The Story of You

December 21, 2014

youAmerican cop show The Shield introduces us to awkward Midwestern detective Dutch Wagenbach, tracking a serial killer through the LA badlands. Well meaning, but gangling and inept, Wagenbach represents the show’s moral centre. After numerous missteps and frustrations Wagenbach finally brings in a man who he is convinced is the murderer he has been chasing. This man, Sean, is a nondescript fellow in his thirties, who works at a car dealership and has no significant priors. Once in the box, Sean proceeds to use Dutch’s psychological insights against him: ‘You were a joke in uniform. That’s why you became a detective.’ He writes on the whiteboard: ‘Detective Wagenbach: Craves respect, fantasizes about being well-liked yet shows no outward manifestation of his low self-esteem, feels ignored, unappreciated, inadequate with women.’ All this is watched on the CCTV by Wagenbach’s fellow detectives, who laugh at the sight of Dutch ‘getting his ass handed to him by a civilian.’ But as the interrogation goes on, Dutch hits his suspect with more and more incontrovertible evidence, until Sean eventually breaks, and admits: ‘I killed 22 people, well, 23 if you want to count the hunting incident back in Rockford. Oh, I’m special, alright.’ It is a slam dunk. Dutch walks out of the box to cheers, backslaps, handshakes from his colleagues, even the corrupt Vic Mackey, his worst enemy. But when he gets to his car, he weeps, knowing everything the killer said was true.

I thought of that scene while reading Caroline Kepnes’s You. The narrator is Joe Goldberg, a clerk at an independent bookstore. Joe is bright, perceptive, articulate. He is also an obsessive sociopath and serial stalker. The you of the title is Guinevere Beck, an MFA student who makes the error of walking into Joe’s bookstore. From a chance conversation Joe attempts to consume her life. He hangs around her brownstone and hacks into her emails. He discovers that Beck is semi-involved with a connected fop named Benji, who he kidnaps and keeps in a basement cage for many days before killing him. To cover his tracks, Joe also hacks into Benji’s Twitter account, posting a series of tweets making him out to be a crack-addled degenerate. Next problem: Beck has a clingy and chaotic friend called Peach, apparently a distant cousin of J D Salinger. Peach takes up too much of Beck’s time, so Joe has to whack Peach as well, drowning her with pockets full of rocks in a Virginia Woolf-style sham suicide. Joe will do anything, endure everything for his dream girl, even putting himself through a NYE Charles Dickens themed boat ride.

All this is fun to read but the book stalls around the halfway mark. Maybe Kepnes wanted to write a modern version of The Collector, or perhaps a digital-age thriller along the lines of Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First. But the characters don’t carry it. Joe Goldberg is an uncompelling villain, chippy and resentful, the clever man who confuses cleverness with wisdom. His narration is characterised by a recurring, breathless run on sentence: ‘You touch me in the bad way, like you want me to stop and the Brown singers know the words to ‘My Sweet Lord’ and someone found a fucking tambourine and somewhere in my head I remember that George Harrison’s son went to Brown and I hate knowing that at this particular moment.’ The rhythm fits at times, but Kepnes uses it so often that it becomes infuriating. You’re locked inside this guy’s head, and it’s a dull place to be. Maybe that’s the point. The book might as well be called Me: like all obsessives, Joe is mostly obsessed with himself. But, as much as I dislike the idea that a story needs ‘someone to root for’ I just wanted Joe Goldberg to get sent to a glass box in Oz for the next eighty years.

The best thing about Guinevere Beck is her name. I mean, how could you not fall in love with the name Guinevere Beck? But again, Beck starts out being interesting and fun but soon loses appeal. Kepnes appears not to understand that if you come across a scene where you realise ‘Character X would never do that!’ then you rewrite that scene. As it is, poor Beck is forced through numerous implausible contortions. Kepnes is running on pure story, and around halfway through the book she runs out of story. Repeated references to Twitter and Instagram don’t in and of themselves make a novel interesting or relevant. Kepnes is obviously a huge talent. But this novel doesn’t display it.

Hit the Curb: Jones Jones’s Riot

December 7, 2014

Riot-by-Jones-JonesAccording to Neon magazine, Yorkshire author Jones Jones’s book Riot is ‘based very loosely on the London riots that happened several years ago’ but it’s hard to see this topicality in the book itself. This Salt title is told from the point of view of Mark Jones, an eighteen year old downtown college student jaded, fighting and fucking in recession-era Cardiff. This is a short, chapter-less piece of prose and it has some weaknesses of the rant – too many characters introduced at once, the characters aren’t distinct enough and it’s hard to tell whether one voice or many voices are speaking. Jones relies on the viscerality of his voice to get through.

