October 28, 2010

Kevin Barry: There Are Little Kingdoms

Posted in Barry Kevin at 8:00 am by John Self

Mainstream publishers have more or less given up on debut collections of stories, and who can blame them? I bought this book from the website of the publisher, The Stinging Fly, a small Irish press, but didn’t get around to cracking it open until I heard that Kevin Barry has a novel out next year (picked up by one of those teasing mainstream publishers). Better get in on the ground floor then, I thought, before googling the title of this book and realising that I am bringing up the rear already.

There Are Little Kingdoms won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in its year of publication, 2007. The Rooney is not widely known outside Ireland but it has a good pedigree: Claire Keegan, Keith Ridgway, Phillip Ó Ceallaigh are all recent recipients. But why rely on literary awards when I can sum the book up in a lazy journalist style? Kevin Barry’s stories: it’s George Saunders meets The League of Gentlemen! In Ireland!

Barry is old enough – 38 when this collection was published – that his debut comes with its voice fully developed. And the voice is a cracker. “There are crisis levels of debt. There is alcoholism and garrulousness and depressive ideation,” he writes of an unnamed town in rural Ireland. “There is the great disease of familiarity.”

These are long, bruised days on the midland plain. People wake in the night and shout out names they have never known. There is an amount of lead insult among the young. The river is technically dead since 2002. There is addiction to prescription medication and catalogue shopping. Boys with pesticide eyes pull handbrake turns at four in the morning and scream the names of dark angels. Everybody is fucking everybody else.

(OK, so he could lose the ‘dark angels’ bit.) That comes from the best story in the collection (with the worst title), ‘Animal Needs’. It reports the horrors that descend upon John Martin, a farmer who has found himself drawn, reluctantly but not without curiosity, into sexual infidelity. “You imagine the whole wife-swapping business would take four decisions but really it only takes three.” The swinging, though, is the least of his problems, as a husband he is cuckolding comes home unexpectedly. The dialogue twines comedy and threat.

‘And tell me, by the way, while we’re at it,’ and Jim Flaherty takes a dainty step back, a little dancing step back, and he blocks off the door with an arm to the jamb, an arm with the reach of a mid-sized crane. ‘Tell me John. Where you parked?’

‘Oh, I ah … I left it down by L_______ Road. Actually.’

‘I see. You decided to park twelve hundred yards away. At a spot that is hidden from the open view. I see.’

‘Listen, anyway, folks, I’ll knock away out of it. I’ll see ye.’

‘I’ll tell you now, John, we can do it easy or we can do it hard. Which way would you want it to be?’

‘Easy.’

‘Good man. So how long have you been sleeping with my wife?’

‘Jimmy!’ she cries. ‘This is crazy talk!’

‘Noreen, love, would you ever go upstairs and lock yourself into the bathroom and put the key out under the door for me? I’ll deal with you in due course. John, you might take a seat by the fireplace, please.’

There is a conflict here because the characters are created meticulously but larger than life; recognisable but cartoonish. This conflict enhances the force of the story: the effect has the coolness of satire but the wrench of emotion (I told you he had the George Saunders thing going on). There is a fictional friction. Also, Barry is a master of what Tobias Wolff (no slouch at the story form himself) calls “a gesture that tells you something particular:” here it’s the “little dancing step” that the dangerous Jim Flaherty takes as he prepares to “deal with” his wife’s adultery.

I said ‘Animal Needs’ is the best story because it packs so much into its 18 pages; there are hidden things that reveal themselves only gradually. Elsewhere Barry is more linear, and directly comical, as in ‘Burn the Bad Lamp’, where a man running a business on its knees encounters a fairytale genie. The genie says things like, ‘How’d you like this for a caper?’ Clearly this sort of distinctive style will not appeal to everyone, and the quips he despatches – sort of drive-by descriptions – might madden some with what can look like glibness. “She came from Tipperary and was the shape and texture of a kiwi fruit,” he says of one character. Another “had a father with a head like a boiled ham” (and there the paragraph ends, to the sound of a cabaret sting in the reader’s head). I found I had a fair tolerance for them, though this may be because the stories are so short (and I do wonder about the extrapolation of Barry’s style to novel length).

