We Go Around in the Night And Are Consumed by Fire

July 7, 2016

wegoaroundinthenightJules Grant’s debut is possibly the best title of the year. Well – best title of the year. It’s narrated by a lesbian drug dealer out for revenge after her best friend is gunned down in a Manchester nightclub. Gangster vengeance isn’t the most original plotline and as sometimes happens in multinarration vernacular, peoples and times sometimes merge into one another in a way that perhaps wasn’t intended.

Still, it’s such fun to read, and the detail is bang on. As Irvine Welsh’s Leith hustlers hated authority in all manifestations (‘On the issue of drugs, we wir classical liberals, vehemently opposed tae state intervention in any form) so does Grant’s protagonist Donna tells us with pride that her father never paid a penny in tax nor claimed a state benefit in his life. Donna’s crew is also way more organised than Mark Renton’s band of brothers: she changes her sim card daily, and thinks of ever ingenious ways to smuggle drugs past nightclub security (including synthesising MDMA into aerosol hairsprays and charging pillheads a fiver per blast). Her eventual escape is genuinely thrilling.

It’s refreshing to read a Manchester crime novel that’s not stuck in the Gooch-Doddington wars of the 2000s, and Grant writes with a ferocious love of the city that wins her story a place in great northern fiction. That title doesn’t make sense as related to the story – except it reads like a snatch of graffito you might see on a flyover or tunnel or highway or byway on a city evening, something you might remember.

When Two Tribes

July 6, 2016

We’re ever so nice to our pets

And we know not to work too hard

We’re inventive, accepting, eccentric, and yes

I suppose we’re a bit bizarre

– Professor Elemental, ‘I’m British’

The novelist Clare Allan has a piece in the Guardian on empathy and the EU vote. It doesn’t really go anywhere or make much sense but her para here strikes a chord:

If it’s hard in fiction to get inside another person’s point of view, it’s much harder in real life – and in politics it appears to be close to impossible. Yet, in the post-referendum turmoil when the country seems divided as never before – fractured down every conceivable line – it might be about the most essential skill we could all try to master.

In this tense and febrile summer Allan’s line rings true. It has seemed to me that we in the UK are separating into two tribes – young against old, cities against regions, class versus class, cosmopolitan versus the provincial – and the referendum has widened divisions that have been growing throughout my adult lifetime into one single, glaring fissure. Obviously we all have our opinions and allegiances and it shouldn’t matter. We’re all human, we’re all British – we’re not enemies. Everyone who follows politics has a phase of judging others by their political choices: in the ironic, Radio 4 kind of way. These days, as politics is ceded to the humourless hardcore activists, the irony casts a shadow.

I knew friends in tears and half-mad with worry over the result of Friday 24. I don’t know many Leave voters. I accept that there were good arguments for leave  – the best I think by Professor Alan Johnson, explained here on Harry’s Place – but even the best arguments are simply a list of the European Union’s failures and difficulties. It seems to me that in answer to these difficulties, and the frustrations of millions in forgotten towns, we’ve done the equivalent of what the plague did, in The Stand – unravelled the Gordian knot by simply slashing it down the middle.

And I think it matters that the official Leave campaigners did not argue their case with anything like the intelligence and rigour with which Professor Johnson argues his… particularly since the architects of these campaigns have decided for whatever reason that they don’t want to be a part of whatever comes next, and don’t want to be around when people start asking when the magic money tree is going to appear. There’s a very famous line from Gatsby that comes to mind:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Still, what’s the point in tears and worry and Change.org petitions. What’s done is done, hard reality. The point now is what kind of country do we want to be? There’s talk of a second Scottish referendum, Northern devolution, even serious people proposing that London should be allowed to set itself up as a separate entity and get back into the EU. I admire the people who organised the recent public rallies against post referendum racism and to celebrate diversity. In such a nasty political climate it takes personal courage to organise and participate in a pro diversity demonstration. But I fear the idea of London as a city state unto itself is very much part of the problem.

