Archive for the ‘Classic Books’ Category

The Lost Continent: Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe

February 5, 2017

fracturedeuropeEurope in Winter begins with a journey on a fairly exclusive train. The TransEurope railway – known simply as ‘the Line’ – runs from Paris to the Russian steppe. There are queues, security checks, and you even have to obtain citizenship to get on the train. Only the wealthy and connected can really afford to cross a continent in such style. Kenneth and Amanda Pennington are the gentle rich: polite, professional, stylish and self deprecating. On seeing that Amanda is expecting a baby, the Line staff allow this handsome couple to bypass the queues, and upgrade their accommodation to a stateroom. A couple of days in, the train enters a tunnel through the Urals mountains. Kenneth and Amanda get up, in the middle of the night, and walk along a corridor. After an emotional moment, Amanda triggers a device on her body – a device she has told Line security is a foetal heart monitor. It isn’t though. Kaboom. End of tunnel.

In Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe trilogy, there are many scenes like this – visceral and perfectly paced, with a genuine bombshell at the end. His three books are set in a future continent that has long broken down into random squabbling city-states, republics, micronations, tendencies and tribes. Schengen is a distant memory, but migration control – that white whale for present day politicians – remains rickety as ever. Hutchinson’s protagonist, the drifter chef Rudi, is inducted into the Coureurs, a transnational smuggling organisation set up to move things and people across a shifting panoply of borders, fencing, straits and wall.

This is quite complex enough but midway through the series, Hutchinson introduces a new border still – the dream country of the Community, built by nineteenth-century scientists and occupying a kind of splinter universe. In this final book – and it feels like a finale – Hutchinson moves his cosmic goalposts still wider: bringing in an underground virtual mapping centre that runs seamless simulations of countless possible Europes. It’s a testament to how deftly his books are plotted and written, that the reader never feels bombarded by ideas – there’s no contrived twists, no intrusive passages of unlikely exposition. The feel is fantastic yet incredibly down to earth, an atmosphere of hard work and pragmatism, the enjoyment of food and drink and companionship in a cold world. Hutchinson fills his world with all kinds of little gadgets, concepts and espionage rituals but they feel unobtrusive, like things waiting quietly to be invented. It has you groping for old quotes about the persistence of magic.

Critics rave that this or that book is an ‘underground classic’ – almost none are right. From an indie publisher and with few critical notices, I’m convinced nevertheless that Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series will be read and enjoyed and puzzled over for generations to come. For these books are not just good espionage or good SF. They are about passion, representations of ourselves, the illusions we call nations and peoples as we muddle through this confusing life of ours. A senior Coureur tells Rudi that ‘Europe is inherently unstable. It’s been in flux for centuries; countries have risen and fallen, borders have ebbed and flowed, governments have come and gone. The Schengen era was just a historical blip, an affectation.’ The Europe series has a feel of a story you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to understand.

The Magic and the Glammer

May 2, 2016

Thedarktower7They’re talking about making a movie of The Dark Tower cycle, Stephen King’s fantasy epic. I think Idris Elba is a fascinating choice for Roland (after all, John Luther and Stringer Bell were both gunslingers of a kind) but can Elba and Matthew McConaughey save the Tower from the curse of Stephen King adaptations? I think you would need a multi-series HBO or Netflix deal to really do it justice so I am not hopeful. But we will always have the books.

If exiled to the Radio 4 desert island and told I could bring one book, I would choose the Dark Tower cycle. True, it arguably doesn’t get going until Jake finally makes it back to Mid-World in The Waste Lands. True, the Tower books have unfortunate longeurs, maddening self-reference and quirky little New Englandisms that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. But there’s something about the world in these books that makes you feel you’re actually walking around in it. King began the cycle as a college student of the early 1970s. He didn’t get to the final finishing sprint in the early 2000s at a time where everything else he wrote showed signs of a tired and flagging talent. But the last three Tower books are still gold. His heart never quite left the trail.

There’s a point in the story where Roland compares his world to the wreck of a ship – things are washed upon the shore, and float upon the surface, and these random objects might give you a sense of something greater, but they aren’t comprehensive. It’s the best way to world build, and it’s what makes the Tower cycle so compulsive. Roland – if I may give the overview – is the last of a knight caste that plays the role of soldier, strategist and diplomat in a civilisation now in ruins. Roland’s quest is to reach the Dark Tower, which holds up the universe, and is under attack from an evil project led by the Crimson King, whose forces are trying to break the six cosmic beams that hold the Tower up. The King’s men have been at this for years, working across centuries and a multiplicity of universes, using monsters, vampires and dummy corporations. We don’t know the Red King’s motivations: he’s a crazy demon who acts seemingly on pure nihilism. As Ted Brautigan says: ‘Do they see the lethal insanity of a race to the brink of oblivion, and then over the edge? Apparently not. If they did, surely they wouldn’t be racing to begin with. Or is it a simple failure of imagination? One doesn’t like to think such a rudimentary failing could bring about the end, yet…’

As a result of the Beam’s gradual weakening, society is destroyed by war and revolution, time and distance grow hazy, even the elementary concepts of reality wear down as holes open in the fabric of the universe. The books are filled with instances of decay: grey and sluggish bees, crawling orderlessly around a broken hive; a version of New York rotted into civil war; a robot outside a purpose-built brothel screaming the same come-on over and over in an eternal synthes loop. Mid-World is full of technology, from electric lights to teleportation devices, left behind by the ‘Old People’ – maybe King’s word for an age of science that has long passed – but half of this technology doesn’t work and what remains is incomprehensible to the point of uselessness. ‘Everything in the world is either coming to rest or falling to pieces,’ Roland says. Exhaustion. Deterioration. Degeneration. Behold the stairways which stand in darkness; behold the rooms of ruin. These are the halls of the dead where the spiders spin and the great circuits fall quiet, one by one.

