everything is harder once you reach man’s estate

 Zone, by Mathias Enard and translated by Charlotte Mandell

Zone is famously, and misleadingly, a novel in the form of a single 517 page sentence. It’s about the least interesting thing you can say about the book, and it’s not even actually true.

Zone-Mathias-Enard

Francis Servain Mirkovic is travelling by night-train from Paris to Rome. He’s a French intelligence agent, formerly a Croatian nationalist fighter in the Yugoslav civil war. He’s a fascist sympathiser, a war criminal, and now arguably a traitor as his only luggage is a briefcase full of faded secrets that he plans to sell to the Vatican so that he can make a new life.

Zone follows Francis’ thoughts on the journey. Unable to sleep his mind scatters over his own past and the history of the places the train passes. Geography here is history, with near every inch of European soil the site of ancient or modern atrocities, horror and death. From time to time he dips into a novel about a Palestinian fighter, his stream of consciousness being replaced each time by the far more conventional narrative structure of that tale.

The bulk of the book, all save the three chapters where Francis is reading the novel within the novel, is stream of consciousness. Enard uses commas and natural pauses in place of full stops, so that while the narrative never quite stops (until you reach the end) it has a natural rhythm and is actually very easy to follow. Practically this means that the book does in fact have fairly clear sentences and isn’t any harder to read than most any other book, but the lack of full stops helps convey the sense of irresistible forward momentum.

History too often seems to have an irresistible forward momentum. What happens, happens, and is then left behind vanishing from view as we hurtle ever onwards into the future. If only. The reality of course is that history leaves traces that linger with us, echoes through the years and since we never learn anything from it repeats itself with changed details but a wearyingly familiar pattern.

Zone doesn’t wear its influences lightly (you really don’t need to worry much here about missing them, Apollinaire is about the only one that isn’t pretty much spelled out). Images of the Iliad in particular recur constantly, an epic poem densely packed with the tragedy and futility of war. The Trojans and Achaeans fought for money, pride and a woman, causes no less irrational than most of those which followed in future wars.

As a young man Francis was inspired by nationalist sentiment to fight in Yugoslavia, following a path of radicalisation distinctly comparable to that followed by contemporary teenagers going to join up as Jihadis in the Middle East. Francis thinks of his battles in Homerian terms, and perhaps he’s right to do so since the reality appears to have been one of lengthy waits interspersed with moments of terror and brutality, which is largely what the Iliad portrays.

Francis isn’t the cheeriest of souls:

I dreamed, sitting between two dead cities the way a tourist, swept along by the ferry that carries him, watches the Mediterranean flow by under his eyes, endless, lined with rocks and mountains those cairns signaling so many tombs mass graves slaughter-grounds a new map another network of traces of roads of railroads of rivers continuing to carry along corpses remains scraps shouts bones forgotten honored anonymous or decried in the great roll-call of history cheap glossy stock vainly imitating marble that looks like the twopenny magazine my neighbor folded carefully so as to be able to read it without effort,

By virtue of sentiment and occupation Francis looks out on the landscape and sees not the art, the social movements, the steady advances in comfort and widened opportunity, but instead the endless unmarked graves. He sees the march of industry and technology, but through the lens of two world wars, the Holocaust, the Bosnian camps and the commoditisation of carnage.

Apollo the archer of the East also guided the Turkish artillerymen near the well-guarded Dardanelles, on the banks of the Scamander, facing Cape Helles where the monument to unknown soldiers of the battle of Gallipoli stands, white as a lighthouse, you can read over 2,000 British names there for as many bodies whose remains are scattered throughout the peninsula along with the dusty bones of 1,200 unidentifiable Frenchmen from the years 1915-1916, before the Eastern Expeditionary Corps gave up and went to try its luck near Thessalonica in support of the Serbs against the Bulgarians, leaving the Dardanelles and the Bosporus inviolate after ten months of battle and 150,000 French, Algerian, Senegalese, English, Australian, New Zealanders, Sikh, Hindu, Turkish, Albanian, Arab, and German corpses, like so many Boeotians, Mycenaeans, brave Arcadians, or magnanimous Cephallenians against the Dardanians, Thracians, Pelasgians with the furious javelins, or Lycians come from afar, guided by the spear of blameless Sarpedon,

He’s right of course, ours is a bloody history. Francis was once one of those warriors, he looks back on his soldier-days and remembers companions he loved and saw maimed and killed; it was horrible but at the same time he was filled with youthful passion and purpose, he believed in something. Since then he became a bloodless functionary, recording grim secrets of uncertain importance. His briefcase is a record of testimonies of betrayals and killings across the twentieth century, lost stories destined to be locked in a Vatican archive.