She went first to art school in Leeds, where she discovered no aptitude for creativity, but fell happily pregnant by her free-drawing instructor, Kim, who was kind enough to driver her to Halifax for the abortion, and with a Yorkshireman’s swarthy panache offered to go halves on the cost. (‘Nights at the Gin Palace’)

Despite (because of) the comedy, the deepest current in Barry’s stories is one of sadness. The people are inadequate, frustrated, “prey to odd shudders in the small hours,” pursuing stunted lives. This is William Trevor territory; Barry is the gremlin Trevor keeps under that hat of his. In fact the last story in the collection, ‘The Penguins’, is the earliest in date of writing, and it stands apart from them – not set in Ireland, for one, seeming governed more by its plot than its characters. What it shows is how Barry has found his voice since then, and if I seem to be going on about voice a lot in this review, then it’s because it’s a central part of the writer’s arsenal, and a hot property indeed if that voice is as charming, funny and assured as Kevin Barry’s is. Onward, then, to the City of Bohane.

October 21, 2010

Keith Ridgway: The Long Falling

Posted in Ridgway Keith at 8:00 am by John Self

When I rule the world, the list of authors everyone must read (yes, you’d better start taking notes) will include Keith Ridgway. I’ve read three of his five books; I am rationing them. But you don’t need to buy them from £0.01 on Amazon Marketplace to see how well he writes. His blog posts show it: try him on old Nazis, on honey cake, on rent boys and Metropole, on The Kindly Ones, on Alone in Berlin (covering the last much better than I did). Yet at the time of writing, all his books have Amazon sales ranks – that handily specious guide to success – pushing the one million mark. It’s a world gone wrong.

The Long Falling (1998) was Ridgway’s first novel – after the novella Horses – and won two literary prizes in France, which shows that they have better taste than we do. If Horses was John McGahern with – forgive me – attitude, then The Long Falling, with its depiction among other things of contemporary gay Ireland, must be Colm Tóibín: the Director’s Cut. In fact, the gay interest and the political currents are secondary to a strong portrayal of a woman in crisis, worthy of my old friend Brian Moore. (And that is the last time I will liken him to another writer; Ridgway is gifted enough to be a point of comparison himself.)

Grace Quinn has lost both her sons. Sean died as an infant when a moment’s inattention allowed him to crawl into a ditch and drown; her other son, Martin, left home in the Cavan town of Cootehill after telling his parents who he really is, and getting the expected response from his father (‘I mean that I’m gay.’ ‘Queer?’ ‘Gay.’ ‘There’s no such word. Not that way. It’s queer.’ Then: ‘Your mother killed the wrong fucking one, that’s for sure’). Martin goes to Dublin. Grace is left alone, with a violent husband (what is it about the Irish? Great writers and bastards for dads. Is there some link?) and little sympathy from the locals.

Everybody knew her husband, and everybody knew her. Neither of them was liked. She, initially, because she had come from England, he because of his manner. Now he was not liked because of what had happened, and she because she was his wife.

“What had happened” is that Grace’s husband knocked down a girl with his car and killed her. “Grace could not afford to fix the front of the car. She drove it as it was, reminding everybody. People did not like her for that.” Two deaths, one estrangement, domestic violence (“He would punch, and he would throw me. He could pick me up and throw me”): enough tragedy, right? Wrong: this is literary Ireland. Room for a little more. So Grace hits her crisis, runs into it with her eyes open, and moves to Dublin to stay with Martin.

Imagine falling from a great height. Without panic. Imagine taking in the view on the way down, as your body tumbles gently in the air, the only sound being the sound of your progress. Your progress. Imagine that it is progress to fall from a great height. A thing worth doing. Though it is not a thing for doing. You do nothing, you simply allow it to happen. Imagine relaxing into the sudden ground. Imagine the stop.

We don’t have to imagine it, as Ridgway has done that for us, and gives us Grace’s long falling, her time of “trying not to break open”, in perfect detail, told from different points of view. One reviewer calls it “the Irish Crime and Punishment.”

