Bookmarks: Mom lied, there’s a monster under your bed
A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews
In his wonderful new study, Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire (Alfred A Knopf), David Thomson, the film critic’s film critic, offers a theory or two about literature’s current fascination with what he terms “laboratory humanoids”.
This fascination, he claims, is stronger in the 21st century than it had been in 1818 or 1935 and we now tend to think of robots as “cuddly confidantes”. The sex doll, in other words, has come of age.
The year 1818 refers to the publishing date of Mary Shelley’s influential novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and 1935 to the release date of James Whale’s horror film, The Bride of Frankenstein.
The latter was an enormously successful and influential sequel to Whale’s original 1931 hit, Frankenstein, and detailed attempts by scientist Henry Frankenstein (in the novel his first name is Victor) to build a mate for the Monster played by Boris Karloff. “She qualifies as female,” Thomson writes, “but she may be the first woman in American film who seems other than human.”
Not to give things away, for those who haven’t seen the film, but the Bride, as portrayed by Elsa Lanchester, does not welcome her resurrection. Nor, it would seem, is she happy with the role that has been chosen for her.
“[She] seethes in distress – she has come into this world with hatred and misgiving like a feral child snatched from a state of anti-nature,” Thomson writes. “She is arresting yet at war, entirely trans, with no fixed emotional abode. The making of her seems like a rape. This is one of the first films with a feeling for gender insurrection.”
All of which serves as a lengthy introduction to two thoughtful new novels, Jeanette Winterson’s forthcoming Frankissstein and Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me (both Jonathan Cape).
Like the title suggests, Frankissstein borrows heavily from its source material. It opens on the shores of Lake Geneva, where, in 1816, Mary Shelley conceived her famous novel. A second storyline, set in the present day, deals with a scientist, Victor Stein, who is illicitly supplied with body parts for his extreme experiments by a transgender doctor called Ry Shelley. Ry, it turns out, used to be called Mary, but now looks like a man, and pretty soon Ry and Victor are in love.
In addition to this we’re introduced to a devout Christian woman, a sweary manufacturer of “sexbots”, and a journalist who’s concerned that developments in artificial intelligence, or AI, are now hastening the demise of all that is human. And so, with a lively interplay between the past and present, Winterson explores our minds’ relationships with our bodies.
The novel is neither historical, science fiction, post-modern or, as it says on the cover, a love story, but rather a hybrid of all of the above. As one critic noted, perhaps cruelly, “It’s a true Frankenstein’s monster … but it’s missing the spark of life.”
The McEwan novel, published last month, explores much the same territory, but has been getting extremely favourable reviews. It’s set in an alternative 1980s, one where the Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing has developed an AI breakthrough: synthetic humans.
In London, an amoral drifter, Charlie, and his lover Miranda, a bright student, come into money and can afford to buy Adam, one of the first batch of these synthetic humans. Together, Charlie and Miranda program Adam’s personality: he is perfect, beautiful, strong and clever, and soon enough they’re all in love with each other, and about to face some profound moral dilemmas. A provocative tale, then, that warns of the destructive power when we come up with what we cannot hope to control.
A MAJOR CRIME
It was good to see Deon Meyer’s 13 Hours included in the London Sunday Times’s “100 Crime Novels & Thrillers to Love” at the weekend. The list was compiled by the newspaper’s critics who picked their “favourite crime and spy novels published since 1945, from Agatha Christie to today’s edgy Scandi and Japanese masters”.
Meyer’s 2010 procedural was singled out for its fast-paced action as grizzled Afrikaans Cape Town cop Benny Griessel hunts down a young woman on the run “and adapts to colleagues who represent the new rainbow nation”. Fans may wonder why this novel was chosen and not, let’s say, Devil’s Peak, the first Griessel novel, or indeed, any of Meyer’s other fine novels.
But selectors were restricted to only one novel per author and 13 Hours was it. Interesting then that two Ruth Rendell novels made the list: The Keys to the Street, her 1996 whodunit about the murder of homeless people in London, and A Fatal Inversion, a country house murder mystery that was published in 1987 under her pseudonym, Barbara Vine.
