Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

London Magazine Essay

December 10, 2017

I am amazed and delighted to have come second in this award. The essay took a lot of thought and care and I thought I might (just) be shortlisted – but to be on the podium of such a prestigious award was way beyond my expectations.

I think the winners will be published just in print in the February/March issue of the magazine.

And at Shiny, I have also reviewed the phenomenal American War by Omar el Akkad.

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The River and the Sea

December 9, 2017

When Maya Jasanoff began researching her masterful biography of Joseph Conrad, she found that of the author’s collected, five thousand pages of correspondence, just ‘two hundred pages cover the period from Conrad’s birth in 1857 until he published his first novel in 1895.’ That’s two hundred pages for: Conrad’s childhood in upper class Poland, his parents’ involvement in Polish nationalism, the family’s forced exile, the death of both parents (Conrad was an orphan by eleven years old) joining the merchant marine at sixteen, at least one suicide attempt and twenty years sailing all over the globe. ‘Everything about my life in the wide world can be found in my books,’ Conrad said, and Jasanoff adds that ‘biographers often don’t have much more to go on.’

As Jasanoff explained in her Guardian article, The Dawn Watch is a credible attempt to relate Conrad’s classic fiction to twenty first century geopolitics. She begins in nineteenth century London, where he set The Secret Agent and probably the place he loved most. Back then London was a keystone of immigration, mostly welcomed by locals – it was only when bombs started going off, planted by anarchists and Irish nationalists, that the authorities cracked down. Jasanoff includes subtle parallels to debates of our own time: she notes that sailors were very poorly paid, and that merchants preferred to sign up foreigners to native Britons, reckoning that the former were less likely to get hammered, disappear for days or steal important cargo. As the overseer says in Auf Wiedersehen Pet: ‘You want British worker? Drink tea? Scratch balls? Cost five times more money!’

But what struck me more was the arguments in maritime politics of the day. Conrad sailed when the traditional sailship was being challenged by the new steamship, more powerful and effective but seen by traditionalists as not ‘proper sailing’. Jasanoff writes that ‘Men trained up in sail worried that they might (in the words of one of Conrad’s characters) have ‘to chuck going to sea forever and go in a steamer’ – because going on a steamship wasn’t truly going to sea.’ Then as now, nostalgia and a search for some kernel of authenticity dominated minds.

What The Dawn Watch hammers home is that ‘globalisation’ is not something invented by Tony Blair in the 1990s. For hundreds of years people have crossed borders, traded, migrated and settled. Jasanoff devotes several chapters to the novel Nostromo, which features a fight over a silver mine in a mythical Latin American country. The novel was based on the controversy over the Panama Canal in the 1900s. Nostromo‘s villain is a US investor named Holroyd who subsidises the mine – at a price. Conrad’s American capitalist says ‘We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not.’ Yet isn’t this part of Jasanoff’s critique a little dated, in 2017? Today’s Holroyds would say: ‘We couldn’t care less about the world’s business and we’re going to build a wall to keep it out.’ Still, to anticipate the Argentinian debt crisis, the impact of capital upon democracy and vulture funds by ninety-odd years is quite something.

‘The only place you can go from a summit is down,’ Jasanoff writes. By the 1900s the British empire was as powerful as it was ever going to be. Contraction and disorder was inevitable. Conrad moved from writing about ideology to material interests. ‘There’s no more Europe,’ he said. The world had run out of planet to conquer and now would start fighting over the pie. Geopolitics would become zero sum. Conrad was no Tom Friedman. He knew that the times of an open world would be followed by times of nativism, protectionism, isolation, bigotry and bitterness: and so it has proved. Look at political Twitter trends and you’ll see elaborate racist theory in quasi-academic threads, extravagant conspiracies based around the Zionists or George Soros or the EU, a hysterical fear of the poor and foreign, people screaming for war and revolution. The site could have been launched in 1907 and it wouldn’t look much different from now.