Zone has been hailed as potentially one of the first truly great books of our century. I think it’s far too early to call that, but it is a thoughtful and resonant read. There’s a lot more here than statistics of slaughter. Francis’ mind turns to the three great relationships of his life, one long ended, one more recently and one that he hopes waits for him in Rome. He thinks back to his family; to his companions in Yugoslavia; to the lives and works of people like William Burroughs, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Curzio Malaparte (he has a fondness for writers of greater talent than wisdom); reflects on the daily lives and rationalisations of Nazis as they carried out their industrialised murder.

From time to time he dips into the novel he carries, about a Palestinian fighter named Intissar who has just lost her lover to an Israeli machine gun. Francis finds Intissar’s story intensely moving, its deeply personal focus on a single woman’s struggle reminds him of his own experiences in Yugoslavia but given dramatic weight, and her loss is easier to empathise with than the mass anonymity of 3,000 years of organised killing.

Defeat begins with the feet. It insinuates itself first into the same boots that were supposed to lead to victory, the ones you’d gotten ready, for years, for the last parade. Defeat begins with the boots that you polished every morning, the ones that grew misshapen, covered with dust, the ones that kept the blood from your toes as well as they could, that crushed insects, protected you from snakes, withstood stones on the path. Physical at first, like a cramp that makes you limp, defeat is a weary surprise, you begin to stumble, in war you totter on fragile feet. Suddenly you feel what you’d never felt before, your feet can no longer run, they refuse to carry you into the attack—suddenly they’re paralyzed, frozen despite the heat, they no longer want to serve the body that owns them.

Many reviews have commented on the novel within the novel having a notably clumsier technique than Francis’ own narrative, seeing it as a pastiche of banal mainstream thrillers. I think that’s a misreading, partly as I don’t think the Intissar passages are particularly badly written but mostly as Francis makes frequent literary references pretty much every one of which is to highly regarded and influential literary figures (Tsirkas crops up a lot too, and Cavafy). Instead I think the Intissar passages are showing what Francis longs for, a narrative that even if terribly sad follows a path that makes sense, that has personal meaning and that carries at the end a possibility of redemption. Francis wants to leave his own history behind, reinvent himself as a new man in Rome, trade his briefcase of dry tragedy for a life and a future that doesn’t merely continue his past.

I let myself be carried away, page after page, and although I’ve already spent a large part of my day as an ambiguous functionary reading—notes, reports, forms, on my well-guarded screen—there is nothing I desire more then than a novel, where the people are characters, a play of masks and desires, and little by little to forget myself, forget my body at rest in this chair, forget my apartment building, Paris, life itself as the paragraphs, dialogues, adventures, strange worlds flow by,

Because Zone follows the train’s route precisely we can’t of course know what happens to Francis once he disembarks. We have only his journey; his memories, fantasies and brief dreams in snatched moments of sleep. Spend 500 pages in anyone’s skull and it becomes hard not to sympathise with them, particularly if they want to reinvent themselves, to be better than they were. He has doubts himself about the possibility of what he seeks, knowing too well his own history of incipient alcoholism and mood swings as pitilessly set forth in his own personnel file held by his agency and shown to him by a friend.

I’ll have to let myself be carried to Rome and continue the battle, the fight against the Trojans great tamers of mares, against myself my memories and my dead who are watching me, making faces

The Paris-Rome train is a metal cage crossing history but never escaping it. Francis’ own history is carried with him, chained to him as he chains his briefcase to the luggage shelf. Enard avoids any easy redemptive arc; Francis may despair of the past but he can’t let go of it, he enjoys too much the minutiae of old incidents. He knows the Iliad portrays nothing worth praising, but he’s aware too of how it makes that nothing both thrilling and majestic.

