Moving to the city is the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid came to international attention with his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Reluctant was a timely book, dealing with issues of radicalisation and globalisation, but what really made it stand out was Hamid’s unusual stylistic choice – the entire book was written in the second person, the reader taking the place of an unnamed American sitting in a cafe with the narrator.

The use of the second person in Reluctant led to a few clumsy moments where the narrator had to say things that normally would be covered by descriptive text, but most of the time Hamid pulled it off and the result was a clever and engaging novel which read like a thriller but which glittered with intelligence and insight. One point I picked out specifically in my 2009 review was that you had to simply accept the narrative device; embrace its artificiality. If you could do that the novel worked. If you couldn’t every page would have another irritation.

How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (my favourite book title in quite a while) is another second person novel. This time the conceit is that it’s a self-help book, but a peculiarly specific one. It’s divided into twelve chapters titled things like Move to the City; Get an Education; Focus on the Fundamentals (a little shout-back to Reluctant there); Have an Exit Strategy. It works better than it sounds.

Hamid-How-to-Get-Filthy-Rich

The you of the book starts out as a young village boy from a poor family, and each chapter follows a key moment or decision in the boy’s life leading right up to his eventual death. Hamid uses this structure to follow a particular character’s (rags-to-riches) story while at the same time exploring the social and economic context in which it takes place.

There are no names here, characters are described by role or relationship to “you”: your brother; the pretty girl; the bureaucrat; your deputy. These generic descriptions lend a sense of universality to the story, or potential universality anyway, but at the same time the actual characters under the bland labels are sharply drawn and credible. The pretty girl, one of the most important characters in the book, is fully realised to an extent you’d never expect given that’s the only title she’s ever given. Here’s the opening paragraph:

LOOK, UNLESS YOU’RE WRITING ONE, A SELF-HELP book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It’s true of how-to books, for example. And it’s true of personal improvement books too. Some might even say it’s true of religion books. But some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their throats. So it’s wisest simply to note a divergence of views on that subcategory and move swiftly on. None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.

This being Hamid pointed social commentary is rarely far away. Quoting again from the first chapter:

The people of your village relieve themselves downstream of where they wash their clothes, a place in turn downstream of where they drink. Farther upstream, the village before yours does the same. Farther still, where the water emerges from the hills as a sometimes-gushing brook, it is partly employed in the industrial processes of an old, rusting, and subscale textile plant, and partly used as drainage for the fart-smelling gray effluent that results.

“Your” father is a cook, working for long periods away from home in the city; your mother is a strong and independent woman but uneducated, dependent on her husband’s income, and under the notional authority of her mother-in-law. They’re responsible parents, caring and keen to help their children find their places in the world. You all live together in a single room, the children pretending not to notice when their parents have sex.

Your brother becomes an apprentice to a spray painter, breathing in paint fumes in an unventilated room. It’s a good job, with a salary even as an apprentice and prospects for having his own business one day. Your sister is taken out of school early and married off to a man ten years her senior that she barely knows. “You” are the lucky one, with your brother’s wages coming in your parents can afford to keep you in school.

Chapter one tells how “your” parents decide to move to the city, giving you access to a world of economic opportunity you would never see back in the village. You become part of the great story of Asian development, mass urbanisation. Chapter two shows what passes for your education, your school class taught by a barely educated and hostile teacher who had wanted to be an electricity meter reader as it offered better chances for bribes. Even so, education remains essential, its benefits neatly underlined by a scene where the family watch TV together. To the illiterate mother the credits are “a meaningless stream of hieroglyphs”; your father and sister can make out “an occasional number”; your brother “that and the occasional word”. “You” however can actually read it, and understand that the text tells you who did what on the programme.

The story continues, with Hamid using his entrepreneur’s progress to explore life in a city that is clearly Lahore but which is never named, as what happens there happens just as much in many other Asian metropolises. Even without a name though the city breathes and convinces; the heat and traffic; the bicycles for the poor and chauffeured limos for the rich; the intertwined politicians and businessmen; the high–end hotels and one-room apartments; the power-outages so regular they happen to a schedule.

The protagonist starts out selling pirated DVDs; moves to distributing expired food with forged sell-by-dates; finally he gets into the counterfeit bottled water business, and from that into water purification, crawling his way slowly up from a backroom operation to prestigious government contracts and a gated mansion. The key to wealth, true in rising Asia as it is in the risen West, is to work for yourself and to have others work for you, leveraging your labour by using theirs.

In rising Asia however business nous alone is not enough. Corruption pervades every aspect of life; the protagonist’s early success depends on his drive and intelligence but it depends too on his membership of a politico-religious faction that might as well be an organised crime syndicate. Later, the bought friendship of bureaucrats, politicians and the military becomes equally essential; outsiders need the patronage of incumbents to get ahead, so co-opting precisely those who otherwise might have fought for a better system.

For real money though, to make serious wealth, for that you need access to the deepest pockets of all:

Entrepeneurship in the barbaric wastes furthest from state power is a fraught endeavor, a constant battle, a case of kill or be killed, with little guarantee of success. No, harnessing the state’s might for personal gain is a much more sensible approach. Two related categories of actor have long understood this. Bureaucrats, who wear state uniforms while secretly backing their private interests. And bankers, who wear private uniforms while secretly being backed by the state. You will need the help of both. But in rising Asia, where bureaucrats lead, bankers tend to follow, and so it is on befriending the right bureaucrat that your continued success critically depends.

How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is written with a wry intelligence. Hamid knows his economics, micro and macro, and the hypocrisies inherent in our current economic setup. His goal here though isn’t some tub-thumping exposé of our own complicity in the often-appalling environment he portrays, this isn’t reportage. Instead, Hamid uses a single story to illustrate a world of possible stories, one fictional life to illuminate a society.

All that and Hamid includes a love story too, of sorts, with the protagonist falling in love at an early age with the pretty girl, named after his first impression of her but distinguished more by her intelligence and ambition than her looks, which are just an advantage she can exploit. In many ways she’s his counterpart, born smarter than her peers and driven to something beyond the village she grew up in. Their lives parallel, soon diverging as she heads off to become a model and then an actress, but reconnecting from time to time over the years as each of them tries to get as far and high as they can, to never return to the poverty of means and aspiration they were born into.

The second person conceit works better here than in Reluctant. The self-help element allows Hamid to make astute observations and cynical asides from outside the protagonist’s own experience (don’t fall in love if you want to be truly rich, it’ll distract you from doing whatever it takes to amass as much capital as you can). That distance lends a perspective that was harder to achieve in Reluctant, and more opportunity for humour. It allows Hamid to explore some fairly bleak elements of Pakistani society without the book becoming ugly in the process.

The knack for description I mentioned in my review of Reluctant continues here. A passage near the end describing the experience of being hooked up to life-support machines was impressive in its persuasive immediacy, but also underlined a key message showing how all of us (even self-made men) are part of a complex web of social connections. Hamid understands that nobody exists without context, that Randian supermen are fantasy, and that however much we may shape our own destinies we do so within the pages of books written by other people. As he says at one point, “We are all refugees from our childhoods.”

I’ll end as I often do with a final quote. I chose this one because it illustrates for me why Hamid is a 21st Century author. In one sense of course any writer writing today is a 21st Century author, factually that’s simply what they are. In another though most aren’t, because most aren’t writing about the world I inhabit but about a world which might be mine but could just as easily be the 1990s or 1950s or even the 1880s albeit with televisions on in the background.

As I write this I’m reading Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Nora Webster. In the literal sense Tóibín is of course a contemporary author; Nora Webster came out in late 2014. In another sense though Tóibín is a profoundly 19th Century author, his style and approach to fiction sitting well alongside Henry James (on whom he has of course written so much). Brooklyn and Nora Webster both take place in the 1950s, as did his first novel The South. Tóibín isn’t interested in exploring the specificity of modernity, of contemporary experience, but rather in exploring themes of wider resonance.

I love Tóibín’s work. I think he’s a superb writer, an absolute craftsman and a master at portraying quiet moments that echo through a life. I hope he writes many more books for many years to come. I plan to read them when he does. We need too though writers who write about today, and about the world not as it always is but how it currently is. It’s a point I’ll come back to when I write up Alice Furse’s Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.

Anyway, after all that buildup this small quote is bound to be anticlimactic. So it goes. Here it is:

Near the pharmacy is a coffee shop, evidently part of a chain, and possessed of a franchise’s artificial quirkiness, its seemingly mismatched sofas and chairs and tables corresponding to a precise and determined scheme set forth in the experience section of a corporate brand guidelines binder. Its furniture and fittings evoke decades gone by. Its music, its menu, and, saliently, its prices are utterly contemporary.

I’m not aware of any of the blogs I follow having reviewed this, but if you know of any other blogger reviews please don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments. I will point though to what I thought was a truly excellent review in The Telegraph, which is here. Also, this book gave rise to my very favourite one star review on Amazon, titled “Disliked narrative from outset.,” which is here.

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Filed under Hamid, Mohsin

the beauty of young men

Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf

The thing about Jacob’s Room, before discussing its structure or characters or story or any of that, is that it has some of the most remarkably beautiful prose I’ve read in a very long time. This is a novel suffused with beauty; so that I had to pause reading from time to time just to take it in. Here’s how it opens:

“So of course,” wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeper in the sand, “there was nothing for it but to leave.”

Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them. The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr. Connor’s little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun. She winked quickly. Accidents were awful things. She winked again. The mast was straight; the waves were regular; the lighthouse was upright; but the blot had spread.

Through a prism of tears the blue ink becomes the sea. The text becomes dissolved in disquiet; the tears, the waves, the melting mast and quaking bay and lighthouse, the spreading blot. It’s a troubling start to the novel.

Jacob's Room

Jacob’s Room was published in 1922, a time when the memory of the Great War would still have been fresh both for Woolf and her readers. It’s set pre-war, and shows the development of a young man named Jacob Flanders (an ominous surname if ever there was one). Jacob grows up in Cornwall, goes to university in Cambridge, lives in London for a while, takes a holiday in Greece indulging his love of the Classics. He has friends, lovers, family, a life.

It would have been nearly impossible for any contemporary reader not to be aware of what was waiting for Jacob and his generation. Jacob’s Room looks at first like a Bildungsroman, Jacob’s coming of age tale, but many of Jacob’s generation never got to come of age. The Bildungsroman typically ends with the protagonist assuming their adult place in the world, putting aside their youthful errors and misunderstandings and finding maturity and with it a realisation of their burgeoning potential. The gas, the trenches, the machine guns, bayonets and artillery fire make a complete mockery of all that.

Woolf is of course one of the great Modernist writers, a description which probably does more to put off readers than anything else one could say of her. Jacob’s Room is a Modernist novel. The reader comes to know Jacob not so much directly as indirectly, through how others describe him, through places he’s been or seemingly unimportant incidents in his life. While Woolf occasionally reports Jacob’s speech directly or describes his thoughts it’s rarely anything revelatory. To the extent you piece Jacob together, you do so through the impression he leaves.

