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.

26 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

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).

9 Comments

Filed under Barnes, Adrian, Science Fiction

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.

26 Comments

Filed under Modernist Fiction

‘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.

16 Comments

Filed under Barker, Nicola, Booker

It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

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

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

MERCURY IN SAGITTARIUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luminaries

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

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

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

JUPITER IN SAGITTARIUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 Comments

Filed under Booker, Catton, Eleanor, New Zealand Literature

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

Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

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

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

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

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

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

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

PlayItAsItLays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean right here.”

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

She shook her head.

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

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

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

Maria did not move.

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

Maria said nothing.

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

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

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

17 Comments

Filed under California, Didion, Joan, US Literature

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

Others of my Kind, by James Sallis

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

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

OthersofmyKind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarly:

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

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

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

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

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

12 Comments

Filed under Sallis, James, US Literature

the wild heart of life

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

ONCE upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man2

Generally I avoid reading forewords before reading the book itself. All too often they contain massive plot spoilers, and even where spoilers aren’t an issue they can give so much direction on a book’s themes and ideas that you’re not left with the freedom to meet it on its own terms, without the weight of someone else’s scholarship. I always read them after the book, but almost never before.

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Portrait has a great foreword, by Jeri Johnson. She’s a lecturer in English literature at Oxford University, a specialist on British and American Modernist literature. Her expertise shows. If you read Portrait, and it’s worth reading, read the foreword first. Yes, it tells you the ending, but frankly that doesn’t matter and you’ll avoid some of the utterly avoidable frustration I had with the book.

As I write this I’m going to share first my thoughts from my initial cold reading of the book, then I’ll talk a little about what the foreword showed me that I’d missed. Only a little, because I missed so much that the book demands a second reading. Besides, I don’t think it does books like this any favours if we all pretend we understood everything on a first read, it makes them too daunting, too much a challenge rather than a pleasure. As I sometimes say, literature isn’t like Pokemon, you don’t have to catch it all.

The quote above is the opening lines of the book, and they have probably on their own done more to put people off this than any reputation for difficulty. Portrait is divided into five chapters, each a snapshot of a period in the life of Stephen Daedalus, the artist as a young man. The first is him as a small child being sent off to school for the first time, tiny and uncertain. Of course, that’s a story you could tell in a very traditional way with a nice clear omniscient narrator telling us about Stephen’s thoughts and experiences, but Joyce opens with something much more interesting. It’s third person narration, but written with the vocabulary and understanding of Stephen Daedalus as a baby, as a small child.

This is the stream of consciousness often alluded to when people discuss Joyce, but it’s not quite that simple. This isn’t an internal narrative stream, as for example in Arthur Schnitzler’s marvellous Fraülein Else. That book is stream of consciousness, the entire text is the interior monologue of its central character. Here though it’s “His father told him that story” – his and him, but in his own language. It’s as if the tools Joyce has to tell his tale are those Stephen has to voice his own thoughts, and following that the language gets more sophisticated in each chapter so reflecting Stephen’s own development.

If you can get past that first paragraph, the shock of it, what follows is brilliantly written. Stephen’s mind jumps about from topic to topic, questioning a world he barely understands and making connections an adult might well struggle to follow. The language is playful, fun even, and once I’d got a sense for the style it was a pleasure to read (the rhythm of the text works better by the way if you read it with an assumed Irish accent).

The bell rang and then the classes began to file out of the rooms and along the corridors towards the refectory. He sat looking at the two prints of butter on his plate but could not eat the damp bread. The tablecloth was damp and limp. But he drank off the hot weak tea which the clumsy scullion, girt with a white apron, poured into his cup. He wondered whether the scullion’s apron was damp too or whether all white things were cold and damp. Nasty Roche and Saurin drank cocoa that their people sent them in tins. They said they could not drink the tea; that it was hogwash. Their fathers were magistrates, the fellows said.

