The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

  
“The world changes too fast. You take your eyes off something that’s always been there, and the next minute it’s just a memory.”

The Book of Strange New Things is a melancholy novel about love and devastation. That might sound like a contradiction in terms, but Faber approaches the well-worn territory of inter-species colonialism with a gentle, sad touch that makes some very old tropes feel new again. This was written as Faber’s wife was dying, and a desperate longing for the restoration of someone in your life you can feel slipping away from you makes the Book of Strange New Things a sad but memorable read.

It might be a sign of the times that a novel exploring religion and aliens has received rave reviews — would it have twenty years ago, when the lines between “literature” and genre-novels were more obvious? Probably not. This change is for the better:Peter, the protagonist, is a Christian missionary sent to outer space. Letters to and from his wife punctuate the narrative; back on Earth things are falling apart. Meanwhile, we watch as the inhabitants of this new planet adopt a religion they might not understand and the strange world begins to shake Peter’s faith.

When talking about all of this, genre definitions are stretched in usefulness. It’s sci-fi, true; but there are many who might hear that and therefore dismiss this book, putting it in a box where they perceive human emotions as being secondary in importance. There’s a literary resonance here reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin, and a nuanced approach to religion that should intrigue fans of sci-fi, literary fiction readers, believers and (thankfully for me) non-believers alike.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

This is an extreme novel. Everything is heightened: language, characters, events, emotions. The beginning feels like the start of a light-hearted adventure in the vein of Robinson Crusoe, with wacky characters, funny misunderstandings, and a protagonist in search of excitement. You only hear whispers about the strange captain who will be manning the Pequod, the ship our protaganist will be leaving on, and hints of madness. As the book goes on, though, the stakes get higher and higher as Ahab and his mad pursuit of the famous white whale dominates the narrative. Our narrator barely even mentions himself in the last half of the book. The danger and insanity gleaming in the captain’s eye is both intriguing and clearly going to lead to disaster, but he’s all the more fascinating for it, arrogantly casting himself as a worthy opponent of not just the white whale but the world itself:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. […] Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

The ornate, beautiful language — “the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude” — is great to read, and references to the Bible, ancient Greece, Rome, Shakespeare, and others feel purposeful rather than solely as something meant to be impressively ‘learned’, as they make small events feel like they’re part of something large and important. These influences, combined with how difficult life on the seas was in this period, mean you almost believe Ahab when he speaks as though they’re hunting Gods rather than leviathans. All of this, combined with the sheer length of this thing, make the book almost as epic in scale as the whales it’s so fixated on.

The middle was why this was not an easy read, though, specifically absolute pain-staking detail in the sections where Ishmael puts the stories’ momentum on hold to talk to us about whale biology. Some of these help you better grasp the bravery and difficulties in the life of whale hunter, not to mention the the dangers posed by the white whale Moby Dick himself, but others drag the pacing to a grinding halt. These aren’t weaved very carefully with the narrative, mind, or explained by characters; they’re just detailed, over and over again, as though you’re reading an encyclopaedia.

Still, taken as a whole ‘Moby Dick’ is an obviously great novel. The beginning and ending 200 pages were some of the best prose I’ve ever read (Melville has earned his reputation), and there was even a surprising amount of action. The characters are engaging, too. If you’re a patient reader, don’t let this book’s reputation fool you. With a great sense of humour tempering the more serious moments, it’s more fun to go through than you might expect.

I never want to read about cetology again, though.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

“…and there you have it, another body on the floor surrounded by things that don’t mean much to anyone except to the one who can’t take any of them along. ” There is nothing as unsettling as not knowing what the hell is going on.

House of Leaves takes some fairly standard horror tropes – a wealthy family moving into a new home, moving hallways, encroaching insanity – and slides them into a book about a book about a book about an academic analysis of a film (called The Navidson Record), and because it’s all smart, tense, and inventive, this novel is far more engaging than it sounds.

There’s something wrong with the house the film takes place in. Something very, very wrong.

Danielewski is determined to make you afraid of the dark. Adult fears are made explicitly metaphorical as the house plays on characters’ insecurities and baggage, which gives a focus to the narrative as things get stranger and stranger.

I very rarely get scared when reading books (horror games are another matter). That’s why it was so surprising that while reading this thing, during a couple of moments, I felt true fear gnaw at me rather than the nervous excitement which horror stories normally draw out. It’s also very well paced, as I tore through this thing in around a week. I just had to know what happened.

