Month: September 2008

Tim Parks: Dreams of Rivers and Seas

Just as literary Penelopes confuse me, so too have I a tendency to mix up my Tims. Tim Pears, Tim Parks, Tim Binding, all conflate in my mind as a nonspecific white, middle-aged English novelist of no particular interest – so far. Tim Parks is the most prolific, having published 23 books in the last 23 years. On further searching (of memory and internet), I see that I have read one of his novels: Destiny (1999), which might have more accurately have been named Density, as I recall it as pretty challenging and cannot say now whether I even finished it. Now Dreams of Rivers and Seas is his fourth novel in five years, and it was only high praise in the newspapers, including from Indra Sinha, that made me feel I’d better give him another go.

I’m glad I did, as this is a extraordinary and unusual novel. The cover indicates the Indian setting, but almost all the characters are Westerners, away from home, travelling, seeking. Looming over every page is the social anthropologist Albert James: but he doesn’t even appear in the book.

On reception of his mother’s brief telephone call announcing his father’s death, John James took a deep breath, booked himself onto the first available flight for Delhi, had Elaine drive him to Heathrow, travelled towards the coming night and arrived at Indira Gandhi Airport to find the weather much cooler than expected.

You want an opening sentence that really kick-starts a novel? That’s the way to do it. It’s all there: the emotional distance which John’s mother Helen keeps (the weather really is cooler than expected), John’s taking for granted of his girlfriend Elaine, and the central question of what was on Albert James’s mind in his last days, as he travelled towards the coming night. He wrote a letter to his son a few days before his death:

Dear John, for some time now I have been plagued, perhaps blessed, with dreams of rivers and seas, dreams of water.

The letter that follows is gnomic, enigmatic – typical James, as we learn. As Helen is working in clinics to fight disease in a conventional way (a displacement activity, we suspect, and anyway, “a drop in the ocean … the Third World is a bottomless pit,” one friend observes), Albert is engaging in more curious pursuits with his students.

‘He asked us to draw the weather,’ one girl said.

‘To draw the weather?’

‘And invent new insects,’ said another.

‘Mr James liked to apply very experimental methods,’ Sister Nirmala agreed.

‘Then we had to think of ways to change the world to suit the new insect we had drawn.’

‘Or the new weather we invented.’

His pronouncements too have their ambiguity. John’s girlfriend Elaine observes, reading one of his books, that it was as if James “had something tremendously important to say and then wrote the whole book to make sure no one ever found out what it was.”

Everyone is trying to find out what it was that James had to say, not just at the time of his death, but in his work. His widow Helen is pursued by an American writer, Paul Roberts, who wants to be James’s biographer. “His ultimate goal,” Roberts believes, “was to find a new state of mind, or pattern of behaviour, that would provide the departure point for a solution to many contemporary crises: political, environmental and existential.” John wants to know how his father died, and the reader’s thirst for that is slaked midway through the book. But James remains no less obscure. John’s mind, in trying to follow and understand his father, becomes “a pitching sea, a river that had burst its banks,” and a posthumous disappointment to the man who insisted that understanding can only come “with a clear and clinical mind … with sterilised gloves in sterilised spaces.”

“Nobody understood the messages people communicated like Albert, and the thousand ways every message can be misunderstood.” This is the heart of the book, and of the family: John, as a child, “lived in the knowledge that other families were integrated in the world in a way that the Jameses were not.” The book is all communication, and about the things we learn, and the things we never learn, from conversations, letters, emails, text messages. John’s communication, and lack of it, is crucial to understanding the effect his father and mother have had on him.

Dreams of Rivers and Seas moves into a dramatic gear toward the end, which breaks the spell after the cerebral and ‘talky’ feel of the rest, but probably injects necessary pace and direction toward a conclusion. Amid the ideas, the crossed relationships, the family mysteries and the intimations of all-too-human impropriety in the man whose “greatest ambition was to be a ghost … to be present and not present,” we are reminded by his widow why this knotty read is also so compelling.

No one wants a book about someone who was entirely good.

Ben Goldacre: Bad Science

Ben Goldacre has become Richard Dawkins’ understudy, now that Dawkins is too busy arguing with fundamentalists to write about science any more. In his weekly Guardian column, Bad Science, Goldacre – a full-time NHS doctor – skewers cant and half-truths in the painful joints where science meets journalism and advertising. He also has a website, which he named Bad Science to avoid confusion. Now he’s written a book. I can’t remember the name.

What impresses about Goldacre in his Guardian column is his even-handed dedication to the rational, and his refusal to toe the obvious lines. He’s as keen to denounce hysterical anti-GM crop protests as he is to criticise Monsanto. He points out that anyone worried about the health effects of radiation from mobile phones should live as close as possible to a phone mast.

If this last seems counterintuitive, then such upturning of expectations is exactly what Goldacre wants us to be aware of when reading of ‘sciencey’ claims in the media and advertising. His central aim is to arm the layman reader with enough knowledge of how science reporting works to enable us to spot the dodgy stuff for ourselves. I’m not saying he doesn’t trust us or his own powers of saturation coverage, but he does seem to be keeping up the column and website until we all get on message.

He has a whole bran tub full of examples for us. Brain Gym may sound familiar: it’s sold as a way of “enhancing learning skills.” Goldacre writes:

When you strip away the nonsense, it advocates regular breaks, intermittent light exercise, and drinking plenty of water. This is all entirely sensible.

However “most people know what constitutes a healthy diet already. If you want to make money out of it, you have to make space for yourself in the market: and to do this, you must overcomplicate it, attach your own dubious stamp.” Brian Gym’s dubious stamp is to recommend various exercises such as rubbing the “brain buttons” – effectively attempting to massage the carotid arteries through the ribcage.

Similarly, there is the legendary Gillian McKeith, TV nutritionist (Goldacre reminds us that ‘nutritionist’ is not a protected term and a title which can be claimed by anyone, unlike ‘dietitian’): he considers her “a joke … a menace to the public understanding of science”. She has been written about so widely that Goldacre hardly needs to devote a whole chapter to her, but he does remind us of her most striking suggestions, such as that “skid-mark stools” are “a sign of dampness inside the body – a very common condition in Britain.” The human body is about 65% water, and her thoughts on those which do not have dampness inside them, are not recorded.

To some extent all this seems like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And Goldacre is the new Dawkins for another reason: he’s preaching to the converted. At the beginning of the Gillian McKeith chapter, he expresses the expectation that “since you’ve bought this book you may already be harbouring some suspicions” about McKeith. But he has broader themes to explore, and where Bad Science is most valuable is in the tutorial – by bad example – Goldacre gives us on how clinical trials and studies are carried out. We learn about sampling, controls, peer review, and all the other elements which enable scientists to determine whether a particular study is worth the hyperbole attached to it in the papers. There is much too on the excesses of the pharmaceutical industry, though there’s a reason for their desperation these days: “The golden age of medicine has creaked to a halt” and most drug companies these days are reduced to making “me-too” copies of existing drugs, or diagnosing new illnesses (“Social Anxiety Disorder”) for existing medication.

This leads to the meat of the book, though there’s a fair amount of wading to do to get there (Goldacre doesn’t seem to be a natural writer, at least not at book length, and all the examples and hobby horses can get a little much, in a way they don’t in a weekly column. He also has an unfortunate weakness for silly jokes). Goldacre is exercised about the media portrayal of science, or rather its obsession with misrepresenting health science (“The Daily Mail in particular has become engaged in a bizarre ongoing ontological project, diligently sifting through all the inanimate objects of the universe in order to categorise them as a cause of – or cure for – cancer”). For instance:

In 2007 the British Medical Journal published a large, well-conducted, randomised controlled trial, performed at lots of different locations, run by publicly funded scientists, that delivered a strikingly positive result: it showed that one treatment could significantly improve children’s antisocial behaviour. The treatment was entirely safe, and the study was even accompanied by a very compelling cost-effectiveness analysis.

Did this story get reported as front-page news in the Daily Mail, natural home of miracle cures (and sinister hidden scares)? Was it followed up on the health pages, with an accompanying photo feature, describing one child’s miraculous recovery, and an interview with an attractive happy mother with whom we could all identify?

No. This story was unanimously ignored by the entire British news media, despite their preoccupation with antisocial behaviour, school performance and miracle cures, for one very simple reason: the research was not about a pill. It was about a cheap, practical parenting programme.

There is also coverage of MRSA ‘superbug’ scares, leading to the alarming revelation that the microbiology clinic to which all the UK newspapers turned for their samples to prove the presence of MRSA in hospitals, was in fact a man operating out of his garden shed. This is just a premable to the main course of what Goldacre calls “the media’s MMR hoax” where a tiny ‘study’ of twelve children in 1998 led to a nine-year campaign in the British media against the measles/mumps/rubella triple vaccine for children on the grounds that it was believed to cause autism. Goldacre takes 40 pages over this, explaining that there was never any evidence for the link, but also that the news reporting of the story exemplified all the media’s worst excesses in science reporting. “Less than a third of broadsheet reports referred to the overwhelming evidence that MMR is safe, and only 11 per cent mentioned that it is regarded as safe in the ninety other countries in which it is used.”

