Helen DeWitt: Lightning Rods

Helen DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, was published in 2000. Seven years later, she self-published Your Name Here, an odd collaborative work with Ilya Gridneff. Meanwhile, I learn from an early review of the US edition of the present book that it was written ten years ago but unpublished until now. Was it unpublished through choice? Or was DeWitt unable to place it? In either event, DeWitt now has two excellent publishers: New Directions in the US; And Other Stories in the UK. The latter has been punching not just above its weight but in another league since its launch last year, not least with the all-conquering Swimming Home. If there’s any justice, Lightning Rods should repeat that success.

Lightning Rods is a book about one thing which pretends to be about another thing. What it is really about is language, but it disguises all this in a satire of sexual politics. It tells us about Joe, a failing salesman in Missouri, whose unsatisfying masturbation fantasies lead him to a novel idea. “He was thirty-three years old and he had zip to show for it. And here he was lying in the bed in the middle of the day not even masturbating effectively but just twiddling until he got the fantasy set up to his satisfaction. He didn’t feel good about it at all.”

I hope you see what I mean about the language. The narrative voice is a curious and canny mix. It has the casual tone of Joe’s interior monologue (“zip to show for it”), a strange utilitarian blankness (“not even masturbating effectively”) and childish words that clash with the subject (“twiddling”). But the overall effect throughout the book is of a cross between a business report and an uncritical biography. As the story progresses from eccentric to outrageous, we get to see the full effect of this masking language.

Joe’s idea – … well, I hope I can discuss it. I think I can. I can’t imagine how to impress upon you the effect of the book without going into some detail – which the blurb on the US edition does, and the introduction to the UK edition. (In any event, this book is likely to become sufficiently talked about that the basic premise will pass into general knowledge, as with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.) Read the next two sentences without pausing. Joe’s idea is that sexual harassment in the workplace can be prevented by providing men with an outlet for their urges. Those outlets will be colleagues – women – hired to the firm by Joe’s proposed company, and who are in every sense normal employees, carrying out administrative duties; except that when they get the call, they will take up a position in a frame which backs them anonymously into a secret cubicle in the men’s toilets, lower half only showing, and the male colleague will take his pleasure.

‘Take his pleasure’ is how DeWitt might put it in the book. This is a novel of evasion and manipulation. The whole thing is delivered in such measured tones that the process Joe starts on begins to look like logic, and the logic begins to look unarguable. The way of telling is so filled with familiarity – even cliché – that the contents sound first half-reasonable and then even more ridiculous. There’s a homespun folksy wisdom that becomes hypnotically comical.

If you don’t have what it takes, you can waste a lot of time asking yourself “How can I get what it takes?” The question you should be asking yourself is, “Is there something else that takes what I have to offer?”

After all, what Joe has to offer is a monotone masturbatory fantasy, which “would one day lead to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.” Of course, not everyone in a company will get to benefit from the services of Joe’s lightning rods (yes, you see now?). “It is often the most valuable individuals in a company who present the greatest vulnerability to sexual harassment related issues. We know that a high level of testosterone is inseparable from the drive that produces results.” And so begins for Joe the painful task of working out the problems in the system in meticulous detail, and the problems that the solutions give rise to, and the problems arising from that, and so on. And the logic of working for the benefit of “high-testosterone, performance-oriented individuals” infects Joe’s own thinking, until the reader approaches straight-faced lines like this: “For the kind of money she was getting you’d have thought she could throw in a slap on the fanny every so often without getting into a big song and dance about it.”

The deadpan coolness which is so crucial to the success of Lightning Rods is not so much ironic distance as an exemplar of the ways we can fool ourselves into believing the preposterous, and mask the instinctive response when doing so. It demonstrates how intuition can be outwitted, how steady step-by-step argument can persuade us to insane conclusions. It is so clever that when other entrepreneurs set up rival companies to Joe’s without all his protective mechanisms, the reader might even start to share Joe’s view of himself as one of the good guys. (“He pointed out that Playboy had never been seen as all that tasteful and intellectual until Hustler came along.”) As a corollary, the author is both entirely absent – her views immaculately subsumed into service of the story – and unmistakably there on every page, calmly directing the ingenious farce.