I was particularly impressed by a bravura scene of a Christmas dinner where the adults fall to arguing about politics, a discussion Stephen doesn’t understand at all but which imprints itself on him in all its fury and increasing bitterness. It’s one of the best depictions of an argument I’ve read in fiction. It ebbs and flows. People try to make peace, then one makes one final remark and sets it off again. It grows out of all proportion and relates to matters that nobody at the table has any influence over at all. Here it’s an argument about Parnell and Kitty O’ Shea, but it could just as well be an argument about the merits of the Iraq war or government austerity measures. The details differ, the emotions don’t.

It was there though that I started to run into problems, in particular the fact that Joyce clearly expects the reader to follow the argument even if Stephen can’t. My knowledge however of early 20th Century Irish history is scant, I’d vaguely heard of Parnell though without context and never of Kitty O’ Shea, and I had to put the book down and check wikipedia to work out what the hell they were all talking about. Naturally, Jeri Johnson explains that context neatly in her foreword, which I hadn’t read.

That summarises what for me was a key difficulty with this book, one that led to me taking to twitter half-way through asking who else had read it and if they’d actually enjoyed it. There’s a lot of assumed contemporary knowledge here. Joyce assumes a broad familiarity with what would have been the Irish current affairs of the day, as well as with the broad principles of the Catholic faith.

Since half my family are Catholic and I have links to Ireland I’m probably a bit more aware of some of those currents than the average contemporary non-Irish reader, but not by much. The simple fact is that without notes there’s an awful lot in this book that’s obscure now not by virtue of the language, which is actually much easier than you’d imagine, or because of the structure or anything else a reader would normally associate with a supposedly difficult book, but simply because the world it’s set in is so very specific and so very long ago. It’s a key reason I think why this is a book more studied than read.

Once I accepted that there was simply going to be a fair bit going on that I wouldn’t understand the significance of my enjoyment of the book picked up again. Are there frequent allusions to Dante’s Inferno? There are? A shame I haven’t read it then. Are there subtleties in terms of the competing philosophies and demands of the Church and Irish nationalism? Well, even I can see that there are, even if the particulars are now as obscure to me as the debate between the big-endians and little-endians of Lilliput and Blefuscu.

The chapters that follow seem almost random in their choice of subjects, but that’s because life isn’t merely a series of this happened then that happened then something else happened. The chapters focus on key moments of Stephen’s youth, eliding over the links and gaps between one episode and the other. Generally you can fill in what’s left out, because generally it’s clear that what’s been left out is fairly ordinary. We don’t see Stephen progressing through his schools – he’s a junior at one school and next chapter a senior at another, his family having moved as their fortunes have declined, but we hardly need Joyce to tell us what it’s like to go through a few years of education particularly since the first chapter established the nature of the priest-run schools Stephen attends; the manner of tuition, the meals, routines, crimes and punishments.

Always though Joyce’s observations are acute. I’ve not felt myself inside the head of a small boy so persuasively since I was one, when of course I gave it no thought at all.

Chapter 3 contains perhaps the most obviously impressive example of Joyce’s writing. By this point in the narrative Stephen is a teenager who has taken to sleeping with prostitutes and to focusing more on his appetites than his mind. He is sent with the rest of his class to a Catholic retreat, where he is treated to an extended sermon on the properties of Hell. The speech is intended to terrify the boys, to drive them back into the protective embrace of orthodoxy and the Church. It works, Stephen is terrified, and I wasn’t surprised because it’s so well written I felt chilled myself. Here’s two long, but in the context of the whole sequence very short, excerpts:

Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame. And through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead.

And

—A holy saint (one of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words: ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never. O what a dreadful punishment!

It’s impossible though with a couple of quotes to capture the power of this section. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, detailed near-forensic description of the sufferings of Hell. It’s claustrophic to read, a mid-book harrowing of Stephen. For a while he even considers entering the Church himself, becoming a priest, but of course as the title of the book itself tells us that isn’t where his true vocation lies.

