Friday, November 27, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The idea is promising: weave a zombie plot through a Jane Austen classic.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith inserts zombie references and action throughout one of the most loved and recognisable stories in the English language.

The altered classic opening line certainly captures the mash-up idea: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains”.

In Grahame-Smith’s version, Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters are renowned Shaolin-trained warriors, roaming the countryside to cut down zombies – much to the disdain of higher bred women such as Mr Bingley’s sisters. Mr Darcy is also a zombie slayer of great repute and his clashes with Elizabeth are no longer just verbal…

The set up for the zombie plot is actually all there in the original: the constant presence of militia, the threat of disease and the horror associated with breaches of social etiquette.

I laughed out loud the first time I heard about this book (and then again when I found it shelved in the classics section at my local book shop).

It promises to put familiar characters in unfamiliar territory (fighting the trashiest of all pop culture supernatural baddies), and comes complete with a tongue-in-cheek study guide at the end. It should be clever. It should be fun.

And it is, for about 50 pages. Then the zombie references and B-grade-worthy fight scenes become a distraction from the real story: the tension between Elizabeth and Darcy.

Around 80 per cent of the original text remains intact, and that’s the problem. Austen’s writing and original plot are so strong, it makes the new scenes completely superfluous. It would have worked so much better if Grahame-Smith had actually re-imagined the story, rather than just inserting a few lines here and there in the original text.

Actually, the best bits for me are the sketches scattered through the pages, perhaps a sign the mash-up idea would have worked better as graphic novel.

The book’s success (which has led to other hybrids, including Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters) proves there are enough people with eclectic reading tastes to create a market for this type of literary bastardisation.

And I have no issue with the concept, I just wish this one had offered something more because, by the end, I just wished I’d read the original.

(According to Wikipedia, due to the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Grahame-Smith has been contracted to write two follow-up books, one of which is reported to be titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Coming of age with Jasper Jones

Anyone who thinks “coming of age” stories are just for the young adult market should take a read of Craig Silvey’s excellent Jasper Jones.

It’s a gripping, well-written story about small-mindedness in a country town, that’s at turns sad, disturbing, funny and inspiring.

Set in Western Australia in 1965, it’s told through the eyes of teenager Charlie Bucktin. One stifling summer night, the town outcast – Jasper Jones – comes to his window and asks for his help. Charlie follows him into the bush, and what he sees there changes him – and ultimately the town – irrevocably.

In that one night – and then the days that follow – Charlie is forced to step away from childhood innocence and see the world around him for what it is.

Charlie struggles with the burden of what he has seen, and his uncertainty is further compounded by how quickly the town becomes mired in suspicion and hatred.

My good friend Place (a regular poster on this blog) and I heard Craig Silvey speak on the theme of “coming of age” at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in September. He defined coming of age as being more than just a loss of innocence, that moment when the bubble bursts.

“It’s gaining and adult point of view of self assurance. It’s when you start to look beyond yourself and learn tenets of empathy. You appreciate another perspective and arrive at some sort of objective truth. It’s all about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

Silvey says it takes courage to challenge myths and traditions, which is what Charlie does when he realises the world is no longer the simple place he once thought it was. And he can’t “unknow” that truth.

Over the space of a fortnight, Charlie sees and hears horrible things. He sees the world for what it is. He responds by trying to understand the nature of cruelty, and how people can go about their lives as if evil doesn’t exist (this theme was also tackled in Sang Pak’s American gothic novel Wait Until Twilight, reviewed here).

In contrast to this soul searching is the comfortable familiarity of Charlie’s friendship with his cricket-obsessed best mate Jeffrey. Their adolescent banter provides welcome relief, as well as some of the most entertaining dialogue I’ve read in a while. (According to the Silvey, Charlie and Jeffrey’s conversations on puerile topics not dissimilar to the debates he has with his mates today. “It was a little too easy to write that dialogue.”)

For the creator of Jasper Jones, the idea of coming of age is not limited to youth: “We all become adults, but not all of us come of age.” And its this understanding that makes this novel such a riveting and enjoyable read.

Hearing the likable Silvey discuss Jasper Jones was one of the highlights of this year's Brisbane Writer's Festival Place and I. He was intelligent, articulate and self-effacing … and yes, we came away with a little bit of a literary crush…

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Final verdict (for now) on parallel importation of books

The final verdict is in: the copyright restrictions on parallel importation of books into Australia are staying (which is good news for Australian writers).

Kate Eltham from the Queensland Writers' Centre sums up the outcome (and links to more information) here.

For background on the issue, you can check out my post on the subject back in July.

(And yes, I will write about an actual book again very soon! - Nearly caught up on everything again...)