And that’s the voice. ‘Viv shagged her against the side of her mam and dad’s house in Nant Glyn a few Saturdays ago after a night out down Royal’s. Even worse, first off he fingered her in front of fuck knows how many when they were still in the club.’ ‘We’re down the Maelor again and it kicks off with Jamie’s feet slapping the pavement down the Plas Gwyn road towards the corner by The Star.’ ‘Like the time I saw Jonni Rich drop Puddin down by Royal’s bridge, then kick his hands away so that Puddin’s head hit the curb. The dull thud of it. I spewed five pints’ worth. When the war cry goes up – fight, fight, fight – and every fucker swarms, I walk the other way feeling my stomach’s about to drop out my arse.’ People look down on working class writing partly because it’s so visceral like this. Blood, shit, semen, saliva, fresh deodorant, sugary high-strength bar shots, purple tins, cigarettes, MDMA, butane, ketamine, fresh meat, boiled vegetables – the smell of crappy FE colleges, zero-hours contracts and the kind of town that only has the very old and the very young. The Welsh language touches are nice – ‘And here comes the Welcome to England sign. We give it the twll din pob sais like we always do’ – but they also stand out because of the sense that this could be any town. Any kind of prison for the poor.

But Riot’s real subject is a familiar one for the millennial generation – hopelessness. The futility of sliding towards a world run by and for the ageing and dying, that needs new blood and young workers but for some reason chooses to let itself drown in an exclusionary irrelevance. Young people aren’t demonstrably less well behaved or less aspirational than they were twenty or fifty years ago – these days, whenever I meet people in the 18-25 age group, I’m always struck by how articulate and clued up they are – but the world has changed and there is less and less room for those coming up. Jones takes a summer job in a bottling factory and quits not because he can’t handle the work but because of the terror: ‘I’ll never leave Cardiff. Too scared to leave even if I get the chance. It’s ten times as bad as college in here. Because all this lot are men. Grown men. I thought as you got older, things changed. But there’s 30 year-old versions of Bottomly and Fergusson over there.’ When Jones’s father founds out that he has walked, the old man rages: ‘I’ve worked nearly 20 years in that shithole on the Plas Gwyn Road and I’ve probably got another 20 to go… Two minutes you’ve been there, lad. Two minutes. You make me bloody sick, you do.’

‘Breakdown in law and order, my arse. It’s just human nature. A small split second decision that means fuck all. Not some pre-meditated attack upon the establishment or the moral fibre of modern day Britain.’ That’s the only passage in Riot that addresses the 2011 riots directly. The youth boredom explanation for these eruptions was always facile – no one ever rioted for want of a ping pong table. But as Irvine Welsh said (and Jones shows) in economic hard times, when you get large numbers of ‘people who were basically stuck in a house with nothing to do all day long’ – then a powderkeg inevitably builds.

Soldiers of the Internet

December 1, 2014

newsofdevilsThe author Jeremy Duns is probably best known for his internet profile. From his Twitter account he relentlessly scrutinises issues of espionage, truth and national security, holding celebrity journalists and polemicists to account. The results are often fascinating, and it’s possible to lose a good hour catching up on his timeline. A spy novelist by trade, Duns has written a string of excellent Cold War action thrillers, in this ebook, News of Devils, he has turned his attention to the biggest espionage story of the new century: the Snowden revelations.

Reading military memoirs of the 2000s, you get the sense of a cultural shift: the transition from conventional warfare to asymmetric or three block war, where soldiers spend as much time working with communities and trying to win ‘hearts and minds’ as actually fighting physical enemies. This approach has even been called postmodern war. Maybe we are now in the middle of a postmodern Cold War. In a fascinating report for the Institute of Modern Russia, analysts Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss explored how this works in modern practice. Vladimir Putin’s regime rules by information as much as violence. His propaganda channel RT combs the West for cranks, neo-Nazis and fantasists, which it presents as ‘experts’ to lend credibility to staged reports and conspiracy theory directed against democratic countries. The regime has ‘troll farms’ – battalions of internet commenters to spread similar rhetoric:

The documents show instructions provided to the commenters that detail the workload expected of them. On an average working day, the Russians are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.

Moscow journalism teacher Igor Yakovenko says that ‘If previous authoritarian regimes were three parts violence and one part propaganda… this one is virtually all propaganda and relatively little violence. Putin only needs to make a few arrests – and then amplify the message through his total control of television’.

Whatever’s going on here, it’s not journalism, at least in the sense of finding out the truth. You’re not a journalist, you’re a soldier, using information and media to fight for a cause. The reporter Glenn Greenwald damned the idea of objective journalism: ‘this suffocating constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring.’ He went on to say that:

The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.

We’ve all got our subjective biases, says Greenwald. So what the hell.