Language is a recurring theme in the book, even from the first chapter when Stephen is too young to be aware of how he uses it. As the book advances though he becomes more conscious of it, of words themselves and the meanings and associations they carry and of how they may be used.

Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of language many coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

He falls into debates, with friends, with his dean of studies, as to the nature of art and the role of the artist. They’re often rather pretentious and adolescent conversations (Stephen at one point inwardly considers himself as “a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life”, a wonderful but rather portentous phrase), but then when he was a baby the text reflected that so is it so strange it should reflect also the grand sweeping certainties of adolescence? Whatever its level though the language remains beautiful. Here are some more scattered quotes, lines I thought worth sharing lest anyone reading this thinks the book just a clever puzzle requiring intellectual but not emotional response:

From under the wide falling leaf of a soft hat Cranly’s dark eyes were watching him.

Or

Cranly pushed solemnly through the throng of students, linking Stephen and Temple like a celebrant attended by his ministers on his way to the altar.

Or indeed:

The park trees were heavy with rain and rain fell still and ever in the lake, lying grey like a shield.

You can see the religious imagery that runs through the book very clearly in that second quote there (and the Eucharist metaphor in the quote above about the priest of the eternal imagination). The first and third quote though, those are simply lovely, words made supple and evocative.

Portrait is a novel of an artist emerging. Stephen faces claims of nationalism, religion, bonds of family and friendship and the body’s own insistent demands and through it all devotes himself to his ideal of art. That makes it sound worthy, but it’s not because the physical is always present, because those other claims and demands are so real and vital.  I’ll include one final quote:

It was not thought nor vision though he knew vaguely that her figure was passing homeward through the city. Vaguely first and then more sharply he smelt her body. A conscious unrest seethed in his blood. Yes, it was her body he smelt: a wild and languid smell: the tepid limbs over which his music had flowed desirously and the secret soft linen upon which her flesh distilled odour and a dew. A louse crawled over the nape of his neck and, putting his thumb and forefinger deftly beneath his loose collar, he caught it.

There’s a tremendous sensuality there in those first few lines, as Stephen contemplates the girl’s smell, her “tepid limbs” and “secret soft linen” (and no prizes for guessing where his thoughts are trending when he imagines her distilling “odour and a dew” onto that linen). Suddenly though there’s that louse, a quotidian irritant intruding on his flight of desire. For me that passage contained a heart of the book (not its only heart, but certainly a heart). It’s that clash between the mind and the body, between fantasy and reality, theory and practicality. These are the issues Stephen is grappling with here, and which Joyce is addressing of course through him.

Right, I said I’d say a bit at the end about the foreword. Well, firstly I entirely failed to notice when reading the book that, as Johnson says, “Within each chapter a similar pattern of rising action can be seen: each opens with Stephen in humility and ends with him triumphant.” I’m sure it can be seen, but I didn’t see it. This is an immensely carefully structured book, and I largely didn’t pick up on that structure as I got too bogged down in unfamiliar details of faith or politics.

The foreword brings out too quite how shocking much of the book’s content would have been when first published. Joyce touches at various points on bedwetting, masturbation, family squabbles, sex, the louse of course in that final quote above, an exuberant and vulgar physicality and normality. Of course life is physical, but when this came out none of that was seen as suitable subject matter for fiction. You don’t need to know that to appreciate the book, but it’s interesting and shows one of the ways in which Joyce pushed boundaries.

More than those specific details though, Johnson gives enough background that the context makes sense to the modern reader. As I said above I’d never have run into problems with that family argument if I’d read the foreword first, Johnson gives you what you need to know to make sense of it. She analyses how the chapters fit together, how the themes emerge and develop, but not in a way that suffocates the text but rather to illuminate it. She shows how the chapters relate to phases of Stephen’s life, why those chapters are here and not other chapters that could have been included (were included it seems in an earlier unpublished version of the book). She’s like a guide pointing out the landmarks to you before you set off on a hike, telling you to look out for this river, that unusual rock.

