Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Time Out of Joint


If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who use the words – Philip K. Dick, How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later


It's 1959. Vic and Margo Nielson live in an unnamed American town with their ten-year-old kid, Sammy, and Margo's forty-six year-old brother, Ragle Gumm. Their next door neighbours are the Blacks, Bob and Junie. Vic manages the local supermarket; Bob works for the city's water department; Ragle is…well let's just say he's self-employed at the moment. Add a catchy tune, perhaps with some whistling, a generic title like, 'Meet the Nielsons' and this could be the setup of an undiscovered gem of a sitcom. Only it’s not. These are the main protagonists in Philip K. Dick's novel, Time Out of Joint. And some funny things are happening. Funny strange.

It all begins with a cord pull.

Actually it all began with a cord pull.

Phil came up with the idea for Time when one day in his Francisco Street bathroom he reached for a light cord that wasn't there and never had been there – the light was operated by a light switch. The impulse could be explained as merely freakish, or as a subliminal awareness of alternative worlds. Phil the fiction writer chose the latter. – Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, p95

So, that's where it all began. Now, let's jump to the beginning. The beginning of the book. Well, page 22 actually. Vic Nielson goes into his bathroom and reaches for the cord pull.

"Are you okay?" Margo called. "What happened?"
       "I can't find the light cord," he said, furious now, wanting to get his pill and get back to play his hand. The innate propensity of objects to be evasive . . . and then suddenly it came to him that there was no light cord. There was a switch on the wall, at shoulder level, by the door. At once he found it, snapped it on, and got his bottle of pills from the cabinet. A second later he had filled a tumbler with water, taken the pill, and come hurrying out of the bathroom.
       Why did I remember a light cord? he asked himself. A specific cord, hanging a specific distance down, at a specific place.
       I wasn't groping around randomly. As I would in a strange bathroom. I was hunting for a light cord I had pulled many times. Pulled enough to set up a reflex response in my involuntary nervous system.

Vic's not really the hero of this piece though. Ragle is. But you might have guessed that. What you won't have guessed is how Ragle pays his way. He does the Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next? contest in the local newspaper. Well, actually he wins the Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next? contest. Every day. He's the Grand all-time winner. He's been winning the Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next? contest every day for three years. Well, almost every day. That can't be a coincidence.

It's not guesswork. In fact Ragle works harder than his bother-in-law and his next-door neighbour. He has been collecting material for years. Reference books, charts, graphs, and all the contest entries that he has mailed in before, month after month of them. He compares what he does to completing his annual tax return only every day. The first portrait the reader has of him is startling:

But his face showed such weariness that at once [Margo] forgot about leaving. His eyes, red-rimmed and swollen, fastened on her compellingly; he had taken off his tie, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and as he drank his beer his arm trembled. Spread out everywhere in the living room the papers and notes for his work formed a circle of which he was the centre. He could not even get out; he was surrounded

Everybody knows Ragle. He's a national hero.

Vic's not the only one who's experiencing . . . what shall we call it? . . . spatial dysfunction. Vic tells Ragle and Ragle talks to Junie who he's having . . . an 'affair' is too strong a word . . . let's just call it a 'relationship' with. She tells him about running up the steps to her house and thinks there's going to be three but there was only two.

Weird, but easy enough to explain away. This conversation takes place in a park Junie and Ragle have slunk off to one afternoon. Ragle then asks if she wants a drink and goes to the soft drink stand to buy one whereupon it’s his turn to experience something odd:

The child ahead of him received its candy bar and raced off. Ragle laid down his fifty-cent piece on the counter.
       "Got any beer?" he said. His voice sounded funny. Thin and remote. The counter man in white apron and cap stared at him, stared and did not move. Nothing happened. No sound, anywhere. Kids, cars, the wind; it all shut off.
       The fifty-cent piece fell away, down through the wood, sinking. It vanished.
       I'm dying, Ragle thought. Or something.
       Fright seized him. He tried to speak, but his lips did not move for him caught up in the silence.
       Not again, he thought.
       Not again!
       It's happening to me again.
       The soft-drink stand fell into bits. Molecules. He saw the molecules, colourless, without qualities, that made it up. Then he saw through, into the space beyond it; he saw the hill behind, the trees and sky. He saw the soft-drink stand go out of existence, along with the counter man, the cash register, the big dispenser of orange drink, the taps for Coke and root beer, the ice-chests of bottles, the hot dog broiler, the jars of mustard, the shelves of cones, the row of heavy round metal lids under which were the different ice creams.
       In its place was a slip of paper. He reached out his hand and took hold of the slip of paper. On it was printing, block letters.


       Turning away, he unsteadily walked back, past children playing, past the benches and the old people. As he walked he put his hand into his coat pocket and found the metal box he kept there.
        He halted, opened the box, looked down at the slips of paper already in it. Then he added the new one.
        Six in all. Six times.

Hallucinations are one thing but hallucinations that you can pick up afterwards! Maybe he only imagined the slip of paper. That's always a possibility. But how do you explain the slips his nephew discovers in the ruins? "Three city lots of cement foundations that had never been pried up by bulldozers. The houses themselves – or whatever buildings there had been – had long since been torn down. Years ago, from the weathered, cracked, yellowed blocks of concrete." And that's not all they find there; a phone book and two glossy magazines also make an appearance. Once dried out these raise a few interesting questions of their own, for example, who is this Marilyn Munro person and why have none of them seen any of her films?

Is Ragle mentally ill? Yes. And it's vitally important that he stays so.

First Cover When Time Out of Joint was first published in 1959, the J. B. Lippincott Company changed its title (it was originally called Biography in Time) and marketed it, not as a science fiction novel but as a "novel of menace". It did not sell well which is a shame because it is an absolute page turner only let down by a rushed ending. And to be fair, if you're new to Philip K. Dick, this might not be your first choice but it wouldn't be a bad choice.

Frederik Pohl, in the November 1959 issue of If, found it a “most uneven book” though possessing a “masterful opening.” But he complained that the novel “doesn’t exactly end. It disintegrates.” And I agree totally. Still, he found that “Time Out of Joint is science fiction, all right, and fine of its kind in the first hundred-odd pages.” What is interesting is that Don Wollheim at Ace, who was given first refusal on the book, only wanted to keep the last chapter and have Dick build back from that point.

Film adaptations have made Dick a household name but in his own time and country he was neither that well known nor, despite the occasional award, particularly appreciated until June 25, 1982 when Ridley Scott's adaptation of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – with the much snappier title of Blade Runner – was released in the United States, although even that classic was not an immediate and unqualified success. Not that it would have mattered because on March 2nd Dick died as a result of a massive stroke he received five days earlier.

Dick sold his first story in 1952. From that point on he wrote full-time, selling his first novel in 1955. From 1952 to 1958 he wrote eight mainstream novels but the 1950s proved to be a difficult time for him. He once said, "We couldn't even pay the late fees on a library book." By the mid-seventies he was being paid a reasonable sum for his books but he was still a frustrated man in many ways. You see Dick never really wanted to be a science fiction writer. In 1957 he told two editors that he was giving up science fiction and in 1960 he wrote that he was willing to "take twenty to thirty years to succeed as a literary writer" but any dreams of mainstream success were scuppered when in January 1963 the Scott Meredith Literary Agency returned all of his unsold mainstream novels. Only one of these works, Confessions of a Crap Artist, was ever published during Dick’s lifetime.

