Tag Archives: Robert Goodman

Robert Goodman reviews A Tiger in Eden

18 Mar

The start of A Tiger in Eden feels like a cross between Trainspotting and The Beach. Nevertheless, it is a promising beginning – Billy, a Northern Irish hardman on the run from his shady past, lives on an island in Southern Thailand just hanging out with the backpackers and trying to better himself through reading.

The first fifty pages is scene setting – a recount of Billy’s drinking, fighting and sexual exploits. Even at that point, with the novel still in search of a plot, there was potential. Unfortunately, what follows is another 150 pages of Billy’s drinking, fighting and sexual exploits, a moment of contemplation (Billy trying not to think about drinking, fighting and sex) and a drug-induced catharsis followed by more sex.

In the place of plot is a 1990s backpacker’s tour of Thailand. The tale moves from the island of Ko Phi Phi to Phuket, then north through the Thai countryside, to Bangkok, then to a monastery in the jungle and finally to a drug-fuelled full moon party on a beach somewhere. While there is plenty movement (and drinking and sex and talking about drinking and sex) there is little action, merely a series of events and characters that have minimal impact on Billy and no impact on the plot. What is left, after the drinking and the sex, is a catalogue of aspects of Thailand that amaze Billy the Irish bumpkin, observations such as some Thais are Muslim and some are Buddhist; or some people go to Thailand because of the sex trade; or street food can be amazing but sometimes it can make you sick; or the expensive busses are overly air conditioned.

The book is written in Billy’s Irish brogue and develops an easy rhythm. He’s not smart, our Billy, but he reads a lot (mainly in an attempt to attract more intelligent women) so he’s not afraid to use big words. As a result the narrative is a mix of expletives and erudite reflection, but once you get the hang of the accent, it works. The problem is that Billy doesn’t really have anything interesting to say. Aside from the descriptions of Thailand, a large part of the narrative is Billy thinking and talking about and describing his sexual exploits.

There is an element of wish fulfilment in all of this. Billy seems to have a never ending supply of money which is never explained. And at every stop on his journey he manages to find women who fall for his dubious charms, including Claire the English woman who doesn’t mind that he beats some of her compatriots to a pulp, the Thai woman who inexplicably takes him to dinner in the markets even though she knows that it will result in the rest of the town branding her as a prostitute, to the pair of blonde Dutch air hostesses glad to find a “real man” to take them skinny dipping. Each of these become stepping stones to the perfect woman for Billy who will stay with him despite learning his deep dark secrets.

If you backpacked through Thailand in the mid-1990s (even if you weren’t an Irish hardman) and feel like reminiscing, or maybe you didn’t get the opportunity and feel that you missed something (mainly the sex and the drugs), then this may be the book for you. Otherwise, stick to Trainspotting, The Beach and The Lonely Planet.

Neal Stephenson’s Reamde reviewed by Robert Goodman

24 Dec

Neal Stephenson, one of the Godfathers of cyberpunk and deliverer of massive, engaging tomes full of historical and philosophical fun returns to the present day, real world (of sorts) with Reamde.

The first thing to say about this book is: don’t be put off by its size or its unpronounceable name. At over 1000 pages it is a daunting prospect and will make you think seriously about buying an e-reader (if you don’t already have one). And, given the novel’s focus on all things technological and interconnected, this may indeed be the most appropriate way to read it. But an e-reader doesn’t build up the muscles quite as much, and the novel makes just as good an argument for throwing technology away and experiencing reality. So you can still lug the real thing around and feel righteous.

Reamde, stripped right back, could best be characterised as a post-9/11 thriller. It has Russian mafia, internet millionaires, famous jihadists and their hangers-on, hackers, MI6, FBI and enough lovingly described exotic locations to fill a couple of James Bond movies.

The Reamde of the title is a computer virus which is used to extort money from the players of a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game called T’Rain, a game that has been designed specifically to help part players from their money in the first place. But while this aspect of the plot allows some skewering of the on-line fantasy gaming fraternity, it is just the conceit from which the rest of the story spirals completely out of control. But the plot, is not Stephenson’s central concern.

