Archive for ‘places’

May 7, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

I’ve written about Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket on this blog before. This month it was the subject of my column at Kindle Magazine. Slightly longer version below.

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There’s a bit at the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a book too well known to ever appear in this column, but both out of copyright and brilliant) in which the narrator laments the filling in of the world map, as new places were explored. “It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery–a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”

Unknown places allow for stories about them*. In medieval Europe India was a fantastic place, populated with all manner of strange creatures. Centuries later adventure novels (of the Rider Haggard variety) had people discovering hidden valleys and lost civilisations in parts of Asia and Africa and South America. As the world became more and more known we had to find other blank spaces to fill in – Jules Verne and Edward Bulwer-Lytton both went subterranean with Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Coming Race; some writers turned to other planets (particularly Mars, and I think this is at least one of the reasons for the flowering of science fiction in this period).
Edgar Allan Poe goes south. In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s only complete novel, the title character stows away aboard a whaling ship. He is helped in this by his friend Augustus, whose father commands the ship. After some mutiny and wholesale slaughter they end up on another ship, this one dedicated to exploration. They sail towards the Antarctic, discover new lands, and have hair-raising encounters with native barbarians. All of this is quite normal as far as nineteenth century adventure stories are concerned.
But this is Poe, and so obviously it cannot be a normal adventure story. Throughout, it is infused with the sort of weirdness that Poe is so skilled at invoking. A sense of everything not being quite real lurks under everything. So when Pym hides himself on the ship, it has to be a nightmarish situation involving a coffin, rancid meat and feverish dreams. Later the few people left on the ship must see (or hallucinate) ghosts. As Pym sails south in the last moments of the book he feels “a sudden listlessness” and becomes more and more passive, as if in a dream. At times the unreality of it all reminds one of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The violence and gore of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is often ridiculous, particularly since the author seems to feel that each chapter must somehow surpass the last in sensationalism. Yet the adventure plot is only the structure; what elevates the book is the sheer strangeness that runs through it. This is only enhanced by the kind of ambiguous ending that most writers would not dare attempt.
Arthur Gordon Pym may not be as famous as other of Poe’s works, but its influence has definitely been felt. Elements of it can be felt in H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Jules Verne references it in The Sphinx of the Ice fields. Most recently, Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym tells the story of a man obsessed with Poe’s book. Ludicrous and over the top it may be, but it is somehow special.

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*See also Daniel Abraham’s post defending “exoticism” here. I read a fantastic response to it by Jha on tumblr, but no amount of searching has produced a permanent link. If anyone does have the link, please post it?
Edit: Link to Jha here. (Thank you!)
November 14, 2010

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

A version of this appears in yesterday’s Guardian20, though I don’t think it’s on the site yet. I don’t think there was ever any way I was not going to like an Ian McDonald book set in Istanbul, but this was just gorgeous – rich and dense and stimulating.



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The 2009 movie District 9 opens with an observation about the arrival of an alien spaceship. “To everyone’s surprise, the ship didn’t come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago, but instead it costed to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg.” There is an awareness here that the terrain of science fiction (when it has been on Earth at all) has been rather limited.

That is, to some extent, changing. Both the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke awards for 2010 were awarded to novels with plots that played out in non-traditional settings. China Miéville’s The City and the City took place between two fictional Eastern European countries, while Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind Up Girl was set in a future Thailand.

Since 2004, British science fiction writer Ian McDonald has been exploring alternative settings for speculative fiction. His works in that time have included River of Gods, an award-winning novel set in future India; Cyberabad Days, a collection of shorter fiction set in the same world; and Brasyl, set in Sao Paulo and the Amazonian jungle, and in the future and the past. His latest novel, The Dervish House, takes for its setting near-future Istanbul.

It is 2027 and Turkey has been a part of Europe for five years. On a Monday morning the head of a suicide bomber explodes in a tram. McDonald begins his new book with a number of separate threads, all seemingly connected only by the explosion and the fact that the protagonists all live and work around Adam Dede square, “small enough for two tea shops but big enough for rivalries”. The square is also home to an old tekke, or Dervish House, and it is around this building that the stories revolve.

There is Cam, the boy detective who must wear special earpieces to shut out sound, and who experiences the world through his shape-changing robots. Georgios Ferentinou is a Greek economist and the brains behind the “Terror Market”. Necdet is a young man with a troubled past. He lives in the Dervish House with his brother, and after witnessing the explosion begins to see djinn everywhere. Leyla Gültaşli, a young woman who is trying to escape the pressures of family, finds herself forced to accept a job with a cousin after the tram explosion prevents her from getting to a job interview. Adnan Sarioğlu is a businessman and his wife Ayşe Erkoç an art dealer. Ayşe accepts a commission to find a “Mellified Man”, a saint whose body has been turned into pure honey.