She is thrown into the life of the city, where the Celtic tiger (remember that?) is just beginning to drag 1990s Ireland into the modern world. Her son takes her to a gay bar (while he visits a bath house alone: “They were all ages, walking to and fro, naked but for their towels, some carrying keys, some cigarette boxes, all with the same look. Just eyes. They looked like men given some terrible task. They wanted it over with”). But Ireland has been backward too long to crawl forward without a fight. There are beggars and drunks all over the place. Everyone in Martin’s liberal, secular circle is getting agitated about the ‘X case’, where the Irish Attorney General obtained an injunction to stop a 14-year-old rape victim from travelling abroad to get an abortion. The case provides a political backdrop for modern Ireland’s birthing pains.

Meanwhile, Martin is fretting about his lover, Henry, and what he might be up to in Paris, even as he struggles to come to terms with his identity in a country still emerging from under the dead hand of religion. “The circumstances of his life had flowed from the way he wished to make love. From that clumsy declaration. I am what I want. I am this.”

The plot in The Long Falling slows down at times and takes tricky turns elsewhere, but by the end the feeling is of an inevitability playing out. It seems like a story you don’t so much read as watch. (Aptly enough, it’s being made into a film. Well: a French film.) The brilliant details and sharp dialogue don’t disguise the tragedy at the heart of the book. The past is not dead: it is not even past. We discover that Grace’s falling began long ago, when she met her future husband, and in the grand tradition ignored her parents’ advice (“Don’t go to Ireland. Do not go to Ireland”). Late in the book, Martin is interviewed by a policeman, who tells him, “You’re going to have to start from the beginning, Mr Quinn, if you don’t mind. I’m not sure I follow you.” “From where?” says Martin.

“The beginning.”

“Where’s that?”

October 14, 2010

Fred Hoyle: The Black Cloud

Posted in Hoyle Fred at 8:00 am by John Self

Penguin’s recent practice of bringing science fiction works into its Modern Classics series is welcome, though it has tended toward softer stuff – John Wyndham, Harry Harrison, John Christopher - with only the occasional harder-edged piece, such as Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse. The latest addition to the series is a curious marriage of the two traditions: the science is very hard indeed (in both senses: it’s got calculus and everything) but the telling of the story has a Wyndhamesque quaintness. Its republication was prompted by the recent volcanic ash incidents, and the new edition has a beautiful cover design, inspired by the 60s Penguin paperback editions.

The Black Cloud (1957) is set in the then near future of 1964-5, though with a framing device from the actual future (2021) which seems needless but ends up adding a piquancy to the end of the narrative. As such, the book immediately provides us with the false comfort of knowing that these things never really came to pass: not that they were meant to be taken literally in the first place. Or maybe they were (and so the only comfort is that they haven’t happened yet): Hoyle was a scientist, and points out in the preface to “this frolic” that “there is very little here that could not conceivably happen.”

The book begins with, as Richard Dawkins points out in his afterword, a realistic example of two methods converging from different sources to make the same discovery. Put simply, astronomers in the UK and USA discover simultaneously the existence of a black cloud in the outer regions of the solar system. They both notice, too, that it appears to be getting closer, and each calculate, independently, that at the present rate it will reach Earth in around 18 months. Gentlemanly panic, tempered by scientific curiosity, ensues when they realise that even if the cloud doesn’t reach Earth, it could block out the sun for a month or more as it passes. Speculation arises: will people be burned by the raised temperature of the atmosphere? Or frozen by the light of sun being blocked? Or will the air explode when the hydrogen in the cloud mixes with oxygen? The central figure, Cambridge scientist Chris Kingsley, observes stoically that “it’s odd to think that every one of us probably only has a little more than a year to live.” ‘Odd’, yes, that’s le mot juste.

The scientists tell their respective governments about the coming event. The US government is concerned whether any “serious economic dislocation” will result from the cloud’s approach. The UK government’s response is even more neatly satirical: it fudges the issue – “as usual, nothing will be done until the crisis is upon us” – is sceptical of the scientists’ “alarmist” claims, and rounds up everyone who knows about the cloud and detains them in a scientific research centre.

‘Professor Kingsley [...] I need hardly tell you that if this story of yours becomes public, there will be very grave repercussions indeed.’