This is a book now somewhat obscured by its own weight and history. Partly that’s because of its reputation as being difficult, as being Joyce, is now a barrier to simply reading it. Partly too though it’s because the world Joyce sets his novel in is so very particular in time and space that it can be hard sometimes simply to understand the significance to the characters within the fiction of what’s being said. The foreword helps you past that, and when I reread this (which I hope to do) it’ll be bearing those insights in mind so that next time I’m not wandering through the territory squinting at a map trying to work out which way up to hold it and wondering if I’m still on the right trail.

25 Comments

Filed under Irish Literature, Joyce, James, Modernist Fiction

There is such a thing as letting one’s æsthetic sense override one’s moral sense

Improper Stories, by Saki

Saki (real name HH Munro) was an Edwardian writer famed for his short stories – icy little satires that skewered hypocrisy and social convention. He’s an immediate precursor to Wodehouse, drawing on a similar cast of characters from the leisured classes, and I suspect a strong influence on Roald Dahl.

Improper Stories is a 2010 collection featuring 18 of Saki’s stories, taken from (I believe) three different collections published in his lifetime. Saki’s work is out of copyright now, and therefore largely free on kindle, which raises the question why anybody would pay for a new collection. Probably the second best answer to that is that this is a near-perfect introduction to his work and so perfect for readers like me who don’t know where to start. The best answer though is the cover, which is gorgeous:

Saki

Isn’t that just absolutely lovely? It also somehow captures some of the spirit of the book; a sense of decorous misrule.

Saki’s world is the world of Wodehouse, Waugh, more recently Downton Abbey. His protagonists tend to have better manners than morals. They sit at an ironic distance to the world, observing it with coldly comic detachment.

You can read the opening story here, it’s far from the best in the collection but it is a wonderful scene-setter. Characters in Saki meet fates that are fitting, but not ones that are necessarily entirely deserved. In one of my favourite tales a mother and daughter keenly wish to attend a garden party to which they were not invited. Considering it better to sneak in than to later explain their absence and risk it being generally known they were left off the guest list, they attempt to enter via the back garden.

Mrs Stossen and her daughter, suitably arrayed for a county garden party function with an infusion of Almanack de Gotha, sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of state barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream. There was a certain amount of furtive haste mingled with the stateliness of their advance as though hostile searchlights might be turned on them at any moment; and, as a matter of fact, they were not unobserved.

The observer is 13-year-old Matilda, exiled to the garden in punishment for her earlier misdeeds involving an excess of raspberry trifle. Unfortunately for the Stossens the gate between the paddock and the gooseberry garden is firmly locked, utterly foiling their plans. Even more unfortunately, Matilda doesn’t consider it quite right that they should try to sneak in, nor that her family’s great Yorkshire boar-pig is locked up in his sty and so not getting to enjoy any of the fun of the party.  Matilda, being of an economical turn of mind, resolves both problems with a single action: she lets out the pig.

The boar-pig had drawn nearer to the gate for a closer inspection of the human intruders, and stood champing his jaws and blinking his small red eyes in a manner that was doubtless intended to be disconcerting, and, as far as the Stossens were concerned, thoroughly achieved that result.

[Matilda reveals herself to the stranded ladies, whose only exit lies past the irate swine.]

‘Do you think you could go and get someone who would drive the pig away?’ asked Miss Stossen. ‘I promised my aunt I would stay here till five o’clock; it’s not four yet.’ ‘I am sure, under the circumstances, your aunt would permit—’ ‘My conscience would not permit,’ said Matilda with cold dignity.

What follows is a wonderful negotiation between the stranded Stossens and Matilda, who is always polite but rarely helpful. I’m not sure there is a moral, other perhaps than that it’s best not to find oneself in a story by Saki.

Here children wreak revenge on overly punitive aunts and guardians; boring guests are driven off in terror or made victim to elaborate practical jokes; the small-minded are made to pay dearly for their petty sins. In another of my many favourites, The Quest, a recurring character named Clovis is staying at a villa when a young woman realises her child is missing:

‘We’ve lost Baby,’ she screamed.

