Archive for June, 2016

Young People With Weird Ideas: Emma Cline’s The Girls

June 25, 2016

emmaclineIn his biography of Charles Manson, Texan historian Jeff Guinn has a fascinating chapter on the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco that became a giant green beacon for outsider youth across America. By 1967 the area got three hundred new arrivals a day, from across the United States: ‘more runaways than any major city could have comfortably absorbed, let alone a relatively small neighbourhood… misfit kids, the ones with no social skills who had trouble making friends or fitting in back in their hometowns, or else were at critical odds with their parents and wanted someone more understanding to take them in and tell them what to do. The ones least able to fend for themselves were the most likely to stay.’

Emma Cline’s debut novel revisits the Manson cult from the twenty first century. Cleverly, her fictional narrative of 1969’s fractured summer does not dwell on the guru. Cline’s villain Russell is a bland opportunist just as Manson was. Instead she focuses on the stories of people far more interesting than he – the young people from good homes who embrace fanatical groups, the Manson followers who stole credit cards and dumpster-dived and allowed themselves to be pimped out for him. The young who kill and die for worthless leaders. Why?

For her narrator Evie Boyd the why is easy. She comes from a wealthy, lethargic Californian family directly out of Mad Men. Her idiotic philandering father leaves, and her mother disgusts Evie by simpering over a parade of sleazy unsuitable men. Evie’s life is a constant negotiation with the male gaze, from the potential stepfather who remarks ‘Fourteen years old, huh?… Bet you have a ton of boyfriends’ to ‘the older man who would later place his hand on my dick while he drove me home.’ Evie is attracted to the cult because – paradoxically, and ironically – it’s the nearest thing she has to a community of female solidarity. ‘Though I should have known,’ she reflects, ‘that when men warn you to be careful, often they are warning you of the dark movie playing across their own brains.’

Reviewing the book, Sarah Ditum identified ‘the specific indignities of girlhood – the dehumanising demands of men, the casual violence with which those demands are enforced, the constant ‘campaign for her own existence’ that every girl will eventually be defeated in.’ The fearful exasperation all women face at some point when dealing with stares and comments and gropes for Evie Boyd turns into a rebellious rage. And there is a deeper existential sense of being lost that is part of the human condition. There is no closure to Evie’s confusion: she’s just as disorientated as an adult, and barely even perceives that this experience is universal – she watches her apparently self assured younger relative Sasha with envy, imagining that ‘there were only one way things could go, the years leading you down a corridor to the room where your inevitable self waited – embryonic, ready to be revealed. How sad it was to realise that sometimes you never got there.’ Does anyone.

In her front story Cline has fun dealing with the ideological debris of the love generation. ‘People were falling into that kind of thing all the time,’ she explains to Sasha, ‘Scientology, the Process people. Empty-chair work. Is that still a thing?’ Later, drinking in a bar, they are approached by ‘another sixties ghost’ who ‘was convinced that world events were orchestrated by complicated and persistent conspiracies. He took out a dollar bill to show us how the Illuminati communicated with each other.’ When Evie asks ‘Why would a secret society lay out their plans on common currency?’ the sixties ghost can’t give a convincing answer. A distinct feature of twenty first century discourse is the progression of crazed ideology from the internet into mainstream conversation – venomous binaries about the Rothschilds, 9/11, chemtrails and voting pencils. ‘That the world had a visible order,’ Evie says, ‘and all we had to do was look for the symbols – as if evil was a code that could be cracked.’

The fractured summer of 1969 is today treated as a cautionary tale – what can happen when young people with weird ideas get out of control. Perhaps 2016 will be a testament to the crazy ideas of the old, which played a decisive hand in everything from the housing crisis to the Lehmans crash to Brexit. Maybe I’m reading too much into Cline’s novel, but The Girls made me think of something Christopher Hitchens wrote, towards the end of his life, that ‘when I check the thermometer I find that it is the fucking old fools who get me down the worst, and the attainment of that level of idiocy can often require a lifetime.’

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A Filthy City By The Lake

June 19, 2016

‘By the thousands and thousands the foreclosures came,’ George Packer writes in The Unwinding, his temperate and beautiful chronicle of downturn America. ‘They came to Country Walk and Carriage Pointe, to inner-city Tampa and outermost Pasco, to Gulfport and northeast St. Pete… They came like visitations from that laconic process server, the angel of death.’ At the courts, these foreclosures ‘were transformed into millions of pages of legal documents… the carts were wheeled into courtrooms by bailiffs who looked weary from the effort.’

Florida courts in Packer’s account dealt with approximately 120 foreclosure cases a day: ‘one senior judge, aged seventy-five or so, might carry three thousand cases at a time.’ Mostly defendants weren’t represented or even in attendance, so cases were ruled with assembly-line speed. On the occasions a defendant turned up and with an actual lawyer, the bank’s case was lost because the mortgage debt had been slashed and diced so many times it would be unclear who truly owned the property in question. (Packer has a great scene where an idealistic attorney yells at a judge: ‘All we’re asking is for them to identify who is the entity that is asking my client to give them a couple hundred thousand dollars.’) This uncertainty of debt and obligation, however, didn’t stop the process. Packer paints a scene from a mad bureaucratic fantasia.

