately, and the stats are even worse with the Booker Prize jury chairpersons. To find the last jury chairperson who went to state school you have to go all the way back to James Naughtie in 2009. Statistically there should be one privately educated Booker chairperson every twenty years or so, but in fact, in the last twenty years, fifteen or possibly sixteen (I’m getting this info from Wikipedia) of the Booker Prize jury chairpersons went to private school. That’s an over representation by a whopping 1600 per cent. (You have to go back over twenty years before you find a Booker jury chairwoman who went to a state school!)
       The stats show that the Booker Prize judging panels are almost always made up of posh people and their chairperson is almost always very posh indeed. Posh people naturally would be sympathetic towards books about their own class and resistant to challenges to the status quo, hence Peter Carey’s worry about vulgar Americans entering the fray. (Peter Carey boarded at Geelong Grammar, one of the most expensive and exclusive private schools in Australia.) In consequence the Booker Prize winning novel is often a safe middle class rather dull book.
       Not this year though. This year’s winner, Richard Flanagan, is a country boy from hardscrabble, rural Tasmania but crucially the hero of his terrific novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North, is an officer and a doctor tending POW’s in Japanese occupied Burma. This was a wise move on Flanagan’s part. Novels about officers and doctors have a chance of winning the Booker, novels about working class enlisted men don’t. (Incidentally as with many of the disasters of World War 2, it was the posh, idiotic officers who let down the enlisted men when the British surrendered at Singapore - lions led by donkeys, indeed.)
       My favourite book of last year, Red or Dead, by David Peace was an extraordinary novel that invented an entirely new English prose style to tell its story; but Peace never stood a chance of winning the Booker because the world he was writing about was too working class, too northern, too socialist and the love of football in Red or Dead was sincere, communitarian and quasi religious – a million miles removed from the sophisticated, ironic, metropolitan stance of, say a Julian Barnes or Will Self novel.
       Is there anything that can be done to fix the Booker Prize, to make it more relevant and less exclusive? I know the Booker folks won’t listen to me but here are four ideas.
       1 No more posh Booker jury chairmen. A moratorium on private school educated men would still leave you with 97.5% of the British population to choose from and I’ll bet the resulting longlists will have more books from the north, more working class settings, more minorities and more female protagonists.
       2 Publishers should be allowed to enter more than one book per year. At the moment, unless they made the longlist in the previous year, publishers are restricted to one book per house. This encourages them to be conservative, entering only novels that resemble books which have won in the past and which they think might please the judges. Letting them enter 2 books will encourage them to enter a safe choice and a more risky choice.
       3 Encourage genre fiction. The best science fiction, crime fiction and romance writing is often as good as literary fiction but these books seldom make the Booker shortlist because they are considered to be a low form of writing.
       4 Don’t listen to Peter Carey, keep the Americans.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Book Club

Me on the ABC's Book Club with 4 prettier & smarter people. I haven't actually watched this but the missus says I didn't make a total arse of myself, which is half the battle isn't it?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

How To Make A Cup Of Tea

The Guardian stepped into the great "how to make a cup of tea" debate last week with its scientific "proof" that you must put the milk into the cup first and then the tea (which is hopefully after the tea leaves have been brewed in a tea pot). The comment thread under that article is a fascinating poke into the dark recesses of the British mind... 
There are many many blogs and websites relating to tea and tea making out there but if you want the genuine article I think you have to go back George Orwell's famous "A Nice Cup Of Tea", which can be read here, and was originally published in the Evening Standard in 1946. I'm not going to rehash Orwell here as you should just jolly well click the link and read the piece for yourself. It's fun reading and basically sound advice if you want to make tea the old fashioned way. Christopher Hitchens attempts (not entirely successfully) to update Orwell's tea making instructions, here, but at least Hitchens admits to the existence of something called a tea bag. The Guardian commenters and tea purists would rather see their sons and daughters run off to join ISIS than use a tea bag, but I am comfortable with the tea bag and use it myself much of the time. I agree with Hitchens however that tea bags should NEVER be left in a cup of tea and I watch the Big Bang Theory etc. aghast when characters are walking around with tea bag rat tails dangling down the side of their mugs. Get the tea bag out of the mug as quickly as possible is my advice. 