Under the hood, Reamde continues Stephenson’s look at the how technology changes the way we live and interact. On the surface, coincidence brings a group of disparate characters together. But it never feels like coincidence, as the connections are all the result of the information age – an age in which everyone finds out about you through Facebook or your Wikipedia entry; an age in which a Chinese teenager, an America special services soldier and a Swiss banker can interact in a virtual gaming world; an age in which GPS always lets you (and other people) know exactly where you are.

At the same time, the novel also examines how its internet-savvy characters fare when their technological safety net is taken away. At one point, one of the main characters finds a kind of bizarre freedom in being kidnapped and forced to operate without a phone or internet connection for the first time in years. Another trio find deep wells of ingenuity while trying a “sail” a powerless fishing trawler.

Stephenson can be heavy on exposition, and there is plenty of it in Reamde’s 1000 pages – about things as diverse as how gold farming Chinese teenagers make money out of virtual games, about how the Russian mafia actually works, or how aircraft flight plans are developed and approved. But its delivery is mostly well integrated with the plot, pitch perfect and peppered with a beautifully sly, tongue-in-cheek observational style that often makes you smile while you absorb the information.

Just a couple of examples:

On the Russian Mafia: “Almost all of what they do is very boring… How they get most of their revenue in Russia was not crazy shit like drug deals or arms trafficking. It was overcharging on cotton from Uzbekistan…”

Or this: “Insurgents did not care for spectacular snow-covered mountains. Snow impeded movement and implied harsh cold, “Spectacular” meant “easy to see from a distance”, and insurgents did not like being seen… Many of the features that tourists liked, insurgents found positively undesirable – most of all, the presence of tourists.”

Stephenson highlights how the interconnectedness of the modern world helps us communicate but in a way in which meaning is often left behind. A Chinese hacker and a Hungarian systems administrator communicate well enough using terminology and concepts that they both learnt playing American video games:

“’Maybe we should go back and get their guns,’ Marlon suggested.

“‘That’s how it would work in a video game,’ Csongor said, which was his way of agreeing.”

But they still don’t really understand each other:

“Csongor remarked on the fact, which to him seemed odd, that in China places were unbelievably crowded and others were totally uninhabited but there was no in between. Marlon thought it curious that anyone should find this remarkable. If a place was going to be inhabited, then it should be used an intensively as possible, and if it was a wild place, all sane persons would avoid it.”

Readme is engaging fun, an often thought provoking read which at its heart, is an old-fashioned pageturner grounded by interesting and endearing characters. It has good guys, it has bad guys, it has cliffhangers, chivalry and heroism. And lots and lots of guns.

Patrick West’s The World Swimmers – Reviewed by Robert Goodman

13 Dec

Short stories are their own particular art form. Like poetry, they are often the expression of an idea or a mood or a character. A distillation of a thought into prose. As a result, a collection of short stories can often feel a bit like a rollercoaster. Every few pages everything changes – the tone, the voice, the mood, the narrative style – and can often leave the reader disconcerted, longing for a lengthier narrative and characters with which they can connect more fully.

The World Swimmers, a collection of nine short stories by Patrick West, has this disconcerting nature. The stories are on the whole very short – quick dips in and out of a varied set of lives and situations. Many are thought provoking and disconcerting all on their own, never mind when they start bumping up against each other. And yet, unlike many bodies of collected work, there is a cohesion here, a pattern that emerges as you step back from the individual pieces and consider the whole.

The World Swimmers displays a wide range of styles of narration and voice, many of which border on the poetic and abstract. Most are first person narratives from wildly different narrators (a modern day Australian man, a 19th century Hungarian trainee midwife, a female Japanese research student). Others play with second person but in different styles.

