December 17, 2012
I’ve written about Simon Crump here before – even interviewed him – and I was keeping this, his ‘best known’ book, as a reliable treat. That went the way of all good intentions – of all good books, pushed ever further down the priority list by the clamour of later arrivals, which are more exciting and more urgent simply because of their newness. Fortunately, its reissue this month by Galley Beggar Press, as an ebook, has made it new all over again.
My Elvis Blackout was initially published in 2000 by Bloomsbury. It was Crump’s first book, and as a launchpad into the literary world it could hardly have been more dramatic. If you don’t know what to expect from a new author, it’s pretty safe that you don’t expect a book where Elvis Presley buries the mutilated body of Barbara Cartland on page two, and executes Chris de Burgh not long after, only to have the “reedy-voiced, ferret-faced little bastard” come back from the dead as a headless zombie. The problem with this book, then, is that its excesses come at the beginning, and that the silly stuff and the stupid stuff is likely to provoke in many readers the urge – never far off in me – to chuck it aside and move on to the next one.
I persisted with it, but nonetheless finished it up – not long after I started it, as it’s less than 25,000 words long – still uncertain. Still mystified, in fact. Was it funny? Was it serious? Was it any good? The only thing I didn’t doubt was that it was interesting. As a debut, it seemed less fully achieved than Neverland (Crump’s fourth book), and less modulated too: fifty shades of black to the later book’s subtle gradations of colour. I put it aside and pondered it. Then I went back to it, and re-read it, more slowly this time, not by design but for the usual reasons (work, children).
Second time around, it seemed absolutely right to me: or more firmly wrong. One enthusiastic Amazon review of My Elvis Blackout says that it is impossible to describe it without making it sound like one of the worst books in the world, but I am going to try. It is a series of very short stories, scenes, sketches and vignettes, most of which feature Elvis Presley, or a version of him. The Elvis here is disturbed, twisted and violent, driven mad by fame and the permeable membrane between real life and the public image. His story is made from sparks of flash fiction; it is a mirrorball made of highly polished razor blades, reflecting different aspects of the King.
The stories are told by Elvis himself and by people who know him, and they are full of sudden jerks and switchbacks, with comedy flipping into terror and then sentimentality in the space of a page or two, and anticipated punchlines turning to dust. One of the early stories has Angie Crumbaker recounting her fling as a high school girl with Elvis in 1959. “I had missed a lot of fun this year by being Elvis’s girl. Yet I certainly didn’t blame him. It wasn’t his fault that he had problems.” But even she can’t foresee the confession Elvis is soon to make to her:
‘For the last couple of months … well, I’ve been stealing wigs from Eveline’s House of Hair and Feminine Beauty, taking them back and shampooing them, I just can’t stop myself, it makes me feel so good.’
As with so many of the tales here, it soon turns to death, reported both flippantly and tenderly. “At that moment,” says Angie, “Elvis looked so handsome that my aching heart began to bleed.” Later, he is heading up the “Memphis mafia,” with echoes for his friends of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. “Nobody dares laugh, as there’s no telling what Elvis might do.” Thereafter, he kills Chris de Burgh, twice. At times the strangeness seems unexplainable by design; elsewhere, you can see what Crump is up to: extrapolating fancies from slivers of known fact. For example, the story ‘Elvis: Fat, Fucked-Up Fool’ begins: “His greatest fear was of being poor and he dwelled upon it constantly.” True, no doubt, but Crump flings the idea around and turns it into a dark fantasy of underage sex, ice-cream and buried valuables. Jarringly juxtaposed with this is the next piece (‘Ex-Elvis’), a series of single lines laid out centrally on the page like inner sleeve lyrics, and which draw an austere and pitiable picture:
Way back home there’s a funeral.
All the police carry guns.
Something she said worries him.
Somebody stole his crown.
Sometimes he cries in his sleep.
All he has is a radio and a guitar.
There’s a pain in his chest and he throws up all the time.
The more you read it, and re-read it, the clearer it becomes that My Elvis Blackout is at its heart a tragedy: of internal conflict and turmoil, of a man unknowable to anyone including himself, of real life lost to the distorting mirror of fame. Indeed, it ends up seeming like the most eloquent (and violent) expression of the psychopathology of fame since the best of Gordon Burn. I was reminded when reading it of Burn’s observation that “almost everything I’ve written has been about celebrity, and how for most people celebrity is a kind of death.” Indeed, in My Elvis Blackout, Crump seems to merge the twin poles of Burn’s world: the seedy low-key fame of snooker players or Alma Cogan, and the psychopathy of the Wests or Peter Sutcliffe.
When Elvis himself speaks in the book, as in the four chapters of ‘An Amazing Talk With Elvis’, he sounds altogether sober and subdued, his reports of life and what brought him here having the tone of a formal witness statement or court report. Here and elsewhere the words read like found material from other sources. Elvis tells of his real history and of how he was remade for public consumption, so that the moral begins to look like Kurt Vonnegut’s in Mother Night: ‘we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be’. There is a terrible confusion of identity, in the story ‘Loma Linda’, where the distinction is thoroughly blurred between reality and delusion (“He sincerely believed that he was a major rockstar”) – yet whichever is the truth, this particular Elvis is still tortured and unhappy. “He refused to eat anything except potatoes. ‘These are buried in the ground,’ he said, ‘and could not be poisoned by radiation.’”
As the book goes on, the tone becomes more muted, although death is still everywhere. (“Under the tangle of dead hairs on the pillow, a dark stain spread out from where her mouth had been.”) The narratives spread beyond Elvis to those known to him, such as his tailor Bernard Lansky, who gets a fictional life, from the plausible (fleeing Nazi Germany) to the fanciful (tried and hanged for witchcraft: “Elvis was present too and accompanied the hurried procession to the drop. Bernard Lansky almost ran towards it”). The witchcraft theme recurs, with a story (‘Jungle Room’) that springboards from the North Berwick Witch Trials. Here one of Crump’s signature moves appears: puncturing something interesting and disturbing with a joke, a technique which walks a line between uneasiness and laziness. Often enough, though, he pulls it back again just in time, and so the effect overall is of a unified vision rather than a limited range. Dissociation reaches its apex at the end of the book, when Elvis impersonators are conflated with the French royalty at the time of the revolution, persecuted by Marat and executed by guillotine. It is a strong and subtle finish, and reiterates the preoccupations of this book – the oddest I have read all year – and the fragile threshold that James Salter described in Light Years, which sums up one aspect of My Elvis Blackout beautifully:
There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.
November 28, 2012
The act of writing about a book has, for me, several consequences. It helps me determine what I thought about it – until then I often know only what I felt about it (and sometimes not even that). The business of articulating the thoughts crystallises them. But the words, once settled, become permanent and blot out everything else. When I look back at books I read years ago, I can remember nothing outside what I’ve written. This may be an improvement – if I hadn’t written about the book at all, then maybe I’d remember nothing about it – but it frustrates me when I see what I wrote, for example, on A.M. Homes’ previous novel This Book Will Change Your Life. What I said seems evasive, and I can’t help wondering what I would think of the book now. Short of re-reading it – who has the time! – the best option is to try her next.
May We Be Forgiven is largely wonderful, largely satisfying: ‘largely’ because, at almost 500 pages of pretty tight type, it hefts its epic status at you before you’ve even begun. As a year in the utterly changed life of an American man, Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, it could be terrible: heavy with significance and with no self-awareness. It sometimes veers close, but mostly it surprises and subverts and is entirely gripping, in that way that books heavy on dialogue and without chapter breaks can be.