We writers write about what we know, even if we argue that we don't:

The one who is preoccupied by little green men can be a metaphor for the science fiction writer. But it seems to me that this novel is not simply the expression of Dick's bitterness as he spends exhausting days producing what is socially perceived to be sub-literature for late-blooming adolescents. – Yves Potin, Four Levels of Reality in Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint

Time Out of Joint is an attempt at compromise because the science fiction side to the story only creeps in slowly and it's really not until the last forty pages that he (and we) get most of our questions answered although those pages raise a load of questions on their own that never get answered. Up until then this is a book about America in the 1950s and he passes comment on a lot of things while he's slipping his clues into the text. This is not a whodunit, though, but more of a what-the-Jesus-Mary-and-Joseph-is-going-on-here?

a-scanner-darkly-poster-200w It is easy to dismiss this book and go for some of Dick's better known titles like A Scanner Darkly or the soon to be filmed Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Or if you prefer shorter works then how about 'The Minority Report' or the novelette We Can Remember It for you Wholesale (better known as Total Recall)? They all deal with the same theme (albeit in their own ways): what is real? This question is raised in a number of ways in Time Out of Joint. Take this brief example:

       At the dinner table, as they all ate, Ragle Gumm sat deep in thought. Across from him, Sammy yammered on about his club and its powerful machinery of war. He did not listen.
       Words, he thought.
       Central problem in philosophy. Relation of word to object . . . what is a word? Arbitrary sign. But we live in words. Our reality, among words not things. No such thing as a thing anyhow; a gestalt in the mind. Thingness . . . sense of substance. An illusion. Word is more real than the object it represents.
       Word doesn't represent reality. Word is reality. For us, anyhow. Maybe God gets to objects. Not us, though.
       In his coat, hanging up in the hall closet, was the metal box with the six words in it.


When I first read that I never thought much about the list and even when his nephew's three slips of paper are added – GAS STATION, COW and BRIDGE – I still never considered the consequences. What might happen if you tried to go through a DOOR that was really only represented by a bit of paper? Or, even worse, what if you tried to drive over that BRIDGE?

Early on in the book Ragle has this conversation with his brother-in-law:

       Ragle said, "I've read some, in my time. I was thinking of Bishop Berkeley. The Idealists. For instance--" He waved his hand at the piano over in its corner of the living room. "How do we know that piano exists?"
       "We don't," Vic said.
       "Maybe it doesn't."
       Vic said, "I'm sorry, but as far as I'm concerned, that's just a bunch of words." [italics mine]

And then toward the end of the book he shows his slips to him:

       "What's this?" Vic said.
       "Reality," Ragle said. "I give you the real."
       Vic took one of the slips of paper out and read it. "This says 'drinking fountain,'" he said. "What's it mean?"
       "Under everything else," Ragle said. "The word. Maybe it's the word of God. The logos. 'In the beginning was the Word.' I can't figure it out. All I know is what I see and what happens to me. I think we're living in some other world than what we see, and I think for a while I knew exactly what that other world is. But I've lost it since then. Since that night. The future, maybe."

French Cover And don't get me started on the Freudian and literary references throughout the book but do watch out for the references to childhood throughout the work. There's an essay online if you're interested on the book's connections with T. S. Eliot's, 'The Hollow Men', for instance (see the links below).

In an interview Dick had this to say about how his interest in philosophy started:

In college I was given Plato to read and thereupon became aware of the possible existence of a metaphysical realm beyond or above the sensory world. I came to understand that the human mind could conceive of a realm of which the empirical world was epiphenomenal. Finally, I came to believe that in a certain sense the empirical world was not truly real, at least not as real as the archetypal realm beyond it. At this point I despaired of the veracity of sense-data. Hence in novel after novel that I write I question the reality of the world that the characters' percept-systems report. – Philip K. Dick on Philosophy: A Brief Interview with Frank C. Bertrand

The simple fact is that the man was well read and had things to say and, like all us writers, he used his writing to work out what it was he was trying to say. I'm not sure he ever got it straight in his head or on paper but then he was interested in complicated things. I mean, hands up any of you who could even take a stab at guessing what 'epiphenomenal' means in this context? You can see a comprehensive list of his influences here. His science fiction, mainstream novels, philosophical essays and Gnostic diaries form such a significant body of work that prompted Ursula LeGuin to call its author “our own home-grown Borges.”

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in Philip K. Dick. His writing has its faults, the main one being that he wrote so damn fast, a truism among Dick-heads, but he didn't have the luxury of being able to spend five years on a novel. He had to put food on the table. He was paid $750 for Time Out of Joint. Not a great sum even back in 1959 – his more commercial science fiction novels usually paid upwards of $1000 at that time.

Looking back, especially after we've been exposed to the likes of The Matrix and The Truman Show, it might be hard to see what was so important about this novel. If I can end with a sweeping and unsubstantiated statement: I don't think we would have had either without it.


philip_k_dick I usually end these articles with a brief bio but I've found it next to impossible to write a meaningful bio in only a few hundred words. It just winds up as a list. You can find a fairly brief biography here. Some highlights of his life are: he was a twin whose sister died in infancy due to his mother's neglect; he was married five times; he had three kids (Laura, Isa and Chris); he suffered from depression, agoraphobia, vertigo, introversion, hypertension and paranoia; during the months of February and March of 1974 he had a number of "visions and auditions" that changed the direction of his life; he wrote 36 novels, 121 short stories, and 14 short story collections (a complete list can be found here); the FBI were watching him and he believed they burgled his house; in the early days he regularly took amphetamines to help him write but he spoke out against drugs in later life; in a previous life he was a secret Christian called Thomas who was killed by being garrotted; he attempted suicide a number of times… You get the idea.


Further Reading; - official site - unofficial site

The Secret Of The Soft-drink Stand Explained At Last! by Patrick Clark

Plot Summary of Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint by Brian Davies

Between the Idea and the Reality: the Hollow Men in Time Out of Joint by Frank C. Bertrand

Four Levels of Reality in Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint by Yves Potin

Charles Van Doren and the Rip in the Fabric of Reality by Bhob Stewart

Afterward to Time Out of Joint by Lou Stathis

Philip K. Dick on Philosophy: A Brief Interview with Frank C. Bertrand

This is an expanded version of the review that originally appeared on the Canongate site.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Responsorial poetry

yin-yang Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. - Frank Zappa

Before we start this post properly I'd like you to read a poem and decide what you think about it. It's a wee experiment.


This is the way to go.

This way or that.
It's hard to tell.

They are Yin and Yang.
They are Chang and Eng.

If I'm not here
I must be there

or on the road to there.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

That's us. For the moment we'll just leave it there. We'll come back to it later. Thank you for your patience.