‘Do you mean that it’s dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?’ asked Clovis lazily.

‘He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn,’ said Mrs Momeby tearfully, ‘ and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus-‘

‘I hope he said hollandaise,’ interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, ‘because if there’s anything I hate-‘

Soon Clovis, a young man possessed more of wit than moral character, is helpfully speculating that perhaps an eagle or hyena might have escaped from some private zoo and devoured the child. Mrs Momeby fails to take comfort from this, and what’s worse “With the selfish absorption of young motherhood she entirely disregarded Clovis’s obvious anxiety about the asparagus sauce.”

They quickly locate a crying baby, a seeming miraculous recovery made with the help of a Christian Scientist neighbour armed with great powers of faith if not of perception. Regrettably the child found isn’t the child lost, so that when their own baby reappears they find themselves with an excess infant. Clovis cheerfully notes that they need only keep the bonus baby until it hits the age of 13, at which time they may put it into the navy.

The stories featuring Clovis are a particular delight simply because Clovis himself is so much fun. He is mischief made flesh, then sent to a good school and tailored in Saville Row. In a sense he is an animal in human form, a fox perhaps or a particularly sly cat, with those around him mere dull dogs in comparison or worse yet geese or sheep.

One story which at first seems to stick out in the collection is The Music on the Hill, which unlike the others is much more a horror tale in the vein of Machen or MR James. A young woman marries and moves from town to country, where she finds that worship of the old gods remains very real as may the old gods themselves. I found it an effective little chiller, with the woman isolated on a gloomy farm with a distant husband and unfriendly animals. When she sees “a boy’s face … scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes” after interfering with an offering she finds on a small altar in the woods, you know the tale won’t end happily for her.

On reflection though, the tale did fit, because it explores an encounter between urbane modernity and older, more primeval, forces. Where Pan amused himself in ancient Greece (and perhaps the more remote parts of Edwardian England) by terrifying travelers in his woods, Clovis instead spreads dismay and confusion in drawing rooms and country houses. Clovis is a child of Pan, a manifestation of him and of all the Puckish spirits who have afflicted the overly self-assured through the ages. We need order if we are to flourish, to build lives and homes and carve out a place for ourselves in the world; but we need chaos too or nothing would ever change, and we would drown in our own comfort.

Saki though makes no point so serious as that, or not so obviously anyway. Instead he laughs at the vanities of the world around him, the people in it. The world has changed since Saki’s day, but the people haven’t, and that’s why these tales remain as fresh and funny as when he wrote them.

Here‘s a wonderful piece by Chris Power in the Guardian about Saki, and here‘s a review by Guy Savage of another Saki collection which comes with the added bonus of Edward Gorey artwork.

12 Comments

Filed under Saki, Short Stories

Girls get murdered all the fucking time.

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

I’m sick of serial killers. Serial killers are what we replaced our monsters with. We don’t believe in ghosts or goblins, so we looked to our real life monsters and gave them mythic qualities.

On TV and film serial killers are often brilliant, geniuses even. Sometimes they’re superhumanly strong, sometimes charming. Their victims are generally attractive young women with good jobs, women the audience can relate to and sympathise with. It’s rare a serial killer in fiction is a social inadequate preying on the marginalised because then the whole thing just becomes too ugly for a Saturday night’s entertainment.

Lauren Beukes is an intelligent writer, one who couldn’t write formula if she tried. When she writes a novel featuring a serial killer then it’s no surprise that the result is interesting and well written. In The Shining Girls she uses the familiar figure of the serial killer to make a wider point about how society crushes women who stand out, the murderer as an extreme manifestation of something that happens every day. It’s a novel with strong characters and an interesting plot and on its own terms there’s no question but that it succeeds.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. That’s not the novel’s fault, it does what it sets out to do, but in the end this is still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader, and I’m just not the reader for that novel.

