On Reading, Part Two

“Books don’t offer real escape but they can stop a mind from scratching itself raw.”
– David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

A little while ago, I mentioned how I was – am – interested in making connections between books and films, connections that may be implicit or explicit, thematic, character-based or mood-based, connections that may or may not make sense to anyone other than me. Like Dirk Gently, I often feel as though I’ve ‘triangulated the vectors’ and the conclusions have pointed me towards making these connections whether I’ve been conscious of them or not. If you were to look at my bookshelf, you’d see a version of this in practice already:

-         Cloudstreet, and The Children’s Bach
-         The Messenger, and Rhubarb
-         The Lieutenant, and Oscar and Lucinda
-         Jasper Jones, and Eucalyptus
-         The Service of Clouds, and Sixty Lights
-         Night Street, and Dreams of Speaking
-         Everything I Know, and RPM
Before you dismiss my practice as peculiar or somewhat autistic, hear me out: for a few years now, I’ve been interested in the ways things link together, the very ‘interconnectedness of all things’ that Dirk Gently set out to try and prove; a kind of metatextual world in which everything is illuminated, connected and interconnected, a giant web of ideas and themes and stories and characters and people and dreams. [My sister proved this on her blog last year.] As they say in The Seagull, ‘we need new forms’; it’s not so much about just telling new stories, but needing new forms to tell old stories, the desire to use new techniques to enable us to make new resonances in older stories so they can be seen anew in a different light by fresh eyes. And that is part of the reason why I read – to find new ways to tell stories, just as much as I’m always looking for new stories to share and tell.
Four years ago on a family holiday in London, I read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, his self-adaptation of his BBC television series from 1996. It’s one of those books from the early part in an author’s career where their voice, the style which we now call ‘theirs’ is still being fine-tuned. Which is not to say it’s un-Gaimany, because it’s not; the sly references and in-jokes are still there, but there’s also a roughness to it which is quite beguiling. Set in a London which may or may not bare any resemblance to our own, it is the story of Richard Mayhew and the one random act of kindness which changes his life, for better or worse, and his adventures in London Below. It’s kind of an amalgam of every kind of ‘what if…’ you could imagine: what if there was a bridge through the night at Knightsbridge? What if there were black friars at Blackfriars? What if there was an angel at Islington, an old man called Bailey? And as you read it, watch Gaiman twist and turn his way through the city of London’s mysterious names and places, its hidden pockets and secrets, you find yourself in a world every bit as dangerous, enchanting and eversoslightly odd as our own, a bit like Alice in Wonderland in a way; everything is kind of familiar yet so very strange. The television series too, is quite good, if slightly dated. The story goes that when they were filming the series, Gaiman sat in the kitchen of a South London flat and began writing the draft of the novel. As the producer would tell him that a scene or line or page was cut or changed, he’d cheerfully announce that he’d “put it back in the book.” Originally lit to be shot on film, the series was instead shot on video tape; thus, it is said to look better on a forty-second-hand VHS copy, but it is well worth it if you can get a copy of it (even just for the opening titles designed by Dave McKean with music by Brian Eno).
I reread (or, rather, finished) David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas which I’d started and thrown across the room last year in frustration. Rereading it was easier, but no less irritating (and I still stand by what I said about it last year). One character – Frobisher, the amanuensis – says towards the end how he has been working on a nested sextet for ‘overlapping soloists.’ Functioning as a barely-concealed metaphor for the construction of Mitchell’s own book, the featured soloists are interrupted by their successor, before being concluded at the conclusion of their predecessor, in order [i.e. A-B-C-D-E-F-E-D-C-B-A]. As Frobisher asks, perhaps as the author, “revolutionary or gimmicky? [I] Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late.” Rather than illustrating the ‘interconnectedness of all things’, the book instead becomes a caricature of its own cleverness, its neatness and gimmick its undoing. Perhaps the best way to read the book is in parts, one story – or solo – in its entirety, prologue followed immediately by conclusion. And while “each point of intersection, each encounter, suggests a new potential direction,” perhaps it’s true that “our lives and our choices, like quantum trajectories, are understood moment to moment.” What is any ocean but a multitude of drops? 
To conclude this time, I want to talk about Dava Sobel’s Longitude. I don’t know why I suddenly wanted to read it but I did, and it’s a strange little book; nothing groundbreaking, but it is nonetheless quite an interesting window into the eighteenth century world of discovery and science. It’s quite similar to Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (about the compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary) and The Map That Changed The World (about the first geological map of Great Britain), and a bit like Ross Gibson’s 26 Views of the Starburst World: William Dawes at Sydney Cove, 1788-1791 – each book is an account of a small fragment of the life of a person who did something extraordinary and is no longer quite given the due they deserve. All of these books are about people who I call the ‘lost men and women of history’ – people whose achievements were mindbogglingly revolutionary at the time and yet are taken as commonplace today, people whose actions and lives have been swallowed by the machine of history and have regrettably been lost in its inner workings. We cannot imagine these people came up with their ideas, what their lives were like to be able to teach themselves carpentry and clock-making, science and geology, upon what rock their faculties for language and words and communication were foundered, where they drew their inspiration and sparks of clear-sighted genius from; for all we know, they were simply in the right place at the right time, lightyears ahead of their time intellectually-speaking, and yet so integral to it all the same. Sobel’s Longitude – about John Harrison, the man who created the chronometer that allowed mariners to calculate longitude and distance at sea – makes no attempt to tell the whole story of Harrison, but it does tell the story about him that is most relevant, the part of his story that is most interesting; and like William Dawes and all the other ‘lost people’ before and after him, it is what happens before the stories start that is most fascinating, most unfathomable, most unknowable to us today; it’s as though we’ve stumbled across the latter volumes in their biographies, the first ones having been lost in the library at Alexandria. And for some reason, each of these stories – apart from being quietly despairing and rewarding – are quite bizarrely funny, in a rather surreal way: like in Crowthorne, when Winchester tells the story of the man who taught Latin to cows, or when Sobel tells of the Astronomer Royal and his guest pushing each other through hedges in the grounds of the Greenwich Observatory in a wheelbarrow, or the man who tried to calculate the distance between Earth and the stars and built a twenty-four foot long telescope in the process; the story of the girl who was struck by lightening aged fifteen months and lived – stories that are so peculiar you couldn’t make them up if you tried. And yet, through reading these books, these brief candles of discovery into the lives of ‘lost men and women,’ I feel like I’m getting closer to something, like I’m on a trail that is continually being spooled out in front of me, like following Ariadne’s red thread out of the labyrinth, knowing I’ll end up somewhere soonerorlater but not knowing what’s around the next corner.

What I’ve read this year, part two
The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
Longitude, Dava Sobel
The Map That Changed The World, Simon Winchester
Lion Boy, Zizou Corder
The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion
The Rules of Attraction, Bret Easton Ellis

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