I make the best cup of tea in our house. My tea is a comforting brew that can be given to sniffly children or confused Jehovahs Witnesses* or people who have just had a road accident. Its not a purists tea. Its milky, often made with a tea bag (although sometimes leaves) and it contains SUGAR. Yes that's right, I said it. I put sugar in my tea. Orwell disagrees, the Guardian disagrees, Hitchens disagrees but I like sugar in my bloody tea. Tea with sugar was the drink that built and lost the British Empire. Tea with milk and sugar was the drink they drank while breaking the Engima code at Bletchley Park, that the pilots drank in the Battle of Britain, etc. 
Anyway, this is how I make tea in 2014. Like I say if you're a purist or some kind of tea nut STOP READING NOW. 
1. Boil kettle. 
2. While kettle is boiling, add milk and either Ceylon Orange Pekoe tea leaves or a strong tea bag (Twinings Assam Bold is a good one) to the mug. Let the tea and the milk mingle. (No one, and I mean no one, ever does this but I do and I explain why below). 
3. Add the boiling water to the milk. (In my opinion boiling water scalds the tea and ruins it but if you add the hot water to the milk it suffuses through the tea bag or the softened tea leaves and gives you a very gentle, pleasing drink.)
4. Remove the tea bag after about 45 seconds. 
5. Add sugar to taste. I prefer two tea spoons. 
6. Stir. Bob's your uncle: a mellow, comforting, delicious beverage....
*The Jehovahs Witnesses are always confused because I always invite them in and offer them tea (everyone else on the street is always rude to them but they're not all trying to dodge doing any writing...)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Only cheerleaders get anorexia. You're a ballplayer--you're having a spiritual crisis

Henry's glove Zero is now my second favourite baseball mitt in literature
(after Ally's glove in The Catcher In The Rye)
now that shortstop Derek Jeter has retired and the baseball playoff season is upon us, I thought I'd repost this from two years ago (it wasn't my favourite novel of 2012 but it was in my top ten)...
You ever read a book that was so good that once you finished it that you began it again immediately? No me neither. Well not for a long time anyway. I did this however with Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding which is the sweetest debut novel I've read since Zadie Smith's White Teeth. This is what good literary fiction should be: arresting, witty, passionate, with great characters and an elegant prose style. On the surface its the story of a young blue collar shortstop called Henry Skrimshander and a kid called Mike Schwartz who scouts Henry for a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Schwartz works on Henry like a big brother mentor gone mad and turns him from a savant shortstop who can't hit or run into a legitimate baseball prospect. That's the surface but what the book is really about is loyalty and friendship and disappointment and love. You know, life. 
Just as Henry is on the verge of greatness he catches Chuck Knoblauch/Steve Blass disease, or as they call it in golf, the yips. There's a nice subplot about the President of the University, his daughter and a love quadrangle between her, Henry, Mike and Henry's gay room-mate Owen; but for me the book's heart was the relationship between Mike and Henry and how they become brothers. 
What makes Harbach a much better writer than someone like, say, Jonathan Franzen, (or Jonathan Safran Froer or Michael Chabon) is that Harbach writes with an authentic blue collar voice than doesn't sound fake and condescending. Most American novelists writing literary fiction are the victims of private schools and elite universities and the Iowa Writers Workshop which inculcates phoniness and renders them incapable of understanding or expressing what it is to be poor in America. I know nothing of Harbach's background except that he went to Harvard, but he writes as if he knows what its like to work in a foundry or get up at 5.a.m. to wash dishes. Whether he actually knows or is just very gifted is neither here nor there. He gives us characters in blue collar occupations who don't know where the next rent check is going to come from and these characters are utterly convincing. You can tell the difference Harbach dialogue and Froer/Franzen dialogue immediately. It's the difference between the authentic and the inauthentic, the real and the patronising. (If I was on the Romney campaign I'd slip this book to the candidate for immediate bedtime reading.)
