December 3, 2013
John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner was the sleeper hit of 2013. A groundswell of word-of-mouth success in some European countries early this year coincided with the reissue of the book in the UK by Vintage Classics in December 2012 (having previously been published by NYRB Classics in 2006), and soon every UK newspaper wanted a piece of the action too. Attention is now beginning to turn to his other novels. This one was brought to us again by NYRB Classics in 2007, and next year it will be reissued, unappealingly emblazoned, in the UK.
Butcher’s Crossing (1960) was Williams’s second novel, though he disowned the first, Nothing But the Night (1948), written in his mid-20s, so we might consider this to be his first mature work. It is written in a similar quiet style to Stoner, slips down just as delightfully, and has a likeminded lack of consolation. In subject, it is I suppose a western – check out that Panther Books edition from 1963, below – though I’m unsure exactly how to define that. It has men in battle: against the landscape, against animals and against one another.
Will Andrews is the reader’s eyes. He’s a 23-year-old Harvard dropout who has come west to find “his unalterable self”, and something related that he struggles to define: a “wildness”, or “a freedom and a goodness”, and in reality his quest may be more about evading than finding. It’s the 1870s, and he comes to Butcher’s Crossing in Kansas, not much more than “six rough frame buildings bisected by a narrow dirt street.” Encouraged by news of the burgeoning buffalo hide economy, and of one resident’s confident prediction that “this town’s going to be something two, three years from now,” he smooth-talks – and pays – his way onto a team of buffalo hunters, led by the experienced Miller.
What follows is pretty gripping, even as it takes its time. Miller takes on the role of a Captain Ahab, a driven, possibly demented figure who is determined to complete his quest whatever the outcome, and who drives the fate of the other, weaker, characters. The story is full of strong and immersive physical descriptions – a snowstorm, the skinning of buffalo, a journey across a treacherous river. At these times, Williams manages to enter some primitive part of the reader’s brain, to bypass reason, to grasp the reader by the tailbone and shake. This is impressive because the quietness of Williams’s style means that his story, horrifying though it is in places, lacks the sort of apocalyptic feel that Cormac McCarthy can whistle up. But it has a restrained power of its own.
During the journey, Andrews finds himself changing – “he thought at times that he was moving into a new body” – and the men on the hunt generally find that “rather than being brought closer together by their isolation, they were thrust apart.” The struggles through the journey are thrown cleverly into relief when the men discover near the story’s end that weather and landscape are not the only elements they cannot control, but larger challenges created by the mass of mankind – forces we are all prey to – may be even more difficult to surmount.
Along with Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing might cement Williams’s reputation as a man who wrote mostly about men. You could say the same about James Salter or William Golding, but when reading Butcher’s Crossing, I kept thinking about the accusations of misogyny laid against Stoner by writers and critics such as Elaine Showalter, Linda Grant and David Baddiel. Does Butcher’s Crossing fare any better? It’s not a good start to see that there are only two female characters in the book and both are, in the language of the men, “whores”. We don’t expect satisfaction of the Bechdel test from a western, any more than we would from Melville’s sea stories, but it’s more disappointing that the main female character (it’s a stretch to call her that) is not much more than a convenient vessel for Will Andrews, with uninspiring dialogue to match. (“I wanted you the first time I saw you. Without you even touching me, or talking to me.”) Williams does put some well-intentioned but clunky words in Andrews’s head – “He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place” – which hardly helps. No real defence to those charges here, then. There is, it is true, one scene where women are discussed other than as an adjunct to men. High in the mountains, the crew discusses that the best way to draw the stiffness out of the buffalo hide is to pour urine on it. “Woman piss is best,” says one. “But we’ll have to make do with what we got.”
November 26, 2013
A couple of years ago on this blog, I bemoaned the fact that Faber has frequently rejacketed some of William Golding’s books, without ever doing the whole lot. (The last time they were all issued in consistent editions was in the 1980s, with Paul Hogarth’s sinister designs. I can still recall the bloodied pig’s head from studying Lord of the Flies at GCSE.) Well, bemoan no more, because this year the decent thing has been done: handsome covers by Neil Gower, new introductions, reset text. In the last few months I have read The Spire – clearly a work of brilliance – and Free Fall – less obviously so – but never felt equal to the task of writing about them.
Pincher Martin (1956) is different. It is Golding’s third novel, and I had read it before. I knew what was coming, and that is a significant factor, because this is a book which needs to be read twice for full benefit. It contains more than one jaw-dropping revelation, but it is the one at the end which turns everything in the book on its head and sends the reader casting back through the pages. I wanted to see how the novel would stand up when I knew what was coming.
The first thing to say is that this is a short and seemingly simple book: the story of a shipwrecked sailor. We join Christopher ‘Pincher’ Martin just as disaster has struck:
He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.
