Friday, 31 August 2012

Booker Prize Longlist, 2012, 12: Nicola Barker, The Yips (2012)

First, a word from our sponsor:
Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.

Sprawl lengthens the legs; it trains greyhounds on liver and beer.
Sprawl almost never says, Why not?, with palms comically raised
nor can it be dressed for, not even in running shoes worn
with mink and a nose ring. That is Society. That's Style.
Sprawl is more like the thirteenth banana in a dozen
or anyway the fourteenth.

... Sprawl occurs in art. The fifteenth to twenty-first
lines in a sonnet, for example. And in certain paintings.
I have sprawl enough to have forgotten which paintings.
Turner's glorious Burning of the Houses of Parliament
comes to mind, a doubling bannered triumph of sprawl -
except he didn't fire them.

Sprawl gets up the noses of many kinds of people
(every kind that comes in kinds) whose futures don't include it.
Some decry it as criminal presumption, silken-robed Pope Alexander
dividing the new world between Spain and Portugal.
If he smiled in petto afterwards, perhaps the thing did have sprawl.

Sprawl is really classless, though. It is John Christopher Frederick Murray
asleep in his neighbours' best bed in spurs and oilskins,
but not having thrown up:
sprawl is never Calum, who, in the loud hallway of our house
reinvented the Festoon. Rather
it's Beatrice Miles going twelve hundred ditto in a taxi,
No Lewd Advances, no Hitting Animals, no Speeding,
on the proceeds of her two-bob-a-sonnet Shakespeare readings.
An image of my country. And would thatit were more so.

No, sprawl is full gloss murals on a council-house wall.
Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed,
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Sprawl is Barker's forte. Sprawl -- I mean in this particular, aesthetically valorised, Les Murray sense -- is what her novels have in spades. Well, I shouldn't over-generalise: she's written nine novels and I've only read two of them, so I'm not really well-informed-enough to say. But I have read the extraordinary Darkmans, shortlisted for the the 2007 Man Booker (and did it really lose to Anne Enright's dreary, downbeat The Gathering? Were the jury high, or something?) And I have, now, read The Yips.

It's the kind of novel designed to resist summary (and, indeed, review). So I won't try to summarise, and I'll only gesture in the general direction of review. It's a pretty complex machine, this book, and if I force it then it's liable to break. Suffice to say (a cliché that always makes me think of the laconic Arthurian knight, Sir Fice de Saï -- though that fact has nothing at all to do with The Yips) the book is about a great gaggle of characters rubbing along in contemporary multi-cultural Britain. At the beginning of the book you may think the central figure will be over-the-hill professional golfer and moderate arsehole Stuart Ransom, with whom we spend quite a long time, in a hotel bar in Luton. But Ransom isn't it; even golf, which I suppose is one of the 'unifying' devices of the novel, isn't it. There's pregnant, forceful, Jamaican Esther, Stuart's manager. There's the barman Gene, a cancer survivor working three jobs; and his wife Shiela, a C-of-E vicar unhappy in her life; and Valentine, an agoraphobic tattooist, and plenty more. Lots happens, but most of the novel is given over to extended dialogue riffs in which characters interact with other characters. This is the make-or-break: if you find her dialogue tedious (and it certainly goes on a bit) then you're liable to bounce-off The Yips. But if you get drawn into these conversational figues then the novel will weave its spell. There's another cliché. Makes me think of Merlin, at the spell-loom.

Now, though I enjoyed this novel a great deal I have to say: it's not a patch on Darkmans. The two novels share a surface similarity: Darkmans is set in and around Ashford rather than The Yips's Luton and is considerably longer (900 pages to The Yips 550), but both titles are sprawl-fests in which myriad characters interact via lots and lots of chatter. Like The Yips, Darkmans says, inter alia: Britain is now a centripetal, multicultural society, characterised by both its jibber and its jabber which, in its mundanity as well as its colour, in its occasional startling insight as well as its ill-disciplined there's-lots-of-time-to-fill chunter, is the aesthetic keynote of 21st-century life. It's like Talk Radio, or podcasts, or Big Brother contestants pouring mostly inane words into the void of their televised confinement, or people down the pub. It takes its force and its point from its open-endedness; a discourse of disclosure rather than enclosure. And like a massive, written-down podcast, The Yips generates its own unique and weirdly modern affect.

That said, Darkmans had something more. In amongst all the surface sprawl was a powerful undercurrent -- history itself. It's possible this only resonated as thuddingly with me as it did because I happen to be English, to have grown up in Kent (a touch further east than Barker's Ashford, but recognisably the same county) and to have been often debilitatingly aware, whilst growing up, of the strange tourbillons The Past sets up in the Present. Darkmans captures that interpenetration of (vertical) long time with the (horizontal) sprawl of modern living exceptionally well. The Yips is also kind-of about history, as it is about many things; but it lacks the particular punchiness that Darkmans managed. The closest this book comes to an organising aesthetic device is golf, which, simply, doesn't work as well. The titular 'Yips' are the nerves that afflict even the best players (or so nervy, boozy Ransom insists) when facing even the simplest of putts. And there is a nerviness here, perhaps, that interferes with the deadpan. It's a good novel. It's not as good as Darkmans. It's not as good as Les Murray either, since his sprawl is held together by (no: is actually a sort of emanation of) God, and Barker is much less interested in that sort of thing). Murray's sprawl is pretty wholeheartedly a thing to celebrate; Barker's sprawl is often bleakly funny, or a bit miserable, or an iteration of ontological pointlessness. But its the authentic sprawl, for all that.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Take me to your leader

Where does this phrase originate?  The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has it under 'catchphrases' and attributes it, vaguely enough, to 'science fiction stories' [6th ed., 2004: 201:28].  Wikipedia is better:
"Take me to your leader" is a cartoon catchphrase, said by extraterrestrial aliens who have just landed on earth in a flying saucer to the first human they happen to meet. It originated in a 1953 cartoon by Alex Graham in The New Yorker magazine. The cartoon depicted two aliens telling a four-legged animal “Kindly take us to your President!” A meta-reference is made in the Douglas Adams novel Life, the Universe and Everything, when Trillian addresses the inhabitants of Krikkit.
"I want you to do something for me", she said, and unexpectedly laughed. "I want," she said, and laughed again. She put her hand over her mouth and said with a straight face, "I want you to take me to your leader."
Here's the cartoon:

What about the first actual use of 'leader'? Here's something from 1971, from Boy’s Life [Mar 1971, 90]:
A Martian with orders to bring back an earthling started on his long journey to this planet. He arrived early, when everyone was still asleep. He walked into a gas station and addressed one of the pumps saying “Take me to your leader”. He repeated his request several times but naturally got no reply. When the Martian returned to his spaceship his boss asked for a report. The frustrated Martian replied: “I asked the creature over and over if he would take me to his leader. But he just stood there silently with his tail in his ear.’
Earlier examples are easy to come by -- Boy's Life again in 1958:; Life Magazine, 17 June 1957: a 'droodle' called "TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER, EARTHMAN"  Can't find a pre-1953 example though.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Booker Longlist 2012, 11: Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (2012)

Where in the world do we find true suffering? Is it in (to pluck an example out of the air) the recent attempted genocide in Rwanda? Or is it, rather, in the mind of a house-guest of a wealthy white middle-class English family staying at a villa in the South of France? A villa with a nice swimming pool?  A young female visitor who gets naked a lot? Who has an interest in poetry? Who has a bit of a history of depression? Isabel, whose villa this is, is a journalist. She knows the answer. Will she cover Rwanda?  'Without witnessing first-hand the terrors of Rwanda, she had gone too far into the unhappiness of the world to start all over again' [31]. No delving into Rwanda for her!  She has enough on her plate.  Kitty Finch is the skinny, big-breasted English girl with the poetic aspirations, the tendency to get naked all the time and the history of poetic affectation and loony behaviour. The first time we meet her, she has pitched up uninvited at Isabel's villa and is swimming naked underwater in the pool. Isabel's husband Joe at first thinks she is a bear. It's not the first wrongfooting moment in the novel. Swimming Home is published by And Other Stories press. When I picked up my copy I thought to myself: 'Swimming Home, And Other Stories .. is this even a novel?' [chuckles] --I know! What am I like? [wipes mirthy tear from eye] -- of course it's a novel. It's the story of what happens when beautiful, naked, poetic, attractively fucked-up-in-the-head ('not!', as Limb Bizkit once said) Kitty gatecrashes the villa where Joe and Isabel Jacobs are staying with Nina, their 14-year-old daughter, and their friends Mitchell and Laura. Mitchell likes guns. It's 1994, which is when Rwanda was happening, but the novel's not interested in that. Joe is a poet, and is not entirely faithful to Isabel. Nina's period is about to start.  Mitchell likes guns ... or did I already mention that?  Joe fled the Nazis in 1942. This novel comes pre-introduced, with a black-polo-necked and gitane-y preface by Tom McCarthy, no less, in which he praises Levy for knowing 'her Lacan and her Deleuze, her Barthes, Marguerite Duras, Gertrude Stein and Ballard, not to mention Kafka and Robbe-Grillet.' My, that's a lot to live up to.  A writer could easily undershoot, and end up merely sounding pretentious and derivative and pretentious.  So what do we have?  We have this.  Levy writes like this:
Kitty stared at the sky smashing against the mountains. [21]