The good news, though, is that the list is packed with the usual suspects: Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, James Ellroy’s LA Confidential, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, PD James’s Unnatural Causes, John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, Philip Kerr’s March Violets, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, Richard Stark’s Point Blank and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me are, among others, just the sort of companions to curl up with on a long, rainy weekend.
The list had some less familiar selections worthy of investigation. These included such left-field delights as Parker Bilal’s Dogstar Rising (Sudanese cop tackling corruption in Mubarak’s Egypt); Michael Dibdin’s Ratking (the first and best of the Inspector Aurelio Zen series of Italian procedurals); Zhou Haohui’s Death Notice (ultra-patient Chinese serial killer invites the public to nominate his next victims online); and Natsuo Kirino’s Out (woman kills her abusive husband then gets her friends at a bento factory in suburban Tokyo to help dispose of the body).
But, as with any list, there are terrible inclusions. I may be in the minority here, but John Grisham’s legal thrillers are not books to be tossed aside lightly but, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, should be hurled with great force. Similarly, Tom Clancy brings so much technological baggage to his ponderous Cold War thrillers that they read like submarine manuals. And, much as I enjoy binge-reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, I don’t think they’re a patch on anything by Chester Himes, Robert Harris or Ian Rankin.
But it’s the exclusions that are most criminal. There’s nothing by James Lee Burke, George V Higgins, Joseph Wambaugh, Alan Furst, James McClure, Tony Hillerman, Reginald Hill, Peter Robinson, John Harvey, Colin Dexter, Tana French, Margery Allingham, Barbara Nadel, Sue Grafton or George Pelecanos. There are many, many more.
DON’T MENTION THE WAR
Further to the slew of World War 2 books published to coincide with next month’s 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings comes a fresh outbreak of hostilities over an entry by a German into a field usually dominated by an Allied perspective.
Eminent historians accuse Holger Eckhertz’s D Day Through German Eyes: The Hidden Story of June 6 1944, an apparently self-published work that has become a surprising Amazon bestseller, of being a complete fabrication.
The book contains scores of interviews that are published nowhere else, with the grim fighting on the Normandy beaches described in vivid detail. Eckhertz claims that these accounts were gathered by his grandfather, Dieter Eckhertz, a German journalist who interviewed Wehrmacht veterans in the 1950s.
However, Giles Milton, whose acclaimed 2018 work, D-Day: The Soldiers’ Story (John Murray), was reissued in paperback this month, told The Times of London that he had been unable to find any trace of Eckhertz, his grandfather, the publisher, the company credited with translating the book, or the German edition itself.
“It wouldn’t matter,” Milton said, “if it wasn’t constantly the bestselling book about D-Day. There’s no record of any of the soldiers in any other publication. If you put in any other soldier [into a search engine] you will find a trace of them somewhere, even in the Bundesarchiv.”
The Times was unable to contact Eckhertz, No such surname is listed in telephone directories in Germany or the UK. The companies Eckhertz names as his publisher and translation service are not listed anywhere. If it is a translation of a German work, there is no record of that book or of any other work by Eckhertz in Germany’s Nationalbibliothek.
Author Robert Kershaw, however, found Eckhertz’s book to be quite convincing – so much so that he has quoted from it in his own D-Day history, Landing on the Edge of Eternity: Twenty-Four Hours at Omaha Beach (Pegasus).
Kershaw told the Times: “I could identify individual bunkers through the accounts and in one case of a late reinforcement, it would have taken a lot of effort to make it up because there is sufficient accuracy in the small parts I looked at to warrant inclusion.”
Veterans’ accounts were always riddled with inaccuracies, Kershaw added, due to the nature of warfare. “Much of what I researched about the same actions between German and American forces and local Norman civilians repeatedly diverge in timings, content and outcome, but that is not unusual. As I say, I have an open mind, hellishly difficult to prove one way or the other.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Conceiving, miscarrying, quickening, carrying, birthing. And then, cleaning, feeding, sleeping, not sleeping, providing, being interrupted, passing back and forth. These make up the visceral ongoingness, the blood and guts of being ‘with child’. The verbs.” – Mother is a Verb: An Unconventional History by Sarah Knott (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux).