Jon McGregor: Even the Dogs

A confession first: I have previously had a prejudice against Jon McGregor on the basis that his titles (If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways to Begin) were so precious and pompous that I would never be able to see whatever good was in the books (if any). The high praise which Even the Dogs attracted among many sympathetic readers made me see past my prejudice … only to find that it wasn’t so far off after all.

I was interested to read in dovegreyreader’s interview with McGregor that he conceived the book, and wrote the first chapter, while stuck on his previous novel, then put it away. I thought the first chapter was terrific, grim but bright-eyed and full of life (albeit not the sort of life many of us would want to experience). It opens with the death of Robert, a drug addict.

We all crowd into the room and look at the body. The swollen and softening skin, the sunken gaze, the oily pool of fluids spreading across the floor. The twitch and crawl of newly hatched life, feeding.

(The ‘we’ is a choral narrative voice, as in The Virgin Suicides or Then We Came to the End, seemingly comprising fellow drug users who have gone the same way as Robert.) I speculate that the force of this opening chapter came from the fact that McGregor was writing it ‘casually’, not as his main project, and that the book suffered when he turned his full attention to it to write the rest of it; it became important.

Even the Dogs is well written, and mostly free of effortful ‘fine writing’, and there are some nice cadences and repetitions (“what else can we do”) in the voice of the invisible crowd which narrates the book. And the subject matter is dramatic and (again) ‘important’. But the characters are all – or almost all – junkies or alcoholics or both, and people addicted to drugs are not very interesting, being pretty one-note in their motivations and repetitive in their actions. (“The man hours that go into living like this. Takes some dedication, takes some fucking what, commitment.”) I didn’t find the characters easy to tell apart either, other than the deceased Robert and his daughter Laura, so the voices, already an impressionistic blur, merged almost indistinguishably.

There were certainly lovely moments, like the the touching page or so where Robert fantasises about the sort of life most of us take for granted, and the time-lapse description of Robert and Yvonne’s parenting of Laura, which doubles as a record of innocent life being corrupted.

Crayon scribbles appear, low on the wallpaper by the heaps of shoes and boxes of toys. Dated felt-tip stripes creep up the wall by the doorframe, tracking their daughter’s growth a thumb’s width at a time. Tiny shoes nudge in alongside the adult-sized ones, and bigger shoes take their place. Tea stains the colour of old photographs splash across the wall, lingering long after the broken cups are cleared away. A dent the size of a fist or forehead is hidden by a framed school portrait. The damp patches spread further, and the paper sags away from the wall, and the ceiling stains a darkening nicotine yellow. The door is kicked from its hinges, and rehung. More framed pictures are put up on the wall.

There is a lovely observation about the rare pleasure for some of these social ‘untouchables’ of having direct human contact. (“Same with the nurses, changing your dressings or taking your blood pressure or listening to the crackling in your lungs, they got to touch you with their clean soft hands and no one says nothing about it but it all helps oh Christ but it helps.”) I also thought the last chapter good, with the state’s attempts, having failed to stop Robert’s descent into chaos during his life, to impose order at least on his death through post-mortem and inquest proceedings. There is even the odd decent joke.

Straight up, I don’t think I’d even have mental-health problems in the first place if the voices were just a bit nicer to me, you know what I’m saying?

All in all though, I thought the book too frequently seemed to be a series of exercises in style – a chapter with unfinished paragraphs, ten pages of unbroken text – in which McGregor was at pains to display his research and his virtuosity. Recurring ideas (“And then getting up and doing it all over again. We get up, and we do it all over again”) owe their power to a debt to Beckett or Kelman. Even the Dogs seemed to be one of those books which, claiming importance because of a weighty subject matter, doesn’t actually match up to that in the reading; it was mostly dull. I think it’s possible that if it hadn’t been published in a lovely ‘bendyback’ format – so easy to read handsfree! – I might not have finished it at all.

William Boyd: Ordinary Thunderstorms

I discovered William Boyd’s fiction relatively recently, with the publication of his last-but-one novel Any Human Heart (2002). It is one of his finest novels, and exemplifies his knack for laying out a life in full: in that case through fictional diaries; or, in his 1987 novel The New Confessions, via an invented autobiography. These are for me his major works (though I might think that just because they’re also his longest). Elsewhere, with novels like Brazzaville Beach (1990) and The Blue Afternoon (1993), he had a knack of doing very satisfying stories in foreign climes. With his last novel Restless (2006), he turned to the thriller, with great commercial but (to me) less artistic success. I hoped to see a return to form with his new novel.

William Boyd: Ordinary Thunderstorms

When I first read about William Boyd’s new novel Ordinary Thunderstorms, I was concerned to hear that the publishers were touting it as comparable to “the action-packed Bourne films.” (I’ve seen only the third one, but I’m guessing the others weren’t any better.) I wasn’t heartened on seeing the book itself, which from the cover would lead the casual reader to believe that Boyd’s only other novel was the middling Restless (“the Richard and Judy bestseller”) – though they can’t be blamed for wanting to trade on his greatest commercial success.

