Game-changing

Chris Cleave's Gold

Chris Cleave’s Gold

This week I’ve been reading Chris Cleave’s Gold, set in Manchester in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games. It follows the equally intense careers and personal lives of Britain’s two best female track cyclists, Kate and Zoe, and explores the difficult dynamic between friendship and rivalry as they train and grow up together, under the supervision of their coach, Tom. Whether for closeness or for competition, the two women depend on each other more than they think.

I chose this book, out of all the wonderful suggestions offered for Greater Manchester, for the same reason I chose to read Money Can’t Buy Me Love a few weeks ago – because of how recent the setting is. As I said then, it always amazes me when I find a book about events in my own living memory, having spent so many years reading curriculum-prescribed classics. Cleave, in an interview published in this very edition of Gold, explains this far more eloquently than I manage to:

“Some people find it jarring to read work that is set almost in real time. I understand that – it’s not something novelists generally do – but I like that territory for fiction and I suggest that it’s a fascinating space in which to be an artist, because it’s the space in which public opinion is formed. My novels area hybrid between reportage and fiction and they take place in the five year gap between the point at which newspapers leave a story alone and the point at which historians generally take up their analysis.”

'Fan-fiction' - is it so bad?

‘Fan-fiction’ – is it so bad?

Wonderful as it has been so far, my education – along with many other people’s I imagine – usually encourages me to associate modern writing, no matter how popular, with so-called ‘bad’ literature, simply because it might not (yet) carry historical or canonical weight or might not use complicated language or need footnotes to translate allusion and symbolism.  I admit I have been guilty of turning my nose up at Jodi Picoult’s global bestsellers, hiding my apparently humiliating enjoyment of Dan Brown and rolling my eyes at the epic Twilight series. But the truth of the matter is that these are the books that sell in modern times; the pursuit of understanding why certain genres have such cultic followings in the present is as fascinating and meritorious as the research done in any Jane Austen class, the real difference being that only one of these subjects has already been done to death.

(This video clip is a trailer for the 2009 book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody of Jane Austen’s classic in which the Bennett sisters are trained to fight the undead as well as to find suitable husbands.)

Think of this decade’s vampire phenomenon, the prevalence of zombie apocalypse fiction since 2000, and how, in 2012, erotic fiction suddenly became widely acceptable – even in the staunchest minds of our middle-age, middle-class relatives – and made its way onto bestselling shelves with Fifty Shades of Grey. Why then? Why not before or after? What forces are brewing under the surface of society now that might erupt into a new literary craze in ten years’ time?

I spent most of my final degree year (and all the time since – hence this blog) obsessing about these very questions, my interests shifting away from Shakespeare and Chaucer – as much as I value them – and resting on what I’d always dismissed: the current. I refused to stay in the closet any longer: having an interest in popular culture isn’t a cop-out; nor is it glamorously avant-garde. It’s a study of the nitty-gritty here-and-now, of the themes and events that are relevant to us in an increasingly battered world.

I love being on the other side of the dividing line that Cleave defines between history and fiction in this challenge. Producing serious writing set in ‘real time’, without being pejoratively classed as Airport Fiction or Chick Lit or Easy Reading – all the terms synonymous with Trash that sceptics choose to deploy – is a skill, and one that Cleave succeeds in. I find it bizarre that some reviewers describe his plot as predictable or farcical and his characters as underdeveloped. I completely disagree. I was deeply impressed with the descriptions of training and races in particular; I could feel the athletes’ muscular and emotional sensitivity twitching the pages in my fingers. There is an intense physicality and even sensuality in reading this novel which, aside from making you believe you’re on the racetrack too, gives the novel a cinematic feel – you hear the breath of Kate’s pursuer and the hum of Zoe’s tyres on the ground. It is not the same exhilaration as I felt when watching the London velodrome events on television last year; it’s much more tuned-in, more personal, more close-up. In short, Cleave is able to describe so much movement in so much slow-motion detail without once comprising on pace. Masterful. For this aspect of the novel alone, it’s a 4/5 star read.

Bodies at their limits: Anna Meares (Australia) + Vicky Pendleton (GB) fighting for victory in the final Sprint.

Bodies pushed to their limits: Anna Meares (Australia) + Vicky Pendleton (GB) fighting for supremacy in the final Sprint.

So finely tuned are the girls’ bodies, in fact, that the distinction between themselves as animals and machines is difficult to make, and Cleave’s juxtaposition of the two is hugely effective. Their “twelve thousand dollar American prototype race bike[s]” (9) are extensions of their own limbs, with “no distinction between their skeletal systems and the bones of their bikes” (74). In racing and training their reflexes are mechanical – superhuman, programmed in – and yet at the same time, bestial. Their senses are heightened to a primal state, in which changes in the breath and slight movements in the muscles of their competitors causes immediate and instinctual physical responses to achieve the most primitive of urges: to win. Teeth gnashing and claws scratching all the way.

