Reviews: Stranger than Fiction

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 Catherine Sharp

Just as with my readings and review of Jim's first novel, Living with the Truth, it's taken me ages to get round to re-reading this one and writing the review. Sorry Jim... One of my excuses is that it's not the type of book you read twice in a hurry (actually, the number of books that I do read twice in a hurry has diminished greatly in recent years).

Anyway, no more apologies, no more regrets. On to a synopsis of sorts, and my review.

Jonathan Payne, the vaguely unpleasant but remarkably sympathetic protagonist of Living with the Truth, is dead. This might not sound like the most obvious way to start a novel — especially when Jonathan is its central character — but stick with it. He starts his first day in the afterlife in pretty much the same mundane way as he started his days in life... at least until he finds a note from Truth, informing him of his new circumstances. After a life of relative dullness — apart from those couple of days he spent with Truth — Jonathan's death is actually rather interesting.

I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but I don't think it's unreasonable to say that the universe itself has died, and Jonathan has been 'woken up' several billion years after he lived, before the universe is restarted so the whole cycle can begin again. The Dunameon (Truth, Destiny, Fate, and all the rest) have been given the task of interviewing everyone who ever lived, to try and figure out what improvements can be made this time around, and although Jonathan is lucky(?) enough to have Truth as his guide through the afterlife, he also gets to meet some of the members of the Dunameon (the 60s-stuck Fate is my favourite).

Jonathan also gets to meet some very significant figures from his own life. Most, but not all, are extrapolations of his own memories, and it's quite informative about Jonathan's own character to see what he considers important about them.

I really don't feel I can go into more detail about the story without ruining some of its little surprises. So I'll wrap this up by saying that there's a lot of charm in this novel and its not-so-charming protagonist; there's gentle humour, and a solid understanding of character and humanity. It fits perfectly as a companion piece to Living with the Truth — actually, the two books felt to me like halves of a single work — and it's a great shame that these novels seem hard to categorise, because I worry that people just won't find them.

So in conclusion: if you've read Living with the Truth, then you should read Stranger than Fiction... but if you haven't, then you should read them both. Soon.

Originally posted on Sharp Words on 27th February 2010

 Dave King

If you enjoyed the author's previous book Living with the Truth — as I did — you will enjoy this one. I enjoyed this one even more than the previous one. As with that one, Jonathan Payne is the chief protagonist. Living with the Truth was the story of his meeting with the personification of truth. As always with such stories you have to be able to accept the conceit on order to relax and enjoy both the story and the writing.

In many way Stranger than Fiction is a re-run of that first book, for it is again the story of Jonathan Payne's encounters with the figure of Truth. Only this time the story is not confined to humble Earth. Oh dear me, no: this time we have not so much a broader canvas as an endless wall available for the author to expand his grand designs. We have macro-universes — called macro-verses — for example. Our gallant protagonist and Truth may now range far and wide. But the conceit becomes more involved than that: before too long we learn that everywhere he goes and everyone he meets Jonathan Payne has generated himself from his own memory. For example, he remembers an early 70's pub, so that is what they find themselves sitting in when Truth takes him for a drink. It is a conceit that allows Jonathan to interact with people from his past. It allows him, to take another example, to face up to the memory of his mother and his own childish fantasies and to the consequent guilt feelings. You ask a child, he is told, why they did something, I don't know, wet themselves, stole a penny, scribbled on the new wallpaper and they answer if they dare, "Because," because that is all the truth there is. You want to know "Why?" but I don't have the answers you're looking for. Because they never existed. This is your chance to examine the other routes in your life to see if there are any better choices just waiting to be made.

But the conceit does more even than that, for it has yet more to offer both the author and the reader. It allows Murdoch to examine a variety of issues and to put forward various viewpoints. It must be said — and this is perhaps the one down side and my one slight disappointment — that it is not a debate between equals. Truth has all the big guns and the heavy armaments. Jonathan can only muse, something he does quite a lot — and even then his musings are often cut short! I was actually longing for him to win just one argument and so prove for all time that Truth could be false — Oh, all right: "wrong", if you must! — But that, I realise, was expecting too much. Maybe it would have sent the whole macro-verse spinning off course. I don't know; it is likely that only the author could say for sure. That was just one small me carping a bit - the me that instinctively feels it must champion the underdog or Justice will depart from this small universe of ours forever.

