Simon Morden’s Down Station

MordenI’m a bit behind the pack in reading Simon Morden’s novel Down Station (2015). I’m not sure I’m going to stay on board for its sequel, The White City, published in 2016, but there are a lot of very good things about this London fantasy novel.

1: It isn’t about London. It starts there, in the Underground, with cleaners and maintenance workers, but then there is a Voyage of the Dawn Treader moment in which a portal into another world opens out of nowhere. It’s an escape from utter terror rather than a cosy living-room, and the protagonists fall into a strange sea.

2:  It’s super-realist and beguilingly fantastical at the same time. The protagonists only have their underwear, boots and bright orange Underground maintenance overalls, but the land they’ve arrived in – called Down, though the portal called Down Station – is where buildings grow, magic can be learned, shape-shifting happens, and there are no stars, only an impossibly ginormous moon. I love the juxtaposition of the two modes, and Morden writes convincingly.

3: The explanations for the way Down works are almost science-based, and don’t rely on an evil mage, or a magic orb of power, or a long-lost hidden prince, or a curse. There are no prophecies or quests or faeries, thank goodness. This is ecofantasy working at a very high standard for internal logic.

4: One of the two lead protagonists is Dalip, an engineering student, an attractively earnest hero. The other, Mary, is stonkingly good, though with a limited range of expletives. She’s a stroppy teenager, without much interest in her femininity, which is so refreshing. These two of the small number of characters power the plot and hold all our attention. For these two alone I’d read the sequel.

5: Their antagonists are splendidly original, and true to the plot, which is about making a fresh start to life directly connected to one’s true nature. The darkness in some people’s souls breeds monsters, and there are some spectacularly good ones here.

On the other hand, there are some irritating aspects:

6: The mundanity of the party’s progress, heading through the strange magic-filled land, finding out how it works and how to survive, battling monsters and collecting useful weapons and prizes, is a bit too D&D for me. Role-playing games are about the journey, whereas a novel is about the story that the plot unfolds, beginning, middle and end, and there is a worrying smell of dungeon-master’s plotting about this novel.

7: If Dalip the good boy is worrying about the state of his underwear without any chance for a wash, how are the female characters managing with their periods? Or is the impossibly huge moon stopping the flow? Have they all coincided into amenorrhoea? Teenage girls cannot avoid the undisguisable monthly blood flow unless they’re too thin, which we’ve not been told Mary is. If the other characters’ concerns include a complete lack of baths, hairwashes, laundry, even toilet paper, dealing with periods needs to be part of that. Admit that you know where babies come from, and deal with it. Think through the problems, do the research, or ask a friend.

8: Why did Morden put some characters in the plot, and then forget about them? Mary, Dalip and Stanislav get whole chapters of lines and action, and undergo huge character arcs. Mama is forgotten until mother figure or fat woman jokes are needed, or some pathos about her babies needing her. Luiza and Elena are far too often described as ‘the two Romanian women’, and Elena doesn’t even have a line to say. Grace appears during the escape as an afterthought, then disappears completely. This is astonishingly unbalanced, and unsatisfactory to read. Perhaps Morden was saving Grace and Elena for a big showdown reveal in book 2, but it looks more like he simply forgot them, and had to patch in a few ‘Where’s Grace?’ and ‘We’ll have to go and find her’ lines to cover up when he was reading the proofs.

So I’m almost convinced, but I don’t think I’m convinced enough.

Simon Morden, Down Station (2015 Gollancz), ISBN 978-1-473-21146-9, £8.99

 

 

Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories

Here’s a conversation I had with Brad of The Neglected Books Page, about Laura Riding’s short story collection Progress of Stories (1935). This American author is most well-known for her marriage to the poet Robert Graves, and for her own poetry.

Riding 1KM: I didn’t like them. Well, I did like quite a lot about quite a lot of them, but her style did not work for me. The book was republished with an additional 13 stories in 1994, with not one but two prefaces by the author, both largely incomprehensible. And that’s the problem; you have to really buy into Riding’s reputation and oeuvre to enjoy these stories. They are modernist, surrealist fairy tales, written in a flat, disassociated style that hides wonders and makes the remarkable ordinary. Leonora Carrington did something similar with her collection The Hearing Trumpet (1960), but her prose is magnetic. I didn’t find that reading Riding. Her style is mannered and determined to keep the reader off-balance. At least, that’s what I thought.

