Schweblin’s Poisons

This is to add a short note. In my review of Samanta Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream, I wrote, ignorant buffoon that I am:

It’s a sense of evil lurking in the very ground – and Schweblin makes it an ecology issue, by connecting it to some unnamed barrels with some unnamed fluids. Some of the symptoms line up with radiation poisoning. […] But with all the lovely possibilities we have of storing poison underground, God knows what it is.

So I asked Argentinian academic Magdalena López and apparently it’s about a pesticide illness connected to the recent flood of transgenic crops, specifically transgenic soy, in Argentina. Here is an overview by Walter Alberto Pengue of the problematic trend of Argentina’s transgenic crops. Deutsche Welle has an article about protests related to the poisons, called “Pesticide illness triggers anti-Monsanto protest in Argentina.” Notably, the symptoms described in the article fit the ones in Schweblin’s novel pretty well.

“When he was four years old, he came down with the illness that left him temporarily paralyzed,” she recalls. “He was admitted to the hospital. They told me that they didn’t know what was wrong with him.”

And finally, to round things out, here is a 2015 article by Vice, titled “Argentina’s Soybeans Help Feed the World But Might Be Making Locals Sick.” I hope these suggestions make up for my initial mis-/ill informed blunder in the review. If you haven’t read the novel yet, you should!

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Chetan Bhagat: The Three Mistakes of my Life

Bhagat, Chetan (2008), The 3 Mistakes of my Life, Rupa
ISBN 978-81-291-1372-6

I don’t often read genuinely terrible, awful, no-good books. When I read a book I consider bad, it’s often “just” mediocre. It’s just – look, my reading habits often filter out the truly awful. So when I say that Chetan Bhagat’s novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life is a truly terrible book, I don’t mean: bad like Paul Auster, or bad like Daniel Goetsch. I mean bad like the essay you wrote in high school, bad like that movie you found on an old VHS in the ruins of an abandoned blockbuster starring Zachary Ty Brian. I mean bad. To be clear: Bhagat is, from what I can tell, a spectacularly successful Indian novelist (I recommend this post for an excellent analysis of his appeal), and this book is interesting for a variety of reasons. None of them are literary. This is not a good book. By comparison, Dan Brown is a genuinely competent novelist (he’s not) and Paulo Coelho erudite and clever (he’s not). If we exclude the thousands of pages of epic fantasy I’ve read in my life, Bhagat’s novel ranks among the worst books I have ever read. It’s a 250 page book structured into 210 pages of mind-numbing banalities and 40 pages of harrowing, grim, brutal action, which coalesce into a half baked strange political point and end in the writer’s autoerotic epilogue. This is bad. And yet…

And yet – I am so used to reading Indian literature in English, often by writers who do not live in India, like Rushdie or Mistry, or writers like Amitav Ghosh or Arundhati Roy, who are, at least partly, writing for a commonwealth audience, for readers who are not Indian. Bhagat’s novel is clearly directed at Indian readers, making small in-jokes about cultures, cities and communities, constantly relying on the reader’s sense of how certain things work and how certain historical backgrounds function. That makes for an extremely interesting reading experience. There’s room here to consider this book in connection with some postcolonial thinking, about the extent of colonialized speech. There are curious notes on religion and race, as well. If only the book’s core wasn’t the story of a couple ofi nsecure-but-boisterous boys, confused about and dismissive of women, and if the prose didn’t resemble that first draft you write at 4 in the morning after a bender just to get the idea out, maybe there would be something here? Following Gayatri Spivak’s essays on the archives (“The Rani of Simur” still holds up today) and on the subaltern, there was always a mildly disquieting element in the way Indian writers were received and perceived in the West, part of a traveling community of writers who Rushdie described well in essays collected in one of his best books, Imaginary Homelands.

