Jerry Pinto: Em and the Big Hoom

Pinto, Jerry (2012), Em and the Big Hoom, Viking
ISBN 9787-0-670-92358-8

Ah, man. I’ll just say it. I thought this novel was awfully mediocre, on a multitude of levels – but it comes with a big bag of praise. The book is covered in huge blurbs, by the likes of Rushdie, Ghosh and Kiran Desai (well ok). This is a supposedly “profoundly moving” book – so when I tell you it’s mostly annoying, trite and sometimes offensive, I may be in the minority of readers. There are indeed moments where the book comes close to being moving; they are all towards the end. The book is about a mother and her son (there’s a daughter too, but Jerry Pinto, in what is symptomatic for the whole book, includes her as a kind of afterthought, most of the time, as a plus one for the frankly unbearable narrator and protagonist. When the mother dies (it’s not really a big spoiler), Pinto’s narrator slips into a slightly different tone, offering a simulacrum of moving, elegiac narration. This fits, in turn the blurb by Kiran Desai, who made a career (and got a booker winning book) out of offering a pale simulacrum of specific tones and moods popular in English-language Indian fiction (I have some remarks on that genre here). Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood to read this, but at this point I feel as if I am merely picking reasons not to stick to my initial impression. Because, man. This book is lifeless, cold, with a tinge of misogyny and general awfulness. The prose isn’t that hot either. The dialogue is often interesting, with some intriguing touches involving the titular “Em” sometimes borrowing American turns of phrases, but the non-dialog prose moves from banal triteness to trying to engage that register of cleverness, that tradition that runs from G.V. Desani to Rushdie – a specific kind of linguistic playfulness. Yet, as we see in the latter half of Rushdie’s work, that kind of writing requires a special skill and literary alertness – neither of which Pinto appears to possess. With so many books in the world, I cannot come up with a single reason why anyone should pick up Em and the Big Hoom, and honestly, I am not entirely happy I did so myself.

To start at the beginning: Em and the Big Hoom is a novel about an Indian family – a mother, “Em,” a father, nicknamed “the Big Hoom,” and the two children, the male narrator and “Susan.” Em is mentally ill, or so the novel insists. She has some form of manic depression, and has had it for years and years. She has lived through a number of suicide attempts, but she also hears voices apparently, and God knows what else Jerry Pinto dug up in his grab bag of mental illness issues. The novel’s bulk is set in a hospital as the narrator questions his mother about her choices in life, why on earth she was such a bad, bad mother, but he also elicits stories from her about her past. This narrative set up is the reason why the novel, like Em’s mind, feels a bit unmoored, there’s no real present to hold on to, as Pinto doesn’t really offer broad descriptions of the ward and their interactions in it either. His focus is almost completely on the two elements: the reproachful dialogue and the many, many flashbacks. I think there’s a skill required for this kind of set-up to be convincing, and not come off dull, and Pinto doesn’t have it. Although, I will say, this is a debut novel, and many debut novels suffer from this ungrounded, overexcited kind of structure. That said, Pinto steers his novel onto well-trod paths, the excitement cannot come from covering new terrain. For example, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, though I do not hold her into the same esteem as many friends who think she should be winning the highest literary honors, is a small, fine book about the aftermath of maternal suicide. Robinson makes good use of the reality of nature, of objects, houses, things, in short, as a way to root and situate her characters. Loss and disorientation are given meaning by giving the reader a sense of direction within the novel itself. Pinto isn’t particularly interested in that, and so the book becomes a diatribe against the fictional mother. I think the only mother I remember being this sharply condemned is Evelyn Waugh’s Brenda Last whose “Thank God” upon learning of her son’s death has long since engraved itself in our memories.

