August 25, 2011
This is a book which came to my attention twice. First, like most bloggers I receive requests (especially from small presses) to review books, and the publisher of this book, Eight Cuts Gallery Press, asked if they could send me a copy some time ago. I declined (as I do to most such requests) because I had too many books awaiting attention already (as most of us do). This month, however, the book was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, by public vote. The orgiastic praise for the book on the Guardian review site and Amazon made me curious, and knowing it was short and could be had inexpensively (I paid £2.14 to download it to my iPhone as a Kindle ebook), I decided to have a go.
The Dead Beat is set in 1997 in California, and narrated by a young man called Adam. He’s a slacker, a user, a loafer: a deadbeat. He surrounds himself with like minds. They have “shitty jobs.” Their “laundry situation [has] reached critical mass.” You get the idea. James writes from experience: “three of the characters are me, the fourth was a friend of mine, and all the other characters are people I knew and hung out with.” She wrote the book in five days “and then wound up in hospital on the sixth day on an accidental overdose.” Some of Adam’s friends in the book, such as Sean, attain a distinction as characters, others – Xavi, Lincoln – tend to run and blur. Some dialogue – again like Sean’s run-on ramblings – has a ring of truth to it and chimes with the reader. The exchanges are necessarily banal, but they lack the blank poetry of Tao Lin, the satire of Bret Easton Ellis, or the life and zing of Bukowksi or Fante.
There are heartfelt passages in The Dead Beat, as when Adam rails against Lincoln’s demands of their friendship (“I held our situation in my hands, that breaking thing, cutting me”) – it sounds as though James wrote it from life. The empathy with the characters, the balance presented in their shapeless lives, are the book’s greatest strengths. But art is not made from sincerity. And in particular, when you choose to write about a setting as hackneyed as this, there needs to be some transformative power, some alchemy, which I didn’t detect. This is not to say that there’s nothing to see here. There is an amusing passage on how users of different drugs revile one another, and social observation in how workers in low paid jobs “can’t afford to fuck up” with “sick days or mental health days.” “You screw up, you lose your job. It’s simple. Only rich people are allowed to fuck themselves up. They’re the only ones with the room to fall.” There is even a nice splice of satire and characterisation when Adam watches a TV ad for a spurious health drink as he knocks it back. “The ad ended with an incredibly telegenic old man turning to the camera, blue can in hand, and a caption appeared below, which read, ‘Improve the quality of your life.’ I took a sip, thinking, you and me, old buddy.” And James writes well on Adam’s response to art as he looks at a painting while recalling the soundtrack to I Pagliacci.
The weaknesses in James’s writing stand out clearly. She has a maddening habit of using alternatives to “said” (“he concurred,” “he answered”, “he yelled,” “I sighed”) and of adding adverbs to dialogue description (he commented disparagingly). She hammers home significant points – the significance of the Hale-Bopp comet, repeating plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose several times in a couple of pages (and even translating it), and the same with the phrase “life is beautiful.” This is all first person narrative, so perhaps it’s Adam who is so clunkingly unsubtle, not the author. But there are no other indicators that we should view him at a distance (empathy, as I said, is strong), he’s often articulate, and dullness of mind – or frazzledness of mind – can be portrayed more subtly. The need to over-explain extends to the likes of Adam saying “It reminded me of what my mom used to call ‘nervous laughter’ – laughter at inappropriate moments.” If the book comes from life, then we could compare it in memoiristic terms to John Healy’s The Grass Arena: a book not well-written, but powerful because it brings powerful truth. But The Dead Beat is presented not as a memoir but a work of fiction, a work of creativity and imagination.
How does this all balance out in the end? I don’t regret reading The Dead Beat, but nor do I recommend it. But we are being asked to believe, by Amazon reviewers and those who voted in the Guardian Not the Booker Prize, that this is a masterwork of sorts, and being asked to pay money for it (though the publisher is also offering a free PDF at the time of writing). These claims made for The Dead Beat are the most surprising thing about it. It’s sometimes enjoyable, with some nice moments and some weak ones. But there is nothing remarkable in literary terms. The milieu has been done before, and better, by many writers (as above) and most notably, the brilliant Denis Johnson. There is no deformation of language in The Dead Beat, no structural innovation, no sense of exploration. Next to something like Blake Butler’s There Is No Year (published, incidentally, by a mainstream press), this is Catherine Cookson.
