Book reviews: Joe King’s apocalyptic The Fireman; Lily Collins reads Peter Pan; William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine
King (who’s actually Stephen King Jr) depicts a pandemic of spontaneous combustion, Collins makes a poor job of J. M. Barrie, and Ramiz Monsef sounds like Burroughs reading Burroughs
The Soft Machine
by William S. Burroughs (read by Ramiz Monsef)
Blackstone Audio (audiobook)
The Soft Machine is notorious even within the notorious context of William S. Burroughs’ work. The successor to The Naked Lunch, it took that novel’s cut-up experimentalism and diced it through an even more intense blender. To such an extent that no one – Burroughs included – was entirely certain what The Soft Machine was. It has been published in various variations – the original sometimes called The Word Hoard, or as part of the broader Nova Trilogy. This is not a book you read for story. Inasmuch as one exists, it is a characteristic melange of Burroughsian paranoid arcana: secret agents, junkies, homosexuality, criss-crossing time and space. But the crazy paving sentences are what excite and challenge our narrator: “So I am a public agent and don’t know who I work for, get my instructions from street signs, newspapers and pieces of conversation I snap out of the air the way a vulture will tear entrails from other mouths.” Burroughs is one of the great reader-authors, his deadpan, sardonic drawl the perfect counterpart to his deadpan, sardonic writing. Ramiz Monsef’s basso profundo sounds similar without being an impersonation. His percussive rhythm works well, and if he can’t match Burroughs for humour Monsef goes with the chaos admirably.
by Joe Hill
Harper Collins (e-book)
The vogue for novels portraying the apocalypse shows no sign of abating. Last week we had Lionel Shriver’s economic take on “It’s the end of the world as we know it”. Now we have Joe Hill (aka Stephen King Jr) turning up the hellish heat, in literal as well as literary terms. His fifth novel takes that hoary old myth of spontaneous combustion and turns it into a pandemic whose full name, Draco Incendia Trichophyton, is reduced to the Tolkeinesque Dragonscale. In short, spores burst into flames, the kicker being they set fire to anything in their path, including poor old humans. Soon, cities are rioting and struck by mass suicides. When our heroine Harper, a pregnant nurse, contracts the disease she thinks it must be curtains. Her husband abandons her in the cruellest fashion. She seeks and finds solace with a band of fellow-sufferers, lead by the titular Fireman who believes he can control the pathogen’s sparky effects. These contrasts make The Fireman oddly moral. Hill is just as interested in exploring how characters respond to the central horror as in depicting the horror itself – and it is pretty grim. A counterpart perhaps to his father’s Firestarter, The Fireman is long, nasty, oddly touching and immensely enjoyable.
by JM Barrie (read by Lily Collins)
Lily Collins has fairytale form, playing Snow White in the recent movie Mirror Mirror. Now she has turned her narrating skills to “performing” JM Barrie’s enduring classic Peter Pan. The story lends itself to the form, having begun life as a play (in 1904) before being adapted as a novel seven years later (the oft-revised script would eventually be published in 1928). Peter Pan suits a female reader as the focus quickly rests, not on our eponymous hero, but on Wendy: “All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this.” Sadly, Collins isn’t the best female reader for the job. Her voice is a soft, pleasant drawl, but rarely deviates from its basic hum. Instead of the much-vaunted “performance”, we get half-hearted attempts at an English accent (though not always) for the Darlings, and a travesty for Captain Hook. Worse still is the halting way she reads the main prose as if her mind is elsewhere. For example, the long pause between “She had found her two older children playing at being herself” and then: “and father on the occasion of Wendy’s birth”. I am all for celebrity audiobook narrators, but not when there are so many better alternatives around.