August 16, 2012

Claire Kilroy: The Devil I Know

Posted in Kilroy Claire at 8:00 am by John Self

Claire Kilroy is the female Tim Pears. Just as I confuse and conflate Pears with Tim Parks (though I’ve only read the latter), so Claire Kilroy is to me forever mistaken for Claire Keegan. Names that begin the same, both Irish, published by Faber: who can blame me? Now that I’ve read both writers, I have a point of distinction. Keegan’s stories are pretty sober and unsmiling; Kilroy’s new novel, on the other hand, is a riot of energy and enjoyment. The Devil I Know is the third novel I’ve read which has Ireland’s property boom and bust as a central element. Novelists works slowly, and the incubation period is typically a few years: remember the 9/11 novels that began to appear in the middle of the last decade? Now that we’re five years on from the moment the credit crunch began to bite, and we’ve already had the facts, here comes the fiction. We’ve had Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, where the Irish obsession with property values, and the sudden loss of that psychological crutch, was threaded into a love affair. Then Julian Gough’s Jude in London, where the strongest set pieces were a couple of satirical swipes, simultaneously blunt and sharp, at the Irish property boom (one of which you can read here: read it). Claire Kilroy’s contribution, unlike those two, really is all about the crash. It’s an angry book, a tearing-its-hair-out book, though the most direct application of the author’s fury is on the back cover. It doubles as a handy plot synopsis. Otherwise, the anger is finessed, piped beautifully into a confection of narrative voice. Our speaker is Tristram St Lawrence, thirteenth Earl of Howth: the proper names recall the opening lines of Finnegans Wake, which are quoted as the book’s epigraph. The Wake is a dream narrative, and Tristram is living a nightmare, giving evidence to a public inquiry in 2016 into the Irish collapse and his involvement in it. “People have been saying a lot of bad things about me in the press. I am here to say a few more.” His story starts at a clip and doesn’t let up: Kilroy’s first two novels were thrillers, and she knows how to keep things moving. Within three pages we are in a grippingly recounted plane crash, as Tristram tries to explain how he met the property developer Desmond Hickey. His account has a strain of unreliability, but what first person narrative doesn’t? He and Hickey seem to go back some way, but when they meet this time, Tristram’s recovery from alcoholism seems about to wobble, when he is saved by the call of his mobile phone. The mysterious M. Deauville, Tristram’s AA sponsor, pulls him away from one temptation and into another. Tristram goes into a partnership with Hickey, bankrolled by Deauville, and becomes … what does he become? A divided man, simultaneously engaging in egregious property deals and expressing outrage even as Hickey talks him through it. (A handy narrative device.) Here is where the reader – and this reader is pulling out his copy of Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools to read next – must presume that there is fact in the fiction. We are required to be outraged by the Irish government’s loopholes and incentives which Hickey discloses to Tristram. When Hickey tells him of plans to build a hotel in a new development, Tristram scoffs. “The last thing that Howth needs is another empty hotel.” Not so, responds Hickey. “You can’t build an apartment complex in Ireland without a hotel,” he explains, otherwise you won’t qualify for tax write-offs. Or the fact that “global corporations can establish unsupervised banks in Ireland,” to avail of the low corporation tax. This is plausible, given that Ireland – European home to massive modern businesses like Microsoft, Google and Facebook – built its super-soufflé Celtic Tiger economy on a 12.5% rate of corporation tax from 2003. We find too that so desperate is the government to keep the property river flowing, that building control is relaxed to ineffective levels. And so the plot goes on, with a full cast of spendthrift banks and corrupt government ministers, where the only measure of value for any activity is currency.

Across the country people were digging themselves into big holes … big holes were spreading across Ireland, eating away at the heart of the island. Nobody was interested in negative sentiments. People who engaged in moaning and cribbing from the sidelines should frankly go and commit suicide, the Taoiseach had told us.

