Month: February 2007

Jill Dawson: Watch Me Disappear

Jill Dawson first came to my attention a few years ago with Fred & Edie, her (cough) ‘factional’ account of two real life lovers who were hanged in 1923 for the murder of the husband who got in the way. It was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2001 but lost it to (or ‘was robbed by’) Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Since then Dawson has written another novel inspired by true events – Wild Boy, which is on my to-be-read pile so I’ll say no more of it now – and most recently, Watch Me Disappear, which recently came out in paperback.

This has a much more nebulous factual element – the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham in August 2002 form a background to Dawson’s otherwise entirely fictional story. Cambridgeshire and the Fens feature as full-face characters in the book, their flatness and black muddiness from the 1970s to the present day evoked much more successfully here than in Graham Swift’s boggy Waterland.

The narrator, Tina Humber, is a marine biologist specialising in dwarf seahorses. Really though, her story is one of that knottiest of modern concerns, child sexuality and its intersection with the adult variety. She keeps seeing visions of Mandy Baker, a contemporary who went missing aged ten, and who was never found. Tina, returning to England for her brother’s wedding, begins to wonder if Mandy’s disappearance could be connected to her father’s suicide: well, he did leave their mother for a girl young enough to be his daughter…

And so Dawson teases out a quite fascinating and subtly horrifying story of girlhood and sex, now and then. She brings out the central contradiction today where children are allowed to become sexualised at a younger age, and simultaneously kept fearful of a notional paedophile peril which is no more prevalent today than it was thirty years ago. At the same time, she allows Tina to remember her own sexual awakenings, deftly opening the difficult subject of how pubescent children can revel, still innocent, in their blossoming sexuality, unaware of the wilder shores of this wonderful new found land. The scenes of ten- or twelve-year-old Tina discovering her brothers’ porn magazines, or losing her virginity to a schoolboy really old enough to know better, and how these events colour her view of her own sex, are exceptionally vivid and affecting. Indeed, the writing throughout throws colour on everything it describes – from sugar beets to glossy erotica – and makes thrusting three-dimensional life from the black and white page.

I’ve still no idea why a fair man and a dark man are pushing me so hard, why this prickly privet is piercing my neck like that, tearing at the skin on my back; why they are pushing at me, and one of them is making this terrible groaning, as if he is going to be sick, and my cheekbones feel like they will splinter under the weight of his fingers; and right in the centre of me I’m suddenly made of honeycomb. And I’m twelve, I’m two years older than Mandy was when she disappeared: I’m shaking, violently, head to toe, glimpsing the colour, the smell, or taste or texture of what might have happened to her, the thing itself, the thing no one ever talks to me about. Any minute now this man – this boy? – will burst through my skin and I will be over with, finished, my body will crumble behind it; all of me, crumble to dust.

What Dawson has done in Watch Me Disappear is tackle subject matter familiar to readers of Gordon Burn – death, home, the murky area where sex collides with darker things – but without the sometimes offputting horror of his grim relish. If it has a weakness, it’s that the plot doesn’t come to much, but such was my relief at reading my first book in – what? – half a dozen that I loved more or less unreservedly, that I was quite happy to overlook that.

Rick Moody: The Diviners

On the front cover of Rick Moody’s The Diviners, there is a quote from novelist Henry Sutton, writing in Esquire:

America’s greatest living prose stylist has written a comic masterpiece.

Well, thanks for the tip, Henry; but you didn’t say what author you’re talking about, or the title of her book. But the cover was decisive for me anyway: its bright bold illustration persuaded me to buy it, despite my knowledge that the Observer review when The Diviners came out last year was headed Water Torture, or that (at time of writing) its only rating on is a lonely one-star (“The final straw was probably the 3 page analysis of parabolic arcs to describe someone falling off a bicycle”). I like a challenge.

