Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category
For a certain kind of reader Michelle Tea’s Black Wave will be a very easy book to slip into. It takes place in a basement world you know or at least have dreamed of: long, drunken nights in soul kitchens and dive bars, laughter and beauty and familiar faces, the music and the feels. And you know the negatives, too: physical and psychic hangovers, strange mood swings, crying jags, and hours spent dodging sunlight and clinging to the walls. The glorious fractured world of the San Francisco bar scene is scaled up into the end times. Animals and plants die out, and are replaced by ornery adaptive species that thrive in the city’s broken streets. You find you can’t get identity documents, then that you can’t get basic staples. Rumours of environmental catastrophe do the rounds. Even this feels comforting in a strange way. For isn’t there a comfort in the apocalypse – isn’t that why so many people do apocalypse novels? Doesn’t part of you love the idea of all that space and free goods in a collapsed civilisation?
The plot is not that complicated. Protagonist Michelle is a downheels novelist who by day works in a bookshop and by night goes out, cops off with other women, and ingests drugs and alcohol in legendary volumes. The fundamental insecurity that most hedonists come to know takes hold of her, and she decides to flee 1990s Frisco for Los Angeles and a new start. As Olivia Laing writes, Michelle is simply ‘doing a geographical’ – and she arrives in LA with her old habits and old demons intact. She gets a job in another bookshop and goes back to her drinking – alone this time, in health-conscious Los Angeles. The world rolls on towards disaster with suicidal pile-ups on the freeways, and drug addicts stealing books from Michelle’s store. Michelle deals with the apocalypse by getting sober and banging actor Matt Dillon during slow days at work.
Black Tea is a postmodern novel, but it’s a exuberant and honest postmodernism far outside the confined academic version of that philosophy. Between the Mission and LA Tea’s narrative splinters in time. We see Michelle of the 2010s, writing about her druggy breakdown from the safety of sobriety and middle age. ‘For the crack narrative to succeed, the character has to be starting out on top, with a place to fall from,’ Michelle writes. ‘Crack wouldn’t work for Michelle’s character. She’s already sort of a loser’. She considers making the Michelle character male. ‘As a straight, male, middle-class man could she now shoot heroin and go on a literary crack bender?’
It’s an interesting point. Hedonism in literature was a club for men only. A male writer getting hammered and making a jackass of himself looks like Charles Bukowski, or thinks he does. A woman writer getting drunk just looks like a drunk. The hedonistic frontiersmen of American letters – Mailer, HST, Burroughs – seem terribly old fashioned now. In a famous hatchet job on John Updike, David Foster Wallace criticised the ‘Great Male Narcissist’ and his roster of author surrogates: ‘They are also always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone.’
DFW was writing in the late nineties but the drunken writer alpha males still provoke sensitivity, perhaps envy. Stephen King satirised the GMN writers in his novels, so did Scottish author John Niven. As late as 2016 a minor controversy broke out when John Banville confessed that ‘I was not a good father. I don’t think any writer is.’ That provoked a howling article from novelist Julian Gough, who complained that ‘the message that John Banville sent in that interview, and in that quote in particular, will damage young male writers, if they act on it; damage their lives, their kids, and their art.’ He talks at length about his own irresponsible past, and later redemption, and stresses that ‘if you’re a young male writer reading this: you do not have to choose between family and work. You need both. They feed each other.’ Or, er, you could just not have kids. It’s a free country.
We have wandered quite a way from the path, but I think Black Wave does have a lot to offer about representations of women and hedonism (only Lena Dunham and Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals has really gone there) as well as fantastic, seamless passages on the hedonism itself: the friendships, the accidents and compliments, the long drunken conversations, the flyer scrapbooks, the ash, the smell, the tastes and crazy lusts. A messy scene, but the prose is discplined, with bang-on insights into sex, race, class and the human condition. It’s an emotive, sensual romp, a fractured narrative of a fractured mind. In Black Wave there is always the possibility of other lives, other choices and other histories. The world doesn’t have to be ending.
Towards the end of the book Tea introduces a curious device: people start having plague dreams, but they don’t dream about the plague, they dream of love and happiness. People withdraw from the world altogether, to spend their last days asleep. Dating websites spring up to match each dreamer with their soulmate in life. Michelle herself doesn’t do this. By now she has a clear head, and wants to tilt her face towards the sun. Redemption in life, when it comes, isn’t a flash of lightning. Sometimes, the moments that change us are quieter. When Michelle’s getting wrecked in the Mission, she holds that ‘Nights she fell asleep before the sun came up were good nights. It meant that her life was under control.’ In the end, she ‘shed a tear for the sun, the poor demonized sun the humans had run from when it only wanted to shine and bring warmth, she hoped there was another people somewhere feeling its happy glow.’