Harry Silver, who hates his TV executive brother George, finds himself simultaneously at the centre of things – in charge, on the front pages – and pushed to the side of his own life, after a series of mind-spinning, page-turning events. ”Look at me. Look what has happened. Look what I have done. Take notice.” Harry is not entirely a bystander in these events, so when George is no longer able to look after his children Ashley and Nate, Harry steps in. George is so famous (“singularly responsible for shows such as Refrigerator Wars“), and the events that befall the family so grotesque, that Harry becomes public property: people have made their minds up about him, and what he actually does is barely relevant. This frees him to follow his instincts, to learn to become both a mother and a father to Ashley and Nate – and to the family dog.
This gives us one of the most refreshing elements of an engaging book: a book that piles incident on incident, relentless, unstoppable, and leaves the reader trampled but grateful, page-drunk. It’s that Homes spares us Harry’s past, so when we see the thread of his life unwinding and knitting something else, it is like witnessing the creation of a new person from nothing. Harry sees himself as being “in endless freefall, the plummeting slowed only by the interruption of being summoned to do something for someone else,” which sounds a lot like life as we all know it. But there’s also a dreamlike quality to that description – it reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled – and sure enough, Harry has some literally nightmarish encounters such as being confused with his brother, and plenty of circular exchanges with officialdom which are not so much Kafkesque as Kafkaish.
I had better point out that one of the prime appeals of May We Be Forgiven is how funny it is. The stream of off-centre characters, bizarre conceits, absurd subplots, never stops. Comic highlight follows comic highlight, such as the scene when Harry (freed from society’s usual limitations) is receiving a blowjob from one of his many internet dates, and her son comes home. We get up-to-the-minute satire in a penal colony which combines outdoor pursuits with reality TV. And when Harry visits his mother in her residential home, he is greeted by another family telling him, “Do us all a favour – keep your hooker mother away from our father.” But there is also a fascinating ribbon woven through the story of political corruption and conspiracy in America, exemplified by Richard Nixon. Harry teaches Nixon studies to apathetic scholars, is “writing a book” about him, and during the course of his year of slow release, will get closer to Tricky Dicky than he ever thought possible. Harry’s interest in Nixon is
in his personality and the ways in which his actions and reactions were of a particular era and culture – the era that built and defined the American dream. [...] Without Kennedy’s assassination we wouldn’t have had Johnson, who paved the way for Nixon. Look at the Presidents all in a row and it makes sense: they are a psychological progression from one to another, all about the unspoken needs and desires and conflicts of the American people.
These are the strongest nods that here we have a form of great American novel: and so it is, but approached and executed in an entirely disarming way, a million miles from what Gilbert Adair called the “fat, virtuosically executed novel by one of that new breed of American wunderkinder who, I would be lying if I denied it, are positively bloated with talent but who are also just too fucking pleased with themselves.” With sly references to Cheever, cameo appearances by Don DeLillo, and a law firm named Herzog, Henderson & March, Homes wittily puts her flag on the lawn of the big American boys.
All through May We Be Forgiven, my thought was “where is this going?” It is a story of a man bobbing on a storm of events, and somehow thriving, of a life unplucked stitch by stitch until only the narrowest thread holds it, and then not even that. It is a twisted but loving portrait of a time and a country, and of the family unit (though as a contemporary novel, the absence of the economic crisis seems odd: the book was begun in 2005). There is so much going on that I had a tense time wondering whether Homes could keep her plates spinning, to what extent she was really in control, whether she could bring it to a successful conclusion – and, more and more, whether all those things really mattered. As his life flywheels further and further out from its origins, Harry finds himself ”craving the normal, the repetitious, the everyday, the banal.” And a book which keeps itself close to the details, which doesn’t shout or put out flags beyond its dramatic early scenes, might be expected to resist the unlifelike artifice of a climax.
In the last fifth of the book, or thereabouts, Homes does start to put her thumb more obviously on the scales, beginning with the section where Harry takes the children to South Africa for Nate’s bar mitzvah. To end a book with established characters in exotic places is not new, but this feels more like Auster’s Invisible than Waugh’s Handful of Dust. There is a little light and predictable mocking of American insularity – “Do they have electricity there? Is it the same alphabet?” – but what throws the book off-key is the jarring swell of sincerity once they touch down in Johannesburg. Throughout the book, Homes walks a tightrope between sweetness and cynicism, but here she falls into the safety net. Although Harry continues to suffer indignities, here, uniquely, the people surrounding him are exempted. It is, perhaps, impossible for a white western author to write ironically about Africa, but the wide-eyed wonder here risks turning a breath of fresh air into a spray of cheap cologne.
The key is whether or not this misstep can corrode what went before. It did make me wonder if the sentimentality in the Africa section was present all along. Perhaps my experience of the book as pleasingly balanced in its sharpness/softness, was determined by my expectations, my knowledge that Homes was an author not known for niceness, and whose most famous book for a time was about a paedophile’s plot to seduce a child. Perhaps the darkness I saw under the happiness was just my own shadow. But I don’t think that disappointment is inevitable in this situation. If the book had ended before the bar mitzvah, for example, my praise would have been unadulterated: despite, and very likely because of, the lack of a ‘real’ ending. A long book develops constantly and the finale the author chose needn’t conclude our own thoughts on it. (Tim Parks wrote recently about the needlessness of finishing books at all.) Endings are difficult, and shouldn’t corrupt or diminish the pleasures of the earlier parts of the book. I will continue to think of May We Be Forgiven in terms of its considerable successes, rather than its minor failings; as a book about a man whose buffetings somehow absorb the pain of others, and transform it without alchemy into fulfilment; as a story which reminds us, in the words of Alan Bennett, that “all families have a secret. They’re not like other families.”
November 12, 2012
Bizarrely, I am convinced that a writer incapable of talking about himself
is not a complete writer.
- Journals, Vol 1
There must be a good reason why I never read Witold Gombrowicz before now, but all I can think of are bad ones. It must be a decade since I first had people recommend his books to me, but I think I was frightened off. I’ve never been slow to pick up translated fiction, particularly European – in fact I sometimes wonder if I favour them – so why was this? A feeling, perhaps, of an otherness so foreign that I would never be able to make it make sense to me. Look at the names: first the author. Witold Gombrowicz: a name with no way in, no obvious anglicised equivalent (not like Franz, not like Patrik). Or look at the titles of his books: Ferdydurke. Bacacay. They are untranslatable and unknowable. But then I read Keith Ridgway’s praise of him: again and again. Right. Fine.
Bacacay was Gombrowicz’s first book, or almost. His first book contained seven of the twelve stories here, published as the eminently translatable Recollections of Adolescence in 1933. Only when Gombrowicz became famous as a novelist did he add more stories to the book and republish it, in 1957, as Bacacay, a title which comes from a street in Buenos Aires where Gombrowicz lived, and which gives no clue to the content of the book. Gombrowicz said that he chose the title “for the same reason that a person names his dogs – to distinguish them from others.” Yet it is the last of Gombrowicz’s fiction to be translated into English (in 2004, by Bill Johnston, who also provides an afterword). Does this make it the dregs of his work, vaguely ho-hum like the endless slim volumes that Calvino’s next of kin keep pulling out from the bottom of his desk drawer?
