Nadine Gordimer: The Conservationist

This is the sorriest post I have ever made. You see, I couldn’t – at least didn’t – finish the book which over the course of several days last week in my house became known as The Conser-frigging-vationist. So anyone coming here for Best of Booker betting, or looking for inspiration for a coursework essay, apologies: surf elsewhere. So why I am writing about it? Because I did read enough of it to express some views, and because the difficulty I had with it is not unique: neither with this book for me, nor, I suspect, for other readers.

The Conservationist

Nadine Gordimer has so many literary laurels that the cover – front or back – of The Conservationist doesn’t even bother to mention that it won the Booker Prize in 1974 (jointly, with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday). The biggie of course is the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she took in 1991. This should have been warning enough for me, since try as I might, I struggle mightily with most Nobel laureates I’ve tried: Bellow, Beckett, Camus, Faulkner, even popular ones like Hemingway and Steinbeck. (Thank heaven for Coetzee, Márquez, and even at a push Lessing.) Why should this be? I’m pretty clear that it’s my fault: I read too quickly, I know, and clearly the winners of the world’s most prestigious literary award are writing at a level where pace needs to be slowed to ensure the contents seep through the mind and don’t just run off over the surface.

The Conservationist is set in contemporaneous – 1970s – South Africa, around wealthy white man Mehring and his farm.

Many well-off city men buy themselves farms at a certain stage in their careers – the losses are deductible from income tax and this fact coincides with something less tangible it’s understood they can now afford to indulge: a hankering to make contact with the land. It seems to be bred of making money in industry. And it is tacitly regarded as commendable, a sign of having remained fully human and capable of enjoying the simple things of life that poorer men can no longer afford.

This is one of the few times when Gordimer seems to enter the narrative and direct the reader; otherwise, Mehring is damned by his own actions and the words of his employees. It is this general refusal to interfere with the characters that is the book’s greatest strength, but Gordimer’s immersive approach is also where I began to falter. Mehring is rarely referred to by name, so I sometimes had to backtrack at passages to remind myself which “he” was the focus of a scene – Mehring, his herdsman Jacobus, or another worker. Gordimer’s dialogue, too, can be tricky to follow because she doesn’t always make clear who is speaking.

Then again there are passages of compelling lucidity, such as Mehring’s encounter with a teenage girl on an aeroplane (“she need not be afraid of wanting what was happening because it was happening nowhere”), or the discovery of a body in his fields near the start of the book (“How is happen. What is happen here. Why he come down here on this farm. What is happen”). However these windows, for me, proved to be rare exceptions. Instead, I too often found myself struggling not just to understand the book as a whole, but to work out what was happening on the surface of each scene. The overall effect was of looking through a fogged-up window that I constantly had to wipe clear to stop it from clouding again. Occasionally I forgot, and the pages drifted by, and I realised I hadn’t retained a thing from them.

So eventually, with a third of the book still to go and (inevitably: here’s the other problem) a clutch of other books-to-be-read yapping hungrily for my attention, I gave up. Maybe if I’d taken a fortnight, even a month, to read it – to savour and concentrate and just damn well knuckle down, I would have got more out of it; but one good reading experience in a month would still leave me feeling short changed at the opportunity cost of all the books I could have read in that time.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Green Zone / Imperial Life in the Emerald City

I don’t read very much non-fiction – two in a row must be almost a record – and certainly didn’t anticipate breaching that limitation just to find out what I reckoned I already knew about the war in Iraq. But Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s debut was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and then went on to win the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Bloomsbury have seen fit to celebrate this by adhering a hideous sticker to the front cover of the paperback, which fortunately can be peeled off (though not off the image below; I tried). Nonetheless I was sold.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

On approaching Imperial Life in the Emerald City, an account not of the war but of the American post-occupation ‘rebuilding’ of Iraq, it’s not hard to see the author’s angle from the title down. Imperial suggests the presence of a domineering empire, and Emerald City brings to mind an analogy of the Americans in Iraq with the Wizard of Oz: omnipotent but incompetent. In fact, as the subtitle suggests, the book is about life in the fortified Green Zone, known to the US civilian workforce as the ‘Emerald City’, and Imperial relates to Saddam’s old palace where they were based.

The palace was the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American occupation administration in Iraq. From April 2003 to June 2004, the CPA ran Iraq’s government – it enacted laws, printed currency, collected taxes, deployed police, and spent oil revenue.

