Archive for November, 2015

Oh, Hannibal the Cannibal!

November 22, 2015

A minor subplot in Carl Hiaasen’s novel Lucky You involves protagonist Tom Krome trying to divorce his wife. But Mary Andrea Finley Krome won’t agree to the divorce – not because she’s madly in love with Tom (she’s as sick of him as he is of her) but because no woman in her family has ever got divorced, and Mary is damned if she’ll break the chain. Tom’s hapless attorney finds it almost impossible to serve papers because Mary Andrea, an accomplished actress, travels all over the continental US starring in various stage productions under different names. One of the shows is a musical version of The Silence of the Lambs, featuring the chorus line:

Oh, Hannibal the Cannibal

How deliciously malicious you are!

Oh, Hannibal the Cannibal. How he’s woven himself into pop culture. He’s been played by at least three different actors in a range of media, parodied in countless animations and sitcoms. Writers and readers are preoccupied with serial killers: there’s probably more fictional serials that ones that have actually existed, but in his wit and insights Lecter is king of a bloated subgenre. (Only Dick Dart, villain of Peter Straub’s The Hellfire Club, comes close.) We’ll never forget what happened to the luckless census taker who tried to ‘quantify’ Dr Lecter, and when the last Home Secretary imposed a ban on books for prisoners, it was a line of Lecter’s that immediately came to me: ‘Any rational society would kill me, or give me my books.’

In The Strange World of Thomas Harris, David Sexton’s analysis of the Lecter mythos, he quotes criminologist Elliott Leyton, who argues that the Hannibal books are great fiction but bad criminology. As fictional serial killer, Lecter is erudite, urbane, empathetic, sociable, multilingual, curious and self aware. Real serial murderers, Leyton says, tend to be ‘without intellectual or physical attainments, they are often uneducated and virtually illiterate… in sum, they are dull, unimaginative, socially defective, vengeful, self-absorbed and self-pitying human beings.’ But Sexton argues that the Lecter novels were never meant to be realistic: ‘The Hannibal Lecter stories have about the same connection to social reality as, say, the stories of Bluebeard or Dracula.’ This isn’t detective fiction – it’s the gothic high style.

Readers and critics alike loved the first two Lecter novels, in which the psychiatrist – incarcerated for a string of elaborate slayings – assists the FBI in solving other crimes, before escaping at the end of Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal, featuring the adventures of a fugitive Lecter, was seen as a betrayal of the mythos – bad fiction and bad criminology. None was more harsh than Martin Amis, and it is worth getting his War Against Cliché anthology for his marvellous hatchet job alone. Amis noted that the Hannibal of Hannibal is loaded with a plethora of pretentions: ‘curator of the Capponi’, opera at the Teatro Piccolomini, playing an ‘ornate clavier’ and eighteenth-century Flemish harpsichords, related to Balthus, the Viscontis and Machiavelli, ‘Anatole figs still weeping from their severed stems’ – Harris has made him ‘that awesome presence, a European aristocrat.’

I don’t think it’s unfair to see Harris as one of those Americans who goes gushing crazy over Old Europe. Wouldn’t a Baylor alumnus from dustbowl Mississippi love to know someone like Hannibal? The Europe he depicts in Hannibal is bathed in sepulchral grandness, a dream of great cathedrals, shimmering women and cold, fine wine. (The TV show replicates this, having FBI agents pursue Lecter on Orient-Express style steam trains and through the cobblestones and frescoes of medieval Florence.) European luxury is contrasted with the mediocre squalor of the new world: when Lecter returns to America he has to smuggle himself on a coach trip and he’s appalled by his fellow passengers, their weight and smells and children and shitty processed food. ‘Elemental Ugliness,’ Harris writes, ‘is found in the faces of the crowd.’ Hannibal antagonist Mason Verger is a meatpacking heir out for revenge after Lecter had him paralysed and induced him to cut off his own face in a PCP trance. Mason is a predator, but with none of Hannibal’s style. This is where the American dream ends, Harris is saying – faceless paralysed rich boys, drinking Martinis spiked with children’s tears.

Amis perceived in the book an authorial disdain for the masses: Harris ‘severs himself from the commonality, and it is precisely this severance that has demolished his talent.’ Hannibal is a predator who predates the messy compromise of democracy – he comes from a time where what matters is power and sensation. Class has always impacted on the crime genre. (Overrated true crime writer Anne Rule, in The Stranger Besides Me, flutters and trills over the handsome Ted Bundy and struggles to believe that such a nice young Republican boy could have committed all these murders. One pities the homicide detectives she followed around.) It has also partially formed the horror genre. The vampire wears evening dress in his castle and exercises droit de signeur on the peasant villages below. Harris gives Lecter all kinds of supernatural resonance – he says as authorial comment that ‘It is an axiom of behavioural science that vampires are territorial, while cannibals range widely across the country.’ Elsewhere he’s compared to Job’s devil – going to and fro in the world, and probably having a good time.

