Ninebelow (ninebelow) wrote,
Ninebelow
ninebelow

Many Mouths

Lagging behind the curve I've just finised Adam Roberts's fourth novel, or - perhaps more accurately - triptych of novellas, Polstom. This was published immediately after Jupiter Magnified. Both books share an interest in poetry, an interest that for Roberts is both professional and personal (his edition of Tennyson's poetry was very useful to me in my brief postgraduate career.) More than just an interest, both books contain poetry written by the author, though they are framed in rather different ways.

After the publication of Jupiter Magnified Roberts wrote:
If I could write actual poetry as well as the poets I admire and read, then I would: but the organisational side of my brain (and narrative is a good way of organising, this follows that follows the other) prevents me. That and—it goes, I'm forced to concede, without saying—a lack of the necessary genius. Ah well.
This makes the issues discussed in the review above even more interesting. He takes a more straightforward approach in Polstom though. In Jupiter Magnified he voiced the great poet Stina Ekman himself, here the poet Phanicles is voiced by another:
And then there is the poetry of Phanicles, poetry that so moves young Polystom (he thinks poetry is breath, poor soul; but then again his reality has no experience of Derrida's Of Grammatology and its bracing deconstruction of the supposed primacy of the oral over the written...) -- well, the novel required that I quote some Phanicles. When drafting the book I used some poetry by a contemporary poet I admire very much, Gillian Allnutt, to stand in at the relevant places, telling myself that I would write my own stuff for the final draft. But final draft time came, and nothing I scribbled was anywhere near as affecting as Allnutt's flawless lines. In the end I wrote to her, and she responded gracefully and kindly, allowing me permission to keep her work in the book.
And yet. Not long after the first extract from Allnutt appears on page 54 Roberts does insert his own poetry, immediately after the words:
Polystom tried writing such poetry himself... But somehow the poems fell flat. No matter how excited he had been writing them, no matter how much the thrill and energy of being in the forest he tried to pour into them, somehow they simply didn't work as poems. (56-57)
True enough the quoted poem is poor. Noteably though, it is rather worse than the poems that appeared in Jupiter Magnified. Is Roberts deliberately writing badly? If so, is it out of trueness to the character of Polystom or fear of failure? It is a shame because some of Roberts's best prose in the book is in the pastoral sections around Polystom's estate and he has produced strong nature poetry in the past. All in all its a bit unsatisfactory as if Roberts does not know how to intergrate his love of poetry into the book but has pressed on regardless.

As well as poetry it is a book about class and war set in a time pretty much analogous to 1914 in our world. So the question for the majority of the book is why isn't it set in our world? It's a bit odd because Roberts, perhaps more than any other author, is obsessed with the way science fiction interacts with itself. The novel has an epigram from Edgar Allen Poe's Hans Pfaall, a work that Roberts's wrote extensively about at the time. There is little difference between his criticism and his fiction. So it is puzzling that when the SF aspects do appear towards the end of the third novella they are a rather stale re-hash of Lem, Dick, Priest, well, any number of preceeding writers.

Coupled with this I don't particularly get on with Roberts's prose. It is all too much for me. I read Polystom immediately after Nabokov's Bend Sinister and there is something of the same intent: the belief that there is always room for one more word in a sentence, that the unreliability of words is paramount and that the author should always remind the reader of their presence. Not everyone can be Nabokov though and Roberts's words tend to clog my brain without really penetrating. Perhaps it is just the heat.

The cover of Polystom bears a cover quote from a John Clute review in the NYRSF that describes the book as. I would like to link to that review but alas it is not online. Nor is Clute's joint review of Robert's latest novel, Gradisil, and his latest critical work, The Palgrave History of Science Fiction, which appears in the current Interzone. However Daniel Hartland's review of the later is available, the comments section of which contains a discussion with Clute.

Elsewhere Roberts himself has written about Gradisil. At thevalve_feed Bill Benzon responds to both this and the novel, to which Roberts in turn replies.

Finally, I will note that one of the main characters in the initial novella of Polystom is called Beeswing. Roberts takes her name from the Richard Thompson song of the same name, as the following quote makes clear:
"You own a world, and the people who live in it," she said softly. "But you'll not own me as well." (85)
The same song provides matociquala with the title of her recent short story collection, The Chains That You Refuse. Some sort of record?
Tags: adam roberts, books, poetry, sf
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