Men Sell Not Such In Any Town

December 29, 2022
Backwards up the mossy glen
Turn’d and troop’d the goblin men,
With their shrill repeated cry,
‘Come buy, come buy.’
When they reach’d where Laura was
They stood stock still upon the moss,
Leering at each other,
Brother with queer brother;
Signalling each other,
Brother with sly brother.
 
The wicked merchants of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ bewitch people with their magical fruit: ‘Apples and quinces, Lemons and oranges, Plump unpeck’d cherries, Melons and raspberries, Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches, Swart-headed mulberries’. The fruit tastes so good it’s addictive; users come back for more only to find that the goblins have vanished. The unfortunate customer ‘Sought them by night and day, Found them no more, but dwindled and grew grey, Then fell with the first snow.’
 
My edition of Rossetti’s selected poems says that there is no allegorical content to ‘Goblin Market’ – Rossetti just wanted to write a narrative verse. JK Rowling uses the poem as an epigraph in her novel The Ink Black Heart, which is about the dark side of virtual worlds. The Victorian phrasing clashes with Rowling’s modern crime thriller, but you can read the resonances all the same. Social media addicts spend more and more time on constant broadcast, chasing that dopamine high, the taste of magical fruit. The sites themselves are full of fanatics, grifters, conmen and bad actors – signalling each other, brother with sly brother.
 
Nick Cohen makes the case against Twitter here. It encourages groupthink and high emotion at the expense of depth and complexity. And it’s particularly bad for writers. ‘For today’s writers,’ Nick says, ‘social media is now the prime distraction and the foremost enemy of promise.’
 
I must disagree with Nick on this occasion. While acknowledging the dark side of social media, I think overall that Big Tech is the greatest gift that global markets have left to an ungrateful nation. 
 
The narrative against Big Tech comes from boomers. They don’t understand it, they don’t like it but they’ve got to engage because the publisher tells them to. It’s the ‘do it to say you’ve done it’ imperative from which the disillusionment comes. It’s hard to take a step back and realise how much the bitterness dominates thinking about technology. One of the best novels I read this year was Jennifer Egan’s The Candy Housein which an inventor works out how to actually externalise the human consciousness – put it into an interface that contains actual human memories. The Candy House is thoughtful, compulsive, dazzling and could never have been written by a British author (and if it had would just have been rejigged as an obvious satire). 
 
No disrespect to old people. I mean, I’m old. But maybe you have to be a Gen Xer to understand. 
 
It’s the little things really. Imagine waiting for a bus without having an iPhone to check your emails. Imagine the crimes that would have gone unpunished without street footage captured on smartphone cameras. The suicides that would have happened without a stranger reaching out. People I’ve known kept indoors, or living in social deserts, whose loneliness has been alleviated by Facebook and Twitter. Could you imagine the lockdowns in, say, 1992? Could we have survived the pandemic without social media, as annoying as it was?
 
Oh, the dopamine has long since burned out. When I first got onto Twitter in the 2010s you could log on at any given time and see a post that would make you reconsider your beliefs, or laugh out loud in the street. Now, as Nick says, it’s full of careerist bores with blue ticks. I thought that Musk’s takeover at least meant the bores would clear off. We get a lot more adverts for Saudi megacities, Tom Hanks and gold exchanges. But the bores are still there. They just have Mastodon strings in their profile names.
 
One of Nick’s problems with Twitter is that it devalues longform content:
The bitter truth is that the ungrateful swine don’t click. A study of 200 US news publishers from 2016 found that Twitter generated ‘1.5 percent of traffic for typical news organizations’. At the same time a joint study by Columbia University and the French National Institute concluded that your tweet may go viral but your content may not be read.
 
So how do we get people to actually read the content – stuff that matters? One idea that Nick and others have taken up is to do substacks, with much of the content subscriber only. But then, who’s going to read all these substacks? I read Jesse Singal‘s and Leyla Sanai‘s. I’d encourage you to get paid subscriptions, to theirs and to Nick’s, if you can afford it. But who is going to pay the rest of these subscriptions? The coffee house of the Republic of Letters never used to charge admission. And longform content isn’t necessarily good content. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Unherd essay mill.
 
Meanwhile, don’t worry – all the posts on this blog will stay free, which would mean something if the blog was ever updated. 

Death on Staircase 7

November 8, 2022

The Oxbridge education is overrated. Or so it must feel to Hannah Jones. Ten years on from beginning her degree in one of Oxford’s best colleges, she is working in a bookshop, worried about money, pursued by journalists and living with a handsome but distant husband.

It all held so much promise. Ruth Ware says that ‘writing about Oxford is a particular kind of challenge – it’s been novelised so frequently and so well that it feels slightly hubristic to add to the pile of books about the college experience.’ Yet the Oxford parts of the novel are among some of Ware’s best passages. The students are recognisably 2010s students, modern and idiosyncratic, but they do not seem grafted on to the old-time college with its buildings, landscape, traditions and rules. The relationship between town and college is deftly drawn, and there’s a sense of ancient magic you must have felt if you ever studied at such a place – something that mixes in with the everyday quotidian murmur. This is Hannah getting back to accommodation on a rainy night:

Under the arch of staircase 7 she folded her umbrella, shook off the worst of the water, and made her way slowly up the stairs. Behind each door was a different sound. The silence of study; the laughter of friends congregating; the quiet thump of someone’s music, the volume just slightly too low for Hannah to recognise the song.

Hannah’s time at college was brought to an ugly close by the murder of her best friend, April Clarke-Cliveden. April is the ‘It Girl’ of the title and another of the book’s strengths. There is a tendency in crime fiction to freeze the victims in the moment of their death – the body is found in the prologue, you never get to know them as people, they are basically wall martyrs. But April is a vivid presence throughout. She is vivacious, funny and smart. She is the legendary undergraduate who can go out partying until dawn and still be fresh for the seminar room. When Hannah revisits Oxford ten years later, she finds that their old rooms have been turned into office space. But you can still feel traces of April’s personality there.

