After Magritte, by Tom Stoppard

April 28, 2013 at 22:22 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Theatrical Plays) (, , )




Tom Stoppard’s humour is not necessarily of the zinger-punchline sort. He tends to be wry and ironic; but evidently the overly pronounced surrealism in After Magritte persuaded him to let loose just a little bit, and there are passages in here to elicit more than the occasional snort of laughter or satisfied chuckle. It goes without saying that the dialogue is razor sharp; and the characters, constructed in such a short time, will remain memorable and distinct even after speeding into and out of the reader’s attention. More tellingly, they are more than just props with which to adorn a clever repartee. Not a lot more (there simply isn’t time or space for that), but Stoppard skirts around the edges of pathos and offers up the vaguest hints of elaborate and unlikely backstories. He demonstrates very well how successfully a single uttered word at the right time can speak volumes for a character’s motivations, general attitudes, and inclinations.

“You can’t find your search warrant!”

-After Magritte

It is not necessary to be familiar with or even aware of René Magritte’s work to thoroughly enjoy this play, although certain set-pieces and tangential features will seem like a little wasted space as a consequence. If a criticism is to be made, it is that the exposition and the build-up to the play’s climax are proportionally a little too long for the conclusion, which is remarkably sudden and brief. Despite this perceived imbalance, the ending is not at all unsatisfying, and at risk of charging Stoppard with conceit, makes some nicely subtle references towards Magritte’s own theories of art.

Unlike Stoppard’s more famous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, this play is markedly more straightforward and simple to understand, for all that it is a surrealist nod to a surrealist icon. For that reason alone although it might not be the ideal entry point into his catalogue, it would certainly not be a bad place to start for a reader investigating all of the well-deserved hubub around this renowned writer.

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The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

April 20, 2013 at 22:47 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller) (, , , )




This is not a good book. The authors might have encyclopaedic knowledge of all there is to know about early Victorian England, but that evidently does not qualify them to write about it. In fact, the overwhelming impression a reader will be smothered with is that the pages are crammed with lists, compendia, tallies—endless nattering and gibbering—put down anything on the page, anything! So long as it looks period-authentic, and so long as it sounds old-timey, and so long as it’s got something to do with steam or antiques.

This book is packed to the gills with the sort of rubbish one might expect from people who think everything in the Middle Ages was “Olde”, and who imagine peasants to have spent their days doest-thou-ing and verilying. A lot of style over substance, but a mongrel, desperate sort of style. One only has to read Dickens or Melville or Stevenson or even Austen to realise that even in the olden days, people did not speak how Gibson and Sterling’s horrid pantomime mockneys and lords speak.

“Still, she did have some things she was ‘specially fond of, and these went, along with the undergarments, into her brocade portmanteau with the split seam she’d meant to mend. There was a lovely bottle of rose-scented Portland water, half-full, a green paste brooch from Mr. Kingsley, a set of hairbrushes with imitation ebony backs, a miniature flower-press with a souvenir view of Kensington Palace, and a patent German curling-iron she’d nicked from a hair-dresser’s. She added a bone-handled tooth-brush and a tin of camphorated dentrifice.”

-The Difference Engine

An unforgiveable sin in literature is an author’s laziness. In The Difference Engine another sin is laid bare: the sin of trying much too hard.

Quite besides the stylistic failings that make this book so painful and embarrassing to read, is the terrible state that the actual story itself tangles into. Absolutely nothing of any significance takes place within the first fifty or sixty pages. While a decent head of steam is built up shortly thereafter with a mystery to solve and protagonists and villains nicely lined up, the authors then make the inexplicable decision to bring everything to a screeching halt, and proceed with an entirely new tangentially-related plot. To crown the entire mess, the story finishes about a hundred pages before the book actually ends. The mystery is wound up, the villains despatched, the heroes safely accounted for…and the silly thing plods on, like a lumbering beast mortally wounded, yet too stupid to succumb.

Entire subplots are woven into this book for no satisfactory reason, other than to showcase things. Elsewhere in this review site, it has been mentioned that authors of alternate histories fall so much in love with their own cleverness and adroit reconfiguration of history, that the tail begins to wag the dog, and any pretense of telling a good story utterly vanishes. The Difference Engine does not make it quite so far, but not for lack of trying. There are artefacts and truncated plot lines and characters littered like dross through the book. Pages at a time could be cut out without consequence, because they introduce ideas or characters with no bearing whatsoever on the story.

Any author might be excused for mentioning unrelated details offhand. Tension must be built, scenes must be set, characters must be developed. Shakespeare had his gravediggers, Hugo his Waterloo. But Gibson and Sterling suffer from a rather catastrophic collaboration of crises: their asides are frequently more interesting that the fifty pages of dead space that precede them; their insignificant intrusions come typically just as tension has finally reached some paltry critical mass, and stifle any chance of a revival of the story; their tangents introduce questions that are unanswered, clues that go unsolved, promises that are not kept. Frankly, they are an annoyance that this weak book cannot afford, and ought to have been edited out at the first draft.

There are occasional sparks of light, though they often serve to illuminate only the shoddy work surrounding them. For those interested in the bric-a-brac of a time gone by, Gibson and Sterling provide a rich table. The adjective “rich” could here describe a banquet, a bank account, or an overpowering odour, and its richness will be of limited interest to most readers. There are the buried germs of an interesting (though not brilliant) sort of Victorian thriller; perhaps a facsimile of one of the Penny Dreadfuls that they make sure to reference a few times, so that their readers know they’re really getting authenticity. The only remaining virtue of this book is its honest conjecture on an age of mechanical computing, and some geopolitical, scientific, and sometimes jocular ruminations on the world that Babbage and his ilk might have made. It seems that it was this core around which an unprofessional and unlovely story was wrapped. Unwrapping it might not be wise.

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