After a few dicey moments, he gains buoyancy by kicking off his seaboots and remembering to inflate his life vest. Yet already Golding is sowing doubt. Body parts are described as though separate from him – “the upper lip”, “the chattering teeth” – the, not his. Why is this? Because Martin feels detached from his body? Because the scene is being viewed not through his consciousness at all? These and other details make the reader understand that even in these opening pages, we do not really know what is going on. It also makes us think about the nature of identity – a major theme of the novel. What makes a person: a body? A mind? In fact, working out exactly what is happening is tricky until the time when Martin begins to reflect on his situation. (“He began to think slowly.”) Suddenly, the meeting of two minds – his, and ours – brings clarity. Thinking makes it so.
By then, Martin has washed up on a rock – “one tooth set in the ancient jaw of a sunken world” – somewhere in the Atlantic. No relief though: “Yet this solidity was terrible and apocalyptic after the world of inconstant wetness. It was not vibrant as a ship’s hull might be but merciless and mother of panic.” And there he remains, for the next 200 pages. All that time, in extreme and excruciating detail; moment by moment agony. What could be duller, right? Well. Golding’s style is quick, sketchy, full of fireworks, and never loiters. The interest in identity returns: finding his way about on the rock, Martin speaks aloud, even though there is no one to speak to, because “it gave him back a bit of his personality.” What else is needed for identity? Memory: and so we get snatches of Martin’s past, but where ‘backstory’ can be a vehicle for a writer who has failed to impart information in other ways, here it is tight and necessary. So tight, in fact, that the casual reader might not immediately notice how much it tells us about the sort of man Martin is. No feminist, for one thing. “That wench was good for a tumble.” A friend turned enemy, for another, to his colleague Nat. A failed actor, a conscripted sailor, a shipwrecked struggler.
A man on a rock, hoping for rescue, must want to survive, and Martin applies his human resources and cunning to the task. He sets up signals visible to both shipping and aircraft, and survives on limpets and anemones. The struggle not just for survival but for supremacy runs through the book, most memorably in an anecdote Martin recalls about a grotesque (and, I hope, apocryphal) Chinese technique of rearing maggots as a delicacy. It challenges the reader in more subtle ways too. We have been in Martin’s head throughout the book, so we must associate with him, and want him to survive, and furthermore we are glad that he uses his brain to master the rock and the little life that’s on it. (One thing he does is give names to all the places on the rock, just as any first settler would. “I am surviving. I am netting down this rock with names and taming it.”) What, then, if it turns out that he had the same urge to master, the same ruthlessness, beforehand, when it was not needed for survival? The reader gets a taste of this when Martin struggles to define himself – to recover his identity - with no one else present to play off. Not, he thinks, like the old life, where
there were other people to describe me to myself – they fell in love with me, they applauded me, they caressed this body, they defined it for me. There were the people I got the better of, people who disliked me, people who quarrelled with me.
We begin to get the measure of him. But Golding is a master of paradox, not just in defining Martin’s character but in the very core of his style as a writer. As with his other novels, there is a great physicality present, and Martin’s senses are exhaustively explored, not least his remembered sexual urges in some of the book’s most vivid scenes (“I must, I must, don’t you understand you bloody bitch?”), and this gives a sense of solidity, of concrete certainty. Yet it is slippery and ambiguous through and through: those maddening moments of revelation see to that. It has links to Golding’s other works – the switch of viewpoint at the end recalls The Inheritors, the intense, enveloping portrait of one man at a time of crisis predicts The Spire, and the metaphysical inquiries and the question of evil are unavoidable. Toward the end when Martin begins to ramble with a cynical, almost destroyed view of human life – “…[man] is a freak, an ejected foetus robbed of his natural development, thrown out into the world with a naked covering of parchment, with too little room for his teeth and a soft bulging skull like a bubble. But nature stirs a pudding there and sets a thunderstorm flickering inside…” – it’s hard to tell whether he sees this as brutally clear insight or a final succumbing to madness. The reader, however, will get answers, though they lead only to more questions, such as how a grounded story set on a few square metres of rock can lead to something so boundless, eternal and infinite.
November 18, 2013
Click here to read my Sunday Times review of Iain Sinclair’s new book, American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light. It’s a short one – 230 words – so even if you don’t have a subscription, you can read most of the review in the over-the-paywall preview.
As it’s such a short review, I didn’t have room to include some of my favourite passages from the book. So here they are, somewhat stripped of context.
“Like Kerouac I was slow to draw breath, a blue baby. Provoked to shout only when hope was fading, after my visiting father dropped a book, a detective story, on my head.”
(On the sale of Kerouac’s raincoat to Johnny Depp, referred to in the review)
“Depp dropped around. With his chequebook. A deal was struck. He was a pleasant, modest young man. Not bad looking. Polite. The quantity of noughts made the eyes water, but what I never managed to learn as a dealer is that you can’t charge too much for the unique item. Price confers value. The customer expects it. The least you can do is to offer your client the status of having paid a spectacular premium, thereby demonstrating seriousness.”