April can be arrogant, entitled, even cruel. But there is a heart to her. She puts real effort into her friendship with Hannah – who, frankly, can be a drag and a bore – but April adopts her, encourages confidence in Hannah, builds her up, with no real vested interest in doing so, for no more reason than that she sees things in people. And when April is killed, it’s like part of Hannah dies with her. She retreats to her childhood bedroom, spends years reading letters from her contemporaries, her own drives and ambitions shrinking.

April’s murder is a classic locked room mystery: she is killed in the ‘set’ (a kind of bedsit she shares with Hannah) that has only one way in and out, through the stairwell. A porter named John Neville is convicted of her murder on the strength of Hannah’s testimony – she saw him exit the stairway at the time of her death. Day to day, Neville is an irritation and a creep – he is always messing with Hannah’s head, coming into her room on small pretexts, seeing how far he can push the boundaries. He dies in prison protesting his innocence, and as much as Hannah disliked Neville, she’s always been haunted by the possibility that she sent him to jail, unjustly. 

In a murder mystery there must be the sense that things are going on behind the scenes that you don’t know about. The little Pelham college is crowded and incestuous, you think you can see all the betrayals and love triangles that are going on, but it’s unlikely you’ll know the whole truth, not until right at the end. Ware understands how to convey secrets and lies inside small, intelligent groups. The college itself seems to have more secret passages than a Cluedo board. Pelham is walled, but there’s a place you can climb over. There is a fine eerie touch to the stairwell Hannah and April use to get into their building – its lights run on sensors, so after sunset you have to walk, and climb into the dark for a moment, before the light recognises your presence and clicks on. 

The It Girl is a long book, perhaps too long, and earnest and ponderous sometimes. But there is a real storytelling engine here, that kicks in so quietly you don’t notice it, then builds to a good, confident pace. Our goody-goody protagonist Hannah has nothing to go on except her intuitions and doubts, and the narrative reflects that, meandering from place to place. But Hannah turns out to be made of stern stuff, and a fine detective in her own right. The end, and how she gets there, is a genuine shocker. Death waits in the garden, but glory is waiting there too.

Something Wicked

August 17, 2022

(Spoiler alert for entire series of Better Call Saul)

The obvious road is almost always the fool’s road. And beware the middle road, the road of moderation, common sense and careful planning.’

– William Burroughs

‘Seriously, when the going gets tough, you don’t want a criminal lawyer… You want a criminal lawyer.’

– Jesse Pinkman

Somewhere in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there is a marquee tent in a field after darkness. Crowds of people stream towards and around it, a certain kind of crowd that loves life after dark. The hustlers and ravers, bikers and goths, drug fiends and lost souls. Inside the tent itself there’s no circus, just a man in a sharp, colourful suit, an attorney who up until recently practiced under the name Jimmy McGill. After a year’s suspension he’s reinvented himself as ‘Saul Goodman’ and has erected his tent to give away drop phones and pitch his business to the night crowd. He establishes rapport with potential clients, brags about his legal victories, grossly exaggerates them – the scene is something out of a dark carnival on the edge of town: something wicked this way comes.

At the end of the night, his bodyguard Huell says: ‘Well done, magic man.’ Saul replies: ‘We’re just getting started.’

Breaking Bad was about the persistence of magic in the modern age. The villain of Stephen King’s The Stand is described as ‘the last magician of rational thought.’ That’s an apt phrase for Walter White as well. His story is a bitter one about pride and unused talent. Yet even though he’s a failed scientist and high school chemistry teacher, he can do things that seem impossible – build a car battery out of nothing, cut through reinforced locks, synthesise poison from coffee beans. He has an uncanny ability to turn the tables even from an impossible position. He is an accomplished manipulator, who can change others’ perception of reality. Magic is sometimes alluded to in the series. Jesse Pinkman entertains Andrea’s son Brock with magic tricks, and then tells him: ‘That’s science, yo’ – but to Brock it’s indistinguishable from magic. Skyler admits to Walt during a furious marital row that ‘I don’t have your magic’. The very state of Mexico, of course, is known as the ‘Land of Enchantment’.

While he can’t match Walter’s meticulous nature and scientific expertise, Saul does have one thing his client lacks: charm. Even his disapproving older brother Chuck must admit early on that ‘Jimmy has a way with people.’ And Jimmy is equal with his charm, everyone deserves a good impression from him, whether they’re a prisoner in courthouse lockup or an old lady on a coach in Amarillo (‘Edison – like the inventor?’ ‘Beautiful penmanship – a lost art!’) Chuck is suspicious of Jimmy’s charm in part because he could never replicate it and also because he knows that charm has a dark twin – persuasion.

Charles and Jimmy McGill have the legal profession in common but not much else. Charles is everything that Jimmy is not: disciplined, rule-bound, grave and meticulous and successful. Law has the same defining, shaping meaning in Chuck’s life as science did for Walter White: it is like the gas lantern that Chuck carries around his house, a guiding light in a dark world. The law is sacred – Jimmy just can’t be trusted with it. ‘I know what you were, what you are,’ he says. ‘People don’t change. You’re Slippin’ Jimmy. And Slippin’ Jimmy I can handle just fine. But Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun. The law is sacred! If you abuse that power, people get hurt. This is not a game.’

Chuck must know there is plenty of scope for persuasion in the day to day practice of law. We have known for this for a while. In his History of Europe, Richard Evans writes about the development of law as a profession:

Not surprisingly, lawyers were constantly campaigning against unqualified hucksters, known in Germany as Winkeladvokaten, or street-corner advocates, and in Italy as faccendieri, fixers. In the 1880s the Naples hall of justice was said to be like a flea market, with would-be lawyers advertising their services at every corner.

It seems that the regulation of legal practitioners, from its very early days, was drawn up with people like Saul Goodman in mind.

