System Failure

March 30, 2015

toxicJamie Doward’s crime novel takes place in a dimly populated world. His London is full of billionaire sheikhs, powerdressed spies, overbearing Texan bankers but not many ordinary people. In this way it’s like another recent hit, murder mystery The Girl on the Train: reviewing Paula Hawkins’s book, Private Eye‘s anonymous critic noted a ‘curious situational vacuum’ where ‘the figures moving around… are just bundles of psychological urges on collision course’. Maybe the problem is that London’s so expensive these days that only superheroes and supervillains can afford to live there. In the contemporary British novel there is no one left to serve the drinks.

Toxic begins with the body of a banker washing up on a remote beach, head and hands missing. It transpires that the banker was actually drowned someplace else and that there’s more to his death than is immediately apparent. So far, so predictable: the headless and handless corpse recalls The Wire (‘Did he have hands? Did he have a face? Then it wasn’t us’) while the plot device of a victim drowned in a different body of water than where he’s found was done much better by Carl Hiaasen in Strip Tease. The leads are also cut from familiar cloth. DCI Sorrenson is a dyspeptic and stoical cop who’s seen it all: Kate Pendragon an MI5 agent who’s trying to forget her murdered husband by seducing random men in bars.

The real originality is in the plot. Jamie Doward understands finance and how the global wash of money funds terrorism and crime. Significantly, his protagonist Kate Pendragon is a financial analyst, seconded to intelligence to track Islamist petrodollars. The story is tied up with a ‘spook bank’ – an entire investment bank created and run by US intelligence to honeytrap Mexican cartels and Saudi terrorists. Doward has worked as a senior reporter on the Observer for many years, and no doubt has seen many things he couldn’t write about. Staggering revelations of the dirty tricks used by states and spies are tossed off like cocktail party witticisms. (At the same time, Doward’s law enforcement teams are overworked and hammered by post-recession cuts: key evidence is lost because of backlogs and sick leave.) Nor does his story lack for drama. It’s a pounding fairground ride of assassinations, explosions and haggard men staring into the barrels of guns.

And yet the story is somehow underwhelming because of this very lack of a human element at its core. Kate Pendragon reflects that ‘Ultimately, the intelligence community was just like the banking community… They saw only structures and processes. They thought in abstract terms. They didn’t see the human.’ Unfortunately the same could be said of Doward as debut novelist.

My Own Private Idaho

March 29, 2015

Casting my roving satirical eye over the week’s events I see there has been a controversy regarding a Kindle app called ‘Clean Reader’ that deletes profanity and sexual references in downloaded fiction titles, replacing them with harmless terms like ‘heck’, ‘darn’, and ‘bottom’. The app was launched by Jared and Kristin Maughan of Idaho and they say in their FAQs that the idea for Clean Reader came up when their daughter came home from school upset because she had been reading a book in the library that had swear words.

She really liked the book but not the swear words.  We told her that there was probably an app for this type of thing that would replace profanity with less offensive words and perhaps we should get her a tablet that she could use to read books with.  To our surprise there wasn’t an app like this.

The app had numerous problems. Romance author Jennifer Porter ran some titles through the app and found that the Maughans had likely just used ‘a find and replace schema to find certain identified profane words and white them out’. Three words for the female, ahem, organ, ‘cunt’, ‘pussy’, and ‘vagina’ itself, were just replaced with the word ‘bottom’ which, as the novelist Joanne Harris points out, is biologically plain wrong and could lead to some confusion, embarrassment and potential legal problems (certainly in Utah).

Speaking of legal problems, the Maughans assure us that ‘We’ve discussed this with several lawyers and they have all agreed that Clean Reader does not violate copyright law because it doesn’t make changes to the file containing the book.’ Retailers thought otherwise and pulled titles. It now appears that CleanReader is going the way of CleanFilm, a similar operation that bowdlerised movie DVDs and is now defunct following a court ruling in 2006.

From the Guardian report:

The Society of Authors said it was concerned ‘that the app contradicts two aspects of the author’s moral rights, namely the right of integrity and the right of false attribution’, with the former ‘the right of an author to object to ‘derogatory’ treatment of a work’, and the latter ‘the right not to have a work falsely attributed to you as author’.

I’m against Clean Reader along the lines of Harris’s argument but I kind of understand where the Maughans are coming from. I use swear words regularly both in person and text, and although I am naturally foul-mouthed I understand that some people find profanity vulgar and even painful to read. I also understand that parents will feel the need to protect their children from bad language, and portrayals of sex and violence (although what the Utah couple don’t seem to understand is that kids will clandestinely seek out the forbidden books precisely because we were told not to).