Bacacay is no apprentice work, no runt of the litter. The earliest story was written when Gombrowicz was 22 years old, but it is fiction fully formed. There is character, voice and vision: that unmistakable quality of words that could never have been put together in quite this way by anyone else. The variety of content makes it artificial to try to round up these stories, but they are unified mainly by the tone: deceptively light, funny too, but with more than a homeopathic hint of strangeness and fear. (Gombrowicz described his “vision of the world” as “sinister, erotico-sensual and frankly monstrous.”) The closest relation I can come up with is Robert Walser: Gombrowicz has the skittishness, the sense of not really taking it seriously, leaving the reader with the seductive impression that his effects are achieved almost by chance. As such, it flatters us into thinking that the force of the fiction, and the control and power which gives it that force, comes from our reading as much as from the author’s writing. In a sense that is true, as it’s true for any work by any author – a book is a dialogue, not a monologue – but rarely does the author’s intelligence efface itself so carefully.
Another way of looking at this is that the stories generally resist straightforward interpretation. This seems to be something that Gombrowicz encouraged: early editions of Recollections of Adolescence included a ‘Short Explanation’ where the author explained the stories. You can read them here, and they make interesting afterwords for the reader to bounce their own thoughts against. Later editions, however, contain no intervention: the reader is free to make of, and take from, the stories what they will. The most appealing stories, like the opening ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’, combine clear ideas with an unsettling sense of the uncanny. In this story, the narrator begins to direct his life according to the actions of a stranger – the lawyer of the title. He appears to be ceding control over his life to the other man, but as the choice to do so is all his own, the control may really be flowing in the other direction. It is all the more interesting because this reverses the expected order of power between the two: one the one hand a wealthy lawyer who moves in certain circles, on the other our man, who barely moves at all, for whom “sickness, epilepsy, was my only occupation … there were indications that my debilitated organism would not last long.” His attentions soon develop into interventions. “Imagine the lawyer coming out of a public lavatory, reaching for fifteen groszy, and being told that it has already been paid. What does he feel at such a moment?” What indeed?
The shorter stories in Bacacay are the strangest – and the most invigorating – ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’ among them. The oddest is the shortest of all, ‘Philibert’s Child Within’, and it’s worth reproducing its opening paragraph in full, to see the effects Gombrowicz can achieve – and to show that oddness needn’t mean impenetrability.
A peasant of Paris had a child toward the end of the eighteenth century; that child had a child in turn, that child in turn had another child, and again there was another child; and the last child, as tennis champion of the world, was playing a match on the centre court of the Parisian Racing-Club, in an atmosphere of nail-biting tension and with endless spontaneous rounds of thundering applause. And yet (how terribly perfidious life can be!) a certain colonel of the zouaves in the crowd sitting in the side stands suddenly grew envious of the faultless and captivating play by both champions and, wanting to show the six thousand spectators gathered there what he too was capable of (the more so because his fiancée was sitting at his side), all at once he fired his revolver at the ball in flight. The ball burst and fell to the ground, while the champions, unexpectedly deprived of their target, for a short time went on waving their racquets in a vacuum; but, seeing the absurdity of their movements without the ball, they leaped at each other’s throats. Thunderous applause rang out from the spectators.
That’s the way to do it. Throughout, Gombrowicz digs deep even as he entertains. “What a relief it is to be Polish,” says the narrator in ‘The Memoirs of Stefan Czarnicki’, “and it is no wonder everyone envies us and wants to wipe us from the face of the earth.” (Gombrowicz wrote in Polish but lived in Argentina for much of his life. Clive James, in his essay on Gombrowicz in Cultural Amnesia, writes: “It was Poland’s fate that its artists had no home, especially if they were still in Poland. Their best way of keeping their country alive was to leave it.”) Elsewhere, as a magistrate investigating a death in ‘A Premeditated Crime,’ echoes of Robert Walser’s narrators, those little men who don’t quite fit, ring loud: “What an intolerable situation! What a dilemma for a person as sensitive, and above all as irritable, as I am!”
The difficulty with writing that is constantly surprising is the risk of devolving into whimsy. This would only be a risk with Gombrowicz if you didn’t feel that he means every word of it, that he is, as the quote at the top suggests, talking about himself. Even when we expect a reverse, we don’t anticipate that it will have the teeth that the story ‘Virginity’ does, with its unusual awakening for Alice, a young girl being wooed by a suitor. Whatever you expect this exchange between them to be about – “It’s disgusting!” “It’s blind, strange, mysterious, shameful and lovely!” – I bet you’re wrong.
The story which feels the most claustrophobic and internal is at the centre of the book. ‘Adventures’ is a more open title for it than Gombrowicz’s original choice, ‘Five Minutes Before Sleep’, which marks down its origins as lying in the author’s pre-dream fears. In it, the narrator is perpetually pursued and tortured by another man into whose control he falls, a man who “thought for a long time how, with me as an intermediary, he could enjoy experiences he would never have dared to try on his own – just like the Englishwoman who placed a bug in a matchbox and threw it over Niagara Falls.” This is a supremely ironic description of the “domineering unboundedness” to which our man is subject: dropped to the bottom of the ocean in a sort of bathysphere (“a thoroughly unique fate”); thrown overboard to float forever in a glass bubble; escaping and returning to the thing he can never really escape from. It is a sort of counterpoint to the perverse illusion of control in ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’. These are the author’s dreams, the character’s nightmares, coming from within to terrorise him, and to delight us: if delight is the word. And it is all delivered in a scrupulously innocent, irresistible voice. As one character says to another in the second story here: “Oh, how awful you are. You have no idea how awful you are.”
October 9, 2012
I read graphic novels from time to time, but the only one I’ve reviewed here before is Daniel Clowes’ sublime Wilson. The fear of failing entirely to encapsulate a book in a review – always great, usually justified – is even greater when it has images just as important as the words. So I do it only when the book is so good, so astonishing, that I want everyone to read it. Yes, even you.
Building Stories carries, in its box of 14 books, pamphlets and Möbius comic strips, a certain buffer against criticism. Forster said, “One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it,” and I’m fearful of a related effect here. Ware’s work is so impressive – the composition, the structure, the detail, the art – that it’s tempting to switch off critical faculties; or, worse, fail to notice that they’ve been switched off. (Hang on though, that doesn’t sound so bad.) At the same time, why should a publication as different as this be judged in the same terms as those anodyne, anaemic books without pictures?
But the format also troubled me a little. A collection of stories to be read in any order always risks seeming like an abdication of responsibility by the writer, though I admit that my response (“Just tell me what order to read it in!”) might be mostly to do with my own completist and obsessive impulses. On opening it, Building Stories’ appearance reminded me not so much of Johnson’s The Unfortunates as the junk mail edition of McSweeney’s (a quarterly which, as each new subscription copy arrived, I never failed to coo over before putting away unread with all the others). Yet the conceit worked for me. There seemed to be a direction built in to my random reading order: from the gold-spined hardcover which introduces the main characters, through cycles in the life of the main heroine, to a literally tear-jerking conclusion – spliced with episodes from the life of Branford, the Best Bee in the World.
Branford provides some light relief – he’s a character in a children’s book within Building Stories, but also appears at one character’s window. This being Ware, light relief is relative. There is a beautiful sequence which comes from Branford’s wondering why his luck is always so bad. It can’t be just luck, he thinks: he must be to blame.
(Click on any of these images to enlarge, though in the book this panel is just 25mm high. Ware’s drawings are impossibly intricate and detailed.)
Turn the page, and here is the outcome of Branford’s efforts. The come-hither postures of the queen as she repeatedly provokes Branford’s imagination are funnier than any comic illustration of bee mating has any right to be. I was particularly taken by the middle one. What red-blooded fellow wouldn’t be?
Branford, like any bee, is forever trying to break into the world of humans – battering at windows – and then, when he gets there, wishing he wasn’t. (“I have suffered a dreadful deliverance,” he notes, quoting Robinson Crusoe.) By anthropomorphising Branford, Ware makes the stuck-in-the-world-of-humans conceit literal: he is humanly self-aware, and would doubtless be happier if he wasn’t. The fretful face of anxiety in the final frame above comes to look like his natural state.