I drank as I thought of Andrija’s anger of his tears after the city fell, Andi a toast for you, for your rage that day or the next I forget when Fate sent us two prisoners after an ambush, one was wounded, the other unhurt was trembling with fear he said my father has money, my father has money, if you let me go he’ ll give you a lot of money, he was too afraid to lie, we had picked them up when they were trying to desert, I was tempted to let them run, I was about to hand them over to a grunt so he could take them to Osijek, but Andrija arrived, are you out of your mind? You forgot Vukovar already? Not one of them should escape, and he machine-gunned them at length, right away, without hesitating, looking them in the eyes, fifteen cartridges each in the chest, on my bed in the Hotel Danube a toast for Andi great shepherd of warriors, a toast for the stupefied gaze of the two little Serbs when the brass pierced them, a toast for the Vukovar cemetery in the falling night, for the Ivry cemetery one spring morning, for the soldiers of ’14, the Resistants the ones condemned to death and a toast for my pater probably a murderer neither a Resistant nor a man condemned to death who is keeping them company today, as the train slows down to enter Reggio in gentle and beautiful Emilia,

I chose that final quote because while it doesn’t reference the Iliad it reminded me of it very strongly, and I think intentionally. In one scene Ulysses takes a prisoner and promises life in exchange for information, but kills as soon as he learns what he wanted to know. In another Achilles takes a young man captive who begs for his life offering ransom and who Achilles has no reason to kill, but Achilles is mad with grief for Patroclus and kills the young man anyway. Anyone who thinks the Iliad heroic in the modern sense hasn’t read it. This passage is the Iliad reduced down from myth, stripped back to needless murder.

The difficulty here with quotes is that it’s impossible to get the sense of the sheer sweep of the book. Dark as it is it’s an enjoyable read, filled with frequent diversions (admittedly mostly on rather horrible subjects) and observations. Enard’s prose rocks the reader along; you’re travelling first class here with a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

I can’t say of course if Charlotte Mandell’s translation is any good or not (it never jars, but for all I know the original could be clunky as anything), but it’s a hell of an achievement. The sheer number of reviews of this book is in part a testament to how readable it actually is and how rewarding (or to how none of us dare criticise a book so highly praised, something I’m not looking forward to when I review Nora Webster which apparently everyone loves but me).

I’ll end with a brief comment on the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, which is a new small press publisher in the UK with so far only four books published. Zone is exactly the sort of novel I want to see getting published in the UK. It takes risks, it tackles difficult questions of memory and history, it experiments with style without losing itself into unreadability in the process. That doesn’t mean I want more Zones; but I do want more publishers like Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Other reviews

Before I give links to some other reviews, it’s worth flagging a fascinating interview with the translator here which includes some really interesting insights into the book’s structure (including the page count being equal to the number of miles between Rome and Paris, which I hadn’t realised). If you’re cautious about spoilers it may be best leaving the interview though until after you’ve read the book, though this isn’t really a book that’s vulnerable to spoilers particularly.

On the blog front this has been very widely reviewed, particularly brilliantly by Stephen Mitchelmore at thisspace here. Other reviews I found worth noting are by Stu of Winstondad’s Blog here, at 1streading’s blog here, at the ever marvellous Workshy Fop’s blog here, and at David Hebblethwaite’s blog here, There are also of course plenty of newspaper reviews, many very good indeed. The only one I’ll link to though is Nicholas Lezard’s here, because it’s by far the most ambivalent review I’ve read of the book and so provides a nice counterpoint to the others.

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Filed under Enard, Mathias, Fitzcarraldo Editions, French Literature, Modernist Fiction

I am not a chauvinist. I am a Marseillais.

This is a double review of two books from my longer term backlog, both read last year while travelling on trains between Montpelier and Marseilles. I picked them because they were by authors I enjoy and because they seemed to fit idle Mediterranean days. Unfortunately, neither of them entirely worked out for me. The first is an Izzo; the second a Camus.

Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil, by Jean-Claude Izzo and translated by Howard Curtis

A while before I started this blog I read Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos and was blown away by it. It’s a brilliantly written slice of Marseilles noir, the first of a trilogy. I’ve long planned to reread it and then to read the sequels.

Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil (wonderful title) is a collection of Izzo essays about the Mediterranean, about Marseilles, and finally about Fabio Montale (the protagonist of the Marseilles trilogy).

Garlic

The essays here are mostly brief thought pieces, slightly reminiscent of the Bustina di Minerva column that Eco does for L’Espresso in Italy. Feuilletons essentially, Joseph Roth would have recognised them.

Izzo’s philosophy as set out in these pieces is warm, humanist, inclusive. You shouldn’t read this when hungry, as he lavishes sensuous attention on the food of Marseilles and the Mediterranean. The essays pulse with a love of life, a sheer joy in physical existence.

Izzo takes joy too in fellowship, in people breaking bread together or sharing a drink on a summer evening. He abhors rigid borders, closed doors on common humanity. Some of what he writes here is remarkably timely, particularly when you consider that Izzo died in 2000. When he speaks of our facing a “choice between the old economic, separatist, segregationist way of thinking (of the World Bank and international private capital) and a new culture, diverse, mixed, where man remains master both of his time and of his geographical and social space”, that seems to me a choice that remains urgent today.

Izzo feared a Europe that defined itself by what it wasn’t, and that in its drive to close itself off lost part of itself in the process. He was concerned that an insular Europe would have nowhere left in it for people like him:

It’s enough to make you despair. Because I don’t see any European future for Marseilles. In spite of what they say. Marseilles is a Mediterranean city. And the Mediterranean has two shores. Not just ours. Today, Europe only talks of one, and France is all too ready to fall in line. Making this sea, for the first time, a border between East and West, North and South. Separating us from Africa and Asia Minor. On behalf of the lost Andalucias, the silent Alexandria, the divided Tangier, the massacred Beirut, we ought to remember that European culture was born on the shores of the Mediterranean, in the Middle East. Europa, lest we forget, was a Phoenician goddess abducted by Zeus!

I suspect Izzo would feel today that his concerns were being borne out, particularly as we now face an ever narrower conception of the European model; a selfish and shrinking Europe which may next leave behind the Greeks, the Italians, the Portuguese, as it puts economic dogma ahead of people. Izzo recognises the ease with which we can turn people into unknown others, and the dangers of a world too sharply divided between us and them.

I also like to think that there is no point going anywhere else if we do not recognize ourselves in the eyes of the Other. That, I think, is why most tourist resorts resemble fortified camps. We don’t try to meet the Other. We only want what belongs to him. His sea, his beaches, his palm trees.

Izzo holds out Marseilles as an alternative. For him we could have something better than armed borders and fearful populations staring at each other in envy and resentment; we could have an appreciation of our own marvellous diversity and a shared delight in the sheer marvel of being alive. It’s impossibly romantic, as I’m sure he knew, but that doesn’t make it any the less powerful.

The only thing that matters is the essential, not the superfluous. And the only thing that exists here is the pleasure of the day. Tomorrow belongs to tomorrow, and is quite another story. That is the happiness of the Mediterranean, a way of giving meaning to the day, day after day.

I enjoyed these pieces and Izzo’s thoughts on food, how to live and the Mediterranean as model for the rest of Europe. It’s hard however to escape a feeling of slightness to the book.

The total page count is about 120 pages and the final fifth or so of that is pieces relating to Fabio Montale. There’s a definite bottom-of-the-drawer sense to these. They consist of a short story; a short piece by Izzo where he talks about Montale’s character in the course of which he discusses the ending of the Marseilles trilogy, which I haven’t finished yet; then some lists of places Fabio Montale likes to visit, music that relates to each book of the trilogy and finally some books Montale likes (or which are otherwise relevant to him).

Ultimately, Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil has some lovely essays which shine with a warm humanity which I think most readers would find hard to resist. Izzo’s billets would work well on the back page of a magazine or in a features section of a newspaper, amusing or mildly provoking the reader. The trouble is there just aren’t very many of them. By the time you throw in the Montale stuff at the end there’s a sense that there wasn’t really enough material for a full book.