It’s sometimes said that you’re not allowed to talk about immigration. Wrong. Immigration is all we’ve talked about in British politics since the 1980s. It’s a particular talking point for many working people struggling with crap jobs, broken cities, shitty, damp-infested housing and little say in their futures. Governments, responding to their ‘legitimate concerns’ (but only about immigration) built detention centres, passed Immigration Acts, increased deportations. It’s a war of attrition with apparently no end to it, but who knows, maybe with more deportations, more detention centres, more Immigration Acts, maybe people will stop coming. And then we will find out what it is like to live in a country that people don’t want to come to. I wonder if this will be the paradise it seems?

Maybe Europe and the UK will collapse into competing federations like the ones in George Martin’s Westeros, or in David Hutchinson’s fantastic dystopia Europe in Autumn – entertaining worlds to read about, perhaps not so entertaining to live in. Or it could be that everything will be fine. I hope so, because what I really don’t want to see is an isolated and bitter country where everyone’s first priority is to leave. We’re not the centre of the world, and perhaps a little humility on the part of our leaders is required. We are one place in a dangerous world.

I think of the closing chapters of Ian McEwan’s flawed, but thoughtful novel Saturday, where neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is looking out onto the London night after an eventful day in 2003, and thinking:

A hundred years ago, a middle-aged doctor standing at this window in his silk dressing gown, less than two hours before a winter’s dawn, might have pondered the new century’s future. February 1903. You might envy this Edwardian gent all he didn’t yet know. If he had young boys, he could lose them within a dozen years, at the Somme. And what was their body count, Hitler, Stalin, Mao? Fifty million, a hundred? If you described the hell that lay ahead, if you warned him, the good doctor – an affable product of prosperity and decades of peace – would not believe you […]

But this may be an indulgence, an idle, overblown fantasy, a night-thought about a passing disturbance that time and good sense will settle and rearrange.

Young People With Weird Ideas: Emma Cline’s The Girls

June 25, 2016

emmaclineIn his biography of Charles Manson, Texan historian Jeff Guinn has a fascinating chapter on the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco that became a giant green beacon for outsider youth across America. By 1967 the area got three hundred new arrivals a day, from across the United States: ‘more runaways than any major city could have comfortably absorbed, let alone a relatively small neighbourhood… misfit kids, the ones with no social skills who had trouble making friends or fitting in back in their hometowns, or else were at critical odds with their parents and wanted someone more understanding to take them in and tell them what to do. The ones least able to fend for themselves were the most likely to stay.’

Emma Cline’s debut novel revisits the Manson cult from the twenty first century. Cleverly, her fictional narrative of 1969’s fractured summer does not dwell on the guru. Cline’s villain Russell is a bland opportunist just as Manson was. Instead she focuses on the stories of people far more interesting than he – the young people from good homes who embrace fanatical groups, the Manson followers who stole credit cards and dumpster-dived and allowed themselves to be pimped out for him. The young who kill and die for worthless leaders. Why?

For her narrator Evie Boyd the why is easy. She comes from a wealthy, lethargic Californian family directly out of Mad Men. Her idiotic philandering father leaves, and her mother disgusts Evie by simpering over a parade of sleazy unsuitable men. Evie’s life is a constant negotiation with the male gaze, from the potential stepfather who remarks ‘Fourteen years old, huh?… Bet you have a ton of boyfriends’ to ‘the older man who would later place his hand on my dick while he drove me home.’ Evie is attracted to the cult because – paradoxically, and ironically – it’s the nearest thing she has to a community of female solidarity. ‘Though I should have known,’ she reflects, ‘that when men warn you to be careful, often they are warning you of the dark movie playing across their own brains.’

Reviewing the book, Sarah Ditum identified ‘the specific indignities of girlhood – the dehumanising demands of men, the casual violence with which those demands are enforced, the constant ‘campaign for her own existence’ that every girl will eventually be defeated in.’ The fearful exasperation all women face at some point when dealing with stares and comments and gropes for Evie Boyd turns into a rebellious rage. And there is a deeper existential sense of being lost that is part of the human condition. There is no closure to Evie’s confusion: she’s just as disorientated as an adult, and barely even perceives that this experience is universal – she watches her apparently self assured younger relative Sasha with envy, imagining that ‘there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be revealed. How sad it was to realise that sometimes you never got there.’ Does anyone.

