For a certain kind of reader Michelle Tea’s Black Wave will be a very easy book to slip into. It takes place in a basement world you know or at least have dreamed of: long, drunken nights in soul kitchens and dive bars, laughter and beauty and familiar faces, the music and the feels. And you know the negatives, too: physical and psychic hangovers, strange mood swings, crying jags, and hours spent dodging sunlight and clinging to the walls. The glorious fractured world of the San Francisco bar scene is scaled up into the end times. Animals and plants die out, and are replaced by ornery adaptive species that thrive in the city’s broken streets. You find you can’t get identity documents, then that you can’t get basic staples. Rumours of environmental catastrophe do the rounds. Even this feels comforting in a strange way. For isn’t there a comfort in the apocalypse – isn’t that why so many people do apocalypse novels? Doesn’t part of you love the idea of all that space and free goods in a collapsed civilisation?
The plot is not that complicated. Protagonist Michelle is a downheels novelist who by day works in a bookshop and by night goes out, cops off with other women, and ingests drugs and alcohol in legendary volumes. The fundamental insecurity that most hedonists come to know takes hold of her, and she decides to flee 1990s Frisco for Los Angeles and a new start. As Olivia Laing writes, Michelle is simply ‘doing a geographical’ – and she arrives in LA with her old habits and old demons intact. She gets a job in another bookshop and goes back to her drinking – alone this time, in health-conscious Los Angeles. The world rolls on towards disaster with suicidal pile-ups on the freeways, and drug addicts stealing books from Michelle’s store. Michelle deals with the apocalypse by getting sober and banging actor Matt Dillon during slow days at work.
Black Tea is a postmodern novel, but it’s a exuberant and honest postmodernism far outside the confined academic version of that philosophy. Between the Mission and LA Tea’s narrative splinters in time. We see Michelle of the 2010s, writing about her druggy breakdown from the safety of sobriety and middle age. ‘For the crack narrative to succeed, the character has to be starting out on top, with a place to fall from,’ Michelle writes. ‘Crack wouldn’t work for Michelle’s character. She’s already sort of a loser’. She considers making the Michelle character male. ‘As a straight, male, middle-class man could she now shoot heroin and go on a literary crack bender?’
It’s an interesting point. Hedonism in literature was a club for men only. A male writer getting hammered and making a jackass of himself looks like Charles Bukowski, or thinks he does. A woman writer getting drunk just looks like a drunk. The hedonistic frontiersmen of American letters – Mailer, HST, Burroughs – seem terribly old fashioned now. In a famous hatchet job on John Updike, David Foster Wallace criticised the ‘Great Male Narcissist’ and his roster of author surrogates: ‘They are also always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone.’
DFW was writing in the late nineties but the drunken writer alpha males still provoke sensitivity, perhaps envy. Stephen King satirised the GMN writers in his novels, so did Scottish author John Niven. As late as 2016 a minor controversy broke out when John Banville confessed that ‘I was not a good father. I don’t think any writer is.’ That provoked a howling article from novelist Julian Gough, who complained that ‘the message that John Banville sent in that interview, and in that quote in particular, will damage young male writers, if they act on it; damage their lives, their kids, and their art.’ He talks at length about his own irresponsible past, and later redemption, and stresses that ‘if you’re a young male writer reading this: you do not have to choose between family and work. You need both. They feed each other.’ Or, er, you could just not have kids. It’s a free country.
We have wandered quite a way from the path, but I think Black Wave does have a lot to offer about representations of women and hedonism (only Lena Dunham and Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals has really gone there) as well as fantastic, seamless passages on the hedonism itself: the friendships, the accidents and compliments, the long drunken conversations, the flyer scrapbooks, the ash, the smell, the tastes and crazy lusts. A messy scene, but the prose is discplined, with bang-on insights into sex, race, class and the human condition. It’s an emotive, sensual romp, a fractured narrative of a fractured mind. In Black Wave there is always the possibility of other lives, other choices and other histories. The world doesn’t have to be ending.
Towards the end of the book Tea introduces a curious device: people start having plague dreams, but they don’t dream about the plague, they dream of love and happiness. People withdraw from the world altogether, to spend their last days asleep. Dating websites spring up to match each dreamer with their soulmate in life. Michelle herself doesn’t do this. By now she has a clear head, and wants to tilt her face towards the sun. Redemption in life, when it comes, isn’t a flash of lightning. Sometimes, the moments that change us are quieter. When Michelle’s getting wrecked in the Mission, she holds that ‘Nights she fell asleep before the sun came up were good nights. It meant that her life was under control.’ In the end, she ‘shed a tear for the sun, the poor demonized sun the humans had run from when it only wanted to shine and bring warmth, she hoped there was another people somewhere feeling its happy glow.’
