This Is Memorial Device is a fictional documentary of a fictional band, Memorial Device, that hailed from Airdrie, a small, predominantly Protestant town in the west of Scotland.
The documentary is compiled by Ross Raymond, a wannabe journalist whose youth was greatly impacted by the local music scene. The four band members of Memorial Device were his heroes. The band was seen as the culmination of various precursor bands, and shone brightly and briefly before the members went off to pursue different directions.
Some chapters are editorial, written by Ross himself. Others are in the form of interviews or reminiscences of those who were close to the band at the time – archivists, lovers, rivals. The introduction of these chapters is not terribly well signposted, and much of the content is rambling which can lead to confusion about the relationships between the dozens of characters – never fear, there is an Appendix listing everyone who is mentioned, however briefly.
The result is a fragmentary story with little plot and absolutely no direction. There’s not even a terribly clear timeline to cling to. Instead, we have microscopic level of detail and analysis, focused on the music scene in Airdrie in the 1970s and 1980s. Occasionally there is a hint of aspiration – an interview at a record company in London – but mostly we are talking about people who are absolute legends within a circle of no more than 50 others. Their celebrity status is portrayed without question and without irony; the detail of their lives is picked over in such forensic detail because it really matters to Ross and those who were there at the time.
There are drugs, there is drink; there is deviant sex. This is not a novel for the faint hearted. But what makes it is that it is so recognisable. Those of us fortunate enough to grow up in small towns in the same time period will recognise the importance of pub bands, cafes, the local independent record shop, the local weirdo, the time Steve Sims got a pint of beer poured over him for talking to the wrong girl. The beauty is in the sincerity with which people there at the time believe in the importance of these markers, even though they appear utterly trivial and irrelevant to those who were not in exactly that point of space and time.
Memorial Device is not an easy read. At times, in truth, it is bewildering, repetitive and boring. It is written with a slavish adherence to authenticity, much as Roberto Bolaño achieved with his History of Nazi Literature in the Americas or his meticulous list of murders in 2666. And almost half the length is an index of pretty much everything that is mentioned anywhere. The reader has to marvel at the effort that would have been required to produce this despite the certainty that it would be of no value to anyone. The ultimate effect of this strange text is something that is satisfying to have read, even if the journey makes the reader wonder whether it is worth the effort.
Fairly closely based on the Bible John murders in Glasgow in the 1960s, The Quaker offers a fictitious resolution to these unsolved murders.
Three women have been slain in Glasgow, meeting their killer in the Barrowlands ballroom and never making it home. The third victim had shared a taxi with her stocious sister and The Quaker; the sister offered the best – and only – hope of catching the killer. But after a year there had been no breakthrough and DI Duncan McCormack is sent into the investigation to determine whether or not to scale it down.
This leads to a complex story that is, on the face of it, a police procedural – with red herrings, corruption, distrust and a jewel heist – and part a social commentary on the changing social values of the 1960s. The Glasgow of the time had not yet reconciled itself to the abolition of the death penalty or decriminalisation of homosexuality. Single mothers were still scandalous, Catholics were still routinely disadvantaged, pubs were still not places that nice people went. In many ways, the killer represented a reaction against the encroaching modernity.
The novel is well written, had a suitable number of red herrings and creates a great sense of place. The sense of time, however, doesn’t always feel quite right. I’m not sure 1969 Glaswegians wore cagoules and worried about neds – maybe they did, but just that seed of doubt can dispel a setting.
The plot is quite lurid and appears to have been driven backwards from the ending. I’m not sure in the real world that a set of actions would ever have led to the consequences as they unfold. But it’s a good yarn, nonetheless, and might go some way to reigniting curiosity about the real Bible John.
Review of The Mussel Feast by Brigit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch.
The novels start with a mother and her two children sitting down to wait for their usually on time father to arrive home for dinner at 6pm. The mother has cooked mussels, which she dislikes as does her daughter (the narrator) but the father and son quite enjoy. There is a fair bit of the novel where the narrator describes her real dislike of mussels. I've never had mussels but it kind of puts me off eating them
This novel is a short novel from Peirene Press, covering 100 pages or so nd told in one monologueic burst. What transpires is the daughter recounting her experience of her father. The family we learn had been refuggees from East Germany to West Germany and that while in the refugee camp, the mother had been pregnant with a third child but had an abortion.
I found in the father in the daughter's memories (I don't believe the characters were named) to be very overbearing, very strict father and who even with the girl getting top- grades in school, he would see it as an opportunity to try to put her down for them (To paraphrase "school was a lot harder in my days. Your 1 would only be a 3 in my class." I found this funny as when I was growing up, it was something discussed as well in the declining standards. The author Vanderbeke having written this in 1990 would have been an early generation so maybe the A's in my day would be D's or F's back in the father's day. Maybe I've digressed a bit). A father disappointed in his life, whose main thing he cares about isn't happiness or well being but status.