Europe 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.
There’s a moment in the documentary film Weiner, which accompanies hapless politician Anthony Weiner as he runs for mayor of New York. Weiner had to resign from Congress in 2011 after he had been caught sending intimate photographs of himself to a Twitter follower. At first the 2013 mayoral race feels like a fresh start. Weiner has restored his marriage, he has a new baby, and recent good press, he is a smart man, a good communicator: he develops rapport with the electorate easily, and New Yorkers seem to forgive his old indiscretions. But his campaign falters when it is revealed that Weiner has sent similar explicit messages to another woman (using the alias ‘Carlos Danger’) as late as April 2013. The candidate battles on despite mounting derision, hostility, disastrous public appearances and even Weiner’s internet flirt contact trying to ambush him at the count. At one point Weiner is filming a campaign promo in their apartment, while his wife, the political strategist Huma Abedin, sits on the balcony, in casual clothes, munching on a pizza slice. Off screen, someone asks if she’s appearing in the promo. Abedin barks: ‘Do I look camera ready?’
For all the talk of post feminism, it can feel like a woman’s most important function in politics is to stand by. Hillary Clinton – a woman who came within inches of leading the free world – famously ‘stood by’ her husband, during the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent attempt impeachment. It used to be, in this country, after some dope was caught rifling his parliamentary researcher, there would be a very awkward photoshoot featuring the politician in question surrounded by his nervous, edgy-looking wife and children, in a display of choreographed fealty. The parodist Craig Brown, in his brilliant epistolary comedy The Hounding of John Thomas, features a gentleman’s club made up exclusively of former parliamentarians, disgraced by offences public and private – and the club has its own spin-off, the ‘Standing-Bys’ which consists of wives who have agreed to stand by their men. If the wife of a serving politician seeks a divorce – it still feels like a shock. What the makers of Weiner had captured, in that shot of Abedin, was a real human moment – when the façade slips for just a moment, and you can see the exhaustion and the exasperation and the fury.
Set against real life scandals, the premise of The Good Wife seems rather tame. We first meet Alicia Florrick at a press conference, ‘standing by’ her husband Peter, the Chicago State’s Attorney. Peter has had to resign after a tape surfaces of him banging a callgirl: serious corruption charges follow. With Peter stuck in prison on a ten year sentence, Alicia must re enter the world of work after thirteen years as a full time suburban housewife and mother. She joins a city law firm and is soon sucked into the cutthroat world of Illinois politics, crime and law. Meanwhile, Peter gets his conviction overturned and is soon back in the political game, rising to become state governor. Alicia has to balance her own ambitions, desires and selfhood against Peter’s career and her teenage children.
It sounds tepid when I write it down, but the show is addictive, not least because of how deftly Alicia’s character is written and acted. Alicia agonises over the moral course of action in a compromised world, but never comes off as a prig or a goody goody. She’s someone who naturally plays by the rules, but she demonstrates wit, desire, independence, a fierce intelligence, eloquence and – particularly when her children are threatened – a cold and penetrating fury. Her marriage never really recovers from Peter’s infidelities, but because it’s a political marriage, she must continue to stand by her husband, in public at least – while in private, Alicia pursues her own affairs and independence: her true relationship with Peter encompasses affection, contempt, separation, shared memories and a terse détente.
Two amazing Alicia moments come to mind. At one point, she is at an official dinner with her husband, and a camera crew. The discussion turns to religion. After Peter spiels out the expected platitudes, Alicia is asked her opinion. She turns to the camera, gives a delicious smile, and says sweetly: ‘I’m an atheist.’
Later, she’s on a campaign bus during Peter’s doomed presidential bid. Leaning on a village shopfront, dog-tired and in wraparound sunglasses, she confesses to the campaign manager a moment of regret:
I think if I could go back to Georgetown right now, back in Law 101, seat 35L – that was my seat – I would have said yes… there was a young man in love with me.
