Sunday, September 16, 2007

Neil Belton/A GAME WITH SHARPENED KNIVES

I have had to admit defeat on this one. I announced last Monday that I would do my damnedest to finish off this book during a long business trip this week. And then that I would post about it on here, whether I had finished or not. Well, I haven't. My trip was far more gruelling and stressful than I had anticipated, and I had very few free moments.... but even those few I had, I did not feel inclined to devote to this book.


A crushing disillusionment set in after the first 20 or 30 pages, I think. I had initially been attracted to it - as I usually am in choosing my books - by the superficial dazzle of the language. Belton is most certainly capable of some fine descriptive writing.

Unfortunately, that is all there is to this book: page after page after page of descriptive writing. Everything must be described: the trees, the weather, the streets, the houses, the traffic, the people in the pub. Before long, it becomes cloying, tedious. There is a huge section early on - really, dozens of pages - devoted to describing the protagonist's bicycle ride home from work. That rather sets the tone for the rest of the book. Everything is described at inordinate length, but nothing ever happens. I've managed to get about two-thirds of the way through this, and, really, nothing of any note has happened. I've also skimmed the closing pages and am reasonably confident that nothing of any note happens in the entire book. It's set during WWII. There are occasional intimations of espionage and black-marketeering. The protagonist occasionally feels threatened by people he encounters in the street. But these are mostly phantoms spawned from his neurotic temperament. None of these sparse flickers of suspense ever looked likely to develop into a substantial plot point.

I was attracted initially by the writing, before I realised how empty it was. I was attracted also by the subject matter: the book imagines the life of the celebrated Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger during his wartime exile in Dublin. I thought that was potentially a rich premise. Some of the writing about Schrödinger's ideas is very fine; but I feel that the author overdoes his attempts to weave these into a metaphor of the historical events taking place around Schrödinger; too often he lapses into pretentiousness and obscurity.

This metaphor-obsession drives the over-elaborate, long-winded physical descriptions as well: the forlorn, neglected condition of old houses, the bleakness of the Irish weather, the coldness of the water in the bathroom sink - it's all supposed to contribute to the air of unease and despair. But really, how often do we need this kind of imagery to make the point? Every single bloody page??

Belton really needed a ruthless editor to take him in hand on this. It would perhaps make a decent short story (a long short story, perhaps, but a short story) - 'Schrödinger in Dublin'; but there just isn't enough of substance here to sustain a novel.

One of the puffs on the back cover is from the writer Patrick Skene Catling, who apparently describes the book as being "as exhilarating as a mid-winter swim in Dublin Bay". Now, in fact, that wouldn't be exhilarating at all, merely painful and dangerous - and nobody in their right mind would attempt it. I can't help thinking that Catling was slyly defaming the book. One of the great back-handed compliments I have ever read!

1 comment:

moonrat said...

"crushing disillusionment set in"

teehee.