There was a kissing coma in the atmosphere. [104]

The days were hard and smelt of money. [5]

Kitty Finch was mental. [72]

It was shrapnel in her arm, his indifference to the envelope she had pushed through his bedroom door. [130]

'Do you only notice trees that suffer?' [18]

Tears and snot and saliva were pouring out of the holes in his face. [154]

This is not very good writing. But ... pretentious?  Pur-lease. Suffering trees!  Sky-mountain smash-ups! Then there's this:
Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gases seemed to escape, and everything is sprinkled for one second. [36]
The fartaceous When Gases Escape would be a reasonable alternative title for this novel. The villa has a swimming pool. The swimming pool is Significant. Can you guess the shape of the swimming pool?
The swimming pool in the grounds of the tourist villa was more like a pond than the languid blue pools ... a pond in the shape of a rectangle, carved from stone. [5]
It's Swimming-Pool-shaped.  That passage comes right at the beginning of the novel. Pay attention, now.
The rectangular swimming pool that had been carved from stone in the grounds of the villa reminded him of a coffin. [87]
Do you see?
Do you see?
He heard himself ask her if she liked honey.

'Yes. Why?'

'Because I know so little about you, Isabel' ... yes yes yes she said yes yes yes she likes honey -- his pen scratched these words aggressively across the page whilst he watched a white butterfly hover above the pool. It was like a breath. A miracle. [66]
Being able to write, howsoever scratchingly, whilst looking in a completely different direction is miraculous too. In a way. Anyway. Naked Kitty is forever being glimpsed floating under the water, her hair spreading out. Beautiful, sexy, poetic, fucked-up-in-the-head Kitty, with her history of depression, floating underneath the water of the swimming pool (it's a COFFIN! It's CARVED FROM STONE! The WATER IS FUCKED!) Levy could hardly work harder to foreshadow Kitty's death-by-water. Ah, but there you're wrong, see? It's a trick ending! It wrongfoots you! It's Mitchell who dies. I shan't say how, because I despise spoilers. Although I might remind you: Mitchell is the one who likes guns.
'Joe likes pe-cu-li-ar words, cos he's a poet.' Mitchell said "peculiar" as though imitating an aristocrat in a stupor. [11]
No, don't get that at all. Surely an aristocrat in a stupor wouldn't say anything at all?
When he was fifteen he had very lightly grazed his left wrist with a razor blade. Nothing serious. Just an experiment. [21]
It's all about real suffering, this novel, see? This is the real deal.  To those who suggest this is a novel by turns oblique, pretentious and inconsequential, I reply: is this pretentious?
Laura announced she had made trifle for pudding. It was a recipe she had taken from Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course and she hoped the custard had set and the cream hadn't curdled.

[New section] The beginning of birdsong. The sound of pine cones falling into the stillness of the pool. The harsh scent of rosemary. [45]
Birdsong ... or Bird's custard?? Rosemary ... as a necessary ingredient in trifle?? I rest my case.  Could anything be less pretentious? It's so unpretentious it expertly pastiches the form of traditional comic bathos.  Let's not pretend (do you see?) otherwise. And so we read:
         G [131]
Rwanda ain't got nothing on this baby.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Booker Longlist 2012, 10: Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident (2012)

‘My Ned’s got no nose!’
‘No nose? How does he smell?’
‘Pretty good actually. Not Booker-Prize-winning good, but better than most of the books on this year’s longlist.’

The Teleportation Accident is an inventive, likeable, funny-though-not-side-splitting romp. I apologise for using the word 'romp'; a ghastly piece of vocabulary gristle that, I'll confess, really romps me up the wrong way. But romp is what we have here. We follow the herky-jerkily plotted adventures of a 1930s Berlin theatrical set-designer called Egon Loeser (‘loser’, you see: strum those octave-leaping Beck-ish chords). He is a bit of a wanker, but the male reader warms to him, in part because he has a nicely sardonic perspective on things, but mostly because male readers will identify with his wankerishness.  I've no idea how female readers relate to him, or even if they do.  At any rate, Loeser is erotically obsessed with a pretty, innocent young girl called Adele Hitler (‘no relation’ we’re told, as if it’s funny). Part 1, Berlin 1931, sets the scene: cocaine, booze, shagging, parties. The Berlin described never really comes alive, partly because it reads more like a group of 21st-century youngsters snorting, quaffing, poking and partying. Some historical data is worked in, like hyperinflation (say) although hyperinflation doesn’t seem to impact upon anybody’s good times. There’s quite a good running gag about how ghastly Brecht is.  Meanwhile, Loeser’s life is one melodramatically-overplayed drama of how he can’t get laid, how everybody else is having a better time than him and so on, which has the merit of being true to the way twenty-somethings actually are. Part 2 are we’re still in Berlin, now in 1933, and Loeser’s obsession for Adele has crowded-out everything else. She has by now slept with everybody else in town, but won’t sleep with him. There’s another running gag about how Loeser simply ignores the rise of the Nazis, oblivious to all political developments, even getting inadvertently involved in a book burning, but this didn’t strike me as a very good running gag. In fact these opening scenes, and the third set in Paris 1934, whence Loeser has gone in pursuit of Adele, rather reminded me of Allo Allo. Somewhere at the back of all this is Nabokov's brilliant-brilliant-brilliant 1958 short story 'That In Aleppo Once...', one of the masterpieces of 20th-century prose and work of which Beauman must be aware.  But I'm reluctant to mention it, since there's hardly a novel written since that could do anything but wither in shameful inadequacy when set alongside such writerly perfection. So let's stick with: Allo Allo, with a Teleporter instead of the Madonna with the Big Boobies. Nazis are funny!  Sex is funny!  Comic misunderstanding is funny!

There’s not much by way of any larger plot up to this point.  The titular machine, supposedly invented by a 17th-century Venetian stage designer (its use apparently destroyed the theatre in which its play was being staged) has the flavour of macguffin—I said macguffin, not muffin—and Beauman’s comedy set-pieces are dropped in without particular attention to logic. I’ll give you an example: a farcical inset in part 3 has Loeser and his new friend, American-in-Paris con-man Scramsfield, pretending, in a hotel room, to be doctors, and surgically attaching monkey glands to two wealthy female US tourists. The reasons for this are too complicated to summarise here, and Loeser/Scramsfield use peeled lychees instead of the actual glands. ‘Hilarity’ ensues. The inverted commas around the ‘hilarity’, there, are to suggest that actually I didn’t find it very funny. But my point is this: the scene demands that both men become sexually aroused by the half-anesthetised women, before being interrupted by a lizard, and to that end Beauman just sort-of forgets that he’s already established Scramsfield’s chronic impotence. No matter: it moves along, it’s full of stuff, the pages turn. Then we get to America.

‘My Ned’s got no nose!’
‘No nose? How does he smell?’
‘Very well, thanks to an all-new cybertronic nose developed by the scientists at Cal-Tech.’

Loeser follows Adele to the USA (Part 4, Los Angeles 1935) and gets caught up in the whole German exile/Hollywood scene. There’s a mildly funny episode where Loser attempts to walk the entire length of Sunset Boulevard, believing it to be a street of normal, European proportions (he does not drive, having been traumatised by the death of his parents in a road traffic accident). And this portion of the novel has the novel’s only actually funny character—by ‘actually funny’ I mean ‘properly funny’: an eccentric billionaire businessman who suffers from a mental derangement such that he cannot distinguish representations of things from things themselves: he believes portraits to be real people and so on. Trust me, Beauman does pretty good comic business with this.  Anyway, having set the scene Beauman moves us along to part 5, ‘Los Angeles 1938’. We’re now well over half-way through the novel, and suddenly it's as if, rather belatedly, the author wakes up to the need for a larger plot. In fact the second half of the novel is rather over-supplied with plot, all centring on an attempt to build an actual functioning teleportation machine by a mad boffin at Cal-Tech. Some of Loeser’s pals turn out to be Soviet spies hoping to steal this machine; others have a weather eye to its commercial potential. Adele Hitler has pitched up, improbably, as the mad boffin’s assistant. There’s a 'Loeser still loves Adele' plot; and an ‘H P Lovecraft wrote documentary accounts of the world, not fiction!’ plot, and a serial-killer plot, and glimmers of a Harry Harrison West of Eden plot, and it’s all crammed rather uncomfortably into the book's closing sections. We, the readers, have long since clocked that Loeser/Adele will turn out to be a version of the William Dobbin/Amelia Sedley plotline from Vanity Fair but that doesn’t matter. The American-set scenes are much better than the European-set ones; and the whole novel feels like its finally lifting off the ground. We even reach a moral epiphany, of a slightly limited sort. Do people have responsibilities to their country, home or adopted? ‘Loeser was beginning to think now that a man’s ultimate responsibility was a lot simpler. Don’t be a total prick to the people who try to be nice to you’ [304]. This takes its rhetorical force from being expressed in a novel where a kind of played-for-laughs moral obtuseness is the entire horizon of the characters’ existence, but its still a pretty dilute ethical desideratum. But what can you do? Young people today, and so on. (If I wanted to be more serious I could suggest that Beauman has a real gift for the sardonic without really grokking the nature of novelistic irony; but as it happens I don’t want to be more serious).