Describing, speaking about India in English has always been an inherently tricky business, and the Western appetite for essentialist, dubiously fetishistic narratives of India has only fueled that. When Rushdie, after the stunning Grimus, recalibrated his writing under the influence of Grass, Desani, Marquez and others, his use of a specific tone, almost a genre of writing, a mode of how to speak about India in English to a Western audience, is clear and palpable. Particularly among the fêted but clearly weaker writers, like the inexplicably Booker winning Kiran Desai, the use of generic markers is obvious, and deserves interrogation within Spivak’s parameters. Chetan Bhagat is a completely different kind of writer, and I don’t just mean that he’s an incompetent boob. His book is written in English, but it makes no allowance for English readers by explaining, contextualizing, explicating terms, words or descriptions. His audience knows what he’s talking about, and the experience for me as a reader is fascinating. One encounters these things in translation, obviously, but there is a specific context for Indian literature in English, and within that context, reading Bhagat can be a puzzling experience.

Take Bhagat’s nationalism: there are people in the book who are non-Indian native speakers of English, specifically Australians here, and Bhagat’s descriptions of Australians and their language is very clearly that of someone who googled the words “typical Australian phrases” and copy and pasted them into the novel, with only very cursory care for whether the sentences around them syntactically supported the insertions. Bhagat’s characters are proud Indians, saying things like “I don’t want to be Australian in my next life. Even if I have a hundred next lives, I want to be Indian in all of them.” This unabashed, unchecked, clear nationalism, together with the essentialist and ignorant treatment of Australians is a curious fit for many conceptions of the discoursive structure of Indian literature in English. One of Bhagat’s most recent novels follows the foibles of an Indian who attends a British public school and thus invites, maybe, comparisons with books like Rushdie’s (very good) memoirs. But all of this has less to do with Bhagat’s novel, as it has to do with me as a reader and Western traditions of reading and how Indian writers, both those who live in India and those who made Canada, the US or the UK their permanent home respond to those tradtions.

Bhagat’s novel appears, at first, to be about cricket, and about some very odd ideas about love, sex and gender, but ends up making a serious point about politics. The background to the book are the Gujarat riots. As far as I can tell, Bhagat, a public intellectual in India, whose offensively low skill as a novelist appears to be equal to his skill as a public intellectual, is currently, more or less, a supporter of Modi’s government. In the novel, Bhagat strongly excoriates the Gujarati mobs, and offers a multi-cultural vision of India where all Indians are raising the national flag and beat Australians at cricket, because dammit how come that tiny nation keeps beating us! He doesn’t really offer an opinion on whether or not a Muslim mob was responsible for the Godhra train burning (they may not have been), and he strongly suggests that BJP leadership had a role in inflaming and steering the riots, indirectly implicating Modi, who indeed many people have considered complicit. The solution to these issues? Sticking together as a nation, with all resentment directed at foreigners, not Indians. History has turned out differently, and as it turns out, Nationalism is bad medicine. It’s like rubbing hot sauce into a wound. So the novel’s politics are at best naive. Fittingly, every person in the book shares the author’s naivete.

There is the main character, Govind Patel, an aspiring businessman in his twenties who has sex 9 times with a 17-18 year old girl who he’s supposed to tutor and who inexplicably falls for his geeky looks, seducing him on a rooftop, culminating in a sex scene that is both explicit and extremely prudish. Govind may be a big ol’ virgin, but Bhagat himself doesn’t appear to be quite on the up and up about the mechanics of sex, as he has Govind insist multiple times that they had sex with a condom, but then also feel bad for having “unprotected sex” – I’m not sure what kind of protection Bhagat envisions. Maybe it’s the same protection that kept his editor from touching the manuscript, because there is no way anyone edited this borderline random collection of letters and (completely mad) punctuation. There is his best friend Ish, whose sister had protected/unprotected sex with Govind, and who, while fleeing from an angry, murderous Hindu mob, takes a cricket bat to his best friend when he finds out Govind has been tutoring her in very naughty subjects. And then there’s Omi, whose father is a mad priest/BJP politician, who drinks two litres of milk per day and almost faints at the sight of breasts.