Anyway it turns out to be reasonable enough marketing, as Ordinary Thunderstorms opens with what could be described as a voice-over, either playful or cheesy, and reminiscent of Orson Welles opening The War of the Worlds. “Soon, in a minute or two, a young man will come and stand by the river’s edge, here at Chelsea Bridge, in London. There he is – look – stepping hesitantly down from a taxi, paying the driver, gazing around him … He crosses the road, having no idea how his life is about to change in the next few hours – massively, irrevocably – no idea at all.”

By page 8, this ordinary hero – Adam Kindred – finds himself in a strange flat with a knife in his hand, blood on his knuckles and a man dying before him with the words, “Whatever you do, don’t -” It’s so ridiculously cute, such a Hitchcockian McGuffin, that it defied my initial instinct – to roll my eyes, tweet FFS!, and move on to something more worthwhile – and kept me reading to see how shameless Boyd could get. (The answer, I realised, when timings are described in Matthew Reilly-style “milliseconds”, and a chapter ends with the words, “And then everything went black,” is a bit more shameless yet.) For the first 50 pages or so I did wonder if what I was reading would turn out to be a story within a story à la Cloud Atlas, a manuscript a character is reading for a B-movie thriller – Boyd is not above such trickery, as his fictional biography Nat Tate showed – but it turns out he’s playing with a straight bat.

In such bog-standard thriller territory, the details hardly matter, but for the curious, we have climatology, the evils of Big Pharma, business power struggles, crackpot religion, prostitution, and maritime policing, among other elements. There is unleavened exposition, cut-and-paste description, predictable love interest, and (deliberately?) duff prose like “his left thigh and left shoulder were competing for first place in the throbbing-pain stakes,” or “the Kindred chapter in Jonjo Case’s life was about to be concluded – with extreme prejudice”. Boyd in an interview says that the book is about “what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city.” But what brings Adam Kindred to this place is such a web of implausibilities that it doesn’t get the reader thinking anything other than, “This is completely ridiculous”. The clichéd presentation limits engagement with the issues.  However, as I got past the first couple of hundred pages or so, the storyline did begin to get under my skin and I found myself quite racing through the second half.

Moreover, there is an interesting portrait here of the various webs of society in London and how they can break through the usual barriers and encounter one another – a little like in London Fields or White Teeth. And there are interesting characters, such as the businessman who hates his vain brother-in-law, or the mother (called Mhouse) who crushes Diazepam into her son’s food to get some peace and quiet, or the police officer who lives with her father in a sort of symbiotic dependence and distrust. There is a true sense of life to much of it. But equally there are stock characters like Jonjo Case, the ruthless contract killer with an army background, and typical implausibilities such as an everyman hero who has such an interest in delving into sinister stuff which is none of his business that he really should be driving the Mystery Machine.

As I read Ordinary Thunderstorms, began to think that it may not – or not only – have been Boyd’s intention to see if he could write a thriller-by-numbers, but also to see if he could present a multi-faceted narrative with several ’rounded’ characters (most of his novels are heavily focused on a single person). This he does, and his ability to keep the plates spinning, to work out the nuts and bolts of fiction, is not in doubt. There is pleasure too in watching the trajectories of the various characters – he goes up, she comes down – the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

By the end it felt like the best book Ben Elton has never written, or like Iain Banks on a good day. Unfortunately this also makes it (politeness forces me into the following understatement) not one of the best books William Boyd has written, at least if you’re expecting it to demonstrate his usual strengths as a writer. The flipside of that, of course, is that it displays other strengths as a writer that I didn’t know he had.

Magnus Mills: The Maintenance of Headway

Magnus Mills came to prominence in 1998 when his debut novel The Restraint of Beasts was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (and at least one judge, Penelope Fitzgerald, wanted it to win). Even the tabloids were interested by the idea of a £1 million advance (which wasn’t true) for an author who was a bus driver (which was; and furthermore, he’s back on them again). But more interesting than the author was the work, and this book and Mills’s second, All Quiet on the Orient Express (“in which a man spills a tin of paint and thereby condemns himself to death”), remain his best. Both are funny, unsettling and at least to some extent deserve those normally misplaced comparisons with Kafka and Beckett. After his disappointing fourth novel, The Scheme for Full Employment, he enjoyed a return to form with Explorers of the New Century and its extraordinary twist.

Magnus Mills: The Maintenance of HeadwayThe Maintenance of Headway bears closest comparison to The Scheme for Full Employment: but don’t despair. Here Mills applies the qualities and subject of the earlier book to somewhat greater ends. As with all his other books, the lack of specific details of setting invite a reading as allegory, but there is enough detail to place it in a pseudo-England, where people go on holiday to “the seaside” and never complain on public transport. It is the bus service of a unnamed city which provides the setting, and provides Mills with the opportunity for plenty of broad satire on monolithic public services (“It’s not a business, it’s a service”). Prime among these is the unswerving approach of the management to schedule disruptions: “There’s no excuse for being early,” is the catchphrase of one official. This is because, faced with the impossibility of running a proper bus service in the city, the management have adopted

‘…a single, guiding principle from which they will not stray whatever the circumstances.’