Now, on with the article.

Since I've begun writing this blog I have found that I have taken my poetry into some interesting directions. I've certainly written a steady stream over the last couple of years and that's a good thing. I think that's a good thing. I always feel more real when the poetry is flowing. If I never wrote a line of prose again it wouldn't bother me that much but when the poetry dries up I wander around like a little lost soul. I really do.

I almost never sit down to write a poem and it has annoyed the hell out of me the number of times I wanted to write a poem in response to something and come up blank. And then at other times the daftest thing gets me started. And I've never made any great efforts to muck around with that arrangement. I enjoy the unexpectedness of my poetry. Like an old friend I never know when it'll call or how long it'll stay when it does.

One question people ask sometimes is, "What inspired you to write that?" and most of the time you're really stuck because you have to translate what you saw or what you experienced into words for them and that's never that good. My poem 'Common Denominator' was inspired by simply walking down a street in Glasgow one afternoon, the street was Blythswood Street and it was notorious – at least Blythswood Square which was to my right was – for being a place one could go to pick up a prostitute. It's not a very inspiring street. You could transplant it and drop it in San Francisco and no one would notice. It's part of the business district, nothing but offices. And then there's the lane running off at right angles on my left. (Surely it should be left angles if that's the case.) As I walked down the street – it was a nice day, not raining – the cars drifted by me – it's a pretty steep hill so they have to be careful – and I imagined that scene later that day, once the sun had set and I would be safe and sound at home. I'm sure you've got a picture in your head but it'll be wrong. Because you can't possibly imagine what I saw. And I'm sure what I see now is not what I saw that day. There are no fire escapes in that part of town for starters and, let's face it, they're not commonplace in the UK anyway.

That said, you don't need to know what inspired the poem. You have the poem and it can take you any place you want. Inspiration is like the husk – it gets chucked away leaving the soft, juicy poem. The husk is a part of the process – it protects the poem as it develops in you head – but then its work is done.

Now that's fine if your poem is a coconut but what if it's an apple? The peel can be cut off – I remember my mother doing that for me as a child (she even cut the skin off my cucumber) – but there's no need. In fact, as that same mother was keen to tell me years later – the goodness is in the skin. She used to say you should eat the skin of a potato and throw the rest out, not that we did.

I only discovered the term ekphrastic poetry a few months ago. If I'd heard it before then I must have blanked it. Simply put (What would be the point of putting it complicatedly?) it's writing that comments upon another art form, for instance a poem about a photograph or a novel about a film. Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is the one everyone cites, since the entire poem concerns the appearance and significance of an ancient piece of pottery, and that's us mentioned it too.

Urn The first time I read Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' there was no picture accompanying it. It worked just fine. I didn't like it much. I'm still not that keen on it. But the important thing is that I didn't feel there was something missing. I'd seen Grecian urns before. Was Keats responding to a specific urn or to Grecian urns in general I don't know. I do know that he was prompted to learn more about the subject after reading two articles by Benjamin Haydon in the Examiner on 2 May and 9 May 1819. I do know he visited Haydon's office and saw various collections of prints that contained imaged Greek artwork including urns. According to James A. W. Heffernan though, in his book Museum of Words:

The urn, as Ian Jack has demonstrated (to my satisfaction at least), is an ideal object composed from various actual sources: neo-Attic vases, the paintings of Claude Lorraine, and the Elgin Marbles.

It doesn't matter that ekphrastic poetry has a name. Most things have names but we don't need the name before we have permission to do the thing. We do the thing and maybe years later discover it has a name. Maybe in the interim we've given it our own name. I guess that's where many euphemisms come from, not so much avoiding using the proper word but not knowing it in the first place.

What I'm working up to is the fact that, up until very recently, I have never written a poem about or inspired by a work of art. And in 1000+ poems you'd think I might have had a crack at one. I've certainly referenced works of art – One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – jumps to mind but the poem wasn't about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest I simply quoted a chunk at the end of a poem that was probably far too long already which is why I have no intention of reproducing it here.

And then I met a bloke called Art Durkee. What can I say about Art that he hasn't said himself in ten or twenty-thousand words? Actually nothing because everything I know about Art comes via words. Well, not everything, but I'll get to that. Let me just say that we are very different people. We shouldn't get on and yet we do. It's the chocolate-coated pretzel thing. I never got it either but I kept shoving them in my gob as I tried to work it out. I like to give Art a plug every now and then because he writes one of the most intelligent blogs I've come across and I heartily recommend you check out his site. Here's a link. If you want to go and have a look now I'll wait.

One major way that Art and I are different is that he doesn't see music, art and writing as separate things. Me, I like to colour inside the lines.

Another way that we're different is that Art spends a great deal of his time in natural settings. He goes on road trips and camps in national parks and the like. I couldn't tell you the last time I stepped on grass or even wanted to.

Art seems to need nature. It revitalises him and it inspires him. His site is full of photographs of trees and rivers and waterfalls and even the occasional creature if it'll stay still long enough. And frequently he responds to what he sees by writing poetry, haiku mainly. Here's an example:



   ghosts ascending
   the hillside


Now the question has to be asked: does the poem need to photo to be meaningful? Personally I think not. However, the photo is given added significance by subjoining a poem.

Does nature need poems written about it? I mean what says 'sunset' better than a real live sunset. Words are a sorry alternative. Art is not simply concerned with replication however. Part of its function is interpretation and communication. It's a huge topic and I'm not going to get too involved in it here, suffice to say that a poem about a sunset, even if all it talks about is the sunset will really be about something else. Words are tainted. You cannot say one thing without evoking other things.

Take a word like 'cat'. I have a very personal understanding of what a cat is and that understanding is growing. My daughter has just sent me a photo of her new cat – she's been pining after one for years – and that photo is now my desktop. And when I get to meet the cat in person I have no doubt that a connection will be made even if she hasn't decided on a name for the creature by then. 'Rufus' is the going favourite by the way. Of course each and every one of you will have different and unique experiences of cats. Bottom line: there is no such thing as a 'cat' – it is as real as the number 4.


My daughter's cat

A cat is not a work of art even if most of them act as if they are.

You might argue that Art's photo of the trilliums is not a work of art. And photography has had that cross to bear since it arrived on the scene. I think that any image taken out of context can be a work of art. If I framed the photo of 'Rufus' would it suddenly become art? I think so. I think it is art all on its own.

Now, when Art Durkee wrote his wee poem was he responding to the flowers in situ or, later on, did he look at the image afresh and was struck by what he saw? If it's the former is his poem truly ekphrastic? It's all semantics but I would say not.

In Art's case he is both photographer and poet. I'm not sure it makes a damn bit of difference since everything is all running about inside his head. Keats' poem is a different kettle of fish completely since he was merely an outsider responding to what he was seeing, be it an image of the urn or the actual urn itself.

Okay, here's another photo by Art and the poem he wrote, whether in response to the location or picture of the location I don't know. I could ask but most of the time we get presented with some art we don't have access to the work's creator. So, let's just run with it:


Road Sign

   Lake Superior, Upper Peninsula, MI

   taunted by warm winds
   of mid-March, the mendicant
   longs for summer's road


You can read the original post here if you're interested.

