Friday, April 20, 2007

Black Dogs and Third Bears

Christ but I am getting old, used to be I could have coffee after dinner and still fall asleep at a reasonable. Not any more. Three strong coffees in the afternoon and I'm still awake.

I have read two books by Ian McEwan of late, "On Chesil Beach" and "Black Dogs" both are, on the surface at least, about failed relationships, and the epiphanies people experience yet fail to communicate, because well, epiphanies are beyond words really, and can only be hinted at – it's these things that literature circles around, like vultures over a corpse, and picks at, because the living thing, the vital thing is beyond words, but you have to have a go.

"Black Dogs" was a brilliant meditation on these transformative moments, and how they can be both a blessing and curse, and how they echo through a lifetime. I cannot recommend it enough. The Black Dogs themselves are fascinating as an image, and as I read it I couldn't help but consider how a "genre" writer might have approached these apparitions, how they would have been perhaps more viscerally(for want of a better word) central to the text. Here they are central, but also oblique, they appear for a few paragraphs, but they are everywhere within the story, a sort of textual mist.

"On Chesil Beach" is at once farce and tragedy, wrapped in such wonderful characterisation. Both books move slowly, but they breathe, they live and both books are charged with a sort of menace and a great grief. And the writing, oh, but it is beautiful.

Which leads me to Jeff Vandermeer's "The Third Bear", one of the finest short stories I've come across in a long time; I highly recommend this fable, a wonderful rumination on monsters and how they are made. Where both "Black Dogs" and, in a way, "On Chesil Beach" deal with the marks that WWII left on the psyche of the world (particularly that middle-class segment of Britain, wrapped up in it's own post imperial guilt*) "The Third Bear" is very much a product of contemporary events, and the fears that confront the Western World, and our complicity in those events. Its last few lines are grim and haunting, and the path towards them inevitable and utterly compelling.

We've a lot of ghosts in this world and how we face them, honour them, or fear them is of increasing importance. "The Third Bear" and "Black Dogs" are both very much about this, among other things, and I'm fully prepared to say I'm wrong in everything I've said concerning these stories except that they're wonderful reads, and, at the very least, a nice way to pass some time.

*Which is hardly the world, I know, but it is interesting, and perhaps still the heartland of a lot of english literature**

**Which does come across as sounding awfully naive.

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