Arguably it’s good to have some words that are taboo because it adds spice to the language. Terry Pratchett’s hired gun Mr Tulip constantly peppers his sentences with ‘—-ing’ (‘So called because it was an instrument for —-ing young ladies!’) and the effect is funnier and more furious than if the words were completely displayed. George MacDonald Fraser uses dashes in his novel Flash for Freedom, explaining that the text has been censored by Flash’s sister-in-law, Grizel de Rothschild, who ‘paid close attention to oaths’ but ‘left untouched those passages in which Flashman retails his amorous adventures; possibly she did not understand what he was talking about.’

But is this really the end for clean reading? After all, we live in an age of trigger warnings and safe spaces and ‘appropriate language’ – a censorious and fucked up world (that should read ‘fiddlesticks’ if you’re using Clean Reader) where people are banned from public speaking or hounded on Twitter for trivial breaches of linguistic codes. And if you’re an artist who’s seen as ‘going too far’, ‘being too clever’ or, hell’s sake, being ‘needlessly provocative’ – then you will have a reasonable fear of being murdered in broad daylight. So, I repeat, why stop at profanity? There must be an IT guy at a tobacco control charity working on a Kindle app that removes all instances of fictional characters smoking. Another at the NUS, working on an app that deletes all heteronormative, cisgendered or privileged text. The CIA could make an app that removes anything subversive at all.

The digital world is a multiplex of opinion. The consumer has almost infinite choice here. But the consumerist paradox – identified by Jamie Bartlett, in his book The Dark Net, and by radical writer Nick Cohen in this stunning essay – is that it’s never been easier for individuals to lose themselves in a feedback loop where you read only writing that confirms and bolsters what you think you already know. Surely, with web analytics these days, we should be able to make software that reads your personal and political preferences and screens out anything that contradicts with those preferences. If books ever get totally digitised you need never come across anything that could unsettle, offend or disturb you. The customer is always right. My own private Idaho.

Or we could admit to ourselves that the world is not a safe space, and at some point we are going to encounter passages of darkness, that make our principles and beliefs seem like – in Mark Z Danielewski’s phrase – ‘a house of leaves/moments before the wind.’

In the meantime, I think we’ll see many more ways of clean reading.


(Image: Wikipedia)

Notes from the Red Mountain

March 15, 2015

michellegreenIn 2005, the writer and poet Michelle Green spent several months in Darfur as an aid worker. The Darfur war began in 2003 when rebel militias attacked government buildings in Jebel Marra district (Jebel Marra is also the title of Green’s collection). The Sudanese government responded with Janjaweed militias that rampaged through towns, killing and raping everything in their wake. By 2004-2005 their activities amounted to ethnic cleansing. In March 2005 the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland estimated the body count at 10,000 per month. An atrocity-producing situation generating kidnappings, displacement, murders and unimaginable amounts of avoidable suffering. Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir has promised he’ll stay on until at least 2020… despite being under indictment for war crimes since 2009.

Manchester’s Comma Press has published great short form fiction from and inspired by war zones (think Zoe Lambert’s The War Tour and Hassan Blasim’s magisterial The Iraqi Christ) and Michelle Green’s collection is another direct hit from the disaster area. Green cuts through familiar readings of the conflict, whether it’s Arab supremacists versus black revolutionaries, or the dismissive summation of ‘ancient hatreds’ (the reactionary rich world’s excuse for turning its back on refugees from Bosnia to Rwanda to Aleppo). Green writes: ‘Upon returning to the UK, I encountered in newspapers and television the familiar portraits of distant war: the refugee with the empty bowl, the anonymous soldier, the heroic aid worker and so on, usually with little context or complication. Inevitably, these incomplete images were soon gone from the front pages.’

The collection took five years to write, and it shows. The very first para of the first story, ‘The Debrief’, charts the psychological impact of bearing witness that lasts long after the home plane has landed: ‘Don’t go into supermarkets. No arcades, no chain stores, no automated tellers. Avoid shops. Anything with plate glass walls, reflective surfaces.’ The stories that follow are a clamour of competing testimonies – photojournalists, aid workers, civilians, rebels – that in concert form a splintered tesseract of powerful storytelling. ‘The red mountain attracts stories among those who live beside it,’ Green writes.

Green is particularly good on the ethics of getting involved in dangerous and difficult situations, or simply observing what’s happening. ‘Kevin Carter and a thousand African photographers roll their collective eyes,’ writes Green’s photojournalist in ‘The Nightingales,’ referencing the photojournalist who killed himself just months after winning the Pulitzer, for his shot of a vulture preying on a starving child. (Carter’s suicide note stated ‘I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners’.)

