Harder Than Heaven

July 23, 2017

I don’t know who it was that called Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ‘the longest short novel’ but, in terms of long short novels, Boualem Sansal’s 2084 gives it a run for its money. He writes his religious dystopia in short, elegant, powerful sentences and paragraphs, which (thanks also to his translator, Alison Anderson) convey all too well the cruelty and struggle of his fictional Abistan.

The enemy in Orwell’s 1984 is ‘called by a Chinese name normally translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self.’ That seems to sum up Sansal’s Abistan quite well. In Abistan life is lived out according to a single holy book, with a prophet figurehead as god’s representative on earth. People are allocated housing, employment and other privileges according to a rigorous examination of personal morality in which the citizen must recite psalms and scripture and stanzas: everyone wears robes, embroidered according to status, caste and said moral score. Technology is almost non-existent, food bitter and scarce, no one ever leaves their designated district and crossing the country itself takes years. Economy is reliant upon an endless war without, and within on public executions, the mechanics of torture, the bureaucracy of power, and on long, hazardous pilgrimages all meant to ‘transform useless, wretched believers into glorious, lucrative martyrs.’

Sansal’s novel is blurbed as a tribute to George Orwell’s classic, and indeed it sometimes surpasses the original in its prose. True, there is little dialogue or dramatisation – Sansal breaks the rule of the finger-wagging creative writing hack, that you should always show rather than tell. His writing is elegant and demonstrates obvious empathy as well as the continual apprehension of fresh hells.

The story itself is no great shakes. Protagonist Ati returns to his home town after spending a year in the mountain sanatorium where a superstitious regime sends its sick. Surviving such perilous convalescence in itself grants Ati a higher revised status, and he is given more relative autonomy within the province. A good believer all his life, Ati becomes more curious about the society he lives in. He teams up with the wealthy scholar Koa and the two men try to infiltrate the heart of government to find out Abistan’s secret origins.

Fans of dystopian fiction will smile in recognition at the 1984 references that Sansal weaves into his text – you will recognise the enormous woman in the courtyard, singing as she hangs her line out, an Abistani analogue of the ‘red-armed woman’ from 1984, who sings ‘They sye that time heals all things,/They sye you can always forget’… inspired in turn by Orwell’s early mornings at the BBC, when the cleaning women would sing as they went about their work.

Orwell developed this into the only element of hope in his novel: ‘The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing… everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing.’ In 2084 it is the song of fellow feeling that resonates. During their difficult journey into the heart of Abistan, Ati and Koa are helped at every turn by the common people, who show them the shortcuts and safe passages. Human nature, Sansal says, is basically good – however ‘in the presence of the forces of law and order, whether it was a war tactic or simple human weakness, they set aside their kindly disposition and heaped abuse on strangers.’

So 2084 is a more hopeful book than 1984. Orwell imagined Ingsoc going on more or less forever, while Abistan by the end becomes vulnerable from infighting. (I note here Margaret Atwood’s more optimistic theory that the Party had to have fallen at some point because of the novel’s appendix, which talks about Ingsoc retrospectively.) Perhaps Sansal’s novel in that sense reflects better the world of its time – the recent defeats of ISIS, by Iraqi and Kurdish forces as well as western air strikes, testifies to Stephen King’s line that evil is fragile as well as stupid. And what resonates from Sansal’s 2084 is the reverence for life, the sanctity of life, which in the face of terror and oppression, so often manages to find an honourable way through the dark.

Real Intellectuals Have Day Jobs

July 18, 2017

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has an excellent piece in the weekend papers in which she compares public life in the UK to Erdoğan’s expanding kingdom of fear.

Here in the UK things are very different. Freedom of speech prevails, democracy is strong. Novelists are not sued for tackling controversial issues, academics are not expelled in their thousands, journalists are not put in jail en masse. Compared with their Turkish, Russian, Venezuelan, Pakistani or Chinese counterparts, British intellectuals have so much freedom. One would expect them to be aware of this privilege, and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t. So why don’t we have more public intellectuals in this country? The answer lies in the words of a British academic who once told me: ‘Well, we think it’s a bit arrogant to call yourself intellectual. And to do that publicly is twice as arrogant.’