In her front story Cline has fun dealing with the ideological debris of the love generation. ‘People were falling into that kind of thing all the time,’ she explains to Sasha, ‘Scientology, the Process people. Empty-chair work. Is that still a thing?’ Later, drinking in a bar, they are approached by ‘another sixties ghost’ who ‘was convinced that world events were orchestrated by complicated and persistent conspiracies. He took out a dollar bill to show us how the Illuminati communicated with each other.’ When Evie asks ‘Why would a secret society lay out their plans on common currency?’ the sixties ghost can’t give a convincing answer. A distinct feature of twenty first century discourse is the progression of crazed ideology from the internet into mainstream conversation – venomous binaries about the Rothschilds, 9/11, chemtrails and voting pencils. ‘That the world had a visible order,’ Evie says, ‘and all we had to do was look for the symbols – as if evil was a code that could be cracked.’

The fractured summer of 1969 is today treated as a cautionary tale – what can happen when young people with weird ideas get out of control. Perhaps 2016 will be a testament to the crazy ideas of the old, which played a decisive hand in everything from the housing crisis to the Lehmans crash to Brexit. Maybe I’m reading too much into Cline’s novel, but The Girls made me think of something Christopher Hitchens wrote, towards the end of his life, that ‘when I check the thermometer I find that it is the fucking old fools who get me down the worst, and the attainment of that level of idiocy can often require a lifetime.’

A Filthy City By The Lake

June 19, 2016

‘By the thousands and thousands the foreclosures came,’ George Packer writes in The Unwinding, his temperate and beautiful chronicle of downturn America. ‘They came to Country Walk and Carriage Pointe, to inner-city Tampa and outermost Pasco, to Gulfport and northeast St. Pete… They came like visitations from that laconic process server, the angel of death.’ At the courts, these foreclosures ‘were transformed into millions of pages of legal documents… the carts were wheeled into courtrooms by bailiffs who looked weary from the effort.’

Florida courts in Packer’s account dealt with approximately 120 foreclosure cases a day: ‘one senior judge, aged seventy-five or so, might carry three thousand cases at a time.’ Mostly defendants weren’t represented or even in attendance, so cases were ruled with assembly-line speed. On the occasions a defendant turned up and with an actual lawyer, the bank’s case was lost because the mortgage debt had been slashed and diced so many times it would be unclear who truly owned the property in question. (Packer has a great scene where an idealistic attorney yells at a judge: ‘All we’re asking is for them to identify who is the entity that is asking my client to give them a couple hundred thousand dollars.’) This uncertainty of debt and obligation, however, didn’t stop the process. Packer paints a scene from a mad bureaucratic fantasia.

I thought of this chapter on finishing End of Watch, the last book in Stephen King’s trilogy of novels about a ‘filthy little city residents called the Gem of the Great Lakes.’ These books are King attempting a departure or perhaps a different kind of legacy. Rather than his native Maine, the stories are set in this nameless city of the Midwest. King doesn’t love this city like he loves Maine, so he doesn’t linger. There’s a tight rattle to prose and story, and the stories are crime procedurals rather than horror. Even in the last book where King lets the supernatural take over again entirely, the story is still process and procedure – doors unlocked, small thefts and subterfuge, the unspooling of computer programmes, the operations of motor vehicles, the millions of small distinct actions that go into the commission and investigation of crime.

This filthy little city is falling apart. What might have been great once is now a tired moonscape of repossessed homes, stalled developments, fire-sale businesses and families broken by the constant struggle and arguments over day to day repayment and expense. King might have read Packer, was probably remembering his own experiences of poverty, and was perhaps thinking of Raymond Chandler also – a novelist derided as a penny-dreadful merchant in his day, but who earned retrospective respect for his social commentary. This world, like the Dark Tower’s, has moved on, but lacks Mid-World’s glammer: it’s just another one of numberless lost towns on both sides of the Atlantic, rich and bitter soil that makes it possible for a Donald Trump to exist… and thrive.

In Finders Keepers – the mid point of the trilogy and in some ways the most interesting of the books – King introduces us to a fictional novelist called John Rothstein, author of an acclaimed trilogy about American rebel Jimmy Gold. Rothstein exists for a mere dozen pages before his home is invaded by Morris Bellamy, a drifter and armed robber who fancies himself a Gold-style iconoclast. Morris resents the writer because Rothstein ended his trilogy with Jimmy Gold working in advertising and living in an Ossining-style suburb. ‘You created one of the greatest characters in American literature, then shit on him,’ Morris complains. For this crime, he blows Rothstein’s head off, steals the author’s money and notebooks, and on the way back, casually offs his two accomplices to ensure their silence. But he never gets to read the lost Rothstein manuscripts, which take the Gold story in a direction more to his liking: Jimmy burns down his ad agency and heads to California to join the hippy revolution.