Some Amazon reviewers try to second-guess criticisms of the book (perhaps an acknowledgement that such criticisms are not without foundation). One says, “It’s a style that I’d assume will polarise opinion; I’d also assume that the author wouldn’t want it any other way.” Critical considerations don’t get much less relevant than trying to predict what others will make of it. Why would James’s unexceptional style polarise opinion? The same reviewer says “James doesn’t write to please the purists.” How would he know? What purists? Another reviewer rightly says the book is “riddled with adverbitis and overwritten” but then adds (without further clarification) “that is the point, I think.” And another draws the following unforgettable comparison: “A writer to whom she’s arguably comparable is Flannery O’Connor [...]. O’Connor was famous for her Catholicism, and James is a self-avowed Satanist, but both are astute observers able to capture the human condition concisely.” Tastes differ, of course, but these are the sort of orgiastic songs of praise which no disinterested reader can take seriously.
During the nominations phase of the Not the Booker Prize, James’s publisher said that they had sent out copies of The Dead Beat to the Guardian for review and didn’t get a response. They also commented on the difficulties for small presses in getting their books noticed by the mainstream cultural press. Those are problems I have a good deal of sympathy with, believing that small presses are where much of the most interesting writing is appearing these days. But I also believe that publishing books like The Dead Beat in its current form will add to that difficulty rather than alleviate it.
August 18, 2011
Jiří Weil is one of those authors who defies logic and reason. By that I mean that anyone who has read him seems to rate him very highly indeed (now I do too); but few of his books are translated into English, and those that are slip in and out of print. Information about him is so patchy that I have been unable to be absolutely sure exactly when this book was first published. I was spurred into reading this longtime resident of my shelves by the recent reissue of Weil’s ‘other’ novel Mendelssohn is on the Roof. Curiously, the introduction by Philip Roth to this 2002 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Life with a Star is exactly the same as that in Daunt Books’ reissue of Mendelssohn. More curiously, it doesn’t really work as an introduction to either novel, spending only a paragraph on each, and reads as though it was cut from a longer piece by Roth, or simply that he lost interest halfway through.
Life with a Star (1948-49, tr. 1989 by Rita Klimova with Roslyn Schloss) is unlike any Holocaust novel I’ve read. Saying so may be as much offputting as enticing: there must be a part of every reader which thinks, What more can I learn, can I want to know, about this most famous of enormities? Yet this really is something special, partly because it could almost be as good a novel even with the Holocaust removed. How to explain what I mean by that? I could say that, because the book never uses the words ‘German’ or ‘Jew’, it could be considered to have wider application, to be an allegory for difference and oppression. But no, it really is of its time and place: Prague around 1940 as Nazis take control of the city. Instead, it has something to do with the narrative voice and the richness of the central character, his delusions and quirks. He has a story and a style which is winning even without – frankly – the reader feeling pity or fear for him.
The narrator and central character is Josef Roubicek. Or does the centre of the book lie elsewhere? “Ruzena,” he begins his story, addressing his lover, and she infiltrates the pages like a watermark, appearing in the last line too. Her presence serves more than one purpose. Josef (does referring to a character by his forename indicate empathy in the reader?) is telling Ruzena what’s happening to him so that he can tell us. Talking to himself might sever that empathy, or shake the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Ruzena also gives us an insight into Josef’s character before he became defined by his reductive status as a Jew in a city under Nazi rule. In fact what we discover is that Ruzena is not, as the intensity of his passion would have us believe, his wife or lifelong lover, but another man’s wife, and with whom Josef had only a brief fling before they parted. He tells the reader this, but doesn’t seem to believe it himself: he longs for Ruzena and expects to be with her presently. He is perhaps delusional, though a better way of putting it might be that in his current circumstances, any hope to cling to is better than none. Indeed, it might be humour of a sort that Josef’s greatest gripe against the Nazis is that they have caused his lover to flee and left him alone.
