THE SUNSET LIMITED BY CORMAC MCCARTHY
THE iconic American author of the Pulitzer winning The Road (2006) and No Country For Old Men (2005) has a fixation with the grim. Men (in general) love to read his work, see the film adaptations, perhaps because it all toys with apocalypse in various ways (the desolate, post end-of-times landscape of The Road; the bloodshed of No Country). Hardening, troubling stuff.
But it’s also immensely skilled writing and belongs firmly in the “literature” category. McCarthy has an ear for language and dialogue like few others, which is why his work blurs the boundaries between plays, novels and screenplays. Indeed, Sunset Limited appeared first as a play in New York before being released in novel form.
The whole work takes place in a single, sparsely furnished room in a black ghetto tenement in New York, and the action is composed entirely of dialogue between two men: the “large” Black and the “middle aged” White. We learn that earlier, the deeply religious Black had been waiting for his train, the Sunset Limited (which has been running from New Orleans to Los Angeles since 1894), and had stopped White from throwing himself under it. Apart from some food preparation at one point, it’s just talk, Beckett style.
Which is actually an ingenious structural idea, but only when done well, as it is here. We’re left with so little detail or description about the men, we strain for any information. So when it’s served up – a bit of context here, a bit of history there, we devour it hungrily. The result is that the dialogue slowly shades the characters in a way that any outright description could not, and allows McCarthy to explore his favoured themes of moral desolation and quandary painfully well.
TERMINAL WORLD BY ALASTAIR REYNOLDS
WELSHMAN and science fiction guru Alastair Reynolds became the talk of publishing when news of his ten-book, million-pound deal with Gollancz got out. This is the first of the lot, and it certainly lives up to the hype. It breaks from his well-known Revelation Space universe, which does not refer to a series, but books that take place in a fixed future universe. Yes, we are firmly in the realms of sci-fi here, but if you scoff at dark, parallel and future universes, you’re going to miss out. Reynolds is the real deal: after a degree in physics, he worked for the European Space Agency.
Flash forward – far, far forward – to Spearpoint, the last great city on a cold, desolate earth thousands of years in the future. It’s a colossal man-made spire divided into separate “zones”, each one in a different technological age. Technically, they are “regions of spacetime” which exist in different energy states. Different zones support different levels of technology and humans require drug treatment to survive outside their native zone.
At the very top are angels – “post-humans” from the Celestial age. The action begins when an angel falls further down the spire to Neon Heights. The clean-up crew finds it and delivers it to Quillon, a pathologist. Quillon was part of a secret research group trying to discover whether angels could be altered to survive in Spearpoint's lower levels, and the dying angel tells him that certain factions amongst the angels are searching for him to obtain further information about the results of this project.
So Quillon seeks advice from his old chum Fray, and is told that he must leave Spearpoint if he is to survive. Along comes Meroka, an “extraction specialist” (isn't that great? Like leaving Spearpoint is the equivalent to having a tooth pulled) – and off they go.
The book ripples with creativity and presents an undulating, vivid story about civilisation and survival. Sci-fi lovers will be in seventh heaven, but this is so well done and so captivating, it should be read by anyone with a taste for truly inventive stories.
SEX AND STRAVINSKY BY BARBARA TRAPIDO
SOUTH African by origin but for some years based in this country, Barbara Trapido – a writer three times nominated for the Whitbread prize – has set her latest novel in both countries.
It’s London in the 1970s and South African drama PhD student Josh walks into his kitchen to find a gorgeous, leggy Australian woman there. The attraction is instant and they get married. Fifteen years later, Josh and Caroline have a moody teenage daughter who is obsessed with ballet (Josh’s academic specialty). A conference takes him to South Africa where he meets his first love Hattie, who also happens to write the ballet books his own daughter devours. Hattie’s husband is a handsome Aryan architect (Hattie and Josh are Europeanised Jews) more in Caroline’s mould.
The title hints at the operatic form that Trapido prides herself on – dramatic symmetries, bed-tricks, favoured siblings, instant marriages, couples rearranging themselves and amazing coincidences. This is not quite life imitating art, more like art rejoicing in being art. After all, in real life, people do not drift towards each other for a reason – chance and randomness account for most of our meetings and re-discoveries. Yet for Trapido, the characters move steadily towards each other over time and space until the perfect coincidence becomes inevitable.
The dance of rearrangement that takes place is lovely to read, a superbly elegant unfolding of plot with a savagely sad twist at the end. This is a treasure of a novel from one of our best authors.