Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Book I Read In June

'Vellum' by Hal Duncan
Back in March I criticised the fragmented often incoherent nature of 'Hawksmoor' by Peter Ackroyd. All that I said about that book applies to 'Vellum' in even greater amount. There are basically three characters but it is difficult to pin down even what their names are. They appear in scraps of text set in a range of historical and fantastical settings. They are mixed up with characters and stories from ancient mythology. There are some interesting ideas such as the 'vellum' being a kind of book which structures the multiverse and using it, people can travel into various times and realities. The book also includes a half-hearted reference to a battle between various angels and between them and demons which seems to have been borrowed from the US television series, 'Supernatural', though it might be in reverse as the episodes covering those themes were broadcast after this book was published in 2006. There is no resolution to the story for any of the characters. Instead there are numerous incomplete stories thrown together in apparent random order.

I have seen an online review which likens the book to the Jerry Cornelius books by Michael Moorcock: 'The Final Programme' (1968), 'A Cure for Cancer' (1971), 'The English Assassin' (1972) and 'The Condition of Muzak' (1977). This is not entirely accurate as 'The Final Programme' has a coherent narrative. In contrast, 'A Cure for Cancer' is described as 'essentially a collage of absurdist vignettes' and this description would fit 'Vellum' well. It seems Duncan is aware of the Jerry Cornelius books, the character is referred to by name at one point and elsewhere one of Duncan's characters wields a needle gun, the favoured weapon of Cornelius. The thing is that Moorcock was writing at the height of the era of the drugs- and hippy-influenced culture when authors were experimenting with different forms of writing. Duncan is writing thirty years beyond that period when it is clear that for most part that approach to writing has been set aside. Certainly the acclaim on the book sleeve about Duncan's work being radical or innovative is misplaced, in many ways it is revival of an old style around when he was a child (he was born in 1971). One saving grace of the Jerry Cornelius books is that they were short, around a quarter of the length of 'Vellum' at 500 pages in the edition I read.

Duncan has some great idea and the opening scene of a protagonist stealing the 'Vellum' could have let into a fascinating book. However, it appears that Duncan lacks many of the skills needed to write an actual novel and instead has sold what was effectively the scrapbook that all authors have of ideas, characters and fragments of which some grow into true books, others do not. He has been incredibly lucky to get his scrapbook published. If he could have written a book as good as 'The Final Programme', he would have been deserving of acclaim. However, it seems he has a long way to go before he becomes a novelist despite the fact someone has given him a publishing deal.

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