I noticed when preparing my notes for writing this that Woolf uses a particular phrase twice, near the beginning and again near the end of the novel (the second example is quoted near the end of this piece). Woolf writes “It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints”. That’s the essence of her portrait of Jacob, but it’s also of course true of how we remember people more generally.

When I remember my grandparents I don’t think of important conversations we had or moments of great drama, I remember resonant fragments. I remember waking up before Christmas and seeing grandpa Kelly in my bedroom with a sack of presents, trying not to be seen; I remember playing cards with grandma Nettie in the holiday evenings; waiting for the bus as a small child with grandma Kelly; grandpa Jim one day asking me what kind of girls I liked (his answer was that he liked girls who liked him, he was a clever man).

I think describing something as Modernist puts many readers off, partly because it promises difficulty and partly because it makes it sound rather grand and austere. You perhaps have stream of consciousness which many dislike, though it’s not a necessary technique and it’s not one that’s used here. Jacob’s Room is closest if anything to an impressionist painting. It puts conventional narrative techniques aside to a degree, but no more than say Pissarro did the same with conventional painting. If you’re not daunted by Pissarro there’s no particular reason to be daunted by Woolf, or at least not by this Woolf.

Pissarro Dulwich

By way of example of what I mean by an impressionist style, here’s Jacob on holiday, the reader back with yachts in blue seas:

The Scilly Isles were turning bluish; and suddenly blue, purple, and green flushed the sea; left it grey; struck a stripe which vanished; but when Jacob had got his shirt over his head the whole floor of the waves was blue and white, rippling and crisp, though now and again a broad purple mark appeared, like a bruise; or there floated an entire emerald tinged with yellow. He plunged. He gulped in water, spat it out, struck with his right arm, struck with his left, was towed by a rope, gasped, splashed, and was hauled on board.

Moments later Jacob loses overboard the copy of Shakespeare’s works he’s been reading, the pages drifting apart in the water. It’s a moment you could easily read considerable symbolism into, but it’s also the sort of minor accident that life is filled with. As Woolf says later in the text, “the observer is choked with observations.” Everything here seems meaningful, but only because it’s been singled out to be shown when so much is left out.

Woolf places Jacob among his peers; showing idle conversations in Cambridge rooms, arguments and affection. The young men shine, their beauty illuminated by Woolf’s gaze. Jacob himself seems to have shifting futures ahead of him, all the things he could become. He has the potential to one day be a writer, a scholar, perhaps a statesman. The classic Bildungsroman makes its hero’s story arc seem inevitable, but after the Great War it must have been miserably apparent how remorselessly contingent our lives actually are. Jacob and his friends are washed away, made generational flotsam by others’ carelessness.

In the end, it’s hard to say anything definite about Jacob. Even the title alludes to his room rather than the man himself, because ultimately all that can be described is the places and people who were shaped by his presence among them. The Jacobness of him is unknown and unknowable, any attempt to capture it can only be pitifully partial:

It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done. Some, it is true, take ineffaceable impressions of character at once. Others dally, loiter, and get blown this way and that. Kind old ladies assure us that cats are often the best judges of character. A cat will always go to a good man, they say; but then, Mrs. Whitehorn, Jacob’s landlady, loathed cats.

In what becomes another subversion of the Bildungsroman genre, it becomes apparent that Jacob isn’t necessarily particularly exceptional. He’s a young man of his time and situation. His thoughts aren’t shown to be especially insightful or original, his undergraduate passions and enthusiasms are precisely that, undergraduate. He’s important mostly to his mother, but then so are most of us. He matters, because people matter and because there are people he matters to.

Kill Jacob or any of his generation at 80 and his potential would be fulfilled (or wasted, which is still a form of completed narrative), his path made inevitable by hindsight. Kill him at 20 and all we’re left with is an absence, a space where a person should be, a room that used to be his filled with objects made irrelevant.

Other reviews

Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed wrote an entire blog post on the first paragraph alone, which can be found here and which is worth reading as he draws a fair bit out of it (but without in my view reading too much into it). Anthony writes a little more on the book more generally here. Novelist Jonathan Gibbs reviewed the book as part of his reading of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, his thoughts are here (though why Melville considered this a novella is utterly beyond me, I don’t see any sense in which it is). Anthony also linked to this tremendous review from a blog previously unknown to me which is very much worth reading.

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Filed under English Literature, Modernist Fiction, Woolf, Virginia

‘I must not say: “Would you like a hand relief?”’

The Holy Machine, by Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett’s latest novel, Dark Eden, won the 2013 Arthur C Clarke award, generally a good guide to what’s interesting in contemporary SF. It’s also attracted a fair bit of attention on the blogosphere, including from reviewers who don’t typically read the genre. Long before that though came Chris Beckett’s interesting 2004 debut novel, The Holy Machine.

Perhaps I should start this story with my escape across the border in the company of a beautiful woman? Or I could begin with the image of myself picking up pieces of human flesh in a small room in a Greek taverna, retching and gagging as I wrapped them in a shirt and stuffed it into my suitcase. (That was a turning point. There’s no doubt about that.) Or, then again, it might be better to begin with something more spectacular, more panoramic: the Machine itself perhaps, the robot Messiah, preaching in Tirana to the faithful, tens of thousands of them clutching at its every word?

HolyMachine

The narrator is George Simling, a 22 year-old translator from a new Balkan state named Illyria. We’re a few decades in the future and the world has fallen into a fractured web of fundamentalist religious states following a sort of anti-enlightenment. Only Illyria still puts science ahead of faith, or ahead of religious faith anyway.

George Simling spends his days assisting trade discussions with Illyria’s fundamentalist neighbours. Every one of those neighbours despises Illyria as a haven for godless idolators bound for hell, but then Illyria despises them in turn for being blinded by dogmatism and superstition. Still, Illyria needs food and immigrant labour, and they need the high technology that only Illyria still produces. When did mutual hate ever stop business?

George’s lives with his mother, but she spends as much time as she can locked into a virtual environment from which she can shut out the frightening real world. His work isn’t interesting and he doesn’t have a girlfriend or much of a social life. He does though have Lucy, one of a new range of robots each of which is designed to look and feel exactly like a human being. Lucy is beautiful and charming and available for hire by the lonely for an affordable hourly price.

Lucy is programmed to learn from experience so that she can better please her customers, but learning is double-edged. Lucy, like others in her range, starts to show signs of developing behaviours that weren’t planned for. The machine starts to develop a ghost:

Swallow. Make random choice from post-oral option sequence OS{O-78}/7: caress.

NB: Attention! Subject pushes hand away. Switch to option sequence OS{A-01}/4.

Remark: ‘Would you like me to get you a drink or something?’

But who is this voice? Who is it that speaks these words?

NB: Attention! Subject getting dressed very quickly. Facial reading: FM-77/09/z5. Agitation.

Interpretation: Do not impede departure! This is situation PV-82! Adopt abbreviated closure option sequence from OS{AC} series…

Smile (type 3 [V73]). Remark (R-8812): Hope that felt good. ‘Hope to see you again soon, dear.’

Illyria passes a law requiring that the new robots’ personalities be wiped every six months to stop them getting too independent. For George this is devastating. He loves Lucy, or in any event loves her body and her flattering responses. He doesn’t want to lose her. Soon the two of them are on the run, and the only place to go is outside Illyria to religious states who if they realise what Lucy is will immediately destroy her as an abomination.

The novel’s setting is, let’s face it, pretty unlikely. It’s hard to imagine everywhere save one country becoming a religious dictatorship. It broadly works though because Beckett uses this world as a vehicle to explore questions of faith, of how we choose to give our lives meaning, and of the dangers of absolutism.

Illyria considers itself to be rational, but is becoming increasingly intolerant and autocratic (it follows a rather aggressive Dawkins-esque approach to atheism). Religious faith is seen as dangerous (which to be fair it is given how the rest of the world has gone) and it’s increasingly important to be unquestioningly loyal and right-thinking.

More than twenty thousand guestworkers had come out onto the streets. They had demanded the usual things: religious freedom and full citizenship of Illyria, where they formed the majority of the population but continued to be treated as foreigners. The police had ordered the demonstration to disperse under the Prevention of Bigotry Act.

Prior to his flight George finds himself involved with a dissident group through a young woman named Marija who seems potentially attracted to him, but a relationship with a robot programmed to please you is easier than one with a woman full of human complexities. It’s one of many ironies in this novel.

George feels out of place in Illyria with its relentless certainty and increasing atomism. He sympathises with those seeking religious freedom, freedom of thought, though that becomes a little trickier once it becomes clearer to him what they actually believe (another irony):

‘Let me get this straight! You’re saying that what happens to me for the rest of eternity all hinges on whether or not I believe that certain specific events took place back in the days of the Roman Empire? That’s – what? – more than twice as long ago as the Norman conquest of England?!’ Janine nodded serenely.

Lucy meanwhile, given room to grow, becomes increasingly what frightened George in Marija – a person existing independently of his needs and desires. This leads to much of the book’s comedy as Lucy tries to understand the world using the skills and conversation given to her, and to question her own nature:

‘I… am… a machine. I know I am a machine,’ she began. And then: ‘Maybe you’d like me to dress up as a treat. What about my red stockings? You know how you like me to…’

George wants to give Lucy the opportunity to truly become herself, because he loves her, but the more Lucy develops the more it’s evident his project is utterly misconceived. What George loves is a physical form and some programming designed to appeal to young men like him. In the novel’s ultimate irony it becomes apparent that what George loves isn’t Lucy at all. Lucy isn’t a woman, Lucy isn’t even human. Lucy is a machine, an it, and it begins to become more interested in questions of existence and meaning than pleasing George. It becomes an ontological, theological, machine. The more George succeeds, the less Lucy is what he wants her to be.

Lucy then is a machine that seems human, but isn’t. George’s mother is a human who wants to leave her flesh behind and to exist within a machine. The faithful believe in souls separate to bodies, and in their own ways both Lucy and George’s mother are trying to transcend the bodies they were given. George wants to save Lucy, or more accurately to save his idea of Lucy. Lucy wants to be itself and to understand why it exists. Everyone is struggling with faith in one form or other, and with the collision of belief and inconvenient fact.

The Holy Machine is very much a novel of ideas, and that’s both its strength and weakness. There’s plenty of adventure here: both before the flight as George gets involved with increasingly extremist groups; and once George is on the run as he tries to present the dangerously innocent (but seductive) Lucy as his wife to those they encounter. That though is the sugar which helps the philosophical medicine go down, and perhaps fittingly the result is a rather cerebral novel where Beckett’s real interest seems less in what happens to his characters as in the arguments and positions they represent.

I’ll end with one final quote, chosen partly because it illustrates the issues the novel explores and partly because it rather resonated with me:

But there is one problem about being religious. You are taught that the supernatural exists – miracles, angels, the resurrection of the dead – but for some reason it always seems to happen off stage, either somewhere else, or somewhen long ago. You actually have to live in exactly the same boringly unsupernatural world as do the unbelievers. It must be hard work believing in things which never actually happen.

So I don’t think it’s surprising that religious folk sometimes erupt in excitement over a statue that appears to weep, or a fish whose lateral markings spell out the Arabic letters for ‘God is great’, or an oil-stain on a garage forecourt that resembles the Virgin Mary…

For another view of The Holy Machine I can’t do better than point to David Hebblethwaite’s review here, which also links to several other fine reviews. If you’ve been tempted by Beckett this isn’t a bad place to start. It’s an interesting and intelligent book even if perhaps sometimes a little too prone to infodumps and a slight obviousness in its themes. It’s easy though to draw analogies on a number of fronts with our own world, not least that what’s best and most challenging in other people is the fact they exist beyond our ideas of them.

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Filed under Beckett, Chris, Science Fiction

Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year

I didn’t read a lot of books in 2014, fewer than ever I suspect, but I did read some damn good ones and a fair few chunksters so the year certainly wasn’t all bad. The biggest impact on my reading in 2014 was from #readwomen2014, so I’ve divided this post into two parts first considering how that campaign affected me and then setting out my personal best books of the year.

PolishCasablanca

As best I can tell that poster was inspired by the film, rather than being used to actually market it, but who cares? It’s a wonderful piece of design. It also bears no connection to anything in this post.

#readwomen2014

I posted originally about the #readwomen2014 campaign here, back in April when it first caught my attention. It made me realise how disproportionately I read books by men, with only 14% of the authors on my kindle being female. A statistic that stark demanded a little reflection on my part, and my goal with #readwomen2014 was to try to rebalance my reading and to find some hopefully new favourite authors who I’d been unconsciously overlooking.

On a personal level #readwomen2014 was a huge success. I finally read Eleanor Catton, whose work I loved. I read more Abbott, Winterson and Didion; my first (but I hope not last) of each of Martha Baillie, Penelope Fitzgerald, Anne Enright, Amy Sackville and  Claudia Piñeiro. I read literary fiction, crime, SF, essays, there wasn’t a single time when I felt like a particular type of book and couldn’t easily find an example of it by an author I could trust.

None of that surprised me. What did surprise me though was that as the year progressed I started to feel slightly left out of what I tend to think of as the literary conversation. By that I mean the world of newspaper reviews, twitter, the blogosphere, the places I go to read about and discuss books. For me there’s an ongoing discussion between readers, publishers, authors and critics where we share our sense of achievement or excitement at new reads and new discoveries.

Women are well represented in that conversation, though perhaps more often as bloggers than as professional reviewers. Women authors though began to seem less so. The books that were getting the most attention, the most hype, were mainly (Jenny Offill being an obvious exception) by men. I was trying to read books by women, but to do so meant relying less on newspaper and journal reviews because they didn’t seem so interested in what women were writing.

What I’m reporting here is really a sense of distance, a feeling that the more I spent time reading books by women the less I was part of a conversation that was largely about men. It’s an odd feeling, and not a particularly pleasant one. It’s a sensation though that has some statistical backing, thanks to the US campaign Vida. This page shows a US-focused pie chart for 2013 showing reviews of books by men (red) against books by women (blue). 2013 was actually a pretty good year for women in this sense, the chart for 2012 is much worse.

I think we are seeing some progress in this area, not least because of campaigns like #readwomen2014 and Vida, but not enough. It’s noticeable if you spend any time on the blogosphere how much more diverse it is than the literary pages. Women writers aren’t sidelined and books in translation get covered far more with the overall result being that significantly more voices are heard.

The blogosphere though, much as I’m fond of it (and I am after all part of it) is vastly less important than the newspaper and journal review pages, and is completely ignored by the bulk of the reading public. Professional book review pages still matter, but there’s scope for most of them to be a lot better.

My favourite books of 2014

These are in a very, very rough order of increasing preference, though no great weight should be put on exact positions and on a different day I’d probably swap some of them around. The further down the list, the more it’s stuck with me.

Best novel about adultery and economic collapse featuring a protagonist who’s more likable than she has any right to be: The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright. I hummed and hawed a bit about whether to include this one or not, but in the end I thought it captured something of the feeling of living in a boom time that few novels manage, and at the same time it managed to make that most tired of literary subjects adultery actually interesting. Suggestions for other Enrights to try would be welcome.

Best piece of sheer and utter schlock that really shouldn’t be on this list if I have any pride in myself or this blog at all but I still liked it so here it is: The Devil Rides Out, by Denis Wheatley. What can I say? There’s a reason this man sold so many books. This isn’t remotely literary. It’s dated, the style is meat-and-potatoes plain writing with no frills and it’s snobbish to a level that makes Anthony Powell and Marcel Proust look like Marxists.

Despite all those actually fairly serious flaws I really enjoyed this. It’s preposterous, yet somehow while you’re reading it Wheatley makes you suspend a mountain of disbelief just long enough for it all to be a lot of fun. I’ve always loved pulp, and this is good pulp.

Best essay about getting a Kindle: I Murdered My Library, by Linda Grant. This is a slightly odd inclusion, but Linda Grant’s essay about how she came to dispose of most of her books and grew to love her Kindle struck a lot of chords with me and got me thinking about my own relationship with books as objects and the way how I’d like to buy books differs from how I actually buy them. I think it’s an interesting read for anyone who loves books, which is anyone reading this, but perhaps fittingly it’s only available on Kindle.

Best novel using crime as a vehicle for social critique: Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro and translated by Miranda France. A tremendous examination of social tensions in Argentina and quite how ugly things can get when the money’s gone, all through the lens of a prestigious gated community. This is a fascinating novel in a great translation and one I’m really grateful to Guy Savage for pointing me towards.

Best melancholic novel which I found quite sad even though it’s been widely reviewed as a biting black satire: Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author, by Paul Ewen. This fell into my period when I just got swamped in work and fell badly behind on the blog, so I haven’t written it up yet.

It’s in part a satire on the UK publishing scene and the sheer oddity of promoting books by having authors, generally not the most outgoing of individuals, read out bits of their books to audiences mostly composed of people either already in the publishing business or wanting to be in it; in part a series of comic interactions between Paul Ewen’s drunk and slightly delusional Francis Plug alter-ego with various Booker-prize winning novelists; and in part too a critique of contemporary UK culture and the utilitarian value we place on art.

Best novel by Eleanor Catton that’s not The Luminaries: The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton. I loved this. I loved its tricksy nature, the absolute skill with which it’s put together and the fact that I never knew quite what I was reading. It’s an exceptionally accomplished first novel, and on its own catapulted Catton into my personal “writers to watch” category.

Best novel that if I didn’t like it I’d be thrown out of the Modernist-novel-liking community: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce. Being honest, this is a novel I respect more than love, but I do respect it a great deal. It’s tremendously well written and structured, has passages of great beauty and power, and could repay reread after reread with more to find each time.

It’s also though written in the context of a social and historical milieu so specific that chunks of the novel are fairly hard to understand without having first read some background notes. While I don’t think this would ever have been an accessible novel, its connection to such a specific place and time has made it now fairly difficult for reasons largely unconnected to its style, which perhaps helps explain why it’s a book more studied than read.

Best what exactly was that about again?: The Yips, by Nicola Barker. The last book I read in 2014, but definitely a good one. This is one of those Marmite novels which either resonate with you immediately or which will be extremely annoying. I find myself reaching not only for the obvious words like funny, but also for words like luxurious, abundant, fecund even. I’m not quite sure what that means I’m saying about it, but since I’m not quite sure what it was about either I think that’s ok.

Best novel I can’t help but love and why would I want not to?: Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares and translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell. This is just an utter delight. It’s a spoof crime novel with possibly the worst amateur detective in the history of fiction as its lead. It’s warm, funny, charming, skilfully written and observed and just generally an absolute joy.

Truth be told I probably have more affection for this than any other book on the list – it’s that sort of novel. It’s also the second Argentinian novel on this year’s list which is interesting. Looking back it reminds me slightly of Szerb in style, which is about as high praise as I can imagine.

Best clean-lined novel filled with empty spaces: Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion. Ok, we’re into the seriously good stuff here. Didion’s novel is a cocaine-blast of light and nothingness, a marvel of haunting and arid beauty. As I think about it now my mind’s filled with imagery of deserts, identikit motel rooms, snakes, a car racing down highways insulated from heat and life and mess but never insulated enough. This is intensely cinematic; a book that’s learned the language of film in an utterly different way to that used by Döblin in his Berlin Alexanderplatz but which is just as effective, perhaps more so.

Best novel featuring over a 100 pages on a single dinner party, observing it in slower than real-time gloryThe Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust and translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enwright. This was a serious challenge. The first half, while necessary, is a slog. It pays off, but you work to get there.

Proust continues to have moments of incredible insight. The depiction of the narrator’s grandmother’s death is awful because it’s so ordinary and so sad as she becomes lost to her illness long before she’s actually gone. Equally, the dawning realisation that the Guermantes and their world may not hold up to close scrutiny, that what was worthy of worship from a distance seems all too human close up, is brilliantly realised. Proust remains for me among the greatest of authors, not least because his subject matter is so very specific and yet somehow within it he finds all humanity.

Best ancient Greek epic which I’ve read now three or four times and yet which never pales in interest or excitement: The Iliad, by Homer and translated by Richard Lattimore. This is another one that fell into my review black hole when work swallowed me, so the writeup’s still outstanding. This though is a high quality muscular translation with a real feel for poetic rhythm and a genuine sense of the epic. It’s a fluid and rewarding read, powerful and resonant and while I can’t say if it’s the best translation out there (views differ) it’s a bloody good one on any account.

If you’ve not read The Iliad you really should (and it’s the only book on this list I say that of). Even after 3,000 years this remains an exciting and essential text packed with humanity. The older I get the more tragic I find this, the senseless waste of years and lives for so little point or gain.

Best faux-19th Century novel undermining its own narrative concepts and also my best novel of 2014: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. Just wonderful. This is an intricately structured novel capable of being read on multiple levels every one of which is rewarding. It’s filled with rich characters and descriptions, the prose is dense and satisfying and the whole book just shines with intelligence and the comfort that comes from reading an author absolutely in control of their material.

And that’s it! Not a bad list even if it wasn’t the best year. 2015 currently promises to be much better though, getting off to a roaring start with incredibly impressive books like The Good Soldier and Jacob’s Room. I enjoyed Hamid’s How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and look forward to his next, and so far at least I’m hugely impressed by Alice Furse’s Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.

