Thursday, January 11, 2007

Timor mortis

William Boyd praised lavishly at the Guardian.

Coincidentally I just finished Restless this afternoon, and I have to say that I absolutely loved it: it's an extremely satisfying and fast-paced read, yet morally thought-provoking also. One of those good ones that gives me that itchy yearning feeling of wanting to write a new novel myself, in fact I found myself thinking almost constantly at the back of my head (even though I was also quite mesmerized) I must write a novel like this one.

A few observations:

1. Boyd has an excellent style, but it's unobtrusive enough that certain of his books can pass for transparent/simplemindedly thrillerish. (Personally I think this is a good thing, I just don't want the actual goodness of the writing to go uncredited. It doesn't just magically come out this way, you have to know how to do it.)

2. I can't remember now exactly how I came to fall in love with Boyd's writing, but I think the first book of his I read must have been Armadillo. I was completely smitten with it (in fact I must reread it to see if I still think it's pretty much the perfect novel...), went and read most of his others; and Brazzaville Beach in my opinion really is the perfect novel, I don't need to reread it to say so either. (Come to think of it, I just feel like I'm on the same psychic wavelength as this guy. Chimpanzees! Insomnia! Hmmm....)

3. It's for good reason that spies are such a perennial topic for literature. Comes back to old questions about personality and character and deceitfulness; they're, like, the limit case for the ways that we keep parts of ourselves secret even from those we know best. I think John Banville has not written a better novel than The Untouchable, for instance.

4. What I most appreciate about Boyd, perhaps, is that he's one of a quite short list of male writers who seem to me to write female characters that think the way that I do. Of course this makes me say "he writes female characters so well!" but perhaps all I'm really making is a more modest assertion that the female narrators/point-of-view characters remind me of aspects of myself--important aspects--that I do not seem to see particularly often in novels about women by men or women. The interior life of the female protagonists in chick-lit-type novels seems to me unbearably impoverished. Crime novels are better because the "what happened, and what shall I do about it?" motive (which tends to drive the actions of a main character in this kind of fiction regardless of sex) seems to me more pressing as an analogy for the kind of thinking we do about things in our ordinary lives; and of course I've got a huge soft spot for fantasy novels, it may be a bit silly that it's always a high-stakes battle of good versus evil & the fate of the world but the idea, for instance, that the hero(ine)'s training should take up many chapters of the book makes for more appealing stuff than the conventional marriage plot is likely to do in this day and age.

5. I associate Boyd in this respect (of writing female characters in whom I see myself) with only a handful of other writers: Peter Dickinson (especially The Lively Dead, which is an astonishingly good novel & should be much better known than it is);* the Iain Banks of Whit or The Business, perhaps the protagonist of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. (I often like the lead female characters in cyberpunk, but it would have to be said that in some cases their sex is virtually irrelevant as part of a larger syndrome of undercharacterization, it is agreeably egalitarian to make some of your interesting under-characterized intellectual mouthpieces female though...)

6. Boyd has something in common with those writers of an older generation who I grew up reading & who I still love though often with more complicated feelings: V. S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux (well, he's not so much older), Anthony Burgess. There's something backward-looking about Boyd's cast of thought, particularly vis-a-vis the choices he makes about how to depict non-English places: his imagination is postcolonial but with emphasis on the -colonial part rather than primarily the post-. And yet there's also something so fresh and clear about the way he thinks about things, it's more tempting to ally him with the Banks-Gibson kind of stuff than with, let's say, the authors of avowedly historical fiction. He writes novels about the past as though they're science fiction, that's what I like. Strange, interesting.