Not that this means Chandrasekaran isn’t editorialising with the title, but it’s safe to assume that he’s singing to the choir. The central charge is one made innumerable times in the last five years: that the US had a plan for the war, but none for the peace. As Chandrasekaran discovers, this isn’t quite true: they did have a plan; it just wasn’t very good. Oh, and they forgot to tell a lot of their staff what it was.

The main problem was that the CPA tried to do too much: their aim effectively was to build a new country from the bottom up. Or rather, from the top down, as it was their appointments to the interim posts which would determine the course of the program. Often these were people with little experience in the relevant area, and they were replacing people who did know what they were doing. The process of “De-Baathification of Iraq Society” was intended to remove Saddam sidekicks from government, but they failed to take account of the fact that many people were in the Baath party through coercion and not choice, and the day after the order was announced, the Health Ministry lost a third of its staff, and some schools in Sunni dominated areas were left with just one or two teachers: one US army engineer at that point was running five ministries.

This decree was the work of Paul ‘Jerry’ Bremer, the US official who was effective head of government in Iraq until handover of power in 2004. Another of his ideas was to dismantle the security forces. Thousands of soldiers protested against this, on the grounds that they were loyal to Iraq, not to Saddam. Chandrasekaran caught up with a former soldier later in 2003:

“What happened to everyone?” I asked. “Did they join the new army?”

He laughed.

“They’re all insurgents now,” he said. “Bremer lost his chance.”

This is one of the rare mentions of the insurgency in the book, which for much of the time takes a more blackly humorous look at the occupation. It’s like Catch-22 in there. There were serious problems with electricity supply, healthcare, policing and other basics of life, but the US had its eye on the long game:

There was $4 million to create a nationwide system of area codes and telephone numbers, $9 million for a national ZIP code project, $19 million for a wireless internet service, and $20 million for “catch-up business training” that would “develop and train a cadre of entrepreneurs in business fundamentals and concepts that were missing in the former Iraqi regime.”

Another official in the CPA “urged the Health Ministry to mount an anti-smoking campaign,” while members of his team argued that their limited resources “would be better used raising awareness about how to prevent childhood diarrhoea and other fatal maladies.” The man charged with creating a new traffic law for Iraq found inspiration by cutting and pasting sections from the State of Maryland motor vehicle code.

A team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook won a $4 million grant to “modernize curricula in archaeology” at four of Iraq’s largest universities – schools where students were sitting on the floor because they lacked desks and chairs.

Chandrasekaran occasionally suffers from Michael Moore syndrome, in making out that life in Iraq under Saddam was pretty idyllic (“If you weren’t a dissident, Iraq’s capital was one of the world’s safest cities”), and exhibits true American surprise at the extent of pre-war Iraq’s subsidised (or “socialist”) state: “Education, even college, was free. So was health care.” Whoever heard of such madness? The US was even more horrified by this, and set about not repairing the country as they found it, but trying to create a neo-conservative capitalist country from scratch, whatever its history or circumstances.

One way of reducing subsidies was to cancel all state-owned companies’ bank balances, whether credit or debit, and let them start again as private companies from scratch (really this was a ‘virtue’ born of necessity: there wasn’t enough money to pay the deposits and the US feared a run on the state bank). This clean slate approach meant, as one US official pointed out, that:

the very companies that were the dogs you got to take out back and shoot, benefited the most. Who owes a bunch of money? Weak companies. Who had a bunch of money? Strong companies. So we just reversed that. It was the exact opposite of what we were trying to achieve.

The names of US personnel come and go through the book, but they fall into two broad categories: those who see the real world problems, and those who occupied an ideological bubble. Sadly the latter were in charge, from the Oval Office right on down:

A week after arriving, Foley told a contractor from BearingPoint that he intended to privatize all of Iraq’s state-owned enterprises within thirty days.

“There are a couple of problems with that,” the contractor said. “The first is an international law that prevents the sale of assets by an occupation government.”

“I don’t care about any of that stuff,” Foley told the contractor… “I don’t give a shit about international law. I made a commitment to the president that I’d privatize Iraq’s businesses.”

The picture overall is of an administration which took a country as its own playground and allowed it to deteriorate into a war zone. Chandrasekaran’s book may be partial – who knows how many interviewees he left out who thought the Americans were doing a bang-up job? – but it looks certain to become the first draft of history on this tiny part of an enormous and ongoing subject.

