Monday, 26 October 2009

A Fraction of the Whole

Has any prize done more damage to the medium it celebrates than the Booker Prize? Somehow, somewhen, it gave birth to the cliché of the unreadable "Booker book", a po-faced account of a middle-aged widowed playwright, say, who ventures into the mountains to discover that the secret of life is to renounce plot and spend your days in aimless introspection. In short, boring.

Much of the fault lies with the rules. Each publisher is allowed to submit no more than two books, which keeps the numbers manageable but also forces the publishers to second guess the judges. The obvious strategy is to submit the most portentous books they have - the Booker books. So the cliché feeds itself. And for as long as these monsters win the gongs, they send a clear message to would-be booklovers: literature isn't for the likes of you.

It comes as quite a surprise, then, to find that many Booker prizewinners are actually genuinely good books. And they can even be (whisper it) enjoyable to read. I first found this out when I picked up the 1996 winner, Last Orders, but the big revelation was with 2003's Vernon God Little. How could such a crazily brilliant story win? It felt like an overthrow of the establishment, the literary equivalent of getting H'Angus the Monkey elected mayor of Hartlepool.

The truth is less revolutionary. All depends on the judges. The class of 2003 were obviously an unstuffy lot, and voted accordingly. Looking back through the list of winners, it seems that this attitude is gradually becoming the rule rather than the exception. Merely glancing at the Wikipedia synopses of the 1970s winners is enough to induce a coma, whereas many of the more recent ones at least sound like they have the potential to be interesting. That's not to say they will all be God Littles; I didn't care much for the 2002 winner Life of Pi, for example, but at least it was a breezy read.

The secret I think is to choose carefully. Judge the Booker book by its cover. Read the blurb. Put your ear to the ground and listen to the drumming of the reviews. Good words to hear: hilarious, provocative, playful. Bad words: lyrical, meditative, demanding. Ugly words: flocculent, cinereal, velutinous.

A Fraction of the Whole is firmly on the side of good. Glancing down the 2008 shortlist, it leapt out at me like an attention-demanding youngest child. It's Steve Toltz's debut and it shows, but not in a bad way. It manifests itself as a palpable enthusiasm for the story, both in the plotting and his use of language.

First the plot. Judging by the reviews quoted in the inside covers, I'm duty bound to report that A Fraction of the Whole is over 700 pages long. That requires a lot of plot, and Toltz has an inexhaustible supply. Over the course of the book the focus shifts from Terry Dean, the would-be sporting star turned vengeful criminal, to his brother Martin, whose creative but loopy schemes for improving society always seem to backfire, to Martin's son Jasper, who has to cope with the fallout. If this was a Booker book, they'd probably spend the whole story moping around their home town, "the least desirable place to live in New South Wales". But it's better than that, so the town collapses under the tyranny of a suggestion box by the end of chapter one. Similar calamities befall the Dean family in Paris, Australia again, and Thailand. It's episodic, but the episodes are very cleverly developed and linked together.

I was planning to describe Toltz's prose style as an unending series of wisecracks, and demonstrate it by choosing a random page and pulling out a couple. But 15 random pages later I realise this doesn't work. It is very funny, but it's not a gag-reel, even if it might seem that way while reading it. The humour isn't grafted on either; it permeates the story thoroughly, and is continually surprising.

It's just as well there's so much humour, though, because the story would be seriously depressing without it. Martin's tale in particular is one of unending woe. But the misery and the humour combine to form a very satisfying whole, like a good Smiths song.

The only slight disappointment I can report concerns the narration. The story is alternately told by Martin and Jasper, as a lively mixture of anecdote, diary and autobiography. Their voices are both engaging but also very similar and I occasionally forgot who was doing the telling. Maybe it's excusable, as both are worried that the son is the reincarnation of the father, but it's a missed opportunity to present their differing traits through overtly different storytelling styles.

A Fraction of the Whole is a true epic, with space for philosophy and explosions and occasional dabs of the paranormal. I have no idea if it deserved to win in 2008 (I haven't read the other shortlisted books), but if this is any indication of the judges' taste, it might be worth finding out.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
First published 2008

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

If Chins Could Kill

The first year at university is a rite of passage in many ways, and never more so than when the unsuspecting fresher enters the strange, liminal world of Cult Films. I vaguely remember that one night we watched The Evil Dead (or was it Evil Dead 2?). Not just a cult film, but a cult horror film, which is about as culty as you can get. I'd like to say that it changed the way I viewed cinema forever and left me hero-worshipping the star, Bruce Campbell. But this would be unfair to the truth: I hated it. And I hated him by association (whoever he was).

It wasn't Campbell's fault though. I hate horror films as a genre. I get squeamish at the sight of blood, and more squeamish at the sight of severed limbs with motive power of their own. Nowadays I'm desensitized compared to back then, but I still tend to avoid them if I can. Sorry, horror fans. It's my loss, I'm sure.

So what was I doing reading Campbell's autobiography? It's another selection from the library of Mrs Tomsk, this time courtesy of Senior Spielbergo. It's doing the rounds because early on it describes, in loving and occasionally terrifying detail, the excitement of making amateur films. This book was apparently the inspiration for our own occasional filmmaking efforts, so for that reason alone it deserved to be read.

