Vicky: Round four of our Arthur C. Clarke reading and time to tackle End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, a book about which I have decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, I thought it neat, endearing and warmly satisfying; on the other, stilted, stunted and born aloft by caricature. I thought it told its story confidently, on a gentle gradient, but I didn't think it a challenging or controversial novel in terms of either plot or theme. It had a languid sense of its own charm, but without any of the bark or bite of Gradisil or Hav or Nova Swing. I mean: it made me feel comfortable, like I was swimming about in the SF equivalent of the womb, cushioned on all sides by the meandering predictability of the story unfolding.
Here is how it goes: Kit Nouveau, a former British squaddie, has been living the ex-pat life in Japan for close on 20 years. He has a Japanese wife, a world-renowned potter called Yoshi, and runs his own Irish bar in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. His best friend is an Australian biker; he is sleeping, unbeknownst to him, with the wife of a Yakusa ganglord; and, every morning, he takes coffee to a young, tatty homeless girl. He is occasionally dogged by memories of the summer of 2003, when he had a short, passionate affair with his best friend's girlfriend, Mary O'Mally but, all things considered, life is pretty good. That is, until his bar blows up with Yoshi inside and he discovers that: a) he was never married, and b) that someone, somewhere, is trying to have him killed.
Nijie Kitagawa is the homeless recipient of Kit's morning coffee. She has $15,ooo,000 stashed away in a train station locker, and some vague memories of the brutal murder of her family. She may also be (although, probably not) Lady Neku - the Baroness Nawa-no-ukiyo, Countess High Strange and Chatelaine of Schloss Omga - a refugee from the distant future in which families of gang-nobility rule over and 'protect' a scorched earth. Either way she is a teenager, confused and on the run from herself. On the night that Kit's bar is torn apart she steps in to save him from a second attempt on his life, this time an assassin, and exhibiting some frightening skill with a blade entangles her emotional life with his personal drama.
Because just as Kit's life in Japan is falling apart, his old one in England is coming back to haunt him in the form of Kate O'Mally, Mary's mother and a mafia boss in her own right. She brings news that her daughter has killed herself and has left everything she owns - a flat in London, an art gallery and significant liquid assets - to Kit. Harboring the suspiscion that her daughter is actually alive and scenting foul play, Kate asks him to come back to London and investigate. And so off he toddles, with Nijie/Neku in tow, to play the amateur sleuth and unriddle a tangle of gang culture, interpersonal relationships and love grown nostalgic.
What should be obvious from this is that End of the World Blues is primarily about the past, about the decisions we do or do not make and the consequences of our actions. (Which is pleasantly ironic for an SF novel ostensibly about futurity...) It is also a novel about the price of redemption. For Kit the past comes most insistently in the form of Mary O'Mally, the woman he 'did wrong by' in the foolishness of his youth. His absolution is clearly to be earned by reconciling the circumstances of her mysterious death and of his own destroyed life. So much so that the events of the novel represent a kind of therapy for him, the traditional kind in which the patient is brought into conflict with himself and the world, and is then reconciled through his own merits. It has that feel-good aspect to it: imperfect man makes good. Although, that is not to say that Kit is a thoroughly satisfying character. He is very much a 'type' with his rockstar name, his stint in the British army and his Irish bar. I mean, there is something pathetically endearing about him, like a ragged old paperback or a dog with its tail between its legs. He is one of those 'soldiers of fortune', rough around the edges but well-meaning, a gnarled tainted hero. But he is also bland and a little too reticent. I found it rather difficult to believe properly in his pain and guilt; it felt like film-guilt, the sort that is about to be redeemed any moment. Improbable things are always happening to him - how does one man stumble into gangland so often? - and oftentimes his heroics are a little too noir. Toward the end of the book, for example, after losing his finger in a confrontation with a drug dealer:
'"Mine," said Neku, grabbing a handful of clothes in passing.
"Was mine," Kit said, tossing segments of finger into the open bowl and pausing to check it flushed properly.'
At no point does Grimwood convince me that Kit is hardcore enough - is anyone really? - to respond to his own dismemberment in such a way. It's too incongruous to have, at one moment, Kit the burned-out bum and, at the next, when it suits the plot, Kit the mafia-savvy player. There is something ill-conceived about it, as though the ideas have overpowered the plot-character framework.
Nijie/Neku is similarly dichotomous - one moment the little Japanese school girl, playing coy with an admirer, next the timeless, ruthless princess from the end of the world. But then she ostensibly has the excuse of her dual existence (or, should we say, her split personality). Which brings me to another of my uncertainties about the novel: the SF parts. Kit and Nijie's story in our near-future world is regularly interrupted by chapters set in the 'floating rope world', Lady Neku's far-future realm. They are at first set adrift from the main story, constituting puzzles in the text, deeply alienating interludes in which linearity plays no part. However, it becomes increasingly clear that they are, in some way, analogous with the events which have occured (and are occuring) in Kit's world: that the actions of the nobility to which Neku belongs mirror those of the Yakusa, the Mafia and other gangs. It also becomes increasingly clear that Neku's life-drama is closely allied to Nijie's. So much so, in fact, that is seems more and more likely that Nijie has somehow created 'Neku' and the marvellous, frightening 'floating rope world' in order to cope with things that have happened to her in the real world. Staying with the idea of End of the World Blues as therapy, she has engineered a mechanism whereby she can distance herself from herself - a world in which she can play out the horror of being the daughter of a murdered family at a remove. All of which I like very much - it approaches the strategies of the traumatised mind with a sensitive and deft touch, and I concede that the 'floating rope world' is an interesting idea.