Not that Josef doesn’t have plenty of other reasonable gripes against the regime. The real time of the novel details the progressive restrictions placed on ‘us’ by ‘them’. “They kept thinking up new laws and regulations for us. Maybe it was fear that made them so diligent, but I couldn’t understand their fear, because there were so few of us, and, after all, we hadn’t defended ourselves.” Already at the beginning of the book, Josef has “burned even the bed and the wardrobe … because I have no coal and because I didn’t want to give them anything.” There is an cruel comedy to some of his difficulties: he is not allowed to buy meat, only blood (“I could make a soup out of it; at least it was a little like meat”). But he is also not allowed to shop in the morning, and the butcher is sold out of blood by lunchtime. He is forced to relinquish almost everything he owns (“a messenger came from the Community with orders that I hand over any musical instruments or typewriters”), even when everything has already gone. “They continued to want things of me and I didn’t have anything.” He also endures a series of meetings with officials, summonsed to offices across town (when he is no longer permitted to ride the streetcar), which for the purposes of skirting reviewerly cliché I shall refer to as Kafkaish. His meetings with family and sympathetic figures in the city don’t go much better. Once, when Josef is visiting an old classmate, Pavel, two nameless people come to the door and begin examining the room:
They didn’t say a word. They didn’t look at us; they pretended not to see us at all. [...] They only looked at the objects in the room. They calculated loudly between them the quality and sturdiness of various objects; they discussed how they would move the furniture around. We were already dead. They had come to claim their inheritance.
Running through the account the present day are Josef’s memories of the past, largely involving Ruzena, from their first encounter (“She didn’t look like a married woman; she had very lively eyes”) to their parting. The other love of his life is his cat, Tomas, who must remain a secret (“Don’t you know we’re not allowed to have domestic animals?” asks his uncle). Now that Ruzena is gone, Tomas provides Josef with companionship – and with a figure to whom to relate events, for the benefit of the reader.
Josef is surprised when other people don’t comply with the laws “they” impose on people like him. (“I have orders to be home by eight o’clock.” “Well, if you’re concerned about these stupid orders.”) Their uncrushed spirits are tackled by the authorities with the introduction of the star to be worn by all Jews. (“Wear it on the left side, directly on your heart, not any higher or lower. There are very strict regulations about this.”) This produces the expected effect when Josef next goes out in public.
I saw people looking at me. At first it seemed as though my shoelaces must be untied or that there was something wrong with my clothes. In some way I had upset the everyday, accepted order of things. I was a sort of blot that didn’t belong in the picture of the street… I was no longer one of them.
When Josef loses his job in a bank and ends up working in a cemetery, this provides some of the most piercing insights into the psychology of life with a star. Josef becomes unpopular among his new colleagues for objecting to their stories of others being caught and transported. “They felt better when they considered themselves victims, who with the passing of each day had escaped danger once more; they felt better when they decided they had no choice.” The aim of the authorities is simple, as Josef tells his cat. “Happiness does exist. It’s just now that they’re trying to convince us that it doesn’t and that it never did.” Even he is susceptible to forgetting about the “bright colours” of his old life. One man points out, desperately, that the whole planet Earth was going to die anyway, so what does it matter? “That won’t help us,” another retorts. “Even if everyone dies, we will be the first.”
The humour gets blacker still. Unlike other deaths after transportation, suicides are “rewarded with death notices.” One failed suicide frets that he will be prosecuted for using too much gas when he stuck his head in the oven. “I went over my quota.” As Josef works at the cemetery, he notes that those on burial detail “bragged about their closeness to death because they had to brag about something.” Work in the cemetery gives people a sense of purpose, even if it is based on the cruellest of all feelings, hope. It provides them too with a reminder of what normal life was like, with the camaraderie of the workplace. This too can be cruel even while it consoles. Josef through the rest of the book will have surprising turns of luck – and some unsurprising ones. At some level, acceptance of one’s fate can never take place while it is based on a false premise, that some lives are worth more than others. “We would never have admitted that our lives were worthless, because they were our lives, our unique and unrepeatable lives.”
August 11, 2011
I’ve often thought that Julian Barnes is unfairly castigated as a middlebrow muddler of a novelist. (Don’t ask for citations, but it’s definitely a vibe I’ve picked up over the years.) True, he is the author of England, England, one of the worst novels I’ve read, but otherwise, with titles like Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Talking it Over/Love etc., he shows some appetite for adventure in form. His last novel, Arthur & George, while a pretty straight story, was a credit to the much maligned genre of literary fiction, and earned him the modern book publicity double whammy: a Booker shortlisting and a seat on Richard & Judy’s sofa. After six years and nothing to show but a disappointing memoir on death (Nothing To Be Frightened Of), I wondered if we would ever get more fiction from him. Then, in quick succession, a new collection of stories, and this slim novel.