What matters is predation and power. Even the language of religion is harnessed into power relationships: Lecter reflects that ‘his own modest predations paled beside those of God, who is in irony matchless, and in wanton malice beyond measure.’ What matters is power and sensation. As Sexton says, taste isn’t kind. The ending of Hannibal, where Clarice Starling goes from being Lecter’s pursuer to his rescuer and lover, seems improbable (Amis: ‘It’s hard to think what woman would be capable of diverting Hannibal for more than five seconds. Mata Hari? Baroness Orczy? Catherine the Great?’) but makes perfect sense in this context. Starling has worked her way up from a modest background but is still held back by a patrician FBI personified by the moronic Paul Krendler. Sexton highlights her line ‘Damn a bunch of self improvement. I want a good dinner’ as the moment she decides to give up banging her head against the wall and succumb to the life of easy wealth offered by Lecter. A triumph of evil all the more striking because Lecter appeared to have seduced his creator as well as the heroine.

The disappointment of the Lecter novels is that Harris never gave Hannibal an effective opposition. I would love to have seen someone who could challenge the doctor intellectually and stand up for the commonality and democratic secularism. It’s true that the devil has a certain style but there is a kick and a pleasure in empathy, compassion, generosity too. Contra Sexton, these days taste is often kind.


Tales of the Missing: Kirstin Innes’s Fish Net

November 15, 2015

Fishnet_270I was prepared to be disappointed by this book. When curious about people with outsider status – immigrants, sex workers, prisoners, benefit claimants – the novelist’s temptation is to make victims, victims of sex workers in particular. Not a bit of it though. It’s easy to write victims. Kirstin Innes has worked a lot harder.

Fish Net focuses on Fiona Leonard, a single parent whose sister, Rona, has dumped a baby on Fiona and then walked out of her life. For years Fiona has been searching for her missing sister. Then a drunken chat with an old acquaintance at a wedding gives her a lead: that Rona may have got involved in the sex industry. It so happens that Fiona is currently temping at a company which is negotiating the development of a drop-in centre where working girls can hang out and get advice and check out the ‘ugly mugs’ gallery of clients you want to avoid. The local authority wants to bulldoze the drop-in and build a leisure complex to attract investment. Furious prostitutes demonstrate outside the company offices. Sympathising with their situation, and still investigating her sister’s disappearance, Fiona befriends them and is drawn deeper into their world of the missing.

Again, the big strength of Innes’s novel is that she refuses to see her characters as victims – or at least not just victims. Fiona meets a Polish escort named Anya who is in the business to work off her international students. She tells Anya: ‘I don’t understand how my sister – how anyone ends up doing this.’ Anya replies:

This question, it comes from a place where for a woman to work in the sex industry, it’s shameful, wrong… What you know is horror stories of rape and powerlessness, that teach us to prize our virtue, to keep our legs closed, that nice girls don’t do things. What you think you know is stereotypes about drug addiction, about desperate girls out there on the street. About the bodies that they find, whenever some fucking lunatic goes on a killing spree. And yes, this is all there; I am not stupid as to say to you these things don’t happen, and that they are not awful, but it is not a complete picture… what people call ‘the sex industry’ is not always, not completely, a bad thing. That just because a person sells their sexual skills, it does not mean that their life is – bam! forever ruined.

But it is hard for people in the UK to get past this shameful place. People aren’t accustomed to seeing sex as a transaction. With an increasing puritanism regarding pleasure – smoking, alcohol, junk food – coupled with a backdrop of sitcom prurience, we live in a culture where sex is sacralised and magnified and blown out of all proportion. (The fanatics who killed 129 in Paris this weekend apparently did so because it was ‘the city of prostitution’.) I remember watching an episode of Borgen where the fictional Danish PM Birgitte Nyborg has to make a hard choice about the criminalisation of sex work. She listens to women who have been abused as well as sex workers who are concerned that criminalisation would put their lives in danger. The episode struck me because you couldn’t imagine such a mature debate on this subject in Britain, fictionalised or not.

Fish Net has a raucous scene where Fiona attends a meeting at the drop in. A well-meaning representative from the council explains that in consolation for the closure of their local base, the local authority will help sex workers to leave the trade. ‘We believe that no woman should have to suffer the degradation of prostitution for a moment longer,’ the council officer declares. Rather than welcoming this, the sex workers are enraged. They feel patronised and see the council as putting their livelihoods and safety on the line. Even the brilliant and capable Anya is almost ruined forever by a tabloid sting related to the development (with a op eed titled ‘City’s vice girl shame: is immigration to blame?’)

