Friday, 31 December 2010

Goya's Head by Tom Abrams

Reading this novel could leave you with a huge hangover—the amount of alcohol consumed by its narrator and his cronies is astounding and would have floored even Charles Bukowski.
In some ways Abrams’s fictional persona and writing is slightly reminiscent of Bukowski himself: a hard-drinking misfit most comfortable living at the fringes of society.
James Joyce also comes to mind, for Abrams takes us on an odyssey through Madrid, navigating its streets, plazas, parks and, of course, bars in the same way that Joyce’s Leopold Bloom did through Dublin in 1904.
Much of the time Goya’s Head reads more like a travelogue than a novel. You can almost picture the author sitting at a sidewalk café and scribbling notes and observations on a paper napkin before transcribing them and pasting them into his narrative.
That is not a piece of incisive criticism; the author tells us that this is precisely what he is doing, and the writing of the narrative that we are reading becomes a minor strand of the plot.
Lucas, the narrator, is living in Madrid with a younger woman, Megan, whose full relationship to him is only gradually revealed. She is the adopted daughter of his half-brother, but from the start there is always the suspicion that there is more to it than we are being told.
While Megan studies Spanish and teaches English, Lucas drifts around the city and drinks: three bottles of wine a day is his usual, along with beers and occasional spirits.
Lucas can get by in Spanish but struggles with the finer nuances of the language as indeed with life in Madrid.
The novel’s title, Goya’s Head, is a symbolic reference to how Lucas feels. The Spanish painter’s body is buried in Madrid but his head is missing, possibly in France or in some other part of Spain. For Arbams that sums up the ex-pat experience: the body may be in the country where someone is living but their head is somewhere else, in their homeland or in a parallel place that doesn’t quite relate to the adopted country as it is experienced by the natives.
Lucas has a number of cronies, mostly ex-pats like himself from Florida and other English speaking countries, whose attempts, or in some cases stubborn refusal, to become Madrilleños he chronicles and sometimes implicates himself in.
Into this narrative Abrams weaves reminiscences from his hometown and strands of family history.
In some ways the travelogue aspects hinder the story’s development, but then as Abrams states in his first-person blurb: Madrid itself became a character while he was writing and anyone who has lived or spent any time there will find themselves nodding knowingly as they recognize a street, bar, stock character, or quirk of life reminiscent of the Spanish capitol.
This is a story that anyone who has lived abroad will relate to: living in a city, trying to embrace the lifestyle, culture, and simpler way of being, but never quite getting it—always being an outsider.
This review was first written for and published by the The New York Journal of Books.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

ecopunks review

First review of ecopunks was published by on the Fionnchu blogspot as well as and by the enigmatic John Murphy, who is one of Amazon's most prolific reviewers.

This novel combines the story of a German eco-activist, a Japanese maverick archeologist, and an Irish acid casualty-mystic. In 225 pages, it covers global ground, and links intriguing ideas such as Robert Graves' analyptic analysis, our narcotic addiction to tv, the entrapment of minor celebrity, and Charles Hapgood's theory about prehistoric continental drift. Tony Bailie, a Belfast-based journalist, integrates into this fiction his sober take on the media's creation of and distortion of events so as to caricature those before the camera and how many everyday folks today seek their own sort of secular salvation, lifted up as reality-TV heroes from their obscurity to their own triumphs over adversity.
The three storylines take a while to connect, but there's no disappointment in the wait. Wolf Cliss, the eco-warrior, certainly manages to juggle relationships (for a while) and to traverse the planet as he stays in front of the reporters who mock but dutifully cover his exploits as he seeks, for sincere but easily manipulated reasons, to alert the public to environmental destruction. Meanwhile, Kei Yushiro falls for Wolf, and their child, Irinda, leads the couple separately and together into the path of the third protagonist Lorcan O'Malley's own wanderings, this time less geographical than psychological, as he tries to figure out what the "chink" lysergically prised open after a drug-induced vision in his hippie days may portend as to the discovery in the Sahara that Kei makes.
The plot moves neatly, and (despite a discouraging number of typos, the one drawback) all the pieces fit. Fittingly, the networked nature of the ways activists communicate and connect today serves to emphasize the conjectures that Kei wonders about in her excavation, and that Wolf uses to try to figure out his own origins.
In his first novel, "The Lost Chord" (see my review on Amazon or my blog), Bailie had explored the side of fame less attended to, that of the musician who nearly made it, one who labors in the shadow of one who did. For Lorcan, his stint in an Irish folk trio at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius recalls Bailie's interest in this milieu, and he captures well the collision of Celtic past with countercultural present, as in Lorcan's gig playing in Antwerp while strippers "gyrate their naked crotches inches from his face like real-life sheela na gigs." After Lorcan's sudden come-down from such heady delights to Irish seclusion, his half-scholarly, half-spiritual quest appears inspired by John Moriarty, the late Kerry-born mythopoeic sage. Bailie patiently aligns marginalized speculations with scientific possibilities from our ancient past about how current research, even if maligned by the mainstream, may point to networks as intricate once upon a time as those you and I use to read this review today.
Also, the novel conveys a message that allows its mediators to preach a bit even as they know they are doing so. It's for, after all, a good cause. Nobody's entirely good or bad in this tale (even if a certain corporation with unexplained initials may indeed do evil), and these human qualities in its characters sustain the reader's empathy. There's one lurch into brief violence, but this hastens the climax and in the context of the threat, remains believable.
The plight of a planet in which devastation is seen as the inevitable exchange for jobs and economic growth is compared to a cancer, which may currently break out in isolated regions but has yet to metastasize. The impact of the earth so far may appear small, but it is like pebbles rolling down a slope after the rain: "the mountain--seemingly vast--varied and unchanging, but closely and almost imperceptibly being eroded until one day nothing would be left." (80) Relationships in this novel appear as fragile, and subject to their own global disruptions and sudden upheavals.
In Spain, after Wolf's intervention fails to halt a river diverted to feed a subdivision: "The trees in the forest didn't get a chance to die from thirst as they were chopped down and their wood used to build garden fences, some of them in the new housing development." (85) The wry note combines with the poignant one.
And even a familiar topic such as another hi-tech blight, that of our bodies and minds by television, gets a fresh spin. Instead of saints and martyrs, today we admire those "who just a few days ago was caught in the same drudgery as most ordinary people now has, by the power of TV, been transformed and taken to a paradise on earth." (196) The slow drain of this eight-hour-a-day addiction, as with any sedative, makes one wonder about the long-term effects, on the individual and on our culture.
The denouement, after the rapid pace of most of this narrative, stands on its own as a haunting evocation of what Kei had discovered, or rediscovered. It ties together the ending, but it leaves it open with the careful twist that allows the imagination to enter the reader as the book is closed.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Alexander Solzhenitsyn - A Century in His Life by DM Thomas

