Thursday, 7 July 2011

Reviews - Lavinia, The Blue Book

The two books I'm reviewing today could, I've realised, make rather nice illustrations for a guide on How To Write A Good Romance. Lavinia would be in the 'books that manage to get it really quite right' part, and The Blue Book would be in the section called FOR GOD'S SAKE, JUST MAKE SURE YOURS DOESN'T TURN OUT LIKE THIS.


The Lost Books of the Odyssey obviously started me on a mini classics kick, because the next thing I read was Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin. This is a retelling not of the Odyssey but of the Aeneid (which is itself, actually, a sort of retelling of both the Odyssey and the Iliad, only with Roman gods instead of Greek ones. So this is all very meta).

I wasn't sure if I was going to like Lavinia, mostly because of its less-than naturally great subject matter - Aeneas, as heroes go, is a tiresome protagonist who spends half his time being excessively pious and the other half abandoning women; the second half of the Aeneid is by far the dullest part of it, all lists and stabbing; and Lavinia herself, as seen in the Aeneid, is possibly the dullest female character ever created, a bit of living furniture permanently set to 'obey'.

It's even more than usually impressive, therefore, that Le Guin has not only managed to create a book that you actually want to keep reading but to turn two annoying characters who, in the original, thoroughly deserve each other, into two nice people who you would seriously consider inviting over for dinner. Aeneas in Lavinia is a rather sweet over-analyser who desperately wants to look after everyone and do the right thing, and Lavinia herself is not dull at all, only quiet and thoughtful, a sensible person who makes difficult but good decisions. They very unironically do deserve each other here, and their relationship is unexpectedly lovely and romantic in the nicest sense of the word. Like all the best romances, their love is doomed (as always, it's a case of cruel fate) but Le Guin retells their story in such a cool, understated way that it never turns into silly cheap opera - Aeneas's death, when it happens, is genuinely affecting, even though you've been preparing for it almost all the way through the narrative.

The only problem with Lavinia is that it has a very odd central conceit - this Lavinia, we are repeatedly reminded, is not only telling her story as a historical figure, but as the character from Virgil's poem. She's both real and made up, and she knows it - she meets the dying Virgil in a dream and he tells her the plot of the Aeneid, from which she learns that she must meet and marry Aeneas and rule Lavinium with him until he dies. It's the oddest prophecy scene I've ever come across. The rest of the story is so clean and simply told that the whole reality/poetry concept seems oddly jammed in, and all Lavinia's existential pondering about whether or not she's fundamentally real or just the figment of someone else's imagination seems like something out of an entirely different novel.

Once you're past that, though, Lavinia is an absolute pearl among retellings, a confident, beautiful book that conveys its time and place perfectly and something that actually made me see the point of the story it's reworking. Which, as I've already said, is no mean feat.

4 stars

And now, for something completely different, we have The Blue Book by A L Kennedy, to be published in August. I read an advanced proof  of it, so bear in mind as always that what I'm reviewing isn't necessarily the finished version - everything subject to change, no guarantees of content or quality and so on.

So, this book. This book made me struggle. I picked up the proof because I heard it was about fake mediums, which, let's be honest, is a topic that's difficult not to find interesting. It's magic with a side of fakery and a nice (or nasty) bit of death to ogle at from a safe distance. That I didn't just hurl The Blue Book into the nearest abyss is largely a tribute to how damn interesting its subject matter is.

This is the kind of book that can't be experienced alone. It must be shared. "LISTEN TO THIS!" you want to cry, in the state of wild, delighted incredulity that comes only from the realisation (usually experienced when reading Mills and Boone romances) that an actual human being truly believes that the words you see before you are elegant and in no respect humorous ways to describe someone's naughty bits. It is a testament to how truly dreadful the sex scenes in The Blue Book are that I was actually moved to stop reading at one point and look up how one would go about nominating a book for the Bad Sex Awards. I want to go out and campaign on its behalf. Victory in 2011 must be its, for The Blue Book is not only bad but really smugly arch about its badness, proud of all the clever new ways it has thought up to make sex truly intellectually realistic.

Consider, if you will, the following word choices. Where others will only use the blandly descriptive word 'penis' to convey the presence of a male member, A L Kennedy has daringly considered the penis's very essence and given to the world the phrase
softesthardestlostestnakedest thing
Sex, in Kennedy-speak, becomes
chasing the cum
and a blowjob is
everything and sorry and angry and sorry and perfect and tongue and mouth and needs and take him in and keep and lose and keep and play and the first taste of almost and almost... and he's dancing and taste the dancing

My god, I'm exhausted just writing that out.

In fact, A L Kennedy's crimes against the English language are many and varied, and not only confined to descriptions of nudity. As a frequent swearer, I never thought I'd say it, but I became almost physically tired of seeing the word 'fucking' insinuating itself into at least every third sentence, appearing in the middle of otherwise unrelated words and phrases with all the subtlety and appositeness of a pair of light-up plastic breasts at a wake.

The Blue Book, by the way, is the story of Beth, ex-fake medium and owner of the sort of tedious, disjointed stream of consciousness that you might hear if you put a radio on scan, who gets on a cruise liner with one tall slender man and gets off it a week later with another. This other man just so happens to be her ex-partner in crime and One True Love, and the novel follows them as they tediously break up and make up and have strange, disjointed conversations and even stranger, more disjointed sexual encounters. (People in The Blue Book all talk like robots in the last stages of of running down, in weird little jerks and verbal tics. This makes you feel vaguely as though you are having encounters with a quite different species). Things happen, backstory is revealed and it all peters out in a damp fart of an ending in which you realise that you care not a bean for either of the two main characters. They really do deserve each other, the pointless sods.

I can't help feeling as though A L Kennedy has taken something that is conceptually a rather good idea and absolutely mangled it in her desperate urge to be very clever all the time. She absolutely wraps herself in knots trying to describe the world in COMPLETELY NEW AND FASCINATING WAYS, and it never quite works out. About a third of The Blue Book, for example, is written in the second person, directly addressing the reader, which is an incredibly difficult literary trick to get right. I can see what she was going for - recreating the universalised 'personal' patter that fake mediums use - but the problem is that Kennedy can't quite make it work. She repeatedly gets too precise, and instead of feeling like she knows what you're thinking, you realise that she's got no idea at all. It all stinks a bit of desperation, and that isn't really the main emotion you ought to be having when you're reading a novel.

As I said, I did finish The Blue Book, but out of a sense of masochistic fascination with its pure badness rather than anything else. It's certainly not something I'd want any other person to have to suffer though - except, that is, for the sex scenes. You should all read those sex scenes and weep.

2 stars.

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