Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Flush As May (1963) by P. M. Hubbard

Flush As MayOn May Morning Margaret Canting stumbles on a dead body just outside the small village of Lodstone where she has been staying. She goes to get the village constable, who behaves suspiciously, and when they reach the place together, the body is no longer to be found. The same morning she meets a man, Garrod, who will become her partner in a long private investigation aimed at discovering what exactly happened, why, and to whom.

This is Hubbard's first crime novel for adult readers, and it starts, on the surface of it, conventionally enough. Indeed, a vanishing body is one of the staples of the genre. But Hubbard started as he meant to go on, and the book takes an abrupt turn into otherness with about 40 pages left to go. The brief review available on a couple of web pages dedicated to the author contains in fact a very bad spoiler, because Hubbard takes some serious pains not to hint at the true nature of the Lodstone mystery before the time comes to unravel it. Therein lies a problem, for the long middle stretch of the book is full of cross-country walks and chases which seem to get the protagonists nowhere, and the only major twist is saved until the very end. The weakest part of the novel is the character of Garrod, whose admiration of Margaret, while fully justified, is expressed rather repetitiously. He does not seem to grow any interesting traits of his own, and the ending excludes him altogether. With the knowledge of what was to come, one misses Hubbard's later, obsessed, slow-burning protagonists.

Flush As May 2To sum up, we have an excellent early part, Margaret's stay with a weak and sympathetic vicar, when a low laughter in the churchyard at night promises more horror than a threat of explicit violence. Then the investigation itself is only sporadically involving, and Hubbard's extensive descriptions of topography and landscape are, surprisingly, not very visual, perhaps because they are over-complicated. Unlike some later novels, there is no single striking natural feature that centres the plot on itself, acting almost as a catalyst of events, although natural elements overall play an important part, as one expects from this author. Finally, the ending is again excellent, although I suspect that some readers may find it difficult to accept, coming out of the left field as it does. I am not really surprised that Hubbard is a forgotten author, and that outside a small circle of enthusiasts few people seem to 'get' him. Flush As May starts, roughly speaking, in John Buchan territory and ends with a nod to a very different author who, like Hubbard, shortened his Christian names to initials. Hubbard does not seem to allow his readers to settle with the comfortably expected, like popular crime fiction tends to do.

One of the most curious aspect of Hubbard is his treatment of villains. First, they seldom seem to get any comeuppance, nor is it usually implied that they deserve any. In Hubbard's books they simply are, very much like the menacing or destructive forces in nature. The police constable who gives Margaret some uneasy moments at the start of the book, overshadows the rest of it, but never in fact reappears. Another and even nastier antagonist provides some tense situations but remains in essence a bit player, because the violence he represents is not a personal force but rather something that is acted out through him as an elemental phenomenon, a force of nature. This may sound obscure but makes sense after reading the book. The brief final flash of danger comes from a totally unexpected source - a man who is not violent in himself (just like in The Holm Oaks - it may well be one of Hubbard's recurring motifs). The implication seems to be that violence is not so much a personal trait in a flawed character as something dissolved in nature and finding its outlet in humans just as impersonally as it does in a thunderstorm. Neither the author nor his heroine feel that any retribution is warranted.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Skios (2012) by Michael Frayn

Oliver Fox – charming but prone to extravagantly irresponsible behaviour – passes himself off as a famous visiting lecturer at an international event for the ultra-rich on the Greek island of the title. Three girls vie for his meagre attention span and are variously disappointed, while the real lecturer is frustrated in his rationalistic worldview which turns out to be ill suited to dealing with the unpredictable chain of events sparked by Oliver’s vagary. This is a very mild farce stretching the events of a day and a half over a couple hundred pages and reading a bit like a slowed-down movie, given the script-like sketchiness of description and characterization. It’s fitfully amusing, but never gels into a real novel. Frayn inserts some bits of post-modernist speculation on identity and predetermination but the flimsy material is not compelling enough to throw any new light on these rather tired subjects. A lot of the characters seem introduced on the off-chance of them being useful to the plot at a later stage, but no such need arises, and they are discarded without remorse. The ending draws a particularly shaky line under the whole effort: it reads almost like a declaration of failure. All the plot strands fizzle out in a single monumentally anticlimactic non-sequitur. Skios leaves the impression of a terribly lazy first draft, something that the author of Noises Off could have thrown together in a dentist’s waiting room.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Teleportation Accident (2012) by Ned Beauman

I never expected to enjoy a work of fiction published in 2012 and, horror of horrors, long-listed for the Booker prize – and yet, here we are. Ned Beauman rehabilitates himself after the disappointing ending that spoiled his otherwise near-brilliant first novel, Boxer, Beetle, by dispensing with plot resolution altogether: instead of resolving, he dissolves. It jars at first, but on closer inspection works rather beautifully.

The book follows Egon Loeser, first a theatre set designer in 1931 Berlin, through an unlikely odyssey which takes him to Paris and then Los Angeles in pursuit of his former pupil, the deliriously fuckable Adele Hitler (no relation). Egon has foolishly missed a very narrow window of opportunity when Adele was his for the asking, and so he becomes obsessed with getting another chance. Adele remains out of reach as, year by year, his sexual deprivation mounts to monumental proportions, all the while gathering tangential subplots which range from surrealist to bizarre.

