Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua

This novel was short-listed for the Clarke awards in the same year as Richard Morgan's Black Man, a novel I really disliked and that eventually won the prize. By contrast, I enjoyed The Red Men a lot – it's well written, by and large and played close to a lot of my own preferences and interests – but there are few points that prevent it from being a great novel and I guess these are why it didn't win.

In the inevitable review style, I'm going to write more about them than why I liked it, but don't get the wrong impression - this is a very cool and funny book. That out of the way...

I think it shows a few first-timer mistakes. It's frequently over-written, with a lot of fancy word work of the sort that writers often think sounds good but is in fact empty word play. In one place (by way of example) we get “Florence inspected her wet hair, found a split end and plucked it out, as unfeeling as a one of The Fates cutting a thread.” This doesn't throw any light on the conversation being had and just seems to be there to nudge us in the ribs with a classical allusion. Where there is a closer relationship to matter of the text, they often over-explicate something that's already been said it seems to me that he had a few ways of describing some action or emotion and rather than choosing one he leaves them all in there. I feel, by and large, you're better off choosing one, and the simplest one at that in these situations.

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that there's a lot of embroidered autobiography here, too, another first-timer characteristic (I hesitate to say “mistake” here). The Nelson character doesn't seem a million miles from De Abaitua's own biography, although of course I don't know all that much about him. A lot of the writing about Hackney clearly comes from personal experience, and there are a few places that reek of real characters used without much fictional dressing. The latter half of the novel set around Liverpool also has an autobiographical air to it as the narrator deconstructs the place he grew up.

De Abaitua writes particularly well about the domestic reality of a young family. I really like this description of domesticity: “no task was ever finished: there were clean clothes drying in the hallway; half-completed application forms on the desk; party decorations from the previous year still hanging around,; this was the half-done, in-betweeness of domesticity, neither victory nor defeat, just an ongoing obligation”. I also liked his characterisation of the tension between work and life (“The corporation and the family are rivals.”)

The best part of this novel, IMO, is the first section dealing primarily with the poet Raymond and his experiences at Monad. This seemed to me to be the most fully realised fiction in the novel, where De Abaitua wasn't just writing about himself, but imagining a new person in a new situation and describing and discovering them.

I do agree with the notion that authors, by and large, write about versions of themselves, but I think better novels come from burying these elements more deeply than they're buried in the Nelson character. I wondered if a better novel might have focused on Raymond, ditching the Nelson character altogether.

The Red Men is a bit messy, as well, as if De Abaitua was trying to get everything in at once. The strange point of view gymnastics that were required to fit Raymond's narrative into Nelson's first person voice were nicely done in a dream like way, but it was rather distracting. I realise that i am overfond of focus and efficiency in fiction (I find it paralysing, sometimes) but I think this would have been a smoother and better novel with a bit more focus.

I'm probably too over-familiar with the kind of drugged out gonsticism this novel is based on to give a decent commentary. I have to say I'm heartily sick of all that Alan Moore-ish, Throbbing Gristly New Age occulty hoohah, having been heavily into it in my time and then woken up one morning and thought “wait a second! It's all bollocks!” This sort of stuff seems like a young man's game. It's a kind of adolescent view of the universe as a spooky place you can change to your will, as if a toddler stamping their foot can get what they want.

I think this novel is expressing a drift away from that kind of thinking on De Abaitua's part, but he kind of wants it both ways here – clearly the powers behind Monad are nutters, but on the other hand it seems to be true, and at the end Nelson expresses a final acceptance of these ideas. It's a credit to De Abaitua, though, that I enjoyed this novel despite my over-familiarity and (dyspeptic middle aged) hostility to these concepts. Maybe the drift away from the drugs and occultism chimed with my own experiences over the last decade or so.

So, I can see why it missed out the The Black Man, which is a more coherent work and plays a lot closer to mainstream SF concerns (and stupid populist machismo, which is what really turned me off). I don't know if The Red Men deserved that award – I haven't read the other nominees – but I definitely enjoyed it more than Black Man. I doubt I'll read another Morgan novel, but I'd be inclined to give De Abaitua another whirl.

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