Friday 8 March 2013

Cardiff, The City & The City, Warm Bodies, Penelope

Hello, all. I've finally reached the end of a book that feels as though it has taken me forever to read, and looking back I realise I haven't written anything about my earlier reading or adventures.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit my friend Anna in Cardiff, staying in a hotel with a marvellous breakfast. I can very much relate to Miranda Hart's hotel-appreciation, though unlike her, I left my hometown to indulge myself. Anna took me to the Doctor Who Experience, which was a treat: getting a ride in the Tardis, threatened by Daleks, and then looking at various props, costumes and toys that had appeared on the show. I was pleasantly surprised to find on entry that, contrary to my expectations, the queue contained more adults than children. 

The reading material that kept me company on my travels was China Miéville's The City and The City. I've been meaning to read Miéville for years, after being recommended Perdido Street Station, but never seemed to get around to it, thanks to its bulk. But after reading Willa's review at Wicked Wonderful Words, I decided to try this author through one of his more slender but intriguing novels. The City and The City of the titles are Beszel and Ul Qomo, which occupy the same space. One house could be "in" Beszel, while the next could be in Ul Qomo, but it is illegal to go from one to the other without leaving one country and entering the other. To pass from one city to the other willy-nilly is "breach" and calls down the wrath of the sinister, Orwellian Breach justice force. Sounds impossible? Citizens of Beszel and Ul Qomo are trained from birth to "unsee" what is right under their noses, but on the rival city's territory. The story itself follows Inspector Tyador Borlú as he investigates the murder of a young woman, in an investigation that delves into conspiracy theories and crosses the borders between the two strange cities. The narration is in the dry and gritty prose that marks out an urban police procedural, slow to get started, perhaps, but compelling due to the peculiar setting and the shadowy threat of Breach looming over Borlú,waiting for the inevitable slip-up. Beszel and Ul Qomo together make a fascinating setting - or should I say settings? - and once I'd engrossed myself in this book, I found it affecting the way I thought about the world. I will certainly be reading more work by Miéville.

Also while in Cardiff, I went with Anna to see the much-hyped film adaptation of Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, which I had just finished reading. It was the movie trailer that had caught my interest at first, with its snarky, undead narrator, and I was prepared for a comic read. And though Warm Bodies, the novel, is filled with wit and humour, I actually found it somewhat melancholy. One doesn't tend to see inside a zombie's mind very often, because the general consensus is that that mind is gone. But in Warm Bodies, we see a zombie whose mind is only mostly gone. Protagonist "R" is not lacking in thoughts - otherwise, what would the prose consist of? "Urrrrrrrghhhh.... brains...."? But his thoughts are smothered in a grey mist and despite the eloquent prose, I could really feel what it must be like. (Perhaps much like mine today, when the sun has forgotten to rise and caffeine is a poor substitute for sunlight for waking me up, but on a huge scale.) Warm Bodies is an intelligent, sometimes gruesome, simultaneously amusing and heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful tale of zombie-meets-girl. But hands up who else went through half of the book (or movie) before identifying Warm Bodies' most famous literary ancestor, and then felt like the world's biggest fool? I bet we all had the same realisation at the same page. Clue: the girl R falls in love with is named Julie. 

The movie felt very different in tone, to me. I suppose it is inevitable. Although we get to see inside R's mind thanks to the aforementioned snarky narration, we mostly see him and his walking dead associates from the outside, and what we see is grubby-looking chaps and chap-esses lurching around groaning, occasionally managing to form words. I'm not sure it is possible to make that not hammy, and so the filmmakers focused more on the comedy aspect. And actor Nicholas Hoult, who plays R, has a glorious comically-expressive face. Hoult's performance was certainly the highlight of the film. However, I felt that the film lacked the depth of the book, not quite sure whether it fit as a humorous example of the interchangeable-magical-boyfriend-creature teen fiction genre (in which case, squick!) or as a parody of it. Many of the darker elements of the book were omitted, and Julie became a fairly standard feisty-girl character, rather than the really damaged, angry girl from the book. Warm Bodies the movie was great fun, but ultimately it could not live up to the book as far as I was concerned. To be fair, though, I don't think it would be possible for any film adaptation to do that. Some things just work better on the page than on the screen, and as far as I'm concerned, zombies fit into that category.

I made the mistake of taking only one book on holiday with me, and so of course I had nearly finished The City and The City before I left Cardiff. Why is it that if you've got a huge to-read pile, every other book in the shop wants to come home with you, but if you need a book, none of them appeal? This was my experience in Cardiff that day. I realised that I'd read several gloomy books in a row, and wanted something more cheerful, but not badly-written, and not romance. Difficult specification for a book to meet (any suggestions, people?) and I spent ages in the bookshop before settling on Penelope by first-time novelist Rebecca Harrington. Its whimsical cover caught my eye, and the blurb made me think that maybe this was the book for me. The novel follows quirky girl Penelope through her first year at Harvard, in what I expected to be a kooky, John-Green-esque celebration of nerddom.

It wasn't.

I wasn't sure what to make of Rebecca Harrington's narration, which was very simple, breaking the sacred "show, don't tell" rule. Perhaps this was a stylistic choice, reflecting Penelope's disconnection from everything and everyone around her, in which case it was successful - too successful. It's a brave and dangerous choice to make the audience feel the protagonist's alienation too well, because you are in danger of alienating the reader, too. Though simply written, and less than 300 pages long, I took 11 days to finish Penelope, because I didn't care enough to pick up the book, and would watch the Avengers movie (or Firefly, Game of Thrones, or the Avengers again) instead. The problem is that Penelope is a very passive character. The quirks that drew me to her and the novel (love of Tetris, odd conversation-starters and Hercule Poirot) take up little more space in the book than on the cover blurb, as Penelope suppresses her personality, choosing instead to try to fit in among people she doesn't really like, and who don't really like her, by being agreeable to everything, not drawing attention to herself by having her own opinions. Likewise, the blurb promised an eventful, chaotic freshman year full of "the mysteries of life, love, inappropriate tutors, marionette operation and how to kiss on both cheeks and avoid disaster." Well, all of these things are featured in Penelope, but as passing mentions, almost footnotes. What the book is really full of is small talk. Banal, stilted small talk that made me want to scream and tear out my hair at times. Oh, I really wanted to love this book, and I wanted to love Penelope, but ultimately I was just glad to reach the end.

1 comment:

  1. Great post - I'm a little bit jealous that you've been to the Doctor Who Experience. :)

    Just to let you know, I've given you a blogger award. :)


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