BB: Like you, I have mixed feelings about this book. There are a handful of stories that I consider just stunning in their refusal to be like anything else I’ve ever read (I must confess that I’ve not read Leonora Carrington’s stories). Certainly there is that deliberately abstract and absurdist approach that we all know from Kafka, where a man transformed into a cockroach overnight is taken at face value. But unlike Kafka, Borges, and others, Riding has no problem inserting herself into the story, commenting upon the narrative, at times almost poking at it like some odd specimen she’s examining with her magnifying glass.

I’m thinking in particular of the long story, ‘Reality comes to Port Huntlady’, where she interrupts her narrative with such asides as:

Exactly what the business between Cards and Lady Port-Huntlady was, then, is a matter standing in the way of your ultimate enjoyment of this story as a thing of your own. It is—how shall we say—the pious tediousness of the author, who, in telling a story, must always observe the fiction that to tell a story is to persuade people of something entirely true, or publicly actual; this side of a story is called its verisimilitude.

It is, of course, obvious that to tell a story is to persuade people of something almost false. We are all aware that there is no such place as Port Huntlady. It may well be that there is a place to which Port Huntlady stands as a lie stands to the truth. In fact, this is not far from being the case. And this is why some matters secondary to the story must be brought in, such as the business between Cards and Lady Port-Huntlady, to make the story seem true as well as, quite frankly, a story.

I find these asides rather marvelous and funny. On the one hand, Riding is both reminding us that we are engaged in an illusion – reading about these characters in this strange town called Port Huntlady – and shattering that illusion. It’s a bit like telling yourself you are speaking while you are speaking: many people find this quite disconcerting, sometimes so much that they can’t go on speaking. On the other hand, it’s also in the fine tradition of Sterne in Tristram Shandy, where the author provides a running criticism of his own work.

The many prefaces and other commentaries by Riding that clutter up the collection are truly awful, though – or perhaps I am insufficiently abstract in my reasoning to reach whatever ethereal plane she was operating on. I found, however, by coincidence, something she wrote in the mid-1950s for her entry in Twentieth Century Authors that may offer a clue to what she was trying – and help explain why it’s unlikely that it would make sense to anyone but herself:

We did not fully understand the character of the mental operation required for definitions of the kind we wished to make until we perceived that we must liberate our minds entirely from the confused associations of usage in which the meanings of words are entangled – and that, for us, the act of definition must involve a total reconstituting of words’ meanings. Much of our work has been done upon our minds, rather upon words directly: and we have proceeded very slowly, in consequence.

I would imagine that this would be a particularly difficult challenge when one has chosen writing as one’s profession.

Did you manage to extract any sense from the prefaces or did you skip them entirely, as I quickly decided to?

Riding 2KM: I could not be bothered after the fifth page of garbled nonsense in the first preface. It didn’t tell me anything other than she had a lot of mixed feelings about the process and intent of writing, but neither preface was interesting enough to try to untangle.

I have to say that I don’t share your amusement at ‘Reality comes to Port Huntlady’: that was the first story I gave up on. I quite liked the fable about Miss Banquett creating the world in her own image, but it palled. I liked ‘Socialist pleasures’ a lot, and found ‘Schoolgirls’ very interesting, but less enjoyable. ‘Three times round’, about the extraordinary life of Lotus which the narrative voice is deathly bored by, is a story you have to read by effort of will.

It’s Riding’s narrative style that kills the pleasure for me. It’s determined to BE stylised, and uninterested in the fiction. Aggravating and irritating, saved from complete annoyance by the brilliance of the subjects and small things slipped in unexpectedly, like fireworks during a boring play at the theatre. So the effect is to make the reader sit up and ask ‘Wait, what was that?’, and then IGNORE the reader’s needs. It’s a contemptuous way to tell stories.

*

Brad will be posting a more detailed post on Progress of Stories sometime next week. I don’t have anything left to say!