(Discussing with author Gregory Gibson the death of Gibson’s son, about which he wrote a book, Gone Boy: A Walkabout)
“The old life stopped for Greg at the split second of this event, and writing the book was one step towards whatever was coming next. What was required in the enveloping darkness, he felt, was a journey, a walkabout (a concept Greg admitted he barely understood). He developed a technique for ‘revisiting those power spots that are part of your geography’. The terrible pain does not disappear, or take new forms, but very slowly, day after day, the world shifts to accommodate it. ‘It’s a comedy in the classical sense,’ Greg said, ‘in that it begins in disorder and moves to order.’”
(On the end of the era of gangsters like the Krays and the Richardsons: “enthusiastic torture buffs and amateur (sans anaesthetic) dentists”)
“The first era of gangster-businessmen as the patrons of fading TV stars and cabaret singers, sexual predators who liked to rub shoulders with boxers and gay politicians like Tom Driberg and Lord Boothby, drew to a close. Giving way to teenage scream shows compered by middle-aged eccentrics hiding behind the shield of conspicuous charity. The toxic jukebox of Jimmy Savile, marathon man, hospital stalker, and marriage counsellor, by appointment, to Charles and Diana.”
(After interviewing Gregory Corso)
“When we take our leave of Corso, his minders ask after first editions of the authors they’d like to feature in the shop: Larkin, Barbara Pym. The masque of England the veteran Beats enthuse over – P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Peter Ackroyd – is as much a surprise to me as my fondness for Wieners, Lew Welch and Ed Dorn is to them. We are both chasing, in our ignorance, compensatory stereotypes of difference.”
November 11, 2013
November 5, 2013
When I finished this book recently, I tweeted “You’re going to have to read this book, I’m afraid. I know, but there it is. Truly upsetting but impossible to shake.” That might do for a recommendation, and if you’re convinced, then don’t read on: go get it. After all, I seem to be in good company, and novelists in particular seem to like it. Lee Rourke called it “truly one of the best novels I’ve read.” For Stuart Evers it is “a fucking wonder of a novel.” Away from the brevity of social media, Anne Enright called it an “instant classic” and its author “definitely a genius.” Even Adam Mars-Jones, no pushover, thought it “remarkable” and “harshly satisfying,” and looked forward to a time “when this little book is famous.”
That “harshly satisfying” is the key to why it might be important to say more about A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. (Mars-Jones added that “if every book was as intense as this, reading literature would be even more of a minority pursuit than it is already.”) It is a book which both is and is not difficult, and not just because of its form. But its form is the most clearly striking thing about it. It begins like this.
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
It doesn’t make sense, at least not in the usual way. But there’s something pleasing about it, something rhythmic and addictive, that keeps the reader going. By halfway down the first page, we know that it’s about a child with health problems (“Nosebleeds, head aches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up”), and by the bottom of the first page we know why: “We done the best we could. There really wasn’t much. It’s all through his brain like the roots of trees.”
Soon the pieces fall, if not into place, then with enough space in the jumbles and overlaps to see where we are. The narrator is an Irish girl. The “you” of her story is her brother, two years older and, against medical expectations, still alive. “There’s good news and bad news. It’s shrunk. He’s saved. He’s not. He’ll never be.” The family consists of just the children and their mother. Father has gone, but there are other men around, notably an uncle and a grandfather, their mother’s father, whose reputation precedes him. “That man was sterner stuff than us. A right hook of a look in his eye all the time. [...] Movie star father with his fifteen young. His poor Carole Lombard fucked into the ground.” He roars into the early pages, what the Irish would call a “good-living” hypocrite, full of damnation and not much mercy. The narrative unrolls edgelessly from his religiose ranting – “but sure what’s the point. It’s like talking to that brick wall. You were always a selfish. No. Don’t please daddy me now” – to the children and their mother’s terrified reaction. “Such a quiet house after. Car blistering road beneath. She covered face up and whooping in her throat. Forcing air in. Shaking with tears. Tight as bows we sat.”
And if grandad isn’t quite Clive Dunn, then nor is uncle’s behaviour very avuncular. This is, in that sense, a truly Irish family story – so Anne Enright seems a natural enough fit as a critic, though this book makes The Gathering look like Ballykissangel. That’s the other side of why A Girl is a Half-formed Thing can be difficult to read: it’s awful stuff, it really is. The antics that go on! But the structure of the story at least is straightforward, taking us on a pretty direct line through the girl’s childhood and youth. Here is where the uncompromising style – which has hardly any sentences that simply say what is happening – softens a little, beginning with comparatively reader-friendly scene-setters like “The beginning of teens us. Thirteen me fifteen sixteen you.” After a time the language becomes less daunting: it is broken, yes, but mostly literal and direct. There are more full sentences than at first you think: it’s just that when surrounded by chips of language, they tend to look lost and broken themselves. The story is not in the end all that hard to follow, because it is pretty simple, and brutal. The fragmented phrases enable McBride to reach incredible pitches of intensity in certain scenes – in the areas that you might expect, such as sex (“like a great surprise has taken place”), violence, death.
