Friday, 11 April 2014

What I've been reading: The Casual Vacancy and The Big Sleep

Down to business, then.

I really didn't expect to like J.K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. Having heard mixed things I was expecting a dry, unedited slightly preachy tome - think the worst bits of Harry Potter books 4-6 without the leavening offered by madcap characters and adventuring wizards. What I had forgotten, of course, was Rowling's fine touch for the comic, especially when it comes to skewering the self-important. There was more than the odd shade of "Mr and Mrs Vernon Dursley of number four Privet Drive were proud to say..." about it.

It was compelling, too. I really didn't do a lot of talking to people while reading it. The characters, although mostly detestable, were vivid, powerful. She managed to capture that too rare sense that their lives were charging on when the book was out of my hands so I needed to pick it up again asap. It isn't an emotionally easy read, though. Trigger warnings for such things as domestic abuse, drug abuse, bullying, self-harm, rape, neglect and probably a few more things that got lost in the morass of failed morality the book portrays.

There were only a few complaints - the minor one being the dyslexia (if you can't be bothered following the link, suffice to say dyslexia =/= illiteracy), the more major being the character of Krystal. I felt she was used far more as a symbol of a certain 'type' than a fully realised character. She was a poster girl for everything that is feared, everything that people try to redeem. Rowling handled many of the issues surrounding her carefully, but I still feel that she exploited Krystal at least as much as the other characters in the novel exploited her. What's more, Krystal's motivation in the final part of the plot failed to convince me, and, as this drove the entire end of the novel, it should have been stronger.

Still, the last chapter made me cry.

Wow, I really need to make these shorter.

So, in my quest to read a bit of everything, I come to pulp, and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and the archetype of noble, sensitive hard-men everywhere, Philip Marlowe. I wasn't really sure what I was expecting from this: Tight plotting, violence, and distressing damsels, naturally. The seamy side of Hollywood life, well, yeah, of course.

That this was joined by astonishing prose was a surprise. It seems Chandler created the 'male sentence' of our day, fresh, terse and light on the adverbs. Generally, I get pissed off with this kind of writing, its omnipresence, the assumption that it is the one 'right' way to do things, but Chandler does it well. The sentences still crackle even 75 years down the line.

On a similar note, I almost liked Marlowe. Most of his inheritors and imitators leave me kicking walls, but Marlowe is pretty alright. I laughed, reading this, I laughed a lot.

But then there was the homophobia. More surprisingly, for its time, there was the biphobia - and I actually mean phobia, not just erasure of the type I normally encounter. It was vicious, it was virulent and - for about two, three chapters - it killed any pleasure I could take in the book*.

I know, I know, it was written in '39. Homosexuality was illegal, was pathologised. People - especially the 'ordinary joes' to whom pulp was marketed, really felt that way. If you can deal with that, if you can throw down the 'of its time' stuff, then, okay. It's a good read nevertheless.

But as I said, I almost liked Marlowe. I sort of expected better of him.

*Similarly, some may wish to avoid this book due to its attitudes towards mental health and epilepsy. Personally, I found the ableism displayed more as medical ignorance than bigotry, and as such it lacked the aggression of the homophobia. Others may disagree.

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