Lisa Moore: February

Moore, Lisa (2010), February, Chatto & Windus
ISBN 9780701184902

February is the first book off this year’s Booker longlist I finished, and I am not happy. Luckily, it was not shortlisted. Originally published by House of Anansi Press in 2009, this novel, Canadian novelist Lisa Moore’s third offering to date, is an interesting little critter though. In slightly more than 300 pages, Moore attempts to present an account of loss to her readers, the loss suffered by a family when Cal O’Mara, husband and father, suddenly dies in a terrible accident, leaving a surprisingly large family. In a flurry of short chapters, Moore shuffles her reader through different points in time, looking not just at the fateful day when the family learned of Cal’s death, but at various small events between that day and the day, 16 years later, when his son becomes a father himself. This sequence of events suggests a saccharine ‘circle of life’ kind of rhetoric and structure, but Moore tries her utmost to sidestep this danger. Most noticeably, the sequence of events does not directly correspond to the sequence of chapters in the novel as the reader jumps back and forth between various points in time until dates start to matter less and less as various events start to develop a kind of synchronicity. Moore doesn’t dwell on the details of the accident, they are important only inasmuch as they matter to Helen O’Mara, Cal’s widow, and her process of grieving. Her focus on small everyday details and emotionally fraught observations function as attempts to ground Helen’s grief in a common understanding of depression and emotional duress. We feel with Helen because we recognize parts of what she is going through. At the same time, the book scorns actual realism, unfolding, rather, like a strange, melancholic dream. All this is interesting, intriguing, even, but Moore isn’t content with letting her material work its magic on its own, and so she laces her writing with sentences that try too hard, structuring her chapters like short stories aiming for the utmost effect. This makes for many moments that are at best precious, at worst terribly, terribly annoying.

On 15th February, 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank 267 kilometers east of Newfoundland. All 84 men who had worked on it died as a Rogue wave struck the cumbersome vessel and caused a chain reaction of malfunctions, that ultimately led to the rig’s capsizing and striking the bottom of the ocean. February looks at the aftermath of the Ocean Ranger disaster, taking a fictive family to illustrate the plight of the 84 families who were devastated by the events during Valentine’s night, 1982. In her acknowledgments, Moore tells us that she has researched this incident thoroughly, and throughout the book the only obvious inventions are the O’Mara family members themselves. All the details of the oil rig sinking seem/are genuine and well-researched. Given the recent oil spill catastrophe in the gulf of Mexico, Moore’s novel might seem oddly timely and prescient, but on the other hand, ecological concerns play at best a very minor role in a book that is concerned with the impact of such catastrophes on those who are left behind, the workers’ families. In fact, Moore’s book doesn’t need the exact incident in order to work, its emotional gambits are relatively independent of this exact incident, there is nothing in it that is intrinsic to this specific catastrophe. On the other hand, once picked, Moore makes the best out of the material at hand. She -excuse the pun- floods her book with maritime images and metaphors, linking her novel to a vast and rich literary tradition that contains the Bible, Herman Melville, Anatole France and countless more recent books (think The Perfect Storm). This, though, feels added to the book. Reading the book, we get an odd feeling of incongruity: on the one hand there is the emotional, personal aspect. With occasional flashes of great emotional insight, Moore works on the particulars of everyday feelings, confronted with loss and age, with childbirth and responsibility, with love and heartbreak. Her voice is very well suited to express this kind of discourse.

