“He let out a victorious fart” (Booker Longlist)

Below, the first paragraph from Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize yesterday.

His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Good. Aish was up. He let out a victorious fart, burying his face deep into the pillow to escape the clammy methane stink. I don’t want to sleep in a boy’s locker room, Aisha would always complain on the rare, inadvertent moments when he forgot himself in front of her. Through the years he had learned to rein his body in, to allow himself to only let go in solitude; farting and pissing in the shower, burping alone in the car, not washing or brushing his teeth all weekend when she was away at conferences. It was not that his wife was a prude, she just seemed to barely tolerate the smells and expressions of the male body. He himself would have no problem falling asleep in a girl’s locker room, surround by the moist, heady fragrance of sweet young cunt. Afloat, still half-entrapped in sleep’s tender clutch, he twisted onto his back and shifted the sheet off his body. Sweet young cunt. He’d spoken out loud.

Booker Longlist Boredom

Today, the booker longlist was announced and for once, apart from Peter Carey’s novel (ever since reading Theft I’ve been a huge fan), I find I lack complete interest in all the books on the longlist. Dunmore’s book sounds like a literary version of Tom Rob Smith’s awfulness (my review), Warner, Murray and Jacobson sound like irrelevant piffle. Lisa Moore’s book sounds like a quaint version of Carsten Jensen’s blockbuster. I lost interest in McCarthy’s novel while making myself read Men in Space and I have a low opinion of David Mitchell’s work in general. Emma Donoghue’s book sounds like cutesy literary pseudo-experimentalism. I own The Slap so I’ll definitely read that one and I always meant to read a book by Tremain so I’ll also have a look at that one, I guess. Maybe I’ll wait for the shortlist? Last year I read one book straight off the longlist, which was horrible and one off the shortlist, which was excellent. Am I wrong to be so nonplussed by this longlist?

James Welch: Winter in the Blood

Welch, James (2008), Winter in the Blood, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-310522-0

Books about Native Americans, especially books written by Natives are often prone to simple sentimentality. There’s absolutely none of that in James Welch’s starkly astonishing debut novel Winter in the Blood (1974). Welch is both of Blackfoot and Gros Ventre ancestry, as is his narrator. His previous book, the poetry collection Riding the Earthboy 40, was set in the same area, a vaguely unpleasant, loveless place. As Winter in the Blood opens, this narrator, who will stay nameless throughout the novel, has just come home, but this homecoming to his parents’ house is harshly described as “a torture”. And in the novel that follows, there is little fun to be had for the narrator who wrestles his own demons and his family’s secretive history in order to regain a sense of self. The reader, however, is well served by James Welch’s immense literary talent. James Welch was a poet and novelist who, upon dying in 2003 at 63, had only published five novels and three collections of poetry. This appears to be a meager output considering the fact that most of the novels, just like Winter in the Blood, are short books. Since I tend to prefer longer books, it took me awhile to get around to reading anything by Welch. This was the first book of his I tried, and I highly recommend you do the same.

Winter in the Blood is an absolutely stunning piece of fiction, a dense work of art, crawling with an awareness both of western and Native fictional traditions, of political and economic necessities and it’s written by a master of prose. Welch has managed to write a book about a Native experience without ever becoming maudlin or sentimental. His book is hard as rock, yet it’s welcoming to readers. The softness of myth, of oral history, of Native tragedies informs every page of the book, even as we follow a narrative that seems fractured, harsh, bleak, even. People hit each other, contemplate murder or deceit, they distrust one another almost constantly, and this is just those who are welcome there, who see one another on a daily basis. Welch’s narrator is a visitor, and, broadly speaking, a loser, who can command neither love, nor respect or fear. He’s just there, fending for himself. Yet at the same time, any accusation of bleakness must fall short since Welch’s book describes a hopeful trek towards, not away from a firm sense of identity. As you see, even a rough description of the book is complicated and apparently contradictory, yet one of Welch’s many achievements in the novel is its utter unity, its strong, coherent voice.

Originally published in 1974, a reader of the Winter in the Blood today, especially one who is not a Native, is probably far removed from its immediate cultural and geographical contexts. While I can read and appreciate its literary and cultural contexts for what they are, readers like me have to believe critics who assure him that the geography of the book is absolutely accurate, that bars and houses and farms like that really exist in real life Montana just like they do in the book. It seems that the author took great pains to be fair and clear in how he treats the landscape that he abandons his narrator in. We never learn much about the narrator’s life outside of his homeland, the city he lived in, the people he met daily and the pressures and contexts that shaped his life outside. Instead, Welch drops his narrator into a landscape that is rife with historical and cultural contexts, a landscape that tells its inhabitants about the tragedy of its tribes, and the foul events that led them to their present state. As many Native critics, discussing this book, have pointed out, all or most tribes have a story of hardship, a special event in their more recent history where the tribe’s survival was threatened and the members of the tribe had underwent trials and tribulations to make it through the wayward historical storm.