Europe in Winter begins with a journey on a fairly exclusive train. The TransEurope railway – known simply as ‘the Line’ – runs from Paris to the Russian steppe. There are queues, security checks, and you even have to obtain citizenship to get on the train. Only the wealthy and connected can really afford to cross a continent in such style. Kenneth and Amanda Pennington are the gentle rich: polite, professional, stylish and self deprecating. On seeing that Amanda is expecting a baby, the Line staff allow this handsome couple to bypass the queues, and upgrade their accommodation to a stateroom. A couple of days in, the train enters a tunnel through the Urals mountains. Kenneth and Amanda get up, in the middle of the night, and walk along a corridor. After an emotional moment, Amanda triggers a device on her body – a device she has told Line security is a foetal heart monitor. It isn’t though. Kaboom. End of tunnel.
In Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe trilogy, there are many scenes like this – visceral and perfectly paced, with a genuine bombshell at the end. His three books are set in a future continent that has long broken down into random squabbling city-states, republics, micronations, tendencies and tribes. Schengen is a distant memory, but migration control – that white whale for present day politicians – remains rickety as ever. Hutchinson’s protagonist, the drifter chef Rudi, is inducted into the Coureurs, a transnational smuggling organisation set up to move things and people across a shifting panoply of borders, fencing, straits and wall.
This is quite complex enough but midway through the series, Hutchinson introduces a new border still – the dream country of the Community, built by nineteenth-century scientists and occupying a kind of splinter universe. In this final book – and it feels like a finale – Hutchinson moves his cosmic goalposts still wider: bringing in an underground virtual mapping centre that runs seamless simulations of countless possible Europes. It’s a testament to how deftly his books are plotted and written, that the reader never feels bombarded by ideas – there’s no contrived twists, no intrusive passages of unlikely exposition. The feel is fantastic yet incredibly down to earth, an atmosphere of hard work and pragmatism, the enjoyment of food and drink and companionship in a cold world. Hutchinson fills his world with all kinds of little gadgets, concepts and espionage rituals but they feel unobtrusive, like things waiting quietly to be invented. It has you groping for old quotes about the persistence of magic.
Critics rave that this or that book is an ‘underground classic’ – almost none are right. From an indie publisher and with few critical notices, I’m convinced nevertheless that Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series will be read and enjoyed and puzzled over for generations to come. For these books are not just good espionage or good SF. They are about passion, representations of ourselves, the illusions we call nations and peoples as we muddle through this confusing life of ours. A senior Coureur tells Rudi that ‘Europe is inherently unstable. It’s been in flux for centuries; countries have risen and fallen, borders have ebbed and flowed, governments have come and gone. The Schengen era was just a historical blip, an affectation.’ The Europe series has a feel of a story you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to understand.
There’s a moment in the documentary film Weiner, which accompanies hapless politician Anthony Weiner as he runs for mayor of New York. Weiner had to resign from Congress in 2011 after he had been caught sending intimate photographs of himself to a Twitter follower. At first the 2013 mayoral race feels like a fresh start. Weiner has restored his marriage, he has a new baby, and recent good press, he is a smart man, a good communicator: he develops rapport with the electorate easily, and New Yorkers seem to forgive his old indiscretions. But his campaign falters when it is revealed that Weiner has sent similar explicit messages to another woman (using the alias ‘Carlos Danger’) as late as April 2013. The candidate battles on despite mounting derision, hostility, disastrous public appearances and even Weiner’s internet flirt contact trying to ambush him at the count. At one point Weiner is filming a campaign promo in their apartment, while his wife, the political strategist Huma Abedin, sits on the balcony, in casual clothes, munching on a pizza slice. Off screen, someone asks if she’s appearing in the promo. Abedin barks: ‘Do I look camera ready?’
For all the talk of post feminism, it can feel like a woman’s most important function in politics is to stand by. Hillary Clinton – a woman who came within inches of leading the free world – famously ‘stood by’ her husband, during the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent attempt impeachment. It used to be, in this country, after some dope was caught rifling his parliamentary researcher, there would be a very awkward photoshoot featuring the politician in question surrounded by his nervous, edgy-looking wife and children, in a display of choreographed fealty. The parodist Craig Brown, in his brilliant epistolary comedy The Hounding of John Thomas, features a gentleman’s club made up exclusively of former parliamentarians, disgraced by offences public and private – and the club has its own spin-off, the ‘Standing-Bys’ which consists of wives who have agreed to stand by their men. If the wife of a serving politician seeks a divorce – it still feels like a shock. What the makers of Weiner had captured, in that shot of Abedin, was a real human moment – when the façade slips for just a moment, and you can see the exhaustion and the exasperation and the fury.
Set against real life scandals, the premise of The Good Wife seems rather tame. We first meet Alicia Florrick at a press conference, ‘standing by’ her husband Peter, the Chicago State’s Attorney. Peter has had to resign after a tape surfaces of him banging a callgirl: serious corruption charges follow. With Peter stuck in prison on a ten year sentence, Alicia must re enter the world of work after thirteen years as a full time suburban housewife and mother. She joins a city law firm and is soon sucked into the cutthroat world of Illinois politics, crime and law. Meanwhile, Peter gets his conviction overturned and is soon back in the political game, rising to become state governor. Alicia has to balance her own ambitions, desires and selfhood against Peter’s career and her teenage children.