But the book’s worst, most unbearable character is a man called Chetan Bhagat. You see, the book is framed by the story of Bhagat receiving an email from Govind who is about to kill himself but uses the time while he waits for the pills to do their work to send off a weird fan email to Bhagat, whose books he loves so much and who, he feels, is the only person who can understand him. So Bhagat finds Govind who has survived his suicide attempt that was clearly as badly planned as everything else in Govind’s tiresome life, and Govind then tells him his story, culminating in murder, fear, and friendships breaking apart during the Gujarat riots. Of course, that’s when Bhagat adds TWO epilogues, because if there’s anything more important than a horrifying event in recent Indian history, it’s pointing out what a nice and helpful person this Chetan Bhagat is, who ends up reuniting old friends and lovers. He’s quite something, this Chetan guy. And so humble! In his introduction/acknowledgements, he explains: “I don’t want to be India’s most admired writer. I just want to be India’s most loved writer. Admiration passes, love endures.” I mean, cockroaches would survive a nuclear desaster, so God knows, Bhagat’s work might endure.

And I can see literary critics in a century reading these books, thinking “surely this is satire” and giving Bhagat a spot in the pantheon of satirical writers, as the master of satirizing bad prose. I had to read parts of this book to people, just to make them aware of the existence of observations like: “The great thing about girls is that even during pauses in the conversation you can look at them and not get bored.” I have never read a book like this, and God willing, I will never again. And yet, even as I go through these pages of terrible dialog, awful descriptions, and embarrassing thoughts, I can’t help but be fascinated by the book as a part of literary discourse. If only it were better.

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Manuele Fior: 5,000 km per second

Fior, Manuele (2016), 5,000 km per second, Fantagraphics
[Translated by Jamie Richards]

ISBN 978-1-60699-666-9

I can’t believe I never heard of Manuele Fior before. 5,000 km per Second is an extraordinary book – succeeding on all levels: as story, as a set of characterizations and as a graphic narrative. In fact, the art is to me the most astonishing aspect of it. I think we sometimes make allowances for comic books, for the limitations in the way comic books carry a narrative visually. I’ve never read a book like Fior’s, with it’s extraordinary approach to exactness. I kept going back and forth in the book, admiring his work. Until, that is, the end of the book, when the sad music of the book’s song of love and loss comes to a beautiful elegiac end and I needed a break. This is an absolutely gorgeous book, with only the sometimes angular dialog as an occasional weakness. Fior is Italian and the book was translated into English for Fantagraphics, not that the publisher is particularly forthcoming with this information. Ir’s not until the final page of the book that we find, in small print, the name of the translator, a man called Jamie Richards, who translated the novel, originally called Cinquemila chilometri al secondo, into this English that’s less than ideal. My Italian isn’t good enough to figure out whether a sentence is aesthetically pleasing so I cannot compare, but there’s a kind of awkwardness that I tend to associate with translations. That said, whatever misgivings I might have regarding the dialog, it’s never a very important element. Fior’s skill as an artist is such that for much of the book, we would understand the story even without any dialog. If you read only one comic book this year, make it this one.

too little too late

The story isn’t written as memory – it is an interrupted love story that stretches over a long period of time, told in the moment rather than as something remembered, but at the same time, Fior captures the complexities of memory with a rare skill, singling out moments, situations, gestures in a way that invites all of us who have had broken hearts, unfulfilled longings, tragic amorous histories to share in this story. And while the basic structure of the story isn’t remembrance, memory, and the stories we tell each other about our past, all these still play a central role in the book. The episodes are connected by the two protagonist remembering earlier episodes, remembering each other, creating a sense of what could have been rather than an anticipation of the future. Every new episode, every jump ahead into the future represents a significant change in the life of the protagonists, but the book doesn’t, I think expect us to anticipate these developments. Instead, every episode is a layered composite of all the previous ones, and represents one path taken of many that could have been – and there’s a tragic, melancholic sense of loss in this. The loss of all the other possible futures, that is. If you’ve ever looked at the path your life took and wonder where things shifted, went wrong (or well) to lead you to where you are today, you have a sense of how the book works. There’s no “glo up” in the book – at best there’s a feeling, in the end, of some tired acceptance of everything that has happened. Things never go entirely well, hopes dissolve, futures turn cloudy and unhappy.