As the novel progresses these stories connect in other ways as well. The ways in which people’s lives and pasts intersect and come together to form parts of the larger narrative are an appropriate method of telling this story. This is because McDonald’s major preoccupation here seems to be those fundamental concerns of storytellers, scientists and sociologists everywhere: how things fit together, how they become parts of a bigger whole, and what constitutes individual identity. So we have Cam’s robots, joining together, breaking apart, joining again to form new shapes; the cells that make up a human body turning into computers; a silver Koran that is cut in two, each half supposedly yearning toward the other because the Koran is one thing; the entire history of the city in its individual stones.


Istanbul is the perfect location for this novel. It seems terribly cliché to point out that the city sits at the point where Europe meets Asia, straddling the East-West divide. McDonald’s Istanbul works as a natural connector of things. East and West, Islam and Christianity, various empires and names layered one on top of the other. The city’s history (“twenty-seven centuries”) is skillfully woven into the story, moving from historical Byzantium and Constantinople to more recent events. Ataturk, relationships with Kurds and Greeks and attempts to be a part of Europe all inform the plot.

And then there’s McDonald’s prose that somehow manages to bring together art, economics, and the sounds of the city and make them all surprisingly lyrical

The Baku Hub opens before him. It’s a beautiful, intricate flower of traders and contracts, derivatives and spots, futures and options and swaps and the dirty menagerie of new financial instruments; micro-futures, blinds, super-straddles, fiscalmancy evolved in quant computers so dark and complex no human understands how it makes money; all folded like the petals of a tulip around Baku’s fruiting heart of pipes and terminal and storage tanks. Istanbul is a barker’s tent, a street hustle by comparison. Baku is where the gas goes down.


The Dervish House is dense, both in its language and its content, and is occasionally somewhat intimidating in the level of engagement it demands from the reader. But it is precisely because of this that it is a book that does engage the reader fully. As a work of science fiction it is vast in its scope and bursting with ideas. As a work of fiction it is as exquisitely crafted as one of the miniatures it occasionally uses as a metaphor. McDonald is a gift, and it’s high time readers outside science-fiction discovered this fact.


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Other people have reviewed this and seen that it is good: see Strange Horizons, Punkadiddle, @Number 71

June 28, 2010

The Gaudiloquence of Elif Batuman

I’d been looking forward to Elif Batuman’s collection of essays about life studying Russian books, The Possessed, for quite some time, on the strength of the introductory essay which I linked to on this blog a few months ago. This despite the fact that I am shamefully underread in Russian literature.

The book is much as you would expect it to be based on that one piece. It’s self-centred and occasionally overly precious, but I loved it anyway.

It’s a bit uneven. The American and Russian sections are wonderful; Batuman can be an incredibly funny writer as well as a very moving one, and when she writes about things she knows and loves she’s a joy to read. The Samarkand sections though, despite being set in Samarkand, do not work for me. Apparently Batuman did not enjoy her time there, and so from the fond humour of the other sections we move abruptly toward this sort of thing:

The Uzbek soccer fans’ lack of identification with the Turkish national team was what finally made me see that Uzbekistan wasn’t a middle point on some continuum between Turkishness and Russianness. Uzbekistan was more like a worse-off Turkey, with an even more depressing national literature. Even I, who was always making fun of Orhan Pamuk, could see that if Pamuk were magically ceded over to the Uzbeks, they would have cause for a national holiday.

On the whole, though, the sheer, joyous love that informs most of the book makes up for moments like this. It’s not perfect, but it’s highly recommended.

An edited version of the (tragically short) piece below appeared in Saturday’s Indian Express.

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In her introduction to The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman says of Cervantes’ Don Quixote that he “had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book”. The Possessed is a collection of essays which shows Batuman herself doing much the same thing, immersing herself in books, looking for parallels and answers to her lived experiences. Describing her own transformation into a literature student she asks “wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?” Batuman speaks eloquently and joyfully of love and the experience of being obsessed.

This is not a book about Russian literature, but about Batuman’s love of it and her developing relationship with it. Batuman claims that what first attracted her to the Russians was a sense of half-understanding and absurdity, and this is reflected in the strange and hilarious forms that her study of the language takes. It is (like any love story) completely self-indulgent.

In “Babel in California” a conference on Isaac Babel descends into chaos. “Who Killed Tolstoy?” has her wandering around Tolstoy’s estates as part of an investigation into Tolstoy’s “murder” (a subject chosen more for the purposes of funding than for any beliefs the author might have). Missing suitcases, unrepentant airport staff (“are you familiar with our Russian phrase resignation of the soul?”) and incontinent old gentleman all play a part in a comic piece that also speaks thoughtfully of death.