This is a very, very flawed book though. The sections with Johnny Truant are almost the complete opposites of those about The Navidson Record, for what I’m guessing are tenuous thematic purposes: instead of academic, the tone is casual; instead of claustrophobic or daunting, things are grounded; instead of carefully written, things are sappy and dull. Truant’s prose is painfully cliché times, particularly when it comes to descriptions of women (“blue eyes, like sea-ice”, “eyes would sparkle like the Northern sky”, “everything about her shimmered”), and Danielewski tries to use a stream-of-consciousness style that falls flat. The contrast of the cool academic analysis of The Navidson Record only makes this worse by comparison. I literally groaned out loud more than once when I realised another lengthy Truant section was starting. The formatting changes later in The Navidson Record in the book might also come across as gimmicky if you’re not in a generous mood.

When House of Leaves works, it’s because Danielewski understands how to cleverly subvert readers’ expectations. He plays on our assumptions about genre and the world around us and shreds them, placing them back together with masking tape, out of order, and with confusing annotations. This book just shoots too high sometimes, and becomes pretty silly for stretches as a result. It’s still worth a read, particularly if you’re in the mood for something experimental, just bear in mind you’ll need patience.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

“I am going to tell you a secret. Everything is about wanting. Everything. Things happen because of people wanting. Watch closely, and you’ll see what I mean.”

Ghostwritten is a globe-spanning novel with ten main characters who are connected by some very strange coincidences. Things start with a gas attack in Tokyo, but over the next four hundred pages things take some very strange turns. If you want a novel that’s unpredictable and varied, this is it.

As always, Mitchell’s writing is just plain gorgeous. He could describe a man waiting in line at the post-office and I’d be hooked. His sentences are funny and expressive with light and easy rhythm. Observations which other writers could make sound trite never come across as simple because of their place in such an unusual narrative and thanks to his flair on a sentence by sentence level.

“We drift, often on a whim, searching for something to search for.”

The sections in Asia often have mythical and spiritual touches, contrasting with the more sci-fi and conspiracy influenced Western stories, which move across St Petersburg, London, and New York. You will be left wondering what the fuck is going on. I mean this in a good way.I can’t talk about many of the locations’ veracity here, but as per usual Mitchell represents modern England more authentically than any other modern novelist I’ve read (barring maybe Zadie Smith). This let me feel in safe hands when I was placed in cultures I’m not familiar with. Ghostwritten’s cities and villages ooze authenticity. The ten narrators feel real, with distinct motivations and personal ticks; a yearning for a secure place in the world connects them all, but their unique perspectives never come across as contrived. A teenager in Tokyo, for example, observes how cultures other than his own have changed his way of thinking:

“Then one of them asked why Japanese kids try to ape American kids? The clothes, the rap music, the skateboards, the hair. I wanted to say that it’s not America they’re aping, it’s the Japan of their parents that they’re rejecting. And since there’s no home-grown counter culture, they just take hold of the nearest one to hand, which happens to be American. But it’s not American culture exploiting us. It’s us exploiting it.”

Some of the most fascinating stuff takes place in Mongolia, where an incorporeal being of some sort is floating from host to host, struggling to understand where it came from. That such a strange idea works so easily is a testament to the way Mitchell can, when he is careful, take you in directions you had never thought of while still satisfying traditional story needs.

Stories slide from realistic to fantastical on a whim, with Mitchell disregarding traditional notions of genre. Despite the disjointed tone and themes, things stay feeling grounded even when events are plain impossible.

Unfortunately, while the final quarter is still powerful on a moment-to-moment level, there are simply too many disparate threads for the novel to satisfyingly tie everything together. Unlike Cloud Atlas, which felt like a very cohesive whole, all the sections of Ghostwritten felt more like fascinating short stories which happened to have connections with each other, rather than as different parts of a cohesive whole. The world-ending plotline felt tacked on to let things end with a bang and add a sense of grandeur instead of giving thematic weight. None of this is helped by Mo Muntervary getting introduced near the end. She has a vital story when it comes to the overarching narrative, but is also the least convincing character. Her chapter came across as an excuse for Mitchell to talk in physics metaphors and exposition in a hasty attempt to set up the finale.

I’m still glad I read this though. Ghostwritten is an imperfect gem, with fascinating character work and prose. It’s just a shame it never quite blends together as a full novel.