Like all great baseball novels there is an element of yearning and transcendence in The Art of Fielding. Baseball is not America's past-time (that in fact is football) but if America were a more perfect place it would be. The Art of Fielding joins Shoeless Joe, The Natural, The Great American Novel, The Boys of Summer, Bang The Drum Slowly and Moneyball as one of the great baseball books. Baseball, like cricket, is an intellectual game, where intellect (and thinking too much) will kill you on the field. I liked this short conversation between Mike and Henry near the end of the novel: 
"This is the psych floor," Mike said.
Henry nodded. "Okay."
"Figured I'd give you a heads up. They're going to send in the shrinks to talk to you about not eating. 'Your anorexia', as they referred to it."
"I told them only cheerleaders get anorexia. You're a ballplayer--you're having a spiritual crisis." 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Coming Irish Civil War?

I'm reposting this blog from June 4th this year after having read an incredible story from the BBC on educational attainment in the UK. One amazing stat caught my eye: working class Protestant boys in Northern Ireland attained the lowest levels of GCSE results of any group in the United Kingdom apart from Travellers and Gypsies (many of whom are functionally illiterate). Thousands of working class Protestant boys are leaving school in Belfast with no qualifications whatsoever and in a place with endemic unemployment they are clearly never going to get work of any kind. If you don't think this is going to cause a nightmare scenario in the future you've got a lot more misplaced optimism than I have...Anyway here's what I said in June after the Euro elections:
Last week's election results in Europe were extraordinary for a number of reasons but lost
in the big news about the rise of the right in Western Europe was the news that after 80 years of trying Sinn Fein had essentially become the third party in the Republic of Ireland and chances are it will become a major coalition partner after the next Irish general election. In the North of Ireland Sinn Fein consolidated its gains, topping the poll in the Euro elections and attracting 2/3 of the Nationalist (mostly Catholic) vote in the local council elections.
Sinn Fein of course want a united Ireland and have been intelligently playing the "long game" to get it. Unlike their impatient comrades in the Real IRA/Continuity IRA/New IRA who continue to murder and bomb with impunity, Sinn Fein have understood that demography is destiny and demography is going to bring about a united Ireland sometime in the next few decades or so.
These are the facts (via Frank Jacobs' Strange Maps blog):
In 1967, 60% of marriages in Northern Ireland took place in protestant churches, by 2005 this was down to 35%. In school year 2006-7, ‘declared Catholics’ made up slightly more than 50% of school children in Northern Ireland, while ‘declared Protestants’ numbered just 39,5% (down from 42,7% in 2000-1). Research conducted in 2007 shows that youths leaving Ulster to study are twice as likely to be protestant than catholic, with those who go to Britain more likely to stay there than returning after graduation. In contrast, the student populations at both of Northern Ireland's main universities are now majority-catholic (55% at Queens University, 60% at the University of Ulster).
• The brain drain of Ulster's protestant youth reinforces the existing dichotomy between the older segment of Northern Ireland's population, which is solidly protestant, and the younger segment, which is mainly catholic. Overall, the 2001 census showed that while 67% over-90-year-olds are protestant, only 39% of 10-to-20-year-olds are. Another way to enumerate the divergence of the age cohorts in either community: while there were an equal number of births and deaths for protestants, for catholics, births outnumber deaths by about 6,000 per annum.

Basically the concept is this: more Catholics are born, more Protestants leave. In 1961 Catholics represented about 1/3 of Northern Ireland's population, now, in 2014, there is a rough parity and if demographic trends continue the way they've been doing for the last 60 years in the next decade there will be a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland. As we have seen nearly 2/3 of Catholics in the North vote for Sinn Fein who are committed to a United Ireland, while the SDLP (also committed to a United Ireland) still pulls in a healthy 20% of the Catholic vote. This is significant because enshrined in the 1972 Government of Northern Ireland Act and in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is the notion that Northern Ireland will only stay part of the UK "as long as a majority of its population wishes". Britain has been trying to get rid of the Ulster problem since at least the Ted Heath government (1970-1974) and a united Ireland "by consent" became Labour Party official policy in the early 1980s. Unlike the exit of Scotland from the UK, the amputation of Northern Ireland would be tremendously popular among the English electorate and would remove both a long standing irritation for Britain and a huge drain on the Treasury.
