Archive for December, 2014

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.



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.