Duns’s short book News of Devils investigates the reporting of the Snowden cache. When Snowden contacted Greenwald, the reporter took the authenticity of Snowden and his documents basically on faith. The documents had official-looking acronyms, therefore they had to be real – not a hoax or an intelligence trap. ‘It’s a basic tenet that the larger a claim the more evidence you need to back it, and forged and fabricated intelligence documents are extremely common in the espionage world,’ Duns writes. ‘But [Greenwald]’s scepticism, fact-checking ability and cold eye to the possibilities of unseen issues that all good journalists have as second nature seems to have been entirely lacking here.’ Greenwald’s then colleagues at the Guardian had big concerns about Snowden’s credibility – he wasn’t some coughing, haggard Deep Throat, but a twenty-nine year old systems analyst. (His editor, Janine Gibson, was also concerned that, having been told that the NSA was monitoring various widely used information channels including Skype, Greenwald called her up and told her about this on Skype.)

But Greenwald was a soldier, not a journalist. ‘I approach my journalism as a litigator,’ he said. ‘People say things, you assume they are lying, and dig for documents to prove it.’ Nor did Greenwald care that a leak may put individuals at risk. He claimed that Snowden had told him: ‘Leaking CIA documents can actually harm people, whereas leaking NSA documents can harm systems.’

Duns writes:

Did Snowden really say this and, if so, did Greenwald believe him? The NSA employs intelligence officers, runs agents and assets around the world, and even a codename or hint about an operation might blow someone’s cover and harm living, breathing human beings. Neither does one need to be under cover to be at risk of harm.

What about Snowden himself? What are his motivations? He was a Republican, an aspiring soldier med-exed from basic training. He was also, as George Packer says, ‘a soldier of the internet.’ In a humane and sympathetic profile, Packer expands on this:

He has said that he grew up not just using [the internet] but in it, and that he learned the heroic power of moral action from playing video games. ‘Basically, the internet allowed me to experience freedom and explore my full capacity as a human being,’ Snowden told Greenwald when they met in Hong Kong. ‘I do not want to live in a world where we have no privacy and no freedom, where the unique value of the internet is snuffed out.’ Throughout the past year, Snowden has continually returned to this theme, more often and more passionately than to the idea of constitutional liberties. His utopia is not an actual democratic society, let alone the good life in a three-bedroom bungalow outside Honolulu, but cyberspace. When he saw that his employer, the US government, was invading the free and private place where he had become himself, the effect was of a paradise lost.

Duns has fun with Snowden’s more fantastical statements. Snowden said in a Christmas message on UK TV that ‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.’ The ability to actually monitor people’s thoughts is impossible even for the most sophisticated intelligence network. But we can empathise. Imagine you’re Edward Snowden. You’re a young man, smart and idealistic and disillusioned. You come across something you believe proves state wrongdoing. And you steal this information, hundreds of thousands of documents, more than you can possibly analyse or understand. The rush of it. The buzz of history. You’re setting news agendas. You’re admired and hated worldwide. And then the comedown. Confusion, remorse, the possibility of a hundred years in federal lockup. All you can do is run, and you might never see home again. Snowden is a child of the digital age but Joseph Conrad’s words in his 1917 novel The Shadow Line might have resonated with him:

Only the young have such moments. I don’t mean the very young. No, the very young have, properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days, in all the continuity of hope, which means no pauses and no introspection… Yes, one goes on and time goes on – till one perceives ahead a shadow line, warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind… This is the period of life in which such moments of which I have spoken are likely to come. What moments? Why, moments of boredom, weariness, of dissatisfaction – rash moments. I mean moments when the still young are inclined to commit rash actions, such as getting married suddenly, or else throwing up a job for no reason.

During the 2000s governments made legislative changes based on terror threats. Anyone who objected was basically told ‘If we don’t pass this law, the terrorists win’. Post-Iraq, and with a more isolationist and distrustful mood, this dog won’t fight. As Duns says:

Where national security state hawks once sold the public the message ‘BE AFRAID – THE TERRORISTS ARE PLANNING TO ATTACK US!’, the Snowden story has repeatedly sold the public a new but equally terrifying narrative: ‘BE AFRAID – YOUR GOVERNMENT IS SPYING ON YOU!’

It’s good to have a healthy scepticism, of authority and the state, and intelligence services, while engaging in reasonable deception, must have democratic oversight. But it’s a big leap from that to state that there’s no real difference between liberal democracies, imperfect and flawed as they are, and totalitarian regimes and movements.

In an age when a lie can be RTd around the world before the truth has got its boots on, it’s great that the digital world also has a place for Jeremy Duns, whose thoughtful and measured essay reminds us that it’s a big world out there that doesn’t always offer us comforting choices.

