Denise Mina: Rizzo

Mina, Denise (2021), Rizzio, Polygon
ISBN 9-781 1534-314405

As I may have pointed out in previous reviews: I am a great admirer of the work of Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina. Unlike many other writers in her genre, her work is animated by a creative unrest – an impatience with seriality and the form of the typical mystery novel. She has started three different series of novels, centered on the police, on reporters and on a personal investigator. In parallel, she wrote a series of standalone novels, some of which, like the celebrated The Long Drop, are historical true crime novels.

I have not written new reviews here in a while, and several new novels came and went in the meantime; I have copious notes on The Long Drop in particular, which is a deeply admirable book, in the way it connects Mina’s well-established sense of place and local and social connections, with a sharp recreation of a historical crime. There is a curious contrast between Mina’s approach to true crime and the work of a writer like Helen Garner, whose books, while also very good, deal more in the individual psychology of crime, which, when applied to real people, always has a bit of a haut gout.

And another thing happened in this break – I read my first Denise Mina novel which is bad. Though I say “bad” – Conviction is among her best reviewed books. For me, nothing came together in this attempt to fuse diverse kinds of storytelling – adventure, crime, storytelling, and…podcasts? The central animating device of Conviction is the attempt to solve a crime while simultaneously recording a podcast about it. Very Only Murders in The Building, you say? Accurate, but at the same time, satire isn’t Mina’s strong suit, and her strengths in connecting and grounding violence in characters and places are at odds with the basic satire the book revolves around. The book reads like it was fun to write and it is entertaining enough to read, but some of Mina’s novels belong among the best novels in their genre and that’s just a very high bar to clear.

Rizzio, however, very easily clears that bar. This very short novel deals with an episode in the life of Mary Queen of Scots. It was published as the first entry in the “Darkland Tales” books, where Scottish writers reimagine Scottish history in fiction. The next entry was Jenni Fagan’s Hex, which is also excellent, and in Autumn 2022, Alan Warner (whose Morvern Callar is one of the best Scottish novels of the 20th century) will follow. Jenni Fagan’s novel(la) retells the North Berwick witch trials – focusing on one particularly famous historical figure and contextualizing it in a feminist reading of history. And it makes sense to write a book about transient everyday figures who are frequently forgotten by history, or whose memory is slighted by the broader strokes of history. Books focusing on these characters often provide genuine insight into the structure of historiography and the way power moves and shakes narratives.

There’s also a certain freedom in these books, unburdened by the weight of libraries of literature expended on characters and events. This does not mean that writers generally just invent things. Margaret Atwood’s best novel, Alias Grace, is an examination of a 19th century murder, written to correct the historical record established by a contemporary account. Similarly, Denise Mina’s own The Long Drop is scrupulously detailed and does not draw its strength from invention, but from re-contextualization of violence. The book ends on a description of the way Glasgow has entirely changed since then: “the city is reborn so completely that it becomes a memory of a memory of a place.”

Rizzio is a condensed little book about the 1566 murder of David Rizzio by a conspiracy intent on ending Mary’s reign as queen. And while the initial plot was not successful beyond the actual murder of Rizzio, an Italian courtier and secretary of Queen Mary, in short order Mary was in fact deposed, and imprisoned, first in Scotland, and later in England. These are all famous characters. David Rizzio’s murder has been depicted in numerous books and movies, and the list of texts dealing with the reign of Queen Mary is truly endless. In some way, the shape of public narratives of Queen Mary, from Walter Scott, through Antonia Fraser and to Denise Mina is a full history of the way British literature has changed. There’s nothing of substance you could add to the story, no secret psychological explanation, no twist, no uncovered conspiracy.

And Mina does not attempt to do so – she explains her method to the reader by way of a prefatory quote from Borges:

“The exercises in narrative prose that make up this book overly exploit certain tricks: random enumerations, sudden shifts of continuity, and the paring down of a man’s whole life to two or three scenes. They are not, they do try not to be, psychological.”

As I mentioned before – this eschewing of psychology is something that Mina has done before in her true crime fiction. What’s new is the playfulness of arranging scenes and chronology. Stylistically, this book also reads more like her true crime fiction – for these books, Mina has pared down her style, jettisoned superfluous descriptors, and offers us plain declarative sentences. Short sentences, with a minimum of hypotactical flourishes, just telling us what happens, who is doing what. The chapters are short, the scenes are set with extraordinary effectiveness. The nimble clarity of Mina’s writing in Rizzio almost reads like an exercise, meant to demonstrate mastery of a certain style.

The plot of the book does not deviate from the known story of Rizzio’s murder – but Mina is not interested, contrary to what might be expected, in Mary’s reactions to the events, at least not primarily. Mary, who is surprised by the plot, which involved her craven husband, flees, but otherwise does not have a hand in the events, which are primarily shaped by the push and pull of people who are interested in power, but not interested in the opinion of the woman who currently holds it. “These are the men who fill history books with their squabbles and claims and resentments. The Great Men of History.” And while the events of the book precipitate and contribute to the fall, imprisonment and eventual death of Mary Queen of Scots, the plot itself fails – these men, as Mina notes have not changed history, even though they are convinced of it, as events unfold.

And while I noted that there is a contrast between the story of The Long Drop, after all, just the story of a serial killer whose murders became part of urban legend, and Rizzio, the story of one of the most famous characters in all of British history, in terms of how well represented each story is in historiography, the two books end on a similar note. After Mary fled, her rooms in Holyrood were first closed and then abandoned to the point where there are no authentic objects in these rooms that Mary personally interacted with, only objects which are “traditionally associated” with Mary. The way even famous, unquestionably important and powerful historical figures can be subject to the flotsam and jetsam of history, when they are female, is remarkable and deplorable.

Rizzio is a short book about the violence of misogyny in both history and historiography. And somehow, in these few pages, Mina also manages to tell the stories of people entirely lost to history, of the everyday folk who are moved on the board to plan or escape plots. This is one of the least flawed books I have read in a long time, which manages to offer both depth and brevity, clarity of observation and breadth of vision. If you have not read Denise Mina’s work yet, maybe this is the time to do so.

Warren Ellis/ Phil Hester: Shipwreck

Ellis, Warren; Phil Hester et al. (2018), Shipwreck, Aftershock
ISBN 9781935002802

If you read comics, you will have come across Phil Hester’s work here or there – he’s inescapable. And not like the ubiquitous mediocre artists. Hester’s work is always excellent. Shipwreck is no exception. Every panel, every page works. There’s a touch of J.H. Williams III about the panel layouts here, and a couple of younger artists have produced similar work, particularly in the way Hester relies on his inker here for depth and stature. And then there is the writing. Shipwreck is one of many projects by Warren Ellis, who has something of a renaissance these days – he has never gone away of course, but the recent creator owned comic books published by Image Comics (Injection, and, more relevant for this book, Trees), as well as his work on characters like Karnak or Moon Knight has been exemplary. Shipwreck is unusual among all these titles by being self contained. It’s a 6 issue comic, collected in one trade, published by Aftershock. The tendrils that Shipwreck extends towards other comic books are too numerous to list, but the book never feels derivative. It clearly feels like part of a longer comics conversation, yet its structure and character is quite unique, and Hester’s bold pen contributes to this certainly.

Shipwreck, like many great contemporary comic books, is high concept: a man lands on a strange world. As it turns out, he built a machine that can jump to a parallel earth, an attempt made in order to save the ballooning population of “regular” earth. This parallel earth is a strange hellscape – Ellis’s depiction draws from various ideas of postapocalyptic landscapes. The tropes are all there as expected: strange bars, unexpected encounters, no large communities – this is about isolated individuals strewn across a large vista of rocks and ruins. At the same time, we learn that somehow this world of destruction and mystery has a high level of technical expertise, plus a level of organization that allowed them to insert a spy in “regular” earth’s mission, there to sabotage it. This parallel earth is an earth of violence tropes, of fear. Towards the end of the book, a character from parallel earth says to the protagonist: “nobody understood you back there because you were afraid of everything and they weren’t. you’ve come home.” This insertion of fear here points to what Ellis is doing with the tropes and narratives here – he’s condensing them into one sharp image: the leap. It is a Kierkegaardian leap, this leap from one earth to the other, and Ellis has exposed it as such, with all the implications it has for other texts in this vein.

To my mind, the comic books that I thought most immediately about were Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein’s Drifter and Jeff Smith’s Rasl. Drifter ran through multiple trades until it ended beautifully last year. It is about a man who lands with his ship, seemingly dropped out of time – traveled through more than just space. There are contradictions and mysteries that Brandon wraps around an engaging story. While Brandon’s story, in turn, shares a lot with many other recent comic books about space-as-wild-west (Copper is one excellent example), his inversions of time and identity made his book stand out. The dominant narrative – who shoots who, who does what, all of these are diversions in the greater mystery of time and place. Drifter is full of leaps, and even engages the idea of religion, but manages to still wriggle out of it, boiling it down to a personal journey of melancholic self-discovery. This comic, towards the last trades, has some of the loneliest and emotionally gripping panels I can remember reading from a comic in this genre. Nic Klein’s art is essential to this. I’ve been meaning to do a review of Drifter for a while, but I never quite got around to it. The book’s final revelations aren’t real revelations in the sense that we are genuinely surprised – instead, we can kind of guess at everything after the first trade, but Brandon manages, with great skill, to use the majority of his run to carefully tease out all the implications and turns in his concept. The result is a wonderful comic that everybody should consider reading.

In many ways, Shipwreck uses very similar moments of revelation, the landing of the ship, the alien-but-familiar landscape, down to the way Hester renders moments of surprise, and mental strain. Another book that is similar, though in less immediately obvious ways, is Jeff Smith’s Rasl, which he published in four volumes a few years back. Smith is most well known for Bones, but I’d argue that Rasl is a greater accomplishment. RASL is a book about science, indirectly referencing various debates about the Manhattan Project and the viability and exploitability of various forms of scienti´fic progress. But more relevantly, it is about a man who straps a device to his body that allows him a form of interdimensional travel. The protagonist in Shipwreck also has a device that allows him a specialized form of travel – it allows him to jump short distances – i.e, disappear and reappear somewhere not too far away. Like RASL’s device, this one takes a toll on its user. There are a couple of scenes that read like direct references to Smith, but it’s hard to tell with such a broadly allusive book like Shipwreck. Smith does tether his story to religion, but more in the sense of a general meaty mysticism rather than something more specific. Smith’s book is effusive and inspired rather than precise and direct. Ellis’s book is the latter, more than supported by Hester’s inorganic, angular lines.

As a whole this reads like a master’s comment on a whole genre – it feels less like fiction, and more like metafiction. A comic book disquisition on craft. There is a lot of “story” in the book but at the same time, the book doesn’t appear to be interested in story. That Ellis can do story is evidenced by his own Trees. Shipwreck reads more like a proof of concept, a master showing up his disciples. Or: Masters, plural. Hester, too, has been around longer than many fêted contemporary artists, and has provided great art all this time. I first encountered Hester’s work on Kevin Smith’s iconic Green Arrow run – whatever you think of Smith’s work in comics, Quiver is a masterpiece, and Hester’s art is a big part of that. His work here is recognizable – but it, too, seems to dip into current trends, but on a much higher level. As I said – a proof of concept comic, by a legendary writer and a legendary artist.

A note towards the end: this was published by Aftershock comics. I have never heard of this publisher before – but the book is well produced, and it’s not just Ellis who writes for them these days. There’s a book by Garth Ennis, and one by the powerhouse pairing of Palmiotti/Conner, as well as a comic by Cullen Bunn, who seems to be everywhere these days.


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Nina Allan: The Race

Allen, Nina (2016), the Race, Titan Books
ISBN 978-1785650468

There’s so much good science fiction coming out these days, it’s quite mind boggling. Not, I think, since the heyday of Delany, Blish, and Ballard have we had such ample riches of good science fiction, with the good, older writers like M. John Harrison and China Miéville still actively contributing masterful work, and newer writers like Ann Leckie and Karl Schroeder offering astonishing contributions to the field. And even among all that competition, the Race, Nina Allen’s debut, stands out. It’s not even entirely clear that it IS indeed science fiction, depending on where you’d draw your line, but it contains science fiction, and as a whole offers a new direction in the genre, reflecting on the possibilities of the languages of science fiction, and presenting a story that is connected to present day concerns like violence, misogyny, race, fear and class. Nina Allen isn’t a great stylist, and in her debut, her cuts and shift are still a bit abrupt (she manages these much better in her sophomore novel) but the overall effect is enormous and stunning. I’m not sure who can read this book and not like it. It’s entertaining, smart, if sometimes a bit on the nose. It draws from all kinds of literature, in all kinds of genres, and it explicitly names Lessing, Murdoch and James Herbert as some of its parameters. It’s science fiction, and for that matter, hard science fiction, as it’s called. But it’s also literary fiction about science fiction. It’s careful and kind and generous, and truly unique. I recommend you go and buy it now, before you read on. I think this book is best read if you don’t know what’s coming, if you experience the book and its turns “cold.” And it’s not about not giving away a putative “twist” ending – the whole structure of the book should come as a pleasant and intriguing surprise to the reader. So, I mean, go, go, go.

I assume if you are reading this paragraph you have either read the book or are not planning on reading it. Or maybe you are in neither camp but still read on? So I’ll say more about the way the book is built, without giving away everything. The book has basically four major sections and one small one.

The first section, “Jenna,” named after protagonist and narrator, is the longest one. It’s a “hard SF” story about a literal “race,” a dog race that is. In an unspecified future in a place called Sapphire, people have developed “smart” dogs which can connect to human handlers through a process involving complicated technology which is sorta-kinda explained. The narrator is a woman whose brother runs a stable of such dogs. Her brother is in a lot of debt and one day, his daughter gets kidnapped. This child had developed a kind of psychic connection with dogs that doesn’t need technology. While we at that point don’t know who kidnapped the child, some aspects of the development had me thinking of Childhood’s End (I was wrong, kinda), but certainly, Allen’s science fiction story combines many other SF stories of human evolution, but Allen also weaves into it a different kind of narrative that I’m still not entirely sure how to pinpoint, but I think there’s a connection to some female centric YA literature in the way we are told about the protagonist’s involvement in making special gloves for racing the dogs. And finally, Allen makes a point of mentioning James Herbert’s Rats trilogy in that section.

James Herbert’s 1974 debut The Rats is a masterpiece of horror, structured in a simple way, absolutely terrifying, but offering a story that is both a kind of biological horror, and a metaphor for the state of the United Kingdom in the 50s and 60s, with suburbs disintegrating, and the darkness of poverty and marginalized existence breeding a new, almost unsurmountable terror, that will hunt you down, eat you and your children. The main terror coming from the rats is not their size and ferocity, though that contributes, it’s their intelligence. A few times in the book, Herbert has a human character look at one of the smart rats and feel how their intelligence changes the level of power. One is tempted to see in this fear the common fear of the establishment at minorities moving closer to power. Brexit voting in the UK and Trump’s ascendance in the US are examples of this fear. Herbert manages to both offer a metaphor, and the thing itself, marginalized communities and poverty, that is, in the same, rather slim, tale. Allen doesn’t reference the first, but rather the third book, Domain. The third book keeps the subtext, but moves the whole conflict into a postapocalyptic future, an obvious reference to the The Race itself.

The second section, “Christy,” is set in our time, and from the first sentence reveals that this section is narrated by the person who wrote the science fiction story of the first section. And immediately, Allan sets about not just complicating the previous section, but commenting on the writing generally: “You’ll imagine that I created Sapphire as an escape – from the ordinariness of my own life, from the difficulties I found in making friends, from the isolation I felt after our mother left. I’ve learned not to waste time denying this, some of it is probably true after all, at least partly – but my main reason for writing about Sapphire was because the place felt so real to me, and I wanted to imagine it in greater detail.” We get imagined places both as something that has its own logic, as well as something that has some undeniable connection to the “real” world, whether as metonymy, metaphor or allegory. Christy’s story also involves a brother, but it’s a much darker story of rape, queer love and suspected murder. It ends on a brilliantly written, harrowing, cinematically powerful scene. Christy also offers books as comparisons, particularly Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Memoirs of a Survivor and her Golden Notebook, as well as Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn. Briefing for a Descent into Hell somehow anticipates Nina Allen’s second novel more than it helps understand The Race, but the Golden Notebook (though the protagonist prefers Briefing due to its title) is actually very fitting in the way its chapters are structured. Lessing’s masterpiece, apart from being one of the many, many reasons she was one of the last deserving winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a complex meditation on the connection of life, experience and fiction, with journal entries, novel-in-novels, memoir and conventional literary fictional narrative.

I found this focus on Lessing an interesting choice (Say, Atwood’s Blind Assassin would also have been fitting in some ways), that points to the specific concerns Nina Allan’s novel has with female experience, British colonialism and race. Indeed, the third, the book’s shortest section, called “Alex,” concerns a black male character who has made an appearance previously and whose role it is to sort out some mysteries, to provide a different angle on Christy-as-writer and on the topics of masculinity and race. “Christy,” the second section, is intensely class conscious – it provides a very clear sense of how poverty limits the possibilities of children, teenagers and adults, and how education can helps navigate these limits, but cannot completely overcome them. We also see how gender interacts with these limits. What’s more, the second section contextualizes the science fiction we started with, by rooting and grounding its elements and concerns, which has two effects. It makes our original reading of the first section deeper, it also asks us to read the realist second section with eyes trained by reading the previous science fiction. And there’s a third effect – being so plainly and unsubtle prodded to connect section one and two, we’re also quietly asked to expand our reading of the many science fiction intertexts. Not James Herbert, whose own book is already doing the same things, but the unnamed intertexts, from YA novels to Clarke. The third section doesn’t add a ton to this mechanism, except to reflect on some previous assumptions regarding race. It feels like the third section’s main function is narrative, as it provides some kind of closure for the literary fiction of the second and third section, without answering all the questions.

The two final sections, then, are two more science fiction stories, one, like the first section, offered in tone and font like the first, expanding on the tropes, ideas and story of the original science fiction story. It’s set in the same world and shares the same characters. The same, to an extent is true for the last section. But while the literary fiction in “Christy” implied that the first section was written by Christy, it is only the final section that is explicitly labelled as “written by Christy Peller,” which returns us to Christy’s assertion of the world having its own logic. Nina Allan never clarifies anything, but there’s a good case to be made that the science fiction of the book is not a “novel within a novel” kind of writing, but that as presented, it is a third space, not reality, not the “author’s” imagination, but something else, a new space, as only, it is implied by this book, science fiction can create. This is a topic that the sophomore novel The Rift would expand and improve upon, but it’s already clear in the debut. The Race is a complex book, with engaging characters, good ideas, and many, many worlds contained within.


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Paul Cornell: Witches of Lychford

Cornell, Paul (2015), Witches of Lychford, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8523-9

Reading Adorno’s Kulturindustrie, people like to focus on his curmudgeonly complaints about popular culture. My favorite aspect of it has always been the idea that whatever noxious ideology we see displayed in the products of the culture industry are merely magnified versions of ideological tensions that have been part of earlier art all along. The unsubtle, obvious treatment of them in the culture industry merely makes them more visible. Something similar, on a smaller scale, is happening with Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford, I think. I have always meant to read a book by Cornell, but never got quite round to it. He’s been writing novels, comic books and scripts for TV, including some very good episodes of Dr. Who. So for some reason, this novella, published by Tor, is my first taste of Cornell on the page, and it’s a curious experience. Cornell writes his story with an extraordinary ease, assembles it from various parts, hints effortlessly at a broader backstory, develops interesting characters in just a handful of expert strokes. It’s quite extraordinary to watch, and that certainly makes the book worth reading. If you like stories about witches taking on elves and evil in a modern small town,it’s hard to imagine a story executed better than this one. What’s more, the book echoes a certain British kind of writing, of the Gaiman and Pratchett variety, at least for me, which has a comforting effect. Yet underneath all that, the book follows a curious discourse about money and power with a somewhat unpleasant cultural history. In this case: structural antisemitism, and it made me worry about many of the books in this tone or genre I had previously enjoyed. It’s Cornell’s excellent craftsmanship that has made certain discourses this visible in this novel or novella, because instead of couching the ideas in story and material, Cornell zeroes in on the more difficult parts of these ideas, because he has to, to create his music from the skeleton of notes that the short form leaves him with. I feel very uncomfortable with this book yet at the same time cannot but admire its execution. Cornell hits all his notes exactly. Honestly, it is books like this that I sometimes want to throw at some of the current literary purveyors of genre, the people coming from literary fiction who stoop to genre fiction, not realizing that genre fiction depends on craft and skill just as literary fiction does, and Paul Cornell demonstrates the mechanics of writing genre literature in this decidedly minor, but absolutely delighful, though poisonous, little book.

Witches of Lychford is creepy, but it’s also funny. It takes all of five pages to firmly place some of the book’s voice in a tradition of light, humorous English fantasy, the genre that was dominated for what felt like a century by Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett, with the exception of some very early and some pretty late work, mastered a consistently humane and humorous voice: he created a parallel medieval world, into which he slowly introduced the foibles of modernity, from cinema and rock music, early on, to the postal system, telegraphs, banks and trains later on. His characters are sensible British people, usually men, with sensible, common-sense minds that were disturbed by intrigues, racism and other silliness. In Terry Pratchett’s world, being humane and kind always prevailed in the end, it would always show you the way, even if you were unlucky and died. Pratchett was critical of institutions but generous towards the people in his books. What’s even more interesting is that any careful reader was aware how thin the line was which Pratchett walked. Connecting fantasy races like dwarfs or elves to human racial tensions is difficult, and “common sense” can very quickly be used to excuse lazy thinking. If we’re asking you to include more complicated identities and preferences in the way you chart your world, being a common sense thinker is no excuse to exclude LGBT or people of color from the way your world works. And Pratchett never did that. Pratchett’s characters draw a line, but well-meaning people are always within the bounds. It’s bad actors who are left out: bigoted people for example. There are many examples of this British pastoral, grappling with modernity, but nobody executed it with as much kindness and care as Pratchett, which is his greatest achievement, I think. Second on the list was Pratchett’s skill with language, with moving phrases and objects just outside the reach of easy cognitive access, making our brains do double duty and re-assess things and words taken for granted. The book that Cornell is most likely to have had in mind while writing Witches of Lychford, however, is not a Pratchett novel per se. It is a collaboration between Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, whose work has always been a bit disappointing, but has now also become boring.

That said, Gaiman’s appetite for storytelling in his early work was impressive and while not possessed of Pratchett’s gifts at defamiliarizing objects and language, his work repeated many elements of Pratchett’s, though in a more self-possessed, slightly unkind way. His modern city lacks the possibilities of redemption that Pratchett’s has; his view of modernity and its clash with the British pastoral is much more informed by the (infamous?) ending of Lord of the Rings, with the return to the industrialized Shire. Whereas Pratchett’s work follows many of the beats of the pastoral novel, despite much of it being set in the gigantic metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, Neil Gaiman implies the pastoral by its lack, by the decay, the destruction that modernity hath wrought. That’s not a very interesting topic for a late 20th century writer, and, if you insisted on doing it, one could at least ask for it to be done in an interesting way (Alan Moore, Gaiman’s contemporary, was interested in many of the same themes, but his work is compelling throughout; the difference between Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s very popular run on The Sandman is instructive here). Cornell’s novel(la) is decidedly written in a post-Gaiman and post-Pratchett environment (there are other writers relevant here, but I’m restricting myself to these two). The echoes to Good Omens, the Pratchett/Gaiman collaboration are loud, but throughout the whole book we find a mixture of various approaches to the light British fantasy dealing with modernity and community. Pratchett could rely on the reader’s awareness of the vast reservoir of characters making up his community, and played with new elements accordingly. Cornell has to do the introduction, background coloration and plot all at the same time, and he pulls it off with aplomb. His main characters are three women, implying the Shakespearean coven of weird sisters, but as it happens, and despite the title, only one of them is a proper witch. A second one is a newly arrived reverend, and the third one runs a magic shop in town, has had a year-long affair with a fairy prince, but is practically an atheist. The title, and the behavior of the women in the novel gives us a sense of female community, unlocking some of the non-obvious meaning of the word “witches.” The small town they all live in is a community too, and in a handful of deft strokes we learn how the three women are part of that community too, with even the new reverend having roots in the town.

You know who doesn’t have roots? The new superstore about to open up. The story of the superstore coming to town has had many many versions, some interesting, as in the underrated NBC sitcom Superstore, some more dull, as in Meg Ryan’s final box office hit Em@il for you. Often, we find a slightly troubling nativist discourse surrounding the arrival of the superstore, but it is rarely as obvious as in Cornell’s novel, where the superstore’s arrival literally means the arrival of Evil itself and the apocalypse. If the store is built, a Sunnydale-like hellmouth will open, and all hell will break loose. A demon is seen throughout the book, testing the boundaries in what feels like a nod to Terry Brooks and the second Shannara novel. God knows. That said, evil here is not the unknown corporate entity, it’s shown in the form of a kind of Satan light who tries to talk the town into building the store. He’s deadly but pretends he’s normal. He bribes the mayor, but tries to influence the town in other ways as well. The depiction of his evil is clearly tainted with the associations of antisemitic tradition. A cosmopolitan outsider threatening the nice people in a small British town? Someone whose evil is in his money (there’s a stack of money he offers as charity and it needs to be burned to ward off a danger late in the novel)? He even paints red marks on the doors of selected townspeople. Phara-oh no. This aspect has always been active at the limits of this British genre, from JRR Tolkien’s complicated relationship to Jewishness, to Corbyn’s devotion to the potatoes and leeks growing on his allotment. The countryside on the one hand, and the complicated, difficult modernity on the other, that is part of Britain’s long history (and dark present) of antisemitic sentiment that crosses party lines. Paul Cornell took a trope, the one of capitalism encroaching on proper British small town/village life, which had always been structurally problematic, and lays bare, unintentionally, I think, some of its foundations. The painted red marks on the doors are the icing on the cake, but really, in his narrative efficiency, he makes most of the elements of the book cohere wonderfully, all of them fitting this scheme. It’s a curious effect, in an overall very uncurious book. Witches of Lychford is comfort food, with a drop of poison.


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.)

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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Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept

Jones, Gwyneth (2017), Proof of Concept, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-9144-5

So I am biased, I suppose. I love science fiction, and I love every Gwyneth Jones book I have ever read. Regrettably, that’s not a ton, because she hasn’t written that much. So coming across a new novel, however short, by this outstanding writer in the genre was a great delight for me, and I would have probably liked this book even had it been remarkably mediocre (see Williams, Tad). Thankfully, Proof of Concept is absolutely excellent. This is everything you want from science fiction: a riveting plot, plausible (to the layman) science, and most importantly, a brilliant literary mind using the unique narrative and tropological tools offered by SF to say something interesting, complex and maybe profound. Jones has done it before: in her novels about the Aleutians and their invasion she took the science fictional tradition about physicality, race and identity and ran with it, creating a meaningful literary discourse about these issues. If you have read any of her recent novels there can be no doubt she should be counted among the major British writers. Compare the Booker shortlist with her 2010 novel Spirit: or The Princess of Bois Dormant. Using the language developed in earlier books she takes on James, Conrad, Greene and contemporary discourses of identity with an ease that puts the whole shortlist to shame (and I liked that Galgut novel). Proof of Concept is not on the same level as those novels, but it’s a smaller novella, anyway, working through its ideas on just over 100 pages. This is the closest that I can remember Jones coming to a technological thriller, and the best, most condensed example of an interrogation of that form itself that I can remember reading. The assumptions regarding knowledge, necessity and, again, identity are all put into play here, and a complete, complicated plot is introduced and seen through all the way to the end. If you like science fiction at all, you want to read this. I cannot vouch for a scientist’s view of the science here, but if you are an interested layman, proceed.

This will be one of my shorter reviews because I am loath to give away anything of the plot and the scientific concept, because the slow, precise unraveling of these two things is one of the major pleasures of reading the book in the first place. The novel is set in a future where earth has been horribly affected by climate change. Humans have colonized the nearby planets, but that’s not a solution in a situation where all of humanity is in danger of being wiped out. All humans live in so-called hives. They keep up the pretense of nationality, but really, they are all part of one of three distinct clusters of humanity, all three controlled by corporations. Outside the livable cluster is the Dead Zone. It’s not really “dead,” but the plant- and wildlife is largely poisonous to eat, and one cannot survive without gas masks, if survival is possible at all. The book itself explicitly connects the Dead Zone to Chernobyl, with all the attendant tropes and traditions. Here, as in other places, Gwyneth Jones gestures towards a genre and asks of us to follow and understand. There’s a specific discussion half way through the book that reads very metatextually, where a character, deprived of the main bulk of some important information, infers the majority of it through allusion and metainformation. Jones, in her fiction generally but in particular here, asks of us to do the same. The same applies to her vision of the future, dominated by corporations, and a dying earth. It’s not new, but very blatantly and carefully so: Jones relies on us seeing and understanding the trope so she can move on. The future of mankind hinges on getting everybody off the planet and far, far away. To achieve this, Dan Orsted, a populist, and Margrethe Patel, a scientist, pool their public funds and influence and embark on a year-long experiment underground called The Needle. The team consists partly of Orsted’s team, mostly young, virile people whose life is one big live-streamed social media feast, and Patel’s team, a group of younger and older scientists who will work on the actual engineering and science. Jones’ protagonist is the most essential member: a young woman named Kir, who was rescued from the Dead Zone as a child and had a quantum computer implanted in her head without her consent. Kir is brilliant, but as the book develops, she notices that the computer in her brain, an AI called Altair, has some doubts about the project. And then, people get murdered.

Doesn’t this sound like fun? And it really is! Having a suspense plot turn around an intellectual mystery and a murder is what moves this novella so forcefully into technothriller territory. I am very fond (see this review and this one) of comparing science fiction novels to the works of Michael Crichton, due to his outsize influence on the literature of suspense and (bad) science, and the way various ideologies come together in his books. Additionally, Crichton, no stranger to bending science to serve his ideology (see particularly the “climate change is a hoax by fat cat scientists” novel State of Fear) or plot (Timeline seems particularly worth noting here) always seemed curiously self-limiting in what he could say or show, keeping certain ontological assumptions close to the vest, and I feel, among the “technothriller” SF, you can distinguish hacks (Charles Stross) from real, intelligent writers (Jones or Scalzi) by the way they deal with the genre as coded. I think many of the good recent works of SF can be read with Giorgio Agamben’s work in mind. The idea of a state of exception and the way he explores, in his recent Stasis, how a civil war, for example, draws on the private and the public but is of neither, can, I think, be considered in connection with Jones’ novel and the way it deals with sexuality, identity and humanity. Also, after finishing it, I pulled Malthus from my shelf to look up some things, and wandered over to Deleuze and ideas of becoming. I really enjoy science fiction that invites me to look at the philosophy shelves behind my desk and consider some of its implications. Agamben, Malthus, Deleuze, I think that’s the core of the book, with some light waffle about social media as an appetizer. But I think I am drifting off course. This book is primarily a thriller. A very well done one, with a moving emotional resolution and a complicated moral arc. It doesn’t talk down to you, but it does cajole you into keeping up, rereading older texts and finding a way in which this story fits into how you think about the issues it raises. It’s playful more than anything.

As for the writing, well, it’s hard to say. It’s good, but it’s not as exact as it could be. It’s the kind of writing where you don’t notice it – it won’t bother you, but you also won’t stop to admire sentence construction. Strike that – I went back to the book after writing the last sentence: Jones’ writing here is definitely beyond what one might call dismissively ‘serviceable’ – her prose in this book has to do a lot of work: moving a plot forward, making scientific concepts understandable all while not losing sight of the emotional core of the narrative, and it does this remarkably well. In fact, of you look at the language on the page, you can tell how well Jones manages the limited real estate offered by a novella, how she shifts perspectives and manages events and dialogue. So, while I didn’t notice anything while reading the book, I can see the writing’s power now that I go back to the page. I don’t teach an MFA course, but some of these pages could easily be used as illustrative material. I just looked at last year’s Booker nominees and except for Levy and the tumultuous Beatty, none of the writers, including the inexplicably lauded David Szalay, are as remarkable on the page as Jones is, if you look closely what the language has to achieve and what it does achieve.


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Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown

Dillon, Glyn (2012), The Nao of Brown, Selfmadehero
ISBN 978-1-906838-42-3

naobrowncoverSo this is some odd coincidence. Fresh on the heels of reviewing a book that is artfully crafted but does not, ultimately, feel like a success, I have just read another book which is both enormously well done and which, on the other hand, feels like an awful failure. Glyn Dillon’s British Comic Award-winning The Nao of Brown is a book about many things but it can’t quite decide on which to focus. It suffers terribly from this lack of focus, from it’s odd characterizations, its god-awful ending and some other things. On the other hand, it’s absolutely spellbinding and beautifully drawn. Dillon, in this book, is an artist who is able to change the tone of a scene with just a tiny adjustment to his characters’ eyebrows. His characters feel fully realized, intense, warm, living, especially the protagonist, a half-Japanese, half-English woman called Nao Brown. Her story is one of paternal abandonment, professional confusion and, most of all, a story of Primarily Obsessional OCD. The racial, social and emotional situation of Nao is complex, and it’s not clear that Dillon is extremely interested or skilled in exploring as fraught a character as Nao. At the same time, he hands her, if we forget the ending, quite a bit of space, letting her spread out over large panels that soak up her expressions. The men around her, in love with her and wary of her at the same time, are somehow both less well realized and sharper in focus. In a book where the main character constantly chides herself on being oblivious, Dillon presents us two supporting characters who are the most obtuse bags of nerd-testosterone you have ever seen, and yet, in a curious attempt to mellow out his book, Dillon lavishes them with understanding and care. All of these situations are difficult to parse and the fault lies in the woefully inadequate writing that, towards the very end of the book, just collapses upon itself and drags even the divine art with it, offering us four dismal pages of badly written text that should have been visually realized. Overall, the book is a real mess, but in being a mess, it also connects back to many other narratives of Asian experience in London, it connects us queerly to other graphic narratives of mental illness and presents an odd sort of cultural imperialism, all at once. You should really read The Nao of Brown, because the art is just so enormously beautiful (and Selfmadehero did such a fine job in creating the book as an object), but be prepared to occasionally squint with frustration at the writing and structure of it all.

If your brain saw the title of this review and started thinking “Dillon, comics, wait, wasn’tkindlyones there something…?” you are on the right path. Glyn Dillon is the younger brother of Steve Dillon, who, as co-creator of the classic comic book series Preacher, should be regarded as a heavyweight in the industry. This year, among other projects, Steve Dillon will be penciling Becky Cloonan’s highly anticipated take on The Punisher. Glyn’s comic book CV, in contrast to his brother’s, is much more sparse. The only book of his that I read prior to The Nao of Brown was an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman all the way back in 1994 (collected in The Kindly Ones). .Most of his work before and after Nao was focused on TV and film. We know from Raymond Williams’ classic study on TV how that medium forces us to adapt our messaging and communication and somehow Glyn Dillon’s book reads like an imprecise hybrid between two traditions of visual storytelling, with the additional tradition of manga, anime and French comics somehow grafted on to the Frankensteinian endeavor. The extraordinary art and the loving way Dillon tells Nao’s story indicates, as does the introduction by Jessica Hynes, that the book had been a labor of love, but I have never read a book that so badly needed an editor and regular discussions with said editor to get the book into some proper shape. The book tells its story on multiple levels, at different speeds. There are multiple ways of summarizing it: Nao Brown, hafu, half-Japanese, half-English, falls in love with a chubby alcoholic mechanic called Gregory Pope who quotes Hesse and has his own demons. Or: Nao Brown, a young aspiring comics professional deals with the difficulties of suffering from OCD and maintaining a functioning private life, until a catastrophe sorts out her priorities. Or: Nao Brown and her Nerd friend Steve Meeks (oh, speaking names, how have we missed you?) have a silent and frustrating love affair, which, in an ambiguous ending, may or may not be resolved following a calamitous incident. Or: Nao Brown, abandoned by her father and suffering from mental illness, parses a modern life in London while constantly negotiating her role vis-à-vis various father figures, and the concept of maternity, until a complex ending gives her answers to her questions. My descriptions may sound clichéd but that is genuinely the level of self-reflection that the narrative employs. It’s made worse by the fact that no non-spoilery description can do justice to the hackneyed way the book deals with what are really two endings. Much like A Clockwork Orange, this book would be better off with its last chapter chopped off.

naobrownpanelAnother thing regarding those descriptions: you may notice that her racial status plays no role in the way the plot plays out and that’s easily one of the most frustrating things, because that’s not at all how the novel starts. One assumes that the author just at some point during writing this 200 page book, somehow lost track of this part of the story and a few others. The novel begins with Nao on a plane back to London after having visited her father. She is in a difficult professional situation, with freelance illustration work sparse, so she gets a job in a “kidult” toy shop full of ‘japanese’ toys and trinkets. This part of the book moves along fast, and is peppered with clear-eyed observations about family, race, culture and imperialism, if not always in those words. Nao starts her story by telling us that she seems to strangers “the exotic other.” She also explains that her mother is “a proper Paddington girl” and that, living in England with her, “it’s funny to think of Dad as the ‘exotic other’.” She displays signs of “double consciousness,” being enormously aware of how she and her heritage appear to others. She is also confident of her identity, using it to cut down an early attempt by Steve Meeks to explain Japanese toys to her. At her first date with Gregory, when he launches into a racially stereotypical speech about Japanese women, she realizes his obtuse and offensive speech, declaring it “really weird…and a bit horrible…” It is very odd that this very statement is practically the last extensive treatment of race in the book. The Nao of Brown isn’t exactly dismissive of race as it is helpless in dealing with it. The mentioned elements show that the author is aware of the issue, as is the fact that Dillon uses the social and racial geography of London cleverly. “British Asian” usually refers to South Asian people, but London also has a sizable Chinese community with its own issues of racism. Japanese communities, by contrast, are usually more well off and smaller. The book is mostly set in the areas of London where most of the small pockets of the Japanese community are situated, but it offers some interesting tweaks on it. Japanese (and Asian culture, generally) is shown to be completely appropriated by the imperialist and capitalist apparatus. A “Buddhist center” is full of English people, with an English teacher, the toy shop is aimed at English people, and so forth. In 1991, Masao Miyoshi famously claimed that the Japanese economy was the first powerhouse economy without any cultural capital. The anime and manga boom of the early 2000s, as well as the elevation of mediocre novelists like Murakami to literary superstar status, has changed that, but recent developments suggest an American or generally Western-led process of appropriation of these Japanese cultural products, limiting the impact of Japanese culture to its distorted reflection by imperialist media structures. The first third of the novel, using real and invented Japanese products, hammers home this point, culminating in the scene with Gregory that I just mentioned, where he, Hesse-reading idiot, genuinely regards Hello Kitty as a fair representation of Japanese women.

binkybrownNao also fills us in on the fact that she is “a fucking mental case.” and in a series of well paced vignettes, we quickly learn, though more by inference than by explicit comments, that the illness is Primarily Obsessional OCD. She, like most sufferers of OCD is enormously self aware of herself, and suffers from shame regarding her condition. This quality of OCD is hauntingly similar to ideas of “double consciousness,” without wanting to pathologize racial tensions. The book never clinically describes or explains Nao’s illness, but it does an interesting trick to sidestep that: despite Nao’s apparent lack of a therapist, she manages her outbreaks with the help of dialectical behavior therapy methods, including a form of ERP that may not be something real sufferers of OCD would use. The point in the novel is not accuracy, however, but verisimilitude. Dillon wants us to understand how it works and so he has his protagonist use therapeutic methods that externalize a very internalized illness. The result is that it looks like ‘real’ OCD for lay readers of the book, used to media depictions of fussy OCD people like TV’s Monk. It’s an interesting tactic. In my limited experience of reading graphic novels, they have a fascinating relationship with Foucault’s theory of the History of Madness. Books like Nate Powell’s sublime take on schizophrenia, Swallow Me Whole, or David B.’s masterful Epileptic, or more recent, web-published comics on depression, offer both a disquisition on the modern clinic, as well as the pre-modern tableau of madness that Foucault found in Pieter Bruegel’s work. Many of those books are autobiographical, but not confessional (using here Susannah Radstone’s distinction here), with a few confessional books marking specific cultural moments, most famously, Justin Green’s classic Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary, a book, like Dillon’s, concerned with Primarily Obsessional OCD. The Nao of Brown is neither testimonial nor confessional – it’s not autobiographical at all, which may explain the shifting of priorities as the book progresses. There is no urgency behind its story, and no consistent discursive interests. Towards the last third of the book it is the stale romance that primarily occupies the book’s interest. This is not because it’s fiction, this is because Dillon’s a very mediocre writer. But a work of autobiography would not likely have dropped those elements, even if it was similarly bad in execution.

naobroannocoverBinky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary is actually directly mentioned by the book itself but this reference to Binky Brown sits oddly athwart the book’s issues and problems. Apart from sexual and religious guilt, the book also narrates an interesting racial situation, of the half-Jewish boy who goes to a Catholic school and feels guilty about both communities, like a dark, sexual and secular version of the epiphanies from Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. And Binky Brown is situated pretty precisely in a time and place. All these things suggest questions to ask of Glyn Dillon’s book. How does place work? How does he deal with racial tension? What’s the role of pathologized guilt? Most crucially: what does it say about masculinity? And not only does Dillon answer almost none of those questions despite a beginning that appeared to address all of them (talk about bait-and-switch), it is the last two that I found resolved in the most strange way. See, the book is aware that its male characters are idiots. A moment of mental stress by Nao is countered by Gregory in the most insensitive and ignorant possible way. In no way sensitive to her struggles he demands a rational explanation before he allows himself to help her. Her friend and employer, Steve Meeks, clearly smitten with her, employs the dubious tactics of passive aggressive Nerd courtship. None of this is inferred by me: the book states it plainly and clearly. There is no doubt the book knows that its men mistreat its female protagonist at every turn. Talking over her, talking down to her, not helping her with her illness; in fact, sometimes they themselves create situations for her illness to flare up. And yet, we find no trace of guilt, none of the vulnerable masculinity that was so central to the confessional moment in literature. In fact, the book, in its muddled and awful ending finds excuses and explanations for their behavior. Gregory is the only one who gets to explain himself in writing. The book oddly resembles few texts as much as the British male popculture novels by Nick Hornby and other ‘lads’ of his generation. We get quirky pop culture references, and namedrops of bands like The Fall. The longer the book continues, the less it is interested in Nao’s point of view. Nothing shows this change as starkly as the fact that the book begins with Nao’s words of self-explanation and ends with Gregory’s dire Hesse-influenced waffle, no longer an object of criticism by the book. It begins with the picture of a little girl, and it ends with one of a little boy. This change, much of it happening in the book’s last third, is not announced earlier, it feels like the author just, upon writing, found a character he liked more than the protagonist he started out with. For the reader, this is utterly frustrating and even infuriating. There is a great book somewhere in The Nao of Brown, but Dillon does not have the skills of writing and drawing 200 pages of it with a consistent level of concentration. As it is, the book is still good, because, despite all the frustration, it has an excellent first third, and the art is extraordinary throughout.


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Max Porter: Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Porter, Max (2015), Grief is the thing with feathers, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-32376-0

grief1When you don’t have a lot of time to read for entertainment, you can get the impression that you can’t really be surprised anymore. At least this is how it feels to me. I pick up books that turn up in my usual circles of reading and recommendation. That’s why so many of my recent reviews start by referring back to other recent reviews. And then there’s books like this one. Mentioned on Twitter by a Bishop scholar I admire, I picked it up on a whim, without any expectations. There was a Dickinsonian title with a twist, and a pretty cover and that was it. I had never heard of Max Porter before or the book (nor have I looked him up in the meantime) . And yet – what a tremendous, what an enormous achievement this little book turned out to be. A strange, odd, moving novel(la) that moves between genres, evoking Ted Hughes implicitly and explicitly, an overwhelming book that deals with the grief of a husband that lost his wife, of two boys that lost their mother. I didn’t read any reviews or interviews regarding Porter’s book. I don’t know whether the fictional tale in its pages is powered in any way by real, extratextual grief, but I don’t really care. This book is intense and emotional. It makes me feel, palpably, its narrator’s grief, it’s a strangely effective way to make its readers feel the topsy-turvy world that a family finds itself in once the mother/wife suddenly dies. Routines and reality are upended, people have to relearn normal behavior. In order to achieve that, Max Porter introduces a mystical beast, Crow. It’s hard to think what else one might expect from Max Porter in the future because this is such a strange book, but this is excellent, from the first to the last page. Read it at your earliest convenience.

yooslettersCrow isn’t just any crow. Porter’s protagonist is a Ted Hughes scholar (and, in modern parlance, a Hughes ‘fanboy’), at work on a book unenticingly called Ted Hughes’ “Crow” on the Couch: A Wild Analysis, and it’s immediately obvious that Crow, “a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast” is the same mythical bird that populates some of Hughes’ best poems. This is interesting, as it opens inquiries into questions of autobiography, myth and literature. Ted Hughes remained interested in Crow even when he stopped writing poems about him, “pulled back onto the autobiographical level,” as he said in a late letter to Keith Sagar, and connected Crow to various myths and literary characters, among which King Lear provides a strange but interesting tangent for the book. But don’t let these remarks fool you. Grief is the thing with feathers is no mere academic exercise: its effect is powerful and immediate. The fact that it’s fiction may have helped it to bridge the gap between providing an aesthetically interesting text and a moving discussion of grief. I had recently started reading the memoirs of John W. Evans, a (sorta, kinda) acquaintance, who lost his wife in a terrible accident in the Romanian mountains and had to abandon her. It’s awful, and I decided not to review it here. Writing about grief is hard. Writing about various extreme emotions, yes, but grief is particularly strange. Evans chose to basically polish a bunch of essays he wrote for his therapist into book form. They deal with his guilt, with how wonderful his wife was, how unhappy he feels now. Except for the bizarreness of the accident itself, there’s nothing noteworthy about the writing or form of the book, and wading through a middle aged teacher’s self pity gets a bit tiring after a hundred pages. Self pity in exceptionally mediocre prose is just hard to take. The thing is, I’m sure I couldn’t do any better. It’s a genuinely difficult task. Even the great ones struggle. In his letters Hughes admits again and again to the overwhelming demands of writing with grief in mind.

yoospoemsThe oddness of the story and its impactful nature may well be due to the non-autobiographical nature of the book. Not all books on grief are as flat as the aforementioned memoir. Books like Sharon Olds’ recently published collection Stag’s Leap, or Hughes’ own late work (for example Birthday Letters) can be quite effective, not to mention such extraordinary efforts as James Merrill’s late elegies to dead friends. But few people have the talent and wherewithal to write as powerfully and directly of grief without sacrificing some aesthetic appeal. Sharon Olds, discussing her book, described the process of its writing as “[j]ust being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion.” It is a not entirely felicitous end point for the long but not lovely tradition of confessional poetry that started with careful and formally accomplished poets like Lowell, Berryman and Plath and ends today in such platitudes about writing “without distortion,” as if that was a way to frame any kind of utterance, much less poetry. It is, I think, these contemporary readings of autobiographical writing which for many scholars complicate the reading of mid-20th century ‘confessional’ poetry. A recent, very good study of Berryman spends a whole chapter clearing its author of the apparently heinous accusation of confessionalism. Max Porter’s decision to use Ted Hughes’ Crow as the mythology driving his book is interesting in this light, giving Hughes frequent opposition to confessionalism which he “despised.” At some point, during the late 1970s, I think, he asked Keith Sagar to write a book on him “as if nothing at all were known about me personally – as if my name was a pseudonym.” As Heather Clark points out, Hughes advocated the use of masks and “Crow may have been Hughes’ own ‘mask’.”

grief3The Dad of the book and his two boys fill their days with clear and palpable detail – May Porter’s book is dedicated to the stink and rub and ordinariness of everyday life, refracted through the demands of grief and loss. The figure of the Dad doesn’t seem quite anchored in the daily life of the family. His disappearance becomes threat and nightmare to the boys, and meanwhile, Crow, of the dark world view, and the harsh speech, picks up the educational slack. His influence becomes most obvious in the way the mother’s death quicky turns into a kind of myth. It appears as if the boys and the book itself are working through what critic Jonathan Ellis (in an essay on Keats, Bishop and Hughes) described as the feeling of doing something illegal: “Talking to the dead as if they were alive feels ‘illegal’ because of the contemporary taboo that forbids prolonged mourning.” The boys’ parts of the narration are mostly told in hindsight. They are stories that are “mostly true” and telling the truth is a way to “be nice to Dad.” Meanwhile, the Dad does his own part in shaping truth – he is very selective about which parts of his wife’s life he wants to remember, and that selection does not include his wife’s death. Crow, in his primitive, feathered (ir)reality is a way to hold the family together, to keep enduring grief instead of breaking apart. The boys grow up to become dads themselves we learn and Crow becomes part of family mythology. Max Porter does an impressive job of translating grief both into this mythical, literary figure of Crow, and into minute, convincing details. Such as when Dad tells us about how her absence affects his life, his perception of his surroundings: “She won’t ever use (make-up, tumeric, hairbrush, thesaurus). She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith’s novel, peanut butter, lip balm).” Meanwhile, the boys have their own way of making grief part of daily life: “We pissed on the seat. never shut drawers. We did those things to miss her, to keep wanting her.” Due to the compressed nature of his narrative, Porter picks events that are resonant with physicality and meaning, often to the point of overdetermining some chapters/poems in the book, such as when the boys admit that they have lied about their mother’s death to schoolmates. When Akhil Sharma had his protagonist lie about his brother’s accident, it was part of a larger theme of truthtelling, of assimilation, of storytelling as part of identity formation. With Max Porter, what we get is boys telling schoolmates that they killed their mother, a lie that is so rich in associations that it’s bound to overload the short, less than 10 sentences long chapter this lie is in.

dickonsonA chapter that ends with their mother giving them permission. Because of course, the book isn’t rich enough without the dead mother appearing to all its characters (but unlike Crow, this is not a shared hallucination). To refer back to Ellis, what we see enacted is “the belief that the dead person remains here […] not as object, as ashes or body, but as active subject, living, speaking, writing.” So what we have is a book that is a haunted house in itself or rather – to speak with Emily Dickinson, “a house that tries to be haunted.” Maybe that’s a way to describe Porter’s method: he’s offering us a structure with multiple ways to fill it with artificial, spectral life. And his success: that he did it in such a sometimes heavy handed way without crushing the life within it, without making it a pale exercise. There is a way to read the whole book as a long, emotional comment on Ted Hughes’ work. Ted Hughes who lost his wife, Sylvia Plath, who left behind two children (though not two boys). Plath haunted the life of Hughes and her children, much like the absent mother in the book haunts the family here. There are lines here that correspond to Hughes, some poems appear in form and structure to refer to Hughes’ work, and the choice of Crow itself, as I said earlier, has significance in the context of grief and death. Even as outlandish a detail as hallucinations of the dead mother have echoes in Hughes. He wrote, for example, in anotebook entry, that he “[d]reamed as if all night Sylvia had been brought back to life.” It’s tempting, but not feasible to make a list of all the references, the sheer overwhelming Hughesness of the whole text. It adds an interesting richness – given the connection between Crow and the historical myth of King Lear, as detailed by Hughes himself, I feel that the father, in some of his guises and absences turns not into Lear but into Edgar, or rather Poor Tom.

DSC_1587The title – and the books epigraph, finally, are not taken from Hughes at all. The title is a play on Emily Dickinson’s most famous line (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) and the epigraph is simply a complete (short) poem. This is such an interesting choice, since Hughes has, from the 70s on, been the subject of attacks by readers of Plath and feminists in general, and he’s never been particularly gracious about it. Porter’s protagonist is not just a man, but one that lacks the capacity to be critical of Hughes. His book, when it appears, receives a write-up in the TLS, and it’s praised as a “delight to true fans of [Hughes and his poems].” So Dickinson is interesting here. Frequently, literary reception will read Hughes as cerebral and distant and Plath as emotional, following tired gendered lines. The divide between intellectual poetry and confessionalism is often an either/or situation, and female poets draw ire and censure whatever side of the divide they are said to fall on. Susan Howe’s inspired book on Dickinson, My Emily Dickinson, did much, when it appeared in the 1980s to re-center the image of Dickinson as a poet who is direct and personal, but also highly intellectual. Contrary to the image of the spinster who writes introspective, hermetic poetry in her chamber, Howe showed conclusively that Dickinson was a brilliant reader first of all, of Dickens, Browning, Barrett, Brontë and others, and that her work answers earlier works of literature. Similarly, in an essay also from the 1980s, Nancy Walker points out how Dickinson used her letters to toy with a persona, she “consistently used the strategy of roles to explore her relation to the world. Her letters as well as her poems display a wide variety of tones and voices“ and “[i]n her letters, as in her poetry, writing is a form of art that can conceal, not reveal.”

grief 2This may all just be a coincidence, and Max Porter may have chosen the title for other reasons, just toying with the average reader’s knowledge of the Dickinson line to create intrigue, but Dickinson works as a reference for many of the techniques of voice and storytelling that Porter’s book rests on. Yet, ultimately, it’s not necessary to know Hughes to enjoy the book or to do some kind of literary speculation. The book works extremely well as a moving text about grief and loss. It’s not just the ultimate loss either. Passages like this one, describing a short lived relationship that Dad engages in

She was soft and pretty and her naked body was dissimilar to my wife’s and her breath smelt of melon. But we were on the sofa my wife bought, drinking wine from glasses my wife was given, beneath the painting my wife painted, in the flat where my wife died.

will resonate with people who put a long relationship or a marriage behind them, as well. And yet, for all the praise I have for the book, it’s clearly someone’s debut; it’s too much and too little all at once. It’s too smug and clever, and sometimes not intelligent enough. And I can see all these things while absolutely loving this book. It’s one of my favorite books that I’ve reviewed this year and I’ve reviewed a lot of good books. I don’t know what’s next for Max Porter and his prodigious talent, but I’m looking forward to it. If he can improve on Grief is the thing with feathers, we are in for some great stuff.


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C.S. Forester: The African Queen

Forester, C.S. (2006 [1935]), The African Queen, Phoenix
ISBN 978-0-7538-2079-7

DSC_1534 In my review of Cop Hater I mentioned being puzzled and intrigued by that book’s inclusion on a list of indispensable or classic books. One other book on the list similarly intrigued me. It was The African Queen by C.S. Forester. I have seen the movie based on the novel, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, directed by John Huston, multiple times. I was not, for some reason, aware that it was based on a novel. Similarly, I am aware of C.S. Forester’s work, but only of the most famous and enduring part of it, the Hornblower series of novels. It was profoundly puzzling to me that this early Forester novel, that I supposed was mainly known for inspiring a classic movie, turned up on a list of essential novels. So I sat down to read it. And even after reading it I can’t say I am entirely sure why it’s on a list of important or indispensable novels – yet unlike Cop Hater, it’s value is more than merely historical. It’s a truly enjoyable read, an early work by a gifted storyteller. It’s not, structurally, perfect, but it is frequently compelling and always readable, written in a limpid and clear style, with characters that are more complicated than those that Huston, James Agee and Peter Viertel ended up writing about in his script. There is an odd patriotism to it – although it’s less odd when you consider Forester’s biography – and a cavalier attitude to colonialism that can be put down in large part to the fact that this book was written in 1935. There are shots in the 1950s movie that are equally troubling and are less excusable. What’s much more remarkable is the way Forester writes his female protagonist. In his hands “spinster missionary” Rose Sayer is a strong, intelligent woman, who in modern parlance would be described as “badass”, which is lovely enough. But Forester also manages to contextualize her behavior in the patriarchal environment she was raised. It’s strangely progressive for a 1935 adventure novel, but all of it explains why Katherine Hepburn, upon reading the novel, immediately agreed to play Rose Sayer when asked by Huston. In fact, one strand running through her charming reminiscences The Making of The African Queen is her disappointment by the changes the script forced on the character and her fights to restore her as she’s presented in the novel. If you’re looking for an entertaining adventure novel with simple but interesting characters that’s confidently written – and are willing to read past certain anachronisms, read The African Queen.

The-african-queen-1-The plot of the novel is almost identical to the plot of the movie, except for the ending. It’s set at the beginning of World War I, in what was then known as German East Africa, one of Germany’s four major African colonies. It included what are today Mozambique, Ruanda and Tanzania and it bordered British and Belgian colonies. When WWI broke out, a German general took over German forces, committed to waging war on British troops in Africa to tie as many troops as possible in Africa, so they would not be used in Europe. The particular historical event that is specifically referred to is the Battle for Lake Tanganyika. As the book opens, German troops have just razed an African village including its church. Left behind is a missionary and his sister. Shortly, the missionary dies, leaving his sister to fend for herself. She is, however, in luck, because there is one other white person left in the area, who is not also German. That other person is Charlie Allnutt, a jack of all trades who works at a nearby Belgian mine as a mechanic and runs a steamboat called “African Queen” on the Ulanga river. All of this happens in the first dozen or so pages of the book. All this does is set up the main plot of the book and the characters’ various motivations. The cruel Germans, the lost Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer, a Missionary’s sister with a profound dislike of Germans. Much more than the movie, the two are set up as different classes from the beginning as Forester has Allnutt speak in a very strong Cockney dialect, and handing over the novel’s point of view to Rose Sayer, whose thoughts are always calm and collected, even in moments of anger. The narrator is strictly speaking an omniscient narrator, but for much of the book he chooses to convey to us Rose’s point of view. That decision is one of the main reasons the book is so enjoyable and can frequently rise above its anachronistic politics. It doesn’t, honestly, start off well. Rose is driven by a thirst for revenge and a loud and strident patriotism. She wants to “strike a blow for England” and she intends to use Allnutt and his boat to achieve this goal. Set as her efforts are halfway between revenge and support for the war effort, the outspoken patriotism sat a bit queer with me as a reader.

DSC_1536That said, having a woman fill in the role of intrepid wartime adventurer (adventuress?) is a welcome change, and Forester doesn’t stop there. The plan, as it’s quickly decided upon, is to go down the Ulanga river, which leads into a large lake. On that lake, a big German ship, the Königin Louise, is holding sway, dominating the banks of the lake with her far reaching canons. Since the African Queen has some explosives on board, the plan is to glide into the lake and use the boat as a kind of torpedo to blow up the Königin Louise. Between the village and the lake, however, there are treacherous rapids, waterfalls and a German fort overlooking a part of the river. Once the two makeshift sailors get on board the roles are quickly distributed. Rose steers the boat, picking up nautical terms and facts on the fly, and Allnutt tries to keep the boat’s faulty old steam engine running. Steering the ship through the dangerous waters of the Ulanga river is a fulfilling experience for Rose: “Rose was really alive for the first time in her life,” we learn. As it turns out, her life with her brother was dull and empty. She would be left to tend to his household, was not allowed to mingle with men and had to frequently ford the torrents of his angry moods, leaving her apprehensive of the violence and dominance of men. The book is extraordinarily clear on these things. Until she had met Allnutt, she had always submitted to all the men in her life – her father and brother, and in her quarrels with Allnutt regarding tactics, “she seethed with revolt and resentment.” The river – like a bilious, eddying metaphor, carries her in a few hours and days towards emancipation and maturity, at the ripe age of 30something. And at the height of it, at her fullest sense of self and freedom, after a particularly dangerous and successful ride down a series of dangerous rapids, her sexuality blooms and she and Allnutt kiss and have sex right there on a bank of the Ulanga river. All this development reads exceptionally modern, and one worries that it’s not inherently placed like that in the text. I like to think about it as a complexity engineered by an unusual text. After sex, Rose slips immediately back into submissive mode, for the first time since meeting Allnutt – but even that is explicitly reflected by the text as her assumption of a role. Rose is shown to be navigating gender roles very narrowly, working on interactions with her father and brother only, leaving her no room for fluid interpretation.

That's the only Hornblower book I own and I haven't even read it - hence I can't really comment on Forester's work beyond The African Queen.

That’s the only Hornblower book I own and I haven’t even read it – hence I can’t really comment on Forester’s work beyond The African Queen.

And it’s not just 21st century me that finds this in the text – Katherine Hepburn, who read the novel upon being offered the role of Rose Sayer, suggests a similar line of fascination in her account of The Making of The African Queen. The movie, as she says multiple times, fails to do justice to this interesting, strong character. Much as I worry reading a postmodern sensibility into this text written in the 1930s, the script more or less imposes a morality and reading on it that appears to be more conservative than even 1950s Hollywood. The movie takes the word “spinster” and appears to attempt to do a “historically accurate” reading by making Rose an exceptionally prim character. Whereas book-Rose bathes “naked”, film-Rose bathes in frilly, “grotesque underwear,” to quote Hepburn, literally straight out of a museum. Whereas in the book she learns steering on the fly, the movie inserts a scene of her being clumsy at it and having to be shown the ropes by Humphrey Bogart. The most significant scene however comes during pouring rain. Rose is asleep in a sheltered part of the boat and Allnutt, drenched by the storm, comes in from where he was sleeping to seek protection from the storm. In the book, Rose’s reaction is an involuntary urge to hold this wet, strange man, and a practical question of “What can we do?” The movie script replaces this with a loud shriek and Hepburn’s Rose yelling “Get out! Get out!”, sending Bogart’s Allnutt back into the rain. Movie-Rose ends up allowing him back in, but this strident assertion of propriety that’s added to the book is a misreading of what “a straightlaced lady” would have done. It strips the book of its interesting, counter-intuitive and explicit wrestling with gender roles and replaces it with “straightlaced” primness and morality. To be fair, the movie, taken on its own is fantastic and one of the rare cases where you should see the movie first, because it deserves being seen without the critical eye that compares book and film. Huston’s direction and Hepburn’s and Bogart’s acting transcend what’s, quite honestly, a rather mediocre script. And the contrast with the movie adds another layer of fascination to the already intriguing book.

DSC_1540The danger, of course, of taking away the progressive gender angle of the book (whether that’s intentionally there or not) is that it leaves us with the more unpalatable parts of the book’s politics. Like many books then (and quite honestly now), The African Queen unfurls in front of us the drama of white people in Africa without being particularly interested in the Africans’ plight. There’s a Belgian mine near the village at the beginning of the book, and historically, we know how the Belgians treated their colonies. I mean the mere fact that one of the three colonial forces depicted in the novel had historically committed genocide in Africa, another one came close, and the British record in Africa included the invention of concentration camps, this is completely ignored. We know it happened, we know the historical background, but the writer is utterly disinterested in any of it. What’s more, this blatant disinterest violently clashes with the gung-ho patriotism espoused by the book that leads to Rose attempting what is essentially a suicide-bomber-like mission. The book is set in an area where many different tribes live, but for the book (and the movie) they are all just the same variety of “negro.” This political or racial indifference is the biggest mark against this book and and keeps it from being more than what it ends up being – an above-average adventure novel. As I said the reason I came upon this book was its inclusion on some list of ‘essential’ books, and while it’s better by far than the other bewildering inclusion on that list that I’ve reviewed, The African Queen has less of a reason to be on any list like that. At least Cop Hater is a foundational text for a genre that’s dominating a good chunk of crime writing today, whatever its individual failings. But unless I am missing something, there’s no such effect for this book. It inspired a brilliant movie and its writing is superior to the movie’s script, but there are many equally good books. It’s unfair to judge the book by this arbitrary list, and on it’s own it’s entirely fine. It lacks the scope of the Hornblower books, it lacks the excellence of other (almost) contemporary books on Africa, but its psychology is interesting and its writing is entertaining. Look, entertaining is enough. Read this book. But watch the movie first.


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Kyril Bonfiglioli: Don’t Point That Thing At Me

Bonfiglioli. Kyril (1973, 2014), Don’t Point That Thing At Me, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-241-97025-6

DSC_1263 If you ever read one of my reviews and thought – yeah, ok, but why aren’t these a bit shorter? You are in luck! Having recently finished Don’t point that thing at me by English novelist and art dealer Kyril Bonfiglioli, I really wanted to review it, but I don’t really have a lot of context for the genre. The obvious reason why I stumbled across this lovely nasty little book is because of Mortdecai, the Johnny Depp-led film that was made based on its protagonist. In this case, the book is absolutely lovely and it’s the movie that is almost spectacularly bad. The novel, the first of overall 4 ½ novels in the same vein, is short, incredibly entertaining, well written, well structured and is threaded through and through by a surprising amount of unexpurgated violence. I have not read the other books and I am not entirely sure I will do so anytime soon because Don’t point that thing at me ends on a perfect note, with a desperate, drunk art dealer charging the police, Goya and gun in hand. There. I spoiled it in the first paragraph. But the book, despite being very clearly a mystery novel and not some literary novelist’s tired attempt at genre (I’m looking at you, McCarthy!), also doesn’t really run on suspense. About halfway through the book, the reader, Mortdecai, and various other principal participants in the plot, have stopped running the usual passing routes and a mild form of chaos descends on the book’s events. I don’t know what I expected – but I do know that I was delighted to find this Wodehouse/Hammett/Chandler hybrid, which comes with a strong and well-sculpted voice, sharp and precise writing and a plot that knows when and how to raise the stakes. It’s not perfect, but for a quickly written 1973 thriller it weathered the passing time remarkably well, much better than some other would-be genre classics I’m currently reading. What’s more, it cleverly touches in passing on Jewish and literary issues, without ever being weighed down by any of it, and parts of it will remind the reader of Baudrillard’s time spent “dans les déserts et sur les routes” of America.

The protagonist of Don’t point that thing at me is Charlie Mortdecai, an honest art dealer – as honest as an art dealer can get who deals in stolen or otherwise crooked art. He’s fairly well off, petty, not the youngest anymore and of “above-average weight” – making Johnny Depp a curious casting choice. He has one foot in British aristocracy and the other foot firmly planted in the grit and dirt of a life lived at the margins of legality. The plot of the novel leads the book’s hero from the UK to the US and back, and at times you can see the author toying with the conventions of Ian Fleming’s classic spy novels as they intersect with the Hammett/Chandler school of writing. He shares with them the sense of overwhelming darkness and corruption, in which the protagonist has to fulfill a task. The goal, as it does in many Chandler novels, changes multiple times during the book, as Mortdecai scrambles to adapt. He is not, however, a hapless idiot, as he’s interpreted by Mr. Depp. Mortdecai is a capable fighter, drinker and negotiator. He prides himself on his brain, much as he is aware of its limits. His wit isn’t subtle, but it’s subtle enough not to really be coarse, even when he thinks or speaks badly of his fellow man. The book is supposedly written from his perspective and he keeps interrogating and tweaking the conventions of how to write a genre novel. I say he’s the author and not just the narrator, because the book, at the end, takes care to preserve suspense by giving up the coherent genteel novel structure for short, dashed off diary entries. Mortdecai mocks everything – including his criminal life and the culture around him. He’s literate, but in a dashed-off, almost superficial way – as when he quotes a famous line by Mallarmé, which you’ll find much more often quoted by Brits than by French writers.

This pretend erudition is curiously mirrored by the author himself who has attached epigraphs from Robert Browning’s poetry to each chapter – and moreover, the book’s final action packed encounter takes place in the lake district, an area of Britain indelibly connected to the work of Wordsworth. There is a paper waiting to be written about the Browning – Wordsworth tension and how it’s reflected in the plot of this little British potboiler. Another interesting angle of the book is its connection to Jewishness. There’s a peculiar history in British culture to Jewishness (for contemporary comment see the work of Howard Jacobson or Anthony Julius’ recent romp through British literary and cultural history), and I can’t help but feel the book at times toy with it. There’s Mortdecai himself, whose name carries “a hint of Jewry” and later on we are introduced to other Jewish people with various connections to Europe and history. None of this is foregrounded, and in a way, the central passages of the book that sees Mortdecai travel through the US have a whiff of the laid-back anthropology of Jean Baudrillard’s anthropology-road trip. The elements are there: we have the desert, the wideness of space, the overdetermined, hyperreal, “déserts du trop de signification.” But none of this weighs down the book in any way, we witness the book nodding to certain figures of thought here and there, but it all happens en passant.

Mortdecai_poster (1)And there’s more: despite all the levity of Mortdecai’s tone and the games he plays with genre expectations – the world of the novel is by turns dark and grotesque. A nymphomaniac Jewish woman from Vienna who married (and possibly killed) a famous (and criminal) art collector, living on a farm somewhere in the American heartland? Surely grotesque. Police and other government agencies that are corrupt, unscrupulous and brutal, willing to torture, kill and deceive to protect politicians from scandal? Dark but not necessarily grotesque. It is amusing that the movie Mortdecai kept some of the murders and (in the movie: attempted) torture scenes, but hands them over to stereotypical Chinese or Russian villains. I think it speaks to Bonfiglioli’s novel that it managed to combine humor and brutality in one cohesive story, and it was too dicey or difficult for the movie version to do the same, so the movie went back to the Hot Shots school of villainy, except it also lacked the commitment to pure unadulterated silliness. As an art world noir, Don’t Point That Thing At Me is a rousing success, a book much more complicated and interesting than we might be tempted to think. And the writing itself is just such a joy. And its standout lines stick with you, so much so that, upon watching the ill-conceived Depp vehicle, you notice each and every direct quote from the book. Not because you remember them from reading – but because in a mediocre, tired script, they shine like some purloined jewelry in the dry summer grass.

The first epigraph of the novel is from Pippa Passes, Browning’s first major post-Sordello work. Pippa Passes is noteworthy in part because of the non-judgmental way it depicts immorality. The epigraph chosen by Bonfiglioli is “So old a story and tell it no better?” – divorced from Browning’s context (the Intendant’s plans for Pippa), it’s also significant for the book itself. Coming this early in the book, it works like a challenge from Bonfiglioli, a mischievous, spirited writer if I ever saw one, to himself. And he tells it much better.


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.)

Lawrence Norfolk: John Saturnall’s Feast

Norfolk, Lawrence (2012), John Saturnall’s Feast, Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-2088-5

DSC_0163 So I guess we all have these writers – writers whose every book we read as soon as possible and whose future books we wait for, refresh amazon pages for, look up bookseller news for – or maybe that’s just me. Two of these writers have kept me waiting for an especially long, long time. One is Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry who hasn’t as much as announced a followup novel to Family Matters (2002), and whose name I punch into Google at least once a month. The other writer is Lawrence Norfolk, who had let 12 years pass between his third novel and John Saturnall’s Feast, which is his fourth. Rumors about Norfolk’s fourth novel had been floating around for years, various titles and plots were offered. As for me, I bought it the instant it was published (or rather it was bought for me; I was hospitalized at the time) and read it within two days of receiving it. And I loved it. This is no hyperbole. I was reading the book carefully, slowly, and loved every minute of the experience. I loved every page of it, loved the way the book looked (the Grove hardcover is such a handsome production…). And yet – after I finished it, it did not give me the frisson of having just read the new novel of a favorite writer which is just as good or better than his previous books. Most of us remember the excitement when Pynchon’s tremendous Against the Day (2006) came out and the goodness, the excellence of the book stayed with you for days – it was not just that a fairly long wait since Mason & Dixon (1997) was finally over, it was also excitement over how good the new book was. Not as good as M&D, but very clearly among his best work. Even the smaller in every way next novel gave me a similar sense (here’s my review of that one). All this is to say that that is how the experience should have been, but it was not. What I found instead was a well executed, very readable, very enjoyable book. As I will point out further down, I think it’s a technical exercise in romanticism. Pretty good. But as a followup to Norfolk’s other work, it was a bit of a disappointment. It’s hard not to recommend it – it’s so much fun to read, especially in winter, but it’s also…not a masterpiece. So you might ask: wait, you’re saying this book is very good – and a disappointment? Yes. Maybe I should explain.

DSC_0206I have to admit to a slight bias here, I guess. Norfolk’s previous three novels are very good. Very, very good. I have reread all three in the past month and they all hold up, even improve on rereading. His debut was Lemprière’s Dictionary, published when its author was a mere 27 years old. On its face, it is a retelling of the creation of John Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary containing a full Account of all the Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors, which is a real book, written by a historical person really called John Lemprière who, like Norfolk’s protagonist, came from Jersey. That is where the similarities end. Norfolk’s novel is a historical conspiracy novel that features a cabal of French protestants who are secretly behind the East India Company. It’s a book deeply steeped in myth, visions, and history – but it’s also a book with very odd steampunk underpinnings, with steampunk-like cyborgs (well, kinda) and automatons. All of this is done in a style that is so assured, so clean, that it can carry the complicated plot which teems with characters and descriptions and preposterous ideas and not confuse the reader beyond the intended confusions. It has held up remarkably well, and I strongly recommend you read it – but only in the British edition (the American edition has been mutilated). There has been criticism of its anglocentricity and orientalism, but Norfolk’s main goal is disorientation. The basic idea of historical novels, drawing intellectual connections between then and now, infusing a seemingly fixed situation with understanding, Norfolk sets about unmooring its fundamental pillars.

DSC_0207His second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, basically takes the style and ideas and thrust of the first novel and splashes them over a vastly bigger canvas. Not only does the novel have about double the size of the debut, the same explosion happened to plots and characters. While the debut novel mostly took place in Jersey and London, with small trips to places like La Rochelle in France, the second novel spans across all of Renaissance Europe. I am not even going to attempt to offer a summary, but the novel contains monks traveling through Europe, artists, soldiers, and a mythical sunk city. While the first novel played with myth as an element in disorienting the audience and its protagonist, the second novel makes a full grab for a full religious and mythical framework. Religion, power, sexuality and art were all toys in the manic hands of 27 year old Norfolk, but The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels like the work of someone who thought through the concepts he used in his debut and applied them more deliberately in his second attempt. The Pope’s Rhinoceros, as was Lemprière’s Dictionary, is very well researched but doesn’t care to be accurate about the facts of history (or rather, is intentionally inaccurate). There’s a larger emphasis on myth as compared to steampunk automatons, but the mind is the same, just more mature. It’s a dense novel that frequently seems to just burst with material and descriptions and plot and good god all those characters, but it never really feels self-indulgent. Norfolk has a story to tell and ideas to convey, and everything in The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels absolutely necessary. It’s also really well written.

DSC_0132In his first two novels, Norfolk has developed his own style, highly recognizable, and perfectly adapted to the mad novels it was created for. In his third novel he cut down on the style. In many ways, this is no longer the Norfolk we know. While the first two novels occasionally invited comparison to the intellectual and philosophical romps through history of Umberto Eco’s novels, the new one is nothing like that. The progression from the first two novels seems to be cut short: page count alone seems clear: Lempriere’s Dictionary had about 500 pages, The Pope’s Rhinoceros roughly 900 and the third novel, the severely underrated In The Shape of a Boar, came in at just above 300 pages. Instead of being set in a distant period in England’s past, it’s set in World War II Romania and postwar Europe. For writers mainly associated with a specific setting and writing to transition to a much more modern period or setting can be difficult, even great writers struggle. The British and American sections of Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and the entire nonredeemable awfulness that is Rushdie’s Fury can serve as sad examples. Given the history of such ventures, it’s a bit surprising that In The Shape of a Boar is an absolute triumph. It’s split in two parts, the first one is a philological account (with footnotes) of the mythical Calydonian boar hunt. It takes the archival concerns of the first two books, both of which share and foreground a concern with the production of knowledge, and turns it inside out by offering sources in a clipped, but musical account of the myth. There is a third part that returns to the first, but it’s much smaller.