To end with an analogy I hope Izzo might have appreciated, this is a meal consisting of a great starter, a tasty but too small main course and a pudding (in the shape of the massive spoiler) which leaves something of a sour taste. For all that though, if you have read the trilogy or are prepared to skip the Montale essay this is still worth reading, just don’t expect it to fill you up.

The Sea Close By, by Albert Camus, translated by Hamish Hamilton and Justin O’Brien

That takes me on to the second book of my train trip, a reissue by Penguin of two Camus essays – The Sea Close By (1954) and Summer in Algiers (1938).

Sea close by

These are short pieces by Camus, written at different ends of his life but sharing common themes. They’re both effortlessly quotable, even at his slightest Camus has a wonderful prose style. These are summer essays, drenched in heat and light. They’re lovely to read, but surprisingly hard to remember even moments afterwards (save perhaps for an impression of light glittering across the waves, but perhaps that’s fitting given Camus’ philosophy).

The famous Camusian existentialism (absurdism, properly speaking) makes its appearance here, but perhaps less harshly than in some of his more famous works. This sentence, for me clearly born of a Catholic upbringing, is I think tremendously powerful:

For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.

Unfortunately, it’s all rather undercut by the description of the Algerians themselves, which is colonialist if you’re feeling kind and just plain racist if you’re not. Camus here treats Algerians as a form of noble savage, people in touch with some essence of life but devoid of culture. They are beautiful animals to him, denied their own interiority:

Here intelligence has no place as in Italy. This race is indifferent to the mind. It has a cult for an admiration of the body.

It’s an ugly note and one that for me rather poisoned the whole piece. Izzo romanticises, but he makes himself part of what he romanticises and he does so I think knowingly, because he’s creating a dream of a better Europe. Camus here romanticises as a tourist, rendering human beings into scenery.

There’s actually a lot more to it than that of course, and like all Camus pieces it’s easy to dig deeper and pull out much more meaning (so why haven’t I? I read these months ago and quite frankly they just don’t stick in the memory the way, say, The Stranger does). Still, it’s a slight read with some unfortunately patrician undertones and I think there’s a reason this part of the Camus back-catalogue isn’t better remembered. Lovely cover though.

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Filed under Camus, Albert, Izzo, Jean-Claude

I was meant to be doing all the things I used to talk about and I was doing nothing

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, by Alice Furse

It takes a particular talent to depict boredom without being boring; to show stasis without losing the reader along the way. In Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, Alice Furse brilliantly captures that awful sense that your life is happening almost independently of you, trundling along without any regard to what you might have wanted from it.

The unnamed narrator in Everybody is recently graduated, finally starting to live her independent adult life. It’s not what she’d hoped for. Her English degree isn’t in much demand; her boyfriend from university whom she loves has only managed to find work as a traffic warden; and  she spends her days watching daytime tv, eating toasted cheese sandwiches and buying second-hand books. She “had been led to believe that such a lifestyle would be romantic and bohemian, but it was neither.”

Furse

She gets a data input job at a company called Weblands. It’s not entirely clear what they do there, or if anyone would much care if they stopped doing it. It’s a heads-down sort of place, and she doesn’t have much in common with the rest of the staff. She turns up, fills out forms online, eats lunch, fills out more forms, goes home. All her education and aspirations have led to this, and what’s worse is she doesn’t even have an idea of what might be better.

One day, I got up at 17.00 and said, “Goodbye, everyone,” to all of the customer services. No one even looked up.

pointlessjobs2

Life with her boyfriend is settling into the ordinary routines of buying groceries, cooking dinner, cleaning the flat, arguing with neighbours over noise or bins, mundanity. I suspect most people reading this blog have been there and it’s a bloody time; that Schrodinger collapse from the student world of freedom and possibility into a life suddenly crammed with structure and things that have to be done just to keep everything ticking along.

After two months of living with the Traffic Warden it was obvious that our trips round the supermarket had changed from when we’d been students. We were not stoned and in pyjamas, there to pick up ready-made potato wedges and muffins and chocolate milk and fags and then speed back to the warmth of my messy bedroom. Suddenly we were a Young Couple who had a small trolley together instead of a basket each and argued over salt content and what bread to get.

