Many-headed Dinosaurs

I’ve been dreaming of many-headed dinosaurs. Who hasn’t? I refer, in the main, to the readership of Fjona Uu’s new novel, The Brontesaurus Sisters, but then one doesn’t like to exclude anyone who might be engaged in personally-inspired many-headed dinosaur dreaming, does one?

In all honesty, I don’t know much about these so-called Brontë Sisters. They wrote some books, I’ve heard, and were, I’m told, sisters – thus the collective title. Indeed, being related to one another seems to have ensured that they are considered, more often than not, as a group; that they are compared to, complemented alongside and in constant competition with each other. Charlotte, Anne and Emily were their actual names, but it is much easier, is it not, to simply say ‘Brontë Sisters’?

Easier, yes – but is it fair? To what extent should we allow ourselves to stuff siblings into the same categorical sandwich? No doubt the sisters shared a similar background; perhaps even more than this. Maybe they led very similar lives, who knows? Clearly I don’t. But I do wonder whether this isn’t worth a second look, this whole ‘sibling group’ thing. No?

My wife, for instance, has a sister she hasn’t seen for thirty years. They have so little in common, these two – and yet one can see how someone from the future might be tempted to compare the two. For they are, after all, sisters. They come from the same family. And what are families, ultimately, but an elementary filing system: a way of ordering this chaotic universe of ours?

As non-readers may have guessed from the title, Fjona Uu’s book imagines the three Brontë Sisters as a single entity, albeit a three-headed single entity. In short, a Brontesaurus. Imagine that: a Brontosaurus  with three heads, each representing a sister in the same family. Now imagine your own siblings (should you have any) as heads on the shared body of a large dinosaur.

Why imagine such a thing? I can’t quite see why, but at the same time I can’t quite help myself. I hear that someone is contemplating a critical biography of the entire Laami family and, once again, my Fjona-U-fueled-fancy takes glorious flight. A bloated diplodocus hoves into view, fourteen or fifteen heads swaying above its fat heavy body. I see it in the swamp, thrashing wildly. I see the heads turn on each other, snapping and snarling. I see rivers of senseless blood running around the thick feet of Triassic monsters.

I’ve been dreaming of many-headed dinosaurs. Perhaps I should stop reading Fjona Uu and eating cheese before I sleep at night.

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Literary Lightweights and Lazy Eyes

In this week’s Groping for Allusions, the inimitable Peggy Grounter casts her sharp (but ever so slightly lazy) eye over Fjona Uu’s The Brontesaurus Sisters.

This is not, in itself, an especially interesting fact. But it concerns me, nonetheless, particularly as I am mentioned, in passing, near the beginning of the article.

‘Plowing his lonely furrow in one of the internet’s many empty fields’, sayeth the mighty Peggy, ‘Mr Riecke plays up to an invisible crowd by entertaining the notion that Uu, by “mashing” together two or more literary genres, has thrown herself into the company of lesser writers. This, of course, is nonsense’.

Fair enough. But pray tell us why, Miss Grounter, this is nonsense. ‘It is immediately clear to any reader that Uu is no literary lightweight – and that this novel, like her previous work, confronts history with a wicked grin, concealing a fierce, admirably determined intent to bruise, maim and destroy.’

Interesting. A little strong, perhaps, but I admire your passion. And I agree, indeed, with the central point. Uu is not a literary lightweight. Nor did I ever say she was. For as you yourself note, I merely ‘entertained’ a notion; a notion that was not, as you seem to think, that Uu is a mere fashionable ‘mash-up’ artisté, but that Uu may run the risk of being seen as one, not by conscientious readers such as you and I, but by those less fortunate than ourselves. I was referring, you see, to those who may not have read Uu’s work before; to those who judge books according to their titles – and who, thus, may quite understandably come to the conclusion that a novel called The Brontesaurus Sisters is not, as you would have it, an ‘high-octane, heavily intellectual assault on man and mankind’.