What comes through more than anything political, though, is just how good Conrad’s prose was. As Jasanoff writes: Conrad took his readers to the places ‘beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines,’ onto the sailing ships that crept alongside the swift steamers, and among the ‘human outcasts such as one finds in the lost corners of the world.’ Heart of Darkness was based on the story of Belgian Congo, when the idiotic King Leopold attempted to annexe a country many times Belgium’s size by forced purchase from local chiefs who in most cases would have had no idea of what they were signing. But you don’t need to know the background to lose yourself in the novel. Conrad travelled up the Congo river as Marlow did, but he bailed five months into a three-year tour, suffering from dysentery and depression. There is one discrepancy Jasanoff notes: ‘Though Conrad had seen for himself how the Congo River widened considerably on the way up to Stanley Falls, Marlow described his passage as if walls of jungle were closing in, funnelling the travellers back in time.’ Conrad loved the open seas, but I think rivers made him claustrophobic.

Although the novel is obviously problematic today – all those ‘naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes’ – Conrad has his narrator begin on the Thames, talking about the Roman conquest of London: ‘this also… has been one of the dark places of the earth.’ Once Caesar’s triremes had invaded this river to conquer wild ancient Britain. The book is an exploration of fear, the fear in commission of theft, transgression, of meeting people different from yourself, and taking something that’s not yours. It is also about the fear of a world changing, of everything solid melting into air. Jasanoff shows that when Kurtz cries ‘The horror’ it’s not at inhumanity – it’s the humanity.

Weather With You

November 26, 2017

My story of this name appears with the good folks at HCE Review.

And over at Shiny, I’ve (unexpectedly) turned royal correspondent to review Craig Brown’s fabulous biography of Princess Margaret.

Let The Art Monsters Play

November 24, 2017

There’s a Paris Review piece I’ve seen circulating on newsletters and social media. I had a read of it today. The greater part of Claire Dederer’s essay was unfortunately lost on me as I’m not a film guy and haven’t seen any Woody Allen films – I say unfortunately because Dederer wrestles at such length with the question: can you enjoy Woody Allen films while aware of his personal reprehensibility? Dederer says: ‘Look, I don’t get to go around feeling connected to humanity all the time. It’s a rare pleasure. And I’m supposed to give it up just because Woody Allen misbehaved? It hardly seems fair.’

She goes through it for paragraphs – her feelings about the movies, her experiences of watching the movies at different points in her life, arguments with friends about the movies. She includes a dialogue with a male friend about the film Manhattan:

‘You’re just thinking about Soon-Yi—you’re letting that color the movie. I thought you were better than that.’

‘I think it’s creepy on its own merits, even without knowing about Soon-Yi.’

‘Get over it. You really need to judge it strictly on aesthetics.’

Reading all this, it strikes me that this is a conversation about ‘high art’. Can you imagine this conversation about O J Simpson, R Kelly, Gary Glitter? (‘Get over it. You really need to judge Happy People/U Saved Me on its aesthetics.’) Dederer writes: ‘I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.’

Then Dederer turns her focus inward:

Look at all the awful things I haven’t done. Maybe I’m not a monster.

But here’s a thing I have done: written a book. Written another book. Written essays and articles and criticism. And maybe that makes me monstrous, in a very specific kind of way.

Why does it make Dederer monstrous? Because ‘A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one.’

She goes on to say this:

When you finish a book, what lies littered on the ground are small broken things: broken dates, broken promises, broken engagements. Also other, more important forgettings and failures: children’s homework left unchecked, parents left untelephoned, spousal sex unhad. Those things have to get broken for the book to get written.

Sure, I possess the ordinary monstrousness of a real-life person, the unknowable depths, the suppressed Hyde. But I also have a more visible, quantifiable kind of monstrousness—that of the artist who completes her work.

I recently read What’s There is Therethe new anthology of Norman Geras’s writing. If you’ve never heard of the professor and blogger, this is a good introductory collection, with essays and thoughts on war, terrorism, compassion, and literature. Geras spent a lot of his life writing about the duty to help others versus personal self interest. In a blog post titled ‘Why does football matter?’ he argues that:

Even if one thinks – as I do – that we have obligations as human beings to others in grave need, difficulty or danger, to demand of people that they give all of their time and attention to such things amounts to demanding of them that they sacrifice the whole part of their lives which might otherwise be given to pursuing their own enjoyments and their own happiness. That would be an exorbitant expectation.

Sure, Dederer’s own duties as she writes them are more local. And I want to say: ‘Claire! Jesus! Give yourself a break!’ A life comprised of nothing except responsibility would be a life half lived – and it’s my view that we make mistakes, and cause more trouble down the line, when we overcommit ourselves and take on more responsibility than we want and can handle. Everyone needs time out – and if every time out, moment of solitude or diversion, is selfish, then so be it. Ask the golf widow.