These are off script moments in a partnership that is, in significant part, carefully spun. The Good Wife avoids the cliché of the evil spin doctor and instead gives us Eli Gold, a master political PR man who nevertheless has a great deal of warmth, humour and morality (and is consistently outfoxed by his millennial hipster daughter). Yet even Eli – played by the marvellous Alan Cumming – ends up trying to use his skills in places they don’t quite belong. Alicia’s adolescent children handle the public eye with more fortitude. But again there’s a sense that women are there only to stand by in the public eye – even in Obama’s America. Liberal grandee Diane Lockhart is constantly let down by the blueblood Democratic establishment: first, she loses a potential judgeship, then a Supreme Court nomination. Alicia’s own bid for political office is shot down after the Democratic machine realises that Alicia means it when she says she will speak truth to power.
The Good Wife is a crime show in its way and it strikes me that even in the best crime shows women tend to be somewhat sidelined – Carmela Soprano stood by Tony despite his crimes, and Skyler White became a hate figure for Breaking Bad fans precisely because she could see through Walt and challenge him, and because she insisted on taking an active role in his business. Political marriages in real life seem ultimately linked to criminal justice. Bill Clinton ran on a tough-on-crime programme, expanded the prison estate, ramped up the drug war, endorsed three-strike laws and created new capital offences. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s study of mass incarceration – particularly of African-Americans – Alexander writes that ‘Clinton – more than any other president – created the current racial undercaste.’ It’s all too possible that some of the people locked up under the Bill Clinton administration would have voted for Hillary in 2016, had they not been executed, incarcerated or otherwise deprived of their ballot rights under felony voting laws.
As Padraig Reidy points out, 2016 has been a year not for partnerships or marriage but for a certain kind of aggressive toxic masculinity. The winners at the end of history turn out to be Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Nigel Farage – ‘the movement of the golf-club revolutionary, the simultaneously triumphant and self-pitying, the irrational and trite dressed up as ‘common sense’.’ 1970s feminists said that the personal was political. In the future the political may well become personal – more personal than any of us would like.
I was sorry to hear that author Jenny Colgan has deactivated her Twitter after a row caused by her review of writer and Bake Off star Nadiya Hussain’s debut novel. I don’t think she meant to cause offence by writing it. It’s rare that the Guardian books pages become a talking point as they often tend to be anodyne and unmemorable, so I think it’s good that she published the review to an extent.
However, in this para, I think Colgan gets a few things wrong.
It’s hardly a new phenomenon, celebrities turning up out of the blue with novels what they have most definitely wrote. Maybe it’s particularly upsetting me this time because I’m a fan. Hussain is just so brimful of talent; of happiness and grace and skill. From a traditional Muslim background, she grew up in Luton and ended up being universally loved and baking for the Queen. Does she really need to put her name to a novel, too, when there’s only so much shelf space to go around?
This last line sums up the piece. Publishing for Jenny Colgan is zero sum. She explicitly says it: ‘Books are a zero sum game. If you’re reading one, you can’t be reading another.’ The point Colgan wants to make is that in this zero sum publishing world, publishers should not be using their limited resources to publish novels by celebrities like Nadiya Hussain – however much Colgan personally admires her. They should instead direct what they have into promoting new authors and literary fiction.
But publishers spend enormous amounts of money publishing books of no literary merit at all. For example, most of the better known Bake Off people have published cookbooks. All of these books take up time and resources in printing, binding, distribution and promotion. Publishers also of course produce crap celebrity biographies and crap supermarket genre fiction, as well as ordinance maps, histories of railways and lots of other stuff that adds nothing to English letters in any way. Surely that money also could have been spent on Colgan’s hypothetical bookworm or on struggling libraries. Why begin the fight with Hussain?
One implication in the above quoted para is that Hussain, having excelled in one field, should jolly well stick to it. But most creative people have had other jobs at some point. How dare Mr Eliot, who has banking to fall back upon, try and dominate the poetry scene. Couldn’t Agatha Christie have stuck to helping out at archaeological digs? Wasn’t Camus neglecting his college football team?
The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a family saga and from reading Colgan’s piece I still have no idea whether the novel is any good. But Hussain could have written the next Anna Karenina and she would have still struggled a great deal to get a book contract. Recently there was a brilliant piece by Andrew Dickson in the NS on BAME brain drain. Talented actors from ethnic minorities like Cush Jumbo and Archie Panjabi (the phenomenal Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife) leave the UK because they know they have no chance of progressing their careers in the white, nostalgia-driven British TV world.
