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.

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 ‘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.

Been A Place

December 31, 2014

This story – a kind of LS6 fairytale – is in the December 2014 issue of Toasted Cheese.

It’s end of year, so here’s a quick catch up of other things you might have missed: at 3:AM, me on Russell Brand, and at Shiny, me on Howard Jacobson’s dystopian fiction and John Lahr’s phenomenal Tennessee Williams bio.

And if you’ve come this far, all the best for 2015.

Peace.

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The Story of You

December 21, 2014

youAmerican cop show The Shield introduces us to awkward Midwestern detective Dutch Wagenbach, tracking a serial killer through the LA badlands. Well meaning, but gangling and inept, Wagenbach represents the show’s moral centre. After numerous missteps and frustrations Wagenbach finally brings in a man who he is convinced is the murderer he has been chasing. This man, Sean, is a nondescript fellow in his thirties, who works at a car dealership and has no significant priors. Once in the box, Sean proceeds to use Dutch’s psychological insights against him: ‘You were a joke in uniform. That’s why you became a detective.’ He writes on the whiteboard: ‘Detective Wagenbach: Craves respect, fantasizes about being well-liked yet shows no outward manifestation of his low self-esteem, feels ignored, unappreciated, inadequate with women.’ All this is watched on the CCTV by Wagenbach’s fellow detectives, who laugh at the sight of Dutch ‘getting his ass handed to him by a civilian.’ But as the interrogation goes on, Dutch hits his suspect with more and more incontrovertible evidence, until Sean eventually breaks, and admits: ‘I killed 22 people, well, 23 if you want to count the hunting incident back in Rockford. Oh, I’m special, alright.’ It is a slam dunk. Dutch walks out of the box to cheers, backslaps, handshakes from his colleagues, even the corrupt Vic Mackey, his worst enemy. But when he gets to his car, he weeps, knowing everything the killer said was true.

I thought of that scene while reading Caroline Kepnes’s You. The narrator is Joe Goldberg, a clerk at an independent bookstore. Joe is bright, perceptive, articulate. He is also an obsessive sociopath and serial stalker. The you of the title is Guinevere Beck, an MFA student who makes the error of walking into Joe’s bookstore. From a chance conversation Joe attempts to consume her life. He hangs around her brownstone and hacks into her emails. He discovers that Beck is semi-involved with a connected fop named Benji, who he kidnaps and keeps in a basement cage for many days before killing him. To cover his tracks, Joe also hacks into Benji’s Twitter account, posting a series of tweets making him out to be a crack-addled degenerate. Next problem: Beck has a clingy and chaotic friend called Peach, apparently a distant cousin of J D Salinger. Peach takes up too much of Beck’s time, so Joe has to whack Peach as well, drowning her with pockets full of rocks in a Virginia Woolf-style sham suicide. Joe will do anything, endure everything for his dream girl, even putting himself through a NYE Charles Dickens themed boat ride.

All this is fun to read but the book stalls around the halfway mark. Maybe Kepnes wanted to write a modern version of The Collector, or perhaps a digital-age thriller along the lines of Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First. But the characters don’t carry it. Joe Goldberg is an uncompelling villain, chippy and resentful, the clever man who confuses cleverness with wisdom. His narration is characterised by a recurring, breathless run on sentence: ‘You touch me in the bad way, like you want me to stop and the Brown singers know the words to ‘My Sweet Lord’ and someone found a fucking tambourine and somewhere in my head I remember that George Harrison’s son went to Brown and I hate knowing that at this particular moment.’ The rhythm fits at times, but Kepnes uses it so often that it becomes infuriating. You’re locked inside this guy’s head, and it’s a dull place to be. Maybe that’s the point. The book might as well be called Me: like all obsessives, Joe is mostly obsessed with himself. But, as much as I dislike the idea that a story needs ‘someone to root for’ I just wanted Joe Goldberg to get sent to a glass box in Oz for the next eighty years.

The best thing about Guinevere Beck is her name. I mean, how could you not fall in love with the name Guinevere Beck? But again, Beck starts out being interesting and fun but soon loses appeal. Kepnes appears not to understand that if you come across a scene where you realise ‘Character X would never do that!’ then you rewrite that scene. As it is, poor Beck is forced through numerous implausible contortions. Kepnes is running on pure story, and around halfway through the book she runs out of story. Repeated references to Twitter and Instagram don’t in and of themselves make a novel interesting or relevant. Kepnes is obviously a huge talent. But this novel doesn’t display it.