There appears to be an interesting mapping of the world in some people’s minds. According to this, feminists and activists for freedom of speech and human rights are only needed in those parts of the world where things are dire and democracy is visibly under attack. What seems arrogant to me is the presumption that intellectuals are needed in backward countries whereas over here in the developed, democratic west we are beyond all those ‘petty troubles’.

Shafak makes a fine point, but I’d like to expand on it. There are other restraints on intellectual life on this country. (I’m using the word ‘intellectualism’ to cover emotive and intuitive thinking, as well as cerebral rationalism.) So my attempt at answering Shafak’s question is in two parts.

Britain is a very stratified and class-oriented society. To be a ‘public intellectual’ in the UK – that is, to speak, and write, and argue, for a living – you need to have gone to certain schools, then to certain colleges in certain universities: you need introductions in the better parts of the capital, and a private income once you get there. Ideally, the legwork needs to begin long before one is even born: influential relatives and inherited wealth can open doors that nothing else can. I don’t want to be chippy: class considerations don’t necessarily poison everything, I think that amazing things still come out of British publishing and journalism. But let’s not kid ourselves.

In Amitav Ghosh’s fabulous opium novel Flood of Fire a young Indian farmboy, who dreams of being a soldier, refuses to join an English regiment because, he thinks, John Company doesn’t understand caste tradition. A havildar puts him right: ‘the English care more about the dharma of caste than any of our nawabs and rajas ever did… The sahibs are stricter about these matters than our rajas and nawabs ever were. They have brought learned men from their country to study our old books. These white pundits know more about our scriptures than we do ourselves… Under the sahibs’ guidance every caste will once again become like an iron cage.’

When intellectualism gets tied up with class and caste, intellectuals tend to hang out mainly with people similar to themselves, and to develop ‘packages’ of opinions – circumscribed always by the fear of getting sued, or pissing off certain key people. Meanwhile everyone else is brought up on the lie that books and reading have no practical application and that the right thing to do is get an apprenticeship and find steady work on a building site – steady work until the next crash, of course.

Or as Jeremy Clarkson wrote the other day: ‘I’m sorry, but an upper second from Exeter is always going to be trumped by a spot of nepotism. If I know your mum and dad, you stand a pretty good chance. If not, you’re just another name.’

The second part of my response to Shafak is about ideas. Shafak writes that: ‘Populism creates its own myths. It tells us that intellectuals are ‘a privileged liberal elite’ out of touch with ‘the real people.” Now, I hate giving credit to any of the foul ideologies and movements that call themselves ‘populist’ today – but the lies of what Shafak identifies as ”anti-public intellectual’ discourse’ are leavened with a grain of truth: it’s the iron rule of propaganda that the grain of truth is what makes the big lie believable.

People don’t trust intellectuals in this country because so many prominent thinkers have been ‘out of touch’ with England’s liberal, radical and democratic traditions. Turkish writers and journalists have been jailed for speaking out against Erdogan’s dictatorship. Too many English writers and journalists have spoken out for dictatorship – from the defenders of Soviet totalitarianism in the 1930s, to Corbynite fanboys for Putin, Assad and Islamism today. (The same weekend Shafak’s brilliant essay appeared, the same newspaper carried a comment article by President Erdoğan himself, in which he defends the repressions that followed a recent coup attempt by the hated Gulenists.) British intellectuals have been reluctant to make the most of their own freedom. As Shafak writes: ‘One would expect them to be aware of this privilege, and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t.’

George Orwell has escaped the blanket scepticism that British people tend to have about public intellectuals – he wrote so clearly and honestly that he was accepted, with only a little bad grace, into English cultural tradition. In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ Orwell demonstrated why the scepticism endures.

But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries.

People sense in public intellectuals, particularly the very political ones, what Orwell called ‘an admiration for power and successful cruelty.’ They suspect that a great deal of the intelligentsia would be comfortable with a British Erdoğan. (And can’t you hear the dinner-party rationalisations already: ‘It’s easy to criticise, but… vital measures to ensure the security of the People…. regrettable necessities…’)

Shafak writes:

We have entered a new era in world history. Liberal democracy is widely under threat. There is a dangerous discourse brewing outside the borders of Europe that claims, “Democracy is not suitable for either the Middle East or the east”. Isolationists are proposing new social models in which democracy, human rights, freedom of speech are all dispensable and all that matters is economic stability. They do not understand that undemocratic nations are deeply unhappy nations and cannot be stable in any way.

