Archive for March 13th, 2007

Thick Pile Thinner

The next book on my list I nailed (and I haven’t bought any books since) was Havoc, In Its Third Year, by Ronan Bennett. This is the first of his books I have read, and I was greatly impressed.

I have all sorts of prejudices and preferences when it comes to subject matter in novels. It has a lot to do with growing up in an affluent country at the end of the 20th century, and the neophilia this creates.

It’s not that I have anything against books set in the 17th century as such; it just so happens that I don’t tend to go for anything set before the age of flushing toilets. Novels set before this force me to consider the possibility that at best some day I’ll have to call a plumber because the toilet will break, and at worst I will be eliminated by an outbreak of cholera after the country’s sewage system has been destroyed, but only after a long period of living in our attic with a pump-action shotgun to fend off the barbarian invaders who have installed themselves downstairs. The only person I’ll be able to rely on to protect me and my kin -at this point Ireland will have collapsed into a series of fiefdoms- will be the Chieftain, who will enforce his laws through his standing army, the Soldiers of Acquisition.

Anyway, the book. It’s set in the 17th century, in a particularly fearful and oppressive moment of England’s history, and is clearly intended as some sort of parable for all times and places: fear and paranoia take the form of the yet-to-arrive barbarians -in this case, papists and Irish- who provide the justification for despotic totalitarian rule. Against this, a man tries to extricate himself from the machinations of his puritan rulers, while seeing that his family remains safe. The language -a sort of sober and earthly biblical English- is a joy, even when the tale told is terrifying.

Startling new discovery

Researchers have discovered stories are a staple of modern news consumption. This is a long tradition, dating back to pre-Enlightenment newspapers and TV programmes, where it was not uncommon to encounter similar stories, but of a purely theological bent. So you might see things like ‘Monsignors have discovered that God is incapable of eating his own head. The discovery was the fruit of a long process of contemplation, conducted while strolling around the cloisters on many a cold morning before breakfast’.

Nowadays, you cannot sit on the toilet with a free newspaper without reading about ‘how yoghurt can get you pregnant’, ‘how stroking rabbits can ward off dementia’, and so on. This type of story has its own sub-genre dedicated exclusively to cancer, in which eating lots of broccoli, drinking lots of espresso and living in a house without electricity helps to fight cancer, except when it doesn’t.

All those who chose to oppose his shield must yield

I might have more to say about Captain America, whose ‘death’ has prompted some of the most ludicrous commentary I have read on a comic superhero since I wrote my own obnoxious piece about Superman’s ‘death’ 14 or 15 years ago (gist: there was once a time when heroes stood for truth, liberty, justice and the American Way, but these days people prefer pizza-eating reptiles. Doesn’t this say something about our society?).

In the meantime I think it’s quite ironic that another American hero, also known to tog out in lurid red, white and blue battle gear, and also known to mete out righteous punishment to foreign devils, although he is slightly younger than Captain America, has been busted for steroid use. The scrawny arts student Steve Rogers only became Captain America because he took a Super-Soldier growth serum as part of some state-sponsored crypto-eugenics program, yet Sylvester Stallone has been lifted for doing the same thing on his own initiative.

The Flake’s Progress


I on Twitter

March 2007