Look at the hands in these panels

Have you ever looked at the evening sky and wondered where the day, the week, the month, your life has gone? Much of this is communicated by Fior’s book. We meet Pietro and Lucia as young Italian teenagers, and then find them again and again, until we are offered, towards the end, a completely dispiriting hasty attempt at sexual congress between two sad, bloated middle aged versions of their younger self. Lucia tells Pietro not to look at her, out of a shame that must have grown in her in years and years of bad experiences and shame, very little of which is shown in previous episodes. When he fails to rise to the occasion, she blames it on his having looked at her. This is the saddest scene I have read in any book, in any genre this year, and I’ve read some very unhappy literature. It’s important to understand that when we remember episodes of the past, they are not a complete, or even largely complete guide to who we are today, how we ended up as the people we are today. Fior understands this, and he doesn’t use the episodes as full explanations for how the characters end up where they are – partially, sure, but middle aged Lucia’s shame and embarrassment’s source is hinted at in one episode, but fundamentally, we are presented with the way she is, and are asked to fill in the sad, but inescapable facts of her life. Every moment of our lives we have a choice – a choice of where to go, what to do, who or what to pursue. At the same time, we are already locked into our moment by our past choices.

This is one of the saddest panels I’ve ever seen

What’s truly remarkable about Pietro and Lucia’s story is not the deflating trajectory it takes, but the almost miraculous way their paths keep crossing, the opportunities that keep accruing, the way each failure is followed by another opportunity. It’s tempting to see the book as a kind of love story, but really, it’s about the way adulthood is often a mixture of compromises, disappointments and small hard won successes. The recurring tale of Pietro and Lucia just serves to show that what the two follow is indeed a path and not a random selection of episodes. The way they change, not just as individuals, but also how they change as friends, lovers and acquaintances shows the winding path to sexual inadequacy, loneliness and the small compromises many of us take to evade. Manuele Fior’s success as a storyteller is almost impossible to overstate. Structurally, this easily keeps up with some of the best short novels I’ve recently read. I say short novels – to be clear, this text depends on being a rather short book. Blown up to the proportions of the unbearably unbearable One Day by whatshisname it would lose almost all of its appeal. All the episodes are brief, showing short moments. A meeting over coffee, am unpleasant morning in the car, a nighttime arrival in Norway and and a midnight romance. Even the one episode that strictly speaking takes place over a longer period, is told succinctly and efficiently. Whatever the comic’s page count, this is, structurally, a novella kind of story.

To be clear – I am not trying to say that this book could have been prose. It was just to situate it among the other books I read this year. No, Fior’s greatest strength is his unbelievable skill as an artist. I have never read a comic where the artist had such a sure, such an exact sense of what counts in a given panel. No character or setting is ever completely drawn, much of it is full of the vague clouds of Fior’s watercolors – but Fior is incredibly good at concentrating on one gesture, one facial quirk, one interaction. Sometimes this can be the whole shape and movement of a pregnant woman in a tub, sometimes it’s just a hand holding a chin, or a hand reaching out, or a face that can’t believe what it’s hearing. This is true for every single panel – and in every single panel, the sometimes vague, sometimes expressionistic elements serve to underline the importance of the one exact, relevant gesture. The combination of evocative, inexact vibrancy and the sharpness of small elements makes the memory/immediacy double structure of the story told work so well. It also contributes to our reading of the story as efficient and sharp rather than maudlin, no small feat given the sometimes overwhelming feeling of melancholy that the story is dipped in. Manuele Fior offers us a novel about life as a series of repetitions of diminishing returns, of the stupidity of hope, and the sadness of middle age, and the betrayal of the heavy bear that walks with us, our bodies, and yet when we finish it we are elated, and left with admiration, and that strange feeling of happiness that always accompanies the reading of a true masterpiece. Or maybe that’s just me.

