Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

"Fascination" by William Boyd (Hamish Hamilton, 2004)

16 stories. 208 pages. Typically, a hetero-sexual man in a long-distance relationship meets a pretty stranger, and/or a man has a nervous breakdown. There are several artists and no shortage of music, breasts, World Wars in Northern Europe, name-changing and signs.

Stories are often episodic, even fragmentary. "Visions Fugitives" has some sections that are letters, some that supposedly come from tourist guides, etc. It has this passage

I ... shuffle the images that slip into my mind. ... You know those unhindered hours of the night when your thoughts will wander free, sometimes freighted with despair, but sometimes inspired and almost miraculous - this is one of those nights ... We all know these moments of fleeting significance that touch our lives. The great problem, the abiding problem is to make some sense of them ... The bizarre death of John Culpepper in St Julien on 4 November 1918. Brahms's 'Variations on a Theme of Haydn'. Jay turning into Irène. (There's one: she recognized Brahms. What if she had not?) Visions fugitives. Jean-Didier Mavrocordato's decision to film his nouvelle vague masterwork in the small town on the Meuse where my grandfather had died. Irène's misconception that it was filmed near Lausanne provoking our argument. Mavrocordato's suicide

These images are all connected in the story. So? I liked the title story, with sections alternately in the 1st person present and the 2nd person past. "Beulah Berline, an A-Z" has 26 sections, an abcedarian where the last word of each section is echoed in the first word of the next - "cooler/colour", "England/Glands", "teflon/London", etc., the final section ending with "angst", which is how the story begins. "Loose Continuity" has sections in the present tense alternating with sections about the same main character in the past. "The Ghost of a Bird" is in the form of a medical diary. Some of the dialog rings true, but that's about it. I liked "The Mind/Body Problem", which managed to juggle the 2 main themes successfully.

The text isn't lacking literary detail and imagery - e.g. "I felt that I had reached somewhere significant in my life ... A benign sense of ageing, perhaps, of the body clock sounding the hour" (p.39). Some literary passages put me off -

  • "A sudden, stiffish breeze combs the leaves of the willows - their silver under-sides glinting in the sunshine like a flashing shoal of fish darting amongst weeds. Too complicated a simile, he thinks, admiring the graceful, supple willows nonetheless, as they bend and recoil to the invisible urgings of the wind" (p.203). Persona/narrator roles are suddenly being spliced.
  • the start of "Varengeville" - "Oliver frowned darkly and pushed his spectacles back up to the bridge of his nose, taking in his mother's suspiciously bright smile and trying to ignore Lucien's almost sneering, almost leering, grimace of pride and satisfaction",
  • "Oliver allowed himself an audible sigh" (near the end of the same story. It was published in the "New Yorker").

I didn't rate "Notebook No.9". "The Woman on the Beach with a Dog" seemed very inconsequential. Ditto "The View from Yves Hill", "Lunch" ,"Incandescence" and I don't get "The Pigeon".

My workplace features in "A Haunting" - "She had shown my pages of 'automatic writing', as she termed it, to a friend of her, a mathematics don at Cambridge University ... he called back some few days later to say that the sign had been recognized by someone in the engineering department" (p.51).

Other reviews

  • Tim Adams (Observer) (Some of this formal apparatus is tiresome and gets in the way of Boyd's familiar skill with dialogue and detail, his control of comedy. ... Occasionally, the structural playfulness is surprising and leads to unlikely places. ... Often, the tricks look like an effort to galvanise relatively uncoordinated slices of memoir and observation, and to have cleverness stand in place of engagement.)
  • James Urquhart (Independent) (Several of these tales are excellent. "The Mind/Body Problem" ... "The Pigeon" ... "Loose Continuity" is Boyd's best use of two parallel narratives. ... Eyes do reveal much, but I found Boyd's repeated use of eye contact as a motif for unspoken desire a tad cumbersome. Within the intimacy of a short story, where success so often depends on the conviction of the emotional contract, this feels slightly lazy and is perhaps symptomatic of a lack of tautness. More concerning are the stories congested by too many voices or an over-elaborate structure. .. My biggest disquiet about Fascination is that only about a third of the stories are distinctively good. This is not enough. Most are adequate; one ("Beulah Berlin, an A-Z") is just terrible.)
  • David Gates (New York Times) (Often, I simply can't tell how he means these pieces to work ... Several stories rely on what Boyd ... apparently thinks are clever formal gimmicks. ... Nothing in Boyd's story suggests that he's parodying a shopworn device; probably it's just shopworn.)
  • Amy Reiter (Salon) (at points, the frequent soundings of the same themes teeter on the edge of growing tiresome ... Boyd tells the stories of these fellow human beings of varying moral character and tracks their unpredictable behavior. And though he declines to offer explanations and motives, he manages to lead us beyond intuition and past perplexity, until we arrive, finally, at fascination.)

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