September 28, 2008

Tim Parks: Dreams of Rivers and Seas

Posted in Parks Tim at 8:00 am by John Self

Just as literary Penelopes confuse me, so too have I a tendency to mix up my Tims. Tim Pears, Tim Parks, Tim Binding, all conflate in my mind as a nonspecific white, middle-aged English novelist of no particular interest – so far. Tim Parks is the most prolific, having published 23 books in the last 23 years. On further searching (of memory and internet), I see that I have read one of his novels: Destiny (1999), which might have more accurately have been named Density, as I recall it as pretty challenging and cannot say now whether I even finished it. Now Dreams of Rivers and Seas is his fourth novel in five years, and it was only high praise in the newspapers, including from Indra Sinha, that made me feel I’d better give him another go.

I’m glad I did, as this is a extraordinary and unusual novel. The cover indicates the Indian setting, but almost all the characters are Westerners, away from home, travelling, seeking. Looming over every page is the social anthropologist Albert James: but he doesn’t even appear in the book.

On reception of his mother’s brief telephone call announcing his father’s death, John James took a deep breath, booked himself onto the first available flight for Delhi, had Elaine drive him to Heathrow, travelled towards the coming night and arrived at Indira Gandhi Airport to find the weather much cooler than expected.

You want an opening sentence that really kick-starts a novel? That’s the way to do it. It’s all there: the emotional distance which John’s mother Helen keeps (the weather really is cooler than expected), John’s taking for granted of his girlfriend Elaine, and the central question of what was on Albert James’s mind in his last days, as he travelled towards the coming night. He wrote a letter to his son a few days before his death:

Dear John, for some time now I have been plagued, perhaps blessed, with dreams of rivers and seas, dreams of water.

The letter that follows is gnomic, enigmatic – typical James, as we learn. As Helen is working in clinics to fight disease in a conventional way (a displacement activity, we suspect, and anyway, “a drop in the ocean … the Third World is a bottomless pit,” one friend observes), Albert is engaging in more curious pursuits with his students.

‘He asked us to draw the weather,’ one girl said.

‘To draw the weather?’

‘And invent new insects,’ said another.

‘Mr James liked to apply very experimental methods,’ Sister Nirmala agreed.

‘Then we had to think of ways to change the world to suit the new insect we had drawn.’

‘Or the new weather we invented.’

His pronouncements too have their ambiguity. John’s girlfriend Elaine observes, reading one of his books, that it was as if James “had something tremendously important to say and then wrote the whole book to make sure no one ever found out what it was.”

Everyone is trying to find out what it was that James had to say, not just at the time of his death, but in his work. His widow Helen is pursued by an American writer, Paul Roberts, who wants to be James’s biographer. “His ultimate goal,” Roberts believes, “was to find a new state of mind, or pattern of behaviour, that would provide the departure point for a solution to many contemporary crises: political, environmental and existential.” John wants to know how his father died, and the reader’s thirst for that is slaked midway through the book. But James remains no less obscure. John’s mind, in trying to follow and understand his father, becomes “a pitching sea, a river that had burst its banks,” and a posthumous disappointment to the man who insisted that understanding can only come “with a clear and clinical mind … with sterilised gloves in sterilised spaces.”

“Nobody understood the messages people communicated like Albert, and the thousand ways every message can be misunderstood.” This is the heart of the book, and of the family: John, as a child, “lived in the knowledge that other families were integrated in the world in a way that the Jameses were not.” The book is all communication, and about the things we learn, and the things we never learn, from conversations, letters, emails, text messages. John’s communication, and lack of it, is crucial to understanding the effect his father and mother have had on him.

Dreams of Rivers and Seas moves into a dramatic gear toward the end, which breaks the spell after the cerebral and ‘talky’ feel of the rest, but probably injects necessary pace and direction toward a conclusion. Amid the ideas, the crossed relationships, the family mysteries and the intimations of all-too-human impropriety in the man whose “greatest ambition was to be a ghost … to be present and not present,” we are reminded by his widow why this knotty read is also so compelling.

No one wants a book about someone who was entirely good.

September 25, 2008

Ben Goldacre: Bad Science

Posted in Goldacre Ben at 8:00 am by John Self

Ben Goldacre has become Richard Dawkins’ understudy, now that Dawkins is too busy arguing with fundamentalists to write about science any more. In his weekly Guardian column, Bad Science, Goldacre – a full-time NHS doctor – skewers cant and half-truths in the painful joints where science meets journalism and advertising. He also has a website, which he named Bad Science to avoid confusion. Now he’s written a book. I can’t remember the name.

What impresses about Goldacre in his Guardian column is his even-handed dedication to the rational, and his refusal to toe the obvious lines. He’s as keen to denounce hysterical anti-GM crop protests as he is to criticise Monsanto. He points out that anyone worried about the health effects of radiation from mobile phones should live as close as possible to a phone mast.

If this last seems counterintuitive, then such upturning of expectations is exactly what Goldacre wants us to be aware of when reading of ‘sciencey’ claims in the media and advertising. His central aim is to arm the layman reader with enough knowledge of how science reporting works to enable us to spot the dodgy stuff for ourselves. I’m not saying he doesn’t trust us or his own powers of saturation coverage, but he does seem to be keeping up the column and website until we all get on message.

He has a whole bran tub full of examples for us. Brain Gym may sound familiar: it’s sold as a way of “enhancing learning skills.” Goldacre writes:

When you strip away the nonsense, it advocates regular breaks, intermittent light exercise, and drinking plenty of water. This is all entirely sensible.

However “most people know what constitutes a healthy diet already. If you want to make money out of it, you have to make space for yourself in the market: and to do this, you must overcomplicate it, attach your own dubious stamp.” Brian Gym’s dubious stamp is to recommend various exercises such as rubbing the “brain buttons” – effectively attempting to massage the carotid arteries through the ribcage.

Similarly, there is the legendary Gillian McKeith, TV nutritionist (Goldacre reminds us that ‘nutritionist’ is not a protected term and a title which can be claimed by anyone, unlike ‘dietitian’): he considers her “a joke … a menace to the public understanding of science”. She has been written about so widely that Goldacre hardly needs to devote a whole chapter to her, but he does remind us of her most striking suggestions, such as that “skid-mark stools” are “a sign of dampness inside the body – a very common condition in Britain.” The human body is about 65% water, and her thoughts on those which do not have dampness inside them, are not recorded.

To some extent all this seems like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And Goldacre is the new Dawkins for another reason: he’s preaching to the converted. At the beginning of the Gillian McKeith chapter, he expresses the expectation that “since you’ve bought this book you may already be harbouring some suspicions” about McKeith. But he has broader themes to explore, and where Bad Science is most valuable is in the tutorial – by bad example – Goldacre gives us on how clinical trials and studies are carried out. We learn about sampling, controls, peer review, and all the other elements which enable scientists to determine whether a particular study is worth the hyperbole attached to it in the papers. There is much too on the excesses of the pharmaceutical industry, though there’s a reason for their desperation these days: “The golden age of medicine has creaked to a halt” and most drug companies these days are reduced to making “me-too” copies of existing drugs, or diagnosing new illnesses (“Social Anxiety Disorder”) for existing medication.