Hit the Curb: Jones Jones’s Riot

December 7, 2014

Riot-by-Jones-JonesAccording to Neon magazine, Yorkshire author Jones Jones’s book Riot is ‘based very loosely on the London riots that happened several years ago’ but it’s hard to see this topicality in the book itself. This Salt title is told from the point of view of Mark Jones, an eighteen year old downtown college student jaded, fighting and fucking in recession-era Cardiff. This is a short, chapter-less piece of prose and it has some weaknesses of the rant – too many characters introduced at once, the characters aren’t distinct enough and it’s hard to tell whether one voice or many voices are speaking. Jones relies on the viscerality of his voice to get through.

And that’s the voice. ‘Viv shagged her against the side of her mam and dad’s house in Nant Glyn a few Saturdays ago after a night out down Royal’s. Even worse, first off he fingered her in front of fuck knows how many when they were still in the club.’ ‘We’re down the Maelor again and it kicks off with Jamie’s feet slapping the pavement down the Plas Gwyn road towards the corner by The Star.’ ‘Like the time I saw Jonni Rich drop Puddin down by Royal’s bridge, then kick his hands away so that Puddin’s head hit the curb. The dull thud of it. I spewed five pints’ worth. When the war cry goes up – fight, fight, fight – and every fucker swarms, I walk the other way feeling my stomach’s about to drop out my arse.’ People look down on working class writing partly because it’s so visceral like this. Blood, shit, semen, saliva, fresh deodorant, sugary high-strength bar shots, purple tins, cigarettes, MDMA, butane, ketamine, fresh meat, boiled vegetables – the smell of crappy FE colleges, zero-hours contracts and the kind of town that only has the very old and the very young. The Welsh language touches are nice – ‘And here comes the Welcome to England sign. We give it the twll din pob sais like we always do’ – but they also stand out because of the sense that this could be any town. Any kind of prison for the poor.

But Riot’s real subject is a familiar one for the millennial generation – hopelessness. The futility of sliding towards a world run by and for the ageing and dying, that needs new blood and young workers but for some reason chooses to let itself drown in an exclusionary irrelevance. Young people aren’t demonstrably less well behaved or less aspirational than they were twenty or fifty years ago – these days, whenever I meet people in the 18-25 age group, I’m always struck by how articulate and clued up they are – but the world has changed and there is less and less room for those coming up. Jones takes a summer job in a bottling factory and quits not because he can’t handle the work but because of the terror: ‘I’ll never leave Cardiff. Too scared to leave even if I get the chance. It’s ten times as bad as college in here. Because all this lot are men. Grown men. I thought as you got older, things changed. But there’s 30 year-old versions of Bottomly and Fergusson over there.’ When Jones’s father founds out that he has walked, the old man rages: ‘I’ve worked nearly 20 years in that shithole on the Plas Gwyn Road and I’ve probably got another 20 to go… Two minutes you’ve been there, lad. Two minutes. You make me bloody sick, you do.’

‘Breakdown in law and order, my arse. It’s just human nature. A small split second decision that means fuck all. Not some pre-meditated attack upon the establishment or the moral fibre of modern day Britain.’ That’s the only passage in Riot that addresses the 2011 riots directly. The youth boredom explanation for these eruptions was always facile – no one ever rioted for want of a ping pong table. But as Irvine Welsh said (and Jones shows) in economic hard times, when you get large numbers of ‘people who were basically stuck in a house with nothing to do all day long’ – then a powderkeg inevitably builds.

Soldiers of the Internet

December 1, 2014

newsofdevilsThe author Jeremy Duns is probably best known for his internet profile. From his Twitter account he relentlessly scrutinises issues of espionage, truth and national security, holding celebrity journalists and polemicists to account. The results are often fascinating, and it’s possible to lose a good hour catching up on his timeline. A spy novelist by trade, Duns has written a string of excellent Cold War action thrillers, in this ebook, News of Devils, he has turned his attention to the biggest espionage story of the new century: the Snowden revelations.

Reading military memoirs of the 2000s, you get the sense of a cultural shift: the transition from conventional warfare to asymmetric or three block war, where soldiers spend as much time working with communities and trying to win ‘hearts and minds’ as actually fighting physical enemies. This approach has even been called postmodern war. Maybe we are now in the middle of a postmodern Cold War. In a fascinating report for the Institute of Modern Russia, analysts Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss explored how this works in modern practice. Vladimir Putin’s regime rules by information as much as violence. His propaganda channel RT combs the West for cranks, neo-Nazis and fantasists, which it presents as ‘experts’ to lend credibility to staged reports and conspiracy theory directed against democratic countries. The regime has ‘troll farms’ – battalions of internet commenters to spread similar rhetoric:

The documents show instructions provided to the commenters that detail the workload expected of them. On an average working day, the Russians are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.