As an official guardian of order, Roland wants to get to the Tower so he can save it, and put a stop to all this unraveling gloom. But he also wants to get to the Tower so he can see it. Go through the field of singing roses and climb the spirals of the Tower and see what’s at the top. It’s his obsession – and it strikes me now how much of the Tower cycle is about obsession and addiction: Nort chomping on devil-grass, Eddie the heroin addict, Balazar with his towers of cards, Calvin’s books, Rhea’s glass, even King’s own alcoholism and drug-fiending is touched upon. Roland himself draws followers easily. As well as the gun he has the sideline talent of hypnotism. But his comrades tend to come to bad ends. Roland himself is like a drug, one that kills.

It’s made all too clear in the final volume. At first The Dark Tower is a fun book, with Roland and his gunslingers taking on the bad guys of Algul Siento. Then Eddie falls – and his death is just the beginning. One by one each well-loved character hits the clearing. It’s a crescendo of sadness with Roland struggling on towards the Tower, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Early on in this book, the spider-prince Mordred traps a billy-bumbler (sort of a cat-dog species with a limited vocal ability) and gets ready to eat it. The bumbler sends a sad plea for clemency – please let me live; I want to live have fun play a little; don’t hurt me – to no avail: Mordred chomps the poor creature into pieces. Close by, another bumbler, gunslinger mascot Oy, senses it: ‘Somewhere close by, one of his kind had died… but dying was the way of the world; it was a hard world and always had been.’ Delah. So it goes. You’re even a little sorry to see Walter o’Dim check out.

Part of this glammer though is the ironic glammer of postmodernism. Parts of Mid-World are damn near recycled. There’s a guardian of the Beam named after a Richard Adams novel. The mad factions of Lud kill each other to a ZZ Top riff they call the ‘god-drums’. The Crimson King’s villains travel through time and the multiverse, get their kicks from watching 9/11 and the Lincoln assassination, and make deadly weapons based on the ‘snitch’ from the Harry Potter Quidditch game. Stephen King himself has a supporting role. ‘You started as a version of Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name,’ he tells Roland. So much of the story depends on text and interpretation and representation. The metafictional King saves Roland and Susannah from a tricksy vampire by means of a carefully placed note saying: ‘RELAX! HERE COMES THE DEUS EX MACHINA!’ The Crimson King is destroyed by the artist Patrick Danville by the expedient of drawing and then erasing him. So much of it all comes down to creation and artistry. Glammer. Roland says of Stephen King that ‘I’ve met talespinners before, Jake, and they’re all cut more or less from the same cloth. They tell tales because they’re afraid of life.’

So there’s plenty of metafiction here, but none of it’s self conscious. You still feel the magic and the glammer. King revisited the Dark Tower series in 2011 with The Wind Through the Keyhole – a kind of add on that doesn’t really extend the story but has a draw all of its own. The protagonist in this one, Tim Stoutheart, searching for a cure for his blind mother, follows a beautiful fairy into the forest: he later discovers that the fairy was an agent of Walter o’Dim explicitly trying to get him lost and confuse him. He later discovers half a dozen billy-bumblers sitting on a felled tree, sniffing the air for a storm. ‘They were, he thought, far more beautiful than the treacherous Armaneeta, because the only magic about them was the plain magic of living things.’ In this line is the honest appeal of King’s Tower. The touch of other worlds.

Bird and Book: The Practical Magic of Strange and Norrell

June 25, 2015

Consider, if you will, a man who sits in his library day after day; a small man of no particular personal attractions. His book is on the table before him. A fresh supply of pens, a knife to cut new nibs, ink, paper, notebooks – all is conveniently to hand. There is always a fire in the room – he cannot do without a fire, he feels the cold. The room changes with the season: he does not… He meets his neighbours twice or thrice a quarter – for this is England where a man’s neighbours will never suffer him to live entirely bereft of society, let him be as dry and sour-faced as he may. They pay him visits, leave their cards with his servants, invite him to dine or to dance at assembly-balls. Their intentions are largely charitable – they have a notion that it is bad for a man to be always alone – but they also have some curiosity to discover whether he has changed at all since they last saw him. He has not. He has nothing to say to them and is considered the dullest man in Yorkshire.

I haven’t watched primetime UK drama for years. Part of the reason is TV here doesn’t give a story room to breathe. Unlike US drama which can afford a leisurely thirteen-ep slowburn, budget obsessed BBC and ITV execs have to condense complex narrative down into two or three episodes and for me it just doesn’t work.

I started watching the adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell a few weeks ago, expecting it to be terrible. The show won’t win over anyone who didn’t love the book (readers of Strange and Norrell either burn through its thousand pages enchanted, or fall at the first footnote) but the producers have done a pretty good job. Susannah Clarke’s narrative gets a whole seven episodes to unfold – for the BBC, that’s like The Wire. The casting is inspired: Enzo Cilenti is a wise and sinister Childermass, Charlotte Riley a witty and stunning Arabella, Vincent Franklin a wonderful Drawlight, Paul Kaye a deranged Vinculus. Ronan Vibert is possibly the best screen Wellington since Stephen Fry. Eddie Marsan has made a career of playing disturbed losers (cf his unhinged driving instructor in Happy Go Lucky) but, complete with a dour, fey North Yorks accent, he’s Mr Norrell to the life.

Clarke’s novel is set in a Victorian England that is like our own. But her society is haunted by a romantic medieval past of Aureate magicians ruled by the lord of the North, the Raven King. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, this English magic has gone from the land. It is only remembered by a York society who ‘met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.’ The Society are not real magicians, but theoretical magicians: ‘which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head.’