The Sugar Skull Beneath The Skin

November 16, 2014

sugarskullI ordered Charles Burns’s comic horror trilogy – X’ed Out, The Hive and Sugar Skull - after reading Rachel Cooke’s review of Sugar Skull. The first two books arrived and I read them in just over an hour, in one sitting. They made terrifying reading. When Sugar Skull came in the mail, I put it on my bookshelf, and there it sat for four days. One does not go lightly to Charles Burns. He’s a scary man.

Comics have always been a scary medium, partly because you can actually see the monsters. But it’s also in the tone and shading: think about the penetrating loneliness evoked on every page of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, even Daniel Clowes’s comparatively gentle Ghost World has a powerful, disquieting sense of life slipping away. Charles Burns, however, outshocks even these great artists with his symphony of monstrous delirium.

The story is about Doug, a performance artist in his twenties, who is recovering from a head trauma and relationship breakdown. He stays in his parents’ basement, eating through a rainbow of prescription drugs. At night he drinks, tries to pick up women and tells the story of his relationship with Sarah, a beautiful fellow artist whose talent far outstrips Doug’s own. Only there’s something in the story he’s not telling, even to himself. The gap is filled by horrifying dreams, in which Doug’s alter ego, ‘Nitnit’ is lost in a spooky underworld. Befriended, and exploited, by a loudmouthed warhog-like creature, Nitnit is given a job at ‘the Hive’ where his main duties consist of pushing a wheelbarrow filled with giant eggs along endless dusty corridors, harassed by alien overseers and freaked out by echoing female cries. Burns brings all this to rich and terrible life. You can’t look at a frame without seeing something insane. On the set page, of X-ed Out I think, there’s a single panel showing a man looking into a bedroom, presumably his own, to find his bed occupied by some weird creature with about half a dozen eyes. The creature has a plaster on its head (injury is a big theme in Burns) but it doesn’t seem particularly hurt nor even all that frightening, but, well, what the fuck is it? The horror of something that fundamentally shouldn’t exist but somehow does.

H P Lovecraft dreamed up lots of things like this creature in the room: created ‘horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.’ The world of real things, the universe we know, is a paper fiction, says Lovecraft’s mythos, and behind the curtain there’s dark gods trying to break through. From Michel Houellebecq’s essay on Lovecraft:

It is possible, in fact, that beyond the narrow range of our perception, other entities exist. Other creatures, other races, other concepts and other minds. Among these entities some are probably far superior to us in intelligence and in knowledge. But this is not necessarily good news. What makes us think that these creatures, different as they are from us, will exhibit any kind of a spiritual nature? There is nothing to suggest a transgression of the universal laws of egotism and malice.

Scary thought. Stephen King, who owed Lovecraft a massive debt, wrote in Danse Macabre that ‘most horror fiction […] is firmly reactionary.’ The horror is saying to you: conserve the world of real things, the world of jobs and mortgages and children and families, hold that world close, no matter how dull it seems at times, because if that safe world goes, you’ll never stop screaming. The click that sends Louis Creed insane at the end of Pet Sematary is simply ‘the sound of a door opening’. The horror is telling you to keep that door shut hard.

But Lovecraft and King were writing about outer horror. Charles Burns writes about the horror of the inside. The trilogy’s ending is supposed to be some big astonishing twist but in fact it’s visible from the first page. Doug is a coward, he’s grasping, filled with self pity and entitlement, he takes and takes and takes, he lets people down, and in the end, everyone close to him realises it. He’s shunned from the punk art scene forever. And his horror comes not from some dark revelation but just from that average, shitty, humdrum male cowardice and failure, the failure to step up and engage with the world. Cooke writes that ‘only fear and loathing awaits those men who leave their growing up until it is too late’ and, dear God, it shows.

The Northern Equinox

September 15, 2014

This blog is in danger of going into what the great Benjamin Mackie would call ‘abeyance’ thanks to commitments at work and elsewhere. I can’t guarantee that there will ever be a greater frequency of posts. Blogging these days is about as relevant as radio plays anyway. I have to say though, how honoured I am to have the above story published by the Quietus magazine today – it’s a fantastic site and really is a pleasure to have a piece up there.

Also: Shiny New Books has my essay on Kevin Birmingham’s study on Joyce and literary censorship.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

September 7, 2014

Face it, we all indulge in nostalgia and we all tend to think the world was a better place when we were young. The twenty first century is a scary place and harking back to the 1960s, the 1950s or the Victorian era is understandable. A yearning however for the hunter-gatherer societies of pre-civilised eras is a new one, at least on me. But this is the argument of Yuval Noah Harari in this weekend’s Guardian Review.