Turkey, Hungary, Poland … Case after case shows us that democracy is more fragile than we realised. It is not a material possession that some countries have while others have not; rather, it is an ecosystem that needs to be continuously protected, nourished and cared for. And today, faced with populist movements and tribalist discourses, this ecosystem is threatened. If we do not speak up for basic human rights and pluralistic values then we run the risk of losing them one by one. Turkey holds important lessons as to how countries can go backwards with a bewildering speed. What happened over there can happen anywhere.

Despite everything I’m optimistic – Britain still has a literate and creative culture that’s proven itself more than a match for bigotry, philistinism and wilful stupidity in the past. But the above, I hope, illustrates why other things entrenched in this country may make the storm longer than it should be.

The Grave and the Proximate

July 15, 2017

In History on Trial, her account of being sued by the Holocaust denier and quack historian David Irving, one of the points that Deborah Lipstadt got across very well was that in history, there is no ‘smoking gun’. We don’t have a written order saying ‘Kill 6 million Jews. Signed, A. Hitler’. What we have is photographs, testimonies, ruins, letters, journals, fragments – that, put together, make something horrifying.

Perhaps the legal version of this historiography is the example of proximate cause that Alexandria Marzono-Lesnevich gives at the beginning of her riveting memoir. A young man, a package wedged under one arm, sprints along a crowded platform to catch a departing train. He has to jump to make it. A conductor pulls him onto the train from the carriage: a porter shoves him onto the train from the platform. But here’s the thing – the young man was carrying fireworks. The package hits the platform and explodes. Who bears responsibility for the mess – the young man, the porter, the conductor, the railroad, the firework manufacturer? It is the classic tort problem, Marzano-Lesnevich says.

The case she writes about in The Fact of a Body is not as complex. In fact the crime appears depressingly simple. One day in rural Louisiana in 1992, a little boy named Jeremy Guillory visits the house of two childhood friends. No one is at home but the lodger, a gas station worker named Ricky Langley. Langley is also a parolee who has done four years for child molestation: he has a thing for kids as young as six. Langley lures Jeremy into the house, strangles the child to death and then simply wedges the boy’s body into a closet, where it stays for three days. A police-led search of the nearby forests widens out until it occurs to somebody that they should really check out the local man with the history of predatory sex offences. When questioned, Langley admits his guilt and is sentenced to death… then to life.

Langley’s life was the sad, sordid tale of many violent convicts. He was conceived after a car crash that killed his brother and left his mother in a body cast. Doctors couldn’t understand how Bessie Langley could have fallen pregnant, on a panoply of hardcore hospital drugs and in such intensive care. Bessie insisted she wanted to keep the child, and Ricky Langley was raised in the make-do-and-mend style of poor towns and large families. His short years of adulthood out in the world were marked by suicide attempts, social isolation, and, Marzano-Lesnevich says, struggles with his attraction to small children.

As well as piecing together Langley’s backtrail, Marzano-Lesnevich draws heavily on her own past – in its way, just as fraught and troubled as that of the killer. She grew up in a family of lawyers. Her parents had a mom-and-pop practice in town, and money was tight. The father is particularly well-realised in this book, a reasonable and loving man who at the same time was impulsive and hard to live with. Frequently he’d go on drinking jags and threaten to kill himself, or to leave the family for parts unknown. Marzano comes across as a man trying for contentment, but perpetually haunted by lost possibility.

The Marzano-Lesneviches were a close family. Alexandria had a sister and a brother. The grandfather came round often, and regularly molested both young girls. Before doing this, he would take out his teeth and warn: ‘I’m a witch. Don’t forget. If you tell I’ll always come find you. Always. Even after I’m dead.’ Years of this elapsed before Alexandria felt able to report the abuse (and what a coy, euphemistic word ‘abuse’ is, when you think of what actually happens in such cases!) When she told her parents, the molesting stopped – but the grandfather’s visits continued. In college Marzano-Lesnevich suffered eating disorders, and difficulties with intimacy. As an adult, she confronted her grandfather directly about the crimes. The grandfather dismisses her. ‘Besides, what happened to you is not such a big thing,’ the old man says. ‘When I was a child, it happened to me.’