‘My Ned’s got no nose!’
‘No nose? How does he smell?’
‘Like a house with a dead skunk in its loft-space.’

That it’s better than most of the novels on this longlist doesn’t mean that it’s a great novel; because this is a weak longlist. I'd say it's a good novel, but not a great novel. It’s fine for a comic fiction to be hit and miss, but it’s important that the hit-rate is a high enough proportion, and that specific moments are punchy enough, to carry the whole. The Teleportation Accident is funny without ever being laugh-aloud funny. It is a novel that can’t make up its mind whether it is doing the one-thing-after-another shtick or the let’s-tie-everything-together-into-a-neat-parcel trick—which is to say, it eventually plumps for the latter (the books ends, like a diet Lord-of-the-Rings-movie, with four endings, and they are marvels of neat final-knot-tyings) but only after some prolonged fictive haverings. It’s too busy, too skimmy, too twitchy. If I say it’s too lightweight I hope you won’t take me the wrong way. Another of the book's running gags is that Loeser is reading the worthily dull modernist masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz (small-time singer Justin Biberkopf, fresh from the hairdresser, is drawn into a web of corruption, crime and misery) at the rate of about 10 pages a year; and there is something entirely commendable about the way Beauman refuses to treat the German national tragedy, exile, even the Shoah, with Serious Gravity and Respect. Nonetheless, there is something prone-to-capsizement about this novel’s unique combination of the facetious and the profound. It doesn’t take its unseriousness seriously enough.

‘My Ned’s got no nose!’
‘No nose? What are you talking about? I’ve seen the author photos. He has a nose.’
‘My mistake.’

Nonetheless, out of the twelve longlisted titles I have to hope this one gets the shortlist nod. Its achievement is tonal as much as anything; but it is a significant achievement for all that. I like very much that Beauman has filled a novel with such unlikeable individuals, and yet made the result so readable -- fiction needs more annoying and unlikeable characters. I like that he has written a book about failure that isn't simply maudlin or faux-tragic.  I like that the novel, though at root an example of not-very-well-realised Historical Fiction, is so interpenetrated with a geek-SF aesthetic as to redeem itself. I read the whole thing quickly, and with pleasure.

Monday, 27 August 2012

All You Need Is Love

Isn't it foolish?  You hear a song so many times you stop hearing it.  Then one day you catch it on the radio and think -- wait, I've entirely misunderstood this.  I always took 'all you need is love' to be a general transcendental statement: this is the only needful thing in our being-in-the-world.  But I wonder if it isn't styled here more specifically.  The song says: so, you want to perform these various actions (you want to do something, you want to sing something, you want to say something -- you want to makesave, learn something ...) and you can't pull it off?  It's easy! You need this one thing, this missing ingredient ...

Here: see for yourselves.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Gag Sunday

Like Ski Sunday. But with gags.

‘I was only counting how many revolutions there have been — & now I’m accused of counter-revolutionary activity!’

Today’s story is about a Graduation Ceremony official who takes the Cantab PhD robes & gives them to those who have never earned any kind of degree: ‘Robing Hood’.

#AltRockPhilosophy ‘I think therefore I Gram Parsons’

I need to accentuate the positive. Like this: ‘thê pöšítïvę’.

‘God Vibrations’; ‘Ka-Ka-Ka Ka-Ka-Koran’; ‘I Wish They All Could Be Kali-worshipping Girls’; ‘Sufi USA’ #BeachBoysReligions

Today I’m going to retell Paradise Lost using random pop songs. I seek to spotify the ways of God to man.

UB40’s ‘Red Red Wine’ was huge, but I prefer their other tracks: ‘White White Wine’, ‘Rosé Rosé Wine’ & ‘Kosher Kiddish Kosher Kiddish Wine’

‘Gucci’ doesn’t sound nearly so suave if you pronounce it ‘Gucky’.

We criticise the abuses of the British Empire, but nobody mentions the evils perpetrated by the Hackney Empire. In many ways it was worse.

You're saying great playwrights have a silent 'p' in front of their names? Pshaw!

I bet Žižek’s ‘Z’s are grateful for those hats, in this hot & sunny weather.

Football fans! I say we take off and get new kit from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

So many thrillers use the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. Hardly any go with the ‘tocking bomb’. I wonder why that is?

Joan Jett’s songs are good, and all; but, like many covers, they lack the charm of Joan Propellor’s originals.

Apple are planning a new design of President, following the failure of the iSenhower.

I got 99 problems and a Flake is one.

193rd anniversary of Peterloo. A lot of people don’t realise that before that, people called Peter weren’t allowed any kind of toilet at all.

Rod Hull was the emunence gris of hand-puppetry.

Why did Yoda cross the road? The other side to get to -- hmmmmmMMM?

Tom Daley, amazeballs! But putting those perhaps overly tight shorts on one side for a moment, some really excellent diving! #Olympics

I know British athletes have done well these games but I want to know more about this Tim Geebee chap. Apparently he’s won 65 medals! #Olympics

Watching the #Olympics Men's Hockney. A naked man has just splashed into swimming pool with elegant tendrils of spray. 6.0 from the LA judge.

My new Avengers/James Bond movie idea in a nutshell: ‘HULK? SMERSH!’

No takers, it seems, for my Arthur C Clarke-themed SF-BDSM-masterpiece: ‘The Nine Billion Shades of Grey’.

I’ve never run a steeplechase. But I have played steeple-chess. Every time you move your knight you have to jump in a trench of water.

When I hear the phrase ‘he’s a great ambassador for sport’ I always think: you mean he gets drunk a lot & never pays his parking tickets?

Turns out my Achilles tendon has been conducting a passionate affair with my Patroclus tendon! I wondered what those two were getting up to.

I heard the third Hobbit film will include bits from the Thor franchise, plus reheated Euripides. It’ll be called ‘Thor & Bacchae Again’

My risotto-themed superhero movie ‘The Dark Knight Rices’ has been greenlit! Hurrah.

Forcedonia = Macdeonia times acceleration.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Golden Toothpicks

In a jewellers yesterday, peering at the various precious metal exhibits. It struck me that, for the man, there's a deal of cultural inertia, small-c conservatism, about what we want to buy in gold form: cufflinks, tiepins and so on, despite the fact that nowadays everybody's shirts come with button-cuffs and of the few people who wear ties very few wear pins.  But then my mind caroomed off on another angle. I happen to know (in a professional capacity) that one mark of status for the nineteenth-century gentleman was: a gold toothpick.  It hits the spot: small, so not too ostentatious; but an object one can flourish in people's faces so they know, as you pick your teeth, that you're well-to-do.  There's the added advantage that gold is a good material for picking your teeth with: not too hard or brittle, less splintery and (of course) more durable than a wooden toothpick; hypoallergenic, untarnishable and so on.  Why don't people sell such things nowadays?  I'd buy one.

Ah, but then I'm the only person I know who uses toothpicks--or, since I can't find them anywhere (and since I baulk at the insanely overpriced 'interdental brushes') I use cocktail sausage sticks.  I don't see how one gets the interdental spaces clean without them.  Maybe I'm an oddball.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Booker Longlist 2012, 9: Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (2012)

It was with a feeling of, to be honest, relief that I turned from Self’s long, dense, compacted, dyschezic Umbrella to Alison Moore’s precisely written, coolly lucid short novel The Lighthouse.  A glass of cold water, with a slice of lemon in it.  I hope that sense of relief doesn’t translate into overpraise; but I don’t know if it will, for there very evidently is a great deal to praise here. Our Horace-Wimp-y hero Futh is on the ferry from England to the Netherlands, where he has planned a week’s walking holiday to get over his marriage breakdown and general heartbreak (‘his heart feels like the raw meat it is’). Part of the story is him walking, something he proves to be bad at, losing his way, getting corns (‘when he rests he feels his feet throbbing inside his boots’), because he’s altogether a bit of a sad act. Whilst walking he wallows in memories, of his ex-wife, of his abusive father and his mother who left: most of it economically but effectively rendered by Moore. The other part of the story is about sexually wayward, middle-aged Ester, her jealous husband Bernard, and the bed-and-breakfast they run on the Continent, at which Futh stays.

