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A blog by Nikki Dudley about the gaps in everyday life...

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Sunday, 25 November 2012

In praise of novels without neat conclusions by Lee Rourke


Endless fascination: in praise of novels without neat conclusions

 (By Lee Rourke)

Tidy narrative closure may be entertaining, but loose ends and ambiguity offer a truer sense of real life


Diverging footprints
 Where will it end? Diverging footprints. Photograph: OJO Images / Rex Features

I read Imogen Russell Williams's recent blogpost (Coming to bad ends: stories that refuse closure) with great interest. I do understand that she isn't proposing that novels without good and proper "endings" are in any way inferior to those that do, but something troubled me deeply about Williams's (and the vast reading public's, I would argue) desire for our narratives to reach closure.

The well-worn formula beginning/middle/end is the default mode for pretty much all of the commercial and "literary" novels that currently jostle for ascendancy on our bookshelves. We like our entertainment to make immediate sense, or if it doesn't at first, it should explain all at the end. Repeat ad infinitum. I would argue there is something crucial lacking in this formula: the power of ambiguity. Closure belittles the complexities of meaning: our meaning, our being here. So what does this desire for closure say about us as readers? Why are we so fearful of ambiguity? Why do we desire novels that, to paraphrase Alain Robbe-Grillet, do the "reading" for us?

Life isn't like the narratives that make up the majority of novels in circulation today, or like the well-rehearsed scenes we enjoy at the theatre, or in the movies. It's more complicated than that: steeped in confusion, dead ends, blank spaces and broken fragments. It's baffling at times, annoying and perpetually open-ended. We have no real way of predicting our future. So why do our novels have to tie all this stuff together, into a neatly packaged bundle of ready-made answers? Something doesn't ring true.

I read a hell of a lot of contemporary fiction, and the majority of these works, good and bad, are riddled with the same conscious/unconscious desire for the narrative to end. I can sense this peculiar event just over halfway into most novels: all those random elements that I ordinarily love suddenly begin to act rather oddly: they stop fizzing, they begin to unify, to all move in the same direction, hurtling towards the same fixed point with great force. This event is the author's doing, of course, forcing chaos towards order and natural events to act unnaturally. The author fears ambiguity, but more importantly the author fears the reader's own fears of ambiguity, and this double-edged event makes for a rather predictable read.

Here's an obvious example to support my argument. Would Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot be made richer if Godot suddenly entered stage right ("Ta-da!") at the end of the play? Of course not. Beckett's theatrical masterpiece is all the more powerful because of Godot's nonsensical absence. Does it even matter if Godot exists? Not really. The play's power stems from this ambiguity; it's this sense of instability that forces us to scrutinise things more closely. So, when I sit down with the text of Waiting for Godot and I sift through the humour, the repetition, the bleakness and acts of nothingness (you know, all that stuff that doesn't make "sense"), and I reach Vladimir's often ignored line: "Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?" the power of ambiguity suddenly hits me. Beckett is presenting to us a perpetual apocalyptic present, a catastrophe already happened/about to happen, in which something as horrific as the holocaust can occur without us noticing. Just like in real life. It's only when we hit oblique junctures such as this that we begin to realise the beginning/middle/end formula doesn't cut it. What gives us the right to such authority?

And it's not just Beckett: let's look at some of our other "great" authors, those who've possibly written works of true timelessness. Kafka, Joyce, Woolf, Gass, David Foster Wallace, Vila-Matas, Pessoa et cetera … Not the biggest fans of endings either, are they? As Viktor Shklovsky has pointed out: "A novel can come to an end, but has no ending […] because finishing [a] novel would mean knowing the future, and we don't know the future." It's the same reason why Thackeray quipped that each time he wrote a novel he wished the man who shined his shoes could write the ending for him.

It's no surprise that most novels are ruined by their forced "endings"; by our collective desire for them to conclude in an orderly fashion, so that we can get on with our lives after we have closed the book (yes, The Road, I'm looking at you). Marx that told us the novel is a bourgeois construct, its very form reflecting the demands of the bourgeoisie who gave it sovereignty. We hold up our novels like vanity mirrors, hoping to reflect our own dreams, conceits, and liberal aspirations. Duly satisfied with our novels' conclusions, we put them back down, happy and content. A week later all is forgotten, the previous novel has disappeared from our lives and we've moved on to another that's hopefully a little bit more entertaining.

But not those novels without end, steeped in ambiguity, those novels stay with us. We can't shake them off, no matter how hard we try. They haunt us, mock us, they hang around waiting for us in the shadows, they disturb our working days, disrupt our sleep, torment us, force us to participate on their own terms. Much like real life does, novels without endings reveal to us the ambiguity that is crucial to our own desire to simply find out things for ourselves. You see, no matter how enjoyable, or how much good old, traditional "common sense" is to be found in our neatly packaged "endings", I would argue there's more reality to be found in a novel as supposedly impenetrable as Finnegans Wake, famous for having no beginning or end, than myriad formulaic novels that overtly yearn to capture what it is to be us in their well-worn beginnings, middles and ends. Viva ambiguity, I say!