As Geras also said: ‘Football matters to those to whom it does matter just in the way that, for others, ballet, music, walking in the countryside, literature, movies and gardening matter – in the way, indeed, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness matter.’

We know that evil men leveraged their talent into positions of power where they could exploit others. Should that become a barrier or impediment for the exercise of your own talent, and pleasure derived? Hell no. There’s no reason to deny yourself a moment of doing something you like and are good at. The art monsters need to be let out of the closet every once in a while, and allowed to play in the fields.

Badaude’s Aubade: Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End

October 22, 2017

If a story is a song, a collection is an album. To take a few examples from my own shelves, Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes is like mid period REM, good hard smart rock music (unfortunately his later short form stuff is more like late period REM) Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House a dark funky Screamadelica or Jilted Generation, E Annie Proulx’s Close Range a hard-edged blues chronicle from R L Burnside or the Yossarians or the Blind Boys of Alabama, Lara Williams’s Treats more like some unsigned band blasting the rafters of an under-arches Manchester bar, low-fi and unpolished but with loads of energy and a ragged yet verifiable talent. And as with all great albums – remember when you used to listen to albums all the way through in sequence? – there are disappointments, filler, ego-trips, unsuccessful experiments and longeurs. 

Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End is more like dark, haunted electronica – the Hidden Orchestra’s Night Walks, or the Future Sound of London’s Dead Cities. Walsh was already an accomplished writer, a contributing editor to my old parish 3:AM Magazine, creator of the @Read_Women TL and recently wrote an interesting take on publishing and writing awards. She has the two great skills of short form writers – to write stories with the power and scope of novels, and to write a last line that the reader turns over in their mind over and over again for months afterwards. Her fiction is redolent of transit points in strange cities, and aloneness unaccompanied by loneliness.

She opens with ‘Two’ narrated by a person, carrying two well loved objects or organisms to the side of a busy road, waiting for an impulsive stranger, or some rendezvous, for an exchange of – what? We never find out what the Two are, pets or dolls or children, probably better minds than mine would pick it up, but for me the story impressed just as an evocation of what it is like to love someone, or something…. purely for its own sake. It was the title story, though, that really knocked me out – set in a country where communication gradually disappears.

That’s a broad and vague way of explaining it, but Walsh writes it brilliantly. The death of words happens slowly at first (‘I’d say our nouns faded first. In everyday speech the grocery store became ‘that place over there”… ‘gatherings – I mean parties, that sort of thing – became quieter, then entirely noiseless’.) Signs disappear, newspapers still publish, but only printing pictures, and eventually just white space; TV still broadcasts, even discussion panel shows, with ‘critics’ reactions… inferred from a facial expressions by a silent studio audience’ and ‘the first wordless president’ wins on ‘a quiet platform, gaze fixed on the distant horizon.’ The only people who still use language are the underclass, and the migrants, who trade words and speech on black markets. It’s an eerie, fabulous creation of a silent world, and I wonder if the later story ‘The Story of Our Nation’ is a companion or sequel? Whatever, for a writer who makes brevity into a song, this collection’s one flaw is that it’s far too brief.

Wasafiri

October 21, 2017

Was delighted and surprised to be shortlisted for this year’s Wasafiri New Writing Prize for a recent story. The winner was Ndinda Kioko and you can read her first place story on the website, ‘Some Freedom Dreams’.

Remember When: John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’

August 21, 2017

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen – probably the standout novel of 2016 – the narrator is trapped in a town she calls ‘X-ville’, where ‘the streets in my neighborhood were all tree lined and orderly, houses loved and tended to with pride and affection and a sense of civic order that made me ashamed to be so messy, so broken, so bland. I didn’t know that there were others like me in the world, those who didn’t ‘fit in,’ as people like to put it. Furthermore, as is typical for any isolated, intelligent young person, I thought I was the only one with any consciousness, any awareness of how odd it was to be alive, to be a creature on this strange planet Earth. I’ve seen episodes of The Twilight Zone which illustrate the kind of straight-faced derangement I felt in X-ville. It was very lonely.’

Small towns are also the subject for John Darnielle in his short and curious novel Universal Harvester. The setting is Iowa rather than New England, and jumps about through time rather than sticking to the mid 1960s. There is quietness, routine, comfort, and a loneliness that feels almost solid, that raises your awareness to the point of high altitude.