It sounds tepid when I write it down, but the show is addictive, not least because of how deftly Alicia’s character is written and acted. Alicia agonises over the moral course of action in a compromised world, but never comes off as a prig or a goody goody. She’s someone who naturally plays by the rules, but she demonstrates wit, desire, independence, a fierce intelligence, eloquence and – particularly when her children are threatened – a cold and penetrating fury. Her marriage never really recovers from Peter’s infidelities, but because it’s a political marriage, she must continue to stand by her husband, in public at least – while in private, Alicia pursues her own affairs and independence: her true relationship with Peter encompasses affection, contempt, separation, shared memories and a terse détente.
Two amazing Alicia moments come to mind. At one point, she is at an official dinner with her husband, and a camera crew. The discussion turns to religion. After Peter spiels out the expected platitudes, Alicia is asked her opinion. She turns to the camera, gives a delicious smile, and says sweetly: ‘I’m an atheist.’
Later, she’s on a campaign bus during Peter’s doomed presidential bid. Leaning on a village shopfront, dog-tired and in wraparound sunglasses, she confesses to the campaign manager a moment of regret:
I think if I could go back to Georgetown right now, back in Law 101, seat 35L – that was my seat – I would have said yes… there was a young man in love with me.
These are off script moments in a partnership that is, in significant part, carefully spun. The Good Wife avoids the cliché of the evil spin doctor and instead gives us Eli Gold, a master political PR man who nevertheless has a great deal of warmth, humour and morality (and is consistently outfoxed by his millennial hipster daughter). Yet even Eli – played by the marvellous Alan Cumming – ends up trying to use his skills in places they don’t quite belong. Alicia’s adolescent children handle the public eye with more fortitude. But again there’s a sense that women are there only to stand by in the public eye – even in Obama’s America. Liberal grandee Diane Lockhart is constantly let down by the blueblood Democratic establishment: first, she loses a potential judgeship, then a Supreme Court nomination. Alicia’s own bid for political office is shot down after the Democratic machine realises that Alicia means it when she says she will speak truth to power.
The Good Wife is a crime show in its way and it strikes me that even in the best crime shows women tend to be somewhat sidelined – Carmela Soprano stood by Tony despite his crimes, and Skyler White became a hate figure for Breaking Bad fans precisely because she could see through Walt and challenge him, and because she insisted on taking an active role in his business. Political marriages in real life seem ultimately linked to criminal justice. Bill Clinton ran on a tough-on-crime programme, expanded the prison estate, ramped up the drug war, endorsed three-strike laws and created new capital offences. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s study of mass incarceration – particularly of African-Americans – Alexander writes that ‘Clinton – more than any other president – created the current racial undercaste.’ It’s all too possible that some of the people locked up under the Bill Clinton administration would have voted for Hillary in 2016, had they not been executed, incarcerated or otherwise deprived of their ballot rights under felony voting laws.
As Padraig Reidy points out, 2016 has been a year not for partnerships or marriage but for a certain kind of aggressive toxic masculinity. The winners at the end of history turn out to be Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Nigel Farage – ‘the movement of the golf-club revolutionary, the simultaneously triumphant and self-pitying, the irrational and trite dressed up as ‘common sense’.’ 1970s feminists said that the personal was political. In the future the political may well become personal – more personal than any of us would like.
I was sorry to hear that author Jenny Colgan has deactivated her Twitter after a row caused by her review of writer and Bake Off star Nadiya Hussain’s debut novel. I don’t think she meant to cause offence by writing it. It’s rare that the Guardian books pages become a talking point as they often tend to be anodyne and unmemorable, so I think it’s good that she published the review to an extent.
However, in this para, I think Colgan gets a few things wrong.
It’s hardly a new phenomenon, celebrities turning up out of the blue with novels what they have most definitely wrote. Maybe it’s particularly upsetting me this time because I’m a fan. Hussain is just so brimful of talent; of happiness and grace and skill. From a traditional Muslim background, she grew up in Luton and ended up being universally loved and baking for the Queen. Does she really need to put her name to a novel, too, when there’s only so much shelf space to go around?
This last line sums up the piece. Publishing for Jenny Colgan is zero sum. She explicitly says it: ‘Books are a zero sum game. If you’re reading one, you can’t be reading another.’ The point Colgan wants to make is that in this zero sum publishing world, publishers should not be using their limited resources to publish novels by celebrities like Nadiya Hussain – however much Colgan personally admires her. They should instead direct what they have into promoting new authors and literary fiction.
But publishers spend enormous amounts of money publishing books of no literary merit at all. For example, most of the better known Bake Off people have published cookbooks. All of these books take up time and resources in printing, binding, distribution and promotion. Publishers also of course produce crap celebrity biographies and crap supermarket genre fiction, as well as ordinance maps, histories of railways and lots of other stuff that adds nothing to English letters in any way. Surely that money also could have been spent on Colgan’s hypothetical bookworm or on struggling libraries. Why begin the fight with Hussain?
