Archive for May, 2014

Isla Vista

May 25, 2014

Okay, it’s late and this is depressing so let’s keep it short. I have nothing worthwhile to say about the murders in Isla Vista. However I have been reading the news reports all day, and a lot of the commentary, and it hacks me off that so much of the coverage has focused on this man’s, largely speculative, mental illness, and his possible Asperger’s (which doesn’t even exist any more, according to the DSM-V) rather than the killer’s destructive beliefs, and the MRA echo chamber forums that strengthened and fortified these beliefs. I suppose now there has to be a big debate about why this guy did what he did, and what it says about society, that this young man of wealth living in one of the best places on the planet and his whole life ahead of him decided to murder six people, and injure several more, before, as they say, turning the gun on himself. I myself have a history of mental illness. I was tested for autism. I was also rather shy as a young man. Never did it occur to me that such difficulties could be solved by a swift rampage of murder and suicide.

But we are going to have that ‘debate’ anyway, because this man left behind a 140-page manifesto, that no one would be reading had he not ended six lives, but because he did what he did will guarantee him at least fifteen minutes of posthumous fame. I’m not going to link to his writings, they are freely available on various news sources and blogs, I will not quote any of this here. What’s that Neil Gaiman quote, about serial killers: ‘Forget ’em. Give them a number and send them down.’ I’ve probably mangled it, but he won’t mind the attribution. It seems right.

Return of the Why

May 25, 2014

sophiehannahThe best work of Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie argues that to track a murderer, the motive must first be established; in Baltimore, if not on the Orient Express, a known motive can be interesting, even helpful, yet it is often beside the point…

It’s a truth that goes against the accepted grain and court juries always have a hard time when a detective takes the stand and declares he has no idea why Tater shot Pee Wee in the back five times, and frankly, he could care less. Pee Wee isn’t around to discuss it, and our man Tater doesn’t want to say. But hey, here’s the gun and the bullets and the ballistics report and two reluctant witnesses who saw Tater pull the trigger and then picked the ignorant, murdering bastard from a photo array. So what the hell else you want me to do, interview the goddamn butler?

Crime fiction comes in two familiar types. There’s the street-level hardcore stuff with a great deal of profanity, huge desperate cities, shots of Wild Turkey and bodies hitting pavements. As the extract from David Simon’s Homicide above illustrates, it’s an American rhythm and an American vernacular, the language of Richard Price and Dennis Lehane. The second kind of crime fiction is more of a British thing. The setting will be a village in springtime, the bodycount reduced, the investigator will be a cerebral, sophisticated man probably not even connected to the police. The style is different. No one is ‘whacked’ in a Dorothy Sayers novel: people are inhumed.

There is an endless audience for this kind of murder. There is even a crime subgenre, ‘cosy crime’, defined by Waterstone’s as  ‘exactly as it sounds, cosy, relatively gentle and always satisfying.’ No other genre puts as much emphasis on the experience of the reader. George Orwell described the ideal condition: ‘Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder.’ Are you sleeping comfortably? Let us peruse the shattering of other lives.

Sophie Hannah is an accomplished writer of this second, Dorothy Sayers kind of fiction. It’s no surprise that she was commissioned by Christie’s estate to reimagine Poirot. For example, no one in a Sophie Hannah book is murdered for something so vulgar as money. Hannah’s victims die for other people’s dreams, lifelong neuroses, regrets and lost contents. You may guess the killer before Hannah reveals their identity, but you’re no less hooked, and you read on for the why. The story-concept of motivation has a long tradition in narrative: it has starred in Greek tragedies, and featured in Edwardian comedy, but Hannah takes the why to places it has never been before.

In another sense, she is a modern writer, almost modernist. Just as her best book, Lasting Damage, was a macabre satire on the British obsession with property and home ownership, in The Telling Error Hannah takes on the age of digital celebrity. The victim in this new book is Damon Blundy, a provocative pundit who is found strangled in his house, a knife taped to his face, and a message painted on the wall: HE IS NO LESS DEAD. Blundy has made his career offending just about everyone and his presence dominates the novel. We get transcripts of Blundy’s articles, even highlights from his Twitter timeline. Yet his true self remains a mystery. Like the Gilpatricks in Lasting Damage, he is there and yet not there.