The other characters are no happier. They live on different floors of the same Chicago building, whose rooms are presented in bleak light, like Edward Hopper interiors. Every detail makes them look more pitiful: the specks of dirt on the floor, the single bed, the slices of apple under cling film on a plate. The first occupant is the elderly owner of the apartment, full of stories – her own and others’ (“Everyone always talks about themselves when they’re trying to rent an apartment”) – but with nobody to tell them to. Then a couple whose unhappiness must surely reach breaking point soon. And finally our aforesaid heroine who, in case it wasn’t all sad enough, has her left leg amputated below the knee.
Although the characters’ lives change in different sections of Building Stories, within each part they are usually stuck and stagnating. The heroine spends a lot of time sitting on her couch, or looking at her watch, or lying in bed, turning and turning. Ware’s frames shrink down to emphasise the slowness of time passing, and often so little happens that we are directed to consider not just the movement between frames, but the stillness between them. There is no sense of familiarity as potentially a comfort rather than a bore. This, really, is not a book to be read when you’re at a low ebb (it could push you over the ebb). One section has as the centrepiece of its first page the words, “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.” This, again, is our heroine, and Ware lays it on thick, as she reflects on “the stasis of my life,” “the overwhelming reality of [my] loneliness” and how she was “always ready to be disliked.” So parts of the book lack emotional subtlety, but they do reflect the rut of a depressive mindset. And if the heroine is low because she is alone (and so is her landlady: “I’ve lived my whole life afraid of people”), then her neighbours in the building have the opposite problem.
Yet even as the content distresses, the style delights: here, the bubbles of thought and regret rising and settling at the top of the frame, so that something still becomes beautifully animated. Throughout the book, Ware teaches us how to read a page, how to read images rather than just looking at them. The large double-spreads, some of A1 paper size, take the reader on a circular story around a central motif. One book, each page the banknote shape of a daily newspaper comic strip, slows the reader down with its wordlessness: every image must be thought through. Another section consists of just one long strip of paper, where the story continues each time you turn it over, and each image is reflected on the other side of the page.
What it all comes down to is time: Building Stories shows us how time passes, or refuses to pass. Some of the drab, repeating panels say: every day will be like this. It shows what time does to us. The characters think about what has happened, how things have changed and what might have been. The past is not dead – it is not even past – as Facebook springs old friends on them, or unwanted memories shoulder their way to the front of their minds. The form enables Ware to integrate the static intrusion of memories into life in a way more effective than any I’ve seen in pure prose: and to note the evasions of memory too, when an editorial footnote corrects a character’s chronology. It also gives a smoother and more convincing transition between different viewpoints than is normally seen in fiction. It can tell two stories at once, and show us what the residents of the building think of one another. They are unhappy because they are alone, or unhappy because of who they’re with. (Our heroine still turns and turns in bed in almost every story she appears in; alone, with her husband, with her daughter.)
Often, the story and characters seem not just unhappy, but to refuse the possibility of happiness – even to wallow or revel in it. They are hunched, shrunken, static, with only fleeting moments of pleasure (“Something … a time-lapse tulip … bloomed in me”). The thought processes of the characters, their internal monologues, could seem banal or gauche if written in prose: but one would not argue that song lyrics do not work as poems on the page. As with Jimmy Corrigan, the initial effect of Building Stories is to make the reader determined not to be like these people, but then, as we get to know them better, not so much seems to separate us. In any event, it softens the blow of a writer taking twelve years to produce a book when its subject is, more or less, everything it means to be human. And when you’ve had enough of that, there’s always Branford. Even he gets to feel optimistic sometimes.
October 1, 2012
Helen DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, was published in 2000. Seven years later, she self-published Your Name Here, an odd collaborative work with Ilya Gridneff. Meanwhile, I learn from an early review of the US edition of the present book that it was written ten years ago but unpublished until now. Was it unpublished through choice? Or was DeWitt unable to place it? In either event, DeWitt now has two excellent publishers: New Directions in the US; And Other Stories in the UK. The latter has been punching not just above its weight but in another league since its launch last year, not least with the all-conquering Swimming Home. If there’s any justice, Lightning Rods should repeat that success.
Lightning Rods is a book about one thing which pretends to be about another thing. What it is really about is language, but it disguises all this in a satire of sexual politics. It tells us about Joe, a failing salesman in Missouri, whose unsatisfying masturbation fantasies lead him to a novel idea. “He was thirty-three years old and he had zip to show for it. And here he was lying in the bed in the middle of the day not even masturbating effectively but just twiddling until he got the fantasy set up to his satisfaction. He didn’t feel good about it at all.”
I hope you see what I mean about the language. The narrative voice is a curious and canny mix. It has the casual tone of Joe’s interior monologue (“zip to show for it”), a strange utilitarian blankness (“not even masturbating effectively”) and childish words that clash with the subject (“twiddling”). But the overall effect throughout the book is of a cross between a business report and an uncritical biography. As the story progresses from eccentric to outrageous, we get to see the full effect of this masking language.
Joe’s idea – … well, I hope I can discuss it. I think I can. I can’t imagine how to impress upon you the effect of the book without going into some detail – which the blurb on the US edition does, and the introduction to the UK edition. (In any event, this book is likely to become sufficiently talked about that the basic premise will pass into general knowledge, as with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.) Read the next two sentences without pausing. Joe’s idea is that sexual harassment in the workplace can be prevented by providing men with an outlet for their urges. Those outlets will be colleagues – women – hired to the firm by Joe’s proposed company, and who are in every sense normal employees, carrying out administrative duties; except that when they get the call, they will take up a position in a frame which backs them anonymously into a secret cubicle in the men’s toilets, lower half only showing, and the male colleague will take his pleasure.
‘Take his pleasure’ is how DeWitt might put it in the book. This is a novel of evasion and manipulation. The whole thing is delivered in such measured tones that the process Joe starts on begins to look like logic, and the logic begins to look unarguable. The way of telling is so filled with familiarity – even cliché – that the contents sound first half-reasonable and then even more ridiculous. There’s a homespun folksy wisdom that becomes hypnotically comical.
If you don’t have what it takes, you can waste a lot of time asking yourself “How can I get what it takes?” The question you should be asking yourself is, “Is there something else that takes what I have to offer?”
After all, what Joe has to offer is a monotone masturbatory fantasy, which “would one day lead to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.” Of course, not everyone in a company will get to benefit from the services of Joe’s lightning rods (yes, you see now?). “It is often the most valuable individuals in a company who present the greatest vulnerability to sexual harassment related issues. We know that a high level of testosterone is inseparable from the drive that produces results.” And so begins for Joe the painful task of working out the problems in the system in meticulous detail, and the problems that the solutions give rise to, and the problems arising from that, and so on. And the logic of working for the benefit of “high-testosterone, performance-oriented individuals” infects Joe’s own thinking, until the reader approaches straight-faced lines like this: “For the kind of money she was getting you’d have thought she could throw in a slap on the fanny every so often without getting into a big song and dance about it.”
The deadpan coolness which is so crucial to the success of Lightning Rods is not so much ironic distance as an exemplar of the ways we can fool ourselves into believing the preposterous, and mask the instinctive response when doing so. It demonstrates how intuition can be outwitted, how steady step-by-step argument can persuade us to insane conclusions. It is so clever that when other entrepreneurs set up rival companies to Joe’s without all his protective mechanisms, the reader might even start to share Joe’s view of himself as one of the good guys. (“He pointed out that Playboy had never been seen as all that tasteful and intellectual until Hustler came along.”) As a corollary, the author is both entirely absent – her views immaculately subsumed into service of the story – and unmistakably there on every page, calmly directing the ingenious farce.
