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Jon Courtenay Grimwood
End of the World Blues
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

Victor Gollancz / Orion Books
UK Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-575-07616-X
352 Pages; £12.99
Publication Date: 08-17-2006
Date Reviewed: 10-30-06

Index: General Fiction  Mystery  Science Fiction

Some writers don’t even seem to have a clue that there are boundaries, that there are rules for this sort of thing. That you ease the reader into a world, that you build up things bit by bit, make the situation clear and then start spinning off the unworldly and the unusual. There are, of course rules, and those rules, of course, can be easily broken. But to do so with the utter aplomb of Jon Couternay Grimwood, that takes more than luck, more than smarts, perhaps something even more than talent. Lots of writers create a premise and then explore that premise. Grimwood operates on another level entirely, a level of pure language. He is a reader's writer, a man who creates a world for the reader one word at a time. There are no spares and there is no excess here. Letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence Grimwood shows you that all worlds; this one, the next, or the world that may exist millennia in the future, each and every one is equally strange, equally unlikely, equally difficult for the humans who inhabit them to populate, to understand. To live within.

The world we're introduced to in his latest novel, 'End of the World Blues' is as alien as any we might find in the cosmos, even if it is just half a world away. Kit Nouveau is a British ex-pat running an Irish Pub in Tokyo. Married to an eccentric artist, he's also having an affair with a gangster's wife. This proves to be an ill-thought decision, and his friendship with a street urchin doesn't make things easier. Calling herself Lady Neku, the urchin proves to be a refugee from a very weird and distant future, where she's made some regrettable decisions. In fact, everyone in the novel makes the kind of bad choices we've all made at one time or another. In 'End of the World Blues', the complications unfold around the globe and across the centuries.

Everything we read in this novel is built from the word up and it’s important to talk about Grimwood's dense style. It is not for all tastes. Grimwood is unique in his ability to meld the laconic style of a hard-boiled noir with the visionary poetry of sparse, surreal science fiction. He never explains when a suggestion will do the trick, he never elaborates when a simple nod will tell the tale. His descriptions come in brilliant shards, in pieces of cracked mirrors that might show the past, the present the future or all three jumbled together. But the way that Grimwood puts together his sentences, his paragraphs, the jump cuts and the segues, creates a world more dense, more real than the one that surrounds you when you read. Moreover, Grimwood's even-handed style puts everything at the same level, so that the current day mystery settings and the far-flung future settings are both strangely alien and piercingly real. There's a bit of effort required to wrap your brain around the words, but it is an effort that is rewarded by an utterly immersive reading experience.

A result of the dense prose style is that Grimwood's characters acquire a certain gravity, the kind of reality required for them to strut about amidst his precise, clipped words. This does not result in characters that everyone might instantly like. Moments of selfishness result in lifetimes of self-delusion, of self-evasion. Kit Nouveau is neither nice nor smart. But there's a core of honesty at the center of Kit and every character here, even those we dislike intensely. The result is that the mix of the weird and honorable, the straightforward and the evasive, the almost incomprehensibly alien and the everyday banal jerk-offs becomes as real and as involving as a news story about something really wild, something really awful and wonderful that happens to people you know. Or wish you know. Or hope never, ever to meet.

For a man who writes with a most carefully turned prose style, Grimwood's plotting is undeniably filmic. Earlier in this review I mentioned jump cuts, and there are montages here as well, and bizarrely beautiful special effects that come close to making sense but always, ever leave the reader wondering what has been missed. Oh you'll read to find out what has been missed, that much is certain. Grimwood is a master of starting off his novels in a gritty here-and-now that cannot be denied, of setting in motion criminal plots that have their roots in events just beyond the readers' ken. And he is equally a master at taking readers from a world that is if not comfortable is at least seemingly familiar and whip-sawing them into a world that is entrancingly hallucinatory.

There's a certain pleasure that happens when you read great science fiction, or really, any form of fiction. That is the feeling of being confronted with the inscrutable, of being shown a world or series of events that you can contain but not quite connect. Readers know they have all the pieces. Grtimwood is a master at creating such prose worlds, stitching together a gritty mystery and an astonishing vision. If his work seems inscrutable it is but for a moment. 'End of the World Blues' is both a twist-filled, current-day mystery and a thought-provoking vision of the future. Grimwood's inscrutability gives way to the revelation that there is but a single way to experience this novel; read it, beginning to end. There are no shortcuts, only one word to follow another, one world to follow another, until there are no more words or worlds but that of this immersive, inventive novel.

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