Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Book: 'Armadale' by Wilkie Collins (1866)

This novel took some effort to read, including two abortive starts over (I think) three years. It's one of the Wilkie Collins 'Big Four', along with 'The Woman In White', 'No Name' and 'The Moonstone', and is big on many levels. For one thing, my copy was six hundred and eighty pages long, excluding notes and introduction, and split into six sections. The narrative shifts from third person to first person via diary entries, moves across several protagonists, and fundamentally changes in its very nature several times. If it fully worked, then it would be a masterpiece, but it doesn't fully work and so becomes something that might charitably be called a bit of a mess.

The chief problem may be that the various sections work well within themselves but not with each other, specifically fouling the novel's internal consistency. On the other hand, perhaps it's the sheer convolutedness of the narrative that is the problem, it being founded on the coincidence of two men being identically named Allen Armadale, and also being the sons of two men named Allen Armadale. Perhaps it's a good idea to talk about the plot, but it might take several thousand words...

Before the main narrative, an Allen Armadale is murdered by his cousin Allen Armadale, the latter of whom leaves a letter for his son on his deathbed. The sins of the fathers threaten to wreak punishments on the sons, via a prophetic dream and the machinations of a rogue lady and adventuress called Lydia Gwilt. In 1866, the term 'adventuress' was not a flattering one and concealed a multitude of crimes, and Lydia Gwilt had not stinted in her previous career. Upon her entry into the narrative, the whole story steadily swings behind her to the point that it literally becomes her diary. Were she to succeed in marrying one Armadale, the poor one, and killing the other in order to pose as his widow and gain his money, she would be one of the greatest and most well constructed villains in literary history, but instead she falls in love and we get something else entirely. Is her ultimate, if terminal, redemption the redemption of the novel or does the zigzag nature of the epic defeat that purpose? It's hard to say.

'The Woman In White' and 'The Moonstone' are undoubted classics and the crown of the Wilkie Collins canon. 'Armadale' is okay, and fits into the Big Four, but it's nowhere near as consistent. Perhaps its lasting influence is in Lydia Gwilt herself, a tortured female antagonist who sets a precedent for feminine villainy not to be forgotten.

Read 'Armadale' if you dare. It has good points, and you need only struggle through the overly portentous and forbidding prophetic portion in order to reach more enjoyable times, before another shift drifts you away once again.


Monday, 2 May 2016

Getting Started

Having decided to get going, finish some stories and write books, it has now become impossible to begin! How bizarre it is! Obviously, my curse is a lack of ambition and commitment. Indeed, back in the olden days, research was easy except for the weeks spent in procrastination. Whenever something becomes important, it seems to also become unbearable...

Of course, in line with this theme, it was a day full of distracting podcasts and DVDs, including 'Jaws', 'The Avengers: Escape In Time', and now Tim Burton's 'Alice In Wonderland'. That last one is a greatly underrated film. I wonder why it was lambasted quite so much at the time? Ah, perhaps it's because it's so much of a blockbuster and degenerates into gibberish? Perhaps. Something about it defiantly works, though. Oh, such distractions. I should be writing 'Wordspace' and working through the huge backlog of unfinished short stories!

I used to do Twitter stories, but the unrelenting drudgery of life began to get to me. It's difficult to remain creative while suffering endless strings of interview failures and personal misfortunes. Of course, it wasn't really that bad, but the tendency to pessimism was rather compelling. Oh, that pessimism and distraction, such a curse to getting things done! Get back, pessimism.

What could this planned novel be about? Or the novella, at least? Is it wise to begin without some sensible idea, or would it be better to continue on the basis of the serialised stories already planned and queued for this Quirky Muffin blog challenge? How did Wilkie Collins do it? Well, hopefully an addiction to laudanum isn't an essential part of the writing process as that is simply not going to happen. No, Wilkie Collins did it by virtue of having no choice, for I assume he quite liked having a house in which to live, and food to eat. It's quite easy to do things when you have no choice...

The grand writing projects will, then, have to be 'Wordspace' and 'Oneiromancy', both of which were great fun to write. Even 'The Plain Chocolate Digestive Detective' (a.k.a. 'The Disappearance') had its moments, while 'Triangles' is ripe for expansion and continuation. This will require extensive time away from the computer and free of all distractions. Does anyone have a log cabin free for use, without payment? I promise to not invite in any bears or itinerant harpists.


Saturday, 30 April 2016

Television: 'The Invaders' (1967-1968)

"The Invaders, alien beings from a dying planet. Their destination: the Earth. Their purpose: to make it their world. David Vincent has seen them. For him, it began one lost night on a lonely country road, looking for a shortcut that he never found. It began with a closed deserted diner, and a man too long without sleep to continue his journey. It began with the landing of a craft from another galaxy. Now David Vincent knows that the Invaders are here, that they have taken human form. Somehow he must convince a disbelieving world that the nightmare has already begun." (Opening narration.)