DSC_0130The second part, larger than the first one, is a very thinly veiled account of the life of Paul Celan (with one big deviation) and especially the Goll-Affair that haunted and broke Celan. The book offers us disquisitions on truth and storytelling, it’s an exercise in naming and sourcing; even the philological footnotes are already infiltrated by opinion and doubt. We are asked to transpose the mythical structure on the contemporary events, we are made players in a postmodern game, but unlike the cushy historical fantasy backgrounds of the earlier novels, this one offers us higher stakes. I can’t possibly do justice to the book within this summary, so I won’t attempt it. Suffice to say that at the center of it is a text called “Die Keilerjagd” (“The Boar Hunt”), written by Norfolk’s stand-in for Celan (the poem itself alludes to the Todesfuge via the Goll affair link, and “In Gestalt eines Ebers”, the poem that lent the novel its title). Subsequently, the authenticity, accuracy and plain truth of “Die Keilerjagd” is called into question. The Celan character is not necessarily at the center – it’s really the text and the question of historical truth and representation. The time-lines in Norfolk’s book can be shown to correspond to events in history, which helps read certain events. For Norfolk, this book represents the pinnacle of his achievement to that point. It takes up his concerns with truth, power and myth, with archives, art and vision, and transports them to a different platform, offers them different contexts. It’s a very brave undertaking, breaking with a certain part of his audience, and seemingly breaking with his previous work, but actually, it sharpens it, it re-focuses some concerns in his previous books. In The Shape of a Boar is a surprising step forward, but just as The Pope’s Rhinoceros, it’s also a development of his previous work. It’s stylistically acute, offering a shift even in writing to accommodate the subject matter. With In The Shape of a Boar, Norfolk established himself as a great writer. What would be his next masterpiece? Where would he go next?

DSC_0129Given these expectation on my side and many other readers of his work, when John Saturnall’s Feast came out, a medium-sized, easily read little book that had a small portion of myth, to go with a historical background and an engaging story, previous readers of Norfolk had to feel a bit let down. If you reread the effusive praise I have just offered for his other books, you could claim that I just had unreasonable expectations. That may be so. But I can’t help but feel that this step back is deliberate. In The Shape of a Boar was not as well received as his previous work and it had to have sold much fewer copies. In writing this short, very pretty book, he clearly appealed to the audience of his earlier books, and maybe, after the rumored failure of a much more ambitious project that was abandoned during the 12 years between novels three and four (one of the rumors was based on titbits like this note from a British Council webpage ca. 2006 that said “He is currently working on a new novel, The Levels, about the effect of gravity on human relationships.”), this smaller project helped him center, retool his writing. I don’t know and generally I don’t like this kind of speculation. So let’s move on to the book itself.

DSC_0164What kind of book is John Saturnall’s Feast? Set in the years just before, during and just after Cromwell’s reign, it is a novel about the English countryside. We meet Norfolk’s protagonist in a village in the middle of a green and gorgeous valley. He is the son of a village witch, who watches over a pagan rite of fertility and renewal. Her murder pushes the newly orphaned John Saturnall away from his home and into the kitchen of a manor whose lord, Sir William Fremantle, rules over the valley. With him, Saturnall carries a book of recipes his ancestors have kept and worked with. Saturnall quickly rises within the household due to luck, skill and his preternatural taste that allows him to distinguish all ingredients of a dish. He is tasked to coax Lucretia, the daughter of the house, who is on a hunger strike of sorts, into eating, and what ensues is a beautiful dance of seduction centered around food. As Cromwell takes over the country, the waves of history engulf Fremantle manor as well. Violence, war, religion, love and food spin together, carrying Saturnall through years of upheaval, through love and pain. If this summary sounds a bit bland, I can assure you I am not misrepresenting the book. The slightly mad, disorderly myth that ate at the archives of knowledge in the previous novels is very neatly stowed away here. Its most powerful appearance is early in the novel, in an evocation of the mythical power of nature and pagan rites, of the feasting tables of nature, and the intrusion of the “Priests of Jehova”. But once we enter Fremantle’s manor, it becomes background noise. It’s a means to characterize Saturnall, give him a distinctive motivation that is different from the other workers in the household. It also provides motivation and structure to the book. The book’s handful of characters are odd, but they don’t remind the reader of similar characters in Norfolk’s work – instead we feel like we are looking at a novel whose sense of interiors and history is inspired by Gormenghast without having that novel’s genius.

DSC_0162I’m not trying to be harsh. I really like this book even today and there’s a lot that’s interesting here. The narrow focus on English history allows Norfolk to combine tendencies from mythography and historiography to provide a very strong sense of place, of a profound Englishness. That’s why the recipes he prints at the beginning of every chapter have no real intrigue, they are purely decorative (but beautifully so). Wonderful books like How to cook a Wolf, a cookbook that also reveals the stress of life during hard times, or Günter Grass’ Der Butt, a novel about carnality in the baroque and today, use recipes to add to a story, to offer relevance and substance from a different medium. But for Norfolk the goal is a kind of grand essay on general Englishness, and he marshals an army of details to create this sense of place. This starts with his choice of Cromwell’s time as the setting for the book. In his great study of Cromwell, Christopher Hill has pointed out how much of a role Cromwell plays for the structure of English history, for its development and interpretation. He goes so far as to say that Cromwell in his revolution “combine[s] the roles of Robespierre and Napoleon, of Lenin and Stalin, in theirs.” Norfolk clearly has a strong sense of that. His focus on one rural village evokes no period of literature so much as Romanticism itself. It’s a period novel in a double sense: written about a certain period but also written in the style of a different period. Even the choice of topic might point back to Romanticism, if we remember that one of the most famous manifestos of Romanticism was Hugo’s preface to his play about Cromwell. This book doesn’t play fast and loose with historical facts, it doesn’t offer you facts in the first place. The book itself, in the Grove edition, just adds to this sense. Every chapter is dedicated to a different recipe in the cookbook, offering the recipe and a woodcut-style picture to accompany it. The recipes and chapter beginnings are printed in burgundy ink. It’s just so overwhelmingly pretty. I have included pictures of it somewhere in this review.

DSC_0134And this is why I can’t help but think that its superficial blandness is intentional. It is, as if it was intentionally written and conceived as a romantic period artifact. Even the writing itself, which at times seems a bit sloppy is, I think, intentionally written as a pastiche (not parody) of period writing. The modernity of the language is what allows us to read it as more than parody. I think this book is extremely clever, and a lot of its blandness is intentional, and it’s honestly a fantastic, joyful read, but intentional blandness is still blandness and this book, with all its cleverness and all its formal accomplishments, feels like a step back for a writer that I consider to be vastly underrated. And there’s the distinct possibility that I am reading these accomplishments and this cleverness into a book that doesn’t have it. That is not such a well constructed artifact. However, it is the rest of Norfolk’s work that allows for this reading. If Norfolk really were such a minor writer, Lemprière’s Dictionary would have looked more like Iain Pears’ fun but forgettable Rashomon-in-England fable An Instance of the Fingerpost. But it doesn’t look like that because Norfolk is, indeed, a very good writer, and ultimately, saying that John Saturnall’s Feast is ‘merely’ a great read is burying the lede. In a time of dull but ‘clever’ books written by novelists without a sense of style (Blake Butler’s work comes to mind), such a readable work, with such commitment to sumptuousness and beauty, and written by such a capable hand, is not only rare, it is absolutely laudable. Overall, it’s a bit like comfort food – like a slice of your favorite pizza. If you haven’t had it in a while you’ll absolutely die for a slice. Look, I am waiting for his next book, just as impatiently. But I was also, speaking of Hugo, reminded of this passage in the Préface:

En somme, rien n’est si commun que cette élégance et cette noblesse de convention. Rien de trouvé, rien d’imaginé, rien d’inventé dans ce style. Ce qu’on a vu partout, rhétorique, ampoule, lieux communs[…].

John Saturnall’s Feast is very formulaic, and in danger of meriting such criticism. But compared to other books in the genre, this one is much more competent, much more fluid in the use of myth, and much more aware of the period style it uses and adapts. It feels like a watershed moment for Norfolk. Where does he go next? I can’t honestly wait to find out.


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Denise Mina: Field of Blood

Mina, Denise (2005), Field of Blood, Little, Brown
ISBN 0-316-15458-x

DSC_0197So when I said there would be shorter reviews as well as longer ones, I actually had this book in mind. Denise Mina’s crime procedural Field of Blood is a fairly straightforward crime novel set in Glasgow in 1981. I read it on one long train ride between two university libraries and I enjoyed it so much that I somehow started to take notes on it (I can’t tell you why that’s a sign of enjoyment for me, it just is). While I find the genre very entertaining, I don’t actually read mysteries a whole lot; I am nevertheless aware that there’s a specific Scottish tradition of that kind of writing, although most of those books, like the vast oeuvre of Ian Rankin, are set in Edinburgh. While the basic tradition is mostly dominated by brooding male detectives, whose inner demons make for excellent drama to supplement the murder mystery, there have been quite a few important female writers. I have to admit to not having read any British examples, but the American writers I’ve read are all really good, among them Laura Lippman and Sara Gran. I even enjoy the faux-British mediocrity of Elizabeth George. It’s not a huge coincidence that the first names that came to mind are American or English. In a recent review/interview with brilliant Scottish novelist Janice Galloway, the interviewer writes: “[a]lthough Scottish fiction can boast a line of hard men […] its hard women have been less visible”. Galloway herself points to the dearth of role models when she started out. This translates into mystery writing, but just as there’s now a whole series of female Scottish writers (my personal adoration of A.L. Kennedy’s work is well known), the field of female writers of crime novels has also greatly expanded.

And yet, amidst the growing competition, Mina’s book stands out. Field of Blood is many things at once: a mystery, a brisk psychological study of a young woman in a male dominated field, but it’s also a tentative discussion of the cultural background of 1980s (and 1960s) Glasgow. It may be a reviewer’s cliché to say that a book is many things at once, but as I’ll point out later, it’s a salient observation in this case; it contributes to the way we read and understand the book. Field of Blood is constructed with all the trappings of the genre, but the material is smartly dealt with. The novel is a bit strangely structured, and while you get a clean resolution, Mina has sidestepped the temptation of tying everything up in a clean knot. In novels like these, finding the killer usually means finding someone complicit in the social struggles depicted. Unraveling the case leads to an unraveling of a part of history or contemporary society that the author intends to examine. Massimo Carlotto’s fascinating investigative noirs are an example, or to stay in Scotland, the very good crime novels of Val McDermid. In Field of Blood, however, the murder case and the social issues are -in many ways- separated, allowing the writer to offer a resolution to the plot without a solution to the broader issues. The protagonist may be personally connected to the case, but that’s just a plot device. There are other connections too, some reaching into old criminal history. It’s just a really well executed intelligent crime novel with an overwhelming sense of place and time.

The place in question is Glasgow which gives the book a more working class background. Glasgow and Edinburgh have been rivals in Scotland for centuries. According to Robert Crawford’s book On Glasgow and Edinburgh, the latter is a more European kind of city, filled with old buildings, centered around the arts (and banking these days), while Glasgow is a city of heavy industry, the Scottish equivalent of the North of England. And like in Liverpool and Manchester, the thatcherite 1980s were no joy for working class Glaswegians. As heavy industry slowly lost its importance, and the Tory government cracked down on unions and workers, these communities suffered greatly. But Mina goes a bit further and situates her protagonist in an Irish Catholic community. Back in the 19th century, a huge amount of poor Irish fled to Scotland and most of them settled around Glasgow and Dundee. The UK has had a difficult relationship to Catholicism in general and with the Irish in particular and so it’s no small wonder that the Irish Catholics in Scotland were not especially welcome. In 1929, not that long ago, the Church of Scotland published a pamphlet titled “The Menace of the Irish race to our Scottish Nationality”; the division between Catholics and Protestants has been an impactful one for Scotland, a division that extends to their two big football clubs, Celtic Glasgow (Irish Catholic) and the Glasgow Rangers (Protestant). The misgivings of the broader protestant society and administration and the resulting insularity and defensiveness of Irish Catholic communities plays a large role in Field of Blood, which is as much about a young woman coming into her own as it’s about the murder of a small child at the hands of two slightly older children.

DSC_0199That last remark is not a spoiler. In fact, the book leads with the scene of the murder and presents us two boys, unequally complicit in a horrible crime. The question that needs to be answered by the plot is whether the boys did the heinous deed alone or whether they were made to do it or maybe enticed into doing it. And even though I called it a procedural at the beginning, it doesn’t focus on the police at all. Instead, the focal point is a female journalist called Paddy Meehan. Her real name is Patricia, but everybody calls her Paddy, which has two effects. It confirms the social/ethnic background, literally naming her (Paddy is a stereotypical Irish name), and it ties her to a different (not fictional) person with the same name. Patrick ‘Paddy’ Meehan was at the center of a miscarriage of justice debate in the 1970s. A Glaswegian Irish Catholic, he was framed for a murder he did not commit. It took seven years for him to be pardoned, even though, shortly after the trial, someone else came forward and confessed to the murder. In his later years, ‘Paddy’ Meehan came to believe that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union, and had been involved in a prison escape by a British double agent, none of which was ever proven to be true. Field of Blood incorporates a retelling of Meehan’s life story in alternating chapters. They offer an uneasy current of counter-history that undermines the legitimacy of stories told in the present tense of the novel.

The main task of Meehan’s life story is to show and remind Patricia/Paddy of the unreliability of the police, especially where minorities are concerned. If they had had no problems framing Paddy Meehan for a murder, would they flinch from framing two Irish Catholic boys in order to have a presentable result to a tragedy that outraged the public? However, Mina also tells us about Meehan’s life as a spy and she does this in a way that does not really inform the reader of the truth of the matter. The situations that she vouches for as an author are ambiguous, involving unseen locations, cells, blindfolds. Other, less ambiguous scenes are offered us through Paddy Meehan’s voice, a cracked, slightly off kilter kind of voice. She never really ties these memories/delusions of her protagonist’s innocently jailed namesake to the main narrative, leaving it in the book just as a queer disturbance of epistemological clarity. This is especially important since the mystery genre has a particular relationship to that idea (I went on about it in my reviews of brilliant novels by Pynchon, and childishly flat novels by Charles Stross), and while we are not following detectives or policemen around, a similar connotation follows investigative reporters.

Patricia/Paddy isn’t quite an investigative reporter, but her investigation of this story represents her first attempt at being one. Her struggles as a woman at a newspaper filled with men is made explicit, and represent a variation on a theme that readers and viewers are fairly familiar with. And while we can assume she is about to carve out a place for herself in this male dominated world, that is not the most interesting emancipation. As an Irish Catholic, she is also strongly involved in that community, almost imprisoned by it. With no sexual experience, she is engaged to be married to a young man from the same community. She lives with her parents (as he lives with his) and goes to church every Sunday. While we soon understand that this community is oppressive to her, we are not asked to condemn the closely knit web of families and friends. Denise Mina makes it clear that this is a supportive community, with a closeness born from necessity and poverty. There is none of the common pat judgment of somewhat insular religious communities. When Paddy appears to betray them by writing an article, the community turns against her. However, this shunning of Paddy inadvertently frees her long enough to see why she has not been happy following the community traditions and eventually allowing her to emancipate herself from the ties that bound her.

DSC_0198The portrayal of Irish Catholics in Fields of Blood is done in broad strokes, which makes sense, given that it happens in brief intervals during breaks in the mystery plot. At the same time, it is fairly complex, an effect that is achieved by the mosaic-like technique Mina uses in her novel. She throws out all these elements (and there are more, including body image struggles and sexuality) and hopes for the sense of place that permeates everything to make it all cohere. In a sense we are cast as detectives here, as well, connecting all the elements of the book in order to see the whole picture. Choosing a female protagonist allowed Mina to also present to us, like fellow Glaswegian novelists Galloway and Kennedy (part-time in her case) did before her, the experience of growing up female in working class Glasgow. The book is not on par with Galloway’s or Kennedy’s work, but it doesn’t aim for that kind of literary discourse. It’s literary goals are different and clear – and clearly met. There are other excellent books about female detectives that show how feminity is under pressure both by criminals as well as by the police apparatus. Alison Littlewood’s recent fairy tale/serial killer novel The Path of Needles is a very good example of this. As for Mina’s novel, it exceeds even those books. Sure, there are minor incongruities that have the effect of sometimes making the book read like somebody’s debut novel (it’s actually her third book), but they are fleeting. If you enjoy reading crime novels, this is the book for you.


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China Miéville: Dial H

Miéville, China; Mateus Santolouco, Riccardo Burchielli et al. (2013), Dial H: Into You, DC Comics
ISBN 9-781401-237752

Wood, Dave; Jim Mooney et al. (2010), Showcase Presents: Dial H for Hero, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-2648-0

Pfeifer, Will; Kano et al. (2003), H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities, DC Comics
ISBN 1-4012-0168-7

DSC_0613   So, while I am a fan of comic books and do read quite a few of them, I am still frequently overwhelmed by the incredible amount of characters and complicated back stories. DC Comics is especially infamous for not just having complicated stories, but even multiple realities and universes, which they then attempted to collapse in amazingly readable and fun but convoluted “events”. Then, suddenly, DC decided to do away with all the accrued history and complications by relaunching all of its titles in 2011, calling the new set of books “the new 52”. This reset the stories on all their major titles, giving them new origin stories, and new slants. It also turned the DC universe somewhat more male, due to the fact that female creators were vastly underrepresented among the slate of amazing writers and artists, and also due to the fact that a lot of female characters either completely vanished, like fan favorite Stephanie Brown, or were declared dead, like Renée Montoya. Other female characters were revived as weaker or “sexier” versions of their old selves. And it’s not just female characters. The first waves of comics to come out seemed to have a decidedly conservative slant in how they were positioned vis-a-vis recent character history. One example is Judd Winnick’s Catwoman run, as compared to the more recent history of the character in the hands of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke and others. However, DC also did something very interesting: they decided to use the bright lights of public attention in the wake of the relaunch in order to relaunch a bunch of much less well known characters, some of whom were pulled from DC’s more alternative imprints Vertigo and Wildstorm.

DSC_0628Frankenstein, for example, last seen in Grant Morrison’s book Seven Soldiers of Victory, was given his own title (written by the great, great Jeff Lemire), as were Animal Man and Swamp Thing, both of whom had iconic runs with Vertigo. The characters thus revived are not all equally well known. While Swamp Thing is probably one of the best known ‘alternative’ properties of DC, they also offered much less well known characters and titles a spot in the limelight. One of these characters/properties is Dial H for Hero, a decidedly odd kind of title, with a very inconsistent publishing history. His revival could have gone either way. DC, however, asked China Miéville to write this title, and the result is incredibly good. I have been reading quite a few comic books during the past year, and some extremely good ones among them (I’ll probably review some of them in the near future), but Miéville’s Dial H is easily one of the best, if not the best among this crop of really excellent comics that have been coming out. If you have been following Miéville’s career (as I have), this will likely not have come as a surprise to you. Miéville has established himself as one of the leading contemporary writers of science fiction, and probably one of the better novelists in the UK regardless of genre. Even considering the regrettable duds like Kraken, his bibliography is full of inventive, smart, extraordinarily well written novels. The news that he would be turning his attention to comic books in order to write a title of his own had me giddy and excited for a year. I spent part of that year reading up on the history of the character or characters that would be featured in Miéville’s book. And as I found out, that is a peculiar history.

DSC_0606(1)Limited as I am to trade publications, I will focus on only two books centered on the “Dial H”-property. There were small instances of the title resurfacing in between, they were not, however, collected as trades. The first time comic book readers came upon the Dial H for Hero stories was in 1965, in the pages of “House of Mystery #165”. The stories featured a boy called Robby Reed who finds a strange apparatus that “looks like a dial…made of a peculiar alloy….with a strange inscription on it”. The “young genius” decipers the inscription running along the side of the apparatus and finds that it asks its user to “dial the letters h-e-r-o”. Intrepid young Robby Reed does just that and, lo and behold, he turns into a superhero. His whole physical appearance is transformed: he has become a giant, complete with a superhero uniform (that even has letters on the front) and somehow he knows that the hero he transformed into is called “Giantboy”. Using the powers of the character, he thwarts some evil villains, and returning home, dials o-r-e-h in order to transform back into his bespectacled mild mannered self. The boy turning into an adult superhero is highly reminiscent of DC’s Captain Marvel, which is a boy called Billy Bateson who turns into the superhero Captain Marvel by saying “Shazam!”. However, as far as I know, Captain Marvel (sometimes also just named “Shazam”) is always more or less the same guy. Robby Reed’s dial, however, turns him into a different superhero every time he gives his dial a spin. There is so much that is bad about this title, from the casual racism (at one point he turns into “an Indian super-hero – Chief Mighty Arrow” and is even issued a companion, “a winged injun pony”. When he is upset, he shouts “Holy Massacre” and wishes he could “scalp” a monster) to sexism (Robby’s love interest find the dial, dials “h-e-r-o-i-n-e” and turns into “Gem Girl” despite Robby’s warnings that the dial is not a toy, and he ends up forcing her to dial herself back into a girl “before she gets any more ideas”), and overall ridiculous writing. However, it’s some of the most incredibly inventive work I have ever seen.

DSC_0607Robby transforms into heroes that make sense, like Giantboy or The Human Bullet etc., but in one issue he transforms into geometric shapes with arms and legs, for example. Coming up with new heroes (although you can dial up old ones too, it’s basically a randomized selection out of a finite, but large pool) forced the writer of the books, Dave Wood, to dig deep. And Jim Mooney’s art perfectly realizes Wood’s wacky vision. It’s just so much ridiculous fun, and the Showcase volume is well worth your while. If you want an idea of the silly fun on offer, click here to see a selection of covers. After a while the Dial H for Hero stories petered out. There were various small scale revivals, including one in the 1980s by the great Marv Wolfman, also called Dial H for Hero, but since none of them have been published as trades, I can’t really comment on them. They introduced more characters spinning the dial and further enlarged the pool of super-heroes. I’ve had a look at the Wiki summary of Wolfman’s run and it seems delightfully insane, and it seems to have more of a coherent plot than the Wood/Mooney version, which is basically a gonzo one-off kind of thing in each issue.

DSC_0611Even more coherent (and initially at least considerably more down to earth) is the 2003 incarnation called H-E-R-O, written by Will Pfeifer and beautifully illustrated by Kano. That run went on for 22 issues, but for some reason, only issues 1-6 have been collected as a trade (called H-E-R-O: Powers and Abilities). Pfeifer’s run features different people finding the dial and examines what happens to their lives when you add the opportunity to transform into a superhero. There is a young adult mired in a mediocre life, “making sundaes at minimum wage”. In order to impress a girl, and more generally as an attempt to “be someone”, he uses the Dial to unimpressive and even disastrous effect. A business man finding the dial becomes obsessed with it. A girl uses it to become popular at her new school, etc. The book was a bit of a letdown, even though the writing and art was just so much better than the Wood/Mooney version. But Pfeifer got rid of the ridiculous fun and inventiveness and infused the whole book with a dour morality, mostly lectures about being content with who you are and knowing your limits and being nice and industrious within those limits. Much more than the original book, the dialing device becomes a metaphor for situations that we all face in our lives etc. etc. I’m boring myself just describing it. For all the good writing and wonderful art that went into this book, it’s hard to recommend, because Pfeifer so consistently underwhelms. The idea of the dial is one of the most liberating literary devices I have ever seen, and to see it used in this pedestrian, moral, middle-class way was disheartening. If that was the direction that the Dial H for Hero story was going, I was worried about Miéville’s run presenting more of the same. Silly me. China Miéville blows Pfeifer’s run clean out of the water.

DSC_0626Miéville renames the series Dial H, and provides a spin on it that is equal parts original and respectful to the Silver Age original. The protagonist of the first trade is called Nelson Jent, and he’s an obese unemployed middle aged man, who, one night, is almost beat up by a group of lowlifes and, attempting to call the police from a phone booth, transforms into Boy Chimney. From that moment the reader knows that this is something else than the other titles in the Dial H for Hero series. And it starts with small details: Mieville, like many writers, offers us the thoughts of the characters that he focuses on. And as Jent transforms into Boy Chimney, his thoughts seem to transform, as well. Strange fragments enter them, and as Boy Chimney proceeds to beat up that gang, he appears to have a dialog with the consciousness of Nelson Jent. Additionally, Boy Chimney is very clearly not a super hero, as all the previous titles imagined them. He is a strange creature that has uncommon strength and unusual powers and abilities, among them the ability to use and command smoke. But it’s only Jent’s consciousness that keeps Boy Chimney from outright killing the brutal assailants in the alley. It feels less like Jent is genuinely transforming into a super hero, and more like a kind of symbiosis. And there is another basic difference: Jent doesn’t have to transform back by dialing the letters in reverse. He automatically returns to his normal self, “into the worst identity of all”, after a certain, variable amount of time has passed. Apart from this, the book’s early parts seem to be fairly straightforward. There’s a villain with a secret plan and he and Jent’s super heroes keep meeting and fighting. And then, the book quickly goes off the rails into the most incredible insanity. The villain, it turns out, is a “nullomancer”, a kind of wizard of nothingness, able to conjure and control nothingness, and her plan involves channeling an ancient beast called the Abyss, a strange thing composed of nothingness, but at the same time, containing universes.

DSC_0625(1)If this sounds absurd, I can assure you that Miéville makes it work on the page, and in his origin story, which closes out the trade, he offers a brilliant explanation for what the dial basically does. It’s hard to give you more details without spoiling the book, so I won’t, but the upshot of it all is that Miéville managed to tell a story that makes use of the incredible artistic liberties that the material has to offer, and yet it’s a book very determined to make sense, in multiple ways. What’s more, the art is not a let down. Would it have been a better book with JH Williams III at the helm? Possibly. But Mateus Santolouco, of whom I have never heard, does an excellent job. I was especially impressed by his work on the super-hero identities invoked by the dial. They are the most crucial visual element of the book, as they have to appear both plausible and iconical – and absurdly odd at the same time. As Boy Chimney leaps from the phone booth he is instantly alive on the page, as a scary, off the wall character. Almost as important are the colors, and Tanya and Richard Horie have done a simply magnificent job throughout the book. In my review of Brian Wood’s DMZ I have lamented the fact that the art seemed but a servant to Wood’s writing in the book, making for a less than great reading experience. That is not the case with Dial H. Even though Miéville is a famous award winning novelist, Santolouco brings a very distinct artistic vision to bear. The sketches in the back show how he worked on and tweaked the look of various superhero identities. Santolouco’s achievement is thrown into even starker relief by issue #0, which presents a kind of origin story, and is included at the back of the trade. Riccardo Burchielli valiantly tries to do justice to Miéville’s amazing script, but it’s an overall disappointing effort, compared to Santolouco’s work that came before.

DSC_0631The book has so many ideas, and one of them is an obsession with identity. With superheroes, we talk a lot about identities, secret and public ones, but that is usually a naming issue: what name do I use? What mask do I wear. Alternative takes on superhero narratives (cf. Millar’s Kick-Ass) suggest that wearing masks is liberating, but they don’t really discuss or problematize the core issue of identity. Miéville, as all his work so far has also shown, is very aware of how identity is tied up in physical forms and in cultural and social ties. The characters that Jent turns into appear to have their own memories, and while it turns out to be an issue more of colonialism and appropriation than of sociology and psychology, Miéville opens wide the doors for these discussions. In doing so, I think, he goes beyond even writers like Morrison, as he uses the iconicity and language of big publisher super-hero comics and examines it carefully. This is not another one of those books critical of ‘superhero myths’, and it doesn’t offer a grimy reality based taken on super heroes. There are enough of those around. No, Miéville embraces a lot of the central qualities of the genre and uses its language in order to interrogate it and tell an absorbing story at the same time. The best news? There is much more to come. For all the density of this book, it merely collects the first issues in an ongoing run. The next trade is due in January 2014. You should be reading this book.


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David Peace: The Damned United

Peace, David, The Damned United, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-24955-8

As a reader of American novels, you’ll likely have read at least one excellent novel about baseball or American football by one of America’s best novelists. Among the excellent novelists who have written a novel about Baseball or wherein baseball is featured prominently are Philip Roth (The Great American Novel), Don DeLillo (Underworld), Robert Coover (The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.), Bernard Malamud (The Natural) and Michael Chabon (Summerland). American football plays a role in novels by fine writers like Don DeLillo (End Zone) and Howard Nemerov (The Homecoming Game); not to mention countless excellent novels making heavy use of sports culture in some way, like Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes or Richard Ford’s Sportswriter. Soccer, or as we Europeans call it: football, has not had the fortune of inspiring such extraordinary art. To be honest, I would be hard pressed to remember any novel of note or even a truly excellent work of journalism. The best, and most famous, book that football culture has produced, is Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Hornby’s memoirs of being an Arsenal supporter. The quality and reflective powers of Fever Pitch are well summarized by the way its author describes becoming a football fan, telling us he “fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.” So, no, this is not a good book. It does work well for readers who are football fans themselves, I suppose, at least it worked well for me, because it vividly evokes being young, male, and enamored with football. If I hadn’t fallen into all three categories when I read it as an impressionable teenager, I doubt I would have liked it as much. It is a sad state of affairs that until David Peace’s novel The Damned United was published in 2006, Hornby’s sentimental piffle was the best literary achievement to have come out of football culture. I suspect that many of the accolades heaped on Peace’s book are due to a public starved for some decent literature about football to emerge.

Well, there’s no denying the fact: The Damned United is a reasonably good book. Nothing more, but also nothing less. There is much in it that can annoy readers, but David Peace, judging from this book, is a writer with passion and an excellent ear for the rhythms of other people’s passion. His book looks into the life of a football legend, and paints him as an angry, fearful, impassioned football professional who falls prey to his oversized personality, not able to restrain himself, not able to control his impulses, his desire to be loved and admired, and his hatred of those who would oppose him and the novel traces his downfall in minute detail. Peace’s nonfiction novel could well be called a tragedy in the sense that we are made to witness the demise of a man, and we understand what his harmatia, his character defect is, which leads to the inevitable end. The football legend in question is Brian Clough, and the novel tells us about his ill-fated stint managing Leeds United in 1974, starting with his first day at that “hateful, hateful place; spiteful, spiteful place”. This quote, by the way, is from that first day, it demonstrates Clough’s enmity towards his new team. He doesn’t welcome his new job, much as his new team doesn’t welcome him. From the first day, Clough, and Leeds United, are at odds. Peace’s book has 44 chapters, one for every day that Clough is employed by Leeds United, and the chapters are all narrated by Clough, and written in present tense. Peace emphasizes the dramatic nature of Clough’s soliloquies in multiple ways: some quotes, some intense thoughts and comments are written in italics, but Peace is also a fan of line breaks after a particularly expressive thought, and quite a few sections end on short, dramatic sentences. Not all the sections are about Clough’s time at Leeds, however. About half the sections are about Clough’s career up to his Leeds engagement. It starts with Clough’s last day as an active footballer, brought low by a horrific injury in the winter of 1962 and traces his career from his first assignment as manager of Hartlepools United, a small fourth division club, to his successful years of managing Derby County and finally accepting the appointment at Leeds United.

The italics in the sections dealing with Clough’s past have a several effects, the most important of which is the most simple one: they provide a stark visual contrast to the Leeds narrative, which allows Peace to treat both narratives the same way. Both narratives are written in the present tense, both make use of the same dramatic voice with short, self-obsessed sentences showing us the inside of Clough’s strangely wired mind. And while they at first seem to be contrasting stories, one the story of a doomed assignment to an unpleasant team, and the other the story of the meteoric rise of a young football manager, as the novel progresses, we are more and more treated to two stories of certain doom, as Clough fights with players, administrative staff and the press both in his career with Derby County and his time with Leeds United, and are made to understand what it is that connects both these stories: Brian Clough’s mind. Although his novel is about a football manager, Peace barely gives us details of games or managing strategies. Instead we are hooked up to his protagonist’s strange mind from the very first line, and are never allowed to leave. Like a maelstrom, Peace’s prose, simple, repetitive, expressive, pushes us through 44 days in the life of a strangely damaged, but also greatly talented man, and barely gives us time to breathe. A sign of his accomplishment is the fact that the book reads like a thriller although we all know the historical facts about Clough’s career. Brian Clough’s fear of failure so dominates his every thought that we start to expect him to fail. Even if we didn’t know the history of what happened at Derby County and Leeds United, Peace would manage to make us expect the worst. Peace traps us in the obsessed mind of a great football manager, thoroughly gripping us in the process.

Well, at least I was gripped. Like Fever Pitch many years ago, there’s a good chance that this book appealed to me because I am a fan of the sport, and am acquainted with its history and with the weight and importance of various events happening in it. You don’t have to be a baseball fan (I’m not) to appreciate the excellency of Malamud’s or DeLillo’s novels, but I’m not sure the same is true for The Damned United. This is one of the drawbacks of Peace’s reduced prose, his utter lack of context or framing devices that would help our understanding. The tragedy of Clough’s obsessions is obvious to any reader, but the book is too long and too detailed to maintain the attention of readers not interested in the sport. What’s more, it’s incredibly repetitive. I’ve said it before but it’s really one of the cornerstone’s of Peace’s prose in this book: it seems as if he built the book from a small assortment of pieces, arranging and re-arranging them every time Clough runs into another wall. Even in his triumphs, Clough is never just happy, he’s spitefully triumphant, a slave to his hate and demons in his best as well as in his worst moments. There is a strange power to the repetitiousness. The writing, both the phrases used, and the overuse of dramatic line breaks, is very close to cliché sentimentalism, but the repetition elevates the prose to an extent. It’s like a strange, misanthropic chant in many ways. And it does something else: as we all know, football is a culture very devoted to masculinity and chauvinism, so much indeed that it has proved to be a hotbed of homophobia and racism. And in The Damned United, Brian Clough’s struggle with success and his own torments are consistently framed with issues of masculinity and power. As in the phrases used, Peace has a penchant for cliché here, as well.

Thus, we are repeatedly treated to Clough’s concept of managers being fathers or father figures to their players, and his arch nemesis, Don Revie, the Leeds United manager he’s succeeding at the beginning of the book (and who, it turns out, vociferously opposed Clough’s appointment) clearly fills an oedipal role for Clough. Trying to take over and win with Leeds is frequently described as destroying Don Revie or his legacy. But Peace, while certainly not a subtle writer, is less dull than this made it seem. He cleverly sees and describes the 1970s as a period of change both in football as well as in British society at large. Clough is a thorn in the side of the administrative boards of his clubs because he embraces TV and newspaper journalism. He is outspoken, nimble and surprisingly popular. Don Revie, by contrast, represents an older kind of thinking. In his time at Leeds, Peace stresses, Revie embraced a rough, foul-centered play, and time and again we hear about Revie’s reliance on superstition. As we read the book, we start to see through the screeds and rants, we see the pattern and see beyond the mundane business of managing a football team, and as we do so, Peace catches up with us and injects overt politics into the book, as Clough, temporarily out of a job, between his time at Derby and his stint at Leeds, supports a Labor candidate for parliament. He calls himself, standing in the rain, campaigning for his candidate, a “pied piper”. This is a significant term, because here, Peace ties together all the strands in his hand. Again, not in a subtle way, but vastly effective. The book starts with a lament on British politics, titled “The Argument”, cobbled together from various sources, quoting and paraphrasing an array of writers. There is a bathetic urgency to it, and the novel bears out this urgency. Clough may fail because his character is weak, but in his failures and successes, Peace mirrors developments in British public life.

Clough is not a likable everyman, he’s a hateful little man; it’s certainly true he’s driven, and as his years in Derby, and later years at Nottingham Forest show, a more than capable manager. But for us readers, we are left with someone whose main motivation isn’t ambition as much as a strange, twisting poison in his soul. For a novel with a strong moral bent to it, I find it to be morally ambiguous, but I don’t have an intimate enough knowledge of British politics of the 1970s and 1980s to really understand some of its argument. For all the obvious effects, and all the blatant drums and fanfares Peace employs, he ultimately relies on a sense of recognition in his readers, a recognition of a time and a place, and of a game that has few literary champions. Judging from this book, he’s a writer who demands a certain amount of patience from his readers, and quite a bit of collaboration. In a postscript to the book, Peace mentions that in 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s election, arguably a low point in British politics, and Brian Clough’s greatest success as manager (he won the European cup with Nottingham Forest) coincided. For me as a reader, there are enough obscure spots and twists in David Peace’s tapestry to make the book an intriguing read, and I was convinced to see the muscular repetitiveness as a good thing, rather than focusing on the surfeit of banal phrases and dramatic posturing. There are a few more clever things Peace does (reader address is one of them, and the use of fact, fiction and research in his nonfiction novel is another) that I couldn’t work into this review, so there is certainly a lot to recommend the book. I’m not, however, sure, it’s enough. I liked it, is all I can say. And it’s very clearly the best novel on football I ever read, and quite possibly the best novel on football ever written. Which is a bit sad, if we’re honest.


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Hilary Mantel: An Experiment In Love

Mantel, Hilary (2004), An Experiment in Love, Harper
ISBN 0-00-717288-5

During the past year, it was hard to escape articles about or interviews with Hilary Mantel. Almost unanimous critical praise for her most recent novel Wolf Hall, a flood of praise and attention which culminated in her winning, among other things, the 2009 Booker Prize, and did not abate for months after that. I was, erroneously, under the impression that Mantel was some sort of historical novelist, given that Wolf Hall (and the next novel, according to some interviews I read), as well as A Place of Greater Safety are about periods long past, taking place on the territory of the historical romance. So I was startled to find that Mantel has indeed written books in a more contemporary setting, although imbued by a vivid sense of history and the interconnectedness and roots of community. One of these books, her 1995 novel An Experiment in Love, is an absolute marvel of a book. I may have the tendency to be too effusive in my reviews, but books like this one deserve all the adulation, praise and wonderment we can muster. Mantel’s book, set in 1970s Britain, is about a young girl’s or woman’s process of growing up, and growing into adult life. That sounds simple, and in many ways, the book is committed to a certain efficient simplicity. There are no extraneous plot strands, no superfluous characters, everything is part of Mantel’s overarching vision, and her small coterie of characters and places fit each into their assigned places in that vision without straining the overall control and structure. The book’s intentions are, one might say, small-scale. The historical view of the British 1970s is particular and careful. There are no sweeping panoramas of society, no large disquisitions on the state of politics and there is no need to provide a variety of naturalistic ‘slices of life’ for Hilary Mantel. There is just Carmel McBain, her protagonist, and what happens to her during her final years at school and first years at university. My ability to contextualize her life are naturally limited, yet for several reasons, her life rings true and is absolutely believable. The conclusion of the book, and the way it wraps up the whole epoch and a section of female experience, is all the more devastating. An Experiment in Love is a great novel. It may seem small, in more than one way, but it most certainly is not. It is a novel that is both economically written and readable, smart and moving, authentic yet densely constructed.