So what's the problem? The problem is that the vast majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland do not want to be part of a United Ireland and there are nearly a million of them. When I've blogged about this before unsympathetic - largely American - commenters have said, in effect, "too bad they can piss off back to Scotland then" which is a very silly thing to say indeed. Ulster Protestants have been in Ireland for four centuries (a little longer than white people have been in North America) and it is their home. They aren't going anywhere.
Mainstream Unionist (union with the UK that is) opinion seems to be burying its head in the sand about all this, pretending that the "demographic nightmare" isn't happening. Cleverer Unionists, however, are beginning the process of wooing middle class Catholics to the idea of Catholic Unionism for economic reasons (the UK for all its problems is still much richer than Ireland and a United Ireland would drain the Irish exchequer for decades). Although few Catholics seem to vote for Unionist parties the number of Catholic Unionists is definitely under reported. If a border poll were held today it would not pass. But still it's hard to argue with the demography. The Catholic population will represent a sizeable majority of the population in a Northern Ireland 15 years hence and it will be they who decide the result of the border poll. What happens after that? Most people have not thought this far ahead. Sinn Fein claim that all will be peace and light in a future united socialist paradise island that sounds eerily like a slightly wetter, slightly colder Cuba. Some geographically imaginative Unionists have begun talking about the repartition of Northern Ireland into ethnic enclaves a la Switzerland or Bosnia; seeing the demographic writing on the wall the UDA began an investigation into repartition as early as the mid 1990s; but repartition, as Frank Jacobs explains, is a complete non starter because the populations are too intermingled.
unless something is done now the disaffected Shankill Protestant boys
will become disaffected Shankill Protestant men... 
A United Ireland is probably coming, but will reunification necessarily be violent? I think it
probably will be. Very violent. I used to believe that sectarian differences were fading in Ulster but that was only wishful thinking. For 40 years under Tito everyone was a good Yugoslav and then after his death suddenly everyone again was either a Serb or a Croat or a Bosnian (etc.)  and either Catholic, Muslim or Protestant - with murderous sectarian consequences if you were the wrong minority in the wrong place. That's what will happen too in Northern Ireland following a border poll. You only have to look at the annual 'marching season' riots or the two years of riots that followed a decision by Belfast City Council to stop flying the Union Jack to see that there is a huge unhappy working class Protestant population in the Greater Belfast area who already feel alienated and angry. An almost overlooked result in last week's elections was the growth of the Traditional Unionist Voice party that rejects the Good Friday Agreement completely. Working class Protestants have seen few benefits of the Peace Process: unemployment is high, community development is low and without work to confer dignity and provide an income working class Protestant disaffection has grown since 1998. The UVF and UDA (Protestant paramilitary groups) remain strong and have successfully diversified into drugs, money laundering and protection rackets. Their membership is young and militant with no memory of the nightmare years of the Troubles. The UVF and UDA young Turks clearly will not go willingly into a United Ireland.
It took the British Army 30 years and nearly 20,000 troops to subdue the IRA in Northern Ireland. It will probably take the Irish Army similar numbers over a similar time period to subdue a UVF/UDA post border poll revolt. I wonder if the Irish Army is even capable of such a thing at all. At the moment its strength is a mere two infantry battalions. During the first Irish Civil War 1920-1924 (when it was battling the anti-Treaty IRA) the Irish Army expanded to around 50,000 troops and it would need to do that again - actually it would need to double that number so that soldiers could rotate in and out of the combat zone. Conscription would have to be introduced and we can safely assume that the Irish Army will not be getting help from the British or the Americans following their 13 year long Afghan campaign. It's going to be very very bad for a while and unless the international community steps in we could be looking at Bosnian style massacres and ethnic cleansing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people will die. Most of them will be civilians.