Native sob-stories often use that tragedy to underscore the present tribe’s troubling situation, and there are undoubtedly millions of troubling situations to be handled as stories, but Welch deviates from this pattern. His narrator’s troubles are not primarily due to his tribe’s tribulations, they are, first and foremost, personal issues. It is his connection to his tribe that ultimately helps him resolve a psychological imbalance, without any of his real world problems being resolved by it. His tribe’s story of hardship is the mythical story at the heart of the remnants of his family, his connection to his family history, and like in a detective novel, or a Rashomon-like story, he uses the malleable, viscous quality of the storytelling to find out a hidden family secret. This uncovering is not, however, something that we are expecting or thinking about, it’s a sudden, almost epiphanic revelation that has as much to do with the nature of traditional Native storytelling as with any careful thinking about the story itself. Winter in the Blood is four things at once. It tells the story of his tribe’s past in three different ways, it tells the story about the narrator’s present and the awakening of his identity, it tells us about a formative experience in his youth (a personal story of hardship) and it tells us stories about telling stories.

It would be easy, as I initially did, to foreground the book’s use of traditional Native narrative techniques and patterns, and its narrative reflection of those same techniques. In fact, although Native storytelling does turn up at a crucial point of the book and although it does indeed contribute to a central revelation, it is not the most important or even the most central literary touchstone of James Welch’s magnificent little book. One of Winter in the Blood‘s most important forebears is arguably Ernest Hemingway’s story “Big Two-Hearted River”, the final story of Hemingway’s collection of stories In Our Time. “Big Two-Hearted River” is one of Hemingway’s numerous Nick Adams stories, this one focusing specifically on Nick Adams’ return from war and a fishing trip he undertakes. In Hemingway’s typical style, Adams’ only partially successful attempt at fishing and his accompanying ruminations on how and where to fish take the place of sentimental complaints about Adams’ harrowing experiences on the battlefield. Fishing, for Welch’s book, plays an almost identical role. Absurdly funny discussions about fishing take the place of meaningful human interactions and the success of fishing, and knowledge thereof is used as a social and economic signifier.

Given that the topics of the book include life, death and procreation, it’s hard not to also see in Welch’s narrator a hapless variation on Eliot’s Fisher King. In fact, such is the structure of Welch’s places and images, that it’s both a Hemingwayesque realism, plumbing the abyss between the unsaid and the undone, and a symbolist landscape to do Eliot proud. In these qualities, Winter in the Blood reflects the fact that the land where the narrator and his tribe live is both a place where rituals could take place or have taken place (some of the narrator’s actions almost have a ritual bent), and a real place to live in, a place with problems and history. This creates a kind of tension, a tension that has the book’s readers constantly on their toes, both trying to parse a vibrant web of human relationships and a confluence of literary and cultural signifiers. The tantalizing thing here is that both Eliot and Hemingway write densely, elliptic, allusive literature, and drawing on both of these traditions only heightens the density of Welch’s own novel, which is at no point inferior to its predecessors, and handles both kinds of literary speeds with admirable ease. It is quite humbling to read a book that is so in control of its material yet isn’t difficult reading. Granted, one should keep one’s eyes on the page, but the book is actually a good read, a funny one, too.

In fact, at times, the novel attains a comedic level of absurdity that will have many of its readers laughing out loud, with odd images and zany dialogue that seems to come straight from a Marx Brothers movie. One set piece in particular has this effect. Welch uses the fictional convention of the mystery man from elsewhere, rich and inscrutable, who visits a village or town with some secret motive or errand or mission, and turns it inside out. His mystery man, though clearly and efficiently set up to resemble his conventional counterpart, has no such thing and seems, in fact, somewhat confused and bewildered by the town he ends up in. He intends to go fishing, and all kinds of patrons in the bars he visits give him advice on when and where to fish, including the narrator, but he never seems to be motivated to go fishing. Indeed, the more often he crosses Winter in the Blood‘s narrator’s paths, the more we start seeing his function as being primarily that, someone to cross the narrator’s path. This is part of the tension I mentioned earlier. On the one hand, everything appears to be described in a very realistic manner, on the other hand, all devices and descriptions seem to be geared towards the narrator, rising up wherever he walks, and disappearing whenever he leaves.