That said, this group of stories is very strongly linked thematically. In almost all of the stories the main character/narrator is an outsider, a person out of their comfort zone or fighting against conformity. In “Greenwood” it is the boy from a “special school for boys” unable to fit in a mainstream class. In “Dear Semmelnazi” the narrator is a would-be midwife in 19th century Hungary shunned after she has to take care of a little boy who himself grows up to buck futilely against the establishment. And in “As of Shadows” the main character starts by telling us that she is “one of those few people born in the country in which I should have been born”. These characters are not alone but they are outsiders, some deliberately so.

West is also interested in boundaries and borders – the area where one thing or place becomes another – and their effect on people. Many of the stories are set on the coast, where the land meets the sea (including a couple of inland seas), or have the coast as a destination. The beautiful “Nhill” charts a walk into Victoria’s little desert “different from the surrounding countryside”. After their walk to the salt lake at the heart of the desert the narrator and his wife are physically “ejected” by the place, reinforcing its otherness. In “Shame” a Japanese researcher is told a story of a rare tree that now only grows within a fence surrounding an American army base. She replies that “this type of tree was now as good as extinct for the Japanese as it is no longer a reality for the Okinawan people; they could neither see it nor touch it.” The main character in “As of Shadows” becomes a border guard but the real border that she wishes to patrol is the border between what people are and what they should be.

There are some breathtaking stories in The World Swimmers and some bewildering ones. “U”, for example, is a palindromic story, set by the shore, its ascending and descending repetition work like a tidal pull. Not all of the stories worked and some defied me, but there is a poetry here and some enduring imagery that make even these worth the journey. The stories that do work in this collection are transformative, changing the way you look at or feel about the world, though not always in a way that is immediately obvious.

A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok reviewed by Robert Goodman

17 Oct

AS Byatt, the grand lady of English letters, is best known for her lengthy tomes exploring the minutiae of English life. As she admits in an illuminating afterword to Raganrok, Byatt’s books often contain a thread of myth. Byatt draws a distinction between fairy tales and myths. In fairy tales we learn something, despite their violence and magic, good triumphs and evil is vanquished. Myths are not so clear cut. Myths are about archtypes, they often follow well worn story lines but not necessarily to any neat conclusion or happy ending. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the tales of the Norse gods and their ultimate destruction in the final battle of Ragnarok.

As with many of her novels, Byatt tells the story through the eyes of a fictional version of herself – the thin child “sickly, bony, like an eft, with fine hair like sunlit smoke”, evacuated from Sheffield to the countryside during the Blitz. This is not only a device for engaging the reader but a deliberate means of recounting the myths as Byatt herself encountered them, untrammelled by interpretation and deconstruction, but infused with a precocious child’s perspective of a world at war.

That is not to say that Byatt wants this book to be free from other interpretation or deeper meaning. Byatt wants to say something about the world as it is today and the environmental degradation being wrought by the proliferation of humanity. To do this she deliberately, repeatedly, and quite beautifully catalogues living creatures, as if creating a literary ark, in order to recreate a world that has gone or that is under threat. A world that may end up going the way of the Norse gods – finally and irrevocably. Just as an example:

“In spring the field was thick with cowslips, and in the hedgerows, in the tangled bank, under the hawthorn hedge and the ash tree, there were pale primroses and violets of many colours from rich purple to a white touched with mauve… There were vetches and lady’s bedstraw, forgetmenots, and speedwells, foxgloves, viper’s bugloss, cow parsley, deadly nightshade (wreathed in the hedges), willowherb and cranesbill, hairy bittercress, docks (good for wounds and stings), celandines, campions and ragged robin.”

While all that makes this book sound a little overladen with symbolism and gloom it is anything but. Ragnarok, from its opening page is poetic and engaging. It is predominantly a retelling of Norse mythology from creation stories through to the final battle of Raganrok which saw the destruction of the gods and their world. The interplay between the thin girl as reader and discoverer of these myths and the retelling of the myths themselves is deftly handled. And the environmental message is only lightly referenced until elucidated more fully in Byatt’s afterward.

This is a rich and rewarding experience, as a way into Norse mythology for those who have never encountered it, as a fresh retelling and interpretation of those stories for those who might have more than a passing acquaintance and more generally for lovers of poetic literature that sings off the page.