Our feast of fabulous reviews this week includes Rob Doyle on Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Manuel Betancourt on William di Canzio’s Alec, Jo Livingstone on Helen Scales’ The Brilliant Abyss, Mark O’Connell on Nathaniel Rich’s Second Nature, and Justine Jordan on Keith Ridgway’s A Shock.
“I haven’t read a film-to-book novelisation since I was a teenager; among disreputable genres it’s down there with the reality TV star autobiography. Yet Tarantino has such fun expanding his fictional world, and the results are sufficiently intriguing, as to suggest that more auteurs might consider becoming authors. As a pop culture polymath, he exploits the novel format to lay on thick his lavishly detailed, period Hollywood shop talk and industry gossip. With its garrulously omniscient third-person narration, the book serves as an essay on cinema and televisual history. Sometimes, the fictive mask comes off and it’s unmistakably Tarantino talking right at us … the process of novelisation anchors the meandering story. There is little actual structure here, but the backlighting provided by the film means it doesn’t really matter: the characters and settings benefit from a charisma emanating across media … Tarantino is no Henry James. He over-explains, repeats himself and dishes out stock phrases to get the descriptive job done … So it goes—Tarantino is inventive and playful in other ways … As in his films, Tarantino’s insatiable enthusiasm for pop culture trivia is infectious and thrilling. I will be reading the memoir.”
“Once di Canzio pushes past his borrowed characters’ figural greenwood, his goal in reanimating them becomes clearer. In following the couple beyond a hazily suggested happy ever after, di Canzio makes Forster’s wish for them all the more tangible as he shows these characters building a life for themselves on their own terms … There’s a sweeping romantic vision here that’s as old-fashioned as it is refreshingly modern, with this war-torn couple pining away for each other as they hold their love in the highest esteem, in bold defiance of English laws and customs … reads like an attempt to make these forgotten men feel less alone, to proliferate their stories. In nudist safe havens in the countryside at peacetime, codified arrangements between privates and majors during war, lurid encounters in Continental brothels while on leave and lively salon conversations about Hellenistic poetry post-armistice, the novel presents the many ways other ‘outlaws’ like Maurice and Alec successfully, if tenuously, carved out spaces for themselves … fiction as queer archaeology, demonstrating that looking back doesn’t necessarily mean looking backward.”
“…the book’s purview is technically all of history, but the incredible paucity of interaction people have had with the deep sea means that most of the information here takes the form of news delivered as a dire, last-minute warning … The vast majority of the sea’s known species inhabit the sunlit zone, meaning that our knowledge of ocean life thins out into nothingness as we get further from the light. It’s at this midpoint between the deepest seafloor and ‘our’ part of the ocean that Scales finds the edge of science, and the beginning of misunderstandings that have had devastating effects on the carbon budget of earth … a manifesto for change as much as it is a description of an ecological crisis. Its overall effect is not to clarify the waters—to create something as bright and blue as a [James] Cameron scene—but to insist that what’s already down there matters, even or especially when it is hidden from our view.”
“Global warming is caused by humans doing (and not doing) things, and it can only be negotiated by same; but its immensity challenges such traditional narrative concerns as plot and character. To think seriously about it is to risk a loss of faith in human agency. Rich mostly deals with this problem by ignoring it. His stories are concerned with our strange new reality, but he tells them in a way that retains space for old-fashioned heroism. About the only thing that climate change does not threaten to disrupt and obliterate in his writing is the individual, and narratives built around the individual. Throw a stone through one of his stories, and you’ll hit a guy in a rumpled suit going up against some other, fancier-suited guy … Most of us are aware that our bodies contain toxic substances heedlessly proliferated by ruthless corporations, but Rich’s writing slowly and patiently reveals the terrible uncanniness of what we already know. It’s in this uncanniness, this pervasive sense of the post-natural, that he finds his most productive seam … There are over 7.5 billion of us on a rapidly warming planet; the seas are rising, the forests are burning, and every year hundreds of species go the way of the passenger pigeon. There is no reversing the Fall. There is no going back to whatever might be meant by ‘nature.’ We must become ‘as gods,’ not in order to return to a state of prelapsarian wholeness, but to move forward to some kind of livable future.”
“A Shock reads more as a subversive take on realism that knows how weird reality can feel. Throughout, Ridgway shows a radical dedication to his characters’ viewpoints, while retaining a wry comedy and compassion. From gay hookups to Labour party meetings, pub banter to insecure housing, the result is witty, precise, political. His sentences effortlessly encompass the humdrum and the metaphysical alike; the ordinariness feels fresh, while the oddity rings true … From a subtle exploration of how racism can intrude on a friendship to the burning anger of inequality, A Shock pays close attention to contemporary London’s political and geographical fabric … In this playful yet deeply sincere novel, Ridgway squeezes into the gaps of realism and makes something beautifully new.”