But is it farce? Or satire? Or something else? There is plenty here that takes specious thinking down a peg or two – the notion, for example, that sexualisation constitutes empowerment, or that working in a controlled sex industry is something to be celebrated just because it could be worse. Equally, it does damage to softer targets like society’s priorities towards money-creation and its limited understanding of ‘success’, and the accommodations we will make for these things. There are interesting questions raised over to what extent Joe is responsible for his own success, in a system built to buoy up people like him. But the point, again, seems to me to be language and communication, and the only thing that prevents me from describing Lightning Rods as unlike anything you’ve read are the similarities to aspects of the work of George Saunders.

In 2005 Saunders wrote a piece which stands as a manifesto for much of his work. Read it yourself, but one of his conclusions is that “all attempts at world domination begin with weak, evasive, impersonal language.” But you don’t need to go to the SS for this: it’s around us every day, when companies obfuscate, when governments try to make bad news sound good. It applies here too. The language in Lightning Rods is sneaky, tendentious, and deceptive; and it is that which makes it such a triumph, so funny and so frightening. It is likely to be a book which, for content and tone, nobody who reads it will easily forget.

Keith Ridgway: Hawthorn & Child

Before I begin writing about this book, I have an interest to declare. I have been thanked by the author in the acknowledgements. I presume (I don’t like to ask) that this is because of my previous championing of his work on this blog. I am therefore at risk of seeming either ungrateful for the nod (I’m not), or as though I have a vested interest in the book’s success. I don’t. Well, I do: I think it’s the best new book I’ve read this year, and so I want it to do well in order that Ridgway has the means and time to write another.

He dreamed he was sleeping, and Child was driving.

Hawthorn & Child was originally subtitled, on its publisher’s website, ‘A Set of Misunderstandings’. The misunderstandings might begin in trying to define it. It’s a series of stories which is really a novel, about two London police detectives and the people they encounter.  It begins with an unsolvable mystery, when a young man is shot from a passing car on a quiet north London street. The brief information provided by the victim as he lies on the hospital table (“They poked and peered at the body. They tubed the body and they hooked it up. They shifted and bound the body”) becomes the bedrock of a police investigation, a grand structure spun around no more than air. This is a book which is all about the details: the ones we don’t know, the ones we invent to replace them, and the exquisite ones Ridgway provides us with along the way. Details, like this brief phone exchange between Hawthorn and his brother, which speaks of years in a couple of lines:

—How’s the thing?

—What thing?

—The crying.

Hawthorn made a face and looked out of the window.

—It’s fine.

The imprecision of language is everywhere. Here, Hawthorn’s brother wants to ask but can’t bring himself to be specific. Elsewhere, when investigating the shooting, Hawthorn and Child take a witness’s response to a question (“Not really”) as an opening, when really it’s just a loose end. They are desperate to make things fit. “We usually don’t decide anything about things that don’t fit. They just don’t fit. So we leave them out.” In this, they are like all of us, even when we are reading this book and trying to join together the pieces of the narrative. (Ridgway: “We want to tell ourselves and our days and our lives as stories, and these things are not stories.”)

In some of the sections, the title characters are central. Child finds himself in a hostage negotiation with a young man who seems to be in a religious cult of one, and whose sense of identity is mangled. Hawthorn, straining for human contact, finds it – sort of – in a clever sequence which cuts between a riot and an orgy, and where it’s not always possible to see which is which.

There are certain things Hawthorn wants to do. There are things he doesn’t want to do. The line between these things tickles him, like a bead of sweat down his back.

