13 September 2014

Meeting Murakami

“Strange things happen in this world,” Haruki Murakami says. “You don’t know why, but they happen.” It could be a guiding motto for all of his fiction, but he is talking specifically about a minor character in his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The character is a jazz pianist who seems to have made a pact with death, and is able to see people’s auras.

“Why that pianist can see the colours of people, I don’t know,” Murakami muses. “It just happens.” Novels in general, he thinks, benefit from a certain mystery. “If the very important secret is not solved, then readers will be frustrated. That is not what I want. But if a certain kind of secret stays secret, it’s a very sound curiosity. I think readers need it.”

The world’s most popular cult novelist is sipping coffee in the sunny library of an Edinburgh hotel, which – perhaps disappointingly for admirers of his more fantastical yarns – is not reached through a labyrinthine network of subterranean tunnels. Murakami is relaxed and affable, rather than forbiddingly gnomic. “I’m not mysterious!” he says, laughing.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

30 August 2014

The novelist David Mitchell doesn’t believe in the death of the book. “Books take hundreds of years to disappear, once they’re printed. That’s just a fact, isn’t it?” he says, mock quizzically. “But the internet, that depends on a network of power grids. That’s not a matter of opinion. And those grids depend on energy sources. That isn’t just some liberal sandal-wearing Guardian attitude.” He smiles. And as the oil and gas run out, he asks, “Where is the energy coming from?”

That is one of the questions powering Mitchell’s new book, The Bone Clocks, which is possibly his best novel yet. True to form, it features a set of interlocking stories in multiple genres. There is a teenage girl running away from home in the 1980s, a sociopathic Oxford undergraduate cavorting in the early 90s, the story of a war reporter, a literary satire about a novelist and his critic enemy, and an epilogue of dystopian near-future science fiction, with civilisation retreating in a global “Endarkenment”. Irrupting into these stories, meanwhile, is a supernatural war. The good guys are a group of people who get reincarnated 49 days after they die, with full knowledge of their past lives. The bad guys achieve a kind of pseudo-immortality – they stop ageing, but can still be killed by violence or accident – by murdering psychic children, “decanting” their souls into an evil wine. “A book can’t be a half-fantasy any more than a woman can be half-pregnant,” a literary agent in the novel says, not having read this one.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

10 October 2003

On tour with the Darkness

The lobby of the Jury’s Hotel in Cardiff resembles a Barratt’s town square built of brick, with an enormous clocktower that usefully shows the time in New York and Tokyo. Piped insidiously into the atmosphere is a loop of orchestral arrangements of popular songs. Handbags and Gladrags evokes the awful image of po-faced Welsh whinge-rockers the Stereophonics. It’s hard to imagine a band less like the Darkness. Finally I manage to escape and arrive in the beer-sticky warren that is Cardiff University students’ union to meet the band. Well, all of the band except singer Justin Hawkins, who is still in bed. They had a “heavy night” last night in Stoke, involving depth charges of Bailey’s in pints of Guinness. Continued →

3 May 2003

Interviewing William Gibson

For a long time William Gibson has threatened to become respectable; now he might have done it. His new novel, Pattern Recognition, hit number four on the New York Times bestseller list shortly after its US publication in January. The Washington Post called it “assuredly one of the first authentic and vital novels of the 21st century”; the Chicago Tribune acclaimed “a masterful performance from a major novelist who seems to be hitting his peak”.