Richard Ford: Women With Men

Richard Ford, who started out writing hard-boiled fiction (bizarrely labelled ‘dirty realism’ along with his friend Raymond Carver), has restricted himself in the last couple of decades to two subjects: heterosexual relationships, and Frank Bascombe. He’s best known for his trilogy of novels featuring the latter, and we can only guess at what he’s writing now that Bascombe’s story seems complete. Actually it’s a pretty safe bet that it will be the same theme – men and women, women and men, it’ll never work – that has constituted almost all his non-Bascombe output since The Sportswriter back in 1986. This comprises a short novel, Wildlife, a collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins, and this trio of novellas, Women With Men (1997).

Women With Men

For the second time in a row, I spy a title inspired by Hemingway; his 1927 collection of stories was titled Men Without Women. I haven’t read it, and so have no idea what the connection might be, if any; other than a little slack irony given that Ford’s stories, despite foregrounding women in the title, are about men, men, men all the way.

There are women in there too, of course, but everything about them is seen through the prism of the man’s consciousness. The second story, ‘Jealous’, is easiest to dispose of, as it’s the weakest in the collection: a slightly showy tale of theatrical emotion and bloody drama, the one notable feature of which was its use of the last words in Huckleberry Finn (“I been there before”) as a repeated refrain. Ford sure does love his Am. Lit.

The two longer pieces, a hundred pages each, are a curious couple of companions. Their elements have so much in common – a present in Paris and a past in America, adultery, the publishing business – that it almost seems Ford had set himself a challenge to remix two stories from the same ingredients.

The beauty of the first story in particular is its Bascombe-like level of qualification in everything the central character, Martin Austin, thinks.

Obviously she was more complicated, maybe even smarter, than he’d thought, and quite realistic about life, though slightly disillusioned. Probably, if he wanted to press the matter of intimacy, he could take her back to his room – a thing he’d done before on business trips, and even if not so many times, enough times that to do so now wouldn’t be extraordinary or meaningful, at least not to him.

If this wasn’t hedged enough with doubt, the next paragraph begins: “Yet there was a measure of uncertainty surrounding the very thought…” and a following block of text full of further qualifications. This in itself created similar mixed feelings in me: delighted by the subtle and realistic portrayal of such (male?) equivocation, and frustrated by both my own pleasure in this and Austin’s muddiness. Then I was doubly wrong-footed by finding his final expression both self-satisfied – on Austin’s part – and witty – on Ford’s (“It made him feel pleased even to entertain such a multi-layered view”).

And there is wit in this story, not least when Austin returns from his Paris business trip to his wife (with whom he’d been having phone calls largely comprising “expensive, transoceanic silence”) and they have a reconciliation of sorts:

Late that night, a Tuesday, he and Barbara made brief, boozy love in the dark of their thickly curtained bedroom, to the sound of a neighbor’s springer spaniel barking unceasingly one street over. Theirs was a practiced, undramatic lovemaking, a set of protocols and assumptions lovingly followed like a liturgy which points to but really has little connection with the mysteries and chaos that had once made it a breathless necessity.

This is followed by painful truth when the Austin and his wife lie beside one another afterwards, and “sought to find something to say.” (Ford risks excessive neatness by noting that the after the sexual act – “nine minutes, start to finish” – “the neighbor’s dog had shut up as if on cue.”)

The finest joke in the story though is the title, which faces the reader at the top of every other page we read about this uncertain, tentative creeper of an adulterer. ‘The Womanizer,’ it says, again almost with too obvious a wink, just as Austin continues to have gloriously unwomanizerly thoughts.

This feeling now, this sensation of heaviness, of life’s coming unmoored, was actually, he believed, a feeling of vigilance, the weight of responsibility accepted, the proof that carrying life to a successful end was never an easy matter.

The zinger here, presumably, being that there’s no such thing as a successful end to a life. When Austin feels something that pulls him but he can’t quite understand, all he knows is that it “meant something, something lasting and important. This force, he felt, was what all the great novels ever written were about.” All this unsureness, crossing from author to reader through character, seems to me to represent as successful a creation of a real person on the page as one could get in such traditional form.

The balancing story at the other end, ‘Occidentals,’ is less strong but builds up to something interesting by the end. With my mania for bookshelf space, I now only keep the books I like most, and am torn over Women With Men – indeed, would like to have it torn in two, keep ‘The Womanizer’ and discard the others. If only Melville House would issue it alone in their Art of the Novella series. Until the revolution in copyright law which would allow that to happen, I’ll have to put up with the dead weight. But a few millimetres of shelf space could be worse spent.