This leads to the meat of the book, though there’s a fair amount of wading to do to get there (Goldacre doesn’t seem to be a natural writer, at least not at book length, and all the examples and hobby horses can get a little much, in a way they don’t in a weekly column. He also has an unfortunate weakness for silly jokes). Goldacre is exercised about the media portrayal of science, or rather its obsession with misrepresenting health science (“The Daily Mail in particular has become engaged in a bizarre ongoing ontological project, diligently sifting through all the inanimate objects of the universe in order to categorise them as a cause of – or cure for – cancer”). For instance:

In 2007 the British Medical Journal published a large, well-conducted, randomised controlled trial, performed at lots of different locations, run by publicly funded scientists, that delivered a strikingly positive result: it showed that one treatment could significantly improve children’s antisocial behaviour. The treatment was entirely safe, and the study was even accompanied by a very compelling cost-effectiveness analysis.

Did this story get reported as front-page news in the Daily Mail, natural home of miracle cures (and sinister hidden scares)? Was it followed up on the health pages, with an accompanying photo feature, describing one child’s miraculous recovery, and an interview with an attractive happy mother with whom we could all identify?

No. This story was unanimously ignored by the entire British news media, despite their preoccupation with antisocial behaviour, school performance and miracle cures, for one very simple reason: the research was not about a pill. It was about a cheap, practical parenting programme.

There is also coverage of MRSA ‘superbug’ scares, leading to the alarming revelation that the microbiology clinic to which all the UK newspapers turned for their samples to prove the presence of MRSA in hospitals, was in fact a man operating out of his garden shed. This is just a premable to the main course of what Goldacre calls “the media’s MMR hoax” where a tiny ‘study’ of twelve children in 1998 led to a nine-year campaign in the British media against the measles/mumps/rubella triple vaccine for children on the grounds that it was believed to cause autism. Goldacre takes 40 pages over this, explaining that there was never any evidence for the link, but also that the news reporting of the story exemplified all the media’s worst excesses in science reporting. “Less than a third of broadsheet reports referred to the overwhelming evidence that MMR is safe, and only 11 per cent mentioned that it is regarded as safe in the ninety other countries in which it is used.”

To some extent, much of Bad Science could be summed up in two phrases. “A fool and his money are soon parted,” and “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” But it is when this becomes a matter of life and death – as in the MMR scare, which has coincided with a drop in take-up for the vaccine and the first death from measles since 1992 – that Goldacre’s commitment to the truth becomes vital. A much more striking and horrifying example of this is missing from the book; that of Matthias Rath, whom Goldacre accused of contributing to deaths of Aids victims in Africa by promoting his vitamin treatments and denouncing traditional antiretroviral drugs. Rath sued The Guardian for libel, but dropped his action last week. This was too late for publication of the book earlier this month, but expect an appendix in the next edition; and a big party round Goldacre’s way. Everyone’s invited; except Gillian McKeith.

September 22, 2008

Philip Roth: Patrimony

Posted in Roth Philip at 8:10 am by John Self

Occasionally – well, quite often, if I’m truthful – I have a sudden urge where I need to get a specific book, right now. A few months ago it was Philip Roth’s memoir of his father, Patrimony. I tried my local bookshops but without success. I ordered it online and clutched it with glee when it arrived. Then, in the usual fashion, I didn’t want to spoil the anticipation by reading it too soon and stuck it on my shelves.

Patrimony (1991) is subtitled A True Story, but we know Philip Roth too well to take such a claim at face value. His book Operation Shylock, subtitled A Confession and ostensibly a non-fiction account narrated by ‘Philip Roth,’ ends with a postscript: “This confession is false.” His autobiography The Facts is interrupted (and critiqued) by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s fictional alter ego. We’re used to seeing Roth’s formidable literary muscle being flexed via complexity, reflexiveness, even something like postmodernism – so it’s extraordinary to see it being exercised in the service of something much more direct and simple, and retaining all its awesome power. This time, it really is true.

In 1988, when Roth was 55, his 86-year-old father Herman developed something which was initially diagnosed as Bell’s Palsy. “Look, count your blessings, the doctor said; except for a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a half-paralyzed face, he was as healthy as a man twenty years younger.” However, when a brain scan is carried out, and Roth sees the results before his father does, he is moved not just because of the inevitable presence of

the tumor invading the brain but simply because it was his brain, my father’s brain, what prompted him to think the blunt way he thought, speak the emphatic way he spoke, reason the emotional way he reasoned, decide the impulsive way he decided … and now it was being compressed and displaced and destroyed. … God’s will erupted out of a burning bush and, no less miraculously, Herman Roth’s had issued forth all these years from this bulbous organ.

This inspires a journey backward and forward, to his father’s past and his – not a spoiler, I think – short future. “He was still, systemically, a marvel, and therefore fated to be spared nothing.” The past begins with Roth’s mother’s death, seven years earlier, after which Herman embarrassed Roth and the funeral guests by spending the day clearing out her personal belongings: “They were all items for which my father could imagine no function now that she who had treasured them was gone.” Roth, despite his discomfort, sees something to admire in this, an example of his father’s “refusal to sidestep the most brutal of all facts.” It is a refusal which Roth has inherited, not least displayed in this volume. “He could be a pitiless realist, but I was not his offspring for nothing, and I could be pretty realistic too.”

Following his wife’s death, Herman begins to deteriorate at least socially, and Roth has to encourage him to live again, as well as to help him with his basic hygiene, and there is something extraordinary in reading of the great novelist scrubbing his father’s bathroom like, well, like a normal person. Then again, even he acknowledges, when standing over his mother’s grave, that “at a cemetery you are generally reminded of just how narrow and banal your thinking is on this subject.”

Patrimony is not without comedy or drama, and Roth cannot quite restrain his novelist’s skill at painting a scene. There is a skit where Roth poses as a psychiatrist to avoid the attentions of a volatile cab driver, but ends up ‘treating’ him (“You know something, Doc, my old man’s in his grave now without his four front teeth. I knocked ‘em out of his fucking mouth for him”), and there is a brilliantly funny set piece where Roth attends a string quartet recital with his father and elderly friends, in aid of the Jewish poor in Florida. After suffering a performance “as alarming as it was heroic, as though these four aging people were trying to push free a car that was mired in the mud,” the audience is frustrated time and again as they rise to go to the refreshment tables and are ushered back by the club president for the next movement. Eventually it ends.

“Bravo! Bravo!” The applause had turned into a rhythmic pounding with wild overtones of a kind you couldn’t have imagined emanating from this temperate crowd, but their relief at being sprung was that great. The applause was loudest from those who had bounded out of their seats and were already lined up two deep in front of the refreshment table. “Bravo!”