The protagonist himself seems oddly unreal. On the one hand, he is highly believable, a character crafted with sublime skill. On the other hand, he seems to be more than that. He is, we are led to believe, of mixed blood, and personally, I chalked up his slightly unreal quality to the figure of the ‘mixedblood’ as Gerald Vizenor describes him, a trickster figure that Vizenor calls “mixedblood” or “crossblood”. Without wanting to imply an influence either way, I think James Welch operates, in a way, with similar ideas. It’s the trickster’s influence that warps the mystery man’s motivation, and it’s the trickster’s influence that shapes the two tragic events involving cows that met with an accident. Winter in the Blood‘s narrator is hard up or else he would not have returned to his home, and however cataclysmic the novel’s events will eventually prove to be for him, they do not change anything as far as his financial circumstances or personal relationships are concerned. What he does, is, and I’d argue it’s the trickster’s spirit that partly imbues the narrator, to re-arrange the family myths, to re-shuffle his childhood trauma and to re-align himself with a certain tribal history. To do that, the narrator dons the cloak of literary tradition but keeps changing and inverting it. The bits I mentioned are but a few of the many traditions he uses. There are also traces, for example, of the noir, among other things.

Most important, however, is the way that the narrator fuses the serious and humorous elements. The trickster’s hand becomes visible in a kind of mock-up of creation stories near the end, and, more strikingly, in a queer kind of epiphany that starts with the sentence “Bird farted”. Bird is the narrator’s horse and its fart appears to make the narrator realize some hidden family truth.

Bird farted. And it came to me, as though it were riding one moment of the gusting wind, as though Bird had had it in him all the time and had passed it to me in that one instant of corruption.

This is unabashedly comic, yet the revelation, the new knowledge that comes to him in that very moment, is momentous, and life-changing. Winter in the Blood is full of these moment, yet this specific moment is special. It exemplifies the author’s mastery of both the tragic and the comic, and shows, like the rest of the book, why contemporary novelists like Paul Harding (see my review of Tinkers here) fall so short of the mark. James Welch is both a committed writer and reader, one who takes his readers seriously, his own life history, and the literary tradition he makes use of. In many ways, he’s as much of a regional writer as his teacher, the master poet Richard Hugo, and this is not derogatory. Winter in the Blood is filled with a thorough understanding of a landscape and the economic ties that hold it together. It is not, like Harding’s novel, set in some fantasy version of reality. At the same time, his command of the spiritual, the mystical, the prayerful moments is also superior to a kitsch artiste like Harding, because he grounds its needs and necessities in the real world. The result of all this is that Winter in the Blood is a great novel, and James Welch is a great, great writer.


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Day in, Day out

I’m no good at writing ‘journal entry’ posts, as my last few entries have demonstrated, I believe. However, I have not been posting new texts/reviews for about two weeks and I kind of, weirdly, feel I need to explain. Before I do so, I recommend visiting De Seuil en Seuil again, unless you’ve done so already. The blogger has put up a beautiful new post on the Danube and a moving encounter at its waterside. To read it, click here. As to me, it’s been a tough two weeks. I worked hard on my dissertation, writing a précis for my professor, working out kinks in my argument. Saturday, I went to a friend’s wedding and it reminded me how fast I/we can lose contact to people who were once so important to us. My friend, Christoph, who now lives in Japan, was responsible for my studying literature in Bonn, for coming to Bonn in the first place, too. Without him, my life would be infinitely emptier, both my heart and my brain encountered something new here that they will hopefully never have to live without henceforth.

