The Last Pilot – Benjamin Johncock

Last Pilot

The blanched beans steamed thin trails that coiled up from a pan in the sink. She watched them twist slowly, the desert flat and wild and wide out from the window behind. For a moment, the steam seemed to rise up from the sagebrush itself; a column of smoke. She looked down at the floor, and gripped the edge of the sink.

Shit, she said. Shit shit shit.

The romance of an endeavour tends to belie its bite. The attrition of test flight and the Red sky at night paranoia of the US space programme in the mid-Twentieth Century are often forgotten in the ecstatic vision of the hanging blue marble and Earthrise. More recently, Commander Chris Hadfield’s dispatches from the International Space Station, apps which alert users to upcoming ISS flyovers, comet landings, and the Pluto flyby have all had us looking up and out again.

Yet these forms of engagement are often aesthetic or, perhaps, sublime: beautiful images from impossible distances; shadowed craters and dunes we feel we should never have seen. Blueprints and technical details don’t make headlines, except in a haze of sublime complexity. And we don’t visit the moon any more.

This is not an airplane, Pancho said, least nothing a pudknocker like you’d understand one to be. It’s a goddamn rocket with a tail; an orange bullet with razor wings and a needle-nose. They call it the X-1. And it’s got one purpose: fly faster than sound.

Benjamin Johncock’s debut novel The Last Pilot begins in 1947; a time when we did not regularly break the sound barrier, when we didn’t know what would happen if we did. Would g-forces become infinite? There was only one way to find out. In the Mojave Desert men climbed into experimental machines and tried to find their limits. X-planes killed pilots, week after week. What kept men alive were skill, decisiveness, and locked down emotions. And luck.

There are no mistakes, Harrison said, just bad pilots.

Test pilot Jim Harrison lives in a hard world of small margins on the edge of a desert. Friends and colleagues regularly “auger in”—crash fatally—and his wife, Grace, needs two black dresses because she can’t get one cleaned before the next funeral. None of the wives know if their husband is next. (“Never know how many places to set for supper, she said.”) Life and talk becomes hard, concentrated. A couple of words here, a few there.

Jim always says there’s no point trying to punch out of a rocket plane; it’s like committing suicide to keep yourself from getting killed.

Johncock has the Carveresque ability to pack feeling into and between and beneath a few words of dialogue; and the Salterish knack of constructing the tightest of sentences: “The sun lulled brittlebrush to early flower, full corollas turning the desert floor yellow.” (This despite the fact that Johncock told a recent event I attended that he hasn’t read Carver or Richard Yates.) There are moments of desert heat which recall Cormac McCarthy; dust bowl fences and silence Steinbeck. (Although that might just be the appearance of alfalfa.)

How does one end up writing like Carver, Salter, and Yates without reading them? Johncock’s language reflects the precision, the machined desperation of the X programme and the Space Race. His sentences are taut, quivering units, vibrant under pressure like engine casing or the desert heat shimmer. This serves not only to express the necessarily locked down emotional life of Harrison and the other test pilots, but also the hard, functional delineation of a moment which expands to fill consciousness.

A real astronaut, my goodness!

As the Space Race heats up and the launch of Sputnik inspires American terror, talk turns to capturing “the high ground of space”. Is sitting on top of a rocket a job for pilots? The age of manned orbits dawns and new dangers appear. The Harrisons have the child they thought they couldn’t conceive. Family complicates Jim’s emotional life, his anxieties. Pilots are in control. Parents so often aren’t. Johncock writes family life very well; capturing the bantering exchanges between parent and toddler with painful precision: the repetition, the excitement, the little manipulations and suggestions involved in getting a child to do anything. (Or stop.) He also captures the pain.

She hated the world for what it had done. The earth, the soil under her feet, everything. It could all go to hell. She couldn’t escape it. It was everywhere. She was part of it. It was her.

By the Sixties Harrison is one of the “New Nine”, the second intake of astronauts, and his marriage is suffering. The timetable imposed by Kennedy’s ambition to reach the moon by the end of the decade has Jim and the other astronauts—Armstrong, Lovell, Shepherd—working ever harder, neglecting their wives ever more. Johncock’s seamless insertion of Harrison into this world is a feat in itself: I resisted finding out whether Harrison actually existed until after I had finished. I would have believed it. His membership of that elite group of pilots and astronauts is entirely compelling. So is his anxiety.