One implication in the above quoted para is that Hussain, having excelled in one field, should jolly well stick to it. But most creative people have had other jobs at some point. How dare Mr Eliot, who has banking to fall back upon, try and dominate the poetry scene. Couldn’t Agatha Christie have stuck to helping out at archaeological digs? Wasn’t Camus neglecting his college football team?
The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a family saga and from reading Colgan’s piece I still have no idea whether the novel is any good. But Hussain could have written the next Anna Karenina and she would have still struggled a great deal to get a book contract. Recently there was a brilliant piece by Andrew Dickson in the NS on BAME brain drain. Talented actors from ethnic minorities like Cush Jumbo and Archie Panjabi (the phenomenal Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife) leave the UK because they know they have no chance of progressing their careers in the white, nostalgia-driven British TV world.
Publishing has a similar problem and publishers know this. A British Otessa Moshfegh or Colson Whitehead would have little chance of getting published here. YA author Alex Wheatle told the Guardian that he had switched from literary fiction because ‘I felt like I was this token black writer who writes about ghetto stuff… My books are seen as only for a black demographic’. He also said: ‘I didn’t go to university or on a fancy writers’ course, and so I think the respect is grudging – ‘Oh he is just serving his community.’’
As I have said publishing is aware that they have a diversity problem and I don’t doubt they are trying to fix this – although so much of the visible groundwork is coming from relative outsiders like Nikesh Shukla and Comma Press. But even in Colgan’s review – and I am sure that this is not deliberate – there is a sense of: haven’t we already ticked this box? She writes: ‘If you want to read warm-hearted sagas about second-generation immigration, Meera Syal is a wonderful novelist.’
Times are tough for career authors and no doubt publishers could and should do more. I know I sound like Lena Dunham at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I do this argument – ‘why are we being so judgy about popular fiction?’ – but I weary of the complaints about popular novels with big advances. The complainers make good points about the neglect of new fiction, lack of diversity etc but they never seem to address these problems in a meaningful way – they just complain about whichever individual author has got the latest big advance. I also think there are many mediocre novelists in the UK who think the world owes them a living.
At the end of the day I don’t think publishing is a zero sum game. The Bake Off tent is big enough. As Tony Soprano once said: there’s enough success out there for everybody.
Update: Bibliodaze has a good take on this.
…and whenever I see some curmudgeon at the club cursing at the labour of cutting open his Times and then complaining that there’s no news in the dam’ thing, I think, aye, you should see what goes to the making of these paragraphs that you take for granted, my boy.
– George MacDonald Fraser
Flashman and the Tiger
I’ve known a few good hacks, local and national. In the early 2010s nearly every serious journalist I knew was worried about Leveson. Isn’t it great though, I’d say to them, that the horrible reactionary press conglomerates are finally being scrutinised as well?
‘Not really,’ reporters and free speech campaigners would tell me. ‘Obviously we accept that the big newspapers have done some terrible things, but the basis of this particular inquiry could open the door to statutory press regulation and we are afraid of the repercussions for free expression in this country.’
‘Er…’ I countered, ‘but, like, what about the Daily Mail, eh?’
What I didn’t realise back then – one of many things – was how toxic the relationship between the press and the public would become over this last decade. People don’t think Leveson and Section 40 affects them, because the general public thinks of journalism as an elite profession that is totally closed off to most people.
There is truth in that – getting into the media is very very difficult – but I don’t think we realise how insecure a trade reportage has become. The internet has had an obvious impact on income generation: redundancies are common, and many experienced reporters are leaving the profession, either to teach college journalism or retrain for something entirely different.
All of which is to say that I think public perception of journalists has a little to do with what the Tories used to call ‘the politics of envy’. From the outside, looking in, it can seem like journalism is one long round of expensive lunches and Soho bar crawls. Maybe if you are at the top of the game, it is a bit like that – but in my experience, being a journalist more often means chasing invoices, crap rental accommodation, and live-tweeting council scrutiny meetings at ten in the evening.
Newspapering is a shaky trade – and a measure going through Parliament will make it shakier still. If and when the Crime and Courts Act Section 40 is implemented, it will impose legal costs on any unregulated outlet in the event of a libel claim – regardless of what happens in court. And when I say ‘unregulated’ I mean not regulated by the official Impress regulatory body.
Reporters have fun with Impress because it is, as the Mail says, ‘a regulator with nothing much to regulate’ – only a few dozen outlets have joined, most of them marginal websites or local newspapers (at least one of which has subsequently gone under because it is so difficult to generate sustainable income as a local newspaper). A censor without writers, Impress appears now to be in the bizarre position of bombarding larger outlets with appeals to let it regulate them. Ben Cohen – who runs the first rate London LGBTQ site Pink News – told the Mail that he’d had numerous cold calls and emails from Impress. But Cohen wasn’t keen to sign up:
We have a lot of vexatious complaints from people who don’t like our content, often because they are homophobic […]
They have an issue with the fact that gay people have a place in society and are protected by law. We are the voice of that community.