Amazingly, that last bit isn’t made up either. Consider the leader of a country who is either so stupid that he does not know that a property bubble will sooner or later lead to that country’s economic destruction, or so selfish that he doesn’t care as long as the good times sustain his popularity, and Kilroy’s anger seems, if anything, understated. Ireland, of course, was not alone in its madness, and many of the follies described in the book could apply equally well to the UK and further afield. Loan notes, for example, which enable investors to buy properties without any money (“How can you buy something with debt? I don’t understand what’s happening any more”). The sins were committed by a few, bought into by everyone dragged along for fear of not being able to buy a house if they didn’t act now – and the consequence, repeated as a refrain late in the book, is that “all of us would pay for it, many times over and for the rest of our lives.” The anger sustains the book, and feeds into the plot right up to the last page, where otherwise the reader might be frustrated by a tricksy twist or two (and the foreshadowing that goes before). But the cartoonish dimensions of the characters are an inevitable part of a story like this, somewhere between a rage and a romp. I must confess to a sense of dread when I see that a book breaks the 350-page barrier, but this one went down like – well, like the Irish economy.

August 9, 2012

Nicola Barker: The Yips

Posted in Barker Nicola at 8:00 am by John Self

Nicola Barker takes a unique place in contemporary literature. Critics seem to love her, yet few go further than that and get into what makes her books work. (For the avoidance of doubt, you should expect no better from this review.) In a sense, this is fair enough. If knocking Wodehouse’s books is “like taking a spade to a soufflé” (variously attributed to Punch magazine and Evelyn Waugh), then a similar caveat might apply to Barker. The fear is that if you look too closely, you might damage the delicate mechanism – or, worse yet, discover that there is no mechanism at all. Barker teases this fear by alternating between smaller books and bigger ones, between what we might call the slightly funny and the seriously funny. Her last novel, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, was one of what she calls the “naturally frivolous” ones.

The Yips is one of the big ones. Her last big one, Darkmans, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the big one that came two before that was Wide Open, which won the Impac Dublin Literary Award. True to pattern, at time of writing, The Yips has just been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. If it goes on to win – I would love it to – then it will introduce Barker to a vast new audience who would expect nothing like this from a Booker winner.

That’s the thing about Barker: nothing can prepare you for her. She was aptly described almost 200 years ago by William Wordsworth, when he wrote that “every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” Of course he meant she. Barker gives the reader no context or clues before reading the book: no acknowledgements or author’s note, no chapter headings or sections named. The only epigraph is a definition of the title: “nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively, especially in missing short putts in golf.” She throws the reader in, mid-conversation, and proceeds to make the ordinary extraordinary for 550 pages.

The central character is Stuart Ransom, professional golfer and the finest character Martin Amis never created. The other characters circle him – I was going to say like planets in orbit, but it would be more in keeping with Barker’s affection for the mundane to say like cars on a roundabout. There is Valentine, an agoraphobic tattooist, whose mother has experienced a personality change since being hit on the head by one of Ransom’s golf balls, and now calls herself Frédérique. There’s Gene, the barman where Ransom is drinking at the start of the book, who has had cancer eight times (“once terminal”) and becomes Ransom’s caddie. There’s Gene’s wife Sheila, a priest, and Sheila’s son Stan, whom Gene allows to go off with Ransom in their Hummer, much to Sheila’s disquiet. There’s Jen, the 19-year-old beautician, and Karim, the sexual therapist whose wife’s burqa makes him worry that people will think him a misogynist. Not that he is, of course: “I can make a woman come by clapping my hands together…”

The characters are important because the book consists entirely of their interactions. That may sound facile, but it’s emphasised here by the long scenes of dialogue where, curiously, people tend to discuss what has already happened or what’s yet to come rather than what’s going on now. Of course, as what’s going on now is people talking, it makes a sort of circular sense. The way they talk is notable, too. Barker adopts a sort of heightened naturalism: the locutions, structures and emphases (she places even more reliance on italics than Salinger) are on the nose, but the content and length of the exchanges give the scenes a febrile, hyperreal quality. The people are characters, not caricatures, and the comedy fails only when it steers too near to the obvious. And when it stops being funny, the combination of seriousness and oddness exerts tremendous force, as in a scene where Karim’s wife takes off her burqa and Valentine puts it on.