Harrison didn’t say anything. He began to feel not good. He’d stopped using stupid techniques a while ago. He’d realized that he was a test pilot and, if he treated every instance as a test pilot in a tight spot, he could easily maneuver out of trouble. He didn’t realize that this was simply another technique.

So locked down a person as Harrison struggles in the face of tragedy and breakdown. Johncock’s understanding of anxiety informs powerful passages of The Last Pilot. All the while his hard, functional writing exhibits the control established earlier: sentences lengthening and shortening as the mental state of the subject fluctuates; as thoughts pile in and deepen panic. “Don’t fuck up.” Pilots should be in control.

Despite this, there is a great sense of optimism, of determination, in The Last Pilot. It is a claustrophobic optimism, despite the space, the sense of expansion that hovers behind the prose. Progress comes at a cost. Pilots and astronauts accept that; their families have to, if they can. The great weight of detail and responsibility forms and invites a certain kind of person, beneath whose shell a well of feeling must reside in order for their work to continue. Johncock’s sentences evoke this feeling whilst containing it. The tumultuous history of the Space Race is quite a thing to marshal. Johncock’s novel of marriage and family and endeavour is a truly impressive achievement. Indeed, The Last Pilot is one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long time. Sentence by sentence, it’s one of my favourite books of the last few years.

The Last Pilot is out now from Myriad Editions.

My thanks to Myriad Editions for this review copy.

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‘…part of an ancient procession’ The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

theburiedgiant

“You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated.”

The first sentence is as good a place to start as any for a reflection on Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in ten years; and this is more of a reflection than a review, for The Buried Giant is a resistant, circular, and potentially frustrating work. The book begins with “You”: we are a part of this from the very beginning and are reminded throughout. We are immediately placed in a conceptual landscape and atmosphere, an idea of England as a patchwork of tranquil meadows valorized the world over: other Eden, demi-paradise.

But it is an idea we should question precisely for its celebrity. The winding path to John of Gaunt’s bitter lamentation for sleeping England is long and part of the story itself. Something else came before and lies beneath the fields. We took a long time to get here, if we ever did. That simultaneously comforting, questioning, and warning opening sentence signals both the continuity of modern Britain with his concerns and creates a space for Ishiguro’s Dark Age novel of myth, legend, love and memory to occupy.

“It’s queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.”

The Romans are gone. Who knows how long, but their ruined villas dot the country. This is a landscape of magic, ogres, demons, and sprites. Britons and Saxons live separately, but mostly in peace, spread across the “desolate uncultivated land: here and there, rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland.” Time is unmarked. Two old married Britons, Axl and Beatrice, live on the margins of a warren of dwellings dug into a hillside. They are increasingly troubled by the way those around them—especially the young—forget people and events. “It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past—even the recent one.” Their candle has been taken from them—too old—yet it is Axl and Beatrice who seem to recall the most, to resist the darkness of “a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes”.

Axl and Beatrice set out on a journey long put off for reasons neither really recalls, to visit a son neither can picture, who lives in a village neither knows how to reach. It seems they forgot their son for a long time, forgot they ever had a child, although they sometimes wondered, sometimes saw images when half asleep of a small hand held or some conflict leading to their son’s departure. Throughout the novel Ishiguro shifts the reasons Axl and Beatrice think they are searching for their son: he anxiously awaits them, they will live with him and be cared for, they are simply visiting and will return to their village. What remains is the belief in the necessity of their journey and their bond: a belief which has more to do with feeling than memory or knowledge. In that sense Ishiguro is dealing in themes of memory and trauma which run back to A Pale View of Hills.

“He’s our son,” Beatrice said. “So I can feel things about him, even if I don’t remember clearly. And I know he longs for us to leave this place and be living with him under his protection.”

This troubling fluidity of desire, intention, mood, will, and memory permeates The Buried Giant. It is reflected in the landscape through which Axl and Beatrice move: a landscape without reference points, where fiends attack from behind, and strange tableaux emerge from the rains and forests. This strange rootlessness of a country which is nonetheless England recalls the floating village of Jim Crace’s Harvest; and the troubling half-recognised narrative space of Quarantine. The Buried Giant is in many ways a fusion of Ishiguro’s literary concerns: the loss of memory and control, and a troubling ethical environment which we cannot entirely reject, because it is grounded in love and care.