To some extent, much of Bad Science could be summed up in two phrases. “A fool and his money are soon parted,” and “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” But it is when this becomes a matter of life and death – as in the MMR scare, which has coincided with a drop in take-up for the vaccine and the first death from measles since 1992 – that Goldacre’s commitment to the truth becomes vital. A much more striking and horrifying example of this is missing from the book; that of Matthias Rath, whom Goldacre accused of contributing to deaths of Aids victims in Africa by promoting his vitamin treatments and denouncing traditional antiretroviral drugs. Rath sued The Guardian for libel, but dropped his action last week. This was too late for publication of the book earlier this month, but expect an appendix in the next edition; and a big party round Goldacre’s way. Everyone’s invited; except Gillian McKeith.

Philip Roth: Patrimony

Occasionally – well, quite often, if I’m truthful – I have a sudden urge where I need to get a specific book, right now. A few months ago it was Philip Roth’s memoir of his father, Patrimony. I tried my local bookshops but without success. I ordered it online and clutched it with glee when it arrived. Then, in the usual fashion, I didn’t want to spoil the anticipation by reading it too soon and stuck it on my shelves.

Patrimony (1991) is subtitled A True Story, but we know Philip Roth too well to take such a claim at face value. His book Operation Shylock, subtitled A Confession and ostensibly a non-fiction account narrated by ‘Philip Roth,’ ends with a postscript: “This confession is false.” His autobiography The Facts is interrupted (and critiqued) by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s fictional alter ego. We’re used to seeing Roth’s formidable literary muscle being flexed via complexity, reflexiveness, even something like postmodernism – so it’s extraordinary to see it being exercised in the service of something much more direct and simple, and retaining all its awesome power. This time, it really is true.

In 1988, when Roth was 55, his 86-year-old father Herman developed something which was initially diagnosed as Bell’s Palsy. “Look, count your blessings, the doctor said; except for a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a half-paralyzed face, he was as healthy as a man twenty years younger.” However, when a brain scan is carried out, and Roth sees the results before his father does, he is moved not just because of the inevitable presence of

the tumor invading the brain but simply because it was his brain, my father’s brain, what prompted him to think the blunt way he thought, speak the emphatic way he spoke, reason the emotional way he reasoned, decide the impulsive way he decided … and now it was being compressed and displaced and destroyed. … God’s will erupted out of a burning bush and, no less miraculously, Herman Roth’s had issued forth all these years from this bulbous organ.

This inspires a journey backward and forward, to his father’s past and his – not a spoiler, I think – short future. “He was still, systemically, a marvel, and therefore fated to be spared nothing.” The past begins with Roth’s mother’s death, seven years earlier, after which Herman embarrassed Roth and the funeral guests by spending the day clearing out her personal belongings: “They were all items for which my father could imagine no function now that she who had treasured them was gone.” Roth, despite his discomfort, sees something to admire in this, an example of his father’s “refusal to sidestep the most brutal of all facts.” It is a refusal which Roth has inherited, not least displayed in this volume. “He could be a pitiless realist, but I was not his offspring for nothing, and I could be pretty realistic too.”

Following his wife’s death, Herman begins to deteriorate at least socially, and Roth has to encourage him to live again, as well as to help him with his basic hygiene, and there is something extraordinary in reading of the great novelist scrubbing his father’s bathroom like, well, like a normal person. Then again, even he acknowledges, when standing over his mother’s grave, that “at a cemetery you are generally reminded of just how narrow and banal your thinking is on this subject.”

Patrimony is not without comedy or drama, and Roth cannot quite restrain his novelist’s skill at painting a scene. There is a skit where Roth poses as a psychiatrist to avoid the attentions of a volatile cab driver, but ends up ‘treating’ him (“You know something, Doc, my old man’s in his grave now without his four front teeth. I knocked ’em out of his fucking mouth for him”), and there is a brilliantly funny set piece where Roth attends a string quartet recital with his father and elderly friends, in aid of the Jewish poor in Florida. After suffering a performance “as alarming as it was heroic, as though these four aging people were trying to push free a car that was mired in the mud,” the audience is frustrated time and again as they rise to go to the refreshment tables and are ushered back by the club president for the next movement. Eventually it ends.

“Bravo! Bravo!” The applause had turned into a rhythmic pounding with wild overtones of a kind you couldn’t have imagined emanating from this temperate crowd, but their relief at being sprung was that great. The applause was loudest from those who had bounded out of their seats and were already lined up two deep in front of the refreshment table. “Bravo!”

On it went until, in a triumphant voice, the president announced above the tumult, “Ladies and gentlemen! Ladies and gentlemen! Good news! The artists are going to give you an encore!”

I thought there would be a riot. I thought plates would go sailing through the air from the direction of the refreshment table. I thought somebody might just walk up and put a foot through the cello.

Much of the book, however, concerns the literal life or death decisions that come from long conversations with specialists. Roth is perpetually horrified by the various expectations the doctors have of his father: that he can withstand an eight hour operation, two eight hour operations, two, three or four months’ convalescence, learning to walk again. When one consultant tells Roth that what he has in mind for his father is “a routine operation,” Roth “had thought, ‘Sure it is – routine for you.'”

