He grew red roses and white lilies on the edges of deep shade in his lush garden — the owner of the page for today in every diary that was ever ours — and the birthday card we could have sent him, if he were still here, might have been a salute to his green thumb.
But birthday cards addressed in familiar scripts on stamped envelopes have been making their way to the same old-media life-after-life as floppy disks. E-cards are a thin substitute. We have seen scarcely any not designed for mass appeal in styles that remind us of our multimedia-artist friend LCM’s opinion of the look of the Facebook site: ‘It’s like walking into Walmart.’ Paper cards, in the decade or two before they began to vanish, came in an infinite variety – from Hallmark-treacly and bland to clever, quirky, idiosyncratic and even cryptic, if you knew where to look. It was easy to find an offering that let you tell recipients what they meant to you either through a perfect reading of their taste, or some blend of graphics and words at a happy junction of their sense of aesthetics and yours.
What is better than an e-card in 2014?
Possibly, an e-book, preferably an indie e-book, an undiscovered gem spotted on the wayside in your net wanderings. If it is a text you love, you have the satisfaction of helping the writer to earn the cash for another manuscript. Unlike print greeting card artists who collect only a shockingly small fraction of what their publishers charge us, a scribbler brave enough to try independent e-publishing at this turbulent and nerve-wracking stage of its evolution can collect as much as 70 per cent of royalties on the U.S. site of the Amazon publishing platform.
Fiction delivered as an e-book now sets you back by no more than the price of a print construction on an ever more scantily-stocked supermarket greeting card shelf. It can cost embarrassingly less. Recently, when we sent two birthday e-books to someone whose cards chosen for us over a span of thirty years have a habit of falling out of books in our personal library, we were afraid that she might think us stingy – but could not decide what other title she might like.
Indie e-books already range from pulp to work that meets the most exacting literary standards. Really? We note the dubious pitch of that question, the arched eyebrow. Admittedly, first-rate literature by e-publishing indies is not easy to find. The well-known print reviews that most time-pressed connoisseurs of good writing still rely on to shrink the universe of reading possibilities to negotiable proportions still shun e-only works, and do not look at the exploding numbers of them without intermediaries in conventional publishing.
Anyone worried – rightly so – about falling into the error of prejudice against the future could, like us, try John A. A. Logan’s new novel, Agency Woman, which we have just started reading. ‘A dark, Scottish tale of conspiracy, espionage, murder and terrorism, with an existential edge,’ is its description on the author’s web site.
The few pages we have had a chance to absorb — in a time of seemingly unending chaos — are intriguing and, in the best way, nonconformist and unslottable. The tone is thriller-noir, but the sleuth-like main character is no whisky-soaked Inspector Rebus or Kurt Wallander getting by on a diet of microwaved cholesterol. He is a sensitive, dreamy, drifter who copes with being imprisoned in a chair for most of a day and night with ropes cutting into his skin by doing yoga breathing exercises. Offered food after hours of starvation, he asks if he can have something vegetarian. When a character we have so far assumed to be a villain quotes Kierkegaard, it does not seem to be intellectually pretentious tarting-up in place of characterisation, but fits the story’s half-real, half-otherworldly, atmosphere.
Taste tests have no equal for introducing writers, in our opinion, so we will end this post with the first paragraph of Agency Woman. It has a certain grand, leisurely, philosophical majesty, as well as poetic beauty – but soon, in a succession of subtle and deft transitions, the story’s pace accelerates and we are somewhere that both is and isn’t gritty modern Scotland, observed with a keen hawk’s eye; something like Antonioni’s London in Blowup — as in our second short extract, consecutive snippets from a tense sequence.
… Before we leave you to sampling: to say that John is proving a new medium and ‘business model’ for literary publishing is not unlike praising Graham Greene or Mikhail Bulgakov for raising the standard of ‘content’ created by combining stationery and typewriters. But with most members of the intellectual establishment still sceptical and, or, sour about e-publishing, that is a point that needs making. John is a pioneer who stands out.
Over to his mysterious Agency Woman — who wears high-heeled red shoes:
The old stories don’t need to be repeated endlessly. The ancient knights can be allowed to fall from their horses, lumpenly, and die. Even the horses, though with more grace, can be allowed to fall over and turn limp on the grass. Thus, in a moment, they are permitted their release from this arena. Their struggles forever on record, for perusal later, at a safe distance.
On the Scottish mainland, this month, for example, there are only twenty-seven of our agents in operation. Unlikely, then, to meet one in Tommy’s Café. And then there’s the head. Ten years ago, even five, there would never have been an agent with a head like that. The agent would always have been one of the other people in the café, one of the men or women I hadn’t even noticed. They would be from the Scottish Agency, and they would have been watching me ever since I came in today and sat down. But I have to remember that times have changed. Now, these days, anyone can be with the Agency. Anyway, here he comes. […] I don’t want him to sit with me. I want to sit alone, in peace.
His voice is shaking. There’s an edge to his voice like a dying rodent screaming. He punches the table-top right beside my mug. I feel the reactions of the thirty other customers who are sitting all round, openly watching the situation unfolding at our table. This man with the swollen head wants to explode. I look at his eyes for a few moments, but there is nothing there. Not even pain. I glance away from him, scan the faces at the other tables as they watch. If I speak too readily, I could easily say the wrong thing, and give him the release into action he is craving. If his story is real, then he wants me to react to his violent presence, give him an excuse to start something in the café. That way he’ll not have to make that court appointment. If the story’s a fabrication, if he’s an agent, then he’ll still use the story as the excuse for exploding.
After a minute of silence I say,
‘I don’t mind talking to you but, I need to know, are you going to make trouble at any moment, maybe hit me? …