Hannah specialises in confused, unreliable heroines and her protagonist Nicki Clements tops the lot. Nicki is a married woman who has had an affair with a mysterious stranger called ‘King Edward’ who claimed to have been Blundy himself. The affair has been almost entirely conducted online through a dating site, apart from one encounter in a hotel where ‘King Edward’ insisted that Nicki remained blindfolded throughout. Believing that ‘King Edward’ is Blundy, Nicki becomes a fan of the real Blundy’s columns, defending him below the line. She then comes to believe that ‘King Edward’ is not Blundy at all, but an imposter, and dumps him. She then starts another online affair with a man named ‘Gavin’ who may or may not be ‘King Edward’, either of whom may or may not be Damon Blundy. Confused?

You will be. The Telling Error is a wilderness of mirrors. It is about the construction of identity, something we all do in real life, that becomes easier online. People say things on the internet, that they would never think of saying in life to a physical person. In her afterword, Hannah says that ‘this book was heavily inspired by Twitter, the online home of much kindness, much cruelty, and endless pockets of hitherto unimagined absurdity.’ It’s a catalyst of creativity, and a dark liberation; a playground of individuality yet susceptible to mob rule.

Ideal territory for the crime writer. The Telling Error is compulsive stuff with unexpected twists and bodyswerves; it’s better than Hannah’s prentice works of the late 2000s if not quite up there with her classic run of A Room Swept White, Lasting Damage and Kind of Cruel. For Hannah’s longterm fans, as well as new readers, the book will give you a sense of pleasant familiarity that never quite descends into cosiness.

Trigger Hippie

May 24, 2014

There has been some discussion this week about trigger warnings. The Urban Dictionary defines trigger warnings as a piece of text ‘[u]sed to alert people when an internet post, book, article, picture, video, audio clip, or some other media could potentially cause extremely negative reactions (such as post-traumatic flashbacks or self-harm) due to its content.’ Feminist blogger Jill Filipovic expands on this:

Trigger warnings, and their cousin the ‘content note’, are now included for a whole slew of potentially offensive or upsetting content, including but not limited to: misogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, Stand Your Ground laws, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, talk of drug use, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, discussion of ‘isms,’ neuroatypical shaming, slurs (including ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex (even consensual), death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things, holes and ‘anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD‘.

A lot of the commentary on this has been at great pains to deny that the subject needs to be discussed. Via Laurie Penny, California student Bailey Loverin says that ‘A Rutgers student encouraged trigger warnings for literary works’ but that ‘his idea never left the school paper’s opinion page’ and concedes that ‘A task force of administrators, faculty and students at Oberlin suggested professors use trigger warnings’ but that ‘students and teachers were already tackling these concerns and have tabled the policy.’ So that’s okay. Over at HuffPo, Soraya Chemaly writes that ‘In most cases, no one is saying professors cannot teach texts or show videos. Nor do warnings imply some sort of apology for lessons to follow.’ Great! Nothing to see here. It’s also true that this is happening in America where many campuses have actual formal speech codes which isn’t the case in this country.

Or maybe there’s more to this. According to Filipovic, Oberlin actually recommended trigger warning Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, because ‘it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.’ The Rutgers student, Philip Wythe, proposed triggering The Great Gatsby, Mrs Dalloway and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her, arguing for passage-by-passage warning: ‘Professors can also dissect a narrative’s passage, warning their students which sections or volumes of a book possess triggering material and which are safer to read.’ Surely some bright kid at Amazon is as I write working on some kind of content control app for the Kindle that pixellates out the explicit parts of Hollinghurst or Rabelais, demanding a password you can never remember. And why is it the really good books that have been singled out? Surely supermarkets could slap big stickers on the latest Tony Parsons, warning the gentle reader that ‘This book contains potential triggers for tedium, irritation, incredulity, disorders of the nervous system and kidneys.’

And how back do we care to go? If you look at all the blood and trauma there is in Shakespeare, Jonson, Dickens, Maupassant, Rimbaud, Nabokov – there’s little there that would survive contemporary scrutiny. That, of course, is what makes people angry – the idea of judging ancient classics by contemporary codes. But there is more than that. We think of the world as a place where all the taboos have been kicked over, when the reality is that so much has been done before, and done better. There is also that anything can trigger anything. (Remember, for example, the way that certain smells yank you back to a certain place and time.) I once met a man who had episodes of psychotic depression to the extent that if he saw a yellow car in the street ‘it was like the car was saying, you’re a coward, you’re a coward.’ My old friend, poet Sian Rathore, quipped that ‘I’m putting a trigger warning on the world.’

College is a place where you grow up, and one of the things you learn is that the world is not always a safe place. To make literature safe. What an available temptation. But a safe literature won’t prepare you for an unsafe world. And isn’t it a condescension to all of us to conceal the evidence of this fact?