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Unimaginative Imagination: on Luc Besson’s Valérian

I wrote a little thing about Luc Besson’s Valerian for The Fanzine and you can find it here. This is how it starts:

In a classic essay, Samuel R. Delany wrote that “without an image of tomorrow, one is trapped in blind history” and in other places, he offers up science fiction as a genre with a unique language – not just the grammar of story, but the language and structure itself. Pierre Christin, author and co-creator of the French comic series Valérian et Laureline, suggested something similar when he said of his own creation that science fiction is a great tool to “overheat” the real. It’s too bad that Luc Besson, when he made a movie out of Christin’s creation, decided not to challenge the real.

Theodor Kallifatidis: Masters and Peasants

Kallifatidis, Theodor (1977), Masters and Peasants, Doubleday
[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal]
ISBN 0-385-09916-9

Kallifatidis is a Swedish novelist and poet of Greek descent. That is all I know. He has a large body of work, but very little of it is translated into English (or German, for that matter). Masters and Peasants, the English translation of his novel about WWII Greece, originally published in 1973 as Bönder och Herrar, isn’t currently in print. It’s certainly worth reprinting, it’s a good book. Kallifatidis writes a novel that appears to be written in a specific genre – a tale of the strange behaviors of villagers (think Clochemerle), but is set against a dark background: the German occupation of Greece. It starts with the dark image of someone hanging themselves on a fig tree, but goes on to tell a story that is often comical enough to make you laugh. Kallifatidis works with set-pieces that we all know from novels like this. There’s the mayor, the village priest, the local baker, stupid arguments about territories, pretty girls, the village idiot and many more. These parts are written in a deadpan tone that suits the subject very well. The town of Ialos, where it all takes place, couldn’t be more typical of the genre. A bare mountain with a lonely fig tree behind it, a valley before it, and a strange, neverending obsession with the size and quality of male genitals and death.

It’s very funny, but at the same time, the village is occupied by the German army and as time progresses, things get increasingly worse until a public execution drives many of the town’s men into the mountains to join the resistance. Kallifatidis never changes his tone, and in the way the darkness of history mingles with the elements of the comic bucolic novel Masters and Peasants sometimes resembles Roberto Benigni’s movie La vita è bella. Kallifatidis never really gets nasty except for the handful of remarks reserved for post-war Greece, where he allows his voice to include sharp, acidic takedowns of the fascist continuities in Greece after the war, as well as agreements of the Papandreou government to “sell Greece to the English.” He never dwells on the horrors of war, and the awful things that people do to each other. He mentions them, and moves on, opting to give a sense of how everything coheres rather than breathless condemnation. Ultimately, not all the bad people in the novel are Germans. Many are Greek, many are villagers, and many terrors preceded the German invasion. It’s an interesting, solid book, and I find it deplorable how little of Kallifatidis’s work is available in translation.

Like many of the classic tales of village stupidities, Kallifatidis’s village is full of cruel, stupid people. Cruel, stupid and insecure. Unwilling to learn, scared of change and resentful towards outsiders. Kallifatidis’s novel is full of repetitions, narrative circles. We learn of a person, a thing, an event and then we keep coming back to it until we come back to its chronological end point, which is often death. Thus, on page one, we learn that the village confectioner had hung himself on the fig tree because rumors were going around about his sexuality. People, for stupid reasons, assumed he was gay, and used this rumor as a weapon. When he left the village to learn how to make sweets, it didn’t help, because sweets are, of course, the gayest of foods and the city he learned his trade was the gayest of Greek cities. So upon his return, married with children now, they persecuted him. First by dropping hints like “so you really like to make sweets, huh.” and later, by trying to have him arrested or kicked out until eventually he went to his death, “proving” to the village his sexual inclination. We begin the novel with his suicide and his fate is alluded to again and again until we are explained what happened to him in more detail towards the end of the book. His death functions to contextualize the cruelties under German occupation.