But it feels just a little arbitrary to me. As though Grimwood, who is so clearly aligned as a genre writer, woke up one day with a great idea for a story set in the near-future about love and loss and delusion. And then proceeded to shoe-horn a determinedly SF element in because, well, that's what he does. The 'floating rope world' aspect of the novel only gets away with with being like it is - cursorily fleshed out and explored - because the reader already suspects it is the creation of a troubled mind and allows for its flaws. So I end by liking the concept but not so much the execution of it.
Which leads me on to say that I don't really like Grimwood's prose style either. I'm sure even his greatest fans would admit that it is workman-like at best and stilted at worst, hardly the stuff that great poetry is made of. I know this is a matter of personal taste though, and I come away from End of the World Blues with a hearty indifference. I don't love it or hate it, or even dislike it. I thought it was pleasant enough but certainly I wasn't inspired by it and I wasn't provoked. If you wish you may interpret this as my damning the enterprise with faint praise.
Nic: At last, a little bit of debate! Now, it would be fair to say that my experience of reading of End of the World Blues was rather a different one to Vicky's; I'm a Grimwood fangirl, having read all his back catalogue with the exception of the two books immediately preceding this one (they're currently keeping my other 450 or so TBR books company). While I certainly don't consider End of the World Blues one of Grimwood's best novels - that place belongs his Arabesk trilogy, particularly the middle volume, Effendi - it contains much of interest to a reader familiar with his work. It's an altogether warmer and maturer novel: reflective, wistful and (relatively) pared-down, and with a whole lot more redemption to go around than usual (even if still hard-won).
The prose is much less punchy and visceral than in the early books - and here End of the World Blues does suffer, because the breakneck/headfuck aspect was clearly always part of the appeal - and the splatter of brand names and tech-fetishising is likewise scaled down. But plenty of the trademarks are still on display: alienating, crisply-evoked locales; cooler-than-thou disdain, especially for the dumbing-down and sanitising effects of popular tourism ("One day, the real Roppongi, with its hostess bars and filthy courtyards would vanish forever, like Montmartre or London's Soho before it, leaving an ersatz theme park of perversion lite."); plus a little bit of the old ultraviolence:
Twisting the hot blade from Robbie's fingers, Kit moved before anyone had time to react. A sizzling slash to the throat, a smoky drag across both eyes and Kit was almost done, his final strike hissing its way under de Valois' chin and through his soft palate, braising his tongue.
... often mixed with mordant humour, as when Neku/Nijie rescues Kit:
"Simple, neat and looks to the untrained eye like an aneurysm."
"What about that?" said Kit, nodding to the juggling knife now sticking from the man's ribs.
"Oh shit," she said. "Instinctive overkill... I'm Lady Neku," she added, before executing a small bow and offering her hand. When Kit shook, he couldn't help noticing that her fingers were sticky.
(The ultra-sex, by contrast, is largely absent; I'm not mourning the loss...)
More significantly, both the characterisation and the film noir approach to structure remain intact, if to a less extreme degree. The former gives us the customary Grimwood protagonists - world-weary older man with a new identity and a dark past, deeply troubled and vulnerable but in some way remarkable young girl - and what appears at first to be their customary relationship configuration, a blend of sexual tension and pseudo-father-daughter dynamic. Yet here everything is smaller-scale and more personal. Particularly in Kit's strand of the tale, the accent is upon the individual guilt - his tiny, commonplace actions and betrayals, and their devastating emotional fallout - rather than the dramatic trappings of mob bosses and yakusa plots. The tone is of a continual but understated sense of loss:
Yoshi and Kit had shared a bed, lived in the same house and together run a bar but he still didn't know where she'd been born. Some shitty little village in the hills... That was what Yoshi said, when he asked her in the early days.
He had no idea which village or which hills.
Likewise, although Neku/Nijie's own betrayals play out across a bigger canvas, it is telling that they are mainly explored through the metaphor of her shellshocked future fantasy; the rocking of the criminal underworld that she precipitates is entirely secondary to the trauma she suffers, and so we catch only glimpses of it.