And a challenge The Diviners most certainly is. It’s a barmy, almost perversely unwelcoming megalith of a book. The opening chapter – or, if you will, “Opening Credits and Theme Music” – is a twelve-page description of daylight breaking across the world, westward from Los Angeles. No stereotype is left unexplored:

…in London, light upon the pigeons of Trafalgar, and light upon the pickpockets of Piccadilly Circus, light upon the orderly shops of the Fulham Road, light upon the bobbies and light upon the lorries and the black taxis, light upon the disenchanted royal family. Light upon Belfast, light upon the coils of barbed wire in Belfast…

Six pages might have been fun. Maybe eight. But this – why not? – overture is at least a declaration of what to expect from The Diviners. You can’t say you weren’t warned.

And I persisted. The book becomes a lot more human after this, and is readable enough in its way. Each chapter of sixteen or so pages lets us into the mind of a character, like Vanessa Meandro, head of a New York movie production company called Means of Production, who is looking for the next big thing and also for as many Krispy Kreme doughnuts as she can eat. We also visit her mother (voiding her bowels copiously, in a typical touch for Moody, whose previous novel Purple America opened with a three-page sentence describing a man helping his disabled mother out of the bath, or something like that), star of blockbusters Thaddeus Griffin, writer Melody Howell Forvath, cycle courier Tyrone, and numerous others. The problem is that most of these characters don’t recur after their initial chapter, or only tangentially or in reference. Vanessa does, but each time someone else was mentioned – Madison, Jeanine, Vic – I kept trying to think back to the last time they were mentioned, a hundred and fifty pages ago, and failing.

The writing is notable, in one sense or another. Moody is capable of offering us great and terrible imagery in the same paragraph (“The elevator sighs, as if weary at having to deposit yet another payload … the offices of the agents are laid out like a strand of defective chromosomes”), and his style swings around various forms of omniscient semi-detached third person voice. It seems at times like an exercise in styles for him, an attempt to write his own Ulysses. It doesn’t always work, and I am fairly sure that it was the opening paragraph to chapter 13 that made me realise I would not be reading this book to the end:

Dialectical examination of the subject known hereafter as the ‘Ugly Girl’ (UG) was performed on a certain day in May in an American suburb by trained dialectical experts from like socioeconomic demographics, according to participant-observer methodology. Speakers in this northeastern suburb, according to the trained dialectical experts, are undergoing a vowel shift, known as the ‘anomie-related vowel shift’ (ARVS), best reflected in the [a/ä] transformation of nah, as formulated in reply to requests, e.g., Honey, will you please go and pick up some packages of chicken at the corner store? Nah. (See, for example, Stinson, et al., 1985.)

For half a chapter. Now this sort of mock-academic or institutional speak is the kind of thing that George Saunders or David Foster Wallace can make entertaining, but Moody? Nah.

The storyline is simple enough. Thaddeus Griffin, trying to impress a date, makes up a pitch for a TV mini-series called The Diviners, about mankind’s search for water. The idea spreads and through a series of mix-ups, ends up being commissioned even though it hasn’t been written. Even this satire falls flat, as the idea of the series sounds dull from the outset, and the story is far too attenuated and randomized through the character switches to gain any sort of impetus at all.

I didn’t hate The Diviners, but by halfway through its 570 pages, I had come to realise that it wasn’t going to undergo some process of alchemy in the second half and, to paraphrase Will Self talking to Richard Littlejohn, turn into Tolstoy on page 280. The qualities in Moody that gave us The Ice Storm have melted, and left no trace.

Michael Cunningham: A Home at the End of the World

Before Specimen Days had us all goggling at that third section (even now I can’t quite believe he went ahead and did it: was he trying to do a Cloud Atlas, I wonder?), even before The Hours did the double with the PEN/Faulkner and the Pulitzer, Michael Cunningham wrote a novel called A Home at the End of the World. It has some similarities with those later books, though thankfully it doesn’t rely on the formula of homosexual writer’s work + three sections + title with a unit of time in it (and might I suggest Winterson’s Week for your next opus, Mr C?).