7. Finally, a passage that caught my attention, in part for the obvious reasons but in part just because I think it's so well-written (the setting's Oxford, mid-1970s):

Some students, wearing gowns and carrying champagne bottles, burst out of University College, singing a song with a nonsensical refrain. They capered off down the street, whooping and laughing. Exams over, I thought, term nearly finished and a hot summer of freedom ahead. Suddenly I felt ridiculously old, remembering my own post-exam euphoria and celebrations--an aeon ago, it seemed--and the thought depressed me for the usual reasons. When I took my final exams and celebrated their conclusion my father had been alive; he died three days before I had my results--and so he never learned that his daughter had got a first. As I made for my car, I found myself thinking about him in that last month of his life, that summer--six years ago, already. He had looked well, my unchanging Dad, he wasn't unwell, he wasn't old, but in those final weeks of his life he had started behaving oddly. One afternoon he dug up a whole row of new potatoes, five yards' worth, tens and tens of pounds. Why did you do that, Sean? I remember my mother asking. I just wanted to see if they were ready, he said. Then he cut down and burned on a bonfire a ten-foot lime sapling he'd planted the year before. Why, Dad? I just couldn't bear the thought of it growing, was his simple, baffling reply. Most strange, though, was a compulsion he developed in what was to be his last week on earth, for switching out electric lights in the house. He would patrol the rooms, upstairs and down, looking for a burning light bulb and extinguish it. I'd leave the library to make a cup of tea and come back to find it in darkness. I caught him waiting to slip into rooms we were about to vacate, poised to make sure the lights went off within seconds of their being no longer required. It began to drive me and my mother mad. I remember shouting at him once: what the hell's going on? And he replied with unusual meekness--it just seems a terrible waste, Ruth, an awful waste of precious electricity.

I now think he knew that he was soon going to die but the message had somehow become scrambled or unintelligible to him. We are animals, after all, and I believe our old animal instincts lurk deep inside us. Animals seem to be able to read the signals--perhaps our big, super-intelligent brains can't bear to decipher them. I'm sure now my father's body was somehow subtly alerting him to the impending shutdown, the final systems malfunction, but he was confused. Two days after I had shouted at him about the lights he collapsed and died in the garden after lunch. He was deadheading roses--nothing strenuous--and died immediately, we were informed, a fact that consoled me, but I still hated to dwell on his few, bewildered, frightened weeks of
timor mortis.

*Re: The Lively Dead, I can't resist the temptation to quote the sole review of this book on Amazon, it is pricelessly good & distinctly apt & will I hope prompt one or two of you to get hold of the novel itself: "I love Peter Dickinson novels. He writes extremely well, sort of extremely good in a very subtle way, & you keep wanting to read more of him. This is a really nice one about a semi-Marxist landlord/housewife/carpenter with a pre-school age child, and a Baltic government-in-exile renting out the top floor of her house. One of her other tenants keels over and dies, a hot dude comes to work for the government, everybody follows each other, & the main character and her husband (who is recovering from depression/a nervous breakdown) have lovely cozy moments. I wish I had a nice relationship like that with someone."


  1. A fascinating post which makes me want to run out and read some Boyd. I don't agree entirely about unobstrusiveness, however, which is one of those truisms which are so beloved of writing teachers and editors, containing some truth but hardly all of it. There's bad obtrusive, i.e. technically unskilled, but also excellent obtrusive prose. In fact, two of the books you've praised recently - Octavian Nothing and The Echo Maker - contain anything but unobtrusive writing, though of course for different reasons.

  2. Oh, I hope I haven't left the impression that I only approve of unobtrusive style--I like many kinds of obtrusive style also (particularly in first-person voices)--just that I feel that this novel's craftiness may be underappreciated because of its accessibility.

  3. Not really a comment on the literary style, but I was quite struck by that passage you quoted. A close friend of mine died unexpectedly a couple months ago. He didn't know that he was sick, but based on several things he said and did beforehand, I think his 'animal instinct' did know. Postcards from the future, that he didn't know how to read any better than anyone else did.
    (I too became very disorganized/slow-moving as an effect of his death, taking ages to get anywhere or get out of the house. In fact I am still kind of that way two months on...)