Can any of this be avoided? A few years ago I thought so but now I doubt it. I used to believe that the poisonous meme of nationalism was dying out in Ireland and/or Europe but in fact it is as virulent as ever. As I say, little has been done to provide jobs and opportunities for working class Protestants and Catholics. Protestant and Catholic kids still go to separate schools and play different sports. The peacewalls are still up all over Belfast and the paramilitary groups have not gone away, indeed are as strong as ever.
At some point in human history, of course, nationalism itself will die out. I won't be around to see that happy day but when it comes it will be a triumph for the human race. Good riddance to a vulgar eighteenth century concept which has caused as much death and destruction as the invention of religion or the bogus pseudo sciences of race and ethnicity. And until then Ireland will weep and bleed. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Max Tegmark's Multiverses

Max Tegmark
Our Mathematical Universe by physicist Max Tegmark is a popular science book in which he unpacks his theory of the level 1,2,3 and 4 multiverses and then in the last third explains his theory of the mathematical universe. I understood the multiverse idea (the first 3 multiverses anyway) but I didn't really get his concept of the mathematical universe (he's either saying that all the laws of physics depend upon fundamental mathematical concepts which isn't very interesting, or he's saying that everything in the universe (suns, planets, you, me, our conscious minds,) is mathematics itself, i.e. we are living in a platonic universe of numbers that only thinks it's a physical universe - this is a very interesting concept indeed but seems completely crazy to me.) I don't have the competence to judge the last third of the book but I do want to talk about the multiverse idea which is fascinating.
The level 1 multiverse is very easy to understand. All Tegmark is saying here is that space is infinite and beyond the visible light boundary of our universe there must be other shit out there. Indeed there must be entire universes out there. This is the cool part: since space is infinite and the different way atoms in a universe can assemble themselves is huge, but, crucially, finite, then there must, logically, be universes out there with an exact replica of you reading this and me typing this. Indeed there are an infinite number of universes out there with exact replicas of you and me, and an infinite number of universes where we are slightly different, or you became President or I did. Infinity is a very powerful concept and creates some surprising results. Like I say, cool stuff. 
The level 2 multiverse is also easy to comprehend. In the expansion phase of our universe just after the Big Bang a 'baby universe' was formed that became our universe, an infinite number of these formed, some with completely different laws of physics than our own, but sentient entities like you and me could only exist in one like ours, the Goldilocks one where gravity, Plancks constant, the electro-magnetic force etc. balance perfectly. But again because an infinite number of these multiverses formed there are other yous and mes out there in slightly different physical realities.
The level 3 multiverse is a trickier beast to grasp. Tegmark and what he claims are "an increasing number of quantum physicists" are beginning to reject the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that has been the dominant interpretation of quantum physics since the 1920's. If you remember the infamous "double slit experiment" from high school you'll recall that when an electron is fired through a piece of metal with a double slit in it sometimes the election acts like a wave and sometimes like a particle. No understands why this is so and it is deeply mysterious to this day. The Copenhagen interpretation basically says that the electron both goes through one slit and does not go through the same slit at the same time. When the election is "observed" by a conscious entity or by a machine (like a camera) its probability wave collapses and it picks one slit to travel down. This has lead to the Schrodingers Cat paradox wherein a cat is both dead and alive at the same time until it has been "observed" - a thought experiment meant to ridicule the Copenhagen Interpretation itself, which I think it did. One alternative to the Copenhagen Interpretation is the Many Worlds Theory. Here there is no need for dead-alive cats, because when the cat experiment is done 2 worlds are created, one in which the cat is dead and another in which it is alive. When you open the cat's box you don't collapse the cat's probability wave you just find out which universe you are in. Similarly when the quantum double slit experiment is carried out, many worlds are created full of scientists carrying out the same experiment. This, some people say, (smart people like David Deutsch) is how quantum computers work - an infinite number of computers exist in an infinite number of many worlds. I know this sounds crazy but I found this part of Tegmark's book very convincing and I now think that the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics invented by Hugh Everett is more logical than the Copenhagen Interpretation. Which would mean, if Tegmark, Everett, Deutsch etc. are correct, there is an infinite number of yous and mes existing in what is called Hilbert Space who can interact with one another at a quantum level. If you want to interact with another you in Hilbert space you can do so, here. 