‘What is this guiding principle?’ Jeff asked.

‘The maintenance of headway,’ replied Edward. ‘The notion that a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained and adhered to.’

‘But that’s preposterous!’ said Jeff.

The management is ever-vigilant in its attempts to maintain a regular flow of buses. “I’m going to adjust you and I’ll tell you why,” says Greeves. “I’ve got too many buses up this end and not enough down that end. You’ll be pleased to know you’re part of the remedy.” The problem for the drivers is that they like to make up time where they can, save a minute here and there, and when the management insists on them not being early, well, “you’ve lost your freedom of action.”

As with other Mills books, the narrator is unnamed and most of the characters speak in the same register: one of affable resignation. The location, also as usual, is unspecified, with the only markers sounding suspiciously allegorical: the cross, the crescent, the southern outpost, the bejewelled thoroughfare. Even the nature of the analogue is deliberately unclear: at times the bus service seems like a church, at others a prison. As always, women here are an endangered species. There is mild comedy in the passive-aggressive exchanges, reminiscent of All Quiet on the Orient Express:

There was a man standing in the road holding a large key. He was surrounded by a circle of traffic cones, in front of which was a red and white sign: ROAD CLOSED. I pulled my bus up and spoke to him through the window.

‘Morning,’ I said.

‘Morning,’ he replied.


‘Will be in a minute,’ he said. ‘I’m just about to relieve the pressure.’

His van was parked nearby. He was from a water company.

‘Would it be possible to let me go past before you start?’ I enquired.

‘I’m afraid not,’ he said. ‘I’ve already put my cones out. Can’t really bring them all in again.’

I counted the cones. There were seven in total.

Overall, what the management finds is unsurprising: that “it was people of one kind or another who ultimately disrupt the bus service.” Drivers, passengers, other road users. A system, they discover, can never operate while people are around to gum up its works. People create the system, and people are the problem. The narrator, as passengers dispersed from his bus, “found myself unable to answer the question: What are we here for?” It is a question many Mills characters have pondered, and will no doubt continue to. The Maintenance of Headway seems either a summation of Mills’s vision, or a rehash of all his old tricks. Nonetheless, as a fan, I’m just pleased to see him still writing, and still producing books at a fixed interval on a regular service. We can only dream of the day when three will come along at once.

David Park: Swallowing the Sun

Being from Northern Ireland, I’ve long been conscious that my own corner of the world has been overshadowed in literary terms by its quarrelling parents, Britain and Ireland. What novelists from Northern Ireland could reasonably said to be of international stature? Brian Moore, certainly. Bernard MacLaverty. There are younger writers like Glenn Patterson or Robert McLiam Wilson, but I haven’t read enough of them to judge. Let me now suggest, however, that David Park belongs to that company; that he is, at the very least, better than many higher-selling and more widely acclaimed British literary novelists. Last year I delighted in his latest novel, The Truth Commissioner. Now I begin the pleasurable task of working back through his output.


Swallowing the Sun (2004) reflects the times in which it was written: when Northern Ireland was struggling to free itself of the legacy of ‘the Troubles’. There was a time when the very sniff of this subject matter in a book would send me running, but something must have changed – time, distance – as this is the second book on the theme I’ve read this year, the first being Benedict Kiely’s excellent Proxopera. In fact to call Park’s book a ‘Troubles story’ is limiting and wrong, since it is also a family story, a thriller, and a meditation on the difficulty of fitting in while to thine own self being true. “What good would it be if your own self was inadequate or unformed?”

The central character is Martin Waring, a man whose background – a violent father, a loyalist neighbourhood – are efficiently sketched out by Park in a short preface. His upbringing defines Waring, if only because he cannot let it go. He has taken a job as a museum security guard to try to discard his educational failures and “live inside the world of ideas”, and is both proud and intimidated by his daughter Rachel’s academic success. (He has other reasons too: “strange to feel safest from the past in a museum.”) He is impressed and seduced by art and intelligence. When an artist who is being exhibited at the museum has a conversation with him,

it was … as if she liked him and that made him feel good and he wondered if being washed in enough people’s like could be the thing that would make him clean. Like everyone else. The same as everyone else.

Park’s ability, as in The Truth Commissioner, is to present a plausible human drama from different points of view, and not only that, but to exhibit an expert control of pace which made me race through the book in a day. Swallowing the Sun is a plot- and character-driven book, where the developments (unfortunately hinted at on the back cover blurb) fit together neatly with everything that has gone before and slot into the political context.

‘Now the Troubles are over, everybody has to make a living from legit crime – drugs, protection, counterfeit goods, moving fuel over the border and all the rest. It’s what they think of as the peace dividend.’