But is it farce? Or satire? Or something else? There is plenty here that takes specious thinking down a peg or two – the notion, for example, that sexualisation constitutes empowerment, or that working in a controlled sex industry is something to be celebrated just because it could be worse. Equally, it does damage to softer targets like society’s priorities towards money-creation and its limited understanding of ‘success’, and the accommodations we will make for these things. There are interesting questions raised over to what extent Joe is responsible for his own success, in a system built to buoy up people like him. But the point, again, seems to me to be language and communication, and the only thing that prevents me from describing Lightning Rods as unlike anything you’ve read are the similarities to aspects of the work of George Saunders.
In 2005 Saunders wrote a piece which stands as a manifesto for much of his work. Read it yourself, but one of his conclusions is that “all attempts at world domination begin with weak, evasive, impersonal language.” But you don’t need to go to the SS for this: it’s around us every day, when companies obfuscate, when governments try to make bad news sound good. It applies here too. The language in Lightning Rods is sneaky, tendentious, and deceptive; and it is that which makes it such a triumph, so funny and so frightening. It is likely to be a book which, for content and tone, nobody who reads it will easily forget.
September 19, 2012
Regular readers of this blog will not need to be reminded that I think Keith Ridgway’s latest novel, Hawthorn & Child, is one of the best books of the year, perhaps of many years – that, in workplace appraisal terms, it stands head and shoulders above its peers. Having spent far too much time on Twitter urging people to read it, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that almost all the responses I’ve seen have agreed with me. As I think this is not the first great book Ridgway has written, I jumped at the opportunity to ask him about his work.
How did the novel find its form? When and how did it become clear to you that this set of stories was a book predominantly about Hawthorn and Child? And when that realisation came, did the writing then get easier, or harder? Did it feel like you were heading for a destination, or still feeling your way?
I wanted to write a book of fragments. Many small fragments that would be impossible to put together – like a shattered novel in a bag. I didn’t even think of it as a novel, just a book. There were working titles like 78 Pieces Of Shit, and 54 Demonstrable Fictions. At some point it became 38 Marching Songs. Then just Marching Songs. Eventually it became Hawthorn & Child. In all that reduction there was a failure to do what I’d wanted to do. Fragments kept on fitting together, cohering in a really annoying way, wanting to become stories. So I went from 78 to 8. That’s all loss. But the tension between what I wanted and what I was doing became interesting in itself. H&C is, without being, I hope, too maudlin about it, a book about the failure to write a much better, much more interesting book. At some point I fixed on these two detectives – who came to me originally just as comic ghosts, turning up repeatedly and ineffectively to haunt the scene of some catastrophe or other – and I recognised myself – the writer – in their feeble interventions. And then I realised that I was writing a police novel. Which was a shock. But at least then I could play with that. And the writing became a little easier I suppose, though of course it never really does, you just shift the difficulty slightly. As for a destination – no, I never had one. That much at least I never lost. Or found. Or what have you.
You’ve spoken before about resistance to telling our days and lives as stories, and of our addiction to narrative. Yet most of the stories in Hawthorn & Child have strong narrative drive, so they satisfy this addiction up to a point. Are you lulling the reader into a false sense of security? Do you want them to want to know if Hawthorn is going to be OK?
I don’t know what I want. I suppose I want them to feel something of what I feel – that stories are subjective creations, personal things. That there isn’t really anything like a shared story – or a shared experience – in reality, and that novels for the most part lie about this. The writer of a novel is assumed, and assumes herself, to be an authority on the world of her novel. And I dispute that. Certainty is the enemy of understanding. And I want what I write to be attempts at understanding. So I am filled with uncertainty about everything that seems to happen in anything I write. It’s very difficult to get that on to the page without either inducing a sort of crisis of perception for myself, or worse, boring the reader. So I’m not lulling, there’s no ‘false’. I don’t know what’s going on. I want to know if Hawthorn is going to be OK. But I have no idea whether he will be or not. Or whether I really care. I’m not sure I like him very much. He’s sort of pathetic. But the important thing for me, as the writer of this, is that he feels like he might be a real character, in the sense that he embodies emotions and attitudes and failures and neuroses that we are familiar with. And he’s a creep. A self-pitying creep. Which is what most of us I think fear that we are.
Hawthorn & Child begins and ends with chapters that foreground the relationship between the two detectives (I’ve heard a couple of people compare them to Bill James’ police procedurals). I could have read a whole book just of the dialogue between Hawthorn and Child. Do you read crime fiction? Do you ‘prepare’ characters by writing more about them and then cutting away? How well do you feel you know them, and the other characters in the book?
I do read crime fiction. Usually in binges. I enjoy crime fiction a great deal. Or two thirds of it. By which I mean the first two thirds of each book. The last third of a crime book usually pisses me off. I love the exposition, getting everything set up and into position, and then the cranking out of the mechanics that are going to get the thing to dance. But in the last third it seems to always end up in a sort of badly choreographed dogfight and the pacing goes haywire and there’s so much chasing after loose ends that it ceases to have anything to do with our experienced world and becomes more a sort of fantasy of resolution, a kind of neurotic tidying of life’s mess, like sport.
I don’t ‘prepare’ characters, but I do write much more than you’ll read. I cut a lot. But this happens when I’m just trying to write. I don’t really do preparation in the sense I think you mean. I might make some notes – but just very general things. Child wears glasses. Hawthorn’s brother is a taxi driver. That sort of thing. As for how well I know them – I don’t really know them at all. Or, no better than someone who’s read the book a few times perhaps. I’m not holding back information – other than locations maybe. I know where Cath goes to school. I know where the shooting in ’1934′ happens. I know roughly where Mishazzo’s office is. But anyone reading the book can imagine those things for themselves. I have ideas about some of the characters that aren’t in the book. But so will any reader. I don’t know anything.
Your first two publications, Horses and The Long Falling, are more traditional narratives than the later novels. Since then the structures have become bolder and there’s a greater presence of the uncanny. What do you attribute this to? Were you shaking off influences or Irish traditions with your early work?
This is an example of story telling isn’t it? I’ve no real idea what I was doing in those books. I’d only be guessing. But Horses is very much a bit of traditional Irish rural gothic with the stock characters and the silly plot, and I think it’s a piss-take. I remember writing it, and I remember that I wrote it very quickly, and that I really enjoyed it. And I’ve never written anything as quickly since, nor enjoyed writing anything as much since. I haven’t looked at it in ages though and don’t feel responsible for it.
The Long Falling is different. It was written before Horses, and it seems terribly earnest to me now, but I have a sort of love for it. I was a different person when I wrote it – young and quite unworldly – and it seems to me at this distance that it was a brave novel for me to write. I like that it was my first book and yet I made these choices : it is largely told from the perspective of a middle aged woman; the character closest to myself – young, gay – turns out to be a bastard; it has lots of gay sex; it speaks very directly about the X Case, and it’s angry about that; and it foreshadows, to some extent, the suspension of kindness that came with the boom years. I wanted to write a book about all of that. And I wrote it in the way I found that I could – conventionally, without much thought about narrative or structure. But again, it was written by someone else, and I admire him – naive little creature – but I can’t really see the connection to me.