In the case of this potential Section 40 regulation, if these people were to bring a case against us and we won, we would still have to pay their costs — a ridiculous situation.
The reason we don’t want to go down the official regulation route is that it would give an avenue and encouragement for those kind of people to waste our time and money.
Cohen taps into a curious aspect of English tradition. After duelling was outlawed, the courts became a gentleman’s recourse when his reputation was threatened. Perhaps the most extreme example of this tendency is Sir William Gordon-Cumming who in 1891 sued five people who claimed that Gordon-Cumming had cheated in a baccarat game at a royal weekend in Tranby Croft. He lost his case and withdrew from public life.
Perhaps the ‘gentleman’s recourse’ tradition still remains. The campaign group 89up in their report on Leveson argued that the inquiry was flawed from the outset, because it was too influenced by wealthy gentlemen with reputations to defend.
Not one of the six assessors appointed by the Prime Minister to advise Lord Justice Leveson had any experience of popular newspapers, the publications that would face the inquiry’s most intense scrutiny. The inquiry devoted only one day to the study of local and regional newspapers, the interests of which are profoundly affected by its recommendations. Critics of the press were granted the privilege of core participant status. They included the actor Hugh Grant, who would front the Hacked Off Campaign, and the former Formula One president Max Mosley, whose demand for stricter privacy laws had already been rejected by the European Court of Human Rights.
In contrast, some of the UK’s leading freedom of expression organisations, English PEN and Index on Censorship were not granted core participant status. It is unclear why civil society bodies and non-governmental organisations that spent an extraordinary amount of time dedicated to national and international issues of free speech and media freedom were considered of less relevance than a wealthy and polarised litigant such as Max Mosley. It is arguable that this lack of input meant the report’s findings failed to acknowledge the importance of the right to freedom of expression.
If you’re not a gentleman, the libel courts are no fun at all. I know plenty of people who have been threatened with court action: not media elite journalists, but small time bloggers and authors. The threat itself is scary enough. Despite hard-won reforms, libel law in our country is perilous for defendants. If you threaten to sue someone for defamation, you are basically saying: I will take your house. I will bankrupt you. I stand a good chance of taking your job and destroying your marriage. All that you love, I will take away from you.
It’s a hell of a thing to say to anyone. Hacked Off will tell you, don’t worry: most people can’t afford to sue. But people are vexatious. There are individuals out there who will try and get you fired if they disagree with your opinion on something. People make phony complaints to public authorities, to bring official weight onto their side of a vendetta: considerable public time and money is wasted on these claims. And I am sure there are lawyers who would take up spurious defamation claims on a conditional fee basis. Ministers looking at Section 40 need to consider the life-altering impact of libel claims.
The losers in all this won’t be the Sun and the Mail, owned by wealthy gentlemen who have the money to pay libel costs. The people who will be made bankrupt, will be the small time liberal reporters and authors.
The relationship between the public and the press needs to be redefined, from the starting point that most journalists aren’t evil. Too often, consumers don’t see this. People will read any crazy alt-news site, from Russia Today to InfoWars, as long as it is against the ‘MSM’ – and that leads people to believe some extraordinary things. Media studies professor Gavan Titley recalled watching the fall of Aleppo and the slaughter of Syrian civilians that followed:
And, at the same time, witnessing Leftists I previously had plenty of time for dismissing every report of slaughter as propaganda, every image as fake, every source as embedded, every voice from Aleppo as compromised, and every external expression of helplessness or anguished humanity as the halo polishing of bourgeois moralism. For the sworn, realist enemies of postmodernism, there are simulacra to be found when you really want them.
As Titley also says: ‘systemic distrust of the western ‘MSM’ results in nothing more than displaced fidelity to its ‘alternative’, mirror image.’
One positive in all this is that, even though official journalism is so shaky, the principles of journalism are alive and well. Web news that succeeds, like BuzzFeed and the Daily Beast, have succeeded because they do proper journalism. They pay people for their work, they send people to far-flung countries to report on what’s happening. Ten years ago people thought blogging would supersede journalism entirely. It hasn’t because the best bloggers, became real full time journalists. There are things only journalism can do.
The enemies of a free society know this. 2016 was the year of alt media. Alt media arguably put Trump in the White House. Far right activists use the term ‘lugenpresse’ to describe mainstream journalists – Nazi propaganda, in the original German. While I’m sure Mr Trump wouldn’t go that far, he does admire UK libel law, and has a difficult relationship with the American press, which complicates Mr Trump’s public image by exposing the President-Elect’s misdeeds. Journalists are needed most in authoritarian societies.
A more positive British tradition is that, gentlemen or commoners, we’ve always felt free to speak our minds. It would be tragic if this aspect of our national character were to be chilled by authoritarian laws.