This is a book which, while not stylistically innovative, is structurally satisfying and has a well-judged ending. It’s hard to know with a book like this, which seems to me as good an example of its type as I’ve read, whether I derived some additional pleasure from the familiar (to me) setting. So, for example, when a character refers to a lemonade factory on the Castlereagh Road, I know it’s the one I used to drive past on the way home from work. I hope that this ‘local halo’ is negligible, and that I would have liked the book as much if set in Surrey (…with its well-known paramilitary past).

Swallowing the Sun does not have the scope or ambition of The Truth Commissioner, but I found it a much more gripping and urgent read. And if – I said if – it does not quite match up to Park’s latest work, then that should not be cause for concern. It just means he’s getting better, from an already high standard, and that the best is yet to come.

I have a copy of Swallowing the Sun to give away – it has a different cover from the above (yes, I was silly enough to buy a new copy when the above rejacketing occurred) but is pristine and unread. If you would like to be included in the draw for it, say so in the comment box below before 25 April 2009. I’ll draw a winner at random after that. Anyone anywhere in the world can enter, and the only condition is that you read it and come back here to share your thoughts.

Peter Stamm: Agnes

I don’t normally write here about books I didn’t like, or felt indifferent toward. First, I’m unlikely to finish them. Second, if the book is out of print, as this one is, there’s not much point in writing a post just to say: Here’s a book you probably haven’t heard of; and it’s no good. Peter Stamm’s Agnes is not, in fact, no good, but it doesn’t match up to the high standards expected when Michael Hofmann’s name is attached as translator. It was by searching for Hofmann translations that I found Stamm. Another novel of his, Unformed Landscape, has the funniest (intentional, I hope) quote of praise I’ve read in a long time, from the New Yorker: “If Albert Camus had lived in an age when people in remote Norwegian fishing villages had e-mail, he might have written a novel like this.”

Agnes (1998; tr. 2000) is an object lesson in the dangers of book blurbs, which have to be interesting enough to make the reader pick the book up, but not so detailed that they will detract from the pleasure of following the line the author has drawn. Here, the blurb tells the story from start to finish.

Agnes is dead. Killed by a story.

All that is left of her now is this story. It begins on that day, nine months ago, when we first met in the Chicago Public Library

‘Write a story about me,’ Agnes said to her lover, ‘so I know what you think of me.’ So he started to write the story of everything that had happened to them from the moment they met.

But as he writes, at first studying her intently from his computer, and later on his own, the borders between fiction and real life begin to blur. Each day he reads a new chapter to Agnes, and eventually their story catches up with the present.

On New Year’s Eve he leaves Agnes alone in their flat. She turns on the computer and reads on, into the future which he had imagined for her. And to her death.

Agnes is an unforgettable and haunting love story with a chilling conclusion.

The problems with this are threefold. First, it sells the book as some sort of metafictional piece of postmodernism, which it is not. There is no real blurring of the border between fiction and real life in the story, or in the story which Agnes’s lover writes about her. Second, it omits what is actually most interesting about the book, which is its portrayal of personal interdependence and freedom. Third, it is not accurate: in neither the story nor the story-within-a-story is there any indication that Agnes has died, and only the most generous interpretation would allow for it. The pointer does also appear in the opening line of the book (“Agnes is dead. Killed by a story”), but this is a far more ambiguous use of ‘dead’ and ‘killed’ than the blurb suggests. So by altering my expectations of what the book was about, it became a disappointment which it needn’t have been.

The narrator, unnamed, is a Swiss writer living in Chicago, who has published non-fiction books on Pullman trains and the like, and whose aims for art have broken down over the years (he started a novel but never finished it). He is disaffected and disinterested.

I liked [the coffee shop] because none of the waitresses knew me or talked to me, because I didn’t have a special place where I always sat, and because someone asked me every morning for my order, though it was always the same.

He meets Agnes, with whom he falls in love (“I felt an almost physical dependency on her; when she wasn’t there I had a dismaying sensation of not being complete”), but this love does not improve his constitutional mood:

We imagine we all share the same world. But each of us is in a mine or quarry of his own, just chipping away at his own life, doesn’t look left or right, and can’t even turn back because of the rubble he leaves behind him.

The story explores dependency: the narrator’s for Agnes; hers for him when he begins writing her story which she comes to rely on as a guide for what to do (“Now Agnes was my creation”); the reader’s for the author generally. “I’m always sad when I finish a book,” says Agnes. “It feels to me that I’d become the character in it, and the character’s life ends when the book does.” (This, presumably, is the passage which is supposed to lead us to conclude that Agnes dies at the end of the book.) This dependency clashes with the need for freedom, as the narrator observes when his relationship with Agnes ends. “My freedom had always mattered more to me than my happiness.” It is also reflected in the research the narrator does on his Pullman trains, finding that their creator, George Mortimer Pullman, suffered a revolt by the workers for whom he had created a model village:

The failure of Pullman’s vision and the uprising of his labour force against the complete control of their lives by their employer fascinated me more than the company’s celebrated railway carriages. It seemed that Pullman had planned for every contingency, except his workers’ desire for freedom. He thought he had constructed a kind of paradisal community for them. But his Paradise didn’t have a door.