SOURCE: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/nov/23/novels-neat-conclusions

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Only Forward (Michael Marshall Smith)







4 stars ****

When a friend recommended this book to me and I looked it up, I thought 'science fiction'. However, when I read the blurb, it seemed like something else. Not until I read a preview of the first few pages did I understand quite what this book was - dark humour, crime, and mystery all at once. It also happens to be set in the future, in a world that is rather different from what we know now. Everyone lives in different neighbourhoods, known for one particular quirk. For example, in Colour, where our main character lives, the prerequisite is an appreciation of colour. Other examples include Idyll, which is a peaceful neighbourhood, Cat is inhabited solely by cats, Red is the most dangerous, and so on...

As soon as I met the hero, Stark, I was hooked on his ambivalent attitude and his cool demeanour that was hard to shake:

'I was tired.

I got up, crawled out of the maelstrom of sheets, at 9.30 this morning. I took a shower, I drank some coffee. I sat on the floor with my back against the wall and felt my muscles creak as they carried a burning cigarette from the ashtray to my mouth, from my mouth to the ashtray. And when I first thought seriously about taking a nap, I looked at the clock. It was 10.45. a.m.'
 Copyright Michael Marshall Smith.

When I read reviews on Amazon, some people wrote that they thought the narrator was unreliable and kept saying that he would tell you the details later, which annoyed them as a result. I found that this was what I liked most about Stark. He wasn't always trustworthy and he wasn't always on the ball. This made him capable of making a few mistakes and at times, having to plaster over the cracks, as normal people do. For me, he felt quite real, if a bit too cool and witty in comparison to who you normally meet!

I won't ruin the story for you but if you like a good mystery in a strange world, with a smart-mouthed narrator that most people want to kick, you'll enjoy this as much as me. There were a few surprises too, not to mention the ending, which reveals the troubled personality hiding underneath Stark's cool persona.

What was also great was the explanations of the strange world and the side characters who were really interesting and complimented the plot. My only qualm might be the descriptions in the dreamworld, which were at times, a little too long in my opinion. Otherwise, it was an amazing read.

This is much recommended and I will definitely be checking out Marshall-Smith's other novels!

Find out more about Michael Marshall Smith on his blog and website


Monday, 17 September 2012

Non-US self-publisher? Find help!


Hi all,

I've been having nightmares trying to sort out my tax details for publishing with Amazon KDP, Createspace and Smashwords. If you are a non-US self-publisher, you will be charged 30% tax on your royalties by the US, unless you get this special number to exempt you.

I'd heard about the ITIN, which is meant to be the number for individuals, taking months on end to arrive. Plus, lots of notarizing passports and paperwork. It sounded horrific.

Luckily, I stumbled across a site, run by an author called Catherine Ryan Howard, who upon experiencing similar hell, has gotten another author to find a simpler route. You can apply for something called an EIN, which is fine if you act as a self-employed author.

When they ask what type of business you are applying for, this worked for me: ‘I’m a self-employed author registering for compliance with withholding for Amazon.com’.

Anyway, here is the amazing blog here: http://tinyurl.com/8o2bxl3

I hope it saves you hours of trouble too!

x

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Someone's in the House (Samuel Bonner) review




Someone's in the House is my first adventure into horror fiction since I was a teenager and read things like Point Horror. The good news is, I really 'enjoyed' my first journey back into it. As much as you can enjoy being unnerved and a little frightened of turning off the light at bedtime...

This book follows the story of Rita, a young woman trying to escape her drug-addicted boyfriend and keep her child safe in the meantime. A chance encounter with an old friend, Vicram means a change of fortune for Rita. Or so she believes... What at first seems like a great opportunity to move on and start a new life soon becomes a living nightmare, which hurtles us towards a devastating and chilling end.

I have to say, I didn't love Rita at first. Yet after a few chapters, I started enjoying her voice a lot more. I particularly liked her son, Luke, and the moments between them. It felt quite authentic. I enjoyed too, Rita's relationship with Vicram. This is why I particularly liked this book - I cared about the characters as well. It didn't feel like they were just there to be tortured and destroyed, although perhaps in a horror book, you can't expect things to end well. 

The tension in the novel was built up well. Starting with noises and small sightings, this book soon became more frightening. I liked the small incidents which slowly added to a catalogue of terrifying events, keeping both the characters and readers on tenterhooks. I wasn't quite sure where the story was headed, whether the incidents were supernatural, imagined or real. What came in the end was a shocking confrontation that didn't pull any punches. 