Popular musician Amanda Palmer has got into trouble for her optimism about the Trump presidency. The Guardian has her saying that ‘being an optimist … there is this part of me – especially having studied Weimar Germany extensively – I’m like, ‘This is our moment.’ Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again. We’re all going to crawl down staircases into basements and speakeasies and make amazing satirically political art.’
People have pointed out that things don’t look optimistic for women and minorities in America and basement art is unlikely to alleviate their problems. Zoe Stavri on Twitter said that ‘art didn’t stop the Nazis in Weimar Germany and punk didn’t stop the rise of neoliberalism’ and another tweeter imagined ‘Amanda Palmer at a funeral, comforting a grieving widow, gently whispering ‘but think about all the spoken word poetry you will write.”
It’s not just Palmer who sees global disaster as opportunity in some way. Emine Saner at the Guardian includes, in her ‘reasons to be cheerful’ list, that ‘the demo could go mainstream. It’s not just in the US – cities around the world will hold solidarity protests. Demonstrations will be held in the UK, including in London, Birmingham and Leeds.’ Hurrah! Hours of fun making placards, and then we can mill around Parliament Square until Boris scares us off with his second hand German water cannon.
And the late Christopher Hitchens said that when he saw the towers fall on 9/11, he had ‘a feeling of exhilaration. Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose.’ Disaster as exhilaration.
I see that all these viewpoints are objectionable in some way. People don’t need or want the opportunity to protest. People want to live their personal dramas without any disasters happening. And many people don’t want to be involved in politics at all.
So I understand the objections – that perception of disaster as an opportunity to make art and protests, has to come from a position of privilege and security.
I’ll be forever indebted to Amanda Palmer for writing The Art of Asking, an awesome book about reciprocality and the interconnectedness of people and things. It helped me a great deal on a psychological level and I suspect it may be one of the few books that can actually make you a better person.
That is not the main reason I defend her, though. I prefer a call of arms to the constant wailing and rending of garments about how bad a year 2016 was. If you’re a political liberal, sure, 2016 was bad. But many of us had good times, and others went through traumas of no real global relevance. It is in 2017 that I think things will start to get messy – Trump takes office in 2017, and in our own country I think the Brexit brain drain, volkisch ugliness and economic problems will start to make themselves felt. I fear it will be Weimar, without the burlesque.
And so I understand a little of what Hitchens said, about ‘a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate.’ One US election and a referendum vote don’t have the same worldwide significance as September 11 2001. But life will get harder, particularly if you have the wrong opinion or the wrong kind of visa papers. You can feel the alignments coalesce: authoritarianism, censoriousness and wilful stupidity ranged against everything that makes civilisation fun and free.
So, er, what can one do? One problem is that our idea of protest is so riddled with egocentrism and cognitive dissonance. It rests on assumptions derived from a long period of relative stability that may well be coming to a close. Privileged white people can spend all day RTing Russia Today columns and believe that they are making a positive difference to the world. The far left is just as culpable as the far right for the mess we are in.
Vasily Grossman said that history wasn’t a battle between good and evil but ‘a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.’ People can work through activist channels but (as a cautious defender of the art of asking) I think that random individual actions matter too. I met plenty of people last year who drove to Calais with donated food and goods. They didn’t do this because they were ‘virtue signalling’, they did it because that’s what human beings are wired up to do.
Kindness will survive authoritarianism. There are many things we can do. Support journalists, subscribe to real media, give up some of your time, write, read, argue, and listen twice as much as you talk.
I’m thinking of these wonderful paras from Missouri journalist Sarah Kendzior:
My heart breaks for the United States of America. It breaks for those who think they are my enemies as much as it does for my friends. You still have your freedom, so use it. There are many groups organizing for both resistance and subsistence, but we are heading into dark times, and you need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.
But most of all, never lose sight of who you are and what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing.
I heard a fantastic reading of this whole essay, by a speaker at the Hyde Park Book Club at their Open Letters night. It was a fine night and it made me feel hope. Not quite exhilaration, but some hope.
Eugenie Lund did not have a conventional childhood. Her mother dies after being buzz-bombed by a swarm of killer bees: Eugenia and her sister Camille are taken into the care of sinister Dr Vargas, who installs the children in a remote Maine forest house. Vargas keeps the girls under this rigid and isolated circumstance until they turn sixteen: the quack scientist drumbeats his own dogmas into the children, then shocks them with electric collars if they fail to repeat his syllogisms correctly. (The Doctor’s weak point is poker: the girls regularly beat him at the card game, earning library books as a grudging reward.) As Eugenie and Camille grow older, they develop a mystical kinship and powers, and plot to escape Vargas forever. The Doctor is a keen beekeeper, and the sisters manage to set another haze of killer bees upon him so that Vargas too dies.