Yes, David Vincent has seen them, in this excellent Quinn Martin production. Normally, Quinn Martin productions were so utterly humorous as to be unwatchable, but 'The Invaders' worked due to the silliness of the underlying concept, unlike 'The Fugitive' or 'The Untouchables'. Why silly? There was an architect who seemingly never did any designing, there were aliens that disintegrated in a red flash at the slightest injury, flying saucers, and an endless sequence of episodes where David doesn't quite procure evidence of the aliens but does find a small ally or two. In short, it was the perfect 'solitary man' episodic series. (Other notable examples: 'The Fugitive', 'The Incredible Hulk', 'Quantum Leap'.)

Back in the olden days, when it was repeated on the BBC at teatime, we used to have great fun with this show, as well as it's analogues on other days of the week. 'The Invaders' was the exemplar of shows to make fun of. Now, rewatching it properly, it's a series of improbably high quality. It only ran for a season and a half, but has lived on for decades and is very influential in the right circles. It's probably because of the high production values, the excellent dramatic structure of every episode (although some humour would have been nice), and the solid performance of Roy Thinnes as the protagonist. Thinnes might not have been able to crack a joke, but he could look serious in every circumstance for indefinite periods of time, unfailingly. (For more over serious Thinnes work, check our the dour 'Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun'!)

You could develop habits while watching 'The Invaders'. To this day, my mother asks 'Is he one?' at the debut of every character, due to the paranoia embedded in the show. The aliens disguise themselves as humans, so the audience is often teased with that 'are they or aren't they?' question. How could the aliens be told apart? The most obvious tell was that many of them had little fingers that didn't bend, which was a great touch. They also routinely wore green overalls when not undercover, didn't have pulses, and acted a little creepily. Yes, it sounds cheesy, but it did work. Maybe it was the music and the stellar guest casts that were pulled into each episode.

Sadly, 'The Invaders' didn't get to conclude definitely due to a cancellation, but it was showing encouraging signs of overcoming its own formula by introducing a secondary regular character to back up the protagonist, and developing an actual mythological arc for the show. The main plot was evolving, in a near-modern way, but was stopped in its tracks. We'll never know now what happened, but the series was a classic nonetheless, and one which has lasted much better than its more popular predecessors in the Quinn Martin stable. Yes, it's a classic, and the music was iconic.

"In the far reaches of outer space, the Invader reorganizes his plan for the conquest of the Earth. He's been delayed - but he hasn't been beaten." (Closing narration: 'Moonshot'.)


Thursday, 28 April 2016

Almost Comical

In the aftermath of a wonderful episode of 'Quantum Leap' ('Camikazi Kid' if you're interested), and a mutually tiring English session, it's time to relax and compose some words into post for the Quirky Muffin. It could be anything, absolutely anything. Did you know how easy it is to make scrambled eggs? No? Well, that's good to begin with. You melt some butter in a saucepan, into which you pour the egg batter, which consists of eggs beaten with salt and pepper. Then, over a medium to high heat, you stir the eggs until they've become solid and you can hear a cooking noise. Finally, you place the eggs on hot buttered toast and serve. You see, you can find anything here on the Quirky Muffin, especially when the writer is convalescing from an illness and preoccupied with the fate of the second phase of 'Wordspace'. The whole saga might actually be a publishable effort, in an alternate dimension.

The day is nearing its end and it has been reasonably nice. Tutoring went as well as it could, given that both the student and tutor had bad throats, and that the whole thing became almost comical at times. At least I didn't try to teach him how to make scrambled eggs via sign language and mime. Is any of this true? You'll just have to wonder. Sometimes, or all the time, 'The Muppet Show' is preferable to reality.

'The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou' is playing, as my mind wanders all over the place and the wild and woolly April weather continues to defy all predictability. Practically anything might happen, including snowstorms and droughts. It's a wild and crazy world, which is filled with all kinds of silliness. Maybe it's all totally normal, and the confusion of 'Armadale' is making me a little goofy. That novel has shifted gears and formats more times than is truly comfortable. I don't even think it's the same story any more...

We shall see.


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Story: The Ninja of Health, IX

( Part VIII , X )

'The Memoirs Of Ken' by Ken, as translated from the Swedish


It all started a long time ago, in a public library in Mariestad. I had little to do and was spending a lot of time reading. You see, back then, libraries were far more scholarly in nature. I had a fine time, devouring texts on all subjects, before stumbling onto the topic of Japan and it's traditions. Then there was no turning back, and I became, just a little, obsessed.

The idea of this order sounds rather daft, doesn't it? A bunch of highly trained operatives, skilled in the martial arts, stealth and holistic healthcare? It was rather a large leap for me, too, but it made sense at the time. It seemed to all to fit together precisely, like a keystone in the grand philosophy of life. A caste of stealthy medical practitioners appealed to me, as did much of the Eastern philosophy I had been exposed to. Before I knew it, I was deep into a whole new well of study, and making progress.