‘Over the last decade,’ Harari says, ‘I have been writing a history of humankind, tracking down the transformation of our species from an insignificant African ape into the master of the planet.’ To support his unlikely conclusion – that centuries of technological and social process have made us less happy than the creatures who originally crawled out of the ocean – it’s necessary for him to knock down a couple of straw men. He trashes both ‘the Whig version of history’ which he summarises as ‘Modern people are happier than medieval people, and medieval people were happier than stone age people’ – an oversimplification that probably not even the Whigs believed at the time. He also concedes the advances in medical and child mortality rates. ‘Yet the romantic insistence on seeing the dark side of every novelty is as dogmatic as the Whig belief in progress.’

So, in fact, what’s his problem? It’s animal rights:

We can congratulate ourselves on the accomplishments of modern Homo sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the wealth that shields humans from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Tens of billions of them have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.

I can understand Harari’s rage against super dairies and battery hutches, but seriously ‘no precedents in the annals of planet Earth’? The big entertainment in sixteenth-century Paris, according to Steven Pinker in his Better Angels of Our Nature, was watching animals being lowered into an open fire: ‘singed, roasted and finally carbonised.’ Clive Bloom in his Violent London describes anti-Catholic protests where live cats would be stuffed into the heads of papal effigies, to give the impression that the straw Pope was screaming as he burned. That sort of thing is just unthinkable now, at least on an organised scale. Animal experiments still continue (albeit mostly not using live monkeys) but the problem with ending them is a) computer models haven’t yet developed a way to emulate important medical experiments reliably and b) ending animal experiments would also hurt animals who benefit from painkillers and other drugs thus synthesised.

Harari’s next argument is interesting: that ‘the time frame we are talking about is extremely short. Even if we focus only on the fate of humans, it is hard to argue that the life of the ordinary Welsh coalminer or Chinese peasant in 1800 was better than that of the ordinary forager 20,000 years ago.’ Maybe not. But would you rather be a nineteenth-century rice farmer of the Qing dynasty, from where you’re sitting, or a tribesman of the year 20,2014 BC? Harari thinks he can tell you. He iterates the awfulness of modern life: environmental problems, sedentary occupations, social atomisation: ‘Yet how well can you really know a person only from conversations?’ We are on a ‘hedonic treadmill’ – chasing the consumer dream:

Today we can go to the supermarket and choose to eat a thousand different dishes. But whatever we choose, we might eat it in haste in front of the TV, not really paying attention to the taste. We can go on vacation to a thousand amazing locations. But wherever we go, we might play with our smartphone instead of really seeing the place. We have more choice than ever before, but what good is this choice, when we have lost the ability really to pay attention?

Compare this with Harari’s treatment of Neanderthal man. ‘For millions of years,’ he says, ‘human bodies and minds were adapted to running after gazelles, climbing trees to pick apples, and sniffing here and there in search of mushrooms.’ While human relationships today are based on Facebook and binge drinking, ‘friends in the stone age depended on one another for their very survival. Humans lived in close-knit communities, and friends were people with whom you went hunting mammoths. You survived long journeys and difficult winters together. You took care of one another when one of you fell sick, and shared your last morsels of food in times of want. Such friends knew each other more intimately than many present-day couples.’ In fact, cavemen were a veritable superrace, with enhanced sensory perception. ‘Ancient foragers lived in the present moment, acutely aware of every sound, taste and smell. Their survival depended on it. They listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. They carefully observed the foliage of trees in order to discover fruits and birds’ nests. They sniffed the wind for approaching danger. They moved with a minimum of effort and noise, and knew how to sit, walk and run in the most agile and efficient manner. Varied and constant use of their bodies gave them physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or tai chi.’ Well I, for one, welcome our new Neolithic overlords.

I am quite sympathetic to pessimistic arguments, after all things are tough and people are really struggling. I suspect that historians will look back on the mid twentieth century as the golden age of the lucky generation and the Gen-Y and millennials will have to deal with scarcity and violence and struggle for many decades into the new era. But in recession-hit Britain the anti materialist philosophy falls down because, if people are unhappy, it’s not because of an excess of stuff. Harari says that ‘our happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations. Expectations, however, tend to adapt to conditions. When things improve, expectations rise, and consequently even dramatic improvements in conditions might leave us as dissatisfied as before.’ This is the ‘hedonic treadmill’ – a nice concept – but in the real world poverty is enabled and characterised by low expectations, of ourselves, others and society.

Why has Harari’s doom and gloom perspective gained traction? Part of it is down to politics. If you are a political extremist then the idea that things are worse than they have ever been is an obvious rallying point. Partly it is also a reflection of British’s intelligentsia. I don’t care if Harari went all over the world researching his book – the tone of his article is basically provincial. It’s the ennui of people who live in wealthy enclaves and do nothing but read the same kind of books, attend the same kind of functions, speak only to people who agree with them and then wonder why their lives feel slightly dissatisfying.