Those of a nervous disposition may find this novel, particularly the ending, too much to bear. To give you a hint, there is a lot of graphic violence, including some sexual violence. I won't ruin it for those of you who bay for blood though... Personally, although the violence was a little shocking initially, I found myself unable to stop reading. Once I got to a certain point, all of my other priorities got pushed back. I had to know how it ended and if you find yourself salivating over a bit of horror, you might just feel the same.

If you like suspense and a well-crafted novel which leaves you feeling a little chilled to the bone, this is the novel for you. Although if you hide behind your hands throughout gory horror movies, you might find it a little more difficult to swallow.

Thanks a lot to Samuel for the review copy. I shall be looking up his debut novel, Playground.  Find out more about Samuel and his work on his website: http://www.samuelbonner.co.uk/



Saturday, 19 May 2012

He Died With His Eyes Open (Factory 1) by Derek Raymond - REVIEW


I was very excited to read the first instalment of Raymond’s Factory series and I am pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed. This is one of the most thrilling and satisfying reads I have had for a while.

The Factory series is set in Thatcher’s London, with a nameless sergeant from the Unexplained Deaths department of the London police as the protagonist. In the first page, we meet the murder victim, Charles Staniland, a tragic character who leaves behind recorded cassettes of his thoughts and a whole lot of mystery. In time, the Sergeant realises the cassettes are more important than he first thought, providing key information to help him identify the culprits.

The city is represented as gritty and desperate, hinting at the employment problems of the 1980s and a ruthless pursuit of self-interest. In turn, the grittiness is also present in the array of characters – for example Harvey Fenton, the brute who apparently only ‘mocked’ Staniland; Barbara, Staniland’s girlfriend who drove him to distraction with her cruelty; Staniland’s stepson, Eric who is addicted to hard drugs; and many more who are similarly loathsome and pathetic.

Despite all of this, the nameless Sergeant remains focussed, if not a bit obsessed with the case. The dialogue is sharp and witty, especially of the Sergeant. Sometimes it did seem like he had a joke for every occasion but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Also, for someone who isn’t familiar with the East End London slang, it might be a little difficult to always understand what the characters are actually saying, but it doesn’t take a genius to do the translation.

Overall, it was a thrilling read. The culprits weren’t exactly shocking but the investigation itself was always absorbing. The twists and turns were accomplished through believable and exciting methods. I even enjoyed the presence of the retro piece of technology, cassettes, as a way to impart information and give more of a sense of who Staniland was. Furthermore, I thoroughly enjoyed being in the company of the nameless Sergeant and will certainly be getting my hands on the next Factory book in the series (The Devil’s Home on Leave).

Much recommended. A noir novel with a no-nonsense investigator who can generate a laugh, plus the added twist of the grittiness of 1980’s London. What more could you ask for?  

THANKS TO... Mike Lipkin from Noir Journal for the contact, Melville House Publishers for providing a review copy. 

streetcake issue 23 now published!

Hi everyone,

I am not sure if you are aware that I co-edit an online magazine specialising in experimental writing.



Well, either way, the new issue is now live on the site!

Please take this chance to visit the site and give the issue 23 a read.

We have a lot of great poetry this issue and also some fantastic artwork, including Jo Langton, William Garvin, J.R. Clarke, Sophie Clarke, and others.

If you want to submit to streetcake, please visit our archive and submissions pages for more information.

The next issue will be released in July 2012!

That's all folks...

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Diversity in Young Adult books


There's a great blog post on the Booktrust website regarding diversity in Young Adult books. Bali Rai interviews Catherine Johnson, Malorie Blackman and Malaika Rose Stanley. 


It's a really interesting piece and brings up a lot of questions about publishers, readers and writers in today's society and how hard it is to really bring diversity into the Young Adult market. 

I absolutely love Malorie Blackman, whose Noughts and Crosses series is absolutely amazing and is a fantastically different view on the world in terms of race and prejudice.  

Great interview. I'm off to check out the other featured authors.

Nx

Two poems published on the con-struct site

Two of my poems have been published on the con-struct website. Go and check them out here:

http://issuu.com/see_within/docs/nikkidudley/3

It's an interesting site with some great writers.

I hope you enjoy my contributions!

Nikki x

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Supernatural Noir review


Hi all,

I have written a review of a short story collection called 'Supernatural Noir'.

You can read the review on Noir Journal's site.

This is also a great site for book recommendations and information. Of course, the focus is noir fiction!

I hope you enjoy the review.

Nikki

Sunday, 29 January 2012

1Q84 - The Verdict



I had heard a lot of things about 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami before I read it. I am a massive fan, along with millions of others, so I was eager to see his new work. Due to living abroad, I patiently waited until Christmas and was given parts 1 and 2 as a present. I then bought book 3 as soon as I finished parts 1 and 2. In the end, I think this is what helped me...