And on Friday, I learned that a friend had died, well over two weeks ago. If you follow this blog and its links, you might have found a handful of posts linking to bookbabble. Of those, three led to bookbabble episodes that Gem partook in (link here). Gem is the friend who died. I have been almost constantly close to tears for the past week. I have never met Gem ‘in real life’, but she has helped me through some rocky times, and I loved her as I loved few friends in my life. Gem is/was the most big-hearted person I have ever known, a smart, humorous, amazing, beautiful person. I feel incredibly selfish in talking about her in this way, but her ear, her words, her heart, they were at times a life-saving support. Literally. She is/was an inspiring person, in the most horribly corny sense of the word, she inspired me, and many others, to be a better human being. If I failed at it, as I so often surely did, it was despite her luminous presence. But she wasn’t grandiose, self-aggrandizing, she was always just herself, gleefully, bravely so. She lived through so many bad times, working through all of them with a strength and an unassuming bravery that few other people possess. She was talented in all kinds of ways, she connected with so many different people, and so many people connected with her. People like her are rare, and for everyone who knew her, her loss is terrible. I feel her loss every day. I can hear her voice still and, dammit, crying again, I remember things she told me, the things she wrote me, although I don’t have the strength so far to look at old emails and messages. I started to compile my current manuscript of poems because of Gem. Gem has (still does) inspired me to try and use whatever talents and strengths I have to make something of my life. She has made so much of hers. And so much of mine. All this above has been rather crude, simple, but I can’t write about this in more than simple terms so far. I don’t want to seduce myself into writing something that isn’t true. Every day that passes, her death seems more real to me and every day I am afraid her presence will slip from my life. Her voice will dull, her words lose resonance, one more light in my life go out like a wet fag. Apart from burying myself in work, I spent the past week drinking a lot, reading god-awful trash and watching crappy movies, all to postpone this, to stop it from becoming real. I don’t have a great story to share or an anecdote. There is just that imprint on me, this emptiness that I’m figuring out how to deal with. I drank a shot of gin last night in a bar, to commemorate her, who was a gin enthusiast, but it didn’t feel right. I am doing the same right now, and if you have a bottle or a glass of something nearby, please, drink one with me. One of the most wonderful persons I have ever known or am ever likey to know has vanished from my, no, our life. за здоровье!

Just One Book

Salt, the amazing British publisher of prose and poetry, is almost broke. Last year, they launched a campaign called Just one Book to save themselves, and they are doing it this year as well. It’s a plea to buy Just One Book published by Salt. You can buy it directly from them or from your retailer of choice. Spread the word. Here are three suggestions for you:

1. Buy Just One Book by Jennifer Moxley. Moxley is one of my favorite living American poets, and Salt has published two volumes of hers, Imagination Verses and The Sense Record. Both are strongly recommended by me.

2. Buy Just One Book by Michael Hulse. I was lucky enough to once meet Mr. Hulse in person, it’s still one of my highlights. Salt has published his book Empires and Holy Lands, Poems 1976–2000, which is a great treasure trove of poetry that draws on Continental and British sources in order to produce an assured, marvelous poetic voice.

3. Buy Just One Book by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Blau DuPlesssis is both an insightful poetry critic as well as one of the most interesting American poets around. For years she has been contributing to her long poem of sorts called “Drafts”, a series of numbered poems. Salt has published at least two volumes of her poetry. One simply called Drafts, containing Drafts 39-57, which I own, and which is amazing. The other, called Torques, containing Drafts 58-76, which I just ordered and which I am pretty sure is great, since I know some of the poems.

don’t say no to me you can’t say no to me

don’t say no to me you can’t say no to me because it’s such a relief to have love again and to lie in bed and be held and touched and kissed and adored and your heart will leap when you hear my voice and see my smile and feel my breath on your neck and your heart will race when I want to see you and I will lie to you from day one and use you and screw you and break your heart because you broke mine first and you will love me more each day until the weight is unbearable and your life is mine and you’ll die alone because I will take what I want then walk away and owe you nothing it’s always there it’s always been there and you cannot deny the life you feel fuck that life fuck that life fuck that life I have lost you now.”

from Sarah Kane’s play Crave. Sarah Kane’s plays are collected in one indispensable volume of theatrical greatness. You don’t have it? Dude, you have no idea what you’ve been missing.

New poems. Want some?

I am compiling a manuscript of poems. New, well, most of them aren’t. Just so I’ll get em off my chest, and given the fact that I don’t publish them on the blog any more, I’ll send some of them around. If you’re interested email me with your address (you can find my email address in the “about shigekuni” section of the blog) and within the next month you’ll get a batch of poems. I just sent a few of them to South Africa, so postage isn’t an issue. A short cycle of poems and a group of random other poems. It’s free, but I would be happy about comments, though since I myself am a sluggish and laggard and crappy commenter (*hanging my head in shame*) I understand if you’d abstain from writing any.

To slash me shocked

John Berryman: “I didn’t.”

I didn’t. And I didn’t. Sharp the Spanish blade
to gash my throat after I’d climbed across
the high railing of the bridge
to tilt out, with the knife in my right hand
to slash me knocked or fainting till I’d fall
unable to keep my skull down but fearless

unless my wife wouldn’t let me out of the house
unless the cops noticed me crossing the campus
up to the bridge
& clappt me in for observation, costing my job –
I’d be now in a cell, costing my job –
well, I missed that;

but here’s the terror of tomorrow’s lectures
bad in themselves, the students dropping the course,
and Administration hearing
& offering me either a medical leave of absence
or resignation – Kitticat, they can’t fire me –

This is an untitled poem by John Berryman, written on Jan 5, 1972. This version is from my copy of Henry’s Fate & Other Poems, 1967-1972. In Mariani’s biography (Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman), he also quotes the poem, but in Mariani’s version it says “shocked” instead of “knocked” in line 5

RIP Harvey Pekar!!