The Fact of a Body is written careful and measured, like a very highbrow psychological thriller. While reading the book I had to keep reminding myself that Marzano-Lesnevich is a writer and a lawyer and not a federal agent or behavioural scientist. She comes across as a character from Harlot’s Ghost – the FBI gothic. She worked on the appeal against Langley’s death penalty conviction, a case that seems to have permanently scarred everyone who came into contact with it. The mother of Jeremy Guillory – a fascinating person, who we don’t see enough of in the book – pleads that Langley should be spared execution. The judge involved repeatedly broke off proceedings to testify to the effect that this difficult and distressing case had on his state of mind. One detail that stayed with me is that the jurors at Langley’s original trial took a Bible into their decision room and actually prayed before deciding for execution.

There is an appearance from the British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. Stafford Smith is an admirable figure in the text. He has spent his adult life defending convicts from the death penalty, winning the majority of his cases. During Langley’s trial Stafford Smith chose to stay in New Orleans’s dangerous urban Ninth Ward rather than the city suburbs. Yet he strikes the only dead note here. He argues not just that Langley should be saved from the needle, but that the killer should be let off entirely, due to mental illness. Stafford Smith’s father suffered from mental health problems and it seems to have made an impression. ‘Ricky is not plain mean, Ricky is mentally ill, like my dad. Far worse than my dad.’ The theory in the book is that Ricky was haunted by the ghost of his dead baby brother, Oscar – that Oscar, somehow, made him do it.

But the deeper truth of Marzano-Lesnevich’s compelling story is that there are some things the law can’t go into… and that we all have our own ghosts.

Summer Song

July 14, 2017

This story of mine is now out at the marvellous Ellipsis zine.

A Summer of Apprehension

July 3, 2017

‘Time had turned it into a historical novel,’ Elif Batuman writes of her debut, The Idiot, in the acknowledgements to it. She began the draft in 2000-2001, but more recently came back to her story of a shy Turkish-American student finding herself in Europe and America. But on close reading this odd, quirky campus novel seems well ahead of its time.

Protagonist Selin turns up at Harvard and finds herself lost in the 1990s academic scene as much as inside her own head. She gravitates towards teaching ESL, at first teaching classes in the Boston projects, then over the summer in Hungarian towns. She also falls in love with a Hungarian student named Ivan, an older man, a mathematician and an intellectual. The romance between two chronically awkward, introspective and self absorbed people works about as well as you’d expect. Mainly they send each other long, intense emails.

I came of age before the digital era and there’s a pleasant nostalgia in Batuman’s early electronic touches – co-op internet cafes, Ethernet cables and the clatter and zing of dial-up connections. There is a deeper recognition also in Selin’s way of looking at the world. Selin is part Turkish but barely knows Turkey, she doesn’t really understand Boston either: she travels widely but is a stranger everywhere she goes. She doesn’t do booze or sex or nightclubs, not from puritanism but because she just doesn’t see the point in such things. Critics might call Selin’s narration ‘affectless’ but this isn’t Less Than Zero, there’s no nihilism or ennui in Batuman’s novel. Selin is the opposite of bored: her narrative is a constant apprehension of new stimulus.

The story is set in the Long Calm of the 1990s but the constant references to Soviet-era literature, Europe under the commissars and medieval and Islamic history bring to the novel the constant presence of the authoritarianism of the past… and of that still to come. In an engaging interview with the Guardian Review, Batuman says: ‘ I thought: racism is over, sexism is over, bigotry is over. I was in for a rude awakening.’ Selin is surrounded by the knights of summer, but knows winter is coming.

Although Batuman takes a pride in the messiness of her structure (‘Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things’) there is a momentum to The Idiot. In it there is the gradual accumulation of references, points of friendship and in-jokes (in the second half you won’t be able to read the word ‘antlers’ without giggling) that bind Selin to her experiences, her fellow students and the wider world. Yet that wider apprehension of experience isn’t necessarily incompatible with solitude and the reading life. There is a lot to said for the simplistic and instinctual view that books get in the way of life, I personally have a respect for that position, but at the same time, can it be life if it doesn’t have reading and stories and ideas and other worlds? I doubt it.