Like all risks, it sometimes looks as though McBride’s narrative style might not pay off. In one strong snapshot of memory, where the girl recalls an addiction to eating chalk in school, it veers worryingly towards Stanley Unwin (“Didn’t lick the blackboard just my hand. Smacked it palmly on. And sweet chalk powder licky to my tongue”). Elsewhere, the accumulation of spot-on bits and crumbs gives way to the occasional forced observation, as when the girl plaintively asks “How would they ever understand my life is more than cider?” or over-astutely describes a group of cooing matronly women as “under-touched”. It is, also, impossible to read the book without wondering why it has been written in this remarkable way. It reflects, presumably, the voice of the background mind, the mad obsessive subconscious, seeing only the spikes and depths of its owner’s experiences. It might also be an angled view of things which are too horrible to look directly in the eye. McBride, in an interview, says that as she wrote the book, she had over her desk a line of Joyce’s: ”One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” The other question raised by the style is whether this is the voice of the girl’s contemporaneous consciousness, or whether she is remembering. The vigour and vividness of the descriptions would suggest the former – it’s all happening live, we’re in the thick of it – but the failure of the style to develop or ‘mature’ as she ages from child to adult suggests that these are memories. Plausibly, given the circumstances of her life, it suggests that the girl may be as damaged in her own way as her brother.
What is unquestionable is that this way of writing becomes a way of thinking: the words are processed in the brain differently because they go in differently. They swirl, and settle. In bypassing normal ‘civilised’ sentence construction, the story seems to bypass the rational part of the mind and make a direct hit on an emotional centre instead. That is helped by the relentless events, and the answers given to questions like: if this woman is formed by her family (“Roots come growing. Slowly and tangle in”), what happens when her beloved brother is taken away? This isn’t – let’s not muck about – a gentle book. It is a wrenching book, full of the worst, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s an aesthetic wonder all the same. It’s terrible beautiful.
October 21, 2013
I’ve written about Muriel Spark before on this blog – was it really over five years ago? - but that was one of her later books, as by then I’d read most of the novels from her greatest and most productive period. (That, I think by pretty common consent, would be the 1950s to mid-1970s.) In a recent phase of trying to avoid all the new titles coming in to catch up with older books, I decided to reread a book that is one of her shortest, most memorable and certainly starkest.
The Driver’s Seat (1970) is 101 pages long (in the irksome style of technology manufacturers who describe their products as “7.2mm thin”, I suppose I should say it’s 101 pages short). That is important because first, it shows that Spark has no interest in padding out her story – it is not one of those novels that is really an abruptly promoted novella – and second, because it means the story has almost no middle. It’s lean and hungry. There are many books whose beginnings or endings are praised, but how often do we say, The middle of that book? I couldn’t get enough of it. When you see a book without a middle – Patrick McGrath’s Dr Haggard’s Disease also comes to mind – it’s likely that rather than having only a beginning and an end, what has really happened is that the author has followed Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to “start as close to the end as possible.”
This is certainly what Spark has done in The Driver’s Seat. The beginning is very close to the end. We meet Lise, about whom all we know initially is that she is thin, 34 years old and has worked in an accountants’ office since she was 18 (“except for the months of illness”) – indeed, we don’t get to know much more about her in the traditional character-building sense in the rest of the book. She is contrary from the start: her first act in her story is to manically tear off a dress that she is trying on because the shop assistant has told her it doesn’t stain. Although she says this is because “I’ve never been so insulted … Do you think I spill things on my clothes?”, we learn that really it is because Lise does not want to repel the unwelcome or destructive: she wants to absorb it, inhabit it. She contradicts the assistant too in her choice of what to wear: clashing colours, eye-watering patterns. She wants to be noticed, remembered, found.
Here I hit the usual reviewer’s wall, in wondering how much I can reveal of The Driver’s Seat without limiting its effect. Like Golding’s Pincher Martin, it has an ending which is not just unforgettable but unremovable from the brain: you will never get rid of it. I read it this time knowing what was coming, but what I had forgotten is that Spark gives us some pretty strong hints along the way. Less than 20 pages into the book, for example, we learn Lise’s ultimate fate, and the warnings from the future come regularly thereafter (“So she lays the trail…”). This is an extension of the technique that Spark adopted in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where the narrator’s eye would rise for a moment to look into the long distance and report back what happens in the end to various secondary characters.
What Lise is doing when she contradicts the shop assistant is preparing to go on holiday. This is triggered by an incident at work, where an exchange with her immediate superior leads to her laughing “hysterically” (there is a lot of hysteria in The Driver’s Seat).
She finished laughing and started crying all in a flood, while a flurry at the other desks, the jerky backward movements of her little fat superior, conveyed to her that she had done again what she had not done for five years.