In contrast to Waugh, Pinto isn’t interested in painting Em as a deceitful person. Em is merely selfish. Pinto described mental illness, but, underneath, what he’s really talking about, is selfishness. Em is painted as someone who indulges her whims, with her husband and children suffering. There’s an episode where the family finds out that Em has spent all the money in a savings account that was supposed to support the family in the case of the father’s death, and she explains how it is connected to trust, and to anxiety, but neither the narrator, nor the rest of the family can muster any sympathy or empathy for Em. This is nor per se a comment on Pinto’s skills. Indeed, part of what made the narrator so galling in this and other scenes is the clear depiction of the mother’s objections. He does not offer a caricatured crazy woman. This is no drunk Janice Angstrom drowning her daughter in a tub, as Updike, he of the misogynist streak, constructed her for his own protagonist, “Rabbit” Angstrom. At the same time, Em never gets her due, and if the reader isn’t entirely sure what the book’s own stance towards its narrator is, the kind, sometimes even moving, final portions of the book dealing with grief and the aftermath, quickly disabuse us of any notion that we are offered the son’s blindness critically. Neither son nor husband are interested in that woman that lives among them. There’s precious little talk of anything that resembles therapy – instead we hear a lot about various kinds of medication, culminating in a scarring electro-convulsive therapy treatment. This, incidentally, is how we have always talked about depression and similar mental illnesses, and the current movement to “finally” treat mental illnesses like “normal illnesses” and the open way to discuss medication, while usually painted as progressive, is, in actuality, like some other current social “progressive” movements, anything but. Instead what we are given is a family who doesn’t really care why their mother and wife does what she does, they pathologize her, criticize her, talk down to her, culminating in the son yelling at his wife “Shut up you disgusting bitch!”

That is worth looking at for a second. He apologizes, but it is a difficult apology because his mother won’t show him that she is hurt by it, implying that it is the hurt, not the substance of the insult that needs apologizing for. But what’s more, this outburst comes after the mother jokes about his work, or rather, about the money he makes and that he still lives at home. This declaration so mortally wounds his masculinity that he “could not remember ever being so violated and hurt.” That is quite something for an adult to say, who immediately insults his mother worse than she’d ever dream of insulting him – what’s more, her treatment at the hands of neighbors (who suspect her of stealing a child when she walks around daydreaming, holding her son), the police (who arrest her), the mental health professionals (take your pick), and her family. If condescending to someone is such a vicious insult, they all need to rethink their lives.  But this scene helps in other ways too. It highlights the strange masculine assumptions, the narcissistic ride that this narrator is on. Telling him he doesn’t make enough money to move out is a mortal insult, but in a later section, he very simply assumes the only reason his sister will move out is that she marries. And that’s not even the strangest instance of blindness in this scene.

Shortly after he insults his mother, she makes a sharp joke involving the insult: “can the disgusting bitch make you some tea?” She then writes a note of apology for what she said, and signs it, “the disgusting bitch.” From her son? Nothing but silence. The night after this, Em has a breakdown, has to be moved to the hospital, where she is again visited by her Gold Star son, and greets him with “I went mad, so you don’t have to be. You don’t have to do anything now that I am the disgusting bitch.” You’d think, huh, this is all pretty clear, but this is how the narrator reads the situation now: “I looked at her carefully. She was not letting me see what she was thinking. So I knew, immediately, that she had registered the thoughtless insult and that it had mattered. She was not going to give me proof so there was no way I could actually apologize. But I tried. ‘I’m sorry I said that.’” I mean this is special. Apart from the bad prose, it’s woth noting that THIS is when he knows, “immediately,” that his mother “registered” the insult. Not when she used it twice the previous day. Not when she wrote an embarrassing note of apology that she should not have written. Not when she had a mental breakdown immediately afterwards. No, now, the third time she mentions it, her son has an epiphany, but still, he can’t “actually” apologize because his mother won’t give him “proof” it hurt her. None of the things I listed count as proof. God knows what would be “proof” in his eyes. Tearful recriminations? This scene is an exception in some ways, but it does show, especially since there are continuities to the motherless time of grief towards the end, viz. Susan, for example, how the narrator – and in some sense the novel as a whole – conceive of women and mothers. I mean, if this novel was based on one or more real women (and some details in it tell me she is, or Pinto did some research), I can pinpoint pretty exactly how Em got to where she ended up. Em is a clever, independent, unusual woman with an unquiet mind, surrounded by people who like “quirky” women as background noise, not as a disruptive force. Em eventually commits suicide, and while you shouldn’t point a finger when it comes to suicide and mental illness, in this case you could at least raise an inquisitive eyebrow while looking at that son.