While Moshfegh’s protagonist wants to escape places like this, Darnielle’s seek to understand them. He starts with the connections between people. For Jeremy Heldt, a video store clerk living with his widowed father, ‘conversations tended towards simple genealogy and geography: who was related to whom, who lived where now, where they’d lived in the first place… These conversations, endlessly repeatable at any family gathering, were a zero-stakes game. Is Pete still in Tama? No, he got a job over in Marshalltown working in sales for Lennox. Is that the air-conditioning people?…’ But at some point, always, ‘the trail went cold’ and it’s the same small town silence again. ‘The lowest form of conversation,’ Tony Soprano complains in the HBO show, is ‘Remember when’.

The first chapters, which take place in the late nineties, constitute a quietly brilliant depiction of father and son relationships. Jeremy is a college graduate, his father is a low level white collar worker, both are still shaken by the death of Jeremy’s mother. They enjoy a beer and a movie together, but conversation isn’t easy, even though there is no hostility between them – both men are just constantly, acutely aware of each other’s presence. Darnielle is a subtle master of relationships between basically good men.

He picks up this theme of connection later on in the story, and later on in time, when ‘people see more of their high school classmates on Facebook every day than they previously would have in their entire lives after graduation.’ The undergraduates of the 2010s, visiting retired parents in present-day Iowa are investigating a string of missing persons, perhaps connected to a religious cult. The families of the missing put up an appeal website that ‘boasted all the trappings of the initial expansion of the Internet from college campuses and computer laboratories to the wider world: site design from a template supplied by the host, clip art, and several uncorrected spelling errors in the single paragraph atop the frame.’

From the mid twentieth century, something has invaded this quiet world: the strange church, the disappearances connected to it, and something else as well. Jeremy’s video store customers begin to return their tapes early, complaining that the movies on them have been spliced with other movies – odd, furtive handheld clips, called things like ‘Shed #4’, that give disquieting impressions of captivity and restraint.

Universal Harvester is a brief book, in which not much happens, but it could have been twice as long and still not lost the reader’s attention. I suspect it will baffle readers for generations to come. Darnielle writes about a region that is ‘quiet, unremarkable, well ordered and well lit, just exactly enough of everything for the people within its boundaries. A little drab from the outside, maybe: slow, or plain. But who, outside, will ever see it, or learn the subtleties of its textures, the specific tensions of its warp and weft?’ In his remarkable novel Darnielle comes closest to the mystery behind these tensions.

Harder Than Heaven

July 23, 2017

I don’t know who it was that called Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ‘the longest short novel’ but, in terms of long short novels, Boualem Sansal’s 2084 gives it a run for its money. He writes his religious dystopia in short, elegant, powerful sentences and paragraphs, which (thanks also to his translator, Alison Anderson) convey all too well the cruelty and struggle of his fictional Abistan.

The enemy in Orwell’s 1984 is ‘called by a Chinese name normally translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self.’ That seems to sum up Sansal’s Abistan quite well. In Abistan life is lived out according to a single holy book, with a prophet figurehead as god’s representative on earth. People are allocated housing, employment and other privileges according to a rigorous examination of personal morality in which the citizen must recite psalms and scripture and stanzas: everyone wears robes, embroidered according to status, caste and said moral score. Technology is almost non-existent, food bitter and scarce, no one ever leaves their designated district and crossing the country itself takes years. Economy is reliant upon an endless war without, and within on public executions, the mechanics of torture, the bureaucracy of power, and on long, hazardous pilgrimages all meant to ‘transform useless, wretched believers into glorious, lucrative martyrs.’

Sansal’s novel is blurbed as a tribute to George Orwell’s classic, and indeed it sometimes surpasses the original in its prose. True, there is little dialogue or dramatisation – Sansal breaks the rule of the finger-wagging creative writing hack, that you should always show rather than tell. His writing is elegant and demonstrates obvious empathy as well as the continual apprehension of fresh hells.

The story itself is no great shakes. Protagonist Ati returns to his home town after spending a year in the mountain sanatorium where a superstitious regime sends its sick. Surviving such perilous convalescence in itself grants Ati a higher revised status, and he is given more relative autonomy within the province. A good believer all his life, Ati becomes more curious about the society he lives in. He teams up with the wealthy scholar Koa and the two men try to infiltrate the heart of government to find out Abistan’s secret origins.

