Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Fall; it scares me how good it's not

Like most people who read books, I have an informal pantheon of writers I've read who go beyond "I know I shouldn't waste my time with this" and off into "Oh my word, that's really, really bad stuff." Dan Brown, for example, a man who's honestly capable of nothing good; it's genuinely breathtaking to romp through his prose marveling at the tin ear for dialogue, the contrived situations, the characters who could be slid under the door of a bank vault without harm, and above all the crazily wrong "details". I read The Da Vinci Code marvelling that a writer could literally be wrong about everything I knew enough about to check. Or there's Stel Pavlou, a man who writes like his X-Box is broken and he has to fill the gap until the new one arrives. Matthew Reilly used to be a guilty pleasure of mine, but lord, he's really not a good writer. And there's alway lyin' Lord Archer, my touchstone for crappy writing, whose Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less is the first book I can remember reading and thinking that I could have done a better job on. With crayons.

Every now and then I hit a writer who's mostly humdrum, but has moments of sick genius; if you're ever need of a laugh, I commend to you any piece of rip-roaring action in Michael Asher's Death or Glory: The Last Commando. Every few pages, Asher oscillates out of his default mode of hackneyed cliche and into either quite decent descriptions of life in the desert or perfectly dreadful purple prose to describe gunfights. It's like the machine gun equivalent of those bodice rippers that flail around looking for synonyms for naughty bits, but with a lot more verbed nouns and bloodshed. I was too hypnotised at first to check his sources, but I did make the time eventually and discovered that his Nazi supermen were fighting with rifles never issued for desert warfare and machine guns only ever used in aircraft. Usually that kind of slip would just kill the mood for me, but it was a mere blip compared to the lunacy of the prose.

And then there's Chuck Hogan, who is threatening to displace even Lord Archer in my mind. I've just finished his and Bill del Toro's follow up to last year's The Strain, and it's quite a bit worse than the first book. On the one hand, it manages to make the entire end of the world feel dull and uneventful. On the other hand, Hogan's actually crossed the line into writing so bad that it's distracting. From quite early on, there's stuff in here so clunky that it actually kicks you back out into the real world blinking at the idea that someone could get this past an editor. Why they didn't take the typewriter off Chuck when he felt the need to describe a tablet as sublingual and then immediately gloss that as "under the tongue", I will never know.

Although the vampires have fattened up physically since I last checked in at the end of the world, the same can't be said of the characters. Somehow, the lead humans have got less interesting and involving since I saw them last and nothing else has stepped up to pick up the slack. I was quite looking forward to meeting a bunch of slightly less horrible vampires, but we see very little of the vampire forces of law and order and by the end of the book they've been completely wiped out. I kept waiting for the book to pick up, but it fizzles out apathetically, no mean feat in a book which has world war three break out and create a nuclear winter so as to reduce vampire sun tanning issues. It was hard to fight the feeling that Hogan and del Toro were thinking oh yeah, crap, this a trilogy, let's just get the middle book out of the way so that we can do the big finish.

Gonna need to be a hell of a big finish to get them out of my bad books.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Heroes: Joe Abercrombie

I've long argued that you can't write about a battle in a satisfactory way, and that the smartest thing a writer can do, once faced with a battle, is to cut away from it and come back for the aftermath. It turns out that I wasn't completely correct in this assertion. Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes is an entire book about a single three day battle, and it actually works. Not only that, but Abercrombie doesn't cheat; he keeps the focus of the entire book on what's going on right now; there are no detailed flashbacks or other narrative manoeuvres to widen things out. The characters are preoccupied by things which happened in the past, but those things are sketched in just enough to give them some weight rather than recounted as full size episodes. Pretty much, The Heroes is all battle, all the time.

Now, of course, some things stay true. One of the reasons that it's hard to write about a battle is that it's very difficult to give a sense of how a battle develops without stepping outside of the immediate frame of reference of the viewpoint characters. Abercrombie has always worked by establishing some strong viewpoint characters and switching between them to let us see as much of the action as he wants to show us. In The Heroes, he sticks with this, but uses a lot more characters and switches a lot more often. And because it's just a book about a battle, rather than something longer and larger, he can do something authors don't usually do, and make some of the viewpoint characters very senior officers. Usually it's hard to craft a good narrative around generals, because it's hard for a reader to identify with generals, and it's also quite hard to construct an interesting narrative arc around someone who's already at the top of their career. But if you're writing about a battle and one of your unspoken rules is that anyone can die at any time, you have a bit more latitude.