I’ll end though on a book that I think I read in late 2013, but it’s hard now to tell. For some reason it didn’t get included in my 2013 list, so I’ll mention it here as a final category at the end, a sort of lifetime achievement award. Here it is:

Best novel set in a roadside diner: The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain. Classic noir, tautly written and effortlessly quotable. If you have any interest in noir fiction at all then this is just a must-read. Also a strong contender in the best novel about people making truly bad choices category. No idea why I overlooked it last year.

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The television’s caffeinated universe kept unfolding

Nod, by Adrian Barnes

As I write this I have a fairly grim cold and haven’t slept properly in days. The result is I feel slightly distanced from the world, as if I’m seeing it through thick glass, and generally I feel rather disaffected and unpleasant. Normally I wouldn’t write a review when feeling like that, but in the case of Nod it seems almost fitting because this is after all a novel about an insomniac apocalypse.

Nod

Paul is a middling-successful writer. He specialises in unusual etymology, writing books about archaic or obscure words and their meanings. He lives with his wife Tanya in Vancouver. They have a decent and fairly typical life, not rich but doing ok. Then, one night, Paul goes to sleep and when he wakes up in the morning he finds Tanya irritable because she couldn’t sleep and the world irrevocably changed.

It soon becomes apparent that almost the entire human race had a night without sleep. Experts debate possible causes on rolling 24-hour news channels; people are frightened and cranky. It’s not until the second sleepless night that it starts to become obvious that what’s happening is effectively the end of the world.

A week without sleep and psychosis sets in. A month without sleep and you die. That’s not just in the book by the way; the exact timings may be off but we really do need sleep to maintain sanity and ultimately health. I’ve had a couple of nights with just my sleep being interrupted, and I already feel dreadful (it is just a cold though in case anyone is worried, I’ll be fine in a day or so).

Society starts to fray at the edges. Exhausted and desperate people start to turn on each other as they face a destruction that’s oddly intimate yet near-universal.

All the nicely-printed shelf tags had been pulled off and prices written directly on the goods in red felt pen. They were now roughly triple what they’d been two days ago. At least capitalism was still alive and functioning properly. The thought of that invisible hand still busily bitch-slapping the poor and desperate was almost reassuring. After all, in order to muster up the will to profiteer, one needs to be able to envision a future in which to spend one’s ill-gotten gains.

Coming out of the store I saw that the line had now swelled to a couple of thousand panicky people who were surging forward against the line of soldiers. Something ugly was going to happen soon. An idea had to be growing in that massive line up: why pay when every defenseless person leaving the store with an armful of groceries is a sort of walking Food Bank?

What follows is an increasingly grim tale as everyone around Paul, including Tanya, falls into madness and terror. Those who still sleep get called “Sleepers” by those who can’t. They become the target of strange obsessions, schemes to somehow steal the secret of sleep from them, resentment and violence.

Paul is fixated on by a homeless man named Charles that he used to know. Charles has somehow got hold of Paul’s latest still-unpublished manuscript, titled Nod, and has found in it a meaning for the chaos the world is slipping into. Charles believes that Paul is a prophet, that his “Nod” manuscript is an explanation, and that he Charles is the high priest of the message Paul has brought the world. Soon others gather behind Charles’ message of salvation through lack of sleep. Tanya meanwhile starts to try to prepare for her own decline, while Paul steadfastly ignores the evident horror of their situation.

‘I think it’s time we started planning for what comes next.’ ‘Why don’t we just go to sleep?’ ‘I’m not going to sleep, Paul.’ I heard myself begin to whine. ‘You don’t know that. That’s just something out of a movie. Doomed people in movies always have this sad foreknowledge of what’s coming down the pike. But that’s just Hollywood bullshit melodrama. You don’t know you’re not going to sleep.’

Nod is not a novel to read if you require sympathetic protagonists. Paul is, quite simply, a self-absorbed misanthrope. For him the end of the world is inconvenient and dangerous, but he’s not going to miss humanity much. Even Tanya’s situation he sees more in terms of how it impacts him than what it means for her.

Everybody dies eventually. So if eight billion of us die in the next four weeks is that significant? All this sleeplessness plague could do was align those billions of inevitable deaths into a slightly narrower window of time—a matter of efficiency, not tragedy. If, during any one of a million previous nights, a giant asteroid had smashed the earth into gravel while we all slept, would it have mattered?

All of that makes his in some respects not the best viewpoint to see the end of the world from. Partly because I don’t think many readers will find themselves hoping Paul somehow survives, but much more importantly because his dispassionate attitude makes Nod a slightly bloodless affair at times (metaphorically speaking, literally there’s plenty of blood before the book’s done). If those I loved were facing insanity and death I’d fall apart. Paul adapts, and in doing so some of the trauma of what’s happening is perhaps lost.

Nod was also heavily criticised by some reviewers for its attitude to women. Where you have a single narrative voice it’s of course very difficult to distinguish between the character’s attitudes and the author’s, but it’s fair to say that there are problems here. I thought Tanya an interesting and credible character, but this is a narrative where she suffers sexual humiliation twice, is used by Charles to attack Paul’s self-esteem, and generally where she never seems to do anything but instead merely comments on what others do. She is acted upon, but never seems herself to act, and the same could probably be said for other women in the novel. Anyone who actually does anything, however crazed it might be, is a man.

The cruelty to Tanya may of course just be more evidence of Paul’s general selfishness and his solipsistic attitudes to the people around him. When he and Tanya take in a child who still sleeps so as to protect it from the mob, he comments: “We called her Zoe, Tanya having plucked the name from a mental list of future-children names that women seem to carry around inside themselves like eggs. Women. Eggs in their bodies, babies in their eyes.” It’s a strikingly sexist viewpoint, but whether it’s Paul being Paul or symptomatic of a wider issue in how the novel treats women is to some extent up for argument.

Where Nod works well then is its portrait of a descent into a nightmare-world populaced by crazed people who know in their lucid moments that they’re doomed but who even so act as if there’s some purpose to their frenzy. Where it works less well is Paul’s almost-indifference to the events around him and his objectification of Tanya which because his is the only voice we hear becomes the novel’s objectification of Tanya.

Hints of a wider pattern (and perhaps purpose) do emerge. Paul realises that those who sleep aren’t immune at all to whatever’s happening, but are just responding differently. He and the other adult Sleepers have the same dream of a great golden light, and the urge to sleep grows stronger and the sleeps themselves longer and deeper, raising the possibility that one day they may simply stop waking up. Children who can still sleep are stranger yet, no longer speaking and taking to the nearby woods where they form small silent communities.

Humanity then isn’t so much being ended as being altered, and the suspicion grew in me that the adult Sleepers like Paul only existed so that someone could protect the child Sleepers from the increasingly dangerous sleepless psychotics. I was reminded in fact of Michael Bishop’s The Quickening which touches on similar territory (though I’ve no reason to believe Barnes has read it). That’s of course a reading of the novel as story rather than allegory, and I think it’s fairly clear Barnes intends it to work as both.

Nod is what Margaret Atwood might call speculative fiction. This isn’t a novel about how or why all this is happening – nobody Paul meets has the faintest clue about either. Instead this is a novel about people and ideas. Charles’ creation of a religion around Paul is an attempt to wrest meaning from chaos, with Charles finding himself in the process transformed from an outcast to a leader. Paul finds himself on the receiving end of objectification, his own lack of faith in Charles’ credo an inconvenience. There’s nothing more dangerous to a new faith than an off-message messiah.

Perception and interpretation are key here. As people become increasingly gripped by hallucinations those who offer simple explanations of the world become dangerously attractive. In one scene a group watch the skies where they have collectively persuaded themselves they can see angels flying overhead, then someone suggests that in fact they’re demons and the crowd disintegrates in terror. Anyone who stands up offering certainty can form their own petty empire, granted power by people who’ve outsourced critical thinking. It’s hard not to see all that as a commentary on our own comfortably pre-apocalyptic world.

What underlines the arbitrariness of it all is a realisation Paul has relatively late. For him he’s at the centre of it all, the new faith is formed around his word and everything that happens seems to be focused on him. He would think that though, because for Paul the world was always all about him.

It suddenly struck me that not everyone left alive even knew about Nod. Holy shit, I thought, almost no one knew about Nod. The vast majority of the Awakened were living in nameless kingdoms of their own terrified devising, and now they were ranged all around us, trembling and grinding their teeth.

Everything we read is in fact a tiny drama in a global ruin. Paul for a while sees his conflict with Charles as important, but it’s only important to them. His manuscript and the new faith it spawns are relevant to perhaps a few hundred people at most out of billions. What seems to him and Charles central to it all is in fact a side story, and perhaps there are only side stories.

That brings me back to Nod as commentary. Paul sees what happens to him as meaningful, but in the wider sense it plainly isn’t. Charles seizes power when the world falls apart, but it’s incredibly local power and he’ll still be dead within the month. The world of Nod is one filled with people with no sense of context, who think their struggles significant and their victories important but who in the blink of an eye will be lost in an ocean of endless incident.

In real life too we invest meaning in our dramas and our politics and of course we’re right to do so, a change of administration may make real differences to real lives, but step back a moment and most things that seem important either aren’t at all or are important just to us personally or locally, not on any wider level. We live amidst an epidemic of voices shouting at us from all sides, distracted by flickering images only a pixel deep,. Whatever signal there may be out there it quickly gets lost in the noise.

In the end, ironically or intentionally, Tanya has the right of it. She’s the only one who understands that what really matters isn’t the wider meaning and potential of the new world, but how it impacts her and Paul personally and their life together. It’s Tanya who sees that it’s important to protect Zoe, looking past her own descent into madness, degradation and death. Of course making Tanya’s concerns domestic is itself problematic from a gender politics perspective, save perhaps (only perhaps) for the fact that on this occasion she’s so plainly right.

Nod appeared on the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke award shortlist, where it was a controversial nominee due to what many saw as its deep-rooted sexism (and with some also just thinking it wasn’t very good). The objections to it were made if anything more pointed by the fact 2013 saw a male-only nominee list, which stood out given how many excellent female SF authors there are.

Unsurprisingly then, Nod was widely reviewed. I’d point particularly to this review by David Hebbelthwaite who is probably my go-to person for quality SF recommendations (and beyond, David doesn’t just read SF by any means). Also on the positive side is this review by Nina Allen, which I thought nicely captured the core allegory of the novel (“What Barnes seems to be saying, put most simply, is: ‘wake up!’”).

On the negative side I’d flag this review by the always perceptive Niall Harrison who absolutely slates the book in a single paragraph (“the reading experience is just limply unpleasant”) and this excellent review by Abigail Nussbaum. Abigail was I thought particularly good on the gender-issues of the book (though I disagree that the book has an incoherent cosmology, I think the lack of coherence is intentional and reflects Paul’s own limits as narrator and a wider point about the partiality of every perspective).

