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This is the Last Angry Blogging of Mark Artem.

 

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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The Spinning Heart, Irish author Donal Ryan’s debut novel from 2012, was rejected approximately 47 times before being picked up for a publishing deal. Having read the finished product, it’s not hard to see why.

That’s not to say the novel is a poor outing. It is, however, saddled with an unorthodox narrative structure that a mainstream publisher might consider gutsy for an established veteran, much less a newcomer. The results are mixed.

While the novel succeeds as an engrossing story about authentic characters, the narrative structure fails to ever dissolve into the heart of the novel in any consistent manner. The inconsistency floats on the surface of the story in little bits and pieces, distracting the reader and detracting from many of its strongest points.

The Spinning Perspective

Ryan’s novel traces the effects of the Irish financial collapse within the microcosm of a single town. There’s a vast ensemble of characters in the mix, but the story’s central crux is Bobby Mahon, a highly respected local contractor, and Pokey Burke, the unscrupulous owner of the construction firm Bobby works for. Both men’s associates and relations are the spokes on which the wheel of the story turns.

It’s here that the structural faults become apparent. Rather than anchor the perspective to Bobby, Pokey, or a combination of the two, Ryan instead uses each chapter in the novel to switch to the perspective of a new character, all of them tied to either man in some way, some more tangential than others. No one’s voice is given more than one chapter. While the plot’s keystone remains the same throughout—the fallout from an incomplete townhome complex worked on by Bobby’s team and summarily abandoned by Pokey—the reader is left to sort out which developments, if any, have occurred via context clues mentioned in each character’s borderline-stream-of-consciousness rambling.

The concept isn’t without merits. It’s a testament to Ryan’s technical abilities as a storyteller that he’s able to keep the story moving forward with the absence of any narrative anchors. Every chapter of The Spinning Heart is an introduction to a wholly new personality, and time moves forward in between each. In adopting this approach the author evokes a semblance of a Chinese whisper effect. Each resident brings a distinct viewpoint on events as they play out, which goes a long way in terms of establishing the town itself as a character, an effect many literary writers strive for but only few achieve to satisfaction.

Essentiality

That which isn’t an essential ends up a distraction. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but in the case of The Spinning Heart the spinning of the perspectives tends to yank the reader away from subplots and characters in whom he’s invested.

While many of the one-off perspectives are interesting simply as brief character portraits, several don’t come up to snuff and become a chore to plow through. Worse, though, is the fact that even in the most captivating of these portraits, at no point does this kaleidoscopic style feel essential or integral to the fabric of the story Ryan set out to tell.

Which character elements, worldbuilding/atmospheric elements or themes are being furthered by this frantic series of perspective changes? This reader came away unconvinced that the story couldn’t have been told just as well, if not much better, with Bobby, Pokey or a combination of the two as a recurring perspective.

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, my favorite novel of the ‘00s, takes this approach. In it the reader is buffeted between two perspectives, that of Sikh detective Sartaj Singh and Mumbai crime lord Ganesh Gaitonde, whom Sartaj is out to bag at the story’s beginning. In between these two competing voices are one-off interludes from others, characters whose importance to the central plot sometimes isn’t readily obvious until their chapter’s conclusion. While these shifts away from the center of the action are jarring, the payoff is always worth it, owing to Chandra’s uncanny ability to tie each one back to the central story.

The Spinning Heart could just as easily have been structured in a similar style and lost little in translation. Bobby Mahon alone is intriguing enough a character to maintain a full-length first-person narrative. To base so much of the story’s soul in the internal tribulations Bobby faces in tandem with the realities of the crash was a gamble considering the novel’s unusual style. It’s unfortunate that the gamble doesn’t pay off; at best, Ryan broke even.

That said, the novel’s heart—its central characters—is pure. Ryan has a knack for establishing endearing yet authentic characters which many writers take years to develop, if ever. I’m eager to see what this author is going to pull off in the future with a clearer, more focused perspective.

Alfa Romeo 1300 and Other Miracles by Fabio Bartolomei:
Fausto is deciding on which pair of running shoes go best with his skin-tight Nike shorts. He has the wardrobe of a serial killer. Hanging on his closet rod are fifteen or so shirts, all pure white and immaculate; between one shirt and the next hang trousers of various styles but all black, all perfectly pressed; in the back of the closet are twenty or so pairs of shoes, black, and virtually identical. But they’re not right for him. First, he tries on a pair of gym shoes with a large M on the side, then another pair with a large H. He likes the H better. Or so it seems. He tries on the pair with the M again, then no, he’s made up his mind, he likes the ones with the H, but he needs to change his shorts. So over the boxer shorts with a big CK printed on the elastic band, he puts on a pair of tech Bermuda shorts, also emblazoned with a CK.