The book’s title perhaps led me to expect an exercise in Woolfiana, but this novel doesn’t have that mouthfeel at all. It’s closer in tone to Süskind’s Perfume, or Perfume reimagined as a sort of mournful contemporary comedy of misunderstanding and dissociation. ‘Mournful comedy’ has an oxymoronic look, I know, but that is what I took away from this.  I can’t discuss the novel’s denouement without spoilers, but it does read like a kind of heartbreaking farce. And (to stay with Perfume for a moment) odours are important to the novel. ‘“I work in the manufacture of synthetic smells,” says Futh' [30]; and the titular lighthouse is actually a perfume bottle, ‘ten centimetres tall … it has a four-sided tower and a lantern room with tiny storm panes and a domed top.’ [37] Cleaning the rooms in her guest house, Ester has no qualms about stealing from her guests, and she takes a liking to Futh’s lighthouse.
The ornate silver case ought to contain a cut-glass vial of a very expensive perfume, but Ester finds that it is empty, the scent missing. [37]
Ah, the symbolism. In fact, the lighthouse originally belonged to Futh’s mum, and Futh broke the glass inside when she left. ‘The scent of it rose from him like a million tiny balloons escaping towards the sky’ [57] Moore says, in an uncharacteristically clumsy sentence.

Uncharacteristic, because it's worth stressing that, sentence by sentence, this novel is very well written indeed. Moore’s touch has the sharp penetration of a hypodermic needle. Here is her brilliant description of what it’s like for Futh as a kid when his Dad hits him:
Before [his mother] left, his father never hit him. Afterwards, when he did, it was without warning, or nothing Futh noticed at the time. It was like when birds flew into windows with a sudden, sickening thud, and then having to look at the bird lying terribly still on the ground outside. [9]
And here we’re inside Ester and Bernard’s unhappy marriage (Ester likes to make her husband jealous; Bernard smells strongly of camphor) as they get into bed together at the end of the day:
He looks at her as if she reminds him of someone, as if he is trying to remember who. It’s me, she wants to say to him. I remind you of me. [115]
Which is very nicely done. I did not find that Futh’s Horace-Wimpishness endeared me to him (maybe it wasn’t supposed to) and sometimes the generally exquisite emotional exactness of tone goes astray—we discover the various reasons why Futh’s mum left his Dad, but I rather came away with the impression that it was largely because Futh’s Dad used to lecture her interminably about lighthouses (aha! significant …).  The phrase ‘in fog the foghorn is used’ is repeated in the book; indeed over-repeated. To speak of the woe that is in marriage, and the woe after it too ... well, this is hardly a new novelistic endeavour.  Overall, though, I suppose the main problem with a novel like this is its slightness. It does read like a (brilliant) short story that has been stretched and elongated with a couple too many flashbacks. But short stories published as novels have done well on the Man Booker before (Amsterdam, Sense of an Ending) and this brief but beautifully written book finds an intriguingly tart new way of telling a story that is, to use the reviewerish cliché, ‘haunting’.

Thursday, 23 August 2012


Nice, if slightly chummy piece on Stephen Spender's New Selected Journals in the most recent LRB by Karl Miller, who was there for much of this and isn't shy about telling us so.  This bit struck me in particular:
He had failed. He had failed even to fail.
I blame myself not so much for failure -- but for not having pressed ideas of work original work to the point of proof where they either failed or succeeded. What I blame myself for in a sense is that I didn't have enough failures -- but that I so often put aside the things I most deeply wanted to do -- the things that were my own thing from inside myself -- and did things that were proposed from the outside. [LRB 30 August 2012, 12]
Brave of him to admit it, as Miller notes. And striking. It made me think that, in my own work, I have (as it were) only failed, not failed even to fail. Though I must say, that's not quite as reassuring a circumstance as you, or Spender, might think.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Booker Longlist 2012, 8: Will Self, Umbrella (2012)

