Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Garbage cans, rats galore… Scram!

“His claws arced up, up, and slashed a vicious curve through Cludge’s soft, wet nose.

The big dog howled. He twisted away, turning his face left and right, spraying blood into the snow. He stumbled back from Razor’s claws, and hid behind Varjak, trembling, whimpering, bleeding from the nose.

It was over.”

SF Said, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, p. 20.

Mr Shaggy Guerrier Esq., smallest and hairiest member of the family, bought this for the Dr for Christmas. He seemed much taken with the first Varjak Paw novel, and its none-too-brave black cat fighting a world of wicked felines.

I assume the eponymous cat’s name is a play on “Paul Varjak”, the blocked writer of the 1956 novel “Nine Lives” and star of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (And played by Hannibal Smith some years before Nam and the crime he didn’t commit.)
“I’m like Cat here. We’re a couple of no-named slobs, we belong to nobody and nobody belongs to us. We don’t even belong to each other.”

Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

(I’m sure there’s an argument for how both the cat-books-for-kids and the hip-flick-for-grown-ups make the same sort of plea, that it’s a tough, mixed-up world and us kooks need to stick up for each other. But it’s probably trying a bit hard…)

Knocked through this new adventure in a couple of evenings – though there’s 260 densely plotted pages, its set in a heavyweight point size and illustrated throughout. Dave McKean’s sketchy illustrations are integral to the story, as violently clawed and sinister as the text they accompany.

In it, Varjak and his chums Tam, Holly and Cludge (shockingly, a dog) are finding the “free” streets hemmed in by an ever more ‘orrible gang. Those that don’t pay due deference to Sally Bones get their ears and tails pulled off, and they’re not even sparing old women and children. It’s got so bad that even some of the other gangs and hoodlums are looking to Varjak for help…

It’s a grisly and violent read with constant blood-spilling, death and disfigurement. Amid the steady low drumbeat of CRACK! and CRASH! and SMACK! and THUD!, cats plummet from tall buildings and wade through sewage. There’s also love, with Varjak’s squirmy feelings about the girl-kitten he sleeps with.

That’s not to say this is only for older kids; it’s no more vicious than the last two Harry Potters. What’s more, aged 11ish I devoured 2000AD and the novel of Doctor No because – with their torture and Nazis and sex and explosions – I thought I was getting away with something adult, that the parents wouldn’t approve if they only knew how sophisticated my trashy reading really was.

Not that this is an original thought:
“If you say you want to stay up until the end of a movie they're never going to let you do that, but if you say "I just want to finish this chapter" it's okay.

Little do they know you're reading about a troll hacking off someone's head.”

CBBC Newsround, Authors on the spot: Lemony Snicket, 2 June 2006.

The violence is vivid and scary, even if a lot of it happens off-camera. It reminded me in some ways of The Iron Man – a succession of stark, brutal images ever threatening the kind, easy-going yet wily hero (in that case, a small boy).

Though Varjak is unnaturally good at fighting, he never enjoys it. We see him struggle to build and maintain alliances so he doesn’t have to fight any more. And we see how his insistence that everyone works together ultimately pays off.

It’s exciting all the way through, though I’m surprised there aren’t more cliffhanger endings to chapters. The loss of a major character (which happens quite a bit) occurs mid-chapter rather than the end. I guess this means the book works better as a bed-time story; you get all the thrilling plot developments in your instalment, rather then being left on sleep-preventing tenterhooks.

The mystical stuff with Varjak’s long-dead ancestor, the kung-fu master Jalal, is all a bit Jedi. I half-expected, as Jalal reveals his own weaknesses, that evil Sally Bones would turn out to be Varjak’s mum. And we still don’t know how or why Varjak has these lurid dreams, or what his special connection to the Way is.

Otherwise, Outlaw seems to tie up everything neatly, there’s no “coming soon” in the endpapers (as there is in the first one) and the official website says nothing about book three. But I can see where Said might go for Varjak’s next perilous adventure – without giving anything away for this one, using a character who at the end has one “ice-blue eye, seeing his secrets, laying him bare” (p. 260). And that would really be putting the poor scraggy cat through the ringer.

Googling to see what might have been mentioned, Said told Newsround that he thinks there’ll be a third book, but that,
“there's another story I want to work on. It's a sort of science-fiction samurai story, so there'll still be martial arts - but there might also be spaceships...”

CBBC Newsround, Q & A with Varjak Paw author SF Said, 14 November 2005.

Cor! Kendo in space... Oh, no wait. Has't that be done?

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