The question for Agnes and the narrator is whether life has a door. There’s not much spoiling to be done here – the book comes pre-spoiled by that blurb – but one other excerpt is worth quoting, going right back to the issue I began with, of whether to write about books we don’t care for. The more I write about it, the less sure I am that I didn’t care for it. Why do we go back to books we’re unsure of? Does hope spring eternal, do we think that all writing must have some qualities if only we can dig deep enough (in the same way that even a poor film gives me pleasure, because I so enjoy the experience of going to the cinema)? Or is it something else?

‘I don’t read much anymore,’ said Agnes. ‘Because I didn’t want books to have me in their power. It’s like poison. I imagined I’d become immune. But you never become immune.’

Patrick McCabe: The Holy City

Patrick McCabe’s books come in bunches. First, the ones nobody has read, including Music on Clinton Street and Carn. Then a trio of successful novels, shortlisted and garlanded: The Butcher Boy, The Dead School and Breakfast on Pluto. Something went wrong then, with the next three books (Mondo Desperado, Emerald Germs of Ireland and Call Me the Breeze) receiving what are politely termed mixed reviews. Worse still: of the last, McCabe complains: “Nobody bloody read it.” This downturn paid dividends, as he was then fired to write Winterwood (2006), a book matched in brilliance in McCabe’s oeuvre only by The Dead School, and which attained the highest accolade achieved by all the best books these days, of failing to get longlisted for the Booker Prize.

If Winterwood – silent and silvery and coldly threatening – was a departure, then McCabe’s new novel The Holy City must be a reparture. It feels as though he’s going through his hoops with this one, with all the usual elements present from what John Banville called McCabe’s “antic black comedy”, from small-town Ireland to popular culture to an idiosyncratic narrative voice thinly veiling unspeakable horrors. Fortunately, it’s a shtick that I have a high tolerance for; and this time we are in the company of “Chris J. McCool – at your service, just call me Pops … refined boulevardier of some distinction”, in his 67th year, bestriding the town of Cullymore in a cloud of Old Spice and clad in “the smartest of neat blue blazers with brightly polished brass buttons, complete with white loafers and razor-creased grey slacks, a Peter Stuyvesant King Size cigarette (the international passport to smoking pleasure!) louchely dawdling between my lips.”

Like most of McCabe’s narrators, McCool is a witty and charming storyteller, and barking mad. Also as usual, the charm (and the madness) masks past trauma, a recurring theme in McCabe’s fiction. The nature of the trauma of course cannot be disclosed here, for it is the destination to which the book leads. Which is not to say that it is the point of The Holy City; the journey is what matters, McCabe viewing his books as exercises in style. Here the style is a comic, meandering one, with McCool punctuating his reminiscences with disturbing punchlines, more unsettling than funny, and without the self-awareness to hide his worst qualities. These are combined with blunt pointers (“my psychotherapist”) and references to the social mores of Ireland then and now, as when he attempts to “provide some background to the reason I insulted my psychotherapist Meera Pandit and called her unwholesome names.”

Not that Meera was what you’d call proper black – not really. Not ‘full-blown’ black, I mean to say. Not Nigerian, for example – ebony – black and shiny the way that Marcus Otoyo was. Gleaming and polished, in that shiny African way. No, Pandit, you see, was a Hindu, not from anywhere near Nigeria, or anywhere else in Africa for that matter. I think from somewhere out near Bangladesh. As a matter of fact, to be fair to old Meera, now that I think of her, she was like something that might have emerged from the sixties herself, with her scarves and her bangles and her floppy Birkenstock sandals.

– You stupid black fucker! was, in fact, what I had said.

Two central elements in the book are present here: Marcus Otoyo, who is key to McCool’s story (and trauma), and the casual racism of the past. This in itself serves a double purpose. It is indicative of McCool’s wider lack of human empathy – his depersonalisation of others (“The Balloon People have arrived!”) is repeatedly shown in the book, a marker of a psychopathic personality. Similarly, Catholics and Protestants in the book regard one another as a lumpen mass, and this matches the racism as a reflection of the changing social attitudes of Ireland in recent decades, and the less welcome changes brought about in tandem (“What exactly was happening to the town of Cullymore?”).

McCabe shirks the bespoke label for his books of “bog gothic,” preferring “the social fantastic” – “People have often commented that everyone in the books is mad or damaged. But you should view them as prisms through which the feelings of society are reflected. These are not naturalistic fictions.” You can say that again.

McCabe’s facility for this type of writing – as he put it of Breakfast on Pluto, “it’s meant to be a small hand-grenade of a book, but a burlesque as well” – can leave the reader thinking that it’s all too easy for him, and that the book is somehow less valuable as a result. And it is true that there is little here which has not been explored in his earlier fiction. But it all fits together so beautifully, and is so entertaining to read even when you can see the author’s fingers on the buttons, that for me there was nothing to forgive. “If your character is repugnant in all respects,” McCabe explained in an interview, “nobody can read it. Having some narrative tricks in this day and age is essential, at least for the first ten pages.” Or, in this case, the first two hundred and ten.