King has been here before of course. He satirised the rock and roll American novelist to great effect in Desperation (and is it a coincidence that the Shooter’s Tavern, where Morris is arrested, shares a name with the forbidding lost storyteller of King’s novella ‘Secret Window, Secret Garden’?) For me Rothstein’s murder and the loss of his manuscript is King broadcasting to us, loud and clear, that the era of the frontier is over. Morris sees his transgressions as ‘an existential act of outlawry’ and doesn’t listen to his mother, who tells him ‘most of us become everyone’ nor to his business partner Andy Halliday (‘The purpose of American culture is to create a norm‘) nor to his prison buddy: ‘They fuck you in the end, buddy. Right up the ass. Rock the boat and they fuck you even harder.’ Life in the filthy city is a life sentence with no possibility of escape or parole.

So much of the filthy city novels are about sheer endurance. King gives his hero detective, Bill Hodges, a personal trilogy of horrible diseases – suicidal depression, cardiac arrest, pancreatic cancer. The victims of Mr Mercedes and his job-fair attack take years to recover from their injuries, and some never recover at all. Morris is sentenced to life for aggravated rape: his victim is traumatised by the experience. Morris himself does thirty-six years in state prison, where he’s a kind of literary jailhouse hustler. He even springs a fellow con who has been wrongly convicted – but Morris is not Andy Dufresne, he doesn’t learn the meaning of hope, there’s no Shawshank redemption here, and Finders Keepers is in some ways a bitter mockery of King’s earlier prison tale.

Morris is more like another King archetype, one of that parade of legendary losers that includes Henry Bowers, Danforth ‘Buster’ Keaton, even Mordred the spider-prince from the Dark Tower cycle. The only difference is that Morris can read and write and appreciate. ‘Books were escape. Books were freedom.’ What he’s looking for is that feeling Don DeLillo wrote about in Mao II: ‘a sense that he was not alone, that the world was a place where travellers in language could know the same things.’ Morris is a robber, a killer, a kidnapper and a rapist, but he is a mere sideshow to the trilogy’s real villain, Brady Hartsfield, aka Mr Mercedes, who lacks even that basic instinct for companionship. Thinking about 9/11, Brady reflects: ‘Off you go, killers and killed alike, off you go into the universal null set that surrounds one lonely blue planet and all its mindlessly bustling denizens. Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a star. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.’

Brady is famous for his Mercedes crime – driving a car into a crowd of unemployed people queuing for a city job fair – but what he really likes is forcing people to kill themselves, which he does by supernatural means in the final book. At the end of this book Hodges thinks about the act of suicide itself: ‘how some people carelessly squander what others would sell their souls to have: a healthy, pain-free body. And why? Because they’re too blind, too emotionally scarred, or too self involved to see past the earth’s dark curve to the sunrise. Which always comes, if one continues to draw breath.’ Here King finally gives us hope – but in his filthy city stories he shows us how long that curve can be.

The Hunter-Gatherers

June 13, 2016

This story appears in the new issue of the excellent Scrittura magazine (start at page 60).

Celebration of the Lizard: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

June 5, 2016

Cora Seaborne is bereaved but not unhappy. Her husband was a petty tyrant, and when the old fool finally checks out, she’s not exactly like the widow in The Importance of Being Earnest (whose hair, Algernon remarks, has turned ‘quite gold from grief’) but she does acquire a certain presence. Brilliant young surgeon Luke Garrett practically jumps through hoops of fire to get to her. Her arrival in the croft and coastal village of Aldwinter causes more comment and stir than the appearance of a newcomer from London normally would: even the parish vicar Will Ransome finds the widow Seaborne as attractive as she is infuriating. The Reverend is a late Victorian intellectual who tries to reconcile his faith with the nineteenth century’s escalating revelations of science. Cora is a passionate naturalist who rejects religion out of hand. In this passage of dialogue she illustrates both her philosophy and her recent liberation:

You wonder why I grub about in the mud – it’s what I remember from childhood. Barely ever wearing shoes – picking gorse for cordial, watching the ponds boiling with frogs. And then there was Michael, and he was – civilised. He would pave over every bit of woodland, have every sparrow mounted on a plinth. And he had me mounted on a plinth. My waist pinched, my hair burned into curls, the colour on my face painted out, then painted in again. And now I’m free to sink back into the earth if I like – to let myself grow over with moss and lichen.

