Archive for March, 2015

System Failure

March 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

My Own Private Idaho

March 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

From the Guardian report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Image: Wikipedia)

Notes from the Red Mountain

March 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail Discordia: Death of Terry Pratchett

March 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Carry started to panic again. ‘Who?’

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

‘Were they important?’ said Carry.

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

‘You think so?’

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

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

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

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

Statement from Random House here.

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


March 8, 2015

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

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