Actually it almost does the three sections thing. The story is narrated by three contemporaries, Jonathan, Bobby and Clare – but Jonathan’s mother Alice gets the odd look-in too. The book was published in 1990 and tells their stories from childhood until that point, though I could have done with more regular milestones to tell us what year, or even decade, we were in at any one time. Because the scenes are quite discrete, and don’t directly follow on from one another. So Jonathan might be telling us about something in his youth, and then the next chapter might be Bobby, recounting events a couple of years later. The effect this has is positive in the sense that it enables Cunningham to work a fairly epic feel out of fewer than 350 pages, but negative in that there’s a loss of continuity, and only sporadically does the novel get a real flow going.

The opening paragraph is just a peach:

Once our father bought a convertible. Don’t ask me. I was five, He bought it and drove it home as casually as he’d bring a gallon of rocky road. Picture our mother’s surprise. She kept rubber bands on the doorknobs. She washed old plastic bags and hung them on the line to dry, a string of thrifty tame jellyfish floating in the sun. Imagine her scrubbing the cheese smell out of a plastic bag on its third or fourth go round when our father pulls up in a Chevy convertible, used but nevertheless—a moving metal landscape, chrome bumpers and what looks like acres of molded silver car-flesh. He saw it parked downtown with a For Sale sign and decided to be the kind of man who buys a car on a whim. We can see as he pulls up that the manic joy has started to fade for him. The car is already an embarrassment. He cruises into the driveway with a frozen smile that matches the Chevy’s grille.

That’s Bobby, who turns out to be a troubled, ‘cool’ teen, to Jonathan’s gentler, more stereotypically gay character. Clare doesn’t come in until halfway through. But the lightness of tone and peculiarity of vision in the opening paragraph are mostly absent thereafter, and as we found in The Hours and Specimen Days, Cunningham’s fiction is pretty much a humour-free zone. The compensation for this is that there are some highly moving scenes, such as with Carlton near the beginning and Erich near the end, but the overall feel for me was too often suffused with what I can only describe as a kind of mimsy wetness. Everyone is angst-ridden, and even in the midst of the scalene love triangle which the three main characters involve themselves in, what I too frequently wanted to do was just give one or more of them a slap.

But the story does develop a richness in its low-level tragedy as it progresses, and the last line of the book proper (as opposed to the slightly needless epilogue) seemed to me a fine way to finish, and not far in temperament or content from the equally strong close of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (“Nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it”).

Kobo Abe: The Face of Another

Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another (1966) has a better cover than The Woman in the Dunes, but that cheap thrill is soon forgotten when ploughing through this turgid tome.

The blurb makes it sound almost thrilling, like an updated Invisible Man:

The narrator is a scientist hideously deformed in a laboratory accident – a man who has lost his face and, with it, connection to other people. Even his wife is now repulsed by him. His only entry back into the world is to create a mask so perfect as to be undetectable. But soon he finds that such a mask is more than a disguise: it is an alternate self – a self that is capable of anything. A remorseless meditation on nature, identity, and the social contract, The Face of Another is an intellectual horror story of the highest order.

But where The Woman in the Dunes (which immediately preceded The Face of Another in publication) managed to combine some fairly knotty metaphysical concerns with a driving storyline, this falters and trips over its own quasi-philosophical musings. These take the form of the narrator’s diary and additional notes thereon, and while the story begins to take a linear form after a confused opening, it pretty soon gets mixed up again and grinds away to little effect.

The main engine of the plot is when the narrator – who has suffered horrific slug-like lumpy scars to his face when splashed with liquid oxygen – decides to use the realistic mask he has created to disguise himself and seduce his wife. A great deal of time is spent on his attempts to get the mask right, but it gets lost in rather waffly stuff about the nature of one’s face affects the personality and psyche. Eventually I was glad to be rid of the thing.

The best thing about it are the forty-eight little iconic illustrations which begin each section, and which look like meaningless patterns to begin with, and then resolve themselves into different stylised faces and masks. One could profitably flick through and enjoy them, however, without wading through all the words in between.