I’m not giving anything away: this is just the first chapter, a mad prelude to the main story, which has Eugenia and her husband – an ex serviceman who calls himself ‘Venus Acid Boy’ – on the run out of Vegas from both sides of the law. Eugenie also wants to find Camille, who vanished into nothingness at the moment Vargas was killed. The couple take a hectic road trip across the continental US – and also across different realities.
Dodge and Burn is saturated with myths and legends. Buddhism, Jainism, Norse and Olmec mythology, stone circles, the Mothman, the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni – as Eugenie and Venus tour the free party and survivalist scenes, these legendary shadows accompany them and weave into the story. There’s no sense that these are New Age accoutrements or affectations: Eugenie and Camille use mythology as a comfort and refuge during their childhood, and to define themselves against the hack rationalist Dr Vargas – ‘this dark master imposed upon us a viciously circumscribed, authoritarian, dogmatic and anti-magical system – the mortal enemy of anyone committed to a magical universe in which all is spontaneous, unpredictable and alive.’
Maybe it’s significant that the prologue is narrated in the plural pronoun and we only get a straight first person narrative once Eugenie is an adult. Arguably, that’s what growing up is – a journey from the happy careless we to the lone and embattled I. Eugenie uses mythology to make sense of the world: she regards it as she regards the real-world characters and scenarios she comes across, with honest inquiry but no credulity and no sense that she’s trying to fill a void. Eugenie is a maenad who worships no god exclusively or at any cost. The references are On the Road but Madsen’s novel reminds me of a later classic work. The economy, the reliance on found texts made me think of Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands. Life may be death or a dream, but no less worth living for all that.
There is a marvellous passage where Eugenie discusses lucid dreaming – the state where you are asleep and dreaming but know it. ‘This act breaks the membrane between everyday reality and the dream world, enabling one to step into the dream territory completely aware that one is dreaming and embark on the next steps to gaining more understanding, power and knowledge of that world.’ That’s what Dodge and Burn feels like… a dangerously lucid dream, from which waking is difficult.
Publishing can move fast when the stakes are high. Just a few months after the terse, fractured summer of 2016, a tranche of shiny books appear commemorating the Brexit vote of June 23 – the culmination of what was the nastiest political campaign in my lifetime, probably the worst since the ‘nigger for a neighbour’ days of the 1960s. Now writers and analysts have begun to bang out lengthy titles in which they try to make sense of it all. Ian Dunt’s Brexit book is the only one I have read and I suspect it is the only such book anyone will need.
Dunt begins with a worst case scenario. He sketches out a possible future where Britain has fallen out of the European Union with no reputation, no trade deal, passport deal, single market access, or customs union. Dunt is a knowledgeable, thoughtful fellow, with an aptitude for stats and mechanisms, and Brexit true believers have an easy answer for his kind. Warnings from worried economists can be dismissed as ‘Project Fear’. Press the Brexiters further, and you’ll come away with the impression that trade agreements and all that stuff isn’t worth a piss in the wind.
‘For many Leave voters, money was less important than sovereignty,’ Dunt writes. After all, doesn’t globalisation hurt people, and diminish the intangible goods of life? What about tradition, patriotism, sense of place? ‘I would prefer not to be better off and have a country that didn’t go to 75 million,’ said Nigel Farage in 2015. ‘Some things matter more than money, and I think the shape of our communities and the sense of contentment living in the country matters more.’ It’s almost as if the anti globalist movement Farage leads has evolved beyond mere rational wants and into a higher plane of English spiritualism.
Neoliberalism has racked up plenty of casualties but in Farage’s critique isn’t there a certain complacent perspective: the perspective of a class and a generation that has never really known scarcity, that is a little too used to its own security and to things working as they should? Point is, the need for material things and functioning markets can’t just be wished away. How would we cope in Dunt’s nightmare scenario: lorries bottlenecked at entry ports, meat and fish rotting in warehouses, firms closing down, foodstuffs disappearing from the UK’s supermarkets and medicines from our pharmacies?
Dunt is the best writer on the complexities of the EU. With bold, sure strokes he cuts through the crap and actually explains something. Like so much else, Europe has become hyper politicised: ‘the failure to assess it as a working organisation rather than a demonic fantasy means the ministers in charge of Brexit are struggling to construct a credible negotiating strategy.’ We get a reasonable deal from the EU as it is: ‘a well-meaning but internally contradictory experiment in transnational political organisation.’
Negotiating such a deal after we’ve walked out will be difficult. We’ll be negotiating with the entire EU, and also with the WTO as failsafe. We will need crack negotiators in ‘difficult, very boring areas and the people who specialise in them tend to have done so for their entire career,’ Dunt writes. ‘You can’t just pluck a smart young thing from the civil service and train them in a few weeks. They’ll be eaten alive in negotiations.’ We will be running around like Apprentice candidates trying to sell junk prototypes to antique shops on the Portobello Road.
