Book Log I: White Teeth, The Beach & Mort

I figured that it can’t hurt to have a bit of a book log going on. I suspect that the book writings will be even briefer than your average movie outing, because I’m not that certain of literary criticism save knowing that I’m not a big fan of Imperial pints of semen. So here we go, our first adventure: all of the books I’ve read post Cryptonomicon! (I suspect I may have left some out, in which case I will attack them in future instances).

First round: White Teeth, The Beach and Mort!

White Teeth
Zadie Smith, 2000

I did quite a bit of reading about Britain in the eighties last year – just novels about the time, mind, no real concrete histories – and I got used to a few patterns. Smith’s White Teeth passes by with barely a mention of the Lady! We are “treated” to an account of Mrs. Gandhi’s death, and I learned that Bangladesh used to be part of Pakistan. Which I may have known from having read (or been subjected to) Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but I certainly didn’t recall. Anyway, to the book itself: it’s an interracial, intergenerational and pretty amusing story, beginning with an attempted suicide and ending with one of those uplifting sentences that you absolutely have to end a book on. Well, you don’t have to, but I’ll give you bonus points.
In the early seventies, Archie Jones fails his suicide attempt because the butcher that he is parked in front of is not licenced for suicides – and, it being the new year, he stumbles onto the remnants of an End of the World party, where he meets Clara, a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness of Jamaican extraction. It’s not love, but it’s nice. The story continues through Archie’s best friend, Samad Iqbal, with whom he fought in the war, and his wife Alsana, and then goes down the years to their future children. White Teeth has a story, but it’s more about the momentum of its characters than anything else, and they are characters that one can bring themselves to be quite fond of indeed. Samad’s concerns about pagan rituals being embraced by his children’s school are accompanied by some quite grand speeches (paraphrasing here: “Where in the Bible does it say thou shalt force thy mother to bake bread into the shape of a fish and give it to a crone in Wembley?”)

It’s certainly the style of book that I can take quite well: Samad has an obsession with one of his mutinous ancestors, which really serves no purpose to the greater plot if you believe what others have to say. The beauty is that it doesn’t have to because it’s simply an essential part of Samad’s character; you can’t expect it to go somewhere because it serves a beautiful internalised purpose. I feel somewhat hypocritical saying this after having “savaged” Cryptonomicon, but that book was nowhere near as personal or as elegant. Actually, this is precisely why I don’t go into reading the criticisms of people I don’t know from Adam: their own writing colours mine, I notice that they’re completely hung up on something that happens on maybe one or two pages that they characterise as being reccurrent through the entire novel … it’s a minefield. (“Which is more than can be said of the reader, who is ultimately left feeling curiously empty.” Who condescends to represent their own feelings as what the reader feels? Dear lord!)

Clearly I’ve been sidetracked: White Teeth was a highly enjoyable book that made me jealous of the fact that I don’t really have a story to tell. I accidentally finished it when I read 280 pages in a working day without having a backup like I normally do. It would be convenient to say that I had arranged to catch the train home with my cousin that night because of that, but in reality we saw 3.10 to Yuma together. So, read White Teeth and it will do you good: it’s like so many other British novels that feature the eighties, which is in no way a hindrance, and it can induce laughter.

The Beach
Alex Garland, 1996

I have my misgivings about this book, not because of Alex Garland, but because of the people it represents. I have some sort of deep seated mistrust of perpetual travelers; there’s a problem with this, considering that my 27 year old cousin is, in essence, a perpetual traveler. Beyond that (yeah, beyond having a basic problem with every character in this novel on a core level), The Beach is a great read. Danny Boyle directed the film, and afterward Garland wrote 28 Days Later and Sunshine for him. It’s been a pretty effective partnership.

To the book itself: Richard is a traveler who has found himself in Thailand. The man in the next room of his hotel commits suicide and leaves a map to “the beach”, which has become the stuff of legend for travelers of the region. Richard teams up with a French couple and they set off to find, as blurbs would have it, “adventure” and “more than they bargained for”.
The Beach essentially becomes the story of a commune of filthy hippies that is ultimately less happy than it would at first appear to be, and the gradual slide into semi-madness that Richard suffers as a result of the lack of civilisation and the things that he has seen. It is an interesting character study, not just of Richard but of the people with whom he shares the perceived idyll. Life on the Beach, were it not for the intensity of the efforts to keep it perfect, would be better than the drug-addled lives of the travelers on the surrounding islands. There’s a lot of pressure on Richard and it all comes to a beautiful head.
There’s even something else in this book for people less like the travelers and people more like me: Keaty’s Game Boy. One of Richard’s new friends has Tetris and Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. It turns out that Garland, or at least his characters, aren’t very good at video games because he makes it sound like Mario is an intensely difficult game – it’s actually one of the easiest in the series. He actually goes into detail about Wario, so it’s not like he doesn’t know his stuff. It’s kind of a wipeout to think that this book is essentially pre-internet, though.

With a complete story and a vague epilogue, Garland certainly achieved something here. I keep on seeing his book The Coma on the cheap at multiple stores, but it scares me too much to try it. Even I can’t go that non-linear.

Terry Pratchett, 1987

Mort is probably the first Discworld feeling book in the Discworld series, with The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites setting up the basic character and concepts of the universe but feeling almost non-canonical. Granny Weatherwax, seduced by Ankh-Morpork? Not likely!
Still – and I am only in the preliminary stages of my diagnosis here – Mort does feel like Pre-Discworld. We’re in Post-Discworld now, so I’m going to try to pinpoint, this year, the pinnacle of Discworldosity. Mort, of the first four Discworld novels, is the shortest. It’s in the first batch of novels that I bought, so it’s type-set really strangely, and not in the fashion that I like reading my books.

Anyway! Death seeks out an apprentice; he gets Mort. Mort decides that one particular Princess doesn’t deserve death, so he saves her … and things go terribly awry. With the spare time on his hands, Death becomes markedly more human. There’s trouble afoot.

Death, naturally, is one of the more enduring Discworld characters. It takes a while for Pratchett to get a handle on him, with his Colour of Magic visage pretty much counter to everything that the character would go on to become: the vengeful Death of “I’LL GET YOU YET, CULLY,” is quite different to the later, more cuddly Death. The Death of Mort, he’s starting to get there, after the excellent The Masque of the Red Death gag of The Light Fantastic. But something doesn’t quite ring true, and that’s because some Discworld books are strangely structured: it takes a lot of time setting up and then puts a vague story in place. The books have become much longer since this 250 page outing, and have more room to grow themselves; this doesn’t really give Mort the chance to set himself up as Death’s successor, it just kind of happens. Death’s slip seems slightly incredible to the duty bound anthropomorphic personification of the later novels (saying this, I can’t remember his motivation in Reaper Man), but it’s decidedly inoffensive.

Mort is a good gateway Discworld book, but it’s probably not among my favourites, hilarity about Kingons, or possibly Queenons, not withstanding. Mort is a good taste of things to come – the seeds of greatness had, by this stage, been well and truly planted (and I was only two at the time of publication!).

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