The early pages of the book are full of tips to the reader like this about where Lise comes from: psychologically, that is, rather than geographically. (We never learn her nationality. She denies being English or American, though she is hardly a reliable source.) There are references too which plant the idea of disappearance and erasure: in Lise’s small flat, “everything is contrived to fold away”; when she says goodbye to her colleagues, her lips are “straight as a line which could cancel them all out completely.” Once on her journey, she encounters numerous eccentrics, but by her flat single-mindedness, Lise manages to seem more disturbing than them all. At the airport, one woman asks her if she has “a young man.”
‘Yes, I have my boy-friend!’
‘He’s not with you, then?’
‘No. I’m going to find him. He’s waiting for me.’
Throughout her trip, Lise will speak to many people and make herself memorable to them all; their future roles outside the story, after the end of the story, are summed up briefly by Spark too, as witnesses, as bystanders, helping the police, quoted in the press. Here, when Lise says “I’m going to find him,” she means it literally. She weighs up each man she encounters in terms of whether he is her “type”. Her approach (“So she lays the trail…”) is memorable. “You look like Red Riding Hood’s grandmother,” she tells her neighbour on the plane. “Do you want to eat me up?” At times, in her destination city, she becomes tearful at her failure to find the man she wants. Otherwise, she is stoical and determined. “The one I’m looking for will recognize me right away for the woman I am, have no fear of that.” When she does find him, as to meet her intentions she must, her role is clear. “She made me go,” he will say. “She was driving.”
The question of control is central to The Driver’s Seat, as the title implies. When an elderly woman observes to Lise that “you have your whole life in front of you,” the reader raises an eyebrow knowingly, but it is notable less as dramatic irony than as an example of the author’s omnipotence. The presence of the writer – those flashes forward to the future, to the world outside the book – ensure that the reader never forgets that this is a story, not reality, and this conflicts with the psychological mining the reader wants to undertake in order to explain why Lise does what she does. She does it because her creator makes her do it. Spark’s characters are, in Nabokov’s phrase, galley slaves. It is the author, not Lise after all, who is in the driver’s seat.
This is, as I discovered when I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading it, a much-loved book. That is not a description which seems naturally to fit, but those who like it really love it. “Phenomenal,” said one. “AMAZING,” another. Getting closer to the point, one person called it “nasty. In the best possible ways.” John Lanchester, in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, notes approvingly that The Driver’s Seat “doesn’t tell us a single thing we want to hear.” Yet I remember harsh criticism of it by John Carey, when he reviewed Martin Stannard’s biography of Spark in The Sunday Times. Carey calls The Driver’s Seat an “empty experiment” and notes that
Stannard selects [it] as her “masterpiece”, apparently because it excludes the kind of person he feels superior to (“Readers seeking the comforts of realism are slapped across the face and sent spinning”).
There is an unpleasant tone to this comment, but what struck me more is that, if it is doubtful to judge a book on how you expect others to react to it, it is odder still to judge it by someone else’s expectations of how others will react to it. Carey observes with apparent disappointment that The Driver’s Seat marked for Spark a move away from “novels with intelligible plots, characters and moral issues,” with the implication that he approves of those. But I do not think it lacks any of those qualities. It is a refinement on and progression from Spark’s earlier work, rather than a departure from it; a horror story in broad daylight. It is a scalpel, cutting away the excess of the traditional novel and leaving only the core. It is a stiletto, piercing straight to the heart – or thereabouts.
August 19, 2013
This is the fourth novel I’ve read this year which appears to be about parallel worlds – or, if you prefer, the multiverse. The others are Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (much praised but it left me entirely cold, and I had no enthusiasm for reviewing it), Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent, and Andrew Crumey’s The Secret Knowledge. Just imagine that in an alternate life, I resisted the temptation in this blog post to open it with a joke about how you wait ages for a parallel world, and then four come along at once.
Familiar gets one up on Lennon’s previous novel, Castle, in that it has found a UK publisher. I had mixed feelings about Castle, but overall I remember it fondly. Like it, Familiar is driven by a central, existential mystery, and what the two books further have in common is that the mystery is mostly a device to explore the central character’s personality, and how she (in this case) ended up where she is.
She is Elisa Brown, a scientist in academia in the US whose defining life event – at least until page 13 (“everything’s going to change in a couple of minutes”) – is that her son Silas died several years ago. (It struck me how odd it is that we have a word for a child whose parents have died, and for a wife whose husband has died and vice versa, but none for a parent whose child has died. In the TV series Six Feet Under, one character made the same observation, and concluded: “I guess that’s just too fucking awful to even have a name.” Yes: don’t normalise it, don’t reduce it to a word.) This has left her marriage in shreds, her other son Sam affected – “they never did find a rhythm, the three of them. A way for them to fit together without Silas” – and Elisa stuck in an affair with a picture framer.