I thought of this chapter on finishing End of Watch, the last book in Stephen King’s trilogy of novels about a ‘filthy little city residents called the Gem of the Great Lakes.’ These books are King attempting a departure or perhaps a different kind of legacy. Rather than his native Maine, the stories are set in this nameless city of the Midwest. King doesn’t love this city like he loves Maine, so he doesn’t linger. There’s a tight rattle to prose and story, and the stories are crime procedurals rather than horror. Even in the last book where King lets the supernatural take over again entirely, the story is still process and procedure – doors unlocked, small thefts and subterfuge, the unspooling of computer programmes, the operations of motor vehicles, the millions of small distinct actions that go into the commission and investigation of crime.

This filthy little city is falling apart. What might have been great once is now a tired moonscape of repossessed homes, stalled developments, fire-sale businesses and families broken by the constant struggle and arguments over day to day repayment and expense. King might have read Packer, was probably remembering his own experiences of poverty, and was perhaps thinking of Raymond Chandler also – a novelist derided as a penny-dreadful merchant in his day, but who earned retrospective respect for his social commentary. This world, like the Dark Tower’s, has moved on, but lacks Mid-World’s glammer: it’s just another one of numberless lost towns on both sides of the Atlantic, rich and bitter soil that makes it possible for a Donald Trump to exist… and thrive.

In Finders Keepers – the mid point of the trilogy and in some ways the most interesting of the books – King introduces us to a fictional novelist called John Rothstein, author of an acclaimed trilogy about American rebel Jimmy Gold. Rothstein exists for a mere dozen pages before his home is invaded by Morris Bellamy, a drifter and armed robber who fancies himself a Gold-style iconoclast. Morris resents the writer because Rothstein ended his trilogy with Jimmy Gold working in advertising and living in an Ossining-style suburb. ‘You created one of the greatest characters in American literature, then shit on him,’ Morris complains. For this crime, he blows Rothstein’s head off, steals the author’s money and notebooks, and on the way back, casually offs his two accomplices to ensure their silence. But he never gets to read the lost Rothstein manuscripts, which take the Gold story in a direction more to his liking: Jimmy burns down his ad agency and heads to California to join the hippy revolution.

King has been here before of course. He satirised the rock and roll American novelist to great effect in Desperation (and is it a coincidence that the Shooter’s Tavern, where Morris is arrested, shares a name with the forbidding lost storyteller of King’s novella ‘Secret Window, Secret Garden’?) For me Rothstein’s murder and the loss of his manuscript is King broadcasting to us, loud and clear, that the era of the frontier is over. Morris sees his transgressions as ‘an existential act of outlawry’ and doesn’t listen to his mother, who tells him ‘most of us become everyone’ nor to his business partner Andy Halliday (‘The purpose of American culture is to create a norm‘) nor to his prison buddy: ‘They fuck you in the end, buddy. Right up the ass. Rock the boat and they fuck you even harder.’ Life in the filthy city is a life sentence with no possibility of escape or parole.

So much of the filthy city novels are about sheer endurance. King gives his hero detective, Bill Hodges, a personal trilogy of horrible diseases – suicidal depression, cardiac arrest, pancreatic cancer. The victims of Mr Mercedes and his job-fair attack take years to recover from their injuries, and some never recover at all. Morris is sentenced to life for aggravated rape: his victim is traumatised by the experience. Morris himself does thirty-six years in state prison, where he’s a kind of literary jailhouse hustler. He even springs a fellow con who has been wrongly convicted – but Morris is not Andy Dufresne, he doesn’t learn the meaning of hope, there’s no Shawshank redemption here, and Finders Keepers is in some ways a bitter mockery of King’s earlier prison tale.

Morris is more like another King archetype, one of that parade of legendary losers that includes Henry Bowers, Danforth ‘Buster’ Keaton, even Mordred the spider-prince from the Dark Tower cycle. The only difference is that Morris can read and write and appreciate. ‘Books were escape. Books were freedom.’ What he’s looking for is that feeling Don DeLillo wrote about in Mao II: ‘a sense that he was not alone, that the world was a place where travellers in language could know the same things.’ Morris is a robber, a killer, a kidnapper and a rapist, but he is a mere sideshow to the trilogy’s real villain, Brady Hartsfield, aka Mr Mercedes, who lacks even that basic instinct for companionship. Thinking about 9/11, Brady reflects: ‘Off you go, killers and killed alike, off you go into the universal null set that surrounds one lonely blue planet and all its mindlessly bustling denizens. Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a star. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.’