As in other Barker novels, The Yips is heavily populated with eccentrics and outsiders, the sort of people who struggle to fit into society – or into most fiction, for that matter. Fortunately, Barker handles them without going anywhere near the dreaded curse of whimsy. She does not look down on or mock her characters, and she takes the reader with her, sometimes literally: the reader, for example, feels the same confusion as Ransom when he wakes up in a strange room. They are people who do not know how they got where they are, or where to go from here. Not coincidentally, many of the characters are involved in the business of transformation: a tattooist, a therapist, a beautician. Just as there is much strangeness and comedy in the book, there is seriousness too, and Valentine’s agoraphobia is one way into it. There is a good deal about body image, and the relationship between women and their homes. This goes from Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures to Anne Sexton’s poetry (“Some women marry houses. It’s another kind of skin”), or Robert Seidenberg’s psychiatric work which argues that agoraphobia develops “as a kind of unconscious protest … against the social and sexual straitjackets that society imposes on [women], and most of those pressures tend to originate in the home.”

Best of all is that the seriousness, like the comedy, is not forced. (In resisting the use of the word ‘eccentric’ in this review, I was reminded of Philip French on The Royal Tenenbaums: “Eccentricity is willed and is often a mask for nonentity. Individuality, like character, is earned and involves moral effort.”) Barker displays a refreshing refusal of significance: there is none of the heaviness of Meaning tramping across the page. You can take it as you find it. In any event, you don’t come to a Nicola Barker novel looking for signposted meaning. Her idiosyncratic page layout seems to emphasise this, with certain paragraphs indented on the first line and others not, with no pattern discernible. The reader seeking rules or a key will be frustrated.

The Yips is a pleasure of a book; murkiness of thought – it is violent, vigorous and vulgar – was never conveyed with so light a touch. It is deeply sad: the very title speaks of what happens when what you love becomes the thing that ruins you. Its internal self-reliance is so great that I am entirely unable to quote any of the brilliant dialogue, knowing that it simply would not work in isolation. (A function of that Wordsworthian quality again.) It is full of things which may or may not be real, and half the delight resides in the not knowing, such as (for me) the biggest laugh in the book, when the website www.baldytwinkle.com is mentioned. Click if you like. I haven’t. But don’t report back, please.

August 2, 2012

Nathanael West: The Day of the Locust / Miss Lonelyhearts

Posted in West Nathanael at 8:00 am by John Self

Nathanael West died in 1940 so, with copyright in the EU lasting for 70 years after death, his work is now in the public domain. You can tell West is considered a minor writer because when Joyce, Woolf or Fitzgerald went out of copyright in the last couple of years, new editions of their works sprang up like summer daisies. West was last in print in the UK a dozen years ago, and now Vintage Classics has done the decent thing: or the half-decent thing anyway. West wrote just four short books in his lifetime (he died in a car crash at the age of 37), and here we have two of them.

The Day of the Locust (1939) is West’s last, and most famous, book. I had been disappointed when I first read it, but this time I found it, perhaps inevitably, better than I remembered. The executive summary for The Day of the Locust is ‘Hollywood novel’ (emhasised in the cover design for this new edition), but there’s not much tinseltown action here. The most direct evidence we get – an efficient scene-setting – is when an army on foot passes by the office of the main character Tod Hackett. He works as an artist for a film studio, having come close to exhausting his interest in painting at art school. “The pleasures he received from the problems of composition and colour had decreased as his facility had increased and he realised that he was going the way of all his classmates, toward illustration or mere handsomeness.” Working in Hollywood, expecting to lose interest altogether, instead he becomes fascinated with depicting the terrible people there: we get a clue to what his proposed paintings might look like from his stated influence (Goya) and the working title (‘The Burning of Los Angeles’).