ShiningGirls

The Shining Girls is high-concept. Harper Curtis is a drifter in Chicago in 1931, a despicable wretch of a man, weak and full of petty hate. His crimes are about to catch up on him when he discovers a house, the house, and the house exists outside of time.

He goes to the window to pull the curtains shut, but not before he glimpses the tableau outside.

The houses across the way change. The paint strips away, recolors itself, strips away again through snow and sun and trash tangled with leaves blowing down the street. Windows are broken, boarded over, spruced up with a vase of flowers that turn brown and fall away. The empty lot becomes overgrown, fills over with cement, grass grows through the cracks in wild tufts, rubbish congeals, the rubbish is removed, it comes back, along with aggressive snarls of writing on the walls in vicious colors. A hopscotch grid appears, disappears in the sleeting rain, moves elsewhere, snaking across the cement. A couch rots through seasons and then catches fire.

He yanks the curtains closed, and turns and sees it. Finally. His destiny spelled out in this room.

Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.

When Harper finds the house there’s a dead body in the hallway, a recently murdered man. There’s a suitcase full of money, but some of the notes are wrong and the issue dates haven’t happened yet. When he looks out the window he looks out on different Chicagos, and when he opens the front door he can walk out into them. He can walk out into any time between 1929 and 1993. He goes out in 1993 to dump the body far from his own time, and finds a corpse he recognises from his own time already stuck in his chosen hiding place. A cleverer man might wonder how that was possible, but Harper isn’t that man.

In 1992 Kirby Mazrachi is a young woman who some years back survived a terrifying and brutal assault. She was disembowelled and had her throat slashed, but her attacker hadn’t planned on her dog trying to save her and ended up having to flee the scene, leaving her for dead. Now she’s an intern with a burnt-out former crime reporter, Dan Velasquez, who’s now working the sports desk for the Chicago Sun-Times. When Dan meets her for the first time he sees her as:

a girl barely out of kindergarten, surely, with crazy kindergarten hair sticking up all over the place, a multicolored striped scarf looped around her neck with matching fingerless gloves, a black jacket with more zips than is conceivably practical, and worse, an earring in her nose. She irritates him on principle.

He’s even less happy when he works out she’s only doing the intern job so she can get inside dirt on her own story, a story he worked on back on the day.

Ok, maybe Beukes can write a little formula when she tries. Kirby and Dan are pretty familiar sorts of characters. Still, there’s enough originality in the time travel concept that it’s probably for the best if some of the other architecture of the story is a little more standard.

Kirby and Dan soon realise that her attack wasn’t the first. That doesn’t surprise them, but what does is the discovery that similar crimes are spread out over the past six decades. Slowly they come to realise they’re dealing with something much stranger than just another serial killer.

Meanwhile, back in 1931, Harper has found his trophy room in the house; the artifacts in the quote above. Each item is something he took as a souvenir from one of his killings, except that when he first sees them he hasn’t yet committed those crimes. The house though is outside of time, the souvenirs he’ll take are already on the wall before he’s taken them, are always on the wall both as markers of what he did and instructions of what he must do.

He picks up a piece of chalk that is lying on the mantel and writes on the wallpaper beside the window, because there is a space for it and it seems he must. He prints ‘Glowgirl’ in his jagged sloping script, over the ghost of the word that is already there.

Although it sounds it, this isn’t really a science fiction novel. The house is never explained (though it follows an absolutely clear logic in how it works); Harper isn’t bright enough to ask questions and his obsessions are too strong to really let him examine the house’s implications. The house simply is, and it’s never explicitly stated whether it’s directing Harper or, as I interpret it, reflecting back to him his own future decisions. What the house does though is let Harper pick his victims through history, and therefore let Beukes range through history showing different women in different parts of Chicago’s past.

The house is one unusual aspect to this novel. The other is Beukes’ focus on the victims. Her attention here isn’t so much on the beautiful corpse, as on the beautiful life brutally cut short.