Brady is famous for his Mercedes crime – driving a car into a crowd of unemployed people queuing for a city job fair – but what he really likes is forcing people to kill themselves, which he does by supernatural means in the final book. At the end of this book Hodges thinks about the act of suicide itself: ‘how some people carelessly squander what others would sell their souls to have: a healthy, pain-free body. And why? Because they’re too blind, too emotionally scarred, or too self involved to see past the earth’s dark curve to the sunrise. Which always comes, if one continues to draw breath.’ Here King finally gives us hope – but in his filthy city stories he shows us how long that curve can be.

The Hunter-Gatherers

June 13, 2016

This story appears in the new issue of the excellent Scrittura magazine (start at page 60).

Celebration of the Lizard: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent

June 5, 2016

Cora Seaborne is bereaved but not unhappy. Her husband was a petty tyrant, and when the old fool finally checks out, she’s not exactly like the widow in The Importance of Being Earnest (whose hair, Algernon remarks, has turned ‘quite gold from grief’) but she does acquire a certain presence. Brilliant young surgeon Luke Garrett practically jumps through hoops of fire to get to her. Her arrival in the croft and coastal village of Aldwinter causes more comment and stir than the appearance of a newcomer from London normally would: even the parish vicar Will Ransome finds the widow Seaborne as attractive as she is infuriating. The Reverend is a late Victorian intellectual who tries to reconcile his faith with the nineteenth century’s escalating revelations of science. Cora is a passionate naturalist who rejects religion out of hand. In this passage of dialogue she illustrates both her philosophy and her recent liberation:

You wonder why I grub about in the mud – it’s what I remember from childhood. Barely ever wearing shoes – picking gorse for cordial, watching the ponds boiling with frogs. And then there was Michael, and he was – civilised. He would pave over every bit of woodland, have every sparrow mounted on a plinth. And he had me mounted on a plinth. My waist pinched, my hair burned into curls, the colour on my face painted out, then painted in again. And now I’m free to sink back into the earth if I like – to let myself grow over with moss and lichen.

This last line almost pre-empts Henry Miller, who declared in Tropic of Cancer that ‘I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity – I belong to the earth! I say that lying on my pillow and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples.’ Aldwinter is convulsed by rumours of a giant snake-beast that is set to slither from the ocean and eat the townspeople in their beds. Farmers hang skinned moles by the coast to keep this monster away; there are episodes of mass hysteria; every relic deposited from sea to shore is a potential threat. The suspense is dimmed by our realisation that if the Essex Serpent does really exist, it is Cora herself, sea born and reborn. ‘I’ve freed myself from the obligation to try and be beautiful,’ she says. ‘And I was never more happy.’

As Naomi Frisby says, The Essex Serpent is a book that is not so much read but inhabited. The period detail is exact and discreet, the atmosphere like coiled smoke, the writing (‘Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand’) almost rivals Shirley Jackson. The book is clearly written as one of those historical novels that are a beguiling mist you can lose yourself in. Reviewers have responded in near-Victorian raptures.

Happy as we are wandering in the lovely fog of Sarah Perry‘s prose, it doesn’t cover the book’s flaws. The inner city London scenes are very well done, and inspire some of Perry’s best writing (‘Rooms were sublet, and sublet again, so that what constituted a family had long been forgotten, and strangers bickered over cups and plates and their few square feet of space’) but these passages don’t seem to fit with the story because the story is driven by Cora and Cora has decamped to Aldwinter’s gothic seaside. The housing crisis is meant to chime with modern times, and Perry reminds us in an afterword of contemporaneous ‘accounts of housing crises, venal landlords, intolerable rests and political chicanery; they would not look out of place in tomorrow’s newspapers’ (oh, you don’t say?) Cora and Will are compelling but not enough attention is paid to the supporting cast. Aldwinter eccentric Cracknell is a blathering sibyl straight out of Lovecraft, and with equally silly dialogue (‘Though of what I might be scaring off there mightn’t be knowing now nor later I daresay, when a voice is heard of weeping and lamentation for our children’ etc) Cora’s son Francis is a strange and distant child, but we know this because the other characters keep telling us, not because Perry shows us.

Cora’s friend Martha seems to have no purpose other than to exemplify the Victorian female activist – oh, and she deus es machinas the rent crisis of Perry’s London chapters to a respectable conclusion. At times The Essex Serpent almost reads like a rehabilitation of the Victorian era. Perry recommends in her afterword Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians, which ‘challenges notions of a prudish era enslaved by religion and incomprehensible manners; rather, he shows us a nineteenth century of department stores, big brands, sexual appetites and a fascination for the strange.’ All very jolly I can imagine, but let’s not forget that such fascinations were largely frowned upon: Georgina Howell in her biography of Gertrude Bell reports that even at Oxford women had to seek special permissions to attend lectures and sit exams as late as 1886, for fear that ‘overtaxing’ of the female brain would lead to ‘the deficiency of reproductive power’.

I read Perry’s debut After Me Comes the Flood last year and fell in love with it: it’s the kind of mystery story, at once traditional and new form, that you can spend your life rereading and puzzling over. With The Essex Serpent Perry has gone for something rather more conventional: she has discovered the power of the Victorian novel – and its limitations.

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