This has its advantages and disadvantages. Lisa Moore opts for short sentences, writing, now and then, almost punchlines, but basically, her unsubtle and sentimental use of short sentences is yet another instance of the the stylistic miasma that Hemingway popularized in Western literature. Short, trenchant sentences that clearly aim for depth and miss far too often. It’s raining. We never slept. Fall apart. Not all sentences are like that, but Moore scatters them strategically throughout the book, and after a while, we read even hypotactic phrases with a glum low note at the end. To enforce these kinds of readings, Moore also often replaces the question mark at the end of a question with a full stop, giving her readers no choice but to strike a low note again. The same effect is produced by her constant need to repeat bits and pieces of dramatic monologue or dialogue, but in a shorter, glum voice. What’s more, from the evidence of this novel alone, Moore’s literary talent seems to be closer to the short than the long form. Almost all of the short little chapters are structured like short stories, and what’s worse, short stories tailored on O’Henry’s and Hemingway’s example. They tend to end on moody, emotional last paragraphs or even phrases, and they are weirdly closed affairs, in the sense that many of them produce puns and repetitions and allusions that point not to other places in the book, but that are restricted within the individual chapter. All of this is evidence of strong attention to craft and structure: there’s nothing accidental about these things, as they all feed into the overall mood and emotions of the book. Isolation, loneliness, fear are pervasive everywhere, and with this deft move, Moore manages to compare the surviving family emotionally with their husband and father who died hundreds of kilometers away from the coast, dying of hypothermia in the vastness of the ocean. If this sounds complex: it’s not really. In tone and depth, the book is closer to bestseller epics of the quotidian, for example Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books, Nick Hornby’s mush or any book from Sophie Kinsella’s growing repertoire.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think that February works best if you can connect to it in some way, if you recognize some of the details. I mean, despite a certain touch of the clichéd, I think many observations, while realized in cheaply sentimental writing, do hit their targets. The way the protagonist worries about aging and attractiveness, the way children can cling to their mother or become strangers to her, and small details, the smells of cooking, and everyday sounds rebounding off the walls of family homes. The plot isn’t as important as the characters are and their observations and the relationships between the characters. There is Helen, widowed by the sinking of the rig. Helen is no idealized wife, we know that there are tensions between Helen and Cal, and in the face of his death, she doesn’t behave as we would expect. She is helpless enough to allow her oldest son John to take over as head of the household. Despite being barely a teenager, he quickly assumes responsibility, starts to work early, and matures within few years. This rapid emotional and personal growth has left him scarred. His mother’s weakness didn’t leave him an opportunity to come to grips with his father’s death, and so he grew into a man who was afraid of open water, yet also a man determined to achieve anything he wanted. Highly successful professionally, we are led to assume that his personal relationships with the other sex are slightly aloof, and stop short of commitment. When an affair of his (the relationship lasted all of a week) tells him she’s pregnant, John panics and turns to his mother for advice. This is how the book starts. As a character, John is less well realized than his mother, and I think that the book, although it is about a circle of life coming together, and a deeply wounded family coming, finally, to terms with Cal’s death. See, although the small chapters are not linked by a narrator and although each chapter is related from the point of view of the specific character which that particular chapter focuses on, I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that most of this, in a way, takes place within Helen’s upset mind.

Or within her dreams and memories. Because here is another aspect of the book that fascinated me: the way that Moore weaves this tale of ordinary loss and emotional empathy into a highly literary web. Yes, observations and language are pretty down-to-earth, but within all this lurks a very literary sensibility. The moodiness and gloom, the surfeit of maritime images, allusions and metaphors, and the way that not just the chapters, but the whole book is like a mirror cabinet, references pointing to points within the novel rather than outside. This book, explicitly written with a real catastrophe in mind, based on sound research, seems, at times, almost like a fantasy. I think Moore herself realizes the strenuous and difficult relationship her book has to the real world and extra-literary facts: towards the end of the book, Helen first tells us about the incident by paraphrasing witnesses from another ship that was ready to pick up survivors. Then, after a paragraph that ends, typically, with a three-word phrase (“He is gone.”), Helen shifts gears and tells us: “But this is not a true account of what Cal faces, and Helen knows it. It’s better to keep to the true story […].” What follows is an imaginative account of Cal’s last hours, not based on witnesses, but based on speculation and empathy. And here’s the fun part: we know that Cal, unlike his rig, is an invention, and the description of his death is anything but “the true story”. The part before was crammed with real world facts. This complete reversal of facticity in a book that uses, remember, the actual name of a real catastrophe, is endlessly fascinating. What Moore offers us is a different kind of truth, a poetic truth, and she liberally, and not without deftness and skill, employs the tools of her trade to get at this special truth. The dreaminess, the internal consistency of images and metaphors, the almost allegorical way plots unfold, all this is not in the service of being precise in a realistic way, it is in the service of being as truthful as possible, and more truthful than simple realism would allow for.