The plot is roughly chronological, but contains so many flashbacks that it, in effect, takes place on three different levels. The most obvious and most direct are Carmel’s university years. We follow her as she finds her room in the dormitory at London University and leave her years later, as she has matured, both in matters of love as well as academically. This account is threaded through and through with flashbacks to her time at school, first at a regular school, and then at a posh Catholic grammar school to prepare her for university. Each phase of her life, school, grammar school and university adds at least one significant person to her life, and when, at the end of the books, events come to a head, she is, in a way, forced to look through the ranks of the friends and acquaintances she has acquired and understand their role in her life and how her life is connected to theirs. The person who seems most significant at the end, whether in a good or a bad way I won’t divulge just yet, is Karina, the first friend she makes at school, who will accompany her throughout grammar school and university. At times, in the book, the two levels, university and school, seem to run alongside, but not only are the school days more often framed as flashbacks. There’s also the fact that Carmel has to explain to fellow university/dorm students the odd behavior of Karina, and the book never quite distinguishes between remembered history and re-told history, dependent on the contextual use of that telling. All this is further complicated by the fact that a third level exists, beside school and university days. That third level is the present day. The first sentence of the novel is “This morning in the newspaper I saw a picture of Julia.” The narrator here is Carmel, and on that third level, we never leave “this morning” and since there are no indicators as to when exactly “this morning” is, we are led to believe that it is roughly the time of the book’s publication, i.e. 1995. The present day narrative is a sort of frame story for the whole book, providing not just bridges and segues between the different smaller episodes, and between school and university years. That means it is difficult to really persist in calling the schooltime narrative ‘flashbacks’, because not all of them are.

Some are memories dredged up by the present day narrator, some are remembered by the university-era narrator (as remembered by the present day narrator) and some are told to fellow university-era friends. If I make it all sound complicated, that’s not how the reader experiences the book, which is a smooth and supple read. However, Hilary Mantel shows herself to be a consummate prose writer and her elaborate narrative structure helps her touch on several registers and evoke different emotions and appeal to different readers without really compromising any single narrative. Also, it is important to note that Mantel’s protagonist addresses an audience. There is no explicit listener in the frame narrative, but through devices such as procatalepsis, the narrator often pre-empts and adresses objections her readers might have. We as readers are taken by the hand, we are part of a dialogue. This is important because, in fact, communication, connectivity, is a central concern of the book. This book is not merely about Carmel McBain and her friends Julia and Karina. This book tries to be about far more: a book on the female experience at the beginning of the Thatcher era. To manage that, the book mixes two different kinds of écritures. There’s authentic, almost memoirist writing, and there is artfully heightened near-allegorical writing. The first is Mantel’s way in, her basic connection of the material to the time and to actual female experience. Of course, there’s a distancing moment, and of course plots and devices further that distance, but the multiple re-framing of memory as detailed above lets the reader see a life, though told by one and the same person, from similar but different angles. A certain simplicity inasmuch as details are concerned, are part of this. Although a high amount of details adds to the convention of realism, furthers the verisimilitude, no-one actually remembers so much. Construction, and re-interpretation in hindsight is obvious in such stories. Mantel however focuses on just a few details, just a few aspects and problems, and so, in an uncluttered language, in uncluttered rooms, we are closer to the devastation that her time, her education and her fellow Brits wreak on her. There are a handful of themes which the book pursues doggedly, without distractions, without indulgence, yet wrapped in soft and clear English. This kind of writing is supported by the near-allegorical elements. Most of the plot elements do double shifts as tropes or allegories.

It is really difficult not to read everything as being there not because it is remembered as having happened or having been there, but to signify something to the reader. Whole dialogues sometimes have an otherworldly sheen to them. This, however, does not lessen the authentic impression of the book at all, which is a very impressive achievement. These two levels additionally, implicitly, address a certain androcentric bias in Bildungsroman literature and in the tropes surrounding the genre. One of the ways that the book does that is by developing one of is characters consistently as a villain. One of the girls is odd, mean, and growing fatter each year. She’s zaftig but stingy. One memorable scene has her scarfing noodles without even adding butter, all the while growling at her best friend. We should empathize with her: she helped the protagonist now and then in school, she takes care of her mother, and because of her dialect and her foreign looks, as well as because of her increasing girth, she’s an outcast. At the same time, the book does not want or allow us to do that, pushing the stereotypical villainous description. She is both a person we should like, as far as the authentic, realistic level is concerned, but one we don’t like, almost as a direct result of the literarily heightened structure and the way her character is related to us, the audience. That girl does something terrible at the end, but in a moving, and hard twist at the end, we are not allowed to single her out for derision. “This is where we went wrong”, the narrator says, in the frame narrative, a “we” that includes all the women of her generation. And the illness, the problem, the great plague that the narrator sees as emerging from that period is not villainous meanness, or any act of individual violence, but “Slimmer’s Disease”, anorexia, an disorder that Carmel herself suffers from during her university days. This juxtaposition of a complex analysis of what’s wrong with her generation, and a subtle use of tropes usually used in androcentric narratives reinforces the problematic at the heart of the novel: the pressures of becoming a woman in modern Britain, and the difficulties of writing authoritatively about it. These pressures can, again, be divided two ways: class issues, and issues concerning the female body. Easiest to discuss is probably class.

Carmel hails from Lancashire, up north. When she enters university in 1970, Lancastershire is the most populous British district, and one closely associated with working class values, and an industrial landscape. Before a reform in 1974, both Manchester and Liverpool were part of Lancashire, and going south means escaping all that, building a better future for yourself. Carmel’s mother tries to make her daughter apply for Oxbridge, but Carmel eventually goes to a college in London. Be that as it may, it is still respectable, and still a way out of the same old, same old. Additionally, this is a time on the brink. In 1970, a Tory prime minister was elected (Carmel says “It wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t old enough to vote.”), and the Tory party runs on a platform that will eventually turn into Thatcherism. Thatcher wasn’t elected until 1979, but the roots of her politics can be found in the years covered by An Experiment in Love. Mantel, without lapsing into complaints, does an excellent job in detailing how poor and affluent families are part of different cultures and of the pressures at work in each of them. Ultimately though, all the women are on equal footing as far as their bodies are concerned. Although love plays a role in the book, bodies play a larger role by far. Bodies, that is, not in a general way, but specifically bodies as they come into play at the crossroads of experience. Among the two most central experiences involving bodies are pregnancy and hunger. Hunger is, of course, also hunger for success, hunger for public recognition, but hunger here is also the self-imposed hunger that self-consciousness and stress can effect. In the discussion of the Slimmer’s Disease that begins and ends the book, hunger is further elevated to the status of a general problem. It ties into the class problem, of course, since for Carmel, food competes with clothes and train tickets and is not taken for granted. But it’s also a matter of self-preservation, a sign of self-respect, and it directly corresponds to how the world reacts to you. The people in the novel can be arranged to how they feed their bodies, how they react to hunger. Bodies, without Mantel having to stoop to preaching, or obsessing, are a battleground here, and appearances are key, oddly enough for a novel in a tradition that emphasized interiority.

But interiority is most easy to achieve for the unmarked, and confirms structures and strictures at work in society, interiority, for all the seductiveness it can bring, is often deaf to the din of other voices, other people, other minds. Hilary Mantel isn’t, and An Experiment in Love is a wonderfully open, important, tough book. There are far more aspects to it than I was able to mention, as for example its treatment of politics (with traces of Doris Lessing’s reminiscences) and of religion, as well as of issues like marriage, knowledge and learning. Mantel is a grand writer, who is able to expertly manipulate both private and public registers, a craftsman in full control of her craft, and a dear, moving novelist, to boot. Read this book.


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Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate: A Small Killing

Moore, Alan; Oscar Zarate (2003), A Small Killing, Avatar Press
ISBN 1-59291-009-2

Alan Moore is one of the titans of the comic book industry and probably the best living writer in the business, especially after Frank Miller went off the rails. Unlike a few of the leading writers/artists of alternative comics (if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I am a raving fan of Charles Burns’ and Jeff Smith’s work), Moore managed, throughout his career, to touch on a truly vast array of notes and genres, and rare is the unsuccessful book penned by Moore. With whatever artist he collaborated, whether he worked on a creator-owned book or for DC Comics, whether he wrote an elegiac Superman story or the pornographic narratives of Lost Girls, Moore always came through and produced a standout work, one that was both recognizably his, and that gave the artists he worked with the space and freedom to shine, as well. A Small Killing is no exception to this rule. Originally published in 1991, it is a fascinating work of art, both a compelling story, as well as a intriguing, seductive, colorful maelstrom of a comic. Both the writing and the art are exceptional, and the overall product, short as it is, is a tremendously powerful, awfully dense political and creative statement, which is both completely original, and full of echoes to contemporary and more classical art and literature. Although its content seems mired in the 1980s, since it tells a story about a yuppie’s nervous breakdown, replete with cultural and political criticism of 80s politics, it actually exchanges the narrow scope of contemporary reference for history and psychology. It is not surprising that this book has been repeatedly picked up by various publishers and been reprinted several times since the 1991 edition, then published by Victor Gollancz, dropped out of circulation. This book is both terrific and terrifying, and it’s an understatement to say I recommend it to everyone.

In the coming weeks, I will also review Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing enthusiastically, but one of the most interesting things about A Small Killing is the fact that, unlike, say, Swamp Thing or Supreme, it’s really not a graphic novel tailored to and of primary interest for readers of the genre. The reason for this is mostly Oscar Zarate’s stunning art. Zarate’s pages, if one associates them with other artists in the industry at all, reminded me most of José Munoz’ (who is probably the main influence on Zarate) or Bill Sienkiewicz’ work (say, Electra: Assassin or Stray Toasters). But while the latter is a well-known artist with a thick portfolio of excellent and popular work, many, like me, will draw a blank where the name of Oscar Zarate is concerned. Even searches in online venues come up almost empty. Reading them we learn he has illustrated a handful of books, penciled a few short stories and co-created A Small Killing. While it’s hardly surprising that a masterpiece like this would overshadow the rest of an artist’s work, it is indeed odd that there doesn’t appear to be much of a ‘rest’ if one’s resumé includes work as singular and powerful as this. To return to the book at hand, the first thing you notice is that Zarate did not, as is usual in the genre, pencil, ink and color the panels, Instead, he appears to have painted it. Indeed, the contours and depth that an inker works with, the use a good inker makes of different degrees of clarity and visibility, of shadows, of light- and of darkness, Zarate hands over to colors. The strongest contours in A Small Killing are those of Zarate’s intrepid pencil and what appears to be a very fine ink brush. Some panels are almost exclusively penciled, with few colors entering the hailstorm of leaden lines, some seem to be completely in color, with contrast between different fields of color as the only kind of contour and boundary. From panels I found elsewhere on the web, I gather that this is, indeed, Zarate’s style, and that other writers have had comics created for them that looked similar.

However, the combination of a lack of a large back catalog of work, and the singular nature of this book right here made me feel this this style was created just for this story, these characters. The small fact that it wasn’t isn’t really important. Fact is, Moore wrote a story that Zarate’s art fit like a glove, and vice versa. It is not often that calling an artist a co-creator makes as much sense as it does here. It is almost impossible to say whose contribution is more important for the overall effect of the book, but Zarate’s style seems most specific to the kind of writing and thinking that A Small Killing represents, especially the way that Zarate’s swirling, disturbingly slanted art recalls early 20th century artists like Otto Dix but especially Max Beckmann (pre-1930s). Of course, Zarate’s work is very comic-like in the simple garishness of some of his colors and the lack of figural complexities, but the basic structure of the colors and the way he treats characters and actions in individual panels are highly reminiscent of Beckmann’s work especially where Beckmann depicts groups of people in bars. I found it impossible to read this book quickly, I think it needs to be savored page by page, and not only those pages that include a crowd tableau. Zarate slips his protagonist in and out of the artwork, sometimes as a blueish character in front of a screechingly orange mob, sometimes merging with crowds or background, sometimes threatened by erasure. Faceless sketches of people are inserted and glorious full-page visions. There’s really everything here, but the strongest part, and arguably the most important part for how the story is perceived and read, is the way Zarate treats crowds: a nameless mass of grotesque gluttony and vapid sensationalism. The slants and lights in many of those images make it impossible not to think of Dix or Beckmann.

Here the undecidability concerning Moore’s and Zarate’s contributions kicks in again, because part of that association may also be due to Moore’s story. Moore wrote, as many writers in the late 1980s and earlyy1990s, a harsh indictment of the shallow and chintzy 1980s culture. Of these writers, the most successful was probably Martin Amis, who rose to fame on the strength of his 1980s satires. But Amis’ brand of topical writing doesn’t always suit Moore very well. He doesn’t have Amis’ narrow obsession with the smallness of minds, or Amis’ bitterly biting pen. It’s not that Moore doesn’t try to be topical now and then, but he’s always best when the topical bleeds over into the allegorical, mystical, strange or the plain personal. Lucky for us as readers, and for A Small Killing, this is exactly what he does here, and it’s one of the main reasons why the book is still so readable today. Unlike Amis, Moore is a generous, easily puzzled writer, and this insecurity and openness enables him to write tales about the abyss in us and our culture without damning it all to hell. The story is simple enough, but engineered in a complex manner. It involves Timothy Hole (which is “pronounced ‘Holly’, actually”, “it’s a sort of English thing”), a middle-aged yuppie who works in advertising, and is quite talented at it. As Hole lands a new job and a great contract, marketing a fictional soda (a stand-in, quite explicitly, for Coca Cola or Pepsi) to Glasnost-era Russia. This set-up, and a few stray lines here and there may make the reader think of Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961) but laughs are scarcer in Moore’s and Zarate’s book. Bewildered by the difficulties this job entails, Hole suffers a nervous breakdown and encounters a small boy, apparently bent on killing him. After appearing in the middle of the road one dark evening, causing Hole to swerve and crash, he appears to follow him, menacingly, for the rest of the book. Hole develops a paranoia, screaming whenever he’s sure to have caught a glimpse of the unknown dark-haired child, sweating with fear whenever he doesn’t see him.

There would be a Twilight Zone-style cheesiness to this mysterious boy, if Moore hadn’t made sure that we all knew pretty soon who that boy was. So instead of hurrying through the book to find out what would happen to the book’s protagonist, we watch as the environment changes around Hole’s increasingly frantic mind, and we follow the flashbacks down their path to Hole’s past. Hole, who is from Sheffield, which is a British industrial town that aw its industry fail in the 1980s, moved first to London and then to New York. Mad with terror, Hole retraces his steps in the present to the places of his past, flying first to London, then taking the train to a more affluent part of Sheffield and finally walking to the poor quarters where he grew up as a child. There is no real explanation for him taking this trip, but as his memory travels back in time, so does he, in a way. Moore takes the metaphor of space and travel that discussions of flashbacks and memory entail, and mirrors it in literal travel. At the end of the book, in a revelation that is devastating for Hole, both levels come together in an epiphany of sorts. The colors of Zarate’s mad tableaux of crowds and landscapes reflect Hole’s own disturbed mind, and his alienation not only from others but from himself, from his own ideas. Hole is really unpleasant protagonist, we don’t much care for him, he betrays people, cheats them and cheats on them, a truly shallow individual who apparently found his niche in advertising. There is the palpable (and explicit) influence of existentialism on the book, but despite a few similarities, Timothy Hole is no Antoine Roquentin, and the book ends on a different note. A Small Killing is about self-discovery, about how people can change as they age and the lies they tell themselves about their own past. As the world is subsumed by Hole’s feverish brain, and past relationships with women, his parents or mentors are seen to have failed due to his increasingly uncaring and empty emotional state, we as readers are drawn into Zarate’s terrifying whirlwind of colors and lines.

But, really, it’s more than just personal. Two aspects in particular are worth mentioning. One is Moore’s mastery of various registers of speech: this skill shines most in the large, full-page crowd panels, which are flooded by small pieces of dialogue, ad culture nitwittery, empty 1980s hipsterism and other bits. The way Moore zeroes in on those moments, and the way he makes a highly economic use of them within the larger structure of A Small Killing is so well realized that it reminded me personally of William Gaddis’ use of salon banter in The Recognitions. The other aspect is political. With a handful of deft allusions and hints, Moore and Zarate settle the book firmly within a fixed historical and political context, as the book was written and published at a time when the United States were governed by George Bush père and the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher (and Thatcherite PM John Major). Thatcher is especially significant as Moore connects modern apolitical culture with the demise of a traditionally left-wing worker town, and Hole’s betrayal of himself with that same change. This sounds topical, but I don’t have a personal context for Thatcherism, and yet it still works. Hole can be made to stand for any political peregrine who endorsed ideals as a young person yet swore off them as he grew older and more successful. The central focus of A Small Killing is on the was our core beliefs about society are linked to core beliefs of ourselves. In a book of dichotomies, of overlapping levels, this is one of the most important. I’m not sure this book has been very influential or important for the genre or literature in general, but as a work of art, it is amazing, and very powerful. Alan Moore’s enormous body of work casts a large shadow, but that should not be an excuse for readers to ignore or shun a small, less widely publicized masterpiece such as A Small Killing.

A short personal note. As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

A.L. Kennedy: What Becomes

Kennedy, A.L. (2010), What Becomes, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-099-49406-5

I deeply love and admire the work of A. L. Kennedy, the Scottish writer of short stories, novels and screenplays, as well as part-time stand-up comic. Thus, the following (enthusiastic) review may be slightly biased. However, I don’t think I overreach by calling Kennedy not just a master of her craft, but a great writer, a rare writer. There is, for example, her versatility: in her novels and stories, A. L. Kennedy consistently proves herself to be a writer interested in and adapt at using complex literary techniques, including even being able to nimbly slip into a smooth postmodern playfulness at times, but I value Kennedy most for being an emotive, direct, personal writer who keeps moving and surprising me. At her best, she is able to command a language that seems simple and direct, almost autobiographical, but is actually the product of a writer in full control of her craft. If we compare her work at the sentence level in her most recent collection What Becomes with other contemporary short story writers, for example Bonnie Jo Campbell, finalist for the 2009 National Book Award with her collection American Salvage, we quickly see how unerring Kennedy’s syntactic precision is. There are very few living writers who can boast of writing so simple, so seemingly indulgent and emotional sentences, that nevertheless are anything but indulgent. Their craft isn’t obvious in the sense of simple musicality or strong stylistic oddities, it’s the way Kennedy adjusts and tucks at her syntax sentence after sentence, length, music, slipping from hypotactic into terse, punning paratactic sentences and back, whatever she does, everything is just right, everything seems intentional and careful, while writers like Campbell work with slabs of language, leaving a rough, muddy surface.

But language does not take center stage in Kennedy’s stories, the stories and the characters within them do. And here’s where her success is most visible: she almost always manages to completely inhibit her characters, no matter how different they are. Her writing is a writing from inside, a writing that does not use her characters’ particulars to hang a moral tale from them, she doesn’t present them on a literary platter so they’ll be of use them as objects judged and portrayed from the outside. Kennedy writes from within, and she does it with humor, and a quiet understanding. Of course, on the other hand, she doesn’t just serve up some random slice of life. Like most writers, Kennedy, too, has very specific obsessions, and a very specific slant on life, art and writing. Although the exact focus of her obsessions varies from book to book, all her work is united by a very distinct literary vision, and she has managed to improve upon her expression of this vision as her work slowly grew and started to develop a voice of its own. More and more, Kennedy has moved from expansive books like the magnificent Everything You Need, which took up too many issues to be perfectly successful in all of them, to far more precise collections like Indelible Acts, which focuses explicitly upon bodies and the acts (or rather: performances) we subject them to. Then, her previous novel Paradise looked on dependencies, alcoholism and the unraveling of a life in an unraveling of social relationships, just as her next novel, Day, was concerned with memory and violence. Reading Kennedy today is reading a writer who knows what she can do with language, and is perfectly comfortable in her own literary idiom.

That idiom includes idiosyncrasies that might bother first time readers, yet both they and veteran readers of Kennedy’s work will likely see that there’s a writer at work in What Becomes who is able to blend a vast variety of voices and devices into stories that feel extremely natural and direct, whether they are narrated by men or women. Kennedy is a writer of the interior, thoroughly, untiringly exploring the horribleness of empty contemporary lives. Or rather: lives that are commonly viewed and narrated as empty. The characters in What Becomes are filled with life, with hope and with dreams. Let down by partners, friends or down on their luck, they nevertheless try (and retry) to connect, to work things out. They get lost in the mechanics and particulars of the mundane, the cast reality of the objects that surround us, the objects that complement us. In the story “Confectioner’s Gold” (one of the collection’s best) there is a couple on the brink of failure, who get together one night, and gorge themselves on a lavish, decadent meal. They don’t enjoy themselves, they don’t eat because they love eating or spending time with one another, they eat because eating means not talking. This story is partly narrated by the husband, who, as we learned earlier in the story, in an unusually plain fashion, identifies with blind people he sees passing in front of his house. He ‘feels’ blind, although he isn’t. An angry man, angry with life, angry with his situation as a man, a husband, as a white person, he runs on entitlement, and we get the impression (though it is never spelled out) that the loss of privilege that progress forces on him makes him angry. There is no space in him to consider other people’s predicaments, people who are really handicapped. He represents the norm and his anger feels justified to him.

People like that husband, and disintegrating relationships like his, are, as in his case, created as a consummate mixture of interior and exterior explanations and visions. “Confectioner’s Gold” is a great story to use as example, because it is quite explicit about issues that are part of the underpinnings of Kennedy’s writing, and of the way it is connected to literary and cultural contexts. On the one hand, there are objects that are made to serve as extensions of the failing, miserable bodies of Kennedy’s protagonists. On the other hand, there is the city, the treatment if which sometimes seems to refer directly to writers like Walter Benjamin, and his theories (e.g. about the flâneur and his role in comprehending metropolitan reality). Benjamin is also important in his treatment of history, and his doubts about the veracity of accounts of the past, or rather: their reliability when dissociated from the present. What Becomes is very much about the future, as its title (which alludes to Jimmy Ruffin’s hit single “What becomes of the broken hearted” or rather the idiomatic expression that has been spun from it) demonstrates unequivocally. Although all of the stories have an uneasy but important link to the past, whether it is some unspoken, but still menacing falling-out, as in “Confectioner’s Gold”, or a past relationship, as in the title story, or an episode from childhood as in “Saturday Teatime”: the past is never quite confronted, except through the shambles it has made of the present. Sometimes, Kennedy’s characters try and cope with the past without confronting it at all, sometimes they try to mend it, sometimes it just ambushes them in a quiet moment of self-reflection. The central question of all these stories, in the face of a threatening, dark, unspeakable past, is: what now? How do I behave once my life has been broken by those once dear to me, or by myself? What will I do?

In all her work Kennedy has never asked this question so clearly, so urgently, and in many ways: this, I think, makes What Becomes her most old-fashioned work (and, incidentally, the book of hers that is least concerned with death.). In the tradition of ancient philosophy, this collection of stories take a look at the ars bene vivendi or the ars vitae, the art of how to live, the art of life. Now, this is a common theme in literature, and many writers focus on this aspect, but the concentration and precision of A. L. Kennedy’s new collection is note- and praiseworthy. The answer to the question of ‘What now?’ turns out, often as not, to be a question of whether or not to confront the past as represented by people we once knew and loved, people who let us down or whom we let down. Some people do both, as the protagonist in the title story, who confronts his former wife in her kitchen, cooking a meal, trying to persevere, to rekindle a flame long gone. On the other hand, once he starts to really comprehend that their marriage has failed, that they really are no longer an item, he flees into the obscure embrace of a cinema, preferring to sit in a dark room, while a movie plays in silence, instead of getting on with his life, forging a future. In this story, as in many others, the protagonist’s bodily reality almost merges with the objects around him, the tools he uses to create a reality for him. There is the blood that he sheds on the kitchen floor (and on the knife he uses to cut up vegetables), and there’s the broken movie reel in the cinema that fails to supply the movie with sound, mirroring his own self-imposed deafness. The protagonist cannot provide answers on how to deal with disaster, but his very helplessness is instructive, and the emotional core of the book.

Other stories, like “Wasps”, the short, devastating tale of a married man’s ‘second family’, the result of an affair that eventually metamorphosed into the family he visits on some weekends and on the occasional holiday, seem to come up with answers: “[t]his is a way to be ready when he finally doesn’t come back”; answers however, that aren’t helpful or teachable, that are testaments of a similar helplessness, a similar lack of resolve and willpower. This all the protagonists of What Becomes share: the gap between what they know or intuit should be done, and what they can get themselves to do. Even those whose acts show a willingness not to engage with the issues, to ignore them until they hopefully vanish of their own accord, even they clearly know how they should live, since their acts are mere acting out of rote roles and performed joylessly, mechanically. Even “Marriage”, the story that I feel is the harshest of the bunch, the most cynical, implies, in its blatant display of cynicism, how to live well, although its characters aren’t able to. The story, which closes with the firm assertion “This is exactly what it looks like. Marriage.”, portrays an estranged couple, which is brought together by an act of domestic violence. Hitting his wife in the face, the husband, who’s the story’s protagonist, not only manages to arouse himself, but also to bridge a gap of affections that had opened between him and his wife. The event leaves him as bruised emotionally as his wife is physically, and the final scene has them hold on to one another for comfort, for strength, to endure the present, and one another. Although in “Wasps”, the lover watches her almost-husband leave into a rainy night, holding on only to herself, while the lovers in “Marriage” have each other, it’s hard to say who’s lonelier.

dsc_3088It is quite the miracle that Kennedy can pull off stories like this one without having to enter precious melodrama (except for maybe one or two slips), and also without subscribing to the well-worn workshop mantra “show don’t tell”. In my reading experience, that mantra is helpful if writers lack the creative urge and talent to make ‘telling’ work. Stories are quickly uncluttered if one concentrates on ‘showing’, which also facilitates further editing. Raymond Carver is a rather notorious example of all this. When in 2009, the Library of America published Carver’s Collected Stories, the editors Stull and Caroll decided to include “Beginners”, a version of Carver’s first major collection of stories that did not contain his long-time editor Gordon Lish’s cuts. Lish is famous for having truncated Carver’s writing to the essentials, even adding and changing phrases to make the cuts fit and retain the mood. The resulting stories are breathtaking masterpieces of concision, both moving and trimmed of fat. The original stories are far less than that. Not only is the reader forced to wade through what feels like undisciplined blather, but the emotional force is blunted and dulled through Carver’s penchant for telling, for spelling things out that Lish had mercifully expurgated from the original publication. Carver’s Collected Stories are a lesson in the difficulties of making a strong, introspective interior voice work in the short story format and my having recently read them may have heightened my attention to this kind of writing, but upon closing What Becomes one really feels that Kennedy’s resounding success at it is more than commendable, it’s wondrous. Kennedy never sacrifices emotional impact for elaborate speechifying, she makes the voices work for her, wrenches melodies, surprises and modulations from them, grabbing its readers by the throat.

And at the same time, she is often very, very funny. There is no need for her to paint a bleak picture in doom and gloom. Her stories are filled to the brim with the fullness of life, whether it’s a discussion of orgasm, or a humorous narrative of being afraid of the dentist, whether it’s remembering Doctor Who in a flotation tank or trading books with a blond beauty. People in her stories don’t give up on life, although most just hang on, but at least they do that. I called What Becomes an ars vitae, and then went on to enumerate stories where none of the characters really show us how to live life well, which might seem contradictory, but then Kennedy is not a philosopher, she does not intend to provide us with lessons or teachable moments. Instead, her stories are powered by her characters’ own drive to live their life well and Kennedy shows herself to be both a deeply moral writer, touching on various political and philosophical issues, as well as a compassionate, beautifully open and accepting writer, who waits for her characters to come up with a solution of how to live their lives, how to deal with others and one’s own ugly self. The most sublimely moving moments are those where here characters have the will and the vision to re-design the future, if not for themselves, then for their children, to make sure they will not be as damaged, as warped as they themselves. Despite Kennedy’s reputation for being unremittingly bleak and despite, too, the darkness in these stories, none of them are without hope, without the tacit potential of a better, a brighter future. All this is presented in Kennedy’s inimitable style, in her unique lines that have both the brevity of punchlines, and the sinuous flow of human thoughts and feelings.

I know some people don’t take to Kennedy, incomprehensible as it is to me, yet I’d go so far as to recommend this book to everyone who likes to read short stories. Maybe Kennedy takes some getting used to, maybe her stark sense of the body and of the world of the corporeal and of objects, and the long ruminations of her characters are not for everybody, but A. L. Kennedy is easily one of the best writers of her generation, and What Becomes might just be the best introduction to her work one could wish for.

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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China Miéville: The City & The City

Miéville, China (2009), The City & The City, Macmillan
ISBN 978-0-230-74191-1

The City & The City, China Miéville’s seventh novel, is a well-nigh perfect work of literature. We all know Jarrell’s adage that a novel “is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”; true to form, there are problems with Miéville’s book, as well, but the overwhelming success of the books as whole, the staggering originality of its ideas and the success in pulling the whole thing off, this lifts the novel far beyond many of its contemporaries. Like much of Miéville’s work, it displays a firm commitment to genre, but it’s hazy about the kind of genre that is foregrounded here. At the same time it’s a police procedural, a hard-boiled thriller and a fantasy novel, with links and allusions to science fiction (without every really becoming a SF novel), and it uses the advantages of each of these elements to their fullest, to create an insightful work of art that is too complicated, ultimately, to be reducible to a message or a simple resolution; the latter being its main flaw, by the way, but we’ll return to this. Suffice to say that I urge you to read The City & The City, even if (maybe especially if) you have not been able to take to Miéville’s work before despite the prodding by friends or literary critics. China Miéville, the only three-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award so far, shapes up to be the most dominant writer in the field of speculative fiction, and despite the fact that The City & The City is smaller in scale than most of his other novels, it is a great example why he is so important, so well-praised and so extraordinarily successful. He proves himself to be as adept a creator of original concepts, as he is an insightful reader of other texts. His texts, and The City & The City maybe more than the others, appear to be the result of what Emerson called “creative reading”, on the one hand, and a careful, aware and thoroughly critical reading on the other. The City & The City is not Miéville’s best book, but it is a masterpiece, and not a minor one, and China Miéville is a masterful writer.

Personally, in fact, I consider China Miéville to be one of the best living British prose writers. If you haven’t heard of him in these terms yet, it’s maybe because he’s primarily a writer of what we refer to as genre fiction. His work does not have the explicit and heavily theoretical slant of Samuel R. Delany’s 70’s and 80’s fiction, but Delany’s work is certainly part of the tradition Miéville built on; but Miéville is indicative of a larger phenomenon: I think we are currently witnessing among younger writers a renaissance of the kind of genre fiction Delany represents. I think these young writers are part of a resurgence of the energies and inspirations that fueled the New Wave writers in the 1970s and after, as recent high profile publications by Gwyneth Jones (Spirit: or The Princess of Bois Dormant, 2008) and Geoff Ryman (Air: Or, Have Not Have, 2005) amply demonstrate; Jeff VanderMeer notably suggested that some of them, Miéville and himself included, might be labeled as “New Weird”, combining “New Wave with other elements. Miéville’s kinship with Delany rests on more than just a similar critical awareness, care and concerns. From Delany’s wooden beginnings in Fall of the Towers (1963-65) to the sleek efficiency of Triton (1976) and the mysteries of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), he has always focused on language as an object in his genre fiction. For him, the writing itself is subject to the same care, deliberation and charged with the same intellectual energies, as is the story, the characters and the broader ideas. In fact, for Delany, writing is more than making use of words to tell a story; I’d say that writing for him means having ideas about language, that can tie into the broader concerns of the rest of the book (as they do in Babel-17 (1966)) but don’t have to. By and large, Miéville does the same thing, to an extent that is actually rather rare, even in these post-post-modern times. His work evinces both a meticulous attention to details and a knack for creating a cohesive, fluid fiction that does not, as Delany’s does, burden the reader with its philosophical preoccupations.

The City & The City starts with a murder and contradictory hints as to the identity of the perpetrator of the crime and his or her motives. Detective Tyador Borlú, police officer in the old city of Besźel, is called upon to solve the crime but as it turns out, the deeper he gets involved in the inquiries, the deeper he and his role, and his conventional ideas about how to handle the everyday playacting of being a citizen, are called into question. A similar impulse propels the narrative of Miéville’s latest masterful novel Kraken (2010) but unlike that novel’s protagonist, Borlú’s understanding of the world is not so much unmoored, confused and obscured, as sharpened, and brightened. For Borlú, the world doesn’t need to be explained, it hasn’t changed, his basic assumptions of agency, cause and effect remain intact throughout the book. What does change is his vision of it. His journey is not one of learning new things, of acquiring knowledge, nothing of the sort. Instead, it’s about learning to see, to evaluate. Borlú’s education in The City & The City hews close to Kant’s famous definition of Enlightenment: sapere aude! Dare to know! Kant’s exhortation to his fellow citizens to use their brains and the knowledge already in them is relevant in other ways, as well. Often overlooked are his contextual restrictions: while one should always think, it does not necessarily follow that one should always tell people about the results of said thinking. Some order is worth being preserved, even at the expense of freely speaking one’s mind. If your thought flies in the face of conventional order, and by speaking out, you violate your duties to that order, you had better keep quiet. There is a difficult tension between these two assertions, the one to think and the other to preserve order, and in The City & The City, Miéville recreates just that kind of tension: his novel vacillates between stasis and progress, between seeing freely and living in the bounds of established order.

Now, it’s quite impossible to explain in any detail how the concept of the two cities works without creating problems for the prospective reader. The blurb on my copy tells us that Borlú has to travel “across a border like no other” and that is both fitting as well as the full extent of information that you can impart upon an unaware reader without spoiling the book for him. Reading the book is like unwrapping a present: with an impressive deftness, Miéville manages to peel off the layers of Besźel order one by one, chapter by chapter without ever boring us. The concept itself is strange and adventurous but only slowly do we realize how thoroughly, really, it’s planned and executed. Details of how the world of the The City & The City is constructed keep coming up, and this stream of revelations (that get ever smaller, with the largest ones naturally in the very beginning) is one of the reasons for The City & The City‘s enormous readability. If you know how the two cities, Besźel and its neighboring city of Ul Quoma, work, the book will no longer be as enjoyable. It is no spoiler, however, if I tell you that both cities are modeled after a surrealistically heightened image of an old, large East European city. Many descriptions, names, places and even the odd phrase now and then, contain a mixture of languages and cultures such as Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Croatian and others. There is a constant sense of decay, especially in Besźel, which is the poorer of the two cities. The precariousness I mentioned earlier is not only due to the unique situation of Besźel, but also to the morbidity that oozes from the old battered walls of the city. Besźel feels almost claustrophobically small, and its citizens’ purview seems small and provincial as well. Miéville’s language is instrumental in creating this impression.

Unusually for Miéville’s work, the language in The City & The City is largely lean and spare, but the unmarked, quiet nature of the narrative voice is the perfect backdrop for the names and terms used. Instead of creating a slightly fantastical oddness, this method hammers home the East European setting, creating a very believable sense of place, and an authentic voice for Borlú, who is the protagonist. There is enough exoticism in the names and the concepts, so Miéville opted for a voice that is sober, elegant yet conversational. He doesn’t speak like someone translated, or with an unbelievable eloquence, he speaks like ‘one of us’, in a register and vocabulary that is carefully tailored to reflect a whole tradition of hard-boiled writing without lapsing into straight pastiche. The balance between the cities is thus reflected in the language of the novel, and vice versa, in its balance between exotic names and plain vocabulary, between sharp thinking and a fluid conversational quality in the writing. Additionally, the way that names and writing clash, this transports a strangeness, which is in line with the strangeness that exudes the two cities. Miéville knows very well how central language is to early 20th century pulp, how in novels by Hammett or Marlowe, the language is simple and visceral enough to keep readers hanging on, keep them reading, while injecting a certain, palatable amount of oddness into the work, thus creating yet another balance, hiding the complexities behind the dirt and the grime. It’s a tradition that has continued in excellent hard-boiled novels. But The City & The City is not, in fact straightforward hard-boiled pulp. Beside borrowing from the police procedural, bestselling thrillers and SF, it’s quite clearly a fantasy, and fantasy novels quite regularly strain for effect, for writing ‘high register’ prose. In cases like David Anthony Durham’s Acacia novels (2007 – ), it’s almost painfully inept, while for writers like George R. R. Martin it works like a charm. The pretension to offer something else to readers, a different world, yes, but also a different feeling for that world. Even Martin’s brutal, blood-soaked, disillusioned knights feel medieval, and his language is the main reason why.

In The City & The City, Miéville’s language supports no such pretensions (it’s different in his other prose) and in its precise rendering of incredible events and places, it’s close to Czech writer Franz Kafka. Kafka is one of a long list of writers mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgments, and the way that Kafka keeps his language clean, organized and careful, even while telling us brutal stories about cats and insects is indeed an important reference here. However, Miéville’s accomplishment becomes more evident if we consider another writer mentioned as well in the acknowledgments, Alfred Kubin. Alfred Kubin’s opus magnum is the 1909 novel Die Andere Seite (translated into English by Mike Mitchell as The Other Side, published by Dedalus Press (highly recommended)), a towering achievement of early expressionism, endlessly influential. Kubin’s novel tells of a married couple’s journey into a dream country somewhere between Europe and Asia, which promises to free the traveler from the turpitude of modern progress. It’s a land of uncertainty, but doesn’t at first seem anything except dreamy to the husband while the wife succumbs to fear and eventually dies. At this point a crazy war between an invasive American industrial tycoon and the lord of the dream country sets in that leads to the total destruction of the realm of dreams. The “other side” is a place where good dreams and fears coexist, a place that can be both dangerous and soothing, but a hazy, imperiled place, unable to withstand an outsider’s violent pressure. Kubin’s language is fanciful. It retells a feverish dream in an exceptionally wild language that carries the seeds of Alfred Döblin’s mad epics published ten years later. As the story gradually disintegrates into comic madness, the reader is afloat in the midst of it, because Kubin’s language is part of that whole stampede of crazy. Miéville has taken up this idea of the other side, and turned it into a Chinese box of otherness, tempered by a clean, yet popular language.