Harari mentions ‘the pursuit of happiness’ and it’s an irony that the only country where that’s codified in law is also the country demonised by so many bourgeois philosophers concerned with human well being. Tony Soprano explored the conundrum better than any Thought for the Day slot when he says to his therapist, Dr Melfi: ‘You know we’re the only country in the world where the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed in writing? Can you believe that? Huh? A bunch of fucking spoiled brats. Where’s my happiness then?’

And Melfi replies: ‘It’s only the pursuit that’s guaranteed.’

At the Hôpital X

July 21, 2014

Numéro 57’s eyes were still open, his mouth also open, his small face contorted into an expression of agony. What most impressed me, however, was the whiteness of his face. It had been pale before, but now it was little darker than die sheets. As I gazed at the tiny, screwed-up face it struck me that this disgusting piece of refuse, waiting to be carted away and dumped on a slab in the dissecting room, was an example of ‘natural’ death, one of the things you pray for in the Litany.

This is from ‘How the Poor Die,’ George Orwell’s essay on his experience in the ‘Hôpital X’ where he was treated for ‘an exceptionally fine specimen of a bronchial rattle’ that drew ‘as many as a dozen students queuing up to listen to my chest.’ I thought of his article when reading much of the recent debate on assisted dying. What’s new here is that major religious leaders like George Carey and Desmond Tutu have come out in support of the proposed law. Others are opposed. Justin Welby and many other faith leaders signed a statement ahead of the Lords debate on this:

The bill raises the issue of what sort of society we wish to become: one in which life is to be understood primarily in terms of its usefulness and individuals evaluated in terms of their utility or one in which every person is supported, protected and cherished even if, at times, they fail to cherish themselves.

This is from Cranmer’s blog, which adds: ‘Opposition to ‘do anything which is destructive of life’ is one of the few general rules which unites all of the world’s religions.’

Assisted suicide is a difficult and troubling issue. It troubles me because it is only raised in certain contexts. Take a man of twenty-five with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia who has been in and out of prisons and psych wards his whole life. He wants to kill himself and has no job, no friends and no prospects. The natural response would be to shout ‘Don’t do it’ – it would even be the natural response to a suicidal 25 year old with terminal cancer and a prognosis of six months – but when a 75 year old falls into a painful illness the question of ‘assisted dying’ does come up even though if he recovers the old man could live another 20 years.

It is also the case that people do conspire to have their elderly relatives ‘got out of the way’ – today just as in Orwell’s time: ‘In the bed beyond that a veteran of the war of 1870 was dying, a handsome old man with a white imperial, round whose bed, at all hours when visiting was allowed, four elderly female relatives dressed all in black sat exactly like crows, obviously scheming for some pitiful legacy.’ Even the eugenics Godwin has some weight behind it. There is no idea so insane that it cannot be hammered into respectability by bourgeois intelligentsia in free countries.

So assisted dying troubles me and there are good arguments against it. However I could do without the drone of sanctimony that always seems to accompany these arguments. After George Carey surprised everyone by supporting the Bill, the Plymouth Herald responded with ‘Two bishops in charge of the largest Christian denominations in Plymouth have spoken out to defend the sanctity of life’ – as if no one else on the planet was aware or has ever spoken up for this sanctity, as if anyone who disagreed with them was axiomatically a misanthrope and hater of all things. I go on Twitter, and I see Marko Attila Hoare, a man I respect, complain that ‘When will atheists begin to show the same respect as religious believers for the sanctity of human life?’ Well, some of us are ahead on that, Marko – we’re not the ones slaughtering people in Iraq, at any rate. Not that this is even an issue of religious versus secular. I was at the Harrogate crime festival over the weekend, and the highlight was a discussion with the great psychological suspense writer Sophie Hannah. One thing Hannah said stayed with me: ‘The most dangerous people are the ones who think of themselves as the good guys – the people I really fear.’ The attempted monopoly on virtue, the scramble for the moral high ground – you cross the road to avoid these people, and if they are waving a placard that says ‘PRO-LIFE’ you don’t even check the traffic first.

So let’s go back to Orwell’s para. Looking upon the unfortunate man dead in the Hôpital X, he thought to himself: where did we get the idea that ‘natural death’ was even any good, let alone the best way to go?

There you are, then, I thought, that’s what is waiting for you, twenty, thirty, forty years hence: that is how the lucky ones die, the ones who live to be old. One wants to live, of course, indeed one only stays alive by virtue of the fear of death, but I think now, as I thought then, that it’s better to die violently and not too old. People talk about the horrors of war, but what weapon has man invented that even approaches in cruelty some of the commoner diseases? ‘Natural’ death, almost by definition, means something slow, smelly and painful.