This Sporting Life

May 17, 2014

Continuing an occasional series called ‘Silly Remarks by Eminent Novelists’, I take mild issue with Philip Hensher today, who complains about the Bank of England governor using World Cup analogies in a recent speech. Carney apparently said: ‘Securing the recovery is like making it through the qualifying rounds of the World Cup – it’s a real achievement but not the end goal.’ To which Hensher responds:

For a start, who are the opponents of the national economy supposed to be? Do we secure the recovery by defeating France? Would its total failure contribute to our final success? Or could it possibly be that, unlike in some stupid football tournament, other nations are our partners, whose success contributes to our own?

The prominence of sport in the communal mind will, I think, astonish future generations when they think about us. The model of a sports competition where opposing sides win or lose, continue or retire is regularly applied to the most inappropriate areas of life.

The use of sporting analogies is a tedious commonplace in business, and to me Carney was doing little more than a throwaway cliché. The prevalence of sports talk is debated by the protagonist of Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares, who says: ‘Perhaps sport has colonised capitalism rather than the other way round… a warped, inferior branch of sport, sport with money’. But the point for Hensher is how this impacts on the British novel:

Alan Bennett last week said mildly that he had come to prefer American novelists to English ones. In the flood of comment that followed, a personal preference was discussed as if one nation’s novelists were somehow competing for the exclusive interest of readers, and there was some World Cup prize to be awarded by the obliteration of one or the other. The idea that most fields of intellectual and social life become valuable by the existence of ongoing variety, and not by the elimination of excellent alternatives, seemed baffling to some commentators.

Bennett’s comparison wasn’t great – his example of fine American writing was Philip Roth, who hung up his boots four years ago – but in the broad sense, to me, the old playwright was correct. Americans have written better over the last half century and I do prefer the bold sprawl of US literature over the contemporary twee, hidebound, UEA-lite, eggshell-stepping British novel. This debate is fuelled in part by a snobbery in British literati towards the upstart Yanks – think of the furore when the Booker opened its doors to American novels, and the ancient slur that Americans ‘don’t understand irony’ and can’t do sophisticated comedies. (This, from the country of Benny Hill to the country of Frasier.)

Hensher then makes a big deductive leap:

Carney’s analogy was probably not very seriously proposed, but spreading a model away from the harmless world of sport into more grave endeavours can actually harm the way we approach the world. Analogies, if inadequate, have the knack of doing this. In the 19th century, the Rhine was often discussed in two different ways: for French thinkers, it was the natural border of the nation; for Germans, it was the system of arteries through which the lifeblood of the Reich pulsed and flowed. Both were absurd; the clash between inadequate analogies led to trouble.

Ah. So because of literary rivalry are British novelists going to annexe the Eastern Seaboard? Will City workers re-enact the Operation of Market Garden? Or are we the Nazis in this? It’s hard to say. Surely our literary spat with Jonathan Franzen doesn’t mean we will try to invade America again. They’ve got drones, for Christ’s sake. But does Hensher give us that credit? Maybe not. He says: ‘If you think, however, of Europeans as belonging to another team, which we hope to beat into total submission, then of course you will resent and dislike its individuals.’ By that logic, football rivalry in this country would lead to a kind of hooligan Afghanistan. Leeds Utd fans would be sending cruise missiles over the Pennines. Mancs and Scousers would be airstriking each other’s cities. Every time Sheffield had a derby, it would look like a scene from downtown Damascus.

Hensher’s piece fits into a fine intellectual tradition of misunderstanding sport. Even George Orwell wrote that ‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ And: ‘big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism.’ Orwell speaks true – but it is not the whole truth. I’m not interested in sport at all, but I grew up and came of age with followers of the teams of North England and have some understanding of how entwined the game is with childhoods, cities, family and friendship. It’s a passion and although I don’t feel it myself I recognise it in others and it’s a chancy thing to fuck with.

Human beings are hardwired for competition. The will to power and victory, the playing of games, the need to feel that you are superior to others – this is an immovable object of human nature. It may not be a particularly good or nice thing but it is the hand we’re dealt and something we have to deal with. Civilising this instinct has worked fairly well. The casual scene in the UK was never huge compared to professional European and Latin American football gangs and has more or less been designed out.

Football is war without the shooting. But without the shooting, there’s no war.

