Pickwick Afterlife

The final third of Stephen Jarvis’s upcoming novel Death and Mr Pickwick continues in the same rather kaleidoscopic fashion as before. The asides and Chinese boxes are innumerable. We never do get an important female character. The frame story is never developed much. In fact, the book only really has Robert Seymour the artist and Charles Dickens the writer, plus innumerable minor characters, and an agenda.

Jarvis’s main points with the novel are that a) Seymour deserves credit as co-creator of Pickwick’s first two or three chapters, b) Dickens deserves blame for dissembling and not sharing any of the Pickwick fortune with Seymour’s widow and children. I’m willing to agree on both points. But I don’t find them very interesting.

a. Dickens was an extremely prolific and creative writer with or without Seymour. If we learned that Pete Best provided important uncredited input on two songs on the first Beatles album, this would not change our opinion of Lennon-McCartney.

b. So Dickens wasn’t all nice. Many geniuses aren’t. Biographers have showed on much less shaky grounds that he mistreated his wife quite badly. In that situation it seems less important how he treated the widow of a man he met only once or twice. Neither Lennon nor McCartney have been great husbands, but they’re revered anyway. Just because you like cheese it doesn’t follow that you should be best friends with a cow.

Towards the end of the book, Jarvis has Dickens worrying that his posthumous reputation might be tarnished if someone found out about his unpaid literary debt to Seymour. This reads like the motivation for the whole novel project. But even if this finely written book becomes a great success, I don’t think the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations will have much to worry about. And nor do I believe that he did worry much.

Summing up I’d say that this brick of a book is so varied that it is rarely boring, but also so meandering that it is rarely particularly gripping.

Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr Pickwick will be out in the UK from Penguin Random House on 21 May, and in the US from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on 23 June. I reviewed the first third of the book on 16 March and the second third on 18 April.



Prequel to Pickwick

dampStephen Jarvis’s upcoming novel Death and Mr Pickwick is a sprawling book, in terms both of its 800-page girth and of its structure. I’ve read the first third and decided to write about it now before I forget the details.

There’s a present-day frame story about the narrator writing the book, commissioned by an old man obsessed with Late Georgian London’s printmaking and periodicals. This story only adds up to a few pages strewn through the first third, but there are weird things going on in it. Why does the narrator suddenly bring up his anorexic mother? I’m more curious about where this is going than about the main narrative inside the frame, whose general outline is a matter of known literary history.

The main story so far is a straight historical novel about Robert Seymour, now remembered chiefly as the suicidal first illustrator of Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. Jarvis appears to be one of those who agree with Seymour’s widow that Dickens owed considerably more of Pickwick to the dead man than a few illustrations.

The sprawling character of the novel comes from innumerable long digressions from this storyline, amounting to a crash course in the literary and artistic antecedents of Pickwick. Dickens isn’t even mentioned in the first third, though he is most likely present as an unnamed boy at one or two points.

I quite like the book even though the first third has no female main characters. In fact, it mainly has lots of minor characters who play walk-on parts in relation to Seymour’s life story, and to developments in the era’s interlinked printmaking and magazine businesses. It’s a play acted on Jane Austen’s stage, fifteen years or so after all the interesting female characters have left, taking their concerns with interpersonal relationships with them. Should the book fall into the hands of a reader who isn’t familiar with Dickens, it will probably appear quite baffling, meandering and pointless. But of course, the word “Pickwick” is in the title, and so the intended readership is indicated rather clearly. I look forward to reading on.

Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr Pickwick will be out in the UK from Penguin Random House on 21 May, and in the US from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on 23 June. I reviewed the middle third of the book on 18 April and the final third on 9 May.

Album Review: Astrophobos, Remnants of Forgotten Horrors

Pär Svensson of Kurtz, himself a rock guitarist with unbelievably eclectic musical tastes, pops in with a guest entry.

Hello Cleveland!

Martin asked me to review the debut album of his brother’s death metal outfit (as he put it), citing general unfamiliarity with the genre as a reason. Arguably he’s also lacking somewhat in the objectivity department. Or, he hated the record and wanted someone else to bring the hatchet down. Maybe I’m a pawn being pushed in some family power struggle or blood feud. Give this job to Clemenza.

But I digress. At hand is Remnants of Forgotten Horrors by Stockholm black metal combo Astrophobos, who, consequently, do not play death metal. Whereas death metal is characterised mainly by low-pitched growls, bulldozers, blood, death, and war, black metal tends to be more of high-pitched screams, power drills, jackhammers, satanism, and, well, war. Mythology is another theme common to both genres, and Astrophobos draw heavily on H.P. Lovecraft’s literary universe, from their very band name, through the album title, right down to the lyrics. Browsing the booklet, I expected a good serving of madness, darkness, and lurking horrors, and was not disappointed.

Music-wise, we are dealing with mid- to fast-paced black metal, well-produced and technically proficient, still with a commendable lack of extraneous showings-off. Well-conceived arrangements lend a feeling of natural progression to the songs, as do the tempo changes, which keep the listener’s interest up. Catchy melodic riffing balances the harsh vocals, and gives the songs that hum-along quality you get with any good pop song, regardless of its distortion levels. While this definitely makes the music more accessible, it doesn’t really fall in line with the lyrical themes. Compared to fellow Lovecraftian band Portal, whose static death metal evokes claustrophobia, psychosis and horror, Astrophobos’s upbeat compositions appear more like a celebration of the vast majesty of the universe than an exposé of the unspeakable evil dormant in its deepest recesses. Given this, and accepting that the style is par for the course in black metal, I believe the songs would benefit from a more varied vocal approach, as the one-dimensional delivery rather restrains them.

Bottom line: competent straight-forward black metal, well-crafted songs with melodic qualities. Accessible enough to be recommended to genre neophytes, but harsh vocals will still put a lot of people off.

Highlights: The Dissection-esque “Soul Disruptor“, the Marduk-esque “Of Primal Mystery”, and the Astrophobos-esque “Celestial Calamity”.

Over and out.

Pre-order the CD here.