Orwell didn’t get to be old, but his lifetime encompassed two world wars and he himself was almost killed in the Spanish Civil War. Maybe his attitude reflects a time when getting old wasn’t guaranteed. For most of human history we have been preoccupied with quantity of life. As Carson McCullers had it: ‘Life could become one long dim scramble just to get the things needed to keep alive.’ Now that we’ve outlived conscription and killed the smallpox the emphasis is on how we sustain ‘quality of life’ in the long difficult years that follow retirement. Perhaps Orwell in his sickbed saw the future: pampered generations that have annulled or at least limited all the things that murder human beings will still have to confront the fact that ‘However great the kindness and the efficiency, in every hospital death there will be some cruel, squalid detail, something perhaps too small to be told but leaving terribly painful memories behind, arising out of the haste, the crowding, the impersonality of a place where every day people are dying among strangers.’

At the end of the day, people don’t want to die screaming and rotting, they don’t want to have their savings eaten up by corrupt care homes and that is why provision for ‘assisted dying’ in certain cases will probably be made. As the great man said: ‘it is a great thing to die in your own bed, though it is better still to die in your boots.’


(Image: Buzzfeed)

Through the Dark Glass: S J Bradley’s Brick Mother

July 15, 2014

brickmotherWelcome to the locked psychiatric ward of the Cedar Hospital Heathley. It’s much like any other secure psyche unit. There’s a guy called Andy who’s just been sectioned at a train station for ranting mad things at the departures board. There’s Ahmet the Middle Eastern refugee who’s okay if you don’t turn on the TV news when he’s in the room. In fact the only person who seems halfway  normal is Nathan Rivers, a former prisoner coming off six years. Nathan is charming, funny, peaceable and causes no trouble for patients or staff. In Brick Mother two very different ward workers are drawn to him.

There’s little that’s romantical about mental distress and S J Bradley shows this well. The scattered vignettes of ward round give small insights into ‘cruel, uncontrollable minds': people stealing sugar packets, crying hysterically, eking out a crossword into days. Only slightly less desperate are the lives of their guardians. Brick Mother may be one of the best novels written about work. In it Bradley focuses on two members of staff, art therapist Neriste and ward nurse Donna, and through them encapsulates the fulltime grind: antisocial hours, sleeping on the bus, unreliable bank staff, limited resources, mindless bureaucracy, top-down priorities that swing like weathercocks in a gale and managers who are never seen in the building after four. The tone of the narration is like the floaters that live in tired eyes – like the beige and loam of Nathan’s abstracts.

Neriste is a committed and creative soul who is breaking under the weight of the misery she deals with. Donna is a middle aged lone parent with the understandable desire to be young and free again. Both are drawn to Nathan in different ways: while Neriste tries to draw him out through art, and make him accommodate the possibility of change, Donna falls under the lunatic’s spell. As Nathan flirts and plays her, Donna begins to almost transform: she loses weight, her skin looks brighter. (At the novel’s messy conclusion, we see a photograph of Donna: ‘an overweight woman with a doughy face, and unflattering dark hair’ – a subtle allusion that the transformation wasn’t real, or was only real to Donna.’)

At first glance this is pure kitchen sink. The tone is made out of damp, wet clothes, missed appointments, unhappy relationships, lack of money. But this miasma of mediocrity gradually resolves itself, through Bradley’s intricate and unseeable skills, into something absolutely horrifying. Brick Mother is a cautionary tale and a portrait of institutional rhythms, but it is also an examination of how closely we can become involved in other people’s lives. There is a fine difference between people who are high functioning and not, and some of us hide beneath the radar, and there is like a wall of glass between the many many people whose lives have collapsed and the rest of us who can still walk and talk and put on a front: the distinction is fine, evasive and mysterious, but the barrier is transparent and we see through this glass, darkly. The only suffering you can escape, Kafka said, is the act of turning your back on the suffering of the world, but Bradley’s debut demonstrates that the choice is not necessarily irrevocable.

Lindsay and Scarlett

July 10, 2014

Two interesting cases caught my eye this week.

The actor Scarlett Johansson has successfully sued a French novelist, Grégoire Delacourt, for writing her as a character into his novel, La Première Chose Qu’on Regarde. Johansson argued that the portrayal constituted defamation and that Delacourt’s book ‘fraudulently exploited her name, her image and her celebrity’.

But, according to the Guardian, this wasn’t a huge victory for the actor.

The Guardian quotes Delacourt’s publisher, Emmanuelle Allibert of J-C Lattès:

All of Scarlett Johansson’s demands were rejected except one thing that was seen to be an attack in her private life over two relations that she never had.