Everything Belongs to the Past

June 8, 2017

No one wears them; they’re empty. It’s an image of a shape with one entrance and two exits. One may imagine falling continually into the waistband, not knowing from which leg one may emerge. So does history occur: in myriad, often unconsidered, minor decisions.

‘The Trousers of Time’

– Terry Pratchett ‘L Space’ wiki

I remember the June 23 referendum as if it’s actually happening real now in real time. It’s been a long close race, but ultimately not close enough. About four in the am, just as the sunlight is beginning to break into the sky, a decision starts to emerge. Remain establishes a 52% majority and keeps it going well into the stirrings of the working day. Eventually, Dimbleby calls it. The votes are counted, the boxes emptied, the final hand is on the table. Britain has voted to remain in the European Union.

No one has slept, but the real work is only just begun. Cameron and Osborne, faces flushed with victory and relief, are all over the front pages. It has been Dave’s big gamble – and it’s paid off. Subtle but drastic realignments occur all over Westminster as career politicians scramble to adjust their philosophies in line with the triumphant Chipping Norton order. Businessmen all over the country check the result on their phones, shake their heads in relief, and drive to work. Radiographers and IT specialists and hop pickers and schoolteachers and retail workers and others who came from the continent and beyond to build lives here, decide to junk their visa applications, and wonder why they ever even considered leaving a country they love.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the response from the Leave campaign. UKIP disbands a day after the referendum. Even ultra liberal commenters praise Nigel Farage for his grace and good spirit. He tours the studios shaking hands with his opponents. ‘The result was not what I had hoped, but I respect the outcome of the democratic process,’ Farage tells reporters, trademark pint in hand. ‘Whether or not we are in the EU, we will always be British and nothing can change that. Let’s work together to build a great future.’

Farage takes the wind out of a defeated Leave campaign. Paul Nuttall leaves politics and embarks on the first manned mission to Mars – at least, that’s what he says later on his CV. Far away, in an office of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin allows himself a drink of strong spirits while he reflects on a new plan. Boris resigns to spend more time with his mistresses.

See anything wrong with my little counterfactual there?

That’s right – the last paras.

If Remain had won, even if they had won big – I don’t believe that the leave crowd would have walked away and accepted the result. They would moan and complain and demonstrate. They would say the result was ‘rigged’ and the electorate was ‘brainwashed’. There would be court challenges and appeals to the Electoral Commission. We could even, right now, be in the middle of a second referendum campaign. Because for political fanatics, democracy is a one-armed bandit. You yank the lever until the thing pays out.

Ian McEwan confessed recently that ‘I don’t accept this near mystical, emotionally charged decision to leave the EU. I don’t, I can’t, believe it. I reject it.’ But he admits he is in a minority on this: ‘Our church, perhaps to its detriment, is not so broad. It is moody, tearful, complaining, sometimes cogently, even beautifully. In general, until now perhaps, it seems to have stoically accepted the process.’

As we know, Theresa May was once a Remainer but has committed herself to taking us out of the EU off the back of the referendum result. It looks like an honourable stance – whatever she fought for in the campaign, she accepts that ultimately she’s a servant of the people and must carry out the majority wish.

But it seems to me that this honourable stance has faded into what I call ‘let’s do it to say we’ve done it’. This is a form of bad practice in organisations that can also be called ‘box ticking’ or, more simply, ‘cover thine arse’. You know what I mean by this – you follow protocol or directive, and document your actions thoroughly, without necessarily thinking of what’s best for the project or the client. Then, if and when everything falls over, you can throw up your hands and say: ‘Don’t look at me. I did what was asked.’

There are many good arguments for Brexit – I recommend this gentle low-key and wise piece in particular, by the academic Martin Robb. Many smart Brexiters have close affinities with Europe, and they know we will always have a relationship with the continent, no matter the constitutional arrangements of the day. (They are perhaps less wise in their enthusiasm for local representative structures above all else. How’s your local democracy doing these days? Bins collected recently?…) So I never believed that Remain had a monopoly on virtue or intelligence in this debate.