Ahuh Ahuh (Yea Rhianna), Ahuh Ahuh (Good girl gone bad), Ahuh Ahuh (Take three... Action), Ahuh Ahuh Trotting along to a Costa to bash out the review, my head full of orts and scraps, and wha? Whadawe got? Here it is. Self’s book: one 400 page slab of creative-writing-exercise prose, not disposed into chapters, with paragraphs that spool on for dozens of pages. It’s inside the head of 1971’s Dr Zack Busner, who works in a run-down institution for the bewildered and catatonic, and his head is full of orts and scraps of professional knowledge and contemporary pop and random shit fully faecally rendered, this novel. It’s also inside the head of Dr Zack in 2010, old and fat and sad, and wandering around North London. It’s also, ainy owld ion ainy owld ion ainy-ainy-anally ion inside the head of Audrey Death in 1918, London lass, working in the Munitions factory at the Woolwich Arsenal. Working class gal. And we know her family is working class because they talk loik this: ‘ca-a-a-t’s me-eat! Until praps a cat’s gotit. Audrey! Or-dree! Cummun get yer tea!’ and so on ... *sigh* ... Audrey has brothers, but the First World War is raging (it is all the rage) and as the war ends the Great Flu comes. Audrey goes down with encephalitis and wastes her catatonic life in one institution after another, until Dr Zack does the Dr Sacks thing of waking her up with L-DOPA in 1971. You can stand under my umbrella. You can stand under my umbrella. (Ella ella eh eh eh.) Oh it’s all written like this. Oh, there’s no let-up. There’s no. Reading it is not unrewarding, I am compelled to concede that much. Often impressive. And the novel gains something by its sheer persistence, it begins to aggregate into something weighty and memorable just by not letting up. But it’s a terribly strenuous business, reading it. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the reading of it very much. Ha-a-a-rd work. It is more admirable than successful. It has weight, but it does not have life. Its Frankenstein clots of flesh don’t live my creations, live! In part this has to do with the sheer ponderousness of Self’s stream of consciousness, which is, formally speaking, the whole of the novel. There’s no Joycean or Faulknerian flow here. It is all too carefully studied, too clunkily welded together. Stream of consciousness? Stagnant canal of consciousness, filled with old shopping trolleys and scum. That may not be a criticism, actually. That may be exactly what Self is going for. When the clouds come we gone, we Rocafella. We fly higher than weather. Self is saying: consciousness is not flow-y; it is cluttered and jittery and broken-up and full of abstruse allusions and oblique visual description and condescending prole speak and lots and lots of this sort of thing: ‘vermiculated quoins’; ‘bulb of the sphygmomanometer’; ‘swelling embolism of the geriatric’; ‘her bombazine prow’; ‘spontaneous jactitations’ [35; 39; 134; 288; 392]. Personally, I do not think that consciousness is like this. (Nor, as it goes, do I think consciousness is a Joycean verbal-free-associative stream either, but that’s a separate matter). You may have more sympathy with Self’s sense of things than I, ‘The Great Pretentious-er’. But your gorge will surely rise, as mine did. Self wants our gorges to rise. Umbrella is a novel full of disgust. It’s full of eew! It’s a stew of eeww. Here is Audrey’s brother Stan, as a soldier in WW1, in a brothel, with his sergeant. There’s a queue of other men outside the door: ‘the sergeant took his time, the suck out of her cunny was his satisfied belch, then he pulled up his breeches by his braces and moved aside to reveal gaping wet lips, hag hairs, brown-eyed teats—a likeness of a raddled old woman’s countenance that had nothing to do with the young girl whose body it was. The sergeant turned to Stanley, his panting subsiding, his belly all shivery—he was neither annoyed nor discomfited and his hand said, Your turn. Three weeks later Stanley spotted his corpse in the no-man’s-land of the Hohenzollern Redoubt—the sergeant had done a somerset into the wire and sprawled there deadstock, all swole up—the maggots were having a terrific feed …’ [204]. Self seems to have chanced upon a rather potent sex/death thematic in this book. I wonder if any other writer has thought of it before? If not, then he has good reason to be proud. (To be fair: few writers since Swift have wallowed quite so wholeheartedly in the nasty sty of physical revulsion and satiric disgust as Self does). Fair? Ah. but it’s not fair, this novel. It’s foul. It’s the dark lady of the sonnets, Mr W. S. All Happinesse and that Eternitie Promised By Our Ever-Liuing Poet … It’s death and myriad indignities, and a bad smell, and physical humiliations and clever phrasing. And italics. Lots and lots of phrases and sentences in italics. You think the italicised portions, with which the prose is fantastically littered, follow some kind of pattern? Mr. W.S. is too clever for you there, my friend, my freud. For the first few paragraphs of the novel, up to about p.30 they present one kind of sense: we’re inside the head of 1971-vintage Dr Zack, as the Kinks rattle around his scattle-skull. First sentence: ‘I’m an ape, man, I’m an ape-ape man … Along comes Zachary, along from the porter’s lodge, where there’s a trannie by the kettle and the window is cracked open so that Muswell Hill calypso warms the cold Frien Barnet morning, staying with him, wreathing his head with rapidly condensing pop breath.’ [1; elipsis in original ...] We think: alright, the italics are inward thoughts, or, no, since it’s all inward thoughts, they must be the distractions in Dr Zippy’s stream of consciousness. But thereafter italicisation increasingly seems to be dropped in at random. It is my belief that Self uses italics in much the way Braque or De Kooning worked over their finished canvases, dirtying things up to create a more interesting texture. That in other words Self uses these italics to scratch and striate and distress his otherwise too polished prose. And occasionally to highlight a bit of writing of which he’s really rather proud (who was it said, ‘go through what you have written and when you find a phrase you’re particularly proud of, strike it out …? Self certainly does the opposite of that, here). Occasionally he’ll capitalize a word. Like this: SEPULCHRAL. Or words, like this: WHOLE HORIZON BURST INTO FLAME. The whole novel is structured like an umbrella—I know this because Self has said so, in interviews, pleased with his cleverness. And it’s hard to avoid being pleased with one’s cleverness. I’m clever, and I know: one’s own cleverness is a pleasing thing. Smuggening, though. Smuggerella, ella, ella. (‘When I was with the umbrella-makers there were always damaged frames and plenty of material offcuts—oiled cottons, art silks, that sort of thing—[147] D’you see what he did there?). The novel’s epigraph is from Joyce: ‘a brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella’, ironically applied because nothing is forgotten in this novel despite its main theme of the physical frailty of memory, catatonia, repression and so on. Self drags all his post-it-noted research into the making, weaves his cloth and sews it to its metal frame. Is there an umbrella ella, ella in this novel? Not functionally, because umbrellas serve to keep the rain off and nothing keeps the rain off in this novel; the rain it raineth every day; and the rain it getteth into every crack. It seeps through the inadequate soldering of the brass shells Audrey and her co-workers make in Woolwich, rendering a proportion (‘perhaps as high as 50%’) of the munitions duds (‘imperfectly brazed and welded the tonic wine of rainfall drips through their torn seams’ [248]). Characters in London are ‘strafed by raindrops’; the trenches at the Western Front fill with the downpour and the battlefield turns to mud. ‘Black bars in the sky that cut across the puce clouds bleeding mauve rain’ [316]. Oh, ugh, that last one’s bad writing. What else? Looking back, I think I can discern (unless it’s just my pattern-noticing brain and not present in the text at all) an eight-part unprocrustean structure to the Umbrella’s 400 pages: roughly 50 pages per section, each one shuffling all three time periods 1918, 1971, 2010, but running radially round the stem of Self’s name of the father supportive writer’s phallus: stasis—feminism—catatonia and ‘the shaking palsy’—medication—war—revival—sacralisation—movement. Good and bad. If Self hadn’t said that in interview, though, would I have noticed it? Chiz, chiz. Old slang, sliced ham, ‘on the arm of her chair her twisted hand dances fingertrot, handango, thumba' [192]. The 1918 portions are the most vivid, with some particularly horrible trench-war scenes—the officers all donkeys, the ordinary men lions who say ‘cunt’ a lot, and they’re working class, we can tell they’re working class because they say things like ‘Think on’t, Stan, iffen they knew they’d turn their goons on uz, winkle uz aht, drag uz oop’ [315]. It’s like the old nursery rhyme: Moloch come. Moloch stay/Moloch never go away/Not a thought in your white brow/Can satiate old Moloch now. ‘The piss yellow champagne foaming in real glass goblets.’ [261]. Audrey makes a sort of shrine or grotto under her bed every year out of various discarded and often unpleasant things. ‘Audrey smiles, her twiggy fingers go to her temples and scratch at the dried-out nest of white hair’ [305]. Didn’t Elvis Costello manage to get all this into a four-minute pop song. Veritably, Veronically? Does this subject benefit from being bashed and hammered for four hundred pages? And you know what? For all the myriad Anthony Burgess touches in this novel it lacks Burgess’s core belief that the reader must be entertained and seduced (by narrative, by character) at the same time as being stimulated, challenged, revolted and condescended to. Urban life, London life seagully yawp of car-alarm. A Ford flashing all its lights on, off, on, off, as if having an epileptic seizure. Puff, puff, hurrying down the street. Need to get to the coffee shop, get my laptop out, jot down my thoughts about this novel, move on. A couple thousand words? So many? Starlings flow about the sky like iron-filings under the influence of a vast and moving magnet. Some of this is Self, and some of it is myself. Is there an aesthetic virtue in muddying the borders? Now that it's raining more than ever. Know that we'll still have each other. Is Self’s novel a self-consciously Martian exercise, I wonder? That may be it. The wild Curiosity rover, sending its postcard home from a desolated, brown-and-tan coloured landscape? It’s a hard it’s a hard it’s a ha-a-a-rd Raine’s gonna fall … myriad moments of very niftily-put little shards of Martian poetry. A man checks a bicycle inner-tube for a puncture (‘Stanley mends the inner tube, feeding it through the water in the wooden pail, the kinked eel sends a piddle of bubbles to the surface. He pulls it out, mops it, marks its gills with the chalk.’ [18] The italics overegg this, though); cherry blossom (‘is frogspawn in the pond-green sky’, [52]); sparrows (‘they’re the same as the crumbs they peck at on the platform: they’ve been brushed off by the sky’ [153]); phlegm (‘we gargle the mucal ice cream deep in our throats, but without pleasure’ [321]). Lots and lots of those moments swim out of the overall fog. Many of them very neatly done. But despite the epigraph the wordplay is Burgessian rather than Joycean (‘doo-d’doo, doo-d’doo, doo-d’-doo, doo d’-doo, triplets of notes going up and down. Brarms, ’is intermetso a very high class roll for the cunny-sewer’: ah! the old cunt-cesspit connoisseur gag …). The world isn’t a very nice place. People aren’t always very nice to one another. The shit-brown trench walls, the yeast-stupefied pub, the faecal corridors of the psychiatric ward. Here’s one thing it all is: clever. It’s clever in two ways. One is that Will-i-am Selfspeare is, simply, a clever man, who has a very smart though often icky turn of phrase and who has done lots and lots of research about 1918 and 1971 … But it’s clever in another way too: because it interpellates the reviewer as, as it were, an ass for disliking it. It says: ‘to dislike this book is to take your place alongside those myopic critics who disliked Ulysses and To The Lighthouse because they were new!’ But-but-but! But Umbrella isn’t new. It isn’t even, as McCarthy’s C was last year, an attempt to revivify Modernism. It’s an exercise in a much more small-c conservative literary nostalgia. It’s 1922: the Year In Literature viewed under the aegis of Swift. Liking this novel is the old-fashioned thing, not the other way around. Not that there’s anything wrong with being old-fashioned. In the 1980s Angus Wilson wrote a Victorian Novel called Gentlemen in England which presented a mummified, dead-at-heart, pastiche late nineteenth-century novel to the Thatcherite readings classes as if it were a new thing. It did very well. With Self’s Umbrella we’ve moved thirty years forward in actual time, and thirty years forward in Literary Heritage time. The result is perfectly Wilsonian: the technical facility of its pastiche can’t be faulted; it fails to come alive in the same sorts of ways; it has done very well with the Cameronian reading public. It’s a shadowy, brown-stained novel: ‘that smell, faecal certainly, but antiseptically chemical too, with a sharp tang of floor polish … his moustache wet wiv beer and tobacco-stained … Mboya’s face is a teal whorl with deep, yellowy creases spreading out from full pink lips … a sea of speckled tan-coloured linoleum … it’s not food—it’s faecal … the air darkens and darkens : a smutstorm in lurid yellow suspension from out of which swim the castellated battlements of the Westminster Hospital … netherworld of sewage farms and shitty little fields …' I could go on; I’ve barely got started. It’s all brown and shadowy, ombre and grim, shitty and nasty, and despite its many vividnesses and moments of striking intensity it doesn’t really work. Brown coloured and unsucceeding. Now that it's raining more than ever/Know that we'll still have each other/You can stand under my Umber-failure




Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Quote of the Day

"Wait," said Val, with the caution of a science fiction writer. [Anthony Burgess, The End of the World News (1982), 348]
Never a truer word spoken.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Jobbing post

God finally loses his temper with Job's whingeing:
'Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddlingband for it, and brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors, and said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed? Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place; That it might take hold of the ends of the earth, that the wicked might be shaken out of it? [Job 38:4-13]
It's powerful stuff, but takes on an odd flavour when you think about it. Where was I when you laid the foundations of the earth? I was where you wanted me, God; inexistent. I was nothing because that's how you wanted it. This was not something I had any choice over, so it's a little hard to blame me for it. Also, the stuff about commanding the morning? Wasn't there a guy who tried doing that, instead of you, and didn't you banish him to Hell?

Sunday, 19 August 2012

On homophobia

Here's a failure of imagination on my part. I can't get inside the mindset of a homophobe. To be a little more precise, I can't understand how a person can be revolted and disgusted by gay sex, yet thrilled and excited by straight sex.  It's all sex.  I could, I suppose, understand somebody who found sex revolting tout court; and once upon a time -- but a long, long time ago, surely -- culture defined sexual practice in more gender-determined ways (the missionary position for straights, sodomy for gays) so hating homosexuality was a way of indicating one's preferences in such matters.  But surely one of the fundamental problems 'homophobia' faces today is that straights and gays all get up to pretty much the same stuff in bed.  It's incoherent to hate and fear sex and to love and desire sex at the same time.