In other places, Hawthorn and Child are merely in the background, seen at a distance, or referred to. Ridgway gets around having to clunkingly name them by giving Hawthorn distinctive features that can be described by others: he cries a lot (“How’s the thing?”) and there’s something, perhaps related, wrong with his face. “His face was crooked.” “Like he was peeking through a keyhole.” “He looks somehow off kilter.” The risk here is that you get something like David Mitchell’s scar identifier that joined the characters in Cloud Atlas, which looked tricksy and needless. Cloud Atlas, in fact, is not a bad starting point for comparison with Hawthorn & Child. With his book, Mitchell wanted to go further than Calvino had in If on a winter’s night a traveller, by finishing all the stories he began. He did it, and the cumulative nimbleness was impressive; but I felt there was something missing in the heart region, and I wonder now whether the resolution of the stories contributed to it. Resolving a story can involve the author in so much contortion and knot-tying that the ugliness of the ending spoils the beauty that went before. Ridgway has been, I think, braver than Mitchell. The stories here are unresolved — “holding the reader down and anti-climaxing all over their face,” I heard it put — but they are not incomplete. There is nothing missing, no sense that the stories peter out. The narrative pull within each one is strong, and they all leave you wanting more. What more could we ask for?

He’s completely sane. Except for this thing. It’s like all his weirdness is contained in this. In you or me weirdness is spread out over everything. Half an inch of weirdness. Over everything. With him, it’s just this one thing that’s weird. Two foot deep.

Underlying all this, or stretching over it, is the story of Hawthorn and Child themselves. This is not a buddy cop story. They are on the trail of a gangster, Mishazzo. They work together, with contrasting approaches. Hawthorn is unsubtle, Child more solicitous: he gets on with people more easily; is happier, too. In their work, Child works things out, separates the possible from the fanciful. Hawthorn doesn’t want to exclude the fanciful. He is searching for meaning, for something to put in the gaps. He thinks about things and people that might explain other things and other people to him. He “thought about men, various men, whom he moved about his mind experimentally like furniture.” These enquiries are futile, though that is their purpose. A narrator of one of the stories says, “Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided and over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” That narrator, from the story ‘How We Ran the Night’, is thoroughly unpleasant, and somehow frightening. (“I think of Trainer hanging in his attic. It must be worth knowing, what makes a man do that.”) There is a fair amount of shiver-inducing nastiness in Hawthorn & Child, including as many ugly deaths as you might expect in a book about policemen. Yet there is tenderness all the way through, not least in the grudging pity I felt for Hawthorn. His tragedy in a minor key makes him one of the strongest fictional creations I’ve encountered in some time.

He dreamed that he slept in a house that moved, and that was not his, and that was not now.

Hawthorn & Child exhaustively answers the question: What do you want from a book? There are likeable characters too: in ‘Goo Book’, a story of the thoughts that lie too deep to say in Mishazzo’s driver’s love affair (first published in The New Yorker); and in ‘Rothko Eggs’ (first published in Zoetrope All-Story). There are plots and stories, page-turning and teasing. There is innovation — it is structurally bold, and eye-opening in subject matter (a premiership referee who sees ghosts would fit that bill). It kicks the reader out of their comfort zone. It has lines that zing and lines that hum, as in the voice-driven ‘Marching Songs’, which as a sustained piece of fictional prose, could hardly be bettered. (Could it? Read it yourself.)

I believe, though I cannot prove, that my illness is due directly to the perverted Catholicism and megalomania of Mr Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, whom I met once, whose hand I physically shook (at which point he assaulted me), and who, if you should mention my name to him, will tell you that he met me, or that he did not meet me, or that he cannot recall. Because he has all the answers.

This is a book which I read twice before reviewing it, to unpick the connections but also because I selfishly wanted the pleasure again. And now as I thumb the pages to write this, and get nervous with excitement at seeing the best bits again, this time both fresh and familiar, I wonder if I can resist a third go. Perhaps I am mad. Perhaps, as Martin Amis described himself in relation to Bellow, I am Keith Ridgway’s perfect reader and nobody else will get the same thrill I have from this book. But let me tell you something.

I know that something has gone wrong. I know that the fault is visible. You can discern it in everything I say to you. In most of what I say to you. In how I say it. I know this. I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.