W104 Personally I've never been to Michigan but there's a sign like that on the A77 near Fenwick as I recall; it's been a few years. It's pretty much a universal road symbol I would have thought. The British sign doesn't have the arrows though. If it's a one-way road then there will be a single arrow to indicate the direction the traffic is coming but that's about it with arrows.

The photograph struck me. Who knows why one thing catches a man's imagination when something else doesn't? I've long stopped worrying about it. The best one can do is to be open to it and make the most of every opportunity that comes.

I didn't write my poem right away. I'd read his post – I may or may not have commented – and then passed on. But I found the image stuck in my head so I found the post again and copied the photo onto my desktop where I could focus on it sans text. It didn't take long before I wrote this:


This is the way to go.

This way or that.
It's hard to tell.

They are Yin and Yang.
They are Chang and Eng.

If I'm not here
I must be there

or on the road to there.

I sent Art a copy of the poem and he seemed quite pleased and then I printed a copy out along with Art's photo and stuck it in my big red folder. Personally I don't think it's that great a poem but it's certainly a better poem with the photo. Art's photo was and is complete in itself. It does not need the poem. The poem, however, was designed to comment on the photo; the photo is a part of the poem; the poem is an extension to the photo.

Proximity is important and yet no one notices the plinth on which the sculpture stands. It's not art even if an artisan spent many hours in its manufacture. Firstly, there's never any collaboration between the plinth-maker and the sculptor, and, secondly, the plinth is not – and here's the key word – representational; the plinth was not created in response to the sculpture; it supports it, it compliments it, but that's it. And indeed there was no collaboration between Art and I. He took his picture and, unbeknownst to him, I wrote a poem after seeing it. Is this a bad thing? Does it take away from the photo? Yes, I suppose it, does. This ekphrastic piece is like a diptych, an art form I've always struggled with a little – What do you mean it's not two paintings side by side? – and I find my eye drifting back and forth between the photo and the poem, trying to connect them.

Art is designed to generate a response. In most cases all I get is: "Yes, I like it. It's a good poem," and I have to be satisfied with that. No one's ever presented me with a drawing and said: "Your poem made me want to do this," and I can live with that, but it would be nice. Most people who have read my stuff though are not creative people. They respond in the only way they can. Some have burst into tears. That's good too. I mean what more could any writer ask for? And yet an artist's natural mode of expression is, in my case, to write about things; for others it will be to paint or compose or do a wee dance. Each to his own.

The way Art talks about it, in his post 'Responsories', is like this:

There is something sacred about the act. It is, in the hands of some artists, worshipful, almost religious. It is not impossible to view artwork as responsorial, in the sacred sense: responsory chants to the voices of the other singers. Two choirs singing across a gallery from one another.

You see how different we are? I'd never use language like that. But I agree with his point of view. I like the notion of responsorial poetry. It makes more sense to me that ekphrastic poetry although it still falls short because all poetry is written as a natural reaction to something. The word 'ekphrasis' comes from the Greek ek and phrasis, 'out' and 'speak' respectively, verb ekphrazein, to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name. Either term works I suppose. Then again, why not reactionary poetry?

Let me go back to Art:

What do we call art that responds to the art of other artists?

Recursive self-referential art? Insular, navel-gazing art? Critics of art that interprets and responds to other art would call it this and many other disparaging labels, all the while forgetting that recursion (self-referentiality) is a natural function. The branching forks of a river delta repeat the veins of a leaf, the branches of a tree, the way capillary blood vessels merge into veins in your own forearm.

See, again, I would never look to nature to explain that. What comes to my mind are mathematics and science. In both these fields everyone stands on the shoulders of giants. No one has enough life to prove every formula for themselves. But they build on them and they get lauded for the bit the added on that expands our knowledge. No one objects that they've not done all the groundwork themselves. It's accepted and expected.

So, why is my building on Art's photo any different?

I don't think that it is.

I think Keats' poem is significantly different though in that there is no specific work of art to which he is appending his poem. The poem does, and always has, stood on its own. I would therefore question, although it is often cited as an example of ekphrastic poetry, whether it really is the best example. It doesn't mean it's suddenly a rotten poem but it does stand or fall on its own merits. At best you could call it 'notional ekphrasis'. If you're looking for what I think is a good example, have a look at Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts'.

There are different schools of thought about what ekphrasis should be and maybe I'll come back to the subject later; some say you should describe the object, others are more flexible. Personally I think as soon you label a can of worms everyone starts fishing for their tin openers.

For the moment I'll simply leave you with the complete work and you can decide for yourselves whether it works.


Road Sign


   This is the way to go.

   This way or that.
   It's hard to tell.

   They are Yin and Yang.
   They are Chang and Eng.

   If I'm not here
   I must be there

   or on the road to there.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Personal Velocity

VelocityCover Not that I needed to seek out books to review but I actually asked for this one. I felt sorry for it. You see the author, Rebecca Miller, has just had a film made of her novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and the book is just out and I thought that all the attention would be on these and no one would pay any attention to the fact that Canongate are also putting out her collection of short stories, Personal Velocity; I thought it might get trampled underfoot.

What I didn’t know at the time was that it had already been filmed. Well 3/7th of it. So I felt compelled to locate a copy of the film which I'll also pass comment on later.

The Author

Normally I'd tag this bit on at the end. But before you see what I have to say about the book I think it will help to know a bit about the author. So we'll get this over with first.

Miller Rebecca Miller was born in 1962, the year Marilyn Monroe, her father's second wife, died. Her mother was the photographer Inge Morath, who became the third Mrs Miller after meeting Arthur on the set of The Misfits, Monroe's last film, which he'd written the script for. She's married to the actor Daniel Day-Lewis, son of the British poet laureate.

In time Rebecca tried her hand at acting herself. You may have seen her in Regarding Henry with Harrison Ford and Consenting Adults alongside Kevin Spacey. But she insists she was only using acting to learn about directing.

Before acting, Miller tried painting. Which begs the question, was she avoiding becoming a writer? "It's possible," she admits, "But I wrote a lot when I was younger. It seems odd, given I've always written, that I didn't try to get published until I was married and had started a family."

The Book

Personal Velocity is actually her third book, being preceded by A Woman Who (2003) and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005).

I liked this collection. A lot. Not everyone will. It was better received than the film adaptation although neither was actually panned. Not by a long chalk.

I would suggest the main criteria that one would need to meet to give this book half a chance are that you:

Like stories

  • about women
  • by a woman
  • that mostly don't have neat endings

Don't mind

  • a bit of sex
  • well quite a lot of sex really but nothing gratuitous or graphic
  • the word "pudgy" being used twice in the same story

I am actually not sure I've even used the word "pudgy" in conversation and I've certainly never referred to women's breasts as "pudgy" and God alone knows what pudgy furniture looks like.