... and, of course, when I put it like that I get to the nub of the matter.  Hatred and fear is not coherent, or logical. Homophobes don't occupy a rational position.  Homophobes hate and fear because they love and desire.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Burgestoy, Tolstess

Thinking about Burgess's Napoleon Symphony recently: a really interesting novel (one of my favourite Burgess works, actually. This amazon reader has it right, I think).  But the postscript to the novel makes it plain that Burgess wrote the whole thing ridden by the nightmare of influence -- Tolstoy, of course (Voyna i mir, of course).  He doesn't say so, but I wonder if in part he used Beethoven as a structuring principle in an attempt to fight the fire of Tolstoy's withering influence with the fire of another genius.  If so, then I don't think it worked, at least not on those terms.  Napoleon Symphony is a great novel, but it doesn't match Tolstoy.

Trying to put my finger on the main difference between the two books (apart, that is, from sheer cultural stature) I wondered if it is that Burgess is fundamentally a restless, impatient writer, easily bored and fond of innovation and ingenuity; where Tolstoy is almost inhumanly patient, focussed and integral.  This latter creates an affect of Lived History that Burgess can't match.  Since I'm much more a Burgess-type personality (as a writer, I mean) than a Tolstoy one, this worries me a little. But then culture as a whole, nowadays, including the novel is much more impatient than it is patient. Hmm.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Booker Longlist 2012, 7: André Brink, Philida (2012)

We have been here before. I mean, in terms of Brink’s writing; but also in more general terms. It's a solid book, and its heart is in the right place, but, but: we have been here before.

The novel is set in South Africa in the 1820s, and although divided between a number of voices, (most of whom live on a wine-farm in Zandvliet) it’s mostly the story of the title character, Philida, a slave. Here’s one thing: the story is based on historical reality, as a lengthy appendix makes plain. Here’s another: it’s the author’s family history, for the historical Philida was owned by the Brink family, André’s own antecedents. Philida has what (without historical warrant) Brink portrays as a rather tender and loving relationship with Francois, eldest son of her owner's family; it results in four children, not all of whom survive. That's where we start.

Francois’ father, Cornelis, is an old-school bigot and thoroughly unpleasant man.  His attempt to rape Philida in a bamboo field is described at length by Brink (he tries to force the issue by grabbing and threatening to kill Philida’s latest baby; he is thwarted by nothing more than Philida’s strength of will in refusing him—it’s an uplifting scene, but I didn’t believe it for a moment). ‘I don’t take no shit from nobody and even less from a slave,’ says Cornelis during his portion of the narrative. ‘They fornicate and multiply like rats on the farm … in my childhood it was easier. They knew their place.’ [77]. Lest we miss the historical parallels with modern-day old-school bigots who oppose political correctness and pine for an imagined past, Brink slams the point home:
That was before the bloody English came here and thought they could just take over and started making laws … so many working hours per day, so many stripes if they need punishment, a Slave Protector to complain to, I ask you. [77]
And indeed it is to this very same Slave Protector that Philida goes, looking for justice. That's the main action of first portion of the novel.  You see, P.'s lover Frans promised to manumit her in return for the sex she has given him; but he has gone back on the deal. The farm is failing, Frans is set to be married to wealthy white woman called Maria Magdalena Berrangé, and furious old Cornelis wants to sell Philida to a farm up-country. Actually he wants to kill her, but he doesn’t think he will get away with it.

It’s all decently written; often it is vivid, and some of it is moving.  On the downside there’s something modish about the refusal to use quotation marks for dialogue, the use of the present tense and the un-signposted shifts in narrator. Mind you, to balance that (and staying on the downside) there’s something archly old-fashioned and winsome about Brink’s habit—not for the first time in his writing career—of giving his chapters elaborate cod-eighteenth-century titles (‘Chapter XVII: A Very Short Chapter in Which Philida Makes The Commissioner An Offer’ and the like). The novel's first hundred pages are pretty good; then there’s a too-lengthy interlude in which Philida is instructed in the ways of Islam by a character called Labyn (‘Philida grins. Korhaan is a funny name. It’s a bird like a bustard, isn’t it? I suppose it is because you can say it flies its own way, says Labyn. It puts wings in your head’ [187]). Eventually Philida converts:
All I know is I want to be one with the Slamse, that’s where I belong. You Christians treat me like dirt. [231]
Which is all fine and dandy, although it rather soft-peddles the fact that it was the Christians who spent the 19th-century (howsoever belatedly) outlawing slavery, whilst Muslim slave-traders continued happily trading human beings to the end of the century and beyond (here: 'by the 1890s the largest slave population of the world, about 2 million people, was concentrated in the territories of the Sokoto Caliphate ... the Anti-Slavery Society estimated there were 2 million slaves in Ethiopia in the early 1930s out of an estimated population of between 8 and 16 million ... Keltie believes that for every slave the Arabs brought to the coast at least six died on the way or during the slavers' raid'). Still, slavery is a great evil; and we Europeans have more than enough blood on our consciences to be going on with.

Brink takes the bare-bones of Philida’s story and fleshes them out. But he makes his central character into such a beacon of righteousness that historical plausibility begins to bend and shake. I daresay he was only too acutely aware of the dangers of his project—his great-great-howevermany-greats-uncle bodily exploited the historical Philida; now here he is, another wealthy white South African called Brink, now metaphorically exploiting Philida for money and literary prize recognition. I wonder if this is why he repeatedly errs on the side of Philida’s imagined nobility, her dignity, her strength of will. She is, for instance, rather more interested in identity politics and philosophy than was the case, I'd hazard, for most nineteenth-century illiterates. ‘Ouma Nerlla, where am I not?’ she asks at one point. ‘Tell me where those places are so I can go look for myself’ [116]. And the novel ends (it is hardly a spoiler) on an upbeat moment of self-claiming, again modishly lacking the terminal full stop:
The I who was a slave and who now is free, who is a woman and who is everything.
One problem, I think, is the Amistad-problem. Spielberg’s film, driven by the exigences of a Hollywood narrative logic, had to move from darkness into the light, and as a result it rather implied that the 1841 Amistad trial marked the effective end of slavery and racism in the US—as if decades of continuing actual slavery, the massive bloodletting of the Civil War and a further century of Jim Crow oppression didn’t still lie ahead. The upbeat trajectory of Philida, including an (I thought) misjudged attempt to wring a bit of sympathy out of old Cornelis, who comes to Philida on his knees: all this is rather contradicted by the century and a half of institutionalised racist oppression that lies between the 1830s and Mandela’s release in the 1990s.

But maybe this isn't fair of me. In fact I think my problem with the novel is more the extent to which it feels derivative. That part of the story where Philida kills her own child to prevent it growing up a slave, for example, is rather crashingly derivative of Morrison’s Beloved, a much, much better novel. (Brink bases it, as Morrison did too, on historical fact of course; but I’m talking in terms of literary pedigree). More to the point, this is a novel that provokes the reader to cry aloud: But Brink himself has done this before! It’s a story about South Africa, about colour, the malignity of racism, apartheid and slavery. It’s a novel in which a white character and a black character connect in complex ways; in which characters trek from the coast inland and vice versa. In other words it’s like pretty much every other Brink novel.

I suppose Brink is most famous for his contemporary-set anti-apartheid novels, books like Rumours of Rain (1979) and the still potent A Dry White Season (1979). But even those kinds of books manifest an interest in longer historical timeframes—1991’s overlong An Act of Terror blends a story about Landman (an Afrikaner South African who becomes involved in an abortive plot to assassinate the SA President) with enough detail of Landman’s ancestors, from their arrival in South Africa in the eighteenth-century to the late 20th-, to make a historical novel in its own right. One of Brink’s earliest English-language novels (I’ll confess I know nothing of the books he wrote in Afrikaans) is the solid, Patrick-White-esque An Instant in the Wind (1976), set in 1749, and concerning a well-bred white woman called Elisabeth Larsson and a black man called Adam Mantoor who are stranded in the wilderness of the SA interior and must trek back to civilisation—the journey enables them to overcome their mutual, if unequal, colour prejudices ; it ends with a shag. The First Life of Adamastor (1993) is much the same story, recast as a kind of rationalised creation myth of the nation. If Philida is parasitic upon Brink’ s own family history, it’s also parasitic upon Brink’s own oeuvre. Characters from Brink’s earlier novels make their appearances here: Cupido Cockroach is one, wandering in from Praying Mantis (2005)—another historical novel based loosely upon actual fact, about a black character’s conversion to religion. There are other characters from another Brink novel, Chain of Voices (1982) also set in the 1820s on a farm in the interior of SA, about the clash between a strong-willed black character and a venal Afrikaans slave-owner. To call Philida Brink-by-numbers would be unfair; but we are entitled to wonder at what point diminishing returns cut in, and the retelling of this docudramatic material might give way to something new.