The level 4 multiverse is the multiverse of Platonic mathematics that I didn't really understand. You can read Tegmark's short explanation of it on his MIT website here. Like I say, I didn't follow this in the book or on the website. An alternate level 4 multiverse is Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok's idea that the universe goes through an infinite number of big bangs, expansions, heat deaths, brane collapses and big bangs...(This is not mentioned in Tegmark's book but I just thought I'd throw it in here. If this is true then not only have I typed this sentence before and you've read it before, but we've all done this infinitely many times in the past, which I for one find depressing. (As did Nietzsche when he thought about the similar notion of eternal recurrence.))
Scott Aaronson
If indeed there are an infinite number of multiverses out there it raises some interesting questions. First of all it makes what I call Strong Atheism philosophically untenable. With an infinite number of universes there must, logically, be at least 1 universe in which a universal God spontaneously came into existence. It is impossible to say whether we are living in that universe or not. Its unlikely that we're in the universe with the God in it, but its impossible to rule it out. An atheism which denies the existence of all gods is therefore logically mistaken; however a more tempered form of atheism (Soft Atheism) which merely denies that there is evidence for the existence of God works just fine. There are other really fun consequences of living in a multiverse that this dude has catalogued here. (Seriously click on that link and it will blow your mind and then come back here and leave a comment about how your mind just got blown.)
Max Tegmark's book really gave me food for thought. I didn't get all of it, but I enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it for any of you who have ever, Douglas Adams fashion, wondered about the big questions of life, the universe and everything. It got good reviews in the Guardian and The New York Times among many other papers. The best take down I've read of Tegmark's thesis was done by Scott Aaronson on his vastly entertaining and informative computational science blog Shtetl-Optimized.(Tegmark himself gets sucked into the really rather geekily clever comment thread.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gone Girl Good Dragon Tattoo Bad

David Fincher's career as a director has taken a more conventional turn in the last couple of years with his adaptations of the crime dramas Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and now Gone Girl. Both books, of course, were international best sellers, but as James Patterson, JK Rowling & Benjamin Black show us selling millions of copies is no guarantee of a book's quality. But what made the movie adaptations of Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl inevitable was the fact that the books went beyond best seller status into a kind of cultural ubiquity. You'd see people reading them everywhere: not just the beach, but lifts, trams, on lunch breaks, squatting by the wall while waiting for the subway...As such they were very important books because they got people who wouldn't normally read a novel to look at one for perhaps the first time since high school. The Fincher film brought even more people to Dragon Tattoo and will kick Gone Girl into the stratosphere. I applaud the latter but boo the former and shall explain why below, after this spoiler alert. Spoiler, uhm, alert. 
Ok, I had 5 major problems with Dragon Tattoo: 1) As a locked room mystery it didn't work because the reader was not given all the information to solve the puzzle. 2) Cally Blomqvist's character seemed like nothing more than a middle aged male's wish fulfilment fantasy 3) Larsson wanted to have his cake and eat it too: deploring violence against women but giving us lots and lots of it in lurid sadomasochistic detail. 4) The use of magic to solve plot problems. (Whenever the plot bogged down Lisbeth would hack the information from the internet and the plot wd move forward again.)  5) The clunky prose, extreme length and heavy handed cliches made the book pretty dull (I give Larsson a pass on this one because if he had lived the novel would have been given a tighter edit). 
Gone Girl though is a different kettle of fish. (The following paragraphs continue major spoilers - if you plan to read the book or watch the film STOP READING NOW.) Ok, still with me? Good. Brief plot summary follows: Gone Girl takes place in rural Missouri where Nick Dunne has relocated after losing his job on a New York magazine (Gillian Flynn was downsized from Entertainment Weekly and after her dismissal also relocated to rural Missouri). Nick takes his flightly but sweet wife with him and they both try to adapt to living in a small town. One afternoon Nick comes back from work to discover that his house has been broken in to and his wife has gone missing. The cops suspect Nick knows more than he's saying and when they discover that he was having an affair they are convinced that he killed his wife, but we the reader know different...