To look at Mr Norrell – particularly from Clarke’s lovely and succinct description of him, quoted at the beginning of this piece – you would think that he is another one of these purely theoretical magicians. He’s dull, he gets ill easily, he hates to travel, he has no wife, no family, he is awkward, all he does is sit and read. ‘I do not know the world,’ he admits. But when the York Society go to visit Mr Norrell, curious about his library, he tells them: ‘Magic is not ended in England. I myself am quite a tolerable practical magician.’

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is set in the Victorian age. It has a Victorian narration, complete with period-style authorial comment, footnotes, references, capitalisations and delightful little archaisms – chuse, sopha, surprize, Buonaparte, Soho-square. (Neil Gaiman is surely right that the narrator ‘is not, I am convinced, Clarke, but a character in her own right, writing her book closer to Strange and Norrell’s time than our own.’) Today the Victorians are characterised, even stereotyped, as repressed – crazy with morality and hoarding unspeakable desires. Yet they also built an empire and invented numerous interesting machines.

Norrell is certainly withdrawn and repressed but he does want to do things. He does actual magic. He wants to use his magical skills to win the war against France. But the first London politician that he meets – the Foreign Secretary, Sir Walter Pole – tells him straight out: ‘Magic is not respectable, sir.[‘]

The Government cannot meddle with such things. Even this innocent little chat that you and I have had today, is likely to cause us a little embarrassment when people get to hear of it. Frankly, Mr Norrell, had I understood better what you were intending to propose today, I would not have agreed to meet you.

The ministers are soon talked round and Mr Norrell is installed as the Nation’s renowned magician: given expensive commissions, hosted in fashionable salons, the connected name of English magic. (At parties guests are ‘continually delighted’ by such Norrellite repartee as: ‘I do not know whom you mean,’ ‘I have not had the pleasure of that gentleman’s acquaintance,’ ‘I have never been to the place you mention.’) Norrell believes passionately in wisdom derived from books, and like many intellectuals, he is also a censor. He wants the magic all to himself. Norrell himself can never finish a piece of writing. But he takes books out of circulation, he closes down magician schools and societies, he’s a hoarder and destroyer of knowledge. He even proposes special courts to execute deviators from Norrellite magic. This is another great para from the novel, on Norrell’s established periodical:

There is not much to interest the serious student of magic in the early issues and the only entertainment to be got from them is contained in several articles in which Portishead attacks on Mr Norrell’s behalf: gentleman-magicians; lady-magicians; street-magicians; vagabond-magicians; child-prodigy-magicians; the Learned Society of York Magicians; the Learned Society of Manchester Magicians; learned societies of magicians in general; any other magicians whatsoever.

Naturally, Jonathan Strange is everything Norrell is not. Strange is young, witty, handsome, sociable, married, courageous, generous, open minded, a traveller and a man of action. His TV actor Bertie Carvel looks like the diffident English gentleman from central casting, but Carvel handles Strange’s arc well, taking the character from landed fop to battle-fevered veteran to the grieving, wandering Byronic magician on the edge. Where Norrell wants to excise the Raven King from history, Strange is attracted to the King of the North and to the otherlands beyond respectable reality.

Constantly threatening to break through the structure of this Regency novel is Clarke’s Faerie alterworld. It’s a world of constant action and movement: balls, dances, murders, battles, processions, executions. The Faerie dreamscape is adamantine, profound and tempting – even Norrell is drawn by it, it’s his deal with Faerie’s playful devil, the ‘gentleman with thistle-down hair’ that brings Sidhe unreality crashing in. At first these weird legends surface in the footnotes, then rise to disrupt the main narrative. Scenes of towering bridges and shining rushing water and women in black dresses walking high and radiant on the ridges of the moors. Stones and skies and rivers pulse with warm life. Swallowing his tincture of madness, Strange has this vision:

Everything he thought before, everything he knew, everything he had been was swept away in a great flood of confused emotion and sensation. The world was made again in flame-like colours that were impossible to bear. It was shot through with new fears, new desires, new hatreds.

Like a dream, Faerie has no coherence, no discipline. Characters kidnapped into its decadence find its ceaseless celebrations dreary. Lady Pole and the butler Stephen Black are both held under the gentleman’s enchantment for most of the story, periodically yanked into its eldritch mansions without warning and at the gentleman’s whim. Whenever they try to explain their plight to people in the real world, all that comes out are nonsense stories – long, run-on tales of metamorphosis and serendipity, the very antithesis of the Victorian novel. (The shy academic magician Mr Segundus finally manages to break this enchantment by decoding the nonsense stories with a book of childhood faerie stories.)

This is all full on genre fiction, but still the postcolonial student could have a field day with Strange and Norrell. Both men are landed aristocrats who have inherited their wealth. There are rumours of serf farms and slave colonies – there is, in Orwell’s classic phrase, a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. Mr Norrell’s henchmen are Lascelles and Drawlight, urban dandies of cruel wit and precarious fortune, the antecedents of today’s Shoreditch hipsters. Both are selfish and ruthless men who come to terrible ends. The chief servants, Childermass and Stephen Black, are devoted to their respective masters. But both quietly rage against a society run as racial and class-based apartheid. If you wanted to be really intellectual you could frame the argument as Norrellite rationalist pragmatism versus Strange’s romantic egalitarianism.

For me though, and foremost, Strange and Norrell is a story about the gulf between thought and action… perhaps between desire and action. The artist, the intellectual, the writer and the reader all contain a Norrellite and a Strangeite personality. There’s the scholarly man who wants to sit in his library all day and the wild romantic who wants to plunge, madly, into other worlds. There is a theoretical magic and a practical magic. Writing too is a kind of practical magic.

strangeandnorrell

(Image: BBC)

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.