Funny that you, my dear Peggy, cannot understand the mindset of such a person, seeing as you so clearly have a bit (if not a lot) of them in yourself. After all, you obviously thought you knew what I was saying before bothering to read what I actually was saying.

Yesterday’s Baby

The edge becomes the mainland soon enough: this much we know. One generation’s original idea is another generation’s old hat. Sometimes, often, it takes less than a generation. Yesterday’s baby is over the hill. You’ve got to eat your bananas whilst they’re green.

I’ve been reading Fjona Uu’s new book, The Brontesaurus Sisters (not The Brontosaurus Sisters, as some have suggested) and I’ve been pondering a few things. For instance, how does Uu fit into the ‘Mash-Up’ scene? Her first novel, Lava in a Cold Climate was, in one sense, a cross between several fictional forms – the early twentieth century comic novel, the late twentieth century apocalyptic novel and a mid-twentieth century Marxist text. Her second novel, Pincers in the Tower, melded historical fiction together with the absurd – a delicate balance, done with aplomb. The Brontesaurus Sisters, meanwhile, throws about half a dozen genres into the mix, effortlessly shifting between the gothic and the pre-historic, the romantic and semantics. In doing so, however, Uu moves dangerously close to the contemporary tradition mentioned above. I refer, in particular, to the vogue for ‘monster mash’ (see here for a more thorough description).

The question is, what differentiates Uu’s The Brontesaurus Sisters from recent bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Has Uu, who originally turned to the mash-up as a means of expressing sincere Marxist sympathies, found herself part of a passing trend instead? She’s a talented writer, certainly, but she nonetheless runs the risk of getting caught up in a group of writers of lesser ability. Which is to say that perhaps it’s time she looked at another means of achieving her intellectual aims. Messing about with monsters, at this point in time, is only going to get her mis-categorized.

Brontesaurus

You wait weeks for a ‘dinosaurs in contemporary european literature’ story and then two come along at once. Not that it’s news to anyone that Fjona Uu’s third novel will be called The Brontesaurus Sisters (I announced it here back in May) but its impending publication (put back several months on account of something someone is calling a ‘recession’) is nonetheless worth celebrating.

Early reports suggested that the novel would feature ‘graverobbing, talking magpies and a small boy who believes he is the reincarnation of all three Brontë sisters’. Since then I have heard talk of ‘time-travel, recipes for soup and a hilarious new take on Heathcliff’. All in all, this sounds like somewhat of a lark, which should be a good thing, so long as Uu doesn’t get carried away. The strength of her early work, after all, was its grounding in a sincere moral standpoint. It was, as P. S. Einhart might say: ‘lunacy tethered’ – which isn’t as bad as it sounds, unless you’re of the Dorwindovitch persuasion, in which case this is all a rotten compromise, and Uu ought to be wearing her watered-down Marxist sympathies on her (say it softly) cashmere sleeve.

Still, with any luck I’ll be able to get my hands on the novel soon enough, at which point I will report back to you, taking care to note the differences between Uu’s approach to sexual relationships between prehistoric creatures and those of Ciambhal O’Droningham. It should prove to be a fascinating comparison.

More on Fjona Uu here, here and even here. In fact, all over the place.

Uu Can Say That Again

When asked why she shortened her name from Fjona Uumansdottir (or, since her marriage, Fjona Uumansdottir-Lapperton) to plain old ‘Fjona Uu’, the Icelandic writer replied in a recent interview that it was ‘primarily for the punsters’, adding: ‘those sad old pranksters need a break every now and again, do they not?’

She went on to qualify the comment by adding that, in fact, ‘Uu’ is pronounced quite differently from ‘you’. In her own words: ‘the best way to say it is to imagine that you’re about to say “evergreen”, only to change your mind at the last moment’.

Indeed.

More on Fjona Uu later (at least, that’s the plan).