David Park: The Truth Commissioner

Who’d be a publisher? Having to shout equally loud about all the books you publish, it becomes impossible for browsers to tell the good from the bad. Maybe there should be a key – a winking eye on the spine, say – to tell us what’s not really worth bothering with. The thought occurred as I was reading David Park’s new novel The Truth Commissioner, a book worthy of the highest praise; and yet I know I would never have heard of it, let alone bought it, if I hadn’t noticed that the book launch was taking place in my home city of Belfast, Park being a fellow Northern Irishman – and that in optimistic preparation, my local Waterstone’s had a couple of hundred copies stacked high everywhere I looked. I don’t know whether this is cheering, because I did discover it, or depressing, because of all the others I haven’t.

The Truth Commissioner

I don’t know whether The Truth Commissioner is cheering or depressing either: it’s solemn of outlook all right, but such a rare pleasure to read that it sent shivers of delight right up through me from the pages. It takes a situation ripe with emotional possibilities and does it every justice.

The setting is Northern Ireland, home of long memories and extended news bulletins, where at present there is momentum for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to help draw a line under decades of conflict. Where other writers might feel that the move from violence to politics robs the subject of power, Park’s stroke of brilliance is to recognise that it is these moments of change – where attention has moved on but the story is not yet over – which offer the most dramatic potential, and in the book the Commission has been established. Some people want to forgive and forget, perhaps because their status now is one they don’t want to lose; others want to remember and still demand justice. Overlooking them all are the British and Irish politicians who most of all want to feel the hand of history on their shoulder, and will permit principles to erode in order to keep the process on track.

The first two-thirds of the book moves unhurriedly, with 60-page portraits of four men: Henry Stanfield, the Truth Commissioner; Francis Gilroy, former IRA man and now Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly; James Fenton, retired detective who will be able to provide some unwelcome facts to the Commission; and Danny, a young Irishman in America who is about to make a commitment to his girlfriend. Where these scenes excel is in filling in the truth of the men: Stanfield’s adulterous past, estranged daughter and weakness for younger women; Gilroy’s embarrassment at his lack of cultural knowledge which leads him to surreptitiously read Philip Larkin poems, and his new understanding of the fear of sudden murder which he himself once instilled in others; Fenton’s need to drive across Europe “where he’s unknown and no more visible than a grain of sand on the world’s shore” to atone for his past; Danny’s mistaken belief that his only worries are for the future. Stanfield in particular is a fascinating character, a perfect example of the type of person who comes to hate their old homeland after being away – Belfast is a place of “self-consoling mythology” – and who has some unwelcome observations to make about the political process:

Now the world doesn’t care any more because there are bigger wars and better terrors and all that remains is this final tidying up … He has even met a few individuals already who clearly have become emotionally dependent on their grief, who have jerry-built a kind of lop-sided, self-pitying life out of it and are unwilling to risk having even that taken from them, in exchange for their day in the sun.

These sections are written with beautiful poise and elegance, and although the sinuous style seemed a little similar from character to character, it can only be to Park’s credit that I found myself each time unwilling to leave the man whose life had been laid out before me, and keen to hear more of his story. The characters are fully fleshed, struggling to maintain their sense of self even as they understand that their place is ultimately in someone else’s story, with their “inability to resist or stop the flow.”

Although urgently political in background, the stories at the heart of The Truth Commissioner are human ones, stories of exertion of and submission to power, and of “the curse of memory.” In the last third the pace picks up and the story becomes almost a thriller – well, I was pretty thrilled anyway – without sacrificing its grounded sincerity. All this is surrounded by a linked introduction and coda which opens the book on a note of high drama and ends it with something approaching serenity.

Truth is a relative concept, and personal, and perhaps I am swayed by my knowledge of the places and processes described in the book, like an excited local pointing out his street on a TV drama. For me, nonetheless, the truth is that David Park has written what looks like the first essential novel of 2008.

Patrick McGrath: Trauma

To say this is my most long-awaited book of the year would be an exaggeration – that’ll be Adam Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow, 15 years in the coming – but it’s certainly my most eagerly awaited. I’ve been reading and relishing Patrick McGrath’s novels since 1993’s Dr Haggard’s Disease, and each new book since then has been a source of untrammelled delight (the disappointing Martha Peake [2000] being the exception that etc). So it was inevitable that I wouldn’t wait for publication (April in the US, July in the UK) if I could possibly help it.

Trauma (US)

Admirers of McGrath’s work know what to expect from Trauma: an unreliable first person narrative with aspects of mental illness and sexual obsession. In this he delivers, and indeed some elements of the book are so familiar – the art world from Port Mungo (2004), psychiatrists from Asylum (1996) and the story ‘Ground Zero’ from Ghost Town (2005) – that on a reading of the blurb it might seem that McGrath is simply going through his hoops; or at least mopping up unused research. Also there is an inherent danger in having a trademark style where there is, if not a twist or revelation near the end, then a reversal in understanding by the reader: when this is anticipated, how does the author stay one step ahead?

McGrath has no hesitation in doling out juicy titbits literally from the beginning. Trauma begins:

My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault.

This is the voice of Charlie Weir, psychiatrist based in New York City. (McGrath’s first four novels were set in England; with his next two he combined Britain with his adopted home of the USA; with Trauma he has crossed the Atlantic completely.) McGrath knows the attuned reader will be awaiting ‘clues’ to the truth of Charlie’s world, and offers them up freely:

In those days we lived in shabby discomfort in a large apartment on West Eighty-Seventh Street, where my brother lives with his family today. I never contested Walt’s right to have it after Mom died, and have come to terms with the fact that she left me nothing. Indeed, it amuses me that she would throw this one last insult in my face from beyond the grave. It was more appropriate that Walt should have the apartment, given the size of his family, and me living alone, although Walt didn’t actually need the apartment. Walt was a wealthy man – Walter Weir, the painter? But I don’t resent this, although having said that, or rather, had I heard one of my patients say it, I would at once detect the anger behind the words. With consummate skill I would then extricate the truth, bring it up to the surface where we could both face it square: You hated your mother! You hate her still!

But Charlie loves his mother, he assures us, and looks after her when she’s alone (“Ah, Charlie. Always trying to help people who don’t want it”); it’s his father he can’t stand (referring to him as ‘Fred’ while mom remains ‘Mom’). Fred walked out on the family, Mom became a depressive, a drinker, and worst of all a novelist.

I was comforted by the sound of the typewriter. If she was typing then she wasn’t crying, although later she was able to do both at once.

This is a book of contradictions. We feel we know what Charlie thinks – he thinks he knows what he feels – yet we can’t resist hunting down meaning in every aside (“Mine is a profession that might appear on the surface to suit the passive personality. But don’t be too quick to assume we’re uninterested in power”). It has a complex time scheme and multiple well-detailed characters, but has the unity and force of a short story.

Trauma (UK)

The subject matter is families, and McGrath concentrates on “irregular” relationships within the home and how they reach out into our lives to create a spiderweb of dysfunction. Charlie broke up with his wife, Agnes, after her brother died; they got back together when his mother died. Like many of McGrath’s protagonists, he has an unhealthy interest in detailing the rise and fall of his, well, you know (“With stiffening penis I rose to greet her…”). All the decisions that Charlie makes, even when they’re hardly decisions at all, seem to make perfect sense, showing how well McGrath weaves us into his doubtful reasoning. All through there are suggestions that we might not be seeing the whole truth:

This falsification of memory – the adjustment, abbreviation, invention, even omission of experience – is common to us all, it is the business of psychic life, and I was never seriously upset about it. I know how very fickle the human mind is, and how malleable, when it has to accommodate belief, or deny the intolerable.

The story does lead to a dramatic conclusion – perhaps more obviously (dare one say cinematically?) dramatic than any of McGrath’s earlier novels – which at first seems too clear cut and suddenly obvious. On further reflection, the reader realises that there are layers to unpeel yet – does the book have more in common with Port Mungo than just the painterly details? – and an early revisit to this expertly told tale will not go amiss. So that’s why they’re publishing it at two different times.

Michael Ondaatje: Divisadero

It’s hard to remember what to expect of an author when he takes seven or eight years between books. But with Michael Ondaatje, I always get the impression that it was time productively spent, as he brings his poet’s skills to the novel, without sacrificing storytelling or character. And so seven years after Anil’s Ghost (which itself was eight years after his Booker-winning breakthrough The English Patient), we have Divisadero. I hope his publishers had a stiff drink handy when he told them the title.