DM Thomas is best-known as a novelist and quite often he can't help adding novelistic flourishes to this large, densely-written biography.
But that works well in telling the story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn whose life often reads like an epic Russian novel.
He was an intelligent child who growing up in the USSR was an idealistic Marxist and fought courageously against the Nazis in the Second World War.
However, letters to a friend criticising Stalin were intercepted and he was taken from the German front and tried for treason, earning a ten-year prison sentence. Most of it served in Siberia.
He nearly died a number of times as he worked in the Arctic Circle where the temperature often fell to below minus-50.
On his release he was exiled to the Caucuses where he worked as a teacher but was diagnosed with cancer. He recovered but for several years thought he was living on borrowed time.
He remarried his wife, who had divorced him during his imprisonment, and began writing, producing within a relatively short period of time One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and Cancer Ward – all of them based on his own experiences and often featuring characters who were drawn from real-life people.
The Gulag Archipelago was a journalistic expose of the millions of people who were condemned to serve time and, more often than not, perish in the Gulags.
Stalin's death brought about a thaw in censorship (and mass executions of political dissidents) and One in Day in the Life... was published to huge critical, public and state acclaim, but Solzhenitsyn's honeymoon with the Soviet Union was short-lived and when Brezhnev came to power he was ostracised and eventually forced in to exile, first in Western Europe and then to the US.
During his years in the US he worked on a history of Russia but his creative juices seemed to have dried up by this time.
Thomas is clear in his assertion that Solzhenitsyn was at his most creative when he was being hounded by the state, moving between various addresses and had a messy personal life.
He was unfaithful to his wife, felt hemmed in by her and spent as much time as he could away from her, eventually leaving her for a younger woman.
This portrait of Solzhenitsyn is full of admiration for his courage and the writing that he produced but acknowledges that he was often dismissive, to the point of cruelty, to those who he was closest to and who supported him most – often putting their liberty and lives in danger.
In the US Solzhenitsyn, lived as recluse in New England, sheltered by his new wife, who had three sons to him.
He was wealthy and devoted himself to writing his history, but Thomas, who is clearly an admirer, laments that loss of his creative spark.
Solzhenitsyn alienated many of his admirers in the West with his devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church and seeming right-wing, authoritarian world view.
Thomas can also be highly opinionated, like his subject, and while his judgments on communism and western intellectuals who supported it reflect those of Solzhenitsyn, some 'little Englander' asides do jar slightly.
Never-the-less this is an insightful biography offering a not-uncritical portrait of a genuinely intriguing character and contextualising the political and historical backdrop to his life.

Friday, 24 December 2010


ecopunks is now available to buy from There are also copies available in Waterstones in Belfast and at The Bookshop at Queens.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

While the Women are Sleeping by Javier Marías

The stories of Javier Marías have a surprising tendency to sneak up on the reader again long after reading them.
It is as if after being absorbed, the stories gestate in the back of the mind and then jump out again and demand attention, requiring that they be pored over again.
In the stories in While the Women Are Sleeping, events are often superfluous to meandering musings and speculation as the narrators are forced into new states of mind and gnawing obsessions by what they have experienced or what they have just been told.
Each story usually ends with the narrator (and quite often the reader as well) sitting at a tangent from the direction their life had been heading at the start of the story.
Quite often there is a vaguely supernatural element, such as when a beggar curses a man who shunned him or a ghost seems to correspond with the son of her dead lover.
And this is where the questions start to plague the reader. The story has been read, absorbed, and reflected on and, with a whimsical chill of satisfaction, understood.
Then a day or so later while driving to work, or cooking the dinner it comes back with an unanswered question . . . “But how did he . . .?” or “How could she do that if . . . ?”
A case in point is the story “One Night of Love,” in which a son starts to receive letters from a woman who says she was his late father’s lover and that he has still not joined her six months after his death. She says this is because the son, who narrates the story, buried his father rather than cremated him.
As an incentive to the son to arrange for his father to be disinterred and cremated, the woman offers the son a night of passion with her.
He does not take her up on the offer but arranges for the cremation. A few days later he receives another letter in the woman’s handwriting, which he leaves unopened and which smells faintly of the cologne that his father used to wear.
Even after two or three readings, just when you think you have got what Marías is playing at, he will throw up a fresh surprise and new unanswered questions.
The Madrid-based writer, translated in this collection into English by Margaret Jull Costa, has a rare ability to haunt the imaginations of his readers.
He is more than just a storyteller—he’s a manipulator of the psyche who can jolt his readers into new states of perception.
This review was first written for and published by the New York Journal of Books.