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Ian R Macleod

What I'm Reading

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Pastoralia by George Saunders

Regular readers of What I’m Reading will have noted a continued – and developing – MacLeodian interest in left-field shorter fiction. Pastoralia certainly fits the bill, and more. Saunders is one of those writers whose style and tone is so witty and appealing that he can basically write about anything, and get away with it. And that, with considerable verve and few serious worries about character development, verisimilitude or plot, is exactly what he does. Caveman theme parks, zombies, male exotic dancers and an endless variety of losers meet up in odd places to indulge in Family Guy-style stream of consciousness conversations. Great stuff, which had me both thinking, and laughing out loud. Looked down on approvingly from on high, or at least on the cover blurb, by none other than Thomas Pynchon, Saunders is a fresh and inventive voice. Will he write the next Gravity’s Rainbow? Will anyone? Saunders certainly has the chops.

 
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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Not very often that I pick up a 1,000 page fantasy work. Not without equally merrily throwing it down. But this book does draw you in. Throughout all of its long journey, I remained intrigued and impressed by Clarke’s offbeat vision. If, at the end of the day, the plot lacks drive and tension, and the frock-coated men and pale maidens do tend to blur, the real tension lies in observing Clarke’s highwire act in keeping her essentially frail and whimsical vision tumbling along with such verve, and the incredible span of her asides and inventions.

 
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The Jaguar Hunter by Lucius Shepard

Here’s a short collection from a few years ago which more than holds its own with anything I’ve read recently either inside or outside of the genre. Of course, Shepard’s work never really sits that clearly in any particular place other than his own distinctive territory. Men, generally disaffected Americans, find themselves in some exotic and unpredictable part of the world, and meet up with an even more exotic and unpredictable female. The supernatural often intrudes and illuminates, but never takes over. The endings leave things satisfyingly half-unravelled. His palette, for all its marvellous hues, can sometimes appear limited, and I wouldn’t recommend that these stories are all read in one block, but taken individually and read with the sort of attention they deserve, they are almost uniformly marvellous. Although Shepard and I are a bit too close in the time we emerged for me to call him an influence, I suspect that there are clear parallels between his and my own writing. But I would certainly cite him as a fellow traveller along the rocky pathway of finding new insights and tales in that endlessly elusive and fascinating place where the ordinary meets the fantastic.

 
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The Whole Equation by David Thomson

I don’t normally mention the books which I read for research, although that does take up a great deal of my reading. I approached this particular volume as a useful aide to a project about Hollywood which I’ve been working (or struggling) towards for some months, and most of the blurbs and quotes on the cover, which talk about it being a “history” or a “textbook” hardly raised my level of anticipation. J G Ballard’s also quoted on the cover, though, and his presence brings us a great deal closer to this writer’s approach. As a history of Hollywood, this book is a mess. As a meditation on the dark lure of the movie, though, it’s a masterpiece. It jumps subject in an almost stream-of-consciousness way, but the focus keeps returning to the image, which for Thomson remains essentially black and white, on the screen. The actors get little of his time, and the writers and directors and technicians barely more. The true movie men in this dreamy vision of Hollywood are the producers, the financiers, the moguls. The book is studded with dollar signs and lists, which somehow contrive to add rather than detract from its aura of glamour, which I guess is exactly how things should be. Then there are the continuing references to Monroe Stahr, the producer and central character in Fitzgerald’s unfinished and largely unsatisfactory Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. It’s as if Thomson is trying to re-finish the book as the West Coat version of The Great Gatsby I and many others still yearn for it to be. He almost succeeds, as well.

 

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