Kingsley groaned.

‘My dear fellow,’ said he, ‘how very dreadful. Grave repercussions indeed. I should think that there will be grave repercussions, especially on the day that the Sun is blotted out. What is your Government’s plan for stopping that?’

The Black Cloud has several aspects. It is a page-turning story, the tension created by the reader’s desire to know whether or not the people of the Earth will survive (perhaps that’s why I found Shute’s On the Beach, with its foregone conclusion, dull). It is a primer in various astronomical and other scientific principles: the explanatory passages being justified by the conceit that this is a report written after the event (oops, there goes the tension) – so the omniscient narrative voice can take several paragraphs to explain, say, body and atmospheric temperature survival rates. It is also a critique of society as run by politicians – by definition those with no specialist knowledge – while experts such as scientists are “pushed around” by this “archaic bunch of nitwits”. The Black Cloud is a celebration of science, of knowledge – it is the astronomers and the technological men who make the breakthroughs, through emerging technology such as FM radio transmission. There is a delightful parallel in the imbalance between politicians and scientists with mankind’s discovery in the book of its truly limited place in the universe. We also get an exploration of non-human intelligence, albeit one less impressive than in Lem’sSolaris.

The Black Cloud is also an artefact, of interest as much cultural as literary. It connects one fearful time to another, a prime slice of cosy(ish) catastrophe from the Fifties, that fertile era for apocalyptic imaginings. Typical of the time and type, this is a fictional world almost devoid of women, except when used to make, let’s call them ‘historical’ gender assumptions:

‘This is unbearably scientific,’ said Ann Halsey. ‘I’m going off to make tea.’

A quick, thoughtful, provocative book, The Black Cloud might aptly be described – with all the thoughts it inspires of the galaxy, Mars, the Milky Way – as the book you can read between others without ruining your appetite.

October 11, 2010

Andrea Levy: The Long Song

Posted in Levy Andrea at 8:00 am by John Self

For Andrea Levy I might well repeat my introduction to Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. I thought her last novel (Small Island) a bizarre omission from the Booker shortlist in its year (2004), but despite my admiration for it, I wasn’t moved to read her new one until it was shortlisted for this year’s Booker. And even then, not until the very last minute.

The Long Song appealed to me less than Levy’s other books because of my previously stated prejudice against historical fiction, and because I wondered how much another fictional investigation of the slave trade could tell me. This second thought cruelly exposes my boneheadedness as I don’t think I’ve even read any other slave trade novels. Perhaps it is better (and worse) put like this: another slave trade novel is like another Holocaust novel. The subject has an inbuilt force and power; how difficult can it be?

Levy makes it look not very difficult at all, because she is a gifted writer whose prose is a pleasure to read. And this isn’t a slave trade novel as such; it’s the story of a life, which happens to have begun in the shadow of the slave trade. To draw a further comparison with Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, the book is narrated in both the first and third person. It is 1898 and the central character, July, in her old age has been encouraged by her son Thomas Kinsman to write her life story; Thomas is a publisher (comparing himself, in a neat in-joke, to Hodder and Stoughton, the parent company of Levy’s publishers). He has also “raise[d] life out of her crabbed script to make her tale flow,” which is Levy’s way of justifying the beautiful writing, though not, I think, a forewarning of unreliable narrative.

To offer equality of opportunity when comparing Booker shortlistees, The Long Song matches Tom McCarthy’s C in beginning with a corker of a birth scene, which July tells twice, once as “ornate invention” and once as the noisy, messy truth. Is this unreliable narrative after all? Only insofar as it is a way for Levy to illustrate the distinction between ‘a good story’ and a true story, what we would like to remember versus how it really was, and it is not the last time in the book that July will be tempted to give the reader a neatly folded scene rather than the loose elements that really constitute a life. A memorable tall tale, after all, sticks longer in the mind (and the historical record) than a dully factual one.