[My father] managed to take that in without flinching, which was better than I did. Eight to ten hours, then five to six days, and what would he be worth after that? After the impoverished childhood and the limited education, after the failure of the shoe store and the frozen food business, after the struggle to gain a managerial role in the teeth of the Metropolitan’s Jewish quotas, after the premature deaths of so many loved ones … after all that he had weathered and survived without bitterness or brokenness or despair, wasn’t eight to ten hours of brain surgery really asking too much? Isn’t there a limit?

The answer is yes, yes absolutely, yes to the thousandth degree – this was asking too much. To “Isn’t there a limit?” the answer is no.

Roth is unsentimental in his portrait of his father – stubborn, unseeing, cruel to Lil, the woman he later shared his life with – but also understanding of his need to reminisce all the time, everywhere they go.

You mustn’t forget anything – that’s the inscription on his coat of arms. To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory – to him if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing.

This takes forms which we might not and yet – given Roth’s fictional interests – might well expect of him. Helping his father in the bath, he can’t help noticing his penis.

I looked at it intently, as though for the very first time, and waited on the thoughts. But there weren’t any more, except my reminding myself to fix it in my memory for when he was dead. It might prevent him from becoming ethereally attenuated as the years went by.

Roth has done his father justice, and done him proud – and if he himself comes out of it pretty well (the dedicated son, the worried carer, the fixer of memory) then so be it. I was reading my copy on a plane, stuck on the tarmac as a thunderstorm raged overhead, and I had my mini Ikea pencil for marking notable passages jammed in an awkward pocket. It was so much trouble to fish it out each time, and I fished it out with such frequency because it all was so quotable, that in the end I kept it out, clutched like a cigarette as I marked one joyous paragraph after another of this sombre and lively and brilliant book.

“I must remember accurately,” I told myself, “remember everything accurately so that when he is gone I can re-create the father who created me.” You must not forget anything.

Richard Price: Lush Life

I seem to have a last-come, first-served approach to my reading. Despite the giddy piles of unread books littering my home, the arrival of a new title always brings with it a sense of urgency and importance. Indeed, I already had a Richard Price novel in those piles – his last, 2003’s Samaritan – and had been aware of lavish praise for his books for some years (Clockers, his 1992 novel, is seemingly the granddaddy of them all). Nonetheless, when I received this handsome hefty new hardback (the US edition, pictured further down, is as beautiful in its way), I knew I was lost.

Lush Life is roughly structured as a police procedural – don’t click away, give me a minute here – set in Manhattan, and it opens with Price showing us what to expect from the next 450 pages. The police ‘Quality of Life taxi’ (four officers, “their mantra: Dope, guns, overtime”) is scouring the streets, “misery lights revolving,” for crimes and misdemeanours:

Restless, they finally pull out to honeycomb the streets for an hour of endless tight right turns: falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, creperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner. Pink Pony, Blind Tiger, muffin boutique, corner. Sex shop, tea shop, synagogue, corner. Boulangerie, bar, hat boutique corner. Iglesia, gelateria, matzo shop, corner. Bollywood, Buddha, botanica, corner…

It’s a risky and showy opening; but it’s a showy city. New York is showing itself to us all the time, perpetually being shown to us on TV and film, so that even someone who has never been there has plenty of pictures and expectations in mind. Price’s task is to give us a New York which is both consistent and surprising. He succeeds, but more than that, he creates an internally consistent world which is so immersive and engrossing that for once – and I had always dismissed such claims – I fell for the reviewerly cliché of really wanting the book to last much longer than it did, so I could remain in this immaculately created and fully imagined world for as long as possible.

Price is perhaps better known as a screenwriter than as a novelist: he’s been Oscar nominated for film work, won an award for his writing on the more-talked-about-
TV series The Wire, and has the thankless task of translating Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 into English for the film version (perhaps they held a gigantic cheque over his eyes so he didn’t know what he was agreeing to).

From all this you might expect – and you would be right – that Price’s forte is dialogue. Speech is at the heart of Lush Life, and a good two-thirds to three-quarters of the book is taken up with it. This is dialogue which is rich in street patois and old-cop wisecracks, and which – like Alan Bennett’s in an entirely different way – appears realistic through its use of idioms and neologisms but which is far too artificed and compact to be naturalistic. But even if the lines of dialogue themselves are artificial, their purpose is entirely authentic. Price’s people talk over one another, trail off in the middle of sentences or start to say one thing and then change to another.