These are portraits of seven American women aged between nine and forty-one. They come from different social backgrounds and have not always made the most out of what life's thrown at them. Most have father issues. All are at critical junctures in their lives. The question is, do they go on, go back or stay tight where they are? Let's have a quick look at them all:

  • Greta Greta (28) is a cookbook editor in a small publishing firm who has issues with fidelity and issues with her father who discovers she is rotten with ambition when she unexpectedly gets the opportunity to edit the second novel of the latest hot property on the block, Thavi Matoli, and finally becomes someone her father can boast about at parties. The book's tile comes from this story and her father's excuse for her delay in finding success: "everyone has their own personal velocity.'

  • Delia (29), once the class slut, is a ballsy, working-class woman from a small town who decides one day after twelve years that's she's had enough of her abusive husband and moves back to her home town of Why with her three kids and into the garage of a girl she went to school with but barely knew. Finding a job as a waitress she finally discovers a way back to a kind of self-respect.
  • Louisa (30), a painter who has a complicated relationship with her mother, has come home to lick her wounds after ten years of unsatisfying affairs. The key event in her life happened when she was an infant when her twin brother, Seth, died at the age of two days. The parallels with Miller's life are apparent. Although her younger brother Daniel didn't die, he was born with Down’s syndrome and was placed in an institution by their father.
  • Julianne (41) is a portrait of the wife of a celebrated poet, who is losing her looks – "withering, like a peach left too long in the fridge" – and realising that her own poems are bad. At only 12 pages, this story is the shortest in the collection and a fine example of tight writing and merciless editing, no doubt.
  • Bryna (41) has cameos in two others stories ('Louisa' and 'Julianne'). She's a farmer's wife who does a bit of cleaning for Julianne. Her husband barely speaks and her crazy mother-in-law has hogged the same chair in the kitchen for the past twenty-seven years, ever since her own husband died and she could get to it. To help her cope with the utter tedium Bryna dips periodically into a fantasy world in which she gives interviews to imagined magazines where she expounds upon the minutia that makes up her life.
  • Nancy (9) is a psychologically troubled kid growing up within New York high society. Nancy likes to see how long she can be in a room without her father noticing her; her record to date being one hour, seventeen minutes and thirty-four seconds. Miller has described herself as a "secretive" child and it's hard not to imagine a bit of her in Nancy.
  • Paula Paula (21) ran away from home following the breakup of her parents' marriage and has stumbled into a relationship she's unsure if she wants. When, but for the hand of Fate (which she has more than a healthy respect for), she is nearly knocked down and sets off on a road trip in her battered old car. Everything changes though when she picks up the laconic Kevin, a young runaway.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Miller had this to say:

These are stories of women who arrive at crossroads in their lives. "They are portraits of a span of a certain portion of each woman's life and you're seeing her at a moment of crisis and you're seeing how she makes a choice and something of her past that makes you understand a little bit more why her choice seems almost inevitable even when it seems like a strange choice. […] What makes us choose? How do we choose? Why do we choose? How much is choice really our choice and how much is it being affected by our parents, our personal histories or even history on a larger scale? That's to me fascinating.

If there was one thing I appreciated about her style of writing is that she gets to the point. The book is full of characters that are all described in less than a couple of lines, often just a few words. The economy of her style, she puts down to necessity:

I had my first son and he was a terrible sleeper. He was about one and a half, we were living in Italy and I had a couple of hours in the morning when I could write. I was so tired my eyelids were always twitching and I think that in a funny sort of way that’s how I found my voice as a writer. That exhaustion sort of helped me cut through any bullshit that I would otherwise have had to navigate my way through. I was just so raw when I wrote and I never lost the ability to find that voice again. – Timesonline

Whatever her reasons I was glad for it. Here are a few examples of her descriptions:

Bruno was a painter. He had straight black hair that hung past his shoulders and the most stunning pelvis, which he always managed to leave bare.

Olive Blackman had an aquiline nose and a bush the size of a hedgehog.

[Sam's] torso was fat and hairy but his limbs were delicate as a girl's. His hair smelled of smoke and musk. His eyes were filled with suffering.

Julianne's poems were overripe, swollen with images of pistils and stamens and pregnant cows.

DeliaAnd here is a longer section, part of the scene where Delia arrives at her school friend's house with her three young children:

      'Where's your fire truck?' asked John.
      'In the firehouse,' said Greg. 'I'll show it to you later if you want.'
      'He's a volunteer,' said Fay. 'His real job is—'
      'I'm a—'
      'A cat!' May called out hoarsely, squatting down on her chubby haunches, her brow furrowed.
      'Her name is Candy,' said Fay, walking toward the kitchen.
      'Hey! Pssst!' May whispered. 'Get over here you fuckin' cat.' Delia shoved her daughter with her shoe. But Fay seemed not to have heard. She was coming back to Delia from the kitchen. 'Greg's father owns the bank in Why. Greg is one of the officers.'
      Big shot, thought Delia, her eyes passing over Greg's skinny legs.
      'Like football?' Greg asked John and Winslow.
      'Yes sir,' said John.
      'No sir,' said Winslow.
      John sat next to Greg on the couch and Winslow clung to his mother's leg. May was pulling the cat toward her, dragging its legs along the ground. Delia peeled Winslow off her and joined Fay in the spotless kitchen. They both sat down.
      'They're adorable children,' said Fay, pouring a glass of iced tea from a glass pitcher. She had shiny pink nails.
      'Thanks,' said Delia. Fay smiled contentedly, drumming her nails on the kitchen table.
      'I felt so bad when my mother told me you were having a difficult time.' Delia looked at the table. 'How's your father?' Fay asked.       'He's all right. The same.'
      'Does he still keep – goats was it?' There was laughter in the back of Fay's throat when she said 'goats.' Like they were supposed to share the joke. Delia looked out of the window. Indignation spread inside her, staining her cheeks red.
      'He's retired,' she said, absurdly. How can you retire if you don't do anything?

There is a tone to all the stories and we're never in doubt that they were produced by the same person. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. Likewise they are all written in the third person. If anything these things unify the book. There isn't a story that doesn't go and if I was asked to cut one I'd be hard pushed to decide which one. If someone held a gun to my head I'd have to pick but no one has a gun to my head so I'm not going to.

As I said at the start this is a book about women written by a woman. That will be enough to put a lot of men off. It shouldn't. If there is one thing in this life that has intrigued me for all of that life it has been women. I don't think I've met a single one that has not captured my imagination in some way. And this wee group is fascinating. You might argue that as a cross-section of women this collection is skewed towards the lost and lonely and I wouldn't argue against that. But we call things as we see them and maybe that's just how Miller sees women. If that's a poor reflection on women in America at the start of the 21st century then so be it.

The Film

I liked this film. It's not Gone With the Wind or anything but it worked for me. It only deals with three of the seven stories and by the time I got round to seeing it I'd already finished two of the stories. I thought it would be interesting to see how the last story compared having seeing its film first.

The film presents the stories of Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), Greta (Parker Posey) and Paula (Fairuza Balk).in that order. I can see why it was excluded but if I'd had a choice I would still have liked to have seen Bryna's tale filmed.

