Lew Skannon by Angus Shoor Caan.
The last time I read a book this long I think it was War and Peace. Certainly at around 450 pages Lew Skannon is an epic read. With the ebook coming in at only 99p it would be hard to suggest it’s not value for money. But can one have too much of a good thing?
I’ll admit, while I enjoyed reading it, I struggled at times. If I were to describe Lew Skannon I’d say that it’s a bit like Huckleberry Finn meets Catcher in the Rye. What do I mean by that? Well, the first person fictional autobiographic narrative is immediate, sometimes rambling and could be seen as self-indulgent.
But perceived weakness can also be a strength. Because I came to realise that the character of Lew himself is reflected in the narrative style. This isn’t so much an author constructing a narrative as a young man telling us all about his life. All about it. If you imagine a young man, who, despite his declarations that he loves reading – he is a fan of S.R.Crockett and detective fiction – is no writer and is not able to make the judgement calls about what a reader will and won’t find interesting; he just splurges out everything that happens - then you’ll begin to see Lew in a new light. Lew’s ‘style’ can make a conventional reader feel a bit sea-sick, he jumps from one scene to another, timeframes are truncated and extended and what’s important and what’s insignificant for the reader to grasp as ‘narrative’ seem unimportant to Lew. Some will just dismiss this as a badly written, badly edited book which doesn’t pay the reader the respect they deserve. You’re entitled to your opinion, but maybe it’s worth thinking twice.
If you accept that this book is not attempting a conventional narrative structure, and go with the flow, you’ll find it a lot easier and more enjoyable. If you give Shoor Caan the respect of authorial intention, one might suggest he’s playing with the very nature of character in narrative itself. A bit like Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye did in their own day. But in a 21st century, post-post modernist way.
It’s worth addressing some of the conventional criticisms head on: There’s a few little conflicts which conventionally one would suggest required structural edits– Lew is a poor photographer, suddenly he’s a good photographer; he sees himself as a chameleon yet he seems to stick out like a sore thumb. There’s quite some credibility gaps in Lew’s story, but it feels picky to dwell on them, especially if you take the reader position that this is not trying to be a conventional narrative but rather the reading equivalent of listening to a guy telling you all about his life.
The cast of characters is epic, and to be honest it’s hard to keep track of them at times, but the plot, or Lew’s ‘life’ story carries on regardless. To ‘get it’ you have to buy into the concept that the confusion of it all is part of the author’s narrative game – conventional characters do tend to play by narrative rules. Lew doesn’t. This could be an author statement. Certainly Lew is more a person than a character. Real people are conflicting, confusing and it’s not always easy to believe what they say.
Lew’s life at times becomes like a soap opera with so much going on that it’s hard to believe all that he says – but this may also be part of the charm of his character. And soap operas do, after all, reflect life. And their narrative structures are different from conventional prose narrative. I think this might have been an easier story to read in serial form – certainly each chapter doesn’t work conventionally, within it there is what feels like random parallel plotting. I confess I spent quite a lot of time wondering what the author was trying to achieve and what my ‘issues’ with the story were. And that was maybe time wasted, or maybe part of an authorial master plan to get me questioning conventional narrative.
Lew has a certain charm as a character and he really is the core of the story. Everything you read is Lew’s take on the world. Can he really achieve and be all the things he claims to be? I doubt it. The story veers widely from the domestic to the extremes – there’s both sex and violence in abundance – the violence perhaps the more graphic and worrying. Yet Lew also reads obscure 19th century historical romance. I have to applaud him for that even though I find it unlikely, but again, ‘real’ people do have such complexity in their personalities – it’s one of the things that separates people from characters after all. Character traditionally has purpose, real people not necessarily so. Certainly it’s easier to make sense of the story if you see Lew as a person rather than a character. But this does present some reading challenges. Reading a book isn’t the same as listening to a guy chat.
I did find it an interesting challenge to my concept of the role of character in fiction. I guess I finally bought into Lew as just a guy, rambling on about his life, and it was pretty interesting most of the time, though sometimes confusing, sometimes irritating, sometimes unbelievable. But if you knew the guy you’d just be saying ‘ah, that’s Lew, he likes to chew the fat’ or some such.
Because I know the works of S.R.Crockett well, I wondered from time to time whether in fact Shoor Caan is in some way offering a 21st century equivalent of the serial narrative – in the way that an anti-hero relates to a romantic hero. I’m not sure that people enjoying Crockett would enjoy Skannon or vice versa, but as I say, Lew Skannon does perhaps play a clever and subtle part in the debate about the development of character in narrative and challenging comfortable narrative structures in particular. It didn’t always work for me, but then the relationship between reader and writer is a unique and personal one, so what I see isn’t necessarily what anyone else will see. I can only tell it how I see it.
What do I know? Who am I to tell you what this is about? I’m just one reader, after all, but I’ve read a lot of books in the last 50 years and this one doesn’t readily fit into any preconceived box. That may be a good thing. I suggest that to get the most out of this epic novel you need to check in your standard perceptions at chapter one, and off you go. Shoor Caan doesn’t always make it easy on the reader – but if you accept that challenge you can find much to enjoy. However, I warn you – it doesn’t end so much as just stop. In my opinion that is a mistake. It’s fine to challenge the reader, but the final stroke risks alienating them. Having invested so much time reading Lew’s story, it felt like he’d just walked out the room and stopped returning calls. For no good reason. That may be the authors intention too, but if so, it’s a dangerous game, because doing it risks leaving a reader feeling cheated, even at 99p, and alienating the reader at the end is never a good thing! You want them to invest in another story after all. It’s not a question of needing happy endings, but for a novel, even in virtual format, closure is important. Even episodes need their endings and while Lew Skannon gives us a lot, much of it enjoyable, the one thing it doesn’t give us is an ending.
You can get hold of this in ebook or paperback format from Amazon/McStorytellers.