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Books: Priest, Barnes - The Elephant Forgets
Books: Priest, Barnes
Priest, Barnes

I've been terribly remiss in keeping up my little quasi-journal of books I've read, so I'm going to try to start catching up. So I'll being doing very short capsules of books I've read over the past year or so, in no particular order.

I'll begin with two very highly regarded books from 2011, both of which became embroiled in awards controversy. these are Christopher Priest's THE ISLANDERS and Julian Barnes's THE SENSE OF AN ENDING. THE ISLANDERS is an exceptional SF novel that was not nominated for the most recent Arthur C. Clarke Award. Priest, stating that he felt the lack of a nomination a "liberation", went on to lambaste the Clarke shortlist. I personally think Priest was entirely right to do so (and I believe him absolutely when he says his comments were not provoked by annoyance that his book was not shortlisted) -- I don't subscribe to his opinions one for one on the books on the shortlist, but I do agree that the list was weak, and more than that I agree that this sort of passionate criticism is both valuable and great fun. As for THE SENSE OF AN ENDING, it won the Man Booker Prize, after harsh criticism of the shortlist on grounds rather less fair than Priest's (mostly, people seemed upset that the wrong sort of books were nominated (that is, genre books)), and Barnes's novel was rubbished by a few people (notably Geoff Dyer, in the New York Times) as a fairly average book that won the Booker more or less by default.

Well, I liked them both, quite a bit. THE ISLANDERS is clearly one of the best SF novels of 2011 (and it got a Hugo nomination from me). It would certainly have graced the Clarke shortlist. (I should mention that it did win a fairly significant award, the BSFA award for Best Novel.) And THE SENSE OF AN ENDING is highly enjoyable, a fine novel -- I suppose (and I hate to do this but it's true) I must say that it does seem just a bit slight for a major award winner -- partly that's because it's very short, more because the central event that drives the novel's action does have the feel of contrivance to it. Still, if it's not a great novel -- if it's not as good as such notable non-Booker winners as, say, David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS and THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET -- it's still very nice, and a novel I'm glad to have read.

Anyway. THE ISLANDERS purports to be a gazetteer to the islands of the Dream Archipelago. The Dream Archipelago is the setting of a number of wonderful Priest stories over the years (some collected in THE DREAM ARCHIPELAGO (1999) (and some of those stories are referred to in this volume)) -- it's a world-spanning equatorial set of islands on another planet, with the continent to the North consisting of warring nations, while the Archipelago attempts to remain neutral. There are strange aspects to the Archipelago -- the geography seems variable, there is a vortex up in the air that allows, for example, unusually rapid air travel between islands.

The novel consists of alphabetical entries on various islands. Some of these resemble real gazetteer entries (describing the geography and politics, etc.), but many are in the form of stories, or at least have aspects to the gazetteer entries that enlarge on recurring themes of the novel. A number of characters and episodes recur. The main recurring characters are the reclusive novelist Chaster Kammeston (who also writes the introduction, even though he is apparently dead), the priapic artist Dryd Bathurst, the social reformer E. W. Caurer, the journalist Dant Willer, and the artist Jordenn Yo. The most commonly reiterated episode concerns the mysterious death of a famous mime, Commis. The episodic nature of the book makes for intriguingly different views of these people, and of the repeated episodes, even though consistency is impossible to achieve (for example, trying to pin the various episodes and lives down in time is a hopeless task.) The novel is at turns very funny, very imaginative, and very moving. Geography is not surprisingly a major theme, and well depicted despite the lack of definition to much of it. So too is social organization -- we see a fair amount about differing social structures on the islands, and also about the main uniting feature, the Covenant of Neutrality. Again, there is no rigorous definition to much of this -- these are, after all, islands of the Dream Archipelago, and much of the logic can be called dreamlike. It is a wonderful novel, truly, as Adam Roberts put it, a work of art. And I should add that Priest is one of our greatest writers, and despite some obvious fame (much based on the fine movie made of his novel THE PRESTIGE, but much also based on a number of awards) he still seems underappreciated to me. I'll say this -- the most obviously neglected SFWA should-be-Grand Master is Gene Wolfe (I love Connie Willis, but seriously, how could anyone name her a Grand Master before Wolfe?), but Christopher Priest is perhaps the next writer after Wolfe who ought to get that particular gong.

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING is told by one Tony Webster, an aging divorced man who considers himself almost the archetype of British averageness. Part One tells of his time at school and university. He was one of a group of at first three, then four, students at school, students who seemed to regard themselves as particularly clever. The late arriver, Adrian, seems the most brilliant of them all. Later, Tony has his first extended love affair with a girl named Veronica, but this affair founders partly on class differences -- Tony feels snubbed by Veronica's brother and her father during a visit, and partly on Veronica's snippy nature, which reminded me of Margaret Peel from Kingsley Amis's LUCKY JIM. After Tony and Veronica break up, she takes up with Adrian, and a few months later, Adrian commits suicide. Tony and his friends regard Adrian's suicide as somehow the most clever thing he's done ...

Part Two, then, tells of Tony's attempts to claim the diary that Veronica's mother leaves him on her death. The mother was the only person in Veronica's family he liked. The diary she leaves him, it turns out, is Adrian's. But Veronica is stubborn about releasing it to Tony. So Tony engages in a long process to try to get it from her, a process mediated to us through discussions with Tony's ex-wife, and a few meetings with Veronica, still unmarried at this late date. We learn -- indeed Tony learns -- that his behaviour back in the day was not precisely as he remembered -- Veronica may well be the witch he chooses to recall, and her family may have been the snobs Tony remembers, but Tony is far from blameless himself. But the real revelations turn on (as we might have expected) Adrian's suicide ...

I really enjoyed the novel, in many ways for Barnes' writing, and for his characterization, especially of Tony. It's not plotty in the sense that all that much happens, but it is plotty in the sense that it turns on a bit of a twist. I like plottiness in novels, but I must say that in some ways this is where THE SENSE OF AN ENDING falls short. Not so much in the twist, which is logical and satisfying, but in the original reactions to Adrian's suicide, which I found unconvincing. Be that as it may, in the end this was a book I liked a lot. Partly, perhaps, because it is no longer than it need be (it's about 45,000 words). Of course this shortness contributes to the sense of slightness about it -- so be it, I guess. Barnes told his story in the length it required. If the story was slight enough it needed no more length, that's OK, I guess.


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