Friday, 31 July 2015

The Gunman

This was one of those impulsive purchases that come from a quick search of the crime fiction section of a local bookshop. The Gunman, published earlier as The Prone Guman, is back in the shops thanks to what sounds like a fairly poor film version, starring Sean Penn, and premised (rather incorrectly) on a good man who has become a hired killer and straightened out, only to be forced to return for one last job due to circumstances beyond his control. Jean-Patrick Machette’s novel has no such redemptive character, although there is something more to the novel that the action-plot which fires it forwards.

The novel’s assassin does “want out” but the powers-that-be don’t want to let him go, and betray him to a mafia family whose son he has taken out, some years back. Violence begets violence. The pay-masters are rather sinister, government agencies, with the suggestion of the Cold War behind the scenes (and largely out of sight). Rather than developing the political machinations in the manner of Le Carre’s A Spy Who Came in from the Cold, however, Machette perhaps has other allusions in mind. In particular, Martin Terrier has ‘Gatsby’ like characteristics. He has left behind his small town, his derelict (and just diseased) drunken father, and gone out in search of his fortune, albeit in an unconventional way. Once he has achieved his goal, his intention is to return to his town and the girl he had met years before, who like Daisy – has promised Terrier/Gatsby to wait ten years for his return. At some point, she has lost patience and married an arrogant man of her own class, whose treatment of distain for Terrier is one of those touches that leads the reader to empathise with this most ruthless-killer. Here’s Félix, Terrier’s rival, stirring him up after Terrier has missed an allusion to Robert Altman:

‘What do you think of Régis Debray’s position on the media and the intellectual? What do you think of the new French crime novel? And do you think that jazz can still progress?’ (p.57).

Another innovation on the killer/crime novel is the psychological element, portrayed through a lack of insight into self (conveyed cleverly through manipulation of point of view) beyond survival, as well as the state of sexual impotence of the killer-protagonist who is clearly a more competent fighter than lover, despite the presence of the blonde-lover, naked at various points and frustrated with her rough boyfriend. At one point, Terrier also loses his ability to speak, or he acts as such, literally becoming voiceless in his pursuit of action over words.

I read this book in a matter of hours, and enjoyed it. It’s not brilliant literature, perhaps, but it does enough – a French noir crime novel, quite conscious of the genre (referenced, as above) – and defying some of the stereotypes of the action-novel at the same time. The Gunman shoots from the hip, even if the film misfires.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A Single Man

I picked up a second-hand copy of A Single Man in a bookshop in the Blue Mountains. I had wanted to read Christopher Isherwood since quoting from Goodbye to Berlin in my own novel, The Copyart Murders. What I found in this novel surprised me on a number of different levels. First, there was the frankness of the depiction of a gay man who has just lost his partner, Jim – we find out how later in the novel. This is 1964, and I thought about how the issue of gay marriage, topical as it is, is not new in the sense of couples like George and Jim having lived together in all-but-wedlock for years now. The description of the suburban life they have been living, with George’s silence to his neighbours about the true reason for his ‘room-mate’s’ absence is poignant, yet saved from sentimentality by the irony of George’s natural outlook on life. This leads to the second surprise in the novel – the moments of real human insight, hopeful and profound in nature. In this respect, I should have expected as much (hadn’t I quoted Isherwood before, without even having read him?).

The novel follow’s George’s viewpoint closely, almost a first-person narrative in effect, and the tone is one of the British ironic view of America, a place of change and constant development. Like Dicken’s ‘Coke Town’, the university is ‘the storm centre of … grading, shovelling, hauling and hammering ... a clean modern factory’, a ‘factory’ that when ‘fully operational’ will be able to ‘process twenty thousand graduates’ (p.28). Then comes the surprise. Despite George’s ironical view of the campus and its surroundings, he realises that ‘absurdly, inadequately, in spite of himself almost, he is a representative of hope’ (p.33). The novel explores the teacher-student relationship, and while it isn’t typical of the genre (Americans love films about teachers and their profound wisdom) there is a pedagogical dimension to this, undercut by George’s self-doubt and refusal, I imagine, to take on a role that limits his own ability to grow, or become ‘sillier’ with age. George’s student, Kenny, asks him about the point of experience if it doesn’t make you wiser? George refutes this simple notion: ‘I only mean, you can’t use it. But if you don’t try to – if you just realise it’s there and you’ve got it – then it can be kind of marvellous – ‘ (p.130).

Another interesting facet of the novel is the ‘After the Bomb’ context. I use this phrase for any students of English Extension 1 (HSC) – I took a few pages from the text to show my own students how the Cold War context is subtly included in the setting and characters (the effect of the presence of the nuclear arm’s race and the tensions of this period). A few examples are George’s arrival at the university (pp.28-29); reference to the House of Un-American Activities Committee (p.71); the change of war which means all will be killed, not just the youth (p.127).

To see how these elements work together to the novel’s conclusion (George as alternative-teacher; moments of profound discourse; the nearness of war and death) would be to say too much in a short review of a short novel. Suffice to say that A Single Man packs a strong punch for a character-based, intellectual novel that resonates in its time and yet speaks clearly today. I’m glad that I read it; I’ll get on to Goodbye to Berlin just as soon as my hands touch a copy (or I clear the backlog of books I have yet to read or have shamefully half-read in the pursuit of narrative happiness …).