Oh no no no. Harvey Pekar died.

Harvey Pekar, 70, the graphic novelist whose autobiographical comic book “American Splendor” chronicled his life as a filing clerk, record collector, freelance jazz critic and one of life’s all around misfits, was found dead early today at his home in suburban Cleveland.

The AP reported that police were called to Mr. Pekar’s home by his wife about 1 a.m. and the artist was found between a bed and dresser. Mr. Pekar had been suffering from prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and depression, police said.

Below is a clip from one of several appearances on Letterman’s show in the 1980s.

Banning the Burqa

In the latest installment of NYTimes’ The Stone, Martha Nussbaum proves to be largely correct

Proponents of the burqa ban do not propose to ban all these objectifying practices. Indeed, they often participate in them. (…) Once again, then, the opponents of the burqa are utterly inconsistent, betraying a fear of the different that is discriminatory and unworthy of a liberal democracy. The way to deal with sexism, in this case as in all, is by persuasion and example, not by removing liberty

Parfois mystérieuses, voire déconcertantes

An insanely undeserved, positive account of this here ridonculous place, posted on De seuil en seuil.

Ces entrées en matière sont parfois mystérieuses, voire déconcertantes : en effet, si le lecteur sait à quoi s’attendre (et encore…) lorsqu’en déroulant le nuage de catégories il choisit de s’arrêter à un article sur Melville, la littérature chilienne ou même Kim Deal (pour les ignares – désolée – c’est la charismatique bassiste / chanteuse des Pixies, puis des Breeders ou de The Amps), quelle surprise lui réservera la rubrique « Absurdities » ou « Die guten Deutschen », ou alors « cutup », surtout lorsque cette entrée est couplée avec « Axolotl Roadkill » ? Le choix est parfois difficile : faut-il se laisser guider ou accepter de se perdre ? Mais la richesse des ressources proposées … est indéniable : ainsi je me suis laissée émouvoir par la voix de Charles Reznikoff lisant ses poèmes, en particulier Holocaust – moment de grâce où de sa voix presque timide, le poète se livre à l’exercice le plus difficile et le plus dangereux qui soit : se donner totalement, sans l’entremise de la page qui éloigne, désincarne parfois.

Jirgl wins 2010 Büchner Prize

The possibly best living German novelist Reinhard Jirgl has just been announced as winner of the 2010 Büchner Prize. Congratulations. He joins last year’s winner Walter Kappacher as yet another major German-language novelist who has been accorded the most prestigious German prize yet hasn’t been translated into English yet. For shame! Here is my review of one of Jirgl’s best novels. For more undeservedly untranslated German writers, I made a list here and another one here. Dalkey? Serpent’s tail? Open Letter Books?

Sarah Hall: Daughters of the North / The Carhullan Army (rev.)

Hall, Sarah (2008), The Carhullan Army, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23660-2

Is it worrying that a good deal of my more recent negative book reviews are negative primarily because of personal disappointment? Shouldn’t an author’s work be judged on its own merits, and not by what it could have been, might have been, should have been? But then, any competently written book might be deserving of a positive review and some, like Paul Harding’s overall mediocre and complacent little debut Tinkers (my review here), just don’t deserve that. It is the author’s fault if they don’t work through their ideas and tangents in more than a glancing way. Recently, critics like Lee Siegel have excoriated the contemporary novel, and while they were wrong-headed in their specific arguments, I think that the stark air of complacency that envelops much of MFA-produced prose contributed to Siegel’s ire. Today’s writers have an incredibly large array of themes and styles at their finger tips. They can emulate effective modes of writing with astonishing ease, hint at political or philosophical depths without ever having to deal with them in a thorough way. Books like Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel Witz, which go beyond simple pyrotechnics to create prose of significance that is both technically dazzling as it is intellectually and emotionally rich, have become increasingly rare. Critics should, I think, point this out, and shun books that are content to explore the byways of MFA-approved prose artistry, flirting with poetry, ditching each and every commitment. Sarah Hall’s third novel, The Carhullan Army, is both an excellent example of that kind of shallow writing and not. For me, it was a puzzling novel that was both annoying and interesting, both thoughtful and conventionally complacent. Ultimately, it is a fun book, a quick and easy read with some interesting tangents and possibilities that it never works through. A book meant and conceived to be a popular read, easy on the brain, presenting no hurdles, innovations or critical difficulties. And yet, there’s a spark of originality in it, of careful thought. It is this spark that makes it worth reading.