On her blog, Green writes that when she worked in West Darfur ‘I was informed in no uncertain terms that I could not use the word ‘rape’ in any public communications. If we used that word in public, in relation to what was happening in Darfur, our international staff would be kicked out and our programme shut down.’ The paradox was stark: part of the reason aid workers had a presence in Darfur was because of the mass rapes, but they couldn’t say so for fear of offending the genocidal Sudanese government that allowed them to operate. As Linda Polman said: ‘It’s 1943. You’re an international aid worker. The telephone rings. It’s the Nazis. You’ll be granted permission to deliver aid to the concentration camps, but the camp management will decide how much of it goes to its own staff and how much to the prisoners… What do you do?’

Jebel Marra is a red mountain of intrigue, humour, love, hate and suffering. But its underlying theme is of this complicity and silence. Involving and seeing has consequences, Green says. Even more does the act of not involving and not seeing.

Hail Discordia: Death of Terry Pratchett

March 12, 2015

deathisntcruelWhenever I go into someone else’s home, out of pure nosiness and idle curiosity, I always wander to the bookshelves. Whether these shelves have rows of esoteric or canonical literature, or just a few golf magazines and Viz albums, I always find something else: a couple of Discworld paperbacks, normally from the 1990s, with those rippling Josh Kirby covers, and never in good condition – these books are always squashed and scuffed a little, the look (as Stephen King said) of a book that has been much read and well loved. It is almost as if mid-period Pratchett novels were produced scruffy, like the cigarettes behind Corporal Nobbs’s ear.

My own Terry Pratchett books still look that adored, messy way. I had grown up with him. Many of us did, and every year when the new Discworld novel came out, even when we were well into our twenties, it still felt like Christmas morning. You would clear an evening and buy a bottle of wine and rediscover these lost and familiar pleasures.

Describe a Terry Pratchett plot and you will quickly find yourself sounding ridiculous – so I won’t try. Anyone who’s read him will know what I’m talking about, and the uninformed out there will have to discover this treasure-house of detail in their own time. Comic fantasy just about covers it – the first few books were basically silly adventures characterised by authorial stand-up, parodic subversions, and terrible wordplay (right to the end, if Pratchett saw an opportunity to make an awful joke, he’d jump through hoops to set it up).

Comic fantasy was a successful sub-genre in the 1980s and 1990s but the reason Pratchett lasted, and so many others didn’t, was because of the warmth and moral seriousness of the comedy. There was an abiding love of humanity that you don’t even get in Douglas Adams. Pratchett’s Discworld characters are vain, obstreperous and stupid, but he loves them. His villains, and there were many – the warped assassin Jonathan Teatime, the vampires of Carpe Jugulum, the terrifying Deacon Vorbis, Lord Hong and the Auditors – are villains because they treat ‘people as things’. This is the denouement of Feet of Clay, when the villain Pratchett’s top cop Sam Vimes has been chasing is finally exposed:

‘The candles killed two other people,’ said Carrot.

Carry started to panic again. ‘Who?’

‘An old lady and a baby in Cockbill Street.’

‘Were they important?’ said Carry.

Carrot nodded to himself. ‘I was almost feeling sorry for you,’ he said. ‘Right up to that point. You’re a lucky man, Mr Carry.’

‘You think so?’

‘Oh, yes. We got to you before Commander Vimes did.[‘]

Life is no joke, Pratchett is saying… or it’s because it’s a joke that it’s so serious. This is not a game. Here and now, you are alive. The vision penetrates through his best work. Small Gods is possibly the best work of fiction about religion ever written. Lords and Ladies takes Pratchett’s provincial witch trio and pits them against a race of beautiful and deadly elves who seduce but ultimately take everything. Read it in the twenty-first century and it’s like an allegory of human susceptibility to extremism and romantic absolutism. Perhaps his best book is Night Watch, where Commander Vimes is hurled back into old Ankh-Morpork… a place of riots, assassination and torture chambers. This last example also shows Pratchett’s love of detail, how things get done: he had a somewhat unliterary love of practical things, from falconry to clock-making – no job was too small to fascinate the author.

Every day, maybe a hundred cows died for Ankh-Morpork. So did a flock of sheep and a herd of pigs and the gods alone knew how many ducks, chickens and geese. Flour? He’d heard it was eighty tons, and about the same amount of potatoes and maybe twenty tons of herring. He didn’t particularly want to know this kind of thing, but once you started having to sort out the everlasting traffic problem these were facts that got handed to you. Every day, forty thousand eggs were laid for the city. Every day, hundreds, thousands of carts and boats and barges converged on the city with fish and honey and oysters and olives and eels and lobsters. And then think of the horses dragging this stuff, and the windmills… and the wool coming in, too, every day, the cloth, the tobacco, the spices, the ore, the timber, the cheese, the coal, the fat, the tallow, the hay EVERY DAMN DAY…

I read, somewhere I can’t remember, that Hollywood was never interested in a Discworld adaptation because execs found the books too ‘genteel and intellectual’. So they are, kind of… but there is some peculiar quality in Pratchett’s work that practically guaranteed him a success in his home country. There is something in Discworld that people respond to, some intuition: a love of plain speaking, a diligent sense of the ridiculous (‘Neither rain, nor snow, nor glom of nit’) a love of humour for its own sake, a certain stoicism, a keen scepticism for all manifestations of authority and power – a contempt for all the bad ideas and stupidity and greed that makes people’s lives miserable. His books have that rare, peculiar British sensibility, and they will be read and loved long after Pratchett himself has taken that long walk – accompanied by that tall, cowled, spooky, but somehow kindly figure – into the desert.