The way my writing has changed over the years comes down I think to dissatisfaction with what I’ve done before. I felt after The Long Falling that it wasn’t true. Which is a dumb thing to say about fiction. But I felt that it was faked. Forced. Contrived. The next novel I wrote – The Parts – was an attempt at not-faking. It is almost entirely fake. It’s a terrible book. And it so shocked me that I had written it that I completely stopped what I was doing and tried to start again. And Animals feels to me now like my proper first novel. I began to use what Bolaño talks about – memory and ethics. I stopped trying to write novels and just wrote, and wrote out of myself, relying on my own experience and perception, and shaping something that I feel is true.
Hawthorn & Child is a composite novel in stories; Animals began as a short story. Do you find the short form more satisfying than a long single narrative? What effect, if any, did publication in The New Yorker – the holy grail to many practitioners – have on you as a writer of stories?
As I said above – I try to just write. And what I’m writing tries to find its own length. I don’t find any form satisfying – or no more or less satisfying than any other. And I think the distinctions between various forms – the short story, the novella, the novel – are being blurred, particularly with the emergence of digital media, and I think that’s a really interesting thing for writers, and is something we should welcome and enjoy. I write things sometimes that are too short for publication. Or which, if I put them aside to collect, wouldn’t reach a reader in years. And so I put them on my website. And I love that. That I can wake up in the morning and write something I like but which is finished almost as soon as it’s started, and I put it on the website and by afternoon it has its readers. It’s the most satisfying form of publishing in a way. And no money changes hands. There was a piece that was originally in H&C called The Spectacular, which was too long for The New Yorker or The Paris Review or places like that, but not long enough to put out in book form on its own. And I persuaded Granta to put it out as a digital only thing. For 99p. Like a single that precedes an album. And that seemed to work very well. So different ways of doing things are opening up, and I think, I hope, that will change the way writers write.
The New Yorker pay well, and I got to work with a really wonderful editor there called Cressida Leyshon. So that was great. But I don’t really get that Holy Grail thing. Cressida’s editing on that one section of H&C I think had a ripple effect on the rest of it. Nothing structural, just at sentence level, word level. I went through the whole book again having borrowed her eye as it were, and just tightened everything up a notch. As to what effect that’s had since – you learn from a good editor. You can hold on to their perspective to some extent and return to it.
A sense of place is strong in your work, either named (Dublin in The Parts, London in H&C) or unnamed (in Animals). Is setting important to you? You wrote about London when living there for ten years; now you’re back in Ireland. Where will your fiction go next?
I react to what I’m surrounded by. Maybe I don’t have a very good imagination. But I think of both Animals and H&C as London novels, though yes, it’s not named in Animals. I’m back in Dublin now. So that will bubble up, I have no doubt. Though before I moved back here I had planned a novel set largely in Ireland anyway – though not much in Dublin. And that’s still the plan. But my writing is for the most part about filtering my own experiences and perceptions through whatever set of assumptions I’m currently making about human beings and the state of the world, so it’s what’s to hand that I use.
I’ve been reading Witold Gombrowicz’s Bacacay after reading your praise for him. You said “he’s the only writer I know of who has come close to putting a stop to literature.” Can you elaborate? And explain too why you’ve “gone off Beckett”?
I’m not sure I can elaborate. Literature is all failure. And is therefore without limit. He is so good that he comes close to success. On his terms of course, and for readers to whom those terms make sense, seem right, ring true. Maybe I mean that he came close to putting a stop to my literature. I read Cosmos first, after I’d written Animals. And I just thought – Oh. So that’s what I was trying to do. It is unnerving to read books that feel better than my best possible hopes for my own books. He seems to have been in my head. And he seems to have looted all the good stuff. And he seems to have written it all down – before I was even born – with the sort of direct, honest, fiendishly wicked, clarified insanity and utterly cold conviction of an Old Testament prophet. And he’s hilarious. And he was sexy, and intricately intelligent and well read and cunning. And he led an interesting life. I hate him really.
I don’t remember saying that I’d gone off Beckett, though it sounds like the stupid sort of thing I would say. Someone who goes off Beckett goes off. I love Beckett. Though it does annoy me a little when people (I think I mean reviewers) latch on to that and talk about my writing in the light of it. And it’s invariably people who have an idea of Beckett that is superficial and inaccurate. The Beckett stereotype. I’m not that interested in the plays. It’s the fiction that I love, though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any of it. But it’s the warmth and the funnies and the subversion that I love. And I love the man, if that’s not creepy. He was a wonderful person, by all accounts. That’s really rare in writers. There is a tiny snippet of film on YouTube of him talking. And you get the south Dublin accent that some people in my family have, and it’s very clear, and you get a real sense of kindness from him, and honesty, integrity, even in just a few seconds, talking about a play somewhere. And I find it genuinely, peculiarly, moving.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?
September 12, 2012
Zadie Smith’s new novel NW was – mathematically – one of the longest awaited of the year, and its mixed reception surprised me. For every 850 words of closely-argued praise, there was a crowd of cavils by a normally perceptive critic. I had expected critical near-unanimity on this one, with the only disagreement being which section was best. Anyway the attention paid to the book affirmed that any new work by Zadie Smith is a publishing event, and this time, in my view, a literary event too. I was grateful for the opportunity to ask the author some questions about NW and her writing.
(You can buy any of the books mentioned by Zadie Smith from the excellent independent bookshop Bookseller Crow by clicking on the images below.)
NW is a novel in varied parts, about the lives of very different people in one area of London. Did you always know that their stories would be part of something larger? How did the novel find its form?
I didn’t begin with any stories, really. Just this single idea of a girl coming to the door. The novel found its form slowly, over a long period. I wrote the first lines almost nine years ago. And that’s really how it was built: sentence by sentence, hoping the shape would emerge by itself. But once I had the idea of the girl coming to the door, I started to read around the idea of guests and hosts… and there’s sort of a long philosophical history to those ideas, and inevitably they ended up being a part of the book, and shaping it. And from “Who gets invited?” I went to “Once you’re invited, what kind of hospitality is ideal?” – and that gets you into thinking about utopia and dystopia… And those ideas ended up being another room in the house of the book. It’s hard for me to explain, but I guess as a general rule I find the characters subconsciously, but then the conscious part of a novel are these larger ideas. The whole trick for me is not to let the ideas overwhelm that subconscious work, which is where I feel the real life of the thing is. But perhaps for 90 percent of readers all the larger framework goes unnoticed and all they see is a lot of uncouth Kilburn people, talking… I can never tell. It doesn’t really matter. I think that’s just the risk you take when you shape a novel round the present. People distrust the present – it looks formless, unserious. They want the security of the past, and of familiar forms.
Much of the strength of the book lies in the way it reports communication between characters, particularly those of different social and cultural backgrounds. Is NW a state-of-England (or part of it) novel?
I find that idea really boring: ‘state of the nation’. It’s one of those phrases that people who secretly dislike fiction use to pretend a novel is just a spring board to enter into some other, less embarrassing discussion: a political analysis or a sociological portrait. I really don’t presume to know the state of England. I’m a fiction writer. I’m interested in trying to find ways to depict experience through a medium that can never succeed in depicting experience fully: language. It’s a fool’s task, but I know that the pleasure I have as a reader is watching different writers attempt it. And this is just my attempt, to add to all the attempts by others that have come before it. Of course some of that experience involves ‘having been born and bred in England,’ but a sense of place is just one part of a larger concern, as it is with all novelists, no matter where they were born. How does language feel to hear and use? How does time feel? How can we know other people are real and not just projections of our own desires or fears? What does the thought of death do to us? These are the sort of vulgar, childlike question that novelists ask – at least, the kind of novelists I’m interested in. Because it’s just so odd to be alive! And fiction is about that. I think all good novels are about “the state of being alive.” Trying to make them act as national sociological descriptors isn’t the worst crime in the world, but focusing on that aspect ignores the very particular linguistic thingyness of the form. To me writing is deeply irrational, idiosyncratic, because its medium – language – has so much ambiguity built into it. That argument that Alice and Humpty Dumpty have about the instability of meaning that’s the epigraph of a million graduate dissertations… Language is the absurd bit of writing that can’t be entirely suppressed or controlled by journalistic ideas like ‘state of the nation’ novels. Maybe the phrase, if it’s used at all, is best used satirically, as Amis used it.