Sarah Hall is a British writer and has published four novels so far. The Carhullan Army is her third, published in 2007. Its geographical and social reference are strongly British, and elements, like the title, appeal predominantly to a British reading public, which is why the title was changed upon publication in the US, where it was published as Daughters of the North (hence the double title of the review). The US title is more emotive, more simply evocative of certain gender-based dichotomies; it also serves to situate the novel firmly in a literary tradition both of writing about the North, which is often symbolic of untamed, bristling natural landscapes (cf. Margaret Atwood’s seminal critical texts, especially Strange Things), and of writing about femininity in a patriarchally structured society, the word, or term ‘daughter’ set to evoke both the more benign term ‘mother’ and the fatherly power structure that the daughter inherits. Readers will have no problem pulling up these kinds of references in order to contextualize the book. The title stresses the book’s most simple and cheap elements, which are also those that inordinately dominate the novel’s discourse. Thus, it fits the book far better than the more complex original title which deserved a more reasoned and complex book. But then, it is indeed significant to state that the book’s wild North isn’t the allegorical landscape of Atwood’s more recent fictions. Sarah Hall sets her novel in a precisely defined region of northern England, Cumbria. The names of cities, rivers and towns either correspond exactly to existing cities, rivers and towns, or resemble them strongly. The invented town of Rith has a mirror in the Cumbrian town of Penrith, and both the nearby river Eden, as well as the Carhullan holdings exist under these exact names. Not a native of that remote region, wedged between the bulk of England, and the adjacent Welsh and Scottish countries, I gather that some travel routes and small geographic details have been changed, that there are small divergences as far as minute details are concerned, made to fit the story, but the overall principle is one of geographical accuracy.

At the same time, Hall, who herself lives in Cumbria, appears to be well aware of the mystical and allegorical potential that this region offers. She has demonstrated this awareness in her first novel, Haweswater, a sad, poetic novel about the destruction of a rural community by the invading forces of modernity. The Carhullan Army harks back to that first book, adding layers of significance, writing a tale set in the near future rather than in the past. Hall’s intent to make symbolically rich use of a landscape rich in vistas, resources and a rugged history is announced by the most central name-change. Penrith which means “Red Hill” or rather, “Hill Red”, is shortened to just “Rith”, i.e. red. As we infer from the rest of the book, Hall connects that color both to the Christian tradition of martyrdom (which, especially in Catholic traditions, is signified by the color red) and to the sense of guilt and accusation that literary forebears like Nathaniel Hawthorne made use of in creations like the eponymous scarlet letter. This, in relation to the biblical place Eden (via the Cumbrian river of the same name), allows the book’s readers to connect what seems like a simple, sparse, somewhat post-apocalyptic tale of rebellion to a broadly Christian context of storytelling where women as adulteresses, temptresses and wily sneaks have traditionally been handed the short end of the stick. It is especially in moments of crisis that masculinity, as the necessary force of stability and order, has been privileged over an unstable brand of femininity, and The Carhullan Army starts out with just such a moment of crisis. Due to a series of crises and mishaps, the British economy has collapsed, and Britain is now ruled by a military dictatorship of sorts, The Authority (an unfortunate name, recalling comics and satires more than an actually oppressive regime).

Written in 2007, the scenario of The Carhullan Army uncomfortably recalls the events of the past two years, “the ruthlessness of banks”, the dangerous dependency on oil not because of a lack of the necessary technology but because of a lack of “the will to invest”, and the downward spiral of governmental actions, breeding resentment against foreigners, arranging for “deportations” and, lastly, establishing the haplessly named military police force. Although, in the beginning, large crowds form in protest, The Authority ultimately manages to quell public unrest, until the British hunker down and accept everything. For The Carhullan Army‘s narrator who goes by the name Sister (not her real name, but the one she eventually adopts. In the first chapter, she declares “You will call me Sister”), its different. As a woman she’s suffers more from the new laws, and develops a growing unease with the status quo, until a deeply humiliating and invasive mandated procedure, meant to keep women from conceiving children, a wire contraption inserted into their uteri, pushes her over the edge. Suddenly, without any warning, she drops everything and leaves in order to join Carhullan. In Sarah Hall’s future Britain, Carhullan has become, even before the geopolitical crisis really took hold, a female autonomous community of some 60 women, a refuge for those persecuted and discriminated against, a rough-and-tumble community of women who live off the land, completely independent of governmental facilities and structures. Water, power and food are all produced on the lands of the Carhullan farm. Although no men live in Carhullan, the farm has not become some hot exotic lesbian fantasy world or a prim world of celibate gardeners. Granted, many of its inhabitants do live in same-sex relationships, but several others frequent nearby farms, striking up emotional and sexual relationships with Cumbrian men. Men may not be allowed on the farm, but the Carhullan ideology is not misandric, it doesn’t try to expunge male influence or anything. Instead, the point is to create a safe haven for women, to provide an opportunity for them to have a choice whether they want to seek out the male gaze or not, whether they want to play gender-fantasy roles or not, empowering women by taking them out of the patriarchal system (in several different ways).