This last line almost pre-empts Henry Miller, who declared in Tropic of Cancer that ‘I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity – I belong to the earth! I say that lying on my pillow and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples.’ Aldwinter is convulsed by rumours of a giant snake-beast that is set to slither from the ocean and eat the townspeople in their beds. Farmers hang skinned moles by the coast to keep this monster away; there are episodes of mass hysteria; every relic deposited from sea to shore is a potential threat. The suspense is dimmed by our realisation that if the Essex Serpent does really exist, it is Cora herself, sea born and reborn. ‘I’ve freed myself from the obligation to try and be beautiful,’ she says. ‘And I was never more happy.’

As Naomi Frisby says, The Essex Serpent is a book that is not so much read but inhabited. The period detail is exact and discreet, the atmosphere like coiled smoke, the writing (‘Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand’) almost rivals Shirley Jackson. The book is clearly written as one of those historical novels that are a beguiling mist you can lose yourself in. Reviewers have responded in near-Victorian raptures.

Happy as we are wandering in the lovely fog of Sarah Perry‘s prose, it doesn’t cover the book’s flaws. The inner city London scenes are very well done, and inspire some of Perry’s best writing (‘Rooms were sublet, and sublet again, so that what constituted a family had long been forgotten, and strangers bickered over cups and plates and their few square feet of space’) but these passages don’t seem to fit with the story because the story is driven by Cora and Cora has decamped to Aldwinter’s gothic seaside. The housing crisis is meant to chime with modern times, and Perry reminds us in an afterword of contemporaneous ‘accounts of housing crises, venal landlords, intolerable rests and political chicanery; they would not look out of place in tomorrow’s newspapers’ (oh, you don’t say?) Cora and Will are compelling but not enough attention is paid to the supporting cast. Aldwinter eccentric Cracknell is a blathering sibyl straight out of Lovecraft, and with equally silly dialogue (‘Though of what I might be scaring off there mightn’t be knowing now nor later I daresay, when a voice is heard of weeping and lamentation for our children’ etc) Cora’s son Francis is a strange and distant child, but we know this because the other characters keep telling us, not because Perry shows us.

Cora’s friend Martha seems to have no purpose other than to exemplify the Victorian female activist – oh, and she deus es machinas the rent crisis of Perry’s London chapters to a respectable conclusion. At times The Essex Serpent almost reads like a rehabilitation of the Victorian era. Perry recommends in her afterword Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians, which ‘challenges notions of a prudish era enslaved by religion and incomprehensible manners; rather, he shows us a nineteenth century of department stores, big brands, sexual appetites and a fascination for the strange.’ All very jolly I can imagine, but let’s not forget that such fascinations were largely frowned upon: Georgina Howell in her biography of Gertrude Bell reports that even at Oxford women had to seek special permissions to attend lectures and sit exams as late as 1886, for fear that ‘overtaxing’ of the female brain would lead to ‘the deficiency of reproductive power’.

I read Perry’s debut After Me Comes the Flood last year and fell in love with it: it’s the kind of mystery story, at once traditional and new form, that you can spend your life rereading and puzzling over. With The Essex Serpent Perry has gone for something rather more conventional: she has discovered the power of the Victorian novel – and its limitations.

theessexserpent

RA & Pin Drop

May 26, 2016

I’m honoured and delighted to have been longlisted for the Royal Academy and Pin Drop Short Story Award 2016. Here is the full longlist.

Over at 3:AM you can also read me on John King’s new, somewhat ridiculous EU dystopia – and King responds to me in an interview with Andrew Stevens.