Sometimes it feels that in England and America especially there is this desire that the novel behave itself and exist as only a sort of mildly creative interpretation of the news. Faction. Solid, recognizable, like a TV sitcom written down. But a novel should have a little witchcraft in it, don’t you think? It should be a little weird. It should try to do something that can only be done in this form, in language.
When reading NW, I thought of other books. London Fields (obviously), which is similarly controlled in its prose yet enacts the messiness of life even as it portrays it. Or Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge, which like the ‘Host’ section in NW, makes up a whole life in short discrete scenes. Does the book have any direct literary inspirations or influences?
Hmmm… When I think of London Fields I think of White Teeth. And there the influence is direct. But nothing could have been further from my mind writing NW than London Fields… I see books in terms of their sentences and to me the sentences of White Teeth and NW are really from different planets! But this may be my own delusion. In the end, you have to defer to readers: you can’t instruct them to see a sentence your way – they have to see it themselves.
Anyway, Mrs Bridge was certainly in there, though perhaps not as much as Roland Barthes’ autobiography, Raymond Queneau’s variations, and various books of epigraphs I was reading. I became envious of that numbered structure – and then it seemed to suit Natalie so perfectly, with her determination to march boldly into the future. Originally her section was in a sort of fractured first person. Everyone who read it hated it – me included. Then another writer said to me: “You’re the only writer I know who can create no sympathy in the first person.” I thought: that’s right! When I write the pronoun “I”, I think of myself and end up being incredibly cruel. I’m not sympathetic to myself, as it turns out. I need the she and he.
NW is on the one hand psychologically acute and strongly character-driven, but also experiments with form and content – it’s littered with up-to-date cultural references, has typographical trickery and surprising appearances of the way we live now (such as a chapter made of Google Maps directions). Do these elements come easily? Or is “the culture doing strange things to novels“?
Oh, not so strange. You could find far, far stranger in 1918 or 1761. Nothing new under the sun. The novel has always been a weird form, full of oddities. If there’s trickery in this one, I’m sorry for it: I genuinely wanted to try and get closer to reality, not to obscure it. I mean, look: a version of the most realistic novel possible right now would be the one that took into account the fact that for much of each day in the west, the consciousness of many of us is projected outwards into a 14-inch lit screen, and any thought we have constantly penetrated by news, trivia, gossip, adverts, glimpses of content, and email, always email. I can’t figure out a way to do that, but some younger writer will. Not in the dull manner of ‘putting emails in a novel’ but some organic and genuine way of representing that reality. And stuff like that will always be called ‘trickery’ and accused of shallowness and then fifty years later it will be understood as pure realism. I remember David Foster Wallace saying somewhere that his ‘real’ life did not involve walking by a stream, pausing under an apple tree and having a deep internal monologue about the nature of the world – yet that’s what his fiction teacher expected of him and it’s true to this day that much contemporary fiction hangs upon what are actually quite unrealistic premises. But people still call it realism and think of it as completely ‘natural,’ not strange at all. To me it’s a little strange.
The same goes – at the most banal level – for content. When I first started writing, people often asked why I insisted on this ‘multicultural’ cast. To them it was a publishing ‘angle’ or some kind of post-modern trick. Slowly you realize: these people live in an entirely white social world. So to them it probably is exotic, it is an angle. I had interviewers – especially abroad – congratulating me on the “trendiness” of my family, as if I had picked out a black mother and a white father for fashion purposes. But to me what’s exotic is a world in which everyone is white. I’ve never lived in that world. Being mixed race is not some kind of gimmick: a third of the kids in my school had families like that, and nothing could have been more dull to all of us, more everyday. I remember, too, the shock of reading reviews that took it for granted that Willesden is a sort of piteous place to live, unutterably ‘grim.’ And if a character of mine isn’t living in a four storey house in Hampstead their lives are also described as ‘grim,’ or brutally modern, or whatever. It makes you wonder: where do these reviewers come from? This is just bog standard London life I’m describing, the lives of millions. But perhaps the only ‘moral’ of my fiction is that one person’s strange is another person’s normal.
Your essay ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ attracted much attention, contrasting lyrical realism (in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland) with the ‘alternative road’ of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Where do you place your own work in this context?
I don’t really. The critic in me and the writer in me are two different people. The critic writes of what she would ideally like to read; the writer only writes what she can. Criticism is easy; fiction hard. I know what I’m doing when I write an essay. I have no idea what I’m doing when I write a novel. Fiction is a much riskier enterprise.
And then that essay is a polemic, and describes what I felt, at the time, to be an extreme situation in publishing. I think China Miéville – my Kilburn neighbour! – said recently that English fiction tends to privilege recognition over strangeness and alienation, and I think that has often been true. Personally I adore the recognition Jane Austen provides but I also love the strangeness of B.S. Johnson or Octavia Butler. In “healthy” times there’s no need for the polemic: it’s a wide church and both types of writers can exist perfectly happily in there. But it didn’t seem to me to be a very healthy time. I think it’s got a little better, at least from the books that I’m being sent. And the ideal – as I think I said in the essay – are those books that defy all categorization, that are great on their own idiosyncratic terms. I was describing two particular paths in the tradition of the novel, but what marks the most interesting novels is their absolute particularity. You can’t pin them down so easily. What kind of a novel is Invisible Cities? What kind of novel is [Naipaul's] Half a Life? I’m afraid real writing laughs in the face of polemical essays. They were rare four hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, fifty years ago, yesterday – great books will always be rare. Lolita doesn’t come around every day. Heart of Darkness doesn’t come around every day. Most novels are just “good enough”, and given that this is so, shouldn’t they be welcomed in their full variety? Great writing comes in a trickle, not a flood. And we’re not so drowning in riches that we can afford to dam up certain tributaries.
As for my own writing, I’m surprised to find I’m quite excited about the future, which I’ve never really been before. NW feels like my first novel in some ways, maybe because it’s the first I’ve written as what my mother would call “a grown ass woman.” So I’m just going to keep on shuffling down my own path, wherever it leads me. The next novel I have in mind is actually a sort of speculative fiction, set in the future, so I don’t know where that lies along those two paths. I don’t think I care!
As a reader, I’ve discovered that since becoming a parent, limited reading time means I’m much less forgiving of – or willing to continue with – mediocre books. Does parenthood have any comparable effect on writing? Are the short sections of NW an effect of this?
Sure. But that makes it sound purely practical. To me, the intense awareness of time that parenthood creates makes a different person of you, and necessarily a different writer. I hate waste of all kinds now. I hate padding. I want only essential things. A good analogy is party-going. I love to drink and I love to dance. I didn’t used to need an excuse to do those things. But now it better be the best party that man has ever invented, otherwise I ain’t going. Otherwise I’m not paying the babysitter, enduring the tears, texting to check the child hasn’t died, and so on and so forth. The same logic works on the page. If I’m going to write it, it better be a necessary word. It better be essential. Because otherwise I could be hanging out with my family, which most days is about infinity times more enjoyable than struggling over a paragraph in the library.
Parenthood is also a central subject in NW. Is this something that came from the essence of the characters Leah and Natalie, or from a desire to write about something prominent in your own life?