Loeser (for which read ‘loser’, obviously) and his journey have a lot in common with characters from Barth and Pynchon, except that Beauman has a much lighter touch: being British, he does not have to do the American thing and prove his intellectual credentials by using longer words and more convoluted syntax than strictly necessary. That said, the scope of his research for the book is impressive, and his writing, full of extravagant similes that only rarely misfire, owes more to another American, Raymond Chandler (There was enough ice in her voice for a serviceable daiquiri – a definite wink here). The effect is almost always amusing, sometimes dazzling.

An unlikely subject that’s obviously important (Beauman brings it across from his debut novel) is city planning and (this time) public transport. It boils down, of course, to where the hell this civilization is going, and strangely enough (for a man who writes for The Guardian) Beauman is pessimistic on that account. In an epilogue (there are four of them), the much older Loeser sums up, in reference to his book on Nazi death transports: If you leave an Enlightenment running for long enough, eventually, one way or another, it will become preoccupied with the moving around of large numbers of people. It is a curious echo of Aickman or at least Priestley. The implication is that there is not that much difference between rush hour subway and the Belsen trains. If this seems a far-fetched conclusion, the book is nothing if not far-fetched: events behind the scenes are stage managed by Roosevelt’s sinister Secretary of State Cordell Hull who never appears in person but is known to take H. P. Lovecraft for a chronicler of facts. I wonder if Hull’s obsession with Lovecraft can have any basis in reality or if – much more likely – this reflects the author’s symbolical perception of that scoundrelly figure. Beauman is presumably Jewish, and both his novels are highly oblique treatments of the Holocaust, among other things.

The already numerous readers’ reviews, while mostly raving or strongly positive, often seem to run down to a sort of bafflement as to what the book is actually about. To the extent that such a multi-faceted novel could be ‘about’ any one thing, I would say it was about the chthonic forces lurking just outside the Euclidean plane and breaking through every so often in one form or another. In one of the L.A.-set chapters, Professor Bailey’s youthful experiences form what seems to be the most intrusive and irrelevant subplot in the book, introduced jarringly out of the blue. I choose to see this rough handling as an intentional shift into borderline otherness. Curiously, Bailey’s father, who delivers him into the void, reminded me of Aickman’s father in The Attempted Rescue. Bailey’s insane credo – There is a void in things – is as close to defining the subject of the novel as Beauman can explicitly take us.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

A Thirsty Evil (1974) by P. M. Hubbard

Thirsty EvilIn a letter to a fellow novelist, Hubbard described this book as not one I'm very keen on myself, so you don't have even to say you like it. This may be sincere, or the extreme modesty of someone who seems to have been a rather retiring, solitary person. I do, however, have to say that I liked it very much - as much as, if not more than, the tour-de-force of The Holm Oaks. This present novel is a more restrained affair - no gothic thunderstorms, virtually no violence until the last few pages, and no blood whatsoever. There are some major similarities, though.

In the first paragraph the narrator, a young writer, Ian Mackellar, sees a girl on a train and states immediately that no other woman will ever do for him. There is no attempt to explain what it is exactly that makes him fall so hard for Julia. It is implied that she is not a rare beauty, but there is no description of her looks. This is very similar to Jake's unexplained obsession with Carol Wainwright in The Holm Oaks. It is, in fact, very similar to some situations that everyone's found himself in at one time or another: there are people or faces, met by chance, that haunt us, but we seldom do much about it, unlike the teller of this tale. That is perhaps one of the reasons that Hubbard is so easy to respond to: he starts with a sort of psychological commonplace - in this case, love as a thunderbolt, - and then takes it in a direction we would perhaps never follow in 'real life' but would be only too eager to trace vicariously. But his subject, of course, is not love at first sight; it is obsession that he studies. He invites the reader to witness what self-destruction is really like.

As fate would have it, Ian finds a way to track Julia down to a farm that she owns. She has a sister and a brother, and the brother has something wrong with him: the 'something' is hereditary, but there are no further details. The way Charlie's behaviour rolls out, coupled with the fact that the exact nature of his deficiency is left obscure, produces an oddly chilling effect - which is the definition of Hubbard's writing. Again, as in The Holm Oaks, there is the central metaphor for the subconscious - a magnetic and sinister artificial pond around which much of the book is set, with something yet more frightening just below its surface. As usual, Hubbard creates an unforgettable mood and sense of place, but very little actually happens. Ian is the usual driven Hubbard protagonist whose plain statements sometimes sound a little disingenuous. Charlie, his antagonist, is in some sense the mirror image - or, in Jungian terms, Shadow, - of Ian.

Ian pursues Julia, but Julia is burdened - or armed - with an obsession of her own. In fact, there seem to be very few characters in Hubbard who aren't. The intensity of all those emotions meeting at cross-purpose and just out of grasp is what gives the book its unsettling quality. There is, of course, also that Shakespearean leitmotif (Hubbard is a master at linking his plots or situations to the more obscure but striking quotes from the Bard):

Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.

The book may be less powerful than The Holm Oaks, but it gets under your skin more, and more insidiously.

The Rousseauesque cover has a story attached to it.