John Banville: Shroud

We go way back, Banville and I, and while I’ve never unequivocally adored one of his books, just the same I’ve never felt quite able to shake the bugger off entirely. His excellent Booker winner The Sea has gone up in my estimation since I read it, and The Newton Letter and The Untouchable excelled in the unBanvillean qualities of, respectively, brevity and plot. Nonetheless there have been terrible lows: The Book of Evidence; Athena; Eclipse. Which way would the Booker-longlisted and Bad Sex Award-shortlisted Shroud fall?

Shroud is Banville-by-numbers. It has a gloomy, self-regarding (but not always self-aware) first person narrative from a failing and frustrated man, dense and allusive and mostly maddening. Axel Vander – or the man who has adopted that name – is indistinguishable in voice from Max Morden, Freddie Montgomery, Alex Cleave, or any of Banville’s other narrators, who share his borderline reliability, humourless pouting and love of the thesaurus. Sometimes this works beautifully:

I heard the paper crackle under one of the castors of my chair, like a snicker of admonitory laughter. It was that letter. See: I lean, I grunt, I pluck it up and flatten it with a fist on the arm of the chair and read it yet again in the cone of gold-dusted light that bathes me in its undeserved benevolence, my old wild leaning head, my sloping shoulder, my rope-veined claw.

That letter is from Cass Cleave (an off-page presence in Banville’s previous novel Eclipse), a young woman who claims to have discovered Vander’s dark secret. He agrees to meet her in a hotel in Turin, where they fall into a desultory sexual liaison.

Now: that last paragraph takes Banville half the book – two hundred pages – to tell. It is slow going. And even when the language is singing at a height, walking the tightrope, it is too unrelenting and suffocating to provoke much aesthetic pleasure. Most paragraphs last a couple of pages. There is practically no dialogue. The solid press of prose is more or less unbroken for the entire book. And while I enjoy fiction that is bleak or grim in its subject matter, Banville finds and describes only the rotten, the repellent and the grotesque.

Once she had seen Granny Cleave do that to a chicken, disembowel the bird like that, pushing her fist through the slack hole underneath and with a quick turn of her wrist bringing out the guts intact in their parcel of opalescent membrane.

He stood there, displaying himself to her, daring her to turn aside from the sight of that gnarled leg, that crazily skewed dead eye, and all that sagging flesh, the pot belly and the shrunken acorn below and its bag suspended by an attenuated string of yellowed skin like a head of garlic on its stalk.

That none of the characters is likeable or sympathetic is neither here nor there: that none of them is interesting, is. In fact the story does begin to come alive after the first half, when we learn something of “Vander’s” past and the boy he stole his name from – it’s something to do with Jews in the Second World War, I think (Banville would never be so vulgar as tell us anything crucial directly) – but when you’ve been boring the reader blind for two hundred pages by that stage, enthusiasm to discover has already expired. Even when the writing is beautiful, it never varies in tone and as a result achieves a soporific effect. At its worst, it reads like a particularly vicious parody of ponderous, pompous prose.

The book itself, in common with most Picador paperbacks, is badly designed – or not designed at all: no-one is credited for the cover – and cheaply bound in rough paper.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française

I bought Suite Française without a second thought when I saw it in paperback the other week, mainly because ever since its hardback publication a year ago, we’ve been assured by the books of the year summaries that it’s not only the finest work of fiction published in the past year, but one of the greatest human endeavours in history. Oddly, the second might be truer than the first.

The main problem with Suite Française is that it is almost impossible to separate the novel – or the 40% of it which Irène Némirovsky completed in 1942 before she was arrested as a ‘stateless person of Jewish descent’ in France, taken to Auschwitz, and died – from the circumstances of its writing, and from the bottomless empathy and admiration which its author evokes in us. A girl escapes the revolutionary eastern bloc in the early 20th century, where her family’s fortune is seized and they travel west, where she grows up to become a famous French novelist, only to have her works banned because of her Jewish ancestry, and she ends up being taken back east on a final, grim train journey. It’s an extraordinary story: and we haven’t even got past the About the Author page yet.