Fact is, though, any pro Brexit argument has to answer two big questions: how is this thing going to work, exactly, and can we trust this government to achieve it?

So far, the May approach looks like ‘do it to say we’ve done it’ on a constitutional scale. The government triggered A50 early and made Brexit the centre of their programme. Tony Blair spoke in almost DeLillo-style prose when he said ‘this Government has bandwidth only for one thing: Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams; or nightmares.’ And yet detail is lacking. We will have SME, and less immigration, but we don’t know exactly how. This government is doing a very radical thing, in a very mediocre way. Think the English Reformation, but project managed by the guys who used to run the godforsaken call centre you temped in after college. The American Revolution led by Mr Bean.

This is where acceptance can be a sleepwalk off the cliff’s edge. People have a habit of falling back on the position that things are going to happen because they have to happen. And indeed this post could well appear like the half-assed fantasies of an ivory tower liberal globalist. Maybe, but I should say that when I got interested in politics I was passionately anti globalisation. When I’d argue with friends about Thatcherism’s legacy, I’d get the rejoinder: Look, it had to happen, the world was changing, any government would have found it necessary to do what Thatcher did.

Again, maybe. But I am still not sure that it had to be done in the thoughtless aggressive way that Thatcher’s government did it – the onslaught upon the cities and valleys and towns, the devastation of entire communities. Like I say, I think Brexit could work for us. But I am not at all sure that Brexit will work if it’s the kind of Brexit that this government is aggressively and thoughtlessly pursuing.

Ian Dunt is the best writer on the Brexit age and provides the detail politicians won’t tell you. Here he reflects on the possible future if we crash out of Europe without a deal:

The early effects can already be seen. A year ago we were outperforming Germany, the US and Japan. Now we have slumped to the bottom of the G7 list of advanced economies. The pound fell in value after Brexit and that has translated, due to increased import prices, into inflation. This is denting consumer demand – the main driver of UK growth. Wages are no longer keeping up with inflation. The Bank of England has warned that living standards will continue to fall […]

Producers in Europe are coming to hard conclusions about the UK’s direction. Many goods must pass over borders in their manufacturing process. If there is a tariff and various bureaucratic requirements when they do so, they would be better off based inside the customs union. Almost half of European businesses have already started looking to replace British suppliers with competitors from inside the EU.

Meanwhile, British businesses are being given no certainty whatsoever. Every time May says that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, they are again being driven closer to having to make snap investment decisions in a state of regulatory uncertainty. None of this is necessary, even under Brexit. If guarantees were offered they would not be in this situation. Instead, May continues to play Russian Roulette with the nation’s future.

It is a truism that there are communities all over the UK that have not yet recovered from what happened in the 1980s. I have to smile when I hear fanzine leftists frame hard Brexit as a rebellion against neoliberal elites. What do they think will happen to working class communities after hard Brexit has finished with them?

For neoliberalism has an evil bigger brother: isolationism. It will rip through the fabric of our society like neoliberalism on rocket pills.

As Dunt also writes, you won’t hear this from the major parties. I want to be positive and in many circumstances I am also happy to be a liberal globalist, so I want to end by saying something positive about that magical half-known thing, civil society. I feel good every time I get into a decent argument or laugh out loud at social media or turn on the news to see a carnival demonstration. Civil society is not everything, it may not even exist outside liberal enclaves, but it is something.

And I remember Christopher Hitchens, who once said: ‘if the fools in the audience strike up one cry, in favour of surrender or defeat, feel free to join in the conversation.’

The Women of Hyde Park

June 6, 2017

Delighted to have this new story published on the outstanding Cold Coffee Stand magazine.

The Trouble with Goat’s Milk

May 7, 2017

The worst individual memories often rest on something trivial. In the space sitcom Red Dwarf, neurotic technician Arnold Rimmer’s darkest secret centres around soup. Eventually he gets drunk and confesses that as an up and coming Space Corps man he was invited to the Captain’s table – a sure sign of promise. During the meal Rimmer orders a waiter to reheat his soup course – not realising it’s gazpacho, which is meant to be served cold. He blames his failures in life on this one misstep, and when he dies, these are his last words – ‘Gazpacho soup!’