“Summer in Samarkand” is divided into three parts that are scattered throughout the book. These sections do not deal directly with Russian literature – the essays are an account of a summer spent learning Uzbek – yet Batuman’s commentaries on Uzbek language and literature are very much in keeping with the rest of the book. If they jar with the rest of the book it is more because of the tone of humour. The affectionate delight in absurdity that characterises the portions of the book set in America and Russia is gone, and the writing suffers as a result.

The last piece, “The Possessed”, is named after a Dostoevsky novel and makes clear its parallels with Batuman’s graduate school circle. Things come together, and characters mentioned in passing in earlier essays come into focus. This is the darkest section of the book. Yet Batuman concludes “if I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.” And if there are no answers, Batuman shows us that love can still be an end in itself.

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February 28, 2010

Practically Marzipan: Books on a plane

I am amazed I managed to get through this without screaming about getting these motherfucking books off this motherfucking plane.

Anyway. An edited version of this appeared in the New Indian Express yesterday.

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Recently I read of a rumour (hopefully proved false by now) that passengers on flights bound for the US would not be allowed to carry anything on their laps during the last hour of the journey in order to prevent terrorism. Among the dangerous items banned from passengers’ laps were books.

Packing books for a journey is a complex and involved process. For one thing, there’s the time factor to be considered. How long is your trip, and how much time will you, realistically, have to read? If you’re like me, you will vastly over-estimate this and carry twice as many books as are actually required, but it’s good to have a figure to base things on.

There’s also the question of packing relevant reading. Until relatively recently, when I went on holiday I would try to carry books about the place I was visiting – historical fiction or crime thrillers or anything that would be familiar with the geography of the place. It took a few years for me to realize that this didn’t always work. Some places simply that interesting, and even when they are you still risk an informational overload that could leave you craving a bad romance novel. The situation is made worse for me because I’m actually a terrible packer, and far too prone to wanting to carry everything I might need – I have a pair of formal shoes that have traveled halfway across the world with me on the pretext that I might need them. They have never been worn. With books, my instinct is to fill my bags with related and unrelated literature, thus (in theory, at least) preparing myself for every eventuality.

At this point constraints of space and weight come into play. I know through long experience exactly how many trade paperbacks can be stuffed into a regular backpack – subtract four if the backpack also contains a laptop. Whether it is wise or healthy to carry a big bag of books on ones back is of course another matter entirely. But the alternative is to put the books in one’s checked-in baggage and airlines are unfairly harsh about those of us who wise to transport mini-libraries around with us. (I could, perhaps, just about avoid having to deal with airline baggage allowances if it wasn’t for the fact that I buy books compulsively when in other cities).

Once on a plane, the books you’ve carried with you become tremendously important. You don’t want to carry anything that will make you cry – I made two businessmen seated next to me quite uncomfortable once when I carried a particularly weepy book on a flight. Equally, you don’t want something that will make you laugh too much or cause the stewards to think you require medical assistance (P.G Wodehouse is not a valid excuse for disrupting a flight). And it must be absorbing enough to keep you absorbed, since if you glance away from the page you run the risk of being sucked into conversation with the guy next to you, who wishes to tell you all about his son in England who is well settled and unmarried and possessed of every virtue. Do not look away from the page. If books are a weapon in this case, they’re a defensive one.

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The book that made me cry and so disturbed those unfortunate men was Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, which I wrote about here. I think my most inspired choice of themed books was on a few days’ trip to Turkey, when I carried Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, and Teresa Tomlinson’s The Moon Riders (also a tear jerker, though).

August 31, 2009

Toilet humour

Samuel Beckett estate, you have made me sad.

I came to Beckett in the most unliterary of ways. I was fifteen, there was a boy, he was older than me and probably very, very pretentious. And I wanted to know what had excited him so much and I read Company, then some of the shorter plays, and it went on from there. At seventeen I thought the fart-counting in Molloy was hilarious and got raised eyebrows from friends. In college I writhed in a back bench when gloomy classmates whined about the depressingness of Waiting for Godot which I had finally read, a few years after I’d started reading the man’s work.

There’s a wonderful introduction by Salman Rushdie (who I love most when he’s talking about other writers he loves) in one of the Grove Centenary Beckett collections that expresses a lot of what I feel for this writer. Here’s a bit:

