Friday, September 18, 2009

People's Train & the Consciousness Plague


About three days ago I finished a book I've been struggling my way through for what seems like weeks (but probably isn't). It's one I had to review for the Otago Daily Times, and I did my best to like it, but pretty much failed, as you can see from what will be the review when they publish it.

The writer is Tom (sometimes Thomas) Keneally, perhaps most famous for Schindler's List, the book that inspired the film of the same name. (Actually the book was originally called Schindler's Ark, but you won't find new editions of it with that name now.)

I've read other books by Keneally, one set in Australia and to do with priests and priesthood, and another set in the Antarctic, about explorers there who see someone from Scott's party who should have been dead long since. (It's also a murder mystery of sorts.) I enjoyed both of these.

But this latest book, The People's Train, has structural problems, or perhaps just narrative problems. It's told by two narrators: one takes up about 250 pages, the other the rest of the book. The first, a Russian exile living in Brisbane at the beginning of the 20th century, is a man focused so much on socialism and the revolution that he seems unable to connect with people, even though he has a kind of charisma about him. Unfortunately this makes him a very dull storyteller. Not that there isn't 'story' to tell; it's just somehow his approach to it is dull.

The second narrator, whom we've already met in the first part of the book, is a 30-something Australian journalist, with a taste for adventure. He joins the Russian when the latter returns to Russia in the days leading up to the Ten Days that Shook the World, and tells things from his viewpoint. However, he hero-worships the Russian, to a degree, and takes on board all the socialist/Marxist stuff that's spouted to him - spouted from every quarter. 'These Russians can certainly orate' he notes, after one particular day on which they rave on hour after hour.

The reader, for better or worse, seldom hears any of the discussions. They're all reported at secondhand. This may be a good thing. Politics isn't my greatest joy, and discussions of politics even less so. Innumerable other events are reported, however, from the grim to the violent to the vicious. Yet they're all seen through a kind of objective window, as though neither the Russian or the reporter can feel any real emotion about them. Keneally somehow manages to keep us at a distance throughout the book, and we rarely feel anything for the Russian, or even for the other characters as they struggle through difficult and tumultuous times. Only in the very last pages, when one of the characters attempts to rape a woman and is stopped by the Russian and the reporter, do we have any sense of outrage. Perhaps Keneally knows that the huge events are just too huge, and has to bring the horrors down to a personal level. Yet he's done this throughout the book, and for me, very little of it affected me.

Perhaps I've become tuned out to the emotions that are portrayed here. Or perhaps something about the book just didn't take hold and nothing it could do would please me...!

On the other hand, I happened to come across Paul Levinson's The Consciousness Plague at the library while looking in the sci-fi section for something else. Levinson's book can hardly be called sci-fi, except in the most loose sense. It's far more a detective story, with a lot of scientific stuff thrown in - the main character is a forensics man. It has two 'mysteries' on hand. The first is why people are starting to lose patches of their memory after taking a new flu antibiotic; the second is why a number of young ladies have been murdered over a period of six months or so.

The murders occupy quite a bit of the book and cross over with the scientific stuff, but for me that part of the story was left at something of a loose end. Probably as a result of reading too fast (and having too many names to keep track of) I wasn't sure that the murder side of things got thoroughly solved. On the other hand, the issue with the bacteria that's affecting people's memories is possibly the more interesting part of the story, and whether it's scientific or baloney it comes across as very well.

Perhaps the strangest thing about reading this book is that it's so close to the hype that's surrounded swine flu...
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