More importantly, almost every exchange of dialogue in the book conveys not just what is being said, but the psychology of the character speaking and their history, relationship of power and motivations toward their interlocutor. It’s there when the restaurant manager speaks to his employees; when the cop and the victim’s father talk; and during a magnificent, protracted interrogation which stretches over dozens of pages. Given that so much dialogue in fiction is underfed and dysfunctional – providing characters with a chance to explain what they already know for the benefit of the reader, clumsily foreshadowing, or just treading water – Price’s rich exchanges are a wonder, and a treat, to eavesdrop on: comic, laconic, poetic. You might wonder then why I haven’t quoted any of it, and the answer is that I’m not convinced it would work out of context. You’re going to have to trust me – and Price – on this one.

(Or alternatively, see here for James Wood’s take on the use of dialogue in Lush Life, which provides examples in spades, and nabs most of the best quotes I would have wanted to use, including a cop who, when asked why his request can only be accommodated on Sunday night, is told by his superior, “Tomorrow’s too soon, Monday I can’t promise, Tuesday’s unpredictable to the point of science fiction.”)

The rhythms of speech even extend into the narrative voice, partly I suppose through ‘free indirect style’ – where the narrative adopts the sentiments of the character – and partly through a furious act of control on Price’s part, to insist that the prose will be read as he intended. The use of commas toward the end of this passage is a good example.

…if the driver says one thing, goes one word over some invisible line, then without any change of expression, without any warning signs except maybe a slow straightening up, a sad/disgusted looking off, he steps back, reaches for the door handle, and the world as they knew it, is no more.

This also gives an idea of one possible criticism of Lush Life: there’s a neatness, or slickness, in the dialogue which can seem too polished, too screenplay. However this is an unworthy complaint: I would never complain about every line of a poem being too perfect, so to say the same of dialogue reflects on the level of my own expectations rather than the level of Price’s achievement. On top of the dialogue, Price is no slouch at calling up a great image in the main narrative when he wants to (Lower East Side has “canyonlike streets with their hanging garden of ancient fire escapes”).

In all this I have said nothing about the plot, which is best discovered page by page, but concerns Eric Cash, a 35-year-old restaurant worker with “no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill” and whose “unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger, without wanting to run face-first into a wall.” There is a murder, at which Eric appears to be a witness, and then he becomes central to the police case; and the police are central to everything else. They serve as a nexus for the web of social groups which make up the Manhattan of the book, the overlapping – if not unifying – factor in the fields of humanity all pulling in different directions. Price’s presentation of the city in this way reminded me of Martin Amis’s London Fields.

The story then takes off in different directions, and at every stage the motivations and actions of characters seem thoroughly backed up by their psychology. Highlights of this include Eric’s transformation in the eyes of his colleagues at the restaurant, the splintering of the relationship between the murder victim’s father and his wife (the portrayal of Billy Marcus is masterly), and investigating officer Sergeant Matty Clark, who has his own problems with his sons. Power – father-son, police-suspect, media-public – is a theme throughout Lush Life. Clark reflects at one point:

He had known cops who had on occasion slept with witnesses, slept with suspected perps, confirmed perps, slept with the wives, sisters, and mothers of victims, and had even slept with the victims themselves if they recovered. You walk into lives abruptly turned inside out by the arbitrary malice of the world, and you, in your suit and tie, your heavy black shoes, your decent haircut, and your air of seriousness, you become the knight, the father, the protector…

A murder story has an inbuilt structure to it, which might seem like an easy way for a writer to get himself a book done: here’s the bones, just add meat. There is no doubt that Richard Price makes it look easy – that immersive world, the killer dialogue – but given that he took five years to write Lush Life, we can conclude that it was not the result of any easy cheat but of long hard work. Near the beginning of the book, and the beginning of the investigation, we have this:

Every cop was on the scene, every Night Watch, every plainclothes and uniform, was either on a cell phone calling in, calling out, calling up, or else feeding each other’s steno pad; Matty always taken by that, how you could literally see the narrative building right before your eyes in a cross-chorus of data: names, times, actions, quotes, addresses, phone number, run numbers, shield numbers.

That is Price’s gift: he lets us see how it all happens, line by line and scene by scene, “building right before your eyes,” but the achievement at the end, the view from the top, still seems entirely miraculous.

Paul Auster: Man in the Dark

Paul Auster seems to be experiencing a late (if his 60s isn’t too early to be saying late) creative surge akin to Philip Roth’s. This will be the third new book from him that I’ve written about since I started this blog 18 months ago. His last, Travels in the Scriptorium, seemed to me to be a little too inward-looking; but the previous novel, The Brooklyn Follies, although played pretty straight, gave me greater insight into Auster’s work and crystallised him for me as a writer it is necessary to read. Others must have agreed, as it is the latter and not the former title which gets “By the author of” billing on the cover here.