The Sense of an Ending is a memoir on death, again, but a fictional one this time. The title, and the sumptuously funereal appearance of the UK hardback edition, suggest that this is a subject on which Barnes has not yet written himself out. That may be inevitable: Barnes is 65 years old, and his former friend Martin Amis observed that intimations of mortality come so thick that after the age of forty, “it’s a full-time job looking the other way.” There may be another reason, indirectly connected to the former friend too, of which more later.
In the book, Tony Webster is looking back on his life, or one particular arc of it, to do with a gifted schoolfriend, a girl, and an everyday tragedy. Tony is an interesting study: retired, particular, clearly somewhat lonely: “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.” His only regular human contact is his ex-wife Margaret, with whom he continues to get on well: indeed, she seems to be his only friend. She, with apparent disinterest, offers him advice on what to do when his teenage experience with ex-girlfriend Veronica starts to trouble him again. Why worry now about something that happened forty years ago? Because it involves death, and Tony is not getting any younger. And because the past is never dead; it is not even past.
What this boils down to is a sort of quest for Tony. He wants to read his schoolfriend Adrian’s diary, which involves first tracking down Veronica and then persuading her. As we might expect from Barnes, all this is delivered in an analytical and discursive style; he moves the story on as an essayist works through his arguments. The clever-cleverness of youth gives way to the agnoticism of middle age. There are regrets, recognitions and renegotiations: “I thought of the things that had happened to me over the years, and of how little I had made happen.” What begins as a solvable mystery – how can Tony persuade Veronica to release Adrian’s diary? – turns into “something much larger, something which bore on the whole of my life, on time and memory. And desire.” Tony ends up unsure whether “my life had increased, or merely added to itself,” and there is a thick plottiness to the ending, or endings, which is surprising if not entirely satisfying.
The central character of the book is not Veronica, or Adrian, though their actions are central to it. The story is told by Tony and, as a consequence, is about Tony. He throws doubt on his own reliability (which led me to trust him implicitly), questions his own motives, and does his best to honour Adrian’s complaint from decades ago (which I suspect also reflects Barnes’s view): “I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate it.”
Reading The Sense of an Ending, a thought kept coming back to me. With the book’s repeated motif of regrettably rude correspondence – such as Tony’s own toe-curling letter to Adrian and Veronica brought back from the dead – I wondered if it might have been inspired, in part, by Barnes’s well-reported rift with Martin Amis. This arose in January 1995 when Amis left his UK agent, Barnes’s wife Pat Kavanagh, and went all-in with his US agent, Andrew Wylie. In response, Barnes repudiated their friendship in a letter which Amis, in his memoir Experience, described as “blunderingly ugly,” and which ended with the words ‘Fuck off.’ How’s that for, as Tony describes Veronica’s identically worded email to him here, a “two-word, two-finger response”? (Amis tried to revive the friendship a year later, in vain: “It was said that I turned away – and I don’t do that. I won’t be the one to turn away.”) Could it be that Kavanagh’s recent death – the book is dedicated to her – has made Barnes feel how his character feels on reading his vicious old letter? “Remorse, etymologically, is the action of biting again: that’s what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words.” Could it be? Perhaps, perhaps not; but it added piquancy to my reading.
Still, what cannot be in doubt is that this is Barnes’s most death-pervaded book since, well, his last one. Death, getting close every day, is always personal. In Frank Kermode’s work of literary criticism from which Barnes takes his title, “the sense of an ending” refers to apocalypticism, the end of the world. Barnes’s concern here is far more serious than that.
