Monday, April 30, 2012

'Theatre' - William Somerset Maugham 1937

I am a huge fan of  William Somerset Maugham (he is the only author I have reviewed here more than twice) and 'Theatre' did not disappoint. My favourite part about his writing, as I frequently mentioned when talking about 'Cakes and Ale' as well as 'The Painted Veil' is the interesting female characters he brings to life.

Theatre is a brilliant story about a complicated actress who lives her life as though it is one huge play. Her son believes that she only truly exists when she is performing for someone, and he is perhaps closest to the truth. The book charts her rise from a struggling country actress to one of the biggest stars of her era.

Along the way there are so many wonderful characters; from her frigid husband to her toy-boy lover, lesbian sponsor and other eccentric people who populate the London that Maugham has brought to life. 

Though Julia Lambert is an entertaining character she is not very likeable due to the sheer weight of her self obsession. 

This is one of my favourite passages which shows the 'thought patterns' which bring her to life:
"And his love of art filled her with a faint derision; after all she was a creator, when all was said and done he was only the public." 

Maugham is not a particularly famous author, and if 'Vintage' had not published all 3 of these novels I might never have come across him. But I am glad I did, and perhaps you might like to discover his work too.

Love it, Read it,

Saturday, April 28, 2012

'American Gods' Neil Gaiman, 2001

One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. 
The tale is the map that is the territory. 
You must remember this.
~from the Notebooks of Mr. Ibis

In ‘American Gods’ Gaiman (2001) set himself the task of exploring American cultural heritage and how religion and culture are expressed in modern times. This is a lofty goal, but Gaiman tackles it in a very accessible manner. It is a novel which draws on a long history of storytelling to reinforce the narrative. Woven throughout are references to myths about Gods from all over the world; from Norse god Odin to ancient Egyptian Ibis and the Irish Leprechauns of folktales. It is ultimately an urban fantasy, though in a very different way to Gaiman's earlier novel 'Neverwhere' (1996), which was set solely in central London, while 'American Gods' is a journey across North America.

'American Gods' follows the strange travels of a young man known only as ‘Shadow’ and the characters he meets upon being released from prison. The plot focuses on the coming of a literal and metaphorical ‘storm’, a clash between the old and the new. The 'America' that Shadow lives in is the America of the present day, but also a place where things people believe in, worship and sacrifice to become real, physical beings. Gods are men and women who live amongst the population, relying on belief to sustain their existence. This is an idea that has been explored by many authors in a variety of different ways. Orson Scott-Card explored belief and modern-day social detachment from organised religion through a very similar narrative device in his novel ‘Enchantment’ (1999). Scott-Card focused on ‘old’ Gods while Gaiman differentiates himself in the genre by including 'new' Gods, those of credit card, media, celebrity and Internet, worshipped in the consumer culture of modern-day America.

The novel is filled with overarching metaphors, particularly around what it means to be 'American' and the implications of a culture worshipping material things. Gaiman briefly breaks from the narrative to emphasise that none of what is occurring in the book is ‘real’, and to explain that it is all a metaphor for the American condition. His view that "religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world" (2001, p. 508) is pervasive throughout the whole novel.

The question that the novel poses to readers is: If religion is essentially self-serving does the worship of material things necessarily equate to a lack of morality?
 The novel itself does not give a clear-cut answer to this question, leaving many aspects open to interpretation. As part of a broader socio-cultural context Gaiman succeeds in raising a pertinent question, especially in a social climate that is seeing an increase in both consumerism and a return to organised religion in many areas.

In the context of the novel Gaiman also succeeds in his intention to dissect American cultural heritage and religious attitudes. However, although the exploration of American culture through metaphors was interesting, Gaiman has been a bit too heavy-handed in its application for my tastes. The literal spelling out that 'this story is a metaphor', which happens when Gaiman breaks from the narrative towards the end of the novel, ensures that even the most inattentive readers do not miss the metaphor signs. The novel has the feeling of a writer finding his feet in terms of writing style, but also in a physical way, as it was written when Gaiman moved away from his native England. 'American Gods' was a precursor to Gaiman's novel 'Anansi Boys' (2005) and although it does not directly link up there is a crossover with the character ‘Mr. Nancy’, and it explores many similar themes. ‘Anansi Boys’ was, in my view, a much more subtle and thought-provoking novel. It was filled with humour and fascinating, detailed characters, two things that 'American Gods' lost in focusing too hard on emphasizing the metaphors. Great comparison.

Overall ‘American Gods’  is an ambitious novel which sets out to explore the hugely complex question of cultural identity in modern-day America. While it may have benefited from a more even-handed, subtle approach, Gaiman’s novel is ultimately successful in drawing readers into a dialogue about religion, consumerism and the American way of life. ‘American Gods’ is a very adult novel, best suited readers in their final years of high school or older, and would be of particular interest to those undertaking, or with interest in, cultural studies.