Thursday, 16 August 2012


James Gould Cozzens. Until last year I'd never heard of him.  But in his time people seriously pondered whether he was the greatest living American novelist; Pullitzers by the score, seriously considered for the Nobel (until he made it plain he would reject it if offered).  Why has he dropped so comprehensively off the radar?  I'm wondering whether (and I'm conscious, as I say this, that my own left-wing political views will bias my sense of things) whether he was just on the wrong side of the political divide -- the triumphs of the 20th century were progressive (feminism, fighting racism, the liberalisation of sexual life). Cozzens was not only right-wing, he was right-wing in a way that absolutely informs his condition-of-America novels.  Maybe he just seems today to have missed the larger point of the age through which he lived. There are other right-wing writers, of course; but I wonder if there's a sense in which those sorts of figures either happened to fall in with the grain of the age -- so, Kipling's Kim (amongst others) shows a deep fascination with and joy in multiculturalism, for example -- or else were right-wing in way that seems centre or even centre-left today (I'm thinking of Updike).

Then again, Castaway (1934) has a remarkably, avant-la-lettre Ballardian vibe to it.  Mr Lecky is marooned in his high-rise apartment, for reasons never explained: he's a modern Robinson Crusoe, scavanging food and weapons from the tower block, killing a man that he meets on one of the lower floors and dumping the body in the basement 'feeling no more remorse than Cain'.  Things get grimmer and grimmer, until he is compelled to descend to the basement again, turning over the corpse to discover, in a Prisoner-esque touch (you're ahead of me here, aren't you) that it is himself.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


A fish-hook is a three-dimensional cul-de-sac.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Booker Longlist 2012, 6: Sam Thompson, Communion Town: a City in Ten Chapters

In the introduction to a recent reprint of Dracula (Constable, 2012), Colm Tóibín makes the case for Stoker’s book as, specifically, a great Irish novel. The apparent absence of great Irish writers of the nineteenth-century, before Joyce (we might prefer: before Wilde and Shaw) is an illusion, he says. The 19th-century, Tóibín argues, saw important manifestations of a kind of Irish subconscious in the writings of Maturin, Le Fanu and Stoker. He quotes Maria Edgeworth, from 1834:
It is impossible to draw Ireland as she is now in a book or fiction. Realities are too strong, party passions too violent, to bear to see, or care to look at their faces in a looking-glass. The people would only break the glass and curse the fool who held the mirror up to nature—distorted nature in a fever.
So, change scenes: Communion Town, first novel by the (clearly) very talented Sam Thompson. It’s about London, but it follows the Pratchett-Harrison-Gaiman-Miéville line—and what a strange collection of names to bring under the same umbrella—of writing about London indirectly by writing about an imaginary metropolis that both is and is not London. If I ask why?, I hope it won’t be taken, by the seven people liable to read this post, that I’m sniping at the validity of the 'speculative' approach as such. Obviously not; it’s what I love; it’s what I do. But what is our excuse? We aren’t living through the situation Edgeworth described. What does a fantastic and metaphorical apprehension of the city have that documentary verisimilitude (say) doesn’t?

Here's one idea: that we metaphorise the monstrosity of life as actual monsters because, pace Edgeworth and Stoker, it’s the only way we can articulate it. But I don't think so; we're post Chatterley-trial, after all.  All sorts of horrible things get written and published in broadly 'realist' modes nowadays. Another is that we metaphorise that monstrosity, even though we’re perfectly capable of addressing the monstrousness more directly, because we’ve fallen in love with our imagined monsters to the exclusion of real life. Maybe the problem is that we take our imagined monsters too seriously—more seriously than the problems of real life. Maybe the problem is that we don’t ironize our metaphors enough. Of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

So here’s Thompson’s City (it is unnamed in the novel: ‘Communion Town’ is one of its quarters); more specifically, here's it's main railway station:
A world of grey dawn twilight and blackened stone above, rainwater dripping from the girders, pigeons skulking in rows and strangers spilling from carriages to gather on the concourse, disoriented. [3]
Waterloo? Or, wait: Paris Gard de Nord? (further out, ‘...those banlieues where the old streets are overshadowed by never-completed tower blocks stalled midway through the process of being torn down’ [6]). No: because we’re on the coast (‘I head past shut shops and cafés and across the park … as the gaining light scribbles colour and texture into the world, and soon I smell brine, and I’m on the seafront, buffeted by gusts of wind with crows blowing around above the mud’ [10] Aberdeen?). Except the flavour is London (‘River walkways and cycle paths looping from Three Liberties to Green Stairs, from Syme Gardens to Glory Part’), inflected—as actual London increasingly is—via Continental Europe (a metro rather than an underground; ‘these flower tubs and iron railings, these stained white pavements, locked restaurants, fire escapes and commercial accessways, these airy canyons whose window-sills are crowded with geraniums …’ [41]; ‘the Market was a broad, kinked half-mile of cobbled thoroughfare as old as the city, jammed with stalls’ [146]; ‘tarry clutches of lobster pots lay here and there’ [173] ‘Simon rode the metro over to Sweatmarket station and climbed through the chipped tiling and wet concrete up to the streets of Glory Part. He crossed a footbridge and turned down Sluice Lane.’)  What else? Well there’s something monstrous in this city. Which is to say, there are monsters in Thompson’s city rather in the way that there are ghosts in Turn of the Screw.

It’s not a novel, although I’m not going to sit here (I do happen to be sitting down) and tell you that taxonomy matters. It doesn't matter that it's not a novel, but it is not a novel for all that.  It is ten short stories, linked each-to-each not by character or narrative but by the propinquity of all taking place in the same imaginary city, as well as by a certain commonality of mood, tenor and theme (arrival; alienation; suspicion; compromised love; crime and violence). The first story is sort of about terrorism (a group call ‘Cynics’ attack the city’s Metro in a 7/7esque move). The second is a melancholy sort of love story that has to do with music and the making of music. In the third, a boy builds elaborate model city in his room (Kurosawa liked to put models of his worlds in his fictions about his worlds too). The fourth, ‘Gallathea’, spins Noirish adventures amongst the criminal element via a slightly clumsily ventriloquized Chandler tone (‘I tipped the spirit into the back of my throat and choked appreciatively as it burned all the way down. The swell at the other end of the bar was taking a sidelong interest in me’ and so on). Then there’s ‘Good slaughter’ , a Dexter-ish (or, we might say, ‘Sinister-ish’) first-person tale of serial killing; ‘Three Translations’ again about arrivals, and foreignness; ‘The Significant City of Lazarus Glass’—perhaps the best of the stories—much interested in crime as puzzle (‘exquisite enigmas, mysteries, sinister and bizarre: for Peregrine Fitch these were at once a vocation and the keenest happiness of life’ 189); then ‘Outside the Days’ and ‘The Rose Tree’ (We’re in a pub, one evening. A bold young man says: ‘They tell me that in this season, in your city, no one dares go out after dark … well I’m going out!’ [243] So what happens to him? Well he comes back. ‘unsteadily, with his jacket hanging open, confused … one arm of his jacket was ripped and the blood was sticky on his hand. We couldn’t work out where all the blood had come from.’ [252]. He falls down.) Finally ‘A Way To Leave’ tells us about the relationship between Simon and Florence, and, well, about ways of leaving.

Thompson works to give each chapter a different voice, and this kind-of-works, though it’s a little hit and miss. My sense is that Thompson’s skill as a writer is not in variety, or pastiche, but in a kind of dense, closely observed atmospherics. His dialogue is not very well differentiated, character to character; nor does it have the snap or vim of actual interchange; and his plotting is a touch over-reliant on a small number of oblique knight’s-moves—the beauty of insinuations, rather than the beauty of inflections. But the novel is often very striking and memorable, and many moments are eerily beautiful, and that’s not (sniff! sniff! sorry; bit of a cold) to be sniffed at. Does the novel wear its academic learning on its sleeve? Pharmakons and homi sacri? A serial killer called ‘Le Flâneur’? Characters from Jonson’s Alchemist? Yes; well that’s alright. Pretentious is the new black. Will Thompson win the Booker Prize? Maybe, though not with this novel. (Will Thompson win the Clarke? That’s a more plausible supposition, and a more valuable prize).

Wait a minute: who's Will Thompson?

I’m more interested, I think, in the larger picture: the thing this intriguing novel is symptomatic of. That there is more purchase in talking about the fragments of urban subjectivity by removing it from the real. I wonder, though: is that true? It’s not so much about the fragmentation of urban living as it is about the subjectivity of urban spaces (all these people, like the ten speakers of The Ring and the Book perceive a slightly different city!) which is news about on the level of the news when Roscius was an actor in Rome. Buzz, buzz.