And yet these girls have been friends for 15 years, through youth training, national competitions, the Olympics in Athens and Beijing…They are a support to one another, understanding the dangers of such a high level of competition, both physically and psychologically. There are, in fact, constant reminders of the damage it causes: Tom’s dodgy knees, the girls’ sore ankles, Zoe’s crash, Kate’s difficulty in juggling career with family life, Zoe’s brother’s early death and her resulting emotional trauma and failure to maintain relationships, as though “as soon as she got off the bike her heart was expected to perform all these baffling secondary functions – like loving someone and feeling something and belonging somewhere – when all she’d ever trained it to do was pump blood” (45). Cleave expresses, completely convincingly, the way in which racing obsesses them, consumes them and is always one step away from breaking them. They cannot even escape their bodies’ pressure when off the track, for when sitting on the sofa and unable to switch off, “Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race […] hopelessly” (11).

Manchester's National Cycling Centre, where the girls (and so many real Olympians) train

Manchester’s National Cycling Centre, where the girls (and so many real Olympians) train

The complicated relationship the girls have to their own bodies results in an equally complicated relationship to the space around them: they cannot belong. For Zoe in particular, everything outside the racetrack is described as unfamiliar and disconnected. Despite her ability to see practically 360o from her luxurious skyscraper apartment – she looks over Manchester city and can pinpoint Snowdonia, Liverpool, the Blackpool Tower and beach and Cheshire plains in the distance – she feels so out of touch with the ground beneath her that she is like a “ghost” (42). There is “no traffic noise; no sound of the neighbours’ TV; nothing” (44), her apartment no more than an empty space designated for living by a faceless architect. Even Management has identified the need for a “souvenir of Earth” this far above it and is intent on “making a ‘green space’ with birds and plants and a water feature” (40) – but the “Italian olive tree ascend[ing] silently past [her] window” (45) attached to its crane only makes Zoe’s world even more surreal.

In fact, the whole of the country seems, to Zoe, like a series of disconnected “planet[s]” (86), Manchester being one of them, the generalised “up north” (220) another and “Surrey” a third, where “rain comes in bottles labelled Evian” (221) rather than being icy cold and endless. (North-South divide, we meet again.) Much like her inability to connect genuinely with other people, she is unwilling to admit to affection for any place she has lived or raced.

Victoria Pendleton, GB's winner of Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint of London 2012

Victoria Pendleton, GB’s winner of Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint of London 2012

Ultimately, Cleave creates an excruciating world in which the girls race round and round in circles on tracks that never change: no wonder their bodies jar at the tension between so much speed, and absolutely zero movement. Kate notes at one point, “What good did it ever do anyone to ride themselves back to their point of origin?” (16). Add to this the pressure of personal lives and off-the-track developments and Cleave has produced an excellent novel that has as much of a human factor as superhuman. I’ve heard it said that London 2012 did great things for the popularity of cycling in Great Britain – writing this novel in 2011, Cleave knew what he was doing.

Next week I’ve picked up Maureen Lee’s The September Girls to read. Can’t wait!

CLEAVE, Chris. Gold. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013.

Featured Image: Anna Meares (Australia) vs. Victoria Pendleton (GB) in the Track Sprint at London 2012.

http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk/news/latest/541076/anna-meares-returns-to-international-track-competition.html

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‘Stuff the Country Code’

"Only One Way" - Jannicke Howard

“Only One Way”, Jannicke Howard

When, earlier this year, I first started looking for England-based novels published post-2000, you would not believe how much Zombie Apocalypse fiction found its way onto my radar screen. I could probably have set up a one-zombie-book-from-every-county challenge and I would have had just as many suggestions as I do now. Despite the temptation, I did not go down that road and, for the sake of diversity, have tried to limit the zombie horror on my List as much as possible. However, I could not resist taking a look at Jannicke Howard’s Only One Way for this place-themed challenge, torn as the plot seemed to be between North Yorkshire’s main city and its countryside.

Another factor that drew me to Howard’s zombies, rather than anyone else’s, is that her novel is self-published and distinctly sans-hype; ‘Indie’, I might say, if I was hip enough to know what that word means. I have read some big names (David Almond) and expensive publications (Alice in Sunderland) this month; it’s time to get back to the little guy.

The first thing I will say is that self-publications are risky reads and I’m not sure this one paid off for me. The lack of editing was blatantly obvious from the frequent spelling mistakes and sloppy sentence structures that, in many cases, inhibited understanding. I am also, to my detriment, a punctuation geek, and was not completely comfortable with the condition of the commas. Petty, perhaps, but I’m afraid it was enough to mar my reading pleasure.