Classic Books: The Tommyknockers

January 24, 2015

thetommyknockersMany people I follow on Twitter are Cold War and espionage nuts, which means that I sometimes see interesting things in my timeline I wouldn’t otherwise. One of these is an article from Vice about the history of the nuclear submarine: the writer, Michael Byrne, describes the atom sub as the underwater equivalent of a space station, able to float the depths for decades without refuelling, a hidden biosphere with a lethal capacity – and he uses a gorgeous and chilling phrase, ‘The haunt at the end of everything.’

The Cold War always had a spectral and horror genre element. The idea of large tracts of the planet being vaporised in ten seconds is, of course, pretty scary without even introducing a supernatural element into the process. Read Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, his hard-factual history of nuclear weapons, to understand how close we came. Schlosser writes with sympathy and humanity about the men and women who build and maintain these fearful machines, and conveys a marvellous sense of the contradiction inherent in our relationship with the bomb: nuclear weapons are extremely sensitive and complex to handle, the slightest miscalculation can be cataclysmic, and yet even the best of us make mistakes – ‘the mixture of human fallibility and technological complexity that can lead to disaster.’ Human error is natural, but with nukes, human error can cost millions of lives. (‘Ah, shit, there goes Gloucestershire. Sorry, boss.’) The relationship with technology becomes a dance of careful terrors.

But still there is an otherworldly element to the terror. Douglas Coupland’s Life After God features a section called ‘The Dead Speak’, where people who have died in a nuclear war talk of their last moments on earth: ‘The game show playing on the countertop TV then suddenly stopped and the screen displayed color bars with a piercing tone and then for maybe a second there was a TV news anchorman with a map of Iceland on the screen behind him. I said ‘hello’ into the phone, but it went silent and then the flash hit.’ Most postapocalyptic novels and series contain in the backdrop some kind of nuclear catastrophe. The Cold War seems retro these days – and maybe it shouldn’t: nuclear weapons still exist, imagine if ISIS got hold of one of these things, or if the Kouachi brothers had armed themselves with a neutron bomb? – but the retro adds to the fear. Comic books behind glass with strange eyeless things emerging from Quonset huts in waves of hollow unearthly light. Nukes are eerie. Even Don de Lillo’s highbrow Underworld has children turned into monsters and a feeling of unreality beneath the surface of things.

Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers was published in 1987, at the tail end of the official nuclear age. It also came from the peak thrash of King’s alcohol and drug addiction: in On Writing, King says the novel was written late at night, ‘with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.’ Maybe King’s febrile state explains his choice of protagonist: while King heroes are always a little flawed, Tommyknockers protagonist Jim Gardener is a natural and unrepentant train wreck of a man, an alcoholic poet who has lost his job as a college professor after shooting his wife while drunk. In his poverty and desperation, Gardener becomes obsessed with nuclear power, ranting about the dangers of the Bomb whenever he gets a chance. He knows that ‘what he was really protesting against was the reactor in his own heart… There was some technician inside who should have long since been fired.’ But the knowledge doesn’t help him.

We meet Gardener when he is doing a performance tour with something called ‘The New England Poetry Caravan’, a series of readings to Hampshire lay appreciators run by a mean-spirited arts administrator looking for a reason to drop Gardener from the programme. Although Gardener drinks and brawls throughout the tour, the readings go well: at his last performance men give him a standing ovation with tears in their eyes. Things go wrong for good, however, when he attends a post-reading faculty party at the home of a senior academic.

I love this scene, because it shows us King’s gift for comedy – not just the black farce outlined above, but in more subtle ways about the poetry scene. This is King on the beginning of the party:

There was a large buffet for which most of the poets made a beeline, reliably following Gardener’s First Rule of Touring Poets: If it’s gratis, grab it. As he watched, Ann Delaney, who wrote spare, haunting poems about rural working-class New England, stretched her jaws wide and ripped into the huge sandwich she was holding. Mayonnaise the color and texture of bull semen squirted between her fingers, and Ann licked it off her hand nonchalantly. She tipped Gardener a wink. To her left, last year’s winner of Boston University’s Hawthorne Prize (for his long poem Harbor Dreams 1650-1980) was cramming green olives into his mouth with blurry speed. This fellow, Jon Evard Symington by name, paused long enough to drop a handful of wrapped mini-wheels of Bonbel cheese into each pocket of his corduroy sport-coat (patched elbows, naturally) and then went back to the olives.

The comedy turns black, however, when Gardener encounters a braying, ignorant nuclear plant exec – ‘Ted the Power Man’ – and the inevitable drunken debate ensues. In a beautifully sustained chapter, Gardener knocks down the Power Man’s contentions, listing the fuckups, the lies, the projections, the death rates, the diseases, the cancer stats, the contaminated water – intellectually, he wins every argument, but grows more and more aggressive in his tone and phrasing, so in love with his obsession and the darkness that propels it, that the senior academic throws him out: or tries to – Gardener elbows the academic in his immense belly, causing a fatal heart attack, then chases Ted the Power Man down the hall with an umbrella.

After an eight day blackout, Gardener awakes on the Arcadia breakwater with no money and a suicidal depression. One thing defers his self-slaughter: an intuition that his old friend, Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Anderson, is in trouble. Bobbi is Gardener’s old student, lover and friend, and is sane in every way Gardener isn’t. She lives a peaceful life in a rural Maine town and is a successful writer of Westerns. But when Gardener arrives in Bobbi’s farmhouse in remote Haven, something spooky has occurred. Bobbi has gone on a frenetic technological jag, building things that couldn’t possibly exist: flying tractors, a water heater that runs off batteries, a typewriter that runs off telepathy. This strange power comes from a UFO buried in the earth, indifferent and colossal, the aliens long dead, but its weird radiation oxidising into the atmosphere, generating a mad creativity in its radius. In it Gardener sees an alternative to the nuclear curse: the ‘pill to take the place of gasoline.’ Enthusiastically he helps Bobbi dig up the ship, and as they uncover more and more of its surface, its force gradually turns the township into demons – the Tommyknockers of the title.