Similarly, these are more life-size characters. Here is one point where Vicky and I differ: the finger amputation, and Kit's reaction. I'm not convinced that Kit is that hardcore either. Nor, I think, am I meant to be (not something I'd ordinarily say of Grimwood's protagonists!). The response quoted is pretty clearly the result of bravado, and shock - it comes right after an episode of considerable tension and violence, at a point when adrenaline is still flowing (and the need to stay calm and escape is still paramount). You don't have to buy that Kit is 'hardcore' to believe that he - as an ex-soldier - knows a thing or two about the importance of reining in panic until there's time to indulge it. Shortly afterwards, his pain is all present and correct:
Trying to ride a motorbike with an amputated finger was a bad idea. The actual practice was worse. Every gear change made Kit chew his lip and fight to keep his hand on the bars.
And shortly after that, he's shivering and mumbling and only half-aware of what's going on around him.
Onto the structure. The subgenre of cyberpunk was - to grossly over-generalise, for neither the first nor the last time - film noir with flashy gadgets, snappier dialogue and a thumping soundtrack. Grimwood is writing in a post-cyberpunk tradition, but End of the World Blues (like all his novels) partakes of many of the same concerns: morally-ambiguous characters, trapped in dead-end lives, can only watch as the noose of circumstance (and, often, unprovoked betrayal) tightens around their necks - all told with liberal use of flashback, sardonic wit, and brutality, to confuse and disorientate while ultimately illuminating in unexpected ways.
Here, there is an added layer of misdirection, as Vicky has said, in Neku's Moorcock/Vance-esque floating rope world. These sections are somewhat cursory, it's true (although often quite fun):
"Stop it," she told Schloss Omga, her family's castle.
Maybe the castle was listening, or maybe it just got bored and decided to stop the architectural equivalent of twiddling its hair. Whatever, the next time Lady Neku looked, the tiles in her bedroom had changed back to polygons and that was the last change of the day.
Dragging herself to her feet, Lady Neku stared around her. The vomit was already gone, swallowed by the floor and fed back into the castle. Schloss Omga was good at telling the difference between living organics and waste. It hardly ever got this wrong.
Two potential counter-arguments: 1) Exactly how well-rounded would we expect a traumatised 15-year-old's imaginary world to be? 2) Consider these SFnal elements in terms of the audience (and marketing) ... readers expecting a genre novel are surely inclined to assume sf elements are real on the novel's own terms, unless proven otherwise (I did). So for some time they effectively obscure what's going on - who Neku is, what she's done - in true twisty-turny noir style. ;-)
More serious problems exist in the novel. The prose, as I said above, was somewhat disappointing; on balance, it simply wasn't as entertaining a read as previous Grimwood novels. I also find myself hoping that this really is the culmination that it appears to be for these now over-familiar character types, however appealing and striking their presentation here. Finally, the section set in London is much less interesting than those in either the Tokyo or the 'far future', bogged down in talky scenes and its tediously drawn-out fact-finding mission. End of the World Blues is a bumpy ride, then, and not really representative of what Grimwood can do; but it's an interesting, and unusually heartfelt, spin on an old formula.
Vicky: Yes, we really do disagree on the finger thing. I don't want to focus on it too closely but I think it has wider implications for Kit's character and who and what he is, so... I could almost buy the bravado reading if it didn't go as far as it did - by the time Kit flushes bits of his own finger down the loo he has already killed a man (and whence his extraodinary skills, I ask myself? A middle-aged man grown reticent in Tokyo? His experiences of twenty years earlier don't go nearly far enough in justifying it!), negotiated local gang politics with some cronies, waited for Neku to have a wash and marshalled his rag-bag gang out a building surrounded by MI6 agents. It doesn't seem a planned action, since he does it almost as an afterthought as they're leaving, and the surrounding circumstances don't suggest that he chooses to make a set piece gesture. So why flush the finger? Why pick it up at all? And would bits of finger really flush?
All this might sound incredibly pedantic, and it is, but I think it epitomises Grimwood's attempts to satisfy his audiences' desire for hyperbole. I just couldn't suspend my disbelief through it; I felt real world implications creeping in and, for me, that is when SF has failed itself. True, Kit is a little more shaken up later, but it isn't enough - he even sets out to sew up the wound himself for goodness sake! Where is his devastated horror? Or his disbelief? Or his anger? Physical pain alone is unconvincing. Its like he has been expecting to have his finger hacked off in pieces all his life and has already reconciled himself to his loss.
It wasn't the only part of the novel that smacked of over-reaching - you could say, over-acting - either. Neku mistakenly stabbing Kit's attacker in the ribs in a fit of over-enthusiasm niggled me too, and so I find it interesting that you quoted it as an example of Grimwood's humour. I think I may have actually rolled my eyes at that point in the dialogue on my initial reading. ;-) It ripped me out of the drama of the moment, and it made me think: why? (In fact, as it happens, the plot itself answers this - to give Neku a reason to go to Kit's bar later that night. Tenuous methinks.)
I think my real problem has to be this: none of the characters struck me as emotionally realistic. I admit there are moments that touched on moving (like the one you quote), but nothing that squeezed me in the right places. Nobody acts like a real human person, except perhaps Nijie. They are endlessly rising to the occasion, as if they're on strings. They're all types, all simulcra of people, and its difficult for me to get past that.
(I have a feeling this discussion might spill into the comments - hurray! to that. :-))