In a string of extremely competently written flashbacks and straightforward storytelling, we are apprised not only of Sister’s personal history before coming to Carhullan, but also of her stay at the farm, of her discovery of its structures and inhabitants, of her amorous relationship to one of the women. It is a story of self-discovery, with all the yawn-inducing conventional cliché scenes and images one would expect. The Carhullan Army contains a few sex scenes, which are almost all of them risible and cheesy instead of erotic and involving. The same applies to the book’s depictions of Carhullan’s revolutionary leader and her ideology. It is as if Hall decided that all the worst implications about femininity and the images and contexts of it in male-dominated prose were all correct and worth emulating and reproducing. The embrace of cheap clingy stereotype is the single worst part of the book and I can personally understand every reader who broke off reading the book after the first or second of these scenes, although it is certainly worth persevering. There is only one (albeit central and important) difference to established discourse. Unlike some who foster a deeply sexist discourse that would have women as benign beings, intrinsically incapable of violence, a discourse that tends to posit a fantasy matriarchy, based on shoddy anthropology and archeology, as a pacifist, peaceful kind of reign, Sarah Hall has none of that and for that at least, she is to be commended. The Carhullan inhabitants are not averse to violence, and the Carhullan leader, a former soldier, harbors dreams of setting up a revolutionary army of women. The Carhullan Army firmly and clearly shows that this is not due to male influence or patriarchal society around them. In fact, in many ways, it seems to extol violence as a means of retaliating against an oppressive, nocent society, one that brands them with a scarlet letter and that invests its Christian creation myths with a foundational female misdemeanor. And even if you turn out to disagree with my reading, the novel’s ambiguous treatment of revolution and communities is closer to Hari Kunzru’s most recent novel or Heiner Müller’s tantalizing plays, than to essentially reactionary books like Dana Spiotta’s competent but noncommittal 2006 novel Eat The Document. (my review here).

Thus, the book’s ideas and story have both good parts and shortcomings. Where Hall really lets down the reader is the book’s narrative and formal structure, which is written in the most tired, conventional way possible, although Hall is clever enough to suggest otherwise, suggestions that eventually add up to a huge feeling of disappointment. The writing and artistic vision is tame, making me think of a crossing of the work of a clever essayist and a mediocre if competent novelist. The book consists of seven chapters, each of which is called “File”, and each of which carries either the comment “Full recovery” or “Partial recovery”. A prefatory note states that the book to come is the

English Authority Penal System archive record no. 498: Transcript recovered from site of Lancaster holding dock. Statement of female prisoner detained under section 4 (b) of the insurgency Prevention (Unrestricted Powers) Act.

It would, I gather, be fair to assume that what follows is in some way a transcript of a spoken statement, and would follow, in diction and form, the exigencies of that situation. Really, one would hope or assume that the novelistic parts of the book would reflect the odd nature of the book in some way at the very least, but it never really does. Except for the first and last paragraph of the book, the situation that Sister is in never penetrates the sleek surface of the narrative. There is no sign that anything in the book was actually spoken by a person, and even for a written statement, it is weirdly calm and measured. It is impossible to overemphasize how utterly unremarkable, dull and conventional Sister’s narration is. As if she was writing a humorless version of a 19th century novel, we perambulate through the story, with flashbacks and commentary shedding the necessary light on every detail and every scene. The writing is simple, with small streaks of poetic prose. Given the far richer prose of her previous novels, I gather Hall has tried to simplify her style to fit the occasion, but the result is merely a tad less florid. It’s still smooth and warm, easy on the eyes and brain. A book you can read on the beach, on a train or during a dull world cup game.