King is great on small communities that go badly wrong and has huge fun with Haven: suddenly gifted with telekinetic powers and mind-shattering ideas, the residents of this obscure village go crazy, converting old household appliances and childhood toys into gadgets that tear holes in the universe. Smoke alarms shoot lasers, machine parts levitate by remote control, and a murderous Coke machine guards Haven’s borders. There are also physical changes: people’s teeth fall out, their bodies become translucent, blood turns green. The Tommyknockers are a villainous species, authoritarian and conformist, yet quarrelsome to the point of ridiculous. ‘We squabble!’ Bobbi tells Gard. ‘Le mot juste!’ Gardener realises their evil – and his enabling of it – almost too late:

We squabble. Every now and then we even tussle a bit. We’re grownups – I guess – but we still have bad tempers, like kids do, and we also still like to have fun, like kids do, so we satisfied both wants by building all these nifty nuclear slingshots, and every now and then we leave a few around for people to pick up, and do you know what? They always do. People like Ted, who are perfectly willing to kill so no woman in Braintree with the wherewithal to buy one shall want for electricity to run her hair-dryer. People like you, Gard, who see only minimal drawbacks to the idea of killing for peace.

It would be such a dull world without guns and squabbles, wouldn’t it?

The Tommyknockers is not a well liked book – James Smythe, in his Rereading Stephen King series, says that ‘it reads like one long, cocaine-fuelled late-night paranoia fantasy’ – but it’s one that I always return to. The science is a mess, but has its own compulsive logic within the mess. King is realistic about space exploration: his Tommyknockers have the power of teleportation, have the power to create portals ‘that actually seem to go somewhere. But in almost all cases, it isn’t anywhere anyone would want to go.’ The book is genuinely scary (‘They got the door shut before Shatterday, but a lot of people cooked when the orbit changed’) and has a truly action packed ending, with Gardener racing to the ship through a burning forest while a variety of mutants and bizarre gadgets try in vain to stop him. And I think it ages better than any other King. As he says in his intro:

Haven is not real. The characters are not real. This is a work of fiction, with one exception:

The Tommyknockers are real.

If you think I’m kidding, you missed the nightly news.

Children of the Damned

June 23, 2014

The twist in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is visible from the opening page. The story features a group of teenagers at a boarding school. It’s a positive atmosphere, the characters gossip, mess around, generate thrills and happy memories. The twist is that the characters are clones, second-class citizens created purely as support systems for healthy organs which will be harvested, one by one, for donation to natural born humans. It’s a dystopian horror, full of undertones and grisly shadows. Stephen King or Ray Bradbury would have done this in five thousand words. Ishiguro spins it out into a novel.

Not that it fails as such. I particularly liked the way that some of the teachers looked at the characters with fear and revulsion – the way people react to big spiders in the house towards late August, an instinct towards life you feel shouldn’t exist but somehow does. Another fine detail is in the artworks and pathetic trinkets that the clones collect. A cassette tape counts as a big find. The book is supposed to be set in the late nineties, but feels like rationing-era. A hinterland of long empty roads and disused hostels. The only sign of life is a billboard of an idealised office environment, the kind of thing you see in temp agency literature. It could be that all clones get is fishheads and barrel scrapings. Or it could be that, in this world, despite medical and technological advances, there’s nothing going on and no one’s particularly happy.

Which brings us to the science. What is this place? Like any respectable literary novelist having a go at science fiction, Ishiguro is non-specific. There was a ‘war’, a ‘scandal’. Keep it general, you hear him saying as he types. It’s only the hacks who get into names, places, dates. But Ishiguro doesn’t seem to realise that designers of systems go for efficacy. If you can grow replicate people purely as to generate healthy organs surely you can just grow the organs in a petri dish and avoid all the expense, hassle and tedious debates on The Moral Maze? Science tends to make things easier, and less painful. (Would you rather attend the clap clinic in 2014 or 1914?) And surely no government would ever sanction such cruel and mindless butchery of… ah, but then you come up against Leonard of Quirm, casually designing ‘a weapon of such destructive power, it would render war meaningless, as no one would ever dare use it.

The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s other big novel, also chronicled empty lives, but there was glamour there. I didn’t realise this on first reading, but Stevens loves the glamour of submission. Burnish, great import, matters of global significance – Stevens throws away his life, his love, his family for this rush. It is the rush of submission that moves the great wheels of power as surely as the tyrant’s desire to crush the human face beneath his jackboot. But the clones of Never Let Me Go don’t seem like they want to submit in the formalised (and yet somehow passionate) way of Mr Stevens. They just want to continue their little lives. However – and this is made explicit – it can’t happen. The narrator Kath is only in her early thirties and all her friends are dying and nothing’s going to change that. ‘Poor little creatures,’ says the clone boss. Exactly! Ishiguro is almost sadistic in this. He’s like a children’s author in this intent to make his readers cry. If you want the blue bird of happiness to take a shit on your head – Ishiguro’s your man.

What Ishiguro demonstrates in this book is there’s no great spark, no divine breath that animates the empty flesh. Life is matter, that’s the glorious truth, but in this novel it makes the sadness unbearable. The ‘deferral’ that Kath and Tommy ask for won’t be granted to us either. For no matter how many good memories we experience, how many cassette tapes we collect (or MP3s, come to that) we all end up on the table sometime. We’re the children of the damned, and playtime is over.

(Apologies that the science is so wonky in this. I’m a literature graduate: I don’t have to know how things actually work.)

from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

(Image: Bookmania)

Requiem for a Character

April 11, 2014

At some point in my childhood, I was led into a room in a school with a middle aged woman behind a desk. It was some kind of interview, for secondary school, I don’t remember, I was around ten or eleven at this time.

