Sunday, September 04, 2005

Beyond Black

Beyond Black
Originally uploaded by Man_Overboard.
This is a very difficult book to write about because, quite frankly, I hate it. But I don't hate it because it is a bad book; more because it is very good but has such an incredibly bleak point of view - a world where everyone is your fiend. It has a very interesting premise and is brilliantly written: Mantel has a very sharp, clever and quite intense writing style.

Alison, we are repeatedly told, is very fat, in a life threatening way, with no apparent ability to do anything about it. She is possibly fat because of the awful things done to her as a child - her mother was a prostitute with no ability to care about her child at all. Mum in fact put her on the game when she was "nine, ten, or eleven" but "if anyone asks, say you're sixteen". Her customers are none too salubrious either, as you might imagine: what kind of man wants to be with someone that young? They are involved in various dodgy activities: dog racing, spirit and cigarette smuggling - low rent crooks. As it turns out, Alison is quite the spirited child and is quite capable of damaging these men. Good for her.

So - that is Alison's childhood. She has an escape, however: she has psychic abilities, is in touch with "airside" spirits. One emanates when she is still very young, a kindly old lady who sits in the corner and gives her toys to play with. I don't think there is any suggestion made anywhere that Al is simply gone mad - an early chapter establishes her authenticity as someone who can genuinely communicate with those who have passed, as well as with her real life audience. She is bloody good at what she does. We get to live the life of someone with special powers; it is presented as just another occupation, although with a higher than normal quota of charlatans and fakers. For a number of years, things go OK for Al - so well, in fact, that she needs a manager to look after affairs earthside - making bookings, getting food, driving her around and the like. This is Colette, who sticks around for seven years as her "manager" - and gets increasingly managerial and horrible with the years. Colette has broken up with Gavin but refuses to accept she is still obsessed with him, despite always talking about him and inventing relationships to compete with his own (invented) relationship with Zoe the supermodel.

Colette and Alison form a team: many think they are "lezzoes", leading to this little speech from Suzi, who is trying to sell them a grotesque parody of a house, and has just been told that Al and Colette that they are buying together:
Certainly. Oh, yes, of course. We don't discriminate. Far from it. Far on the other side. We've been away for a training day. We are enthused to play our part to enhance the diversity of the community.
Of course, Suzi is just awful and so are all the people who end up living in this new development, to the point that they get up a petition to get rid of the lezzoes.

Sometimes, you wonder what the target of this book is, whether it is working with the idea of psychics or is parodying the banality of everyday life, and its increasing homogenisation. There are blackly hilarious speeches from Aitkendside, who has been appointed (by "Nick") "team leader" of a little group of spirit guides and adopts typical line management speech patterns. There are other attacks - such as the sustained one on modern housing developments (they are both banal and poisonous) which fits in with society's inability to embrace diversity.

While there is quite a focus on the relationship between Al and Colette, the primary relationship is between Al and her spirit guide, Morris. He is dead, but can manifest to Al - as an ugly, yellow faced horrible little man. He can't be seen by non-Sensitives but can alter the physical world - which he takes delight in doing - stealing things, breaking things and the like. His function is apparently to direct traffic airside, so that the "right" spirits communicate with Al. But this is where things get really really horrible: all of his mates are the same guys that screwed up Al's childhood, and they keep showing up now in her life. Al is still alive at the end of the novel, but you just know that death won't provide any kind of release for her.

Luckily, there were brilliant little episodes to help the reader gain a little sunlight, although these grew further and further apart as the book progressed. I love this, from p 69:
On Windsor Bridge, a young boy was sitting on a bench with his Rottweiler at his feet. He was eating an ice-cream cone and holding another out to the dog. Passersby, smiling, were collecting to watch. The dog ate with civil, swirling motions of his tongue. Then he crunched the last of his cornet, swarmed up onto the bench and laid his head lovingly on the boy's shoulder. The boy fed him the last of his own ice-cream, and the crowd laughed. The dog, encouraged, licked and nibbled the boy's ears, and the crowd went ohh, feech, yuk, how sweet!

The dog jumped down from the bench. Its eyes were steady and its paws huge. For two pins, or the dof equivaelbnt, it would set itself to eat the crowd, worrying each nape and tossing the children like pancakes.
In the final two chapters, things closed in on Al completely - starting with the death of one of her colleagues. Much that has been hinted at in prior chapters is then made clear in the final one, as Al works back through her life and takes a clear look at her childhood.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Family Matters

A couple or maybe three months ago, my mother dropped into conversation the fact that my brother had casually mentioned he might give up shop-keeping in favour of a return to farming. Remembering that the last thing my brother mentioned he might do (climbing Mount Cook) led to his immediate setting in train the things he would need to make the climb (he was only dissuaded by the fact that a trained guide and her two climbers fell to their death), I suggested that he was probably serious about selling up and moving on.

Sure enough, within the next couple of weeks, I'd had reports of him travelling all the way to Waikouaiti (among other places) to look at what I'd tend to call a ranch rather than a mere farm, not that he had time to call on his big brother. But then, at the end of July, he and his wife and my mother and two of my nephews descended upon Dunedin. We duly drove up to said farm, his wife hated it but my brother was all persuasive about what a great opportunity it was and so on, and how there was this (admittedly) great piece of land overlooking Karitane upon which he could build a suitable mansion for a family with several million dollars to fling at the task of farming. But later that weekend, it came out that everyone was enamoured with a piece of land near Fairlie, so sights had been set, plans had to be made.

Fast forward to yesterday: after ten years in the supermarket trade, my brother and his wife signed off on the sale of their establishment. I remain confused about where in fact they intend to relocate to, but a return to farming is imminent.

On August 12 of last year, a family friend was murdered. Over the past two weeks, both my brothers and my mother have been in attendance at the Whangarei High Court as his murderer was tried. In fact, they were all witnesses. The defence was a novel one - nothing was disputed about the fellow's responsibility for killing Bob, he accepted that he had. He didn't try to argue that he was high on any sort of drugs. Nope, his defence was that Bob was gay and had made unwelcome advances upon him so he took his cut down single barelled shotgun, went to Bob's house as he ate his dinner, and blew his head apart, smearing bits of Bob no person would ever want or expect to see through-out his dining room. The two week trial was all about trying to establish Bob's sexuality and then attempting to get the jury to buy the story about the unwelcome advances - as if they somehow justified such an awful attack. Not explained by that story was why he forced his wife, with whom he was on the verge of estrangement, to go to an abandoned quarry, where he tied her up for two days and repeatedly raped her. Funny how women can choose such "nice" guys and leave others to wither on the vine.

But anyway, among the sordid detail of the trial, there was humour. The defence had two pieces of "evidence" to establish Bob's gayness: a witness who said "the guy has always seemed gay to me" and a photo. Not just any photo, but a photo of my brother, taken when he was in his late teens, a strapping young farm worker. For added "proof" of gayness, the photo just happened to be of my brother in drag, dressed to the nines for some Young Farmer's event. Of course, it was of zero probative value, but it led to a great deal of embarrassment for my brother.