Innes explores not just the degradation of prostitution but the degradation of modern life. Her respectable world is characterised by boring jobs, crap sports bars with glass walls, tedious get-togethers, unfulfilled wives and parents, screaming children and lairy guys on the make. Fiona becomes more impulsive and unpredictable, and enjoys winding up those she sees as increasingly part of a dull surface world. Yet Innes does not look down on her hapless straightlifers. She understands that some people do need to be rescued – hell, sometimes all of us need to be rescued. And she will make you re examine your beliefs.

The Strange Death of English Satire

November 8, 2015

number11Even the best British satirists, as they get older, lapse into a style I call the Private Eye cartoon phase. Martin Amis reached it with Lionel Asbo. Sue Townsend got there in Queen Camilla. Banksy built it in ‘Dismaland’. Ben Elton has been in the Private Eye cartoon phase for at least twenty years. The phase is a kind of noisy decline. Characters become stereotypes. Dialogue lapses into authorial comment. Carefully drawn landscapes sink into messy broad-strokes in primary colours. The narrative is a slapdash frenzy. The setups feel contrived. The jokes are clunky and obvious. So is the message. The Private Eye cartoon phase is an evil trap… and even the best novelists fall into it.

Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up was one of the finest novels about the 1980s. In it Coe created his grasping ruling family, the Winshaws, who have a hand in all of the decade’s disasters. Mark Winshaw is an arms dealer who prolongs the Iran-Iraq war; Dorothy an agribusiness tycoon driving farmers to the wall; Hilary a TV exec trying to dismantle the BBC. Into their story stumbles Michael Owen, a reclusive novelist, roadblocked in art and love, who is persuaded by a renegade family member to write a critical biography of the Winshaws that will expose their numerous crimes.

Coe beat all chroniclers of Thatcherism with his deft portrayal of entitlement and cruelty, and his quiet, fierce advocacy for an alternative world that values every human being. What a Carve Up was not just political satire. It evoked love, sexuality, dreams and hidden worlds. ‘There comes a point,’ says Mortimer Winshaw, ‘where greed and madness become practically indistinguishable.’ The Winshaws live at the terminus where materialism becomes dreams. (Their family home is in Yorkshire, the Raven King’s dream county.) Michael adds that: ‘If you sleep, if you dream, you must accept your dreams. It’s the role of the dreamer.’

There is a danger in revisiting old characters twenty years on. It’s mitigated in this instance because the main Winshaw villains were wiped out, in a series of marvellous set-pieces, at the end of What a Carve Up (although perhaps there is some hope for the fate of Michael Owen?) Apart from a few bastards and by-blows, the family lives on through its legacy: privatisation, warfare, the property boom, shock art and a poisonous media culture. Number 11 examines this legacy in a series of novella-like stories, loosely connected – and it’s here that Coe’s satire falls down.

The first problem is structural. What a Carve Up is how Henry James described Middlemarch, a ‘treasure-house of detail’. The book was huge, it had an enormous cast and esoteric subjects, but Coe made it all hang together. Number 11 just feels like a novella collection, with recurring characters and themes lashed through it at the last minute. In Coe’s reach to get everything in that he wants to write about – food banks, benefit fraud, colonialism, high finance, higher education, the music industry – it feels like we’re dashing after him from place to place without the space and time to take anything in. There is connection, but no coherence.

Part of Coe’s brilliance lay in his memorable and distinctive characterising. Who can forget growing up with Benjamin Trotter in The Rotter’s Club, then witnessing the lonely mess of his adult life in The Closed Circle? Who was not moved by the awful fate of Robin, painstaking reconstructed, in A Touch of Love? Coe was always particularly good on the weakness and frailties of men as they navigated the fraught and magical terrain of love and sex. He was like Larkin, without the bitterness.

Not any more. The standard Coe love story comes in the section ‘The Winshaw Prize’ where a policeman is investigating murders connected to the Winshaws. He is also in love with a woman called Lucinda, a beautiful primary school teacher who works at the local foodbank. The unrequited romance is pure Coe in all respects but one: we never actually get to know what Lucinda is thinking, she is just a figure of unattainable virtue and desire. Read – if you can stomach it – these few sentences that illustrate what a cliché his writing on the heart has become:

She wore her hair pulled back and tightly tied behind her head, thereby encouraging Nathan to picture, during his fevered nocturnal fantasies, the moments when she would untie it, shake it loose and remove her horn-rimmed glasses, which would be his cue to utter the traditional words, ‘Why, Lucinda – but you’re beautiful.’

Lucinda is one of the good guys, but Coe can no longer do bad guys either. He brings on a minor character called Frederick Francis, a tax accountant who boasts of how much he is stealing from the Treasury, then makes a drunken pass at the novel’s heroine. ‘It doesn’t matter how generous the government is,’ Freddie complains, ‘however much they lower the top rate. If you’re bringing home ten million a year, you’re writing an annual cheque to the Inland Revenue for four million pounds…. That hurts.’ Later Coe tires of the accountant and has him eaten by a giant spider.