The Story of a Crime

May 6, 2014

beck‘No other professional group,’ reflects protagonist Martin Beck in the series of books that bear his name, ‘suffered from such role fixation or dramatised its daily life as did the police.’ Maybe true in the 1960s and 1970s when Maj Sowall and Per Wahloo wrote their novels, but now? Police these days, it seems, suffer from overdramatisation of their lives by voyeurs. Sheltered novelists of the suburbs have written themselves into wealth and fame with lazy breathless overblown imaginings of policework featuring hard-drinking womanising maverick cops. In fact the chief constable of Avon and Somerset Police, Nick Gargan, told the Guardian that he objected to the impression that CID personnel consist entirely of deranged alcoholics. It’s worth separating his quotes so you get the sense of what he says:

You see a Rebus or Morse at the scene, recovering forensic exhibits, interviewing the suspect, comforting the family, arguing with the chief constable about resources. What can be a team of 20, 30 or 40 people is concentrated in the person of this one senior investigator[.]

Do we have hard-drinking, heavy-smoking cynical people who make a few mistakes? Yes. But this slightly heroic bucking-the-system thing, I don’t think we have much of that.

There are some pretty damaged individuals in too many of these books. I’d quite like to see some cheery, well-balanced, well-adjusted, equally successful investigators. I’d hate to think our investigators were modelling themselves on Rebus, but I think a few of them modelled themselves on Frost. You get a bit of Morse too.

Outsiderism is a traditional theme in procedural crime fiction. As Nick Cohen wrote: ‘The hope that the educated outsider can solve a case which baffles the proletarian plods is buried deep in the culture. It runs from Sherlock Holmes through Lord Peter Wimsey and Poirot.’ Contemporary crime writers who want more realistic scenarios take the police more seriously, but centre their stories on a transgressive outsider figure within the force. It’s the ultimate in vicarious living, conformity and rebellion in one rush: your man doesn’t have to play it by the book as long as, goddamnit, he gets results.

The Martin Beck novels are different. Although Beck’s distinctive, even an iconoclast in his quiet way, the cases are very much ensemble pieces with a variety of detectives contributing effort and insights to the solution. The broadsheet cliché might be that that’s because these are Swedish novels reflecting a society that values the common good over individual talent. Only Sjowall and Wahloo defy these generalisations. Like most good crime novelists, Sjowall and Wahloo started in journalism. They were also radical in their politics. Per Wahloo was even deported from Franco’s Spain in 1957. The ten Beck novels weren’t just intended as a decalogue crime story but as a portrait of a society.

When the conservative writer P J O’Rourke visited Sweden in 1996, he was amazed that the Swedes had created a kind of ‘good capitalism’ but with such a strong welfare state. He lists the country’s child related and disability benefits, its occupational pensions, before concluding – ‘What happens to Sweden when nobody’s willing to lend it more money and the Swedes finally realize that they really can skip work for four months if the kid pukes? The people of Sweden—like Damocles— are set down to a sumptuous feast, and overhead , suspended by a hair is . . .’ You could argue that the Swedes managed okay despite the sword above their heads whereas it was the debt based Atlantic economies when smash in the crash. Sjowall and Wahloo’s politics could be predictable. They have a labourer, whose life has been ruined by a rapacious businessman, jump off a boat into the Savoy and shoot the guy dead. ‘Hope he gets a light sentence,’ Beck comments. But there are no simple state based solutions. For Beck and his team the big event in Swedish politics, the one that tips their country into decline, is the nationalisation of the police, which leaves it open to political interference. And these aren’t fables of the reconstruction. For Sjowall and Wahloo’s Stockholm cops the sexual revolution means little more than twelve year old drug addicted prostitutes and the welfare state means little more than old men slowly exsanguinating in unvisited rooms.

Politics in fiction has moved on. The latest big Scandicrime is The Bridge, whose villain the serial killer ‘Truth Terrorist’ weaves great sociological narratives to conceal his personal, all too human and traceable, motives. This is postmodern crime and Sjowall and Wahloo aren’t quite there. The Beck novels are exemplars of modernist crime fiction. Take the penultimate para of Roseanna, the first book, in which Beck solves the senseless murder of a young American woman. The killer’s motivation is unintelligible. ‘Don’t you understand,’ he shrieks at Beck. ‘I had to kill her dirty body.’ Then, towards the end, we get this:

Here comes Martin Beck and it’s snowing on his hat. He walks with a song; he walks with a sway! Hello, friends and brothers; it squeaks underfoot. It is a winter night. Hello to you all; just give a call and we’ll go home to southern Stockholm! By subway. To my part of town.

This is a departure from the narrative tone but it doesn’t jar. It’s an introduction to the series as well as a closer to the story, and it’s the authentic laughter of despair.

Or check this, from book three, the scariest of the books, about a child murder. These three paras end chapter sixteen:

Then he drove home. Had another cup of coffee and went to bed.

Lay awake in the dark, thinking.

Of something.

Four short lines… but more content than many whole thriller novels, and more resonance.