And while all this is interesting, and well realized, it clashes massively with the direct, realistic way her characters experience all this. Lisa Moore wants to have the cake and eat it too. She wants to write characters that are believable, that are realistic, that her readers can connect to instantly; and at the same time she wants to fill the gap in the known facts with poetry, with literary flourishes. She manages to do the first by sacrificing literary artifice and produces, to my ear, third rate sentimental mush that depends on emotional contact in order to work. She manages to do the second by sacrificing realism. The result is a book that is smaller than it could be, less powerful than it should be, and not a very good book overall. It’s not a bad book, by all means, but one can’t shake the impression that Moore has shrunk it on purpose to fit her goals. It’s not enough for me. It might be enough for you. It will not rattle your cage. It will not change your life. You’ll probably not reread it nor recommend it to others. It’s a small book with a huge subject. It may be enough for some readers. That’s the best I can say.

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

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

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

Booker Longlist Boredom

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

The Lost Booker: Shortlist

I already mentioned the so-called Lost Man Booker Prize awhile ago, and, so far, reviewed one of the longlisted books (click here for my review of Shirley Hazzard’s Bay of Noon). Now the shortlist has been announced:

The shortlist for The Lost Man Booker Prize – a one-off prize to honour the books published in 1970 that were not eligible for consideration for the Booker Prize – is announced today, Thursday 25 March.

The six books are:

• The Birds on the Trees by Nina Bawden (Virago)
• Troubles by J G Farrell (Phoenix)
• The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard (Virago)
• Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault (Arrow)
• The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (Penguin)
• The Vivisector by Patrick White (Vintage)

The Lost Booker

Saw this today:

Melvyn Bragg, Len Deighton, J.G. Farrell, Susan Hill, David Lodge, Ruth Rendell and Patrick White are just some of the authors who could win The Lost Man Booker Prize which is unveiled today, Monday 1st February. This is a one-off prize to honour books published in 1970 which missed out on the opportunity to win the Booker Prize.

The reason being that no Booker has ever been awarded for books published in 1970, as that year fell into the gap between when the prize was awarded retrospectively and when they started to award the best novel in the past yet.

This is the longlist, with 22 books. I am ashamed to say (mumble) that I haven’t read any of those. Some writers I know and enjoy, but these books? No-uh.

o Brian Aldiss, The Hand Reared Boy
o H.E.Bates, A Little Of What You Fancy?
o Nina Bawden, The Birds On The Trees
o Melvyn Bragg, A Place In England
o Christy Brown, Down All The Days
o Len Deighton, Bomber
o J.G.Farrell, Troubles
o Elaine Feinstein, The Circle
o Shirley Hazzard, The Bay Of Noon
o Reginald Hill, A Clubbable Woman
o Susan Hill, I’m The King Of The Castle
o Francis King, A Domestic Animal
o Margaret Laurence, The Fire Dwellers
o David Lodge, Out Of The Shelter
o Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat
o Shiva Naipaul, Fireflies
o Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander
o Joe Orton, Head To Toe
o Mary Renault, Fire From Heaven
o Ruth Rendell, A Guilty Thing Surprised
o Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat
o Patrick White, The Vivisector

Click here for the full announcement.

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.

