Thomthumb84's Blog

Book Review: NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman

Posted in Book Review by thomthumb84 on January 9, 2011

There is a point towards the end of Neverwhere in which Richard, our hero, produces the rather hackneyed question: ‘Do you ever wonder if this is all there is?’ Despite its constant use in all kinds of media it is, of course, an important question – not because of the answer but because of what the question itself implies. It speaks volumes: regret; resignation; despair;  boredom – all this fact from one question. And often the reply is not even necessary. But in Neverwhere this is what Neil Gaiman gives us. And, he tells us, that not only is there more – but it is actually all around us. Everyday we are passing it on the street. It is only our own limited conceptions and preoccupations that limit our access to them. Gaiman takes us on a sort of travelogue through an alternative London, London Below – an Alice in Wonderland world of contradictions incorporating characteristics from our own London. Common London locations begin to take on new meanings: Blackfriars literally refers to an order of Black monks; Knightsbridge becomes a bridge constantly enclosed in darkness; and Earls Court.. yeah, you got it. It follows the adventures of the intrepid Richard, very much an Alice character, through this world as he tries to get back to his own, involving all manner of weird adventures on the way.  And it is compelling. The concept is sound. So why does it not quite make the grade then?

For a start, rather sadly, the world feels incomplete. On one level I have tried to convince myself that this is a brief venture into another world and we are merely coming along on a very brief tour. We are only glimpsing this environment in the same way that those on a London tourist bus will see the Tower of London but most likely never even hear of Hounslow. This is a whirlwind trip. In fact, at one point our hero makes the concious decision not to think too hard about this world but rather let it wash over him. Is this a suggestion from Gaiman to the reader as well. But then it is not the limited number of experiences and sights along the route, but rather the quality of their description. It feels rushed – lacking the necessary texture required to really envelope you in the environment and its people. And that is a real shame. One thinks, for instance, of one scene involving a labyrinth constructed from a disjointed collection of past and future Londons that shelter an enormous Boar the size of a bull. The concept is there. And yet it just fails on delivery. Give me the smells, the sounds, that eerie dislocation. But it just isn’t there.

One can certainly make comparisons with Terry Prattchett, creator of the brilliant Discworld and co-author of Good Omens (Gaiman’s first published book). The style is similar. For instance, there is a heavy dose of well timed irreverence within the narrative designed to entertain while not segueing too heavily from the fundamental story. However, this can be problematic. While Practchett is certainly original he is frequently parodying other fantasy worlds from books and film – Tolkein’s Gandalf is Pratchett’s Rincewind and Schwarzenegger’s Cohen is  turned into a 90 year old arthritic warrior with no teeth. But Gaiman has created a whole new and original world. there is no need for parody. Irreverent designs towards our Richard are good. They engage us with this character’s alienated and confused situation. But it frequently feels as though those characters we are seeking to learn more about have turned into cartoonish variations of themselves – like the environments they lack substance.

This unfortunately slapdash approach also becomes obvious in one of the most potentially rewarding concepts of the novel. Gaiman figures from London Below are those who have ‘slipped through the cracks’ of London Above. By this, we are left to understand, he is referring to those on the streets who are seldom recognised or considered for more than a second – the tramps, buskers, runaways, and so on. Almost through osmosis these forgotten or discarded figures become almost invisible – as does Richard – to those in London Above. and it is here that we see these two world interconnecting. All that is needed, Gaiman implies, is the ability to re-evaluate our perceptions on the street. While glancing throughan interesting essay the other day by a very learned friend I was interested in some ideas put forward by Simmel, the major German sociologist and philosopher, which argued argued that through over-exposure, or an over intensification of stimuli, we have become blasé towards our environment. Stories such as Gaiman’s encourage us to move beyond this and engage with our environment once again. But it feels heavy handed – a touch too close for it to slowly meld into the understanding of the reader. Rather, Gaiman punches the reader in the face and ends up sounding preachy. Instead of a call to reevaluate our surroundings it comes across as a push to romanticise the conditions of the conditions of these people. This is false and, I feel, slightly patronising.

The overall sloppiness of the narrative does find some redemption within Gaiman’s obvious ability to conjure this world into being – much in the same way that the Harry Potter books are largely uninspiring in their narrative but rich in otherworldly oppurtuity for the imagination of the reader. But I’m left wondering who this book was written for. At times it reads like a novel for that oh-so-over-categorised ‘young adult’ audience – those slightly gothy teens dealing with the regular angst of an inconsequential future – again that ‘this is all there is?’ question. But then the plot itselfdoes not run to template. This has not been quickly thrown together for a twilight type audience and shares far more with Gaiman’s excellent Sandman style – characters die unexpectantly and some aspects can be pretty heavy going. One long chapter, for instance, sees Richards becoming deeply introspective as he questions his sanity and considers suicide. If it is meant for an older audience then, as I have said, it lacks the necessary depth and presence. It is, in itself, sitting in its own limbo world. But, once again, I feel I am being too harsh here. As a Londoner myself (and as one who frequently asks that oh too familiar question) I liked being able to feel on the edge of that world through the familiarity of the names and the identification of the streets themselves. The day after I finished the book I was actually walking down Oxford Street when I saw a bus heading to Islington Angel, I imagined the bus travelling through the world to visit a character of said name within London Below and smiled to myself. For a second I had convinced myself there was something more and I looked at the world slightly differently.