The worst failing here is the lack of introspection, the lack of real vulnerability. As I close this review, I’d like to point to another example. It’s from Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s autobiographical writings. I won’t pretend I found this myself – confounded by the praise (particularly Ghosh’s. I admire his fiction so much!) on the book cover, I looked for and found an appraisal of the (then unpublished) manuscript on Amitav Ghosh’s blog, where a user pointed to these stories in the comments to the blog post, which, as luck would have it, are contained in my volume of Akutagawa’s short fiction. Akutagawa’s appraisal of his own mad mother is also harsh and sharp. In “Death Register” he writes: “My mother was a madwoman. I never did feel close to her as a son should towards his mother.” When his mother, after wasting away for a while, opens her eyes on her deathbed to announce the end, “we couldn’t help giggling” despite feeling sad. The details chosen in the few remarks are exquisite. In another short prose piece he goes on and on about never being breastfed by his mother. Pinto’s narrator expresses anxiousness about whether his mother’s “madness” (I’m not super sure about that diagnosis) can be inherited. Akutagawa, on the other hand, is aware that he has. He jokes in other prose pieces about being unconcerned about the dangers of insomnia, after all, it’s “nothing new for the son of a madwoman.” As readers, we could take him being as cutting about his mother as Pinto’s narrator is because we are shown his own vulnerability, and unlike in Pinto’s novel, this is real, poetically expressed, artistically heightened, vulnerability.

I mean, I understand, there’s a chance all of these critiques are part of the text, and not brought to the text by me. Since there’s no outside voice, there’s a chance that Pinto created a misogynist protagonist who drives his mother into mental breakdowns on purpose. But there’s no textual evidence for that. What’s more likely is that Pinto shares this view of mental illness as this foreign country, with those afflicted by it outside of normal empathy and he shares this view of women, particularly since the Big Hoom isn’t much better, and as an author, he’s given Susan a marginal existence in the book. I mean, on the penultimate page of the book, he has Susan being fond of her tupperware, and telling the two men after the wake: “I’m going to clean up. You two go.” Because of course. Pinto has skills, many of them in the dialogue, but most of all, he’s given me a wish to know more about Em. For a novel with her in the title, we learn precious little about her. In my head I thought her voice could be a variant of the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life. I mean we don’t know. And that’s the problem. Well, there’s also the prose. There’s always the prose.

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tumblr_oh8286wvu11r0z5aoo1_540I’ve been rereading Hunter S Thompson because ‘tis the season.

“Let’s face it – the yo-yo president of the U.S.A. knows NOTHING. […] This is never an easy thing for the voters of this country to accept. No. Nonsense. The president cannot be a Fool. Not at this moment in time – when the last living vestiges of the American Dream are on the line. This is not the time to have a bogus rich kid in charge of the White House. […] Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? […] They are the same ones who wanted to have Muhammad Ali locked up […]. They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. They are the racists and hate mongers among us. – they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis.”

– Hunter S. Thompson (on GWB)

Schwörung, Entschwörung & Video

Ich habe vermehrt auf Daniel Kulla, seinen Blog und seine Bücher hingewiesen. Ein paar Jahre alt ist mittlerweile sein sehr lesenwertes, empfehlenswerter Essay Entschwörungstheorie. philipsteffan alias Philip Steffan hat nun einen der Vorträge zur Entschwörungstheorie mit dem Kulla Deutschland bereist. Enjoy! & then go buy the book.


