Writer's Life by Eric
Brown; introduction by Paul Di Filippo
Fuliginous elegance seems to be in vogue in British SF and Fantasy these days, with China Miéville's extraordinary and now Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel Perdido Street Station as the trend-setter; and Conrad Williams clearly knows what this tendency is all about. His new novella, Nearly People, is a savage and draining examination of urban life reduced to its most brutal essentials; and yet, for all Williams' deadly accurate anatomisation of the Twenty First Century inner city as psychic concentration camp, the elegance of his narrative is unfailing. Like Hieronymus Bosch or M. John Harrison, he is a painter of infernos, his torments always briskly inventive, his grotesquerie always delineated with flair. The atrocious randomness of Hell conceals neat ironic patterns of meaning, and Williams is an able psychopomp or guide along them...
Nearly People is the story of a woman known only as Carrier (a carrier of what? Disease? Salvation? Both of these?). She is one of thousands of ordinary citizens of an unspecified metropolis part of which--their part--has for some years been quarantined, to contain a plague, or perhaps to incarcerate the mentality of militaristic violence that festers in the citadel at its heart. Presided over by grim curfew-enforcing helicopter patrols, the Howling Mile is a district of unremitting poverty and horrifying physical danger; those not dying slowly of epidemic illness or starving for want of sufficient (often human) meat can at any time fall victim to familiar threats--totalitarian thought police--or to surreal predators, Tar Babies after nicotine-soaked lungs to use as fuel, or Mowers who reap residents like so much lawn-grass. The sins of Urban Man are being requited about as nastily as is conceivable, but a Redeemer is emerging, a Dancer who vouchsafes glimpses of verdant peace thrillingly at odds with the wasteland he haunts; and he gives Carrier hope that the Mile can be transcended, even liberated. She becomes his apprentice in certain mental disciplines, and the scales drop as promised off her eyes. But--
It is in this "But--" that Williams' elegant genius resides. Teasing clues as to the actual situation are artfully dropped: why, for example, does Nearly People begin in the first person voice of Carrier, only to abandon it after a page and a half, never to be resumed? Whose will governs this text and its resolution? Why does a Mower wear the face of Kram, Carrier's murdered acquaintance? The answers to these textual enigmas emerge with dexterous perversity, satiric openings into ultimate night; the novella's closing epiphany is pure visionary acid. Nearly People is cruelly brilliant, a dagger in the vitals. But such an elegant dagger, this exaggerated gleaming stiletto!
Eric Brown's A Writer's Life is vastly more sedate. Of course, there is genuine ambition in an orthodox SF writer tackling the quiet contemporary themes of literary introversion and obsession that are normally the preserve of A. S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd; but Christopher Priest has walked that path successfully long since, and Brown has his exemplar. So how does he do in his unpretentiously-yet-pretentiously titled novella? Fairly well, but not so well...
Paul Di Filippo gives A Writer's Life an impish and able puff in his entertaining Introduction, and then the memoir of a minor English novelist, Daniel Ellis, commences. There is some authenticity to Ellis--he no doubt is in some respects autobiographical, a mainstream counterpart to Eric Brown in the earnest emotionalism of his writing; and his creative dilemma has the force of experience. How far should he go in his determination to expose in words the convoluted landscape of his psyche, how far can he indulge metaphors grounded in the purely subjective matter of the occult without alienating his readership and his own reason? His girlfriend despises his superstitious logic, yet he gradually uncovers the strange otherworldly biography of an author much like himself, or is it several authors? Perhaps his obsessions are valid, perhaps his contentious novelistic waywardness has material corroboration. He investigates this tantalising possibility, at great risk to his sanity and his relationship, and useful light is thrown on Brown's themes. But the effect is mixed.
In favour of A Writer's Life is its aforementioned authentic texture, its astute evocations of literary frustration and an author's efforts to reconcile his aesthetic and emotional worlds. Antiquarian bookshops and the history-drenched English countryside are quite vividly rendered. But the core mystery of Daniel Ellis's story lacks any shred of subtlety. It is literal, obvious, over-explained. Where Priest, or the great genius of this sort of fantasy, Peter Ackroyd, would only drop hints, withhold closure, leave the figure in the carpet to be discerned in gradual chill admonitory outline by the reader, Brown shouts his secret from the rooftops. This is all very well in SF, which thrives on explication, and good luck to those who read A Writer's Life in the spirit of such; but supernatural fabulation requires a defter touch. It's commendable that Eric Brown is willing to be versatile; but if he is to write like Peter Ackroyd or Lindsay Clarke, he had better leave well behind him the palette from which he drew Engineman, and his other expansive space operas.
(Order from PS Publishing, 98 High Ash Drive, Leeds LS17 8RE, England, or visit www.editorial-services.co.uk/pspublishing)
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