From A Tightrope

May 21, 2016

There’s something about Toby Litt that’s like chewing on tinfoil. He’s like a casual acquaintance or work colleague that you run into a little too often: someone who doesn’t do or say anything actively wrong, but nevertheless leaves you with a faint sense of annoyance in his wake. I’ve read a couple of his books. Beatniks was fantastic, and haunting, and I can still recall its last line today. Finding Myself – a country-house mystery done as a novel-within-a-novel – was innovative and entertaining but ultimately had no story to it. There’s an affect of affectless in Litt, and quite a few other UK literary writers as well. You sense a coldness: not quite Chekhov’s chip of ice, but a quiet, immutable self-satisfaction.

I saw Litt once at an event in Manchester. He made great play against what he calls a ‘faux-naif style… the idea that you can be at a funeral and only grieving and not thinking about how you look, how you come across.’ Maybe I misunderstood his point – and I’m quoting from memory over some years – but I remember thinking that not everyone is rationally self conscious and self reflexive absolutely all the time. If they were, the world would be a more orderly place (and we might find less to write about in it).

Litt’s recent article about writing says all the right things. The majority of writing is really quite bad. Bad writers are self obsessed, and take criticism badly. There’s no great conspiracy to publishing. Gatekeepers exist because the impact of reading bad writing is so time consuming and soul destroying. Just because your girlfriend likes your stuff, doesn’t mean the world will. Litt says this, and it’s true. He even has a great line: ‘To write competently is to do a few magic tricks for friends and family; to write well is to run away to join the circus.’

And yet and but and all things considered – I do find things to argue with in Litt’s piece (don’t I always?) For a start, that ‘bad writers often write in order to forward a cause or enlarge other people’s understanding of a contemporary social issue.’ I agree that one should wear one’s politics lightly (and haven’t always taken my own advice) but if you write well enough, it’ll transcend your convictions. Upton Sinclair, for example, nailed the Chicago meatpackers to the wall in effortless prose. Uncle Tom’s Cabin reads a little melodramatic today but near started the Civil War. Authors in totalitarian states must find ever more inventive ways of writing well at all, because even in the digital age the secret police are afraid of good writing and will come down hard on it, as countless Saudi and Bangladeshi bloggers could attest. (Shahriar Mandanipour’s 2009 novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a brilliant satire on the loop fiction writers must jump through to get anything published while avoiding arrest.) And yet Litt also writes that stories are not timeless because ‘historical novels or science fiction novels are a response to a particular moment.’ Arguably so – and that particular moment has political and economic systems as well as cars, buildings and brand names.

Litt also says that ‘the most dangerous kind of writers for bad writers to read are what I call excuse writers – writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.’ The ‘excuse writer’ is a hard concept to pin down, but Litt gives some examples: ‘Jack Kerouac, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou’. These are ‘writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.’ What I think Litt means (and again, correct me if I’m wrong) is this: that many famous writers operated on an apparent irrationality and so it’s a danger for bad writers to tap into that irrationality as a short cut to success. ‘If another writer’s work survives on charm, you will never be able to steal it, only imitate it in an embarrassingly obvious way.’

But I wonder if charm is all there really is to the legacies of these writers. When I think of authors I still admire and reread – Henry Miller, Peter Straub, Roth, Highsmith, Parker, Houellebecq, Donna Tartt, Vonnegut, King – they were all flawed and sometimes degenerate, but they had passion. Kerouac’s work was a tragic mess but there is passion and memorability in the mess that makes it worth rereading. Atwood is a supremely rationalist writer, but she has passion (‘context is all, or is it ripeness?’) You need to be serious and disciplined, but if serious and disciplined is all you are, why not design IT systems (and make a lot more money)? In their article on DFW, twenty years after the late novelist’s classic essay on irony, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll looked at the old soul lyric (‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen/Nobody knows my sorrow… Glory Hallelujah’) and quote Cornell West on it: ‘Going to struggle anyway. Cut against the grain anyway. Never view oneself as a spectator but always as a participant.’ The passion. Amen.

Again, though, Litt can’t make up his mind. ‘Bad writers often believe they have very little left to learn,’ he writes – and then: ‘Bad writers think: ‘I want to write this.’ Good writers think: ‘This is being written.” Too much doubt and humility – and then not enough. Critiquing Litt is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. And yet if you are career focused this article is probably all good advice… however (to continue Litt’s marvellous circus metaphor) your career will be a tightrope of self consciousness and self reflexiveness.

And sometimes you will yearn to jump off the tightrope and dive into the carnival.