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Who in this world knows anything of any other heart – or of his own?

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

Where to start with a book this good? This is the first book I finished in 2015, and I’ll be amazed if it isn’t on my 2015 end of year list (it would have topped my 2014 list if I’d finished it a couple of days earlier).

It opens with a stark sentence:

THIS IS THE saddest story I have ever heard.

It’s a remarkable claim, an immediate warning that the narrator may be overselling their case. Zoë Heller’s (excellent) foreword to the Vintage edition quotes a 1915 review by American novelist Theodore Dreiser, who picks out that sentence for special scorn. Dreiser saw it as ludicrously overblown, which of course it is, but he also mistook it for an authorial assertion. It didn’t seem to occur to him that the narrator might not be reliable. That makes Dreiser sound like an idiot, but perhaps it’s better seen as a mark of quite how radical this book was when it came out and how familiar readers have since become with what were once highly innovative techniques.

The narrator is John Dowell, on his account a straightforward American gentleman married to rich Connecticut Heiress Florence Dowell. John and Florence were friends for nine years with Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, an upper middle-class English couple. As the book opens that friendship is past tense – Edward and Florence are both dead and the group’s lives were shown to be a lie. John can unravel what happened, but not why. “It is all a darkness.”

You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.

The sack of a city, the falling of a people, again the comparisons John makes are extraordinary. Still, who wouldn’t sympathise with a man who has suffered a personal tragedy and who is now just trying to get it all straight in his head? Is it so incredible that in his grief and confusion his private sorrows seem like the end of the world? Even so, does he perhaps protest too much? Could his account be not so much an attempt to understand as to justify?

GoodSoldier

What follows is a rambling account of the time the Dowells and Ashburnhams had together. They met at a private sanatorium in Germany for heart patients (early 20th Century literature would be lost without its sanatoria). Florence and Edward though both in seeming good health are each being treated for heart conditions. John and Leonora are their apparently loving and supportive spouses. The four had an:

… intimacy like a minuet, simply because on every possible occasion and in every possible circumstance we knew where to go, where to sit, which table we unanimously should choose; and we could rise and go, all four together, without a signal from any one of us, always to the music of the Kur orchestra, always in the temperate sunshine, or if it rained, in discreet shelter.

Good form is everything to John. He constantly refers to where people are from, to their family background and the traits one can assign to the English or to Americans or to this group or that. He is a man who lives by categories, expecting everyone to behave according to his perceptions of their class and nationality. He places huge importance on what he considers “good people”.

The given proposition was, that we were all ‘good people.’ We took for granted that we all liked beef underdone but not too underdone; that both men preferred a good liqueur brandy after lunch; that both women drank a very light Rhine wine qualified with Fachingen water – that sort of thing.


Mind, I am not saying that this is not the most desirable type of life in the world; that it is not an almost unreasonably high standard. For it is really nauseating, when you detest it, to have to eat every day several slices of thin, tepid, pink india rubber, and it is disagreeable to have to drink brandy when you would prefer to be cheered up by warm, sweet Kümmel. And it is nasty to have to take a cold bath in the morning when what you want is really a hot one at night. And it stirs a little of the faith of your fathers that is deep down within you to have to have it taken for granted that you are an Episcopalian when really you are an old-fashioned Philadelphia Quaker.

The minuet then wasn’t all it seems, was in fact “a prison full of screaming hysterics”, and yet still he looks back on it as an idyll. He goes back and forth, torn. Was what they had good and true or was it rotten? If it was rotten and he didn’t know does that not mean anyway that it was good and true until he knew? He’s writing partly to answer that question, and yet is it credible that he could be quite so clueless for quite so long?

What he was clueless of was that for most of their time together Florence was having an affair with Edward, and Leonora knew. For nine years they stepped together as one, ate at the same tables, went to the same concerts, and through it all his closest friend was sleeping with his wife. Both marriages were a sham.

As he tries to unpick it all John follows associations rather than the simple order of events. He refers to things he hasn’t yet explained, and puts weight on incidents the reader has no context for. He knows he’s doing it, but he says he’s telling it as it comes to him, and that it’s perhaps a more faithful account of his thoughts and experiences precisely because it’s jumbled. Life is jumbled.

It may be that John rambles through his history because he just can’t face certain facts until he’s deep enough into the telling of it all. Alternatively, it may be that he’s manipulating the listener (reader) and ordering events to his best advantage. It’s hard to say; John’s account bears multiple interpretations.

What does become clear though is that John’s marriage was loveless from the beginning, and he was comfortable with that. He says he saw himself as a nursemaid to a sick wife, one too ill to let him into her bed, yet he seems to have been not too unhappy with the arrangement. He says her money never interested him, but he seems to have made use of it all the same. He portrays himself as a largely passionless man, unimaginative and conventional, an easy gull for “three hardened gamblers, who were all in league to conceal their hands from me”. It may be true, or he could be as good a gambler as any or even the best of them all.

As the book progresses, hints emerge that John may not be all he claims. His description of his relationship with his wife for example:

Yes, she became for me, as it were, the subject of a bet – the trophy of an athlete’s achievement, a parsley crown that is the symbol of his chastity, his soberness, his abstentions, and of his inflexible will. Of intrinsic value as a wife, I think she had none at all for me. I fancy I was not even proud of the way she dressed.

Is she then a hardened adulteress as he portrays her for much of the book; a manipulative flirt? Or is she married to a passive-aggressive (there are hints he may even be outright aggressive at times) man who has her trapped and enjoys a lifestyle that relies in part on her money? As he continues, John describes more of each of Florence, Edward and Leonora and each time he does the perspectives shift and what seemed clearly one thing becomes possibly quite another.

Edward is a deeply handsome man, attractive to women, who on the surface is a good landlord, skilled and courageous soldier and above all honourable. Privately though John describes him as a shallow sentimentalist, a spendthrift womaniser and an utter romantic too easily influenced by cheap novels. The portrait though isn’t always entirely consistent, and at times another image of Edward comes through where he seems cleverer, better read and more thoughtful.

John is in fact highly ambivalent about Edward, which is perhaps fair enough given Edward was sleeping with his wife. I started to wonder though if perhaps it wasn’t just women who were attracted to Edward or if John was too (he is after all is quite happy to be in a sexless marriage). If it’s implied it’s certainly never made explicit; it would be questionable if John himself were even aware of it. The irony is that of all the characters in this book it’s John who’s hardest to get a grip on, even though it’s him of course you spend every page with.

Leonora seems at first to be a stoic woman faithfully standing by her man, despite his many failings and the pain he causes her. She’s an English Catholic who seeks marriage advice from priests and nuns, with predictably bad results. Later she seems more controlling and Edward’s striving to break free of her becomes perhaps more sympathetic, but is that right either? Perhaps she and Edward were just terribly mismatched. Perhaps they were good people after all, not in the snobbish sense John uses the term but more fundamentally.

Perhaps the answer is that there isn’t an answer; Florence, Edward and Leonora were just people and things happened and they were all just doing the best they could. If that’s the case though that doesn’t fit well with John’s description of them as “three hardened gamblers”. Could it be that it’s not even that there were four gamblers, but in fact only one? It’s hard to know, because everything here comes through John and the more he explained the less I trusted him.

The key here is that John isn’t the neutral observer and narrator he claims to be; he was a participant in everything he describes and sometimes the only witness which increasingly makes The Good Soldier a murky read. John emphasises surface tranquility, proper behaviour and good form; everything around him though seems to be passion, confusion, fear, and of course love (the emotion he seems to most struggle with). On another reading, John is in modern terms a sociopath and as the book progresses that becomes more persuasive. Lives are ruined here, people die, and John’s bafflement could be genuine but could also be a mix of front and underlying lack of interest in the tragedies of other people.

If ever a book merited rereading it’s The Good Soldier. It’s short, but packed with possibilities. It’s beautifully written, psychologically complex and in its impressionistic approach to narrative feels much closer to portraying real human beings than most books I’ve read. Real people aren’t entirely consistent, even those we know best surprise us from time to time. Ford captures that, while most authors a century later still write characters who make sense and who therefore aren’t really entirely human.

I could have written many different reviews of this book picking up different facets or interpretations of it. It’s a masterpiece, to use a word I’ve used on this blog before but only very rarely. I plan to reread it, and to read more Ford. The word masterpiece of course can be offputting, and so too can comments about psychological complexity and unreliable narratives and modernism and so on. I’ll end then by also saying that it’s a novel that’s exceptionally rewarding yet at the same time isn’t a particularly challenging read. Quite an achievement.

The prompt to read this now came about due to a readalong between Emma of Book Around The Corner (her review is here), and Jacqui of JacquiWine’sjournal (her review is here). Both their reviews are well worth reading, not least as with a book as subtle as this more than one perspective is very valuable.

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‘Nicely punctuated. … Interesting mixture of nouns and adjectives.’

The Yips, by Nicola Barker

I probably wouldn’t have read this but for the #readwomen2014 campaign. I was aware of Barker, but somehow had never been pushed over the edge into actually trying one of her books. Perhaps it’s because she keeps getting longlisted for the Booker, and I don’t hugely rate that prize, or perhaps because I had the mistaken impression that she was a polite author addressing contemporary English middle class concerns.

Well, I can’t speak to her other novels, but The Yips is not polite. Rather, it’s a 550 page funhouse mirror of a book, reflecting back modern Britain but stretched out, distorted, made surreal yet still recognisable. Here’s how it opens:

Stuart Ransom, professional golfer, is drunkenly reeling off an interminable series of stats about the woman’s game in Korea (or the Ladies Game, as he is determined to have it): ‘Don’t scowl at me, beautiful…!’ — directed, with his trademark Yorkshire twinkle, at Jen, who lounges, sullenly, behind the hotel bar. ‘They like to be called ladies. In fact they demand it. I mean …’ Ransom lobs a well-aimed peanut at her — she ducks — and it strikes a lovely, clear note against a Gordon’s Gin bottle. ‘…they are ladies, for Christsakes!’

It’s well past midnight on an oppressively hot and muggy Sunday in July and Ransom is the only remaining customer still cheerfully demanding service from the fine vantage point of his squeaking barstool at the Thistle, a clean but generic hotel which flies its five, proud flags hard up against the multi-storey car park and an especially unforgiving slab of Luton’s Arndale. 

‘But why did you change your booking from the Leaside?’ Jen petulantly demands (as she fishes the stray peanut from its current hidey-hole between the Wild Turkey and the Kahlua). ‘The Leaside’s pure class.’