Vanderbeke and her translator, Jamie Bulloch have done a great job in creating a monologue that unwinds it self into an excellent novel, filled with intricacies of the family life.
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Hame is a satirical takedown of romanticised Scotticism with its bards, bagpipes, and tartan trews.
The basic premise is that Mhairi McPhail, a Scot by birth but with a New York accent, is returning to her homeland to establish a museum on the Isle of Fascaray dedicated to the Isle's famous son, the poet Grigor McWatt. The novel is made up from interleaved sections of Mhairi's diary, her published work A Granite Ballad - The Reimagining of Grigor McWatt, various essays and writings of McWatt from published sources, and McWatt's poems. Together they make up the story of McWatt, compared and contrasted to the experience of Mhairi as an incomer. But they also paint a portrait of a Scottish island community; of the Scots arts and literature community; of Gaelic and Scots; of Scotland as a whole.
The result is hilarious. As real islanders worry about the weather and fuel supplies; shopping trips to the mainland; how to get seven days' work done in six - McWatt and those like him spend their time banging out doggerel poetry in a mish-mash of Scottish dialects purporting to be a language; pontificate on the decline of traditional values; and drinking in the comfort of bars in Edinburgh's New Town.
Fascaray itself is a fictional island, but much of it bears a close resemblance to Lewis, with a fair dose of the Inner Hebrides thrown in (especially Islay and Jura) and even the odd nod to the St Kilda archipelago. The issues feel authentic: the tension between preserving the natural beauty and exploiting natural resources; the tensions between the faiths; and the quest to curate/create a visitor attraction that will bring the tourists rolling in. Some of the events are real: the annual guga hunt is a real thing in Ness; the threat of offshore wind farms (and onshore wind farms) have divided real island communities; islanders really have protested against the establishment of Sunday ferry crossings; and the Morvern peninsula really is being slowly excavated.
The literary angle to Hame also rings true. In small communities across Scotland, poets and writers are local legends despite the dubious quality of their works. Their works are published by small presses that survive on arts council subsidies, sold in souvenir shops and read by nobody. The writers augment their earnings by penning diaries and editorials for local newspapers. McWatt was a mainstay of the Auchwinnie Pibroch - his opinions given credence because of his fame, and his fame deriving from giving opinions. McWatt's poems are truly terrible: translations of great works into Scots dialect. The typical reader is unlikely to understand all of the verse - the dialect is too obscure - but will understand enough to see how the metre and the imagery have been ripped away from the original poems. And please don't be tempted to translate the verse back into English as that would be just as pointless as McWatt's original translation. The whole Scots dialect thing is paraded for comic effect; we can imagine arty Glaswegians professing to understand all the Scots because it is their language (and requires less effort to learn than the real language of Gaelic), yet failing to agree with each other about what the words actually mean.
Hame is an absolute gem of a work; relatively long and at risk in the early sections of not having enough of a story to hang together. But as the book builds momentum, so the stories build and the multiple strands come together. The ending - the twist - is perfectly predictable but no less funny for its obviousness. It is rare to coe across a book with quite so much going on and for it all to land.
Review of Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky
The novel starts with Richard retiring from the university where he has worked as a professor for many years (well his new title is Professor Emeritus). His wife died a couple of years ago and his recent partner left him after having an affair. He can't go in his boat as a swimmer died in the lake it is tied to and the swimmer is still there. Essentially into enterring retirement, Richard is feeling at a loose end, missing many important things to occupy his mind.
He hears on the news about protests at oranienplatz where a number of refugees from African countries are protesting about their treatment by going on hunger strike. Richard himself had experience of being a refugee, he was born in Silesia, Germany in the early 1940's and was part of the mass evacuations of the area with the approaching Russian soldiers, neary getting parted at the age of 3 from his mother as Germans crowded on to trains to get out (an issue covered in Walter Kempowski's All for Nothing)
Out of having nothing to occupy his mind more than anything, Richard composes some questions he wants to ask the refugees about their situation but the Berlin senate comes to compromise with the protesters, moving them to an old retirement home to await decisions before Richard can talk to any of these. Richard does go to the retirement home and arranges with the staff there, to talk to the refugee and gets to know them personally.
This is interwoven with interactions Richard has with existing friends and acquaintances. Jenny Erpenbeck makes splendid use of history to draw parralels between international borders, national identity and references through out the novel to the old East Germany, a country to which Richard had lived most of his adult live but no longer exists. National identity and borders are an interest of mine so these parts particularly resonated to me.
I thought the writer made a great job in both telling the story of the refugees and making an excellent novel through it. Richard is well formed character and it was an interesting read
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