“An old burial ground. And so it may be. I dare say, sir, our whole country is this way. A fine green valley. A pleasant copse in the springtime. Dig its soil, and not far beneath the daisies and buttercups come the dead. And I don’t talk, sir, only of those who received Christian burial. Beneath our soil lie the remains of old slaughter.”

At the heart of this novel are the conflicting necessities, the paradoxical duties of remembrance and forgetting; and in that twin necessity is an allegory both of history and of love. Axl and Beatrice’s journey and their simultaneous fear of remembering and forgetting the life they have shared forces us to think about the differences between national memory and the memories of love. Reconciliation requires both acknowledgement of past wrongs and a kind of forgetfulness which can so easily become a belief in the necessity of suppression in the cause of national pride, recovery, and stability. (“Is it shame makes their memories so weak or simply fear?”) These are motives easily recognised in modern Russia and China, but which is equally insidious in the whiggish tendencies of a Britain in the midst of a celebration of Magna Carta.

“…I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”

It is tempting to link Ishiguro’s Beatrice with Dante’s, but Axl is old and his crossroads are unlike those of The Divine Comedy. We remain in the dark wood throughout The Buried Giant. Beatrice is Axl’s constant companion: a picture of love—another winding lane, another concept with darkness lurking beneath it—more honest than Dante’s courtly infatuation.

“Are you still there, Axl?”

Yet, Ishiguro retains something of Dante’s journey—something shared with journeys from The Odyssey to The Pilgrim’s Progress—as Axl and Beatrice meet figures who represent conflicting approaches to memory, duty, shame, peace and revenge. Unlike those legendary journeys, however, there is little moral clarity or satisfaction to be found. The fantastic is deployed, at least in part, to undermine the allegory of the journey and mythic ideas of nationhood. Indeed, it is one of the advantages of fantasy that creatures, landscapes, and characters can become representative of aspects of humanity in a manner realism militates against. The legendary characters or creatures that populate the novel are often weak and tired: implicated in the false logic of genocide and the suppression of memory in the service of peace. In that respect, the influence of Michael Moorcock can be detected in The Buried Giant.

“We must hope God yet finds a way to preserve the bonds between our peoples, yet custom and suspicion have always divided us. Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievance rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”

It may well be that the shifting and veiled narrative of The Buried Giant frustrates many. Yet, rather like Keith Ridgway’s otherwise very different approach in Hawthorn and Child, the resistance to narrative cohesion is part of the point. Memory, shame, duty, and vengeance are part of the story not just of England, but the world: part of us; and the winding path of love runs not to Dante’s paradise and a beatific vision, but to moments of joy, contentment, ease, conflict, resentment, union and separation. It is in that respect—and despite its Dark Age demeanour—a very timely novel. It will take some time to tell, but I think The Buried Giant is a serious achievement: one that will split people. Which seems rather fitting.

“The giant, once well buried, now stirs.”

The Buried Giant is published by Faber on the 3rd of March 2015.

My thanks to Faber for this review copy.

Words of Mouth Blog Interview

Claire-King-Edited-Choices-10-of-10-199x300

I hope to get some reviews or reading summaries up in the next few days but in the meantime the lovely Claire King, author of The Night Rainbow, has asked me a few questions which I answered in typically rambling fashion. It’s been a few weeks of scary thesis work, so I apologise if it looks like my various trains of thought had a bit of a leaves on the line moment here and there. 

Is there wine? Reader Appreciation Awards

reader-appreciation-award

Well, my goodness, would you look at that? The estimable Eve Proofreads has been kind enough to send me a Reader Appreciation Award.

I don’t expect the people I nominate to do the following, but I should be working, so I’m going to do this instead.

The Rules:

1. Provide a link and thank the blogger who nominated you for this award.

2. Answer 10 questions.

3. Choose 10-12 blogs that you find a joy to read.

4. Provide links to these blogs and kindly let the recipients know that they have been chosen.

5. Include the award logo within your blog post.

The Questions

 Your favourite colour? International Klein Blue.

IKB

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

Your favourite animal? I’m afraid that I’m a cat person. I suspect that, much like myself, they are really quite fond of you, but simply refuse to be quite so gauche as to show it unless there is food involved.

Your favourite non-alcoholic drink? Coffee. Always coffee.