The respectable world seems to share Chuck’s opinion. Betsy Kettleman says it explicitly: ‘You’re the kind of lawyer guilty people hire.’ Jimmy can make people laugh in the legal world, but he can’t make them respect or approve of him, to them he will always be ‘Chuck McGill’s loser brother’. In the final series he’s ostracised by courthouse staff completely, the DA puts the word out: Jimmy has crossed a line that turns him from semi-tolerated guest to pariah. The resentment obviously fuelled his transformation into Saul Goodman, and there’s a moment in Breaking Bad when he strong-arms a more established attorney into selling his client’s house for less than half its value: you can see on Saul’s face how much he enjoyed outsmarting the conservative, disdainful older advocate.

Persuasion is all about the game. Persuasion is what got Socrates killed. Persuasion is how Jimmy McGill got his start as a small time conman – persuading people to hand over money for items that turn out to be worthless or even nonexistent. Persuasion is about creative interpretation, twisting the rules, dancing up to the line without quite crossing it. And persuasion brings in another concept Jimmy is fond of: showmanship. Showmanship is the suits, the ring, the LAWYRUP car, the inflatable Lady Liberty, and all the accoutrements of the Saul Goodman identity that Jimmy accumulates on the way. These things are not glammers (although they are that too) they are marks of Saul’s talent. And talent, Stephen King says, wants to be used.

This is where Kim comes in. As an attorney she seems more built in the Chuck mode: diligent and professional and quietly outstanding. But she shares with Jimmy a love of persuasion and mischief, a streak of something wicked that becomes the basis of their brief, passionate love affair. When interviewed by a new firm she relates her early life growing up in a small town in Nebraska. ‘What do you want?’ asks the law partner. ‘More,’ says Kim. She wants something that’s commensurate with her talents and the conservative blue chip ABQ law world is never going to offer that. The passion Jimmy and Kim have in common is the passion to be their own person, to work for themselves, not for a firm, a bank, a corporation or a cartel. Like Boyd Crowder in Justified, they are outlaws rather than criminals. The important thing for Jimmy and Kim is never to give up their independence – and they have a cautionary tale in Howard Hamlin, their boss at HHM, a comical, derided and ultimately tragic figure. 

The Game is not a hard thing to get into. During the first series – I mean, after Tuco’s calmed down – there is not much criminal activity at all. One episode begins with Jimmy sitting in a police station, there as Mike’s attorney, his back against a wall of fugitives. We pan down the wall of faces, knowing Jimmy’s likeness will one day be among them, and we linger on one: a guy called William Hill. Later, this same man rudely pushes past Jimmy to exit a cafe bathroom. The underworld is not obvious… but we always know it is there. 

The practice of law intersects with The Game of the criminal world. There are very few morally uncompromised people in Better Call Saul, and those minor characters – Ernesto, Irene Landry, Manuel Varga. Even Chuck is not above the dark arts. He spent years quietly undermining Jimmy before actively trying to drive him out of the profession in series two (which, of course, makes Jimmy all the more determined to hold on to a legal career that he’d considered giving up in the past.) Chuck is as devious as Jimmy and as proud as Walter White: he won’t admit he is mentally ill because he can’t face any potential threat to his intellect, the brilliant mind that built his success in life and won him the respect he felt cheated of by his more loveable little brother. Even the thought that he might have made a transposition error in client documentation sends Chuck into a tailspin. At the heart of it is pride but also a kind of terrible tough love. Chuck is convinced that Jimmy will do great harm to himself and others, and of course he is right… but whether this is fate or just determinism is something for us at home to puzzle over.

The road to hell is a crooked one. A common criticism of Better Call Saul is that it was too slow moving. Jimmy McGill doesn’t make a clear conscious decision to get into The Game. There is no great fall but a crooked path with plenty of switchbacks, do-overs, false starts and dead ends – a slow, fascinating meander. Donna Bowman of the AV Club also identifies what makes the show more interesting and more tragic: the absence of innate evil in Jimmy’s world. While there was always a dark heart to Walter White, for his lawyer the internal soundtrack is less intense: freestyle jazz.

But there is also a sense that Jimmy was doomed from the moment he tried to scam the Kettlemans, which put him on the cartel radar – and also gave him a grounding in trauma and violence, enabling him to push through the horror as it escalates and therefore helping him survive the Game. Mike tells him:

We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off… but eventually, you’re back on it. And the road we’re on led us out to the desert, everything that happened there and straight back to where we are right now. And nothing – nothing – can be done about that.

Mike Ehrmantraut acts as a kind of Zen counsellor to Saul and others. As the above quote shows, he’s a fatalist, and a hard man, particularly on himself. Nothing fazes Mike – he meets even his own violent death with a deadpan equanimity: ‘Shut the fuck up, Walter, and let me die in peace’ (and Walter, incredibly, does.) After his son’s death, for which he blames himself, for Mike life is all epilogue. Hank told Mike that ‘your departure from the Philadelphia police was… dramatic.’ We now know just how dramatic that departure was. But revenge doesn’t seem to have satisfied Mike. He’s still haunted by guilt and loneliness, and he can’t tell the difference between justice and vengeance. So why do we love him? Because Mike makes us laugh, as a laconic foil to Jimmy, and because of his stubborn belief that there are rules and ethics to the Game, things you do and don’t do. Jimmy is heading into the darkness. Mike already lives there.

The road is not just for Saul and Mike. Albuquerque is full of criminal dilettantes – the Kettlemans, Dan the steroid nerd, Gale Boetticher, even Werner Ziegler the engineer – who think they can get into the Game without negative consequences for themselves. They all pale in comparison to Walter White, the ultimate criminal amateur, who upends the ABQ underworld entirely and leaves scorched earth. As Mike rants to Walter in Breaking Bad: ‘We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch!… We had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork…. It was perfect. But, no, you just had to blow it up.’