What I do remember is the woman asking me: ‘What’s your birthday?’

‘November 17,’ I said.

The woman produced a book. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘let’s find out what Adrian Mole did on your birthday.’

That icebreaker was the first thing I thought of when I heard about Sue Townsend’s death. We all knew Adrian Mole. We had grown up with him. I read the teenage diaries as a kid, of course I did, but it’s the adult novels I loved most, because childhood in the main follows a set path, whereas once you’ve grown up, anything can happen.

Not that much happens in the Mole diaries. As teenagers Adrian and his girlfriend Pandora are snobs in the way that only teenage outsiders can be. But Pandora grows up to be an Oxford PhD, Member of Parliament and bon viveur, while Adrian lives a life of poverty and disappointment. He racks up debt, two failed marriages, spends years raising children alone on a sink estate and, in the final book, develops prostate cancer. The books are well loved despite this darkness. Or perhaps because of it. Townsend has Chekhov’s chip of ice. Life is hard. Bad things happen. Dreams dissolve like morning mist.

My favourite of the Mole books is The Wilderness Years. In this, it’s the early 1990s and Adrian is a young man squatting in Pandora’s Oxford boxroom. Over the course of the book, he gets fired, dumped, moves cities, all the while writing a ludicrous novel, Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, featuring Adrian’s fantasy surrogate and wish-fulfilment icon, Jake Westmorland. Jake’s adventures become a book within a book as Adrian excerpts his work in progress alongside his regular diary. The Mole novel is preposterous (‘Put your foot down!’ Jake barked to the minicab driver. ‘Take me to the nearest urban conurbation’) but develops a poignant edge as Adrian’s fiction mirrors his moods and charts his growth as a person. We laugh at Adrian, but never stop loving him. He has no talent but is in his own way a wonderful human being.

There are probably millions of Adrian Mole type intellectuals in provincial towns and cities all over the UK – reading in old man’s pubs, working the counter at secondhand bookshops, raising pigs in the fields of England.

This post is meant as my tribute to these fine men.

townsend

 Sue Townsend 1946-2014. Image via The Daily Edge

Classic Books: Filth

March 9, 2014

filth‘It’s a parable of mental illness, and cognitive dissonance,’ Irvine Welsh said an interview on the Filth movie adaptation of his novel about a corrupt detective. Book and film follow the descending spiral of Bruce Robertson, an Edinburgh detective tasked with solving a racist murder. Despite officially leading the investigation, Robertson makes no effort to solve the case. He’s more interested in seducing every woman in sight, carrying out various lethal intrigues against his friends and colleagues, and indulging himself in Grouse, pornography and cocaine. But excess comes with a price: Robertson is infested first with a horrendous genital rash, then by a tapeworm that eats all the cheap mass-processed food Robertson throws down his neck. The tapeworm appears literally superimposed over the text, obscuring Robertson’s narrative and increasingly dominating the book as Bruce begins to lose it and the tapeworm interrogates his back story and motivations.

The book is set in December 1997. The vibe is very New Labour, post MacPherson, a glossy sheen over the same old candid evils. Although Robertson is prejudiced in just about every way one can be, littering his narrative with racist, sectarian and misogynist epiphets, he must be careful not to show his prejudices in public, particularly as he is investigating the murder of a Ghanian diplomat’s son. He has to position himself between the old-school non-PC detectives like Gus Bain and Dougie Gillman, and the new graduate cops represented by the assertive liberal feminist Amanda Drummond, who wants to take the Old Town into the twenty-first century, and Robertson’s protégé Ray Lennox. Although Bruce hates Drummond, Lennox is the closest thing Robertson has to a friend and he indulges the younger man – up to a point. The object is to ‘learn a new script’. The games are changing.

This is all very contentious but I don’t believe Welsh had a political head on when he was writing the novel. The story was originally set in a local government office and the cops are generally viewed in non-dramatic scenes of organisational torpor – doing the Screws crossword, attending dull training courses and going out for sandwich runs. The point isn’t that Robertson is a bad cop but that he’s a bad bastard although, as a cop, he has more opportunities for predation. Welsh is fascinated with organisational politics and power relationships. ‘The games are always, repeat, always, being played,’ Robertson tells us. ‘Most times, in any organisation, it’s expedient not to acknowledge their existence. But they’re always there.’ For Robertson the force provides essential camouflage. He grew up in a mining town where he was victimised and told that he was essentially evil. ‘But you must have protection, because the normals will incarcerate you in order to protect themselves. So the police force always seems the best bet.’

Bruce Robertson’s defining characteristic is that he’s a schizophrenic: he doesn’t know who he is, and his head teems with voices: ‘all those menaced souls clamouring for attention and recognition.’ As his mental state deteriorates, he refers to himself in the plural pronoun (‘We still have a wrap of coke on us and there must be a good half a G left and we rub a load of it into our gums’) and complains ‘Why pick on Bruce, there’s others too, why can’t they fuckin well dae anything.’ As a cop, he’s been able to turn that weakness into a strength: he can be the tough Fed rep in the canteen, the sensitive strongman around available women, the enlightened professional negotiating with bosses and diversity trainers. He’s an Iago with a thousand faces, but the masks are eating into his skin. ‘Frightened that you wouldn’t cast a shadow when you faced the sun,’ the tapeworm tells him, ‘you stopped looking up at it.’ Crime fiction is full of uncompromising detectives who resist politically correct language, and also detectives who put up a good front but are troubled on the inside. Welsh’s genius is in giving us a detective who can play the genre stereotypes to maximum personal gain but who really is a bigot and who really is clinically ill. Towards the end of the book there’s the awful, haunting line: ‘I’m never really alone, but the voices are silent. For now.’