On it went until, in a triumphant voice, the president announced above the tumult, “Ladies and gentlemen! Ladies and gentlemen! Good news! The artists are going to give you an encore!”

I thought there would be a riot. I thought plates would go sailing through the air from the direction of the refreshment table. I thought somebody might just walk up and put a foot through the cello.

Much of the book, however, concerns the literal life or death decisions that come from long conversations with specialists. Roth is perpetually horrified by the various expectations the doctors have of his father: that he can withstand an eight hour operation, two eight hour operations, two, three or four months’ convalescence, learning to walk again. When one consultant tells Roth that what he has in mind for his father is “a routine operation,” Roth “had thought, ‘Sure it is – routine for you.'”

[My father] managed to take that in without flinching, which was better than I did. Eight to ten hours, then five to six days, and what would he be worth after that? After the impoverished childhood and the limited education, after the failure of the shoe store and the frozen food business, after the struggle to gain a managerial role in the teeth of the Metropolitan’s Jewish quotas, after the premature deaths of so many loved ones … after all that he had weathered and survived without bitterness or brokenness or despair, wasn’t eight to ten hours of brain surgery really asking too much? Isn’t there a limit?

The answer is yes, yes absolutely, yes to the thousandth degree – this was asking too much. To “Isn’t there a limit?” the answer is no.

Roth is unsentimental in his portrait of his father – stubborn, unseeing, cruel to Lil, the woman he later shared his life with – but also understanding of his need to reminisce all the time, everywhere they go.

You mustn’t forget anything – that’s the inscription on his coat of arms. To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory – to him if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing.

This takes forms which we might not and yet – given Roth’s fictional interests – might well expect of him. Helping his father in the bath, he can’t help noticing his penis.

I looked at it intently, as though for the very first time, and waited on the thoughts. But there weren’t any more, except my reminding myself to fix it in my memory for when he was dead. It might prevent him from becoming ethereally attenuated as the years went by.

Roth has done his father justice, and done him proud – and if he himself comes out of it pretty well (the dedicated son, the worried carer, the fixer of memory) then so be it. I was reading my copy on a plane, stuck on the tarmac as a thunderstorm raged overhead, and I had my mini Ikea pencil for marking notable passages jammed in an awkward pocket. It was so much trouble to fish it out each time, and I fished it out with such frequency because it all was so quotable, that in the end I kept it out, clutched like a cigarette as I marked one joyous paragraph after another of this sombre and lively and brilliant book.

“I must remember accurately,” I told myself, “remember everything accurately so that when he is gone I can re-create the father who created me.” You must not forget anything.

September 19, 2008

Richard Price: Lush Life

Posted in Bloomsbury, Price Richard at 8:00 am by John Self

I seem to have a last-come, first-served approach to my reading. Despite the giddy piles of unread books littering my home, the arrival of a new title always brings with it a sense of urgency and importance. Indeed, I already had a Richard Price novel in those piles – his last, 2003’s Samaritan – and had been aware of lavish praise for his books for some years (Clockers, his 1992 novel, is seemingly the granddaddy of them all). Nonetheless, when I received this handsome hefty new hardback (the US edition, pictured further down, is as beautiful in its way), I knew I was lost.

Lush Life is roughly structured as a police procedural – don’t click away, give me a minute here – set in Manhattan, and it opens with Price showing us what to expect from the next 450 pages. The police ‘Quality of Life taxi’ (four officers, “their mantra: Dope, guns, overtime”) is scouring the streets, “misery lights revolving,” for crimes and misdemeanours:

Restless, they finally pull out to honeycomb the streets for an hour of endless tight right turns: falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, creperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner. Pink Pony, Blind Tiger, muffin boutique, corner. Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner. Boulangerie, bar, hat boutique corner. Iglesia, gelateria, matzo shop, corner. Bollywood, Buddha, botanica, corner…

It’s a risky and showy opening; but it’s a showy city. New York is showing itself to us all the time, perpetually being shown to us on TV and film, so that even someone who has never been there has plenty of pictures and expectations in mind. Price’s task is to give us a New York which is both consistent and surprising. He succeeds, but more than that, he creates an internally consistent world which is so immersive and engrossing that for once – and I had always dismissed such claims – I fell for the reviewerly cliché of really wanting the book to last much longer than it did, so I could remain in this immaculately created and fully imagined world for as long as possible.

Price is perhaps better known as a screenwriter than as a novelist: he’s been Oscar nominated for film work, won an award for his writing on the more-talked-about-
TV series The Wire, and has the thankless task of translating Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 into English for the film version (perhaps they held a gigantic cheque over his eyes so he didn’t know what he was agreeing to).

From all this you might expect – and you would be right – that Price’s forte is dialogue. Speech is at the heart of Lush Life, and a good two-thirds to three-quarters of the book is taken up with it. This is dialogue which is rich in street patois and old-cop wisecracks, and which – like Alan Bennett’s in an entirely different way – appears realistic through its use of idioms and neologisms but which is far too artificed and compact to be naturalistic. But even if the lines of dialogue themselves are artificial, their purpose is entirely authentic. Price’s people talk over one another, trail off in the middle of sentences or start to say one thing and then change to another.

More importantly, almost every exchange of dialogue in the book conveys not just what is being said, but the psychology of the character speaking and their history, relationship of power and motivations toward their interlocutor. It’s there when the restaurant manager speaks to his employees; when the cop and the victim’s father talk; and during a magnificent, protracted interrogation which stretches over dozens of pages. Given that so much dialogue in fiction is underfed and dysfunctional – providing characters with a chance to explain what they already know for the benefit of the reader, clumsily foreshadowing, or just treading water – Price’s rich exchanges are a wonder, and a treat, to eavesdrop on: comic, laconic, poetic. You might wonder then why I haven’t quoted any of it, and the answer is that I’m not convinced it would work out of context. You’re going to have to trust me – and Price – on this one.

(Or alternatively, see here for James Wood’s take on the use of dialogue in Lush Life, which provides examples in spades, and nabs most of the best quotes I would have wanted to use, including a cop who, when asked why his request can only be accommodated on Sunday night, is told by his superior, “Tomorrow’s too soon, Monday I can’t promise, Tuesday’s unpredictable to the point of science fiction.”)

The rhythms of speech even extend into the narrative voice, partly I suppose through ‘free indirect style’ – where the narrative adopts the sentiments of the character – and partly through a furious act of control on Price’s part, to insist that the prose will be read as he intended. The use of commas toward the end of this passage is a good example.

…if the driver says one thing, goes one word over some invisible line, then without any change of expression, without any warning signs except maybe a slow straightening up, a sad/disgusted looking off, he steps back, reaches for the door handle, and the world as they knew it, is no more.

This also gives an idea of one possible criticism of Lush Life: there’s a neatness, or slickness, in the dialogue which can seem too polished, too screenplay. However this is an unworthy complaint: I would never complain about every line of a poem being too perfect, so to say the same of dialogue reflects on the level of my own expectations rather than the level of Price’s achievement. On top of the dialogue, Price is no slouch at calling up a great image in the main narrative when he wants to (Lower East Side has “canyonlike streets with their hanging garden of ancient fire escapes”).