Statement from Random House here.

You can donate to the Research Institute for the Care of Older People in Sir Terry’s memory here.


March 8, 2015

This piece of flash fiction is now up at the astounding Spelk flash zine.

Also, some Americana you might have missed: at Shiny, a review of an illustrated Walt Whitman; and at 3:AM, my piece on Jeanne Theoharis’s outstanding new Rosa Parks biography.

Thoughts IRL

February 21, 2015

irlJust caught up with Chris Killen’s In Real Lifehis first novel in six years, which kind of makes him the Donna Tartt of Manchester. The book follows three characters, Ian, Paul and Lauren, across a space of ten years. The three were at university together and full of grand plans and big dreams. A decade on none of them have made it in any meaningful way – Ian has just sold his guitar and signed on for JSA, Lauren is running a charity shop and has little emotional or social life. Only Paul is anywhere near what you could call successful, having secured a creative writing lectureship off the back of his first novel, Human Animus. But he is a pathetic, grasping, insecure hack, his partner’s demanding a baby while he’s pursuing nineteen-year-old students through Facebook – Paul is weak and selfish in a peculiarly British way and has no more idea about what’s going on than anyone else.

The novel has the poignancy of old Facebook photographs. It’s sad to look at these people because you know what they’re going to become, what’s going to happen to them and the compromises they’ll make. Though Killen messes around with split narrative and typography, there’s no real artifice in his writing, no sense of tricksiness or superiority – he’s honest above all things, the laureate of a certain kind of awkwardness, and this makes In Real Life so compelling and so unbearably sad in places.

I knew Chris Killen a little when I lived in Manchester and the book serves also as a great portrait of that city. South Manchester in the  2010s was full of hip young writers like Chris Killen and Anneliese Mackintosh – and, er, not so hip young writers, like me. The choice Killen presents is stark: somehow carve a living out of the creative structures, or disappear into telesales hell. (At one low point Paul is writing tentacle erotic for $0.5 a word.) Manchester is a boom city now and when I hear council leaders from MCC comparing the place with London, ready to compete on the world stage, etcetera – I’m happy for them but I worry that Manchester will develop, as well as London’s economic success, a whole set of London-style problems: rocketing rents, rip-off employers, tracts of substandard, damp-infested housing, inequality, ghettoization and people on the make. As well as a beautifully written love story, In Real Life is the story of a generation emerging into a different and harder world.

Guess Who’s Jack

February 5, 2015

brookmyreI stopped reading Christopher Brookmyre around the time of Where the Bodies are Buried, as from the publicity material, it seemed like the guy had given up writing funny, original crime capers and lapsed into MOR procedural crime – ‘the average detective novel’ as Chandler described it. (Check out the comparison between early and late Brookmyre covers, from Bent Spines, to see what I mean.) From 1996, the Scottish author had spun out complex and innovative stories featuring bizarre and elaborate plots and strange otherworldly characters. The Sacred Art of Stealing centred on a situationist bank heist, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks on a fraudulent but convincing psychic. The tabloid PR conspirator of Boiling a Frog engineers a new cultural puritanism to make money for himself and his corrupt bishop clients.

The only conventional thing about Brookmyre was his hero. Jack Parlabane is a wisecracking alpha male journalist who’s prepared to do almost anything to expose predatory execs and thieving politicians. In the early novels Brookmyre had him scaling impossible buildings and hacking into confidential files. Brookmyre told the Herald that ‘Jack was always a bit of a wish-fulfillment figure’ – and the author compensated for this by throwing Parlabane into more and more challenging situations: in one adventure, he’s thrown in prison, in another, shot at like a clay duck on a corporate paintball weekend turned murderous.

Jack begins Dead Girl Walking as a compromised shadow: with his unorthodox style of reportage tainted by phone hack related activities, of the Murdoch press and others, he has been cast out of the journalism game, and his marriage has collapsed. Not only has Parlabane been destroyed by Leveson, he’s also being hunted by the MoD, the security services and god knows who else, for another computer hack, into the laptop of a senior civil servant. When an old friend hires him to track down a missing rock star, it looks like the answer to his troubles. Heike Gunn, frontwoman of hit indie band Savage Earth Heart, has vanished, Richey Manic style, on the verge of a major US tour. Parlabane combs Europe and remote Scottish islands looking for her.