David Szalay: Spring

I read David Szalay’s second novel The Innocent last year and was impressed enough to keep an eye out for his next (though evidently not enough to blog about it). With his new book he has made a satisfying and stimulating experience out of unpromising subject matter, and marked himself out as a cert for Granta’s next Best of Young British Novelists list. (Incidentally, I’m told that the author’s surname is pronounced Zolloy and not, as I had been saying it, a sort of hard-edged chalet.)

Spring shows also that Szalay is a brave writer: if it takes guts to publish a book with a bold and challenging subject matter, then it takes even more to publish one with a hackneyed premise and still make it feel compelling. Contemporary England – the state of the nation – love, eh? Tch! – men and women, women and men … My proof copy actually has the cheek to call it “a love story unlike any you will have read.” Odder still, that’s right: here there is no why, and it’s a love story with no coup de foudre, boldly unconsoling, no happy ever after, no happy ever before, even.

Our lovers are James and Katherine, thirtysomethings. He was once a dotcom virtual millionaire, “in the vanguard of the new economy”, before the millennium bust, and now seeks “no more magnificence. Now he just wants things to be okay.” If James has let ambition slide, Katherine has never bothered with it to begin with, frittering her education on a job in a hotel lobby. This was where she met her ex, Fraser, a paparazzo. That relationship in itself may or may not be intended to mark Katherine down as a flawed character, but it’s clear that Szalay isn’t playing by the usual rules. His lovers aren’t especially ‘likeable’ – that undesirable desire – and their motives are hard to pin down.

They are, however, real: Katherine’s diffidence, James’s tenacity and maddening dedication to a doubtful cause, half terrier, half puppy. There is painful comedy – the comedy of recognition for many of us, I bet – when he extrapolates his worst fears from the tiniest clues during a brief telephone call with her. As for Katherine, her motto might be Abraham Maslow’s “It is not normal to know what you want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.” She feels that “a sort of politeness” had led her into her relationship with James and its “fiasco”, its “episode of pure sexual misery”.

‘Will I see you this weekend?’ he said.

‘I don’t know. If you want to.’

‘I do want to.’ To that she said nothing. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘When?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m going to feel. After the nightshift. Phone me.’

Spring makes the reader think of how we value things and why: the permanent, the temporary, the sure and the uncertain. Is happiness in the moment enough? Or must we always be looking to the next stage, as though seeing winter purely as a prelude to spring? Transformation is present in the macro scale too: the book is set just before the credit crunch got its jaws into us, with all the dramatic irony that implies for the subplots of horse racing ‘touches’, characters with 110% mortgages, and the notion that people in prosperous times are less happy. (Some of the state-of-the-nation stuff doesn’t quite gel, such as one character being a member of UKIP; this does however give us the novel trifle of seeing Nigel Farage and the word ‘statesmanlike’ in the same sentence.) Szalay’s juggling of personal and political shines brighter in his ability to handle the several aspects of a life – work, love, home, past – which is reminiscent of William Boyd when he was still good.

Impressive though it is, there are false notes scattered through Spring. What looks like a naughty bit of narrative sleight of hand (remember Andrew Sean Greer’s egregious Story of a Marriage?) appears when Szalay takes us into a character’s thoughts but then withholds the identity and words of someone they’re speaking to on the phone. (Other POV issues, more attributable to personal taste, irked me less.) A reiteration of the phrase “London light” throughout the text seems tacked on, and recalls Salter’s Light Years, a comparison from which Szalay inevitably does not emerge well (but who would?). Occasionally, fussy wording trips up the reader (James “made water in the dark” rather than urinating or pissing; he filled a “wire pannier” in M&S, not a basket). The last is a shame, but not fatal, because everywhere else Szalay’s writing is admirably clean and unaffected, driving the reader on with indecent haste and with just the occasional pause to admire the phrasemaking (“her heart seemed to hit a pothole,” or “toasted paninis that looked as if they had been flattened with a truck tyre”).

Spring frustrates the reader deliciously (“There was something very nice about watching the video when you knew you were going to win. If only life was like that”) while satisfying in an equal and opposite way. “Not knowing was what was hard,” one character observes, but when handled the right way, it can be the very quality that pleases most.