So what are the issues that the author manages to raise? Well, Truth is one, of course. What it is and what it isn't. Xenophobia another. Then there is Reality. As in: Your mother was only as real as you remembered her to be. Belief in God and Relationships both get an airing. Not exactly trivial stuff, this, you will notice.

I am not - as some of you will know - a great film buff, although there was a time when I might have claimed to be one. However, I did very much appreciate the way the author took the presented opportunity to play around with films. This is obviously something that he very much enjoyed doing, and consequently it was enjoyable for this reader, who invariably derives great pleasure from the enthusiasm of a speaker or a writer for his/her subject.

If I was to be asked to pick my favourite scene or passage from this book I think I would choose one from near the end in which Jonathan is taken to a convention of Jonathan Paynes. Here he meets all those other selves from all those other times and universes across the macro-verse. There is a Father Jonathan, a prophet Jonathan, a Jonathan Payne from Earth 334, an android Jonathan Payne, even twin Jonathan Paynes and a Lady Joanna Payne. I found this extremely humorous, but it was humour with a point. And the point? Well, perhaps each reader will come to it differently, but what I did find was that much in this book could be taken in any of a number of ways. It was possible at times to see it as metaphor, parable, maybe allegory. No doubt you could read nothing into it and just enjoy what would then be a rather far-fetched story.

But having finished the book and reflected a bit on the author's two books, I found myself playing with the idea of these being the first in a Jonathan Payne series, a time travel series with a difference. We could have Jonathan visiting his distant ancestors, for example. Okay, I've gone beyond the remit of a reviewer, but I do believe it not impossible to imagine a cult following somewhere down the road one day.

Originally posted on Pics and Poems on 27th August 2009

 Guy Fraser-Sampson

This is the first time that I have reviewed the same author twice, apart only from Philip K. Dick, and both he and Jim Murdoch are very fine writers indeed.

Regular visitors to this blog will remember that I gave his Living with the Truth (reviewed December 2008) rave notices as it was quite the most stylish, thoughtful and downright original novel I had read for a long time. I remember wondering at the time how Murdoch was going to follow it though, not least because there was talk of a sequel yet the hero (using the word only in its literary sense - there is nothing heroic about Jonathan Payne) actually died at the end of it.

Constructing a whole new novel around a character who died in a previous one may seem a tall order, yet Murdoch pulls it off brilliantly. The universe, it appears, has ground to a halt, and not for the first time either. God is seriously hacked off by this, and Truth and his colleagues are under strict orders to track back through an infinite number of chains of events try to find out what went wrong, so that the same mistake can be avoided in future. I will not spoil the plot by describing things any further.

This highly imaginative device allows Murdoch to work all manners of conjuring tricks, even appearing himself at one point, and with a respectful nod to Puckoon to boot. He even contrives yet another twist at the end, which leaves the way open for a third novel in the sequence, which I very much hope he will write.

Like its predecessor (no pun intended), the book is shot through with wry humour and off-hand allusions to all manner of people from Kafka to Einstein. I particularly liked this, which is followed, believe it or not, by a reference to Frankie Howard:

Everyone is unprepared for the future. It is undiscovered, but do we discover it or does it find us, yelling "No, not yet! It's not time. I'm not ready. Come back tomorrow."? Everyone knows, though, that tomorrow never comes, and that's where they keep all the jam.

Another wonderful moment was the discovery that Truth's counterpart, Reality, knocks back a regular cocktail of mind-altering drugs. Truth goes on to explain that there is actually no such thing as absolute reality, but only the concoction of perceptions and expectations with which we surround ourselves. In effect, we each create our own "reality". Just like writing a novel, really.

It is difficult to describe Murdoch's prose and do it full justice. You really have to experience it for yourself, and I sincerely hope you will. Go out and buy Stranger than Fiction. You won't be disappointed.