It's not a perfect film but I prefer to think of its flaws as quirks. I didn't mind the voice-over, for example, but considering women are the focus of the film, why have a man (John Ventimiglia) do it? Her answer:

Partly it's because when I experimented with female voice-overs, they tended to embed themselves in the rest of the story. I wanted you to be listening to a separate voice whilst you're involved in the emotional story of these three women. The fact that it's male embraces the men in the audience. It reaffirms the fact that it's about female protagonists and the men in their lives. – BBC Home

There are sections of each story where the action is represented as a sequence of stills. I imagine this saved a few bucks and maybe it does speed up the action a bit but I could have lived without it. It's clearly a low budget film (shot on MiniDV) and this definitely colours the film in more than one way. (You can read an interview with the cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, here.) The soundtrack could have excited me more. The same tune keeps cropping up, no doubt to provide an element of commonality between the tales of these three very different women. Some reviewers complained about the unsteady camerawork. I can't say I noticed it. In that regard it's certainly no Blair Witch Project.

What I did like was how faithful each segment was to the original material. The dialogue is only barely expanded on and the voice-over simply reads chunks of the book, so the film has a very literary feel which I also liked. There were subtleties in the writing that the film missed but then there were things that having visuals added. I actually preferred reading Paula's story after having seen the film as opposed to the other segments where I'd read the story first.

Hoursposter Unlike The Hours – an obvious comparison – there is no real link between most of these women other than the fact they live in New York State. It's the movie equivalent of a triptych though and it's impossible not to try and make connections between these three who seem to have little in common apart from their gender.

Greta is a selfish cow who thought she could be something else but all it takes is a sniff of success and she reverts to type. In her favour all I could say is that she now feels guilty about it but it's not enough to stop her. Delia is a hard woman and although she doesn’t always bite she certainly snaps at every hand that tries to help her. She also reverts to type once she escapes her marriage. Paula just gets scared. Her running away is a simple fight or flight reaction triggered by almost getting run over.

Of the three I preferred Paula's story although not every reviewer agrees; 'Greta' gets the most votes. I didn't care much for either of the other two characters but there was a sweetness and vulnerability to Paula that got to me. The fact that one waif would be drawn to protect another waif was pretty obvious but it's fascinating to watch the awkward relationship between the two develop. It's also is the most rounded of the three films despite leaving you with a lot of questions especially about what happened to Kevin and what's going to happen to him. But then it's not really Kevin's story.

One important point to stress is that there is no moralising here. The narrator doesn't pass judgement or even pass comment on the decisions these women make. The same goes for the rest of the women, those unlucky enough not to make it to video.

Personal Velocity won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film and the Cinematography Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

Book or film?

Personal_velocity_poster Would I say ditch the book and watch the film? As far as movie adaptations goes I'd be hard pushed to think of one better despite its flaws. But, and I noticed this most in the final segment, the book did answer one or two nagging questions that the narration couldn't catch. I'd have to say, given a choice, read the book and hope the film comes on TV some time soon.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Say what you have to say and get off the page

57041933_3fc495a326 My father died about thirteen years ago. January 1996. He had a heart attack, his second. It was all very sudden and all over very quickly. When I was about thirteen he had his first heart attack and that was the day he started to grow old. He'd be about my age when that happened, maybe a few years older. Up until then there was nothing he couldn't do if he put his mind to it. Or at least that's how it seemed to me. He'd grown up in poverty and worked his butt off to become the man he was.

At that time he was an assistant manager in a cotton-spinning factory. Later on he moved and became an assistant manager in a wool mill. I know it sounds like there wouldn't be too much difference but apparently there is and I remember him sitting with books on the subject once he'd got the job and he taught himself the job from scratch. I was impressed.

The cotton-spinning factory was just over the hill from where we used to live and I used to go over and hang out there sometimes when he was working overtime. He had a wee office where he used to sit when not fixing some machine or other. All I remember about it was he had a set of precision scales in a glass cabinet up on a shelf. Really all he was was a glorified mechanic once you got down to it. If he owned the company then maybe I would have had real reason to be proud but I didn't know it then.

I remember when I was a kid the first time he came home with £100 clear in his pay packet. £100 for a week's work – now that was something to be impressed about. Another thing was that he never handed my mum a broken pay packet and usually walked around penniless. Once his car broke down in the next town to us and he had to walk home because he had no money for a taxi or bus.

As I got older I inevitably began to become more aware that my father had flaws. And, of course, as the years went on his flaws became easier to give names to. Not that he had changed. Actually that's not true. As he aged he mellowed but we refused to acknowledge that at the time; the damage had been done. I'm deliberately keeping this vague because I have no desire to slag off my dead dad. But since the poems that follow are directly influenced by him it's only fair that you know something about him.

Yamaha Organ When he was made redundant from the cotton mill he spent £600, which was almost all of his redundancy, on a brand new Yamaha organ for me because he saw I was becoming passionate about music. I wasn't even pestering him for a second-hand piano at the time. This is just before you get it into your head that my dad was a right bastard and I couldn't see it. He wasn't. He was just human and frankly I'm no better than him. I never became the man people expected me to become and while I was faffing around disappointing other people I also managed to disappoint myself. I kept losing or quitting jobs and then having to start at the bottom, making a bit of a name for myself and then allowing the whole shenanigans to begin again. A kid I used to hang around the streets with when I was five is now a professor of mathematics at one of our country's leading universities; he had an odd name so I googled him one day. And what have I ever done? I never even went to uni.

But this post is not about me. It's not even really about my dad. It's about poetry.

I have a question: Do you think you use too many words in your poems?

I used to. I used to write poems that were pages and pages long. I just waffled on and on and maybe I got to my point eventually but I never made life easy for my readers. I really just enjoyed the sound of my own voice. Well, that's part of it. The main reason was that paper was so cheap. I didn't have to ration my words. I could just grab another sheet and another. And that's fine when you want to get something out of your system, as long as you're not expecting anyone else to read it.

As I grew older I began to realise that less is more. There is no need to be explicit. In fact you can actually say more by leaving your reader to ponder what you might be on about. Beckett called the process 'envaguening' – he would strip away all the biographical details from his text so that rather than applying to one time, place and person it becomes accessible to a much broader audience.

When my father died I wrote two poems. One was called 'So?' and I wrote it the day he died. It's a bad poem and I don't want to share it. Writing bad poetry is easy. You don't need a master class from me to teach you how to do it. But four days later I came up with this one:


Yes, even granite men
melt in the rain in time.

20 January 1996

I've posted it before.

First question: If I hadn't told you would you have known that this was a poem about my dad?

Second question: Is the poem any good?

The title actually comes from a Lou Reed song called 'Harry's Circumcision - Reverie Gone Astray' from the Magic and Loss album. The important part goes:

Harry looked into the mirror thinking of Vincent Van Gogh
and with a quick swipe lopped off his nose.
And happy with that he made a slice where his chin was.
He's always wanted a dimple,
the end of all illusions.

You you can find the complete lyrics here.