Harper picks his victims when they’re young, selecting girls who have a spark in them, who seem special. He calls it a glow. When he’s found a girl who glows for him he comes back when she’s grown up and kills her, snuffs out her light. As Beukes shows each woman’s life though it’s soon apparent that Harper isn’t the only one who sees a shining girl and wants to smother her. Harper is a metaphor for how our society treats women more generally, how women who stand out are cut back, forced to blend in for safety.

Beukes is keen too to show that these women don’t exist in a vacuum. They have families, friends, lovers, children. Their deaths ripple out. Here’s an example:

The dead girl’s name was Julia Madrigal. She was twenty-one. She was studying at Northwestern. Economics. She liked hiking and hockey, because she was originally from Banff, Canada, and hanging out in the bars along Sheridan Road with her friends, because Evanston was dry.

She kept meaning to sign up to volunteer to read textbook passages for the blind students association’s study tapes, but never quite got round to it, the same way she’d bought a guitar but only mastered one chord. She was running for head of her sorority. She always said she was going to be the first woman CEO of Goldman Sachs. She had plans to have three kids and a big house and a husband who did something interesting and complementary – a surgeon or a broker or something. Not like Sebastian, who was a good-time guy, but not exactly marriage material.

She was too loud, like her dad, especially at parties. Her sense of humor tended to be crass. Her laugh was notorious or legendary, depending on who was telling. You could hear it from the other side of Alpha Phi. She could be annoying. She could be narrow-minded in that got-all-the-answers-to-save-the-world way. But she was the kind of girl you couldn’t keep down. Unless you cut her up and caved in her skull.

Her father will never recover. His weight drops away until he becomes a wan parody of the loud and opinionated estate agent who would pick a fight at the barbecue about the game. He loses all interest in selling houses. He tapers off mid-sales pitch, looking at the blank spaces on the wall between the perfect family portraits or worse, at the grouting between the tiles of the en-suite bathroom. He learns to fake it, to clamp the sadness down. At home, he starts cooking. He teaches himself French cuisine. But all food tastes bland to him.

Her mother draws the pain into herself: a monster she keeps caged in her chest that can only be subdued with vodka. She does not eat her husband’s cooking. When they move back to Canada and downsize the house, she relocates into the spare room. Eventually, he stops hiding her bottles. When her liver seizes up twenty years later, he sits next to her in a Winnipeg hospital and strokes her hand and narrates recipes he’s memorized like scientific formula because there is nothing else to say.

Her sister moves as far away as she can, and keeps moving, first across the state, then across the country, then overseas to become an au pair in Portugal. She is not a very good au pair. She doesn’t bond with the children. She is too terrified that something might happen to them.

The passage continues. It explores the impact on Julia’s boyfriend, on her best friend, on a girl across town that Julia never met who only reads about the case. It’s powerful stuff. I went for such a long quote because this is the heart of the book. The time travel stuff is taut, logically worked through and entirely internally consistent, but Julia and the other women like her in the book shine, which of course is the point.

The women though are also why the book in the end doesn’t work for me. How do you read that passage above, and read too the forensically detailed description of how she was killed and how Harper makes his victims suffer and the joy he takes from that, and then enjoy a tale of a determined young woman and her worn-down sidekick bravely tracking down a time-travelling murderer? It’s too much horror for such a story. Beukes wants to show that horror, she wants to show how terrible this is and how much of a loss these women’s lives are. The problem is that she succeeds.

So in the end I come full circle, back to where I started this review. The Shining Girls is interesting and well written. It’s a novel with strong characters and an interesting plot and on its own terms there’s no question but that it succeeds.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it. That’s not the novel’s fault, it does what it sets out to do, but in the end this is still a book in which young women are brutally killed for the entertainment of the reader, and I’m just not the reader for that novel.

17 Comments

Filed under Beukes, Lauren, Crime Fiction, Science Fiction