Anyway, it was worth the wait: Divisadero goes placidly amid the noise and haste of contemporary fiction and ploughs its own furrow. It is a book to savour slowly and become immersed in, and only occasionally does it drift from artful to artificial, such as when Ondaatje takes time to explain the title (“Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division’ … Or it might derive from the word ‘divisar,’ meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance'”).

Most of the book is taken up with the stories of Anna, Coop and Claire. Anna and Claire are daughters of a man who lost his wife in childbirth, one born and one adopted (“to put it brutally, they owed him a wife, they owed him something”), and Coop the hired hand a few years older than the girls. When the father discovers Anna and Coop in bed together, he inflicts a terrible punishment which, Anna later says, “set fire to the rest of my life.” The scene is so well done that it is brutal and beautiful at the same time.

Then Ondaatje flips between the three, showing us not only that “we simply respond, go this way or that by accident, survive or improve by the luck of the draw” but also that “there is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.” To fulfil this promise, Ondaatje ensures that every character is intricate and identifiable: even characters who appear for only a few pages are vivid. One, in the scenes where Coop learns how to become “an undiscovered cardsharp,” is “The Dauphin, so named because he had been seen reading a European novel.” Another is “in sandals and beads, flash-frozen in the sixties.” The attention to detail extends to passing settings: a military base “like a suburb of the moon.”

The settings vary from Las Vegas casinos to a French writer’s retreat. Anna, Coop and Claire may be apart, but “their lives, surely, remained linked, wherever they were.” The themes come thick and fast, or rather thick and slow, and Ondaatje crams a good deal into each short scene, on subjects that illuminate ideas (loyalty, creativity, family) just as they illustrate the characters:

In the past Rafael had travelled from village to village, argued a salary, invented melodies, stolen chords, slashed the legs off an old song to use just the torso – but he had come to love now most of all the playing of music with no one there. Could you waste your life on a gift? If you did not use your gift, was it a betrayal?

The biggest surprise is when Ondaatje leaves his main trio of characters behind for most of the last third of the novel, instead writing about and around someone who until then has been an offstage presence. It shouldn’t be a surprise since previously we have had reference to “a three-panelled Japanese screen, each one self-sufficient, but revealing different qualities or tones when placed beside the others.” This section brings new resonances to the subjects of, among others, fatherhood and the discovery by parents of their childrens’ “adult needs,” and the final pages bring to Divisadero an almost symphonic close. Nonetheless I missed Anna, Coop and Claire, which is a measure of how well Ondaatje had made me enjoy their company until then.

Richard Ford: The Lay of the Land

Richard Ford has impeccable taste in fiction, as we know from his introductions to UK editions of James Salter’s Light Years and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. He also enjoys greatness by association with his old friends, the late Raymond Carver and the not late (except when it comes to turning out novels) Tobias Wolff. And his last collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins, was a delight. But I get the impression that what he wants to be remembered for are the Frank Bascombe novels: The Sportswriter (1984), Independence Day (1995) and now The Lay of the Land. A clue to this comes in the early pages of chapter 1, where the uncommon word angstrom appears. Of course! It’s Rabbit by Richard.

And The Lay of the Land does seem more than either of the others to be Ford’s attempt to square up to Updike and give the world his own Harry Angstrom. It seems less interested in doing something new (it copies the structure of Independence Day: the detailed moment-by-moment recreation of the days approaching a public holiday – this time Thanksgiving – and a dramatic event near the end), and is content to examine Bascombe’s life with positively forensic attention.

This is not without event – Bascombe gets involved along the way in a bar brawl, a terrorist attack, and several switchbacks of his present and previous love lives – but there’s no denying that it does get at times extremely boring. It’s hard to tell whether this is deliberate – Frank after all is an estate agent and not a man given to outbursts of emotion – and at times this quality made it the ideal holiday read, as I had nothing else with me to put it down for. Ford’s prose is not the match of Updike’s, or Salter’s for that matter, and in storytelling circles Yates leaves him standing.

Nonetheless the book was not at all a difficult or reluctant read, and there are moments of brilliant observation, such as this assessment of Bascombes’ Tibetan employee, Mike Mahoney:

In this, he’s like many of our citizens, including the ones who go back to the Pilgrims: He’s armed himself with just enough information, even if it’s wrong, to make him believe that what he wants he deserves, that bafflement is a form of curiosity and that these two together form an inner strength that should let him pick all the low-hanging fruit.

This also plays into the Rabbitesque background to the book: the recounts and court challenges to the 2000 Bush/Gore election, which gives Ford a chance to put some choice anti-Bushisms in Bascombe’s mouth.