Filth is a clash of narratives. The story Robertson presents to us is basically ‘I’m the best and no one else is any good’ – something most of us buy into, on an ‘insert-name-here’ basis, but one that Bruce takes to extremes, cramming his narrative with ego-boosting affirmations of his prowess as a cop, a player and a lover, and putting everyone else down. The bigoted language, Welsh explains in the film commentary, is a part of this – Bruce is desperate to feel superior to people. But his self esteem is a house of cards. Absolutely everything has to go right, because one yank and the rug unravels: witness his explosive reaction to minor irritations. A twelve-minute wait for a GP’s appointment or an absence of Bruce’s favourite condiments for his sausage roll bring on attacks of towering rage. A greater threat to Robertson’s narrative comes when he discovers that his boss, Bob Toal, has written a spec film script based on the current investigation, in which Robertson is fictionalised as a racist cop who is trying to sabotage the case. Although he can’t admit it even to himself, the script rattles him because it’s a sign of the book’s terrible truth: Bruce’s colleagues knew all the time, and covered up for him.

One problem with the film is that James McAvoy is too young and good looking to effectively portray a middle aged man who never washes his clothes, has turned his suburban home into a hoarder’s cesspool and is the very picture of self neglect. Although in his head Robbo’s a handsome Flashman, in reality he’s clearly a mess. His colleague Amanda Drummond is the only character never to fall for Bruce’s games and lies, and the only person to challenge him effectively:

Bruce, you’re an ugly and silly old man. You’re very possibly an alcoholic and God knows what else. You’re the type of sad case who preys on vulnerable, weak and stupid women in order to boost his own shattered ego. You’re a mess. You’ve gone wrong somewhere pal… You have to get yourself straightened out, and then you might just become the kind of person you imagine yourself to be, although God knows what that is.

I don’t want to knock McAvoy, he turns in a beautiful performance, but never quite manages to convey the sordid heap that the print Robertson has become. Still, the movie storyline is better because it cuts most of Robertson’s baroque backstory, which is more suited to an eighteenth-century gothic novel. In the book Welsh falls for the schoolboy error of diagnosing one’s monsters. In the film the causes of Robertson’s breakdown are more prosaic: he’s alone and he misses his family. Neither excuse his hideous behaviour. And yet the art of storytelling is a sympathy for the devil.

Classic Books: Bel-Ami

January 27, 2014

belamiReading Maupassant for the first time, I was struck by how down to earth he seemed. The following para, for me, could be straight out of Keep the Aspidistra Flying:

He said to himself: ‘I must hang on until ten o’clock and then I’ll have my glass of beer at the Café Américain. But my God I’m thirsty.’ And he looked at the men sitting drinking at the tables, all of them able to quench their thirst as and when they pleased. He walked briskly on past the cafés with a jaunty air, summing up at a glance, by their appearance or their dress, the amount of money each of them was likely to have in his pockets. And he was seized by a feeling of anger against all those people sitting there so contentedly. If you went through their pockets, you’d find gold coins, and silver, and copper there. On an average, each of them must have at least forty francs, and there were a good hundred or so in the café; a hundred times forty francs is two hundred louis! ‘The swine!’ he muttered to himself as he strutted elegantly by. If only he could have caught one of them in a quiet corner, he’d have wrung his neck without a second thought, my God, he would, just as he used to wring the necks of the peasants’ chickens when he was out on manoeuvres in the army.

The spacing out of deadly evenings, the stalled desires of misspent youth, the preoccupation with money and status, even the homicidal fantasy – this is straight out of the English novel circa 1931. Georges Duroy is an ex-army outsider struggling to make it in the Paris of the 1880s. If this had been an English novel, the bitter struggle would have lasted four hundred pages without decisive conclusion. Being French, Maupassant establishes Duroy’s impoverished resentment in a few pages, then delivers him from it. An old army comrade, Forestier, who is now a big name in journalism, runs into Duroy on the street, lends him money and introduces him to the right people. Maupassant nails the feeling of social intoxication:

He was beginning to experience a delicious sensation of physical comfort, a warmth that, starting from his stomach, rose to his head and spread through every limb until his whole body was glowing. He was seized by a feeling of complete well-being, a well-being of body and mind, life and thought.

And he was beginning to feel an urge to talk, to attract attention, to be listened to and appreciated […]

Duroy rises in the Paris media scene despite the fact that he can’t really write: although he becomes ‘one of the leading collaborators of La Vie française … he had extraordinary difficulty in finding new ideas’ and ‘made it his speciality to rail against the lowering of moral standards, the general weakening of character, the decline of patriotism and the anaemia that was sapping the French sense of honour. (He had discovered the word ‘anaemia’ and was very proud of it.)’ Despite Duroy’s laziness, his hackery, his increasingly exploitative behaviour, the reader never loses an affection for our scheming protagonist: perhaps because, no matter how far he climbs the snakes-and-ladders game of intellectual celebrity, it stays new and fresh to him, he is always so into the glamour. There is a great deal of intrigue and skulduggery in Bel-Ami and it’d be fun to write a similar fiction about the London media today. Obviously, such a novel would be immediately entombed in a heap of writs, should any commissioning editor be suicidal enough to back the hypothetical work. But let’s dream. There would, of course, be differences. If anything it’s harder to get journalism in England in 2014 that it was in the Paris of 1885. Still, things were riskier in Maupassant’s day. He has Duroy facing a duel, with pistols, after an exchange of uncomplimentary remarks with a fellow journalist. You don’t get that in Fleet Street these days. (Maybe it’s a shame: imagine the byplay. ‘Feel my blade, mountebank! How dare you criticise my quirky off-the-wall take on New Year’s Resolutions!’ ‘Mountebank, ha! You have written your last first-world-problems column. Sir, prepare to die. Avaunt!’)