Kubin takes an outsider and has him witness the story in our stead, a narrator with our values and traditions, who can convey an impression of the place that would mirror ours. There is no such normative stance in The City & the City, where the meaning of being on ‘the other side’ keeps changing dramatically, without blurring the issues for the reader. The simple juxtaposition of dream as a place of ancient truths and submerged knowledge with reality as a harsh, violent voice, and modernity as a place of decay and sheer concrete both, it doesn’t quite work like that in Miéville’s book. Miéville’s focus is on the power of fear, of the “obedience reflex”, to shape people’s behavior and even their perception. The language is his tool to let us, his readers, see it too, shorn of the illusions of pretty writing. The formal clarity of a police procedural, which structures the whole novel, conforms to the writing and has us not only descover the murderer, the political reality in Beszel but also the import of the events for our world. At the same time, it’s all greased with dirt and ambiguity. One startling fact is that Borlú, contrary to expectations is shown to be consistently conservative and protective of the Besźel status quo. In Kubin’s book, dream and reality merge in a final showdown, as Kubin questions our daily priorities. Miéville also looks at daily life, but his novel suggests a precariousness to the roles we play. Ultimately, The City & The City seems like a plea for more awareness, not for rejecting our roles, but looking at them honestly, and assuming them, if at all, with full, honest acceptance. The illusions of pseudo-scientific hogwash to explain prejudice, or of necessity to explain violence and callousness, these, to Tyador Borlú, Miéville’s protagonist and narrator, are not acceptable. That the book manages to suggest all this without ever becoming preachy, without forgoing ambiguity, indirectness and uncertainty is no mean feat. He has used the destabilizing force of fantasy writing before, but in The City & The City precariousness co-exists with balance and order. He uses fantasy to tear his readers from their own conventions, and as their eye adjusts to the new world, they are made to see similarities. At the same time, it’s also a crime novel, as I mentioned befor, and much of its power (and its flaws) derive from this fact.

Reading Miéville often means reading a writer who displays an invigorating joy in the act of thinking. He doesn’t supervise or admonish his readers as much as involve them in his own mental peregrinations. The writing is by no means undisciplined, but his interests clearly diverge from the demands of straightforwardness and effectiveness now and then. The tools of plot and suspense can sometimes can slip from his grasp and create an odd disharmony. This, incidentally, is also the one major flaw of The City & The City: the ending is extraordinarily dissatisfying, so that we as readers feel almost robbed. However. the ending of a novel of suspense and mystery is, I’d argue, always a delicate affair, an extremely difficult task and most writers do tend to bungle it. Like them, Miéville also fails to deliver: in one single cataclysmic scene he attempts to wrap up and explain and contextualize a whole novel’s build-up of mystery, intrigue, of sabotage and murder. Almost predictably, he fails. The rest of the book does work well. Indeed, for the most part, The City & The City is genre fiction at its best: effective, well-structured, insightful, and utterly readable. The overall style is taut and concentrated on fully conveying the necessary details of plot and place, both of which are a bit complicated and not all that easy to understand. If you have read other reviews at this site, you’ll know that I consider it a great achievement to write and succeed in writing a literary novel that is a success as a genre novel and despite Miéville’s problems with the climax and ending of the novel, The City & The City is just that: a successfully executed crime novel.

The crime novel, whether police procedural, hard-boiled novel or something else, generally works predominantly with revelations, some of which are gradually imparted to the reader an/or the protagonist through their encounter with the place the book is set in, and the inhabitants of the place in question. There is a sense of epistemological closure to, especially, the ‘clean’ crime novel (like a regular detective novel or a police procedural), which, unlike many others, seizes places as objects, and looks inside, closing them off to the outside, like small criminal biotopes, squeezing them for information. There is a certainty in this kind of search, because chaos is always contained within the confines of time and place. The hard-boiled novel, on the other hand, is much less concerned with this kind of certainty. In fact, much of the violence and depravity often ascribed to hard-boiled novels is due to the fear of the unknown. These novels often have their protagonists work through their fears to achieve a result, often gyrating through an unfathomable world with obscure rules. Fear, anger, violence, sarcasm, and a hard-won common sense supplant clear knowledge and sober decision-making. This process, this journey through obscurity and confusion, paradoxically, often leads to a much clearer depiction of the actual forces at work (as opposed to the consensual, polite rules, the agreed-upon roles). In the regular, ‘clean’ crime novel, consensual order is often briefly knocked off balance by the fierce, destabilizing force of violence, with the authorities called upon to rectify this unacceptable change. In the hard-boiled novel, order is (or seems to be) perpetually off balance and no amount of gumshoeing will change that. Given this juxtaposition, it’s fitting that in The City & The City, Miéville has constructed a wholly new world, one that is not only normally balanced, but whose very existence is a realization of the idea of balance, which aligns his novel with crime writing and true to the hard-boiled elements in it, all spaces in the novel, the different balances, they are all constantly endangered. The novel is swamped with a dark precariousness, with uncertainties, but we as readers only learn this bit by bit, as Miéville, like a master showman, reveals his world to us, selling us his idea chapter by chapter.

The concept of the two neighboring cities reflects the closing off of a clean police procedural, and Borlú’s way of dismantling the cities in search of the culprit or culprits shows that he reads his own world as finite, as a closed system where all signs can only point inward, to places and people within, acting strictly according to the rules of the place. But Miéville does not lend him a hand in his endeavor, instead he continually undermines basic assumptions, ultimately creating a perennially open world which is in constant danger of slipping away into historical and cultural oblivion. The weak ending, too, seems to provide closure, but here, once again, we are led to believe that it is delusional. The last, ridiculously conciliatory paragraph of the novel reads, in the larger context of the book, like soothing words whispered into an oncoming storm of arbitrariness and violence. Thus, in a way, The City & The City seems like a black hard-boiled wolf stitched into the sheep’s skin of the clean procedural. Borlú never sheds his basic assumptions, the world doesn’t force him. But in the focus upon sight and the use of one’s own brains, it gave him a choice. In a way, Miéville’s decision not to commit to a clear position is the final validation of the book. I disapprove of readings of books that raise weak writing onto a pedestal if it potentially reflects weaknesses in the characters. I have had a few discussions with Auster fans who, desperately trying to defend the smoky-eyed Brooklynite, keep bring up this kind of hogwash. I think it’s lazy, but in the case of The City & The City, it’s tempting. However, even agreeing that the ending is weak, and seems forced upon the author by his commitment to genre and his wish to tie off the book without breaking that mode of writing, the noncommittal end has interesting implications for the rest of the book. A novel that seems so like fantasy, with an improbable scenario, it turns out to be a kind of realism. In fact, by handing its readers a concept that seems like an allegory of sociological ideas, it seems to capture reality far better than novels that use the conventions of what we call realism. The book, as a whole, is a kind of tantalizing hyper-realism, complex in its implications and references, a book that no other writer could have pulled off and that even Miéville may have trouble topping in the nearer future. As a reviewer, I must admit that it challenged me like no other book I have ever attempted to review, and the innumerable flaws of this review are in part witness to the difficulties I had to even attempt to do justice to a book like this. Do not let the review dissuade you from reading the book. Unless you have a strong aversion to the genres I mentioned, you cannot not read The City & The City.


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Mark Millar: Kick-Ass / Wanted

Millar, Mark; JG Jones, Paul Mounts (2008), Wanted, Top Cow
ISBN 9781582404974

Millar, Mark; John Romita Jr. et al. (2010), Kick-Ass, Titan Books
ISBN 9781848565357

This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that I confess my admiration for Mark Millar’s work. I consider Millar’s books to be among the best published in comics these days, although at least half that admiration is owed to his artists. His comics have pencils by major artists as J.G. Jones (Wanted), Brian Hitch (The Ultimates) and John Romita Jr. (Kick-Ass). I try to read as much of his work as possible, even when, as in Ultimate X-Men, it appears to be slightly sub-par. In books like Kick-Ass or Wanted, it isn’t. Mark Millar is known to publicly overemphasize his importance and brilliance, but sometimes, his material just works perfectly. On the other hand, Millar keeps bothering me in different ways. In comics, the fact that every character and action comes with its visual representation, the fact, too, that you can’t bury essentials in pages of text, can create problematic depictions of various issues. Many comics touch upon some of these issues,, and Millar is no exception. However, while a lightweight series like Y: The Last Man provides a quietly reactionary soap opera, Mark Millar, clearly enjoying his role as provocative writer, dishes up a densely narrated drama in his books, where all the elements are so well posited and constructed that they heighten the importance of each individual element, including the troubling ones. The Ultimates, for example, is a clever and sparsely told disquisition about military power and its relationship to basic elements of culture, from the treatment of women, to chauvinism, racism and much more. Every character, every line, every panel in the comic seems to be designed to work that angle. The Ultimates is almost flawlessly executed.

Both great writers like Grant Morrison and bad ones like Jeph Loeb tend to use the serial nature of mainstream comics to write expansive, associative work. There’s a line threaded through a series of books like Morrison’s fantastic run on the New X-Men, but images and characters tend to touch on many issues and moods. In comparison, Millar is uncommonly obsessed with the same topics and ideas within one book or one run. Although Millar’s run on the Ultimate X-Men pales beside Morrison’s work with more or less the same characters (more in a few weeks on this blog), it’s still strong, and most of all: it’s a taut, concentrated genre exercise. Millar reconstructs the X-Men from the bottom up, he re-introduces them and their themes for a new audience; in their case it makes for a certain dullness, because we know the X-Men by now, we’re familiar with their themes. Additionally, his X-Men work was largely penciled by Adam Kubert, who, despite his fame, is clearly not a very good fit. Millar, as the X-Men stories, or, to an extent, his work with the Fantastic Four has shown, is a writer with a limited palette. He’s excellent in what he does best, but remove a few of the variables, or change them, and his work can quickly seem dull and uninteresting. But if the artist, the material and the setting is right, as in the aforementioned Ultimates, his writing is incredible: it’s hard to deny the perfection of The Ultimates. On the other hand, two of his more original graphic novels, Wanted and Kick-Ass, seem very divisive. In my opinion, both of these books compare well to the best ‘regular’ literature I’ve read this year, but their highly violent content has not gone over very well with all their readers.

Kick-Ass is especially violent, both in terms of actual, depicted violence, and in terms of emotional violence. It’s a borderline-surreal tale that seems to be premised on the idea of what super heroes would look like ‘in the real world’, but, as any closer look will immediately reveal, is anything but that kind of book. Kick-Ass and Wanted are books soaked with decades of superhero (or supervillain) history. Not just the history that surfaces in explicit and implicit references to canonical works, but the whole idea of superhero comics, their iconic and intellectual function in our cultures. Not even Morrison is so obsessed with the minutiae of comics and comics references alone. Millar’s books seem to have soaked up heaps and heaps of comics and internalized them, and seem to develop their ideas further and further. Millar’s work on The Authority is similar to The Ultimates, grappling with similar themes, but it lacks the incredible polish and concentration of the later work. Plot-lines and concepts seem to complete or prolong questions raised in the earlier work. In the same way, Kick-Ass, while not a regular superhero comic, is a continuation of an earlier Millar book, and is best read in that context, I think. That earlier book is Wanted, published in 6 issues between 2003 and 2004. Wanted is the story of Wesley Gibson, a frustrated young white man, who finds out his father was an extremely talented killer and takes up with a gang of super-villains. Given that the main character is a super-villain-in-waiting, its not surprising that the comic deals with hate a lot. The narrator is the protagonist, who, in the fourth panel, complains that he’s “taking shit from my African American boss”.

The word “boss” is helpfully printed in bold to point out Wesley’s incredulity at having to take flak from someone who is not as nicely white as he is. This line of thinking continues throughout the comic, which glories in mass shootings, rape and other distasteful actions. Apart from calling him a villain, the book never once breaks through that mood, effectively providing an appraising account of one of the least likable characters in fiction. At the end of the book, Wesley turns even on the readers of the comic, accusing them of weakness. The penultimate panel has, however, a striking image. While telling us that we’re “going to close this book and buy something else to fill that big, empty hole [they]’ve created in [our] life”, we see the hand of a customer buying a couple of comics. One of them is an issue of Wanted. I’d argue that that image short-circuits the book, inviting us to read it in terms of comics and iconicity. J.G. Jones’ clear and highly detailed art creates an extremely realistic world that houses an fantastical story. The contrast between the narrative, characters, the voices, and the visual representation of them turns a ratio upside down that tends to dominate graphic novels. If we take, for instance, Vaughan and Guerra’s Y: The Last Man, we find a regular Science Fiction story, clearly intent upon finding out “what would really happen” if all men died, and “what really could have caused it”. Vaughan, as in much else of his work, strains to find a believable voice, and dialogue that sounds “real”.

Pia Guerra’s pencils, in contrast, while depicting a realistic setting, indulge in iconicity. Every depiction of humans is extremely idealized and refers not to a sketch of an actual person (however they were actually created) but to a culturally developed idea of a shape. The female form, the depiction of pregnant women, of militant women, of black women, all the details of the eponymous man: this is superhero comics material, just without the spandex. JG Jones’ far more sophisticated work aims for more realism while reflecting a discussion of issues of iconicity in countless details of the depiction of the characters. Jones’ art is so detailed it slows the story down, scattering it into a series of tableaux. There is a tension between the superhero aspects, like the glossy poses that many of the uber-cool villains assume, or the odd, surreal accessoires they wear, and the wrinkly realism of the artwork itself. The results are intriguing, and absolutely stunning. While none of this is Millar’s art, he did write the content for Jones to fill in, and the very choice of Jones (who is, after all, famous for his style, cf. Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman run) as artist was inspired. In a book like Wanted, which, as I pointed out, thrives off the kind of tensions that mark J.G. Jones work, nothing seems off. Everything here fits like a glove. The problem with this is, from a reader’s perspective, that it naturally reinforces any troubling issues raised in Millar’s script. However, Wesley is such an exuberantly bigoted character that the book makes more sense in a reading that assumes it to be a satire, than a reading that takes the opinions and ideology of its characters at face values. It’s a satire, and a sharp-tongued one at that, drawing on more than just media criticism. In a time-honored comics tradition, from the Skrulls to Morrison’s and Moore’s masterpieces, it questions conventional narratives and perceptions.

There is still more to it, though. The criticism it contains isn’t really new or spectacular, following lines established by the comics I mentioned and movies such as Natural Born Killers. Millar’s dense and focused way of telling and constructing his story is fairly rare, however. Additionally, at least for me, it’s hard now to disregard Kick-Ass when reading and commenting upon Wanted, which is much enhanced when assuming that it is part of a narrative or intellectual trajectory that includes Kick-Ass. On a surface level, the two books couldn’t be more different. Kick-Ass‘ art is almost the exact opposite of Jones’. While Jones did both pencils and inks in Wanted, John Romita Jr. only did the pencils in Kick-Ass. Its inks are handled by Tom Palmer, and one feels an odd disconnect here. This is worth noting, since Palmer is one of the most legendary inkers in the business today. His inks in Byrne’s X-Men run (although I’m not partial to Byrne’s pencils) are nothing short of stunning, for example, and his influence in the industry is hard to overestimate. But in Kick-Ass, his work and Romita Jr.’s are a bad fit. The point is that J.G .Jones’ art is of a piece and hits you straight in the face. It overwhelms you, lets you examine the world of Wanted in full dark detail. None of that here. It’s not just the inks, however. Romita Jr.’s art is low on details, and the few panels that contain many can seem almost sloppily done. In Romita Jr.’s art, objects and people merge, and objects in different states of matter (liquids, gases, solids) start to resemble one another. The effect is both disconcerting and cartoonish. So, on the level of the art, you have a focused, detailed, fully coherent book, and a book where the different elements don’t quite fit, where the art in general is always slightly out of focus. But the connection is, of course Millar. The two novels’ art is similar in the sense of perfectly fitting the writing. The changes in the art correspond directly to the changes in the narrative.

Instead of reveling in super-villains, Kick-Ass looks at super-heroes. Wanted‘s super-villains were created as amalgams of more traditional villains, with references hidden in slogans, details in costume or bearing. The villainy was established by creating a vile protagonist, and making his fellow super-villains even worse. The writing told us what to look for, and the art scattered hints and clues all over the gorgeous pages. Kick-Ass is different. It’s reference to comic antecedents is far more specific and less playful. It doesn’t allow us to distance ourselves from the writing and its implications. A few lines earlier, I called some of Wanted‘s panels “tableaux” – the implied act of leaning back and contemplating a panel or a whole page, this doesn’t quite work for Kick-Ass. The art doesn’t ask you to stop and look, instead its completely immersive, attracts you into its haze of idealism, fear, anxiety and hate. Hate is one of the things that you’ll notice very early on. The narrator doesn’t vocalise his prejudice quite like Wesley, but the art draws your attention to a similar mind-set. In Wanted, the narration needed to be fueled by hate, because the art, due to its detailed realism, suggested impartiality, showing things as they were. Romita Jr.’s art doesn’t even pretend to be impartial. Instead you get sucked into the maelstrom of the protagonist’s teenage mind from the very first panel. Like Wesley, the eponymous Kick-Ass (his mild-mannered name is Dave) moderates the first few panels, telling us what we’re seeing. Unlike Wesley, he abandons narration rather quickly. He doesn’t need to keep it up, however, because the art is clearly doing it for him now. Hate is less expressed and more implied. For instance by the fact that all the villains of the book, and I do mean one hundred percent, are non-white. Latinos, African-Americans, Italian-Americans (for the whiteness of Italian- and Irish-Americans I recommend reading select works of Whiteness Studies (Roediger and others)). The protagonist, on the other hand, is blond. What’s more, he’s ethnically unmarked. As in his best work, Millar uses everything to full effect. We’re never in doubt about the ethnicity of people in the book. Language, color, clothes, all adds to the basic impression: a white blond boy, constantly victimized at school, and, by extension, in his world as well, has enough and fights crime.

Fighting crime in Kick-Ass means fighting all the ethnically marked rabble. There is a plethora of critical writing on superhero comics that addresses this question of marked and unmarked actors, and the use and import of wearing a costume, as well as the racial and sexual fault-lines in a tradition that focused on and even expanded notions of masculinity and manliness. Dave is a perfect representation of the fear and anxiety of white males in this new century, afraid to lose privileges and calling frequently for an emancipation for men and accusing people of being racist towards white people. Phenomena like the American Tea Party movement are symptoms of that growing feeling of being threatened by a wave of otherness. And Dave is fighting back. Brilliantly, Millar creates an ambiguous motivation for his protagonist. Dave is beset both by local and global fears, and the local fears are mostly connected to his being a teenager and grappling with the process of growing up. There isn’t enough bile or strength in him to call the adults out, calling them ‘phoneys’. Instead he retreats first into his imagination, and then into violence. In his imagination, as a scrawny comic geek, he learns the symbolic language of comic which works largely through displacement and metaphorical representation. The rhetorical flourishes of right wing attacks, constructing scapegoats, using ideas of purity and evil, Dave has learned all this from comics, in short: he’s perfectly equipped to be a small hateful thug with ideals. There isn’t a patchwork of allusions and references here. There is just one big paradigm in Kick-Ass: it’s Batman. Mostly Frank Miller’s Batman, but Millar uses small details that suggest other Batman-related characters, too. Dave corresponds in many details to the Batman in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. The trajectory, from the unsuccessful first bout with criminals which ends with the superheroes-in-waiting bleeding profusely, to the successful second fight and the subsequent establishment, is similar, but what’s more important is that the criminals and the heroes conform to a normal/other dichotomy.

The other canonical Miller text on Batman relevant here is his masterful The Dark Knight Returns. In this book, Batman has turned into a hateful muscled old man, disdainful of political correctness and leniency towards criminals, and largely dismissive of democracy. In Kick-Ass, Millar creates the characters of Hit Girl and Big Daddy to reflect that side of being Batman. Like the Cassandra Cain-incarnation of Batgirl, Hit Girl was trained by her father (as Cassandra was trained by hers) to become an excellent killer at a very young age. The rigorous and excessive training has produced a killing machine without many social skills. Without even blinking, Hit Girl slices through hordes of criminals. Neither she nor her father care whether someone is actually guilty of a crime. Being a criminal means being guilty by association. So they kill not just a drug dealer, but also his mistress and all his friends. The utter disdain for human lives and the violent, bracing righteousness connect these two to Miller’s old Batman. Between David, Hit Girl and Big Daddy, Millar has gathered many of the facets of Gotham’s crime-fighter. He has picked up on Miller’s reading of the character as a reactionary, fascist madman, and made a book that reflects that attitude. There is no lee-way in Kick-Ass that would allow for a critical or satiric reading. On the contrary: Mark Millar has, as he does in the best of his books, created an incredibly focused book where every detail is put in the service of one idea. Here it’s right wing hatred. Not criticism of it, but depiction of it, with a clarity and assiduity that makes it almost an anatomy of that attitude. Nothing here is extraneous, everything, the art, dialogue, and the story is extremely focused on one thing and one thing only. In fact, I think that Kick-Ass might well be his best book, because despite the strengths of his other work, this one might just be the most focused and densely told of all his tales.

This is not to deny that his method has its problems. Depicting hate and violence, without even attempting to contain or criticize it, is a risky business and just as The Dark Knight Returns affirms its protagonist’s reactionary values, so does Kick-Ass provide an apology for the dark dreams of Dave. In his review of Haneke’s US remake of Haneke’s own Funny Games, New York Times critic A.O. Scott writes: “voyeuristic masses are implicated in the gruesome spectacle of senseless cruelty. Are we, though? What if the guilt trip never takes off? Or, even worse, what if the American audience, cretins that we are, were to embrace Mr. Haneke’s vision not for its moral stringency but for the thrill of, say, watching Ms. Watts, bound at the ankles and wrists, hop around in her underwear? Who will be implicated then?” This moral ambiguity is characteristic for much of Millar’s work, and while reading him is always an awesome experience, his readers may feel increasingly uneasy. The divide between being a moral writer and an excellent craftsman is not often as wide as it is in Millar’s case. Millar’s work is often problematic and often difficult to stomach, and if we look at the way his oeuvre develops, it seems that there is much more to come. His clean work with the Ultimate X-Men eventually lead to the fascist ambiguities of Civil War, his playful game with hate and villainy in Wanted turned into unfettered racism and violence in Kick-Ass. I am both excited and afraid of what’s to come next from Mark Millar’s busy pen.


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Grant Morrison: Batman: The Black Glove

Morrison, Grant; J.H. Williams III, Tony S. Daniel (2008), Batman: The Black Glove, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-1945-1

Batman: The Black Glove is another installment in Grant Morrison’s work with DC Comics characters like Batman and Superman, and while it’s another strong showing, it’s also suffering from being one volume in a larger build-up to last year’s major crossover events. Sometimes it seems to me as if superhero comics are a bit like Pro Wrestling. Hundreds of story-lines, different organizations and titles, with crossovers between the different kinds of titles and wrestling events happening now and then. It’s all very odd and confusing, and so are superhero comics. If you try to follow superhero comics without really buying every issue of the dozens of smaller magazines where they are published, you are bound to get kind of confused. Now and then there’s a huge crossover event that tries to clean up a bundle of story-lines in one fell swoop, but the result are books like Batman: The Black Glove, which overwhelm some of their readers with the richness of references and events that they are embedded in. This particular book is part of an enormous undertaking. It is part of the Batman R.I.P. Story (as was The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul which I’ve reviewed here), which in turn leads into the larger project of Final Crisis. But, first things first.

Grant Morrison, superhero writer extraordinaire, writes on many stories at the same time, and unlike the major other writer who works on many canonical characters and story-lines at the same time, Mark Millar, he doesn’t get to invent a parallel canon where he can change and adapt and do as he pleases without catching flak for it. Millar inaugurated the Ultimate series, with his Ultimate X-Men books, which spawned a whole Ultimate Marvel universe that is similar but different from the Marvel canon. This re-invention culminated in the bafflingly great The Ultimates, a re-vamping of the Avengers in the Ultimate Marvel vein, and in Civil War, both of which I’m still pondering and will review later this month. Part of the ease with which Millar’s stunning work for Marvel reads is due to the fact that his re-invention of the characters allows him to let go of the past, and work with a clean slate. This leads to an incredible energy and freshness in his books, and to a renewed understanding of how, in cultural terms, these characters work. Millar’s work for Marvel continues to explore new alleys, with nods and references to canon, but being really independent of its exigencies and baggage. His most recent publication, Old Man Logan, is a case in point.

Millar’s approach couldn’t be more different from Grant Morrison’s, who, before signing an exclusivity contract for DC Comics, dabbled a bit everywhere (he had a part, for example, in the conception of The Ultimate Fantastic Four). In temperament he’s much closer to the prolific Brian Michael Bendis, who thrives on canon and continuity, and is the main reason why recent Ultimate Marvel publications are almost as confusing as all the recent DC Comics events. Grant Morrison’s Batman issues especially are not so much new and interesting story- lines but riffs on old ones, which is both a boon and a problem for these books. Naturally, the better you know the older stories and the more of the recent (sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting) stories you have read, the richer your reading experience may be. However, I’m herewith issuing a full recommendation to read Batman: The Black Glove. Compared with the flaccid affair that The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul was, this is a dense and interesting piece of storytelling which may seem obscure and bewildering at times, but that does not necessarily make for bad reading.

On the contrary. I greatly enjoyed this book and so will you, unless you have an inexplicable aversion to men in tights. Part of this enjoyment is due to Morrison’s impeccable writing, yet another, arguably greater, part is due to the choice of artists. While Tony S. Daniel, who penciled one of three sections of the book, isn’t great, his pencils are confident and clear enough (especially when inked by Jonathan Glapion) to steer the reader through what, at times, seems like a maze of smaller and larger stories. The highlights are the first and the short last section of Batman: The Black Glove. The first seems to comprise a self-contained story, which draws on Gothic elements and classic DC characters and story-lines, as well as thriller and mystery tropes from various literary and cinematic sources. The art, by J.H. Williams III, who appears to have penciled and inked the whole section himself, is extraordinarily evocative and energetic. There are many moments in Morrison’s recent output when you have the impression that his work is a chore and that he’s content with producing solid stories that make enough sense to continue in later volumes. Maybe it took an artist like Jim Williams III to reintroduce this kind of enthusiasm for the genre to Morrison’s efficient “event” writing.

This first section, “The Island of Mr. Mayhew” is about a meeting of Silver Age ersatz-Batmen, with different looks and strengths. There is a Native American with a cliché feather headdress, an Englishman who uses a knight’s armor. There is an American crime fighter who dresses up like a Roman soldier, and many more. All of them refer back to equivalents in the canon, but their grievances, and the back stories that are introduced here and alluded to are clearly influenced by the work of Neil Gaiman in some of his Sandman volumes, and by Alan Moore’s writing in The Watchmen. These characters meet regularly, and Batman is also regularly invited yet he never shows up. There is a bitterness in these would-be superheroes. They are not ridiculous, in fact, they have fought crime, each of them, with varying degrees of success. They are old now, grown fat, lazy and despondent, and blame others for their demise. Since the whole Batman R.I.P./Final Crisis event involves the demise of Batman, who vanishes at the end of these story-lines, dead, mad or lost, the coven of old superheroes is a clever mirroring of the actual Batman, it also prefigures the appearance of multiple Batmen later in the story. Most importantly, however, it uses its connections to Moore’s and Gaiman’s work to smuggle a critique of superhero-dom and its Manichean thinking into what appears to be a regular kind of story (unlike books like Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns).

Grant Morrison is adept at this: writing a great story which, however, has implications that transcend the usual goals and meanings of the genre. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to belittle superhero comics, on the contrary. I think that the things that can be said with the tools and tropes of the genre are fascinating, interesting and challenging intellectually, but there is, as with all other genres, a limited palette, all colors of which tend to point inward, into the dark caverns of genre and writing. This is true of many of the best works of the genre: the aforementioned book by Miller, or Frank Miller’s great Electra run (with art by the amazing Bill Sienkiewicz), Greg Rucka’s writing, or indeed much of Mark Millar’s work, for example. Morrison, even in his weaker stories, is different. He never seems to have abandoned the thinking and powerful artistic vision that we see in his The Invisibles comic book series (continued in the madness of The Filth), but he’s no longer flaunting it. Instead his work quietly, through juxtapositions and odd disruptions, destabilizes assumptions in normative narratives. Sometimes, as in “The Island of Mr. Mayhew”, it’s just a few references and peculiar settings.

The chapter develops into a regular murder mystery, as one by one the aging superheroes are murdered by what we soon assume to be Mr. Mayhew, the man who called the meeting. It’s a retread of a story that is old enough to have been consummately parodied as far back as 1978, when Neil Simon’s hilarious Murder by Death came out. In essence, “The Island of Mr. Mayhew”’s is a very similar story, with a showdown that appears to be as convoluted and overwrought as Simon’s. But it is the art that makes it stand out. Williams’ panels are often dipped in blackness, with disrupted and skewed panels, sometimes resembling the Bat sign, for example. Blood and fear seems to spill from panel to panel and page to page. It’s a highly dynamic design, although the actual drawing of the characters is much more static. As is, the reading experience is disorienting, recreating for the reader the mazes and dangers of the Mayhew’s house. In the Gothic setting, Morrison found a perfect background for his continuing interest in family and heredity.

The vision of order that follows the Batman through all his incarnations, from Bob Kane’s (or rather Bill Finger’s, as it were) colorfully campy original, to Frank Miller’s pitch-black version of it, has been transposed onto the personal level by Morrison. In this, as in previous volumes in this crossover event, from Batman & Son (pencilled by Andy Kubert) to The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, Morrison engages private order as compliment and contrast to social order, a structure that will culminate in the two parallel publications of Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis. It’s fascinating to read the spin on this that this first section develops. As a standalone volume, this would be a short but excellent addition to the canon. It is paired, however, with two more sections. The second one, easily the longest, is called “Space Medicine” and is even more disorienting, if mostly because of what feels like dozens of stories crashing in. There are so many of them, in fact, that the main storyline gets lost and when it resurfaces at the end of the section, we don’t really care. The section continues an arc from the final chapter of Batman & Son, but you don’t need to have read it. In fact, I think that part of the fun of it is trying to make sense of the onslaught of things that happen, revelations imparted upon the reader and odd names and words.

I’m not sure that Batman: The Black Glove is supposed to be much clearer, actually, since Morrison’s sly deviations from old stories should be sufficiently confusing even to veteran readers of the books, such as his reinvention of the alien Batman Tlano from the planet Zur-En-Arrh, from a 1958 story called Batman – The Superman of Planet-X, reinvented as a psychotic personality developed by a trauma suffered by Bruce Wayne a few years ago. Again, events are turned inward, to the personal, and an interstellar crisis is converted into a personal one. It’s impossible to say more without spoiling the surprise and pleasurable bewilderment of this section, which paves the way for Batman’s last stand in Batman R.I.P.. A final mention should be accorded to Ryan Benjamin, whose art I have already praised here and who penciled the brief last section. He doesn’t get much to work with, as he’s asked to illustrate a chapter that feels rushed inasmuch as the writing is concerned. This chapter is clearly a bridge to the next volume, and that purpose is always clear to the reader. These few pages are intriguing but necessarily unsatisfying. What pleasure we derive from them is due to Benjamin’s pencils which intimate the disintegration of Batman, something that we hoped for from Daniel’s pencils in the previous chapter who wasn’t able or willing to deliver. As always, Benjamin’s work is dynamic and extremely effective, and I wish there was more of it.

That said, the book as a whole seems to be very well proportioned. Some shortcuts, some rushed scenes and story-lines, but all told, Batman: The Black Glove seems remarkably concise. It makes sense as a prequel to the cataclysmic events to come, it makes sense as a standalone book, and, most importantly, it makes sense as part of an ongoing larger project. In his most recent novel Lowboy, John Wray has one of his characters say “Your order isn’t my order”. In Wray’s excellent book, this is a statement about perception and about an examination of the conventions embedded in that which we accept as given. Grant Morrison writes about similar issues, but he doesn’t examine. He destabilizes, he suggests, intimates. As a writer he doesn’t write from an authoritative position, he doesn’t lecture. And, surprisingly, he keeps finding excellent artists to work with him. Good ones like Tony S. Daniels and extraordinary ones like Ryan Benjamin, J.G. Jones or, more recently, Frank Quitely. It’s a joy to read a new book by Morrison, and his publications are among my most highly anticipated publications each year. If you haven’t yet got on board, do so. If you’re new to this, maybe not with this exact volume, but don’t pass Morrison by. It’s more than worth it to check him out.


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Adam Roberts: Yellow Blue Tibia

Roberts, Adam (2009), Yellow Blue Tibia, Gollancz
ISBN 978-0-575-08357-8

Here’s the deal. You will have to read Adam Roberts, unless Yellow Blue Tibia, his most recent novel, grossly misrepresents his oeuvre. There is just no way you can bypass this writer, who is so self-controlled, so sure of his capabilities and his craft, who is able to engage both the humorous and the darkly serious nature of his work. Yellow Blue Tibia may not be a masterpiece, but it is certainly an excellent novel and a truly dazzling display of skills. So far, he has ten novels under his belt, a few academic studies (including a regrettable one on Frederic Jameson, in the sense that any study on Jameson is regrettable), some parodies and a few shorter pieces. If any of them so much as approach the quality of Yellow Blue Tibia, you’re in for a treat. Read it. You don’t even have to like science fiction, because one of the remarkable things about the book is that it is as much a literary novel about science fiction as it is a science fiction novel proper. In this extraordinarily funny and smart book, Roberts managed to seize his genre, and put it through the wringer, spinning it around, examining it, without ever becoming too intellectual or too cerebral. It’s also a joy to read, a book that scoops up a lot of the canonical postmodern playfulness of the 1970s, but has, below this, the elegant, moving structure of a more traditional novel. What’s more, Roberts’ playfulness is always in the service of real concerns, real problems, and implies the possibilities of real actions. Adam Roberts is a very serious writer, who likes to use the word “ballsack” a lot. And he excels at both of these kinds of writing. Read this writer. You will not be disappointed.

The plot is hard to describe, mostly because it’s actually quite surprising. It’s not that you can’t see the final twist coming a mile off, but Yellow Blue Tibia, at the beginning, hedges its bets, shows you ways of continuing its tale, before stepping up to the plate and fully delivering its story. It starts off like this: in 1945, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, i.e. Joseph Stalin, ruler of all the Russias, asks a group of well-known Soviet Science Fiction writers to convene in a cabin in the woods. They come by train, by mule cart, they are both giddy and elated to meet Stalin, and mortally afraid. Instead of sending them all to the Gulag, however, Stalin asks them to write a story. In what seems to be a very Wag the Dog-ish line of thought, Stalin has decided that the USSR needs an enemy to unite against. Now that the Germans have been beat, and that (in Stalin’s estimation), victory against the US is, at most, five years away, it is time to plan and come up with a new enemy after the US are conquered. And why not invent an enemy? This is what Stalin wants his science fiction writers to do: invent an enemy to rally the peoples of the USSR against, “an extraterrestrial menace. It will be the greatest Science Fiction story ever told! And we will write it collectively! It will inspire the whole of the Soviet Union – inspire the whole world!”. So, this is what they do. After long discussions and deliberations, they come up with a species of “radiation aliens”, and they even imagine some of their early attacks, such as a destroyed US spaceship, and a bomb launched against the Ukraine.

This section is very densely narrated and it contains a lot of the ideas and themes that the rest of Yellow Blue Tibia later pursues. We learn that these men are all tired, all afraid, but they’re all, additionally, Communists. In period novels such as Vassili Grossmann’s Life and Fate, we learn hat even those afraid to be murdered by Stalin’s henchmen, even those in camps and at the front, that there are many ardent Communists among them, because the idea of Communism is unharmed by the horrific political events in the 20th century, engineered by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and their vassals. So it is with the men in that cabin. Their visions, thought, and basic motivation are informed by Marxism even as their faith in the political reality of their country has long gone. These writers are beat, exhausted, they are all soldiers, and they’re tired of war. One of the writers grumbles that, if he were alive today, Tolstoy wouldn’t write “War and Peace but War and War. He would write War and War and More War”.The connection between fiction, and history, as well as individual fates is established in that first section; also, the truthfulness of journalistic nonfiction, as well as, very importantly, questions of authorship. But as soon as we start to enjoy the odd rhythms of that discussion, that creation of an original story, the meeting in the woods is stopped short. Stalin, without offering explanations, dissolves the project, and swears all the writers to silence. For some decades, nothing else, pertaining to these days in the cabin, happens, as the narrator explains. Until 1986, when the narrator is visited by ghosts of his past.

The narrator of Yellow Blue Tibia is called Konstantin Skvorecky, one of the Science Fiction writers from the cabin. Choosing that name was certainly not accidental: in part it appears to be a clear reference to Josef Škvorecký, the Czech writer, who, like Roberts’ creation Konstantin Skvorecky, is a translator from English to a Slav tongue, and Roberts’ use of detective fiction tropes and his use of some elements of the roman noir may also, albeit in a more subdued manner, tie in with Škvorecký’s Lieutenant Boruvka novels. One suspects that all the names in Roberts’ fine novel are fraught with allusions and references, more than one. Is it coincidence that another writer, Ivan/Jan Frenkel shares his surname with a renowned Soviet physicist? That one writer’s surname and the title of his main book are semantically related? These are just a few of the examples and ideas that will creep up on the reader, and that crowd the margins of my copy of the novel. This is part of the method (and success) of this book: it creates a text that is often suggestive of ideas, that implies tangents, and hints at propositions, rather than blathering at length about them. It’s a book, like the best literary novels, that keeps the reader thinking: not just whodunit, but about all kinds of things, more or less connected with the book’s subject matter. And as we make our way through the book, more and more suggestions and ideas accumulate, making us think, not about a specific topic or problem, but making us, in a broader sense, just think. And for every association and loose idea, there is also a theme threaded through the book, recurring in different guises, suggesting different conclusions each time.