Machado de Assis: Epitaph of a Small Winner

Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert last year came in for a good deal of stick from critics, largely for its sprawling self-indulgence. I won’t deny those charges, but I remain indebted to Thirlwell for introducing me to authors I didn’t know, including Robert Walser. Still more prominently featured in his book was Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), so when I saw that Bloomsbury had reissued his most famous novel to tie in with a newly collected volume of stories, I had to have it. (Four links in one paragraph really is excessive; I promise to stop now.) The cover bears praise from Salman Rushdie – “the kind of humour that makes skulls smile” (aren’t skulls always smiling?) – to which Bloomsbury have given a literal interpretation for the cover design.

Epitaph of a Small Winner is also (and perhaps better) known as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, which is a literal translation of the Portuguese title. This title is perhaps mainly of topical interest on a day when all eyes are on a very big winner, and the epitaph of his rival. In fact, the book inside feels brand new too. On reading it, I had to keep looking under the covers for ruptures in the space-time continuum, so hard was it to believe it was published in 1881. Its modernity, however, is only extraordinary in the context of famous English literature of the time – go a little further back, and the inspiration is clear. Braz Cubas is a Brazilian Tristram Shandy, digressing and fooling and getting all reflexive on the reader in the most entertaining way. He struggles to find a comparison when describing something, and so:

Let the reader make whatever analogy pleases him most, let him make it and be content; there is no need for him to curl his lip at me merely because we have not yet come to the narrative part of these memoirs. We shall get to it. The reader, like his fellows, doubtless prefers action to reflection, and doubtless he is wholly in the right. So we shall get to it.

Before that, we must be informed of Cubas’s present position. “I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing.” The freewheeling style and content has something in common not just with Sterne (there are chapters with all dialogue replaced by asterisks), but also Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, with comic-eccentric ideas like finding a coin in the street and sending it to the police for it to be returned to its rightful owner. There is an emotional centre to the book amid this clowning, however.

I pressed my silent grief to my breast and experienced a curious feeling, something that might be called the voluptuousness of misery. Voluptuousness of misery. Memorize that phrase, reader; store it away, take it out and study it from time to time and, if you do not succeed in understanding it, you may conclude that you have missed one of the most subtle emotions of which man is capable.

Cubas’s misery is all-consuming. He is set up with unwanted lovers, while pining for his great love Marcella. He has a vision where his death seems imminent and he is about to be taken up (or down) by a spirit called Pandora. He pleads for a few more years.

“A few more years would seem like a minute!” she exclaimed. “Why do you want to live longer? To continue to devour and be devoured? Are you not sated with the show and the struggle? You have experienced again and again the least vile and the least painful of my gifts: the brightness of morning, the gentle melancholy of dusk, the quietness of night, the face of the earth, and, last of all, sleep, my greatest gift to man. Poor idiot, what more do you want?”

This pessimism runs through the book, as Cubas sees “ambition, hunger, vanity, melancholy, affluence, love … all of them shaking man like a baby’s rattle until they transformed him into something not unlike an old rag.” The small win of the title, too, comes from the gloriously Larkinesque conclusion that by not handing on misery by having kids himself, Cubas has come out of life just about on top.

Nonetheless, this is a joyous book because the content seems less important than the way he tells it. Machado, via Cubas, never lifts his thumb off the scales, showing off (“Observe now with what skill, with what art, I make the biggest transition in this book”) and accurately gauging this reader’s attention span: “Long chapters are better suited to ponderous readers … but we [prefer] little text, large margins, elegant type, gilt-edged pages, and illustrations…” He is true to his word, squeezing 160 chapters into 210 pages.

At one point Cubas imagines the reader asking, as he recalls his early life and love, “But how can you reconstruct the truth as of that time and express it after so many years?” How indeed? But Cubas died and then did it, and Machado did it and then died, and a fresh edition of this remarkable, dazzling book after 127 years says he’s doing it still.


Through what Salman Rushdie called a P2C2E, I have ended up with two copies of this shiny new edition of Epitaph of a Small Winner published by Bloomsbury. The other copy is free to a good home (worldwide), so please say in the comment box below if you’d like to be included in a draw for it. The only condition is that you return to share your thoughts on the book in due course. Entries close on 8 November. Draw now closed.  Thanks to everyone who entered.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Unaccustomed Earth

I’ve heard so much about Jhumpa Lahiri in recent years, from praise for her debut (Pulitzer Prize-winning) collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, to the film adaptation of her novel The Namesake, that it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge. The publication of a new collection of stories in a fine edition and praise by trusted commenters on this blog, was the kick in the backside I needed.

