Bereft

Finishing the first draft of a novel is not necessarily the moment of joy you might expect it to be.  On the occasions it has happened to me, I’ve mostly just felt exhausted. Emotional, certainly (especially if the ending turned out contrary to expectation) but in need of a good rest.  And knowing that there is still an awful lot of work ahead to wrestle the manuscript into something presentable.

But once the final draft is done, the whole range of emotions come out.  I edited the last pages of Gaslight in the early evening yesterday, re-read the concluding sentence, saved the document and shut down the laptop.  And that’s it.  Three and a half years of work finally completed. I think back to the man that I was when I started in late 2016, how unhappy and unsure he was, and how I thought a nice little novella was on the cards. And if I knew what was going to happen, whether I would have had the mental strength to carry on.  I think sometimes it’s better not to know, otherwise the challenge can seem so daunting. Head down, concentrate on only the next step, that was how I tackled it, as the novel took on a life of its own.

The books origins, the struggles to write the words, the dark places the characters trod, once the final draft is done all those become part of its legend.  Now I’ve decided its over, and the manuscript is ready to be read, it’s no longer mine.  It’s out in the world and I no longer have any control over what happens.  It could be despised.  Loved.  Controversial. People could be outraged by it.  But my job is done. The characters can disappear into the sunset and carry on their lives, and I can remain grateful for seeing part of their world for the months they carried me with them.

That kind of sums up the overwhelming feeling I have once a novel is completed.  I just feel bereft. A sense of loss. Knowing that for all the heartache it took, we went on a journey together for a long time, had a relationship even, and when it all comes to an end, and you know you will never see or hear from them again, yeah, it’s sad.  I often wonder if authors with extensive back catalogues think about characters from old novels going back 40 or 50 years.  I’d like to think that they do.  That the awe and the thrill stays with you for the rest of your life, along with the privilege and just being grateful for the opportunity.

So, Gaslight is over, in a creative sense at least. What I do with it now is a watch this space. I think I’m going to try as hard as I can to get it published. So for now, I’m going to refrain from leaving a copy in the bibliography.  Just until I’ve given it a go.  The odds are stacked against me, particularly the length of the novel, which will put a lot off.  But in the end I’m proud of this one, and whilst my relationship with the characters is done, hopefully in the future it will just be beginning for others.

Bojack Horseman

I think everyone has had the experience of getting so involved in a TV show that is takes over your life.  You know the symptoms – binge watching, missing meals, denying yourself sleep to watch just one more episode, eschewing social events to watch, and so on.  And the emotional effect too.   Where you dream about the characters, mull over plot points and future storylines in the time you aren’t watching, and that sick trembly feeling when you know it’s coming to an end and you somehow want it to go on forever but know it can’t.  And when the ending comes you know it has changed your life in a way you possibly can’t articulate yet, but somewhere inside something has crossed over and life will never quite be the same again.

Strong, heady stuff, and it doesn’t happen too often.  For me, with Buffy, Angel, Breaking Bad, The Wire off the top of my head.  And now, after a binge of 76 episodes in a fortnight, Bojack Horseman.

Funnily enough, the opening episodes of season one are pretty run-of-the-mill, and a bit of a drag to get through. Our eponymous hero is a washed-up anthropomorphic horse who hires a ghostwriter to pen his memoir, lives with a drop out kid who turned up at his house and never left, has a Persian cat agent/on-off girlfriend, and is friends with a smooth talking labrador named Mr Peanutbutter.  All ripe for the sort of anarchic comedy that Family Guy and The Simpsons do so well, and the first half of the season is not much more than a poor derivative of those.

But once the show hits its stride and gains some confidence, it turns into one of the most profound, moving, hard-hitting and emotional things I’ve ever seen.  What I love the most about the show is how it is not only unafraid to ask difficult questions, but also digs into the complexity of the answer, and is confident enough to say, I don’t know where I stand on this. Bojack is, in many ways, a difficult character to empathise with. He uses people to get to the top. He suffers from alcoholism and drug addiction.  He treats women like dirt.  Yet somehow we root for him.  That shows the sharpness of the scripts. They ask the most though-provoking of questions – is it possible to be redeemed after doing terrible things? Can people be forgiven for their misdemeanours? Should they be? And at the show’s heart, I think – can someone really ever escape their past?

