Ian Rankin Would Rather Be The Devil: Better than the One You Don’t

rankin-rather_be_the_devil.jpgIt’s no small thing to grow old. Time and life catch up with you, even if you are John Rebus. But the fact that Rebus is no longer the man he once was does not mean he is any less of a man. In his latest novel, Rather Be the Devil, Ian Rankin explores the interstices of aging, crime, manhood and the constant churn of change. Siobhan, Malcolm Fox, Deborah Quant, Darryl Christie and Big Ger Rafferty are all back and all is not well.

Rebus, we learn early on, is sick – COPD, to be precise. But it might as well be life, the disease for which there is but one cure. Big Ger seems to be accustomed to gangster retirement, but like Rebus, he’s finding it hard to leave his past behind. While Malcolm and Siobhan are trying to find out who’s taking shots at Rankin is so thoroughly invested in , Rebus remembers a cold case and sets about solving it. But men who know how to fight and are accustomed to it are disinclined to stop.

The latest string of Rebus novels proves to be a powerful and engaging exploration of characters and themes we already know and love, written with the depth and ease that comes from Rankin having spent some 30 years in this man’s shoes. In fact it is the 30th anniversary of the first Rebus novel, and Rather Be the Devil shows that there is plenty of life left in Rebus’ still vital character. Rankin is so thoroughly invested here that it is effortless to immerse yourself in his words and his world.

But while Rebus and the gang are charming, there’s a lot more going in here than character-based charisma. Rankin’s prose is a constant pleasure to read, poetic and prosaic in one swell foop. The ease with which the words come enables readers and the writer to enjoy the sumptuous or rough and ready details, to get down and live this life. Put all this in a tense plotline with surprises in the right places, and you get a full serving of book. This is pure pleasure reading, with an afterkick of feeling life’s rich pageant just a little more deeply.

ian_rankin-2014-pgc.jpgThe question for me as a reader and interviewer is whether I look forward more to reading to talking with the author. I’ll call it a toss up, because when we sit down to talk, it always feels like yesterday – something we do often. You can hear my latest conversation with Ian Rankin by following this link to download the file or by pulling up a good single malt and settling down to listen below.

Ottessa Moshfegh : Life Externalized

Ottessa Moshfegh writes about people who feel almost too realistic. In her novel Eileen and in most of the short stories in her collection Homesick for Another World, Moshfegh offers her readers an eyeful of awful. Her characters are compulsive, addicted, selfish, and peculiar, but – they are not weird, even in the story titled “The Weirdos.” They are (unfortunately) like people you might know, or at least know as well as you might wish. But when you are intimately in their heads and in their lives via Moshfegh’s startlingly direct prose, you understand just what kind of monsters you are dealing with – or might be yourself.

moshfegh-eileenEileen seems straightforward, but requires a bit of unpacking. Eileen is a caretaker and partner for her alcoholic father. Their home is a sty, but it might be an improvement over the boy’s prison where she is a secretary. A now-aged Eileen from the present tells the story of her younger self, and leaves no unpleasant detail unmentioned. She’s going nowhere, fast. Eileen meets Rebecca at her job, and quickly finds herself headed somewhere. Rest assured their destination is not what you will expect. What starts out as a compelling, can’t-look-away portrait of ugly reality veers off the road and into uncharted, exciting territory. While Eileen is an intense novel with all the detail and involvement you expect from the form, prepare to read it in one or two sittings.

moshfegh-homesick_for_another_worldHomesick for Another World might actually last a bit longer, simply because you’ll only need to read one or two stories at a time. Grifters, cheaters, losers – the characters in these stories might hope to rise to such a level, and never succeed. But Moshfegh gives us direct access to their thoughts in prose that is gripping and so awful in its honestly that all we can do is to bark our laughter out loud. Plot summaries of the stories might be misleading. Moshfegh writes about the mundane with an intensity that feels like science fiction.

All of Moshfegh’s work derives its power from her direct prose. It almost feels as if she’s hot-wired your brain to theirs. It feels real. But there’s another side to this. Moshfegh shows us what her characters are thinking and they’re generally things that many of us only think about, and in most cases we might prefer not to. So by writing so clearly about her characters’ thoughts she successfully externalizes them.

This is not unusual – but Moshfegh’s unique skill is that what in any other novel might look and feel and actually be simple introspection is, in her work, externalization. And while there is not a whiff of genre anywhere in the vicinity, Moshfegh’s brand of externalizing introspection feels quite fantastic to read, in all senses of the word. The title story for the collection arguably has some aspects of the fantastic, but Moshfegh’s handling of them is purely her own. Which is to say, rough and ready.

Eileen and Homesick for Another World are perfect examples of books that read quick and easy, but carry a lethal load of language. Ottessa Moshfegh’s prose is captivating and intense. Pick up the books in a store and you’ll not leave without them. But it’s not quite, not quite, as if Moshfegh will make you think thoughts you’ll wish to forget. You’ll remember these books all right, when you look in the mirror and are able to see the humanity boiling in your own brain.

ottessa_mossfegh-2017-largeFor all that I wrote here about how much I enjoyed her work, I suspect that it will only take a few moments of listening to her voice for readers to make up their minds. You can hear her prose voice in her speaking voice. She’s plain spoken to the point of being hilarious. The interview begins with a brief bit of chat – a minute of so of warm up that I might usually elide. It felt right, in this case, to leave it in. Then, we start with a reading from her short story “The Weirdos” – and things get strange. Follow this link to download my interview with Ottessa Moshfegh – or just hang out here with us to hear about the punk rock club in China.