Yet fans of the early Gibson may be mystified to discover that it features no imaginary futuristic technologies or hallucinogenic descriptive passages about cyberspace — a word he invented in 1982. Gibson was the progenitor of what became known as “cyberpunk” — a mode of dystopian and technologically visionary science fiction whose brightest flowering was his own first novel, Neuromancer. What seemed mere pulp SF to some critics at the time quickly attained a sophisticated glamour to which even the academy was not immune. Literary theorists such as Frederic Jameson compared his work to that of Thomas Pynchon (whom Gibson has named his “mythic hero”), as constituting the authentic literature of the postmodern condition. Continued →

15 October 2002

In the cockpit with Bruce Dickinson

Bruce Dickinson is teaching me to fly. We are in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 simulator in the British Airways flight training facilities at Heathrow. Through the windows we see the winking nightlights of Gatwick airport. “You’re doing extraordinarily well here, sir,” says the legendary heavy-metal frontman, as I wrench the joystick around and yellow alarm lights wink on. While he solicitously explains the functions of the banks of switches, levers and luminescent screens, I’m waiting for him to start hollering “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter”. “Too low – flaps,” says a stern electronic voice in an American accent. Buzzers sound. The runway looms up to meet us. Groundrush. I have information overload.

We land safely – thanks, I suspect, to Dickinson’s finessing of my controls. The hydraulic cabin comes to a shuddering halt and the whine of the engines and air-conditioning subsides. Which leaves only one question. What on earth am I doing in a £10m airliner simulator with the lead singer of Iron Maiden? Continued →

14 March 2000

Smoking with Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard’s lecture in London last Friday did not take place. But don’t be alarmed: the aim of thought, after all, is not truth or reality. Thinking is the art of making things disappear. Let’s try, then, to make this impish, septuagenarian matre à penser disappear too.

Picture, if you will, Baudrillard in the chemistry lecture theatre of University College, London. Gazing down from a side wall is a vast chart of the periodic table, whose elements huddle together for comfort, anxious at the appearance in their midst of this unpredictable catalyst. Baudrillard looks wonderfully like a hyperreal cafe Frenchman: short, rotund, in a crumpled suit, with tufts of golden-grey hair poking out from his temples. But that appearance is a mask. Continued →

6 September 1998

With Julian Barnes

Normally, reading a book without a pencil to scrawl incredulous marginalia leaves a critic feeling naked and offenceless, like riding into battle without a sabre. But halfway through our interview, Julian Barnes unfolds his limbs and, with the surprising alacrity of a recently dozing reptile, snatches his new novel from my hands. “This is where I skip through it,” he mutters mischievously, “searching for ‘Bloody hell, he can’t expect us to believe that!’ or [sneeringly] ‘Question mark, question mark’.” Luckily, the pages are unmarked: the great Pencil-Eating God has earned a rare oblation.

Barnes is fearsomely intelligent. What irks some people is his concomitant sense of fun, as if the exercise of intelligence ought to be a dour, Calvinist abrogation of pleasure. He kicks off one of the short stories in Cross Channel, “Experiment”, with a trio of sparkling French puns. Perhaps today the celebrated author of Flaubert’s Parrot would proffer a salver of plump, womanly fruit and ask, “Pear OK?” Continued →

5 June 1998

With Eddie Van Halen

You are a young, unemployed American singer who used to play with an extremely successful but rather banal rock band. Now you need a new gig. Surely the last outfit you’d audition for would be the legendary Van Halen, whose 20-year punk-metal career has been marked by an unfortunate tendency to eat up singers and spit the chunks out with acrimonious relish. You’d feel like a drummer auditioning for Spinal Tap after your predecessors had all mysteriously exploded on their stools.

But Gary Cherone, ex-vocalist with Extreme, did exactly that. Now he’s part of the gang: the band has released a new record, Van Halen 3, and they’re a couple of months into a mammoth world tour. On Tuesday the band were in Berlin, holed up in the ridiculously opulent Schlosshotel Vier Jahreszeiten, a toy-coloured castle where oil paintings of worried-looking Prussian generals circa 1934 eye you beadily as you prowl around the Kaiser Suite. I am summoned by the tour manager, a gregarious fellow who collects BMX bicycles and whose odd beard is probably a sculpted homage to the Gibson Flying V guitar. Eddie needs to “sit down” for a moment, so we will begin on the balcony with Gary. Continued →