Finally, there is the inevitable impressed satisfaction of reading any book this length, that the author should have managed to sustain the performance for so long, even if we didn’t always enjoy it that much (or perhaps, as Forster once suggested, we tend to overpraise long books simply because we have got through them). Oh, and a word about that: my obsession with flagrant page-bloat has been mentioned before, but I think swelling the page count from 496 in the hardback to 726 in the paperback sets a new record. Unless of course you are even more anally retentive than I am about things like that, and know better.

Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Having acquired, via the wonders of online marketplaces, copies of all of Brian Moore’s books recently – over half are out of print – I thought it was time to return to his 1955 debut, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It remains his most famous book, even though the over-explanatory title was added only on release of the film version in 1989: for the first 34 years it was titled simply Judith Hearne. Now we’re told what to think about the title character before we meet her, which is a shame and, with Moore’s precise destruction of her character, needless.

Someone once suggested that Judith Hearne, among other Moore titles, offered reasons why Moore had left his native Belfast in the 1940s: the city and its society in the mid-20th century does not come out of the book well. We see it not only from Miss Hearne’s viewpoint, but also that of James Madden, who – like an embryonic Ginger Coffey in Moore’s third novel – left Northern Ireland for north America, and who failed too in a less comic way than Coffey. As a result Madden has nothing but contempt for the home (“an insult to senses attuned to immensity”) he has been forced to return to:

Walking alone, he remembered New York, remembered that at ten-thirty in the morning New York would be humming with the business of making millions, making reputations, making all the buildings, all the merchandise, all the shows, all the wisecracks possible. While he walked in a dull city where men made money the way charwomen wash floors, dully, alone, at a slow methodical pace. … In the city’s shops housewives counted pennies against purchase. In the city’s banks, no great IBM machines clattered. Instead, clerkly men wrote small sums in long black ledgers.

One of the refreshing features of the novel is Moore’s ability to slip from one character’s thoughts to another’s, without ever seeming clumsy or muddling the point of view. Madden was, for me, an interesting enough character in his own right, and there are frequent diversions for us to see the world through others’ eyes, but always in the end Moore returns faithfully to the object of their fascination, derision, and horror, his title character.

Miss Judith Hearne is a Belfast woman in her ‘early forties,’ and at the beginning all we know of her is that she has moved to a new lodging house, in what “used to be one of the best parts of the city,” and where she spends most of her evenings “waiting like a prisoner for the long night hours.” She suffers, as we know, from loneliness, cripplingly so, though it is not her only ailment. She shuttles between her church, unloved and unloving friends, and useless hopes built on a man she has just met. The depth of her desperation is made cruelly clear by Moore when he shows us her daydreams of married life:

He came into the room, late at night, tired after a day at work in his hotel. He took off his jacket and hung it up. He put his dressing gown on and sat down in his armchair and she went to him prettily, sat on his knee while he told her how things had gone that day. And he kissed her. Or, enraged about some silly thing she had done, he struck out with his great fist and sent her reeling, the brute. But, contrite afterwards, he sank to his knees and begged forgiveness.

Judy Hearne, she said, you’ve got to stop right this minute. Imagine romancing about every man that comes along.

What Moore gives us is a harrowing but vivid and gripping portrait of a woman chasing after the end of her tether as it disappears from view. There are some exceptionally powerful scenes involving both Miss Hearne and the other boarders in the house (a motley crew who sometimes recall the wartime misfits of Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude), which it would be scandalous to reveal. Faith, in this mid-century Ulster where religion stifles all, is always an obligation and never a comfort. Moore has the cold eye and courage of Richard Yates, and rather more ability to mix a compelling plot with his devastating character portrayals. In fact it is the storyline which reveals the occasional weaknesses of the book, with a couple of forced developments along the way, and almost too much neatness by the end for such an otherwise beautifully messy tale.

Patricia Highsmith: The Black House

Over the past year or two I’ve become a swooning admirer of Patricia Highsmith’s. I had read a couple of the Ripley novels before that, but when Bloomsbury began to reissue her other books in handsome new jackets, I discovered her extraordinary suspense novels. The best of these were her titles from the 1950s and 60s, like Deep Water, This Sweet Sickness and The Cry of the Owl. Three more will be published in October of this year, which seems a long way away; so to tide me over until then I read her collection of stories The Black House.