The birth scene is July’s own. She is the offspring of Kitty, a slave, who was impregnated (in fact raped) by Tam Dewar, the overseer of the sugar plantation she works in Jamaica. When it comes to the violent birth, he intrudes on the scene to threaten Kitty with the whip “because I cannot stand the noise. I have a pain in my head, you see, that I cannot remove. So you must be quiet.” The relations between the black slaves and the white owner and overseers are, naturally, central to the book. The plantation owner, John Howarth, is widowed, and is joined from England by his widowed sister Caroline Mortimer. The power dynamic between the parties is never better displayed than in the early scene where Caroline encounters Kitty and her daughter July in the grounds:

‘Oh, she’s adorable,’ Caroline said again.

Her brother, impatient to finish the journey around the estate, called out to Caroline. ‘Well, bring her then.’

Kitty turned to face her master.

‘Come along, Caroline. Hurry. We need to get out of the sun.’

‘Can I take her?’ she asked.

Kitty tried to seize enough air to breathe.

‘Yes, if she’ll amuse you. She would be taken soon enough anyway. It will encourage her to have another. They are dreadful mothers, these negroes.’

‘She’ll be my companion here,’ said Caroline. ‘I could train her for the house, or to be my lady’s maid.’

‘Well, you could try,’ said her brother. ‘But hurry – this heat is getting fierce.’

Kitty stepped to snatch July from Caroline’s grasp. But Caroline slapped at Kitty’s hands shouting, ‘What’s she doing?’

John Howarth raised his whip at Kitty, his face fiercely showing his intent. ‘Be on your way,’ he said, ‘leave the child to your mistress.’

Key here are Caroline’s words ‘What’s she doing?’ – a succinct illustration of a gulf of understanding, and directed to her brother rather than, unthinkably, speaking to a slave, to Kitty, directly. The book is full of such perfect touches. However the greatest strength of the telling of July’s story is in her voice: a lilting patois, intimate, profane, which becomes intensified when she reports the words of other slaves on the plantation, such as Miss Rose trying to console Kitty after the loss of July: “No look so downcast, for your pickney will do her pee-pee ‘pon a throne. In the great house them have chair made of fine wood and them sit ‘pon it – straight back and all and them let them doings drop.”

As indicated above, this is not solely a story of slavery, and life for some of the characters becomes more difficult after the Baptist War of 1831 and subsequent British abolition of slavery. For some though, such as Caroline Mortimer, the most pressing concern when fleeing the plantation (“I am forgot and left only with negroes”) to take a ship back to England is “Will there be dining aboard the ship? Will I need formal attire?” In the event, she remains at the plantation with a new overseer (like ministers of state, they don’t last long), where the story develops into a struggle to modulate slavery into capitalism. We even get a forbidden-love story, with predictable and unpredictable literary twists.

There are only a few false notes in The Long Song. One occurs when the author fails to resist the temptation for a too-clever segue between scenes (the death of one character is followed by a coffin procession, which turns out not to be the expected coffin). And, perhaps inevitably in a relatively short book seeking to take in two big subjects – Jamaican slavery, and a whole life – there are shortcuts. We jump from July’s young adulthood to her old age with no account of the years between; and one significant character (along with two supporting) disappears with no resolution to their story. Both these gaps are acknowledged at the end of the book. July explains the first by recording her desire to give her story “only the happiest of endings” (returning the reader to the questions of truth raised earlier), and by the fact that “I am an old-old woman. And, reader, I have not the ink.” The second omission is discussed by Thomas Kinsman in an afterword to his mother’s story, and even enhances the plausibility of this particular loose end. Levy is clever to anticipate the reader’s objections and seek to head them off at the pass. The Long Song may not quite match up to Small Island, but it is impressive without being intimidating, which is no small achievement in itself.

October 7, 2010

Peter Carey: Parrot and Olivier in America

Posted in Carey Peter at 8:00 am by John Self

The last time I tried to review a novel by Peter Carey, I didn’t manage to finish the book – or the review; yet here we are again. His recent run – six books in the last ten years – means he rivals Roth and Auster for late-onset logorrhoea. When I see yet another new novel by Carey, I feel like Dame Edna Everage counselling Melvyn Bragg: “Don’t write any more, darling. Give us a chance to catch up!” So here we are again, again: Carey’s latest book has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (as Ron Charles put it, “each year, the judges pick five novels, plus one by Peter Carey”). My completist impulse, and the extraordinary claims made for Carey by the Booker chair Andrew Motion, made me want to read it. “It never occurred to Chateaubriand that he had been flattered,” a character observes early in the novel, “but in that he is no worse than every other writer ever born.”