Dana Spiotta: Eat the Document

Spiotta, Dana (2008), Eat the Document, Picador
ISBN 978-0-330-448229-1

One of James Merrill’s best and most affecting poems is “18 West 11th Street“, a poem where he mourns the destruction of the townhouse in New York where he once lived as a kid. His family moved away and eventually the house came to belong to a family called Wilkerson. Unfortunately for that family and the house, their daughter, Cathlyn Wilkerson, was a member of the Weather Underground (or just: Weathermen), an organization of the American radical left and used the house to gather and build bombs. The Weathermen specialized in bombing buildings and statues without harming people. On march 6, 1970, they accidentally blew up themselves; three of the Weathermen died. Reading scholarship on Merrill’s poetry can be quite amusing with regard to this specific poem, with eminent scholars such as Stephen Yenser misreading the text in order to extract a condemnation of the Weathermen from it. Yenser is such a profound reader of Merrill’s work, why the gaffe here? The simple answer is that left wing terrorism is still divisive, causing people to react strongly, revealing their convictions and biases in the process. And books dealing with the period are no exception. In Germany, the past year had seen a wave of contentious books about 1968, some praising, some damning the movements of the time. In English speaking countries, too, the amount of recent books consecrated to that time is remarkable. Three novels in particular stand out. Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, which I’ve yet to read, Hari Kunzru’s remarkable My Revolutions and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006.

This upfront: for much of the book I was thoroughly bored. The first fifth and the last are very readable, but the book is at least a hundred pages too long. That said, this is not a bad book. Eat the Document is the tale of two terrorists, Bobby and Mary, lovers, who, after a bombing designed to destroy an empty house kills someone, go underground, zigzag across the states, and finally assume new identities, living for years undisturbed. The bombing itself is not described until the end of the book, which is largely concerned with the aftermath of the revolutionary violence. Eat the Document is set in two distinct periods. One part of the book takes place in the present, which is 1998-2000, the other charts Mary’s getaway and her attempts at constructing a new identity for herself. These two building blocks are interlaced, so that actions and events in the present reflect on and are in turn illuminated by events and actions in the past. This structure means that the author does not need to directly comment upon the ideologies that led to the bombings and the destruction of the lives of the two terrorists, she can leave it to the events in the present. This sort of device recurs a few times in this novel which is too clever for its own sake. It frequently mistakes cleverness for smartness, without having a writer deft enough to make all the subterfuges and mirrors work. I may mention some of them subsequently. Some are subtle, some are more heavy handed; the two time levels is one of the latter.

In the chapters dealing with Mary’s odyssey through the 1970s and 1980s, Spiotta spreads before us a compelling portrait of a left underground that is rife with conflict, with jealousies, with hopes and fears. Fear, especially, seems to be a commanding factor. Since all this is channeled through a personal narrator which means, in this case, through Mary’s point of view, the fear could be Mary’s, but there’s no indication within the narrative that this would be the case. Instead, Spiotta delivers a few convincing, if slightly satiric characterizations of people active in different leftist communities, spinning the aura of fear from their personal anxieties. This has been done before and probably better. What’s really worth noting here is that this portrait is of a female left. It’s no accident that Spiotta has chosen to follow Mary rather than Bobby. The left project has always been one of emancipation, one of giving voice and lending power to the voice and powerless; it’s failures can often be charted on this exact point. The extent to which left movements have failed to live up to their intentions and ideals are numerous.

Spiotta spends quite some time showing us these ideals. She doesn’t explore anything, in-depth, since she drags her protagonist out of these situations soon enough but through the aforementioned juxtapositions and her miniature portraits she does manage to demonstrate to the reader a landscape of female utopias. What is most striking, and most damning about the communities depicted, is to what extent they are dominated by authoritarian figures and structures, nipping true equalities in the bud and reinforcing harmful tendencies of the larger society around them; also, the dependency on the monied establishment, by having much of it funded and supported by daughters with rich parents (Ms. Wilkerson comes to mind), undermines claims for autonomy and illustrates the dependency on the vilified US society. As standalone chapters, these parts of the book would read like harsh, and sometimes unfair criticism of what was, after all, a movement with enormous potential; unfair because it’s done with hindsight, it’s the typical criticism of the comfortable writer in the 00’s, looking back on a movement that failed in its larger designs, using that failure to attack the designs themselves.