Facebook® or Twitter®? Twitter is what lured me into book reviewing and helped me ‘meet’ lots of other writers of various stripes; so despite its terrible effect on my productivity at times, I should say I owe Twitter rather a lot.

Your favourite pattern? I really like blind arcading. It’s odd, I know.

Getting or giving presents? I like giving a good book. I also like receiving one, so, you know…

Your favourite number? Really?

Your favourite day of the week? Saturday. I got married on a Saturday. I really have no other criteria.

Your favourite flower? Oh blimey, you had to highlight my lamentable ignorance of horticulture, didn’t you? What with that and trees I haven’t got a hope of being a nature writer. Those pinky-purples ones are nice. Yes, I’ll go with those.

What is your passion? For a philosopher this is a very loaded question. (See this, for example). I’m afraid it’s as dull as my really enjoying reading — and writing when I give myself the space to do it. I do really, really enjoy the tracing of ideas and images through artworks, architecture, language, and literature as I think my reviews probably make clear.

My Favourites

This list is in no particular order at all. (In fact, ignore the numbers completely). I’ve only been reading blogs for about six months, so  this is a shorter list than it might be in a year or so. In general, these are blogs I feel I always learn from. A lot of them have made me realise how much more translated literature I should read.

1. On the Literary Sofa ranges across book reviews, literary discussion, and writing tips from novelist Isabel Costello.

2. Tony’s Reading List covers a wide range of fiction and non-fiction, but is particularly and refreshingly strong on translated works. Join him for January in Japan.

3. The Mookse and Gripes is a great blog increasingly focusing on modernism and literature in translation.

4. Asylum never fails to capture something I’d missed — or would have missed — in a novel and makes me think again. I’ve learnt a lot about how to review from this blog. (John also pushed me — and many others — towards the excellent Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway).

5. Just William’s Luck and I have crossed over on a few books this year and, like Asylum, he always brings something new to my reading.

6. Reading Matters is the site of the only blogger whom I have actually met. The site contains reviews of literary fiction and bookish events, as well as previews and suggestions for bookish presents.

7. Pechorin’s Journal is a sophisticated literary review blog with a slipped disc. I enjoy these reviews immensely.

8. Winstonsdad’s Blog is another committed and voracious reviewer of translated fiction. The range is astonishing. Another blog where I feel I am always learning something new.

9. Follow the Thread covers a lot of speculative and science fiction as well as literary fare and short stories. Always an interesting read.

Do comment if you have any other suggestions or just to say hello.

Man Booker Shortlist

Shortlist

The Shortlist has been announced and of my predictions four were correct. I’ll read and review all of them by 16th October when the winner is announced. The official Man Booker Prize announcement is here.

I’m really pleased with this list. Of the books that I’ve read all the ones I really wanted on the list have made it. It’s great to see all three indies make it through. I really enjoyed Swimming Home and The Lighthouse in their very different ways. Bring Up the Bodies was  as good as I expect of Mantel and Umbrella is extraordinary. Onward to Narcopolis and The Garden of Evening Mists!

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt)

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury)

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)

One to Look Out For… The Explorer by James Smythe

OK, so this is a bit unfair because this isn’t out for a few months, but I’ve just read The Explorer and really enjoyed it. I’ll get a full review up nearer the publication dates (split across December and January). For now it will suffice to say that, as well as having a gorgeous cover, which is obviously what makes a book worth reading, The Explorer is SF for people who don’t like SF and probably should: so maybe they will stop being silly. It’s a taut, claustrophobic, frankly unnerving exploration of grief, memory, self-knowledge, and what it really means to go where no one has gone before both physically and psychologically. Oh, and it’s set on a space ship heading for deep space. I should mention that.

Book Post

So, this happened:

I have a lot of reading to do! I’m very excited to have Zadie Smith’s NW before it comes out next month. I’ve read a couple of these in non-Penguin English Library editions, but in a pretty teenagerish way, so it will be lovely to revisit them, and to read some new things I really should have read already. I’m also soldiering through the Booker Prize longlist at a fairly leisurely pace. I’m very excited to have Parade’s End, which I started once, but didn’t have the time to read properly. PhD work is fairly heavy at the moment, so I’m trying to balance everything. Reading and writing for this blog feels like a holiday though, so there will be plenty going on.