Ed O’Loughlin: Not Untrue And Not Unkind

O’Loughlin, Ed (2009), Not Untrue And Not Unkind, Penguin
ISBN 978-1-844-88185-7

I used to look forward to the announcement of the Booker long- and shortlist and the eventual winner. Many books and writers I hold dear I pilfered off those lists, but in recent years I’ve found the Booker judges’ decisions and choices frequently bewildering. Now, I’m well aware that people tend to complain about prizes a lot, claiming objective stances for their own peculiar tastes. So, I’m well aware that it’s my literary taste-buds that led me to disliking Hensher’s last novel and loving Rushdie’s most recent. So what I said is not a general complaint about the deterioration of culture or literary prizes, it’s a personal complaint, a dissatisfaction with the reliability of literary authorities. It’s laziness, basically. Thus, it won’t do to start with winners or short-listed writers; as I commenced to do last year, I’ll start reading books at random off of the longlist, hopefully turning up a gem or two. This here, Ed O’Loughlin’s debut novel Not Untrue And Not Unkind is the first of those reads and most certainly not a gem. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the worst book on this year’s longlist. It’s just a thoroughly bad novel, a disappointment on almost every level, although there is much that is, potentially, interesting about this book’s enterprise, starting with the structure, which appears, at first, to be intriguing.

Not Untrue And Not Unkind contains two narratives, basically, both relayed to us through a first person narrator named Owen, who’s a journalist and reporter. One, we could call it the frame narrative, although that would not be quite true, is set in Dublin, the other is set in various countries in Africa. The Dublin narrative tells us about the inside workings of a newspaper and it is roughly divided into past and present. The past part is about Owen’s faltering career in the newsroom, doing odd jobs, hoping for a promotion, before deciding to try his hand at freelance reporting in Africa. But, as in the Africa section, the contexts and environments are kind of blended into the background while Owen is busy drawing a portrait of the people in these environments (without making any insightful connections between one and the other, really). The character he’s centrally occupied with in these parts, is Cartwright, a mean editor, who keeps tabs on ‘his’ journalists, compiling, as it turns out, extensive reports on each. He enjoys confronting and humiliating them over their mistakes and errors, to which end he invites them out for a coffee where he takes his time to slowly erode and dismember their self-esteem. It is after such a humiliation (although not necessarily because of it) that Owen decides to go to Africa. The present part sets in after Cartwright vanishes and Owen goes through his desk (and, later, his apartment), remembering his past life as a journalist and reporter.

Cartwright is a catalyst of sorts and in one of the final chapters you can clearly see how O’Loughlin means to use this narrative to close the meandering Africa story but the book rather hobbles to a close, adding chapters upon chapters that make the obvious just more obvious; to be honest, I felt manhandled by the author during the closing pages, due to the relief of finishing the book, however, I wasn’t overly bothered by it. But the fact remains that the author doesn’t appear to have confidence in his own creations. The poet James Merrill once, famously, said, roughly, that whenever he stalled in writing a poem, he focused on the objects in the poem, the furniture and things like that. Not Untrue And Not Unkind is not that kind of novel. The environment just consists of props for O’Loughlin’s characters and they themselves are but hastily constructed scaffolds for his plot and other ideas. This is something to regret when encountering characters such as Cartwright, where we can almost smell the wasted potential. Like the close of the book, wasted potential is marked by the reader’s disappointment at the end of the book. Throughout the book I kept thinking there was more good stuff in the back, more good stuff to come, that all this was just preparatory, that it was a lead-in for something that would make reading all the toss worth it, until the great catastrophe near the end disabused me of such a notion. Cartwright’s character is unrealized but then he doesn’t play such a major role in the book.

A much larger role is played by Owen’s fellow journalists in the sections of the book that deal with Africa, and the flaws of O’Loughlin’s characterizations are more of a problem there, as is his disregard for contexts and environments. Superficially, these sections are quite interesting. We, who usually only consume the end product of journalistic work, get to see the photographers and writers at work, but actually, we hear little about that aspect of their lives. When we do, it can be arresting, and O’Loughlin is clearly capable of constructing compelling images, such as a correspondent who is confined to a small room where he talks to TV stations around the world and there, in his chair, in front of the camera he spends his life waiting for the next call, slowly going mad. Images like this are very few and far between. Most of the time, we hear the journalists bicker, drink, fall in and out of love with one another. The group of journalists isn’t a constant entity, people drift in and out again, the only constant is Owen. The literary reference that came to mind when I read the book was Ernest Hemingway’s masterful The Sun Also Rises, which is, I think, one of the best short books of its time, or of its century. One of my favorite novels, in any case.