Bojack had a shitty childhood. Terrible parents, no role models, and was influenced into the siren of alcohol and drugs at a young age. In Free Churro, one of the show’s greatest episodes, Bojack utters a 25 minute monologue at his mother’s funeral which lays bare their relationship and it’s devastating effect on his life. We sympathise, of course.  We understand, even.  But this is while some pretty awful events are taking place in his personal life that are ugly and squalid. We see the root of his issues through his childhood, but does that excuse his behaviour? Can an apology be enough? These questions come up time and again and really forces you to wrestle with them.

And all of this doesn’t even bring up the biting satire of the vacuousness of celebrity culture and the plethora of in-jokes that litter each episode. Or the razor sharp skewering of Hollywood (should be Hollywoo of course!) hypocrisy.  Episode Hank after Dark is one of the best commentaries on the #Metoo scandal anywhere, and in later seasons, as Bojack’s addictions tighten their grip, the thoughtful handling of his spiralling descent, consequent rehab, relapses and attempt to make amends is funny, heartbreaking and utterly real.  I guess the word I want is identifiable. All the characters are, in their own way, and it resonates on a higher plane then most other shows out there.

I’ve barely got into the other characters, or the quality of the story arcs, and how the episodes flow into one another perfectly, or the animation, which is superb, or the depths and nuances of the voice work, but you get the idea.  It’s a bona fide classic, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. A genuine masterpiece.

An Ice-Cream War

There aren’t many advantages to being in lockdown, but one of them is that I have been able to participate in my sister’s German book club.  The wonders of technology. And it looks like I am going to become a regular member, at least until the restrictions are lifted in Germany and the group can meet in person again (which, with the way things are going, will be sooner rather than later). I’m very grateful for their invitation to join the group, I’ve really missed not being in a book club and they are a great bunch to meet with. How long it will go on for, I don’t know.  Fingers crossed a while.

As blog readers will know, I’ve been banging on about William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart ever since I read it.  It’s one of my favourite books of the last 5 years, and was one of my top 10 books read in 2016.  So I was excited to read another of his novels for book club, An Ice Cream War.  There was a bit of trepidation too, for my love of Any Human Heart meant I had very high expectations, and had a slight air of pessimism that I was inevitably to be disappointed.

But happily, whilst the book doesn’t hit the dizzy heights of the aforementioned, it’s a really enjoyable read. Boyd has written a number of war novels throughout his career, this one being his first, about an aspect of WW1 I knew little about, the campaign in East Africa.  The story tells the intertwining lives of five characters from across the spectrum and does so with great aplomb. I did feel there was a slight deus ex machina to get the character of Felix to Africa after his brother goes missing, but otherwise the events felt true to life, underpinned with some quite savage satire, and genuinely shocking in places.

You’d expect a war novel to contain lots of death, and this one is no exception, but even knowing this, a couple of the main character’s deaths in the book still hit hard. Felix’s brother Gabriel survived a horrific bayonet injury only to be beheaded after making his escape from a POW jail. And this death only really came about because of a miscommunication between soldiers and officer. It did highlight how survival in war was in many ways based purely on luck, and the fact that Gabriel was on the verge of escape, so close to the end of the war, was a desperate end.

His wife Charis also falls to a terrible fate. The early part of the novel charts their courting, marriage, first fumbling sexual forays, then Gabriel departs for the front line. Charis and Felix embark on a torrid affair, which results in her suicide in the duck pond of the country estate.  There is a sickening foreboding hanging over their relationship, but Boyd skilfully plants the seed that she will leave the estate for good and set up a new life elsewhere, and when her body is discovered by Felix, it provides a sharp shock. The trauma of war had a huge impact on those left behind as well, perhaps forgotten, and the sorrow and despair so very real.

The main comedy of the book comes from the supporting cast. As is its wont when describing war, the British officers come across as officious, bumbling, stiff-upper lip types, particularly the inept Wheech-Browning. You get a sense of the chaos and confusion of the war effort, the poor communication, the over-the-top sense of duty, the snobby patriotism, shot through with satire rather than flat-out derision. There is an argument that such characters come across as cartoonish and one-dimensional. I’d have to agree, but I don’t think the narrative suffers from that.  It’s all they need to be, and it provides some relief from the violence, tension and misery of the war scenes and their emotional effect.

It was nice to read one of Boyd’s early novels, and you can see his narrative strengths shin through.  He writes about relationships brilliantly.  Especially the infatuation and desire of the early days and the honeymoon period.  There’s always a sadness, a longing beneath the surface, and an almost helplessness when faced by the object of said desire. I think what he captures so well is the fleeting nature of it, but how, through the power of the emotions felt, it can keep you awake years later with the force of the memory.

So another solid effort to add to Boyd’s canon. Enjoyed pretty much across the board, and leaves me wanting to hunt down more of his work.