I needn’t have worried about Brookmyre’s change of pace. All the old irreverence and wit is there – and the same contemporary motifs: punk rock, comic books, video games, Edinburgh-Glesca rivalry, scepticism, gadgetry, magicianship and a healthy disregard for authority and power. It’s now allied to a new, streamlined and pacy style, the style of a writer in pole position (although Brookmyre can’t help relishing his powers of misdirection a little too much). Brookmyre also does not make the MOR writer’s mistake of treating his victim like a cardboard martyr: elusive singer Heike Gunn is a compelling and believable co-protagonist. Brookmyre is sometimes over earnest but there’s nothing po faced about his prose. The ending gives us a potential redemption for Parlabane, certainly a new adventure, and maybe for Brookmyre as well. As he told STV Glasgow: ‘Every year there are more Scottish writers and they’re more inclined to turn to crime fiction. I think we’re seeing a constant enriching of the body of work and I think we’ll see all sorts of highly imaginative variations.’

Watching Too Much Television

February 1, 2015

One of the quirks of contemporary journalism is to take an innocuous cultural detail and use it as a hook to explore deeper issues. For example, scrolling through the Guardian ‘Comment Is Free’ site I find articles like ‘What the vaginal steam tells us about Western civilisation’ ‘Why HP sauce is a product of rapacious Western imperialism’ ‘Why Sport England is a product of evil Western neoliberalism’ and – a classic from the NS – ‘Why Movember is gender normative and racist’.

As one of my new year’s resolutions this year was to revive this blog, I thought I would emulate the winning CiF formula and have a look at daytime TV, in the hope that, in writing about seemingly insignificant reality shows I will gain insights into modern society and the human condition.

Come Dine With Me – I used to think this was the ultimate mediocre TV show. I used to say that this would be the show that was on a loop in purgatory. I used to say that, when Tony Soprano goes to purgatory after being shot by his uncle, he should have to watch the entire series run of Come Dine With Me in the hotel bar to atone for his evil deeds.

However, after having seen a few more episodes, I’m starting to really like the show. You probably know the format – bunch of random people have to cook dinner for each other, alternating between host and houses – and, as well as exploring the British obsession with the rituals of food (such preparation and drama to create something that takes maybe fifteen minutes to eat!) works as a gentle satire on bourgeois manners and rules, in the spirit of Flaubert or Jonathan Franzen.

Even the celebrity editions are good. There was a Come Dine With Me featuring Christopher Biggins who absolutely stole the show, making a series of amusing egg-related puns when host Edwina Currie served dinner (‘egg-zactly’, ‘en-ouef,’ etc) and the other guests, despite clearly having no idea who he was, were genuinely blown away by his warmth and charm. If I ever have an ‘ideal dinner party’ Biggins will definitely make the guest list.

Four In A Bed – Now this is the show that is on a loop in purgatory. In fact it’s on a loop in hell itself. After all my diligent TV watching Four In A Bed is the one programme that I just ‘don’t get’. It’s basically Come Dine With Me but with all the humour and good spirit carefully removed.

The show works like this. Producers select random people who own B + Bs. They then have to stay in each other’s B + Bs and rate the service. Guests are able to pay the full price, or more, or less, depending on their opinion of their experiences at the particular hotel. The pivotal scenes are where guests sit down with the hotel owner and explain why they chose to pay less, or more, than the price charged.

You don’t have to be Adam Smith to realise that a) people will generally find something to complain about and b) people aren’t going to pay full whack for something when they can get the same thing for less or nothing at all. Because of this Four In A Bed consists mainly of long, bitter arguments about aspects of a hotel’s service – food, décor, bed linen, plumbing, etc – and because small business people tend to be quite negative anyway this makes for a thoroughly depressing viewing experience. It is like being locked in a room with the kind of people who write regular and one-star reviews on TripAdvisor.

Two other things about Four In A Bed that annoy me. In keeping with the creepy pre-Yewtree tradition of introducing risqué humour into absolutely everything, the show’s title functions as a double entendre even though the show itself is on in the daytime and has absolutely nothing to do with sex or sexuality. Also, there is a chirpy incidental music track that plays continuously and after awhile makes you feel like your brain is trickling out of your ears.

Extreme Couponing – This is a US import on a digital channel called ‘TLC’. It features low income couples and families who collect coupons from magazine flyers, local newspapers and elsewhere, enabling them to save money on goods and services. You have to understand that the thrift culture in America is a lot more advanced than it is here – in many supermarkets, there’s no limit to the number of coupons a customer can use: if you have enough coupons, you can walk in and buy thousands of dollars worth of groceries and drive away laughing, having paid only a few cents. Some Americans clip coupons obsessively, order coupons online from specialist coupon clipping services, and even dumpster dive for coupons. These are the ‘Extreme Couponers’.

