Kim Newman may not have invented the mash-up genre (but then, he possibly may) but he is undoubtedly its premier virtuoso: In his seminal novel Anno Dracula he presents readers with an appropriately grimy and realistic Victorian London, and then fills it with vampires and a whole host of literary characters. I hesitated quite a while before reading the novel, because even though the concept seemed like fun, I was not sure whether the execution would live up to it. As it turned out, it did, and then some; and in consequence I did not hesitate at all to acquire the sequel to Anno Dracula, which is at least as enjoyable as its predecessor.
I love Shakespeare; I made my way through a massive one-volume edition of the Schlegel-Tieck translations of his oeuvre as a teenager, and since then have read most, if not all of them again in the original English. I have seen several of his plays on stage during the years, in particular when I was visiting London (I have to admit that I’ve grown lazy in my old age, and haven’t been to a theatre for a very long time), but always have purposefully avoided watching screen versions of them (with the occasional exception, like Peter Greenaway’s glorious Prospero’s Books). So it has been with some irritation at myself when felt a sudden urge to splurge myself on TV and movie adaptions of his plays – an irritation, however, which did not last very long as I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself (for the most part, anyway) with them.
To start off, a disclaimer: I do love genre fiction. As even a brief look around this blog will show you, my reading spreads out very far afield indeed, and I enjoy pretty much every type of fiction as well as quite a lot of non-fiction. Still, the kind of fiction that I love the most, that is closest to my heart, is literary fiction; and there are reasons for that which go beyond personal preference. (And, another disclaimer, I’m of course well aware that there are exceptions, that there is genre fiction which is just as deep and ambitious and formally daring as the best of literary fiction. But those are just that: exceptions. (And, disclaimer inside a disclaimer, there is of course literary fiction that plain sucks, and this is not the exception at all. I’m not concerning myself with bad books here, however.)) What distinguishes good literary from most genre fiction is that the former has a layering of meaning, a surplus of significance which the majority of the latter lacks. You can trace this even in fairly conventional realistic fiction, if it is well made like, let’s say, Russell Banks’ comparatively slim novel The Sweet Hereafter.
So let’s take a look at it. After the disclaimers, a warning: It is impossible to make the point I want to make without mentioning details of the plot, so there will be spoilers.
The Outlaws of the Marsh (Shui Hu Zhuan) is the third of the Six Classic Chinese novels I have read so far, and the earliest one: it was written in the 14th century, but like The Scholars and The Plum in the Golden Vase, it is set several centuries before that time, specifically in the 12th century during the Song dynasty – there does seem to be a distinct pattern here, with each of the three novels referring to their particular present only by way of writing about the ostensible past; which is all the more remarkable as the novels are otherwise quite different from each other. (Not in all respects, however, as one thing I have learned from this reading project is that the ancient Chinese liked their novels not only very long but also with lots and lots of characters – The Outlaws of the Marsh may not be quite as sprawling in that regard as The Scholars, but again we get a veritable host of protagonists which make War and Peace look like an intimate drama in comparison.)
Narratives told from the perspective of a child have the tendency to go terribly wrong, either by a faux-naif tone hitting false notes or by an adult narrator’s condescension drowning out the child voice. In those rare cases where it works, however, the result can be pure magic, and Bhisham Sahni’s short novel Boyhood is one of those.
I had never heard of the Koch brothers before starting my “WTF, USA?” reading project, and I’d wager that they are generally not well-known outside of the US – maybe not even inside, at least not until fairly recently. And that is the way they’d no doubt prefer it, because, as Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money shows in meticulous, occasionally exhausting, but always relevant and enlightening detail, there are more than a few things fishy about their decades-long drive to move American politics to the far, far right. Hopefully soon everyone will know their name when they are pulled out of the cozy darkness of their anonymity into the glaring light of public scrutiny and uncomfortable questions – Dark Money certainly makes a large contribution to that end, and as it apparently was a bestseller (and really should be read by any USian entitled to vote) there may be some ground for hope.
The more things change, the more things remain the same: This is particularly true for Dutch author J.J.Voskuil’s monumental novel of office life, Het Bureau (“The Office”) of which this is the fifth. It brings us and our protagonist Maarten into the 80s, where things supposedly change: money is becoming scarce and financial cuts loom over all public institutions. There are even persistent rumours of the newly renamed A.P. Beerta Institute being shut down and you’d expect the Institute’s employees to roll up their sleeves and start working on preventing that.