One of these themes is the topic of authorship, and, ultimately, of truth, fiction and authorial intent. The book’s subtitle is Konstantin Skvorecky’s memoir of the alien invasion of 1986 but much of the book’s suspense revolves around the question whether the alien invasion is really taking place or not, and in answering (or not) that question, the book makes use of our belief and disbelief in authorizing genres and gestures. An appended fictional Wikipedia entry for Konstantin Skvorecky ties in these concerns with our reading of our own history and how we understand chronology and time-lines. In this, there is an odd connection of Yellow Blue Tibia to the mad work of writers like Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to 1986 and Konstantin Skvorecky’s troubles. After decades during which nothing happened that related to the events in the cabin, Skvorecky, a resigned old man, left by his wife, recovering alcoholic, who makes some money as a translator now, is suddenly swept away by a series of events that are all connected to the story he and his colleagues made up 41 years ago. People claim that the fiction has come true, that UFOs really exist and radiation aliens, as well, and that the January, 28, 1986 breakup and disintegration of the Challenger space shuttle was the attack prognosticated in the story. What ensues is a delightfully strange picaresque tale that borrows quite a few elements of the noir, mostly in its setup of situations with shadowy government agents who may or may not pursue their own agenda. In scene after scene we encounter wonderfully warm and colorful images, although some of the events that are recounted for us, are dark and brutal.

Generally speaking, Roberts manages to bridge the distance between a serious, even vicious, kind of story/background and a laugh-out-loud funny tale with great aplomb. Like all great satirists (cf. Tova Reich), he is able to approach a situation like an interrogation in the cellars of the KGB and lace them with a humor that is at times almost silly, as with an interrogator, who, off the record, enjoys threatening his interlocutors with castration, which leads to a dialog that had me wheezing with laughter. This does not take away or detract from the dark history that Roberts engages here. But Roberts wants more than just instigate sadness in his readers, he wants us to think, comprehend, and contextualize this mass movement with others in the 20th century. He does this not by lecturing us, by cloaking non-fictional propositions in the soft cloth of a novel. Instead, what is on display in Yellow Blue Tibia is a genuine interest in the ideas and concerns of the novel and its readers are invited to take part in the swirls and eddies of its thinking. This makes for a very rich reading that does not bludgeon the reader with a disquisition on, for example, mass culture, or mass movements; we are rather presented with different elements that we can connect if we want to and in what way we see fit, although the general theme and focus of the novel do limit us somewhat. That theme and focus is writing, specifically the writing of Science Fiction. We are presented with a handful of categorical statements of what science Fction is, or is not, of what it can do, and what it can’t. It is, again, not a coincidence, that we are reminded of a classic of SF here, L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky.

L. Ron Hubbard, his dangerous religion and his mediocre writing have often been mentioned in these contexts and they are a great example for mass movements, because in the evolution of Scientology from Dianetics and Hubbard’s work as a writer of science fiction the interconnectedness of fiction and religion becomes most obvious and clear. Hubbard’s pseudoscience, first published in the leading SF weekly Astounding Science-Fiction under John W. Campbell, Jr.’s editorship, is one of Yellow Blue Tibia‘s most important references. Not only does the book feature two members of the Church of Scientology, but its discussion of aliens, its depiction of UFO obsession, and, finally, its overriding theme of how narratives shape our perceived reality share many links to Hubbard’s new religion. The suggestibility of human beings, especially those ‘schooled’ by authoritarian belief systems is repeatedly brought up, with links, perhaps, to Elias Canetti’s brilliant opus magnum Crowds and Power. Crowds, for Canetti, don’t need a leader, they need a direction. Fiction, for both Hubbard and Roberts, provides the possibility of shaping exactly that: a direction that crowds can use as orientation, orientation that is beyond doctrine. It gives direction not just to explicit thought, but to the essentials of perception. In this criticism, Yellow Blue Tibia allies itself with orthodox Marxist thought and its Ideologiekritik, but it exceeds these narrow boundaries as well. Although it is committed to its ideas, it is not settled or determinate. The whole story is pervaded by a thorough ambiguity, an irony, if you will, which does not undermine the ideas of the book, but is part and parcel of these very ideas.

In the end, despite its concern with crowds, it is, I think, in part a rejection of Mao II‘s dictum that the future belongs to crowds. Nonsense, the book says, the future belongs to human beings, but they have to think for themselves. It is crowds and their narratives that are limiting, forcing people onto their narrow paths of thought. In this, Yellow Blue Tibia tars religion and ideologies with the same brush, calling on its readers to emancipate ourselves from hierarchies and structures that are narratives, i.e. fiction (in what is clearly a work of fiction, a contradiction that the book seems very aware of). This is by no means even close to be new, but then Roberts does not employ the gesture of much science fiction that wants to be ‘mind-blowing’. Yellow Blue Tibia is a novel that is very conscious of its antecedents, philosophically and literary. There is Stirner, maybe, Wilhelm Reich, certainly, Golden Age science fiction, 1970s paranoid classics like the novels of Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick, and many many novels about 20th century’s totalitarian systems. The associative, broad nature of its references and allusions means that its connections extend to books that the author may not have read at all, like the trash of Maurice Dantec and Imre Kertész’ fine meta-novel A Kudarc. Yellow Blue Tibia is conscious of the libraries of books that preceded it and doesn’t even attempt to be full of new ideas. Instead, it opts, surprisingly, for something else. The structure of the book’s narrative, as its ending shows us, is incredibly traditional, and both moving and charming, and it’s Adam Roberts’ major achievement that he managed to ground the story and its ideas in a humane, personal narrative that suggests to us that its concerns are more than fun and games. They matter.

As does science fiction. Yes, the book constantly contrasts fact with fiction, showing how lines get blurred, creating an atmosphere, a sense of undecidability, but it’s not plain ‘fiction’. It’s science fiction. Adam Roberts wrote a paean not just to imagination proper but to science fiction especially. Science fiction is stronger than imagination: at one point, a character exclaims

I only mean – it’s science fiction! If your science-fictional imagination is broken, you can rebuild it with imaginary high technology! If your writer’s soul is amputated, then because we are talking of science fiction you can fit it with a robotic prosthesis. You can write again, write better, stronger, as a cyborg!

Good science fiction offers tools not just to understand history or the present but to change our perception. The ‘cyborg’ bit here is significant: technology does not just provide props (as furnishings in historical novels tend to be), it allows the writer to supplement the imagination. Science fiction does not need to pretend to work from within a fixed, limiting world, its hierarchies and priorities need not be the small, polar ones of what we perceive to be the necessary, inevitable limits. There is, I think, an openness to good science fiction that is more than seeing clearer. It’s not seeing clearer, which is implying an exploration of limits, it’s glimpsing possibilities beyond this table, that wall or that window, without indulging in sloppy metaphysics. Science fiction, dark or light, is a kind of dreamy materialism. Adam Roberts does not attempt to seriously engage these possibilities, instead he highlights the literary genre of science fiction, and its viability as a tool in world building. Science fiction, he says, is worth engaging with, worth writing and reading. As is Yellow Blue Tibia. Read it. You will not regret it.

Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man

Isherwood, Christopher (2001), A Single Man, Minnesota University Press
ISBN: 0-8166-3862-4

A Single Man is a great novel. Read it. It is the first book I read by Christopher Isherwood, a multi-talented writer who was born in Britain, lived for a while in Berlin among other places and finally died in California. I haven’t read anything else of his work, or about his life, except for the portions of it that he shared with Auden, whose work, in contrast, I know quite well. Isherwood wrote novels, stories, memoirs, screenplays and a disturbing amount of tracts on Vedanta and, with help from Swami Prabhavananda, produced Hindu translations. In Isherwood’s work there are a lot of tangents, and in this light, it’s astonishing how brief, slim and purposeful A Single Man, which was originally published in 1961, is. There are no doubt numerous allusions, meanings and reflections in it that touch upon Isherwood’s rich life and work, but the book wears these lightly. It is, first and foremost, a great read and an inspiring, elegiac novel about one man’s life passing through one phase into something else. But, although is admirable on almost every level, it will not appeal to everyone. Like Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, (click here for my review) this novel is highly dependent on the voice of its protagonist. It’s his thoughts, feelings, disturbances that reel you in, but these same concerns could put you off. I don’t, however, think it will. It’s that good.

The plot follows George, a professor at a California university, during an apparently wholly ordinary day. We start with an image of him shaving and leave him as he slips into a deep sleep. George is relatively old, and is living in California after having grown up in the UK. He’s ‘a single man’ after the death of his partner Jim, which he hides from his neighbors. A Single Man can be read as one long exploration of the exigencies and contradictions of his character, the complexities of his identity. The day in George’s life that the book depicts is a working day, and as George ambles through what’s left of his life after Jim’s departure, we see how much his everyday reality, his everyday habits, how all this is shrouded in lies, illusions, subterfuges. George his hiding from the people around him, but he’s also hiding from himself. The novel brilliantly unsettles the well-wrought construct that George set up for himself, by focusing with an unusual intensity upon gazes. From the very first section, where we encounter a kind of camera, or rather: we follow a tracking shot that zooms in on the character, until the narrative finally settles on him, snug like an expensive tailored suit, we are averted to the importance of gazes. In fact, it is this section, written in a voice and a tone that we will not see again until the last pages of the book, that puts the rest of the narrative into perspective.

All novels have a gaze they work with, a vantage point, the difference is the amount of reflection that writers invest in the tools they use. A mediocre writer like Paul Auster with his fixed, incredibly normative, moralistic, simplistic points of view appears to be unable or unwilling to engage them in his small pubescent literary games. A different case is China Miéville, whose work evinces a strong awareness of situations and the way he’s situated himself within frameworks of centers and peripheries, narrative and cultural norms, and can even find striking images within his books to exemplify these issues (most brilliantly maybe in his most recent, The City & The City, which is a long disquisition about gaze, perception and performativity post-Derrida). Isherwood’s choice here is different but no less effective or ingenious. As his camera-like narrator settles into the story, a personal third person narrator takes over the reins. Suddenly we ride in George’s head, although we don’t. There are tweaks here and there that disrupt the narrative illusion and ask us to look at the narrative from the outside, swivel the camera around, so to say, and look at this guy, as he walks down a street, as he gets heavily drunk twice in one night, bathes in the nude and is hit on, twice. And as the book progresses, this reader’s gaze, made a part and a reflected requirement of the narrative, is accompanied by other gazes.

There are the neighbors, his students, a pretty boy in a bar, an old friend. George is obsessed with his appearance, “he looks – and doesn’t he know it! – better than nearly all of his age-mates at the gym”, but also with appearances in general, obsessed with maintaining the fiction about himself that he decided to invent earlier in his life. His obsession doesn’t show through meticulously maintained obsessive thoughts about this, but in the fact that his thoughts keep returning to the same worries, that he keeps telling us about the cover stories he presents, but that commentary is so sparse, that we are left wondering how many of the stories he tells others, such as the wonderfully sentimental plan to buy a pub and retire to a life as an innkeeper, whether these stories, although he doesn’t disavow them explicitly, are untruths as well. Or whether he’s even capable of being honest to himself. But these recurring thoughts share one more characteristic: many of them have to do with the fact that he’s homosexual, a lifestyle that his neighbors disapprove of. It’s not that he hides his sexual preference. On the contrary, his relationship with Jim was pretty well known, and among his students it appears to be common knowledge that he frequents a specific gay bar.

But in the way George looks at himself, in his convoluted narratives, we find what W.E.B. Du Bois, in writing about the black experience, famously called the “double consciousness”, which describes a very simple perceptual mechanism that is active in many people that belong to groups that are not part of the general, restrictive and restricted norm. It has been applied to women, and it can also be profitably applied to homosexuals. People in these groups often have conflicting identities. As part of their nation-wide culture, they see themselves with the same gaze that the white, male, heteronormative society trains on them. But there is also one’s own, personal part of identity, the part identifying as someone who isn’t necessarily part of the set that is described by the general norm. Between those identities, or: those parts of his identity, conflicts turn up, naturally. From these conflicts, different problems and anxieties can arise. In every look, thought, stifled word of George, this kind of consciousness is visible; I think George is a man haunted by his identities, and somewhat oppressed by the roles he is supposed to inhabit. To quote the book, he “knows what is expected of” him. At the same time, there is no heaviness in his character. His voice isn’t dark, brooding or moping. Isherwood manages to raise issues like these without bogging the book down in them.

George is “oppressed by awareness”, but his voice is light, he’s a very humorous, likable guy, or he’s presented to us that way. Isherwood isn’t the first to attempt or to succeed in mixing the heavy and the light in this way, there are countless other writers doing this, but this isn’t a mark of unoriginality on Isherwood’s part. Isherwood is content in presenting a fully fleshed-out and original character to his readers. As for the echoes of other books, they are clearly intended, as Isherwood places A Single Man firmly in several literary traditions, and then makes ingenious use of the reader’s recognition of these traditional stories and structures. The most obvious reference is to the modern line of novels that are set in a single day and show a character coming up and to terms with his time, his life, his culture. From Ulysses through Ivan Denisovich and Seize the Day, the number of books that deal with this theme are legion, and Isherwood was clearly counting on his readers’ knowledge of books from this genre (among some others) when he wrote A Single Man. In each of these novels the inner conflicts of the characters or the petty, mundane conflicts that these characters may have with their immediate environment have an almost allegorical status, bespeaking the state of humanity, the fate of man in the modern world.

These broader implications are true, as well, for George. Isherwood’s skills both create a highly believable, specific environment and story for his protagonist, as well as a matrix that would work for anyone. We are all George, to a degree. His cowardice and his bravery are ours. The pain of his desire and the dulling ache of his loss, they are ours, as well. This is what elevates the book from merely ‘good’ to ‘great’. And all through this, we are swayed, we are moved along by Isherwood’s impeccable language that can make the elegiac throb of guilty desire just as palpable and incisive, as a scene where a man hurries from the toilet to pick up the phone with an unwiped ass. Isherwood’s ability to pull off a description of the latter kind of activity with such aplomb, to make it part of a generally smooth and musical book is just one aspect of his skills. Within his style, different registers and kinds of reference merge. Scene by scene, this is stunningly realized, and one of the reasons why it all coheres so well is, I think, that Isherwood writes with a notion of, well, “unrealism”, you might call it (yes I stole that word from Lowell). His protagonist, going off on a rant, gives a great explanation of how that might work, when he rebukes a student for attacking American motels for being ‘unreal’:

Unreal. American motels are unreal! My good girl-you know and I know that our motels are deliberately designed to be unreal, if you must use that idiotic jargon, for the very simple reason that an American motel room isn’t a room in an hotel, it’s the room, definitively, period. […] And it’s a symbol […] for our way of life. And what’s our way of life? A building code which demands certain measurements, certain utilities and the use of certain apt materials; no more and no less. Everything else you’ve got to supply for yourself.

In an odd way, this is also a perfect description of the book which uses the realist elements as parts of its “building code” which is, at the end of the day, part of Isherwood’s unrealism, as so many other things.

And Isherwood’s breadth and appetite for texts and myths to incorporate in his work seems endless, without letting any of this show in a very obvious manner. I’ve hinted at a few things, but there’s so much more. He works both with what seems to me a very modern notion of the grotesque (Bakhtin would come to mind), and a slightly older contrast between the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements (Nietzsche, anyone?). His use of travel as an image, and a recurring metaphor, and a structural device, too, is fascinating. And there’s so much more, but none of this is burdensome. It’s not baggage that the reader has to deal with, it’s a bonus that he can access if he wants to. But even without all this, it’s a great, if brief ride through one day full of hope, desire, disappointments and, finally, hope. George battles with decay, with dark shadows on his soul yet he, deeply, rejoices in life. He is incredibly smart, fully capable of making strong and intelligent choices in his life, yet, like all of us, he’s also propelled, moved, driven along by the obscure river of his life, and the big events of this life of his, they crash through the fabric of his stories, like large rocks, redirecting the river, and hurtling him elsewhere. But he walks upright, making his choices, wielding his mind. George’s dignity, which is what much of the book is ultimately about, humbles us. This is a great book. This is a great writer.


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Marcel Theroux: Far North

Theroux, Marcel (2009), Far North, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23777-7

Had Marcel Theroux’ latest novel not made the shortlist of the National Book Award, I doubt I would have looked twice at the book, which seemed to me rather unremarkable, a book in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s decent The Road and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (recently recommended by a friend), to name just two of the many post-apocalyptic books published this decade. It’s not that the book is horrible, it’s not. It’s dull, but as a whole decent enough not to throw into the garbage right away although it’s sure as hell not a good book. Its saving grace is not the actual writing or storytelling but its protagonist. Makepeace, who is the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a fascinating character, and, what’s more, a very well drawn one, whom the reader gladly follows across the rickety bridge that is the novel’s construction and writing. It’s a surprise, really, that, after putting this book down with almost a sigh of relief, I felt a vague but definite yearning for another story featuring the jolly heroine of Theroux’ mediocre novel.

By calling her a ‘heroine’ I have given away a ‘surprise’ that Theroux reveals some twenty pages into the story. As we enter the book, we encounter a lonesome figure, patrolling an empty town. The first sentence of the novel ably conveys the atmosphere of that part of the book: “Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city.” That sentence could well belong to a western, but the story is set ‘Far North’, in the vast emptiness of the Siberian tundra. It’s also set in the future, in a world after natural catastrophes have destroyed civilization as we know it. The explanation how the catastrophes came about is, let’s say: interesting.

The planet had heated up. They turned off smokestacks and stopped flying. Some, like my [Makepeace’s] parents, altered the way they lived. Factories were shut down […] As it turned out, the smoke from all the furnaces had been working like a sunshade, keeping the world a few degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise. He said that in trying to do the right thing, we had sawed off the branch we were sitting on. The droughts and storms that came in the years after put in motion all the things that followed.

Theroux, however, isn’t a scientist (although, in 2004, he did present a TV show on climate change on Channel 4) and Far North isn’t a scientific essay on the topic of impending ecological doom. In fact, the ecology of the story, the science, takes a back seat, almost as much as in The Road, where we have no idea what happened, we’re just confronted with the brute facts of post-apocalyptic reality and how to deal with it. In contrast to The Road, Theroux does express an interest in history, both the general history, for example, of the US, and the particular history of Makepeace’s family and people in her time frame.

All this history is so important in the novel because of its overriding interest in Makepeace’s character. Makepeace is an odd character, who dresses like a man and behaves like one. Due to a disfiguring accident she suffered as a girl, she can also quite easily pass for a man, without actually aiming to deceive. This is because she dresses in the most practical fashion possible and that kind of dress is usually, in our time, as in Makepeace’s, read as masculine. Theroux toys with our expectations a bit at the onset of the story, letting us buy into the idea of this tough male frontiersman who, in the opening pages, shoots a thief for making away with some books. During the rest of the book, the revelation accorded to us, the readers, is likewise accorded to several groups or individuals in the novel who find out what or who that man is who can prowl the woods and hunt caribou with the best of them. He could have revealed Makepeace’s sex at the end of the book, but he didn’t, and some of the reasons for his decision go a long way towards explaining why Far North is such a weak book. One of the reason sis that Theroux is a weak writer.

Not just a weak writer in the sense of a mediocre writer. He is weak in the sense that, instead of working through his ideas and assumptions, instead of engaging more fully his concepts and the world he built, frequently opts for easy, weak solutions. The ecological science might be one of them. Another is the world. People, places and objects flit in and out of focus, without anything that is really endowed with depth. Apart from Makepeace, all characters are caricatures, cardboard cutouts, like the Bad Priest, the Evil Corporate Boss, and a few characters which are even tinged with racism. There is The Muslim, but most importantly, the indigenous peoples of the area, whom Theroux called the Tungus people. These days, these people are called the Evenks, the ‘tungus’ moniker gained currency when the Russians conquered and colonized Siberia, but apparently, it will be popular again in the future (here’s an interesting factsheet about the okrug where most of them live). Theroux places them, and this is what’s problematic, as a group, clearly racially defined, into the ideational structure of the book where they represent the opposite of civilization, an Other of sorts, living in a natural state devoid of ‘civilized’ morality, but also devoid of hypocrisy.

Here, as in other places, Theroux holds back, not ready to doff the overcoat he’s brought with him, spread on the floor for the reader to inspect. The Tungus people are not better or superior to civilized people, they’re just not as bad, and regret drips from Far North‘s pages where Theroux extols their practical morality. The book, in the end, ends up with the image of someone cuddling up in a nest of books while the world outside is slowly reclaimed by nature. Books are good and nature, while not bad, is, in more than one sense of the word, outside, as are the Tungus people. Sex and gender are subject to a very similar kind of indecision. On the one hand, Theroux’ heroine flaunts traditional gender roles, she shoots from the hip, rides horses, can catch and corral several caribou at once and is generally badass. She wears men’s clothing, doesn’t care much for so-called feminine wiles and never expresses an interest in make-up or jewelry. Diamonds are not, in fact, her best friends, but the bullets that she herself casts are. A writer herself, she is thus also shown to be at the beginning of a new tradition, with the whole of Far North the self-narrated manuscript she leaves to posterity, thus usurping a role traditionally accorded to men. But, to see it this way is to dismiss the reason why she behaves as she does. It’s the absence of men.

Granted, Makepeace can better all the men she meets, but it’s still their absence that has her fill in for them. And as for looks and the maintenance of them, men, again, have fouled up her looks which has set her on the masculinized path that we then, in the opening pages of the book find her on. And this is not enough. Additionally, Theroux surrounds her narrative with images of birth and rebirth, in such an emphatic manner that I was under the impression that he strained to smooth out any irritation caused by the first passages. Look, she’s a woman after all, he appears to say. Although I did find another, far more subtle reference I thought I saw in the ties of Theroux’ book to Canadian literature. Nothing in his biography or in explicit references supports this, but hear me out. On the one hand, his construction of the landscape is in keeping with a lot of well-known clichés about the north, which have been particular well explored with respect to the Canadian north. In her 2001 study on the topic, Sherrill E. Grace ends an enumeration of typical elements (a disconcerting number of which turn up in Far North) with the sarkastic exclamation: “and…Voila! A northern novel!”

But Grace mentions another novel about the north, Margaret Atwood’s haunting Surfacing, which is also an appropriate reference here, in a more positive way. Atwood’s novel of contacts with nature and awakenings, replete with images of birth and rebirth, too, might be an antetype, conscious or not, to Theroux handling of issues of sex and gender. His cliché idea of female experience. however, demonstrates how sorely, in this, too, his book is lacking. He mentions an idea but doesn’t really follow through with it. This is what I called weakness and holding back. Tentatively, Theroux shows us what you can do in such a radically altered social landscape, the possibilities in such a narrative, but he quickly smooths things over. The impulses I just described culminate in the last fifth of the book, where he tacks on an impossibly saccharine, contrived and far-fetched ending that would not be jarring in any of the hundreds of telenovelas that crowd daytime television in most countries, and that is a fitting conclusion for a messy book that consists of odd pieces and ideas, some of whom work and some don’t. Makepeace, the protagonist, is one of those that work. She’s such a good character that she can almost make the book work and cohere all on her own.

Almost, I said. Of the other ideas, so many are lame or dull that I caught myself pitying Makepeace as I watch her being shoved through Theroux’ story, in effect running the gauntlet. The most interesting of Theroux ideas is his use of early American history. These are not hidden references: after the aforementioned catastrophe, American Quaker families and similarly minded communities move to the Far North, to start anew, to establish communities in the wilderness, on a different continent. Their fate in general and a cartoonish but surprisingly effective depiction of a particularly pious settlement (Makepeace’s encounter with this community really sets the story in motion) will remind any student of American history of the reports and stories that tell us about that time. No-one who’s read sermons from the time of the Great Awakening can be deaf to the echoes of that rhetoric in the sermons and speeches of Far North‘s Christian preachers and believers. It is, of course, part of Theroux’ essentially conservative tropes of rebirth that keep cropping up in the novel, but as a motif, and an idea it is remarkable, and solitary in the novel in that it is complete and satisfying. Using frontiersmen and puritan-like communities appears to me to be quite a common motif, almost de rigeur, in SF, but I have rarely come across a rendition of that particular theme as interesting as this.

An equally well known but infinitely less well wrought motif is that of the ‘Zone’. In the novel we will encounter prisoner camps, with men used as working slaves and other men employed to scout out ‘the Zone’, a huge abandoned city that was used by the Russians, before the catastrophe, as a scientific and intellectual center. Now, however, no-one is alive or reachable who knows its secrets but maps have survived, and rumors of dangers and treasures hidden in it. Not gold, but odd and inexplicable objects created by a science that the scavengers roaming the city can neither understand nor really make use of. The nature of some of the objects recalls Clarke’s famous bonmot (actually I think it’s one of his three rules) that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If that reminds you of the Strugatzki brothers’ classic science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, or the movie or even the video game that has been made of it, it reminded me, too, and not in a good way. Again, Theroux is content with spreading this coat, too, on the floor, not really committed to wearing it. Theroux dips in and out of the theme, suggesting loads of interesting ideas but following up on few of them. There is a strong undercurrent that is concerned with myth and modernity, and the Zone is part of that, but, as far as its execution is concerned, it’s sketchy at best.

I’ve left the writing for last. Far North is written in what seems to me to be an American idiom or, alternatively, a simple English based upon the American variety of English (I may well be wrong, since Theroux lives and works in London and has barely any connections to the US, according to his wiki). However, although it needs to be stated that Theroux enjoys making Makepeace say trite and trivial aphoristic sentences far too much, the writing is solid throughout the book. The contrast to a book like Paul Auster’s most recent novel Invisible, which is similarly built with a great deal of grandstanding remarks, but written less well, shines a favorable light on that aspect of Theroux’ book, although, by itself, the writing’s not actually good. The simple language and even the flat aphoristic sentences are even put to good use in characterizing the simple mindset and education of Makepeace. As a reader I may have wished for more, for at least an attempt to use language in an interesting way, but you take what you get and with the slim pickings that the book otherwise provides, I’m fine with the writing. But, with all the coats tried on and spread on the floor for inspection, the novel feels quite bare. Not naked in any sensual or interesting sense, more like a mannequin robbed of its clothes. The face may charm you, but the body, in a bland color, with screws and joints visible, is a turn-off at best. Much to Theroux’ credit, the basic idea, the scenario, is a winner, it’s, as Grace would have said, a case of “and…voilà! a postapocalyptic novel!” and while his world-building is perfunctory and cliché-ridden, Theroux is competent enough not to ruin this solid foundation altogether. Far North‘s certainly no recommendation but it won’t make you chop off your own hand either in an attempt to forget the book. It’s really ok.


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Sarah Water: The Little Stranger

Waters, Sarah (2009), The Little Stranger, Virago
ISBN 978-1-84408-601-6

I have heard good things about Sarah Waters, which is probably the reason why I picked her most recent novel, The Little Stranger, as my my next stop on my attempted odyssey through the Booker shortlist, although my reading speed is so dismal that between finishing this one and the last, the shortlist has been announced and I might just pick book number three 3 off of that one. As I’d hoped, Ed O’Loughlin’s awful novel has not been shortlisted, but Sarah Waters’ Gothic novel, deservedly, has. The Little Stranger is a very well written and well constructed book, marvelous, really. It’s not without its flaws but its strengths clearly overshadow its weaknesses; I found it a satisfying read, both on an emotional as well as on a cerebral level.

The Little Stranger is a Gothic novel, hewing rather close to many exponents of the genre, not just in its adherence to rules and use of motifs, but also in as fundamental aspects as setting and vocabulary, even. It was the latter part that led me to read the book’s project as one of pastiche. That can have a limiting effect. If we look back upon the book, having read and absorbed it all, wanting to write a positive review, it can be a bit disheartening to see how it’s all rather well contained within the genre limits, how little of a thrust outside, of a broader vision, a clearer grasp of situations etc. we actually find. While reading, the impression can be a different one, but any look back will reveal the book as looking inward, curled up like a frightened hedgehog. This, however, is not just a limitation, it’s also one of the strengths of the book. There is no need for it to strain for a broader vision, it strains, on the contrast, to fill the nooks and crannies of the mansion at the center of its narrative with anxieties, constructions, and ideas about sexuality and rationality. While it is definitely true that the novel rarely breaks the mold of the genre it’s set up to be part of, I don’t regard ‘making it new’ necessarily as a hallmark of great literature. Sarah Waters has given us a very good book that picks up quite a few ideas and arranges them by making them part of a Gothic novel. The genre, and this is a sign of her success, doesn’t read as restraining, although it could well have. It feels so necessary, so much part and parcel of the stories and ideas Waters relates to us, that I can’t help but wonder if the genre wasn’t picked because it was such a good fit.

The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Doctor Faraday, is a physician in the countryside in the United Kingdom between the two World Wars. He isn’t exactly young anymore and he’s not successful either. He shares a practice with an established physician, daily combating fears of losing all his patient if his partner should retire and die. He does not have a particularly remarkable vision for what he does, although he isn’t incapable of developing one, as we see later. In fact, although the story is written from his point of view, bits and pieces of ideas keep floating to the surface that he evidently harbored but kept from his conscious thoughts. And ideas and visions are not the only things, I think, that he represses or shuts away. He isn’t forceful in any way, and when, later on, he tries to go down that path, he missteps frequently, behaving like a sullen boy and not like a man with convictions. This is not to say that he does not, in fact, have convictions. Indeed, he has a series of strongly held convictions, the most central, at least for The Little Stranger, is his view of himself as a man of science, a man of reason, his very name indicative of his allegiances. But although he has a backbone, has convictions that he isn’t ready or willing to abandon, even under strong emotional stress, he lacks a personal impetus, a force. He will take opportunities if and when they present themselves, he will state his opinion if and when called upon to do so, but he is largely passive and throughout the novel, that’s how he’ll stay.

The book is constructed around a large mansion, and people will return to that mansion or flee from it. It is immobile and much of the novel’s conflict results from the fact that the people, the Ayreses, who live in there, appear to be similarly immobile, clinging to their holdings, their old status, their house, trying to salvage as much of what they used to own as the country moves into modernity and Attlee’s Labor government makes laws that appear to be less than kind to the beleaguered nobility, yet as far as the characters are concerned, Faraday is the passive one, the immobile aging man, despite spending much of his time traveling to and from the mansion, immobile in more ways than one. The Ayreses, in contrast, are, at least initially, more interesting. This is a family of three, with old Mrs. Ayres and the two children, adults by now. One of those is Roderick Ayres, the brother, who was in the Great War and suffered grievous wounds, his leg still not recovered and, as the book sets in, not likely to ever do. He is bitter, suffering, and exhausted yet determined to hold everything together. His desk is swamped in documents, bills, letters, contracts, and he also, despite his bad leg, works on the field and with the animals. His sister, Caroline, is the most finely realized character in the novel. She is, apparently, a bit dumpy looking, frequently described as a “clever girl” which Faraday translates as meaning that she’s rather ordinary as far as looks are concerned, and, overall, “a natural spinster”. She doesn’t attract men, but then she doesn’t try to, she dresses in functional clothes, which often means men’s clothes, she never or rarely goes out.

It is, interestingly, Faraday, the narrator, who keeps returning to this point, who keeps presenting other peoples’ remarks about this, just to, more often than not, record his protest. Methinks he doth protest too much. In fact, it is as a narrator, that Faraday is most consistently entertaining and interesting. The whole novel, as I said, is written from his perspective, utilizing a first person narrator. Since he doesn’t live in the mansion, and many decisive and disturbing things happen in his absence at the mansion, this presents certain problems as to what information Waters is able to impart to the reader and how she does that. Basically, she chooses to use two different ways and its significant that one of them dominates the first half (eh, more than exactly half, maybe ‘part’ would be the better word) and the other the second. One is an announcement of strange events that happened in his absence, and then a seemingly third person narrative of these events. In fact, this is not what we have. The reader is given a lot of indicators that these sections are Faraday’s version of the events, as he was able to piece them together from different talks with the relevant witnesses. We know that both these talks must have taken place and that there must have been different volleys of talk, since we get different hierarchies of information, some clearly predating others. We know these things through small hints, words like “apparently” and phrases like “she said later” (the latter often about integral parts of the narrative, making a construction as straight third person impossible to uphold), scattered throughout the text.

The other kind of re-telling contains the act of telling within it, as Faraday includes his talk with those who witness it as part of the narrative. This is increasingly important in the book, as his own relationship with the Ayreses becomes more and more central and his attitude to what is told become more important, as well. Waters is very subtle about this, as she is about many things in this book. As a writer she’s often frightfully good and complex, despite using deceptively simple means to go about her business. By having these two basic kinds of re-tellings, she pushes Faraday into the reader’s gaze, forcing him (the reader) to consider the dull doctor, to remember to what extent the narrative and information is, indeed, shaped by him. At the end of the novel, he is, literally called upon to be a witness in a trial, the book thus materializing an immaterial, an implicit function, which is a trick very frequently used by Gothic novels, but here it’s largely with a focus on narrative. So what happens, the impatient reader, wading through hundreds of words looking for a point or plot in this review, may ask? Well, Doctor Faraday, born to a former servant at the Ayreses’ mansion, strikes up a relationship with the current owners of that house, Roderick, Caroline and their mother. When he offers to use an experimental method to relieve Roderick’s pain in his leg, he becomes, in a way, part of that family, and witness to many things that happen there. Strange events suddenly start happening, signs appearing on high, unreachable ceilings, tame dogs biting the cheek of the neighbors’ daughter, fires rising inexplicably all over the house. As the story starts to pick up speed, and more and more strange things happen, madness and death ensues until the book, in part, starts to exhibit the qualities of a Greek tragedy.

It is never, this much I’ll tell you, unambiguously explained what the reason for the events is, although we’re offered a few, some more consistent than others. Any explanation for the events will also be a large part of what the person, who holds that opinion, thinks the novel is ‘about’, this is how central this is to the story. One, easily the most boring kind of explanation, would focus upon the social role of the Ayreses, on their attempt to cling to the past etc. There are all kinds of sections that tie into that, for example the complex role allotted to Faraday as a friend of the family who would not, under normal circumstances, be admitted into the inner sanctum of relationships in that family. Part of this is the rising sense of entitlement among the nouveaux riches and even the poor compatriots of the Ayreses, a sense that Faraday cannot disengage himself of either, although Faraday’s attitude is a strange mixture of entitlement and low self-esteem. An indicator for this would be the excess of self-pity that speaks of his assertion that, when at one point, he’s told to be handsome, the woman uses “the voice that nice women use for complimenting unhandsome men”. Instead of making him more interesting, this dichotomy in his character makes Faraday one of the most annoying narrators and protagonists I have recently had the displeasure of encountering, although it serves a distinct purpose. I called this explanation boring because it’s the one the novel offers directly, it’s even quite frequently debated within the book and as such, barely worth mentioning, it’s that obvious.

Two other aspects and explanations can be constructed around sexuality and rationality. Although sexuality is also debated now and then, there are fascinating undercurrents to it. The “sexual impulse” is presented as a “dangerous energy” and not only is Caroline a “natural spinster”, but Faraday is a bachelor, as well. Now, as is obvious, there are lots of pent-up sexual energies in the book, repressed sexuality, and this kind of repression can almost be expected from a Gothic novel, but, and in this I am not sure, I think that this sexuality isn’t strictly heterosexual in nature. There is no homosexual or even homo-erotic relationship in the book, but allusions and hints abound, as when Roderick’s embarrassment sexualizes a largely clinical procedure. Also, even for a bachelor, Faraday is astonishingly gauche when handling a woman, and the male gaze in his narrative is keps very well under wraps in the narrative that he, after all, controls himself. Is it propriety or is repression a factor in this? Hard to tell. Faraday does propose marriage to a woman, but it’s less a question of desire and sexual love, it’s more a question of custom and conventions. Faraday clearly has warm feelings but I think he misreads them, under pressure from, as I said, the customs and conventions of his time, which is why, for example, as I mentioned earlier, he so emphasizes Caroline’s eventual spinsterhood. After all, in Faraday’s time it was still possible to use “bachelor” as shorthand for “homosexual”.

As for reason, well, much of the last third of the book appears to consist of a conflict between reason and superstition. If you’ve ever been in a protracted discussion about an issue that has an important impact on your personal life, if you’ve ever been in contact with a highly irrational person and his or her family, you may be in a position to understand Faraday’s vexation near the end. Far from even considering a reading of him and his behavior as naïve or strange, the whole situation sent shivers down my spine, it was so well captured, sp well constructed. When Faraday talks to the one he loves, and considers that she might be insane, this is incredibly well done, pitch-perfect, as I said, it frightened me, reminding me of my own experiences. The utter impossibility of communication between Faraday and his disturbed friends is meaningful, this is by no means just about a jilted lover, Faraday fails to comprehend his lover. As we project that which we label as madness onto the outside, as not-speaking (again, the choice of Faraday as speaker is perfect), the other of acceptable discourse, we rob ourselves of possible meanings and communications, especially if we stick to those limits and set up camp within our rationality, our communication. The final disaster happens, maybe, because Faraday operates with a very strict dichotomy, not allowing other rationalities to get a foot in the door and his love prevents him from chucking his love completely out of his own camp, but incomprehension has already set in. The Little Stranger strikingly and powerfully makes this point yet on the other hand, it’s use of pastiche, its adherence to tradition, to genre, means that it itself sets up camp with the doctor. While criticizing and illuminating his and its own position, which is an impressive and laudable feat, it does not try nor manage to illuminate the others’ positions.

In fact, its use of the Gothic, its inward gaze, can even be said to contain a disregard for anything outside the norm. This is the effect of the intense focus upon Faraday and this is a large and, perhaps, damaging weakness. It’s significant that Faraday’s tending to a patient mental exhaustion, his treatment of her mental problems, leads her to feel “as though I’m invalid”. However, you can’t have the cake and eat it, too. Many of the novel’s results may be problematic, but where it succeeds, it does in an admirable, powerful manner. It portrays superstition as ‘the little stranger’ in the middle of the house of modern rational thought, and this has its problems, but its exploration of that house and its depiction of repressions and energies active in that family and its friends is frequently a joy to observe. It’s a great read, although it can appear to be slow at times. It’s true, Waters doesn’t rush it, she waits for details to accumulate, but she uses the time thus gained to pepper her readers with hints and allusions, and the reader, in a way, is disciplined to adhere to a certain reading speed, to follow the slow turns and changes with patience. It may be that part of the novel closes itself to the reader who insists on speeding through it, it’s in a way a punishing effect. Much of this book is actually rather unkind. If you have the patience, however, this is a wonderful read and I am very glad it was shortlisted. It’s certainly one of the best books I’ve recently read and it’s my first novel by Waters but it certainly won’t be my last. Thank you, Booker.