Stuart Ransom, former wild man of the golf tournament circuit, is in Luton for a sponsored photo-op. His career’s in the rough, the money’s gone and he’s taken to referring to himself in the third person. Jen is a 19-year-old trainee beautician and part-time barmaid, but more than that she’s a consummate bullshit artist, a wind-up merchant, she’s a peroxide-bleached spirit of mischief made attractive flesh.

Gene’s also working bar. As Jen explains, he’s survived terminal cancer seven times (though she may be exaggerating) and is working multiple jobs to pay for facial reconstructive surgery for a daughter disfigured in a terrible car crash. He’s a contemporary secular saint, featured in the newspapers for his fundraising efforts, and he’s modest too preferring to keep quiet about his other claim to fame through his uncle who was a world-renowned palm reader and whose gifts Gene may have inherited.

Stuart tries to get Gene into a conversation about whether “he finds Korean ladies hot”, but Gene isn’t the type to talk about women in that way, explaining that “his assessment of the virtues of Korean women – as a unified class – is based entirely on a series of ill-considered – even stereotypical – ideas he has about Eastern women, and he is sure that this is a little stupid – even patronizing – of him because Korean women are doubtless very idiosyncratic, with their own distinct features and dreams and ideas and habits.”

All those rules about how to write? Just look at that quote in the paragraph above, because Barker doesn’t seem to follow any of them. On most any given page there’ll be hyphens and brackets and ellipses and exclamation marks and italics for emphasis all of them liberally sprinkled through the text and by any reasonable standard it should be an appalling mess, and yet somehow it isn’t. The whole book too is crammed with detail and description, much of it utterly irrelevant though lending a surface patina of brand-name gloss over the banal or idiotic (much like modern Britain in other words).

One of them – shorter, heavier-set, in his shirtsleeves, possessed of a dramatic, dark blond comb-over which flaps up and down like a pedal-bin-lid as he runs – clutches a navy blue, gold-buttoned blazer in his hand. The second gentleman is taller, handsome – something of a dandy – wearing cream loafers, cream trousers, cream trilby (a maroon ribbon circling the brim), an expensive, lavender-coloured polo shirt and heavy, arty, dark grey Yves Saint Laurent-framed glasses. He moves with an exaggerated angularity (knees high, arms thrown out) like a stick figure in a poorly executed flicker-book animation.

Yips

The bar scene cuts away to Valentine, an agoraphobic tattoo artist who specialises in natural-seeming tattooed merkins for women who for various reasons don’t have pubic hair of their own. Valentine lives with her mother, who has a form of dementia which causes her to speak partly in French and seems to have triggered personality changes and anger issues as well as causing her to masturbate so incessantly that Valentine has to hide the batteries from the vibrator to prevent her mother hurting herself.

From these characters the book spirals out. There’s Gene’s wife, an Anglican vicar and former feminist who is finding her life increasingly unsatisfying, though her faith in God remains strong (which by the way is incredibly unusual, I don’t recall when I last read a priest character who wasn’t doubting their faith). There’s Stuart’s entourage including his heavily pregnant Jamaican manager who’s one of the last people to believe in him. Later the manager’s sister turns up, an internationally renowned writer on human rights, though before she arrives on the scene we meet a Muslim sex therapist and his ultra-pious wife who converted to the faith.

None of the characters individually are that extraordinary. They’re all larger than life, but any one of them could potentially be the focus of a novel and you probably wouldn’t find them too far fetched. Barker though shovels in character after character, each of them so memorable that despite the massively crowded cast it’s extremely easy to keep track of them.

To the extent The Yips has a plot (and it’s a short extent, you could say it’s “just stuff and then more stuff”) it’s those memorable characters bouncing off each other. Jen is like a self-propelled white cue ball that fires itself down the table causing all the other balls to ricochet around, colliding into each other and ending up in combinations that nobody could have predicted at the start.

The whole thing is a massive Rabelaisian farce. This is a book where at one point Ransome gets into a fight on a giant chessboard, it couldn’t be more artificial, and yet I found myself caring for the characters. Gene seems genuinely a good guy. Ransome isn’t anything of the kind, but you at least become curious what’s going to happen to him. Valentine so clearly deserves better than the desperate situation she finds herself in that it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for her.

Most interesting though is the development of Gene’s wife. First she’s just referred to as a priest, then as “his wife” and only eventually does her name come into view, Sheila. Early on she seems unsympathetic, a drag on Gene who could do better, but the book shifts increasingly to her perspective and her frustrations and passions and the more it does so the more she comes to life, becomes more than priest and wife and becomes Sheila, an actual woman and a character in her own right.

Paralleling this Valentine discovers that she can go outside her home if she wears a niqab and abaya, the traditional Muslim garments covering a woman’s entire face and body. The black cloth becomes a sort of “dowdy, portable, Victorian bathing hut”, a cloth house that allows Valentine to exit the brick one. There’s undercurrents here about the nature of marriage, social restrictions on women, body image, surfaces and concealed interiors, but the points are made lightly and the comic flow isn’t interrupted, or rather is interrupted only enough that the jokes don’t become wearying.

The obvious comparator for all this is Martin Amis, early Martin Amis that is before he became a grand old man of expatriated English letters. Barker herself even makes a shout-out to him at one point: “Jen interrupts her narrative for a second and gazes at the boy, concerned. ‘You do know that girls poo, don’t you? Even extraordinarily beautiful ones like moi?’ ‘Sure.’ He nods, wearily. ‘I read Martin Amis’s Rachel Papers in my final year at primary school …’ He pauses. ‘Not as part of the syllabus, obviously.’”

Barker though writes about a Britain I recognise, one I live in, even if her version of it is distorted for comic effect. Amis doesn’t seem to like that Britain very much, sensing perhaps that it’s left him behind. Besides, Amis couldn’t have written this, because he couldn’t write Muslim characters who were just as absurd and as flawed as any of the other characters, and because Barker’s men persuade me while Amis’s women rarely did (though even so I thought his generally little loved novel Night Train excellent). Perhaps though the real difference is that Amis writes in anger, Barker with amused affection.

When John Self of theayslum reviewed this I said in the comments that I was concerned that it sounded like “spending 550 pages with characters every one of whom … I’d move table in a pub to get away [from].” If I’d read then what I’ve written above now I imagine I’d have said something pretty similar. It’s incredibly hard to review Barker because it really shouldn’t work, all those characters and all that punctuation, and yet it does. It works wonderfully.

John Self’s review is here, and is the one that first alerted me to The Yips. Kevinfromcanada wrote a thoughtful and ultimately less positive review which is here. Anokatony also wrote a rather nice review here, which has a spot-on final quote. If you’re reading this and you’ve written one that I missed please let me know  in the comments, as I’d be delighted to see further thoughts on this.

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Filed under Barker, Nicola, Booker

It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

When I first started skiing it was in a resort called Livigno. I did ski school there each year, and to assess your level they had everyone participating in ski school walk half way up a hill lugging their kit, then ski down so they could watch and assess our descents.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is divided into 12 parts, one for each sign of the zodiac, and each part is roughly half the length of the previous making the whole book a kind of prose-spiral. What this means is that the first part of the novel is nearly 400 pages long and by the time you’ve finished it you’ve trudged right the way up that hill and are probably hoping that what follows will be worth the effort. Here’s how it opens:

MERCURY IN SAGITTARIUS

In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress – frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill – they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of the city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway – deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the flat clatter of the rain.

In a rather good review in The Guardian novelist Kirsty Gunn compared that opening to a play, and she’s right because it’s very easy to imagine the curtain coming up on that scene. Of course the reader has read the italicised introduction to the chapter, which tells us not only that a stranger arrives but that a secret council is disturbed. It’s giving away nothing then to reveal that the room looks so staged because that’s exactly what it is, the twelve men were’t expecting company and were gathered there because nobody ever goes to the smoking room of the Crown Hotel and they have important business to discuss.

Catton is operating at two levels here. Within the fiction the stranger is Walter Moody, a young lawyer come to Hokitika New Zealand in 1866 to make his fortune in the local gold fields. As the weather was filthy he decided he wanted a drink, and as he’s new to the area he didn’t know that nobody goes to The Crown. It’s a coincidence that sets the whole story in motion, and settle in because it won’t be the last coincidence. Soon the twelve men are telling Moody what brought them there that night, each adding his own account of a series of strange events which together they hope to form into some kind of coherent whole.

Above the fiction there’s another level at which Catton is effectively saying to the reader that they’re about to hear a story. That theatrical opening underlines the artificiality of the whole exercise, this isn’t real, it’s entertainment. The italicised chapter intro, the description-rich opening paragraph, the immediate use of coincidence all signals that we’re in the territory of the Victorian novel. Moody is us, arrived part way through and hoping to make sense of the narrative. As with Catton’s marvellous The Rehearsal, this is a book whose subject can’t be separated from its structure and style.

As with any great Victorian novel by the way, Catton is marvellous at description. Here’s a little more on The Crown hotel:

The Crown was an establishment of the serviceable, unadorned sort, recommended only by its proximity to the quay. If this feature was an expedience, however, it could hardly be called a virtue: here, so close to the stockyards, the bloody smell of slaughter intermingled with the sour, briny smell of the sea, putting one in mind, perpetually, of an untended icebox in which an uncured joint has spoiled.

Luminaries

What follows over the next 400 pages (which remember is just the first part) is a dense and frequently confusing tale of a possibly-murdered recluse, a rich young prospector named Emery Staines recently gone missing, an opium-addicted prostitute named Anna Wetherell found dying in the street from what appears to be a suicide attempt, a new parliamentary candidate subject to potentially ruinous blackmail and a shipowner suspected of fraud and crimes of appalling violence. The twelve men trying to make sense of it all range from a banker to a goldfields magnate to a chemist to a shipping agent to a hatter to a chaplain and more. It’s a dizzyingly rich and diverse cast.

Well, I say diverse, but they’re almost all men. Hokitika is a goldrush town and while it has men of European, Chinese and Maori descent it has almost no women, and those it does have are mostly prostitutes. Hokitika then is a nexus of desire, greed for gold and lust (and love) for Anna Wetherell.

Within each of the twelve parts of the novel is a number of smaller chapters, each headed by reference to the movement of the planets and stars in astrology. Here’s how the second chapter opens:

JUPITER IN SAGITTARIUS

In which the merits of asylum are discussed; a family name comes into question; Alistair Lauderback is discomfited; and the shipping agent tells a lie.

Balfour’s narrative, made somewhat circuitous by interruption, and generally encumbered by the lyrical style of that man’s speech, became severely muddled in the telling, and several hours passed before Moody finally understood with clarity the order of events that had precipitated the secret council in the hotel smoking room. The interruptions were too tiresome, and Balfour’s approach too digressive, to deserve a full and faithful record in the men’s own words. We shall here excise their imperfections, and impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle of the shipping agent’s roving mind; we shall apply our own mortar to the cracks and chinks of earthly recollection, and resurrect as new the edifice that, in solitary memory, exists only as a ruin.