Moscow journalism teacher Igor Yakovenko says that ‘If previous authoritarian regimes were three parts violence and one part propaganda… this one is virtually all propaganda and relatively little violence. Putin only needs to make a few arrests – and then amplify the message through his total control of television’.

Whatever’s going on here, it’s not journalism, at least in the sense of finding out the truth. You’re not a journalist, you’re a soldier, using information and media to fight for a cause. The reporter Glenn Greenwald damned the idea of objective journalism: ‘this suffocating constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring.’ He went on to say that:

The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.

We’ve all got our subjective biases, says Greenwald. So what the hell.

Duns’s short book News of Devils investigates the reporting of the Snowden cache. When Snowden contacted Greenwald, the reporter took the authenticity of Snowden and his documents basically on faith. The documents had official-looking acronyms, therefore they had to be real – not a hoax or an intelligence trap. ‘It’s a basic tenet that the larger a claim the more evidence you need to back it, and forged and fabricated intelligence documents are extremely common in the espionage world,’ Duns writes. ‘But [Greenwald]’s scepticism, fact-checking ability and cold eye to the possibilities of unseen issues that all good journalists have as second nature seems to have been entirely lacking here.’ Greenwald’s then colleagues at the Guardian had big concerns about Snowden’s credibility – he wasn’t some coughing, haggard Deep Throat, but a twenty-nine year old systems analyst. (His editor, Janine Gibson, was also concerned that, having been told that the NSA was monitoring various widely used information channels including Skype, Greenwald called her up and told her about this on Skype.)

But Greenwald was a soldier, not a journalist. ‘I approach my journalism as a litigator,’ he said. ‘People say things, you assume they are lying, and dig for documents to prove it.’ Nor did Greenwald care that a leak may put individuals at risk. He claimed that Snowden had told him: ‘Leaking CIA documents can actually harm people, whereas leaking NSA documents can harm systems.’

Duns writes:

Did Snowden really say this and, if so, did Greenwald believe him? The NSA employs intelligence officers, runs agents and assets around the world, and even a codename or hint about an operation might blow someone’s cover and harm living, breathing human beings. Neither does one need to be under cover to be at risk of harm.

What about Snowden himself? What are his motivations? He was a Republican, an aspiring soldier med-exed from basic training. He was also, as George Packer says, ‘a soldier of the internet.’ In a humane and sympathetic profile, Packer expands on this:

He has said that he grew up not just using [the internet] but in it, and that he learned the heroic power of moral action from playing video games. ‘Basically, the internet allowed me to experience freedom and explore my full capacity as a human being,’ Snowden told Greenwald when they met in Hong Kong. ‘I do not want to live in a world where we have no privacy and no freedom, where the unique value of the internet is snuffed out.’ Throughout the past year, Snowden has continually returned to this theme, more often and more passionately than to the idea of constitutional liberties. His utopia is not an actual democratic society, let alone the good life in a three-bedroom bungalow outside Honolulu, but cyberspace. When he saw that his employer, the US government, was invading the free and private place where he had become himself, the effect was of a paradise lost.

Duns has fun with Snowden’s more fantastical statements. Snowden said in a Christmas message on UK TV that ‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.’ The ability to actually monitor people’s thoughts is impossible even for the most sophisticated intelligence network. But we can empathise. Imagine you’re Edward Snowden. You’re a young man, smart and idealistic and disillusioned. You come across something you believe proves state wrongdoing. And you steal this information, hundreds of thousands of documents, more than you can possibly analyse or understand. The rush of it. The buzz of history. You’re setting news agendas. You’re admired and hated worldwide. And then the comedown. Confusion, remorse, the possibility of a hundred years in federal lockup. All you can do is run, and you might never see home again. Snowden is a child of the digital age but Joseph Conrad’s words in his 1917 novel The Shadow Line might have resonated with him:

Only the young have such moments. I don’t mean the very young. No, the very young have, properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days, in all the continuity of hope, which means no pauses and no introspection… Yes, one goes on and time goes on – till one perceives ahead a shadow line, warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind… This is the period of life in which such moments of which I have spoken are likely to come. What moments? Why, moments of boredom, weariness, of dissatisfaction – rash moments. I mean moments when the still young are inclined to commit rash actions, such as getting married suddenly, or else throwing up a job for no reason.