Here’s what I half-suspect, though I’m not sure, am still thinking it through. The predatory violence at the heart of ‘civilised’ society, sexualised and class-marked, was the hidden thing that could not be directly expressed by a 19th-century writer like Stoker. What’s the 21st-century equivalent? We can write as much violent sexualised class critique as we like; and we do. It just doesn’t change anything. What a novel like this suggests is that it’s something else that is becoming inexpressible except via the displacement of metaphor: a mood, or a flavour, a particular scent of ontology. The way living in the city makes us feel like strangers. The way it baffles us, intrigues us, frightens us, attacks us. We can’t admit to it, directly; because we’re all so clever and postmodern and self-aware. It may be a variant of the Eco notion that we can no longer own emotion directly (that we cannot say ‘I love you’; we can only say ‘as Barbara Cartland might say “I love you” … and how that Barbara Cartland reference dates old Umberto!). Except that the point of Communion Town is not love. It’s something else.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Rilkean advice

Rilke replied to a poet who sent him his poems saying 'are they any good?' (good advice follows: for 'poet' read 'writer'):
You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. [Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet; this first letter was written 1903]
He goes on with some specific advice, that we need to apply with a proper 'mutatis mutandi' sense: 'come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don't write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.' Of course, then he goes on then to his famous bit about how for no poet could ever be unhappy locked away in prison, for he would always carry with him the treasure house of his imagination (Clive James once quoted this and added the laconic, but accurate, judgment: 'in some ways, Rilke was a prick') but you can't have everything.

Morning Poem, Rural France

One euclid spider
has drawn an ideal
line, sun-whitewashed
between two branches.

One breeze primps the
fanned-out spear tips
of this dried palm,
castanet-rattly, like

feathers from the tail
of one Jurassic bird
showing off rear plumage
scales to its mate.

One morning, unlike
all the other mornings:
sunlit and lonely
as any singularity.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Gaggity giggity

I was talking to Mr Five-Fifteen-And-Thirty-Seconds when he suddenly said: ‘STOP! Am a time.’

I always thought ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’ should have been named ‘Pop Will Drink Itself’. 

My tweet-review of "The Dark Knight Rises": needs more yeast.

Stockholm Syndrome is bad. Eamonnholmes Syndrome is worse.

‘Knack Knack!’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘80s one-hit wonder famous for “My Sharona”!’ ‘Did you bring a punchline with you?’ ‘[long pause] No.’

Pliny the Elder was only one famous Ent to be granted Roman citizenship: there was also Pliny the Oak, Pliny the Willow and Pliny the Elm.

My sit-com pitch: four nerdy guys who like to balance miniature hairpieces on their genitalia: ‘The Wig Wang Theory’.

Breaking news! Archaeologists have unearthed a papyrus containing Homer’s lost epic ‘Evenssey’. At last the set is complete!

On July 14th the whole of London responds to the call to spit-roast Elvers. We call it ‘Baste Eel Day’.

‘Mr Dabolina Mr Bob Dabolina. Mr Dabolina Mr Bob Dabolina. Mr Dabolina Mr Bob Dabolina Mr Bob Dabolina Mr Bob Dabolina.’ ‘YES??’ ‘Oh. Hi.’

They’re all studying Sir Geoffrey Howe’s speeches except my friend, Finn KCG. I said: Let’s go, Sir Finn — now everybody’s learning Howe.

It's come to my attention that the Spanish translation of Robert Graves' "I Claudius" is the Sopranos-worthy "Yo, Claudio"

Scientists in Switzerland have discovered the molecule that makes you touchy-feely with friends when tipsy: The Hugs Boson.

So much chart pop sounds like barking sea mammals! You think that people would have had enough of seal-y love songs.

I’m going to write a novel about an untrustworthy contrast-control button called ‘Shifty Fades of Grey’. I hope to retire on the proceeds.

This Lord Sreform seems to be in the news a lot lately. What's he done, exactly?

I have cut myself off from all social interaction. I shall get all groceries via IncommunOcado.

One does not simply moonwalk into Mordor … wait, no: wrong Jackson.

To quote the West Country Will-Smith classical-music rap, ‘Barenboim-boim-boim/Shake the roim.’

The RAF developed the three aircraft in tandem but only flew the Spitfire, leaving the Spitphlegm and Spitmarshmallow in mothballs.

Jazzster & trumpet-tooter Hester Ribes is in belligerent mood. And when ‘Toot’ Ribes goes to war a point is all that you can score.

Men love it when I take hold of an adult moose by the horns and shake it like a doll! In point of fact my elk-shake brings ALL the boys to the yard.

The original music for “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” was actually composed by Faun Williams.

I repudiated one third of the end of my fork, and in return they gave me EVERYTHING! Forgone the tine: it’s all mine — it’s all mine!

Why is there a why is there something rather than nothing question rather than no why is there something rather than nothing question?

Friday, 10 August 2012

Booker Longlist 2012, 5: Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis

We might want to suggest (and even if you don't want to suggest it, I'm going to) that the big task facing the modern novelist is: how to represent the city. At the beginning of the 20th century fewer than a sixth of the world's population lived in cities; at the beginning of the 21st more than half do -- in the more affluent West, quite a lot more than half.  Cities, as I once wrote in another place, are our new machines for living in.  But how to fix them, in fiction?  Dickens did it by dint of arranging a medium-sized cast of characters, each with a larger-than-themselves representational capacity (standing, as it might be, for 'the aristocracy', 'the homeless street sweepers' and so on) and writing about them with a distinctive, teeming linguistic and observational inventiveness.  The dramatis personae was large enough to suggest populousness, and the style inflected the former with a flavour of teeming, restless, newness and potential.  Fine: but modern cities are much, much larger even than Dickens's London; and I'm not sure I know of many successful attempts to pin them to the board of Fiction.  Or, to be precise: I can think of one, but it's a televisual not a verbal novel: HBO's The Wire. That works, but try to emulate it in words and the cast of characters would surely become unwieldy, the binding would burst the seams trying to hold in the thousands of pages, and the readers would lose their way.

So, onward (excelsior!) through the 2012 Man Booker Longlist, and we come to two novels that set out to  capture at least some essence of urban existence.  Tomorrow (or, like, whenever I get round to it): Sam Thompson's borderline-speculative Communion Town, that adds a carefully-orchestrated formal fractured-ness to the MadeUpPolis template so beloved of the modern Weird.  But today--today is the day for Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis.

The city is Mumbai, Bombay as was, and the time is the late 70s and early 80s.  Thayil's part-dreamily-effective part-infuriating strategy is to parse the urban space via opium.  We start in Rashid's opium house on Shuklaji Street, and in soporific, sometimes poetic, sometimes self-indulgent prose Thayil introduces us to Rashid's regulars, to their mistily rendered intersecting backstories and lives: above all we get to know the Muslim eunuch called Dimple; a sort of intersex character with a (I thought: perhaps over-telegraphed) Waste-Land-Tiresias-esque role in the narrative.  Time moves on, whilst also seeming, in the amber of this book's poetic-prose, to stand still: Hippies come from the West to smoke themselves silly.  Heroin replaces smoky opium as the drug of choice, with a harsh-ening of the general buzz; life in the teeming city becomes more violent.  And time moves back into the past too; as with a vivid recreation of Communist China in the 1940s.  Thayil sets out to reproduce the city partly with the tried-and-tested strategy of introducing a lot of varied characters, each colourful and distinctive, although most down-at-heel, addicted, lassitudinous, beggarly and the like.  But mostly he does it via a sort of impressionism.  It kind of works; the book is an atmospheric Turner-watercolour or Whistler-wash of Mumbai.  It's a place I have never visited, so I'm not really in a position to judge it on grounds of representational precision.  I can judge it as a novel, though. That's my privilege.  Yours too.

OK: in that previous paragraph I talked about characters being trapped in the amber of Thayil's prose.  But that's not right; his prose is not hard, as that implies.  Thayil is a poet (the inside flap, slightly heart-sinkingly, describe him as a performance poet), and more than the episodic plotline and myriad characters, it is through a self-conscious narcotic richness of tone that he sets out to evoke Mumbai.  The whole thing is written in a kind of smoke-of-consciousness style, drifting richly round and round without really going anywhere; sometimes it smells lovely. Sometimes it reeks.  And Thayil's transition to the 'new' India at the novel's end is less to do with plot -- plot in this book is largely superluous, or actively bad, as with a serial-killer sub-narrative that adds almost nothing -- and much more to do with the shift to a semantic field of metal, hardness, sharpness, cocaine and violence.

It's a good novel; better than many on the longlist; but it's a distractingly shapeless, muddled novel as well.  That's not accidental, I'm sure, but saying so doesn't necessarily excuse it.  Bottom line: I'm not sure narcosis is the best way of capturing urban existence.  Consciousness is more than a smoke, after all; even to an addict.  And the problem with drug addiction is that it tends to scuff over, elide or even erase the social roles that define that city living we call 'civilisation'. I'm not moralising when I say so: feel free, so long as you harm no others, to smoke all the dope you like. It's not the morality of drug-taking that's at stake in this novel; it's the aesthetics of it, the effectiveness of it as a metaphor for city life.  This is a novel that says: here's a great world city and it's kind of unstructured, and dreamy, and druggy, and full of lots of different sorts of people, and sometimes these people interact in spaced-out contentment and sometimes in violence.  It's a metaphor-vehicle that only took me so far.  You may find it carries you further: it's certainly a ride worth taking.