The first thing I liked about Gone Girl was how unlikeable the two main characters were. Initially I thought this was authorial incompetence, but it wasn't: the husband and wife are both rich, spoiled, self involved yuppies and we're supposed to not like them. We're supposed to read the book despite Nick being a toady and a creep and a third of the way in we discover - in a major twist - that his wife, the beautiful sweet Amy Dunne, is an unreliable narrator (we've been reading her diary in alternate chapters) and she is in fact a highly functioning sociopath. Amy has staged her disappearance to get revenge on her husband for his affair and wants to see him squirm, get convicted and possibly get executed. I also liked Amy's backstory (she's the star of a series of children's books written by her chilly parents) and although I never warmed to Nick at all I did enjoy seeing him try to weasel his way out of the shit. Yes the book was too long (almost all books are too long) but it was also ironic, funny, off kilter. With unlikeable leads, self awareness and a brilliant downbeat ending Gone Girl is my kind of airport novel and I'm glad that it was and is a success. It's both a missing girl thriller and a satire of missing girl thrillers (there are many delicious digs at Nancy Grace and her ilk). If this is the entry level novel for many people into the crime fiction genre then a jolly good thing it is too. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Website

I've finally jumped on the website bandwagon. Big thanks to the hardworking and really rather brilliant folks at Profile Books who have developed this site for me. The focus is mainly on the Duffy books because people actually seem to want to read those ones. But there's tons of other stuff on there too. They've even made a limited edition of some Sean Duffy merch which they'll be giving away in competitions. Its cool shit. Duffy's warrant card. A Duffy Rubiks cube. Duffy Top Trumps. A Duffy Walkman with an 80s mixtape. They even gave away bottles of Duffy's favourite whisky. (Lagavulin 16 if you must know). If you've been following my blog for the last six years or so, you'll know that I usually give away a couple of galleys of the new book when that becomes available. I always loved doing that but I hated going to the Post Office and paying the ridiculous shipping fees from Oz. Profile are going to be doing that for me now too, which is great, so if you want to get a galley of Gun Street Girl go there, not here! As of Friday the website is up and running & you can check it out, here, mis compañeros...
The new website will also host the latest blog posts, but rest assured that I'll still be blogging here for the forseeable. When I started blogging in 2008 I thought that I would run out of things to say pretty quickly, but clearly I have some kind of graphomania or egomania or other mental disorder because there's always something getting on my nerves that I want to write about. Which means that until I achieve enlightenment or equanimity the blog will remain.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Watching The Detectives

A couple of years after I watched Pulp Fiction I read Bell Hooks's impressive critique of the movie where she lambasts Tarantino for his inappropriate appropriation of black culture. Hooks's criticism of Pulp Fiction is angry but entirely logical and smart so when I watched Pulp Fiction again I was prepared to like the movie a lot less. I didn't. When I watched it again I saw that although Hooks's critique works on one level the movie was still a contemporary masterpiece (apart from Tarantino's own cameo in the film which more than makes Hooks's point). But it was a very interesting experience watching the film from 2 different critical perspectives in my own head. 
I had a similar experience with HBO's True Detective. Before I watched an episode of the show I read Emily Nussbaum's take down of it in the New Yorker magazine. It's a long, pointed review that you can read here, but for me the most important 2 paragraphs are these: 

...but, after years of watching “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Lies,” and so on, I’ve turned prickly, and tired of trying to be, in the novelist Gillian Flynn’s useful phrase, the Cool Girl: a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense. And, frankly, “True Detective” reeks of the stuff. The series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn’t just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch.