Even the ‘partially recovered’ chapters turn out to be a trick without real narrative consequences. Flashbacks help fill in all the necessary gaps, and what we don’t know, we don’t want or care to know. The effect is disappointing, yes, and deeply puzzling: why would the writer hint at complexities she clearly has never really attempted to include in the book? It’s false advertising, that’s what it is, and what’s more, it fits the general air of undisturbed cliché scenery. For every interesting idea there are five ideas and scenes that reproduce ideas and scenes we all know, ideas and scenes that barely manage to coalesce into creating any kind of interest in the book’s developments for its readers. There are riches hidden in these connections, but Hall never really avails herself of the cultural vocabulary to make us of all of that. For the reader, it’s a bit frustrating to see these ideas taken up only to be discarded lazily a few pages later. It’s like reading a writer whose heart’s not in the story she tells. This is why I found the American title Daughters of the North more fitting: it is simpler, and the meaning of it is apparent and obvious. The original title The Carhullan Army is more complex: see, Carhullan is a farm, and until the last fourth of the book, its inhabitants do not have an army in the literal sense. However, the aspect of violence I mentioned, the revolutionary and vengeful motivations of its inhabitants, most of which have already committed a violent crime to avenge behavior that was harmful to them, this makes the Carhullans an army even before they ever decide to become one. Women who come to Carhullan have to understand that their earlier, submissive behavior was part of the abuse, to quote Sister:

I began to understand that I owned the abuse. I was the only persecutor.

This is fascinating, interesting, and thoroughly out of character for the book as a whole. But clearly, it would not have needed to be, and yet the timid allusions to contemporary politics, the lack either of a thorough indictment of the things that are, or of an original, powerful vision of the things that could be, this pushes novels like The Carhullan Army into near irrelevance and opens up the possibility of attacks like Siegel’s. It is a good read, but would the world have been poorer had it not been written? I don’t know.


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Ein bisschen wie Klezmer

Malte Lehming, der ein Tor bei der Fussball-WM augenzwinkernd auch mal als “Deutschlands inneres Auschwitz” bezeichnet, ist ein bisschen genervt von den Juden.

Deshalb wird der Antisemitismusvorwurf oft nur noch als Teil der jüdischen Folklore wahrgenommen, ein bisschen wie Klezmer-Musik. Der Papst warnt vor Kondom und Pille, die FDP vor “anstrengungslosem Wohlstand”, ein Marxist vor dem Privatbesitz an Produktionsmitteln, und die Juden warnen halt vor dem stets zunehmenden Antisemitismus. Ohne viel Gefühl für Relevanz und Proportionen ziehen sie in symbolische Schlachten, auto-immunisiert gegen die Realität. Frei nach Asterix lautet das Resümee: Die spinnen, die Juden, jedenfalls einige, jedenfalls manchmal.


We interviewed Scott Sigler.

As you well know, Donny & I interviewed Mr. Scott Sigler for bookbabble. The interview was short, and, well, a bit odd, since Donny & I were both busy holding our tongues and searching for nice questions to ask. Here is the direct link and below is Donny’s summary.

This week we speak with New York Times best-selling author Scott Sigler. We covered his start in the publishing industry, the podcast-only novel mechanism, and his upcoming book release ANCESTOR. Plus, there’s this bit about the World Cup as well (it’s called football, not soccer!).


A new bookbabble episode is online by now, about funny books. Present? Donny, Lone, Renee and me. Here is the direct link and here is Donny’s summary.

What are the books that make the babblers break into a smile? Perhaps even outright laughter?(Although it must be said that would look weird. Good for clearing a space for you in public transports, though). Anyway, babblers list out some interesting picks here, and in true Bookbabble style, a most varied and eclectic mix indeed. Not just funny books, mind you, but satirical and cynical yet darkly humorous works are also covered. Plus, critically-acclaimed poet who’s actually crap, and Marcel goes postal. “Some people shouldn’t be allowed to write!”, he wails.

RIP Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge died at 75. I’m in the process of discovering her work; so far I’ve only read and reviewed the excellent Harriet Said… . Given what I’ve read so far of hers, this is a deeply felt loss. This is from the BBC page:

Writing on micro-blogging site Twitter, author Margaret Atwood said: “Oldpal Dame Beryl Bainbridge dies – very sad. Wondrous original, great sport, loved her books. Hope she has champagne in heaven & a smoke…”

Thoroughbred mental cases

Robert Lowell: Waking in the Blue

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)

What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbert and ginger ale–
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
the hooded night lights bring out “Bobbie,”
Porcellian ’29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig–
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.