In all this I have said nothing about the plot, which is best discovered page by page, but concerns Eric Cash, a 35-year-old restaurant worker with “no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill” and whose “unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger, without wanting to run face-first into a wall.” There is a murder, at which Eric appears to be a witness, and then he becomes central to the police case; and the police are central to everything else. They serve as a nexus for the web of social groups which make up the Manhattan of the book, the overlapping – if not unifying – factor in the fields of humanity all pulling in different directions. Price’s presentation of the city in this way reminded me of Martin Amis’s London Fields.

The story then takes off in different directions, and at every stage the motivations and actions of characters seem thoroughly backed up by their psychology. Highlights of this include Eric’s transformation in the eyes of his colleagues at the restaurant, the splintering of the relationship between the murder victim’s father and his wife (the portrayal of Billy Marcus is masterly), and investigating officer Sergeant Matty Clark, who has his own problems with his sons. Power – father-son, police-suspect, media-public – is a theme throughout Lush Life. Clark reflects at one point:

He had known cops who had on occasion slept with witnesses, slept with suspected perps, confirmed perps, slept with the wives, sisters, and mothers of victims, and had even slept with the victims themselves if they recovered. You walk into lives abruptly turned inside out by the arbitrary malice of the world, and you, in your suit and tie, your heavy black shoes, your decent haircut, and your air of seriousness, you become the knight, the father, the protector…

A murder story has an inbuilt structure to it, which might seem like an easy way for a writer to get himself a book done: here’s the bones, just add meat. There is no doubt that Richard Price makes it look easy – that immersive world, the killer dialogue – but given that he took five years to write Lush Life, we can conclude that it was not the result of any easy cheat but of long hard work. Near the beginning of the book, and the beginning of the investigation, we have this:

Every cop was on the scene, every Night Watch, every plainclothes and uniform, was either on a cell phone calling in, calling out, calling up, or else feeding each other’s steno pad; Matty always taken by that, how you could literally see the narrative building right before your eyes in a cross-chorus of data: names, times, actions, quotes, addresses, phone number, run numbers, shield numbers.

That is Price’s gift: he lets us see how it all happens, line by line and scene by scene, “building right before your eyes,” but the achievement at the end, the view from the top, still seems entirely miraculous.

September 16, 2008

Paul Auster: Man in the Dark

Posted in Auster Paul at 8:00 am by John Self

Paul Auster seems to be experiencing a late (if his 60s isn’t too early to be saying late) creative surge akin to Philip Roth’s. This will be the third new book from him that I’ve written about since I started this blog 18 months ago. His last, Travels in the Scriptorium, seemed to me to be a little too inward-looking; but the previous novel, The Brooklyn Follies, although played pretty straight, gave me greater insight into Auster’s work and crystallised him for me as a writer it is necessary to read. Others must have agreed, as it is the latter and not the former title which gets “By the author of” billing on the cover here.

Man in the Dark continues Auster’s tendency toward slimness of late, at 180 pages top to tail. It also continues many other tendencies of his, but in a much more satisfying way than Travels in the Scriptorium. There, the visitations were from old Auster characters; here, themes and settings recur. We have meditations on cinema (The Book of Illusions), political engagement (Leviathan), a dystopian world (In the County of Last Things) and stories within stories within stories (pretty much everything Auster has written).

Here, the frame is the narrative of August Brill – most of the names, as usual with Auster, are five-letter monosyllables – an elderly writer trying to get to sleep in his daughter’s house. Brill is a retired journalist, conscious of his role in producing “decades of ephemera, mounds of burned-up and recycled newsprint,” and in the process of writing a memoir as a promise to his daughter. We do not get the memoir, at least not at first, but instead a story which Brill tells in order to pass the hours of insomnia. “That’s all I want now – my little story to keep the ghosts away.”

The story tells of Owen Brick, a young man who has woken up in an alternate world, where civil war has erupted in America following the 2000 Presidential Election, when George Bush was declared victor by the Supreme Court. This led to states on the east and west coasts seceding from the Union, and military attacks on them by the remaining federal government. However, the secessionists are aware that this is all the product of a man’s imagination, and recruit Brick to travel back to the real world and kill Brill. (“He invented it, and everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head. Eliminate the head, and the war stops.”) On the way, in the warring world, Brick endures frustrating, circular encounters with locals:

Excuse me, Brick says. Could you tell me if this is the road to Wellington?

The woman stops and looks at Brick with uncomprehending eyes. He notes a small tuft of whiskers sprouting from her chin, her wrinkled mouth, her gnarled, arthritic hands. Wellington? she says. Who asked you?

No one asked me, Brick says. I’m asking you.

Me? What do I have to do with it? I don’t even know you.

And I don’t know you. All I’m asking is if this is the road to Wellington.

The woman scrutinizes Brick for a moment and says, It’ll cost you five bucks.

Five bucks for a yes or no? You must be crazy.

Everyone’s crazy around here. Are you trying to tell me you’re not?

I’m not trying to tell you anything. I just want to know where I am.

You’re standing in a road, nitwit.

Yes, fine, I’m standing in a road, but what I want to know is if this road leads to Wellington.

Ten bucks.

Ten bucks?

Twenty bucks.

Forget it, Brick says, by now at the limit of his patience. I’ll figure it out for myself.

Figure out what? the woman asks.

Brick’s sense of alienation is reflected by his creator’s. Brill is tortured by his memories of his wife’s death, and also that of his granddaughter’s boyfriend, Titus, who was killed while serving in Iraq. Brill’s story is a way of forgetting what he cannot help remembering.

Concentration can be a problem, however, and more often than not my mind eventually drifts away from the story I’m trying to tell to the things I don’t want to think about. There’s nothing to be done. I fail again and again, fail more often than I succeed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best effort.

The last sentence recalls Samuel Beckett (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”) and indeed Brill’s self-examination – his unwillingness to continue but inability to stop – as a whole brings to mind the famous last lines of Beckett’s trilogy (“…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”). This is no surprise, as Auster has not hidden his debt to Beckett (explicitly, a character in The Music of Chance was named Pozzi to chime with Pozzo from Waiting for Godot). Brill has Brick make the following exchange with his girlfriend as he decides whether or not to kill his creator:

So what am I supposed to do?


What do you mean, nothing?

We start living again. You do your job, I do mine. We eat and sleep and pay the bills. We wash the dishes and vacuum the floor. We make a baby together. You put me in the bath and shampoo my hair. I rub your back. You learn new tricks. We visit your parents and listen to your mother complain about her health. We go on, baby, and live our little life. That’s what I’m talking about. Nothing.

As well as Beckett, Kafka seems never far – Brick’s situation pretty well fits popular understandings of the word kafkaesque (the second time I’ve (mis)used it this week) – and the echo in the name of Brill’s granddaughter, Katya, is hardly accidental. But wait – Camus gets a look-in too, explicitly named in the text, and also when Brick’s reflections on suicide seem to recall The Myth of Sisyphus.