Sax Rohmer’s The Mystery of Fu-Manchu

 

Rohmer 1Sax Rohmer (listen to the podcast of the earlier version of this review here) was obsessed with what he and the lower reaches of the pre-First World War popular British press used to call ‘the Yellow Peril’ (I hope you notice the inverted commas around that phrase).  After the war, things began to get less twitchy and close-minded in fiction about the Other – people with different religions and skin colour and who didn’t live in the British Empire. Anti-Semitism and general racism became less overt, and even less necessary to the plots, even in the most formulaic fiction. But the fiction continued, peddling residual values and opinions that formed a layer of familiar views, even if they were not the current views of later readers.

Sax Rohmer was a prolific author in the first half of the 20th century, but is now only remembered for his extraordinary creation of Dr Fu-Manchu, the tall, terrifying and sinister Chinese doctor and chemist who devoted his life to the triumph of the Chinese race and the defeat, in any way possible, of the white race. These phrases are straight from the novel: don’t shoot the messenger. It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book without using racist quotes, so please do be reassured that I’m enthusiastic about this novel because of its social history value, and its existence as a piece of cultural flotsam, not because I approve of its racial politics.

Rohmer 2Rohmer was a British writer who began his career writing for the music hall before writing novels. He seems to have fostered a reputation for being active in the occult, and certainly wrote a great many novels in the 1920s and onwards that dabbled in mysterious religions. The Fu-Manchu books did not have so much to do with the supernatural or the weird as with basic Imperialism, with a dash of drama based on science. They were serialised in weekly fiction magazines, and were wildly popular, with Rohmer being persuaded after a ten-year break to write more Fu-Manchu novels from the 1930s, until his death in 1959. I’ve only read two or three, but because they were very formulaic, and had a simple structure, I’m going to assume that they shared the same form and delivered the same messages to the readers, who wouldn’t have bought them in such large numbers otherwise.

Rohmer 3The narrator of The Mystery of Fu-Manchu (the American title of the novel was The Insidious Fu-Manchu, by the way, if you’re looking for the free download from Project Gutenberg) is Dr Petrie, and he is a medical man, as he often tell us. He is settling down to do some writing one evening, when his old friend Nayland Smith walks in, and the drama begins. Dr Petrie and Nayland Smith are a very obvious Watson and Holmes re-run, right down to the eccentric investigator’s smoking habits, and his ability to make deductions out of nothing. But unlike Sherlock Holmes stories, the pace of the action in this first Fu-Manchu novel is, initially, a headlong torrent. There is no let-up for the reader. It seems as if Rohmer wanted to write an action-packed thriller with a dollop of detection, where the speed of events and the drama were to be the attraction for the reader. There is no time for narrative reflection, but, interestingly, there is a lot of time in Petrie’s narration for repetition, and repeated tirades against the ‘Yellow Peril’ which threatens the entire white race. Reading this fiction now, it seems extraordinary that anyone could have thought in such a way, or even enjoyed the sweeping generalisation, because it is so blatantly all for effect, not for sense, rationality, or even plausibility. And that’s where the interest in novels like this lie: people liked this kind of writing, and bought it to read for pleasure. What does that tell us about what their enjoyment was based on? And should we read this stuff today?

Rohmer 5Let’s go back to the plot. Nayland Smith is a civil servant, an old Burma hand, back in England on leave because he knows that Dr Fu Manchu has reached these shores, and is going to do evil and terrible things. The plot progresses as Petrie follows Nayland Smith from one locked room mystery to another, in which Eastern experts die in horrible and inventively implausible ways. It’s interesting that the power and secret knowledge that the East wants is located in the West. There is no shortage of knowledge in the East, as well as secrecy, glamour, villainy and multitudinous deadly methods: it’s astonishing how much nonsense was laid at the East’s door that the readers of the West were willing to believe. Again, that’s something worth thinking about: why did readers fall for such claptrap, even if only at the level of reading cheap and entertaining fiction?