The epigraph, and title, of Unaccustomed Earth comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Custom-House’:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

It’s perfect for the book: here are eight stories of people who struck their roots into unaccustomed earth, either themselves or by their parents: typically Indian roots in America, sometimes via England (as in the case of Lahiri’s own parents). Contrary to Hawthorne’s prescription, not all of them are thriving.

All this is beautifully illustrated in the title story, the longest in the book at almost 60 pages. Here Ruma, in her late 30s, struggles to balance independence and family loyalty when her widowed father comes to visit.

“You’re always welcome here, Baba,” she’d told her father on the phone. “You know you don’t have to ask.” Her mother would not have asked. “We’re coming to see you in July,” she would have informed Ruma, the plane tickets already in hand. There had been a time in her life when such presumptuousness would have angered Ruma. She missed it now.

What Lahiri does so well in the story ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is present people who are perfectly individual yet utterly recognisable, particular to their culture but universal in their character. She really does have families down pat. She knows how a father is never quite the same as a mother: “[Ruma] had never been able to confront her father freely, the way she used to fight with her mother. Somehow, she feared that any difference of opinion would chip away at the already frail bond that existed between them.” She understands the greatest unrequited love of all, that of parents for their children, when she expertly slips into the mind of Ruma’s father (who has a few surprises in store for his daughter too in the course of the story), who remembers how “tormented” he had been by his growing children’s appetite for independence:

That loss was in store for Ruma, too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things. He wanted to shield her from the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage, and from the conclusion that he sometimes feared was true: that the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start.

(In a later story, another parent is “plagued by his daughters’ vulnerability,” without seeing his own.) Loss and frustration takes a more familiar form in ‘Hell-Heaven’, a contender with ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ for strongest in the book. Here we have not only a tale of unspoken love which keeps its powder dry right up to the last page – and then catches fire – but the recurring question of belonging. Just as Ruma in the opening story cannot understand her father’s handwritten postcards (“her own Bengali was slipping from her”), here the daughter-narrator protests when her parents make her wear a shalwar kameez, making her American friends “assume … that I had more in common with other Bengalis than with them,” whereas she feels herself to be not only her mother’s daughter “but a child of America as well.”

If I had a criticism of these early stories, all of which are superb, it’s that I would have liked some balance of emphasis on the older generation, those who feel less attached to America and more of a pull with their homeland.  We get this only a little, with Ruma’s father in the title story.

The later stories delighted me less. ‘Nobody’s Business’ seems too glib and clever with its tale of housemates, dodgy boyfriends and mysterious callers (though it’s a measure of how well Lahiri executes her effects elsewhere that this story would have pride of place in many other authors’ collections). The three linked stories which close the book, under the umbrella title ‘Hema and Kaushik,’ somehow failed to engage me at all, putting me off partly I suspect with the first story’s curious use of first/second person narrative. This may have been a simple case of story fatigue on my part – 330 pages of stories is somehow more demanding than a novel the same length – and I did wonder if some of the stories should have been shorter. The stories in Unaccustomed Earth average 40 to 50 pages each, which for me makes it a struggle to read each in a sitting (surely the means for getting the best out of any story). I see that Lahiri’s previous collection managed to fit nine stories into 200 pages, so the stories were half the length of these. One commenter did recommend reading the closing trilogy first, and that might have helped. Meanwhile, I’ll be grateful for the considerable – the unaccustomed – pleasure I had from it, and try that reverse order next time around.

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.

Tobias Wolff: Our Story Begins

Straight into a shortlist of one for best book of the year and worst cover design of the decade is Tobias Wolff’s volume of new and selected stories, Our Story Begins. (Seriously, what is it with that cover? To give an already under-read writer like Wolff such an offputting design reminds me a little of the Lee and Herring joke about a poorly-rated TV show, which was “so popular they had to keep moving it around in the schedules to give other programmes a chance.”) If you believe me about the book of the year thing – and I mean it – and are new to Wolff, then it may well be that on completing this volume you will feel the urge to read everything Wolff has written. With many authors – I’m experiencing it with Philip Roth – this is a task as daunting as it is exciting. Wolff, ‘fortunately’, has kept his output down: in 63 years he’s published one novel, two memoirs and three collections of stories. All are essential; but some (Old School; This Boy’s Life) are more essential than others.

Of course if you read this edition, you’ll have a good range of Wolff’s story output anyway, but I recommend the full collections to fill the gaps. Our Story Begins is heavily weighted in favour of his later work, with only nine stories from his first two collections, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs and Back in the World (in the UK these are published in one volume, as The Stories of Tobias Wolff). Fortunately it includes one of his most famous stories, ‘Hunters in the Snow’, which exhibits the best of early Wolff in 16 pages:

Frank reached out and laid his hand on Tub’s arm. “Tub, have you ever been really in love?”

“Well -”

“I mean really in love.” He squeezed Tub’s wrist. “With your whole being.”

“I don’t know. When you put it like that, I don’t know.”

“You haven’t then. Nothing against you, but you’d know it if you had.” Frank let go of Tub’s arm. “This isn’t just some bit of fluff I’m talking about.”