Suddenly, and quietly, while she is driving home from a visit to her son’s grave, Elisa changes. She finds – a blink, a breath, like that – that she is in a different car, wearing different clothes, on a different journey; in a different life. When she arrives home, it becomes clear from her husband’s behaviour that they have a new history, which she doesn’t know about. Also, Silas is alive, but he and Sam are living thousands of miles away in California. Elisa and her husband are in therapy. Her job has changed too, from academic to administrative, one which, like many jobs, is “both wildly intricate and completely boring.”
I began Familiar not entirely expecting to finish it: it seemed a sterile sort of premise, built from the concept up. There were pleasing diversions on the problems of entering a new life without memory: “she wonders how she usually does her hair: probably not this way.” And yet, by a third of the way through – it’s just over 200 pages, and what a relief a short book is these days – it was making thoughts blossom from every page. This was, I think, because soon it became clear that Lennon was less interested in the conceit, and in solving the mystery of what has happened to Elisa, than in exploring what happened to her in the old life. She had, for example, inevitably blamed herself for Silas’s death: for “pushing him away when she was trying to read. Failing to give the second helping of dessert. Letting him cry it out in the crib.”
This slow unpeeling of the old life comes entwined with the developing understanding of Elisa’s new life. The two are inseparable. It provokes the reader into thinking about how we take the good in our lives for granted and how little newness we experience, when so much of our day-to-day living is constructed upon the memories and understandings of what has gone before. Plus, as Elisa thinks, “hasn’t everyone wanted this? To just throw it all overboard, the bad decisions of the past, and start over?” It notes, too, how, in Dostoevsky’s phrase, “man is a creature that can get used to anything,” as we move from amazement to acceptance to apathy. Our experiences and memories flatten everything out: the steamroller of life. Elisa is faced with the worst horror of all: having moved to a world where her son is still alive, she finds herself wishing she was back in the old one.
The relationship between brothers Silas and Sam, and their relationship with their parents, is central to both the old and new lives. In the new world, where he didn’t die at the age of eighteen, Silas has become a noted computer games creator, and Elisa finds herself playing one of his games as a way of seeing into his mind. He is also, however, a notorious online troll – a bang-on contemporary subject at the time of writing this review – and Familiar is one of the few novels I’ve read which takes gaming and online life seriously. ”There was a time,” Elisa thinks, “when [the internet] seemed like a dream. [...] There are people, she knows, who don’t use it, who have no presence on it, who can’t be searched for, who can only be accessed by going to their house and knocking on their door. But those people are the dream now. They’re like ghosts.”
It is at the end of the novel, where the awkwardness of a meeting of online friends is beautifully captured – the unreality of the real world – where the book achieves an intensity of pitch that has previously been muted by Elisa’s everywoman character (she never does anything surprising, perhaps as a balance to the extraordinary situation in which she finds herself). The ending is powerful and hints at an explanation for what has happened to her, if by that stage you still really want to know. But more unusually, the US and UK publications of Familiar have created a sort of parallel existence for the book: the US edition has an author’s afterword, which the UK edition lacks. The significance of this, and perhaps the problem with it, is that Lennon explains his intentions for the book so succinctly and convincingly that my own reading, still at that time freshly-formed and malleable, was smothered by it. The book is, he says, “about the psychological effects of parenthood – the transformation our personalities undergo in response to the utter impossibility of doing the right thing day in and day out for eighteen years and more. To survive being a parent is to fictionalize memory – to constantly re-create and re-contextualize the past, to invent a narrative that makes sense of the bizarre distortions introduced into one’s life under the strain of responsibility, obligation, and love.”
August 13, 2013
Pushkin Press may be best known for reintroducing Stefan Zweig to the English speaking world. Zweig, the psychological melodramatist, is one of the most written-about authors on this blog, though I haven’t reviewed him for a few years. (I recently read his novella Journey into the Past, and found all was well in Zweigstrasse: passions realised and unrealised, emotions turned up to eleven, and the essential framing device. It’s comfort reading, in a way.) However, for all its good taste, Pushkin had a reputation for a somewhat chaotic approach, such as shifting publication dates, unreliable stock availability, and no ebooks. Last year it was bought by Adam Freudenheim and Stephanie Seegmuller, formerly of Penguin, who have brought some efficiency to the Pushkin table without losing sight of what made it so special to begin with. They have extended its interests beyond Europe, introduced a line of translated children’s fiction, and spruced up its cover designs with the help of David Pearson and Clare Skeats. You can read more about its designs here.
The Parrots (tr. Howard Curtis) is the second novel by Filippo Bologna after his eco satire How I Lost the War (also published in English by Pushkin). Here Bologna stays with uneasy comedy but directs it to the literary world, and the obvious comparison is Amis’s The Information. Eschewing the distraction of names – plus, these novelists are all the same, aren’t they? – Bologna gives us three men, The Master, The Writer and The Beginner, all vying for The Prize.