Of course, Reed didn't make that up. He's quoting Balzac from The Human Comedy:

"Dear child," she said, "I should have liked to spare such of your illusions as were not fatal. But there must be an end of all illusions now. You would soften me if I were not so old..."

But it's the relationship between the son and his father as laid out in Reed's song that resonates throughout this piece for me, the idea of a man disfiguring himself so he won't look like his father. I just grew a beard which he hated and was always going on at me to shave off. I actually look very little like him and although he was a major influence in my life, the irony is I take after my mother in more than just looks.

There's more going on here and you'd have to listen to the whole album to see that but for the moment let's just stick with the one song.

All our illusions die when the body dies, all our hope and fears. Strangely enough this is not really a poem about my father's death. I'm talking here about the death of my illusions and they died years beforehand. Frankly I can't remember a time when I wasn't disillusioned with something.

You'll note the poem begins with a 'Yes' and there's a reason for that. It is an answer to a question but what is the question? After death there's no time for any more questions. It doesn't matter what the question was. All we are left with is an answer. That actually is the theme to 'So?' the fact that I'd left it too late to ask all the questions I had to ask.

'The End of all Illusions' is a poem that's always pleased me. Everything about it works. Even its peculiar rhythm and rhyme scheme.

pointing hand I have a poem in Right Hand Pointing this month. You can read it here. And it started me thinking about the short poetic form. Everyone knows the haiku but why should it be the only form where you can get by with maybe a dozen words or so? I've only written a handful of poems that have less than four lines and in every case I've known that what I said was all that needed to be said, there was no need to embellish or expand upon or frame. I said what I had to say and got off the page. If I was making a list of rules – which I may do one of these days – I suspect that that would be my rule number one.

The question I found myself faced with was: How do you prove to your readers that 'The End of all Illusions' is perfect in its compactness? My solution was to rework the poem so you'd have something to compare it to.

Here it is:


My father was a very small man.
Since I was a smaller boy still
I had to look up to him.

I got to hate how it hurt my neck
though in time I got used to it
and just the hate bothered me.

Sometimes I used to stand on a rock
or a pile of books so that I
could look down on him and then

one day I didn't need to stand on
anything at all. It was then
that the hate stopped hurting too

because from there I could see
that if you are patient
even granite men

will melt in the
rain in time.


Thursday, 25th June, 2009

I think it's a fairly decent poem in its own right. It's a different poem. It has a different rhythmic structure. The first four stanzas are like tentative cuts of 9-8-7 syllables each before the last three where the count descends to zero with that invisible last line. It passed the 'Carrie Test' – my wife approved it (although she made me put the title on two lines – I originally had 'The View From Here: The End Of All Illusions II' all on one line) – and so it got its number and is in the big red folder for keeps but I'm still not sure about it and I suspect I never will be because it was perfect to start with. Why does it need to be set up? And, of course, because of the structure of the new poem I had to change both the layout and the text – the 'Yes' is gone replaced by an 'even', plus we have the final 'Goodbye / Dad' which I wanted to drop but I was told to keep it.

You can let me know what you think.

Thursday, 16 July 2009



Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their fathers’ sins they will waste away - Leviticus 26:39


Since my knowledge of the crime fiction is based almost solely on TV and film adaptations there were a number of things that were noticeably absent from the opening chapters of Karin Alvtegen's novel, Shadow. There is no detective, either world weary professional or annoyingly enthusiastic amateur sleuth. There are no police scurrying around wrapping everything in yellow tape. There is no corpse. In fact we learn of no actual crimes having been committed unless you count child abandonment in the first chapter (but that was way back in 1975) and adultery in chapter sixteen; that is still strictly a crime, isn't it?

If you want to be pedantic there is a dead body. A 92-year-old woman has died alone in her flat in Stockholm, apparently friendless, childless and family-less; there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death however.

And that's pretty much how things continue for a long time. In fact the only crime that takes place contemporaneously is a murder right at the very end of the book. And, at first, even that crime looks as if it might escape anyone's notice.

I was at least expecting one of the characters to be doggedly pursuing the truth for all he was worth but that really isn't the case either. The truth has to take care of itself. Which it does remarkably well. All it needs is a shove in the right direction which it gets purely due to the diligence of the social worker assigned to arrange for the old woman's funeral and to settle her estate. Throughout the book she pops up every now and then, usually over the phone, going about her business with consummate efficiency, blissfully unaware of the effect her seemingly innocuous actions will have.

So, what's with the cover? It looks like the kind we're used to seeing on that horrible new genre misery-lit. Well, to be fair there are a lot of miserable people in this book who get increasingly miserable as the tale unfurls. Even the social worker gets a bit miserable right at the end. But it's not that kind of book. The cover is meant to depict a young boy waiting on the steps of a park waiting for his mother. Eventually the park-keeper, Sven approaches the young boy to tell him he's about the close the park. (It’s a Swedish novel so I guess there has to be a Sven in there somewhere.)

'I need to pee.'

The man nodded, still smiling.

'The toilets are down there. You run along, and I'll watch your things, Do you see that door there?'

He hesitated a moment before doing as he was told.

Sven Johansson waited on the steps, concerned as he watched the little boy running off towards the toilets. He had noticed him earlier that afternoon, and now he was worried. When the boy disappeared into the toilet, he squatted down and had a look at his belongings. A tape player, a Bambi book, a clear plastic bag with crumbs in it, and a small juice bottle with a yellow plastic top and a few drops of juice left. He opened the book to see if the boy's name was written in it. A folded piece of paper fell to the ground. With a sense of foreboding he unfolded it and his worst fears were confirmed. The brief message was written in flowing script:

'Take care of this child. Forgive me.'

As I've already said that was thirty years earlier. Apart from the occasional flashback, the rest of the action takes place in the present day.

In the second chapter our catalyst social worker, the district commission's estate manager Marianne Folkesson, arrives at the flat of Gerda Persson – that would be our recently deceased 92-year-old woman – to begin the process of tracking down anyone from her past who might want to show their respects at her funeral. She's been doing the job for twenty years so she's quite philosophical about everything. And very professional. She's grateful to find an orderly flat, a little dusty, a bit musty but that's not untypical. She discovers an address book with most of the names neatly crossed out, no great surprise for a person of her age.

There are a couple of surprises though: in the freezer she finds a stack of books wrapped in clingfilm, all written by Axel Ragnerfeldt, the country's beloved Nobel laureate, and all with handwritten dedications along the lines of "To Gerda with affection and To Gerda with warmest thanks" but in the living room Marianne finds more books by him only this time "[s]he gasped when she saw that all the pages were crossed out with a thick red marker, In certain places the text seemed to have particularly incensed whoever held the pen. Those pages had been obliterated with such force they were unreadable and the paper was almost torn." All Ragnerfeldt's books have been similarly mistreated. A puzzle indeed. After coming across an old black and white photo of Gerda with Ragnerfeldt and his family Marianne decides that she'll start her investigations with this family.