The show focuses on one couple or family at a time. The extreme couponers are mainly working class people from obscure parts of the Midwest or the Deep South so the programme works as an exploration of post-recession rustbelt America in the style of George Packer’s The Unwinding. There is also a genuine drama that hooks you. Couponers spend ten or eleven hours filling trollies with groceries, enlisting various family members and friends, planning their supermarket trips like a military operation. (As the writer S J Bradley pointed out to me, there’s a tangible Cold War aspect to all this – shots of basements stocked with cans upon cans of preservable staples like some vast presidential bunker at the end of the world.) You can see why people get into extreme couponing. You can feel the buzz when they get to the till, leading a supply train of loaded shopping trollies: the total goes up to maybe three or four figures, then ratchets back down to just a few dollars when the coupons are fed into the machine. Sometimes there are scary moments when the coupons for whatever reason don’t enter into the till’s calculation. Sometimes there are problems with the till itself, and a manager has to be called. You couldn’t do this in Britain – the risk of social embarrassment would be far too great – but Americans being Americans just work something out.

Another thing is that extreme couponers pronounce ‘coupon’ as ‘cuoupon’ (kyoo-pon). You have to say ‘cuoupon’ to be an extreme cuouponer. I don’t know why.

Gogglebox – A show that has broken out of the daytime TV ghetto and gone mainstream. I love it, except there are disturbing moments when I watch drunken hotel owners Steph and Dom and realise that this will be me and my partner in twenty years.


 ‘I think I saw the couponing programme somewhere in the 600s’

Classic Books: The Tommyknockers

January 24, 2015

thetommyknockersMany people I follow on Twitter are Cold War and espionage nuts, which means that I sometimes see interesting things in my timeline I wouldn’t otherwise. One of these is an article from Vice about the history of the nuclear submarine: the writer, Michael Byrne, describes the atom sub as the underwater equivalent of a space station, able to float the depths for decades without refuelling, a hidden biosphere with a lethal capacity – and he uses a gorgeous and chilling phrase, ‘The haunt at the end of everything.’

The Cold War always had a spectral and horror genre element. The idea of large tracts of the planet being vaporised in ten seconds is, of course, pretty scary without even introducing a supernatural element into the process. Read Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, his hard-factual history of nuclear weapons, to understand how close we came. Schlosser writes with sympathy and humanity about the men and women who build and maintain these fearful machines, and conveys a marvellous sense of the contradiction inherent in our relationship with the bomb: nuclear weapons are extremely sensitive and complex to handle, the slightest miscalculation can be cataclysmic, and yet even the best of us make mistakes – ‘the mixture of human fallibility and technological complexity that can lead to disaster.’ Human error is natural, but with nukes, human error can cost millions of lives. (‘Ah, shit, there goes Gloucestershire. Sorry, boss.’) The relationship with technology becomes a dance of careful terrors.

But still there is an otherworldly element to the terror. Douglas Coupland’s Life After God features a section called ‘The Dead Speak’, where people who have died in a nuclear war talk of their last moments on earth: ‘The game show playing on the countertop TV then suddenly stopped and the screen displayed color bars with a piercing tone and then for maybe a second there was a TV news anchorman with a map of Iceland on the screen behind him. I said ‘hello’ into the phone, but it went silent and then the flash hit.’ Most postapocalyptic novels and series contain in the backdrop some kind of nuclear catastrophe. The Cold War seems retro these days – and maybe it shouldn’t: nuclear weapons still exist, imagine if ISIS got hold of one of these things, or if the Kouachi brothers had armed themselves with a neutron bomb? – but the retro adds to the fear. Comic books behind glass with strange eyeless things emerging from Quonset huts in waves of hollow unearthly light. Nukes are eerie. Even Don de Lillo’s highbrow Underworld has children turned into monsters and a feeling of unreality beneath the surface of things.

Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers was published in 1987, at the tail end of the official nuclear age. It also came from the peak thrash of King’s alcohol and drug addiction: in On Writing, King says the novel was written late at night, ‘with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.’ Maybe King’s febrile state explains his choice of protagonist: while King heroes are always a little flawed, Tommyknockers protagonist Jim Gardener is a natural and unrepentant train wreck of a man, an alcoholic poet who has lost his job as a college professor after shooting his wife while drunk. In his poverty and desperation, Gardener becomes obsessed with nuclear power, ranting about the dangers of the Bomb whenever he gets a chance. He knows that ‘what he was really protesting against was the reactor in his own heart… There was some technician inside who should have long since been fired.’ But the knowledge doesn’t help him.