The tone is as disdainful as the characters deserve. The Beginner is a debut novelist, a celebrated prodigy – I read it thinking of one or two of the Granta 2013 list – whose novel “you don’t actually have to read to know that it’s one of those books that will last, one of those once-in-a-lifetime novels.” Its acknowledgements are “like the end credits of a Hollywood film.” Sounds awful, as does The Beginner himself: self-involved, he contemplates writing an essay on how the humming of his fridge must resemble “the sound of writing, an inner, metaphysical sound … the noise of an intelligence at work” and sending it to “one of those literary blogs where all the losers who can’t get their books onto bookshelves badmouth each other.” (Huh! Those bozos.) Yet his girlfriend is about to discover how bad he is in real life too, and will make him question what he really values.
The Writer is a widely-published, experienced and acclaimed novelist in his prime – at least, according to the critics. I thought, perhaps unfairly, of Ian McEwan – someone of that status anyway. But The Writer has a secret which must not be revealed for the sake of his reputation, and his mother is dying. For him, “it’s too late to go up. From now on, the only way is down.”
Finally there is The Master, the veteran, an “old dehorned bull” who, we learn in his opening scenes, is dying of prostate cancer. As such, he has no time for niceties, and immediately sets about canvassing The President of The Academy that awards The Prize. (Don’t worry, you soon stop noticing all the capitals. It’s like living under an airport’s flightpath.) The President is not to be intimidated: “You should be grateful you’re a finalist, considering what an awful book you wrote.” Elsewhere, we are told that this book is “a kind of slender literary Frankenstein [...] assembled by emptying drawers, turning out pockets, combing through scattered sheets and notes…” Incidentally, I was unable to conjure a real-life comparison for The Master. That is perhaps no great loss, as Bologna takes less interest in him throughout the book than in The Beginner and The Writer. It is their battle really.
The Parrots – the title refers to various birds that pepper the narrative, including a black parrot that begins to offer advice to The Beginner – counts down the months and days to the announcement of The Prize. It’s not exactly a tense build-up, but the tone does vary nicely between empathy and irony (which are, I suppose, side by side on a writer’s keyboard), and in a world driven by vanity and ambition, everything seems curdled. The Master, for example, visits “one of those bars … where there is always a strange stench, as if the barman left his hand on a hotplate.” There is also a lovely portrait of a small press (“it held down its expenses by ‘borrowing’ the wi-fi from a Chinese hairdresser on the ground floor”) which is as good as those in The Information or Foucault’s Pendulum.
Many readers will have a limited appetite for writing about writers, but even they might enjoy the verve and brio on display here. As well as being modern enough to make plot points turn on Amazon reviews and Google Street View, The Parrots has some nicely varied stylistic tricks, from newspaper mock-ups to a long sequence where The Writer’s obsessive thoughts (“Boxed set … boxed set … boxed set“) alternate with the soundtrack of a guided tour through his headphones. At the end, events pile up, and both The Beginner and The Writer have difficult decisions to make. If there’s a lesson to learn, it’s that writers are never satisfied, though what I remember about the book is less the despair than the blackly humorous worldview. It starts with the epigraph, from Antonio Pigafetta’s Report on the First Voyage Around the World, where the translation twinkles just as brightly as elsewhere in the book: “He saw all kinds of birds, among them one that had no arse.”
August 12, 2013
Click here to read my review of Richard House’s Booker-longlisted novel The Kills in the Sunday Times. It’s behind a paywall, but I can tell you that this – a meganovel made of four books in one – is a 1,000-page aerodynamic miracle, simultaneously weighty and fast-moving. What I didn’t have space to say in the review is that the much-vaunted multimedia content, which you can see here, didn’t add much to the book for me. Nonetheless The Kills itself is recommended, provided you have an appetite for being introduced to new characters all the way through the book’s massive length, and don’t mind metafiction so recursive that, at one point, House gives us 23 pages of extracts from the introduction to a novel within a novel within a novel.
July 17, 2013
Andrew Crumey (for a pronunciation mnemonic, try “Andrew Crumey: his imagination is roomy“) is one of those writers who seems painfully underappreciated by those who admire him. This is no doubt because those admirers tend to really love his stuff, and to have the experience with him that Martin Amis did with John Updike: “having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes.” Certainly he is enough of a hero to this blog that he was the first author I interviewed. That was on publication of his last novel, Sputnik Caledonia, which marked a change in Crumey’s style, away from a cycling of separate but ultimately harmonizing narratives, and towards a straighter story: or as straight as a story of alternate worlds can be.
The Secret Knowledge returns to the structure of the earlier books, sort of, but it takes an odd turn, and leaves the reader feeling more sober, sombre even, than the likes of Mr Mee or Mobius Dick (the latter is, for me, the must-read for those new to Crumey). Here, instead of three cycling stories, we have two. The first begins in Paris in 1913 with composer Pierre Klauer and his lover Yvette. Pierre is a revolutionary: he believes that art should be about “progress and modernity, even if that means sacrificing old laws of taste.” And not just art: “there has to be a change in the whole of human affairs, a modulation into a new key.” He has just composed a new piece, The Secret Knowledge, and he is intrigued by the new laws of science: relativity, quantum theory. This short chapter, when reread in retrospect, has the germ of the whole novel in it, though it is shaped like a simple romance. About to take a significant step (though not the one the reader initially sees), Pierre observes that “every moment is a decision.”