The Problem with Reboots

I’ve always found the concept of the “reboot” to be inherently distasteful. At first I just assumed it was because of its singular connection with the dorkiest, most overwrought of superhero comic books, but I’ve put more thought into it and realized that there exists a deeper set of elements tied to storytelling—what it appear to say about the art of storytelling—that lie at the heart of the problem with the reboot.

For the uninitiated: a reboot is the act of taking an existing story, most often a serialized one (comics, TV series), and restarting it from the beginning with any and all previous back story or “lore” rendered non-canonical to the new version. It’s not a sequel or a prequel, however. The objective of the reboot is not to begin a new story about new or previously unexplored characters. Instead, the intent is to retell the same story that was told previously, only, well, different.

To extend the metaphor, when the system is rebooted the fundamental semiotic anchors of the franchise—premise, characters, setting, theme, etc.—are the unchanging BIOS, and window dressing like plot arcs, character developments and events are the data stored in RAM that gets flushed to allow a new load of data to come in.

In the reboot the effect is seemingly a trumping of commercial priorities over creative ingenuity. The owners of the intellectual property want a new franchise that enjoys all the surface-level, two dimensional semiotic anchors built from the ground up in previous installments, but jettison all of the context—the hard, technical work of the writer(s)—which underlie those anchors and grants them sufficient weight to make an impression on people in the first place.

Ghosts by Japan

Who needs ghosts when the mind can spend an entire life haunting itself with creatures that paralyze with the swiftness of the worst neural toxin?

Assorted Flaura and Fauna of the Technology-Oriented Office Environment

The Cubicle-Side Consultant" —

A curious creature of either the Rankerus or MiddlusManagerius genus whose acts of territorial and clade dominance are manifested not through excellence (or indeed even simple execution) but a Mackaw-like bleating in response to positive status reports emanating from peers’ projects. Said bleating calls into question the “overall real worth” and “tangible benefits” of the peer projects; a peacocking display which draws attention away from the subject’s own lack of progress.

[Unclassified - ARO RDRL-ROP Proprietary]
The CSC is deployable in either standalone or over-the-side configurations, with an effective operational radius of two cubicles; some experimental models exhibit with amplified signaling capabilities capable of penetrating even door-equipped offices.  In addition to direct targeting mode, the CSC supports a delay capability permitting it to retransmit snide remarks and caustic commentary regarding earlier events over a kitchen or smoke-break environment in an undirected (PAB, or passive-aggressive broadcasting) configuration.


Conservation Status: [Least Concern]

(A collaborative project between T-S and NoFirstPrize.)

Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

I’m not sure what to make of The Quantum Thief, the debut novel of Finnish science-fiction novelist Hannu Rajaniemi. When the gleam of the postmodern glitz and special effects die down the reader is left with a rather simple, formulaic story needlessly obfuscated with the literary equivalent of white noise.

Quantum Thief wears its influences on its sleeve, not the least of which are Japanese SF anime, modern videogames and gaming culture and the SF novels of Iain M. Banks and Richard Morgan. In all of these media exists are recurring theme of human consciousness from the elements we’d traditionally describe as being “human.” Most obviously this is about the conscioussness’ dissimulation from the human body, but more tellingly it is also about dissimulation from or complete absence of families, extended history, distinct ethnic and/or cultural denominations, etc. The emphasis is on alienation from the familiar, above concepts being propagators of the lie, the “unjust peace” reviled by the antagonists in Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor 2. Rajaniemi seems to embrace this approach wholeheartedly.

If the reader’s definition of good storytelling is to be continually “weirded out” and/or perpetually confused as to what is going on then Quantum Thief is “a stunning debut” as some reviews have described it.

The most disconcerting aspect of the needless obfuscation is that there is nothing inherently wrong with telling a simple adventure story. At its heart the novel is a heist story starring a smooth, charming criminal who’s a fusion of two legendary heroes of manga: Monkey Punch’s Arsene Lupin (Lupin III) and Buichi Terasawa’s Cobra (Space Adventure Cobra). Along for the ride are a warrior princess girl whose stoic attitude, heavy weaponry, and cybernetic augmentations are a clear evocation of dozens of heroines from the anime of the 1980s, and a stereotypical disgruntled detective.