All her other demands, including damages of €50,000, were rejected, notably that there should be a ban on the book being translated or made into a film. We just have to cut out the bit about the affairs, which is just four lines[.]

Delacourt himself claims that the Johansson character is not really Scarlett Johansson, just a model who looks like her. But he implies that the character is modelled on Johansson because Johansson for him is ‘the archetype of beauty today’.

So – it appears – Delacourt lost his case only because he based a fictional character on Scarlett Johansson and his fictional character had committed adultery. The charge that the author ‘fraudulently exploited her name, her image and her celebrity’ does not seem to have been reflected in the judgement.

Which brings me to the case in New York where actor Lindsay Lohan is trying to sue the makers of Grand Theft Auto for ‘allegedly using her image, likeness and voice without permission.’

Lohan’s case is that GTAV features a character called ‘Lacey Jonas’ in a mission included in GTAV. You can read the full complaint here. Lohan’s argument is that, even though GTAV didn’t use Lohan’s name, Lohan is the ‘intended referent’ because ‘her likenesses, portraits and voice’ were used ‘to advertise the game for trade purposes’ and the mission narrative is ‘substantially similar to places, locations and events’ in Lohan’s life and that Lohan’s right to privacy was violated ‘by including her portraits and ‘screen persona’ in the game. The complaint also says that GTA explicitly advertised the ‘Lacey Jonas’ character as a ‘Lindsay Lohan’ lookalike in its promotions, although I haven’t seen this online. (I’m not a lawyer: I’m feeling my way along here.)

The violation of a ‘right to persona’ is an interesting angle. The idea that an image of yourself can become a commodity that criminals can unlawfully trade off. That we have a right not just to the exercise of self expression and individual freedoms but to a unique and self created image.

As I understand it, if I self publish a series of hack novels called ‘The Russell Brand Time Machine Adventures’ customers would potentially buy my product purely because of the Russell Brand name and because they made a wrong assumption that the books were by Russell Brand or authorised by him. I could then be said to be unlawfully profiting off Russell Brand’s name recognition and therefore leave myself open to charges of ‘right to persona’ violation or even defamation (depending on what I had Russell Brand doing in the books).

Lindsay Lohan’s complaint even argues that ‘Multiple people in the general public have reached out to the Plaintiff [Lohan] believing the character was the Plaintiff, creating consumer confusion in the market place.’

However I think to the general public Lindsay Lohan although she has big name recognition, she doesn’t have a unique persona in the same way Russell Brand does. GTA’s attorney says that the character is just a ‘generic troubled starlet’. Lohan has become the generic sexy but screwed up celebrity, just as Johansson has become the archetype of the beautiful and sophisticated actress. It’s not fair, but it’s how people’s perceptions are shaped. Journalists, presenters, gameswriters, PRs, spinners, propagandists, and also hack writers, screenwriters and dramatists, exist to turn human beings into archetypes. That’s why good writing is so rare, and so important. But by the same token Lohan’s case (at least if it was heard in the UK) could open the door to any writer guilty of lazy characterisation being sued into the poor house.

Novelists have featured real people in their books since the form begun. Don DeLillo’s Cold War song Underworld has famous historical personalities wandering in and out of his narrative like confident ghosts. And who could forget Princess Margaret’s turn in Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope? Fiction should be able to intersect with the real. Some characters just happen. They walk into our lives more or less fully formed. It’s a spooky and remarkable thing. But also like most people, writers become people through constant exposure to other human beings. And so most writers will consciously or unconsciously base fictional characters on real people. Contra Philip Roth, when a writer is born into a family, it’s not just that family that’s doomed. It’s anyone and everyone that writer meets.

However most novelists tend to avoid putting real people in novels who are identified explicitly with that person or too perfunctorily disguised. Anthony Burgess was sued after his 1961 novel, The Worm and the Ring, after a secretary at Burgess’s old school saw herself in its pages: the book was pulped, and revised editions had passages removed. Scarlett Thomas, in her masterful Monkeys with Typewriters, writes that ‘Again and again I see students trying to write the actions of someone whom they know in real life. It’s limiting, embarrassing and also, of course, morally dubious. So let your characters develop as a part of you. Ask yourself what you would do in this situation if you were this person.’

The doubt I have about this is that it turns characterisation into thought experiment, because not everyone reacts to similar situations in the same way. The characters in, say, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go react in realistic ways, but they cannot be said to have persona. You don’t physically see them. The characters with persona are inexplicable spectres, and you know them better than your friends.


(Image via Dazed Digital)

Ozymandias Edits His Wiki

July 8, 2014

This story is now available at WordLife.

Also, at fantastic new reviews site Shiny New Books: me on the new Mark Danielewski.

Update: I forgot that this was online – me on short stories and mental illness, at Oval Short Fiction.


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