The story of Heisenberg was about bitterness and pride but also regret. Even in the last episode of Better Call Saul Walter is still going on about the company he formed in graduate school, convinced that his college friends scammed him out of billions. Walter wants a legacy but he also wants to live the life he believed was denied him (he keeps Jesse around because he sees the younger man as his missing third child, the son and heir Walt never had). Walt bares his soul – as much as he ever bares his soul – to Saul about this, only for the lawyer to tell his own most profound regret: injuring his knee doing a slip-and-fall. To this Walt just says: ‘So you were always like this.’ 

Yes, he was always like this: an ordinary guy from a small town with a taste for mischief. And this is the story, the story of an ordinary man who grew up in the small town of Cicero, a man with a good heart and a streak of something wicked to him: a man who could have done anything he put his mind to, but who ended up, after a string of criminal adventures, serving life in federal prison. And it is the story of his one, brief, true love, a brilliant young woman who was equal to him in both law and persuasion, a woman who could have done amazing things and still might.

Series creator Vince Gilligan has ruled out a return to Albuquerque, so it’s goodbye to that world as well – ‘quite a ride,’ as Saul says. It really was a land of enchantment, and an immense pleasure to spend time there.

Codename Edith

May 7, 2022

Edith Suschitzky merits only one mention in Ben MacIntyre’s masterful biography of double agent Kim Philby. ‘Philby’s introduction to Deutsch appears to have been arranged by Edith Tudor-Hart … Edith married an English doctor and fellow communist called Alexander Tudor-Hart, and moved to England in 1930, where she worked as a photographer and part-time talent-scout for the NKVD, under the remarkably unimaginative codename ‘Edith’. She had been under MI5 surveillance since 1931 but not, fatefully, on the day she led Philby to meet Deutsch in Regent’s Park.’

Philby learned communism at university. Just before he left Cambridge, he asked his supervisor, economist Maurice Dobb, ‘how best to devote my life to the Communist cause’ and Dobb put him in touch with a Paris agent of the Comintern named Louis Gibarti. Gibarti sent Philby to Vienna, where he fell in love with a Viennese communist named Litzi. Edith was one of her best friends, the daughter of a social democratic publisher. Then came the purge. ‘Prisoners march through silent streets as they are led towards the camps that will become their graves, Europe dithering in the months following Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss’s disbanding of parliament. Across the city of Vienna, a fire takes hold.’

Litzi’s name was on one of Dollfuss’s hit lists, so she married Philby and fled to London, and a little while later Edith Suschitzky led him to the meeting in the park that would make him a spy. We see little of Philby in this novel, and no great loss. He pops up now and again: at Cambridge (‘Trinity College appeared to bask beneath its own golden halo, those first weeks flying past, the clinking of champagne flutes along the banks of the River Cam’) in Spain (‘Taking a step on to the pavement, the dust scattering around his polished brogues and linen suit – the perfect attire for a bright young Times journalist poised to report the Civil War from Franco’s side’) and outwitting the local cops by throwing his wallet on the floor during interrogation. Oh, he’s such a card. Letters from Russia intersperse the narrative. In them he talks about the weather, his dacha in the countryside, his attempts at cultivating vegetables. Charlotte Philby, who is his grand daughter, wrote the letters based on Philby’s own correspondence: ‘Some sections are lifted verbatim; additional paragraphs I have invented based on his interviews, his autobiography, anecdotes, family folklore, and my imagination.’

Edith was the greater mystery. Growing up, she saw her father’s bookshop regularly trashed and raided by the nationalist right, yet he never fought back: ‘Edith’s father had felt himself stand taller. A self-proclaimed pacifist, he hadn’t lashed out.’ As a young woman she shouts at the old man: ‘You have dedicated your life to ideas and theories that you claim will change the world. But you’re a hypocrite! Just out there, beyond the bookshop, Europe is imploding, and you do nothing.’ As an activist she’ll do anything the Party asks of her, and defend its most shocking crimes. ‘So, my daughter doesn’t condemn it,’ says Edith’s mother in 1939, ‘a pact between the Nazis and the Soviet Union. And so you must condone it, this agreement between your leader and the same man who forced us from our homes, who stole our country – the men who are responsible for Papa’s death?’ 

To betray you must first belong, Philby tells her. Philby was a son of privilege whose life was a succession of exclusive clubs. Edith was an immigrant artist under constant state suspicion. Edith is interesting because she didn’t belong – her personal life was nowhere as linear as her doctrinaire views. After letting go of the dullard doctor she married, Edith had a succession of affairs with various dynamic Soviet agents. The real focus in life was her son – she loves Tommy more than anything in the world, but his condition and stalled development (likely PTSD from the Blitz) makes him a threat to himself and others. Edith takes the boy to a child psychiatrist who starts an affair with her, while the kid is packed off to a succession of remote residential homes. The dullard doctor signs off on a transfer to a brutal asylum without Edith’s knowledge or consent. The child psychiatrist drops her a line to say ‘I think you would like to know from me that I have remarried.’

The last third or so of the novel is a heartbreaking read as, twitchy and ageing, Edith deteriorates fast. At this stage the typewritten police reports that were always an occasional presence in the text begin to take it over – officialdom overwhelming humanity, like the Soviet years. She burns her negatives, suffers a nervous breakdown and is herself institutionalised. It’s at this point that Philby’s letters, always the most interesting aspect of his presence here, take on a poignancy. Under the careful insouciance of Philby’s style you could always make out self-doubt and isolation that crept in. (Macintyre writes ‘At times he sounded like a retired civil servant put out to grass (which, in a way, he was) harrumphing at the vulgarity of modern life… he grumbled about ‘the ghastly din of modern music’ and ‘hooligans inflamed by bourgeois rock music.’) ‘Is it wrong to say that I envied you your freedom?’ he writes to Edith. ‘You got to live your life exactly as you ought; you never had to play a part.’ 