There is much that connects these two books, but O’Loughlin falls short in almost every respect. Now, it’s no big flaw to fall short of as well made a novel as The Sun Also Rises but it is if the results are as singularly uninteresting as they are in this case. It’s a big risk to assume the stance, to use the tools that Hemingway uses. He himself, in some late novels, showed how easily this kind of writing turns into dullness, into unconvincing posture. What aggravates the problem in Not Untrue And Not Unkind is the fact that everything else that Owen talks about becomes unconvincing as well, and this is a problem with a book that tackles as fickle a subject as African politics and their reflection in the Western media. For a novel of places, a novel that is concerned with all kinds of places in Africa (it does mark places in Africa as places, in contrast to Dublin, which is basically the unmarked backdrop to the whole thing), it is remarkably weak on that count as well. All the African countries are treated as one big ‘African’ country, except for the few passages that contain explicit references to persons and events. This approach completely wipes out any possibility to understand something or to have any kind of insight into any of these events. All we have is a group of vaguely neurotic journalists who travel through Africa, taking notes and pictures. It’s not actually bad, just uninteresting. Disappointing. It’s not moving nor intellectually challenging in any way. It’s just there.

Even the huge amount of violence in the book doesn’t change that. Although, again, O’Loughlin is capable of producing affecting images, as he demonstrates in the story of a man mistakenly left for dead, he makes little enough use of this capability. Mostly, we are confronted with images that are calculated to shock but fail to achieve that goal. There is a weird kind of economy behind this writing, as if the author drew up a table, assigning moments of shock to a portion of the book and moments of emotional distress to others and so forth. They are not genuinely shocking, they are there as objects, the intent to shock in plain sight, which thwarts any opportunity to actually shock or move somebody. However, I may have come to this opinion due to the fact that I was reading a literary novel. Had I encountered the same in a newspaper, in a magazine or something similar, I may not have judged it so harshly; because this, really, is another point of reference for the Africa sections. It all reads rather like routine journalism, spruced up to fit a novel. This explains why it’s so disappointing yet at the same time rather decently written, decently structured, and so on.

The sprucing up also explains why so many ideas appear to be pasted onto the book. One of those ideas is a rather ineptly done metafictional element, with one of the characters writing a thinly disguised memoir with the title “Not Untrue and Not Unkind”, a book that Owen has less than kind words to say about. The infrequent essayistic remarks feel similarly out of place. One of the most memorable one of them is about the changes in journalistic practice which, Owen tells us, is more and more about rewriting, regurgitating the same babble over and over and not going into the field anymore. But, the reader may ask, if these morons in the field, dense as a log of wood, if we source our news from their reports, how is that better? It’s certainly not going to help with insights. Yet, at the same time, this exact question might be one of Not Untrue And Not Unkind‘s points. It is undeniable that there is one, only one, well-drawn character, and that’s Owen himself. His observations, his thoughts, his perceptions, they paint a vivid picture of a deeply unsympathetic person, one who is in a position to help shape public opinion on important issues but who appears to not be qualified to do this in a helpful and satisfying manner. If it was his intention to show this, he succeeded admirably.

It does not, however, make reading the book more of an enjoyable experience. It’s a point well made but the dullness of the whole book can be exhausting, as is the ham-handed way that Owen has with Africa, writing and other issues. At least it’s a light enough read. Maybe it’s a better book than I make it out to be, maybe I’m being misled by my disappointment. But really, even if all this sounds harsh, I’ve been holding back. Some of its portrayal of Africa is highly problematic and having Owen as a lens doesn’t protect the book at all times. If you trust me, don’t read it. It’s not worth your time or your money. Let’s hope it doesn’t get shortlisted.