During the 2000s governments made legislative changes based on terror threats. Anyone who objected was basically told ‘If we don’t pass this law, the terrorists win’. Post-Iraq, and with a more isolationist and distrustful mood, this dog won’t fight. As Duns says:

Where national security state hawks once sold the public the message ‘BE AFRAID – THE TERRORISTS ARE PLANNING TO ATTACK US!’, the Snowden story has repeatedly sold the public a new but equally terrifying narrative: ‘BE AFRAID – YOUR GOVERNMENT IS SPYING ON YOU!’

It’s good to have a healthy scepticism, of authority and the state, and intelligence services, while engaging in reasonable deception, must have democratic oversight. But it’s a big leap from that to state that there’s no real difference between liberal democracies, imperfect and flawed as they are, and totalitarian regimes and movements.

In an age when a lie can be RTd around the world before the truth has got its boots on, it’s great that the digital world also has a place for Jeremy Duns, whose thoughtful and measured essay reminds us that it’s a big world out there that doesn’t always offer us comforting choices.

The Sugar Skull Beneath The Skin

November 16, 2014

sugarskullI ordered Charles Burns’s comic horror trilogy – X’ed Out, The Hive and Sugar Skull - after reading Rachel Cooke’s review of Sugar Skull. The first two books arrived and I read them in just over an hour, in one sitting. They made terrifying reading. When Sugar Skull came in the mail, I put it on my bookshelf, and there it sat for four days. One does not go lightly to Charles Burns. He’s a scary man.

Comics have always been a scary medium, partly because you can actually see the monsters. But it’s also in the tone and shading: think about the penetrating loneliness evoked on every page of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, even Daniel Clowes’s comparatively gentle Ghost World has a powerful, disquieting sense of life slipping away. Charles Burns, however, outshocks even these great artists with his symphony of monstrous delirium.

The story is about Doug, a performance artist in his twenties, who is recovering from a head trauma and relationship breakdown. He stays in his parents’ basement, eating through a rainbow of prescription drugs. At night he drinks, tries to pick up women and tells the story of his relationship with Sarah, a beautiful fellow artist whose talent far outstrips Doug’s own. Only there’s something in the story he’s not telling, even to himself. The gap is filled by horrifying dreams, in which Doug’s alter ego, ‘Nitnit’ is lost in a spooky underworld. Befriended, and exploited, by a loudmouthed warhog-like creature, Nitnit is given a job at ‘the Hive’ where his main duties consist of pushing a wheelbarrow filled with giant eggs along endless dusty corridors, harassed by alien overseers and freaked out by echoing female cries. Burns brings all this to rich and terrible life. You can’t look at a frame without seeing something insane. On the set page, of X-ed Out I think, there’s a single panel showing a man looking into a bedroom, presumably his own, to find his bed occupied by some weird creature with about half a dozen eyes. The creature has a plaster on its head (injury is a big theme in Burns) but it doesn’t seem particularly hurt nor even all that frightening, but, well, what the fuck is it? The horror of something that fundamentally shouldn’t exist but somehow does.

H P Lovecraft dreamed up lots of things like this creature in the room: created ‘horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.’ The world of real things, the universe we know, is a paper fiction, says Lovecraft’s mythos, and behind the curtain there’s dark gods trying to break through. From Michel Houellebecq’s essay on Lovecraft:

It is possible, in fact, that beyond the narrow range of our perception, other entities exist. Other creatures, other races, other concepts and other minds. Among these entities some are probably far superior to us in intelligence and in knowledge. But this is not necessarily good news. What makes us think that these creatures, different as they are from us, will exhibit any kind of a spiritual nature? There is nothing to suggest a transgression of the universal laws of egotism and malice.

Scary thought. Stephen King, who owed Lovecraft a massive debt, wrote in Danse Macabre that ‘most horror fiction […] is firmly reactionary.’ The horror is saying to you: conserve the world of real things, the world of jobs and mortgages and children and families, hold that world close, no matter how dull it seems at times, because if that safe world goes, you’ll never stop screaming. The click that sends Louis Creed insane at the end of Pet Sematary is simply ‘the sound of a door opening’. The horror is telling you to keep that door shut hard.

But Lovecraft and King were writing about outer horror. Charles Burns writes about the horror of the inside. The trilogy’s ending is supposed to be some big astonishing twist but in fact it’s visible from the first page. Doug is a coward, he’s grasping, filled with self pity and entitlement, he takes and takes and takes, he lets people down, and in the end, everyone close to him realises it. He’s shunned from the punk art scene forever. And his horror comes not from some dark revelation but just from that average, shitty, humdrum male cowardice and failure, the failure to step up and engage with the world. Cooke writes that ‘only fear and loathing awaits those men who leave their growing up until it is too late’ and, dear God, it shows.


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