Again I’m back to Catton’s mixing of story and structure. By this point in the book just 5o pages in I was already trying to keep track of a fair number of characters, though I was definitely intrigued as to where it was all going. Catton now addresses the reader directly, saying that Balfour (a shipping agent) may be muddled in his account but that she as author (or rather the author within the text, since the author’s style of address is contemporary to the characters) has imposed an order on what’s to follow. That’s reassuring when you’ve still got nearly 800 pages left, but it’s an utter lie. Before too long I was distinctly lost.

There’s a character chart at the start of the book saying who everyone is and I soon had it bookmarked on my kindle, regularly going back to it to remind myself who say Joseph Pritchard or Charlie Frost were. I’d find myself virtually leafing back through the book trying to recall how two characters first met or how one account connected to another. By the time I reached the second part of the novel, almost half way through, I was starting to get distinctly frustrated and my grasp of what was going on was limited to say the least.

That’s the climb up the hill. Once you get up there it becomes absolutely apparent that Catton knows exactly what she’s doing. I’d got as far as I had partly through the quality of the writing and partly through faith in some of the bloggers who’d said this was worth the effort, and then suddenly Catton revealed through Moody that she knew perfectly well that the plot so far was (needlessly) convoluted. To use an utter blogger cliche I actually laughed out loud when Moody complained about how difficult it all was to follow, and then promptly summarised in a handful of pages everything that had happened over the preceding 400.

A few years before I started this blog I read Nabokov’s novel Pnin, which started to frustrate me when I detected an increasing disconnect between the authorial voice and what was happening within the fiction. Just as I was getting close to abandoning it I realised (I think when Nabokov meant me to realise) that it was intentional, and that Nabokov had been playing with me, risking alienating me as a reader in return for a greater payoff later. In the end I loved Pnin.

Pnin however is 176 pages long. It takes real audacity to spend 400 pages winding your reader up and then to have one of your characters essentially point out what you’re doing. It’s not that the first 400 pages were a chore, I had a ton of passages highlighted to quote as examples of Catton’s prose and talent for description. I’ve cut most of them for reasons of space, but here’s one which I thought particularly nicely done:

Mannering, as has been already observed, was a very fat man. In his twenties he had been stout, and in his thirties, quite pot-bellied; by the time he reached his forties, his torso had acquired an almost spherical proportion, and he was obliged, to his private dismay, to request assistance in both mounting and dismounting his horse. Rather than admit that his girth had become an impediment to daily activity, Mannering blamed gout, a condition with which he had never been afflicted, but one that he felt had a soundly aristocratic ring. He very much liked to be mistaken for an aristocrat, an assumption that happened very often, for he had mutton-chop whiskers and a fair complexion, and he favoured expensive dress. That day his necktie was fastened with a gold stickpin, and his vest (the buttons of which were rather palpably strained) sported notched lapels.

There’s a lot packed in there and the whole first part is filled with great little portraits like that. Still, while I found the setting rich, the characters interesting and the structure intriguing, it was still taking me a fair bit of work to make sense of the twelve men’s different accounts. I was finding it hard therefore not to sympathise with Walter Moody when he says to them “‘your perspectives are very many, and you will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole.’”

After the half way point my experience of the novel changed dramatically. The device of having each part half the length of the other means that the whole novel starts to accelerate. Suddenly you know broadly what’s going on, and the question is what will happen next and what connects it all. The story straps on its skis and heads off down the hill, and without ever becoming any the less literary the book becomes a positive page-turner.

Catton’s playfulness though never goes away. There’s no author within the fiction, and yet even so the author is almost a character too. The quote above is one example, with the author criticising Balfour’s style (which they wrote of course) and promising to make things clearer but then distinctly failing to do so. It’s but one of many asides on the characters or notable incidents. There’s sometimes rather wonderfully elaborate language, such as: “Miss Wetherell lived by the will of the dragon, after all, a drug that played steward to an imbecile king, and she would guard that throne with jealous eyes forever.” At other times the author is positively prim, such as when a character threatens another with a gun ” uttering several profanities too vulgar to set down here.”

The astrological motif adds further depth, with each character representing (or governed by) a particular stellar body and their interactions following the procession of the astrological conjunctions. I know virtually nothing about astrology, but that didn’t matter because I could still see how the apparent coincidences within the narrative were in fact nothing of the kind governed on one view by astrological inevitability and the predestination of the spheres and on another by the fact that the entire novel is of course a completely artificial structure created by Catton to achieve particular effects. In a sense then it’s a clockwork novel, unfolding as the stars or Catton decree, impeccably controlled and with not a single page that doesn’t serve the wider purpose.

As the end of the novel grows closer its parts continue to grow shorter, until soon they can no longer fit in everything that needs to happen. I noticed that the italicised summaries grew longer, and started to contain material that wasn’t in the text that followed; the introductions breathlessly trying to fill in for what the chapters no longer had room for. By the end the novel had come apart like tissue paper in my hands, I was breathlessly at the bottom of the hill having made the last part of the descent so swiftly I was left trying to piece it back together in my mind.

That by the way is where that particular metaphor rather breaks down. In real life as a beginner skier I tended to panic when going too fast, braked and ended up reaching the bottom of the hill moving more slowly than I was at the midpoint of my run. Catton’s a better novelist than I was a skier, which is probably for the best.

So as not to make the whole thing sound too academic, I’m going to end on one final quote even though I haven’t touched on the nature of the luminaries themselves or their significance as the heart of the novel (but then it’s nice to discover some of that for yourself). This excerpt captures some of the wit of this marvellous seemingly-sprawling but in fact utterly controlled novel:

For Quee Long measured all his actions by a private standard of perfection, and laboured in service of this standard: as a consequence he was never really satisfied with any of his efforts, or with their results, and tended, in general, towards defeatism. These nuances of his character were lost upon the subjects of the British Crown, with whom Quee Long shared but eighty or a hundred words, but to his compatriots, he was renowned for his cynical humour, his melancholy spirit, and his dogged perseverance in the service of untouchable ideals.

There’s a school of thought which says reviews shouldn’t be about whether the reviewer liked a book or not, but should rather give enough information to let others make their own minds up. I see that as a false dichotomy, and anyway more appropriate for a newspaper than a blog. I aim to give enough information that anyone reading this can form their own view, but I think it’s relevant to share my personal reaction too. This is an extraordinary book from a major talent. I loved it, and I’ll read her next book even if it’s 1,800 pages long.

I have two bloggers to particularly thank at the end here. Kevin of kevinfromcanada whose review of The Luminaries is here and who first introduced me to Catton, and David Hebblethwaite whose excellent review convinced me not to be put off by book’s historical setting or sheer bulk.

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Filed under Booker, Catton, Eleanor, New Zealand Literature

She drove to the beach, but there was oil scum on the sand and a red tide in the flaccid surf and mounds of kelp at the waterline.

Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

When I was preparing to write this piece, I discovered that Play it as it Lays is in Time Magazine’s list of top 100 English language novels published since 1923 (when Time was founded apparently). It’s sandwiched between A Passage to India and Portnoy’s Complaint, because to Time’s absolute credit they don’t rate the top 100 in any attempted order of excellence, but just alphabetically by title.

My end of year list is a bit humbler than that, but it’ll probably make that too. Here’s how Play opens:

WHAT MAKES IAGO EVIL? some people ask. I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory “answer” to such questions.

The narrator there is Maria, a Hollywood actress whose career is on indefinite hold. Maria doesn’t believe in answers any more, but even so she has to give them. She’s in some kind of psychiatric institution being questioned by people trying to understand, though understand what exactly isn’t made clear yet. In a sense it doesn’t matter, because we already know they can’t understand.

NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. What does apply, they ask later, as if the word “nothing” were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune. There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened.

PlayItAsItLays

The first section of Play then is Maria, recounting the facts. There’s then a page giving a perspective from one of Maria’s friends (“She was always a very selfish girl, it was first last and always Maria”) and another from her ex-husband (“Maria has difficulty talking to people with whom she is not sleeping”), and then 84 short chapters from a third person perspective. Didion said once that she wanted “to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all”. She succeeded.

Maria’s ex-husband is a film director, a successful one. They had a daughter together, Kate, who is mentally and possibly physically handicapped and in a long-term treatment facility. Maria lives for Kate, but Kate’s doctors and nurses would prefer Maria didn’t visit, they think it only makes Kate worse.

Maria isn’t working currently, so she goes driving on the freeway. It’s the only thing that gives her any purpose, radio on and no destination in mind. She eats boiled eggs, cracked on the steering wheel and eaten while driving, and drinks coke at filling stations. In the mornings she dresses fast to make sure she’s on the freeway by 10am, once driving she’s unafraid, totally absorbed; she’s in motion, going nowhere.

If I have a mental image of this book it’s of a scene that never actually happens in it; of Maria driving fast down a desert road, radio playing, a rattlesnake uncoiling as she hurtles past it heading into light and nothingness.

This then is a study of a hollow life, one in which things happen but where any attempt to impose causation on them is meaningless. Maria drinks, fucks, in one particularly difficult to read section has an (illegal) abortion. She is driven by fear rather than hope. Fear of losing her looks (not that she takes any pride in them, but as a model-turned-actress they’re her business), fear of not being able to keep it together any more, fear of her own irrelevance. She’s started sleeping into the afternoon, and she knows that’s not a good sign.

Maria sometimes meets up with her ex, but when they get together they just have the same stale old arguments (brilliantly captured by Didion – “Whatever he began by saying he would end by saying nothing. He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination, blocked the will, allowed them to drop words and whole sentences and still arrive at the cold conclusion.”)

If it weren’t reductionist I’d say that this is a brilliant portrait of someone mired in clinical depression. That’s just giving Maria’s situation a name though, making it tidy. Perhaps rather it’s the novel itself that’s depressed, a statement straight out of emptiness. It’s not one to read when you’re feeling fragile.

Images of snakes permeate the book. At one point Maria tells her ex about a man who went into the desert to try to speak to god, but was bitten by a snake and died. Her ex asks what the punch line is, but there isn’t one. It’s easy to draw significance from snakes: biblical; sexual; all that poison and temptation, but Maria expressly denies the very concept of significance. Maria of course is a character, she focuses on snakes because Didion the writer makes her do so. For me as a reader however that creates a tension, because while Didion is obviously quite aware of how the various potentially symbolic elements in the book can be read (snakes, sex and death; eggs, fertility; gambling, randomness; and so on), the narrative directly undercuts the symbolism.