All this may well make Man in the Dark (the title seems to refer to Brill’s nocturnal state, Titus’s death, and the human condition) seem a sterile and self-indulgent confection. There will be many, even admirers of Auster’s earlier work, who consider it so. For me, however, it was a valuable and welcome return to Auster’s world – or worlds. He is a writer who successfully straddles literary styles, interested and able to invoke both ideas and plot with economy.  His great strength is that it would be impossible to say what aspects of the novel are foremost in his intentions, as the all-round performance is so convincing.  This risks trying to make him all things to all men, but it is a risk he takes and which pays off.  Most interestingly, in a world where readers consider story to be either the only important thing in a novel, or a superfluous curse, Auster takes the faint praise of pageturning and runs with it, dragging the reader along, challenging him to keep up.

September 13, 2008

Marcel Aymé: Beautiful Image

Posted in Aymé Marcel, Pushkin Press at 8:00 am by John Self

The only problem I have with the reliable Pushkin Press is that all their books seem so appealing that I am foxed by choice and usually end up reading none of them, or else playing safe with another Stefan Zweig. When I say ‘appealing’ I mean not only the subject – 20th-century European fiction, usually novella length – but (predictably) the appearance. Many of their books are produced in what they call ‘Jewel’ format: squarish small paperbacks with thick matt covers, with the tactile ribbed texturing of laid paper, which I’ve attempted to show below.

Beautiful Image (La Belle Image) by Marcel Aymé was published in 1941 and is now translated into English for the first time. It’s what a Hollywood pitcher would call a high concept story, the premise both archetypal and novel: what happens when a man suddenly discovers that his face has changed? The results could be either comical or (for once, genuinely) Kafkaesque. Raoul Cérusier discovers his problem – and opportunity – when his identity photographs are rejected by a bureaucratic office. “I give you my word that these are photographs of me. It’s incomprehensible. You have seen them wrong. You must have seen them wrong.”

Even when he suspects the truth, he doesn’t want to believe it – and who can blame him? He knows that when he tells other people, it will be no more than a curiosity of minor amusement to them.

Anybody, I assured myself, could dig up “something very strange which he cannot explain” from the depths of his memory. There’s nothing more ordinary. At the time of the experience, it was bizarre, even frightening, but retold, it becomes nothing at all. In reality, nothing had actually happened.

This is a hint that Cérusier’s narrative may not be reliable, but his reactions are real. Initial self-disgust at the metamorphosis – “a landslide which swept away all my defences” – gradually becomes a sense of endangered opportunity. We learn that he may not be an entirely trustworthy person, and that he has recently ended an affair with his young assistant at work, Lucienne. We gain a tantalising glimpse of a pleasingly perverse relationship of power, of how Lucienne “likes to take revenge” for her abandonment:

For instance, when we’re working at my desk facing each other, she might calmly lay down her pen or document, take my face in her large, hot hands and gaze ardently into my eyes while, silently, she blushes all over, like a man. Overwhelmed, holding my breath, I await her orders. I even hope for them. She knows it, but if I risk making the least gesture, she drops me with a kind smile and returns to her work. I always feel a terrible disappointment, which fades as soon as I’m alone, and even becomes a point of satisfaction when I have my wife beside me.

With other hints at his level of selfishness, it comes as no surprise that Cérusier quickly begins to adapt to his change of face and to change his fate accordingly. “I shall have to resign myself to adopting a slightly different kind of morality, something more akin to that of a fare-dodger.” That is, he decides to move into the flat above his family and to set about seducing his wife. ‘A slightly different kind of morality’ just about sums that up, though we are quickly reminded that anyone who eavesdrops – whether on a conversation, or an another life – never heard anything good about himself. Nonetheless, seduction is made easier by Cérusier’s new face being rather better-looking than the old one, and he also finds it attracts others, which he reflects

might become a source of trouble. The discipline I used to impose on myself no longer applied. … The poor man may well boast of his virtue in the face of the temptations to which rich people succumb. In truth, he has no idea what it is to be tempted to misuse one’s wealth.

Set against these opportunities is the inevitable sense of loneliness which befalls a man who can no longer be known to anyone, who to all intents has fallen to earth from a clear blue sky. “The universe that used to rotate around me is gone. … There was nothing left of Raoul Cérusier but my belief in his existence.” Cérusier confides in his uncle, which leads to some broad comedy of car engines, pigs, and mistaken names. More significantly, Aymé explores how deeply even our closest relationships depend on appearances, as well as how we “won’t accept certainties that aren’t acknowledged elsewhere.”

Translator Sophie Lewis, whose rendering is all that one could wish for (that is, I never felt I was reading a translation), provides an afterword which gives useful background to Aymé and his work, as well as some insights into the themes. So, having braved a random Pushkin, I’m glad to have benefited from a book every bit as interesting, readable and provocative as, well, as Stefan Zweig. The drawback is that it confirms my original suspicion that everything Pushkin publishes is worth reading, and paralyses me into inactivity once more. Until next time.

September 10, 2008

Olivier Rolin: Hotel Crystal

Posted in Rolin Olivier at 8:00 am by John Self

A promising new (to me) publisher is always cause for celebration, so take a bow Dalkey Archive, a US press which has recently set up a UK outpost, making its titles available here. It describes itself as not-for-profit, which strikes me as a handy policy that many small presses might adopt, to avoid tears later, but there’s some background to them here. Dalkey Archive takes its name from Flann O’Brien’s last novel, a cavalcade of unusual ideas, and so is entirely appropriate for a publisher which specialises in books others might quail from. They also, not incidentally, have beautiful covers, which as an added bonus, are as matching-decoratively acceptable on my bedside table as Sea of Poppies was in our hallway. The covers, as a close examination below will reveal, are unfortunately of a texture designed to attract fingerprint smudges; but I’m sure they’re working on that.

Olivier Rolin’s Hotel Crystal was an irresistible introduction to Dalkey Archive for me, sounding like a cross between Nabokov and Calvino – specifically, Pale Fire meets Invisible Cities. It’s inspired – another tempter – by Georges Perec, who wrote, “I have an exceptional – I believe fairly prodigious even – memory of all the places I have slept in.” This is the springboard for Hotel Crystal, which comprises individual chapters describing in minute detail forty-two hotel rooms which Rolin has slept in. He does not disappoint.

The room measures about 4 x 5 metres. A partition with a 2.5 x 1 metres opening in the middle divides it into two parts (in the manner of an iconostasis): a narrow entryway about one metre wide along the entire width of the bedroom; then, behind the partition, the room itself. The door is painted white, the hall khaki, and the frame of the entryway to the room forms a white arch. Brown baseboards run along the…

So far so Nicholson Baker. But this barking mad proposition takes place in a world where Olivier Rolin has gone missing (“under well known circumstances”), and these room descriptions are all that we – and the ‘editors’ of this volume – have to go on. As he describes each room, Rolin veers off into memories of what happened here. This Olivier Rolin leads a double life, where he associates with humanity at its most exotic: “I call Crook, a former MI6 man fired for compulsive lying and drug abuse … [who] knows the upper tiers of the international cutthroat sect” … “my old Master Louis Althusser … got it into his head to steal an atomic submarine” … “I’m talking with Grigor Ilyuchinsk, a kind of Russian mafioso.”