Plus, I actually liked Bubba Ho-Tep. See how far I've come?

If Chins Could Kill is sold as the life of an ordinary jobbing actor. Not for Campbell the A-list movie, the mansion-sized trailer and more muffins than you can shake a contractual demand at. Instead, he gets tied to a cast-iron cross on the end of a crane arm and rotated until the shot looks just right.

This abuse is inflicted by the director Sam Raimi, who Campbell has known since childhood. Their banter and the suffering they inflict upon each other forms the heart of the book and provides most of the funniest moments. Many of these involve "the classic", Raimi's car, which does stunt service on countless occasions.

Raimi is very much an A-list director now, with three Spiderman films to his name. And Campbell hasn't done too badly out of the movie business either. The marketing line is therefore false modesty, but it's an understandable attempt to carve out a niche on the bookshelves. The real story is much more interesting, as Campbell vividly contrasts the making of the early films, with no money but complete control, to the later ones with plenty of money but no control. Despite his light-hearted tone the early years must have been quite a struggle, but he still yearns for them. Like most people on the creative side of the film business he has a hate-hate relationship with Hollywood, and greatly enjoys his time in New Zealand because it's so far away from the 'spores'.

It's the rollercoaster variety of Campbell's experiences that make this an entertaining book. He even makes it big in TV, first with The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr (never heard of it) then with Hercules (never heard of it either, much to Mrs Tomsk's disgust). In the 2002 version he goes as far as a celebrity book signing tour, which is somewhat at odds with the ideals of the first edition.

Campbell is certainly not an A-list writer, and at times the anecdotes ramble and become disjointed. The abrupt changes between narrative and dialogue also take a while to get used to. But the conversational tone suits his story, and you're left with the impression that he's a very pleasant guy, which is quite a contrast to many of the other actors he describes.

As for amateur films - well, I can see why the book is inspirational. But I nominate someone else to be attached to the crane arm.

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor
by Bruce Campbell
First published 2001

Further reading: Chemie's review

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Miss Tschörmänie

If you're a theoretical chemist with a passable command of German and a secret lust for power, this is the book for you. Miss Tschörmänie (pronounced "Miss Germany") is a comic strip depiction of the life and times of Angela Merkel, the current German chancellor.

The story starts with her early years as a scientist in the East, but really gets going after reunification, when her political career began. She soon signs up with the centre-right CDU party and by 2000 has taken charge. Five years later she has eliminated all other pretenders and become the first female chancellor of Germany. The aim of the book is to show you how she did it.

The story sticks closely to the facts, though there is some room for the authors to speculate about private conversations and thoughts. It's also very respectful to Merkel, who is shown time and again outsmarting her political enemies, both outside the party and within. The only really biting comments come from Gerhard Schröder (her predecessor as chancellor) and Edmund Stoiber (her rival from the allied CSU party), who frame the story while sat in a bar on the day of the 2009 election. They behave like the two old hecklers in the Muppet Show, but even they are left wondering how she pulled a fast one on them.

The illustrations are quite crudely sketched, but the likenesses of the politicians are good - at least I had no trouble recognising the few I'd heard of. Some of their expressions are priceless, usually when they realise they've been outmanoeuvred by Merkel once again. The sparing use of fanciful imagery is also effective, such as when Merkel's speech bubble conjures up a demonic pact between the centre-left SPD and ex-communist PDS, or skyscrapers topple to illustrate the credit crunch.

I won't pretend to judge how funny the book is, as I'm sure there are many jokes that went over my head. But the bits I did understand seemed well written and (gently) satirical. I can only assume the easy ride they give Merkel is due to her continued popularity as leader: her modest, pragmatic style has so far proved appealing to the electorate and doesn't offer a lot to satirise.

The book ends as the exit polls of last week's election are about to come in. In the event, of course, Merkel won. The CDU/CSU are now able to form a coalition with the free-market liberal FDP, marking a decisive shift to the right for the German government. Why this has happened in the depths of the greatest crisis of capitalism for 80 years is puzzling. Much of the blame must lie with the SPD, the other partner in the 'grand coalition' government of the last four years. As the book notes, they managed to take the blame for everything that went wrong during this time, and handed Merkel the credit for everything that went right. The financial crisis has also done them no favours. Much like Britain's Labour party, they embraced free-market ideology in the boom years, so they cannot now attack the ideologues without looking like hypocrites.

I picked up Miss Tschörmänie on a visit to Erlangen while the election campaign was in full swing. You can tell an election is on in Germany by the charmingly simple posters that cover every square metre of public space. All follow the same format: a big smiling face, a name and a slogan along the lines of 'I'm trustworthy'. They've always seemed a little risky to me given the very high incidence of graffiti in Germany. But it's a sign of the respect Merkel commands that I never once saw her picture defaced with a comedy set of glasses and twirly moustache.

Miss Tschörmänie: Wie aus Angie unsere Kanzlerin wurde
by Miriam Hollstein (text) and Heiko Sakurai (drawings)
First published 2009