A.L. Kennedy: On Bullfighting

Kennedy, A.L. (2000), On Bullfighting, Yellow Jersey Press
ISBN 0-224-06099-6

Blood. That’s what you expect when you hear the word „Bullfighting“. Blood. Cruelty. Spaniards in tights. Bleeding Spaniards in tights. In terms of literature, the one writer who immediately comes to mind is Ernest Hemingway, the most ‘macho’ of American writers, who wrote a book about bullfighting, about the corrida, literally the running of the bull, Death in the Afternoon. Hemingway’s persona has so dominated any writing about the corrida that A.L. Kennedy, in her own account of the spectacle, economically called On Bullfighting, even visits a moderately famous bar to be able to tell a bar story, because „there has to be at least one bar“ in a book about bullfighting. Bullfighting has come to be seen as a province of the masculine, and just as machismo, has come to be regarded as outdated, outmoded.

On Bullfighting is a wondrous little book, hard to label, tough to slot into a place on the shelf. It is an intimate book, discussing matters of personal relevance, discussing pain and loss, bringing up sadness and exhaustion of the soul. On the other hand, it is quite an earnest, serious discussion of bullfighting, filled to the brim with facts and observations. Kennedy is careful, systematic, providing contexts and varying perspectives to the things she discusses. It is also a book on travel, on meeting a different country, a different culture, while at the same time having the same encounter on the page, reading books, an article. This is a perfect book. Perfectly calibrated, perfectly written. It’s smart, sane, beautiful and enlightening.

The narrative of the book starts in a room in the writer’s native Scotland, as she is about to step from a ledge and end her life. She chooses a quiet day so she’s not “gawped“ at when she dies, because “she’s had enough embarrassment for one life”, nor does she want to hurt or discomfort someone, since, after all, “[i]t’s only me I want to kill.” This situation came about due to a chain of events, including the loss of a loved one, making her “rather averagely brokenhearted” and, perhaps more importantly, the loss of her writing. We learn that she hasn’t written anything in a while:

I am a writer who doesn’t write and that makes me no-one at all. I don’t look very different but I have nothing of value inside.

She lives in a flat that she bought so she’d have room to write, it’s an apartment that contains a writer’s study which seems to her, now, a useless room.

It’s a bit strange to read this in a book that she’s evidently written afterward, and it demonstrates the irony, the inadequacy, ridiculousness, even, of such acts, which she is all too well aware of. But that does not keep her off the ledge. As the mighty Jean Améry, in his classic apologia of suicide, Hand an sich legen (review forthcoming), pointed out, the ridiculousness is caused by the ‘logic of life’ that governs much of our thinking, an imposed set of priorities, things as they ‘should’ be, an expression that refers, of course, to a conventional rule, irrational in the blind obeisance and self-reproducing logic it demands, like similar irrational idiocies like strict manners (all this depends upon the extent; there are cautious, simple versions that I would not describe as I have the stricter, more elaborate version).

So there she is, on the ledge, ready to take the leap. She’s taken off her shoes, which she does for anything important that demands her full attention, and waits, sinks into the moment, until, well, until an atrocious song is played, Mhairi’s Wedding, “pseudo-celtic pap” (listen to a rendition here). It mars the moment, divesting it of any kind of dignity, and thus prevents her from taking the leap. Instead, she takes an offer to write about the corrida and plunges herself into the research and the writing, even if it’s just to see whether something will come of this. From these beginnings, she spins a book that is a description “as accurate as possible” of the corrida, but it’s also about encounters on the frontier between life and death, it’s about faith, dignity, about, au fond, the human condition. I’m not reaching for too strong a description, because Kennedy’s interweaving of personal fear and faith and the fear and faith that permeates the spectacle, produces a potent mix that sheds light on far more than one person’s drama or the corrida.

Bullfighting is about taking and accepting personal risks, but not in the way that a Formula 1 driver or a boxer does, because, as Kennedy points out, the term “Bullfight” is woefully inadequate:

[T]he corrida is not, accurately speaking, a bullfight, although this is the standard English term for it. No man, as has often been noted, can actually fight half a ton or so of bull. What happens in the ring is more complicated, repellent, fascinating, grotesque, sacramental, ugly, ritualistic, haphazard, sacred and blasphemous than any fight.

It’s hard to improve upon this quote if you want a good and concise summary of two thirds of the book, as Kennedy spends much time looking into the history of the corrida, and relating it to literary, religious and historical contexts. She’s never scholarly, it’s just that when she needs to explain something, she has just the right facts on hand, presented in the right way to make sense of things. Because that is what it’s all about: making sense of things. Much of this book consists of preparations for her first actual corrida that she will watch with her own eyes, facts presented to us while we also follow her path through Spain, visiting places that are important to the corrida or at least to the history of the corrida. She reads stories while traveling and she tells us this. And she tells us stories, stories that are not clothed like stories, more like facts, but in actuality, these are stories.

Stories of the homosexual poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a huge fan of the corrida, who was murdered by fascists in the streets of Grenada, maybe for political reasons, maybe for his homosexuality. And stories of the Inquisition, of streets that converted Jews and Moors had to walk along to prove their conversion. Stories of dying matadors, of old matadors who play with bulls on their farms and shoot themselves when they’re no longer able to. Stories of poems about toreros, stories of dying horses, of ears cut and laps granted. Stories of modern commercial pressure taking over. Stories of vengeance but most of all: stories of fear. Ritual and faith is constantly evoked. Faith in surviving the next encounter with the bull. And ritual to assure this. Matadors are, Kennedy tells us, highly superstitious. After all, their life is on the line each time they go out there, in the afternoon, courting death, with glittering sword, and the traje de luces, the garb of lights. Stories of people stepping up to a ledge twice in an afternoon, meeting the bulls.

But we already established that the corrida is no actual fight. Kennedy tells us that trickery abounds. Bulls are slowed, weakened. When she describes her first corrida, she explains how the picadors and banderilleros, the first two waves of people attacking the bull, sticking various sharp objects in it, butcher the bull to such an extent that all that is left is a slow slab of meat waiting for the coup de grâce. Ideally, the matador only hurts the bull once, when he delivers one precise jab with his sword. In the meantime, he plays with the hurting, bleeding, tired animal. He has twelve minutes do do this. Twelve painful, long minutes for the bull, who isn’t even always killed as he should be. More often than not he’s hacked to death. The three waves of attacks all depend upon skill, and skilled killing of a bull is rare. Whatever merits, aesthetic or else, the corrida may have, can only be attributed to the good variety of it, the skilled one. I’ve seen clips of mediocre banderillero lancing their spears against a bull online. How I know they were mediocre? Because I’ve also seen clips of El Juli do it.

El Juli, whom Kennedy talks at length about, is one of the superstars of his profession, possibly the highest-paid matador in history, and one of the very few who sometimes does their own banderillero work (you can see small clips of him doing that in Shakira’s video “Te Dejo Madrid” (click here)). He’s elegant, direct, precise. His performances are like elegant dances with the bull. When he lances his banderillas, I’ve seen him reach right over the horns and let them fly, thus bringing himself right into the most dangerous zone of all. Because this is where the danger arises. This is where the encounter with death takes place. Here, where the torero places himself over the bull’s horns. The matador needs success, even the mediocre one, and in order to achieve success it’s not important to kill a bull, no the bull’s death is a foregone conclusion, it’s important to place yourself in danger, be brushed by the bull, reach over the horns, step to the side fractions before the bull turns his head.

Toreros are frequently injured, but the bull has little to do with it. The bull has been tortured and butchered into submission. He’s dangerous now, very much so, but only on close distances or when the matador makes a grave mistake. It’s about faith. Matadors are not suicidal. They have faith in things working out, in not being gored, in turning at the right second. In the end, it’s the matador’s decision. This is what Kennedy tells us, over and over again. Her stories always revert to the situation that is sketched at the beginning and is thus shown to be more than just the story of a lonely woman on a ledge. It’s the instinct, the urge to do something, to matter, or the absence of such an urge. And she finds it in the men who pretend to fight bulls but actually fight themselves. Thankfully, Kennedy spares us a discussion of animal rights here, because she knows as well as most of us do, that there are very few among us whose eating habits allow them an outrage that is not hypocrisy. Kennedy dives first into the details, then into the actual fights and returns then to herself again.

Which, of course, she reflects as well in this little marvel of a book. In a way it exemplifies James Clifford’s concept of travel which includes travel that the reader of a text can undertake. In On Bullfighting we have all sorts of travel rolled up into one. She reads books, travels the country and finally experiences a corrida. And all of this is narrated, from the outside as well as the inside. We see her on the stone steps of an arena, carrying two cameras, one pair of binoculars and a notebook. She’s an anxious observer. Anxious of her powers to record what she sees. To return to Jean Améry and the conventional opinion, the logic of life, force-fed to everyone. Yes, this is luxury, to be able to reject life, to endanger life, and it’s not something to do lightly, but it’s also a right or it should be. As we see Kennedy watching herself we cannot but see her also with the eyes of society and though she travels to Spain, she carries her own culture with her like a snail and warps our reading and understanding, which, again, is reflected in numerous ways. Read this book if you know little about the corrida and want to learn more. Read this book if you want your brain and heart to be engaged. Read this book if you want to read a great book. It’s small but one of her best, and she’s one of the best, in general.


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Grant Morrison: Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul

Morrison, Grant; Paul Dini, Peter Milligan et al. (2008), Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-2032-7

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: I am not well read as far as graphic novels are concerned, and I find the vast universe of DC and Marvel to be somewhat confusing. However, a few of my favorite writers in comics have written for DC and Marvel, and worked with some of the most famous characters, so I keep dipping into their books. The fact that the major characters have a history that is decades old, can be among the most confusing parts. While reading Mark Millar’s two excellent Ultimates books, I constantly felt left out, suspecting hints and allusions that were totally lost on me (which is why my review on these books is still on hold…) everywhere. I met many characters which were clearly not new to the universe for the first time in Millar’s story, trying to keep up as best as I could. This, at least, is not a problem in Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, which contains a short list of nine of the most important characters with a brief sketch of their recent history and main characteristics. Wikipedia provides further help. This feature is nice in that it allows the reader to just let yourself fall into the supple folds of this story that is so action packed that I had to read parts of it on the edge of my seat. It presents good writing, an engrossing story, huge amounts of kick-ass, and even some great artwork. I greatly enjoyed it and will definitely read more of Grant Morrison’s work on Bob Kane’s leather-clad icon. At the same time, it was my least favorite of all the graphic novels I read this year, possibly because I expected so much more of it.

One thing I expected, when I bought the book, was that it would actually be written by Grant Morrison and Paul Dini, two excellent writers in the genre. The cover, bearing both writers’ names boldly, may have misled me there. Now, I know that what I buy as a book continues several thinner issues that were published separately and collected into the book I hold in my hand. And I know that a story arc contains stories written by other writers. But Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul contains three ‘preludes’ and seven more ‘proper’ chapters, ten all told. Of those, only two were written by Grant Morrison, two by Paul Dini. The rest is divided among Peter Milligan, who penned three chapters, Fabian Nicieza, responsible for two, and Keith Champagne, who wrote one. That means less than half of the chapters were written by Morrison and Dini. Yes, they are pivotal, important chapters, but it’s a fairly long book as far as this genre goes, and all these authors make for very uneven reading. There are dozens of recent Batman titles out, if I wanted a title written by a staff writer of some kind, I could have bought one. I wanted a book by Morrison because I’ve long admired his work. Incidentally, if you ever wondered why some comics writers become superstars and others don’t, you might want to pick up a book like this one, which contains some stunning chapters and some, let’s say: less stunning ones. Grant Morrison’s writing is always great, and Paul Dini’s is good as well, but the others are a mixed bag, to be honest. Most annoying and ultimately disappointing was Peter Milligan.

I do know that Peter Milligan has done some courageous and well-received work in the past, from what I know; he’s done work with Marvel’s controversial X-Force, and he’s garnered a certain fame with mid-1990s graphic novels such as Enigma. So, no, he’s not an unknown, even for me, but, from the evidence provided in Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, he’s clearly a second-rate writer, competent but not more than that. His chapters were originally published in issues of Robin, and they contain a focus on Tim Drake, the current Robin. Drake is a teenager and Milligan, by way of red thought-boxes, lets us know that Drake’s an annoying teen, to boot. This is very well done, and Milligan does have a way of driving the story forward, creating tensions between some central characters. Apart from that, his writing is stiff, especially the dialogue which is almost always awkward and badly written. At times, Milligan even appears to be attempting a parody of the much-maligned dialogue of early superhero comics, except that there’s not a trace of humor in his chapters. No, his chapters are just a huge let-down, although the extent of my disappointment varied greatly depending on the artist he worked with. For his worst chapter he worked with David Baldéon; the result is the most annoying chapter in the whole book and a huge waste of time and space and ink, and what’s worse, it does a great disservice to the marvelous story.

In Batman and Son, one of the story arcs that directly preceded The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, Grant Morrison presented to us Damien (I know), Batman’s son with Talia, the daughter of Batman’s sworn enemy, Ra’s Al-Ghul. In a different story arc, Batman killed Ra’s Al-Ghul. Talia and his son now lead a band of evil ninjas, working together with an old assistant and loyal follower of Ra’s, who only goes by the name of White Ghost. This is where the story sets in. Apparently, Ra’s’ spirit has survived but he needs a new body to live on. Ra’s uses a mysterious reservoir with a green liquid, the so-called Lazarus Pit, but it is not enough, this time. This time he needs a full body, and it can’t be anyone else but a male relative, which means: Damien. Early in the book, Talia saves Damien from his grandfather’s greedy clutches and sends him to Gotham City for Batman to take care of him. That doesn’t quite work, as Batman has suspected that his adversary might have survived and follows up hints that lead him straight to Ra’s Al-Ghul’s den. Meanwhile, Damien arrives at Bruce Wayne’s manor where Batman’s friends try to keep him safe. Those friends are Dick Grayson, who used to be Robin but is called Nightwing now that he’s grown up, and the new Robin, Tim Drake. If all these names and titles sound confusing, they are a bit, but what the book does is take a few of them and lend them a voice, thus imbuing the characters with a life all their own. Thus, apart from Milligan’s two Robin chapters, we also get two Nightwing chapters written by Fabian Nicieza, and a most wonderful Damien chapter written by Keith Champagne.

How is all of this significant, you may ask, bewildered. Well, the book is basically a series of chases, of people being hunted, caught and saved, it takes place on several continents and several actions take place at the same time. One writer and one basic point of view may not have done justice to the scope of this book. What’s more, in between the non-stop action (someone is always fighting someone else), the writers manage to fit a surprising amount of thoughtful scenes and difficult decisions. The fact that I needed to look up on Wikipedia why Robin’s not Robin anymore and ephemera like that did not stop me, for example, from feeling Tim Drake’s torment as he is handed the opportunity to bring his dead family back to life. This is no mean success in a book that appears to be mainly about fighting ninjas. But, much more than its more highbrow brethren, even those that work within the DC/Marvel canon, Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul demonstrates the basic strengths of a genre that is among the oldest and strongest of modern literature. It needs to provide thrills and action in order for people to buy copies of the original issues that appeared in publications such as Detective Comics # 838 and Batman Annual #26. And it succeeds marvelously (no pun intended) in that area. At the same time, comics always had an educational, moral aspect to it, something that, in a way, justified their existence. Rather than scoff at the high brow literature that it was always contrasted with, it kept borrowing from that, paying homage to it, and, in some cases creating works that have since been accepted into the ivory towers all around the country. You can expect a collection of this length to raise a few weighty questions about memory, about death, but mostly, in this case, about family.

The basic team of crimefighters that Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul focuses on, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Dick Grayson/Nightwing and Tim Drake/Robin, they are all orphans, they are all victims of disasters and they are drawn to each other, creating a new family, the identity of which is not determined by blood or tradition, but by what they do. It’s a modern identity, full of potential and change, especially within the narrow frame works of their society. In his relationship to his society, Batman, as the book frequently assures us, is a detective, someone who keeps up the basic order of his society, who looks for solutions within a given framework and who has no intent of widening that (China Miéville has a lot of fun with these conventions in his incredible novel The City & The City). In his dealings with the larger society, Batman is bound to the nation state and other conventions. Thus, in his person, he unites both an almost violent traditionalism and an interesting potential for change, or at least subversion. The same can be said about Ra’s Al-Ghul, the book’s villain, except that his angle is completely different. His insistence on blood relation, his need, even, for keeping up family relationships structured by blood bonds, is in stark contrast with Batman. Although both Batman and Ra’s have a strictly hierarchical family, with leaders and followers, Batman’s is built on free association, on free will, as the book makes unmistakeably clear. Ra’s Al-Ghul’s family, in contrast, seems to work like a feudal society, and you cannot disagree with the head of the family except by fighting the whole family and leaving it completely. But whereas Batman is a child of his nation, and bound and pledged to it, Ra’s has lived for too long to be bothered by that. By way of the Lazarus Pits he has kept himself alive for centuries. He has had already centuries of experience when the nation state rose and may have even influenced that process, as we learn in a few flashbacks at the beginning of the book.

These complexities make for good reading, but they are largely inherent in the material, the writers have just competently executed it, which is quite decent, often enough, especially when you have the art to match that. However, if you find five writers a bit much for one novel, brace yourself for the fact that the book is pencilled by seven different artists. These are, however, much better than many of the writers. The book’s art shines. Tony S. Daniel, for example, who also collaborated with Grant Morrison on Batman and Son, does a fine job, but I have to confess I particularly enjoyed Ryan Benjamin’s pencils and Jason Pearson’s art.

Ryan Benjamin, for me, is a discovery. The way he renders action scenes, finds just the right angle, the right spot, focus and light to make a scene work, to squeeze the most effect out of a single panel is astonishing. All other fight scenes in the book are by contrast completely static, boring, wasted panels. I’ve sometimes flicked through chapters illustrated by one of the other guys and wished that they’d been done by Benjamin. I’ve never before heard of the man, but I’m sure keeping my eyes open now. His pencils are really excellent, the raw instinct he brings to basic elements of comics is stunning (you can check out recent work, including the excellent webcomic Pancratia, at his site here).

For his chapter (which was written by Keith Champagne), Jason Pearson, of Body Bags fame, did both pencils and ink. Pearson’s work stands out, his art is less intent on details and more on the power of broad swathes of color, idiosyncratic rendering of facial expressions and other moods. Keith Champagne’s brief prelude does not directly tie into the main story; Champagne and Pearson took the resultant liberty to create a short ghost story that is creepy, exciting and the only convincing exploration of Damien’s character in the whole book.

Much, really, is excellent here, and the whole of Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul is a great read, but it is not on a par with many of the other books I have recently reviewed or read, not even with Brian Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man series. Much of that is due to the inclusion of second rate writers, much also to the relentless barrage of fight and other action scenes. After the fifth time that the good guys get attacked by a horde of ninjas, you just want to get it over with. The end is less than satisfactorily, mostly because Grant Morrison’s pivotal chapter is in the middle and is clearly the culmination of much of the book, which makes much of the rest read like an afterthought. The final showdown somehow fizzles away and then, suddenly, everything is over. However, you have to think of this book as one among an ongoing project of Morrison’s. Not only was this novel preceded by Batman and Son, it was followed by Batman: The Black Glove and two of the most highly anticipated stories of the past decade: Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis. For various reasons, mostly financial, I will have to skip Batman R.I.P., but I do own Final Crisis and look forward to reading it. I know this review was a bit taxing, after all it was too long, too digressive and too boring, but here’s the thing: I do recommend Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul if what you want is a great, fun Silver Age read, especially if you like ninjas and the occasional Great Question thrown at you.

Iris Murdoch: The Book and the Brotherhood

Finishing a novel by Iris Murdoch always leaves me breathless, swooning with happiness. My first encounter with Dame Iris Murdoch was The Sea, The Sea and then The Book and the Brotherhood. I do not re-read books if, for one reason or another, I do not have to, but both novels are high on the list of novels I’ll reread given enough time. With both novels it’s hard to point to what exactly makes them so great. An obvious answer is that the mind at work in both books is a wonderful and brilliant one. Iris Murdoch isn’t content with writing one kind of novel, her books are always several things at once, and all of them fully formed, complete. But it’s strangely hard to pin down. Novels like The Book and the Brotherhood are hardly dazzling linguistically. The writing is good, of course, but more on the elegant side of things than anything else, it’s put into service by the story and the ideas. The writing does draw you in, her language is warm, direct, emotional yet at the same time almost arch, a controlled writing, but what keeps you reading are the stories. And fuck yeah what stories these are. And The Book and the Brotherhood contains several kinds of stories.

One of these is a story about a group of academics and their involvement with Marxism. The story charts their youthful dreams and their subsequent falling-out with communism and communist doctrine. We don’t get many flashbacks, in a way what we see is how the story has been inscribed on the backs and faces and souls of the dozens of characters that populate the book. What we are not told, in Murdoch’s masterful dialogues (it needs to be said that Murdoch would’ve been an excellent playwright), we can infer from the obsessions and pathological problems of those we meet in the pages of The Book and the Brotherhood. And yes, most of what we glean of that story is negative; there isn’t a happy ending to that youthful enthusiasm for communism. In a way, it seems, at least initially, as if that particular storyline illustrated the infamous bonmot of George Bernard Shaw’s that “any man who is not a communist at the age of twenty is a fool. Any man who is still a communist at the age of thirty is an even bigger fool.” The surviving theorists are straight pessimists like Professor Levquist:

“All thought which is not pessimistic is now false.”
“But you would say it has always been?”
“Yes. Only now it is forced upon all thinking people, it is the only possible conception. Courage, endurance, truthfulness, these are the virtues. And to recognize that of all things we are the most miserable that creep between the earth and sky.”
“But this cheers you up, sir!” said Gerard.
Levquist smiled.

As usual with Iris Murdoch, the case is, naturally, less clear. The book turns out to be a complex meditation on the assumptions hiding behind sayings such as G.B. Shaw’s. I admit: I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the task to go into details on Murdoch’s treatment of its ideas. Murdoch does three things. She engages a handful of her characters in a direct discussion of pertinent topics and ideas. Throughout the book these characters meet and debate, directly, issues like Communism, the revolution, hope and the like. Many writers do that. They may even do the second thing she does, which is create a story that exemplifies certain elements of that debate. What they don’t manage, though, or very rarely, is create a story that works perfectly as a story. The condescension of many writers of novels of ideas, who try to cheat the readers out of a great stories by making ideas paramount and characters merely puppets, to use that old expression, in the hands of a writer who fancies himself far more than novelist: he’s a philosopher now, don’t you know. And the word philosopher is instrumental here.

This is not about creating a story, often allegorical, to support an idea, it’s about telling the reader, often, explicitly, in the most annoying manner often, what your philosophical ideas are and then slapping a story in between the breathing gaps, a story which doesn’t deserve that name. See, the explicit philosophical lecturing is important, because in those instances, the writer gives his game away. In the hands of such a writer, awareness often drops by the wayside. Novelists such as Paolo Giordano (review of The Solitude of Prime Numbers forthcoming) scrub their texts until the norm disappears, hides behind eccentric characters; often illness, as the Other of ‘normal’ health, exemplifies a pathological emotional state. Or women. There is a disregard for your fellow man hidden in many of these stories. Iris Murdoch’s work shows us how a story, the writing and construction of a story, can buffer this effect. Murdoch’s work is multi-layered, it’s constantly shifting, it’s basically a mechanism which creates awareness, although that last phrase may sound barmy. A story creates its own momentum, the deconstructionists were not the first to find out about this, and in Murdoch’s novels, even in as slim ones as A Severed Head, different kinds of these thrusts created by stories, are colliding, producing contradictory effects.

This deft handling of the stories endows Murdoch with the liberty to throw raw chunks of thinking at us, and these are different ones in each book. As to The Book and the Brotherhood, it’s about some of the grand questions of left thinking, questions that are, today, in mainstream literature, raised in an at best ironic tone, if not downright derisory. Incidentally, it’s this state of things that made Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions (2007) such a pleasant, even delightful surprise. Kunzru’s sidesteps the defensive attitude of many old-school Marxists today, not engaging in that discourse, because it’s of course the wrong categories. Murdoch does something similar but in a more hidden way. She does present us figures of the defensive debate, tropes and phrases that have been and still are part of many attack/defense rituals. Ultimately, however, she presents (and answers?) other questions, non-defensive ones. How and why do we adjust to the regime? And we’re including democratic regimes here, I’m just stumped for a better word, we’re living in and why do we subscribe to opinions and attitudes we attacked ardently in our youth? How does society reassert its grip on our minds? Not if, but how. The right presuppositions are already in place.

Both the futility of theory and -at the same time- the necessity for it and both the entrancing beauty of serious thought and, oh, let’s just call it: inconvenience of said thought, these are all important in the narrative. Thought is merciless. Brutal. Conclusions are temporary, and likely, merely by virtue of being conclusions, wrong. Here are two particularly salient passages that relate to this issue:

“I don’t know whether Crimond is “really” a Marxist, or what that means now, they don’t know themselves. I suppose he’s a sort of maverick Marxist, as their best thinkers are. The only good Marxist is a mad Marxist. It’s not enough to be a revisionist, you’ve got to be a bit mad too – to be able to see the present world, to imagine the magnitude of what’s happening.”


“You think of yourself as an open-minded pluralist – but you’ve got a single compact little philosophy of life, all unified, all tied up comfortably together, a few soothing ideas which let you off thinking! But we must think – and that’s what’s such hell, philosophy is hell, it’s contrary to nature, it hurts so, one must make a shot at the whole thing and that means failing too, not really being able to connect, and not pretending that things fit when they don’t – and keeping hold of the things that don’t fit, keeping them whole and clear in their almost-fittingness – oh God, it’s so hard -”

Apropos of “God”, I should mention another thing: faith is another important and central topic. Murdoch is a deeply generous writer. You will not find her attacking, with a red face and hoarse lungs beliefs that other people may find important, not least because it’s clearly important for Murdoch to respect her characters and the strata of human life they stand for. There are people falling off the Christian faith, there are people entering it. As she did in The Sea, the Sea, Murdoch, although she’s clearly capable of scrutinizing all kinds of ideas and topics, places faith on the periphery of rational inquiry, perception. It’s never ludicrous, as so many cruel and stupid people would paint it. Instead, she creates two roles for it. One is faith as something mystical, something vaguely incomprehensible to the uninitiated, something that needs to be experienced in order to understand it. Murdoch doesn’t attempt, as a novelist, to follow Locke’s doomed example to demonstrate The Reasonableness of Religion. Instead, she shows us religion as mystical, as beyond the reductive grasp of anatomy and reason. In a way, she reads religion on its own terms, gives it breathing space on its own turf. The second role of faith is as an element of social cohesion, or private solace, as something that can provide some persons with strength, resolve (There is an extraordinary novella by A.L. Kennedy, Original Bliss, that explores a similar topic. Review up soon). Murdoch privileges neither role, and does not present either as exoticism. On the contrary, she frequently suggests that many of our preoccupations may tie in with faith, not just by association, even causally.

However, I did say earlier there were several kinds of stories. The other major strand, apart from the ideas just mentioned, is love (and death). This one, it’s melodrama. A group of friends, some in love with others, some becoming pregnant, some dying, some married, some divorcing. A smorgasbord of relationships. Like a soap-opera, honestly. The Book and the Brotherhood’s a long book, 600 pages, full of life. That part of it isn’t remarkable yet. What’s remarkable is the attention to small personal detail and the amazing gift Iris has for imbuing her characters with life. After a few dozen pages, these characters get into your head. Even now, thinking back on the book, it’s like a complex world I feel I could slip back into at any given time. That’s the strange thing. The story is so well done, so much developed through these complex characters that it feels real. Like a novelized documentary. I never got a feeling of getting fed a formula. Any addition felt like the writer honing the picture, knowing all the while where she needed to go. In a way that I have rarely read before. I haven’t read a novelist who is this interested in people in ages. Not people. Her brothers and sisters. We are all family, and Murdoch understands this, accords all of us the respect we deserve. The storytelling is always compassionate, engaging, and moving. Iris Murdoch is an amazing, amazing writer and one of my very favorite novelists. ISBN

(If parts of this review sound familiar to you, its because I based it on notes that I took for an older review that I posted more than a year ago, but which apparently got lost when I moved to wordpress. I was in no shape to write a new review today, but an update/rewrite, yep, that works. From how I remember the old review, this one’s a bit longer, and is more digressive. Sorry. That also explains the unevenness. Sorry, again. I was out drinking with a few friends.)

Mark Millar: Superman: Red Son

Millar, Mark; Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong (2004), Superman: Red Son, DC Comics
ISBN 1-84023-801-3

supermanMark Millar is one of the young stars of the graphic novel. He has revitalized a whole gang of  Marvel Characters with The Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates, he has written a couple of successful standalone works like Kick-Ass and Wanted. In all this, he has been supported by a slew of great artists, most significantly, perhaps, J.G. Jones, who did a breathtakingly great job on Wanted; but Brian Hitch’s work, for example on the tantalizingly complex Ultimates, is also astonishing. As any comics writer, Millar is dependent on his artists, and so far, he has been lucky. In Superman: Red Son, Millar’s lucky streak has continued: Dave Johnson, the artist who did the covers and created and pencilled most of the characters and a good part of the book (the rest was pencilled by Kilian Plunkett), did an outstanding job. The book is worth reading for the artwork alone. But make no mistake, the writing, too, is very good, as I’ve come to expect of Millar. Here he has created an Elseworlds title for the first time. Elseworlds is a series of DC graphic novels that imagine what would have happened to DC heroes under different circumstances, or as DC puts it, “in strange times and places”.

Millar’s conceit in Superman: Red Son is this: what would have happened had Superman landed a few hours later, and crashed not in Kansas but in Stalinist Russia? The Man of Steel meets the Man of Steel. Superman becomes not an icon of the United States but of Soviet Russia. Oh, the possibilities. This scenario is huge enough to explore in thousands of pages. Millar has 150 and he makes the best of his restrictions. Whereas many of the Elseworlds titles explore the what if…? question in DC Universe terms, Millar takes great liberties by changing the DCU to fit his ideas.

Why would Lois Lane marry Lex Luthor when Superman changed into the “Comrade of Steel”? Why does Batman appear as a Soviet character? These and many other questions cannot be answered by simple DC Universe logic. The logic of these changes is this book’s logic. Since I am a comic noob, Millar’s deviation from the DC canon did not bother me, but many readers did have trouble reading the book on its own terms; yet everyone I talked to about this book told me they changed their mind when they finished the book. Millar’s artistic vision is so commanding and Superman: Red Son is so well calibrated, so coherent, that these changes are convincing as necessities. The story needs them in order for the ideas and the thinking to work, and boy, does it work.

superman 2Superman is a child of the Great Depression, a hero dreamed up by two poor boys, Siegel and Shuster, a hero who fights for justice. He doesn’t just bring down evil men, he doesn’t just fight greedy aliens and save the world from annihilation time and again, no, he also supports the poor man on the street, he is a hero with a social conscience. This is what Millar seized on when he chronicled Superman’s fate in Soviet Russia. Superman immediately recognizes the liberating power of communism, he immediately understands what this means: to free humanity from slavery and oppression. Superman needs no convincing. Supporting Communist ideology comes natural to him.

At military marches, he stands next to Joe Stalin, the other Man of Steel, the hammer and sickle emblazoned upon Superman’s superhero suit. Now, you could make the point that the book makes light of Stalin, who was, after all, a mass murderer, but who is painted in a less dire light in the book. This is a problem, no doubt, but unlike movies that cozy up to some Nazis, like Valkyrie, Millar’s novel does not even pretend to be historically accurate. The book, it bears repeating, is an Elseworlds title, with dozens of Green Lanterns, aliens and other wondrous things appearing. Yes, its depiction of Stalin is extremely problematic but it stops there. Its focus is not on historical guilt, its on ahistorical ideas (yes, there is another problem attached to that and not a small one, but we’ll ignore it for now).

As the plots picks up steam, we watch as Superman, who becomes Stalin’s successor after the Georgian’s death, implements a flawless egalitarian society in Russia and then in the whole world. He prides himself upon doing it all without any violence. In Superman: Red Son, countries are joining communism because its successful, not because they are forced to join. In the end, only the United States remain, led by President Luthor, who has sent waves of attacks against Superman, among others a copy-Superman, an army of Green Lanterns and Wonder Woman. The USA are dirt poor, people starving in the streets, yet they hold on, refusing to be collectivized. If this sounds like a cheap Manichean opposition, you don’t know Millar, who’s always expertly subverting and undermining easy dichotomies.

It is true, that, initially, Millar seems to support the old, stupid chestnut that in order for communism to succeed, one would need to shut off the human element, since human beings don’t fit communist dogma (I won’t go into details of why that old argument is fallacious, it has been disproved decades ago). The fact that Millar’s Superman controls every aspect of his citizens’ life could attest to this, as the resistance rhetoric that Luthor constantly flings at Russia. At times, Millar appears to buy into common right wing anti-Socialist rhetoric. In fact, Millar does none of this sort. In the final pages of the novel, where we learn about “Luthorism”, we realize that Millar’s point is that what seems like communism is not communism, in fact, as long as there is still oppression, and well-meaning oppression is still oppression.

supoerman 3This review has gone on for too long, it’s also somewhat digressive. However, one thing remains to be mentioned. Superman: Red Son may not work within the constraints and rules of the DC Universe. That’s, however, because the book needs and exploits the advantage of the outside status this affords it. Millar’s novel is as much about our understanding of our culture, epitomized in an icon such as Superman, as it is about the DC Universe itself. This becomes most striking when we find out that Batman lives in Russia. As a child, he was traumatized by Stalinist goons who killed his parents and vows revenge. In the most adorable costume in the whole book, with the bat sign on a fur hat, he becomes the most dangerous enemy to the Soviet state. This is not the DC canon Batman. Without a doubt, in his creation of the character, Mark Millar had in mind Frank Miller’s Batman, who can be best described as a mountain of hate and muscle.

Miller’s Batman loves the existing order and maims and murders anyone who he sees as a hindrance to his reinstating it. Miller’s misanthropy drips from every gorgeously written page of The Dark Knight Returns, one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. Batman doesn’t love people, he loves order, but not just any order (when I’ll review Hartnett’s novel Surrender, we’ll return to this). He is part of a rigorously hierarchic society, and his mindset, vaguely aristocratic, reflects this. He doesn’t really want justice, as an abstract term, in the way that Superman, champion of the poor and huddled masses, understands it. His idea of justice only refers to upholding the laws and meting out punishment against offenders. You’re either for or against him, and if you are against him, you have forfeited your life. It is not surprising that this character would find life under a peaceful, just, and harmonious society unbearable.

Batman is a fighter for what many right wing thinkers erroneously call liberty. In Frank Miller’s masterpiece, people are not free. They live in fear, fear of criminals and hoodlums and fear of, yes, Batman. This is akin to the ludicrous notion that capitalism equals freedom. People who are forced to work by the threat of starvation are not free. People who carry the yoke of racism, sexism etc. are not free. The list could go on for a while. Superman: Red Son shows up the Western dreams of  so called liberty for what they are. The fact that his Superman feels right, that he feels like a logical development of the canonized Superman demonstrates the contradictory foundations of the moralizing Western argument for liberty and it’s glowing blue icon, the Man of Steel.

superman 2 (2)Mark Millar’s book is powerful, if flawed. It is, if nothing else, a potent exercise in thinking, that is largely dependent upon its artwork. Any lesser group of artists would have made Millar’s vision fall flat upon its face but the pencillers Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett and the inkers Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong have done a spectacular job. In order for this book to be convincing upon any level, it had to match the traditional iconography with new but recognizable imagery, in short: a new iconography. The art is both dynamic, exciting, suspenseful, as it is reduced, iconic, full of pathos. I don’t think Plunkett’s art quite matches Johnson’s, but these are minor quibbles. Superman: Red Son is an original, grand work of art.


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Quest for Emily T.: Doris Lessing’s “Alfred & Emily”

Lessing, Doris (2009), Alfred & Emily, Harper Perennial
ISBN 978-0-00-724017-3

Before I embark on another one of my reviews, let me say this: Alfred & Emily is a thoroughly good and original book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. Doris Lessing has never been a prose stylist sparkling with brilliance, turning out, at times, pages and pages of clunky prose. But in everything I’ve read of her, that part of her writing turns out to matter little. Despite her style, Doris Lessing is a great writer, with astonishing instincts. That is true for her books, but it’s evident even if you just look at her career. As she was on her way to full mainstream acceptance, she suddenly started to write Science Fiction. To make this kind of change takes guts and a very independent mind, two qualities that her work evinces as well. Alfred & Emily (2008) is Lessing’s first book after winning the Nobel prize and it represents another turn in her career, considering that the two books before that were novels set in a SF/Fantasy setting, if I remember correctly. This one, now, is about her parents (the eponymous Alfred and Emily) and, to a large extent, about Lessing herself. Au fond, it’s two books rolled into one, but cleanly separated, into a fictional part and a skewed sort of memoir.

Now, as mentioned, Alfred & Emily consists of two parts. Part one is called “Alfred and Emily: A Novella”. In it, Lessing imagines how her parents could have turned out if they had made other decisions in their lives, and, most importantly, WWI had not happened. In the introduction to the book, Lessing explains that her parents were profoundly unhappy, because “World War I did them both in”. In her re-imagined reality her parents do not marry each other; instead Alfred marries a woman that is kinder, more loving than Emily, qualities that the real Alfred had to do without. Emily marries the great love of her life, a doctor in the Royal Free Hospital where Emily worked as a nurse. The real Emily had to cope with the death of that doctor who “drowned in the channel” and married Alfred, who came, wounded in the Great War, into her hospital. He had lost a leg, and spent the rest of his life making the best of this and his case of what Lessing assumes to have been post-traumatic stress. Additionally, he quickly found himself with a loveless wife and a hardscrabble existence as a farmer in Rhodesia. That last thing, Lessing keeps. Since her father “wanted to be a farmer all his life”, she makes a farmer of him in her novella.