We meet Gardener when he is doing a performance tour with something called ‘The New England Poetry Caravan’, a series of readings to Hampshire lay appreciators run by a mean-spirited arts administrator looking for a reason to drop Gardener from the programme. Although Gardener drinks and brawls throughout the tour, the readings go well: at his last performance men give him a standing ovation with tears in their eyes. Things go wrong for good, however, when he attends a post-reading faculty party at the home of a senior academic.

I love this scene, because it shows us King’s gift for comedy – not just the black farce outlined above, but in more subtle ways about the poetry scene. This is King on the beginning of the party:

There was a large buffet for which most of the poets made a beeline, reliably following Gardener’s First Rule of Touring Poets: If it’s gratis, grab it. As he watched, Ann Delaney, who wrote spare, haunting poems about rural working-class New England, stretched her jaws wide and ripped into the huge sandwich she was holding. Mayonnaise the color and texture of bull semen squirted between her fingers, and Ann licked it off her hand nonchalantly. She tipped Gardener a wink. To her left, last year’s winner of Boston University’s Hawthorne Prize (for his long poem Harbor Dreams 1650-1980) was cramming green olives into his mouth with blurry speed. This fellow, Jon Evard Symington by name, paused long enough to drop a handful of wrapped mini-wheels of Bonbel cheese into each pocket of his corduroy sport-coat (patched elbows, naturally) and then went back to the olives.

The comedy turns black, however, when Gardener encounters a braying, ignorant nuclear plant exec – ‘Ted the Power Man’ – and the inevitable drunken debate ensues. In a beautifully sustained chapter, Gardener knocks down the Power Man’s contentions, listing the fuckups, the lies, the projections, the death rates, the diseases, the cancer stats, the contaminated water – intellectually, he wins every argument, but grows more and more aggressive in his tone and phrasing, so in love with his obsession and the darkness that propels it, that the senior academic throws him out: or tries to – Gardener elbows the academic in his immense belly, causing a fatal heart attack, then chases Ted the Power Man down the hall with an umbrella.

After an eight day blackout, Gardener awakes on the Arcadia breakwater with no money and a suicidal depression. One thing defers his self-slaughter: an intuition that his old friend, Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Anderson, is in trouble. Bobbi is Gardener’s old student, lover and friend, and is sane in every way Gardener isn’t. She lives a peaceful life in a rural Maine town and is a successful writer of Westerns. But when Gardener arrives in Bobbi’s farmhouse in remote Haven, something spooky has occurred. Bobbi has gone on a frenetic technological jag, building things that couldn’t possibly exist: flying tractors, a water heater that runs off batteries, a typewriter that runs off telepathy. This strange power comes from a UFO buried in the earth, indifferent and colossal, the aliens long dead, but its weird radiation oxidising into the atmosphere, generating a mad creativity in its radius. In it Gardener sees an alternative to the nuclear curse: the ‘pill to take the place of gasoline.’ Enthusiastically he helps Bobbi dig up the ship, and as they uncover more and more of its surface, its force gradually turns the township into demons – the Tommyknockers of the title.

King is great on small communities that go badly wrong and has huge fun with Haven: suddenly gifted with telekinetic powers and mind-shattering ideas, the residents of this obscure village go crazy, converting old household appliances and childhood toys into gadgets that tear holes in the universe. Smoke alarms shoot lasers, machine parts levitate by remote control, and a murderous Coke machine guards Haven’s borders. There are also physical changes: people’s teeth fall out, their bodies become translucent, blood turns green. The Tommyknockers are a villainous species, authoritarian and conformist, yet quarrelsome to the point of ridiculous. ‘We squabble!’ Bobbi tells Gard. ‘Le mot juste!’ Gardener realises their evil – and his enabling of it – almost too late:

We squabble. Every now and then we even tussle a bit. We’re grownups – I guess – but we still have bad tempers, like kids do, and we also still like to have fun, like kids do, so we satisfied both wants by building all these nifty nuclear slingshots, and every now and then we leave a few around for people to pick up, and do you know what? They always do. People like Ted, who are perfectly willing to kill so no woman in Braintree with the wherewithal to buy one shall want for electricity to run her hair-dryer. People like you, Gard, who see only minimal drawbacks to the idea of killing for peace.

It would be such a dull world without guns and squabbles, wouldn’t it?

The Tommyknockers is not a well liked book – James Smythe, in his Rereading Stephen King series, says that ‘it reads like one long, cocaine-fuelled late-night paranoia fantasy’ – but it’s one that I always return to. The science is a mess, but has its own compulsive logic within the mess. King is realistic about space exploration: his Tommyknockers have the power of teleportation, have the power to create portals ‘that actually seem to go somewhere. But in almost all cases, it isn’t anywhere anyone would want to go.’ The book is genuinely scary (‘They got the door shut before Shatterday, but a lot of people cooked when the orbit changed’) and has a truly action packed ending, with Gardener racing to the ship through a burning forest while a variety of mutants and bizarre gadgets try in vain to stop him. And I think it ages better than any other King. As he says in his intro:

Haven is not real. The characters are not real. This is a work of fiction, with one exception:

The Tommyknockers are real.