The traffic warden (she never gives his name) is showing signs of being more traditional than she’d realised when they were at university. He figures that eventually she’ll give up work, have children and stay at home. He has their life mapped out, but he hasn’t asked her about it as it didn’t occur to him her plans were any different. She loves him, but that doesn’t stop her feeling lonely.

In one sense Everybody is an utterly contemporary book, showing exactly what it’s like to find yourself with a useless degree and a mountain of student debt emerging into an economy that has no use for you. In another sense though it captures a classic moment of crisis – that shock of finding quite how dull the adult world can be, that sense of being adrift while you try to work out what the hell you want to do with your life and if there’s any chance of actually doing it.

Sometimes I decided that there had to be another life out there, waiting for me to step into it like a new shoe. My life felt as if it didn’t match me at all, as if I’d picked up the wrong one by accident. I’d arrived here by mistake, taken a wrong turning on the map. I imagined that I was a character in a video game, and there was a button for a trapdoor, to take me to the next level, somewhere else, anywhere else, and all I had to do was find it.

What’s rather wonderful about Everybody is that all this could be terribly bleak, or worse yet dull, and yet it isn’t. Furse has a neat sense of comedy, partly in situations like the narrator’s habit of stealing office supplies as a form of revenge on the tedium of office life, but mostly in Furse’s deadpan tone.

Some of the humour here is decidedly pointed, such as the slightly surreal series of visits by an elderly neighbour who refuses to speak to the narrator and who when she asks a question replies as if it had been the traffic warden instead of her who’d spoken. It reminded me of restaurants I’ve been too where my wife asks for the wine menu only for it to be given to me, where she then chooses the wine only for them to offer me the chance to taste it, and where if she asks for the bill they hand it to me (restaurants we don’t go back to I should add).

In one of the cleverer aspects of the novel, Furse early on sharply defines the characters of the narrator and the traffic warden, but the office staff seem fuzzy and interchangeable. As the book progresses their personalities emerge too, reflecting the narrator’s increasing ability to distinguish between them. It’s elegantly done, so that by the time you’re two-thirds of the way into the novel people who at first seemed to be bland clones of each other have become utterly separate and convincing. To her horror the narrator realises that some of them, maybe even all of them, may be having the same doubts she is and may be just as bored and surprised by the life they find themselves living.

It’s easy to see how one could say this is a novel about the problems of being a young woman or a new graduate in modern Britain, but I’m none of those things and yet it resonated hugely with me. I think that’s because while at one level it’s all very particular and specific, the underlying emotions are ones many of us have had.

As I was reading Everybody I was reminded of Post Office and Factotum, Bukowski’s forensic examinations of the absurdity of work (and by his economy of style too). Interestingly, just as I was thinking that the narrator picked up a copy of a Bukowski that her boyfriend was reading. She doesn’t like it, finding the ease with which he gets women to sleep with him in his narrative fantastical and pathetic given he’s an aging alcoholic with a ruined body (which is a pretty fair point). Perhaps that’s another way to view Everybody, as like a Bukowski novel with a young contemporary woman in place of an aging alcoholic man.

Looking back at my writeup of Factotum I see I said “The point is looking straight at what is and writing it down.” That sentence works pretty well for Furse too. She looks at what is and she writes it down. Put that way it sounds simple, but if it were more writers would be doing it.

Other reviews

Anthony of Timesflowstemmed wrote an elegant and punchy review of Everybody here, which first alerted me to the book and without which I would never have heard of it. There’s another excellent review here from the marvellously named Workshy Fop blog, which I note also calls the book deadpan. It’s always reassuring to find someone else describing a book the same way as you have yourself, it suggests you haven’t utterly missed the point (or if you have at least you’re not the only one who has).

Finally, there’s a nice interview with Furse here on Dan Holloway’s blog. Furse says at one point “I like cold hard reality and no frills dialogue.” which is certainly true, and absolutely key to the book’s success. Also, she argues that Plath’s Bell Jar isn’t just for teenage girls, which I absolutely agree with and which I think is an incredibly dismissive way to treat a genuinely classic novel. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Seriously, that’s a great opening line for any book.

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Filed under Furse, Alice

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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