Publishing has a similar problem and publishers know this. A British Otessa Moshfegh or Colson Whitehead would have little chance of getting published here. YA author Alex Wheatle told the Guardian that he had switched from literary fiction because ‘I felt like I was this token black writer who writes about ghetto stuff… My books are seen as only for a black demographic’. He also said: ‘I didn’t go to university or on a fancy writers’ course, and so I think the respect is grudging – ‘Oh he is just serving his community.’’
As I have said publishing is aware that they have a diversity problem and I don’t doubt they are trying to fix this – although so much of the visible groundwork is coming from relative outsiders like Nikesh Shukla and Comma Press. But even in Colgan’s review – and I am sure that this is not deliberate – there is a sense of: haven’t we already ticked this box? She writes: ‘If you want to read warm-hearted sagas about second-generation immigration, Meera Syal is a wonderful novelist.’
Times are tough for career authors and no doubt publishers could and should do more. I know I sound like Lena Dunham at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I do this argument – ‘why are we being so judgy about popular fiction?’ – but I weary of the complaints about popular novels with big advances. The complainers make good points about the neglect of new fiction, lack of diversity etc but they never seem to address these problems in a meaningful way – they just complain about whichever individual author has got the latest big advance. I also think there are many mediocre novelists in the UK who think the world owes them a living.
At the end of the day I don’t think publishing is a zero sum game. The Bake Off tent is big enough. As Tony Soprano once said: there’s enough success out there for everybody.
Update: Bibliodaze has a good take on this.
Popular musician Amanda Palmer has got into trouble for her optimism about the Trump presidency. The Guardian has her saying that ‘being an optimist … there is this part of me – especially having studied Weimar Germany extensively – I’m like, ‘This is our moment.’ Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again. We’re all going to crawl down staircases into basements and speakeasies and make amazing satirically political art.’
People have pointed out that things don’t look optimistic for women and minorities in America and basement art is unlikely to alleviate their problems. Zoe Stavri on Twitter said that ‘art didn’t stop the Nazis in Weimar Germany and punk didn’t stop the rise of neoliberalism’ and another tweeter imagined ‘Amanda Palmer at a funeral, comforting a grieving widow, gently whispering ‘but think about all the spoken word poetry you will write.”
It’s not just Palmer who sees global disaster as opportunity in some way. Emine Saner at the Guardian includes, in her ‘reasons to be cheerful’ list, that ‘the demo could go mainstream. It’s not just in the US – cities around the world will hold solidarity protests. Demonstrations will be held in the UK, including in London, Birmingham and Leeds.’ Hurrah! Hours of fun making placards, and then we can mill around Parliament Square until Boris scares us off with his second hand German water cannon.
And the late Christopher Hitchens said that when he saw the towers fall on 9/11, he had ‘a feeling of exhilaration. Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose.’ Disaster as exhilaration.
I see that all these viewpoints are objectionable in some way. People don’t need or want the opportunity to protest. People want to live their personal dramas without any disasters happening. And many people don’t want to be involved in politics at all.
So I understand the objections – that perception of disaster as an opportunity to make art and protests, has to come from a position of privilege and security.
I’ll be forever indebted to Amanda Palmer for writing The Art of Asking, an awesome book about reciprocality and the interconnectedness of people and things. It helped me a great deal on a psychological level and I suspect it may be one of the few books that can actually make you a better person.
That is not the main reason I defend her, though. I prefer a call of arms to the constant wailing and rending of garments about how bad a year 2016 was. If you’re a political liberal, sure, 2016 was bad. But many of us had good times, and others went through traumas of no real global relevance. It is in 2017 that I think things will start to get messy – Trump takes office in 2017, and in our own country I think the Brexit brain drain, volkisch ugliness and economic problems will start to make themselves felt. I fear it will be Weimar, without the burlesque.
And so I understand a little of what Hitchens said, about ‘a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate.’ One US election and a referendum vote don’t have the same worldwide significance as September 11 2001. But life will get harder, particularly if you have the wrong opinion or the wrong kind of visa papers. You can feel the alignments coalesce: authoritarianism, censoriousness and wilful stupidity ranged against everything that makes civilisation fun and free.
So, er, what can one do? One problem is that our idea of protest is so riddled with egocentrism and cognitive dissonance. It rests on assumptions derived from a long period of relative stability that may well be coming to a close. Privileged white people can spend all day RTing Russia Today columns and believe that they are making a positive difference to the world. The far left is just as culpable as the far right for the mess we are in.