It’s thus no surprise that a group of Greek youths, recruited by the Germans, one night goes out and rapes a young Jewish girl. The rape and the extended tale of suicide come near the end of the book. They help us see the genre of village follies as what it is: the sometimes inhuman mob mentality that small towns and villages easily develop. Kallifatidis goes to greath lengths in between to explain to us the idiosyncrasies of the village. There’s a priest who is an alcoholic womanizer, there’s the obsession with cocks (there’s a whole taxonomy of cock sizes), and the mayor, who has the largest penis in the village (nobody really knows, but he’s the leader and leaders should have large penises, is the village logic), nicknamed the crown prince. There’s a butcher who kills his animals by straddling them, an act that arouses him and the women watching. The obsession with male genitals is part of a kind of insecurity that ends up driving the confectioner to his death, and the general almost hysterical discourse on sex surely contributed to the rape.

There is a great deal of darkness in the book, but Kallifatidis serves it on a platter of light deadpan narratives of village stories. In doing so, he hews so close to generic conventions that the novel sometimes seems almost banal in its humor – until, that is, tragedies invade it. There is always a little death in these books, but the end of Masters and Peasants is filled with death, as all the narrative strands converge towards the end of the war, with villagers dead, in Dachau or otherwise aggrieved. At the same time, Kallifatidis does not give us a clean ending either: the book is full of comments on the awful post-war period, and the author himself has made his life experience part of the book. Not only does the book end on “I am one of the children.” but the introduction to the novel makes clear that this is essentially an autobiographical project: “neither the town nor the people are fictional” and explains that the book is called a novel “simply because what I present here is my own picture of reality and not reality itself.” This is deeply curious and I’m not sure I’ve encountered a disclaimer quite like this.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is its connection to reality. And by this I am referring to two distinct aspects. One is linguistic, the other generic. Linguistically, it’s fascinating that this book was written in Swedish, but with its references and the introduction, it reads utterly Greek, not to mention the folksy tone of the whole thing. But I am not reading it in Swedish either, I am reading it in English, a process which has completely wiped away the Swedish element of the book and left me only with the Greek. Yes, some awkwardnesses in the translation make me suspect Swedish constructions and holdovers, but my Swedish isn’t good enough to figure these out. So for all intents and purposes, this reads and feels like a Greek book which is an odd feeling. And this sort of brings us to the second part of this. Many countries have their own style of crude village humor, often with clearly recognizable differences. I don’t know the Swedish genre well enough to know whether Kallifatides, in his Swedish text, has used that parameter rather than offer a typically Greek genre of tale. All of these are differences that completely vanish in the translation, where all we know is we are reading a translation, and this is a story about a Greek village.

And there is another part to this generic thought – the brief introduction clearly suggests that the text is supposed to be read as intensely personal. Nothing has been changed, and the reason the book isn’t a memoir but a novel is not because of a distancing fictional device, but really the exact opposite: because the author feels his own perception may have warped reality. in short, it’s too personal. But the book itself never reads like a personal or real story. Disregarding some unique touches, most of it feels incredibly generic – and I don’t mean this in a bad way. It’s just that the book appears to be constructed with generic parameters. If the introduction didn’t exist, I would never assume there to be a personal element to the book. Don’t be absurd! Have you ever considered Clochemerle to be some confessional story from the French province? Of course not! It’s the friction between the novel and its introduction that’s so interesting.