It’s fairly clear that in 1981, when this collection was first published, Highsmith had her best work behind her, and although it’s a stronger range of stories than 1987’s bizarrely bad Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, it’s a real mixed bag.

Several of the stories, such as “Something the Cat Dragged In” and “Not One of Us,” turn on stretches of implausibility which may have passed unnoticed over the length of a novel, but which jar in a twenty-page story. They feel draft-like, and insufficiently worked out. Others have the air of being workings for her novels, and end abruptly, as though Highsmith ran out of patience, or interest. As ever, her prose is rarely more than functional, and when there’s no distracting style, the weaknesses show all the more clearly.

The best are those which combine Highsmith’s high-grade interest in human venality and perversity, with a snappier storyline. “When in Rome” has a rich society wife bribing her stalker to kidnap her husband. “Under a Dark Angel’s Eye” shows a man who’s had thousands of dollars stolen from him by his lawyer, finding that the world (or Highsmith’s world) has a way of exacting revenge. “Blow It” approaches a potentially farcical situation – one man, two girlfriends – and makes something satisfying and complete from it.

Perhaps the strangest and most interesting story in the collection is “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” where a woman becomes spooked by her own easy ability to repair a basket, fearing that some atavistic impulse or collective consciousness is at work in her, and that “she was part of the stream of evolution of the human race”:

She felt that she was living with a great many people from the past, that they were in her brain or mind, and that people from human antecedents were bound up with her, influencing her, controlling her every bit as much as, up to now, she had been controlling herself.

It shows Highsmith stretching herself beyond her normal boundaries and abilities: though it’s those ‘normal’ abilities that make her such an interesting writer, and that have me counting down the days until October.

Rupert Thomson: Death of a Murderer

Death of a… titles can do very well for writers – as Seamus Heaney or Arthur Miller could testify – but there’s also a danger that the phrase could lend an artificial weight to a book that doesn’t really deserve it. In addition, the word Murderer in the title of Rupert Thomson’s latest novel seems to clash oddly with Death, and to seem an almost strident or tabloidish term – even though it is merely an accurate description of one of the UK’s most notorious criminals of the last fifty years.

The words Myra and Hindley are never mentioned in Death of a Murderer, but she has a presence throughout, and even appears as a character in dream conversations with the ostensible lead character, Billy Tyler. He is a middle-aged policeman who is called upon to guard the mortuary where Hindley’s body is stored after her death in 2002. As he sits there all night, without the blessing of his wife, he floats back into memories of his childhood and youth which show that he has had more than a tangential interest in the Moors murders before now.

Thomson also brings in other elements touching on the subject, such as the blurring of right and wrong in childhood, and reflects on the iconography of Hindley’s case, not least that infamous police mugshot of her. But for my money, this latter element was dealt with better by the poet of the “psychopathology of fame,” Gordon Burn in his novel Alma Cogan, and Jill Dawson’s recent novel Watch Me Disappear addresses the whole muddy area of child sex crimes with a good deal more finesse and aplomb. Thomson does venture some editorial line on the treatment of Hindley’s case:

Over the years, there had been a number of people who had taken her side. They saw her continuing imprisonment as political, driven not by the rule of law but by popular opinion. Other murderers were freed when they had served their sentences – why not her? Clearly, she was no danger to society. In fact, the opposite was true: were she to be released, society would be a danger to her. And here was the savage irony: taxpayers’ money would have to be used to protect the woman from what the taxpayers themselves would like to do to her. No government would willingly put itself in the position of having to defend such a policy. Instead, the responsibility for her fate was handed swiftly from one Home Secretary to another, like a particularly hazardous game of pass the parcel.

But this is a viewpoint which is unlikely to seem new or challenging to anyone but Daily Mail leader writers, and as an aside, it demonstrates in the closing simile how plain the language in this book is in comparison with Thomson’s earlier novels, where he had an interesting metaphor for every situation (my favourite being a man’s moustache described as looking like “a barcode on a pint of milk”).

The danger is that people reading Death of a Murderer as their first experience of Thomson – and that shrewdly judged use of Hindley’s image on the cover is bound to attract a few browsers – are likely to dismiss him as an anodyne writer. This could not be further from the truth: his back catalogue, while wildly varying in quality, is never less than interesting and highly imaginative (this novel, for example, is his first set recognisably in a contemporary real world). For me his most satisfying works are Air & Fire, The Insult and The Book of Revelation, with the weaker links including The Five Gates of Hell, Soft and Divided Kingdom.