But we are expected, aren’t we, to separate our knowledge of the author from our appreciation of the work. A purely hypothetical poet might be a racist and a generally miserable sod, but that doesn’t stop us enjoying his poems about weddings at Whitsun. And although Némirovsky wrote the first two parts of her projected five-part novel cycle under the sort of desperate conditions which none of us can ever really expect to encounter, that doesn’t make it a masterpiece: unless it is anyway.

What Suite Française is, is beautifully written, with a richness of detail that can only have come from a highly tuned novelist’s eye and a genuine interest in the people and country it depicts. That is, the French in Paris and the countryside as the German army invades and occupies the country in the early 1940s. The first book, Storm in June, shows a handful of families and individuals in the panic fleeing of the capital, and what makes it particularly admirable is Némirovsky’s wicked way of showing the people at their best as well as their worst, from the ridiculous and amusing behaviour of the self-obsessed writer Gabriel Comte, to the brutal deaths which take place when society is on the brink of slipping into anarchy.

The second section, Dolce, details life in an occupied village in rural France as the German occupation takes hold. Again Némirovsky is merciless in allowing her characters to turn on one another as much as, and often more than, they oppose the occupying forces. Her decision to humanise the German soldier characters gives an insight into the times without the hindsight which we all enjoy every time we read a piece of fiction based in the Second World War. At the end of the second section, did Némirovsky believe, as the villagers do, that Germans being sent off to Russia would mean the worst was over for her? And why did she shirk the issue of restrictions of movements and appointments to Jews, concentrating instead on the lives of those who would never be more than inconvenienced by the invasion, but not destroyed? Or is such a question itself an intolerable use of hindsight?

As a work of fiction, Suite Française is enjoyable but limited: it is detailed and teeming with life, but there is no overarching storyline and it is obviously incomplete. On the other hand the appendices and background tell a more exceptional and moving story than most novels themselves manage. The discovery and publication itself is the great achievement here.

James Robertson: The Testament of Gideon Mack

James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack is an object lesson in the pros and cons of cover design. The hardback came out just a few months ago and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but when it won a place on the Richard & Judy list for 2007, the paperback was rushed out a good eight months early, in mid-January. And the paperback cover is appealing and friendly:


It promises us a quirky, cheerful, amusing read; and it is completely misleading. In fact The Testament of Gideon Mack is very good indeed, but just not in the way we might expect. The structure is a traditional ‘true story’ one: the manuscript forming the body of the text has fallen into a publisher’s hands, and there is framing material at the start and end to bolster plausibility. It put me in mind of Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (and Gray is not a bad comparison for the book as a whole, either).

But where we are led to expect – from the prologue, the blurb and the cover – a strange tale of supernatural encounters between a godless Church of Scotland Minister and Auld Nick himself, we get almost nothing of the sort. Instead, Robertson gives us a more or less straight story of a man’s upbringing in the church. It seemed slow going, overwritten, frankly quite dull – until I managed to forget my expectations and follow along in the flow. Suddenly – at the scenes when Gideon Mack tells us of how his father introduced a TV set into their home – the whole thing began to come alive, and I started to enjoy it thoroughly. Mack’s discovery of sex, his battles with his family and parish, his time at university and investiture into the ministry, all provided a much richer – and more serious – experience than the jackass cover illustration which I had liked so much to begin with. (But if it had been given a more appropriate, sober cover, would I have bought it in the first place?)

The scenes with the Devil, and the controversy which follows, do come, but not until page 270, and the vast majority of the book is the mini-epic story of a life, quite soberly dealt and without much flourish or fancy. At times the contemporary references – Thatcher, Iraq, Shilpa Shetty – seem out of place, and I couldn’t help feeling that the style and form would be better suited to a historical setting (like Robertson’s earlier novels). Finally, the main body of the story – before the thirty page epilogue – takes flight right at the end, and produces a memorable and moving scene in a graveyard involving kites and tambourines, which seems like one of those rare set pieces that springs out at us fully formed, and shows that the Devil doesn’t have all the best tunes.