Cat Marnell’s drug memoir isn’t like most drug memoirs. The tone is brisk confidential. She takes you through her childhood in Cheever country (‘The houses on my street, Kachina Lane, were so far apart that no one ever had any trick-or-treaters on Halloween’) her prep school, and first jobs in New York fashion magazines. There’s no melodrama or self-pity, but when something irritates or frightens Marnell, there are a lot of exclamations – ‘RAARRRRRR!’ ‘AAAUUUUGH!’ It’s like reading something from a feminist zine fair. The Bell Jar rewritten by Shoshanna Shapiro.

Then Marnell is assigned her first byline: a one-para analysis of goat’s milk in beauty products. Dropping prescription meds and grinding her teeth to the nerves, Marnell reworks her sentences over and over again, all through the working day and into the night. By nine thirty she is weeping at her desk in despair and frustration. Her boss takes her into a private office, gathers up what Marnell has done, and assembles a reasonable, readable para, which Marnell includes in the book – ‘This is the paragraph I’d lost my mind writing.’

How does a person reach such a state – to detonate one’s brain over 120 words on a dairy-based exfoliant? How to Murder Your Life is preoccupied with pop culture and fashion, bristling with neologisms and listicles and odd little fragments of advice – ‘When writing, never refer to your own body parts – toes, stomach, bikini area – or prisoners will use the imagery you’ve created for their masturbatory fantasies, and you will get letters from them.’ The fashion world as Marnell writes it seems dysfunctional, but not toxic or cutthroat. People collect obsessively, but don’t seem to judge by looks. This is not The Devil Wears Prada. Marnell’s employers seem like decent people, and support her through her periodic crises and rehabilitations.

Marnell’s book traces the industry from its print based boom period, through the 2008 crash and towards a more online based and body positive form of glamour. Marnell has to hide her addictions at Condé Nast, but ends up as a kind of gonzo drug correspondent for internet startups: sample articles include ‘I Spent Two Weeks in a Mental Institution, but I Left with Better Hair’ and ‘The Art of Crack-Tractiveness: How to Look and Feel Hot on No Sleep’. It’s interesting that part of Marnell misses the more prescriptive and airbrushed Manhattan scene. ‘I particular hated the gross-out stories and embarrassing bodily function-centric ‘It Happened to Me’ essays. ‘Why don’t you just hire a full time yeast infection editor, Jane?’ I’d bitch’.

Sometimes Marnell’s conversational tone clashes with the darkness of what’s happening in the narrative – in the second half of the book a lot of it is sleeplessness, penury, hallucinations, destructive narcissistic friendships and suicide attempts. But that’s also where How To Murder Your Life becomes a more muscular and involving piece of work. The life lessons aren’t obvious, but they are there, and owe more to the honest emotive grunge aesthetic of Marnell’s youth than to any twelve-step programme.

Her unconventional ending reminded me of an Atlantic piece I recently read that critiqued abstinence based addiction therapy. Reporter Gabrielle Glaser asked why alcohol and drug therapies are practically the only branch of medicine that hasn’t moved since the 1930s. She interrogates AA and NA’s low success rate, and points to more effective but barely known treatments. Cat Marnell’s cycle of binge and patchup is the norm for most addicts. But her writing is heading towards something new. A different form of struggle and desire.

Ghosted

May 2, 2017

My story of this name is now up at the fabulous LossLit magazine. The whole issue – and the critique gallery about novels of loss – is well worth a read.

A Monster’s Ball

April 21, 2017

When Martin Amis came to write The Pregnant Widow, his novel of lost youth, he chose for his epigrams the story of Echo and Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Over an Italian summer of the 1970s he assembles his student characters – ‘all of them in the cusp of Narcissus. They would not be like their elders and they would not be like their youngers… Down by the grotto, down by the bower, they lay there near-naked, in their instruments of yearning. They were the Eyes, they were the Is, they were reflections, they were fireflies with their luminescent organs.’

The Pregnant Widow is problematic and flawed in many ways but I think Amis still captures something of the energy and solipsism and narcissism of being young. Sophie Hannah says that we live in a very psychologically unaware society – however I think we are becoming more aware of psychological forces over the individual, thanks of course to recent world events and personalities. ‘Find a mirror you like and trust, and stick to it,’ says Amis. ‘Stand by this mirror, and be true to it. Never so much as glance at another.’