This last addition to the cast of protagonists is one of the worst aspects of the novel. The world-weary, investigating, interviewing, cross-referencing crime solver has become a literary shorthand technique, a means for pomo storytellers to shoehorn agency into a protagonist in a world where everyone is otherwise a listless lump glazed over into stasis by the Inherent Meaninglessness of Reality or some such. The detective who shambles through most of Quantum Thief is no exception to this rule, and the reader will often find himself flipping pages to get back to the latest antic of Jean le Flambeur, the aforementioned master thief and bon vivant.

To Rajaniemi’s credit as a storyteller, each of the three protagonists has personal, human reasons for taking part in the story’s central events. Finding out more about these motivations is one of the best parts of the novel, as they imbue a degree of human features onto a trio whose actual actions and mannerisms usually border on cartoon character. The supreme irony, however, is that they hardly make sense in the context of the novel’s universe; a Banks/Morgan-esque post-Singularity world where the essence of humanity has been “liberated” from corporeal forms to exist for all eternity as collections of 1s and 0s riding beams of light across the time and space towards the next cheap thrill. What point is there to the revelation of a character’s true parents when the previous 3/4ths of the novel was spent describing a world where families or childhood seem to no longer exist? Indeed, when the parentage of Shambolic Detective is revealed near the end, it is treated as an utter anticlimax by all parties involved: Rajaniemi, Shambolic Detective and reader.

An anticlimax? Pomo! Dissimulation! Alienation! So deep.

Quantum Thief is rife with interesting little ideas. An enclosed society of cybernetic telepaths where citizens temper their digitized mind reading abilities with adjustable privacy clouds that can all but block them out of people’s realities. A prison in which the most dangerous criminals are kept occupied with an endless dueling game that exploits the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Cloud computing on anabolic steroids creating colonies of machine intelligences who must be negotiated with to perform high-level computations. One only wishes that Rajaniemi dialed back the privacy cloud on his own thought process to organically explain what any of his out-of-control vocabulary coinages actually means, or what is going on at any given point in the story. The enclosed society of telepaths in which the bulk of the story does not have its origins or nature definitively explained until around halfway through, and by that point it’s far too late. “Challenging” writing does not mean slangy writing that’s hard to understand.

There’s a straightforward, fun and action-packed adventure story here somewhere. Iain M. Banks knows how to balance his affection for his post-mortality, post-morality world of cynical gamers and cyberraconteurs with beer-and-pretzel space fleet/nuclear mortar action. Here’s hoping the accolades garnered by Rajaniemi’s freshman debut grant him the resources and motivation to develop his style into a similar 40 technobabble/60 action ratio. Such an approach just might have the potential to entertain someone other than himself.

- Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog:
It is sidereal, as inebriating as bad wine and above all a perfect illustration of the way the university works: if you want to make a career, take a marginal, exotic text (William Ockham’s Sum of Logic) that is relatively unexplored, abuse its literal meaning by ascribing to it an intention that the author himself had not been aware of (because, as we all know, the unknown in conceptual matters is far more powerful than any conscious design), distort that meaning to the point where it resembles an original thesis (it is the concept of the absolute power of God that is at the basis of a logical analysis, the philosophical implications of which are ignored), burn all your icons while you’re at it (atheism, faith in Reason as opposed to the reason of faith, love of wisdom and other bagatelles dears to the hearts of socialists), devote a year of your life to this unworthy little at the expense of a collectivity whom you drag from their beds at seven in the morning, and send a courier to your research director.

I Do, I Do by 52nd Street

I’ve always had a soft spot for 52nd Street, the little-known English R&B group that grew up on the same Manchester independent music label as New Order. Many of their early singles were co-produced by Bernard Sumner, NO’s guitarist and lead vocalist.

I Do, I Do is a track off their later album, “Something’s Going On.” Many of 52nd Street’s few fans find this album as well as its predecessor, “Children of the Night,” to be crass commercialization of their early B-boy-oriented Factory Records sound, but I’ve always appreciated both as solid albums and another example of all the kaleidoscopic directions in which all the Factory alumni went in that label’s long decline phase.