Man in the Dark continues Auster’s tendency toward slimness of late, at 180 pages top to tail. It also continues many other tendencies of his, but in a much more satisfying way than Travels in the Scriptorium. There, the visitations were from old Auster characters; here, themes and settings recur. We have meditations on cinema (The Book of Illusions), political engagement (Leviathan), a dystopian world (In the County of Last Things) and stories within stories within stories (pretty much everything Auster has written).

Here, the frame is the narrative of August Brill – most of the names, as usual with Auster, are five-letter monosyllables – an elderly writer trying to get to sleep in his daughter’s house. Brill is a retired journalist, conscious of his role in producing “decades of ephemera, mounds of burned-up and recycled newsprint,” and in the process of writing a memoir as a promise to his daughter. We do not get the memoir, at least not at first, but instead a story which Brill tells in order to pass the hours of insomnia. “That’s all I want now – my little story to keep the ghosts away.”

The story tells of Owen Brick, a young man who has woken up in an alternate world, where civil war has erupted in America following the 2000 Presidential Election, when George Bush was declared victor by the Supreme Court. This led to states on the east and west coasts seceding from the Union, and military attacks on them by the remaining federal government. However, the secessionists are aware that this is all the product of a man’s imagination, and recruit Brick to travel back to the real world and kill Brill. (“He invented it, and everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head. Eliminate the head, and the war stops.”) On the way, in the warring world, Brick endures frustrating, circular encounters with locals:

Excuse me, Brick says. Could you tell me if this is the road to Wellington?

The woman stops and looks at Brick with uncomprehending eyes. He notes a small tuft of whiskers sprouting from her chin, her wrinkled mouth, her gnarled, arthritic hands. Wellington? she says. Who asked you?

No one asked me, Brick says. I’m asking you.

Me? What do I have to do with it? I don’t even know you.

And I don’t know you. All I’m asking is if this is the road to Wellington.

The woman scrutinizes Brick for a moment and says, It’ll cost you five bucks.

Five bucks for a yes or no? You must be crazy.

Everyone’s crazy around here. Are you trying to tell me you’re not?

I’m not trying to tell you anything. I just want to know where I am.

You’re standing in a road, nitwit.

Yes, fine, I’m standing in a road, but what I want to know is if this road leads to Wellington.

Ten bucks.

Ten bucks?

Twenty bucks.

Forget it, Brick says, by now at the limit of his patience. I’ll figure it out for myself.

Figure out what? the woman asks.

Brick’s sense of alienation is reflected by his creator’s. Brill is tortured by his memories of his wife’s death, and also that of his granddaughter’s boyfriend, Titus, who was killed while serving in Iraq. Brill’s story is a way of forgetting what he cannot help remembering.

Concentration can be a problem, however, and more often than not my mind eventually drifts away from the story I’m trying to tell to the things I don’t want to think about. There’s nothing to be done. I fail again and again, fail more often than I succeed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best effort.

The last sentence recalls Samuel Beckett (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”) and indeed Brill’s self-examination – his unwillingness to continue but inability to stop – as a whole brings to mind the famous last lines of Beckett’s trilogy (“…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”). This is no surprise, as Auster has not hidden his debt to Beckett (explicitly, a character in The Music of Chance was named Pozzi to chime with Pozzo from Waiting for Godot). Brill has Brick make the following exchange with his girlfriend as he decides whether or not to kill his creator:

So what am I supposed to do?


What do you mean, nothing?

We start living again. You do your job, I do mine. We eat and sleep and pay the bills. We wash the dishes and vacuum the floor. We make a baby together. You put me in the bath and shampoo my hair. I rub your back. You learn new tricks. We visit your parents and listen to your mother complain about her health. We go on, baby, and live our little life. That’s what I’m talking about. Nothing.

As well as Beckett, Kafka seems never far – Brick’s situation pretty well fits popular understandings of the word kafkaesque (the second time I’ve (mis)used it this week) – and the echo in the name of Brill’s granddaughter, Katya, is hardly accidental. But wait – Camus gets a look-in too, explicitly named in the text, and also when Brick’s reflections on suicide seem to recall The Myth of Sisyphus.

All this may well make Man in the Dark (the title seems to refer to Brill’s nocturnal state, Titus’s death, and the human condition) seem a sterile and self-indulgent confection. There will be many, even admirers of Auster’s earlier work, who consider it so. For me, however, it was a valuable and welcome return to Auster’s world – or worlds. He is a writer who successfully straddles literary styles, interested and able to invoke both ideas and plot with economy.  His great strength is that it would be impossible to say what aspects of the novel are foremost in his intentions, as the all-round performance is so convincing.  This risks trying to make him all things to all men, but it is a risk he takes and which pays off.  Most interestingly, in a world where readers consider story to be either the only important thing in a novel, or a superfluous curse, Auster takes the faint praise of pageturning and runs with it, dragging the reader along, challenging him to keep up.