I wonder whether this has something to do with witnessing and speech – I think it is entirely possible to read Masters and Peasants as a text that uses generic markers to facilitate personal speech. I mean, it is explicitly framed as Kallifatides finding his voice, finding the guts to write about his past. The two-sentence declaimer in the introduction is not unlike the worries about representation and reality that pervade, say, Jorge Semprún’s work, but the text is free from epistemological troubles and doubts. It is full of declarations, about the past and human nature, but the text’s language is the impersonal language of genre deadpan. I think there’s a way to read this use of genre as a tool to question narrative in itself. Of course, a better clue to how the book works would be to read Kallifatides’s other books from the period, but publishers have been very negligent in translating a writer who seems to be very accessible.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE.  If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

The Box : a brief essay on suicide and depression

This is a brief essay about three to four years in my life that I have managed to put behind me, but will carry around with me at all times. I am haunted by a death I didn’t achieve and a future that slipped away in the meantime.

I live with a black Box of terror.

The full text is at ric journalThe Box : a brief essay on suicide and depression

Wyl Menmuir: The Many

Menmuir, Wyl (2016), The Many, Salt
ISBN 978-1-784630485

So, to get things out of the way, this is a novel about grief, some of it quite affecting. Short books about grief are not uncommon. Max Porter’s debut novel(la) Grief is the Things with Feathers is an example of a well-executed book about grief and loss, as is Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel or Joan Didion’s memoir. The worst book I’ve read on the subject in past years was John W. Evans’s plodding and whiny Young Widower. Grief, whether autobiographical or not, is a powerful emotion for writers to mine, and I think it shows overwriting and overdetermination like few other genres. The stark simple fact of death and loss is so severe that it asks of the writer to be particularly mindful of the words and forms they are using, in contrast to writing about other strong emotions like love and desire, which can take a bit of overwriting, and in fact are sometimes enhanced by it. Max Porter’s examination of grief worked so well because he created a metaphor that carried much of the load for him; additionally, he used a language that was spare but not bland, with a fine sense of where to slip in and out of the events. Max Porter’s success was particularly interesting as he was one of the first of the recent wave of people from the “book industry” (Porter is a Granta Books editor) to come out with a fiction debut. Another one was literary agent Bill Clegg whose debut novel Did you ever have a family was longlisted for the 2015 Booker.

Editor and consultant Wyl Menmuir added his name to that list with his own Booker-longlisted debut The Many. It is a solid book, written by a man with solid literary taste, a clever imagination and solid literary skills. Like Max Porter, Menmuir opted to write about grief, and like Porter, he uses an allegory to carry the reader through the story. But Menmuir is what I like to call a meddler – he writes the allegory in a way that requires him to “reveal” the mechanism behind it at the end, and he keeps dropping hints, in a prose that’s sometimes simple, and sometimes egregiously overwritten. Curiously, his set-up didn’t need him to use some of the tools of (magical) realism, and yet, in the first 3/4ths of the book, that’s what he does over and over – and these are not his strengths. In German, we say of mixed affairs like this that they are weder Fisch noch Fleisch, neither fish nor meat. And that’s what you get here – a good idea, a powerful emotion, and a writer who kept meddling in his own book, adding stuff here and there, resulting in a book that feels mostly like a missed opportunity. The idea could have made for a much stronger book, a truly affecting, moving, maybe even terrifying little novel. Instead we get a book that’s in between genres, in between styles, in between registers. If this book didn’t have the Booker sticker on the cover I wouldn’t have read it – to be honest, I might not have finished it. It’s a solid book, and quite short, so…maybe read it?