In fact the people Tod encounters are more pitiable than contemptible. They are the flotsam of society, rich and poor, drifting on tides they do not comprehend and winding up in the most meretricious place of all. Hollywood is relevant, then, as a representation of a particular circle of hell. Near the centre is Faye Greener, aspiring actress and the object of Tod’s affection (“she was taut and vibrant. She was as shiny as a new spoon”), though he has a rival in Homer Simpson (Matt Groening cites the book as an inspiration). Homer is a dullard – “Whether he was happy or not it is hard to say. Probably he was neither, just as a plant is neither” – and in Tod’s view, he is “an exact model for the kind of person who comes to California to die.” Homer has had trouble before in coping with forward women (“he hurriedly labelled his excitement disgust”), and Faye doesn’t seem likely to present him with that problem. On top of this we have Faye’s father, Harry Greener, the tragicomic centre of the novel, with his desperate capering either to sell goods door-to-door or to recall his “forty years in vaudeville and burlesque.” The highlight of the book for me was the scene where Harry knocks on Homer Simpson’s door, and establishes that pity is almost as good a way to get your way as charm, even if you’re not quite in control of which one comes out on top.

When Harry had first begun his stage career, he had probably restricted his clowning to the boards, but now he clowned continuously. It was his sole method of defence. Most people, he had discovered, won’t go out of their way to punish a clown.

His pitch to Homer also introduces his daughter Faye, which sets the characters in motion, and the pace picks up further when another suitor, Earle Shoop, a cowboy, rides onto the page. They are all characters to whom happiness is impossible if not invisible, not least because the opposite seems so available just where they are. Homer, for example, “was impatient and so began to prod at his sadness, hoping to make it acute and so still more pleasant.” They are like Richard Yates characters with jokes. Yet West’s gift for bitter wit exceeds his storytelling ability: there is something bitty and skittish about the way the novel proceeds, and an inchoate feel to the whole, despite the culmination of all its sadness, of which more later. Perhaps that is appropriate for a novel set in a world where nothing is really real.

Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) for me was always West’s finest work. So, just to balance my previous response out, this one disappointed me a little this time around. The concept is best summarised by the title character himself:

A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he’s tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, and that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.

What more is there to say? This time, the apt comparison might be Kurt Vonnegut without the whimsy. Miss Lonelyhearts really is a strikingly bleak book, wedging a lot of blackness into its 75 pages. Miss Lonelyhearts (he is referred to only by that name) unwillingly adopts the role of a god to his readers, while struggling for grace himself. “The walls [of his room] were bare except for an ivory Christ that hung on the wall opposite the bed. He had removed the figure from the cross to which it had been fastened and had nailed it to the wall with large spikes. But the desired effect had not been obtained. Instead of writhing, the Christ remained calmly decorative.” He develops “an almost insane sensitiveness to order,” exerting control over everything he can, since he can’t do anything for his desperate readers. He labours under a monstrous boss, Shrike, with whose wife Miss Lonelyhearts wishes to become close.

Once he had tried to get fired by recommending suicide in his column. All Shrike had said was, “Remember, please, that your job is to increase the circulation of our paper. Suicide, it is only reasonable to think, must defeat this purpose.”

The outcome is, perhaps, inevitable, and as with The Day of the Locust, if the journey there is somewhat uneven, the ending itself compromises nothing. The book is a product of Depression-era America, and depression and anxiety are threaded through it. The consolations of art, companionship, love are all proved inadequate. Miss Lonelyhearts wonders at one point “what had happened to his great understanding heart.” West’s answer seems to be, what do you think?

W.H. Auden called West’s books “parables about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.” Near the end of The Day of the Locust, a warning sign to the reader of terrible things to come is given when Homer is described as displaying “lunatic calm.” With Tod, it is when, altogether casually, he wishes “he had the courage to wait for [Faye] some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.” All their desires, so long frustrated in every direction, are aimed at one woman, whose status as the object – target – of their wishes makes her no less unfortunate than them. But everyone there, says West, is like this, where “boredom” is “terrible”, and “nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies.” It foresees what Joseph Heller would write about 35 years later in his masterpiece Something Happened; and come to that, it looks even more familiar today.

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