The second story is David Conroy’s: he is a pianist and music teacher in the present day, whose career in middle age hasn’t come out where he expected. Once upon a time he was one of Britain’s brightest young musical talents: “he won a few prizes and thought, this is how it will always be, like this, forever, because this is what I deserve.” But he must acknowledge that “it is the innate impulse of all things to be forgotten,” and that he will join Pierre Klauer, whose Secret Knowledge he has just been told about, in obscurity. “We are the unknown, [Klauer] says, and you will join us.”
The Secret Knowledge is one of those books about which it is best to say very little if new readers are going to get the best from it. But how, then, to persuade them of its value? Existing readers of Crumey will need no persuading, and will recognise some of the names in the book from his earlier works: Jean-Bernard Rosier, for example, whose encyclopaedia was so keenly sought by the eponymous Mr Mee; or Minard, one of Rousseau’s copyists from the same book. Perhaps I can hint at the developments. After disaster strikes Pierre and Yvette, she reflects that Pierre “was like a comet that visits Earth briefly, gloriously, then flies to another sphere. Wait long enough, she thinks, and the comet may return.” I might also add that The Secret Knowledge for much of its plot exemplifies Crumey’s stated desire that his fiction should exemplify a sort of negative capability, “holding two completely opposite and contradictory views in mind simultaneously.” It is a book where people appear to disappear, and not just from celebrity into obscurity. (“How could she erase herself so quickly?”) It is, in other words, intellectually provocative and stimulating, and not superficially so. This quality is present too in the music of Klauer’s The Secret Knowledge: Conroy’s pupil Paige finds it to be “an object on which she can’t sustain any view, its shape constantly altering.” All this, naturally, has wider application within the book, and even to the book itself.
Klauer’s music is challenging (“progress and modernity”), and The Secret Knowledge – the book – is full of chiming references, such as to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Kreisleriana, a book which features “a musician completely opposed to false reputation, the shallowness of mass taste and received opinion; a person living for art in a world that recognises only commercial value, therefore considered mad.” Crumey might have some sympathy, acknowledging in the interview above that the only way his backlist might earn his publishers – and him – more money would be to “if I were to win some high-profile prize that might make me a more marketable commodity.” Yet, for all the rarity of Crumey’s literary intelligence, there is nothing wilfully obscure about his work. The Secret Knowledge has a strong plot – it seems to have several, at times – and even takes us ultimately into a new-fashioned tale of evil corporations and lust for power.
Between the tantalising opening chapters, where alternating stories feed on and inform one another, and the end, where Crumey tilts it almost into a thriller, comes a surprising switch midway through. Crumey introduces real people as characters: Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. This suits the purpose of the book, as not only does Benjamin become a crucial pivot in the plot, but Adorno’s thinking on mass culture fits with Crumey’s themes and his characters’ obsessions – and his assessment of the banality of popular entertainment makes an uneasy fit with Arendt’s most famous phrase, itself reduced by popular culture to a soundbite. The chapters with these three, however, clash with Crumey’s seductive style elsewhere, and if Crumey writes, as he says, philosophical novels, in these sections there is more philosophy than novel. However this seems to be anticipated by him: reduction of ideas to their essence can seem jarring, even intimidating. Adorno, accused of obscurity and jargon (“the very things he opposes”) reflects that “when the world is discussed in the clearest possible terms it becomes infinitely opaque,” and comments later on “the limitation of fiction in relation to philosophy.” When I began to think that The Secret Knowledge would merit a reread to peer more closely into its thickets, I found another relevant thought of Adorno’s, on the commodification of music: “Mass culture replaces critical appreciation with mere recognition: to hear anything often enough is equivalent to liking it.” This idea will not be strange to anyone who has found their resistance to some chart-molesting atrocity gradually diminished to grudging acceptance or even Stockholm-like fondness, but it also made me think that sometimes mysteries, confusions and challenges are best allowed to remain unsoftened, without their hard edges worn down by the friction of repetition.
So The Secret Knowledge is not a traditional novel, though it has enough of the elements of one to tease the unwary. One element of the traditional novel is emotional engagement. Here, this is provided first by the longings and regrets of Pierre’s lover Yvette, and more significantly by a returning traumatic memory for the young pianist Paige. Neither of these elements, however, really hits the solar plexus. For me, The Secret Knowledge‘s appeal is what it does to your head, rather than your heart. It’s a novel which appeals in strange ways and, despite its being one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, I am finding it difficult to express that appeal. Perhaps it is enough to cite arch-modernist Pierre Klauer’s response when Yvette asks him if he doesn’t like something: “The categories of like and dislike are outmoded.”