Book Review: CHARLES BUKOWSKI by Barry Miles

Posted in Book Review by thomthumb84 on August 10, 2010

Having spent an inordinate amount of time waiting for this book to arrive, due to the particularly poor services at an Amazon second hand bookshop, I was slightly disappointed when I finally got round to reading it.

Being something of a ‘Chinanski-ist’ (as I understand Bukwoski referred to us fans) it just didn’t feel like I was getting anything new from it. In his preface Miles does make some allusions to his personal experience of meeting Bukowski, and he does have some – very, very, brief – quotes from people in his life, but this can feel like a summary of his stories and poetry intertwined with some pop-psychology.

Of course, this is the problem with writing a biography of a writer whose main source of inspiration was his own life. Rather than getting these stories from the horses’ mouth, and in the ‘signature-Hank-style’, we get a rehash from a second party who neither knew him very well or had anything new to tell us. ‘Ham on Rye’ is told almost verbatim, as are a number of the stories in ‘Women’ (With the real names included of course).

However, this might be a bit unfair. As Bukowski admitted on a number of occasions 95% of his stories might be true but that does leave the other 5%. And as Miles points out it is probably nearer 50%. He was a great elaborator and borrower of stories. The stories of his mythical sexual prowess are highly doubtful.

For instance, for some time he wrote articles for a number of porn mags in order to make ends meet and one of the expectations of these articles was that (kind of obviously) they had sexual content. As such, Bukowski would write a story and then insert the necessary fictional sex scene in order to make it appropriate for the publication.

And in this ways Miles does succeed to a certain extent in providing the truth behind the bollocks. He manages to narrate the events of a story and then puts them in a more realistic context. Unfortunately the result of this can be depressing for any hardcore fan.

While I certainly appreciate that the life of Bukowski in his books was not glamorous it does have a certain romantic appeal to a certain kind of young man. And whenever you read the truth behind the stories it can be heartbreaking to see this noble loner of LA as the dull, mean, old drunk he was. This is particularly clear when it comes to the promiscuous life he brags about in his writing.

While I have mentioned this above I do think that so much of his fictional persona revolves around his sex life that finding him to be so conservative with women for most of his life was a shock. The reason for this being that in his writing Bukowski is the loner- detached, and more frequently than not, scathing of the society he has been forced into – and this is related through the sexual congress he pursues. It is base and empty – void of emotion or any passion. The best word is probably animalistic. This makes it a very different approach than any other I have read.

The fact that much of these accounts are fiction turns them from compelling accounts of emotionless sex into, well, bad writing. It feels as though he has just not been able to express the true feeling of his sexual encounters.

More to the point I had no idea how mean he could be. Throughout this book you see him turning from loyal and heart-felt friend to worst enemy – almost in the blink of an eye. Best friends who have supported his work all along the line are derided and humiliated in his work the minute they fall out of favour. Whether this was some form of personal defence against his peers or just selfish cruelty I’m not sure but he does not come away from it well.

And I have to admit that Miles does get some good stuff in here. The meeting with John Fante near the end of his life is well told and very engaging. And the amount of time devoted to Jane, his first love, is just what is required. Not giving her the attention she deserved would have been a failure to appreciate the unique role she played in his life and in his relationship with all other women in the future.

It also feels somewhat rushed towards the end. Both ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Pulp’ are dealt with tremendously quickly. This surprised me because both not only merit a lot of attention but would seem to work within the model Miles’ has set out throughout the rest of his book.

Hollywood’ is an account of the writing and filming of ‘Barfly’, a movie starring Mickey Rourke and written by Bukowski about his own early life as a poet drunk in the city. The book is only a slightly veiled biographical account of this period and yet, unlike with ‘Ham on Rye’ in which Mile’s uses the text to its absolute narrative possibilities, he blazes through it over a couple of pages. The failure to properly look at ‘Pulp’ surprised me because Bukoski was writing this so late in his life. More than anything it is a metaphorical examination of his own mortality – a subject which Mile’s spends some time examining in the later poetry but hardly at all within his stories.

But what really annoyed me was the fact that these are two of his best books. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. It just feels as though by this point Miles got bored and wanted to move on to something else.

This is a shame because it is one area in particular I am really interested in. By this point he had settled down. He was drinking less (and then none) and learning to appreciate quieter and more reflective side of life. He showed great affection to his wife and their 9 pet cats. Further towards the end he was even learning about Buddhism- Bukowski and Buddhism! Just think! To have seen these life changing few years would have been brilliant. But all we get are a few sped-off pages.

No doubt some of the problems in this biography are due to a lack of sources outside Bukowski’s own writing. This is clear from the obvious lifting of material from ‘Ham on Rye’ but also from the lack of personal quotes within. I noticed that, on the whole, even those personal accounts he did find were actually lifted from other Bukowski biographies. More than anything it just felt like laziness on Mile’s part and a great disappointment.

However, if your looking to get into Bukowski this might well be a good place to start. It gives you a good overview of his life. I would even go as far as saying that it feels like a ‘reader’ of his literary career rather than a biography. But this is not one for the fans.