Had I rushed out and bought the books right away, I think I might have felt a little differently. As it happens, the wait meant my expectations were not too over-inflated and I think I came to the book in a better state of mind. I was still excited sure, and worried to see some pretty negative reviews floating around.

So, a quick summary (if this is at all possible!): The trilogy is set in a fictionalised 1984, an alternate reality if you will, where one of the main characters decides to rename it '1Q84' (hence the title). In this world, the two main characters, Aomame and Tengo are inexplicably drawn to one another and over time, their worlds begin to collide more and more. The novel focusses on Tengo's rewriting of a book called Air Chrysalis by an enigmatic young writer (Fuka-Eri) and the consequences of this action. Fuki-Eri's past of being part of (albeit it unwillingly) a religious 'cult' called Sagikate begins to surface and the unusual events described in the rewritten novel begin to look more real than Tengo first thought, beginning with the appearance of two moons in the sky. Aomome meanwhile, moonlights as a skilled killer of abusive men and all too soon, she too is dragged into the world of the Sagikate cult and the mysterious 'Little people' who are said to have great power but hardly anyone seems to be able to explain or want to acknowledge.

Whilst I don't think 1Q84 is quite as good as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles or Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, it still kept me gripped. I wanted to know what was going to happen and I wanted both the main characters to survive. The tension about whether they would get to meet again (after seeing each other last when they were only 10 years old) was definitely strong and I hoped they would meet before one of them was found by the Sagikate cult. Therefore, despite some bad reviews, this is why I think 1Q84 is a good book. If I cared enough to want the charaters to survive, that tells me it was a good read.

I also cared about some of the side characters. Fuki-Eri was a strange character who was quite amusing to read. She was described very well and the scars of her past were evident in her strange manner and almost oblivious perspective of the world. Tamaru, the security man for the elderly woman who employs Aomame, is an intelletual and comforting presence. I liked the way he mentioned to Aomome that Chekov believed once a gun appears in a novel, it must be used. This was an added bit of tension as to whether Aomame would need to shoot anyone or herself at some point in the future. Tengo's friend and editor, Komatsu was also quite an interesting and sometimes amusing character.

However, there were a few characters that didn't work quite as well. I found the chapters in book 3 told by the private investigator, Ushikawa, quite dull at times. I didn't mind the fact that his investigation was a bit pathetic and yielded no results, I just found the details a little boring and his family history even more boring. I have to say I did skip some of these parts. Also, the nurse (Kumi) that Tengo meets whilst visiting his sick father seemed to be a bit too much of a construct used by the author to implant specific phrases and information in Tengo's mind. I didn't really enjoy her presence.

I have read some other criticisms online - mainly to do with repetition and sex scenes in the novel. With these criticisms, I can agree slightly. There are some points where information is repeated by the same character or by both the narrators in different chapters. This was a bit unnecessary and could have cut the book down a little with removing these alone. Also the sex scenes - they were sometimes not written as well as other parts. Additionally, there is quite a few mentions of breasts, as one person pointed out on Amazon. Sometimes it was no problem but sometimes it seemed a bit too much of a fixation. Once you notice something too much in a novel, it probably means it has been overdone a little. Lastly, the use of italics to portray character's internals thoughts were a bit too numerous, sometimes spanning several paragraphs. If it was a character's perspective in the chapter, I am not sure why so many italics were needed.

But despite these things - I really enjoyed 1Q84. It's not perfect but as I said, it kept me turning the pages. I enjoyed the two main charaters and believed in them. I liked the presentation of the strange Sakigake cult and the unusual aspects of it. Murakami's usual strangeness was definitely present. To keep everything going for about 900 pages is quite an achievement. There was conflict between the cult and everyone else, between Tengo and his father, between Aomame and her conscience, and between the characters and their pasts. Strangely, there were also odd moments of humour. I think the dialogue was also good overall and I enjoyed the exchanges between chracters, particularly Aomome and Tamaru, who often had some interesting and wide-ranging exchanges.

So in conclusion, don't believe the hype or the criticisms. I would advise you to try reading 1Q84 yourself and remember that although Murakami is a giant of literature, he isn't always completely perfect.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Sons and Fascination (book review)



Sons and Fascination by Gurdeep Mattu

'A good debut novel and a love letter to London'

3.5/5

This London based novel is a great read by a fresh new voice. It doesn't take long to read as it's more like a novella and it is quite dialogue driven. The main chracter, Jack can be a little bit hopeless, but this seems to be his personality more than anything else. The other characters were a little more absorbing in my opinion - Jack's unknown half-brother Sean, Jack's 'uncle' Ray, Jacks father's ex-lover Fran... Overall this is a really solid novel and a good read. The snapshots of London life are also great to see - London often gets a bad rep in books but Mattu obviously loves it!

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