August 4, 2011
This year marks the centenary of William Golding’s birth. To mark it, his lifetime publisher Faber & Faber has reissued two of his novels: the ubiquitous debut Lord of the Flies, and his second novel The Inheritors. This is a source of mild frustration to me. In the last fiteen years, there have been three reissues of some of Golding’s novels, but never all of them. In 1997, five of his first six novels were reissued in this style. Between 2005 and 2010, four of his first five (Free Fall never seems to get the treatment) were reissued in this style. Now, in 2011, we have just the first two reissued, with handsome covers and new introductions. All this seems to be a disappointing level of diminishing returns for an author described by Gabriel Josipovici as one of “the two greatest post-war English novelists” (the other was Muriel Spark). And it is a frustration for those of us who like uniform editions. When I carried out a straw poll on Twitter recently, I was surprised that the most praised of Golding’s books was Darkness Visible, which has been languishing in the same jacket for 30 years. (And please nominate your own Golding recommendations in the comments below: I’ve read just Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors and Pincher Martin.)
The Inheritors (1955) was the novel Golding considered his best. It is a book which both demands and resists literary analysis. Describing it in sufficient detail could sum up the schematics of the book so perfectly that the reader would not expect to gain anything from reading it – other than the invaluable experience of doing so, which, because of the language, can never be adequately described.
It reports the lives of a small group of primitive humans – Neanderthals, the blurb tells us. There are around half a dozen at the beginning of the book, some well differentiated (such as Lok, a clown of low intelligence), others less so. The stuff of their lives is unremarkable. The story is simple, and the telling is simple, so what makes this such an exceptional book? It is to do with Golding’s exemplary use of language as the unit of construction. All books are built of language, but in many cases the language or style is something strapped onto an existing story or idea. Here, the book is built from the language up, so it becomes impossible to imagine it otherwise. In other words, it is sui generis.
This requires the reader to rethink, or rather de-think, to the Neanderthals’ level. We see into their minds and discover that they have no insight into their own consciousness, and that their experience of the world is predominantly external, limited to what they experience through their senses. (Their sense of smell is particularly strong.) As a result the book relies heavily on description, emphasising the absence of contemplation and internal reflection by the Neanderthals. They are fearful of water, driven by emotion, but often happy. They have fire but no cultivation or agriculture, so they must find food day by day. “Life was exquisitely allayed hunger.” They see ‘pictures’ in their minds, which seems to be a word that for them covers ideas, memories, mental images, and even a sort of telepathy, suggesting that evolution has resulted in losses as well as gains.
Evolution is the invisible character in the book, driving everything. The challenges facing the Neanderthals – finding food, returning home, getting across the river when the log they normally use goes missing – are amplified because they are not alone. Encroaching on their territory is a group of “new people”, Homo sapiens we presume. We see their activities through the eyes of Lok and his fellow Neanderthals, so we must place our own interpretation on their limited and literal understanding of what they witness. (The effect is similar to that in novels narrated by children, though Golding almost never interferes with the narrative integrity: one measure of his greatness.) It’s impressive just how much information Golding gets across while retaining the walls of his narrative structure: for example, the Neanderthals will not kill animals; they scavenge meat which has died by other means. This is because they view all animal life as equal to theirs (snails are “snail people”); they don’t see themselves as higher beings. That distinction arises as a result of thought.
There is great pathos here, as the mother of all dramatic ironies is upon us: the hopelessness of the Neanderthals’ struggles for survival in the face of the Homo sapiens, with their better tools, better communication and better planning; their habit of playing, a consequence of “leisure [and] incessant wakefulness.” Occasionally, one of the Neanderthals will strain towards an understanding of how to develop skills they don’t have – to gather more food than they need; to hold water in a shell – but it slips agonisingly away. In a sense to review The Inheritors as a ‘normal’ book does it a disservice. Its strength is in how it renders a world without thought as we understand it, and becomes a complete and convincing world. Language is restricted until the reader sees things as the Neanderthals do. This means that it is sometimes difficult to follow the thread of the their memories and experiences, even though Golding has clearly worked out their world meticulously. However there is no difficulty in the words themselves, as in Riddley Walker or the like. This new edition has a helpful introduction by John Carey (which reads as though it were adapted from his recent biography of Golding). In it he tells us how Golding, insecure as most writers are, submitted The Inheritors to his editor at Faber, Charles Monteith, with a note saying the manuscript was “nowhere near final – hardly begun, in fact.” Monteith published it as it stood.
August 1, 2011
I’ve reviewed Simon Van Booy’s debut novel in the Irish Times. Here is a link to the review.