As a reader I can’t help but search for meaning in a text. I note that besides other empty people snakes seem to be the only life in Maria’s utterly artificial world of anonymous air-conditioned motel rooms and Hollywood parties. I can start seeing them as phallic yet impotent motifs of a poisoned life in which the only love is for a handicapped girl who may not even know who Maria is. All of that is of course there, but it’s perhaps again too easy, creating a story where really there’s just some things that happen. I’ve taken a long time to write about this novel because I find it hard to hold onto, the images of it remain vivid and powerful but the sense of it slips between my fingers. I’m left with nothing.

Naturally this being Didion the prose is tight, effective and frequently beautiful. Lines like “my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas” or “bodies gleaming, unlined, as if they had an arrangement with mortality” stand out, but every page has something quotable. I came across one blog review here which simply features a sequence of Chandlerian excerpts from the text. You should check it out, because they do more to sing this novel’s praises than I ever could.

This is an alienated book. Maria is hollowed out, empty save in her love for her daughter Kate. The world around her reflects her own disaffection. I’m going to end with one final extended quote, which for me captured something of the awful sterility at the heart of this effortlessly readable yet still difficult to read novel:

“Let’s fuck,” the actor said from the doorway.

“You mean right here.”

“Not here, in the bed.” He seemed annoyed.

She shook her head.

“Then do it here,” he said. “Do it with the Coke bottle.”

When they finally did it they were on the bed and at the moment before he came he reached under the pillow and pulled out an amyl nitrite popper and broke it under his nose, breathed in rapidly, and closed his eyes.

“Don’t move,” he said. “I said don’t move.”

Maria did not move.

“Terrific,” he said then. His eyes were still closed.

Maria said nothing.

“Wake me up in three hours,” he said. “With your tongue.”

After he had gone to sleep she got dressed very quietly and walked out of the house. She was in the driveway before she remembered that she had no car. The keys were in his Ferrari and she took it, hesitating when she came out to the main canyon road, turning then not toward Beverly Hills but toward the Valley, and the freeway. It was dawn before she reached Vegas and, because she stopped in Vegas to buy cigarettes, eight o’clock before she reached Tonopah. She was not sure what she had meant to do in Tonopah. There was something about seeing her mother’s and father’s graves, but her mother and father were not buried in Tonopah. They were buried in Silver Wells, or what had been Silver Wells. In any case she was stopped for speeding outside Tonopah and when the highway patrolman saw the silver dress and the bare feet and the Ferrari registered to someone else, he checked California to see if the car had been reported stolen, and it had.

While preparing to write this up, I discovered a blog devoted to the book here, which features among other things a summary, a guide to the locations, a road map showing the drives Maria takes along the freeways and more. Here‘s a very different take on the book, a highly negative contemporary review from the 8 August 1970 issue of the New Yorker.

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Filed under California, Didion, Joan, US Literature

memory will cut you off at the knees if you let it

Others of my Kind, by James Sallis

I loved Drive. It’s a great book, well written and atmospheric. When recently I felt like taking another swim in Sallis’s coolly written prose, I chose his Others of my Kind which Guy Savage gave a very favourable review to back in 2013.

Unfortunately, I didn’t particularly like Others. I suspect I’m in a minority in that, so I’ll try to explore below what didn’t work for me and touch on how some seem to have found more in it than I did.

OthersofmyKind

Jenny Rowan is a gifted tv news video editor, unusually skilled at putting together two minute packages of visuals and sound that make sense from a mass of chaotic raw footage. She finds patterns, creates order. She’s so good at what she does that she could easily find a better paid job with a more prestigious network, but she likes the people she works with and she’s more interested in the quality of her work than gaining recognition for it.

Reading that paragraph I’m struck by how rounded a character she already seems there. This is a roughly 150 page novel, but the characters in it are sharply drawn and stand out. Sallis is good on character.

Sallis is good on description too. Here’s the first paragraph:

AS I TURNED INTO MY APARTMENT COMPLEX, sack of Chinese takeout from Hong Kong Garden in hand, Szechuan bean curd, Buddhist Delight, a man stood from where he’d been sitting on the low wall by the bank of flowers and ground out his cigarette underfoot. He wore a cheap navy-blue suit that nonetheless fit him perfectly, gray cotton shirt, maroon tie, oxblood loafers. He had the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.

The man, Jack Collins, is a police officer. He’s there because Jenny has an unusual past. As an eight year-old she was kidnapped, then kept for two years by her kidnapper in a box under his bed, pulled out when from time to time he wanted to abuse her. When she finally escaped him she lived wild in a mall for some time, hiding from security and becoming an urban myth, “mall girl”, that most people believed had no foundation in fact. When finally she was caught, she went into care. It’s a horrific background, but despite her disadvantages she’s gone on to build a good life for herself. She’s valued, has friends and a place in the world.

Jenny’s past matters again because the police have found a young woman named Cheryl who, like Jenny, had been imprisoned by a sexual predator. Cheryl appears to be emotionally shut down and uncommunicative. Collins hopes that Jenny can reach her, that the similarity of experience can bridge the walls built up by trauma.

That sets the novel up with one sort of expectation, but Sallis quickly subverts that and the encounters between Jenny and Cheryl are only a small part of the wider narrative. This really is a story of Jenny reconnecting with the world, engaging with it. A friend at one point says to her that she still lives in a box, though now one of her own creation, content with her work and her neatly contained friends and relationships. Now she is reaching out, helping others.

Jenny tries to help Cheryl reconnect with the world, in the process becoming involved with Collins. She helps too some squatters who become neighbours, giving them gifts of food and medicine. She tracks down her parents, and in a slightly bizarre development reaches out to the vice president when the VP’s son goes missing. I’ll come back to that last relationship in a moment, as it’s where the book fell over for me.

Mostly Sallis develops all this with subtlety and skill, occasionally though I felt he was erring on the side of being perhaps a bit obvious, as here:

Lacking any semblance of childhood, having spent my adolescence in the wild as it were, I could fit in only by a kind of adaptation scarcely known outside the insect world. I mimicked those about me, finally with such vigor that few were able to distinguish conjured image from real. Even I sometimes confused the two.

I’d kind of got all that by the point this quote comes up in the book anyway, and it felt a bit on the nose for Sallis to actually have Jenny explicitly lay it out for me. More problematically though is a distinct lack of subtlety in the book’s politics.

The whole story takes place against a backdrop of news – Jenny works in the news business which conveniently allows Sallis to address contemporary US politics through her interest in it and her editing of it into bite-sized morsels (“I passed my workdays making sense of the world for others, taking up fragments of sensation and information and piecing them together, stitching quilts from leftovers and rag-ends of the world’s fabric.”) The book is set either in a slightly alternate now or in the very near future, the names of the president and vice-president are made up but the world they inhabit is utterly recognisable.

The problem though is that because the world is so recognisable, the political aspects become less a reflection of character or a development of story but rather direct commentary. I felt at times I was being lectured.

Further threats have been made, the White House press secretary states. Our intelligence gives these threats credence. We will keep you informed. Of course they will. Just as they rushed to inform us of actual body counts in Vietnam, U.S.-engineered assassinations in Chile, the systematic closing-down of power plants before the energy crisis of 2002, the cost of the Iraq war, or how deregulation might lead to financial collapse.

I wrote a comment against that paragraph when I read it, which read simply – bit ranty?

Similarly, while I agree with the next quote, I still felt I was being directly addressed rather than experiencing something within the fiction, and because of that it felt like an interruption in the novel (though it isn’t, since it’s in part at least the point of the novel):

Firmly seated at the front of the bus, so utterly accustomed to privilege that its presence has become invisible to them, our horde of senators, congressmen, secretaries-of, advisors, attorneys and lobbyists goes on deciding what is best for us. Little wonder that we feel helpless – ridden. The bureaucracy protects itself; that becomes its purpose. The machine has no off switch. As Bishop used to say: We’re set on SPIN, forever.

I’m not American. Drive is a deeply American novel, tapping into classic US imagery and iconic character types. I loved it. I grew up on Hollywood as much as the next British kid, and that culture while born of America is in part America’s gift to the world (for some a fairly unwelcome gift I admit, like an ill-fitting jumper from a relative you don’t much like, but I’m of the view that any country which gave us jazz, westerns and film noir can’t be all bad).

American myths travel well because they so frequently tap into the universal. Images of the frontier or of the lone figure righting wrongs in an indifferent world are to me deeply American, but they resonate far beyond that country’s shores (even if perhaps with slightly less force than they have locally). American politics though, like politics everywhere, is local politics.

So, if I were American perhaps the political content here would have spoken more to me. As it is though, I frankly don’t feel that strongly about the dysfunction and arrogance of American politics. We have our own dysfunctional and arrogant politics right here in Britain. It’s local not universal.

Even if I did care though, the novel isn’t saying anything interesting about it. Politicians are remote and out of touch. The system rewards itself, not those who vote for it. Is this news? It’s irritating, sure, but it felt at times more like Sallis was letting off steam than saying anything particularly notable.

Where I thought he was on stronger ground was when he drew comparisons between Jenny’s box and the boxes we all inhabit, boxes of our own making. To an extent of course we have to, just to be able to get through the day. We edit the world as Jenny does, making it manageable.

We spooned up dumplings, punctured them with chopsticks and sucked out the broth while all around us there at the mall streamed people whose worlds would never include dinners of insect-riddled, half-rotten rice, helicopters struggling to heave whole families up, up and away out of a ravaged city, or young women living in boxes beneath beds.

Similarly:

So many in the world live this way, of course. They come home to husbands, wives, lovers or family, talk over the day, talk about nothing in particular. Even when everything inside them wants to scream or weep or cry out, they go on talking, voices low, darkness rising like black water at their windows, in their lives.

But then, that first paragraph is true for almost anyone in the developed world; that second for anywhere at all.

The local and the universal continue through the book, until about the 80% mark or so when the narrative takes an odd turn as Jenny reaches out to the VP and the VP responds. What follows was for me just flatly unbelievable. What until then had been a reasonably naturalistic novel became something from an episode of the West Wing, a show that was for me crippled by its unrealistically idealised politicians. Sure, we can dream if we want to of President Bartletts, but they don’t exist any more than dragons or elves do. The West Wing for me was a fantasy show, less realistic in some ways than Game of Thrones, and in its last sections Others of my Kind similarly became for me a fantasy novel, a comforting one in which for once we don’t get the politicians we deserve.

Guy also had some doubts about the final parts of the book, but overall liked it much more than I did. A review in The Independent calls it “exquisitely crafted” and talks of Sallis’s “sublime hands” (which I agree he has actually, but not consistently here in my view). A review on a crime fiction blog here calls it “subtle” and “nuanced” (which it often is, just not always here, I do absolutely though agree with their comment that “the descriptions are tight, yet lucid”).

Sallis is a genuinely good writer, so if the political elements of the book sound to you like they might be interesting the odds are you’ll like this a lot. If however that part sounds less persuasive, this may be one to you’ll want to pass on.

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Filed under Sallis, James, US Literature