Maupassant was running out the clock on syphilis at time of writing and the novel is suffused with Baudelairian themes of death and decay. At Forestier’s death, Duroy falls into a morbid reverie:

Duroy was gripped by an immense, bewildered, overwhelming terror, the terror of this ineluctable, limitless void which unceasingly destroys each short, miserable life. He could feel the threat already weighing him down. He was thinking of flies, which live a few hours, of animals which live a few days, of men who live a few years, of planets which live a few centuries. What difference was there then between them? A few extra dawns, that was all.

What keeps Duroy going against these impossible stakes is the idea of more power, more money, more women: the chance meeting with Forestier has awoken his desires, and they prove unquenchable. But Bel-Ami is warmer and deeper than a simple satire on consumerism. My edition is from 1975, with an introduction by the translator, Douglas Parmée. He emphasises Maupassant’s ceaseless energy (‘he played as hard as he worked’) and ends on this para: ‘life may be nasty and sometimes brutish and short; but, says Maupassant, it has its compensations. It’s worth living – and, in any case, what else can we do? Let’s make the most of it, bitter-sweet as it is: you may, like Duroy, be lucky – and luck, too, is not to be underrated.’

Classic Books: Bodies

August 12, 2013

mercurioThere are few worse feelings than making a mistake in a new job. At best, you will be shouted at and you will waste time and money. If you do an important job, like a soldier or a surgeon or police sharpshooter, at worst someone could lose their life because of your incompetence. It’s this devastation of guilt and culpability that Jed Mercurio confronts in his medical classic.

Bodies is a novel drenched in work. Medical hours are hard, particularly at junior level: rest becomes a sin, leisure a dream, and Mercurio’s narrative is etched in sweat, stress and the vivid magical scenes that come when you’ve gone long enough without sleep for the doors of perception to swing open a little. James Kelman said that something like ninety nine per cent of fictional characters are independently wealthy – well, that’s not the case in Mercurio’s fiction. His nameless narrator is a newly qualified hospital doctor struggling with hundred-hour weeks. In this passage, the exhausted medic for the first time expresses his fear and tiredness and sense of terrible responsibilities:

Shuffling to the tap I run water over the tiny wounds and with my other hand extract shards of glass. Blood pinks the stream as it swirls down the plughole. The cold water numbs the pain and the bleeding eases off and I still want to be a doctor, I still want to do the job and that means staying in this world because it’s the only one there is, but I’m crying, crying like I haven’t since I was a kid, with tears flooding my face and snot drooling from my nose while on the ward normal business continues, it all continues, it all continues.

I’m twenty-three years old.

Inevitably, working nights under a ton of flu and doing ward round on a broken toe, the doctor makes a mistake – failure to notice a pulmonary embolism – that leads to a woman’s death. Broken with guilt, the narrator’s first instinct is to confess, but his SHO convinces him to fake the notes and move on. ‘We all make mistakes,’ the SHO explains. ‘Because we happen to be doctors, our mistakes have larger repercussions, but the process is the same.’

Reluctantly, the narrator does as he’s told, and the decision kickstarts a process of unsettling personal change. When we first meet Mercurio’s protagonist he is a conscientious Christian in a sexless engagement with an office worker. After his manslaughter of the patient he calls the Breathless Lady, the narrator dumps his girlfriend, abandons his faith and becomes a womanising opportunist of the nurses’ floor. It’s not just guilt. Stephen King’s doomed medic Dr Louis Creed, in Pet Sematary, tells his wife that ‘as a doctor, I know that literally anything can happen to human beings.’ No novelist proves that better than Mercurio. Bodies is a book of terrible things happening to bodies. An early grotesque flashpoint comes when his narrator treats a meningitis victim whose hands, feet and genitals develop gangrene and need to be hacked off by the surgeons. The things the protagonist sees jolt the narrator away from pure spirituality and towards an ultimately kinder and stronger creed based on physical safety and physical love. We are matter. No one can stress this enough.

Bodies is also a novel about the power of the community – what Mercurio calls the interior: ‘a city within a city with its own speed limits and language and even its own weather.’ For Mercurio the hospital is not just a place of recovery but its own internal subcivilisation with autonomous culture and rituals and rules. The narrative has this impersonal feeling – we never know the protagonist’s name, the patients are referred to by nicknames and joshing gallows humour (‘Blue Numbers’ ‘Young Headache Man’) colleagues go by their first names and senior doctors by initials (‘I’ll call him Doctor T’) giving the impression that we are reading a suppressed clinical report, something burned from a hard drive.

His hospital bosses cover up mistakes because they want to protect the hospital and the NHS from expensive civil litigation. Juniors do not report misconduct because they can be denied references, rendered unemployable or suspended for years at a time. It’s not a conspiratorial novel, Mercurio’s characters mostly do the wrong thing for the right reasons, but their negligence wrecks lives. There have been shocking revelations about appalling experiences in NHS hospitals and care homes (certainly for someone who has received nothing less than first class care every time I have been ill) but some defenders of the system have been cagey on speaking out because they fear that to do so might give ammunition to people on the other side of the argument who prefer a US-style private insurance model. The debate that follows illustrates Orwell’s quotation:

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise ‘constructively,’ which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.

Bodies is a great medical novel, but the storyline could have been set anywhere. Mercurio is writing about institutions. He is also writing about the ageless human drive to belong somewhere. Anyone who has worked long term at any organisation has a measure of professional and personal security, you see it on their faces and in their movements – they have somewhere they can go, where everybody knows their name, they have their place at the campfire, as James Hawes put it. By speaking out against medical negligence Mercurio’s narrator risks not only professional ruin but a kind of personal annihilation. It’s that risk and its consequences that lift Bodies from a procedural classic into a great novel about the human condition.