Edith and Kim becomes a sad song, and a meditation on the psychology of betrayal. There is always doubt, and memory, even in the club of one or a mind dedicated to the cause. In his biography of Guy Burgess, Andrew Lownie writes about the house on Bentinck Street where Burgess used to crash sometimes – ‘it had a bomb shelter in the basement, there were always plenty of overnight visitors stranded by air raids or late night duties.’ In August 1940 Burgess wrote to a friend: ‘the bed problem when I sleep there in the basement is complex. Varied also are the names people murmur in their sleep.’

American Fortunes

May 2, 2022

(Spoiler alert for entire series of Ozark)

In Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You there is a mob accountant called Bernard Squires. His ‘livelihood, and in all probability his very life, depended on his talent for assembling investment portfolios in which vast sums could plausibly disappear.’ He is in rural Florida to build a shopping mall on forest land – only the shopping centre is never meant to get built, it’s simply a vehicle to launder millions for the Tarbone crime family. Squires does everything right, but is ultimately beaten out of the land by the novel’s heroes, and ends up fleeing to South America.

Running away is never an option for Marty Byrde, the wealth manager in Ozark. Marty is very good at his job – if, for Gale Boetticher, the magic was in the lab, for Marty that magic is in the balance sheets. Cartel representatives come to his firm in Chicago and hire him to launder their drug money. The cartel is impressed with Marty because – out of the hundred-odd wealth managers its representatives interviewed for the role – Marty was the only one who had the balls to point out that their current financial advisor is ripping them off. All goes well for ten years, until the cartel discovers that Marty’s business partner is also skimming, and that Marty – distracted by his wife Wendy’s affair – has missed this. Marty has to watch his business partner and contractors gunned down in front of him, and only wins his own life by offering a radical new proposition – relocate to rural Missouri and launder more money far from federal eyes. The enforcer agrees to give Marty a second chance, and he uproots himself to Ozark. 

Ozark is a show about class, not crime. This is illustrated to high comedy in the early episodes. Marty arrives in Osage Beach offering tons of money to buy up small businesses, and is surprised when the locals get suspicious and ask questions. For all Marty’s business brain, he doesn’t anticipate that Missourians might actually know what money laundering is – or that he might be blundering into established operations. At least in the beginning, Marty is a white collar Yankee who underestimates the South. Once the family has settled in, and learned to fit in to some extent, we can see the dividing lines. Rich northern families visit every year to enjoy the lakes. Marty’s fifteen year old daughter Charlotte sleeps with one of the rich boys. When he blanks her, Charlotte realises that she is now on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon: to the elites stopping in from Manhattan or Long Beach she is no longer someone to be taken seriously, just a local girl to fool about with. (A New York hipster declines to take part in local hustler Ruth Langmore’s drug operation because, he says, he came from a place like Ozark and doesn’t want to go back there.)

Getting the Byrdes back across the line is the ambition of Wendy Byrde, Marty’s errant wife. A brilliant political campaigner, who was forced out by the Democrat machine in Chicago, Wendy sees in Ozark her last and best chance. While Marty launders the Byrde money, Wendy launders the Byrde reputation. She uses her long-dormant networking skills to buy up much of the Missourian elite and to build a Byrde family foundation, her goal to establish the foundation as a Chicago philanthropic machine that has outgrown the cartel. Her and Marty’s conflicting business aims, and their increasingly volatile marriage, dominate much of the storyline and there are lethal consequences for anyone caught in their crossfire. Wendy’s threats, her manipulations, her willingness to take life and even sacrifice her own brother to the cartel, all of it makes her a terrifying criminal operator in her own right. But it’s rare to find pure evil in the Ozarks. When Wendy’s father comes to the lakes (to find his ‘missing’ son) he ends up trying to take Charlotte and the son Jonah into his guardianship. Outwardly an upright Christian man, Ruth gets him drunk and makes him tell her who he really is: a mean drunk who hits his children. Ruth concludes that, as bad as the Byrde parents are, their kids are safer with them. 

‘When Ozark first appeared,’ writes Barbara Ellen, ‘it was dismissed by some as a mere Breaking Bad rehash. Give over. Ozark is its own beast: a chilling, slow-churning opera of frayed loyalties, burnt bridges and familial decay.’ Marty Byrde is fascinating because he’s not Walter White. Walt dragged his wife and kids into the gutter with him but for the Byrdes, money laundering is very much a family affair, the kids know what their dad does, there is no conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. And while Walter became desensitised to violence scarily quickly, Marty seeks a diplomatic solution to all problems. ‘We’re here to do a deal, not kill people.’ That is Marty.

Of course, in a criminal environment with cartel hitmen and local mafias, the diplomatic solution isn’t always on offer. ‘You keep trying to please everyone,’ says the Byrdes’ tenant Buddy Small, identifying the problem. But Marty has a temper, kept carefully in check. The only backstory we get for him is in series three when, languishing in a cartel dungeon, he remembers his childhood. In this bleak flashback Marty’s father is dying in hospital. Told to leave the room, Marty wanders about and finds a games machine. He watches the machine for a while and figures out that the game is rigged. The injustice of it all motivates Marty to rig the game in his favour, and it also gives him a furious temper, which he mostly keeps under careful control. But under the escalating tensions of the last series, Marty finally loses his cool. When a man cuts him up in traffic, Marty beats the motorist to a bloody pulp.

For all its nuance and style, Breaking Bad had a kind of homespun morality to it. With tragic exceptions, the characters get what they deserve. Breaking Bad is like a desert town, where the sun’s shining bright and you can see everything up ahead. Ozark is more like a trek through a forest at night, with the ground slippery underfoot and the air full of strange creatures hooting and swinging and brushing against you. It’s a murky world a long way away from the primary colours of Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque.

Ozark is the scarier show because of its indifference and amorality, the sense that anything could happen. When cartel boss Omar Navarro tries to retire from the business and wind up his criminal organisation, the FBI won’t let him because it wants the drug money from seized trucks. In an agreement of outstanding cynicism, the feds and Byrdes arrange for the cartel to stay in business – providing the authorities get a cut from border crossings. ‘It ain’t illegal, it’s the feds doing it,’ Ruth crows. In the end, legal and illegal interests form a monopoly that guarantees money and status for those fortunate enough to be part of the magic circle. 