Rolin himself, it turns out, fits in well with such underworld figures:

Unsheathing the sharpened (and ricin-tipped) sword concealed in my umbrella, I spun around and ran it through the man in the crepe-soled shoes. Stabbed through the heart, he fell without a sound (though in a pool of blood). It wasn’t Antonomarenko, as far as I could tell – it was some priest. I admit to having acted somewhat hastily, but with characters like Antonomarenko, survival often comes at such a price: it’s them or you (actually, as far as Antonomarenko’s concerned, he won’t be bothering anyone anymore: it seems he’s hanged himself in Buenos Aires). I briskly pushed the cleric over the parapet. His small stature made the job easier. All told, things could have been worse.

Names recur, and we begin to piece together a story of international espionage, terrorism and hostage-taking, and of love for the mysterious Mélanie Melbourne. There is a tremendous temptation to reorder the story, to place Rolin’s hotels in chronological order and try to get to the heart of a more linear mystery – and also to discover why the one room he claims to be unable to recall is in Hotel Crystal, “the empty centre of our impossible life together.”

I think however that such attempts would be in vain. The pleasure of Hotel Crystal is in the fragmented, disordered narrative it presents to the reader, of two worlds – or two perceptions of the world – in alignment. Here, the hotel room, meticulously described by the metre, is the banal anonymous box occupied and ignored by businessmen the world over; but it is also the exotic location of movie and pulp literature, where the same anonymity means that anything, from meaningful death to meaningless sex, can take place without consequences. The latter is particularly evident as Rolin, with vanity disguised as lack of vanity, portrays himself as a sexual predator (“I can’t help ogling some of the graceful girls, fine bones like spun glass”), such as in a disturbing and funny scene where the hotel maid comes in to service his room while he is in the bath. Inevitably, “we fuck – or, it would be more accurate to say: I fuck her.” Afterwards:

She gets back up, dresses, her mind elsewhere. She removes the sheets she just put on the bed, stuffs them into the canvas bag, and goes out into the hallway to get a new pair. She spreads them out, tucks them in, lays out the bedspread, patting it to smooth down the wrinkles. Not knowing what to do with myself, I return to the bathroom and get back into the tub. She follows me into the bathroom, changes the soaps and towels. At one point, I wonder if she’s going to unplug the drain, empty the bath water, scrub down the tub and toss me out with the dirty towels. But she doesn’t, and is soon on her way.

The juxtapositions of sex and violence with mind-numbing minutiae recall the scenes in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman would extol the virtues of Huey Lewis and the News at great length immediately after a stomach-turning depiction of rape or murder. Rolin’s prose though, is capable of moments of great elegance, as in a scene where “clouds of starlings merge and disperse acrobatically above the Vatican (like a shattered heart)”. Here the parenthesis seems to be a stage-whispering of the image, as though to acknowledge and defuse its ostentation.

All in all, Hotel Crystal is both playful and stimulating, full of hullabaloo and Oulipo, an homage both to pulp fiction and to postmodern literary trickery, a detective and mystery story itself as much as it reflects the tropes of detective and mystery stories. It defangs the promotional puffery of hotels even as it adds something more dramatically romantic in their place. Perfect – dare one say it? – holiday reading, or as a holiday from reading your usual sort of thing.

September 7, 2008

John Healy: The Grass Arena

Posted in Healy John, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

For breaking the fast of the Booker longlist, what better than a Penguin Modern Classic? Like policemen, Penguin Modern Classics seem to be getting younger, and John Healy’s memoir The Grass Arena was first published as recently as 1988. This new edition has done rather well, hitting the top 40 in Amazon’s chart and being reprinted within a few weeks of its publication last month; and all with an unknown author and no publicity (other than a fascinating piece by Erwin James in the Guardian).

I like to think the Penguin Modern Classics range will bring me new literary experiences, and The Grass Arena certainly is that. It’s unlike any other book I’ve read, and it takes some adjustment for a reader unprepared for its raw edges. By that I mean that anyone who, like me, is initially alarmed by the occasional roughness and even naivety of the prose – there’s a fondness for exclamation marks and alliteration – is advised to read on.

Healy describes his life from childhood, batting between his parents in London and his extended family in Ireland. His father is an ogre (after giving Healy a hiding, he “started to wipe the blood and snot from my nose, saying, ‘Be quiet, or I’ll tell your mother what a tyrant you are'”), his mother ineffectual, and his school peers consider him an “alien”. His father is unsympathetic:

‘How is it they only beat you up? It must be your own fault!’ As he could hardly hit me in the state I was in, things took a new turn. ‘You’ve no respect for God, that’s your trouble. I’ll see that you get religious; yes, I’ll see that you get religious all right. It’s my duty, I’m your father!’

Only in Ireland, working in the fields and farm, does Healy feel release from the “tension in my upper neck and back, which gradually caused me to walk hunched up.” Fortunately, “there’s a sort of calmness that seems to come out of the grass and the ditches and the mossy banks,” but when Healy returns to London, to his father and his ‘friends’, there’s only one thing that relieves the tension.

Albert said, ‘Two brown ales, mate.’ … The time flew round and when we came out at closing time I felt a bit giddy. It was a terrific feeling and my back and neck were not playing me up. I’m going to have some more of this, I thought.

This reminded me of Bukowksi’s fictionalisation of his discovery of alcohol in Ham on Rye (“Why hadn’t someone told me? With this, life was great, a man was perfect, nothing could touch him. … I thought, well, now I have found something, I have found something that is going to help me, for a long long time to come”). But where Bukowski managed a working life, Healy drops through the loose loops of the social safety net and lands heavily. The bulk of the book describes his extraordinary existence in ‘the grass arena’, the curious society of the underclass, the criminal, and the hopelessly addicted. It’s a world of high violence:

A guy called Mills, who they told me was a bit of a psychopath, fell over at the height of the afternoon’s drinking and damaged his wrist and ankle. He was lying moaning on the ground when his troubles came to the attention of one of the Scotch blokes. The little Jock was smaller than Mills and, I was told, had been beaten up by him several times in the past. Here was one chance to even the score a little. He did – by kicking most of Mills’s front teeth out as he lay writhing in agony. He had further plans for Mills too, but fell down drunk before he could carry them out.

and curious insights (meths is “hard to get down first thing in the day – any time for that matter. Bastard stuff”), not to mention surprising humour:

Fred has just finished doing three months. Done a big shit in a shop doorway. Got nicked. In court he said he’d been drinking cider for months and not eating. The big police inspector got up. He wasn’t going to let him get away with that. Looking over at the magistrate, he said, ‘I don’t know about not eating, Your Worship, but by the look of the evidence it took a considerable effort!’