All Tomorrow’s Aurora Parties

May 17, 2016

sunlightpilgrimsLet’s face it, there’s something liberating about the apocalypse – that’s why end-times literature sells so well. Imagine being able to walk around a near-deserted shopping precinct and loot all the latest electricals. Imagine singing bad karaoke to an empty O2 Arena. Imagine the peace and speed of the morning commute. With no work at the end of it. There is something endearing about the apocalypse – and perhaps no more so than in Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims.

In Fagan’s end-times book the catastrophe is caused not by plague or zombies but plain old cold. Fagan has the rare gift of being able to write about climate change in a way that is realistic but not didactic. The radio says: The entire planet is being impacted upon by the collapse of intricate weather systems that are vital to survival… As of today, the Prime Minister has released a statement saying people must stop panicking, but it seems the public do not agree. It sounds like exposition, but it doesn’t read that way. Fagan’s story is set in the remote Scottish town of Clachan Falls. The local Ikea becomes a food depot, news crews show up in town, a man freezes to death, the sun goes down at four, then three, then half two, darkness swallows the earth. There is panic on the radio but not in the story. Although there is the familiar argument that every now and again the planet needs a break from humanity – Fagan’s theory is that the ice age is a kind of insurance against our troublesome genus – people don’t stand around asking why such terrible things are happening and what does it all mean. Winter isn’t just coming, it’s right here, and the people of Clachan Falls bear it philosophically. The Sunlight Pilgrims has the tone of a very cold, dark January evening spent indoors with a bottle of wine and Beth Orton on the stereo.

The main focus is on the characters. Dylan is an arthouse picture house owner fleeing creditors in Soho, who reaches the Clachan trailer park because his mother had strange roots there. Stella is a teenage kid looking to transition (the topic of male-to-female gender reassignment is handled with great sympathy and style) Constance, her mother, who never married but had alternate relationships with two other trailer park men who are still very much part of the equation. It’s a fascinating landscape, but Fagan is at her best when she just lets her characters talk. ‘We know that dark matter is all around us in the universe, if we can even feel it out there,’ Stella says, ‘and as we all know, goths have a direct line to any source of authentic darkness’. So does Jenni Fagan.

The Magic and the Glammer

May 2, 2016

Thedarktower7They’re talking about making a movie of The Dark Tower cycle, Stephen King’s fantasy epic. I think Idris Elba is a fascinating choice for Roland (after all, John Luther and Stringer Bell were both gunslingers of a kind) but can Elba and Matthew McConaughey save the Tower from the curse of Stephen King adaptations? I think you would need a multi-series HBO or Netflix deal to really do it justice so I am not hopeful. But we will always have the books.

If exiled to the Radio 4 desert island and told I could bring one book, I would choose the Dark Tower cycle. True, it arguably doesn’t get going until Jake finally makes it back to Mid-World in The Waste Lands. True, the Tower books have unfortunate longeurs, maddening self-reference and quirky little New Englandisms that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. But there’s something about the world in these books that makes you feel you’re actually walking around in it. King began the cycle as a college student of the early 1970s. He didn’t get to the final finishing sprint in the early 2000s at a time where everything else he wrote showed signs of a tired and flagging talent. But the last three Tower books are still gold. His heart never quite left the trail.

There’s a point in the story where Roland compares his world to the wreck of a ship – things are washed upon the shore, and float upon the surface, and these random objects might give you a sense of something greater, but they aren’t comprehensive. It’s the best way to world build, and it’s what makes the Tower cycle so compulsive. Roland – if I may give the overview – is the last of a knight caste that plays the role of soldier, strategist and diplomat in a civilisation now in ruins. Roland’s quest is to reach the Dark Tower, which holds up the universe, and is under attack from an evil project led by the Crimson King, whose forces are trying to break the six cosmic beams that hold the Tower up. The King’s men have been at this for years, working across centuries and a multiplicity of universes, using monsters, vampires and dummy corporations. We don’t know the Red King’s motivations: he’s a crazy demon who acts seemingly on pure nihilism. As Ted Brautigan says: ‘Do they see the lethal insanity of a race to the brink of oblivion, and then over the edge? Apparently not. If they did, surely they wouldn’t be racing to begin with. Or is it a simple failure of imagination? One doesn’t like to think such a rudimentary failing could bring about the end, yet…’

