‘Archie and the North Wind’ is a rare thing – a book in English by Gaelic writer Angus Peter Campbell. And it’s sure to be a real treat, for those who cannot read Gaelic, to have access to the work of this wonderful storyteller.
This is a work of magical realism, stuffed with traditional tales and laden with symbolism. It’s part (adult) fairytale and part parable.
The hero of the book – Archie – a bodach before his time – worn down by an unhappy home life, leaves his selfish wife and oblivious son behind, at his home in the Western Isles, and goes on a quest to find the source of the North Wind. The book is all about the journey – the places and the amazing characters Archie meets along the way. Archie forges (yes, he’s a blacksmith) wonderful friendships and is enchanted by the sights he sees.
The reader too is enchanted – by the beautiful prose – ‘He spread the curtains and looked out to the heavens. A large, white bear stood yards away, looking at him. An Arctic hare sat in the snow a little distance behind the bear. All the stars that ever existed blinked above. He thought he saw a row of penguins marching past till he remembered that was at the other end, to the south, at the different Arctic called the Antarctic. Just as they call South Uist one island and North Uist another.’
When Archie returns from his travels it’s as if he’s never been away – as far as his wife and son are concerned – and maybe he hasn’t travelled far in physical terms. But in Archie’s reality he has gone an infinite distance. He has been to Skye, to mainland Scotland, to London, he has sailed around the world and trekked to the north pole.
And his memories of his adventures and of the people he met sustain him in his old age. People like Olga, the Polish horsewoman who arrived on the day of ‘An Siababh Mor’ (the great shaking – a fiercely strong wind) and the splendidly named Gobhlachan (literally meaning ‘crotch-ridden), and John the Goblin, Brawn the sailor, Yukon Joe and Ted Hah.
This is a story very much of the 21st century – but it’s also timeless. For Archie, the old traditional, oral tales prove to be true. For the reader – even in the sophisticated, scientifically dominated modern world – these tales, and Archie’s journey, hold more than a grain of truth and a world of infinite possibilities.
Read this book whilst curled up in an armchair by the fire and a dram in your hand, with curtains drawn and the north wind howling outside – and be transported.
‘Archie and the North Wind’ is published by Luath Press.
‘The Dead Beat’ by Cody James is due to be published on November 1st 2010 by Eight Cuts Press. It is one of the first two books that the press is publishing. The other one being ‘Charcoal’ by Oli Johns – previously reviewed here.
I must admit to not liking the book at first.
It wasn’t the subject matter – Adam, the main character gives a first person recollection of his drug addicted life in San Francisco in 1997 – the year the Hale-Bopp comet appeared in our sky. He shared a house with three other addicts. Their lives are described in grim detail – shooting up, STDs, cold turkey and loveless, violent sex. All are powerful ingredients with the potential for a cracking (no pun intended) tale. I worked for many years with families whose lives were blighted by heroin, prostitution and HIV, so I wasn’t shocked by the details in the tales of the lives of drug addicts.
Neither was I shocked by the ‘bad’ language – I don’t believe in the concept – words are words – but if you overuse the ‘f’ word, it loses its effect and it just becomes a verbal tic.
However, I was irritated by the characters. I wanted to tell the main character to grow up and the three supporting characters seemed 2D and stereotypical. I was annoyed by the plethora of adverbs – especially the ones attached to almost every dialogue tag – the frantic signalling of emotions, the repetition, the use of upper case lettering. There was an awful lot of telling – lecturing almost – a feeling that the reader was being told some home truths.
I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it. I put it away at the bottom of the pile.
But something about it nagged at me. I had the feeling I was missing something, that if I didn’t get it, it was maybe because I wasn’t trying hard enough. It reminded me of when I first saw the paintings of Salvador Dali way back in the 1970s, when I was a student. I hated them – my reaction was physical – I found them nauseating. Pictures like the one on the right really shook me up and scared me. But I was also fascinated by them and so went back to take another look and now consider them utterly incredible and beautiful. The slim little volume at the bottom of the reading heap seemed to exert a similar hold. It kept beckoning – so I went back to it.
