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Posts from the ‘John Muckle’ Category

Recently Read…February 12, 2012

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84.  Knopf, 2011. 1Q84 is a 925-page love story overlaid with Murakami’s patented version of Magic Realism and populated with Murakami’s quirky characters.  As each of the main characters slip out of the world of 1984 Tokyo and into the 1Q84 world of Murakami, they find their lives suddenly threatened by a mysterious religious cult, and they spend most of the novel trying to figure out what role they play in this new topsy-turvy world, where two moons brighten the night sky, where Little People emerge from the mouths of the dead, and where other, equally strange events occur.  1Q84 functions as a kind of group detective novel, with each character, acting in isolation or in pairs, trying to deduce or intuit the meaning of each new revelation.  As the book comes to a close, the pace picks up as the various missing pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.

John Muckle, London Brakes.  Exeter: Shearsman, 2010.  (I’ve previously written about Muckle’s photo-embedded novel Cyclomotors.)  The aptly named Tony Guest is a motorcycle courier in Thatcherite 1980s London.  He knows his way through the city and its environs, but he can’t connect the dots within his own life.  He and an assorted group of mates work, hang out, drink, smoke a little dope, and have run-ins with the police, all the while buffeted by political winds they scarcely see or acknowledge.  They know they’re stuck where they are; nevertheless, they talk wistfully about change and make lateral moves to a new employer, a new flat, a new roommate.  But Tony is a bit different.  He has slightly larger dreams and a higher level of self-awareness.  He reads, he can talk philosophy and, unlike the other couriers, he rides a vintage bike.  But this only serves to shove him awkwardly to the edge of his own crowd, who sense his desire to move outward and upward as a slap in the face.  In the end, Tony’s ambitions aren’t strong enough to protect him, they only add to his sense of guilt.

“You’re some sort of super-intelligent dope smoker.  Educated, though you pretend not to be, and you’re from a working-class background, like us.”

“How do you know?”

“I can tell.  It’s obvious.  What I want to know is what’s the big mystery about everything, to you?  Because as far as I’m concerned there isn’t one.  I mean, life seems very mysterious when you’re young.  To some people, anyway.  But basically, it isn’t.  Anything that seems strange, or interesting, has a perfectly ordinary explanation.  A boring one.  That’s what I’ve found, mate.  And this is my point.  You’re intelligent.  You’re not stupid.  So why go skulking around acting as though everything’s some big mystery?”



It’s 1952 and Geoff is growing up in a house divided.  His father drinks and womanizes while his mother tries to maintain her dignity and raise the boys.  Geoff’s dream is to one day own a cyclomotor, a motorized bicycle that promises all the freedom of an automobile but at a fraction of the cost.  Muckle plunges us into the midst of post-War England, into the working class world of deprivations and schemes.  Cyclomotors could easily have been a Merchant/Ivory period piece, lushly outfitted with details to sweep the reader away; instead, Muckle goes the miniature route (the book is only 62 pages long), presenting us with a world that is surprisingly rich for consisting of little more than loosely connected, highly suggestive scenes.

Cyclomotors (Essex: Festival Books, 1997) has a hard-edged reticence that really grew on me.  The most important things happen quickly and almost off-screen.  The narrative, for example, is interspersed with excerpts from his mother’s diary entries that frankly describe her wayward husband’s exploits and her righteous anger.  Even though Geoff has apparently discovered the diary by accident, the reader is never privy to his response.

The book is also interspersed with grainy period photographs and advertisements, many representing a scrapbook of desirable cyclomotors that Geoff keeps.  The images have the appealing look of terrible photocopies made from faded newspaper clippings.  I’m a little surprised not to have seen more use of this kind of “bad” imagery in novels that have embedded photographs.  Muckle’s images have a kind of dreamy, careless quality to them that obscures the technological prowess and gee-whiz modernism of these motorized bicycles, leaving everything to our imagination except Geoff’s desire to own one.  This deliberately amateur use of found images has much the same feel for the way W.G. Sebald often used images in his books.