These scenes take us up to close to the end of the book, and the effect can be disorienting. People – fellow winos – come and go (“I shared a cell with Tin Legs Alex. He fell on a railway line in Scotland dead drunk one night and only woke when a train had gone over his feet. He had to have them both off”), and there is little clear sense of time. This could be frustrating, until I recognised that it represented Healy’s life perfectly. The chaos of the story is the chaos of Healy’s past. “Memory goes and returns.” The book does not represent the life; the book is the life, and this is what makes it so powerfully affecting.

What I would have liked more of is Healy’s return from the grass arena (most people, he finds, “drink tea instead of methylated spirits…”), which only gets about 30 pages here, and in particular an update on how he has fared in the twenty years since the book was first published. For that we have to turn to Erwin James’s recent Guardian article, linked to above, which is somewhat ambiguous. It’s a sign of how much I warmed to Healy during the course of The Grass Arena that I want it to be successful for him not just because it’s a gripping and eye-opening read, but because – dammit – he deserves it.

September 4, 2008

Tobias Wolff: Our Story Begins

Posted in Bloomsbury, Wolff Tobias at 8:00 am by John Self

Straight into a shortlist of one for best book of the year and worst cover design of the decade is Tobias Wolff’s volume of new and selected stories, Our Story Begins. (Seriously, what is it with that cover? To give an already under-read writer like Wolff such an offputting design reminds me a little of the Lee and Herring joke about a poorly-rated TV show, which was “so popular they had to keep moving it around in the schedules to give other programmes a chance.”) If you believe me about the book of the year thing – and I mean it – and are new to Wolff, then it may well be that on completing this volume you will feel the urge to read everything Wolff has written. With many authors – I’m experiencing it with Philip Roth – this is a task as daunting as it is exciting. Wolff, ‘fortunately’, has kept his output down: in 63 years he’s published one novel, two memoirs and three collections of stories. All are essential; but some (Old School; This Boy’s Life) are more essential than others.

Of course if you read this edition, you’ll have a good range of Wolff’s story output anyway, but I recommend the full collections to fill the gaps. Our Story Begins is heavily weighted in favour of his later work, with only nine stories from his first two collections, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs and Back in the World (in the UK these are published in one volume, as The Stories of Tobias Wolff). Fortunately it includes one of his most famous stories, ‘Hunters in the Snow’, which exhibits the best of early Wolff in 16 pages:

Frank reached out and laid his hand on Tub’s arm. “Tub, have you ever been really in love?”

“Well -“

“I mean really in love.” He squeezed Tub’s wrist. “With your whole being.”

“I don’t know. When you put it like that, I don’t know.”

“You haven’t then. Nothing against you, but you’d know it if you had.” Frank let go of Tub’s arm. “This isn’t just some bit of fluff I’m talking about.”

“Who is she, Frank?”

Frank paused. He looked into his empty cup. “Roxanne Brewer.”

“Cliff Brewer’s kid? The babysitter?”

“You can’t just put people into categories like that, Tub. That’s why the whole system is wrong. And that’s why this country is going to hell in a rowboat.”

“But she can’t be more than -” Tub shook his head.

“Fifteen. She’ll be sixteen in May.” Frank smiled. “May fourth, three twenty-seven p.m. Hell, Tub, a hundred years ago she’d have been an old maid by that age. Juliet was only thirteen.”

“Juliet? Juliet Miller? Jesus, Frank, she doesn’t even have breasts. She doesn’t even wear a top to her bathing suit. She’s still collecting frogs.”

“Not Juliet Miller. The real Juliet. Tub, don’t you realise how you’re dividing people up into categories? He’s an executive, she’s a secretary, he’s a truck driver, she’s fifteen years old. Tub, this so-called babysitter, this so-called fifteen-year-old has more in her little finger than most of us have in our entire bodies. I can tell you this little lady is something special.”

Tub nodded. “I know the kids like her.”

This is Wolff at his showiest, able and unashamed to entertain with diverting oddities and clever dialogue several times a page. Most of his stories are told in the third person, which enables Wolff to act as omniscient narrator and put in witticisms (a college which “looked so much like a college that moviemakers sometimes used it as a set”) and insights which wouldn’t necessarily occur to his everyman characters. This could be a weakness if Wolff’s integrity toward his creations weren’t so complete, and the people in his stories so full-blooded. He can sum up elements of their characters with exceptional economy, as in the passage above, where Frank’s knowledge of the very time of day when Roxanne Brewer turns 16 expresses him both as a parental figure and a plan-ahead predator. In another story, ‘Soldier’s Joy’, we get a twinge of pity, a cringe of embarrassment and a smile when we learn of the character Hooper that “he was no great lover, as the women he went with usually got around to telling him.”

Soldiers feature regularly in Wolff’s stories, as do boys from broken homes: Wolff has recorded his own experiences of these situations in This Boy’s Life (1989) and In Pharaoh’s Army (1994). His soldiers are usually in the army by necessity; his fatherless boys feel ambivalence toward their struggling mothers. The two lives are combined in ‘The Other Miller’ when a soldier has a stroke of luck (of one sort or another) and is sent on home leave for bereavement: “Miller knows what happened. There’s another Miller in the battalion with the same initials he’s got, “W.P.,” and this Miller is the one whose mother has died. The army screws up their mail all the time, and now they’ve screwed this up.” This Miller, anyway, isn’t on speaking terms with his mother, as he “wants her to understand that her son is not a man to turn the other cheek” after she remarried, to Miller’s high school biology teacher. Miller joined the army to spite her: “she was right too. The army was just as bad as she thought, and worse. … Miller hated every minute of it, but there was a pleasure in his hatred because his mother must know how unhappy he was.” In a dozen pages, Wolff tracks through this rather eccentric scenario to close in beautifully on the truth at the heart of it.

Miller leans back against the seat and closes his eyes, but his effort to trick himself into somnolence fails; behind his eyelids he is wide awake and fidgety with gloom, probing against his will for what he is afraid to find, until, with no surprise at all, he finds it. A simple truth. His mother is also going to die. Just like him. And there’s no telling when. Miller cannot count on her to be there to come home to, and receive his pardon, when he finally decides she has suffered enough.

This ability to extract piercing honesty from outlandish, attention-catching settings is a speciality of Wolff’s: in ‘Mortals’, where a man complains that his obituary has been published when he’s not dead yet; or in the new story ‘Her Dog’, where Wolff risks extreme silliness by having a man imagine a conversation with his dog – with her dog – but gets to the heart of a relationship in a way that standard issue knockabout stuff between man and woman would struggle to. Elsewhere, the first new story, ‘That Room’ is only four pages long but has a stretch of prose near the end which takes off in an entirely unexpected direction, rather rich and strange, which seems unlike anything Wolff has done before. He seems to be stretching himself.