And something strange happened when I started again. It was like I found the key – or maybe I just stopped being thick and prejudiced.
I believe Cody James knew exactly what she was doing when she bravely and brilliantly tore up the writing manual of received wisdom on what makes good literature. How else could she convey this counter-culture? How else could she draw these inarticulate, powerless individuals?
Of course her characters are stereotypes, of course they talk in over-dramatic, hyper prose, of course they over-react and telegraph their every emotion. Of course their lives are passive, bleak and pointless. They’re JUNKIES – overgrown, overblown, self-obsessed adolescents – exhausted no-hopers – deadbeats. But Cody makes you care about them – see them in a ‘there but for the grace of fortune go I or my kids’ kind of light.
The comet doesn’t prove to be either omen or harbinger. As a symbol of change for Adam and his housemates, it’s as empty as their lives. But as a symbol of their lives it’s powerful – travelling in the dark a contradictory mix of cold and heat, of death and life.
I also realised that, as a reader, I was being 2D – blinded by the junkie label. As I saw the characters as Cody portrays them – really saw them – I began to see their humanity. Adam strives to get clean, to hold down a job, admits his sexual relationships are sick, in every sense. Xavi proves to be a character to care about, as do Sean and Lincoln – because, actually, they all care about each other.
The scene in the hospital where Adam and Lincoln are tacitly reconciled is beautifully written – the understatedness shows that Adam has changed – grown up a bit – and that the author is perfectly capable of conventional/ subtle when the occasion demands it. And if you still need reassuring that here is a remarkable writer whom a reader can trust – just look at the passage where Adam himself is hospitalised and ‘retching and wretched’ just wants to die.
And as for the ending – well if it’s gifted use of symbolism, metaphor and adverb-free writing you’re after, you’ll be well satisfied.
So approach with an open mind and a trusting heart – Cody James is a brave and unique writer – the book fizzes and burns as it lights up the cold dark – just like the comet – and I should have realised that from the start.
‘The Dead Beat’ can be downloaded for $2.99 from http://eightcuts.wordpress.com or bought as a paperback after November 1st 2010. There are also a couple special editions left which you can pre-order from the website. Mine’s ordered.
Oli John’s book, ‘Charcoal’, due to be published by Eight Cuts on November 1st, could be shelved along with the work of Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Sartre, but it’s probably best placed alongside Camus in the absurdist section. However, it’s also genre-defying. It’s literary certainly. It’s possibly, at least partly, autobiographical. It’s contemporary, erotic, noir, ironic. I can’t define it – it defies defining. JUST READ IT. As with all ‘good’ art, it requires active engagement and there will be as many interpretations as there are readers.
But I’ll do my best to give you some idea of what to expect.
First some personal background – so you know what I brought to my reading of the book.
I’ve suffered two bouts of depression – the first was post-natal and the second was post-cancer. Both occurred at times when I ‘should’ have been happy – after all, in the first instance, I had a new baby daughter and the second time, my cancer had just been confirmed as in remission. Both bouts were due to a combination of biology and life-changing/threatening events. I was fortunate to receive appropriate medication and therapy. I recovered.
Mental illness is as life-threatening a disease as cancer.
I’m also sure even the most mentally robust and least introspective of people have moments where life seems meaningless or they feel worthless. It’s also part of our human frailty to doubt ourselves. Those of us who are kept purposefully busy enough, who have a network of supportive people and have reasonable levels of self-esteem, mostly manage to keep on keeping on. Good physical health, a family to raise, a rewarding job, an absorbing hobby, a loving partner, loyal friends and a curiosity about what life still holds – any one of these things can help us to keep fear and stress at bay.
BUT what if our minds get sick? What if the job is unbearable, or the people who should care about us don’t, or we find ourselves despicable? What if all that toxicity unravels us? Or what if we succumb to biological and chemical changes that upset our moods, emotions and rationality? How do we cope with daily life and its pressures? How do we find our way back? How do we get healed?
“It is/was like that for me too” – surely amongst the most reassuring and moving words a person can hear. They’re a marker of recognition, affirmation, shared humanity. And if the speaker has since recovered from whatever ‘that’ was, then they are words of hope to the vulnerable.