I’ve Been Thinking About Uu

And so it is. The dark crow of my thoughts has been gliding over the field of Fjona Uu, fueled by the food of her past work – and the promise of work to come. As hinted here, her short story collection Put on your Ontic Stasis Suits, originally published in 2000, will be reprinted later this year by McSíldo, an Icelandic/Scottish publishing house. As if this wasn’t enough, her third full-length novel, The Brontosaurus Sisters (mentioned in passing here) will be appearing at the same time. And what time is this, you ask? The release date seems to be going through more changes than the heroine of a theatrical musical, but it looks to be somewhere around the beginning of July. I hope, nevertheless, to get my claws on a proof copy a long time before then.

Needless to say, the title of the novel may have already caused some to emit a groan; nonetheless it is par for the course for Fjona, whose previous works, I hardly need to remind you, were called Lava in a Cold Climate and Pincers in the Tower.  I would, however, persuade any such groaners to ensure that their prejudices don’t stand in the way of their reading Uu’s work, which is much cannier than it may sound – as is often (but not always) the case.

Much the same applies, I think, to the work of Dinos Tierotis, who is following up his debut Perseus and the Pepper Grinder with The Golden Bomber Jacket (published next week). Like Uu, Tierotis is one of those writers whose novels rely heavily on other people’s stories: in his case Greek myths. Though it is tempting to call this a lazy method, it has proved to be an effective one throughout the ages. A little-known English playwright, William Shakespeare, did a similar sort of thing, and it did him little harm. To succeed, however, a writer has to prove that they are using the story to help them get somewhere – and not just carrying it around like some worn trophy. Which is to say that are as many bad examples as there are good. As many? I mean, of course, much more. And when such books fail, they really fail. Anyone read Francine Paramoré’s Dante in Dagenham? No? Well, don’t – for the sake of your health, don’t.

More on this later.

Closet Bourgeois

Last night at The Crippled Bee conversation turned to the subject of Fjona Uu’s ever-dwindling Marxist sympathies.
‘Only a fool would be surprised,’ said the man with the moustache: ‘it’s quite clear that she always harboured a secret love for the bourgeoisie. Look at that man she married. Isn’t he an earl?’
No one quite knew for sure, though there has never been any doubt of James Lapperton’s elevated social status. One look at him is enough to know that he was Lord of Prefects at Harrowton on the Hill.
‘And don’t cough up any of that stuff about breaking down the system from within. Uu has always been a bona fide bourgeois. Even before she met the Lapperton fellow she was writing stories about romance in English public schools. Now tell me, is that a natural subject for an Icelandic Marxist?’
We all agreed that it was not – and the man with the moustache ordered another brandy.

The story he was referring to was, I think, Nothing Ness – a rather charming little tale about two rich and witless teenagers who decide to fall in love and live mildly happily ever after until the day they’re run over by a rogue tank on the high street of a minor Southern city. Here’s how it opens:

When asked what she was doing, or what she wanted to do, Vanessa as a child was accustomed to saying ‘nothing’, for which she soon earned herself the nickname ‘Nothing Ness’, which was to follow her, like some sad lamb, through three schools and beyond.

In order to spice up her soporific existence, ‘Nothing Ness’ engineers an infatuation with someone called Stuart, who pretends in turn to love her back. Both characters are presented throughout as spiritually empty; vapid and humourless. Despite this, it’s hard not to like them, in their way – wherein lies Uu’s problem. She lingers tenderly on details which, when she set out, were meant to bare teeth. Her humanity overtakes her. She falls into her own trap.

More could be said about this story. For now, however, I would like to draw your attention to another female European writer who has, for no good reason, developed an obsession with that peculiar institution they call the English public school. I refer, of course, to the brilliant Czech novelist Koira Jupczek, whose Death Charts, though set in Central Europe, clearly owes a lot to the tradition of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the like. Again, not the most obvious path to amble down when you hail from the Czech Republic. And yet Death Charts channels the spirit of the bourgeois boarding school to great effect, allowing its much-derided charms to seep through the hard skin of the writer’s sharp satire.

As far as I know, Jupczek is not married to a polo-playing, pipe-smoking earl – nor has she ever professed herself a Marxist. This link between her work and Uu’s is, however, an intriguing one, which merits further investigation.