Dr Fu-Manchu is always at the back of the devilish crimes in this novel, which are usually based on abstruse chemistry, poison left waiting, or inhaled, or delivered by an insect. The point of all the deaths is that Fu-Manchu is trying to destroy the West’s ascendancy. Because America was an important market for British fiction, the idea that Fu-Manchu was taking on the British Empire didn’t last long in the narrative, and ‘the West’ and ‘the white race’ were trumpeted as his bitter enemies, thus involving the American reader in the attempt to whip up hate and demonise Asian characters.

By killing off Eastern experts Fu-Manchu denies their services to ‘the white West’, but sometimes he wants their services himself. So he invents a drug that will produce the appearance of death, but when an antidote is injected, the victim recovers. This happens in the nick of time in the case of engineering genius Lord Southery, shortly after he has been put in his coffin and parked in the mausoleum, but not before his burial. Good thing Nayland Smith and Petrie got there in time to open the vault at midnight, in the moonlight, and administer the antidote. This episode is a blatant steal from Dracula, from only twenty years earlier. I expect the readers loved it for that reason.

Rohmer 6In another case, Petrie is taken to see the recovery of an Egyptian boy, Aziz, because the boy’s sister, the lovely Karamaneh, has been vamping Petrie from the moment she appears in the book. She wants Petrie to help her escape from Fu-Manchu’s clutches, and so she keeps appearing in exotic outfits wearing a highly traceable scent, to tell Petrie to come with her secretly and not tell Nayland Smith, and the poor fool does it every time. He is really a very unprofessional sidekick, constantly getting himself into danger, and never learning from his mistakes. Karamaneh starts off as just a glamorous villain, but Rohmer seems to have changed his mind about her quite quickly, possibly because he had such a good time writing about Petrie’s susceptibility. Petrie even thinks about marrying her, but in the end, she and her brother sail back to Egypt, and Nayland Smith gives Petrie an ambiguous mission to Egypt as well, to encourage the readers to buy the next instalment.

Nayland Smith himself is a peculiar creation: very given to histrionics, to striding up and down ceaselessly, to spilling his tobacco all over the carpet, to gripping his knuckles until they are white, and so on. Demonstrative sort of cove, as a P G Wodehouse character might have said. He is the high-handed lone detective working independently from the police, with such fine-tuned investigative instincts that he develops a supernatural awareness of the presence of Fu-Manchu. He is an Empire sniffer dog with a specialism in the mysterious East. But Nayland Smith is also closely associated with the East himself, because he is an old Burmese hand, and one of his most frequently-used descriptive characteristics is his Burmese sunburn. The idea of a ‘good’ East and a ‘bad’ East is something that Rohmer doesn’t do anything to develop – it’s not that kind of novel – but it’s certainly there, waiting for attention. There is also a morally-weighted doubling of doctors. Petrie keeps telling us that he is a ‘medical man’, that he risks losing his licence from the BMA if he resuscitates Aziz. He keeps taking personal charge of all the rescued victims of Fu-Manchu who still need care, so he is the good doctor, a ‘physician of the white races’. Fu-Manchu is the evil doctor, also a non-white doctor, and thus pagan and unprincipled.

The ordeals that Fu-Manchu puts Petrie and Nayland Smith through are wildly imaginative, probably the main attraction of the Fu-Manchu novels. The first part of the novel has them tackling the aftermath of locked room mysteries, and wrestling with monkeys, Indian bandits and giant centipedes. We’ve come across these before, in James Bond and Indiana Jones films, so I expect that Sax Rohmer was their original inspiration. But in the second part of the novel, when Fu-Manchu turns his attention to Nayland Smith and Petrie directly, they are imprisoned in an underground dungeon, and then trapped in a cave full of giant psychotropic fungi and phosphorescent mushroom growths that eat people. You really can’t get better than that for thrilling, extraordinary, ludicrous entertainment, even if the quality of the prose is a bit pedestrian, and the politics entirely beyond the pale. So although I’m not recommending Sax Rohmer as a top novelist, and I’m certainly not recommending the Fu-Manchu novels as a sophisticated literary experience, these novels have energetic and wildly inventive methods for dealing death to our unstoppable detective heroes. Just leave your political correctness at the door.