And bad luck if you’re not. Ruth Langmore was Marty’s first lieutenant in his Ozark operation, a small time criminal from the local bad element. Marty recognises her brilliant mind, gives her a job and responsibilities and encourages her to excel… but ultimately, when she has finally outlived her usefulness, Marty chooses not to protect her. Ruth leads a stalled life, propelled forward by her talents and drive but held back by her family history: not smart enough to get out of Ozark, she reflects, but smart enough to know what she’s missing. In the final episode she sees the ghosts of her murdered family hanging out in the trailer park – a criminal family destroyed by more sophisticated criminals. By then Ruth has an inheritance and a business in her name and an expunged record – ‘first clean Langmore in five generations’ – but the machine was never going to let her get away with it. As they say: once a Langmore.

Tony Soprano, justifying the American-Italian mafia, tells Dr Melfi that ‘when the Americans opened the floodgates, let all us Italians in, the Conaughtys, the Rockefellers, they didn’t do that out of the goodness of their hearts. They did it because they needed us… and those fucks, the JP Morgans, they were crooks and killers too, but that was business. The American way.’ The private detective in Ozark tells Wendy Byrde that ‘You want to become the Kochs, the Kennedys, whatever kind of royalty you think you are? The world doesn’t work like that.’

‘Since when?’ Wendy snaps back.

Why Conservatives Aren’t Funny

February 16, 2022

Have you heard about the right wing comedy revival? Well, there’s big news: they have thought of a second joke.

Conservatives aren’t funny. We don’t know why. Maybe they are too smart, so their jokes go over our heads. Maybe they have all been cancelled. Conservatives were certainly funny once – literature is full of great satirists like H L Mencken and Saki. But whatever the reason, modern conservativism falls short. The political right isn’t funny, and the death of P J O’Rourke has left it unfunnier still.

In popular culture he represented something very twentieth century Republican, the world of after-dinner remarks and country-club speeches and things jotted on napkins, his books typically found in hotels and B&Bs and in the homes of people who don’t, typically, read for pleasure – between the volumes of Len Deighton and Golfing Nightmares.

But O’Rourke represented something else, as well – the last of a certain kind of Republican, the kind of Republican who was flexible on detail and secure in their beliefs, the kind of Republican that could handle losing a free election, the kind of Republican that could laugh at themselves. 

One critic – I can’t find who – described O’Rourke as ‘a prose comedian’. That is PJ, and it always struck me how careful his prose was for such a supposedly light writer. The many fantastic lines – ‘Hilary, mind your own business. Bill, keep your hands to yourself’, ‘No one has ever had a sexual fantasy about anyone dressed as a liberal’, ‘We’re against gun control. You can shoot us’ – only really make sense in the context of the articles. With PJ there was always a second joke, then a third, and then more.

I also respect PJ because he never followed his fellow conservatives down the road of ruin that led to the Trump administration. He was relaxed about immigration and, in 2016, endorsed Hillary Clinton: ‘Hillary is wrong about everything. She is to politics and statecraft what Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition were to Galileo. She thinks the sun revolves around herself. But Trump Earth™ is flat. We’ll sail over the edge. Here be monsters.’ It’s hardly a glowing recommendation but if the establishment Republicans had the balls to do likewise, we might have been spared the whole circus. 

If much of PJ’s stuff was about life in general – cars, hunting, family, dogs, etc – that was because he had a life beyond politics, because he had lived. As a young man he threw himself into the counterculture and as a journalist he travelled to what Christopher Hitchens called ‘dangerous and difficult places’ for many years. I think all this experience gave him a sense of perspective other conservatives lack.

To revisit the old joke with which I began this piece. Modern conservatives aren’t funny. Satirists on Spiked, Andrew Doyle, Unherd – they’re not funny. They have too much invested in the culture war, too much to lose, and it shows. Their stuff is embittered and overwrought, and it fails as polemic and as humour. 

The article that most resonates with me was a piece PJ wrote about his childhood – ‘Why I’m Not Afraid of the Dark’: 

My father had died when I was nine, and my mother, a kindly but not very sensible woman, had remarried to a drunken oaf. He was a pestering, bullying sort of man whose favorite subject of derision was my fondness for books.

Young PJ confronted his fear of the darkness when his home environment became so nasty and fraught (‘my stepfather was bellowing threats and the dog was barking and the television was blaring in the background of it all — a scene I still envision whenever I hear the phrase ‘hell on earth”) that he physically had to leave the house, if only to sit for a while in a local park:

I decided darkness must symbolize something more general for me. Evil, I decided. That’s why I imagined monsters in the dark. Monsters are evil because they do evil things, which is what makes them monstrous. But I recognized that as circular reasoning. No, I had to consider what evil really was. Evil was harm and destruction. Murdering people, that was evil, or burning their houses down. These were the sorts of things evil forces might do, the kind of forces that darkness symbolized for me. Such forces might rage into a home like my own and murder one of my sisters or both of my sisters or even my mother and tear the house to pieces, breaking it into little bits and then blowing the ruins to smithereens with nitroglycerin and setting fire to what was left, and then take my stepfather and break both his arms and slice off his feet and poke his eyes out with red-hot staves, disembowel him, skin him alive. And then they’d attack the rest of the neighborhood and the police force and the school and burn and bomb and steal and break everything in that part of Ohio, from the filthy oil refineries on the east side of town all the way to the moldy, boring cottage we rented every summer at the lake. And who knew what such evil forces might do after that? I didn’t. But I sat on the swing set considering suggestions for a very long time. And I have never been afraid of the dark since.

Update: O’Rourke’s friend and colleague Matt Labash has a marvellous long tribute.

A Lockdown Mystery

November 22, 2021

‘All this happiness on display is suspect,’ thinks Henry Perowne in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, set during the 2003 march against the Iraq war. ‘Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets – people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other.’ 