Lena Dunham’s Girls is perhaps the most deconstructed TV show since Breaking Bad. There’s an enormous amount of analysis and critique that I can’t even pretend to follow. Dunham herself attracts a great deal of criticism, furious and somehow diffuse, so that you get the feeling that her real crime was to do liberalism in a commercially successful way. I’ve watched the show from beginning to end and loved it, not despite its narcissistic characters but because of them. Hannah Horvath’s crew of entitled millennials exhibit the kind of unconscious selfishness that we’ve seen in The Sopranos. There’s no cruelty in it, just a casual faith that the world revolves around them. A scene from season five sums this up. Hannah and her boyfriend are travelling out of town. She makes him stop at a petrol station, runs to the urinals, and dumps him by text. When the boyfriend drives off in disgust, Hannah summons her friend Ray to drive by in his coffee shop truck to pick her up. In the cabin she performs a sexual act upon him, from impulsive gratitude, with the result that the truck falls over onto its side. Hannah then hitches a lift back to New York in the next passing car, leaving Ray fuming in the wreck of his coffee truck.

‘I’m a starving artist in the garrett,’ Hannah declares, rolling about on the floor as she implores her parents for cash. ‘I’m a famous liberal,’ she boasts in a city bar. Laugh-out-loud portrayals of narcissistic personality – but Dunham does not simply leave it at that. She treats her characters with a warmth and sympathy they rarely deserve. Hannah’s circle are full of dreams and schemes but they don’t leave the city or their dysfunctional circle for long. Hannah is accepted on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but she barely lasts half a term. Iowa has everything she’s always wanted but she can’t get over that stage when you move to a new place and feel lost and sad for no good reason. She returns to New York to find that her ex has moved his new girlfriend into their flat and put Hannah’s possessions in storage. She locates the storage bunker, somewhere in the underlay of the city, and sleeps in it.

The best writing in Girls is where Dunham shrinks the canvas. ‘One Man’s Trash’ begins at Ray’s coffee shop where Hannah is working. Handsome local doctor Josh comes in and starts an argument with Ray, accusing him of putting commercial waste in the doctor’s bins. After the discussion ends in acrimony, Hannah follows the doctor to his house and apologises – it was her that misplaced the trash. They end up having a passionate love affair. Josh is everything Hannah and her friends are not – middle aged, professional, solvent and straightforward. It’s like you’ve suddenly walked into an entirely different show. She tells him: ‘You know what I think I didn’t know until I met you was that I was, like, lonely, in such a deep, deep way.’ Then it ends and they both go on with their entirely separate lives. (My theory for a long time was that the whole thing was a fantasy of either partner constructed around a chance meeting, but then Josh comes back in the last series and it’s obvious that they both remember their time together. Still, I think my fantasy theory is better and will be sticking to it, against the evidence.)

If the show has a hero it’s Ray of course, the weary and put-upon Brooklyn barista. While everyone else is obsessed with their own bands, videos and relationships, Ray operates on a universal principle of some kind. Furious at the haphazard rat run outside his bedroom window, he starts arguments with several different motorists in the same traffic jam – he’s like a modern Herzog, driven to perpetual distraction by the selfishness and irrationality he sees everywhere in the world around him. When mortality enters the Girls universe, it’s because of Ray. He’s devastated by the death of his friend and mentor. ‘It’s right there, right in front of us, just patiently waiting to take us all.’ His ex Shoshana replies: ‘No. Not me… It’s super random, but I’m just not gonna die, like, ever.’ Ray’s inheritance includes a cache of cassette tapes from lost gigs, which inspires him to go out talking to the people of old Brooklyn that he wouldn’t normally notice. It’s worth comparing Ray’s final creative project to the film that Adam and Jessa make around the same time. While Adam’s movie is centred on himself and just reminds him of his own failures, Ray falls in love during his history mission. He has discovered that happiness comes from without.

What’s it like to drown in your own reflection? I think that’s the question Girls wanted to ask. The characters may be monsters – but Dunham loves her monsters. There’s never a sense that we’re laughing at them – or that we are just laughing at them. We’ve all been this silly and screwed up once, Dunham says – and we may be again. She invites you to the monster’s ball.