We could potentially make Brexit work, Dunt says. But on our current course, we will hit a ‘Project Fear’ type Brexit, because people in government have so little grasp on what they want and how to get it. Boris and Liam Fox are obviously ridiculous: Gove dashed his reputation as a serious conservative intellectual on the summer referendum. Far more disturbing is Dunt’s exposure of Theresa May. She’s seen as a safe pair of hands in tough times. Yet rather than keep Eurocrats on the back foot, trying to guess what we were going to do, May announced her Article 50 date ‘seemingly as an afterthought’ – and, with that, blew what little leverage she had. As Dunt says: ‘May’s decision to give away the date and then petition for talks outside Article 50 was equivalent to a gunman throwing down his weapon and demanding the enemy surrender.’
You get the feeling that the main Brexit figures aren’t motivated by rational self interest so much as a giggling nihilism. David Cameron famously said of Michael Gove that ‘he is basically a bit of a Maoist – he believes that the world makes progress through a process of creative destruction’. There’s a little far left revolutionary craziness there, also something like the weaponised attention seeking of the alt right – and it is, again I think, something that comes from long periods of prosperity and safety.
When I last wrote about Vote Leave, I quoted the classic Fitzgerald line, about Tom and Daisy Buchanan: ‘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.’ But maybe a less glamorous literary allusion fits better. Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel Lords and Ladies has a conservative rural community invaded by psychotic killer elves. The good witch Nanny Ogg finds that her cottage has been trashed and ruined by the invaders.
‘Why’d they do it?’ her companion asks.
‘Oh, they’d smash the world if they thought it’d make a pretty noise,’ Nanny says offhand.
For such a chilling book, Dunt ends with some positive thoughts. A good Brexit is possible, he says, but only if we revive ‘British values… calm debate, instinctive scepticism, practical judgement and moderation.’ Unfortunately, Dunt doesn’t need to add that these values have been abandoned in the process so far, and there is no sign of common sense returning.
Through Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower cycle is threaded a picaresque tale that begins when Father Callahan, failed priest and alcoholic, gets on a Greyhound coach leaving a doomed Maine town called Jerusalem’s Lot. Running from vampires, and also from his own failure, he crosses ‘a great, possibly endless, confluence of worlds. They are all America, but they are all different.’ The variants of America are small – there are different faces on the banknotes, different letterheads on the newspaper, and ‘maybe there’s another version of New Jersey where the town on the other side of the Hudson is Leeman or Leighman or Lee Bluffs or Lee Palisades or Leghorn village.’ And yet the thrill’s in the wandering: ‘There are highways which lead through all of them, and he can see them.’
It seems frivolous to compare Colson Whitehead‘s Underground Railroad with any supernatural novel. But despite the grim intro to his America, the plantation Georgia from the slave’s perspective, reeking with heat, sweat, whippings, rapes and executions, there is a similar sense of adventure, of possibilities and the luminous. Runaway slave Cora escapes from the vicious Randall homestead through what turns out to be a literal underground railroad: steam trains, running through a network of subterranean tunnels from one state to another. This surreal development in no way jars the reader following Whitehead’s terse narrative of indentured horrors: you just don’t see the join. As Alex Preston wrote: ‘And here is the spark that ignites the novel. For Whitehead has taken that historical metaphor – the network of abolitionists who helped ferry slaves out of the south – and made it into a glistening, steampunk reality.’ Whenever Cora asks who built the railroad, a laconic engineer replies: who builds everything in this country?
‘If you want to see what this nation is all about,’ rail agent Lumbly explains, ‘you have to ride the rails.’ Cora rides the rails all over the US, and finds in every state she visits, a new America, differing in gradations. South Carolina’s benign and orderly world, nominally liberal, conceals a frightening Edwardian eugenicism. Tennessee appears to be engulfed in yellow fever and a rampaging forest fire – caused, apparently, by a household spark, some casual carelessness decimating city-sized acreage. In the Indiana free zone, successful escapees debate the future of the race: Booker T Washington’s conservative incrementalism fights the revolutionary fire of du Bois. North Carolina has solved the ‘race problem’ by simply banning all persons of colour from its state, importing European migrants to do the gruntwork. Yet the North Carolinans are still morbidly afraid of black people, staging gallows and passion-plays in acts of propitiation to keep ‘the other’ away. As Lumbly also says, every state is different – but everywhere Cora visits is either a slave state, or vulnerable to slave-catchers and local racists. The contradiction in the founder myth – freedom, but not for you – is inescapable, the warp in the heart of the American dream.
Hot on Cora’s trail is the road agent Ridgeway, a swaggering Simon Legree of a slave-chaser, and perhaps the O’Brien of the antebellum South. He thinks himself a philosopher-king of predators, even employing a secretary (a man of colour) to notarise his thoughts. ‘Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours,’ Ridgeway believes. ‘Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.’ The story doesn’t let you go for a moment, and you are sorry when the book comes to an end.
One thing we learned this year is that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are fragile things. Underground Railroad has the feel of a nineteenth-century novel, but perhaps that’s not what Whitehead is getting at. Perhaps he is trying to give us a vision of our future.