To state the obvious: while the male detectives of “True Detective” are avenging women and children, and bro-bonding over “crazy pussy,” every live woman they meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life. Instead of an ensemble, “True Detective” has just two characters, the family-man adulterer Marty, who seems like a real and flawed person (and a reasonably interesting asshole, in Harrelson’s strong performance), and Rust, who is a macho fantasy straight out of Carlos Castaneda. A sinewy weirdo with a tragic past, Rust delivers arias of philosophy, a mash-up of Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the nihilist horror writer Thomas Ligotti. At first, this buddy pairing seems like a funky dialectic: when Rust rants, Marty rolls his eyes. But, six episodes in, I’ve come to suspect that the show is dead serious about this dude. Rust is a heretic with a heart of gold. He’s our fetish object—the cop who keeps digging when everyone ignores the truth, the action hero who rescues children in the midst of violent chaos, the outsider with painful secrets and harsh truths and nice arms. McConaughey gives an exciting performance (in Grantland, Andy Greenwald aptly called him “a rubber band wrapped tight around a razor blade”), but his rap is premium baloney. And everyone around these cops, male or female, is a dark-drama cliché, from the coked-up dealers and the sinister preachers to that curvy corpse in her antlers. “True Detective” has some tangy dialogue (“You are the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch”) and it can whip up an ominous atmosphere, rippling with hints of psychedelia, but these strengths finally dissipate, because it’s so solipsistically focussed on the phony duet. Meanwhile, Marty’s wife, Maggie—played by Michelle Monaghan, she is the only prominent female character on the show—is an utter nothing-burger, all fuming prettiness with zero insides. Stand her next to any other betrayed wife on television—Mellie, on “Scandal”; or Alicia, on “The Good Wife”; or Cersei, on “Game of Thrones”; or even Claire, on “House of Cards”—and Maggie’s an outline, too.

These are all good points and largely unassailable. Furthermore, I am not a fan of satanic conspiracy movies or of child abduction/torture books and movies (I hated Girl With A Dragon Tattoo) and I really hate it when the child abduction is connected to a, yawn, satanic conspiracy. (The exceptions here being Ben Wheatley's Kill List and the original Wicker Man.) So you'd have thought I would have despised True Detective on every conceivable level...
And yet...I didn't. I loved it. True Detective S1 is a work of art. The temporal dissonance of the pilot episode was bold and visionary, the dialogue throughout the season was witty, sophisticated and completely authentic (yes skeptical New Yorker readers working class people do in fact talk about big ideas and philosophical concepts), and the Louisiana imagery of the entire season was extraordinary. Nussbaum's point about the female characters is worth saying but a little misplaced because that's not what the show is about, the show is about men - 2 men in particular attempting to cope with a world with no moral centre. The show reminded me of the Thomas Pynchon short story Entropy also set in Louisiana: in both the Pynchon and True Detective we get characters who know that entropy will always win - the universe will end in disorder and nothingness, but here and now in the present we can attempt to impose a little bit of local order on a sea of chaos. We're not holding up a middle finger to God, there is no God and there is no justice, what there is is a little temporary rectangle of order in a bleak rule-less world. The cops in True Detective are existential characters in search of meaning on a planet that has no meaning. But they find meaning in the quest itself. As Alasdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue "the man who does what he ought moves steadily towards his fate and his death. It is defeat and not victory that lies at the end. To understand this is itself a virtue, indeed it is the necessary part of courage."
Philosophically and visually True Detective is rich and when you add in the extraordinary acting from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughay and the music from The Handsome Family and T Bone Burnett you get a show that's ambitious, bold and exciting. I watched True Detective the way I rewatched Pulp Fiction with my critical faculties intact and with my antennae up. I watched with 2 different emotions in my brain (emotions is the right word here - remember what Hume said about reason being the slave of the passions). Although I cd see Nussbaum's POV ultimately I was much more convinced by the story telling of Nic Pizzolatto - the writer - and ‎Cary Fukunaga - the director. TV programmes aren't supposed to mirror the world, or improve us, they're supposed to entertain. Unlike Emily Nussbaum I do not find Scandal & The Good Wife and House of Cards to be entertaining. I won't say that Nussbaum missed the point of True Detective but I will say that this is not a show about families or white collar female professionals or lost girls, this is a show about maleness and perhaps only men (and maybe Camille Paglia) can truly appreciate the subtleties of its art.