I’m not giving away the novel’s resolution here, and won’t describe how the allegory connects. But for 2/3rds of the book, it’s not really material how the allegory works – it’s true, you can go back and some curious passages work differently after you have more details on the allegory, than they did when you read them for the first time. At the same time, you’re always sort of aware that this is an allegorical set up, with various elements too staged, too portentous to work as realism, even magical realism. This makes the novel sometimes difficult to assess – a first reading is, after all, the most immediate, most important reading of the book. The book that came to mind as a comparison immediately was Graham Swift’s masterful novel Waterland. Now, Swift’s novel is so good that it is practically sui generis; I’ve not read another novel even by Swift that can compare with it. That said, it’s hard not to feel Menmuir draw from the same well in his set-up. The setting of The Many is a small fishing village dealing with a recent death. A young man named Perran has died. There is a general sense of gloom, and much of it feels immediately isolated and allegorical, but at the same time, Menmuir sets up a sense of place that could well be a real fishing village. He draws on the same sense of interconnection of history and nature that drives much of Waterland. We have a real sense of how this fishing village economy works, including an ominous representative of EU fisheries regulations. Into this village comes a man who is himself burdened with a recent loss. This man, Timothy, takes up residence in the house that was until recently occupied by Perran and is still full of his things. Again, we get a real sense of how objects interconnect with the life and history of the village and the many superstitions, habits and rules that are part of that life.

None of this is necessary for the allegory, mind you. If you step away from the text, you can see the allegorical bones of it, with the house, some of its furniture, the village and its inhabitants and a forbidding line of container ships that forms a taboo barrier for the fishermen. All the magical realism, all the Graham- Swiftness of the text is additional, it’s not needed by the text – you could argue that the damp atmosphere of the novel is important, but even it can do without most of these touches. What’s worst is that in order to make the book work despite all the additional weight, Menmuir pushes in a ton of flashbacks that keep us on our toes and sometimes focus us back on the overall structure. They are inserted awkwardly sometimes, but that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that Menmuir can’t leave a good thing alone. There’s the woman, maybe from the EU, who pays the fishermen for their catch of diseased dogfish. She stands on the docks, silent, with a grey coat. There’s a lot of weight in these descriptions, and a lot of power in the set-up, but Menmuir, in what feels like anxiety, keeps piling on, with sentences like “Her eyes impart something to him, something that suggests she understands, and feeling wells up in him, so much so he feels like he might be overwhelmed by it.” I’m not even here to judge the quality of that sentence as a piece of prose, but it makes very clear the author’s anxiety to really nail down all the meaning and foreboding he wants to nail down. Or, earlier: “He realizes then he is not fishing but hunting, and he watches for Timothy the way a hunter waits for a stalked deer.” The hunting metaphor is almost immediately discarded, and doesn’t add much to the text that the reader wouldn’t have seen themselves.

This overdetermination is a pity. I cannot say whether the novel, executed with a more focused sense of form, and with sentences that are sharper and clearer and more consistent, would indeed have been better. Looking at the simpler sentences, it’s not clear that this is a strength for Menmuir either, but anything would have been better than this hodgepodge. And there’s so many good ideas in here. There’s an early indication of an interesting comment on masculinity and communion, on intellectual work, on the meaning of family and communion, and some of the many, many dreams that swamp the book are very well done. But the most interesting part is the connection the author establishes between private and public grief. If Max Porter’s book is indebted to Ted Hughes, then Manmuir’s book surely owes a debt to Eliot. The village is indeed an “unreal city” and the title of the novel reminds us of that Dante line that Eliot incorporated into The Waste Land: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” There is an overwhelming urge in the book, particularly towards the end, to connect the private catastrophe with a broader public narrative. It is such an enormous sentiment, that it deserved a somewhat better novel built around it. An example of an excellent novel built around a coastal village, dealing with death and loss is A.L. Kennedy’s extraordinary story of young adulthood, aging and suicide, Everything You Need. I mean, as a reader, when I closed The Many, I almost felt a sense of loss myself: the loss of the good or even great book that this could have been. In my head I heard the lines from Donald Hall’s poem “Without” from the collection with the same name, mourning his late wife Jane Kenyon: “we lived in a small island stone nation / without color under gray clouds and wind / distant the unlimited ocean”

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