I felt something similar when the first COVID-19 lockdown was declared in March 2020. Obviously, people weren’t out on the streets hugging each other, but there was the same kind of performative merriment, an atmosphere McEwan described as ‘innocence and English dottiness.’ Sourdough bread, Joe Wicks, handwashing songs, working from home in your PJs… all this happiness on display is suspect, I thought. 

For most people in the media, on social media, the greatest hardship of lockdown was having to homeschool the kids. But what about the people who weren’t invited to the Zoom party – people living in substandard accommodation in tower blocks or damp-infested council terraces, people isolated from green spaces and meaningful activity, people for whom work is a refuge and the pub a haven? 

Nancy Jo Sales in her dating book Nothing Personal reflected that ‘When shelter-in-place orders were issued for COVID-19, the news became filled with stories about a rise in domestic violence all over the world. I couldn’t stop thinking about the women and children who were trapped inside with their abusers.’

Which leads me in a roundabout way to Catherine Ryan Howard‘s brilliant concept thriller 56 Days. It starts in Dublin in the runup to the first Irish lockdown. Ciara is new to the city, doesn’t know anyone, but by luck she meets handsome and professional Oliver in a supermarket queue. The two click instantly, a whirlwind courtship ensues, and she moves in with him… just as the government declares lockdown. What could possibly go wrong?

It is a marvellous premise of two people who click but don’t really know each other, who find themselves overcommitted to each other… only, one of them is a sociopath. Oliver won’t talk about his past at all, or family, or friends: he prefers, he tells Ciara, the blank slate. He follows the COVID-19 rules to the letter, because he doesn’t want to get in trouble, doesn’t want to be hospitalised by the virus, because this is a man who wants nothing to do with the state, in any form. He even bans Ciara from sitting out on the balcony. 

When lockdown ends, the police break into Oliver’s flat to find a dead body inside it.

Howard writes in her afterword that ‘In the early days of this pandemic, many writers took to social media and elsewhere to vow that they would never write about this in their books, that once this was over no one, including them, would ever want to think about it again.’

In several ways this is a good thing. I remember a lot of publishers and literary journals closed their lists to anything COVID related, because everyone was sick of living this thing, never mind reading about it. And it takes time for great events to be mediated in imagination and memory. ‘You must let it weave and trickle through you,’ Martin Amis said.

But it would be a real shame to miss Howard’s marvellous displays of observation, of how people gradually accommodate the unseen killer. The dance of social distancing when you walk past someone on a narrow pavement, the jolt of fear when you touch a pedestrian crossing, the knuckle callouses of constant hand-sanitising, the slowly emptying cities, the new, small, learned behaviours – Howard brings those shaky early months of the pandemic to life. It takes time. On Patrick’s Day the bars are open but the parade’s been called off and there’s ‘a guy in his late teens wearing a mask, holding his phone in front of his face while he spun around to offer the lens a three-sixty view of the streets behind him. In what sounded like a German accent he was narrating the scene, pointing out that he was the only one wearing a face-covering. At the time, he’d struck Ciara as a bit of an alarmist.’

Howard deftly captures the Dublin of young professionals. When temperatures soar, Oliver and Ciara walk along the canal for a picnic: ‘The waterside paths are thronged with people and pets strolling, and wherever there’s a patch of grass or somewhere to sit and swing your legs out over the water, pale limbs and heads thrown back in laughter have already gathered around collections of supermarket bags filled with cans.’ You almost start to believe in the lockdown fantasy of bourgeois Instagram. But round the next bend of the river, they find a navy ship, with people in hazard moonsuits ‘using the spraying devices on their backs to hose down surfaces with what has to be disinfectant.’ They are making a morgue, a Flying Dutchman of COVID-19. 

56 Days is a baggy novel in the crime fiction style and the breathless present-tense style doesn’t always hold with the length of this story. But there are enough twists to keep your attention as the ugly truth of Oliver and Ciara’s relationship is slowly revealed, like a gradually looming iceberg. It’s also fun to watch the exhausted, bickering Garda detectives try to make sense of the whole messy mystery. 

If we do have another lockdown – I expect, and hope not – Catherine Ryan Howard’s novel would be a great way to kill a few days of it. 

The Writer’s Wife

November 21, 2021

My story of this name appears in the ‘Abandon Hope’ issue of Vamp Cat, a wonderful zine that takes its name from one of Terry Pratchett’s best subplots, in Witches Abroad: ‘Vampires have risen from the dead, the grave and the crypt, but have never managed it from the cat.’

I’m proud of this story, but admit the idea of the trapped muse has been done before – most famously by Neil Gaiman in his Sandman episode ‘Calliope’. The Wiki fan page for that tale notes ‘Though the story of ‘Calliope’ was not criticized for unoriginality at the time of its release, its concept has apparently become a very popular one since; a list of overused story ideas at Strange Horizons included ‘Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.’

Anyway, I hope you enjoy my take on this old myth.

There are also several reviews for Shiny New Books, from the spring and summer:

Civilisations – Laurent Binet

Greenwich Park – Katherine Faulkner

The Absolute Book – Elizabeth Knox

A History of What Comes Next – Sylvain Neuvel

My favourite of these was The Hard Crowd, a collection of essays by Rachel Kushner, whose novels I discovered a couple of years ago. The Mars Room is probably her best book, but her whole back catalogue is worth reading – and the essay collection the best thing I read this year.

A World Without You

August 1, 2021

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is a story told by a dead girl. Narrating from heaven, fourteen year old Susie Salmon watches the fallout from her own murder, and tries to comes to terms with her death. She reflects: ‘These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections – sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent – that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.’

Before You Knew My Name grapples with the same mystery – how to imagine the world without yourself in it. Alice Lee has a few more years than Susie Salmon – she is eighteen when she is killed. She has fled unhealthy ties in small town Wisconsin and arrived in New York thinking ‘I have 79.1 years promised to me, that’s the life expectancy they gave to girls born in 1996, like me.’ Those years and their promise are extinguished, barely a month into her stay. 

