Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Nosey Book Club

A month or so ago, Harper-Collins sent me a new novel, “The Lantern,” by Deborah Lawrenson, to review. The book is set in Provence, and a minor character becomes a perfumer. Hence sending review copies to perfume bloggers such as myself. I do appreciate the outside-the-box thinking that went into this.
That’s the start of Pat Borow’s olfacto-centric book review at Olfactarama a few weeks ago. While she didn’t care for The Lantern’s Daphne du Maurier-esque Gothic style, she liked its sensory evocation of Provence.
What is heartening about this book is the emphasis on the olfactory sense, usually ignored in fiction, and the writer’s obvious love of classic fragrance.
While it’s not the sort of tome I’d buy unless it came shrink-wrapped with a dose of injectable testosterone, The Lantern is currently doing very well on Amazon. And I’m all for smellier literature.

Which brings me to Millennium People by the late J.G. Ballard. He’s the guy who wrote Crash and the semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun. Both were made into remarkable movies, the former starring a younger and slimmer James Spader, the latter an adolescent Christian Bale.

Ballard is not everyone’s cup of tea. His novels are studies in modern alienation, written in a style to match. They are not lyrical; their tone is antiseptic. Ballard picks a topic—in Millennium People it is an absurdist, violent, revolt of the English upper-middle classes—and then probes it relentlessly. Despite being drawn in by the weird premise and the plot twists as the hero—a London psychologist—falls deeper into a crazy group of provocateurs and bomb-makers, I often had to put the book down and take a break. Ballard’s technique is to relentlessly probe and re-probe the same situation; the cumulative effect is like having an unpleasant doctor press repeatedly on a newly sutured wound.

Ballard’s characters are sterile and off-putting, and his scene-setting is equally cold and uninvolving:
We set off for Hammersmith, and took the flyover towards the brewery roundabout, passed Hogarth’s house and drove into the west along the M4.
So I was surprised to find numerous smelly passages in Millennium People. A couple are conventional smellscapes:
Somewhere a window had been opened onto the night, and a cooler air moved around me, the street scents of diesel fuel, rain and cooking fat from the all-night cafes near Waterloo Station.
Other—lots of them—have to do with characters sniffing at glasses of whisky or sherry. For the most part, though, Ballard’s literary nose is concerned with the olfactory auras of people, especially women. Here’s the injured narrator being cared for by the violent cultists:
Women moved gently around me, easing off my shoes and loosening my belt. The Chinese girl leaned over the settee and unbuttoned my shirt. A faint but expensive scent floated between us, the tang of an unusual toothpaste, hints of the first-class lavatories on long-haul Cathay Pacific flights, a dream of sable coats and Hong Kong boarding lounges. Then a harsher odour intervened, the coarse petroleum reek of lubricating oil. The biker-clergyman, Stephen Dexter, lifted my head onto a corded cushion handed to him by Kay.
Here he returns to his home after weeks spent at the barricades:
Upstairs in our bedroom a medley of perfumes greeted me when I opened the wardrobe, memories of restaurants and dinner parties. In the bathroom I caught the scent of Sally’s body, the sweet, killing spoor or her scalp and skin on the towels.
These olfactive sketches are more lyrical than anything else in the novel, and yet . . . what’s with the lavatories and spoor? Ballard can’t refrain from the disturbingly off-kilter, even when he’s describing a scent.

For a more conventional, if no less mixed, review of Millennium People, try this one by Sam Sacks in the WSJ.