I began the book five years before I had a child. That seems to be a pattern with me. On Beauty is about a marriage of thirty years standing, but at the time I had been married only two. I don’t know the reasons. You’d have to ask a psychiatrist.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?
I don’t know if it’s overlooked, but someone just recommended it to me and I’m enjoying it. It’s got a great title, too: How to make love to a negro without getting tired by Dany Laferrière.
September 3, 2012
In approaching this book, I’ve been wondering how to avoid reading it – and writing about it – as Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years, when it is, undeniably, her first novel in seven years. Such a formulation creates expectations of something massive, epic, exhaustively life-encompassing. Most of all it sustains the illusion that the author really was working on the book for all of the intervening period. This does happen, but rarely. Yet we know that Smith, after On Beauty (2005), had many other things to occupy her, not least becoming a parent. She has, perhaps to dampen expectations, called her new novel a “very, very small book.”
NW is a small book – in page count, Smith’s shortest novel yet. There is not a scrap of fat on it. But it unfolds, like an origami water lily, and contains multitudes. Indeed it is by making it such a small book – set in a few square miles of north-west London – and making us so intimate with her few characters, that Smith has created such a rich experience for the reader. After Hawthorn & Child, it feels like the second great London novel of the year (and yes, I did try Lanchester’s Capital). It feels, in fact, like a refinement of White Teeth and a focusing of that novel’s messy but charming potential, speaking of the encounters and fields of exchange that take place in a world city: even in part of it.
The window logs Kilburn’s skyline. Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent. Empty State Empire, empty Odeon, graffiti-streaked sidings rising and falling like a rickety roller-coaster. Higgledy-piggledy rooftops and chimneys, some high, some low, packed tightly, shaken fags in a box.
These encounters are across social and racial boundaries, and show how people who share the same streets, and labour under the same governments, engage, or fail to. There are three main sections to the book, though the characters sometimes cross into one another’s pages, to emphasise the point. Leah Hanwell anchors each end of the book. At the beginning (‘Visitation’), she has just discovered that she is pregnant, when she answers the door to a young woman, Shar, who needs to borrow money urgently. Shar is garrulous, gabby, half-charming; Leah is more distant, at a disadvantage. Shar lives in the nearby Garvey House council block, where Leah grew up (“From there to here, a journey longer than it looks”). The friction of their exchange sets up a charge that runs through the book.
Leah lives with her husband Michel, from whom she has secrets, and their dog Olive (“ridiculous, adored”). Leah’s character is cool, perhaps cold, and it is a notable achievement to convey this in prose as likeable and slinky as Smith’s. Her ease of style and lightness of touch are there on every page, and she is very good on the internal uncertainties which paralyse us all yet drive our actions. She uses a scattering of textual styles and surprising inclusions – a chapter in Google Maps directions, a cacophony of workplace voices running down the page, one character’s internal monologue proclaiming ‘EPIC FAIL’ - which reflect the wild diversity and modernity even of this one corner of the city. Crucially, she writes fluently about race: her characters have various ethnicities, but it is through others’ awareness of their racial and cultural differences that abrasions and illuminations occur. Leah’s mother, castigating her for lending Shar the money (“robbed on your own doorstep by a Gypsy”), places her trust in Michel. “You can’t con his people so easy.” (“All of them are Nigerian, all of them, even if they are French, or Algerian, they are Nigerian, the whole of Africa being, for Pauline, essentially Nigeria…”) Leah’s colleagues offer a passive-aggressive word of advice:
no offence, but for the women in our community, in the Afro-Caribbean community, no offence, but when we see one of our lot with someone like you it’s a real issue. It’s just a real issue you should be aware of. No offence.
The pleasure is that these brief phrases pack so much in, not only about those speaking – you can hear the very voice and tone in that last excerpt - but about their relationship to Leah, and touch too the book’s wider themes. Leah herself is a fascinating character, resisting change (“why must love ‘move forward’? What way is forward?”) and seeing increasing disparity between her life and that of her oldest friend, Natalie, now a lawyer and a parent. “Overnight everyone has grown up. While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.”
The risk for an author in a composite novel like this is of frustrating the reader when cutting away from an interesting character. Here – and again comparison with Hawthorn & Child is inevitable - Smith achieved the rare feat of taking me out of a story I was enjoying, and making me enjoy the next one even more. In the second part, ‘Guest’, the book moves up a gear in its depiction of how people engage across divides. Felix Cooper is 32 years old and a charming man – no mean trick to make a former drug dealer the most likeable person in a book – and his story is the most perfect self-contained part of NW. He is an urban creature, who “had been to Wiltshire once and returned astounded.” He has a series of encounters on his way to meet his sometime girlfriend, and former customer, Annie. He meets his feckless father Lloyd (one of the few family connections Felix has left: brother in prison, mum gone), an elderly neighbour Phil Barnes, and Tom Mercer, a posh young man selling a car. The awkwardness of Tom’s inept negotiations with Felix – an unease which goes beyond the generic discomfort of a middle-class householder struggling to make conversation with the tradesman – is a comic highlight of the book. Much more brittle is his meeting with Annie, a privileged but damaged young woman, one of those who “could fall and fall and fall and still never quite hit the ground.”
Smith breaks the story again, and takes a bigger risk, in the third section, ‘Host’, which occupies most of the second half the book. This gives us a scattered history of Leah’s friend Natalie – born Keisha – told in short, numbered sections, like Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge. Natalie, even while she is still a child, while she is still Keisha, fears that she has no identity of her own (“You are making it up as you go along,” she chides herself): so she creates one. The story of Natalie and Leah is of drive and no drive: or of Drive and Neutral. The representation of Natalie’s adolescent and post-adolescent angst is just so: “she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world.” A finely judged teenage pretension also slips into the numbered sections themselves, and their titles too, which if read straight might seem to run close to affectation. It is into this part of the book that parenthood (“her whole life had essentially become work”) comes in full flood; parenthood, and the absence of it, running through the novel.
It filled her with panic and rage to see her spoilt children sat upon the floor, flicking through past images, moving images, of themselves, on their father’s phone, an experience of self-awareness literally unknown in the history of human existence – outside dream and miracle – until very recently. Until just before now.
It may be this part that Smith refers to in this interview, where she says that she rewrote the last third of the book after her husband, Nick Laird, told her it had gone “very wrong”. There remains a strangeness to it, an ill-fitting quality. This may be a function of the staccato telling: screengrabs of a life which don’t create an illusion of wholeness as Connell’s Bridge books do. It may be of the sadness which begins to overwhelm the book in the second half, and sits oddly with Smith’s always sparky prose. Yet the more I thought about this section, the more I felt that these were ‘problems’ that, more than anything, demand another reading to get to grips with. (Increasingly, I am of the view that I should read a book twice before committing any thoughts to writing at all.) New things are, by definition, strange, and NW feels new all the way through. It’s almost in the title. The book is full of how we live now, but it has a traditional feel for people, and for language across generations and social classes: like a third way between Smith’s two directions for the novel. It also feels like a breakthrough for Smith, in a sense her first mature work. Her previous novels were written before the age of 30, and ultimately fell down to a greater or lesser extent: books I enjoyed, but wouldn’t reread. Not so NW, a novel altogether tighter and trickier to unlock. My feelings about it are similar to those for Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room: quibbles while reading, once I began thinking and writing about it, began first to dissolve and then to transform into praiseworthy qualities. Not incidentally, I was softened up a little by finding an author at the top of her game who shares so many of my cultural references: a late-thirties thing, I suppose. How many novels, after all, contain a chapter titled Spectrum 128k?
August 16, 2012
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 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.