As a result of the Beam’s gradual weakening, society is destroyed by war and revolution, time and distance grow hazy, even the elementary concepts of reality wear down as holes open in the fabric of the universe. The books are filled with instances of decay: grey and sluggish bees, crawling orderlessly around a broken hive; a version of New York rotted into civil war; a robot outside a purpose-built brothel screaming the same come-on over and over in an eternal synthes loop. Mid-World is full of technology, from electric lights to teleportation devices, left behind by the ‘Old People’ – maybe King’s word for an age of science that has long passed – but half of this technology doesn’t work and what remains is incomprehensible to the point of uselessness. ‘Everything in the world is either coming to rest or falling to pieces,’ Roland says. Exhaustion. Deterioration. Degeneration. Behold the stairways which stand in darkness; behold the rooms of ruin. These are the halls of the dead where the spiders spin and the great circuits fall quiet, one by one.

As an official guardian of order, Roland wants to get to the Tower so he can save it, and put a stop to all this unraveling gloom. But he also wants to get to the Tower so he can see it. Go through the field of singing roses and climb the spirals of the Tower and see what’s at the top. It’s his obsession – and it strikes me now how much of the Tower cycle is about obsession and addiction: Nort chomping on devil-grass, Eddie the heroin addict, Balazar with his towers of cards, Calvin’s books, Rhea’s glass, even King’s own alcoholism and drug-fiending is touched upon. Roland himself draws followers easily. As well as the gun he has the sideline talent of hypnotism. But his comrades tend to come to bad ends. Roland himself is like a drug, one that kills.

It’s made all too clear in the final volume. At first The Dark Tower is a fun book, with Roland and his gunslingers taking on the bad guys of Algul Siento. Then Eddie falls – and his death is just the beginning. One by one each well-loved character hits the clearing. It’s a crescendo of sadness with Roland struggling on towards the Tower, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Early on in this book, the spider-prince Mordred traps a billy-bumbler (sort of a cat-dog species with a limited vocal ability) and gets ready to eat it. The bumbler sends a sad plea for clemency – please let me live; I want to live have fun play a little; don’t hurt me – to no avail: Mordred chomps the poor creature into pieces. Close by, another bumbler, gunslinger mascot Oy, senses it: ‘Somewhere close by, one of his kind had died… but dying was the way of the world; it was a hard world and always had been.’ Delah. So it goes. You’re even a little sorry to see Walter o’Dim check out.

Part of this glammer though is the ironic glammer of postmodernism. Parts of Mid-World are damn near recycled. There’s a guardian of the Beam named after a Richard Adams novel. The mad factions of Lud kill each other to a ZZ Top riff they call the ‘god-drums’. The Crimson King’s villains travel through time and the multiverse, get their kicks from watching 9/11 and the Lincoln assassination, and make deadly weapons based on the ‘snitch’ from the Harry Potter Quidditch game. Stephen King himself has a supporting role. ‘You started as a version of Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name,’ he tells Roland. So much of the story depends on text and interpretation and representation. The metafictional King saves Roland and Susannah from a tricksy vampire by means of a carefully placed note saying: ‘RELAX! HERE COMES THE DEUS EX MACHINA!’ The Crimson King is destroyed by the artist Patrick Danville by the expedient of drawing and then erasing him. So much of it all comes down to creation and artistry. Glammer. Roland says of Stephen King that ‘I’ve met talespinners before, Jake, and they’re all cut more or less from the same cloth. They tell tales because they’re afraid of life.’

So there’s plenty of metafiction here, but none of it’s self conscious. You still feel the magic and the glammer. King revisited the Dark Tower series in 2011 with The Wind Through the Keyhole – a kind of add on that doesn’t really extend the story but has a draw all of its own. The protagonist in this one, Tim Stoutheart, searching for a cure for his blind mother, follows a beautiful fairy into the forest: he later discovers that the fairy was an agent of Walter o’Dim explicitly trying to get him lost and confuse him. He later discovers half a dozen billy-bumblers sitting on a felled tree, sniffing the air for a storm. ‘They were, he thought, far more beautiful than the treacherous Armaneeta, because the only magic about them was the plain magic of living things.’ In this line is the honest appeal of King’s Tower. The touch of other worlds.


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