Marcel Aymé: Beautiful Image

The only problem I have with the reliable Pushkin Press is that all their books seem so appealing that I am foxed by choice and usually end up reading none of them, or else playing safe with another Stefan Zweig. When I say ‘appealing’ I mean not only the subject – 20th-century European fiction, usually novella length – but (predictably) the appearance. Many of their books are produced in what they call ‘Jewel’ format: squarish small paperbacks with thick matt covers, with the tactile ribbed texturing of laid paper, which I’ve attempted to show below.

Beautiful Image (La Belle Image) by Marcel Aymé was published in 1941 and is now translated into English for the first time. It’s what a Hollywood pitcher would call a high concept story, the premise both archetypal and novel: what happens when a man suddenly discovers that his face has changed? The results could be either comical or (for once, genuinely) Kafkaesque. Raoul Cérusier discovers his problem – and opportunity – when his identity photographs are rejected by a bureaucratic office. “I give you my word that these are photographs of me. It’s incomprehensible. You have seen them wrong. You must have seen them wrong.”

Even when he suspects the truth, he doesn’t want to believe it – and who can blame him? He knows that when he tells other people, it will be no more than a curiosity of minor amusement to them.

Anybody, I assured myself, could dig up “something very strange which he cannot explain” from the depths of his memory. There’s nothing more ordinary. At the time of the experience, it was bizarre, even frightening, but retold, it becomes nothing at all. In reality, nothing had actually happened.

This is a hint that Cérusier’s narrative may not be reliable, but his reactions are real. Initial self-disgust at the metamorphosis – “a landslide which swept away all my defences” – gradually becomes a sense of endangered opportunity. We learn that he may not be an entirely trustworthy person, and that he has recently ended an affair with his young assistant at work, Lucienne. We gain a tantalising glimpse of a pleasingly perverse relationship of power, of how Lucienne “likes to take revenge” for her abandonment:

For instance, when we’re working at my desk facing each other, she might calmly lay down her pen or document, take my face in her large, hot hands and gaze ardently into my eyes while, silently, she blushes all over, like a man. Overwhelmed, holding my breath, I await her orders. I even hope for them. She knows it, but if I risk making the least gesture, she drops me with a kind smile and returns to her work. I always feel a terrible disappointment, which fades as soon as I’m alone, and even becomes a point of satisfaction when I have my wife beside me.

With other hints at his level of selfishness, it comes as no surprise that Cérusier quickly begins to adapt to his change of face and to change his fate accordingly. “I shall have to resign myself to adopting a slightly different kind of morality, something more akin to that of a fare-dodger.” That is, he decides to move into the flat above his family and to set about seducing his wife. ‘A slightly different kind of morality’ just about sums that up, though we are quickly reminded that anyone who eavesdrops – whether on a conversation, or an another life – never heard anything good about himself. Nonetheless, seduction is made easier by Cérusier’s new face being rather better-looking than the old one, and he also finds it attracts others, which he reflects

might become a source of trouble. The discipline I used to impose on myself no longer applied. … The poor man may well boast of his virtue in the face of the temptations to which rich people succumb. In truth, he has no idea what it is to be tempted to misuse one’s wealth.

Set against these opportunities is the inevitable sense of loneliness which befalls a man who can no longer be known to anyone, who to all intents has fallen to earth from a clear blue sky. “The universe that used to rotate around me is gone. … There was nothing left of Raoul Cérusier but my belief in his existence.” Cérusier confides in his uncle, which leads to some broad comedy of car engines, pigs, and mistaken names. More significantly, Aymé explores how deeply even our closest relationships depend on appearances, as well as how we “won’t accept certainties that aren’t acknowledged elsewhere.”

Translator Sophie Lewis, whose rendering is all that one could wish for (that is, I never felt I was reading a translation), provides an afterword which gives useful background to Aymé and his work, as well as some insights into the themes. So, having braved a random Pushkin, I’m glad to have benefited from a book every bit as interesting, readable and provocative as, well, as Stefan Zweig. The drawback is that it confirms my original suspicion that everything Pushkin publishes is worth reading, and paralyses me into inactivity once more. Until next time.

Olivier Rolin: Hotel Crystal

A promising new (to me) publisher is always cause for celebration, so take a bow Dalkey Archive, a US press which has recently set up a UK outpost, making its titles available here. It describes itself as not-for-profit, which strikes me as a handy policy that many small presses might adopt, to avoid tears later, but there’s some background to them here. Dalkey Archive takes its name from Flann O’Brien’s last novel, a cavalcade of unusual ideas, and so is entirely appropriate for a publisher which specialises in books others might quail from. They also, not incidentally, have beautiful covers, which as an added bonus, are as matching-decoratively acceptable on my bedside table as Sea of Poppies was in our hallway. The covers, as a close examination below will reveal, are unfortunately of a texture designed to attract fingerprint smudges; but I’m sure they’re working on that.