Fans of dystopian fiction will smile in recognition at the 1984 references that Sansal weaves into his text – you will recognise the enormous woman in the courtyard, singing as she hangs her line out, an Abistani analogue of the ‘red-armed woman’ from 1984, who sings ‘They sye that time heals all things,/They sye you can always forget’… inspired in turn by Orwell’s early mornings at the BBC, when the cleaning women would sing as they went about their work.

Orwell developed this into the only element of hope in his novel: ‘The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing… everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing.’ In 2084 it is the song of fellow feeling that resonates. During their difficult journey into the heart of Abistan, Ati and Koa are helped at every turn by the common people, who show them the shortcuts and safe passages. Human nature, Sansal says, is basically good – however ‘in the presence of the forces of law and order, whether it was a war tactic or simple human weakness, they set aside their kindly disposition and heaped abuse on strangers.’

So 2084 is a more hopeful book than 1984. Orwell imagined Ingsoc going on more or less forever, while Abistan by the end becomes vulnerable from infighting. (I note here Margaret Atwood’s more optimistic theory that the Party had to have fallen at some point because of the novel’s appendix, which talks about Ingsoc retrospectively.) Perhaps Sansal’s novel in that sense reflects better the world of its time – the recent defeats of ISIS, by Iraqi and Kurdish forces as well as western air strikes, testifies to Stephen King’s line that evil is fragile as well as stupid. And what resonates from Sansal’s 2084 is the reverence for life, the sanctity of life, which in the face of terror and oppression, so often manages to find an honourable way through the dark.

Update: this fine archive piece from Leyla Sanai gives more background to Sansal and his work.

Summer Song

July 14, 2017

This story of mine is now out at the marvellous Ellipsis zine.

A Summer of Apprehension

July 3, 2017

‘Time had turned it into a historical novel,’ Elif Batuman writes of her debut, The Idiot, in the acknowledgements to it. She began the draft in 2000-2001, but more recently came back to her story of a shy Turkish-American student finding herself in Europe and America. But on close reading this odd, quirky campus novel seems well ahead of its time.

Protagonist Selin turns up at Harvard and finds herself lost in the 1990s academic scene as much as inside her own head. She gravitates towards teaching ESL, at first teaching classes in the Boston projects, then over the summer in Hungarian towns. She also falls in love with a Hungarian student named Ivan, an older man, a mathematician and an intellectual. The romance between two chronically awkward, introspective and self absorbed people works about as well as you’d expect. Mainly they send each other long, intense emails.

I came of age before the digital era and there’s a pleasant nostalgia in Batuman’s early electronic touches – co-op internet cafes, Ethernet cables and the clatter and zing of dial-up connections. There is a deeper recognition also in Selin’s way of looking at the world. Selin is part Turkish but barely knows Turkey, she doesn’t really understand Boston either: she travels widely but is a stranger everywhere she goes. She doesn’t do booze or sex or nightclubs, not from puritanism but because she just doesn’t see the point in such things. Critics might call Selin’s narration ‘affectless’ but this isn’t Less Than Zero, there’s no nihilism or ennui in Batuman’s novel. Selin is the opposite of bored: her narrative is a constant apprehension of new stimulus.

The story is set in the Long Calm of the 1990s but the constant references to Soviet-era literature, Europe under the commissars and medieval and Islamic history bring to the novel the constant presence of the authoritarianism of the past… and of that still to come. In an engaging interview with the Guardian Review, Batuman says: ‘ I thought: racism is over, sexism is over, bigotry is over. I was in for a rude awakening.’ Selin is surrounded by the knights of summer, but knows winter is coming.

Although Batuman takes a pride in the messiness of her structure (‘Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things’) there is a momentum to The Idiot. In it there is the gradual accumulation of references, points of friendship and in-jokes (in the second half you won’t be able to read the word ‘antlers’ without giggling) that bind Selin to her experiences, her fellow students and the wider world. Yet that wider apprehension of experience isn’t necessarily incompatible with solitude and the reading life. There is a lot to said for the simplistic and instinctual view that books get in the way of life, I personally have a respect for that position, but at the same time, can it be life if it doesn’t have reading and stories and ideas and other worlds? I doubt it.