Month: April 2008

11. ‘Gonged on Missy’

‘You always suppose you’re the heroine in the story of your life; the day you discover you’re the monster, it’s apt to come as a surprise’
Dol McQueen, ‘flash-girl’, 1862

Chris HannanChris Hannan‘s dazzlingly accomplished first novel, Missy , is published today in the UK (in the US, it comes out in June from FSG). I met Chris last week at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh to talk about making the transition from writing plays to writing novels, how he created the voice of a young American prostitute in a silver-rush boom-town, and how aspects of his own life fed into what seems at first the least autobiographical of first novels.

The ‘missy’ of the title by the way is not a character in the book, but the liquid opium to which its narrator, Dol McQueen, is addicted.

Missy cover
Dol McQueen is one of the “flash-girls” who forsake the fleshpots of San Francisco to ply their trade in Nevada’s Virginia City, where men are rumored to be newly rich and ripe for plucking. Dol is herself seduced by a blissful hit of liquid opium, illicitly acquired by a pimp named Pontius, who impulsively entrusts his stash to Dol for safekeeping.

‘Gangs of hired thugs keep materialising, engaged to retrieve the fugitive opium and return it to the Chinese gang boss from whom Pontius stole it. The efforts of Dol and her cohorts to elude their pursuers suggest a black-comic gloss on Cormac McCarthy’s doom-laden No Country for Old Men.’

Kirkus Review

‘This wildly entertaining first novel from Scottish playwright Hannan takes place in the down and dirty Wild West and features one of the most bombastic, fantastic heroines in recent memory. Nineteen-year-old Dol McQueen is an intelligent, strong-willed hooker with a weakness for liquid opium, or “missy.” “Sometimes when I’m gonged,” says Dol, “I have an immense feeling inside me that I can govern Chaos.” And chaos is just what she gets when a crate of choice opium lands under her bed, stashed there by a grisly pimp called Pontius who warns her to keep quiet. Dol carries on with her business and gets increasingly attached to that fortune beneath her bed.

‘The real pandemonium is unleashed when a spooky, brutal gang enlisted by the rightful owners of the opium arrives in town bringing mayhem. Dol-along with her mother, Pontius and the opium-flees into the desert, the escape slowed by lack of water, mule-pinching Indians and Dol’s withdrawal from her missy, an experience that leaves her clearheaded but vulnerable to the truth about what she has become. Hannan nails the setting, crafts a sizzling plot and, with Dol, gives readers a lovable, larger-than-life star.

‘A rib-tickling picaresque romp with a heart of gold that even a hellfire-and-damnation preacher would warm to.’

Publishers Weekly

Here are links to the books and films Chris discusses in our interview:

Mark Twain: Roughing It

Marion Goldman: Gold Diggers and Silver Miners

Red River

McCabe and Mrs Miller

Aravind Adiga on ‘The autobiography of a half-baked Indian’

Aravind Adiga coverThat’s how the narrator of Aravind Adiga’s debut novel reckons he should entitle his life story. Adiga’s narrator, Balram Halwai, believes he is half-baked because, like so many in India, he’s been unable to finish his schooling, and so his head is an ‘odd museum’ of half-cooked ideas. This is the head the reader is given a guided tour of over the course of 300 often bitingly satirical pages. Adam Lively in The Times called the book ‘extraordinary and brilliant’ and another critic said it was ‘the perfect antidote to lyrical India’. Balram is not the sort of character who is normally given centre stage in Indian novels. He comes from a low caste in an almost feudal village and seems destined for a life as a downtrodden servant, abused by his affluent, rapidly (and often comically) westernizing masters. Yet over the course of several nights, Balram relates the steps he took to escape the ‘rooster coop’ of Indian society and turn himself into a ‘self-made entrepreneur’. He offers the wisdom he has gained (‘free of charge’) to the addressee of his story, the Chinese premier, since Balram has seen the future and realizes it lies in China and India (‘now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage, and drug abuse.’) A week or so ago, I interviewed Aravind Adiga at Atlantic’s offices. The interview will be on the Atlantic Books website shortly, but in the mean time, here is a short taster from our conversation, in which Aravind explains how his novel differs from just about every other Indian novel you have read. ‘I see this in a sense as a cautionary tale. What my narrator is is a white tiger – he’s unusual for his time. Very few servants in India actually kill their masters and take their money. ‘The endurance of the servant class in India is heroic, but I see signs that this endurance may be coming to an end and the family bonds that held people to their servile posts may be fraying. ‘And so what my narrator has done today may be something that more and more do on a larger scale in the future…’ The book has not yet been published in India, but it will be soon. It will be interesting to see the reaction it provokes…

Here comes Clay Shirky

Shirky UK coverThere’s an interesting podcast on the Penguin site featuring Clay Shirky, whose new book Here Comes Everybody has just come out. Shirky has been called ‘the finest thinker we have on the Internet revolution’. He runs the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, which brings together people from the worlds of the arts and technology. He says he jokingly refers to as ‘the Center for the Study of the Recently Possible’. Read More