Sunday, August 11, 2013

#705: Are you being served?

Haven't read much by Brian Aldiss. He was a pretty big deal in the British science-fiction "New Wave" of the mid-1960s, and his SF history BILLION YEAR SPREE (1973) was one of the books that kept me addicted to SF -- its long in-depth discussions of key novels in the genre gave me a long list of new stuff to read. (His updated history with David Wingrove, TRILLION YEAR SPREE, is pretty brilliant too, & updates SF's story into the mid-'80s.)
Beyond that, not much. "Poor Little Warrior" is a great little story that tells me something new each time I re-read it. Probably couldn't have grasped the subtle hints about Marriage Problems & how that motivated the time-traveling Hunter if I'd first read it as a teenager. Wasn't able to get into Aldiss's HOTHOUSE series.
But Aldiss's THE BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES (1955) isn't science-fiction. His first book, it's a cute, quaint, short little novel about working in an English bookstore in the early '50s. Aldiss worked in an Oxford bookstore for awhile, so I trust some of it's autobiographical.
Not a whole lot happens. A man named Peter in his early 20's -- who's last name just happens to be Aldiss! -- works into his fourth year at the Brightfount bookshop. He moves out of his Aunt and Uncle's house & into his own apartment, & starts looking for "a suitable girl." The rest of the book describes his co-workers, average days in the shop, & the minor crises they face.
There's even a mystery: Peter's Aunt & Uncle are Not What They Seem. But which one is slowly going nuts?
By the end of the book, Peter hopes to someday earn a Decent Living Wage at the bookstore, the relatives' crisis is seemingly resolved, Peter seems to have found a girl to stay with (after sort-of falling in love 3 times in 170 pages -- the book covers 6 months of his life), & life goes on. No major crises, just a normal, quiet sort of life.
The atmosphere in the bookshop reminded me very much of the British comedy series ARE YOU BEING SERVED? -- eccentric, sometimes-grumpy shop assistants ... a certain pressure for the juniors to "know their place," etc. After 4 years on the job, shop-owner Mr. Brightfount tells Peter "We might make something of you yet!"
The characterizations are perhaps a bit thin, as you'd expect from a diary -- & parts of the entries are written in a kind of shorthand as people do when writing only for themselves. Women especially are rather skimped on characterization, except for Peter's Aunt & his sister-in-law.
One woman co-worker (who isn't much more than a name in the story) is repeatedly referred to as "our stupid office wench" -- I kept waiting for Aldiss to have her do something truly surprising to shock everyone, but this never happened. Normally I'd expect this kind of repeated emphasis to be used to make a point, but it didn't happen here -- a mistake I trust Aldiss wouldn't make later in his career. (Either that or he was grinding an axe against someone named "Edith.")
Even though not much "dramatic" happens, this is the first novel I've been able to get through in a year. I trust that's because Aldiss keeps it light and funny, even charming, all the way through. I'd always wondered what it would be like to work in a bookstore -- now I know, sort of. All the details are well-observed, and the story's clear.
It also got me thinking that maybe I should try to turn my record-store experiences into a novel. Ghod knows I've got the material....
(Coming soon: A review of Aldiss's BURY MY HEART AT W.H. SMITH'S, a memoir of his life as a writer....)

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