Vasily Grossman said that history wasn’t a battle between good and evil but ‘a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.’ People can work through activist channels but (as a cautious defender of the art of asking) I think that random individual actions matter too. I met plenty of people last year who drove to Calais with donated food and goods. They didn’t do this because they were ‘virtue signalling’, they did it because that’s what human beings are wired up to do.
Kindness will survive authoritarianism. There are many things we can do. Support journalists, subscribe to real media, give up some of your time, write, read, argue, and listen twice as much as you talk.
I’m thinking of these wonderful paras from Missouri journalist Sarah Kendzior:
My heart breaks for the United States of America. It breaks for those who think they are my enemies as much as it does for my friends. You still have your freedom, so use it. There are many groups organizing for both resistance and subsistence, but we are heading into dark times, and you need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.
But most of all, never lose sight of who you are and what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing.
I heard a fantastic reading of this whole essay, by a speaker at the Hyde Park Book Club at their Open Letters night. It was a fine night and it made me feel hope. Not quite exhilaration, but some hope.
Eugenie Lund did not have a conventional childhood. Her mother dies after being buzz-bombed by a swarm of killer bees: Eugenia and her sister Camille are taken into the care of sinister Dr Vargas, who installs the children in a remote Maine forest house. Vargas keeps the girls under this rigid and isolated circumstance until they turn sixteen: the quack scientist drumbeats his own dogmas into the children, then shocks them with electric collars if they fail to repeat his syllogisms correctly. (The Doctor’s weak point is poker: the girls regularly beat him at the card game, earning library books as a grudging reward.) As Eugenie and Camille grow older, they develop a mystical kinship and powers, and plot to escape Vargas forever. The Doctor is a keen beekeeper, and the sisters manage to set another haze of killer bees upon him so that Vargas too dies.
I’m not giving anything away: this is just the first chapter, a mad prelude to the main story, which has Eugenia and her husband – an ex serviceman who calls himself ‘Venus Acid Boy’ – on the run out of Vegas from both sides of the law. Eugenie also wants to find Camille, who vanished into nothingness at the moment Vargas was killed. The couple take a hectic road trip across the continental US – and also across different realities.
Dodge and Burn is saturated with myths and legends. Buddhism, Jainism, Norse and Olmec mythology, stone circles, the Mothman, the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni – as Eugenie and Venus tour the free party and survivalist scenes, these legendary shadows accompany them and weave into the story. There’s no sense that these are New Age accoutrements or affectations: Eugenie and Camille use mythology as a comfort and refuge during their childhood, and to define themselves against the hack rationalist Dr Vargas – ‘this dark master imposed upon us a viciously circumscribed, authoritarian, dogmatic and anti-magical system – the mortal enemy of anyone committed to a magical universe in which all is spontaneous, unpredictable and alive.’
Maybe it’s significant that the prologue is narrated in the plural pronoun and we only get a straight first person narrative once Eugenie is an adult. Arguably, that’s what growing up is – a journey from the happy careless we to the lone and embattled I. Eugenie uses mythology to make sense of the world: she regards it as she regards the real-world characters and scenarios she comes across, with honest inquiry but no credulity and no sense that she’s trying to fill a void. Eugenie is a maenad who worships no god exclusively or at any cost. The references are On the Road but Madsen’s novel reminds me of a later classic work. The economy, the reliance on found texts made me think of Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands. Life may be death or a dream, but no less worth living for all that.
There is a marvellous passage where Eugenie discusses lucid dreaming – the state where you are asleep and dreaming but know it. ‘This act breaks the membrane between everyday reality and the dream world, enabling one to step into the dream territory completely aware that one is dreaming and embark on the next steps to gaining more understanding, power and knowledge of that world.’ That’s what Dodge and Burn feels like… a dangerously lucid dream, from which waking is difficult.
Through Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower cycle is threaded a picaresque tale that begins when Father Callahan, failed priest and alcoholic, gets on a Greyhound coach leaving a doomed Maine town called Jerusalem’s Lot. Running from vampires, and also from his own failure, he crosses ‘a great, possibly endless, confluence of worlds. They are all America, but they are all different.’ The variants of America are small – there are different faces on the banknotes, different letterheads on the newspaper, and ‘maybe there’s another version of New Jersey where the town on the other side of the Hudson is Leeman or Leighman or Lee Bluffs or Lee Palisades or Leghorn village.’ And yet the thrill’s in the wandering: ‘There are highways which lead through all of them, and he can see them.’