“Who is she, Frank?”

Frank paused. He looked into his empty cup. “Roxanne Brewer.”

“Cliff Brewer’s kid? The babysitter?”

“You can’t just put people into categories like that, Tub. That’s why the whole system is wrong. And that’s why this country is going to hell in a rowboat.”

“But she can’t be more than -” Tub shook his head.

“Fifteen. She’ll be sixteen in May.” Frank smiled. “May fourth, three twenty-seven p.m. Hell, Tub, a hundred years ago she’d have been an old maid by that age. Juliet was only thirteen.”

“Juliet? Juliet Miller? Jesus, Frank, she doesn’t even have breasts. She doesn’t even wear a top to her bathing suit. She’s still collecting frogs.”

“Not Juliet Miller. The real Juliet. Tub, don’t you realise how you’re dividing people up into categories? He’s an executive, she’s a secretary, he’s a truck driver, she’s fifteen years old. Tub, this so-called babysitter, this so-called fifteen-year-old has more in her little finger than most of us have in our entire bodies. I can tell you this little lady is something special.”

Tub nodded. “I know the kids like her.”

This is Wolff at his showiest, able and unashamed to entertain with diverting oddities and clever dialogue several times a page. Most of his stories are told in the third person, which enables Wolff to act as omniscient narrator and put in witticisms (a college which “looked so much like a college that moviemakers sometimes used it as a set”) and insights which wouldn’t necessarily occur to his everyman characters. This could be a weakness if Wolff’s integrity toward his creations weren’t so complete, and the people in his stories so full-blooded. He can sum up elements of their characters with exceptional economy, as in the passage above, where Frank’s knowledge of the very time of day when Roxanne Brewer turns 16 expresses him both as a parental figure and a plan-ahead predator. In another story, ‘Soldier’s Joy’, we get a twinge of pity, a cringe of embarrassment and a smile when we learn of the character Hooper that “he was no great lover, as the women he went with usually got around to telling him.”

Soldiers feature regularly in Wolff’s stories, as do boys from broken homes: Wolff has recorded his own experiences of these situations in This Boy’s Life (1989) and In Pharaoh’s Army (1994). His soldiers are usually in the army by necessity; his fatherless boys feel ambivalence toward their struggling mothers. The two lives are combined in ‘The Other Miller’ when a soldier has a stroke of luck (of one sort or another) and is sent on home leave for bereavement: “Miller knows what happened. There’s another Miller in the battalion with the same initials he’s got, “W.P.,” and this Miller is the one whose mother has died. The army screws up their mail all the time, and now they’ve screwed this up.” This Miller, anyway, isn’t on speaking terms with his mother, as he “wants her to understand that her son is not a man to turn the other cheek” after she remarried, to Miller’s high school biology teacher. Miller joined the army to spite her: “she was right too. The army was just as bad as she thought, and worse. … Miller hated every minute of it, but there was a pleasure in his hatred because his mother must know how unhappy he was.” In a dozen pages, Wolff tracks through this rather eccentric scenario to close in beautifully on the truth at the heart of it.

Miller leans back against the seat and closes his eyes, but his effort to trick himself into somnolence fails; behind his eyelids he is wide awake and fidgety with gloom, probing against his will for what he is afraid to find, until, with no surprise at all, he finds it. A simple truth. His mother is also going to die. Just like him. And there’s no telling when. Miller cannot count on her to be there to come home to, and receive his pardon, when he finally decides she has suffered enough.

This ability to extract piercing honesty from outlandish, attention-catching settings is a speciality of Wolff’s: in ‘Mortals’, where a man complains that his obituary has been published when he’s not dead yet; or in the new story ‘Her Dog’, where Wolff risks extreme silliness by having a man imagine a conversation with his dog – with her dog – but gets to the heart of a relationship in a way that standard issue knockabout stuff between man and woman would struggle to. Elsewhere, the first new story, ‘That Room’ is only four pages long but has a stretch of prose near the end which takes off in an entirely unexpected direction, rather rich and strange, which seems unlike anything Wolff has done before. He seems to be stretching himself.

The rather better US cover for Our Story Begins

The rather better US cover for Our Story Begins

As with any selection of stories, there will be quibbles for every reader familiar with Wolff. (Readers new to him will be delighted by an embarrassment of riches.) For my part, given Wolff’s preference for the stories in his 1996 collection The Night in Question (12 of its 15 are here), I wish he’d included one I vividly remember from reading it a decade ago, ‘The Life of the Body’. The only way through that is to read all the books again anyway: no hardship. It’s a reviewer’s cliché to say it, but there really is more brains, heart and soul in one story by Tobias Wolff – in one page – than some of this year’s Booker longlisters manage in their entire length. The only other criticism is that the book isn’t twice as long, and that we have only ten new stories from Wolff to show for the five years since the publication of his last book, Old School (2003). Like Joe in ‘Deep Kiss’, the last new story in the book and a highlight of this exceptional collection, I feel “itchy with thirst and deeply satisfied all at once.”