Like most Beck readers I was hooked almost from day one. The books aren’t obviously compulsive but there’s a quiet passion there that draws you. I can’t recommend them enough… but only readers with a clear mind and strong stomach lining should apply.

The Man with the Harmonica

May 4, 2014

Will Self takes to the pages of the Guardian Review this weekend to deliver a familiar lament. Over a ‘canary in the mine’ analogy, stretched to four paragraphs, he gets to his point: the novel is dying. Not, he concedes, that commercial fiction doesn’t sell: ‘I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health.’ Not, he concedes again, that books in general aren’t being written and published: ‘During [the last] century, more books of all kinds have been printed and read by far than in the entire preceding half millennium since the invention of movable-type printing.’ He concedes also that ‘nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read.’ It was not, he concedes once more, that in the twentieth century, Self’s golden age of the novel, ‘everyone walked the streets with their head buried in Ulysses or To the Lighthouse‘. So what, exactly, is Self’s problem? What justifies the drama of his headline? This is what he gives us:

However, what didn’t obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. It goes further: the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism.

So the problem is that people are reading and writing novels (but not the right novels). The problem isn’t that literary novels are not getting published, but that these are ‘zombie novels’, in Self’s words, ‘instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.’ The problem is an ‘active resistance to difficulty.’ There is a lot unsaid here. Define ‘difficulty’ for me. (After all, it is more difficult to write a compulsive, readable crime thriller than a postmodern bildungsroman, as dozens of slushpile Len Deightons have discovered.) Also, if we accept a literary definition of ‘difficulty’ and that there is a popular resistance to it, what form does this resistance take? It is not readily apparent. There are no shortage of big sponsored prizes that hand buckets of money to the authors of ‘difficult’ novels.

Self does not tell us. Instead he takes aim at well-meaning literacy campaigns: ‘children are given free books; book bags are distributed with slogans on them urging readers to put books in them; books are hymned for their physical attributes – their heft, their appearance, their smell’. Surely Self is being a little harsh here. Child literacy, in particular, is absolutely vital even if most twelve-year-olds aren’t quite ready for Beckett and Celan. In his lecture to the Reading Agency, Neil Gaiman talks about the building of private prisons in the US, constructed according to algorithms, including one ‘based about asking what percentage of ten and eleven year olds couldn’t read.’

Then Self gets to the thrust of his argument:

There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.

Self’s question rests on the assumptions that 1) the vast majority of text will have this web link and 2) people won’t be able to cope with more than one thing. Do you buy this? After all the internet has been around in some form for around twenty years and there are still vast swathes of the country where people don’t understand computers or want to use them (and miss out on goods and services as a result). The invention of the e reader was a foregone conclusion once the technology was there. In my experience they are mainly used by older people who need them because such devices let you enlarge the text, useful if your eyesight is failing.

Or perhaps the internet isn’t the problem after all. Over another four paras, Self argues that: ‘we are still solidly within the modernist era, and that the crisis registered in the novel form in the early 1900s by the inception of new and more powerful media technologies continues apace.’ Modern publishing, over 114 years, is still reeling from the advent of the wireless. He continues: ‘The use of montage for transition; the telescoping of fictional characters into their streams of consciousness; the abandonment of the omniscient narrator; the inability to suspend disbelief in the artificialities of plot – these were always latent in the problematic of the novel form, but in the early 20th century, under pressure from other, juvenescent, narrative forms, the novel began to founder.’ Really? A cursory reading of twentieth-century literature will tell you that novelists have had less difficulty than Self realises in the absorption of experimental storycraft. Come to think, didn’t Shakespeare use interior monologue in his plays?

Here I’m acting as if there’s some kind of coherence to Self’s thesis, when in truth it’s an exercise in scattershot moaning. Self moans that broadband internet distracts him from his writing (in that case, you should be writing something more interesting than what’s happening on Twitter) he moans about creative writing programmes, even about one of his students, who apparently ‘wants to be paid more highly for the midwifery of stillborn novels.’ Although Self writes that the creative writing programme is little more than ‘a therapy group for the creatively misunderstood’ he seemingly doesn’t mind using it as a source of income. And, gods, he must be a barrel of laughs in the classroom.

‘Whenever tyro novelists ask me for career advice,’ Self says, ‘I always say the same thing to them: think hard about whether you wish to spend anything up to 20 or 30 years of your adult life in solitary confinement’. Self himself was a tyro novelist once, and he makes some decent points here. But the shriek of doom is almost always a cry for attention, and while that’s forgiveable in a young hothead, it becomes somewhat disconcerting when the attention seeker is still banging the drum into his ‘national treasure’ years.