Olivier Rolin’s Hotel Crystal was an irresistible introduction to Dalkey Archive for me, sounding like a cross between Nabokov and Calvino – specifically, Pale Fire meets Invisible Cities. It’s inspired – another tempter – by Georges Perec, who wrote, “I have an exceptional – I believe fairly prodigious even – memory of all the places I have slept in.” This is the springboard for Hotel Crystal, which comprises individual chapters describing in minute detail forty-two hotel rooms which Rolin has slept in. He does not disappoint.

The room measures about 4 x 5 metres. A partition with a 2.5 x 1 metres opening in the middle divides it into two parts (in the manner of an iconostasis): a narrow entryway about one metre wide along the entire width of the bedroom; then, behind the partition, the room itself. The door is painted white, the hall khaki, and the frame of the entryway to the room forms a white arch. Brown baseboards run along the…

So far so Nicholson Baker. But this barking mad proposition takes place in a world where Olivier Rolin has gone missing (“under well known circumstances”), and these room descriptions are all that we – and the ‘editors’ of this volume – have to go on. As he describes each room, Rolin veers off into memories of what happened here. This Olivier Rolin leads a double life, where he associates with humanity at its most exotic: “I call Crook, a former MI6 man fired for compulsive lying and drug abuse … [who] knows the upper tiers of the international cutthroat sect” … “my old Master Louis Althusser … got it into his head to steal an atomic submarine” … “I’m talking with Grigor Ilyuchinsk, a kind of Russian mafioso.”

Rolin himself, it turns out, fits in well with such underworld figures:

Unsheathing the sharpened (and ricin-tipped) sword concealed in my umbrella, I spun around and ran it through the man in the crepe-soled shoes. Stabbed through the heart, he fell without a sound (though in a pool of blood). It wasn’t Antonomarenko, as far as I could tell – it was some priest. I admit to having acted somewhat hastily, but with characters like Antonomarenko, survival often comes at such a price: it’s them or you (actually, as far as Antonomarenko’s concerned, he won’t be bothering anyone anymore: it seems he’s hanged himself in Buenos Aires). I briskly pushed the cleric over the parapet. His small stature made the job easier. All told, things could have been worse.

Names recur, and we begin to piece together a story of international espionage, terrorism and hostage-taking, and of love for the mysterious Mélanie Melbourne. There is a tremendous temptation to reorder the story, to place Rolin’s hotels in chronological order and try to get to the heart of a more linear mystery – and also to discover why the one room he claims to be unable to recall is in Hotel Crystal, “the empty centre of our impossible life together.”

I think however that such attempts would be in vain. The pleasure of Hotel Crystal is in the fragmented, disordered narrative it presents to the reader, of two worlds – or two perceptions of the world – in alignment. Here, the hotel room, meticulously described by the metre, is the banal anonymous box occupied and ignored by businessmen the world over; but it is also the exotic location of movie and pulp literature, where the same anonymity means that anything, from meaningful death to meaningless sex, can take place without consequences. The latter is particularly evident as Rolin, with vanity disguised as lack of vanity, portrays himself as a sexual predator (“I can’t help ogling some of the graceful girls, fine bones like spun glass”), such as in a disturbing and funny scene where the hotel maid comes in to service his room while he is in the bath. Inevitably, “we fuck – or, it would be more accurate to say: I fuck her.” Afterwards:

She gets back up, dresses, her mind elsewhere. She removes the sheets she just put on the bed, stuffs them into the canvas bag, and goes out into the hallway to get a new pair. She spreads them out, tucks them in, lays out the bedspread, patting it to smooth down the wrinkles. Not knowing what to do with myself, I return to the bathroom and get back into the tub. She follows me into the bathroom, changes the soaps and towels. At one point, I wonder if she’s going to unplug the drain, empty the bath water, scrub down the tub and toss me out with the dirty towels. But she doesn’t, and is soon on her way.

The juxtapositions of sex and violence with mind-numbing minutiae recall the scenes in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman would extol the virtues of Huey Lewis and the News at great length immediately after a stomach-turning depiction of rape or murder. Rolin’s prose though, is capable of moments of great elegance, as in a scene where “clouds of starlings merge and disperse acrobatically above the Vatican (like a shattered heart)”. Here the parenthesis seems to be a stage-whispering of the image, as though to acknowledge and defuse its ostentation.

All in all, Hotel Crystal is both playful and stimulating, full of hullabaloo and Oulipo, an homage both to pulp fiction and to postmodern literary trickery, a detective and mystery story itself as much as it reflects the tropes of detective and mystery stories. It defangs the promotional puffery of hotels even as it adds something more dramatically romantic in their place. Perfect – dare one say it? – holiday reading, or as a holiday from reading your usual sort of thing.