After some years, I compiled what I thought would be the bible for the order, and began to recruit likely novitiates. Little did I know that something quite unexpected was about to occur...

At the time, we were operating out of a very lovely old warehouse in Amsterdam, which was still partly cluttered with the historical detritus of its previous owners. For some reason, a large number of toy bricks were strewn across the floor, possibly as part of stealth or endurance training, just as we began our regular meditation, something seemed to click... and the bricks swirled into something totally unexpected. A pattern!

The Mosaic is difficult to explain. We think it's connected to some unorthodox teachings handed down from the Sumerian meditative healers, which are somehow tied in to the fabric of the cosmos itself. How? We don't know. We really don't, but we do sort of understand it when it's happening, wrapped up as we are in the inner peace. It's as if we sink into the pockets of the universe's comfy old robe and our local environment becomes wrapped up in the process, causing the Mosaic, a visual representation of the universe.

Through our explorations of the Mosaic, we came to learn many things. Never has there been a problem, so well behaved is the cosmos. Well, never a problem, except for one occasion, but we'll get to that later..."

There will be more.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Gently Spinning In The Wind

It's no fun to be sick, especially when it's a mystery lurgy that strikes during vacations and lingers for weeks afterward, leaving your family doctor mystified. Could it be air conditioning, the stress of travelling, the sheer dissonance of stepping onto a vehicle at one place and off at another? What does it all mean? And why are there always bubble machines?

Oh, bubble machines... Is it possible that outside the universe all of our little dimensions are literally bubbles being blown by some vast and incomprehensible bubble machine, being operated by a one-eyed pirate with a scandalous space parrot? The space parrot is scandalous because he doesn't like crackers, therefore breaking union rules out in the great extra-dimensional void. (If you've tried to eat an extra-dimensional space cracker, you would quite readily agree with the poor bird!)

Moving on, reading a mammoth novel can be very daunting at times, as the sheer length of time required sits upon your mind, physically represented by the weight of the volume. The current example is Wilkie Collins's 'Armadale', which weighs in at a hefty six hundred and eighty pages in my copy, and was exceedingly slow going for a long while. Then, as the pages tinkle on, and enjoyment continues, you get to the last hundred and fifty and everything begins to zoom by. Oh, 'Armadale', you've turned out to be much better this time than on my abortive first attempt. Only 'No Name' will be left of old Wilkie's big four after this. That won't last for long...

As this post winds down the inevitable spluttery conclusion, which could be imagined best as the rubber bands running out of oomph in driving a teaspoon propellor, it's time to wonder at the week ahead. 'Armadale' will be finished, six students will be educated or their tutor will be reconverted into a destitute scholar at large, sickness will be conquered or a slimy cough will continue, and we will have another week of negative roughhousing as the EU referendum slowly, oh so slowly, nears and the primary campaigns continue. Please, world, can we have a debate which is actually based in reality? Please? Too unlikely? Oh well.


Friday, 22 April 2016

Book: 'The African Queen' by CS Forester (1935)

I'm not at all sure what to make of this novel, perhaps because I read it after seeing the film or because it's just a little bit strange. On one hand, it's a rather innocent revenge-fueled adventure story, while on the other it's about a repressed woman's liberation and love affair in the face of peril. It's... strange... but I think it must be good. What it doesn't do is add anything that is missing in the film, except perhaps for a dose more of extremely light smut, and an extended run through the rapids.

It's curious to think that CS Forester had a writing career outside of his 'Hornblower' books, which I've not read in living memory. Is 'The African Queen' similar to those, or is it operating on a more adult level? The proof will be in the pudding, when the 'Hornblower' books finally come round again.

As a novel, this is a combination in style between bestseller simplicity and youthful adventure novel, skewed to the female perspective as seen through the mind of Forester. Does he do the lead character of Rosie justice? I think so, yes, as she gains in complexity over the course of the text, although never quite reaching the Katherine Hepburn level of the film adaptation. That movie is the elephant in the room. To me, I think that the movie is the better implementation of the film, almost entirely because of the three-dimensionality and reality of those two lead actors. If only this original novel had some significant additional ingredient to add, and didn't have that film's tonal stability.

As a review, this has been rather frustrating, but it's safe to say that this is a solid and enduring adventure story, with a well rounded lead heroine. All the natural and geographical details sound authentic, as do the military details from the era of the First World War in which the story is set. Ah, the story, I missed out the story. Of course! It's the story of a spinster sister, whose missionary brother dies, and who sets out to take some revenge using the boat of the man who rescued her from her African mission, all while learning how to really live in the process. Yes, just like the film.

Oh, it's a good book. If you get a chance, then read it.