Alice is discovered by a jogger named Ruby, another woman fleeing old connections. She has moved to NYC from Melbourne, and her first weeks in America are dominated by loneliness, the kind of exhilarating loneliness you only feel in a city where nobody knows you. Ruby is jogging in a local park during a storm when she finds Alice. Ruby can’t get the dead woman out of her mind – she hangs around the police station, asking about leads, until an exasperated officer directs her to a PTSD group, and through them, she meets the ‘Death Club’ – a group of friends who meet in restaurants and dive bars to talk about their connections to death. Lennie is a mortician, Sue lost her daughter in a car crash, Josh was technically dead himself after a biking accident for a moment or so. On one level Before You Knew My Name is a terrific story about making friends, which is not always an easy thing to write about. 

But Alice is still very much in the picture, telling the story, not from heaven but the air and dust of the physical New York. She reconstructs for us the players of her little life – the mother who killed herself, the lazy guardian who took her in, her chaotic best friend Tammy, her creepy schoolteacher Mr Jackson, the kindly old man in Manhattan who gives her a free room out of nothing but generosity and his own loneliness. At the same time she’s hanging around Ruby, trying to push the older woman in the right direction, towards new friends and away from feckless lover Ash back in Melbourne. Alice is fascinated by people and life, sees kinetic energy coursing through them. Sometimes this is overwrought. Sometimes it isn’t. When Ruby meets the old man Noah, his dog Franklin ‘gives his seal of approval, nosing at Ruby’s hand when she sits down, asking for a scratch. He looks for me still, the old mutt, and he finds me sometimes, too.’ 

‘I too have tried to get close to him,’ says Alice, ‘But the man who murdered me only has to think about what he did that morning for those wild waves to start up again, drag me under the roiling water.’ For most of this novel the killer is off the radar, outside the net. Eventually though, he can’t help putting himself into the story, turning up at the crime scene, steering conversations back to the crime, and warning every woman he meets to ‘Be careful… It’s not as safe out there as it might seem.’ America is full of unsolved murders, people who disappear and are never found, real life cases told in books like Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls and Ethan Brown’s Murder in the Bayou. But Jacqueline Bublitz gives us hope that the knock will come, for Alice Lee’s killer, for Mr Jackson, perhaps for the killers in Oak Beach and Jefferson Davis as well. 

When the Death Club hold a memorial for Alice, Ruby has one rule of conversation: ‘until the trial and resultant conviction made him impossible to avoid – no speaking about that other man, please.’

Everyday Gnosticism

July 28, 2021

Another day, another thinkpiece about conspiracy theories. This one is an extract from a book by John V Petrocelli, published at Lithub. Petrocelli begins with NBA player Kyrie Irving’s startling claims in a 2017 podcast:

This is not even a conspiracy theory. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat… What I’ve been taught is that the Earth is round. But if you really think about it … There is no concrete information except for the information that they’re giving us. They’re particularly putting you in the direction of what to believe and what not to believe. The truth is right there, you just got to go searching for it.

Petrocelli seems to suggest that trying to argue Irving out of his beliefs won’t work:

If someone believes that it is more likely that thousands of scientists, worldwide, are colluding in a conspiracy to hide the true shape of the Earth, then explaining otherwise won’t get you very far. Despite the public criticism Kyrie received for his flat-Earth theory, he stood firm and remained unconvinced, saying in 2018, ‘I don’t know. I really don’t,’ and added that people should ‘do [their] own research for what [they] want to believe in’ because ‘our educational system is flawed.’ It is one thing to suggest people do their research and another thing to make claims about things one clearly knows nothing about—but something tells me Kyrie hasn’t really cared to look at genuine research evidence.

I’ve written about this stuff before. But since then, I have been reading Daemon Voices by the phenomenal Philip Pullman. Daemon Voices is a book of essays, collected over two decades, but with a striking consistency in their themes of faith, scepticism and the imagination.

Something I had not come across, until I read this collection, was Gnosticism. Pullman explains it like this:

To sum it up briefly and crudely, the Gnostic myth says that this world – the material universe we live in – was created not by a good God but by an evil Demiurge, who made it as a kind of prison for the sparks of divinity that had fallen, or been stolen, from the inconceivably distant true God who was their true source… It’s the duty of the Gnostics, the knowing ones, to try and escape from this world, out of the clutches of the Demiurge and his angelic archons, and find a way back to that original and unknown and far-off God.

As Pullman says, this idea puts believers at the very heart of its story. You are important and special, you are a spark of divinity in a fake world. Pullman saw – writing in 2002 – the shades of Gnostic myth in mainstream conspiracy – ‘at the popular end we have The X-Files and The Matrix and the Truman Show, which are all pure Gnosticism.’ Since then of course the Matrix ‘red pill’ concept has been adopted by the more malign reaches of conspiracy theorising – QAnon, anti vaxxers, incels, antisemites – but you can also see how good people like Kyrie Irving can drift toward the harmless moonbattery of flat earthers.

Pullman goes on to say this:

This notion that the world we know with our senses is a crude and imperfect copy of something much better somewhere else is one of the most striking and powerful inventions of the human mind. It’s also one of the most perverse and pernicious…. it encourages us to disbelieve the evidence of our senses, and allows us to suspect everything of being false. It leads to a state of mind that’s hostile to experience. It encourages us to see a toad lurking beneath every flower, and if we can’t see one, it’s because the toads now are extra cunning and have learned to become invisible. It’s a state of mind that leads to a hatred of the physical world.

And that is a terrible thing, because we are nowhere without ‘the physical world, this world, of food and drink and sex and music and laughter’.

I’m sure the Gnostic myth is very well known, but it was new to me, and I think it gives more insight than much science writing into susceptibility to conspiracism. For myths are more powerful than truths.