If you think I’m kidding, you missed the nightly news.

You Can’t Go Back: Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings

January 11, 2015

theinterestingsSomewhere in Meg Wolitzer’s 468-page novel is buried a beautiful short story, maybe a novella. Jules Jacobson came of age in the summer of 1974 at a youth camp called ‘Spirit-in-the-Woods’. The camp of Jules’s young day was a magical place where she discovered her stage talent, and other kinds of ordinary magic about love, sex and friendship. Four decades later, Jules is in her early fifties, a therapist, a New Yorker, happily married but struggling, and in terms of worldly success eclipsed by most of her old friends with whom she played at Spirit-in-the-Woods. Then: news comes from the camp. The Woods owners need a couple to live on site and run the place. Jules and her husband Dennis jump at the chance, quit their jobs and move to the New England camp site. ‘Here, in this green and golden world, among mountains and paths and trees, Jules and Dennis would venture out together. In the woods, she would be spirited again.’

The camp is as popular as ever with artistic young people from all over the US travelling to take part in its activities. But Jules finds herself bogged down in administration, food deliveries, animal maintenance, camp newsletters, medical cover – all the little details of life that get in the way of the magic. The couple argue, and Dennis says:

You wanted to come back here… but it turned out to be hard work. And none of you ever really had to work when you were here. Everything was fun. And you know why? Because what was so great about this place wasn’t this place…. you were lucky you got to come here when you did. But what was most exciting about it when you were here was the fact that you were young. That was the best part.

Jules finally understands the problem: you cannot go back. Contra the old man’s lament, it’s not that the world was a better place when you were young: the world was a better place because you were young. Jules and Dennis quit, turning down a five-year contract to run the camp. But these lessons are not for Jules alone: ‘Apparently other Spirit-in-the-Woods alumni were eager for a chance at this job; many people wanted a way to return here.’

As I’ve said, I think Wolitzer’s mistake was to take this amazing little story and telescope it into a friendship saga that doesn’t quite justify its length. The narrative begins in 1974, when Nixon resigned the Presidency – heavily referenced in the book, a momentous and kind of magical event in itself (the day he left the White House, one staffer told Woodward and Bernstein, people started drinking in mid afternoon: ‘it was like the last day of college, or an Irish wake.’) In this summer the characters meet in the teepees of Spirit-In-The-Woods: Jules herself, aspiring actor Ash Wolf, her handsome rebel brother Goodman, geek animator Ethan. All are convinced they are headed for the creative big time: obviously, it doesn’t work out quite like that, and the story follows their compromises, disappointments and reversals.

Some of this is fascinating. Ethan, the one great success of the group, gets rich from TV cartoons but his wealth does little for him. He comes off as a brittle, preoccupied soul, still in love with Jules (who rejected him in 1974) and as impatient with his autistic son (who doesn’t seem that autistic) as his own father was with the awkward and isolative child version of Ethan. Goodman Wolf flees a rape charge, surfaces in Reykjavik and has to be subsidised, on and off, for the rest of his life: when Jules meets him again, ‘He held himself as though he was still handsome, though his handsomeness was entirely gone from him.’ Another character, Jonah the musician, is drugged and abused by an older rocker who steals many of his songs, and Jonah himself ends up in the Moonies.

Life in its beauty offers many and multiform ways of fucking up. ‘I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups,’ said Aaron Sorkin, at his Sycaruse commencement address, ‘but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya.  It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.’ But in The Interestings, what is holding these screw ups together? Very little. The dialogue is a long mannered snark (apart from, I have to say, a fantastic Virginia Woolf joke: ‘Are those rocks in your pockets, or are you pleased to see me?’ which actually made me laugh out loud). Also, Wolitzer’s sense of the passage of time, her establishment of an age and a place, lacks something: she sets a 1980s setting with the line ‘the Ms. Pac-Man machine was a regular destination in the back of Crumley’s’ – which reminded me of that brilliant line in the Simpsons flashback episode, ‘This story begins in the unforgettable spring of 1983. Ms. Pac-Man struck a blow for women’s rights’ – a marvellous takedown of lazy exposition. The central theme – some people do better than others, potential is hard to fulfil, envy and disappointment results – is nothing we haven’t heard before.

Wolitzer doesn’t quite trust her characters to spark off each other, and as I say, she could have written a great short story, but wanted to write an epic novel, and the result is a book that’s interesting, but not much more.


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