Coming from Abercrombie's previous work, The Heroes felt a lot less rich than I was expecting; there's only so much development can happen in a three day battle, and a lot of what happens is entirely predictable. Abercrombie is making the point that war is hell and largely futile, and so most of his characters end up dead or disillusioned, many of them having started out disillusioned anyhow. This means that a lot of the characters have narrative arcs as predictable as those of the cast of a horror movie.

Having said that, Abercrombie carries a lot of this off very well. Several times, as the battle proceeds, he shifts from one minor character to another, by having the focus shift from someone who'd just died to the person who killed him, who dies in turn, and so on. Having set this up as a way of telling the story, it was a real jolt the first time that the viewpoint shifted to a major character. Hang on, I thought, I don't want him to die yet. The work's been done when you start worrying that someone's going to get the chop.

The Heroes isn't as much fun, or as involving, as Best Served Cold, because it doesn't really have the space to draw the reader into a big complicated plot. But it's a very good read, nonetheless, and I like the way that, just as with Best Served Cold, characters from his earlier books sidle into view. The other interesting thing is the way each new book gives a sense of a major feud that's playing out a much higher level, with the present action just a minor skirmish to the half unseen players high above. The monstrous wizard Bayaz from the First Law makes a comeback, with his mortal enemies from the south hanging around the edges. Bayaz is perhaps the most unequivocally bad character Abercrombie has come up with. He has a genius for cooking up anti-heroes and sympathetic villains, and then there's Bayaz. What makes Bayaz stand out is that everyone else stumbles into good or bad, while Bayaz just strides along without any regard for either. Bayaz does what he wants, when he wants to, as part of some larger game which has yet to be explained. I'm kind of looking forward to the explanation, but I'll happy read the next book whether it explains things or not.




Saturday, 11 June 2011

Point Blank: the French do this so well

In previous ruminations on French cinema I have speculated that the school system must be fabulously unpleasant , and that France may not have any working elevators, but for some unaccountable reason I have never wondered aloud about the unrelenting awfulness of the French criminal justice system.

As some of you know, by law promulgated under Louis Napoleon, every year France is obliged to produce one superior costume drama. It is a more recent legal requirement that no more than 20% of France's total annual cinema production may exclude Gerard Depardieu. Finally, the 1981 Noir act made it mandatory for French cinema each year to produce one truly brilliant crime movie, in the hope that one day they'd somehow duplicate Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva. So far, all that's actually happened is that Luc Besson uses loopholes in the 1981 act to keep producing movies like From Paris With Love and Taken, when what we really want him to do is make another Leon or Nikita.

Point Blank is not a masterpiece; the last really good French crime movie I saw was the extraordinary Tell No One, and Point Blank doesn't measure up to it. But it's a damn good little movie, brought to us by the guy who directed the somewhat better Anything For Her, and sharing a lot of the same DNA; for starters they're both about ordinary guys having to go to extraordinary lengths to get their beloved wives out of terrible captivity. They both race along nicely, and they keep things wonderfully simple and grounded, so that the hazards seem scary not because they're immense but because they're quite real.

All in all, I preferred Anything For Her, because it set up a farfetched but pretty simple problem and let it work itself out. Point Blank has a nice simple problem at first, but then gets it all lost in a conspiracy which throws a huge chunk of needless backstory into the middle of the movie and breaks its narrative coherence a bit. But that's me; it still rockets along perfectly well, and ends satisfactorily.

But the movie really left me wondering how French people must feel about their police, because it's yet another one of those French crime films where the mcguffin behind all the violence and hazard is dirty cops doing their own thing and covering it up. It struck me as I was watching it that this is a recurring theme in half the French crime movies I've ever seen. Maybe it's just that France, like the rest of Europe, hasn't got the kind of armed lunatic criminals that America's got, and the only organised armed group big and competent enough to be scary is the police itself. I honestly don't know. But it comes back again and again.

