Again, three short reviews submitted to InMadrid, the friendly face of English-speaking free newspapers in Spain’s capital; and again, presented here in order of appreciation (if not exactly that of artistic merit, whatever that means). I liked the first one so much I’ve now reviewed it twice…
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
Comic books may strike you as childish, and his forays into adult fantasy may not be to your taste, but Neil Gaiman continues to write amongst the best in dark and imaginative fiction for younger readers – the more so because they will appeal just as strongly to the child hiding within grown-up readers too. This year’s Newbury Medal winner is a real treat, a sinister reflection of Kipling’s The Jungle Book in which an infant, pursued by a chillingly oppressive villain, totters into an inhuman domain – this time spiritual rather than animal. With more earthly dangers lurking outside the wrought iron gates, the child is nurtured and raised but also threatened by his supernatural guardians, learning everything he needs to flourish in their world but not necessarily to survive in his own. This is a coming of age tale with a clear difference and the frighteningly well-read Gaiman brings his usual bag of tricks to the camp-fire, subtly scattering classical references, ancient myths and, perhaps, even original folklore throughout – it is hard to tell where his own creativity ends and when his inspirations are springing out. The Graveyard Book is a little masterpiece, for those brave enough to venture in.
Invisible, Paul Auster
Paul Auster’s fifteenth novel is an exercise in both engrossment and distancing. Beginning with a chance encounter between Adam Walker and Rudolf Born, an introspective American poetry student and an aggressively charismatic European professor, plus the latter’s intriguing partner Margot, events are set in motion which torment the young man for the rest of his life and finally inspire a series of shocking confessions in the form of a short, unfinished novel – possibly this one. The thrills of new opportunity and sexual exploration associated with the late 1960s establish a life characterised by increasing self-loathing which, whether justified or not, survives Adam’s death forty years later to continue impacting those left behind. Auster delves into favourite themes like coincidence, ascetic living (and indulgence) and growth through failure, articulated via use of metafiction and intertextuality, resulting in a document that deliberately calls into question its authenticity on different levels. The protagonist-author’s progressive fade from central focus towards total non-existence is achieved, though very effectively, by means of a knowingly artificial linguistic hook, but Auster seems to positively relish signposting what he is doing – not to mention some quite explicit taboo breaking. Invisible, while far from likeable, is certainly thought provoking stuff.
Dexter by Design, Jeff Lindsay
Serial killer serial killer? Serial serial killer killer? Family man? What is Dexter, exactly? This is part four of a pulpy black-comedy slasher series in which a crime-scene specialist by day hunts down and dismantles the bad-guys by night to satisfy his own psychotic urges – here Miami is targeted by a media-conscious murder artist. The deliberately bad taste entertainment on display does raise a smile and even a thrill from time to time but high literature it is not, being repetitive and glib from cheesy start to unsatisfying finish. There is a scene in the brilliant American Psycho when, pursued by the police, monstrously charismatic Patrick Bateman slips out of the first person (“I did it”) and into the third (“Bateman ran”). The sense of his mind leaving its body is very powerful. It would be extremely generous to suggest Jeff Lindsay liked that bit so much he wrote an entire novel the same way, even more so to pretend that, switching back and forth every couple of pages, he doesn’t occasionally lose track of who Dexter actually is. He may like to twist the knife, but sadly Dexter is about as deep as a paper cut. Painful though.