The fact is, however, that these are not standalone chapters, that they are interspersed with sections that deal with the present. The present is divvied up between four (later: five) persons, who alternate in telling their story. One of these characters is Nash, a left-over leftist from the 1970s, who heads an ‘alternative’ bookstore, where he allows and encourages local kids to hold rebellious or subversive meetings. In his chapters we get to know how the present day left scene works, how young rebels think and work in the present, and suddenly, the 1970s chapters begin to glow. Suddenly, the perseverance of many women portrayed in these sections becomes admirable, and suddenly, too, having coherent, forceful ideals is something that is valuable instead of ridiculous. All this is interesting yet it is all done rather heavy-handedly. These points are made through very simple parallelisms (which do make an interesting, further point about psychogeography, but I can’t go into that here). To Spiotta’s credit, she doesn’t usually smack her readers about the head with the points she makes. Frequently she hands him an interesting chunk of something and leaves him to draw conclusions. This is the case with Jason. Jason is the son of Louise (who is another of the contemporary voices), a suburban widow, who is calm, friendly and boring. Jason’s chapters are the only ones narrated in the first person singular; they are different in other ways, too, most significantly: they are sections from his journal. Expressly written accounts.

These chapters, headed “Jason’s Journal” represent the core of the book, in two ways. The most simple one is this: Jason starts to hunt down all knowledge he can get at of Bobby and Mary’s whereabouts. His frantic search brings about the eventful climax and finale of the book, he is the catalyst that helps bringing together the two time levels at the end. He is probably the least political person of the whole book, mostly what he represents most is a narrative device. Not just in terms of plot. The novel has not been called Eat the Document on a whim or because that phrase sounded so nice. “Eat the Document” is the name of a 1966 movie about Bob Dylan’s UK tour with the Hawks, shot by D.A. Pennebaker, capturing, as Pennebaker’s infinitely more famous “Don’t Look Back” movie does, a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career as Dylan moved from acoustic to electric guitar, from performing alone on the stage with his guitar, to being backed by a full band. “Eat the Document” is a rarity, a so-called bootleg, circulating among fans, without seeing official publication. Bootlegs are interesting, in that they are part of the knowledge created by a society, but the means of diffusion are different; bootlegs are usually deviations, that sometimes but not always or most of the time violate some important aesthetic or political norm. I think the central issue here is decentrality, deviation. Bootlegs circle the center of knowledge, I think, most of the time they do not contradict or attack the norm that structures or dominates the center, they rather reproduce it with slight variations. The deviation is important not because of the content, but because of what that means for the diffusion. A deviation opens up spaces for opposition, and underground channels of diffusion of knowledge, while not necessarily transporting oppositional content, open up the opportunity to do so, create space for voices where none before existed.

Jason is addicted to bootlegs, even those where the bootlegged music is redundant and worse than what was officially released. It’s the aura of bootlegged music and films that draws him in, and his desire to collect everything that can be collected of a given artist’s works. He’s a collector, and in a further sense, an archivist, who assembles a library of odds and ends; I said that bootlegs are not part of an alternative knowledge but that they are paraphernalia of the main body of knowledge, providing not a different lens but contributing to and refining the dominant lens. And true to this, it is Jason’s archive that helps him uncover the present identities of Mary Wittaker and Bobby Desoto, the terrorists. But Spiotta’s project goes further, I think. By presenting an American culture that functions as a set of iterations, of repetitions with subtle and not so subtle deviations, she textualizes her history, stressing textual mechanisms such as narrative. Thus, Spiotta emphasizes, I think, history both as something made and as something picked up, found on byways and in dark alleys. Like “Eat the Document”, Dylan’s slightly jarring movie, Eat the Document provides an account of a tour that catches a country and a culture as it changes, as it grows up, shedding illusions. This passage near the end is illustrative of how much has changed:

A commune and a corporate community are not all that different. A corporation is merely a commune with different vales. But like a commune, everything is organized around a collusion of interests. It creates an inside and an outside. And let’s not forget, all communities are exclusive. By definition you exclude all that is outside the community. A corporation has rights and privileges that are distinct from its individual owners’, just as a commune has collective interests that supersede each individual’s interests.