Parrot and Olivier in America gives us Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a French nobleman, and John ‘Parrot’ Larrit, a ‘printer’s devil’ and forger’s dogsbody from Devon. Parrot, born in 1781, is 24 years the Frenchman’s senior. Olivier as a child witnesses his parents’ exile in France (“my mother is in mourning for Paris”) as the aristocracy trembles at the rise of the bourgeoisie. Post-Revolution, Olivier finds himself in an unwelcome position. “The liberals see you and have no doubt you are a spy. The monarchists see you and know you for a traitor. You are in danger,” he is told. Such is the device with which Carey fashions a reason for Olivier to travel to America. The McGuffin is the investigation of prisons in the US, with a view to French penal reform. “‘Certainly someone must go there,’ my father said, looking thoughtfully at me.”

By roundabout means, involving his grey-market contacts with Dickensian names like Piggott and Weasel, Parrot ends up on the same ship that Olivier takes across the Atlantic. There follows a not entirely surprising connection between them, which starts off hostile as Parrot works as a scribe for “Lord Migraine”, and ends up in America with fast friendship – “a strange and savage love” – joining them.

The story is a vehicle for several elements. First, discussion of the central theme of the book: democracy in America, and its application as “a model for the future of France”. Olivier arrives to borrow ideas from the country’s penal system and ends up taking much more. He comes with a full luggage of preconceptions and never entirely embraces the idea that all men are created equal; and the tortoise-and-hare ending to the two men’s stories gives him his just deserts. Second, and perhaps more prominently, there is Carey’s love of big characters and ventriloquism: he effectively distinguishes the voices of Olivier and Parrot, who narrate the book in turn.

Parrot and Olivier in America is inspired (we are told, I’d have had no idea otherwise) by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It’s not the only old-fashioned thing about the book. Carey, as hinted above, seems to have Dickens as his model (Andrew Motion agrees: “it is like being alive at the time Dickens was writing”), as he did more explicitly with Jack Maggs. I must confess that I have a blind spot for historical narratives which ape the locutions and prose style of the times they are set in. Isn’t literature – art – supposed to renew itself? (For an example of an ‘historical’ novel that breaks this mould, I recommend Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, set in the English Civil War. Further suggestions welcome.)

I might go further and add that a fundamental part of my reading gland thinks that books that don’t try to do something new or different are not really worth bothering with. (I still do bother with them, and frequently enjoy them, as can be seen on this blog, but I wouldn’t miss them as I would miss less straightforward works.) Here we have a book which not only doesn’t try to do something new; it tries to do something old, and succeeds in that. It has the added piquancy of period details which chime with modern times, such as a banker in one scene who crows about the win-win situation of lending on the property market, where he can make money from the rising property prices even if the borrower defaults – a nice precursor to the sub-prime crisis which gave us the credit crunch. Or very near the end, a little neocon-bashing with Olivier’s prediction that democracy will bring “fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press.” And there is no shortage of handy discussion points such as Olivier, wedded to the notion of the nobility’s superiority, reflecting on “the problem of art in a democracy:”

the taste for ideal beauty – and the pleasure of seeing it depicted – can never be as intense and widespread among a democratic as compared to an aristocratic people.

When Parrot details to Olivier his youthful exploits, including travel to Australia, and his busy life thereafter, Olivier asks him, “What do you want?”, to which Parrot responds, “To be still.” The further I got into Parrot and Olivier in America, the more I felt for him. I longed for Carey to be still for a moment, but he cannot stop, and piles on action and people and diversion and Birds of America and love and comedy so thickly that it begins to look less like a talent than a compulsion. There is even the suggestion of a distracting twist on the very last page. The book lacks silence. The characters, well drawn as they are (though I never did properly distinguish some of the females with whom our heroes were variously in love), seem like the author’s playthings, diverting but not involving. Parrot and Olivier in America ends up like a fully achieved imagining of something that’s hardly worth doing; full of plot and character, signifying nothing.

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