It seems frivolous to compare Colson Whitehead‘s Underground Railroad with any supernatural novel. But despite the grim intro to his America, the plantation Georgia from the slave’s perspective, reeking with heat, sweat, whippings, rapes and executions, there is a similar sense of adventure, of possibilities and the luminous. Runaway slave Cora escapes from the vicious Randall homestead through what turns out to be a literal underground railroad: steam trains, running through a network of subterranean tunnels from one state to another. This surreal development in no way jars the reader following Whitehead’s terse narrative of indentured horrors: you just don’t see the join. As Alex Preston wrote: ‘And here is the spark that ignites the novel. For Whitehead has taken that historical metaphor – the network of abolitionists who helped ferry slaves out of the south – and made it into a glistening, steampunk reality.’ Whenever Cora asks who built the railroad, a laconic engineer replies: who builds everything in this country?
‘If you want to see what this nation is all about,’ rail agent Lumbly explains, ‘you have to ride the rails.’ Cora rides the rails all over the US, and finds in every state she visits, a new America, differing in gradations. South Carolina’s benign and orderly world, nominally liberal, conceals a frightening Edwardian eugenicism. Tennessee appears to be engulfed in yellow fever and a rampaging forest fire – caused, apparently, by a household spark, some casual carelessness decimating city-sized acreage. In the Indiana free zone, successful escapees debate the future of the race: Booker T Washington’s conservative incrementalism fights the revolutionary fire of du Bois. North Carolina has solved the ‘race problem’ by simply banning all persons of colour from its state, importing European migrants to do the gruntwork. Yet the North Carolinans are still morbidly afraid of black people, staging gallows and passion-plays in acts of propitiation to keep ‘the other’ away. As Lumbly also says, every state is different – but everywhere Cora visits is either a slave state, or vulnerable to slave-catchers and local racists. The contradiction in the founder myth – freedom, but not for you – is inescapable, the warp in the heart of the American dream.
Hot on Cora’s trail is the road agent Ridgeway, a swaggering Simon Legree of a slave-chaser, and perhaps the O’Brien of the antebellum South. He thinks himself a philosopher-king of predators, even employing a secretary (a man of colour) to notarise his thoughts. ‘Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours,’ Ridgeway believes. ‘Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.’ The story doesn’t let you go for a moment, and you are sorry when the book comes to an end.
One thing we learned this year is that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are fragile things. Underground Railroad has the feel of a nineteenth-century novel, but perhaps that’s not what Whitehead is getting at. Perhaps he is trying to give us a vision of our future.
There’s a moment in classic 1990s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary where Fielding’s heroine, appalled by the state of the segregated smoking carriage on a train journey, vents in her journal: ‘Would not have been in least surprised if carriage had mysteriously been shunted off into siding never to be seen again. Maybe privatised rail firms will start running Smoking Trains and villagers will shake their fists and throw stones at them as they pass, terrifying their children with tales of fire-breathing freaks within.’
Bridget strikes a chord, not just on the identification of smoke with sin (even the harmless electronic cigarette is frowned upon in some public health circles) but the imagery of it – people of ash riding a doomed train. It’s an image that comes to mind on reading Smoke, Dan Vyleta’s fantasy thriller where sin is all too visible. In Vyleta’s England (it’s set in the nineteenth century, although could be later because the authorities in Vyleta’s England suppress new technology and the world beyond its borders) any dark thoughts or impulses cause actual smoke to rise from the person’s skin.
In boarding school, where we begin the story, the environment is carefully regimented so that barely anyone ever emits the sin-smoke at all: later, the boys visit London, a city almost caved in by the weight of its own smoke and soot. Vyleta’s young protagonists get caught between the Tory and Whiggish wings of the authorities, each trying to carve its own path to the Republic of Virtue: there’s also a working class rebel movement that works in underground mines so that the smoke coming off the conspirators is less obvious.
It’s all beautifully written but Vyleta’s concept isn’t as original as he thinks: the idea of someone’s inner life taking physical form is as old as sin itself – think of the dæmons of Northern Lights, or Patrick Ness’s Noise. Still, there’s loads of fascinating angles on poverty, prejudice and class, and reflections on the puzzle of sin in a secular world – why hidden thoughts and motivations still seem more important than actual demonstrable actions. (Politics these days seems near written in the language of faith.) As the sailor says in Vyleta’s absorbing novel: ‘This is Britain, though. Here crookery has had a haircut, and its shirt cuffs are freshly ironed.’