Originally posted on Pursewarden on 18th September 2009

 Kay Sexton

Jim Murdoch's new novel, Stranger than Fiction. I really enjoyed this, and Jim's profoundly idiosyncratic view of the world is always fascinating. I tried to come up with one of those pithy one-liners that you are supposed to use to encapsulate a project for the movie industry (which is popularly supposed not to be able to cope with more than a sentence of information at a time) and what I decided on was Alan Bennett meets Douglas Adams! The characters from Jim's previous novel are resurrected, having died at the end of the last one, in a manner not unreminiscent (is that a word?) of Eoin Colfer's continuation of the work of said Douglas Adams. I loved it. Jim's novel, I mean, not Eoin's — haven't read that and probably won't — I'm not sure why I don't like writers picking up the work of deceased literary stars and taking it on, but I don't.

Originally posted on Writing Neuroses ... mine are rare, yours may be legion on 29th November 2009

 BCF Book Reviews (Kehs)

Jonathan Payne, a bookseller who is 50 something, is resurrected in this sequel to Living with the Truth. This is because the 'Powers that be' made a big mess with the universe; every person who ever lived and died has to be put back through their memories in an attempt to correct the mistakes that were made. Thus, in this tale Jonathan Payne once again meets up with Truth along with several other characters such as Death and Destiny. The whole story spins around Jonathan's memories, but not everything is as he remembers it being. I couldn't imagine how Murdoch was going to end this story but when it came I absolutely loved it. I finished his book with a laugh and a smile of satisfaction. I'm definitely going to look out for more books by this author.

Murdoch has written a surreal tale, taking the reader into the realms of fantasy and sci-fi with a generous dollop of humour. An eclectic mix but one that works smoothly for this talented writer. Murdoch's writing style reminds me of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett's humour but at the same time it has its own sense of quirkiness that is unique to Murdoch.

Originally posted on BCF Book Reviews on 25th August 2009

 Sam Sattler

I have never been much of a fan of sequels; just don't trust them because nine times out of ten they disappoint me. But it is that one-in-ten chance that a sequel will prove to be the equal, or better, of an original book or movie that stops me from giving up on them completely. So, despite the fact that it has probably doomed me to nine disappointing sequels in-a-row, I am happy to report that "Stranger than Fiction," Jim Murdoch's follow-up to "Living with the Truth," is a treat.

When I closed the pages of "Living with the Truth," Jonathan Payne was a dead man. Jonathan, owner of a rather shabby little bookshop specializing in used books, had been visited by the personification of Truth and he had been made to take a long, hard look at the consequences of the choices made over his lifetime. Jonathan's life was one of missed opportunities but, although he learned much about himself from Truth, he was left with little time to do much with his new understanding.

Well, it seems that Jonathan has not been the only one to fail at this thing called life. Not for the first time, God is unhappy with what he sees in the universe and He is just about ready to pull the plug on it again. He is losing patience with the whole project and is about ready to tackle something new. But, before he gives up, God has decided to perform a super-audit to determine why his universe has failed so miserably this time. Truth and his co-workers (Destiny, Reality, etc.) are assigned to interview every person who has ever lived in order to avoid their mistakes next time around.

Jonathan, with Truth by his side, gets to meet some important people from his past, including his mother, his father, and the only real girlfriend he ever had. Truth and Jonathan wander around in Jonathan's past, both learning from the encounters what went wrong and what might have been done differently. The conclusion that Jonathan comes to, though it may have surprised Truth, is one the reader will admire him for reaching.

Stranger than Fiction might be served up with humour and filled with bizarre situations but, at its core, it is a moral tale and Murdoch's deceptively simple prose is perfect for the story he tells. One of my favourite passages comes early on in the book and describes Jonathan's love of books (after all, he is a bookseller):

It was one of the few things you could say that he did love with any degree of certainty but you certainly couldn't say he loved all books. Books were like women, some had wonderful covers with nothing inside, others had their dust jackets hanging off in shreds yet held such riches; there were thick tomes, slim volumes, hardbacks, paperbacks, first editions. He gave way to the unique pleasure of holding each one in his hands but only special ones were actually read; the rest were for looking at. And there was nothing like a well-stacked bookcase. Apart from a well stacked woman.

How perfect a way to describe a man's love of books is that?

I was happy to find that Stranger than Fiction ends in a way that leaves the door wide open for a sequel to the sequel. I don't know what the odds are about the success of such efforts because my sample is too small to make a judgment. I'm willing to take a chance on this one, though.

5 stars

Originally posted on Library Thing on 27th September 2009