The rather better US cover for Our Story Begins

The rather better US cover for Our Story Begins

As with any selection of stories, there will be quibbles for every reader familiar with Wolff. (Readers new to him will be delighted by an embarrassment of riches.) For my part, given Wolff’s preference for the stories in his 1996 collection The Night in Question (12 of its 15 are here), I wish he’d included one I vividly remember from reading it a decade ago, ‘The Life of the Body’. The only way through that is to read all the books again anyway: no hardship. It’s a reviewer’s cliché to say it, but there really is more brains, heart and soul in one story by Tobias Wolff – in one page – than some of this year’s Booker longlisters manage in their entire length. The only other criticism is that the book isn’t twice as long, and that we have only ten new stories from Wolff to show for the five years since the publication of his last book, Old School (2003). Like Joe in ‘Deep Kiss’, the last new story in the book and a highlight of this exceptional collection, I feel “itchy with thirst and deeply satisfied all at once.”

September 1, 2008

Philip Hensher: The Northern Clemency

Posted in Booker Prize 2008, Hensher Philip at 8:00 am by John Self

Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency is the longest and, for me, the last of the Man Booker Prize 2008 wronglist longlist. Reading eleven novels in a row which I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to read has taught me that, whatever I think of the judges’ choices, I don’t envy them their task, which involved reading over one hundred such books. Hensher himself was a judge in 2001, and found the task no struggle at all, pointing out that he always reads five books a week: “It was just my six months’ normal reading.” The linked article is worth a look for a wider insight into the Booker judging process. Who can doubt the sincerity of Adam Mars-Jones, a judge in 1995, when he acknowledges that “It was great to find a book so inept you could chuck it aside and get on to the next one.” And so – changing the subject completely – back to The Northern Clemency.

Looking at the Also By page, I see that I have read all but one of Hensher’s previous five novels, without ever really feeling myself to be a strong admirer of his fiction. What I remember best of them is the wonderful opening scene in Pleasured (1998), with two people dancing in the snow of no-man’s-land in divided Berlin. Otherwise Hensher is better known as a columnist and critic, and for me the author of the most brilliantly insulting pay-off in book reviewing history, in his piece on James Thackara’s 2000 novel The Book of Kings. He warms up with some mild words: “a book of gigantic, hopeless awfulness. You read it to a constant, internal muttering of ‘Oh – God – Thackara – please, don’t – no – oh, God, just listen to this rubbish’. It’s so awful, it’s not even funny.” And he concludes:

The awful thing is that Thackara … is utterly sincere and will probably be admired by people who believe that sincerity, rather than art, is the basis of a great novel. He is probably a nice man. He obviously cares deeply about these great historical movements and has done a great deal of research – my God, he has researched and researched and researched. But on the evidence of The Book of Kings, he could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall.

I wonder if any cunning literary editor has despatched a copy of The Northern Clemency to James Thackara to review? If they did, I hope they put enough postage on it, because this is one mammoth volume. A view of it in three-dimensional glory is really required to see what a doorstep of a book this is.

The Northern Clemency is set mostly in northern England, and it begins in the 1970s. Here I am reminded of another pointed piece by Hensher. Earlier this year – coinciding with publication of his novel – he wrote an article in Prospect magazine highlighting the weaknesses of many period-set ‘state of the nation’ novels, such as Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club. For example, “Large public events enter into the action awkwardly and obtrusively.” Such as this, perhaps, on page 69 of The Northern Clemency?

At eleven, Malcolm got up, switched the television off, unplugged it, remarking that it was a relief all those power-cuts had stopped at last.

He is also critical (and rightly so) of the use of easy cultural references to pin a story in time, particularly pop music: “a lazy, easily-researched way to evoke a particular moment”. How true, and so unlike other cultural “hey, it’s the 70s!” touchstones like Coronation Chicken, green bamboo-pattern wallpaper, car-key parties (very Ice Storm) and TV shows such as Why Don’t You? , all of which feature in the first 50 pages of The Northern Clemency. Hensher refrains from using pop music as his reference points: “I was a teenager when the Clash are reported by Coe as playing in Fulham. I wouldn’t have cared. At the time, my records were mostly of Mahler, Schoenberg and Boulez.”

The Northern Clemency, briefly put, is a story of two families in Sheffield. The Glovers are long-time residents of Rayfield Avenue, and the Sellerses have just moved up from London. Over the next twenty years they will experience a few dramatic life events and an awful lot of extremely humdrum ones, all narrated with extraordinary attention to detail. Hensher has the ability to turn a fine phrase (“he ate with his elbows out, as if always demolishing a pie in a crowded pub”, or describing a washing machine, whose “cycle went into passages of immense fury”) but they aren’t half few and far between.

There is every reason to praise many of the characters and events in The Northern Clemency for their realism. But it is this very act of recognition in the unexceptional nature of their concerns which damages the book in parts: our own lives, most of the time, would not past muster as the subject of a 740-page novel. It has a connection with Adam Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow, if not quite as heroic in its carefully intricate analysis of quotidian concerns, and in fact is a weaker book as a result. Where Mars-Jones had the guts to make his novel, as it were, beautifully boring, Hensher gives us a middle-class Coronation Street.

Even in this meticulous recreation of life, plausibility does sometimes fail. Hensher offers no acknowledgements at the end of the book: a refreshing change, in fact, to the habit now for authors to give three pages of thanks. He wrote it all by himself – hallelujah! Perhaps he was keen to avoid the trap of James Thackara, as Hensher does not seem to have “researched and researched and researched” – but then you don’t need to be a lawyer to know that in a criminal trial, the defendant isn’t cross-examined by the prosecution before he gives evidence to his own barrister.

There are strong set pieces, such as (implausibility notwithstanding) the criminal trial which takes place two-thirds of the way through, some affecting scenes in a hospital, and some decent tension near the very end as a past collides with a present. Hensher is also very good on family conflict, particularly between socialist-anarchist Tim and his father Malcolm (recalling the long bitter exchanges in Roth’s American Pastoral), and on the lurch of change for children trying to make new friends when they move schools. There is a scene which could have been hackneyed but which becomes very moving, where Malcolm and Katherine Glover view their lives reduced to a series of fading snapshots. Nonetheless there is an awful lot of trough between these peaks, and even when Hensher is pinpointing the thoughts of teenagers or housewives with considerable confidence and honesty, there never seems to be much that is surprising or novel in what he has to say. Some characters, such as Katherine Glover, are well drawn, while others, like her son Tim, seem half-hearted (bit weird, Marxist, obsessive … er, that’s it).

The inside flap of The Northern Clemency claims that it was inspired by “the great nineteenth-century Russian novels,” but the debt seemed to me to be less to Dostoevsky than to Desperate Housewives. It is immensely long and hysterically dull. What it does prove is that no one will ever reasonably subject Hensher to the sort of pasting which he gave James Thackara. The Northern Clemency, weighty in all the wrong ways, proves not that Hensher could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall, but that he can write soap on a brick.


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