Linda Grant: We Had It So Good

Linda Grant was the surprise of the Booker 2008 season for me: her novel The Clothes on their Backs was the best on the shortlist and, in my opinion, should have won. Inevitably, then, I wanted to read her new book.

We Had It So Good is a book of contrasts: England and America; parents and children; reason and emotion; the past and the future; stability and chaos. The elements are combined beguilingly. Stephen and Andrea Newman came of age in the 1960s and lived a life both strikingly individual and typical of the postwar generation. Stephen is American, the son of a Californian fur trader to the stars; tantalisingly close to glamorous fame but held at one remove from it (“they had assistants bring in the coats, the heat of the stars’ bodies still trapped in the linings”). Stephen dodges the Vietnam draft by moving to England, accompanied by a fellow Oxford Rhodes scholar destined to become much more famous. Coming from a young country where “if you peeled off the layers of the present you would find only more present,” he finds that in England, “history’s insistence on not getting out of the way was depressing.” So the present and future is what enthralls him, particularly when he meets redheaded Andrea and her friend Grace. He marries the former, while Grace will become an emblem of opposition (“Fuck this fucking country”), the obverse to Stephen and Andrea’s increasingly conventional marriage, seemingly idyllic and settled, but also built of constraint and compromise.

Their story is being told by Stephen and Andrea to their children Marianne and Max (the names seemingly chosen to emphasise their firm middle-class status). But when Marianne tells her brother that “you cannot rely on them for the truth. Parents, by definition, are liars,” we have some sympathy with her. Stephen’s account of the 1960s and 70s seems to veer too close to media shorthand rather than the particularity of lived experience: bare-breasted hippies, patchouli oil, bell-bottoms and cheesecloth shirts, loon pants and joss sticks. Is he really telling his children – and us – what he remembers?

Stephen and Andrea – and the rest of their generation – are not just parents but children too, and the strongest sections of the book are cross-generational exchanges. Stephen travels to eastern Europe with his elderly father; Grace has a particularly chilly encounter with her father which will indelibly mark her; Andrea must come to terms with the notion that people, even parents, can hold two contradictory impulses in their heads:

Once, Andrea overheard her mother say to the housekeeper, ‘If I had my time over again, I wouldn’t have had children. I’d have been fancy free.'” [Then,] seeing her standing by the door, said, ‘Don’t listen to me, Andy Pandy. I wouldn’t give you up for anything.’

This feeds into Andrea’s adult occupation of therapist, charged with “teaching her clients (particularly the women) that they were not responsible for the actions of other people.” Women “had no sense that they deserved to put themselves first and foremost.” And why should they, when Grace, the woman who does do that – “I’m in that room and no one has the address. However hard they look, they’ll never find me” – ends up suffering so? Meanwhile, as maturity and family take hold of Andrea and Stephen, they settle down for the long littleness of life: “Stephen can’t think of much to say about it. It was a period of growth followed by satisfactory consolidation.”

Yet in this “blur of middle age and child rearing,” there is much surprise and detail. Deafness, war, illusions; modern history, unexpected illness, the dismantling of a life. The details – on advertising, for example – sometimes look like research infodumps, but are elsewhere well assimilated and bring life to the characters (and the characters to life). Stephen, in an inspired sequence of scenes, uses Google to find out what has happened to people featured in the early sections of the book – and this adds a coat of entitlement to his characterisation, for who else but this easy-achieving generation would presume their old university pals had risen far enough in the world to be picked up easily by search engines 30 years on?

In the end, their high achievements mask their uneasy knowledge that their way in life was made easier by the sacrifices of their parents’ generation in war and depression. “We’ve had it made.” That, too, is the debt of every generation, and of any child to its parents. I said earlier that We Had It So Good is a book of contrasts, and it is also a book of two halves, where perhaps inevitably, the interest level rises considerably when things start going wrong for the golden couple in the second half. Neither successful and interesting careers, nor lucky buoyancy on a rising tide of house prices, can ultimately shield them when it’s their time to experience “the usual ineffable sadness of merely living.”