No great loss. What made the Winshaws so scary and real – legs kicking, fur bristling – was that they were human monsters. But Coe no longer makes the effort to find the humanity inside the monster. His protagonist Rachel ends up a live-in governess for two rich twins, and reflects that ‘The more time she spent with these strange, emotionless girls, the more Rachel felt that she was dealing with two of John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos.’ The dead girls in The Shining had more character.

Sublimating characterisation to satire is a sign that your satire’s not working. For a leftwing writer like Coe, the initial problem is a massive overstimulus. Britain in 2015 is a satirist’s nightmare, because where do you even start? (The Ashcroft-Cameron feud, for example – how’s that for a story arc?) There’s so much, he doesn’t know quite what to focus on, so the reader’s impression is an unfocused tirade. Ghastly young people, ghastly social media, ghastly businessmen, ghastly vulgar rich people, ghastly tradesmen. Where does it end? Hilary’s daughter, Josephine Winshaw-Eaves, is looking to make a name as a columnist, so traps a benefit claimant – an LGBT woman of colour, who has a prosthetic leg – into a fraud sting, so she can then castigate her as ‘the archetypal paragon of modern entitlement.’ This setup takes Coe at least fifty pages to construct, when he used to be able to do it in a few words, as when he had Hilary declare: ‘Roll on [TV] deregulation, I say, if it means more power to the viewer’s elbow and more of our favourite shows with the likes of Brucie, Noel and Tarby (NB subs please check those names).’

In a long section called ‘The Comeback’ Coe sends a middle-aged ex musician – working in a library and wistful for another shot at stardom – on an I’m a Celebrity style game show. It is a disaster. The ex-rocker is humiliated on TV and on social media; her endurance in the jungle is described at painful length. ‘Now it was wriggling and thrashing even more violently inside there, and trying to escape out the back by forcing itself down her throat, but Val just screwed her eyes even tighter – her eyes from which tears of distress were starting to leak – and closed her mouth ever more firmly.’ Where Coe once gave us poignancy, he now only offers the pornography of disappointment. Why do novelists always see reality TV as such a reliable comic trove? And when was the last time you heard anyone talk about I’m a Celebrity?

One of Coe’s conscious themes, in fact, is the failure of satire to cope with rapidly changing times. His comedy blogger writes: ‘Every time we laugh at the venality of a corrupt politician, at the greed of a hedge fund manager, at the spurious outpourings of a rightwing columnist, we’re letting them off the hook.’ For me this segues into a beautiful passage in this new novel, about a historian recently deceased:

The whole thing that defined that situation, and the whole beauty of it, as far as he was concerned, was passivity. Other people were making choices for him. People he trusted. He loved that. He loved the idea of trusting people to make decisions on his behalf. Not all of them. Just some. Just enough so that you were free to live other parts of your life the way that you wanted. I suppose, apart from anything else, that’s one of the definitions of a happy childhood, isn’t it? But Roger also thought he could remember a time when we all felt that way. A time when we trusted the people in power, and their side of the deal was to treat us… not like children exactly, but like people who needed to be looked after now and again. As I supposed many of us do.

How fine is this prose, and what a number of thoughts it raises. There is reflection here on the nostalgia of the left – Alan Bennett told King’s, Cambridge recently that ‘There has been so little that has happened to England since the 1980s that I have been happy about or felt able to endorse’ – but more profound questions also. How much choice in life do we really need? Why is freedom sometimes scary? Do we perceive freedom differently as we get older? But what it makes me think of is the decline of liberal certainty, and for me this all seems to relate to comedy.

I come from the suburban progressive middle class, I grew up watching Drop the Dead Donkey and Have I Got News For You and Harry Enfield. For us the world was safe. Tories were in power, but they were comical and slow and easily outsmarted. Everyone shared our view, there was a time in the 1990s when you could get a reliable laugh just by saying ‘Michael Howard’ or ‘Group Four’. (At the tail end of the decade comedians Lee and Herring satirised the satire by having ‘the actor Kevin Eldon’ make lazy jokes about then prime minister ‘Tony Blairs’ only to take the huff when his audience raises reasonable objections).

The complacency rested upon a sense that some kinder order would prevail. Not now. Now the forces of reaction are smarter and faster and younger. Taking them on is a big challenge. Does Coe still have the necessary brio?

And yet it’s not such a cold world even now. A few weeks ago, I watched the Great British Bake Off finale with my girlfriend. Fifteen million people watched with us. This year the Bake Off was won by a British Asian woman from Leeds. The show is gentle, silly, irreverent and wry, centred mainly around cake and biscuit making. Hilary Winshaw would have hated it.