Over the next few chapters we are then introduced to the Ragnerfeldts: Jan-Erik, his wife, Louise and their daughter Ellen, Alice, Jan-Erik's dipsomaniacal and hypochondriacal mother and her husband, Axel, now permanently bedridden and unable to communicate except by raising his little finger. It wouldn't make much of a novel if they were a nice, well-adjusted, close-knit family but be assured they're not. Oh no.

Even though this book is called Shadow inevitably there are several shadows and one of the most obvious is the one in which Jan-Erik has stood all his life. It was never going to be easy being the son of such a great literary figure. When we meet him, standing in front of an audience giving one of the pat lectures about his father that have become his livelihood, besides "[h]e enjoyed travelling. A euphemism for the fact he felt no great eagerness to stay at home."

josephschultzxa9 We join the lecture as he relates the true story of Joseph Shultz, "a young soldier in the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War," who, when ordered along with the rest of his squad to execute fourteen civilian men, suddenly "drops his weapon on the ground and slowly walks over [and] takes up position next to the line of the condemned." He's told the story dozens of times before and he knows how to tell it to maximum effect. As Jan-Erik retells this remarkable story of principle and courage he is also scanning the audience to see who he'll be spending the night with and, once he makes eye contact with her, he plays her in much the same way as he plays the rest of the audience before him. Everything was going by the numbers.

How was it possible for a human being to make the choice that Joseph Shultz made? What was it that separated him from the rest of the patrol?


This was the question to which my father devoted his whole body of work, trying to depict it. And notice that I do not say "answer", but merely depict. My father's sole driving force as an author consisted of an attempt to disseminate the essence of Joseph Schultz's action – what it was that made Joseph refuse to be blinded by despair inherent in the idea that our choices are without meaning…


My father and Joseph Schultz both knew that our actions are like our children. They live on, and they continue to have an effect independent of us and our will.

Now, you don't need me to tell you that all of that is foreshadowing – if I can extend the 'shadow' metaphor a bit further – and, once you've finished the book you'll realise that and wonder why you didn't see it. The same goes for the opening page where the child is remembering. So much is revealed but it will only make sense to you later. As it should.

You may wonder if Jan-Erik is so unhappy in his marriage why does he not divorce her? The answer is because of a stipulation in a change to his father's will made on Ellen's first birthday.

[I]n impreccable legal language his father had confirmed his supremacy. With words oozing with contempt he had bequeathed large sums to Louise and Ellen. As long as the marriage was intact nothing would change; Jan-Erik would remain the executor with the obligation to render accounts to the auditor. But in the event of a divorce, everything would be disclosed, and Louise would be the major beneficiary.

'It's for Ellen's sake,' his father had explained. 'She's our bequest to the future.'

And this is a picture of Jan-Erik's life until that fateful day when he got a phone call from Marianne Folkesson wondering if the family had any connection to one Gerda Persson. And the first domino is gently tipped over. From that moment everything starts to unravel of its own accord.

On her website Alvtegen explains one of the themes she set out to explore in this novel:

Astrid I have in my family one of the most admired and adored people ever in Sweden. My great aunt Astrid Lindgren. Astrid was a unique author, but also a unique person. She is and remains to me a great human role model. Those of us who had the privilege to know her, know that she is every bit as fantastic as rumour has it. The thought suddenly struck me, that what if it was precisely the other way around? What if a celebrated national icon, a Nobel laureate of literature whose novels were filled with thoughts on good and evil, was actually a real wretch? A man whose family was still forced to maintain the revered lifetime achievement and keep the aura of irreproachability intact?

Although this is an ensemble cast I feel for me that the central focus here is how Jan-Erik is affected by having the father he's had. He is now the effective head of the family and has achieved a degree of success based on the work he has done in his father's name. Everyone else in the book is affected by the efforts of these two men to keep up appearances.

I said there was no corpse at the start of this book but there are skeletons. So what we have here is more of a cold case than anything else. One of the skeletons is in one of the old woman's wardrobes and I would say at least three are in a cupboard in Axel Ragnerfeldt's study, a place that his son had never thought to look before. His only reason for rummaging around there was to provide the social worker with a better photograph of Gerda for the funeral otherwise it might have been many years before those particular skeletons were unearthed.

There is one other player in the drama that I have not mentioned. Well, that's not true. I have mentioned him but when we meet him he has become a very different person. It will come as no surprise to discover that the "foundling" – which is how he refers to himself – appears as a grown man, Kristoffer Sandeblom. As he was only four at the time he had been able to provide the police with very little information and his parents had never been traced. He might hardly have thought about them again apart from the fact that, once he turned eighteen, every month a small but variable sum of money began to be paid into his bank account, a constant reminder of the mystery surrounding his past. He has no idea who has been sending it or why nor does he have any idea why Gerda Persson names him as the sole beneficiary in her will. He has never heard of her and due to her age she could not have been his mother. But needless to say he realises that she or someone she has known must know about his past. And maybe the Ragnerfeldts, whom she worked for as a housekeeper, might know something too. Jan-Erik doesn't appear to but not all the dominoes have fallen yet and he still has an awful lot to learn about his family and himself; he is more like his father than he likely ever expected.

Oh, and I shouldn't forget the beautiful Helina because without her we would have no story to tell but I'll let you find out about her yourself.

This is a well written book and it certainly doesn't read like a translation. It begins slowly but I would suggest that's often a weakness of this type of material. By necessity there have to be a variety of suspects and we need to learn more than is essential so that what is essential can be hidden in plain sight. There are some things in this book I could never have anticipated but there is a lot that I could have worked out and quite early on if I'd just remembered something as simple as the name the young boy gives to the police as his mother's. But I didn't. Early on we hear someone in the audience ask Jan-Erik about one of his father's books entitled, Shadow. Is that a significant? I'm not saying. I've said enough.

It is formulaic but by the time you might start to realise that you'll be too caught up in the chain of events to care and it's only when you sit down to have a think about it afterwards you'll realise this. There are some clever dashes; the i's are dotted and the t's crossed but with panache and Alvtegen comes out with a few nice turns of phrase but this is not a literary novel. It's a story, carefully plotted and well told. She spends time on her characters, lets them develop over time. Apart from, perhaps, Kristoffer, but then he is a victim and it's important to remember that. One problem I did find with this book is that none of the major players are especially likeable. There was no one to root for. That's where a detective would have come in handy. It was just a matter of waiting on the "sins of the fathers" revealing themselves in their "sons" and hoping all the guilty parties get their comeuppances.


Karin_Alvtegen Karin Alvtegen-Lundberg was born on June 8th, 1965 in Huskvarna, Sweden. In addition to writing novels – Shadow is her fifth – she has also worked as a writer for television having written episodes of the Swedish soap operas Rederiet and Tre kronor. She also wrote the film script to the 2004 film Hotet and has worked in the art department on several other films. She is grand-niece of the children's novelist Astrid Lindgren, best remembered for writing the Pippi Longstocking books.

Shadow was the winner of the Danish Academy of Crime Writers’Award “The Palle Rosenkrantz Prize 2008” for Best Crime Novel in Denmark and was shortlisted for the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award 2007 for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year. It has also been shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger Award 2009.

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