And there are many more mirrors and tricks in the book. There’s a discussion of cultural memory that runs through it, of Jungian ideas, of punishment and guilt. But you never get the feeling that Spiotta’s heart is in it, and her writing is not good enough to balance all that coldly clever structure. A blurb on the back of my book compares her to Delillo, but here’s where they differ. I hold Delillo to be a consummate writer, a bit too caught up in his obsessions, so that he falls into self-parody now and then, but generally, he has the language he needs to make his cleverness work, at least for me. Spiotta doesn’t, and what’s worse, in her attempts to lend feeling, authenticity and power to her book, she frequently lapses into sentimentality. As I said before, this book reminded me a lot of Hari Kunzru’s stunning 2008 novel My Revolutions (which I herewith recommend to any- and everyone). Kunzru gives his protagonist quite a lot of leeway to speak and worry, as well. It frequently borders on sentimentality, as well. But Kunzru focuses on commitments. Kunzru politicizes sentimentality, he points out how people can be driven to action, how one’s experience of a society, everyday, embodied experience, can rally a person, can make concepts make sense. Kunzru defends political action and political commitment. He does not accept anger and action as a given, he shows where that may come from, how it might work, and the sentimentality is instrumental here, in order not to lapse into cold analysis, into anatomy, which My Revolutions isn’t doing.

Dana Spiotta, however, is different. She cuts out the personal commitment, her discussion of revolutionary ideals stays on a general, anatomical level as outlined earlier. Basically, she de-politicizes the movement, using sentimentality as a way to just show human frailty (blah), human troubles, human hopes, dreams and fears. To do that she indulges in short phrases and sentences and effectual ends to chapters and paragraphs. As one, where an old man tells his younger lover-to-be: “Be careful”, goes on to mention a possible interpretation of that sentence and ends the paragraph like this: “But what he meant was be careful with me. Please. Please.” The italics are Spiotta’s. In a way, Spiotta is an archivist like Jason, she’s as removed from the revolutionary fervor powering groups like the Weathermen as he is from the experience of hearing “Pet Sounds” when it appeared. He listens to it as a curiosity, and this is how he treats his bootlegs, too. And the feelings are just odds and ends found in the archives, as well. It’s a bit like that poet (clearly meant to be Merrill) in a novel by Edmund White, who “forgets” to put some feeling in his poem, heads upstairs and then writes a truly moving passage. Only Spiotta does not have the chops to make this work. Frequently the book drags with dreary conventionality, and quite often it is slow-going, and this despite all the clever tricks of the book. It’s her writing that makes it so dull (see, like this review is dulled by my writing), which is a disappointment in a book that is clearly full of good thinking.

In the end, the simple act of choosing a name, that is part of the novel’s interest in texts and textual gadgets, may be one of the most significant acts of the book. Eat the Document is to a large extent about identity, and while not as committed, as My Revolutions, it takes its topic seriously. Whatever you think of Spiotta’s writing, her characters stand by their convictions and they say it aloud. Even when you’re in hiding, sometimes you just need to bare yourself, when you can’t bear the subterfuge any longer. Like you real name. This is one of the best passages in the book:

“Cheryl,” she said aloud. No, never. Orange soda. “Natalie.” You had to say them aloud, get your mouth to shape the sound and push breath through it. Every name sounded queer when she did this. “Sylvia.” A movie star name, too fake-sounding. Too unusual. People might actually hear it. Notice it, ask about it. “Agnes.” Too old. “Mary,” she said very quietly. But that was her real name, or her original name. She just needed to say it.

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.)

One, Two Step

Poet Linh Dinh, in an excellent brief essay at the NYTimes, relates to us, among many other things, this nugget:

Once, I washed windows after appearing at a community college as a guest poet. It would have been a hoot had one of the admiring students saw me vigorously wiping water before it could freeze on the window pane. “Yo, isn’t that the poet who came to our class yesterday?!”