Sunday, December 31, 2006

Crime: Hannibal Rising and The Naming of the Dead

Well, the Thomas Harris was disappointing and the Ian Rankin wasn't.

I've always loved Harris's imagination and the dense weave of his dark materials, but Hannibal Rising, if you wanted to get harsh about it, is somehow simultaneously over the top and thin, and sloppy and hysterical with it.

I still like the idea of a contemporary personality with its roots in the Second World War, though. Apart from anything else it turns on the thesis that we are shaped largely by our times and cannot be extracted from them. I think it's Anthony Lane, in that great piece Laura linked to in the comments on the Dec 12 post, who makes the point that quite a lot of people got out of WW2 without turning into cannibals and murderers, but Harris knows that perfectly well and there's another character in the novel who's been equally exposed to unimaginable horror, the wildly exotic Japanese step-auntie, yet who seems relatively psychologically undamaged. Nature and nurture are duelling banjos, as any sibling knows.

And the book does have one moment, not to be giving away the plot or anything, that does resonate deeply with the Hannibal character as conceived and written in the earlier books: the idea that once a taboo is broken it cannot be unbroken, and the break releases the breaker into a kind of nightmare freedom where anything is permitted. Harris wisely does not go on about this even as much as I just have in that last sentence. He just shows you and lets you work it out.

The new Ian Rankin, I'm glad to say, is not one of the Organised Crime and Corruption at the Top ones that I've always found relatively boring just because I'm so much more interested in serious loonies than I am in boys' toys and games. The Naming of the Dead does in fact have both organised crime and corruption at the top in it -- Rebus's old nemesis Morris Gerald Cafferty features prominently, and Rankin even seems to be taking a leaf out of Harris's book (as it were) by lightly playing up the similarity of mind between criminal and detective, a la Sherlock Holmes's last stand at the Reichenbach Falls -- but the (really excellent) plot turns on a single deranged person, and the way that people can get caught up and woven into other people's nets.

And as Rebus ages you can see more and more clearly how Rankin got to be where he is, because he's now well into that thing that all the really good crime writers with one major sleuthy character do: they progress the life story of their detective figure through the self-contained events of each novel, and one of the great pleasures of reading the books is to watch the writers working along the two axes at once.

(Val McDiarmid's brilliant turn in The Last Temptation with Tony Hill and Carol Jordan's everlasting UST -- to make Carol as sexually damaged as Tony and prolong the agony for another God-knows-how-long -- is a case in point. Apparently there's a new Tony Hill novel due in September. They'd better get on with it before they get too old to care.)

Rebus, however, is now cruising for the end of his working life. Watch Siobhan. I always thought it was a crying shame that P.D. James let her Cordelia Gray character slide in favour of concentrating on the increasingly smug and annoying Adam Dalgliesh, and I hope that Rankin won't make the same kind of decision.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Patrick White to Father Christmas, December 1918

[Spacing, punctuation and spelling are sic, assuming, as one safely can, that David Marr's Random House edition of White's letters is to be trusted.]

Lulworth, December 1918
Dear Father Xmas.
Will yoy please bring me
a pistol, a mouth organ
a violin
a butterfly net
Robinson Cruso
History of Australia [NB -- he was six]
Some marbles.
a little mouse what runs
across the room
I hope you do not
think I am too greedy
but I want the
things badly

your loving

[Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla]

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Quick bedside table reading pile IQ test

Which of these is most unlike the others?

a) Ian Rankin, The Naming of the Dead
b) Nicholas Jose, Original Face
c) Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her
d) Thomas Harris, Hannibal Rising
e) Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Re-thinking the fugitive phenomenon

It turns out that this blog was well-named, I think. 'A fugitive phenomenon' was what Nicholas Jose called Australian literature in his essay on it for Australian Book Review last year (November 2005), and so, for me, here, it seems to have proved.

It's not that I've lost interest in blogging, quite the reverse; I never feel short of things to say over at Pavlov's Cat, and have a blogroll as long as your arm of people I check up on regularly, sometimes daily. And it's not that I've lost interest in Aust Lit; quite the reverse, again.

One problem is that most of the projects in which one gets involved are to some extent confidential, and you don't get to my my age without learning the value of discretion -- as well as, God knows, the price of indiscretion.

If one is reviewing a book, say, then it would be naff in the extreme to talk about the book en blog before the review that was commissioned and paid for by somebody else has actually appeared in whatever that publication was. If one is involved in an evolving team project then its details are likely to be confidential for excellent legal and other reasons. If one has just spent an hour on the phone to one of one's littery mates and caught up on a raft of gossip, most of it is the kind of stuff you don't want to be spreading around in public.

And if some scandal or kerfuffle or beat-up erupts, such as the Rosemary Neill piece in the the Weekend before last's Australian about the alleged disappearance of Aust Lit in the universities, then chances are one knows many of the players and has some inside knowledge of what the history of Aust Lit has been over the last few decades (ie its entire life as a university discipline) in particular universities.

No, between them the laws of libel and the fear of embarrassing or hurting one's friends and colleagues leave me with nowhere near as much to say on this topic as I thought I would have. Not publicly, anyway. And when it comes to pure information and summary on the subject, Perry at Matilda was already doing a fabulous job of this nearly a year before I ever took up blogging at all.

So it may be time to broaden my horizons: to keep the Australian accent, but use it to chat about books-and-writing issues in a more general way. For instance: did you know there's a new Thomas Harris out? Hannibal Rising is the back-story: how Hannibal Lecter got to be like that.

I come from a generation of people who were shaped by the Second World War in the sense that one way or another it brought our parents together or determined their circumstances and circumscribed their lives. Even in Australia this was true, and most Australians who were born between 1940 and 1960 have their own parents/war story to tell. But for the children of Europe, before, during and after the war, their lives were wrought and blighted in a way no safe Australian can well imagine; this is at the heart of Elizabeth Holdsworth's essay 'An die Nachgeborenen: for those who come after', which has just won Australian Book Review's inaugural Calibre Prize for essay writing.

And it's the wartime horrors of this European background that Harris uses for his famous cannibal. Hints and memories that appeared in Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, have been fleshed out (sorry) and brought to the foreground as, this time, the main event. I haven't actually read this book properly yet, but I've flicked through and can see where it's going. I think Harris is an underrated writer and I'm looking forward to this one, not just to be creeped out (crept out?), which I always enjoy (and yes I know it isn't nice), but also to appreciate his considerable storytelling technique and style.