And sometimes ‘insanity’ is the only sane response to an insane world.
Reading the inner monologue of the narrator of ‘Charcoal’ led me to many intense, sometimes painful, moments of recognition, and I wanted to tell him “it was like that for me too” – to offer hope.
This is a brilliant account of an unravelling personality. The charcoal of the title refers to using the substance as a method of suicide – i.e. by burning it in a confined space so that it uses up all the oxygen.
The story is told by a first-person narrator in the present tense. Author and narrator are both called Oli – but the question of how fictional the tale is, is an open one.
The text is mainly single lines and sentences. The effect is intense and claustrophobic. The prose is hypnotic; the atmosphere sombre and fearful and the tone self-deprecating – right from the off with the apparent ‘quotes’ about the book.
The reader is forced to put logic and rationality to one side and to just ‘be’ with the narrator and see things as he sees them.
At the beginning, Oli, the narrator – a stressed out, burnt out teacher who’d rather be a writer – is living alone and working in Hong Kong. He’s considering methods of suicide – even going so far as to experiment with the charcoal method in a hotel room. Then the story jumps forward a year and gets progressively darker. The narrator becomes increasingly paranoid, psychotic and disorientated. He cannot cope with his teaching job or relate to his colleagues. He becomes fixated on a Korean model who has committed to suicide. Even although she’s already dead he believes he can save her. She becomes real to him. She moves in with him for a time before disappearing and then reappearing throughout the narrative.
He is also obsessed with existential philosophy. He tussles with the work of Bergson and Deleuze – with concepts of time and theories of personality. After all, if you can get your head round, and go with the theories of these guys – abandon Newtonian laws and take the Einstein quantum view – then the possibilities are infinite. If time is merely movement and not a one way track – then maybe Oli can save the model. And maybe Oli can just ‘be’ – no cause, no effect, no regrets, no recriminations, no dread.
As for Oli’s writing, he wants success yet he also fears it. He wants recognition but is desperately scared of exposing himself to criticism and failure. He ponders upon the plight of writers who peak with one great (often the first and sometimes their only) novel. He thinks particularly of Fitzgerald and the ‘The Great Gatsby’. He realises that achieving success can be double-edged – because having achieved it – what’s the point in continuing to strive? He refers to Camus’ assertion that life’s about the rebellion and not the revolution. But it’s not the answer he’s seeking – because what if he never finishes anything, never has any success – that would be depressing and depression leads to…
And so it goes.
The book raises all the big questions – questions of core identity – is there even such a thing? It’s life, death and the whole damn thing. There are no pat or trite answers.
It’s a slim volume – a novella really – but has the scope and feel of a much larger work. The author is fearless in his honesty about the human condition and our potential for self-destruction – the reader has to admit – yeah, I’ve had these what if moments too, moments of reckless fascination – what if I just jump in front of the train, let go of the rope?
The flashes of humour and of hope – such as the graffiti episode where he asserts that ‘real art is not presented but found’, the admissions of weakness – for example when he admits to just wanting something simple to read – all add a bit of warmth to what is often a bleak landscape.
Reading this book, you may also long for something simpler – BUT – you’ll probably find you can’t put it down either. It stays with you, calls you back, forces you to take a look at yourself, forces you to accept there are more questions than answers, that control is an illusion and the only constant is change.
This is glorious writing – Camus with added warmth and humanity and a dash of uncertainty, philosophy wrapped in and woven through ‘real’ life. In the end Oli has to accept he can’t save the Korean model from herself. He also admits he doesn’t know where he’s going – none of us do – and everything in life, as in art, is open to interpretation. But the important thing is he IS going on and the reader can only wish him well. Perhaps, as Camus said, meaning in life is to be found through simple persistence.
Johns is an incredibly talented writer – gifted not only with the required depth of insight and self-awareness that is vital for any artist but also with enough humility to be an excellent communicator. What you make of ‘Charcoal’ will be down to your effort and interpretation – as with any work of art. All I can guarantee is that it will be worth the effort.