There is not, however, much that we learn about the imagined Alfred, due to the fact that, even though its title suggests something else, the book is more about Emily than about her hubby; the rationale for this imbalance is explained near the end of the book, in the second part:

Even as a child I knew his obsessive talking about the trenches was a way of ridding himself of the horrors. […] But my mother also needed a listener, and to her needs I tried to be oblivious.

Only later did Lessing recognize the validity of her mother’s tale, her mother’s complaints, her mother’s voice. This book, especially the first part, is in many ways a paean to her mother. In imagining her mother’s possible career in a world without the First World War, Lessing takes a couple of puzzling and striking decisions. The first one is the marriage she has Emily embark upon. Since the war took Emily’s great love away from her, Lessing offers her the hand of that doctor, “Dr. Martin-White from Cardiology”. From this premise, a reader would expect an account of a fulfilling marriage to follow, to have the outline of the happiness presented that real life stole from Emily. The usual tosh. Instead, we soon learn that Emily’s new husband expects, and practically forces her to leave her job as a nurse (because it wouldn’t be “proper”) and from that point on everything is caught in a downward spiral. What ensues are separate beds, general emotional cold, until finally, out of despair and boredom, Emily becomes a society lady, giving lush tea parties. It is not until her husband dies that Emily finally breaks free.

As Emily tries to find something to do, she uses her husband’s considerable funds to start a school for poor kids, that, in the course of the book, expands into a hugely successful series of schools with dozens of subsidiaries all around the United Kingdom. Additionally, she expands public libraries to include books both for kids and adults and, at the end of the first part, she starts a series of refuges for ‘disgraced’ women when she runs into trouble upon trying to have an unmarried yet pregnant girl stay at school. So, Lessing suggests, the only thing that stopped her mother from becoming one of the great social leaders of her time was the Great War and marrying the oaf Alfred. This is what I consider the second puzzling decision. Although Lessing’s book contains both an explanatory introduction and a short chapter called “Explanation”, this is a huge leap, that, in its magnitude, is completely unexplained and should be taken with more than a grain of salt. I assume that this suggestion, this change of hers is rhetorical more than anything; my assumption is supported by the fact that the Emily portrayed in the second part, the real Emily, is snobbish, vaguely racist, and aloof. She outs her daughter as a communist to her employer, because she considers her a danger to “public order”. This is not the Emily we have met in the first part. What happened?

Let me approach it from this way: Lessing is as much concerned with the social environment of her characters as with interior motivation. The fact that the imagined Emily marries upwards of her class, is disappointed by the elites, and, in due course, shocked by the way that poor people are educated does not have any counterpart in the biography of the real Emily, who is taken out of her environment and dropped into alien territory. Thus, the real Emily has no way of understanding how her class works within the references of British society. Instead, she is now, thrust into Persia first and then Rhodesia, almost completely bereft of references, and she’s called upon to created new connections. Even the imagined Emily, in the midst of London, has to be shown the “dreadful poverty” there, because she “had not been conscious of much poverty” and “servants were the closest she had come to London poverty”. She has to see, smell, experience poor people’s despair in order to understand it. Small wonder, then, that the real Emily never had the intellectual growth necessary for this understanding. Yet, however intriguing that aspect is, the imagined Emily’s encounters and altercations with class do not stop there.

Since WWI and WWII never happened, the British society has never experienced the turmoil that would lead to a gradual abandonment of old and traditional class distinctions (at this point, I should point out that much of this would be vastly more illuminating and interesting to a UK native, since references and allusions will largely be lost on me; additionally, my knowledge of recent British history is shaky at best), and so strict ‘Victorian’ morals are still thriving and powerful, which, with time, proves exasperating for Emily:

How very much they had enjoyed themselves, Emily recognized, those representatives of public charity, saying, ‘It was wrong. It is wrong.’

At that point of the novella, Emily has grown so much that she’s maddened by these onslaughts of moralizing by the rich heads of the charity funded by Emily herself. The real Emily, as depicted in part two, would have applauded the judgmental bishops and rich debutantes, society ladies with nothing to do, who provide a large part of the work and organization in the schools. The juxtaposition of the two Emilies clarifies to what extent our personality, things that we may consider incremental to our selves, depend upon just the right circumstances, and, finally, Emily’s meteoric rise as a social leader of sorts is more than just a statement about Emily’s potential. The whole book could be said to examine the potentials of groups that used to spend their time on the peripheries of power. There are also countless remarks and discussions of the dynamics of speech, sound and listening. The imagined Emily is far more than the re-imagining of a real person. It’s the re-imagining of whole world.

But, and this is why the book works so wonderfully well, Lessing never descends into caricature, into cheap hints and jabs. As smart and aware readers, we are all like the children in the novella, who complain about a storyteller, who cannot “prevent his voice deriding” his tales. The children protest: “Not like this. Read it properly.” In a way, this is my reaction more often than not when I am reading a very ‘clever’ and postmodern book that interrogates things. It’s often both boring and tedious. Lessing circumvents this by ‘reading it properly’, by writing a story that makes sense as a story, that explains its ideas on an immediate level as well as on a more abstract one. It’s always enjoyable to read, though; at times it’s bursting with brilliance, like the scene where she has her protagonist try on a dress for a dance (music and dancing plays an important role in the book, on multiple levels), and that dress doesn’t fit, but she still wears it. That scene is far more subtle than I make it sound, going on as it does over several pages, encapsulating both abstract ideas and direct experience.

The second section, which could be seen as a memoir, should be called “The Quest for Emily T.” because it’s an extended attempt to understand Lessing’s mother. In that sense, it’s quite autonomous. I maintain, however, that its main function is to provide a balance and a contrast to the first part, as my reading has demonstrated. Thus, the novella would constitute the main part of the book, which is interesting. Why is it called a novella, anyway? The most well known definition of the genre was established by the other Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who postulated that a novella is built around one extraordinary incident. Since this novella extends over several years and does not contain such an incident, one might look for the reason elsewhere. I would suggest, however, that the incident or even in this case is the lack of an incident or event. The Great War, the war to end all wars, it never happens, and the “shadow of the trenches”, as Lessing calls it, never falls upon the family. The desire to have a war, that was very loud in the years before WWI, Lessing brands it as problematic, the search for an event to define an epoch. Instead, the imagined epoch is defined by the quests of women like Emily, and not the fights of warriors like Alfred.

This book is complex, containing much more than I had time and space to go into, crammed with continuous explorations of themes like the value of reading and telling stories, like music, old-school Marxist issues, like labor. In the second part, we are told that “[w]hen it was agreed that there was a problem we shared, it was natural for us to approach it from literature.” Alfred & Emily is an attempt to make sense of a personal problem: of the trauma of WWI that shaped not just Alfred and Emily’s life, but Lessing’s as well. Her difficult relationship to her mother, the pre-eminence of her father for her work, her attempts to take refuge in books, making sense of her role and place in the world, they are all influenced by WWI, as the book makes abundantly clear. Yet, strangely, the fantasy is an attempt to erase herself, or rather, to lose herself in that picture of her mother. The whole book is an elaborate play of hide and seek, with Lessing looking out at us, and hiding again. For her last sentence, she breathes into her heart, retreats once more: “She was, they all said, a very good bridgeplayer”. Yet, however much she hides, Lessing’s beautiful mind shines in every phrase here, every sentence.

Propaganda: Tom Rob Smith’s “Child 44”

Smith, Tom Rob (2009), Child 44, Pocket
ISBN 978-1-84739-373-9

In the back of my edition of Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel Child 44, set in Stalinist Russia, there’s an interview with the author. In it, he’s asked about the books he’s read in preparation and he says he’s read countless books and that he hasn’t “come across a bad book”. A decade ago, falling in love with Mandelstam, I have read a couple of books on the period, some good, but certainly a good deal of tosh as well. Smith’s reply indicates a certain indiscriminate appetite and a limited understanding of what he read. Now, this may be unfair, but the rest of the novel bears this judgment out, it fails on almost every level, but the most annoying aspect of it is the propaganda; after all, the novel presents a one-sided, almost hysterical view of not just Stalinism but of Soviet socialism as a whole. For all its flaws, I must admit that I was intrigued at times, I had fun at times, although none of the fun outweighed the sheer annoyance that Tom Rob Smith’s novel, that was longlisted for the Booker, has already been followed by a sequel (The Secret Speech) and the rights to which have been optioned by Ridley Scott, heaped on this overweight reviewer.

Smith takes the case of Andrei Chikatilo, a serial killer who had a long and prosperous career as a murderer in Soviet Russia because ideological constraints made a hunt for him problematic. Serial killers were a phenomenon of the decadent West, a symptom of the sickness of that society. By the very nature of Soviet Russia, such a crime would not have been possible, by definition, and so for decades, Chikatilo wasn’t apprehended. Smith doesn’t have decades, he isn’t really interested in the workings of a system, so he cut the story down to a smaller, more manageable unit, that takes place shortly before and after Stalin’s death. The first fourth of the novel contains the best sections and holds the most promise, the rest is basically a prolonged let-down. It is a good idea for Smith to have taken his time with the actual investigation which doesn’t get off the ground until at least halfway through the book.

The first half is almost completely spent with an exploration of the police procedural. Smith doesn’t have the patience nor the analytic mind to make a clean job of this. He does not provide the necessary detail, nor does he have the necessary language at his disposal to be evocative instead of just stereotypical. Smith hands us a few archetypes, a stereotypical bad guy, a good guy, an honest worker, and so on. Smith wants us to understand that the government is evil (actually, we are offered two serial killers, the real one, and the Soviet government; which could be, structurally, a good idea, as it could double the suspense and tension but is not handled well and we get neither suspense nor tension), so as the easiest solution he creates characters that are just evil, with no redeeming features and the longer he keeps them in the story even as that story turns away from them, the more transparent and cheap these efforts become. He dedicates a whole scene to the bad guy’s musings about the boredom of not having enough evil deeds to do, and do not think I am simplifying things here. It’s as risible as that. But it is a classic thriller, the reader who expects well-rounded characters is a fool. He’s not getting them, but therein lies much of the fun of classic thrillers.

And Smith, in the first fourth, puts his readers genre expectations to good use. As we watch the protagonist, Leo Demidov, torture a man who’s suspected of being a spy, we know that Leo’s going to be tortured himself; as we see Leo turn the wheels of Soviet bureaucracy, we know that Leo’s going to be thrown under those same wheels later on; as we see Leo cover up a crime that doesn’t exist because it should not exist, we know he’s going to have to confront a police officer of the same kind himself; and finally, as we follow him, breathlessly, on a manhunt, we know he is going to be hunted himself. If there is an unpardonable fault to the book, its raising these expectations – and then, at the end, disappointing every single of them. All of the things do come up, but they do not work, none of them. I have found myself looking at the book incredulously, asking: was that it? This is irritating the first and maybe the second time, after that it becomes both annoying and frustrating. Writing thrillers is a craft. I have pointed out on this blog that this craft is not to be underestimated and that especially so-called literary writers often fail at mastering its most basic elements. They tend to have other saving graces, say, the writing or the characters or the thinking.

Tom Rob Smith has none of those. He’s a thriller writer, square and simple, but sadly, not a very good one. Of all the failings in craftsmanship, one towers above them all. The whole book is based on a risky conceit. It’s risky because it asks the reader to swallow a huge coincidence, which I won’t reveal here. With a conceit such as this, the result could be inventive and edgy or they could be risible and pathetic. I had a hard time convincing myself of this but this idea of Smith’s actually has potential, but his treatment of it is so ham-handed, that it falls squarely on the side of pathetic and risible. At times, the inept plotting made me suspect that the novel had been written by two or three different writers who did not communicate with each other while writing. Or one writer with a serious case of Alzheimer’s. And, oh, the prose…this book started life as a screenplay and I could not help but wonder whether the thriller would work better on the big screen. It’s certainly not helping the story that Smith is a awkward writer. He’s sometimes astonishingly inept, but not always. The general impression, however, is that language is an impediment to him, that he’d rather not write prose, but shuffle around pictures and scenes.

Additionally, Smith, as his colleague Jonathan Littell, is clearly of the opinion that if the subject matter is ‘heavy’ enough, other things matter less, people will be affected, shocked, moved, and won’t look at the prose or actual suspense in the novel. The insane amount of praise lavished on this book clearly confirms his expectations. According the the blurbs in my copy, reviewers think they are getting an impression of what life was like in Stalinist Russia, complete with pre-fabricated moral outrage. Them evil commies. As Smith is mostly right about the facts but wrong about contexts and interpretations, he’s not all that easy to ‘disprove’. Child 44, in that regard, is well-made propaganda. In fact, it’s, structurally, remarkably similar to Soviet propaganda. As Soviet propaganda was trying to make its citizens understand that some crimes are produced by the imperialist-capitalist society in the West, Smith tries his best to make his readers understand, first, that that notion is false, and second, that it is, au contraire, Soviet society which produces it’s own special variety of sick killers. It’s a preposterous attempt at lecturing and rather transparent. Although I did have some fun reading the book, this is because I love thrillers of all shapes and sizes; this is not a recommendation. Tom Rob Smith is a worse writer by far than collegues of his like Dan Brown and that’s saying something.

Storyseller: Helene Hanff’s “84 Charing Cross Road”

Hanff, Helene (2007), 84 Charing Cross Road, Sphere
ISBN 978-0-7515-0384-5
[Originally published in 1971]

This is a very short review of a very short book. It’s Helene Hanff’s 1971 book “ 84 Charing Cross Road”, a collection of letters she wrote to and received from the antiquarian London bookseller Marks & Co, at 84, Charing Cross Road. When the letter exchange took off in1949, Helene Hanff was a 33 year old New Yorker, trying to make a living off screen writing and similar enterprises, living in a barely heated brownstone, driven by a desire to own beautiful books. Frustrated by what American second-hand bookshops had to offer, i.e. “very expensive rare editions, or Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up school-boy copies”, she decided to send Marks & Co a list of books, or in her words, “a list of my most pressing problems”, asking them to consider the list a “purchase order” provided they didn’t cost more than $ 5.00. During the next 20 years she continued to send letters to England and receive books and letters in return. The clerk who she’s conducting most of her correspondence with is called Frank Doel, and the two of them develop a strange platonic relationship.

The account of that relationship is one of the most beautiful and charming books I have read in quite some time; of all the books I have recently been reading, this is clearly closest to what they call a feel good book. But it’s considerably more interesting than that. To start with, it shares the fascinating qualities all letter exchanges have. When we don’t have an editor providing a commentary, we are thoroughly at the mercy of the intricacies of letter writing. We find that letters are sometimes missing, we find that sometimes between one letter and the next a whole year has passed, things like that. Unless, however, this is your first volume of letters, this is not surprising. In this case, though it makes for a particular effect: her letters are little nuggets of glee. Hanff, who published her own letters, has chosen wisely to chose this form, and we are happier for it. Many letters feel as if I were meeting a kindred spirit. I recognize her joy at hearing about a great book in mint condition

he has a first edition of Newman’s University for six bucks, do I want it, he asks innocently. Dear Frank: Yes, I want it. I won’t be fit to live with myself. I’ve never cared about first editions per se, but a first edition of THAT book -! oh my.

And her indignation at being sent the wrong book:

this is not pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary
may he rot.
i could just spit. […]
i enclose two limp singles, I will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys.
THEN I will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.

See? And there are many more moments like these. Additionally, we learn of her bafflement that some NY library expects her to read without smoking or drinking an occasional martini or two (Yes, I immediately thought of Irene. I half-seriously expected the Wilde Childe to leap from one of the next letters) Please. It is impossible not to love that mad Helene Hanff. And not for these reasons alone. The book gives us a protagonist who is constantly broke, but who sends food packages to her favorite London bookshop because she knows that times are hard and that London citizens are living off rations (also, she voted for Adlai Stevenson).

Interwoven with all these things are issues like translation and other finicky aspects of cultural exchange, not to forget the beauty of how the book employs different levels and perceptions of class, but I cannot be bothered with all these at the moment, while I am still in thrall with that wonderful little book. There are enough of these issues in the book, though, that one marvels at the fact that this is so light and enjoyable a read. It is certainly a book that I will reread a few times. If you give this book the time it needs, I guarantee you’ll laugh, you’ll be moved, and you will be cursing that woman while you run to the retailer of your own choice to compile a list of your own with English books you forgot you wanted. And all of this in under a hundred pages. If that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is. If you read this blog, you will like this book. Now go and read it.

Rationality: Beryl Bainbridge’s “Harriet Said…”

Bainbridge, Beryl (1977), Harriet Said…, Fontana
ISBN 978-0-00-614650-6

“Harriet Said…”, was written in 1958, in fact it was the very first novel Beryl Bainbridge wrote but, as it happened, when a publisher in 1972 finally agreed to publish it, it was the third of hers that was published. Bainbridge has since gone on to become one of the most renowned British novelists of her generation, but these days, several of her novels are out of print, including “Harriet Said…”, which is a big shame. This is an excellent novel, almost flawless; it is also a short novel that contains several other novels’ worth in its pages. It’s a sweet recollection about childhood, a complex evocation of interpersonal dynamics and a dark meditation on the emptiness in the souls of three families, that continues to build momentum until it ends in a climax that provides no resolution nor relief to the helpless reader. Since the book is extraordinarily well written, I almost could not resist reading the whole book in one sitting.

Part of that is the writing, and the eerie way that Bainbridge conveys the irreality of childhood experiences. Thinking back, haven’t we all got memories that appear to be, somehow, less than ‘real’? Language has always been an able medium to convey things like these; to my sensibility it seems that language, as our mediator between our synapses and the world outside, is uniquely qualified to express different ways of worldmaking, of perceiving what we are up against. Writers like Beckett manage to convey this without having to resort to manhandling language the way Rushdie does. Rushdie’s a writer on the adult side of the spectrum who tries to duplicate the other side. In contrast to him, Beckett seems to operate from within language. Apart from a few peers, the only batch of writers who also achieve this effect regularly are writers of children’s literature. They have to appeal to a child’s way of making the world, and they realize, like so few ‘adult’ writers do, to what extent children -and we- are, to use that old phrase: at the mercy of language.

Beryl Bainbridge’s book, however, balances on that divide between these two writings. One, which is conscious of our part in making the world, and the other, larger, adult one, which just accepts the world as a given (see, Rushdie molds the given into shape. He derives his effect from the contrast with the conventionally perceived way of worldmaking). In a way it is a novel on the adult side of the divide, looking over the fence at the Beckett side, if that makes any sense. Details are hard to provide. Odd phrases,words, transitions that sound exciting, and then on the other hand, imagery that is quite explicitly surreal, like this passage that could be the intro to a scene in a musical:

An old man on a bench further along began to whistle between his teeth, tapping his stick on the ground. When the red red robin goes bob bob bobbing a-long…A row of thin knees jerked up and down, a row of polished boots clumped in time to the tune. Any moment now, I thought, Harriet would fling her arms wide and sing at the top of her voice. She was probably only waiting for a tired chorus of old women in shawls and tattered skirts to dance over the stones, massive bosoms a-bobbing, before she began.

The writing is a source of joy. It seduces the reader from the very first page. Novels where the very language keeps surprising the reader are rare. This is one of them. Despite all this, I had to stop to catch my breath and continue reading it the day after. The plot that thus affected me revolves around three families, or rather: two girls (best friends), an old man, and their respective families. The two girls’ relationship is what powers this novel. One of the two is the first person narrator; the other’s the eponymous Harriet. The title is an apt description of the dynamics between the two thirteen-year-olds: the protagonist listens and acts, while Harriet speaks. Harriet appears to know her way around the world: she explains how best to treat their environment and, more significantly, she explains how to read it. The narrator keeps a diary but Harriet dictates her the entries.

Harriet knelt upright, drew out a box from under the dresser, opened it and handed me the diary. “We’ve neglected it,” she said as I took it. “I’ve lots to write about.” (…) Harriet gave me the pencil and lay on the floor again. “Put; ‘She has been away in Wales.” I began to write and kept my face averted, trying to be neat and quick at the same time. “ She has been away in Wales. What next?” “Put, ‘I have been here alone’.” Harriet’s voice was muffled against the carpet. “And that you have become more intimate with the Tsar.” It was always Harriet who dictated the diary, but it was in my writing in case her mother ever discovered it.

More significantly, it’s also from her perspective, not Harriet’s. The idea behind this is the fact that, in case of failing memories, a diary is the best evidence as to what events transpired, and Harriet, as the smarter, more mature friend, is better qualified to be in control of such an important task. She does not, however, stoop to picking up the pen herself (w/ one exception). She’d rather dominate the narrator, getting her to write, as she is also getting her to do fuck and murder. As events unravel, the narrator appears to be coming into her own, mostly through contact with the old man, Mr. Biggs, who is referred to as “the Tsar” by the pre-teen couple.

Early on, she thinks that she has fallen in love with the Tsar, despite the fact that she clearly does not know what it is to be in love. Harriet advises her on how to woo him, which explains why the narrator’s attempts at seducing the old pedophile quickly evolve into cruel games of domination. The narrator is an apt pupil, and is slowly developing a sense of self esteem, as she nudges the old man about. However, this self-esteem is highly unstable since she proves to be completely helpless where direct manifestations of love are concerned. She is unable to deal with situations where Harriet’s instructions are not helpful; there is a reason for the inadequacy of Harriet’s instructions in that area: when it comes to love, Harriet herself meets her limits. Thus, the two of them stumble through a sequence of events, fumbling for the right moves both in the literal as well as the figurative dark. Their helplessness and the lonely despair of Mr. Biggs make for a dense spiral of events.

There is a terrible tension in the book, which is getting worse and worse the further the novel progresses, until it approaches horror, of the kind we know from novels like Doris Lessing’s “The Fifth Child”. The kind of horror that arises from what dwells within us, not in our souls or dross like that but what hides within our communities, what dire things our social structures can beget. In other words, the horror is not in what the characters do. Like in many novels on, for instance, the Third Reich, terror is, partly in the readers’ recognition of the irrational rationale at work, the fact that we are never in the dark about their irrational rationale and can recognize it and fit it all too well into our world. Partly, we also find terror in the fact that these two girls can use their hometown as a place for cruel experiments without anyone noticing, anyone caring, any repercussions. These two girls are daughters of the enlightenment, and the events that unfold are not at odds with that tradition. This is our good ol’ friend, the instrumentelle Vernunft, dontcha know. And here we have two girls, defenselessly exposed to rationality.

This is an extraordinary novel, suspenseful but poetic. It is well written and conveys to us both the joy of childhood and the terror of the evil in our midst. It is highly intelligent and complex, but it remains accessible and readable at all times, if one can stand the darkness. It’s easier than in the aforementioned “Fifth Child”, but that’s because the light writing mitigates it. A most remarkable book, highly recommended to anyone.


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Enemy Action: Ian Fleming’s “Goldfinger”

Fleming, Ian (2002), Goldfinger, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-14-200204-9

This is one of dozens of new editions of the James Bond novels. It’s safe to say that everyone will have seen at least one of the movies made on the basis of the novels and stories penned by Ian Fleming, former Navy commander. Most of the movies have clearly ascended to the rank of classics by now, and so have the novels. Since I suspected that their classic status was conferred upon them not by virtue of literary quality but on account of the influence that these novels exerted over not just British but world literature (and influence, as we well know, does not per se make for good reading) I have not read any of these books yet. So, on a whim in December, I went and bought Goldfinger, since that always used to be one of my favorite movies. This book took me ages to finish and bored my socks off. It’s not a complete disaster, though. There are a few interesting issues in the novel.

The first issue is racism. Ian Fleming’s novels are infamous for being both racist and misogynist, to such an extent that these things had to be toned down in the movies, and we’re talking about a series of movies here that are both racist and misogynist, so that’s quite something to say. The novel appears to disappoint these expectations right at the beginning: when the character of Goldfinger is introduced, a decadent, rich, greedy man with a name that is close to stereotypical Jewish names, Fleming directly addresses his readers. He points out explicitly that Goldfinger is not Jewish, but Latvian. Clearly Fleming knows what his antisemitic readers would expect or assume. He does not interrogate these attitudes or assumptions, he does not criticize them in any way, he merely acknowledges their existence. That is enough, however, to issue this book with a peculiar context. It tells us, or suggests to us how to read certain other passages, such as this one:

Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms. Those terms included putting Oddjob and any other Korean firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.

Since Fleming knows that he can rely on the less savory instincts on the part of his readers, the explicit way this is formulated points to the fact that the important part of this passage is not the racism but “in Bond’s estimation”. This is especially relevant, since some other prejudice, concerning both women and homosexuality, is brought up in a casual manner and not reflected at all by the narrator.

Thus, this racism is part of Fleming’s characterization of Bond. The agent with the license to kill is shown to be a rather simple, old-fashioned conservative, with a distaste for the modern world, with its streaks of decadence and the tendency towards cosmopolitanism. Indeed, Bond, the tireless traveler, who speaks multiple languages and can handle several countries’ cultural customs, is a well-garbed nationalist, a leftover imperialist, who mourns his country’s demise and is slowly but surely turning into a cultural pessimist. The less than favorable depictions of Americans attest to that. He is linked to his enemy, Goldfinger, by their mutual distaste for modern paper money, if they need to have it at all. Bond hands away huge amounts of money without blinking an eye and Goldfinger doesn’t actually care about the monetary value of his gold, he craves gold both as an object and as a means to achieve something. Build a house, train servants, win. There is but one major difference between the two, as constructed in the novel’s black-and-white world: Goldfinger’s a commie.

Goldfinger, published in 1959, at the end of that era of American politics known as McCarthyism. The basic methodological idea of McCarthyism corresponds to the basic methodological idea of the Inquisition: the accusation is the best proof the prosecution needs. The accusation is enough as it is. The epistemological method of the novel at hand works in the same way. Once the idea that Goldfinger works for the Soviets is lodged in Bond’s brain, it immediately turns to fact. He came up with the idea by pure conjecture, there was nothing pointing in that direction that would have justified coming up with that connection, yet as the novel progresses we find out that, yes, indeed, Goldfinger is a commie. Clearly the novel shares certain ideas about communism with luminous contemporaries (well, almost) such as McCarthy; it turns these common ideas, that even today are shared by center and right wing politicians, into personal faults of Goldfinger.

The novel is not well written, by any measure. It is, however, interestingly constructed. Its concept of truth and proof is not the only aspect worth mentioning. Another one is its use of suspense and action. The novel is plainly not interested in block buster action. There is plenty of that, but it’s crammed into surprisingly few pages, especially when we consider the amount of space that is devoted to a simple game of cards or golf or a meeting of thugs and gangsters. All of these scenes, and many more, are not about action but upon the suspense that is culled from a so-called battle of wills. I forget which famous writer (Clausewitz? Bah who cares.) said it, but it has been said that a battle is decided the moment it starts. This is the case in Goldfinger as well. In the game of golf or in a demonstration in Goldfinger’s mansion we see battle lines drawn, we see troops marshalled, we see two generals facing off. The actual fighting is decided the very moment the troops embark. When Goldfinger tells his foe:

Mr. Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

he is saying that even the first two events, a game of cards and the aforementioned game of golf, have been enemy action already. My tolerance for boredom is rather low, so I won’t be doing it, but it’s certainly worthwhile to read through Fleming’s oeuvre in order to monitor it for these battle lines, for the net of suspicion and subterfuge before the first shot is fired. If you have limited time for reading, I cannot recommend this book, but if you can spare the time, it is certainly worth a peek.

Posh Spice: Martin Amis’s “The Rachel Papers”

Amis, Martin (1984), The Rachel Papers, Penguin Books
ISBN 0-14-007001-X

This is a quick review. Published in 1974, this is Amis’ first novel and the third of his I’ve finished. The other two, Time’s Arrow and Information, were stupendous achievements where Amis proved himself among the best stylists of his age, at least judging by the narrow diet of books I am on. I was fascinated that two so different yet excellent novels could have been authored by the same cranky Brit. Then, some five years ago, I stopped reading Amis, for fear of being disappointed or for lack of motivation, I really can’t say. Now, the Rachel Papers. In a way, picking a good writer’s first novel is an excellent means of warding off disappointments since the very fact of it being the first means you have to make allowances, for youth, inexperience. So, no, I was not disappointed. On the other hand, the Rachel Papers never achieve the power of the other Amis novels I read. This novel is not consistently interesting, funny or well written. It is, at times, all three of these, but not for longer than two thirds of this rather short book.

The novel certainly is worth reading, if only for the first half which is riotously funny. I spent much time walking around my workplace and reading sentences and paragraphs aloud to virtual strangers. The humor is not for everybody, the main character, Charles Highway is a posh, snotty, selectively well read (I’ll return to this) fuck, who is the younger version of a certain type well described as ‘geezer’, who is part of every single norm in society (white male heterosexual etc.) and who regards any deviations as slightly suspicious. Hence his brand of humor.

I spent the night in a state of mild, run-of-the-mill delirium, sweating quietly as my mind wobbled and raced and swerved: and with morning, came the unshakeable, indeed serene, conviction that I was a homosexual. It all added up: I had had, it was true, one queer experience (a smegmatic handful of queer experience in my primary-school cricket pavillon); I was a soprano, a first soprano, often taking descants, in the choir; I was as yet a virgin, and I had to lie my unpimpled head off to my friends about how I wanked as often, and with as much piston-wristed savagery, as they said they did. Clearly, the minute I was off my arse, I’d be getting it on the bus to Oxford and hawking it there to the friendly undergraduates at Magdalen. In puzzled preparation I read the collected works of Oscar Wilde, Gerard Manley Hopkins, A.E. Housman, and (for what little it was worth) E.M. Forster.

Did you laugh? Grin? Raise a disapproving eyebrow? These are some of the reactions this novel tries to elicit from its readers, smugly, I may add. The main reason why it drags at times and why many readers will leave it less than satisfied is its smugness yet this is also part of the fun of reading it.

To the plot. Charles Highway, a young man from a thoroughly bourgeois household, relates his life and his efforts to get into Rachel’s pants. Rachel is 20, which qualifies her for that desirable category: an Older Woman, since Charles is only 19, a few hours away from becoming 20. The book is largely composed of reminiscences and reflections. It’s a pretty straightforward coming of age tale and as many of them are, it is somewhat dated. The main difference to the generic treatment is Charles’ character. Charles is smug. Yes, many of the main characters are smug. Not like Charles, though. He is a frail boy, often sick, who has few friends, but is decently well looking, frightfully smart. His frailty leads to neurotic obsessive behavior. Before he meets people, even if it’s just the few minutes it takes to walk someone home from the train station, he plans every word. Before people come into his room, he carefully arranges every detail. The amount of dirt, the records and books on display and other things are carefully calibrated to achieve an effect. He worries and circumspectly tends to his pimples.

Many men (i.e. former boys) will nod and say: yeah well what’s so particularly neurotic about that? I did the same thing then. Well, in all likelihood, not quite the same thing. Charles plans his words not by thinking hard: he assembles a dossier. He tends to his pimples and draws up tables and charts and he has journals for all aspects of his life. The titular “Rachel Papers” are literally all papers and journals and ‘documents’ that chart his endeavors to bed Rachel including plans and the like. Charles does not like to think for himself, he surfs on a crest of received rules and traditions. He judges people according to his society’s prejudices and it works embarrassingly well. And when he sits for his O levels, his essays are a collection of others’ ideas and judgments, although, judging by the book, it’s a very well written collection.

Despite all this, the novel is highly generic. Yes, Charles Highway is an extraordinarily enjoyable character but that’s about it. Everything else is pretty run-of-the mill. The way the story is narrated is unusual enough, but the writer clearly does not have the chops to do a great job of this yet, so what could be innovative falls flat and is merely amusing. That is quite enough for a book, however. The Rachel Papers is no masterpiece, but I enjoyed it every bit of the way. Funnily, what you are left with is not a feeling of exhilaration, and Charles Highway is too flat a character to not vanish into thin air the moment you turn the last page, but you feel the author’s smugness. Behind the last page you can see Martin Amis grinning arrogantly. The book exposes Charles Highway’s arrogance as youthful and premature, it casts judgment on his casting judgment on everybody in his papers yet it supports the basic drift of it.

Thus, the book seems very cold, aloof and so does his author. Having an unbearable author is never the book’s problem or else we would be bereft of many great works of literature and philosophy. Here, however, the reader is constantly being talked down to and the more the book proceeds, the clearer this stance becomes and the more it gets on one’s nerves. The fact that the book contains two Charles Highways, one’s the protagonist and the other’s the author is not its main flaw, but that the writer’s unable to make the book succeed in spite of this is. The constant self-congratulation is like a solid brick wall between The Rachel Papers and a really good book. Still. A recommendation. It’s a barrelful of laughs and it’s extraordinarily well (if intrusively) written. And while the smugness of the author may be a hindrance, the smugness of the protagonist is an attraction, it adds spice to the dreary olla podrida that the genre has become.


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On hopes, disappointments and surprises: recent books by Günter Grass and Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie and Günter Grass, two of my favorite living writers, have both published new books recently. Both writers have a mixed track record of late. Rushdie took a downward turn with The Ground Beneath Her Feet and hit literary rock bottom with the astonishingly bad Fury. He regained some ground since, with the mixed but good Shalimar the Clown. It wasn’t all good, in retrospect there were many problems with it but I for one heaved a big sigh of relief upon reading it. Especially the Kashmir passages were among his very best work, and in the WWII passages I felt he was slowly getting the hang of writing about the west without descending into self-parody.

Grass has started his bad years with Mein Jahrhundert (My Century), which showcased why he shouldn’t write more short prose, but wasn’t as excruciatingly bad as the poetry he published in the following years. Novemberland and Letzte Tänze were bad. Very bad. Embarrassingly bad. Lord knows, Grass was one of the best German post-WWII poets when he started his career, I’d still recommend his debut volume of poetry, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner to anyone who cares for poetry and my opinion. I can’t really explain what happened. He also published a novel that read like a bad parody of himself, Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk).

So I awaited both writers’ new books with hopes and fears. With Grass, admittedly, the hope was solely based on my love for his older work and wasn’t strong enough to make me pay for the hardcover. When I finally bought the paperback of Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, some irritating ticks, too much talk of Grass’ penis and too much of a hurry marred the book, but it cohered wonderfully, was a great read and contained much of what I loved and love in Grass’ work. A shifty memoirist, he slips in and out of truth, offers interpretations for his own work by claiming real life counterparts to some of his most famous creatures, including the precocious son of an acquaintance of his, who walks into the living room with his tin drum. Grass relates of his talks with a friend in the army, who was to become Pope Benedikt XVI, he does a good job of discussing Germany’s dark past without providing excuses (but also without being really open about it, more on this soon) and his writing often shines as it did in the old days. It’s the old baroque Grass again, who lays it on too thickly but it feels rarely forced. An inspired book.

Not so The Enchantress of Florence. Well. There are two ways of looking at the book. They are not compatible, but they are both true. According to one it’s easily his best work since The Moor’s last Sigh. No matter how you look at it, it’s not as good as Moor or the Verses, or Shame, or Children, or indeed Haroun, but it bests the rest of his novels. There is some glorious writing and there are few writers out there who can do as much justice to the sumptuousness of the setting of the novel as Rushdie can. Without even having to indulge in long descriptions, it’s there, in his prose. He needs few words to paint a whole, finely detailed, rich world. Days after finishing the Enchantress I had vivid visions of Florence. It made me pull Mandragola and The Prince off shelves and reread them.

There are many strange and great characters, often pained with broad brushstrokes that left an intricate pattern in the novel. The story is straightforward enough told with an enormous pace, actually, but without ever seeming hurried. He seems to have regained his talent for telling a rich story in few words, something which has amazed me ever since Shame (which, at the time, I picked up reluctantly, as any thin book, but which, in retrospect, seems like that house in Danielewski’s House of Leaves, it’s bigger inside than outside.)

However, there are, once we invoke the masterpieces of this great writer, some respects in which The Enchantress somewhat short. It’s never as moving, as warm, as his earlier work. People move past you and even though their characterization is superb, the book is still cold. With a writer of Rushdie’s abilities, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had recognized his strengths and crafted a better novel, to the best of his abilities. Unlike Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) this is most certainly not an inspired book, no sir. It’s a supremely well crafted book, but there’s something missing at the heart of it all, although I admit that Rushdie’s language does carry a certain warmth, the warmth of a room hung with thick, rich carpets, in the midst of summer, in a household lonely with cruelty. The child alone in his room basks in the heat, but still shivers, from a different kind of cold.

And this is where we turn to the second point I alluded to before. Rushdie was never a good thinker. Take a peek into one of his volumes of essays and you’ll see what I mean. The best parts of them are inspiring, even thought provoking, but less like real philosophy and more like (at times) good aphorisms. Not that they are aphorisms. If that is confusing, it’s all you’re going to get. Well. Back to Rushdie being a second- or third-rate thinker.

It shows in the new novel which cites and sometimes paraphrases contemporary discussions of that infamous idea of the “Clash of Cultures” and of religion and fundamentalism. Tired, all too well known witticisms, bad arguments that pose in the novel as novel (excuse the pun) ideas, and brilliant and/or daring ones at that. How could Rushdie have read period pieces (it is to be assumed he has read all or most of Macchiavelli’s work, including the luminous work that is the Discourses on Livy) and assumed that his cut&paste method of transplanting weak contemporary arguments into that setting could work at all?

Hence my comparison to Fury. Both are, in their own ways, failed novels of ideas, in both cases because Rushdie hasn’t many good ideas, in the philosophical sense, of his own. It’s not just because Rushdie is channeling the Football Hooligans of Rational Thought, although he is, and it’s not a nice thing to behold. No, this novel immediately takes a nosedive anytime he engages in anything philosophical. It recovers quickly, but I have been known to shout angrily from time to time while reading it. I’m not sure I want to reread it. I’ll try to just remember the great parts and look forward to the new novel, which is, hopefully, emptier of philosophy and fuller of awesome (yes, I use awesome as a noun). ISBN