All the same, you have to love French crime movies. I love the way the cops always look exhausted and baggy. I love the way that every single copper with a speaking part HAS to wear a black leather jacket of some kind. I love those orange armbands they pull on when they have to go chasing people and they need everyone to know they're police. France has to be the easiest country in the world to pretend to be a policeman in. And I love the chase scenes in French police movies, because they're exhilarating without being in any way flashy. There's a wonderful foot chase in Point Blank which is completely gripping without being in any way flashy. It's not quite as good as the foot chase in Tell No One, but it's pretty good. (The chase in Tell No One is a completely humdrum run through Paris, but it's done so well that when the hero has to decide to run across a six lane highway,  it feels every bit as scary as it would be to try to do it yourself, and when the cops decide not to bother following him, it seems like a perfectly sensible choice).

There's just something very satisfying about these policiers. The cops and the people they're chasing seem real and ordinary in a way that American movies can't manage. Even when it's all fundamentally silly, it's still gripping because these are not the glossy disposable people of Hollywood, but people you can imagine having real lives.

Still, Point Blank's a bit daft. The master plot is that a nurse's aide has to get a guy out of hospital, and to make him do it, the bad guys kidnap his wife. About halfway through, there's actually a moment where just about everyone could live happily ever after by just leaving the wife in the middle of a crowded train station and walking away. At that stage, everyone has what they need, and there's no need to keep the hostage. But since the movie's only half done, the hostage gets kept (at considerable inconvenience to the keeper) and the movie gamely plugs on. That kind of bugged me; from there on out, it's a movie which is running on an idiot ball plot, something which is particularly bothersome when just about everyone in the movie is actually being played as someone with an ounce of sense.

So, I'd have to say, by all means check it out, but if you can, go find Anything For Her instead. And either way, watch Tell No One. And dig out Diva again. It's been too long since you watched it.

Iain M Banks: Surface Detail

Any new Banks book is always worth reading once, though it's been a while since I've felt that any of his mainstream fiction was worth keeping around. Banks writes very well, but not always about anything I actually want to come back to. Last year I read Transition, which was a Banks (as opposed to M Banks) novel, but science fictional, and found it eerily disposable. As always, the technical quality of the writing was first rate; as has increasingly been the case since the Crow Road, the actual characters and subjects didn't do a thing for me.

Surface Detail is another Culture Novel, which used to be something I really looked forward to. When Banks first started yarning on about the Culture, he'd hit a wonderful sweet spot of snarky computers, larger than life space lunacy and genuine hazard, all carefully assembled so that by the end of the book, there'd be a genuine surprise. Nowadays, I just find that I end the books confused about what the hell was really going on, a problem which set in for me with Excession in 1996 and has been getting steadily worse ever since. It's never been a problem I really worried about, since I'm not really all that bright and being confused by fiction just lets fiction mirror reality, but I like to think that I've been confused by something genuinely out of my league rather than something which is just badly put together. It's the difference between getting to the end of the narrative and saying "So, THAT was it." and saying "WTF?"

With Surface Detail, we may have crossed into badly put together country. Usually Banks throws in multiple viewpoints and brings them together so that I can see that what looked disconnected was really strung together all along; In Surface Detail it wasn't so much that the viewpoints were disconnected as that I couldn't see what they were there for in the first place. A lot of the time I thought that Banks had just taken a whole bunch of half started work and munged it together into one book for the sake of getting something out in 2010. For all I know, that's exactly what was happening.

Tis a pity, really. There's lots of fun stuff going on in the book. There's even some stuff that isn't at all fun, but is very well done. The vision of hell is genuinely gruelling, although I couldn't help thinking that somewhere along the line someone had slipped Banks a copy of the collected works of Alan Campbell. It just fails to cohere into one meaningful chunk. There's all kinds of things you'd like to see more of, and not that much that you'd like to see less of, but the book would have been stronger with fewer narrative lines in it, which is another way of saying that it would have done no harm to axe at least one and preferably two of the viewpoint characters. That would have given everyone else some room to work and develop in.

In a way, the problem is Banks trying to top himself. He started writing SF with a crescendo, and he's had to build from there, so eight books into writing about the Culture, the only apparent way to up the ante is to write about the afterlife. He's used up every lesser spectacle. I think he's kind of missing the point of what a good writer can do. A bad writer needs to blow things the hell up just to get everyone's senses overwhelmed. A good writer can blow up one person, and because he's made the person real, make it the end of the reader's world just as much as it's the end of the character's world. Banks, on a good day, is that good. He just needs to dial it down a bit.