What is more, the plot and themes contained within did not satisfy my expectations – expectations instilled in me by my dear friends and English Literature colleagues at university, Molly and Rachel, who studied zombie fiction as part of their degrees and have brilliant theories as to why

a)      it has become so popular, particularly post-9/11, and

b)      it is so apt a genre with which to represent society’s issues.

11th September 2001, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, NYC

11th September 2001, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, NYC

In fact, my dedicated experts have enlightened me to the fact that with the rise of global terrorism in the last two decades, the new, widespread popularity of zombie horror represents the fear and confusion that plague contemporary society. In layman’s terms, zombies – much like terrorists – are deadly enemies who look like us, who often share our experiences and who (especially in the case of ‘homegrown terrorists’) come from within our own communities. Despite being dismissed as trashy, or perhaps more diplomatically, ‘niche’ fiction, zombie novels can therefore be intelligent representations of the concerns of the modern world.

In addition, we all know that a zombie is a revolting creature whose gluttonous appetite for human flesh is never satisfied; they eat and eat and eat. Compare this to the culture of capitalism and consume-consume-consumerism that has grown exponentially in the techno-obsessed world and you have another reason why zombie fiction is so valuable. We may have massive national and personal debts, enough to hollow out the ground we stand on, but we still buy, buy, buy, in a vain attempt to satisfy our own monstrous greed and materialistic lust. In fact, we spend so much money that we don’t have, delaying the paying back of debts for so long, that people live eternally in a kind of negative image. And to represent this, you can’t get much more negative than a zombie, a member of the walking-dead.

In summary, Molly says, zombie horror is ‘a physical manifestation of societal problems’. Get it?

Well, if not, it doesn’t really matter, as Only One Way has very little of ‘it’. Howard does not engage with issues of the modern world more than to point out perfunctorily, in the first few pages, that the last decade has seen “terrorist attacks, petrol shortages, looming threats of flu pandemics, snow blizzards and all the other minor disasters in between” (8). The sole reminder of capitalism is that it is “hard to believe that the architects had managed to cram six individual flats into the building” (15), after which the subject is summarily and disappointingly forgotten. The same goes for the brief political observation that Britain is a “nanny-state” (7), looking for any “excuse to play big brother” (16). Even if I don’t judge it by Molly and Rachel’s standards, and look at it instead as a stand-alone read, there is very little characterisation or imagery to transcend the page or enthuse readers. I realised this lack when I became inordinately excited over the one small simile that compares Richard’s “Yorkshire dialect” to “honey over gravel” (18).

Nor do I believe that Howard designed the book to be intentionally bland in order to represent the meaningless transience of life, or anything of the like. No. Basically, the book is set on the outskirts of York. Three main characters (Ed, Richard and Naomi) watch out of their windows as the “virulent, incurable” (104) HEMO10 virus, which is spreading throughout the country and the world, takes hold of their friends and neighbours and delivers a world of “psychopathic violence and cannibalism” (83) . There are a few half-hearted attempts to classify humans as “animals” (13), part of “a dying out breed” (129), but then: The End.

At a push, I could observe that the disease seems slowly to radiate from the heavily infected city of York to the clean surrounding countryside, in much the same sad way that “outlying farming villages were sucked into the overall body of the city” as “rapid building spread out” (57). Moreover, the “city-living” (18) Ed is potentially responsible for the downfall of Richard, who lives in a small village “in the middle of nowhere” (29) and is part of “the great wilderness” (18). This might suggest that Howard is concerned that modern urban/capitalist contaminants (new buildings, motorways, material temptations) are destroying the natural countryside, as well as people’s appreciation of it. Despite this, I’m still not impassioned by the novel.

In essence, I was disappointed with this book. It was not completely terrible, because Howard did make a few attempts to engage with a problematic contemporary society through juxtaposition of city and countryside and a few comments on capitalism. However, even as a novice zombie reader without Molly and Rachel’s extensive critical knowledge, this book is underwhelming. I don’t necessarily need a book to be literarily ‘clever’ in order to enjoy it – that would be ridiculous – but I would at least like to experience descriptive setting and characterisations to hold my attention. Unfortunately, with Only One Way, I don’t, and I therefore give it 2/5 stars.

What did you think of Only One Way? Next week I’ll be reading Julie Reilly’s Money Can’t Buy Me Love, so grab a copy and have a peek before then!

HOWARD, Jannicke. Only One Way. Louise Clark, 2010.

Featured Image: Shaun of the Dead

http://www.wallpaperpin.com/album-shaun/shaun-of-the-dead-wallpaper/