Death was as you might say still a word in a book to me. I had not at that time washed my father’s short, heavy corpse or murmured a farewell to the open-mouthed body of the first woman I ever loved or wept tears of rage when I was denied by circumstance the right to stand beside my mother’s grave. Consequently, I still felt immortal, and immortals deal differently with the subject of mortality, knowing themselves to be immune from that strange, incurable affliction. Thus, when as a young man I first faced these texts that deal so intensely with the matter of our common ending, which Henry James had called the Distinguished Thing but which, in Beckett, is always grubbily undistinguished, a bleak prat-falling business made up of flatulence, impotence and humiliation, I experienced the books, their ferocious hurling at death of immense slabs of undifferentiated prose, as essentially fabulous, fantastic tales told by the voices of antic ghosts. I experienced them, in sum, as comedies, and so they are, they are comedies, but not of the sort I then imagined them to be, darker, and, yes, even heroic, for all that comedy scoffs at heroes, pulls down their drawers and pushes custard pie into their faces, still there remains, in the comedy of these broken, scrabbling personages, a stale whiff of odorous heroism. Some of this I when green in judgement only half perceived or neglected entirely to grasp. However, in failing to respond glumly to an oeuvre that wears glumness like a favourite unwashed shirt, I got something half right, at least.

I’m 23, and I suspect that over the next howeversomany decades my way of reading Beckett is going to change too. And that’s fine. Because I’ve always felt welcomed by his work; it has never situated itself above me. And that is at least partly because it’s never been on its dignity with me. The slapstick, the toilet humour, the banana peels; they’re important .

I know that the technical aspects of the plays are vital as well, and that Beckett himself did not like even minor deviations from his directions in productions with which he was involved. And I don’t blame him. But I can’t imagine that the man who wrote Murphy (whose main character wants his ashes flushed down a toilet – the novel ends instead with them scattered on a pub floor “with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit”) would be particularly bothered by this version of his play.

[Fun fact: On the evening I first heard about this story I discovered "wait for me Godot!" scrawled on the inside of a pub toilet wall. Positively copasetic.]

July 8, 2009

Various Frankensteins

WHSmith in the Birmingham airport stocks Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein in its SFF section. Now that I’ve read it, I’m not entirely convinced that the book belongs there, but I’ll take it. It’s not often that a Serious Respectable author is shelved there.

I’ve probably said this here before, but I love Frankenstein. It is the perfect book for that moment where you’re just discovering how much you can do with literature (which is not the same thing as loving books, though both are great). It is not only easy to read through pretty much every existing theoretical framework, but it’s saturated with other texts as well. You could discuss Frankenstein with a group of reasonably intelligent teenagers for hours and you’d never run out of things to talk about. I’m never sure whether it is a *good* book (partly because I’m never sure what I mean by that in the first place) but it provides practically endless fodder for thinking and talking.

I also love Peter Ackroyd. And I suspect the reasons I enjoyed The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein have a lot to do with the reasons I like Ackroyd in the first place – this is geek porn. Victor Frankenstein hangs out with Percy Bysshe Shelley (portrayed more tolerably than I have ever thought of him) and Mary, as well as Keats, Byron and Polidori.; he sees a stage performance of Melmoth the Wanderer and discusses the hydrologic cycle with William Godwin. At times like this, the book is really fun, even if this is mostly because it’s trying to be clever. And it’s quite as immersed in the literature, and the literary figures of the time, as the original text.

But once you’ve gotten past the clever bits and the (expected) wonderful picture of historical London it all becomes a bit unsatisfactory. Frankenstein has, as I’ve said, been read in a huge number of different ways. Ackroyd’s taking one particular angle and running with it, which perhaps inevitably shuts down a number of the possibilities the original text leaves open. I found myself thinking “but what about…?” a number of times as I read this book.

This probably wouldn’t matter if the historical geekery bits were strong enough to stand up by themselves. But they aren’t all they could be. I enjoyed the presence of the familiar historical characters and ideas, but there was nothing that struck me as particularly clever or brilliant, and this isn’t even my period in history*.

I would apply none of these criticisms to John Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus, which is another Frankenstein-themed work that I’ve read relatively recently. Pride and Prometheus is a pastiche of major characters and themes from Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein, and it’s available (for free!) here. Either because it’s well done or because I’m thrilled to see Mary Bennet in a major role, I think this is excellent. Other people have talked about this (see here) and so (though I may return to it after I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) I will say nothing more. Read it, though.

*Which I suppose could also mean that there were clever bits that I missed out on because I don’t know enough. Anyone?

May 12, 2009

Random Dublin

April 6, 2009

Various secondhand bookshops across the Netherlands

March 27, 2009

The Netherlands is an excellent place to visit.

Also, people and alcohol. I am pleased and replete.

September 28, 2008

Oddly enough…

Every “No Parking” sign I’ve seen so far in Dublin has been subtly altered to read “No Barking”.

I haven’t been posting this week because I’ve been busy moving to Dublin. It is an excellent city.

In the intervening time people have been visiting my blog having searched for:

little boys dhotis and kameez
show photos of men clad in dhoti between the legs
does aishwarya shave her g-spot
waist size japanese teenagers
anil kumble shirtless
what is it like being a hindu

I’m sorry I could not help them.